Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Stillness of that Night

The scene, in its simplest form, is a relatively lonely stretch of highway on the road from Fullerton to Escondido. He had made that trek many times before. You could even go as far as to say he knew that route like the back of his hand... though he would never be so bold as to claim such a thing. Humility was not necessarily his game, but he made a point to play it whenever others were around. Something about appearing more humble than you actually are... but I digress...

... the word lonely as a descriptor for the road is intentional. Though this particular stretch of road is technically a portion of a major interstate highway, it is peculiarly situated where man and his tools have not yet explored. It is one of the many parts of the road that still pays tribute to the great Pacific ocean that lays by its side. The water that runs parallel to this stretch of road always appears calmer than other parts.

I have written rather frequently as of late about events or occurrences in my life that at first seem insignificant or trivial, but somehow manage to be marked as pivotal or profound moments for my own life. This stretch of road along the interstate is the site for another one of these moments.

An overly confident young man is driving along the highway, making his almost bi-monthly trip home to visit his parents. Although he makes it home much more frequently than some of his friends who went away to college, he still seethes with anticipation whenever he finds the time to go home. His excitement and demeanor are especially elevated when he hits the stretch of road in question. The business and rush that typifies this major interstate road becomes hushed. His car stereo, "driven" by his iPod packed full of eclectic music (set to random), adjusts itself to the mood by playing the song "Me And A Gun" by Tori Amos. Although a fan of Amos' instrumental and vocal talents, the young driver admits to being familiar with only a few of her songs, which he listened to numerous times when he purchased her compilation album, "Tales of a Librarian." After a month or so of listening to the same two or three songs on repeat, he moved on to new music and forgot all about Tori Amos. He had never heard "Me And A Gun" before that night.

The song itself is chilling. Devastating. In it, Amos discusses the rape of a woman. Amos, herself a survivor of a sexual assault, contributes haunting vocal qualities to the already sickening lyrical content. "It was me and a gun, and a man on my back, and I sang 'holy holy' as he buttoned down his pants. You can laugh, it's kind of funny, things you think at times like these. Like I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this." These words, so strikingly honest and poignant, create a connection to the character in a fantastically intense way. The aesthetics of the song also contribute to the raw subject matter. Despite Amos' talents as a pianist, this song is stripped of all but the powerful vocals. Just her and her voice.

I am behind the wheel. As a drove alone that night, I wept for the woman in the song. However, I was sobered by the notion that my tears and sorrow were the products of my deepest sympathy, but not empathy. My tears were nothing compared to the ones shed by those who have been forced to endure such atrocities. This crushed me. The sorrows I felt for this woman... and for all women who have ever been tortured in such a manner were honest, but they were the most that I could give. I was conflicted by competing emotional responses. The first was a repulsion for the material. I was tempted at numerous points to press a single button and move on to another song... one that would surely be more emotionally “pleasing.” I never pressed the button. I needed to feel sick. The other emotional response was longing. I was motivated by a desire to connect to the woman in the way she deserved. I felt guilty over the thought that my cry was nothing but a cheap, unwelcome gesture. A way for someone with little history of emotional devastation to feign interest and care... in order to impress everyone around. But there was no one around me that night. It was just me, the road, and night... as far as my eyes could see. I wiped my tears away on my sleeve.

The moment at which I heard this song was as terrifying as it was profound. Amos' stirring voice was enhanced by the eerie stillness of the night and the road on which I traveled. Although I don't at all believe in fate or divine master plans, this experience is a curiously compelling argument. The haunting nature of the song and my surroundings are rivaled only by the maddening nature of the coincidence that paired them together... on that cold Winter night.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

There's A Saying Old...

Michael Buble, modern day crooner and recording artist extraordinaire, has made quite a remarkable living off of his suave renditions of some of music's most historic and cherished songs. Although Mr. Buble has reached mainstream success with some of his original tunes, I argue that the bulk of his fan base became infatuated with him based on his renditions of the "standards." While hundreds of songs seemingly come and go every year, some songs are so good, they become permanently etched in our collective musical memories. Luckily for Buble, he garnered a love for these songs at a young age, and developed himself as a musical artist under the guise of the great songwriters of yesteryear. While I am certainly a fan of Michael Buble, this entry is not principally concerned with his career. No, my focus is on the songs.

