Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Way out West

I grew up thoroughly intrigued by Las Vegas, a place I only knew through the movies and television, a place that I saw as filtered through the cool daddy shades of The Rat Pack, a locale I viewed as an opposing camp to the rock and roll army I imagined I was attached to, a weird American kind of Oz, bursting with kitsch, camp, and middle-class Americana yet also built upon the shattered bones and long dried blood sprinkled in the desert by dying breed of raffish, brutal, and ruthlessly ambitious criminal warlords.

I never saw that Las Vegas, whether it existed or not. The Vegas I know, the Vegas I’ve landed in quite a few times in recent years because of my job, doesn’t sport the mystery or the allure of the one I imagined during my dreamy adolescence, nor does it pop and crackle with coolness or retro hipness. It’s a working town, peopled with hardworking service people, cocky Euro-kids, sideways glancing businessmen, moneyed Asians, burgeoning young Republican party boys, red-faced Canucks, the-big-one-is-coming seniors, and apple-pied Americans, all hell-bent on sniffing the plasticized aroma of the continual canned spectacles plodding on all around with clockwork predictability while catching an OSHA-prescribed, seat-belted, tickety-tack theme park ride vibe that’s easily safer than milk. Sure, if you work the outskirts hard enough, roam the floors late enough, and poke your nose into the joints with the dimmer lights you’ll spot the hustlers, the hookers, and the hard cases, each of ‘em working the same slow capitulation scheme that their cousins and ex-next door neighbors are doing in whatever passes for a big city in yer own neck of the woods, none of them any brighter, better looking, or more hard core.

Each time I visit this mythological place, propelled by new vigor and backed up by my past archaeological digs, I’m convinced that there’s gotta be a piece of that old black magic desert paradise still in existence, maybe even a few hot spots that transmit the sweet sweat of Sammy Davis, Jr, the cocksure propensity for transcendent drinking once and forever carved out by Frank Sinatra, or even the breezy path to hot desert/air conditioned unblinking showbiz bliss briefly exemplified by zen master Dino Martin. Maybe Fat Elvis screwed the joint up, leaving behind a rust pile of broken spangles and the stench of discarded pill-poisoned scarves, opening up the stage doors to a parade of pot-bellied crooners, light shows with songs, well-coiffed Grade B television spawned vaudevillians, manikin-like divas, and audiences that would rather cheer themselves shuffling off to Buffalo.

Al Jolson’s ghost couldn’t stomach a stopover in today’s Las Vegas, but I am still made of mortal coil, and I am Sam Spade-determined to solve this ongoing Las Vegas caper, my friends. Let me turn off the keyboard and slide into the elevator rolling down into the lookalike play pen they call my hotel. I’m on this case for free, you see, and I have to pursue the elusive great whatzit before it wiggles into my gut and corrupts my soul. Viva la that.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


The spirit of Woodstock must have pierced through my veins as of late, as I recently invited other know-it-alls to share some space on my blogarama, and offer up a glimpse into an overlooked or under appreciated record. Stepping up to the plate is Matthew Turner:

BLUES RUN THE GAME – Jackson C. Frank (Sanctuary Records, 1965)

I first found Jackson C. Frank’s one-and-only album Blues Run the Game on a whim. Like that perfect book you just happen to pull off the old library bookshelf, this is how it happened with Jackson and me. During my undergrad years, I took a roadtrip to a NYC record store and randomly pulled this CD from the stacks. There was a little white note that simply read: a must listen for Nick Drake fans. After some small talk with the friendly shopkeep, I bought the CD not having even heard one song, but merely on a gut feeling, something that I sadly never do nowadays. Weeks later I realized that Drake had actually covered several of Jackson’s songs on one of his albums, but Jackson had never been listed in the credits. I would soon come to find that this was the story of Jackson’s sad life. According to Dirty Linen mag’s T.J. McGrath: "He’s the most famous folksinger of the 1960’s that no one has ever heard of."

When I first threw on the CD in my empty Federal Hill, Providence, RI, apartment, I was shocked by the pure honesty of the songs. I listened to it over and over that day trying to figure out the strange spell it had cast upon me. Weeks later, I would still be listening, but now I was just as much interested in his story, which was one of the saddest story’s I had ever heard, and to this day am still trying to figure out.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track from this album, but, for many, it’s "Blues Run the Game," which would be covered by many more famous musicians besides Drake, such as; Simon and Garfunkel, Sandy Denny, John Renbourne, and Al Stewart, among others. I would discover that Paul Simon had produced his album and that the two of them, along with Art Garfunkel, had been London flatmates. I would also discover that he had survived a horrific elementary school fire, been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, was shot in the eye by a NYC thug, and ended up homeless on the streets of NY, where he would later die tragically of pneumonia. And that there was even a picture of a young Jackson with Elvis whom his mother had brought him to meet to help cheer him up after the fire!

The songs "Kimbie" and "Just Like Anything” were two more of my favorites, but it’s hard to pin down just one, as the entire album, to me, still sounds timeless.Whatever happened to Jackson C. Frank? I guess the world will never know, but his lone album will forever live on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


The following column is reprinted from the August issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open

by Scott Duhamel

Vitriolic, vehement, and undeniably exhilarating, The Hurt Locker may turn out to be the least talked about but most well-fashioned and provocatively sculpted major studio release of the summer season. It’s bracingly directed—a popular movie driven by a truly cohesive directorial vision—and it delivers its framework of action with a particularly fine-tuned frisson, rock and rolling with balls and intelligence, shooting out the lights with an unsettling but mesmerizing friction. It also, after some cult success and a relatively steady career, finally announces filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow as directorial force to be reckoned with.

Ostensibly another in a long line of recent Iraq war movies, The Hurt Locker focuses on a unique three-man U.S. Army bomb squad, the not-so-lucky guys whose day job it is to defuse and dispose of IEDs, which typically account for 50 percent of the causalities in Iraq. The make-up of the team is just this side of predictable, with the nervous youth and designated sniper Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the tough and wary intelligence officer Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and their newly arrived bull goose loony Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), whose say he has (so far) disarmed 878 of the suckers. The former two are in the final 38 days of their rotation and outside of desiring no more sand in their teeth alongside days and nights of playing duck and cover, they clearly want no part of the latter, the newest team member who seems part soldier/part ninja and keeps re-upping his hitch.

What distinguishes The Hurt Locker from checking in as a moral-parading exploration of our current Middle Eastern engagement, or simply another pop and crackle action ride covered up in a war movie uniform, is Bigelow’s acutely unique overview and her more-than-scrupulous technique. The movie really isn’t about Iraq, nor is it an excuse to trot out a newfangled formula for contempo action; it delves into the grace (and devastation) of heroism in war, and it rolls out like a kinetic art piece replete with spatial distancing and a visceral flair. Essentially divided in a half dozen missions, each choreographed with sinuous hand-held camerawork and accented with off-balance tilts, full speed zooms, and nervous editing that doesn’t echo the MTV-styled cutting that usually substitutes for filmmaking acumen within Hollywood product, Bigelow’s movie arches into a rigorous self-propellant, with style flash pointing into substance. Stripped bare, the movie contains no story arc, no character development, and no big or resounding (aka meaningful) finale. It’s a potent dip into the adrenaline of recklessness and disorientation of cinematic action, and not in the usual manner which is usually merely meant to artificially simulate so-called real life action.

Bigelow, an ex-artist, has long carved out two distinct filmic reps: As a woman director who inexplicably makes macho movies, and as a filmmaker who delivers atypical action movies, i.e. ones that somehow manage to contain both smarts and catchy visual pay-offs, films in the style of populist masters like Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, The Big Red One) or Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix, Kiss Me Deadly), movies that don’t trip up in their own stylization but deliver with the accretion of detail and the dynamism of style and movement, wholly chalking up their respective action markings by crafting time and space in an effective cinematic manner. Near Dark (1987) was a punk rock vampire trip, high on adrenaline and cough syrup funny. Blue Steel (1989) was an over-the-top Dirty Harry riff, with Jamie Lee Curtis, her legs, and her gun virtually imploding through the pulpy screen. Point Blank (1991) is a Zen-nihilist-heist-undercover-surfer offering, the kind of movie which it’s ever growing aficionados watch again and again as it flickers across the cable menu. Even the slightly off kilter Strange Days (1995) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and the seemingly out-of-character The Weight of Water (2000) easily boast a number of merits, signifying the actual presence of a legit authorial voice.

The Hurt Locker wallows in intensity, while never inching an iota towards the standard videogame cinema. Its three principles (especially the bay-faced Renner) turn in blunt and vividly etched turns, echoed by the passing-through up-the-macho-ante appearances of David Morse, Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce. A war movie that avoids politics, the film also functions as a highly-drawn examination of a rather throwback notion, that of a job (and that truly mans any job) well done. Combustible, unpredictable, and dazzling, over brimming with a jangly immediacy, it deserves to be sought out by those filmgoers who can actually take their popcorn served straight up, no chaser.

Friday, August 7, 2009

One of a Kind: RIP Willy DeVille 1953-2009

Cool is cool, and it can't be defined, refined, faked, imitated, put on, made up, manufactured, passed on, passed out, taught, illustrated, or theorized. Willy DeVille was cool, epitomized cool, the coolest of cats, a high priest of cool, a doctor of cool, a professor of cool, Mr. Cool, Master Cool Daddy, and he could dance a little too. Angelic and tough, dapper and disdainful, feminine and manly, soul boy and rocking man, he carved out a niche that was totally his own in the infamous hazy daze of CBGB's burgeoning and all-over-the-map prehensile punk scene with his exquisitely monikered band, Mink DeVille. Willy (born William Boray), skinnier than a menthol cigarette, resplendent in luxuriant pastels, skyscraper hair, mondo boots pumping time, suitjacket slung over the shoulder in pure Sinatra style, a suave bantam weight with pure New York vibes emanating out of every pore, lithe and leonine, he trotted out his very own personal version of the blended up blues-vocal group-r&B-4/4 rock and roll with only an attitude that might be classified as punk. DeVille commanded the stage as he switched up from guitar-slinger to harp-blower to rock brayer to spotlight crooner, a performer drenched in cool, vibrating cool, hand-delivering cool.(One look at William turned Willy and you just knew he was an all-time slow dancer, as long as his partner didn't mind the switchblade in his pocket pressing against her.) Quick think yer very own checklist of rock and roll cool (electric Dylan, purple Prince, exiled Keith Richards, junked-up Johnny Thunders, twenty flight Eddie Cochran) and know (especially those smart, lucky, or privileged to have caught the man live), that Willy Boy was on the top of that chart, a significant factor in the overall annals of rock and roll. Willy may be heading where angels fear to tread, strutting the Cadillac walk or doing up the Spanish stroll, eternally hunting for his Venus of Avenue D, but no doubt about it, he's bringing The Cool.

Monday, August 3, 2009


(As monomaniacal as I might truly be, maintaining a blog of this high degree of purity and insight (heh-heh) gets wearying. I realize I have enough know-it-all-pallies, informormed buds, and sharp hipster connections, that I oughtta let one or two of you bring it on home occasionally. Here’s the basic premise: 1-3 concise paragraphs about a CD (or as we old schoolers still refer to it-an album) that wasn’t necessarily an all-timer, a Blonde on Blonde or a London Calling. Instead, spotlight a possible peripheral release that stands the test of time and delivers on its small promises, or simply executes succinctly and manages to remain on yer personal playlist--- a sideways record, an overlooked effort, a self-contained minor gem, ya know, a record that’s got Shelf Life. Send me your brilliant overview in simple word form, and I’ll post ‘em up, giving my avid and obsessive readers (heh-heh-heh) an occasional breather from the sound of one man pontificating.)

Sylvain Sylvain (RCA), 1979

Anyone who got a chance to catch the last New York Dolls tour had to sit up and take note of forever sparkplug Sly Sylvain, whose spirited presence and pure authenticity helped buoy every performance. Slyvain has long been the most underrated of Dolls, and even I, a long gone worshipper at the junkie alter of Johnny Thunders have often been guilty of giving good ol’ Syl short shrift. The truth is, Sylvain’s first release, the self titled Sylvain Sylvian, actually stands right next to the much vaunted and much more visible first post-Doll releases of his colleagues David Johansen and Thunders. I remember listening to it upon its release and immediately latching on to its simple but catchy tone and undeniable listenability—I just couldn’t (at the time) figure where it landed on the all important youthful Cool Measurement Scale. It just seemed, well, so un-Doll-like, and, yep, un-punk-like, it became a closet listening experience for me when I used to value style and choice over substance and attainment.

Syl’s assembled band includes three members of his Mr. David Jo Doll’s first band, bassist Buz Verno, guitarist Johnny Rao, and keyboardist Bobby Blain, alongside drummer Lee Crystal (Joan Jett) and sax man Jonathan Gerber. Syl, once again an often overlooked songwriter as a Doll, obviously brought a certain esprit to Thunders Keith Richards-gone-punk riff rock and David Jo’s ironic NYC twisting of the Chicago blues. His first solo effort is essentially a straightforward and heartfelt paean to Dion, the Brill Building, and the sweet sounds of 60’s girl groups, with a nod to The Rascals. Best of all, it is all delivered with an unabashed sincerity and unaffected straightforwardness, equally high-spirited and coolly retro, all of it done with a craftsman’s touch.

“Teenage News” the opener, is a bright dash and bash of pure pop, while the album’s most memorable song, “What’s That Got to do With Rock’n’Roll” is an ersatz Rock-Is-It declarative number that the likes of Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, or Brian Seltzer would kill to have written. “I’m So Sorry” could have (and should have) been a combative siren song belted out by Ronnie Spector or Nancy Sinatra, and boy, and it’s hard to believe that some sorta hipster filmmaker hasn’t grabbed it for a soundtrack by this point. “Without You” and “Every Boy and Every Girl” are sweetened nuggets written in the same vein (piano driven, do-wah-diddy background vocals, unblushing lovesick pop tales) while “14th Street Beat” is pure retro, but also pure New York, in a thoroughly unaffected way. “Deeper and Deeper” should have been delivered by Willie DeviIlle, another 60’s pop torch song woven with slightly updated stylistics. “Ain’t Got No Home is a decent take on the venerable Clarence Henry classic, nothing ventured, nothing gained, while “Tonight" is a saxophone-filled coda, a neat instrumental finale to a truly neat recorded offering. Tip of the hat to Egyptian-born Syl Mirhazi, epitomizer of one piece of the ever pounding New York sound puzzle, able precursor to the future punk rock sweepstakes, possessor of rock and roll true blood, with a debut solo you almost haveta dance to.