“Just a Friend” – David Byrne

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David Byrne performs a clumsy and endearing impromptu cover of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” I have to say … it’s almost as clumsy and endearing as the original.

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“I Hear You Knocking” – Smiley Lewis

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According to Tony Russell’s book “The Blues – From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray,” Lewis was described as “the unluckiest man in New Orleans. He hit on a formula for slow-rocking, small-band numbers like ‘The Bells Are Ringing’ and ‘I Hear You Knocking’ only to have Fats Domino come up behind him with similar music more ingratiatingly delivered. Lewis was practically drowned in Domino’s backwash.” Ouch! I don’t want to dump on Domino, because I love his music dearly, but it’s a shame Lewis is not as famous.

To add insult to injury, Dave Edmunds’s 1970 cover of Lewis’s “I Hear You Knocking” is better known than the original. While the Edmunds song is justifiably considered a classic, Lewis’s original is so damn good. It’s a slightly edgier version of Domino’s New Orleans R&B and the song should be a staple on Oldies stations, but sadly isn’t. Raise a glass of fine bourbon in Lewis’s honor.

“The Rocker” – Thin Lizzy

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From 1973’s “Vagabonds of the Western World,” here’s one of Thin Lizzy’s best songs: “The Rocker.” Thin Lizzy is one of those bands I’ve grown increasingly fond of over the years. They’re a terrific, unpretentious hard rock band with soul. In America, I think they’re ridiculously underrated and aside from “The Boys are Back in Town,” “Jailbreak,” and maybe “Whiskey in the Jar,” you’d never know they’d ever recorded anything else.

“The Rocker” is a great balls-out 70s hard rock song. While it failed to chart in the US and Britain, it did get as high as #11 in Ireland. The extended guitar solo by Eric Bell on this song is one of the sickest solos in rock history. The song appeared last year in the critically acclaimed-Ron Howard film “Rush.”

“Clones (We’re All)” – Alice Cooper

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Since the rise of punk / New Wave in the late 1970s made little commercial impact in the United States, most rock stars of the era just shrugged their shoulders and kept pumping out the same formulaic rock that got radio airplay and sold records. However, there were a few that attempted to understand the music and put their own spin on the new genre. Peter Gabriel is arguably the most commercially successful of these classic rock artists who dipped their toe into the New Wave pool. Alice Cooper? Not so much, but this is not due to the fact that the music was lacking.

Alice Cooper’s New Wave attempt from 1980, “Clones (We’re All),” from his “Flush the Fashion” album, is actually very good … not that far removed from Gary Numan or Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third album released that same year. “Clones” actually scraped into the Top 40 back then, but is pretty much forgotten these days. Some truly progressive 80s or New Wave radio programmer should seriously consider dropping this into their station mix.

“GG Allin – Son of Evil” by Dan Moxham

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When my wife opened the package from Amazon.com and noticed this book, she barely … but distincntly … raised an eyebrow and said … in that smart-ass way I’ve grown to dread and love … “Oh .. what a ‘wonderful’ purchase you made.” My wife forgets that GG Allin, the notorious poop-eating self-mutilator from New Hampshire played a pivotal role in an internship she had prior to when we got married. You see, I had a videocassette of one of GG’s legendary “performances” that magically shot out of a toilet somewhere … sanitized, by the way … and landed mysteriously in my VHS collection (I swear). Anyway, when the mentor in charge of my then fiance’s internship learned I had a videotape of GG’s shenanigans, he desperately begged to see it. I loaned him my tape … for educational purposes … and my wife got high marks on her internship. Granted, much of that was due to my wife’s talent, but I imagine some of that had to do with the madman from New Hampshire.

But I must start at an earlier date. Let’s start 29 years ago in the year 1985.  I was reading the punk zine “Maximum Rock N’ Roll” and there was a letter in the letters section that caught my eye.  It was from a performer who called himself “GG Allin” who bragged about pooping on stage and eating said poop, in addition to beating the snot out of audience members and causing other mayhem to himself and others.  Being all of 15-years old, I laughed hysterically.  In fact, I hadn’t laughed this hard since I read a synopsis of the John Waters’ film “Pink Flamingos” three years earlier in Danny Peary’s seminal alt-cinema book “Cult Movies.”  Here … I thought … was a real-life version of a John Waters-film character. 

I kept tabs on GG over the years, eventually scoring a bootleg cassette my first semester of college in 1988 of a live performance GG did from Texas in 1985 when he performed with a band called “The Texas Nazis.”  The quality of the tape was terrible, but while I heard GG perform many “songs,” the highlight was GG baiting the audience with violent sexual taunts and threatening to throw his poop on them. This odd cassette, which also contained some answering machine messages for GG, as well as some tracks from Nico’s first solo album “Chelsea Girls,” was a prized selection in my tape library during my college years.

During this time, GG threatened to commit suicide live on stage … and to take some audience members with him, but always seemed to find himself in jail when said moment arrived. While I don’t doubt his sincerity in his mission, the execution of his plan always seemed to be hindered by his drug abuse and penchant for always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Which of course, led to his death by drug overdose in 1993.

Dan Moxham’s book “GG Allin – Son of Evil” may not be the definitive biography GG fans have been waiting for, but it is a worthy document nonetheless. The book is not a straight biography, per se, but it is a chronicle of GG’s misadventures over the years, along with song lyrics, rants, and poetry. It’s more of a compilation than straight biography. But considering the fact that no major publisher … or even minor publisher of note … is announcing any GG biography in the near future, Moxham’s book will have to do. Trust me, there’s more than enough bile to send shivers up the most jaded masochist’s spine. And credit is due to Moxham putting pen to ink to memorialize the most notorious rock and roll performer of all-time. As much as I admire Marilyn Manson, he doesn’t even come close.

“The War for Late Night” by Bill Carter

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With all the hubbub this week re: Jimmy Fallon finally ascending to the role of “Tonight Show” host on NBC, I read Bill Carter’s 2010 chronicle of the last disastrous “Tonight Show” host transition, “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.”  In my mind, it’s the equal of Carter’s earlier book about the late night wars “The Late Shift,” and one of the best books about show business ever written … with an emphasis on “the business” part of that phrase.  It’s a great primer on why “win-win” solutions that look good on paper oftentimes result in disaster.  And it’s the perfect illustration of that old cliche: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Let’s go down memory lane to the early 2000s… and forgive me if I’m skipping over several key events because I don’t want this to sidetrack my main point:  Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” was at the top of the ratings for late night talk shows.  However, Conan O’Brien, who hosted the show that came on after the “Tonight Show” (“Late Night”), was scoring bigger ratings among younger viewers, the most prized demographic for advertisers.  It’s the reason why the “Red Skelton Hour” (a Top 10 show) was dropped by CBS in the early 1970s, because the audiences were not the type that brought in big advertising dollars.   Other networks noticed Conan’s appeal among younger viewers  and offered him as much as $20 million a year to leave NBC.  As a result, NBC was desperate to keep Conan. 

At the time, NBC wasn’t about to pay that kind of money to keep Conan (Jay still earned less than $20 million per year), but they had a huge ace up their sleeve:  Conan’s dream of hosting the “Tonight Show” one day.  They did not match what other networks were offering Conan dollar-wise, but agreed to give Conan the “Tonight Show” in 2009, in order to extend his stay at “Late Night” further … with a huge financial penalty (approximately $45 million)  if NBC reneged.  Conan readily agreed.   First problem solved.

Second problem?  What to do about Jay.  Jay was not only scoring the highest ratings in late night, but he genuinely loved his job hosting the “Tonight Show” and most importantly, was in no hurry to leave.  Like Conan, Leno could have made a lot more money going elsewhere (David Letterman’s salary was substantially higher on CBS), but stayed on as the “Tonight Show” host because of his genuine love for the prestige such a gig had.  They told Leno they would extend his contract, but with the agreement in 2009 that he would step down.  The decision hit Jay like a sledgehammer to the gut.  He warily agreed, but started making his resentment clear by making sharp remarks about the situation in his “Tonight Show” monologues and started negotiating behind the scenes to go to another network.

The suits at NBC panicked.  While they wanted to keep Conan, they didn’t want to lose Jay to another network and have Jay potentially come out on top elsewhere.  Their solution?  To give Jay a 10:00 pm show where he could still do his monologue and other comedy bits, but Conan could keep the “Tonight Show.”  Since NBC was in the ratings cellar, moving Jay to 10:00 pm five nights a week, even with paying him more money per year, was substantially cheaper than developing and producing five new dramatic shows.  Plus, since Jay’s audience was skewing older, it made sense at the time to put him in prime time.  The solution first struck both Jay and Conan as unorthodox, but they agreed.   The decision was announced with much fanfare and the NBC suits appeared to be geniuses, averting the ugliness that prevailed in 1993 during the prior “Tonight Show” transition between Johnny Carson and Jay.  Ah … but reality has a funny way of spoiling the best laid plans.

The reality?  Jay’s show bombed at 10:00 pm.  While Jay’s new show was not that radically different than his old “Tonight Show,” it became clear that what works in one time slot may not work well in another. Affiliates were up in arms over the low ratings and threatened to yank the show off their stations.  Conan, on the other hand, was doing merely OK on the “Tonight Show.”  While he was still pulling in the more prized demographic, he was losing in overall viewership to Letterman’s show, which was on top for the first time in several years.  The suits proposed moving Jay’s show to 11:35 pm and moving Conan’s show to 12:05 am.  Jay agreed, but Conan balked.  Yes, Conan would still technically be hosting “Tonight Show,” but it would be on at 12:05 am … rendering the title “Tonight Show” technically meaningless and in Conan’s mind, diminishing the prestige and history of the long-time late night show.

I should point out the fatal flaw Conan’s team made in signing their contract.  While Conan was specifically given the “Tonight Show” in his contract, there was no time-slot protection, a major clause in all major late night host’s contracts.  Which means that NBC could technically stick the “Tonight Show” almost anywhere in the schedule and they would still be in compliance of their contract.  Conan was not pleased with things, but was still mulling things over when NBC made a fatal mistake.  Desperate to get Conan’s thumbs-up before an affiliate’s meeting, NBC head Jeffrey Zucker started playing hardball with Conan’s team. That, plus the fact that Conan’s team was literally the last to know about these plans (even Jimmy Fallon, who took over “Late Night” after Conan went to the “Tonight Show,” knew of this plan before Conan did), finally, in Conan’s words, cured him of his “Tonight Show” addiction.

As we all know, things got extremely ugly amongst all parties involved.  Jay’s fans wondered why Conan would be making such a big deal about doing his show 30 minutes later.  Conan’s fans painted Jay as the Baby Boomer who stayed too long at the party and refused to get off the stage.  And remembering the Machiavellian way Jay … or his management team at the time … beat Letterman for the “Tonight Show” gig in 1993 indicated this was another example of Jay’s treachery.   Conan’s side definitely got the most favorable press at the time and for good reason: Conan was treated abysmally in this situation by NBC and Conan did have a good point about the new plan diminishing the legacy and history of the “Tonight Show.” But objectively, Jay was not the bad guy in this situation either.  As Jay indicated, there was another side to this story: the older guy who’s doing well in his job, but is asked to step aside by the bosses at the top to make way for someone younger.   Jay’s grumblings about going elsewhere during the “lame duck” period between 2005 and 2009 is perfectly understandable.  And NBC trying to find a solution to keep Jay in the fold does make sense, especially since Jay could have potentially done very well going elsewhere.

To be fair to the much maligned Zucker, the initial solution to keep Jay on NBC by giving him a 10:00 pm show was not hastily decided.  The decision did make a lot of sense based on the research they conducted and the network’s financial realities.   And, had both Jay’s and Conan’s shows had more time to work out their bugs and get into a groove, there’s a possibility both shows may eventually would have survived and thrived.   But affiliates were losing viewers and money, and their threatened boycott did not allow enough time for this to happen.

As we all know, a solution was worked out between all parties, but resulted in a lot of bad feelings.  Carter’s account of this debacle  (which includes many other fascinating subplots and characters) is a terrific examination of how pleasing everyone oftentimes leads to pleasing no one. 

 

“Clouds” … aka “Both Sides Now” – Hole

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Hole’s pulverising Velvet Underground-style cover of Joni Mitchell’s most famous song. From Hole’s 1991 debut album “Pretty on the Inside,” this will probably piss off a lot of fans of the original. I don’t think it approaches Judy Collins’s very famous cover version from 1968 (one of my Top 10 favorite songs of all time), but I have to give it up to Courtney and company for their original interpretation here.

“Strutter” – KISS

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I don’t have much to say about this, other than the fact this is my all-time favorite KISS song. Some people love “Rock & Roll All Nite.” Some people groove on “Detroit Rock City.” Some people love “Beth,” one of the first power ballads. All of these are respectable choices. But in my mind, “Strutter,” the first song off their eponymous debut album in 1973 is one of the best Side 1 Track 1’s in rock history. It’s the one KISS song that never ceases to put a smile on my face and involuntarily puts my fist in the air and head bobbing in admiration.

“Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies” by Dave Itzkoff

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Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” a brutally funny and depressing view about American television, is one of the most highly acclaimed (and sadly prescient) satirical films ever made.  Scripted by Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it was critically lauded and was also a decent-size box-office hit, a rarity for a satirical film.

Dave Itzkoff’s superlative account of the making of “Network” and its influence on modern news / broadcasting is a wonderfully entertaining read and is recommended for anyone who has an interest in comedy, 1970s Hollywood, broadcast journalism, and Chayefsky.   Itzkoff not only paints detailed backgrounds of all the principals involved, but also quotes many of the actors who had minor but pivotal roles in the film.  Itzkoff’s last chapter deals with the influence of “Network” among broadcast journalists, including some (Glenn Beck, allegedly a huge fan) who seem to have missed the point of the film entirely.

My own feelings about the film are positive, but a little mixed.  In the plus column are the acting performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and several others.  Also in the plus column is Lumet’s realistic, almost deadpan direction which is the appropriate tone for a movie that gets increasingly outrageous.  And yes, Chayefsky’s script is very good and is justly famous as one of the greatest scripts of all-time.  Chayefsky’s hellish vision of television news devolving into cheap entertainment seemed outrageous in 1976, but is nowhere near as ridiculous as what passes for “news” these days.

However, the problem is also … Chayefsky’s vision.  The film’s strident tone, the shrill manner in which the dialogue is often delivered, and the endless harangues and speeches really grate on the nerves.  Unlike most films, this can’t all be blamed on the director (Lumet), since Chayefsky was the one who insisted on complete creative control (probably one of the only writers who had this much autonomy over what they wrote).  Whatever you don’t like about Spike Lee or Aaron Sorkin (who always deliver their points with a sledgehammer) can be traced directly back to Chayefsky’s script for “Network.”  The most grating character is, ironically, the one who is supposed the be the voice of reason, William Holden’s Max Schumacher.  While I agree with some of the sentiments of what he has to say, the tone comes off as unbearably smug.   I don’t know how much of that is due to the way Holden interpreted the character or what he’s been given to say.  Either way, in the second half of “Network,” Schumacher comes off as pompous and self-righteous and it leaves a bad taste.   I realize I shouldn’t be showing this scene out of the context of the film (I urge you to see it in full and make up your own mind), but it’s the clearest example I can find for why this film doesn’t sit well with me, even thought I admire it very much.

“The World According to Garp” (1982) dir. George Roy Hill

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One of the first “adult” movies I ever watched was “The World According to Garp” during the summer of 1982. Based on the best-selling novel by John Irving, “Garp” was the tale of T.S. Garp, a writer coming to terms with his own talent as a writer in the shadow of a more famous parent and as a man trying to reconcile his own manhood during a tumultuous time of gender politics (his mother being a very famous feminist writer).

This was an important film in my artistic makeup. Like Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties,” it’s one of those rare films that mix comedy and tragedy in a completely non-cheesy or schmaltzy mix. Even at 12 years of age, the ending left me completely shattered … as it still does today.

This was the first “dramatic” performance Robin Williams was credited with and in my mind, he was completely underrated. There is one part of the film where he degenerates into the Robin Williams-schtick people know and don’t love anymore, but overall, he deserved an Oscar nod for “Garp,” playing the straight man in a world of lunatics, freaks, and “true believers.” John Lithgow and Glenn Close (in their breakout performances) got their Oscar nods and they were richly deserved.

For a major studio film, this is pretty ballsy material and deserved more attention and acclaim than it received at the time. Over 32 years later, the film … and the performances … hold up very damn well. An underrated American classic.