WEIRDLAND: April 2019

Monday, April 29, 2019

List of Best Noir Films: #8 Nightmare Alley

 #8. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)
Once described as the greatest noir movie not made by arch cynic Billy Wilder, Tyrone Power gives his finest performance as the fairground hustler who works his way into society by fair means and foul, including murder. But Power’s fall is every bit as precipitous as his rise as he ends up back in the fairground as the carnival geek in this unforgettable and disturbing movie. #1 of the list is Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder. Source:

The film's ending is not an egregious betrayal of the novel. In Gresham's last scene, Stan is forced to sell himself with a childlike politeness we haven't seen before, and is offered the geek job at the carny. In the film Stan's face is distorted by alcoholism, his eyes ringed and droopy, the pupils swimming in soup. The film's coda, in which he goes on a rampage and discovers that Molly has been hired on to the same carnival and is going to save him, is happy only to the degree that we believe he can take a cure for drink and safely hide out from the industrialist he bamboozled. Gresham paints the opening scene in the novel: “The ‘marks’ surged in—It was like a kaleidoscope—the design always changing, the particles always the same.”

The script improves on the novel in one aspect, enhancing the role of shifty psychologist Lilith (played by an ominously still and half-smiling Helen Walker) as a skeptical member of Stan's nightclub audience, rather than the shrink he sees to cure his dreams of running down a nightmare alley. On the other hand, the filmmakers could not resist adding an up-to-date technological wrinkle - a home device for recording transcription discs, which Lilith uses to blackmail Stan. The fascination of "Nightmare Alley" does not reside in logic but in qualities beyond the powers of a novelist: the expressive chiaroscuro of the lighting - even Lilith's office is a model of German expressionism, with inexplicable bar-like shadows turning the walls into a cage - and Power's vanity-free dissection of Stan in the final scenes. This picture turns conventional Hollywood starlight upside down and inside out. If he hadn't died so young, Power might have had the chance to tell Zanuck, "I told you so."  Source:

Daryl Zanuck instructed screenwriter Jules Furthman to create a new ending for Nightmare Alley, believing the original version would be too cynical for audiences to take. As a result, instead of having Stan end up alone and destined to work as a carnival geek for the rest of his life or even looking for an early death (as Gersham had originally written), Furthman concluded his screenplay on a redemptive note, with Molly holding Stan in her arms, reassuring him of her love and his future.

For the role of the unscrupulous society psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter, a character Gersham created while undergoing psychotherapy, Zanuck considered casting Luise Rainer or Constance Bennett, before ultimately deciding on the much younger Helen Walker. Nightmare Alley was also a big departure for the 27-year-old actress, who had earned a solid reputation as a commediene since making her film debut in Frank Tuttle's Lucky Jordan (1942), but she found Lilith to be just the kind of "grown-up" role that she had longed for earlier in her career. Lilith uses psychoanalytic tricks of the trade to manipulate Carlisle, preying on his lack of confidence and issues about his mother abandoning him as a child.

In Time magazine (November 24, 1947), film critic James Agee wrote: Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching. Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. The lady psychiatrist that Walker plays is as cold-blooded as Stanton, and has one advantage: No inner geek. No weakness. 

In a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what's been real and what's been a con, not knowing if he's losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what's truth and what's lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan's position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling betrayed. Despite its initial box office flop, Nightmare Alley is now regarded as "one of the gems of film noir," according to Stephanie Zacharek in Turner Classic Movies (December 2, 2015.) Source:

Saturday, April 27, 2019

West Side Story (2020) by Spielberg starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler

West Side Story (2020) has found its leading man and created a brand new role for original cast member Rita Moreno, so count us as officially excited for Steven Spielberg's forthcoming adaptation of the Broadway classic musical of 1957. West Side Story (1961) directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, explored forbidden love, and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

Ansel Elgort is the lucky actor who's been cast to portray Tony in the Manhattan-set musical. The 24-year-old actor previously received critical acclaim for his role in 2017's Baby Driver, but this will be his biggest role to date by far. As for Moreno, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing Anita in the original 1961 film, she'll appear as Valentina, who is a "reconceived and expanded version of the character of Doc, the owner of the corner store in which Tony works." Ned Glass played Doc opposite Moreno in the first film, so it will be interesting to see how she changes the character, especially since Moreno will also be listed as a producer on the film.

In the original West Side Story (that won 10 Academy Awards), Tony and Maria are the protagonists of the tragic love story modeled after Romeo and Juliet. Tony is a former member of the American gang the Jets, which rivals the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. Maria's older brother is the leader of the Sharks, and thus enters the story's central dilemma. Tony was first portrayed by Larry Kert in the original 1957 musical and later by Richard Beymer in the 1961 film.

Rachel Zegler, a Colombian-American actress, soon will prepare to play Maria in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of 'West Side Story'. Though Natalie Wood is famous for her impassioned portrayal of the star-crossed lover in the screen adaptation, the casting choice has since been met with criticism given that Wood was not Puerto Rican.  Source:

In Billionaire Boys Club (2018), a slick Ansel Elgort plays Joe Hunt, the youthful L.A. investment firm honcho who racked up countless wealthy clients in a high-stakes Ponzi scheme before it all came crashing down; Taron Egerton is Hunt’s business partner, Dean Karny, who narrates the story. In the opening shot, Elgort sits smugly behind a pair of dark sunglasses as Egerton announces a credo in voiceover: “Fuck money. Being rich is about respect.” The fetishization of wealth yielding power has been a cinematic trope from “Wall Street” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but “Billionaire Boys Club” turns it into a routine. 

Played with dopey naiveté by Ansel Elgort (who previously co-starred with Spacey in “Baby Driver”), Hunt is presented here as a well-meaning victim of class circumstances, seduced into betraying a bunch of born suckers by the glitzy allure of their Beverly Hills lifestyles. The movie goes far out of its way to suggest that Hunt wasn’t such a bad guy, joining “Gotti” in the category of loathsome apologias for convicted creeps. But the irony of the film’s inevitable failure is that Spacey — who delivers one of his great egomaniacal scenery-chewing performances — took the risk of playing a character dangerously close to his off-screen persona at roughly the same moment those similarities were revealed to the world, making it doubly uncomfortable to watch the actor leer at the ensemble of handsome Ken-doll dudes the movie parades in front of him.  “Because the perception of reality is more important than reality itself,” Spacey explains at one point, all but daring to overlook the hairpiece that transforms him into Hollywood player Ron Levin. Source:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Nightmare Alley (1947), Remake by Guillermo del Toro with Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio and Guillermo del Toro are nearing a collaboration on “Nightmare Alley,” the director’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. Del Toro is developing “Nightmare Alley” at Fox Searchlight, the studio that handled the production and distribution of his Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water.” As first reported by Variety, DiCaprio has entered final negotiations to star in the lead role of mentalist and con artist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle. Tyrone Power played the character in the 1947 film adaptation, directed by Edmund Goulding and released by 20th Century Fox. Del Toro stepped back from filmmaking after “The Shape of Water” won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is now his second feature directorial effort in development following his stop-motion passion project “Pinocchio,” which has taken up shop at Netflix. Source:

William Lindsay Gresham (author of Nightmare Alley) was born in Baltimore on August 20, 1909. His family moved briefly to Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1916, then to New York City, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1926. Gresham’s was a tortured mind and a tormented life, and he sought to banish his demons through a maze of dead-end ways, from Marxism to psychoanalysis to Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous. He was also an early enthusiast of Scientology but later denounced the religion as another kind of spook racket. From these demons came his novel Nightmare Alley (1946), one of the underground classics of American literature. He wrote one more novel, Limbo Tower (1949), which went largely unnoticed. Three nonfiction books followed: Monster Midway (1953), Houdini (1959), and The Book of Strength (1961). Nightmare Alley brought Gresham fame and fortune, but he lost it all. The second of his three wives, the poet Joy Davidman, left him in 1953 for the British author C. S. Lewis. William L. Gresham killed himself in New York City on September 14, 1962.

“I’m a hustler, God damn it. Do you understand that, you frozen-faced witch? Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough. If you don’t have it you’re the end man on the daisy chain. I’m going to get it if I have to bust every bone in my head doing it. I’m going to milk it out of those chumps and take them for the gold in their teeth before I’m through. You don’t dare yell copper on me because if you spilled anything about me all your other Johns would get the wind up their necks. You’ve got enough stuff in that bastard tin file cabinet to blow ’em all up. I know what you’ve got in there—society dames with the clap, bankers who take it up the ass, actresses that live on hop, people with idiot kids. You’ve got it all down. If I had that stuff I’d give ’em cold readings that would have ’em crawling on their knees to me. And you sit there out of this world with that dead-pan face and listen to the chumps puking their guts out day after day for peanuts. If I knew that much I’d stop when I’d made a million bucks and not a minute sooner. You’re a chump too, blondie. They’re all Johns. They’re asking for it. Well, I’m here to give it out.”

“I’ve been shouted at before, Mr. Carlisle. But you don’t really know any gangsters. You’d be afraid of them. Just as you’re afraid of me. You’re full of rage, aren’t you? You feel you hate me, don’t you? You’d like to come off that couch and strike me, wouldn’t you?—but you can’t. You’re quite helpless with me. I’m one person you can’t outguess. You can’t fool me with cheesecloth ghosts; you can’t impress me with fake yoga. You’re just as helpless with me as you felt seeing your mother run away with another man when you wanted to go with her. I think you went with her. You ran away, didn’t you? You went into show business, didn’t you? And when you start your act you run your hands over your hair, just like Humphries. He was a big, strong, attractive man, Humphries. I think you have become Humphries —in your mind.” 

The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single, lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again. The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind and punished him with a chilling wave of cold reproof. It would let him writhe in helpless misery and then, just before the breaking point, would send the warm current through to jerk him back to life and drag him, tumbling over and over through space, to the height of a snow mountain where he could see all the plains of the earth, spread out before him, and all the power of the cities and the ways of men. All were his, could be his, would be his, unless the golden thread broke and sent him roaring into the dark chasm of fear again. The wind had grown colder; they stood up. He lit cigarettes and gave her one and they passed on, circling the obelisk, walking slowly past the blank, unfinished wall of the Museum’s back, along the edge of the park where the busses trailed their lonely lights away uptown.

He took her hand in his and slid it into the pocket of his topcoat, and for a moment, as they walked, it was warm and a little moist, almost yielding, almost, to the mind’s tongue, sweet-salty, yielding, musky; then in an instant it changed, it chilled, it became the hand of a dead woman in his pocket, as cold as the hand he once molded of rubber and stretched on the end of his reaching rod, icy from a rubber sack of cracked ice in his pocket, straight into the face of a believer’s skeptical husband. Now the loneliness grew inside him, like a cancer, like a worm of a thousand branches, running down his nerves, creeping under his scalp, tying two arms together and squeezing his brain in a noose, pushing into his loins and twisting them until they ached with need and not-having, with wanting and not-daring, with thrust into air, with hand-gripping futility—orgasm and swift-flooding shame, hostile in its own right, ashamed of shame. 

“We come like a breath of wind over the fields of morning. We go like a lamp flame caught by a blast from a darkened window. In between we journey from table to table, from bottle to bottle, from bed to bed. We suck, we chew, we swallow, we lick, we try to mash life into us like an am-am-amoeba God damn it! Somebody lets us loose like a toad out of a matchbox and we jump and jump and jump and the guy always behind us, and when he gets tired he stomps us to death and our guts squirt out on each side of the boot of All Merciful Providence. The son-of-a-bitch! What sense does it all make? What sort of God would put us here in this goddamned, stinking slaughterhouse of a world? Some guy that likes to tear the wings off flies? What use is there in living and starving and fighting the next guy? It’s a nut house. And the biggest loonies are at the top.” 

Stan felt the wall of the alley jar against his shoulder, felt his feet leave the ground and the dark weight fall on him; but the only life in him now was pouring out through his hands and wrists. A bundle of astro-readings had fallen out and lay scattered on the stones, but he couldn’t pick them up. He walked, very straight and precise, toward the light at the other end of the alley. Everything was sharp and clear now and he didn’t even need a drink any more. The freights would be risky. He might try the baggage rack of a long-haul bus, under the tarpaulin. He had traveled there once before. He raced toward the light at the end of the alley, but there was nothing to be afraid of. He had always been here, running down the alley and it didn’t matter; this was all there was any time, anywhere, just an alley and a light... —"Nightmare Alley" (1946) by William Lindsay Gresham 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Collapse of the golden age of music recording

The golden age of recorded music: Going back to 1945, by the end of the war, there was a “golden age” of music, the big band era, the beginnings of bebop, the great songwriting partnerships, Broadway musicals, and even the early stirrings of rock n’ roll. It was also the populist height of the music borne of the Depression, the music that came out of the hobo camps, the dust bowl farmers, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Act and so on. It was the music of Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, and the Carter Family. Quickly told, the English built great speakers and listening consoles so they could hear what the Germans were saying. The Americans in turn created excellent platforms (tape recorders) to record what they heard. Though they developed this technology separately and quite secretly, the apex of these technologies would find themselves together in the recording studios around the world soon after the war. The British and Americans found out how good the German microphones were and how they could be used with British speakers and American tape decks. The Germans were quick to listen through British sound systems. Bebop, Jazz, and the everpopular Jitterbug (also known as the lindy hop) dance, were banned by the Nazi's as being American influences. Members of the French Underground would meet at basement dance clubs (normally underground) or Discotheques. Here they would dance to swing music.

It took the next ten years to tweak the technology, but by the mid 50s and the height of the bebop era, the engineers had become artists of this technology, and the results were some of the best recordings ever. With the addition of multi-track recording, invented by jazz guitarist Les Paul, another golden age of recording began. As a side note, it has been said that the best live recording of the bebop era was recorded at Massey Hall with Charlie Parker – on a plastic saxophone he borrowed for the gig – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. The album Quintet marked the only time these giants of the era played live together. It was also the period when Deutsche Grammophon began its run as the premier recorder of classical music. Time moves on and into the 60s, a period you all know well, and you can run through your own favourites.

There were great recordings like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s, Who’s Next – jazz recordings, particularly on the ECM label, emerged, and then in the 70s along with 48 track recorders, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century and Roxy Music’s Avalon. The producers and engineers were experts in the studio, and their names were almost as famous as the artists: George Martin, Phil Spector, Glyn Johns, and Phil Ramone to name a few. It is amusing now to see assistant engineers at Abbey Road in lab coats now, but that is how they saw themselves. The accommodation or payment for musicians, creators and works was also well-established in the post-war period through a series of royalties paid by the recording companies to the artists – as well as royalties paid to the artists for radio and television airplay that were monitored by BMI and ASCAP and in Canada by CAPAC and PROCAN, which later became SOCAN. The record companies were notorious for not paying these royalties, but there was a system, and there were lawyers who were there to both secure music contracts and ensure that royalties were paid to recording artists. There was also a formidable force in the musician’s union, which held tight control over negotiating gigs and contracts. 

By the 70s, the music industry was a huge force in our lives. It was the number one entertainment industry in North America, making far more money than movies or television. However there were chinks in the system and changes in technology that indicated further bigger changes to come. In 1969, The Whole Earth Catalogue was published, and the subtitle was “Access to Tools.” In the book, it revealed the first home four-track recording deck put out by Tascam. It was a revolution in the making. No longer did one have to go through the check and balance system of the record companies and their artists and repertoire staff. You didn’t need to secure a record contract. You didn’t need to incur huge costs at a recording studio that would be then set against future royalties. You could do the album yourself without arbiters from the record company. This independent release movement was no threat to the mainstream industry, but as this technology progressed, more would be attracted to the indie movement, and it would seriously threaten the mainstream industry by the 1990s.

Was punk rock the beginning of the end? By the late 70s, the industry was increasingly corrupt and complacent. It was also very expensive to make a recording in the beautiful studios. It was about to blow apart – It is dizzying what happened in a very short period of time. First the punks came along and called the bloat on the musicians and the industry. Groups like the Ramones, The Clash and The Cure ridiculed this sate of the business with rough, loud records reminiscent of the garage bands of early rock n’ roll. The local punk rockers opened and played at clubs that were not associated with the musician’s union; they said, “fuck the union” and basically broke the grip the union had on clubs. I would have to say they were misguided in their disregard for the musician’s union and undermined a support system that had worked to protect musicians. After the punk era, it would never be the same again. We were actually entering an age of missing information. What they told us was the CD was a compact unit with a clearer, cleaner sound. However, with a sampling rate of 44,000 samples per second, there were overtones of sound now missing. There were reverbs that collapsed as they tailed out because the sampling rate was not sufficient to hold them. The sound was cleaner because there was less of it. This new format also did not work with the microphones that had worked so well during the analog tape saturation age. The engineers were now scrambling to figure out how they could make this new cold sounding digital age warmer. 

This was a far cry from the “golden age” of the 1950’s. The analog sound was better. It was fuller and warmer, and it held all the sonic information. The technological changes of the 80s did not stop there. The home recording units in the early 70s developed and blossomed, as musicians and studios realized that a $200,000 Studer tape deck or $100,000 Neve console could be replaced by a much cheaper series of ADATS and less expensive boards. CDs made it costly for indies to stay in the mainstream. Record companies made fortunes during this period reissuing everything that had been on vinyl. Elvis was The King again. He had not left the building. Along with the new digital age came the introduction of video games and home entertainment systems. In 1982 MTV arrived, and in 1984 Much Music hit the airwaves, and another development took place that was to affect music and musicians to this day and beyond. AutoTune and Pro Tools were widely used in record production. Oddly, Pro Tools is missing the one tool The Beatles used on almost every song - Varispeed. That's because computer software is linked to a system clock, and is limited to running on even divisions of that clock. That highly processed sound that Millenials are accustomed to hear barely registers as sounding real.

MTV videos were seen as advertisements for the artists and record companies and, therefore, were non-royalty-bearing. In fact, the musicians had to pay for these videos, and these payments were set against the royalties owed to the artists by the record companies. It was an interesting dilemma because, while one could see the attraction of the music video, it set a precedent about the value of the music, how music might be perceived, and it potentially undermined royalty payments that radio and television had been paying to musicians. The most fateful chapter in this story arrived with the introduction of the home computer, followed by the Internet around 1995. During this dizzying time, cyberspace opened up, and the world truly became the global village that Marshall McLuhan envisaged. Music was now available universally at your fingertips. The age of downloading began, and with it, the notion that music was not only available, but most importantly, free. In quick succession came downloading networks like Napster, cementing this music-should-be-free notion for a generation. The royalty-collecting agencies were caught behind the times, and any litigation against illegal downloading would be years to come. Needless to say, the majority of musicians barely made a taxable income.

Now everybody can make a record – and maybe that’s not a good thing. Studio software like GarageBand was available, thus completing the story that anyone could make music at home. While this democratization of the process was laudable, it led to a glut of dubious releases on the market. While this was going on, big studios were going bankrupt, the musicians union was growing impotent, and in the background, baffling engineers trying to stay on top of their game. The top musicians continued to use analog studios, but they were getting harder to find. At the same time, home video games were improving and threatening to overtake the music industry. CDs continued to sell, though, and with the introduction of new microphones and warming buffers, digital recordings improved. Even this tumultuous period was short-lived as the MP3 format was introduced in 1997 and popularized by Apple’s iPod in 2001. The sample rate of an MP3 is 23,000 compressed samples per second, half the sample rate of a commercial CD and a quarter of the sample rate of a studio quality digital recording. When the audio quality reduced to that of an MP3, music’s value is also reduced. The introduction of the MP3 made record collections obsolete. You could store your entire CD collection on your iPod and later iPad. Free downloading became the way to obtain music as music stores began to disappear across North America. Though musicians continued to release CDs, it became clear that the notion of a recording that had existed for 100 years was in serious trouble.

This trend was symbolically addressed when it was ruled that companies like Napster should be shut down – but really, the horses had been let out of the barn. YouTube arrived and was, until recently, royalty free. In 2010, CD sales dropped 50 per cent and video games had replaced music in homes. In fact, music purchases had dropped to fifth place in the North American entertainment market. Record companies disappeared, and by 2012, Starbucks had become the leading distributor of CDs in North America. In 2010, before his world tour, Prince released his new album free. Radiohead did the same, stating they would make up the difference in t-shirt sales. Music, they said in effect, was free. But only the musical two per cent could afford to say that. Quoting Nikola Tesla: "I don't care that they stole my idea. I care that they don't have any of their own." Between 2010 and 2014, the sale of digital downloads doubled sales of CDs. CD sales peaked in 1999 in the US with $18.9 billion in revenue on an inflation adjusted basis and 938.9M units sold. By 2010 those numbers had fallen to $3.8 billion -- a revenue decline of nearly 80% -- and unit sales had fallen to 253M, down 73%. That's a titanic collapse, and it's a collapse which left little to replace it (as opposed what happened in prior cycles when one format replaced another): Overall inflation adjusted industry revenue in the period fell from from $21.9 billion to $7.9 billion, a 64% decline in the industry as a whole.  Yes, it's harder than ever to make a living off of selling a piece of recorded music. The times have changed, as Robert Harris spoke of on his CBC radio series Twilight of the Gods about the hundred-year rise and fall of recorded music.

If we look back on this conversation, this is exactly the reverse: where the technology was serving the art form. It would appear at this moment that the art form is being dictated by the technology. Young musicians no longer see music as a career choice. And so what of the future? There are signs that the royalty-collecting agencies are beginning to catch up to the myriad array of digital offspring ranging from the internet to satellite television and radio. Some would say that there is more music available now than ever before. And yet, when students in the music faculty at Carleton University were surveyed, not one of them thought they would make a living as a musician in the 21st century; the negative response was 100 per cent. The value of the work is the key phrase here. It is so easy now to create and distribute one’s music, people believe it can’t be worth much, so it must be free. What is lost in this equation is the years of craft it might take to get to a professional level of musicianship and songwriting craft: years in the field, a lifetime spent in the trenches. The future of music? It could happen the same as the theatre confronting the advent of film industry. Yet, since theatre’s re-emergence, it has become a sponsored and often threatened art form, supported by public funds, similar to classical music orchestras. There is considerable evidence that live music will continue to be supported. The future continues to look supportive for music in film, theatre and television. Indeed, many musicians have focused their work on getting their music on television shows, where the economy of scale is huge, and royalties can be bountiful. I think at some point many so-called “non-commercial” musicians will leave the public marketplace and, given their value, elect or hope to be sponsored artists. This has already happened in the jazz world. I think in the future, we must return to valuing the art form. If this conundrum cannot be addressed, I suspect music will be generated by computers programmed by robots in the future, and that will be a very dark future. Music is an art. Social media is not. Source:

Buddy Holly ‎– Memorial Collection (2009): Buddy Holly was one of the half dozen geniuses the '50s propelled out of the American boondocks--in his case, Lubbock, Texas. Delicate yet explosive, nerdy yet masculine, melodic yet skronky, Holly became the early rock'n'roll cynosure and wrote a phenomenal number of excellent songs in the 18 months of his career. The selling point of this 3 CD Collection is 11 "undubbed" early and late recordings. Stripped of bass and drums, his early songs sound more like old-time country music. Buddy Holly rebelled, yes, he really freed himself, but sometimes he was content to just sit there holdin' hands with his girl. Shortly before he died, Buddy Holly got himself a place in the Greenwich Village. Holly wed a Puerto Rican girl--Peggy Sue had gotten married too--and I imagine Holly there, holdin' hands with Maria Elena, while conjuring up rock 'n' strings and thinking ahead of the rest. Nerds loved Buddy Holly for a reason: he played by the rules without letting them stop him. Buddy Holly lives. Don't let anybody tell you different. Source:

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Favorite Music: Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney

Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: Listening to music that is liked or a favorite song affects functional connectivity in regions involved in selfreferential thought and memory encoding, such as the default mode network and the hippocampus. While perhaps everyone intuitively understands the mental experience or feeling when listening to his or her preferred music, whether it is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Les Miserables, or when listening to their favorite rock song, we show here that this similarity of experience manifests in the brain by engaging the DMN. As the first study to apply network science methods to ‘theory of the mind’, these results provide a glimpse into the neural patterns underlying the emotion-cognitive states associated with listening to preferred and favorite music. Source:

The British musicologist Howard Goodall said about Paul McCartney: "He had an intuitive melodic gift: in terms of tunes, he's one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived." This, Goodall says, set him apart from John Lennon; by way of comparison. Goodall puts McCartney alongside Schubert, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. "In Puccini's case, you're talking about maybe 20 great tunes. In Schubert's case, maybe 100. But Paul McCartney is up there in the 100+ category." Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, described McCartney's influence/gift this way: "A genius for melody is a strange, surprisingly isolated talent, and doesn’t have much to do with a broader musical gift for composition; Mozart certainly had it, Beethoven not so much. Irving Berlin could barely play the piano and when he did it was only in a single key (F-sharp major: all the black keys), and yet he wrote hundreds of haunting tunes; André Previn, who could do anything musically as a pianist and a conductor, wrote scarcely a single memorable melody, although he did write several shows and many songs. McCartney had the gift in absurd abundance. Someone could get a Ph.D. thesis out of studying the major-minor shifts in his Beatles songs: sometimes the change is from verse to chorus, to mark a change from affirmation to melancholy, as in “The Fool on the Hill”; sometimes it’s in the middle of a phrase, as in “Penny Lane,” to capture a mixed mood. These are things that trained composers do by rote; McCartney did them by feel—like Irving Berlin writing for Fred Astaire, he was a rare thing, a naturally sophisticated intuitive. In 1966, the critic Kenneth Tynan, a hard man to please, proposed doing a profile of Paul, in preference to John, because he was “by far the most interesting of the Beatles and certainly the musical genius of the group.” Source:

Philip Norman admits in his biography of Paul McCartney that in his earlier biography of the Beatles called “Shout!”, he accepted the cheap stereotype of Paul as a pop trivialist, in comparison with his edgy partner John Lennon. Paul was happy to push the envelope but didn’t support John when he wanted to pose nude on an album cover or insisted that an eight minute sound collage be inserted into a Beatles album. Paul certainly didn’t support John’s heroin addiction. Now Philip Norman sees that Paul McCartney was not only a man of genius but also someone who has handled the madness of fame exceptionally well. Paul is depicted as a caring father and grandfather, a man who made a bad rebound marriage after losing his much loved wife Linda, but who has otherwise spent the past decades entertaining new generations of fans. As Norman shows, McCartney has worked so hard at seeming dismayingly normal that it is easy to miss the least ordinary thing about him: the magnitude of his melodic gift. In 1970, McCartney and the Eastmans launched a lawsuit to break up the Beatles partnership. That became the trigger for John Lennon’s toxic onslaughts against his former partner, feeding all the hostile stereotypes that Norman is now trying, decades later, to remedy.

Seen from the 21st century, the great rupture of early rock and roll looks more ideological than musical, more a matter of attitude and emotion. Every Night by Paul MacCartney sounds like a continuation from Everyday by Buddy Holly and Kiss Me Baby by The Beach Boys. Elvis was The King and all that, but Buddy Holly is more beloved among people who actually know a substantial amount about the history of rock. Holly, along with Chuck Berry, was a real pioneer, playing a chord and hammering the sixth note of that chord on and off in a regular, rhythmic pattern. In the opening pages of Peter Guralnick’s “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll”, Sam Phillips is equated with Walt Whitman, William Faulkner and Mark Twain. Phillips was not a very good businessman. Other independent labels, like Atlantic, managed to keep their artists and to thrive well into the 1960s. But Phillips got out of the business just as the pop-music revolution that he helped make happen was starting to cash out in a big way. Which would have been the destiny of Buddy Holly if he had walked by Sun Records? Using The Beach Boys' memorable song (and Paul McCartney's favorite song ever): God Only Knows.

By 1950, most people listening to local radio stations. And ninety-six per cent of homes in the United States had a radio. Before the 1940s, radio was dominated by national broadcast networks like CBS, NBC, and Mutual. As a consequence of an F.C.C. policy designed to break up this oligopoly, the licensing of local stations increased from around eight hundred in 1940 to more than two thousand in 1949. By 1940, there were close to half a million jukeboxes in the United States. This is why jukebox plays were charted in Billboard: they were market indicators. In an unsympathetic biography of Elvis Presley, published in 1981, Albert Goldman has Phillips referring to “the nigger sound”; Guralnick makes it clear that Sam Phillips didn’t talk or think that way. And Guralnick is confident that Phillips didn’t talk about the music recording in terms of getting rich, either. 

