Tár: Film of the Year

Earlier this year I named The Northman the film of the year, but that was premature. The honor goes to Tár, which I managed to see over Thanksgiving week-end, and then watched it again two days later. It’s Todd Field’s best effort as a writer-director; it’s Cate Blanchett’s best performance of all time (yes, even better than Carol); the kind of film you indulge by losing yourself in for two and a half hours, wishing for five more. It’s also a film that’s very easy to mistake — as I did on first viewing — as being based on a true account. So I’ll say upfront that Lydia Tár is a fictional character. You don’t need to wonder about what liberties have been taken for sake of drama. Her sociopathy is built from the ground up.

Lydia is a maestro — the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic — who rises high and falls low. Her story is essentially about what greatness does to someone who achieves it. The cost of ambition and power is depicted on an epic scale that I haven’t seen in a film since There Will Be Blood (2007). A Vox reviewer noted the comparison as well. Oil tycoon Daniel Plainview ended up alone and miserable, much as Lydia does when she’s finally ousted from the Berlin orchestra and can only get a job teaching and conducting in the Third World:

“Their lives aren’t perfect matches, but the same principle applies: that they’ve clawed their way up a mountain composed of dead and wounded bodies, and perch atop it with a shiny, composed facade. It’s only through cracks in the veneer that you can glimpse the real person. They are ruthless and bitter and brilliant. Their teeth are always on edge, their jaws always grinding. That Lydia is a woman only adds to it all; she’s not meant to have gotten here in the first place.”

There’s so much one could say about Tár, but I’ll look at one particular scene that has gone viral. People are calling it the “cancel culture scene”, in which Lydia instructs a woke student (named Max) to let go of the ego in service to the music. His problem? He resents (wait for it) having to learn Bach, because “white male cis composers aren’t his thing”. To which Lydia derisively says:

[Lydia] “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity.”

Max sputters that he does like Edgard Varèse. Lydia’s scorn continues to roll over:

[Lydia] “Oh, well, then you must be aware that Varèse famously stated that jazz is a negro product exploited by the Jews. That didn’t stop Jerry Goldsmith from ripping him off for his Planet of the Apes score. It’s kind of a perfect insult, don’t you think? But you see, the problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissonant is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours. Now, someday, Max, when you go out into the world, and you guest-conduct for a major or minor orchestra, you may notice that the players have more than light bulbs and music on their stands. They will also have been handed rating sheets — the purpose of which is to rate you. Now, what kind of criteria would you hope that they would use to do this? Your score reading and stick technique or something else?”

Max says nothing.

[Lydia] “All right, everyone. Using Max’s criteria, let’s consider Max’s thing, applied to Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. Now, can we agree on two pieces of observation? One, that Anna was born in Iceland. And two, that she is a super-hot young woman. Show of hands? All right, now let’s turn our gaze back to Max and see if we can square how any of those things possibly relate to him.”

Max gets up and leaves, calling Lydia a “fucking bitch”.

[Lydia] “And you are a robot. I mean, unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media. If you want to dance the mass, you must service the composer. You have to sublimate yourself — your ego and, yes, your identity.”

If only more teachers had this sort of backbone. But while Lydia’s scoldings are appropriate — especially her parting blow about the ego — the irony is that she will end up letting her own ego destroy her. Her colossal ego is established in the opening scene: in an interview on stage she declares that as a maestro she has the power to stop and start time. (“You cannot start without me, I start the clock… Sometimes my hand stops, which means that time stops.”) Her woke students may be morons, but that doesn’t mean she’s a hero or “good guy”. You’re not supposed to cheer for anyone in Tár, even those you may want to cheer for in the heat of the moment. You’re supposed to be unsettled by everyone; think Little Children (Field’s last film), in which every character is pathetic. Tar‘s characters aren’t that bad, but they are full of mess, and Lydia most of all. Her habit of grooming female students for sexual favors finally catches up to her.

Field is able to engage identity politics and power imbalances without lecturing the audience, and that’s a rare feat in film these days. He has no interest in favoring a particular side or viewpoint, which makes Tár artistic, not political, and lets the viewer wrestle with the issues. It doesn’t judge Lydia or any other character. It trusts the viewer’s intelligence. I’m still drinking glasses of wisdom from it, but I’m taking these two Lydia-lines as my quotes for the year: (1) The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity. (2) In order to better ourselves, we must sublimate our ego and even our identity.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Songs of Terror (Halloween, 2022)

My playlist for this time of year. Happy Halloween to everyone.

1. Axolotl, The Veils
2. Waking the Witch, Kate Bush
3. Heirate Mich, Rammstein
4. The Islamic Call to Prayer (Exorcist opening)
5. Intruder, Peter Gabriel
6. God’s Gift (Maggot), Skinny Puppy
7. Lullaby, The Cure
8. Lucretia, My Reflection, The Sisters of Mercy
9. Witch Hunt, Rush
10. Every Day is Halloween, Ministry
11. Something Wicked, Siouxsie and the Banshees
12. Burnt with Water, Skinny Puppy

Listen to the whole list here. And here are the lyrics to song #6, since they are almost impossible to understand.

