Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Humpday Times Book Review

“Support the troops!” We heard it when Bush I sent U.S. soldiers to help Kuwaiti emirs reclaim their property from Saddam Hussein, we heard it a decade later SPITTINGIMAGEwhen Bush II decided to outdo his dad by lying us into an invasion of Iraq, and I expect we’ll hear it again when the next president caves in to the neocons and starts dropping freedom bombs on Syria. Trees, SUVs, and TV screens will be garlanded with yellow ribbons to show we Support the Troops because we know, as surely as we know the Bermuda Triangle sucks up ships and dastardly Asians still hold American POWs captive, that during the Sixties those awful hippies spat on American soldiers when they returned home from Vietnam, and we must prove over and over that the Sixties are dead and done.

I’ve always had a hard time believing that spitting-hippies story, mainly because I have several relatives in different branches of the military, and I’m here to tell you that spitting on them simply isn’t an option unless you’re ready to test the limits of your health care coverage. If that’s true now, it would have been even more true at a time when hardhat construction workers were beating anti-war protestors in the streets, pundits and politicians were praising the National Guardsmen who shot down students at Kent State, and Ronald Reagan was openly talking about spilling blood to stop the demonstrations.      

Jerry Lembcke had a hard time believing it as well, in part because he was part of the anti-war movement at the time and he remembers those dirty hippies actually went out of their way to welcome soldiers into their ranks. In The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Lembcke searches in vain for verifiable, credible evidence that returning soldiers suffered such humiliations. Ironically, the only real evidence he finds is in accounts of older veterans — World War II and Korean War veterans — who showed open contempt for Vietnam veterans, especially those who participated in anti-war activities.

Lembcke also traces the origins of the spitting myth to the Nixon administration, that spawning tank of so many culture war shibboleths, and the role played by Hollywood movies like Coming Home in fostering the image of Vietnam veterans as basket cases and victims of betrayals back home. A short, punchy, still very timely work of history and cultural analysis.

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James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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The Humpday Times Book Review

Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny is a more interesting music-biz memoir than most because Nile Rodgers is a more interesting music-biz figure than most. Partly it’s his singular background: born to a barely teenaged mother, raised in a multiracial bohemian clan dominated by music lovers and drug addicts, befriended by musicians and, for a time, a professional killer enamored of his mother. Partly it’s his wide focus: coming of age in the LEFREAKSixties, Rodgers went from hippie to clubber and co-founded the influential disco group Chic before going on to produce albums for Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, and the B-52’s. But mostly it’s because Le Freak, even when it falls into the “I did this, and then I did that, and then I did this other” quality that’s inevitable in autobiography, is primarily about the entanglement of art and life, and the great things made possible by that entanglement.

Let me state for the record that I hated every metronomic, high-hat swishing, migraine inducing, lyrically vapid, assembly-line moment of the disco era, but even at its nadir — when the umpteenth repetition of the Bee Gees on the radio had me contemplating mass murder, for instance — I had to acknowledge Chic had something more on the ball. On the Chic classic “Good Times,” the interplay between Tony Thompson’s drums, Rodgers’ guitar, and Bernard Edwards’ bass carried a lightness and bounce at odds with the steam-press bomp bomp bomp of standard-issue disco. I got my first indication of Nile Rodgers’ surprising mind when he described the way Chic’s deliberately low-key stage identity — though he and bassist Bernard Edwards led the group, they could hardly be called frontmen — was influenced by his fondness for “faceless” groups like Kiss and Roxy Music. He’s also on the money when he points out that disco posed a dance-music challenge that had to be answered in the post-punk era by Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and The B-52’s  

According to Rodgers, Chic never got proper credit for its musicianship, and he’s probably right. 

Only a handful of bassists on earth could play the bass line I wrote for the song, but a few years had passed since the night Nard and I had met in the Bronx, and by now I knew what he was capable of. The jazz-influenced song was really complicated: It had a mixture of harmonically extended chords, and the latter half of the progression incorporated two strict chromatic movements in the bass. I compensated by writing an insanely simple hook: “Everybody dance, do-do-do, clap your hands, clap your hands.” I sang it to Bernard, and he liked it, but asked me, with great earnestness, “Uh, my man, what the fuck does ‘do-do-do’ mean?” I responded with equal seriousness, “It means the same thing as ‘la-la-la’ motherfucker!” I’ve never laughed as much in my life as I did with Bernard.

Rodgers isn’t kidding about that bass line. Bernard Edwards sounds like he’s playing with four hands instead of the customary two. As for the song’s other technical qualities, have a listen:

Chic cemented its place in pop history with the 1979 single “Good Times” and The Bass Line That Could Not Be Denied.

Rodgers has said elsewhere that the lyrics included lines inspired by Depression-era ballads as a subtle commentary on the late-Seventies economic malaise. He doesn’t include that story here, but he does recount what happened when the “Good Times” bass line was swiped by the Sugarhill Gang for “Rapper’s Delight,”and the Chic organization demanded acknowledgement and compensation. Rodgers and Edwards found themselves up against mobbed-up music mogul Morris Levy, who had been ripping off musicians black and white for decades.

The book preserves the oft-told story of how Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, refused admittance to Studio 54, slogged back to a friend’s apartment and worked off their anger by playing a riff that developed into “Le Freak,” one of Chic’s biggest singles: 

We downed a few bottles of vintage Dom Perignon, and a little coke, which I’d started snorting while touring on the road. I picked up my guitar, started jamming on a guitar riff and singing the words that the stage doorman had said to us earlier, “Fuck off,” and Nard added “Fuck Studio 54 — aw, fuck off.” He grabbed his bass and we played this over and over, grooving and laughing. We developed the groove and even wrote a bridge, then came the chorus again: “Awww, fuck off — fuck Studio 54 — fuck off.”

