Saturday, October 29, 2011


One critic described Tom Waits voice as sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car. His style is certainly distinctive as he incorporates blues, jazz, vaudeville, and experimental industrial sounds into his music. He has also worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and has acted in numerous films.

His songs often present a portrait of down-and-out characters in carnival-like and junkyard settings. Waits is influenced by Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, and Charles Bukowski and used elements from all of these artists in creating his idiosyncratic music.

Waits started playing at the Troubadour in LA in 1971. After being signed buy Herb Cohen, Waits made a series of demo recordings for the Bizarre/Straight label that weren't released until 20 years later, under the title The Early Years, Volume One and Volume Two.

Waits signed with Aslyum Records in 1972, and his first record Closing Time was released in 1973. The album was folk and jazz influenced and received a positive critical reaction, and eventually had three of the songs covered by The Eagles, Tim Buckley, and Bette Midler.

The Heart of Saturday Night came out in 1974, and revealed Wait's roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads, often accompanied by a jazz back-up band. 

Nighthawks at the Diner came out in 1975, and was recorded in a studio with a small audience in order to capture the ambience of his live shows. There are lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuate his live act. A highlight of this album is Emotional Weather Report.

The first Tom Waits album that had a huge impact on me was Small Change that came out in 1976. The album was an attempt at resolving the cocktail lounge, down-and-out drunk persona that Waits had created. The mood is more pessimistic and cynical, but still heavily influenced by jazz. There are many excellent songs on this record including Tom Traubert's Blues, Step Right Up/The Piano Has Been Drinking, Invitation to the Blues, and I Can't Wait To Get Off Work.

Foreign Affairs (1977) was in the same vein as Small Change and continued to explore jazz and blues. Potter's Field is a long cinematic spoken-word piece set to an orchestral score. It also contains a duet with Bette Midler.

Another of my favorite albums by Waits is Blue Valentine (1978), which puts more focus on electric guitar and keyboards. The album has a dark, smoky, finger-poppin' blues sound and is full of great instrumental performances and Waits' trademark growl.

Heartattack and Vine was Waits' last studio album for Asylum and was released in 1980. It includes the song Jersey Girl that would eventually be covered by Bruce Springsteen in live performances.

In 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, who he met while working on the Francis Ford Coppola film One From The Heart. She is credited as a co-author on many songs on his later albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence.

Swordfishtrombones was Waits' first album on Island and came out in 1983. It marked a sharp turn in Waits' musical direction. Up to this point he had played guitar and piano, but now started gravitating towards less common instruments. The album contained the sounds of bagpipes, the basson, the waterphone, the marimba, pump organs, and various percussion instruments. 

Waits wanted to break old and familiar habits and the sound of the music changed dramatically. He was now including primal blues, cabaret, rumbas, tango, early country, Tin Pan Alley, and more theatrical elements into his work.

This experiment with this new sound continued with one of his greatest albums Rain Dogs (1985). It was a sprawling collection of 19 songs and included guitar work by Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Keith Richards. There was also an emphasis on using instruments such as the marimba, the accordion, the double bass, and the trombone. There are several great tunes on this record including Singapore, Clap Hands, Jockey Full of Bourbon, Time, Gun Street Girl,  and Downtown Train.

Frank's Wild Years, a musical play by Waits and Brennan, was staged Off-Broadway in 1986, and directed by Gary Sinise. It also had a successful run at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater where Waits played the lead role. In the same year he had a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law that also featured two songs from Rain Dogs. 

A recording of Frank's Wild Years was released in 1987 that included everything from sleazy strip-show blues, to cheesy waltzes, to lounge lizard-like sounds. The album has a spare, yet jarring sound, using squawking horns, bashed drums, snaky double bass, carnival organ, and accordion. It includes the well-known song Way Down In The Hole.

In 1990, Waits collaborated with theater director Robert Wilson, and writer William S. Burroughs on The Black Rider that premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre. The work was heavily influence by the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. An album was released in 1993.

