Art of the Day: “Paris Prostitute” (Brassaï)

Brassaï first came to my attention through the cover shot of Rickie Lee Jones’ 1981 album Pirates, but further investigation reveals that his photographs are all evocative beauties – like this one, a Paris prostitute, from c.1932/33.


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Art of the Day: “Houses of Parliament, London” (Monet)

Part of a series of paintings, this one from 1904

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Song of the Day: Patti Smith – “Because the Night”

Excuse the spillover from the last entry, but this video is incredible.

Patti Smith live with Tony Shanahan and Lenny Kaye at the Leamington Assembly performing a beautiful, graceful “Because the Night.” This song, written with Bruce Springsteen, originally appeared on Smith’s third LP, 1978’s Easter.

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Patti Smith: An Evening to Remember

Patti Smith, rock  legend, is touring in support of her new book Just Kids, a biographical work detailing her move to New York City and intended as a tribute of sorts to her late friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe. I was lucky enough to see her on her UK jaunt in the intimate surrounds of Leamington Assembly. The show was billed as “An Evening of Words and Music.” It was. It was also an evening to remember.

Joined by Tony Shanahan on guitars and keyboard, plus special guest Lenny Kaye who flew in specially, Patti sang, read from her book, and played guitar. In between her songs, which had a real graceful power, her readings were spellbinding and well-placed. I picked up a signed copy of Just Kids and can’t wait to read it. A glance through suggests it’s accessible, heartfelt, and lovingly honest.

She was thoroughly relaxed and funny, and the crowd lapped it up. At 63, she had an energy and potency I’ve rarely seen at a live concert and, singing songs that are upwards of 30 years old, they still surprise and thrill with elasticity and crackling power. Even when, early on, she made a couple of mistakes with the wrong chord progressions, she recovered like the pro she is and got the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.

It was so refreshing to see such an esteemed rock legend give such a humble, honest, real performance. It all had a looseness and spontaneity that recalled Rickie Lee Jones’ show at London’s Cadogan Hall last November. Sure, there was a set list, and Patti knew whereabouts she was reading from, but stilted and fussy this was certainly not.

Another thing that struck me was the sheer strength of her voice. It’s probably in the best shape it’s ever been, no exaggeration, and that’s something of a pop music anomaly. You may have expected her voice to have lost some power or range with the years. Instead, it’s dark, rich, and beautiful. There’s a cliche about getting “chills,” but I really experienced it here when Patti got lost in the swirling incantations of the spooky “Dancing Barefoot” or the spiky rock’n’roll of “Gloria.”

There was elegance and grace on a cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and her own “Mother Rose,” as well as a sinister beauty on crowd favourite “Because the Night” and a sublime “Free Money.” Other highlights included the moody “Pissing In A River,” the anthemic “People Have the Power,” precipitating a move into the crowd (although the poor woman soon retreated back to the stage, beset by crazed dancers!), and “Rock N Roll Nigger,” which got the crowd going, to say the least.

I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again. Her energy was boundless and her stage presence electric; funny, warm, but possessed of a special kind of pop music intelligence, it was fascinating to see what can only be described as a mercurial rock genius in her element. If you get the chance to see Patti Smith live, take it.

For your delectation, here is “Gloria” from the show:

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Is Erykah Badu’s new video really so controversial?

Erykah Badu premiered the video for her new single “Window Seat” the other day to a fair Internet furore. The video depicts Badu walking the streets of Dallas as she takes off item by item of clothing until she ends up naked, mock-shot, in a spot near where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

Filmed in one day and one take on March 13, this clip more than anything is an exercise in, and example of, how to do an immediately eye-catching and memorable video with minimum budget and minimum “story.” Not for Badu ostentatious effects or dance routines. She doesn’t even bother to lip-sync to the song, a superior slice of sophisticated soul. Yet it’s easily one of 2010’s most inventive and unique clips. Lady GaGa does the video “event” incredibly well, but Badu really does it equally well here – via a completely different method and effect.

The video has attracted some controversy, but really, is it so controversial? It is 2010. Is the sight of a female nude in 2010 so shocking? Maybe it is, to some. But this video is another example of Badu’s artistic fearlessness and honesty and she deserves some credit for it. The people in the video are not paid actors or extras, they’re real people walking on the same streets at the same time. Badu has said she was “too busy looking for cops” to be embarrassed by her nudity; even when she spotted children, she stuck to her guns and kept on with the take. Again, artistic fearlessness.

Badu has also said of the video: “I’ve been naked all along in my words, actions, and deeds. That’s the real vulnerable place.” That puts into context the absurdity of the furore surrounding a video clip of a naked woman. Of course, there are public decency rules, and Badu has told how some passers-by shouted at her that she should be “ashamed” of herself for stripping in a public place, but I’d hardly deem it overly offensive. It’s a music video. Let’s think about that for a moment.

There’s not necessarily much correlation between the song itself and the video (although Badu has said that the song “is about liberating yourself from layers and layers of skin or demons that are a hindrance to your growth or freedom, or evolution”), but ultimately “Window Seat” has the potential to join the ranks of some great iconic video clips. It puts me in mind of Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy,” and in its sheer honesty and bravery and raw lack of polish, also recalls Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” As a bid for gaining extra exposure for Badu’s new album New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, it’s certainly done its job. A cynical ploy to get attention and album sales? Well, maybe. But it worked.

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Film of the Day: “Citizen Kane”

On my first viewing, I found Citizen Kane enjoyable but somewhat dull in parts. On a second viewing, it won me over and didn’t bore me in the slightest. Tight and focused, imaginative and inventive, it’s a film that impresses with the beauty of its shots and innovative techniques.

Today it’s easy to forget quite how innovative parts of Citizen Kane were, but even 70 years later one can still ascertain that it’s a superior film of the era. The story is relatively simple – a young child’s parents come into money and he is sent away to avoid his abusive father. He gradually becomes the all-powerful Charles Foster Kane, newspaper tycoon. The rest of the film details his descent into materialism and corruption, and subsequent downfall. The mystery of “Rosebud” is present throughout, and is revealed subtly (and somewhat devastatingly) at the film’s climax. Kane wasn’t, it turns out, quite as materialistic and unfeeling as was thought.

The performances are strong (and Dorothy Comingore’s meltdown over a bad review is pretty hilarious), and the make-up strikingly believable – Orson Welles, here as a 25-year-old, doubles up convicingly as the aged tycoon, in self-imposed exile at his private mountain mansion Xanadu.

My advice for those who found Citizen Kane dull or unimpressive on first viewing would be to watch it again; it’s a striking piece of work and a significant film in cinema history – as well as being an entertaining story.

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Art of the Day: “Three Musicians” (Picasso)

A 2mx2m Pablo Picasso oil painting, dating from 1921. “Synthetic Cubism.”

Really, it’s three musicians… and a dog (see to the left – you can make out his ears.)

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Song of the Day: Laura Nyro – “Poverty Train”

Laura Nyro was one of pop’s great songwriters and earliest of the “singer-songwriters.” A heady mix of pop, soul, R&B, jazz, blues, folk, ’60s girl group, and Broadway, she changed tempos and rhythms at the drop of a hat and packed about 27 different hooks (all equally brilliant and inventive) into three-minute gems, or else got all moody and expansive and created eight-minute suites. She excelled at both.

I could (and will) write a proper in-depth entry on the wonders of Laura Nyro at a later date, but for now I give you Nyro’s performance of “Poverty Train” at the famed Monterey Pop Festival of June 17, 1967. Here, the Bronx-born songstress was only 19, and had one minor radio hit record (“Wedding Bell Blues”) to her name. She was working on her second album for Verve, Soul Picnic, which eventually transformed into the exquisite Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and was issued the following year on Columbia instead (under the guidance of David Geffen.) “Poverty Train” was one of the inclusions. Here, it’s moody and mean, and while the backing sounds slightly uncertain at times, Nyro’s passion and power is a sight (and sound) to behold on this rare piece of footage.

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Film of the Day: “The Tenant”

I’m a big fan of Roman Polanski’s films, and the most recent one I had the pleasure to see was The Tenant, his curious suspense horror based on Roland Topor’s 1964 novel of the same name. It’s also the final part in Polanski’s loose trilogy of “apartment films” – that is, based in or around mysterious apartments, after 1965’s Repulsion and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, which I would wager is the finest horror film of all time.

The Tenant is similar in mood and feel to Rosemary’s Baby, but it is somewhat darker and arguably even more psychologically chilling. Beautifully shot and framed, it’s set in a Parisian apartment block and, in a rare move, Polanski takes on the role of actor as well as director. His performance as the quiet, outwardly respectable bachelor Trelkovsky is subtly shaded and understated, and he appears to find his feet as an actor as the film progresses. Trelkovsky rents an apartment in which the previous owner, Simone Choule, jumped to her eventual death in a suicide bid.

Afterwards, he meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) and they engage in a flirtatious friendship; the other characters are Trelkovsky’s loud friends and the strange apartment-dwellers, including Shelley Winters as the unfriendly concierge, and Jo Van Fleet as the creepy Madame Dioz. Melvyn Douglas also puts in a fine turn as owner Monsieur Zy.

Gradually, Trelkovsky, bombarded with pleas from his neighbours to keep the noise down at night – even though he is not making any, slips into a frightful hinterland between sanity and madness; we’re never quite sure whether the people in the apartment are really out to get him, or whether he is slowly descending into insanity. In this sense, the film strongly recalls Rosemary’s Baby.

Polanski’s drag turn, dressing up as the fabled Simone with a wig, make-up, painted nails, and high heels, is disconcerting and uncomfortable and conveys the mood of unease perfectly. By the film’s end, we’re not sure whether Trelkovsky was driven by desire to “catch his neighbours out,” or whether his transvestitism is an innate part of his own personality. It’s these moments of uncertainty and lack of concrete answers that leave the viewer feeling they’ve been on something of a weird alt-rollercoaster. It also encourages repeated viewing.

The Tenant is a disquieting, imaginative film that deserves a bigger audience than it seems to have reached; there are numerous haunting sequences, from the tooth in the wall, to the mummified lady in the opposite toilet, to the Egyptian hieroglyphs; the apartment block is as much a character in the film as any of the actors, and Polanski gives a stirring, involving performance as actor as well as director.

Much of the film is charmingly quirky (see the often glaring French-English dubbing), but at its heart is a dark exploration of obsession, paranoia, isolation, and sexual voyeurism. It’s a film that’s weird and beautiful and chilling all at once. Don’t expect it to give you any firm answers.

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Art of the Day: “The Scream” (Edvard Munch)

It’s incredibly famous and instantly recognisable, but still Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting has the power to provoke. I think it’s one of the most haunting and vivid paintings I’ve ever seen.

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