Merry Christmas, Music Biz. Love, the Beatles.

If you’re the type who would care, you probably know: the long-promised remastered versions of the Beatles’ albums will finally be released this year on September 9. (“Number 9” … yes, we get it. Even better if they had come out in October — i.e., the one after 9/09.)

I’ve been following this story — what very little there has been of it to follow — for about three years now, ever since the Apple Computer/Apple Corps trial, when the secretive Neil Aspinall was forced to admit in court proceedings that he was, in fact, supervising a total revamping of the group’s catalog. Questions that had been fruitlessly batted back and forth are now finally answered. Yes, the mono Sgt. Pepper will come out; in fact, all of the albums will be available in mono (except for Abbey Road, which was never released that way). Yes, the music has been cleaned up in a way that, we are assured, adds the punch expected of contemporary rock while still being true to the original mixes’ ambience. Yes, even the original, oddball stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul will come out, which most people will likely not bother to listen to more than once. And while no details of packaging have been released, we know we can get all these goodies in two fell swoops: all of the stereo albums and all the mono albums will be available in two separate box sets.

It was that last detail that really brought it home to me, that illuminated what should have been a patently obvious fact: they are going to sell a shitload of discs.

Click to continue reading “Merry Christmas, Music Biz. Love, the Beatles.”

On coolness and Beatles

I recently resurrected an old piece I wrote for Pop-Culture-Corn called “How Cool Is Paul McCartney?”. The original feature, now lost somewhere deep in the belly of a Google backup drive, found four writers each making the case for a particular Beatle as the apogee of Cool. I was asked to represent McCartney because of my avowed fondness for his work; I accepted because I was, and still am, sick of the sneering attacks music critics have been aiming at him since roughly five minutes after John Lennon’s death.

And also, truth be told, because I have an unfailing sympathy for the uncool. And McCartney, no matter how cool his various achievements, will always, personally, be uncool. As many a sardonic wag has remarked, The Beatles are dying in order of coolness. Ringo’s next.

Reading my essay over now, there are a few things I would change: I’d tone down the Yoko bashing, for one thing. (The creepy, unhealthy psychodrama of the Lennon/Ono marriage rests more with the groom than the bride.) For another, I actually think I could’ve made my case stronger. Forget for a moment the fact that, in 1966, McCartney was among the handsomest, most interesting and most sought-after (read: cool) figure in arguably the most culturally significant city in the world at that moment. He went where he wanted, slept with whom he wanted, did whatever the fuck he pleased; no one would turn down a chance to trade places with Paul McCartney. But forget all that and just stick to what you can quantify. McCartney was the first of the Beatles to write his own songs, the first member of the fledgling Quarrymen who actually knew how to play. (Lennon played the guitar with banjo chords until “Paul taught [him] to play properly.”) Unlike Lennon, who before meeting Ono deeply mistrusted anything avante garde, McCartney eagerly absorbed the musique concrete of Stockhausen or Glass, and was the first of the Beatles to rip the eraserhead out of his tape recorder and begin making tape loops in his home studio. Without McCartney, “Tomorrow Never Knows” would have consisted of John Lennon banging out C on his acoustic guitar, and the world might have been spared “Revolution #9” altogether. It was McCartney who pushed the Abbey Road engineers to overdrive the trebly guitars of “Nowhere Man” and who had the idea of recording his bass through another amplifier instead of a conventional microphone. Critical opinion has swung between either Sgt. Pepper or Revolver as the Beatles’ masterpiece — and both are dominated by Paul, from behind the desk if not always behind the mike. This is something beyond cool; there are maybe a dozen people in 20th century popular music who can claim achievements of this rank.

And yet.

I will defend McCartney’s creativity and experimentalism to the end. Yet my heart-of-hearts favorite Beatle?

John.

John Lennon was a deeply wounded man, a man for whom braggadoccio and cruelty served as a mask for an insecure boy who never stopped resenting all the grownups who thought he was worthless — and who he must have at least occasionally suspected were right. Lennon’s earliest efforts at “honest” songwriting were exercises in formulaic self-pity, no more or less fundamentally honest than the likes of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But somewhere around 1965, Lennon figured out how to tap his inner conflicts without resorting to sad-clown poses. He presented the tangle of his psyche with all its contradictions intact, grounding his songs in uncertainty, hesitancy, confusion. Lennon’s finest songs — “She Said She Said,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus” — are snapshots of a tumbling psyche in mid-churn.

The usual critical line is that McCartney, by contrast, was shallow, preferring to pander with a smiling face and a thumb perenially turned upward. That’s an oversimplification. McCartney aired his share of emotional dirty laundry, most famously in “We Can Work It Out,” positively Lennonian even before his partner added its rather impatient middle eight. But McCartney, ever the forward-thinking optimist, tended to present his emotional dilemmas post-facto, their tensions already resolved. If Lennon’s songs were the work of a skeptic, McCartney’s were the product of a believer. Think of “Let It Be” and its famous opening lines:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me

No sooner is the crisis introduced than the solution arrives. Lennon could have handily written an entire song about finding himself in times of trouble — indeed I seem to recall a song called “Help” written in 1965 or so — but for McCartney, it is merely the precursor for the dramatic uplift, the consolation that is the song’s true message. “Hey Jude” of course is an anthem of consolation, a plea for optimism that is both cannily calculated and wholly heartfelt. Both “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” are gorgeous songs, and the former is among the Beatles’ very finest, but unlike Lennon’s finest, they begin after the crisis has taken place, not in the middle of it.

So I will always admire Paul’s amazing abilities, his drive, and his belief that the ordinary and the positive are worth celebrating. But it’s John who, briefly and wonderfully, speaks to me.

How Cool Is Paul McCartney?

It was a moment of pop-culture surrealism worthy of The Simpsons: Paul McCartney, schmoozing backstage at the MTV awards, innocently picks up a baguette and bites into it. His front tooth suddenly shoots out of his mouth, and while it doesn’t land into anyone’s Ketel One–and-cranberry, those looking on are flabbergasted enough. Yes, the gap-toothed McCartney confesses: the Cute Beatle wears a fake tooth. The reason? A motorbike accident more than thirty years ago, in which a stoned McCartney flipped over his handlebars and fell face-first into a dirt path. Though the accident had been public knowledge at the time, McCartney kept the full extent of his injuries hidden for more than three decades, the best-kept secret in all of Beatledom.

Somehow it tells you so much about Paul McCartney: the need to present a sunny, all’s-well face to the world; the juvenile streak that manifests so often in his music (even John knew to stay away from dangerous machinery when he was stoned); and most importantly, the essential mystery that has been hiding in the public’s plain sight ever since the Beatles first came to the consciousness of a generation. McCartney was the smiling, puppy-eyed charmer, and he adopted that characterization so expertly that few people to this day have bothered to look past it. They see a shallow media persona and assume it hides a shallow man, and they’re wrong.

It was not always so. Anyone involved in London’s artistic and cultural ferment of the mid-sixties (which John Lennon largely wasn’t, preferring to shuttle his friends out to Weybridge rather than mix it up at nightclubs) knew McCartney as a key figure, popular among the cognoscenti for his intelligence, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. Naturally his cultural pursuits weren’t allowed to infringe on his favored pastimes of getting high and sleeping with women, yet he still found time to help launch London’s first countercultural newspaper and bookstore, talk movies with Michaelangelo Antonioni, collect the work of surrealist painter Rene Magritte years before anyone else thought it worthwhile, be seen with one of London’s most beautiful and talented actresses, and — oh yeah. And write all those songs.

The greatness of McCartney’s songwriting is so self-evident as to be beyond dispute. It need only be pointed out that his work is far less simplistic than is often claimed. “When I’m Sixty-Four” may be a light-hearted toe-tapper, but the fear of aging lying beneath its charming façade can ambush an unwary listener (“indicate precisely what you mean to say/Your’s sincerely, ‘Wasting Away'”). “You Never Give Me Your Money” is a heartbreaking confession of the Beatles’ decaying carmaraderie, simultaneously recriminatory and celebratory; I’ll take its stunningly versatile four minutes over Lennon’s chest-thumpingly obvious “God” any day, thank you. And “Penny Lane,” arguably his finest single achievement, is a joyful, smutty, kaleidoscopic remembrance of childhood every bit as mind-blowing as its more lauded companion piece, Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields.” (Spend a half-hour sometime pondering the nurse who “feels as if she’s in a play” but “is anyway.” Your head may explode.)

So how, despite his undeniable achievements, has McCartney acquired his reputation as a lightweight, middlebrow balladeer, cuddly and unthreatening? Truth be told, the fault is mostly his, and goes beyond the admittedly depressing decline in the quality of his work around the mid- to late seventies. The birth of Safe Paul McCartney can be traced to the summer of 1967, when Rebellious, Intellectual Paul McCartney admitted to a BBC reporter that he had not only taken LSD (the first pop star to make such an admission), but found the experience beneficial, even a little fun. The establishment came down swiftly and mercilessly, deriding him as an “irresponsible idiot” and generally making life difficult for every drug-taking pop star from then on. While John Lennon never lost his taste for outrageous remarks, McCartney has made nary an offensive peep since, and by the mid-eighties was confessing in interviews that his own family was “a lot like” that depicted on The Cosby Show. Thus the perception of Paul McCartney as an ordinary family man, a perception that has preserved his privacy while chopping away at his artistic reputation.

Happily, there are signs that McCartney is finally coming out of the woods and achieving parity with his martyred ex-partner. A pair of studio albums reminded the public of both his songwriting prowess (Flaming Pie) and his rock n’ roll pedigree (Run Devil Run); a new biography called Many Years From Now finally gave him due credit for his role in advancing the Beatles’ art; and the tragic death of his wife Linda, as sincere and humble a celebrity’s wife as any you’d hope to meet, reminded the media that a life of simple decency was nothing to sneer at. Of course there will always be naysayers; Yoko Ono, appalled at what she regarded as a slur on her late husband’s memory, shriekingly attacked Many Years From Now as a compendium of lies, claiming McCartney was merely “Saglieri to John’s Mozart” and that McCartney made little contribution to the Beatles other than insuring they all turned up on time. Her remarks, in their utter falsity and paranoia, make her pitiable. Lennon at his angriest never claimed to be the sole genius behind the Beatles. And when, years later in America, he would weep listening to “My Love” or gently croon “Here There and Everywhere” to Yoko from their white grand piano, he demonstrated something that his widow is still too blinded by jealousy to appreciate: that a song that insinuates itself into your heart is never simple, and never easy. The seeming effortlessness comes from genius, know-how, hard work, and an emotional generosity that’s impossible to feign. May we all live to see them receive the respect they deserve.

Originally published on Pop-Culture-Corn around ’99 or so.

Interview with John Doe

I kinda wanted to talk about the music industry, and I wanted to get into it by talking about the character you played in Georgia, because I’ve never been in a band, but watching that it seemed like the most realistic portrait of a real working band that I’ve seen in a movie. Playing bowling alleys and bar mitzvahs, but still being able to make a living at it, which is kind of a triumph in itself. I wondered: is it really that authentic, and is that what drew you to the project?

John Doe: What drew me to the project was working with [director] Ulu Grosbard and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, and it being a great script. But I think it is accurate, to a bar band. Luckily, that’s the only time I’ve played “Hava Nagila.” Guaranteed. And I hope it’s the only time that I play it; not that it’s a bad song, it’s …

[Laughing throughout] It’s of a situation you’re not often in …

Yes. It sort of has a certain … je nais se quoi. [Laughs] But … the only thing that I don’t think a movie has ever captured in the music world is the speak that musicians have, the way that people are constantly capping on each other, and the banter that goes back and forth at rehearsal and just as they’re hanging around. I think that would be really difficult to script; you’d have to record it and then transcribe it. Even in Spinal Tap, it didn’t have that. I think of that sometimes in rehearsals and stuff.

The sickest part about doing acting is that then you find those same situations coming up in your real life. And then you’re wondering what’s real and what’s not.

Flashing back …

It’s just weird. Right around that same time when we were promoting Georgia, I was doing a tour on my own, and there’s this one place in Cincinnati called Sudsy Malone’s, which is a Laundromat-bar-gig.

One-stop shopping.

And it’s very popular with a certain level of musicians, because then they know that there’s one place they’re going to have clean clothes. And you can put your laundry in between soundcheck and the show and have it pretty much done. I’m sure that someone has probably gotten offstage while they’re playing so they can put it in for the …

[Laughing throughout] Put the fabric sheet in the dryer …

Right. [Laughs] I don’t think they’re worried about fabric softener with their jeans and t-shirts.

