Hollywood Will Listen

I never paid much attention to the artfully manufactured bubble-gum pop Robbie Williams cranked out under the fist of Take That leadman Gary Barlow, so when Williams parted ways with the band in the mid-nineties I found it all-too easy to dismiss him as another moderately-successful musician who had fallen under the twin spell of his own ego and Columbian marching powder.

Flash forward to September 1998, and I was sitting in a nearly-empty Leicester Square movie house with my wife waiting for the matinee to start, when William’s anthem “Millenium” came over the speaker system. I was enthralled. The unforgettable string-figure from John Barry’s superb 1967 James Bond soundtrack for You Only Live Twice was woven throughout the song, and that grabbed me long enough to listen to the lyrics. At its heart the song was an anthem, a heartfelt cri de coeur wherein a jaded star realizes that while celebrity is great, it is going to kill him unless he slows down. Williams could have taken that theme down a darker but better-traveled road, but he chose instead to keep it forward looking and hopeful rather than mournful and hopeless.

Nearly every album he has delivered since (and, make no mistake, Williams is best enjoyed by the album, not by the song) has offered us some combination of Williams’ dark wit accompanied (mostly) by a thumping dance beat, the former aimed as often at himself as at others, and sometimes (“Handsome Man”) in both directions.

Cover of "Swing When You're Winning"
Cover of Swing When You’re Winning

On Swing When You’re Winning, though, Williams took a hard detour into Big Band territory. Channeling his abiding admiration for The Chairman of the Board, Williams followed Harry Connick, Jr. into Sinatra territory, recording fourteen standards from the 40s and 50s with the appropriate (and sometimes misbehaving) assistance of Rupert Everett, Nicole Kidman, Jon Lovitz, Jane Horrocks, and Jonathan Wilkes. Each song is brilliant in its way. Music lovers, though, will dwell over his rendition of “One for My Baby,” sung to the accompaniment of pianist Bill Miller, who played for Sinatra when he recorded the standard fifty years prior at Capitol’s studios in Los Angeles.

All of this is prelude, though, to the anthem Williams placed at the beginning of Swing When You’re Winning. “Hollywood Will Listen,” penned by Williams and longtime collaborator Guy Chambers, is subtly iconic, a musical artifact that is in its execution pure Hollywood big-production, and in its words captures the hopes of every naif who ever walked through a studio gate.

Shamelessly dropping names, but of people he hopes will eventually revere him rather than those he “knows,” Williams plays the part of L.A. newcomer, facing a Tinseltown he knows to be hard and impersonal yet swearing it will eventually be at his feet. Anyone who has ever mustered the courage and confidence to take an audition knows the feeling, and, with the orchestra swelling to dramatic crescendos behind him, Williams almost makes you believe it.

But then he does something even more powerful: he just ends the song. There is no triumphant climax, no musical cue that suggests the dreamer has or will reach his dream. The final chorus ends as almost a fade-out, an anti-climax. You can almost see the orchestra fading out of existence, leaving the singer alone in an empty sound stage into which he has wandered, the dreams echoing away in the face of the cold reality of another casting call, another audition.

Once again, Williams is laughing at his own ambition, letting his aspirations soar but never forgetting that no matter what he brings with him, Hollywood is and ever will be a cruel crap-shoot.

Williams’ anthem, then, is neither a celebration of success nor a blues-laden wallow in failure, but a subtle reflection on the reality of life for dreamers inside the Thirty Mile Zone. This is Southern California in the cold bright light of a winter Monday morning, a tribute to Hollywood-as-dream-machine in the 21st Century.

I Dream of California

Among the Sierra Nevada  CA. 1868. Albert Bier...
Among the Sierra Nevada CA. 1868. Albert Bierstadt (Photo credit: catherinetodd2)

“Can’t close my eyes
I’m wide awake
Every hair on my body
Has got a thing for this place
Oh, empty my heart
I’ve got to make room for this feeling
It’s so much bigger than me

It couldn’t be anymore beautiful
I can’t take it in.”

Imogen Heap

To Find the Heart, You Need to Look

The Heart of Saturday Night
The Heart of Saturday Night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title track for Waits’s second album (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night confirms his ambition to be true to his vision of himself as a jazz-centric Beat poet. The idea comes straight from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, in which the protagonist was “hurrying for the big traffic, ever more exciting, all of it pouring into town Saturday night.” Composing the song while literally cruising down Alvarado Street and Hollywood Boulevard, Waits was striving after an elusive epiphany, trying to locate stillness in motion or find a center of innocence in America’s most heartless city.

via Los Angeles Review of Books – In The Neighborhood: Tom Waits.

I love this story in LARB, but I have to object.

Los Angeles is not a heartless city. Finding the heart of L.A. (or any city, for that matter) is like finding the heart of a Vulcan: it’s there somewhere, but if you can’t find it, that’s only because you aren’t looking in the right place.

