Monday, August 31, 2009


Dick Cheney says torture investigation "offends the hell out of me."

With all due respect, Dick Cheney is a vile loathsome liar with the ethics of a Gila monster. His lies helped us get into the Iraq War. "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Cheney consistently ridiculed dissent, strong-armed opponents, lined the pockets of his Halliburton cronies, and encouraged Gestapo tactics in our military.

It's not surprising that this vicious blowhard opposes the torture investigation. He has been howling against Obama for looking into the matter, though not as loudly as if an army field telephone to his genitals. That's an "enhanced interview technique," after all. Watch this interview.

Should we investigate torture and possible war crimes? Some people don't want to know--and they certainly don't want to be tried for war crimes. We will undoubtedly have more reports of torture if investigations are allowed to proceed. Back in the Vietnam days, the Cheneys of the time also stonewalled attempts for investigations. Sadly, Cheney isn't unique.

Just a few days ago, Lt. William Calley, who was held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of men, women and children at My Lai, made a public apology. At the time, the Cheneys of the day claimed the dead were combatants and stonewalled an investigation.

My Lai, Vietnam

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” William Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus today. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
From the New York Times, Aug. 24, 2009

My Lai, Vietnam---"Q: And Babies? A: And Babies." From a CBS interview of one of the soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre.

I remind you all that maybe we aren't aware of something on the level of My Lai in Iraq, but we wouldn't have been aware of My Lai either if the coverup had been successful back then. The Dick Cheneys of that era were also "offended as hell" that anyone would question the US military ops in Vietnam. Thank God some soldiers weren't only brave in battle but brave enough to speak up.

Abu Ghraib, Iraq

Could it be THAT bad? Maybe a little waterboarding, or sleep deprivation, but how bad could that be? According to Glenn Greenwald, writing in Salon, it's much worse then we know. Many deaths by US torture have been kept hidden.

"The interrogation and detention regime implemented by the U.S. resulted in the deaths of over 100 detainees in U.S. custody -- at least," says Greenwald. "While some of those deaths were the result of "rogue" interrogators and agents, many were caused by the methods authorized at the highest levels of the Bush White House, including extreme stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation and others. Aside from the fact that they cause immense pain, that's one reason we've always considered those tactics to be 'torture' when used by others -- because they inflict serious harm, and can even kill people. Those arguing against investigations and prosecutions -- that we Look to the Future, not the Past -- are thus literally advocating that numerous people get away with murder."

Abu Ghraib, Iraq

Read the Salon story on the suppressed deaths by US torture here.
Read the NYT story on Calley here:


With a brand new musical game, Beatles: Rock Band, and their entire catalog remastered, the Beatles strike again. All you need is love, and all it takes is money--and a good stereo--to experience these old recordings cleaned up like never before.

It's a brand new Beatles blitz with the release of the Beatles: Rock Band (a musical game) and the upcoming remixes (I'm already in line for seconds) but as time passes and the historical context recedes are we losing an important part of the story? Sure, the music is the thing, and I'm sick of maudlin boomer nostalgia, but the Fabs were more than just purveyors of brilliant pop. They shook the culture up.

The Beatles catalog, digitally remastered for the first time since the original CD releases, arrives in stores Sept. 9.

"Audiophiles have long lamented the thin, shrill results of the music's 1987 transfer to CD, flaws magnified by advances in digital technology that enriched the recordings of peers with repeated remastering rounds," says USA Today.

The LA Times says, "In general, the music sounds like an aural scrim has been lifted. Everything has become cleaner, fuller, the dynamic range -- the difference between the loudest and softest sounds -- has been expanded, vocals sound more immediate."

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Corman McCarthy, American novelist

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness In The West, is a brutal novel that traces the journeys of a band of marauding scalp-hunters in the Old West who viciously murder Indians and Mexicans, armed and unarmed alike. The book is a dark masterpiece and a meditation on violence and the American psyche that owes much to Melville and Faulkner, as well as the King James Bible and Paradise Lost. McCarthy has written a number of excellent books, including the Border trilogy (which includes the National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses), and his most recent novel The Road is being made into a film, but he is probably best known to the general public as the writer of the book that became the Coen Brothers' film No Country for Old Men, which won four Oscars including Best Picture of the Year (2007).

Wheezing literary eminence Harold Bloom (pictured here guarding the canon) hailed Blood Meridian as one of the best books of the last century and placed it firmly in the Western canon, as well as his own "canon of the American Sublime." Bloom spoke recently to AV Club:

"I went straight through it and was exhilarated. I said, 'My God! This reminds me of Thomas Pynchon at his best, or Nathanael West.' It was the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In fact, I taught it for several years...I don’t think McCarthy will ever match it, but still… He has attained genius with that book."

Read the entire Harold Bloom interview here.

Professor Amy Hungerford teaches The American Novel Since 1945 at Yale, and she devoted two lectures in the course to Blood Meridian. This is the first lecture, and the second can be found here:

In a rare interview, the reclusive McCarthy speaks with Oprah. Perhaps not as insightful an interviewer as one would hope, her teatime chat at the Santa Fe Institute will give you some idea of McCarthy the man--and surprisingly enough he does not carry a six-shooter or wear a scapular of dried human ears. In fact, he seems like a perfectly pleasant gentleman--but looks can deceive.

The latest film based on McCarthy's work, The Road, is a harrowing post-apocalyptic story about a father and son (played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) traveling through a burnt out wasteland in search of safety while evading predators. The film will be released October 16th.

Read a great on-set story from the New York Times

Friday, August 28, 2009


Ellie Greenwich, who wrote some of the greatest singles of the 1960s, died this week. Ellie wrote the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You,” the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack,” the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” Tina & Ike Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron," says Rolling Stone.

And that wasn't all.

According to Rolling Stone, "Greenwich’s other major hits include Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Tommy James’ and the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky.” Greenwich and Barry also helped nurture the career of a fledgling singer-songwriter named Neil Diamond, and Greenwich and Barry produced and contributed background vocals to Diamond hits like “Kentucky Woman,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Red, Red Wine” and “I’m a Believer.”

Ellie Greenwich (middle) sings with Jean Thomas and Micki Harris, 1965

Listen to some of Ellie's songs below, in the "Cool Chick" post.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Here are a couple good tunes from the vaults. First up is a nice jam with some old pals, Yo La Tengo, and "Stockholm Syndrome." This is a great song. I know it's wrong but I swear it won't take long.

"Born in the Seventies" by the Fruit Bats is an hilarious backwards glance at a decade you might remember. Vaguely. Great seventies pedal steel and appropriately opaque lyrics. The sands of time stuck in your shoe...that make you cross, they make you blue. Whatever happened to you? You were born in the seventies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Professor Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye) starts his lesson rather squarely but with the help of his talented friends Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, The Golden Gate Quartet, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Louis Bellson, Charlie Barnett and more, he builds a song from the ground up. Great swinging tune from all the greats in this clip from the 1948 musical, A Song is Born. Thanks to jazzman Tom DeGraff for the tip.

Monday, August 24, 2009


This is an informative little viddy about booze and cocktails, a fun watch if you can stand a little product placement every so often. Most people--including many bartenders--cannot mix a decent martini. It's so simple, but they figure anything in a martini glass is a martini. There are countless variations served up to eager sorority girls that are really more like daiquiris. You know, the "Martinis" made with peach schnapps, with apple-infused vodka, with chocolate and cutesy touches. (I had an Ovaltini once. Don't ask.) But here is a recipe for the classic. Now that everyone is watching "Mad Men," a detestable adult soap opera made with more style than content, chock full of old school smoking and drinking, an interest in old school cocktails may improve the ratio of decent drinks in bars. Lounge lizards everywhere will raise their glasses and cheer.

Of course, I don't recommend drinking. In spite of its socially sanctioned and culturally cool cachet, alcohol is a depressant and a dangerous drug that ruins plenty of lives, as we all know, and contributes to more deaths than all the wars combined from alcohol-related organ damage to car wrecks--but it's legal and delicious and it relaxes you. It's a social lubricant and makes you seem clever--to yourself, anyway. And until they decriminalize cannabis and end pot prohibition, it will be the drug of choice for most people too law-abiding to enter the deep dark dens of the underworld to score "reefer." Certainly, the stigma is less than it used to be regarding grass, but you still haven't seen handsome, hard-edged Alpha male Don Draper firing up a jay on Mad Men, have you? It's not cool like that. So until then, I'll have a dry Bombay martini with two olives, please. Like humor, the dryer the better. Make mine very dry.

Don Draper on the smokey, drinky "Mad Men"

Friday, August 21, 2009


Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away there were some tough, cool chicks who ruled the rock roost. This was before folkies like Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins took the baton. These old school singers had it all. In this clip from "Shindig!," the Shangri-Las sing "Give Him A Great Big Kiss," Aretha Franklin sings "Shoop Shoop Song," Leslie Gore sings "Judy's Turn To Cry" and Ketty Lester sings "Love Letters." Dig the hair and outfits and tell me that's not cool.

The Queen Beehives were always The Ronettes. Here they sing "Be My Baby," an all time great tune you may remember from Martin Scorsese's film "Mean Streets." Very cool wall of sound production with a big beat. With all due respect, this blows away Judy Collins. This song was written by Ellie Greenwich, who died this week.

Amy Winehouse, what's got into you? There's something old school about Amy, and it's not just the Ronettes' hairstyle. She's a tough girl and probably tougher on herself than anyone. She gets into trouble. Still, she's got the chops-- if she can only stay away from the bad boys and the Tanqueray.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


You've probably seen this by now, but I must post it. Congressman Barney Frank stands up to the lunatic fringe opposing health care reform. Finally, someone responds to these ludicrous claims with candor instead of kid gloves.

Do you get your "facts" on health care from this asshole?

Already, the right wing blowhards have attacked Frank in full force. Hannity, O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh have been shocked, shocked, shocked at Frank's behavior. Limbaugh even surfaced from an Oxycontin daze long enough to sling a gay joke at Frank, who is openly homosexual (which is beside the point). These pudgy pundits have consistently fanned the flames of ignorance and fear sweeping across the dumber parts of the nation. In effect, they've sent in their dupes with half-baked ideas and misinformation to disrupt an important national dialog. Half-cocked and fully loaded (some with guns, mind you) these sheep repeat what they've been told by these TV personalities. I'm sure these wealthy pundits can afford private health care, but their minions with their swastika signs are clearly working against their own interests.

But you've read some history, right? We've always had reactionaries opposing progress. In another age, the Limbaughs would be railing against abolishing slavery (bad for business--let's not rush things) or siding with mine owners against radical "Reds" working to remove children from the coalmines. A while back, Fox News headlines might have looked like this:

Obama going too far? Socialist plan hurts business by removing children from the coalmines! What is happening to our America?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


UPDATE: 8/21/09 Leonard Peltier, Native American activist imprisoned since 1977, just denied parole and won't be eligible again until 2024. He will be 79 years old.

Link to parole story here.

Original 8/18/09 post on Leonard Peltier below:

Incident at Oglala (1992) by Michael Apted

Leonard Peltier is a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and an activist currently serving two consecutive life terms for killing two FBI agents who died during a shootout at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. He's been in prison since 1977. A considerable amount of doubt about Peltier's guilt has resulted in a movement for his release, a rigorously researched book by an award winning author, and this documentary by Michael Apted, who also fictionalized the Peltier case in the movie Thunderheart, and gained fame for his documentaries following British youth, such as 28 Up.

National Book Award-winning author Peter Matthiessen wrote a detailed study of the Peltier case in his book, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse. According to the New York Times (10-21-88), shortly after its 1983 publication, Matthiessen and his publisher were sued for libel by FBI agent David Price and former South Dakota governor William Janklow. "The plaintiffs sought over $49 million in damages; Janklow also successfully sued to have all copies of the book withdrawn from bookstores." Both cases were eventually appealed, and the book was published again in 1992.

Leonard Peltier, Native American activist, imprisoned since 1977

The facts surrounding the case suggest that Peltier is a political prisoner being unjustly punished for the Indian uprising of the 1970s. Amnesty International said: "Although he has not been adopted as a prisoner of conscience, there is concern about the fairness of the proceedings leading to his conviction and it is believed that political factors may have influenced the way the case was prosecuted."

"In a recent letter of support, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes Peltier’s incarceration is based on, quote, 'fabricated evidence' and that he was, quote, 'persecuted because of his beliefs and refusal to accept the injustices imposed about the peoples at Pine Ridge.'"

From the Democracy Now! report on Peltier's 2009 parole hearing:

For more information (and how you can help) check out the
Leonard Peltier Defense Committee

The American Indian Movement (AIM)


Here's a mixtape of songs I've been listening to lately that you may not have heard. See, I don't just listen to old school rock--here is some indie music that really reflects low-fi values and personal vision. Or maybe it's just a bunch of wheedling vegans who can't hit the notes. You decide. Me? I've already decided. This stuff is decidedly cool.

cage the elephant

"Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" by Cage the Elephant

I want this on the jukebox at my favorite airstream diner. Love the intro slide guitar riff on this one, which is some sort of blues punk rock rave-up in which you can hear old blues and Beck and White Stripes, too. Nice.

yo la tengo

"If It's True" by Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo has it all. Great melodic oddball tune from their new album, "Popular Songs." The revered indie band--consisting of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew--have been together for quite a while and are still making original music. They're absolutely wonderful in concert.

fruit bats

"The Ruminant Band" by Fruit Bats

Fruit bats are huge hairy flying creatures out of your worst nightmares and also a nice folk-rock band. This is one of the two.

benji hughes

"Went to See the Flaming Lips" by Benji Hughes

Yup, I already posted this tune a while back but you should listen again because this is a wonderful short story about a mind-altering road trip to see another band. Yeah.


"You've Lost That Loving Feeling," by the Righteous Brothers.

Great vocals are all about feeling. Sure, you can get Mariah Carey to hit six octaves or hire the Three Tenors to sing the Manhattan phonebook and it would all be technically perfect--and about as dull as dishwater. Good vocals are about feeling, and the spaces in between, and the surprising harmony that somehow lifts it all off the ground. The sand in the Vaseline is what makes it interesting. The great pop song makes you tap your feet, or stop and listen, or crank up the radio as you drive the great American highway.

"I Get Around" by the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys were an harmonic convergence of California sun, surf, girls, and souped-up hot rods. Their soaring vocals were instantly recognizable as the sound of summer. At the creative helm was Brian Wilson, who directed this juggernaut into teenage symphonies, but you can't beat these early transistor radio tunes. This sounds like summer.

"Cloud Nine" by the Temptations

Out of Motor City, The Temptations were one of the most successful soul acts, a tough little outfit with vocal harmonies that reached a gritty perfection. The Temps were cool. The sound of these soul survivors was tough and real back in the day, and folks may snicker at their outfits and dance steps because all style gets old eventually, but their vocals remain timeless. On top of that, they didn't just sing silly love songs. They could "tell it like it is."

"Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down" by the Beatles

The Beatles...of course. With two of the greatest rock vocalists ever, Lennon and McCartney, not to mention unrivaled songwriting teams, The Beatles could do it all. They wrote their songs, and could play just about anything, but their vocals were a huge part of their success. Here they are, late in the game, after the screams of Beatlemania had died down playing on the Apple rooftop in London.

"Pancho and Lefty" by Willie Nelson & Bob Dylan

As if to prove my point, here are too technically imperfect voices--Willie's is thin and high and lonesome, and Dylan's is gravelly--that come together in a wonderful duet on an old Townes Van Zandt song. They make it their own, and you believe them. Sure, Mariah could sing this tune and toss in all that glissando but it would be like eating a cake made entirely of frosting. This is a plate of ribs, crispy and burnt on the ends, slathered with picante sauce that leaves you gasping for beer. This performance fits a story of outlaws and bandits beautifully.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Fuck the hippies. Now that everyone is gushing with nostalgia about Woodstock during this 40th anniversary of the festival, it's good to remember that most people didn't "get it" at the time, and the vast majority didn't like it. The crowd may have seemed large at the festival (and indeed it was the largest public gathering up until that time) but it was barely a sliver of an overwhelmingly square, divided, and culturally reactionary country. Flush from conquering the moon less than a month before, and from fighting the commies in Vietnam, there was little room for scraggly peaceniks openly smoking grass, getting naked, and playing loud acid rock music.

Now that everyone is retroactively cool and ironic, it's good to remember the actual longhaired freaks who braved the mud and scorn may not want to share their nostalgic Woodstock glory. Back then, remember, it was "Are you a boy or a girl?" shouted from passing trucks, or maybe "Get a haircut!"

Even the so-called objective news had a laugh.

Here's the New York Times editorial the day after the festival:

Nightmare in the Catskills

The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation that paralyzed Sullivan County for a whole week-end. --NYT, 1969

Santana rocks Woodstock with some crazy Mexican acid rock

Forty years ago, we landed a man on the moon and some people landed in a muddy field called Woodstock. Now the press is rewriting Woodstock history like soviet revisionists airbrushing Trotsky out of the family photo albums, and everyone smiles at the naivete of this stoned Utopian force with the funny hair, but we should look back at the so-called "neutrals," the control group, the American straights of 1969, and there's a laugh, too. Love those white belts. Nice sideburns.

Black hippie hero Hendrix reinterprets the Star Spangled Banner

Back then, the majority of America was pro-Nixon, pro-war, anti-commie conformists who made "nigger" jokes and got haircuts once a week. Anti-drug? Hell, no! America was into drugs big time, alcohol and cigarettes and gallons of coffee, and some tranquilizers to keep things in a nice Miltown daze. Mother's little helper, they called it. Betty Crocker on sedatives. Of course, that wasn't really a drug--none of that was--and people feared reefer madness with a Dragnet mentality. The Joe Friday squares saw the country falling apart in a marijuana haze to uppity minorities and subcultures: blacks, Indians, hippies, protesters, and even women, who were forgetting their place. It could drive you to drink.

Steve and Eydie missed Woodstock...completely

The Beatles may have replaced Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme in college dorms and teenage radio stations, but most of the older folks were still listening to the old stuff and living out the fifties suburban dream. They had earned it fighting in a war, by God, and nobody was going to rain on their goddamn parade. Barbecue some steaks, drink some cocktails, water the lawn, and keep up with the Joneses. No wonder the Jones' kids ran off to join the hippie circus. We heard the girl next door got "knocked up," had an abortion and got disowned by her good Christian parents, and is now "shacking up" with undesirables in San Francisco. The boy next door who read Mad Magazines and listened to the Beatles got killed in Da Nang, or Khe Sahn (or maybe Kent State) but there is a picture of him in full dress uniform on the mantle and a folded flag in the cedar chest.

Vapid models pretend to be hippies in fashion magazine spread

So don't believe all the hype. The message is lost in these commercial news outlets and it's not surprising in a culture where everything has a price tag. Is there a lasting legacy of the Woodstock Nation? I doubt it, when I see kids with Hendrix T-shirts who support the war like hawks. If anything was revolutionary about Woodstock it was the message of peace and love, and that's the hardest thing to fake. Styles change, and anybody can grow long hair--or wave a flag, for that matter--but trying to live your ideals--especially unpopular ones--remains a challenge. In a cynical age, it sounds naive and ludicrous. Ideals? Get with the program. Shut up and do as you're told. That's why it's heartening to occasionally look up from our lock-step conformity and see a few bold spirits bucking the mainstream mindset and living original lives, and at least trying to transcend the bullshit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry

by John Kramer, Donald Brittain (1976, approx. 99 minutes)

This feature-length Oscar-nominated documentary focuses on Malcolm Lowry, author of one of the major novels of the 20th century, "Under the Volcano." Shot on location in four countries, this fascinating film combines photographs, readings by Richard Burton from the novel, and interviews with the people who loved and hated the man who won the battle with the novel but lost the fight with demons and drink.

And what he wanted then, ah then (he had turned right without looking at the sign and was following the path along the wire fence), what he wanted then, he thought, casting one yearning glance at the plains - and at this moment he could have sworn that a figure, the details of whose dress he did not have time to make out before it departed, but apparently in some kind of mourning, had been standing, head bowed in deepest anguish, near the centre of the public garden - what you want then, Geoffrey Firmin, if only as an anecdote against such routine hallucinations, is, why it is, nothing less than to drink; to drink, indeed, all day, just as the clouds once more bid you, and yet not quite; again it is more subtle than this; you do not wish merely to drink, but to drink in a particular place in a particular town.

--from Under the Volcano


Sorry to hear that Les Paul just passed away at the age of 94. He was an amazing musician and innovator. I saw him live with Chet Atkins at the Bottom Line in New York City back in 1975, and it was one of the greatest performances I've ever seen.

A guitar player extraordinaire, and a major influence on the development of the electric guitar, Paul was responsible for the Gibson Les Paul and countless amplification devices. Les Paul succumbed to severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York, surrounded by family and loved ones.

The classic Gibson "Les Paul"

Les Paul-Chasing Sound! is a feature-length documentary on an American legend. For more info check out

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


This clip is about the single-payer health option--and contrary to the Republican propaganda blitz, this is not part of the plan Obama is proposing. Maybe it should be.

The current health care system isn't working. Currently, if you have the money the system works well enough, but for many, many people adequate care is a luxury--and even if we don't care about others their loss will come back and bite us on the ass, because when people don't get prenatal care, say, or preventive medicine, they show up in the ER with full-blown medical problems and the costs are shifted onto us payers (witness the nine dollar aspirin on your hospital bill--this is called "cost-shifting").

Not everyone will benefit from health care reform (unless community health is a value). There are powerful vested interests who want to keep things just as they are--the most prominent being the insurance companies, and some doctors who don't mind unlimited health care costs, but what surprises me are all the low income people in the Heartland who rally against their own interests out of fear of change. They would benefit from such a bill (and may already be on Medicare). They're being duped.

Health care should be a luxury--according to some people

Worried about the health care "death panels" that Sarah Palin keeps talking about? We already have them. They're called insurance companies. Read the Salon article, The "Death Panels" are Already Here." Click here.

Here's a good article from addressing the common Republican talking points opposing health care reform, Top Five Health Care Lies--and How to Fight Them. Click here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Hamlet offered advice to the traveling troop of actors who visited Elsinore:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently. . .

We act every day; life is performance. Most of us are not very good at it. Some elevate acting to the professional level. This clip is from a New York City acting workshop led by award-winning actor/director Thurman E. Scott.

An actor behind the scenes: Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of "The Godfather."

To help us, we've recruited Marlon Brando the greatest screen actor of his generation, perhaps all time, who revolutionized and naturalized the art of acting. Even if we skip the more familiar performances from "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront," and "The Godfather," there are still many dynamic scenes to choose from.

Marlon Brando started on the stage, and here he plays Marc Antony in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." (1953) Contrast this big grand style of stage acting with the films that follow.

A scene with the amazing Anna Magnani from "The Fugitive Kind" (1960). Brando achieved stardom on Broadway, playing Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." Here he plays Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier in a film based on another Williams' play, "Orpheus Descending."

Paul's eulogy in "Last Tango in Paris." (1972) Believe it or not, this was the same year he played Vito Corleone in "The Godfather." An absolutely brilliant performance. (language warning on this clip)

Brando is interviewed in 1973, after winning--and rejecting--the Academy Award for Best Actor for "The Godfather." He skipped the ceremony and sent Native American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, in full Apache dress, to explain his objection to the depiction of American Indians by Hollywood and television. Needless to say, Brando stirred some controversy, especially among the old warhorses like John Wayne. Here, Brando plays himself.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Last summer, I attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop--a one week intensive of workshops, readings, panels, and lectures. It was a wonderful experience. Reed College was jammed with enthusiastic writers and a good spirit of creativity pervaded the workshops and readings--and just hanging out under the trees. Writers included Denis Johnson, Dorothy Allison, Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Charles D'Ambrosio, Anthony Doerr, Nick Flynn, Walter Kirn, and Colson Whitehead.

They just finished this years' conference, and that's where this film comes from. If you write fiction, memoir, or poetry, by all means apply for next year. By the way, Tin House is also a highly regarded literary magazine that features the best writing out there. Pick it up at the newstand.

Check out Tin House.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Do you ever wonder why some stories capture you while others meander and lose steam, or lumber predictably toward a ho-hum ending? Here's an interesting lecture from John Truby, author of "The Anatomy of a Story," that may answer these questions. You may agree or disagree, and his model may seem somewhat formulaic or mechanistic, but he has some valuable insights into story structure. (This clip contains Part 1, "Premise," and Part 2, "Seven Steps." You can find the rest of the lecture at Google Video)

Here is an excerpt from Truby's book, The Anatomy of Story:

Everyone can tell a story. We do it every day. “You won’t believe what happened at work.” Or “Guess what I just did!” Or “A guy goes into a bar . . .” We see, hear, read, and tell thousands of stories in our lives.
The problem comes in telling a great story. If you want to become a master storyteller, and maybe even get paid to be one, you run up against tremendous obstacles. For one thing, showing the how and why of human life is a monumental job. You have to have a deep and precise understanding of the biggest, most complex subject there is. And then you have to be able to translate your understanding into a story. For most writers, that may be the biggest challenge of all.
I want to be specific about the obstacles of story technique because that’s the only way a writer can hope to overcome them. The first obstacle is the common terminology most writers use to think about story. Terms like “rising action,” “climax,” “progressive complication,” and “denouement,” terms that go as far back as Aristotle, are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless. Let’s be honest: they have no practical value for storytellers. Say you are writing a scene where your hero is hanging by his fingertips, seconds from falling to his death. Is that a progressive complication, a rising action, a denouement, or the opening scene of the story? It may be none of them or all of them, but in any event, these terms don’t tell you how to write the scene or whether to write it at all.
The classic story terms suggest an even bigger obstacle to good technique: the very ideaof what story is and how it works. As a storyteller in training, the first thing you probably did was read Aristotle’s Poetics. I believe Aristotle was the greatest philosopher in history. But his thinking about story, while powerful, is surprisingly narrow, focused on a limited number of plots and genres. It is also extremely theoretical and difficult to put into actual practice, which is why most storytellers trying to learn the practical techniques of their craft from Aristotle leave empty-handed.
If you are a screenwriter, you probably moved from Aristotle to a much simpler understanding of story called “three-act structure.” This is also problematic, because three-act structure, albeit a lot easier to understand than Aristotle, is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong.
Three-act theory says that every story for the screen has three “acts”: the first act is the beginning, the second is the middle, and the third is the end. The first act is about thirty pages long. The third act is also about thirty pages long. And the second act runs to around sixty pages. And this three-act story supposedly has two or three “plot points” (whatever those are). Got that? Great. Now go and write a professional script.
I’m simplifying this theory of story, but not by much. It should be obvious that such an elementary approach has even less practical value than Aristotle. But what’s worse is that it promotes a view of story that is mechanical. The idea of an act break comes from the conventions of traditional theater, where we close the curtain to signal the end of an act. We don’t need to do that in movies, novels, and short stories or even, for that matter, in many contemporary plays.
In short, act breaks are external to the story. Three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logic—where the story should or should not go.
A mechanical view of story, like three-act theory, inevitably leads to episodic storytelling. An episodic story is a collection of pieces, like parts stored in a box. Events in the story stand out as discrete elements and don’t connect or build steadily from beginning to end. The result is a story that moves the audience sporadically, if at all.
Another obstacle to mastering storytelling has to do with the writing process. Just as many writers have a mechanical view of what a story is, they use a mechanical process for creating one. This is especially true of screenwriters whose mistaken notions of what makes a script salable lead them to write a script that is neither popular nor good. Screenwriters typically come up with a story idea that is a slight variation on a movie they saw six months previously. Then they apply a genre, like “detective,” “love,” or “action,” and fill in the characters and plot beats (story events) that go with that form. The result: a hopelessly generic, formulaic story devoid of originality.
In this book, I want to show you a better way. My goal is to explain how a great story works, along with the techniques needed to create one, so that you will have the best chance of writing a great story of your own. Some would argue that it’s impossible to teach someone how to tell a great story. I believe it can be done, but it requires that we think and talk about story differently than in the past.
In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for storytellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story. I will
*Show that a great story is organic—not a machine but a living body that develops
*Treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques that will help you be successful, regardless of the medium or genre you choose
*Work through a writing process that is also organic, meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally out of your original story idea
The main challenge facing any storyteller is overcoming the contradiction between the first and second of these tasks. You construct a story from hundreds, even thousands, of elements using a vast array of techniques. Yet the story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.
In this sense we storytellers are a lot like athletes. A great athlete makes everything look easy, as though his body just naturally moves that way. But in fact he has so mastered the techniques of his sport that his technique has simply disappeared from view, and the audience sees only beauty.
Excerpted from The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Copyright © 2007 by John Truby. Published in October 2007 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

Buy Truby's book here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Fans of the Beatles are descending upon Abbey Road to mark the forty year anniversary of this photograph. The iconic photo was taken in August of 1969, and became one of the most famous album covers in history and graced their last recorded work, "Abbey Road," which gave us such enduring classics as "Something," "Come Together," "Here Comes the Sun," "Oh! Darling," and that brilliant medley at the end of side two. (For those who don't know: unlike a compact disc, a long playing record had two sides)

The Beatles on Abbey Road

Here are some other shots from the photo session:

Thursday, August 6, 2009


In the Old West, they used to say there was always a gunslinger better than you somewhere. The analogy is imperfect, since guitar-playing requires more than just speed and accuracy--it demands taste, musicality, timbre, rhythm--and when things go well nobody is left lying dead in the ditch. Still, with those caveats, Leo Kottke is the better gunslinger. Watch the fingers. There was a time any self-respecting music fan played Greenhouse incessantly, or 6- and 12-String Guitar (the one with the armadillo on the cover). Many a sunny morning was filled with Leo's phenomenal fingerpicking as the coffee brewed and someone made blueberry pancakes in the next room. Many a night's revelries ended with Leo's distinctive tones, his own impossible compositions or wonderful covers of "Tiny Island" or "Eight Miles High" or "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." On the whole, he probably inspired more guitar players to play than to bash their instruments into kindling, and for that we salute him. Leo Kottke!

Medley: Part Two/June Bug/Train And The Gate (from German TV, early 80s)

Listen. Once in a while he even sings, though he doesn't much care for his voice and on one occasion compared it to the sound of a goose farting on a muggy day. Even so, it's an expressive counterpoint to his lyrical, syncopated guitar playing. On this second piece, he sings the blues--in his own unique style--about the passing of time and how you can't go back because things have changed--a cold sharp feeling for most of us now and then--but what is surprising in this clip is how he smiles when he performs it. Like any good bluesman, he takes this painful realization and makes it bearable, if not joyful. Watch his face when he sings the second verse, the part that begins with "You can't go back." Priceless.

"Hear the Wind Howl"

Some cloudy day the sun won't shine my blues away
And all I've lived for seems far away
Some cloudy day

Hear the wind howl
Hear the wind howl

You can't go back, it's not the same
Things have changed
While I counted hours and you remained
And you remained

Leo Kottke looking down the barrel of a gun


Marlon Brando was brilliant, and Rod Steiger was no slouch, but who put the words in their mouths? Screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who died today.

The controversial Schulberg had a fascinating life that included working with John Ford's documentary unit in WWII, and being one of the first US servicemen to liberate Nazi-run concentration camps. Later, during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Schulberg was named as a communist, and he buckled and decided to "name names" as a friendly witness. It was not his finest hour.

Maybe he assuaged his guilt with "On the Waterfront." The movie seems to be a parable about the courage of a man to "name names," in this case a palooka named Terry Malloy (Brando) whose brother, Charley the Gent (Steiger) is the lawyer for a mobbed-up union boss named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). This iconic scene in the taxi is a testimony to Schulberg's art as well as the actors, and we feel Terry's pain as he laments his wasted life as a bum who "coulda been a contender," and then decides to do the right thing and be a "cheese-eater."

Budd Schulberg, 1954

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, March 10, 2008, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in New York City.

Leonard Cohen back in the day: novelist, poet, songwriter, singer, legend, ladies man and hopeless romantic. Born in Montreal in 1934, the gravelly voiced folkie wore many faces but didn't crack the pop world and become famous until his first record album came out in 1967. Songs of Leonard Cohen included "So Long, Marianne" and "Suzanne," which became a huge hit for Judy Collins and was recorded by countless others.

On the BBC, Cohen said the song was written about Suzanne Verdal, the wife of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, in Montreal. The song is a love poem to Suzanne, and contains references to the city, the Saint Lawrence River and the tiny chapel on the water there, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours.

Leonard Cohen sings "Famous Blue Raincoat" in this rare clip. The gravity of his lyrics and the gravel in his voice make Cohen a tough listen for many, but his lyrics are rewarding even if they can be dark and even heartbreaking at times.

Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder
Youd been to the station to meet every train
And you came home without lili marlene

A recent interview with Cohen from the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC).

Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief
Well I see Jane's awake --

She sends her regards.