The Fleshy Part Of The Thigh

July 21, 2010

Paulie learns nuns' rings are only symbolic

The Fleshy Part of the Thigh

Season 6, episode 4

Written By: Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Directed By: Alan Taylor

Plot:

No one is happy when it’s revealed that Barone Sanitation has been put up for sale. Paulie has a family matter that turns his world upside down. Bobby decides to help out a hopeful rapper by helping him pad his résumé. Tony ends up having a conversation with an evangelical about religion and of all things, dinosaurs.

Analysis:

Well here’s an episode of television absolutely no one’s attempted – what could almost be described as an hour of pure philosophy about life.  “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” enters in on Tony as he’s dousing himself with morphine trying to dull his pain – his misery – and leaves him at his poolside breathing the air, believing “every day is a gift.”  What a transformation it is, but it’s also many other things – uncomfortably bleak, but sort of uplifting.  A massive indictment of what appears to be many segments of American society, yet also an affirmation of love.  It espouses any number of different codes, different philosophies, and different expositions on what makes life important, but leaves us resolutely unaware of endorsing any one position.

The plot is listed above, but I suppose there is more to say, although the stories here appear almost as sketches.  If a plot is supposed to go from point A to point B, this plot plops point B on its characters and mostly stares at them while they stay there.  Perhaps the lack of narrative direction in these plotlines is Chase, and Frolov and Schneider’s ultimate dismissal of any conclusion beyond “we’re lucky to be alive.”

But here is what happens: Tony is in the hospital recovering, and then he gets out.  Paulie goes to his aunt Dottie’s bedside, only to have her confess to him that she has been his mother all along, and his beloved Nucci was always his aunt, something he confirms, and then disavows Nucci from his life.  At the hospital, Bobby Baccala briefly meets a rapper, whom he agrees to shoot in the “fleshy part of the thigh” in order to give him some street cred, and possibly propel a “major release” for later in the year.  Meanwhile, Jason Barone, the son of the owner of Barone sanitation (Tony’s “career,” remember, is a “waste management consultant.”  We learn here, so is Johnny Sac’s, and Paulie’s), decides to sell the company after his father dies.

This does not go very well for poor Jason Barone, who really never did anything wrong besides being born into a world he didn’t know about.  Jason gets shaken down by Tony, and New York at the same time, and ultimately gets beaten by Paulie for nothing other than having a mother who loves him.  To an extent, Jason thought he was selling a legitimate business, perhaps even after a bafflingly well versed Paulie tells Jason some business nonsense, including the “amortization schedule, which gives the true picture of a business’s profitability.”  Imagine Jason’s surprise later when, telling Paulie that Barone will “honor the provisions in the contract,” Paulie retorts more characteristically: “Fuck the contract.”

The fascination of this episode is sort of at the core of that Jason Barone plotline, which seems like a strange thing on which to spend the bulk of an episode’s plotline.  I suppose the purpose was to get to the point at the end of the episode in which Tony tells Phil Leotardo, “In truth, there’s probably enough garbage for everyone.”  It has to do with what people get born into, which itself has to do with the meaning of humanity, which itself can be forgotten about rather simply when we look to the overall insignificance of human beings’ existence on the planet.

That aspect is brought into us in the episode’s constant philosophizing – from a children’s dinosaur book Carmela picks up from a candy striper.  Aaron, Janice’s narcoleptic born-again lover of Season 3’s “He Is Risen” shows up (with his same trademark opening, “Have you heard the good news?”), and this time brings a preacher who was “addicted to coke and strippers” but nearly died in a car accident.  He wants Tony to pray and find salvation.  Oh, but I’m forgetting the other forceful bit of philosophizing – an apocryphal notecard no one will claim responsibility for tacked next to Tony’s bed, first seen in the previous episode, “Mayham,” of an Ojibwe saying, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself.  All the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”

Since Tony will continue to declare people as “going about in pity for” themselves for the rest of the entire Sopranos run, it’s worth saying I don’t fully understand that saying.  Much like a Buddhist koan, its meaning does not have to be entirely clear.  Dr. Schwinn, a rocket scientist who is in the same hospital discovering he has laryngeal cancer, tells Tony “we don’t see we’re part of a much bigger reality,” which Tony tries (poorly) to explain to Paulie, who Tony feels really shouldn’t be pitying himself that much.

But is this what that phrase means?  Director Alan Taylor follows it literally.  Tony’s reading of the dinosaur book segues from a shot of a flying dinosaur and fades into a flock of birds, emphasizing an evolution – a “wind” carrying from one type of existence to the next.  Could this phrase, like the existence of humans, be meant to emphasize insignificance?  The wind also links the final, uncomfortable cross cut between Tony, happily sitting by his pool and enjoying the wind, to Paulie, beating Jason Barone by the side of a river.  There’s a causal link too – Tony’s happiness is connected to Paulie’s brutality, and the shots are shown with a suddenness of cuts too insistent to ignore.  In one shot, Tony looks up to the trees, which turn out to be the same trees looking over Jason.

Or, when a Spanish-speaking garbage truck driver gets beaten in front of his son because of problems with the Barone Sanitation sale, the sound doesn’t even cut out completely as the scene cuts to Tony, sleeping peacefully in his hospital bed, that notecard prominently displayed over half of the frame.

Ah, but it’s not even done there.  How about the Insurance agent – ne, “Utilization Review Specialist” – whose job it is to talk to the family and get Tony home… by pressuring the hospital to kick patients out sooner.  Is she not treating Tony as he treats Jason?  When Tony questions her about it, she says Tony would’ve been “left at Martin Luther King, Jr.” if they hadn’t found his insurance card in the ambulance’s “wallet biopsy.”  And you know what they say anyway – one person’s shakedown is another’s wallet biopsy.

There is even further an additional element, that I’ve only begun to hint at too – that of what people are born into.  Tony and Paulie stare at an 8-year-old girl in a full body cast in the hospital, third degree burns covering her entire body.  I admit I’d forgotten this scene after watching the episode twice.  Since my last viewing of this episode, I’ve been in a Torts class, in which there was a case of a 7-year-old girl, burned in a building fire.  The case was about damages, and how to appropriately measure damages for pain and suffering.  It detailed the type of treatment she’d need – extensive surgeries, not to mention the painkillers for being a young girl, and having to have her scar tissue tear every time she grows.  She could never grow hair again.  The court opinion goes on to say that she will likely never get married, never have a job, never recover from the trauma of her experience.  The court, thankfully, finds very little merit to the contention of the defendant’s attorneys that damages have been calculated at much too high a cost.

Remembering this case very much colored my perception of this scene.  My thought upon reading that is how lucky I am not to have been in such an accident, to have such minor pain in my life.  Tony here has beaten the odds.  “People keep telling me how lucky I am,” Tony says, unconvinced, as the episode starts.  By the end, he’s convinced.  He wheels past Dr. Schwinn, who’s had his larynx removed.  He’s cut in via editing to that son, who watches his father being beaten on his garbage route.  He has very little sympathy for Jason Barone, who merely wants to sell his father’s business, of which he knew nothing about.  There but for the grace of god go I.

That’s what makes the episode’s titular, least important plotline such an interesting imposition.  Here is a person willing to so casually endanger his life, which is his only gift, only to find that the “fleshy part” of his thigh turns out to be his ass, which he gets shot in.  A metaphor for taking what you have for granted perhaps?  Like much of the philosophy of the episode, we’re not exactly told what position the show, Chase, or Frolov and Schneider take on this.

What we experience instead is so much greater.  We see the way actual people wrestle with important issues.  People have their philosophies in life, sure, but how do most of us think about the big issues in our ordinary life?  “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” shows us, above all, one man’s journey to appreciating life, for a moment.  The moment here is  very real, and perhaps most realistically, as the season moves along, he gets further and further away from it.  On the flip side, one man damns his life – Paulie tells Tony the exact opposite of something he said in “Members Only,” the season premiere: “In the end, your family fucks you too.”  Tony learns to appreciate life and in the same wind, Paulie feels deadened by his.  Like the imaginary duality of good and evil Dr. Schwinn talks about, we see but one life, and varied reactions to it.

One last thought, for an episode that makes me think in virtually every way possible.  The song “The Three Bells” by The Browns.  Here, it plays as Jason Barone goes out for a ride in his beloved kayak.  In the next episode, “Mr. and Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…,” the song plays again, as Vito Spatafore, about to be outed as gay, drives up and checks into a roadside motel.  I downloaded the song after this episode.  As Jason kayaks, the first verse sings of “Little Jimmy Brown,” and being born.  It plays over the son of a character, neither of whom have ever been seen before or will be seen afterwards.  One generation passes on to the next.  In Vito’s scene, the second verse plays, about Little Jimmy Brown’s wedding day.  We never hear the third verse in the season, but that verse sings about Jimmy Brown’s death.  Perhaps this is more indication of how David Chase wants us to approach his view of life – we were told that you’re born, you marry, and then you die.  Where does that leave a person who wants to consider his existence?  Who is that person, and where is he going?

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“The Strong, Silent Type”

March 2, 2010

 

Season 4, Episode 10

Written By: Terrence Winter, Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess

Directed By: Alan Taylor

Synopsis: Christopher, after accidentally killing Adriana’s dog and getting car jacked looking for drugs, must confront his drug addiction.  The family stages an intervention for him after he beats up Adriana to get more drugs.  Tony is still fuming over Ralphie’s killing of his race horse, Pie-O-My, and trying to hide his own part in Ralphie’s death.  Issues over the HUD deal threaten to derail relations with the New York crime family.  Carmela’s pseudo-relationship with Furio has them both miserable.

Analysis:

“Communication is what love is based on.”

Furio utters those words to Carmela in his living room regarding the end of his relationship with “Jessica.” At this point in Season 4, Furio had gone to Italy to grieve for his dying father, but his heart is grieving elsewhere.  He says he and Jessica didn’t just connect like he does with… “some people.”

Why was Carmela in his living room?  Why, she had an idea about the ways in which a “mirrored backsplash” would improve the appearance of his “beautiful” home.  The home, you might notice, doesn’t look especially beautiful – its tiny, unpainted kitchen covered with dishes and littered is like most single men’s apartments.  Carmela brings AJ along with her too, just to up the ante for the “legitimacy” of why she’s visiting, but as she tells Rosalie Aprile later, it’s all bullshit – she’s living for the moments she can see Furio gazing at her.  Furio himself is cries in his car over the thought of Carmela.

Many seized on the difficulty of believing this relationship during season 4, but actually their scene in Furio’s apartment is quite convincing.  Yet what is it saying?  Here we have “The Strong, Silent Type,” one of the season’s most gripping episodes – which is to say, a lot happens.  In it, you have three side romances threatening to complicate the “real” long-term relationships at their periphery.  There’s Furio and Carmela.  There’s also Tony and brittle one-legged Russian nurse Svetlana (Alla Kliouka).  And there’s Christopher and his addiction to heroin, who has become the lover in his life, making him “unable to perform as a man” with Adriana.

“The Strong, Silent Type” is a recurring motif in the show, showing up no sooner than the Pilot episode in which Tony muses to Dr. Melfi, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, you know, the strong, silent type?”  Tony laments over everyone seeking therapy, whining about how difficult they have it, unable to function because of their own problems.  “The Strong, Silent Type” shows people who clutch on to those who allow them to express their desires and thoughts because their life is, well, so silent to them.  “Communication is what love is based on” is Carmela’s response, fraught with tension.

What is it at home with Tony that they cannot communicate?  Well, airing these secrets would be rather difficult.  At dinner, Carmela continues to snap at Tony and smell the wine brought by Furio from Italy.  When he calls her on it, Carmela says, it’s “my mother, her skin condition.”  But then, why is Tony so upset too?  For him, there is his murder of Ralphie Cifaretto, who in the previous episode, “Whoever Did This,” he killed, brutally, in the man’s kitchen.  Ralphie had torched the stables featuring Tony’s beloved racehorse Pie-O-My, enraging Tony.  “Whoever Did This” was one of season 4’s most famous episodes, this shock murder happening mid-episode.  Ralphie, played gruesomely by Joe Pantoliano for two years, was always a scumbag and you knew he’d wind up seeing an early grave.  Still, Tony’s furious killing of him shocked everyone.  So did the sight of Joe Pantoliano’s severed head as the episode graphically portrayed Tony and Christopher’s cleanup of the murder.

As I mentioned in discussing “No Show,” Season 4 brought the first bout of Sopranos backlash that the show experienced.  David Chase’s goals were always to push the form of the show, or so I think, so this sort of thing was inevitable and would be repeated with even more vitriol in the first part of Season 6.  Actually, if Season 4 and Season 6 share one thing in common – besides the backlash – it would be a sense separate writers tacking plotlines together in ways that often felt a little superglued.  Here, Winter must have written one half (perhaps the piece on Christopher’s drug addiction) and the superlative team of Green & Burgess the other (perhaps the plots of Carmela and Tony).  In some episodes, you felt as though you sat at the intersection of plotlines waiting to get up the road.

In “The Strong, Silent Type,” however, this intersection provides a lot of crossover.  Christopher’s drug is the lover he’s communicating with, and he violently lashes out at Adriana when she tries to discuss it with him.  He gets car-jacked in Newark then brought home, and hits her trying to get more money – after all, the car-jacking prevented Christopher from scoring the H he needs.  It also features one of the episodes great tragicomic lines.  Christopher’s been brought back from near death by a stranger, who asks for money, and Adriana snaps back, “Who the fuck are you?”  Christopher lives a double life she barely understands.

Actually, the episode begins with one of The Sopranos great bits of tragicomedy.  Christopher is watching TV while shooting heroin (a gorilla tellingly emerges from the woods).  In a haze, he sits on the couch crushing Adriana’s tiny dog Cosette to death.  Later, of course, there is an intervention, and it doesn’t quite go well.  Christopher calls his mother a cunt, prompting Paulie to smack him in the face and Benny Fazione to kick him in the rib cage.  Not exactly the first step many would envision on the path to recovery, but the scene is, uncomfortably, quite funny.

Yet the human touches surround the episode.  Director John Taylor frames the shot in which Tony and Carmela learn the extent of Christopher’s addiction brilliantly, watching Tony walk down the stairs, we see his expression go from annoyance at being woken up, to alarm at recognizing the bruises on Adriana’s face.  In fact, we see this for a few seconds before seeing Adriana.  Drea de Mateo would, in the show’s 5th season, win an Emmy for her work on Adriana, but actually, she began proving her capability in Season 4.  Here, her love of Christopher overpowers anything in her life.  Michael Imperioli, on the other hand, was always extraordinary as Christopher, but it was Season 4 that showed his inability to control the monster within wildly outpacing his humanity.  In a scene in the hospital later, Tony makes it clear to him that the only reason he even got an intervention rather than an “intervention right through the back of the skull” was because of Tony’s love for him.  Christopher breaks down in shame, unaware of how he’d gotten to this place. 

Many TV shows have attempted drug-addiction plotlines, but rarely did they take them here.  Just look at Michael Imperioli in this episode.  His arms are bruised and ugly.  He looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks.  Even earlier in the episode, when coming into the Bing to play pool, he looks like he’s barely alive, yet enough so that no one would really bother to investigate.  As we know from finishing the series too, as much as he tries, Christopher never gets on top of his addictions.

