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2014/08/31

John Prine's Bruised Orange

by John Bloner, Jr.


On September 7, 1978, music critic Jay Cocks changed my life. Writing for Rolling Stone magazine, he reviewed a new album, Bruised Orange, by singer-songwriter John Prine. Although Prine had already made a mark on the musical landscape with his tunes, "Sam Stone," "Hello In There" and "Paradise," I had missed that introduction, because my young ears were tuned instead to FM radio.

In his review, Cocks said that Bruised Orange was "about getting lost, and being in love, and staying in a world of fixed fates. No matter when you play it, Bruised Orange carries the chill of Midwest autumn." His words resonated with me. So sorry for the pun, but they struck a chord. I was boy from the Midwest, not far from Prine's hometown of Maywood, Illinois and a bar on Chicago's Armitage Avenue where he first performed his songs on open mic nights.

Without a clue as to what I'd find in its vinyl grooves, I drove to our uptown record store in Kenosha, WI, parked my $3.99 on the counter, and headed home to drop the needle onto Bruised Orange's first track, Fish and Whistle.



I don't know if it helps to have grown up in the Roman Catholic church and served as an altar boy, like John Prine, in order to appreciate Bruised Orange as more than just another fine effort by one of the great singer-songwriters of all time.  It can't hurt, though. It can't also hurt to think that God has a great sense of humor, or he would never have made the basset hound, and I like to think he would gleefully tap his Almighty muddy boots to the chorus of Fish and Whistle.

Father forgive us for what we must do.
You forgive us, we'll forgive you,
we'll forgive each other 'til we both turn blue
and we'll whistle and go fishin' in Heaven.

Catholic grade school would have been a lot more fun if the nuns had let us sing this one at daily Mass.

Fish and Whistle calls to mind another great tune about America's sport of leisure, The Fishin' Hole, which is better known as the TV theme from the Andy Griffith Show.  More than a decade ago, Prine met Griffith in Hollywood, where they would both act in a Billy Bob Thornton movie. "I thought that was the pinnacle of my career," Prine said of this encounter.


Bruised Orange takes listeners on a journey through its ten songs, from funny little ditties about divorce . . .

Hey there she goes.
Well I thought she'd never leave,
Heaven knows.

. . . to tunes about carrying on with the toughest girl in town.  There appears to be some serious Kama Sutra going on between these two.

I got rug burns on my elbows.
She's got 'em on her knees,
Yeah, I'm goin' steady
with Iron Ore Betty
and she's goin' steady
with me.

. . . to songs about surviving, no matter what life throws at you. In the record's title track, Prine describes an accident he witnessed as a boy on a winter's morning in Maywood. 

An altar boy's been hit by a local commuter
just from walking with his back turned
to the train that was coming so slow.

In an interview for Blue Railroad, Prine told Paul Zollo, They were taking him away in bushel baskets. 

Prine then reflects on tragedy, both this specific one and others, large and small, that we may encounter at some time in our lives. How do we go on? Do we live out our days in despair and frustration? To these questions, Prine offers this insight.

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow.

As I write this article, actor Robin Williams has recently taken his own life, and I reflect on one of my favorite of his films, What Dreams May Come, whose title comes from Hamlet's soliloquy: 

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.

In this motion picture, William's character has died, preceded by the deaths of his two children. His widow is unable to deal with the immense pain of these tragedies and chooses not to be.  As in Dante's Inferno, suicides in this film spend eternity in hell, yet God does not place them there. They cast themselves into the fiery pit of despair.

Death is a voice they can no longer shut from their ears. It seduces them and breaks them upon the rocks. As the novelist Milan Kundera has written, What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of emptiness below us which tempts and lures us. It is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.

Prine concludes the song, Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow), hinting that we may never recover from heartbreak, but we may weave it into our lives. He sings:

You carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.


There's an intimacy to Prine's work, as if you're his guest of one on a front porch bungalow with autumn moving in. His words can make you weep or they can bring you joy. While my daughter was growing up, I must have sang Prine's song, Grandpa Was A Carpenter, to her a thousand times before bedtime. Tunes like that one and many of the songs on Bruised Orange compel you to sing along, particularly That's The Way That The World Goes 'Round.

Pull up a kitchen chair as John picks out this tune, just for you and a few good friends. Feel free to join in at the chorus.



Bruised Orange was produced by Steve Goodman and features a great band, particularly Sam Bush and Jethro Burns on mandolin, Howard Levy on piano, Corky Siegel on harmonica, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Jackson Browne on backing vocals, and Jim Rothermel on woodwinds.  Rothermel makes Prine's songs soar from the penny whistle he employs during Fish and Whistle to clarinet on Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone.

In his lifetime, Rothermel performed on over 100 records by many well-known artists, including Van Morrison and Boz Scaggs. In 1978, journalist Joel McNally quipped that Rothermel seems to play every reed instrument in the history of air.


John Prine's songs seem like they've always been with us. They evoke memories, give us a laugh or bring a tear. They are cousins to the Stephen Foster songbook. While Fish and Whistle reminds me of the theme from the Andy Griffith show, these songs also share an uncanny resemblance to High Hopes, the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn collaboration that Frank Sinatra and Doris Day made famous, but also warmed many hearts and ears on the Captain Kangaroo show.

The final track on Bruised Orange is The Hobo Song. With a plaintive call from Corky Siegel's harmonica, Prine pays tribute to the men who rode the rails, while speaking to the wanderer in all of us. As Prine's voice drops away near the end of this tune, a chorus takes over, singing softly and seemingly far, far away.

The Hobo Song is Prine's contribution to the canon of lonesome melodies, which includes Remember Me by the Hayloft Sweethearts, Lulu Belle & Scotty, a tune to which it bears a family resemblance.



Since he first picked up the guitar at age 14, John Prine has grown to become a treasure of American folk song. The music he's penned will be sung on the stage, across the kitchen table and around the campfire by many generations ahead. Visit John Prine's website HERE and don't forget to stop by the John Prine fan site HERE. You can find John Prine recordings on his own label, Oh Boy Records, and work by many other outstanding musicians there.

See you next time on 2FL.

Well done, son of a gun,
hot dog bun,
Attila The Hun,
my sister . . .
is a nun! *

* Words by John Prine, "Illegal Smile."

2014/08/24

Cool

by Dave Gourdoux

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca"
What is "cool"?   You're asking me, someone who doesn't have a cool bone in his body?

But of course, who better understands cool than those who've never approached it?  The epitome of cool is the ability to be and do those things the uncool can only dream of, while somehow maintaining a connection with them.  For the cool to be cool, we have to recognize something of ourselves in them, something we can identify with, as they fight the fights we wish we could fight and conquer evil, corruption,and cultural biases. It's how they fight these fights, always looking good and "keeping their head when all about them are losing theirs" that makes the difference. Cool is a mirror that reflects back what we wish we were.

Cool is a combination of attitude, looks, demeanor, and behavior.  It's charm. It's self confidence, it's intelligence, it's grace under pressure.  It's iconoclasm and boldness, it's darkness and hidden tragedy, it's a sense of humor and a trace of vulnerability, it's mystery and enigma. It's toughness. It's sex appeal.

Cool is an invention of the 20th century, becoming prevalent in the developing art forms of film and popular music. It first came to prominence in the decadent days of excess of the roaring 20s, in the era of Prohibition, in the writing of F.Scott Fitzgerald and the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It evolved in the 1930s to encompass the big band sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and the blues of Billie Holliday.  In the 50s, cool exploded as a non-conformist reaction to the rigid conservatism of the time, with the jazz timed writing of Jack Kerouac and the beats, the music of Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and, of course, with the birth of rock and roll.

In film, an art form still in it's infancy, cool didn't take hold until the movies started talking, around 1930.  At first cool was defined by the unflappable and suave personas of actors like Bing Crosby and Cary Grant.  In the 40s, Humphrey Bogart redefined cool forever, adding toughness and danger and cynicism, and in the 50s, graduates of the Actors' Studio like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Cliff added a heightened realism.

In Hollywood, cool, like most of the dialogue about anything, has historically been dominated by males. There have been many cool actresses over the years, like Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Faye Dunaway to Kate Winslet, who project beauty and independence, but, compared to men, women have rarely been given true opportunities to carry a film and to create an iconic image that transcends any one specific role.

Cool continues to change and evolve with the times and the culture.  It'll always be a valuable part of us and will always give voice to the things we wish we could say.

Here is my list of the top ten "coolest" actors of all time:


10.   Samuel L. Jackson (key films:  Pulp Fiction, The Red Violin, Snakes on a Plane) From Pulp Fiction to Snakes on a Plane (testament to Jackson's skill in that he can remain cool in such a bad film), we have a hard time looking away whenever Samuel L. Jackson is on screen. He is often feared, and always respected. Nobody in the history of film has ever been as effective as Jackson in delivering F-Bombs. His performance in Pulp Fiction was the glue that held the film together. From discussing Quarter Pounders in Paris to grasping the metaphysical profundity in the diner scene, he is hyper aware and takes charge, just like when he had to get those m&^*&%%$(%# snakes off of that  m&^*&$(% ing plane.


9.   Johnny Depp (key films: Edward Scissorhands, Donnie Brasco, Dead Man) Johnny Depp is best known for his good looks.  His enigmatic charm and the naked vulnerability that always lies just beneath the surface have made millions of women swoon, even in his collaborations with Tim Burton where he is so heavily made up he is barely recognizable.  An accomplished actor, Depp, like most of the actors on this list, commands attention whenever he is on screen. Depp has intentionally chosen eccentric roles, refusing to be pigeon holed, and that in itself is pretty cool.


8.   Paul Newman (Key films:  Hud, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nobody's Fool)  In the 1960s, Paul Newman starred in a series of character studies: Hud, The Hustler, Harper, Hombre and Cool Hand Luke, that challenged the definition of the conventional Hollywood hero.  In Hud, he portrayed a monster, a sociopath who rejected the values of his decent, hard working father (Melvyn Douglas). Newman managed to make even such a reprehensible character attractive by making full use of his famous good looks and charm, and, by contrast, made the values of his father look rigid and square and old fashioned.  Morality never had a tougher opponent.  In Cool Hand Luke, he played a small time loser in a prison work camp who becomes the focal point for all the other prisoners' hopes and dreams.  They saw in him what we saw: a good looking and funny guy, vulnerable and enigmatic but bold, willing to stand up to authority. These are traits that Newman brought to every role he played.  He remained great until the end, delivering one of his best and coolest performances in the often overlooked 1994 film, Nobody's Fool.



7.   Jack Nicholson (Key films: Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Few Good Men) Nicholson is cinema's great iconoclast, spending an entire career challenging and rebelling against authority. From the independent and self absorbed piano prodigy of Five Easy Pieces to the free spirit of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next to his Bogart-esque turn as private detective Jake Giddes in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Nicholson was always fearless in his willingness to challenge authority.  He said the things we all wished we could say, and he was a powder keg, always on edge, ready to detonate at a moment's notice.

             
6.  Steve McQueen  (Key films:  The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullit) Steve McQueen's coolness owed as much to Technicolor as anything, as his cool was projected through his piercing blue eyes, eyes that conveyed a depth of vision and self confidence.  It was as if McQueen could always see more than we did, more than the other characters, and it's why he remained so calm and quiet. He used this calm confidence to great effect as the poker player in The Cincinnati Kid and the jet setting jewel thief in The Thomas Crown Affair, to the tough, world weary detective of Bullitt.  An accomplished race car driver, he brought realism to two of the greatest chase scenes ever, the motorcycle scene in The Great Escape and the legendary car chase in Bullitt.



5.  Montgomery Clift (Key films:  Red River, From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun) A completely unique screen presence, Clift, unlike his great cool contemporaries, Marlon Brando and James Dean, achieved cool by being quiet. His most powerful moments are when he is reacting to something.  One always gets the sense when watching Clift that there is something significant, something big and mysterious, going on behind those watery dark eyes. It's as if he always knows something that no one else knows, something mysterious, and he comes across as simultaneously fragile and vulnerable and tough and substantive.  It's these enigmatic qualities that command the viewers attention every second he is on screen - you're afraid that if you blink, you'll miss something important being revealed.


4.  James Dean (Key Films:  East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) Dean, like Clift, seemed to always have secrets locked inside.  Unlike Clift, you never knew when or how, but eventually, he'd explode.  What made Dean so great and so unique is that nobody has ever been as cool when losing his cool.  "You're tearing me apart," he screams in Rebel Without a Cause, giving voice to the restless rage that smoldered under the surface in the repressive and conforming times of the fifties.


3.  Marlon Brando (Key films:  The Wild Ones, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire) Marlon Brando remains arguably the greatest screen actor in history.  Those who are familiar only with his performance in The Godfather and subsequent films may be surprised to learn that not only was the young Brando a great actor, but that he brought a brutally powerful sexuality to the screen unlike anything before. His performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire remains perhaps the greatest performance in the history of film, and sixty years after its release, retains the powerful sexuality that was so shocking at the time.  Brando made the brutal, misogynistic Kowalksi irresistible, and made the conflict with Vivian Leigh's Blanche Dubois powerful and believable.  In On the Waterfront, his portrayal of former boxer turned dock worker Terry Malloy was a triumph, making us all feel like "we coulda' been contenders." His first movie role was as the leader of the BRMC in the rebel film, "The Wild Ones."  "Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?  "Whaddaya got?"


2.  Cary Grant  (Key films:  Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest) In the 1930s, with the world under the grips of the Great Depression and in the midst of uncertain and dangerous times, Cary Grant was steady and constant - good looking, unflappable, sophisticated, intelligent, funny, and more than anything, sure of himself. In films like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, he defined suave and sophisticated without ever becoming stuffy or arrogant.  He was always able to laugh at himself. Women swooned, while men wished they were him, in a career that spanned thirty years. He was still a heart throb leading man and adventure hero in 1950s films like Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, which remains perhaps the coolest performance by any leading actor in an action-suspense film. In North by Northwest, he is so unflappable, so intelligent, so witty and funny, while remaining the every man caught up in a nightmare of mistaken identity. His genius is of course that he's not an every man, but rather he is the man every man secretly would like to be.


1.  Humphrey Bogart  (Key films: The Maltese Falcon, To Have an Have Not, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) Look up the word "cool" in the dictionary and if they don't have a photo of Humphrey Bogart, throw the dictionary away.  Bogart added a world-weary cynicism to cool, always the tough guy with a romantic heart that bled beneath his tough exterior. The most romantic hero in the history of film, Bogart's Rick Blaine of Casablanca is so corrupt that you're not sure what he's going to do at the end of the film.  Only Bogart could have made this character tragic and romantic. In Bogart's best roles, his heart always remained pure despite a mind that was painfully aware of what a brutal and corrupt world he inhabited, and the things he often had to do to survive in it.  With Bogart, cool loses its innocence, and in the process, reaches new and profound depths of substance.