Bone Machine was Waits' first studio album in five years, and was released in 1992. The stark record featured a lot of percussion and guitar with little piano or sax. It has been described as a morbid, sinister nightmare that incorporated the ideas of his 80s experimental style.

The Mule Variations was issued in 1999 and has been described as melding backwoods blues, skewed gospel, and art stomp into a sublime piece of junkyard sound sculpture. In 2000, I was lucky enough to witness Tom Waits perform at The Beacon Theater in New York. It was a piece of theater as well as a concert and something I will never forget.

In 2002, Waits released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both had been written ten years earlier and were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson. Alice was a musical play about Lewis Carroll, and Blood Money was an interpretation of Georg Buchner's play fragment Woyzeck. The sound is full the Tin Pan Alley sound and spoken-word influences that emerged on Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics were cynical and full of melancholy.

Real Gone came out in 2004 and contains some cryptic and elliptical political songs addressing the state of the world. The most explicit of these songs in Day After Tomorrow. The sound throws out the piano altogether and most of the songs start off with vocal percussion improvisations and there is a use of beatboxes as well. It's a strange album that becomes richer with repeated listening.

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards came out in 2006, and included 54 tracks of rarities, unreleased material, and new compositions. Brawlers features Waits more upbeat rock and blues songs, Bawlers contained ballads and love songs, and Bastards contains songs that fit in neither category, including several spoken-word tracks.There are several covers of songs or words by artists that Waits admired including The Ramones, Daniel Johnston, Weill and Brecht, Leadbelly, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac.

Bad As Me (2011) is Waits first collection of new material in seven years. The album keeps the experimentation, especially with percussion, but also involves blues, rockabilly, R & B, and jazz. Marc Ribot and Keith Richards contribute guitar tracks, Clint Maedgen plays sax, and Charles Musselwhite appears on harmonica, while the sound is filled out by Waits' son Casey on drums, banjo, percussion, and piano. The album makes use of all of the elements that Waits' has incorporated into his sound over the years.

Tom Waits has composed an amazing body of work that chronicles the adrift and downtrodden. He creates characters who are capable of insight and startling points of view, even though they live a life of uncertainty and despair. This is combined with an experimentation of sound that creates musical works of art that are totally unique.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Henry Miller exploded existing literary forms by combining autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism into an expressive fiction that was based on his own experiences.

His works were controversial for the unashamed and detailed depictions of sex, and his work was banned in the United States and other countries for being obscene until 1961.

Miller grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but spent the 1930s in Paris. He was employed by the Chicago Tribune (Paris edition) as a proofreader. He was highly creative in this period, writing Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). During this period Miller met Anais NIn and her husband Hugh Guiler and they supported him during this period. Miller became lovers with Nin, and she financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer with money from Otto Rank. Henry and June was diary-like novel by Nin that documented their relationship and was made into a film in the 1990s.

Tropic of Cancer is set in Paris and centers around Miller's life as a struggling writer. Some of the chapters follow a narrative and there are references to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces. Other chapters are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections, and the book being in the first person, does not have a linear organization, but fluctuates between the past and the present. The central character who pulls us through the book suffers from hunger, homelessness, loneliness, and despair, and can be abhorrent at times, yet ecstatic with life at others. There are explicit passages of his sexual encounters, but overall the book acts as an immersive meditation on the human condition.

Samuel Beckett hailed Tropic of Cancer as a momentous event in the history of modern writing. Norman Mailer felt it was one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Others hated it, including Edmund Wilson who said it was the lowest book of any literary merit he could remember reading, and found it disgusting and tiresome.

After being declared not to be obscene, the book was finally published in 1961 by Grove Press. One judge wrote that "Tropic of Cancer is not a book, but a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity."

Black Spring is a collection of shorter pieces and displays Miller's dazzling use of language and his incredible build-up of detail while chronicling both life in Paris and flashing back to his days in Brooklyn.

Tropic of Capricorn is an extension of Tropic of Cancer, but actually goes back to 1920s New York where the narrator works for telegraph company as Miller did in real life. It is told as a spiritual awakening and centers around Miller's struggle with his wife June Miller, and the process of finding his voice as a writer.

In 1939, the writer Lawrence Durrell invited Miller to the Greek island of Corfu where he was living. Miller wrote about the experience in The Colossus of Maroussi, an impressionistic travelogue that was published in 1941.

In 1940, Miller returned to the US, and settled in Big Sur, California and continued to write works that challenged contemporary American cultural values and moral attitudes. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) documented Miller's travels through the US and he was critical of the consumerist boom in America.

The first part of The Rosy Crucifixion titled Sexus was published in 1949 and detailed Miller's divorce from his first wife and covers the period up until the early part of his marriage to his second wife, June Miller. Set in New York it includes many portraits of friends and lovers and provides a view into Miller's ambition to be a writer. The book uses detailed sex scenes as a catalyst for philisophical discussions on self, love, marriage, and happiness.

The second book of The Rosy Crucifixion was called Plexus and came out in 1953 and documents more of the period of his marriage to June Miller who is called Mona in the novel. In the book Miller also writes about many of his strange and symbolic dreams.

Nexus was the third and final book of the trilogy and was published in 1960. It documents Miller's troubles with his second wife Mona (June Miller) and her lover Anastasia (Jean Kronski) and the period before his departure for Paris.

Other notable works include Quiet Days In Clichy which dates from the same period as Tropic of Cancer but wasn't published until 1956. It is more of a tender and nostalgic work and is a celebration of love, art, and the Bohemian life of a young obscure writer living in Paris when life was slower and simpler.

Under The Roofs of Paris wasn't published until much later as well, but was written in 1941 when MIller was commissioned by a LA bookseller to write an erotic novel for a dollar a page. Miller is direct, honest, and self-mocking and lives life as an odyssey in search of the perfect job, the perfect woman, and the perfect experience.

Crazy Cock was also published much later but was actually written before Tropic of Cancer and tells the story of Miller's rage over his second wife's lesbian lover. He wrote about this period later in Nexus. There are many passages of verbal power, but mostly the book is interesting as an early example of Miller's evolution as a writer. It is also written in the third-person before Miller decided the first-person was his natural voice.

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch was published in 1957 and is a portrait of one of the most colorful places in the US. Miller writes with a brimming energy and the book is quite funny and includes a cast or extradordinary people and interesting characters.

The Time of the Assassins (1962) was a chronicle of Miller's obsession and admiration for the poet Arthur Rimbaud and provides great insight into the two great writers of subversive, apocalyptic literature.

Henry Miller lived until the age of 88, dying in 1989. Miller did receive criticism for the racism and misogeny that was depicted in his early works. He could be cynical and railed against phoniness. In his later work he wrote in a calmer voice, almost like a zen master. Henry Miller changed the face of literature with his autobiographical works and his honest and poetic prose.

Friday, October 7, 2011


A friend of mine once told me that Last Tango In Paris was about nothing. After I saw the film for myself, I wondered if he saw the same film that I did, or perhaps he had been blinded by the sexual content. I felt Last Tango was a powerful, emotional, and profound statement about the relationship between men and women. The film deals with the themes of love and sex, fear and desire, anger and betrayal, and how we deal with both the ecstacy of love and the intense pain when it all comes down. Anyone, who had ever been in love and experienced the pain of a failed relationship can relate to this film. That being said, Last Tango is not always a pleasurable experience to watch.

The credit sequence shows us two paintings - one of man, and one of a woman, both in a room by themselves, by the painter Francis Bacon who was known for his anguished depictions of the human form. The soundtrack has the expressive voice of Gato Barbieri's saxophone.

