American Blog Post

Loyal readers of this website may recall an article I wrote a few years ago bemoaning a tendency in Hollywood for movies to be titled after their lead character. Last year I wrote a sort of follow-up piece discussing how in lieu of an actual title many films and television shows are lumbered with mere descriptive labels. More recently, a similar trend has caught my attention: movies with nationalities.

Of course, the majority of the world’s commercially successful films are products of Hollywood, and are therefore technically American. The same films tend to be set in the United States, so their plots generally concern American characters. I assume that the idea behind such titles is to infer that a movie may also provide a commentary on American history, culture or society. But in recent years the naming conventions “American + [noun]” and the slightly less common “[adjective] + American” have been used so frequently that their purpose and significance has practically been lost.

After doing a little research I discovered 112 movies since 1950 that follow these patterns, almost half of which were released this century (and that doesn’t include TV series). Whether these figures represent an eagerness on the part of filmmakers to tell uniquely American stories in a post-9/11 world or a further laziness on the part of studios’ marketing departments is open for debate.

American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950)
An American in Paris (1951)
The Ugly American (1963)
Divorce American Style (1967)
American Graffiti (1973)
The Last American Hero (1973)
The American Friend (1977)
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978)
American Hot Wax (1978)
The Great American Girl Robbery (1979)
More American Graffiti (1979)
American Gigolo (1980)
The American Success Company (1980)
American Pop (1981)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Last American Virgin (1982)
American Dreamer (1984)
American Flyers (1985)
American Ninja (1985)
American Anthem (1986)
An American Tail (1986)
Born American (1986)
The Adventures of the American Rabbit (1986)
The American Way (1986)
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)
American Gothic (1988)
American Roulette (1988)
American Angels: Baptism of Blood (1989)
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)
American Dream (1990)
American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1990)
American Friends (1991)
American Kickboxer (1991)
American Shaolin (1991)
An American Summer (1991)
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
The American Gangster (1992)
American Heart (1992)
American Me (1992)
American Samurai (1992)
American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1993)
American Kickboxer 2 (1993)
American Ninja V (1993)
American Yakuza (1993)
The Young Americans (1993)
The American President (1995)
How to Make an American Quilt (1995)
American Buffalo (1996)
American Strays (1996)
American Tigers (1996)
My Fellow Americans (1996)
American Perfekt (1997)
An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)
American Dragons (1998)
American History X (1998)
American Beauty (1999)
American Pie (1999)
American Movie (2000)
American Psycho (2000)
The American Astronaut (2001)
American Desi (2001)
American Mullet (2001)
American Outlaws (2001)
American Pie 2 (2001)
An American Rhapsody (2001)
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
American Girl (2002)
The Quiet American (2002)
American Cousins (2003)
American Wedding (2003)
American Reel (2003)
American Splendor (2003)
American Gun (2005)
American Dreamz (2006)
American Hardcore (2006)
An American Haunting (2006)
The American Poop Movie (2006)
An American Crime (2007)
American Gangster (2007)
American Loser (2007)
American Pastime (2007)
American Zombie (2007)
An American Carol (2008)
American Crude (2008)
American Dog (2008)
American Son (2008)
American Teen (2008)
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)
An American Affair (2009)
American Casino (2009)
American Cowslip (2009)
American Violet (2009)
American Virgin (2009)
The American (2010)
American Flyer (2010)
American Ghost Hunter (2010)
American Maniacs (2010)
American Scream King (2010)
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)
American Animal (2011)
The American Dream (2011)
American Mary (2012)
American Reunion (2012)
The American Scream (2012)
American Hustle (2013)
American Idiots (2013)
American Heist (2014)
American Sniper (2014)
American Justice (2015)
American Beach House (2015)
American Ultra (2015)

Occasionally other nationalities have been applied to movie titles (The Italian Job, The English Patient, The Spanish Prisoner) but these are usually genuine, relevant descriptors. Too often the word “American” acts as nothing more than a tag, hung on a movie in a cheap attempt to elevate it above the mire by suggesting its intentions are somehow worthier than box office success. Market research has probably proven that Americans are more likely to see a movie with “American” in the title. Yet it’s also worth considering that with its diverse incarnations and myriad contradictions, perhaps no other country struggles with national identity in quite the same way as the United States. That “American” movies have only become more prevalent in recent years is proof that America — both the country and the idea — remains a subject of endless fascination.

Got a feeling I’ve been here before…

When Donald Fagen snarled disparagingly of “Show Biz Kids” in their “Steely Dan t-shirts” in 1973, he couldn’t have expected that forty years later he’d be embarking on epic cross-country tours, singing the same line night after night to thousands of fans dressed in over-priced garb emblazoned with the name of his very same band. The irony is not lost on Fagen nor his Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker. Having given up touring in the mid-seventies, retreating to the studio to focus on the pursuit of jazz-rock perfection, the duo reformed a live band in the early nineties and have been on the road or in the studio ever since. They recently penned a song about their reincarnation called “The Steely Dan Show” (part celebration, part self-deprecation), suggesting the pair now warily embrace the commercial touring routine.

Tonight sees the band coming to the end of a 53-show U.S. tour, the cryptically-titled “Mood Swings 2013: Eight Miles to Pancake Day”. The final seven shows take place at New York’s Beacon Theatre, and as soon as I get off the 1 train at 72nd Street I am approached by several middle-aged men trying to sell me tickets and knock-off merchandise that goes for a third of the price of those inside the lobby. The bar offers a special $14 cocktail called “Deacon Blues”, which depressingly consists of Absolut vodka and Sprite. Why not a Zombie from a cocoa shell, I wonder. Or a Black Cow? Or even a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen? Tonight the crowd is the usual mix of aging hipsters and major dudes, kids with cool parents and couples of all ages who know a tasty horn chart when they hear it. I have a pretty good seat at the front of the lower balcony, and have time to admire the extraordinarily ornate interior of the old theatre, as well as the extensive selection of guitars lined up on stage.

At 8:45pm the band, minus its two leaders, swishes into a jazzy introductory overture, towards the end of which the two founding members of Steely Dan make their entrance. In bright red Nikes, customary Wayfarers and a grey shirt that he looks like he’s been wearing since last night, Donald Fagen slouches onto the stage with the purposefulness of someone who’s just awoken from an extended nap. Meanwhile, his partner in crime Walter Becker ambles into view from the left, his head bobbing from side to side as he noodles on a sparkling apple-green Stratocaster. Taking his place behind the keyboard, Fagen leads the band into an unlikely opener, “Your Gold Teeth”, probably the only pop song in history to make reference to Cathy Berbarian. Unfortunately it turns out to be the most interesting song choice of the evening, as the show which had been billed as “Request Night” quickly shifts into a run-through of the band’s most popular, radio-friendly hits (maybe that’s what the audience requested).

Fagen seemed in high spirits from the start. “Sit back, relax and let the good times roll!” he implored in a possible reference to his idol Ray Charles, whose performance traits behind the keyboard he has frequently appropriated. For a 65-year-old he sang really well, taking intermittent sips from an ever-present can of Coke and even wandering out from behind the keyboard a few times to play his melodica with gusto. I’d read reports of last week’s shows describing Becker’s stage presence as “confused”. Apparently one night last week he disappeared halfway through the show and never came back. Tonight he interrupted “Hey Nineteen” to perform his weird welcoming monologue (which I’ve seen him do twice before), only this time he rambled on for what felt like several minutes, and when the song finally picked up again I’d almost forgotten which one it was. Later he performed lead vocal duties on “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More”. Becker’s evidently more suited to those slightly scathing, humourous songs (I’ve seen him sing “Haitian Divorce” and “Gaucho” before), whereas Fagen seems more at ease with the warmer, more human numbers, something that’s definitely reflected in their solo work.

Becker also had trouble settling on his instrument, frequently switching between at least six different guitars. In addition to the aforementioned sparkly apple-green Strat he also used a cherry-red Stratocaster, a cream Telecaster, a gold Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson Flying V and a Gibson Explorer. Jon Herington on the other hand was happy to rely only on a Gibson SG, Gibson Archtop and a Telecaster, coming up with a handful of devastating solos along the way. With his glasses and crisp blazer I always think he looks more like an interior designer or marketing director than lead guitarist, and I get the impression he’s reluctant to bask in the spotlight, preferring to hover near the curtain rather than soak up the audience’s roars of approval.

