Monthly Archives: October 2007

Blue Monday

One of the side benefits of being a gangster in Prohibition-era America was that it afforded a ringside seat to witness the white-hot development of jazz. Laurence Bergreen’s biography of Chicago mobster Al Capone, Capone: The Man and the Era, goes into detail about Scarface’s affinity for black people (an uncommon trait among Italians of his generation) and interest in jazz music. Of course, Capone being Capone, that interest could be expressed in uncomfortable ways:

More than bootlegging attracted Capone to blacks; he was also enthralled by their vital music. But as another jazz musician, Fats Waller, discovered, playing for Capone could be an experience in terror, a command performance before a volatile tyrant. A product of Harlem, Waller was a lyricist, vocalist, and pianist of immense talent; best known for his song “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” he possessed an ability to laugh, joke, leer, pun, and parody his way through the songs he played. When Capone first heard of him, the “harmful little armful,” as Waller called himself, was holding court at the piano in the Sherman House, a favorite gathering place for many of Capone’s men. One night a Capone gunman stopped the show by waving a machine gun at the crowd; he warned the audience to sit still while he searched for “a friend.” During the sweep, the Capone forces herded the audience and Waller into the men’s room, and Waller, petrified, refused to come out until the police arrived and assurred him he was safe. (Given the conditions under which the jazz musicians played, was it any wonder that Chicago jazz came to be known for its distinctive edge and bite, a nervousness never felt down in New Orleans?)

Not long after this incident, Waller himself was kidnapped at gunpoint as he left the Sherman House; four men bundled him into a waiting limousine, which sped off into the night. That Waller was black and his captors white added to his terror, and during the drive his imagination was inflamed with the horror of violent death. Instead, the limousine proceeded to Cicero and pulled up in front of the Hawthorne Inn, where the four men ordered Waller out of the car and shoved him into a lounge where a party was in progress. There they ordered him to sit down at the piano and play. Waller sensed he would live a while longer, and eventually he realized he was at a birthday party in honor of Al Capone. In fact, Waller himself was the present Capone’s men gave to their boss. Giddy with relief, Waller played on and on. Capone in turn expressed his pleasure by plying Waller with champagne and filling his pockets with bills whenever he played a request. Waller claimed this was his first taste of champagne, and once he recovered from the shock of his enforced ride to Cicero, he had a marvelous time, for Waller loved a party as much as Capone did, so much so that the party lasted for three days, after which Waller went home exhausted and hungover, his pockets bulging with thousands of dollars.

A more direct beneficiary of Capone’s largesse was bassist Milt Hinton, who briefly earned plenty of pocket money as a teenager driving trucks delivering Capone’s whiskey and alcoholic beverages to Chicago’s black neighborhoods. One night, a car plowed into Hinton’s truck; the impact threw him through the windshield and onto the street, where he lay bleeding with severe injuries and one of the fingers on his right hand nearly severed. In the hospital, Capone — who had arrived with Hinton’s mother to smooth things over with the police — stared down a doctor who wanted to amputate Hinton’s mutilated finger. Though the finger was improperly sewed back on, Hinton went on to play behind the likes of Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Bing Crosby.

Here’s a clip of Fats Waller that will give you an idea of how he could keep a party going. And here’s a charming performance by Milt Hinton that shows off his storytelling skills along with his bass playing, and shows why we should be happy Al Capone was there to keep him from losing a finger.

Watch where you point that thing

“He [Albus Dumbledore] did things with a wand I’ve never seen before.” Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, page 711.

I’ll just bet he did.

Turns out that J.K. Rowling has been dropping hints, consciously or otherwise, for years now about the goings-on at Hogwarts. These enterprising fans have compiled a collection of Harry Potter innuendo that seems almost as long as one of the later books:

“Snape eyed Harry, tracing his mouth with one long, thin finger as he did so.” (531)

“Well?” said Ron finally, looking up at Harry. “How was it?” Harry considered for a moment.
“Wet.” He said truthfully. (458)

“What did he do to you, Diddy?” Aunt Pentunia said in a quavering voice, now sponging sick from the front of Dudley’s leather jacket. “Was it– was it you-know-what, darling? Did he use– his thing?” (26)

“He bit hard on his pillow, to stop himself from making a noise.” (518)

“Running to Daddy now, are you? Is his ickle boxing champ frightened of nasty Harry’s wand?” (14)

Harry snorted. He walked around the room again, looking anywhere but at Ron and Hermione. “So what have you two been doing if you’re not allowed in meetings?” he demanded. “You said you’d been busy.” (68)

“Say hello to him [Hagrid] for us!” called Hermione, as Harry proceeded down the ward. “And ask him what’s happening about . . . about his little friend!” (850)

“. . . every part of him screaming for release, Harry felt the creature use him again . . .” (720)

I can’t wait to hear from the James Dobson crowd about this.

A great subject needs a great writer

Even if you’ve never watched a Steven Seagal movie — or, as is more likely these days, rented a direct-to-video Steven Seagal movie — you should be thrilled to know about Seagalogy, the long awaited summa Seagalica from Vern. He’s more than capable of explaining this himself:

Well, now I’m happy to announce that my book SEAGALOGY is finally available at this link. In the book I go through every Seagal picture in chronological order and analyze them in even more obsessive detail than I do here, finding their common themes and trying to compute what it’s all about. I also examine his two albums, his energy drink, notable TV appearances, even his cameo in Billy Crystal’s MY GIANT. Yes, I watched MY GIANT. That is the kind of serious discipline and sacrifice that was put into this project. That thing is 103 minutes long.

I hope it’s an enjoyable book that will make you laugh, but I also hope you know by now that I’m serious about this Seagalogy shit. It’s not some smug ironic wackiness like people try to pull with Chuck Norris. I honestly hope I have come up with some new insights and will change some people’s perception of Seagal’s movies. If not, at least I wrote the first book to discuss Seagal’s appearance on The Celebrity Guide To Wine. (Well, only in an appendix.)

To show that this is real cinema I got an acclaimed director to write the introduction. David Gordon Green, director of GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, UNDERTOW and the upcoming SNOW ANGELS and THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is a fellow Seagalogist and also happens to have a movie with a Criterion Edition. I wonder if he could help get a Criterion Edition of ON DEADLY GROUND? I should ask.

For the record, I believe most sincerely that while Steven Seagal may lag behind Chuck Norris in the quality-control department (Norris has two count ’em two actual decent movies, Code of Silence and Good Guys Wear Black, while Seagal has only one, Above the Law) he’s miles ahead in the bitter witticisms department, having summed up his divorce from Kelly LeBrock by saying something along the lines of, “Next time I think about getting married, I’ll just find a woman I can’t stand and buy her a house instead.” Also, his grounding in eastern philosophy has kept him from following Norris down the fundie road, and he leads his own blues band. None of which could induce me to rent out The Glimmer Man under any circumstances, but that’s why Vern is here.

The man who said yes

James Wolcott channels some memories of Hilly Kristal, the man behind CBGB’s, the Bowery bar that brought us the Ramones, Television and Patti Smith. You should read the whole thing, but I particularly like this account of how a club with an acronym that promised country, bluegrass and blues became the epicenter of deafening punk rock:

Richard Lloyd was hilarious. Television were rehearsing and they were so bad they decided to look for a dive bar, somewhere so low down they could become the house band and could learn to play on the job. He talked about going with Tom Verlaine to see Hilly for the first time, finding him on top of a ladder fixing the sign. He told them he wasn’t interested in booking a rock band because he wasn’t going to have loud music, he was going to have country and blue grass and blues. Tom and Richard insisted their music had strains of country and blue grass and blues, and anyway, they lied hopefully, “Our music isn’t really loud.” Hilly showed them the club, the dingy biker bar it was then, and explained he was going to build a stage at the front of the bar: “I got the idea from drive-in movies.” “You can’t do that, it’ll be so loud, all the neighbors will complain!” “But I’m not going to play loud music.” Finally, they convinced him that it wouldn’t work because whoever was on the door wouldn’t be able to hear what the customers were saying. In the end Hilly offered them a night. They played and nobody came. So the next time Hilly decided to pair them with a band from Forest Hills who had a bit of a following and that’s how the Ramones played with them.