One great pleasure of being a fan of the "standards" is that most of them have been recorded by a large number of artists over the years. Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea," for example, is a song so good, it has been recorded and performed by more musicians than I care to list here (no rendition better than Darin's original, if I may be so bold as to say so...). Because of the outstanding availability of many "standards" by so many different artists, fans of the music can take great pleasure in exploring different renditions of a given tune, often leading one to come up with a personal favorite. It may even be the case that the focus narrows even more, where a specific performance of a song by a particular artist becomes a personal musical staple.

"Someone To Watch Over Me," composition and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, is one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching songs you are likely ever to hear. It is a song of longing over something worse than a lost love… a love never had. In expressing remorse over being forced to cherish only the prospect of love, the song’s protagonist expresses a profound hope that there is “that” person out there, who is meant to do no things better than to love him/her. What is particularly beautiful about the song is how it describes love in such an unconventional, but staggeringly honest and alluring way. A typical way of describing love, or someone to love, is to run through all of the qualities that make that (potential) person attractive. Whether it be physical attributes or personality characteristics, we often conceive of love in the ways that we can come to love someone else. Equally as important, I say, is how able we are to be loved. It is in this notion that I find the real beauty of the song. For me, the phrase “how I need someone to watch over me” encapsulates an essential, but often repressed human desire – the desire to have someone who will make you able to be loved in the same way you desire to love someone else. In an act of full disclosure, I have spent more time trying to write this paragraph than I have many other entire posts. I wish that I could write more about what makes this song one of the greats, but that is a task formidable for far more talented writers. I can only ask that you listen to the song for yourself, and hopefully feel similarly about it.

Although this song has been performed by many musical greats over the years, my favorite rendition of it comes from a seemingly unlikely source. The film Mr. Holland’s Opus is a film that centers on an aspiring musical composer named Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), who decides to take up a job teaching music to high school students in order to pay the bills. It is Mr. Holland’s thinking that teaching high school students during the week will serve as a less than strenuous way to make a decent living, and more importantly, will also allow him the time to focus on his own musical efforts. Of course, Mr. Holland quite quickly discovers that the job of a teacher is slightly more time consuming than he had originally envisioned. At one point in the film, Mr. Holland is asked to team up with the school’s drama teacher in putting together a Fall musical. They decide on a Gershwin review. In the midst of auditioning less-than-stellar thespians for the singing roles, Mr. Holland finds himself entranced by a young woman named Rowena Morgan (Jean Louisa Kelly). Ms. Morgan sings beautifully, and appears perfectly suited for the role as the film’s ingĂ©nue. As we discover later, however, she manages to transcend the characteristics of such a stock character.

I fell in love with Gershwin’s song in part because I, like Mr. Holland, fell in love with Rowena Morgan. Her performance of the song is simply breathtaking. What I believe to be noteworthy about my affection for this particular performance is the fact that for all intents and purposes, it is not the “best” that the song has ever been performed. Surely, from a musical standpoint, Kelly’s performance as Rowena does not hold up to other renditions of the song by musical icons like Sinatra or Fitzgerald. Still, whenever I hear the song, to this day I recall the first time I “met” Rowena Morgan, and experienced her enchantment for the first time.

If you have been so bold as to read this far, you are wonderfully patient. Even the most patient reader, I’m sure, eventually must ask, “What is your point?” Here it is. I think it is incredibly important for us to cherish specific memories like this one, and to share them with others. It gives us the ability to communicate pieces of ourselves to those around us, which can prove to be unbelievably fulfilling for our own emotional development. A great many people have heard “Someone To Watch Over Me” in their lifetimes, but no one has ever heard it in precisely the same way I did way back when. Similarly, I may have seen the same film that you have at one point, but I have never seen it exactly the way you have. But, to understand the ways you have seen the things you cherish in your life is a way for me to understand you. And maybe, a chance for you to better understand yourself.

John Denver wrote “Annie’s Song” for his wife. I once saw an interview where she said that, although he had sung the song to her many times throughout the course of their marriage, the most beautiful time she ever heard it was at her daughter’s wedding, after John had died. While Annie may hear that song innumerable more times in her life, she will always hold dear the memory of hearing it that one time. That, my friends, is special.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Musical Memories

A browse through my iTunes library would surely reveal what truly is an eclectic music taste. Although classic and contemporary progressive rock, Motown, and big band and swing may comprise a sizeable portion of my collection, the range of artists at my disposal involves the likes of Oingo Boingo, Chaka Kahn, Andrea Bocelli, Burl Ives, and John Denver… to name just a few… essentially what I’m saying is that there aren’t many genres of music that I find truly distasteful. If I were forced to choose types of music that just don’t do it for me, I would have to narrow the list down to most rap and country music. If forced to narrow it down even further, it would be contemporary rap music and female country singers. Of the latter, I have quite the disdain. I don’t know why, but I almost cannot stand the music produced by Country’s women. Nothing against them or their talents, but there is just something about the music they produce that doesn’t act favorably on my ears. Of all the female country singers I have listened to (believe me, I’ve given quite a few of them their fair chances in hopes of eliminating my bias), only one has ever managed to make it to my music library.

Kathy Mattea has had quite an extensive career in the music business, though I doubt many have followed her career religiously. She released her self-titled debut album in 1984, and has released a total of seventeen original ones in her twenty-five years of active musical artistry. In 1990, she released a compilation of some of her most popular songs to that date, titled “A Collection of Hits.” Of all the CDs in all the world, it is this one that means the very most to me.

Growing up, my parents never had much of an interest in broadcasting music throughout our home. When the house wasn’t silent, it was filled with the sounds of a television show. When I had the privilege of spending the night at a friend’s house, I was enthralled by the ways some family members would go about their days, with eclectic musical pieces filling their respective houses. Even as a child, I thought there was something so much more special about conducting ones daily affairs to the sound of music. Although my parents never made the broadcasting of music a household custom, they did occasionally groove to some tunes. My Dad, who has always maintained a certain swagger (like you wouldn’t believe for a man his age), has always loved the sounds of Motown. The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Commodores, and others of the like are some of my favorites, most likely because my dad taught me from a very early age that those men knew how to do music the right way. I could always count on dad for some real musical ditties when I needed them the most. Mom, on the other hand, almost never spoke about music. She may have remarked about diggin’ the Rolling Stones or CCR “back in the day,” but she never really seemed enthused about any piece of music… until one day she heard (and subsequently bought) Kathy Mattea’s “Collection of Hits.”

From the day my mother bought this CD, she was in love. When we had people coming over for dinner, this album was playing in the background. When we were hanging out by the pool, these songs were playing. One might be inclined to think that years and years of hearing almost exclusively the same set of songs over and over again would cause me to have a certain hatred for them. I suppose this phenomenon may hold true for some, but for me it has had precisely the opposite effect. I love these songs more today than I ever thought I could. Sure, I own other pieces of music that I hold to higher musical standards than the ones on Mattea’s 1990 album, but no others that are supplanted as concretely in my heart and mind. I am tied to these songs as a professional baseball player may be tied to his first Little League glove, or an artist to his first-ever painting. They may just be antique artifacts worthy of no more than a garage sale to others, but to us they mean just about everything. These songs encapsulate a part of myself that I love dearly… a part of me that can only be communicated through the songs themselves.

I hope everyone has an artifact like my Kathy Mattea CD. Whether it be a piece of music, art, or something else, I think it’s important that we remind ourselves about the things in life that helped us get to where we are today, and how we wouldn’t give them up for anything. Anything.

“Like a warm spring rain on the roof above
The way you called my name when we make love
While the world outside my window goes insane
You’re here to remind me, a few good things remain.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Rocketeer: A Less-Than-Formal Request for Reconsideration

I’m willing to wager a guess that the video cassette of The Rocketeer that I watched religiously at my Grandmother’s house in the early 90’s was purchased at a heavily discounted price, and was one of forty or so copies available for purchase. Why do I predict such a thing? Because, simply, the film was a flop. At least, a flop when considering the ambitious marketing ventures associated with it. The film (and probably more so the character) was “supposed” to jumpstart a new pop culture revelation where adolescent boys and girls would abandon their whimsies of flying with a red cape, and instead venture through the skies propelled by an industrial jetpack. Unfortunately for the advertising forces behind The Rocketeer, no one considers its title character to be anywhere close to on par with other iconic heroes (natural or supernatural).

I am writing this post from the comforts of a couch, watching The Rocketeer (thanks to the fine folks at SyFy for their visual generosity). And ya know what? I like it.

The movie stars Bill Campbell (second cousin to Bruce Campbell) as Cliff, an aspiring young pilot who finds himself in the awkward circumstance of being in a morally debilitating crash at the onset of the film. Cliff, despondent after his aviation blunder, is comforted by the presence of his main squeeze Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), who he is in the process of courting. Jenny is an aspiring actress trying to ascend from the rank of movie extra into the limelight of the bustling 1930’s Hollywood scene. Along for the ride is Peevy (Alan Arkin), Cliff’s flying mentor and quirky friend/life associate. When Cliff and Peevy find themselves in the possession of a top-secret jetpack, they engage in a playful back-and-forth over what they should do with the thing. Naturally, Cliff’s adventurous and free-spirited quirkiness prevails, and the two test out their new toy. In the end, Cliff plays the role of the rocket man (dubbed The Rocketeer by press writers), and Peevy contributes his intellect to the project by serving as the rocket’s chief mechanic. However, the use of the rocket must be kept somewhat of a secret, because of the numerous men who are after it. One of these men, who the film considers the primary villain, is a swanky British Hollywood leading man named Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Cat and mouse games ensue…

I’m not much in the mood of debating whether this movie depreciates filmmaking. It probably does. However, it also provides a cheesy, thrilling ol’ time. And, keeping with the needs of many movie patrons, such a film can deliver something worthwhile. The film really is charming. Charming, primarily, because of the wonderful ways that each of the primary cast members contribute to their roles. Bill Campbell is a good-looking man, with a sense of altruism and compassion that is necessary for the story to work. He stands up for his beliefs, and always appears willing to throw himself into harms way in order to save others. You may easily call this character contrived, but it works. This character works even better when dealing with Peevy, who spends most of the film unsuccessfully slinging cautious advice in Cliff’s direction. Naturally, this cautiousness is ignored for the sake of cheap CGI’d thrills.

The real winners in this cast are Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton. Connelly is absolutely radiant in this role, and managed the remarkable feat of maintaining a high level of class considering the less-than-stellar dialogue her character was given. I have always been a fan of her more intense acting work, but I may have to commend her the most for her work in this movie, where she manages to shine in a way that not many other actresses could. And, for as charming as Connelly is in her role, Dalton is the same in his. His snide and often cunning performance gave the film a more effective villain than it probably deserved. He played his moments of bewilderment as effectively as he did his moments of possessing the upper hand.

The Rocketeer is a flick filled with some of the cheapest thrills you can find in the (super)hero action genre, but embraces them with energy and lighthearted sensibilities. The film’s score is as triumphantly cheesy as you can expect (reminiscent of Hook), and put me in quite the ecstatic mood. The screenplay is nothing to rave about, but manages to offer horribly fantastic one-liners precisely when it gets too bland for its own good.

I know a few people who really enjoy this film, and appear lethargic over the fact that it didn’t “take off” (pun INTENDED!). Me, I’m glad the film was a flop. I’m glad its cheesy, contrived beauty isn’t permanently ingrained in the minds of the majority of moviegoers. I’m glad it has been relegated to the B-movie section of the universal film archive. This way, when I write a positive critique of it, my friends can call me an idiot.