Semi-Finalist

So in the ongoing search for a replacement for Nigella Lawson as my online fantasy woman extraordinaire, another contestant has come to mind: she’s over 50, somewhat classy — at least, she cleans up well — and boy… her other qualifications are shall we say, outstanding:

Now, I am not normally smitten by our Hispanic cousins, simply because I tend to prefer whiter-than-white skin, but let me tell you Salma Hayek gets me with her accent, too. I know that Mexican thing isn’t everybody’s favorite, but to me it’s cute and exotic (video link). And did I mention her other attributes?

The only part of Salma which might cause me some concern is that she’s that excitable-Latina type — all drama and waving arms — and I prefer a quiet life.

So maybe the search will have to continue…

Music, Lyrics and Wisdom

I can’t remember if I’ve written before about my fondness for the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, but I will now.

Grant of course plays his typical screen persona of the diffident, occasionally-clueless Brit twerp — it works for him, and clearly works for pretty much everyone, so why not? — this time, as a has-been 80’s pop star who can write a lovely pop tune, while Barrymore is a ditzy girl who just happens to have a soaring, but unrealized talent as a lyricist. The movie shows how they meet and fall in love, and that’s all we need to say about the romance. But that’s not what interests me about the story.

You see, the movie is filled with all sorts of insight into the creative process. Anyone who wants to make some kind of living at being “creative” should watch this movie a dozen times, because there is so much received wisdom in the script that it should be used as a college text. A sample  is when Barrymore professes to be unable to write a couple of lines because she’s “not feeling inspired”, and Grant excoriates that nonsense by shouting explosively:

“Inspiration is for amateurs!”

No truer words were ever spoken. If you earn a living at anything, Rule #1 is that you have to show up for work every day — and not just show up, but produce something. It’s as true of the creative process as it is for an assembly-line worker.

I’m often asked how I can write something new for this blog each day, and my answer is quite simple: I sit down at my computer, and don’t get up until I’ve written at least two or three posts. Not all of them will get published — I’m very harsh towards my own writing — but I do this every single day, circumstances permitting. Note I use the word “circumstances” and not “inspiration”, because if you are truly creative, as Grant reveals above, you don’t need inspiration to produce something.

When I’m writing a novel, by the way, I spend at least ten hours a day writing. It could be new content, it could be research, or it could be editing; all of that is part of the creation of the work, and all of that is productive.

I remember fondly that when Jack Kerouac revealed that he wrote On The Road in one, long continuous explosion of creation, Truman Capote aptly commented: “That’s not writing; that’s typing!” And he’s absolutely correct: On The Road is a long, muddled and ultimately incoherent tract, and if it can be used for any “teaching moment” it shouldn’t be for its brilliant writing, but as an object lesson in how not to write a novel. Kerouac wrote a lot of other novels, and most of them are better than On The Road because he actually worked at them, rather than relying on creativity (fueled, it should be said, by booze and amphetamines: not the best of influences).

I know, I know: writing a pop song is not the same as writing a novel; but the process is the same.

Incidentally, Music and Lyrics also features a couple of other star turns: Haley Bennett is quite astonishing as a pop diva, and Kristin Johnson equally so as Barrymore’s middle-aged groupie wannabe sister. Come to think of it, there are no bad performances in this movie — and how often do you get to say that?

New Entrant

As Loyal Readers will already know, the Goddess Nigella has lost favor with your Humble Narrator because she’s lost too much weight and has become unattractive (to me, anyway).

Much as I am tempted to transfer my online infatuation to a Train Smash Woman such as  Lisa Appleton, she is rather a little too much of a good thing, if you get my drift:

Sadly, Train Smash Women also tend to be dead common, which is a major disqualification. Also, there’s that slightly crazed look in Miss Lisa’s eye which suggests that my pet bunny would not be safe around a kitchen pot.

So the search continues. I’m not going to spell the search criteria out, because in fact they are largely undefinable. Let’s just use the Old Nigella as a template, and take it from there:

Okay, what the hell, let’s give it a try: Nigella’s replacement must be over 50 years old, classy, with a full figure and a decent cleavage. Sadly, the very first criterion eliminates most well-known women these days because they all seem to have the morals of stoats and all the class of a full airline barf bag. Nevertheless, we can but try; I’m not looking for unblemished near-virginity — Nigella is anything but that — but a touch of class would be a definite starting-point.

It’s early days, of course, but ol’ Helen Mirren does cause a certain stirring in the loins:

Let’s just say she’s first out of the starting gate.

Just… Wrong

I saw an article somewhere about people attending some movie premiere (details not important), but what struck me was how the women dressed. Here’s the lissome Heather Graham (47) standing on the left, next to the cute Molly Quinn (25):

(In case there are people out there who are even more clueless about this stuff than I usually am — I actually had to look these two up — Heather was Rollergirl in Boogie Nights, and Molly was Castle’s daughter in the eponymous TV show — neither factoid of which will be relevant to this post.)

Am I the only one who thinks that they should have swapped outfits? Heather’s little mini is cute, but FFS she’s nearly twice her companion’s age. The longer dress would have suited her much better. Also, her legs are too skinny and not that great — Miss Quinn actually has nicer legs (I know, you need a pitchur):

I know all about the female age bias in Hollyweird, and how Women Of A Certain Age Can’t Get The Good Roles Anymore (Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep to the contrary), and therefore the ladies have to look and dress like young girls rather than the mature women they are. Which means you get women making fools of themselves (“mutton dressed as lamb”, as my mom used to say) and frankly, I think it’s nonsense. Case in point: Sophia Loren, outside her movie roles, never showed off her flesh to excess, despite having one of the greatest female bodies evvah (I know, pitchur, shuddup):

Okay, maybe not that one — but note: no “sideboob” or crotch shots (which seem to be all the rage these days [sigh]).

I seem to have lost my thread. Oh well, let’s just say that actresses need to dress their age. Like the septuagenarian Susan Sarandon:

Oh hell, I give up.

The Dan

I was truly saddened by the death of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker earlier this week, and I was going to write something about him and Donald Fagen when I remembered that I’d already done so back in October 2007. I found the piece, re-read it and cannot add a single thing to it. Here it is.

No Pumpkins Here

After revealing my love for the music of ABBA and the BeeGees last week, I got an email from a Reader:

Okay, I can’t believe you like that commercial crap, with your taste in classical music and all. What is your favorite kind of music then?

Leaving aside the classical music for a moment, to concentrate on errrr “modern” music, I have to say that I prefer complex music when it comes to pure listening pleasure.

“Favorites” is a loaded term, because in making that decision, it almost depends what I last listened to.

You all know about my “art rock” preferences (eg. Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Happy The Man, and Jethro Tull), so I’m not going to talk about that stuff here.

Those who know my dislike for jazz, however, may be surprised by a band whom I absolutely love, and whose albums I have in their entirety: Steely Dan.

There is a need and a time for straight-ahead rock, and then there’s a time to enjoy the dense, complex music patterns of Messrs. Fagen and Becker.

I started off with Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album—I’d heard their earlier hits like Reeling In The Years, but for some reason I never got round to listening to their albums. Then, on a whim one day, I bought Royal Scam along with a couple of other tapes, to listen to on a long car trip I was taking.

For the next four days, the Steely Dan album was the only music I listened to—none of the others could hold up. To this day, if I hear a single song off the album, I have to get the CD out and listen to the rest.

Lots of words have been written about Steely Dan’s music, so I’m not really going to add many of my own to the chorus. Suffice it to say that whenever someone asks me to list my favorite songs of all time, it’s really difficult for me—because I can’t even list my favorite Steely Dan songs, so much do I enjoy them. The arrangements are tight and dense. I use the word “dense” a lot with their music, because there’s really no other way to describe the busyness—there’s always a lot going on with the instruments, but even within each instrument, all sorts of stuff is happening. (The next time Donald Fagen plays a straight major chord will probably be his first.)

And all the musicians who’ve ever played with Fagen and Becker have been artists and craftsmen of the highest order. To see exactly how good these guys were, you have to try and play a few Steely Dan songs—and I don’t mean an approximation of the song, I mean an exact copy of the song, to see how good these guys really were. I think I only ever managed a few: The Fez, Don’t Take Me Alive, With a Gun [duh], and Boston Rag. Players like Skunk Baxter, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton were the norm, not the stars—and current bassist Freddie Washington is beyond astonishing in his virtuosity.

But above all, one has to allow that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker themselves are brilliant musicians, and beyond-brilliant composers and arrangers. The cerebral, cultured Fagen and explosively-funny, irreverent Becker combine to make music that is… cerebral, cultured, funny and irreverent. And just to make things more confusing, they look like a pair of Ivy League college professors:

I’m also love with, in addition to the music itself, the wry, ironic feel to the lyrics and melodies. This is really unusual for me, because when it comes to that kind of thing, I’m an unashamed sucker and romantic. Hell, I’ve shed many a tear on maudlin ballads of the Streets Of London genre, but of course, tears are not what comes from listening to the hip, sly and obscure Steely Dan lyrics—that would not be cool, after all; and “cool” is a word which describes Steely Dan’s music better than any other. “Cool”, in lesser hands, could easily lead to “cold”, but it’s impossible to feel that way when listening to, say, Any Major Dude or Pretzel Logic.

And if you can’t see the comic genius and intellect of the people who wrote this letter and this article, you’re beyond redemption.

For the musicians among my Readers, I tend to prefer Skunk Baxter’s guitar work over Larry Carlton’s, not for any technical reasons—Carlton is a genius—but simply because I like Baxter’s sound for this kind of music. But that doesn’t stop me from preferring Royal Scam (a “Carlton” album) to any other of their offerings.

Did I imply from the above that I have a “favorite” Steely Dan album? Well, maybe. Royal Scam is certainly the first among equals, but then again, that’s just because I haven’t heard Countdown To Ecstasy or Pretzel Logic recently.

So I’m going to go and remedy that situation, right now. You could do worse than follow my example.

If you’ve never heard Steely Dan before (and there may be one or two sad souls who haven’t), and you like your music to have a complex, slightly jazzy feel, then here’s Amazon’s main Steely Dan page. Help yourself, to any one. You will not be disappointed, regardless of your choice; and how many bands can you say that about?

(I’d recommend the Citizen Steely Dan set for a starter choice, myself.)

And of course, not all Steely Dan’s lyrics were cynical and ironic.

Charlie Freak had but one thing to call his own
Three weight ounce pure golden ring no precious stone
Five nights without a bite
No place to lay his head
And if nobody takes him in
He’ll soon be dead

On the street he spied my face I heard him hail
In our plot of frozen space he told his tale
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise I bought his prize
For chicken feed

Newfound cash soon begs to smash a state of mind
Close inspection fast revealed his favorite kind
Poor kid, he overdid
Embraced the spreading haze
And while he sighed his body died
In fifteen ways

When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay
‘Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A.
Yes Jack, I gave it back
The ring I could not own
Now come my friend I’ll take your hand
And lead you home.

R.I.P. Walter