Towards the end of the night Tommy Ramone spoke and he remembered that Hilly told them something like, “No-one will like you but you can play anyway.” Person after person who spoke talked about Hilly’s generous open door policy. I think it was Patti — or maybe it was Bob Christgau or Danny Fields or Lenny Kaye or all of them — said how Hilly changed the music scene just by saying yes. He just said yes to all these bands. And it made me think that that’s the only reason anything good ever gets going — it’s true in film, in television, in everything, and yet it’s so rare for someone just to say yes like that, without second guessing himself or worrying about whether it would make him rich and successful. Just too keep the door open. To have the confidence in his own opinion. Which means that some terrible and many mediocre bands played as well as the great ones, but that was part of it.Hilly’s memorial reminded me of what I most loved about CBGB’s, which was its warmth and its curious uncoolness, its acceptance of all the little lost lambs (as Lester called them) who sheltered there. I was never truly happy in any club that had a velvet rope or a door policy, and I never found that CBGB acceptance again.

“Hilly changed the music scene just by saying yes” — that sounds like something Patti Smith would have said. Punk rock started with people saying “no” to what was going on in rock and roll during the first half of the 1970s, but they couldn’t get themselves heard until Hilly Kristal said “yes.” How lucky for us that he was there to do it.

And Hammer say so

Just in time for Halloween, Dennis Cozzalio delivers an appreciation for British director Terence Fisher, chief auteur of the Hammer Films horror stable — home of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and the always luscious Veronica Carlson, second only to Barbara Steele in the scream queen gallery.

Recyclers of Dune

Brian Herbert is right up there with Christopher Tolkien when it comes to keeping his father’s name and work in the public eye. Since Frank Herbert’s death in 1986, Brian has used his notes to work up several more novels in the already overextended line of sequels to the 1965 novel Dune.

With all that material available for adaptation, and Herbert’s fanbase demonstrably still strong and interested, it was probably inevitable that somebody would want to take another shot at filming the original novel, and according to this item that somebody looks to be Paramount.

David Lynch’s 1984 film version, a notorious flop, always struck me as about half of a pretty good SF movie. The first hour or so, with its panoply of grotesque characters and cultures, is engrossing to watch, and the crisscrossing plotlines and conspiracies are handled pretty well for a filmmaker who has made it clear he is uninterested in conventional narrative. The problems start as soon as Paul Atreides begins his exile in the desert, and the story starts groaning under the weight of fortune cookie mumbo-jumbo messiah talk that even Cecil B. DeMille would consider pompous nonsense. I lay the blame for all that on Frank Herbert rather than David Lynch, because frankly I found the original Dune just barely readable, and its sequels, starting with Dune Messiah and working all the way out to Proctologist-Emperor of Dune, so tedious that they border on lethal.But Peter Jackson has shown Hollywood that it need not be fearful of adapting bulky genre works as long as they have a big reader base — treat the fans right and everything else will follow. So, by all means, let somebody take another run at Dune. Just don’t expect to see me on line for opening night. On the other hand, I’ve never been much of a Tolkien fan, and Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films knocked my socks off, so here’s another possibility that somewhere down the line I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Deborah Kerr

You’ve probably seen at least some of the obituaries today for actress Deborah Kerr, who died Tuesday at age 86, and if like me you never paid much attention to her work, it must come as a slight shock to realize how many great or at least memorable films she was in. Anybody whose career encompassed The King and I, Black Narcissus and From Here to Eternity has made a pretty deep mark in film history.

