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June 14, 2006

Hank Williams: Tortured Genius

The inaugural entering class into the Josh Hornik Music Hall of Fame might look something like this:
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Robert Johnson
- Frank Sinatra
- James Brown
- Bob Dylan
- Led Zeppelin
and one more: Hank Williams.

Hank Williams was the first giant of "hillbilly" music, writing many of the greatest songs of heartbreak and loss, creating hits with unmatched regularity, singing with a masterful blue yodel, and bringing freshly-named "country" music to the cities and into the mainstream. (OK, for the last accomplishment, now I think he should maybe be cursed, not praised.)

I just finished Paul Hemphill's short but neatly-told biography of Williams, Lovesick Blues. Where Greil Marcus battered the reader with his poetry, Hemphill's prose aims more at the everyman -- an intentional choice, because his main theme is Hank Williams as the songwriter for the everyman.

The Hank Williams story is pretty familiar, especially with the recent run of musical genius biopics. Growing up with nothing during the Great Depression, Williams found music early, interned on the street with a local street singer, and started drinking in his teen years. Motivated by an ambitious wife (who, Hemphill tells us in some of the more amusing stories, wanted to sing with her husband in a Carter Family-style act but had a horribly unlistenable voice), Williams hustled for radio shows and spots on local country music cavalcades.

Finally growing popular enough to get into a studio and record, Hank joined up with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Music, and together, they began an incredible run of hit-making. A legendary debut at the Grand Ole Opry followed. (A spot on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is still marked to remember where Hank's debut took place.) After a few years of incredible success in music and incredible pain in his personal life (failed marriages, debilitating back pain, and even more debilitating alcoholism), Williams died at only 29 years old.

Here is what I left out of the story: the songs. In his few years of performing and recording, Hank Williams managed to record the following songs and more: Lovesick Blues, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Cold Cold Heart, Hey Good Lookin', Jambalaya, You Win Again, Kaw-Liga, and Your Cheatin' Heart. As recorded by himself, his songs were giant hits. But they were also covered by other country singers, and countless singers from other genres (Tony Bennett had a hit with Cold Cold Heart, Elvis did Cheatin' Heart, etc.)

Without whitewashing Hank's faults -- his drinking, especially, but also his womanizing -- Hemphill remains sympathetic to Williams. He wasn't perfect, true, but his problems stemmed from other things, like his back pain (he suffered from untreated spina bifida) and bad choices with women. And Hemphill doesn't skimp on praise for the Williams catalog (though, to be honest, I felt his book could have used more firsthand accounts of the power of Williams' songwriting).

If Hollywood hasn't started on the Hank Williams biopic yet, it should. His life was interesting (the twist could be that he never got clean, so we could avoid the tedious drying out scene) and his music warrants a tribute much more than Johnny Cash's, and at least as much as Ray Charles'.

Read the book, or, even better, buy the greatest hits on CD.

Posted by JoshHornik at 12:27 PM | Comments (0)

June 13, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

One thing is for certain: If Al Gore comes back to run for President in '08 and wins, we will have the most Powerpoint-skilled presidency in history!

Mr. Gore shows off his skills with the slideshow in the new global warming thriller An Inconvenient Truth. The movie is currently playing in theaters, though I think it would fit a little better on the Discovery Network or PBS. Let's face it, I prefer my big-screen entertainments a little less "lecture-y".

This movie suffers from too much educational content and too little action and humor (though, thankfully, there is some of the latter). As they were basically making a "concert film" of an Al Gore global warming scarefest, the filmmakers tried to break up the lecture with short vignettes about Al Gore's past or action shots of Gore creating his slides. The pieces about Gore himself seemed out of place (save one anecdote about the cancer death of his sister) and the action shots and ponderous close-ups of Gore with the weight of the quickly-heating world on his shoulders seemed ridiculous.

Having said all that, I highly recommend seeing the movie. The content of Gore's lecture is fascinating, at times frightening, and of vast importance. What Gore does, with expertly created graphics, is provide the clearest explanation I have heard of why the Earth is getting warmer and what could happen if it continues. Hint: If your grandchildren have children, tell them not to bother having kids of their own.

Although there are flaws, including a few overtly manipulative moments. (Lingering on Hurricane Katrina is bad, showing a sad computer-animated polar bear feebly attempting to climb the last remaining square foot of floating ice is worse.) Also, when one hears about the ice ages and warming going back millions of years, once can't help consider whether the human race is at the precipice of extinction -- a wholly natural event. In this case, it would have been nice to hear of any species that have approached extinction and managed to make their way out of it (though I don't think any other species has quite the tools we have to affect such an escape, nor the vision to see it coming.)

The movie mostly avoids politics, though not completely. Understandable, since I'm sure a full-length lecture could be made on the current administration's horrific track record on global warming (which amounts, sadly, to selling out the entire planet for the short-term profits of a few industries). However, this is definitely not going to be sweeping Gore back into power. It makes him appear to be the one-issue man he was accused of being in 1992, even if he is right about that one issue.

In conclusion, this is a movie everyone should be made to watch. I know I've learned my lesson (he says, as he embarks on a 7,000 mile gasoline-powered drive across country).

Posted by JoshHornik at 02:56 PM | Comments (1)

June 06, 2006

I saw Fred Stoller: 2 points

I made a quick trip to Los Angeles last week and had hoped to spot a celebrity, since my blog has been somewhat lacking of late. Unfortunately, the one person I saw just barely qualifies. Fred Stoller, barely a celebrity
In any case, that person was Fred Stoller, standup comedian and frequent TV show guest star.

For those who've forgotten, we start him off with 5 points.

First, the fact that it took me half an hour on the Internet to find his name means he's not exactly a superstar. -3 points.

I saw him at the Farmer's Market at The Grove. +1 for being a good spot to see celebrities. However, he was with two people who were both unrecognizable. -1 point, because celebrities are supposed to hang out with other celebrities. (What, Ray Romano wasn't available?)

-2 points of beauty factor, for obvious reasons.
-2 points Star Wars factor.

+1 for guesting on Everybody Loves Raymond, but -1 for being a very annoying character (though, yes, that was intentional). +1 for writing two episodes of Seinfeld.

And finally, +2 for being a frequent guest on the gone-but-not-forgotten Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. By the way, Dr. Katz is finally out on DVD! (Season 1, at least.)

Anyway, final score: 2 points. Hardly worth the 6-hour drive from San Francisco.

Posted by JoshHornik at 11:29 PM | Comments (0)