Tuesday, December 30, 2014

7 of My "Favorite" Things: From the Kinks to Queen

It's been awhile since "10 of My "Favorite Things: From ABBA to John Lennon," so here's a reminder what this is all about: These are my favorite songs by random favorite artists alphabetically organized by random favorite artist. Since picking favorites can be such an impossible task, I've made my criteria simple: Were I on my death bed with only five minutes to live, which song by each act would I want to hear?

Yeah, yeah, I know: Music would probably be the last thing on my mind. When my life has flashed before my eyes in the past, there's been no melody or beat (unless you count my heartbeat accelerating). But every key moment in life, including the inevitable death scene, deserves an awesome soundtrack.

The Kinks "Autumn Almanac" I spent decades swooning over "Tired of Waiting for You," before I discovered a trove of late '60s Kinks classics that were probably too British for the American Top 10. I may never again sit through "You Really Got Me" when instead I can listen to "Sunny Afternoon," "Till the End of the Day" and "Autumn Almanac," the archest of the bunch and a complete non-charter in the States. But then despite my general distaste for tea, draughts and royals, I've always been a staunch Anglophile who thinks the British invasion may have been the best thing ever to happen to American rock & roll.

Linda Ronstadt "You're No Good" Her only No. 1 single contains the best outro in the history of recorded music, and it's musical symbiosis at its finest. The rest of the song would be merely well-sung revivalist rock without that outro, which, in turn, wouldn't be nearly so stunning if the rest of the song didn't build up to it. The late Andrew Gold really earned his paycheck with this one.

The Moody Blues "Question" The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is such a joke. How could Joan Jett and the Blackhearts get in before The Moody Blues even score a measly nomination? The greatest, if not the biggest, Moody Blues hit (No. 21, 1970) kind of sounds like several songs playing at the same time, and somehow the band makes it work. That's the sort of musical genius that should get folks into the Hall at least in their first two and a half decades of eligibility.

Neil Diamond "Crackin' Rosie" The horn riff that kicks it off has always sounded to me like an announcement that morning has broken -- not the Cat Stevens song, the time of day…my favorite time of day. Though the lyrics are clearly set at the start of the evening (and Neil is actually singing about red red wine, the titular subject of another of his classic compositions and one of my least favorite ways to get a buzz), "Rosie" is so 6am euphoria. If I weren't such a morning person, maybe I'd be writing about "Love on the Rocks" here instead. I've been dying to do "Rosie" on a karaoke night for years. I'd better put that at the top of my bucket so list I can die listening to Neil singing about it in peace.

OMD "Souvenir" After they crank it on my death bed, they can play it on repeat at my funeral party.

Prince "Mountains" My friend Zena and I were recently talking about how much we love Parade, Prince's 1986 soundtrack for the film Under the Cherry Moon, which, incidentally, my mother bought me on vinyl for my birthday that year. I'd put it right up there with Sign o' the Times as his best long-form work. And this underrated single from it whose off-kilter production made the vinyl sound like it had been left out in the heat for too long? Unlike most of Prince's other '80s singles from "Little Red Corvette" on, I haven't heard it nearly enough. (Watch and listen here.)

Queen "Body Language" I'm not saying I love it more than "You're My Best Friend" or "A Kind of Magic" or "Under Pressure," but if I could only listen to one Queen track one more time before I croak... I've been addicted to that bass line (like a drug, like a drug, to quote Kylie Minogue, who once called an entire album -- her best one -- Body Language) since 1982. Look at me, I've got a case of "Body Language."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

10 Things I Want That I Knew I Wouldn't Get for Christmas This Year...

...and probably wouldn't have even if I were one to do Christmas or gift exchanges.

1. A round-trip plane ticket to Ethiopia or Morocco -- one of them is next on my to-go-to list -- and a lifetime guarantee to be seated in Premium Economy or higher on every Qantas flight. Oh, and a lifetime guarantee to never have to fly any airline other than Qantas.

2. A dog.

3. The perfect man (see example above). Not perfect perfect -- just perfect for me: intelligent, funny, well-traveled, with a car (because I'm still afraid to drive on the left) and good looks that weren't labored over in the gym, at the salon, in the bathroom mirror or under the knife.

4. A box set (on mp3) of every Casey Kasem American Top 40 countdown from the '70s.

5. Unlimited WiFi for life.

6. A five-year rest from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians.

7. New diva albums that I've actually been waiting for, from Kate Bush, Sade, Shara Nelson, Everything But the Girl, Tracey Thorn solo, Billie Ray Martin and Shania Twain.

