Thinking About the 60s: Cher's All I Really Want to Do and 3614 Jackson Highway

I've been thinking about the 1960s a lot lately. This focus is in part because of the upcoming presidency and the poem I have coming out in the anthology, If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration. I am also reading Hearts in Suspension (edited by Jim Bishop), a collection of essays by Stephen King and his classmates about attending the University of Maine in the midst of the youth revolt culture that grew over the late 60s. Martin Luther King, Jr is an important symbol in that book, so today's celebration of MLK and his optimism are on my mind too. Given all of the questions this art and commentary raises for me (How do we influence change? What role does hope play in protest?), I've also been enjoying two Cher albums from the decade: her first solo record, All I Really Want to Do (1965), and her last album of the 60s, 3614 Jackson Highway (1969). These albums are the central reasons for my post today, because they embody what I've been considering about the 1960s.

When Cher released All I Really Want to Do, she was 19 and embarking on what would be a legendary career as an entertainer. She and Sonny Bono had scored their first hit as a duo earlier in the year with "I Got You Babe," and the young singer started a solo career that was meant to run in tandem with her Sonny and Cher records. The girl we hear on All I Really Want to Do balances her inexperience with charm. Working her way through folk-rock standards (including two Dylan covers that book end the record, the title tune and "Blowin' in the Wind") and some Bono-penned originals (like the masterful "Needles and Pins"), her alto reveals both a maturity and inexperience. Her unconventional vocals carry pathos and yet she has less control of her voice than we will hear on later albums. 

Much like youth culture at this time, Cher was just beginning to understand the complexities of her world, as well as her career. In many ways, she was wiser than her years--living with an older man, facing at first vitriol then success because of her unconventional hippie looks, and traveling the US and the UK on that success. Her vivacious youth permeates All I Really Want to Do, which works as a folk-pop record that focuses more on love than politics. The material suits not only the young singer, but also the time--a year when the protest culture we often associate with the decade was still in its infancy. The album is a delight--especially in contrast to some of the polished mainstream pop the diva would later produce, not to mention her first disco album just 14 years later.


Fast forward four years and much has changed. Cher released 3614 Jackson Highway to a very different audience, many of whom had more on their minds than romance. Anti-war protests had escalated. Though they enjoyed some big hits just a couple years before, pop culture left Sonny and Cher behind as anti-war music gripped the mainstream. The world had changed, and Cher had grown up as her career waned. It's important to note 3614 is Cher's sixth solo album and her first not produced by Bono. His missing influence may be why it is the first album to feel like an authentic Cher record. Though it was virtually ignored by the public (stalling at 160 on the Billboard 200), 3614 Jackson Highway is a remarkable artistic achievement. Music writer Mark Deming calls it "the finest album of career" up to that point. It certainly ranks in the top 3 of my favorite Cher records.

3614 succeeds because it allows Cher to work with bolder material than her earlier efforts, including masterful renditions of the protest songs "For What It's Worth" and "Sittin On the Dock of the Bay." Producer Jerry Wexler--famous for his work with Aretha Franklin--puts Cher's voice front and center, as well as flavors the record with Southern Soul. Cher is also a stronger vocalist, and these may be the best vocals of her career. You can hear control and phrasing not present on All I Really Want to Do, marking her matured skills as an interpreter. 3614 is a very different record than her debut, but then again it arrived in a different America; it's interest in protest tunes, heartbreak ballads, and Americana mirror the skeptical times. Just looking at the album cover shows how much Cher had changed with the world around her: featured with her band, she's no longer a spirited, hopeful girl but a mature woman working off the beaten path. 

Though she would take forays into different material throughout the rest of career, I would argue that 3614 Jackson Highway and the late 60s have had more influence on her recording career than anything else.  The styles she tried out on the album would reappear later, including the rock vocal she sports on "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" that would manifest in her 80s albums, and the soulful heartbreak tunes that would become her bread and butter throughout her career. In fact, her dance records may show her strongest ties to the music she made in the late 60s and to politics of the time. Many of her club tunes focus on the brotherhood of mankind, a generalized spirituality, and hope in the face of romantic and cultural challenge. (You could write a whole thesis about the parallels between 3614 Jackson Highway and her 2013 album, Closer to the Truth, but that's a project for another day.)

Ultimately, what I am saying is that Cher was forever changed by 60s and the art she made during that time. She forever lives in the wake of that period, and so does our nation. We continue to look back on the 1960s to understand where we have been, as well as see what we can learn from those challenging years--even those of us who would not be born until decades later. In 2017, I hope the artists and pioneers of the 60s--not only leaders like MLK and JFK, but pop figures like Cher and Stephen King--inspire us and give us hope.

Signing Off for 2016, Plus Christmas Music

I am tired, dear reader. Though it yielded many creative rewards, 2016 wiped me out and I need some rest. I am retiring from the blog a little early this year; though I usually stick it out until December, I am in desperate need of R and R.

However, I want to recommend two excellent holiday records before I hit the road. Both of these albums work as pleasing slices of celebratory fair, as well as legitimate pop art.

Leslie Odom Jr's  Simply Christmas

Following up his breakthrough in the musical, Hamilton, and a standards record, Leslie Odom, Jr released his melancholy jazz-influence holiday album, Simply Christmas. He takes standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "My Favorite Things," and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and finds the somber textures in their familiar melodies. His rich voice perfectly weds this down-tempo approach, making the album a must-listen.

Kacey Musgrave's  A Very Kacey Christmas

Kacey Muysgraves is the queen of country kitsch. Her fascination with vintage country sounds works to her advantage on A Very Kacey Christmas. Designed in the mold of  a mid-century country holiday record, the album revels in camp and southwestern cowboy motifs. Musgraves skillfully manages novelty tunes like "Feliz Navidad," "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," and the new, "A Willie Nice Christmas," featuring none other than Willie Nelson. These light tracks balance sincerity and humor. However, the album gels because Kacey includes three love-lorn new tunes she co-wrote: "Christmas Always Makes Me Cry," "Present Without a Bow," and "Ribbons and Bows." These newer songs show the singer mixing her fascination with the past and her role as a country star in the present. They are sweet, melodic masterpieces.

Happy holidays, dear reader. Take care of yourself, and we'll meet back here in the new year.

My 2016 in Books

This year has rewarded me as both a reader and a writer. First, I have been incredibly lucky to find an audience for my poetry collection, Men and Music, which was published in August. The collection hit the Amazon Best Gay and Lesbian Poetry Bestsellers list, and friends and neighbors have said kind things. Thank you to everyone for their support!

As a reader, my year has been defined by essay and poetry collections by two writers. Mary Oliver released an excellent selected essays volume, Upstream, which I found engrossing and comforting. However, Oliver's poetry collection, Felicity, and Kim Addonizio's essay collection Bukowski in a Sundress loom the largest in my mind. I wrote extensively about both, and the links for those essays are below. Addonzio also released an excellent poetry collection, which I discuss in my review as well.

It's been a challenging year, and books have been a great comfort facing 2016's political and social turmoil. 

My Favorite Albums of 2016

As I stated in a previous post, my relationship with pop music has changed as I've aged out of the target Top 40 demographic. What this has meant for 2016 listening is that I have gravitated away from singles (though I did like a bunch of singles this year, namely these two and these five songs) to albums. In many ways, this is how I started listening to music as a kid. Because I had a limited number of CDs when I started out as a music fan, I played the same albums all the way through over and over. 2016 has been an interesting year for the album as an art form, and it's been fun to return to my roots as a pop music fan.

Here are the five albums that I adored playing straight through.

5. Sia's This is Acting
Sia kicked off the year with her excellent new record, This is Acting. More varied in tone and texture than her previous effort, this album allowed Sia to slip into different divas's personas (for whom she wrote these tunes, though they passed on the songs). Always the chameleon and underdog superstar, the diva garnered another number one single with this album, the sturdy "Cheap Thrills," and cemented her pop legacy.

4. Britney Spear's Glory
I would argue that Glory plays better as a complete pop opus than anything else in Britney Spear's catalog. Its chill-out tone works both as a reflection of current pop trends (namely the downbeat Zen-pop of stars like Zayn and Justin Beiber) and Spear's zany, light-hearted, and self-reflective tendencies. This album finds her in great voice, relaxed, and having a good time making music. Her happiness and comfort infuses Glory with an understated joy that I found heartwarming. Also, tracks like "Clumsy" and "Do You Wanna Come Over" have genuine possibilities as strong singles.

3. Paula Cole's This Bright Red Feeling
Paula Cole has always been a strong live performer, and her recent slate of shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough, This Fire, confirm the talents that made her a success. In fact, her voice is even better now, which can be clearly heard on her live album, This Bright Red Feeling. Part of my affection for this record is that I attended the concert during which it was recorded, and these tracks capture the energy of that night plus Cole's magic as a live performer. It also includes two re-recordings of her biggest hits, "I Don't Want to Wait" and "Where Have all the Cowboys Gone." This Bright Red Feeling not only celebrates where Paula Cole has been, but also where she is headed in future. I look forward to her next record.

2. Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion Side B
Jepsen won my heart last year with her brilliant and under-appreciated Emotion. She followed that album up this year with her stellar b-sides EP. A successful album in its own right, Emotion Side B functions as a legit pop record in its own right, while also extending the sonic universe of its sister album. From the quirky "Store" to the pop perfection of "Fever," every tune is a delight.

1. The 1975's I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful and yet so unaware of it
When I first wrote about the 1975's latest album, I had a hard time wrapping my head around its brilliance. It is a masterwork--a pop opus with a sprawling construction that creates a distinct universe of 80s homage, romantic angst, and modern cultural touchstones. It fluctuates between ethereal mood pieces, pop gems, and heartbroken ballads. Every time I play this album, I think I am going to just listen to a track or two, and somehow find myself riding its emotional waves to the conclusion. Part of me wants to pinpoint specific tracks to enjoy, but I think that would be a disservice to both the listener and the band. Do yourself a favor and buy the whole thing. It's brilliant, and on its way to becoming a modern pop-rock classic. Not to mention, it's perfect mood music for the autumn and winter.

Pick Up the Pieces Anthem: Whitney Houston's It's Not Right But It's Okay (Thunderpass Mix)

The past several days have been tough in the face of political turmoil, and music is an important part of the healing process. Never a disappointment in my time of need, Whitney Houston's discography has surfaced another gem to perk me up: "It's Not Right But It's Okay (Thunderpass Mix)." The third single from her fourth studio album, My Love is Your Love, "It's Not Right" was an important creative achievement for Houston. The song marked her turn to urban music after a decade spent mostly singing adult contemporary ballads, and (popularized in its remix form) it hit number four on the Hot 100 and number one on the Dance chart, as well as won her a Grammy. Whitney is undeniably cool, and her vocal performance has swagger. However, most importantly, Houston sounds strong and able to weather whatever personal storm she faces. She stands up to the man who wronged her; I hope we can do the same.

31 Days of Horror Wrap-Up

I had a lot of fun with my movie marathon this year, though I do feel a bit burnt-out and am ready to dive into cozy mysteries and holiday films. (Any films with asterisks [**] were new to me this year.)

Here is what I watched this season:

1. Trick R' Treat
2. The Craft
3. Creepshow
4. Hocus Pocus
5. Elvira Mistress of the Dark
6. Poltergeist 3 
7. The Final Girls**
8. The Forrest**
9. Lords of Salem**
10. Swamp Thing**
11. Psycho II**
12. What Lies Beneath
13. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon**
14. The Visit**
15. Don't Breathe**
16. Find Me**
17. Ouija**
18. Seven**
19. Salem's Lot**
20. Ouija: Origin of Evil** 
21. Big Driver
22. The Grudge
23. Starry Eyes**
24. It Follows**
25. Visions**
26. Lady Frankenstein (hosted by Elvira)**
27. Gingerbread Man 2: Passion of the Crust**
28. Last House on the Left (1972)
29. See No Evil (1971)
30. You're Next
31. The Attic**


Best Rediscovery: What Lies Beneath

Made-for-TV Superstar: Big Driver

Best Cult Classics: The Craft and The Grudge

New Classic: You're Next

Best New-To-Me: The Final Girls

Halloween Essentials: Hocus Pocus, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and Trick R' Treat

Some Closing Thoughts

I am drawing my 31 Days of Horror celebration to a close a little early this year for a few reasons--the biggest reason being that I am burnt out on horror, which I have been reveling in since the late summer. I would also recommend most of the films on my list above, and I think it might be fun for readers to check them out as the culture ramps up for Halloween in the next week.

This year--namely the past four months--I have watched more horror films in a limited period of time than ever before in my life. My theory is that this is due to my fear about issues in the broader culture that needed a safe place. Horror movies gave me a haven to explore my anxieties about the Orlando shooting, homophobia, and the prospect of a monstrous, grotesque Republican presidential candidate running in the election. All of these fearful events made me hungry for dark tones and the macabre.

However, something shifted  in me over the past week and the images I found interesting before turned unattractive. I can pinpoint this feeling over the last two horror movies I watched this season: the excellent You're Next and disastrous The Attic. I have watched You're Next several times and think it's a contemporary masterpiece of the home invasion and slasher genres. It's smart and gory to the point of comedy, but the comedy didn't work on me this time. I still think it's a masterwork and recommend any slasher fan to seek it out, but my appetite for this kind of movie curdled.

Then I watched The Attic, the only movie on my above list  that I outright urge readers to avoid. (Okay: Lords of Salem is pretty awful too, though it has style.) I am not averse to schlock. In fact, I am often drawn to fascinating failures, B pictures, cult classics, and underdogs. However, The Attic is so incompetently written, acted, edited, and directed, watching it tired me out. Normally, I would have been intrigued by its missteps, but my interest was greatly diminished.

I am not done with horror movies. I think it's an important genre, and I always enjoy discussing its merits (despite whether or not I am watching a lot of the genre at the moment). Genre tropes provide a safe framework to realize specific fantasies and emotions. Horror allows creators and viewers to explore loss, death, fear, violence, and uncertainty.  Yet, genre formulas also get tiresome at certain quantities, and my appetite for horror conventions is satiated. It's time for me to move on to Murder, She Wrote episodes, Miss Marple movies, and holiday comedies. I want to explore different emotions in genres that address lighter ideas and feelings.

Horror has been an important companion for the past few months, and I am grateful for the films I've watched. It's a genre I always return to and this Halloween season I hope you, dear reader, will watch your favorite scary movie (or try a new one!) and take joy in a genre that let's us know it's okay to be scared sometimes. Have a safe and happy Halloween.

Happy 91st Birthday to Angela Lansbury Plus Revisiting Her Miss Marple Film

Today, Dame Angela Lansbury turns 91. Always a remarkable talent, she's still going strong making appearances and performing live theater. (She plans to make her return to Broadway in 2017.) In celebration of her life and work, I want talk about her performance as Miss Marple in the under-appreciated The Mirror Crack'd (1980).

Lansbury is best known to mystery fans as Jessica Fletcher, but her work as Marple predates Murder She Wrote  by four years. A sly and humorous adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel, The Mirror Crack'd brims with humor and campy performances by legends Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Kim Novak, and Elizabeth Taylor. While the characters around her dial up the melodrama--as they must given the out-sized Hollywood types they are playing--Angela Lansbury's grounding as the sensible Miss Marple provides a comforting balance for the picture.

Lansbury's portrayal has its eccentricities (she smokes!), but this often forgotten interpretation of the character is one of the strongest in the cannon. Lansbury's Jane Marple has a steely pragmatism that can give way to warm politeness. She's neither the exasperated, bumbling character as seen in the Margaret Rutherford films (though I adore that portrayal for its own charms) nor the quiet, reserved lady Julie McKenzie most recently played in the ITV series. Lansbury's Marple has a sturdiness that makes her a capable rival to the mystery at hand. Her strength sets this Marple apart from the others.

I would argue that it is this same strength she would later bring to her work in Murder She Wrote. For fans of mysteries, I highly recommend The Mirror Crack'd. It has a great script, one of Christie's best plot twists, wonderful performances, and--best of all--the stellar work of Angela Lansbury.

Happy birthday, Ms. Lansbury! Thank you for all of your wonderful film, television, and stage performances.