Thursday, December 13, 2012

Six Boring Hours For Sandy Relief

I'm not usually one for benefit concerts or all-star assemblages of disparate talent. They usually run way too long, and feel self-indulgent, even when they're in the service of something bigger. But this week's "12.12.12: The Concert For Sandy Relief" touted the biggest gathering of stars ever, even bigger than the concert for 9/11, so I couldn't resist checking it out. Is Nirvana really reuniting with Paul McCartney in place of Kurt Cobain? That alone is enough to make me want to watch, and if I'm gonna watch, I might as well blog the thing, no? (I will probably regret this decision.)

7:30pm: The introductory footage of the devastation to New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Staten Island is really affecting. It's weird how quickly major disasters like this are swept under the rug in favor of the next thing, like this phony "fiscal cliff" debate. There's no denying, this is a good cause. Having said that, the footage is kept mercifully brief, though I'm sure there will be a lot more of it as the evening goes on.

7:34: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band kicks things off without so much as an introduction. The house lights in Madison Square Garden are still on, which seems like a strange choice. Bruce has never really been my cup of tea, but he looks great here. (As my wife likes to say, he looks rich.) As a non-Bruce fan, I don't know if "This Train" is a new song or an old classic, but they're certainly doing it justice, and the message of optimism is appropriate. I still don't really dig Bruce though.

7:38: Segueing into Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" is a nice idea. Although, Bruce and the E Street Band, as the world's unfunkiest band, is particularly unsuited to the task.

7:40: Once again, I don't know if "Wrecking Ball" is a new song or what, but to a non-fan it plays like a parody of a Bruce song: quiet intro listing off his various Jersey bona fides, followed by shouted "1! 2! 3! 4!," the drums kicking in, and inspirational choruses about steel and rust and youth and beauty and blue-collar yes we can. Once again, I guess it's appropriate, but still, I'm reminded why I don't really like Bruce.

7:46: Back to the "People Get Ready" chord changes, while Bruce waxes elegaic about Asbury Park, with a special shout-out to the gay community for gentrifying and improving the area. Whoops! I guess this is a Bruce song, "My City of Ruins," with the same exact chord changes as "People Get Ready." I think Bruce seems like a nice guy, I have nothing against him, it seems like he runs his band like a family and it's all about positivity and being proud of where you come from and I'm in favor of all that... I still don't like the music, though. It's like the unfunkiest blue-eyed soul ever.

7:55: Jesus, Bruce, enough already. Was "My City of Ruins" nine minutes (and counting) on the record?

7:56: Bruce brings out Jon Bon Jovi and Madison Square Garden has a Jersey orgasm as they begin a duet on "Born to Run." This is pretty much the only Springsteen song I ever liked at all (but still not that much) and they sound great.

8:00: It's weird how much Jon Bon Jovi's image changed when he cut his hair off. He went from cock-rock d-bag to respected figure in the rock canon. That didn't happen with Metallica or David Lee Roth or anybody else that cut all their hair off. I guess just because Jon Bon is soooooo handsome.

8:02: Half an hour in, here's the official slate of performers: 75 classic rock heroes, and Kanye West!

8:03: Billy Crystal welcomes us all to "12.12.12, The Concert for Sandy Relief, presented by Chase." I wonder how much Chase donated directly to the cause? Would they have done it without their name all over the TV? Crystal delivers 25 short, unfunny jokes that I would be very suprised to learn he wrote himself. (If he had, they'd be even less funny.) Followed by more promises that New York and New Jersey will recover. I know hurricane recovery is the reason we're all here and we have to talk about it, but Billy's been droning on for almost ten minutes and my attention is wandering.

8:10: Let's go to the phone bank! Susan Sarandon, who should be an example to all the beautiful actresses who think they're going to age more gracefully if they get nine facelifts, mentions that the phone bank is manned entirely by celebrities, though I don't recognize anyone working the phones behind her. She introduces Roger Waters with Eddie Vedder! What a weird combination!

8:12: Roger Waters is not playing bass? That's weird. Is that how he's been doing the huge tour of "The Wall" he's been on the last couple years? The band behind him launches into a Pink Floyd album cut that I totally recognize but can't remember the name of, then into "Another Brick in the Wall," with Waters now on bass. "We don't need no education" has always seemed like a strange sentiment to put forward so emphatically. I even felt that way when this song was originally on the radio, when I was 6.

8:18: Look out! An interpretive dance troupe convulses at the front of the stage for the kids' shouting choir part of the song, all wearing shirts reading "Fear Builds Walls." I'm sure it does, but it seems a little off-message for this particular event. This guitar player is playing David Gilmour's solo from this tune absolutely note-for-note perfect, and the dancers are mercifully hustled off.

8:21: I am not in favor of this acoustic emo breakdown version of "Another Brick in the Wall." I vote no. Thumbs down. And what's with the screen showing murderers' mugshots from the '70s? What am I watching?

8:22: "Money" begins. What a great riff this tune has. I don't know who this singer is, but he's not Eddie Vedder. Susan Sarandon promised Eddie Vedder! Though, to be fair, this song is not in Eddie Vedder's half-octave range.

8:28: "Us and Them" from "Dark Side of the Moon" begins with a very David Sanborn-type of sax solo. Eddie Vedder is still not on stage. Why did they even mention him? If he's coming in for one song, let it be an awesome (read: not that awesome) surprise. Didn't Roger Waters sing this song on the record, though? Why's this other guy singing it? It's interesting to watch a definitively unfamous person use all the same tics and gestures at the mic as a huge rock star would -- the effect is not the same.

8:35: Okay, here comes Eddie Vedder to sing "Comfortably Numb," though Waters is still singing the first verse. My guess is Vedder's going to come in like an angel on the chorus. Prediction verified! The chorus, of course, is squarely in his half-octave range. He's fine, but it's somewhere short of awesome. And with that, the Roger Waters band wraps things up.

8:43: Adam Sandler takes the stage with Paul Shaffer. Sandler has a faux-hawk, aka The Haircut That Doesn't Look Good On Anyone Older Than 7. He's singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" with hilarious lyrics like "Sandy screw ya!" and running down a history of New York non-disasters that we've overcome over the years. Guess what! It's not funny! And the crowd shot, of the audience smiling politely but not laughing, like people do when listening to a joke that has not yet come to the punchline, confirms that it's not just me.

8:39: Back to the call center with Brian Williams, and now there are actual celebrities there: Chelsea Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ben Stiller, who speaks with a complete lack of enthusiasm about how urgently help is needed. Weird that the phone bank is using cell phones. Never seen that before.

8:50: Oh dear god, Billy Crystal is back. Is he the official host? He introduces Kristen Stewart, who is here to read from the teleprompter some troubling statistics about how urgently help is needed. She's a little wooden, but compared to Ben Stiller she's Roberto Benigni accepting his Oscar. I hate her dress. 

8:54: Bon Jovi. Richie Sambora loves that talk box, doesn't he? "It's My Life" is the first single from the post-haircut era of the band, if I'm not mistaken and I don't like it any more now than I did then.

8:58: "Wanted Dead Or Alive." Why was Bon Jovi so much better when their hair was terrible? It's like Samson or something. I always love the part where Richie Sambora chimes in with a "Wante-ed" echo and reveals he has a way better voice than Jon Bon.

9:05: Turnabout is fair play, so Bruce joins Bon Jovi for their modern country hit "Who Says You Can't Go Home," the song that definitively proved that modern country is really just lame rock. By that standard, this song is better than most, the perfect song to hear part of while choosing beef jerky at the gas station.

9:11: Jon Bon begins "Living on a Prayer" a capella, and the crowd joins in. This is probably their best song ever, talk-box 'whoa-whoa' intro notwithstanding. Now this is a song Bruce Springsteen could really sink his teeth into, but he seems to be done for the night.

9:15: Whoops, ol' Jonny is not quite up to the key change for the coda of this song, so after missing the high note a couple of times he leaves it to the crowd, and then they're done.

9:20: How bummed would you be if you called the phone bank hoping for a celebrity and got Tony Danza?

9:21: Jon Stewart gets the crowd going with his remembrance of Seaside Heights and the Jersey Shore, though even he can't get the 14th "Bloomberg big soda ban" joke of the night across.

9:24: Eric Clapton! Sitting down with an acoustic guitar, to do "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" all by his lonesome. He sounds pretty good. I was a pretty huge Clapton fan for a long time -- the Derek and the Dominos version of this song is terrific -- but reading his autobiography kind of soured me on the guy. In his effort to steal Pattie Harrison from his best friend George, he told her if she didn't marry him, he'd become a heroin addict. Can you imagine a more self-pitying threat? He also claims that he only started doing heroin because his cocaine dealer wouldn't sell him any cocaine unless he bought some heroin with it. That sounds like the kind of excuse a high-school kid would make for bringing the car home late. So yeah, kind of lost some respect for old Slowhand.

9:30: This is pretty awesome, though, I have to admit: He's doing "Got To Get Better In a Little While," another Derek and the Dominos tune, in a power-trio formation. This show up to now was giving me the impression that there was a nine-band-member minimum on this stage.

9:35: Now Clapton launches into a slightly slowed-down version of "Crossroads," and while I don't love this weird tempo, I am into this power trio. I can't believe I'm saying this, but if Clapton toured with this band, I think I would go see it.

9:40: Is it just me or is this thing picking up sponsors as it goes on? First it was just Chase, and now we have a full-on laundry list of sponsors.

9:45: Jimmy Fallon is the first speaker to really make me feel the humanity of this cause, as he sings the praises of Coney Island, and its recovery, through tears. And then he gets to introduce the Rolling Stones with more genuine excitement than anyone else has mustered up to this point. You guys know Jimmy Fallon has the best late-night show, right? He does.

9:49: Even though they reunited with Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman for the abbreviated tour they're on, they're not here for this gig. That would have been way too easy and way too cool. I'm sure everyone there at the Garden would rather hear "You Got Me Rocking" (what is this song, anyway, from the '90s?) than "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" played by the original band.

9:51: We've all been saying the Stones are old for about 20 years, but for the first time, they really look it. Keith Richards appears to actually be doddering. Doddering is a word people say, but no one knows what it means -- that right there, what Keith is doing? I think that's doddering. Mick mentions that this has got to be the biggest collection of old English rock stars ever, and he's right. I bet this show is a lot more fun backstage, like a British Invasion class reunion.

9:54: Yikes, this version of "Jumping Jack Flash" is pretty sluggish, lacking both jump and flash. I'm feeling better and better about not spending $1,500 to go to the show in Brooklyn last week.

9:58: That's it? Only two songs? Bon Jovi does four, Bruce does four, Roger Waters does four, and the Rolling Stones do two? The food at this restaurant is terrible! And such small portions!

10:00: Stephen Colbert gets the first successfully funny shtick of the show, while also exhorting people to help. Speaking of which, if this live-blog inspires you to donate, do so by calling 1-855-465-HELP or

10:03: Instead of introducing a band, Colbert cedes the floor to Puff Daddy and Olivia Wilde, who doesn't look as good as she usually does: she's merely gorgeous, rather than jaw-droppingly stunning. She mentions that was born at NYU Hospital, whose staff heroically evacuated the building when it flooded during the hurricane. I spent a couple of days at that hospital when my newborn son had jaundice. It was easily the most harrowing experience of my life. Am I getting off topic?

10:08: Diddy and Olivia introduce Alicia Keys. The song she's playing sounds a little like some off-brand Stevie Wonder, which sounds like an insult until you think about it. She is also very pretty, but I hate that haircut and I hate that dress even more. I've never heard this song before, but it's not bad.

10:13: I'm not crazy about "put your cell phones in the air" as the opening lines of a song. (Like everybody didn't already have them out anyway.) Is it weird that I kind of like that her voice is straining a little? I've heard this song a lot around town but never knew whose it was. So I learned something here tonight, folks.

10:19: Wait, so we're at a show to rebuild New York and Alicia Keys leaves the stage without singing that "Let's hear it for New York" song that I've been hearing coming out of every passing car for the last three years? Maybe it'll be an all-star jam at the end.

10:26: Steve Buscemi brings on the Who, who launch into "Who Are You." I don't think I've ever seen Roger Daltrey play guitar in the Who before, but let's face it, this song really isn't the same without acoustic guitar.

10:30: Pete Townshend does the windmill a couple of times going into the breakdown and I cannot help the smile spreading across my face. It's generally kind of disconcerting watching all these old rock stars try to relive past glories, but the windmill is the first true shot of vigor in this whole thing. I can't believe I'm saying this, but so far my favorite acts in this show are The Who and Eric Clapton.

10:33: Even in his late '60s, Roger Daltrey can't not keep his shirt open to the navel. He's so sexy!

10:35: An unexpected, and unexpectedly moving tribute to Keith Moon is the centerpiece of "The Bell Boy," with footage of Moon singing part of the song and drumming along over the band's heads. Just like Led Zeppelin, The Who isn't really The Who without their drummer.

10:39: Townshend starts off "Pinball Wizard." I don't care what anyone says, nobody plays pinball with their sense of smell. I feel very, very strongly about this.

10:45: Daltrey's shirt comes all the way open for the intro to "Baba O'Riley" and he blows like five high notes in the first verse. Ouch. Townshend doesn't fare much better on the "Don't cry..." breakdown. Hope I die before I get old.

10:57: The Who is still on the stage. I guess they're taking the time the Rolling Stones didn't use. The good news: Daltrey buttoned his shirt.  Everyone has left the stage except him and Townshend, who's playing acoustic for a song I'm not a big enough Who fan to identify.

11:02: Oh boy, the cast of The Sopranos is in the call center, even Gandolfini. It's always jarring to hear him speak with hard 'r's. Robert Iler, who played AJ, is behind him, not in the witness protection program as I suspected.

11:10: Brooklyn native Chris Rock, one of the five greatest standups ever, is reduced to listing the show's corporate sponsors, before talking about Staten Island and pressing viewers to donate, and introducing Kanye West.

11:12: I've been saying it for a long time: Kanye is the most overrated musician of the last 10 years, maybe the last 20. Not that great a rapper, and his tracks are mindbludgeoningly monotonous. This performance is doing nothing to change that opinion: half the time he's just standing there while his super-annoying backing tracks play. He's got a band on the stage, but they don't appear to be doing anything. If he wasn't wearing that super-flattering black leather miniskirt over his tight black leather pants, this would be a total loss. This is also a pretty weird booking for him: He's following The Who, The Stones, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, and The Boss. Only Alicia Keys is even vaguely in the same demo as him.

11:19: I'll begrudgingly admit Kanye's picking up a little speed here, though the crowd doesn't seem to be interested at all.

11:27: Kanye's eliding the n-word from his own song, "I ain't saying she's a golddigger, but she ain't messing with no broke ______." If you can't play the song the way you wrote it, particularly if you have to change the chorus, why play it at all? Or why write it that way in the first place? Kanye's still not changing my mind, by the way.

11:32: Jesus, is this guy still on the stage? "Don't anybody make real shit anymore?" he asks while rhyming over someone else's song. And then he drops the mic. Classy. The crowd wasn't into it and he knew it.

11:38: Seth Myers introduces Bobby Mohnihan as Drunk Uncle for some old-fashioned SNL shtick. The audience doesn't seem to respond to it, probably because it's not very funny.

11:42: Billy Joel, who only seems to play huge benefits anymore, plays a song I am not familiar with (despite "Billy Joel's Greatest Hits" being one of my favorite CDs when I was 13) -- I suspect it's an old song with repurposed lyrics, because it sounds like it was written specifically for this occasion. Billy Joel doesn't get a lot of respect anymore, I'm guessing largely because of his long run of drunk-driving accidents. But did you hear him on Alec Baldwin's podcast? He's super self-effacing, funny guy who seems to understand his place in the universe perfectly. Also, he's kind of like Tom Petty: even if you never bought a Billy Joel record or played one on purpose, if you went to one of his shows you'd know every word to all 35 songs.

11:47: "Movin' Out," from the musical of the same name! Just kidding. This is just one of Billy Joel's 63 forgotten, disrespected pop gems. Or did you not have a radio in 1978?

11:51: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a nice short into to "New York State of Mind," the least surprising song choice in the history of the world. Unlike a few of the other aging stars of the 60s and 70s on this bill, his voice has not changed a bit, he sounds great. (To be clear, I think that says more about the other acts than it does about Billy Joel.)

12am: Just when I was starting to reappraise Billy Joel, he goes into "River of Dreams." You shoulda quit while you were ahead, Billy.

12:03: "You May Be Right" may be the best example of an AOR song (that's Adult Oriented Rock, a very 1970s concept) of all time. I'm not saying this is something I would rock out to, but if it came on my car stereo I wouldn't change the channel, which is more than I can say for at least half the tunes we've heard tonight.

12:08: "Only The Good Die Young" -- another good one. Where did I put that Greatest Hits CD, anyway? I haven't seen it in about 20 years. Maybe it's at my parents' house. Though I just realized I bah-humbugged Kanye and now I'm gushing about Billy Joel. My 40th birthday is only 4 months away -- coincidence?

12:14: Chris Martin from Coldplay plays "When I Ruled The World" all by himself on acoustic guitar. I just admitted to being old and out of it but it could be worse: I could be into Coldplay. I think it's time for a richly deserved bathroom break.

12:18: Michel Stipe joins Martin onstage for an acoustic version of "Losing My Religion." This song is about one thing and one thing only for me: senior year of high school, when you absolutely could not escape it. I don't know if I like it or don't like it -- it's kind of beside the point.

12:22: Who knew Chris Martin was such a cheeky guy? All that bummer Coldplay music made me think he must be super serious and humorless. Maybe he needs to go solo. Having said that, this third song is doing nothing for me.

12:27: The phone bank is all supermodels, which underlines the awful state of the supermodel industry in 2012. Anyone remember when supermodels were pretty and you could only see 20% of their bones?

12:30: I used to love Katie Holmes when she first came out, on Dawson's Creek, and kind of fell out of love with her when she hooked up with Tom Cruise. She looks pretty damn good tonight though. I don't want to think I would turn against a beautiful girl just because of who she married, but she seems to have got her groove back. Jason Sudeikis is probably going to nail her as soon as they're done announcing the next segment -- he's nailed every other gorgeous actress on planet Earth.

12:32: Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, and Christoph Waltz tell the story of Breezy Point, and good on them for doing so, but it feels a little sleazy and self-promotey, considering the three of them have a huge movie coming out 10 days from now. Also, Jamie Foxx has a very weird hairline.

12:35: Paul McCartney takes the stage and opens with "Helter Skelter." I thought he was fronting Nirvana tonight. No? This is about as close as Sir Paul gets to sounding like Nirvana anyway. I dig the Theramin breakdown at the end.

12:43: I'm not familiar with this song, "Let Me Roll It," but it's not bad. It's nice to see a left-field song choice in this long parade of predictability.

12:45: Now McCartney goes to the piano for one he dedicates to the Wings fans, and its another one I don't know. (I'm not a Wings fan.) Again, nice to see he's not just playing "I Saw Her Standing There" or whatever.

12:50: Why does Paul have a Detroit Red Wings sticker on his guitar? Is he a hockey fan? To be sure, Paul McCartney contains multitudes. Another song I've never heard before, I'm guessing it's called "Valentine," with Diana Krall joining on piano.

12:55: "Blackbird" sounds a little like he hasn't played it in a while. It gets a little better in the second verse, though.

1:08: What is that guitar? It's weird. Anyway, the moment we've all been waiting for is finally here: Paul introduces Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear, the surviving members of Nirvana, to play a jam they wrote yesterday. Sorry, folks: Paul McCartney is not going to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But come on, would you even want him to? It's always nice to see Dave Grohl play the drums, though.

1:12: It's like someone asked Dave Grohl 10 years ago, "When will Nirvana reunite?" and he said, "When Paul McCartney takes Kurt's place," as a joke, and when the opportunity to make it come true came up he just couldn't say no. Oddly enough, this tune is like a Brundlefly fusion of the Beatles and Nirvana (which certainly had some Beatles in it to start with), but also pretty forgettable.

1:15: The remnants of Nirvana leave the stage and Paul does "I've Got a Feeling." We're now almost six hours into this concert and I am more than ready for it to be over, as I'm sure the four of you who read this far are as well.

1:19: Back to the piano for "Live and Let Die." One thing that always drove me nuts: "In this ever-changing world in which we're living." Why not "this ever-changing world that we all live in"? "In which we're living" is such tortured syntax. In the Guns N' Roses cover of this song, Axl made it even worse by singing "in this ever-changing world in which we live in." That's three ins, two more than needed to get the point across. Fireworks! You're not allowed to do "Live and Let Die" without fireworks.

1:23: McCartney and his band take a bow, and I am so glad this thing is over. Whoops, no it's not, he's bringing some heroes out to take a bow. And now he's bringing back Alicia Keys to do "Empire State of Mind," can you believe it? She got almost no applause. The crowd wants to get the hell out of there too. It's a tough spot to put her in.

On the whole, this show was long and only sporadically interesting. I'm glad it raised as much money as it did, it's the very definition of a worthy cause, but I feel like maybe they should have skewed a little younger in the booking. Then again, the baby boomers that want to see The Who and the Stones and McCartney are the ones that have all the money, so I guess it all makes sense. And I'm as surprised as anyone to say that I think Eric Clapton, of all people, had the best set, followed by McCartney. Tour with the trio, Clapton!

For much shorter, equally trivial postings follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I've Got Chills, They're Multiplying

Did you hear the news?!? The reunion that everyone in America, Australia, and parts of Europe was waiting for (in 1980) has finally happened! Yes, JOHN TRAVOLTA and OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN got together and recorded a Christmas album!

Everybody loved these two together in Grease, of course -- at least, the girl who lived down the street from me in elementary school loved them together, enough that when we played House or Cops and Robbers or Fumbling Medical Exam she always insisted that my play-name be "John" and hers "Miss Olivia." I should have been nicer to that girl.

Anyway, Grease was a movie musical about '50s high-school kids from different worlds: one a beautiful, goody-goody, obviously over-30 woman from Australia, the other a juvenile delinquent a little too quick to break into song to qualify as a "juvenile delinquent." Their romantic difficulties resolve when Danny (Travolta) decides to wear a lettered sweater and be a nerd like Sandy (Newton-John), only to find she's decided to dress like a '70s Lower East Side hooker (despite being a high-school kid in the '50s), and they celebrate their perfect union by duetting on the movie's eleventh completely anachronistic song in a row, "You're The One That I Want." (Though by no means the most anachronistic: "Grease Is The Word" was written and recorded by the Bee Gees [with '50s teen idol Frankie Valli singing], and couldn't possibly feel more out of place for a movie set in the '50s, from the fake-strings intro forward.)

People have enormously warm memories of the "You're The One That I Want" finale to this movie, and to some of them, this couple represented the Platonic ideal of romantic success, of love conquering all, of opposites attract, of a bad boy being tamed by a good girl. That is, until they reunited in 1983 for a truly terrible movie called Two of a Kind, whose biggest success was landing its almost-as-awful theme song, "Twist of Fate" by Ms. Newton-John, in the top ten. (That video deserves its own live-blog, by the way.)

But nearly 30 years have passed, and Travolta and Newton-John have finally reconvened for their holiday album, "This Christmas." And guess what else? They made a video for the leadoff single, "I Think You Might Like It," which just so happens to have been written by the author of "You're The One That I Want," John Farrar. With megatalents like these getting back together, how could it possibly be bad? Oh, boy, let me count the ways: 

