Monday, December 28, 2020

Happy Birthday, Andy Summers!

On New Year's Eve, Thursday, December 31, 2020, Andy Summers – my favorite guitarist and musician of all time – turns 78 years old.

I first became acquainted with the music of Summers in 1983 at the age of 10 in a Catholic elementary school classroom when I heard a hypnotic and futuristic-sounding pop/rock song emanating from the radio of Candy, my substitute teacher. When I asked what the song was and who recorded it, I was promptly informed that it was “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police. I was instantly hooked, so much so that that Christmas, my parents got me a vinyl copy of Synchronicity, The Police’s fifth and final studio album and one of the biggest hits of the year. The Police have since remained my favorite rock band of all time.

Summers was the guitarist for the mega-popular group, who were active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and reunited for a 30th anniversary tour in 2007 and 2008. Being a good decade older than his bandmates Sting and Stewart Copeland, Summers began his professional recording career in the early 1960s, playing for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band (which later became the psychedelic but short-lived Dantalian’s Chariot), Eric Burdon’s New Animals, and Soft Machine. After formally studying guitar at Northridge University in California from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Summers returned to England and plied his trade as a session guitarist for Joan Armatrading, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Coyne, and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord before achieving monumental success and international stardom with The Police.

After the dissolution of The Police in the early 1980s, Summers scored some Hollywood films (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Weekend at Bernie’s) and recorded one rock vocal album before establishing himself as an acclaimed and accomplished contemporary instrumental guitarist across a variety of styles, including jazz, fusion, new age, and world music.

I was privileged to interview Summers by telephone in Fall 2000 for the January 2001 issue of DirecTV: The Guide. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Summers posted a notice of the interview in the news section of his Web site. Later, I met Summers in person during his book tour in Fall 2006, just a few months before The Police reunited for a 30th anniversary reunion tour, which I was fortunate to attend twice in August of 2007 and 2008.

For a good overview of Summers’ solo work, I highly recommend the following albums: Mysterious Barricades, A Windham Hill Retrospective, Synaesthesia, and The X Tracks. My personal favorite Summers albums are XYZ, Mysterious Barricades, The Golden Wire, Charming Snakes, World Gone Strange, Synaesthesia, Earth + Sky, Fundamental (with Fernanda Takai), Circus Hero (with his rock band Circa Zero), and Triboluminescence.

--Raj Manoharan

Happy Birthday, Michael Nesmith!

On Wednesday, December 30, 2020, The Monkees' Michael Nesmith (the one with the green wool hat) turns 78 years old.

Of all of The Monkees, Nesmith has had the most prolific and successful solo career. He pioneered the country-rock music format in the early to mid-1970s, founded the music and video label Pacific Arts, and basically created the concept of MTV. In addition to producing films and music videos, Nesmith also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Home Video for Elephant Parts, which later led to NBC’s short-lived Television Parts. In an interesting side note, Nesmith’s mother invented liquid paper and sold it to Gillette for a substantial fortune, which Nesmith inherited.

For a good overview of Nesmith’s music, I recommend The Older Stuff, The Newer Stuff, Tropical Campfire’s, Live at the Britt Festival, Rays, Movies of the Mind, Infinite Tuesday: Autobiographical Riffs -- The Music, and Live at the Troubadour.

More information about Nesmith is available on his Web site at www.videoranch.com.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, November 29, 2020

David Prowse (1935 - 2020)

Star Wars has been a major part of not only American and world popular culture, but also my personal and professional life, for the last 43 years.

My first movie memory is seeing Star Wars literally under the stars at a drive-in movie theater during its original release in 1977, when I was four years old.

Later, I found myself in the presence of Darth Vader himself, or at least the iconic voice of the fearful Dark Lord of the Sith, when James Earl Jones, along with Joe DiMaggio, spoke at my NYU commencement ceremony in 1994. Thank the Force that I graduated one year ahead of my class!

Only three years after that, I interviewed Darth Vader's son, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), on the phone for my first freelance article, which was published in Starlog, an iconic global science-fiction entertainment magazine that I had grown up reading as a teenager and young adult.

While James Earl Jones is synonymous with Darth Vader for his menacing and metallic baritone intonation, it was the seven-foot-tall British stuntman and actor David Prowse who brought the black armor-clad villain to life. Prowse's less than adequate vocal prowess necessitated the overdubbing of Jones, but it was Prowse's towering figure and commanding stage presence that made a visual impact on the big screen.

Body language is a big part of acting, and in that context, nobody wore that heavy suit quite like Prowse, not even Hayden Christensen, who played Vader's former self, fallen Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, in the prequel trilogy. Prowse's physical gesticulations and movements defined Vader's imposing and intimidating villainy.

Prowse's finest acting scenes occur in the exchange between Vader and Luke on the forest moon of Endor, in their duel in front of Emperor Palpatine, and just before the dying and redeemed Vader's mask comes off, in the original trilogy's finale, Return of the Jedi. Prowse aptly and deftly communicated Vader's confusion, regret, concern for his son, and his ultimate rapprochement with his son, all without the benefit of his face or even his own voice. That is quite the thespian accomplishment.

May the Force be with you, your family, your friends, and your fans, Lord Prowse.

--Raj Manoharan

Sean Connery (1930 - 2020)

Sean Connery was the first big-screen James Bond, perhaps the most memorable, and definitely the only Bond actor to evade the stigma of typecasting and forge a cinematic career and identity all his own, far beyond the confines of Ian Fleming's famed British secret agent.

In addition to his high-profile Academy Award-winning role in The Untouchables, Connery built an impressive filmography that includes Robin and Marian, Outland, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, First Knight, The Rock, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Also, when you watch him in any of his post-Bond roles, you are watching and thinking Sean Connery, not James Bond. Even when you go back and watch his Bond films, you are watching and thinking Sean Connery, not James Bond.

The name was Connery, Sean Connery, and he both shook and stirred films and film fans around the world alike.

--Raj Manoharan

Eddie Van Halen (1955 - 2020)

I was never a fan of the band Van Halen, but being among the first generation of MTV viewers, I grew up watching and enjoying their outlandish and flamboyant music videos, especially during the tenure of their first lead singer, David Lee Roth.

As a casual admirer, I definitely enjoyed their songs – particularly “Jump” – and the guitar artistry and wizardry of Eddie Van Halen. His guest solo on Michael Jackson's “Beat It!” was and is perfection.

I wish EVH recorded and released instrumental solo albums, because I would have definitely bought them. Unlike the rest of the “shredders” out there, he had a keen sense of composition and melody, providing tasteful and accessible context for his fretboard pyrotechnics.

I will also always be grateful to EVH for “discovering” one of my favorite guitarists, new age jazz/rock fusion impresario Allan Holdsworth, who was nine years EVH's senior.

EVH was one of the last generation of true guitar heroes. No guitarist has emerged in the last twenty to thirty years that matches the iconic status and achievements of the prominent guitarists of the 1960s through the 1980s.

Eddie Van Halen was and will always remain a giant in the pantheon of six-string slingers.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Chadwick Boseman (1976 - 2020)

As a lifelong fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, and superheroes, I am deeply crestfallen by the shocking news of the death of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer at the age of 43.

But while remiss at this tremendous loss of a gifted, rising young actor who already accomplished so much and had a positively bright future ahead of him, both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and beyond, I am very encouraged by the outpouring of tributes to him from his colleagues, peers, fans, and admirers. It is a powerful testament to the impact he had and will continue to have on minority children and adults for decades to come.

Although he had served as an inspiring role model by portraying real-life African-American pioneers such as Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson, R&B singer James Brown, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, it is his turn as the fictional Marvel superhero Black Panther, in his own movie as well as several other Marvel films, that continues to be a source of pride and aspiration for people of color in America and around the world.

One small way to honor the memory of Chadwick Boseman is to listen to the Grammy and Academy Award-winning Black Panther soundtrack, one of the best superhero and general motion picture scores of all time. The potent and formidable musical themes of cultural heritage and pride, heroism, virtue, and strength of character not only beautifully and wonderfully elevate the world of King T'Challa/Black Panther, but also and especially serve as a fitting celebration of the real-life man who played him.

--Raj Manoharan

Black Panther Original Score (2018), by Ludwig Goransson

In Honor and Memory of Chadwick Boseman (1976 - 2020)

Black Panther is one of the absolute best Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and certainly the most unique, and its corresponding soundtrack is definitely the best of the bunch.

Ludwig Goransson has created music that is every bit as remarkable as the movie it underscores, especially in its visceral, life-affirming revelry of African sounds and rhythms.

Based on his personal, firsthand research into and study of African musical traditions, Goransson structured his compositions around indigenous vocals, tribal chants, and exotic ethnic instruments, especially drums and percussion (Police drummer Stewart Copeland employed a similar process for his groundbreaking 1985 Afro-pop/rock album The Rhythmatist).

The result is an incredible, epic work of Afrocentric world music fused with hip techno and electronica and rousing, soaring symphony orchestra.

"Wakanda," "Warrior Falls," and the last four tracks of the album are excellent, perfectly capturing the film’s interwoven themes of family, honor, and heroism.

The Black Panther score is not only the cream of the crop of Marvel and superhero movie soundtracks, but it also ranks among the most memorable film music of all time.

--Raj Manoharan