Today’s Music Sux, Exhibit B

Art N’ Soul — “Ever Since You Went Away” (1996)

Some of you will remember these one-hit wonders as Tony Toni Tone knockoffs (they were from Oakland and I believe one of the members of the Tonies discovered them) but either way, this song was one gorgeous bit of mid-90s soul. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Even third tier 90s R&B cats are running laps around this so called R&B today.

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Today’s Music Sux, Exhibit A

Herbie Hancock — “Come Running to Me” (1977)

[YouTube=http://YouTube.com/watch?v=c6WrK7m4ZPk]

You Ain’t No God Expert

(some of you asked for the full version of this, here it is)

Summertime in Los Angeles to the just transplanted 22-year-old: sparkling, translucent, savory. I stepped off the plane into a ravishing paradise, complete with luscious palm trees and relentless, sun-kissed beaches. That summer I was star struck, and overwhelmed by random, but magical run-ins with celebrities, eclectic, yet elegant mansions on famous, winding avenues, and an infinite array of exotic, effortlessly attractive women. The difference between visiting Los Angeles and living there, however, amounts to a contrast in empathy: the former allows you to admire the wealthy, while the latter reminds you of your distance from them. And this distance, in time, may provoke you to resent them.

By the fall, the cost of living had already diminished the city’s luster, and I decided that it was time to get a regular job. All the prime film industry gigs I had applied for were slow to respond, and my newborn California bank account was beginning to resemble a dying plant. I registered with a small temp agency in Westwood, who reportedly had a good relationship with Sony Pictures. As I sat in their lobby, awaiting my interview, I felt superior to the fresh-faced UCLA students that scampered up and down the street. They were just beginning the unsteady task of establishing their futures. Meanwhile, I was on a collision course with destiny.

I was fired on the first day of my first temp assignment, for arriving an hour late. When I told them that I was new to the city, that I had tried a shortcut my cousin suggested and gotten lost, they were unmoved. But my agency continued to send me to jobs all across the city. Most of them were in muggy offices, and patrolled by chubby security guards named Howie or Miguel. None of the jobs were terribly interesting, but they all resulted in paychecks that would cover my bills until the right people saw my glorious screenplays.

A brief, but memorable assignment took place downtown, at a spacious investment firm adjacent to the main library. We were paid $18 an hour to fold and assemble company brochures. I know people who would not accept that kind of overpayment for such a menial task, but I had a different philosophy. I felt that steady 9-to-5s were an attack on my creativity – a threat to my desire to grow and flourish as an artist. Time that could’ve been better spent watching a movie, reading a book, or nurturing a passionate but dysfunctional relationship, I instead wasted at someone’s desk, memorizing mindless company policies that would never benefit me once the assignment ended. Despite my militant stance, however, I also knew that I did not mix well with poverty, particularly 2,000 miles from home. So, on those rare occasions when I found a job willing to pay me inversely to the minimal labor required, I did not consider it fortunate. I considered it justice.

Eleven of us sat around the large, circular mahogany table on the 21st floor. We created a formidable assembly line. My job was to make sure that the gray, one-page leaflet that explained the mercurial nature of income tax rates went into the second pocket of each folder. My co-workers had similarly mind numbing duties. Thankfully, we were an extroverted, relaxed group, and spent our abundance of down time discussing our various pop culture likes and dislikes.

The only other black person there was the tall, busty Barbie doll who sat directly across from me. She introduced herself to the group as Monika – “With a ‘K’,” she proudly announced – and claimed to have graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Though she was gorgeous, I hardly noticed her. Physically, she looked too good to be true, and if I had learned nothing else in my first few months in the City of Actors, it was that most things that appear too good to be true probably are. Whether they were spelled with a ‘K’ or not.

On the second day, while we folded and passed, we discussed our favorite movies. My co-workers were a predictable, conventional bunch: there were plenty of Forrest Gumps and Titanics and E.T.s to go around. But when Monika stated that her absolute favorite – if she had to pick just one – was Midnight Cowboy, I nearly had a stroke. Really, what were the odds that she, too, would claim as her favorite film a depressing drama about a dimwitted male prostitute who befriends a lowlife hustler? I sensed a connection, and took her to lunch that day.

“So what brought you to L.A.?” I said, after I wolfed down my cheeseburger.

“I’m an actress,” she said, while she picked at her salad.

“Really? I’m a filmmaker.”

“That is so cool. Who are your favorite directors?”

“I’m kinda general old school,” I said. “Everyone from Truffaut to Scorsese to Orson Welles to George Stevens.”

“George Stevens?” she said. “Did you see A Place in the Sun?”

“Yeah, like fifteen times.”

“Wasn’t it brilliant? Montgomery Clift was such an amazing actor. I hope to have his depth someday. Did you know he passed on Sunset Boulevard and East of Eden? He would’ve been bigger than Brando.”

I will admit that I saw none of this coming. We expect so little from pretty faces, assuming almost immediately that no beautiful woman with a double D cup could possibly hold her own in a discussion about the Rwandan genocide, let alone the flawless mise-en-scene of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Though I had indefinitely sworn off dating sometime during my senior year of college, I believed I had found a muse.

We exchanged phone numbers the next day, which was the last day of the temp assignment. When I finally called her I was amazed again by how easy she was to talk to. Monika possessed many of the traits that I required of homie-lover-friends (pretty face… check; underground hip-hop junkie… check; basketball fanatic… check) and I came to enjoy her tremendously over the phone. That was the only place that I could focus on the energy and passion of her words without the constant distraction of her massive breasts.

And yet every conversation that Monika and I had – no matter how refreshing – ended abruptly at nine because, as she always put it, “My girl just got here and we’re ‘bout to go get our party on.” Monika lived in a two-bedroom apartment near Sunset Boulevard and frequented gaudy clubs on the Strip each night. I wondered how someone so devoted to her craft could party so habitually while still new to the business. But there is no surefire road to Hollywood acclaim. There is no linear path to follow as there are for aspiring doctors or lawyers, or morticians. I assumed she was out networking. And as time progressed, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t have been hitting the clubs myself.

We both wanted to see the film American Beauty. Monika offered to pick me up and we settled on a theater in the San Fernando Valley, not too far from where I lived. To my surprise, she arrived driving a shiny, black Lexus with customized “MONIKA” license plates. On the way to the theater, I wondered aloud how a single, allegedly struggling actress could afford such transportation.

“These payments are killing me,” she said. Then she laughed. “But that’s how we live out here. Everyone has to look good in L.A., you know?”

I tried to ignore her. It seemed far better just to enjoy the moment: a voluptuous woman was chauffeuring me around Los Angeles in a glistening, fancy car, on our way to see a critically acclaimed movie.
Part of me wished my friends in Toledo could see me, yet part of me felt undeserving. Such was the dichotomy of life in Southern California: though surrounded by unfathomable beauty, every step towards prosperity seemed to come with some awful attachment.

After we indulged in overpriced refreshments (“$3.50 for a dime bag of Sour Patch Kids?” I asked the teenage cashier. “Are you insane?”), I strolled with my arm around Monika’s neck like we were a couple. Feeling confident, I asked her something that had been on my mind a long time.

“How far would you go to be in a movie?”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Well, you know, you’re an attractive girl. And you know how Hollywood is. I’m just sayin’ that if some director type was thinkin’ about castin’ you and he needed – an extra sign – that you were right for the part… how far would you go?”

“I really want to make it in this business,” she said. “I guess I’d do… anything.”

I felt lightheaded. “Anything?”

She licked her lips and gazed directly into my eyes. “Anything.”

“So,” I said, eager, “did I tell you Artisan and Miramax are checking out my scripts?”

That night, after the movie, as we cruised through yawning Northridge streets, I inquired about her theatrical training. During those years, I thought about film and filmmaking obsessively. I figured we were just talking shop.

