Improving Upon Perfection, Part One: Curtis Mayfield and Junior Murvin

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First, the sweet, angelic genius of Curtis Mayfield.

(Sidenote: if you’ve lived this long without getting a proper exposure to Curtis, remedy that as soon as possible. Virtually everything the man did in the ’60s and early ’70s is crucial, life-affirming, indispensable. Curtis was a gentle, beautiful man, and whether or not heaven exists, he was heaven on earth while he was here. Over the top? Check him out and tell me otherwise. I owe him a proper, in-depth tribute and appreciation and hope to tackle that this year.)

You can’t necessarily improve upon perfection, but the deep groove, epic falsetto and brilliant decision to merge both “Gypsy Woman” and the other Impressions masterpiece “Grow Closer Together” makes this one of the rare instances (think Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower”) where the cover version quite possibly surpasses the original.

Junior Murvin, produced by the inimitable Lee “Scratch” Perry.

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Paul McCartney and Lee “Scratch” Perry (Revisited)

PM

It was 34 years ago today…

They almost put Macca away!

(Today is the anniversary of Paul being released; hence the epic photo, above.)

Do you remember what a huge thing this was at the time?

This, of course, was not Paul’s first rodeo: he had been busted a handful of times, but he later admitted it was not his finest hour, thinking he could bring that much weed through customs. According to the man himself, he kept the mood light by orchestrating some impromptu sing-alongs with the other inmates. Can you imagine if footage of that existed?

Fortunately, the powers that be in Japan went easy on him. There was also considerable support amongst his peers and in the press. Macca was, and remains, a national treasure after all, and we can’t have our national treasures rotting in prison over some pot. Perhaps the most unlikely (though, in hindsight and upon closer analysis, most natural) ally arose from sunny Jamaica: Lee “Scratch” Perry, dub master and ganja enthusiast, took pen to paper on behalf of Macca.

The most excellent site, Letters of Note, has this historic missive preserved, HERE.

I first read this too-good-to-be-true missive when I acquired Perry’s EPIC 3-disc collection Arkology (used copies going cheap at Amazon here), and it was included in the generous liner notes.

There is a lot I could say here, but…what can I say?

This is the Upsetta. Lee Perry is an uber-original, there has never been anyone remotely like him.

(A bit more about this maestro, his history and influence, HERE.)

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Improving Upon Perfection, Part One: Curtis Mayfield and Junior Murvin

First, the sweet, angelic genius of Curtis Mayfield.

(Sidenote: if you’ve lived this long without getting a proper exposure to Curtis, remedy that as soon as possible. Virtually everything the man did in the ’60s and early ’70s is crucial, life-affirming, indispensable. Curtis was a gentle, beautiful man, and whether or not heaven exists, he was heaven on earth while he was here. Over the top? Check him out and tell me otherwise. I owe him a proper, in-depth tribute and appreciation and hope to tackle that this year.)

You can’t necessarily improve upon perfection, but the deep groove, epic falsetto and brilliant decision to merge both “Gypsy Woman” and the other Impressions masterpiece “Grow Closer Together” makes this one of the rare instances (think Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower”) where the cover version quite possibly surpasses the original.

Junior Murvin, produced by the inimitable Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Share

Paul McCartney and Lee “Scratch” Perry

It was 33 years ago today…

They almost put Macca away!

Do you remember what a huge thing this was at the time?

This, of course, was not Paul’s first rodeo: he had been busted a handful of times, but he later admitted it was not his finest hour, thinking he could bring that much weed through customs. According to the man himself, he kept the mood light by orchestrating some impromptu sing-alongs with the other inmates. Can you imagine if footage of that existed?

Fortunately, the powers that be in Japan went easy on him. There was also considerable support amongst his peers and in the press. Macca was, and remains, a national treasure after all, and we can’t have our national treasures rotting in prison over some pot. Perhaps the most unlikely (though, in hindsight and upon closer analysis, most natural) ally arose from sunny Jamaica: Lee “Scratch” Perry, dub master and ganja enthusiast, took pen to paper on behalf of Macca.

The most excellent site, Letters of Note, has this historic missive preserved, HERE.

I first read this too-good-to-be-true missive when I acquired Perry’s EPIC 3-disc collection Arkology (used copies going cheap at Amazon here), and it was included in the generous liner notes.

There is a lot I could say here, but…what can I say?

This is the Upsetta. Lee Perry is an uber-original, there has never been anyone remotely like him.

(A bit more about this maestro, his history and influence, HERE.)

Share

Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without (Revisited)

Part One: HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.

(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)

Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.

Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…

This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.

Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.

“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

We come with our culture to enlighten the world…

Any questions?

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A History of Violence

When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.

But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.

To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong.

Exhibit A: Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer (pun intended) on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, outstanding!

Exhibit B: the jaw-dropping Tony Jaa’s instant classic (already immortal) one-take (!!) fight scene, which took over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Respect!

