Wednesday, April 30, 2014

R.I.P. Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)

A few years ago, a male friend of mine (who is also in entertainment) and I were shooting the breeze and talking about whatever popped into our heads. Apropos of nothing, I had a thought about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I said, “You know whose Bottom I’d like to see? Bob Hoskins’.” He gave me a strange look and said, “Why do you want to see Bob Hoskins’ bottom?”

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Jon Finch in Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ (1971)

Here’s a nice article from the website Word & Film, which discusses ten Shakespeare movies to watch as a celebration of the Bard’s 45oth birthday.  Yes, 450 years ago today, William Shakespeare was born (and 398 years ago, would die on the same day), and watching a film based on one of his plays would certainly be a fitting way to celebrate.

I particularly like this list’s inclusion of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, based on the Henriad), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957, based on Macbeth), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968, based on … you figure it out).  I would enthusiastically endorse all of these three Shakespeare films!

I would add two others: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Peter Brook’s King Lear (both 1971). 

In particular, Polanski’s Macbeth is an appropriately cynical vision of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most cynical play.  Perhaps most infamous for Lady Macbeth’s (Francesca Annis) nude “out, damned spot” soliloquy, the starkness of the grim setting reflects both Polanski’s personal despair (it was his first film after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family) and the precariousness of a Western world that had lost its confidence in the face of the Vietnam War and other global calamities.  Particularly intriguing is Polanski’s portrayal of Ross (John Stride) as an unscrupulous opportunist, not intrinsic to Shakespeare’s play, who sides with Macbeth’s (Jon Finch) usurpation when fortune favors it but turns against the tyrant after a petty slight.  And rather than end on a note of triumph when the throne is rightfully restored, Polanski’s film ends with the insinuation that the madness of regicide will continue.  (I’m guessing that one reason Polanski’s version is not included in the Word & Film article is that it limited itself to only one adaptation per play.)

Peter Brook’s ‘King Lear’ (1971)

Brook’s black & white, two-hours-plus King Lear, which begins and ends with the same bleak tone, is a rather difficult film to watch.  It portrays a barren land where the people aren’t given much of a reason to survive, and the viewer suspects that the dead are more fortunate than the living.  Still, Brook’s intriguing use of jump cuts and odd camera angles intimates the possibility of a freer and more hopeful world beyond the desolation of Lear’s fractured realm.

Calista Flockhart as Helena in Michael Hoffman’s
19th-century-set ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1999)

Given the thematic richness of his theatrical works, and their many fascinating interpretations over the years, there will probably never be a definitive film version of any Shakespeare play — although Polanski’s Macbeth and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet come close.  Still, I haven’t yet seen a completely satisfying film version of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Word & Film article recommends Michael Hoffman’s 1999 adaptation, which features some scrumptious cinematography and natty 19th-century costumes, but its Arthur Rackham-inspired vision of the fairy world seems more mechanical than magical, and its tossed salad of British and American accents is distracting.  (However, I’m happy to see the mercurial Calista Flockhart, here cast as Helena, in anything!)
Helen Mirren as Titania and Brian Glover as Bottom in Elijah Moshinsky’s
spooky BBC ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1981)

Another Dream apparently inspired by Rackham is Elijah Moshinsky’s 1981 BBC version, which, in its replacement of the fanciful with the frightening, is more of a nightmare.  An additional adaptation of same, Peter Hall’s 1968 film, begins with disorienting jump cuts and other cinematic devices that don’t establish a firm sense of place; it would have been wiser for Hall to have saved this disorientation for the magical woodland, for there is not enough to distinguish the inhibition-free woods from the more staid and civilized setting of Athens.  And Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s Hollywoodized 1936 interpretation, with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck, looks dated with the air of a film weighted with self-conscious importance and antiquated staging.  I’m still waiting for a Midsummer Night’s Dream that will capture the playfulness of the love stories and the magic of the fairyland. 

Paul Rogers as Bottom and Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s
disorienting ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1968)

Happy 450th, Mr. Shakespeare!  Where would the English language and the performing arts — and the movies! — be without you?

Monday, April 21, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record IV: The DNA of R&B

So, what changed my mind?  What knocked Sonny Boy Williamson’s “New Early in the Morning” (1940) off its pioneering perch as the very first rock & roll record?  Well, the possibility (likelihood?) that it was never released on record in a reasonable time after its recording is not an inconsiderable factor.  But I read something after choosing the Williamson song that challenged the idea of rhythm & blues and rock & roll being more-or-less interchangeable entities — as authors Nick Toshes, Jim Dawson, Steve Propes, and (to a lesser extent) Larry Birnbaum treat them.  That something was the college textbook Rock and Roll: An Introduction by Michael Campbell with James Brody, a book that did more than the others I had read to quantify — in musical terms — what constituted rock & roll and how it differed from rhythm & blues.  In particular, Campbell sees a shift in musical forms from R&B to rock & roll in a change of rhythm styles. 