“God’s Gift (Maggot)”, by Skinny Puppy

(Feels good, it heightens the feeling of power, will to power, power it’s simply not…)

To a life less gleaming
Forgotten is the morning dawn
Learn to read with no degree
Bloody lies and black sun (I’ll tell you why)
In the eyes of God
The sky’s the limit
Proceeding in this darkest way
Glowing back at the end – your halo
You’re bloody righteous

Became a life broken, forever in judgment
Of his righteousness

Absurd Man be afraid
Falling back inane
Over mature
The chair backward falling down
Knives in eyes
Made us feel brave
Fragile
Falling another way

Really brave puts on a grin
On the floor in a pool of blood
On lifeless grin
Back to the bedroom
With a grin

When master knocks down phantoms
Living out miseries
It’s hard to fathom what depth man will go
It’s hard to fathom, hard – talking my god
God gave maggots
God gave maggots
God gave maggots
God gave maggots

Eye sockets feed the faith, no less then back again
Open wound in as much over-silence backwash
God gives maggots
God gives maggots
God gives maggots

In a silent way, back to where they came

Description of a way
Temple’s visit
Ghostly remain
No more room to blame
Now they’re winning
A conservation of life
Prize work
Prize work
Is the undoing
Remains to show the failure of all

(What is happiness? The feeling that power increases – that a resistance is overcome. Not contentment, but more power…)

Bedroom
Borrowed
Solace
Coyness is the easy road
Describe magic
Creation

(Virtue in the Renaissance style, birth, virtue free of moralic acid. The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: the first principle of our philanthropy.)

Oh Sean, your life became mush
God gift maggots

God gift maggot
God gift maggot
My friend maggot
Life filled maggot

Songs That Might Save Me From Vecna

I don’t think I can name a favorite song (unlike films and novels, my favorite songs are always in flux), but here are some that might do the trick for me if I needed to escape Vecna.

A Sort of Homecoming, by U2. This one comes first to mind. One of the best songs ever written, providing “a high-road out from here” (Vecna’s nightmare), with a melody and lyrics forming a perfect liberation: “And still we run, we run and don’t look back…”

Keep Me A Space, by Glasvegas. A song about childhood friends that drift apart but then come together again (very reminiscent of Stranger Things 4). Compulsive and drenched in emotion.

Pictures of You, by the Cure. I thought of this one when Max remembered all the images of the good times she had with her friends.

Ode to My Family, by the Cranberries. Like “Pictures of You”, but for family memories.

Disarm, by The Smashing Pumpkins. Child abuse is one of the many traumas Vecna loves to exploit in his victims, and this song is about an abused boy overcoming his retributive killer instincts.

Release, by Pearl Jam. The repeated cry of “release me” says it all.

Prime Mover, by Rush. This song feels liberating. “Anything can happen” involves magnetic needles “moving back and forth” (shades of shadow gates) and suggests limitless possibilities if you have the will for them.

— These three are probably too depressing for most people. For me they might work.

No Surprises, by Radiohead. About the “handshake of carbon monoxide”, or the way we live our unhappy lives which amounts to killing ourselves. Yet it’s so transcendent, almost purely so.

Graffiti, by Chvrches. An ode to childhood friendship inspired by Stand By Me, so it’s a perfect Stranger Things theme. But it’s about the disappointing fantasies of kids who want their childhood relationships to continue into adulthood. “I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old… And now we never will, never will…”

You’ll Be Mine, by The Psychedelic Furs. This one is risky. The clock theme (“like the ticking of the time”) and refrain (“you’ll be mine”) sounds like it’s Vecna’s song, especially with the eschatological overtones. But I like it so much, perhaps it would be like using Vecna’s own apocalyptic weapons against him.

If You Could Live (or Relive) Two Years in the Past

Here’s an interesting exercise: If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be? In other words, sometime after all continental states were admitted to the union, but before the World Wide Web was made public. My years of choice are 1925 and 1973.

The Year 1925

The mid-twenties in general were a time to be alive. It was the ultimate decade of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Presidents Warren Harding (1921-23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) kept the nation out of war and needless costly foreign intervention. They raised the standard of living for millions. Technological advances and mass production made consumer goods affordable, and the spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. Many people could buy cars, yielding a new world of paved roads and stores. New York became the largest city in the world, overtaking London. Child mortality rates dropped across the nation. Money was spent lavishly on public education. Women were now able to vote, giving the country 26 million new voters. People danced the nights away, to the latest music on radio. There was Prohibition, which was bad itself, but yielded the benefit of the black market with bootlegging and speakeasies; in effect the price of booze went way down. If there was a decade I could visit during the first half of the twentieth century, it would be the 20s hands down, and the particular year I choose is 1925.

Here are some of the note-worthies of 1925.

Great Books. Some say the greatest year for books was 1925. Books like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were hugely influential.

The First Motel. Hotels had been around since 1794, but the first motel opened in California in 1925, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It charged a rate of $1.25 per night. Motels hinted that car culture would soon take over the American way of life.

Gitlow v. New York. This year the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling: that the right of free speech protects a person from state interference as much as federal interference. The Court had previously held, in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), that the Constitution’s Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but Gitlow reversed that precedent and established that while the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the denial of these rights by a state government constitutes a denial of due process which is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In this year the Court also held that children did not have to attend public schools. States that made such a requirement were acting unconstitutionally.

Scopes Monkey Trial. In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial was all the rage — staged deliberately to attract publicity. Tennessee upheld a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, and fined Scopes $100, although the state supreme court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The nation would have to wait until 1968 for SCOTUS’s substantive ruling: that banning evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the bans are primarily religious. But the Scopes trial itself was a benchmark in forcing the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in public schools.

Weird Tales and Adventure (“The Camp-Fire”). The pulp magazines became wildly popular in the 20s. Weird Tales — still regarded today as the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines — had launched its first issue in 1923, and in 1925 began publishing an issue every month. Adventure Magazine, started back in 1910, had grown so popular by the 20s that its letters page, “The Camp-Fire” (not to be confused with the youth development organization by the same name, that also started in 1910), had become a major cultural phenomenon. The Camp-Fire featured editorials and fiery discussions about all sorts of topics, usually about whether or not the author had the right facts in his or her story. Historical accuracy, geographical accuracy, the kind of weapons the characters used — all of these and more were debated with passion. By 1924, a number of Camp-Fire Stations — locations where Adventure readers could hook up — were established across the U.S. and even in other countries. In 1925 one of the Camp-Fire’s most fiery debates was over the character of Julius Caesar. The writers often embellished their lives, reinvented themselves with outlandish fictions (even in their bio sketches); some were con artists. By 1925 Adventure was unquestionably the most important pulp magazine in the world, let alone the U.S. I’d love to live in 1925 as a subscriber to Weird Tales and Adventure, and as a Camp-Fire freak.

Drag Balls. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls (“drag balls”) goes back to 1869 in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition, they were attracting thousands of people of different races and social classes—whether straight or gay. We tend to think of Stonewall (in 1969) as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but decades before that, Harlem’s drag balls were part of an LGBTQ nightlife-culture that gave us gay and lesbian enclaves. What fun. Only after the Depression would this libertine culture fall out of favor, as many would blame this cultural experimentation for the economic collapse.

The Year 1973

The early 70s were gloomy and nihilistic, but that’s what generated so much artistic creativity and cultural progress. Disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage coalesced in the ’60s aftermath, yielding introspection and existentialism. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. The dress and hair styles were awful, granted, but aside from that, it was a groovy period. The best year in particular is 1973. I was alive that year, but so tiny and young that I remember nothing about it. I’d love to go back and live out the year as an adult.

Here are the note-worthies of 1973:

The Exorcist. The best and scariest film of all time is released. I’d give anything to see this masterpiece on screen when everyone was fainting in the isle and running from the theaters.

The Godfather. The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

Selling England by the Pound. The best album by the best band of all time. Or at least, Genesis was the best band while Peter Gabriel was involved.

Dark Side of the Moon. The most important album by the most important band of all time. Even if The Wall is Floyd’s best, Dark Side’s influence can’t be exaggerated.

All in the Family. The best episodes — meaning the most offensive and insanely hilarious ones — from the best TV sitcom of all time come from the late part of season 3 and the early part of season 4, which spanned the year of 1973: “Archie Goes Too Far”, “Archie Learns His Lesson”, “The Battle of the Month”, “We’re Having a Heat Wave”, “Henry’s Farewell”, “The Games Bunkers Play”, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig”, to name the very best episodes.

Abortion. Roe v. Wade was a problematic ruling, but the result was at least good, guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion.

The Paris Peace Accords. After 16 years, American involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Peace at last.

The War Powers Resolution. The congressional resolution (vetoed by Richard Nixon but then overridden) limits the president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad. It states that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply” whenever the American armed forces are deployed overseas. Many presidents since then have failed to comply with this resolution, and for the worse.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

The Endangered Species Act. The most comprehensive legislation enacted (in any nation) for the protection of endangered species.

Scores that still score

These are the scores I play most often when I write. Novels, essays, blogposts — so much of it inspired by the following music.

1. Conan the Barbarian, Basil Poledouris, 1982. The film is so operatic that it seems to have been crafted for the score rather than vice-versa — nothing like the cheesy fantasy films that otherwise plagued the ’80s. I watch Conan every year at least once, and listen to the score every month at least twice. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme recur, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene, which reminds me of Ravela repetitive waltz that escalates to a Bolero-like crescendo. Conan is the masterpiece score, and I dare you to name one better.

Try these: Riders of Doom, Civilization, The Kitchen & The Orgy.

2. Fire Walk With Me, Angelo Badalamenti, 1992. This score blends smoky jazz, ’50s pop, and dark noir into a masterpiece that still could use more appreciation. In the ’90s Fire Walk With Me was cursed and reviled (everyone wanted a Twin Peaks film, not a psychological horror film) but now many Lynch fans consider it one of his best, if not his best, and that’s just as true of the score. Even the most subdued compositions are unnerving and menacing. Never has a saxophone gone through me like an awl. Julee Cruise puts in an appearance – as no Twin Peaks film would be complete without her – singing “Questions in a World of Blue”, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes (Laura at the bar) I’ve seen in a film.

Try these: Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer’s Theme, Questions in a World of Blue.

3. The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore, 2001-2003. Howard Shore has always been a genius, and The Lord of the Rings opus is what he had been working towards his whole career. All the major themes sound exactly as one imagines the cultures of Middle-Earth to sound: the Celtic Shire theme with fiddles and whistles; the elegant Rivendell piece with violins and chimes; the unnerving Lothlorien tune with cellos and haunting choruses; the brass and percussive Isengard chants; the raw Moria theme that goes deeper and deeper; the horse-rider music of Rohan with the hardanger fiddle; the stately and grand anthem of Minas Tirith; the gothic Nazgul theme with the raging choir; the bittersweet departure at the Grey Havens. It’s nothing short of miraculous.

Try these: The Breaking of the Fellowship, The Fields of Pelennor, The Grey Havens.

4. Marco Polo, Ennio Morricone, 1982. This guy has scored countless films and TV series, and it’s a wonder that his output is top-notch quality regardless of how much he’s getting paid for it. Marco Polo was an ’80s TV series, and I doubt he was compensated for it as he deserved to be. The tones and textures are some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard — I’m surprised it’s not more widely appreciated. It’s only been released in Italy, and only available on vinyl through amazon, though most of the pieces can be listened to on youtube.

Try these: Mai Li’s Song, The Legend of the Great Wall, First Love

5. Passion, Peter Gabriel, 1989. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it’s one of the worst Jesus films of all time. But the score is one of the best ever made for any film — as how could it not be, with Peter Gabriel composing? Here he mines Armenian, Egyptian and Kurdish melodies in order to bring third-world rhythms into a western ambit, and the result is pure gold. I think of the Middle-East and Africa when I listen to Passion — not in a religious way, but in the way I imagine Gabriel trying to honor its peoples.

Try these: Zaar, Open, A Different Drum.

6. Antarctica, Vangelis, 1983. I’m one of those fools who believes that Chariots of Fire is a bit overrated (both the film and the score), and that the lesser known Antarctica is what earns Vangelis his immortality. This soundtrack is simply spellbinding. You can hear ice in between the notes, and it sounds as cold, solitary, and vast as the South Pole itself. The film itself is okay; it’s about a pack of dogs abandoned in the antarctic, but not at all essential to appreciate the music. I often nap to it in the winter seasons.

Try these: Song of White, Deliverance.

7. Sunshine, John Murphy and Underworld, 2007. Sunshine is about a team of astronauts who take the suicidal step of trying to reignite a dying Sun, and the score — an onslaught of whooshes and blares — goes perfectly with the visuals. It achieves what most composers can only aspire to, ratcheting up tension with insistent themes that stay with you for a long time.

Try these: Kaneda’s Death, The Surface of the Sun.

 

Inspiring Covers

Here’s a collection of covers I find particularly inspiring. Most of them aren’t catalogued covers you can purchase for download; they’ve been uploaded to Youtube (click on the links) by talented artists who could use some appreciation.

1. When the Levee Breaks, covered by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and artists from around the globe, 2022 (Original artist: Led Zeppelin, 1971, and before that, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, 1929). This is part of Playing For Change’s Song Around the World campaign, and what better song to raise awareness for climate justice. It may very well be the best cover I’ve ever heard.

2. Losing It, covered by Brody Dolyniuk and Nina DiGregorio, 2020 (Original artist: Rush, 1982). I often lose it when hearing this song anyway (some days I think it’s my favorite Rush song), and as a tribute to Neal Peart it has extra power. The cover is simply flawless, and the woman on the violin especially nailed it.

3. Don’t Stop Believin’, covered by Halocene, Violet Orlandi, Lauren Babic, and Audra Miller, 2021 (Original artist: Journey, 1981). It’s been played to death (it became the first catalog track to sell more than 2 million downloads in 2008) that a cover might seem trite, but I have to hand it to this gang, they really, really put more soul into it than Steve Perry and Co. did. They performed this after a year of Covid, and let’s face it, it’s exactly the song we all needed to keep going.

4. Breaking the Habit, covered by The Broken View, 2020 (Original artist: Linkin Park, 2003). Starting this one soft works wonders. It builds to a crescendo with all the rage and pain to match Linkin Park’s, and I think this band may have even surpassed Park’s original.

5. Zombie, covered by Bad Wolves, 2018 (Original artist: The Cranberries, 1994). Some Cranberries fans objected to this band for releasing it too soon after Dolores’ death, but I thought it was a splendid tribute, and still do.

6. In the New Year, covered by Halley O’Malley, 2015 (Original artist: The Walkmen, 2008). “In the New Year” is one of those harsh-sounding songs that ratchets up the tension each round, and it’s probably impossible to do justice with a literal cover. This more subdued approach gets it almost just as good.

7. Take on Me, covered by Calpurnia, 2019 (Original artist: A-ha, 1985). An iconic ’80s song given a work-over by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard’s band.

8. Here is the House, covered by Saga, 2012 (Original artist: Depeche Mode, 1986). It’s an instrumental cover that I sometimes put on replay when writing horror fiction. Stirs the imagination just right.

9. Let’s Go, covered by Double Life, 2020 (Original artist: The Cars, 1979). My final two are for nostalgia sake. I was obsessed with the Cars in my youth, and while I don’t care much for them anymore, I have to admit this cover of “Let’s Go” works a certain magic.

10. Shadows of the Night, covered by Project Kylex, 2017 (Original artist: Pat Benatar, 1982). This cover is by a 10 and 11-year old, but they do a hell of a good job, and I include it since “Shadows of the Night” was essentially the song that got me listening to radio as a kid, and exploring different sorts of music I hadn’t known existed until that point in my life.

The 50th Anniversary of the Nashua Public Library

This year the Nashua Public Library will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the months of November and December. The celebration will include an exhibit of library artifacts and a slideshow of photographs in the gallery, a banner and a special anniversary edition library card, and also special displays of material from the collection that were released in 1971 — books, films, music, TV series, and events. The library’s actual anniversary is September 26 (when the dedication ceremony took place), so technically the celebration should already be under way. So I’m doing my own personal homage to the library and the year 1971. Here’s looking back at what was happening that year: books that would leave their mark, like The Exorcist; rock ‘n roll masterpieces like Zeppelin IV; the debut of All in the Family and unprecedented political incorrectness. It turns out that 1971 was a critical year in many ways — it started the ’70s in the way 1983 started the ’80s — an important year (though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate most of it) and suitable moment to open a town library. There were shifts in the cultural milieu that would have lasting impact, and here are some of the highlights.

1. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. It started with the book in ’71, even if the film pushed it into infamy two years later. Not great literature by any means (unlike the film, which was a cinematic masterpiece), but Blatty presented demonic possession like no one has done since, and never scarier.

2. All in the Family, by Normal Lear. The best TV sitcom of all time hit its peak in ’73-’74 (the excellent third and fourth seasons), but it began on that fateful January in 1971 (you can watch the full premiere here), when Archie and Mike screamed at each other about racism over a Sunday brunch. The show would keep going to the tail end of the ’70s.

3. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The 50th anniversary for this one has already been widely celebrated. It was a book ahead of its time, making its urgent plea for preservation and a clean environment, showing how species disappear when food runs out or pollution is left unchecked.

4. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Yeah, this one. The opening “Black Dog”, the medieval “Battle of Evermore” (my favorite), the epic “Stairway to Heaven”,  the ballad “Going to California”, and everything else… hard to believe this masterpiece has 50 years under its belt.

5. Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but today it’s much more appreciated it deserves. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of creative cinema.

6. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin. In the middle of writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin released this sci-fic tale of a world racked by violence and environmental catastrophe. One man’s dreams controls the fate of humanity, and a psychiatrist manipulates those dreams for his own purposes. I’m reading this now and lamenting that we don’t have writers like this anymore.

7. Hell House, by Richard Matheson. Stephen King calls it the best haunted house story of all time. Perhaps. It’s about two previous expeditions to the awful house that ended up with the investigators killed or going insane, and now a new investigation is under way.

8. The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone. It may sound strange, but this book terrified me as a kid. My mother got for me about three years after publication. Hysterical images like these petrified the shit out of me and kept me awake at night. I dreaded the monster at the end, even knowing it was just Grover. The things that scare little kids.

9. The French Connection, by William Friedkin. Known for the infamous car chase that could have gotten people killed (it was shot illegally without Friedkin getting anyone’s permission, or without even closing off the streets), the film was a landmark shot in the “induced documentary” style that put Friedkin on the map.

10. Nursery Cryme, by Genesis. Prog rock excellence from Genesis in their glory days. In the epic “Musical Box” a girl knocks her boy cousin’s head off with a croquet mallet, and his spirit returns to lust for her and assault her. In “The Fountain of Salmacis” Hermaphroditus is seduced by the nymph Salmacis and becomes fused with her. Great imagination on display here.

11. The Electric Company, by Paul Dooley. Sesame Street (launched in ’69) had pride of place when I was growing up, but The Electric Company (’71-’77) was my favorite and the reason I became a fan of Spider-Man. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was pretty cool too. This is his first appearance on the show.

12. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey. Arguably the best of The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the second book involves complex storylines. In the first book Lessa traveled back in time centuries in order to bring an army forward. In this one F’nor takes on an even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread forever.

13. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. Like The Exorcist, the book would be made into a successful 1973 film. It was also awarded on its strength as a novel, receiving the Best Novel Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. it’s about the assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle, and it holds up well today.

14. A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick. Kubric went for the jugular in adapting the 1962 novel, depicting a miserable journey through a world of decaying cities, psycho adolescents, and nightmare technologies of rehabilitative punishment. Viewers were stunned. Welcome to the ’70s.

15. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, by Robert Foster. Before the age of the internet and Tolkien webpages, this was my go-to book for Tolkien lore (which I acquired, I think, in either ’79 or ’80). It was as complete as I could imagine a resource for Tolkien’s world. How little I knew back then.

16. Who’s Next, by The Who. A song like “Baba O’Riley” comes along once in a blue moon, and an album like Who’s Next? even more infrequently. I’ve never been a Who fan, but I do love this album, and I could play “Baba O’Riley” any day of the week.

 

As for events, in 1971…

17. The digital age began. We don’t tend to associate the early ’70s with that, but January 1971 is when the microprocessor was invented.

18. The voting age was lowered to 18. The 2th Amendment was finally ratified, after the drafting age had been lowered to 18 during World War II. The drinking age, of course, still needs to be lowered to 18 (if not abolished altogether).

19. Charles Manson was executed. He and three of his darlings got the death penalty.

20. Disney World opened. I’ve still never been and probably will never make it.

All was not rosy, however, in 1971. Probably the worst thing that happened was…

21. The gold standard was abandoned. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed value, thus completely abandoning the gold standard. From 1971 onwards productivity increased as wages flatlined; Gross Domestic Product surged but the shares going to workers plummeted; house prices skyrocketed; hyperinflation increased; currencies crashed. The personal savings rate went down the toilet; incarceration rates went up by a factor of five; divorce rates shot up too, and the number of people in their late 20s living with their parents increased; the number of lawyers quadrupled.

Graphically, this is what happened in 1971, thanks to Nixon’s abandoning the gold standard (click to enlarge). The graphs come from the WTF Happened in 1971? website.

No denying that 1971 is a year to pay homage to, in more ways than one. Happy anniversary, Nashua Public Library!

Hands Across the Ocean: A Song Remade

When a band radically remakes its own song, it’s like stepping into a parallel world to hear it. I’m not talking about different mixes, which are common enough. I’m talking about an entire reconstruction, that takes the kernel idea and goes in a very different direction.

“Hands Across the Ocean” is the lead track on The Mission U.K.’s Grains of Sand album. It was a popular hit that climbed the charts back in 1990. Listen here:

🎶

Every time I think of you it’s like the last beat of my heart
The memory of leaving you is tearing me apart
No waves, no tears, no backward glance
But I’ll always hold you dear
Never regret but I’ll never forget
‘Cause there’s not enough heaven here

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean
Ocean

And every time I’m missing you I just can’t let it show
And every time I want to cry I just can’t let it go
Wine and song and masquerade and refuge holds me dear
Ribbons and lace and daisy chains
But there’s not enough heaven here

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, reaching out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

Bangles, beads and lipstick games
And comfort holds me dear
Velvet and lace and perfumed sheets
But there’s not enough heaven
Not enough heaven here

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, reaching out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

Ocean
Ocean
Ocean

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

You’ve probably heard that plenty if you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s. But years later a remade version of the song (sometimes called the Tim Palmer version) emerged and was put on the band’s 2006 Anthology compilation. Few people know of this version. It’s not just a remix shaking things up a bit differently; it’s a whole different thing that sounds almost nothing like the original. The chorus shares the same lyrics but that’s it. The melodies and tones are new. I wonder if the band members weren’t satisfied with the original (it is kind of a cheesy top-40 piece) and decided to “un-popularize” it, by starting over from scratch, it seems. Whatever made them do it, it is a much better song. Listen here:

🎶

Hope, hope springs eternal
I am a beggar and I need all the wisdom love endows
And I, I believe
In destiny, and all that will be will come to be

Some will score, come what may
Knock if they will, and some may say
I am a dreamer, and I got my head in the clouds
Cause I, I believe
In the sanctity of the love between you and me

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

Love is giving, knowing and forgiving
Love is you, and love is me
Love is all we ever wanted to be
Embrace this brave affection sweeping through your heart and soul
Lay your temples bare, and heed the sound of this calling call

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, calling out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

There is no need for fighting
There is no worth in hate
There is no call for the dogs of war
And Armageddon must wait

There’s hope in the hearts of you and me
And sins in angels and holy men
That the deaf will hear, the blind will see
And the sky will be gathered together again

Hands across the ocean
Hands across the ocean

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, calling out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

No-Filler Albums: The Ones I Listen to Start to Finish

I saw a meme recently asking for albums that have no bad or mediocre songs, in other words, the albums you often play from start to finish without skipping any tracks. I’m going to allow myself the leeway of a single bad or mediocre track in order to get a top ten list, otherwise I could probably only list half that amount. Even the best albums usually have a couple tracks that I’ll skip or omit from playlists. But not the following. These I often listen to from start to finish.

1. Achtung Baby, U2, 1992. When U2 reinvented themselves by “burning down the Joshua Tree”, they exceeded their ambitions with a masterpiece completely devoid of mediocrity. Its theme is lethal relationships, played to the tune of distorted vocals and guitars. “Zoo Station” takes the lead with this industrial edge. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is as addictive today as it was in ’91. “One”, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, remains widely loved and used at weddings, its bleak message thoroughly misunderstood. “Until the End of the World” is the brilliant conversation between Judas and Jesus; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” a love-hate song that demands to be loved; “So Cruel” a just-as-good sequel. Then comes “The Fly”, showcasing the Edge’s finest guitar work ever. “Mysterious Ways” captures the bliss of physical love, and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is the next-day guilt trip that renews promises of faithfulness. Then “Ultraviolet”, which is the album’s absolute best. “Acrobat” is just sublime, and “Love is Blindness” caps off the album in haunting melodies of mystery. An album like Achtung Baby comes once in a lifetime.

2. Up, Peter Gabriel, 2002. Gabriel’s least accessible album is a raw and wildly imaginative series of meditations on death and grief, and is among the best music I’ve ever heard. “The Barry Williams Show” is a satirical piece that doesn’t belong, but aside from that one misfire, everything is excellent. “Darkness” is the raw opener, a prog piece with abrasive verses meshing with smooth refrains. “Growing Up” is the closest thing to a radio score, but still a bit cerebral for the Billboard charts. The rhythms of “Sky Blue” are as miraculous as those of “Red Rain” from So, and what a coup to use the Blind Boys of Alabama at the end. “No Way Out” is another precious gift and a prequel of sorts to “I Grieve”, the musing on death that Gabriel nails so perfectly. “My Head Sounds Like That” and “More Than This” put us on the road to some measure of recovery. “Signal To Noise” serves as the incredible climax, with haunting melodies, exotic percussion, and guest vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, rolling into an orchestra/percussion combo that builds to a raging crescendo. And finally, “The Drop” leaves us serenely pondering the mystery of death. There are days I call Up my favorite album of all time (if I’m in the mood to pretend Achtung Baby was never made), and aside from poor Barry Williams, I never skip a track.

3. God’s Own Medicine, The Mission UK, 1986. Talk about every track pulling its weight. The opening “Wasteland” broils with conflict between a strict religious upbringing and libertine freedom; in some ways it’s the quintessential Mission UK song. “Bridges Burning” has a hellish chorus screaming in torment; another gem. “Garden of Delight” is a deep sonorous piece set to a chamber orchestra, without guitar and drums, and a strong favorite of mine. “Stay With Me” is a top-40 sounding waltz that somehow doesn’t belong, and yet is nevertheless quite good. “Blood Brother” cries out in a raging homage to The Cult. “Let Sleeping Dogs Die” is infectiously dismal. “Sacrilege” celebrates that without any subtlety, to a racing beat. “Dance on Glass” casts a hideous spell of fever dreams. “And the Dance Goes On” is another great track. “Severina” has the haunting guest vocals of Julianne Regan, and is a beautiful ode to pagan ritual. “Love Me to Death” is a wonderfully oversexed trashy gothic ballad, and “Island in a Stream” cries out in the end for a vain rescue. I’m sure I’ve listened to God’s Own Medicine from start to finish over a thousand times.

4. Screen Violence, Chvrches, 2021. Still a new album as I write this, Screen Violence is the album of the fucking year, unquestionably Chvrches’ best, with not a single track cheating the listener. “Asking for a Friend” is a slow-builder about regret, and develops some of the most haunting textures I’ve heard in a song. “He Said She Said” is the popular screed against misogyny, with thick bass and perfect timings of beat drops in the chorus. “California” explores the dark side of living in that state, and people with crushed dreams; it has an incredibly dreamy chorus. With “Violent Delights”, it’s all the drums. “How Not to Drown” is the treat featuring Robert Smith of The Cure, with a macabre piano and synth. “Final Girl” taps into horror-movie tropes in a crowd-pleaser that evokes New Order. “Good Girls” blasts cancel culture (good for you, Lauren) through slow and persuasive rhythms. “Lullabies” is disarmingly lovely, and “Nightmares” rails about the challenge of forgiveness around futuristic sound effects. “Better If You Don’t” is the only track that sounds mediocre on a first listen, but it has grown on me considerably. This is about as perfect as albums get.

5. Automatic for the People, R.E.M., 1992. I’m not the strongest R.E.M. fan, but Murmur, Document, and Out of Time are solid albums, and Automatic for the People is a stupendous masterpiece. It’s the band’s darkest and most subdued and transcendent effort, and “Drive” announces this unexpected approach at the outset. Every track that follows delves deeper into the darkness: “Try Not to Breathe”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Sweetness Follows”, “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, “Ignoreland”, “Star Me Kitten”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming” (which seems to blend the attempts of “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt” from Green, this time getting it right), and “Find the River”. All these songs are terrific and made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands on the planet. It remains a curiosity to me that the world was so receptive to these quiet brooding tracks that deal so heavily with death and departure. It was released while I was living in Africa, and a friend sent the cassette tape to me; I will forever associate Automatic for the People with living on my mountain in Lesotho, listening to every single song on the walkman while pondering depressing things.

6. Red, Taylor Swift, 2012. Don’t laugh. If you ignore her early country efforts, Taylor Swift is a major talent, and Red is a 21st-century masterpiece. “State of Grace” is the opening mind-blower that carries Swift way out of her own reach; I’m amazed that anyone (let alone a hitherto country-singer like Swift) could write this piece of excellence. “Red” is a song that keeps growing on you with shrewd vocal manipulations and understated rhythms. “Treacherous” is melodically sublime in its whispers. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the classic rock track of the album. “All Too Well” is judged by many to be Swift’s best song of all time, though I say second best after “State of Grace”. “22” is something I want to get up and dance to every time I hear it. “We Are Never Getting Back Together Again” is the top-40 earworm that, surprisingly, never wears out its welcome (unlike her later smashes like “Shake It off” and “Blank Space”). “I Almost Do” is a throw-back to Swift’s country days but not bad at all. “Stay Stay Stay” has no right to sound as good as it does, with its giddy upbeat mandolin and handclaps, but damn, it’s compulsive. “The Last Time” is the only weak spot on the album, a duet that falls rather flat. “Holy Ground” is an awesome ripper that ends way too soon. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a heartbreaking waltz. “The Lucky One” laments the curse of fame in solid melodies. “Everything Has Changed” is a duet that gels perfectly (unlike “The Last Time”). “Starlight” fuses her old country sound with the new pop to pleasing effect. And the the closing song “Begin Again” is almost as strong as “All Too Well”. What can I say? I listen to Red quite often, from start to finish with no apologies.

7. And Then There Were Three, Genesis, 1978. Genesis was at their best with Peter Gabriel at the helm, and the band’s unquestionable high points are Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Even so, those albums have tracks that I sometimes skip over. And Then There Were Three is the one Genesis album I play from start to finish every time. There’s not a single note of banality and every track makes me feel like I’m living inside an epic. It kicks off with the powerhouse of “Down and Out”, segues into the beautiful “Undertow”, then to the western-themed “Ballad of Big”, and then to another soft piece (like “Undertow”) “Snowbound”. The longest track is “Burning Rope” and is one of the best. “Deep in the Motherlode” is my favorite track and another western (“Go west young man”), and “Many Too Many” is pure melancholy. “Scenes from a Night’s Dream” picks up the pace with a fun narrative, and “Say It’s Alright Joe” and “The Lady Lies” hark back to the band’s prog years. The final song points forward, with the first Genesis hit to crack the top-40 charts, “Follow You Follow Me”. Jesus, the ’70s were the days that crowd pleasers were tacked on at the end, not front-loaded to hook the lowest common pedestrian. I adore every track on this album in the way a top-40 junkie adores Miley Cyrus.

8. Made of Rain, The Psychedelic Furs, 2020. Remember these guys? This is their long-awaited comeback, after 30 years of silence. “The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll” opens with aggressive atmosphere, and makes us realize how much we’ve missed the band. “Don’t Believe” has droning addictive synths, “You’ll Be Mine” is a strong favorite, and “Wrong Train” asks how we all get life so wrong. “This I’ll Never Be Like Love” is a wonderful slow-piece, the calm before the storm-trilogy of “Ash Wednesday”, “Come All Ye Faithful”, and “No One” — the best tracks on the album aside from “You’ll Be Mine”. Moody dark stuff. “Tiny Hands” is the only weak track, but it’s not really bad and I often listen to it anyway. “Hide the Medicine” resumes the compulsive beats and lyrics, and “Turn Your Back on Me” and “Stars” add up to nice exit points. Now that’s all worth a 30-year wait, when every bloody song pays off.

9. Hold Your Fire, Rush, 1987. To call this the best Rush album would be a grievous heresy (though I do say it’s the band’s fourth best, which many consider heresy enough). But it is the one Rush album I play start to finish without skipping anything. Yes, even “Tai Shan”. They’re all good, Rush fans be damned. It leads with “Force Ten”, a suitable opener with its heavy bass and distinguishing percussions. Then the ephemeral “Time Stands Still” which everyone loves, even if they can’t admit it. Third is the oxymoronic “Open Secrets”, with great guitar action, followed the come-down ballad “Second Nature”. “Prime Mover” is my favorite (it should have been a single), a rocking piece about an unmoved mover setting everything in motion, after which “anything can happen”. “Lock and Key” is a close second favorite, the album’s darkest piece, about the killer instincts in all of us, to a killer tune. “Mission” is simply gorgeous. “Turn the Page” is fast-paced with great guitars. “Tai-Shan” is a slow-moving spiritual song, beckoning us up the sacred Chinese mountain; ignore the haters, it’s a great song. And “High Water” ends on our mystical connection to the ocean. I love each and every one of these tracks, and won’t hold my fire against the naysayers.

10. Battle Born, The Killers, 2012. Hot Fuss is the best Killers’ album hands down, but there are tracks on it that I sometimes skip over. Battle Born I savor from start to finish. It opens with the forceful “Flesh and Bone”, then to the smash hit “Runaways”. The next two hit unexpected emotional highs, “The Way it Was” and “Here With Me”. Then the urgently satisfying “A Matter of Time”. “Deadlines and Commitments” is a favorite of mine, followed by an even stronger favorite, “Miss Atomic Bomb”. “Rising Tide” channels the Hot Fuss era, while “Heart of a Girl” comes down subdued and graceful. “From Here on Out” is a fun quick-hitting piece, and then come the last two gems: the incredibly moving “Be Still”, and the title-rack that goes out guns blazing. Battle Born is a severely underrated album; I love the entire thing.

Screen Violence: Chvrches’ Most Retributive Album, and Surprisingly Their Best

This is a record that decidedly speaks to the bullied and beaten down, but without the condescending sense of pandering that usually attends pop-star exhortations to embrace your special-ness, or whatever. Mayberry sounds like she’s been through the ringer, but is still ready to hand you a baseball bat and take on the assholes. (AV Club)

Lauren Mayberry has put up with a lot in her musical career – misogyny, rape and death threats, toxic expectations, you name it. But, as her duet with Robert Smith of The Cure suggests, she doesn’t let the shitheads grind her down. Screen Violence is a comeback album, after what many consider to be Chvrches’ weakest (Love is Dead), and I concur with those who call it the band’s best album to date. Though I have a hard time beating up on Love is Dead — it does, after all, contain the best Chvrches song and still does — there’s no denying a lot of its tracks pander to mainstream pop. Why the band brought in outside producers to help on that album I don’t know. They’ve always had the mojo to stick to themselves, and in Screen Violence they not only reattain that independent confidence, they go one better than what they’ve ever done before. There’s not a single song on this album that I skip over when listening to it, and I can’t say that about any of the other three.

If you have nostalgia for the old horror films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, this album will be a special bonus. The band members are horror fans, and Mayberry evidently saw metaphors in women being stalked and slaughtered as she was writing songs for Screen Violence. The metaphors aren’t always subtle, for example, in the track “Final Girl”, where Mayberry alludes to the single girl who makes it to the end of the horror film:

In the final cut
In the final scene
There’s a final girl
And you know that she should be screaming

There’s a haunting aesthetic to the album, as Mayberry sings about loneliness and fear in a world full of assholes. Usually I’m left cold when bands get too retributive in their music, because that usually comes at the expense of good music. The politics overtake the art. If you’re U2 or Tracy Chapman, you can get away with it, but they’re exceptions. When Taylor Swift tried it, Reputation ended up a shitty album — and that’s usually the ordained result. But Screen Violence is another exception. For all its pissed-off overtones and social commentary, it’s actually a very mature album. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the entire thing. Here are youtube links to all the tracks, and my descriptions of what I think they’re essentially about.

1. Asking for a Friend – about personal regrets, lying and cheating, and penitence, but rising from the ash determined to do better

2. He Said She Said – a diatribe against gaslighting and the toxic standards placed on women; the album’s best track — which is impressive since it’s also the album’s angriest

3. California — freedom in failure; knowing when to give up because something isn’t working; in the context of California, it may seem like a dream state, but you might get mired there and die poor because you were a careerist ambitious person

4. Violent Delights — drowning in panic and paralysis; how the world takes its toll on you; Mayberry’s anonymous rape and death threats are in the background of this track

5. How Not to Drown — about not letting assholes grind you down, sung with Robert Smith; you can imagine The Cure writing a song like this

6. Final Girl — about perseverance and resisting pressures women face in the music business, while feeling powerless to change those pressures

7. Good Girls — writing off heroes who turn out to be assholes, and moving on; making peace with the way the world works

8. Lullabies — the nightmare of media culture; the link between real human suffering and our obscene consumption of that suffering in the news

9. Nightmares — the challenge of forgiveness; this track seems self-accusatory, given the retributive nature of the album

10. Better If You Don’t — the most uplifting song on the album, offering some hope