Thursday, 23 October 2014

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Clive James on James Garner: A Man for All Seasons


The Rockford Style
Eastwood? McQueen? Why James Garner is the real star of his era

Clive James
26 October 2011

STAND ASIDE FOR Maverick! Stand aside again for Jim Rockford! They live forever in the shining presence of one man! Let his name ring out: James Bumgarner!

Or perhaps not. At the appropriate moment, he changed his moniker. It was his one and only fiddle with the facts. Let this neatly written and well-supplemented little book—all of his friends provide relevant stories and fond judgments—set a new standard of integrity for the genre. But for a book to have that, the subject has to have the same, or he will have falsified the facts even before fame got to him.

James Garner, you can bet on it, has never told an important lie in his life. He really is like the men he plays onscreen, even unto the modest requirements symbolized by the humble trailer that serves Jim Rockford for a residence. He is thoughtful, honest, and fundamentally gentle, although he has knocked men down when riled. On the evidence given here, one doesn’t doubt that they asked for it. One doesn’t doubt this guy at all.

Every sane person’s favorite modern male movie star, Garner might have done even better if he’d been less articulate. In his generation, three male TV stars made it big in the movies: Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Garner. All of them became stars in TV Westerns: McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, Eastwood in Rawhide, and Garner in Maverick. The only one of them who looked and sounded as if he enjoyed communicating by means of the spoken word was Garner. McQueen never felt ready for a film role until he had figured out what the character should do with his hands: that scene-stealing bit in his breakout movie, The Magnificent Seven, in which he shakes the shotgun cartridges beside his ear, was McQueen’s equivalent of a Shakespearean soliloquy, or of a practice session for a postatomic future in which language had ceased to exist.

As for Eastwood, he puts all that effort into gritting his teeth, because his tongue is tied. Garner could learn and deliver page after page of neat Paddy Chayevsky. If you can bear the idea of watching Eastwood struggling with a long speech, take a look at his self-constructed disaster movie White Hunter, Black Heart, in which he plays John Huston at the theoretical top of his mad male confidence: it’s like watching a mouse choke. Like McQueen, Eastwood never really left the Wild West, where little is said except by a six-gun. When McQueen and Eastwood moved up, they took the Wild West with them. Or at any rate, they took a context in which the important things are all unspoken, because nobody really knows how to speak.

Garner or his narrator could really have told us more about just how leaden-tongued modern Hollywood is. Writers like Chayevsky and Aaron Sorkin are rare cases, and the preferred way of writing is to bolt together clichés that have already been tested to near-destruction. When Garner speaks here about the marvelous Joan Hackett, he forgets to say that she spoke beautifully. Of what use was that, in a medium that spoke—still speaks—in a string of sunsets and crashed cars?

Garner, a quick study who could learn and deliver speeches long enough to make his awed listeners hold their breath to the breaking point, was the only one who seemed to enjoy producing intelligible noise. But Garner, compared with the other two, never really caught on as a big-screen leading man. Though tall and handsome, he was never remote: he had an air of belonging down here with us. As a small-screen leading man, he had done too thorough a job with the 20 or 30 good lines in every episode of Maverick or The Rockford Files to make an easy transition into a putatively larger medium that gave him many times more square feet of screen to inhabit, but many times less to say.

In a feature movie like Support Your Local Sheriff, he was charming, but his standout line of dialogue, the line that we all took home, was all that he got to take home as well. I loved that line, especially in its final variation, when he is beginning to lose patience with pests: “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia.” The tag became one of my own call signs, and I would try to get the soft richness of his voice into my own timbre. But in the movies, you just couldn’t get enough of him. When, in earlier years, he made the occasional movie that rang the bell—The Americanization of Emily,The Great Escape—it was a reminder that his television shows had more of him in them. And even today—except for those movies that, in his near-retirement leisure, he has been choosing with great care, sometimes developing the entire project—you still can never quite get enough of him. Nobody ever felt that way about Clint Eastwood, because all he ever did was grit his teeth as he varied his “art” movies with thrillers, the same story made half a dozen times while he was holding the same gun, a .44 Magnum that slowly acquired the patina of the Statue of Liberty. But I digress.

Garner, though he had to nerve himself to do it, spoke wonderfully, even though he spoke against his nature. In real life, he was comparatively unforthcoming, as people who were beaten up at home during their childhood sometimes are. (More of these domestic tortures in a minute, after we get a clearer focus on the person they happened to when he was not much more than knee-high to the people hitting him.) But he positively loved to read out written words. In The Americanization of Emily, he has a long speech by Chayevsky that Eastwood and McQueen, put together, could never have finished reading even silently. Garner flew through it. As it happens, his views about dying for your country were the same as Chayevsky’s, but it wasn’t mere congruence of mind that made the matchup of writer and actor so thrilling: it was synchronicity of tone. While mourning the continued loss of The Hospital, the great movie Chayevsky wrote for George C. Scott (if the role wasn’t first conceived with Scott in mind, we can still say that he was born to play it) (where is the damned thing?), let us think for a moment of what the great writer would have done for Garner, and for all of us, if only the great writer had lived to a proper age. If Garner himself were to think too much about such things, he would go nuts. One of the secrets of maintaining a long and fruitful career is not to mourn too much for the might-have-beens.

On the evidence the ghostly Winokur provides, Garner’s early jobs were never part of a plan leading toward show business. Such plans, in America, are usually called “dreams.” To the extent that the apparently aimless and perhaps ineducable Garner had them, all the dreams must have been of his stepmother, who was fond of beating him with a spatula and made him parade around in a girl’s dress while everyone called him “Louise.” He somehow limped away from these rehearsals doing a convincing impersonation of a sane man. The war in Korea tried to kill him a couple of times but got no closer than qualifying him for two Purple Hearts, bestowed for wounds that he later made a point of shrugging off.

Honesty about himself is important to him. We feel, when reading, that he is leaving out none of his vices: he swore too much when he played golf, but only because he couldn’t bring himself to cheat. Traditionally, Hollywood stars are allowed to cheat at everything, including marriage, but Garner has quite evidently played it straight all along. (McQueen notoriously milked the budget of every movie—if the hero he was playing wore a suit, it would mean 10 more Savile Row suits for McQueen—and Eastwood, worshipped by now as a pillar of artistic integrity, has never expected himself to present the picture of faithfulness that is provided here of Garner.) The question about Garner is not whether he has really played it as straight as he says but whether he has ever played anything.

But the answer has to be yes, and the role he has played is (you guessed it) James Garner. Aside from the solid nice-guy basis provided by mother nature (or stepmother nature, if you prefer to think that a little routine homicidal mania makyth the man), he has had to make it all up. Nothing was given to him, except the looks. He had to deepen his voice (he never tells us how he did it: perhaps, in these censorious days, he prefers to omit the information that he did it the way Lauren Bacall did, by steamboating a few thousand cigarettes). Even today, he is not really comfortable speaking to a roomful of people: the camera is a way of not having to do so. (And even to the television camera, his discomfort shows if he has to speak in propria persona: in a tribute to Doris Day, he praised her devotedly, but it was obviously only the obligation of a close friendship that could make him speak at all.)

As he reveals several times during the course of this short book, he thinks actors should say what is set down for them—which rather rules out the prospect of speaking impromptu. By listening, he learned that the script is the foundation of the house. He was always a great one for learning things, and the key to that was to keep his ears cocked. In his pre-television career, when he was playing one of the silent judges in a touring company of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, he learned that listening properly to the other actors is the only way to keep your face alive for the audience. If you don’t listen, they won’t look. On set, he learned not to sit around and shoot the bull for too long with the crew: better to study the camera, treating the various parts of its façade as parts of a face. If it’s you that’s supposed to be delivering lines from offscreen, be there to deliver them on the spot instead of looping them afterward. It will sound better for you, and look better for everybody. (There are plenty of actors hiding in their trailers who don’t know that one.)

All of his skills have been improved by study—often of other actors. Fans of Henry Fonda will be glad to find that Garner copied a little dance step in Local Sheriff from My Darling Clementine. Garner is good throughout the book when speaking about most other actors, but far too generous when praising his buddy Marlon Brando. “We were both rebels” sounds like a rare instance of his normally finely tuned ghost letting the tone control slip, but there’s nothing wrong about praising Brando as long as you admit that the capacity for industrial sabotage that he brought to so many of his film sets was another form of robbery: somewhere, somebody was paying for every extra hour that Brando’s behavior cost. Still on the subject of Brando, a judgment like “best movie actor we’ve ever had” would mean more if Garner had taken room to say that Alan Arkin was a much better movie actor but didn’t look it.

It’s dissatisfying to find Garner so predictable about actors, when he’s otherwise so open and honest. But no one can complain about his honesty when it comes to the executives who were still, in those days, running the industry like a canyonful of horse thieves. At a time when Jack Benny was earning $25,000 a week on television, Garner was starring in Maverick for a 50th of that amount, and practically paying for his own pants. It might have been treatment like that, when McQueen was doing Wanted: Dead or Alive, that made McQueen into the future burglar of any movie’s budget, but you can’t be made into a thief except to feed your family. Garner was never a thief. He played it straight over money, and expected everyone else to as well.

That was a revolutionary attitude in Hollywood, where everybody expected the written deal to be a mere preliminary to the subsequent larceny. The problem wasn’t so much the system as it was the custom. When the studio system finally came apart and the big moguls were no longer on the telephone together except via Tokyo, the custom continued of robbing the artists. It continues to this day—I have a director friend who has given his career to making off-trail movies but he has found to his cost, and repeatedly, that his backers will back out when the thing is nine-tenths complete and leave him to finance the remaining tenth, because they know he will mortgage his house (again) rather than abandon the project. Garner, whose natural integrity makes you wonder why he is not a Quaker or an Amish person or something—how do you escape with so much virtue from a house ruled by a sadist?—simply hates such an attitude. When he finally got around to studying the accounts for the worldwide television reruns and saw how Lew Wasserman and Universal were robbing him, he sued them. Nobody ever does that.

Garner did it, and got some millions back when he finally agreed with the thieves to settle out of court, he having been vindicated and they, no doubt, still with a mountain range of stolen money yet to spend. The impressive thing here is that Garner was in no way a born litigant. He doesn’t like having his time wasted, any more than anyone else. He just wanted to correct an anomaly, to punish an offense: to get justice, if you wish. You could hand this book as a primer on ethics to any young man just reaching the age of choosing his way in life. Perhaps the most useful thing it shows is that you need not panic if the choice is not clear: things sometimes just happen. Given his proclivities, Garner could have driven racing cars. But by accident, he wandered into a situation where they were looking for an actor roughly his shape and size.

Later on, he became a renowned amateur race-car driver anyway, like Paul Newman. And although Newman drove race cars onscreen to formidable effect, he never got the chance to be a Formula One star onscreen, as Garner did in Grand Prix, the split-screen guy-thing blockbuster by John Frankenheimer. Garner likes that movie a bit too much—the story line is even worse than he says—but maybe he still smells high-octane gasoline. A measure of his generosity and understanding is that concerning Grand Prix, he refrains from making the most of his opportunity to call McQueen a dolt, which the bullet-headed one clearly was. Grand Prix was McQueen’s starring vehicle if he wanted it. He walked away from it. Then, when Garner took it, McQueen had the hide to behave as if Garner had stolen it.

Perhaps the equivalent book about McQueen should be handed to your young man as a guide to what not to do. I have an idea for packaging the two books together. But I wouldn’t want to do anything that Mr. Garner might not like, and I imagine the same sentiment is general throughout show business. In every field of creative activity, there are people famous for their goodness: they are rarely at the top of the tree, which is a harsh environment. But the occasional one is. In time, James Garner’s lasting importance might be that he showed how a television career and a movie career could be fruitfully combined. But it must be said that the TV actors have a very good reason for leaving a hit show behind when the moment comes, and Garner and his ghost have done a very good job of showing what that reason is.

The work is just too hard. A good show takes more than a week to make, so making one a week leaves no time at all. The mental strain is vivid, and even the mere physical strain can leave a strong man needing knee replacements. In the later episodes of The Rockford Files, that deep pain in Jim’s eyes was probably the spin-off from about six different areas of arthritis at once. So successful in television that he could rarely stop work to make the movies that would have made him a great film star, he wore the silver shackles of the golden slave ship. James Bumgarner, in my country, Australia—the magic land to which you were always on your way—we have a name for you. We call you a hero.

Clive James is an Australian poet and critic who has lived in London since the early 1960s.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/12/the-rockford-style/308715/

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lynda Bellingham RIP

Lynda Bellingham obituary
Star with a wide-ranging TV and stage career, best remembered as the ‘Oxo mum’ in a long-running TV ad

Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian
Monday 20 October 2014 

Lynda Bellingham, who has died aged 66, played many roles during her five-decade professional career, but became synonymous with one. “Being a mum making gravy was not quite how I had seen my career advancing,” she said once. But between 1983 and 1999 that’s what she did in 42 “episodes” of an award-winning TV ad. Since the early 1980s, her name was rarely mentioned in print without it being prefaced with “Oxo mum”.

During her career, though, she starred on TV as the vet’s wife Helen Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small in the 80s and as one of two divorcees trying to forge a relationship in the 90s sitcom Second Thoughts, opposite James Bolam. On stage she was best known for playing the lead in a touring production of Calendar Girls between 2008 and 2012. She was also, for four years between 2007 and 2011, a regular member of the team on Loose Women, the daytime TV chat show. She had few regrets about how her career turned out, summarising its trajectory thus on her website: “Arrived in London at the Central School [for Speech and Drama] in 1966 and never looked back. I had a ball!”

Bellingham, though, knew that gravy, like Lady Macbeth’s damned spot, left an indelible mark. “In many ways I was very proud of what we did, but there is no doubt that my credibility as an actress was knocked,” she reflected. “Certain people in the industry would never employ me as a serious actress after it. On the other hand, it gave me the financial security to go off and work in the theatre for very little money.” Her performances as Mrs Oxo were reportedly responsible for a 10% increase in stock cube sales.

But being typecast in the role of, as she put it in her autobiography, “the nation’s favourite mum”, wasn’t the only reason she missed out on roles that could have sent her career in a different direction. Her friend the writer Lynda La Plante once rang to ask her if she was interested in playing a detective for television. Too busy with sitcom and advertising jobs, she turned down the chance to play DI Jane Tennison, later taken by Helen Mirren. Bellingham used her autobiography, Lost and Found (2010), to complain about the fact that she was never allowed to reprise her 1986 role as a time lord on Doctor Who during its revival under Russell T Davies.

She was born Meredith Lee Hughes in Montreal, Quebec. Her Canadian birth mother, Marjorie Hughes, gave her daughter up for adoption to an English couple. Her biological father, Carl Hutton, was a crewman whom Marjorie met on board ship as she sailed from Canada to New Zealand to meet the parents of her husband, a pilot who was missing in action during the second world war.

Her adoptive parents, Don and Ruth Bellingham, had been staying in Canada, where Don was training pilots for the British Overseas Airways Corporation. The couple returned to the UK and raised the girl they called Lynda on their farm near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, with their two biological daughters, Barbara and Jean. Lynda found out she was adopted only when she was in her teens. She recalled the revelation in her autobiography: “One day, when I skipped school to go to the pictures, my mother blurted out: ‘The trouble is, Lynda, we just don’t know who you are any more. God knows where you come from. We’ll never know. We’ve dreaded this moment.’” In 1990, she met her birth mother in Canada and they stayed in touch until Marjorie’s death.

She developed an enthusiasm for acting at school and in local theatre clubs, but gave her best early performance at the Central School, where, after receiving a rejection letter, she turned up in person and demanded of George Hall, head of stage, that he reconsider. Hall told her he would not but, when she returned home dejectedly, her parents told her that they had just got off the phone – he had changed his mind and given her a place. Why? Bellingham reported it was because Hall believed that “even if I was the worst actress in the world, I would always work because I was so pushy”.

Bellingham proved just as dogged as Hall hoped. After graduating she worked in Frinton and Crewe, amassing the 40 weeks of theatre necessary to get an Equity card. Then, she believed, TV and cinema stardom would follow. She was rejected for a role on ITV’s early 70s afternoon soap General Hospital because, as she put it, they were casting a pretty nurse and a fat nurse and “I fell into neither category”. Undaunted, she put her hair in a bun, rouged her cheeks, sported flat shoes, and wore a dress that cut her legs across the calves, making them look twice their normal size. Thus attired, she demanded a second audition as the fat nurse – and got the part, as Nurse Hilda Price.

Her romantic life, which she detailed unflinchingly in her autobiography, included two disastrous marriages. She married the film producer Greg Smith in 1975. Shortly after the wedding, he cast her in the film Confessions of a Driving Instructor. “I had only been married a few weeks and my husband, the Big Producer, was screwing his way through all the female artists,” she recalled. “Just not me.” They divorced soon afterwards.

Her second marriage, in 1981, was to a Neapolitan restaurant owner, Nunzio Peluso, with whom she had two children, Michael and Robbie. This turned out worse. He submitted her to 15 years of physical and mental abuse and after their divorce in 1996 was subject to a restraining order. She wrote, with understatement: “Playing the nation’s favourite mum on screen and going home to an unhappy and abusive relationship was extremely stressful.”

On her 60th birthday, in 2008, she was married for a third time, to a mortgage broker Michael Pattemore, with whom she later ran a property business based in London.

Among the roles she was particularly proud of were playing opposite Janet Suzman and Maureen Lipman in the Old Vic’s production of The Sisters Rosensweig at the Old Vic (1994-95) and in the Royal Court production of a drama about sex tourism, Sugar Mummies (2006). She also played the Empress Alexandra in Gleb Panfilov’s Russian film The Romanovs: A Crowned Family (2000), about the last year and a half of the lives of Tsar Nicholas II and his family until their execution in July 1918. Her voice was dubbed into Russian. In 2009, she appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, and was eliminated in the fourth week. In 2012, she presented a daytime cookery series, My Tasty Travels, and in 2013 Country House Sunday.

In 2013, she disclosed on Twitter that she had been diagnosed with cancer, and last month announced that she had chosen to stop having chemotherapy. She was made OBE in the 2014 New Year’s honours list.

Bellingham is survived by her husband and sons.

• Lynda Bellingham, actor, born 31 May 1948; died 19 October 2014

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/oct/20/lynda-bellingham-obituary

Monday, 20 October 2014

Christopher Ricks - Bob Dylan: The Lyrics Since 1962

American folk pop singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, seen in April 1965.
The Most of Bob Dylan

By Alan Kozinin
7 October 2014

When music fans in the 1960s described Bob Dylan’s songs, in terminology of the day, as “heavy,” they didn’t know the half of it.

A hefty new edition of Mr. Dylan’s collected work, “The Lyrics: Since 1962,” due from Simon & Schuster in November, is slightly larger than an LP, more than 960 pages long, and weighs about 13 and a half pounds. It’s actually the more affordable of two limited editions — a printing of 3,500 copies (500 are for the British market) — and will sell for $200. A numbered edition of 50 copies, each signed by Mr. Dylan, will have a slipcase and gilded pages; that edition is priced at $5,000.

“It’s the biggest, most expensive book we’ve ever published, as far as I know,” Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster’s president and publisher said. The signed edition is available from dylansignedbook.com; the $200 version will be available in bookshops.

The book is not simply an update of the previous compilation, “Lyrics: 1962-2001.” Christopher Ricks, a British literary scholar on the faculty of Boston University (and the author of the 2003 analytical overview, “Dylan’s Visions of Sin”), edited the lyrics and wrote a lengthy, philosophical introduction, with the sisters Lisa and Julie Nemrow as co-editors.

The Nemrows, who run a design company and imprint, Un-Gyve Press, also created the book’s luxurious layout. The songs are presented chronologically, including alternative versions released as part of Mr. Dylan’s archival “Bootleg Series.” The album covers, front and back, are reproduced.

The way the songs are laid out is meant “to help the eye see what the ear hears,” Mr. Ricks said. “If you print the songs flush left,” he added, “it doesn’t represent, visually, the audible experience.” So refrains, choruses and bridges are indented. And where Mr. Dylan intended a line, however long, to be unbroken, it sprawls across the 13-inch-wide page.

How did the editors know which lines were meant to be unbroken? Did Mr. Dylan provide feedback or comments? Mr. Karp said he had heard that Mr. Dylan provided notebooks and manuscripts. Mr. Ricks refused to elaborate.

“I think the right thing for us,” he said, “is not to go into the question of the particular kinds of help and assistance and advice that we were in a position to receive.”

The editors’ other mission was to show the different ways Mr. Dylan has performed the songs over time, or even at a single recording session. When a song’s previously published lyrics differ from what Mr. Dylan sang on the original recording, the differences are noted. So are differences that crop up on officially released live recordings, or outtakes from the “Bootleg Series.” (Only officially released albums are considered.)

“Some of the changes were minute things — a telling change of preposition, perhaps — which make a gigantic difference,” Mr. Ricks said. Others include added or deleted verses, or show Mr. Dylan’s composition process at work. The version of “Tombstone Blues” on “Highway 61 Revisited,” for example, opens with the lines: “Well John the Baptist, after torturing a thief.” An annotation shows that in an alternative version, released on “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7,” Mr. Dylan sings: “Ah, John the blacksmith, he’s torturing a thief.”

Who does Mr. Ricks regard as the audience for the book?

“It is, in a way, a work of scholarship,” he said. “But it is also a book for people who love these songs, and who would be grateful to be reminded that these songs are always in a state of extraordinary flux. They’re amazing, shape-changing things.”

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/the-most-of-bob-dylan/?_php=true&_type=blogs&module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar&_r=0

Press release from Simon and Schuster: 
http://d1hbl61hovme3a.cloudfront.net/press_releases/Dylan%20Lyrics%202014.pdf

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Garry Winogrand: American Street Photographer

New York, 1962.
New York, 1962

Garry Winogrand: the restless genius who gave street photography attitude
From the Bronx to Dealey Plaza, Garry Winogrand pounded the streets of America every day of his life photographing reluctant subjects – and he left behind 6,500 undeveloped films when he died. A powerful new retrospective makes sense of the torrent of imagery by the prolific American master

Sean O'Hagan
theguardian.co.uk
Wednesday 15 October 2014

“When I’m photographing I see life. That’s what I deal with,” Garry Winogrand once said. Life, for him, was the energy of the street in all its unruly momentum. In the 1960s and 70s, he defined street photography as an attitude as well as a style – and it has laboured in his shadow ever since, so definitive are his photographs of New York.
New York, 1955.
New York, 1955

Thirty years after his untimely death in 1984, aged 56, Winogrand’s legend endures: the instinctive genius of American photography whose disinterest in technique was matched by an obsessive devotion to shooting on the street all day, every day. Towards the end of his life, photographing became a kind of mania – he left behind 6,500 rolls of unprocessed film.

As this retrospective at Jeu de Paume in Paris shows, the challenge of containing the photographer’s frantic vision is a singular one, not least because, as curator Leo Rubinfien points out, he “often worked in a headlong way, preferring to spend another day shooting rather than processing his film or editing his pictures”. Perhaps because of his seeming disregard for his own archive, Winogrand has been, as Rubinfien puts it, “the most sparsely studied and least understood of his peers, who included Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander.”
New York, 1960.
New York, 1960

Not only that, but Winogrand’s energy is so overpowering and his vision so democratic and wide-ranging that the curious visitor may find it hard to find a way into his work. This chronological show, which arrives from the Met in New York, is an instructive place to start insofar as it retraces and illuminates Winogrand’s headlong creative journey without taming his restless spirit.
New York, 1962.
New York, 1962

It begins – where else? – on the streets of 1950s New York or, to be precise, the crowded sidewalks between midtown and Central Park, which give off the aura of a city still stuck in an earlier, tougher time. This section, titled Down From the Bronx, includes two very early, atypically spartan images of lone pedestrians wandering deserted snowy streets. Soon, though, we see the beginnings of a style – a stern woman shot up-close on a bustling street, a cigarette clutched between her lips. She may be unaware of Winogrand’s presence, but the two other passersby are not. They cast coldly suspicious eyes at his intrusive lens.
Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967.
Central Park Zoo, 1967

This single image signals much of what is to come. The intimacy, the awkward expression of the central subject and the accusatory stares of passersby are the results of a naturally bullish approach – a working-class Bronx attitude – and they recur throughout his life’s work. While his contemporary, Joel Meyerowitz, stalked the streets of New York trying to be invisible, Winogrand did not mind being noticed. Revealingly, though, many of his reluctant subjects only seem to register his presence at the very moment he presses the shutter. In one of his best-known images, a chubby girl stares at him curiously, while another, older girl catches him out of the corner of her eye as she is being snogged by her boyfriend. As is often the case with Winogrand’s photographs, you long to find out what happened next.
Garry Winogrand
New York, 1969.

There’s a similar moment when a dapper Italian-looking gent strides towards Winogrand’s camera, hand upturned and an expression that says “What gives?” And in one famous shot from 1959, a monkey glares at his camera from the rear of an open-top car, while the couple in the front seats seem more concerned with the creature’s angry reaction than with the intruder who provoked it. You cannot help but feel the monkey was on to something – a stranger coming this close does not usually have one’s best intentions at heart. Winogrand, though, was not a cruel photographer in the way Arbus was or, more pertinently, Bruce Gilden can be. Arbus, in fact, nailed it when she described Winogrand as “an instinctive, nearly primitive ironist, so totally without malice, so unflinching, even cheerful ...”.
Park Avenue, New York, 1959

His subjects tend to stare back at his camera sadly or in a slightly bewildered fashion. Around them, the world tilts – the horizon line is seldom level – but there is always what might be called a Winograndian logic to his compositions, an instinctive grasp of the geometry of a good photograph. His interest was the rhythm of the streets and the people who created it. There is a melancholy visual poetry in all these anonymous passing souls with their sad, strained, beleaguered or beautiful faces as they go about their daily business. Again and again, Winogrand captured photographs within photographs, smaller narratives within the bigger picture. A row of animated people on a park bench could easily be broken down into three distinct images about intimacy, fatigue and human curiosity. As it is, though, it is pure Winogrand: a metaphor for city life with all its snatched moments of quiet relief amid the constant distraction.
New York World’s Fair, 1964

The second section of the show, named after Winogrand’s description of himself as A Student of America, ranges from California to Texas. If anything, his eye becomes more bemused by the America he encounters in all its contradictions. He photographed the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, lurking on the fringes of the main events to capture spectator reactions. In one mischievous image, the young John F Kennedy is just another face in a group of more animated faces gathered around him.
John F. Kennedy, Democratic National Convention, 1960

Four years later, Winogrand homes in on the hawkers peddling postcards of Kennedy’s assassination site on the streets of Dealey Plaza in Dallas. By then, his photographs had become (by his own restless standards) more reflective, even still. In another image taken in Dallas, a latter-day cowboy seems to float in the air above a pavement, sombre and out of time. On a New York street, a beautiful woman in a black coat and a white poloneck looks, at first glance, like a nun. Carrying a single white flower, she strides forward, looking either anguished or elated. The energy has shifted in these images and people seem more cut off from each other, more insular and self-absorbed.
Dallas, 1964

The bleak tone continues into the final section, Boom and Bust, in which Winogrand photographed once more in Texas and Los Angeles where, as an unreconstructed son of the Bronx, he surely felt a stranger. It is harder to engage emotionally with these later pictures, but cumulatively, they denote a darker state of mind – Winogrand’s as well as America’s. Many were selected posthumously and they attest to his tangible sense of disenchantment with America and, perhaps, with photography. In one intriguing image, a woman lies prone outside a fast-food restaurant on an LA street as a Porsche rolls by and people dine inside, seemingly oblivious. It could be a still from a noir film or a real accident. There is an unsettling heartlessness here that is, in Winogrand’s eyes, profoundly American.
Los Angeles, 1980 - 83

“I look at the pictures I have done up to now,” he once wrote, “and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves ...” That aimlessness he sensed in America is all too palpable in Winogrand’s later work, and it seems to have infected him, too, profoundly altering his way of seeing even as he continued to photograph the world around him with a new urgency. He died in March 1984, one month after being diagnosed with cancer. This consistently illuminating retrospective makes beautiful sense of an unruly life and the torrent of images it produced.

• Garry Winogrand is until 8 February 2015. Details: +33 (0)1 47 03 12 50. Venue: Jeu de Paume, Paris.
http://www.jeudepaume.org/?page=article&idArt=2012


Garry Winogrand, on the prowl in Los Angeles. Ted Pushinsky

Never Before Seen Photos From Legendary Street Photographer Garry Winogrand

Mark Murrmann
Friday 8 March 2013

The GarryWinogrand retrospective is on view at the Jeu de Paume, Paris (October 14, 2014 through January 25, 2015); and the Fundacion MAPFRE, Madrid (March 3 through May 10, 2015).

When Garry Winogrand died in 1984, the celebrated street photographer left behind close to 6,500 rolls of undeveloped film. Now his old friend and student Leo Rubinfien, along with Erin O'Toole, a curator at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, and Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, have mined this trove to produce the first major Winogrand retrospective in almost three decades. The touring exhibit—which kicked off at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 2013—and accompanying catalog consist of more than 400 images derived largely from Winogrand's later days roaming the streets of Los Angeles with his Leicas. While he may be best known for his New York City scenes, these photos prove that Winogrand's wry eye could unpack the social complexities of Cold War America no matter where he prowled.


I went to check out the exhibit with San Francisco street photography legend Ted Pushinsky, who had casually mentioned he knew Winogrand toward the end of his life. (He shot the photo up above.) And as we took it all in, Pushinsky told me about their hangouts down in LA. It was a lot to take in. The massive exhibit borders on overwhelming, which is fitting given how prolific Winogrand was. It traces his career in something of a linear fashion, in three sections: Down From the Bronx (earlier work shot primarily while he was living in New York), A Student of America (his work from the mid-'60s through the '70s, from all over America), and finally Boom and Bust (mostly shot in Southern California, and much of which has never been viewed). Hanging on the walls, intermingled with his photos, are Winogrand's original contact sheets, pieces of this three Guggenheim Fellowship applications, letters to his daughters, and other personal artifacts. The phone book-size catalog gives photography fiends even more to chew on.

New York, 1950

Ted Pushinsky: I met Garry at the San Francisco Art Institute around 1980. He was giving a lecture, speaking about his work, giving a slideshow. Definitely speaking off the cuff. I went up to introduce myself. I wasn't necessarily an admirer of his work, but there was a photo in The Family of Man that meant a lot to me. I knew he took it. We had a mutual friend, so that was a basis for him saying, "Next time you're in LA, come visit." At the time I was writing screenplays, so I was back and forth in LA.

Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, 1960


Los Angeles, 1964
Mother Jones: You mention that you weren't necessarily an admirer. So what prompted you to contact him in Los Angeles?

TP: Garry was a photographer of some stature whose work I got to know. Having the opportunity to spend some time with him, I was hoping some of what he knew would rub off on me. Going down to LA, I had the opportunity to walk the streets with him and see what drove him.

MJ: At this point in his life, in the early '80s, just a few years before he died, Garry was well known for having people drive him around LA while he shot out the passenger window. I imagine you drove him a bit?

TP: I did the driving, yeah. I was staying in Santa Monica. I'd meet Garry at the Farmer's Market, have some breakfast, get in my car and drive to Venice. We'd walk the streets of Venice, sometimes Hollywood. As Garry told me, "I don't go on the freeways, I hang out the window and shoot." I respected that. No big deal for me.

Los Angeles, 1964


John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, 1968


New York, circa 1969

MJ: So do you feel like anything rubbed off on you?

TP: Perhaps a work ethic. Not anything in the way of teaching a way of seeing. I feel like I developed that myself. But Garry worked hard. He got up and started shooting. I get up and maybe read the newspaper. He shot an awful lot. It made me think, maybe I'm missing out if I'm not shooting.

MJ: Was there anything in the exhibit you recognized from when you were shooting with him?
Coney Island, 1952

TP: No, but what was great was seeing that picture from The Family of Man. It's a couple in the surf at Coney Island. That was part of the basis of me wanting to meet Garry. Because my parents had met in Coney Island and there's this photo of a couple shot from behind. I used to fantasize that it was my parents and it was shot by this guy named Garry Winogrand. And it turned out Garry went to the same high school as my father. Seeing that photograph was really great, in the Back to the Bronx section of the show.

Fort Worth, Texas, 1974


Fort Worth, Texas, 1975

MJ: You mentioned feeling a bit overwhelmed by the exhibit. I shared that feeling. Do you think there was too much?

TP: No. It was a great exhibit, like the [Diane] Arbus and [Robert] Frank exhibits. It requires two or three trips to the museum—to spend two or three hours in two rooms and come back to spend some more time.

MJ: Is Winogrand's work worthy of a massive retrospective like this?

TP: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. He had a way of seeing unlike anybody else. The retrospective gives us the opportunity to see things that nobody had ever seen before. It was great.

Point Magu Naval Air Station, California, circa 1979


Los Angeles, circa 1980–83

MJ: And what about his later work? John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art who put together the last large Winogrand exhibit in the late '80s, was quite dismissive of it, and that's partially what led Leo Rubinfien to revisit it in this exhibit. Does the later work hold up to his earlier work that he's better known for?

TP: Absolutely. I was impressed by it. It was funny hearing Leo Rubinfien talking about Szarkowski not liking the work. I was surprised by that. I was was wondering what I would see. I though it was just as strong.

MJ: Do you think that's because, as Leo mentioned, with the later work it might take going through 25 or 50 contact sheets to get one image that held up to the older work?

TP: Not at all. It wasn't Garry that went through those 50 contact sheets. Garry might have found nothing worth printing at all. He might have found 30 worth putting up on the wall. It only had to do with Garry because he shot it. They did a great job though. Every picture was strong. There could have been more.

MJ: I've read criticism of people going back over his work, picking photos that he didn't see. And they noted that in the exhibit—they mentioned which images Garry had marked on the contact sheets and which ones he hadn't marked as selections to print.

TP: I saw that. I don't think there's a problem with that, unless he specified in his will as some artists do, "Throw away everything. Burn it all!" Then you hate the fact that maybe they burnt the Kafka manuscript that you didn't get a chance to read. We were privileged to get to have someone do that for us.

MJ: When you would hang out with Garry, would you just drive him, or were you shooting alongside him?

TP: Oh, no. We would drive to a destination, usually the boardwalk in Venice or the Santa Monica pier. We would walk along together. I have some photographs of him shooting. I would try not to shoot what he's shooting, but he's shooting everything, so it's hard not to.

http://www.motherjones.com/media/2013/03/photography-garry-winogrand-sfmoma-retrospective

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Donald Fagen: Cool Perfection

Icon: Donald Fagen

Dylan Jones
12 February 2014

As one half of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen was responsible for what many consider to be one of the greatest albums ever made, 1977's jazz-infused masterpiece, Aja. With a career that has seen him veer from rock stardom to pathological secrecy, via long periods of inactivity, Fagen remains one of the most enigmatic men in the music industry, and adored by the likes of Kanye West, Daft Punk and Mark Ronson.

Like most bands from before my time, I discovered Steely Dan through rap music, specifically because 'Peg' had been sampled by De La Soul on 3 Feet High And Rising," says Mark Ronson. "That was about 20 years ago, and I discover new things every time I put a Steely Dan record on. I'm still discovering songs for the first time. No other band managed to let groove and intellect coexist as seamlessly. The most incredible rhythm sections with the most captivating narratives and these crazy chord changes."

You can tell almost all you need to know about a person by asking them what sort of music they like. And although that's the sort of question usually only asked (and answered) by boys between the ages of 12 and 18, I was asked it a while ago by someone I'd never met before. It felt like a childish thing to be asked, but even though I could have easily beaten it back by saying something flippant - the last One Direction single, the next Jake Bugg album - I was stumped.

The American writer Chuck Klosterman said that, having for many years ­experimented with a litany of abstract responses when asked this question, he started to say, with some honesty as well as accuracy, "Music that sounds like the opening 14 seconds of Humble Pie's 'I Don't Need No Doctor', as performed live on their 1971 album, Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore."

Now, never having heard the record in question, I couldn't comment - although it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I wouldn't like at all - but apparently it has the desired effect, the reply having the added bonus of changing the conversation, or (preferable, this) ending it entirely.

Usually, the answers to questions like these are either endearingly banal: "Oh, the usual, you know, Jay-Z, the Beatles, a bit of Coldplay"; unbearably pretentious: "the first five Fall singles and pretty much nothing else before or since"; or, in the case of most politicians, simply lies.

Having thought about it myself, I've decided to adopt Chuck's policy. Initially I thought of just saying "Steely Dan", because it not only shows confidence (by any modern definition of the term, they're not really what anyone would call cool), but like Marmite, they are an acquired taste, and unless you're an aficionado,­ you'll probably hate them.

However, like Chuck, I've decided to be annoyingly specific, and while I thought about singing the praises, yet again, of their sixth album, Aja, the next time someone asks me what kind of music I like I'm going to say, having first locked them in with my most sincere stare, "Music that sounds like the guitar solo in 'Green Earrings' [from Steely Dan's fifth album, 1976's The Royal Scam], the one that arrives after two minutes and seven seconds, the one that makes you feel as though you're cruising over the Florida Keys' Seven Mile Bridge in a rented Mustang."

And if I were asked what the best album of all time is? Well, it isn't Nevermind, isn't Revolver, and isn't Pet Sounds. Strangely it isn't even Rumours, London Callingor the Ramones' Leave Home. No, the best album of all time was released at the end of August 1977, just as the sweltering Summer of Hate was beginning to wilt, a record that has nothing to do with the Sex Pistols, the Clash or the Jam (who all released classic LPs that year), and which has no affinity with the estuarial guttersnipe squall of punk. In fact this record is as far away from the insurgency of punk as southern California is from the Westway.

Steely Dan weren't just up my street; they were, to paraphrase Nick Hornby, knocking on my door, pressing the intercom and peering through the letter box to see if I was in. Which I was, crouched over the B&O, devouring the pop-art dystopia that was the DNA of the Steely Dan brand (available in different forms on Can't Buy A Thrill,Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied and more.

Aja was their high-water mark. You can keep your Zuma, your Neon Bible, your Back To Black, your Parachutes, and your OK Computer. You can even keep The Chronic. They might all be straight from the heart, but Steely Dan'sAja offers the delights of a world uncharted by pop groups, past or present. Those who hate the band call them sterile, surgical, cold. Which is sort of the point. Fagen and his band mate Walter Becker - fundamentally sociopaths masquerading as benign dictators - like to give the impression they're being as insincere as possible, the very antithesis, frankly, of almost everyone else in the music business.

Aja is as gentrified and as anal a record as you'll ever hope to hear. Fagen and Becker's masterpiece is a homage to passive-aggressive studio cool, even though they were as disdainful of the palm tree and flared-denim world of Los Angeles as the whey-faced urchins from west London. The band's nihilism is plain for all to hear, disguised as FM-friendly soft rock. Fagen's lyrics are dispassionate, the architecture of their songs often labyrinthine, the guitar solos ridiculously sarcastic. Yet on Aja they made some of the most sophisticated, most polished, most burnished music ever heard: "Black Cow", "Deacon Blues", "Home At Last" and the rest. Aja is also the record that many musicians rate as the personification of musical excellence. Technically and sonically it is beyond compare. (The late New York Times critic Robert Palmer - no relation to the singer - said that Steely Dan's music sounded like it had been "recorded in a hospital ward".)

You rarely meet a musician who doesn't love some aspect of Aja, and whenever I've interviewed a rock star at their home, I've often seen a CD copy around the place somewhere. It used to be played constantly in those places where you went to buy expensive hi-fi equipment, and can still be heard in the type of luxury retailers who understand the notion of immersive wealth. Having ­listened to the album's "Deacon Blues", Ricky Ross named his band after it, while "Peg" would become widely known because De La Soul sampled it on "Eye Know". Three years ago it was deemed by the Library of Congress to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically­ important" and added to the United States National Recording Registry. Get them!

At the time Becker and Fagen were hard task-masters in the studio, and would hire dozens of session musicians to record the same guitar solo or drum fill until they felt they had something approaching what they had imagined. They were obsessive perfectionists who spent millions of dollars relentlessly torturing the dozens of Grade-A guitarists who apparently weren't "yacht-smooth" enough. Musicians would spend hours, sometimes days, in one of the many Los Angeles studios that Steely Dan used to record Aja, only to find that their work had been jettisoned in favour of someone else's.

"We just kept adjusting our standards higher and higher," says Becker, "so many days we'd make guys do 30 or 40 takes and never listen to any of them again, because we knew none of them were any good; but we just kept hoping that somehow it was just going to miraculously­ get good."

He later said: "The studio is all about the idea of the setup, particularly for men. A room where you have all this technology to help you, and where you have some toys. It's about that space-age bachelor-pad vibe. The studio satisfies a lot of those urges. And you need air-conditioning, and a book with menus in it. It's kind of a minimum livable standard, really."

At the time of Aja, Fagen and Becker were New Yorkers on location in LA, and although they revelled in the recording facilities and the abundance of great musicians, seemingly on tap - they spent their days getting studio tans as opposed to any other kind - they found the city faintly ridiculous.

"LA was certainly a lot of laughs," says Fagen. "Neither of us really liked it, because we just weren't LA-type people. We called it Planet Stupid. Nobody seemed to understand us there."

"Becker and Fagen are interesting characters, sort of isolationists by nature," said one of their session musicians at the time. "They live in these houses in Malibu, not near anybody, and I have a feeling LA helps them keep their music going on a certain level - they're almost laughing at the people in their songs."

Almost? Still, they weren't above sentimentality. There was always a kind of skeuomorphic feel about Steely Dan records, in that they are imbued with a certain nostalgia, even though the songs themselves were incredibly modern.

Aja was a case in point. Released at a time when both punk and disco were experiencing their own apotheoses, it seemed completely­ at odds with anything else. As a testament to that, the record was remixed 13 times in the five months before its release. Becker and Fagen were scathing about the hard-rock world - finding groups like Led Zeppelin and Bad Company preposterous - and were far more interested in the construction of old jazz records. For them, the only correct response to the entire culture of "rock" was to be dismissive about it. They were occasionally, and unfairly, compared to the soporific jazz-rock that seeped across US radio in the Seventies, as their obsession with technical proficiency was mistaken for musical indolence.

Fagen and Becker were far more radical than that, and although they expressed the same disdain for punk and disco as they felt for the hegemony of mainstream rock, they enjoyed the fact that both were rebelling against the orthodoxy of FM radio. Not only that, but Fagen always seemed to be singing with one eyebrow raised.

Nevertheless, Aja oozed a detached sophistication that was all its own, the highly polished surface disguising awkward time signatures and extra-credit guitar fills.

"We're actually accused of starting smooth jazz, which I don't think is exactly true," says Fagen. "A lot of the effects we got were intended to be comic, like 'Hey Nineteen' [from 1980's Gaucho]. We were in our thirties, still saddled with these enormous sex drives and faced with the problem that you can no longer talk to a 19-year-old girl because the culture has changed. That's set against an extremely polite little groove. And then the chorus is set to jazz chords, and when you play them on electronic instruments there's a flattening effect, a dead kind of sound. And it's scored for falsetto voices, which adds to the effect. To me, it's very funny. Other people think it's nauseating."

Some people rejected the idea that a rock group could sound so slick. For them, rock should be "guts and fire and feeling" in the words of Steely Dan fan Nick Hornby, "not difficult chords and ironic detachment".

What has never been revealed is how much Becker and Fagen were enthralled by disco. "They had all these records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn't see why we couldn't have that too," says Becker, "except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, you know? It seemed like a good idea."

Like a lot of those obsessed by recondite impulses, both Fagen and Becker were as intimidated as they were dismissive about the popular and the cool.

At the time, Fagen said, "We write the same way a writer of fiction would write. We're basically assuming the role of a character, and for that reason it may not sound personal." Becker added, "This is not the Lovin' Spoonful. It's not real good-time music."

White-hot chops and black humour, more like. Yet Steely Dan were actually cooler than anyone. Maybe not on a haberdashery level, but cool all the same.

As the band didn't project their personalities, determined instead to anonymously tell their tales of dissipated, sun-bleached Seventies California angst, they became faceless. "This is what happens when you don't construct an archetypal persona," says Chuck Klosterman. "If you're popular and melodic and faceless, you seem meaningless. [Look at] Steely Dan, a group who served as the house band for every 1978 West Coast singles band despite being more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols and the Clash combined. If a musician can't convince people that he's cool, nobody cool is going to care."

As a personality, Fagen is an acquired taste - but then he always was. He never warmed to the weave of the sleeve and, like his music, was always perhaps a little too cool, dry and fastidious. In this sense an important sign of legitimacy has been missing, but then this is what makes Fagen who he is: someone who doesn't need validation.

"Years ago, I flew out to LA to visit a girlfriend who dumped me as soon as I arrived," says Mark Ronson. "I couldn't change my ticket so I had to stay in LA, miserable, for five days. I bought the Steely Dan songbook and a cheap electric piano and stayed in my room for the duration of the time, teaching myself those songs. I don't often think of the girl but I use those amazing chord voicings nearly every day."

Cyberpunk eminence William Gibson is a huge fan, and liberally sprinkles his novels with band references: "A lot of people think of Steely Dan as the epitome of boring Seventies stuff, never realising this is probably the most subversive material pop has ever thrown up."

"It lifts your heart up," said the late Ian Dury. "It's the most consistently upful."

Film-makers the Farrelly brothers based an entire soundtrack on them, with eight Steely Dan songs covered by the likes of Wilco, Ben Folds Five and the Brian Setzer Orchestra featured in their 2000 movie Me, Myself & Irene. "Only one person turned down our request to do a cover, and that was Jonathan Richman," says Peter Farrelly. "I called him up and said, 'Look, will you do a cover of a Steely Dan song?' He called back and said, 'Uh, Peter, I'd like to do this, but the lyrics - I don't know what they mean. I never understood what they were saying.' When Jonathan sings, he puts his whole heart into it, so he passed."

They have another film fan in Judd Apatow: "I don't think I have listened to any band more than Steely Dan," he says. "They are a bottomless pit of joy. The songs are gorgeous, the lyrics are mysterious and witty. When I was young I used those records as a gateway drug to learn about a lot of great jazz performers. I would read the credits and buy the albums of all the people who played on their records. That led to thousands of hours listening to the Brecker Brothers, Larry Carlton, Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter and countless others."

The Blackpool singer Rae Morris, who has toured with Noah And The Whale and Tom Odell, is a fan, albeit begrudgingly. "I was exposed to a lot of Steely Dan when I was little," she says. "I hated it [then] but now I'm starting to think it was a good musical influence."

Other fans include Phoenix and Daft Punk. The latter have made no secret of their fondness for the band, whose influence can be heard all over last year's Random Access Memories. "If people still went into stereo shops and bought stereos regularly, like they did during the era Daft Punk draw from, this record, with its meticulously recorded analog sound, would be an album to test out a potential system, right up there with Steely Dan's Aja and Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon," wrote Pitchfork's Mark Richardson. "Daft Punk make clear that one way to 'give life back to music' is through the power of high fidelity."

The band are a sampling smorgasbord, and have been grazed by Beyoncé ("Black Cow" on the J'Ty remix of 2004's "Me, Myself And I"), Ice Cube ("Green Earrings" on 1992's "Don't Trust 'Em"), Hit-Boy featuring John Legend ("The Boston Rag" on 2012's "WyW"), Naughty By Nature ("Third World Man" on 1999's "Live Or Die") and dozens more. Kanye West famously sampled their 1976 hit "Kid Charlemagne" on his 2007 single "Champion", although not without a lot of heavy lifting. "From time to time, we get requests for licences for hip-hoppers to use part of an old song or something," says Fagen. "We usually say yes, but we didn't like the general curve of the way that one sounded...

"Kanye actually sent us a sample of his tunes and, frankly, Walter and I listened to it, and although we'd love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it. We said no at first, and then he wrote us a handwritten letter that was kind of touching, about how the song was about his father, and he said, 'I love your stuff, and I really want to use it because it's a very personal thing for me.'"

Surprisingly, the plea worked.

Somewhat perversely, Fagen and Becker were the winners of the 1999 award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for the most-played rap song, "Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)" by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, who had used the intro from "Black Cow." "Ascap sent us these handsome plaques, but they told us we shouldn't come to the ceremony," said Becker. "They said there was some violence the year before and we should stay at home. So I did." The rappers, who had originally­ used the song without a licence, managed to irritate P Diddy, too. According to Fagen, "They were angry because the sample had already been licensed for Puff Daddy and Mase. We actually heard that Puff Daddywas riding around in a limo with Lenny Kravitz and went crazy when he heard it. He said, 'They stole my sample!'"

Donald Fagen met his future songwriting partner Walter Becker while studying at Bard College, a private liberal arts college in Annandale-On-Hudson in New York State, in the mid-Sixties. He was 19, Becker two years his junior. "I was walking past this small building that they used for entertainment of the student body, who were very idle and bored most of the term," says Fagen. "And I heard what I assumed was Howlin' Wolf playing... I walked in and there was Walter with this red Epiphone guitar." They clicked immediately, both being shy, snarky smartasses obsessed with bookish cool.

As a boy, Fagen was deeply into sci-fi, and was even a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. "That was the golden age of science fiction; all the great writers were active then. I loved CM Kornbluth, AE van Vogt. I liked the guys who were really social satirists. A lot of these guys came out of the socialist movement of the Thirties, and they had a very funny way of criticising society. I really learned a lot from them. Certainly [from] Alfred Bester. He was a New Yorker. His first novel, The Demolished Man, got the rapid flow of life in the city, which I think is still present. There's something about the flow of Alfred Bester's prose that I think affected the way Walter and I write lyrics."

When Fagen was a teenager, cool was rare, cool was underground. Nowadays the very idea of being hip is so commodified - and so available - that it is simply a part of a lifestyle experience. Back then, in the days when you had to seek out culturally subversive writers and like-minded souls, being cool meant being part of a very small club.

"When Walter and I met, we had a constellation of enthusiasms, really: science fiction, jazz, black humour, novels by Thomas Berger, Terry Southern, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut especially. That certainly influenced the lyric writing. We also liked comic songwriting, like Tom Lehrer. He was a piano player and songwriter who wrote these grim, funny songs [Exhibit A: 'Poisoning Pigeons In The Park']. And then we were both fans of Frank Zappa and the Fugs."

He was also a huge fan of WC Fields, a man who understood that "most of life is just, you have to have the appearance that you know what you're doing".

Fagen and Becker started writing together,­ and eventually - after deciding to pursue songwriting as career when they left college - spent months pestering the publishing teams in New York's Brill Building before being hired almost on a whim as staff songwriters by ABC Records producer Gary Katz and shipped out to California. Having initially tried to form various groups - with traditionally clever-clogs names such as Leather Canary and The Bad Rock Group (at one point employing fellow student Chevy Chase as drummer) - they realised their forte was writing, not performing. Then, finding their songs were unsuitable for ABC's artists - why would the likes of Dusty Springfield want to sing spiteful, gloomy songs about goofballs, druggy hipsters and lovesick aliens with macrocephalic heads? - they decided to form a band, building a musical edifice around them with the finest studio musicians they could find.

When they first started looking for talent, they answered an ad seeking musicians: "No assholes need apply." And as Becker and Fagen didn't think they were assholes, they got in touch. They started recruiting like-minded musicians, and eventually came up with a band who were hired for their musical ability rather than any notions of cool (which Fagen and Becker were convinced they both had in spades). And so two droll East Coast jazz buffs were responsible for creating one of the seminal West Coast rock bands of the early Seventies, an ever-expanding group who would produce some of the decade's most important albums. From 1972's Can't Buy A Thrill and 1973's Countdown To Ecstasy, to 1980's Gaucho, Steely Dan perfectly fused West Coast cool with East Coast cynicism (as someone said recently: the Eagles by Woody Allen). And got away with it: their records sold in their millions.

Musically, they favoured weird key changes, roller-coaster twists and jazz-driven hooks, while their songs were sardonic, sour and full of wit. They were the smartass eggheads of rock, treating Chandleresque or sci-fi scenarios with sophomore black humour. As the New Yorker put it: "The lyrics were generally jaded assessments of young women, the older men who coveted them, and other humans caught at their least flattering moments." Even their moniker was sarcastic, being the name of a dildo in William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch.

Highly metropolitan, they excelled at manipulated isolation, while Fagen and Becker were labelled the most cynical and ferociously intelligent songwriters in the business. "Our music is somehow a little too cheesy at times and turns off the rock intelligentsia for the most part," said Fagen in the mid-Seventies. "At other times it's too bizarre to be appreciated by anybody." Experts said they welded jazz and rock into an alloy so smooth and shiny it was difficult to tell where the one ended and the other began, sneering at the world from a position of bohemian superiority so rarefied it was hard to tell exactly where it was situated.

"We were interested in a kind of hybrid music that included all the music we'd ever listened to," says Fagen. "So there was always a lot of TV music and things in there. It was very eclectic, and it used to make us laugh: we knew something was good if we would really laugh at it when we played it back. We liked the sort of faux-luxe sound of the Fifties, there was just something very funny about it. I grew up in a faux-luxe household, and it was a very alienating world, so for me it has the opposite effect: muzak is supposed to relax you, but it makes me very anxious. So in a way, I think I get it out of me by putting some of it in my songs. Then I start to laugh at it when I hear it."

They were never very good at interviews, or at least couldn't be bothered to hide their disdain for music journalists. During one such encounter, Becker said to the unsuspecting hack: "This is beginning to remind me of the joke where the guy from Oklahoma goes up to a New York cabbie and says, 'Excuse me, could you tell me how I can get to Times Square, or should I just go f*** myself?'"

In a business that largely revolves around communication, both men have taken great delight in being as unengaged as possible.

Fagen and Becker's forte was the intricate nature of their records, and they hated taking their band out on the road, which they saw as an endless litany of musical compromises. So eventually they did what the Beatles did, stopped touring and moved into the recording studio. At the time someone asked Fagen how they had managed it, and he said: "Easy. We fired all the roadies so we couldn't go."

When they returned to the studios in 1979 to recordGaucho, knowing Aja would be a hard act to follow, their obsessions got worse, exacerbated by Becker's substance abuse. Then, in January 1980, Becker's girlfriend died of a drugs overdose, causing him to withdraw from recording even further. Three months later, he was knocked down by a New York cab and hospitalised with fractures to his right leg.

On Gaucho, they were using up to six different rhythm sections for the same song. One of the small army of guitarists called in was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. He described the experience as "like getting into a swimming pool with lead weights tied to your boots". Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, who played on the title track, says that, "From noon till six we'd play the tune over and over and over again, nailing each part. We'd go to dinner and come back and start recording. They made everybody play like their life depended on it. But they weren't gonna keep anything anyone else played that night, no matter how tight it was. All they were going for was the drum track." Fagen was so neurotically perfectionist in the studio that people called him "Mother". (While recording his vocal for "Home At Last", he allegedly spent four whole days punching in the words "Well, the" at the start of the chorus.)

In 1981, shortly after the release of Gaucho - predictably, by far their weakest record - the band fell apart, with Becker skulking off to Hawaii to get rid of his drug habit, and Fagen sloping off to write a solo album. The record that materialised just a year later, The Nightfly, was another masterpiece. A concept album about the golden age of the Fifties, the record was blatantly autobiographical, with many of the songs touching on the tropes and moods of the decade. The "Nightfly" himself was largely based on the DJ Jean Shepherd, along with other broadcasters such as Symphony Sid, Mort Fega and Ed Beach.

"I used to live 50 miles outside New York City in one of those rows of prefab houses," says Fagen. "It was a bland environment. One of my only escapes was late-night radio shows that were broadcast from Manhattan - jazz and rhythm and blues. To me the DJs were romantic and colourful figures and the whole hipster culture of black lifestyles seemed much more vital to a kid living in the suburbs as I was. A lot of kids went through the same thing, although I guess as I listened to jazz I was in a minority. That's why there was an explosion of hipsterism in the Sixties, although it turned into something else."

The album's cover artwork featured Fagen as the Nightfly himself, wearing a suitable collared shirt and tie, speaking into an old-fashioned RCA 77-DX microphone. Ever the stickler, in front of him is a turntable, an ashtray and a pack of Chesterfield Kings cigarettes. On the table you can also see a copy of the 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders. Behind him, the clock says 4:09.

Then, for the next ten years, Fagen appeared to go into therapy, no doubt discussing the writer's block that plagued him for nearly a decade. He dabbled in soundtracks and production, and even started writing a column for a film magazine, but he wouldn't re-emerge properly until another concept album, 1993's sci-fi-tinged Kamakiriad. Here, a Fagen-like protagonist sets out, in his steam-powered Kamakiri car, across an American landscape that's both futuristic and debilitated. The record evoked a De Chirico painting or a Michael Mann film, an aching juxtaposition of hot sun and cool metallic shadows.

Since then, there have been two more Fagen records, and two from a reformed Steely Dan, containing songs which, when jumbled about on an iPod, sound like they were recorded by the same people at the same time.

If The Nightfly was about adolescence, and Kamakiriadabout Fagen's mid-life crisis (albeit filtered through the conceit of science fiction), 2006's Morph The Cat was about mortality. Written in the fallout from 9/11, it was a record full of apprehension.

"I didn't see the actual thing happen, but I was stuck in town for a few days afterwards, because you couldn't leave," says Fagen. "The bridges and tunnels were all secured and there was no traffic. I saw the people walking uptown, trying to get home, and a lot of people covered in soot. There were fighter planes going overhead... Then this huge cloud of smoke downtown started climbing towards the moon. It was very strange. Everyone was in shock. So not only did everything about the town change, you were also seeing it from a shocked perspective... While all the police were downtown, they had these cadets from the police academy, these grey uniforms I'd not seen before, controlling traffic at the big intersections. It was their first chance to exercise power, and I noticed they were kind of bullying people around, which had a real wartime vibe about it."

The album was written in a shroud of paranoia, smack in the middle of the Bush era. "The Clinton era, if it didn't have hope, at least had the illusion of hope," said Fagen at the time. "But I was born into paranoia, I'm a hydrogen-bomb baby, with the air-raid drills and all of that stuff. I grew up with the almost certain expectation of worldwide nuclear war. So I've always felt I was living on borrowed time, I was taught to think that way. Then after the nuclear threat died down, you had the Vietnam war on TV every night. There were a few decades after that when there wasn't that much overtly threatening, but what's happening now is like it's back to living in terror all the time."

The album contains the extraordinary "What I Do", a conversation between a younger Fagen and the ghost of Ray Charles, in which the great pianist advises the lesser on how to emulate his success with the ladies. "I think Ray Charles was one of the most mysterious people ever," says Fagen. "Just watching him, the way his body moves - for a kid from New Jersey to see that kind of passion, that was really revelatory for me. At that point I was living in the suburbs, and even though I was a jazz fan when I was very young, and used to hearing passionate performances on records, the general tendency of jazz in the Fifties was cool, so seeing Ray Charles, who had that much gospel in his style, you could tell he was utterly authentic."

In 1993, having hated the experience the first time around, the band started playing concerts, although I know to my cost that this can be an enervating experience; live the band can come across as self-indulgent and noodly, while the crowd is usually made up of fifty- and sixtysomething men dressed in ill-fitting T-shirts and inappropriate jeans. As for the new records, while they've been good, often as good as the earlier ones, none of them surpass them.

Fagen is a professional grouch, and while he is one of the least high-profile grumpy old rock stars still treading the boards, his Eeyore-ish tendencies are famous in the industry. He is not what you would call loosey-goosey, and in recent years has been described as behaving like a college professor trying to get fired.

"I basically listen to the same 40 albums that I listened to in high school," he says. "I had much better taste then. I was a kid jazz fan. I only like seven or eight of the greatest artists: Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk... And I like big-band arrangers, like Gil Evans. There's a band called the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra that I used to like for the arrangements."

Last year, Fagen became a bona fide author, albeit tentatively, with his memoir, Eminent Hipsters. As an eminent hipster himself, Fagen is more than adequately qualified to write about cool, although the book was a lot less expansive than it could have been.

The first half of the book is a collection of portraits of the cultural figures who influenced Fagen growing up in New Jersey in the early Sixties, including Jean Shepherd, composers Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone, and Ray Charles. The second half of the book is a kind of geriatric Diary Of A Rock'n'Roll Star, and catalogues in exhaustive detail the trials and tribulations of touring in your sixties.

As you would expect from someone who has been one of the most consistently mordant voices in rock, Fagen can write. Here he is describing Blake Edwards' TV detective series, Peter Gunn: "Edwards' camera eye seemed to take a carnal interest in the luxe and leisure objects of the period, focusing on the Scandinavian furniture, potted palms, light wood panelling and sleek shark-finned convertibles. It was, in fact, all the same stuff my parents adored, but darkened with a tablespoon of alienation and danger. Sort of like seeing a smiling Pan Am pilot climb out of his 707 with a copy of La Nausée sticking out of his back pocket."

Eminent Hipsters is full of such gems, although for those who have silently worshipped Fagen from afar for too, too many years, perhaps he could have dug a little deeper into his psyche, and described some of the personal and professional motivations that have contributed to one of the most ­important and influential bodies of work in all pop.

But then perhaps that wouldn't have been cool.

http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/comment/articles/2014-02/12-/donald-fagen-steely-dan-aja

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
You Better Move On
Love Is The Drug
Waggon Wheel

Da Elderly: -
Mellow My Mind
Human Highway
One Of These Days

The Elderly Brothers: -
The Price Of Love
If Not For You
I'm Into Something Good
Don't Throw Your Love Away
You Got It

Much busier than last week and some new faces at the mic made for an enjoyable evening. We were treated to songs guaranteed to entertain any prospective Friday Boy, including All Along The Watchtower and Ashes To Ashes. The Elderlys closed the night and included a 'new' Searchers hit.

The Beach Boys 101


A beginner’s guide to the sweet, stinging nostalgia of The Beach Boys

Noel Murray
16 Oct 2014

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys 101

The craft of pop music is all about exploiting trends; the art of pop music is about exploiting popularity. This is the story of The Beach Boys. In the band’s early days, Brian Wilson and his brothers Dennis and Carl—joined by their cousin Mike Love, and pushed by their father Murry—capitalized on the surfing craze in Southern California, selling a lifestyle of big waves, boss cars, and pretty girls, first to the rest of the United States and then to the world. Once they were established as a novelty act, The Beach Boys matured, as Brian Wilson took advantage of the band’s huge fan base to experiment with more complicated arrangements and emotions, mixing some clouds in with the sun.

There are Beach Boys fans who only like the simpler, shallower early songs; and there are Beach Boys fans who hardly ever listen to anything the band recorded prior to 1966. That split is mirrored within the group itself; Brian Wilson and Mike Love have differed over the decades on what The Beach Boys should be. Over the years, Love has been largely responsible for keeping The Beach Boys alive, touring the nostalgia circuit and putting new albums out during the years a mentally struggling Wilson either couldn’t perform at all or could only produce strange, half-realized songs. Yet for many hardcore Beach Boys devotees Wilson is the band, because even at their oddest, his songs are graced with genius.

The one project that unites the two Beach Boys camps—and even some people who haven’t listened to much else the band has done—is 1966’s Pet Sounds, which routinely lands near the top of any list of the all-time greatest rock ’n’ roll albums. Considered an expensive flop at the time, Pet Sounds’ reputation turned around fairly quickly once it became clear the record wasn’t an aberration, either in pop music (with its lush, baroque orchestrations becoming the model for hundreds of ambitious late-’60s 45s and LPs) or in the career of The Beach Boys (who’d spend much of the next half-decade trying to match it).

Brian Wilson never meant Pet Sounds to be “difficult.” He saw himself as competing with The Beatles—whose Rubber Soul had set a new standard for how to construct a pop album—by treating each song as a potential mini-masterpiece. Pet Sounds’ conceptual coup is the way Wilson appropriates the style of his parents’ generation—the lavish, gliding sound of “dinner music”—and uses it to score songs about lovesick, moony-eyed young people. Some of the earliest Beach Boys songs gave an impression of Brian Wilson as a man who was old before his time, already pining for a vanished past. With the Pet Sounds songs “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” Wilson made those feelings of displacement plainer, lending a deep melancholy to the album that echoed across lilting ballads like “God Only Knows” and “Caroline, No.” Pet Sounds was a Top 10 album, with two Top 10 singles—“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and a cover of the folk standard “Sloop John B”—but the un-hip orchestrations and pervasive sadness baffled some longtime fans, who didn’t immediately get what Wilson was trying to do.

