Issue #3

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In This Issue:

    Music

  • The Negro Problem/Stew/”Passing Strange”
  • DVDS/Movies

  • Movies - Jesse James, The Return of Frank James (although to be honest, I got a little off on a tangent and the article ended up being mostly about sequels and 80’s horror movies and James Cameron and…well, like I said, I got way off the subject before I remembered what I was talking about)
  • Box Set -
    Clint Eastwood Western Icon Collection
  • Classic/Romance of the Month - Laura

The Negro Problem - Post Minstrel Syndrome (1997) The Negro Problem - Post Minstrel Syndrome
The Negro Problem - Joys and Concerns (1999) The Negro Problem - Joys & Concerns
Stew - Guest Host (2000) Stew - Guest Host
Stew - The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs (2002) Stew - The Naked Dutch Painter... and Other Songs
The Negro Problem - Welcome Black (2002) The Negro Problem - Welcome Black
Stew - Something Deeper Than These Changes (2003) Stew - Something Deeper Than These Changes
Passing Strange” - A play by Stew and Heidi Roedewald

Once upon a time, Immy and were sitting in our favorite bi-polar record store in the world, London’s wonderfully schizophrenic two-stores-in-one Stand Out Records/Minus Zero Records, talking to the respective owners, the Bills (Stand Out’s Bill Allerton and Minus Zero’s Bill Forsyth), during one of our usual 2-4 hr visits to the tiny store(s). You see the way it works is that we go there with one or two ideas of things we think we want (and that’s all well and good) and then we end up spending the next two, three, or four hours endlessly listening to music as Bill and Bill compete across the two foot aisle that separates one store from the other to play us different music they’re sure we’ve never heard before (they’re often right) that they’re certain we’ll love (they’re pretty much ALWAYS right) and therefore purchase (they get us there too). We nearly always spend every penny we have and leave with several huge bags of CD’s each. Half the great music I’ve discovered over the past decade was played for me by the Bill’s in their tiny wonderland on Blenheim Crescent just off Portobello Road. It might seem strange to those of you who aren’t utterly obsessed with music, but they’ve been as big an influence in my life as any of my musical idols.

And the funny thing is, I’m not even sure if they like Counting Crows all that much, if at all. I know they like me, just as I know I like them, I just have no idea how they feel about my band. It’s just never come up and I never thought to ask. In retrospect, it’s even better if they don’t. I love that we simply meet on the bountiful common ground of our deep mutual love of good music.

Anyway, I’m off on one of my tangents again, and I really want to talk about something else today. This story is (I swear) actually leading somewhere.

One day, one of the Bills (I can’t actually remember which) said “Hey, if you guys are from Hollywood, you have to hear The Negro Problem. Have you ever heard of them?” We hadn’t so he grabbed a CD and said “This is their 2nd CD Joys and Concerns (1999). You’ll love it.” And then he pushed the drawer in on the CD player and out came the sound of the Beatles transported into the soul of a black man from Silverlake at the end of the last millennium. Every song had a unbearably perfect pop melody I couldn’t get out of my head, harmonies, strange instruments, trumpet and flutes, strings, funk , soul, and the feeling that music was the most important thing in the entire world and that, at least on THIS record, they were damn well going to celebrate the fuck out of it.

From the 1st song “Repulsion (Show Up Late For Work On Monday)”, I was hooked as bassist Heidi Roedenwald’s harmonies slid above the ends of singer/songwriter Stew’s vocal lines and out from the tails of them into “Yeah yeah’s. Two songs later, after the deliciously funky soul of “Sea of Heat”, the album segues into “Comikbuchland”, which (and I hate comparisons like this) comes the closest anyone’s ever come to re-creating “Penny Lane”, except this “Penny Lane” is set in a Los Angeles bohemian ghetto (check out Heidi Roedenwald’s perfect Paul McCartney/Brian Wilson bass playing on the song).

“Comikbuchland”

At least I think it does. I have to be honest, I never think about what Stew means in his songs. I’m so entranced by the wordplay and the unearthly hook-heaven of the music that I never have the concentration to really ponder them, although I do think the whole thing is worth the price of admission just for the otherworldly lyric cleverness of:

Tell me again what constitutes good hair
And tell me how the guns and bums
Unbraided your deep dread of reason in Comikbuchland

“Unbraided your deep dread of reason”? C’mon. I would kill to have written that. Now that is some seriously funky metaphorical double-meaning shit right there. THAT…is not for beginners.

I keep coming back to The Beatles but, once again, that’s exactly the same way I feel about them. I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about and I don’t really care at all. I DO know this. The Beatles were brilliant lyricists and so is Stew. I’m not gonna lie to you, and let me get this out of the way right here at the top of this article, he is flat-out unquestionably no doubt in my mind whatsoever the finest songwriter working today. He is so far and above my favorite that I can’t even think of anyone working in the same stratosphere as him, at least not off the top of my head. The six albums I’m going to talk about here are some of the best albums anyone’s made over the past decade. Ever since Joys and Concerns, whenever Stew released an album, as far as I was concerned it was hands down the best album of that year.

By the time I got to the middle of the album where the transcendent “Bleed” resides, I was hooked for life. It’s truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard (Immy and I got to play it onstage with them a few years ago at Symphony Space in New York. I can’t sing it as well as Stew but it was fun to do it together. I put the recording up on the Counting Crows MySpace Page and on my own page as well. Check it out.).

It’s followed by the soul-meets SMiLEPeter Jennings” a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) jab at race in America and the way being black is more than just a little different from being white, whether it’s in the way it’s portrayed on the news, the way some people look at it as different branch of the evolutionary tree, or just the way the experience of being pulled over by the cops takes on an entirely different tone when you don’t look anything like a blond surfer kid from Malibu (which is perhaps why it’s so important for the band to be called The Negro Problem, not just because you might have forgotten in this wonderful pc world we live in that there is a problem, but also because maybe it takes a name like that that to remind everyone how ill-prepared the music business is to deal with an all-white band fronted by a black guy from the LA ghettos who grew up obsessed with The Beatles and Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson as well as Parliament and Sly Stone and The Jackson 5).

Hey LAPD, oh why you chase me?
Didn’t I have my blinker on?
Didn’t I say I love the law?
See it’s higher than me
Here in Newton’s tree
Full of Monkeys and sacred songs

The joyous Looney Tunes soul musical of “Ahmnot Madatcha”, a bizarrely celebratory “slice of life” (love?) story that could only have been sliced from the funky-as-all-get-out chocolate cherry cream cheesecake that is Stew’s life, is followed by “Ken” which examines the possibility that a certain very popular anatomically incorrect doll just might prefer to spend his time with G.I. Joe than that bimbo Barbie.

“Ahmnot Madatcha”

They always stick me with Barbie
But I want them to know
I prefer G.I. Joe
But any able-bodied man-doll will surely do
Just someone to love since I am not set up to screw

Somehow it manages to be both an hysterical and a heartbreaking examination of the tormented life of an in-the-closet (literally) gay plastic doll.

Someday soon I’ll be in your child’s room
And I’ll be forced to kiss Barbie’s plastic tits
And I will hate myself but what’s more I’ll hate you
For not allowing me to love as I wish to

Or is that not really a song about a doll at all?

The sad joy of “Goode Tyme” is followed by the strangely familiar distorted pop Monkee-delia of “The Rain In Leimert Park Last Tuesday”, which drove me crazy the first few times I heard it because I couldn’t figure out where I’d heard it before but I just knew I had. I finally figured out it was so familiar because it was simply a sped up punky version of “Comikbuchland”. Such a strange thing to do. Whatever, it works.

And then…“Come Down Now”. Just when you thought you’d never hear another song as beautiful as “Bleed” as long as you lived…along comes one even lovelier.

“Come Down Now”

So come down now
Remove your bandage
So I can see your damage
More than the law allows

So come down now
Remove your bandage
So I can see you’re damaged
More than the law allows

Have the courage, he says, to utterly reveal yourself to the ones who love you enough to want to see the pain the world has caused you. Open your life to the only people capable of providing the healing you need. And even if they can’t do it, Stew bathes you in a song that almost does it for you anyway. It’s five minutes of heaven and then the album is over…except there’s actually another 27 minutes of silence and music and silence and music. If you have a little patience, there are three more fantastic songs. “Stumble” waits a full nine minutes to appear but gives another five joyous minutes, then segues into the gentle folk of “New World”, which lasts another 4 minutes before giving way to the the falsetto choruses of “Ordinary One” into a building cacophonous harmonic low-fi live revisitation of the last verse of “Peter Jennings” that sounds like all of The Polyphonic Spree crammed into a phone booth screaming a magnificent climax over the phone line into your answering machine.

And then, just like that, in a tumble of tom rolls and trumpets and flutes and cymbal crashes and snare drum and piano and distorted guitar, it’s over.

And then it comes back for another 4 seconds.

And then it’s done.

Until…

…16 months later, in the fall of 2000, the band reappears, now renamed Stew (I don’t know. Sometimes I think he just got tired of telling people “No, it’s cool. I’m black.”) with the album Guest Host (2000). And, by the way, when I say “reappears”, I mean they put out the best album of the year. They told me the next album was coming out and I was excited but a little nervous because how could they top Joys and Concerns? It turned out the answer to that was question was…simply release Guest Host.

I mean you put the cd in your player and out blows a wind of soul and pop heaven called “Cavity”. When I hear Guest Host, and “Cavity” in particular, I imagine Brian Wilson and Prince and Burt Bacharach and Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone and Arthur Lee all meeting somewhere for a weekend to make a record together, and then realizing there was no need…because Stew had already made it. So instead, they all relaxed, had a few cocktails, got high, and spent the weekend listening to Stew over and over again until they felt the world was safe because someone was out there making truly transcendently great music.

“Cavity”

It’s sex and emptiness and loneliness and loss and being lost and love and desire and so much heart you feel as if yours will simply fill up from listening to it until there’s no more room and then it will simply break and you’ll just cry from how wonderful it is. I’m ranting, aren’t I? I can’t help it. The first words on the album are:

Sister there’s a cavity in me
Your sugar causes me such endless pain
And I was blind til I ate your sweet thing

Has anyone ever written better about the hole inside all of us and the agonizing pain that comes with the sweetness of love dangling just out of reach? The taste of desire and love seeming as if it lights the world and makes a blind man see, and yet, at the same time, makes him ever so more painfully aware of NOT possessing it.

Several songs later they sing the most hysterical/painful song about re-hab ever written. Maybe you just have to have lived in LA for awhile and watched the revolving door carousel that is the Hollywood re-hab scene (“I mean, dear, how can you be taken seriously if you haven’t been?”) to truly appreciate this song. Considering what a serious problem drug addiction is in the world, the way people wear their re-hab cred like designer jeans in LA makes you just want to hit them with a stick. Stew provides the stick on “Re-Hab”.

The comes the piano and string section epiphany of “Ordinary Love”. I want to tell you what it’s about but I don’t know. I just know it’s beautiful and I just feel something about the heartbreaking hopelessness of holding onto love even as it inevitably becomes somehow MORE ordinary and LESS extraordinary every day. It’s about about the struggle you go though to try to understand your slipping interest and get a grip on it before you lose hold of something which might mean the world to you and certainly once did. It begins:

“Ordinary Love”

I met her on the stairs and she showered me with her “hello’s
Next thing I know I was stuck in her abstract quiz show
Her faces no longer are the suns in which I bask
I’m still fascinated by the mask behind the mask

In all the choruses, Heidi sings over and over again:

The ordinary love that you want to leave

until Stew interrupts it (just once right before the end of the song) with the line:

Is like the ordinary lie that I don’t believe

and then Heidi goes back to singing:

The ordinary love that you want to leave

as the song fades…

I want to go into detail on every song. I want to tell you about how beautiful the Beatle bass, acoustic guitar, harmonica, oboe (or is it a clarinet), and organ all mesh with Stew’s vocal on “Stepford Lives” or about the viciously civilized lyrics of Stew’s unforgivingly detailed portrait of an aging Parisian prostitute in “Bijou”, the shimmering 12-string guitars and woodwind pairing of “Sister/Mother” but it’s too much to tell with three or four more albums to still talk about.

I will say that it all ends with the joyous “doo doo doo” opening of “C’mon Everybody”, which is about as good an ending as you could hope for on a perfect album, all acoustic guitars and sunshine melody vocals traded back and forth between Heidi and Stew until the last verse when the string section sweeps up to take out to the end. See if you can listen to the song less than at least five times in a row the first time you hear it. It just makes you feel good. The world is alright. Stew and Heidi and the gang are here and, even though the record’s about to end, they’ll be back again soon to fix the world just as soon as they have the time. “This is a message! From the East Hollywood Tourist Bureau! Come On Everybody! Come On Everyone!”

“C’mon Everybody”

Oh yeah, and for what it’s worth, Entertainment Weekly named Guest Host “Album of the Year” for 2000. It was the first time they did that. It wouldn’t be the last.

The next record, again a Stew album, didn’t appear for another year and a half until the spring of 2002. It was well worth the wait. Not as sunny as Guest Host, The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs (2002) is much more concerned with dissolution and the harm you can cause to the ones you love even when you don’t want or mean to. The soul-pop psychedelia of “Reeling” faces the latter concern:

Do you want to do this again?
I knew when we started,
I wanted to be more than a sin.
And I did see
The pitfalls in front of me
But I laughed and filled them in…

… I might kill the dove.
Not ’cause I want to,
But because I don’t know love.
But I can see,
You might carry me
Out of this empty hole I’ve dug

And the former is faced in the astounding nine-and-a-half minute triptych “The Drug Suite (I Must’ve Been High/I’m Not On A Drug/Arlington Hill)”, Stew’s reverie about his childhood experiments with LSD, the experience of being at a party where you’re the only one NOT high, and finally, the beautiful memory of getting stoned in a VW bug up on Arlington Hill, relaxing with your friends looking down on LA and then going down to church to sing in choir practice. It’s a memory perfectly captured on tape of a moment when everything in his life suddenly had meaning, or at least seemed to. It’s a beautiful painting of a song, capturing perfectly the memory of a sunny day with all your friends and the sense the drug and the view and the church and the choir gave you of a moment of perfect well-being and happiness. It’s a song about drugs but it’s also an absolutely sublime bit of songwriting about an oasis of utter joy and peace in a kid’s life.

“Love Is Coming Through The Door”

And just as you sigh at the beauty of his memory fading into silence, the album greets you with the love celebration joy of the Byrds-like “Love Is Coming Through The Door”. I wish I could tell you how this song makes me feel but I’m running out of superlatives. Sometimes I feel, though, as if I’ve made it through the times in my life when I couldn’t feel very much solely because I could listen to Stew’s records and know we do live in a world where it possible to truly love someone, and that there is joy waiting out there somewhere even for a miserable fuck like me. All I can say is that “Love Is Coming Through The Door” makes me feel as if it actually is doing just that. He conjures the feeling up so vividly that I feel okay and I believe in love again myself. I’m sitting here listening through each of these albums as I’m writing this essay and it’s taking days because of moments like this: I’ve just listened to “Love Is Coming Through The Door” four times in a row and, as it’s ending now, I know I’m going to listen to it at least one more time before I move on.

I have to re-think my initial assessment because the second half is almost a celebration of all the myriad and wonderful, if sometimes somewhat fucked up, ways it’s still possible to fall in love. Even if you’re crazy and the people you love are crazy, it’s still love and I think Stew wants us to remember that, crazy or fucked up or drugged out or whatever, love is still love and it’s amazing and it means the world and you’re always going to carry the imprint of it and the memories wherever you go for the rest of your life.

North Bronx French Marie”, with it’s impossibly catchy piano part grooving over the top of the acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and…(what do you call that hooter thing…crap, I can’t remember) might be my favorite of all his songs. It’s conjuring up the image of love during one of our ridiculously sweaty New York summers just hits every right note for me.

North Bronx French Marie”

Moonlight brushing against the window of American landscape night
Typical Tuesday night
My love is standing in the doorway
And she unlocks the screen door for me
Juvenile fantasy
Still houses whisper ever so silently
I’m alone on the sidewalk you see
Waiting for French Marie

Look what the New York summer’s done
You’re in a punk rock t-shirt melting in the sun
Hey, but it’s not the heat but your sweet humility
That shakes my tree
Sticks to me
French Marie

I’m waiting to see where the wind blows
Maybe she’s lost in thought about me
The way I’d like her to be
Tomorrow she’ll ask
“Why’d you wait so long for me?
Are you all knocked out baby?
That would be too crazy!”
I tell the girl “don’t flatter yourself so”
But you know I’m deep in check, you see
Waiting for French Marie

Look what the New York summer’s done
You’re in a punk rock t-shirt melting in the sun
Hey, but it’s not the heat but your sweet humility
That shakes my tree
Sticks to me
French Marie

Well, she smokes half my cigarettes and laughs at me
And asks if all the negroes are like me
Well baby…

Tonight I sleep with television
The warm talkative lover
Sexy electric
North Bronx Marie is somewhere screaming at the leaves
Of her hopeless brother
I guess her life is hectic
I’d like to think she needs a fireman like me to get her out of her family tree
The way I’d like her to be

Look what the New York summer’s done
You’re in a punk rock t-shirt melting in the sun
Hey, but it’s not the heat but your sweet humility
That shakes my tree
Sticks to me
French Marie

Sorry, I couldn’t help it. I just wanted you to hear the whole song. Can’t you just see the girl in the t-shirt with the sweat making it stick to her body? Can’t you just feel yourself getting there late at night and just looking at her and knowing it’s everything you want in the whole world just to be right there right then?

I’m pretty sure “The Smile” is written about his daughter. He just has a way when he writes songs about her. It’s still about love and the power it has to redeem even crazy people like us who are seemingly always a million miles from home and the people we love. It’s just lovely. Christ, I love this record.

Another interesting thing about The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs is the way it was recorded. To quote Matthew Greenwald on AllMusic.com,

“This unique album had its basic tracks recorded live during a residency at L.A.’s Knitting Factory and then buttressed by some immaculate studio overdubs. By juxtaposing Stew’s live spontaneity with some extraordinary studio audacity, the end result is a breathtaking catharsis, as well as one hell of a show for the listener. Brilliantly written, conceived, and performed, The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs is one of the first (and maybe finest) singer/songwriter masterpieces of the 21st century.”

So…uh…that’s a good review. And he really captures maybe the coolest thing about the record: the way it’s integrated into the sense of being at a concert. Musically, you’d never know it wasn’t a studio recording, except perhaps the sense of space and reverberation that you get at a live show, but a Stew/Negro Problem gig is a magical thing because of Stew’s monologues and the way they connect the songs with both pathos and his unique, and effortless, sense of humor. The great thing about The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs is the way it manages to give you the best of best worlds. The studio work allows for all the overdubs they need to fill out the album with as much complexity, or lack thereof, as they wish but the live setting gives you the unique experience of being there. You get to have your cake and eat it too. I only say it’s unique, by the way, if you haven’t been to a show, in which case, this album should convince you to get off your ass and go. All you need to do is go once. You’ll never miss another if you can help it as long as you live.

Ha. I just realized I totally forgot to mention the title song. How do you review and album called The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs and forget everything but the “…other songs”?

Hmmm. I actually can’t find the words. Like “Re-Hab” on “Guest Host“, it’s one of Stew’s longer lyrical masterpieces; his versions of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby”…except his are better (and, of course, he, unlike me, actually HAS a sense of humor). I have no problem saying that. I love my songs. Seriously, I think I’m a great songwriter. I really do. I just think he’s better (and, as I mentioned before, he’s funnier than me because he has a sense of humor and I just have this sort of mopey look and a sense of grim foreboding and…well, I just know we’re all gonna die someday soon) and I would give my left arm…well…I would give someone’s left arm anyway, to write as well as Stew. Actually, the nice thing is, I don’t need to. I write as well as I do and that’s pretty fucking good. And if I ever want to listen to someone better, all I have to do is put on a Stew record.

So I don’t know what to say about “The Naked Dutch Painter”. It’s a song about living in Europe and being an “artiste” and wishing you could screw another particularly hot “artiste”, except she’s not giving you the time of day because maybe you’re not enough of an “artiste” until she finally does fall for you and then she won’t leave, which is ok because you’re in love with her, but then she blows you off for her professor who’s even more of an “artiste” than either you or her, which breaks your heart so you try to call home to America but nobody answers the phone and you’re heartbroken until the particularly hot “artiste” shows up back at your door to tell you that she truly loves you, and only you, after all, which would probably be really great except that, at that particular moment, you happen to be entertaining another particularly hot “artiste”, which hurts the first particularly hot “artiste” for a moment until she realizes how much you like the fact that she missed you, and then she just gets pissed off and probably tells you to fuck off…

Ain’t that just life? Ain’t it a bitch?

There’s even the proverbial hidden track called, in this case, “The Proverbial Hidden Track” and another song after that called “Very Happy” ,which is exactly how it makes me feel. It’s just a cool little gem of soul-pop (what else can you call Stew-he’s like early Prince with acoustic guitars and brass sections recorded by The Beatles) about the fact that love isn’t really going to hurt you and , even if it does…it’s cool…it’s still going to make you, as Stew sings “very happy”.

It ends the album by making me feel just that.

The New York Times called The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs “perhaps the finest collection of songs an American songwriter has come up with this year”. And once again, for the 2nd album in a row, Entertainment Weekly named their record “Album of the Year” for 2002.

So you have to say to yourself. “Wow, they’re really on a roll with this Stew thing. Maybe switching over from The Negro Problem wasn’t such a bad idea after all.” It certainly seemed to be working out, both critically and creatively, because they seriously raised the bar pretty high on The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs.

So what do you do for an encore when you’re Stew and you’ve made the “album of the year” for two records running?

Well, obviously…you change your name back to The Negro Problem, go straight back into the studio, and you do it all over again.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Only maybe six months later, in the Autumn of that same year, just when you thought they’d disappeared, The Negro Problem reappears with the oh-so-aptly named Welcome Black (2002).

Nothing like an album title that reminds you why they named the fucking band The Negro Problem in the 1st place. “In case you thought it had gone away and in case you thought the “problem” had gone away too (and if you did, you were dreaming)…well, we’re back!

And what a return. The album opens with “Fox Hills”, a beautiful 30-second prologue of trumpets and…French horns maybe?..over piano leading into Heidi’s sweet pure voice singing the perfect melody of “Father Popcorn

Fox Hills/Father Popcorn”

See if you remember the song
Long after the song is gone to the memory graveyard

And then at the end of the verse, the music suddenly stops for a heartbeat…and the Stew booms in:

Don’t wanna put you in a pop coma

Followed by a wall of harmonies and then:

And then they put you in the popcorn machine
Don’t wanna put you in a pop coma
Don’t wanna put you in the popcorn machine

And WHAM! You ARE in a pop coma. It’s takes all of one minute for The Negro Problem to return and hit you with such a heavy dose of the sweet soul candy of pop music that it knocks you on your ass like some late Halloween evening up in your bedroom sneaking the rest of the candy your parents told you NOT to eat until the sugar hits your system and sends you up through the roof and out into the star-filled night sky. You just know you’re gonna come down hard later but for now it’s a very cool way to get high.

Welcome Black indeed.

Lime Green Sweater” follows and explores the interesting, and funny to me anyway, idea that teachers are human beings too.

Huh?

In other words, like all human beings…they probably smoke pot and get high too. Maybe it’s just that when I was a kid, we didn’t think of authority figures fucking around the same way we did, but the song just blows my mind. It’s silly too, because 1968 was a VERY long time ago and a kid who was 20 in 1968 was in his mid thirties when I was in high school. Jesus…what if they were all getting high?

(It’s a theme explored, by the way, in Stew and Heidi’s genius genre-bending semi-autobiographical theatre piece “Passing Strange, presently being staged eight times a week at the Public Theatre here in NYC. Even though the song “Lime Green Sweater” isn’t a part of the musical, The Drug Suite (I Must’ve Been High/I’m Not On A Drug/Arlington Hill)” from The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs and that theme, as part of Stew’s life, certainly are.)

It’s got this great melody, psychedelic doo-wop harmonies, and lines like “He’s like a rock star strumming electric chalk”. It’s also about how people change throughout their lives but, at the same time, don’t really change at all. The last chorus sums it up:

But now she’s partial to lime green sweaters yeah
C’mon Baby if we burned this rope together yeah
Oh, she pulled something out of her lime green sweater yeah
And said “Maybe if we burned this rope together yeah”

You always end up changing the clothes but you don’t always change the habits and you NEVER really change the person.

I almost can’t listen to “Is This The Single?” because it’s just so familiar and so horrifying to anyone who was ever on a record label. It’s also a great pop song and the rest of you will love it. The great chorus repetition question “Is this the single?” answered by the band members’ nervous expectant choir responses of “uh-huh” is hysterical and chilling at the same time. How do the lives, careers, and artistic work of so many talented people end up at the mercy of these…fill in the blank yourselves (I’m still under contract)…whose sole musical thought capability seems to be summed up in the title of this song? I don’t know. However, Stew gives them a good 4 minute rogering here and then turns to skewer the entirety of the rest of pop culture on the rest of the album.

He goes for a funky stabbing of ignorant illiterate rednecks and over-literate under-comprehending hipsters simultaneously on “The Teardrop Explodes”, channels Syd Barrett and Henry Mancini tripping out together out on “Astro Sister”, and then…well, to be honest, Stew is such a fountain of cultural influences and references that when he says, in “In Time All Time”,

It’s like my birthday everyday
Cause Mr. Monk is such a ray of wisdom and light

I actually have no idea whether he’s talking about Tony Shalhoub’s creation Adrian Monk from the TV show Monk or Thelonius Monks or someone else. I’ve always wanted to have a night where we just sit down and spend an entire night just talking about all his songs and what the hell he’s talking about but I know I hate doing that myself so I’m just going to sit here and try it figure it out myself. The truth is I feel like I understand it perfectly well but I have no idea how to explain it all to you.

Out Now”

Anyway, why do you need anything this catchy explained to you. By the next song, “Out Now”, Stew and Heidi are trading cascading vocals in and out of each other until the chorus where they’ve got this robot in the background singing:

I came to get this party started in your mind, in your mind

while Stew and Heidi sing “It’s coming out now” over and over again. It seems to be some bemused commentary on pop culture around the world and how you can “be the man” somewhere and not even exist somewhere else. Maybe. I don’t know. I keep getting distracted by how damn funky the singing robot is.

By the time I get to the penultimate song, “Bong Song”, I’m ready to just accept that this is Stew’s trip and I’m just along for the ride. But this is a very treacherous ride. Stew’s melodies and music are so addictive and distracting that you can miss the fact that he’s just as busy gutting our culture and viciously attacking the bullshit ways we all just accept the status quo without question as he is reminding us of the simple joys and beauties of a child’s birthday or the possibility of love on a humid New York summer night or just the fun of getting high. It’s both the genius and the curse of his astonishing musical and compositional ability that it distracts us from some of what’s underneath. When every record you make is an Abbey Road/Pet Sounds level musical sugar high, it can make a listener fail to notice the anger and the pain that lies beneath. I actually think The Beatles and The Beach Boys probably experienced some of the same difficulties. The music’s so good and such a joy to the ear that they lyrics get a little overshadowed. As Thom Jurek said about “Bong Song” in his review of the album, “Why look for solutions when the problems keep us happy?”

The album ends with “Bermuda Love Triangle”, a girl’s tale of revenge sought for her fiancée’s infidelities in which she explores the personal ads looking for a threesome to join, only to find…well, let’s just say nothing turns out as planned, a waterbed is brutally murdered, and Stew actually has a character say “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”, and gets away with it. Not only that, as the song fades, he mumbles “Do you come here often? (heh heh) Geographically speaking, I mean.” and gets away with that too.

It’s a funny upbeat ending to the album. A least it seems like it is. I got to thinking about it later on last night after I wrote this section and I started to think that maybe it wasn’t really all that funny after all. I mean, it’s a funny situation, almost slapstick in the disastrous way it turns out, but here on this album which spends so much time asking questions about what really lies underneath all the things we accept about our “pop” culture and what ARE the things you should really care about and WHY don’t we care about some other things…I sat there and thought…wow, it’s actually kind of sad. I mean, she loves a guy and he betrays her and so she tries to betray him just to find any way to make herself feel better and that gets fucked up too.

She goes home alone.

It’s funny, but people seem to go home alone a lot in my songs too. How funny is going home alone ever REALLY going to be? Anyway, that’s what I got to thinking about.

And suddenly I thought, he’s really screwing with my head now.

Another year went by before the next album came out. We spent the summer before the release touring together so I had all my own personal relationships with these songs before I got to hear them in album form. I was surprised at how different they all seemed when viewed as part of the whole in which they were all intended.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this album. I know a lot of people get demo-itis and complain
about the way songs they loved live or in rawer forms turn out when they finally end up on an album. This is not a problem you run into with Stew or The Negro Problem.

So when the summer ended, the tour came to a close, and we all went our separate ways. I found myself in a record store about a week later and I remembered that Stew’s new record was out that day. I always expect something different from them. The world is filled with disappointments and things that turn out to be so much less than you expect or hope. I expect something better from Stew. I always expect something more. The nice thing about these guys is that they do too. So when Autumn rolls around and you go to the store to buy their new album, instead of disappointments, you get Something Deeper Than These Changes (2003).

I write a lot of songs about love and loneliness and loss and, as I don’t seem to be making any inroads into fixing these issues in my own personal life, I often wonder if I’m really getting anywhere near the heart of the matter in my songs either. There’s a complexity to these subjects and sometimes I think I’m missing some of the more subtle aspects of it. I don’t know. I think about it a lot but I don’t know. I DO know that Stew is not missing anything. Something Deeper Than These Changes takes a long look at love from a lot of different angles, and comes up with perspectives on subjects that seem at first glance to be mundane, but turn out to be almost shockingly rich. As always with Stew, that puddle you’re staring at your reflection in turns out to be a very deep pool.

In “Love Like That”, he looks at a mother’s love and sees reflected in it the way we take things for granted in our life that we should NEVER EVER take for granted. There are things that come from very deep places within us and they’re so powerful and so much a part of our daily life that we miss how rare and immeasurable they are until they’re gone. And then, of course, it’s too late (This is another subtlety I missed until I saw “Passing Strange” because Stew really gets into his relationship with his mother in the play).
The funny thing is that they’re only so invisible because they’re so constant and they’re only so constant because they’re so all-encompassing and powerful. Think about it. How often have you struggled just to care about someone for a week or a month or a year?
Now think about the loves you took for granted that lasted the length and breadth of all the time over which your two lives overlapped.

It’s just an organ, a bass and a piano. And Stew’s voice.

“Love Like That”

I remember when I owned everything
The sun and the moon and the rain
And my domain stretched and yawned along the astral plains
Of cosmic Kansas to LA
The Universe is a toy in the mind of a boy
And life is a movie too, starring you
Holy family, cast and crew
A little secret ‘tween God and you
One day he whispered:
“Mother’s love might seem insane
Cause she really knows everything
Too bad it takes so long to see what you been missing”

Love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway

Love’s taken for granted when you don’t understand it
Since it came so easily
It must be free
Wish I woulda listened carefully
When I was Icarus in my grandma’s tree
And she was was singing:
“Mother’s love might seem insane
It’s cuz she really knows everything
Too bad it takes so long to to reveal the holy mission”

Love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway

Ain’t it strange how it all makes perfect sense
When your life is the evidence
She needs to feel how the love made you more than real
It church you up and it fills your cup
And if you’re singing:
“Mother’s love might seem insane
It’s cuz she really knows everything
Too bad it takes so long to to reveal the holy mission”

Love like that can’t be measured anyway

And you know Mother’s love might seem insane
It’s cuz she really knows everything
The candy wisdom hidden away
In your lunch pail mind you’ll find
Tastes like nothing in the world today

And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway

He looks at it from the perspective of an alcoholic whose love for the bottle is what holds him together AND tears him apart in “The Kingdom of Drink”, then follows it with the simple message of “The Instrument of Pain”, which takes care pain to point out that love isn’t the thing that screws up your life; you are:

Love is not the enemy of life
Love can give more freedom than it takes if you like

It’s an important statement because while writing and listening to all these mopey songs about pain and loneliness, we can get into the habit of forgetting that it’s not actually love that is the guilty party in our sorrow; we are. It seems like such a simple statement but it’s funny how rarely someone remembers to point it out in a song, especially in a song called “The Instrument of Pain”. You’d expect the opposite view to be the one taken but Stew is never one to take the expected tack. Instead he calls himself, and all of us to account, ending the song:

Love is not the enemy of life
Love can give more freedom than it takes if you’d like it to

Love is not the instrument of pain
It’s your own mind

You don’t get to just cry about it, not without admitting it’s your own fault. You can miss the fact that your mother loved you, and you can drink yourself yourself to death, and you can even choose to spend your life alone…but, at least on this record, you have to look in the mirror and at least admit that you see who’s staring back at you.

At least you get to stare at your own face with a background track of acoustic guitars and banjos and bass and the sound of Stew’s voice and Heidi’s incredible harmonies.

The song that really kills me is “The Sun I Always Wanted”, a birthday wish to Stew’s daughter, in which you realize that all the lessons learned by whatever he may have missed out in not recognizing his mother’s love until it was too late is not going to happen with HIS daughter. Along with David Bowie’s “Kooks” from Hunky Dory, it may be the most perfect rock and roll expression of a father’s love for his child ever written.

I would love to be sitting here writing to you about the way Stew exquisitely captures the pain and lonely emptiness of homeliness in “The Statue Song” and how he manages to utterly capture the plight of a man living on the outside of society and outside of his own life by comparing him metaphorically to a statue. I really want to be writing that because I really think this is the most incredible song.

“The Statue Song”


It ends:

…Tonight I’ll dream of being a pigeon on rooftops in the sun
Tonight I’ll dream of reading newspapers
The left and right wing ones
And I will dream of seeing a movie
Jerry Lewis meets Bergman
And I will dream of a scoop of ice cream and being indoors again
Just being indoors again

Well I had to wake up sometime from this dream of being real
They put me here exposed to the world and expect me not to feel
So if you think your life’s not going anywhere
Please consider me dear friend
Out here in the fog with the tourists and the dog while you’re indoors again
While you’re indoors again

So when you think your life’s not going anywhere…

The only problem is that I KNOW this song was written by Stew when he was commissioned to write a song for an opening at The Getty Museum in LA and that it IS actually a song about a statue because I remember when he told me about the commission.

But I shouldn’t even be writing that like it’s a negative because the truth is that the fucker took that commission and still managed to write a song about a statue that conveys all the things I was just talking about because he is
JUST
THAT
GOOD.

The song that killed me all summer long when we were on tour was “Way of Life” and it’s still the one that hurts the deepest.

“Way of Life”

Ostensibly about a one night stand, the verses tell the story of a post office-party screw as if it didn’t matter. They keep scrolling on as if nothing really matters before finally landing on a discussion of a chess shop where old men play as if love and life were just these things we do like plastic pieces in a game. It’s all very cool except it’s all belied by the chorus which keeps reminding us in the painful achingly beautiful refrain that:

Love love love is a way of life

As if Stew’s saying that you can lie all you want about WHAT you care about and WHO you care about, and what you NEED and who you DON’T need, and what matters to you and what DOESN’T matter and whatever else you want to tell yourself. You can tell yourself whatever you want but it’s all just a fucking lie so it doesn’t matter WHAT you say. There is only ONE TRUE THING:

Love love love is a way of life

I didn’t catch the lyric when they were playing it live. I just thought it was an unbelievably beautiful love song. I was disappointed at first when I got the record and discovered it was really just this song about this very banal affair but then I realized what he was really getting at and, once again, I had to face just how much more subtlety and depth he has as a writer than me. That chorus is almost cruel in its’ beauty as it refuses to let them be banal. You can call it a fling all you want, it seems to say, but if you don’t eventually look for something more out of life, you will be left with nothing.

And this choir will STILL endlessly echo in your ears:

Love love love is a way of life

As he says:

Good love should be just like a weekend getaway
But you gotta go home somewhere to someone someday
Let the choir say
Love love love is a way of life, my love
Love love love is a way of life

…All the kings and pawns and queens of plastic, wood, and steel
Pretend it’s just a game
It’s too sad to be real
Love love love is a way of life, my love
Love love love is a way of life


Something Deeper Than These Changes
is a quieter album than any of the earlier Stew or The Negro Problem albums, dominated by acoustic instruments and voices but it’s every bit as soulful and musical. It just does it more gently, which, considering the subject matter, is perhaps fitting. He has something specific he wants to say on this album and he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of that, even his own musical prowess.

I just realized I wrote all this chronologically beginning with Joys and Concerns, which was the first album of theirs I ever heard, but I forgot that there was an album by The Negro Problem that preceded that album.

Their first album, Post Minstrel Syndrome (1997), is actually pretty amazing. It’s actually a collection of ep’s that the band had been recording for three or four years. In a way, it’s the most aggressively rocking and challenging of the status quo of all the albums, both musically and lyrically. They seem really determined on the large part of to announce themselves to the world. The songs are unabashedly awash in brass and harmonies and politics and humor and anger and woodwinds and attitude…lots of attitude.

It’s got a lot of my favorite TNP songs, songs that are still live staples today. For instance, in the show that Immy and I played with The Negro Problem a few years ago at Symphony Space in NYC, a full 7-8 out of the 19-20 songs played over the course of the show came from Post Minstrel Syndrome. and both sets opened with songs from this album, the first set with “Buzzing

and the second with “If You Would Have Traveled On The 93 North Today”.

Immy and I joined them onstage and opened the evening’s final encores with “Submarine Down”.

It’s kind of shocking me now that I’m back listening to the bootleg what a large portion of the show was devoted to material from PMS (I wanted to abbreviate it that way at least once in this article…because I’m 8).

That’s a lot of songs from an album that I always forget about and think about as a collection of ep’s. The truth is, listening to it now, I’m kind of being blown away at how much I love just about every song on this album. It may be the most fully orchestral “Sgt. Pepper”-ish of all The Negro Problem albums, as well as the most rocking. I wish I had the original ep’s so I could tell which order these songs were all recorded in.

I’m going to take a break from this and listen to the whole concert from Symphony Space. It’s too cool and I can’t enjoy it while I’m writing at the same time.

I just listened to my bootleg of The Negro Problem’s “Silly Symphonies” show (I like to title my bootlegs) again and it made me remember how much I loved that night as a whole. I hadn’t seen The Negro Problem in a few years so it was a really special night. I actually feel silly saying that because I had seen Stew a ton of times in the meantime (and even done a few tours together) and it’s not like they’re not pretty much the same people. But, for whatever reason, they’d been “Stew” for a few years and, at least on this one night, they were “The Negro Problem” again, which is how I was first introduced to them, so I was excited.

It was uptown at Symphony Space (hence the bootleg title “*Silly Symphonies”) and I had annoyed the hell out of all my friends telling them they HAD to see this show or I would hate them all or, at the very least, not speak to them. The first part was probably a lie; the second, since I knew this show was, in all likelihood, all I would be talking about for days, probably wasn’t all that far off.

Anyway, it was a great night. They did two full shows with two entirely different sets (three full hours of music) and Immy and I even got to sit in on a few songs at the end of the second set, which was a dream-come-true/nightmare for me (I didn’t want to fuck anything up), especially after Stew insisted I had to sing the lead vocal on “Bleed”. I didn’t exactly show up knowing all the words to the 200 or so songs the guy’s written so I spent most of soundcheck sitting on the side with my iPod (thank god for iPods) frantically scribbling down lyrics for it and the other songs Stew wanted to play in the encores (the fucker actually picked some of the hidden tracks off “Joys and Concerns” for us to play on-HIDDEN TRACKS!!!-I mean, I knew the songs but I sure as hell didn’t know the lyrics or the harmonies).

It all went really well. The bootleg’s killer too. It’s funny for me because you can clearly hear Immy, and occasionally my friend Deb Kletter, laughing throughout the whole bootleg (of course you can clearly hear Immy laughing in Cleveland when he’s in Portland so that’s not really such a big deal). I think Ehud must have been sitting either right in front of us or right behind us when he was recording it.

It’s funny how I still get nervous about stuff like that night. I don’t get nervous about our shows but I really don’t like the idea of fucking up my friend’s shows and, for some stupid reason, I still get the idea that I’m going to. It’s dopey because I’m actually kind of good at this sort of stuff at this point in my life, but some part of my brain doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.

There are times when I just want to say to my brain,

“Will you just fucking behave yourself! I mean, I like having you around, and you can certainly be a lot of fun at a party, but mostly just want you to be there so I can do some math when I feel like it or juggle. I used to think you’d be useful when I was talking to girls but that turned out to be a total miscalculation. Mostly though, I just want you to stop with all the extra-curricular shit like the memory gaps and the general hallucinatory crap. Why can’t you behave like everyone else’s brain? Bad brain! Bad brain!”

Okay. That was creepy. I am so clearly loopy and all that did was air it out in public.

Oh well, fuck it. Anyway, I’m going to put the version of “Bleed” that Immy and I played with The Negro Problem at Symphony Space on that wonderful magical silly night up on my MySpace page. I probably have to put it up on the CC page to do that so it’ll be there as well.

Look, as you can tell from this exhaustive article, I love this band. As far as I’m concerned, Stew is the finest songwriter working today and Stew and The Negro Problem make as good, if not better, records than anyone out there. I know you’re probably thinking, “If they’re so good, why haven’t I heard of them?” Well, the truth is that’s the way the world works. There are just a lot of amazing bands that nobody’s ever heard of. And most of them are bands that nobody’s ever GOING to hear of. Some of you may have gotten the Sordid Humor album years ago. They were a great band. They came and they went because nobody got to hear the music until it was too late.

Don’t let that happen here. Don’t miss this band, because they are as good as it gets and they are only getting better.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, why they haven’t released anything since 2003, I assure you it’s not because they were lying around New York City moping (like I was). They were actually developing and working out a theatre piece for the past few years. It’s called Passing Strange and it opened in Berkeley at the Berkeley Rep last Fall and right now it is playing a block from my house at The Public Theatre right here in New York City.

IN December, I posted this update on CountingCrows.com after seeing the play in Berkeley:

Dated December 3, 2006 - Evening somewhere above America

So I am endlessly amazed by my friends Stew and Heidi. From the very first time I heard their music in a little hole-in-the-wall record shop in London I have been a huge fan. Their albums with The Negro Problem (”Post Minstrel Syndrome“, “Joys and Concerns“, and “Welcome Black“) and as Stew (”Guest Host“, “The Naked Dutch Painter” and “Something Deeper Than These Changes“) are some of the best albums of the past decade. I would even go so far as to say that, if you ask me, he’s the best songwriter there is working right now. Friday night in Berkeley, I saw something that will only help to confirm that view in more people’s eyes.

Stew and Heidi and I always talked about our desire to write for the theatre. I still want to do it, maybe after this record. They’re doing it right now. They’ve been work shopping a play through New York’s Public Theatre for the past year or so and this Fall they finally put it into production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. There I sat Friday night, in the theatre where I saw so many plays as a kid, where so many of my friends had performed growing up, watching Stew and Heidi on-stage with three other musicians and six actors in their play “Passing Strange“.

It’s an fantastic musical odyssey that traces the life of a young black musician from his church choir and garage punk band roots in LA’s Crenshaw district through the pot haze of Amsterdam’s coffee shops to the art riots of late 20th Century Berlin and finally back to LA again. It’s about a search for identity. It’s about his memory of a grandmother who was light enough to “pass” for white and the way that memory haunts him in the form of his own endless question of whether or not he is actually “passing” for black. It’s about the fact that Stew and Heidi are just freakishly gifted and the play, while still unfinished and a work-in-progress, is also a work of genius. I’m jealous and I can’t wait until Spring when it opens at the Public Theatre in New York. It closed tonight in Berkeley but I expect to visit Lafayette Street weekly to see how it progresses when it reopens.

How did it turn out?

See for yourself. Here are some excerpts from the New York Reviews:

“FRESH, exuberant, bracingly inventive, BITINGLY FUNNY, and FULL OF HEART” with “A TERRIFIC CAST that delivers perfectly pitched comic performances.”
–Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

“With EXCELLENT SONGS and a vulnerable heart, Passing Strange could join HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH as a PUNK MUSICAL MILESTONE.”
–Mark Blankenship, Variety

“STEW tweaks the received wisdom of racial identity as cannily and wittily as any playwright since George C. Wolfe when he unleashed The Colored Museum in 1986.”
–Eric Grode, The New York Sun

Passing Strange introduces an EXCITING NEW VOICE to contemporary musical theater. PART CONCERT, PART book MUSICAL with DRIVING ROCK MUSIC and a tart satiric tone – Passing Strange DEFIES generic categories. It dares in its playful way to honor those big questions that have set adolescent souls yearning for centuries. How to discover and be true to your convictions, how to live a meaningful life, and still pay the bills, how to find the understanding you need with out throwing away the love you’re offered.”
–Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

The following is the link to Charles Isherwood’s rave review in The New York Times. The show was supposed to close June 3rd but it’s been extended through June 10th. See it if you’re here. See it if you can.

To quote Isherwood in the closing paragraph of his review:

For all its witty puncturing of youthful pretension, and despite the sardonic attitude Stew often strikes toward his younger self, Passing Strange is also full of heart. It dares in its playful way to honor those big questions that have set adolescent souls yearning for centuries. How to discover and be true to your convictions, how to live a meaningful life and still pay the bills, how to find the understanding you need without throwing away the love you’re offered. Its mournful finale also acknowledges the damage that accrues in those heedless years spent asking them with such stridency, before you come to realize that learning to listen is just as important as making yourself heard.

Tell all your friends. Make yourself heard.

In the end, you should find your way to this music because it is music worth finding your way to. It’s filled with all the best things that music has to offer you. It’s beautiful and complex and sad and happy and, in the end, deceptively simple.

Because, in the end, I guess it’s just about what I heard when I first listened to their music in that little record store on Blenheim Crescent off the Portobello Road in London: it’s about joys and concerns.

Stew knew what he was doing when he titled that album because…well, I mean, what else is there? It’s all just stories about joys and concerns. It’s all just songs about life.

***Footnote***

You all have to check out this YouTube Video from Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman, co-producer of This Desert Life, and general musical idol of mine, the incomparable (drum roll please) …David Lowery.

After seeing the video (which is, by the way, REALLY cool, I asked Dave what it was all about, to which he replied:

Well. I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing. I’ve been writing songs, with cracker and CVB here and
there,  but I keep just doing these songs by myself with just the studio guys.  I have like 4 or 5 that
I like now.  for some reason it seemed like I needed to stop and put videos to all of them. put them
on YouTube and see what people think of them. I’m calling it my YouTube album right now.

So check out the first of hopefully many more videos to come from Dave because THIS one is very cool. It’s called “Deep Oblivion“.

Jesse James (1939)
Directed by Henry King, Irving Cummings
Starring Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, John Carradine

The Return of Frank James (1940)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, John Carradine

So these are kind of a strange pair of movies. They begin starring one actor and end starring another, which is unusual. It’s difficult to make a successful sequel based on a secondary character from the original movie but they do that here. In fact, they do it so well that I’ve always liked the sequel more than the original, which is also very unusual. How often is that true?

I like The Godfather Part II (1974) more than The Godfather (1972). I just think it’s a better, more complex/ambitious movie but that’s really splitting hairs. You’re talking about the difference between one of the greatest films ever made and one that’s a little better. I mean…who cares? You’re going to watch the one…and then you’re going to watch the other…so what does it matter? (By the way, if the preceding sentence doesn’t apply to you…stop being an idiot and see the movies. I…well, I’m not going to waste time justifying myself. Just go see them)

I like James Cameron’s sequel Aliens (1986) more than Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), but that’s just personal taste. Truthfully, Alien is probably the better film. It’s certainly one of the most original horror movies ever made, managing to place the viewer in an entire fresh Science Fiction environment we’ve never seen before while simultaneously holding us in gut wrenching suspense and then repeatedly shocking and scaring the living snot out of us. It’s just that, having already pissed my pants watching it two or three times in my life, I’m tired of doing the laundry so I don’t watch it very often anymore. The sequel, Aliens, I watch over and over again, at least once every year just because it’s so much fun.

Who the hell came up with the idea to make a sequel to a horror movie and NOT make it a horror movie? It’s particularly surprising when you consider that, at the time in the late 70’s and the 1980’s, movie studios were (and, now that I think about it, still are) making millions and millions of dollars turning every good horror movie into an infinite series of sequels.

A good example of this is Halloween (1978), which is a friggin’ brilliant film, taut and terrifyingly suspenseful with almost no violence until the last 10 minutes (and even that is not particularly gory). It is a great film, nearly the quality level of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), it’s closest predecessor. It was directed, not surprisingly, by another great director-John Carpenter. It was followed by Halloween II (1981), which is not a “friggin” (or any other kind of “iggin”) great film, Halloween III-Season of the Witch (1982), Halloween 4-The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), Halloween-The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) (for which they actually went out and got Paul Rudd), Halloween H20-Twenty Years Later (1998) (the triumphant return of Jamie Lee Curtis!, along with (somehow) Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams (taking the weekend off from Dawson’s Creek to get her ass chopped up into little pieces I assume), and…LL Cool J? What the f#%@! LL Cool J! They better not have fucking killed off LL Cool J! LL Cool J would so kick that pussy Michael Myers ass!), and Halloween–Resurrection (2002), the film that FINALLY unites Jamie Lee with Tyra Banks, Busta Rhymes (continuing, I assume, the “revenge on rappers” theme of the previous film, speaking of which…well…I mean…this just occurred to me but…shouldn’t it have taken place underwater? I think I would be much more tolerant of it if it had taken place underwater. Otherwise, why call it…I’m just sayin’…oh fuck it. Forget it. What’s the point?), and some guy from American Pie, all of whom hopefully get carved like pumpkins for taking part in this…well, except for Busta. I love Busta. Who doesn’t love Busta?

Halloween was followed shortly thereafter by Friday the 13th (1980), the film that taught us the very important lesson (in the newly minted “Just Say No” golden age of Reagan-esque attitudes towards sexuality) that teenage fucking will get you gutted like a fish by a maniac hockey goalie with a huge fucking knife (or an arrow through the throat, which is how Kevin Bacon, then 22 years and only 3 films removed from his debut in the classic, and groundbreaking, comedy Animal House (1978) (which taught us the much more pleasant Jimmy Carter-era lesson that teenage fucking will get you…laid), bought the farm in Friday the 13th

(Do you ever ask yourself why, thirty years later, there’s still NOBODY teaching kids that teenage fucking might very well get you AIDS?)

Anyway, Friday the 13th is a pretty good scary movie, groundbreaking in its’ own way, but they just HAD to go and follow it with a whole Friday the 13th Series: Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981), Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982), Friday the 13th-The Final (oh yeah…right) Chapter (1984), Friday the 13th, Part V (ooh, roman numerals)-A New Beginning (1985), Friday the 13th, Part VI - Jason Lives (1986), Friday the 13th Part VII-The New Blood (1988), Friday the 13th Part VIII - Jason (without any Muppets…seriously, all by himself) Takes Manhattan (1989), and finally Jason Goes to Hell-The Final Friday (1993). I assumed at the time it was the last one because they couldn’t figure out the roman numeral for 10, which makes it impossible to make IX, but some asshole must have told them because (coincidentally?) nine years later…along comes…dum da da dum!!! Jason X (2002), which, I think, takes place in outer space (no shit. Outer space), and then the (I guess?) inevitable Freddy vs. Jason (2003), which leads us to…

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the film that showed us how much fun Edward Scissorhands (1990) could really be if he was Robert Englund trying to KILL Johnny Depp instead of being Johnny Depp trying to bang Winona Ryder (although, admittedly, since I am male and have a pulse…I dug that too). Once again though, here was a very original premise, a crazy guy with knives for fingers who haunts the dreams of children and kills them while they sleep in nightmares they can’t escape from. That’s scary as shit! And director Wes Craven invested it with all these creepy genius psychological implications too as well as coming up with a truly great, and totally original, character in Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. Plus, I just thought Heather Langenkamp was soooooo hot when I was a kid. Unfortunately, A Nightmare on Elm Street scared the living shit out of me (I was already an insomniac-I didn’t need any help NOT being able to sleep) and she barely did anything other than those films so I never got to see her again (sigh).

On second thought, I liked Edward Scissorhands way more. I wish they’d made Edward Scissorhands sequels. I’d much rather watch Johnny Depp in anything and Winona Ryder is truly deeee-lish. Unfortunately, she’s never shown the slightest interest in me. I’ve met her a million times and she just ain’t interested. Notwithstanding that article a little while ago that voted me the world’s greatest living heterosexual for, among other things, knockin’ boots with Winona, the truth is she’s never seemed to even notice I exist (hope that doesn’t lose me the title). Too bad, there was a time when she coulda had me with a whistle. But that was before she…well, you know…aw screw it, that’s her business. We all got problems. Who the hell am I to talk? I’m about as nutty as a fruitcake.

Wow, I got off the subject. Anyway, they made a bunch of A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. I just got incredibly bored with the idea of listing them all here so if you want to get them, Heres a page that lists all of them …or there’s just The Nightmare on Elm Street Collection box set which has all 7 movies but not not the Freddy vs. Jason thing. Oh yeah, there’s also a Friday the 13th-From Crystal Lake to Manhattan 8 - Movie Collection that…uh…collects, obviously, the 1st 8 movies for something like $49 dollars which, at about $6 per movie, is a pretty great deal…as long as you avoid thinking about the actual movies you’re paying $6 for. Well, actually, I shouldn’t say that. I’ve never seen most of them so how do I know. I shouldn’t speak like that out of total ignorance. I dunno. If you like them…they’re there.

Of course the scariest of all the 80’s horror series was the Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Beat Street (1984) triumvirate, but everyone seems to have forgotten them.

I actually meant that as a joke but a friend of mine read it and told me he bought this box set with all three movies on it and it was actually pretty cool (if slightly cheesy) as a portrait of the early 80’s hip-hop scene. He said there were some cool extras and documentary stuff on the set as well. I looked it up on Amazon and one of the reviewers there, Cubist, claims Beat Street, in particular, is a really cool “East Coast answer to Breakin’ that was grittier, edgier and therefore not as successful but definitely more authentic. Shot on the dirty, grungy, pre-Giuliani streets of New York City…” He also mentions the “cameos by pioneers of the genre, featuring the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Kool Mo Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa, and Melle Mel. This also results in a great soundtrack that shows many of the influences on early hip hop: calypso, salsa, jazz-all thrown into the mix.” I don’t actually remember any of those movies and, like I said, I was just making a joke but apparently some people, one of whom has some serious cred with me, think this is a cool set so…I dunno. It’s there. Make up your own mind. I make noooooooooooo promises on this one.

Christ, I got way off the subject again. This is why this fucking magazine is always so long. What I was trying to say, about an hour ago, was that Aliens isn’t a horror movie at all. Instead, it’s one of the greatest and most enjoyably thrilling action movie shoot ‘em ups of all time You gotta love James Cameron. He was really on a roll just then. He had made The Terminator (1984) and written the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) before making Aliens (1986).

He followed Aliens with The Abyss (1989), one of my favorite Cameron films.

I’ve connected you here to the The Abyss-Two Disc Collectors Edition because it contains both the theatrical release of the film and the Director’s Cut. The Director’s Cut is important with this film because the studio, concerned about the film’s length, butchered the theatrical release to the point that, although the film is still a great great movie, its’ ending is essentially incomprehensible. The Director’s Cut, which is a full 30 minutes longer (and probably 3 or 4 minutes TOO long), restores the correct ending and makes sense.

There is also a release of just the Director’s Cut coming out this week if you prefer that.

After The Abyss, he made and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the best of all the Terminator Movies, before sort of slipping up a little with True Lies (1994).

Still, that’s FIVE absolute blockbuster special effects heavy movies (four of which are simply fantastic-the way BIG movies SHOULD be made but unfortunately aren’t) in only 10 years. Three years later, he made Titanic (1997) which, if a little sappy (and burdened by a useless AND pointless present-day framing device), is still a great piece of period romantic filmmaking. Then nothing for ten years except 3 or 4 documentaries (admittedly great IMAX 3D documentaries) and the creation of one TV show: Dark Angel (also admittedly a really cool TV show for which God, and James Cameron, created Jessica Alba. Thank you God. Thank you James Cameron…No really…seriously…I mean it. I think I speak for all us XY chromosome types when I say, “Holy crap. Wow. That’s…wow…really something. Well done. Thank you very much.”)

It’s a shame he hasn’t really made anything but documentaries for a decade. Fortunately, the word is (at least according to Ain’t It Cool News) he’s just, aside from loving documentary filmmaking, been interested in experimenting with and perfecting IMAX and 3-D film effects, and is now in the process of starting production on two new movies. Supposedly one of them, Avatar, is already filming and the other, Battle Angel, is in pre-production but every new story I read has the details reversed so it’s hard to tell. They’re very hush-hush about everything over there in Cameronland. Still, I mean…Jessica Alba…c’mon.

Wow. Holy shit! I got way way way way further off on a tangent there than I even thought I did. Talk about loving the sound of your own voice. I thought I’d forgotten I was talking about James Cameron but I really forgot the whole point of this was to talk about Jesse James and The Return of Frank James. Movies…sequels…horror movies…James Cameron…blah blah blah blah blah. God, I’m such an ass sometimes. Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

…deep breath…

Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda were both at interesting junctures in their careers in 1939 when Jesse James was made. Tyrone Power had recently made the transition from bit-player to featured actor and had just made the move from co-starring to starring roles. Power was (sort of) just a little ahead of Fonda. In 1935, he was still an uncredited actor. In 1936, he got two featured roles and then one starring role in the very successful Lloyd’s of London. IN 1937 and 1938, he made EIGHT more movies in which he took leading roles, including the major box office smashes, In Old Chicago (1937) (included in Issue #1’s 20th Century Fox Studio Classics Collection Boxed Set) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) (also included in Issue #1’s 20th Century Fox Studio Classics Collection Boxed Set along with 3 other classic Tyrone Powers films, The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Black Swan (1942),and The Razor’s Edge (1946)). He would go on, in the 1940’s, to become possibly the biggest box office star in Hollywood, making 16 films over the next 10 years, most of them huge smash hits, including Johnny Apollo (1940), Brigham Young (1940), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941), A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), Son of Fury (1942), The Black Swan (1942), The Razor’s Edge (1946), Nightmare Alley (1947), Captain From Castile (1947), The Luck of The Irish (1948), That Wonderful Urge (1948), Prince of Foxes (1949), and The Black Rose (1950). Five of those films (Blood and Sand, Son of Fury, Captain From Castile, Prince of Foxes, and The Black Rose) have all been recently collected in a Tyrone Power: The Swashbuckler Collection Box Set which I just received in the mail from Amazon. I haven’t watched all of them yet but I saw Captain From Castile and The Black Rose on AMC or something when I was younger and they were both a lot of fun. Anyway, it’s $45 so you’re paying about $9 per movie for five pretty fun films, which seems like a pretty fair deal to me. I’ve never felt like Tyrone Power was the greatest actor but he always devoted himself to his material and brought an intensity to the performances that makes him, and his movies, fun to watch. He was, basically, a ridiculously good looking man and, for a while there, he was a HUGE movie star. He’s just got that “star” thing. What can I say?

I’m tempted to say Henry Fonda, on the other hand, was just a year or so behind Tyrone Power in 1939 when they made Jesse James together, but it’s really difficult to categorize his position. Nine years older than Tyrone Power, he doesn’t make his film debut until he’s 30 years old (as opposed to his co-star who makes his 1st two films at ages 11 and 16 and is a legitimate star by 22) but, from the very first film he makes, he is already playing the lead role (largely on the strength of his Broadway resume and the fact that his 1st film, The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), is based on the Broadway hit of the same name, of which Fonda was also the star). He’d made 15 films in 4 years, all as a lead actor, by the time he made Jesse James but, of the fifteen, I think only three, The Moon’s Our Home (1936), That Certain Woman (1937), and Jezebel (1938) were very successful, the latter two quite possibly more on the strength of his co-star Bette Davis, who, by that time, had already been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Of Human Bondage (1934), won one for Dangerous (1935), and would win another for Jezebel (1938), a film for which nearly everyone involved EXCEPT Henry Fonda got nominated. He was making good movies but he wasn’t necessarily becoming the kind of bankable star you could really hang a HIT movie on.

Which brings us to Jesse James

I like Jesse James. It’s got a good star in Tyrone Power and a good director in Henry King who, beginning in the silent era, directed 117 films between the years 1915 and 1962, 8 or 9 of which starred Tyrone Power, including Lloyd’s of London, In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, A Yank in the R.A.F., The Black Swan, Captain From Castile, Prince of Foxes, and The Sun Also Rises (1957). It’s got a great supporting cast in Henry Fonda as Frank James and Randolph Scott and John Carradine as Robert Ford, and especially the wonderfully cantankerous Henry Hull as a newspaper publisher and friend to the James family who, throughout both movies, begins every editorial with the lines, “If we’re ever going to have civilization in the west, then all the (fill in the blank with the requisite bad guys) will have to be taken out in the street and shot down like dogs!”. It even has Brian Donlevy in a smaller role as a railroad heavy who starts all the trouble in the first place by taking over people’s farms and accidentally killing the James boys’ mother. I’m not crazy about Nancy Kelly, who plays Zee, Jesse’s love and eventual wife. She’s not bad; just a little bland, but that seems a small loss compared to the quality level and depth of the rest of the cast.

Still, somehow, it’s sort of emblematic of both the trouble, and the strengths, of the movie.

Having a weak female romantic lead could kill a movie. It doesn’t kill Jesse James because the movie isn’t really interested in Jesse’s love life. Oh, it pretends to be but it really isn’t.

It isn’t REALLY interested in anything except Jesse James himself, which is fine as far as the love story thing goes, but it’s a shame as far as the rest of the cast is concerned because they’re all REALLY good and it seems a shame to waste them. But that’s the choice they made. Jesse James is a star vehicle and Tyrone Power is the star and that’s that. It all still works because Tyrone Power is pretty intense as Jesse and the rest of the cast, whenever they get a chance, do EVERYTHING right so the movie’s still a lot of fun but, and maybe this is just because I’ve seen other great Jesse James movies like Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) or Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980), I missed the richness of the story surrounding Jesse James. One of the great elements of this particular piece of history is that they were all brothers.

There were the two James brothers, the three Younger boys, the two Millers, and the two Fords. The family aspect of the James-Younger Gang, and the dynamic it adds to the whole thing, is part of what makes their story such a great story, and this movie ignores that.
Other than Robert, and eventually Charlie, Ford, none of the other famous members of the gang are ever mentioned. It’s still fun but it hurts the movie a little. So I like Jesse James but mostly as set-up, because it makes the sequel a lot better if you’ve seen the first film and I absolutely love The Return of Frank James.

Now The Return of Frank James (1940) is just a great movie, in my opinion. It’s strange, because it still doesn’t address any of the historical issues that bothered me about Jesse James but it does address a lot of the other issues and, for whatever reason, it’s just a way better movie. I’ve seen it many times over the years and I never cease to enjoy it. It’s not that it’s more intense or somehow groundbreaking or anything like that. It’s just a really enjoyable movie to watch and, no matter how many times I see it, I just seem to always enjoy it.

There are a lot of reason for this. First of all, Henry Fonda is just a lot better than Tyrone Power. That’s just a fact, and in the single year since Jesse James, he’s released six more movies and he’s proven it. He’s taken supporting roles in two okay Irving Cummings movies, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and Lillian Russell (1940) and starred in the quality Let Us Live!. But what really makes the difference are the stunning performances he gives in the three films he does in 1939 and 1940 with the great director John Ford: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along The Mohawk (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Drums Along The Mohawk is a really good pre-Revolutionary War adventure with Fonda and Claudette Colbert. It was one of the earliest TECHNICOLOR films. It’s a lot of fun and it’s simply beautiful to look at. The other two, Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath are simply two of the finest films ever made and Henry Fonda’s portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad are two of his best. All three movies were nominated for Academy Awards. The Grapes of Wrath alone was nominated for 7, including a Best Actor nod for Fonda, and won 2, including Best Director for Ford.

The film also has a better director in Fritz Lang. This is the man who directed M (1931), Fury (1936), Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash By Night (1952), and The Big Heat (1953). He just knows how to tell a better story.

It’s not so much that The Return of Frank James has a better cast (it loses Donlevy and Scott and, of course, Tyrone Power) but that it cares more about what it does with them. Henry Hull, as newspaper publisher Major Rufus Cobb, and John Carradine, as Bob Ford, fill pretty much the same enjoyable but one dimensional roles here as before, although Ford’s role is much larger in this film since it’s mostly about Frank James’ pursuit of him. The differences are in two additions. One of them is the now 18 year old Jackie Cooper, nine years removed from his starmaking performance in the original version of The Champ (1931), who plays the orphaned son of one of the former James Gang members killed in the Northfield raid. Taken in by Frank James, he’s by his side for most of the movie, providing an extra character and relieving some of the one-dimensionality that plagued Jesse James, even with Henry Fonda in the role of Frank James because the earlier film underused Fonda, although he’s great whenever he’s onscreen and certainly a far superior actor to Cooper, who was a star at age nine, and making a comeback at 18, but who would mostly work in minor television roles for the next 40 years until being cast as newspaper editor Perry White in Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) (Also all recently collected as The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection).

The other addition, and the one that really makes ALL the difference is the casting of Gene Tierney as Frank James’ love interest, would-be journalist Eleanor Stone. She’s 20 years old and it’s her 2nd film (but the 1st to be released) and she’s great. She provides an emotional center for the film that it’s predecessor lacked and it makes the whole film more than just one man’s single-minded pursuit of another. It also helps that she is probably the most beautiful woman that ever lived. I’m sitting here trying to think of anyone I’ve ever seen who was as pretty as Gene Tierney and the only thing I can come up with is possibly the French actress Isabelle Adjani. But that’s it. No one else even comes close and, strangely, the two of them look a lot alike now that I think about it. Aside from being stunningly beautiful, Gene Tierney also brought a warmth to all her performances that lit up whatever film she was in.

Her most famous role was as the title character in director Otto Preminger’s phenomenal film noir romantic masterpiece Laura (1944). She, along with Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Dame Judith Anderson make up the cast in what is probably my favorite all-time movie (I didn’t say it was the best, by the way, but I do think it’s probably my favorite. It’s at least in my top three).

There’s just something about the chemistry between Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney that makes The Return of Frank James work so much better than Jesse James. No matter how many great actors are giving perfectly good performances in the first film, it steadfastly refuses to be about anything but the lead character which makes it a much lonelier, and more claustrophobic, film.

And perhaps that’s as it should be, because Jesse James, unlike his brother, is doomed. So maybe the movie has to be that way to show how his single-mindedness leads him and almost everyone around him to their eventual deaths. When I look at it that way, I guess it makes a lot more sense. It’s still not as much fun as the sequel, although I’ll stick to my original premise that seeing Jesse James first is the way to go because it makes the contrasting warmth of The Return of Frank James that much more enjoyable by comparison.

Anyway, they both just got re-released on DVD and the print transfers look great. I watched them both on our road trip down through Florida, New Orleans, and Memphis and it was really nice to re-visit them. I hadn’t seen Jesse James in years and, like I said, I’m always happy to watch The Return of Frank James again any time. Now that I think about it though, I don’t think I’ve ever watched them one after the other before. Hmmm. That’s kinda cool.

Anyway, enjoy.

