“Crummy Stuff” – The Ramones

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“Crummy Stuff” sums up my sentiments these days about all kinds of “crummy stuff.” At age 43, there’s too many great movies I haven’t seen yet, too much great music I haven’t heard yet, too much great food I haven’t tried yet, good friends I haven’t talked to in a long time, terrific people I haven’t allowed myself to get to know better, and wonderful places I haven’t been to yet.

Seriously, why settle for McDonald’s, Katherine Heigl movies, or a–holes when the sublime is literally at your fingertips, two miles, a half-gallon of gas, a phone call, or email away? Enough with that “crummy stuff” already!  Time to bring on the stuff that makes life worth living.

“Poison Heart” – The Ramones

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From 1992’s “Mondo Bizarro,” comes one of the finest Ramones songs ever recorded. “Poison Heart” is a wonderfully mature song, both lyrically and musically. As much as I love the 1-2-3-4, three-chord, “30 songs in less than 60 minutes” style the Ramones are most famous for, they really excelled at longer, slower, more thoughtful material.

Written by Dee Dee Ramone after he left the band, the rights to this song were allegedly sold to the Ramones after they helped bail him out of jail. Dee Dee was a terrific (and underrated) songwriter. I’m sorry his own personal demons got the better of him. He had a lot of talent and had a lot more to give.

“Raging Bull” (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While I would argue that “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas” earn that distinction more, “Bull” is a great film and genuine cinema classic. On its surface, “Bull” is a biopic about former middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. However, it’s also a biopic of Scorsese himself.

Where this story really begins is in 1976. After the critical and popular success of his film “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese directed an ambitious big-budget musical called “New York, New York,” which was released in the summer of 1977. The film did not fare well with critics or with the public, who flocked to a little film called “Star Wars” instead. Scorsese had his first flop and his drug intake grew increasingly worse. While he kept busy making two documentaries (“The Last Waltz” and “American Prince”), his personal life grew more dark and chaotic.

From Peter Biskind’s fantastic book about 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: “Scorsese knew he was acting badly, driving people away from him, but he couldn’t help it. He says, ‘I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anyone said, something to take offense at. I’d be the host, but at some point during the evening, I’d flip out, just like when I’m shooting.'”

Robert DeNiro really wanted to make “Raging Bull” and Scorsese half-heartedly agreed to direct it, more as a favor to his longtime friend and collaborator. However, he couldn’t find the hook that made him really want to make it. Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Mardik Martin started a screenplay, but Scorsese was no longer listening to Martin’s suggestions and wanted Martin to add a lot of things to the script that had nothing to do with the story. When Scorsese suggested having Paul Schrader (the writer of “Taxi Driver”) come in for a polish, Martin seemed relieved to finally be done with it.

Schrader grudgingly agreed to work on the script, but advised that the script needed a rewrite, not a polish. Schrader had trouble adding depth to a character who he saw as a Neanderthal. Schrader and DeNiro pushed each other in terms of how unpleasant a character could be and have people still care about him. Schrader added a lot of raw, powerful scenes … some of which made it into the final film.

It was at that point that Scorsese got hold of some bad cocaine, which made him cough up blood and black out. He eventually started bleeding out of every part of his body and went to the hospital. He was told he had no platelets, that he was bleeding internally everywhere. The doctor made him stop all drugs and pumped him full of cortisone. Scorsese was in the hospital several days recovering. At that stage, Scorsese had dropped to 109 pounds. Eventually, he got better, but his doctor told him that he would die if he did not change his lifestyle. It was at that stage that Scorsese finally found the hook for “Bull” … the self-destructiveness, the emotional damage to his friends and family for no other reason that some sick desire to bottom out. He realized he was LaMotta.

Scorsese got clean and directed “Bull.” The film did well with critics and at many of the year-end awards (DeNiro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta), but did only so-so at the box office. The film was just too brutal and depressing for most people, and still is. “Bull” is not exactly a film you want to watch after a hard day at work. But it is one hell of a film and keeps growing in esteem over the years. It is roundly considered the best film of the 1980s and many consider it one of the best films ever made.

The attached clip is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s where LaMotta challenges his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face repeatedly and it’s a clear illustration of the depths LaMotta’s self-destructiveness can sink. The scene has elements of dark humor, but it’s incredibly disturbing and depressing at its core. Due to some very rough and beyond politically incorrect language and violence, the scene is absolutely not safe for work or little ones.

“Reliving Groundhog Day” by James Parker (from the March 2013 edition of “The Atlantic”)

I could either try to write about the brilliant 1993 film “Groundhog Day” (and am fairly certain it will come up lacking) … or just let you read this essay by James Parker from this month’s Atlantic Monthly which smartly and succinctly sums up why this film delivers some incredibly deep and complex philosophical concepts in a wonderfully entertaining and sweet package. As Parker says about the lead character Phil, played by Bill Murray: “He learns contentment, and he learns forgiveness, and he learns kindness. He sits in the Punxsutawney diner, happily reading—but he’s not just reading, he’s radiating Buddha-nature. It’s all expressed in the trajectory of his relationship with Rita. He wants her, he tries to seduce her—first with meanness, then by fraud, then with recitations of French poetry and engineered perfect moments. It is only when he gives up, when he accepts the blessing of her company, free from desire—at which point she, too, magically becomes a far more interesting character—that she is delivered into his arms.” That’s as brilliant an evocation of love that I’ve read in a long time.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/reliving-groundhog-day/309223/

“Someone I Care About” – The Modern Lovers

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Jonathan Richman and his band the Modern Lovers were a real anomaly in the early 1970s. Like many singer-songwriters of the era, Richman wrote very sensitive lyrics that wore his heart on his sleeve. But those lyrics were backed with some uncommonly abrasive music for the period (supplied by future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison and future Cars member David Robinson). In addition, Richman’s songs decried drugs and promiscuity at a time when no one had even thought of the term “straight edge,” let alone thought it was cool. When you add his unfashionably short hair and nasally vocals into the mix, he seemed like the guy who was begging for noogies and wedgies.