8. An invitation to the Oscars (and a nomination to go with it?).

9. My own personal driver like the one Big had on Sex and the City.

10. The one that got away.

Madonna "Addicted (The One That Got Away)"

On the bright side, I have my health, my words, my friends and thanks to one of them -- take a bow, Zena! -- enough Tend Skin to last me another few years abroad. Come to think of it, I couldn't seriously ask for anything more.

Throwback Christmas: Santa and Me Through the Years

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

You'll Never Guess Which Hits Were Their Biggest!

I have theory (yes, another one): The more hits a classic act has had, the more likely the biggest one is to be something totally unexpected.

Take one of the greatest hitmakers of all time. "Hey Jude" spent more weeks (9) at No. 1 than any other Beatles single, but is it anyone's favorite Beatles song? Does anyone consider "Hey Jude" synonymous with the band? The Beatles racked up a number of signature early, mid- and late-period songs, and I wouldn't list "Hey Jude" among them.

Now consider ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. His longest-running post-Beatles No. 1 wasn't "Band on the Run" or "Silly Love Songs" or any of his other '70s radio staples. It was "Ebony and Ivory," his 1982 duet with Stevie Wonder that ruled Billboard's Hot 100 for seven weeks, which is as long at the top as the No. 1 runs of Wonder's "Superstition," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "You Haven't Done Nothin'," "I Wish" and "Sir Duke" combined.

Here are 11 other superstars with surprise biggest hits.

Bob Marley Believe it or not, not one of the reggae icon's iconic singles ever made it into the U.S. Top 40. Not "No Woman, No Cry," "One Love" or "Is This Love," all of which were Top 10 UK hits. Marley's only Hot 100 entry ever was "Roots, Rock, Reggae," which peaked at No. 51 in 1976 and despite its lack of Marley classic status, ranks among his finest work.

Bee Gees "Staying Alive" was the trio's disco signature, but "Night Fever" spent five more weeks at No. 1. Eight weeks on top isn't such a big deal these days, but in the '70s, it was virtually unheard of.

Depeche Mode Quick, name a DM song! Chances are you cited "Just Can't Get Enough" (which didn't even chart in the U.S.) or "People Are People" (No. 13), not the band's lone U.S. Top 10, "Enjoy the Silence," which climbed to No. 8 in 1990.

Donna Fargo She went down in history for "The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.," but "Funny Face" brought the '70s country superstar her greatest chart success. While both hit No. 1 on the country side, Fargo's signature song peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100, six rungs below the peak Top 10 spot of "Funny Face."

Duran Duran If you lived through the '80s, you definitely remember the band's two U.S. No. 1's ("The Reflex" and "A View to a Kill"), but you'd be forgiven for thinking that "Hungry Like the Wolf" (No. 3) or the non-U.S.-charting "Girls on Film" were bigger. I still can't believe they weren't.

Elton John Even if you don't count "Candle in the Wind 1997," which was a monster by association (with Princess Diana's untimely death), the Elton single that spent the most weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. wasn't either of the two arguably most associated with him, neither of which even went Top 5: "Your Song" (No. 8) and "Rocket Man" (No. 6). It was -- surprise! -- "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," his duet with Kiki Dee that spent four weeks at the Hot 100 summit in 1976 and was the No. 2 Billboard single of that year. Curiously, though Elton is most highly regarded for slower, more contemplative '70s songs like "Daniel," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Tiny Dancer," with the exception of his cover of The Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," his No. 1 '70s hits ("Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Island Girl" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart") were all uptempo.

Fleetwood Mac "Dreams" was the band's only U.S. chart-topper, but it's not even the most highly regarded Stevie Nicks-penned FM song, an honor that would more likely go to "Rihannon" (No. 11), "Sara" (No. 7) or the non-single "Landslide."

Gordon Lightfoot It was going to be toss-up between him and John Lennon, but since I vividly remember "(Just Like) Starting Over" being massive in the aftermath of Lennon's 1980 death, I can believe it was bigger than "Imagine" (No. 3). I'm surprised "Whatever Gets You thru the Night" and not Lennon's solo signature wasn't his other No. 1, but "Starting Over" makes that a moot point in this post. Which brings me to Gordon Lightfoot. "Sundown," the singer-songwriter's only U.S. No. 1, is a fantastic song, but am I the only one who would have expected "If You Could Read My Mind," which was resurrected as a '90s dance hit by Stars on 54, to have been bigger?

Janet Jackson I remember "That's the Way Love Goes" being huge in 1993, eight-weeks-at-No.-1 huge. But is it the first song anyone thinks about when they think about Miss Jackson-if-you're-nasty?

Madonna "Holiday" never made the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100; "Material Girl" stalled in the runner-up slot; and "Into the Groove" was never even a U.S. single. The Madonna song that spent one more week at the top than "Like A Virgin" (seven) was a now-all-but-forgotten ballad written by Babyface. When is the last time you heard "Take a Bow" (not the Rihanna No. 1 of the same title)?

Van Morrison The fantastic "Domino" (No. 9, 1970) bested his signature "Brown Eyed Girl" by one notch. Who said Americans have poor taste in music? Well, I did, but "Domino" is proof that they occasionally get it right.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

5 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Still Alice"

1. Have you ever gotten so drunk at a party that you couldn't remember your address to give to the taxi driver on your way home? If Julianne Moore hasn't, she must know exactly how it feels. While watching her performance as a college professor struggling with a rare form of Alzheimer's that unexpectedly strikes otherwise vibrant and healthy 50-year-olds, I kept having flashbacks to my own bout of alcohol-induced amnesia. Yeah, that's right: "bout." It's only happened once!

I never stopped appreciating Julianne Moore as an actress, but it's been forever since I've loved her (circa 1999's Magnolia, to be completely honest). Still Alice reminds me of why I first fell for her (circa 1992's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, her second film) and why I first adored her in the first place (circa 1995's Safe). In some ways, Alice is Julianne coming full circle from Safe, playing another woman in the grips of a mystery illness. Once again, she nails that what-the-f**k-is-happening-to-me mix of fear and disbelief that accompanies gradually and inexplicably finding your health slipping away.

2. As someone whose personal and public identity is also closely tied to words and being able to use them well (Julianne's Alice character, Alice Howland, is a celebrated cognitive psychologist), I related to her situation in a way that made watching the movie more uncomfortable than it otherwise might have been. Initially pegging those strange symptoms as a brain tumor is exactly the conclusion I would have jumped to.

Perhaps that's why I found Alice so likable, though neither Julianne nor the script bend over backwards to make her so. It's interesting that for her, the greatest tragedy of the disease isn't losing touch with her loved ones but losing her mind. It's the less sentimental approach, but that Julianne managed to keep me perhaps even more invested in what was happening to Alice while periodically checking to make sure my own memory was still intact says as much about her acting skill as it does about where my own priorities lie.

3. It's easy to draw comparisons to Away from Her, the 2006 film in which Julie Christie played a woman losing her grip to Alzheimer's. Julie scored her fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination for that movie, and it's almost a foregone conclusion that Still Alice will earn Julianne her third in that category. (It'll bring her nomination total to five overall.)

But there's a big difference between the two movies. Despite Julie's Best Actress status, Away focused mostly on the husband's point of view, to the film's detriment. Yes, it must be painful to not only slowly lose your wife to Alzheimer's but to also lose her to a fellow patient in a care facility. Still, you don't cast an actress like Julie Christie as the tortured lead in a film and then ask the audience to spend most of the movie focusing on someone else's agony. I believe that cost her the Oscar.

Sorry, Marion Cotillard, but Julie should have won. You may have been great in La vie en rose, but I have a problem with people winning Oscars for musical biopics in which they lip sync. (Sorry, Jamie Foxx. If What's Love Got to Do With It's Angela Bassett had lose to The Piano's Holly Hunter, you should have been congratulating Hotel Rwanda's Don Cheadle on Oscar night 2005.) On the plus side, Marion, I think you should be in the running this year for The Immigrant (but probably won't be as Oscar seems to be over you since that one-night stand), right alongside Julianne and Wild's Reese Witherspoon. She won her biopic Oscar the way God intended, by also singing the part of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

4. I wish the movie had looked more closely at Alice's marriage to John (Alec Baldwin), who kind of seems like an afterthought. It glosses over the fact that John, though supportive and loving, treats his wife's declining faculties mostly as an inconvenience. Maybe Alice meant to have a word with him about that but forget to. He was no what's-his-name from Amour!

Elsewhere, the strained family dynamics -- did sisters Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) hate each other or what? -- made me glad that I never see most of my immediate kin. It's strange how so many of us force ourselves to be around people we really don't like just because we share a bloodline, a bloodline which, as Still Alice makes abundantly clear, could potentially kill you. I'd rather spend Christmas solo, thank you.

5. Kristen Stewart is blossoming into such an effective actress. She's come a long way since On the Road a couple of years ago, now holding her own with the great Julianne Moore. It would have been so easy for her to overplay the petulant in Alice's youngest daughter, but Kristen actually makes her the most likable of the three children.

