Friday, August 30, 2013

Bob Dylan paints Another Self Portrait

Another Self Portrait, volume 10 in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, focuses on one of the less celebrated periods in the man’s fabled history, the years 1969-1971 when he released Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning, and a two-disc Greatest Hits collection padded out with newly recorded versions of previously unreleased material. The countrified Nashville Skyline came in for its share of criticism. What was the deal with that mellifluous voice, so unlike the scratchy sound for which Dylan was famous? And what gives with a song as simple as “Country Pie” (“Oh me, oh my, I love that country pie?”) from a songwriter who later took the credit for killing Tin Pan Alley with personal and sometimes mind-boggling adventures in the surreal like “From a Buick 6” (“I need a steam shovel, mama, to keep away the dead”)?

It was Self Portrait, however, that stood out like a bloated stomach in Dylan’s discography, especially in 1970 when we were unaware that Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove were still to come. Like 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, it was a two-record set. Unlike that indisputably brilliant album, the one with “Visions of Johanna,” “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Rainy Day Women #12 &35,” and whose final side was devoted to one song, the 11 minute, 20 second “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Self Portrait was . . . strange.

Self Portrait wasn’t strange in the same sense that Blonde on Blonde was, with its title that seemed to have been arrived at in a moment of possibly drug-induced whimsy (as were song titles like “Temporary Like Achilles”), but . . . strange.

The man who killed Tin Pan Alley was resurrecting it by singing “Blue Moon,” the Rodgers and Hart standard. There were other covers, too, the first Dylan album since his 1962 debut to feature songs he had not written himself. Some were even more surprising than “Blue Moon” – commercial songs (the horror!) that had already been hits for the Everly Brothers (“Take a Message to Mary,” “Let It Be Me”) and even Simon and Garfunkel (a version of “The Boxer” done up as a wacky duet between scratchy-voiced Dylan and Nashville Skyline Dylan).

Some tracks had the kind of syrupy strings that might have sounded right on an album by Jim Nabors (TV’s Gomer Pyle was one of Dylan’s label mates at Columbia Records) or the Johnny Mann Singers, but not one by the man who gave us “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

And the whole shebang opened with a Dylan original called “All the Tired Horses” whose only lyrics (“All the tired horses in the sun, how am I supposed to get any ridin’ done?”) were sung by a female chorus.

Released in June 1970, Self Portrait was greeted with surprisingly good sales (reaching #4 on Billboard), but contempt from the critics. Just about every Dylan fan knows the opening line of Greil Marcus’ review in Rolling Stone, so there’s no need to repeat it here. I’ll repeat it, anyway: “What is this shit?”

Dylan answered that question several times through the years. His most detailed and probably most honest response was given to the same magazine’s Kurt Loder in 1984. Simply put, he hoped to alienate his more fanatical fans and turn their sometimes parasitic admiration elsewhere. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a musical artist with the kind of following that Dylan attracted at his peak. His most obsessive fans were not content to listen to his records, hang his poster on the wall, or throw their undergarments on stage during one of his then infrequent concert appearances. His fans included the likes of J. Weberman, a self-styled “garbologist” who picked through his trash and harassed him in the press, demanding he get with the counterculture’s program (speaking out against Vietnam, writing more anthems for the “Movement,” etc).

Unlike Mick Jagger and even unlike the Beatles, with the possible exception of John Lennon, Dylan was not just a songwriter, musician or singer (his voice was too unconventional for that title, anyway). He certainly wasn’t anything as common as an “entertainer.” He was a seer possessing forbidden knowledge, a prophet with a clear view of what was ahead, and a judge who saw through all the world’s hypocrisies. In short, he was a man who had good reason to want to run and hide, or, to paraphrase one of Nashville’s Skyline’s best songs, to throw it all away.

