About Brittany

Cold sober, I find myself fascinating.

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

“You want to stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth,” Marlon Brando once said. For it is part of an actor’s job to draw the audience into their performance so completely that the audience loses that need for the mindless eating that accompanies movie-going. This does not happen when watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale of sisterhood, Little Women. While some critics have deemed it “near-perfect” and “the best film of the decade,” that is unequivocally false. Instead, it is an agonizing two-plus hour film with no energy or story.

Nearly every actor in Gerwig’s film fails to lend any heart, warmth, or believability to their role. You are constantly aware that you are watching actors try to make characters come alive — and thus failing. When you watch Gillian Armstrong’s truly perfect re-telling of Alcott’s novel, you completely forget that you are watching a movie: Winona Ryder is Jo March. Susan Sarandon is Marmee. Even Eric Stoltz is John Brooke. No actor in Gerwig’s film–except perhaps Meryl Streep (and we all know how much I love Meryl Streep–I don’t)–gives a true performance. Ronan is awkward and contradictory as Jo; Beth is nondescript; Amy is truly, truly horrible, acting as a spoiled brat as both a child and an adult by the same actress. (When she storms off after telling Laurie, “I’ve loved you my whole life!” I wanted to laugh because it was just so pathetic.) Amy is oft-disliked for a reason, but Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis gave her a heart in Armstrong’s film. (Dunst’s Amy is truly apologetic after burning Jo’s sacred manuscript; in Gerwig’s film, it is as if Marmee is holding a knife to Amy’s throat, forcing her to express remorse.)

All the changes Gerwig has made to the story–focusing on the March sisters as adults, the non-linear storyline, and the subtle implication that Jo does not marry (I will get to that in a minute)–make no difference, as there is nothing for this film to stand on. Jo rushes home because her sister Beth is dying? That’s not sad at all because there has been no demonstration of any connection between these two “sisters.” Four sisters fall into an arguing, laughing pile on Christmas morning–actually, no, four actresses pretending to be sisters fall into an ungainly pile. Way to go. Professor Bhaer leaves to go West where they are not so particular about the accent? Ok, who is this guy again? Oh, the guy that has been interspersed into a handful of scenes with no authentic connection or interaction with Jo, who actually acts like she truly hates him? Get out. I wanted to cry because a story I love so much was being treated so very badly. Why didn’t Amy burn Gerwig’s manuscript instead?

While I respect that a film based on a book is a filmmaker’s interpretation and can even exceed the book in some cases (again, see the 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong), what Gerwig did to this story is quite unforgivable, as she tried desperately to put a book published in 1869 into a 2019 context, whereas Armstrong’s version of the story augmented the feminism of the original novel while still remaining true to the novel’s context. Gerwig does this by mixing the story’s creator, Louisa May Alcott, with the story’s heroine, Josephine March. Alcott undoubtedly poured some of her own spirit and beliefs into Jo, but her creation and own life should be considered separate. Alcott initially did not want Jo to marry (hence Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s proposal in the first part of the novel’s second part, “Good Wives”); Alcott herself never married. That does not make it acceptable to change the story by replacing Jo with Alcott–because that is not Jo’s story in Little Women.

Jo detests the idea of marriage throughout much of the novel and expresses her desire not to marry — simply because she loves her family as it is — and she pursues writing as a passion as well as an economic necessity, not as a way to justify a life without marriage. “You I leave to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it,” Marmee tells Jo in Alcott’s novel, “for only then will you find that there is something sweeter.” And so the novel really becomes not about whether or even whom Jo will marry but her journey in discovering that voracious ambition is not a substitute for familial connection. Furthermore, Jo realizes that the two ideas about marriage explored in the novel — marriage can be life’s greatest blessing and marriage should not be the sole purpose and goal of a woman — are not contradictory or opposing. Had such a marriage as the one Alcott creates for her heroine and Professor Bhaer been possible for herself, Alcott would have perhaps entered into a similar union. Jo’s decision to marry Bhaer does not reduce her independence or feminism; it makes her a stronger, more mature character. Alcott understood this. Gerwig meanwhile tries to justify her interpretation by inserting scenes that were never in the novel. Jo reconsiders Laurie’s proposal and voices regret at having turned him down. It is so untrue to the novel and the character, I wanted to gouge my own eyes out in the hopes that I could un-see the travesty.

In It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey expresses a similar distaste for marriage. “I don’t want to get married, ever, to anyone. I want to do what I want to do,” he says with intensity, visibly shaking his future wife Mary. Yet, George gives up his dreams of traveling and exploring the world for a married life rife with sacrifices to both his family and community in the place he always wanted to leave, Bedford Falls. George discovers — as does Jo — that these self-sacrifices have made his life that much richer and more wonderful. And so it would seem that in Gerwig’s world, George would need to travel and explore the world to have a wonderful life in order to lend the story relevance and credence. A thousand times NO. 

Furthermore, Gerwig forces words into little Amy March’s mouth that she never would have said. “Marriage is an economic proposition.” Well, that is true for Amy, as she has always wanted to marry rich, but the way Gerwig frames the conversation again makes it completely untrue to the character and the novel. Please stop vomiting your postmodern feminism views onto a perfectly pure and independently feminine novel.

I will credit Gerwig with producing a wholesome movie that emphasizes the importance of family relationships with strong, caring female characters amidst the Red Sea of crap that is flooded into movie theaters as a whole in these troubling times. And she does add a few touches that are appropriate and  effective — namely, illustrating the art of publishing a book and showing the depth of Mr. Laurence’s love for Beth. Perhaps her film will expose a new generation to the story of the March sisters and inspire them to pick up the novel and hopefully discover for themselves the true story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–and then go back to 1994 to find the most beautiful, wonderful, moving, perfect interpretation of this precious story.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

Before I went to the movie theater to see The Joker, I was supposed to see another movie…but never did. And so, for Christmas this year, the local library gifted me with the news that a copy of David Crosby: Remember My Name was ready for pickup! (Thank you Ben Franklin for your genius idea of public libraries.) 

David Crosby is a fascinating and engaging character, with a life and career to match, thus making him the perfect subject for a documentary that is humorous, heartbreaking, and honest. 

The film opens with Crosby’s lively re-telling of seeing John Coltrane perform with the most intensity in a puke-green-tiled bathroom in Chicago. Music is Crosby’s lifeblood: when Crowe poses the choice of having no music in his life for extreme joy in his home and personal life, Crosby does not hesitate to choose a life filled with music. Music, he feels, is the only thing he has to offer. And while his choice may seem selfish, the camera shows how torn Crosby truly is in the next shot: leaving his beautiful home and family, whom he truly loves, for a six-week tour, from which he may not return because of his health issues. “I hate leaving,” Crosby declares.  

Crosby lists his single regret as the time he has wasted “being smashed” and wants more time. Time, he declares, is the final currency, and how does one spend it? The film both explores how Crosby has spent his time and chooses to spend whatever remaining time he has left. 

Crosby’s childhood was marked by what he describes as a dysfunctional family — a loving mother, a “crusty”, unaffectionate father (award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon) who never once told his son that he loved him, and an older brother, Ethan, also a musician who introduced Crosby to ‘50s jazz, sending him “right down the rabbit hole.” (Ethan committed suicide in the late 1990s. His death is not discussed.) Crosby was a disciplinary problem and was kicked out of every school he ever attended (a foreshadowing of his membership in musical groups); in his words, he was a chubby, lonely kid who desperately wanted attention.  

With the massive success of The Byrds in the mid-1960s, Crosby finally gained the attention he had always coveted. Yet, Crosby admits, that success coming at such a young age impaired him from realizing how truly lucky he was. Cut to Crosby observing The Beatles answer banal questions in a 1966 press conference. “Who is the young man with the lengthy haircut to your right rear?” a reporter asks, and Crosby immediately hides. “That’s Dave, isn’t it? Dave Crosby, a mate of ours,” John Lennon replies. “Ahoy matey!” Crosby recalls hanging out with and learning from the Beatles—learning how to be a rock star because “they knew how.” The pure joy and admiration in his eyes as he watches them is clear. 

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No Russian hats and mustaches yet: Crosby in his famous wide-brimmed hat as a member of The Byrds. Photo by Henry Diltz. 

Crosby describes his young self as “young, cocky, arrogant…and a total caboose to my dick.” (Quotes like these — uttered so nonchalantly and honestly — are part of what make this film — and Crosby — so entertaining.) Driving along Sunset Boulevard, Crosby and co. pass the Whisky a Go Go, where Crosby recalls the origin of his dislike of The Doors and Jim Morrison. Morrison approached Crosby and pulled down his shades, telling him, “You can’t hide.” Crosby, irritated, was high on LSD and naturally “teleported to the other side of the room” and never forgave Morrison for his brash comment. 

After being fired by The Byrds (the scene is creatively re-told in animation form), Crosby retreated to his other love, sailing. He bought a schooner for $25,000 — loaned to him by Peter Tork — and disappeared into the sea. Sailing, for Crosby, is transformative and restorative. While his senses are bombarded by the filtering of information on land, Crosby claims that every sensation is louder, clearer, and brighter while sailing, not to mention more beautiful and magical. “The ocean is totally real,” Crosby observes. “Opposite of Hollywood.” 

The film crew then travels up to Laurel Canyon. Crosby recalls being the first musician to move there, promptly followed by other musicians and thus transforming it into the place for musicians to gather and exchange ideas. They go into the Canyon Country Store, where Crowe asks Crosby what he wishes people really knew and understood about this place. 

“It’s not like we hung out here,” Crosby replies. “We just got groceries here. Where do you get coffee here?” he then asks — like any other ding dong tourist lost in a grocery store. Uhhh, Croz, I don’t think he was talking specifically about the store. 

“Morrison, what a dork,” he says, pointing at the pictures of The Doors (who, to his knowledge, never lived in the Canyon) decorating the walls of the small store. 

The film is littered with moments like these — Crosby visiting sites important to his story: the house where he was fired from the Byrds, the Canyon Country Store, and the house that inspired “Our House,” in the kitchen of which Crosby, Stills, and Nash was born in a matter of minutes. 

Later, Crosby visits Kent State University, reflecting on the May 4 shootings. Crosby’s anguishing cries in the song’s fading moments — “Why? How many more?” etc — add emotional weight to the powerful protest song (one of the handful songs written by Neil Young that I can admit to really liking). His anger at the Sergeant who swore to have never fired his weapon is palpable. The song—and what it represented—made Crosby proud that he was finally able to stand up for what he believed in. (Crosby’s firing from the Byrds stemmed from, in part, Crosby’s political comments at the Monterey Pop Festival about President Kennedy’s assassination. His bandmates did not feel that it was appropriate for “pop stars” to voice political opinions.) 

Graham Nash has said that David Crosby went to identify the body of his girlfriend Christine Hinton, who died in a car accident, and returned “never the same.” For Crosby, Christine’s death was debilitating. Her death left an emptiness, a huge hole that he wanted to fill, yet he had no tools to deal with his grief except for drugs and alcohol, an addiction that marred Crosby’s life and career for years. 

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Oops — it’s Nash, Stills, and Crosby posing for their eponymous debut album in 1969. Photograph by Henry Diltz. When the band returned a few days later to correct their error, the house had been torn down — a fitting metaphor for the band itself. 

When Crosby, Stills, and Nash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, Crosby’s speech was both heartfelt and simple. He thanked his wife and the two men standing next to him for being “his brothers”, continually offering love and support and enabling him to create the music that he had. (I think Stills was ready to cry at that point.)

“I can’t tell you how great it was to be in that band,” Crosby declares, while also stating that CSNY is a completely separate band that should be inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame on their own, even if “just to make Clapton jealous.” And he is right — CSNY is a completely different band. I think Graham Nash put it best in his autobiography when he said that he, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills watched The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and decided, “I want to do that.” That being in a cooperative and charismatic band. Neil Young, on the other hand, watched Bob Dylan be a total, selfish jerk in Don’t Look Back and decided that’s what he wanted to do. He waltzed into CSN’s world when it suited him and then called on “artistic freedom” when he wanted out, with no thought or consideration to how that might affect anyone else. It’s like he’s still sulking about being told his voice wasn’t commercial during the recording of the first Buffalo Springfield album and having his songs sung by other band members. Oy, shocker, Einstein. I digress.

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One of these is not like the others… 

 

The film shows some home footage of the trio lounging in a backyard somewhere, discussing rehearsals for a tour or an album, I’m not sure. Crosby is relaxing in a hammock when Stephen Stills (bad teeth and all) gets THIS CLOSE to his face and says, “I’m not gonna cop out an inch to fear and he walked out two days in a row you f—ing hypocrite, YOU PISS ME OFF.” Then he storms off. I don’t know what that was all about (Neil Young?????), and I don’t think it was supposed to be funny, but I was laughing out loud–and so was Crosby, ca. 1969. (Maybe not the best idea seeing as Stills was ready to take out some hippies at the Big Sur festival for making fun of his fur coat or something.)

And while these men were once so close, Crosby states that forty years later it changed from a band of brothers with similar creative visions and goals to “just turn on the smoke machine and play the hits” because they could barely stand one another. Crosby’s statements about Neil Young’s girlfriend (gag me) Daryl Hannah (seriously?????) became public (he thought they were “off-the-record” — no excuse —  if that’s what you really think, just say it) and seared a rift in the band. The band’s final performance was a dismal rendition of “Silent Night” at the National Christmas Tree Lighting at the White House in 2014.

Crosby admits that his biggest mistake is getting angry. The adrenaline hits his system and bam, instant asshole (hey, his words) — just add water and stir. Yet, there is no real discussion — aside from the passing mention of the fall-out over his comments about Daryl Hannah (for which he belatedly apologized) — of what has inspired such volatile comments about Crosby from his once best friend Graham Nash. (I gather it may be for Crosby’s attitude toward Nash, who like Young, left his wife of decades for a younger woman. Crosby meanwhile has remained faithful to his wife of some thirty-odd years now. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.) The apparently irreparable break is disheartening.

Crowe reminds Crosby of what he said when they first met in 1974: “My father is 74, he says in the long run the only thing that counts is whether you got any f—ing friends. All the rest is bulls–t. He’s had 74 years to look. I’m inclined to agree with him.”

Crosby admits that he probably made that up–because his father never had any friends.

“What happened to your friends?” Crowe asks.

“That’s really hard,” Crosby answers. “I still have friends. But the main guys I made music with really dislike me.”

Why don’t you make the situation with Neil right and show up on his doorstep? Crowe presses.

“I don’t even know where his doorstep is,” is Crosby’s simple reply.

Yet — back to where the film started — Crosby has chosen to spend his time now making music, even if without these once important men in his life.

The DVD has deleted scenes and extended interviews, some of which I wish had been included in the final film. Chris Hillman tells of what a truly kind friend David Crosby is; Hillman, the scrawny, young kid in The Byrds always felt as if Crosby watched over and looked out for him. McGuinn recalls the joy of meeting Crosby for the first time. Crosby discusses connecting with his first-born son, who was adopted as a baby and now plays with Crosby in his band. Crosby’s wife remembers the agony over Crosby’s liver transplant. Crosby gets on his iMac to tweet in the middle of the night. The man has had such a full and interesting life the film could have gone on for a few hours more and no one would be bored. Remember My Name is an unvarnished and human portrait of one of music’s greatest figures and stories.

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An impromptu, iconic photo by Henry Diltz (who makes a great appearance in the film). 

And that’s it for 2019, folks. More next year…maybe.

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)

While it is that time of year to bundle up under the beloved Afghan and not leave the house for any reason other than to answer the call of Barnabas, I went to the movie theater recently and saw a film that has actually motivated me to write, albeit it is now more than a month later and I am just now taking the necessary steps to do so. (#miracles) 

Joker is not your typical comic book movie. 

Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a young man who suffers from mental illness. He lives with his aging, disoriented mother, and he works as a clown in various capacities. We first see him as a dancing clown advertising the close of a shop and that “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” A group of cruel, bored young men grab Arthur’s sign; the chase ends in an alley, Arthur on the hard ground, legs kicking his bony body from all directions and with force. His boss later chides him for not returning the sign; a co-worker, noting his bruised body, gifts Arthur with a gun. 

At home, Arthur cares for his mother, who repeatedly writes letters to Thomas Wayne, whom she used to work for before Arthur was born. Arthur opens an empty mail box, bathes his mother, and prepares her dinner. Together, they watch The Murray Franklin Show, and we get a glimpse of Arthur’s mental state, as he imagines he is at the filming of a show and recognized by Franklin as an audience member. Arthur dreams of becoming a comedian. “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” his mother innocently, although quite cruelly, wonders aloud. 

Arthur attends therapy, but he truly finds reprieve from the bleak, cruel world around him in these delusions and music (and often the two mix). He seems to be able to escape and fully express himself as he dances. One night, with the 1937 Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance playing in the background, Arthur dances, gun in hand above his head. Shirtless, exposing his bony frame, his confidence and joy is evident as he body moves to the rhythm of the music. He enters a delusion again, beginning a conversation with himself. 

“Hey, what’s your name?” 

“Arthur.” 

“Hey, Arthur, you’re a really good dancer.”

“I know,” he answers coyly, before adding, “You know who’s not? Him.”

He turns the gun toward the imaginary him and fires a bullet into the wall. Alarmed and exhilarated, Arthur’s transformation into another being has begun. 

“The world is in a mess/with politics and taxes/and people grinding axes/there’s no happiness.” (“Slap That Bass”)

He carries his gun with him to work, even when his job is to entertain sick children at a hospital. Stupidly, the gun falls out of his pant leg, and he is promptly fired. “It was part of my act, it’s a prop,” he desperately explains to his boss in a pay-phone booth. “I really like this job,” he pleads, but to no avail. 

