March 15, 2007

Mystery Train, next stop Memphis

If you have the patience to watch and enjoy as a rich noir-influenced story unfolds with diverse characters, three loosely interrelated plots, and an absolutely top-notch soundtrack, then Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train is one you should definitely dig up at the rental place.

I never saw this when it came out in 1989 because although I have always liked this kind of music, I was preoccupied with NKOTB at the time and probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see it anyways because there are boobies. I was more about the Hangin’ Tough Live Concert video than moody atmospheric musical travelogues through rock history’s footprints. But now that I have grown, man alive did I enjoy this one.

Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Coffee & Cigarettes, Year of the Horse) clearly loves music, and there is nary a city in America where music is more firmly enmeshed in the pulse of the community than Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a story that takes its sweet time unravelling, with long pauses to breathe. The cinematography is vignette driven, almost like a series of postcards with lingering shots of the city of Memphis — the dirty, gritty, ambling back alleys and monuments to Elvis and references to Graceland.

And Elvis is indeed everywhere (even if our young Japanese protagonist keeps insisting that Carl Perkins was better); inescapable and as much of a living character in the film as anyone else. The black velvet portrait over the bed of the skeevy motel even pictures the gentle doe-eyed Elvis who smiles down on the rapid-fire consummation (okay, it’s the 11th time) of young teenage love.

The film starts with that teenage Japanese couple pulling into the train station for a firsthand pilgrimage of American rock and roll history. He sports a pompadour and the ever-present cigarette behind the ear, while she rocks the combat boots, a leather jacket, and a bright enthusiasm for anything related to American rock and roll. They don’t really know where they’re going, on several levels, but that’s okay with them.

After their story is mostly told (but left unfinished), the night rewinds and we meet a young Italian widow also in town to bring home the body of her husband to Rome. Played by the lovely Nicoletta Braschi (La Vita è Bella), hers is a wide-eyed and gentle respite between the other two tales. It was during her story that I found myself unable to resist belting out a bit of Marc Cohn: “Saw the ghost of Elvis down on Union Avenue. . .” even though most days I could do without that song. Rare the film that melds American rock history with the sonorous sounds of the Italian language, and I loved that segment.

Finally the triple-action view of the evening is wrapped up with a glance into the activities of three wayward punks (one of which is, oh, Joe Strummer, another a very young Steve Buscemi) and their drunken crimes. Although concrete connections between the three parallel storylines become apparent throughout the course of the night, the tales never directly intersect. Characters who know each other find themselves down the hall from one another, hearing the same sound, but never knowing of the intersection. Ultimately, it’s just a glimpse, and the film feels unfinished — but agreeably so.

For the music nerd, the film does journey through several immortalized locations, including a fast-talking tour of Sun Studios and some of the last footage ever shot of the original legendary Stax Records (by the way, if you like that soul sound, check out the Stax 50th Anniversary box set just released this week).

The melancholy soundtrack throughout is of the finest quality and simply cannot be beat for the atmosphere it creates, reminding me of the David Lynch scoring in Blue Velvet. Most of the tunes used in the soundtrack were actually recorded at Sun Studios back in the heyday, and the film resurrects them in almost-eerie fashion.

PS — the richly honeyed voice on the radio with the 2am intro to ‘Blue Moon’ in each of the three vignettes is none other than Tom Waits. Come on.

Mystery Train – Elvis Presley
Mystery Train – Junior Parker
Blue Moon – Elvis Presley
Domino – Roy Orbison
Soul Finger – The Bar-Kays
Pain In My Heart – Otis Redding
The Memphis Train – Rufus Thomas
(I was so excited when Joe Strummer’s character selects this last tune on the bar jukebox — I just “found” it recently on the What It Is! compilation, and it has been an essential and beloved addition to my favorite new mix CD. Great song – and watch for the cameo in the Memphis train station by ole’ Rufus himself).

An absolute must-see, a very cool movie.

March 10, 2006

Roy Orbison? Yeah, he’s The Man.

Following the stellar enthusiasm that greeted my Zombies post a few weeks ago (over 1,000 hits that day, my most ever!), I feel more comfortable promenading out a few other of the oldie/goodie variety of folks currently in residence inside my iPod.