Those were strange days, indeed, a period of such confusion, of so many upheavals in culture and society, that it was hoped that somebody somewhere had the answer and could sort it all out. To many, that somebody could only be Dylan. His every new 33 and a third record was greeted like a stone tablet delivered from on high, but where was the message, the mantra, the guideposts to wisdom in the seemingly haphazard collection of odds and oddities that was Self Portrait?

Coming to the original Self Portrait now, it’s doubtful that anyone would ask “What is this shit?” It’s a Dylan album, one of 40 or so that he’s released in a career that now spans half a century. Why, there’s even a Bob Dylan Christmas album with his somewhat gargle-voiced takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “Silver Bells.” Self Portrait isn’t Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks, but it wasn’t meant to be either. It’s Self Portrait. I happen to love it. This latest addition to The Bootleg Series is Another Self Portrait. Except for the cover painting of a guy who looks more to me like actor Chad Lowe than Bob Dylan, I love this one, too.

Roughly half of the cuts here are alternate takes, demos, or unreleased songs from the sessions that produced the original Self Portrait and its follow-up, New Morning. The 1969 Isle of Wight concert is represented with versions of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” performed with The Band. George Harrison turns up a couple of times, once to add his guitar to the unreleased “Working on a Guru.”

Surprisingly, an unreleased take of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” is the only acknowledgement that there once was an album titled Dylan, a hodgepodge of covers and outtakes assembled from Self Portrait and New Morning rejects that Columbia issued in 1973 after Dylan briefly left the label for Asylum Records. Never released in the U.S. on compact disc, it’s really not bad, and I thought that someone, perhaps Dylan himself, might have wanted to start rehabilitating its reputation here.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Elmore Leonard's Rules: "Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters"

One of the late Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is to “Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters.” As an example of how to describe a character without getting bogged down in details, he quotes Hemingway: “She had taken off her hat and put it on the bed.”

That’s it. That’s sufficient, too, at least for me.

Whenever an author starts describing a character in detail, he usually does so in a passage resembling what Leonard calls “thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

Sometimes detailed descriptions serve a purpose, as in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe describes his attire when making his first visit to General Sternwood:

"I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them."

This was Chandler’s way of letting the reader know that his private detective hero was paying more attention than usual to his dress when visiting a wealthy client (“I was calling on four million dollars”). In describing the “dark blue clocks” on his socks, Marlowe was almost mocking the care he was taking to make a good impression.

Chandler doesn’t go on and on and on, however, the way some authors are prone to do.

There may be readers who find detailed descriptions helpful in visualizing a character, but I find it dictatorial, an attempt to make me see the exact image that the author sees which is not really possible no matter how vivid the description. Since my introduction to Marlowe came through movies, I always see Humphrey Bogart, the Marlowe of the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep, when reading Chandler. Sometimes, it’s even Elliott Gould from 1973’s The Long Goodbye. These images did not originate with Chandler or in my own imagination, but from Warner Bros., Howard Hawks, and, in Gould’s case, Robert Altman.

When reading fiction, I usually have an image of how a character looks from the moment he is introduced. When I read, I enter what is almost comparable to a dream state. My subconscious mind takes over and sometimes produces a mental picture whose origin I cannot trace. Maybe I’ve taken the nose or chin of someone I once saw, and a forehead from someone else, and constructed a collage that becomes a person who did not previously exist. More often, I’ll cast an actor already familiar to me from movies or television in the role. This can sometimes be a problem.

When I read Ayn Rand’s Altas Shrugged in 1979, I saw Lindsey Wagner, then the star of TV’s Bionic Woman, as Dagny Taggart, the heroine. She seemed right for the part. She was beautiful and looked smart. As Hank Rearden, however, I got an image in mind of actor Paul Benedict who played a supporting role on The Jeffersons, a popular sitcom of the time. I didn’t consider him right for the role at all, but he came to mind for some unknown reason and it was an image that I couldn’t shake. I had him locked in as Rand’s steel magnate throughout the book's 1,168 pages. I guess that I didn’t have the heart to fire him.

