Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

My Russian Fascination

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

At the top of my reading pile these days is The Zhivago Affair, the tale of how Russian author Boris Pasternak came to write the novel Dr. Zhivago, how he came to have the novel first published in 1957 in Italy (to the absolute dismay and anger of Soviet authorities who wanted it not to be published at all), and how the United States’ CIA used the novel as an anti-Soviet tool.

I’m about halfway through the book, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, and I find it fascinating, as I do many books, movies and pieces of music that have any connection with Russia. That fascination has endured for many years, built on a number of things, including (but likely not limited to) watching and reading the news of the Cold War centered on Moscow and Washington during my childhood; playing the many pieces of Russian and Eastern European music that my orchestra director at St. Cloud Tech High School selected for our repertoire; seeing the 1965 film version of Dr. Zhivago not long after it came out; spending six days in 1973 in Moscow and the city that was then called Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, as it was at its founding in 1703); and learning (and watching as an adult) the arc of Russian history from ambitious empire to Soviet linchpin to chaotic democracy to today’s authoritarian state.

When that fascination was developing, in the late 1960s, I tried to read Pasternak’s novel and found it confusing and not a little boring. For years, as an adult, I had a leather-bound copy of the novel on my shelf and never read it. That copy is gone now; I evidently sold it during the lean years of the late 1990s. And as I read The Zhivago Affair, I’m tempted to try Dr. Zhivago once again. I’ll also likely take another look at the David Lean film. I ordered it several years ago from Netflix but for some reason never finished watching it; what I did see confirmed my long-standing impression of it as sprawling but likely easier to digest than the novel itself.

With the movie, of course, comes the music: Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack, for which he won a deserved Academy Award. During recent late evenings, I’ve been using the expanded version of the soundtrack as background music for The Zhivago Affair just as I once used Tchaikovsky’s music – including, of course, the “1812 Overture” – for a long-abandoned reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Another book I need to try again, I guess.) Jarre’s themes and motifs echo Russian music; the real thing also comes out of the speakers here frequently, from Tchaikovsky to Borodin to Glinka to a scavenged collection of maybe 300 Russian folk songs and the two-CD set The Best of the Red Army Choir.

The listening is easy. Reading, of course, takes more time (and sometimes much more effort). There are Russian books beyond Tolstoy’s masterpiece that I need to read, including a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that was signed and dated by my dad in 1948. And I need to accelerate my reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, at which I’ve been poking for years. (Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Soviet forced labor camps – and of the various government agencies that sent millions to those camps – is more anecdotal than narrative, so reading bits and pieces at a time is an approach that seems to work.)

So is this fascination of mine with things Russian – especially with the period from, oh, 1900 through 1950 – just a historical interest? I don’t think so. It feels deeper than that, like the grip that Stonehenge has had on me over the years. I think that the soul I carry through this life – or that carries me, more fittingly – knows Russia well. That’s all I can say. Would I like to be able to say more? Well, yes, but the best I can do is guess at this point. And beyond indulging in a little bit of supposition over a beer with friends, I’m better off finishing The Zhivago Affair and then turning my attention to other works that might enlighten me, helping me to know (once again, I think) the history and culture of a place that seems so alien and yet so familiar.

Here’s Maurice Jarre’s “Main Title” from the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago.

‘In From The Cold . . .’

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Another cold snap has found us, and I came in about an hour ago from shoveling three inches of fluffy snow off the sidewalks. My fingers have warmed up, and I plan on staying inside until late this afternoon when I’ll combine a stop at the library with a stop to pick up the Texas Gal after work.

In what may seem like an entirely unrelated subject, I’ve kept for years a mental list of movies I need to see. One of them has been Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s award-winning adaptation of boxer Jake LaMotta’s memoir. I’ve tried several times to watch it, and I can’t get into it. I sent the DVD back to Netflix yesterday for maybe the third time. The same holds true for Mean Streets, another highly regarded Scorsese film; I start watching it and can’t get into it. Maybe it’s Scorsese, although I’ve seen and enjoyed a few of his other films, notably Taxi Driver and The Last Waltz. (The Aviator was just okay.) So it’s likely me.