“I’m sure you were acting all the time at Carolina,” I said. “What were you? A theater major?”

“No, I majored in French.”

“…So, you auditioning yet?”

She shook her head. “No. I’m not auditioning.”

“Taking any acting classes?”

“I thought about it, but no…I’m not.”

“So then, what are you doing?”

“I’ll figure something out.”

She didn’t sound irritated, but more as though her unstoppable career plans couldn’t be bothered by such trivial things as classes or auditions. I decided to drop the questions, and we rode in silence.

One night, after she called me and initiated another lively conversation, Monika told me that she was on her way to a well-known musician’s after party on Sunset.

“But it’s really strange,” she said, “this feeling I’ve had lately.”

“What kind of feeling?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought about what you asked me the other night, about taking classes and stuff, and I’m starting to look at my life. All this partying I do, it can’t be healthy. And I asked myself, why do I have to go out every night? I mean, sure, I’m being seen, but that can come back to haunt you. You don’t want to be known as the party girl. And honestly, it’s not even about my career. I think I go out because I’m looking for something. It’s like there’s this… emptiness in my life, some kind of void that I’m trying to fill. It’s like I’m missing something.”

Throughout the course of my life, different people had expressed similar sentiments at various occasions. And I – in spite of every carnal action recorded thus far – am a firm believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So as a Christian, there was really only one thing for me to say.

“Is it possible that what you’re looking for is God?” I asked. “You know, having a closer relationship with Him?”

I saw no harm in asking a simple, hypothetical question. The answer was for her to decide within her own mind and heart. Monika went silent for several seconds. Then, like a volcano, she erupted.

“What do you mean I need to get closer to God? Who are you to be telling me what I need to do? I try to confide in you and that’s how you want to act?”

“Wait, but you just said –.”

“Don’t tell me what I said. Who the hell do you think you are? You ain’t in no position to be questioning my relationship with God. You ain’t no God expert! I know God, motherfucker. I ain’t no devil, I know God.”

“Monika, all I said was –.”

“I have to go straighten my hair. Good-bye.”

I called Monika a week later, in search of closure. She was grumpy and responded to all my questions and statements with one-word answers. Apparently, my open-ended inquiry had struck quite a nerve. The nerve in question had burst, and now resentment flowed as generously as oil from a gushing well. After she applied her last touch of makeup, she cut our short conversation even shorter.

“I have to go,” she said. “My girl just got here and we’re ‘bout to go get our party on.”

“Monika,” I said, “you don’t have to be afraid.”

I thought she was going to explode again (“Afraid? You ain’t no afraid expert! Who is you to be telling me I don’t have to be afraid?”) but instead, she spoke in a throaty, measured whisper.

“I know,” she said, “but I have to go.”

It was the last time we ever spoke.

Monika went on to co-star in some mindless Black comedy (it had some stupid title like The Swap Meet or Lil’ Ray Ray’s Block Party) cast as a rapper’s ditzy, slutty girlfriend. She did look the part – attired each scene in red stilettos and halter-tops – yet the casting was still uninspired. She responded poorly in her scenes, made movements inconsistent with her character, and delivered all her lines in an irritating monotone. While her connections (and Lord knows what else) had gotten her the part, her lack of preparation was evident.

“Is that the girl you used to know?” my friend Eddie asked me, as we watched the movie at his North Hollywood apartment.

“Yeah, that’s her.”

He laughed. “She can’t act worth a damn.”

“I know. Welcome to Hollywood.”

“She is fine though.”

“Uh huh.”

“And despite her lack of talent,” Eddie added, “she got one more film credit than you do.”

“I know,” I said. “Welcome to Hollywood.”

Eddie’s comment didn’t really hit me until the next morning, while I was en route to my hectic gofer job at a small production company. The day was foggy and overcast, and even though it was breakfast time, headlights were plentiful. I realized then that I wasn’t envious of Monika at all. Just being in some pointless movie was one thing: I was trying to change the world. Simultaneously, in my own meetings with producers, I had been exposed to the disproportion of the playing field – that trends were embraced before truth, and that connections were more valued than creativity. Still, I made a pact with myself to soldier on; surpassing the inevitable slights and slashes one endures when they try to do things that have never been done before. That morning, though we were all driving on the same freeway at the same time, and stuck in the same glut of traffic, in the end, it was clear that we would all arrive at different destinations.

Guru’s 5 Greatest Moments

Rap legend Keith “Guru” Elam passed away last night at the age of 43, after battling cancer for a year. He was a tremendous presence in the history of hip-hop for his work with the seminal group, Gang Starr, as well as his solo forays into jazz-rap fusion called Jazzmatazz. Here, for the uninitiated (or those just wanting to take a look back), are his five finest artistic moments.

5) Just to Get A Rep (1991)
[YouTube=http://YouTube.com/watch?v=HFQQeUNaZtc&feature=related]
“Manifest” (see below) was a great song, but this was the one where most of the people that I knew became Gang Starr FANS. Guru, a judge’s son, had already proven adept at describing the reasons and consequences surrounding the allure of street life for countless young black men. But here, he took it a step further, while cohort DJ Premier’s grafting of a sample by electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey pushes the song into can’t lose territory. Less famous than, but in the same breath as any other cautionary tale to be found in hip-hop.

4. Loungin’ (1993)
[YouTube=http://YouTube.com/watch?v=8FzV21Lqd3A]
Before it crumbled into cliche, Guru’s Jazzmatazz projects were innovative stabs at making good on the begging to be linked genres of jazz and rap. The results weren’t always golden but he nailed it on this collaboration with trumpet legend Donald Byrd. Guru’s oft-maligned monotone rapping style rises to the occasion of this breezy beat. This album seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, but it really wasn’t.

3. (Words I) Manifest (1989)
[YouTube=http://YouTube.com/watch?v=UcrG05S_xoE]
Maybe because they were fresh out of the box, but Guru sounds HUNGRY on this song. The weird hybrid of sociopolitical discussion, Five Percent Nation ideology and battle rhymes works well here, in a way that, in some ways, it never did again. Even though the group hadn’t quite found their identity yet (a lot of hip-hop groups had that problem on their 1st album; re: KRS-One looking like Falcon from GI Joe on the cover of Criminal Minded) this song is the beneficiary.

2. Mass Appeal (1994)
[YouTube=http:YouTube.com/watch?v=0EWJ9JrxU0g]
DJ Premier is one of the top 5 rap producers ever. Consequently, Guru’s often dry delivery (“I’m wild… with my monotone style”) became a punchline at times, cats had him like Primo was Nicole and he was… whatever the heck them other chicks’ names are in the Pussycat Dolls. Big ups to Guru for staying true to himself and not changing his style during that era of rappers with flashier storytelling personas. In his own way, with his often unorthodox delivery, he paved the way for other rappers whobetryingtofittoomanywordsinoneline like Talib Kweli and Chino XL.

Regardless, it all came together on “Mass Appeal.” Five years after “Manifest,” the duo came back with a new manifesto — that of staying true to self.

1. Dwyck (1994)
[YouTube=http://YouTube.com/watch?v=-r12qrwJe8g]
This is the first song I think of when I think of co-stars Nice & Smooth, which is telling because it isn’t even their song. But they are important because their presence, it seems, lifts Guru to another place lyrically, to the point where his whole verse is a hip-hop quotable (“Lemonade is a popular drink and it still is/I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis/A poet like Langston Hughes and can’t lose….”) Probably his dopest verse, over one of Premier’s dopest beats, with an amazing pair of guest appearances…. what more do you need to make a classic?

I’m tired of the people I grew up on dyin’. RIP Guru.

My 74 word review of Julie and Julia

I saw Julie and Julia last night via Netflix. The Meryl Streep section was far more interesting than the Amy Adams section. I liked both women’s relationships with their husbands. Meryl Streep —  even made up to look like Julia Child — is way prettier than Julia Child. I fell asleep on the last 20 minutes or so. I don’t know how it ended. I assume old girl made all the recipes. Hmm, that’s pretty much it.

