Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Rare Steely Dan Masterpiece Both Thrills and Disturbs

That guy over at Steely Dan Sunday this weekend transcended his usual excellence to do something downright revelatory. As someone who owns both the "Dallas"/"Sail the Waterway" single on vinyl (the only format it was ever available on before going off the market in '72) and a downloaded bootleg of "This All Too Mobile Home" (1974; never released at all), as well as all the early demo stuff, I didn't know there was any Dan territory out there left to be discovered. Then S. Victor Aaron, who every Sunday provides close analysis of a different Dan song, dropped a post about this thing called "(You Got) The Bear." Apparently left off of Aja (1977), this song, like a lot of what the Dan reportedly left off their LPs, is a gem and a marvel. It's both poignant and fun, switching tempos and modes, alternating between verse and falsetto-chorus and jazz-interlude. It's everything a Dan song can be, which is to say that it's everything music can be. It's also a little bit goofy, if taken at face value lyrically. That's true of just about every song the Dan's ever done. I'm sure there's plenty of subtext within its design, and I'm also sure that, no matter what its actual intended subtext, there's someone out there who will try to say it's about drugs. (Oh, never mind, somebody already has.) The song has a spooky, spectral quality--Donald Fagen's vocal, on the studio version, seems to originate from the bottom of a very deep well, all plaintive and echoed. It's both thrilling and disturbing, which makes it the perfect soundtrack for anyone contemplating all those amazing songs recorded but never heard.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Just How Egregious Was 'The Super Bowl Shuffle'?

Every bit as egregious as you've always thought and then worse than that. At least you had the good fortune to see it in its own time, back in 1985/86, allowing its egregiousness to dawn on you slowly, over years, rather than all at once with a jolt. Still, egregious as the whole thing's always seemed as performance, you didn't know the half of it till Jeff Pearlman took you behind the scenes in Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton

Payton, you learn, wasn't even at the taping of the video. Neither was Jim McMahon. As the Chicago Bears' primary representatives of excellence and leadership, they didn't regard it as the least bit wise to dance along  to something called "The Super Bowl Shuffle" just three days after losing a regular-season game to Miami. It was the only game the Bears would lose all year, right up to and including the Super Bowl itself, but of course they had no way of knowing that at the time.

So Payton and McMahon's parts were recorded separately, then artificially inserted in with the rest of the gang. "It's a terrible piece of work," says Barbara Supeter, who should certainly know, having helped produce the thing. "We finished editing and filming on December 18, and on December 22 it was in stores. We didn't have any writers or choreographers to speak of. And yet, it became this phenomenon." 

Beyond its cult popularity in that NFL-playoff season of 1985, the song was even nominated for a Grammy, in the R&B category, and earned gold-record status. Mike Singletary, according to teammate Gary Fencik, "threw his gold record in the trash can" upon learning that the charity on whose behalf they'd recorded the song wasn't even really a charity deserving the name. The whole fiasco set a new standard in poor taste, and even in the '80s stood out as an exemplar of the most primitive rhyme-schemes known to rap. When avidity and arrogance conspire with musical ineptitude, the result is truly something to behold.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Mystery of the 'Mad' Fold-In, Solved

As a kid, I used to stand at the store's magazine rack and marvel at the Mad Fold-In. Unlike so many things  mysterious to me then but mundane now, this one perplexes still, even after reading the magician's secrets in Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (2010). Jaffee's the guy who has always done the Fold-Ins--the guy who originally created them and the guy who, against all logic, does them still, at the age of 91.

The Fold-In was originally conceived as a punning play on the fold-out, still highly fashionable in magazines in the 1960s--not just in Playboy, but also in Life, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated, to name a few. But Jaffee originally wanted to take his spin on the fold-put in the opposite direction, and do "a foldout-foldout-foldout, one that goes on for twelve feet." This plan was quickly deemed impractical, even by Jaffee himself, and so the idea of the Fold-In is what he alighted upon instead.

I'm glad I'm not the only one perplexed by its mystery. "Nine out of ten times even aficionados can't guess the fold-in," Jaffee tells Mary-Lou Wiseman, the author of Al Jaffee's Mad Life. "I work very hard to misguide them." But when the Fold-In went from black-and-white to color, things became exponentially more perplexing, particularly for their creator: "Suppose a woman's dress has to turn into an upholstered chair. With black and white, it's no problem," but with color, the two women whose dresses form the chair have to be wearing similar dresses, in order for it to match up correctly once folded. "This means," Wiseman writes, "he needs to have a lot else going on to divert the eye."

And the image comes before the lettering, in case you were wondering--"I carefully draw the folded image and then cut it down the middle and separate the two halves. Then I try to fill in the center so that it becomes a cohesive whole"--but the lettering is, for some of us, the most mystifyingly implausible piece of the whole operation. When I was interviewing Jaffee's longtime Mad colleague Dick DeBartolo recently, I took the conversation somewhat off-track to talk to him about the Fold-In, and DeBartolo, himself a writer by trade, was just as eager to hear how Jaffee made the folded words match as I had been. He even encouraged me to read to him Jaffee's explanation, and so I read to him the following Jaffee quote from out of the biography:
I can always make the words work. The English language has so much leeway. Trying to figure out word character counts on a typewriter was a nightmare, but with the advent of the computer, the job is simpler. Still, it's a huge puzzle. On the left you had half of what the final response would be, and on the right you had the other half, and what you're filling in between has to relate to the picture you're looking at, but that's not all--it has to appear after you fold it. If the letters run too long, I look for shorter synonyms. But then you have a double problem. When you read the full paragraph under the big picture, it has to pertain both to the full-page image and, after it's folded, to the folded image and the answer. They can't be separated. The whole thing has to work together. Shiite Muslims relax by flagellating themselves. I do fold-ins. 
The whole process typically takes about two weeks, Jaffee making "a lot of preliminary sketches on tracing paper until he is satisfied that he's surmounted his greatest challenge--fooling the reader's eye." Once that stage is complete, the images get transferred to a two-ply illustration board. "The board has its advantages," Jaffee explains, "in that nothing can become misaligned, but the disadvantage is that I can't see what it will look like when the finished product is folded."

This explanation, taken in its entirety, contextualizes everything while simplifying nothing, inviting its beholder to stand in amazement. It's a lot like the Fold-In itself in that way.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Sugar Ray Took from the LaMotta Sextalogy

Sugar Ray takes a punch from LaMotta. The second bout of six. 
Thanks to Scorsese, DeNiro, Schrader, and whoever else you want to blame for Raging Bull, we know perfectly well what Jake LaMotta took from his six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. (Here's a hint: It wasn't good.) But what about Robinson--what did he take from their brutal sextalogy? Wil Haygood is as illuminating on this as he is on everything in Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson
Purists would come to note that changes had taken place in the fighting style of Sugar Ray Robinson during the LaMotta battles. Because LaMotta simply would not go down, Robinson had learned patience in the ring, taking punishing body blows and all the while adjusting his mental resolve. There would be bruising; there would be blood. He adjusted the artistic bent of his fighting game--he had a habit of humming jazz tunes to himself between rounds--to withstand power from the other direction. It was a determined reaction to LaMotta's style, but it would also supply him with the confidence to extend his career when others advised against it.

What Ever Happened to the Garbage Pail Kids?

It's hard to blame a person for wondering what value a book about the Garbage Pail Kids could possibly have today, short of a cheap '80s-nostalgia rush. Brilliantly drawn but crudely conceived, GPK were a flash-flame novelty item that hit it big with kids for a couple of years and then went away (or might as well have; they actually continued for a few years longer, and are in fact back in both retro packs and an all-new series). But kids have memories, and they grow up, their memories intact. This has many uses beyond just reminding one's parents of their ineptitude, gratifying as that can certainly be.

Read the rest at The Faster Times.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Jack LaLanne: The Homicidal Years

It's a well-established part of the Jack LaLanne creation myth that as a boy, before he converted to the religion of Exercise-and-Nutrition, he'd been hyperactive, sugar-addicted, and once had even tried to kill his own brother. I never knew how literal this last aspect of the myth really was, though, until I read about it in LaLanne's book Live Young Forever (2009), in which he goes autobiographical for a moment in order to demonstrate the self he had to shed in order to become the self he wanted to be. 

"I developed uncontrollable rages," he writes, as a result of his craving for candy and ice cream, which he often subsidized with thefts from his mother's purse. "My brother and I were always fighting. He was six years older and I wanted to be like him. He would tell me 'You can't do that, kid.' I was so skinny and scrawny even the girls use[d] to beat me up. I would get terrible headaches so bad sometimes I would hit my head against the wall." He "was prone to fevers and they came frequently," and that's how it was that he once came to nearly kill his own brother.
Once when I was about 13 I became seriously ill and out of my head with a temperature of 104 for about 14 days, I was a raving maniac and tried to shoot my brother with my uncle's .22 shotgun. Another time I tried to set the house on fire. By the end of the 14th day, the doctors said I probably wouldn't live through the night.
He lived through the night, and a short time later a neighbor suggested to Jack's mother that she and little Jack attend a fitness seminar conducted by the pioneering nutritionist Paul Bragg. When they got there, LaLanne was pleased to see there were no more seats, and he and his mother started to leave. "Lady with the little boy," Bragg called out. "We don't turn anyone away. Ushers[,] bring up two seats and put them onstage." 

What was now "the most embarrassing moment of [his] life" soon became the most profoundly revelatory, as he heard Bragg promise to each of those in attendance that "it matters not what your age is; it matters not what your physical condition is. If you obey nature's laws, you can be born again."

"Everything he said made sense," LaLanne would recall. "I was instantly converted to the health-and-fitness lifestyle. Bragg said I could be born again. That is exactly what I wanted. I had a desire to be an athlete. I wanted better grades in school. I wanted to be popular with girls." He got everything he wanted, and more than what he wanted, and he would keep on getting it for 83 more years. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Martin Scorsese's Most Perplexing Movie: An Assessment at 35

It's out on the fire escape that a bit of spontaneous Edward Hopper occurs. DeNiro's just struck out with Minnelli--Jimmy's just struck out with Francine--and he's waiting for his friend to finish up with his hotel room, lent to him by Jimmy who it turns out won't be needing it tonight except to sleep. Jimmy's fresh back from the war, V-J Day, a festive and celebrant New York night, but right now Jimmy's out on the fire escape, melancholy-subdued. It's here that the piece of kineticized Hopper occurs: Jimmy in the darkness in his New York-themed Hawaiian shirt, sharing the frame with two dancers below, spotlit by streetlight. One is a pretty blonde woman, the other is a young Navy sailor in full dress-whites. They're doing an elaborate dance,  with no musical accompaniment. The incongruity of it casts an eerie and moving spell: one standing in the dark, two dancing in the light, while, over it all, a subway rumble provides some found music by way of industrial ambience. When the train passes, the dancers still continue in their dance, inspired by the raw moment in all its obvious affection and spontaneity. You hear their shoes scuffle, scrape, and tap. And then there's Jimmy: smoking, serene, his gaze both surveiling and appraising.

Read the rest at The Faster Times.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

He, Like, Freed the Bobbleheads, Right?

When I was in the gift-shop a couple years ago at Chesterwood, the museum-estate for Lincoln Memorial sculptor Chester David French, I asked about that bobblehead pictured above. The clerk told me, basically, that at the store they only keep things somber and reverential. (Actually, the word she used was "serious," but we all know what she meant.) That's too bad: the Great Emancipator's done so much to emancipate the bobbleheads, and this is the thanks he gets. 
You can also find his likeness embodied by this takeoff on the copper penny. There are so many ways you can go with Lincoln, and it's good to see people exploring the limits of that freedom. It's not just Lincoln, of course. They're doing it all over the place, which is largely why bobbleheads haven't yet passed over into the realm of has-been fad, and why I'm starting to wonder if they ever will. (I actually have a lot of hypotheses on why this is, but that's a different post entirely.)
It reminds me of something they started recently doing with the Star Wars ones. You know those translucent blue holograms that shoot out of R2-D2 (both in the worthwhile trilogy and that other one that got made)?Well, some enterprising design heads came up with bobbleheads that somehow simulate that look. They've got them for Vader and Yoda and Obi-Wan, but, for some reason, there's no Leia--there's no Princess Leia, even though her famous plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi ("Help me, Obi-Wan, you're my only hope!") is undoubtedly the single most famous moment in all of Star Wars holograms. Someone needs to free up this idea into the realm of reality. I hope Abe Lincoln's listening.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Guild Secrets of a Caricaturist: Tom Richmond

Just this past holiday season, I was talking to a caricature artist set up for business in my local mall. He had this board full of cartoon likenesses pinned next to the photographs that had served as their models. I call them likenesses, but that’s not quite right, because really they bore very little resemblance to their purported subjects. If someone had shuffled the whole array like a deck of cards and asked me to match them up, photo to drawing, I’m not sure I would have even been able to do it correctly. This particular caricaturist obviously subscribed to the funhouse philosophy of caricature: lots of crazy, twisting, elongated features; exaggeration in all the wrong places; comic zaniness everywhere trumping fidelity and verisimilitude. “That’s my specialty,” he said, defensive, when I told him some of this. “You mean you want a portrait,” he said, a little dickishly. I started to backpedal a bit, telling him they looked great (“Thank you,” he said), but that they’re more “impressionistic” than the kind of caricature I was looking for. That’s a pretty sloppy way of putting it, I know–the verbal equivalent of this man’s drawings, in fact–but that’s what I said. I took his card and walked away. The price was right–the price was better than right–but it’s been said that you get what you pay for, and although these caricatures were what I wanted to pay for, they were certainly not what I wanted to get.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Could the Batcave Have Saved the '60s TV Series?

Secrets of the Batcave (1995), by Dick Sprang
Here's a secret of the Batcave that you won't find even in Dick Sprang's wondrously elaborate lithograph. Adam West insisted in his 1994 autobiography, Back to the Batcave, that the '60s television series, after it had been cancelled by ABC, was on the verge of perhaps being picked up by NBC, which "was looking for a way to hook young adults and felt that Batman might help anchor a night that would include Star Trek and Tarzan, the latter of which was skewing a bit too young." So what happened to prevent NBC's patronage? Well, that's what brings us to the Batcave. The Batcave set had already been destroyed, you see, by "some enterprising executive [who] had ordered the Batcave set burned and the standing sets dismantled and recycled as other sets." Much as NBC may have wanted the series, they didn't want it so bad they were willing to pay for all that reconstruction. "[A]nd so, for a second time, Batman was finished."