Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Banapple Gas”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

cat

In between answering to Steven Demetre Georgiou and Yusuf Islam, the performer best known as Cat Stevens was once at the point in his career when it seemed a good idea to release a concept album. He’d enjoyed enormous commercial success through the first half of the nineteen-seventies, marked by multiplatinum albums and ten singles that registered in the Billboard Top 40. Keeping with the times required ambition. It was the era of prog rock and hefty artistic statements in pop music. He’d already taken a stab at such pretensions with the first side of his 1973 album, Foreigner, which was comprised entirely of an eighteen-minute song suite. Numbers, released in 1975, was yet more ambitious.

A booklet included with the album lays out the particulars.

“Further away from our Earth than it is possible to imagine, there was a galaxy,” the tale begins. “And almost in the centre of the galaxy was the little planet of Polygor.”

The chief export of Polygor was numbers, which were manufactured in a subbasement of a large castle and then distributed throughout the universe. Society is thrown into disarray when a slave named Jzero starts questioning well-established routines. Somehow, this informs the song “Banapple Gas,” which kicks off the second side, which is labelled “SIDE 0,” evidently in tribute to the story’s transformational figure.

There’s not a whole lot about numbers to be found in the song’s lyrics, but there are plenty of descriptions of the trippy experiences that result from huffing the substance of the title: “Does it help you smile more to wake up/ Make you happy just to be alive?/ Well I don’t know if it makes you happy/ But it must be healthy/ ‘Cause it’s certified.” According to The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, by Thomas Nordegren, “banapple gas” is lingo for amyl nitrite, as are amys, crypt, liquid pearls, snapdragons, and snappers.

Released as the first and only single from Numbers, “Banapple Gas” peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100. It represented the end of his run as a hitmaker. He took only one more song into the Top 40 before his early retirement from the music biz in order to be of service to the Muslim community, a life’s works, it must be noted, that included some highly problematic moments.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Playing Catch-Up — Crime of Passion; They Live By Night; The V.I.P.s

crime

Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957). This sordid little number casts Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Ferguson, a San Francisco advice columnist who abandons her career after falling love with and marrying a Los Angeles police lieutenant (Sterling Hayden). It turns out Kathy’s not well-equipped to settle into a domestic life of inane chit chat in the kitchen with the other wives of police force members, and her stir crazy energy compel her to psychological manipulations and finally straight out lawbreaking. Gerd Oswald directs the film with a ribald cunning, but it’s of course Stanwyck who gives the film its reason for being. Coming at a point when her career prospects were dwindling, Stanwyck tears into the role with an clear appreciation for its wild character twists, no matter how improbable.

 

they live by night

They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1957). Considered one of the cornerstone offerings of classic Hollywood film noir, They Live By Night has its place in the canon for clear, unassailable reasons. Nicholas Ray’s direction smothers the visuals with shadowy mood and the story of young fugitives in love is hard and brutal as crags of shattered granite. The film is also, I’m duty bound to report, a little bit dull. As great as Ray is at inking in the grim, heavy atmosphere, he’s lax — or maybe disinterested — in twisting the tension ever tighter. That strips the film, for all its richness and steel-eyed fervor, of the sort of narrative drive that makes the best film noir offerings so compelling.

 

the vips

The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith, 1963). The second film to pair Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, reaching theaters around three months after the notorious Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s is built around the crafty conceit of several travelers having their time-sensitive plans dashed when the airport is fogged in. Screenwriter Terence Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith cut between a handful of plots (including one about an Australian business magnate that boasts a very nice performance by Rod Taylor), but the most loving attention is reserved for Burton and Taylor as a couple whose marriage is on the brink of collapse. The combustible, passionate pair were keeping the gossip magazine business afloat at the time, and the Asquith takes evident pleasure in giving their scenes a probing intimacy that truly feels like voyeurism dramatized. But the film largely works, even without the charge of novelty. It’s especially fun to watch Burton, without tempering his approach one bit, level his Shakespearean boldness at emotional contrivances straight out of soap opera,

From the Archive — Friends with Money

friends

On the occasion of Nicole Holofcener’s latest film making its debut in theaters and on Netflix this weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote of her third feature. Friends with Money is arguably the writer-director’s weakest film, and it still has a lot to like in it. Others can hop onto their soapboxes and offer anguished diatribes about the harms inflicted by the Netflix model on art house theaters. They’re not entirely wrong. But as far as I’m concerned, if the streaming service has an approach that allows creators like Holofcener to keep plying their trade at an increasingly inhospitable time for smaller films in the theatrical marketplace, there is heroism at play. 

