By Will ("The Thrill") Viharo
The Meaning of Cool; The Return of the Shadow; A Crimson Kimono; and the Original Taxi Driver
(click on Schedule link at left for movies and showtimes)
think they're trying to bait me now - I mean the Conspirators Against Cool out there, and there are millions (one of them somehow got his own office in the White House). Most recently, there was another offensively arrogant series of articles in the Sunday Datebook of the San Francisco Chronicle. This rag just revels in pushing my buttons (and like a masochistic bitch I keep going back for more rude slaps - at least it prints more original pieces than the Oakland Tribune, a sad reality; when will Oaktown get the paper it deserves? Or does it already?). The article in question was a subjective categorization and neatly organized listing of the All Time Quintessentially Cool musicians, spanning all genres. I know, this is an incredibly stupid idea to begin with, given the subjectivity involved - the editors obviously wanted to provoke a maelstrom of protest. They can always count on me. And when it comes to cool, a lounge lizard like me just has to take a stand - Lounge IS what Cool is all about, baby, musically and lifestyle-wise.
In its pure, historically accurate context, "cool" is a jazz term coined by jazz musicians to define a certain detached attitude. Lester Young usually gets the credit for it, and that's probably true, though we're still arguing over whether it was Alan Freed or Louis Jordan or somebody else who first coined the term "rock 'n' roll." (Like it matters.) The article rightly pointed this out - and also went on to further qualify the term by reminding us that, in the strict sense, rock and hip-hop are not "cool" music, according to the original jazz standard. Of course, once you get to their little lists, all of this has been thrown out the window, and rock and hip-hop rule their opinions.
It's true that the meaning of the term cool has been co-opted and completely revised to suit the tornado turnstile of trends that have shaped and re-shaped our culture in the past half century. Nobody really knows what it means anymore - now it's pretty much synonymous with its modern day equivalent, "tight" (pardon me if that term is already out-dated, I don't have my MTV phrase book handy at the moment). In "Swingers," Vince Vaughan introduced yet another '90s equivalent: "money." In the '60s cool was synonymous with "bitchin'" or "groovy"; in the '70s, "outta sight" or "right on" meant something was cool. In the '80s, it was the dreaded "rad." Basically, all these words and phrases mean the same thing: something has been deemed acceptable by the parties discussing it, whether it's because the thing in question is superior, unique, bizarre, whatever. Despite all the linguistic variants morphing rapidly from generation to generation, the word "cool" itself has never really faded away. It's just been permanently corrupted. And that's no one's fault, really - that's just how language works; it evolves, or it dies. Unlike, for instance, the species which speaks it.
Of course, the world, and pop culture, and society, are not what they were when Lester Young or one of his pallys coined this oft-used phrase. "Cool" was just the opposite of "hot," in the way be-bop is on the opposing end of the sonic spectrum from Dixieland and swing. "Cool" means (or meant) relaxed, confident, effortless, and "beat"; "hot" meant focusing more on the beat in the music than the "beat" in the lifestyle. In a political context, cool meant rising above the racial ruckus of the day, refusing to engage in heated hypocrisy. You can't "try" to "be cool" - that very effort negates the effect. A cool person doesn't care what anyone else thinks of them, or anything really - they do their own thing oblivious to the judgements and standards of the world around them. They also don't sit around making lists of who is cool and who isn't. That is the opposite of cool. I may not know what it is, but I sure know what it ain't.
What got me about these lists from the Chron's pop music critics was the smugly definitive attitude, like they know something about being cool that we (or musicians in general) don't. This was a cynical ploy to see how many readers were paying attention. Once again, I fell for it. First of all, they had the gall to claim that my mentors, Frank Sinatra and Elvis, "had it" then "lost it" - even though their influence and popularity continues beyond the grave, which to me is pretty damn cool. Remember, these journalistic assessments are coming from people who never "got it" to begin with. I should've quit reading right there. They also made a Top 40 list of the Quintessential Cool - Jimi Hendrix, a rock guitarist, not a jazz musician, was Number One. How PC white liberal hippie. Sure, he was good at what he did, but surf never died, despite Jimi's dream, and Dick Dale is just as "cool" as he is, though he didn't make the list. So is Link Wray. No mention. Number Two was Marvin Gaye - I can live with that, though the act of listing them in order is supremely moronic. I needed something to read over my Sunday breakfast, though. Number Three or Four was Gene Vincent - "the real Elvis." Here's where I decided a written retort was in order.