The opening shot is a close-up of Marlon Brando (Paul) screaming the words "Fucking God!" as a train roars past on the bridge above. The young, beautiful Jeanne (Maria Schneider) notices the distressed middle-aged man as they both cross the river where they come across a sign for an open apartment. They both look at it simultaneously, and after a game of cat and mouse, they have a spontaneous sexual experience that was shocking when the film came out in 1972. They now embark on an affair where they meet at the apartment to have sex, but Paul wants no names and no past history. Pure sex and human connection without the social conventions of the outside world. For Jeanne, it is also an escape from her privileged background and her filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is constantly putting her on a pedestal and has the camera rolling at all times. He is trying to understand her and know her, but her secret meetings with Paul are all for herself.

As the film evolves we see that Paul is destroyed, because his wife, Rosa, has committed suicide. He knows she had a lover, and he has to deal with her mother, who insists on a religious funeral, even though Paul has lost all faith. He is not only hurt, but he is angry at Rosa as well. In a powerful and shocking scene he berates her in tears as she lies in her coffin surrounded by flowers.

Last Tango In Paris was directed by the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, and the film was controversial when it came out because of the graphic sexual scenes between Brando, who was 48 at the time, and Schneider, who was only 19. Bertolucci's films push the envelope and often deal with sexual taboos. There are powerful, disturbing scenes in the film and both actors later said they felt manipulated and exploited by Bertolucci.

Bertolucci is a master filmmaker and his visual style in Last Tango is astounding as it is shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. There is a great use of warm colors especially yellows and reds and a magnificent play of light and shadow. There is a Rembrandt quality to the images in Last Tango.

In the end, Paul and Jeanne can't avoid or escape the conventions of daily life. The breakdown of the walls they have constructed leads to tragedy. Last Tango in Paris is tough and full of turmoil, but it is also a beautiful and powerful work of cinema.

Bertolucci has made many interesting films, but one of his strongest and the one that set the tone for his distinct visual style was the The Conformist which was made two years before Last Tango in 1970. The film is based on the novel by Alberto Moravia and stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominique Sanda. The film is a case study of fascism, and centers around a man who is a bureaucrat, and who has been dehumanized by a dysfunctional middle class family and a childhood sexual trauma. He accepts his assignment to assassinate his former professor and mentor who is now living in exile. Bertolucci makes use of the 1930s art, architecture, and decor with an amazing use of light and shadow that create striking visual patterns. Like in all of his films, Bertolucci layers politics and psychology into the story and lives of his characters.

1900 came out in 1976, and was an international epic that starred Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, Donald Sutherland, Sterling Hayden, and Burt Lancaster. The original director's cut by Bertolucci was 311 minutes long, but was shortened to 180 minutes for theatrical release. At the film's center are Alfredo (DeNiro) and Olmo (Depardieu), friends who were born on the same day at the turn of the twentieth century. They are from opposite ends of the social spectrum as Alfredo is the son of the landowner played by Lancaster, and Olmo is the illegitimate son of the foreman of the peasants played by Hayden. The film is a classic confrontation between capitalism and socialism. Donald Sutherland's character embodies the rise of fascism and is decadent and sadistic. The film is full of interesting scenes and again contains graphic depictions of sex and violence and has that distinct beautiful visual style that Bertolucci is known for.

The Last Emperor (1987) is a biopic about Puyi, the last Emporer of China. The film stars John Lone, Joan Chen, and Peter O'Toole and won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Bertolucci. It was the first feature where the Chinese government granted filming in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Puyi's life is depicted from his ascent to the throne as a child to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Chinese Communist authorities. As usual the film has a beautiful visual style using rich colors in the scenes of the young Puyi in the Forbidden City contrasted with the muted grays of the structures and clothing of the Maoist revolution. 

Other noteworthy films by Bertolucci are Before The Revolution (1964), The Spider's Stratagem (1970), Luna (1979), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1993), Stealing Beauty (1996), Besieged (1998), and The Dreamers (2003).