Clearly there is no discussion about stage presence or costumes, as everyone (with the exception of the girl singers in their little black dresses) seems to have shown up in whatever they happened to be wearing that day. Trumpet player Michael Leonhart sports a jaunty red fedora while his trombonist neighbor Jim Pugh looks like somebody’s dad in loose-fit jeans and running shoes. Although the juxtaposition is funny it only reinforces the sense that the show is more about expert musicianship than any kind of spectacle. When you read the bios of the individual band members on the official website you realize that these are among the very best musicians you’ll ever see, having between them played with everyone. The other stand-out performer is drummer Keith Carlock, who has probably one of the most challenging yet rewarding jobs in music. The rest of the band is referred to these days as the “Bipolar Allstars”, while the backing singers are known as the “Borderline Brats”. The all-female vocalists shared the lead on “Dirty Work” and a Joe Tex cover called “I Want To (Do Everything For You)”, the arrangement of which sounded exactly like “Chain Lightning”. During this song Becker introduced the band, describing Fagen in typically humourous terms: “…World traveller, organic gourmet chef and stern critic of the contemporary scene…”

They pile on the fan favorites towards the end, and the crowd seems very satisfied. Despite the hit-laden set list there is no room tonight for perennial live cuts such as “Bad Sneakers”, “Green Earrings” or “Josie”. Afterwards Fagen hands a pineapple that had been sitting mysteriously on top of an amp to a fan in the front row. The band returns for an encore and plays “Kid Charlemagne” (“Yes there’s gas in the car!”), allowing Herington to produce perhaps his best solo of the night. Becker and Fagen give a wave to the crowd and disappear again, leaving the band to play the audience out. It’s a slightly anti-climactic end to the show, and there is little sense of the musicians wanting to play any longer than the time allotted or give you a dollar more than your money’s worth.

This is the fourth time I’ve seen Steely Dan since they started touring again after an almost twenty-year hiatus: on the Art Crimes ’96 tour in Birmingham, at the Sanbitter Festival in Lucca in 2007, and once before at the Beacon in 2008. Over the past few years their week-long residence at the storied venue has become something of an Upper West Side tradition, and there is certainly a pervading sense of over-familiarity throughout the evening. Of course, there is no such thing as a bad Steely Dan concert, but this one was perhaps more for the casual fan of FM radio than for those of us who still have every note they’ve ever recorded on heavy rotation. The band is cooking throughout and as tight as ever, but I’d have appreciated a few less oft-performed album tracks to have been thrown into the mix, something that in the past I think they’ve always managed to do quite well. Rumours abound that Don ‘n’ Walt are working up a new record, so why not use the occasion to debut some new material, or at the very least throw in something off either of their most recent solo albums? Knowing Fagen’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and r’n’b I’m surprised he doesn’t branch out a bit and take advantage of that vast level of musicology to work some twists into the performances. They seemed to do that a lot when they first started touring again (see the live horn-driven version of “Reelin’ In The Years” on Alive in America), but tonight most songs were replicated exactly as they sound on the recorded versions. I kept listening out for how they’d come up with an ending for songs that fade out on record, which along with Herington’s solos and the backing vocals was the only element exclusive to the live performance.

A recent gimmick among aging rock acts has been the live reproduction of LPs in their entirety, something Steely Dan are not immune to, having performed shows this week devoted to the classic albums, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho. Each of these shows began with backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart dropping the needle on a spinning turntable on stage, a knowing joke that blurs the lines between live performance and recording. Tonight the newest song on the set list was originally recorded thirty-three years ago, but I think there’s a big difference between listening to old music at home and seeing/hearing it reproduced in person. A record is exactly that, and will always sound exactly the same. A concert is a totally different means of presenting the music, open to variation and spontaneity, with the exchange between performer and audience being more direct and reciprocal. I’ve always believed that a live act with any kind of longevity has to learn to keep things fresh, stay two steps ahead of their audience, even if it forces concert-goers to face the unexpected and even forgo hearing their favourite song. Otherwise it’s merely an exercise in nostalgia. Becker and Fagen surely know by now that those days are gone forever (over a long time ago… oh yeah).

Steely Dan, Beacon Theatre, October 5th, 2013:

Blueport (Gerry Mulligan cover — band only)
Your Gold Teeth
Hey Nineteen (WB extended monologue)
Show Biz Kids
Black Cow
Black Friday
Time Out Of Mind
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More (WB lead vocal)
Dirty Work (backing singers lead vocals)
Babylon Sisters
I Want To (Do Everything For You) (Joe Tex cover, backing singers lead vocals, band intros by WB)
Deacon Blues
My Old School
Reelin’ In The Years

Kid Charlemagne
Outro (band only)

Where everybody knows your name?

A couple of years ago I wrote about what I had perceived as a growing trend in Hollywood for inserting the name of a movie’s main character into its title. While this tendency has not subsided completely, lately I’ve begun to notice other naming devices used by film and television producers (especially within the comedy genre) that do little to dispel perceptions that the industry’s creative well hath run dry. I no longer consider myself an avid viewer of network television, nor a frequent movie-goer (which I’d like to think says more about the deteriorating quality of both media than about me). But I live in New York City and have eyes, so I am well aware of what’s playing on screens both large and small, even if I would be reluctant to sit through most of it.

Using the character’s name as (or as part of) the title is a more recent phenomenon in relation to movies, but its application to the sitcom has a much longer tradition. This usually follows one of a number of successful formulas.

1) Character’s first name: Arsenio, Bette, Blossom, Cybill, Ellen, Frasier, Freddie, Hank, Jenny, Jesse, Joey, Kirstie, Mary, Maude, Nancy, Reba, Rhoda, Roseanne, Whitney;

2) Character’s name + character’s name: Dharma & Greg, Kate & Allie, Kath & Kim, Laverne & Shirley, Melissa & Joey, Mike & Molly, Mork & Mindy, Ozzie & Harriet, Will & Grace, and in a slight variation, Joanie Loves Chachi;

3) Character’s name + some kind of description of their state or circumstance: Caroline in the City, Everybody Loves Raymond, Everybody Hates Chris, Grace Under Fire, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Samantha Who?, Suddenly Susan, Veronica’s Closet;

4) Multiple character names presented as a list: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane. Seinfeld and Becker are rarities in that they used the title character’s last name, a convention more often applied to police detective series (it’s worth noting that neither show could be called “cozy” while both employed a more sarcastic brand of humour.)

As you will have noted some of these character names are supplied by the star on whom they are often loosely based. Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy) and Bill Cosby (The Bill Cosby Show, The New Bill Cosby Show, The Cosby Show, The Cosby Mysteries) were rarely involved in anything that didn’t have their own name attached. The convention of The [insert star actor’s name here] Show has been applied to almost every beloved entertainer in American TV history. This year Michael J. Fox adds his name to a list that includes Andy Griffin, Bernie Mac, Betty White, Drew Carey, Doris Day, Donna Reed, Geena Davis, George Wendt, Jimmy Stewart, Jamie Foxx, Joey Bishop, Larry Sanders, Michael Richards, Mary Tyler Moore, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Paul Reiser, Tony Danza, Tony Randall and Tom Ewell.

Many sitcoms continue to revolve around the family unit — or some unconventional twenty-first century version of it — and it’s remarkable how many have included the word “family” in the title (All in the Family, Family Ties, Family Matters, Happy Family). This fall two more domestic comedies, Welcome to the Family and Family Guide, have landed on our screens, perhaps seeking to cash in on the recent success of Modern Family. A less common alternative is the cozy pluralization of the fictional family’s last name a la The Jeffersons, though we currently have two new families feuding for ratings: The Goldbergs and The Millers (not to be confused with the contemporaneous movie release, We’re The Millers).

Given the recent disintegration of the classic American sitcom format, there is something particularly quaint about such tried and trusted naming conventions. Far less appealing is the latest tendency for many recent shows to be lumbered with non-titles, or rather barely descriptive labels. This is by no means a new development, but perhaps gained popularity following the huge success of a mid-90s ensemble sitcom that started life as “Insomnia Café”, later becoming “Friends Like Us” before being abbreviated simply to Friends. Lately it seems this approach has reached absurd extremes. This fall season kids across America can see Mom on CBS and Dads on Fox. Perhaps the worst examples are Men of a Certain Age, We Are Men and Guys with Kids, all short-lived shows about, well, you guessed it). I was recently surprised to see a trailer for an Italian movie called 4 padri single (“4 single dads”), proof that the trend is not exclusive to this country or even to the English language.