**Footnote**
My friend Tyler Fredrickson reminded me that I wanted to mention that there is another James Gang movie coming out soon that I have high hopes for. Aside from the movies I’ve talked about here, there are two truly great Jesse James movies. One, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, is unavailable on DVD, which is tragic because it’s an amazing early film by the great Philip Kaufman, and the other is Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, which used the unique casting trick of casting all brother in the roles of the various brothers: James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James respectively, David, Keith, and Robert Carradine (coincidentally the sons of John Carradine who plays Robert Ford in the movies in THIS article) play the Youngers, Dennis and Randy Quaid play Ed and Clell Miller, and Christopher Guest (director of Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), and For Your Consideration (2006)) and his brother Nicholas play the Fords. It’s very cool.

Anyway, the film I’m speaking of is called The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford and it stars Brad Pitt and Sam Shepherd as Jesse and Frank James, Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell as Bob and Charley Ford, and most especially, my best friend Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife Zeralda. It was directed by Andrew Dominik. I’ve only seen one other film he’s directed (that may be the ONLY other film he’s directed) but it was this intense Australian film called Chopper (2000), which is basically the movie that MADE Eric Bana’s career, playing the riveting career criminal Mark “Chopper” Read. This could be an amazing movie. I hope so. It comes out in October.

**this is so you know the footnote is over, in case you didn’t**

Clint Eastwood Western Icon Collection
Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970)
Joe Kidd (1972)
High Plains Drifter (1973)

To me, this one is a no-brainer, and another one, I gotta admit, I owe to Ain’t It Cool News because I read about it there. It’s as simple as this: you get three really good Clint Eastwood movies for $16.99. That’s just a pretty fucking deal.

Sometimes Amazon just does these bizarrely good deals. I don’t understand how they decide to sell 40 movies for $240 or how they decide to suddenly reduce all the 1st Season Fox TV Series to 55% off but, for some reason, they just do. Ain’t It Cool News has a whole page listing the bargain sets at the bottom of the page. By the way, if you go to that page, in my opinion, and they make this point as well, the one to get is Murder One-Season 1. The show only lasted two seasons but Season 1 is just about as good as network television ever got (I never saw Season 2). According to AICN, it was $54 a year ago, $28 last week, and it’s $18 now.

Anyway, for some reason, they’ve decided to take these three really fun movies and sell them as a package for $17.

So let’s look at them one at a time

First of all, Two Mules For Sister Sara was directed by one of the 60’s and 70’s great unappreciated filmmakers, Don Siegel, who had already directed the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the great war movie Hell Is For Heroes (1962), with Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Fess Parker (TV’S Daniel Boone), Bobby Darin, and even a young Bob Newhart, the edgy Hemingway-based thriller The Killers (1964), with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan, Madigan (1968), and one of my own Eastwood faves, Coogan’s Bluff (1968), before tackling Two Mules For Sister Sara. He would go on to direct three more films for Clint Eastwood, the underrated The Beguiled (1971), the classic and groundbreaking Dirty Harry, and Escape From Alcatraz (1979), as well as the classic Walter Matthau heist thriller Charley Varrick (1973) . He’s also important historically, at least as far as moviemaking is concerned, because he directed the great and final film of John Wayne’s long career, The Shootist (1976), a brilliant film and a fitting ending to Wayne’s career, also starring Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Jimmy Stewart, and John Carradine.

Second of all, Two Mules For Sister Sara has got Shirley MacLaine going for it. Now I’ll be the first to admit, there’s something really weird about Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine being in a movie together to begin with, but it’s somehow just pretty funny and…well, hell, Shirley MacLaine’s just great so why shouldn’t she be in a movie with Clint Eastwood? C’mon…Cowboys? Nuns? Mexican revolutionaries fighting the French. Shit. I had fun.

Then you get Joe Kidd. I just dig this movie. Clint Eastwood’s made a lot of good movies and, especially since he started directing them, he’s made a lot of great ones too.

He’s also made a bunch of movies that are just a lot of fun to watch. There were two when I was growing up hat I would always look for on TV on a Saturday afternoonor go to the video store and rent over and over again. I really dug Coogan’s Bluff and Joe Kidd.

Coogan’s Bluff just had that cool fish-out-of-water plot where the western lawman comes to New York City, loses the crook he’s come to extradite, and then has to do the whole “cowboy in the big city” thing. It’s just great Clint.

And Joe Kidd just has this outrageously good cast. Clint Eastwood is the great ex-bounty hunter tracker cowboy turned outdated drunk who gets hired by the extremely creepy Robert Duvall to help track down some Mexican revolutionaries (lots of Mexican revolutionaries popping up in these movies) led by John Saxon. The plots a little bit of a mess but I never cared. Robert Duvall is great, just like he is in every one of the other hundred movies he’s made, Clint and Duvall have an awful lot of cool “Who’s the biggest badass?” type interaction between them, and Don Stroud, who appeared in apparently 145 different TV shows and movies (and pretty much played the bad-guy in all of them) gets to run around being an asshole with this really cool old west half-pistol/half-rifle pseudo-Uzi machine gun pistol thing. It doesn’t always make a ton of sense but it’s a lot of fun because all the characters are great and they get to run around with cool guns, ride horse, kick each other’s asses, and, for some bizarre reason which I still can’t explain to you, attack a town by crashing a locomotive into it (haven’t you always wanted to do that?).

The fact that it’s a little clumsy plot wise is strange given the fact that the screenplay was written by Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard is a great writer and, more than that, he’s a great writer whose books generally translate very well and very smoothly to the big screen (often with screenplays written by the author himself). Aside from writing the movie and the novel upon which it is based for Paul Newman’s Hombre (1967), Leonard wrote the novel Mr. Majestyk upon which was based the Charles Bronson movie Mr. Majestyk (1974) (which he also wrote), wrote the novel Get Shorty upon which was based the John Travolta/Danny DeVito movie Get Shorty (1995), wrote the novel Rum Punch upon which Quentin Tarentino based the movie Jackie Brown (1997), and wrote the novel Out of Sight upon which Steven Soderbergh based the movie Out of Sight (1998).

He also wrote about a thousand other books. If the idea of a book that’s a really enjoyable easy read with great characters, a clever funny plot, snappy dialogue, and usually some great action scenes appeals to you, then Elmore Leonard is your man. He wrote more good fun books than you’ll ever read in your life. They’re not Proust (seriously, nothing against Proust, but I’d rather shove bamboo under my fingernails and I was an English major) but you’re not really looking for Proust, are you? Elmore Leonard’s way more fun. Here’s a link to 600 of them.

Lastly, you get High Plains Drifter, which is either the first or the second movie Clint Eastwood ever directed. I can’t remember whether this or Play Misty For Me came first and (I’m sorry) I’m just feeling too lazy right now to check. In any case, it’s definitely the first western. In High Plains Drifter you can clearly see the influence director Sergio Leone had on Eastwood. The “Man-With-No-Name” stranger character is present and the slightly twisted Fellini-esque quality of the town and the townspeople is very reminiscent of the Leone-directed Spaghetti Western trilogy A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) that gave TV actor and supporting player Eastwood his first big movie breaks and made Clint Eastwood a star (the three Leone films are also available in The Man With No Name Trilogy Box Set for $30).

There’s a darkness in High Plains Drifter and the Leone films that sets them apart from the westerns that came before them. Leone and Eastwood’s vision of the American frontier forever changed both the way moviegoers saw the west and the way filmmakers portrayed it. They’re trying to make a point about the coarseness and the absolute raw lawless brutality of the time. They’re trying to make it clear that this is not about nobility. There’s no nobility in High Plains Drifter. The nobility is in his, the main character’s, memories and flashbacks, but they’re almost there simply to illustrate the falseness of all that. He had it beaten out of him and he’s come back to beat it the hell out of everyone else.

It’s the same point being made right now on TV on a show like Deadwood. They’re pushing it a little further but that’s only because this is 2007 and you have to push it further in 2007 to make the point now. But it’s still only the same point Eastwood was already making in 1973, some thirty years earlier. There was no law. Anyone could do anything they wanted to anyone. All you needed was a gun and the willingness to point it at another person, pull the trigger, and kill them. Leone and Eastwood were looking to totally re-imagine the old west. Not that they were the very 1st to do it, but after more than two-thirds of a century of cowboys portrayed as “knights in shining stirrups”, Leone and Eastwood tore a page out of the film-noir anti-hero book and turned loose on the American West a far darker rider. Eastwood, in High Plains Drifter, arrives seemingly just in time to save the town from destruction at the hands of outlaws but his particular brand of salvation is not exactly the one the bible intended. He quite literally turns the town into Hell. He “saves” them from the outlaws by turning the town into a a blood-red flaming hell and he both saves and destroys the American Western movie at the same time because he shows you a whole new way to view the West but he makes it almost impossible to see it the old way ever again.

He seems to realize this too because, although he made his name as a western star and it’s almost impossible not to think of Clint Eastwood as a cowboy, after High Plains Drifter, he almost never made another western again, returning to the form only three more times: once just 3 years later when he, at the last minute, replaced director Philip Kaufman (one of my all-time favorite directors) at the helm of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1975) (I would have loved to have seen THAT movie, perfect as it is, done by Kaufman), then again 9 years later in Pale Rider (1985), another “Man-With-No-Name” movie, and finally, almost 20 years after High Plains Drifter, in the phenomenal Unforgiven (1992),the movie which may have put the western myth to rest once and for all.

To be honest, after Unforgiven, I really didn’t think anyone could make a serious western ever again. I was proven wrong when, in 2003, Kevin Costner directed himself, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, and Michael Gambon in the beautifully rendered Open Range, a film that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. It is easily far and away the best western made since Unforgiven and, although it certainly owes a debt to that film, it stands on its merits as well. There’s a darkness and a violence in it, and a similar theme about the repercussions of a life of violence and the damage it wreaks on one’s later life, but there is also great tenderness and an attention to the little details that make up the bonds of friendship and love between people and the ache of loneliness that tears at them that Open Range manages to convey with an almost elegant yet subtle simplicity. It’s a fantastic movie and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.

There’s no point in arguing about which is the better film because it really doesn’t matter. Both Unforgiven and Open Range are brilliant movies that deal with a lot of the same subject matter in slightly different ways. The former is certainly a darker film but the latter has a truly great heart at its’ core and it shows that heart without ever being obvious or cloying or sappy. I should really be writing this article about these two movies because they’re both examples of truly great cinema but I guess I got to mention them anyway so it’s cool. Besides, like I said before, it’s the influence of High Plains Drifter and a few other films that leads to films like Open Range and Unforgiven anyway.

So, to sum it up, if you haven’t seen them, you gotta see Open Range and Unforgiven. If you’ve already seen them, or if you just like Clint Eastwood and you want the chance to buy three DVD’s of his movies for a little over $5 each, then the Clint Eastwood Western Icon Collection is a great deal too, and you should take advantage of it now while it still exists because these things seem to come and go on Amazon.

And while we’re on that subject, I just noticed that there’s also another great bargain-priced Clint Eastwood box set out there called Clint Eastwood-The Westerner that collects Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven all in one package for only $23. That’s a little under $8 each for one pretty enjoyable movie and two absolute classics. It’s not quite the ridiculous bargain of the Clint Eastwood Western Icon Collection but it’s still a good deal and that’s a serious little set of movies. The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven are two of the best western films ever made.

Oh, by the way, High Plains Drifter (1973) is the 2nd film Clint Eastwood directed, following by two years his directorial debut on Play Misty For Me (1971). It still remains, however, his first western.

