“The Darjeeling Limited,” from 2007, is minor Wes Anderson but, as always, colorful and interesting, frantic and funny. I bring it up because of Anderson’s new “Isle of Dogs.” Wildly stylized, a bit melancholy, “Darjeeling” holds up better than many think. My review upon its release:
From “Rushmore” to “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson inserts us into lush and artificial places, heady imaginary worlds slathered in sizzling primary colors and soundtracked to infectious ’60s rock that courts a light-headed buzz. His ornate sets and surgical compositions are like dioramas made of gumdrops and lollipops. Be sure: They will cause toothaches.
Anderson is a showman — a show-off — with a dandy’s sensibility for design and décor, a little bit of Pedro Almódovar swished with Richard Lester, lovely but spasmodic. That aesthetic hit its mark in “Rushmore,” one of Anderson’s comic masterstrokes (the other is “Bottle Rocket”), but got out of hand in the cloying “Royal Tenenbaums” and the meandering “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” cutesy confections that strained to delight the Anderson cult with rampant quirks.
Anderson’s a hipster nebbish, the self-conscious artist as a youngish man still locating a workable balance of personal voice and cinematic immortality.
Perhaps chastened by the pallid response to “Life Aquatic,” Anderson pulls back in “Darjeeling” for something sweetly inviting. Co-written by Roman Coppola and one of the film’s stars, Jason Schwartzman — both of whom trace bloodlines to the Coppola dynasty — this yeasty picaresque about three troubled brothers on a bumbling train journey across India shows Anderson in fair control of his material. Excess gives way to highly stylized understatement, grounded by an unmistakable thrum of melancholy.
In fact, the affair is so mild that Anderson’s ideas about reconciliation and healing amid a dysfunctional family (abiding themes in all his movies) don’t quite jell. When the rural Indian dust settles, it’s not clear what the characters actually accomplished in their distinctly un-mythic quest.
Still, it’s a fun ride. Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody make an amusing trio whose passive-aggressive deadpan is relieved by fits of brotherly scrapping. Yet we never get caught up in their professed spiritual journey or the small adventures into which they shamble.
Anderson tames the dirty, dizzying India of reality and other India-set films. He brightens it up with that free-flowing electric pallete and organizes the chaos to fit his fussy sensibilities. From all reports, he even gets the smell of the country wrong. (“I love the way this country smells,” Brody’s character says. “It’s kind of spicy.”)
Anderson has no interest in the heaving Indian miasma. He fails even to contrast our goofy heroes’ monied, white upper-middle classness with the local penury. Everything is beautiful: Their titular train is all luxury coaches, and when they enter a far-flung village, the light falls perfectly, the colors mesh and flowers abound.
That village sequence, by the way, centers around a sudden tragedy midway through the 90-minute film. It’s a thing of sadness, but Anderson mishandles its impact on the story. The incident not only shuts down and sobers up the boys, who have been clownish entertainers until now, it throws a pall over the rest of the show.
A blowzy charmer, Wilson mostly reprises his Dignan character from “Bottle Rocket,” playing the bossy, control-freak brother with an iron plan. He’s brought a travel assistant with a PC and printer to be cumbersomely schlepped around.
Eerie to some, par for the celebrity course to others, Wilson’s character sports a mummy’s worth of facial bandages through the film, thanks to a failed suicide attempt, which recalls the actor’s recent real-life suicide attempt.
All three brothers bear wounds. Schwartzman, who mysteriously goes barefoot the entire trip, looking like Paul McCartney on the “Abbey Road” album, is nursing a broken heart, and Brody’s stuck in a moribund marriage. The trip, ring-led by Wilson, is also a way to bring the brothers together after a year of silence following their father’s death.
Slight as it is, “The Darjeeling Limited” is of a piece in the Anderson oeuvre. Ferrying between poles of enchantment — happy levity to wistful sorrow — it tenderly limns shattered family dynamics, and does so with panache. Anderson’s visual tics are in full flower: the swift, information-packed pans; long horizontal tracking shots; lyrical slow-motion. (And, hey, there’s Bill Murray!)
Some will call this mellow picture minor Wes Anderson, which would be reductive. I call it growth.
