Sunday, August 31, 2014

Music Made Me #1: Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam

About a month ago, my friend Rob and I started scheming an experiment.  It started with a casual facebook post: “Does anybody still make mix tapes?”  This prompted some passionate responses from friends who grew up practicing the art of the mix tape.  We quickly followed up with another question: “Nirvana or Pearl Jam?”  For those of us who came of age in the late 80s / early 90s, this was an important question - although probably not as unavoidable as the Beatles vs. Stones debate of our parents’ generation.

I recently read a book called Beatles vs. Stones, in which the author tries to get to the core of the main music debate in the 1960s.  According to him, the debate not just about music: “To say that you were a Beatles fan was to imply that (just like the Fab Four) you were well adjusted, amiable, and polite.  You were not a prig, necessarily, but nor were you the type to challenge social conventions.  For the most part, you conformed.  You agreed.  You complied.  When you looked upon the world that you were bound to inherit, you were pleased.”  On the other hand: “To align with the Rolling Stones was to convey the opposite message.  It meant you wanted to smash stuff, break it and set it on fire.” 

The debate changed as the bands changed, but the author maintains: “To this day, when people want to get to know each other, they often ask: ‘Beatles or Stones?” A preference for one group over the other is thought to reveal something substantial about one’s personality, judgment or temperament.  The clich├ęs about the two groups are sometimes overdrawn, but they still retain a measure of plausibility.  With some qualifications, the Beatles may be described as Apollonian, the Stones as Dionysian; the Beatles pop, the Stones rock; the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral; the Beatles utopian, the Stones realistic.”

I’d like to propose an alternative perspective.  Obviously I can’t speak from experience about how this debate was waged in the 60s, but it seems to me that the Beatles vs. Stones argument might be a debate between people who grew up in ever-so-slightly different times.  The golden era for The Beatles was 1966 – 1969, beginning with the release of Rubber Soul and ending with the recording of Abbey Road.  Of course, Beatlemania started well before 1966.  The golden era for The Rolling Stones was 1968 to 1972, from Beggar’s Banquet to Exile on Main Street - but the band remained musically relevant through at least 1978 (when the Some Girls album was released) and continues to tour today.  In my mind, this suggests that listeners who came of age in the early to mid-60s might be more inclined toward the Beatles, while listeners who came of age in the late 60s and 70s might be more inclined toward the Stones.

Neuroscientist (and musician) Daniel Levitin theorizes that most people’s musical preferences tend to form around the age of 14, because “it is around fourteen that the wiring of our musical brains is approaching adultlike levels of completion.”  In other words, a few years can make a big difference.  This might help explain why Rob prefers Nirvana, a band that achieved mainstream success in 1991 (around the time he turned fourteen), while I prefer Pearl Jam, a band that broke out in 1992 but had its biggest commercial success in 1993 (the year I turned fourteen). 

It’s not the exact year itself that’s important, but the zeitgeist.  Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis makes a distinction between Generation X and Generation Y listeners, theorizing that the former has a contempt for nostalgia while the latter doesn’t.  Generation X listeners (more Nirvana fans?) seem to derive their musical taste from the punk movement of the late 70s / early 80s, while Generation Y listeners (more Pearl Jam fans?) derive their musical taste more from the classic rock era of the late 60s / early 70s. 

Nirvana, like the Stones, has a reputation for being more confrontational, more raw, and—by some standards—more musically “pure.”  But, like the Beatles, their legacy rests on comparatively limited output.    Pearl Jam's larger body of work demonstrates a greater musical range… but, like the Stones, their longevity (i.e. their musical growth - or lack of growth, depending on who you ask) has turned some listeners against them.

Of course, nobody who really cares about music thinks of their own musical taste in such broad terms.  We like what we like not because of abstract external forces but because of personal instincts and experiences.  It's an emotional topic, and that’s how our most music-obsessed friends—the ones who spent a lot of time cultivating the art of the mix tape—responded to the Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam debate.  There were few casual answers...

“Nirvana broke new ground. Pearl Jam revisited arena rock from the 70s. I like em, but come on...”

“There's just no comparison. Lyrics alone, Eddie wins by a landslide. And if PJ is just '70s arena rock, Nirvana is just a mix of Punk and Pop. They hardly broke new ground.”

“As long as that [Nirvana] list contains Negative Creep, Lounge Act, and Frances Farmer, it's a no-contest. And I love Pearl Jam.”

“I always say the same thing when people argue about nirvana... Nirvana is the band that everyone will tell you is the best band of all time... yet that no one ACTUALLY listens to.”

“Nirvana=more important to history. Peal Jam=better band. Both=GREAT.”

Inspired to make our cases for the opposing teams (or maybe just because we're gluttons for punishment), Rob and I made our own mix tapes and posted the track lists online. 

I don’t think either of us won any converts.  The facebook responses still played out like a contemporary political debate, with both sides deeply entrenched.  So what did we determine?

#1. I am probably not the best person to defend Pearl Jam in a debate with Rob, who is without doubt a hardcore Nirvana fan.  I was taken to task by a fellow PJ fan for not including enough of the early material (I mostly avoided Ten, because even today it seems omnipresent) and by another fellow PJ fan for not including enough of the later stuff (which I don't know as well).  I was also taken to task by Rob for using the shortened version of "Yellow Ledbetter."  Mea culpa.  In my own defense, I'll say that Pearl Jam has a much bigger catalogue than Nirvana, which lends itself to a lot of possibilities… but I’m going to stand by my mix, simply because it’s the mix that I want to listen to right now.   Compiling my playlist gave me newfound appreciation for "In My Tree," "Of the Girl" and "You Are," and prompted me to listen to some of the newer albums for the first time.  It’s not the mix I would have made a few years ago, and probably not the mix I would make a few years from now.  But that’s part of the fun.

#2. Rob’s Nirvana mix has made me deeply curious about how Nirvana might have evolved musically if Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself.  Rob included two of their later songs, “Marigold” (a showcase for Dave Grohl) and “You Know You’re Right” (the last song Kurt Cobain wrote), neither of which I had heard before and both of which I love.  This sparked new enthusiasm… and isn’t that the real purpose of a mix tape?

#3. If we were going to be “fair” about this Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam mix tape debate, we would have both played by the exact same rules:  Same time period (‘91 – ‘94), no singles.  That could have been fun, because often it’s the challenge of making a mix tape that’s so appealing.  In most cases, you’re trying to find the precise middle-ground between your own sensibilities and someone else’s.  In this particular case, with a pair of mix tapes geared toward contrast, we could have probably created a song-for-song matchup that would be pretty interesting.  But I’ll leave that to someone else.  For me, this mix tape experiment has already served its purpose by renewing my enthusiasm for two great bands… and, of course, for mix tapes in general!

More to come.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


If you’re a Dario Argento fan, you undoubtedly remember the first time you saw one of his films.  For me it happened in 1996, when I was carrying around Dennis Fischer’s encyclopedic Horror Film Directors 1931 – 1990 like a personal bible.  Fischer’s book introduced me to scores of films I couldn’t find at my local video store (although the 1986 doc Stephen King’s World of Horror was technically my introduction to Argento), and every time I visited a new mom and pop rental shop I looked for films by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Amando de Ossorio, Ulli Lommel.  In those days it wasn’t easy to find foreign horror.

So I vividly remember the day I found Argento’s Suspiria and Fulci’s The Gates of Hell in the same store.  This was my real introduction to Italian horror movies.   I remember watching the opening sequence of The Gates of Hell, where a priest ceremoniously hangs himself in a foggy cemetery.  The strange alchemy of gothic visuals and pulse-pounding synth score cast a genuinely eerie spell.  The first 20 minutes of Suspiria made an even stronger impression.  Argento’s use of primary colors, Goblin’s aural assault, and the generally dreamlike quality of the narrative made it clear that I was experiencing something completely new.  (New to me, anyway.)

The same store offered access to a few related gems: Argento’s Trauma, Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Demons 2, and a robust selection of Michele Soavi films (The Sect, The Church, Stage Fright and Cemetery Man).  This was a mixed bag of films, but it heightened my brief obsession with Eurohorror.  Around the same time, the twisted saints at Anchor Bay Entertainment began releasing their own Eurohorror Collection, with a particular emphasis on Argento’s “classics.”  I snapped up the new titles as soon as they became available: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was released in 1998; Phenomena and Tenebrae in 1999, Deep Red and Inferno in 2000, and Opera in 2001.  By the time Opera came out, I had seen most of Argento’s later work as well.  I was impressed with The Stendhal Syndrome, in spite of its hamfisted DVD presentation by Troma, and enthralled by the first fifteen minutes of Sleepless, which I saw at a film festival in London in the summer of 2001.  For the most part, however, the thrill of discovery faded, and with it some of my enthusiasm for Argento.

So I approached Derek Botelho’s new book The Argento Syndrome mostly with a sense of nostalgia.  I hoped it might rekindle my excitement for the filmmaker's work and, to a certain extent, I was not disappointed.  Botelho’s fascination with Argento started much the way mine did, although he pursued his obsession with more fervor and longer-lasting dedication.  As a result, his book is the deeply personal and highly intelligent tribute of a true fan and a dedicated cinephile.   

Because the author originally planned the career overview as a documentary film, he has plenty of interviews to draw on.  The language barrier (and perhaps a bit too much fawning) precludes a truly illuminating interview with his main subject, but the book hosts plenty of fascinating insights from other actors, writers and filmmakers.  John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon and Mick Garris wax especially poetic about the nature of Argento’s “dream logic.”  Gordon insightfully alludes to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and Carpenter offers a positively brilliant rumination on the philosophical differences between Argento and fellow filmmaker Luis Bunuel.  (I love Carpenter more than ever, knowing that he’s a huge fan of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.  It’s also fascinating to hear him talk about the influence of Deep Red on Halloween 2.)

And there’s no question that Botelho knows his subject, offering a concise tutorial on the filmmaker’s gialli influences and an illuminating analysis of the development of his unique aesthetic (which, according to the author, began with Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and started becoming repetitive as early as Phenomena).  Unfortunately he doesn’t have much to say about the influence of Mario Bava, but perhaps that’s intentional.  It would be difficult to compete with Tim Lucas’s brilliant contextualization of Italian horror cinema in All the Colors of the Dark, although a few references to that groundbreaking work might have been appropriate. 

Naturally, Suspiria gets plenty of attention.  The author wisely presentes it as a European fairy tale, providing more of a literary context than a cinematic one, although he curiously fails to mention Thomas De Quincey’s “Suspiria de Profundis.”  Even more interesting to me is the section on Inferno, a film that the author relates to the writings of Russian mystic George Gurdjieff.  I made a similar comparison between Gurdjieff and Wes Craven in my recent book Beyond Fear, and I am fascinated by the idea that there is an even larger mystical strain in modern horror cinema.  Another particularly worthwhile chapter is “La Dolce Giallo,” a personal travelogue in which the author sets out to explore Rome in the shadow of the film Tenebrae.

The second half of the book, like the latter part of Argento’s career, is less inspiring.  Botelho acknowledges that Opera (1988) is, at present, the filmmaker’s final masterpiece.  He also recognizes that his mentor Maitland McDonough, whose book Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1994) was the first comprehensive overview of the filmmaker’s career, has perhaps wisely avoided writing about the later work.  He quotes McDonough as follows: “I don’t think it’s possible, without being intensely negative, to write at length about the newer work the way I did with his earlier work.”

Botelho isn’t intensely negative, although he’s honest.  He praises The Stendhal Syndrome as “a brave, strange, and challenging film,” but also justly admits that Phantom of the Opera is “hackneyed and nonsensical,” Sleepless is often silly, and The Card Player “flat.”  He offers modest praise for Do You Like Hitchcock? and Argento’s Masters of Horror episodes, and saves his most vitriolic rants for Mother of Tears – the long-awaited sequel to Suspiria and Inferno.  It is interesting to read screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch reflect on the making of that film.  Ditto Sean Keller’s reflections on the subsequent Giallo.  The writers suggest that Argento is no longer interested in the aesthetic schemes and philosophical underpinnings of his early work, noting that he now seems to prefer naturalistic storytelling and surprisingly drab color palettes.  I can’t help but wonder how these films might come across to viewers who have not arrived at them with prior expectations and preconceived notions about what an “Argento film” should be.  Would they stand up better on their own?

In 2012, I attended an Italian film festival in Los Angeles where Dario Argento was the guest of honor.  The main event was a screening of Suspiria at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, followed by a sneak preview of the director’s latest film Dracula 3-D.  I hadn’t seen Suspiria in years.  It was every bit as brilliant and compelling as I remembered it being.   The preview of Dracula 3-D, on the other hand, was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever witnessed.   I admit I saw only snippets of the finished film, but it seemed to me to be completely lacking in a genuine sense of awe and wonder.  A friend sitting next to me responded, “He should have his Master of Horror license revoked.”  Yes, it really was that bad.

Botelho quotes a revealing comment from Argento about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 interpretation of Dracula.  Why, Argento wonders, would anyone be interested in “drug-addled fever dreams”?  It’s an unlikely question from a filmmaker whose best-known work was inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s other confessions of an opium-eater, and whose best work (period) is an inimitable expression of delusion and madness.

So what happened?  Maitland McDonough opines, “In some cases, you’ve said what you have to say.” She wisely alludes to the 2009 film Amer as a true modern example of Argento’s brand of horror.  Botelho, the true fan, holds out hope.  Either way, it’s a somewhat depressing note to end on… one that makes me more inclined to mourn the bad films that Dario Argento has made, instead of celebrating the great ones.  At the end of the day, I have to agree with McDonough’s decision to quit while Argento was ahead.   The most interesting part of the second half of Botelho’s book is the chapter focused on Asia Argento’s directorial efforts. 

I wish that the author had dug deeper into the early work (there is nothing in the book about Argento’s work on spaghetti westerns Five Man Army, Today We Kill Tomorrow We Die, Cemetery Without Crosses, and Once Upon a Time in the West – and I would love to learn more about those) and also focused more on Argento’s influence on other filmmakers—especially Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi—rather than devoting so much ink to Argento’s lesser films.  Fans of the filmmaker will, of course, need this book on their shelf along with McDonough’s, but there may yet be another volume  to be written on the subject.