Meanwhile Tony’s lovers appear to be a horse and a one-legged nurse.  In one jolting cut, we’re taken from an angry Tony telling Furio to quit crying about his dead father, to him crying in Dr. Melfi’s office over Pie-O-My’s death.  Another source of Season 4 criticism was Tony’s love of this horse, that does seem to be a tad overkill – as Dr. Melfi tells him, “The death of this horse is sad, but it is a horse.”  She points out Tony had only cried one other time in her office – about the ducks who fled his pond in the Pilot episode.  She reminds him of the familial worldview the ducks embodied, to which he respond, “Can’t I just be sad for a horse without some Freudian, touchy-feely shit explaining it?”

Probably not in Sopranos world.  I had a theory on Pie-O-My.  In the episode the horse is introduced, “Pie-O-My,” Tony is asked why he never got a race horse before.  There have been other offers, other horses.  “Well you know, it’s a horse, it’s a commitment.”  Tony sees something different in this horse that goes further than the rest.  Is it too much of a leap to say that in this season, in which Tony’s marriage is the focus, this horse represents the other “commitment” in his life, to the one woman who went further than the others?  In the season’s first episode, Carmela tells him, “Everything ends Tony.  Everything.”  Pie-O-My is sick by the end of “Pie-O-My,” significantly after a fight with Carmela.  At the end of the season, his marriage to Carmela may be over.  Perhaps his feelings are a projection.

This is so crucial because truly, this episode speaks to the ways we don’t speak what is true to those that are closest to us, perhaps because of the suspicion that we may be voicing our concerns too publicly, or that our concerns aren’t valid.  When Tony has sex in the episode with Svetlana, the one-legged nurse, he seems attracted to her dignity in suffering.  She tells him that Americans never think they’ll be unhappy, so they’re unprepared, while the rest of the world thinks the exact opposite.  Afterwards, she tellingly rejects him for being too troubled.  As Furio and Tony each eat their dinner in cross-cut solitude, we see a vision of all of us, continuing forward suffering in much more silence than we were even aware could exist.

Scenes you may have forgotten:

Ah, the personal Sopranos touches reminding you that each character is, forever, locked in his and her own brain.  As Tony storms out of the Bada Bing in a rage from seeing Pie-O-My’s picture, he leaves a pool game mid-game.  Paulie’s classic response?  “That’s a forfeit, that’s our money.”  As Tony discusses Christopher’s predicament with Uncle Junior over a glass of Furio’s old-country wine, Junior first responds to the wine: “This reminds me of feet.”  As Dr. Melfi wants to get back to the overriding topic of her and Tony’s therapy, she says to him, “You’ve caused much suffering yourself.”  Tony stops, raises his eyebrow for a second.  Then he gets back to talking about horses.

Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”

October 11, 2009

“The Long Way Around” opens and is, in some ways, the title trackdixiechicks of The Dixie Chicks beloved, multi-Grammy award winning, Rick-Rubin produced Taking The Long Way record. Or it would be a title track, except that the title is different – and, in fact, better. I hate gerund title like Taking The Long Way. “The Long Way Around” is more fearsome, robust, confident, wise. It also is a statement and a melody that Taking The Long Way doesn’t match, even for a minute, though many minutes on Taking The Long Way are truly fantastic. I don’t quite want to talk about why I find it so beautiful, so much more honest and direct than the Chicks’ songs that were specified for Country radio (although, it is much more beautiful and much more honest than, say, “You Were Mine” or “Goodbye Earl”). I want to talk about the times that come to mind when I hear it now and begin smiling. I think back to a house I lived 3 ½ years ago in Boulder with several friends, though they would probably not recognize the song when its signature, simple guitar strum begins. I used to walk everywhere with my iPod then, across town, which isn’t large exactly, but I lived in South Boulder and would walk for quite a bit. Then, because I played “The Long Way Around” so much, it would occasionally hit me that I was a 24 year old man who walked around town listening to Dixie Chicks, and how this probably didn’t entitle me to any special thoughts about myself. Regardless, the song is about engendering special thoughts to your experience, your peculiarity, to the notion of never following. Natalie Maines makes a broad swipe at her own fan base, truly, lumping her “friends from high school” who “married their high school boyfriends” and “moved into houses/ in the same zip codes where their parents live.” She could never follow. I too am nowhere near my parents zip code, but I haven’t done what the Dixie Chicks have done career wise. So be it. A line that sticks out to me, still, forever, is the line in the bridge in which Maines, who had dealt with igniting a country firestorm for blandly criticizing President Bush, says simply “It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself/ Guess I could have made it easier on myself/ But I could never follow.” Then, followed up with the a vocal tic that places her vocals amongst Country’s greats – the Patsys

Commendatori

August 26, 2009

“Commendatori”

Season 2, Episode 4commendatori

Written by: David Chase

Directed by: Tim Van Patten

 

David Chase started out his early days of The Sopranos wanting to expand the idea of a television series to be something that compounds – not simply a “13 hour movie,” but a story told across space and time, that deals with the feeling of movement from one week to the next.  Yet as soon as he’d come up with that mission statement, true to form, Chase felt frustrated – he missed the feeling of “self-contained episodes” that were mini-movies in and of themselves.  His response in Season 1 was “College,” the seminal Sopranos episode in which Tony and Meadow take a road trip to the Northeast to visit colleges while Tony kills an informant, and Carmela takes benediction that may or may not be sexual with Father Phil.

 

Season 2’s self-contained creation is “Commendatore,” an episode in which, at its core, Tony, Paulie, and Christopher head to Naples to visit the Family in Italy, and Carmela, at home, mans her social sphere of mafia wives around poor Angie Bompenserio, who after a cancer scare is finally willing to admit she hates her husband, Pussy.  There are vague references while in Naples to the past we’ve seen of Tony – to the stress of his mother in a nursing home, and to a certain inquisitive and inscrutable woman in his life – but, much like us when we travel, they are not truly discussed.

 

Perhaps to emphasize its stance as a mini-movie, “Commendatore” opens with, appropriately enough, an FBI warning on a TV screen – Tony and his crew are set to watch The Godfather II and discuss their favorite scenes.  “The crickets,” Tony says, “The great old house.”  These are Tony’s ideas of Italy.  He knows he’s going there, and The Godfather II is his ideal of the “old country” and the Family’s place in it.  We will hear crickets in this episode, and see a great old house, but one that isn’t old at all.  Tony pulls up to it with the traditional Italian song “Cuoro Ingrato” (the same song Junior will sing in “Army of One”) playing in his car, but that score is drowned out by rap music blasting from the windows of the house.  This isn’t Coppola’s Italy it turns out, and it isn’t his family.

 

So much of The Sopranos is devoted to exposing its characters ideas of a situation, proving those ideas false, but these characters being not entirely capable of grasping those differences, not quite making them better people because of it.  Tony has been warned Zi Vittorrio, the Napolitano crime boss he’s gone there to meet, is a “serious man,” but find out he’s lost his mind – the man quotes nothing but American street names to Tony.  The true boss, it turns out, is his drop dead gorgeous daughter Annalisa (Sofia Milos), married to a mafia kingpin serving a life sentence.  This is the first and biggest thing Tony must get used to about Italy – the Family is run by a woman.

 

But this, of course, is just where the differences begin.  Italy and New Jersey feature a culture divide that seems to have absolutely no bridging.  At a restaurant, Paulie wants “macaroni and gravy” instead of the muscles and seafood pasta he’s given (leading the locals to call him a “classless piece of shit”).  The three of them watch Furio (Federico Castellucio, in his first appearance – he’s a regular in the next two seasons, eventually even falling in love with Carmela himself) and his associates beat up a young child who set off firecrackers, fearing that they were gunshots aimed at Zi Vittorio.  Tony and Paulie marvel that “he’s just a kid” as the cops drive by, Furio punches the poor kid’s mother, and associates say, “This is Naples University,” all totally unsurprised by a typical scene of mafia violence. 

 

Annalisa herself is a puzzle – burning her toenail clippings to keep them from her enemy.  And in any case, the Italians find the American romanticizing of who they are bizarre and hilarious.  In a magnificent scene, Paulie marvels that he and his Italian hooker (Alida Tarallo, in a marvelous one scene performance) are from the same village.  She couldn’t care less as she – topless the entire time – douches herself and scratches her foot, rolling her eyes at Paulie’s bizarre infatuation and, truly, self-centered romance of what has always simply been her home.  The title too comes from Paulie’s perspective – “commendatore,” meaning commander, is what Italians seem to be saying to each other out of respect.  It also, occasionally, gets no response whatsoever from the true locals (the true locals, in this case, including David Chase in one of his Hitchcockian cameos).

 

This would be the first of many Sopranos excursions, and like future episodes, it was shot on location in Naples.  Over the years, The Sopranos will take us to LA (“Luxury Lounge”), Vegas (“Kennedy and Heidi”), Miami (“Calling All Cars,” “Remember When”), and Paris (“Cold Stones”).  Paris especially will be shot in the same manner – lots of unexplained shots of the environment itself, marveling at the details of the landscape.  A later scene, in which the men drive back from the airport, is silent except for the industrial vistas of Italy – home to some is quite different from home to others.  Tony says of Mt. Vesuvius, “I’m going to tell Artie that mural they spent all this money on is like a used Trojan compared to this.”

 

Yet why do we want to watch a bunch of xenophobes wandering around a foreign country?  To me the drive of “Commendatori” comes in Tony’s sense of fascination – Paulie and Christopher (incapacitated all episode due to the discovery of Italian heroin) are incapable, but Tony sees something else, a marvel of the differences of his world and who he is.  Annalisa says, as she takes care of her dad, “What else would I do, put him in a schpitz?”  That is what Tony did with his mother, after all – do they know more than he?  Or are they in a backwards world that cannot rationally survive – full of nonsense like an oracle Annalisa drags Tony into, where he flirts his way into a good business deal, but away from sex with Annalisa.  In the way Tony can be evil but is also rational and reasoned, his thoughts on his existence are ours.  Have we also not felt out of body, observers of our own in a new land when away from home?  Tony has no one to explain this to, and a call home from Carmela yields nothing but frustration – “well if the food is as stimulating as this conversation, I have nothing to worry about,” Carmela barks at him.

 

Carmela does not seem especially fond of Tony this episode, no she does not.  “Commendatori” does not only reference the old world respect of Italy, but also the culture of the Family’s wives, viewed as a unit perhaps for the first time in The Sopranos here.  At lunch, Rosalie, Carm, and Angie Bompenserio seem the picture of civility until Angie reveals that Pussy’s returning home makes her sick and that she intends to divorce him.  The news sends the wives gossip circle into a frenzy – we view, for the first time also, Silvio’s wife Gabriella, played by Steven Van Zandt’s actual wife Maureen Van Zandt.  She’s on hold with Carmela while she also talks to Ro – “I haven’t called Franny Altieri yet,” Carm says.  “Ooh, she’s gonna shit!” Ro responds.

 

It is perhaps worth noting, from August of 2009 while I’m writing this, that this aired in February of 2000, many years before reality TV turned so many financially wealthy, surgically enhanced middle-aged women into TV C-listers – perhaps now, in the world of the Real Housewives of… series, such underhanded cattiness is not especially surprising.  In those TV shows, the breaches of social folkways are turned into the stuff of a million camera-ready asides.  Can you imagine those women behaving as Ro did when Angie starts crying at lunch – that is, yelling to table of onlookers, “Eat your manicot, fuckin’ nosey!”  Can you imagine those women behaving as Carmela did, couching her gossip in concern – Angie was breaking the “holy sacrament” of marriage, leaving 3 children from a broken home – although, as Angie points out, the youngest of these children is 19.

 

Tony and Angie are the main focuses of the action on screen, in Italy and in New Jersey, but really, Carmela’s actions are the true object of fascination in the episode – the stuff you can’t get out of your head.  Her interactions with Tony are terse and dismissive, and why, truly, does she become so involved in Angie’s unhappiness?  Janice comes up with something – about women acting in the mother/whore vein for mafia men (and David Chase has, on occasion, called Carmela a whore) before tripping on her own inadequacies as someone who follows human logic (Janice calls Richie Aprile “sensitive” after having been in prison – this from the guy who ran over a relatively innocent mafia associate three times two episodes ago).

 

But it’s Carmela’s final scene with Angie that says the most about her.  In her home, she comforts Angie – or, is she manipulating her?  Entreating her three children, Angie starts crying, and Carmela hugs her, responding, “In the end, I know you’ll stay with him.”  This is, in its way, an act of emotional violence on Angie, forcing her to conform with her own compromises and unhappiness.  The final scene of the episode remains truly one of The Sopranos most haunting final minutes.  Carmela is home, listening to Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro” as she does a few times throughout the episode and resurfacing later in the series’ run – even remarking on how a blind person can possess access to such emotions.  In a way, the song symbolizes Carmela’s blindness to her own emotions.  Angie commented at lunch that when Pussy returned and said he was home, she “wanted to vomit.”  Well, we see the same thing – Tony returns from Italy, and Carmela’s face is shown in full disgust because for the episode cuts to credits.  Her story and Angie’s are truly the same – one in which the important questions and thoughts of life are stifled in the day to day ongoings of the world that is their New Jersey lives.  Such a complex airing of Carmela’s contradictions form, truly, the basis for who she is throughout the series – in touch, but inexorable in a world she has no power to leave.

 

A scene you may not have noticed:

In an early scene showing a typical WASP-y family getting carjacked for Tony’s cross-continent car theft ring, David Chase lays on his bourgeois antipathy rather thick – the mother has a sensible sweater wrapped around her shoulders, and the family has a cute Cocker Spaniel named Churchill.  After their carjacking, the father yells, “Fucking n—ers!  Who else?” before cutting to a shot of Tony’s satisfied face looking at a picture of their SUV.  Chase has always seemed to have little patience for upper crust modernity, but his true attempt is to explore it – in this case, of the seething ignorance and viciousness barely under the surface of their good graces, as the father of the family unleashes his racial tirade as a response to his provocation. 

 

The truth is, I think Chase needed to employ a little of this cynicism and bitterness in order to truly capture all of us.  In future (and, for that matter, past) episodes, dealings with money are always very specific on the amounts, perks of middle class economic success very clearly drawn – and the fear and bile they hide exposed.  From episode to episode, you can often connect dots of this type of cynicism dotting around both in peripheral characters, and in the interactions of the main cast.

Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

July 22, 2009

Bruce Springsteen NebraskaNebraska

 

“You wanna know why I did what I done/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  These are the final words of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” the first track on his 1982 album of the same name.  If you’ve heard or even become a fan of Nebraska, it likely took a while to remember and warm up to this song – just a quiet, plaintive guitar melody and lightly vibrant harmonica that slowly reveals itself as a tale of murder.  Taken from the tale that inspired Terrence Malick’s equally surface-dispassionate 1973 movie Badlands, the supposed blandness of that melody underscores that meanness, and our powerlessness to affect it.  Sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

 

The album’s second song, “Atlantic City,” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, but I should do my best to avoid labeling “one of Springsteen’s best,” because that label misses the point.  There’s a quality to the song that serves as contrast to “Nebraska,” and using the two songs to open the record is exactly the contrast Springsteen wanted to sing about – “Nebraska” sings of the quiet madness that exists – killing sprees and ferocity that cannot be defeated.  On the opposite end – mind you, still with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica – “Atlantic City” is a tale of total economic desperation.  “Down here there’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” 

 

“Atlantic City” is a story of a man who has “debts no honest man can pay” and decides to do some not honest deeds to compensate.  His world is full of men getting blown up, houses burning down, cops who can’t compete, and a world going to hell, so a man, desperate to survive, tries not to get caught on the wrong side of that line.  Where “Nebraska” takes you some time to get along its strumming, psychotic structure, “Atlantic City” plugs you instantly inside the desperation of normal, lost, struggling Americans.  A song of class and anxiety, stitched together with the hope of innocence and release – “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City” like a beacon in the night, a dream that seems impossible and enormous.

 

Nebraska is an album length exploration of these twin themes – desperate, ordinary people on their last breath of sanity, and a madness that creeps along calmly and cannot be defeated.  The songs take these varying approaches – sadness and impossible dreams running so closely with the decision to do very bad things.  “Mansion On The Hill” takes a view of a mansion nearby that’s like gorgeous scenery, an idea of perfection that’s as distant as the moon.  It sits on the album next to “Johnny ’99,” a song of a killer driven by his economic desperation, repeating that line “Judge, I got debts no honest man can pay.”  There’s the “Highway Patrolman,” an honest man who helps his “no good” brother escape the confines of the law because “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.”

 

That Highway Patrolman’s morality is exactly the conflict Springsteen explores and exploits – there are inconsistencies with our firm moral beliefs and the world we live in.  Those of us living by codes have tough awakenings when we come close to the meanness in this world.  One man on the record sings “Mister, the day the lottery I win, I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again.”  Who of us haven’t had that thought, dealing with the week in week out of economic turmoil.  That’s the same turmoil that have driven a man from his father in “My Father’s House,” who hears, across a chained door, that his hopes of reconciliation are impossible.

 

Springsteen’s Nebraska is the cause célèbre of artists trying to speak of The Boss’s greatness – it’s the album that shows his everyman approach isn’t disconnected from the struggle of what that everyman actually experiences.  Which is all just a fancy way of saying something even more obvious – what other album even speaks of economic struggle?  How many of us have experienced concerns about money and been confronted and oppressed by a music collection full of only songs about love?

 

For the Springsteen layperson, I’ll provide just a little background, though not much, because I think this subject has been to death.  It’s been said of Bruce that when he experiences some success, he goes back to create something a little more rim and “honest” because the more theatrical side of himself begins to feel removed from the ordinary man he is purported to represent.  This album was released between the grand double album The River in 1980 and Born in the USA immediately afterwards in 1984, which made Springsteen a megastar and had 7 top 10 hits.  Nebraska is like a purification of his soul before taking in the fame and fortune of doing songs like “Dancing in the Dark,” but please don’t take that as a judgment of any kind – I love “Dancing in the Dark.”

 

But I love Nebraska more.  This album is often compared to 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils and Dust as the “pure,” acoustic Bruce speaking for the common people.  These albums are actually pretty distinct from each other for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Nebraska is so superior to both of those records.  Tom Joad speaks to even more desperate Americans – ex-cons and homeless men – and its construction is even more acoustic and forgettable.  The harmonica that runs like a thread through the songs of Nebraska mostly disappears on Tom Joad, and its great songs seem even quieter than “Nebraska.”  I loved Devils and Dust but I almost feel the comparison is a phony one – Devils is defined and invigorated by its glossiest songs like “All The Way Home” and “Long Time Coming” that pop up throughout the record, propelling its acoustic numbers into supporting roles that bracket the album’s true theme – love, even when it comes from soldiers, workers, and dead immigrants, unites us all.  That’s hardly the populist Bruce back to work.

 

Love doesn’t unite the characters of Nebraska, a morality that’s slipping away and feeling astonishingly remote is what unites them.  Yet Nebraska is, I believe, the great Bruce Springsteen record because it affirms its existence.  In “Reason to Believe,” the magnificent final song, Bruce observes a whole host of beliefs that begin from the delusional (a man standing on the highway over a dead dog “like if he stands there long enough, the dog’d get up and run”), to things we want to believe in but may be just as delusional (a man baptizing his baby).  “Struck me kinda funny,” Springsteen muses, “that at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe.”  We keep going, the desperate and anxious, in the face of madness, of cruelty, of disbelief, and hard times.  Still, Springsteen finds reason to keep going, and finds a world full of beauty and hope.  Nebraska isn’t simply the best Bruce Springsteen record because of its “edginess” and “purity,” it’s everything he hoped his music would accomplish.

Made In America

July 15, 2009

“Made In America”

Season 6, ep. 21holstens

Written and Directed by David Chase

Call it as close to a mission statement as David Chase ever wrote or his worst bit of writing ever.  Call it deeply routine regarding the lives of The Sopranos’ characters or a treatise on modern America and the immigrant experience.  In fact, call it brilliant or call it terrible – that’s the divide that occupied most of the episode’s discussion immediately after it aired.  “Made In America,” the final Sopranos episode, was more divisive than anything the show ever aired, and perhaps (as I certainly believe) that only emphasizes all of the astonishing elements that fascinate about it.  The second Tony, Carmela, and AJ pick up their onion rings at their table at Holsten’s, a certain iconic logic immediately overcame all discussion of the episode.   It is an episode full of dichotomies, and is, in its own effect, composed of two episodes anyway – one resolving the immediate storyline of Tony’s gang war with Phil Leotardo’s New York crew, and one telling the story of where all of these characters we’ve known will wind up – and perhaps, where everyone winds up.

As a unified whole, however, “Made In America” moves at a different pace than other Sopranos episodes, a fact seized upon by my idol Owen Gleiberman, writing a synopsis for Entertainment Weekly – he found it choppy and declared it “hardly David Chase’s deftest hour of writing.”  Like many so-called flaws pointed out in The Sopranos run, I have no doubt as to the intentionality of this approach.  The scenes jut at you, cut quickly into one another, and move away instantly.  Things, important things, seem to have happened between the last scene and what we’re watching, but  we’re supposed to catch up.  Life, after all, is a composition of moments we did not know going in were important, so we’re given many perspectives on many moments and asked to compile the entirety of the story ourselves.

Start with the first scene – Tony’s where we left him at the end of “The Blue Comet,” alone in a dark room, in front of its door, with a very large gun, totally unsure what will happen next.  His best friend Silvio is near death and Bobby Baccala is gone for good.  The episode opens as virtually half of the episodes of this second half of season 6 (which aired in the spring of 2007) does, with a medium shot of Tony waking up from sleeping.   This scene, with music blaring, find him in his room, and then suddenly, we’re in a car on a snowy, cold night sitting by the Newark airport, waiting to hear from Agent Harris as Tony solicits information he has no right to get on Phil Leotardo’s whereabouts.  Then it’s daytime and we’re driving along the Jersey shore as Tony heads to his safehouse.  Later, even conversations will have their own internal jumpiness – a sit down between Tony, Little Carmine, and Butchie of the New York crews in a Queens car parts warehouse will sometimes sound as if a train is hurtling past them, and other times be silent.  Or even later, Tony will discuss with AJ his plan to join the military, and then suddenly we jump to him saying “He’s joining the army!” to Carmela as she sits in the bath.  This sentence (what is that, 3 seconds in duration?) comprises the entirety of that scene.

I am firmly certain this is intentional and meant to feel jumpy, sudden, disorienting.  It speaks to the actual rhythms of actual life.  David Chase spent so much of his time on The Sopranos working himself away from conventional storytelling and narratives, and eventually, this drove him from any type of the comforts of scene-to-scene rhythm altogether.  In “Made In America,” we can expect life to jump around like this forever, and for Tony to come to in realizing these moments’ importance at any second… or the opposite, the significance will end everything.  Such as the episode-changing moment in which Paulie walks into the Bada Bing, finds no one (including, thankfully for him, no Virgin Mary – he stares off at an empty spot on the Bada Bing stage where he’d seen her a year earlier in “The Ride”), and calls Tony to tell him Carlo is missing.

Has this war with New York continued, Paulie wonders?  Tony concludes something else – that Carlo’s turned on him.  This is a moment Tony’s waited for in these 9 episodes that ran as a mini-season concluding the series.  He speaks in “Kennedy and Heidi” over the relief he feels in Christopher’s death in that, “every day I wake up wondering… which of my fat fuck friends is going to kill me, or rat me out.”  This is what Carmela speaks of when she cries to Tony, in “Chasing It,” “we walk around here as if there isn’t a giant piano hanging over your head.”  And this is what Tony means when he tells Bobby, sitting peacefully on a lake in the Adirondacks in “Soprano Home Movies,” “80% of the time, this ends in the can like Johnny Sack, or on the embalmer’s table,” a conversation he flashes back to briefly in “The Blue Comet” after Bobby has found himself on the latter half of that 80%.  This season is about that anxiety that lurks everywhere.  Never has anxiety been more interestingly or unnervingly chronicled as it was in the 9 hours that made up this half of the season.

This is the other way in which “Made In America” speaks to the rhythm of actual life – not only do the scenes jut with a rhythm we can’t recognize, but big events happen in it with little fanfare, with people not acknowledging the enormity of their implications.  Tony sits down to have a conversation with Mink, his lawyer, who spends their conversation trying to unstop a ketchup bottle and glancing at security camera footage of Bada Bing strippers.  He invokes Tony’s same language: “80-90% chance you’ll get indicted,” he tells Tony.  Tony registers sadness in his eyes, and Mink now must move on to his next argument – “Trials are made to be won,” he tells Tony.  Small comfort.  Tony too, later, confirms with Carmela what they suspected – Carlo, Tony’s longtime friend, is going to testify against him in order to keep his own son out of jail.  Carmela does not respond, they just go on eating onion rings.  The consequences there are too big to discuss at this dinner, and in any case, what would discussing them change anyway.

There are so many elements to discuss in this episode, but if I can narrow it down to one thing David Chase hoped to accomplish, perhaps with the entire series, is an acknowledgment of the modern America as distinctly different than the stories we tell ourselves about it, because we continue to perpetuate myths from our past.  This is an America he shows us full of products – business meetings provided with Polish Spring Bottles, Phil Leotardo decapitated by his giant Ford SUV.  Early in the episode, at Bobby’s funeral, AJ, borderline incoherent, starts babbling, “I mean America, it’s still where people come to make it.  And for what?  Bling?”  He wonders why we tell these stories, and we see them, in form, throughout the episode.  Butchie calling Phil from Little Italy in New  York City is passed by a tour bus that blasts “New York’s Little Italy once spanned 40 square blocks, and has since been reduced to one row of shops and restaurants.”  As Butchie continues walking in the snow and wind, he is absorbed into a crowd of faces that are white, black, Asian.  America’s cultural identity isn’t what we said about it – this is Little Italy, but it’s also where America has moved forward and become something else.   Later, Tony and Paulie sit in front of Satriale’s “Italian Sausage” sign, but as they are sitting, the capital letters of Sausage – based on the position of their bodies – compose the shot into saying “Italian USA.”  Like the opening credits that symbolically moved a mob story away from New York City and into the place it truly exists (or, perhaps better stated, also exists), the high end suburbs of New Jersey, the story continues to exist in its way, but our conceptualization up until now has distorted it.  “Italian USA” helps David Chase proclaim that he’s telling a little more of our story now.

The past gets reduced to legend – from a bus, or from memory itself.  A sad, unnerving scene at episode’s end hammers this theme further  – Tony, finally visiting Uncle Junior ostensibly on defense of Bobby’s survived children, finds Junior more incapacitated and demented than he realized.  “You ran North Jersey,” he tells Junior, “you and my father, your kid brother Johnny.”  “I did?” Junior asks.  “That’s nice,” he states, and seems to mean it.

There is much to be said about many other elements in the episode.  Things come back from moments past in small, circular fashion in the way good writers love to speak of their projects.  Tony, before going to see Uncle Junior, stares up at the bare end of his trees, like he did in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” after being shot, in reflection there that every day was a gift.  Tony still wants to believe that, truly.  He also holds Silvio’s hand at the hospital in the same manner  Silvio held his when Tony was in the same hospital bed.  AJ refers to military school (season 3), Tony and Paulie run down the list of dead Captains from Ralph Cifaretto’s crew (“Gigi died taking a shit!”), Meadow runs back through traffic towards the family in a way she did away from the family at the end of season 3’s “Army of One.”  AJ references to Tony something he once said – “remember the times that were good,” a mistelling of that quote anyway, but one Tony remembers so little of, he initially thinks AJ’s joking – but ultimately concludes, “well, it’s true I guess.”  And Tony – in our only resolution to his sudden dismissal by Dr. Melfi in “The Blue Comet” – gets to regurgitate what he’s been able to admit from therapy as well – his mother’s a borderline personality, and he could never please her.  We smile for Dr. Melfi’s ethical convictions, but also that her work has made Tony somewhat more understanding.

Because we do care about him, we do.  This is a fact David Chase seemed surprised he had to assert again when he went on the defensive about his final hour of his show.  By now, you likely know how the series ended – mid glance from Tony, up from a table, ostensibly towards a bell being rung at Holsten’s entrance.  This scene is incredibly tense and sits on that cut for a very long time before credits begin (and, Chase states, he initially wanted no credits at all).  This was one last jolt from the complacency of being able to say goodbye to people, but also without getting closure on the deeds they’ve committed.  As close as we get is Carmela’s glancing down at the table when Tony tells her Carlo will be testifying against him.  David Chase says he was surprised to find out people wanted Tony dead, wanted his blood on the wall.

Perhaps it’s there.  There’s more than enough room to find that in the Holsten’s scene – the man in the gray jacket who comes in before AJ, sits down looking at AJ, and later goes into the men’s room, which looks suspiciously like the bathroom from The Godfather, a fact we see right away, even if we feel we’re reaching for it.  Tony has referenced this scene in his own mind too, reliving it in kind during a dream in “The Test Dream.”  This scene cuts suddenly to silence, which is what Tony remembered of his conversation with Bobby after Bobby died – back to that boat ride on the Adirondacks, when the two said to each other, “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens.”  We don’t hear anything, total silence.  Tony has just killed a boss, and it seemed all too easy.  Why not?

What does it mean if they die in this manner?  No one really believed Tony would die, right?  He’s the entire show!  My initial conclusion on the episode when I saw it was that Tony didn’t die, it’s just a mood of anxiety the show proffers, intending to show us that the anxiety is, for Tony, for us, more real than the actual occurrence.  OK, I can buy that enough now, but that’s not the whole story.  Yes.  You can conclude that the Sopranos were killed then, and certainly Tony was.  All of my “anxiety” rhetoric is protecting me from the truth that is so plainly in that scene.  No.  Tony was not killed in this scene, we’re just being anxious, and worse, buying into typical TV narrative logic that David Chase wants to break.