But I added a film to my list this morning as I was wandering through the mp3s, looking for something suitable for a frigid Minnesota morning. Back in the mid-1960s, when I was in my James Bond phase, I went beyond Ian Fleming’s books and the movies based on them and read other spy novels and watched other movies. I’ve mentioned here before Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File and the movie based on it. I read a lot of Deighton’s other work, and I read, among others, many of John le Carré’s spy novels.

And when I looked for mp3s with “cold” in their titles this morning, the search function on the RealPlayer reminded me that I’ve never read the 1963 novel that seems to have been le Carré’s first true spy novel , The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Nor have I seen the 1965 film, starring Richard Burton, based on the book. (In that long-ago post about my Bondmania, I said I saw the film, but after some thought, I do not think I did.) So the movie goes on my list (and I add the book to my long list of books I want to read).

And I’ll likely take a look at a couple more Scorsese films soon, maybe Cape Fear or Gangs of New York. (I’d welcome suggestions.)

In the meantime, here’s something related to the cold. Here’s Billy Strange’s version of the theme from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It’s from Strange’s 1965 album, The Secret Agent File.

Saturday Evenings With Dad

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

It’s not very important, not after forty-seven years, but I’m still puzzled. For about five weeks in January and February of 1966, my dad and I went out and did stuff on Saturday evenings.

Oh, I didn’t mind at all. I liked spending time with Dad. I was twelve, and a Saturday evening with Dad was a pretty good weekend treat. And we did some fun stuff.

At least once during that stretch we spent the evening at St. Cloud State, watching the men’s basketball team – the college’s only basketball team in 1966 – take on another team from the Northern Intercollegiate Conference. The Huskies had one of the better small college teams at the time, routinely contending for the NIC championship and a spot in the national tournament of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), kind of a small college version of the better known NCAA.

We sat on the side, where our family always sat, but this time it was just Dad and me, three rows up from the Huskies’ bench, close enough to the press tables that I could listen in as a sportscaster named Peter Jay called the game for KFAM, one of the two radio stations in town. Being fascinated with radio and sportscasting, I likely greeted Mr. Jay before the game, as I often did when our whole family went to games. As always, he would have taken time to talk briefly to me, time that most surely could have been spent studying statistics, memorizing numbers or checking his connection to the radio station.

Then the game started, and I cheered for the Huskies, taking a break to get some popcorn from the concession stand at halftime. I don’t recall who St. Cloud State played that night; they likely won, as they did most nights. And it’s entirely possible that Dad and I went to two games during that five-week winter stretch, with me listening to the pep band play the “SCS Rouser” and taking my cues from the cheerleaders in their red and black uniforms. (The cheerleaders and the players – and their college-age fans, for that matter – seemed so much older than I was. It’s a shock this morning to realize that they were only ten or so years my senior. That gap now is minuscule; as I sail through my late fifties, they would now be pretty much my contemporaries.)

What else did we do on those Saturday evenings during that five-week slice of January and February in 1966? We went to at least two movies, maybe three. I think that’s why those Saturday nights linger in my mind. Just the two of us going to a basketball game at Halenbeck didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. That happened occasionally. But movies were a family thing (unless my sister and I went with friends). So a movie with Dad but without my mom and my sister was different.

What did we see? I recall The Sands of the Kalahari, about the survivors of a plane crash in that African desert trying to put together an escape craft from the wreckage of the plane that brought them there. I think we might have seen The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a 1965 film based on the John le Carré novel and starring Richard Burton. And I know we saw The IPCRESS File, another spy flick from 1965, this one based on a novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine. Why am I sure we saw that one? Because the music was by John Barry, whose name I knew from the James Bond films. I never got the soundtrack to The IPCRESS File, but I remember liking the music a lot.

Whatever we did on each of those Saturday nights, we found ourselves heading back to our car about nine o’clock. That was a late night out for a twelve-year-old kid in 1966. But our evenings weren’t over yet. On each of those four or five Saturday nights, after we got back to the East Side, Dad pulled the car over in the parking lot of the Ace Bar & Cafe.

We had dinner occasionally at the Ace, and I loved it when we did, as the Ace was one of the few places I ever knew that served liver pate as a part of its relish tray, and I loved liver pate on rye crackers. (I still do, though it’s more rare these days. So are relish trays, for that matter.)

But in the winter of 1966, Dad and I were walking into the Ace sometime after nine in the evening, and the character of the place was different. The dining room was nearly empty. Actually, I imagine that on a couple of those Saturday nights, Dad and I were the only customers in the dining room. The Saturday night action was in the adjacent bar, and the sound of weekend revelry came down the hall and around the corner

I’d been in the bar portion of the building only once, and that was by accident when I took a wrong turn from the restroom. Feeling very small, I’d ducked past big and loud people as I retreated to the familiar dining room. So during the winter of 1966, sitting at a table with my dad in the nearly empty dining room and hearing the sound of the drinkers in the bar made me feel a little vulnerable, a little lonely, a little bit how I often feel these days when I see the works of Edward Hopper. (Check out Nighthawks.)

However I felt, we’d order hamburgers, and Dad would have a Hamm’s beer. During our first stop at the Ace in that stretch of Saturday nights, I noticed something – a sign, an ad on the table, I don’t know what – that reminded me of a soft drink I’d recently heard of and never tried. So I ordered a Mountain Dew, and for the rest of that four or five week stretch, that was our order at the Ace: two burgers, one with raw onions, a Hamm’s beer and a Mountain Dew.

And after those four or five weeks, it stopped. Saturday nights went back to being nights spent mostly at home. Oh, we’d go see the Huskies play, but it was all four or us, not just Dad and me. And if I saw a movie, it was with the whole family or else with Rick or some kids from school.

I don’t know what was happening during that time. Did Mom and Dad decide for some reason that I needed more Dad-time? Maybe Mom needed time for herself, or with my sister, who was fifteen. Maybe Mom and Dad had their own issues – every couple has them from time to time, I know now – and my Saturday evenings with Dad were the result. I remember being puzzled, and I know that whatever I thought at the time, I came to no conclusions.

So there the minor mystery lies, forty-seven years later. I never asked Dad about it, and I have no idea what he’d have said. He was a pretty private man, my dad was, and I know very little about what he thought or felt about his life, or if he even spent time pondering how that life had unreeled for him. But I still think of him every time the RealPlayer falls on a couple of records by Frank Sinatra. I wrote a little about “Summer Wind” once, and that still brings Dad to mind.

But so, too, does one of Sinatra’s greatest performances, “It Was A Very Good Year.” If anyone was, Frank Sinatra was the voice of my father’s generation, and Dad might have found himself nodding to Sinatra’s interpretation of Ervin Drake’s song and its reflective nostalgia. So as I think about my Saturday nights with Dad during early 1966 and wonder why they happened, I find it fitting that “It Was A Very Good Year” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Easy Listening chart forty-seven years ago this week.

Saturday Single No. 321

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

I’ve been catching up on some reading lately, clearing from the shelf a book the Texas Gal gave me for my birthday in September: The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman.

The book tells the tale of the large group of Southern California session musicians renowned for their work on records that ranged from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound productions for the Ronettes, Darlene Love and many more to the middle-of-the-road records made in the mid-1960s by performers that included Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”) and Dean Martin (“Houston”). Along the way, the list of performers and groups also included Sonny & Cher, the Grass Roots, Glen Campbell (himself a member of the Wrecking Crew as a guitarist), the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Fifth Dimension and many more.