I call myself a "Rat Pack Democrat" - meaning I'm left-leaning, but with style. I am socially liberal, but I also believe in drinking, dressing well and ogling shapely asses. I support feminism but I also collect cheesecake magazines and pin-ups and see nothing wrong with a little harmless objectification of the female form (and neither does my wife Monica, Tiki Goddess, who is much more radically feminist and leftist than I am, and also a bit bi-sexual). I support gay marriage, when I think about it, which admittedly isn't often. I despise racism and discrimination in any form. I firmly believe in the whole live and let live philosophy. I believe black people have a rougher time of it than white people have it in this country, though I would never pretend to know exactly what that feels like. I love classic soul and jazz, but I detest the abrasive sounds of hip-hop, and it has nothing to do with lyrics or race but everything to do with music. That's just my personal taste, but I certainly don't deny anyone else their right to listen to anything that turns them on and reflects their own personality and lifestyle. The point I am eventually going to make here is that I HATE it when white liberals put on this phony hippie bullshit façade. It embarrasses me. In this same article, Nat King Cole was deemed "cooler than Sinatra." Why? Because he's black AND smooth? (I'm quoting from my own letter now.) This is outrageously ignorant. I love Nat King Cole, but he is not "cooler" than Sinatra. And Gene Vincent may have died younger, skinnier, poorer, dumber, and more obscure than Elvis, but that doesn't not make him "the real" Elvis. How come these big city critics fawn over white trash rockabilly legends but snicker with patronizing superiority when the discussion turns to their redneck audiences - their religion, mores, I.Q's and politics? Gene Vincent never made a bunch of stupid movies or wore a sequined jumpsuit - but he also never sang operatic ballads, classic standards, and raunchy rock 'n' roll with equal zest and mastery - like Elvis did. Gene Vincent did what he did, Nat King Cole did what he did, Frank Sinatra did what he did, and Elvis did what he did - all beautifully, without competition. None were the "real" versions of the other one. I really hate that backseat icon mentality. They worship Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker as vicariously tragic, but snub artists who stick around a while to enjoy their lives and the rewards of their talent. This is the only criteria, however erroneous, by which you could possibly explain the complete omission of Sammy Davis Jr., the heppest of the hepcats (along with Louis Prima, who was mentioned but as being "too hot to be cool," whatever the hell that means. So was Madonna. Madonna and Louis Prima do not belong on the same list, ever.)
In my letter, I brought up, just off the top of my head, a posse of eternally cool people not even referred to in the articles - glaringly obvious examples like Bobby Darin, Keely Smith, Mel Torme, Henry Mancini, Herb Alpert, Sarah Vaughan, and Eartha Kitt. I mean, fuckin' Bjork makes their Top 40, but not Julie London??? Julie was a JAZZ SINGER , for crying out loud. Bjork is like a human iceberg, from what I know about her, which isn't much, but this doesn't necessarily make her "cool." You want to think she is anyway? Fine, I couldn't care less. But don't make a Top 40 list (how neatly rounded for such a dubiously determined subject) of your favorite artists and call them the Quintessential Cool, then publish it in a major newspaper.
Dean Martin, the King of Cool, didn't make their Top 40 either, but Kurt Cobain, the sultan of self-pitying slobs, did (not even Jim Morrison, who died the same age as Hendrix and Cobain, made the cut - I don't get it). Of course, Dino's response to this would be a yawn and a shrug. Why? Because COOL PEOPLE DON'T NEED THE VALIDATION OF OTHERS.
Time to move on to this month's movies. As many of you are already aware, my day job is programmer and publicist for the Parkway Speakeasy Theater, where I hold court every other Thursday in Thrillville. One of the many perks of this job, besides getting to see new movies for free and in many cases even that's too expensive, is that I have a free hand in programming film festivals. This year I am bringing back one of our most successful fests - Film Noir (for complete schedule, see the Parkway site, www.picturepubpizza.com), with thirteen films playing throughout the month. As usual, in order to appease our varied demographics, I ran the gamut from obscure to obvious, from classic to neo-noir and a couple of unearthed gems in between. Normally I reserve the weird, offbeat stuff for Thrillville, where I have carefully cultivated a crowd of hungry freaks, God bless you all - and this year is no exception.
First, I am bringing back, despite the lack of popular demand, more chapters in THE SHADOW serial from 1940. I showed the first two in April, and feel duty-bound to continue, though, to be honest, very few of you have expressed any true concern for the cliff-hanging dilemmas of Lamont Cranston. At this late date not even I can recall the latest lurch we left him in, but no mater - they always spend the first five minutes of a chapter serial reviewing the last five minutes of the previous chapter, to catch you up. This serial is not as exciting as, say, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, but it's great pulpy fun, despite is stereotyping of Asians, or its revisionist take on the Shadow's style and MO (he's much more of a gadget-happy superhero than a man of mystery in this version). Still, he does his little Shadow tricks like throwing his voice, and there's a lot of nostalgic slam-bang ambiance, so what the hell, let's all find out how he gets out of his last jam and into the next one. I'll be showing one chapter at each of my next four shows, through October's Creature Double Features, which will also mark the return of Bob Wilkins to the Parkway (click over to my Schedule page for advance ticket sales and complete program info).
On September 13, Chapter Three of The Shadow precedes Sam Fuller's THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959), in which James Shigeta takes on racism and inter-racial romance while tracking down the murderer of a stripper. This one is kind of low-key compared to Fuller's later cult classics like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, but it will please the average Thrill seeker and hardcore Fuller buff alike. It's bubbling over with sleazy 50s LA atmosphere and interesting social/political undertones, and is all too rarely screened. Chapter Four of The Shadow will show two weeks later on September 27 before MURDER BY CONTRACT (1958), another fascinating B movie gem. This movie reportedly inspired Martin Scorsese to make Taxi Driver, which is also playing during the Parkway fest (in fact, the three days before this one shows). I know Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, but Scorsese claimed Vince Edward's portrayal of a lonely, conflicted hit man in Murder by Contract was the prototype for DeNiro's Travis Bickle. Come see the connections for yourself - even if you can't, the movie itself is well worth discovering on its own.
That's it for this month, but next month - whew! I'm "beat" already. See you there, and stay cool.
ONE ATOM BRAIN, THIRTEEN GHOSTS, TWO GODZILLAS, THE LAST DRACULA, JOHN STANLEY and BOB WILKINS!!
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