I don’t think Friends with Money is actually about having friends with money. While the film is largely designed as an ensemble, Jennifer Aniston is pretty clearly the lead. She plays a thirtysomething woman who is working as a maid to make ends meet after quitting her job as a prep school teacher, perhaps in part because of the wounded pride that comes from toiling away for teenagers driving cars that are worth more than an educator’s yearly salary. On top of it all, her financial struggles aren’t reflected in the lives of her three closest friends, all of whom are successful enough to do things like erect a pricey addition on the top of their house or openly debate which charity is most deserving of that extra two million that’s lying around the house. The set-up definitely feels like it’s leading up to film in which schisms created between people with vastly different bank statements are a central driving theme; class warfare on a personal level.

But that movie never really emerges. There are some nicely drawn scenes scattered throughout, such as when Aniston talks to one of her friends about the investment required to take classes that could lead to a new career path, but it rarely feels like the film is digging as deeply as it could. Maybe that’s because Aniston’s character usually comes across as little more than directionless: there’s no weight to her problems, no sense of the day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck struggles that come from working on the front lines of the service industry. She cleans strangers’ homes for money and that’s enough to make us feel her pain, or so it seems. Maybe it’s because there’s so much other ground to cover, so many other corners of the film’s various stories to dig into. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener creates compelling, deeply considered characters, and it must be tempting to follow them wherever they lead, whether or not it adheres to the overarching idea that’s being conveyed.

Holofcener’s previous film was 2001’s smart Lovely and Amazing, which may have skewed expectations for how effectively this new film would cohere. While packed with characters, Lovely managed to continually return to female self-image, particularly body image. It may have seemed a little aimless at times, but every element actually enhanced and enlivened Holofcener’s points, and she demonstrated a dramatist’s skill to keep the proceedings from turning into an awkward op-ed piece on celluloid.

To be fair, I admired Lovely and Amazing far more in retrospect than I did right after walking out of the theater. Holofcener’s lack of bombast or arty inclinations can dull that initial impression, but the intellect of her writing proves more resonant. Maybe that will happen with this film, as well. There certainly is plenty to like. Giving meaty roles to Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack merits applause right off the bat, and Holofcener’s dialogue remains as sharp as razor-wire (here she shows a special skill for constructing the escating pettiness of an argument). Yet, while praising the script, it’s worth noting that her writing suffers from a newfound flaw of concocting endings that are too cutesy and pat.

So, what is the film about? Whether or not it’s Holofcener’s intent, it seems to be about the judgments people casually make about other people, the speculation about everything from marital stability to personal hygiene choices. In Holofcener’s view, no one forgoes this unseemly guesswork. It’s the same if you’re driving away from a friendly dinner in a battered old Honda or a big, new, top-of-the-line S.U.V. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether or not your friends have money.

One for Friday — The Sicilian Vespers, “Baccala”

vespers

Thirty years ago, in 1988, the Sicilian Vespers released their self-titled debut LP. Comprised of Pittsburgh brothers David and Francis Rifugiato, the band delivered bouncily jagged punk pop music with notably off-kilter lead vocals. I take great delight in imagining the reactions at first listening of college radio programmers across the nation. The needle drops onto opening track “Baccala,” a thumping backbeat is quickly joined by a rusty razor guitar riff, all is good. Then, about ten seconds in, David’s vocals surge forward, all nasal and keening as he sings, “It’s a dumb baccala!/ Baccala!/ It’s a buncha dead fish!”

What little attention the Sicilian Vespers received at the time often centered on attempts to describe the mellifluous sound of David’s voice. Cash Box wrote he “sounds like gulps helium before stepping up to the microphone” and “sounds like a cartoon character,” eventually concluding he suggests “a completely tone-deaf Johnny Rotten with a cold.” The Chicago Tribune kept it a little simpler in a more appreciative review, invoking the babbling lunacy of vintage Jerry Lewis.

