Monday, December 27, 1999

1999's Top Ten

10) For a television show where many of the characters are by definition without a soul, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has an abundance of that particular attribute so rare for the medium. There was a fear that with the departure of Angel and Cordelia the show would not be able to consistently continue its faithfully fluid storyline. That fear has been alleviated with the return of Spike, the introduction of Riley and the mean psychology professor (played by the wonderful actress, Lindsey Crouse). The dark humor, the unique pathos, the tragic plight of each of the characters- television rarely sees writing of this caliber, so rewarding in its creativity.

9) He was led by hand to his piano before the show started by an assistant showing him where he was supposed to go. His vocals on the opening number, The Little Girl I Once Knew, were shaky at best, mostly disappearing into the vocal mix behind the backup singers, as he strained to hit the higher notes. Yet despite all the stories of his legendary stage fright, Brian Wilson seemed to grow more and more at ease during his appearance at the State Theater. At times his mind seemed to wander but when he opened the second half of the show with inspirational versions of Wouldn't it be Nice and Sloop John B it was one of the most magical musical moments I've ever witnessed.

8) I love watching Dolores O'Riordan move. Herky jerky yet still quite perky, her walk is more of a sway than a swagger, more a pigeon imitation than a strut. The diminutive lead singer of the Cranberries is most certainly a magnetic performer. The group's appearance at Roy Wilkins was an affirmation of the joy of artistic expression. It was an evening full of melodious and fine kinship.

7) Despite continuing sagging ratings it was a good year for David Letterman. His show won its second Emmy in a row for the best "variety" show. Dave seemed to calm down from a growing tendency to act maniacally for laughs. It was if part of him said, if we're going to fail we're not going to give a crap and we're going to fail on our own terms. Thus his show night in and night out was Letterman at his best, at his crankiest, at his most anarchist. The man who helped create a generation of sarcastic adults that communicate by saying things that mean totally opposite of what they're supposed to mean, was at the top of his game. His best new bit was sending a crewmember to stand behind a local convenience store counter with a hidden camera and as the clerk gave the customer change, say to the unsuspecting (and often times bulky) patron, "Next time bring your sister, you hump." It brilliantly straddled the line between being uncomfortably funny, and dangerously peculiar- Candid Camera gone slightly awry.

6) Due to a lack of funds this past year I bought the fewest CDs of any year since I first started collecting. Thus not being a radio listener I didn't get to hear a lot of new songs. But my favorite was without a doubt, Sugar Ray's Someday. Behind its lovely latin rhythm is a soothing song about the virtues of self-solace. "Some say better things will come our way/No matter what they try to say you were always there for me/Some way, when the sun begins to shine/I hear a song from another time and fade away/And fade away"

5) I was sitting wistfully watching the last day State Fair traffic flow by my house when I put on Tubby Esquire's Return of the Last Castrato! CD for the first time. I had no idea what to expect but I think the last thing I was expecting was polka rock music. My somewhat melancholy mood immediately was changed by the infectious joy of the songs. It is the best CD I heard this year, 13 tracks full of insightful and clever humor.

4) The night before my Mom's funeral my stressed out family had a bit of a disagreement. Tired and sad I drove home, wondering how any of us were going to make it through the next day. As I got to my house I walked to my front door and saw it was slightly ajar. Oh great, I thought, somebody's broken in. But as I got closer I saw it was a plant not allowing the door to close. My friend had sent me a Cyclamen- one of the many small perfectly timed gestures of her supportive friendship. I leaned on her hard often throughout the year and she remained a true friend. Suddenly the dark night became memorable in a different way.

3) The day after my Mom's funeral I had tickets to go down to Shakopee to see a Paul Simon/Bob Dylan concert. Through a bit of a misunderstanding I had no one to go with. Because of the week that was I wasn't much in the mood to make the drive, wasn't much in the mood to stand outside in the drizzling rain at a horse track. Most of the show is now a blur but Mr. Dylan, as he often does, provided a moment of spark- a soft and heartfelt version of Not Dark Yet. "Sometimes my burden is more than I can bare. It's not dark yet but it's getting there."

2) In a year full of personal and professional turmoil it was always nice to come home to the familiar bellow of a hungry Mr. Max. And much as it was desirable not to make any more changes, we added a new wrinkle to his dinnertime. Before I put his dinner dish down, I make him twirl in circles following his supper as it orbits his body. Don't call the Humane Society quite yet- I swear the two of us have the mostest fun.

1) Mom

Monday, December 20, 1999

Whew, This Dream is Over

Happy Holidays! I sincerely hope you and yours are having a good one. If I may interrupt for a second I have a question for all you dream interpreters out there. Friday night I had a doozy and would appreciate someone (anyone) telling me what it meant. I dreamt it was an unbearably hot summer day. My brother and I decided to do the smart thing and go out to the Dairy Queen to get a snack. We hopped into a white convertible (I don't think I've actually ever been in a convertible) and headed out to what I thought was the neighborhood DQ. But my brother drove right by it and I didn't question why, figuring he knew what he was doing. We kept passing DQ after DQ, many of which I never knew existed. I finally asked him where he was going and he told me we were going to the one by his house in Eagan. This seemed a tad peculiar since we had planned to eat the ice cream back at my house in St. Paul.

We got on the freeway and the flowing overhead open air wasn't much of a relief against the stifling heat. We then got underneath a flock of geese. I was worried about being below them with no roof over us. What they might drop turned out not to be our biggest worry however. The huge squawkers kept swooping down closer and closer. Finally a couple of them darted at us, pulling up just before they got within reach. One brave goose however tested the line and he dove down between my brother and myself. Right as he got within arms' reach I flapped my own arms like crazy to drive him away. At this point I woke up and found I had flung the covers of my bed briskly toward the ceiling. Problem was Mr. Max was sleeping soundly, as he often does, on the blankets covering my stomach. He thus had been rudely awaken by being catapulted upwards. He of course pranced into the other room figuring his domestic associate had finally lost it. I had to get up, bring him back all the while both sweating and apologizing profusely. And that, my friends, is how I mistook Mr. Max for a goose.

The Second Greatest Song in the World

Come a rainstorm put your rubbers on your feet,
Comes a snowstorm you can get a little heat;
Comes love nothing can be done

Having listened to literally dozens of songs in my life, I'm often approached by women wearing strange hats who inquire, "What do you think is the second greatest song of all time?" I'm not quite sure how or why the lasses zoom in on me. Maybe I look like a fellow who must just know what it means to be second best. But when asked I do not hesitate in my answer. Even under the pressure of a skunk-eyed glare of one Regis Philbin probing if this is my "final answer" I still would never change my mind. Nope, no way. I've heard this particular song too many times to know that I am right. And every time I hear it my heart and soul coalesce.

Comes a fire then you know just what to do,
Blow a tire you can buy another shoe,
Comes love nothing can be done.

Comes Love was written by Charlie Tobias, Lew Brown and Sam Stept, with the most famous versions being by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. But the quintessential rendition is without a doubt, Billie Holiday's. Like just about every other song that Holiday chose to sing, her cover compared to all the others is like a brick of Gouda set next to aerosol cheese. Her vocals caress the melody and words wrapping itself around the feelings evoked, extracting all the inherent irony and melancholy with great passion.

Don't try hidin 'cause there isn't any use,
You'll start slidin when your heart turns on the juice.

The song uncovers the undeniable truth that all life predicaments we bitch and moan about, no matter their inconvenience have a solution or alternative except one- love. The song's list of human struggles is universal yet creative- from the weather and elements to varmints and ailments. At the end of the list is a declaration that once you fall in love, your doomed future has already been written.

Comes a headache you can lose it in a day,
Comes a toothache see the dentist right away;
Comes love nothing can be done

The subtle deadpan surety of Holiday's delivery is echoed in the bridge by a simmering trumpet solo from Harry "Sweets" Edison, and its accompanying understated guitar solo by Barney Kessel, which combined sound like two wised grizzled men standing in the corner nodding their heads in agreement with the singer. The geometric bass playing of Joe Mondragon and drums by Larry Bunker lay a shifting foundation underneath it all.

