Category Archives: Top Five Lists

The doctor should have tried a little harder on his Top Ten Albums of the ’60s list

Pepper

Do you have a Google search app on your phone or iPad? I do. And Google uses it to entice me to click on things. On the home page, there are all these links to things Google is convinced fascinate me. Most have something to do with the Beatles, or the Sopranos, or Key and Peele skits.

You’d think I’m not interested in anything else. Which is weird. Is that really what the data say to Google about me? I mean, it’s not like it’s sending me to significant news about these pop-culture touchstones. Or even authoritative sources. Most are from websites I’ve never heard of, and which I would never go to to become more informed about anything.

But sometimes they get me. Sometimes I click anyway, at the risk of encouraging this stuff. I did so when I saw this link to a piece headlined, “From Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones: Hunter S. Thompson’s favourite albums of the 1960s.” It’s from something called Far Out magazine, which as you can tell by the spelling of “favourite” is published from Britain.

I mean, how could I resist?

But what I found was disappointing. It seemed to me that, beyond throwing in some esoteric choices to let you know he’s the head doctor of Gonzo, little thought went into it. Maybe in the original letter there was some engaging explanation of each choice. But the list itself seems kind of flat:

  1. Herbie Mann’s – Memphis Underground (“which may be the best album ever cut by anybody”)
  2. Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
  3. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
  4. The Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead
  5. The Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed
  6. Buffalo Springfield – Buffalo Springfield
  7. Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow
  8. Roland Kirk’s “various albums”
  9. Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain
  10. Sandy Bull – Inventions

So, of course, I thought I should put together my own list.

It wasn’t easy. I cheated a bit by consulting Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Just to prime the pump. Then I added four or five of my own that weren’t even in the magazine’s top 200. (I didn’t look lower than that.)

I went back and forth between things that were emblematic of the period and enormously influential and things that just appealed to me at the time. As Thompson did, but I tried to be more disciplined about it.

You’ll notice this is all white guys, except for the one Jimi Hendrix pick. I could slough that off and say I wasn’t going to skew the list for Identity Politics, but the thing is, I tried to. I did so because you can’t review the 60s without being blown away by the contributions of black and female musicians (and sometimes Hispanic as well — I really tried to squeeze in a personal favorite, Feliciano!, but it didn’t make it). But problems having to do with the nature of my list kept getting in my way.

For instance, how do you review the ’60s without including The Supremes, or some of Dionne Warwick’s renditions of Burt Bacharach songs? But… what album would I choose? The songs tower over the decade, but no particular album stands out — in my mind, anyway. (You may correct me with something I should be thinking of and failing. If you do, I’ll thank you.)

I tried cheating, by including “Otis Blue” from Otis Redding. It was on the Rolling Stone list, and I started to include it. But… even though it had songs that I love, they’re songs I came to know later, posthumously. The truth is, I’m one of those white boys who hadn’t heard of Otis until “Dock of the Bay” came out after his death. I was blown away by the rest of his work much later. As for the album in question, I didn’t even remember it. I wasn’t cool enough for it to be part of my 60s memories.

Then there was my abortive effort to get Janis Joplin on the list. For a moment, I included “Cheap Thrills.” I mean, can you think of an album that looked more ’60s than that, with its R. Crumb artwork? But… that wasn’t honest. It wasn’t nearly as good an album, in my view, as “Pearl,” which was recorded a little too late, and not released until 1971, after her death.

And it really hurt to leave off Carole King’s “Tapestry.” It included some of her work from the ’60s, but there was no escaping the fact that it was released in 1971, and is very tied up with that specific time.

Man, if we could just have included that adjunct of the ’60s — the ’70s — this would have been a much more diverse list. (Al Green, anyone? Joni Mitchell?) But I stuck to the ’60s. I even left off Led Zeppelin II, even though it was released in 1969, because it’s just too firmly associated in my mind with 1970 and later. The ’70s were the decade of album-oriented radio. I mean, think about Carole King’s work in the early ’60s — all those hits she wrote for Little Eva, Bobby Vee, the Drifters, the Chiffons, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and even the Monkees. None of those make me think of the word, “album.”

Anyway… it’s full of flaws, but here’s my list:

  1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — Not necessarily my favorite from the Beatles, but a towering achievement. And from the music to the cover, can you get any more ’60s than this? It was Rolling Stone’s No. 1 all-time pick. (Their Top Five had three Beatles albums!) I know it’s cooler to choose, say, “Revolver” or “Rubber Soul,” or even to leave the Beatles off altogether. But I care more about citing the ’60s top albums than I do about being cool.
  2. Are You Experienced? — Again, when you go with Jimi Hendrix and pick ONE album, you’re leaving off fantastic classics of the period. It’s tough. There’s no, say, “All Along the Watchtower.” But hey, it’s got “Purple Haze,” “Manic Depression,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Foxey Lady” and “Fire,” so I’m going with it. Come to think of it, what was I complaining about?
  3. Let it Bleed — Not the Stones’ best album — those would come in the ’70s (“Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main Street”). And it means passing up their awesome early hits, such as “Satisfaction.” But there are some great Stones tunes here. And of course, the one that pushes the album onto the list more than any other is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
  4. Highway 61 Revisited — It’s tough to pick ONE Dylan album, and I’d agree with you if you chose any one of three or four others instead of this. Especially if you picked “Blonde on Blonde,” or insisted it had to be early, pre-electric Dylan. But looking back over the track list, I feel good about this one. Don’t you, Mr. Jones?
  5. Meet the Beatles — Yep, two Beatles albums. I almost set myself a rule to prevent this, but if anyone was going to get two, it would be the Fab Four. And how do you leave this one off? Critically and musically it might not be as impressive as later stuff, but for those of us who lived the decade, this is the album that started what we think of as the 1960s. Before that, it was like the Four Freshmen and such. So I’m keeping it, even though it prevented me from including something else I really liked.
  6. The Band — This 1969 release barely makes it, and I’m going to confess I didn’t really discover The Band until a year or two later. But it’s my list, and I’m such a fan that I’m including it. Rolling Stone rates “Music from Big Pink” higher, but I’m going with the Brown Album. If you could only take one album from these guys to a desert island, it would have to be this one.
  7. Crosby, Stills and Nash — Another one released in 1969 — meaning my list is way skewed toward the end of the decade. But go listen to it. Look at the cover. Doesn’t it pretty much scream “’60s” to you, from the very first notes of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”? Even if you don’t agree, you’ll have the treat of hearing “Marrakesh Express,” “Guinnevere,” “Wooden Ships,” “Lady of the Island,” and “Helplessly Hoping.” So stop complaining, and enjoy.
  8. Best of Cream — I need to be specific here. Over the years, there have been several “best of Cream” albums on the market, but none of the others were any good. This one, the one released on vinyl in — of course — 1969, was awesome. It was truly their best — “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Spoonful,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses” — and that unbelievable live version of “Crossroad.” This album is not easy to find. At least, I never could find it on CD, and I just checked iTunes — again — and you just can’t find that distinctive cover with the vegetables (see below) anywhere. Good thing I still have my vinyl.
  9. Blood, Sweat & Tears — Released in 1968, this was their second album, but everything else they did fades alongside this one. It was so different from anything I was hearing at the time, and I really got into the horns, the jazz influence and other stuff that set it apart. Hey, I was a dumb kid. I knew nothing of jazz. To me, “God Bless the Child” was new! I didn’t even get the reference to Churchill’s famous speech. Also, this is where I first encountered Erik Satie! So it opened my mind a little.
  10. Whipped Cream & Other Delights — There were so many different sounds that made up this decade, stuff other than guitar groups, that I felt like I needed to get in something from Bacharach, or Petula Clark, or Sergio Mendes. But I didn’t. I’ll stick in some Herb Alpert, though. His music is almost as representative of the decade as the Beatles — in its own way (hey, you couldn’t have had TV game show without it!). This was crossover music. There was a copy of the album in our house, but it belonged to my parents, not to me. And of course, if I’m going to think of a Herb Alpert album, it’s going to be this one. Because of, you know, that cover. I looked at it a lot. Because, you know, I was really into the music.

Well, that’s it for now. I’m interested to see where y’all agree and disagree.

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Doug and I were 60 percent in agreement!

Have I told you guys how great you look in garnet?

Have I told you guys how great you look in garnet?

This is to make up for that long post that no one but me could have found interesting. (And I wouldn’t have, either, if it had been about someone else!)

This morning Phillip Bush said something way wrong on Twitter — that cool as it was, the theme from “Mission Impossible” wasn’t Lalo Schifrin’s best. That instead, it was the theme from “Mannix.”

Knowing I could not win an argument with Phillip about music, I tried anyway, saying, essentially, nuh-uh! I also mentioned “Peter Gunn,” to give my case force by mentioning a show that was on before I was old enough to stay up that late.

Obviously, I was doomed.

But then Bryan, whose brain has not been recently damaged by a stroke, said he agreed with me, then quickly changed the subject:

Related: Give me your top five movies that are primarily *about* music.

Nice one, Bryan.

Bryan, Phillip AND our own Doug Ross all offered their lists before I returned, as follows. Doug’s:

Bryan’s:

and Phillip’s:

No, I don’t know know to separate those. Anyway, I had nothing to add. But I thought Doug’s was the most creative, and immediately endorsed his last three picks, adding two from the other lists:


I think we were all too contemporary. I suspect we did injustice to the music of earlier generations. For instance, were we all wrong to have left out “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which featured Jimmy Cagney dancing down stairs?

And wouldn’t our grandparents have scorned us for leaving out “The Jazz Singer?

I dunno. What do y’all think?

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James Cagney, dancing down stairs!

The official, properly considered, Robert Redford Top Five List

the natural

I hadn’t intended to do this. There’s something inherently uncool in doing such an obvious, vanilla, whitebread Top Five List. Barry would never stop giving me grief about it, if Barry actually existed. Actually, I suspect Jack Black would never let up, if he found out about it. So don’t tell him.

Actually, a cool list would be, say, a Jack Black list.

But no, this is about the ultimate whiteguy A-lister from a generation ago, or more. I mean, next we’ll be doing, I dunno, a Clark Gable list or something. Or so Barry would say.

But I have to do this to set things right. In a recent comment on this blog, reacting to a side conversation about a clip from “Three Days of the Condor” — really a Max Von Sydow conversation, not about Redford at all — Bryan Caskey snuck up while I wasn’t looking and posted this:

Top Five Robert Redford Movies
1. Jeremiah Johnson
2. The Sting
3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
4. Sneakers
5. Spy Game

Ahhhhh! No way! Totally apart from the very worst thing about it — more on that in a moment — he put “The Sting” (a relatively desperate attempt by Hollywood to recapture the Newman/Redford magic of the previous) above “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!” That should have cancelled the whole list outright, but there it is, still on this blog, and I feel responsible and must set the record straight.

So, here is the official bradwarthen.com Top Five List for Robert Redford.

But wait. I didn’t mention the worst thing: He left “The Natural” off his list altogether! We’re talking about a film that not only makes my Top Five list for all sports films, but is at the TOP of my Baseball Movies list! And he’s a sports guy and I’m not!

So anyway, here is the official bradwarthen.com Top Five List for Robert Redford:

  1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — I probably wouldn’t start the list with this — the second and third films are better — but this is a Robert Redford list, and without this film, we wouldn’t know who Robert Redford is. Also… it’s a unique Redford movie. It’s the only film he appeared in in which his character was cool. After that, he competed with himself to see how uncool he could make his characters. Including Roy Hobbs. Definitely including Jeremiah Johnson, the dullest Mountain Man in the Rockies. The Sundance Kid is one of the coolest characters ever in a Western. Watch, and see what Redford did with him — and then tell me one other character he did that with. You can’t. Newman’s characters were almost always cool. Redford’s never were.
  2. All the President’s Men — Every time I see this film, I’m blown away at how good it was. I don’t remember being that impressed with it when it was new, but it’s amazing. And it’s because of the little things. It has the most realistic depiction of the interview process that I’ve ever seen. The naturalistic awkwardness that Redford as Woodward and Hoffman as Bernstein experience as they try to get people to talk to them and put their story together is probably painful for laypeople to watch — but if you made your living doing that kind of thing, you’d recognize it, and be impressed. And you’ll also see why I preferred being an editor to going through the daily grind of being a reporter. It’s very, very real.
  3. The Natural — To Bryan’s credit, I was reminded of this film’s awesomeness when Bryan put this video on Twitter, with its invitation, “If you’re missing baseball, watch this.” You should definitely watch that compilation, and think about how much poorer it would be without the clips from “The Natural.” That film corrected a huge literary mistake, committed by Bernard Malamud. Malamud’s novel stripped all nobility from Roy Hobbs, and condemned him not only to lose in the end, but to deserve it. Totally depressing. It totally missed why Americans, back when they were real Americans, loved baseball. The film understood all of that, was unembarrassed about it, and crammed it all in with no apology.
  4. The Great Gatsby — If you try to look this up on IMDB now, they’ll show you the Leonardo DiCaprio version, which is just sad. There’s a certain amount of personal involvement here: This was the movie that inspired me to wear a white linen suit when I got married that same year. (Try even finding one of those.) But it’s great. No one can sound as plain and uncool as Redford calling people “old sport.” It’s pure mastery. And it has Sam Waterston — and Edward Herrmann in a cameo, playing the piano! Oh, and see if you can find the guy who played Hershel Greene in “The Walking Dead” — he’s in it! In a key role! (Talk about a guy with a cool Top Five list!)
  5. The Candidate — I was going to put Jeremiah Johnson here, but I didn’t, just to be cantankerous. Jeremiah’s good, but it’s maybe too popular among my more libertarian friends, who think that being a mountain man is a sensible way to live. So I thought I’d go with something that in its own way was kind of groundbreaking — the story of a political candidate who only ran because he was promised he would lose — and has Peter Boyle as a political operative.

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Top Five Coolest Airplanes Ever

F-4

I’m trying to keep my mind off of Super Tuesday today. The last three days have been wonderful, from Joe’s stunning win here, through the endorsements of Amy, Pete and Beto. But while Joe was concentrating on South Carolina, Bernie was getting a huge head start everywhere else, especially California. And Bloomberg was spending half a billion dollars to try to win the very voters Joe needs to stop Bernie.

Burl with one of his early models.

Burl with one of his early models.

So… how about a Top Five List? I’m feeling kind of basic today (I’m in a “Top Five Side One, Track Ones” mood), so let’s make this the sort of list we could have made when we were 11 years old and building model airplanes. Back when we weren’t cool (yet), but we had a keen sense of what we thought was cool. We can make it a sort of tribute list to our friend Burl Burlingame, who along with many other accomplishments was the best modeler any one of us ever knew.

And just to head off the “war-monger” cries from some of my friends, I’m sorry, but warplanes have always been cooler than civilian aircraft. Not because they’re warplanes, but, well, just look at them. Built for speed and performance, they’ll always be cooler than, say, a 707. The way a 1964½ Ford Mustang or a 1962 Jaguar XK-E is way cooler than a minivan.

This was inspired by a video YouTube suggested to me this morning. I had called up Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and YouTube suggested something called “Best Rock Songs Vietnam War Music.” And again, it’s not “War” that makes it cool. Think about the Vietnam War movies you’ve seen. Don’t they tend to have awesome soundtracks?

So, intending to just leave it playing while I worked, I called it up. And the first image on the screen was the above one, of an F-4 Phantom taking off. (No, wait — the flaps are down, so I think it’s landing. But I don’t know. Bob Amundson, can you give us a ruling?) It showed while CCR’s “Fortunate Son” was playing.

So I got to thinking, and here’s the list. And not in order of coolness — more chronological:

  1. Fokker DR.I Triplane. The Red Baron‘s plane, it was both wicked and ungainly looking — but all planes looked awkward back then, right? The SPAD was all right, and the Sopwith Camel had a great name, but the Fokker was cooler. Also, 11-year-olds who build airplane models like to say “Fokker.” Almost as good as saying the full name of the Fw 190.
  2. P-51 Mustang. Maybe the nicest-looking, solid-but-sleek design in aviation history. And quite a formidable fighter. Also, it looked so modern. (Weirdly, the P-47 Thurderbolt came later, but looked 20 years older — at least to my eye.) I had trouble on this one. I was torn between this and the Spitfire, which won the Battle of Britain (OK, the Hurricanes helped) — the ultimate emblem of British pluck. But as big an Anglophile as I am, I went with the American plane.
  3. C-47 Skytrain. Or Dakota. Or Gooney-Bird. OK, it’s not fast, and it’s not sleek. Definitely the Plain Jane of the bunch. But it was so awesome in its plainness. One of the main instruments that won the war for us. The Band of Brothers jumped out of them, they saved Berlin in the Cold War, and… It was the first plane I ever flew in, hopping over the Andes, up and down the Pacific coast of South America. An unbelievable amount of noise and vibration, but a real thrill for a kid. So I’m playing favorites here.
  4. F-4 Phantom. My generation’s version of the P-51. It had a solid look to it, like nothing could knock it out of the sky (a handy attribute when flying Wild Weasel missions), but also looked like it could fly like a bat out of hell. And it sorta could. These also loom large in my legend, from the ones that flew out of MacDill AFB when I lived there in high school to the ones the Kansas Air Guard flew over our house (we were under the takeoff pattern) when I worked in Wichita.
  5. X-15. The world’s first operational spaceplane, the futuristic great-grandchild of Yeager’s X-1. This was another one I had to think about a bit. It was competing with the SR-71, another sci-fi sort of aircraft. But the X-15 was the one I thought was cool when I was a kid, and it wins on sheer speed. The Blackbird could cruise at Mach 3.2, but in 1967, the X-15 set the speed record that still stands: Mach 6.70.

I almost put the Navy’s ultimate WWII plane, the F4U Corsair, on the list (foldable gull wings! Pappy Boyington!). But the P-51 beat that out as well as the Spitfire.

The North American X-15 rocket plane, made to fly to the edge of space.

The North American X-15 rocket plane, made to fly to the edge of space.

No. No. No. Rob Gordon CANNOT be a woman

It was bad enough to make Rob an American. But that, at least, WORKED.

It was bad enough to make Rob an American. But that, at least, WORKED.

OK, I’m a little upset now.

I sort of heard on the radio this morning that Nick Hornby was going to be on Fresh Air tonight. I got a little excited about that, being such a huge fan of High Fidelity and all.

So I went looking to confirm what I’d heard. And I ran across this.

It seems that “High Fidelity” is being rebooted for Hulu. And in this version, Rob is female.

No. Way.

Why do I love High Fidelity? Well, for one thing, it’s hilarious. And the pop culture stuff is fun, especially the Top Five lists. But those aren’t the reasons why I think it’s one of the most profound books written by a living author.

My reverence for the work stems from the fact that no one else has ever come close to expressing something essential about the relationships between men and women in the slice of history in which I have lived and had my being. In other words, it is to my time what Jane Austen’s work was to hers.

Rob’s problem — an inability to see that what is truly important in life is our relationships with other human beings — takes a form that is particular to young (and, perhaps, old) males in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Rob cares about, and devotes most of his mental and spiritual energy to, pop culture. Specifically pop music, but movies and other manifestations as well.

It’s a problem that feeds on itself when similarly emotionally stunted young males gather, such as when Rob, Dick and Barry stand about in the usually empty record store arguing about their Top Five lists — while women are (presumably, since we don’t see them in this venue) off somewhere actually living life.

That’s the problem he has in his relationship with his typically far more emotionally mature girlfriend Laura.

SPOILER ALERT: One incident in the book illustrates the dichotomy beautifully. After their spectacular breakup (which finally was so painful that finally makes Rob’s Top Five list of worst splits), Rob and Laura are trying to make a go of it again, and whether they will succeed remains very much in doubt — on account of, you know, Rob.

They go to have dinner with some friends of Laura’s, a couple Rob doesn’t know. During the initial stages of the evening, Rob is really impressed. He likes these people. Laura observes this.

Then, when the couple is out of the room, Laura urges Rob to indulge his habit of inspecting his hosts’ record collection. And he is appalled. Their taste, in his exquisitely refined opinion, is horrible.

Laura knew this would be his reaction. And she watches to see if there will be an epiphany.

There sort of is, as Rob admits, but only to himself:

… that maybe, given the right set of peculiar, freakish, probably unrepeatable circumstances, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that’s important. I’m not going to be the one who explains to Barry how this might happen, though.

And feckless Rob, who is feckless in a particularly male sort of way, takes a tiny step toward maturity. But grumbles about it, accusing Laura: “You did that deliberately,” he says on the way home. “You knew all along I’d like them. It was a trick.”

It’s not that every male is like Rob, and every female like Laura. But the conflict between them, the gap between them, was colored by an essential difference that stated impressively true things about the relationships and differences between men and women.

Listen, sometimes it’s OK to change the gender of a character. It worked in the TV adaptation of The Night Manager, when Jonathan Pine’s case officer — who was a man in the book — is played by Olivia Colman. There were other changes that didn’t work, but that one was a great move. It gave the case officer/agent relationship an extra something that it didn’t have in the book.

But that book wasn’t trying to say something deep and true about the relations between men and women, and ways in which they are different.

High Fidelity was. (Actually, I don’t know that Hornby was trying to do all that, but he did. When I recommend the book to friends, I always describe it in those terms. That’s what’s impressive about it.)

I’ll try watching it, if it’s on the level of Hulu that I can get. (Some things, including some things I’d really like to see, aren’t.) But I suspect I’m not going to like it. It was a big enough leap that the original movie made the characters American instead of English. But it still worked because American males can be just as stunted as British ones, and in the same ways.

But with this change, that remains to be seen.

Top Five Posters from the Bedrooms of my Youth

Great Escape

We had a very brief discussion on a previous post in which some members of our commentariat speculated on what kinds of posters other members had on their bedroom walls when they were kids.

I decided to share what I put on the walls of some of my many bedrooms (as a Navy brat, I moved around a lot).

And the Web being what it is, I was able to find actual images of five of them. So we’ll just call those the Top Five — especially since I can only remember six, and I can’t find the Eric Clapton poster I had on my dorm wall at Memphis State, or even remember what it looked like.

The first two of these were on my walls in Tampa and Honolulu in high school, the next two from college, and the final one high school (I think):

  1. Steve McQueen from the set of “The Great Escape” — That’s the one above, or close to it. I think maybe the poster I had included more of the frame, showing the sidecar. I found that image on the Web, but the file was of poor quality. Note that this is not an actual still from the movie, because he was nowhere near the Stalag in the motorcycle scenes. Of the posters on this list, it’s the first one I acquired (when I was in either the 10th or 11th grade, so sometime between 1968 and 1970), and easily my favorite. Which stands to reason since, when I was a kid, this was my definitely my favorite movie. Back when it came out in 1963, the scene where he jumped the barbed wire was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in a movie. Tame stuff today, but back then it was really something.
  2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — See below. The very last frame of the movie, with our antiheroes coming out, blazing away, to their certain death. When I was in high school, I found that moment way existential. I thought no one could be more alive than Sundance was a moment before that, when he was out there in the plaza alone with two six-guns, spinning left, right and all around, firing at the adversaries who surrounded him, giving Butch covering fire. (From 00:56 to 01:24 in this clip.) Yeah, I was a dumb kid. My romanticization of that moment is all the evidence you need that teenage boys are candidates for protective restraint.
  3. George Harrison poster from “All Things Must Pass” album — It came with the boxed-set album, which I loved, so of course I put it on my wall at Memphis State. This was George in his Garden Gnome phase, post-Beatles. That video that I embedded the other day, “It’s Johnny’s Birthday?” That was from the bonus third LP in the set.
  4. The Hawaii State Flag — This was quite small, like a foot by a foot-and-a-half (or a bit less) and made of nylon. Not strictly a poster, but it’s the only thing I remember having on the cinder-block wall of my dorm room in the Honeycombs that one semester I went to USC, the fall of 1971. It was sort of a homesickness thing, because I was missing Honolulu, where I had graduated from high school the previous spring. There was an Englishman on my floor, a student from Manchester. One day when my door was open, he was passing in the hall and stuck his head in to ask why I had a Union Jack over my bed. I explained what it was, and he nodded and said, “Oh, yes. Sandwich Islands, Captain Cook and all that. Quite.” And he walked away on down the hall. I thought that was cool.
  5. Bobby Kennedy in a flight jacket. This is an unusual-shaped and -sized poster — a full-length photo, almost life-sized, of RFK in a Navy flight jacket standing casually with a couple of dogs. I don’t remember where I got this, and I have no specific memory of where I hung it, although I vaguely recall it hanging somewhere. But I can tell you exactly why I liked it. There were two reasons. First, the jacket he’s wearing is exactly like my Dad’s. My Dad wasn’t an aviator, but some pilots he had worked with had given it to him as a gift, and he had given to me, and I thought it was way cool. Second, I had never given RFK much thought when he was alive. But I got really interested in him when I wrote a research paper about him for a high school civics class in the spring of 1971. And I can still remember how differently I perceived time back then: I thought of his life as being way in the past at that point — even though only three years had passed since his assassination. That’s a long time when you’re 17.

Actually, I changed my mind in mid-list. I ditched this Dylan poster, which was on my dorm room wall at Memphis State, because it never meant that much to me and I wanted to include the Hawaiian flag.

How about your poster memories?

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Top Five History-Based Holiday Ideas

big shoe

The controversy over Columbus Day got me to thinking of history-based holidays we could have, if only we thought a little harder. They’re not in order of preference, but in calendar order:

  1. Rubicon Day — OK, so this didn’t happen in America. But Julius Caesar’s decision to cross that creek with his troops had a huge effect on something that matters to Americans. It ended the last republic we would see for 1,000 years. But I’m also thinking we could have some fun with it. We could have toga parties each Jan. 10, and go around saying “iacta alea est” to each other. Maybe not your idea of a good time, but maybe we could make a drinking game out of it.
  2. British Invasion Day — No, it’s not about 1814. It’s about 1964, and this holiday would be pure fun. We’d celebrate it on February 9, the day the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” We’d all play music by the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, Peter and Gordon, and so forth. We’d have theme parties in which we’d all dress like the invaders, and go around saying “gear” and “fab.” And if you said bad things about the holiday, we’d all say you were “dead grotty.”
  3. Lincoln’s Birthday, Feb. 12 — Yes, bring it back, and repeal this “President’s Day” nonsense, in order to drive home the fact that he was our greatest president, and is largely responsible for America being America, having thrown off its original sin via that war that we fight on until the slave states’ unconditional surrender — and making sure it didn’t end until the 13th Amendment was passed, so that all that bloodshed served a purpose. Sorry about the run-on sentence…
  4. Smallpox Day — This is sort of related to the idea of “Indigenous People’s Day,” but I actually have three reasons to mark the day. First, it seems to me that the most horrific public health disaster in human history (way bigger than the Black Death) was back in the 16th century when 95 percent of the native population was wiped out by European diseases for which they had no resistance — usually before the victims had even encountered the Europeans. Something so awful should be remembered. My second reason is celebratory — celebrating the fact that we’ve been so successful at wiping out the disease that a rite of passage of my childhood, the “vaccination” (that’s what we called it; we didn’t know what it was for), is unknown to today’s children. Third, as a warning — that it could come back some day, and we need to fully prepared to wipe it out again if it does. This would be on May 17, the birthday of Edward Jenner.
  5. Independence Day, July 2 — So that we’d be celebrating the actual day that Congress voted to declare independence, not the day that the document’s final edits were approved. This is personal, because John Adams is my fave Founder, and this was day that HE thought should be celebrated, after his weeks of hard work arguing the Congress into taking this momentous step — debate during which Thomas Jefferson, who gets the glory, sat there like a bump on a log. Harrumph…
One idea for celebrating Rubicon Day.

One idea for celebrating Rubicon Day.

If you don’t like ‘The West Wing,’ who cares what you think?

If you don't like 'The West Wing,' you don't like America.

If you don’t like ‘The West Wing,’ you don’t like America.

Saw this in the Post this morning. The headline grabbed me: “A modest defense of ‘The West Wing’.”

First, it grabbed me because I’ll read anything about “The West Wing.” Ask Google; it knows this, based on the items it keeps showing me. Second, it grabbed me because someone thought it necessary to defend “The West Wing.” Finally, my mind was boggled by the idea that someone who thought it needed defending would would do so only modestly.

As I said on Twitter:

So anyway, I read the piece, and was not mollified. You can tell why from the subhed: “The show was not perfect, but it’s way better than 2019 Democrats remember it.”

Not perfect? Say, whaaaat?

First, my scorn was engaged because the people who criticize the show are apparently the kids who think AOC is cool, and conventional postwar liberalism sucks. They’re the ones who have no tolerance of anyone who disagrees with them about anything. They look forward to getting 50 percent plus 1 so they can cram their policy proposals down the world’s throat, and they blame their elders for having thus far failed to do that. They’re the ones who, laughably, think they discovered social justice and are qualified to lecture people who were alive in the ’60s about it.

They’re the ones who…

… minor digression here…

I’ve been watching the new Ken Burns series about country music, and thinking about writing about it, pondering what I like and don’t like about it (for instance, it concerns me that it only seems interested in Country as an economic phenomenon, starting with the first practitioners to have success with radio and recording, largely ignoring the centuries of folkways that went before). But before writing about it, I was curious what others were thinking. So when I saw there was a review on Slate, I eagerly read it.

The reviewer also has a problem with it. The problem is that it’s made by Ken Burns, “and his compulsion to transform conflict and difficulty into visions of reconciliation and unity is vintage white baby boomer liberalism.”

Oh, give it a rest, kids. That constitutes an argument?

Anyway, it’s people like that with whom the writer in the Post is remonstrating, oh, so gently.

And again, it needs no defense. The only question is, is “West Wing” the greatest TV show ever, or does something else edge it out?

I come down on the side of “greatest ever.” Or at least, greatest drama. Or at least, greatest drama ever in the last 20 years, this Golden Age.

As I said before, the Top Five are:

  1. “The West Wing”
  2. “Band of Brothers”
  3. “The Sopranos”
  4. “The Wire”
  5. “Breaking Bad”

At least, those were the Top Five, back in June. Since then, Bryan got me to start watching “Friday Night Lights,” and I’m really enjoying it (in spite of the, you know, football theme) during my morning workouts on the elliptical. In fact, I’m now in the middle of the 5th season, and sorry that it will be ending soon.

When it does, I’ll report back on whether it makes the Top Five. But I’ll tell you, “Breaking Bad” may be in trouble…

But will it make the Top Five?

It’s great, and I’m really digging it, but will it make the Top Five?

Top Five TV Dramas of this Golden Age

'Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?'

‘Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?’

I don’t know why I just ran across this a week or two ago. The piece ran in the NYT back in January. But for some reason I saw a Tweet about the list just days after the end of “Game of Thrones.” And to me, that made now a better time for pondering such a list than several months ago. Since everyone speaks of GoT as such a landmark and all…

Anyway, the headline was “The 20 Best TV Dramas Since ‘The Sopranos’.” It represents the consensus of three TV writers. (Consensus. I like that about it. That’s how we made decisions on the editorial board. Not enough decisions are made that way. It’s a great process.)

It’s a pretty good list. Of course, it contains a number of shows I’ve never seen, so I can’t judge whether they deserve to be on the list: “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Veronica Mars,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Adventure Time,” “Enlightened”… hang on…. I just realized that I’ve never seen well over half the list.

That’s all right. Some of us are not paid to watch TV and write about it. Some of us are just people living our lives in a certain time and place and looking around us and occasionally trying to make some sense out of the tiny slices of existence we have time to experience.

Anyway, I have a snobbish disdain for Top Twenty lists. They lack discipline. They are promiscuous and indiscriminate. I continue to believe that Nick Hornby’s Top Five system represents perfection. You have to work at it. You have to choose. You have to be ruthless, and let the also-rans fall by the wayside, gnashing their teeth. You have to have standards, and stick with them.

On a couple of points, I’m right there with the NYT writers. On others, I have to wonder where they’ve been, or at least what they’re thinking. Anyway, here’s my list:

  1. The West Wing” — No surprise there, right? It topped the NYT list, too. And in describing why, Margaret Lyons admits that yeah, it’s a fantasy, “a fantasy about caring… because you’re my guys, and I’m yours, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Or as Leo said, long as I got a job, you got a job. It’s about much more than that — the people care not only about each other, but about Things That Matter — but that’s an important part of it. When I went to work for the campaign, I told James I wanted to be a part of something again with a bunch of people who cared about things. Like on “The West Wing.” Go ahead and mock me. I was perfectly serious, and I’m glad I got that chance. Not everyone does.
  2. Band of Brothers” — This didn’t fit into the parameters of the NYT list, because they defined a series as something meant to go more than one season. But before I saw “The West Wing,” this was unquestionably the best thing I’d ever seen on television. I knew it would be that back before it existed, when I was toying with the idea of writing a letter to Spielberg and Hanks to suggest it (but I didn’t have to; I guess after they connected with Steven Ambrose it was just that obvious). And of course, aside from being wonderfully acted and directed and crafted, it was a story that mattered.
  3. The Sopranos” — This is a guilty pleasure, probably the ultimate example of that phenomenon in the annals of TV. It represents sort of the opposite of the first two, which are about good and decent and admirable people who care about the right things and are willing to work and sacrifice for them. The Sopranos is more typical of the serious Golden Age dramas, in that it lacks a moral center or characters to admire or regard as heroes. But it was supremely engaging, and again we’re talking craftsmanship. I have debates with my wife about this, which she always wins. She asks why time should be spent on stories and characters completely lacking in redeeming qualities, and I reply that it’s so well done! Which is a vapid answer, I know, but I’m a sucker for things that are done well…
  4. The Wire” — Best thing about the NYT feature is that the bit about The Wire is in the words of actor Michael K. Williams. You know: “Omar coming!” This series had a lot of contemptible characters in it, too, but you cared about so many of them, from soulful snitch Bubbles to the infuriatingly self-destructive McNulty to the Greek-tragedy labor leader Frank Sobotka. This was a work of fiction with hugely ambitious journalistic aspirations: This season is about drugs in the projects; this one is about the dead-end life on the docks; this one is about Baltimore public schools; this one is about city politics; this one is about the newspaper. And it really worked.
  5. Breaking Bad” — This was the hardest to watch, but I had to keep watching. It gave me something of a complex. I’d watch it at night after my wife had gone to bed — again, not her thing and I love her for that — and after another hour of Walter White’s traumatic slide into evil, I’d slip into the dark bedroom feeling guilty, as though I were the one building a drug empire and lying to my family about it. I think I half expected my wife to wake up and say, “Why do you have two cell phones?” or “Who’s Jesse Pinkman?” That’s how deeply the show implicated me in Walter’s evil madness. Which was not fun, and probably the main reason I haven’t rewatched the whole thing since it ended. I mean, I “lived through it” once, and that was enough…

So that’s it. Two that are about honor and courage and decency, two that are sordid as all get-out, and one — “The Wire” — that hovers between the two, although leaning toward the sordid.

The NYT writers allowed themselves a “Toughest Omissions” list, so I will, too:

  • Firefly” — Was it a drama? Was it comedy? Was it fantasy? I don’t know, but it was awesome, and I can’t believe those gorram network people cancelled it before the first season was even over. The only funny, heartwarming, witty, inventive show about space cowboys in the history of the medium. But even if there were a hundred such, this would have been the best one.
  • The Walking Dead” — I was determined I was never going to watch this, but one of my kids talked me into trying it and I was hooked. For awhile. I finally got to the point that it was no longer watchable for me. That happened in that hopeless episode in which Rick and the rest were captured by the Saviors, at the end of the sixth season. I don’t know what happened after that.
  • Barry” — I’m just trying to be topical, since this is newer than anything else on the list. As long as I still had HBO NOW for watching “Game of Thrones” (which you’ll notice does not make my list), I went ahead and finished the second season of this show about a hit man who wants to be an actor. I may sign back up when the third season comes out. This is worth watching for NoHo Hank if for nothing else. There’s also Stephen Root. And Bill Hader’s always great.
What, no Honey-Nut?

What, no Honey-Nut?

Top Five ACTUAL National Emergencies

Spanish Flu Pandemic

Spanish Flu Pandemic

As the man who is, to our everlasting shame, president of the United States makes a mockery of the concept, I thought I’d start a discussion of actual national emergencies from our history.

It’s not that easy. I’m sure I’m forgetting something big, but just to get the ball rolling, here’s my quick-and-dirty list of Top Five Actual National Emergencies:

  1. Civil War — I could have said Secession or the Dred Scott decision or the Nullification Crisis, but I’m just wrapping it all together under one heading.
  2. Cuban Missile Crisis — An alternative might be “Berlin Wall Crisis,” but this seems to be the one when a nuclear exchange seemed most likely.
  3. World War II — Not sure whether this should make the short list because the United States’ existence wasn’t threatened the way Britain’s and France’s and so many other countries’ were. But for those living through it, things looked pretty dark in December 1941. In terms of response to a crisis, the nation rose to this one as it did in the 1860s.
  4. Spanish Flu Pandemic — Exactly a century ago, it killed more people than there were military deaths in both World War I and II. Of course, it was worldwide, and not just national, but I included it anyway.
  5. Stock Market Crash, 1929 — I know it was just about money and all, but it was a biggie.

Honorable mention:

  • Burning of Washington, 1814 — Kind of a low point — I mean, the president fled and the Brits burned the White House — but I went back and forth as to whether it should make the list.
  • 9/11, 2001 — We’re still kind of reeling from this one.
  • Watergate — The Constitution withstood a test, and we passed with flying colors. But Americans’ trust in their government has continued to wither.
The burning of Washington.

The burning of Washington.

Oh, come on! 1939 was the greatest year for film. Or maybe 1967. But 1955, or 1982? Don’t make me laugh!

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights

Back in the olden days, we had to stockpile “evergreen” stories for that period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when not all that much news happened, but the papers were humongous because of all the ROP ads.