Laura (1944)
Directed and Produced by Otto Preminger
Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

I really like this section of The Rabbit Hole because it gives me a chance to go back and find some of my favorite films and talk about them. Especially nowadays, people seem unconcerned with anything but whatever happened in the last fifteen minutes so older films get easily overlooked. I saw a post on one of our message boards where a guy said he loved the Rabbit Hole because he liked reading about things I was interested in even though he had no interest in older films or anything that was filmed in Black & White. While I appreciate the support and, I have to admit, it’s not the first time I’ve heard something like this, I wish there was something I could do to convince you all to view this differently. People have been making art in all its’ myriad forms for thousands and thousands of years and, in case you hadn’t noticed, age doesn’t necessarily diminish its’ worth or beauty. Culture is a rich thing, and the best part of it is that the longer time goes on, the more there is to discover because people just keep making more and more and more of it.

America is a relatively young country and our culture, therefore, may not possess the lengthy artistic history and depth of other nations. That’s just the truth. But there is one art form that found, in a small Southern California town mostly made up of orange groves, a home from which to flourish and from which we filled the world with spectacles of sight and sound and laughter and drama and tragedy and into which all the greatest literary, dramatic, and scientific talent poured until it became one of the biggest and most influential industries in the world. What I’m trying to say is this: if America has one art form in which we have a rich and magnificent history, it is the art of filmmaking. Actually, calling it “filmmaking” takes away from a little of what I’m trying to say here because it makes it sound too dry and intellectual. Let’s call it moviemaking, because movies sound like more fun than films and the original intent was simply to entertain. And that’s a lot of my intention when I recommend these films.

I’m not recommending The Shop Around The Corner because it’s a smarter, more intellectually satisfying version of the same story than You’ve Got Mail. It IS all that, but that’s not why I think you should see it. I think you should see it because I think you went to see You’ve Got Mail so you could relax and see a romantic movie that made you laugh and also made you believe it was still possible to fall in love. The reason I think you should see The Shop Around The Corner is that it does all that, and it does it about 100 times better than You’ve Got Mail. It’s just a far better movie, by which I mean it’s more entertaining. If you want to see a movie about falling in love, then see the better one. See the one that really makes you feel the feelings rather than the one that takes all the short cuts that movies take when they want to remind you that “this is the place where you’re supposed to feel something”. See the one that actually makes you feel, not the one that skips the actual feeling and instead simply cues the musical montage with the song you like from last summer and expects you to fill in the emotional gap yourself.

We’ve been making movies here in America for a long time and, for awhile, there was a time when almost everyone in the world who was good at it came here to do it.

And don’t be put off by Black & White movies filmmaking either (and here I will use the word “film”) because Black & White was never just a lack of color. It was an art form in and of itself, and the men and women who worked in that art form knew how to take two colors and create textures and shading so creatively that no one noticed the lack of reds or blues or greens. These were the colors they had to work with and they MASTERED the form, turning what could have been a limitation into a spectacularly rich and elegant palate, finding in the shades of grey all the richness Technicolor would eventually provide for the rest of the spectrum.

Ok. Lecture over.

Now..Laura.

This may be my favorite movie of all time. I probably could have written this essay from memory (I’ve seen the movie at least twenty times) but I watched the Laura today anyway, partially because it seemed like the right thing to do before writing about it but mostly just because, once I thought about it for a second, I realized I just felt like seeing it again.

I have no regrets. Laura is a masterpiece.

It is probably the greatest film noir ever made. I know that’s a statement that would get a lot of argument. There are certainly many other great films of the genre that are far darker movies, like the magnificent Double Indemnity (1944), made the same year, or the equally great The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). I think you could probably make just as good a case for either of those movies, and a few others as well, and it would hard for me to argue with you too strenuously. They’re certainly great films and Hollywood made a lot of great films in the 1940’s. I just like Laura more, I think precisely because it’s so different from both those films. Film Noir was a genre consumed with the inherent darkness in the human spirit and the inevitable doom that resulted from that even where seemingly good people were concerned. I love many of those films but the inevitability of it all got a little “one-note”-ish to me sometimes.

I love Laura because there’s nothing “one-note” about it. It’s a detective mystery and it’s a comedy (well, not really but it has a razor sharp wit), and, through one of the truly great surprise plot twists of all time, it’s a romance even though it seems impossible that it could ever be one. That twist and the change it brings about in the movie make it one of the more satisfying films I’ve ever seen.

The direction is flawless. Otto Preminger was a great director. Laura was one of his earliest films (his fifth or sixth). He had already made the movie adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Kidnapped (great book too) in 1938 with Freddie Bartholomew and would go on to direct Joan Crawford in Daisy Kenyon (1947), before making Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), which would re-unite his Laura co-stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, The Moon Is Blue (1953) with William Holden and David Niven, River of No Return (1954) with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, Carmen Jones (1954) (which, by the way, was nominated for several Oscars and is a great deal on Amazon, selling for around $5.50) , Frank Sinatra’s tour-de-force performance as a gambling junkie in The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Pearly Bailey in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1959), Exodus (1960) with Paul Newman, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, and Eva Marie Saint, and about thirty other films. Christ, I almost forgot Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), which, aside from being a great film with James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, and Ben Gazzara, has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time (The soundtrack album Anatomy of a Murder can also found here on the iTunes Store) composed by the incomparable Duke Ellington (Duke’s music can, of course, also be found on iTunes as well).

But Preminger wasn’t simply a great director, he was a great producer as well and the talent he assembled for Laura is impressive. The cast begins with Dana Andrews as the hard boiled Detective Lt. investigating the Laura Hunt murder, a brutal crime in which a young woman was horrifyingly shotgunned in the face just inside the front door of her apartment. The young woman, Laura Hunt, is played in flashback by Gene Tierney, who is, as I’ve mentioned before, maybe the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She’s 24 here, just four years past her film debut in The Return of Frank James (1940), four short years into which she’s packed ten films so she’s far more self-assured in Laura.

She seems like a beautiful girl earnestly acting in The Return of Frank James. By Laura, she’s a woman and she simply inhabits the role of Laura Hunt. Although the murder occurs before the start of the film, Tierney’s Laura Hunt haunts us, and Andrew’s Lt. MacPherson, throughout the film both through the flashback memories of the film’s other characters and through the gorgeous portrait of her which hangs over the mantle in her apartment, seemingly refusing to let her die before the murder can be solved.

The story is mainly told through MacPherson’s questioning of the other three main characters and their memories of Laura.

I think most people pinhole Vincent Price as the creepy guy from all the horror movies like House of Wax (1953), House of Usher (1960), or The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the latter pair of which are out on DVD as a double feature two-pack for only $10.99, but he’s both amazing and unexpected as the formerly rich now fallen on hard times kept-man southern playboy Shelby Carpenter (I guess, now that I think about it, he did play a nice old man in Edward Scissorhands).

He’s both pathetic and sympathetic. He manages to hint at the leading man type person he almost could have been were it not for his inherent weakness of character. You see how Laura Hunt could have loved him while at the same time wondering how she could possibly not despise him. Judith Anderson (later Dame Judith Anderson), who was nominated for 7 Emmys and won three, and had been nominated for an Oscar just four years earlier in only her 2nd film for her chilling performance as the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), is wonderfully bloodless and cold as Laura’s calculating aunt (and competitor for Shelby’s love) Ann Treadwell.

But the real prizewinning performance in the movie is that of the incomparable Clifton Webb as newspaper and radio critic Waldo Lydecker. Webb takes hold of the perfection of the script’s dialogue like it’s a dagger and then spends the entire film effortlessly and mercilessly skewering each and everyone around him, stabbing at them as if his wit were a very very sharp knife and his sarcasm a dagger, simultaneously dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief and cutting his co-stars to ribbons, all the while dressed impeccably and standing remarkably still. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, as was Preminger for his direction, and the writers and the art directors as well.

Joseph LaShelle won the Oscar that year for his gorgeous cinematography (if you want to see what I mean about the work that can be done visually with only a black & white color palette, Laura is all the proof you need).

The real crime is that David Raskin did not win for his score because the music is not only both haunting and beautiful, it has proven to be timeless. The “Theme from Laura” became an almost immediate standard played by every big band of the day and every great jazz musician from the mid-1940’s to the present day. The Soundtrack from Laura is gorgeous.

I don’t want to say much more about the film because I don’t want to ruin it for you. I’ll just say that Webb and Price and Anderson are fantastic supporting characters and Dana Andrews is great as a tough hard man coming slowly unraveled as he realizes with horror that he’s falling in love with a dead girl who’s murder he’s investigating. And Gene Tierney, of course, is amazing as Laura Hunt, managing to be so powerfully warm and beautiful a figure in her friend’s memories that you truly believe someone COULD fall in love with a dead woman.

And Preminger, holding both the directorial and the production reins, holds it all together so masterfully that it all results in a movie as fresh and perfect today, 63 years after it’s initial release, as it was in 1944. Laura is amazing, a masterpiece, and a perfect feat of movie making.

You’ll notice that THIS time I said “Movie” making. Because although Laura is a perfect film, Laura is also a wonderful movie, one that you can and will watch over and over and over again, just like me. Like I said, I could have written this whole essay from memory. But then I wouldn’t have gotten to see Laura today.

And why should I deny myself the pleasure of that?

These are just some links to other places to find cool Counting Crows stuff:

Try this site for Sheet Music. (sheetmusicplus.com)

Try this site for Posters, Gold Records, T-shirts, and Framed CC art. (allposters.com)

See also Pushposters.co.uk for more options

Also, lest I forget, you can get all the Counting Crows albums HERE or, if you just want to down load them digitally from iTunes you can get them HERE.

Remember, the never-before (officially) released record by the legendary (at least in our minds) San Francisco band The Himalayans (featuring me) is being released on my indie label Tyrannosaurus Records and is, as of right now, available for pre-order at our Dino-Store. It will ONLY be available through the Dino-Store. We are not planning on selling it anywhere else. Order your copy now and it will be shipped to you on April 12th, the day of its’ release!

Visit The Himalayans’ MySpace Page
or at TheHimalayans.com.

Also, visit the Trecs MySpace Page and our other bands:
NOTAR’s MySpace Page
Blacktop Mourning’s MySpace Page
blacktopmourning.com.

Blacktop Mourning will be playing May 6th at the Bamboozle Festival at The Meadowlands In New Jersey.

They’re also playing four dates on The “Kevin Says” stage on the Warped tour:

Sat 7/28 Chicago, IL First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre
Sun 7/29 Minneapolis, MN Metrodome
Tue 7/31 Milwaukee, WI Marcus Amphitheatre
Wed 8/1 Cincinnati, OH Riverbend Music Center

And don’t forget to visit CountingCrows.com. They have last Summer’s concert in Houston there to listen to and some rare live stuff I just sent them going up soon.

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Credits (so we can be just like a REAL magazine):

Publishers: Me & Lisa

Editor: Me

Editor-in-Chief: Me

Editor-in-almost-but-not-quite-Chief: Lisa

Head Writer: Me

Contributing Writers: Me & the nice people I steal quotes from

Designer: Lisa

Photographers: All the nice people we steal photos from

Head of Production: Lisa

Heads of Marketing: Lisa & Kat

Heads of Advertising: Lisa & Kat & me & MySpace Bulletins

Heads of Hair: Charley & Immy

Heads of Circulation: All of you

Head of Lettuce: aerofreak1

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