Monday, July 19, 2004

Paul Simon, Among Other Things


My crotch is still snug after all these years.

The Paul Simon reissues are welcome with big, open arms. I’ve owned his first two post-Garfunkel albums for a while now, and love them- so it was a nice surprise to discover a few weeks ago that his entire catalog had been remastered, with the first half on the shelves this past Tuesday. I headed over to the Virgan Superstore on the Magnificent Mile (where the in-store DJs are almost always entirely successful in pricking me out of my browsing trance with their hyped up in-between songs chatter) on Friday and picked up Still Crazy After All These Years and Hearts and Bones.

I had heard Still Crazy After All These Years in its entirety sometime back in the early 90’s via the Columbus Library. It didn’t do much to me, other then offering the surprise of seeing Tony Levin in the credits, his lovely bass playing anchoring many of the album’s songs, including its big hit, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Almost a decade later, I’m far more receptive to the album’s charms, which are substantial. Besides the fun of hearing Levin’s playing, the album also features some great backing vocals by the likes of the Jersey Dixon Singers and the Chicago Community Choir, the sweet-tempered harmonizing of Simon and Garfunkel on My Little Town and the soulful bossa-nova of I Do It For Your Love, probably the track I’m currently enjoying most on the album. The song features an absolutely lilting accordion and vocal solo by someone credited only as Sivuca! Maybe more-so then any other pop star, Simon’s voice captivates me with a soulful kind of gentleness similar to Joao Gilbertos. The album, like his first two, is also streaked with southern soul, Dixieland and mellow mid-life assessments.

Hearts and Bones, with its grainy video cover of Simon looking fiercely New Romantic or an extra from the film adaptation of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, begins with a song titled Allergies. It was released in October of 1983. I’m pleased to say that Paul Simon is one of the rare artists to have successfully navigated unscathed through the otherwise ruinous threshold of the 70’s into the 80's, a journey that seems to have sapped a disproportionate number of artists who created classic albums throughout much of the 70’s, only to falter in the 80s with releases whose severe mediocrity glared against the backdrop of their previous efforts. I have, however, been thinking of late that maybe it's not necessarily the quality of the songs themselves that bothers me, so much as it might just be the way they were produced. Namely, that nearly everything sounds like it was recorded in modest sized rooms made entirely of porcelain.

Of course, I’m all for the clean sheen of the glistening reverb that seemed to coat so many of the tracks in the 80’s. When it’s done well it sounds great,and Simon, who’ve I’ve come to recognize as one of the great studio wizards, does it especially well-buffering all his tracks with the nicest feelin’ groovy kind of polish. It’s clean, but always soulful. On Train In The Distance, for example- one of the album’s stand-out cuts, Simon lays down one of his greatest vocal performances, a funky multi-layered doo-wop equal to any of Marvin Gaye’s sweetest, sexiest vocal beds. It practically shimmers.

The album’s last track, The Late Great Johnny Ace, nicely manages to eulogize both the 50’s R & B singer Johnny Ace and John Lennon, ending with a velvety and mournful Phillip Glass coda.


Our basement has come to, unfortunately, be known as “the TV room,” a title that, while definitely unfortunate (conjuring up, as it does, the prospects of Jay Leno, that sitcom starring Jim Belushi and repeats of Maude) is not entirely inappropriate given the size of the television that has only recently come to reside there. It’s a beast, rotund with screen and lush with surround sound.

We’re a little embarrassed about it, Cathy especially, it’s very size signaling a kind of consumption gluttony and presumably symbolic of our commitment to television. We fear others may conclude that we’re spending our leisure hours watching the boob tube. But hell no, my friends! We’re always quick to do our duty and offer assurances that it’s chief function is for movie viewing and its considerable girth and surround sound help to more closely approximate the film going experience. In Pauline Kaels’ old essay, Movies On Television, she talks about the diminishing effects of watching films on the TV:

Not only the size but the shape of the image is changed, and, indeed, almost all the specifically visual elements are so distorted as to be all but completely destroyed. On television, a cattle drive or a cavalry charge or a chase- the climax of so many a big movie- loses the dimensions of space and distance that made it exciting, that sometimes made it great. And since the structural elements- the rhythm, the buildup, the suspense- are also partly destroyed by deletions and commercial breaks and the interruptions incidental to home viewing, it’s amazing that the bare bones of performance, dialogue, story, good directing, and (especially important for close-range viewing) good editing can still make an old movie more entertaining than almost anything new on television.

So, you see, it’s all about giving all that space and distance its due.

Sadly, we haven’t watched too much that’s been worthwhile. Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, the first film we waded through, was thick with inflated grandeur and hackneyed heroics. You are never, not once, given the opportunity to cast Cruise in anything but the most noble of 25 million dollars a picture lights. You see, his character was witness to the killing of American Indians, one of Custer’s soldiers and it is only through the way of the Samurai, a kind of surrogate for the noble Indians, that he can immerse himself in their own particular nativism and come out cleansed! And you, dear viewers, can behold The Cruise go all Samurai on your ass and witness The Cruise as the humble savior of The Way of the Samurai!

Then there’s the case of In America and Love Actually, both of which I really wanted to like but ended up feeling let down by. If forced to chose between the two, I’d say I enjoyed Love Actually more if only because the chances it was taking and the blunt mechanics of achieving them were far less ambitious and overburdened with the kind of pathos In America was steeped in. Neither film is exactly subtle, easily giving away to an undertow of distrust in the viewer’s ability to gleam emotional nuance from the story it’s telling. But Love Actually, given its frothy romantic veneer, makes no bones about its desire to provide you with lazy entertainment gussied up with decent actors handsomely paid. Emma Thompson is given roughly 12 minutes (in one of the flims 8 or 9 different subplots) to play a woman scorned. Liam Neeson, on the other hand, radiates an entire seasons worth of sitcom dad wholesomeness by assisting a cute nubbin (orphaned no less!) in the ways of love.

In America reminded me of Michael Mann's Ali, where Mann seemed to struggle with how to best capture and present Ali’s over-sized personae on the big screen. In the end, the film was overly reliant on its use of montage to compress time and capture evocative moments. It was overkill, the story never being given time to stretch out and the characters never given the opportunity to become something other then a collection of poses.

Whereas Love Actually nonchalantly drifts into its ending and surprises by simply abandoning some of its subplots or casually leaving others unresolved, In America’s ending offers us heaping spoonfuls of the unsparingly hokey. Cathy gets props for hopping on board the hopelessly inevitable and calling from way way out that Mateo (who is all of these things: noble, African, tortured artist, lover of cute nubbins, dispenser of wisdom, victim of Aids and wealthy- and I think that if he were any more of a gentle-dying-wise and giant black man his goodness would probably burst open and reveal a core of healing sunshine) would die just as the baby was born (or, show signs of life) and my props come from having called that he’d foot the families hospital bill. Kur Thunk!


Not just that, but license to get blindingly drunk and pee on trees.


In addition to Sekou Bembeya Diabate “diamond fingers,” I was pleased to recently witness his fine guttural prowess.


Giving character to a new place is vital. Cathy and I finally had the opportunity to hang up most of our old family photos last weekend. We lined both walls of our upstairs hallway with pictures of people, without whom, we wouldn’t be around to be hanging up pictures on a Sunday afternoon. Stepping back, we eyed with satisfaction our gallery of bloodlines, their eyes looking back at us from something both familiar and forever removed. There’s one of Cathy’s grandmother in her ballerina outfit, dramatically posed in front of her house as her mom and sister look on with approving smiles from its windows. There’s another of my great-grandmother standing next to a small piano with her sister, coyly looking down. Another features Cathy's great-great grandparents grimly staring out at the camera. Just when did smiling for the camera become the norm? My favorite is the glamorous close-up shot of my grandma, the lightest trace of a smile on her lips and a fur elegantly wrapped around her neck. She couldn’t be more then 20, and looking at it, I find myself wishing I knew more about when and why and where it was taken.

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