Friday, February 22, 2008

Nirvana's Nevermind

There isn't all that much new that you can say about Nirvana's "Nevermind" that hasn't already been said. So this review is more like a review/essay.

The hype and mystique surrounding this album is all true. It did change the face of rock, and along with Pearl Jam's "Ten" was the songbook that most popular 90s bands borrowed from.

So much has been written about Kurt Cobain, his life, his suicide, Courtney, Courtney/Grohl feud, etc., that's it's easy to forget what all started the hype in the first place. Nirvana's "Nevermind" is undoubtedly one of the greatest rock albums of-all-time. From the classic intro of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," to the subdued closing "Something In the Way," every song is both instantly memorable and brilliant. There isn't a single bad song on this disc. "Nevermind" is like a greatest hits in of itself.

What made this album so great was that the music was punk, but also had a pop-sensibility with infectious hooks and killer riffs. In this sense, you kind of get the best of both worlds--the raw anger and energy of Black Flag, and The Dead Kennedy's, but also the melody and harmony of The Beatles.

If you were born shortly before or after the death of Kurt Cobain, it's hard to imagine how revolutionary this CD was. When "Nevermind" exploded, it drew the line in rock. Bands that were otherwise obscure (Mudhoney, L7, Screaming Trees) were signed to major labels and enjoyed radio-play. Alternative bands that had been around for a few years that were already signed (Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chains) became huge overnight. The early 90s was a really exciting time in rock. Radio had been infested with the likes of Slaughter and Trixter, and, for a while, everything was new and fresh.

The only real drawback for me is that the revolution of "Nevermind" made people close minded about bands they had only just recently loved. Although it is a blessing that some of these bands were shown the door, i.e., Slaughter, a lot of good bands were discarded and trashed rightfully or not. "Nevermind" was certainly the death nail to all old-school rock. Most of these bands were killed overnight.

If Nevermind's sound is familiar now, it's only because thousands of rock records that followed it were trying very hard to cop its style. It tears out of the speakers like a cannonball, from the punk-turbo-charged riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" onward, magnifying and distilling the wounded rage of 15 years of the rock underground into a single impassioned roar. Few albums have occupied the cultural consciousness like this one; of its 12 songs, roughly 10 are now standards. The record's historical weight can make it hard to hear now with fresh ears, but the monumental urgency of Kurt Cobain's screams is still shocking.

In conclusion, fourteen years after its release, "Nevermind" often emulated, never duplicated, is still one of the best albums of all-time and belongs in every rock collection.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's Watchmen.

Has any comic been as acclaimed as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen? Possibly only Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but Watchmen remains the critics' favorite. Why? Because Moore is a better writer, and Watchmen a more complex and dark and literate creation than Miller's fantastic, subversive take on the Batman myth. Moore, renowned for many other of the genre's finest creations (Saga of the Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and From Hell, with Eddie Campbell) first put out Watchmen in 12 issues for DC in 1986-87. It won a comic award at the time (the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards for Best Writer/Artist combination) and has continued to gather praise since.
The story concerns a group called the Crimebusters and a plot to kill and discredit them. Moore's characterization is as sophisticated as any novel's. Importantly the costumes do not get in the way of the storytelling; rather they allow Moore to investigate issues of power and control--indeed it was Watchmen, and to a lesser extent Dark Knight, that propelled the comic genre forward, making "adult" comics a reality. The artwork of Gibbons (best known for 2000AD's Rogue Trooper and DC's Green Lantern) is very fine too, echoing Moore's paranoid mood perfectly throughout. Packed with symbolism, some of the overlying themes (arms control, nuclear threat, vigilantes) have dated but the intelligent social and political commentary, the structure of the story itself, its intertextuality (chapters appended with excerpts from other "works" and "studies" on Moore's characters, or with excerpts from another comic book being read by a child within the story), the finepace of the writing and its humanity mean that Watchmen more than stands up--it keeps its crown as the best the genre has yet produced.

Comic books superheroes are basically fascist vigilantes, with Superman and his dedication to truth, justice and the American way being the exception that proves the rule. Both "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns," the two greatest examples of graphic storytelling, deal explicitly with the underlying fear the ordinary citizenry have of the demi-gods they worship. The one inherent advantage that "Watchman" has over Frank Miller's classic tale is that it requires no knowledge of the existing mythos of its characters because Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian and the rest of the former members of the Crimebusters.

The brainchild of writer Alan Moore ("Swamp Thing," "V for Vendetta," "From Hell") and artist Dave Gibbons ("Rogue Trooper," "Doctor Who," "Green Lantern"), "Watchmen" was originally published by DC Comics in twelve issues in 1986-87. Moore and Gibbons won the Best Writer/Artist combination award at the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards ceremony. The central story in "Watchmen" is quite simple: apparently someone is killing off or discrediting the former Crimebusters. The remaining members end up coming together to discover the who and the why behind it all, and the payoff to the mystery is most satisfactory. But what makes "Watchmen" so special is the breadth and depth of both the characters and their respective subplots: Dr. Manhattan dealing with his responsibility to humanity given his god-like powers; Nite Owl having trouble leaving his secret identity behind; Rorschach being examined by a psychiatrist. Each chapter offers a specific focus on one of the characters, yet advances the overall narrative.

Beyond that the intricate narrative, Moore and Gibbons offer two additional levels to the story. First, each chapter is followed by a "non-comic" section that develops more of the backstories, such as numerous excerpts from Hollis Mason's autobiography "Under the Hood" or Professor Mitlon Glass' "Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers," an interview with Adrian Veidt, or reports from the police files of Walter Joseph Kovacs. Second, almost every issue has scenes from "Tales of the Black Freighter," a comic-book being read by a kid near a newsstand, which offers an allegorical perspective on the main plot line.

"Watchmen" certainly nudged the comics industry in the right direction towards greater sophistication and intelligence, although a full appreciation of its significance is always going to be lost on the bean counters. The Book Club Edition of "Watchmen" offers the teaser: "He's America's ultimate weapon . . . and he's about to desert to Mars." As a representation of the work as a whole that description is simply stupid, especially since it is followed by a glowing recommendation by Harlan Ellison that concludes "anyone who misses this milestone event in the genre of the fantastic is a myopic dope." If you ever spent time reading and enjoying any superhero comic book, you will appreciate what you find in "Watchmen."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cornell Woolrich(aka William Irish and George Hopley)1903-1968

Despite the fact that he will probably be forever remembered as the author of Rear Window, one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films, Cornell Woolrich to mystery aficionados is the father of noir. Born in 1903 in New York City, he spent most of his childhood in revolutionary Mexico with his father who was an engineer. He went to Columbia University but left rather soon. His writing career with six novels in the manner of Scott Fitgerald meet with tepid success. After a disastrous marriage and unsuccessful career as scriptwriter, he went to live with his mother in New York. His first mystery, The Bride Wore Black (1940) is the classic noir and one of the major books of the genre. More followed - especially short stories - with the characteristic that readers were never sure if the ending was going to be a happy one or a sad one. This is probably why Alfred Hitchcock and many other film makers were so attracted to his work. Woolrich is probably one of the "filmed" mystery authors with Rear Window as prime example. He lived most of his life secluded especially after he had his leg amputated following an uncured foot infection. Woolrich died in 1968.

“The streets were dark with something more than night,” Raymond Chandler once wrote. Cornell Woolrich, in his suspense noir classic Rendezvous in Black, takes it a step further by penetrating and calibrating that night where “the darkness changed only to another darkness.”

It’s a pessimistic viewpoint that may have grown out of Woolrich’s early life in New York City, where he was born in 1903 to soon-divorced parents. In the 1920s Woolrich wrote two critically well-received but commercially disappointing Jazz-Age novels, and experienced emotional devastation with a failed love and a brief, annulled marriage. With the advent of the Depression and with few career prospects Woolrich, living back with his mother in a Manhattan residential hotel — where he would die a recluse in 1968 — started writing for the pulp magazines.

Developing a taut and psychological intensity with over 100 stories, Woolrich was well-prepared to convey his dark themes of revenge, murder, and doomed romance when in the 1940s he began writing hardcover crime novels that often put him in the same league with Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His so-called black series include such books as The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, Black Curtain, and Black Path of Fear.
One of the most nightmarish is 1948's Rendezvous in Black, with a stark and menacingly poetic and often elegiac tone commensurate to the consideration, “How could a thing that was so good become so bad ... how could a thing that was so right become so wrong?”

That anything could be so good, and so right, was beyond question in the everyman and girl-next-door engagement of Johnny Marr and Dorothy, who first met “when she was seven and he was eight. And they’d first fallen in love when he was eight and she was seven. Sometimes it happens that way.”

And sometimes what is so bad and so wrong happens instead. When Dorothy suddenly, on a May 31st — the night before their wedding day — dies in a freak accident involving a low-flying charter plane and a group of drunken men, Johnny’s life is shattered. And no matter that only one man, unknown, is to blame, a now maniacal Marr plots vengeance on all five men.

But if “revenge is a dish best served cold,” Woolrich chills it down several degrees further as his cold-around-the-heart character doesn’t content himself with just killing each suspect. He wants them to live and endure the same mental anguish as — on May 31st of each year — he exacts retribution upon their loved ones, leaving taunting notes that ask, “Now you know what it feels like. So how do you like it?”

In Rendezvous in Black’s accumulative, page-turning race-against-time, the twists and turns have their own twists and turns, and a reader can go for several pages of uncertainty as to which one of several possible scenarios is being played out, and by whom. Speaking of characters, it is a mark of Woolrich’s devilry-in-the-details craftsmanship that even the secondary personalities are as carefully considered and nuanced as the main protagonists and antagonists; surprisingly perhaps, Woolrich displays a keen and sympathetic understanding of women.

In any case, the only sure thing in this tense, any-which-way-but-lucid cat-and-mouse game — the pursuer is a seeming bumbler of a Colombo-like detective — is the portentous and perennial despair of darkness and shadow that allows for no shades of gray. Each rendezvous is truly a date with a dimming destiny bearing down by any means necessary: “A train of death. A cavalcade of doom. Dozens of black cars, scores of them; shaking the rails, shaking the night…”

Even ostensible refuge and escape may comprise wasted effort: “And now they were on a ship, coursing deep water, crossing an ocean between two worlds. The eternal darkness was still around her…”

Then it closes in: “Night came on in her heart. One by one, all the lights went out. It got cold, and a wind from nowhere knifed at her. Her step didn’t falter; outwardly there was nothing to show that, within her, the whole world was going down into blackness.”

Into, indeed, a dark with something more than night, a darkness that changes only to another darkness.