Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

Al Stewart in Chicago

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Over the years I’ve met a few people who so dislike Al Stewart, the mere mention of his name leads to something akin to a gag reflex.  During freshman year in college, my old friend Tom, upon hearing that I owned a greatest hits CD of said Stewart, grimaced as if he’d just sampled a plate of cow dung.  Nevertheless, I continued to be a casual fan of Stewart, having purchased four of his records on vinyl – all of them either used or cutouts (remember those?) – but not going beyond 24 Carrots.  When Russians & Americans came out in 1984, I was tempted to take the plunge with my hard-earned money from Kolb’s Garden Center, but instead opted for Elton John’s Breaking Hearts. 

Seven years later, when I learned that Stewart was playing not three blocks away from my apartment at a tiny stage on Cathedral Square in Milwaukee on a sunny afternoon – not exactly the venue or the time of a major rock star – I figured, what the hell.  I walked alone, took a seat, and Stewart took the stage with accompanying musician Peter White and played a great set in front of a sparse crowd, but what stuck with me most were the haunting images of a then-unreleased song called “Trains,” another of Stewart’s history lessons, culminating in the tragic turns that locomotives took in the carrying out of Nazi orders during the Holocaust.

Last night, I was once again graced with a fine concert by Stewart, this time at the City Winery in Chicago, the first of two nights with a particular album highlighted.  I opted to see The Year of the Cat from 1976 rather than Past, Present and Future from three years prior.  What can I say?  My fandom of Stewart’s catalog only goes so deep, but it was great to hear the man once again after twenty-seven years.

Opening with three tracks (“Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” and “Time Passages”) prior to delving into the evening’s featured album, 72-year-old Stewart’s voice sounded rather thin, but since he never had a powerhouse voice to begin with, all that was truly missed was some of the high range, and he had to weave in alternative melodies on “Time Passages” and many of the songs from Year of the Cat.  Dressed in dress slacks and long-sleeve button-down shirt, he looked more like a banker on lunch-break than an artist, but Stewart wasn’t even hip in the 1970s, so what would one expect when he finally reached his 70s?

What Stewart lacked in singing voice he made up for in telling stories, offering several insights between songs that kept the audience (my son may have won the prize for youngest attendee) engaged and – often – laughing.  Stewart mentioned that for a folk-rock historian, having a hit was not enviable, and so he began Year of the Cat with a song about a naval battle in 1591 (“Lord Grenville”) followed by another history lesson with “On the Border.”  Alas, the second song was a hit, as was the album’s title track, perhaps making Stewart very uncool among his folk-rock brethren.  He also told a story of how he began to play the guitar in the middle of nowhere, England, only to eventually find another guitarist nearby named Robert Fripp, the eventual virtuoso of King Crimson fame.  Not a bad find, even if Stewart ultimately rebuffed Fripp’s insistence on learning jazz chords. Introducing the song “Broadway Hotel,” Stewart explained that the song was about a seduction at a hotel in Portland, Oregon.  He waited a beat, then added: “I highly recommend it.”

Joined on-stage was Stewart’s opening and accompanying band, Chicago’s very own Empty Pockets, a stellar act whose six-song opening set of tight harmonies and soulful melodies fit well into the evening’s performances.  The standout for me was guitarist Josh Solomon, who nailed every part required of Stewart’s catalogue and then some, including a fine electric piano solo that surpassed anything I could have performed.  (I hate it when guitarists can also play keys better than me!)  Also on-stage was multi-instrumentalist Marc Macisso, who hammed it up for the appreciative audience, particularly during the signature sax solos of “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat.”

Gone are the days when a melodic history lesson could become a radio hit, but for one night in Chicago, history was cool again.  I had asked several people to joined me for the evening, but none took the bait, and my son, who knew little of Stewart prior to the concert, said afterwards, “I’m glad your friends said no to the show.”  So there you are, Al.  You’ve earned the appreciation of a 16-year-old.  Not a bad feat for an aging rocker.

Rob Lowe in Chicago

I purchased tickets to Lowe’s “Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Live” on a lark.  I emailed my wife last December and wrote: “This could either be really fun or embarrassingly bad.  What do you think?”  We decided that either way, it would be worth the price of admission.  It was, and not because the show was a trainwreck the way, say, Lowe’s singing performance at the 1989 Academy Awards show was.  Instead, the evening was a perfect mix of anecdotes, history and funny one-liners, with a few moments of enlightenment thrown in.  Unlike Carol Burnett, whose talking tour I attended two years ago, Lowe didn’t shamelessly self-promote his book and he presented a tighter, better-rehearsed performance. 

I’m not a Rob Lowe fan, per se – not the way many in the audience at Saturday night’s event at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago were.  The woman next to me, who’s vision was blocked during a pre-show slideshow that briefly projected Lowe’s shirtless cover from Vanity Fair, went to her phone, brought up the photo, and kept it as her screen saver.  There were fans holding signs, fans who applauded to even the most obscure movie reference, and fans who jumped up and down when the spotlight illuminated Mr. Lowe after the slideshow concluded with a scene from West Wing. 

It felt slightly canned at times, especially when the audience didn’t react quite the way he expected (his story about meeting Lucille Ball at the same ’89 Oscars was really cool, but when he revealed her photo, it didn’t quite get the reception that it probably should have, which left him forced to instill meaning more forcefully), but the show was highly entertaining, partly because Lowe is – simply put – so damn likable. 

These types of talking tours – which I wish more actors would conduct – are successful only if the audience can truly relate to the actor, and there’s no better way than for the performer to master the art of self-deprecation.  Lowe made fun of his looks, which so often capitalized on his more feminine side – especially early in his career – and his “Midwestern people-pleaser” personality that has sometimes led him to say yes to gigs that were downright embarrassing.  His description of Barry Levinson’s facial response to Lowe’s aforementioned 1989 Oscar performance was priceless.

Lowe can do more than facial expressions: his impersonations Saturday night included Bill Clinton, Cary Grant, Robert Wagner, Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Cruise, who sounds like as big of a douchebag in real life as many of us suspect he is.  But Lowe’s show wasn’t a celebrity-bashing performance.  He made it clear that assholes generally don’t last long in the industry, and that the bigger the star, the nicer they are.  This is good to hear, and it sounds like Lowe, with his modest roots in Dayton, Ohio, hasn’t let success go to his head.  He deftly answered fan’s questions during the Q&A portion of the evening, and he lovingly talked about his wife of twenty-seven years, his two adult sons, his father who was in attendance, and the people who helped him during his recovery from alcohol and drug dependence.

The breadth of Lowe’s career is astonishing for an actor who’s only 54 years old.  It’s already spanned forty years and has included numerous movies and TV shows you might have forgotten about.  Remember Brothers and Sisters?  How about Dr. Vegas, a show that lasted all of six episodes and denied Lowe a chance at staring in another little program called Grey’s Anatomy?  He admitted that his two most important works were West Wing, which led the cast to a meet and greet with President Clinton in the oval office, and The Outsiders, a telling of the classic S. E. Hinton novel that springboarded the careers of not only Lowe, but Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane and Matt Dillon.  When asked about his favorite movie and favorite movie location, Lowe quickly responded About Last Night, filmed in Chicago.

I could kick myself for not having seen shows by Carrie Fisher, Nora Ephron and Peter Gallagher, and I’m glad my wife and I decided to take a risk with Lowe.  I wasn’t exactly a fan when I entered the building, but left the theater with a bigger appreciation for the man.

The Florida Project

A month ago, I lamented about this year’s best picture Oscar nominees and listed the few movies I saw in 2017 that I thought deserved recognition, only one of which made the Oscar cut: Get Out.  I’d like to add one more movie released in 2017 that should have been recognized for more than just a best supporting actor nomination for Willem Dafoe: The Florida Project, a low-budget film released last fall to rave reviews, though if you blinked, you might have missed its theatrical release.

The Florida Project is one of those rare films that I gravitate toward – short on plot, long on characters and realistic slices of life.  It brings to mind some other films like Beginners, Nebraska, Lovely and Amazing, The Squid and the Whale, Boyhood and the Joe Swanberg films (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire, All the Light in the Sky, and the like), though its portrayal of the American poor through children’s eyes has almost nothing in common with those films.  In that sense, it’s like no other film I’ve seen.

Director Sean Baker’s portrait of poor families living in a rundown motel outside of Disney World is captivating, largely due to the amazing talents of child actors Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malik and Valeria Cotto.  Much of the film is shown through their perspective, as they stroll from motel to ice cream stand to waffle house to cow pasture to abandoned homes.  I marveled at some of the dialogue between the children and am curious about how much was scripted and how much was simply kids being kids, as they express wonderment of a fallen tree that’s kept growing or take delight in sharing an ice cream cone.

The adults are worthy of note too, and not just the incomparable Willem Dafoe – wonderful as the motel manager who, without sentiment, protects the lives of his poor tenants in ways large and small, a more important figure in their lives than the mobile food pantry volunteers who hand out bread in the motel parking lot.  Bria Vinaite, who plays mom to Prince’s Halley, is also a standout as an aimless adult doing whatever she needs to do to pay next week’s rent, including using her daughter to hawk wholesale perfume in a country club parking lot.  Yes, she’s a neglectful parent, but I found her also to be sympathetic, as her love for Halley shines through at times, though not always in the most conventional way.

The film shows a side of life that we don’t often get to see – the American poor, eking out a living, relying on each other for basic niceties, not having the luxury of caring about politics or the environment or the economy.  Surviving is all they have time for.  Like my experience watching the film Boyhood, I kept waiting for the Hollywood dramatic turn: a car crash, a molestation or a murder.  There were times when the kids were running through a parking lot or crossing a street, and I winced, expecting one of the children to land on the hood of a car.  But like Boyhood, The Florida Project doesn’t take the easy way out.  Many lives are crushingly difficult, not because of life-altering events, but because of the harsh, daily grind, when one day bleeds into the next, never exercising the difficulties of the day preceding it.

Often, I value a movie on how much I’d like to see it again, and I was taken with something Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote about the movie.  He was more harsh in his assessment of the characters the film portrays, but he still loved the film.  He writes: ”…you’ll most likely not want to see (it) twice, but seeing it once is an experience you’ll not soon forget.”

I think he and I agree on this point.  I’m not sure I’ll be eager to rent this movie again, even for all it’s attributes.  But if you haven’t seen it once, you’re missing out.

A Poor Batch of Oscar Nominees

Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences?  I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot.  Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.  In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.

Not so this year.  I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.

Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:

Get Out

Wind River

All the Money in the World

I, Tonya

Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie.  It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win.  Which means it probably won’t.

Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?)  Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.

Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.

The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc.  I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit. 

Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter.  I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers.  A missed opportunity.

Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed.  Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill.  Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s.  Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb.  Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture.  When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men ­– The Post is a disappointment.

My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen.  I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family!  Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.

Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year.  Not bad!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously.  In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.

And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example).  I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.

Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender?  I don’t know.  It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen.  I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.

But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).

Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved