Friday, September 18, 2009
Friday's Forgotten Books, etc.: Passions of My Youth
Two "forgotten" books:
Alex McNeil: Total Television (Penguin; 4th Edition, 1996)
Len Lyons: 101 Best Jazz Albums (Morrow; 1980)
Alex McNeil's Total Television was one of the two major guides to US television programming offered by the large commercial publishers in the 1980s and '90s...the other is The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, put together by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. The Brooks/Marsh is better for specific dates for regularly-scheduled programming, but rather foolishly completely ignores PBS and other public-broadcasting programming, even while trying to include as much commercial syndication programming as possible (and in later editions, cable shows). The McNeil, while often providing shorter entries and certainly less cast information per most series (it'a nearly a toss-up, however, on soap operas), not only includes the public broadcasting series but also does its best to cover other "dayparts" and the national programming made available in them. It's also better-written and slightly less bumptious. The name of the PBS dramatic anthology series Visions evaded my attempts at recalling it for years before I came across its entry here...and it's a real pity that while the competitor has continued to roll out, it's been more than a decade since McNeil's book has been updated.
Len Lyon's 101 was a book I was already arguing with as soon as I picked it up, as part of the my introductory quartet for the Quality Paperback Club (rip, I believe). Lyons, a jazz critic of some reknown but not quite as widely-hailed as, say, Nat Hentoff or Leonard Feather, did not shy awawy from expressing his opinions, as befits putting together a Best-Of guide, but also seemed to be arguing with himself to remarkable degree, including fusion albums despite not seeming to respect fusion all that much (particularly when he got to his Chuck Mangione selection), and seeming to resent the need to include anything at all by the Brubeck Quarter or, to a lesser extent, the Modern Jazz Quartet, when more space could be devoted to the Miles Davis catalog. (He doesn't rank the albums, but Kind of Blue is clearly given pride of place...along with the Gil Evans Orchestra album Porgy and Bess and Bitches Brew, among others.) Given that he also wishes to highlight the Jazz at Massey Hall concert album (often dubbed the "greatest jazz concert ever" with only a moderate amount of stretching, given the performance by the much-plagued quintet of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell) and other milestones from people ranging from Scott Joplin to Return to Forever, with unsurprising major bowing to the Ellington Orchestra, it's a wonder he doesn't step on himself even more in his attempts to be both comprehensive and true to his own taste (and also to try, as best he could, to restrict himself to only those LPs, in this 1980 book, still in print, or back in print). The book introduced me to Toahiko Akiyoshi and Betty Carter, and that might be enough to allow me to forgive the lack of respct for Messrs. Brubeck and Lewis.
Fairport Convention: Fairport Convention (Polydor 1968)
The Zombies: Zombie Heaven (Big Beat; recorded 1964-69)
So, I was a young jazz fan, and classical and blues and folk fan, keeping my ears open while going through my folks' rather diverse set of records and what I could find at the libraries I frequented, only occasionally going so far as to buy a cheap record (first single: the Brownsville Station's intentionally goofy, proto-pop-punk "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"/"Barefootin'"; first album might just've been the Pickwick Beach Boys anthology, like most Pickwick's cheaply assembled and pressed on barely-stiffened garbage bags, Surfer Girl--other candidates included cutouts of the Count Basie Orchestra's Chairman of the Board and an Audio-Fidelity recording of a no-name orchestra's reading of Pictures at an Exhibition, the Ravel orchestration of course, with a couple of short pieces by Mussourgsky appended without citation [the mark of an attentive label!]).
But I was most passionate about the jazz...even when finally returning to rock by the end of the 1970s, after mostly just hearing what everyone heard in an ambient way, I was drawn both to rawness of the punkish edge and to what I saw as the best employment of jazz influences (along with the vocal harmonies and minor keys of folk-rock). The Byrds satisfied in nearly every way, not least in the jazzy improvisation of much of the Fifth Dimension album ("Eight Miles High," "I See You," and all); the Animals, driven initially by Alan Price's piano and organ work, could thrillingly dig in; and then there were these two slightly geekish bands from Britain, one dead before its time (and having it's biggest hit two years after dissolving), the other producing one of its best albums before losing half the band in the first set of tragedies to befall it, and continuing in some form even today...though it never recovered enough from the loss of Richard Thompson to his brilliant duo/solo career.
More than with any of their subsequent albums, jazz informs the playing on Fairport Convention, even when covering Dylan ("Jack of Diamonds") or evoking him and the San Francisco scene (the brilliant "Don't Worry Ma, It's Only Witchcraft"); covering two Joni Mitchell songs (before she released her own versions, apparently) did nothing to discourage that, as well as showcasing the vocals of the underrated Judy Dyble (Sandy Denny, the doomed vocalist of the next iteration of Fairport, is often rated much more kindly...but she has a rather different approach, Denny's voice more a Spanish guitar to Dyble's autoharp, one of the instruments Dyble plays here).
While the Zombies also did nearly everything you could ask of them, and had a odd name to boot. Private (or, in the UK, public) school kids who never made any pretense of any sort of deprivation, not that they rubbed it in either, the quintet grew up in public with impressive choral chops and another brilliant keyboardist in Rod Argent, and in the three years and change that they recorded only had three big international hits, one of them released against their better (and correct) judgment ("Tell Her No" is one of their weakest recordings). That they packed it in before they were barely in their twenties is reflected in certain qualities of many of their lyrics, some from the perspective of the wounded adolescent ("She's Not There"), others still youngish but given over to bonhomie ("Friends of Mine"). They might have overreached in trying to cover Aretha Franklin (though "Soulville" is game) or Little Richard ("Rip It Up" also fun to hear), but when in their wheelhouse, as with "Remember You" or "This Will Be Our Year" or their recording of "Summertime"...devastating. "Beechwood Park" and "Smokey Day" are two of the most beautiful rock songs yet recorded, "I'll Call You Mine" and "She's Coming Home" among the most exuberant. And they can be damned funny, as well, as when they repurposed "Just Out of Reach" for a commercial for the film Bunny Lake is Missing, entitled in this version "Come on Time" (for the film), among others. "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" deserve every sale they've made over the decades...a real pity that the band Argent, and such other later projects as the quasi-reunion tours, haven't ever able to touch the work they did in the mid-'60s.
I've just started watching/listening to Hulu.com's offer of the tv adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, but so far, so good...(more about youthful passion than a youthful passion of mine, of course). And I like the utterly unforgotten, brand new Community, NBC's sitcom with a fine cast and some solid promise.
As always, check Patti Abbott's blog for more "Forgotten Books" for this week.