0:05 -- Sleigh bells! A plane wing! An old car! And credits: Produced by JTP Films, Directed by Rav Holly and Corey Molina. Just so we know exactly who to blame, I guess. 0:10 -- Travolta and Newton-John (to whom I shall henceforth refer as "ONJ" because I'm already tired of typing "Newton-John") are dressed in all black, thumbs hooked into their beltloops, toe-tapping and hip-swivelling like they did at the end of Grease. 0:14 -- ONJ looks like she's trying a little harder than she should need to to keep up with the world's simplest line dance. But then, she hasn't been on camera since 1994. 0:18 -- Extreme closeup of Travolta in some kind of weird setting -- it looks like he's filming himself with his phone, or maybe like it's a hostage video, except that he's inexplicably laughing. 0:20 -- Oh, he's flying a plane. Did you guys know that John Travolta flies planes? He also paints his hair black, and accents his hairline with a fat black magic marker, if this video can be believed. Doesn't it seem like he needs some earrings? 0:30 -- Travolta lands his plane and sings about coming home. His voice is not too bad, I guess, but I am totally distracted by the silver dollar-sized (and shaped) chin patch. It looks like he got an important phone call while he was shaving and never went back to finish. Maybe he wants to audition for Color Me Badd? Maybe he grew it out to conceal a scar? And why is it jet black? I'm 20 years younger than he is, and the only (noticeable) gray hair I have is on my chin. It's bad enough he's dyeing his hair a totally implausible shade -- if he needs Just For Men, why not just shave it off? I don't get it: Why does he insist on this obviously fraudulent beard? 0:38 -- ONJ arrives on the tarmac in her vintage T-bird to pick Travolta up off his private jet. It's just like my family! This thing is so relatable, it's just bound to be a hit! 0:48 -- The scourge of plastic surgery has taken another victim. ONJ was one of the great beauties of the '70s, one of the first women to make me realize that maybe risking cooties wouldn't be so bad, and I can honestly say I wouldn't have known who she was if her name hadn't been at the beginning of the video. She looks like she forgot about her severe shellfish allergy and had lobster and shrimp for lunch right before the shoot. She's 64 years old, and I'm sure that her unaltered face would not be quite as lovely as it was in 1978, but it's hard to imagine it wouldn't be better than the overinflated parade float she looks like now. (Maybe that's why she's driving so slow, to sell the illusion.) 0:58 -- I thought ONJ was on her way to pick up Travolta, but now he's in the car with her. Whoops! Now he's getting off the plane. This must be one of those skewed-timeline narratives, like Pulp Fiction. Is Samuel Jackson going to do a verse in a Santa Kangol? 1:18 -- Did they let an intern edit this video? This part where they're running toward each other feels like it goes on for eight minutes. Shoah went by faster. 1:29 -- "I've got a little plan for you" is a pretty menacing lyric for a feelgood holiday song. It feels like something Jame Gumb would say to the Senator's daughter. Wouldn't "I've got a surprise for you" have been better? "I've got a little gift for you?" 1:39 -- Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, arrives at the airport. (I ask again: why does he insist on this obviously fraudulent beard?) Kelly's greeted by three young girls with presents. Are these their daughters? Are they all at the airport to pick up daddy? Do they not know ONJ just whisked him off the tarmac and "has a plan" for him? Is this thing about to take a 90-degree turn into melodrama? 1:58 -- I am still having trouble with Travolta's hair. It looks like he went completely cue-ball bald and then put five coats of black paint in its place. It's like a swim cap with sideburns. 2:04 -- Returning soldiers reunite with their families! Almost momentarily heartwarming. One question, though: Do a lot of soldiers return from war via private jet? 2:11 -- Awww: one of the soldiers doesn't have anyone to meet him. Is he looking for Travolta too? Oh wait, he just didn't recognize his own father standing right there in front of him! War does funny things to a man. 2:22 -- ONJ's dancing is so bad -- overworked is probably the word -- she's making the still-graceful Travolta look clumsy. 2:25 -- Okay, when they're both wearing black it's not so bad, because it's an homage to Grease and because nobody looks bad in black, but putting them both in red makes me wonder if they bounced their check to JTP Films, and this is the producers' revenge. 2:32 -- Oy, now all the extras from the airport are line dancing. None of them are any good at it, but they're still better than ONJ, who can't do it without watching Travolta's feet. 2:44 -- It's cool if Travolta wants to put his wife in the video -- well, 'cool' isn't really the right word, but you know what I mean -- but it's weird to put her in a video where she waits for him at the airport while he stares into a former co-star's eyes and promises to make love all night.  2:49 -- ONJ's huge, ear-to-ear smile has not left her face since this video started. I'm starting to think it's permanent, like Jack Nicholson's when he played the Joker. (That movie has aged even worse than ONJ, by the way.) 3:09 -- And off they go in their T-bird! Wasn't that heartwarming? Didn't it bring back amazing memories? I for one am completely reassured that, rumors and legal claims to the contrary, John Travolta is into women -- line dancing with them, watching old movies with them, coordinating his outfits with them. I still have to ask, though: why does he insist on that obviously fraudulent beard? For much shorter, equally trivial postings follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Rolling Stones Made Their Own Tour Irrelevant

Is this worth $850 a ticket? Really?
I will not be seeing the Rolling Stones next weekend when they play at the brand-new Barclays Center, two miles from my house in Brooklyn. I absolutely wanted to: I went to a game there a couple of weeks ago and was struck by what a great venue it would be for rock shows, big enough for a major act but still small enough to feel intimate, with good sightlines everywhere in the house. The Stones are, depending on when you ask me, either my favorite band ever or somewhere in the top five, and this show was one of only five scheduled to commemorate the band's 50th anniversary.  This could be the last time. May be the last time, I don't know!

Let me save you some time: Who wants to see a bunch of septuagenarians try to rock? While that is a very valid argument, I would counter that although they haven't made a memorable album in about 30 years (I'd say 35 -- I never cottoned to Tattoo You) they sound better live now than at almost any time since Brian Jones was in the band. Although they made great records in their peak period -- the Beggars Banquet - Let It Bleed - Sticky Fingers - Exile On Main Street run is one of, if not the very best achievements in the whole rock canon -- they sounded pretty lousy in concert most of the time, from the available evidence: their 1969 live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out; Gimme Shelter, the concert movie that turned into a horrifying document of the doomed free concert at Altamont Speedway; and Cocksucker Blues, the banned document of their 1972 U.S. tour. Even when they played well, as in certain moments on the Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones concert film (also from 1972), they always seemed to be plagued by sound problems, or tempo problems, or Mick's not being able to hit the notes he hit on the records, or the band seeming not to quite remember the rhythm of the tunes, or whatever.

Whereas, modern advances in monitoring, so the band can actually hear itself, plus the (relative) sobriety of the band means that even though they're not all that much to look at anymore, they generally get a lot closer to the sound of their best albums than they ever used to. Plus, in recent years they've eased up on their dogged insistence on playing half the songs from whatever forgettable new album they're using as an excuse to tour, and broken out more interesting album cuts. So it's arguable that they are a better bet now than they have been for quite some time.

But I've seen the Stones a couple of times already. The opening show, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., of the 1989 Steel Wheels tour was my first big rock concert (I was 16), and I saw them again at the same venue on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour. (They were way, way better in '94.) And as much as I love them -- I cannot possibly overstate the importance of the aforementioned four-album run to my musical identity -- I don't know how I can justify paying $1,700 dollars for any two-hour experience, much less one where I have all my clothes on.

Prodigal guitarist Mick Taylor, between feedings.
They hooked me, though, by floating the rumor that Mick Taylor, who replaced original lead guitarist Brian Jones in 1969 and played on three of those four albums I keep mentioning before quitting in 1974, would be rejoining the band for these shows. Rock nerd boner! And as promisingly, bassist Bill Wyman, who served 30 years in the band before quite sensibly retiring to count his money and enjoy his young (young) wife in 1993, would also be returning. Wyman was always dead last in any ranking of Stones in terms of awesomeness, looks, height, stage presence, songwriting, or just about any other metric except pulling groupies, but he still played the bass line on "Bitch" and "Miss You" and "All Down The Line," and he wrote the riff to the most important tune in the Stones' whole catalog ("Jumpin' Jack Flash").  In any case, the thought of the exact band, to a man, that played Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street reconvening... let's just say I found a way to justify spending more cash than I'd ordinarily be comfortable with to get into the show.

So when the show at Barclays was announced, I dutifully went to the Stones' website like the lifelong sucker fan I am for details. I saw that in a sadly typical corporate promotion, there would be advance tickets sold just to American Express cardholders a few days before they officially went on sale to the public, and having an American Express card, I noted the advance date and time and when that time came, I went to Ticketmaster, requested two tickets at the cheapest available price ($175 -- I just wanted to be in the building), and got an error saying there were no tickets that matched my request. So I try again. And again. I try again, but select "Any Tickets" instead of the cheapest, and immediately I get through: two tickets in the upper deck can be had for only $850 each! Well, I might be crazy, but I'm not rich, so I try again, and again, and again, and again to get a pair of "bargain" $175 tickets. No joy.

I figure, maybe there were only a limited number of seats available for the AmEx thing, I'll try again when tickets go on sale to the public. Exact same experience, exact same result.

A few days later, the new documentary on the band, "Crossfire Hurricane," premiered on HBO. In case the preceding 941 words have not made it clear, I am something of a scholar when it comes to the Rolling Stones (and, let's face it, pretty much every band I like, but let's stay with the Stones). Read every book, seen every movie, bought every album in every format, some more than once. And while there were no new facts I didn't already know in the film, there was a lot of footage I hadn't seen before, and the film wisely skipped details about the members' childhoods, or formation of the band, or even its earliest gigs, and started at the moment they started writing songs, and ended at the 1981 tour, which is the moment they stopped being an important creative force and became a revenue center (this current tour being the apotheosis of that iteration). 

It was also very interesting to hear the Stones themselves talk about some of the big moments in their career. I knew that Brian Jones had died a couple of weeks after he was fired from the band, but I'd never heard Mick or Keith talk about it. (I'd read interviews, but that's not the same thing.) I knew Keith's heroin problem was a major obstacle in the recording of Exile on Main Street, but I'd never heard him, or Mick, or Bill or Charlie, talk about it. Incidentally, one of the great things about this documentary was that Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor were a part of it. I bought a book called "According to the Rolling Stones" about 10 years ago that was the Stones' answer to the bestselling (far superior) "Beatles Anthology" book -- an oral history of the band, with tons of photographs -- and while it was interesting, I couldn't help noticing that it made every effort to pretend that Bill Wyman had never been a part of the band, and minimize Mick Taylor's contribution. For some reason, it seems that if you quit the Stones, even after 30 years, you're dead to them. (And yet, I made a concerted, 30-minute effort to give them $350 for two hours' work.)
Nobody would be dumb enough to get the greatest
lineup of this band under one roof and then not have
them play together, right? That would just be weird.
So having them in the fold narrating the band's story along with Mick and Keith and Charlie (Woody doesn't come in until the last ten minutes of the film) lent the whole thing an air of authenticity, rather than a calculated cash grab, as so many Wagging TongueTM
-stamped enterprises are. A few things about "Crossfire Hurricane," which is probably the best overview of the Stones' (relevant) career I've seen (though, I've only watched it two and a half times -- I'll have to see it at least three or four more before I can pass judgment): One, they were a pretty smokin' live act in the early, Brian Jones-fronted, pre-drug bust era. The versions of "It's All Over Now" and "The Last Time" (which I believe are from the recently unarchived film Charlie Is My Darling) in the film are awesome. Two, I really appreciated how alternate and rare live versions of most of the Stones' catalog were used to adorn the film, rather than the brilliant but overfamiliar versions of the tunes that have become part of the cultural wallpaper. It brought a freshness to the whole thing and reminded me just how great a songwriting team Jagger and Richards are (were) and, in the super-choice live versions of "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Loving Cup," what a killer live act they were when they wanted to be. (Side note on the Stones' dodgy live performances in the '70s: While late-night channel-flipping, I recently caught part of the concert film Some Girls [God bless the Palladia channel], which was shot in a small venue in Texas during the band's 1978 U.S. tour. I stumbled into it when they were playing a note-perfect rendition of the Bakersfield-country parody "Far Away Eyes," which I'd always regarded as one of the few weak cuts on the last-gasp 1978 Some Girls album. But in the film, they put the tune across totally convincingly, with Jagger starting out the drawling recitation on piano, then switching to a Fender Rhodes, while Ron Wood plays perfect pedal steel and Keith adds tasty country fills. Then a fiddle player comes out for an awesome solo. For the first time, I liked, nay loved, this song. But then they go into the typical Stones show denouement -- "Brown Sugar," "Satisfaction," "Jumping Jack Flash" -- and it's rote and sounds like the band can't wait for the show to be over. 
Not the video I'm talking about, but very similar
The point: the Stones are only really good live when they're trying to win an audience over, and that's most often the case when they're trying to sell new material that they're excited about, because they're obviously (and quite understandably) sick to death of "Brown Sugar"/"Jumpin' Jack Flash"/"Satisfaction." So, most of their concert films have a song or maybe two where the band is totally engaged and playing great, but it's one song in a set of 15+ tunes that they couldn't be more tired of, so the overall impression is that they suck live. "Crossfire Hurricane" does a great job of compiling these great moments. Another example: They didn't even release their 1968 TV Special "Rock N' Roll Circus" until the late '90s because it was so weak, but it has easily the best live version of "Sympathy For The Devil" I've ever seen -- they actually play the tune the way they recorded it, all piano, bass, and percussion, and Mick actually goes for all the high notes, which I've never seen him do elsewhere. Back to "Crossfire Hurricane.") Three, the Stones seem to be liberated by their old age to talk about some of their past indiscretions: Jagger freely admits that he and Keith were doing a lot of drugs in the period before their bust, and even allows a shot of himself doing a backstage pre-show bump off a switchblade.

Original bassist Bill Wyman,  playing world's 
smallest bass at O2 Arena last week

Four, the loss of Brian Jones never really resonated with me, because so much emphasis has been put on his sad, addled final days, but the footage of Jones being interviewed and interacting with the rest of the band really drove home his musical skill, his personal appeal, his role in the band, and why he, not Jagger, was the most famous member in the early days. And five, the Black and Blue album, released in 1975 and the first to feature Ron Wood, is not the total loss of a treading-water record I wrote it off as when I first heard it -- I mean, it is, but the tune "Hey Negrita" has a great riff, supplied by Wood (though of course he was denied a songwriting credit), prominently featured in the movie to signify his arrival in the band. (Side note on Woody: the 2006 concert film Shine A Light shows the Stones as good as they can probably get at this point, and interestingly, the sound mix has Keith's guitar panned hard to the right and Woody's hard to the left, which really drives home the fact that in the 21st-century Rolling Stones, Ron Wood is doing 90% of the heavy lifting [as well as the medium and easy lifting] guitar-wise. I always thought he was a scrub and I see now that I was totally wrong.)
The point being, "Crossfire Hurricane" was great, and it made me feel a lot better about not going to the Barclays show, Taylor and Wyman reunion or no. The band I wanted to see was on HBO -- HBO On Demand, no less -- and I could enjoy them in their heyday as much as I want for $14 a month. (I'll probably stop watching it in two or three months.) Then, earlier this week, reviews from the first of these five shows, at the O2 Arena in London, started popping up, and confirmed that Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor had indeed been part of the show. My heart sank for a moment as I remembered again that I wouldn't get to see them when they come to Brooklyn. But then I read on: Wyman only played on two songs ("Honky Tonk Women" and "It's Only Rock N' Roll") and Taylor on one ("Midnight Rambler"), and they didn't play together at all.
Goddammit! Even when the Stones do something cool anymore, it's not that cool. The bass player who played on EVERY GOOD SONG IN THE STONES' CATALOG gets trotted out for two songs out of 25? This guy played the monster bass line on "Miss You"! You have it in the set, and you don't have the guy who wrote it play it? What is that? And the tunes you do have him play are two-note nothing bass lines? Why have him on at all? Likewise, you have the guitar player who played all the solos on all the Stones' best albums, and you bring him out for one tune? (A tune that has no guitar solos, no less, so having him wank all over it for 12 minutes makes it seem like he's ruining it?) How do you not play his tour de force "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" with him and the also-present Bobby Keys so they can do their awesome dueling solos? (I can sing you both solos note for note, by the way, if you need your memory refreshed.) How do you not have him play the slide solo on "All Down The Line"?  You have the exact personnel that played "Bitch" and "Rocks Off" and "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar" in the building, and you don't have them all play together at once? WHAT IS THAT?!?!? They turned what should have been a great and magnanimous and celebratory gesture into a gimmick, the same as having Sheryl Crow duet with Mick on "Live With Me" or somesuch typical latter-day lameness.
The YouTube footage of the Wyman/Taylor spots in the recent show combined with "Crossfire Hurricane" totally cured me of my urge to see them on this or any future tour. It's a Christmas miracle!

Mick Jagger, 2012
I'll close with this: even though it's easy, and totally justified, to hate on Mick Jagger for running the Stones as a cash cow first, second and third and as a band maybe fourth or fifth, I can't help admiring the fact that he has not had any plastic surgery. The dude is 69, and has been looking
pretty ragged since the mid-80s, and is so vain he once married the female version of himself. One would imagine he'd be the first on line at Dr. 90210's office (or at least, right behind Wayne Newton) to keep his famously plump lips from thinning out and his face from transmogrifying into the drawn visage of the Crypt Keeper, but he hasn't. So, kudos, Mick: Stay Ugly!
For much shorter, equally trivial postings follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Star Wars Episode VII: The Cosmetically Altered Menace"

She's fast enough for you, old man.
We've all had a couple of weeks to digest the Big News: George Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm Ltd, to Disney for $4.05 billion. What did they buy for all that money? Only the biggest movie franchise of all time, and the rights to extend that franchise. In half a hummingbird's heartbeat, Disney announced its plans for a new trilogy of "Star Wars" films, starting with Episode VII, which will follow the events of Return of the Jedi in the chronology of the Galaxy Far Far Away.

After the dismal non-entertainment of the prequels, one might reasonably wonder why anyone would care about any more "Star Wars" movies. But Disney has made a few smart moves to gradually ease all us kids of the '70s, myself very much included, back from "lock that sumbitch up, I never want to see him again" to "he didn't mean to, he's a good man, I brought bail money!"

First and foremost, George Lucas is not writing or directing or even producing the movies -- he's been consigned to ceremonial "creative consultant" status, which probably means the folks who just bought the keys to the Millennium Falcon will ask him what he would do, and then do the opposite. Because how could any set of movies be any worse directed than the prequels? It's not a shock that Jake Lloyd (child Anakin) and Hayden Christensen (surly teenage Anakin) were terrible, as they were both unknown, but George Lucas got stultifying, awful, unwatchable performances from the normally reliable likes of Natalie Portman, Ewan Macgregor, and Liam Neeson. (There are many theories about how exactly he accomplished that, and here, in video form, is mine:)

A second source of excitement among the faithful:  it's been hinted that the key characters of the original trilogy -- Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia -- will return in the new one, and original stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and even Harrison Ford have indicated interest in participating. Hamill and Fisher are no surprise, of course. While neither of them is exactly starving -- Hamill has had a successful career as a voice actor for comic-book cartoons, and Fisher is a celebrated author coming off a sold-out Broadway run of her autobiographical one-woman show -- neither has come anywhere near the heights of success or visibility they enjoyed as the faces of the biggest movie franchise of all time. Harrison Ford is more surprising, because while the "Star Wars" movies represented the apex of Hamill and Fisher's careers, for Ford it was only the beginning of one of the biggest leading-man runs of the last 30 years, and not a particularly pleasant beginning. He's been pretty tight-lipped about his time as Han Solo, and it's no big secret that that's because he had a couple of small issues with the experience, including hating the script, hating the concept, hating being in a "children's movie," hating shooting in the snow, hating the robots, hating Chewbacca, hating the Ewoks, and of course hating the director. ("You can type this shit," Ford famously told Lucas on set, "but you sure as hell can't say it.") It's a measure of how far his career has fallen (that awful fourth Indiana Jones movie had to be particularly dispiriting, considering it made Morning Glory and Hollywood Homicide look like recent successes by comparison) that he's publicly said he's open to returning to the role that made him famous. 
Seven years, two facelifts, and 180 (collective) pounds ago
All of this is very exciting, right? Not just new "Star Wars" movies, but "Star Wars" movies with the original cast reprising their roles, 35 years after the first movie? The nerds certainly are excited: the huge Internet community devoted to picking over every last detail of casting, production design, concept art, budgets, and catering choices pretty much sprang up in the excitement over the announcement of the prequels 15 years ago. Back then there were only a couple of these sites, Ain't It Cool News being the most famous and most informative. It's interesting to see how that particular subsegment of the Internet has changed in such a short time: Ain't It Cool hasn't broken anything interesting in years, and has lost every bit of its relevance and then some, while a whole legion of imitators that's grown up around it is thriving and has already published approximately 4.7 trillion stories speculating about every last detail of these new movies. Will they bring Darth Vader back from the dead? (It is science fiction, after all.) Will Quentin Tarantino direct a "Star Wars" movie? (No he will not, and is there anyone who'd seriously want him to?) And, will the original cast reprise their roles? I don't see how you can go forward with a story in the "Star Wars" universe that doesn't in some way involve Luke, Han, and Leia. (Even going forward without Darth Vader is a stretch.) The six-film saga of the original trilogy and the prequels was about the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, set against a galactic civil war. Both stories came to totally satisfying ends in the last 15 minutes of Return of the Jedi. So if you don't have Anakin Skywalker and you don't have the Empire, what makes "Episode VII" a "Star Wars" movie, if not some kind of continuity with familiar characters? There's a whole industry built around post-Jedi fan fiction, but all of it revolves around the Big Three and/or their offspring.
Almost, but not quite sadder.
Having said all that, I think bringing back the original cast would be a colossal mistake. Have you seen them lately? Mark Hamill looks like he's been sleeping under a car, Carrie Fisher looks (as she herself is fond of saying) like Elton John, and Harrison Ford, who's held up the best of all of them, looks like a confused grandpa (despite the best efforts of his tiny gold earring). Could there possibly be anything sadder than 70-year-old Harrison Ford staggering around in the white shirt and black vest? Does anyone want to see present-day Carrie Fisher kiss present-day Harrison Ford? Could anything be harder to watch than current Mark Hamill waving a lightsaber? When I'm watching a "Star Wars" movie, shouldn't whether or not bad facelifts are a thing in the Galaxy Far Far Away be the furthest thing from my mind?
"Welcome to the La Brea Men's Shelter! My name's Mark."
Must... resist... Jabba the Hutt joke...
To me, that last one is the real dealbreaker. I guess you could write this thing so that Luke and Han Solo are like elder statesmen passing the torch to young Jedi Master Prince Lazer Solo-Skywalker or whatever -- keep them behind a desk or a dining table, just show their faces for a second so we can hear their voices and renew our goodwill in this franchise. But there's no way you can put Carrie Fisher (who, I should be clear, I have a lot of affection for, no matter what she looks like -- she's a great writer, I paid full price to see her on Broadway, and she got the best scene in both The Blues Brothers and the first Austin Powers) in this thing and not immediately unsuspend my disbelief. She's put on some weight, which on Earth should not disqualify her, but would stick out in the Galaxy Far Far Away -- was there even one fat person, including extras, in any of the previous movies? (Naming Jabba the Hutt only underscores my point). But it's not really that she's older, or that she's larger: it's that she has a different face, and that's even more distracting than a floppy-eared special-needs alien stepping in poop and mugging directly into the camera (which still stands as the third most traumatic event of my life). And, it's an all-or-nothing proposition. You either bring back all three of these actors or you bring back none of them. And I'm sorry, I just don't see it in Princess Leia's character that she got a bad facelift. And, come on: Harrison Ford is now seven years older than Alec Guinness was when he first played Obi-Wan Kenobi. In what context could that possibly be awesome? Which leaves the only other option: recasting. This probably sounds like heresy, particularly when the original leads are all available, but it worked out great for the Star Trek reboot. I thought the guys who stepped in as Kirk and Spock did a great job of playing the characters of Kirk and Spock, as opposed to doing Shatner and Nimoy impressions (which would have been awful). I can't really think of anyone who'd be appropriate to take on these iconic roles, but that's kind of the point: they should get some relative unknowns (as with the "Star Trek" reboot) who won't bring any baggage. They should definitely bring back the guy who played Jar Jar, though. It was a note-perfect performance and bringing him back into the story would bring the whole thing full circle and give it a new throughline. How about this: when we last saw him in Revenge of the Sith, Jar Jar appeared to be a senator. So how about he becomes the new Grand Chancellor of the New Republic? Then he's slowly lured over to the Dark Side, and slowly, insidiously undermines the democratic process to appoint himself the new Emperor. "Yousa will find this space station fully operational!"