Elvis Presley was a walk-in, showing up at the Memphis Recording Service in the summer of 1953, when he was eighteen, to make a record for his mother's birthday. He paid four dollars to record two songs, “My Happiness,” which had been a hit for several artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” an old Ink Spots song. Whether Sam Phillips was in the booth that day or not later became a matter of acrimonious dispute, but someone wrote next to Presley’s name, “Good ballad singer. Hold.” A year later, Phillips invited Presley back to try out a ballad he’d discovered. The song didn’t seem to work, and Phillips had Presley run through all the material he knew. After three hours, Phillips thought of putting Presley together with a couple of country-and-Western musicians—Scotty Moore, an electric guitarist, and Bill Black, who played standup bass. After many takes, they had a record: an up-tempo cover of a bluegrass song called “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and, in July 1954, Elvis Presley’s first single came on the market. In Sun’s promotional campaign, Phillips emphasized the record’s “three-way” appeal: to pop, hillbilly, and rhythm-and-blues listeners. Elvis was a crossover artist. He had “a white voice, a Negro rhythm, and borrows in mood and emphasis from country styles,” a Memphis local paper explained. He finally made it onto the national country-and-Western chart in July, 1955, with “Baby Let’s Play House.” Two months later, Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA Victor for thirty-five thousand dollars. Source:

Part of Buddy Holly's appeal was the impression he made of being an 'ordinary' fellow, not outlandish like Little Richard or Jerry Lee, or sexy like Elvis or Eddie Cochran. His big glasses and lankiness made him look sort of goofy, and yet he still managed to be cool! His music was deceptively simple (a lesson that Lennon & McCartney benefitted from). Indeed, his lyrics are heartfelt, honest and deep, with a twist of humor. He wrote about experiences and feelings that are common to us all, which is why his music has endured. With his black-framed glasses, sharp suits and tousled hair, Buddy Holly looked like any other earnest young man entering adulthood in the late 1950s. Yet Holly's approach to rock music was anything but conventional. An inspired, fluid, and nimble guitarist, Holly brought velocity to his rockabilly-inspired riffs. Holly's voice could also have a gritty edge (the ragers "Ready Teddy" and "Rave On"), although his gulping vocal delivery and rhythmic contortions made his songs unusual. Holly was a sympathetic and expressive singer: On Everyday a sparse song driven by clapping percussion and a twinkling celesta, he was wistful about the possibility of finding his perfect romantic match. Holly sang about important topics (love, lust and loss) and his tunes favored lyrics full of dramatic declarations. Modern Don Juan lamented miscommunication in romance; (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care celebrates how opposites attract; Ting-A-Ling didn't shy away from expressing sexual desire; In That'll Be The Day he swears that he'll die from heartbreak if the girl he loves ever leaves him. Buddy Holly opened for Elvis Presley on 15 October 1955 at The Cotton Club, Lubbock, TX.  

Holly's first label deal on 26 January 1956 with Decca Records was through his agent Eddie Crandall, who became his first agent after having heard him at the Haley concert. That contract fizzled out after a year and no chart hits. Still, Holly kept plugging away: On February 25, 1957, he recorded "That'll Be The Day," in Clovis, New Mexico, with producer and future manager Norman Petty. A veteran of the Nashville guitar scene, George Gruhn, said “There could be any number of reasons why Holly would have wanted to play a Stratocaster, including its visual aesthetic and chordal intonation.” The Stratocaster guitar featured Leo Fender’s revolutionary six-piece saddle, which allowed for precise intonation of each of the instrument’s strings. In 1958, while living in New York City, Holly did purchase a Magnatone amp for home use, but he typically gigged with Fender amplifiers that suited his Stratocaster and twangy music to a T. 

The Buddy Holly Story (1978), which won the Academy Award for adapted score, is an entertaining and dynamic film, but contains quite a few errors and distortions from Buddy Holly's life and career. Now that “Clear Lake” is being produced by Prix Productions with a $12 million budget in association with Maria Elena Holly, the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation and BMG, we hope this project will translate into a more accurate portrait of Holly's personality. As some Holly's friends from Lubbock objected to Gary Busey's performance, Buddy Holly didn't look so sullen and irate as he's shown in the Steve Rash's film. Part of Holly's appeal lay in his natural charm, friendly attitude towards his audience and a tinge of innocence that are often replaced by arrogance and temper tantrums by an abrasive Busey in the film. Jerry Allison called it "The Buddy Hollywood Story", complaining he wasn't a hotheaded racist like he was portrayed by Don Stroud. “I think the movie makes Buddy look like a personal and musical tyrant, which he was not. He was very definite about his musical ideas but he was also a very warm, nice, human individual.” In another scene, the two Crickets pay a visit to Maria Elena while Holly is embarked on his final tour, and the three talk about an imminent reunion when Buddy returns. But this scene was fabricated. John Goldrosen (author of The Buddy Holly Story book) said he was very unhappy with the movie: “The producers admitted they were making The Glenn Miller Story of the Seventies. They chose to reinforce a lot of rock & roll clichés but they could have told the truth and still be commercial. They wound up hurting people. The Holleys were portrayed wrongly. The church scene was wrong. Buddy was a member of the Tabernacle Baptist Church and was close to his pastor, the Reverend Ben Johnson. Buddy always gave ten percent of his earnings to the church.”

Apparently Sonny Curtis phoned Maria Elena looking for Buddy on the night of the plane crash. Jerry Allison said he tried calling the Surf Ballroom to reach Buddy, but he'd already left. As with La Bamba (with features an aggressive, oversexed Ritchie Valens), The Buddy Holly Story is rife with errors (you can see mountains on the horizon in plain Lubbock!). At the roller rink scene, Buddy plays a Fender "Bronco" guitar. The Bronco was not manufactured by Fender until the early 1970s!  Buddy and Maria Elena are shown at a 3D movie date in 1958. These type of movies were popular in 1953 and 1954. No mainstream 3D movies were produced in the '50s after 1954. Also, as the tour bus is towing past the auditorium before Buddy's final concert, the phone number on the side of the tow truck is made up entirely of digits. In 1959, the first two digits of all phone numbers consisted of letters. All-numeric phone numbers didn't begin until the mid-'60s!

For the purpose of story condensation, Cindy Lou (Buddy's blonde girlfriend played by Amy Johnston), seems an unlikely composite character of Buddy's conventional girlfriend Echo McGuire, Peggy Sue Gerron, plus the 'wild girl from Lubbock' who would be willing to have sex with Buddy in the car backseat. Despite a pretty crappy script, Gary Busey's spirited musical act sort of saves the film by communicating Holly's fierce eccentricity onstage. Norman Petty threatened legal action because he was afraid he would be shown as a shady crook, which would have been right. A film about Buddy Holly, and especially about an era fundamentally wrapped in jouissance and optimism, deserved a more poetic and careful approach. Robert Gittler who wrote the screenplay for The Buddy Holly Story—based loosely on The Buddy Holly Story biography by John Goldrosen—committed suicide two days before the theatrical release of the film (18 May 1978). Still, The Buddy Holly Story holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As a Buddy Holly fan from Melbourne (Vinyl Man) wrote: "Closing my eyes and imagining myself at a sock-hop dancing with a pretty girl in a poodle skirt was always good for what ailed me. Did anyone leave behind as many classic hits in so short a space of time as Buddy? His music is evergreen and singular. That very idealized image I had of those days was immensely comforting. That brings to mind another thing about Buddy Holly: I can’t remember a time when his story didn’t speak to me in a very powerful way. I’m pretty sure he’s the only of my musical heroes about which I can say that. I could always imagine myself in the happy ending of a fifties movie with his music as the soundtrack, while at the same time I could make the unfortunate but effective analogy of his death to the end of America’s innocence."

In The Theory of Everything (2014) Steven Noble dressed Eddie Redmayne in a classic white-tie, black-tail morning suit that felt “slightly shabby and slightly ill-fitting, which is what I wanted,” Noble said. In his head, the suit had been passed down from Stephen Hawking’s father and grandfather. Since Stephen Hawking came from a bohemian family, he aimed to make Hawking, in his Buddy Holly glasses and ill-fitting hand-me-down, look a little more eccentric than the other Cambridge undergrads of the time. The drama chronicles Stephen and Jane’s great love story, in spite of the unthinkable physical obstacles they faced, and there was one scene in particular that Noble used to telegraph that great romance with clothing—the Cambridge May Ball, which was one of the couple’s first dates.

In the Surf Ballroom lobby, walking through the front, directly to the left, there is a vintage pay phone booth. A placard reads that this is the telephone where Buddy Holly made his final telephone call to his wife, Maria Elena. This call has become embossed in the Holly legend and took on steam in 1978 with the biopic “The Buddy Holly Story.” In the film, Holly has a tender scene where he calls his wife prior to taking the stage of the Surf Ballroom. Maria Elena herself has always maintained that this telephone call happened. In Goldrosen and Beecher’s “Remembering Buddy,” she went into some detail about this final talk with her husband. “He told me what an awful tour it had been. The buses were dirty and cold, and things just weren’t as had been promised. He said everybody on the tour was really disgusted. Then he said that the tour was behind schedule and he had to go on ahead of the others to the next stop to make arrangements for the show. He didn’t tell me that he was going to fly. I said, ‘Why should you go?’ And he said, ‘There’s nobody else to do it.’” An article from the February 4, 1959 copy of the New York Journal American seems to dispute this memory that Holly’s widow maintains. The article featured a black and white photo of Maria Elena captioned “But he didn't call.”

Recalling her memories to Goldrosen many years later about her last call with Buddy Holly, had Maria Elena simply mixed up her dates, mistaking the phone call from Green Bay as being from Clear Lake? Holly had wanted to fly out of Green Bay after the Riverside Ballroom show, so perhaps the content of that call happened just as Maria Elena described it but, after twenty years, her dates were just off by a day. Holly had just been left word via cablegrams from Norman Petty that he was illegally using the group name of the Crickets on this tour. That certainly would have put a damper on his mood when Holly arrived at the Surf Ballroom. Allen Bloom, the GAC man who helped put the Winter Dance Party together had passed away by the time I had started my research, but his son Randy was crucial in helping me direct me to an unused recorded interview. Perhaps through listening to Bloom's recall of memories of GAC’s rock and roll days, I can figure out what exactly went wrong with that Winter Dance Party tour. So, I play the tape and listen to Allen Bloom lay out a diagram for disaster. Allen Bloom: “In the fall of 1958, Buddy Holly split up with the Crickets and was alienated from his family because he married a Hispanic girl, Maria Elena. He was also splitting up with his manager, Norman Petty. Buddy came to us and we were about to sign Buddy up to manage him. Buddy had no money and so in January we arranged for a small tour. We had produced our first Biggest Show of Stars in February of 1956. This show was with Bill Haley and the Comets, Roy Hamilton, Chuck Berry... And everybody in New York, all the agency people, thought that we were going to lose all the money we didn’t have.” All of Buddy Holly’s tours since signing with Coral and Brunswick had been put on by GAC, so it was no surprise that Holly would approach them for a new tour as he was struggling to keep afloat.

According to the new book Buddy Holly: Legacies (2019) by Roddy Jordan, 90% of Maria Elena's recollections are true. In New York Holly had formed a new publishing company called "Maria Music." A new-found surprise is to learn that Aunt Provi Garcia (who erroneusly in the 1978 film is named Mrs. Santiago) did not have any family ties with Maria Elena. Also, just the opposite to the old-fashioned portrait of Maria Elena's Aunt, the real Provi Garcia was a divorced independent woman who had left his family behind in Puerto Rico. The reason why Provi took Maria Elena in her life was due to the friendship shared between the modest Santiago family and the middle-class Garcia clan. Another tremendous finding is that Maria Elena (and most likely Buddy Holly) was being investigated in 1958 by the FBI agents who opened a file on her. Allegedly, Buddy Holly was about to testify in the Payola scandal in the hopes that his songs would play on the radio again. Maria Elena had reportedly dated Jack Negron, a music industry insider who knew the intricacies of the Payola activities. The F.B.I. report is redacted but you can just see part of Jack Negron's name. 

On the Apartment tapes, in the background chat, when Maria Elena brings up the name Jack Negron, Buddy seems uncomfortable. Buddy might have a double motive for this reaction, first the stress of giving testimony against the practices of Payola, and second he might be jealous of the past relationship of his wife with Negron. Maria Elena (whose real birth name was simply Elena Santiago), said she had ambitions to go to Broadway, but Buddy discouraged her. "You don't need to do that," she quoted him. When she was all dressed up and ready to go out, Elena Santiago was quite a stunning looking girl, and understandably Holly had motives for his jealousy. Although Buddy Holly was more progressive than most of his fellow rockers, his traditional side resurfaced sometimes. As Buddy's widow, Elena Holly has every right to proceed as she sees it fit. However, it is the way she has disconnected herself from both the Holley family and the Lubbock fans that some people do not like. One has to ask, why has she gone down this pathway? Some detractors have speculated Holly was thinking of filing for divorce. Due, perhaps to his neurotic jealousy? The fact is nobody has found any proof of a divorce petition or file, just hearsay. ―"In Flanders Field: Death and Rebirth of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson" (2017) by Ryan Vandergriff

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Grunge drama, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Elisabeth Moss is essentially Courtney Love in the Rock’n’Roll Drama Her Smell (2019). The film goes beyond the expected trappings of your usual rock drama and successfully manages to capture the convulsive core of musical artistry while suggesting that it’s possible for the individual to break free of its corrosive bonds. In the grand tradition of Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and the latest iteration of A Star Is Born, Her Smell proves that using an already-existing musical act as a springboard often feels more authentic than a film about real-life musicians. Because there’s no expectation to faithfully retell an actual living or dead person’s story, Perry is free to draw from the rock ‘n’ roll tropes that are most narratively satisfying. 

“Her Smell” is set in the indie rock scene of the 1990s. The story follows the decline, flame-out, rehab and return of a Courtney Love-like star played by Elisabeth Moss. The film has its strengths, especially in Moss’ high-octane performance, Sean Price Williams’ terrific cinematography and some very creative sound design. Perry is, at his best, a deft, trenchant artist who sees in modernity selfishness, sadness, treachery, the maladies of subcultures, a cornucopia of self-perpetuating afflictions, lies, and the liars that tell them. “I think that self-destructiveness can also mean self-reflection, it can mean poetic sensibility,” Courtney Love said in her Spin interview in 1998.  “You were horrible but it never made me not love you,” Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) tells Becky when they reunite years later. Limited release beginning April 12th. Source:

Romantic composers modified the formalism of classical music, and aimed at lyric expression and emotion. Many composers gave their works a nationalistic character by using folk songs as themes. Romantic composers include Franz Schubert of Austria; Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, and Frederic Chopin. Program music aimed to absorb and transmit the imagined subject matter in such a way that the resulting work transcends the subject matter it seeks to represent. Instrumental music thus became a vehicle for the utterance of thoughts which, although first hinted in words, may ultimately be beyond the power of words to fully express. Practically every composer of the Romantic era was, to some degree, writing program music. One reason it was easy for listeners to connect a poem or a story with a piece of Romantic music is that often the composer himself, perhaps unconsciously, was working from some such ideas. Writers on music projected their own conceptions of the expressive functions of music into the past, and read Romantic programs into the instrumental works not only of Beethoven, but also the likes of Mozart, Haydn, and Bach. The diffused scenic effects in the music of such composers as Mendelssohn and Schumann seem pale when compared to the feverish, and detailed drama that constitutes the story of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830).