Maybe that's the benefit of her having more screen time than Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish, but even at her brattiest, railing against Alice for reading her journal, Kristen lets us see flickers of Lydia's compassion, like she's just holding back the rage. That's a tough balancing act to pull off when the scenery must have been so tempting (chomp chomp).

Clearly Kristen learned a thing or two from the woman playing her mom. If she keeps it up, we might soon be seeing her name in the Oscar conversation. Why should Jennifer Lawrence keep getting all the twentysomething love?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

7 New Things I've Learned About Sydney-siders Since Becoming One

1. They're all about their beaches. Sydney, we have a problem. First off, forget that American surfer aphorism. Life is not a beach. As someone who has never been a beach person, I can honestly say Sydney's celebrated shores have absolutely nothing to do with why I'm here.

Don't get me wrong: I love living near the ocean. But just knowing that it's there is enough for me. I don't actually have to splash around in it to appreciate it. And I can't think of anything I'd rather do less than bake under the hot sun. It's not like I ever look at a piece of meat sizzling in the oven and go, "Lucky!"

Though I live just one block away from Circular Quay, where the Sydney Opera House sits, and I take twice weekly runs along the water (and around the Botanical Garden), I've yet to step foot on a proper beach since moving here two months ago. In this beach-obsessed culture that gets me as many sideways glances as my American accent. It seems every time anyone tells me what they're doing, what they want to be doing or what they're going to be doing, a beach is involved. Sometimes I get so bored by the predictable script that I find myself daydreaming about life in a landlocked town. Oh, Jerusalem, where are you when I need you?

I've actually had people ask me why I live in Sydney if I'm not a beach person, as if there couldn't possibly be any other reason to live here. This makes me kind of sad, not because of what it says about Sydney, but because of what it says about those people. Life isn't a beach, and by making Sydney all about its sand and surf, they're shortchanging the city they're trying to sell.

The beach obsession is particularly curious because during my year in Cape Town, a city with some of the most spectacular beaches I've ever seen, the only people who talked about them were tourists. Locals always seemed to be busy doing other things. Ditto Melburnians. Sure St. Kilda is a bay beach, nowhere near the spectacle level of Sydney's water works, but I love Melbourne partly because I could go months there without any of my friends ever mentioning the beach.

2. They've got Christmas cheer to spare. This is my ninth Christmas living outside of the U.S. and my seventh non-consecutive one in the Southern Hemisphere. I'm as into Christmas as I'm into beaches, and it's even harder to get into the holiday spirit when the sun is shining and you're wearing shorts. In Bangkok, it was easier to ignore Christmas altogether because it's barely acknowledged there. That was one of the benefits of living in a Buddhist culture.

Buenos Aires is largely Catholic, but Christmas there is more about family traditions than carols and gifts. Everything went eerily silent on Christmas Eve while families bonded, and as soon as midnight struck, it was off to the clubs. BA business as usual had returned.

I spent but one Christmas in Cape Town, and since I can't recall anything about it, I'm assuming the holiday itself must have been pretty under the radar. Perhaps the country was still mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, who had passed only weeks earlier.

Sydney, though, is a completely different Christmas story. The holidays haven't made such a big splash anywhere I lived since New York City. There are Christmas decorations all over town, a Christmas tree on Martin's Place (the Aussie version of the Rockefeller Center tree), and I swear Christmas is the only thing anyone can talk about. Christmas at the beach (of course)! Woo hoo!

The excitement seems to be less about gift-giving than planning the perfect Christmas getaway. It's summer, after all, and there's no better time to get to Bali -- if insane travel crowds are your thing. The spirit hasn't been contagious in my direction, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the Aussie Christmas enthusiasm incredibly endearing. No Scrooges here -- and that can't possibly be a bad thing!

3. They're serious about their costume parties. Apparently, themed costume Christmas office parties are the thing here, with numerous "Christmas" stores in Sydney's CBD dedicated to the attire. That's why when I suited up as Captain America for my first Australian Christmas office party this past week, I was able to walk the 10 minutes from my apartment to the party venue alongside Catwoman, a mermaid and a magician and get shouts of appreciation but not a single strange look. That never would have happened in NYC, and I love Australia even more for it.

4. They're not big dancers. One of my colleagues asked me how office holiday parties in the U.S. are different, and the first thing that came to my mind after the costume thing was the dancing…or lack thereof. There was a little of it at Bar 100, but it was mostly a small group who created an impromptu dancing space underneath the DJ platform.

It was a lot different from all those People magazine Christmas parties I used to go to where the dance floor was the center of the action after the sit-down dinner. (Oh, no sit-down dinner the other night either.) There was always a proper dance floor, and by the end of the night it was pretty much filled with colleagues you never expected to see under the strobelight.