The tradition of doing “best-of” retrospectives on the year are sort of related to that phenomenon. And even now in the post-print world, when editors are no longer haunted by the physical “hole to fill” problem, the tradition continues.

I referred to that earlier. But on Dec. 28 (sorry I’m just getting to it), The Washington Post ran a variation on the genre: They gathered seven “film buffs” on their staff and got them to make their arguments as to which was the greatest year for film.

Which was kind of silly, and sort of had the effect of giving ALL the kids trophies. This, for instance, is an artificially democratic statement: “Eventually we found the best year in movies — all seven of them.” Yeah. Because everyone’s opinion is equally valid, right? Bull. What a pat on the head — you all tried so-o-o hard

Basically, I think they tried a little too hard, and overcomplicated the subject. The proper question is sort of binary: Was 1939 the greatest year, or wasn’t it?

It was the moment of Peak Hollywood. The very idea of Hollywood has never had the grip on us it had then, before or after. We’re talking “Gone With the Wind.” “The Wizard of Oz.” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” None of which require any elaboration. “Stagecoach,” which launched John Wayne. “Wuthering Heights” (not any old “Wuthering Heights,” the one with Olivier as Heathcliff).

No other year touches it.

And the feature in the Post sorta acknowledged that truth by letting the lucky writer who got to represent 1939 go first. But then, to try to justify considering the other, lame years, the writer treats us to this:

It’s hard to view “Gone with the Wind” these days as anything but massively problematic. Slavery is presented in soft-focus. Rhett Butler carrying a struggling Scarlett O’Hara up the stairwell, intended to make the audience swoon, is now as likely to make them vomit. If it was never screened in public again, then frankly, my dear, I wouldn’t give a — well, you know.

Really? We’re going to dismiss a representative — excuse me, the representative cultural artifact of 80 years ago by current political standards? Yeah, we know: Slavery was bad. It was, in fact, our nation’s Original Sin. And the bodice-ripping genre leaves much to be desired. But, you know, this is Gone with the frickin’ Wind! We’re supposed to be made uncomfortable by, say, the role Mammy played in Scarlett’s world — while at the same time being impressed by Hattie McDaniel’s performance. Which, by the way, earned her the first Oscar ever won by a black performer.

As for the rest, though… really?

But all of this is to set up arguments that the greatest film year was actually… get ready for this… one of the following:

Yep. And with good reason. Sometimes, you see, when everybody says something, they’re right.

But OK, I can get into the spirit of this thing. I can go beyond the pat answer. So I’ll offer my own nominee for dethroning 1939. But first… please note that my embrace of ’39 is not a generational thing, like my preference for the ’60s-’80s in music. I know y’all think I’m old, but 1939 is WAY before my time — my parents were very young kids at the time. It’s more their parents’ time.

And “Gone With the Wind” isn’t even close to making any list of my favorite movies — not Top Five, not Top Ten, not Top Twenty. I’m not even sure it would make a Top 100, if I were to take the time to draw that up. But I recognize epic film-making. I recognize cultural significance. I recognize values other than my own, as a guy living in 2019. It’s not about me and what I like. It’s about the history of film, seen as a whole.

But what other year comes close? Here, I am going to go with one from my own lifetime: 1967. If 1939 was the peak year of Hollywood’s Golden Age, 1967 was the year that the revolution arrived — all over the place, everywhere you looked, in every possible genre.

Consider:

  • The Graduate.” Here, we are talking about what I like. Any Top Five list of mine would include this, “The Godfather,” “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the fifth will be negotiable. And among those, “The Graduate” is the most original, the most distinctive. Seriously, into what genre would you place it? “Satire” tends to be where most end up, but that’s still inadequate. Everybody was at peak in this, doing the most brilliant work of their lives — Mike Nichols, Buck Henry (especially as writer, but also as the desk clerk), Dustin Hoffman certainly (even if he’d done nothing more than come up with that beautifully weird little noise he made in Ben’s more stressful moments). Simon and Garfunkel at the very peak of their powers. And I believe Anne Bancroft IS Mrs. Robinson (and she scares me)! To say nothing of the Alfa Romeo! And… I’m not sure how to put this… Hollywood has caused us guys to fall in love with scores, hundreds, thousands of beautiful women over the decades, but Katharine Ross? She makes it work, just by looking the way she does and knowing what to do with it, in a minimalist way. If you say, “A guy falls in love with the daughter of the woman with whom he’s having a tawdry, soul-devouring affair,” you say “That’s sick!” and don’t believe it. But then you see Katharine Ross, and you can see how this would happen, to Benjamin or almost any other guy. Wanting to marry her is NOT a half-baked idea. It’s completely baked.
  • Cool Hand Luke.” OK, so I went a bit overboard on “The Graduate.” I’ll try to hold myself in on this one. But it’s another that shattered conventions, that holds up over time, and would definitely make my Top Twenty. “Taking it off, boss.” “Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box.” “Gonna be some world-shakin’.” And after my lack of discipline re Katharine Ross, I’m not going to mention Lucilllle. Nor am I going to get all deep about Luke as a Christ figure, or anything like that. But if 1967 is the best year, this is one of the ones that puts it over the top.
  • Bonnie and Clyde.” There’s a lot in this one that kind of gives me the creeps, but wow. It’s original, it’s fresh, it’s groundbreaking, it smacks you in the face, and it works. And this film gave us Gene Hackman, which on its own would cover a multitude of sins.
  • The Dirty Dozen.” I almost didn’t include this. I loved it at the time (I was 13). But it doesn’t hold up. It inspired me to read the novel at 14 (which was a little young, on account of the dirty parts, which I practically memorized), and I was impressed then and remain impressed now at what a missed opportunity the film was. The novel was really a great story, well told, and the characters were 10 times as interesting as the ones on the screen… with the possible exception of Victor Franko — Cassavetes pretty much brought him to life. He must have read the book. But, all of that said… flaws and all, this is a landmark film of the action genre. It’s not for nothing that in “Sleepless in Seattle,” Tom Hanks holds it up as meaning to men what “An Affair to Remember” means to many women. And it’s hard to imagine it being made before 1967.
  • In the Heat of the Night.” I watched this again just this week on Amazon. You should go and do likewise. And always remember to call him MISTER Tibbs…
  • To Sir, with Love.” Poitier again. And speaking of him, I could as easily cite “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — also 1967, and also something hard to imagine in any other year. But “Sir” is another personal fave. It is, without question, the absolute best of the whole “lovable teacher who wins the hearts of the snotty punks he teaches” genre. Streets ahead of the rest. OK, Lulu — hit it!
  • Blow-Up.” I’m cheating a bit here because it was technically released in the U.S. at the end of 1966, but I think of this as essentially a British/Italian film in sensibility, and it wasn’t released in those countries until ’67. It can be a bit of a hoot to watch now — see how cool this guy is; he has a phone in his car! — but talk about your cultural artifacts! Definitely a good candidate to put in a time capsule and tell people what the 60s were like. Or would have been like, were you an in-demand fashion photographer in Swingin’ London. Which is why Austin Powers takes the time to do an homage to it.

