Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Buckley-Vidal Debates

Thought you blog readers might want to check out the article about yours truly and the Buckley-Vidal debates that just ran in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Click on the link below and check it out:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poor Tom's Almanac

Poor Tom's Almanac

Proverbs, Sayings, Precepts and Quotations

No. 1

Never stand behind a woman in line at a donut shop, especially if she is wearing business attire. They are always buying for a large group and can never make up their mind about what they want. Choices, choices, choices.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil - A Kind Word for Albert Goldman

Albert Harry Goldman is inarguably the most controversial music biographer of the last generation. His biographies of first Elvis, then John Lennon, have been spit on by the best and worst critics on both sides of the Atlantic. “Bio-porn” Gore Vidal called his writing. And when Goldman veered off into wild sensationalism, as when he referred to Elvis’ uncircumcised penis as a “hillbilly pecker,” who could argue?

Yet, I have a confession to make. I like the work of Albert Goldman, rotting carcasses and all, and I liked the man himself. To be philosophical about the Elvis book, I believe his scabrous take on the man was necessary, an antidote to the agitprop nonsense written about the man his whole career, and upon long reflection I feel it is a proper bookend to the balanced portrait presented in the definitive, and far politer, biographies by Peter Guralnick.

Goldman, to me, is the Yin to Guralnick’s Yang, and when Guralnick was too gentlemanly to go down the ratholes of Elvis’ final skid, Goldman relished the opportunity and came up with a morality tale and an American nightmare. I have been privileged to personally know three Elvis biographers, not to mention a score of other writers who have contributed masterfully to the Elvis canon. But no one explored the dark side of Elvis better than Albert Goldman.

My friend Dave Marsh, one of those three Elvis biographers, unsurprisingly detested Albert Goldman and in an interview with me suggested that if he met Goldman in a dark alley he would feel obligated to throttle the bastard. He also stated emphatically that Goldman not only had a welter of inaccuracies in the book (more on that in a minute) but that the book was full of outright lies. This accusation confuses the issue with Goldman’s John Lennon bio which to me and others seemed calculated to create controversy by deliberately placed distortions (or outright lies). The most notorious of those about Lennon was Goldman’s assertion that Lennon trolled exclusive sex parlors in New York City for boys. To my knowledge no one has ever found one shred of evidence to back up that preposterous claim. So why would Goldman say it? Answer: to sell books. My take on it is that Goldman felt so bloodied and beaten down by the hostility towards his Elvis book, which Goldman felt was truthful and accurate, that he had nothing to lose by exaggerating a few things in the Lennon book. He knew coming out of the gate that he would be reviled no matter what he wrote.

I was in my mid-twenties when Goldman’s Elvis came out. Being a Memphian, you can’t imagine the reaction to the book in Elvis’ hometown. Of course the fans went completely apeshit; none of them wanted their idol besmirched, particularly by some smirking, sneering New York Jew (Goldman was right when he said much of the reaction against him was rooted in anti-Semitism) who hated Elvis and everything about the South. I was a part of the Memphis youth who had more or less rebelled against the Elvis faction when the Beatles stormed America. Elvis was old and déclassé, a greaser who still slicked his hair back with hair cream at a time when the rest of us kids were fighting our dads to let our hair touch our ears. Elvis and his Las Vegas lounge act were hopelessly out of date to many of us who were hip to Rolling Stone magazine, and when Elvis went off the grid to visit Richard Nixon in the White House we shut the door on him.

Goldman’s book confirmed all those rumors that had circulated about Elvis for years. If you lived in Memphis you couldn’t help but hear what was going on. He had become the Howard Hughes of the rock generation. One evening at a local café I bumped into a friend who was the brother of a local lawyer. This friend had a copy of Goldman’s Elvis in his hand. We started discussing the book. He told me that his brother was one of Priscilla Presley’s attorneys and that it was he who had discovered that Col. Tom Parker was born in the Netherlands under another name. This lawyer had passed the information on to Goldman. I told this friend that I had noted about a dozen or so factual errors in the book, primarily small things about people and places in Memphis.

This chance comment set in motion a chain reaction of events that led me to the man himself, Albert Goldman. Goldman was preparing revisions for the paperback edition of the book and wanted to weed out every mistake he could from the first printing. He asked me to go back through the book and note everything I could. I did and subsequently 14 minor changes were made to the manuscript. He also asked me to do some library work for him and verify a movie Elvis would have seen at a particular movie theater on a particular date. That was easy enough.

Goldman struck me as very funny (he had tried his hand as a standup comic, and failed) and obsessed with getting his book right. He was also very helpful in giving a budding writer some advice and encouragement and even sent an article of mine around to a few editors he knew, which is something no writer has done for me before or since. I told him I would be in New York within a few weeks and he invited me to his apartment that overlooked Central Park. I took him up on the invitation and spent a very pleasant afternoon with him discussing all kinds of things, but particularly the Elvis book.

I remember the conversation well. One thing I very nearly argued with him about was his insistence that Sam Phillips in private said, “If I could find a white boy who could sing like a nigger I could make a million dollars.” His argument ran that ALL Memphians used the n-word universally, that changing the word was revisionist and political posturing. Undoubtedly the months Goldman had spent in Memphis convinced him of this because he was absolutely right that a majority of Memphians in the 1950’s spoke just that way. What I feel he didn’t get was how different Sam Phillips was from the Memphis norm. Phillips was weird by any definition and the fact he recorded black music at all set him far apart from day-to-day Memphis racism. Sam Phillips was exactly the kind of man who would refrain from racial invective.

I also remember that Goldman had the crappiest home stereo I’ve ever seen in an otherwise wealthy man’s apartment. It was a beat up Pioneer system and, I swear, he had masking tape wrapped around one speaker to keep the grill cloth attached. When I asked him jokingly about it he replied blithely that he had an expensive European sound system “in the back.” Needless to say, I got no tour of “in the back.”

Goldman tired of me in later years; the young writer (me) wore out his welcome. I read the Lennon book and shook my head. I heard he was working on a biography of Jim Morrison. Then I heard that he had become a member of a very exclusive mile-high club: He died of a heart attack en route to London.

I still read Goldman from time to time. At times his writing was brilliant, as in his acclaimed biography of Lenny Bruce that few dispute was a major work. At other times his writing was little more than hysterical piffle, a very bad imitation of Tom Wolfe and the other New Journalists. He was a champion of disco when others, like me, were dismissive and he wrote eloquently on the subject. He wrote a strange but insightful book about marijuana (he wrote a lot for High Times magazine and apparently enjoyed the effects of cannabis) and I’ll never forget a story he told about smoking some hashish so potent that he believed he couldn’t swallow. He went to the emergency room in a state of panic and was greatly embarrassed when the doctors laughed and assured him he would, in fact, get better.

He reported wrongly that Albert King was B.B. King’s brother, a lie Albert told for years to unsuspecting journalists to bring himself closer to B.B.’s brighter flame. In that same piece he brilliantly evoked a head-cutting contest between B.B. and Albert and in another article brought the drum contest between rivals Elvin Jones and Ginger Baker to vivid life. Lastly, he wrote a savage piece for Life magazine comparing a Rolling Stones concert to the Nuremburg rallies. Robert Christgau later reported that as he and Goldman passed a joint between them one night, Goldman laughed and admitted that he never even attended the concert.

That’s probably true. But I still liked him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pink Floyd Revisited

Pink Floyd: The Division Bell; Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond

Tom Graves, Rolling Stone, 16 June 1994

IS THIS still really Pink Floyd? That seems to be the question, as it has been since Roger Waters left the band in 1985 to dip deeper into the sci-fi soup. Waters has since missed no opportunity to slag his former bandmates as incompetent fakes. He would suggest that he was Pink Floyd, although judging from his overwrought, concept-burdened solo albums, that notion should be put to rest.

The debate on the current Floyd centers on the band's use of hired guns, songwriting professionals brought in to shore up a sound that otherwise might not be Pink Floyd enough. What makes this criticism superfluous is that much of the great music of rock and roll has been written, or augmented, by outside talents. For every Lennon-McCartney or Prince, there have been 10 examples like Leiber and Stoller, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Holland-Dozier-Holland or Phil Spector. It should concern no one too much that in the absence of Roger Waters, who has been Pink Floyd's chief songwriter, the band sought outside help.

What is of concern is whether the music of the post-Waters Pink Floyd stands up to the band's best work – The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and Meddle. Unfortunately, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and the live Delicate Sound of Thunder (1988) were only sporadically successful at achieving the stunning aural power of Pink Floyd's previous work. Their new album, The Division Bell, ironically enough, seems to cry out for someone with an overriding zeal and passion – in short, a nettlesome, overbearing visionary like Roger Waters.

The Division Bell is a quieter, more atmospheric and contemplative Pink Floyd, with lyrics so opaque and inert one cannot hope to plumb their meaning. Of course, no Pink Floyd album would be complete without a concept, and The Division Bell seems to be about that old standby, failure to communicate. Even through the vagueness of the lyrics, one gets the feeling the band is firing broadsides at Waters . On 'Lost for Words', for example, David Gilmour sings: "So I open my door to my enemies/And I ask could we wipe the slate clean/But they tell me to please go fuck myself/You know you just can't win." And so the war continues.

The album also gives off the uncomfortable whiff of middle-age and graying sensibilities. Gilmour, who has become Pink Floyd's de facto leader, in particular seems bored or dispirited. His guitar solos were once the band's centerpieces, as articulate, melodic and well-defined as any in rock. No longer. He now has settled into rambling, indistinct asides that are as forgettable as they used to be indelible. Only on 'What Do You Want From Me' does Gilmour sound like he cares.
Another problem with the album is its length. At more than an hour, it is too long and quickly exhausts its few fresh ideas. The band seems to be padding at every opportunity. Consequently, The Division Bell will satisfy only the most ravenous Pink Floyd fans.

Standing almost in mockery of the swipes the band members have taken at one another is the new three-disc box set Crazy Diamond, which collects the decidedly eccentric post-Floyd musings of original member, Syd Barrett. Barrett, as all Floyd devotees know, was booted from the band in 1968 during the making of A Saucerful of Secrets as he deteriorated mentally from excessive intake of LSD. In 1969 and 1970, he was encouraged by Gilmour and Waters, among others, to return to the studio. The erratic results were released over a period of time as The Madcap Laughs, Barrett and Opel.
Barrett has become the focus of a ghoulish cult that apparently relishes the disintegration palpable on the tracks included on Crazy Diamond. The fact is, Barrett was of dubious talent from the get-go, although his singles with Pink Floyd, 'Arnold Layne' and 'See Emily Play', broke the band onto the British charts. Out of Barrett's entire 70-or-so song oeuvre, only a handful of tracks – all done with Pink Floyd – are standouts.

Crazy Diamond (the title was taken from Pink Floyd's outstanding tribute to Barret, 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond') painfully document's Barrett's disappearance into the lysergic mist. At best, the songs collected hold a morbid fascination; at worst, they are little more than whimsical ditherings. Barrett collectors are completists by nature, and this set adds more than a dozen bonus tracks, some of which are hilariously off-kilter. The booklet offers no insight or update on Barrett's condition.

The album Barrett is by far the most focused and spirited of the three discs, but only a fellow acid jockey or hale adventurer could possibly sit through all 58 tracks. Perhaps expectations for the set would be more realistic if it were retitled, something along the line of, say, Crazy Zirconium.

© Tom Graves, 1994

Working Out the Kinks

Dear Blog Members:

I am working out the kinks in this blog thing as quickly as I can while I am on spring break this week. Man, it is complicated! The problem is that you tell your blog site one set of things, then you have to tell the Google Groups thing another set of things. The two don't always jive although at this stage you'd think they would find a way to make things easier for the casual blogger, me.

At this point you should not receive anything other than my posts -- none of the subsequent emails from anyone replying.

By the way, I'd love your comments and replies. Here's how to do it. You can just send me an email reply, which will come ONLY to my attention. If I click a magic button I can share your comments with the others, or not. Also you can comment directly onto the comment box at the bottom of each blog post. There is a weird glitch with this -- you need to click on the INDIVIDUAL post (which are all listed on the right hand of the page) to pull up the comment box sometimes. I have noticed when all the posts are strung together often the comment box ain't there for reasons I am not smart enough to figure out.

Enough tech talk. On with the good stuff.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Mythmaking of Jack Kerouac

Review of The Jack Kerouac Collection from Rhino Records
From Rock & Roll Disc, September, 1990

Written by Tom Graves

Including the albums:

Jack Kerouac: Blues and Haikus (With Al Cohn and Zoot Sims)

Poetry for the Beat Generation (With Steve Allen)

Readings By Jack Kerouac On the Beat Generation

Truman Capote very nearly sank Jack Kerouac’s literary reputation with five well-chosen words that exploded like cigarette loads in the public eye. “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” he argued on David Susskind’s television show. He was referring to Kerouac’s well-publicized spontaneous prose writing style about which the beat writer claimed that “the first thought is the best thought.”

This philosophy, of course, flew in the face of conventional wisdom about the art of writing, which mandated writing analytically, consciously composing phrases and sentences with heavy revision and editing, and crafting an essay or short story or novel in the same meticulous, calculating way an artist constructs an intricate mosaic. Kerouac, however, believed in that adrenaline (or amphetamine in his case) rush of creative zip that connected the writer to some mystical Zen-like inner eye that could see more clearly and poetically than the conscious mind.

Which was a load of hooey and horseshit from a writer too lazy and undisciplined to put in the extra work to perfect his writing.

Let’s explode a few more of the myths about Jack Kerouac. The biggest and most oft-repeated is the one about On the Road, irrefutably his greatest work, being published straight off a huge roll of teletype paper. The manuscript, the legend goes, was knocked off in only a couple of weeks as he worked nearly non-stop, cranked-up on bennies, refusing even to stop and insert periods and commas.

Have the myth-mongers actually read On the Road? Did those periods and commas in my copies appear there magically? Of course not. Kerouac put them in and he carefully revised and reworked the book from cover to cover. Nothing about On the Road was spontaneous in its final draft. It was as thoughtfully scrutinized and pored-over and whittled down as Capote’s In Cold Blood. Viking editor Malcolm Cowley was instrumental in helping Kerouac whip the manuscript into a comprehensible, flowing narrative: It was this fortuitous collaboration with a caring yet forceful editor that resulted in one of the great literary achievements of a generation.

The other myth is that Kerouac continued to publish great books and poems. After the publication of On the Road in 1957, Kerouac’s creative well ran bone dry. Overnight he became the biggest fool on the literary scene, a person so bloated and obnoxious and bent on destroying himself with cheap drink that he was roundly avoided by all save his closest friends – such as Allen Ginsberg, a saint of a man, who stood by Kerouac at all times, even when he savaged Ginsberg in print and verbally assaulted him with anti-Semitic tirades. Kerouac’s other praiseworthy books such as The Dharma Bums (which does contain several engaging chapters) and The Subterraneans (which I consider practically worthless) were all written prior to the publication of On the Road. His later years of dissipation and decline saw the publication of such horrific embarrassments as Pic, Vanity of Duluoz, and Satori In Paris – books that could be bettered by many a reasonably gifted creative writing student.

I was turned onto Jack Kerouac by a fellow journalism major in college, and I quickly fell under the spell of Kerouac’s careening, tire-squealing prose and with his romantic, nostalgic tales of picking up a rucksack, sticking out your thumb, and America-here-I-come. But the more I read (and I read them all), the more I became convinced that spontaneous writing for all levels of literary endeavor (with the possible exception of poetry) was counterproductive and flawed in theory. Kerouac himself, in his later novels, could be brilliant for two pages or two paragraphs then run short of creative breath, coasting on childlike gibberish for page after page, chapter after chapter. Books like Visions of Gerard and Tristessa were painful to get through, redeemed only by momentary splashes of incandescent prose that faded as fast as a photographer’s bulb.

I hit upon an idea that to me made sense: Why not, I reasoned, collect some of those brilliant moments from Kerouac’s less-esteemed works into an anthology, a reader for those who want to go exploring beyond On the Road? I contacted Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, biographer Ann Charters, and others about the project and was given their blessings with the warning that the Sterling Lord Agency, which controlled Kerouac’s estate and writings at the time, would be impossible to deal with. They were. (Note to readers: A few years after our initial contact, Kerouac biographer Ann Charters purloined my idea for a Jack Kerouac reader and navigated the treacherous copyright waters of Sterling Lord et al. until the reader saw print. There was no thank you in the book or mention of yours truly, the originator of the idea. And yes, I’m still pissed.)

Shortly before his death, Kerouac married Stella Sampas, a childhood acquaintance, a woman who apparently understood little of what her husband was all about. Pictures of this matronly woman are shocking, especially after seeing the beautiful photos of his other wives and lovers. Stella Sampas looked like the Church Lady on steroids, and after Jack died in 1969 the Kerouac estate, in part due to her negligence or ignorance, virtually ground to a halt.

Only recently have some of his out of print books returned to the shelves, and his recordings for Verve and Hanover, all out of print since the early ‘60s, have just been reissued by Rhino Records’ World Beat label in the most lavish, ornate CD box set yet.

The box itself is covered in a handsome linen-type parchment with sparse, elegant graphics, as is the 32-page booklet inside. The book includes several interesting essays from notables such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Michael McClure and a lengthy discourse (not all of which is factually accurate) from a David Perry, who is not a name familiar to me. The most haunting set of Kerouac photos I’ve ever seen are collected in this booklet and Rhino should be rightly proud of The Jack Kerouac Collection as a masterpiece of intelligent, instructive packaging. There simply isn’t another box set that can touch it in terms of sheer beauty.

But what of the CDs? They are a mixed bag and unless you are a Jack Kerouac fanatic there are bound to be disappointing moments. The most experimental piece in the set is the Blues and Haikus disc featuring jazz stalwarts Zoot Sims and Al Cohn on tenor saxophones, and in some ways it’s the biggest failure. It begins with Kerouac reading short lines of poetry that he calls “American” haikus – he was too undisciplined to write poetry that conformed to the strict 17 syllables of the traditional Japanese haiku – which are followed by improvised, free-form sax blurts from Cohn and Sims.

Kerouac loved jazz and wrote movingly about it all his life. Few writers have captured in prose the mad spirit of be-bop and Charlie Parker with the eloquence of Jack Kerouac. He wanted to blow jazz poetry, for his prose to function musically like jazz where “s” sounds and “o” sounds and “z” sounds became as important as notes on a scale. In theory this sounds engrossing, even revolutionary, especially to a music critic. But in practice it becomes increasingly harder as the words flow to grasp whatever thread of meaning the words hold. Since there is no story being told, no narrative, only random “first thoughts” zooming wildly out of your speakers, one quickly loses interest and the intense concentration required to follow the selections falters. Upon repeated listenings, in spite of Kerouac’s expressive voice (except on the awful portions where he sings), I began to wonder just who the hell would listen and relisten to these discs?

Blues and Haikus contains a lot of curious studio chatter, which confirms my suspicions that Kerouac was drunk during the sessions. He giggles and goofs like an errant schoolboy until the stern producer, Bob Thiele, barks orders at him. The liner notes tell us that Cohn and Sims split to a nearby bar as soon as the session was completed, leaving a devastated Kerouac crying alone in a corner in the studio because they hadn’t bothered to listen to the playback.

Better are the readings on Poetry for the Beat Generation, with Steve Allen backing him on “jazz” piano that sounds remarkably like the elemental flourishes one hears on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The disc starts with “October In the Railroad Earth,” one of Kerouac’s most evocative pieces. Also of interest are the poems “Charlie Parker,” “Bowery Blues,” and “Goofing At the Table.” The bonus track is taken from Steve Allen’s television show, where Kerouac read from On the Road and Visions of Cody. It is interesting to note that Steve Allen respected Kerouac’s art enough to let him play it straight; he didn’t make him dress idiotically in tails and sing to a basset hound as he did Elvis. It’s yet another instance of high-brow jazzoids snobbing rock and roll.

Readings By Jack Kerouac On the Beat Generation showcases Kerouac in a more sterile setting without instrumental backing, yet his voice is engaging enough to go it alone. But again, one soon tires of this – a story one can follow, but scattershot prose is next to impossible to digest for more than a few minutes at a time. To hear firsthand what I mean, locate a recording of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” sometime and see if you’re not captivated from beginning to end, in spite of Truman’s babytalk voice. Capote knew that writing is storytelling, communicating something to someone. With Kerouac, self-expression was the all-important concern, which to me is a narcissistic view of the creative process.

The most unintentionally memorable track on the Readings disc is the bonus cut, a lecture Kerouac gave at Brandeis University in 1958 on the question “Is There A Beat Generation?” The crowd is unruly and unsympathetic and Kerouac is obviously dead drunk; his thick-tongued speech gets more embarrassing with each passing minute. Already the King of the Beats was well on his way to becoming America’s most celebrated literary barfly.

Rock & Roll Disc readers may well wonder why a spoken word box set was chosen for review in a rock music-oriented publication. Kerouac was and remains an enormous influence on several of rock’s pivotal artists, especially Bob Dylan who fused beat poetry sensibilities with Woody Guthrie’s grassroots politics to become the spokesman and conscience of a new generation. One could also cite Jack Kerouac as one of many influences on John Lennon (compare Kerouac’s poetry with “Come Together” or “I Am the Walrus”). Even more important is that Kerouac opened up the world of working class America for inspiration and celebration and creative sustenance – all of which would become cornerstones of rock and roll imagery. Kerouac could write passionately about hitchhiking on a hot day, meeting a friend in a train station, sleeping in a forest, breaking your back on a work crew – things the great artists of rock and roll took to heart and conveyed in song.

The beat generation stood for freedom above all things – freedom from conformity, restrictive sexual attitudes, blind patriotism, religious intolerance, freedom from all constraints. Rock and roll remains a social thorn because it still dares to cast off those same shackles.

The Jack Kerouac Collection is the loveliest CD set I’ve seen, and it contains some important, rare material. But if you haven’t read On the Road, spend your money instead on a good paperback edition. There you will find the same America, the real America, of Charley Patton, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Kurt Cobain.

Sleep Easy Jeff Beck

On top of the indignity of coping with a severed digit (which is coming along quite nicely, thank you very much) I learned last week that my dreams of being one of the great guitar players on Planet Earth have pretty much screeched to a halt. My fret hand, which I had the presence of mind not to stick in the lawn mower like I did with my picking hand, has developed increasing pain in the first joint on my index finger -- the finger and joint I use most to get that vibrato trill B.B. King is justifiably famous for. It took me years to get that trill down-pat and apparently it was that weird twist, shake, note bend, and pressure that made the joint swell up about triple its normal size.

I'll never forget when I complained to my first wife Denise about soreness in that joint. "Show me where it hurts," she said, suspiciously sympathetic. I showed her and she put her fingers on the joint. "Here?" she said as she squeezed hard and laughed. Sparks and lightning bolts shot out from the joint. I did not find it one bit funny. I slept with one eye open after that.

So, after years of trying to just put it out of mind, I finally went to an orthopedic specialist, the son of a surgeon I remembered from my days at Smith + Nephew. This young whippersnapper showed me the x-ray of the finger and pointed to a healthy joint with nice lining, cartilage, and floating space between the bone. Then he directed my attention to the joint in question. "The trainwreck," as he phrased it. I've looked at hundreds of bone x-rays in my career with S & N and I know what a bone-against-bone joint looks like. Well, I got one. Option one is aspirin or Advil; two is prescription stuff; three is a cortisone shot right between the bones; and four is to fuse the joint so it doesn't bend at all.

I'm going for option two.

Like just about all kids my age, I didn't know really what an electric guitar was until the Beatles unleashed them on us Yanks. They were impossibly expensive, loud, and difficult to master but I wanted one anyway. On my 15th birthday I was given a $25.00 acoustic guitar from a discount store called Dixiemart. It was a classical guitar and the strings buzzed. Nontheless, I picked out the rudiments of "Spoonful" and "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream. In those days of course, Eric Clapton was God and I, like a million other fretbusters, worshipped God religiously.

The sound of an electric guitar when I was a kid always prompted a search for the source -- we would ride our bicycles all over Parkway Village in hopes of hearing it up close and watching the player. I remember being Shanghied by my parents into going as a family to a hymn sing on a Saturday night, a fate worse than Lawrence Welk. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw an older man there with an electric guitar. I watched him all night and never once heard a note come out of his amplifier. Had he been audible at all I'm certain someone would have told him to turn down.

It was much later when I heard about this new music called "blues" and about these incredible guitarists from England. Clapton was probably the best of the lot early on, but fell from the firmament, one of those musicians daunted by his own genius. My two favorites, possibly because they were so obscure to most of my high school peers, were Jeff Beck and Peter Green. Since the early 1960's Jeff Beck has never lost one iota of ability or creativity. He has had weak albums, weak bands, weak songs, and fallow years, but never has his playing been weak. Peter Green who had the best blues tone of any guitar player I ever heard (well, maybe Albert King shared that best-of) succumbed to drugs and madness and is today medicated to the nines and trotted out on stage for a few moments for those who remember.

My brother and I briefly met Jeff Beck backstage in 1972. He was a true gentleman and a role model for any uppity star who can't appreciate fans. I will never forget his kindness.

I wanted to interview Peter Green in the worst way. I wanted to be the guy who brought him back from the dead and tell the world his sad, haunting story. Be careful what you wish for... I managed to get his phone number and called him in England. Within seconds it was painfully clear to me that I was dealing with a very sick, disturbed man -- he wound up hanging up the phone in my ear and I have left him alone to his darknesses ever since. Lesson learned.

I sold six prized guitars to afford my trip to Bintou in Africa. The trophy guitar was my Gibson Les Paul tricked out like Peter Green's to get that tone. Many people told me I sounded "just like" Peter Green. Bless them. I certainly tried.

I recently bought a Les Paul copy made by Agile, my only guitar now. I wanted to customize it again and trick it out to sound just like Peter Green.

Maybe some day.

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My 100 Favorite Films

I had to get in on the action too. There are lists out there everywhere, some good, some great, some awful. The first thing you will notice about my list is that I cheated like crazy here, counting all of Stanley Kubrick's films, for instance, as one entry. Why? To avoid hair-splitting and to create space for a few more oddities.

Do I necessarily consider each and every one of these films on my list the greatest cinematic achievements of all time? Nope. I'm sure one or two of these (or 50) will have some of you scratching your heads. I'm tired of those American Film Institute lists with the same old formula fluff, although I'm a hypocrite myself and include a few tried-and-trues like Red River. (What I should have put is Hatari--at least the bush scenes. That would have puzzled some.) Most of these I would want to be my desert island collection, some are just downright fascinating artistically for quirky reasons (Roman Polanski's Macbeth, for example), and some should be studied by any serious student of the cinema.

Ultimately, Top 100 lists probably say more about the compiler than anything. I've grown increasingly fond of tough, gritty, realistically violent movies. I'm sure that says something about me, but I have no idea what. I still don't own a firearm and have yet to get in a bar fight.

****Note: I'd also like to hear from people on those movies (and filmmakers) you love to hate.

Tom Graves' Top 100 Film List

1. Citizen Kane – Orson Welles
2. The oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick (I’m cheating counting this as one film): 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Eyes Wide Shut, etc.
3. Persona – Ingmar Bergman
4. Cries and Whispers – Ingmar Bergman
5. Hour of the Wolf – Ingmar Bergman
6. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Luis Bunuel
7. The Exterminating Angel – Luis Bunuel
8. Pandora’s Box (silent) – G. W. Pabst
9. Red River – Howard Hawks
10. The Searchers – John Ford
11. Goldfinger (the greatest Bond film of them all)
12. A Hard Day’s Night (the Beatles at their most fun)
13. Rear Window – Alfred Hitchcock
14. Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock
15. Peeping Tom – Michael Powell
16. Chinatown – Roman Polanski
17. 8 ½ ­ Federico Fellini
18. Taxi Driver – Martin Scorsese
19. Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese
20. Godfather I and II – Francis Ford Coppola
21. Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola
22. The Emigrants and The New Land – Jan Troell
23. The Road Warrior
24. Nightmare on Elm Street
25. Assault on Precinct 13
26. The Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa
27. M – Fritz Lang
28. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill 1 & 2 – Quentin Tarantino
29. Days of Heaven (runners up: Badlands and The Thin Red Line) all by Terrence Malick
30. The Day the Earth Stood Still
31. Alien
32. The Terminator
33. Blow Up – Michaelangelo Antonioni
34. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - John Ford
35. The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – Sam Peckinpah
36. Cockfighter
37. Rolling Thunder (starring my great friend, the actress Linda Haynes)
38. His Girl Friday – Howard Hawks
39. Mutiny on the Bounty
40. Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein – James Whale
41. Dracula - Tod Browning’s original version
43. Freaks – Tod Browning
44. The Navigator, the General – Buster Keaton
45. Greed ­- Erich Von Stroheim
46. Some Like It Hot – Billy Wilder
47. The Last Waltz – Martin Scorsese
48. The Bicycle Thief – Vittorio De Sica
49. Point Blank – John Boorman
50. The Last Tango In Paris – Bernardo Bertolucci
51. Night of the Hunter – Charles Laughton
52. My Life As A Dog
53. Cinema Paradiso
54. Nashville – Robert Altman
55. The Last Picture Show, Targets – Peter Bogdanovich
56. The Producers – Mel Brooks’ original
57. Young Frankenstein – Mel Brooks
58. Double Indemnity
59. Bonnie and Clyde – Arthur Penn
60. Little Big Man – Arthur Penn
61. Lone Star – John Sayles
62. Passion Fish – John Sayles
63. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
64. From Here To Eternity
65. Smiles of a Summer Night ­ Ingmar Bergman
66. Amarcord – Federico Fellini
67. Jules and Jim – Francois Truffaut
68. The 400 Blows – Francois Truffaut
69. Breathless – Jean-Luc Godard
70. The 7 Beauties, Love and Anarchy, The Seduction of Mimi ­ Lina Wertmuller
71. Wages of Fear and its remake, Sorcerer – Henri Clouzot and William Friedkin
72. Blue Angel
73. Ground Hog Day
74. Cool Hand Luke
75. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Milos Forman
76. Loves of a Blonde, Fireman’s Ball – Milos Forman
77. Lola Montes ­ Max Ophuls (for the exquisite, fluid camera work)
78. Leon (the Professional) – Luc Besson
79. Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago – David Lean
80. The Commitments – Alan Parker
81. Macbeth – Roman Polanski
82. The Thin Man
83. Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King – John Huston
84. Grand Illusion ­—Jean Renoir
85. Olympia ­—Leni Riefenstahl
86. Laurel and Hardy ­ The Music Box
87. The Black Stallion – Carroll Ballard
88. The Wizard of Oz
89. Women In Love – Ken Russell
90. It’s A Gift-W.C. Fields
91. Breaker Morant
92. Midnight Cowboy
93. Hard Boiled/The Killers ­—John Woo
94. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original version) – Don Siegel
95. The French Connection – William Friedkin
96. Metropolis-Fritz Lang
97. Lonesome Dove (made for TV movie)
98. Knife in the Water-Roman Polanski
99. Rosemary’s Baby-Roman Polanski
100.The Sopranos (TV series)

a couple of new ones to throw in the DVD player:

-George Washington (a little known gem)
-Spellbound (documentary on National Spelling Bee)
-Fog of War (fascinating film on Robert McNamara)
-the remake of Dawn of the Dead
-28 Days
-The Cooler
-The Triplets of Belleville (especially the black and white intro)
-American Splendor
-Shattered Glass (about New Republic writer/faker Stephen Glass-- has some terrific low key performances and a story surprisingly gripping)
-Sexy Beast (Ben Kingsley delivers a better performance here than Gandhi)
-Lock, Stock, and Three Smoking Barrels
-Hard Eight

Jonathan Rosenbaum's Alternative 100 Best American Films

Rosenbaum is about as quirky a critic as has been ever taken seriously. I violently disagree with many of his choice picks and think some of them strange enough to qualify him for a straitjacket. But such is the bloodsport of film criticism. There are films he lists that not only have I never seen, but that I have never heard of. That alone is enough to make me want to take up arms against him. That said, I find his quirks fascinating in a rainy day when I am bored sort of way. His list certainly gets the blood flowing faster than the Novocaine list put out by the AFI (American Film Institue), which follows Rosenbaum's list.


Ace in the Hole/The Big Carnival (1951)
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Avanti! (1972)
The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
The Big Sky (1952)
Bigger Than Life (1956)
The Black Cat (1934)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
Cat People (1942)
Christmas in July (1940)
Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)
The Crowd (1928)
Dead Man (1995)
***Oh please! Arty tripe by Jim Jarmusch who at least gave us the interesting Mystery Train.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
***My belief is that 50 years from now this silly agitprop from Spike Lee will get unintended laughs in the same way people now watch Reefer Madness.
The Docks of New York (1928)
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1974)
11 x 14 (1976)
Eraserhead (1978)
***Time for the straitjacket!

Foolish Wives (1922)
Force of Evil (1948)
Freaks (1932)
The General (1927)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Gilda (1946)
The Great Garrick (1937)
Greed (1925)
Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933)
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Housekeeping (1987)
The Hustler (1961)
Intolerance (1916)
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Judge Priest (1934)
Killer of Sheep (1978)
***Saw it finally. Boring film school artiness disguised as truth-telling.
The Killing (1956)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
***No, not John Cassavetes. I'd rather watch a film by that great Japanese auteur Yoko Ono.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The Ladies' Man (1961)
The Lady From Shanghai (1948)
Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977)
Laughter (1930)
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)
Lonesome (1929)
Love Me Tonight (1932)
Love Streams (1984)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
***I have never understood the following this inferior Welles film has. Nowhere close to the artistry of Citizen Kane.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Man's Castle (1933)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
My Son John (1952)
The Naked Spur (1953)
Nanook of the North (1922)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Nutty Professor (1963)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Panic in the Streets (1950)
Park Row (1952)
The Phenix City Story (1955)
Point Blank (1967)
Real Life (1979)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Scarface (1932)
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Scarlet Street (1945)
Scenes From Under Childhood (1970)
The Scenic Route (1978)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
Shadows (1960)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The Shooting (1967)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
The Sound of Fury/Try and Get Me! (1950)
Stars in My Crown (1950)
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Sunrise (1927)
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
The Tarnished Angels (1958)
That's Entertainment! III (1994)
This Land Is Mine (1943)
Thunderbolt (1929)
To Sleep With Anger (1990)
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969)
Track of the Cat (1954)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Vinyl (1965)
Wanda (1971)
While the City Sleeps (1956)
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
Woodstock (1970)
The Wrong Man (1957)
Zabriskie Point (1970)
***No, this guy needs two straitjackets.

Copyright © 1998 Chicago Reader Inc.

The American Film Institute's By-the-Numbers Top 100 List

1 Citizen Kane (1941)
2 Casablanca (1942)
3 The Godfather (1972)
4 Gone With the Wind (1939)
5 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
6 The Wizard of Oz (1939)
7 The Graduate (1967)
8 On the Waterfront (1954)
9 Schindler's List (1993)
10 Singin' in the Rain (1952)
11 It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
12 Sunset Boulevard (1950)
13 The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
14 Some Like It Hot (1959)
15 Star Wars (1977)
16 All About Eve (1950)
17 The African Queen (1951)
18 Psycho (1960)
19 Chinatown (1974)
20 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
21 The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
22 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
23 The Maltese Falcon (1941)
24 Raging Bull (1980)
25 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
26 Dr. Strangelove (1964)
27 Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
28 Apocalypse Now (1979)
29 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
30 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
31 Annie Hall (1977)
***Am I the only one who thinks this movie is terribly dated now?
32 The Godfather, Part II (1974)
33 High Noon (1952)
34 To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
35 It Happened One Night (1934)
36 Midnight Cowboy (1969)
37 The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
38 Double Indemnity (1944)
39 Doctor Zhivago (1965)
40 North by Northwest (1959)
41 West Side Story (1961)
42 Rear Window (1954)
43 King Kong (1933)
44 The Birth of a Nation (1915)
45 A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
46 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
47 Taxi Driver (1976)
48 Jaws (1975)
49 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
50 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
***Pleasant enough entertainment but no desert island winner for me. And "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" is enough to dump this one in the wastebasket forever anyway.
51 The Philadelphia Story (1940)
52 From Here to Eternity (1953)
53 Amadeus (1984)
54 All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
55 The Sound of Music (1965)
***Pauline Kael was right about this one. The truth got her sacked from Redbook magazine.
56 M*A*S*H (1970)
57 The Third Man (1949)
58 Fantasia (1940)
59 Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
60 Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
61 Vertigo (1958)
62 Tootsie (1982)
***Dustin Hoffman in drag is deserving of the pantheon?
63 Stagecoach (1939)
64 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
65 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
***Fava beans and chianti aren't that good.
66 Network (1976)
67 The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
68 An American in Paris (1951)
69 Shane (1953)
70 The French Connection (1971)
71 Forrest Gump (1994)
***This list is like a box of choc-o-lates.
72 Ben-Hur (1959)
***According to Gore Vidal Masala was hot for Judah Ben-Hur. That factoid might make the chariot race more interesting next time around.
73 Wuthering Heights (1939)
74 The Gold Rush (1925)
75 Dances With Wolves (1990)
***Ta-tonka. Tey in the winnnnnn. The things I learn from movies.
76 City Lights (1931)
77 American Graffiti (1973)
78 Rocky (1976)
79 The Deer Hunter (1978)
80 The Wild Bunch (1969)
81 Modern Times (1936)
82 Giant (1956)
83 Platoon (1986)
84 Fargo (1996)
85 Duck Soup (1933)
86 Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
87 Frankenstein (1931)
88 Easy Rider (1969)
89 Patton (1970)
90 The Jazz Singer (1927)
91 My Fair Lady (1964)
92 A Place in the Sun (1951)
93 The Apartment (1960)
94 GoodFellas (1990)
95 Pulp Fiction (1994)
96 The Searchers (1956)
97 Bringing Up Baby (1938)
98 Unforgiven (1992)
99 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
***Is this some sort of Hollywood political correctness afoot here? Otherwise how can anyone explain such a choice?
100 Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Now -- On to My List of Bad Films and Bad Film Directors
by Tom Graves

Recent bad movies I have seen:

Elephant -- static claptrap posing as art. Gus van Sant is another overrated filmmaker.

Safe -- boring does not begin to describe the paralysis of this one-dimsensional portrait of a woman who finds her world literally toxic. Todd Haynes is not a bad director, and Velvet Goldmine is even worth watching. But this one inexplicably has a following.

Films and directors I think are waaay overrated

Early Spike Lee (however, I am very fond of Clockers, Malcolm X, The Inside Man, and Miracle at St. Elena (sp.?))
Anything by John Cassavetes (no exceptions)
Solaris ­-- the original and the remake
Pasolini ­-- anything, especially Teorema
most of Werner Herzog with the exception of the documentaries by and about him
all of Fassbinder, particularly the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Tree of Wooden Clogs
Oliver Stone (God! What a hack!)
Brian De Palma­ with a few exceptions such as Carrie and Blowout
Gus Van Sant
Atom Egoyan
Luchino Visconti
Lars von Trier
Peter Greenaway
In the Heat of the Night and Rod Steiger
Meryl Streep
The Deer Hunter
El Topo
much of Woody Allen
Godfather III
La Dolce Vita
Fellini’s last films
The new Star Wars flicks...boring!
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (snore!)
most films about the Civil War

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Top Ten Movie List for 2008

Top Ten Movie Lists (and more) by Tom Graves

It’s a sad year indeed (2008) when the best cinema offerings are either cartoons or film versions of comic books over a half-century old. And what has happened to cinema’s great auteurs – the Kubricks, the Bergmans, the Fellinis, or the Terrence Malicks? David Gordon Green, who did encourage some hope with his outstanding debut, George Washington, this year released the lackluster Snow Angels and the talented John Sayles gave us the yawner Honeydripper. My ten best list pretty much parrots the one by John Beifuss, critic for The Commercial Appeal, and most other critics – there wasn’t much to seriously choose from. However, the worst list, which I had to pare down from about 30 titles, illustrates just how bad the year really was. I also add a few of my own categories for the cinephiles out there.

My 10 Best List

1. Persepolis (animated film) – Marjane Sartrapi’s harrowing and eye-opening adolescent’s take on the Iranian Islamic Revolution. However, the graphic novels the film is based on are even better.
2. Slumdog Millionaire – sentimental, but wonderfully entertaining.
3. There Will Be Blood—sure, it’s good, and well-acted, but doesn’t it get a bit preachy? My favorite P.T. Anderson film by far is his debut, Hard Eight.
4. No Country For Old Men – great film all the way up to the unforgivably lame ending that is purposely meant to confound audiences.
5. Iron Man – perfect casting for the lead.
6. Dark Knight – Heath Ledger is an inspiration as the Joker, but that growling voice of the Batman is borderline ridiculous.
7. Wall-E – underneath the cute images is a wicked satire of Earth’s destruction.
8. Mongol – Genghis Khan never looked so good.
9. W. – I never thought I’d give Oliver Stone (or George Bush) a thumb’s up. However, this film manages to give us insight into a character more complex than many may have thought.
10. City of Men – Clive Owen is made for the big screen.

Honorable Mentions

1. Sicko – I wonder how this film may have shaped the nation’s obvious disgust with our health care system.
2. Vantage Point
3. The Visitor
4. Appaloosa
5. Transsiberian
6. RocknRolla – finally Guy Ritchie gets back to what he does best. (Note: I recently viewed this film on Pay Per View again and my enthusiasm has waned.)
7. Quantum of Solace – let’s face it, Daniel Craig has reenergized the Bond franchise like no one since Sean Connery.

Guilty Pleasures

1. Cloverfield
2. The Ruins – evil vines, now that’s cool.
3. Rambo and The Punisher: War Zone – the two bloodiest films of the year. High-budget grindhouse masterpieces.
4. The Hulk – Edward Norton makes a great Bruce Banner.
5. In Bruges – okay thriller
6. The Bank Job – ditto
7. 21 – ditto
8. Tropic Thunder – a hoot.
9. Australia – sprawling, old-fashioned epic that works as an entertainment.

My Worst Cinema Experience of 2008

Sitting through Lakeview Terrace with a crowd rabidly anti-interracial that roared its approval every time the unhinged character played by Samuel L. Jackson committed an atrocity against the interracial couple next door.

Too Precious and Arty

1. The Savages
2. Snow Angels
3. Honeydripper
4. My Blueberry Nights – my wife and I actually watched scenes from this movie being filmed in Downtown Memphis. We were disappointed with the results as were the three other people who saw the movie.

The Worst of the Worst

1. The Spirit – abuses every innovation it rips off from Sin City.
2. Diary of the Dead – come on George Romero, it’s time to close the book.
3. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – admittedly I couldn’t hear a lot of the dialogue because of the mass snoring in the theater.
4. Funny Games – nothing funny about this teeth-grinder.
5. Day the Earth Stood Still – Like, why? They couldn’t even make the robot cool.
6. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 – which is worse, these gawdawful chick flicks that can’t rub two brain cells together or the dreck being churned out for African-American audiences by Tyler Perry (or like the equally atrocious This Christmas) that can’t even find a second brain cell?
7. Brideshead Revisited – ditto.
8. Step Up 2 the Streets – ditto.
9. 27 Dresses – ditto.
10. Fool’s Gold – ditto.

My Take On the Octomom

MY THOUGHTS: 8 babies is in vitro fertilization run amok

There is nothing reasonable or sane about eight newborns, all with their endless newborn needs, being cared for by one mother.

By Tom Graves
Special to Viewpoint (*note: This editorial appeared on the op-ed page of The Commercial Appeal on Thursday, February 5, 2009 shortly after the first news about the birth of Nadya Suleman's octuplets.)

Writer Gore Vidal, who is unquestionably the wittiest and most whimsical provocateur of his generation, once half-seriously proposed a solution to overpopulation in this country. (It should be remembered that overpopulation was one of the great sources of fright a few decades past. We now have far worse frights over which to fret.)

Vidal said that all women should be provided a government card allowing the birth of two children tax-free. After that, Uncle Sam would place such a heavy tax burden on a third child that few would risk such financially punitive measures. Knowing full well the outcry he was likely to get from such an outrageous idea, Vidal added blithely that our society already has dictated how many spouses we may have at any given time and what sex they must be and only a noisy minority objects to that; why not carry things one step further?

I've laughed and told friends and colleagues about Vidal's "solution" for over 20 years -- that is, until I read the news last week about Nadya Suleman, the baby hoarder. After already having given birth to six children, reportedly without the benefit of a father, Suleman upped the ante to 14 with the birth of octuplets -- conceived, we are told, through the modern convenience of in vitro fertilization.

According to news reports, Suleman's mother Angela Suleman says that all 14 of her daughter's children were produced not through flesh-to-flesh contact, like most of the other 6 billion of us on this planet, but through the sterile facilities of laboratories and clinics by people with impressive degrees and starched white coats. It took 46 physicians and staff to deliver all eight of Nadya Suleman's babies in Bellflower, Calif., on Jan. 26.

After taking all this in and giving it judicious thought, I can think of no good reason why laws should not be passed to remedy such idiocy in the future. Any clouded scientific minds that have supported such an obscene joke on Mother Nature should contemplate their folly while stamping out license plates at the local penitentiary.

Even the grandma in this case has cried "enough!"

"It can't go on any longer," Angela Suleman told The Associated Press. "She's got six children and no husband. I was brought up the traditional way. I firmly believe in marriage. But she didn't want to get married."

Make that 14 children now -- and who knows what the final tally may be?

Like most sensible people, I fully support a woman's right to use the medical advances in reproductive technology to have children when otherwise she cannot. Although I am a bit old-fashioned in thinking that the best environment in which to raise a child is a loving home with two stable, married parents (preferably, one of each gender), those who do not fit into my admittedly narrow view of optimum parentage certainly should retain their reproductive rights. Within reason and sanity, that is.

But there is nothing reasonable or sane about eight newborns, all with their endless newborn needs, being cared for by one mother. I cannot imagine the work involved with caring for twins, much less four times that many babies. And what of the six older children? What quality of life will they have under these extreme circumstances? How can any nurturing or attention be given to one without interruption by 13 (and counting) siblings?

I, for one, cry foul. This simply should not be allowed, no matter how badly neurotic mothers desire yet another baby. There should be logical limits placed on in vitro fertilization, based on the number of offspring a potential mother already has and the family environment, including the mother's ability to provide financial and emotional stability for a new child.

Those with more children than sense should be told no, and the rest of us should feel no guilt in telling them so. And if that doesn't work, maybe Gore Vidal can still offer us a two-fer.

Tom Graves of Memphis teaches English and humanities at LeMoyne-Owen College. He also is the author of the novel "Pullers" and the biography "Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson."

The Commercial Appeal publishes "My Thoughts" columns of up to 750 words. If you'd like to submit a column that tells a personal story or comments on a news topic, e-mail it to Include the writer's name, home address, daytime/evening telephone numbers and a few sentences of biographical information. For more information, call (901) 529-2319.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why I Hate Schnucks

One of my most distressing errands is when I am dispatched by the wife to the Schnucks supermarket on Union Avenue. Why is there still some sort of snob appeal going on with this rank, inferior deployer of edible goods? Try at any time to drive into the postage stamp-size parking lot and see if you are not met by someone driving out the wrong way. Go inside and the first thing you will hear is the overly loud talking (and usually complaining) of the employees, none of whom seems to actually be from Memphis, especially those strange, misshapen white ones. Where do they import them from? The Deliverance equivalent of the white trash Yankee north? God forfend if you should ask a question because no telling what type of speech impediment you will get in return.

I have been at Schnucks at just about every hour of the day or night and I have yet to see the aisles cleared of boxes being opened and goods being stocked. Being blocked in is a way of life at Schnucks. This morning I was hemmed in by three different ladies with their baskets all jammed in one intersection, daring anyone to speak to them, and damned if they would move their baskets. I myself, as a form of urban protest, refused to budge. Finally they untangled themselves, no word of apology was spoken, and Tom Graves, the Colossus of Cowden Avenue with black smoke curling above his head, went about his grocering.

The old white ladies are the ones who make me want to relive a Sam Peckinpah slow motion death swath. I have noticed that with old age myopia apparently is a given because old white ladies can never see anything except what they WANT to see. Leggo my Eggos is on their mind -- forget that they are blocking ten other shoppers as they dig through the frozen foods for the package that is most perfect or might have a penny less on the sticker price.

The check out. Why is it that the card machine never has a diagram showing you how to swipe the card? Why is it that women NEVER get out their checkbook until all the groceries are rung up and the line stretches back to the deli? Why is it the gay guys always look so damn happy in that store? Have they found a grocery the rest of us are not aware of -- something in the cucumber family perhaps? (Not that there's anything wrong with it.)

I would go to the Piggly Wiggly but I would have to share the store with every single midtown derelict and welfare cheat, and contend with the stockyard smell and third world look of the place. I take that back. That is insulting to third world markets. Piggly Wiggly, in case no one has noticed, is even more expensive than Schnucks. Forty bucks will buy you a box of Triscuits, a loaf of generic bread, a bucket of gizzards (they have a section all their own), and that's about it.

The next closest store is the Kroger Poplar Plaza, home to all the purse snatchers who have been run out of Hickory Hill. One good thing about Kroger is that there is no way you will not know about each and every bargain. The clientele there is sure to be discussing each and every one as you glide down the aisle. You couldn't miss a word if you had air traffic ear protectors on.

Now, Aldi, there is a supermarket. But it is in Cordova, the sixth circle of hell. The traffic out there is like the Schnucks parking lot on a Jumbotron scale. But my, oh my, what fifty bucks will buy you there.

How To Make An Authentic Cajun Roux

How To Make An Authentic Cajun Roux (for the Uninitiated)

Note: My good friend and great cook Marty Priola reminded me that the following recipe for the preparation of a roux is specifically for seafood-based dishes. He is sooo right. A chicken gumbo, for instance, instead of using bacon grease would more properly use the fried chicken drippings as the source for a roux. Other dishes often call for lighter rouxs than the one here as well. But this is your good, basic, all-around, all-purpose, authentic, to-the-max, lip-smackin', rib-stickin' Cajun roux.

The key to almost every major Cajun dish is the proper preparation of a roux. A roux is basically a gravy base for whatever the meat or seafood happens to be, whether in a gumbo, a creole sauce, or an etouffe. Beware of those newfangled recipes in the Homes and Kitchens sections of newspapers or magazines. These food nannies are always on a health kick (how many of them do you think Jazzercise?) and they substitute canola oil, peanut oil, and even olive oil for bacon grease, which is far and away the best ingredient for making a roux, I don't care what anybody else tells you. You don't use much grease in a roux to begin with, so why not go for the best taste, texture, and results with the ingredient Cajuns have used for generations?

Keep this in mind when making a roux: it is a slow, tedious process. You cannot go off and leave it for even a minute. A roux that burns even a little bit must be thrown out. So it is best to go slow and do it right the first time. Also, it is wise to use a long-handled whisk or wooden spoon to stir (which you will do almost constantly) the roux while you are making it. Long handles keep your hands farther away from the hot grease, which when combined with the flour will stick to your skin and burn like napalm.

Okay, here's what you need:

A heavy three or four quart pot. A thin pot won't do. You can prepare the roux in a thick sauce pan or cast iron skillet with the idea of pouring it into a bigger pot when finished.
1/3 cup of bacon grease
1/3 cup of flour

Over a medium flame, heat your grease and do not let it get too hot. It does not need to be smoking or boiling. When it starts getting hot, but is not yet at the smoking stage, put in about a tablespoon of the flour and whisk vigorously until it is totally dissolved. When that is dissolved add another tablespoon and repeat. Again, make sure you are stirring constantly. Repeat until all the flour is dissolved and make sure the roux is not browning too fast. If the roux is burned, dark speckles come into it. If that happens, sorry podna but you gotta throw that batch out and start over. Ayyyyy-eeeeee!!!

Okay, you've got the flour dissolved and you are stirring steadily but not crazily, just steady, lazy, daydreaming stirring. If you are doing it right you will notice the roux slowly getting browner and browner. Keep stirring for what seems forever until the color is about as brown as brown (not tan) shoes. When it is a deep, nice, reddish brown take it off the fire and put in all your chopped vegetables as your recipe describes. Yes, when you dump those veggies all in they will make an impressive "sssssss" noise and you will need to stir all over again. Keep in mind that until you put those veggies in, the roux keeps cooking even off the fire. So have those veggies ready to go in when the time is right.

Seasoned pros can heat up grease and throw in the flour without even looking, stir it up, and within a few minutes come out with a picture perfect roux. You can't. This takes years and I do mean years of practice in a hot kitchen. What YOU need to do is put on some comfortable shoes (don't do like me and cook without shoes on -- Cajun napalm really scalds those little piggies and I have dropped a knife a time or two and hopped around bleeding all over the floor. Stop laughing.) get a favorite beverage, and stir, baby, stir. Put on a little zydeco or Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and learn the Cajun two-step while you are stirring. And, as always folks, laissez les bon temps roulet!!!!!


Bintou's West African Fried Chicken Stew

1 whole chicken cut into its parts, skin on
3 medium onions chopped fine
2 medium carrots sliced ¼” thick
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 16. oz (roughly) size can chopped or diced tomatoes
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
hot sauce (if you want it hotter)
vegetable oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1 “Jumbo” brand cube (the SECRET ingredient – these are a specific brand of bouillon cube available at most African/international food markets – the cube is ground into powder with a mortar or spice grinder. Beef “Maggi” brand bouillon cubes are an acceptable substitute.)

In a heavy pot pour one half to one inch of vegetable oil and heat over medium flame. In a large mixing bowl sprinkle vinegar over chicken followed by salt, pepper, half the garlic salt, and half a Jumbo cube. When oil is hot, fry chicken until golden brown (remember – no flour is used for this fried chicken). Drain chicken on paper towels, etc.

In the remaining grease (veggie oil, if you did not burn it) add the onions, carrots, tomatoes, and tomato paste with the remaining Jumbo cube and other seasonings, stir well and cook until completely soft, then add 1 ½ cups of water. Cook until water has almost evaporated, then add the chicken. Allow to simmer until water is completely gone, about 30 minutes, maybe less.

Best over rice, particularly Broken Jasmine Rice, a delicious white rice Africans (and millions of Asians, of course) eat with relish that is found in almost all Asian markets. Believe me, there IS a difference in rice.