An author who describes his characters in too much detail violates another of Leonard’s rules, to be invisible, to get out of the way of the story and its characters, and conceal the fact that a writer is writing: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Not every writer wants to be invisible, though. “If you have a felicity for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you’re after, and you can skip the rules.”

That kind of writer is likely fond of what Leonard quotes John Steinbeck as calling “hooptedoodle,” stuff that shows off a writer’s skill with words, but may intrude on a story.

There is no “hooptedoodle” in 10 Rules of Writing. To call it lean is an understatement. It’s not really a book, but an essay, a short one, spread out over 92 pages with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello. Its total length is roughly equal to the “First Forward,” “Second Foreword,” and “Third Foreword” in Stephen King’s On Writing, a book that violates Leonard’s second rule, to “Avoid Prologues: They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

King can be excused. His book appeared in 2000, a year before Leonard’s essay was first published in The New York Times.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, August 23, 2013

Living Life The Introvert's Way

The other night, bloated and tired from an all-you-can-eat fish fry at a local tavern, but still not ready for sleep, I sat down to read The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World by Sophia Dembling. It was a good read, but the author devotes far too many pages to parties and the introvert’s extreme discomfort with mingling and small talk. Since I avoid parties (no one invites me to them, anyway - Thank God!), I don’t need to be reminded why I hate them.

So, what is an introvert?

Sigmund Freud considered it a form of neurosis. Introverts “can’t face reality and think they’ll never have sex” is Dembling’s summation of Freud’s diagnosis. Carl G. Jung, credited with popularizing the introvert/extrovert model, held a different view. Jung suggested that for the introvert, “energy flows inward, while for extroverts, energy flows outward.”

There is, it seems, a difference in the construction of an introvert’s brain that indicates it is not a “condition” that one can change. Even if introverts are not outnumbered by extroverts (it’s a roughly 50/50 split), we aren’t as noisy and, therefore, more likely to be defined inaccurately by those who can’t shut up. If they don’t consider us shy, we are “cold, taciturn, compliant, sedentary, dull, and grumpy.”

I plead guilty to being taciturn and sometimes grumpy. Both are defense mechanisms to shield myself from the pushy chatterbox who wants to converse, but does not really want to communicate. This is the extrovert’s failing; at least it’s a failing to the introvert who does not enjoy and derives no benefit from talk for its own sake. I would rather sit quietly and think than talk. Psychologist Marti Laney proposes that introverts are “Deep thinkers. Creative. Self-reflective. Flexible. Responsible.”

There is confusion on this matter, though, with psychologist Elaine Aron’s concept of the “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) also being tossed in as a way to define the introvert. “HSP’s are easily overwhelmed by too much fuss and bother, are sensitive to other people’s moods, hyperaware of what’s going on around them,” Dembling writes.

Then there’s shyness which isn’t really introversion at all though there are shy introverts just as there are shy extroverts. “The unhappiest combination is extroverted and shy. Those sad souls want to socialize, but fear it.” I have often been mistaken as shy by extroverts (who are unlikely to read a book like The Introvert’s Way, preferring to simply hold onto to their stereotyped ideas about those quiet types). Indeed, I am often shy in social situations, but that’s because I don’t want to be there and am too polite to say so.

Introverts are often accused of being “too intense.” We don’t go around with a silly smile permanently plastered on our faces, and are sometimes regarded as being “too serious,” as if approaching life as something other than a party is a fault to be corrected. I maintain that life is serious. It ends in death which is often preceded by terrible suffering, by painful and debilitating disease. And, if you believe the Bible, death is followed by judgment.

Such a serious approach to life is typical of deep thinkers, of those who ruminate, as introverts tend to do. Our “awareness of subtleties and deep processing of information” means that we “may take news stories of gloom, doom, and disaster too much to heart,” according to psychologist Aron. “And, she says, because we’re so sensitive ourselves to harsh comments, and because criticism can wound us deeply, we couch things in terms so gentle when speaking to others, they might not take us seriously.”