Many years later, when Francis (going by Fran) had moved on to other, less purposefully abrasive music pursuits, he acknowledged that the Sicilian Vespers were something of a gag, calling the band’s material “tongue-in-cheek experimental music.” Sicilian Vespers was right there in heavy rotation when I joined my college radio station. I don’t know how seriously I or my cohorts took their banging tracks, but many of us unabashedly adored the raucousness they delivered. For me, the duo’s album represented everything I hoped college radio would be. Simply put, I was getting a chance to discover music I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Listen or download —> The Sicilian Vespers, “Baccala”

(Disclaimer: I feel quite confident Sicilian Vespers is no longer available for purchase in a physical format that would properly compensate both the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently owned record store. On the other hand, the full release does seem to be available at for digital acquisition at CD Baby, presumably putting money directly in the pockets of the Rifugiatos. I’m sharing this track as encouragement to go out and buy more of their music, not as a replacement for doing so. Although I feel this qualifies as fair use, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Golden Words — “Elegant Iggy”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

elegant iggy

Taxi, season 4, episode 20: “Elegant Iggy,” written by Ken Estin, aired 1982.

From its debut, in 1978, the high quality of Taxi was practically unquestioned. Created by James L. Brooks and a trio of his Mary Tyler Moore Show collaborators (Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger), the series was an immediate critical darling and an Emmy magnet. Taxi was a nominee for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of the five years it was on the air, claiming the prize its first three seasons. It was also a hit, at least initially, claiming a spot in the Neilsen Top 10 for the 1978-79 television season. (To put in perspective how fleeting ratings success could be in the nineteen-seventies, among the shows that outperformed Taxi that year were The Ropers and Angie.)

Taxi also figured prominently in the writing categories, collecting eight nominations during its run. Although the series was ostensibly an ensemble piece set in a unique workplace, when it came to teleplays favored by the Television Academy, one character clearly stood out. Five of the last six of those writing nods were for episodes that centered on Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd), the burned out cabbie who first appeared in a season one episode that featured him presiding over a wedding of the taxi company’s foreign-born mechanic, Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman). Quickly determining they’d struck comic gold with the character — especially in Lloyd’s sputtering, sweetly addled performance — the producers made Reverend Jim a regular by the second season and he become a dominant figure, bringing an absurdist streak to an otherwise fairly strait-laced show.

“Elegant Iggy” is a perfect encapsulation of how easy it was to generate laughs while Jim was central. The plot is set in motion when Jim is given tickets to a classical music performance by one of his fares. After a brief debate among coworkers angling for the seat beside him at the erudite affair, Jim opts to bring Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) as his companion. Although Jim cleans up well, donning a dapper suit in lieu of his usual heavily scuffed denim ensemble, his eccentricities still prove embarrassing to Elaine when she encounters a wealthy acquaintance (stalwart TV guest character actress Fran Ryan) who she hopes to enlist to provide funding for her fledgling art gallery. The potential patron invites both Elaine and Jim to a gala event she’s hosting.

The conflict of the story rests in Elaine’s fretting about the ways Jim’s behavior among the high society crowd could jeopardize her shot at much needed investments held up against her devotion to her friend, arguably the most innocent soul in the glum cab company. There’s nothing all that profound about the story’s progression, so the award-worthy qualities are found in the dialogue. Writing for Jim, whose intellectual edges were buffed down to literalist nubs, providing the opportunity for wordplay that was like a gentler version of Marx Brothers’ inspired verbal lunacy. Without ever seeming like manipulation to provide a pathway to a punchline, the teleplay sets up Jim for an inspired twist of comic misunderstanding over and over again. As expected, his social stumbling eventually shifts to a day-saving triumph. It is inevitable, and yet, because of wise structuring of his confusion, never quite the obvious outcome.

