Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

11 Aug 2008

As a teenager I was very impressed with the profundity that began Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” It’s so metaphoric or something. Everyone is atomized and isolated in their technologically fashioned death machines, and they can’t achieve togetherness anymore. Not only that, they fear it. They no longer trust that they will let each other in; instead they are expecting a crash. An incisive commentary on our contemporary predicament.

This somewhat overwrought NYT Magazine article by Cynthia Gorney about merging reminded me of Ellis’s gambit, though the metaphoric implications are somewhat submerged, replaced instead with straightforward lessons about human behavior that can be drawn from traffic etiquette. There are two types of drivers, aggressive and polite, and they have the tendency to stalemate one another. When two lanes are forced to merge, some rush to the merge point, others get in line as soon as they can and seethe as the others pass them by and merge in front of them. Gorney is one of the latter, and she inexplicably expects New Yorkers to sympathize. You don’t have to spent to much time in New York City traffic to realize that the only rule of etiquette is that there are none, and you will be wasting a lot of emotional energy if you stubbornly expect other drivers to behave as if they are queued up to curtsy to the queen. Replacing deferential politeness on New York’s roadways is the predictability of aggressive action, the assurance that any perceived advantage will be seized. This clarity about what to anticipate from other drivers makes traffic move as best as possible in a near-impossible situation of overburdened roads.

But Gorney doesn’t seem to want to hear it when told by a California Highway Patrol officer that traffic is “not a matter of fairness or unfairness.” But the police officer is completely right. The road is not the place to stand stubbornly on ethical peccadilloes; it’s not wear you wage your private war against what you consider to be rudeness. It is a place where you respect everyone else’s right to be in a hurry by acting like you are in a hurry too.

by Bill Gibron

10 Aug 2008

He was Black Moses, creator of some stellar Hot Buttered Soul. He gave Shaft his Oscar winning authority, and broke down color barriers in the highly conservative - and Caucasian - film composer’s club. He was a member of the famous Stax Records team, ushering in hits as writer, producer, arranger, and artist. He earned an Academy Award, three Grammys, and a well deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 2002). And now, sadly, at age 65, legitimate legend Isaac Hayes is gone, found dead in his home by his fourth wife, Adjowa. It’s a depressing end for a man who overcame so many obstacles and inspired so much devotion, even among those who didn’t understand his own personal philosophy.

He was born Issac Lee Hayes Jr. in Covington, Tennessee. After his parents’ death, he was raised by his grandparents, and the young boy spent his early years picking cotton. After dropping out of high school, he headed to Memphis. There, his self-taught skills on the piano and organ earned him a slot in the famous Stax factory backing band. Soon, he was stepping from behind the mic to write such classic songs as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man” (along with partner David Porter). At age 25, he released his first album, the mostly improvised Presenting Isaac Hayes. It was not well received. But it would be his fantastic follow-up, Hot Buttered Soul, that would finally announce his rising star.

With its combination of long form covers (Hayes was notorious for turning tracks like “Walk On By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” into extended jams and spoken word epics) and stunning originals, it helped a lagging label that had just lost Otis Redding to a plane crash. It reestablished its prominence in the process. Hayes would parlay that success into a pair of 1969 hits - The Issac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued. Again, he explored the classic catalog of Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a take on “The Look of Love” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”. But it would be the opportunity to score a seemingly unimportant blaxploitation film that would change Hayes, and the face of Hollywood, forever.

1971’s Shaft remains significant for many important reasons. First, it was one of the first mostly minority films to take the groundwork laid by Melvin Van Pebbles with his indie masterpiece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and turn it into a mainstream mandate. Second, it established the viability of the genre to those outside the urban setting - especially among the critical counterculture. Finally, it gave a soundtrack voice to the growing influence of R&B and soul. Hayes’ now classic wah-wah peddle tinged theme, containing lyrics that today are just as outrageous in their considered cool, became an instant smash. It earned the then 29 year old a much coveted gold statue, the first ever awarded to an African American outside of the AMPAS acting category.

This is monumental for reasons that reach beyond Hayes’ own career. It opened the door for musicians of color, paving the way for Stevie Wonder’s win in 1984, Prince’s score prize the same year, Lionel Richie’s award the year after, and perhaps most remarkably, the Three 6 Mafia’s stunning upset in 2005 (Hayes actually appeared in Hustle and Flow). His reward was not without controversy, though. When Hayes agreed to appear at the 1972 Wattstax concert, MGM refused to allow his performance of “Shaft” to be included in the resulting documentary. Claiming outright ownership of the theme, as well as the soundtrack song “Soulville”, it was an issue that wouldn’t be resolved until the film’s 2004 DVD release.

It was just the beginning of troubles for the talented troubadour. By 1974, Stax was in ruins, and Hayes sued his studio for several million dollars. Unable to pay, they agreed on a settlement which saw the formation of HBS Records. While he continued to release albums - Chocolate Chip, Disco Connection, Juicy Fruit - he was no longer a guaranteed chart topper. In 1976, he filed for bankruptcy, claiming nearly $6 million in debt. He lost most of his publishing royalties in the process. It was indeed darker times for the performer. While his albums maintained good critical buzz, the changing face of the industry - and music itself - meant more than a few years in entertainment exile.

He supplemented his music by well received turns as an actor. He got his start in another exploitation classic, Truck Turner (where he starred and also wrote the score) and had a recurring role on the Jim Garner hit TV series The Rockford Files. He got another major break from fan John Carpenter, who traded on Hayes gold chain and bald headed badass-ness to feature him as The Duke in the post-apocalyptic classic Escape from New York. Throughout the ‘80s he took minor roles here and there, working on making a comeback as a musician. Virgin signed him in 1995, and his subsequent albums Branded and Raw and Refined reintroduced him to a whole new fanbase.

So did his accidental casting in Comedy Central’s anarchic South Park. After debuting in 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude cartoon cavalcade became an almost instant classic, with Hayes’ Chef the show’s voice of recognizable reason (and the occasional sex-based song). Over the course of 10 seasons and one sensational film, Park provided a wonderful outlet for the aging icon. It made him instantly cool among the younger crowd, while confirming that he still had the authority and command that made him a talent and trendsetter decades before.

All seemed fine with the Park partnership until Parker and Stone decided to take on Scientology. As they had with Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism before, the show scalded L. Ron’s revisionist faith in an episode which also tweaked Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Hayes had joined the ersatz religion in 1995, and did not appreciate the series satirizing his beliefs. He argued that his newfound conviction had helped reestablish and center his success, and unless Parker and Stone abandoned the idea, he would be forced to leave. He did just that in 2006, and the split remained acrimonious up and until his death.

While there are many sides to the story (for their part, Parker and Stone stand by their decision), what’s clear is that, once outside the limelight again, Hayes’ fortunes failed. In 2006, he suffered a stroke, though many inside his camp denied it initially. This past April, his appearance on Adam Corolla’s radio show suggested that he was losing some of his faculties. He found it hard to answer questions and blamed his blankness on aphasia, a disorder driven by his diminished capacity. Some four months later, he was discovered motionless alongside his treadmill. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

As with any loss, the tragedy tends to temper the particulars of the past. Eulogy wipes out the bad while amplifying the already known good. In the case of Isaac Hayes, we need both sides of the story. For everything he did right in his benchmark career, he made mistakes that added even more mystery to his outsized enigma. He could be suave and smooth. He could also be cold and very calculated. Combined together, they explain how Hayes could break down the color barriers of Hollywood. They also clarify his late in life conversions and out of character choices. The good thing is that Isaac Hayes will always be remembered as the prophet of soul. The bad thing is that the very things that made him an indisputable icon will probably be lost to legend - and maybe that’s where they belong.

by Jason Gross

10 Aug 2008

One of the many reasons that I’m glad that I’m not a professional musician is the fun job of having to field requests at shows.  I’ve seen some performers fend it off with good humor (Neil Young once dryly telling a crowd “thank you for reminding me of the names of my songs”) but it has to get tired after awhile.  I admit I’ve yelled “Free Bird” at plenty of shows when I was younger until I realized what an old, pathetic joke that’s become.

Then along came a series of posts to the MusicThoughts mailing list about the subject.  By far, the funniest and wisest response came from Laura McLean, a North Carolina indie rock fixture.  Her answer to the eternally perplexing questions ‘how do you politely turn down requests?’ is worth detailing.

“I used to put a price board up for requests I didn’t have much inclination to play anymore..
Sweet Home Alabama $500
A Pirate Looks at Forty $500
Stairway To Heaven $1000
Bobby McGee $2500
I’ve since mellowed, (lol) and will do wak rap renditions which pretty much put the kibosh on the whole request mood..if done correctly..”

For you non-Parrotheads, the third one is a Jimmy Buffet tune.  But there’s more… Laura adds a few more tricks she has up her sleeve for the problem.

1. The old Reagan trick.. cup your ear and pretend you don’t understand
2. Say you just did it before they came in (funny for those who have been there the whole time)
3. Say that song was playin when someone dear to you died, and you can’t bear to even… (let your sentence trail off and play a mournful instrumental)
4. Hell NO! works, too, if you smile mysteriously and send over a beverage..