(I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book, and those are among the most memorable acts Hartman has mentioned so far; I imagine others will yet pop up.)

Hartman frequently introduces members of the Wrecking Crew by taking the reader back to their childhoods, whether that be Glen Campbell’s life of rural poverty in Arkansas, the wandering life of Carol Smith (future bass player Carol Kaye) as the daughter of professional musicians reluctant to settle down, or the close escape of fifteen-year-old Harold Belsky (better known as drummer Hal Blaine), who was at a July 1944 performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus in Hartford, Connecticut, when a fire broke out in the big top, killing nearly 170 people.

The names pile up in Hartman’s account of one of the greatest collections of studio talent ever assembled: Sonny Bono, Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Russell Bridges (Leon Russell), Steve Douglas, Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon, Joe Osborn, Billy Strange . . . and among many others, Jimmy Bond.

I know all those names now, of course, and have known them for many years, but the one I knew first was that of bass player Jimmy Bond. His name popped up in 1965 on the back of a record I bought during my James Bond mania. As I’ve noted other times, before reading any of Ian Fleming’s books or seeing any of the first three Bond films, I bought John Barry’s soundtrack for Goldfinger and a couple of other records of music related to the films. One of those was Confidential: Sounds for a Secret Agent, credited to David Lloyd & His London Orchestra.

Lloyd’s concept was interesting. As well as scoring and recording his own versions of themes from the already released James Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger), he asked three composers to compose themes for eight of the Ian Fleming titles that had not yet been produced as films.* One of those composers, say the notes on the back cover of Confidential: Sounds for a Secret Agent, was “a very real James Bond, better known to his friends and professional associates as Jimmy Bond, a highly regarded Los Angeles bass player.”

I stored the information away, as I did the names of the two other composers of the new material: Warren Baker and Mae Helms. Those two names have never popped up anywhere else, as far as I remember. (I was a little excited as I scanned the contents of the mp3 collection this morning when I saw the name of the composer of the theme for the TV show 77 Sunset Strip, a detective series that ran from 1958 to 1964, but my excitment waned when I saw that the composer was actually Warren Barker.)

The name of Jimmy Bond as a studio player did pop up from time to time, though, and that happened increasingly over the years as my pop and rock status shifted from non-listener to ardent listener to collector and finally to amateur historian and writer-at-absurd-length. I don’t know that I’d ever connected Jimmy Bond with the Wrecking Crew until this week, but the first time I saw his name in Hartman’s book, I headed into the study to check out the notes on the back of Confidential: Sounds for a Secret Agent. And I found what I thought I might find.

So here’s a link between a twelve-year-old kid who loved his James Bond music but didn’t know a lot about where it came from and a much older man who now knows a lot more about where the music comes from . . . and loves it no less. Here’s David Lloyd & His London Orchestra performing Jimmy Bond’s “The Man With The Golden Gun,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

*Lloyd skipped two titles, perhaps because the films and resulting music were either close to release or in production: Thunderball, which was released as a film in 1965 and You Only Live Twice, which was released in 1967.

‘If It’s Tuesday . . .’

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Well, it’s early on a Tuesday, and the Texas Gal is already off to work. This is the third of four consecutive Tuesdays with an ungodly early start for her (and me), so as I sat down, yawning, I thought I’d take a look at Tuesday songs (an easy corollary to the occasional Monday songs I’ve dug up on occasion.)

I found several in the cyberstacks, although I had to sort my way past a couple of albums by ’Til Tuesday and a 1968 album by Deena Webster titled Tuesday’s Child.

There were numerous covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and four versions by the Cowboy Junkies of their own “Sun Comes Up It’s Tuesday Morning.” And an alphabetical sort of the Tuesday songs provided me with this sequence:

“Everything Means Nothing” by Late Tuesday (2002)
“Everything’s Different Now” by ’Til Tuesday (1988)
“Everything’s Tuesday” by the Chairmen of the Board (1970)

So I had plenty to choose from. I finally settled on a mellow, almost somnolent, theme song from a 1969 movie whose title – borrowed from a 1965 CBS-TV documentary – has become a tagline often used to symbolize the confusion brought about by rapid travel and jet lag.