He dejectedly boards the subway. Three men in suits harass a young woman; Arthur laughs uncontrollably. (He carries with him a card that reads: “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition (more on back).” Back: ”It’s a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions.”) The men move in on Arthur, baiting him and singing (badly) “Send in the Clowns.” 

Viewing this abuse, I want to cover my eyes. How much more cruelty does this guy have to endure? Everything about him is so pitiful, right down to the oversized old lady pajamas he wears around the apartment. When does he finally become The Joker and take these jerks out? 

Well, you know what they say: Be careful what you wish for. 

Bang, bang, bang. Having committed his first murders, Arthur retreats to a grimy public bathroom where once again he joyfully expresses his emotions through dance. 

Now able to spend his days at home, Arthur’s mother instructs him to mail yet another letter to Thomas Wayne. Arthur discreetly opens the letter and discovers that he is the result of his mother’s love affair with Thomas Wayne. Wanting to meet his father, he visits the Wayne mansion where he briefly meets a young Bruce Wayne. He is warned to never visit there again, but unable to resist confronting his father, follows Thomas Wayne into the bathroom at a ritzy event. When Arthur tells Wayne he knows the truth, Wayne laughs in his face, discrediting his mother’s tale because of her own mental illness. 

Unsure of the truth, Arthur returns home one night to find she has had an attack after being questioned by detectives about his possible involvement in the subway murders. She lies in a hospital bed as Arthur works to determine who is telling him the truth—his mother or Thomas Wayne, eventually stealing his mother’s file from the local mental institution. The file reveals that she suffered from delusions and allowed her adopted son to be abused by her boyfriend. Angered and hurt by the one person he should be able to trust to care and love him unfailingly, Arthur visits his mother in her hospital room one final time. 

Meanwhile, Arthur continues his pursuit of a career in stand-up comedy, and his mental health services have been discontinued because of cuts in funding. (“They don’t care about people like you and me,” his therapist informs him.)  Arthur’s pitiful performance is seen by his hero, Murray Franklin. The show invites Arthur to be a guest, and he, of course, agrees, while it is unclear if Arthur is aware that he himself is the joke to be laughed at. 

Before his appearance on The Murray Franklin Show, two of Arthur’s former co-workers stop by his apartment to see how he is doing after his mother’s death. One is the man who originally gave Arthur the gun to defend himself; the other is a midget who, in Arthur’s words, was the only person who was ever nice to him. Only one of them makes it out of Arthur’s apartment alive. (Five to one, baby, one in five. No one here gets out alive. Was that song in the superb soundtrack? I can’t remember.) 

Arthur descends the stairs to the tune of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” and flees into a subway crowd of people dressed like The Joker for a political protest as the detectives chase him. (The Subway Murders have inspired the community to protest the wealthy and privileged establishment, all while dressed as clowns.) 

He finally arrives at the studio for The Murray Franklin Show. Franklin meets briefly with Arthur and is kind to him, while Franklin’s producer advises him not to do the segment. Franklin insists it’s going to be great. Arthur requests that Franklin introduce him as “Joker,” which Franklin obliges. 

Having practiced his introduction tirelessly (Arthur has seemingly taped every episode of the show, ever), Arthur’s entrance is well-received, and he has a polite conversation with Franklin about comedy and political protests (“I’m not political,” he insists) before asking to tell a joke. 

“Knock knock,” Arthur begins. 

“Who’s there?” 

“It’s the police, ma’am! Your son’s been hit by a drunk driver. He’s dead!” 

Franklin proceeds to tell Joker that his joke is not funny. They discuss the subjective nature of comedy, and Arthur admits to the subway murders, adding that no one would care if he had been the victim. It is only because of their wealth and privilege that their deaths are mourned. He turns on Murray, telling him that he is no different than the rest of them—he only invited Arthur onto his show to laugh at him. The atmosphere is tense and can only end badly. 

“How ‘bout another joke, Murray?” Joker asks. 

“No,  I think we’ve had enough of your jokes,” Franklin states firmly. 

“What do you get…” 

I don’t think so.”

…when you cross…”

I think we’re done here now, thank you.” 

…a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”

Call the police, Gene, call the police.”

I’ll tell you what you get!” Joker declares gleefully. “You get what you fuckin’ deserve!” 

And then he shoots Murray in the head, killing him instantly—on air. 

To the sound of “White Room” by Cream, Joker watches the riots he has inspired from the backseat of a police car. (“Do I look like the kind of clown that can start a movement?” he had asked Murray Franklin. Apparently so.) Chaos abounds and a man shoots a wealthy couple as they leave the theater, their young son watching. 

“The whole city’s on fire because of you,” a police officer informs Joker. 

“I know. Isn’t it beautiful?” he replies. Because, for Joker, the chaos and destruction make more sense than the cruelty and banality of everyday life. 

I’ll sleep in this place with the lonely crowd
Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves 

Joker is a film about mental illness. Joker is a film about treating other people how you would like to be treated. Joker is a film about a man who spirals when he cannot make sense of the cruelty of the world around him. And in the words of actor Joquain Phoenix (who deserves an Oscar, no questions asked), “We’re making a movie about a fictional character in a fictional world, ultimately, and your hope is that people take it for what it is. You can’t blame movies for a world that is so f—ed up that anything can trigger it. That’s kind of what the movie is about. It’s not a call to action. If anything it’s a call to self-reflection to society.”

So, as Joker once again dances off-screen to Sinatra’s “That’s Life” in the film’s final scene, we are left to ponder whether it really has to be that way—and hopefully do something about it. 

When life gives you Leviathans, make some lemonade.

Where has the time gone? Been working on my New Years’ Resolutions for 2019, OBVIOUSLY:

1. Change my e-mail to get rid of my God-forsaken maiden name. (CHECK. DONEZO. FINI.)

2. Finally finish Moby Dick. (The struggle is real. 300 pages of exposition about whale classification and I am praying for an anvil to fall on my head.)

3. Say what I think more often instead of playing nice. But still be basically a nice person. Basically.

Maybe I should add a fourth and go back to updating this blog regularly. Ehhhhhh. (That was in my North Muskegon accent, Butts McGee.)

A year or so ago, I had begun a major Dark Shadows marathon, binging my way through most of the storylines that I cared to watch again. At that time, I joyfully skipped over the Leviathan storyline…but this past week, I had a need to watch some Dark Shadows and I picked up the Leviathan storyline with Barnabas wandering around in the woods (where else?) in 1796 (when else?). So obviously between watching Dark Shadows and listening to Roy Orbison 24/7, I have been pretty darn busy. (You’re watching that again? my husband asks, delighted to re-enter this sublimely strange world.) And, while the story of the Leviathans is still infuriating, it has brought me a great deal of joy this week. Here are some of my favorite gems so far:

1. Barnabas lets his TRUE feelings about Dr. Julia Hoffman be known:

Sure, the writers try to blame it on the fact that he is currently possessed by the Leviathans, but really, Barnabas speaks the truth. Julia is nosy! Annoying! Hysterical! Her cry is the worst. It’s so, so ugly. Ugh. I much prefer Barnabas bashing/hating Julia to their dumb friendship/alliance.

2. Elizabeth is actually married to Jason McGuire. 

Ha ha ha.

3. This show has the most bizarre dream sequences. 

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Like, so weird. But hey, it was the ’60s, so I guess no one really noticed/thought it was completely normal.

And David totally looks like Donald Duck in “Donald’s Snow Fight”:

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Right?

4. Mrs. Johnson brings Paul Stoddard “some freshly baked cookies” which are supposedly Carolyn’s favorite, but they look like they came straight out of a Nabisco package. 

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The budget was spent elsewhere that day.

5. Quentin enters the twentieth century and has no idea who he really is. He gets upset when people try to tell him he actually is…Quentin Collins. 

Speak for yourself, Selby. This world needs a little Quentin Collins with a whole lotta sideburns. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would go to Windcliff for Quentin!

6. David has learned nothing about being possessed/controlled by evil beings. 

He goes straight from the trauma of being brought near death by the ghost of Quentin Collins to playing with the Leviathan book and doing whatever this dumb kid tells him to. Yet, when he sees Quentin, he cowers and is afraid. No character growth for this kid. David Henesy is a better actor than many of the adults on this show, though. 100% truth.

7. Barnabas at one point tells Carolyn he is doing some “electronic experiments” in the basement of the Old House. 

Really? In the Old House where telephones (a dang inconvenience on this show — how many times has someone had to run to the Old House to give Barnabas an important message because he has no telephone), electricity, and modern plumbing do not exist, you expect us to believe you are really delving in some “electronic experiments”? Get outta town (that’d be COLLINSPORT), Collins.

8. Barnabas has a power struggle with a…six year old? 

This kid is the worst. Barnabas sassing him is golden, though. Like who does this kid think he is? Barnabas is the star of this show, the best alibi you can have in Collinsport, the savior of the Collins family multiple times over (…except in the 18th century when he brought shame to his family for being, you know, a vampire). When Barnabas speaks, you listen. And obey. OR ELSE. (And usually “or else” looks like being bit or beaten to death by the wolf cane — just ask Willie. Poor guy.)

Part two:

PICK IT UP. Will he obey? I’d kind of like to see Barnabas sock this kid.

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What would Dark Shadows be without the dramatic music?

And there’s still more to come:

BURN, BABY, BURN!!!!!

I guess what I’m trying to say here is…even when life gives you the Leviathan storyline (the all-time worst storyline, right?), there is lemonade to be made. Sometimes you just have to put on your Count Petofi eyeglasses (free with most insurance plans) and chill to some Roy Orbison to be able to drink it.

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I mean, is he listening to “Blue Angel” or what?

The Countess sure is.

‘Til next time (eight months from now)….

Favorite Beach Boys Deep Cuts

The Beach Boys’ discography is so massive, yet so often overlooked. By 1969, the band had released an album entitled 20/20 to commemorate the release of their 20th album (including greatest hits packages; it was only their 15th studio album). In the early 2000s, when I was blossoming ever-so-gently into a raging Beach Boys fanatic, I devoured those twofer CDs like candy on Christmas morning (my family’s traditional meal–you only live once, or so I’ve been promised). It can be a daunting task to undertake the band’s catalog as one migrates from the casual, greatest hits fan into the abyss of gimme all your tracking sessions, Brian. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the band fell from the grace and favor of the record-buying (and listening) public at large, leaving so many gems buried.

With so many tunes to choose from, I developed a very basic criteria for what could be included on this list: you shouldn’t be able to find the song on  The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, Vol. 1: 20 Good Vibrations or The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, Vol. 2: 20 More Good Vibrations  or Pet Sounds. (There is one exception on this list…but this is my blog, I can break my own rules.) No “In My Room.” No “Warmth of the Sun.” No “I’m Waiting for the Day” (take six). While those songs may not be instantly recognizable to many, I consider that Beach Boys for babies, and I am the Nanny in the white-and-green striped tights with killer purple sneakers kicking you outta the nursery. Let’s go.

1. “The Lonely Sea,” Surfin’ USA, 1963

Watch Brian sing this track in a film you would only watch if you are an obsessive Beach Boys fan–Girls on the Beach. Not that I obsessively waited for this film to be on TV so I could record it or anything… 

Pet Sounds doesn’t exactly have the corner on soul-wrenching tunes in the Beach Boys’ catalog. Take this track from the Beach Boys’ second album as a case in point. Stunning. Haunting. Beautiful. Written and sung by a 20-year-old Brian Wilson. Yeah, he earned the right to stay in bed for three years.

2. “Cherry, Cherry Coupe,” Little Deuce Coupe, 1963 

Talk about a jam. Dennis is trying so hard on this song, and I love it. Most of my car knowledge comes from Beach Boys lyrics, but I have no idea what 80% of the lyrics of this song even mean. “The wildest short around is my cherry, cherry coupe.” What??? “Door handles are off, but you know I’ll never miss ’em/They open when I want with the cellunoid system.” (Yeah, Mike Love’s nasal tones call it a “cellunoid” system. I know.) Sounds awesome, but I really have no idea.