R&B’s fast tempo (although not all R&B songs are fast) was usually reliant on a shuffle rhythm, especially in songs derived from boogie-woogie.  (As Birnbaum says in his video, the boogie bass line is foundational to rock & roll.)  Campbell describes the shuffle rhythm this way: “A shuffle rhythm divides each beat into two parts; the first part is twice as long as the second” (pp. 41-42).  In other words, the shuffle rhythm is based on musical triplets.  By contrast, rock & roll’s “primary component” is a rock beat, an eight-beat rhythm: “A song has a rock beat when the fastest regular rhythm moves twice as fast as the beat” (p. 7).  And this rhythm is accentuated by a strong, insistent backbeat, which became important in R&B music, but which is not as consistently pronounced as it is in rock & roll.

So, what was the first record to have all of Campbell’s criteria for a rock & roll song?  Would that be the first rock & roll record?  Well, according to the textbook author (who never explicitly identifies a first record), the rock rhythm didn’t reach full maturation until the mid-1960s.  Before then, many songs we now call rock & roll featured at least one instrument carrying the rock beat while the rhythm section — the bass and drums — followed a shuffle or swing rhythm (p. 225).  So, to go strictly by Campbell’s definition (which Campbell himself doesn’t even do), true rock & roll wouldn’t begin until ridiculously late in the game, well after the moniker was attached to an established musical genre.  So, as helpful as the textbook is in telling us what makes up a rock & roll song musically, we need to use more flexible criteria to single out a first record. 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio

And now, I need to make a digression, one that will probably undermine (even more) my fitness to write about the subject.  When I was growing up from the 1960s to ’80s, the term “rock & roll” was the catch-all to describe popular, upbeat, youth-oriented music.  “Soul,” “funk,” “folk rock,” “country rock,” “punk,” and “new wave” were all understood to be subgenres of rock & roll.  The top artists and groups at the time (the Beatles, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, etc.) described the music they played as “rock & roll.”  The Rolling Stones called themselves “the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” and released a song titled “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It)” (1974).  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was founded in 1983.  To simply say “rock” was just shorthand for the full phrase; the “…and roll” was implied.  So, “rock & roll” was clearly the overarching term.

But while I wasn’t looking, something happened.  I now understand that the overarching term of the present day is the single word “rock,” while “rock & roll” only denotes the “first wave” of the music from the mid-1950s to early ’60s.  Simply put, “rock & roll” is now the music that descended from Elvis Presley, while “rock” is the music descended from the Beatles.  I’m not sure when this happened, but I only learned this in the last few years.  So, to be exact, Campbell says that the rock beat reaching its full maturation is when “rock & roll” (in today’s understanding) became “rock.”  I’m still getting my sea legs with this new (to me) terminology.

The Crows

Nevertheless, Campbell’s textbook helpfully distinguishes between rhythm & blues and rock & roll.  Here is a table that describes the general qualities between the two musical genres, and why something like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “New Early in the Morning,” or any other early(ish) blues song, doesn’t fit the rock & roll bill. 

rhythm & blues
rock & roll
music for adults
music for teens
“rough” vocals
more polished vocals
suggestive or adult lyrics
teen-friendly lyrics
often openly black content
race-neutral content
shuffle rhythm
rock rhythm

Of course, this table isn’t all-encompassing.  This isn’t to say that an R&B or rock & roll song must have all of its respective properties or can’t contain those belonging to the other genre.  Rock certainly became more than a music for teens by the mid-1960s, and R&B songs like Red Saunders’ “Hambone” (1952) and the Crows’s “Gee” (1953) reflect a youthful innocence.  But most R&B songs, even when not nudging the listener about sex (the Dominoes’ “Sixty-Minute Man” [1951], the Swallows’ “It Ain’t the Meat” [1951], etc.), are usually singing about adult behavior that would be frowned upon when undertaken by teens: Jimmy Preston’s “Rock the Joint” (1949) tells of trashing a house, and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (1951) describes people taking “a little nip” of something fermented, possibly while driving.  

By contrast, while rock & roll undoubtedly gave youth music a palpable erotic jolt, the subject of sex itself was rarely an overt topic of the lyrics.  For instance, when jaunty Bill Haley and his “hon” (unlike Trixie Smith and her “man”) “Rock Around the Clock” (1954), it clearly refers to dancing and nothing else.  The word “rock” is shorn of the double meaning it had in “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and other R&B songs.  Other teen-oriented rock & roll songs with “rock” in the title or lyrics, such as Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty-Flight Rock” (1956) and Chuck Berry’s “Rock & Roll Music” (1957), follow suit.  And on those rare occasions when sex is perceptibly broached in early rock & roll, it’s usually more in the context of social consequences than mere titillation, as in the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” (1957) and the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (1960). 

On the subject of “‘rough’ vocals” versus “more polished vocals,” some rhythm & blues songs, especially the work of Johnny Ace and the pre-Capitol Nat “King” Cole, boast satin-smooth song stylings.  Meanwhile, the most successful rock & roll singers had at least a little grit in their voices — and in cases such as Little Richard (Penniman) and Wanda Jackson, grit by the truckload.  Still, most R&B vocalists (and country & western vocalists, for that matter) give their songs an agreeably unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth ruggedness that contrasted greatly to the super-refined, clear-voiced mainstream pop of the era.  For example, it’s difficult to imagine Sonny Boy Williamson’s jagged, fragmentary singing voice finding a wide audience among the dominant popular-music audiences of the 1940s.  Since rock & roll combined R&B and country with pop, it’s not surprising that the the majority of the most effective rock singers had voices that met in the middle, so to speak, of the two traditions.
Ella Mae Morse

Since race isn’t an innocent issue, terms like “race-neutral” have been criticized by some as referring to things that are, in actuality, Eurocentric.  Still, the lyrics of R&B songs often describe an expressly African American milieu, from the early tunes of Louis Jordan (such as 1940’s “Juneteenth Jamboree”) to the work of Ray Charles (1953’s “Mess Around”).  And even when R&B was sung by the occasional white artist, the song still seemed to be about black subject matter.  For example, in What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?, Dawson and Propes say of the melanin-challenged Ella Mae Morse’s jive-jargoned “The House of Blue Lights” (1946): “The scene was obviously a chicken shack on the black side of the tracks…” (p. 16).  By contrast, the lyrics of most rock & roll songs could be applied to any racial context and, for the most part, seemed to go out of their way to avoid any racial specificity.  (A hint-heavy song like the Crystals’ “Uptown” [1962] would be an exception.)  To cite just one instance, rock & roller Chuck Berry is reported to have changed the phrase “that little country boy” in “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) from “that little colored boy.”  If Berry were recording for an R&B audience, no one (Berry himself, the record producer, etc.) would have likely felt that the change was needed.

The Allen Brothers
In fact, race is the abiding issue when discussing rock & roll.  The genre sprang from a racially segregated music industry (which, of course, was the product of a racially segregated society), where platters by African American artists were often marketed as niche “race records” on specialty labels.  In his book Before Elvis, Birnbaum tells of a white country-music duo, the black-sounding (but not especially forward-thinking) Allen Brothers, who angrily walked out on their label, Columbia, in 1927 when the company (apparently by mistake) issued one of their records on its “race” subsidiary instead of its “hillbilly” one.  (This would not be the last time that a white singer was mistaken for black, as Buddy Holly might attest.)

LaVern Baker
The practice of different artists recording, or “covering,” the same song at roughly the same time began in an era when the tune itself was more important than any particular record of it, and the gramophone industry was built around many different artists waxing different versions of the same song.  Despite such innocent beginnings, the practice, by the post-World War Two era, had devolved into white artists recording bowdlerized, smooth-edged versions of the latest R&B hits and releasing them as soon as possible, in direct competition with the original.  Since the white singers usually worked for major labels with sophisticated distribution systems, while the R&B singers often worked for smaller labels with smaller distribution, the sanitized, less expressive covers frequently outsold the originals.  As reported by Dawson and Propes, this reached a point where, for its cover by a white artist, the major Mercury label filched virtually every element — except the singer’s soulful voice — from LaVern Baker’s R&B classic “Tweedle Dee” (1954) on the then-fledgling Atlantic label, going so far as recording the same song arrangement played by the same session musicians. 

Because rock & roll germinated from this segregated, plundering environment, some music critics have charged that the genre is little more than R&B with a white face.  Fats Domino once told an interviewer in 1956: “What you call [white] rock and roll is what we’ve been playing in New Orleans [i.e. black R&B] for 15 years” (quoted in Campbell, p. 78).  But Campbell addresses the issue of rock & roll as white rhythm & blues:

