Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary

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One of John Leech's Illustrations for A Christmas Carol

All I Want for Christmas Is a Bunch of New Media

Several years ago, when I was 16, I was handed my first paycheck. As soon as I’d changed out of my Navy Exchange smock, I made a beeline for the bank, then the record shop. I was like a drunk inhaling that first cocktail: Crisp greenbacks smoking in my pocket; rows of shiny new record covers stretching for aisles and aisles. I think I bought albums by Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren, and T. Rex. In any case, it was ON.

Although this may not be the best example for anyone trying to follow a strict budget, music, books, and films have helped me: (1) learn about all kinds of things; (2) find my creative voice, and (3) stay sane/happier. To me it seems a bit different than spending money on other items. But what does this have to do with the holidays, or you?

Buying presents is one of the best excuses I know for getting a shopping high. If the elements of anonymity or surprise are included, it can even be thrown in the “random acts of kindness” category. Four years ago I made fiber-optic angels appear between Christmas Eve and the next morning for various people, including a very giving soul who was recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Bringing unexpected joy to others is the kind of magic that makes me feel downright merry. As Scrooge cried after his night of harrowing visitations, “I don’t deserve to be this happy!”

Friends and family like to think we know them, or are at least paying enough attention to know what they like. Media gifts are one of the most affordable ways to convey this. The following suggestions don’t even begin to cover all the bases, especially if your cousin likes to play video golf or your niece is really into Barbie. I can’t (and don’t want to) know everything.

First on the list is the Scrooge just mentioned, which can be a great choice for Christmas Eve. A British early-’50s release, it features Alastair Sim and a crew of wonderful character actors, including Hermione Baddeley. Accept no substitutes (or the colorized version – part of the draw is the phenomenal black and white photography). This is the one for which I always need at least two tissues. Or you might light a few candles and dive into A Christmas Carol, the book from which the film was adapted. This is one of those cases when it makes sense to seek out a hardcover printing – no kindle-ing. I’m very fond of the edition I was given when I was a little girl. Published by John C. Winston in 1938, it features an introduction by Lionel Barrymore, a photograph of page 62 from Dickens’s original manuscript (love the squiggly cross-outs), and evocative illustrations by Everett Shinn.

Or you can get all historical and buy a printing modeled after the first (1843) edition, with John Leech’s warm pictures. Either way, you’ll be returning to the tenets of cheer, love and generosity: Dickens’s story helped change December 25 from a neglected holiday (a status into which it had fallen in England and the United States) to one of sharing and celebration (that needn’t be tied exclusively to Christianity). I can’t think of anything more spiritual.

Next, if you can afford the remastered Beatles boxed set (mono version) that came out this fall, please get in touch and I’ll give you my address. After that you can figure out who else deserves a copy.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the sixties’ counter-cultural movement impacted the British as much as it did Americans. Monty Python: Almost the Truth answers that question, along with many, many more. The three-disc set includes profuse discussions with Python’s living members. If you’re already thinking, “Bor-ing,” or simply don’t like documentaries, you may not care whether there’s lots of performance footage – anyway, there is.

I don’t know how well some of the Python sketches will translate to anyone who’s more than a generation or two away from the source, or who hasn’t seen the show – it would be wise to supplement this set with complete episodes or films, like And Now For Something Completely Different. Python is recommended for just about anyone who craves the wackily irreverent.

Almost the Truth does a good job at exploring the fresh thought and freedom coming into fruition in the ‘60s. I was struck by the synchronicities attending the coming-together of Python’s unique talents, including Terry Gilliam, who grew up in the States, and who had a lot to do with the group’s consistently out-of-the-box creativity. There’s fascinating coverage of shows that influenced and/or led to Python, including Beyond the Fringe, The Goon Show, the David Frost Show, and Do Not Adjust Your Set (featuring the Bonzo Dog Band), all of which highlight the evolution toward the absurd set-ups that were Python at its best.

Python played a significant role in cracking the grey mood and rigid authoritarianism that permeated Britain following WWII.

As happens with many of my favorite documentaries, I feel privileged to be spending time with a group of very bright, articulate, influential people. Footage of the late Graham Chapman’s memorial is one of the most touching and inspiring things I’ve ever seen. Another highlight is clips and segments from the final concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which turned into a riotous party blurring the lines between Python and its hip audience, which included John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The next suggestion is for those friends that just about everyone likes to parody, and that’s the Renaissance Fair lovers who may lurk somewhere on your list. A new recording of Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII has been released. Whether it’s really for them, or you (if it is you, know that I type “parody” with love and a lighte heart) I shall laye out for you the tools for an unforgettable soiree.
They/you could mix up a vat of heady mead, along with whatever it is that goes with heavy mead. Partiers wearing lots of velveteen will be impressed by the Wakeman CD.

The hosts can then throw on The Lion in Winter. The film’s based-on-a-play, based-partly-on-history verbal sparring, delivered by four powerhouses (Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and a young, hungry Timothy Dalton and Anthony Hopkins), is basically a prolonged, intellectual cat fight–in other words, incredible.

After The Lion there could be a little palate-cleanser, perhaps Mary Timony, who, especially on The Golden Dove, stirs a unique brew of original songwriting with Medieval tones. Also good here would be Carols & Capers by Steeleye Span’s progressive folk goddess, Maddy Prior. Book-end the party with the new DVD of Wakeman performing The Six Wives last May at Hampton Court Palace. A staggeringly large group of supporting classical and rock musicians, and women dressed as the six queens, add to the pageantry.  By the time this is over, guests should be draped all about, drowsing and/or drooling, as dogs wander about licking their faces and gobbling leftover turkey legs. People will never stop talking about your party – in fact, I’m starting to be depressed at not being invited.

To date, there have been a lot of question-marks about one of Britain’s most influential bands (several previous products have included bits and pieces of history).  More Than This: The Story of Roxy Music is the first to examine the nuts and bolts of RM from its conception. It’s interesting to learn how Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, and Andy MacKay brainstormed this phenomenon into being.

I wasn’t aware of RM when it exploded out of Northern England in the early ‘70s. Even after I got into the band I was ignorant of its huge impact on British subculture and its influence on the new wave, electronic and glam-rock movements. But I did happen to catch Roxy’s June, 1977 show at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. The friend who swore I couldn’t miss it was fired-up partly because we were King Crimson fans, and Crimson’s John Wetton was on bass for that particular stop. We’d also heard intriguing reports about a techno-wizard named Brian Eno, as well as the flashy electric guitar of Phil Manzanera.

By the time Jerry Hall strutted across the stage waving her tiger tail during Roxy’s rousing cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” (as “Let’s Stick Together”), we were on our feet. We knew we were at one of the best concerts we’d ever experienced. We certainly knew we’d never seen anything like it.

Especially through ’76-’77, RM put the lie to the idea that high camp was an exclusively gay province (as did the New York Dolls, but in a much more rough-and-tumble way). Roxy was about a glamorous construct as much as it was about music. In the beginning it was very much about art (founder Bryan Ferry, who’d studied under pop artist Richard Hamilton, thought of it as a collage).

While I would prefer more live concert footage and less talking (commentators include Siouxsie Sioux and Duran Duran’s John Taylor), the DVD is still likely to intrigue art-rock mavens. Along with much of Ferry’s work with the band or solo, the More Than This could be seen as a document of sex/love addiction. It also exposes a fixated determination to escape the tedium of working or middle class existence into opulence and (stylized, controlled) hedonism. I feel these themes are best-tempered by the explosive energy and irony permeating the first several albums. A good example is the shocking, aching vulnerability of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache.” A vintage performance of the latter is included, along with “Do the Strand,” “Editions of You,” and “Both Ends Burning,” from a 2006 reunion show.

Throw a copy of the performance-rich Thrill of It All: A Visual History into the gift bag with More Than This, and the recipient will be aghast at your cultural and gifting savvy. Recommended albums: Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life.

Most of the following can be explored via past Off the Beaten Track(s): For quirky pop-experimental stimulation:  Micachu’s Jewellery (CD); for hard rock fun and inspiration: Status Quo’s Pictures: Live at Montreux (DVD); for the listener who likes stuff so bad it’s funny, Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. One (CD); for the folkie who wants his or her acoustics considerably out of the box: Fraser & Debolt with Ian Guenther (recently released on CD); and for your younger and/or more open-eared explorers:  Backwords, Beautiful Supermachines, and Bogs Visionary Orchestra. For great new pop: The Wandas (New Wave Blues/CD).

For anyone who can’t get enough of John Denver’s pure and simple vibe, there’s a new live performance DVD, with suitably excellent acoustics – Rocky Mountain High: Live in Japan.

We haven’t arrived at my column on very vintage (as in Sophie Tucker or Fanny Brice)  songstress Janet Klein, but if you know someone who loves the amazing Cheap Suit Serenaders, Klein has very effectively picked up the torch. You can count on her, or on Madame Pamita’s Wax Works CD. For a local finger-picking master’s take on holiday songs, go  with Jim Earp’s Bright Star. Three of the most interesting  songwriters  gracing San Diego coffeehouses are Michael Tiernan, Gayle Skidmore and Aaron Bowen – all have CDs.

Aaron Bowen's CD coverIf the economy’s tying your hands, a dash of creativity (applied to yard sales and thrift-shopping), or making cards, gifts, or music mixes, tends to go a long way. One year I had a lot of fun with some rubber stamps and a new poem. Right now I’m putting off  the hours of work involved in improving and printing a card for about 60 people (thanks to Facebook, and my desire to resurrect artsy card sharing). I’ll make that more exciting by spinning lots of weird and wonderful holiday music, to be shared with you next week.


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