September 2010 Archives

Swan Song

band-of-gypsys-cover.jpg“Happy New Year, first of all,” Jimi Hendrix says to the Fillmore East crowd at the dawn of 1970. “We hope you have about a million or two million more of them — if we can get over this summer.” He pauses and follows that with a “heh heh heh” that suggests a hint of self-loathing.

In hindsight, it might be the saddest recorded laugh in history, as Hendrix didn’t survive the summer, dying at age 27 on September 18.

Of course, it would be stupid to read anything into Hendrix’s audience banter beyond the irony of his imminent passing. He was simply acknowledging the lameness of his quip, and he moves on, dedicating the next song to urban warriors and quickly appending: “Oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.”

And then: “We’d like to do a thing called ‘Machine Gun.’”

The next 12 minutes — captured on the Band of Gypsys [sic] album — almost certainly represent Hendrix’s finest live performance. And it’s not merely the guitar-playing; this “Machine Gun” is the pinnacle of rock musicianship, with the instruments indivisible from the song, its subject matter, and its pitched emotions.

arizona-1.jpgFor whatever reason, I’ve steadfastly avoided most of the Coen brothers’ sillier movies. (If forced to ascribe a cause, I would point to The Hudsucker Proxy.) But a friend’s earnest e-mail (titled “Urgent Coen Brothers symbolism inquiry”) pushed me to watch Raising Arizona, which in the context of a discussion of nihilism and No Country for Old Men led me back to Miller’s Crossing, which for the hell of it got me (for the first time) to see The Big Lebowski. (Understand that I do not put Miller’s Crossing among “the Coen brothers’ sillier movies.”)

Watching the three together was instructive. First, it reinforced that the Coens’ filmography is amazingly consistent in its concerns. In all three, the protagonist is at the mercy of forces and figures far greater than himself, and he can scarcely imagine the depth and scope of the mess he’s in. (You can also see that formula at work in the brothers’ three most recent movies: No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man.)

But I also realized that my resistance to the Coens’ absurdist films is not a fear of watching a bad movie; rather, it’s the certainty that my time investment won’t be rewarded beyond diversion.