Archive | November, 2008

Hollywood Endings: The Shield and The Sopranos

26 Nov

(Editor’s note:  The Hangover swung and missed on much of our interpretation of the Soprano’s ending.  Please see:  http://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-definitive-explanation-of-the-end/)

The Shield’s seven year run of grit ended last night with an episode true to its stomach-wrenching nature.  One could not help but draw contrast to the ending of the Sopranos, HBO’s signature crime drama.  The relative merit of each can be seen through the music used to define the episodes.  For The Shield, it was Vic Mackey’s opening drive through his city to X’s Los Angeles, a seminal punk cut that characterizes the chaotic undercurrent that runs like a riptide through LA.  In contrast, the Sopranos ended with the Soprano family having dinner in a restaurant known for onion rings while the trite, Top 40 strains of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ dominated the scene.  These musical choices alone indicate the merits of the respective finales.

The Sopranos finished in a sea of symbolism.  As Tony, Carmella, and AJ order lousy food, Meadow tries to park her car (signifying how the family will never fit in to mainstream America?).  A man walks in the restaurant, scopes out Tony and heads for the bathroom (Mob hit man?  Innocent passerby?  Or a symbol of the potential threat that will always hang over Tony’s head?).  The camera pans to a young couple obviously in love enjoying their dinner (Symbolizing a young Tony and Carmella, when they believed–cue Journey–their futures were bright?)  The screen turns black as Meadow runs in the restaurant, leaving millions of Americans thinking that HBO has just crashed.  No, the disaster wasn’t in their set.  It was in the guts of the Sopranos producers and writers, who took the “arty” way out–failing to make the definitive statement that writers most often consider critical to story-telling.   Then again, maybe not.  Perhaps The Sopranos team wanted to leave us believing that the Sopranos would never know what lay ahead for them, and that was the curse given Tony’s chosen occupation.  But these are just The Hangover’s interpretations.  Others have seen the episode quite differently.  On the excellent Television Without Pity site, there are 226 pages of interpretation.  That indicates a problem; after six seasons, the producers should have been able to provide a meaningful resolution.  To fail to do so is to walk away from one’s responsibility as an artist.

The Shield, however, concluded with an earned, tough clarity.   Desperation built.  Frustrations grew.  Betrayal became a way of life.  Death was a choice.   No major character escaped unscathed.  Shane, Ronnie, Dutch, Acevada, Claudette, Julien, Corinne, Steve, and Tina all leave wounded.   The filmmaking was brilliant, as letting the final minutes play out on Vic Mackey’s face showed the commitment, faith, and cajones that was clearly lacking in the Sopranos finale.  The price that Mackey pays for trying to walk the wire between justice and morality is clear:  There’s nothing left inside.   Powerful storytelling trumps pretentious symbolism:  Writers and viewers can agree on that.

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Warren Zevon’s Not So Quiet Normal Life

24 Nov

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, the 2007 Warren Zevon biography penned by Zevon’s ex-wife, Crystal, is a remarkable book.   A reader will experience moments of awe, disbelief, elation, and horror. When Zevon was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, he asked Crystal to tell the whole truth in writing his story, “even the awful, ugly parts.”  She did not flinch.  The book presents a view of Zevon that could not possibly be more honest.    Sharing traits with many of his characters, Zevon is at times genius, drunk, twisted, and hilarious.  To paraphrase one of his own songs, his shit was fucked up.

Crystal Zevon interviewed eighty-seven people for the book.  Their accounts are presented in the first person, as are her own remembrances.  Excerpts from Warren’s journal are also shared.   The reader sees hardships and challenges on every page–some external, many emanating from within.  But as Zevon careened through drug, alcohol, and sex addiction, one thing remained constant:  He never compromised his musical integrity.  And that cost him.  He did not achieve the financial and popular success he felt he deserved.  In a 1998 letter to Hunter S. Thompson, Zevon described his career as “about as promising as a Civil War leg wound.”  For Zevon fans, that was all right with us.  To hell with those who didn’t get it.

Bonny Raitt knew:  “There’s no way the mainstream could be hip enough to appreciate Warren Zevon.  He was our everything, from Lord Buckley to Charles Bukowski to Henry Miller.”  When Jackson Browne introduced Zevon to an audience as “the Ernest Hemingway of the twelve-string guitar,” Zevon later corrected him claiming, no, he was “the Charles Bronson of the twelve-string guitar.”  They were both right.  As Browne said, “Warren didn’t have literary pretenstions.  He had literary muscle.” 

The Hangover got on board with Zevon’s ’78 Excitable Boy album.  Although he never became a chartbuster, each previous and subsequent album delivered full tilt Zevon:  originality, a writer’s eye, and an outlaw’s attitude.   All one has to do is turn on a radio today and listen for an hour to realize that Zevon was a unique talent.  It is bitter-sweetly ironic that The Wind, recorded after Zevon’s cancer diagnosis (with the clock ticking loudly during the sessions), led to recognition in the form of two Grammies.   The Excitable Boy wasn’t around to see it happen.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead will hit Zevon fans hard.  He paid a high price to create his music–and live his life.    As honest and uncompromising as his songs were, so is his biography.  It is a fitting tribute.  No doubt, the Zevon’s will continue to deserve more credit that they will receive.  

{All quotes taken from I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.}

Songs Every Garage Band Should Know

11 Nov

The garage band is an American institution.   It is impossible to know just how many bands started out as a group of friends practicing in their garages, playing songs they liked–and could figure out. The music was usually basic rock and roll:  three or four chords, a strong back beat, guitar, bass, drums, and sometimes an organ or keys.  The garage sound spans from Chuck Berry and Elvis to the Stones, Kinks, and Beatles, through Warren Zevon and the Ramones to the Strokes and White Stripes. Perhaps the Granddaddy of all garage bands was Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Not only did they practice in the Holly’s garage, they recorded some of their first demos there. The rest is history.

Whether a bunch of stoned teenagers or middle-aged middle managers trying to blow off steam, a garage band should be able to rock out the neighborhood 4th of July cook out, your Aunt Sophie’s fifth (and surely last) divorce party, and any bar in town that has even the slightest whiff of stale beer. The songs don’t require exquisite musicianship but they do have to sound like fun.  The following set list would make any band practicing next to a Ford Taurus garage rock Kings:

Louie, Louie (by  the Kingsmen)

Three chords, sometimes indecipherable lyrics, and a never-fail connection with drunkeness thanks to Animal House make this a garage icon.  This song–that you can dance and drink to–will be a hit anyway, anyhow, anywhere.

Wild Thing (by The Troggs)

Another example of roots rock simplicity at its finest.  Guitar crunch, dramatic pauses, and potential crowd response put this on the list. 

Johnny B. Goode (by Chuck Berry)

Altough unable to be quantified, this song must have been played in more garages and barrooms than any other song in the history of rock.  It defines Chuck Berry’s rhythm and blues style.  Guitar players cut their teeth as beginners and then show their chops by playing lead to this one.

Heartbreak Hotel (by Elvis Presley)

No garage band set list would be complete without a nod to the King.   This will get everyone fired up, especially if the singer can do that hip thing and sneer at the same time.

Satisfaction (by the Rolling Stones)

It’s got the quintessential garage feel, a classic guitar lick, and a frustrated. pissed off narrator.  It doesn’t get more “garage” than that.

Pretty Woman (by Roy Orbison)

This song can work in a variety ways.  If the singer has some pipes, it can be done as a homage to the great Roy Orbison.  More likely, it can be dirtied up and done as a straight rock and roller, ala Van Halen (but please without those DLR squeals).  Either way, it will pack some punch.  Just make sure the singer isn’t checking out your date while he’s singing it.   

Wipeout (by the Surfaris)

Every band should be able to play an instrumental.  Surf music will get the crowd doing “the swim” and partying like its 1969–the time of free love. 

Allison (by Elvis Costello)

Even a garage band should know a slow song.  This one is from ’78.  When it’s dark and late, nothing sets the mood better than lost love and fading dreams. 

I Walk the Line (by Johnny Cash)

This will hit the mark with nose-ringed punks, as well as country fans who have a lawn mower replica of Dale Jr.’s #88 Impala in their own garage.  It will prove to some that you don’t need a Stetson to play or enjoy country music.

I Wanna Be Sedated (by the Ramones)

This will hit the mark with cowboy-hatted hillbillies, as well as alternative fans who have a Toyota Prius in their garage and a motorcycle leather in their closet.  It will prove to some that you don’t need to a habit to play or enjoy punk rock.

Get Back (by the Beatles)

The early Beatles were a prototypical garage and bar band, pumping out the Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins covers that tore the roof off the Cavern Club in Berlin.  They progressed from there, but on their last album returned to those pure, rock and roll roots.  This is also great to play if your ex-wife is in the room or the rhythm guitar player’s chick is trying to break up the band. 

And The Hangover’s Ultimate Garage Rock Song:  Werewolves of London (by Warren Zevon)

Common Sense Election Anaylsis

5 Nov

There are a number of reasons that Barack Obama won the Presidency yesterday, receiving more votes than any candidate in history.  Most of them are fairly obvious. 

  • George W. Bush was a really bad president.  Certainly, John McCain suffered from his party and policy affiliations with the current President, just as the majority of people suffered under his administration–unless, of course, you were in the top 1% of income earners, worked for or invested in Big Oil, or were on the Board at Halliburton or Blackwater.
  • John McCain was a lousy campaigner.  McCain’s best moments of the entire election cycle were his QVC skit on Saturday Night Live, his Monday Night Football Interview with Chris Berman, and his concession speech.  His best debate line, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago,” would have hit harder than a wet sponge if he hadn’t spent the last six months trying to maintain his Party’s base by highlighting his belief in Bush policies. 
  • Barack Obama really connected with the people.  He was a great speaker.  He had a clear message which he delivered with charisma, focus, and detail.  It worked.
  • The Republicans failed to scare the electorate as they did in 2004.  They were unable to generate a polarizing social issue such as “gay marriage” which carried Ohio for Bush in 2004.  In fact, due to the economic collapse, more Americans were frightened of losing their jobs and homes than they were by lame Republican attempts to portray Obama as a socialist, Muslim, terrorist, or–holy cow–a liberal. 
  • Religion, a huge component of Bush’s 2000 victory, became less of an issue.  After eight years of Bush-Cheney international and economic disaster, maybe the good Christian voters began to realize that God wasn’t actually a Republican diety. 
  • Obama ran a clean campaign, and after two elections of Bush-Rove tactics, it appears that a more positive message resonated with voters.  As CBS News reported:  “Nearly every TV ad McCain ran last week was negative, compared to just 34 percent of those by Obama, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Advertising Project released on Wednesday. “
  • When a candidate moves from who-they-really-are to who-they-think-they-need-to-be-to-get-elected, they lose.  Reagan was an ultra-conservative.  Bill Clinton was a centrist.  George W Bush was a God-fearing jughead.  Obama is a liberal (Apparently, not such a bad thing these days).  The 2000 John McCain didn’t court the Religious Right, employed an independent, critical thought process, and wouldn’t have stood for the type of negative campaigning that Bush-Rove used to sink McCain’s 2000 bid.  That all changed in 2008, and the results speak for themselves. 

Other Election Highlights:

  • Last night, the Fox News Channel crew looked and acted like a bunch of six year-olds who raced down the stairs only to find coal in their stockings.  Boo hoo.   Waaaaaaaaw.
  • Ben Affleck’s Keith Olbermann skit on SNL (perhaps the best episode of SNL since the glory days of the Belushi era).
  • The Hangover finally voted for a Presidential Candidate who won.  (It’s the first time since 1980, and that was a mistake.  Hey, I was a binge-drinking teenager at the time.)
  • The Hangover is still trying to remove John Edwards’ populist hook from his mouth, firmly planted during the primary season.  Only a true douche bag could have campaigned “for-the-people” while knowing that an affair with the biggest coke slut of the 1980’s was waiting to come tumbling out of the closet.  What if his message (which was a good one) had caught on?
  • Anne Curry delivers good news:  anytime, anyplace, but especially on MSNBC’s election night dressed in all black:
anne-curry3

Maybe the mainstream media isn't so bad, after all.