Comes a heat wave you can hurry to the shore
Comes a summons you can hide behind the door;
Comes love nothing can be done.
Comes the measles you can quarantine the room,
Comes a mousie you can chase it with a broom;
Comes love nothing can be done

The climax of the song is in closing stanza with the lines, "Comes a nightmare you can always stay awake, Comes depression you may get another break. Comes love nothing can be done." There is something very special about the way Holiday sings these couplets. Her voice doesn't noticeably waver or falter although there is a resigned explicitness distinct from the rest of the song. This is clearly a woman who has lived this song and knows what she is singing about. It is a great performance from our greatest singer, emotional and bare, letting the listener in on a lesson while acknowledging that to be human means knowing first (and second) hand the very essence of the substance being expressed.

That's all brother, if you've ever been in love,
That's all brother, you know what I'm speaking of

Monday, December 13, 1999

Losing My Fragility

The first time I saw Andy Kaufman was on an early episode of Saturday Night Live. Out on stage a sheepish man stood wide eyed as he gently placed the arm of a phonograph on to a scratchy sounding record. It was the "Mighty Mouse" theme and the man remained mostly still as he diligently seemed to be counting the beats of the music in his head. He remained totally silent until the refrain of the song played, "Here I am to save the day. Mighty Mouse is on the way." With this he broadly mouthed the words sweeping his hand in the air with a superhero's confidence. He then returned to silence only "singing" every time the chorus played. At the end of the song he gently removed the arm of the phonograph from the record, bashfully smiled at his audience and said in a tiny little voice, "Dank u veddy much." It was peculiar, it was sweet and it was about the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

I followed Andy through his subsequent appearances on SNL and the Tonight Show. Every time I saw him my admiration grew. There was the time he did imitations in his foreign man voice, each imitation from John Wayne to Richard Nixon sounding exactly alike only with the different phrases associated with the subjects. Then he got to his Elvis impersonation and the transformation was startling. From the twitchy lip to the hiccuping vocals Andy did Elvis better than Elvis did Elvis at that point. Another time Andy was telling silly little jokes without remembering their punchlines. The audience politely played along, laughing nervously. With growing trepidation he finally began to break down accusing the audience of laughing at him and not with him. He began to sob, choking on his own breath. As the sobbing became more rhythmic he began to dance as he turned the cry of his voice into a musical instrument.

When it was announced Andy was to be a regular on the new sitcom Taxi, I made sure I had all my schoolwork done so I could watch the new show. His character, Latka Gravas, immediately became my favorite part of a very well cast ensemble. A popular part of my own minor celebrity in junior high school was my ability to imitate Latka's trademark accented thank you.

With his debut as the first inter-gender wrestling champion Andy's sweetness turned to weirdness. His frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman showed him not so much a comedian but as a performance artist- a performer who was looking as much to make his audience squirm as much as laugh. He no longer was always funny but that seemed to be the point. Even his Taxi character, Latka, lost his innocence and became the obnoxious alter ego- Vic Ferrari.

Then there was an unforgettable appearance on Letterman following Andy's first wrestling match with a man. His opponent, Jerry Lawler appeared on the show with Andy. Andy was wearing a neck brace compliment of being the victim of a pile driver by Lawler. The two uncomfortably sat next to each other and exchanged their accounts of the match. More and more Lawler became agitated with Andy's demeanor. Just before Dave was going to a commercial Lawler slapped Andy. At this point, and to this day, I'm not sure how much of this was put on and how much was real. Dave didn't seem to know either. It was the most bizarre, and one of the most seemingly dangerous moments of television I ever saw.

When the news came out that Andy had cancer I was among the many who wondered whether maybe it was another of his stunts. When he died I was truly saddened. His death prompted Letterman to, for one of the only times in the history of his show, drop the sarcasm and speak genuinely from the heart- about how Andy had always been such an entertaining guest that would now be greatly missed.

I wasn't aware of how influential Andy was until he remained a much talked about performer years after his death. My favorite REM song remains their affectionate tribute to Andy, "Man on the Moon." I was excited to hear about the movie project of Andy's life starring Jim Carrey. Although I am now officially retired from movie-going I may have to make a temporary exception and go see the movie. I'm not sure anybody can ever make sense of Andy's skewed vision of life, but I think it's safe to say we will always forever enjoy his unique talent.