Nick Cave at 60: Some Songs That Matter to Me

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Today is the sixtieth birthday of Nick Cave, the Australian singer-songwriter who has gifted the denizens of our planet with albums, film scores, screenplays, novels, poetry, acting and other forms of art for the past four decades. As a tribute, I have chosen to post seventeen videos (ten weren’t enough, and neither were twelve or fifteen); some of these selections represent songs that could be listed among Nick Cave’s greatest hits, while other choices are not necessarily Cave’s most famous or accessible works. But all of the music I have written about has had an undeniable effect on me. They are sounds that are eternally imprinted upon my brain – joyous, sorrowful, frenetic, complicated, beautiful. Take a listen and see if there’s something that you like too.

The Boys Next Door, “Shivers” (Door, Door, 1979). By rights, “Shivers” should be the centerpiece of a discussion of Rowland S. Howard’s music rather than Nick Cave’s, given that Howard penned the composition as a teenager. With melodramatic flair, however, Nick Cave put his own spin on what was originally more of a punk/power pop melody. For better and (if you had asked Howard) worse, Cave made “Shivers” his own; the Boys Next Door’s recording became one of Australia’s finest cult classics. It is, as described by PopMatters, “a song that is the closest approximation we may ever get to the slow dance at a prom in Hell.”

The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party, “The Hair Shirt” (Hee Haw, 1979). As the Boys Next Door morphed into the more aggressive and clamorous Birthday Party – both a name change and a stylistic adaptation – one of the group’s best productions was “The Hair Shirt.” Nick Cave barks like a hound, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey contribute the best guitar playing that the two young rebels had to offer, Tracy Pew lays down a solid bass line and Phill Calvert fuels the entire thing with a drumbeat that reminds me of jazz fusion. Whatever “The Hair Shirt” is, it feels revolutionary.

The Birthday Party, “Nick the Stripper” (Prayers on Fire, 1981). I shall always count it as one of my proudest memories of graduation school that I spent so much time talking about Nick Cave in my first semester. I don’t just mean in conversation with the friends that I made; I discussed Cave’s music in some form or another in many of my classes. In a class I took on film theory, there was a day when I did a presentation on Deleuzian time theory and used clips from the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth to illustrate my points; later that same day, on our class blog, I posted the “Nick the Stripper” video with further discussion of Nick Cave and company as subversive artists. The emphasis I really wanted to make was that few people outside of Nick Cave’s fanbase seem to recognize that he has a sense of humor. Much of the Birthday Party’s music has a dark, strange, twisted humor, especially “Nick the Stripper’s” mockery of the music video format.

The Birthday Party, “Fears of Gun”/”Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” (live, 1982). I like to think of this video as the gauntlet for all the listeners who are not totally converted to the religion of the Birthday Party. “Hamlet” is a maelstrom of noise, and my favorite part of “Fears of Gun” is the moment when Nick Cave is dragged into the audience. You can hear in the guitar fuzz from 3:37 to 3:44 that Rowland S. Howard stopped playing – possibly considering doing something about Cave’s situation – but the fact that RSH eventually just went back to performing and left Cave to fend for himself makes me laugh.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986). I love making the transition from Nick Cave’s Birthday Party years to his ascendance as leader of the Bad Seeds with this version of a song made famous by American country singer Glen Campbell in 1967. The album on which “Phoenix” appears, Kicking Against the Pricks, is an assemblage of covers that show Cave’s wide range of sonic influences. Other cuts on the album include “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” (John Lee Hooker), “The Singer” (Johnny Cash), “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (The Velvet Underground & Nico), “The Hammer Song” (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band), “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (Gene Pitney), “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” (a traditional gospel song arranged by the Alabama Singers) and “The Carnival Is Over” (The Seekers). “Phoenix” stands out to me as a particularly special track because I consider it one of Cave’s most touching vocal performances, and the guitar and organ parts were recorded by none other than Cave’s friend and former Birthday Party comrade, Rowland S. Howard.

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Sad Waters” (Your Funeral… My Trial, 1986). My #1 Bad Seeds album is Your Funeral… My Trial, which contains one of Cave’s most iconic songs, “The Carny,” as well as a number of underrated gems. The opening track, “Sad Waters” (Cave’s handwritten lyrics seen above), swirls with beauty. My favorite aspect of the song is that the opening line is taken directly from the country song “Green, Green Grass of Home,” popularized by Tom Jones in 1966: “Down the road I look and there runs Mary/Hair of gold and lips like cherry.” I like that Cave took that line as momentum to move forward with his own set of lyrics, springing forth from that initial inspiration.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “From Her to Eternity” (live, 1989). This might be my single favorite live performance that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have ever done. It’s not the most beautiful song or the most in-tune, but it is pure, raw emotion and every member of the band is functioning at 100%.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Knockin’ on Joe” (live, 1989). My favorite concert clip in the Bad Seeds documentary The Road to God Knows Where is this concert clip of “Knockin’ on Joe,” which originally appeared on the second Bad Seeds album, The Firstborn Is Dead (1985). Like other tracks on Firstborn, “Knockin'” follows Cave’s obsession with American blues music, specifically the mythology surrounding Elvis Presley. This rendition is more intense than the album version, pausing for an extended break and then building to a fever pitch that starts at the 3:10 mark and fully kicks in at 3:38. As one YouTube commenter wrote: “This performance is too much, just too, too much. I can’t explain.”

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Christina the Astonishing” (Henry’s Dream, 1992). With the aid of an eerie, echoing organ, “Christina” tells a classic Cave narrative, describing the story of a female character (based on Belgian saint Christina Mirabilis) in a style that conveys both pain and grace. It is a song that sounds like it has materialized from out of a dream, perhaps even more so than the rest of the tracks on Henry’s Dream, which has been considered by some critics to be a concept album.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Do You Love Me?” (live, 1994). The studio recording of “Do You Love Me?” holds a special place in my heart as one of the first Bad Seeds songs that I ever heard, making me a permanent fan of Cave and his collaborators; this live staging for “Later… with Jools Holland” is, in its own way, even better. Conway Savage’s keyboard playing sounds even more forbidding here, almost daring the listener (or, alternately, the person who is the subject of the song’s question) to respond.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (duet with Kylie Minogue, live, 1996). Every Nick Cave fan ought to be familiar with this performance, which features a great bit of behind-the-scenes filming from Nick himself at the beginning. “Where the Wild Roses Grow” partnered Cave with Australia’s bubbly pop princess, Kylie Minogue, and although the pairing took her out of her musical comfort zone, it’s clear both on and off the stage that she and Cave had terrific chemistry.

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Nick Cave’s fantastic rejection letter to MTV after receiving a surprise nomination for Best Male Artist, 1996. Here are videos of Nick and Kylie Minogue reading the missive aloud.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Curse of Millhaven” (Murder Ballads, 1996). “I got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming!” If you can get past the first few seconds of maniacal screaming, you’ll find one of this tale of a female serial killer named Lottie to be one of Nick Cave’s sickest, funniest songs. What else would you expect from an album that’s titled Murder Ballads, anyway? Bonus: the “Moron Tabernacle Choir” that sings backup vocals on “Millhaven” includes many of Cave’s good friends from the Australian music community, such as Warren Ellis, Brian Henry Hooper, Rowland S. Howard and Spencer P. Jones.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (No More Shall We Part, 2001). I consider this song one of Nick Cave’s greatest triumphs, both as a songwriter and a singer. What more needs to be said?

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Abattoir Blues” (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, 2004). The season one finale of the BBC Two drama “Peaky Blinders” featured “Abattoir Blues” prominently. This was not a shock, given that the series’ theme song is the classic Bad Seeds tune “Red Right Hand.” “Abattoir” shows that even after thirty-five years, Cave still had vitality and fresh ideas for his music; the background vocalists add so much depth to an already poetic song.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (live, 2008). In a review of the Bad Seeds’ Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! album for Uncut magazine, Alastair McKay wrote that “the band has never sounded better, and Cave seems to have relaxed into the hysteria of his vocal style; like Elmer Gantry singing Leonard Cohen at a tent-revival.” With that, please watch and enjoy.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jubilee Street” (scene in 20,000 Days on Earth, filmed in 2012). This is the clip that I taught in the film theory class that I mentioned earlier in the post. 20,000 Days on Earth’s “Jubilee Street” segment reminds me of one of Cave’s ruminations in the film: “My biggest fear is losing memory because memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive is tied up in memory.” As we watch Cave perform at the Sydney Opera House, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard show us assorted moments from Cave’s career, cut into the action to indicate that every single past experience has informed Cave’s evolution and led him to this present moment. The montage is thrilling to witness.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “I Need You” (Skeleton Tree, 2016). Watching the documentary One More Time with Feeling, in which “I Need You” is featured, is an experience that is half uplifting, half soul-crushing. It shows the creation of one of Nick Cave’s most incredible albums, but the film also discusses the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015. Both in spite of and because of the grief, Cave and his band made one of their most enduring albums. In an interview with The Guardian a few months ago, Nick Cave summed up what the album and the subsequent songwriting experience has been like: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux. So, to apply that to songwriting, a song like ‘I Need You’ off the new album [Skeleton Tree], time and space all seem to be rushing and colliding into a kind of big bang of despair. There is a pure heart, but all around it is chaos.”

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Robert Mitchum (1917-1997): A Look Back

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The only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail. – Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum, one of the greatest movie stars of the twentieth century, was born on this date in 1917. Described by a film critic in 1948 as “an oversized young man… with a corrugated nose, swamp-green eyes, a tight mouth and an elliptical face which sometimes gives him the appearance of Bing Crosby,” Mitchum was nevertheless one of Tinseltown’s most magnetic sex symbols and an unquestionably talented actor, playing heroes and villains with aplomb. He worked in probably every genre under the sun, starting with his uncredited debut in The Human Comedy (1943) and ending with his portrayal of director George Stevens in James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young (1997). To celebrate the centennial of one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, let’s take a look at a dozen of Robert Mitchum’s most intriguing performances from a fifty-year career in film and television.

Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur). The defining performance of Robert Mitchum’s career was also the one that made him a star: as private eye Jeff Bailey, one of the quintessential detective protagonists of the 1940s in the film noir classic Out of the Past. This is the film in which Mitchum spoke the line that would follow him for the rest of his life: “Baby, I don’t care.”

Rachel and the Stranger (1948, dir. Norman Foster). Please revel in the delight of this love triangle: frontiersman William Holden, his wife Loretta Young and Mitchum as an old friend of Holden’s. Hearing Mitchum sing two simple but pretty ditties, “Just Like Me” and “Summer Song,” is a treat.

The Lusty Men (1952, dir. Nicholas Ray). One of Nicholas Ray’s most underrated films is the Western The Lusty Men, in which a rodeo veteran (Mitchum) comes between a cowhand (Arthur Kennedy) and his dissatisfied wife (Susan Hayward). It’s wonderful to watch these fine actors interact, especially since Nick Ray was an expert in the fields of melodrama and complicated romance.

River of No Return (1954, dir. Otto Preminger). River of No Return is one of the first Robert Mitchum movies that I recall seeing. The thrill of seeing him travel treacherous rapids on a raft with Marilyn Monroe and Tommy Rettig seemed really exciting to me when I was a kid; now, of course, I pay closer critical attention to the stock Native American baddies who were “normal” sights in mainstream American cinema from that era, but when focusing primarily on Robert Mitchum’s performance, one has to admit that he did well in the role of a tough and weary (but intrinsically well-meaning) widower and father.

The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). Mitchum took on a career-defining role when he played preacher Harry Powell, who spends part of his time proselytizing and the rest of it victimizing gullible women like widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), as well as her two young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Charles Laughton’s adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel is a nightmarish vision of Americana, a story with Southern Gothic roots that was made with a decidedly un-Hollywood approach to cinematic narratives.

Foreign Intrigue (1956, dir. Sheldon Reynolds). There is a special place in my heart for the espionage thriller Foreign Intrigue, which borrows most of its continental flair from the earlier spy masterpiece The Third Man (1949). Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the plot, but the film is worth seeing for the always-reliable Robert Mitchum as a journalist-turned-secret agent, beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography by Bertil Palmgren and for the casting of the film’s two leading ladies: Geneviève Page, whom I know best as the elegant madam in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), and Ingrid Thulin, who found her fame in her native Sweden when she took both lead and supporting roles in a number of films directed by Ingmar Bergman, including Wild Strawberries (1957), The Magician (1958), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963) and Cries & Whispers (1972).

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, dir. John Huston). Aside from various American and Japanese extras, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a two-person movie set in 1944, in which a corporal in the U.S. Marines (Mitchum) and an Irish nun who has not yet taken her final vows (Deborah Kerr) are stranded on an island in the South Pacific. The chemistry between the film’s stars is palpable as the characters try to avoid temptation in the midst of wartime peril.

Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson). One of Mitchum’s most iconic roles was as Max Cady, an unrepentant criminal who makes parole and subsequently targets lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) – the lawyer whom he considers responsible for his conviction/imprisonment – and the rest of the Bowden family. Mitchum’s Cady is a truly terrifying character, one whose limitless menace will sear itself onto your brain for the rest of time.

Maria’s Lovers (1984, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky). I recall thinking that the casting of Robert Mitchum in Maria’s Lovers, a romantic drama set in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s, was surprising; in this scene, he flirts with Maria (Nastassja Kinski), who is about to marry his son Ivan (John Savage), and although the age difference between the actors (44 years) is off-putting, Mitchum imbues the moment with so much melancholy tenderness.

“A Family for Joe” (1990). Were you aware that Robert Mitchum starred as the patriarch on an NBC family sitcom in the early 90s? No, I wasn’t either. Interesting, though, right? A few episodes appear to be available on YouTube, so you can bet that I’m going to investigate further.

IMDb tells us: “The premise was that four cute upper-middle-class kids had been suddenly orphaned. About to be split up and sent to foster homes, they located a cranky old homeless man and offered him food, a home, and a decent life-style if he would live in their nice house and pose as their grandfather (this could only happen in a sitcom!). Of course he took his new responsibilities more seriously than they expected, and amid the quips, little lessons in life were learned by all around the sunny kitchen table. Roger was the helpful next-door neighbor, an air traffic controller turned homemaker.” The show only lasted for nine episodes, but the fact that Mitchum – the premier bedroom-eyed bad boy of the 1940s and 50s – would eventually also portray the septuagenarian father on a laugh-tracked TV comedy speaks volumes to his abilities as a performer.

Cape Fear (1991, dir. Martin Scorsese). Scorsese’s remake of the Mitchum-starring thriller from three decades earlier offers us two delightful role reversals: Gregory Peck plays a zealously religious attorney (he screams scripture in court as though he were presiding over a sermon), while Robert Mitchum plays a by-the-book detective. One of my favorite moments in the film is when an irritated Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) snaps at one of Lieutenant Elgart’s (Mitchum) comments, and Elgart replies with raised-eyebrow amusement, “Well, pardon me all over the place.”

Dead Man (1995, dir. Jim Jarmusch). I didn’t know until just a few years ago that Robert Mitchum worked with Jim Jarmusch. The pairing makes more sense than you might initially think. Yes, Jarmusch is a quirky filmmaker with tendencies toward the off-kilter and absurd, but he also loves stories that observe the rich and strange natures of American life. Robert Mitchum was, above all, an undeniably American breed of actor. Who better to deliver lines of mournful rumination to a stuffed bear, if not this man?

Painting the Art of Life: 12 Shots from Films by R.W. Fassbinder

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“I hope to build a house with my films. Some of them are the cellar, some are the walls, and some are the windows. But I hope in time there will be a house.”

(R.W.F. photographed by Daniel Boudinet, 1978.)

In honor of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was born on this day in 1945, here are images from a dozen films of his that I have seen. Each shot, so artistically composed because Fassbinder had a meticulous eye for detail, could stand on its own apart from cinematic context and tell a story as well as any painting or drawing could. Light, shadows, color (or stark black-and-white), set design,  camera angles and the uses of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame are all important parts of Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène, as are the costumes and makeup worn by his actors. Whether depicting a waltz in the desert, a melancholy rendezvous in an empty outdoor café, a decadent dinner party or a lively cabaret performance (by a character who is an updated version of Lola Lola from The Blue Angel), Fassbinder’s creativity is always evident. Each entry also lists the director of photography, or DP, for the corresponding film.

Thanks to his distinct and inimitable style, the structure of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “house” is long-lasting.

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Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) – DP: Dietrich Lohmann

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Whity (1971) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) – DP: Dietrich Lohmann

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The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – DP: Jürgen Jürges

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Fox and His Friends (1975) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Chinese Roulette (1976) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) – DP: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Lola (1981) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

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Veronika Voss (1982) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

Five by Frank

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To celebrate the centennial anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth today, here are five of my favorite recordings by Ol’ Blue Eyes. They are presented without comment; the songs and arrangements speak for themselves.

“Paradise” (from the album The Voice of Frank Sinatra, 1946)

“Stella by Starlight” (1947 single)

“Love Walked In” (1947, from a CBS live radio broadcast celebrating the music of George Gershwin)

“Where Are You?” (from the album Where Are You?, 1957)

“The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)” (from the album All Alone, 1962)

As it is proclaimed in Barry Levinson’s film Diner (1982):

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An Actor’s Life for Him

Ninety years ago today, my great-uncle Jerome Raphel (sometimes spelled in his acting credits as “Jerome Raphael”) was born. Jerry, or “Unc” as he was known in our family, was a colorful character. He had a short but memorable career as an actor in stage productions, films and television shows in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He never became a household name, but he made an undeniable mark on the acting world because of the high caliber of his performances and the respect he earned from his colleagues.

Jerry was born as Joseph Raphel (later changed to “Jerome”) on November 1, 1925. He had two older siblings, Aaron (my mother’s father) and Rebecca (who died before Jerry was born). A New Yorker all his life, Jerry graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn and attended Rutgers University, receiving his degree in psychology after World War II and holding a membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Prior to his completing his college education, Jerry served as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII (he signed up when he was underage), surviving the Battle of Iwo Jima. When he became an actor he was part of the artistic, avant-garde milieu in NYC in the 1950s and 60s, including figures from the Beat Generation and theatrical personalities like Judith Malina and Julian Beck, the founders of the Living Theatre, a group to which Jerry belonged. He counted the poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, writer/filmmaker Susan Sontag, psychiatrist Fritz Perls and novelist/psychotherapist Paul Goodman among his friends too.

Jerry’s name appears with the following description in the index of the book Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generation Album (2003): “…began his acting career with the Living Theatre, appearing in Many Loves, The Connection, The Cave at Machpelah, and Tonight We Improvise. He has been in several television dramas and the film version of The Connection. He also played in LeRoi Jones’s The Slave at the St. Mark’s Playhouse.”

Attentive film buffs and scholars might recognize Jerry from the feature films The Connection (1961) and The Cool World (1963), both directed by Shirley Clarke. (In the trailer for The Connection, posted above, Jerry has a speaking part starting at the 0:28-second mark. By the way, a fun fact: my father saw Jerry perform in the original stage version of The Connection, two decades before my parents actually met!) These films are classics of women’s cinema and New York independent cinema from the early 60s; The Cool World was nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, and the film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1994. Jerry also had roles in Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills (1963) and The Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1965), as well as Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), an A-list Western that stars Robert Redford, Katharine Ross and Robert Blake.

Jerry worked with Shirley Clarke because he was a member of the Living Theatre. He toured with the troupe all over the USA and in London. According to the Internet Broadway Database, his Broadway productions include Lorenzo (1963), staged by Arthur Penn and co-starring Alfred Drake, David Opatoshu, Fritz Weaver (a quick note: my mother ran into in Mr. Weaver in Manhattan many years ago – he fondly remembered Jerry and asked how he was), Carmen Mathews and Herb Edelman; The Seagull (1964), directed by Eva Le Gallienne and co-starring Farley Granger, Denholm Elliott and Thayer David; and The Crucible (1964), directed by Jack Sydow and co-starring the same cast from The Seagull. Jerry appeared in many other notable productions on Broadway and off, like the American Place Theatre presentation of Anne Sexton’s Mercy Street (1969), which co-starred one of the great ladies of the American stage, Marian Seldes, in addition to Shakespearean experience by appearing opposite James Keach in a 1972 production of The Tempest in New York and working with the Stanford Shakespeare Company in California.

Taking a look at his IMDb filmography, you can see that Jerry appeared on TV in the shows “Route 66,” “Naked City,” “For the People” (a short-lived crime drama that starred William Shatner, Howard Da Silva and Jessica Walter), “Get Smart” and “Sesame Street.” I think Jerry’s segments for “Sesame Street,” in which he always played a victim of Paul Benedict’s digit-crazy “Number Painter” character, are how he is best remembered by those who seek out classic TV on YouTube. (Certainly the fact that he has a profile on the Muppet Wiki site indicates that there are some fans who remember his contribution to television/pop culture.) Two other clips of Jerry working with the “Number Painter” can be seen here and here.

Jerry lived a long life in Brooklyn, passing away on November 8, 2012, one week after his 87th birthday. He had an impish sense of humor and an eccentric wit – sometimes, on choice occasions like Passover, even playing the role of prankster – besides being an extraordinarily generous man. Throughout his life Jerome Raphel was a great storyteller and also a wonderful listener, entertaining us with his endless supply of anecdotes and quips. He is remembered by several generations of loved ones, many of whom have followed his path into the world of the arts.

A Short Trip Into Musical Headspace

Last winter there was only one vinyl set I needed to purchase: Six Strings That Drew Blood, a four-record anthology chronicling the career of Australian singer-songwriter Rowland S. Howard. For the short time that my record player was still working, I liked listening to these records whenever I was home alone. The music made sense when echoing through empty walls. Since today is RSH’s birthday, I figured I would share with you four songs included on Six Strings That Drew Blood, music that I go out of my way to share with practically everyone I meet since it’s just that good, that powerful.

“Some Velvet Morning” (1982, duet with Lydia Lunch – cover of 1967 original by Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra) – John Robb wrote in a 2010 piece for The Quietus that “[Howard] made a singularity brilliant record with Lydia Lunch – a powerful swaggering take on Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ which for me is the record that I will always remember him by. His sneering vocal alone on that record makes it one of the great releases of the period and the cover shot of him and Lydia Lunch drips pure sex. The pair of them further collaborated on other songs that dripped full of erotic violence and melancholy.” More to the point, with regard to RSH as a musician, Robb noted that “in a world of too many guitar players Rowland Howard actually managed to produce a distinctive sound all of his own. Far too rare an achievement with an instrument that is regularly abused by the average and the cloth eared who adhere to tired old rules, techniques and clichés. Players like Rowland Howard arrive only occasionally – a handful in each generation – are barely recognised by the dull mainstream that rewards effort over genius and plodding hard work over brave and instinctive originality.”

“Six Bells Chime” (Wings of Desire concert scene, filmed 1986/released 1987) – I’m sure that by now my most of my friends and family are sick of me talking about how much I love Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. But if you felt the way I do, and you had had the opportunity that I had to see the film on the big screen, watching Crime & the City Solution perform “Six Bells Chime” and the rare, beautiful moments in which Rowland S. Howard’s guitar reverb echoed through a Berlin hotel ballroom, you would want to talk about it too.

“Shivers” (1999 performance on TV) – Intended as a sarcastic punk anthem when Rowland wrote it at age 16 and later recorded it with the Young Charlatans in 1978, “Shivers” turned into the ultimate morose-teen ballad when he joined the Boys Next Door and the song was reinterpreted by lead singer Nick Cave a year later. (The treacly difference probably explains why Rowland looks so thoroughly bored and/or despondent in the accompanying music video from that second link.) When RSH performed the cult-classic song twenty years later, it was a kind of cover of his own work, taking on a different tone, one that has the gravity that comes from two additional decades of life experience. I’m glad that this 1999 version is the one that’s included on Six Strings That Drew Blood, the track that opens the collection on disc 1, side A.

“The Golden Age of Bloodshed” (2009) – Some time ago I read a customer review on Amazon.com for Howard’s final album, Pop Crimes, and the writing has stuck with me: “If RSH had had his hand in 1000 different albums you would just have to have them all. Unfortunately the totality of his output is rather slim, thankfully not vanishingly slim. Anything Howard touched was imbued with black magic, regardless his co-conspirators. His mark is always undeniable and inimitable. That which he penned himself or appropriated to cover, as on this epitaph album, is exceptional. I could seriously do with a dozen RSH solo records, another dozen from These Immortal Souls and the same again from his other bands. Not the least of which would be in partnership with the also late and woefully under-appreciated Nikki Sudden. Check out Teenage Snuff Film which is equally terrific. If I had any inclination towards the melodramatic, which I do not, I would call Howard’s work devastating. Apparently our man released into the world just so much wickedly beautiful stuff as was his destiny. A catalog of undiluted splendor. Thank you Rowland and a fond farewell…” It’s beyond sad that the music video for “The Golden Age of Bloodshed,” which is the last track on Howard’s last album, is footage from his final concert, but at least we have the memories and the music. And I have my four-record set.

Five Times I Was Amazed by the Films of Wim Wenders

As I did in yesterday’s post, today I am commemorating the birthday of a genius in the history of world cinema: German writer-director Wim Wenders turns 70 today. For nearly half a century Wenders has dazzled viewers with drama, comedy, romance and adventure presented in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. Here, to give you some samples of his craft, are five scenes that I love – it goes without saying that these films are all highly recommended.

Kings of the Road (1976) is perhaps Wenders’ definitive German “road movie,” the crown jewel of the genre that made him famous in the 1970s. This scene, in which the two main characters (played by Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler) listen to a record of Improved Sound Limited’s “If I Could Read Her Mind,” exhibits a combination of music/no dialogue that allows the audience to focus on the winding road, the stark landscape (photographed by co-cinematographers Robby Müller and Martin Schäfer) and the open sky above. The scene also reminds us of Wenders’ sublime ear for which kinds of rock music sound best on the highway, an element that he has incorporated into his features and short films since the late 60s.

When Paris, Texas (1984) starts, these first images exemplify the spectacle of the great American nowhere, as I like to think of it, which showcases the loneliness of the wide expanse that rolls on and on for who-knows-how-many miles. Our introduction to the film’s main character, Travis Henderson (played by the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton), tells us little except for one crucial point: he is a man of few words. Even once he finally begins to open up and talk in the film, his words come out with the sound of a man who is unsure about whether he is saying the right things. In the first few minutes, though, all we know is that our protagonist is a most unusual fellow. Robby Müller’s cinematography and the blues twang of Ry Cooder’s guitar complete Wenders’ unique picture.

In Wenders’ magnum opus Wings of Desire (1987), Peter Falk, who plays himself, boils the beauty of human existence down to the essentials when he extrasensorily perceives the presence of angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) on the street. For a wandering immortal, the advice of a man who does not take little pleasures like coffee and cigarettes for granted means a lot; later on in the film, Damiel will “take the plunge” and become human. Falk’s lines underscore the strange, unexpected joys of what it means to live on Earth.

Trying to make a sequel to Wings of Desire sounds impossible, doesn’t it? And yet Faraway, So Close! (1993) achieves so many moments of grace, even if the product as a whole does not measure up to its predecessor. Take, for instance, this scene when the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) invisibly observes Lou Reed in his hotel room. Reed sings about the city of Berlin as only he can in that gravelly baritone of his, reflecting on the loss of a memory as he tries to reconnect the fragments of his recent actions and retrieve a forgotten lyric. When you watch Faraway, So Close! with an audience, particularly now that Reed is no longer with us, you can feel a ripple of awe pass through the crowd. There is something undeniably magic – whether movie-magic or music-magic or both – in this brief segment.

The documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014), which Wenders co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, profiles the life and career of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (father of the film’s co-director). The film opens with this montage of images shot by the film’s subject, images which resonated with Wenders so much when he discovered them that he was immediately inspired to learn more about the man behind the camera. In Wenders’ hushed narration we come to understand why he was so moved to make this film; Salgado’s photographs are aesthetically pleasing but they also capture the many plights of the human condition, literally shedding light on warfare and genocide as well as providing ethnographic studies of cultures from all over the world.