Musicians take note though I guess you have to be careful about overusing some of these as crowds might eventually wise up to the game.

As you can already guess, McLean has some talent that’s worth attending so you should check out her MySpace page and her website.

by Bill Gibron

9 Aug 2008

When we think of classic comedy, especially from the era before sound, slapstick stands as the main significant form. Sure, there were works with witty rejoinders and filmed plays piled high with clever dialogue, but sans the title cards, the power of pantomime and the purity of physical shtick argued for its viability in a wholly visual medium. Naturally, within such subsets lie the considered kings - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd - but among their cinematic court were jesters of equal aplomb, if not fame. Thanks to the archivists at All Day Entertainment, and digital distributors Facets, we are treated to a wonderful second volume of forgotten figures and farces, shorts and features that prove there was more to onscreen pratfalls than little tramps and great stone faces.

Compiled over three loaded DVDs, American Slapstick Vol. 2 is then divided into sections. On Disc 1, we are treated to a look at Harold Lloyd, his brother Gaylord and the latter’s brief career, including his take on his sibling’s ‘Luke” character. Next up is an overview of Hal Roach’s remarkable studios and several of its b-players. Finally, we witness the birth of Educational Pictures, a brand that had very little to do with learning and everything to do with lunacy. Disc 2 offers the sole feature film, a look at Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd and his turn in the classic satire Charlie’s Aunt. A few of his ‘Gussie’ shorts are offered as well. Equally interesting here is a chance to see Chaplin imitator Billy West. The final DVD presents a true piece of history as famous ladies of slapstick are discussed. Their importance is accented by takes on Billy Bevin as well as the talkies attempt to incorporate the ideas of old with the technology of the new.

All in all, it’s over seven hours of silent silliness and casual insights. Each section is introduced by a pleasant female voice, the information she passes along instrumental in understanding the context of each area. In addition, a handy insert outlines the stars being surveyed as well as the films on each DVD. Granted, much of this material is incomplete. As a matter of fact, historians argue that as much as 85% of pre-World War II cinema is lost forever. So the fact that we have access to any of these rarities is really special. Naturally, video purists will balk at the condition and visual variables, but if that’s all they care about, they are missing the bigger picture. Physical comedy didn’t begin with Moe, Larry, and Curly, and there was much more to the genre than Chaplin’s sentimentality and Keaton’s technical advances. The more we know about slapstick, the more we come to truly appreciate it as an art.

In a compendium loaded with intriguing elements, three items stick out specifically. The first deals with Chaplin and his mystique (the focus of Disc 2). Learning that his popularity created a series of imitators and impersonators is nothing surprising. Yet watching as West tries to emulate the Little Tramp, or seeing how brother Syd strived to create his own classic character is worth the price of admission alone. “The Hobo” is hilarious, West really doing a dandy bit of buffoonery. The snippets from animated takes on the Chaplin mystique are also excellent. But it’s Syd who steals the show. His work as Gussie, a haughty halfwit whose main attribute appears to be a rather ample rump is quite compelling and - dare it be said - equal to his brother’s subtlety and skill. “Caught in the Park” and “Gussie’s Wayward Path” stand as ready to be rediscovered gems, and thanks to American Slapstick Vol. 2, modern generations get a chance to witness the other Chaplin’s brilliance and personality acumen.


The second most significant contribution this collection makes is in the feminine side of show business. We always here about the men, both celebrated and infamous, but when was the last time you heard scholars reference Louise Fazenda, Anne Cornwall, or most importantly, Alice Howell. These three remarkable women are the focus of Disc 3, and their short films and sequences are absolutely fantastic. Beyond that, they are eye opening. We are used to seeing silent screen actresses as damsels in distress, clumsy dowagers, or sad, slightly soiled ladies. Here, our trio introduces us to amazing moments from “Cinderalla Cinders”, “Hold Still”, “A Hash House Fraud”, and “Faro Nell” and in each one they more than hold their own. It’s just too bad we can’t see more of these incredibly important individuals. A set of female slapstick stars is probably long overdue.

Finally, even though it’s part of the Syd Chaplin section, seeing Charlie’s Aunt here is quite stunning. Granted, the performances and the storyline are major selling points, but the chance to see a full fledged costumed comedy, complete with elaborate sets, faked locations, and other classic Hollywood hullabaloo is too good to pass up. Representing a near perfect time capsule of the industry of the era, we see that oversized ambitions, overacting, and larger than life spectacle are not a contemporary fault. This is also true of forlorn funnyman Billy Bevins. His almost epic “Be Respectable” goes from a clever character piece to a full blown citywide chase, complete with more Keystone style cops than modern day Los Angeles has policemen. It makes for a wonderfully thrilling addition.


