Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Harold Ramis RIP

Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters star and Groundhog Day director, dies aged 69
The actor and writer-director, known for playing Egon Spengler in the Ghostbusters films and for directing comedies such as Groundhog Day and Caddyshack, died earlier today

Xan Brooks
The Guardian
Monday 24 February 2014 

Harold Ramis, who helped catch phantoms in Ghostbusters and directed Bill Murray to glory in Groundhog Day, has died at the age of 69. A leading light of 80s American comedy, Ramis had been suffering from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis for several years.

Born in Chicago, Ramis worked as a teacher and journalist before teaming up with comedians John Belushi and Bill Murray for the wildly successful National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1973. The crew later branched out into film with National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978. Following Belushi's death from a drug overdose, Ramis and Murray went onto star alongside Dan Ackroyd in the 1984 hit Ghostbusters.

Ramis made his directing debut with 1980's Caddyshack, though his best-loved picture remains 1993's Groundhog Day, starring Murray as a self-absorbed TV weatherman. In 2006 the comedy was added to the US National Film Registry as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" work of cinema.

Ramis enjoyed another box office hit in with the 1999 Mafia comedy Analyse This, starring Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro. On screen he appeared in Knocked Up, Year One and the Oscar-winning As Good As it Gets.

At the peak of his success, Ramis would claim that his anarchic, freewheeling comic style was inspired both by an early love of the Marx brothers and a brief, post-college job working at a Missouri mental institution. "It prepared me for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors," he explained. "And not just with actors. It was good training for just living in the world."

Harold Ramis on set of the Ice Harvest.
Harold Ramis: Ghostbusters' Dr Egon Spengler was comedy's GrandDude
For children of the 1980s – including some of today’s biggest film stars – he revolutionised US comedy and made some of our favourite films of all time

Hadley Freeman
24 February 2014

To have created one of the most influential comedies of all time takes talent and luck; to have created at least three takes nothing less than genius. Harold Ramis, best known to millions of 80s kids as Dr Egon Spengler, who has died at the far too young age of 69, leaves behind an incomparable work of seminal comedies from the late 20th century.

As well as Ghostbusters, which he co-wrote with Dan Aykroyd, he co-wrote and directed the unsurpassably brilliant Groundhog Day. He also created early 1980s classics including Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation and, of course, Caddyshack which, for years, defined American comedy. Proving he could more than keep up with comedy trends, he later directed episodes of the The Office, as well as the 90s mobster comedy, Analyse This. His films have all aged as well and as charmingly as the man himself - not something one can say about many early 80s or even 90s comedies, or those involved with them.

Ramis brought cleverness to silly comedy, form to anarchy, and enjoyed the latter just as much as the former. People can – and should – spend the day quoting their favourite Ramis jokes, but mine will always be when he and his fellow Ghostbusters are warming up their instruments: “Do!” sings Peter (Bill Murray). “Ray!” chimes in Ray (Aykroyd.) “Egon!” chirrups Egon, and the impish but eggheady smile he makes at his own silly-but-smart joke sums up the pleasures of Ramis for me.

But perhaps Ramis’ greatest achievement was the love and trust his colleagues felt for him. No one who met him or interviewed him had a bad word to say about him, which is not, to be blunt, something one says about many comedians who emerged from his era. Bill Murray – who made six films with Ramis and, it’s fair to say, knows funny from funny – understood that he needed Ramis as his straight foil, or his “focused composer”, as director Ivan Reitman put it when he cast them in Stripes. The two were estranged for several years after Groundhog Day, an estrangement which Ramis compared to having “a hole in my heart”, but were reunited before his death.

Ramis helped to guide Aykroyd into creating the best comedy of the 80s when Aykroyd was griefstruck by the death of John Belushi and wanted to write a semi-serious film about ghost visitations. When Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen spotted him at a film festival when they were promoting 40 Year Old Virgin, they followed him around like a pair of lovestruck geeks and begged him to appear in their film, Knocked Up, which he did, charmingly, as Rogen’s stoner dad, upending his early professorial persona. Modern comedians ranging from the Farrelly brothers to Adam Sandler to Will Ferrell have all expressed the debt they owe to Ramis.

When Ramis’ granddaughter was born, he announced he didn’t want to be “Grandpa.” He wanted to be “GrandDude”. There was no need for him to clarify: Ramis always was and always will be the GrandDude of comedy.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch - review

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch – review
Richard Williams on a pungent life of the jazz saxophonist, told from a black perspective

Richard Williams
The Guardian
Wednesday 20 November 2013

Anyone intending to write a proper biography of Charlie Parker must eventually get to grips with the nature of genius itself. Very late in this, the first of two long-awaited volumes on the life of the great modern jazz saxophonist, Stanley Crouch comes close to the matter during a conversation with William "Biddy" Fleet, an obscure guitarist with whom Parker shared experiments in music after his arrival in New York in 1938, while still in his teens and groping his way towards his own style and a new conception of what jazz might become. "The thing I loved about Bird (Parker)," Fleet tells the author, "is this: he wasn't one of those who's got to write something down, go home, study on it, and the next time we meet, we'll try it out. Anything anyone did that Bird liked, when he found out what it was, he'd do it right away. Instantly. Only once on everything."

If that suggests an intuitive genius, consider the lengths to which Crouch goes to establish just how carefully Parker studied his craft before launching himself as a fully fledged professional musician. The terms of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule are fully met by the boy from Kansas City. He did not take music seriously until the age of 15, but he was no ordinary student: his mind worked at a different speed, with gifts of analysis and construction unavailable to others.

Biddy Fleet, 10 years older than Parker, is a fugitive figure in the history of jazz; his death in 1994 went all but unnoticed by the music world. Crouch talked to him in 1985, three years after he began to track down and interview many of the surviving witnesses to his subject's early life: school friends, his first wife (they married when she was 18 and he was 15), musicians who heard or worked with him during his apprenticeship in the clubs of Kansas City and the surrounding territories. One by one, in the 30 years it has taken him to deliver the first half of his biography, those witnesses have disappeared, making this testimony all the more valuable.

Not all of it is exactly fresh, however. A few years after beginning work on the project Crouch made his research available to a fellow author, Gary Giddins, then the jazz critic of the Village Voice, for use in a substantial monograph titled Celebrating Bird, published in 1987. That unselfish act gives the clue to Crouch's intentions: even though, like Giddins's volume,Kansas City Lightning serves as a necessary corrective to Bird Lives, Ross Russell's commercially successful but largely fanciful 1973 biography, this new work was never going to depend for its impact and value on a recitation of the facts and first-hand witness statements alone.

Once upon a time jazz history was written by white enthusiasts: critics, historians and musicologists, mostly men, often with European origins, inevitably existing – no matter how empathic – at a remove from the musicians and their way of life. Crouch, born in Los Angeles in 1945, is an African American. An essayist and polemicist, a novelist and poet, a co-founder (with his friend, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) of the Lincoln Center's jazz department and the recipient in 1993 of a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grant, he has attempted to bring his own experiences and cultural references to bear on his subject. This is the first full-length study to view the life of Parker, a uniquely significant musician, from a black perspective.