As kind of an antidote, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts an epic fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uneven, embarrassing. This is a clinic, made indelible by De Niro and Joey “The Mook”:

And as an intermission, or delicious palette cleanser, let’s appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes (which obliges us to turn to the ultimate in camp, the caped crusader played by the marvelous Adam West): this is the all-in battle royale, a brawl that involves all the assorted players (skip to the three-minute mark if you can’t stand the suspense). Three words: “Bon voyage pussy!” Holy blissful extravagance, Batman! (Much, much more on Batman, and camp, here.)

Speaking of camp: does it get any better (worse) than Patrick Swayze? This scene has so much homoerotic energy it almost sucks its own dick. You can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who’s gayer: Swayze, (the great) Ben Gazzara (“Can somebody geta drink around here?”) or the dude with pool cue? Are you kidding me? In very un-American fashion, embedding is disabled but you can enjoy a full ten minutes worth of “highlights” here.

Of course, the only cat who could challenge Swayze for the crown is Rob Lowe. First up, an epic romp with Andrew McCarthy (doing his finest work, which isn’t saying much) from the so-bad-it’s-great Class (two words: Jacqueline Bisset). Skip ahead to the 5.23 mark for the fight, but you can watch the whole thing to appreciate John Cusak in his first movie role. Recognize!

But this is child’s play compared to Youngblood(which gets you a young(er) Swayze and Keanu Reeves, demonstrating that at no time in his career could he act), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. The bromance battling the testosterone here is officially off the charts; the movie itself is one long fight scene between gay yearning and feel-good Hollywood onanism.

Of course, for both fight scenes and hockey, it’s all about the Hanson brothers and Slap Shot (six words: “I’m listening to the fucking song!):

Don’t think I’m going to sleep on Stallone. Any number of his movies could be considered (duh) but for the all-time camp, how you can top the over-the-top invocation of boxing and pro wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male. (Incidentally, Rocky III would be on the short list of all-time homo-erotic films. It may be in the top three alongside Road House and Top Gun.)

Now we’re approaching that elevated plane also known as the truth. Male gymnist? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Gayness off the charts? Big check. The only remaining question being, can you handle this truth? Let’s see:

But let’s stop screwing around and get to the glory. The scene, and I mean the scene, where all the elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good) acting, and wrestling) come together, are made manifest in John Carpenter’s They Live. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet-convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it’s one for the ages.

So what do you get, where else is there to go, when you have a scene like the one above, that parodies virtually every aspect of the entire history of fight scenes? You have a scene that parodies that scene. Enter Ernie the Giant Chicken, the recurring character from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. (The scene below is an appetizer; here is the main course.)

What else is there left to say? Why not tie it all together with the only genius who actually is capable of intermingling all of these elements into his own work. Martial arts inspired reggae? Lee Scratch Perry has it covered.

So what did I miss? Let me know what fight scene (good, bad, ugly or hopefully, all of these) you would put into the pantheon. Peace!

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Revisiting The Heart of the Congos

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.

(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)

Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.

Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…

This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.

Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.

“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

We come with our culture to enlighten the world…

Any questions?

Share

Summertime is Reggae Time (Revisited)– Part One: HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.

(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)

Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.

Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…

This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.

Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.

“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.
 

We come with our culture to enlighten the world…

Any questions?

(*Note: this is the excellent remix of “Congoman”; you must have the original version from the original album. Once you have this one in your world, you’ll realize how lacking your world was. Go get it.)

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A Serious Mess

First off, full disclosure.

I don’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with the Coen Brothers, because there is too much gray area. Some of their movies I love without reservation (Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski) and some I really find inspid (Miller’s Crossing, O Brother Where Art Thou and especially The Hudsucker Proxy). But, I guess, to their credit, they also have plenty of films I am largely indifferent about, or find simply okay (this includes near misses like Barton Fink and Blood Simple). I was underwhelmed with No Country For Old Men the first time I saw it, but liked it better the next time –always a good sign. Burn After Reading was what it was: a lark; a lightweight effort with a heavyweight cast, mostly salvaged by the never unimpressive George Clooney. And then there are the rest of them, of which the less said the better.

Which brings us to A Serious Man. Their latest film garnered some, well, serious praise (including two perfect-10 ratings from colleagues from PopMatters whose taste and opinions I admire). If you have not seen it yet, be prepared for some spoilers: this is not a review; it’s a postmortem. The plot, presented as a pitch, sounds irresistible: college physics professor (and Jew) who seems a nice enough fellow is, without warning, suddenly made to suffer a series of unfortunate events; he is a present-day Job for our postmodern times. Add the Coen brethren’s patented black humor alongside their perverse sensibility, and hilarity shall ensue. Pretty good premise, right? (My first thought was, we’ve already seen this one, and it was called The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was less a movie and more a 90 minute exercise to see how many cigarettes Billy Bob Thornton could smoke.)

The leitmotif of the movie is provided (in a typical instance of when the Coen brothers’ goofy irreverance goes wrong) by the Jefferson Airplane chestnut “Somebody To Love”: When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies. This is its first problem. Setting up the framework of this anti-morality play, however cheekily, with such a literal (and cornily shoehorned) statement of purpose begs two big questions which had better be answered in some fashion. One, what is the truth? Two, is there any evidence that there was ever any joy inside our hero?