This meta approach to giving shows deliberately uncreative titles reaches its nadir with what I call the “list” approach. I don’t know if Three Men and a Baby was the earliest case, but several sitcoms followed whose titles essentially described the cast in the most basic of terms: My Two Dads, Two Guys And A Girl (originally called Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, and not to be confused with the Robert Downey Jr. movie Two Girls and a Guy), Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls and Girls are the best examples.

I’m not sure if cinema trends influence television or vice-versa, but there have been several movies (all comedies) in the last couple of years that do nothing to eradicate this annoying habit: Grown-Ups, Bridesmaids, Spring Breakers, Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief, Tower Heist, Zookeeper, Bad Teacher, even Bad Grandpa. In an age in which television seems to exist primarily for the purpose of generating social media posts it’s not surprising that priorities have shifted. Few people actually sit down to watch TV as it airs; instead the best parts of shows are enjoyed after the fact on YouTube or as live trending tweets. Similarly most movies are available on DVD or streaming before their cinema run has ended. Faced with such an excess of competition, the titles of TV shows and movies no longer have to appeal or intrigue, but rather explain a premise as quickly as possible, that would-be viewers can understand without even watching it. I can only assume that this irritating fad will subside only after reaching its obvious conclusion, in which titles are combined with a one-word review. Although incredibly, neither “Unfunny Sitcom” nor “Bad Movie” sound particularly far-fetched.


“I WILL NOT TALK!” cries silent movie star George Valentin, as we fade in on his gaping mouth. Except his screams of anguish go unheard, both by his torturers and by two very separate cinema audiences: the one enjoying his latest Hollywood adventure and the one viewing The Artist, the new film by French director Michel Hazanavicius. Valentin’s words are only understood via a title card — a delightful joke that cleverly prepares audiences for cinema’s first commercial silent release in almost 85 years.

But how would twenty-first century movie fans react to such an audacious premise? The effect of hearing nothing but Ludovic Bource’s jaunty score is initially jarring. Though sound (or lack thereof) is not The Artist’s only technical departure from today’s type of movie-making. The film was shot using a 1.33:1 screen ratio common for the time, and at a slower 22 frames per second to achieve the slightly sped-up quality of the period (most movies today are filmed at 24fps). But the biggest surprise that comes from seeing The Artist in a packed theater (aside from the shock of how much noise cinema-goers actually make) is how quickly the audience settles into the unfamiliar.

The year is 1927 (the same year The Jazz Singer was released) and Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is Hollywood’s barrel-chested action hero du jour, in spite of the fact that nobody has ever heard a word out of his mouth. Amidst the clamor surrounding this pencil-mustachioed matinee idol, a confident young flapper named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) manages to breach the lax security of Kinograph Studios, talking (and dancing) her way onto his next feature. On screen, the two mismatched performers share a flirtatious scene, and off it, a brief but significant meeting in Valentin’s dressing room that will drive the plot forward.

Things are shaking up in Hollywood at large, too, with the advent of talking pictures. When burly studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) reveals this revolution in sound technology to a skeptical Valentin, the proud star refuses any part, effectively signaling his own rapid professional and personal decline. With deft irony, the brand new medium catches the sprightly Miss Miller on the cusp of fame, propelling her from young aspirant to starlet in her own right. Caught in a frustrated marriage to a surly and disgruntled wife (Penelope Ann Miller), Valentin’s plight is aided by the presence of his abiding chauffeur/cook Clifton (James Cromwell), as well as his one-time on-screen companion, a faithful Jack Russell terrier that more than proves his worth to the washed-up actor away from the cameras.

It is a melodrama that has already been rehashed in Hollywood once too often, but never quite like this. As both protagonists grapple with their new-found circumstances, their feelings of guilt, longing and regret resonate twice as deeply due to the complete absence of dialogue. Consequently we are forced to infer everything from each nuanced smile, stolen glance and wiped tear. A nostalgic fascination for the forgotten era notwithstanding, The Artist packs the purest emotional punch I’ve felt at the movies in a long time.

Though cinematographer Guillaume Schiffmanit shot the film in color, every frame positively shines with all the white splendor of the pre-war Los Angeles sun (before the smog set in). Every detail is recreated with unnerving accuracy. It is rare to see a period movie suggest another epoch with such meticulousness, and I repeatedly lapsed into forgetting the film was brand new. Yet the film’s extraordinary technical research would have been for nothing without the winning performances of its two leads, the dashing and handsome Dujardin — who had previously starred in Hazanavicius’ series of spy spoofs, OSS 117 — and his female foil, the dazzling Argentine-born Bejo (daughter of filmmaker Miguel Bejo and Hazanavicius’ wife). Both possess the kind of expressive faces that belong to another time, before movie stars became CGI facsimiles of each other. Would any of today’s A-listers abandon their ego enough to perform without speaking? Here the film’s principal device enables its ultimate success, which hinges on the fact that neither actor is recognizable to audiences outside France. The tale is all the more absorbing precisely for the fact that we do not know the sounds of their voices.

For the first ten minutes I found myself wondering how long this central gimmick could be maintained, while at the same time hoping that the filmmakers would have the guts not to abandon the “novelty” mid-way through. I was reminded of Pleasantville (1998), another clever film that used technical device to tell a story, allowing color to subtly infiltrate a black-and-white fifties suburbia. I expected a similar turning point during The Artist, but instead the movie itself plays on its audience’s inevitable questioning — we are repeatedly invited to second-guess the ingenious conceit only for the filmmakers to consistently have the last laugh.

Nominated for six Golden Globes, twelve Baftas and ten Academy Awards, The Artist arrives under a weight of expectation and is not without flaw. The ending feels hurried, while the score — in a supposed nod to an altogether different movie era — borrows from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a curious decision that apparently provoked the ire of that movie’s leading lady, Kim Novak.

Just as Woody Allen’s recent Midnight In Paris implored against the perils of nostalgia, so The Artist — while clearly celebrating the bygone age it so effortlessly evokes — is more keen to address the present. The film is no doubt a subtle critique of Hollywood’s current cinema, but more importantly a timely allegory for the problems of the modern world. “Make way for the young!” Miller exclaims enthusiastically to a reporter in one scene, in a manner reminiscent of twenty-first century society’s at times all-embracing attitude to new technology. George Valentin is a man overwhelmed by the detrimental effect of our alarming advancement, that is the elimination of what went before. He risks being phased out, along with his job and industry as he knows it, a highly relevant phenomenon of which our current economic climate is a direct consequence. What lingers after seeing the The Artist is the affirmation that only by appreciating the past can we begin to fathom the present.

Characters welcome (their names less so)

The poster for Larry Crowne, the new movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, doesn’t tell us much, besides the fact that the film stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and that they are having a pleasant time. The two actors are seen riding what appears to be a flying motor scooter, judging by the sky blue background and complete absence of gravitationally secured objects. He smiles contentedly, his eyes, twinkling behind dark shades, fixed firmly on the road (or flight path). She perches behind him, her printed silk scarf fluttering in the breeze as she releases a trademark thousand-watt grin. Neither wears a crash helmet.

Not even the movie’s title can reveal much else to prospective cinema-goers as to the purpose of this joyride through the clouds. After realizing that “Larry Crowne” was in fact the name of the movie (and not a third-billed actor) I began hoping that the name might refer to a mysterious unseen matchmaker who brings the film’s protagonists together; or maybe a clever alias exposed to devastating effect mid-way through the movie; or perhaps the leader of a menacing band of Vespa enthusiasts that engages our heroic duo in a less-than-deadly two-wheeled airborne pursuit. Imagine my disappointment to learn, with depressing predictability, that “Larry Crowne” is nothing more than the name of Tom Hanks’ character. The poster isn’t even a cute reference to Roman Holiday.

When asked about the title, Hanks, who co-wrote and directed the film, revealed Larry as the name of his real-life brother, and that “Crowne” was chosen as a last name because it “sounded cool” (probably because it had already sounded cool in The Thomas Crown Affair — twice). I can only assume Hanks was searching for a name to evoke a certain everyman, but the detail drew my attention to what may be a growing trend in Hollywood, in which movie titles — supposedly an important element in the eventual success of a cinematic release — simply defer to the lead character’s name.