What’s puzzling is that the obits I’ve seen to date completely ignore The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw that is one of the best horror movies ever made. As the governess terrified by visions of ghostly figures menacing the children in her car, Kerr makes the idea that the wraiths are all figments of her imagination even scarier than the possibility that they could be real ghosts. Her performance is the powerful centerpiece of an exceptionally subtle and intense spook story, one that should be much better known. 

Beautiful screamer

The Wilhelm Scream has gone mainscream . . . um, mainstream. ABC News has posted its own short, amusing take on the longest-lived sound effect in film history.

Now that the cat is out of the bag and everyone knows about the Wilhelm Scream, maybe it’s time to retire it in favor of a new sound cue. On one of the making-of documentaries on the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, it was revealed that Billy Boyd, who played Pippin, got endless shit from the rest of the cast over the girly-man scream he came up with for the scene in which Merry and Pippin ignite one of Gandalf’s fireworks inside a tent. Instead of the Wilhem Scream, how about the Pippin Screech?    

Speaking

This Wednesday (Oct. 17) I’ll be returning to Jersey City, N.J., to talk about my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. The venue is the Hudson Diversity Action Council at 32 Jones Street and the time is 7:30 p.m. Stop by and say hi.

Closing down Christiania

Everything I know about Christiania, I learned from Bob Dylan. Actually, I learned it from In Christiania, one of the more opulent Crystal Cat bootlegs, which captures His Bobness in a series of July 1996 performances at Den Gra Hal (The Gray Hall) in the odd little pocket of Copenhagen called the Free Town of Christiania. I’d never heard of the place, but the photos in the Crystal Cat booklet made it look like something the characters from Hair would have come up with if there’d been no Vietnam War and no narcs to spoil the party.

Thanks to this writeup by Beth Ann Bovino in 3 Quarks Daily, I now know a bit more about Christiania, and it looks like it may not be around much longer:

Christiania began in 1971 when hippies, squatters and political activists invaded an abandoned military base in the heart of Copenhagen. This site was renamed the “Free Town of Christiania.” The authorities, surprisingly, didn’t storm the place. Instead, they humored them (the situation has changed recently, and police have started raiding the commune). The settlement was legalized and the Christianites were allowed to govern themselves. They even designed their own flag. Christiania is now the third largest tourist attraction in Copenhagen after the Little Mermaid and Tivoli.

Christiana is not a legal haven for the drug culture for which it has been associated with at times over the years from uneducated travelers. The use of hash is illegal in Denmark and possession is punishable. Moreover, the current government has repeatedly trying to shut the area down. The hash booths once considered a major feature in Christiana were removed by the beginning of 2004. Before they were demolished, the National Museum of Denmark was able to get one of the more colorful stands, which forms part of an exhibit.

The people in Christiania have developed their own set of rules, completely independent of the Danish government. The rules forbid stealing, guns, bulletproof vests and hard drugs. Marijuana was sold openly from permanent stands until 2004, though Christiana does have rules forbidding hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine. The region negotiated an arrangement with the Danish defense ministry (which still owns the land) in 1995. However, the future of the area remains an issue, as Danish authorities continue to push for its removal.

Bovino’s article gives the sense that Christiania’s days are numbered, and not very high numbers at that. Denmark is supposed to be the most conservative of the Scandinavian countries, which makes its tolerance for this squatter-state all the more surprising — being a tourist attraction probably helps. The self-governing community has had its share of troubles: a biker gang nearly turned the place upside down in the mid-1980s, and heroin dealers had to be forcibly expelled at one point.

Yes yes, you say, that’s all good and well, but how is the bootleg? Pretty good, actually, if you like Dylan’s mid-1990s voice, which was noticeably contracting though not yet the ragged croak of the early Double-Aughts. I don’t play it all that much, but it is a lovely collectible item.