An update on projected 2018 Democratic U. S. House seat gains

UPDATED Midnight EST, November 20, 2018. As of this writing, Democrats have netted 38 seats in the United States House of Representatives, with three races still to be called. Democrat Ben McAdams narrowly leads incumbent Republican Mia Love in Utah’s 4th Congressional District (CD), while Democrats trail narrowly in California’s 21st and Georgia’s 7th CD. For a fuller analysis of the 2018 midterm elections, see here. For more details on called and uncalled races, see here and here.

**********

With Democrat Conor Lamb’s narrow victory over Republican Rick Saccone in the March 13, 2018 special election to fill the United States House of Representatives (House) seat vacated by Republican Tim Murphy, there were 238 Republican-held seats, 193 Democratic-held seats and four open seats (2 Democratic, 2 Republican).

The two Democratic open seats (MI-13, NY-25) are likely to remain open until the entire House is up for election on November 6, 2018. In the last three presidential elections, the Democratic nominee won these Congressional districts (CD) by an average 67.4 and 18.3 percentage points (points), respectively, so it is highly likely both seats will be won by Democrats. The seat vacated by Republican Trent Franks (AZ-08) will be filled in a special election on April 24, while that of Republican Patrick Tiberi (OH-12) will be filled in a special election on August 7. The last three Republican presidential nominees won these two CDs by 22.7 and 10.2 points, respectively. The Arizona seat will likely remain Republican, though the Ohio seat could be close.

For now, however, let us assume that party control of these four CDs does not change. That would leave the partisan balance at 195 Democrats and 240 Republicans. This means that Democrats need to flip a net total of at least 23 seats to win a House majority after the 2018 midterm elections.

In a previous post, I listed projected Democratic net House seat gains based upon four models; I developed two of these models.

Briefly, I use the change in the margin by which Democrats won/lost the total nationwide vote for all 435 House seats (Democratic % – Republican %) from the previous Congressional elections (24 election, 1970-2016). In 2016, the Democrats lost the national House vote 47.6% to 48.7%, for a margin of -1.1 points[1]. The current FiveThirtyEight estimate is that Democrats leading in generic Congressional polls (“If the election was held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in your district?”) by 6.5 points (13.1% unsure/other parties).  If that were the actual election margin, that would equal a change of 6.5 – (-1.1) = 7.6 points.

In my “simple” ordinary least squares (OLS) regression model, I use only this value:

Estimated Democratic net seat gain = -1.63 + 3.11 * Change in Democratic margin

On average, every one percentage increase in the change in Democratic margin nets Democrats 3.1 additional House seats. Plugging a 7.6 point change in Democratic margin into the formula yields:

-1.63 + 3.11 * 7.6 = 22.01

This model has Democrats falling one seat shy of a House majority, even after winning the national House vote by 6.5 points—a result that should give believers in “one person, one vote” pause.

The 95% confidence interval (CI) around this estimate is 13.3 – 30.8, meaning we can say with 95% confidence that a 7.6 point shift in Democratic national House margin would result in a net gain of between 13 and 31 seats. This translates to a 41.2% chance the Democrats net at least 23 House seats in November 2018.

Again—that is when Democrats win the national House vote by 6.5 points. Take your pick of what to blame: incumbency advantage (Republicans gained a net 63 House seats in 2010 before the most recent round of redistricting), geographic self-sorting (Democrats in urban areas, Republicans in rural/small town areas, suburbs up for grabs) and partisan gerrymandering.

In a slightly more complex model, I account for whether the Congressional election coincided with a midterm or a presidential election:

If Midterm: Estimated Democratic net seat gain = -2.77 + 3.41 * Change in Democratic margin + 2.433

If Presidential: Estimated Democratic net seat gain = -2.77 + 2.08 * Change in Democratic margin

And here I make a confession.

In previous discussions of results from this complex model, I used an incorrect “intercept” term (-1.63 instead of -2.77), increasing estimated net Democratic House seat gains (by 1.14) and probabilities of House recapture.

Not a huge change, but I do strive for accuracy here.

Cutting to the chase, under the assumed 7.6 point change in national Democratic House margin, the complex model yields an estimated Democratic net gain of 25.6 seats (95% CI: -8.2 to 59.3[2]) with a 56.0% probability of regaining control of the House.

Here is Table 1 from my previous post updated to reflect the corrected “Berger 2” model and a required 23 net House seat gain for Democrats.

Table 1: Projections of 2018 Democratic net gains in House seats

Dem national House margin Abramson Brennan Berger 1 Berger 2
2% 19 5 8

(0%)

10

(12%)

4% 23 7 14

(1%)

17

(33%)

6% 27 13 20

(28%)

24

(52%)

8% 30 15 27

(78%)

31

(66%)

10% 34 21 33

(97%)

37

(75%)

11% 36 28 36

(99%)

41

(78%)

12% 38 31 39

(99+%)

44

(81%)

14% 42 41 45

(99+%)

51

(85%)

16% 46 56 52

 (100%)

58

 (88%)

And here is my updated graphic displaying the probability Democrats recapture the House given various changes in Democratic margin  (and dotted line indicating House control is 50-50):

Figure 1: Probability Democrats control U. S. House of Representatives after 2018 elections given change in Democratic margin from 2016

Democratic Probability 2018 House capture

You may ask why I assessed change in margin rather than actual margin. The two values are correlated r=0.55, meaning that there is a relatively strong, linear association between them (i.e., more often than not, when one increases/decreases the other increases/decreases), so the models should be broadly similar.

The outcome of interest to me is whether Democrats net at least 23 House seats they did not win in 2016. For that to happen, Democratic 2016 margins must increase from, say, 0 to -15 points to between +15 to 0 points. Republicans won 31 House seats in 2016 by ≤15 points, so a uniform swing (i.e. margin in every CD changes an identical amount) of 15 points toward the Democrats would net them eight more House seats than they need.

But let’s say the swing is not uniform. Perhaps the 195 Democratic-held seats see no change in margin in 2018, while the 240 Republican-held seats see a uniform shift of 15 points. That equates to an 8.3 point overall margin shift toward the Democrats, still netting them 31 seats (by comparison, my two models show an 8.6 point change in Democratic margin netting them 24-28 House seats).

Now, I could simply compare the actual Democratic margin in the national House vote to the actual number of seats won. The simple model is:

Estimated Democratic seats = 217.92 + 4.61 * Democratic margin

And the more complex model is:

If Midterm: Estimated Democratic seats = 211.29 + 4.18 * Democratic margin + 9.877

If Presidential: Estimated Democratic seats = 211.29 + 5.90 * Democratic margin

Plugging the current FiveThirtyEight estimate (Democrats+6.5) into either model yields an estimated 248 Democratic House seats—a net gain of 53 seats! That is a far more optimistic projection that those estimated using change in Democratic margin (22-26).

Moreover, if the Democrats and Republicans simply break even in 2018 (1.1 point increase from 2016), the “actual margin” models would project a bare Democratic House majority (218-221 seats), a net gain of 23-26 seats. By contrast, the “change in margin” models would project a net Democratic gain of only 2-3 seats under this assumption.

Statistically speaking, all four models are valid and account for more than 80% of the variance in the independent variable (net seat gain, seats won), a very high value for such simple models. Various indicators,[3] meanwhile, suggest that the simpler models are a better fit to the data than the complex models.

For now, though, I stick with the “change in margin” models as they align more with other projections (and a back-of-the-envelope seat-by-seat examination) and have, to me, a stronger conceptual underpinning.

That leaves one final test of the “change in margin” models.

One way to test the reliability (measuring the same underlying concept over repeated measurements) of OLS regression models is to remove, say, 1970 data, then rerun the regression. You would use the new model to estimate the value for the missing data point. Doing this for all (or a random subset) of data points yields illustrative comparisons between actual and estimated value, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Estimated (after removing that year’s data) and actual net Democratic change in House seats, 1970-2016

Year % Point Change in Dem  Margin Actual Net Dem House Seats Estimated –Actual Net Dem House Seats Model 1 Estimated –Actual Net Dem House Seats Model 2
1970 6.8 12 8.2 12.6
1972 -3.4 -13 0.8 3.6
1974 11.4 49 -17.9 -13.6
1976 -3.3 1 -13.6 -12.3
1978 -4.7 -15 -1.3 -1.5
1980 -6.0 -35 15.8 25.5
1982 9.1 27 -0.4 4.5
1984 -6.6 -16 -6.7 -0.6
1986 4.8 5 8.9 12.4
1988 -2.1 2 -10.6 -10.2
1990 0.1 7 -8.7 -7.6
1992 -2.8 -9 -1.4 0.5
1994 -12.0 -54 17.9 16.6
1996 7.1 3 19.1 12.4
1998 -1.2 4 -9.8 -9.2
2000 0.5 1 -1.1 -3.0
2002 -4.3 -8 -7.4 -7.8
2004 2.0 -2 6.9 3.8
2006 10.5 31 0.1 5.6
2008 2.6 23 -17.4 -22.8
2010 -17.2 -63 11.0 6.6
2012 7.9 7 17.6 9.9
2014 -7.1 -12 -12.8 -14.5
2016 4.7 6 7.5 1.2
Average, Raw Values 0.2 0.5
Average, Absolute Values 9.3 9.1
Average, Absolute Values, Midterms Only 8.7 9.4
Average, Absolute Values, Presidential Only 9.9 8.8

In the final two columns, a positive value means Democrats underperformed their estimated net House seat gain, while a negative values means they overperformed. Democrats underperformed and overperformed on both models 11 times each. In 1982 and 1992, the Democrats slightly overperformed on the simple model and slightly underperformed on the complex model.

The largest underperformances (≥10.0 in either model) were in 1980, 1994, 1996, 2010 and 2012; three were wave years (1980, 1994, 2010) in which Democrats averaged a net loss of 54 House seats. Similarly, the largest overperformances were in 1974, 1976, 1988, 2008 and 2014; strong waves occurred in 1974 and 2008 (Dems+36, on average) and 2014 (Dems-12). The pattern is not perfect, however, as the model was fairly close in the wave year of 2006 (Dems+31), missing by an average of three seats. Still, in 10 of 24 elections, at least one model missed the actual net change in Democratic House seats by ≥10 seats.

On average, estimates were spot on, as overperformance and underperformance essentially cancel out. However, when you examine the absolute value (difference in either direction) of differences, the models do worse, averaging +/- 9 seats. The slight differences between midterm and presidential election years make little practical difference.

Applying these average differences to the current projections (change from 2016 in Democratic national House margin of 7.6 points) yields

Berger 1: 22.0 +/- 9.3 = 12.7 to 31.3 net Democratic House seats

Berger 2: 25.6 +/- 9.1 = 16.5 to 34.7 net Democratic House seats

Put another way: Democrats would need to win the national House vote by 9.8 points in the simple model, and by 8.5 points in the complex model, for the lower end of these projected ranges to be 23 seats (what Democrats need to net to control the House after the 2018 midterm elections).

This is not how a representative democracy is supposed to work.

Until next time…

[1] Using data from Dave Liep’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

[2] This extremely wide CI results from using only 24 data points to estimate three parameters.

[3] Among them adjusted r-squared, residual sums of squares, degrees of freedom.

Projected 2018 Democratic U.S. House seat gains

This piece (only available to subscribers) appeared earlier today on Taegan Goddard’s absolutely essential Political Wire.

A new Brennan Center report says “extreme gerrymandering” could cost Democrats control of the House unless they ride a massive blue wave.

Because of maps designed to favor Republicans, Democrats would need to win by a nearly unprecedented nationwide margin in 2018 to gain control of the House of Representatives. To attain a bare majority, Democrats would likely have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 points. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have won by such an overwhelming margin in decades. Even a strong blue wave would crash against a wall of gerrymandered maps.

Yet this is misleading without also mentioning the “the great sorting” of voters that has taken place over the last two decades. An equal, if not bigger, barrier to Democrats winning the House is the extreme urbanization of Democratic voters which leads to millions of “wasted” votes.

 Pew Research study shows:

Voters in urban counties have long aligned more with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, and this Democratic advantage has grown over time. Today, twice as many urban voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic (62%) as affiliate with the GOP or lean Republican.

Overall, those who live in suburban counties are about evenly divided in their partisan loyalties (47% Democratic, 45% Republican), little changed over the last two decades.

In addition, while mapping technology has made it easier for congressional maps to be gerrymandered in the redistricting process, the sorting of the electorate into distinct geographic areas makes it even easier.

Both phenomena — the use of gerrymandering during redistricting and the geographic sorting of voters — coexist and give Republicans an advantage in congressional elections.

What does this mean for the 2018 midterm elections? The Cook Political Report has found that in the last three election cycles, Democrats have won roughly 4% fewer seats than votes received nationally. If this trend holds true in 2018, then Democrats would need to win the House popular vote by roughly 7% to win the 23 seats they need to take a majority. This is a similar to a projection made by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.

In contrast, the Brennan study, which looks at responsiveness of vote margins in individual states, suggests Democrats would need an 11% margin to take control of the House.

I have expressed mild skepticism about the role gerrymandering has played in the maintenance of Republican majorities in the United States House of Representatives (House) since 2011, writing this about “wasted” votes (which I call “extraneous votes” [ExV]):

In 2016, Democrats averaged 112,222 ExV and Republicans averaged 98,582, meaning Democrats averaged 13.8% more ExV than Republicans. Narrowing the analysis only to the 39 states where partisan redistricting is even possible closes the gap: 111,401 to 102,963, with Democrats averaging 8.2% more ExV. Further removing seats with candidate(s) of only one major party reduces the absolute gap to 97,701 to 89,970, with Democrats averaging 8.9% more ExV than Republicans.

This is additional evidence for the geographic self-sorting of Democrats, which I agree (along with the creation of majority-minority legislative districts under the Voting Rights Act) has enabled Republican gerrymandering. I would also observe that Republicans won a net total of 63 House seats (and House control) in 2010, before the current legislative district lines were drawn.

The piece concluded with a tabulation of projected 2018 Democratic net House seat gains given a range of Democrats national House vote margins using the “Abramson” and “Brennan” models. Democrats need a net gain of 23 House seats to recapture the majority.

Given my own research into the relationship between national House vote margin and House seats won (using change in Democratic share of the national House vote from two years earlier; Democrats lost the national House vote by 1.1 percentage points in 2016, despite netting six seats), I decided to append my projections to Goddard’s table. “Berger 1” uses percentage point change only, while “Berger 2” also adjusts for midterm vs. presidential election. For my projections, I display both the estimated net seat gain as well as the probability Democrats net the 23 seats necessary to regain House control. In each column, boldfaced values represent Democratic House control.

Table 1: Projections of 2018 Democratic net gains in House seats

Dem national House margin Abramson Brennan Berger 1 Berger 2
2% 19 5 8

(0%)

11

(14%)

4% 23 7 14

(1%)

18

(36%)

6% 27 13 20

(28%)

25

(55%)

8% 30 15 27

(78%)

32

(68%)

10% 34 21 33

(97%)

39

(77%)

11% 36 28 36

(99%)

42

(80%)

12% 38 31 39

(99+%)

45

(82%)

14% 42 41 45

(99+%)

52

(86%)

16% 46 56 52

 (100%)

59

 (89%)

My projections fall in between those of Abramson and Brennan: Berger 1 requires Democrats to win the national vote by 6.8 percentage points, while Berger 2 requires a margin of only 5.4 percentage points (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Probability Democrats Control U.S. House of Representatives After 2018 Elections Based Upon Change in Democratic National House Vote Share, 2016-18

Democratic Probability 2018 House capture

As of this writing (7:24 pm EST, March 26, 2018), the FiveThirtyEight estimate of Democratic advantage in the generic ballot is 5.7 percentage points (46.0 to 40.3%, down from a high of 13.3 percentage points on December 26, 2017). If that is the actual national House vote margin on November 6, 2018, Democrats would be projected to net between 12 and 27 House seats, depending on the model, meaning they either fell well short of their goal, or just eked it out.

Still, it is a sign of the current lopsided state of American electoral geography that a political party needs to win the national vote by between 4 and 11 percentage points just to break even in House seats.

Until next time…

A Musical Mosaic

This is a LONG post, even accounting for the 28 footnotes. While I encourage a complete read, please feel free to skip the introductory sections and cut right to the chase: the iTunes chart and subsequent personal musical history.

When I enrolled at Yale in the fall of 1984, I was undecided between majoring in political science or mathematics. A less-than-stellar experience in Math 230—required for freshman mathematics major—quickly decided me: political science, it would be.

Luckily, two courses I took sophomore year taught by Professor Edward TufteData Analysis for Politics and Policy and Politics and the Economy—allowed me to merge these interests. They expanded my knowledge of advanced statistical methods, a branch of applied mathematics which would undergird a two-decades-long career as a health-related data analyst[1].

One textbook from the former course fundamentally altered how I viewed the aesthetics of data presentation: the landmark Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Tufte’s purposes for graphical display[2] have informed every chart, graph and map I have constructed since:

  • show the data
  • induce the viewer to think about the substance […]
  • avoid distorting what the data have to say
  • present many numbers in a small space
  • make large data sets coherent
  • encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data
  • reveal the data at several levels of detail […]
  • serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration
  • be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set

This is data presentation as art…or data art.

**********

In two previous posts, I described…

  1. How I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year and musical “genre,” and
  2. My desire to create a visual representation of my iTunes data (as of March 6, 2018), displaying the number of tracks released each year (if any, 1721-2017) by an artist/in a musical genre.

I actually started the latter project in May 2014 before abandoning it the following month. Recently, however, I devised a simpler way to generate all necessary cell entries using the statistical software package SPSS.[3]

Before I present the final chart (the first of two I intend to create), just bear with me while I briefly detail some necessary prior data organization steps.

Feel free to skim the next section.

**********

The raw data consisted of 9,552 tracks (40,610 total “plays” beginning in January 2013, when I purchased this computer) performed by 1,311 unique “artists.” However, many “artists” are simply variations on what I call a meta-artist. For example, I subsumed the 23 tracks by “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band,” eight tracks by “Bob Seger” and one track by “Bob Seger System” under the meta-artist “Bob Seger (+).”

Applying this logic to all 1,311 artists yielded 1,217 meta-artists; please see attached PDF for details.

Artists within Meta-Artists

Similarly, I collapsed 242 musical genres—based upon with the first listed “Genre” on the track’s (or parent album’s) Wikipedia page, supplemented as necessary by its AllMusic page—into 89 meta-genres. For example, I subsumed all “Darkwave” (n=15), “Neue Deutsche Welle” (2), “New Romantic” (3) and “New Wave” (1,098, most by far) tracks under the meta-genre New Wave/Darkwave (+). Please see attached PDF for details.

Genres within Meta-Genres

To keep the chart from becoming unwieldy, I settled on a maximum of 200 rows (i.e., meta-artists/meta-genres). With up to 89 meta-genres, that allowed me 111 meta-artists.

I began with the 76 meta-artists with ≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays. An additional 157 meta-artists had ≥20 tracks or ≥100 total plays. Of them, I selected 13 meta-artists (Modest Mussourgsky, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller (+), Sergei Prokofiev, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Charlie Parker (+), Nat King Cole (+), Dave Brubeck Quartet, James Brown (+), Frank Sinatra (+), John Coltrane[4]) whose first track in my iTunes was released before 1960. I then selected two meta-artists (Geoff Martin (+), Steve Hackett) whose first track was released after 2000[5].

These “expanding the musical horizons” additions put me at 91 meta-artists.

A total of 99 meta-artists had a “Product” (number of tracks * total plays) of at least 2000 (i.e., 20 * 100). Of those, 20 were not among the 91 meta-artists I had already selected for inclusion. I rejected a) Mark Isham (19 tracks, 294 plays, all from his 1992 The Public Eye soundtrack) and b) Abba, ABC and Altered Images (artificially-inflated play counts from inadvertent iPod [treasured classic fly-wheel model] plays in order of artist name, starting with A3).

That left 16 additional meta-artists (increasing my total to 107): Tony Banks, Bee Gees, Berlin, Blondie, Kate Bush, The Cure, Chris Isaak, Gary Numan/Tubeway Army/Dramatis, Oingo Boingo, Robert Palmer, The Rolling Stones, Todd Rundgren (+)/Utopia, Simple Minds, Suzanne Vega (+), Violent Femmes and George Winston.

I rounded out my selections with three meta-artists with Products between 1972 and 1978: Marvin Gaye (+), The Motels and Thomas Dolby. This gave me a total of 110 meta-artists and up to 89 meta-genres, or 199 possible rows.

Perfect.

I constructed the chart this way:

  • Each selected meta-artist (n=110) had his/her/their own row. Cell entries are number of tracks released by that meta-artist in a given year, if any. Years go from left to right.
  • Remaining tracks are enumerated in a separate “Miscellaneous” row for each meta-genre.
  • Cell values between 10 and 19 have a thin black border; cells with value≥20 have a thick black border.
  • Meta-genres are color-coded (different colors for cell and text) as shown in the attached meta-genre summary.
  • Meta-artist name and track total (1st 2 columns on left) of the 110 are color-coded according to the predominant meta-genre of their tracks (g. “Genesis” and “288” shaded Progressive Rock [6] because 57.3% of tracks have that designation[7]). I used total plays to break ties.
  • Each cell is color-coded the predominant meta-genre of tracks released by that meta-artist in that year (g., 12 of 15 tracks released by Talking Heads in 1978 are Post-Punk/Revival[8]). Every meta-artist/meta-genre cell between first and last release is color-coded[9], even if no track was released in a year in that range.
  • All text is Palatino Linotype Bold. Any row (meta-artist/meta-genre) with <10 tracks was 13 point, increasing as follows: 10-20 tracks (14), 21-40 (15), 41-60 (16), 61-80 (17), 81-100 (18), 101-150 (23), 151-200 (28), 201-400 (32), >400 (36).
  • Any column (year) with 0 tracks has width=6. Years with 1-10 tracks has width=10, increasing as follows: 11-20 (11), 21-50 (12), 51-100 (13), 101-200 (15), 201-300 (17), 301-500 (19), 501-600 (21), >600 (23).

**********

At 137 columns and 195 rows[10], the final chart does not fit onto one page for printing; the best I could do was “Fit All Rows on One Page,” which still requires two pages to print. Ultimately, I will have this chart professionally printed as a large wall poster.

My printer is low on cyan and magenta ink, so I took this (cropped) photograph of my computer screen (magnification=12%).

Cropped data art screen shot

This piece of data art, if you will permit some self-congratulation, is gorgeous AND serves its purpose—to display the key artists, genres and chronology of the 9,552 tracks in my iTunes—very well.

Your eye is naturally drawn to the vibrant yellows and blacks of the 1ate 1970s and early 1980s, an era musically dominated for me by variations of Punk, Post-Punk, New Wave and Synthpop (46.3% of 3,490 tracks, 1977-84). Overall, 20.8% of all 9,552 tracks are subsumed under this loose family of genres, so that is precisely what should happen.

Moreover, as your eye runs from the upper left to the lower right corner of the chart, you travel through time from Classical through various forms of Blues and Jazz and into the Pop and Rock era, with a special emphasis on Progressive Rock; along the way, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Funk, Disco and assorted post-Disco forms of Dance emerge. The Punk/New Wave era morphs into Alternative in the second half of the 1980s. Finally, the last 10-15 years are a hodge-podge of musical forms, with the most recent meta-artist of interest being the The Four-Legged Faithful, shown here performing in March 2014 at Toad in Cambridge, MA (I regret not capturing the mandolin-playing talents of Jonathan Kaplan).

IMG_1008.JPG

**********

Between 1721 and 1922, excepting eight Scott Joplin tracks between 1901 and 1909 (Dixieland/Early Jazz/Ragtime), Classical is the dominant meta-genre. The severe truncation of those two centuries reflects the relative dearth of tracks (n=110) I own from those years; fully 71.8% were composed by Ludwig von Beethoven, Mussourgsky or Tchaikovsky.

The first recordings by Bessie Smith mark the emergence of Blues/Classic Female Blues in 1923[11]. Over the next 10 years, this meta-genre competes with Dixieland/Early Jazz/Ragtime (Louis Armstrong (+)), Jazz (+) and Progressive Jazz (Ellington (+)) for dominance.

By 1935, however Jazz, writ large, had taken center stage, establishing full dominance through 1960; the genres of Vocal Jazz, Jazz, Swing, Big Band, Early Jazz, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz and Bepop account for 72.1% of tracks. Of the 662 tracks released during these two-and-a-half decades, fully 55.4% were by Billie Holiday (+), Miles Davis, Waller (+), Ellington (+), Parker (+), Miller, Coltrane, Cole (+) and Ella Fitzgerald (+).

This was also the era of Classical artists like Prokofiev (25) and the Comedy/Novelty parodies of Jones (+).

The catch-all meta-genre Music for Film and Stage first appears in 1953, with the Broadway production of Kismet. Other dominant meta-artists in this genre, besides the afore-mentioned Isham, are John Barry (e.g., jazz-inflected soundtracks to Hammett and The Cotton Club), Leslie Bricusse (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and the composers/performers of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Indeed, a favorite self-deprecating observation is that I was raised primarily on a combination of Fiddler and Superstar.

My personal jazz peak is 1959: my favorite album (Davis’ Kind of Blue), containing my favorite track (“Blue In Green”), was released then, as was the Cool Jazz masterpiece Time Out by Dave Brubeck Quartet. Baker (+) also released seven iTunes tracks that year.

However, starting with the Rockabilly “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash in 1956 and a handful of Bobby Darin singles two years later[12], a new musical form—Rock and Roll—began to assume dominance.

Led by the emergence of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who and The Rolling Stones between 1962 and 1965, Rock (+) (24.0% of 918 tracks, 1962-1970), would dominate the 1960s. Such variations as Folk Rock (e.g. Rubber Soul) and Psychedelic/Acid Rock (Revolver, Pet SoundsSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) would emerge in 1965 and 1966-67. Folk Rock would return with a vengeance for me in the 1980s with the ethereal Vega (+) and The Waterboys, whose epic 1988 Fisherman’s Blues is the closest my wife Nell and I have to “our album.”

Other meta-genres were emerging as well. Ray Charles kicked off Rhythm and blues (+) in 1954 with “I Got a Woman.” Sinatra (+) did the same for Pop (+) in 1957 with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Instrumental (+) debuted in 1962 with Herb Alpert (+)’s “The Lonely Bull[13]

In 1963, a young gospel singer from East Orange, NJ named Dionne Warwick launched Soul (+) with “Anyone Who Had a Heart” despite being predominantly Pop (+). The first predominantly Soul (+) artist, another young church-trained singer named Marvin Gaye, would debut in 1964 with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Two years later, a blind 16-year-old Detroit singer named Stevie Wonder released “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” For me, the Soul (+) pinnacles of these two extraordinary artists are What’s Going On and Songs In the Key of Life.

In 1967, a meta-artist who had been releasing Rhythm and blues (+) and Soul (+) tracks since 1956 took a radical turn. With “Cold Sweat, Pt. 1James Brown (+) would become synonymous with Funk (+); the meta-genre would blossom in the early-to-mid 1970s before spinning off a new meta-genre, Disco (+), which would peak between 1976 and 1980 (91.9% of 86 tracks).

In the early 1980s, Funk (+) would dramatically reassert itself in the person of a multi-instrumental musical genius from Minneapolis, MN named Prince (+). His Purple-ness inspired the base color I use for Rhythm and blues, Funk (+) and various Dance-related offshoots; the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince also dabbled in Synthpop and Psychedelic Pop/Neopsychedelia. Rest in peace, Mr. Nelson

Straight-ahead Folk (+) appears in 1965.[14] Two years later, a 33-year-old Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen would release The Songs of Leonard Cohen; five tracks, including the shimmering “Suzanne,” remain Folk (+) classics. Rest in peace, Mr. Cohen.

**********

Four teenagers from the storied Charterhouse public school in Surrey, UK would play a major role in the development of Progressive Rock, accounting for 653 (6.8%) of the tracks in my iTunes, third behind only New Wave (+)/Darkwave and Rock (+).

Classmates Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks had formed The Garden Wall, while fellow classmates Anthony Phillips and Mike Rutherford had formed Anon. At some point in 1966 or 1967 they combined bands and, employing a series of short-term drummers (until bringing Phil Collins on full-time in 1971; Collins would achieve superstar status in the 1980s as a Pop Rock (+) meta-artist), acquired the name Genesis. In 1967 and 1968, they released 15 demos, and in 1969 they released From Genesis to Revelation, which promptly went nowhere.

First hearing them in 1978, when “Follow You, Follow Me” became their first American Top 40 single (of 17), the track that cemented my enduring love for Genesis was 1980’s “Turn It On Again.” I saw them live for the first time in the summer of 1982 (and thrice more through 1992), at the since-demolished JFK Stadium[15]. They headlined an all-day stadium show that also featured local favorites Robert Hazard and the Heroes, A Flock of Seagulls, Blondie, and Costello (+). That fall, early in my junior year of high school, a senior would introduce me to the live album Seconds Out—a brilliant introduction to Gabriel-era Genesis—cementing them as my “favorite musical artist.”

More than three decades later, that designation still holds; their 288 tracks lead all meta-artists.

************

Many Progressive Rock meta-artists quickly followed (all dates are earliest iTunes tracks): King Crimson in 1968, Todd Rundgren (+)/Utopia in 1970, Pink Floyd and Yes in 1971, Renaissance in 1972, The Alan Parsons Project and Gabriel in 1977, and Banks in 1983[16].  The related meta-genre Art Rock emerged with Roxy Music’s third album, to be followed by Kate Bush’s 1978 debut The Kick Inside[17]. Lead singer Bryan Ferry would begin a parallel, predominantly Dream/Sophisti-Pop (see 1987’s Bete Noire, as well as albums by The Dream Academy and Danny Wilson) solo career in 1973.

Rock music was also branching in other directions in the late 1960s. Led Zeppelin’s eponymous 1969 debut signaled the emergence of Hard Rock/Heavy-Alternative Metal. Fusion/Jazz Fusion, first pioneered by Davis in 1967-68 with the Water Babies recordings, would find fuller rock expression from Chicago (+) with 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority and 1970’s Chicago II; two years later, Steely Dan/Donald Fagen would launch Jazz Rock with Can’t Buy a Thrill. Rest in peace, Mr. Becker.

Other Rock (+) meta-artists to emerge between 1969 and 1971 are

Although they had existed as a Blues Rock band for years, the first Fleetwood Mac in my iTunes is 1973’s Mystery to Me (a long way away from the Experimental Rock of the uneven, but often breathtaking, Tusk)

That same year, a struggling singer-songwriter from South Jersey named Bruce Springsteen (+) would release Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., which includes the gorgeous “Spirit in the Night.” Another singer-songwriter from Long Island named Billy Joel would release Piano Man that same year, containing the iconic title track and “Captain Jack;” Joel’s predominant designation is Soft Rock, thanks in large part to his 1977 breakthrough The Stranger.

The consequential year 1973 also marks the debut of the first predominantly Pop Rock (+) (Hall and Oates), and Orchestral/Symphonic meta-artists (Electric Light Orchestra).

Electronic (+) debuted in 1974 with Kraftwerk’s deeply influential Autobahn. Seven years later, the predominantly Electronic (+) Depeche Mode with the infectious Synthpop track “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

In 1974, two favorite male meta-artists debuted, predominantly-Rock (+) Palmer (even if some of his best work is New Wave (+)/Darkwave and Dance/Rock (+)) and predominantly-Adult-Contemporary (+) Rupert Holmes, whose 1979 Partners in Crime is a Soft Rock gem. Seriously, EVERY aspiring singer-songwriter should memorize this album.

Before launching into Punk (+) and its many offshoots, a quick word about Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. Starting as Funk (+) in 1975[18], they passed through Disco (+) with the still-exceptional Saturday Night Fever soundtrack before landing on Soft Rock with 1979’s Spirits Having Flown. Jackson, meanwhile graduated from the infectious Rhythm and blues (+) of 1979’s Off the Wall to the exemplary Post-Disco of Thriller, the best-selling album of all time.

***********

Split Enz actually started as an Art Rock band in 1975 with tracks like “Titus” and ”Time For a Change.” By 1980[19], with the phenomenal True Colours, they were firmly New Wave (+)/Darkwave.

In between those years, a series of bands had begun to play at the infamous CBGB’s in the Bowery section of Manhattan. These bands, including Ramones[20] and The Patti Smith Group, would soon be labeled Punk (+). Most salient between 1976 and 80 (123 of 159 tracks[21]), it would yield the rise of such meta-artists as The Pretenders.

Punk (+) quickly spin off other musical meta-genres, most notably Post-Punk/Revival and New Wave (+)/Darkwave.

Another regular early CBGB’s meta-artist, Blondie, launches New Wave (+)/Darkwave in my iTunes with two 1976 tracks,[22] while The Stranglers do the same for Post-Punk/Revival with three 1977 tracks.[23]

Ranked by number of tracks, chart-selected predominantly-New Wave (+)/Darkwave meta-artists are Simple Minds, Berlin, Spandau Ballet, INXS, The Motels, The Stranglers, Costello (+), Dolby, The B-52’s, Numan (+), Oingo Boingo, Split Enz, The Fixx, Icehouse, The Police, The Cars, Joe Jackson and Talking Heads.

And Post-Punk/Revival?  Adam Ant (+), Joy Division, U2 and The Clash. And let us not forget the Art Punk of Wire or the Folk Punk of Violent Femmes.

Finally, there are the Synthpop meta-artists: Duran Duran, Blancmange and Yello. I 1989, Blancmange would spin off this delirious piece of Avant/Experimental/Leftfield/Post Modern.

Collectively, these 29 meta-artists combine for 1,137 (11.9%) of my 9,552 iTunes tracks—and that excludes meta-artists like The Cure and Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall that evolved into Alternative Rock (+), as well as the 1979-82 era Ska/Two Tone, exemplified by English Beat, Madness and Specials/AKA, and Mod Revival  (The Jam).

Overall, 3,701 (38.7%) of my iTunes tracks were released in this time frame: between 1976 and 1984.

This is MY music.

***********

In mid-1970s Los Angeles (L.A.), Stan Ridgway was running Acme Soundtracks, an Ennio-Morricone-inspired film score company. By 1977, drawn to the burgeoning L.A. Punk (+) scene, he and four other men—Chas Gray, brothers Bruce and Marc Moreland, and Joe Nanini—had formed Wall of Voodoo. Debuting with a stunning 1980 Darkwave cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,”[24] their two studio albums, Dark Continent and Call of the West are New Wave (+)/Darkwave masterpieces.

Their formation and rapid dissolution are bitingly chronicled in “Talkin’ Wall of Voodoo Blues, Pt. 1.” In the song, Ridgway mocks “the single they still talk about”: the inimitable “Mexican Radio.”

Ridgway collaborated on two film scores in 1983 and 1984 before releasing his first solo album in 1986—the stunning The Big Heat. Given that Ridgway has been called a “noir balladeer,” he likely drew inspiration from the 1953 film noir.

In 2002, however, all I knew were the “Ring of Fire” and “Mexican Radio” (and its B-side, “Call of the West”—I have the original single). A coworker who moonlighted as a disc jockey told me about “Drive She Said,” from The Big Heat. Curious, I purchased The Best of Stan Ridgway: Songs That Made This Country Great.

I was immediately hooked, especially by this lyric from The Big Heat’s “Walkin’ Home Alone” (boldface added for emphasis):

“The telephone’s dead––I guess they turned it off today

Turn the key on the mailbox slot

Lookin’ for a letter, but bills is all I’ve got

And even the cat she left me with

Is goin’ out with someone else

So put another quarter in the jukebox, Pete

But don’t play that one with the sad trombone

‘Cause tonight, I’ll be walkin’ home alone”

Five years later, I saw Ridgway live for the first time, in Manhattan. Three tours later, in August 2015, someone took this photograph of us at the now-defunct Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

Stan Ridgway and I at Johnny D's August 2015.jpg

IMG_2076.JPG

Designated Alternative Pop Rock, Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall is second in tracks (192, not counting 23 Wall of Voodoo tracks and 13 from wife Pietra Wiexstun’s band Hecate’s Angels); he still releases new material.

**********

The first tracks labeled “Alternative” were released in 1979: two Alternative Rock (+) tracks from The Cure[25] and the indescribably weird (and brilliant) Pere Ubu sophomore effort, the Alternative Dub Housing.

In 1981, an Athens, GA (home of The B-52’s) band called R.E.M. released an Alternative Rock (+) single called “Radio Free Europe.” They and The Smiths would help foment the shift to Alternative Rock (+) in the mid-1980s with albums like 1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Meat is Murder, and 1986’s The Queen is Dead.

In 1992-94, Tori Amos brought harrowing personal experiences and singer-songwriter chops to Alternative Rock (+) (e.g.,Crucify”), while Geoff Martin (+) brought hard-rock sensibility and social conscience in the first decade of the 2000s, especially on such excellent tracks as “Laura” and the 9/11-inspired “32nd Floor,” both from the band Days Are Golden in 2003[26].

An early spin-off of Alternative Rock (+), Adult Alternative/AA Pop Rock, first appears in 1984, with lush albums by The Blue Nile and Mitchell Froom. Two years later, Crowded House, formed by Split Enz vocalist Neil Finn following the demise of Split Enz, would release their eponymous debut album, quickly achieving the American commercial success that had eluded Split Enz.

Alternative Pop Rock would peak (for me) in 1987 with albums by Cindy Lee Berryhill and Curiosity Killed the Cat.

One quirky, short-lived spinoff of Alternative Rock (+) was Madchester, a 1989-92 “psychedelic revival” that spawned Charlatans UK, The Stone Roses and, especially, Happy Mondays.

The alternative to “Alternative” is apparently “Indie,” as the rise of first Indie Pop (1986-1990: It’s Immaterial, The Ocean Blue, The Sundays) then Indie Rock (1999-2003: Sleater-Kinney, Del Rey) suggest.

Before leaving the 1980s entirely, here are five disparate artists:

  • George Winston: This superior pianist, a direct musical descendant of Waller (+) and The Vince Guaraldi Trio, brought New Age to the mainstream with Autumn and December.
  • Uncle Bonsai: This Folk (+) trio, two women and a man, emerged in the mid-1980s with ironic, wickedly-funny songs delivered with angelic harmonies. “Silent Night” from 1986’s Boys Want Sex in the Morning may be the most beautiful song I have ever heard.
  • The Smithereens, a Rock (+) band who nevertheless dominated alternative rock airwaves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their 1988 Green Thoughts is songwriting at its finest. Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.
  • Madonna, the Dance Pop avatar from Detroit who evolved from girlish pop star to international icon. “Lucky Star” was a track I continually listened for on the radio of my black 1979 Ford Fairmount in the summer of 1984.
  • Chris Isaak, who led a Rock & roll revival in the late 1980s and early 1990s with moody, yet catchy albums like Heart Shaped World and San Francisco Days.[27]

**********

Brian Eno first started making Ambient records in the 1970s, but my best exemplar is Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II by Aphex Twin. I confess to knowing nothing about this 1994 album until I read this terrific book[28].

And, with a nod to the anarchic Comedy/Novelty of Cartoon Planet Band, that brings us to the late 1990s, when I stopped paying close attention to contemporary pop music and began exploring older blues and jazz.

Still, older artists were releasing fascinating music in the first decade of the 2000s, such as ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. I categorized him as Classical, but he could easily have been Progressive Rock because of his 2003 To Watch the Storms.

**********

I will close by identifying key meta-artists and years associated with remaining meta-genres with at least 10 “Miscellaneous” tracks across any three successive years:

Until next time…

[1] And more than 20 years later, I would circle back to mathematics, earning a Master’s Degree in biostatistics and a PhD in epidemiology.

[2] Tufte, Edward R. 1983. Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, pg. 13.

[3] SPSS Statistics 17.0 for Windows; SPSS Inc. Released 2008. Chicago: SPSS Inc.

[4] I excluded Oscar Peterson (20 tracks, 29 plays) because all but one of his tracks were released in 1995 or 1996, and I excluded Henry Mancini (8,111) and Nelson Riddle (13, 111—all but one track 1966) because they had fewer than 15 tracks.

[5] I excluded Murray Gold, because he only had two tracks (“Doctor Who XI” and “I Am the Doctor”), both released in 2010.

[6] Cell shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” text “White, Background 1, Darker 25%”

[7] Remaining tracks: 21.9% Pop Rock (+), 11.8% Rock (+), 5.9% Baroque Pop, 3.1% Art Rock.

[8] Cell shaded “Black, Text 1, Lighter 5%,” text “Yellow”

[9] For a meta-artist, the predominant meta-genre color scheme was used, though sometimes a color scheme would simply be extended to the right from a given cell.

[10] Six meta-genres were entirely subsumed by a single meta-artist: Children’s Music (Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall), Folk Punk (Violent Femmes), Jazz Rock (Steely Dan), Modal Jazz (Miles Davis), Progressive Jazz (Duke Ellington (+)), Third Stream [Jazz] (Miles Davis),

[11] “Downhearted Blues,” “My Sweetie Went Away (She Didn’t Say Where, When Or Why),” “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”

[12] “Early in the Morning,” “Queen of the Hop,” “Splish Splash”

[13] Plus three Henry Mancini tracks: “Days of Wine and ‘Roses,” “Hatari,” “Baby Elephant Walk.”

[14] Donovan’s “Colours” and “Catch the Wind”

[15] In July 1985, this was the site of the American portion of Live Aid.

[16] That does not even mention other favorite meta-artists like The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull.

[17] I would be remiss if I did not mention Supertramp and late-1970s Brian Eno.

[18] “Jive Talkin,’” “Nights on Broadway”

[19] OK, technically 1979’s “I See Red” is their first New Wave (+)/Darkwave track in my iTunes.

[20] Their eponymous 14-track debut album, clocking in at just 30 minutes, is often considered the start of Punk (+).

[21] Including the 19 tracks on a single Punk (+)-inflected 1999 Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry cover album.

[22] “In the Flesh,” “Rip Her to Shreds”

[23] “No More Heroes,” “Peaches,” “Something Better Change”

[24] Even if Nell disdains the closing distorted electric guitar solo as “screaming cats.”

[25] “10:15 Saturday Night,” “Grinding Halt”

[26] Martin is my first cousin.

[27] I had the pleasure of meeting Isaak, a San Francisco native, at NOIR CITY 12 in 2014. http://www.noircity.com/

[28] Weidenbaum is a college friend.

The Smithereens: Film Noir where you least expect it

I have previously described how I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year, musical “genre,” etc.

Being a meticulous (obsessive, even) organizer of data, no sooner had I started using my current version of iTunes in January 2013 (when my track play counts start) then I embarked on a massive data cleaning project: guaranteeing every track (n=9,552 as of March 6, 2018) had the correct title and artist name; release mode[1], track number, year and cover art; and musical classification (first-listed “Genre” on its Wikipedia page or “Style” on its AllMusic page).

I completed this project (New Order’s 24 tracks were last to be scrubbed) within a year. Since then, every newly-acquired track has undergone the same treatment.

Periodically, however, iTunes reverts all of an artist’s tracks (e.g., Blondie, n=31) to their original information, requiring me to re-clean them.

**********

A short drive from our Brookline home is the terrific independent bookstore Newtonville Books.

A small windowless room in the rear of the store houses books (“chapter books” our daughters call them) for tweens and young adults. Hanging on the wall of this room are two wall charts depicting a statistical overview of the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox seasons (they won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004, repeating the feat just three years later). Each chart’s X-axis is day of the season, while its Y-axis features a range of values (player batting averages, pitcher earned run averages, win total, inter alia). The visual effect is stunning.

Inspired by these innovative visuals, I decided to attempt something similar with my iTunes data.

Specifically, I wanted to create a chart using Excel that has year on the X-axis, with artist (≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays [76 of 1,311 artists[2]], ≥10 tracks if first release before 1950) and genre (all other tracks) on the Y-axis. Cells would contain the number of tracks released by that artist/in that genre in a given year, with a black border around each value ≥10; the font-size would increase from Palatino Linotype 12 in increments of 10. Artists/genres would be sorted, in ascending order, by year of first release. Color-coded cells on the far left-hand side would contain artist/genre name (e.g., “Progressive Rock” shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” writing “White, Background 1, Darker 25%); font size would also increase with track total.

I began this project in May 2014, abandoning it the next month. Recently, though, I worked out a faster way to generate the necessary cell entries using the statistical software program SPSS.

Once I finish the chart (watch this space!) I originally envisioned, I will construct a second chart using total plays, a strongly-related (correlation = +0.81), more valid representation of artist/genre fondness.

Building this SPSS dataset six days ago, I observed two questionable data points.

First, the incorrect year was assigned to Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.”[3]

Two, I questioned the genre assignment “Rock/Metal” for The Smithereens’ song “Miles From Nowhere.”

**********

While I first heard The Smithereens listening incessantly to the now-defunct Boston alternative rock station WFNX (101.7 FM) between 1991 and 1996, they did not truly register in my musical consciousness until I bought Sedated in the 80s, No. 3 in the late spring of 1997.

Track 3, the hypnotic “Blood and Roses,” so caught my ear that in July 1997 it became the first Smithereens track to appear on one of my artfully-constructed mixes. By September, I had succumbed[4] by purchasing the 16-trackbest-of CD Blown to Smithereens: Best of the Smithereens—which deserves its status as an AllMusic “Album Pick.” Three more Smithereens tracks debuted on a mix that same month.

But that was that…until 2004, when I began to watch The Alternative.

One Sunday night, members of the Smithereens—likely lead singer Pat DiNizio, drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak—were the in-studio guests of host Eddie Trunk to promote their just-released box set From Jersey It Came! The Smithereens Anthology.

Trunk and his guests kibitzed between videos, including five or six for Smithereens songs. After watching this episode, I dusted off my Blown to Smithereens CD, and I have not really put it back since.

In the spring of 2009, I acquired a free vinyl copy[5] of their excellent 1988 Green Thoughts. The soul-searing “Especially For You,” the last track on side one, is one of only 27 tracks to have 50 or more plays.

All told, 16 Smithereens songs would earn a spot on a mix between 1997 and 2013.

Color me a fan, even if I did miss an opportunity to see them live in 2013 or 2014, a choice I now regret.

**********

The Wikipedia page for 1994’s A Date With the Smithereens—the album on which “Miles From Nowhere” first appeared—does, in fact, list “Rock/Metal” as its genre. However, on the page for the song itself, the listed genres are “Power Pop” and “Alternative Rock.”

I opted for “Power Pop” and immediately updated my iTunes data.

The story would have ended there, except—as will happen with Wikipedia—I started clicking around other pages.

One page was for the band itself. Toward the end of the too-brief history of the band was this sentence:

“Lead singer Pat DiNizio died on December 12, 2017.”

The footnote for this sentence linked to this poignant New York Times obituary.

What the bleepity-frick?!? How had I missed this?

**********

In five trips to NOIR CITY, only in 2016 did I need to leave early.

The very next film I would have seen that late-January Monday was the 1950 Nicholas-Ray-directed masterpiece In a Lonely Place (followed by The Two Mrs. Carrolls—it was “Humphrey Bogart: Artist” night).

In_a_lonely_place_1950_poster[1]

In a key moment, Bogart’s Dixon Steele recites to Gloria Grahame’s apprehensive Laurel Gray some doggerel he wants to include in the screenplay he is writing:

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

One of the first Smithereens tracks I played after learning that the charismatic DiNizio had died was a haunting number (featuring back-up vocals from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Suzanne Vega) from their masterful 1986 full-length debut Especially For You.

The song’s name?

In a Lonely Place.”

I had known the song since 1997, so it was a definite “ohhh—that’s where that came from” moment when I first saw the film—and that scene, specifically—about five years later.

Did I mention the song’s refrain is:

I was born the day I met you/

Lived awhile when you loved me/

Died a little when we broke apart.

Twice in the song, the next lyrics are:

Yesterday, it would have mattered/

Now today it doesn’t mean a thing/

All my hopes and dreams are shattered now.

These lines strongly echo dialogue from the film’s climactic scene.

As if to hammer home the point, the video for “Lonely Place”—featuring a beatnik DiNizio and a pixie-like Vega—is photographed in moody black and white, making it, visually at least, a kind of contemporary Greenwich village noir (photograph from here).

smithereenslonely

**********

Other, more oblique film noir allusions may be found in the Smithereens’ catalog.

The high-intensity rocker “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” also from Especially For You, includes this pithy encapsulation of the lures of a femme fatale:

She was tall and cool and pretty/

And she dressed as black as coal/

If she asked me to, I’d murder/

I would gladly lose my soul.

Two years later, Green Thoughts would feature the melancholy “Deep Black” (could there be a more noir title?) and the shimmering “Spellbound,” which could easily be a reference to the 1945 film noir directed by Alfred-Hitchcock.

Finally, there is “Top of the Pops” from 1991’s Blow Up which includes the lyrics:

Two-time, two ton hangover king/

The bride wore black/

We were ready to swing.

I cannot hear that lyric without thinking of The Bride Wore Black, the 1946 noir novel written by psychological suspense maven Cornell Woolrich and filmed by Francois Truffaut as La Marieé Etait en Noir in 1968.

The video for “Top of the Pops,” in which the band appears in various Atlantic City locales, has some distinctly noir flourishes, particularly the black-and-white 1940s sequence in which a bathing beauty poses for members of the press nattily attired in trench coats and fedoras.

I freely admit that, beyond the pointed homage to In a Lonely Place, I may simply be imposing my own noir sensibilities onto The Smithereens.

Or there may be even more noir allusions I have missed—yet one more reason to keep playing their music.

Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.

Until next time…

[1] Almost always a full-length album or extended play (33 rpm), though it could also be a single (45 rpm) or even simply when the song was written or recorded (as with older classical pieces, or jazz and blues sides).

[2] This is using the exact artist credited to a track. Eventually, I will collapse these artists into meta-artists. For example, “Bob Seger” (8 tracks. 14 plays), “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band” (23, 106) and “Bob Seger System” (1,5) will all be considered “Bob Seger+”

[3] The movie may be a hot mess, but the soundtrack is worth a listen.

[4] I have a memory of seeing videos for tracks like “A Girl Like You” and “House We Used To Live In”, but I cannot imagine where that would have been.

[5] A DJ friend of a friend gave her a load of 1980’s vintage vinyl, and she passed it on to me.

NOIR CITY: A photographic epilogue

In this follow-up to the chronicling of my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, I take considerable artistic license with photographs of San Francisco. To read the entire series, please start here (or with this related, more analytic post).

It is an open question whether I would have grown so inordinately fond of this film festival if it were held anywhere but San Francisco, a city I loved long before I attended NOIR CITY 12 in 2014.

In my recent nine-part travelogue I focused primarily on my sojourn in NOIR CITY 16 (January 26 – February 4, 2018). As a result I elided San Francisco locales I visited during prior festivals but not this year.

I will redress that oversight in two parts. First, I will describe specific places not mentioned in the NOIR CITY 16 posts. Second, I will present quasi-artistic photographs of streets and buildings, with a brief digression on the street-facing fire escapes endemic to San Francisco. I then conclude with a haunting question.

Part I: Specific Sites

Following an early-morning flight from Boston that deposited me in San Francisco at 12:30 pm (all times PST) on Friday, January 24, 2014—leaving me so sleepy I watched my brand new, monogrammed suitcase and valet bag ride around the luggage carousel many times before a helpful airport worker pointed them out to me–I met my friend PH at the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was the “official” hotel of NOIR CITY (that honor has gone to the Hotel Rex since 2016), and they greeted me in style:

IMG_0725

IMG_0722

I quickly made myself comfortable…

Prescott TV

…in this small…

IMG_0797

…albeit unusually decorated room (this painting in the bathroom enthralled me).

IMG_0934.JPG

Sir Francis Drake Hotel. PH and I walked the one-and-a-half blocks east on Post to this storied boutique hotel (one block north on Powell from Union Square), where PH’s friend worked in its diverse bars and restaurants.

We found her tending the quiet main lobby bar.

As we sat, drank (unwise given my exhaustion level) and ate surprisingly-unappetizing flatbread pizza, this imposing model of Drake watched over us.

IMG_0723

The hotel did achieve culinary redemption when PH and I ate at the superb Scala’s Bistro my last night there (Monday, February 3, 2014); PH’s friend waited on us with amiable grace.

Aquatic Park/Ghirardelli Square. On Sunday, January 26, 2014, I took my first meandering walk through Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Here, I look south on Kearny at Vallejo…

IMG_0746.JPG

…before looking west on Vallejo.

IMG_0747.JPG

Here I look north on Mason at Grant…

IMG_0751.JPG

…then climbed Lombard Street before arriving in Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square.

Sometime before 3 pm, I wandered into the Winery Collective, located in the nautical-themed Argonaut Hotel, in response to a very full bladder.

The rest rooms were located in the connecting lobby of the Argonaut. Returning to the winery, where I had deposited by stuff, I started a long conversation with the charismatic African-American oenophile working behind the counter.

She did require much persuasion for me to sample these wines:

IMG_0758

My view as I sipped:

IMG_0760

You cannot go to San Francisco and not order a sourdough soup bowl. I took this photograph some 20 minutes later, in the Blue Mermaid Restaurant, located in the lobby of the Argonaut.

IMG_0761.JPG

It was a chilly, foggy day—which made the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Aquatic Park even more dramatic

 I actually explored the park—and Ghirardelli Square—when I returned in 2015.

IMG_1567.JPG

IMG_1564.JPG

IMG_1565.JPG

 IMG_1566.JPG

This park serves as one end of the Powell & Hyde cable car route. After my wine and soup, I waited a long time to board a cable car to return to the Prescott. In fact, I ended up running so late that I needed to take a taxi to the Castro Theatre, arriving just in time to enjoy two films noir from Japan—Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel) and Nora Inu (Stray Dog)—both directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

Unique Sweets. My wife Nell and I started regularly watching Food Network and Cooking Channel in the early 2010s. An early Cooking Channel favorite was Unique Sweets.

The third episode from Season 4 (“San Fran Sweet Treats”) highlighted three desert-themed restaurants: Craftsman and Wolves, Dandelion Chocolate and The Ice Cream Bar. Originally airing December 1, 2013, I re-watched it OnDemand before leaving for San Francisco.

On the morning of Monday, January 27, 2014, I set off in search of the first two, conveniently located next to each other on Valencia Street.

IMG_0763.JPG

Yes, that is sipping caramel.

IMG_0764.JPG

The aromas in Dandelion Chocolate are so enticing they blur your vision.

IMG_0765.JPG

IMG_0766.JPG

IMG_0767.JPG

I still have that gray fleece.

IMG_0768.JPG

As for the Ice Cream Bar, just bear with me.

PH lives near Haight-Ashbury, so on the afternoon of Friday, January 31, 2014, we toured this iconic  neighborhood.

I had been hearing (and seeing) a great deal of Bettie Page vintage clothiers, so we stopped in.

IMG_0856.JPG

IMG_0858.JPG

IMG_0861.JPG

IMG_0863.JPG

After lunch at Crepes on Cole, where I took this photograph for our vegetable-chomping younger daughter…

IMG_0865.JPG

…we traveled back in time to this vintage ice cream/soda fountain.

IMG_0864.JPG

IMG_0867.JPG

IMG_0866.JPG

IMG_0868.JPG

John’s Grill. Towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett writes:

Spade went to the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company’s station in Powell Street and called Davenport 2020. “Emergency Hospital, please….Hello, there’s a girl in suite twelve C at the Alexandria Hotel who has been drugged….Yes, you’d better send somebody to take a look at her….This is Mr. Hooper of the Alexandria.”

He put the receiver on its prong and laughed. He called another number and said: “Hello, Frank. This is Sam Spade….Can you let me have a car with a driver who’ll keep his mouth shut?….To go down the peninsula right away….Just a couple of hours….Right. Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street, as soon as he can make it.”

He called another number—his office’s—held the receiver to his ear for a little while without saying anything, and replaced it on its hook.

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to this table.

“All set, Mr. Spade. She’s full of gas and rearing to go.”

“Swell.” Spade emptied his cup and went out with the thick-set man.

I first visited John’s Grill in November 2003, while in San Francisco for a scientific conference—and of course I ordered “Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops.”

On the evening of Monday, January 27, 2014, I returned.

IMG_0774.JPG

IMG_0776.JPG

IMG_0777.JPG

IMG_0781.JPG

This is the actual prop used in the iconic 1941 film noir.

Actual Maltese Falcon prop at John's Grill, SF Jan 2014.JPG

Almost one year later (Thursday, January 15, 2015), I returned; the novelty had worn off, though.

IMG_1502.JPG

The Ferry Building (on The Embarcadero). PH and I caught a ferry to Sausalito from here on the morning of Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

IMG_0786.JPG

IMG_0787.JPG

Sears Fine Food. Lured by the neon sign and its apparent historic importance, I stopped in here for a snack on the late afternoon of Monday, February 3, 2014 (my last day in NOIR CITY 12).

IMG_0931.JPG

IMG_0928.JPG

IMG_0930.JPG

The place was not exactly hopping.

IMG_0929.JPG

As someone who has watched many episodes of Restaurant: Impossible, that made me nervous. I do not recall what I ordered, but it was nothing special.

Part 2: No Particular Place To Go.

Arresting buildings and interesting views. From 2014, in no particular order, we begin with this vista in Haight-Ashbury…

IMG_0849.JPG

…before moving to these gorgeous “noir” buildings on Powell between O’Farrell and Ellis.

IMG_0922.JPG

IMG_0923.JPG

Here the street-facing fire escapes are plainly visible.

IMG_0921.JPG

Fire escapes are often a visual focal point in films noir. Like Venetian blinds, prison bars and slatted stairwells, they allow light to be broken into jagged shards, mimicking German expressionists.

But these fire escapes were often in the rear of apartment buildings, allowing private ingress and egress (did nobody lock their windows between 1941 and 1959?), perhaps to frame a detective for murder (e.g.¸ The Dark Corner) or simply as part of daily life (e.g., Rear Window). Or a young boy could sleep on them, inadvertently witnessing a murder, as in The Window.

Our Brookline neighborhood’s rabbit warren of alleys, paths and stairways is littered with rear fire escapes—and I love their metallic glint in the muted glow of street lamps and safety lights at night.

But having them front and center the way they are in San Francisco is such a visual contrast to how they are typically seen (or, to be precise, not seen) that they fascinate me.

Here is my 2018 photograph of the Rex, cropped to emphasize its street-facing fire escape:

Rex fire escape

One final shot from 2014, looking up from Powell and Ellis.

IMG_0924.JPG

From 2015, again in no particular order, we have this building looming over Chinatown at the intersection of Grant and California.

IMG_1576.JPG

This is the Transamerica Pyramid as seen from Kearny, just south of Pacific.

IMG_1539.JPG

It is a long descent to Alcatraz from the corner of Green and Taylor.

IMG_1562.JPG

Looking toward the Bay Bridge from Broadway and Taylor.

IMG_1546.JPG

Looking up on Taylor from Ina Coolbirth Park, between Vallejo and Green.

IMG_1561.JPG

I was smitten with this vintage trolley on 17th Street, just around the corner from the Castro.

IMG_1637.JPG

Here are additional vistas from 2018.

The Bay Bridge seen from Vallejo, between Mason and Taylor.

IMG_3375.JPG

Looking northeast from Vallejo and Taylor:

IMG_3378.JPG

Looking south on Mason from Washington.

IMG_3385.JPG

This alley off Stockton, between Post and Bush, caught my eye…

IMG_3579.JPG

…as did this view looking east on Geary from Powell, at the southern edge of Union Square.

IMG_3587.JPG

Daughter-inspired. I took these first two photographs by Dragon’s Gate, at Grant and Bush.

IMG_0740.JPG

IMG_0741.JPG

This now-defunct store on Powell seemed intended for our highly-imaginative younger daughter.

IMG_0770.JPG

From 2015, we have this storefront on Grant, between Bush and Sutter.

 IMG_1507.JPG

 I took this photograph in 2017 for our athletic bookworm eldest daughter.

IMG_2972 (2).JPG

Noir-tistry. I achieved these John-Alton-inspired effects by setting “Light” and “Color” to -100 and “Clarity” to 100.

IMG_0850.jpg

IMG_3395.jpg

Look—another street-facing fire escape.

IMG_3564.jpg

 IMG_3640

Oddities. I took this photograph at 535 Valencia, just north of Craftsman and Wolves/ Dandelion Chocolate, in 2014. As far as I know, my mother never made sushi…or mixed particularly interesting drinks.

IMG_0769.JPG

One final question (unanswered since 2015): What did John do to deserve this fate—and in what “one way” will it happen?

IMG_1535.JPG

Until next time…

NOIR CITY 16: An unexpectedly Super ending!

This is the ninth—and last—in a series of posts chronicling my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). In this post, the festival ends in a Super way, and I fly (like an Eagle) home. You may read the first eight posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

The first thing I recorded in my faithful companion (unfortunately, I had left my small green pencil sharpener in Lori’s Diner the night before) for Sunday, February 4, 2018 was:

IMG_3739 (2)

HOT NIGHT IN THE OLD BURG

After 10 days and 22 films, I was getting loopy…and fighting something:

IGNORING NOT FEELING WELL.

But mostly what I was contemplating that final day of NOIR CITY 16 was not Wicked Woman and The Big Heat, it was whether my Philadelphia Eagles could upset Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

[You can take the boy out of Philadelphia…]

I had intended to wear my faded Eagles t-shirt (gifted some years back from a friend’s late father) under my black-and-white-checked shirt, black suit jacket, gray slacks and dark red argyles, but it was too warm.

While enjoying hot cakes, bacon, black coffee and orange juice at Orphan Andy’s, I listened to the man sitting to my right at the counter discourse on the history of NOIR CITY. He noted that it began 16 years ago with a collection of films set in San Francisco, and commented on the debut of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd as a popular on-screen duo in This Gun For Hire (screened eight days earlier), noting Robert Preston had been intended to be the film’s star.

With The Game scheduled to begin around 3:30 pm (all times PST, unless noted), I opted to watch the 1 pm screening of Wicked Woman and the 7 pm screening of The Big Heat.

At 12:18 pm, I was on the Mezzanine of the Castro Theatre schmoozing with Czar of Noir Eddie Muller about the toll these festivals take (“an accumulation,” I recorded). I also discussed the “challenge of packing” with NOIR CITY veteran Amy Sullivan.

After the slouching grime of Wicked Woman—a textbook example of “fate deals you a bad hand, so you shrug your shoulders and keep moving” film noir—I worked at the merchandise table, preparing to oversee the analogous table at NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

[One customer was yours truly; I purchased a copy of Alan K. Rode’s biography of “film noir tough guy” Charles McGraw. Later in the evening, co-Merchandise Manager Elana Meow would say “you are that guy, right” and grant me the staff two-for-one discount on matching NOIR CITY t-shirts for our daughters.]

The next four hours are a blur of television, iPhone screens and updates from home on the 2018 Puppy Bowl.

It was 0-0 in the first quarter when I started watching in Twin Peaks; I did not order anything, I just stood and watched a suspended television. I did let out a muffled cheer when an early Eagles field goal put them ahead 3-0.

Next: Marcello’s, where I had one pepperoni/black olive slice and one Hawaiian slice. They have televisions as well.

There is a television you can watch through the glass window of Slurp Noodle Bar to which I would periodically return.

Clearly I was restless—though these words could also describe a typical night at the Castro:

IN—OUT—UP—DOWN—ON STREET—OFF STREET

Wicked Woman was rescreened at 4:20 pm, so I was able to slip into the upper level of the auditorium to watch a key late scene I had missed earlier (my bladder was VERY insistent): Beverly Michaels grapples with Percy Helton in her squalid rented room, before Richard Egan bursts in and draws all manner of wrong conclusions.

This is how I recorded the rest of The Game (exchanging updates with other folks hawking wares on the Mezzanine) in my little black Moleskine notebook:

15-12 JUST BEFORE HALFTIME. OY. à 22-12.

22-19

29-19

29-26

32-26

Crud—Patriots take a one-point lead, 33-32!

At this point the sports app on my iPhone, which I had kept charged behind the merchandise table, told me it was “End of Regulation.”

Weren’t there just four-plus minutes left?

The evening crowd had started to arrive. I recall standing with Ken and Emily Duffy, trying to absorb what I thought was a painful one-point loss.

But, wait!

The game was NOT over. The Eagles scored a touchdown (no extra point) to take a 38-33 lead with only two-plus minutes left—still time for one more miracle Patriots comeback.

In the meantime, we were gathering in the auditorium to watch the 7:00 pm screening of The Big Heat—my last stint in my favorite aisle seat (left side, five rows from lobby doors), at least for this trip. I discreetly tracked the score on my iPhone (though one patron chastised me for the light)…and read text messages from FF announcing her impending arrival.

A sack of Brady kept the Patriots from scoring…and a final Eagles field goal made the score:

Eagles 41, Patriots 33

My eyes could not comprehend the 00:00 left on the clock—that the Eagles had finally won a Super Bowl (in only their third appearance).

The Big Heat had just begun (I had seen it twice before), so I ducked out into the lobby to cheer[1]…then continued out to Castro Street to meet FF (who had watched the game in a bar down the street).

This Fritz-Lang-directed masterpiece is an essential film noir. According to my “noir-consensus scores,”[2] it ranks 11th (12-way-tie) with 30 LISTS and 20th with 45.5 POINTS. These were the highest scores of all 24 films screened at NOIR CITY 16, topping (by POINTS) This Gun For Hire [tie-#30], The Blue Dahlia [tie-#38], Shadow of a Doubt [tie-#70] and I Wake Up Screaming [tie-#89].

Watching that final NOIR CITY film (The Shanghai Gesture in 2014, The Honeymoon Killers in 2015, Victoria [Einz Zwei Funf Acht] in 2017[3]) is bittersweet, as I imply here:

THEN THE BIG HEAT ENDED…AND THAT WAS THAT.

There was still the final showing of Wicked Woman at 8:45 pm, but for me the films had ended.

And I abandoned my seat to the cleaning crew.

IMG_3672

FF needed to return home, but before she left we sat on one of the plush benches in the lobby and had a fascinating conversation about, inter alia, our respective lives, and both the story and preparation of the book I am writing.

Then I returned—where else?—to the Mezzanine to await the start of the Passport-holders-only “Farewell Bash,” arriving in time to witness co-Show-Runner Manessah Wagner and another woman bring out this cake:

IMG_3656

Mingling while enjoying my last cocktail (Corpse Reviver) from the representative of Stookey’s Club Moderne, I drifted between a few different groups, including Ken Duffy and Imogen Smith (due credit to official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne)…

Ken, Imogen, me Farewell Bash

…and these three women (L to R: Isabella, Rose, Melissa):

IMG_3661

In a prior post, I noted that Melissa had mistakenly pegged me as “Ben” after meeting me on the Castro MUNI station platform Monday night. This “misnomer” sparked a hysterical round of ever-funnier first names for me, in what was the single funniest conversation I had at NOIR CITY.

The concluding raffle was held.

IMG_3677

The cake was sliced and distributed, prompting me to record: FORCING WAY TO CAKE.

IMG_3666

A complimentary glass of champagne was also offered to each of us to toast the end of a monumentally successful festival.

Finally, it was time for last-minute photographs, like this one of Wagner and me…

IMG_3667

…and this one of Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, Annabelle Zakaluk, and me (credit to Hearne again)…

Annabelle and I Farewell Bash

…and the farewells.

NOIR CITY patrons are one large cinephilic family, and the Castro is where we hold our family reunion every mid-winter. The party lasts for 10 days, and once it concludes, it can be difficult saying goodbye. This is why I made particular note of the warm hugs I shared with Smith, among other, as we parted (until next year).

When Ken and Emily Duffy left, I walked outside with them. A vaping patron named Jeff took this appropriately blurry (I am emotional writing this) photograph of us.

IMG_3671

Not long after, co-Show-Runner Rory O’Connor addressed the remaining hearty few.

“It is now 11:30. All you [something on the order of “gunsels, femme fatales, crooks and cheats”], go home!”

This was my cue to make a farewell tour of the Castro while snagging a fountain Coke from the concessions stand even though they had closed (I put a two dollar bills in the tip jar as payment).

Saying my final farewells, I walked out of the theatre with Isabella and Melissa. The previous night, we had received tickets for a half-priced cocktail at Stookey’s and made a loose plan to go before I left. Isabella opted not to join us after all (something about her car), but Melissa and I took one last MUNI ride to Powell then climbed Mason to Stookey’s.

A Bessie Smith recording was playing quietly on the Victrola when we entered. Melissa ordered a glass of champagne; I ordered a rye Manhattan. Our conversation was stilted until we started talking about various relationships; then the words flowed like water.

Her Lyft home drove me the two blocks to the Hotel Rex.

Over the course of my stay, I had held entertaining late-night conversations with the primary overnight desk clerk at the Rex. She had told me how much she loved the apple pie a la mode at Lori’s; we had agreed to share a piece one night.

This was the night. I dropped off my long gray raincoat and walked the half-block east on Sutter one last time. I bought the pie a la mode for her and a BLT with avocado (on white toast, unfortunately) for me.

We stood at the front desk and ate and chatted for maybe an hour. She tried to reserve a car to the airport for me, but could not reach the service; I crossed my fingers.

Finally, I took the elevator to my sixth floor room to shower, pack and “check in” my Virgin America flight (scheduled to leave at 9:25 am, Monday, February 5, 2018), including reserving a seat (6B—curses, middle again!) in the process.

Following a long “good morning four ladies I love and miss” text to my wife Nell, I turned out the light then tossed and turned for three hours.

**********

I awoke at 6:09 am.

Not only was there no car (I ultimately had to download—and use—the Uber app to my iPhone), but they were unable to print out my final receipt.

Unlike 11 days earlier, I sailed through check-in and security. While eating my “Big Ole Breakfast” (which took a long time to prepare) at Lark Creek Grill, I talked to an older couple from Philadelphia who were also still in shock over the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory.

The flight was relaxingly uneventful, though I needed to use the bathroom enough that I recorded this “explanation”:

NOT ENOUGH SLEEP, TOO MUCH COFFEE, TOO MUCH BAD [i.e, not always healthy] FOOD AND ALCOHOL ON RUN. ERP.

History repeated itself: the women sitting in the aisle seat watched Gifted. I was more excited to stare at a screen one row in front—even without sound, Caddyshack makes me laugh out loud.

Otherwise, I dozed and read through my notes, which conclude:

THIS IS PAGE #102 OF NOTES.

Landing safely in Boston at 6:13 pm EST, I used the rest room one final time before collecting my two checked bags and hailing a taxi.

Exceptional as my sojourn in NOIR CITY had been, a tremor of relief and excitement passed through me as we drove out of Logan Airport and under the green metallic sign reading “I-90 / I-93 / Williams Tunnel.”

Maybe 20 minutes later, we pulled up in front of our Brookline home, the final event checked off of my schedule.

IMG_3689 (2)

Until next time…

[1] Much as I had to dash into the alley behind our Brookline home on the evening of October 28, 2008, to jump up and down, fists pumping, when my beloved Philadelphia Phillies won their second-ever World Series. Our eldest was just an infant, and I did not want to wake her.

[2] “Since March 2015, […] I have been compiling a comprehensive Excel database of film noir titles. To date, I have gathered 45 publicly-available lists, both explicit […] and implicit […]. For all 4,825 titles in the database […] I also have […] two “noir-consensus” scores […]:

LISTS: number of times a film was included on one of 32 “official” lists (124-3,253[1] titles). […]  All lists are weighted equally.

POINTS: LISTS plus…1 point for appearing on one of 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles). […] Because each of the three ground-breaking mid-1940s articles by Lloyd Shearer[4], Nino Frank[5] and Jean-Pierre Chartier[6] cite only a handful of titles (14 in total), I assigned 1 point to a film discussed in only one and 2 points discussed in more than one. Up to 2 points for appearing on a sub-list (up to 100 titles) in one of the 32 “official” lists.”

[3] I left NOIR CITY 14 early due to a family medical emergency.

NOIR CITY 16: Listen…to…the…sounds…

This is the eighth in a series of posts chronicling my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). In this post, I listen. A lot. You may read the first seven posts here, here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

I passed another “wakeful restless” night before waking (again prior to my alarm) on the morning of Friday, February 2, 2018. In my notes I blame “too much caffeine and late night eating.”

Before rising, however, here are two details I neglected in previous posts.

First, while waiting for a J, K or L car on the Castro MUNI station platform Tuesday night, official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne took this brilliant photograph of me. It is the “inset” photograph on my Twitter home page (@drnoir33).

Dennis Hearne photo Jan 2018

Second, our eldest daughter had baked cupcakes of which she was very proud, texting this photograph at 2:33 pm (all times PST) on Wednesday:

IMG_3718 (2)

That Friday, I was meeting ES for lunch (12:30 pm, Super Duper Burger, 721 Market), so I opted against a sit-down breakfast. Clad in bright blue, I ambled east on Sutter.

I stopped for coffee at Posh Bagel. With time to spare, I sat on the small white stone wall in front of the e*Trade building, where Sutter ends at Market, to drink it and call my wife Nell.

Everyone felt better at home. Despite frigid temperatures, our youngest daughter had sailed off the previous evening with a family friend to “skate under the stars.” This same daughter had recently started Girl Scouts, so we discussed the incongruity—and persistence—of Girl Scouts selling cookies just beyond the concrete steps leading down to the Castro station.

A night or two earlier, a young man I befriended last year described one girl’s pitch:

“Only 11 boxes of Thin Mints left! Come and get ‘em! Only 11 boxes!”

Someone must have bought two boxes, because suddenly it was:

“Nine boxes! Come and get ‘em! Only nine boxes of Thin Mints left!”

Nell had her own tale. A short walk from our apartment is a park where she runs our three-year-old golden retriever—this sweet pathetic lump—most mornings.

IMG_3719

That morning, she had seen a fox running up and down the steps at the park. Given the wild turkeys that roam our residential streets and alleys, we speculated if they and the foxes would form rival gangs.

IMG_2108 (2)

ES appeared in front of Super Duper Burger shortly after me, at 12:25 pm. While waiting I had been spellbound by a large 40-something white man standing on the sidewalk playing Michael Jackson songs (“Beat It” among them) on his electric guitar to pre-recorded instrumental backing.

My single patty burger, medium, with “everything” plus cheddar, washed down with a strawberry shake, was immensely satisfying. As we ate, I observed that many San Franciscans—at least near the Hotel Rex—wore black (not inappropriate for a film noir festival)[1]. ES (who himself sported a light black coat) ascribed it to a “too cool for school” attitude among San Franciscans. I accepted that, but noted that I had worn bright blue for the contrast.

After lunch, we meandered toward his downtown meeting. Heading southeast on 3rd, we turned left onto Minna, passing The Pink Elephant Alibi. I sent our eldest daughter—who loves elephants—this photograph (alas, it was not purple, her favorite color).

IMG_3567

Two more blocks northwest on Minna, we stopped to marvel at the outer shell of the Transbay Transit Center.

Bus station

Passing the Millennium Tower, ES noted that it was what “what innovation looked like in the 90s,” but now seems passé—and troubled.

“Everything has a half-life,” I mused.

As I walked back to the Rex after parting from ES, the San Francisco Chronicle building caught my eye.

IMG_3573

IMG_3575

An hour later (2:37 pm), I pulled out my Discover Card in Chinatown’s Sophia’s Choice Gift Shop to purchase this elephant figurine for our eldest daughter—and realized that I had left my debit card in an ATM near the Castro Theatre the night before.

IMG_3735 (2)

Seriously?

My bank representative was friendly and efficient, however, and the lost card proved only a minor inconvenience.

For the record, this is the stuffed panda I had purchased on Tuesday for our youngest daughter.

IMG_3737 (2)

**********

Before dressing for the evening showings of The Accused and The Threat, I will reflect (inspired by ES—“I love to study sound; music is just a subset”) upon the “many sounds of San Francisco”

Walking to the Powell MUNI station each day, I hear:

  • metallic clattering of giant cable-car cables gliding under Powell
  • music in the open space before I walk down to the station (g., vigorous rhythms beaten on real AND plastic drums, electronic music booming from stereo speakers as people dance)
  • buskers playing just inside the station (saxophone usually, though I had a long conversation with a young female violinist one night in 2015)

Besides the gentleman reimagining Thriller on Market, there was the guitar and bass combo playing in front of Twin Peaks one night. And that time the Green Street Marching Band passed in front of the six men playing traditional Chinese music at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus.

Every night in Lori’s Diner, I was regaled by a selection of late 50s, 60s and early 70s pop songs (I now appreciate the vocal harmonies of Spanky & Our Gang), while anything could pour from the speakers outside Castro Coffee Company (Nirvana? hypnotic German synthpop?). I delighted in hearing Talking Heads playing in Orphan Andy’s. However, none of these can top the young woman singing outher apartment window on California.

David Hegarty’s majestic organ is the ambient backdrop to patrons gathering in the Castro auditorium, a joyful counterpoint to the rumbling din of conversations on the Mezzanine. You can feel the swell of excitement as Hegarty launches into “San Francisco.

Finally, there is the disembodied female MUNI announcer: “Approaching. Outbound. One car. J. J. Approaching in two minutes.”

This is the soundscape of NOIR CITY.

**********

That night was the last I wore a tie:

IMG_3608

My slightly-askew bow tie was no match for Ken Duffy’s, who bowed out of a second attempt to play Name That Noir due to laryngitis (NOIR CITY unfortunately overlaps with “the crud” season).

IMG_3598

Clearly our daughters were accustomed to my being away: during out “good night” call (around 5:30 pm), they were far more interested in Hunter Street than their Daddy.

This was a rare evening no friend joined me, so I had time to enjoy a delicious bowl of minestrone (with buttery rye toast) at Orphan Andy’s. (Later that evening, an older patron named Ruby—husband of jazz pianist Dave—would ask me, “Where is your girl of the day?”)

Mingling on the Mezzanine, I heard Annabelle Zakaluk, Ms. NOIR CITY 2018,  reveal it took two hours just to “tease the under layer” of her beautifully-sculpted red hair—which needed to last two days.

A short time later, in front of the Castro, I heard the story behind Showrunner Manessah Wagner’s exotic first name; suffice to say it involves 1984 and the Biblical story of Joseph.

As for the films…I am not a Loretta Young fan (her saccharine portrayals put me off), so The Accused did little for me, despite a solid plot (woman kills a rapist—one of her psychology students—in self-defense then struggles to conceal the act). Perhaps tellingly, it was better received by the women I spoke to than the men.

The Threat, with gravel-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw, was more interesting, but still not one of my favorite NOIR CITY 16 films.

Afterward, I joined Melissa (impeccably-dressed young woman I met on the Castro station platform Monday night) and another woman—a local actress—for drinks at Twin Peaks.

At first there were no free tables, so we joined three older men—one of whom engaged me in an intense discussion about the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances in the upcoming Super Bowl.

When a table opened, we took it, and proceeded to have one of those awkward conversations between friendly strangers in a noisy place.

I sought out a rest room at one point. The one downstairs had no lock. As I gently pushed the door open, I saw two young women helping a young man with his head perched in readiness over the porcelain toilet bowl.

“Oh. Excuse me.”

Walking up the short flight of stairs to the narrow overhanging interior balcony, I appreciated the large plastic bowl of condoms on its ledge, having worked as a data analyst for a Philadelphia-based family-planning non-profit for four years.

After our drinks, we were hungry, so we walked across Castro for slices at Marcello’s. Our new friend then needed to find some other friend, somewhere or other, so she departed.

Melissa kindly gave me a lift to the Rex. However, not knowing that area of San Francisco well, we could not discern where to turn left from Market (in retrospect: Van Ness).  Thinking we would have better luck on Mission, we turned right on 3rd.  No dice. Eventually, we made an illegal left turn into an alley behind a hotel; turning around, we were able to make the two rights to return to Market. However, we had gone too far, and we needed to double back then head towards Chinatown to finally reach Sutter.

Having just had pizza, I only had a mug of black decaf at a quiet Lori’s.

**********

I woke at 9:42 am on Saturday, February 3, 2018. By 10:27, dressed in a brown sport coat, red-and-green plaid shirt, light beige khakis and dark red argyles, I was walking down Powell.

I repeated the previous Saturday’s breakfast (almond muffin, banana, 16 oz medium roast coffee, orange juice).

After that I chatted with Executive Showrunner Richard Hildreth (who had twice received cheers and applause for his graceful removal of a microphone stand, amplifier and stool from the stage) about his journey from Connecticut to the Castro. I learned how the Castro let go Anita Monga, “one of the best film programmers in the country,” and tried to program on its own; that did not end well.

The afternoon program of Southside 1-1000 and The Underworld Story was a knockout. As with The Unsuspected and I Walk Alone, I had recently seen Underworld (the “A” film of the pair; I forget why Eddie Muller reversed them) on Amazon streaming at home, but it was even better at the Castro.

And Southside, a taut B-movie thriller starring the underrated Don DeFore, instantly became my favorite of the 14 films I saw for the first time—though that could simply be watching it with my first bag of hot-buttered popcorn of the festival.

Following Southside, I helped a woman from Boston who had sat behind me find her sunglasses. As I crawled around on the floor, someone said to me,

“You’ve done this before.”

“Many times.”

[That someone may have worn a “yellow fleece/ brown horn rimmed glasses”—or this refers to a patron who calls me “Boston” who passed by at that point.]

Following a tuna salad with provolone on whole wheat with everything but mustard from Rossi’s Deli, I walked down Castro to Dog-Eared Books for last-minute souvenir shopping; I bought a beautifully-illustrated book of “in their own words” stories of San Francisco for Nell. Walking back, I photographed this tribute to a literary hero, one of many on the Castro “walk of fame.”

IMG_3620

Returning to the Mezzanine, photographer Fred Lyon graciously autographed a copy of his stunning new book, San Francisco Noir, to our daughters. The spry 93-year-old then told me he was jealous of my snap-brim gray fedora.

“I bought it in a store on South Street in Philadelphia,” I said, as though that explained everything.

At 6:15 pm, I joined Ken and Emily Duffy at Osaka Sushi, where I renewed my love affair with sake (plus crispy tempura calamari, a satisfying miso soup and delectable crab roll). Despite how overwhelmed our young waiter was, we made decent time. FF arrived toward the end, provocatively attired in black, opting for a slice of cheese pizza from Marcello’s to save time.

As we sat in the pizza joint, FF looked at me and said, “You look tired. You look really tired.”

Sure I was tired—but I was still psyched for the evening program of The Man Who Cheated Himself and Roadblock.

I was not the only one who was excited: the Castro was packed.

Still, there was a delay before Muller appeared on stage to introduce Cheated.  (My notes: STARTING REALLY LATE). “Where’s Eddie?” somebody asked.

Appearing at last, he proudly announced that he knew even before he woke up that morning this would be the most successful NOIR CITY ever.

Cue thunderous cheers and applause.

Seguing into the film introduction, Muller talked at length about supporting actress Lisa Howard. Married for a time to Cheated director Felix Feist (20 years her senior), she became a highly influential journalist in the early 1960s before overdosing on barbiturates in 1965, at the age of 35, following a miscarriage.

THAT is a noir story.

**********

Quoting from the home page of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF):

It is our mission to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations.

Three films screened that Saturday (Southside, Underworld, Roadblock) were among the 15 for which the FNF has funded a new 35mm print.

The fourth film—The Man Who Cheated Himself—was the 10th restoration performed by the FNF since 2005. In earlier NOIR CITY festivals, I had seen the gorgeous restorations of Too Late For Tears (2014), Woman on the Run and The Guilty (2015), and Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems; 2016).

The restored Cheated did not disappoint. As with other films, I had previously enjoyed it on Amazon streaming, but this print was a revelation, with a better story than I had remembered (cop’s married mistress kills her husband, leading said cop to investigate the murder alongside his eager-beaver younger brother—who marries Lisa Howard’s character). Seriously, who casts squeaky-clean Jane Wyatt as a femme fatale?

The final eight-plus-minute, dialogue-free sequence at Fort Point is even more breathtaking on the big screen.

Between screenings, after bidding FF good night, I chatted with Melissa on the Mezzanine. She apparently had thought my name was “Ben,” going so far as to ascribe me that name on her Instagram page.

Having sorted that out, I met another strikingly-dressed young film enthusiast (and former Capitol Hill intern—intriguing this former political science doctoral student) named Isabella.

[Ed. Note: Isabella had won the first Name That Noir eight evenings earlier, correctly naming Laura.]

My notes indicate that we joked heartily (something about setting fires—“that’s why I have my water bottle” and “sneezing money”), but my memories fade, and my notes stare blankly back at me. While schmoozing, we each received a card for a half-priced drink at Stookey’s Club Moderne.

“We should go!” one of us announced. I then observed it would have to be that night or the following night, as I was flying out Monday morning.

Hold that thought.

As I noted above, I thoroughly enjoyed the Charles McGraw vehicle Roadblock.

Film noir lacks a clear universal definition[2]. One element I would propose is the conscious decision that sends an otherwise-“innocent” person down an inexorable path of destruction. The foolish choices made by McGraw’s character in Roadblock are archetypal.

After the film (22 down, 2 to go!), I started to exit with Ken and Emily Duffy, planning to ride MUNI for exercise (sleepiness over socializing). Near a street door, though, I joined a conversation with NOIR CITY volunteer Rachel Barnett. Something about Ida Lupino was the lure.

During this conversation—Barnett knew me as the “guy from Boston” who had won Monday’s Name That Noir—I learned that I had rolled my eyes on stage. I thought I had simply nodded my head upon realizing the film being queried.

Oops.

I also learned I had a “signature move” upon entering the Passport-holders door[3].

There was more, but I need to keep some things private (plus, my notes are not ringing the correct bells).

Walking up from Powell station, I was clearly feeling “artistic” with my iPhone camera:

IMG_3635

IMG_3640

IMG_3641

I veered slightly out of my way to pass Stookey’s.  As I did so, I heard a voice calling after me. It was Hearne, a real photographer. We chatted briefly on the sidewalk before I walked the final two blocks to the Rex.

Once there, I took a cold shower—those are long sweaty days in dress clothes—then walked the half-block east on Sutter to Lori’s.

Ordering nachos with vegetarian chili, I made notes in my little black Moleskine notebook and watched the goings-on around me.

A “very disoriented” bearded young white man entered. After shuffling around a bit, he asked my favorite waitress how much one of the muffins on display near the register was. Rather than haggle with him, she simply gave him one.

SIMPLE ACT OF HUMANITY, I wrote.

I wrote in previous posts about the parade of humanity—mostly women—who make the long walk from the door to the restrooms and out again without pause or permission.

What I especially noticed that visit was how young they were. There was the thin white girl in a green skirt (“not look like Sat nite reveler”) and too-shiny rouge. There was the woman in yellow shirt and gray pants. There were others—not many, but enough.

I even wrote, “Begin to think every young woman alone using rest room is sex worker.” Or, at least, those who do not stop to ask, as women simply out for the evening might. Rather, the sex workers have an unspoken agreement with places like Lori’s: do what you need to do, no questions asked.

This is the urban nocturnal ecosystem. The women walk the streets, hiding when the police arrive—but they know that Lori’s is a haven. The panhandlers sometimes come inside, but they are moved out with firm politeness and the occasional muffin or slice of bacon from an abandoned plate. Night owls like me pass the time in quiet conversation—participant observers, to use an old political science term.

To be continued…

[1] This was not unusual in and of itself; the unofficial “uniform” of Philadelphia (especially the Main Line suburbs where I was raised) used to be black over blue jeans, a variation on New York City’s black-on-black.

[2] Which accounts for why only 323 (6.7%) of the 4,825 titles in my film noir database appear on even half of the 32 “official” published lists I have compiled.

[3] “I walk in, point to my hat, then spin around to face the street. Kind of like a Passport pirouette, I guess. I think I am simply confirming the gatekeeper saw my Passports, but who am I to argue with a little flair.”