It is Crouch's admirable intention not just to interrogate the familiar lineaments of Parker's life – absentee ne'er-do-well father, doting mother, four marriages, leadership of a musical revolution, career disrupted by unruly appetites, death in the apartment of a Rothschild heiress at 35 – but to set it in the context of his time. Having secured our attention with a lengthy opening sequence describing the young saxophonist's debut at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in 1942, the author returns to the beginning of the tale but frequently branches away into short essays on a variety of related and tangential topics, from the notorious free-for-all of Kansas City's nightlife under the jurisdiction of Mayor Tom Pendergast to the invention of the saxophone, the significance of the railroads in mid-century America, the early origins of jazz and a short history of mob involvement in Harlem nightspots.

Crouch also makes extensive use of the appropriate vernacular, studding his paragraphs with phrases from blues lyrics. The boxing champion Jack Johnson marries a woman with "a fine brown frame", while the bandleader Buster Smith, Parker's early mentor, leaves Kansas City for New York and "had to get up and dust his broom, move on farther down the road". Sometimes Crouch's attempt to immerse himself in Parker's world leads him into the terrain staked out by Walter Mosley. "As if loving all the deep notes of a particularly lowdown gutbecket song," he writes of Johnson, "this uptown ruler barreled downtown behind the wheel of an aggressively stunning car with mufflers loud enough to wake the dead". The mobster Dutch Schulz gets a "finalising lead nightcap" – is shot dead. The consistent use of the term "negro" seems entirely appropriate, given the desire to portray a particular time and place.

Some of the material relating to Parker's early life, much of it gathered in the first interview ever given by Rebecca Ruffin, his first wife (also now dead, like her successors), is strikingly intimate, particularly in the description of the miscarriage of what would have been his second child when he was not yet 18. The story of his early musical struggles is told through first-hand memories from such associates as the guitarist Efferge Ware and the trumpeter Orville "Piggy" Minor, who tells Crouch: "Charlie Parker was a guy who didn't like anything according to Hoyle" – ie to the rules – "and if he could bend it, he would bend it quick."

If the digressions occasionally push Parker into the background of his own story, eventually the flow gathers strength and purpose; the sense of destiny, shaded by unmistakable hints of impending tragedy, has become compelling long before Crouch breaks off, leaving Parker on the verge of the discovery of bebop, the revolution with which he would become synonymous.

In Orville Minor's words, the young Parker "hated a dull moment". He was still in his mid-teens when he began warding off the threat of such moments through the use of marijuana, benzedrine and morphine (the last of which may have been legitimised in his mind, Crouch suggests, by his devotion to Sherlock Holmes, for whom it was the opiate of choice). Here the author observes: "It was during this period that Charlie began to notice that his appetites were larger than those of others, that he started to sense that he was somehow a danger to himself." The extent of that danger will no doubt be revealed in the sequel – expected in two years' time – to this occasionally irritating but pungently evocative and undeniably important work.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Ten Dates - intro

A new film by Charlie Hedley

Starring Paul Kelly

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Last night's set list

At The Habit, York (The Elderly Brothers): -

The Price Of Love
Crying In The Rain
When Will I Be Loved
Bird Dog
Bye Bye Love

After an unfortunate incident which left 'Phil' unable to play guitar for a while, The Elderly Brothers made a welcome return to Wednesday's open mic at The Habit, on a busy night. Lots of new players including a guitar/fiddle duo from Consett. The full-on Everlys set list was well received.

A Bit of Bacharach...

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Steely Dan Man...

So Hip It Hurts
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen looks back.

Ian Penman
16 January 2014

Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen (Viking, 176 pp., $26.95)

In January 1974, Joni Mitchell released the exquisite, deceptively sunny Court and Spark; two months later, on the penultimate day of March, the Ramones played their first gig. The year obviously had some fine diversions and big surprises in store for the clued-up rock fan. But if you had to identify a dominant trend that year, it was huge stadiums echoing to the roar of monumentally heavy boogie. A lot of endless, finesse-free jamming. A lot of stack-heeled get-down. A job lot of stretched-thin double-live albums. A brutalized 12-bar blues without end.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sat uneasily in this world of earnest sentiment and antediluvian riffing. An impassively odd couple with encyclopedic jazz smarts and a glowering, gnomic mien, in some ways they sat exactly midway between Joni and the Ramones: pinup idols of the urbane Los Angeles studio scene but with bags of spiky, shades-after-midnight New York City attitude.

Dorm buddies who met at Bard College in upstate New York, Becker and Fagen started out in a band called the Bad Rock Group, with Chevy Chase, no less, on drums. They were over-literate beatniks with midnight-cafeteria tans and their own hinky, Beat-derived argot. Their second band found its name courtesy of William Burroughs: Steely Dan 111 is a garrulous sex aid, a minor player in the fizzing mind/body loop of Naked Lunch. Musically, the Dan were more jazz-inflected than rock-driven, filled out by a movable feast of session musician pals. For their debut single, they picked “Do It Again,” a baleful lament about finding nothing new under the sun. At a time when sitars played as prettily exotic signifiers of limpid bliss, they amped one up for a biting, nerve-jangled solo. At a time when Rolling Stone ran long, fawning Q & As with addled vocalists and the counterculture was sold on faux revolutionary emblems, Becker and Fagen essayed a light samba to declare that it was all bunk: “A world become one, of salads and sun? Only a fool would say that.”

Putting the hook up front, taking things easy, capering along to the prevailing ethos—none of this was the Steely Dan way. Even so, 1974’s Pretzel Logic seemed like the oddest work of an already odd career. The front cover gave little away—a monochrome shot, school of Winogrand or Arbus, of a New York street-food vendor. The title track is a surreal roadhouse blues, which switches lanes into an awed reverie on Napoleonic hubris. Other songs are gossamer light, over in a minute or two, like demos that a more popular act rejected for being too spectral, morbid, tart.

Becker and Fagen started out as songwriter hacks for hire, pale ghosts in the all-business Brill Building. “Through with Buzz,” “Charlie Freak,” “With a Gun”: a rough sketch of how hit singles might sound in some spooky alternate universe. Chart hits that got lost in a notorious park one night or missed civics class to stay in bed and read Henry Miller. As if to prove the point, Steely Dan then scored the biggest hit of their career with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” a hesitant, mnemonic in-joke, strung around the card-shuffle chord changes of jazz pianist Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.” To date, it remains the only chart smash that kicks off with an unaccompanied, 23-second marimba solo.

But the strangest confection on a strange menu may have been their retooling of Duke Ellington’s 1927 composition “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” It sits at the end of what we used to call Side One, as the real-life East St. Louis sits on one side of the Mississippi, facing the slightly tonier St. Louis. Ellington’s original is a lilting chameleonic vamp, perfect accompaniment for a pleasure cruise down the River Styx. It starts out mournful as recollected sin (you can see the bowed heads, the black frocks snaking behind a stately hearse), but then the dark clouds disperse and the band starts to raise everyone’s knees, as if to prove that succor and sunshine were hiding under the heart-sore funk all along. It sounds in two minds—sad and ornery, yet elegantly drunk—and ends where it began, Bubber Miley’s trumpet growling like a hungry bear.

Becker and Fagen take their own “Toodle-Oo” at a slightly brisker clip, as though they’re downing cheap champagne on a fast train home from the funeral. They usher in some unexpected guests to the wake: willowy pedal steel, gravelly wah-wah guitar, and tingling stride piano replace the two-toned horns of the original. “Toodle-Oo” II shouldn’t work, but does; shouldn’t swing, but really does. It feels deeply affectionate, not glib. Steely Dan were later sampled, in their turn, by thrusting young hip-hop acts: wheel turning round and round. Nothing on Pretzel Logic is overstressed or overplayed; it’s seriously hip but devilishly playful. “Parker’s Band” may slip in clever nods to certain Charlie Parker titles (“You’ll be groovin’ high or relaxin’ at Camarillo”), but primarily it duplicates the joy of being floored by a polyphonic bebop rush for the first time. The drums are a rising heartbeat; when a multitracked squall of saxophones blows in without warning, you may want to rise and offer your own syncopated hallelujahs.

Still, many pop/rock fans were suspicious and remain so to this day. For the doubters, Steely Dan personified the infamous Terry Southern put-down: “You’re too hip, baby! I just can’t carry you.” Even Dan fans started to read the work as if it was one big put-on—a prophylactic, perhaps, against the real pain and melancholy that some of these songs contained. Maybe all along, it was the audience that was too hip, not the band; there was definitely a stripe of intellectual snobbery among would-be acolytes like my teenage self. Other spoiled rock superstars maybe “didn’t give a fuck about anyone else” (in the words of “Show Biz Kids”) because they were empty-headed snots; if Becker and Fagen also didn’t, we Dan fans agreed, it was coming from a far better, or at least a wiser, place—or maybe a far crueler place.

Some of this cognitive dissonance may be attributable to the fact that the more critics fawned over Steely Dan, the more the duo responded with markedly blasé gratitude. It may also be due to the palette they were drawing on—precedents such as Broadway theater, soundtrack scoring, West Coast jazz. These were traditions in which a big production number didn’t necessarily mean what it said; smiling major chords disclosed drooling wolf fangs; and a desolate blues prepared the soil for subsequent flags of triumph. It’s hipness of a different order—tone and texture matter as much as, if not more than, what is explicitly said or sung. (In an early interview, Fagen claimed that he was amazed that anyone liked his singing at all, when it sounded, he averred, like a “Jewish Bryan Ferry.”) The Dan’s variety of minor-chord legerdemain went against the prevailing mid-seventies grain, an ethos where every precious singer-songwriter word was presumed to be heartfelt.

But then, Steely Dan went against the grain in a number of ways. They relocated to Los Angeles in pursuit of superior recording technology, but they didn’t really fit the local scene. In a press shot for 1980’s Gaucho, the duo look like creatures just emerged from a long and difficult hibernation; their flesh has the same gray, drained plasma hue as the bony hands of the album’s cover art. Becker could be a backstreet physician, on the lam in a cheap hippie wig; Fagen looks like the anorexic, smart-ass kid brother of Jeff Goldblum’s Fly guy. Rumors began to surface of Steely Dan giving Fleetwood Mac a run for their per diem, as far as deepwater dysfunction and high-end narcotics. The difference was that the Dan’s decadence felt more oblique and therefore more tantalizing—these were chord-progression wonks, not boogie ogres! There was an added frisson in the idea of these two cerebral New Yorkers adrift in scented-candle lotusland, like a modern-day Bird and Prez. Soon enough, they did both crash and burn, in discrete ways, and a long sabbatical followed. They packed up and left Los Angeles. Becker negotiated a divorce from his five-fathom drug habit in sunny Hawaii. Fagen returned to New York and, by his own account, embraced a long-postponed, full-bore breakdown.

There was never any point when Dan devotees felt: here are two guys who might open up and let us in on the odd-couple arrangement, all the extracurricular accidents and emergencies. They were never at the top of any list you’d draw up of people who would one day pen heartfelt memoirs about their lives in music. And while I can’t see it getting an approving Oprah sticker, the big surprise about Eminent Hipsters is that it turns out to be, after a fashion, just that: Donald Fagen’s heartfelt memoir. Sure, he hides the fact behind a spunkily disingenuous “it just fell together” introductory gloss, but it’s still more flesh-and-blood affecting than even the craziest Dan watcher might have dreamed. This being Donald Fagen, he doesn’t come right out and solicit for big redemptive group hugs; the more tender lines are well hidden behind his deceptively offhand writing style. The first half is a suite of essays rooted in the late fifties and early sixties concerning “artists whose origins lay outside the mainstream”: forgotten singers, arrangers, sci-fi crazies, ahead-of-the-curve DJs, and tastemakers. This brief takes in the overlooked Boswell Sisters; the underpraised—and arguably overdemonized—Ike Turner; and the quietly influential real-life nightfly DJs Mort Fega and Jean Shepherd. Fagen also offers a few personal reflections on his late teenage years. The second half, “With the Dukes of September,” is a diary he kept in 2010 while touring with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.

While the essays present a fascinating prospect, the tour diary looks like it might be a bad goof, a parody of old-time rock-star self-indulgence. Who needs it, even from one-half of Steely Dan? Do we want cool guys to spill? Doesn’t our fascination rest precisely on their flinty, recessive nature? But “With the Dukes” turns out to be one of the laugh-out-loud funniest things anyone ever penned about the workaday woes of being a pro musician. It’s such outrageous fun, in fact, that it threatens to overshadow the less showy virtues of the essays. Structurally, the book doesn’t quite hang together: it feels like two different pitches jammed together to make one awkward hybrid. If Eminent Hipsters were a film, you can imagine a weave of the two strands: jaded, lost-in-America Donald has a series of flashback reveries while spaced out along the tour, recalling just how it was that young Donny got here and who inspired him to light out this way.

There are moments when, exploring twenty-first-century America, Fagen has cause both to revisit his own checkered past and reevaluate some of his heroes. There’s a mildly tragicomic episode where Fagen realizes that he is to play a local auditorium named after Count Basie. His mood brightens—and then darkens after he realizes that none of the audience seem to know, or care, who this blow-in foreigner Count Basie is, anyway. Fagen doesn’t belabor the point, but it might be a good topic for a social studies class: What is the point of civic commemoration if you’re commemorating a blank? Eminent Hipsters may itself be Fagen’s way of throwing a greasy spanner into the works, at a moment when Steely Dan seem to be settling nicely into rock’s own nostalgic industry. Fagen scans the American hinterland and wonders what he’s doing and whether a creaking, picky New York homebody should be doing it at all at his age. Do the “TV babies,” as he calls younger consumers (a phrase out of Allen Ginsberg via Gus Van Sant’s 1989 Drugstore Cowboy), even know why he’s honoring the old R & B pioneers whose ghosts he calls up nightly? Has the public conversation gone stone-cold dead?

Fagen doesn’t want to come across like one of those testy old cranks who get aggrievedly reactionary with age (“Hobbesian geezers”—a nice bit of phrase making), but he doesn’t want to kid himself that all is right with the world, either. What he wants is some kind of safe, hallowed, but still-testing middle ground. He recalls the often derided era of the early sixties as a time with its own sense of verve, jest, and decorum. Of that era’s TV: “lots of swell black-and-white movies from the thirties and forties, all day and most of the night. No soul-deadening porn or violence. Decent news programs and casual entertainment featuring intelligent, charming celebrities like Steve Allen, Groucho Marx, Jack Paar, Jack Benny, Rod Serling, and Ernie Kovacs.” (So far, there have been no signs of a reality TV series in which Becker and Fagen audition session musicians for a new album and tour.) And for a flinty old cynic, he can be suasively rhapsodic: “And I’ll start thinking about a late summer sun setting over fifteen hundred identical rooftops and my family and bop glasses and Holly Golightly, about being lonesome out there in America and how that swank music connected up with so many things.”

It’s a portrait of the artist as an embryonic Florida retiree: grumpy, fidgety, fond (his hotel room iPod plays nothing but old Verve jazz or Stravinsky), ungrateful toward fans, snarling at managers, leering at young poolside babes, spiteful to hotel staff. Fagen doesn’t skirt the risk of deep mortification. He leads us round 360 degrees of his touring profile: petty, grouchy, backward-looking, too smug by half. And yet, while it appears to be an entirely truthful account, all the time part of me was thinking: Is this actually the equivalent of a well-crafted Steely Dan character? “Deacon Blues” on Prozac? As I said to a friend and fellow Dan obsessive, Eminent Hipsters is essentially On the Road with Alvy Singer. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), his OCD doppelgänger Singer loathes Los Angeles, but work and romance install him there for months at a time. Allen initially wanted to name his feel-good film after a bleak psychiatric diagnosis: anhedonia, a condition that also seems to cover how Fagen now feels about touring: “The inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable.” Like Allen, Fagen seems deeply versed in the language of shrinks and footnotes from the Physicians’ Desk Reference. In the missing years between The Nightfly and resumption of his partnership with Becker, Fagen had a real Freudian schlep of therapy, and much (legal) pharmaceutical rewiring. While you still wouldn’t call him a little ray of sunshine, these efforts seem to have done a lot to revamp his subsequent life: marriage, uninterrupted work, a relative cessation of hostilities with the media. While the other Donald might conceivably have written a tour diary, you can’t imagine he would have allowed it to be published.

Today, when we identify a hipster, it carries entirely different connotations from the word’s original, darkly lustrous charge. “Hipster” is now a slight, because hipsters now are slight—not so much a soulful tribe as a fly-eyed pose looking for somewhere to land. Hipsters move into your locale, and before you know it, brittle quotation marks are strung everywhere. Hipsters have become little more than an advance guard for the arcadia of “hip capitalism.” Once, though, it truly mattered how hip you were. In Fagen’s day, things were different. Born in 1948, he belongs to a baby-boomer generation for whom the benediction of hip was most devoutly to be desired. It was a dark and uncertain thing, an arduous rite of passage, almost a spiritual gamble. Lewis MacAdams, in his 2001 overview, Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde, recalls how New York bohemian Judith Malina (later cofounder of the Living Theatre) found herself briefly jailed following a mid-Manhattan protest march. A nice middle-class girl under it all, she’s shocked to find herself sharing space with honest-to-goodness streetwalkers. “I like you,” declaims one prisoner to Malina, “but let’s face it. You’re a square.” MacAdams supplies a subtle but powerful sense of where hip’s true cargo originates. If it’s at street level, the street is on the other side of town. Hip was, most of all, a black phenomenon, “cool in its slavery-born sense, where attitude and stance is the only self-defense against overwhelming rage.”

New York was the seedbed of hip: Harlem’s Apollo, Birdland, the Cedar Tavern, the Village Voice. Hipness was arcane. If you had to ask, you were nowhere. MacAdams: “Everything had to be understated, circuitous, metaphorical, communicated in code.” It was a time when drugs of any kind, interracial dalliance, homosexual love, could all earn you serious jail time. Then, as the sixties loomed, hip crawled into the mainstream light: it began to be discussed, analyzed, advertised. A lot of blame should probably be placed at Norman Mailer’s door. True hipsters would let slip one pithy phrase or exit inside a ringing Zen ellipsis; Mailer blathered on at great length and made hipsterism seem verbose, fraudulent, a cheap thrill for bored socialites. He missed the unmissable point, which was: never explain or sermonize. There was an art to betraying nothing in public—not anger or fear, approval or approbation. Cool manners were a shield for those who were allowed few weapons of self-defense, a ghetto hijack of Kipling’s “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” both mask and recompense for folks who had a justified feeling that all sweet ideological promises tended to leave them in the same hole, holding the sharp end of the stick.

Fagen’s roll call of hipsterdom doesn’t promote some overfamiliar cast of scurvy Beats and angry savants, bemoaning the plastic tragedy of conformist Amerikkka. Fagen likes plastic. He digs people who straddle the divide between hep and square, margin and MOR, a no-man’s zone where apparent squares take on the prompts of hip and parlay them into a wider audience. “The concept of hip had exploded into the culture in a new manifestation.” Fagen is very good on artists from that time (Basie and Ellington, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan) who, abandoned by the hipster cognoscenti, worked their way into less cool but far more secure and remunerative positions. Most were in the early autumn of long careers, and while they weren’t up for stretching any more boundaries, they could still knock out work of devastating economy and depth. Fagen’s paradigm is not the supposedly world-changing works like Howl or On the Road, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, or Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—it’s concertedly in-between stuff, bronchial guys in airless studios fussing over augmented chord progressions. Fagen is lyrical about his idol Ray Charles—hobbled by racism, blindness, and addiction, but a canny operator who smooched the mainstream with roughed-up textures, surprising combinations, dissimulated taunts. In another lovely tribute, “Henry Mancini’s Anomie Deluxe,” Fagen explains how the eponymous arranger used jazz idioms and jazz players in his TV and film work. “He utilized the unconventional, spare instrumentation associated with the cool school: French horns, vibraphone, electric guitar and—Mancini’s specialty—a very active flute section, including both alto flute and the rarely used bass flute. Instruments were often individually miked to bring out the detail. . . . There was a lot of empty space. It was real cool.” Mancini gave a bop edge to such TV bagatelles as Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, just as Quincy Jones would later score Ironside and pianist Lalo Schifrin would rework the unforgettable Man from U.N.C.L.E. theme. (Both Schifrin and Jones were graduates of the Dizzy Gillespie touring band, and Jones was mentored early on by Ray Charles.) Mancini titles such as “Dreamsville” and “A Profound Gass” (sic) inspired Fagen to learn more about jazz, and “out of these fragments of hip and hype I constructed in my mind a kind of Disneyland of Cool.” For a moment, we’re dropped into the adolescent Donald’s reverie about a Mancini recording session: “Everybody’s smoking Pall Malls or some other powerful nonfilter cigarettes. Hank hands out the parts. When they run down the chart, a thick membrane of sound flows forth and hovers in the room. It sounds incredibly plush.” It’s rare to read a musician who writes well about the recording process.

Shelves of books are devoted to unearthing the fugitive “meaning” of pretty song lyrics, yet often it’s some forgotten scrap of melody that cracks us apart; an old sitcom theme from decades ago can deep-six us more effectively than most big-name, chart-topping tracks. Becker and Fagen knew all about the occult effectiveness of tone and texture. The more studio time they could afford, the more they explored this world of sonic spacing, layering, and counterpoint. Across Aja and Gaucho and Fagen’s own Nightfly, musical grain counts as much as buffed-up words. Listen again to “Black Cow” from Aja: a moony relationship, bogged down in slackness and routine. Recrimination rears its snapping-turtle head, and breakup is surely imminent: “I can’t cry any more.” The rhythm uncurls like someone under deep anesthetic. Plod, plod, plod, through a big black cloud. Then (“just when it seems so clear”) we turn a corner and the music perks up, becomes almost punch-the-sky joyous, a homecoming parade of high-five bass and pungent roadhouse sax.

Or try “New Frontier” from The Nightfly, which opens with an ear-popping surge of forward motion. Drums skip and skim like speedboats leaving a summer jetty; the electric piano nudges you with a conspiratorial grin. The chorus rises and falls like sun motes on a holiday balcony. But there’s something else here, under all the mist and spray—a strange hesitant guitar fill, like a nagging second thought, fussing away throughout the song. The major-chord whole is so effervescent and pulls you along in such a happy trance that it’s only in retrospect that you realize what a difficult balancing act Fagen pulls off. In “New Frontier,” he distills the secret fears slumbering under the aquamarine repose of hot summertime fun. Fagen sounds upbeat, like a Supremes 45, but “the key word is survival on the new frontier.” Take that how you will. In isolation, it has a ring of tooth-and-claw realpolitik. But survival is living, too, and in the end, “New Frontier” is a low-down limbo shimmy, celebrating a new-dawn limbo time.

The song’s title is an uncharacteristically candid reference to an antecedent text: John F. Kennedy’s speech accepting his presidential nomination at the 1960 Democratic convention. The onset of the decade ahead: Camelot dawning, and Kennedy eternally young and forever tan in blinky monochrome footage. When the women behind him applaud, all you can see is a blur of white dress gloves. The New Frontier was a tiny nugget phrase that set free outsize reverberations. From “IGY,” which launchesThe Nightfly: “Standing tough under stars and stripes / We can tell: this dream’s in sight.” But consult the speech in question, and you find that it has a surprisingly ashy Cold War taste. Rather than the expected sound-barrier boom of celebration, the message is more like: ignore this advice at your peril. The speech’s rhetorical march falls on a series of hesitant downbeats: “unknown,” “unfilled,” “uncharted,” “unsolved,” “unconquered,” “unanswered.” It’s full of pinched undertones, as much provocation as celebration. Are you up to the trek ahead? Have you got the bright stuff? Do you relish the idea of uncharted space, unfilled time? As much as he was looking forward, celebrating American know-how and optimism, Kennedy was also speaking against unacknowledged failings: prejudice, poverty, everything that held the American Dream out of reach for many sections of postwar U.S. society. On the page, if you Magic-Marker those via-negativa unwords, it looks like the grand bummer of all New Tomorrow speeches, and a less capable speaker might have stumbled and missed his moment. (JFK had a rather nasal, whiny voice, but boy, he could deliver a lyric. He was the Bob Dylan of sixties political oratory.)

Fagen’s original hipster era is now as old-world distant and faraway as a Victorian player piano or, indeed, the urtext that Fagen swipes his own title from: Lytton Strachey’s 1918 study, Eminent Victorians. Strachey caused a big stir with his discreetly anti-hagiographical work, but he saw this slim volume as a resource as much for future readers as for his own contemporaries. Lytton was a bit of a proto-hipster himself—beardy, polysexual, equally at home with Maynard Keynes or sheaves of fussy French Symbolist poetry. Where Strachey was out to puncture received wisdom about the era in question, Fagen wants to rescue a misunderstood time. Just possibly, Fagen has something similar in mind to Strachey’s idea of a biographical time capsule—he may be writing against his time, as much as for it. (The diary form is a useful means of raising serious concerns in a deceptively airy manner.) Looked at in this way, the essays seem less of an ad-hoc grab bag. A quick glimpse at the table of contents may suggest that Fagen’s essay choices are flagrantly, even perversely, personal; but they add up to an overview of a specific historical moment. As MacAdams puts it in Birth of the Cool: “Before, there had been many individual acts of cool. Now Cool—a way, a stance, a knowledge—was born.” Previously, what was hip had been the preserve of certain underground cliques, signaling among themselves in the darkness. Most of all, black American culture in general and jazz culture in particular were the choppy currents that fed into societal sea change.

Hip now found itself working backup for—not the Man exactly, but close enough. Fagen is spot-on identifying hip’s undercover dispersal through phenomena like TV cop shows, the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Sinatra’s pals in the Rat Pack. Here were “street-wise swingers” who were palpably hip, “but they could operate in the straight world with existential efficiency.” This birthed a tradition of what you might call “straight hip,” exemplified by the one guy Lalo Schifrin worked for more than anyone else: Clint Eastwood. Starting with his own nightfly DJ character in Play Misty for Me, through the imperturbably cool (and sharply dressed) Harry Callahan, Eastwood embedded discreetly hip tones in precariously conservative settings, right up to Bird, his controversial 1988 biopic of original hipster Charlie Parker. Perhaps none of this should surprise us. The conventional wisdom about the success of something likeMad Men is that it plays to our cloudy nostalgia for a time before political correctness and the culture wars, a time when we were positively encouraged to smoke and exist on a diet of highballs, one-night stands, and diet pills. Everything free and easy, no constant checking of guidelines (and e-mails).

But isn’t this nostalgia less for a lax, ring-a-ding time than for a lost grid, where every moral choice was mapped out? Where everyone accepted the existence of common rules? After all, frontiers are places where things end as well as begin. It’s all about a pleasurable tension between strict rules and raised-eyebrow rule breaking. Think of Eastwood as Callahan. He’s got swell loafers and perfect shades, but he’s thin red line to the core. He swings—but not in front of the children, or on the streets, or for public consumption. I suspect that in decades to come, people will be absolutely baffled by the high-color moral variegation of the Dirty Harry series.

Rule breaking is only worthwhile when the rules you break have real meaning. Fagen is funny but acute on that moment in our teenage years when we snub parents and dismiss all authority figures but simultaneously initiate a desperate search for persuasively hep figures, people to tell us exactly what we should listen to, view, and read. What todig. The mainstream culture of that early-sixties era may get a bad rap for being queasily paternalistic, but sometimes we need experts to teach us the art of making fine distinctions and keeping valuable traditions alive. Our twenty-first-century snake-oil promise of “more choice” often devolves into homogeneous slop, a moraine of thin and stony repetition. In the current YouTube moment, we’re told that we have a limitless look-see option on everything there ever was, laid out right before us—but at the price, perhaps, of a complete absence of critical chiaroscuro. Look up Steely Dan’s wistful “Hey Nineteen” on Wikipedia, and you find: “See also: Age disparity in sexual relationships.” Which is nearly straight-faced inapt enough to be a Becker-Fagen in-joke.

Hipsters these days have to use all their desperate wiles just to stay one step ahead of the local TV news; but back in Fagen’s youth, sources of alternative info were next to zero. It’s easy to sneer at the old idea of “in the know” hepcats, but hipsters once really were those who lit out for terra incognita. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the over-canonized Beats, but it’s easy to forget the reason they were elected figureheads in the first place: they sallied forth into the unknown and set about indexing the whole of American dreaming, not just a few choice, sanitized cuts. Some of their takes on black culture may now strike us as risible and patronizing, and some of the quasi-religious holy-fool sub-notes feel a bit self-hypnotized (and on, and on); but at the time, they were navigating wholly without maps.

There are times on his grand tour of the U.S. in 2010 when Fagen wonders if a whole lot has changed over the preceding 50 years. There may be a black president, but whole swaths of culture are in danger of being reforgotten, belittled, or neutered in divisive “culture wars” (with errors of taste and scale on both sides). He’s alternately combative and perplexed: a 63-year-old singing the golden notes of his youth and struggling to work out if they still mean anything—if any songs do. Suddenly, hip seems less like a faded hobbyhorse for a middle-aged malcontent and more like a lively topos. In the end, Fagen is hip enough to know that you can’t run from your own adult quandaries. There are deeply affecting passages here about family and marriage, loss and aging—things the younger Donald might not have copped to: difficult negotiations, real blues. When you’ve spent your life using Cool to hold an untidy, insensate world at bay, how do you manage the rough stuff when it rears up and blindsides you on the street where you live, one fine day?

He’s good on his parents—both “the father thing” and a mother who was a more than capable lounge singer, far more creative than she let on (and thus emblematic of many women from that era with curtailed dreams). Fagen senior was someone who sincerely believed in the promise of the American Dream but found himself knocked to the canvas by real economic jabs. There was the rhetorical fandango of JFK’s New Frontier, and then there was how it played out in workplaces, bank accounts, and parental bedrooms. Also, you begin to see where the askew texture of Steely Dan lyrics may have found some of its everyday inspiration: his parents lived in a “nightmarishly bland apartment, which was in a high-rise building on—wait for it—Chagrin Boulevard.” Finally, Fagen’s hipster is not what Anita Brookner, in a lovely spearing of Baudelaire, called a Propagandist of the Pauvre Moi. What’s revealing about the scattered reflections in Eminent Hipsters is that, in the end, the claim that Fagen makes for these marginal eminences is that they were good people. Good for art, good for the social fabric, good examples for one and all.

In those long-gone, fake-ID years, the other Donald longed to be a night-blessed pulp-fiction character with a cynical blonde on his arm and big thoughts in his nodding head. “That shape is my shade / There where I used to stand.” Well, he got his dream. In the same way Bob Dylan slowly became one of those gravel-voiced old troubadours he started out imitating, Fagen is now a prickly old jazzer, languid and bittersweet. Still on the road, still making for the border, still so hip it hurts. Next March, it will be 40 years since Pretzel Logic: the same interval as between Ellington’s merciful “Toodle-Oo” and the Dan’s own fizzing but seemly tribute. Some frontiers never grow old.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Paranoid Screen: What? Me Worry?

Paranoid celluloid: conspiracy on film
'If I'm wrong, I'm insane. If I'm right, it's worse': in conspiracy films – from Rosemary's Baby to State of Play – solving the crime does not bring peace. Michael Newton investigates a rich cinematic genre

Michael Newton
The Guardian
Friday 7 February 2014

Some believe that JFK was shot by his driver, some that Bobby Kennedy was killed by one of his guards; some believe the world is ruled by a Yale fraternity, some by lizard-aliens in disguise; some believe that Obama is a Communist mole; some that, back in 1966, Paul McCartney died. These notions are, at best, deluded; but as potential pitches for an as yet unmade Hollywood movie, they might just secure the contract. For, in movies, you can believe that the moon shots were faked, or that men are replacing their wives with compliant robots, or that space shuttles are firing earthquake-inducing weapons, or that the world itself is a delusion – and in each case you could be proved right.

The distance between conspiracy films and actual documented conspiracies has always been paper-thin. Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of Robert Kennedy's murder, thinks of himself as a "Manchurian candidate", a brainwashed killer just like in the movies; the same atmosphere of anxiety and unease that informs Alan J Pakula's fictional The Parallax View (1974) likewise pervades his Watergate film,All The President's Men (1976).

There have long been fears of conspiracy – weird anxieties about transnational plots hatched by the Freemasons or the Communist International, the Jesuits or the Jews. Yet the conspiracy theory text is really an early-20th-century product, coming into being in a cultural moment that united cosmopolitan anarchist terrorism, revolutionary communist hopes, the triumph of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic system, and the birth of the espionage novel. The phrase "conspiracy theory" was coined in 1909, only a year after GK Chesterton published The Man Who Was Thursday, that great novel of paranoid political fears. A new way of perceiving the world had arrived – one that exposed grand narratives of deception and control, all through the unpicking of clues, the fusing of events. Facts attach themselves to suspicions; unexpected connections coalesce; a story builds; everything seems crazily plausible. Coincidence is king.

Such widespread suspicion, the fall into a troubled and troubling abyss of speculation, was bound to find some counterpart in that great repository of dreams that is the cinema. The conspiracy film is not quite a genre. And if conspiracy is simply two or more people engaging in criminal or nefarious plots, the more you think about it, the more any film can start to seem to a conspiracy film – from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Wings of the Dove (1997). No movie is to be trusted.

Yet there is a discernible kind of conspiracy fiction out there, both criminal or political, fantastic or close to documentary. It would embrace Edge of Darkness (1985), as well as Rosemary's Baby (1968), The 39 Steps (1935) and Capricorn One (1978), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as much as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Such works might be better termed "paranoid fictions", characterised by uncertainty, suspicion, a mood of disquiet, the sense that nothing is as we perceive it. The camera intensifies the unease with shots that reveal someone else is watching, as we share for a moment their malign, inquisitive gaze. Suspicion and curiosity are the motivating forces. In All the President's Men, the journalists' great mantra is the phrase, "We know that", always spoken when pushing further into what they do not yet know.

Conspiracy theories are for the "clear‑seeing" minority, the supposedly undeceived. Such theorists are the last gnostics; they believe that knowledge is salvation, and knowing necessarily involves possessing secrets hidden from the common herd. In The Matrix (1999), pleasure enters from rising above the ruck, and standing out as "The One", the world around you transformed into a video game. A fear of terrible control turns into a counter-fantasy of enormous empowerment; a triumphant quasi-religious refusal to feel small. It is a dream of self-importance.

In our culture, the great figure of "knowing" is the detective, and the paranoid fiction is a close cousin of the detective story, though it lacks the latter's rational and comforting quality. The job of the detective is to link apparently random elements within the film; to connect the dots. As demonstrated by the brilliant Edge of Darkness, it is on TV that conspiracy finds its ideal home. For there the greater length of the series better accommodates conspiracy's labyrinthine structure, revelation after revelation, a door opening on another closed door.

For the classic detective tale, the solution somehow shrinks the story, pinning all the possible guilt on one suspect. In the paranoid fiction, solving the crime does not bring peace. The exposed mystery is sometimes so immense that it deluges the detective figure, overwhelming all possibility of resolution; corruption ramifies endlessly. Chinatown (1974), The Conversation, The Parallax View, and many others, end in complete hopelessness; victory over the hidden powers is rare. If in Paul Abbott's fantastic TV series State of Play (2003), a small hope lingers, it is only because, to some extent, conspiracy has faded behind a more comprehensible crime of passion. All the leads, all the murk, just result in another murder story for the papers. You unravel a conspiracy, reconstruct its plot; you cannot "solve" it.

As State of Play reveals, the journalist makes the perfect detective hero and heroine in such tales. Journalists are close to power, but are relatively powerless; they are unofficial, slightly sleazy, human. The enemy is a figure in a suit; in The Matrix, the oppressive agents resemble both CIA operatives and certified accountants; in State of Play's forgettable Hollywood remake, Russell Crowe's journalist looks like Jeff Bridges as the Big Lebowski, and Ben Affleck, his complicit congressman friend, like an estate agent.

This interest in the journalist as such is symptomatic of the paranoid film; it is unusually fascinated by watching its characters at work: reporters reporting, investigators investigating. In the Bourne films, Jason Bourne has no identity outside the fact of his training. In All the President's Men, there is almost no indication of the private lives of any of the journalists; there is only their absorption in the story. In Defence of the Realm (1986), one character asks another: "Are you here as a newspaper man, or as a friend?" Later, at the journalist's funeral, his boss declares that, before anything, the dead man was a "professional". In The Conversation, someone asserts: "It's only a job … you're not supposed to feel anything about it, you're just supposed to do it."

In these films and programmes, the working self, the public person, is all but everything. In State of Play, romance is temporary and hardly matters; career trumps love. Again, in Defence of the Realm, Gabriel Byrne's character clearly desires Greta Scacchi's character, yet she remains first and foremost an informant, a contact. Work in such films is an obsession. The ethos of the reporter's job stands as an emblem of compromised purity; the tarnished but real ideal of the freedom of the press. The typewriter makes public the power of the secret state.

This faith in the freedom brought by knowledge is one of the great positives enshrined in the conspiracy film. Yet for all their pleasures, they are among the grimmest of movies. For in the guise of exposing secrets, they are as often dissolving the real. This makes them an ideal subject for cinema, a medium that in any case constructs its own reality from photographed simulacra of the actual. So it is that, very often, such films show us things that, rationally speaking, cannot be there – Bob Peck conversing with his dead daughter in Edge of Darkness, the hallucinations that permeate Martin Scorsese's magnificently gothic Shutter Island (2010), the illusion that is the "world" itself in The Matrix. Reality becomes suspect; the surface must be continually reassessed. In all conspiracy films, the accepted world of the ordinary may turn out to be extraordinary, but only in the sense of being extraordinarily dark. Things are far worse than you believed. Either you are mad to believe in the conspiracy, or the world is mad to have allowed it. In The Stepford Wives (1975), as she considers her suspicions about what's going on in Stepford, Katharine Ross agonises: "It's so awful. If I'm wrong, I'm insane. And if I'm right, it's worse than if I'm wrong."

These films want to tell us to trust nothing. In All The President's Men, the investigating journalists, Bernstein and Woodward, pay a visit to the suburbs of Washington DC. "All those neat little houses, all those nice little streets," murmurs Bernstein. "It's hard to believe there's something wrong with some of those little houses." "No it isn't," says Woodward. In conspiracy films a moment must come in which we have to abandon everything we have thought is true. Since the late 90s, such a move has become a common one; after Fight Club (1999), The Others (2001), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Matrix, it is a trusting viewer indeed who never suspects something is amiss with the "facts" a film shows them. We have come to suspect the stories we are told, to doubt the evidence of our eyes. The great fear is manipulation – by the government, by corporations, by criminals and, finally, by film itself.

If deep in the sludge of the internet conspiracies are of all kinds, on film they are almost always the privilege of the powerful. Here, rightful authority tends to debase itself as deceiving power. Despite Stalin and Mao, repression comes from the right; our imagined totalitarian states are now entrepreneurial, corporate, anti-democratic. Government becomes a facade.

The policing of the internet, all that data mining, is already a kind of policing of our dreams – many of them bad. What do our fantasies say about us? On some level, the paranoid film wants to absolve the victim; all vice resides in the CIA or MI5, in Downing Street or the White House, and none in us. Yet, attacking conspiracy means behaving yourself like a conspirator. In State of Play, the journalists have already adopted the techniques of surveillance, secretly recording everything.

Nonetheless a wish for the innocence of the little guy loiters. The strongest example of this trend is Shutter Island. Here in a cut-off island hospital for the criminally insane, two paradoxes face each other: once someone is labelled "insane", suddenly all they say, even their protestations of sanity, will seem mad. Similarly, once an event attracts a conspiracy theory, any evidence that might disprove the theory becomes a duplicitous lie, just another element in the sham. In neither case can credence be given, and our common sense of each other as trustworthy, as real, disappears. The predicament of the film's hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, tells us much about the consolations of conspiracy theory: it can seem better to live in a world run by dark forces, than to face the certain darkness within the self.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, over the last 80 years the vision of conspiracy has darkened. In Hitchcock's film version of The 39 Steps, a conspiracy prompts the hero to go on the run, but flight brings a reckless joy. The world opens itself up to Richard Hannay with all the glorious possibility of adventure. The police may be mistakenly pursuing him too, but the real enemy is a foreign government; he is facing death, but, ultimately, all is right with the world. By the time we reach Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda(1990), a tale of dark deeds done in Northern Ireland in democracy's name, the joy has departed, and the enemy is ourselves; the instruments of violence found in the police and the British government. The paranoid film is not known for its laughs. Only Richard Donner's decidedly weird Conspiracy Theory (1997) comes close to a manic humour. Here, casting is key. The film plays brilliantly on the fact that many in the audience will already find Mel Gibson weird. The film dramatises the great hope of the heroic couple (Gibson, Julia Roberts), illicit lovers, on the run and harried. Both Hitchcock and Donner want us to believe in the victory of trust within a couple, of love's secret conspiracy.

Such moments of affirmation are rare. In looking back on these films, you hardly recall the conspiracies. What more often remains with you is the utter loneliness of the surveyed and the duped. The archetypal scene in such films is someone persuading a recalcitrant other to open up, to tell their secrets. Such secrets signal the intense privacy of the self, precisely the privacy corroded by the surveillance world. And, as Henry Kissinger once warned us, even the paranoid have enemies.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Sir Tom Finney RIP

Sir Tom Finney
Preston's Tom Finney would have a place in any all-time World XI
• Two-footed winger could play in any forward role
• Lack of medals should not disguise his genius

Richard Williams
The Guardian
Saturday 15 February 2014

If ever there was a career in football which proved that trophies are not the only, or even the truest, measure of greatness, it was that of Tom Finney. The championship of the old Second Division in 1950-51 was the only medal he won with Preston North End and England in a career that lasted a decade and a half but the admiration of numberless fans in the post-war years was of considerably more significance.

"He's like a little Tom Finney," I remember my father saying in admiration as he watched one of my school mates dribble through a pack of eight-year-old opponents. He had seen Finney and in his eyes, as in those of most football enthusiasts of his generation, in Britain and abroad, there could have been no finer or more serious compliment.

Yet Finney, a quiet and modest man, was so often outshone in the mind of the general public by his contemporary Stanley Matthews, who skills were perhaps more easily identifiable. Both men were right-wingers by choice but Finney's extraordinary versatility meant that Matthews could be awarded the position when the two played together for England.
Tom Finney in 1949
Finney was two-footed and could make goals and score from outside left, too, but his varied skills, sweet movement, quick wits and sheer football intelligence meant that he could function effectively in any of the other forward positions. Thirty goals in 76 matches for England and 187 in 433 league appearances for Preston North End, mostly from the wing, tell their own story.