Larry Crowne is not the first movie — or even the first movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts — to include a character’s name in the title. In 2007 the pair co-starred in Charlie Wilson’s War, while each won Oscars for their respective roles as Forrest Gump (1994) and Erin Brockovich (2000). Historical tales, true stories and biopics often include the character’s name in the title for recognition purposes, since it’s that person whose life the film is about. Other comprehensible exceptions include franchises such as Indiana Jones or Harry Potter. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) told the story of a comedian’s complex relationship with a woman, the use of whose name as the title served only to accentuate his romantic fixation (“Hall” is also Diane Keaton’s real last name). A character’s name may play an integral role in plot development, as in the case of Meet Joe Black (1998) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). In both movies mystery shrouds Brad Pitt’s identity as the preposterous title character.

In some cases a film can gain a cult following due to the inclusion of a character’s name in the title. To a generation of movie-lovers, “Ferris Bueller” remains synonymous with adolescent tedium and smart-alec rebellion thanks to Matthew Broderick’s winning performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). More recently, other films aimed at young audiences — such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) — have attempted to capitalize using the same technique, with less impressive results. You could argue also that these films are either set in high schools or geared towards teens, an age where last names are important for differentiating between the dozens of other Sarahs, Scotts and, uh, Ferrises among your peers.

But when the device backfires it can make film companies look quite lazy. In 2009 two films were released with identical titles, save for their character name suffixes. The subject matter of I Love You, Beth Cooper and I Love You Philip Morris could not have been more different, but you could hardly blame audiences for not being able to recall which movie was which. Perhaps Larry Crowne‘s truest precedent is Jerry Maguire, the 1996 hit starring Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger. It too relied on the bankability of its leads, and essentially amounted to a fairly straight romantic comedy-drama hidden beneath a tedious sub-plot about a sports agent and his ego-centric client.

Admittedly, it’s so far been a bad summer at the movies. Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, and Zookeeper sound like they were lumbered with their working titles when market research suggested they couldn’t be improved upon. But neither the ubiquitous poster for Larry Crowne nor its accompanying trailer has given me incentive enough to go and see it, despite the dearth of promising alternatives. A New York Times review, which described the film as a “tepid, putatively adult film which may elicit mild chuckles” suggested my instincts were correct. Maybe I’d have been more compelled if the movie had had a more interesting title (the French release translates as “It’s Never Too Late”). Instead, the public is left with no idea what the film is about, and the impression that the answer is not much. It makes the film look like a vanity project. Perhaps Tom Hanks should save himself some bother and simply call his next vehicle “Tom Hanks”.

It’s no secret that studios’ primary concern has always been star-power and box-office success. Maybe the less an audience knows about a movie the more likely they’ll pay to watch it. The fact that Larry Crowne stars two of America’s best-loved stars was enough for it to gross $15.7 million in its opening four-day weekend (although 71% of those who bought tickets were over 50). But it seems increasingly apparent now that even filmmakers themselves are becoming indifferent to their own work, a conclusion borne out by Hollywood’s current lack of imagination and fresh ideas. Imagine an alternate world where classic movies had been named for their main characters. Rick Blaine, George Bailey, Norman Bates, Benjamin Braddock, Popeye Doyle, Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, Tony Manero and Han Solo hardly sound like Oscar-winners, but I bet you’d have little trouble recalling the movies they belong to. Hollywood should focus on creating characters worth remembering –- if they’re truly memorable we won’t forget their names.

I was dreaming when I wrote this

ARE U READY? A calm female voice pierces the darkness. The palpable sense of anticipation among the 20,000 people crammed into Madison Square Garden is ignited as the New Power Generation lays down a hard blues-funk groove. Moments later, a dark figure rises slowly into view, a Telecaster slung across his dimunitive frame completing his silhouette. He takes his position in the center of the glyph-shaped stage, motionless in four-inch platform heels, his gold rhinestone-covered playsuit dazzling amid a multitude of camera flashes. Finally the artist most people never stopped calling Prince introduces himself: “From the heart of Minnesota/Here come the purple Yoda!” The song is “Laydown”, a hidden track from his most recent album, 20Ten. For a man who’s enjoyed hit records in each of the last four decades it’s an unexpected choice of opener, but Prince has made a career out of defying odds and logic to keep fans and critics guessing, and at fifty-two isn’t about to stop now. How else could a five-foot-two Jehovah’s Witness from the Midwest generate such excitement?

I’ve been a fan of Prince’s for as long as I’ve been listening to pop music but I’d never had the chance to see him perform live – until tonight. The first songs of his I remember hearing as a child were “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. Though both huge stand-alone hits, I’ve never been able to separate them in my mind, probably because the two tracks run straight into each other on the first side of the 1999 double LP. Perhaps Prince feels the same way, as he immediately presents both songs back-to-back, almost as if to atone for having started the show with a song most people have never heard (or heard of). The drum machine and synth intro to “1999” is instantly familiar, and by the end of the number Prince has the crowd chanting “Paarr-tay!” like it’s 1982. He even breaks the song down to funk guitar and falsetto for the spoken-child portion which closes the track (“Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”). Twenty-eight years after its release (and eleven since its supposed obsolescence), this vintage slice of Minneapolis dance-funk still sounds like it was written last week, and if a more irrefutable summons to the floor has been recorded since I’ve yet to hear it.

In contrast, “Little Red Corvette” is initially unrecognizable, as Prince strikes a single extended note repeatedly on his guitar, which he then perfectly mimics with his own voice. Only when he gets to the brilliant first line, “I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last”, does the crowd recognize the song that is still heard daily on every FM radio station. The song speeds up for the hand-clapped chorus but then shifts tempo once again. “Slow down!” Prince begins to cry, until he has the crowd chanting it like a mantra. Bathed in a red light and half-hidden by plumes of smoke, he revels in some trademark solo dance moves until the song atmospherically shuffles to a halt.

By the time I gather myself, Prince is already seated at a purple piano at the swirly part of the stage. “Can I talk… to the ladies?” His request is met with wild approval, and he dives into “The Beautiful Ones”, the dramatic ballad from Purple Rain. For this number he is joined on stage by Misty Copeland, a promising ballerina who had been granted a night off from her regular gig at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Prince steps away from the piano to engage the young performer as she swings her legs in the air and twirls her long flowing dress. They’re the kind of moves he might have busted himself twenty-five years ago, but for once, on this occasion, he’s just happy to watch.

Prince cranks up the energy levels and works up the crowd during stretched-out funkathon “Controversy”. “Who wanna dance with me?” he asks as a backing singer pulls audience members out of what must be a sort of celebrity pen down by the stage. The first guest, a woman named Paula, is quickly booted (“Get off the stage!”) for her apparent lack of dancing skills. Prince repeats the joke with reality star Kim Kardashian (“She might be too sexy…”), whose complete failure to indulge her host and subsequent dismissal is met with howls of derision. “Welcome to America,” Prince quips. “Where you can get famous for doing nothing at all!”

The lengthy intro to “Purple Rain” begins in total blackness, and as the outline of the stage is gradually picked out in purple lights, as if being drawn by a magic glow-in-the-dark pen, the crowd enjoys several rounds of the song’s “Ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh” refrain before Prince has even finished his refreshment break. Prince seems to recognize that this is a key number in the set, but doesn’t let that get in the way of his sense of humor. “Y’all mind if I play my guitar?” he politely asks mid-way through, before launching into a mesmerizing four-minute solo, his face contorting like a man possessed.

Returning to the stage in a loose gold silk shirt, a relaxed Prince segues between two of his most radio-friendly hits: “Raspberry Beret” and “Cream”. Such is their common bouncing groove you’d be forgiven for thinking both songs had been designed to be performed together, had they not been written years apart. Prince is clearly in a playful mood, and is joined by the Roots’ ?uestlove for a joyous rendition of “Cool”, a semi-forgotten relic originally written for Morris Day’s The Time. More galvanic funk follows, with “Let’s Work” and “U Got The Look” closing the set.

Just over an hour has passed, but Prince is just warming up. He returns not five minutes later to dedicate “Nothing Compares 2 U” to his first drummer, Bobby Z, who suffered a heart attack last week. The song was originally written for The Family in 1985 — Prince never recorded the song in the studio but has occasionally performed it as a duet in live shows, this time with the stunning Shelby Johnson. What became a whiny melodramatic hit single for Sinead O’Connor is presented here as a warm ode to a couple’s reconciliation. “Real music by real musicians!” exclaims Prince as he exits the stage. “Support the arts!”

prince 2

Warm-up act Cee-lo Green returns to perform his Gnarls Barkley hit, “Crazy”, with Prince taking on routine guitar duties. Now dressed in matching red silk shirt and loose-fitting pants, notably Prince is wearing flat shoes (rumor has it that years of performing in platforms have apparently taken their toll). Prince seems keen to get things back on track, and though his height is now compromised, from here the show only grows in stature.