One big reason why the perception of Pet Sounds turned around is that The Beach Boys followed it up with their most popular song ever, “Good Vibrations,” a dizzying collage of musical fragments and allusive lyrics that works like a summary (and summery) statement of The Beach Boys’ discography up to that point. Heavier rock musicians in the late ’60s and early ’70s tried to class up the genre by fusing rock with classical music, but Brian Wilson and Mike Love made that leap more intuitively and inventively, creating what their publicists dubbed “a pocket symphony.” There’s simply no precedent for “Good Vibrations,” which sounds like Wilson stripping the backing tracks from two dozen old Beach Boys songs and then treating those parts like instruments in an orchestra, to be conducted on the fly. “Good Vibrations” is also the most purely exultant song The Beach Boys ever recorded—a dose of concentrated joy that satisfied both Wilson’s and Love’s visions for the band. The song has the tight, high harmonies and California fantasy imagery they were known for, but it’s also experimental and expressionistic, externalizing the riot of colors and emotions in Brian Wilson’s head.

More confident than ever that he was on the right track, Wilson got together with his new friend Van Dyke Parks, aiming to make a whole album as inspired as “Good Vibrations.” That project, called Smile, was going to tell the story of America, and encompass the full range of popular music, all while trying to recapture the innocence and playfulness of childhood. But Wilson’s reach exceeded his grasp, and his worsening mental state—combined with pressure from his bandmates to capitalize more quickly on the success of “Good Vibrations” before the fickle record-buying public moved on—led Wilson to scrap Smile before he could finish it. This would be the start of a rough patch for Wilson, as the stigma of an unfinished masterpiece and an overall hardening of rock music fed his anxiety.

Songs from Smile would trickle out onto other Beach Boys albums over the next several years, and in the ’70s some fans took those songs, along with some rescued Smile outtakes, and reconstructed fantasy versions of the album on bootlegs. Finally, in 2004, a healthier Wilson started performing Smile in concert, and recorded a new version called Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Then in 2011, The Beach Boys put out The Smile Sessions, featuring new mixes of the old recordings, sequenced to match what Wilson had been performing.

People inside The Beach Boys camp are quick to note that neither Wilson’s solo album nor The Smile Sessions are “the real Smile.” That album has never existed, because right up to the moment that he abandoned the project, Wilson was still debating how he wanted to present the songs; he was considering a more groundbreaking approach that would split some of them into fragments and weave them together, more like a proper suite. (Beach Boys connoisseurs looking for glimmers of the more freeform Smile cherish some of the raw tracking sessions, collected on various box sets and reissues, which show Wilson working in the moment with studio-trained musicians to try out different variations on the same passages.) But even the approximate Smile is brilliant, with a wider variety of moods and approaches than Pet Sounds, and with lyrics that weave together a set of loosely connected ideas about health, happiness, and history. Wilson and Parks aimed to reach listeners on a subconscious level, with lyrics like “the child is the father of the man” that seem opaque at first, but profound when paired with the eruptive, chiming music.

Of the albums produced in the wake of Smile (or at least the ones that draw the most on the work Wilson did on that record), the two most essential are 1967’s Smiley Smile and 1971’s Surf’s Up. The former was an attempt to salvagesomething from the Smile sessions, by taking two of its anchor songs—“Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations”—throwing in a few more Wilson oddities like “Vegetables” and “She’s Goin’ Bald,” and stitching the whole thing together with Smile esoterica. The album is too short, and only hints at what Smile was supposed to be, but the music on Smiley Smile is still some of the most sublime The Beach Boys ever recorded, even when packaged more as a psychedelic snack than as the rich brain-food Wilson intended.

As for Surf’s Up, it’s the transitional album between the Pet Sounds/Smile era and the more mainstream rock that The Beach Boys attempted in the early ’70s. The record’s big selling point is the title track, which is one of Smile’s key songs, and as perfect an example of Brian Wilson’s genius as “Good Vibrations.” At once elegiac and hopeful, “Surf’s Up” bids farewell to the past with a sense of yearning and purpose. And even though the morbid (yet strangely calming) “’Til I Die” is the only other major Brian Wilson song on the album—and even though Surf’s Up is marred by the awful Mike Love song “Student Demonstration Time”—the record as a whole matches the mood of its title track, highlighted by off-and-on Beach Boy Bruce Johnston’s sweetly swaying “Disney Girls (1957),” and two of Carl Wilson’s best songs, “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows.”

Between those two albums, The Beach Boys made 1968’s lovely Friends, which splits the difference between the two records, mixing the lazy-day lyrics ofSmile with the tighter arrangements and focus of Surf’s Up. Even though the songs are so short that the whole album is over and done in the time it would take to self-medicate properly, Friends’ paeans to transcendentalism, having kids, and “doin’ nothin’” make it one of The Beach Boys’ warmest and most spiritual records. (Plus, without the lush instrumentals “Passing By” and “Diamond Head,” The High Llamas probably wouldn’t exist.)

Two years after Surf’s Up, the band put out an album just as good: 1973’s Holland, recorded in Amsterdam with major contributions from guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, two South African musicians who’d joined the band in 1972—in part to help cover for absent members, and in part to help update The Beach Boys’ sound to something more relevant to the country-rock jams and prog-rock experiments of the early ’70s. Hollandsounds refreshingly contemporary, from the steel guitars and harmonicas to the spoken-word interlude in the environmentalist trilogy “California Saga.” It also sounds like a Beach Boys album. It’s not just the rollicking Brian Wilson song “Sail On, Sailor” that shines like The Beach Boys of old. Fataar and Chaplin’s poignant ballad “Leavin’ This Town” sounds like a Jackson Browne interpretation of a Pet Sounds track, while Carl Wilson’s two-part “The Trader” applies brother Brian’s Smile lessons about sonic fragmentation to the kind of literate character sketch that confessional singer-songwriters up and down the West Coast were attempting at the time. Major rock and pop stars of the early ’70s like Browne, Neil Young, and Chicago all claimed The Beach Boys as a major influence. Holland took back what those acts had borrowed.

Holland marked the beginning of a commercial turnaround for The Beach Boys—one at first mild, then phenomenal. The record drew good reviews and sold decently, and was outpaced later that same year by a live double-LP. And then in 1974, Capitol Records repackaged the band’s biggest pre-Pet Sounds hits onto a double-album called Endless Summer, with a colorful, modern-looking cover. Arriving just as America was getting nostalgia-happy—around the time of Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, and Happy Days—Endless Summerbecame a massive hit, spawning a 1975 sequel Spirit Of America that also did well. Given the spottiness of a lot of the records The Beach Boys released in the early ’60s, Endless Summer makes the best case for what the band was up to before Brian Wilson went arty.

The Beach Boys got a similar commercial boost in the wake of the initially modest reaction to Pet Sounds by releasing a trio of The Best Of The Beach Boys albums between 1966 and 1968. Later, more comprehensive anthologies (likeEndless Summer and Spirit Of America) have rendered these records irrelevant, but in and of themselves, they’re well-sequenced collections full of classic songs, and worth buying if they turn up in the used-vinyl racks. Another one to seek out is one of the odder of the Beach Boys compilations from the late ’60s: 1968’s Stack-O-Tracks, which collects the instrumental backing tracks from Beach Boys hits for fans to sing along to. The songs don’t sound quite right without the harmonies, but at least Stack-O-Tracks allows them to be heard in an entirely new way, calling attention to the band’s oft-underrated musicianship.

For those who can’t abide greatest-hits collections but still want to give the early Beach Boys their due, some of the earlier albums are better than others. The band’s third album, 1963’s Surfer Girl, was their first wholly produced by Brian Wilson, and already Wilson was trying to make his songs less one-note, as evidenced by the dreamy title track, the layered “Catch A Wave,” and the gorgeous “In My Room” (a surprisingly early peek into Wilson’s future insularity). In 1964, when The Beach Boys were trying to add a gearhead element to their repertoire, they released Shut Down Volume 2, which supplements catchy car tunes like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Shut Down” with two more of Wilson’s best early “all grown up” songs, “Don’t Worry Baby” and “The Warmth Of The Sun.” And 1964’s All Summer Long serves as a poignant farewell to frivolity, taking its cues from the title track’s litany of what was, and running that same vibe through songs like romantic lament “Wendy” and the defiant “Little Honda.”

Intermediate Work

The Beach Boys’ transition from teenage kicks to the adult ache of Pet Sounds began in 1965, and especially with the album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which puts more emphasis on the latter than the former. Like the previous year’s All Summer Long, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is predominately an after-sunset, past-tense kind of record, with songs like “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Let Him Run Wild” all sporting strong overtones of despair. The album’s biggest hit, “California Girls,” applies the complex, curveball-filled arrangement that would later distinguish songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Good Vibrations” to what seems like a return to The Beach Boys’ novelty days, but is actually an example of Wilson creating an idealized reality to escape the stresses of his own life.

Post Pet Sounds/Smile, The Beach Boys scrambled to work around Brian Wilson’s eccentricities and to keep up with a rapidly evolving rock scene by releasing albums that fit Wilson’s sometimes-bizarre, sometimes-magnificent songs between hippie rhapsodies and throwback pop. Smiley Smile and Surf’s Up are the solid bookends of this era, with Friends as the whimsical centerpiece, but the three other late-’60s Beach Boys albums—1967’s Wild Honey, 1969’s 20/20, and 1970’s Sunflower—all hit some astonishing highs, and are all fairly cohesive, with not too many outright clunkers. Wild Honey is a back-to-basics record, leaving Smile’s freakiness behind and getting back into a groove, with stripped-down retro rock songs like “Darlin’” and  “Here Comes The Night” alternating with pretty, Bacharach-inspired tracks like “Aren’t You Glad” and “Let The Wind Blow.” As with the same year’s Smiley Smile, it’s too slight, but it’s also enjoyably high-spirited and hokey. (If The Beach Boys could’ve waited and combined those two albums, which together are only 50 minutes long, they might’ve quieted the dismissive rock critics of that era.)

20/20 is more scattershot, due mainly to Brian Wilson being institutionalized during much of its recording. But the album does salvage one of the best Smilesongs, “Cabinessence,” adds a new Beach Boys classic in “Do It Again,” and spotlights the work of Carl and Dennis Wilson, laying the groundwork for where The Beach Boys would go in the early ’70s. Sunflower, on the other hand, is the closest thing to a real, full album the band had recorded since Pet Sounds. Recording for a new label, Reprise Records, The Beach Boys put out a record that ran a relatively generous 36 minutes, and one that sounded unified—even though, like its predecessor, Sunflower contains contributions from everyone in the band, with a good number of songs by Dennis. Anchored by the single “Add Some Music To Your Day,” Sunflower is like the band’s answer to the wave of “sunshine pop” and “bubblegum” acts that had emerged over the previous couple of years, showing that no one could write and record slick, melodic, harmony-drenched songs quite like The Beach Boys, who knew how to add a layer of reflectiveness to chipper songs like “Deirdre” and “This Whole World.” (Plus, with Sunflower’s closing song, “Cool, Cool Water,” Brian Wilson and Mike Love turned a Smile-era throwaway into something textured and casually profound.)

None of the post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys albums were hits, but the success of Endless Summer made the band wildly popular again, and Brian Wilson’s controversial new therapist Eugene Landy (whom Brian would later sue for exerting too much control over his life) convinced him that it’d be good for his mental health to start reengaging with the band again by touring and recording. The other Beach Boys had mixed feelings about the new arrangement. Mike Love saw the publicity upside in having Brian back in the fold, working a new album, striking while The Beach Boys were a hot commodity. Carl and Dennis weren’t as keen on ceding so much of the creative control they’d had in the early ’70s back to Brian—especially given Brian didn’t seem all that interested in making a proper Beach Boys album, preferring instead to record a set of corny, off-the-cuff rock and pop covers. As it happened, everyone was a little bit right about the 1976 album 15 Big Ones(which was named both for its number of songs and for the band being 15 years old). Carl and Dennis were right that 15 Big Ones wasn’t daring enough for the band’s first album of new material in three years. Yet the record’s mix of Brian’s favorite oldies and a handful of nutty new ones—including the delightful “Had To Phone Ya” and “That Same Song”—is fun, in a low-stakes way. And Love’s instincts were spot-on: 15 Big Ones sold better than any new Beach Boys album had all decade. (It may have helped that the generic title and cover art made 15 Big Ones look like another hits collection.)

By the mid-1970s, there were effectively two bands calling themselves “The Beach Boys”: one led by Mike Love, who was more than willing to sing “I Get Around” for complacent baby-boomers for the rest of his life, and the other led by Brian Wilson, who was trying to process beach culture as deeply personal abstract art. Very early on, Wilson gave up touring to focus on songwriting and recording, which allowed Love to create this alternate version of The Beach Boys. But to Love’s credit, he helped hone the live act into an impressive and popular concert attraction. And there are a few worthy documents of this “good times, great oldies” Beach Boys, including 1964’s Beach Boys Concert(recorded when Wilson was still playing live, and featuring covers of the goofy hits “Monster Mash,” “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”), 1970’s Live In London (featuring rocked-up takes on the post-Pet Sounds songs), and 1973’s excellent double-album The Beach Boys In Concert(which sets the outstanding new early-’70s songs side by side with the classics, making them all sound more of a piece).

Advanced Studies

Because The Beach Boys were perceived in their early years as a here-and-gone proposition—like pretty much every other pop, rock, and R&B group—their label, Capitol Records, tried to generate as much product as it could, as quickly as it could. The first few years of The Beach Boys discography are littered with filler-heavy albums and repackagings of the same songs. Records like the 1962 debut album Surfin’ Safari, 1963’s Surfin’ U.S.A., and 1963’s Little Deuce Coupe are primarily only of historical interest now, because their best songs are available in much better anthology packages—and because anyone who wants to hear the kind of tame covers and oddball spoken-word pieces that padded out the early Beach Boys LPs is better off buying Surfer Girl and Shut Down Volume 2.

That said, some of the cash-in albums released during the band’s 1960s heyday have become fan favorites. While 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album isn’t a masterpiece on the order of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, like Spector’s record it does successfully put youthful rock ’n’ roll in the context of old-fashioned holiday pop music and carols. (Plus, it contains “Little Saint Nick,” a spin on “Little Deuce Coupe” that’s even catchier.) Even more delightful is 1965’s Beach Boys’ Party!, a set of left-field retreads and covers—including three Beatles songs and one from Bob Dylan—played on acoustic instruments and arranged to sound like they’re being played live in a living room while the band’s friends chat and drink in the background. Though faked, the “impromptu” sound of the Party! album feels of a piece with the early Beach Boys’ albums’ evocations of laid-back California fun.

Party! capped a busy (and exclamation-point-filled!) 1965 for The Beach Boys, coming right after Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and The Beach Boys Today! For those devoted to the early sun-sand-surf Beach Boys, Today! is a neglected gem, full of great songs like “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” that are often left off the hits collections. It’s more uniformly upbeat in contrast to what came immediately after—with fairly simple rock arrangements and a minimum of melancholy—but as with the Christmas album, Today! is both an enjoyable record and a valuable look at The Beach Boys at the height of their commercial powers, competing aggressively with both the British Invasion and Spector’s signature sound: teen-friendly, operatic R&B.

Similarly, 1972’s funkily-titled Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” is an outstanding document of the Beach Boys era when Carl and Dennis were steering the boat. The first album to feature Fataar and Chaplin as full-time band members, Carl And The Passions is like a running start at Holland; it’s a solid ’70s West Coast rock album in and of itself, even if at times—as on the Fataar/Chaplin composition “Here She Comes”—it barely sounds like The Beach Boys. The title implies some sort of ’50s tribute, but Carl And The Passionsis more in the mode of laid-back country-rock, with a few progressive elements, like something Poco or Stephen Stills would’ve made at the time. This is Carl and Dennis reimagining what The Beach Boys could be—and quite well, as the superior Holland would prove one year later. (For those primarily interested in what Brian was up to at the time, the most relevant parts of Carl And The Passions are the dense, gospel-tinged “He Come Down” and the exuberant, quirky “Marcella.”)

There are some Beach Boys fans who prefer the Carl/Dennis age, and think The Cult Of Brian Wilson permanently damaged what could’ve remained a fine mainstream rock band. For them, 1977’s Love You is Exhibit A in what happened when the band let Brian dominate. For Brian-ologists, though, Love You is one of the great crack-up albums of the ’70s, in the same vein as Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Love You started out as a true Brian Wilson solo album, with Wilson using a synthesizer to replicate his grand orchestras of the ’60s. He eventually allowed his Beach Boys bandmates to contribute vocals and ideas, but Love You would remain the purest expression of what had been swimming around in Wilson’s brain since Smile. Crippling self-doubt, drilled into Brian by a reportedly abusive father and the fickle fluctuations of public approval, left him trying to use music as a balm. So there’s something almost desperately optimistic about Love You, as Wilson sings frayed songs about roller-skating, road-tripping, and Johnny Carson—like a frazzled man sitting in a corner chanting “calm blue ocean” over and over. It’s a beautiful, noisy, funny, heartbreaking work of art—one not for everybody, yet vital for anyone who wants to understand Wilson’s overall worldview.

Brian Wilson wanted to build off of the creative breakthrough of Love You, but the record industry was less enthusiastic. So The Beach Boys albums that followed over the next decade featured only token input from Brian as a songwriter and a vocalist—and as a result are mostly abysmal. (It didn’t help that Dennis and Carl largely checked out, too, or that the band as a whole was devastated by Dennis’ death by drowning in 1983.) There’s absolutely no reason to bother with anything bearing The Beach Boys name that came out between 1980 and 1992—at a time when outside producers, drum machines, self-parody, and the ever-present threat of “Kokomo” made listening even to Brian Wilson-penned songs a depressing experience. That said, the last two 1970s Beach Boys records actually aren’t that bad. M.I.U. Album, released in 1978, and 1979’s L.A. (Light Album) both go down smooth, putting the band’s classic harmonies in the context of the late-’70’s radio featuring the Grease soundtrack and Captain & Tennille. M.I.U. is the more seamless of the two—for better and worse—while L.A. has a few memorable wrinkles, including one truly great Dennis Wilson song, “Love Surrounds Me,” and a passable 11-minute disco version of “Here Comes The Night,” engineered by Brian Wilson’s best sunshine-pop disciple, Curt Boettcher.

After the revival of Smile in the 2000s, Wilson reunited with Love, Johnston, Al Jardine, and long-ago Beach Boy David Marks for a 50th anniversary tour, and paired it with a new album, That’s Why God Made The Radio, consisting partly of songs Wilson had written over the years and set aside for the band, just in case a reunion ever occurred. Far from an afterthought, That’s Why God Made The Radio is a fully realized Beach Boys record, produced by Wilson with nearly the same level of orchestration he brought to the late-’60s albums. And while the material is hit-and-miss, songs like the title track and the album-closing “Summer’s Gone” have all the yearning and rich harmonics of The Beach Boys of yore.

Miscellany

With Brian Wilson either absent or uncooperative in the latter half of the ’70s (and much of the decade beyond), the main Beach Boys tried their hands at solo albums, with decent results. Even Mike Love’s hilariously titled 1981 solo debut Looking Back With Love is unexpectedly charming, thanks in large part to producer Curt Boettcher’s clean integration of synthesizers into a set of lively, heartfelt pop songs. Carl Wilson’s own 1981 solo debut, Carl Wilson, and his 1983 follow-up Youngblood aren’t as much of a treat, because Carl’s songwriting is more somber and less catchy, which doesn’t mesh as well with the more club-footed ’80s production styles. Still, both albums offer a little closure for fans who enjoyed the sophisticated country-rock direction that Carl was pushing The Beach Boys toward in the early ’70s.

But the two best Beach Boys solo albums came from Brian and Dennis. Brian Wilson’s 1988 LP Brian Wilson is as synth-heavy and booming as The Beach Boys’ albums at the time, but the songs are terrific—especially the opening track, “Love And Mercy”—and Wilson seems to be having a ball, hearkening back to his classic Pet Sounds sound. (Later Wilson solo albums, likeImagination, Gettin’ In Over My Head, and That Lucky Old Sun, come across as tame and a little sterile, though each has flashes of greatness.) And Dennis Wilson’s 1977 record Pacific Ocean Blue is a wonder: a thoughtful and surprising refashioning of various kinds of American roots music to suit Dennis’ dark, sweet rasp. The songs are dramatic, and creatively presented, with as much of Dennis’ personality as his older brother’s freewheeling explorations of self.

Though it’s not a proper Brian Wilson solo album, 1995’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is a strong collection of demos and new recordings of older songs, in support of Don Was’ moving documentary about Wilson’s life and personal troubles. (For fervent Beach Boys fans, these kinds of behind-the-scenes stories are important to understanding where the music came from.) And while it’s a marginal entry into The Beach Boys’ discography, the 1996 project Stars And Stripes, Vol. 1—which saw country stars singing Beach Boys classics, documented in the film Beach Boys: Nashville Sounds—did feature Brian Wilson’s first serious involvement with the band since the ’70s, as he stepped back behind the board as a co-producer. There are some really nice performances on Stars And Stripes, too, including Willie Nelson singing “The Warmth Of The Sun” and Timothy B. Schmit doing “Caroline, No.” The Beach Boys have a singular sound, but covers like these reveal how the songs can stand up to different interpretations, because they were always meant to be part of a larger pop music tradition.

The Essentials

1. The Smile Sessions
2. Pet Sounds
3. Holland
4. Friends
5. Love You

http://www.avclub.com/article/beginners-guide-sweet-stinging-nostalgia-beach-boy-210390

Coupla points:

a) David Marks, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston need a little more air-time
b) The article woefully undersells Today, side two of which is a pre-Pet Sounds gem