But despite his “uncool for the time” demeanor, Richman was as ballsy as Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (two artists Richman admired) and like Pop and Reed, seemed to invite abuse by his mere presence. “Someone I Care About” is Richman’s declaration about wanting a girl that he cares about, or he wants nothing at all. A marked contrast to many bands of the era promising to give women every inch of their love or wanting their women hot, sweet, and sticky. Richman may not be cool in the classic rock sense, but the perspective is refreshing and a lot more sane.  Produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground.

“Natural’s Not In It” – Gang of Four

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Abrasive punk-funk (English Marxist variety) from the late 1970s. Sounds a lot like the early Cure, only with heavier bass and drums. I’m not sure if one band copied the other or if both bands were riding the same musical wavelength (their debuts came out around the same time). From the Gang of Four’s classic album “Entertainment!”

“Natural’s Not In It” made an appearance on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” in 2006. However, its most notorious recent appearance was on a Microsoft Xbox Kinect commercial. A lot of people harrumphed over an extremely left-wing and anti-Capitalist Gang of Four song being used to sell a product. The band allegedly defended themselves by saying they were making a statement, acknowledging their own complicity in the Capitalist machine … or something like that.  Whatever.  I believe a band has a right to do whatever it wants to with its music.  However, when you choose to make strong statements, you have to acknowledge you’re going to get some grief if you do something that seems to be perpendicular to what you originally proclaimed.

“Keep Me in Your Heart” – Warren Zevon

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Zevon’s last song from his final album “The Wind.” Recorded when he was terminally ill with cancer, “Keep Me in Your Heart” was a nice way to say “Goodbye,” especially for an artist who wrote some extremely dark and cynical songs. This footage is from a documentary about the recording of Zevon’s final album. You’ll notice a lot of famous friends making appearances (Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Don Henley).

“Frank and Jesse James” – Warren Zevon

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The first track from Zevon’s stunning self-titled album from 1976, produced by Jackson Browne.  Roy Orbison allegedly was going to cover the song at some point in the 1970s. The opening piano melody is also repeated during the album’s last song “Desperados Under the Eaves,” a nice way to bring continuity to a brilliant song cycle about people living desperate lives.

The ending of “The Last American Virgin” (1982) dir. Boaz Davidson

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“The Last American Virgin” was Cannon Studio’s attempt to cash in on the monster success of “Porky’s” which came out in the Spring of 1982. Despite a few amusing moments, the film isn’t particularly good or memorable … except for the ending. The ending is what most people remember about the film and it’s what made the film a standout. If you don’t like spoilers or have the intent to see the movie, stop reading.

Among lots of de rigueur crude shenanigans, there is a main story. The lead character Gary has a crush on Karen, who subsequently hooks up with his friend Rick. Rick gets her pregnant and then dumps her. Gary sells all of his possessions and even borrows money from his boss to help her pay for an abortion. He expresses his love for her and she invites him to her birthday party. He buys her a locket and then arrives at the birthday party … to discover that Karen is back in Rick’s arms. As James Ingram’s “Just Once” plays (“I did my best … but I guess my best wasn’t good enough”), Gary leaves the party, quietly crying while driving away. End credits roll.

OK, this plot is not the most original ever written, but for a generation who watched this on cable or on VHS at an impressionable age, it was a major buzzkill of an ending (for an otherwise lighthearted film) and lingers to this day as one of those moments where you hang your head and quietly say “Damn.”

What many people don’t know is that “Virgin” is an American remake of a 1978 Israeli film called “Eskimo Limon” (aka”Lemon Popsicle”), which was also written and directed by “Virgin” director Davidson.  “Limon” has the exact same plot as “Virgin,” but takes place in Israel during the 1950s and has a killer 1950s soundtrack.  “Limon” was a huge box office hit in Israel and did well in Europe and Japan.  It was also nominated for Best Foreign Film at that year’s Golden Globe awards (it lost to Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata”).  It also features an early performance by Johnathan Sagall, who went to act as Poldek Pfefferberg in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”  “Limon” is available on Netflix Instant (though, I believe it’s listed as “Lemon Popsicle”) and the English dubbed version has been posted in its entirety on YouTube if you’re feeling particularly ambitious.

“Punk Rock Girl” – The Dead Milkmen

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Probably the closest thing to a hit that Philly’s The Dead Milkmen ever had, 1989’s “Punk Rock Girl” is one of those songs that seems to have been created with the Dr. Demento show in mind. However, despite the self-conscious “wackiness,” it’s still a lot of fun even almost (gulp!) 25 years later.  Gotta love those Philly accents that ooze through every pore of this song like Cheez Whiz on an authentic cheese steak.