It is believed, certainly by introverts, that introverts are not only deeper and more creative than extroverts, but more spiritual. Dembling doesn’t ask it, but I will: How many extroverts would consider a life in the monastery? Life as a monk wouldn’t appeal to me (too much loud chanting), but an introvert is likely to experience life more fully, more intensely than an extrovert. We are certainly more imaginative.

“We may have,” Aron suggests, “a thin boundary between our conscious and unconscious minds, living with one foot in the real world and one in the world inside our heads.” (I would argue that the world inside my head is no less real than the one outside, and may even be more authentic, but I won’t go into all that here.)

Dembling says, “I love my active imagination; it means I am rarely bored and that given time and psychic space, my creative output can be prolific.”

It is the extrovert who, sitting home alone and bored, picks up the phone to call someone. If the extrovert calls an introvert, the extrovert’s boredom has been relieved, but the introvert’s boredom is just beginning as he listens, or pretends to listen (which is more often than not the case), as the extrovert rattles on. . . and on . . . and on, usually about nothing of substance. The introvert was also sitting home alone, but, until the phone call interrupted his solitude, almost certainly not bored. There are thoughts to think, books to read, maybe books to write, music to listen to, and listened to without distraction, preferably with headphones to block out competing sounds.

I really can’t help but conclude that an introvert’s life is, indeed, richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Based on the extroverts that I know, I think they could travel the globe and experience less than I could staring at a crack in the ceiling. Extroverts can have their chatter, their parties, and social functions, and all the advantages that usually come with being “outgoing,” or, as I cynically call it, an ass kisser. Extroverts tend to advance more rapidly in their careers, but then an introvert may be less interested in a traditional career, anyway, what with all the annoying extroverts he would encounter among bosses, co-workers, subordinates, clients, and the like.

Because of the way my introverted brain is wired, I don’t have a choice in the matter, but, if I did, I would choose The Introvert’s Way.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I Am Spartacus!: Kirk Douglas Remembers

I’m not a fan of audio books. They strike me as appealing to talkative types that shun, and possibly even fear, silence. If reading is essentially an activity for introverts, audio books are for extroverts who dislike solitude and need to hear another voice to remind them that they’re not alone, adrift in a hostile world. Furthermore, you can’t just flip through the pages of an audio book in search of a passage you want to re-read. You have to fast forward or hit reverse.

I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist by Kirk Douglas wasn’t available in print at my local library, but they did have the unabridged five disc audio book (5 hours, 20 minutes), so I checked it out.

Douglas begins with a brief summary of his early career, ground already covered by The Ragman’s Son, his excellent memoir from two-and-a-half decades ago. He arrived in Hollywood in 1946 believing he would make his film debut as the male lead in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Only when reporting for work did he learn that Van Heflin would be Barbara Stanwyck's leading man with Douglas in a supporting role. Although Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) was the credited director, Douglas informs us that Milestone was frequently “out to lunch,” attending meetings related to a writer’s strike in progress at the time. It was Douglas' introduction to Hollywood politics.

Politics casts as dark a shadow over the production of Spartacus as it does in the film’s story of a slave revolt against Rome. The book upon which the film was based had to be self-published because author Howard Fast had been blacklisted despite rejecting Communism and telling his fellow travelers to “go to hell.” Dalton Trumbo, whom Fast despised, was blacklisted for his Communist ties, but the screenwriter known for his ability to write fast kept turning out scripts which were “fronted” for him under other names.

Trumbo’s speed at script writing helped Douglas’ Bryna Productions, which was making Spartacus in collaboration with Universal, beat United Artists to the punch. UA had a competing Spartacus project in the works with Yul Brynner in the lead. Armed with Trumbo’s first draft, credited to producer Edward Lewis, Douglas secured commitments from Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton, and the UA film was soon shelved. All Douglas needed now was a director.

