Reviews

'Lone Star': Never Play Yourself

Lesley Smith

Lone Star suggests that being human has nothing to do with conscience and empathy and everything to do with how well you deliver the performance your audience expects.

Lone Star

Airtime: Mondays, 9pm ET
Cast: James Wolk, Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford, David Keith, Mark Decklin, Bryce Johnson, Jon Voight
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Fox
Director: Marc Webb
Air date: 2010-09-20
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Some people craft online avatars to have their Second Lives. Bob Allen (James Wolk) just drives 423 miles down Texas highways to Midland to enjoy his. In Houston, he's married to oil Princess, Cat (Adrianne Paliscki), and in Midland, he's Robert, tender boyfriend to small-town Lindsay (Eloise Mumford), and the future son-in-law of her parent's dreams. In fact, he's playing the long con in both, fleecing the blue-collar bank accounts and hard-won retirements of Midland to finance his leap from a good marriage to an inside job with the Thatchers that will let him suck their empire dry.

As Allen slides from one persona to the other, the premiere episode of Lone Star suggests that being human has nothing to do with conscience and empathy and everything to do with how well you deliver the performance your audience expects. What lies behind his affable smile? Is he a singular criminal or an emblematic everyman? As it poses existential questions, the show benefits from the casting choice of newcomer Wolk and a supple, low-key naturalism in both performances and direction.

Laconic dialogue and fast-moving scenes soon establish tension not in the counterpoint between Allen's two lives but in the counterpoint between his desires and those of his father, longtime grifter John (David Keith). An aging Mephistopheles, John haunts the empty storefronts and rural diners between Houston and Midland. In clandestine meetings and eerie, late-night calls, he constantly reminds his son that only the con is real. One short flashback to Robert/Bob's youth shows exactly why he responds to his father's exhortations. Robbed of any control over his own life, in self-defense, he's become a master reactor, agile, imaginative, and intrepid, never stopping with one lie when he can come up with two or three.

This tendency shapes his every encounter. When his suspicious brother-in-law, Tremmell (Mark Decklin), discovers no one knows Bob at the fancy hotel where he claims he stays on his trips out of town, Bob "confesses" that he stays at a cheap motel to save money, but has lied to save embarrassing the Thatcher family. As Tremmell sulks, father-in-law Clint (Jon Voight) beams at Bob's hard work and self-deprivation.

With an equally ingenious lie in his Robert guise, Allen soothes a crusty Midland investor, asking to see the oil field his money is supporting. Pretending to be a location scout for a film company, Allen bribes an oil field foreman to let him bring "the director" (the investor) to see the location. John walks on in a hard hat and a carapace of blue-collar sincerity to seal the deal, and the two con men drive off with a satisfied investor and a bigger profit than they had hoped.

Showing day-to-day mechanics of the con, Lone Star illuminates how Robert/Bob lives his life, a mosaic of glinting fragments as well as resulting tensions below that surface. Wolk's performance mixes poignancy and hubris in equal measure. As Allen romps with his wife, romances his girlfriend, and drinks beer 'round the barbeque with his Midland buddies, Wolk conjures a man apparently so avaricious that he simply cannot give up any any part of his life. But in the close-ups when all expression flees his face, Wolk hints too at a man on the verge of extinction, who has discovered there is not enough validation in any one life for the depth of his need.

If Allen is on an edge, John is also vulnerable, well past his prime, running his scams by proxy, and always aware of the disaster awaiting him if his son breaks free. He's a frightened bully and emotional blackmailer, warning his son, "I am the one who loves you for who you are." But John also radiates the steely organizational genius required to create the perfect con for his son's unique talents.

Their relationship finds an aptly complex backdrop in Texas. In Houston, wider shots show off the Thatchers' enviable opulence, while more warmly lit, tighter shots capture the down-home friendliness of Robert's life in Midland. Whenever John and his son meet, the color palette fades while an understated play of light and shadow across both men's faces hints at their duplicity, not only as con men but also towards each other. A close-up of John's thousand-yard stare as his son walks out on him one more time suggests the ghost of Angelica Huston in The Grifters looks over his shoulder.

But apart from this central duo, the show offers less detail: Clint's menace, for instance, is hinted at, but not subtly, as he's framed consistently from below. His relationship with Robert is bound to crack open, as it's plain each is an accomplished liar. Allen's easy smile is the most chilling sight on the screen. He can be whatever his audience needs him to be, whether that audience is his father, his wife, or us.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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