Immediately, the words “Dearly beloved” generate predictably rapturous excitement from all those in the crowd who think Purple Rain is Prince’s best album. But few songs are as hard to ignore as “Let’s Go Crazy” so who can blame them? The song briefly slips into “Delirious” before returning on course in time for Prince to embark on another mind-altering guitar solo, as purple discs of confetti explode from canons mounted beside the stage. It would have made for the ultimate show opener, but despite what we’ve just witnessed it’s not 1984 anymore so he’s free to play what he likes. Prince returns to the keyboard for “When Doves Cry”, but when he gets to the part about “You and I engaged in a kiss”, he interrupts himself to switch to the inimitable guitar twang of “Kiss” before he can say the operative word. Inevitably, the extended live version cannot match the spare production of the studio recording, but Prince certainly has fun, even updating the lyrics. “You don’t have to watch… The L Word,” he snarls, suggesting perhaps that it’s a few years since the cable bill was renewed at Paisley Park.

As if suddenly feeling pressed for time, Prince seems keen to remind us of the sheer depth of his back catalogue. Returning to the piano (which is evidently fitted with some kind of advanced version of iTunes) Prince begins indecisively plucking for several minutes from a pre-programmed roster of classic songs, of which we sadly only get to hear snippets. I personally would have preferred to hear a couple in their entirety. “Too many hits!” he jokes, by way of an explanation for this teasing dalliance. This segment is made further distracting by Prince’s ill-advised decision to invite members of the celebrity pen on-stage (of whom I can make out only Chris Rock and the already disgraced Kardashian), most of whom seem unsure what to do with themselves. The one exception is an unidentified man who begins an unprovoked solo jig in the middle of the stage, prompting Prince to call a halt to the medley in mock panic: “Security!”

Finally, Prince settles on a song, climbing atop his piano for “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Though one of his most mature studies of male-female relations, he still prefaces it with a warning: “If we play that somebody gonna get pregnant.” So many artists have appropriated Prince’s penchant for slow ballads that it’s easy to forget that he practically invented the genre in its modern form, and has recorded enough bedroom songs to account for others’ entire careers. As if reminded of the fact himself, Prince — now lying flat on the piano’s closed lid — segues into “Insatiable”, “Scandalous” and “Adore”. He slowly makes his way around the stage, at one point even feigning physical exhaustion in a move borrowed directly from James Brown. The pace of the first two hours finally subsides, and we are treated to an intense tour-de-force of vocal prowess and falsetto showmanship, in which Prince overwhelmingly redeems for his previous misstep. Arguably the evening’s highlight, it’s an unforgettable twenty-minute suite that leaves every woman in the audience on her knees and this grown man in tears.

* * *

I regret never having seen Prince at his commercial peak. Tonight the quirky musicians, jazz-funk horns, extended show-stoppers and overt sexuality of his mid-eighties shows are sorely missed. But though he may lack the moves and urgency (if not the energy) of a performer in his prime, the evening is indisputable confirmation that both his voice and guitar (he played the same beat-up Telecaster — the one from 1999‘s inner-sleeve — throughout) sound better than ever. So much speculation has surrounded the more intriguing aspects of his career that his unfathomable talent has at times been taken for granted. Yet he has emerged from his commercial heyday as arguably the most timeless songwriter and gifted performer of his generation. I remember a brazen British journalist once called Prince the “Mozart of the Twentieth-Century”. While it’s highly possible we’ll still be hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio centuries from now, given his prolific output, sheer versatility and irreversible effect on popular culture it might be more accurate to nominate him the “Picasso of Music”.

Prince has always conveyed a sense of “otherness”, shattering stereotypes and boundaries surrounding race, sexuality, gender — and of course music — without ever compromising his authenticity or razor wit. Perhaps more than any artist since the Beatles, his endless talent and insistence on total creative control has forged not only a genre (or several), but a world unto himself that’s far bigger than him. He even had to invent an unpronounceable name for it. Part shy nature, part calculated career ploy, Prince’s coyness has served only to enhance his mystique, and as tonight’s show progressed I became aware that we were experiencing something greater than just a concert, something far more powerful that transcends both performer and audience. For all the hits and guitar solos and wisecracks, the evening feels like a celebration of “Prince” — not the man nor the music necessarily, or even the fans, but rather the unique purple universe that those three things have created. It’s not easy to define but you know it when you hear it because it sounds and feels like nothing else.

The house lights come up, but as the buzzing crowd begins to filter from its seats Prince and the band unexpectedly reemerge, almost apologetically. “We just can’t leave!” he explains, before launching into the vaguely spiritual “Mountains”, one of my favorite Revolution-era tracks, from the magnificent if oft-overlooked Parade album (“Once upon a time in a land called fantasy…”) Not for the first time tonight the set-list seems to take even Prince by surprise, and the number morphs seamlessly into The Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body”, as if he’d suddenly spotted the two songs’ shared heavenly groove.

An early predecessor of the multi-racial, cross-gender genre-hopping that Prince took to new levels was Sly & The Family Stone, whose 1968 hit “Everyday People” is next to be given the purple treatment. Prince’s brain now seems to be operating on some kind of musical stream of consciousness, as he is apparently transformed into a sort of human jukebox. The effect is almost like watching Prince off-duty, jamming on old favourites, but it’s all in a night’s work. Delving deeper into the pop archive, he raises his arms skyward and implores, “I wanna take you hiiiigh-err!” Sadly for the rest of us there’s nowhere else to go from here but down.

Madison Square Garden, New York
February 7, 2011

Little Red Corvette
The Beautiful Ones
Purple Rain
Raspberry Beret
Let’s Work
U Got The Look
Nothing Compares 2 U


Crazy (with Cee-Lo Green)
Let’s Go Crazy
Welcome 2 America
When Doves Cry
Nasty Girl
Forever In My Life
Sign ‘O’ The Times
Alphabet St.
A Love Bizarre
Hot Thing
Pop Life
I Would Die 4 U
Single Ladies
If I Was Your Girlfriend

Shake Your Body (The Jacksons cover)
Everyday People (Sly & The Family Stone cover)
I Want To Take You Higher (Sly & The Family Stone cover)

Livin’ la dolce vita

About five years ago, while spending a weekend at my parents’ house in England, I was flicking channels on a lazy Sunday afternoon when I came across a cooking programme called David Rocco’s Dolce Vita. The show was set in Florence, and followed the culinary exploits of a certain David Rocco, a good-looking young Canadian-Italian living the so-called “sweet life.” We’d see Rocco strolling through the piazza, picking up some ingredients at the local market before whipping up something tasty for his pals back at his apartment. I too was living in Florence at the time, and so I kept watching for the novelty aspect more than anything, although these scenes appeared so familiar to me that they almost felt too close to home.

A couple of days after returning to Florence I was invited by a friend to visit her new apartment near Piazza Santa Croce. When I arrived I was greeted with a tour of the flat, which soon enough led me to the kitchen. Upon entering I was immediately struck by an overwhelming sense of déjà-vu. I stopped and stood there for several moments trying to understand when I could have possibly been in this apartment before, despite being unable to recall having ever even walked down this particular street. Then it hit me: I was standing in David Rocco’s kitchen! It turned out the apartment belonged to David’s sister Maria, who also happened to be my friend’s boss. They simply used the apartment one month out of the year to tape the series. Until a few days earlier I’d never even heard of David Rocco, but my friend’s roommate was Canadian and explained that he was a former model and something of a household name in that country.

Over the ensuing months the Dolce Vita apartment became a gathering point for all the characters in our own lives, just like the principal set of any classic sitcom. My friend had a few promo DVDs from the series, which we sometimes watched to further enhance the surreal experience (imagine watching an episode of Seinfeld on Jerry’s couch). We enjoyed long Sunday lunches at the dinner table, and casual gatherings in the kitchen, around the marble-topped work surface upon which Rocco tosses his insalata. “Casa Rocco” – as it was soon dubbed – was also the scene of Thanksgiving dinners and memorable parties, including the evening of my 27th birthday and an ambitious Breakfast At Tiffany’s-themed night of debauchery. One night, after snooping around in the drawer which contained an impressive array of spatulas and mysterious utensils, another friend badly sprained her ankle on the kitchen floor, right where Rocco stands to drain his pasta. She had to be carried out of the apartment by paramedics on a stretcher, and spent the next month living at Casa Rocco with her leg in a plaster cast.

When Rocco and the crew arrived to shoot the new series, my friend was forced to move out for the entire month of May. One day I happened to visit the set: the apartment was crammed with lighting equipment and cables, but I missed out on meeting David. I even attended Maria Rocco’s wedding reception in the Florentine hills as my friend’s plus-one, but he wasn’t there either. Eventually, my friend moved out and the Casa Rocco era came to an abrupt end, but she did give me a watch she found abandoned on the set that I still wear to this day.

I hadn’t given David Rocco or his Dolce Vita much thought since, until I recently stumbled across an episode on the fledgling cable network Cooking Channel (751 on Time Warner Cable HD). I learned that the show is in its fifth series and has even spawned a book and a soundtrack, so it seemed like a good time to reacquaint myself.

Of course, there is something very obvious about calling a show about Italian cooking “Dolce Vita”. For the title of his 1960 film, Fellini employed the term “La Dolce Vita” with a generous dose of irony. It was meant to suggest a shallow life of excess, one which was ultimately bereft of meaning or direction — a commentary on the loss of traditional values in postwar Italy and the problems facing a new generation in the 1950s. We can forgive David Rocco for appropriating the overused phrase for his own show, and for predictably applying it in its broader cultural sense, that is, to suggest the most pleasurable aspects of Italian life. Naturally, we’re also treated to regular sweeping postcard panoramas of Renaissance architecture. But despite these corny marketing tools, the show is keen to convey a sense of Florence beyond tourism.

For the most part Rocco’s life does indeed appear exceedingly pleasureful, almost like an Italian take on a yuppie lifestyle. He drinks espresso, shops for food (and shoes), goes jogging, cooks dinner for his friends and spends weekends in Chianti with his wife, Nina, who plays herself. This apparent domestic bliss notwithstanding, the ever simpatico Rocco still seems to live the life of a carefree metrosexual bachelor. If the incessant aperitivo soundtrack is anything to go by, his is a world forever on the cusp of happy hour.

While not trained in the kitchen (“I’m not a cook – I’m Italian,” he says) Rocco certainly makes cooking look fun, and perhaps more importantly, effortless. His recipes center around the “cucina povera” or peasant food which provides the classic staples of Italian family life. Incorporating simple, fresh ingredients, our host presents many of his dishes as having been handed down by a relative (many are named after the “nonna” or “zia” who came up with them). Despite an affected habit of calling everyone he meets “Ciccio” and the mystifying employment of an electric golf cart to get about town (surely a Vespa would have been more accurate and appealing), Rocco’s own knowledge of Italian cuisine and culture is exemplary and the clichés which litter most depictions of Italian-Americans on our TV screens are here refreshingly absent.

Though hardly fellini-esque in either its scope or atmosphere, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita has more in common with the Fellini classic from whose title it borrows than is initially apparent. Episodic in nature, part reality and part fiction, for a cooking show it defies categorization. As the ad-hoc script swings back and forth between plot development and cooking demonstrations, Rocco himself regularly “breaks the fourth wall” to address the viewer directly. Meanwhile, the often improvised dialogue shuffles between Italian and English in a manner which only rarely becomes disorientating. Faced with the tricky task of often conversing with Italians for an English-speaking audience, the bilingual Canadian has been known to use both languages even in the same sentence. The cast is completed by Rocco’s own circus of eccentric “friends” who flesh out the episodes’ loose plotlines. Some play themselves, or versions of themselves, while others are entirely fictionalized characters. I find myself recognizing many of Rocco’s on-screen buddies (one of them, Max — an anglicization of his real name — was a former roommate of mine). Here we can begin to draw parallels with La Dolce Vita, for which Fellini cluttered the screen with actors and non-actors of various nationalities. The star of that film, Marcello Mastroianni, was intrigued by the multi-layered nature of cinema, and possessed an attitude to acting which began to stretch the boundaries of performance and reality. In his 1993 biography of the actor Donald Dewey describes Mastroianni’s approach as being founded upon the double fantasy role: that of the character being portrayed for the project in question and that of the actor working as a performer on the “adult playground” of the film set.

In 2005 Casa Rocco became an unlikely refuge from my own domestic frustrations and romantic melodramas. Watching David Rocco’s Dolce Vita on television now in New York – from the safety of several years and several thousand miles – is an altogether more complex sensation. I’m not particularly nostalgic about the years I spent in Florence — while I loved the city and fully basked in all of its wonders I have not forgotten the common frustrations of daily life in Italy, nor the challenges faced in attempting to pursue a more serious life there. Yet as the camera caresses the view from Piazzale Michelangelo, before focusing on Rocco as he dashes around the centro storico, I’m persistently prodded by recollections of my own experiences among Florence’s rain-soaked cobbled streets. It’s highly amusing to think back on evenings spent in Rocco’s kitchen, and even the bars and shops he frequents are those which I came to know well: Capocaccia, Chiaroscuro, Procacci, Semolina, Giubbe Rosse, Hotel Continentale and of course, the Dolce Vita bar in Piazza del Carmine are all given ample screen time. In a surprising twist on art imitating life (or is it vice-versa?), the perhaps inevitable consequence is that this Canadian cooking show has become a means of (re)living a vicarious and fictionalized version of my life in Florence. Though I’m still uncertain whether seeing your life (or a close approximation of it) on television makes it seem more, or less, real. In both his elaborate reconstruction of Rome at Cinecittà and the dreamlike fantasy sequences for which he became associated, Fellini too was inclined to suggest that reality could always be improved upon. Maybe that’s why David Rocco’s Dolce Vita somehow feels even better than the real thing.

Spin City

A few months ago, on the same day I turned thirty, I signed the lease to my first real New York apartment. To celebrate both occasions my wife surprised me with an unexpected gift: a record player, complete with amp and tuner. Nothing fancy (it had been donated to her by her boss) but perfect for a young couple looking to get its groove on in a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up.

I owned only two LPs at the time, which I’d acquired in the vague hope that sooner or later I’d have my own turntable on which to play them. The first was The Nightfly by Donald Fagen, purchased for a dollar at East Village Thrift Shop on Second Avenue. According to jazz-rock legend, this was one of the first commercial albums to be fully recorded digitally. I’d only ever heard it on CD, but on vinyl its grooves were warm and full. I later read that “I.G.Y.” (the opening track on side one) is the go-to choice for sound engineers and audiophiles when setting up their equipment, deeming it also a worthy selection with which to debut my own home sound system.

The other record was Some Girls, which I’d bought in the original elaborate sleeve from a guy on the street somewhere on upper Broadway. Arguably the Rolling Stones’ most New York-centric record, the album held fewer surprises but sounded as tough and taught ever. Thrilled with the new addition to our home, the next morning we took a stroll through the neighborhood in search of expanding our vinyl collection. Within a couple of hours we’d amassed such a heavy trove of classic LPs that we had to turn back. That night we spun our latest purchases at my birthday party, which meant my meticulously-compiled 2009-1979 reverse chronological playlist had to be eighty-sixed at the eleventh hour. But who cares when you’re replacing it with a gently worn copy of Al Green’s Greatest Hits?

Almost overnight, I’d been presented with a new project to distract me from more important responsibilities. Suddenly a day without a visit to a record store was considered a day wasted, and my walks home from work became invariably interrupted by a fast perusal of the NEW ARRIVALS section at Academy Records on East 12th Street. Whether you consider this activity a worthy hobby or simply another means of parting with significant amounts of cash will depend on how you feel about John Coltrane (particularly the stuff on Impulse). At first I was quite discerning in purchasing used vinyl, spending money only for recordings that belonged on my personal all-time favorites list, or, alternatively, for those that were relatively unknown to me but that my wife or I considered intriguing enough to excite or entertain, at least for an evening or two. This responsible approach began to slacken however, after it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t take me much more than a week to pick up everything Dave Brubeck, Van Morrison and Blondie ever recorded for next to nothing.


Despite the fact that most young people these days don’t even own a stereo, let alone a turntable, there are still several old-fashioned record shops well worth a visit operating just blocks from our apartment. Greenwich Village is generally pricier ($48 for Sticky Fingers?) and subway rides to other stores often prove less fruitful, with some on my list having long-since closed. Strider Records on Jones Street (of Freewheelin’ fame) has so much inventory stacked on the floor you can’t even get inside. Instead you have to stand in the doorway and tell them what it is you’re looking for. I’ve spent upwards of twenty dollars on a couple of occasions — usually for classic be-bop — but the majority of LPs in my collection cost less than five bucks, some as little as fifty cents, and others even less. Leaving work one summer’s evening I tripped over a 1947 Metropolitan Opera recording of La Bohème which had been left lying in the middle Lexington Avenue.

I’m thirty (as I mentioned earlier) and like most people my age I grew up hearing music on vinyl at home, or on TDK cassettes in the car and on my Walkman (we didn’t have a CD player until 1993). Part of the pleasure of building my LP library has been the subconscious recreation of my parents’ own record collection, and the subtle discrepancies between US and UK releases. For instance, did you know that the design of Columbia spines slightly on either side of the Atlantic? (I remember always reading the spines while on the telephone — back in the days when phones stayed in one place.) Like any level-headed person my Dad keeps his collection in alphabetical order (anybody adhering to an alternative filing system ought not to be trusted), but when I was little he’d always have a stack of new records or stuff he was currently playing propped up on the floor. I know for a fact I spent more time staring at the cover of some albums than actually listening to them.

As much as I’m a close listener, I’ve always been an avid consumer of music, in the sense that I’m interested in the whole product. For me, most of my favorite music is inexorably connected to its album, its cover design, its release date and in some cases even its personal relevance or standing within a greater cultural context. So I’m routinely surprised by people who are willing to pay for digital downloads of albums. Yes, it’s on your hard drive before you know it and in a matter of seconds has been unzipped and dumped into your iTunes. But it leaves the customer without anything else — artwork, liner notes or a lyric sheet — with which to enhance the listening experience. Personally, when it comes to my favorite albums I want to know who played the instruments, who wrote the songs, where they were recorded, who photographed the band, who designed the cover. For these simple reasons I’ve never felt compelled to pay for music in a digital format in my life.

These days if I’m interested in a new recording I’m likely to order the CD online, firstly because it’s cheaper, but also because when I try to think of where I’d purchase a CD physically in New York my mind goes blank. Tower Records, HMV and Virgin Megastore have all pulled out of Manhattan in the last few years and, incredibly, CD sales are now said to lag behind those of vinyl records. If I were to buy a new CD in person today I’d probably have to go to a chain bookstore or a giant warehouse selling microwaves and flat-screen televisions.

Conversely, there are plenty of people not much younger than me who’ve never walked into a record store to buy music. No doubt they enjoy the convenient immediacy of the digital format, plus the fact that it takes up no extra physical space in their home. But their kids will never know the feeling of lying on the living room rug, seeing a record they’ve never heard, and imagining how it might sound. Theirs is the first generation that won’t grow up listening to albums, which doesn’t bode well for the future of music — or society, for that matter — in general.

I own an iPod, but I only use it at the gym or the airport or if I feel like zoning out on a long walk. It’s great for those purposes: it weighs almost nothing and even clips to my clothes. But I can’t imagine it being the only way I listened to music. The MP3 has transformed the way society purchases and listens to the musical product. It has encouraged the demise of the album as unique art form and promotes an already pervading culture of instant gratification. In the digital age, where attentions are already spread too thinly, a song doesn’t stand much of a chance if it hasn’t grabbed its listener within the first five seconds. The difference is akin to that between watching a movie from start to finish and simply clicking on a series of memorable clips on YouTube.

What makes an LP special is that unless you are willing to get up every three minutes to flip a disc over you’re inclined to sit through the whole side, thus hearing the record just as it was made to be heard. Without a convenient means of skipping tracks you’re far more likely to be taken by surprise and, if you’re lucky, discover something new. Just as the virtual e-book cannot replicate a shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks, a record player’s tactile quality makes for an ultimately more rewarding listening experience that truly enhances your living space. Every home should have one.

The way he made us feel

THE WHOLE WORLD’S GONE OFF THE WALL. So proclaimed the promotional posters hailing the release of Michael Jackson’s solo album Off The Wall in 1979. Exactly thirty years later, the phrase seemed equally apt on a warm June evening, as news of Jackson’s hospitalization, shortly followed by the confirmation of his death at the age of fifty, began filtering through the early twilight. Sidewalks quickly swelled with people leaving work as passing car radios alternately blasted news updates and Jackson’s greatest hits. Cellphones lost reception. Internet browsers became sluggish. Twitter crashed completely. It was one of those rare moments in which suddenly everybody everywhere was consumed by a common story.

Listening to the Michael Jackson playlists being spun on every radio station that night, I was struck by the sheer quality — and number — of those hits. Jackson’s talent as a vocalist and songwriter was often overlooked in favour of the undeniable influence he commanded over pop music’s increasingly visual world. It had been a long time since I’d heard a lot of those songs outside of the context of a music video. Television also has a habit of abandoning the schedule for international incidents and now, even several days later, the pop icon’s videos and performances continue to dominate the airwaves in one continuous loop.

Though the circumstances are tragic, this unexpected revisiting of Jackson’s material has actually been a rare treat, and while not quite invoking a reappraisal of his talents, it has certainly acted as a reminder as to what made the man so special in the first place. Whether scuffling in an epic street ballet or gliding across the stage in a sequined cardigan, the overall affect of this impromptu musical retrospective is both moving and awe-inspiring: what a talent, what a waste. For the last fifteen years of his life, Jackson had primarily existed in the public conscience as a celebrity of former greatness who had been reduced to playing the role of eccentric Hollywood recluse, responsible for a catalogue of tabloid fodder and practically no musical output.

For those who had witnessed his transformation from precocious stage presence turned prince of the dancefloor to multi-million dollar intergalactic megastar, it was hard to watch the King of Pop give up his title so easily. When John Lennon was suddenly murdered at the age of 40, fans were left to wonder what music the former Beatle would never make, a sensation which only grew as the ’80s and ’90s progressed. Like Jackson, Lennon was in the throes of a comeback at the time of his death in 1980, having just released Double Fantasy, his first LP of new material in five years. But as Jackson prepared to embark on his This Is It tour, an epic series of fifty concerts which will never happen, his death frustrates in a bizarre reversal. Just think of the music he might already have made, had his last decade on earth not been taken up by drawn-out legal battles and increasingly odd public behaviour, not to mention his alarming physical transformation and subsequent declining health.

Jackson was hardly a prolific recording artist, even during his peak. Fellow ’80s icon Prince (who is the same age as Jackson) has released thirty official albums in as many years (plus countless bootlegs and unreleased tracks). Jackson in contrast made just ten solo albums between 1972 and 2001. While Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad — the trilogy of best-selling solo records Jackson produced with Quincy Jones in an eight-year period — still sound as fresh today as they did when first released, his work either side of this holy trinity is at best patchy, at worst irrelevant. Perhaps the greatest testament to Jackson’s impact is that such unprecedented fame, universal recognition and out-and-out notoriety was achieved on the back of only three classic albums. This perhaps reinforces the notion that Jackson’s legacy is as much visual as it is musical.

What happened after that is one of the great pop-culture mysteries of our time, one which transfixed the public as much as Jackson’s talent had decades earlier. The music — what little fresh material there was — had become a secondary feature, and by the late ’90s Jackson’s transformation was almost complete. In the eyes of a huge public majority, he was now a has-been, a freak, and for some, a criminal. Even his most ardent fans asked — and still ask — how this could be the same man they’d fallen in love with?

Perversely, though neither sought after nor lucrative, this new kind of media attention became something of a second career for Jackson. Except where once he had beamed at us from the cover of a glossy LP, his face was now more commonly disguised behind dark glasses and a surgical mask, splashed across the tatty pages of every drugstore gossip rag.

In this undeniably sad moment in popular culture, many of those who knew Jackson, professionally and personally, have done their best to dispel the controversy that plagued him, presenting the man as the smart, warm, truly gifted human being the rest of us would prefer to think of him as. For a person who spent his final years associated almost solely with acts of weirdness it’s particularly touching to hear Jackson’s colleagues and friends recall the star’s rare moments away from the spotlight. Quincy Jones spotting the young Michael backstage eating a sandwich; Brooke Shields poking fun at his famous rhinestone glove; Bad tour backing singer Sheryl Crow staying up with Jackson in his Tokyo hotel room to watch the western Shane.

In 1994 Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley, in an unexpected union of pop dynasties. Though they divorced less than two years later, it now appears to have been his most orthodox adult relationship. The day after Jackson’s death, Presley revealed how her then-husband had once confessed to her his own fears of ending up like her father, who for much of the ’70s was a bloated, grotesque version of his former self. Ultimately, in a twisted reversal of Elvis’ gross demise, Jackson simply withered away, and, as befits modern pop icons, before our very eyes. The King is dead — this time they really mean it.

Michael Joseph Jackson, August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009

Still making sense

When David Byrne took to the stage to greet the crowd in Brooklyn last night, he was accompanied by an unusual accessory. Not a guitar, nor even a tape recorder containing a drum machine backing track of “Psycho Killer”. Instead, the former Talking Head wheeled out a white bicycle, which had apparently been designed to match his outfit (and hair). While many of the 27,000 who’d crammed into Prospect Park had taken the subway to attend the free concert, Byrne, now 57, explained how he’d simply ridden his bike across the river. It was a typically quirky introduction to the evening from a man who in recent years has become as active in his advocacy of two-wheel travel as in making music. He even designed a series of bike racks which are dotted around New York City.

Things didn’t get any less predictably unexpected once the music started. The set was billed as focusing solely on Byrne’s long-term, on-off-on again collaborations with Brian Eno, who produced a trio of early Talking Heads albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980). In 1981 Byrne and Eno made the experimental record My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, their last project until last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, from which the evening’s opening number was plucked. Unfortunately, the song, “Strange Overtures”, is lost amid a half-baked sound which struggles to generate much interest. Initially disturbed, I can only assume that this was a technical hitch, as shortly afterwards the pulsating Afro-beats and Dadaist chants of “I Zimbra” float effortlessly into the warm air, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

Though often inaccurately bunched together with punk and post-punk acts due to regular appearances at the same venues, Talking Heads were really a no-wave group, whose interest (in the early days at least) lay firmly in the underground cultures of avant-garde art and New York’s club scene. Combine this with Byrne’s obsessive fascination for foreign rhythms, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and quizzical observations about the rest of the country, and one has arguably the quintessential New York baby-boomer band: wordy, witty, worldly, but not afraid to shut up and get down when the music takes them. The band’s distinctive sound seems to have been spawned by the city’s streets on a hot July day, when Manhattan could be mistaken for Calcutta. No song captures the oppressive rhythm of a New York summer like “Born Under Punches (And The Heat Goes On)”, which always sounds like it was written and recorded in a jungle (made of trees or concrete). Tonight the song hangs in the thick air and seems to drip like dew off sticky humid leaves.

This hypnotic track is immediately followed by “Once in a Lifetime”, perhaps Byrne’s best-known composition. The song has gone a long way in helping seal Talking Heads’ position as the most enduring and influential band of the American New Wave and Byrne as rock’s ultimate everyman anti-hero. Lyrically, both this and the next song, “Life During Wartime”, have long-since seeped into the realms public consciousness: “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile…”, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…” Almost thirty years after he wrote it, when Byrne asks, “Well, how did I get here?”, I still wonder if he’s figured out an answer.

When I saw Byrne seven years ago on a similar summer evening in Leicester, he was accompanied by a group of young singers he’d met at a high school. Tonight he’s backed by a troupe of hyperactive dancers and gymnasts, whose back-flips and leapfrogs somehow manage not to distract but to enhance the musical experience. For the most part Byrne remains passive to their performance, as if unaware of their presence.

Things slow down for “Heaven”, which Byrne sings with soaring concentration. The careful choreography (even Byrne’s Stratocaster is off-white) is reminiscent of the Stop Making Sense tour, captured so memorably by filmmaker Jonathan Demme in what is still perhaps the greatest concert movie of that decade. That feature leaned heavily on Speaking In Tongues (1983), Talking Heads’ first record produced without Brian Eno since their debut LP in 1977. Likewise tonight’s curated set-list finds no room for the radio-friendly material from later self-produced albums Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1986) or Naked (1988).

For the encore Byrne is joined on-stage by percussionist Steve Scales, whose inclusion in the expanded Talking Heads band helped define the funky sound of the live albums The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1981) and Stop Making Sense (1984). There’d be no dusting off of the big suit tonight, but nobody questions Byrne when he reappears sporting a white tutu pulled up over his original outfit. “Take Me To The River” is a rare case of a covered song improving on the original, and it belongs as much to Byrne as it does to Al Green now, while “Burning Down The House” always does exactly that. Both songs demonstrate Byrne’s long-standing interest in gospel music and religion-induced performance.

At show’s end David Byrne disciples young and old (this was the most family-friendly concert I have attended) filtered off into the streets and down into the subway, their bodies still jerking to Byrne’s rare brand of spasmodic rhythms. By all accounts Byrne hopped back over the bridge on his bike. I bet he was home before we were.

David Byrne, Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn — June 8, 2009

Strange Overtones
I Zimbra
One Fine Day
Help Me Somebody
Houses In Motion
My Big Nurse
My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)
Moonlight In Glory
Life Is Long
Crosseyed and Painless
Born Under Punches (And The Heat Goes On)
Once In A Lifetime
Life During Wartime
I Feel My Stuff

Encore 1
Take Me To The River
The Great Curve

Encore 2
Burning Down The House

Encore 3
Everything That Happens

Liza Finn

Blame Norah Jones, but it would be easy for some critics to dismiss the music of Liza Finn as the work of yet another girl-at-the-piano: the post-adolescent jazz-pop musings of a young, urban woman. But the apparent ordinariness of this 25-year old from North London is precisely what makes her and her music so extraordinary. Finn may compose pretty songs, and even has a pretty voice with which to sing them, but her abilities as a vocalist and a songwriter lift her above the swathes of supposedly like-minded artists with whom she could all too comfortably have been mistakenly grouped.

A classically trained musician, Finn’s piano is arguably her greatest instrument. Her compositions reflect an impressive appreciation for sophisticated song structure and a rare ear for melody, which on occasion results in an irresistible pop hook. Finn’s songwriting is matched by a voice that arrives breezy as a summer’s day, before soaring off into the night sky. But while she can clearly sing, she also knows how to sing a song, a far less common gift in modern music. While her pop sensibilities echo Carole King, Finn’s phrasing at times certainly more than hints at many a late night spent plundering the jazz archives.

Naturally, Finn’s primary thematic concerns appear to revolve around modern life in London town. Perhaps wanting to avoid being the angry city girl, she cleverly veers away from self-absorbed introspection, often preferring instead to present the lives of her peers in song (“How Long”, “Get A Life”). Here Finn becomes keen social commentator of the high street: the characters she presents are each sharply-observed personalities, either to be praised, mocked or pitied (or maybe all three, in the case of the somewhat tragicomic story of “Party Girl”). But thankfully, she never once risks descending into Lily Allen territory, nor does her music become twee (an unfortunate tendency of the otherwise talented Feist). Finn’s refreshing attitude towards the less tolerable aspects of society’s youth is never one of anger or frustration, but more simply resignation and even a sense of adult bewilderment, suggesting a certain maturity and a healthy, knowing detachment — ideal circumstances for putting pen to paper.

When she isn’t referencing sly encounters in the pub or on the tube, Finn uses her music to travel to exotic lands, dropping the names of far away places in a manner that recalls Blue-era Joni Mitchell. She reveals herself as a skilled and concise lyricist on the slinky, itchy road-movie “Driving To Mexico”, which conjures up more hedonistic south-of-the-border imagery in the first two verses than some Eagles albums managed on two sides. Finn already has us hooked, but in the next line chooses to deny us anything further as to how the story’s leads came to be on such a journey (“Ooh-ooh, driving to Mexico/Ooh-ooh, nowhere for us to go”). The device renders this atmospheric tale an unresolved mystery, and a more interesting song for it. Meanwhile, Finn’s kitchen-sink delivery is replaced here by a deeper, more restrained jazz vocal, suggesting plenty of room for future musical direction.

Like many good songwriters, Finn’s successful marriage of the vague and the specific is enhanced by a firm grasp of the universal, which she has begun to allow seep into her work with a growing command. “It’s Too Late” is a classic break-up song performed with a softer, breathy vocal. But when Finn approaches a heavier theme, it’s her light, almost whimsical insertion of the everyday that makes the bare truth of the subject matter all the more heart-wrenching:

The pillow’s still warm on your side of the bed
Your coffee’s not drunk and your paper’s not read
The dog now needs walking and even he knows
You ain’t going home for a change of clothes…

Perhaps Liza Finn’s most unique talent lies in these smart juxtapositions: her sunniest upbeat tunes are dyed in dark undertones, while her deeper efforts are presented as throwaway pop. Finn’s is a world where nothing is quite as it seems, and where everything is worthy of a second look — or listen.

This review first appeared on

Liza Finn photographed by Tony Hart.