“You know, this shit is happening!” Bernard said, while pulling his sunglasses down his nose in order to achieve genuine eye contact with me. He did this whenever he was serious, because almost everything was a joke to us.

“We can’t get this song on the radio. ‘Fuck off’ is pretty hard-core for the Top Forty,” I said, laughing. But Bernard was serious. He had a great ear for hooks, and realizing that this little riff and chant sounded good, we changed “fuck” to “freak.” “Awww, freak off,” we sang energetically. It was horrible, but we tried to make it work.

“Hey man, this is not lifting my skirt,” I said to Bernard.

“Yeah, I know what you’re saying,” he responded.

Suddenly the proverbial lightbulb went off. “Hey man, we should say, ‘Awww, freak out.'”

“‘Freak out’?”

“Yeah, like when you have a bad trip, you freak out.”

That wasn’t the best reference for Bernard, since he was the last person who’d take LSD. So I quickly added, “Like . . . when you’re out on the dance floor losing it, you know you’re freaking out.”

“Yeah, plus they have that new dance called ‘the freak.’ That could be the DHM,” he said, referring to our flare for Deep Hidden Meaning, now a must for the Chic song formula.

“Yeah!” he added, his voice rising with excitement. “It would be our version of ‘Come on baby, let’s do the Twist.'”

Bernard was really into it, and we were in sync. After playing and singing for a while, Bernard made it completely ours by adding, “Le freak, c’est chic” in place of “fuck Studio 54.” Maybe the reason why this song came to us so quickly was because we were composing the songs for our next album, which was basically finished until we cam up with this off-the-cuff ditty. Chic released “Le Freak” in the summer of ’78. It featured Luther Vandross along with our signature double-female-lead-vocal sound, this time performed by Alfa Anderson and Robin Clark. It was a worldwide hit, and we got our first seven-figure check for the label’s only triple-platinum single (six million in those days). The Zen of it was, by not getting what we wanted, we got more than we ever imagined.

For those not familiar with the song:


I could easily quote miles of text from this very quotable book, but I’ll leave you to discover for yourself how the Rodgers team, hired to produce Diana Ross, was left staring into the abyss when Berry Gordy hated the result — an album that when it was finally released after much tsuris with Motown became a smash hit and revitalized her career. Or how Rodgers watched David Bowie’s creative process. Or how a true professional handles himself when Madonna turns to him in the recording studio and says, “Hey, Nile, why haven’t you tried to fuck me?” Nile Rodgers’ life left him well equipped to face such challenges, which is why Le Freak is such an absorbing memoir.


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Today’s quote

I really have to read The Beautiful Struggle very soon. Meanwhile, here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on another kind of struggle:

“I’ve said this before but conservatives often perceive liberal attachment to diversity as a kind of ‘everyone’s a winner’ cuddle party, where we sit around exchanging rice-cakes and hating on the military. But the great strength of diversity is it forces you into a room with people who have experiences very different from your own. It’s all fine and good to laugh at Sherrod Brown dancing to Jay-Z. But dude is outside his lane and he’s learning something. M.C. Rove should be so lucky.
“If you are not around people who will look at you like you are crazy when you make stupid claims about other people’s experiences, then you tend to keep saying stupid things about other people’s experiences. It is not enough to pay a political price, or even to be shamed into silence. You have to come to believe — in your heart — that sincerity itself is not the same as accurate information. It is not enough for you to not be ‘the party of stupid’ or to ‘stop saying stupid things’ you must show some active commitment toward being less stupid.”
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The Humpday Times Book Review

This summer, a lot of people are going to walk around pretending they know carny lingo, and Stephen King is the one to blame for it. His new novel Joyland (Hard Case Crime, $12.95) is drenched in carny atmosphere, some of it authentic and some of it . . . not so much. It doesn’t matter at all.

 In terms of style and tone, this one is close to “The Body,” the Different Seasons novella that became the film Stand By Me, and which I still count as one of joylandKing’s best works. Joyland, however, doesn’t have the same impact as “The Body.” King is out to play with our expectations, and he’s not above a little bait-and-switch action. But what else would you expect from a carny operator?

The setting is an oceanside amusement park in North Carolina during the mid-Seventies, the hero is a young man working through his Sorrows of Young Werther phase, and the tone is bittersweet nostalgia. The retro cover, true to the spirit of the paperback originals Hard Case Crime wants to evoke, does not entirely play straight with the reader. Yes, there is a haunted house thrill ride. There is also a murder mystery involving at least one ghost. There is even a buxom redhead in a green dress who works an old-fashioned still camera. But King, knowing we are all familiar with Chekhov’s rule concerning the display of firearms at the beginning of a story, doesn’t follow through in the expected ways.

If you’ve been reading Stephen King for any amount of time, you have learned to take the (consistently underrated by critics) good with the (consistently overlooked by fans) bad. Along with the moments of genuine creepiness and insight — for this is, above all, a coming of age story — there is a lot of heartstring-tugging, some of it very effective, and some of it done with all the grace of a teenager trying to unhook a bra. There is at least one storytelling device here that will make you roll your eyes and wonder how King can live with himself.

But in the end, the klutziness and the canniness merge to produce a light but satisfying story. The final image will be the perfect lead-in for the closing credits of the movie that will have to be made. I finished the novel with the smell of suntan lotion on my mind, and a strong urge to take a date to the Shore and hold her hand on the nearest available boardwalk. That’s not the worst thing to take away from a novel.  For that, if nothing else, Joyland is an excellent summer read.

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