Writing to Lloyd’s performance was enough of sure bet for Emmy attention that one of the four competing nominees “Elegant Iggy” bested to take the prize was another Jim-centric episode, “Jim the Psychic” (which, to be fair, was more of a comedic showcase for Danny DeVito, playing insidious dispatcher Louie De Palma with delirious heights of anxious paranoia in the face of Jim’s dire prognostications). That same year, Lloyd also won the first of his two Emmys for the role.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

The Long Haul —Keri Russell in The Americans

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

elizabeth season 1 knife

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans (2013-2018)

When The Americans made its debut on FX, a mere five years ago, its premise of Russian agents operating covertly on U.S. soil seemed like almost quaint in its Cold War retrospection. Set during the nineteen-eighties, an era when President Ronald Reagan set rhetoric against the U.S.S.R. to a low boil, the series brought a bruising authenticity in its depiction of street level spy trade, but the yet tougher drama is reserved for the family dynamics of the Russian agents who’ve set up residence in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.

Series creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner, Joel Fields, were always clear in their intent to use the high stakes of geopolitical intrigue to examine the equally fraught terrain of human relationships. It was part metaphor and part wry parallel. And as the show really found its thematic footing, the approach provided opportunities for its actors to dig into uniquely layered characters. Some — like Matthew Rhys and season two addition Costa Ronin — were strong from their first moments, and others — notably Noah Emmerich and Holly Taylor — developed crafty complexities as the the series proceeded. Even as widely distributed praise is merited, no performance across the run of the series was as consistently impressive as that of Keri Russell.

As Elizabeth Jennings, the matriarch of the implanted nuclear family with a secret mission, Russell arguably rides the most pronounced character arc of the series — from a unyielding true believer of the early episodes to a weary survivor at the end — but the fiercely contained nature of her performance is necessarily free of the showy moments that signal a change in inner being. Transformation plays out in flickers across her tensed face, certainty giving way to doubt with mere tremors of conflict in her bearing.

The character never becomes warm, exactly, never succumbing to a familiarized appreciation for the United States like her partner, cover spouse, and eventually actual husband, Philip (Rhys). He finds stabilizing solace in touchy-feely encounter groups, but Elizabeth is steely to the end. She does, however, grow to have affection for her family. Much of the agony of the later episodes comes from the strange tangle of emotions she feels for those around her, especially as she grooms her daughter, Paige (Taylor), to join the family business even as her prior ruthlessness ebbs when it comes time to share the most unsavory details.

Gifted with a good length of time to develop Elizabeth’s shifts and intelligent writing that generally favored nuance over clamor, Russell takes a character that could have been a gimmick and makes her piercingly true. As The Americans drew to a close, suddenly against headlines that seemed to forecast the fraught plot lines that could drive a rebooted version a couple decades from now, the facile observation touted the unexpected newfound relevance. Such critical punditry foolishly elided the fundamental spirit of the series. More errantly, it shortchanged the impact of Russell’s performance. She already made the material real as the daily sunset through sheer force of her acting.

elizabeth season 6

Other posts this series can be found by clicking on the tag “The Long Haul.”

Programming Note — TV Week

static

True story: When I was a wee child, springing from bed far too early once per week because I was excited to watch Saturday morning cartoons, I soothed the anxiousness that arose when I switched on the set to be greeted with pre-broadcast-day static by convincing myself I was watching an especially basic animated program comprised of Snoopy and Woodstock in a physical brawl.

Anyway….

Two of my favorite current television creators are Michael Schur and Vince Gilligan. They create distinctively different programs, but they have one peculiar, mildly masochistic trait in common: They love boxing themselves into scenarios for which they don’t have a plan for handy extrication. They set up cliffhanger plot turns, particularly in season finales, without an exit plan.

The tricky brinksmanship doesn’t always work in their favor (Gilligan still laments the machine gun in the trunk in the fifth season of Breaking Bad), but I am sympathetic to the writerly need to establish a deadline or other stakes that can’t be easily escaped. With that in mind — and, admittedly, with a certain mental weariness that prevents the creation of anything more intricate or robust this evening — I am declaring this television week at Coffee for Two, in recognition of the annual presentation of the Emmys taking place one week hence from the point in time that finds me typing these words.

That means — and here’s the potential self-sabotage — that not only do I need to come up with a new installment of the regular television-related feature in this humble digital space, but I also must figure out two more offerings before the arrival of “One for Friday” provides me rescue. I think I maybe-kinda-sorta know how I will conquer this self-bestowed puzzle, but I also have a little bit of a shruggy emoticon feeling right now. Maybe this will be fun. Maybe disaster looms.

Either way, stay tuned.