Day-five of spring, it’s 50 degrees out and there it is (no, not already): the tinkly, telltale tune of the ice cream man and his ramshackle, rainbow-colored truck, plastered with cartoons and photos of the products he’s pulled up to peddle.
He’s making the rounds, up and down streets and avenues, Pied-Pipering children to chase his truck until he stops, the chugging engine idling in the middle of the road and kids, some on tippy-toes, pressing at the sliding glass window, jostling for a sweet treat.
This is tradition in action. Didn’t we all have an ice cream man tooling around in a boxy little mail truck or van, delivering Drumsticks, Push Ups, Choco Tacos, Fudgsicles and snow cones? One assumes it all started with the folkloric Good Humor Man in the 1930s, but who really knows.
And who cares when sprinkles-dipped delectations await? (Even if they do average a swindler’s $3 to $4 each. In my day …) At the window today is a globe-shaped man with a ruddy face and hairy arms. He’s as nice as can be without being creepy.
But back to that tootling, anodyne jingle we all know and loathe. That unmistakable melody that, in some grade schools, has become the innocent singalong “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (Another popular truck song is Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” aka the theme to the classic film “The Sting.”)
Here’s where things get ugly. That song, the one our local confectionary vehicle and thousands nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s aggressively racist. I don’t want to plunge into that swamp here, but you can read all about its malignant history at NPR. It’s shocking; the story even comes with a reader caution.
So if lawn mowers aren’t quite buzzing yet — last week’s season-flouting snow is still busy melting — other sounds are filling the air, those of yelping children by turns asking for money from tall people and chirping orders for Bomb Pops, as well as some questionable earworms swirling out of megaphones atop Skittles-hued trucks and vans.
It’s a bi-seasonal symphony — just wait for the clamor come summer — that I’m a bit old to partake in. (The last thing I bought from an ice cream truck was a Diet Coke.) Still, the view from afar is fine. One delights in forbidden treats vicariously, observes the joy of mass satisfaction, and maybe takes a sweet nostalgic journey all the while.
“Hey Siri — what’s the name of this song?” my tween niece asks the new Apple HomePod, a black orb of netted plastic that’s an interactive speaker you can talk to and enjoy its no-nonsense vocal responses. It stands about seven-inches-tall, it’s shaped like a futuristic sports ball with buffed, rounded edges and a flat, glowing top. It is distinctly Kubrickian.
“The song by the Beatles is ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’” Siri, or the Apple HomePod’s resident DJ — the tiny person who we all know resides inside — responds in a feathery, tranquilizing female android voice that isn’t at all … creepy.
But this is about the Beatles — the ones with Apple Records, not Apple singular — though both are capitalistic behemoths of flabbergasting muscle, might and moola.
It’s about a 12-year-old discovering the indelible Brit band if not for the first time — as a toddler her bedtime lullabies included the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Across the Universe” — then for that point in life when culture totally matters, that crucial juncture of taste-making that suffuses a being forever. Art and culture are cyclonic at this age. Their influences batter and blow, shaping aesthetic passions like sand dunes, but with much more permanence.
My niece is at that point — post-Harry Potter (she was in the stultifying wizard’s unyielding thrall for a few unholy years), post-Pokemon and their predictable kin (though Star Wars never quite captured her imagination).
No, instead she has gravitated to sophistication and kneels at the high-art altars of David Bowie, Queen, Radiohead, “Hamilton,” “The Catcher in the Rye” and (one of this film buff’s all-time favorites) “All About Eve.” She’s hankering to read “The Great Gatsby.” She performs lustily in local theater musicals. She writes wonderful poetry and is working on a novel. She reads books with dizzying voracity. I reckon she’ll be A.P. all the way.
Hell, I was a grizzled 19 when I finally and full-throatedly got the Beatles. I too had an infantile acquaintance with the group — I was smitten with “Yellow Submarine,” both the animated movie and the soundtrack, as a wee one — but there was no follow through until college.
It hit hard. I got so into every nook and cranny of the band that I was inspired to buy a harmonica and an electronic piano, both of which proved embarrassing and foolhardy acquisitions. The Beatles, like Brando and Shakespeare, were a blinding Damascus moment, earth-rattling, a crack in the cosmos. Their various looks, images, melodies, harmonies, beats, hooks and lyrics dovetailed, in my mind, into an unearthly incandescence so often ascribed to genius.