Douglas meets Stanley Kubrick after being impressed by The Killing, the director’s third film, and requesting an introduction.

“Stanley’s demeanor was always calm, impassive,” Douglas writes, but despite those big, sleepy eyes, Kubrick was “always awake, always thinking.”

With Kubrick, Douglas makes 1957’s Paths of Glory, still acclaimed as one of the most potent of all anti-war films, but Universal decides that Anthony Mann should direct Spartacus, and Douglas reluctantly accepts their choice. “Mann was a technician,” he said, “not an artist.” Two weeks into production, Mann, whom Douglas describes as “overwhelmed” and letting Ustinov “run wild,” was fired and replaced by Kubrick who had just been relieved of his duties on One Eyed Jacks, a western that producer-star Marlon Brando opted to direct himself.

Kubrick, then a mere lad of 30, was not beloved by his crew. He told Russell Metty, the director of photography, to “sit down and shut up.” Kubrick also reported to work everyday in the same khaki pants and black sweater, leading the crew to complain that he did not care what they thought of him.

“I don’t,” Kubrick defiantly told Douglas.

“I do,” Douglas shot back then ordered his director to buy new clothes.

Kubrick also refused to film the memorable scene that gives this book its title until Douglas angrily ordered him to do so.

Douglas believes that Kubrick lacked empathy, never more so than when Kubrick suggested that Trumbo’s screenplay be credited to him after co-producer Lewis refused to continue posing as the scribe to help conceal the involvement of a blacklisted writer. The American Legion, gossip queen Hedda Hopper, and other self-styled patriots, already aware that Trumbo was the script's true author, were threatening to protest the film which by then had a price tag of $12 million, a half million more than the MCA talent agency had paid to acquire the entire Universal lot while Spartacus was in production. Douglas’ anger at Kubrick had more to do with his decision to give Trumbo full screen credit than any desire to take a moral stand against the blacklist.

Spartacus was a hit with both critics and audiences upon its release in October 1960. Kubrick went on to Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, films that established him as the leading auteur among directors. Trumbo continued to write scripts but was now free to use his own name, as were other writers for whom the blacklist was now history. And Douglas continued to act and produce, as well as watch his son, Michael, successfully follow in his footsteps.

His voice weakened by a stroke, Kirk Douglas lets Michael read his story. The younger Douglas sounds enough like his father that it wasn’t necessary to attempt an imitation, but he seems to speak at times through his father’s clenched teeth, overemphasizing certain words at the end of sentences. Otherwise, he reads in a clear, strong voice that maintains the listener’s interest, even one like me who would prefer to read rather than listen to a book.

Today, a lot of younger moviegoers think of Kirk Douglas as Michael’s father. Shame on them. The younger Douglas has won two Academy Awards, one for acting (1987's Wall Street) and one for producing (1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), while his father, one of the first actor-producers, had to content himself with an honorary Oscar in his sunset years. It could also be argued that Michael was a bigger box-office draw than his father was in his prime, thanks to such blockbusters as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. But Michael Douglas never played Vincent Van Gogh, or Ulysses, or Doc Holliday to Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). He did not appear in three of the best film noirs (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past, and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). He did not work twice with Kubrick. Nor can he say, as his father can, that “I Am Spartacus.”

Fans of Kirk Douglas and of the film that gave him his most iconic role should enjoy this memoir, available on compact disc from Brilliance Audio.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, August 16, 2013

Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii. . . And The Grave

Thirty-six years ago today, Elvis Presley got out of bed and retreated to a bathroom in his Graceland home to read a book about Jesus while his live-in girlfriend slept. When she awoke, she found the King slumped on the floor, his face purple and buried in the carpet. His tongue, clenched between his capped teeth, had nearly been severed. Imagine if the paramedics who arrived soon after had managed to revive him. Would the voice that had, by that time, sold 400 million records, been silenced even if Elvis had lived?

It’s mere speculation, because Elvis, the man, could not be revived. The career, however, has thrived ever since.