(Side note: Little Deuce Coupe, a collection of “hot rod” songs, is considered an early example of a concept album. But what is more amazing is that it was released a mere month after Surfer Girl. The band released three–!!!!!–albums in 1963 alone. Is it any wonder why Brian suffered a nervous breakdown?)

3. “Girls on the Beach,” All Summer Long, 1964 

I include this song as an example of how even early Beach Boys’ songs that dealt with “summer and fun and summer and summer and fun and cars” that weren’t particularly thought-provoking or inspiring were still harmonically breath-taking. Also, Dennis gets a little vocal solo, so there’s that.

4. “The Lord’s Prayer,” The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, 1964 

I first heard The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album by repeatedly checking out the cassette tape from the local library year-round. This track was tacked on the end of side two (I think), and I was so disappointed when I purchased the original album on vinyl and it wasn’t included. I was even more disappointed when it also was not to be found on Ultimate Christmas. It was originally found on the flip side of “Little Saint Nick.” What other band could so seamlessly pair a tune about Santa’s hot rod with such a heartfelt, gorgeous rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer”?

 5. “Good to My Baby,” Today!, 1965 

In a word: TUNE. On the surface, it’s just a good little rock ‘n’ roll song. Take away the vocals (as the above video does), and you can begin to appreciate the complexity of Brian’s music. So much of The Beach Boys’ music is like that: effortless on the surface, its sonic complexity easily overlooked. It’s how we separate the Mike Loves from the Brian Wilsons.

6. “Please Let Me Wonder,” Today!, 1965

Today! is such a great album. While the first side is full of upbeat, infectious rock ‘n’ roll numbers, “Please Let Me Wonder” opens the introspective second side. It’s one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, and it features one of Brian’s most beautiful, sweetest vocals.

7. “Kiss Me Baby,” Today!, 1965 

Kiss a little bit, fight a light, kiss a little bit, woah baby…

Oh my gosh, words can’t even do justice to the beauty of this song. Even Mike doesn’t mess it up. Enjoy the acapella version in the video posted above.

8. “Girl, Don’t Tell Me,” Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965 

Dripping with the Beatles’ influence (most obviously “Ticket to Ride”), this is a great little tune, far superior to its A-Side (Ba-ba-ba-BARF-Barabra Ann…no, it’s a good song for what it is, really) and featuring a rare (at that time) lead vocal from Carl Wilson.

9. “Surf’s Up,” The SMiLE Sessions, 1967 

None of the versions of this song found on the five-disc SMiLE Sessions come close to the simple beauty of Brian’s television performance. The narrator of the program observed: “Here is a new song—too complex to get all of the first time around. It could come only out of the frontman that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.'” He goes on to describe the song as “poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity…a symbol of change” in the world of pop music. Eyes closed, Brian’s heartfelt delivery is unparalleled. How different the world of pop music might have been had this song and the rest of SMiLE had seen the light of day.

10. “Let the Wind Blow,” Wild Honey, 1967 

“Let the Wind Blow” is a somber ballad comparing love to nature, with the singer urgently pleading that, as elements of nature, his love might be a part of his life forever.

11. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” Friends, 1968 

A chill song in which Brian sings directions to his house and describes what keeps him busy while he waits for you to finally show up (and wow, is he busy). Once you do finally arrive, you’ll find him “in my house somewhere, keepin’ busy.” Has to be in my top ten Beach Boys songs, ever. I’ve been singin’ it at least three times in a row every night before going to bed for the past few days.

12. “All I Wanna Do,” Sunflower, 1970

This is another chill song, and I have to award credit to Mike Love for not pulling deep bass or nasal tones and inducing vomit like he usually does. He actually sings, and his vocal tone suits the ambiance of the song. I always see Mike practicing meditation when I hear this song, though. I think there may be a clip of that in Endless Harmony or some other Beach Boys documentary. Oh well, I just have to close my eyes harder, I guess. (“Tony and I think that if you close your eyes you can see a place or something that’s happening. It’s like being blind but because you’re blind you can see more. Don’t you think it’s a spiritual kind of thing?” “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I closed my eyes. Didn’t see a thing.” Can’t stop, won’t stop.) Still, a good song.

13. “Forever,” Sunflower, 1970

So I’m going away, mmmm, but not forever…

Quite simply one of the most beautiful and romantic songs ever written. Some might even call it a “rock ‘n’ roll prayer.” I hope you’ve never had to listen to John Stamos sing this song; it’s a gross offense to sugar and spice and all things nice–especially a genuinely soulful singer, Dennis Wilson. It’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking to see how Brian watches the video montage of his younger brother with pride and sadness. Give that man a hug–or a kiss on the head like his little brother once did. 

14. “Feel Flows,” Surf’s Up, 1971

When Brian retreated into a cocoon of drugs and isolation, Carl stepped in and became the de facto leader. He was the beating heart of that band and, sadly, with his death, the Beach Boys became the fractured band we have today. “Feel Flows” (along with so many others of this period, including “Long Promised Road” also from Surf’s Up) is a fine example of Carl’s blossoming songwriting and production skills. It’s a jam.

15. “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” Surf’s Up, 1971

Sounding more like The Beatles than The Beach Boys, Al (yep, little Al Jardine) woefully sings about job-hunting. But in a haunting, trippy way. But I’ll be coming home tonight/And everything will be alright/And we’ll be looking at tomorrow…You go, Al.

16. “‘Til I Die,” Surf’s Up, 1971

“I’m a cork on the ocean,” are the opening lines to “‘Til I Die,” which Mike Love once annoyingly described as “the last great Brian Wilson track.” (He probably also screamed that this song was NOT BEACH BOYS FUN! It’s a special brand of fun, you know.) That opening image perfectly encompasses Brian’s despair. It’s such a beautifully depressing song. “I’m a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away,” Brian concedes. Yet, amazingly, he ultimately triumphed. What a guy.

Sometimes I just lay in bed and sing this song. That’s not a red flag or anything.

17. “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” The Beach Boys’ Love You, 1977

Oh, this song. (Oh, this album.) All three brothers share the vocal responsibilities, with Brian and Dennis splitting each verse and Carl singing the bridge (oh-oh-oh man). The Moog synthesizer abounds amidst this aural paradise, lending it a quirky edge. Brian loves this song and so do I.

Well, that’s a good start. What’d I miss?

See you tomorrow, Hal!

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P.S. In the spirit of Christmas, let me implore you to be a Brian Wilson in a world full of Mike Loves.

P.S.S. The appropriate response when Mike Love asks if you like his beret or just opens his mouth in general:

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Seeing Brian Wilson Live

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to a Brian Wilson concert. Not entirely by choice, mind you, as anyone who really knows me (and Brian Wilson) would know that this would never be my number one choice of how to spend an evening. Of course, I love Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, second probably only to The Beatles, but I am long over concert-going, and Brian Wilson has never been–and never will be–a performer.

Following our trend of going to events where we are the youngest people in attendance, we go to see Brian Wilson, seated amidst of white, gray, balding, and in denial. The orchestral versions of Beach Boys hits you could probably hear in an elevator provided the perfect backdrop for this scene. A white piano sat center-stage, ready for its maestro–and right on time, Brian stepped onto the stage, with considerable assistance from an aide.

Although our tickets read that the show was for Pet Sounds Live, the show opened with a mini-greatest hits set (“California Girls”, “Little Deuce Coupe,” etc.) with a handful of deep-enough cuts to keep die-hard fans appeased and generic fans befuddled. Then Brian abruptly announced that the band would be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety.

Pet Sounds is, of course, an incredible work of art. As the band said at the close of the show, they were incredibly honored to play such transcendently beautiful music and as an audience member, it was wonderful to hear, even if Brian’s own involvement was limited. He has a talented band that does justice to his musical genius, but he appears to sit at the piano just to have somewhere to sit, and when he does sing, it isn’t exactly singing. “Don’t talk,” he told us, talking more than singing. “Put that head on my shoulder.” Considering the emotional, physical, mental, and drug abuse this man has suffered for most of his adult life combined with his age, however, it is understandable that he would no longer resemble the beloved voice found on record.

At the conclusion of “God Only Knows,” the audience gave Brian a standing ovation. “Thank you. Thank you,” he repeated. “Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated.” So polite and eager to keep the setlist moving.

The final track is, of course, “Caroline, No.” “It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die,” Brian sang. (Or did he? Maybe it was his vocal counterpart–his son-in-law. I can’t remember.) And before we even hear the barks of Banana and Louie, Brian is again taken away.

Brian quit touring with the Beach Boys at the end of 1964 due to the strain and pressure it put on him and to devote his focus to writing, producing, and recording. Brian was never very comfortable on stage. “Something’s off. It’s being up there,” Brian confides to his brothers in Love and Mercy after speculating that maybe he’s just “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”

(Need I remind you again that I am 1000% cuckoo for Love & Mercy? It is such a great movie, the best biopic, and all the awards to Paul Dano and John Cusack for such mesmerizing performances. So many good things in this film, including Paul Dano in white pants and Vans. Go ahead, drop another bobby pin. Oh yeah.)

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(If my husband is reading this, I have to defend myself. This is NOT the screen cap I said I needed to make a point in my post. This is what is referred to as aesthetically pleasing.)

“You don’t need me up there, looking like a jerk. I’ll be better back here at home, making music,” Brian pleads with Carl and Dennis. “I just wanna be home.” I get you, Brian. I get you.

And when we see Brian in the studio a few minutes later, starting work on Pet Sounds, we know he is right. Brian is an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable person, crushed by his father’s disapproval of the beginnings of “God Only Knows” in an earlier scene, yet he is so dynamic, articulate, and forceful (in a gentle way) about how he wants his music to sound.

“Brian, I think you might have screwed up here,” groovy Carol Kaye tells him at one point.

“Really? Let me see.”

“You’ve got Lyle playing in D and the rest of us are in A major.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“How does that work? Two bass lines in two different keys?”

“Well, it works in my head…I think it’s gonna work. Let’s try it.”

And when it does indeed work, Carol Kaye can’t help but smile. And Brian smiles, and it’s such a beautiful moment in the film. It really struck me the first time (out of 800) that I saw the film in theaters because it’s just a perfect encapsulation of who Brian is. He is the music, and he belongs at home or in the studio, creating music.

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We came home from the concert and watched Love and Mercy the next day. And I was struck again by how much heart and soul Brian put into Pet Sounds, at how in his element he was in the studio, and I wondered again, what was it that broke Brian so? Was it the lukewarm reception to Pet Sounds (stateside, at least), the band’s reluctance to indulge SMiLE, the drugs, his father, mental illness, Satan in the form of Eugene Landy, or a combination of all of the above? I don’t know. But it is so sad to watch this once dynamic, creative individual be reduced to a position he always hated–being on stage, spending more time watching the crowd hopelessly and wiping his hand across his forehead than actually singing. Again, all of the abuse this man has endured has taken its toll; I’m not criticizing the quality of the performance, despite Brian’s limited involvement, I’m just wondering if this is the best place for Brian.

One of the things that comes out of Love and Mercy is the triumph of Brian’s spirit and his redemption in both his music and the escape from Dr. Landy. He falls in love again and returns to creating music. And while he has created some great music in the past twenty-odd years, I have to wonder if the time for Brian Wilson to be performing live has passed, not only for his discomfort but also his health. Can’t he just be home, creating music and spending time with his family?

When Brian re-appeared for the encore (my husband was skeptical that he would be physically able to), the final song the band performed was “Love and Mercy,” which is the signature Brian Wilson track. Created under the duress of Dr. Landy, Brian’s caring, sensitive spirit still shines through the music. “A lot of people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me,” he sings, and you know he means it. He is such a genuinely humble, supremely sensitive human being, and you can feel that in his music. I had to express gratitude for the kind, gentle soul of Brian Wilson that evening.

P.S.

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“Who cares what Mike says?”

So many great lines in this movie.

P.S.S.

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Yeah, I get you, Brian. 1000%.