A few of my niece’s favorite Beatles songs include “Here Comes the Sun,” “Let it Be,” “I Am the Walrus” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” — as good as any Beatles starter kit as any.
These songs are easy ones, Muzak-ready, plucked off the top of any Beatles fan’s pop-addled head. Soon she’ll be singing and swaying to the likes of “Golden Slumbers,” “Norwegian Wood,” “A Day in the Life,” “Lovely Rita,” “In My Life,” “Blackbird,” “The Night Before,” and on and on. (The band recorded 213 songs.) She knows the stinkers, too. She tells Siri to skip “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” when it comes on. Even Siri loathes this song.
The depth and breadth of one’s favorite Beatles songs is unfathomable — I like almost all of them (almost). Over at Vulture, there’s a brilliantly informative and very funny list of every Beatles song ranked from worst to best. “Silver Hammer” clocks in at a charitable #182. “Ob-La-Di. Ob-La-Da” is properly called one of “the top five Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote.” It sits at #194. The worst slot, at #213, goes to “Good Day Sunshine,” a snappy McCartney ditty I rather like. (The best? Not telling. I will reveal #2: the twirling, kaleidoscopic “Strawberry Fields Forever.”)
Some think the Beatles are a band you grow out of, not into. I demur. This polymorphously gifted quartet — well, quintet; one can’t leave out uber-producer George Martin — is a perennial, one for the ages. Once bitten, you’re infected for life. Not liking the Beatles, a laughable proposition, is akin to not liking pizza, puppies or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Like Spielberg and Mozart, they may appeal to the masses but, if you’re listening closely, that doesn’t diminish their brilliance one scintilla.
My niece is lucky. She’s just getting started, peeling back the layers and layers of Beatles enchantments, music that rewards the more you listen. “They have sweet tunes and sunny music that’s poetic,” she tells me. On the eternal, deal-breaking question “John or Paul?” she doesn’t hesitate: John.
If she sticks with them — I think she will — she’ll take some of the best artistic journeys she’ll ever take. Lucky indeed: She has a multitude of tuneful universes ahead of her.
Famous blues joints pepper Chicago, the most popular being the craptastic cathedral that is the House of Blues, a theme park boasting Mardi Gras “all month” (Mardi Gras, the seamiest excuse for a party ever — a tawdry, tacky, ta-ta-baring bacchanalia, crawling and bellowing with professional alkies and aspiring harlots) and wincing Sunday gospel brunches, plus Chippendales (that just happened), and bands like Breezy Rodio and, heart-sinkingly, The Good, the Bad and the Blues.
House of Blues is an 11-city chain of clubs and restaurants with an eye-singeing, carnivalesque, Hard Rock Cafe ambiance that grabs you by the lapels with neon gloves then barfs a bacon double cheeseburger down your throat to the blaring tunes of some godawful blues-rock cover band. You want chili-cheese fries and extra harmonica with that? Yup, sure.
Yet I don’t blame that lame chain (or its brethren, the hyper-branded, overpriced B.B. King Blues Club & Grill) for my distaste of the blues. I blame the music.
Obviously H.O.B. is but one garish facet of Chicago blues. Classy clubs, holes-in-the-wall, hipster bars — a constellation of blues venues lights up this big city. And there are whole taxonomies of blues music, just as there are for jazz (swing, be-bop, Dixieland), rock (metal, punk, new wave), etc. It’s a prismatic genre. It’s just not very good.
I do like some blues — Robert Johnson’s oeuvre, Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” and other classics — but I’m convinced the blues is an acquired taste. Jazz is too, I think.
Today I can take or leave jazz, but there was a serious stretch during college when I was an energetic jazz neophyte. I took an infectious jazz survey course (taught by the late Grover Sales, a cantankerous, spittle-flying savant) that made me a bit rabid. The first CD this inveterate hard-rocker ever bought was Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”
My Dad, an incurable jazz aficionado, made sure I saw an array of jazz greats performing in the Bay Area before they passed on: Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, the Duke Ellington Band and others. I was smitten. (If only I could have seen the late, great Gene Krupa, my elastic-limbed drum hero.) I also caught the classical music bug with Dad’s nudging. I’m still infected by its Beethovenian bite.
And then there’s the blues.
That one didn’t stick.
Many years living in Austin, Texas, exposed me to scads of blues at venerated shrines to the music like Antone’s and the Continental Club. It always sounded like the same guitar riff, same hi-hat shuffle, same plinky solos, coupled with growly vocals and, the nadir, infernal harmonica runs.
It still sounds that way. “It’s great for 20 seconds, and then I just want to go,” quips Fred Armisen in his new Netflix comedy show “Standup for Drummers.”
Armisen’s facial expressions are priceless as he feigns listening to a blues group, toggling from pleasant and expectant to baffled and bored and finally glazed.
On my 21st birthday in New Orleans, I tried to get lost in the local vibe in a blues bar. I had a beer and the band did its jammy, bluesy thing. My face sagged after the first song. Soon I was mummified in boredom.
(Surly sidebar: During two long-ago trips to Jamaica I was, naturally, subjected to endless reggae, which is as repetitive and predictable as the blues, and might actually be worse. I don’t think reggae will be an issue in Chicago.)
I have nothing but reverence for Chicago’s great, musically eclectic Chess Records, whose roster boasted Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy — some critical roots of rock ’n’ roll. I’m even considering taking a Chess Records tour.
Skipping the blues in Chicago, a naughty bit of blasphemy, I have my sights on a pair of bar-clubs known for multifaceted music bills, from rock and world, to country and punk: The Empty Bottle and the storied Hideout. There I hope to get my live-music fix, without the monstrous Planet Hollywood decor, baskets of mozzarella sticks and, god help me, the wheezing, whining plaints of a harmonica being tortured.
In the stinky-rotten TV movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.
That’s odd. I thought Kiss was doing a fairly good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.
Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.
After 44 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be aluminum foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.
A pair of shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show that aired in 2005 on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) is “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” The professional hecklers of the comedic Sinus Show present the movie in Austin, Texas, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.
“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.
Simmons roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through affixed sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.
The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”
But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for Mötorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.
He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”
With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly courted the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.
In the comics and the movie, bandmates are literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons: lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss: painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley: more silver sequins than a Bette Midler show).
The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest scheme ever in the annals of mad scientists.
So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.
When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000-plus Kiss Kasket. Right. A coffin.)
The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.
In 1978, my best friend brought “Kiss Alive II” to a sleepover. I knew Kiss only from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” an utterly weird exhibition that aired on ABC in 1976. I liked their kabuki makeup, spandex meets armor costumes and the clouds of smoke. But the loud music and exciting photos of “Alive II” — “Calling Dr. Love,” Simmons drenched in stage blood — hooked me. I dressed up as Simmons and Stanley, collected the trading cards, smothered my walls with Kiss posters, bought every issue of 16 Magazinefeaturing Kiss gossip, owned the dolls and ordered all of the group’s vinyl albums from the Columbia House Record Club. I was 9.
And then came “Kiss Meets the Phantom.” This was huge. My excitement was uncontained. Finally, my friends and I would see our favorite band in the whole world actually move and speak. We were too young for Kiss concerts, and this was way before MTV, so bad TV had to do.
Produced by kiddie-show kings Hanna-Barbera, the movie plays like a discarded “Scooby-Doo” episode. Robot werewolves kung fu fight the Kiss guys, who strike back with animated laser beams that shoot from Stanley’s eye and cartoon fire that buzzes from Simmons’ mouth. Stuntmen who look nothing like Kiss stand in for the band during the “action” sequences. There is mild genius behind this kind of ineptitude.
While the movie was a ratings hit for NBC, it was a calamity for Kiss. The group’s “street credibility, which had taken four years of nonstop work to develop, was undone frame by frame in just under 100 minutes,” writes Kiss connoisseur Ron Albanese.
This budding Kiss freak didn’t care. Still, I think I knew the movie had failed us, that it was merely grotesque advertisements for the group and Magic Mountain, the California amusement park where it was filmed.
Today, the music of Kiss is hardly more than a cheap nostalgia trip for an older, wiser me. It sounds tinny and slapped together. And the band has changed. Frehley and Criss have been booted from Kiss (again), while Simmons’ voracious greed metastasizes unchecked. (His latest reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” is nothing if not a showcase for his slavering cupidity.)
Yet something appealing remains. With an atavistic charge, Kiss blew me away live in 2000 and 2009. Kiss photos and concert footage pump my blood. My brain can’t shake ancient Kiss trivia. I still have my Kiss dolls.
Straddling the great Kiss chasm, I fend off mockery with the shield of original-fan pride. My arrogance wears a wink, my devotion is full of holes. I am not torn, but at peace with the contradictions. And if you ask me if Kiss rules or reeks, the answer is easy: both.
The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.
unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.
From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.
These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.
Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.
Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.
But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).
* “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.
* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.
* “Wendy and Lucy” — A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)
Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.
Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.
On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.
“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.
An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”
But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.
For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.
Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server carefully tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown-pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Excavating the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.
Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.
Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.
The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.
“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.
A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.
Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road,” which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.
It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.
If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.
The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unbudging agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.
For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting again.
Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.
Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.
The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a pinch of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.
This one’s a no-brainer: “Freaks and Geeks” had Judd Apatow producing and starred Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Martin Starr. The whip-smart dramedy about outlier high school cliques, the stoners and the nerds, captured school days more incisively, humorously and humanly than any work of art since “Dazed and Confused.”
And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.
I was 14 the first time I saw Metallica in concert. It was 1983 in a tiny nightclub called the Keystone Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Metallica was formed and where its members still reside. The club, a bona fide hole, was famous for showcasing the Grateful Dead in its heyday. I won’t mention that again.
Metallica was plumping its debut album, the indie-label thrash classic “Kill ‘Em All,” and was sandwiched on a bill between locals Exodus and headliner Raven, a so-so British metal act with a singer that shrieked like a banshee, screeching songs like “Hell Patrol” on an album called (sigh) “Rock Until You Drop.” (After Metallica’s epic, local-heroes set, Raven finally hit the stage at 1 a.m., well past my bedtime. We split.)
Before they went on, the four members of Metallica hung out in the clammy, smoke-swirled venue, drinking beer and flirting with female fans. I snapped a few pictures of the band, using a now-obsolete Vivitar pocketcamera with a 110 film cartridge and a mighty flash. I’m sure they were thrilled.
What’s nuts is how young they were, how young we all were. Hetfield and Ulrich are five years older than me, making them 19 or 20 at this show. Hetfield still had zits. Ulrich, at 5-feet-6-inches, looked like a little kid. And yet, though we didn’t know it then, despite the universal excitement over their first record (and we’re talking vinylrecord), these guys were about to break big, over the decades becoming one of the most significant arena rock bands of its time. (Hetfield’s reported net worth today: $300 million. Back then: $21.50 and a scuffed skateboard.)
I have more of a visual than aural memory of the concert, but it’s safe to say Metallica mostly played songs from the 10-track “Kill ‘Em All” — “The Four Horsemen,” “Seek & Destroy,” “Whiplash” — plus their usual encore of Diamond Head’s catchy “Am I Evil?,” which was a huge influence on Ulrich.
It was, of course, a sweaty, head-banging affair, the lip of the micro stage a crush of raging, testosteronic catharsis. The band matched the fury, hair-lash for hair-lash, so much so that teeth-gnashing bassist Cliff Burton was taken off stage for a lengthy breather. The rumor was that he almost passed out. It was that kind of show.
In a six degrees of Metallica trip, I eventually learned that Ulrich and I shared the same drum teacher, an affable, infinitely tolerant 25-year-old named Jeff Campitelli, who also happens to be a spectacular musician. (In 2008, Rolling Stone named him one of the 50 best drummers.) To Jeff’s dismay, neither Ulrich or I knew the drum rudiments, which, says one pro, “are the building blocks for every drum beat, fill, or pattern that you could ever play.” We were not highly evolved drummers.
At the time, Jeff was in a Bay Area pop trio called The Squares, whose guitarist was none other than Joe Satriani, who has, of course, gone on to guitar-hero megastardom. Among other big-time gigs, Campitelli still plays with Satriani, whose former guitar pupils include Charlie Hunter, Steve Vai and a fellow named Kirk Hammett.
Hammett, you may know, plays the axe for a little band called … Metallica.