As part of the hoopla that always accompanies the anniversary of Presley’s death, PBS is repeating Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii this month. Sent out to a worldwide audience via satellite on January 14, 1973, the special spawned a two-disc soundtrack (released by RCA in quadraphonic sound) that would be the last of his albums to reach number one on the Billboard chart during his lifetime.

Other than those flared trousers, Elvis looked splendid back in January 1973, the month of his 38th birthday. The voice is a little thin at first, but gains strength as the show goes on.

The Elvis of Aloha from Hawaii is not the rock ‘n’ roll rebel who defied moral conventions, the role that he played from 1955-1958 before the Army tamed his wild spirit. This later Elvis is the one who had met with Richard Nixon, who admired J. Edgar Hoover, and thought that The Beatles, who had idolized him, were a bad influence on the nation’s youth.

The Elvis of the 1970s was an American icon who had more in common with John Wayne than John Lennon. The musical highlight was not “Hound Dog” or even “Burning Love,” but “An American Trilogy,” a patriotic blending of “Dixie,” “All My Trials,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that now served as his anthem.

There’s been plenty of hype through the years about the size of the audience when Aloha from Hawaii first aired. Some claim that the special was seen by more people than actually populated the earth at the time, but it was a huge hit by any standard, and represented Presley’s final triumph.

The concert didn’t air in the U.S. until April, pre-empting the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie and topping the Nielsen ratings for the week. Back then, and, perhaps, even now, Elvis was the only musical icon whose appeal was broad enough for the mass audience of television. Each of his three television specials (the first in December ‘68, and the last, aired posthumously in October ’77) topped the Nielsen ratings the week they aired. Not even Frank Sinatra could boast of such wide appeal. The Chairman of the Board was more active in television than Elvis, but of his many specials the only one to hit number one was in 1960 when his special guest, newly discharged from the Army, was . . . Elvis Presley!

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, August 9, 2013


Having had a small bowl of corn flakes for breakfast and no lunch, I was hungry on the way home one recent afternoon. The small bag of barbecue potato sticks I bought satisfied my hunger, but then I was thirsty.

My thirst brought to mind the rich man from whose table Lazarus hoped to eat the crumbs, a parable told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 16. In life, the rich man had every comfort while Lazarus was malnourished, covered in sores, and reduced to begging. Then they died.

Lazarus was content in the bosom of Abraham, otherwise known as Paradise. The rich man was in Hell, suffering greatly. Able to peer into the pleasant environment which Lazarus now called home, the rich man begged the beggar who once ate his crumbs to dip his finger in water and relieve his parched tongue. I wasn’t quite that thirsty, but I imagined what it might be like to thirst for all eternity and have no hope of ever tasting a drop of water again.

According to Dr. Charles Swindoll’s reading of Scripture, billions of people who have passed from this life to the next are experiencing such torment now and billions more will join them in the future. It’s an unbearable thought, but one that many Bible believing Christians accept, some more gleefully than others. I’m on the fence on this matter and may remain there until that moment when my time on this earth runs out.

Is this the God of love who created the sun and moon, the cool breeze on a summer’s night, and the warmth from the blanket on bone-chilling winter days, who gave us warm food to eat and cold water to drink, and who sent his only Son to die for the sins of the world?

Would this God condemn anyone because they questioned the accuracy of a thousand-year-old document that says you must believe in Jesus or spend eternity in hellfire? Our works, our good deeds, our compassion and kindness are “filthy rags,” but why should a mass-murderer who repents and calls upon Jesus’ name be saved and someone who lives a comparatively exemplary life be damned, and for all eternity at that?

Who has misread the Bible?

Those who have accepted Jesus in their hearts and threaten those who have not with eternal; damnation, or those who, whether they believe in Jesus or not, cannot fathom a creator who would deny Paradise to anyone who lives by the Golden Rule but isn’t sure whose rule it is?

I need a cool drink of water.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks