Saturday, September 3, 2011

Memorable Music Biographies

I have three music documentaries to recommend to you. Two are about subjects who led troubled lives. One is about a singer who is much more together.

First to get to our troubled subjects. Let's start with Phil Ochs. I loved There But for Fortune. Ochs was a "topical" folksinger who for a short while was head-to-head to many listeners with Bob Dylan before Dylan went electric. His songs are overtly political: ripped right from the day's headlines, as one of his albums titled All the News That's Fit to Sing puts it. Ochs's music survives today because of its startling directness, and the singer's warm, somewhat nasally delivery. There has really been no one quite like him since.

I loved watching footage of him singing songs that are seared in my memory: "There But for Fortune"; "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"; "Draft Dodger Rag" and "When I'm Gone". As the documentary proceeds and Och's great cause (ending the Vietnam War) is realized not with a bang but a whimper, you can see his enervation and frustration showing.

His drinking accelerates and debauched travels begin. Ochs's friends movingly describe his decline and descent into paranoia. It went on for around 5 years until his suicide at the age of 35. The film ends with Dave van Ronk performing "He Was a Friend of Mine" at a memorial concert. Quite moving.

I regret that Ochs didn't continue the direction he had forged when he moved to California in the late 1960s. Check out The Pleasures of the Harbor if you want to hear an idiosyncratic but powerful development as a songwriter. He would have traveled a fascinating road had he survived.

My second tragic tale is of Harry Nilsson, surely one of the most talented pop tunesmiths of the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. It's ironic that Nilsson's hit gold with "Everybody's Talkin'": it's one of the few songs that he sang that he didn't write! Perhaps you also know him for "One" (is the loneliest number that you'll ever do) or "The Coconut Song" (you put the lime in the coconut and call me in the morning) or "Living Without You".

This guy had a way with melodies that made the Beatles envious. He was good buddies with John Lennon and a big drinking buddy of John's in the '70s when John was estranged from Yoko. Nilsson cranked out albums through most of the '70s, but the dawn of disco really spelled the end for him. After working on the score for Robert Altman's movie version of Popeye in 1980, he was through. No more work came from him. One assumes he drank heavily and suffered a crisis of confidence for the remainder of his life. (He died of heart problems in the early 1990s).

Nilsson's body of work is justly celebrated by anyone interested in writing moving and memorable pop songs. He was playful at times in his music and then he can slay you with a love song or a ballad of regret. He sang with a lovely voice that drove every word home. I never tire of listening to him.

I enjoyed the documentary, especially the extensive footage showing Harry recording A Touch of Schmilson in the Night. This was an album of standards that he recorded in 1973 with the great Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra. I must say, that album is a desert-island disc for me!

My last documentary is about Bill Withers (Still Bill). What a wonderful guy he is! Withers hit the top of the charts during Nilsson's time with songs like "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands". The documentary covers this hectic period in his life and then reveals how he stepped away from the limelight in the early 1980s never to return again. But no drinking and no tragedy here! He was just done. He wanted to enjoy his marriage and raising his kids.

I loved Bill's journey back to West Virginia to visit where he grew up, and I was especially amused by the obvious deep admiration displayed by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West as they drop by to visit him. Bill Withers comes across as one cool cat. I was deeply moved by his character and basic decency.

Music documentaries are hit and miss, but you won't go wrong carving out 90 minutes to view any of these works!

No comments: