Friday, April 27, 2007

Headline to remember

Courtesy of the Chicago Maroon, student newspaper of the University of Chicago.

Are you ever late for the party? Certain facts, certain blindingly obvious facts, become clear to me only much time has passed. It was years before I grasped why the French have the same expression for 69 that we do.

Another late insight came to me as I made coffee this morning. It has to do with the Rod Stewart song "You Wear It Well," which is on his 1972 LP Never a Dull Moment, my favorite album when I was a junior in college. The last line of the song is "After all this, it's still the same address." What this relates to, I now realize, is the fact that the lyrics are, apparently, a letter. They begin: "I had nothing to do on this hot afternoon but to settle down and write you a line."

It's a great song, a series of wistful remembrances, many of them elliptical details of the type I was trying to describe here yesterday ("Remember them basement parties, your brother's karate, the all day rock n' roll shows"). The last line is the final detail, a poignant coda.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

They write the songs

The night before last, at the cheap cinema, we finally caught up with Music & Lyrics, the romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. I'm something of a connoisseur of romantic comedies, and this is a better one. I give it a very solid B, possibly a B+. It's far superior to the execrable yet wildly successful While You Were Sleeping, but of course nowhere nearly as good the sine qua non of the modern form, Annie Hall, the rare romantic comedy in which the boy and the girl aren't together at the end.

More than anything else, what Music & Lyrics has going for it is its stars, both of them favorites of mine, both lovely to look at. I especially adore Drew Barrymore. In the film, she plays the girl who waters the plants of the Hugh Grant character, an aging '80s pop star reminiscent of Andrew Ridgely, the member of the British duo Wham! who wasn't George Michael. Grant is stuck trying to write a song, and by the standard magic of romantic comedies, Barrymore turns out to be so adept at writing lyrics she practically breathes them. Love ensues, then brief estrangement, then triumph.

I was surprised at the seriousness with which the film treats songwriting, a craft I know a little something about. I especially know what it is like to be blocked, as the Grant character is. Barrymore has a helpful insight when she says a good way to find inspiration is simply to walk around, to look and listen. John Lennon read newspapers for ideas, as I recall. In fact, he wrote a song referencing that very method.

Another good songwriting lesson the film offers, by example: be detailed. (It's good lesson for any kind of writing.) Late in the film, Grant earns redemption by singing a lyric he has written. The song simply recapitulates several of the film's plot points, but it's full of humorous details that the characters recognize, and so does the viewer. They're the sort of seemingly throwaway details ("You killed my plants") that can really bring songs to life. An example is in the Prince song "Kiss," which goes: "You don't have to watch 'Dynasty' to have an attitude." Why "Dynasty"? Why not?

As it happens, many of the tunes in Music & Lyrics are by the brilliant songwriter Adam Schlesinger, of the rock group Fountains of Wayne. He excels at coming up with just those kinds of details, and at pop songcraft generally.

What the film shows of the act of songwriting doesn't seem quite right, though. Instead we see -- appropriately enough, I guess -- a romanticized version of the task, where people gather around a piano and crank out the material. The film has a pop starlet character modeled on Britney Spears, and my sense is that songs released by the likes of Britney Spears don't so much get written around a piano. Instead, songwriters often write by recording these days. They lay down a groove in the software program Pro Tools, then come up with some lyrics that fit. It's one reason, methinks, that today's pop songs don't have hooks as indelible as the ones of yore.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

They make good police cars, too

For some reason I have always liked the Ford Crown Victoria, one of the last full-size sedans made an American car manufacturer. I could see myself buying one if I needed a new car, which I don't. They're roomy.

At the gas station this evening I was admiring the Crown Victoria that belonged to a woman at the pump across from mine. We both were waiting for our gas to finish pumping, and I began asking her questions about the car. It's very roomy, she noted.

Something else she said made me laugh later. She was not quite elderly, but she certainly was a woman of a certain age, perhaps 65. When I asked what year her car was, she laughed and said -- this woman in her 60s said -- "It was my mother's. We don't let her drive anymore." I'd estimate the mother, then, to be in her 80s, which mean I share a predilection for this car with a woman in her 80s.

People in their 80s have refined taste. They've been around long enough to know what they like.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


The alternative-weekly journalist Stephen George, staff writer for the Louisville Eccentric Observer, certainly is to be commended for his current project. He is giving up his car for a month and blogging about the experience at Share the Road.

But the project also makes me a little sad, and grateful. I grew up in a Southern city near Louisville, Nashville, so I know what Southern cities are like, and I can only imagine the challenges of car-free living in Louisville. A friend tells me that to commute by bicycle in the Music City these days is to invite constant heckling and worse. (Later we can discuss whether Louisville is a Southern city.)

Now, though, I live on the east side of Madison, Wis., mere feet from the bicycle path that I follow to my job downtown. My home is within a couple of blocks of something like 12 bus routes. I live steps away from a fabulous natural-foods supermarket, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a great video store, a storied nightclub, a print shop with roots in the counterculture, and zillions of locally owned restaurants and coffee shops. There is a Community Car Prius permanently stationed in the parking lot across the street from my apartment. My city is hardly a metropolis, but I could live perfectly well without owning a car.

I do own a truck, however, which comes in handy for road trips and movie excursions. But these too would be doable, especially with the Community Car. Just takes a little planning. (Car-free cinephilia is getting harder and harder for Madisonians.)

All of which is to say, wonderful Madison is great town for living car-free, and what's remarkable about that fact is that it is unremarkable, by local standards. Unremarkable enough that no one, I notice, has started a blog about it.