Can you believe were almost done with September? What the hell happened? Where did it all go? In any event, it's almost time to bust out the Cosby sweaters and start carvin' the damn pumpkins, so I'd better go ahead and get this month's edition of Currently in Rotation up and out. So here goes....
MUSIC: With the exception of Bowie's Pin-Ups, Another Time, Another Place by Bryan Ferry, Kicking Against the Pricks by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Garage Days Re-Revisited by Metallica and maybe Undisputed Attitude by Slayer, tribute/cover records are rarely a good idea. Nine out of ten of them fall flat (Duran Duran's arguably bloated Thank You -- as one particuarly tragic example -- was recently voted the "worst album of all time" by a British music magazine, although I actually don't think it's all that bad). However well-intentioned, albums comprised solely of cover versions of other artists' songs tend to smack of hubris, barrell-scraping, contractual obligation and ineptitude. Def Leppard were recently savaged in the press for Yeah!, their collection of glam and classic rock staples. Even my beloved Firewater released a covers album, 2004's Songs We Should Have Written that, while boasting a few great moments, was far from their finest hour.
So imagine my surprise to learn the Grant Lee Phillips, former lead singer of criminally unsung 90's "alternative Americana" trio, Grant Lee Buffalo, was releasing an all-covers album. To my pronounced relief, however, Grant didn't try to tackle the predictable crap like Gram Parsons, Hank Williams or Leonoard Cohen, but rather concentrated his homage on largely familiar alternative hits from the 80's (hence the title, nineteeneighties). While their career had its low-profile ups and downs, I am firmly of the mindset that Grant Lee Buffalo crafted at least two shimmeringly perfect singles in their day, namely the eerily evocative "Mockingbirds" and the flawless love song that was "Truly, Truly" (from their otherwise dead-on-arrival final album, Jubilee). Phillips' distinctive vocals can both swoon a sweet falsetto and exhort in a throaty baritone (ala a less self-conscious Eddie Vedder). I've never been an especially ardent fan of so-called "alt.country" let alone, folk-rock, but Grant Lee Buffalo brought a new sound to that particular table that managed to capture my attention. The band died a quietly ignominious death after the failure of their last two albums to match the critical acclaim of their first two, and Phillips went onto launch a solo career, often touring with the likes of equally compelling artists like Robyn Hitchcock and M.Doughty (ex-Soul Coughing). So, again, to hear that he was releasing a covers album did not bode well. Had his muse finally abandoned him?
I wasn't going to pick it up at first, but when I heard that he took on "City of Refuge" by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (one of my favorites), I couldn't resist. The album is basically a collection of rootsier, virtually campfire-friendly renditions of songs you wouldn't normally imagine working in a folkily acoustic context. Some tracks work better than others. His rendition of New Order's "Age of Consent," for example, excises the original's twitchy urgency, replacing it with a drowsily contemplative vibe. More often than not, Phillips' arrangements are perfectly pleasant, but just make you pine for the originals. His trek through the Psychedelic Furs' signature "Love My Way" jettisons the memorable marimba hook, and his pass at "Under the Milky Way" by the Church just makes you miss the original's twelve-string atmospherics. There are a couple of duds. His take on the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry" just falls completely flat (no one should cover this song, honestly) and his handling of R.E.M.'s "So.Central Rain" sorely misses Pete Buck's Rickenbacker chime. The bottom line is that while this album would sound great being played live one cool, starry night on the front porch of a cozy cabin off the shores of some remote island in a far flung Maine archipeligo, all it manages to make me do is shuffle my iPod to hear the original tracks that inspired it. And while I applaud Phillips for covering "City of Refuge," his version lacks all the palpable menace that makes Cave's original so thrilling in the first place.
But still...it doesn't suck.
WEBSITE: Brandspankin!, a "site dedicated to the high art of advertising parody, and giving brands the spankin' they deserve." The gent behind this site left a comment on an earlier post of mine, prompting me to seek out his weblog. Some very funny, endearingly inflamatory stuff to be found here.
TEXT: I'm sad to say that I've had precious little time to devote to any serious book readin' of late. My weekends are chock full of toddler-maintenance, and by the time the Missus and I are ready to call it a night, we're both too exhausted to crack the bindings of any bedside tomes. I still haven't finished the Bourdain book I cited last month. That all said, my wife recently handed me a copy of Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik on the strength of an entry called "Barney in Paris." Two paragraphs in, and I was convinced that the man was a sheer, unfettered genius. I haven't had time to read the rest, but if this entry is anything to go by, it's a possible new fave.
QUOTE: A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. - H. L. Mencken
SHIT THAT'S PISSING ME OFF THIS MONTH: In an ill-fated attempt to clear my head one recent weekend afternoon, I decided to stroll on up to my local Virgin Megastore on Union Square just to punish myself (with two little kids at home, it's not like I have a great opportunity to blast any new music, much less watch any DVDs with any semblance of regularity). In any event, while I was incredulously stomping around looking for the "import" section (which had been evidently dismantled to accommodate a larger Hip Hop section -- yeah, like Hip Hop doesn't already have enough an unremitting stranglehold on popular freakin' culture that it should need to dislocate my favorite stuff!), my fruitless search led me downstairs where I found myself in the DVD section. And what should I see staring me square in the face but this beautiful little bundle of cruelty.
Rewind the clock to 1979. I was a feckless 8th grader otherwise obsessed with Kiss, "Ghost Rider," "Star Wars," "The X-Men" and the Ramones. My father -- in an exceptionally rare instance of coolness -- decided that it would make for a swell bonding experience to take his son to go see Francis Ford Coppola's newly opened Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now." I had no idea what the film was about, nor could I even correctly pronounce the first word in the title (much less find Vietnam on a map), but I'd seen the poster and it looked way fuckin' cool. I vividly remember seeing it at some crappy movie theater on 3rd Avenue and brieftly thinking that maybe my dad wasn't such a raging jackass after all (I was wrong, of course). In any event, I was mesmerized. I soaked up every hugely confusing nanosecond of "Apocalypse Now." To this day, it remains one of my favorite films of all time, and it all started that afternoon.
One of my best friends at the time was a lanky, bespectacled class-mate named Charlie. A fellow comics devotee and Kiss fan, Charlie was also an ersatz gun-nut and potential future-survivalist obsessed with all-things war. It was Charlie who first introduced me the needlessly violent D.C. comic, "Sgt. Rock" and first played me Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine by the Doors (who we both momentarily latched onto strictly because of the placement of "The End" during the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now.") It was Charlie who fist got ahold of the soundtrack LP to the film, which featured about eighty percent of the film's dialogue (which we, of course, dutifully memorized for the purposes of unsolicited recitation at inopportune times). I think we even picked up copies of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (the book upon which "Apocalypse Now" is loosely based, although the original narrative takes place in the African Congo and involves elephant tusk trading), in an ultimately futile attempt to more fully understand the film.
The trouble reallly started, however, one day when Charlie and I started to discuss the film in inordinate detail. For some inexplicable reason (perhaps I simply saw an earlier cut of the film than Charlie), I vividly remember the film concluding not only with Brando's haunted soliloquoy ("the horror...the horror"), but with a very artsily shot montage of the air-strike (presumably called in by Chef before his neck was forcibly parted from his head) as the credits rolled. Plumes of orange flame silhoeting the Cambodian statuery and haggard palms of the Kurtz compound, set to ominouosly struck piano chords. At my first mention of this, Charlie was incredulous. "You're such a fuckin' liar, Alex" he scoffed. Evidently, as far as Charlie was concerned, the film ended with the final utterance of "...horror" and the titles rolled over a black screen. It was this pivotal discrepancy of events that almost tore our friendship apart (and remember, this is years before both the advent of readily available VCRs, let alone the film's release on VHS). We argued with vein-popping intensity about it. Too late to catch the film again in a theatre and without the resources to prove each other wrong, we decided to agree to disagree on the point, but we never really saw eye to eye on a subject ever again.
Over a decade later, the film was finally released on DVD. Charlie and I, having both graduated from grade school (let alone our respective high schools and colleges) had long since fallen completely out of touch. I remember popping the DVD of "Apocalypse Now" into my player and watching it end to end (as I always had), rapt by every last detail. Sure enough, following Kurtz's dying utterance, a lone white point appeared out of the black that suddenly blossomed into a blinding ball of napalm. I WAS RIGHT.
Cut to 2001. Francis Ford Coppola releases "Apocalypse Redux," a supposedly complete "director's cut" that includes all footage from the film restored into one sprawling piece. I dutifully went to see it one rainy Tuesday morning at the movie theatre under the building that I now work in. I was gripped by every extra, equally confusing nanosecond of footage. BUT GUESS WHAT? No fuckin' final air strike. Sorry, you lose.
I later found the answer:
Was There an Ending With an Air Strike on Kurtz' Compound?
When I saw Apocalypse Now in a theater years ago, the end credits were shown over footage of massive explosions in Kurtz' compound. But on the DVD, the end credits are simply white letters over a black background. So, were there multiple endings or what?
Material on the DVD covers this issue. At one time the filmmakers released a theatrical version of Apocalypse Now that had end credits shown over behind-the-scenes footage of sets being blown up. The problem was that to many viewers, including me, this footage looked like a continuation of the movie's narrative in which an air strike was in progress on Kurtz' compound.
When it was realized that Coppola's intended ending was being muddled by this version of the end credits, the sequence now on the DVD was substituted. With this change, the film's ending is unambiguous: Willard switches off the radio without ever calling for an air strike, and therefore we can assume there won't be one.
To make a long, rambling rant short, I'm strenuously lamenting this supposedly definitive collection. They did it with "Monty Python & the Holy Grail," they did it with "Star Wars," they're doing it with "Blade Runner" and now with "Apocalypse Now." Stop syphoning monies out of the fanbase, goddammit!
ADDENDUM: In the entirely unlikely event that Charlie is reading this, you can see the sequence for yourself right here. Enjoy,!
OLD TIMEY VIDEO CLIP OF THE MONTH: If you've spent any amount of time reading this weblog, you'll know that I harbor an almost fetishistic fascination for the NYC of the 1980s. As such, I bring you "Run and Run" by the Psychedelic Furs. It's not that I think this song is the bee's knees or anything (the band made fistfulls of better tracks than this), but the clip finds Richard Butler and the boys swanning about Battery Park, the Gramercy Park Hotel, long-defunkt Venus Records on W.8th Street, lower 6th Avenue and snippets of the East and West Village all circa 1982. As a video, it's no great shakes, but as a period piece, I find it quite compelling.