California has the Most ArtPlaces

 

Opening remarks from #ArtPlace Operating Commi...
Opening remarks from #ArtPlace Operating Committee Chair Dennis Scholl (@dennisscholl) (Photo credit: petermello)

America’s Top Twelve ArtPlaces 2013 | ArtPlace.

ArtPlace, an organization offering grants and other support to communities that combine art, artists, and venues to encourage creativity and expression, has named the most vibrant art neighborhoods in America. Of the twelve, three are in California, the most of any state.

The top ArtPlaces of the Golden West are Central Hollywood, The Mission District in San Francisco, and, surprising us a bit, downtown Oakland, encompassing Chinatown, Old Oakland, and Jack London Square. The neighborhoods were singled out for criteria including their walkability, for nurturing independent businesses, and for making art and artists a core part of the community.

Downtown Oakland was singled out by the organization as the “true underdog” in the competition, but noted that the transformation that has taken place in the city over the last decade would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. What brought it about was a grassroots effort – Oakland Art Murmur – very unlike the high-minded but doomed postwar urban renewal plans.

The recognition of Central Hollywood echoes one of our own regular themes: a new kind of arts and entertainment industry is growing on the weed patch of Old Hollywood. Moviegoing is an event again, thanks to Mann’s Chinese, the Arclight, and Disney’s stunning El Capitan. Music is coming back, as we noted last year:

But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.

And all of this is taking place in a way that attracts tourists and neighborhood people alike.

When I read about what’s happening in the Mission District, I kick myself for not going there when I was in San Francisco in December. Absorbed in the myriad culinary delights in Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach, I never thought to wander south of Market. I won’t make that mistake again. San Francisco is suffused with art, but ArtPlaces notes that the edgier, more affordable art can be found in The Mission, along with antiques, music, and some incredible eats. I won’t be missing it next trip.

Take a look at the full report on the ArtPlaces site at artplaceamerica.org.

California Sound: Something Old, Something New

Buzzin - Shwayze w/ Cisco Live at The Roxy on ...
Buzzin – Shwayze w/ Cisco Live at The Roxy on Vimeo (Photo credit: nicadlr)

We can debate about how long there has been a distinctive “California Sound,” but at the very latest that sound was born in November 1961 when the Beach Boys released their first single on Los Angeles radio stations KFOX and KDAY. The Beach Boys are ever the quintessential California band, and their recent reunion as septuagenarians was covered in an incredible piece by Newsweek’s Andrew Romano that read like it belonged in Rolling Stone.

He goes on to offer a soft lament about the state of the music industry.

There is a reason all these aging rock stars keep reuniting and touring: we keep shelling out for tickets. The Beach Boys are no exception. In 2011, Bon Jovi, U2, Take That, and Roger Waters topped the box-office charts with joint receipts of $821 million, and so far, 2012’s live bestseller list—Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Madonna—isn’t much fresher. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that the vast majority of all downloaded music is stolen, and album sales are half what they were at the turn of the century. We’re witnessing a massive shift in revenue from new recordings to live music—and in large part it’s live music that was originally released more than 20 years ago. The record industry is no longer a record industry. It’s a touring industry for geezers.

There is some truth to this, but there is more to the industry than touring alter kackers. The music business is in the heart of a tempest caused by a change in technology and a change of habit. This has happened before, first with the growth of music publishing, then with recorded music, then with radio, and now with digital technology.

But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.

The Sountrack of Civil Unrest

The Sound of the L.A. Riots – Los Angeles magazine

Garth Trinidad, a DJ at Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, has put together a playlist in remembrance of the 1992 riots. It’s a fascinating list, but the funny thing is that I remember playing none of these during those days.

I’m thinking about putting together my own April 1992 playlist. Let me know if you have one to share.

Lady Gaga: The Art and the Business

Los Angeles is, once more and as it has been many times in its past, on the cusp of a new age. Whether that age will be a good one for the city, or will witness its decline, is up to us all.

Lady Gaga holding a speech at National Equalit...
Lady Gaga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is much to keep, and much to be changed. One of the things that needs to change is the hubris in our entertainment industry.

Lady Gaga, never my favorite performer (but that’s preference) and a permanent New Yorker, had a fair point in her 2010 profile in Vanity Fair:

The biggest change in her life, despite her earlier remarks to me about loving sunlight and sitting on her porch and driving around L.A., is that Gaga now hates Hollywood. “I hate Hollywood,” she says. “I got rid of my place, and I’m coming back to spend more time in New York. Everyone in Hollywood is so awful, and awful to me; everyone just wants you to fail. There’s no fervor for the fantasy of music anymore. It’s all about No. 1s and who’s on iTunes, and [while] I’m on iTunes and I’m No. 1, I still care about the fervor of show business and music and womanhood.”

I love LA. And she is not wrong. It is time for LA to go post-Hollywood, or for Hollywood to find its soul again.