Your character had a line in that movie, something like “Look Sadie, things are really happening for us, and I don’t want you to fuck us up.” And to most people, for this band, nothing’s really happening; they’re playing bowling alleys. But for that band, to be able to just make a living playing is probably a pretty big deal.

Right, right.

They don’t have to worry about the day job anymore.

I think a lot of people would be better if they did have a day job. And in a way, acting has provided that for me, to do it for the right reasons; to do it because I love it, and because I need to do it, for creativity and stuff. And you can get—when you have a major label contract, you can get distracted, or you can get too far away from the reason you’re doing it. Because it becomes a job. And I think I was there—I was there with that Geffen contract, and I was there with kind of losing the reasons to write songs, or writing songs just for X, and it kind of came back after doing that Rhino record [Kissingsohard, 1995]. I’d collected a bunch of songs to do that record and then toured that, and then, just through personal life and things that happened, I realized I’d lost a sense of discovery, and a sense of searching for something and trying different things. Doing that Kill Rock Stars record [For the Rest of Us (EP), 1998) was—I tried to be innovative and tried to do different things, and carried it over into this one. It’s important.

Do you feel that you’re still “paying your dues”? Is there a point in your career where you thought “OK, I’m here; this can now be my job, I don’t have to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in”?

Everybody has to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in. Because everyone extends themselves over and above what they actually make. [Laughs] Everybody does.

This being America, after all.

Yes. Not just because it’s America, because you develop a lifestyle. I’m still having character-building experiences, let’s put it this way. [Laughs] You know, once you accept the fact that life is struggle, then you can embrace it a little bit better. My priorities are not security and comfort, although it’s nice to have in moderate amounts.

Well, you do have a family to help keep up—

I do.

—and that’s always a consideration.

It’s a great source of love, it’s a great source of happiness, and also it can take you away from what you really need to be paying attention to, which is a difficult balance. My wife is finishing school, she’s been going to school for five years, and so I’ve been taking the kids to dance classes and Girl Scouts and crap like that, and sometimes I have to turn down auditions, and say “I can’t do that, because I’ve got to be home.” And that can be really frustrating. Because you’re not paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing. But that’s part of the tradeoff.

Click to continue reading “Interview with John Doe”

13 Writing Prompts

1.

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.

2.

Write a short scene set at a lake, with trees and shit. Throw some birds in there, too.

3.

Choose your favorite historical figure and imagine if he/she had been led to greatness by the promptings of an invisible imp living behind his or her right ear. Write a story from the point of view of this creature. Where did it come from? What are its goals? Use research to make your story as accurate as possible.

4.

Write a story that ends with the following sentence: Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon.

5.

A wasp called the tarantula hawk reproduces by paralyzing tarantulas and laying its eggs into their bodies. When the larvae hatch, they devour the still living spider from the inside out. Isn’t that fucked up? Write a short story about how fucked up that is.

6.

Imagine if your favorite character from 19th-century fiction had been born without thumbs. Then write a short story about them winning the lottery.

7.

Write a story that begins with a man throwing handfuls of $100 bills from a speeding car, and ends with a young girl urinating into a tin bucket.

8.

A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

9.

Think of the most important secret your best friend has ever entrusted you with. Write a story in which you reveal it to everyone. Write it again from the point of view of your friend. Does she want to kill you? How does she imagine doing it? Would she use a gun, or something crueler and more savage, like a baseball bat with nails in it?

10.

Popular music is often a good source of writing inspiration. Rewrite Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” as a play.

11.

Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.

12.

Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose is it? How did it get there?

13.

A man has a terrifying dream in which he is being sawn in half. He wakes to find himself in the Indian Ocean, naked and clinging to a door; a hotel keycard is clenched in his teeth. Write what happens next.

Originally published on McSweeneys.net.

Batman Revisited

June 1989: My friends and I are just a few of the hundreds of people crowding the halls at Orland Square theater, shuffling nervously with our popcorn and cokes, waiting to be admitted to a special Thursday night advance screening of Batman. The manager appears and hollers above the din: have your ticket stubs out; you need to show them again before being admitted to the theater. We grumble, but secretly we’re thrilled. This added inconvenience only confirms our belief that we’re about to witness something special: not merely a movie, but an event that really is as important as we had thought.

Most of you reading this probably don’t need to be reminded how wildly anticipated Batman was, how it seemed to promise the restoration to greatness of a character who had languished for decades in camp-TV hell (more on that later). Superman had been the movie of our childhoods: vast, sweeping, touched with reverence and just enough self-deflating humor, it sought to fill you with wonder, an ambition worthy of the greatest superhero ever. Batman, though, would be the movie of our adolescence. It wasn’t going to delight us — it was going to kick ass.

And for the most part it did. Beginning with the massive stone bat symbol that ended the opening credits, Batman was a movie of Gothic excess. From the shadowy Expressionist spires of Gotham City to Jack Nicholson’s calorie-burning turn as the Joker, everything in Batman is both exaggerated and obscured, vibrant and colorful yet hidden in shadows. Watching it joyfully that summer night, it was hard to think how it could’ve been improved: Michael Keaton was a surprisingly capable Batman (or at least a capable Bruce Wayne; as those OnStar commercials have shown, anyone with a decent chin can play Batman), the script was funny (“This town needs an enema!”), and best of all, the movie was dark-just as we knew Batman ought to be.

Except it really wasn’t.

There’s a curious disconnect between the way enthusiastic Batfans (including me) embraced the movie and what’s actually visible on screen, lo these many years later. Certainly, Batman is hardly the sunny, optimistic adventure that Superman was. Roger Ebert disliked the films partly because he always assumed that it would be fun to be Batman, as if anyone other than a borderline psychopath would look forward to donning a silly costume and placing himself in mortal danger every night. Burton, at least, wasn’t that naive, and the few moments of Batman that really qualify as “dark” are the ones where Keaton is allowed to show the toll that being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne’s psyche. We see him in his Batcave, dressed in sombre black and watching a party in his own house (Wayne Manor is more wired than the Nixon White House) from a bank of security monitors, fearfully eavesdropping on his guests; we see him rocking himself to sleep in a pair of gravity boots after a romp in the sack with Vicky Vale. Bits of disturbing ambiguity flash up here and there: when he tells Vicky that parts of rambling Wayne Manor are “very much me,” is he simply referring to the Batcave and its trove of gadgetry? Or is there still a corner of the mansion where Bruce Wayne remembers the happy childhood that was stolen from him?

Such moments are rare, and the rest of the movie is about as “dark” as a vintage Warner Brothers gangster picture, the ones that relished their anti-heroes’ nefarious exploits for 80 minutes only to gun them down mercilessly at the end (remember kids, crime doesn’t pay). From the boozy Det. Eckhart in his Columbo raincoat to Robert Wuhl’s intrepid newshound to Jack Palance as the aging-but-ineffectual crime boss, Batman calls again and again on the stylistic language of B-movie film noir, but without the deep moral ambiguity that suffused that genre at its best. In short, while it might be closer to pastiche than straight-out camp, Batman is far less dark and serious than its gloomy compositions make it appear. Even Danny Elfman’s score, still often held up as the ideal “serious” superhero movie score, is a tongue-in-cheek genre exercise; I can’t hear it without picturing vintage black and white footage of Packards and Cadillacs swinging around corners, tommy guns blazing from their windows.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But I do think it’s time we all lightened up a bit and realized that if Batman took its title character out of the camp ghetto, it didn’t take him very far. Moreover, I realize as I get older that the original “Batman” TV series is nothing to be ashamed of: it’s superbly designed, funny, intelligent, and far more sophisticated than just about any other comedy on the box today. (It had the worst test scores of any ABC show up to that time, and wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of getting on the air now.) It also saved a comic series that was teetering near cancellation; the Batman films, for all their self-conscious distancing from the TV series, probably wouldn’t exist without it.

And finally, in one of those funny accidents of history, the whole process is primed to start up again. With Joel Schumacher having sunk the series into a new morass of cheesy puns, hyperkinetic editing, leather fetishism and banal homilies, Batman needs rescuing today far more than he did in 1989. Supposedly a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s terrific Year One series is now underway that promises to take Batman once again back to his dark, turbulent essence. When that summer comes I have a feeling I’ll be there again, my popcorn and coke (and ticket stub) in hand, once more eager to witness the rebirth of a legend.

Originally written for Entertainment Geekly in June 2003.