Bar 100 didn't have a dance floor (though it did have a short red carpet at the entrance), but come to think of it, I don't think I've even seen a dance floor anywhere since I arrived in Sydney.

5. Their sidewalk etiquette needs work. My friend Zena recently pointed out while visiting me in Sydney that she's never been in a city with more confusing sidewalk social norms…as in, there doesn't appear to be any. Do you walk on the left? Do you walk on the right? Nobody really seems to know. It doesn't help that everyone is too busy texting or talking on their phones to pay attention to where they're going or whom they're about to bump into. Walking through the CDB during weekday business hours might possibly be the most unpleasant part of living here.

6. They're hot and cold on their own stars. Apparently, the U.S. appreciates Aussie performers more than Australia does. They all flock to the U.S. to succeed, leaving TV presenters and reality stars to pick up the slack at home. Those are the real Australian celebrities, which I quickly learned while watching the action on the red carpet at the ARIAS a few weeks ago. One pair of MTV presenters went from being snapped on the red carpet to being banished to the other side of the rope to take their interviewing spot among the rest of the lowly press.

In perhaps the most shocking twist of the evening, when Guy Sebastian -- who is actually a bonafide celebrity Aussie entertainer -- showed up, the hoopla was cut short by the arrival of One Direction from the UK. Guy was quickly whisked off the red carpet, never to be seen again. The message: Who cares about their own when there's a superstar British boy band in the house? When Katy Perry (who along with 1D was the only act there with a substantial international following) finally showed up, she waltzed past the entire Aussie press without a word. She couldn't have been bothered. Kylie Minogue never would have done such a heinous thing, but then, I hear Aussies don't care much about Kylie these days. Who needs her when they've got all those reality stars to obsess over?

7. They're a lot more innocent than I thought. I learned more about Sydney-siders during Monday's so-called "Sydney siege" and its aftermath than during any other 48-hour period. One can't underplay the tragedy of any hostage situation that results in the loss of two lives (I refuse to consider the death of the gunman a "loss"). Although my Facebook news feed appeared to be more interested in D'Angelo's surprise album release (one person who clearly hadn't been paying attention to the news actually wrote "How can anyone talk about anything other than D'Angelo today?" as his status update), I was touched by the outpouring of grief among my fellow adopted countrymen, if not by the apparent indifference of many of my fellow Americans...at least online.

As someone who lived through September 11 in New York City, I found some of the sensationalist news coverage (Sydney was not under siege; there was an isolated hostage situation in a CBD cafe) and the public hysteria it spawned to be perplexing. Clear heads were not prevailing. An American friend who was here at the time put it perfectly: "Some commentator on Channel 7 just said it was like Independence Day, which is really quaint, I guess, since we both know what that's actually like."


For all of that hysteria, I was surprised to walk past Martin's Place that evening while the hostages were still captive and see scant police activity and no sign that a potentially deadly situation was in progress just meters away. For a few moments, until I went home and checked the news, I actually thought the "Sydney siege" was over. Sadly, it wasn't.

In the aftermath of those tragic murders, I was convinced that Sydney and Sydney-siders would never be the same. As someone whose city has been under attack (on September 11) and who has been attacked by an intruder in my own home, I am well aware of how one incident can change everything. Of all the headlines and commentary that I read and heard in the days after the stand-off, one statement rang particularly true: Australia has lost its innocence.

God help us all.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sizing Up "Black Men": What Happens When the Story Is About Me?

For more years than I care to admit, I've been sticking my nose into other people's business. As a journalist, that's what I'm paid to do.

But what happens when the tables are turned and I find myself on the other side of the microscope lens? Now that I'm an author promoting Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, my first book, I'm getting to see how all of those celebrities I've spent decades interviewing have felt. Being interviewed and then reading my responses in print is not unlike hearing my voice on a tape recorder and being reminded each time that what I hear in my head and what I put out into the world are two very different things.

It's a slightly nerve-wracking source of anxiety (What if I sound even more ridiculous on the page than I do in my head?), but it's a welcome one. If I'm being interviewed about my book, it means that there are people out there who not only want to read it, but a few who want to talk about it and write about it, too. I don't think there's any greater gift a writer can receive -- unless they're counting royalties, of course, but this is a labor of love not the bottom line.

Last year I wrote a freelance article on the business side of Rihanna's brand for the South African magazine Destiny Man. A few months ago, after I sent my editor on that story a copy of my book, he asked if he could interview me for a Q&A feature in the magazine. It appears in the December issue, and there is also an excerpt from my book on the website. Click here to read the full Q&A.