Friday, May 27, 2011

Rock Bio #5: Television

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

When Television took the stage at CBGB on March 31, 1974, it was a new club in Manhattan's Bowery district and they were a new band. But over the next six months, both gained a sizable following in New York music circles. Television's Sunday-night residency at CBGB lit a fire under the nascent genre of punk rock, which became the club's calling card in spite of its initials standing for "Country, Bluegrass, and Blues."

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, née Tom Miller and Richard Meyers, met in boarding school in Delaware in the mid-'60s. Verlaine wanted to be a musician, Hell a poet, and by 1967 they were both living in New York City. Verlaine's passion for John Coltrane and the saxophone eventually gave way to the Velvet Underground and electric guitar; Hell couldn't play any instruments, but Verlaine taught him some basics on the bass, and together they formed the Neon Boys with drummer Billy Ficca in 1972. The group wanted to add a rhythm guitarist but couldn't find anyone to their liking (Dee Dee Ramone and Chris Stein, soon to join Blondie, auditioned), and after recording six songs they called it quits.

Finally, in the fall of '73, Verlaine met Richard Lloyd and discovered a guitarist he could spar with onstage. Rebranded as Television (Hell's idea), Lloyd and the ex-Neons began to carve out a name for themselves on the New York club scene, attracting the attention of established stars like David Bowie and Lou Reed. But Hell's lack of experience on the bass was becoming a hindrance to the rest of the band, and in March of '75 he left Television, merging with ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan soon after to form the Heartbreakers. He then left that band the following year to create Richard Hell & the Voidoids, whose song "Blank Generation" became one of the defining anthems of '70s punk.

Once Hell was replaced with Fred Smith, who defected from Blondie, the new lineup of Television recorded a single, "Little Johnny Jewel." Elektra Records liked what they heard—the inspiration for Television's sound was equal parts garage rock and free-form jazz—and in 1977 released Marquee Moon, considered by many to be one of the greatest debuts in rock history. By the time the band entered the studio to record it, they knew the album's eight cuts, including classics like "Friction" and "See No Evil," backward and forward. Rumor has it they recorded the ten-minute title track, which features exquisite intertwining guitar work from Verlaine and Lloyd, in one take.

Marquee Moon sold more copies in the UK than in the States, but Television quickly followed it up with Adventure (1978). Though it lacked the high-wire tension of its predecessor, the sophomore effort still produced memorable pop-rock tracks like "Foxhole" and "Glory." But after the album's supporting tour, Television disbanded. Verlaine and Lloyd pursued solo careers in the '80s, and Smith re-upped with Blondie.

In 1992 Television reunited for a third, self-titled album and their most extensive tour to date, but aside from additional concert and festival appearances in 2001 and 2007, the band hasn't recorded again. Nevertheless, the influence of Marquee Moon and Adventure's dynamic musicianship on artists like Lloyd Cole, Matthew Sweet, Echo & the Bunnymen, and even U2 and R.E.M. over the past 30 years has proven immeasurable.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What a long, strange title it's been.

Many people believe that Hollywood produced more great movies in the 1970s than in any other decade. It certainly allowed some oddball titles to get through the system. Here's a sample:

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971): Dustin Hoffman plays a famous songwriter in director Ulu Grosbard's comedy-drama. Its title was referenced for the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, which is appropriate since Nilsson himself was a songwriter for hire—the Monkees recorded "Cuddly Toy" in 1967—before he found fame as a singer. His first Top 40 hit as a performer was "Everybody's Talkin'," the theme song to Midnight Cowboy (1969), which starred Hoffman. The song was written and originally recorded by Fred Neil, however, and Nilsson's biggest solo hit, 1972's "Without You," was a cover of a Badfinger song.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972): Paul Newman directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, in this family drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paul Zindel, who went on to write young-adult novels with similarly odd titles, such as My Darling, My Hamburger (considered a classic of YA literature), Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, and Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball! Alvin Sargent penned the screenplay for Gamma Rays as well as Robert Redford's directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980), which is a movie with an ordinary title, but he also wrote or cowrote films as diverse as Paper Moon (1973), Unfaithful (2002), What About Bob? (1991), and Spider-Man 2 (2004), an accomplishment that isn't ordinary at all.

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973): One of Sargent's lesser-known films (along with 1978's Straight Time, another collaboration between Ulu Grosbard and Dustin Hoffman) is this romantic drama starring Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) and directed by Alan J. Pakula, his follow-up to 1971's Klute. In Peter Bart and Peter Guber's book Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood, Pakula is quoted as saying that the movie's title accurately described how he felt about opening weekend: "I wish I could make movies but never have to release them."

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1978): My favorite of the four titles spotlighted here, director Ralph Nelson's drama centers on a 13-year-old heroin addict and is based on a young-adult novel by playwright and author Alice Childress. Her name is the title of a song on Ben Folds Five's 1995 self-titled debut album, but it isn't about her—Anna Goodman, the song's cowriter (along with Folds), named "Alice Childress" after a patient of the same name at the mental institution where she once worked. The film version of A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich stars Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Larry B. Scott, who's still probably best known for his role as Lamar in Revenge of the Nerds.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Boldy" is my new favorite typo.

"Throughout the film's production, [20th Century Fox chairman Bill] Mechanic—especially Mechanic—had taken on the pressure with a wavering composure. He had stood up for Fight Club as boldy as he could, but after this screening, he knew that if this baby didn't fly, there might be a huge career price to pay."

—from chapter 12 of What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line (2002) by Art Linson, producer of Fight Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Into the Wild but not Jodie Foster's The Beaver, which is "boldy original," according to People magazine

Monday, May 2, 2011

If you go too fast and furious, Roger Ebert will get lost.

In his April 29 review of Fast Five for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote:

The "F&F" titles got confusing with the unrelated "Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift" and John Singleton's "2 Fast 2 Furious," which is why, I suppose, "Fast Five" drops the "furious." But it isn't technically the fifth "F&F" unless you count the outliers. So I don't know what "Five" refers to. That doesn't bother me.

Maybe the titles did get confusing since only two in the decade-old series employ numbers—it doesn't help that the first and fourth entries essentially have the same title—but if Ebert had checked his facts he wouldn't be so confused. (Perhaps he should have visited Mulberry Panda 96 for a refresher course on the highly profitable street-racing saga.)

The series' second entry, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), stars Paul Walker, who was also in the first film, The Fast and the Furious (2001); his costar in the sequel was Tyrese Gibson, who returns in Fast Five. Vin Diesel skipped 2 Fast 2 Furious but showed up in a cameo at the end of 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift—which didn't feature any other characters from the first two films—then returned to the series full-time, along with Walker, for Fast & Furious in '09.

See, Roger? They're all connected, and Fast Five really is the series' fifth installment, even if it sounds more like the name of a lotto game than a movie. And since it had an $86 million opening weekend, it's a safe bet that "Grandmaster Fast and the Furious Six" will be crashing into a theater near you sometime in 2013.