He would have been a sensation in today's football, made for the "false 9" role in which elusiveness, close control and the timing of runs are so important. Of all the players of his age he offered the best counter to the argument that English football and its exponents belonged to the Dark Ages.

Geoffrey Green, the eloquent football correspondent of The Times, saw England's two great wingers play together for the first time as Walter Winterbottom's team thrashed a highly rated Portugal side 10-0 in Lisbon in 1947 and then in a famous 4-0 demolition of Italy – the reigning world champions – in Turin a year later. "Two or three of them – Matthews and Finney, certainly, the scholars of the team – might have gained a place in any World XI at that time," he wrote.

Matthews himself was never reluctant to heap praise on his rival. "To dictate the pace and course of a game," he wrote, "a player has to be blessed with awesome qualities. Those who have accomplished it on a regular basis can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Pelé, Maradona, Best, Di Stéfano and Tom Finney."

To that list the spectator of today might add Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and indeed Tommy Docherty once said that Messi was "Tom Finney reborn". John Charles, who idolised Finney as a boy and played against him for Wales, would write: "As a winger Tom was far more direct than Stanley and scored goals for fun. I preferred him at centre-forward, where he could do things others could not do." Jimmy Armfield, his friend of many years, summed up the warmth he evoked even among opponents: "The country loved Tom Finney."

And, wonderfully, he played every one of his league matches for the same club. Preston's great feat of being the first Double winners in the history of the English game was achieved more than half a century before he appeared. Between the wars they shuttled back and forth between the First and Second Divisions but they were back in the top flight when he made his league debut in 1946 at the age of 24, his transition from the junior to the senior ranks delayed by his participation in the hostilities.

Deepdale became the stage for his greatness and Preston's fans his adoring extended family. He looked as if there was not an ounce of meat on his bones. His crinkly hair and crooked smile were other distinguishing features. On the ball he was all deftness and imagination, evidence to anyone who saw him that, long before the tricks of the continental and South American aces were available for viewing by a mass audience on television, the game could be played with artistry and grace on English turf.
Soccer - Sir Tom Finney splash
His loyalty to Preston was tested only once, on the famous occasion when Palermo of Serie A came in for him with an offer of £10,000 for two seasons. In the era of the maximum wage it represented unimaginable riches: at that point players in England could earn no more than £14 a week. No wonder he was tempted. But when the directors refused to let him go, he hid his disappointment. Having long been the club's figurehead, in later years he became its president.

He was known, of course, as "the Preston Plumber", having been told by his father to complete the apprenticeship that would ensure his ability to pursue another trade in case of injury or after retirement. In fact he started his own successful business while still playing, in order to supplement his income.

"There was nothing showy or irrelevant about Tom Finney," wrote Bobby Charlton, who had the Preston man to thank for the pass that opened the way for his first international goal, on his debut against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1958. Finney was then two years away from a retirement hastened by a groin injury. Had he been born 10 or 15 years later, he would have been an automatic inclusion in Alf Ramsey's 1966 team. But one more medal, even from a World Cup, could have added nothing to the lustre of a reputation that had no need of baubles.

Ralph Waite RIP

Ralph Waite obituary
Actor best known for playing John Walton Sr in the US television family drama The Waltons

Anthony Hayward
14 February 2014

Ralph Waite, who has died aged 85, worked as a social worker, Presbyterian minister, publicist and book editor before turning to acting and landing the part as patriarch of a struggling American family in the wholesome US television drama The Waltons (1972-81).

For nine series and more than 200 episodes from 1972 to 1981, as John Walton Sr – "Pa" – he was the quiet tower of strength bringing up a family of seven during the depression and second world war with his wife, Olivia (Michael Learned).

The barefoot Virginia hillfolk operated a sawmill on Walton's Mountain, in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Their trials and tribulations, based on Earl Hamner Jr's autobiographical novel Spencer's Mountain, were seen through the eyes of the eldest son, John-Boy (played by Richard Thomas for most of the run, then Robert Wightman), a character who eventually realised his literary ambitions by having his first novel published. Waite's "Good night, John-Boy" closing line was a catchphrase for millions of fans of The Waltons around the world. The actor himself directed 16 episodes.

The run ended with John selling the mill to his entrepreneurial son Ben (Eric Scott) and moving with Olivia to Arizona, where she could recover from tuberculosis. The series was followed by six television specials – three in 1982, A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (1993), A Walton Wedding (1995) and A Walton Easter (1997). Waite's character was voted third in a 2004 TV Guide poll of the 50 "greatest TV dads of all time". President George Bush Sr wished in 1992 that American families could be "a lot more like the Waltons, and a lot less like the Simpsons".

Waite was born in White Plains, New York, the son of a construction engineer. He described himself as "a show-off, a dreamer, a storyteller" who was never taken to a play or concert as a child.

He served in the US Marine Corps (1946-48) and graduated from Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, in 1952, before working briefly as a social worker in Westchester County, New York.

After gaining a master's degree from Yale University Divinity School, Waite became a minister with the United Church of Christ on Fishers Island and in Garden City, New York. Dissatisfied with what he saw as hypocrisy in the church, he left to become publicity director and assistant editor of religious books at Harper & Row.

Switching to acting at the suggestion of a friend, as his marriage went downhill and his drinking increased, he trained with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and made his professional debut as the chief of police in a 1960 New York production, The Balcony. Broadway plays followed, including Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), which Waite and the cast reprised at the Aldwych theatre in London in 1966.

After his first film appearance, alongside Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Waite appeared in dozens of big- and small-screen roles. He played Slater, the slave ship's sadistic third mate, in the television mini-series Roots (1977) and Kevin Costner's father in the film The Bodyguard (1992).

He sobered up after realising that his life was at odds with the caring father figure he portrayed in The Waltons. He then had regular roles on television as the retired lawyer Ben Walker in The Mississippi (1982-84), a corrupt billionaire in the second series of Murder One (1996), and priests in both Carnivàle (2003-05) and Days of Our Lives (2009-13).

In 1975, Waite was founder and artistic director of the experimental Los Angeles Actors' Theater. Seven years later, he married his third wife, Linda East, an interior designer. They moved to the Coachella valley in Palm Desert, California, in 2002. With his late brother Donald and other family members, Waite opened Don and Sweet Sue's Café in Cathedral City.

Political ambitions, inspired, he said, by the example of Czech playwright Václav Havel, led the actor to run unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 1990 and twice in 1998, when he tried to take the Palm Springs, California, a seat formerly held by the singer Sonny Bono. That campaign was hampered by a commitment to complete a run in the leading role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman for a theatre in New Jersey.

After shunning organised religion for half a century, Waite returned to it in 2010 as a minister with the liberal Spirit of the Desert Presbyterian Fellowship. He saw it as reflecting his own progressive and political views.

Waite's first two marriages, to Beverly Hall and Kerry Shear, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, her son Liam, an actor, and two of the three daughters from his first marriage.

• Ralph Harold Waite, actor, born 22 June 1928; died 13 February 2014