Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Buck's redux

Jeff Buckley, as you must be aware of by now, was the singer-songwriter with the angelic visage cut from a sugar cube and a voice like Paul Robeson sucking on a roomful of helium balloons. His range skewed high but it was all muscle: It stretched to nearly four octaves and it was delivered with a vibrato with enough fluid energy to capsize the Staten Island Ferry. Buckley drowned tragically in 1997 leaving behind a scant legacy of one proper studio album. Since his death, an unfinished second album and a set of live recordings have been retooled into a vulgar trove of endless posthumous repackagings.

Early on, critics would accuse him of wannabe jazzerism; charges he'd emphatically deny. (According to the interview below, his early critics were not kind. How time changes everything.) Buckley was nothing if not versatile, being equally deft at popping off a classic French ditty, jazz standards, hessian guitar rock, or even tear into a proggy mastadon like Genesis's Back in New York and all done with a punk-like intensity. He was also capable of going to nerdy places even geeks like the Ramones wouldn't touch. (He had the silly-head of a potentially amazing father.) Add to this a curatorial ear for pairing songs to that voice with seamless accuracy: a shrewd genius he was. And a pretty good guitar player too. His voice and a guitar were all he needed to slay you. And that's exactly what he does here.

The stream below is from an early appearance on Liza Richardson's KCRW show. While the date isn't specified it's most likely somewhere between the release of Live at Sin-é and Grace which would put the date at early 1994. Although, when he mentions moving to New York City in 1990 Richardson responds to that date with, "so, a couple of years ago" which would move the date up a couple of years. Regardless, his talent is already fully forged here. And besides being generously goofy he also proves himself utterly unpretentious: He doesn't take himself or his prodigious talent too seriously—amazingly. Remember that shortly after this he'd be lauded and larded with enough hyperbole to jade even the most uncorruptable—by such somebodies as Dylan, Bowie, Plant, Pitt (Brad), and many others. Perhaps his humility came from his teenage years among "the Disneyland Nazi youth" in Anaheim, a place where he never learned to be comfortable. New York would be his Mecca. (Those of us who also came of age in Orange County can surely understand the feeling.)

Listen and hear Buckley bounce from Bad Brains to Billie Holiday with equal authentic certainty. John Cale may've been the first to unearth Hallelujah from it's dusty Cohen cabinet (and gift it to new generations via Shrek), but it's Buckley who'll forever own the song. (I hope to live in a world one day that'll prove that statement wrong but I won't hold my breath.) 

It appears the embed is no longer functional: Go here to hear it.

And then, Scarlett Johansson: You'd have to wonder, what kind of Hellcat is this part time singer who thinks she can strut into Buckley territory and not completely humiliate herself? Do a YouTube search on Hallelujah and find armies of twee mortals who couldn't even begin to tie Buckley's shoe. (The one exception may be k.d. lang.) In any event, in the sub-genre of celebrity vanity projects, for this Hellcat Scarlett Johansson, her's may be one of the best.

Give ScarJo some respect. And, boys, that means with more than just your left hand.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Clown Genius

There were these two guys I knew from school. Well, knew of. I wasn't friendly with either one of them. One was Ronny Sparks. Ronny spent much of sixth grade slouching and staring out from some remote location in his adolescent head. He'd make these intermittent sounds, a kind of m-boo! Gone unnoticed, he'd just make them progressively louder. I don't know if anyone ever noticed apart from me. I suppose there was a purpose to it. A form of vocal cutting, a sounding-off to prove to himself he was still there. He spoke slow, with no sense of humor and no real charm. The only reason I remember him at all was because of the vocalizing. He had thick light brown hair that stuck out like ornamental grass and a sprinkle of freckles. I also had freckles and was often appalled by the general quality of the other freckle-faced kids at school. He wasn't bad looking, Ronny, he just seemed to be lacking a certain social aspect. He would've been a great candidate for bullying. I don't know how much taunting he endured but I do have a memory of him facing some in class one day. His wounded voice and tone, the skin flexing around his eyes—well, it's stuck with me all these years. The subtle pain and desperation in his unskilled response were feelings clearly attached to a long cord, going back who knows how long. He might've had ADHD or borderline Aspergers or some such thing. In those days schools didn't analyze much, just pushed through. (Thanks to I see that Ronny would make a career in the navy. It appears his coping mechanism was the military-industrial-complex. Good for him.)

The other guy was Mark Weber. He had a gym locker next to mine in tenth grade. He was short and thick, hirsute, and undeodorized. He had hair that looked destined to fall out soon. For those who remember Dr. Demento, Mark was big fan—a telling point. He made an eight millimeter film for an assignment in our Social Studies class. Basically, it was a long batch of snippets of him doing mundane things along with random images all edited into a 60s quick-cut, headache panned, and whiplash close-up salad. The effect was a sort of artless slapdash surrealism, something a young Roger Corman might've done with a Fisher-Price camera and case of Red Bull. And when I say young Corman, I mean like in his kindergarten years. Apart from the editing, contentwise Mark's film style was remotely Lynchian. (According to Mark himself tells us he never married and has no kids. He loves magic trickery, became a "Druid Master and Ordained Minister," and is part of some vampire-costumed bard group. He's now bald and bearded in a way you'd expect from a Druid Master, Demento devotee, and garden gnome.

(While on the subject of Lynchian, here are two video winners of a Lynchian contest.)

Anyway, I suspect there is some Ronny Sparks and Mark Weber in David Lynch too. He too was an adolescent outsider, his cinematic quirks are too authentic for him not to be. If only Ronny and Mark had as much zany intelligence, charmingly awkward social skills, full shocks of rockabilly hair, and the ability to snag girlfriends like Isabella Rossellini. Besides his film geekiness, Lynch has an autistic's obsessiveness to detail. In a way he out Tarantino's Tarantino. And much unlike Mark and Ronny, Lynch was savvy enough to mold his quirks into industry success in quantities large enough to earn his own namesake adjective.

Lynch made his first film, Eraserhead, barely out of film school and with virtually no industry experience. He finessed the film out of pocket and with a $10,000 AFI grant along with the largess of family and friends—including a childhood pal who served as production designer who also happened to be Sissy Spacek's husband. Spacek was also one of his investors.    

After his essentially amateur film became a cult success, Lynch was awarded the opportunity to direct a big budget studio feature with a cast of stellar Brits, The Elephant Man (a critical and financial success and academy award nominee). He followed this with a ridiculously huge budgeted project, Dune (Lynch's claim that he lacked artistic control over this "obscenely homophobic" and ceremonious flop is given some credence by the fact of its Toto soundtrack). Besides being the creator of a number of highly successful films as well as acclaimed TV shows, Lynch also paints, draws comics, writes, designs nightclubs, and makes music.

The self-directed video for "Crazy Clown Time," the new single from the multi-talented director and songwriter David Lynch.