P.S.S.S. Coming up next: Favorite Beach Boys deep cuts. Be thinking of your favorites! A happy side effect of seeing Brian Wilson live is the inability to listen to anything but Beach Boys music 24/7.

Thoughts on Imagine

If you’ve been worried about me and my fragile mental state since my last post from more than a month ago (whoops), you were right to worry. Since that time, I’ve developed a new obsession because, you know, I was starting to run low on those…

(If you weren’t worried about me at all, that’s okay, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive, but it’s really not true. Unless it’s the wrong time of month, of course.)

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New life motto right there.

My newest obsession is a BBC/PBS Masterpiece show called Poldark, and I may have accidentally marathoned the first three seasons on Amazon Prime in about two weeks. Oops. We’re going to have to talk about it soon, so if you haven’t watched it yet, get ready!

I’ll give you a moment to wipe the drool from your mouth….

Meanwhile, John Lennon’s Imagine was re-released last month. This version is reportedly the ultimate release, and you won’t need to buy another copy of Imagine ever again. Fans had their choice of a single CD, a double CD or vinyl with the second disc featuring “elements mixes”, outtakes, demos, and alternate takes, or the ultimate edition with four audio discs (same content of the double CD edition plus more outtakes etc.), two blu-rays, and a hardcover book. Being quite fond of my old, battered vinyl copy of Imagine, a surprise gift from my husband when we were still dating, I simply opted for the double CD, decreeing it sufficient for my needs. Trying to cut back, y’know.

In the liner notes, engineer Paul Hicks states that Yoko Ono wanted this release to achieve three goals: first, be totally faithful and respectful to the originals, second, be sonically clearer overall, and finally, increase the clarity of John’s voice because, in her words, “It’s about John.” Which, of course, is absolutely true. For a man who (amazingly, inexplicably) hated his voice, his voice–in its genuine, bare-soul beauty–bears the greatest impact on Imagine (and every other Lennon work, I’d argue).

With this remastering of Imagine, that voice is clearer than ever before, making the album that much more powerful and enjoyable. Lennon once described Imagine as “Plastic Ono with chocolate coating”, referring to his first official solo venture, Plastic Ono Band, where, fully indulged in Primal Scream Therapy, he unleashed pent-up emotions about his upbringing, class, religion, and those darn Beatles.

But you know what? I like chocolate coating. It’s the food group at the bottom of the food pyramid in my world. I’ve been thinking about which Lennon album is my favorite (when I’m not, you know, thinking about Captain Poldark) or which is the best, and I just think Imagine might be it, chocolate coating and all. And I think it not only has to do with his voice and the lyrics but also that Imagine encapsulates John as a flawed, beautiful human being so well.

The title track is iconic, rightfully so, and has to be THE John Lennon track. Painting a portrait of a beautiful Utopian world, the lyrics are fraught with irony. “Imagine no possessions,” sings the man currently residing in what can only be described as a mansion sitting on 70-some acres. But there’s also the irony inherent in Lennon’s personality, which could alternately be loving and combative. We see this duality in “Jealous Guy,” where he plaintively seeks forgiveness (“I didn’t mean to hurt you/I’m sorry that I made you cry”) and tries to explain the cruel side of his personality (“I’m just a jealous guy…watch out”). John’s gentle, vulnerable voice makes this beautiful song transcendent.

Yet, Lennon bites on this album, too. He pokes fun at religious hypocrisy in “Crippled Inside,” and he leaves no survivors in “Gimme Some Truth.” The cutting lyrics, of which it is impossible to pick a single favorite line, attack politicians and their games. “Just gimme some truth,” Lennon snarls. His voice is front and center on this track, lending less volume to the backing track and emphasizing the power and emotion of his voice. It’s such a great and relevant track. And George Harrison’s slide guitar solo is pretty sweet, too.

John also poked fun at Paul’s cover art on Imagine as well…

Perhaps the harshest and most controversial track on the album is “How Do You Sleep?”, where Lennon directs his diatribe toward his former bandmate, Paul McCartney. “The only thing you done/Was Yesterday/And since you’ve gone/You’re just another day,” he sings, knowing where to hurt McCartney the most. McCartney, who sought, coveted, and needed Lennon’s approval, would be supremely hurt by such a severe dismissal of his musical accomplishments and talents. Lennon was responding to attacks he heard on Ram. McCartney later admitted that a few lines were digs at John and Yoko (“Too many people preaching practices”, “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”). The difference between the two is telling of their individual personalities: McCartney’s lyrics are allusive; Lennon’s lyrics are direct, leaving the listener to imagine absolutely nothing. Yet, the final product we hear on the album is less offensive than some of what was rehearsed. Visiting the studio, Ringo Starr witnessed some of the more bitter lyrics and told Lennon, “That’s enough, John.” For his part, George Harrison, again playing a mean slide guitar, had no visible reaction to the song, as seen in the Imagine film:

(Klaus Voorman looks pretty miserable as well.)

Paul was right to not respond–lyrically, at least–to the track, as there was never really any competing with John’s lyrical prowess and wit. It is important to note how the two men did eventually reconcile; by the time of Lennon’s death, the two had resumed their loving, brotherly relationship.

On Imagine, we hear Lennon’s plea for a better, more peaceful world, his unabashed, borderline obnoxious love for his wife (“In the middle of a bath, I call your name…Ohhhhh Yoooooooko!”–it should be annoying, but it’s kind of endearing and lovely), his admittance of his shortcomings (“I’m just a jealous guy”), and his venom for hypocrisy in all its forms, even if that means attacking a dearly loved friend. He is loving. He is angry. He is hopeful. He is kind. He is viciously cruel. He was all of those things, and while he sings of a longing for a better world on Imagine, he ultimately worked diligently to become a better man until his life was senselessly cut short. “He was no angel,” a journalist commented to George Harrison in 1988. “He wasn’t. But he was, as well,” George replied. “Was he?” the journalist challenged. “Yeah,” was Harrison’s simple reply.

Imagine–now in its full remastered glory–is a wonderful reminder of that.