“I didn’t want to say crime paid.  I didn’t want to say crime didn’t pay.”  On the commentary of “The Blue Comet,” Steven Van Zandt recalls this was David Chase’s answer to the question, “why did you end the show like that?”  Instead, he says both.  This is the ultimate dichotomy of this episode – Tony lives, and there is meaning, and Tony dies, and there is meaning.  In some interviews, David Chase has sidestepped the question and said, “it doesn’t matter if it happened then or sometime later, the end was coming.”  That is true especially in that we already know Tony’s one of his dreaded 80%, but we just assume it’ll be part of the 80% that winds up in jail.  Perhaps that was enough, and that was what fate had in store for him.  That’s easier to deal with also.  But we do not know what fate has in store for us, and we don’t know what it has in store for Tony.  Why must we expect Chase to tell us this?  Both are real answers, both occurred, and both never happened.  In that moment, the world is a realm of certain possibilities, the kind that lucky people will dodge or perhaps curse their luck and their choices as they take their dying breaths.  Some people will die like Junior without the aid of even the stories of your life to comfort yourself, saying, only mildly “Me, I never had children.”  Some will die like Christopher did, suddenly, without much warning.  Some will continue living with all of their agita around death and superstition, like Paulie, who we last see sunbathing at Satriale’s next to the cat he wants to kill.  Fate and life are the ultimate untold stories of all of narration, and in telling this story with this much bold narrative control and uncertainty, David Chase got us a little closer to telling that story.

Something you may have missed:

What did you think of the scene in which Rhiannon and AJ, listening to Bob Dylan, make out, only to have his car blow up on him?  One thing David Chase did beautifully, always, was to capture the mood and words of his characters, who sometimes are living clichés, but to not devalue them – they are, after all, real to the characters they’re occurring to.  Rhiannon and AJ are connecting over Dylan’s meaning like a million college co-eds, and Rhiannon says, “It was written so long ago but is still true,” as if it’s the deepest thought ever.  Yet they have a true connection to each other, do they not?

How about the snap Janice delivers to an orderly at Junior’s hospital minutes before attempting to play a sad widow “inveigling him” for money (as Junior’s friend Pat describes it)?  “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice!” She snaps.  “That goes both ways,” the orderly snaps back.

AJ mispronouncing Yeats, Agent Harris’s affair with a Brooklyn agent, Donna Parisi’s inability to tell a joke, Carmela’s glow of success as a parent upon hearing Meadow’s initial offer of a starting salary.  This is a show that treasured the small, characterizing details of its characters and believed wholly that their stories, however silly, clichéd, or stereotypical, deserved to be told and told with respect.  That is ultimately why The Sopranos is the best show ever written.

Madonna, Like A Prayer

June 24, 2009

like-a-prayer 

I never actually knew a Madonna that hadn’t released Like A Prayer – I was 7 years old in 1989 when it was released, and it was always as equally available to me as a kid as Like A Virgin or True Blue was – my family had all the tapes, despite my mother’s protestation that Madonna was “so weird.” 

 

She wasn’t that weird, she was hot – uncomfortably hot.  In that video for “Like A Prayer, that low-cut tank top and her flowing brown hair, I think Madonna was the sexiest she’d ever been before or since – but this, of course, was not the thought of a 7-year-old.  Now with the benefit of being able to put these things in context, it was a bold move of Madonna’s to cap a decade long string of hits with something that had the ability to be more controversial, darker, and sexier than she’d already been – in fact, it’s amazing to think Madonna even courted any controversy in a pre Like A Prayer world (well, there was that thing about humping MTV’s stage in a wedding dress…).

 

Regardless, Madonna’s cleavage in a field of burning crosses, and making out with a black Jesus was only the beginning for Madonna.  Those iconic video moments in the video for “Like A Prayer” just helped capitalize on that single’s desperately anxious sexuality.  “Like A Prayer” is, I think, Madonna’s best single, and it’s because it’s the clearest she ever was about the exalting power of love and desire, the apotheosis of love and sex being transformative, life altering.  More than that, it was Madonna’s religious call to arms – did God and religion account for everyone standing alone?  For hearing a lover’s voice and having it “feel like home”?  Posing these questions with the help of a gospel chorus was quite a bold move by any standards.

 

I think about these things because they get dotted along like power lines across the record, a perfectly crafted pop record.  She sings of a desperately failing relationship in “Till Death Do Us Part” (of course, at the time, this must have been Madonna’s answer to tabloid questions regarding her marriage to Sean Penn), of child abuse in “Oh Father,” and – quite gorgeously – takes the perspective of a woman praying to and questioning God to spare the life of her lover, who may get killed, in “Pray For Spanish Eyes.” 

 

“Spanish Eyes,” with its aching Spanish guitar and elliptically sacrilegious lyrics is, in its way, the most beautiful song Madonna ever performed, and it caps off the boldness of Madonna’s ability as a pop star.  Sure, the album is loaded with a sly bit of empowerment in “Express Yourself,” and a giddy love song in “Cherish,” but there’s no getting away from the snarky seriousness of the material.  Even in a shockingly blasé duet with Prince called “Love Song,” the chorus sings “This is not a love song.”  This is also not a love album.  It fits as a pop record, but it’s the sort of pop touchstone that 80’s music can’t be imagined without – like Thriller or Purple Rain, the pop was perfect, but it was also just the beginning (like those mega records, Like A Prayer was a hit machine with 5 Top 20 hits).

 

Her boldness climaxes with that gospel chorus picking up again in the final song of the record, “Act Of Contrition,” which is sort of a joke – the gospel chorus now sounds like angels at heaven’s gate.  But it’s also a bold reaffirmation of everything she is.  Madonna hums along her song of contrition and forgiveness, climaxing in “I reserve, I resolve, I reserve… I have a reservation,” and finally yelling, “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!”  Madonna kicked from the gates of heaven?  It must mean what we get of her on earth in Like A Prayer is far riskier and far more worthy.  Such a banishment has justified 20 additional years of Madonna superstardom and remains the crown jewel of her catalog.

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

June 24, 2009

I love Neko Case, and in a way, she’s come to a spot where she’s a little overrated.  Just a little.  Let me clarify.  There was a time when I would have thought of Blacklisted, her 2002 record that truly defines her renegade-spirit-with-a-Patsy-Cline-twang persona, as one of the greats of this decade.  I don’t think that now, and not simply becauze 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a better record, but because I’m a little annoyed.  Case is wonderful but idiosyncratic and difficult.  She doesn’t write songs so much as she writes ideas and gives them melodies, and because her voice is so exciting – a classic beauty melded with modern, elliptical subject matter – the song retains the era of floating mood poems.

All that sounds like the description of a real artist, yes?  Of this she most certainly is.  But a great one?  That’s the qualifier.  Do I think of her as fondly as, say, PJ Harvey or Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen?  That is the standard I am hoping for, and I’m not sure all of her work qualifies, as much as I adore her.  Her voice is intoxicating, and how refreshing that in 2002, she moved from making wonderful neoclassical country albums like Furnace Room Lullaby to Blacklisted where she indulged her quixotic, unique style.  That was a very good record surrounding an idea of being true to the odd impulses that guide you.  She sang in its banjo-assault opening number “Things That Scare Me” of blackbirds frying on a wire for no particular reason but to say “I am the dying breed that still believes/ haunted by American dreams.  Hunted by American dreams.”  I felt strongly at the time that I knew exactly what she meant, that I too needed to be true to myself and my own brand of internal strangeness.

But Fox Confessor Brings The Flood pushed that thesis forward, and did a better job of it, too.  In its penultimate song “At Last,” which lasts barely a minute and a half, sings “And if death should smell my breathing/ as it pass beneath my window/ let it lead me trembling trembling/ I own every bell that tolls me.”  She’s singing of the same type of devotion to her own independence (not that there’s a statute of limitations on how many times that subject is ok to sing about), but her writing was not that good, that precise, and that direct.  “At Last” is a song that articulates Blacklisted without needing to be on the record, and coming at track 11 of Fox Confessor nodding towards death, it also reinforces the strange, more viscous theme of Fox Confessor – the struggles of those who are destined to speak, the consequences of their lives.