I’ll stop there. I’m interested to see what year y’all would pick. I just hope it wouldn’t be a year as lame as 1982…

the_graduate

People are still putting out albums?

00602547143723-cover-zoom

An album that truly marked its territory in 1971.

As I’ve said, I tend to interact with my subscription to The New Yorker via the emails they send me. And today, I was puzzled to find this headline in my IN box: “Eight Albums That Defined 2018 for Me.” It was written by someone aptly named “Brianna Younger.” I don’t see how such a piece could have been written by a “Brianna Older.”

But even then, I have to wonder at the following:

  • “Albums?” People are still putting out albums in 2018? That’s so… ’70s. So vinyl (and yes, I know vinyl experienced a resurgence — like, a generation ago). It’s album-oriented rock on FM stations with DJs who sounded like they were on Quaaludes. Aren’t we several technological developments beyond “albums?” There were albums, then cassettes, then CDs, then stolen MP3s and iPods, then free access to all music ever recorded via YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, etc. And you say albums are still a thing? If so, in what sense — mere collections of recordings, or concept-based, like Sgt. Pepper and Aqualung?
  • Who can possibly name eight albums from this year, much less special ones? Personally, I can’t name one — and perusing the list in The New Yorker didn’t help. And before you scoff at the old guy, this is largely because media are so fragmented today. In, say, the ’60s, old people couldn’t miss the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Herman’s Hermits. And young people couldn’t miss Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, or Engelbert Humperdinck. And no one could possibly miss Herb Alpert or Burt Bacharach. They were ubiquitous, layered thickly upon the limited spread of available media. That just isn’t the case today. Listeners can go off into their own private world and groove on their own private sounds that the person sitting next to them have never heard and never will hear. Our culture is not shared as it was.
  • In light of both of the two previous points, how can any albums, the eight in question or whichever ones you pick, define a year in this century? An album might have done that in the 70s, when they were as central to the mass culture as bell-bottoms and leisure suits. But this just seems the last sort of thing that could define the year. Albums just don’t do that in this decade.

Here are the eight albums in question:

  1. BbyMutha, “BbyShoe”
  2. Janelle Monáe, “Dirty Computer”
  3. Kendrick Lamar, “Black Panther: The Album”
  4. Noname, “Room 25”

Oops. That’s only four. Either there’s something wrong with my computer, or even Brianna could only come up with four. (Let me know if you can find the other four; I’m curious.) Whatever. The point is, I’ve heard of Janelle Monáe (the name has stuck because my mother and one of my daughters are named “Janelle”), and I saw “Black Panther.” Neither causes any particular music to come to mind. The others mean nothing to me.

Granted that “Black Panther” actually was a mass cultural phenomenon in the past year, I have to ask, in what sense do you feel these recordings were essential to an understanding of 2018? Forty years from now, to what extent will today’s young people — much less their children and grandchildren — be listening to this music, or seeing it as essential to this moment?

If you don’t think that’s a fair question, allow me to cite eight albums from a year in which albums mattered, in which they truly served as a broadly-perceived soundtrack for the time, and even could have been said to “define” the time, and echo in our memory of that year on mass media to this day.

It may be a bit unfair, but I’m going to pick my eight from 1971…

…Sorry, I can’t narrow it down to eight. Let’s do 10 that still loom large in our culture:

  • The Who – Who’s Next. This one may be the one with the most singles that you still frequently hear on the radio. “Baba O’Riley.” “Behind Blue Eyes.” “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
  • Al Green – Gets Next to You. All I have to say is, “Tired of Being Alone.
  • Joni Mitchell — Blue. The best-remembered cut was probably “California,” but the album overall was a cultural touchstone.
  • Marvin Gaye — What’s Going On. Which was, of course, about what was going on. So, definitive of a time.
  • Rod Stewart — Every Picture Tells a Story. Anything you connect with “early Rod Stewart” (not counting Jeff Beck days) is on this one. Let’s just skim the second side: “Maggie May.” “Mandolin Wind.” “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” “(Find a) Reason to Believe.” All that’s missing is “Handbags and Gladrags.”
  • The Rolling Stones — Sticky Fingers. Arguably their best, although “Let if Bleed” and “Exile on Main Street” are right up there. Let’s go with a non-hit from this one: “Moonlight Mile,” which weirdly invoked Huckleberry Finn and Jim for me. It made me feel like I was rolling down a river at a leisurely raft pace. Listen to that rhythm and tell me I’m not right. You don’t have to listen to the words. If that doesn’t do it for you, go lose yourself in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Mr. Bobby Keys on sax!
  • Carole King — Tapestry. Like, a lifetime of stellar songwriting distilled into one shot and dropped upon an unsuspecting public. Let’s go with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
  • Jethro Tull — Aqualung. “Sit-ting on a park bench… DAH, dah-dah…” (Remember Jack Donaghy and Pete Hornberger 39 years later conveniently forgetting the second line, thank goodness?) Still, my favorite cut from the album is “Wind-Up.” It was true in ’71, and still is today. He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
  • John Lennon — Imagine. The title cut is hauntingly beautiful, even though I hate the lyrics. I prefer “Jealous Guy” and “Oh Yoko!” Even though Yoko isn’t one of my fave people, for obvious reasons.
  • Janis Joplin — Pearl. She died in October of the previous year and this was released posthumously in January, but it’s such a part of the year’s soundtrack that it shouts “1971.” Let’s pause and give a listen to “A Woman Left Lonely.”

Notice that I’m completely ignoring James Taylor, David Bowie, and my main man Leon Russell, and many others doing ground-breaking work at the time.

To use an expression that entered the culture sometime between then and now, at this point I will drop the mic.

I wanted to LIVE in this picture with Carole. Could have done without the cat, though...

I wanted to LIVE in this picture with Carole. Could have done without the cat, though…

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.