Because his imagination always seemed to run in parallel literary and musical channels, Berlioz once subtitled his work "Episode in the Life of an Artist", and provided a program for it which was in effect a piece of Romantic autobiography. The foremost composer of program music after Berlioz was Franz Liszt, twelve of whose symphonic poems were written between 1848 and 1858. The name symphonic poem is significant: these pieces are symphonic, but Liszt did not call them symphonies, presumably because or their short length, and the fact that they are not divided up into movements. Instead, each is a continuous form with various sections, more or less varied in tempo and character, and a few themes that are varied, developed, or repeated within the design of the work. Les Preludes, the only one that is still played much today, is melodious and efficiently scored. However, its idiom causes it to be rhetorical in a sense. It forces today's listeners to lavish excessive emotion on ideas that do not seem sufficiently important for such a display of feeling. Liszt attempted to sum up the ideas of Romantic music in these words: "Music embodies feeling without forcing it - as it is forced in its other manifestations, in most arts and especially in the art of words - it is the embodied and intelligent essence of feeling; capable of being apprehended by our senses, it permeates them like a dart, like a ray, like a dew, like a spirit, and fills our soul." Source:

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Emotional Lifting, A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco and Jeff Tweedy

JEFF TWEEDY: From the very beginning, Jay Farrar had a tough time reciprocating warmth. I learned that you didn’t express too much emotion around him. But I wanted to be friends with Jay, if only because I was so amazed that somebody else existed—someone my age, who lived in Belleville and went to my school—who felt the same way about this music that I did. We were the guys who would take records to parties and then inevitably end up in a room by ourselves listening to those records. The musical tastes of our classmates were predominantly classic rock—If you wore a Stray Cats T-shirt, you’d get pizza thrown at you, and you’d be called a faggot. There was a jukebox in our cafeteria, and if you played anything other than the 1978 Trooper song “Raise a Little Hell,” somebody would walk over and kick the jukebox repeatedly until it stopped. And then they’d call you a faggot. Becoming friends with Jay Farrar meant upping my game. I needed to find records that Jay and his brothers didn’t know about yet. So it was a healthy competition. We made trips to St. Louis to buy records. We discovered record stores like Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records, the latter of which I’d be working at as a clerk for a while.

I had a girlfriend in high school who dragged me to big arena rock shows. I went to see Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar, and the Who’s first “farewell” tour in 1982 at the Ralston Purina Checkerdome in St. Louis. It all sounded so bad to me. I wasn’t just bored, I hated those shows. And I felt sad afterward. Nothing about the experience was exciting to me. Something always seemed overly macho about how bands postured themselves on those enormous stages. I’m not sure why the macho-ness bothered me. I loved Black Flag, and there was nothing more macho than Henry Rollins at that time. Actually, that was my least favorite part of Black Flag, but it was a different type of macho, or at least it was to me. I was learning to play the guitar, I still couldn’t make an E minor chord if my life depended on it. I looked at the chord book and fumbled my way through learning a few basic chords. I made steady progress and showed enough sustained interest, so for Christmas my parents bought me a white Peavey T-60 electric guitar, which weighed about seven hundred pounds. The strings would pop off the bridge with the slightest strum. It was unplayable. 

I bought a brand-new black-and-white Fender Telecaster. I remember when I figured out how to do the standard da-da-dada Chuck Berry riff, it was like I’d split the atom. I couldn’t listen to the Beatles or Bob Dylan, sit back and think, “Well, maybe if I play an A-major scale enough times, I’ll get there someday.” It was more like “I want to write a song right the fuck now.” Jay Farrar asked me to join the Plebes, not because I was so clearly a guitar virtuoso but because they needed one more high-school-age member to qualify for the 'Battle of the Bands' competition. I remembered vaguely Buddy Holly starting in one of those high-school contests. Jay Farrar and me formed Uncle Tupelo, as a nod to Elvis’s hometown in Mississippi. Uncle Tupelo opened for Johnny Cash at a club in Santa Ana, California, in 1993. We didn’t meet Johnny Cash and June Carter before the show, but we could hear them during our set, watching through the curtains on either side of the stage and shouting, “Woo-hoo,” between songs. It was startling. 

Another girlfriend had gone away to college as I started my senior year in high school. She left Belleville to attend SIU–Carbondale, a two-hour drive southeast. She met a guy there during her first semester away and started seeing him while she and I were still technically dating. I was devastated. I’d experienced rejection before, but not that world-shattering feeling of betrayal. That feeling marked the beginning of the first identifiable pattern of depression in my life. When you’re prone to depression, this is the kind of catalyst that can bring it on and turn something upsetting into something debilitating and seemingly insurmountable. I drove down to Carbondale to see her, and I found her walking hand in hand with a guy toward her dorm room. They went inside, and I waited outside for a few minutes, wondering what I should do, and then I knocked the door. They were already in bed. God, it was a full-on catastrophe. It was almost comically hurtful. And as inconsequential as it would be in the grand scheme of things, at that moment I couldn’t see it as anything less than the end of my life.

I wrote “Gun” a little while after that. So I was grateful all that pain hadn’t gone to waste. “It hurt much worse when you gave up/which way I oughta run/Crawling back to you now/I sold my guitar to the girl next door/She asked me if I knew how/I told her, I don’t think so anymore.” That was probably the most honest and direct I’d ever been in a song up to that point. Telling the world that I’d sold my guitar wasn’t saying I’ll kill myself, but it was close. To me, it was almost the equivalent of killing myself at that point. I was in so much pain; I was willing to give up the one thing in the world that was sustaining to me, the only thing that mattered. That might seem like a martyrdom fantasy—“If I can’t have what I want, I don’t want anything!” It is grandiose, but I also think I meant it, I was serious about it. The feeling that “anything is better than this,” even giving up the only thing you love if it would just make it go away, is real. I can still identify with that. When I play Gun, that’s what hooks me in. It’s not about remembering that act of betrayal, but the memory of being gripped by so much despair and helplessness that I didn’t even care if I ever touched a guitar again. I felt that exact way years later when I went into rehab. “I don’t care if I ever write another song again, I just want to feel better.” That’s why I can still sing “Gun” and not feel silly. It’s about that feeling of despair and being willing to do anything to make it go away. 

Not that I think suffering is necessary to create worthwhile art. Because I think that artists create in spite of suffering, not because of suffering. I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. “We've been practicing in Belleville all week. So this is our first show.” That’s how I introduced Wilco to the world, on November 17, 1994, at Cicero’s in St. Louis. Wilco was me on guitar, John Stirratt on bass, Max Johnston on banjo and fiddle, and Ken Coomer on drums. The only new guy onstage with us was Jay Bennett (who came from a suburb of Chicago). It was basically Uncle Tupelo minus Jay Farrar. Jay Bennett was smart and funny, but he was also a pain in the ass. I think most people who were friends with Jay will tell you that. Jay would laugh at my protests like he thought I was joking, but I was sincerely concerned. Only at the very end of his time in the band did his difficulties start to outweigh his virtues. Jay was burdened with the kind of issues that show no regard for intelligence or social status. Maladies that destroy without taking into account what one has to offer the world, like all diseases.

On a musical level, Jay Bennett was a great match for me and the rest of the guys. Like everyone else in Wilco, Jay could slip in and out of styles pretty effortlessly. He was also willing to dig in with me to find ways to subvert classic song structures. Sometimes he would put pen to paper to show me why a chord change shouldn’t work, but only in service of showing me how cool it was to be so wrong. It was similar to some of the dynamics Jay Farrar and I had going on. Once a song goes out into the world, that’s when it can get ruined. Other people get to listen to it and make it worse, by misreading intentions, judging and weighing in with opinions. Not just my songs, but all songs. I guess people ruin everything. I am right there with them. My songs are never as good as they were in my head when they had limitless forms and belonged only to me. I think songs are ruled by melody. I believe that melody, more than lyrics, is what does all the heavy lifting emotionally. 

If you grew up wanting to be a part of the indie rock scene, you were expected to at least give the appearance of not caring and giving the least possible amount of effort. Of course, it’s a lie. Does anyone think The Velvet Underground just happened with minimum effort? Sonic Youth? Pavement? David Kahne, the head of A&R at Reprise, told us they needed something more obviously pop that they could release as a single. That made no sense to me. I was sure Summerteeth was full of pop music. I was fed up. The process made me more cynical. The music industry depends on artists being insecure and needy. If you’re not willing to walk away from a deal, and the other side knows it, you are screwed. For some reason I’ve always been stupid or arrogant enough to walk away from negotiations when they start to feel gross or insulting. It looks like it’d take a lot of confidence to do that, but I don’t feel like an exceedingly confident person. I think I’m just stubborn. And I hate feeling greedy. “No record deal? Okay, welp, it’s back to small budget for me.” And I’m stubborn because there’s only so much I’m willing to compromise artistically. Allowing something you’ve created to be undermined to a point where you can no longer believe in it or stand behind it feels suicidal to me.

While Sam Jones's "I am trying to break your heart" documentary progressed, Jay Bennett started pitting people against one another, whispering rumors and stoking paranoia. If you weren’t in the room, there was a good chance he was talking behind your back or diminishing your contributions. I heard about all the nasty things he’d been saying about me when I wasn’t around—I guess it never occurred to him that the rest of the guys in Wilco would compare notes—and when it was just Jay Bennett and me alone in the studio, he said the rest of Wilco wasn’t pulling their weight. I suggested trying to create sounds that didn’t involve us, like an organ with some keys taped down, or a tape echo feeding back on itself, or an electric fan strumming a guitar. The plan was to come back the next morning, turn all of our self-playing instruments back on, and hit record. But when I got to the Loft, Jay Bennett was already there, walking the camera crew and talking about how he’d put it all together. He had all of the instruments going, the whole room was buzzing, and he was fielding questions from Sam Jones about 'his' sonic experiments. I didn’t say anything—I knew that was petty and I didn’t want to get into another fight in front of the cameras—but I was furious. That was a group idea and I’d suggested it. There were many reasons I didn’t want to make music with Jay Bennett anymore. For one thing, it wasn’t a healthy situation for either of us. There were lots of prescription medications being consumed at the Loft. But Jay Bennett wasn’t close to even being ready to admit there was a problem. I was scared for him, but I was even more terrified for myself because I was just learning how much danger I was in and how hard it was going to be to stay healthy.

So it was a self-preservation move. I fired Jay Bennett from Wilco because I knew if I didn’t, I would probably die. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s really not. I told him I knew what was going on. That’s one of the first things I said to him. “You’ve been getting FedEx packages full of pills.” The guy who was running the Loft for us would see him there in the mornings, counting his pills on a desk in the back. I told Bennett we would help him. If he wanted to find somebody to talk to about addiction and maybe get into a program, we would pay for everything. But he was incredulous, saying: “If I had a problem I would admit it.” Some fans thought I should have stayed with Jay as a sign of loyalty for the band. But I think that kind of devotion, to something entirely made up like a “band,” is silly and even dangerous. There are only three people I’ve committed myself to completely for the rest of my life: my wife Susie, and my sons Spencer and Sammy. My actual family. I had to confront my Vicodin addiction in rehab. My thoughts were: “I’m not some junkie who wants to disappear. I have real migraines. I have real panic attacks. And I’m only being responsible by finding a way to control them so I can keep doing my job.” 

In November of 2003, we went to New York to record with Jim O’Rourke. John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach (a multi-instrumentalist who’d been with us since Summerteeth), Mikael Jorgensen and myself were going to start work on A Ghost Is Born. It’s also where I was pretty sure I was going to die. I mean that in all seriousness. I thought I was going to die. Every song we recorded seemed likely to be my last. Every note felt final. But like my father, I was always able to maintain a work ethic and I managed to keep creating. I didn’t cancel any gigs. The worst of it happened when I was alone in my hotel room having panic attacks, taking too many pills and then panicking because I’d taken too many pills. Every night I’d lie in bed—or just as often, in the tub until the bathwater would get cold—telling myself, “If I fall asleep right now, there’s a pretty good chance I’m not waking up. People die in this situation all the time.”

I met Bob Dylan when Wilco played a College Media Journal showcase in New York City in 2006. “Hey, Jeff, how’s it going, man? Good to see you!” Bob had spoken to me! Without breaking stride. And I was left in his wake trying to play it cool, but I could feel all of the other folks around us looking at me. It was impossible to play it cool. “Dylan talked to me. Did you guys see that?!” I immediately undid any credibility I had just accrued by being visibly rattled. I had to sit down. Later, when I had collected myself, I called Susie to let her know Bob and I were already best friends (just exaggerating a bit). We were invited to the Grammy Awards in 2012 and Wilco was treated as a lowly posse of interlopers, so we felt both thankful and annoyed. It was annoying that Jack Black introduced Foo Fighters as the only band retaining their “indie cred”, especially when Wilco is literally indie. Playing alongside Daniel Johnston was one of the top 10 musical thrills of my life. But none of it really matters. My highlight that night was when, attending a Grammys afterparty, Sir Paul McCartney whispered to John Stirratt that he had loved watching Wilco play live on the Austin City Limits Festival (on September 16, 2011). Paul McCartney is a Wilco fan! Stirratt told us Paul Mccartney thought Wilco was the band closer to the sound the Beatles would have if they were an indie band. That was insane, and I think more meaningful than winning a Grammy Award.  

As I am recounting my youth, I’m realizing that growing up in an old midwestern industrial town in the seventies has made my memories sound like they were filmed on the set of some fifties sitcom. Soda fountains?! Penny candy?! I promise I didn’t make any of this up or fill in the gaps in my Vicodin-dimmed memory by watching reruns of Andy Griffith. Nowadays, I've stopped worrying about whether I have anything important to say. Also remember that even if everything's been said before, not everyone has said it. Music is magic.

Lyrics from the song Bombs Above from Jeff Tweedy's solo acoustic album "Warm" (2019): "All my life I've played a part/I'm taking a moment to apologize/I should have done more to stop the war/I leave behind a trail of songs/From the darkest gloom to the brightest sun/I've lost my way but it's hard to say/What I've been through should matter to you/A man so drunk he could hardly stand/Told me once holding my hand/Suffering is the same for everyone/He was right but I was wrong to agree." —"A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco" (2018) by Jeff Tweedy