And Now For Something Completely Different

Back in the 90’s when the Internet was not what it is now I was everywhere I could possibly be. I was on America Online back when it had no web presence and was only an app you ran on your computer. Same for Prodigy and CompuServe (where I was thrilled to have a personal exchange with the late Roger Ebert). And then there was Delphi which as I recall was so primitive that it had no graphical interface. It was pure line commands.

It was on Delphi that I wrote a “column” that no one read with a name along the lines of “Tales of a Tuber”, playing on the “boob tube” notion of TV and the couch potato (hence tuber) reputation of those who liked TV.  It was my way of acting out my fantasy of being a critic for TV Guide.  Back then, we didn’t blog. I suppose for its time it was a blog of sorts.

Now I have a blog devoted to what I call social commentary but it has become narrowly focused on politics over the years. Every now and then I’ve wanted to take a small break and engage in some pop culture criticism. Until today, I have resisted the urge.  For my readers who crave politics, sorry to disappoint but you’ll have to indulge this one departure.

Beware the Understudy

John_Oliver_2009If the “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central were a Broadway play, over the past few weeks you would have heard an announcer say “tonight the part of Jon Stewart will be played by John Oliver”. Stewart decided to take the summer off to film a movie leaving in charge one of the Daily Show “correspondents” John Oliver as host. I’ve always been a fan of Oliver but I was still skeptical whether this hosting gig was a bridge too far. Oliver has not disappointed.

First, there is an added element of mockery at play when American politics is skewered by a man with a British accent. Sure, Jon did fine with his New Jersey accent, but the British one seems to twist the knife just that much more. Oliver also adds an element of silly that lightens things up such as the night when he asked how we could possibly know when to give “coup aid” if we can’t define when a coup has occurred. As soon as he said “coup aid” the Kool-Aid big pitcher mascot crashed through the wall of the set. It’s almost Pythonesque even if not quite as sophisticated.

The only remaining test for Oliver to pass for me to declare him a fully deserving inheritor of the Stewart crown was to see if he could give a tough interview. That finally happened last Thursday night when the guest was New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. After discussing her pet cause (sexual harassment in the military), Oliver then asked her to put his mind at ease about something. He said it troubled him that the Senator was at the overlap in the “Venn diagram” of politics and big money. Gillibrand stared at him like a deer in the headlights and evaded the question, perhaps not even understanding it as abstractly as Oliver put it. So Oliver took a second crack at it and spelled it out — Gillibrand’s number one donor was Goldman Sachs with JP Morgan coming in at number 2. He asked what she had to do to get that money. With the question asked more explicitly, Gillibrand still hemmed and hawed and God bless him, Oliver took one more shot at it asking whether the Senator’s opinions on big banks get her the money or does she form these opinions deliberately to get the money.  It was a brilliant take down of a bullshit politician and yes my friends, a take down of a liberal politician.

Jon Stewart may have chosen the wrong dude to temporarily take over his show. I am thinking that Stewart’s return in the Fall will actually be a let down. One thing is certain. Comedy Central will have to create a ninety minute block with Oliver hosting his own news show between Stewart and Colbert. John Oliver has earned it big time.

Screw Rock and Roll, I’m a Country Singer

Creedence_Clearwater_Revival_1968There is one album (yes this 52 year old man still says “album”, not CD) released this year that has received totally confounding critical acclaim. I am talking about “Wrote a Song for Everyone” the collaborative work of John Fogerty with a bunch of guest singers who I assume admire his body of work. I say the acclaim is confounding because I don’t see how any self-respecting fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival could possibly listen to this album without lunging for a barf bag. Two songs stand out as worth a listen. The title track (originally from “Green River”) is a nice new take on the song with the addition of a female voice care of Miranda Lambert. The other “Someday Never Comes” (originally from CCR’s last studio album “Mardi Gras”) adds the ingenious touch of splitting the vocal between Fogerty and guest singer Dawes where Fogerty plays father and Dawes plays son  and the tale of generational paternal neglect gets an added dose of poignancy.

After that, you might as well stop listening. The beauty of CCR’s catalog is that many of their hits could indeed have been country songs but for those of us who are not big fans of country, it was like getting medicine with a huge dose of sugar. A great example is “Lodi” from the album “Green River” which has a mournful vocal with a country feel that still has just enough pop to it to go down easy. The remake? OH … MY … GOD.  Fogerty turns it into a country boogie with an instrumental backing that totally contradicts the despondent lyrics.

Bob Seger guests on “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (from “Cosmo’s Factory”) and I swear the piano sounds exactly like Seger’s “Against the Wind”.  Jennifer Hudson does her awful Tina Turner impersonation on “Proud Mary” (from “Bayou Country”) before the song changes pace abruptly and introduces a fiddle.

Oh yes, that damn fiddle. It’s on almost every song making you long for the original recordings. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” from “Pendulum” starts off with potential until that damn country twang seeps in. Even when Fogerty doesn’t botch his own work with country, he can’t leave well enough alone. While I enjoyed the duet with Lambert on “Wrote a Song for Everyone” I could not understand for the life of me why the song, midway, lurches into a faster tempo so Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine can launch into a rock guitar solo.

CCR’s last studio album “Mardi Gras” foretold Fogerty’s fondness for country music and he’s indulged that fascination in some of his solo work. That’s fine and dandy. If John wants to be a country artist, more power to him. But don’t, I repeat, don’t rape and pillage the classic Creedence catalog by turning it into a hootenanny.


Photo credits: Anthony Maki [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Fantasy Records (eBay itemphoto frontphoto back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons