Friday Music Focus: 3/3/17


Today we look at six songs/score compositions that occasionally mix the political with the personal, sometimes because of the musical content and sometimes because of my own experiences and reflections.

Michael Shannon, “Russians” (performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2/28/17; song originally performed by Sting on the album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985). This is everything that a great cover version should aspire to be: funny, strange, substituting the word “chicken” in place of “children” in one line (because why not?). In this unpredictable, often unsettling world we live in, it’s good to know that one of America’s finest actors can also be crowned the king of karaoke.

Ryan Adams, “Outbound Train” (appears on the album Prisoner, 2017). What is it about this particular song that I like so much even though I have never cared for Ryan Adams’ music? Almost a week after first listening to his latest album, Prisoner, in its entirety, I’m still working on the answer.

Ride, “Charm Assault” (single, 2017). And now we have an unquestionably great new song, brought to you by a British band that charmed fans in the early-to-mid-90s with stellar tunes like “Dreams Burn Down,” “Twisterella” and “Black Nite Crash” before going on a twenty-year hiatus. 2016 and 2017 have been exciting times for British bands of yesteryear: The Stone Roses released two new singles, Lush briefly reunited twenty years after breaking up for a successful EP and tour in 2016 before disbanding again; Slowdive returned after two decades with the terrific single “Star Roving”; plus it looks like we’ll be welcoming Elastica back too.

Martini Ranch, “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” (music video; studio version appears on the album Poor Cow, 1988) and New Order, “Touched by the Hand of God” (music video; song appears on the soundtrack of the film Salvation!, 1987, dir. Beth B). The late, great Bill Paxton made appearances in a number of music videos in the 1980s – anyone who adores Pat Benatar has probably seen the World War II-set video for “Shadows of the Night,” in which Paxton has a small role as a Nazi radio operator, and if you’re a Barnes & Barnes fan, you will undoubtedly recall the promos created for “Fish Heads” (which Paxton also directed) and “Soak It Up” (one of the duo’s more conventional-sounding songs) – but my two favorite appearances by Paxton are in a video for a song by his own band, Martini Ranch, and in the video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God.” Both clips riff on pop culture; “Labouring Man” references the themes and visual style of the classic Fritz Lang sci-fi film Metropolis (1927), while “Touched” shows New Order’s band members mocking the hair, clothes, and general music-video-storytelling sensibilities during the hair metal era. You barely see Paxton in the New Order video, but there’s something deeply affecting in the way that director Kathryn Bigelow presents the mysterious “love story” involving him and Rae Dawn Chong. Whatever the details in this couple’s existence, the narrative is open to interpretation and imagination.

Most of all, I just really love New Order and “Touched by the Hand of God” is one of my favorite songs by them.

Edward & Alex Van Halen, “Respect the Wind” (plays over the end credits of the film Twister, 1996, dir. Jan de Bont; appears on the soundtrack album, same year). Every fan of American film and television from the last thirty years probably has a go-to Bill Paxton role, something that immediately sticks out as an iconic piece of work that no other actor could have done as well. There are so many characters to choose from in so many productions: The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, One False Move, the notoriously freaky cult classic known as Boxing Helena, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan, Frailty (which Paxton also directed), the HBO series “Big Love,” the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” Nightcrawler and the CBS drama “Training Day” (which began airing only a month ago), to name a few. For me, the clear winner is Twister, a film which I will watch whenever it’s on TV, much like another action classic that Jan de Bont also directed in the mid-90s, Speed. (I’d like to note that my second favorite Paxton role is as the fast-talking, pervy car salesman in True Lies, mainly because it was the first film of his that I can remember seeing, albeit in an edited-for-TV format.) Twister feeds my fascination for disaster films, a love that I can trace back to when I was first horrified by The Towering Inferno as a kid; at least with Twister there is a mostly happy resolution and a feeling that human beings understand nature and themselves better at the end than they did at the beginning.

“Bill Paxton fought Aliens and The Terminator, but he was always just a guy from Fort Worth,” according to one recent essay’s headline. Paxton was exactly the sort of actor who the industry – and all of us – take for granted, seeing him play numerous kinds of parts regardless of recognition (or the lack thereof, most often), never being typecast because of his ability to slip back and forth between extraordinarily different roles with ease. He has also been eulogized as an exceptionally nice guy by his family, friends, coworkers and even fans who met him for only a brief moment.

I remember the first time I saw Twister again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which made seeing his goofy, fun-loving character again both sweet and sad, but I remember especially how much more bittersweet the film’s end credits sequence was when I saw Hoffman’s name while the Van Halen brothers’ guitars wailed out “Respect the Wind.” On Wednesday night, I caught part of Twister on the channel Spike; after Bill Paxton’s untimely passing, the Van Halens’ song has accrued yet another layer of poignancy. No matter how much we like or take notice of performers, in many cases it is not until they have shuffled off this mortal coil that we fully appreciate their immense talents. In the pilot of Paxton’s new show “Training Day,” another actor has a line of dialogue that perfectly describes what Bill Paxton did with his own career: “We try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” Requiescat in pace, Bill.

Six of My Favorite David Letterman Interviews

As The Late Show with David Letterman comes to a close, signaling the end of thirty-three total years of Letterman’s hosting duties on that program (1993-2015) and Late Night with David Letterman (1982-1993), I would like to share five of my favorite interviews that Letterman has conducted during his decades as a late night talk show host. Network TV won’t be the same without his eccentric comedy. (I realize now, after compiling the list, that all of the guests I am showcasing are men, but my choices were not actively intended to exclude female interviewees.) Anyway, enjoy these wonderful clips!

Bill Murray was Letterman’s first-ever guest on Monday, February 1, 1982. For what it’s worth, Murray has lived up the promise he made that night: “I swear, Letterman, if it’s the last thing I’m gonna do I’m gonna make every second of your life from this moment on a living hell.” It has always been a treat to see Murray and Letterman together, including the penultimate show earlier tonight (well, since it is almost 5:00 AM now, I mean last night), during which Murray burst out of a “Goodbye Dave” cake and smothered Letterman in a crumb-filled embrace that left the host wearing a frosting beard.

In 1986, Tom Waits stopped by the Late Show to promote his recent album Rain Dogs and to discuss upcoming projects like the Jim Jarmusch film Down by Law and a theatrical adaptation of Waits’ song “Frank’s Wild Years” into a musical. Waits’ charmingly oddball sense of humor permeates every interview he has with Letterman, including his conversation with Letterman last week, after which Waits debuted a new song written especially for the occasion, “Take One Last Look.”

When people think of the combined terms “Joaquin Phoenix” and “Letterman interview,” they probably remember Phoenix’s infamous 2009 interview in which he was in the guise of Joaquin-Phoenix-the-actor-turned-rapper. The chat culminated in a brilliant send-off from Letterman, who had not been in on the joke: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” What I particularly love, though, is this 2010 interview in the video posted above, which was Phoenix’s first return to the show as his normal self to promote the mockumentary I’m Still Here (2010) about the ruse. Letterman fires some great lines at Phoenix for having duped him in that previous interview.

All things considered, Regis Philbin is my favorite Letterman guest. There is simply nothing better than their rapport, a true friendship that allows them to do things both silly (sharing laughs over ice cream) and serious (discussing what it means for a person to serve his or her country, including Letterman’s experience with the Vietnam War draft and lottery). It was hard for me to pick just one great example of Letterman and Philbin together; another lovely moment was when Letterman sat next to Philbin in the second guest chair rather than behind the desk and the two friends reminisced about old memories and even danced together a little.

Michael Shannon’s first interview with David Letterman, promoting the film Man of Steel (2013), was fun to watch because two months earlier I had read an interview with Shannon in New York Times Magazine that discussed his fervent hope to be interviewed on his favorite late night talk show: “How many movies do you gotta do to get on ‘David Letterman’? All I’ve wanted since I was 15 freaking years old was to be on ‘David Letterman.’ I mean, I’m in Man of Steel. I think they all think I’ll be violent.” Shannon did in fact get to go on the show to promote his summer blockbuster and he told some fun stories about getting started in show business too.

Every year for many years I looked forward to the annual telling of Letterman’s “favorite talk show story ever,” Jay Thomas’s remembrance of an encounter with “The Lone Ranger” (actor Clayton Moore) in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you’re looking for great entertainment, you’re not going to do better than Thomas’s tale, topped off by a terrific punchline. The other half of the holiday ritual is the game that Thomas and Letterman play of using footballs to try to knock a meatball off the top of a Christmas tree. It’s goofy traditions like these that I will probably miss the most when December rolls around.