The success of white rock-and-roll acts vis-à-vis black rhythm-and-blues acts, especially with respect to [white] cover versions of R&B hits, may suggest that the difference between rock and roll and rhythm and blues was a matter of race.  In the middle of the fifties, this may have been true to some extent.  However, by the end of the decade, there was also a musical difference.   The most compelling evidence of this is the music of Little Richard and Chuck Berry.  Both are black, and … they were the musicians most responsible for formulating rock rhythm.  Berry played the more important role because he not only presented the new beat but also showed how it should be played on the most important rock instrument, the electric guitar. 
Their music demonstrates that the musical difference between rhythm and blues and rock and roll has to do mainly with rhythm, not race.  A simple exercise bears this out: mix [Penniman’s] “Lucille” and [Berry’s] “Johnny B. Goode” into a playlist of fifties rhythm-and-blues songs….  The two songs should clearly stand apart from the rhythm-and-blues songs because of their beat.  And because of this difference, we consider [Penniman and Berry] to be rock-and-roll musicians, rather than rhythm-and-blues musicians.  (pp. 117-18)

Ironically, rock & roll came about because of the record industry’s racial segregation.  White covers of black songs included “hillbilly” (as country & western music was then called) versions of R&B songs, with the urban original performed in a distinctly rural fashion.  Below is “Have You Heard the News?” (1950), western-swing saxophonist Link Davis’ good-ole-boy rendition of the quintessential bad-boy song “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

And covering songs went both ways.  Black R&B artists gave their own rough-hewn spin to traditionally white numbers.  Below is R&B saxophonist Benjamin “Bull Moose” Jackson’s 1949 iteration of country singer Wayne Raney’s hit “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?”

It was from this musical cross-pollination of R&B, country, and mainstream postwar pop — colliding in their efforts to record songs of one genre in the style of another for distinct markets — that rock & roll would take root and flower.

So, the distinctions between rhythm & blues and rock & roll tell me (pace Tosches) that the latter couldn’t have started as far back as the 1940s or earlier.  It must have begun in the mid-1950s, when teens adopted the music as their own, a music in contradistinction to the more polished and polite pop of their parents’ generation, the first music marketed directly and almost exclusively to a youth audience.

Alan Freed
Wait!  But what about Alan Freed?  Starting in 1951, several years before teens claimed the music, the D.J. called the kind of records he played “rock & roll.”  At one time, he even titled his radio program Moondog’s Rock ’n’ Roll Party.  Furthermore, the phrase “rock & roll” is heard in many hard-driving, backbeat-heavy dance records of the 1940s and early ’50s: Tommy Brown’s “Atlanta Boogie” and Albinia Jones’s “Hole in the Wall,” both released back in 1949, to name only two.  What about those books by Toshes, Birnbaum, Dawson, and Propes; those books that I mentioned in earlier posts; those books that fervently argue otherwise?  All that must blow my theory out of the water, right? 

Not necessarily.  The music that Freed played, and its immediate predecessors, may have been rock & roll music’s first incarnation, but the term got taken over — hijacked, if you like — by a different sound, the sound that Campbell describes.  The main kind of music talked about by Toshes, Birnbaum, Dawson, and Propes is what we now think of as rhythm & blues.  R&B was perhaps the greatest influence on, and most direct precursor of, rock & roll, especially in its backbeat. And those books, seeing R&B’s DNA in rock & roll, and looking over the history of the term — and perhaps hoping to rescue a pre-rock musical backstory too often neglected — stretch the meaning back to the Alan Freed years and beyond.  But R&B is music of a different character.

In my next post, I’ll reveal what I believe is the first rock & roll record.  And my focus will be, strangely enough, on three men, working separately from each other, but from the same unlikely state.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Short Piece About Mickey Rooney

The recent passing of Mickey Rooney brings to mind his performance as lyricist Lorenz Hart (as in Rodgers and Hart) in the musical bio-pic Words and Music (1948), whose “Manhattan” sequence I’m embedding above. In most audiovisual media, short height on a man is a joke, a gag, a punchline — something to let the audience know when an adult male character isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. 

But Words and Music portrayed Hart’s unhappiness about his short height (Wikipedia says he “stood just under five-feet tall”) as a serious issue — one of the few Hollywood movies to do so. To me, Rooney’s appearance in Words and Music looks like MGM trying to figure out what to do with its former #1 box-office star, now that he had clearly aged into a short-statured (5’2”) — and therefore less marketable — adult, one who could no longer play the juvenile roles, like Andy Hardy, on which he made his name.  (For example, Words and Music includes the last big-screen duet between Rooney and Judy Garland.)

However, the real root of the real Hart’s depression (and alcoholism) was his being gay in a homophobic world, which was something that Hollywood at the time couldn’t acknowledge. So, one of the few times that Hollywood treats short height as a serious issue, it’s as a stand-in for something censored.  As an adult male who stands 4’8”, I get the idea that serving as the surrogate for a prohibited subject is the only reason that Words and Music presented the issue of short stature so seriously in the first place.