Category Archives: Top Five Lists

Top Five Movies (or TV Shows) for the Fourth of July

  1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — Frank Capra really gets America. Or at least, he got the America of his day, and that means he got it the way I get it. (It feels like I was right there, in a previous life.)
  2. Young Mr. Lincoln” — If you don’t do anything else today, watch the clip above. You only have to watch the first minute and 18 seconds. It’s amazing, the best thing Henry Fonda ever did. I thought about Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is magnificent and of course has superior, modern production values. But I had another Spielberg flick below, and besides, this one’s awesome.
  3. John Adams” — Yeah, this one’s a TV show, which is why I added the parenthetical in the headline. I can’t think of anything better on how America became America. And as I keep saying, Adams is my fave Founder. He’s the one who rammed independence through the Congress. Jefferson just wrote it out — because Adams picked him to do it.
  4. Saving Private Ryan” — Yeah, I know — Bud and maybe others will say, “This isn’t Veteran’s Day, nor yet Memorial Day!” Yeah, well, freedom isn’t free. And this is the best film evocation of that ever made. I get chills, and misty eyes, during the cemetery scenes at the start and end. July Fourth message to us all: Earn this!
  5. Yankee Doodle Dandy” — Because there had to be a musical, and have you ever seen anything better than James Cagney dancing down those stairs? Particularly amazing if you only thought of him as a gangster type.

Honorable mention:

All the President’s Men” — Because America. Because First Amendment. Because scrappy newspapermen taking down a corrupt administration. Best part — the scenes in which Woodward and Bernstein interview people who do not want to talk to them. They are wonderfully ragged and awkward, which is what it’s like in real life. I really appreciate the director leaving them that way and not trying to slick them up, Hollywood-style.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy"

“Yankee Doodle Dandy”

How is Wyoming more patriotic than WE are?

This seems kinda screwy to me, but we did make the Top Five, so that’s something:

patriotic

I’m sort of wondering about the criteria that have states that voted for Donald Trump being on average “more patriotic.” I also wonder about Massachusetts — you know, the home of Paul Revere and John Adams (THE guy who persuaded the Continental Congress to declare independence) — ending up 50th. Who’s gonna tell the New England, you know, Patriots?

And what’s with Wyoming edging us out? Is it the Cowboy Factor or something?

Anyway, it’s something besides today’s runoff election to talk about, and I thought y’all could use a break…

Who's gonna tell THESE guys?

Who’s gonna tell THESE guys?

Finally, some substance: James Smith’s campaign playlist

James Smith playlist

Before I get into the important stuff, I’ll share this: On my downtown walk yesterday, I ran into James Smith and Mandy Powers Norrell leaving the State House, and I asked James why he hadn’t released his tax returns — since some of y’all keep bringing that up.

He told me he was going to make them available to the media on Thursday and Friday. He said he wasn’t passing out copies, but folks would be free to peruse the documents on those days. I didn’t dig into why he doesn’t want copies going out: We were talking while crossing the street, he was going to meet with his campaign manager at one of those sidewalk tables in front of restaurants on the first block of Main north of Gervais, and I was in a hurry to get back to the office and drive to the twins’ school to hear them sing. So I just made a mental note: financial disclosure, Thursday and Friday, and hustled away.

At least, I think he said Thursday and Friday. So if I’m right, you read it here first. If not, I’ll correct it.

Anyway, in keeping with my campaign to drive Bud crazy (Look, Bud, more style over substance!), I’m more interested in something the candidate sent out today: his campaign music playlist, which he describes as “what’s been keeping me rocking as I travel the state.”

In my defense, this is more relevant in his case than in other candidates’, because he’s a musician himself — he used to play bass with the Root Doctors, many years ago. As he put it in the release:

Music has always been important to me — it can lift you up when you’re feeling low, make you run when you are tired, and inspire hope just when you need it.

Here’s his list, which you can find at Spotify:

  1. Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2
  2. One,” U2
  3. Perfect Duet,” Ed Sheeran & Beyoncé
  4. Message in a Bottle,” The Police
  5. Happier,” Ed Sheeran
  6. Beautiful Day,” U2
  7. Pride (In the Name of Love),” U2
  8. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” The Police
  9. Find Me,” Kings of Leon
  10. Castle on the Hill,” Ed Sheeran
  11. Sign, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” Stevie Wonder
  12. We Take Care of Our Own,” Bruce Springsteen
  13. Come Together,” The Beatles
  14. Feeling Good,” Nina Simone
  15. Vertigo,” U2

Some general observations:

  • OK, we got it: You like U2. And “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a perfectly fine song for kicking off a playlist, particularly in this case because it’s politically serious. It’s sort of the pop music equivalent of quoting W.B. Yeats. (For this purpose, we would also have accepted “Zombie,” by the Cranberries.) But five out of the 14 songs? Come on! You don’t want to come across as that… I don’t know… monochromatic. And let’s face it: U2 isn’t that great. Two or even three songs from Elvis Costello maybe, but five from U2? Nah…
  • Who is Ed Sheeran? I think I know what you’re trying to do here: Jack Black, as Barry in “High Fidelity,” would describe it this way: “Ohhh, kind of a new record… Very nice… A sly declaration of new-classic status slipped into a list of old safe ones….” I would not say that, of course, because I’m nicer than Barry. I appreciate that there’s something this old guy doesn’t know (the singer was born in 1991, saints preserve us!). And he sounds good. But again — should he appear on the list twice?
  • “Come Together” — the messaging may be a bit heavy there, but a communitarian like me never tires of that message. Thanks for including something for us Boomers. Which is smart, since we vote.
  • Good Springsteen choice, and I know it’s meaningful to you as a guy who served in the war. And no harm in reminding people of that. And while I’m not a huge fan of the Boss, another song from him couldn’t have hurt. Something fun, like “Pink Cadillac.” Or, especially since you’re doing some of that campaigning in the Pee Dee, “Darlington County.” Bruce is good politics for a Democrat, and he’s better than U2.
  • Who are the Kings of Leon? Never mind; we’ve already covered that ground with Ed Sheeran. And in the end, a guy who’s serious about music should have some performers not everyone has heard of. Broaden people’s horizons a bit. Be a leader, not a follower…

Anyway, that should get a discussion started. What are y’all’s thoughts? And speaking of High Fidelity, remember Rob’s rules as you consider the list:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention ***, and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and… oh, there are loads of rules…

Yeah, he says “tape” instead of “playlist,” but give him a break: It was the 90’s and anyway, he’s a fictional character. But the rules are the rules…

Yeah, U2's good, and they sort of have political seriousness going for them, but they're not THAT great...

Yeah, U2’s good, and they sort of have political seriousness going for them, but they’re not THAT great…

Who are your All-Time, Top Five Presidents?

Rushmore

I started to do this yesterday and then forgot. The piece in The New York Times in which political scholars rank all the presidents — brought to my attention by both Bud and Norm — has reminded me.

In that survey, of course, Donald Trump comes in dead last. There’s no other place to put him. He has rescued Buchanan from holding that spot permanently. Even among Republicans, he’s in the bottom five. That’s the thing about being a scholar — whatever your inclinations, you know certain things.

But other than that, there’s plenty of room for debate — although everybody has the same top three that I have.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lincoln — There’s just no contest. We wouldn’t have or country today if not for Abe. He was such a perfect match for what the nation had to have at that moment that it’s the strongest suggestion in our history that God has a special place in His heart for America. Whether from divine cause or not, his appearance at that time was miraculous. His unmatched wisdom, his stunning eloquence, his almost superhuman political skills — even his sense of humor — all combined not only to keep the country together, but to address head-on the central political problem of our history. For four score and nine years (I’m counting to the 13th Amendment), the best minds in the country had been unable to deal with slavery. Lincoln got it done, decisively.
  2. Roosevelt — For some of the same reasons Lincoln is No. 1 — he came along at just the right time, with just the right skills. His brilliance, his courage, his confidence, his ebullience, his ability as a patrician to connect with and inspire the poor and downcast, got us through not only the Depression but the worst, most destructive war in human history. A few months ago, I visited Warm Springs, and to think the way the man kept the nation’s spirits up while every day was such a physical struggle for him fills me with awe.
  3. Washington — His time as president isn’t necessarily what impresses us most — his own particular talents may have been more clearly on display as a general. In the political sphere, Madison and Hamilton were proving moving and shaking things more. But given what we have today, the dignity he brought to the office, the bearing, is truly something to be appreciated. And he quit rather than run again after his second term, he relinquished power rather than become the monarch he might have been. We owe a lot to the American Cincinnatus.
  4. Johnson — Here’s where I break with the experts. Even the Democrats among the scholars place him no higher than 8th. But considering how little the federal government has done since then, I remain amazed at the things he pushed through in 1964-65, the sweeping civil rights legislation, the significant steps in the direction of single-payer health care (alas, the last big steps we took.) Yep, everybody blames him for how he handled Vietnam — but he didn’t set out to do that; he just badly mishandled what he had inherited. He wanted to concentrate on his domestic programs. And we’d probably all be better off today if he had manage to do that.
  5. Truman — OK, this was kind of a tossup among several people. I wanted to name my favorite Founder, John Adams — but he wasn’t all that distinguished as president, and there was the matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, and he did a lot — in his own ways, he was as energetic a leader as his kinsman Franklin and LBJ. But I don’t want to get into a big argument defending the imperialism (and here we’re talking real imperialism, instead of the imaginary kind people have fantasized about in modern times). So let’s go with the unassuming guy whom everyone underestimated, but who got us through the end of the war that FDR had almost won, then won the peace, shaping America’s leadership role in building the postwar world order. And don’t forget the way he integrated the military, one of the first big steps toward desegregation. We could really use a man like him again.

So… whom would y’all pick?

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

Why would anyone EVER want to cover this song?

This morning, I felt a disturbance in the force as the opening bars of what could only be Paul McCartney’s great shame, “Wonderful Christmastime.”

You know, “Sim…ply… hav…ing…” and so forth.

Unable to escape for a moment — let’s be honest, it caught me in the men’s room — I heard enough to realize, “That’s not Paul McCartney.”

I had to know who would commit the crime of re-recording the one great musical crime of a beloved pop genius.

SoundHound told me: It was The Shins, whom I had only encountered previously on the soundtrack of “Garden State,” years and years ago.

I don’t know why they did this. I thought we had all agreed that this wretched ditty was at the top of everyone’s Top Five Worst Christmas Songs list. Or at least at the top of mine, which is what counts. No, I tell a lie — it’s second on the list. “The Little Drummer Boy” is first.

So what in the name of Kris Kringle are these Shin people doing committing this copycat crime?

It’s insupportable…

The Shins: Be On the LookOut for these individuals; they may strike again...

The Shins: Be On the LookOut for these individuals. I think this photo was taken in their shadowy criminal “lair.”

Top Five Things Wrong With This PBS Quiz

decade

As y’all know, I dig PBS almost as much as I do NPR, and it’s basically the only broadcast outlet I ever watch. (Mostly I have a TV for Netflix and Amazon Prime, and occasionally, when I’m feeling retro, a DVD.)

So I have high expectations when I see the PBS logo. Which is why I was so disappointed by this lame “Which Decade Do You Belong In?” quiz.

The whole thing was phoned in for the shallowest of purposes — promotion of three “Masterpiece Mystery” series. Nothing is offered that would provide a serious time traveler with helpful insight into which decade he would be most at home in.

Here are the Top Five things wrong with it:

  1. The individual questions force you into ridiculous choices. Such as “Choose a Women’s Hairstyle,” and the options are “Beehive,” “Poodle cut” and “Shag.” In other words, you have to have a fave among the most extreme, least appealing, hairstyles of three decades. (The worst: “Who’s your biggest critic?”, with the choices being “The Establishment,” “The Church,” and “Your mother.” Y’all know me: I’ve got no beef with any of those parties. But I chose “The Establishment” because I knew that would make me cool in at least one of the three decades on offer.)
  2. Even if the individual questions offered minimal guidance, there aren’t enough of them to add up to anything helpful. There are only seven of them! I mean, why even bother inventing a time machine to begin with? With info like this, even if I fell and hit my head and thought of the flux capacitor, I wouldn’t bother to build it, because I’d have no idea where I wanted to go!
  3. Crass commercialism. Or, since this is technically not commercial television, crass… I don’t know… promotionalism! There have been loads of fine “Masterpiece Mystery!” shows over the years, set in many very fine decades, but this is all about three that were currently showing or about to have a season premiere. About as shallow as you can get, and strangely trapped in the current moment, considering that the point is to appeal to people who presumably want to live in other moments.
  4. Lack of truly cool decades. Forced to choose between the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, I of course ended up in the 50s, which will surprise few of you. But that’s because the decade of 1800-1810 wasn’t even offered! And you would think that PBS, if it exerted itself even slightly, would be able to manage that…
  5. One of the three shows that inspired this insipidity was a show that I haven’t even watched,
    No Annie Cartwright.

    No Annie Cartwright.

    from lack of interest: “Prime Suspect: Tennison.” I tried watching it one night, but quickly lost interest, mainly because it takes us back to the Metropolitan Police Service in 1973. In other words, it covers ground already covered far more entertainingly by “Life on Mars.” The central character is a young WPC trying to make her way in a service just beginning, reluctantly, to take female cops seriously. And I’m sorry — I’m sure she does her best, but she is no Annie Cartwright! Anyway, I lived through the 1970s; I became an adult in the 1970s, so show me something more interesting.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, such quizzes are beneath the dignity of PBS, which is probably why the person who contrived this just gave it a lick and a promise. But if you’re going to try to engage my appetite for quiz clickbait, then make it worthy of the PBS name!

That is all…

50s

Top Five Performances of All Time by Black Actors (1st draft)

Weirdly, the movie wasn't in black and white -- but I remember it that way, for some reason.

Weirdly, the movie wasn’t in black and white — but I remember it that way, for some reason.

I hesitate to put this out there because I KNOW I’m doing this rather randomly. I don’t think in those terms (best black this, best white that), so when my brain tries to run a report based on such criteria, it doesn’t operate as efficiently as it ought.

But I had to react to this piece in The Guardian about all-time top film performances by black actors. The story is from way back in October, but I just saw it, and now is when I’m reacting.

It’s headlined “Sidney Poitier’s Mister Tibbs voted best performance by black actor in public poll.” And that’s what I’m reacting to.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought “In the Heat of the NIght” was pretty awesome, one of the greats of the decade. It was groundbreaking, with talented actors skillfully depicting characters groping their way through unfamiliar roles and relationships. This was done, in 1967, with better understanding and fresh open-mindedness than we usually see today. Everybody was good, from Poitier and Steiger down to Warren Oates.

I also enjoyed the sequel, the title of which was the most memorable line in the original.

But I’m sorry — I’m going to have to go with “To Sir, with Love” as Poitier’s best performance. OK, so bits of it were mawkish and I first saw it at an impressionable time when high-school themes were particularly appealing (when I had yet to attend high school). But the character was unique, and drawn with masterful nuance. And the song still kind of gives me chills. (OK, guys, go ahead and give me the business, but I think it was better even than when Jim Brown threw those grenades down the vents to fry the Nazis in “The Dirty Dozen.” So there.)

Anyway, here are the top five from the British Film Institute poll that The Guardian was reporting on:

  1. Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night, 1967)
  2. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, 1997)
  3. Michael K Williams (The Wire, 2002-08)
  4. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, 2013)
  5. Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)

As much as I dug Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown,” the only one I can put on my list is Michael K. Williams in “The Wire.”

Here’s my initial stab at a personal list — which I will no doubt amend when y’all remind me of performances I’m forgetting. (I wish The Guardian had linked to the 100 performances on the list the poll respondents chose from — that would have helped.)

I’m not going to rank mine — I’m just going to list five, and see what y’all think:

  • Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, with Love” — I already explained this above. Sort of.
  • Michael K. Williams in “The Wire.” — You could pick Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell, or any of a dozen or so powerful performances by black actors in this series. But Williams steals every scene in which he appears. Best scene ever — when he traipses to the grocery to pick up some Cheerios early one morning, and on the way back a dealer tosses his goods out the window at him, because the cry of “Omar comin’!” strikes such terror. (“They don’t have the honey-nut?”)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in… wait for it… “Serenity.” Nope, not “12 Years a Slave” or anything else most people would cite. I thought his portrayal of The Operative was practically hypnotic. Have you ever see such a thoughtful, sensitive, really bad guy? And the sword thing appealed to the 12-year-old in me.
  • Danny Glover in “Places in the Heart.” — Yeah, he’s great in lots of things — his cold-hearted cop-gone-bad in “Witness” was amazing. But I loved the way his character stuck to the role that society assigned to a black man in Texas in the ’30s, while showing his intelligence and experience in guiding helpless widow Sally Field to grow the crop that saves the day — even though his tactful assertiveness nearly costs him his life. Love the scene when he distracts the grieving boy by making a fuss over what bad luck it is to rock an empty chair.
  • Butterfly McQueen in “Gone With The Wind” — Yes, I’m being a bit perverse here, overlooking Hattie McDaniel’s much larger role, for which she rightly received an Oscar. But “Prissie” was just so… inventive. What a weird character, played so convincingly! When she meanders through the gate singing to herself just before the famous “birthin’ babies” line — was she tripping, or what? (OK, I admit it. I’m deliberately refusing to choose the obvious performance lest Barry in “High Fidelity” mock my list.)

I consider this to be a start on a good list. I’m eager to see what y’all suggest…

Miss_Melly_she_done_had_her_baby

 

Ranking the Bonds (a Roger Moore memorial post)

Accept no substitutes, unless you're forced to.

Accept no substitutes, unless you’re forced to.

In breaking the news about his death this morning, The Guardian called Roger Moore “the suavest James Bond.”

The way I think of Moore.

The way I think of Moore.

OK. Maybe. I’d say Pierce Brosnan comes close, though.

The thing is, personally, I never quite accepted Moore as Bond, even though he played the part in more films than anyone. I thought of him as “The Saint.” Part of the problem in accepting him as 007 is that he had the rotten luck of following Sean Connery, who of course defined the role.

All of this is to build up to a Top Five List, in this case ranking the Best Bonds. Yes, I know; it’s been done to death. But it’s the first way I could think of to mark the passing of Simon Templar.

So here goes:

  1. Sean Connery. Yes, I know: It’s like picking the Beatles as “best pop group.” Barry in “High Fidelity” would sneer at me for being so obvious. But it’s not even close. He was Bond when Bond was cool — in the Mad Men, Playboy magazine era when wearing the right tux, drinking the right martini and having as many beautiful women as possible was fashionable, even praiseworthy. He wore his hyper-masculine image with just the right bit of irony, at a time when we boomers weren’t old enough to realize what a joke it was. Austin Powers showed us that, much later. (If you go back and watch the Connery films now, you’ll see Mike Myers wasn’t changing or exaggerating the details at all; the films really were that ridiculous.)
  2. Daniel Craig, particularly in “Casino Royale,” essentially an “origin story.” He’s the roughest, least-suave Bond, to the point that you’re a bit surprised to find out (in “Skyfall”) that he was of the landed gentry. He’s what you might suppose a guy with a License to Kill would be in real life — an ex-SAS ruffian who, if he showed up in a John le Carre novel (which he probably wouldn’t), would be confined to Scalphunters down in Brixton (think of the marginal character Fawn in Tinker Tailor and The Honourable Schoolboy).
  3. Roger Moore. He played the part loyally and with good humor for all those years, and if nothing else kept the franchise warm while we waited for another Connery to come along (which did not, and likely will not, ever happen). His was always the likable Bond, with the obvious question arising: Do we want Bond to be likable?
  4. Timothy Dalton. OK, so his films aren’t that memorable, and he only played Bond in one more film than that dabbler George Lazenby. But I thought he had a decent presence for the part, even though it was insufficiently explored. He’s the Bond we hardly knew.
  5. Pierce Brosnan. I hesitate to include him, since he brought so little to the part that I’m having trouble remembering the titles of the ones he played in. But I have to have five. The main thing I remember about the Brosnan films was that a BMW Z3 starred in one of them.

That’s my list. Your thoughts?

Daniel Craig: A bit of the old Ultraviolence.

Daniel Craig: A bit of the old Ultraviolence.

TV had better do Stranger in a Strange Land RIGHT!

ayxuhj8ditddrmklrtm0

Y’all may recall that several years back, this item topped my list of Top Five Books that Should Have Been Made Into Movies by Now:

  1. Stranger In A Strange Land — … Definitely number one. An entire generation would buy tickets to see this, if it were any good at all. The sex stuff toward the end might have been a barrier in the 60s, but not now. I remember once in the early 70s hearing that it was being made into a movie starring David Bowie, but that turned out to be something else. Since nobody else seems interested, I’ve thought about trying to write the screenplay myself, but only if Hollywood would let me be in it. I would have been a natural for Ben Caxton when I was younger, but now I’d probably have to audition to be Jubal Harshaw. Of course, the soundtrack would have to include the Leon Russell song of the same name.

And today, just days after the death of Leon, I get this news:

Robert Heinlein’s Scifi Classic Stranger in a Strange Land Is Coming to TV

True to its name, the Syfy channel has made a habit of adapting science fiction and fantasy literature both established (Childhood’s End, Hyperion) and contemporary (The Expanse, The Magicians). Now it seems there’s another much-beloved property on the network’s list: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land.

According to a press release, this is the first TV adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land—very broadly, the tale of a Mars-born man who travels to Earth and experiences human culture for the first time; it influenced the counterculture and won a Hugo en route to becoming a classic. No further details on the proposed TV series were announced, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one….

OK, first, this had better be good. I’ve been waiting for it for 46 years. Not a long time at all from an Old One’s perspective (they’d be content to wait another century or two), but quite a stretch for those of us who have no immediate plans to discorporate.

And in that time — especially most recently — we have become accustomed to a level of quality in TV series that we couldn’t have dreamed of back when I first read the book.

So when I say this needs to be be good, I mean like “Sopranos” good, or “Band of Brothers” good. I want it to be better than “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Merely making it better than “Dune,” The Worst Movie Of All Time, won’t even get you into the right universe of how good this needs to be.

So yeah, we’re ALL gonna keep an eye on this one. If they don’t grok the fullness, if we sense a wrongness in the result, the Old Ones will know, because they’re monitoring.

You grok what we’re saying, TV people?

Oh, also, I’d still like a part in the series. Ben Caxton would be best, but as I say, I’m too old. And I’m much, MUCH too young to play Jubal — he’s supposed to be so old, people are amazed to find him still walking around, much less as spry as he is. He’s like at least in his 90s.

I’d settle for something minor. How about James Oliver Cavendish, the famous Fair Witness whose services Ben engages to go interview the fake Man from Mars? I think that’s in my range.

Now, let’s discuss who will play the other parts….

It better be THIS good. We'll be watching. Capisce?

It had better be THIS good. We’ll be watching. Capisce? (That’s Italian-American for “grok”…)

Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah

Just thought I’d put this up to mark the passing of Leonard Cohen.

As y’all know, I love this song, so much that awhile back, I asked Phillip and other musical sages here on the blog to help me understand why it was so awesome…

Interestingly, the song almost never reached a wide audience, thanks to the myopia of a record executive.

It’s almost certainly his most covered song, which prompted him to say, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.” See one of the less conventional video versions below.

Anyway, thanks, Leonard, for spending five years writing it. And for all the rest….

Wishing away reality of 2016: Top Five Fictional Presidents

Notice how I chose an image that included Leo, my very FAVORITE character from the show?

Notice how I chose an image that included Leo, my very FAVORITE character from the show?

2016 is such a political annus horribilis, the choices before us is so dispiriting (although quite clear), that we may choose to escape into fiction, and dream of better choices, or at least better presidents.

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal indulged in such wistfulness, listing “44 Fake Presidents From Worst to Best.” As the paper explained:

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has often seemed stranger than fiction. On the eve of the national conventions, it’s a fitting time to look back at fictitious presidents from movies and TV shows. We watched dozens—and ranked them, based on their accomplishments in on-screen office. The best commanders-in-chief rise to the challenges presented by plot twists. They make tough decisions, defeat evil forces and save the nation. The worst don’t uphold the duties of the fake presidency so well. They waffle and whine, lie and cheat, give in to temptation. Based on those loose criteria, here is our complete ranking of 44 fake presidents.

You may be surprised to learn that Frank Underwood didn’t come in last. That dishonor was reserved for Cliff Robertson’s “President Jack Cahill” from “Escape from L.A.,” which I confess I’ve never seen. Oh, I’ve thought about seeing it, but “Escape from New York” was so perfect (the talented Miss Adrienne Barbeau!) that I just didn’t want to risk the disappointment. Call me Snake

F.U. was next to last.

But the fictional presidents who got the lowest ratings don’t interest me as much as the ones who got the highest.

Unfortunately, the WSJ got it wrong. They did not pick Jed Bartlet as No. 1. He came in second (which at least tells us he wasn’t completely snubbed for being a liberal icon) to…

Harrison Ford’s President James “Get off my plane!” Marshall, who kicked terrorist butt in “Air Force One.” OK, he was awesome. And as you might imagine, I loved his foreign policy (spelled out in his “Be Afraid” speech in Russia at the beginning). If you’re gonna have a fantasy president, he should definitely be one who takes no guff from the bad guys.

But Jed was all-around great. I didn’t agree with all his policies, but I liked the general thrust, and the thought that went into them. You could definitely see why all his people loved him like a father. When’s the last time we got that from a real-life president, or a candidate? FDR, I’d say. Or maybe we even have to go back to Father Abraham, who embodied it best.

I also felt like the list didn’t give enough love to a sentimental favorite, “President” Dave Kovic from “Dave.”

So here’s my own slightly amended Top Five, which I invite you to answer with your own:

  1. Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing.” No contest. Think about it: He’s a president who loudly complains to God, in Latin! He’s the all-around best ever, which even Republicans can see — just ask Ainsley Hayes. And I think of him as real, not just some figment of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination. After all, Sorkin created the title character in “The American President,” and he’d never make my list.

    BN-OW172_0711FK_M_20160711195925

    “Well, let me finish, Dmitri…”

  2. President Merkin Muffley from “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Yeah, I’m being a little bit ironic here, but he was just so reasonable and inoffensive: “Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The Bomb, Dmitri… The hydrogen bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ahm… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri…” This was sort of a forerunner of Chance the Gardener in “Being There.”
  3. The President from “Fail-Safe,” the serious version of “Dr. Strangelove.” Because he’s Henry Fonda! Wouldn’t you vote for Henry Fonda to be president under pretty much any circumstances? I would. So what if he ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop nukes on American cities? He was in a tight spot! You had to be there! And besides, he’s Henry Fonda, Mr. Roberts! And because, near as I can recall, Gary Cooper never played a president. Or did he?
  4. “President” Dave Kovic from “Dave.” Possibly the most likable fictional president in our history, even though his “a job for everybody” goal may have been a bit pie-in-the-sky. And he’s an “outsider” who gives the word a positive spin (which is hard to do with me) — Trump without the malevolence and proud cluelessness, Bernie Sanders without the class resentment.
  5. President James Marshall from “Air Force One.” He’s certainly way better than the president in my very favorite Wolfgang Petersen flick, “In the Line of Fire.” And in the “atavistic presidents who personally lead us into battle” category, he beats out President Thomas J. Whitmore from “Independence Day” because think about it: All Whitmore did was give a give a speech and fly an airplane — there was no hand-to-hand, and no firing of automatic weapons. The wimp.

OK, that’s my list, just based on these 44. There may be someone not on the WSJ list that I should have included, but I’m drawing a blank.

And yeah, it’s all white guys. I don’t think I saw any of those pictures in which a woman had the job (tried watching Veep, but couldn’t get into it). And while I love Morgan Freeman, I’m not a fan of “Deep Impact.” He was better as God than as the president. He was a pretty fair acting president in “Olympus Has Fallen,” though.

You?

OK, so he ordered a nuke strike on U.S. cities. But hey, he's Henry Fonda!

OK, so he ordered a nuke strike on U.S. cities. But hey, he’s Henry Fonda!

What Bill Gates would want on a desert island

I daydream about having some small portion of Bill Gates’ fortune (say, a billion after taxes): I think about what I would do first with the money, how I would apportion the lion’s share of it among my kids and grandkids immediately so that they were provided for, how I would arrange for people to handle the remainder so that I would never have to think about the money again (which to me would be the point of having a lot of money — I hate thinking about the stuff — which is why I’m not the kind of guy to MAKE a lot of money), and so forth.

Here’s what Bill Gates daydreams about:

I generally think of people like the slackers at Championship Vinyl spending time musing about their Top Five Desert Island tracks, so it’s interesting to see what comes up when an overachiever like Gates does the same. Particularly since it involves speculating about a situation in which his money would do him no good. Think about it: Did it help Mr. Howell?

Obviously, he’s a guy who doesn’t approach music quite the way we do. We like a song, we listen to it on YouTube, create a Pandora station around it, download it, or if we’re really retro, buy a CD (or if we’re audio snobs, vinyl). Bill Gates does this:

Music also played a special role in Melinda’s and my wedding. She is a big Willie Nelson fan, and I surprised her by hiring him to play after our rehearsal dinner. I’ll never forget dancing with her as he played “Blue Skies”—it was magical….

That Tweet was a bit of a bait-and-switch. I went to the link, and found that I would have to go listen to the whole BBC show (the one that inspired all those lists in “High Fidelity”) to learn what his picks were. Fortunately, the Financial Times saved me the trouble:

  • David Bowie & Queen, “Under Pressure”
  • Willie Nelson, “Blue Skies”
  • Ed Sheeran, “Sing”
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Are You Experienced?”
  • U2, “One”
  • The Beatles, “Two of Us”
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein, “How Can Love Survive?” (from “The Sound of Music”)
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Broadway cast of Hamilton, “My Shot”

Not what I would have picked. But then, if I were stranded on a desert island, picking a soundtrack would be sort of low on my hierarchy of concerns…

 

 

It’s time to listen to the world’s most autumnal band

the_band_huge

Which would be, of course, The, um… Band.

Yeah, I know, I know — according to Brad, every season is the right season to listen to The Band. That’s true, and evidently I’m not the only one to think so. See the banner image that you can find on Peter Hamby’s Twitter feed, season after season:

hamby

Well played, Mr. Hamby.

Back to my point, I ask you: Doesn’t that photo look like autumn? And doesn’t this one and this one and this one? And not just because they always look like that’s the season they’re dressed for — which I consider the ultimate cool look, possibly because fall is my favorite season. (Broke out my rumpled vaguely dusty-green corduroy jacket last week, because it’s finally the season to dress like you’re in The Band!)

It’s supremely fitting that their greatest item, the eponymous one, is brown, with black-and-white photos. When I listen to their music, I picture brown, gray, black, and muted orange. They are far more like an old, scuffed brown shoe than, say, George Harrison was.

Because it’s not just a look — it’s a sound. Starting with their most autumnal song of all…

ARRGGGHHH! The whole point of writing this post was to share this awesome video I found, and long ago favorited, of The Band playing “King Harvest” in the studio, a version I liked even better than the one on the album, and now when I click on it it says, “This video contains content from Eagle Rock. It is not available in your country,” and then adds, in much smaller type, “Sorry about that..”

Ya know, there’s just one thing I expect from the internet… OK, there are a lot of things that I expect from the internet, but this one is very near the top of this list… and it is that stuff doesn’t go away! It’s always there to look at whenever you want it. It’s handy! It’s convenient! It’s at your fingertips! Always!

So I really, really hate it when something like this happens.

Sigh.

OK, well, the album version will have to do.

Anyway, here are the top five most autumnal songs by the most autumnal of bands, to give you a nice, crunchy, brown, orange and black soundtrack for the season:

  1. King Harvest — Yeah, partly because of the title, but listen to it! “Dry summer, then comes fall/ Which I depend on most of all…” And not just the words, but the tone… If Richard Manuel doesn’t sound like a man who’s reached the autumn of his life, I don’t know who does. He’s a man defined by the seasons who is adjusting to new realities and trying to put the best face on it he can. And Garth Hudson on the Lowrey organ — doesn’t it sound like the perfect accompaniment to the words, “Scarecrow and a yellow moon/ And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town?”
  2. The Unfaithful Servant — After that servant has said goodbye to that country home, the lady he has left looks out on a landscape that is dominated by a gray sky with low clouds. Most of the leaves are on the ground now and it’s recently rained, dampening the carpet of leaves that’s turning from brown to black as they decompose. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.
  3. Long Black Veil — OK, this one is late fall, bordering on winter, but still just barely autumn. Say, late November. I’m fairly certain there are few leaves on the trees as “she walks  these hills” and “the cold wind moans.”
  4. The Weight — I’ll admit this is less autumnal than the others. I picture it being sort of hot and dusty as our humble narrator pulls into Nazareth, feeling about half-past dead. But I wanted an excuse to link you to the great live version at Woodstock in 1969. At least that one hasn’t gone away… “Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog…”
  5. The Rumor — OK, the truth is, I could have picked almost any five songs by The Band and they would all have fit the category. I can’t even think of any reason to tell you why this one makes the list; it just does. It evokes fall for me. I listen to it, and it’s October.

 

I loved this music when I was 17, but now that I’m at a more autumnal age they’re an even better fit for how I’m likely to feel when I hear them.

I hope you enjoy them as well, if you click on the links.

All the President’s Songs

Obama playlist

Another pop culture post to get us through the Dog Days…

At first, when I heard President Obama had a personal Summer Playlist on Spotify, I was concerned: Surely they don’t mean this summer — because even if you apply no standards at all, it would seem impossible to glean from current releases enough songs for a playlist that a grown man could stand to listen to. (Unless that grown man is Doug, who claims to have the tastes of a teenage girl — not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But 2015? I mean, if the summer were 1965, or 1969, or 1971, or 1985, maybe, but not a European swallow (oops, got my pop culture wires crossed there).

That would constitute a painfully obvious, and unconvincing, stab at pandering to the youth vote. And hey, young people today listen to old stuff in a way that would have been inconceivable when I was young. So it would be doubly stupid.

But as it turns out, it’s more of an All Time list (which to us chauvinistic moderns means “last few decades), like the Top Five lists in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Now that’s more like

Here’s the playlist.

It starts strong, with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” but I’m going to have to take off points for its unfortunate associations with “The Big Chill.” Sorry.

No. 3, “Memories Live” by Reflection Eternal is a fine, non-obvious, more recent track that helps restore some of the cred lost to the Big Chill faux pas.

Then we are rewarded by Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.” Can’t beat that. Perhaps the clincher for POTUS was this passage:

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”…

… which of course is a thinly veiled reference to the president’s drone program, exactly 50 years ahead of time. Dylan, the prophet…

That’s followed by some Marley, for those of you who like that sort of thing — and the president, who used to regularly get more than one toke over the line, does — followed by Coldplay, which means little to me beyond its association with a politically incorrect joke in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Some of the songs are too obvious, such as the Temptations tune. But POTUS redeems himself by choosing “Another Star” to represent Stevie Wonder, instead of, you know, something like “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Although I would have preferred “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” (admittedly, because of its association with the film version of “High Fidelity.”

The Stones are represented, and not, say, The Beatles. Which is cool. But “Gimme Shelter?” No (although I confess that as I hear the guitar intro I feel elevated far above what has preceded it on the list). Completely off-base for a summer playlist. That was on the “Let it Bleed” album, which was released in December 1969, which is why everybody was listening to it that Christmas. Duh. The proper Stones song for a summer list is “Honky-Tonk Women,” which was released in July of the same year, and which I distinctly remember listening to while driving on Hwy 17 between Myrtle Beach and Surfside that summer and thinking, “This is the perfect driving song.” (Since I wasn’t yet 16 and just learning to drive, anything that could be associated with operating a motor vehicle was cool.)

But overall, not a bad effort. If there’s a flaw, it may be that there is too little from recent summers. He could have thrown in a “Call Me Maybe” or “Rolling in the Deep” or “Party Rock Anthem.” But he may have stayed away from them because of their prominent inclusion in another well-promoted summer playlist.

I don’t know. But it’s worth a listen, if only as an alternative way to get into the president’s head. Or, if you want to be cynical, the head of whoever put this together for him…

Gender aside, who would YOU rather see on the $20 bill?

After reading this piece by the wonderfully named Feminista Jones, arguing that putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would actually undermine her legacy, I got to thinking: Who would I rather see on the double sawbuck in place of Andrew Jackson?

I mean, you know, demographics aside. Me not being all that big on identity politics and all.

The simple answer is “just about anybody,” including Harriet Tubman and whoever the also-rans were behind her in the Women on 20s contest.

Jackson’s not my fave president. I’ve always sort of seen his electoral victory over the vastly more qualified John Quincy Adams as a moment, if not the moment, when American politics went off the rails. I mean, good one on the Battle of New Orleans (even though the war was over), but just not one of the greats, to my way of thinking. Also, Davy Crockett was my hero when I was a pre-schooler, and Davy (who split with Jackson over the Trail of Tears), if anything, thought less of him than I do.

So whom would I pick to replace him? This is an occasion for another Top Five List:

  1. John Adams — My favorite Founding Father. I have long believed that history gave him short shrift. Everybody remembers Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence. But there would have been no declaration without Adams. He’s the guy who tirelessly rammed it through the Continental Congress, while Jefferson sat there like a bump on a log. In fact, it’s likely that it was Adams’ decision to have Jefferson draft the actual document, because he knew the Virginian had a way with words. But Adams was far more the author of our liberty than Jefferson. You say Washington is the Father of our Country? Well, Adams was the one who set him up to become that, by pushing him as the guy to lead our army. For that matter, Adams was the one who proposed that there be a Continental Army to begin with. Then there were his significant contributions as a diplomat in Paris and London during and after the war, which did a lot to make our victory possible. Sure, his presidency wasn’t anything to brag on, but you don’t even have to have been a president to be on a bill. Ask Franklin and Hamilton.
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt — Led us through the greatest crises in our history, outside of the Civil War — and Lincoln’s already on the five. And he did it with such elan. Who else in our history could have bucked us up and kept us going through the ’30s and early ’40s? No one. And yeah, he’s already on the dime, but he still comes in second — or even first, making Adams second — on my list.
  3. Martin Luther King — After you mention Lincoln and Roosevelt, whose spoken words stirred the American spirit with more power? He inspired us to be the kind of country we always meant to be. We’re still working on that, and he still inspires us.
  4. Harriet Tubman — For all the reasons she won the recent competition to come up with a woman to put on the list. And not just because she’s a twofer — y’all know I don’t go in for such things. Did I ever tell you that when my wife spent a year up in Pennsylvania with our youngest daughter, while the daughter was training at a ballet school, they lived in an antebellum house that had been part of the Underground Railroad? True story. So I must confess to that personal connection.
  5. John Glenn — I’ve always found the first American to orbit the Earth one of the more admirable people of my lifetime. Also, I wanted to have at least one surprise nominee in my five, and Bryan got me to thinking again today about how much I love “The Right Stuff.” And while he’s a nonpresidential nominee, he was my favorite candidate in 1984, even though he didn’t make it. Godspeed, John Glenn.

Whom would you choose?

 

The last really great song by The Band

Just a little musical interlude to calm you down on this third day in Advent.

This was the last really great song recorded by The Band, from their largely unregarded 1975 album, “Northern Lights-Southern Cross.” For whatever reason, I didn’t even buy this one, so I had to discover the song in later compilations. I’ve been listening to it a lot in recent days, from a CD of The Band’s best that I bought at Walmart for $5.

I like this assessment of the song:

“I thought about the song in terms of saying that time heals all wounds,” Robertson told interviewer Robert Palmer at the time of the song’s release. “Except in some cases, and this was one of those cases.” Yet writing the song was only half the battle with The Band. With three brilliant singers available, choosing between Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko was never an easy task, although you really couldn’t go wrong.

Danko got the call, and his emotional performance, all wavering notes and reckless abandon, is the uncanny embodiment of a man driven to the end of his tether by his love’s absence. He gets interpretive assistance from his Band-mates, who give a typically intuitive performance. Garth Hudson’s stately but sad saxophone sounds like it has accepted defeat, while Robertson’s delirious guitar isn’t ready to give up just yet.

Robertson’s metaphors and similes are simple yet effective in showing the narrator’s inner torment. In the bridge, the imagery gets direr, all empty halls and stampeding cattle. As the song closes out, Danko uncorks his final lines with desperation dripping off every word: “Well I love you so much and it’s all I can do/Just to keep myself from telling you.” At that point, he is ironically joined by his good buddies Helm and Manuel on sympathetic harmony for the coup de grace: “That I never felt so alone before.”

Nobody did melancholic grandeur better than The Band, and there’s no topic more suited to that treatment than lost love, so it would have been an upset if “It Makes No Difference” hadn’t turned out so fine. Either you’ve been there before, in which case Robertson’s eloquent anguish will seem achingly familiar, or you haven’t, in which case Danko’s fearless vocal will act as a public service announcement on the merits of holding on to a good thing for dear life.

What Mike Nichols achieved with ‘The Graduate’ was unique

bus1

Upon the passing of director Mike Nichols, I find myself marveling yet again at “The Graduate,” and how there’s just nothing else like it in the history of film.

How do you describe it? A farce, a drama, social commentary? If so, it was like no other farce or drama or social commentary I’ve seen. I like this description from the AP:

Mixing farce and Oedipal drama, Nichols managed to capture a generation’s discontent without ever mentioning Vietnam, civil rights or any other issues of the time. But young people laughed hard when a family friend advised Benjamin that the road to success was paved with “plastics” or at Benjamin’s lament that he felt like life was “some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

At the time, Nichols was “just trying to make a nice little movie,” he recalled in 2005 at a retrospective screening of “The Graduate.” ”It wasn’t until when I saw it all put together that I realized this was something remarkable.”…

Yeah, well… they thought they were just cranking out something routine with “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” too… Maybe you can only achieve greatness when you have humble intentions.

How does something work as comedy — as heartwarming comedy… when it’s about a guy who falls in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having sex with? More than that… How do you come to love a movie like that, to want to see it again and again, because it strikes a chord in you, even though God forbid you should ever be in a similar situation?

And that is what makes it unique: That it is such a universal cultural touchstone for members of my generation. It’s not that it was topical — as the quote from AP mentions above, it doesn’t mention any burning issues of the day. That’s one of the many things that separate it from self-consciously “topical” films that end up being eminently forgettable — such as, say, “Getting Straight.” Oh, you don’t remember that one? Then you’re making my point.

What makes that connection? What makes the film essential to our sense of that time? Is it Simon and Garfunkel? Aside from it being my favorite soundtrack ever, is the music essential to the film’s appeal? Would it be “The Graduate” without “The Sounds of Silence” or “Mrs. Robinson?”

No, it wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t be “The Graduate” without Anne Bancroft, or Dustin Hoffman, or even Buck Henry’s hotel clerk (of course, Henry’s main contribution is as screenwriter). Or the “plastics” guy. Or that wonderful long camera shot of the Berkeley campus.

SPOILER ALERT (In case there’s someone left who hasn’t seen it): The closest thing to social commentary on the ’60s that I can think of is the film’s enigmatic, excruciatingly ambivalent ending. The young lovers have triumphed! They’ve dramatically left behind the corrupt older generation and its agents and all it stands for (even to the extent of using a cross as sword, then as a lock to keep them in their church)! They’re together! They’re free! So they laugh uproariously; Ben claps his hands in glee. Then, you can see the thought enter their minds — what’s next? When you’ve rejected all that went before, and must now make your own life, your own way of living, your own morality — what then? And they stare straight ahead, with a smile still occasionally flitting across their faces, alternating with the stare of people who are overwhelmed at the enormity of what lies ahead. What now, indeed?

It comments on the sexual revolution and on the delegitimization of institutions, and the consequences those developments entail, without words. Just with looks.

The only film I can think of that does anything like it, or does it as well, is “Carnal Knowledge” — also directed by Nichols. Of course, that’s much darker, and hence not as beloved — although nearly as admired. And that one beats you over the head with the point, not least in the title — although it does so magnificently.

Carnal Knowledge” is a great film. I’m also really fond of the way Nichols brought Catch-22 to the screen. (And it just hit me — Art Garfunkel plays a key role in each of the three.)

But if he had never done anything but “The Graduate,” Mike Nichols would still be one of the great filmmakers…

bus2

Bus passengers in an alternative universe

on the bus

Today, I got one of those emails trying to get me to engage more with Pinterest, and one of the pins it offered me was this one, which I thought was cool, because it’s one of my fave flicks of all time.

So I repinned it.

But then I noticed something… you ever take a good look at the passengers on the bus who turn back to stare at Benjamin and Elaine.

It’s like Mike Nichols deliberately filled the bus with People Who Will Never Be Seen Riding a Bus. At least, that would be the case in Columbia in 2014. And I’m even thinking it would be the case in California in 1967.

Dig the guys in suits. Especially the guy wearing cufflinks.

This is such a glaring anomaly that I find myself wondering whether it’s intentional, and it means something. Like maybe Nichols wanted a painfully bourgeois set of people to be staring at our lovebirds, or something.

Anyway, I’d never noticed it before, and I found it interesting…

How could Huck Finn not top any list of Great American Novels?

Thomas Hart Benton's depiction of Huck and Jim

Thomas Hart Benton’s depiction of Huck and Jim

A piece in The Washington Post this morning on the new book about living next door to Harper Lee mentions the status of To Kill A Mockingbird as a, if not the, Great American Novel — and casually links to a list.

The list isn’t explained. I don’t know who compiled it, or what the criteria may have been.

But of course I’m drawn in. The list extends to 358 books (which requires straining the definition of “great”), but let’s just examine the top ten:

  1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  4. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  5. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  6. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  7. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  9. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
  10. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

OK, first, it’s just not right for Steinbeck to get three out of the 10. Especially since — confession time — I’ve never read the first two. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those novels I’ve meant to read for most of my life, and I will (my wife finds it utterly incredible I still haven’t). East of Eden, not so much.

And, to confess further, despite having started it again to great fanfare, I’ve still never finished Moby Dick. It just seems to start to drag after they go to sea. (Yeah, I know that’s pretty early in the book.) Which is weird, because that’s when seafaring tales generally get good.

I think all the other works are deserving of the top ten, although I might move up some of my faves from the second ten (On the Road, The Sun Also Rises, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fahrenheit 451).

But my main beef is this: How could any list of the Greatest American Novels not start with Huckleberry Finn? Hemingway famously said, ““All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” And I agree, except that I would delete the word, “modern.” It’s superfluous. All American literature, period.

It’s THE American novel. It’s episodic, picaresque structure is quintessentially American. Huck Finn, the freest character in literature, untainted by the history or culture of the Old World, couldn’t be more American. Huck can be anyone he wants to be, and slides in and out of identities throughout. And the central conflict in the novel is about the deepest, most profound issue of our history — in the sense that it has a central theme. Remember the author’s warning:

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Which is a very American sort of warning — notice in no uncertain terms that pretension will not be tolerated.

Even the novel’s weaknesses are very American. Such as the uneven tone — starting out with farcical comedy that is an extension of Tom Sawyer, moving to tragedy with the Graingerfords and other incidents, the slapstick and menace of the Duke and the Dauphin, and ending with the broad comedy of Tom’s insistence on throwing flourishes from literature into Jim’s escape from the Phelps farm — itself a deadly serious matter, which nearly leads to Tom’s death, and does result in Jim’s recapture (as a result of his own selflessness).

Sorry, that was a confusing sentence. But you see what I mean. The novel was no more constrained by a particular tone than life itself. Very free, very American. And certainly great.

OK, off the top of my head, my own list:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  3. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
  5. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  8. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
  9. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
  10. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Some runner-ups:

  • The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
  • Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
  • City Boy, by Herman Wouk
  • The Natural, by Bernard Malamud
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth
  • The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
  • God’s Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

Better stop there, as my quality was slipping a bit at the end there (Heinlein is fun, but is it literature?).

I’ll come back and explain those choices a bit another day. Gotta run now…

Bee Gees tune makes my hypothetical band’s playlist

Last night, I was watching an episode of “The Americans” and it ended with a song in the background that was a pleasant-enough-sounding ballad, but for one thing: It seemed to be very close to something very familiar, and something that I wanted to hear, but it never got there. It was too busy being artsy, too free-form, too showy in its refusal to be anything like the original.

I now know it was Roberta Flack’s version of “To Love Somebody.” It was pleasant, but considered as a cover of that song, it was awful. It left out all the best bits, such as the change when it launches into “you don’t know what it’s like,” and then when it takes it down a notch, for “to love somebody.”

Everything that made the song special was missing, including the appealing rhythm of the verses, in between the aforementioned best bits.

Frankly, I hadn’t ever realized how special the song was, until it had been stripped of what made it that way.

So I’m unilaterally adding it to the playlist for my band, for when I have a band. I’m not consulting my bandmates on it, because I don’t have any, and it wouldn’t do to start having artistic differences before we even get together.

I’m even thinking of going out on a limb and adding “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” because I’ve always known that was great, even though it was by the Bee Gees. After all, the Brothers Gibb were pretty good before disco (he said defensively).

This is coming together well. Before long, I’ll have a complete playlist for my ultimate cover band, and that will give us a head start when I get around to actually putting the band together. Don’t you think?