“If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” was written by Donovan for the film of the same title. In the comedy about a European tour, Donovan sings his own “Lord of the Reedy River,” but the title song was performed by J.P. Rags.

Who?

J.P. Rags is, as WFMU’s Beware of the Blog put it earlier this year (in what I think is an inspired bit of utter supposition), “a bit childlike, a folkie nature boy slinging a guitar, sitting on the railroad tracks to dump gravel out of a worn but stylish boot. You know that there’s more to him than that. He has several stories and lives that he has perhaps walked away from.”

Beware of the Blog goes on to look at the only album released by Rags, whose real name, the post notes, was likely Doug Cox. That album, the 1968 release Scruffety, is available through several standard mp3 emporiums, and it may be worth a listen in the days ahead. But our business this morning is with Rags’ movie theme.

As I noted above, it’s mellow to the point of sedation, and it’s certainly not one of Donovan’s best tunes. But it’s a Tuesday song, so here you go: “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” by J.P. Rags.

Love Means What?

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Forty-one years ago this week, a sweet little ditty occupied the No. 45 spot on the Billboard Hot 100: “Love Means (You Never Have To Say You’re Sorry)” by the Sounds of Sunshine. The Sounds of Sunshine were actually three brothers from the Los Angeles area – Walt, Warner and George Wilder – and the sound they offered on their only hit record owed a lot to the Lettermen and the Sandpipers (and probably a few other vocal groups that don’t come to mind at the moment).

For a one-shot hit, the record did pretty well, peaking at No. 39 in the Hot 100 and at No. 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The album from which the single was pulled got to No. 187 on the Billboard 200.

The source of the song – written by Warner Wilder – is, of course, the most famous line from the movie Love Story, a 1970 film “about a girl who died” co-starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. Here’s the scene in which the impossibly young McGraw delivers that line:

The line became the 1970s equivalent of a meme: It was impossible to avoid and to ignore. The same was true of the movie’s theme, of course (“Where do I begin . . .”). The theme made the Hot 100 in versions by Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, the duo of Nino Tempo and April Stevens and its composer, Francis Lai. It was a pretty tune, very hummable and generally inconsequential. The famous line of dialogue offered by McGraw (and originated by Erich Segal, who wrote the screenplay and the novel on which the film is based) is, however, bullshit.

Now, pop culture offers all sorts of twaddle to its audiences as wisdom. Listeners, viewers and readers can, if they are so moved, pull epigrams or advice on living well from almost any bit of pop culture ephemera. (Well, “Disco Duck” might be a stretch.) And if those epigrams help those pop culture consumers make their ways through the crabgrass of life, that’s just fine.

But I think that a large swath of the Baby Boomer demographic closed Segal’s book or walked up the theater aisle during the closing credits of the movie with the thought circling through their minds that maybe love really does mean never having to say you’re sorry. I wonder how many college relationships foundered because one or the other of the individuals involved held to the wisdom of Segal and McGraw during a disagreement when a simple “I’m sorry” would have repaired a lot of damage.

Well, maybe not all that many. I don’t know. I’m sure there were those who thought “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” was a sweetly romantic idea, but I’d also like to think that most of those folks realized that what works in the movies rarely works in real life. For my part, I was not all that experienced in what worked in love at the time, but even at seventeen, I knew that a philosophy of no apologies would be more nearly lethal than nurturing to a romantic coupling.

Ah, well, it’s a line from a movie that inspired Warner Wilder to write a pretty song. If we dismissed all the songs based on bullshit, then the pop charts would be a lot shorter and not nearly as much fun.

So what else was going on in the Hot 100 during the week that the Sounds of Sunshine saw their single sitting at No. 45? Here’s the Top Ten:

“It’s Too Late/I Feel The Earth Move” by Carole King
“Indian Reservation” by the Raiders
“You’ve Got A Friend” by James Taylor
“Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds
“Treat Her Like A Lady” by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose
“Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight
“Rainy Days & Mondays” by the Carpenters
“Draggin’ The Line” by Tommy James
“How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees
“That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” by Carly Simon

The only one of those I would wince at as it came out of the speakers today would be the Bee Gees’ record; I didn’t like it that much when it came out, either (and I would have guessed its time in the Top Ten to be much closer to February 1972 than the summer of 1971). I’ve written about “It’s Too Late” and “Treat Her Like A Lady” before (and they both popped up this week on the little mp3 player that holds the Ultimate Jukebox), but there are three other records here I like nearly as well: “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” “Don’t Pull Your Love” and “Draggin’ The Line,” and my regard for that last record is a surprise to me. It must be the purple flowers.

I found a few other surprises looking further down in the Billboard Hot 100 from July 17, 1971. We’ll jump off from No. 45, where we found the Sounds of Sunshine’s single, and drop down from there.

Finding an Elvis Presley record I’ve never heard before isn’t all that startling. My Elvis listening has focused mostly on the work at Sun Records in the 1950s and in Memphis in 1969 (with a little bit of digging into a few of the soundtracks from the early 1960s). So until this morning, I’d never heard “I’m Leavin’,” which was sitting at No 59 during this week in 1971. It’s a record with a different (some might say “odd”) sound to it; the original poster at YouTube had some comments about that. “I’m Leavin’” was heading to a peak at No. 36 and a surprising (to me, anyway) peak of No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Someday, I’m going to burn myself a CD of covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs. One of the tunes on that CD will be “The Last Time I Saw Her” as performed by Glen Campbell. It’s a very good version of a song I know much better from Lightfoot’s 1968 album, Did She Mention My Name. Campbell’s version was at No 69 forty-one years ago this week; it peaked at No. 61 on the pop chart and went to No. 21 in the country chart.

The Continental 4 was an R&B vocal quartet from Pittsburgh, and during this week in 1971, their only hit was sitting at No. 84. “Day by Day (Every Minute of the Hour)” is a sweeping piece of Philadelphia-style soul that didn’t sound a lot different than a lot of other records fighting for airplay at the time. Still, the record got to No. 19 on the R&B chart even as it stalled at No. 84 on the pop chart.

Sorting out the history of the Nite-Liters, a group started in Louisville, Kentucky, by Harvey Fuqua and Tony Churchill, is a little confusing. Joel Whitburn says in Top Pop Singles that the project evolved to include seventeen people in three groups: the vocal groups Love, Peace & Happiness and the New Birth as well as the band still called the Nite-Liters. All of that was yet to come during mid-July 1971, when the Nite-Liters’ “K-Jee” was sitting at No. 92.  The record, the first of ten in the Hot 100 for the Nite-Liters and the New Birth, peaked at No. 39 and made it to No. 17 on the R&B chart.

When I glanced at Sonny James’ entry in Whitburn’s Book of Top 40 Country Hits, I did a double-take. Between November of 1964 and July of 1972, James had twenty-five consecutive records reach the top three spots on the country chart; one of those peaked at No. 3, three of them went to No. 2, and the other twenty-one records, including a remarkable sixteen in a row, went to No. 1. Those years were, of course, only a portion of James’ long career: Between 1953 and 1983, he placed sixty-four records in the Country Top 40. His presence on the pop chart was a little less daunting but still notable: Twenty-six records in or near the Hot 100 between 1956 and 1972. He’s here today because forty-one years ago, his “Bright Lights, Big City” was sitting at No. 100. It would peak at No. 91 on the pop chart, and it was the fifteenth of those sixteen consecutive No. 1 hits on the country chart.