Let’s look at the tale of the tape: decent man with annoyingly needy brother who has moved in. And a vulgar wife who asks for a divorce to facilitate the affair she is having. And two bratty kids. And a racist neighbor. And a health scare. In lesser artists’ hands, a protagonist with this sort of curriculum vitae is a guy we like and can relate to who has horrible things happen and just when it can’t get any worse, it gets better. You know, the types of movies usually starring Will Smith or Tom Hanks. The problem with A Serious Man is that Larry Gopnik, despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, never seems to lose much that he’d be better off without. And I’m quite certain that is not what the Coen Brothers are after, which is not the fault of the actor, but of the writing and direction.

O Brothers, Where Art Thou?

The film’s internal engine stalls on this irreconcilable conflict: if we can’t help thinking Larry has never been happy, or might be in a better place away from all of these miserable creatures all around him, it sort of sucks the air out of the movie’s momentum. And because the viewer (or, this viewer) became distracted by this…distraction, it…distracted from what must be the primary objective of any film, which is providing unfettered engagement without distraction. All of which is to say the Coens violate the operating principle of the storytelling process, and it isn’t “give us a character we care about” (that is something only unimaginative critics and untalented writing professors blather about); rather, it is: give us a character who does not strain credulity to an insulting degree. When minor characters, especially ones in Coen Brothers movies, are somewhat less than believable, it can be and often is in the service of delightful nuance. In other words, it does not grab attention or focus from the thrust of the proper narrative. On the other hand, if that character is the prime mover of the action (even in a movie where the prime mover is Fate with a capital Cliche and the protagonist is the dust this Mighty Wind blows about with biblical imperiousness), we are stuck in neutral, which in Coen Brothers projects is often (and generously) assumed to be black humor.

At this point one can sense the more defensive fans sighing in exasperation and patiently explaining how the monstrous math equation in the classroom illustrates everything, or the (very Coens-esque, or is that Coensian?) Asian student personifies the enigmatic fulcrum upon which action (or, in this case, inaction) prompts reaction, or the even simpler fact that it’s black humor, dummy; Gopnik is the pawn of an uncaring universe and the better he tries to be, the harder the universe bends him over. Well, okay. But then we’re failing on simple human as well as artistic levels: one need only look to the slums of Bombay or the killing fields of any third world country to see innocent people suffering terribly for crimes they never committed. Maybe the Coens should have named this one Slumdog Hundredaire.

Or try this: even though Gopnik’s suffering is over the top, even by Job’s standards (Job, mercifully, never had to deal with the petty foibles of a professor sweating tenure), one doesn’t feel pity for him in regards to his contemptible progeny. At what point is he himself at least partly culpable for the churlish punks he has reared?

Put yet another way: if this is tragedy, it calls to mind why contemporary audiences aren’t particularly fond of or familiar with the ancient-school shtick of some recondite curse invoked to explain how and why everything goes wrong. There’s a very good reason the Deux et machina act doesn’t resonate with folks these days. Or, the abiding genius of Shakespeare involves his ability to delineate the human element informing the big unraveling.

And if all this makes me sound like a prudish traditionalist, I would suggest that the film’s entire structure is slickly super-glued to resist critique: the person offering the criticism is simply not in on the joke; they don’t get it. And I’ll eagerly stand up and be counted as being all for any endeavor mocking the platitudes and sadism masquerading as morality that organized religion so often makes a killing (often literally) from. Pointing out, as the film does, the obtusity of the clerics and their incompetence in dealing with virtually any sort of human dilemma is something to be celebrated. Ditto the Coen brothers’ obvious disdain for lawyers: don’t hope for comfort or expertise from these dissembling shmucks. On these points, I’m picking up what they’re putting down.

Listen: I ain’t offended by misanthropy; I can handle the truth. And if The Truth is that the Coens loathe humanity, or the world, whatever. More power to them, but I felt the same way I do when I watch virtually every Woody Allen movie: please, for your sake, I hope you are in actuality a very happy person and merely a miserable artist. In the final analysis, it’s not the filmmakers’ view of the world I find offensive (or facile); it’s their hostility toward artistic engagement. What they successfully create in almost every film (except the great ones) is a bleak cinemascape that leaves a certain demographic (likely the same ones who worship Woody Allen movies) feeling smug and superior, and a clique of not-quite-as-intelligent-as-they-think-they-are critics rolling over and panting for more stale scraps.

The big punch line is more like a punch in the nuts. When the inscrutable rabbi finally speaks, his quote (bringing it all full circle!) of Jefferson Airplane is…can I get an Oy, man? And from an editorial standpoint, simply quoting the lyrics would have been tolerable, barely. But the too-cute-by-two-thirds naming of each individual band member is both unbelievable and profoundly unamusing. It is an archetypal bad Coen Brothers moment: one feels the intrustion of their arrogance, their self-love surpassing their other people-hate. At long last, one grows tired of the types of movies made by grown men who ultimately love nothing quite so much as the smell of their own farts.

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