Saturday, December 05, 2009

Good word

"Whereas most cartoonists, lacking the economic resources of a Nero, a William Randolph Hearst, or a sir George Reresby Sitwell, are unable to amplify their fantasies into anything so ambitious as a Golden House, a San Simeon, or a Renishaw, I reflected that Disney (whose brother and chief business associate, Roy, has a sound understanding of banking principles) has since 1928 managed to arm his assault on the impersonal universe with ever more expensively contrived choreography, color, stereo, and wide-screen gimmickry -- these efforts reaching their climax, I now perceived, in Disneyland, where, in this most elaborate of the Master's animated productions, his live public has been fitted into the cartoon frame to play an aesthetic as well as an economic role."

-- Kevin Wallace, The New Yorker, Sept. 7, 1963

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pray TV

Frances Fitzgerald's 1990 New Yorker article on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is a fascinating look at an ugly time. Fitzgerald is pointed in describing the follies of the 1980s televangelists in general and in particular those of the Bakkers, whose theology was thin but whose television appeal was limitless. They convinced viewers to send in money for their ministries, then skimmed off healthy portions of the take for their crazily lavish lifestyle. There's also lots of interesting backstory about the mainstreaming of Pentacostalism, and the Bakkers' not altogether comfortable place in that tradition.

Fitzgerald's tour of the Bakkers' South Carolina theme park, Heritage USA, is hilarious and devastating ("In Billy Graham's reconstructed family house, there was no sign of Billy Graham"). Even better is a passage describing how the Bakkers were so very much a product of their time:
They personified the most characteristic excesses of the 1980s -- the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness -- which in their case was so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence. To this list could be added narcissism, the characteristic disease of the age. The Bakkers, like many people on Wall Street and in Washington, celebrated freedom from the punishing old laws and preached faith in miracles.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Fair abuse

I'm a bit of a World's Fair buff, partly because for many years I lived near the old fairgrounds of one of the most famous expos, Chicago's Columbian Exposition, which in 1893 blew minds with electricity and dancing girls. But I also was enchanted by the 1982 World's Fair, which took place in my natal city of Knoxville, Tenn. The terra cotta warriors! The giant Rubik's Cube! The jet pack guy! I was 11 that summer.

So I was intrigued to find, in the Complete New Yorker DVDs, a review of the Knoxville fair by E.J. Kahn. Kahn was, in that fussy New Yorker way, unimpressed:
Dinah Shore, a native Tennessean, who served as mistress of ceremonies at the grand opening, drawled, "What you're goin' to see here is goin' to knock the socks off your feet." Well, not quite. This fair is not apt even to loosen your shoelaces.
As near as I can tell, though, Kahn's chief quibble with the Knoxville fair was that it wasn't Expo 67, but what was?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fab lore

As an early Christmas gift I received the Beatles' Anthology collections, the three double-CD sets that collect odds and sods from various phases of the Fab Four's recording career. The discs' mid-1990s release coincided with the Anthology video series. A lifelong Beatle nut, I'm a little late to this party, I realize, but oh well.

I like the discs very much, especially the track "Real Love." That's the second of two new Beatles songs based on 1970s John Lennon demos and finished in the 1990s, for the Anthology project, by the others. I'd already heard the other new track, "Free As a Bird," but never "Real Love," somehow. I like it much more than "Free as a Bird" -- an expansive, downright spiritual take on L-O-V-E seems a great way to cap the Beatles' recorded output, since it was a theme they touched on a lot, from "She Loves You" through "All You Need Is Love" and beyond. As Ereck can patiently testify, this weekend I listened to "Real Love," or watched the video on YouTube, a dozen times if I listened once.

I'm fascinated by Anthology's outtakes and demos of familiar tunes. I love hearing songs like "Yesterday" and "Mean Mr. Mustard" in their embryonic state. But hearing the demos mostly makes me want to hear the real thing, so I've also played a lot of regular Beatles recordings this weekend. Whenever I do that -- and I'm finally getting to the point of this post -- I consult Alan Pollack's indispensable "Notes On..." series. Pollack has turned a musicologist's ear to the entirety of the Beatles' recorded output, and although I can't say I understand every technical detail of what he's done, his commentaries are endlessly interesting and funny, and because of them I continue to hear new details I've missed. (There are barely audible finger snaps in "Here, There, and Everywhere"???? Omfg.)

I'll share two examples from my listening and reading today. The first is from Pollack's analysis of "Honey Pie," the nostalgic pastiche on the "White Album." (I found my way to Pollack's writing on "Honey Pie" in the course of exploring his various takes on the Beatles' "sentimental" use of minor iv chords in major keys, if you must know.) I'm delighted with Pollack's turn of phrase in describing "Honey Pie"'s clarinets, which "get their big moment in the spotlight during the second bridge where they produce water sprays in parallel thirds." Cue this YouTube clip to 1:56, and you'll hear exactly what he means; durned if those aren't clarinet water sprays. (For good measure, the clarinets make a similar but abbreviated water spray a few seconds later, at 2:04.)

My second Pollack reading today comes from his take on "Within You Without You," George Harrison's Indian-music-derived tune from "Sgt. Pepper." I giggled (appropriately) when I read his speculation on the meaning of the eerie laughter that ends the track:
So what about the laughing at the end? I'm aware of at least two schools of thought on the matter:

* The xenophobic audience (remember there's an underlying element in the "Sgt. Pepper Concept" that at least indirectly connotes a Victorian/Edwardian-era outlook of supercilious Imperialism) is letting off a little tension of this perceived confrontation with pagan elements.

* The bedazzled composer, in an endearingly sincere nanosecond of acknowledgment of the apparent existential absurdity of the son-of-a-Liverpudlian bus driver espousing such other-wordly beliefs and sentiments, is letting off a bit of his own self-deprecating steam in reaction to the level of true courage expended by him in order to come out of the uneasily-anti-materialistic closet.

But, don't you think it's a combination of the two?
I heartily recommend Pollack's voluminous writings, which teach me a lot about the Beatles, and also a lot about music. They're both worthy subjects.