The wit and wisdom of E.B. Farnum

cq5dam-1.web.1200.675“I yearn to rely on a higher will. I fear what I am capable of in its absence.” – E.B. Farnum

Yeah, yeah, everyone’s been talking about that show with the dragons and thrones this week, but I’ve been far more engaged by a mud-soaked, profane and utterly human deep dive into the mire of history.

I’ve been rewatching the definitive western saga “Deadwood” in preparation for the long-awaited movie conclusion coming later this month, and while I generally enjoy that “Thrones” stuff, I’ll take the gin and grit of creator David Milch’s unblinking author’s eye in “Deadwood” every time. 

The show’s incredibly dense writing and plotting make it one you have to pay close attention to – every scene is packed with allusions and the bustling, chaotic energy of a gold rush town slowly being pulled into the American expansion west. “Deadwood” populated its South Dakota town with a Noah’s ark of battered, eccentric characters during its three-season run from 2004-2006, including Ian McShane’s indelible Al Swearingen and Timothy Olyphant’s flinty-eyed Sheriff Bullock. I could list a dozen terrific characters from the show and have a dozen more left to spare. 

But yet, the one I keep coming back to, captivated, on my recent rewatch of the series is perhaps its most vile – William Sanderson’s oily, unctuous and verbose E.B. Farnum, Deadwood’s powerless “Mayor” and hotel owner. Farnum is the grand fool of Milch’s Shakespearean tapestry in “Deadwood,” always cringing and yet calculating at the same time, a grandiloquent sleazebag of a man.

Sanderson’s terrific, underrated performance of this Wild West Uriah Heep is hilarious and sad, as Farnum is constantly humbled and deserves every bit of it. There are times when you might feel a twinge of pity for his bluster, but then he spouts more racist rhetoric or conniving kiss-assery and you’re back to despising him again. He’s a grifter whose poetic, meandering soliloquies are often breathtakingly beautiful, yet they’ll never be appreciated because of the toadying weasel they’re being uttered by. 

“Deadwood” is a show about man’s pull between civilisation and freedom, ambitions and realities. America’s history is full of a rich tapestry of big-mouthed, oblivious dreamers who puff themselves up full of vanities and talk their way to success. As many of them fail as succeed, but the point is in the striving.

E.B. Farnum, in his hapless, malicious way, is perhaps the greatest American in TV history. 

Alex Chilton and the art of falling apart

chilton-hero

The Replacements wrote a song about Alex Chilton during the 1980s, when he was a cult figure who hadn’t quite been rediscovered yet. It reimagined Chilton as the world-conquering pop superstar he only really was at the very start of his career, and never again: ‘Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”‘

Chilton had his first #1 hit at the age of 16 with The Box Tops, with “The Letter,” a sneering, propulsive slab of teen pop that stands head and shoulders over a lot of its peers – seriously, look at the video above and check out the star power blooming in that kid.

He then resurfaced in the mid-70s as part of Memphis’ Big Star, one of the most influential power-pop bands of all time, crafting unforgettable anthems like “In The Street” and “September Gurls” before moving on to brittle, beautiful broken gems on the gorgeous Third/Sister-Lovers album. Big Star got ‘rediscovered’ by many of us in the 1990s through some great CD reissues, and their cult only continues to grow decades later – like the Velvet Underground, they became legends only long after they were gone. 

But after Big Star crumbled apart, Chilton’s career from the late ‘70s to his sadly early death at age 59 in 2010 was a strange hopscotch through genres, laced heavily with sardonic wit and a weird irresistible ennui. He spent the rest of his life carefully taking apart all the things he’d built up – perfect pop songs, aching singer-songwriter ballads – creating a kind of ramshackle, slacker troubadour persona where almost every song seems delivered with a wink and a mildly insincere croon. It’s the sound of irony, the art of falling apart.

Yet while I adore Chilton’s tighter, more remembered Big Star and Box Tops work, there’s a strange charm in him crashing his way through tunes like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that I find unforgettable.  Live albums of him from the period sputter and crackle with devil-may-care slacker pop, but Chilton himself is never less than magnetic. Sometimes you feel him pushing a song just as much as he could before it broke apart. 

Alex Chilton Posed In New YorkIt wasn’t for nothing that one of his best albums is called A Man Called Destruction. He was the spirit of punk rock incarnated in a teen crooner’s body. 