Of the two women in the album’s opener, “Margaret vs. Pauline,” we find out “One left a sweater sittin’ on a train/ the other lost three fingers at the cannery.”  Of the witness on the second song, “Star Witness,” we learn she lives in a place “miles from where anyone will find you/ this is nothing new/ no television crew/ they don’t even put on a siren.”  Of Case herself leaves a party with a “Valium from the bride” cursing the songs that lied to her with that cry “Hold on, Hold On.”  She too learned to write songs to speak her truth – a far kinder destiny than those around her.  It only gets worse from there – widows of the St. Angel plane crash, Ukranian stabbing victims, love that leads into lion’s jaws, poor John the Baptist speaking of the lord.

That is interesting, in its way, but what makes Fox Confessor great is that it invites you back for discovery with the quality of the songs’ fullness, even the minimal ones that don’t hit the 2 minute mark.  If I were to think of 2006, one song’s melody would follow  me everywhere I went, and that is “Star Witness,” the rare Case original with an unforgettable chorus that’s repeated three times.  This witness knows more than her compatriots on her record and sings about it beautifully, but here, she’s part of a community, and part of Case.  Case, of Ukranian background, breaks out her native tongue for an intoxicating bridge on “Dirty Knife,” and it’s the same narrative thread, in its way, that snakes its way from John the Baptist in a magnificently vivid interpretation of the traditional “John Saw That Number,” as well as moves into “Lion’s Jaws,” a romantic song of anguish and destruction… if you truly ever “understood” it.  On an NPR report on this record (it gathered quite a bit of attention), the report opened up by saying “In a way, the title of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood says it all – you don’t totally get it.”

Maybe not totally, but I do think I do get it.  It’s an exploration of Case’s identity, of the tfox confessorhings she believes to be true – that it is difficult to speak the truth, but you must do so anyway.  She takes that identity and shifts perspective on it, because it’s an idea that has never been simple or fully elucidated, but has always been understated.  There are so many beautiful songs on Fox Confessor, and none flag – even the wandering reverie of the title track takes hold in its murky, sea-green hypnotism – but why it’s great is that ultimately, they’re one endless, beautiful, tragic, liberating song.

The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed

May 18, 2009

letitbleedThe Rolling Stones Let It Bleed

 

“A storm is threatening my very life today” are actually the opening words of Let It Bleed, coming amongst the sinister onslaught of guitar that is “Gimme Shelter.”  It would be a lie to say that’s the theme of Let It Bleed, which is not a particularly “dark” record, but it does indicate the storm clouds that inform the album – it tells us rape and murder are just a shout away; that’s a hard truth to live with, eh?

 

So much of my thinking about the nature of music and of rock n roll comes back to the Stones in general, and because their sound at their peak in the late 60’s and early 70’s is so distinct, it’s retained a timelessness unlike anyone else.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better than anyone else, simply that still, no one sounds like the Stones in their heyday (plus, the band has been so trigger happy with law suits over the years, you almost begin to think they have their guitar sound copyrighted).  That means also that if I were to think of the core elements of what constitutes rock and roll music, I would think of a Stones song, and a great Stones album.

 

There was Beggar’s Banquet, then there was Let It Bleed, then there was Sticky Fingers, then there was Exile on Main Street.  There were, of course, Stones records before and many many after, but these are the four from which we truly represent who the Stones are.  Is Let It Bleed better than these other records?  Not necessarily (unless we’re talking about Exile On Main Street in which case the answer is no – Exile On Main Street is the best album ever made), but it’s Let It Bleed I want to discuss 1) because it’s a stretch of 9 extraordinary songs, and 2) because it does, in its drunken party-guy way, does find some answers to that storm threatening our very life.

 

Let It Bleed, on its initial record release in 1969, began side A with “Gimme Shelter” and ended it with “Let It Bleed,” the song whose famous line sings, “We all need someone we can bleed on, and if you want it, well you can bleed on me.”  The friendlier, and, well, more fun among us can imagine singing these lines with a beer raised, looking affectionately at the friends and lovers in our lives.

 

As a 27-year-old male, I sometimes am surprised to find out that, amongst my best friends, no one loves the Stones as much as I do.  When I talk about the Stones to my friends, I often get two responses.  1) They’re overrated.  2) “Yeah I know someone who saw them a while ago.  Keith Richards has such big ears.”  I often feel the need to clarify – when I say I love the Stones, I mean that I have love for this string of perfect records in the 60’s and 70’s, healthy admiration of 1978’s Some Girls, and love for occasional songs before or since that I think represent the band in typical horny, drunken fashion.

 

Here’s another thing friends and I have discussed in my love for the Stones: The Beatles never really sing about sex, and the Stones always seem to sing about sex – constantly, over and over again.  This is actually the other reason I’m surprised to find out I’m a 27-year-old male who is alone in his love for the Stones.  Isn’t this the life of any other guys living out their lives in their 20’s?  “Don’t you think there’s a place for us in between the sheets?” Mick Jagger coos to a potential lover in “Live With Me.”  “Country Honk” finds the band fiddling up the dirtiest lines from “Honky Tonk Women” into a wilder, looser hoe-down version, and that somehow makes the song slyer, more seductive.

 

The sex and bravado is all there in Let It Bleed, as are the stoner guitar concoctions like “Midnight Rambler” that take over your best music fantasies, but there’s also something more, and it’s most prominent in the totemic songs at beginning, end, and middle of the record.  There’s that glimpse of the coming storm in “Gimme Shelter,” the sweet affirmation of support in “Let It Bleed,” and finally a certain acceptance with all of it in the classic, 9-minute “Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  Let me guess something about you, whoever might be reading this: you know this song.  Someone (maybe your parents?) with seriousness may have said to you something like, “As Mick Jagger would say, you can’t  always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need.”  The truth is, despite its infantile drunken logic, there’s an ease and a truth to that line – a tossed off bit of wisdom from a man trying to have fun and live however he pleases, but knows that concessions are part of the world we live in.  When I hear Let It Bleed, I hear that things are tough and we can still be our core, carefree self when we want to – and if we’re true to that, we might just get what we need.

“Coming Up Close” ‘Til Tuesday

April 28, 2009

til_tuesdayMany people know that Aimee Mann – who made a name for herself in the 90’s through sharp, acerbic, eloquently flat songs of personal disgust – got her start as lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday, the 80’s New Wave band best known for their hit “Voices Carry” (that’s Mann’s stern features under that shocking blonde hair, above).  Even knowing it, how strange is it to think of those two songs coming from the same mind?  Even liking both ‘Til Tuesday as an 80’s group and Mann as an artist, the idea has never meshed.  “Coming Up Close” is ‘Til Tuesday’s best song, without a doubt.  It’s easy to miss, and I think the problem is how sincere it was – a beautiful, achingly simple tale of lovers driving in a borrowed car in Iowa, and Mann (singing) feeling that “anything I could have said/ I felt somehow you already knew.”  Maybe this is a sensation lovers often feel in moments of closeness, but the music also gives us something Mann could have said if we hadn’t already known – that things weren’t going to end well.  As the tale ends with the simple observation of a man who “got back in his car and drove away,” you didn’t just sense the heartbreak, you sensed the fleeting wonder of the moment that took place, too.  I find this song so moving that it fits with Mann’s later, colder and more sardonic work – it so nakedly displays the heartbreak that led to Mann being such an ice queen.