Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

Below you'll find my 1998 review of Whitney Houston: My Love Is Your Love from the long-dead-and-gone Addicted to Noise (or was it absorbed into by then?). Not the most fitting tribute given how poorly much of it reads (and how wounded I felt because Matador's publicist was so nasty to me). Still it serves as a testament to the pliability and ultimate unknowability of the mega pop star and the turmoil they visit upon her.

Anti/semipopular artists follow their muse wherever she leads them. But pop stars modulate their artistry in concert with an equally unknowable audience. Sometimes the modulations result in redolent struggles that tell us something about nationhood, history, public vs. private, democracy, whatnot. Just as often they result in anxious compromises, cynical pace-keeping, or crappy music. Whitney Houston had it all. She left behind at least two masterpieces - the rock critic's wet dream "Memories" and "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." And unadorned or mashed up with Kraftwerk, her voice was a wonder of nature. But she also left behind piles of goop goop which betrayed an R&B audience that was never hers in the first place and inspired In Living Color to claim her as part of a Rhythmless Nation. In short, she could please those willing to submit to the majestic will to power of her voice as well as those longing for a more democratic deployment of it. So whom do you serve? Houston never figured it out and even worse, her struggle with the question failed to power her music in the last decade.

Which turns out to have its own paradoxical drama to it. I choose to remember Whitney Houston today for none of the above but rather, "Million Dollar Bill" which I heard for the first time just tonight on the car radio during what I thought was a random Whitney block. The last single off her final album I Love To You, "Million Dollar Bill" features little of the DNA from its Loleatta Holloway sample. Instead, it has the feel of a modest post-soul dance track from a reliable journeywoman - Jean Carne, say. The drama inheres not in a jump back to her session singer roots but rather an alternative history where Whitney Houston enjoys a manageable following and avoids the pitfalls of pop music royalty. Might just have kept her alive past 48.

By Kevin John

I adore Rob Sheffield's Village Voice piece about The Bodyguard soundtrack because much of it revolves around wishing -- a central activity of most fringe Whitney Houston fans. Sheffield pines for a quirkier, braver Houston, one who would dare to duet with John Doe on the X classic "Adult Books" or who would inspire Bobby Brown to record his own "My Name Is Not Susan." Yet this isn't merely some sick rock critic wish-list. It's more a recognition of the fact that although Houston's voice is one of our era's best, it's been squandered (until now) on hack songwriting and arrangements that go boom, sound- and sales-wise.

The hipper among you might find such Sheffieldesque wishing as supremely wasteful as, well, listening to Whitney Houston. Why wish for something that the conservative diva would obviously never even consider doing? I mean, there's about as much chance of such collaborations coming to fruition as there is that Ms. Houston would, say, get together with Bill Laswell to perform a Soft Machine cover -- which, by the way, she did. The song is called "Memories" (from Material's One Down album, Laswell's 1982 discombobulated disco experiment). And, what's more, it happens to be just about the loveliest ballad in all of pop music. Whereas later in her career, Houston's voice would signify little beyond "I have a great voice," here Houston conveys the fettered, haunted emotion of the lyric without grandstanding and with brilliant control.

But think of it -- Whitney Houston actually knows who Soft Machine are! The universe is stranger than Matador's hallowed release schedule would have you believe. It was undoubtedly with this idea in mind that Sheffield went forth imagining the best of all possible pop-music worlds. To paraphrase his equally brilliant piece on Roxy Music, he and those of us who know Houston's potential have been condemned to wander the Top 40 landscape in exile, haunted by the memory of "Memories," hoping against hope that she would someday aim for its beauty too intense for the mortal ear. Hosanna -- that day has finally arrived.

The second I saw Houston's elegant, up-to-date look on the cover of My Love Is Your Love, I knew that this would be her best album. It seems so inevitable, although I'm not 100 percent certain why. Because The Bodyguard was such an unexpected culturefuck, maybe? Because she actually did fulfill the promise of "Memories" with "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" -- a hymn for our faithless, stressed-out time? Because the last few years have been great ones for R&B? Because the 90's in general have been a great ballad decade? Whatever the reason for it happening now, the reason My Love Is Your Love is such a good album is simple -- it's the music.

Houston has chosen fresh new songwriters, artists who have been partially responsible for the revitalization of R&B. It's evident that Houston's desire is to be part of the zeitgeist, rather than just passing through it via universal songs such as "The Star-Spangled Banner." You can hear the change immediately. Whitney comes out of a digitized loop on the first track, "It's Not Right But It's Okay," with the most narrative detail of her career, nailing her philandering man through credit card receipts and caller ID. It's one of three lively, off-beat productions that benefit from the player-piano aesthetic of Rodney Jerkins (who had huge success with it earlier this year on Brandy and Monica's "The Boy is Mine"). Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott offers up charitable star plaints in "In My Business" and "Oh Yes," Houston's sexiest song ever. And the sultry skank of Wyclef Jean's title tune proves that Houston can do universals sans bombs bursting in mid-air.

But it's the music of Houston's voice that puts most of these songs over. This is the first time she's been willing to di(v)e into her songs. That is, she's willing to explode her ever-important facility into odd phrasing and multi-tracked chaos, a strategy adopted by such megastars as (The Artist Formerly Known As) Prince, Michael Jackson and the Madonna of Bedtime Stories. She gamely attacks Elliott's goofy melodic shapes in "Oh Yes," and sounds like she's having fun dipping her voice on the last syllable of "you were so masculine." She's sisterly trading off vocals with Faith Evans and Kelly Price on "Heartbreak Hotel," although her best duet partner remains herself. She's exciting when she scats and improvises and tells the engineer to turn her up. It's said that Houston recorded this album in just two months. Imagine how great the next one will be if she cuts it down to a month.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Sherman Jazz Museum

Next time you're in Sherman, TX (!), cart your arse on down to The Sherman Jazz Museum. I was expecting something the size of the Marie Dressler Museum. But seeing as how it's housed in a former Masonic Lodge (one of the biggest in the state at the time of construction), it's actually quite cavernous inside. And inside you get a collection of music machines, thousands of LPs, and a room where Satchmo, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis are canonized alongside such titans as Maynard Ferguson, Al Hirt, and Chuck Mangione. You know, Maynard Ferguson, who once said of Ornette Coleman: "He's got bad intonation, bad technique. He's trying new things, but he hasn't mastered his instrument yet." You know, Al Hirt, who's been keeping our fingers dusty in dollar bins for years. You know, Chuck Mangione, who got saved from utter irrelevance by lampooning himself on King of the Hill. In short, the museum pays tribute to virtuosity as much as jazz. And yet I have to admit I loved every minute of it. Anything that could potentially give apoplexy to pretentious jazz types has my full support. And who knows? 500 years from now maybe Satchmo and Chuck Mangione will be cherished equally. The Sherman Jazz Museum is simply flattening out history at a quicker pace, just like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.

Another thing I loved about the museum is that it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces on jazz, Gary Giddins' essay on Stan Kenton from Visions of Jazz. Giddins wonders about the relative dearth of kitsch in jazz and finds it mostly in Kenton's overripe oeuvre. But The Sherman Jazz Museum had it in abundance including a copy of Stan Kenton's West Side Story glaring at us from the wall. In fact, Kenton seemed to be the museum's unacknowledged patron saint having helped kick off Ferguson's career and influencing much of the music on display. The proprietor was gracious enough to lend us iPods so we could listen to some samples. And it was a trip to hear Miles Davis' "Someday My Prince Will Come" next to something as "exquisitely, deliciously, and conceitedly bad" (to borrow Giddins' words) as Patrick Williams' "Threshold".

Back home I was naturally craving some Stan Kenton and played my classical-music-loving friend the scandalous Kenton Wagner which elicited approximately two minutes of derisive laughter. You haven't lived until you've heard his Latinized "Ride of the Valkyries." I kept getting visions of women in Viking hats and braids shaking their ta-tas to the beat. Wagner would've hated it. Adorno too. Also many pretentious jazz types. That's part of what makes it so much fun.

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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Zalman King, 1941-2012

He never acknowledged it. But given his enormous influence on the development of softcore cinema in the 1980s, Zalman King, who died February 3rd at the hardy-har age of 69, derived more inspiration from starring in Some Call It Loving (1973) than any other project in which he was involved. So arresting was the film’s erotic universe that King’s odd 1960s/1970s acting resume has long seemed an obstacle to his true calling as writer and/or director of such succès de steam as 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Wild Orchid (1989), and the Red Shoe Diaries franchise (1992-2001). Even today the film mesmerizes those lucky enough to encounter it. Despite its glacial pace, virtually an entire classroom of undergraduate students fell for it in a course I taught just last month. And after well over a decade, Some Call It Loving remains my vote for the greatest film ever made.

What King learned from James B. Harris, the director of Some Call It Loving, wasn’t a taste for aspirational erotica so much as the crazed determination to realize a godforsaken vision. And so after the aforementioned films crowned him the King of Skinemax, he embarked on one of the most unique but neglected filmographies of the last twenty years, beginning with the superior sequel Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue (1991) and reaching an apotheosis with Women of the Night (2001). Critics and viewers dismiss these films as “softcore” although technically, according to David Andrews’ excellent book Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts, that label should be reserved for films ordered by a narrative-(sex) number oscillation. King’s films are something else. And how.

It seems impossible, a miracle even. But Women of the Night damn near matches Some Call It Loving in world-making intensity. A convoluted tale of a blind woman sending out incantatory broadcasts into the wee hours from an 18-wheeler, it weaves together four, maybe five stories in riveting, dream-like logic. Image behaves like sound, wafting through the diegetic playground like radio waves in the ether. Repeated phrases and unaccountable bits of dialogue create a dense thicket of sound that competes with the image track. And the mise-en-scène is absolutely gorgeous. One throwaway three-second shot, a woman alone after a farewell party, contains an absurd amount of visual information. King festoons the set with nets, veils, fronds, creepers, lattices, streamers, gauze…oh wait. That’s Peter Wollen on Anatahan. But seriously, Women of the Night is the equal of any Von Sternberg.

As you take in the crew of beautiful people that the blind heroine has gathered to assist in her baffling endeavor, you soon discover that the film is about its own mad realization. Zalman King had the courage to realize films that would not yield their codes easily. But he also knew that they deserved better than their softcore pigeonhole. As the man himself said: “There’s only a handful of filmmakers – maybe two handfuls – in America who are leading with their chins, and I think you ought to get at least a couple of points for that.”* Well, you get way more than a couple from me, baby!

* Maitland McDonagh, Filmmaking on the Fringe: The Good, The Bad, and The Deviant Directors. (New York: Citadel, 1995), 68.

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