Thursday, December 23, 2021

Joan Didion felt the 1960s

I wrote this review of the most interesting nuggets in Joan Didion’s book of essays, The White Album, a few months ago and never published it (you should see my long draft list of material intended for publication here). Now seems like a fitting time to release it. RIP Joan Didion, who has died at age 87.

In 1968, author Joan Didion was evaluated at a Santa Monica psych ward as losing touch with reality, when in fact she was suffering from vertigo and nausea. This was shortly before she was named Los Angles Times “Woman of the Year.” While not mentally ill, she does indeed have gripping insights into the time period of 1966 to 1971, while living in Hollywood.

She describes sitting in the studio with The Doors as one of the most boring scenes imaginable, with unresolved conversations and faraway eyes all around. 

Didion talked to Huey Newton, the famed Black Panther who was shot and could barely talk his way into Kaiser Hospital, of which he was in the enrolled members program. The rage of being Black in America was apparent during this time in the 1960s, as it has been ever since Black people set foot on this land.

When she got the news, while sitting poolside in Beverly Hills, about the Manson murder of Sharon Tate and friends, Didion said the misinformation coming out was intense and she remembers that nobody was surprised because there had been jitters and tension throughout L.A. that 1969 summer.

She interviewed the Manson Family’s Linda Kasabian in her women’s prison after the murders and they never discussed the case, always leaning more towards the prisoner’s high-school romances, her concerns for her children, and her dream to open a restaurant/pet shop.

Many of the rest of the essays cover other California oddities, like the aura of the governor’s mansion, the Getty Museum, and the Caltrans L.A Operations Center.

Didion closes the book as she leaves Malibu in 1978, when the regular fires and floods nearly consumed the family’s house. It seems like a good way to end the story of California in the 1960s era. Although that era seems to live on, in many ways, with perhaps growing intensity.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Yacht rock - a way of life - gets its own bible

Comedian Fred Armisen leads off the must-have tome, The Yacht Rock Book: The Oral History of the Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s, by the prolific Greg Prato, with a foreword that claims “the feeling I get from hearing punk is similar to hearing yacht rock. It has a kind of aggressiveness to it because it’s so delicate.” Walter Egan probably more accurately notes that yacht rock grew out of a “more melodic version of The Beatles.”

Some of the interesting nuggets from the book include:

  • Captain and Tennille got their start as back-up touring musicians for the Beach Boys.
  • As if the connection to yacht rock for The Beach Boys wasn’t clear enough already, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston actually wrote “I Write the Songs” for Barry Manilow.
  • Quincy Jones began to bring some of the yacht rock production values and sound over to R & B. George Benson’s album Give Me the Night was yacht-soul and many of the same players on it went on to play on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. So it could be said Thriller is yacht adjacent.
  • The guys that started out backing up Linda Ronstadt realized they had something good and went on to form the Eagles.
  • The reason yacht rock is so melodic, with great instrumentation and harmonies, is that many of the same musicians played on many of the sessions. For instance, the Toto guys played a lot of the music on Thriller.
  • Michael McDonald and Don Henley made appearances on Christopher Cross’s monumental 1979 self-titled debut.
  • Many of those interviewed in the book agree that “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers is the defining song of the genre.
  • Timothy B. Schmit was not only bassist for the Eagles, he was a great session player and sang on the classic Steely Dan albums Aja, Pretzel Logic, and The Royal Scam.
  • The fashion shifted from beards and bellbottoms in the 1970s to a Miami Vice look in the MTV '80s. Take a look at Hall and Oates on the cover of Voices for exhibit #1 of the latter.
  • The minute John Oates got out of high school, in 1966, is when he started growing a mustache.
  • Daryl Dragon - the Captain of Captain and Tennille - is a constant star of the book, and he admits at one point that he wore his famous hat because he was going bald and couldn’t grow the customary long hair of rockers in the 1970s. He also talks about how he mostly hated doing the duo’s hit variety TV show and had to learn over time how to be a performer like that, even though audiences loved his quiet persona.
  • Orleans singer Lance Hoppen pretty accurately notes that the Studio 54 disco era was the height of rock n’rolls waves of debauchery, with a cocaine epidemic that many people didn’t make it out of. The big record company bonuses of the time helped fund the debauchery.
  • On the other hand, Air Supply and others like Tennille, were one of those massive groups during that time that, for them, a wild night might have been having a bottle of wine.
  • Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees once supposedly said that if any pop song can't be finished writing in 15 minutes, then work on it should cease.
  • Ambrosia’s hits like “You’re the Only Woman,” “How Much I Feel,” and “Biggest Part of Me” resulted from playing a standing run of shows at a lesbian bar.
  • Christopher Cross wrote “Ride Like the Wind” on acid and what he sings in the middle came to him while his band jammed on Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five.”
  • Cross wrote the theme from Arthur with Burt Bacharach at the legend’s mansion.
  • The book declares Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” the national anthem of yacht rock. Holmes tells the story of how he was pondering what would happen if he answered a personal ad in The Village Voice, which led to the lyrics for the song.
  • Billy Joel almost didn’t put “Just the Way You Are” on The Stranger because it was too mellow and they wanted to be a rock band. But then Linda Ronstadt walked into the studio, heard it, and convinced them they had to include it.
  • One time a bunch of superstar musicians were hanging out and Brian Wilson gave them all parts to play for a makeshift jam. But Iggy Pop had to leave because he thought the dude was too crazy. Let’s say that again: Iggy Pop through Brian Wilson was too crazy!
  • David Bowie’s stylist told Hall and Oates he would immortalize them on their 1975 self-titled glam-looking release. And Oates says it is indeed the only album cover of theirs that people ever talk about.
  • Bob Seger helped out by pitching in “Heartache Tonight” when Glenn Frey had a bit of writer’s block during the making of The Long Run, in 1980, a time when yacht rock was about to slide out of fashion.
  • Videos were part of the death knell for yacht rock. A few camera-ready faces, like Daryl Hall's, translated to the new format, but singer/songwriters like Ruprt Holmes and Christopher Cross were not a good fit for MTV and the likes of the Buggles.
  • The term “yacht rock” began its slow explosion into the national consciousness when a comedy video series about the genre became one of the first viral campaigns the year YouTube launched in 2005 and Jimmy Fallon also started playing clips on his late-night show.
  • Some of the belief in why yacht rock can have a revival, and a genre like grunge might not, is that people can go out, drink, dance, and have fun to the music, no matter how old they are.
  • Cross, one of the seemingly most soft of the soft yacht rockers actually grew up playing with Texas buddies like ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He apparently can play a mean lead electric guitar.
  • Tenille sang backup on Pink Floyd’s The Wall - talk about a bridge out of and away from yacht rock!
  • Captain and Tenille finally got divorced in 2014 because Daryl Dragon in not nearly as sociable as her.
  • Many artists carry on the tradition, including some bands I love like Mac DeMarco, LCD Soundsystem, Lemon Twigs, Kendrick Lamar, and John Mayer, and some that I like a little like Tame Impala and Bruno Mars. Plus comedians love the genre, especially Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen.
  • Oates despises the terms “blue-eyed soul” because it’s racist and inaccurate and “yacht rock” because it makes absolutely no sense. Hard to argue with an innovative master like him.
Most of the other artists interviewed in this oral history agree that they, unlike Oates, like the term yacht rock. I think it definitely describes a type of 1970s-80s well-produced rock abounding with hooks. There are probably around 100 songs that fit the tag and also are melodically undeniably great pop. I think Hall and Oates have dozens of great songs, but probably only a dozen or so hit the connection to yacht rock. But that still may make them the greatest yacht rockers of all.

Sail on, sailors, with this 5 out of 5 star essential book.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

TV Snide: November 2021

TV show of the month: Squid Games (Netflix): This is a classic show. It has it all: humor, drama, deep character story points, and a good bit of bloodshed. But it really is an epic story of a chauffeur who falls hard on his luck and faces the ultimate tests of his bodily and emotional strength. It is so ultimately watchable that I put it amongst the greats Mad Men, Lost, and Breaking Bad. 5 out of 5 stars

Novel of the month: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I can’t get enough of this author, and even though I’ve now devoured her three latest novels, luckily I still have her first four to go. I’m not sure which is my favorite, but this one is a heartbreaking tale of the many many forms true love can take, following film legend Hugo through her career and marriages and the deep dark secrets she reveals only at the very end, through the eyes of a young journalist whom she trusts. 5 out of 5 stars

Graphic novel of the month: Saga Vols. 1-2: This is a rollicking space opera with two forbidden lovers, a ram-looking man and a winged woman, battling for survival against a parade of wildly imaginative bad guys. It’s like way better superheroes and villians, but not appropriate for kids. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Movie of the month: On the Basis of Sex (Sling TV/Showtime): Felicity Jones is stunningly great in this telling of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s historic win of a tax case aimed to stop the discrimination of a man, oddly enough, from caregiving duties to his mother. Her efforts to work at a law firm, any law firm, are detailed along the way with the full support of her husband, played by the exceedingly handsome (before accusations of abusive behavior surfaced) Armie Hammer. A very emotional and underrated rollercoaster ride. 5 out of 5 stars

King Richard (HBO Max): The story of Venus and Serena Williams is about as inspiring as any story could be. This is partially their story but it’s mainly their dad’s, played perfectly by Will Smith. This was a role he was meant to play and he would deserve best actor if he gets it in a few months. I love tennis with all my heart, but even if I didn’t, I don’t see how this couldn’t be a great flick, with rags in Compton to riches across the world. 4.5 out of 5 stars

1917 (Sling TV/Showtime): This movie would probably be a 20-page story in writing, but the slow-mission to get word to the British front, past German dangers all along the way, through the eyes of a couple of regular soldiers, really puts the viewer into World War I. It’s a spellbinding Oscar nominee. 4.5 out of 5 stars

2021 Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame (HBO Max): There are some epic performances that are great to see at least on TV in another year with extremely limited live music options. Foo Fighters inducted by Paul McCartney (and performing "Get Back" together) is the undeniably highlight, but the Go-Gos induction by Drew Barrymore and performance is incredible. Carol Kane (and Taylor Swift's accompanying performance) and LL Cool J's performances and inductions are well worth seeing. Todd Rungren's shunning of the Hall (despite still being inducted) is also pretty hilarious and awkward. 4 out of 5 stars

Val (Amazon Prime): If Renaissance man Val Kilmer had never done anything but play Jim Morrison in The Doors, he’d still be one of my favorite actors. Throw in Top Gun and his Mark Twain work and it puts a cherry on top. He’s a weird guy who has now lost most of his ability to speak, so it’s a sad and weird documentary, but well worth watching if you’re intrigued by Val. 4 out of 5 stars

Children of the Corn (Sling TV): Always one of my favorite horror films, its religious creepiness stands the test of time even if it’s very-80s-ness makes it hardly scary. The music, as in the best horror flicks of the decade, helps make it scarier. And Malachi and Isaac are unforgettable and iconic movie bad kids. 4 out of 5 stars

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This is a strange romantic story of a girl from Mexico City going to a mining ghost town mansion to retrieve an acquaintance who has married and begun to act strangely. The family she married into is indeed strange. Very strange. And dangerous enough that the two girls may never make it back to Mexico City, or even ever out of the mushroomy, moldy dankness of the mansion. 3.5 out of 5 stars