Indeed, everything about American Slapstick Vol. 2 is spellbinding, even if some of it is in minor, mere footnote ways only. We enjoy the reckless ethnic stereotyping, as it provides insights into the social structure of the past. We champion those brave gals who orchestrated their onscreen gags with the precision of their far more renowned (and better paid) male counterparts. We wonder why certain names are no longer remembered while realizing that some actors were mere fading fads in a consumer driven entertainment marketplace. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this anthology, aside from the wealth of historical context and pure performance bliss, is how accurately it preserves the truth. While we may never see the likes of this style of humor ever again, the ability to revisit it in such a significant, substantive manner is a joy to behold. American Slapstick Vol. 2 is mandatory viewing for any functioning film fan. 

by Rob Horning

9 Aug 2008

In a riposte to tech pessimists like Nicholas Carr, media blogger Jeff Jarvis argues that “the myth of the creative class” is in the process of being extinguished by the internet.

The internet doesn’t make us more creative, I don’t think. But it does enable what we create to be seen, heard, and used. It enables every creator to find a public, the public he or she merits. And that takes creation out of the proprietary hands of the supposed creative class.

Pretty to think so. This is internet ideology at its most inspirational: the Web allows us to be individuals rather than part of a mass addressed by media monoliths, and it allows meritocracy to at last become a reality, and no one will be any more famous than he or she deserves.

The playing field is flat and to stand out one must now do so on merit - as defined by the public rather than the priests - which will be rewarded with links and attention. This is our link economy, our culture of links. It is a meritocracy, only now there are many definitions of merit and each must be earned.

A look back at the history of internet fads makes one skeptical though. And it seems that the power networks of the offline media replicate themselves online—the commercial media has a more vested interest in drumming up traffic and integrating content production with advertising support, so they invest money and effort accordingly, with the effect of reproducing the offline mode of production online. Independent bloggers are adopted by national publications, and their content is branded by the big media companies, and the power of branding to confer authority begins to exert itself over the once-wide-open sphere of communication. It becomes harder to be some random person with a blogger account and still get discovered and linked to—it can happen, but then so could my letter to the editor be published as a column on the NYT opinion page. It’s just not very likely.

As Jarvis would have it, Web space has replaced the hip urban centers celebrated by Richard Florida as the site where inspired minds congregate to inspire one another.

This link ecology does potentially change the nature of creativity. It makes it more collaborative, not just in the act but in the inspiration. Coelho’s Witch of Portobello is the spark that leads to a movie made by its readers. Same with Stern, LonelyGirl, Colbert. Perhaps the role of the creative class is not so much to make finished products but to inspire more to be made. It is the flint of creativity. It’s the internet - Google, Flickr, YouTube, and old, mass media as their accessories - that bring flint and spark together.

This sort of thing plays out as the much heralded “remix culture”—consumers become producers by using digital cultural products as a language for their own creative expressions. This undermines the old allegiances that paved the way for subcultures anchored in various nexuses of music and fashion and zines and so on, and introduces a more motley pastiche form of culture that is at the same time more homogeneous than ever. The internet—the link economy, the amateur parodies and homages of culture industry product, etc.—becomes a hegemonic form for cultural expression even as it become more heterogeneous in its composite parts. You might make a steampunk rap video with snippets of sitcoms mixed in, but it will still be posted on YouTube in the end. It has become so much easier to publish samizdat that samizdat now no longer has any meaning as a form.

I’m not sure this more democratic access to the means of distribution ultimately frees up an abundance of heretofore suppressed talent or shifts anything away from the established creative class—the anointed ones who shape the culture that consumers remix. Yes, the internet provides uncolonized space for cultural activity, a space that is ever expanding. You never reach the Western shore. There is always more room for “creative” pioneers to stake claims. But the majority of cultural consumers aren’t interested in lighting out for the territories, and the creative class continues to run what is recognized socially as the civilized portion of that vast online space, and it is slowly expanding its control assimilating the more promising outliers. This seems no different from how things have always worked in the culture industries; if anything the dependence on the law-giving creative class strengthens with so much chaos lurking at the fringes.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Anderson East Ignites a Fire at Mercury Lounge

// Notes from the Road

"Hot off the release of his album Delilah Anderson East's performance was full of vim and vigor.

READ the article