The man wrote some of the great songs of the 1970s, but after that he worked as a dishwasher, a tree-trimmer, a janitor, and a wayfaring gig musician. He moved to New Orleans, where the city’s jazz added a cool, chilled-out vibe to his sound. His sporadic albums mixed loose-limbed originals like “No Sex,” “Bangkok” and “Lost My Job” with out-of-the-box covers of all kinds of ‘50s and ‘60s rarities. He called an album of covers Cliches. He called another one, um, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy.

Sometimes Chilton could get so loose he’s practically in pieces – since his death, we’ve seen a fair bit of barrel-scraping in unreleased music come out, some of it great, some of it unlistenable. 

Do I wish Alex Chilton had written some kind of Pet Sounds-type final masterpiece that had gotten him the acclaim he deserved before the end? Yeah, sort of, but I also appreciate diving into the bits and pieces he left behind, of a man who had nothing to prove and who spent his time scribbling around in the margins and between the lines of the craft he peaked at by age 25. 

Thirty years on, we’re still living in an ‘Alien Nation’

Alien_Nation_01The best science fiction holds up a mirror to the world we live in. “Alien Nation” was never quite a household name, but the brief cult sci-fi franchise of the late ‘80s still holds up today.

The story is simple – a spaceship crashes into the Mojave desert, with a cargo of half a million alien slaves, ‘bred to adapt and labour in any environment,’ left stranded on Earth. These alien “Newcomers” aren’t quite like us – they have spots on their skulls, drink sour milk to get drunk, and prefer their food alive – but they’re close enough to awkwardly begin to integrate into human society, which is where “Alien Nation” picks up the story, five years after they landed. 

The saga began with the 1988 film Alien Nation, a moderate hit with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. George Francisco is the first Newcomer detective on the LAPD, paired with bigoted human partner Matt Sikes. Let the culture-clash hijinks ensue! It’s gifted with a great premise, but the movie doesn’t really deliver on its potential, turning into a generic “Lethal Weapon” cop buddy picture by the end and never really exploring what an entirely alien race blending into Los Angeles would be like. 

aliennationremake-1Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for “Alien Nation,” which debuted as a series on Fox TV in September 1989. It’s in the short-lived TV series where “Alien Nation” really blossomed, spearheaded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of another great ’80s cult sci-fi series, “V.”

“Alien Nation,” the series, is a perfect mix of cheesy late-80s cop show and progressive science fiction ideas, and as long as you don’t mind big hair, pastels and synth-heavy soundtracks, it’s great viewing. The series features a wide cast of Newcomer wives, children, professionals and criminals, priests and prostitutes and the Newcomers (or Tenctonese as they call themselves) are as plausibly drawn as the Klingons or Vulcans.

500px-Aliennation-series-sw669The story carries on with the same odd-couple detective duo from the movie, but recast and given more satisfying depth. Gary Graham’s Detective Sikes is all ’80s mullet and brash trigger-happy cop cliches at first, but the character becomes convincingly more sympathetic and layered as the series progresses. Eric Pierpoint is excellent as Francisco, who balances personal courage with frequent frustrations over the racism he encounters and the culture he’s left behind. The story of his family trying to fit in – his wife, teenage son and daughter – is often more fascinating than the TV show’s cop mystery of the week storyline. The cop stuff is goofily fun, but it’s the examinations of the human and alien condition that linger.

The series gets deeper and deeper into the fascinating Newcomer culture as it goes. An episode, “Three To Tango,” which goes deep into Newcomer mating rituals (it involves two males and one female) is surprisingly explicit and thought-provoking for 1980s broadcast TV. The show also delves deep into the Newcomers’ origins as a slave society and who they were slaves to. 

Unfortunately, “Alien Nation” was a bit too ahead of its time (it’d go great today on a streaming network) and only lasted one season, but it did get five sequel TV movies which nicely expanded and wrapped up the saga. You can see its inspiration clearly in a movie like 2009’s District 9, which for my money was a lot less subtle and thoughtful. 

It’d be nice to say that 30 years on we could all view “Alien Nation” and say how far we’ve all come from prejudice and hatred of the other in our lives, but unfortunately that’d only be science fiction. 

Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works. 

Review: Mavis Staples and Tami Neilson, Civic Theatre, April 23, Auckland

I’ve realised in recent years that if you have a chance to see a legend, you see the legend. I saw Prince perform just two months before he died, but I’ll always regret not seeing Leonard Cohen giving his last concert ever in Auckland or missing out on what turned out to be David Bowie’s final tour in 2004. 

mavis-tami-auckland-live-v21133x628So when soul legend Mavis Staples came to town, I made sure to be there because I didn’t want to miss what might be my only chance to see her way down here in NZ.  That may sound a bit morbid, but honestly, Mavis and outstanding opening act Tami Neilson were actually one of the most life-affirming, optimistic shows I’ve been to in ages. In a time when the news seems to bring us down almost every day, you need a little Mavis Staples singing that “love is the only transportation.”

It’s hard to sum up just how awesome Mavis Staples’ career has been. She’s been singing since 1950, when she was just 11 years old, with the family Staple Singers. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Bob Dylan wanted to marry her. She’s worked with everyone from Prince to Jeff Tweedy to Curtis Mayfield. Songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” are part of American history.

IMG_5784Today, Mavis Staples is a few months away from 80 years old, she’s barely five feet tall, and she was obviously nursing a sore throat, but she still tore the roof off the Civic Theatre in Auckland with her soaring voice and inspirational message. 

Backed up by a crack back-up band, for an hour or so she took us through soul and gospel history, covering Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and hammering home her message of positivity against the odds – “Build a Bridge,” “We Get By,” “No Time For Cryin’” – it’s all about rising up and carrying on. Mavis even joked that she might run for President. I’d vote for her in a second over the current occupant. 

1528670891846Opening for Mavis was the wonderful Tami Neilson, a Canadian/New Zealander country singer I’ve been wanting to see for ages. She didn’t disappoint, nearly managing to actually upstage Mavis Staples with a rip-roaring fierce set of her rockabilly/country anthems. She’s got a stunning stage presence, all retro charm and easygoing charisma. Neilson’s got a voice like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton had a super-charged baby and she let it tear through the Civic. Stragglers who wandered in late because they’re too cool to see an opening act were missing one of the best performances I’ve seen in ages, proud and strong and every way a match for Mavis Staples. If you don’t know Tami Neilson, check her out. I’d say she’s on her way to being a legend, too. 

The woman behind the monster: ‘Lady From The Black Lagoon’

344445_poster_lI’ve written often before about my undying love for Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s one of the best Universal monster movies of all time, a fantastic creepy love story with a fairy tale’s elegance and one of the most unforgettable monsters of all time. As a fanboy, I thought I knew almost all there was to know about it. 

Mallory O’Meara’s fascinating new biography “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” dredges the swamps of the past, unearthing the story of a forgotten pioneer for women in film in a witty, bittersweet and fierce look at Hollywood’s golden age. 

Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) was never quite a Hollywood superstar. She was a talented artist and designer, a model and a minor actress in a slew of b-movies. But she had a keen creative eye and before her career was derailed by depressingly familiar sexism, she worked for Walt Disney as one of very few women in animation (including on the classic “Fantasia”) and later on, she designed creatures for movies like “This Island Earth.” 

a15d5c39bb5d653cb6b184f45682ccbeBut her biggest claim to glory today is that she designed the epic look of the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The Creature is, I’d argue, the second-best monster design of all time (sorry, but Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster has to take the top crown). It’s alien, yet human; terrifying, yet captivating. 

Unfortunately, the elegant, humble Patrick rarely got the credit she deserved for the work – a nasty piece of work named Bud Westmore who ran makeup for Universal Studios took all the credit, and later fired her entirely when Patrick actually started to get some acclaim for her designs (and ample publicity for what, at the time, was a novelty of an attractive young woman working in horror movies). That same sad story of a poor excuse for a man destroying a talented woman’s livelihood can be found a thousand times in Hollywood history. 

“Lagoon” is an often angry book – O’Meara’s conversational, amiably digressive style makes it very clear how personally she takes the tale of Patrick’s rise and fall. Women are often treated worst of all in traditionally male-dominated industries. You don’t have to look further than outraged fanboy reactions to “Captain Marvel” or “The Last Jedi” to see how cancerous the worst of fossilised blokes can be. Patrick went on to have a pretty decent life post-Hollywood, but you still wonder what could’ve been. I love the classic Hollywood films, but you just can’t ignore that they were a very male-dominated, non-diverse world, and think about how many Milicent Patricks were out there.  

01chapmanMonster.popIn “Lagoon,” O’Meara also shows the hard work that goes into the biography of a somewhat obscure person, hunting down leads and tracing dusty steps in the past. The story is as much about her and her experiences as a young woman in Hollywood as it is about Milicent Patrick. Some of the anecdotes O’Meara tells of her own treatment are truly dismaying, especially because they are all too common. The real monsters are still out there in Hollywood, hiding in broad daylight.

“Lady From the Black Lagoon” is well worth reading for any fan of classic film, and O’Meara deserves applause for shining a spotlight on the many unremembered women who played a part – and deserved to play a bigger one – in crafting the films and creatures that haunt our dreams.