So you’ve heard Pretty Woman (like, a thousand times), and Only the Lonely is a bona fide crooner classic. But do you know the depth and quality of the musician that was Roy Orbison? Not as camera-friendly and rico suave as some of his other counterparts, Roy nonetheless made some absolutely superb music that still sounds good and fresh and eminently listenable 50 years later.

Born in Texas in 1936, Roy asked for a harmonica (but received a guitar) for his 6th birthday (I think my 6th birthday was more about the My Little Ponies and the Rainbow Brites. That’s awesome). His daddy taught him to play, and Roy used to love to stay up late with the grown-ups and play songs like “You Are My Sunshine.”

Roy worked his way up from winning a radio contest for jingles in 1946 to forming his own band that same year, called The Wink Westerners (right). Their band started playing on a weekly local radio show, as well as providing the tunes for dances at the local community center. As Roy entered college, he and his bandmates began playing less country and more rock’n'roll, covering greats such as Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry. They also had a weekly television show in Odessa, and in the fall of 1955, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley appeared on his show. Roy asked Johnny for advice on how he could get some of his music produced onto a record, and Johnny gave him Sam Phillips (owner of Sun Records) phone number in Memphis. He was promptly hung up on.

March of 1956 brought the opportunity at last for Roy to make his record with a local businessman by the name of Weldon Rogers. Under the name of Roy and the Teen Kings, the music was recorded and the single was released two weeks later. Roy took a copy to a well-known record dealer in West Texas, who liked it instantly and played it over the telephone to one of his connections in Memphis. His “connection” loved it as well and asked him to send a copy to the Sun Records offices. Indeed, it was none other than Sam Phillips, who had hung up on Orbison just a few months before.

After recording with Sun, Roy’s music grew in popularity in the ensuing years. He had a string of #1 hits of his own recordings, and his songs were recorded by many artists in the day such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rick Nelson. In May 1963 he was tapped to open for The Beatles in England, before they had hit big in the States. The tour was a runaway success and sold out in one afternoon. On the first night, Roy did fourteen encores before The Beatles could get on stage. He also toured with the Beach Boys in ’64 and the Stones in ’65. The man was versatile and unique in his sound, and the audiences loved him. Let’s listen why:

Claudette – rollicking harmonica with tasty guitar licks floating over the top, this song was actually popularized by The Everly Brothers after they needed a song for their new single and Roy scribbled the lyrics for Claudette (which he had written) down on the back of a shoebox for them. As recorded by the Everly Brothers, it was the B-side to All I Have To Do Is Dream, and climbed the charts up to #30.

California Blue – my favorite song by Roy. I listened to it over and over last month when I was in California, namely as I walked along the pier in Santa Cruz in the sunshine. Picture it. Uh huh. It’s that good.

Heartbreak Radio – here we go all rock’n'roll, and this song makes me think of big, fast, old cars racing on a Saturday night, or sock hops and things like that.

Pretty Paper” (live) – cover of a lovely Willie Nelson song, one that Chris Isaak also covered on his recent Christmas album. I know I am going about this backwards, but I have been more of a Chris Isaak fan in the past 10 years or so than a Roy Orbison fan, and I am amazed at just how much Isaak sounds like Orbison. Like, almost identical. Also extremely pronounced on this next track:

Blue Bayou – I like the slight Latin backbeat, and, again, the nice harmonica. This song makes me happy. No, seriously, I have to keep checking to make sure that I really am NOT listening to Chris Isaak. Sorry if that’s heretical to some of you, but really.

Crying” (live) – this performance is from his Black & White Night live album (1987), which I find interesting because it kind of shows the respect and admiration he has among today’s musicians. Appearing on the stage with him for this CD we have Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, etc. In fact, Bruce Springsteen once said he wished he could write like Bob Dylan and sing like Roy Orbison, and here he plays guitar.

eMusic has a solid selection of Roy Orbison stuff, if you are still looking for ways to spend those 50 free downloads you hopefully got from clicking that little banner on the right side of this very blog. Props also to the interesting and informative Orbison biography on his website, which also has some great audio interview clips with Orbison answering questions such as “Is it true that you have written entire songs in thirty minutes?” and “Sunglasses are your trademark, how did that happen?” Classic.

It’s all so, so good, isn’t it? You’d be hard-pressed to have a bad weekend with this on the stereo.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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