Happy Birthday Marvin Gaye

People who know me know I’ve been pretty academic and obsessive about Marvin Gaye since I was about 18. I’ve read every book written on him (I dang near know Divided Soul by heart and almost died when I met its author, David Ritz.) and, for a long time, harbored a dream of making a feature film on his life. (My screenplay does exist by the way. It’s bananas. But I haven’t even made my first feature yet. *smh*)

Anyway, this time of year is always a little bittersweet for me. I like to focus on the beautiful music he gave the world — and also the tragic loss we suffered on April Fools Day, 1984.

Marvin + Smokey’s golden pen + random, snapping dancers dressed like mental patients = gold

like Aretha, I always treasured Marvin’s singing just a little bit more when he was behind the piano. you really hear that church influence come out. even when he’s singing about knockin’ the boots.

another slept on gem from the masterpiece that is Here, My Dear

I have no words for this. just damn. when is this whole concert going to be available on DVD? You hear me, Jesse?

quick story: I was IN LOVE with this girl my sophomore year of college. I called her up one day and played this song for her. that got me my first and only date. moral: even Marvin can only get you so far.

but still this is a great song.

this may be my favorite Marvin Gaye song, period. the alternate version on the Deluxe Edition of I Want You is even better. also recommended: producer Leon Ware’s “Long Time No See” which is basically the same song with different lyrics

Marvin and my boo from a previous life…

this song was recorded as part of a tribute album to Loucye, one of Berry Gordy’s sisters that died young and suddenly. R&B cats today just can’t do this kind of stuff.

happy birthday Marvin. we still miss you.

Class According to Cinema: Stay In Your Place

I’ve been watching a lot of relatively obscure films from the 1950s and 60s.

In Room at the Top, Laurence Harvey plays a determined social climber who falls for the barely legal daughter of a local big shot, then kind of falls for an older, unhappily married woman (Simone Signoret, in a heartbreaking, Oscar-winning performance). As you can probably guess, things don’t end well, even though he more or less gets what he really wanted by the end of the picture.

Never really been much into Laurence Harvey — even though he gave great performances in one of my favorite films, Darling, and the untouchable original version of The Manchurian Candidate — but his general, icebergian coldness works well here, and, actually, in comparison to the films I just mentioned, he actually seems kind of relaxed here. (But it’s relative.)

He’s not really all that likable as a main character, although since you see why he is the way he is, you’re still pulling for him. (Which brings me back to an argument that I recently had with a producer friend about whether or not main characters need to be likable for someone to enjoy a movie. I say no.) The oppressive nature of England’s social caste systems are on full display in Room at the Top, and they are denigrating enough that we’re pretty much going to pull for Harvey’s character to shake them up, no matter how shady he is.

The movie, in some ways, kind of reminds me of another of my all time faves, A Place in the Sun, except this time, the more substantial relationship was with the burned out poor woman, not the wealthy, pretty one.  All in all, not a bad little movie, the first, I think, of the mostly glorious Angry Young Man era in British cinema.

But we had our own class issues here in the States, very well illustrated in 1963’s Toys in the Attic.

Dean Martin (excellent as usual) stars as another poor cat on the come up, this time in Louisiana. He bilks some poor sap out of $150, 000, then returns to his childhood home, where he plans to hook his spinster sisters (Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller) up with the finer things in life. Once again, you just know this is not going to end well. Still, you don’t see the incestuous overtones between Hiller and Martin’s characters coming, nor the shocking demise of Martin’s mistress (that’s all I’ll say about that). The movie starts slow but the climax is A Streetcar Named Desire devastating and Page and Hiller show why their reputations as world class actors were so well-deserved.

Shout to Frank Silvera, playing the hella cool black chauffeur. Dude had a fascinating career. Can’t believe they wouldn’t let him play black roles because he was too light. Cold world.