...being the observations and navigational extracts
from the ongoing expeditions of San Francisco Piano Pop trio
True Margrit

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The True True Grit

Of course we get the question from time to time--where did your band name come from? My name is actuallly truly spelled Margrit--nope, it's not an affectation, it's the spelling used by my mom's friend, my namesake, Margrit Vanderin. And then there's the book, True Grit. It's now been a movie twice over, and yes, we do indeed make reference to it in our band name. But how when and where does one find one's inner grit? And which grit is the grittiest?

In the fine novel by Charles Portis there's a sustained bone-dry wry tone as` the slightly tall-tale follows the wild-west odyssey of Mattie Ross (a frighteningly capable teenage farm-girl with a stubborn streak of epic proportion) who wants to wreak revenge on her father's rather pathetic murderer. She seeks a man with "true grit" to help her pursue the villain into the Indian Territories. She falls in with a U.S. Marshall, the alcoholic, one-eyed, semi-murderous, tough-as-nails, Civil War veteran, Rooster Cogburn as her guide/ foil. In the massively successful Academy Award (trademark inserted here) winning 1969 version we get some lapses of tone from the original story--especially with the unbelievably lame theme-song, and occasional moments of cutesy-ness. But the screenplay stays firmly tethered to its source in plot, atmosphere, and dialogue, and Kim Darby offers a bracing (although overly-gritty, that is, abrasive) Mattie Ross. But this version features a career-topping performance by John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, pretty much defining the role and himself. And there's an amusingly florid turn by Glen Campbell as the vain (and in the major departure from the book, doomed) Marshall Le Boeuf.

It's hard to imagine being faced with the job of trying to re-make such a classic, but the Coen Brothers new version is ever so gorgeous--the screen drips with golden western light the very color of cowboy nostalgia, nighttime skies are studded with burning blue stars, winter aspens appear stark and Ansel Adamsesque against the snow, horses go galloping kinetically across the prairie. The brothers Coen's script adheres largely to the novel's text, but fails to generate quite the same nuanced flavor of sweet/dark humor of either the book or the 1969 film. The new version is both more formal, with its hip film homagery and super cool editing wizardry, and yet more offhand with Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn dypsomanically muttering his lines into his beard, and peering with knowing keenness out of his one good eye. The new Mattie Ross, played by the excellent Hailee Steinfeld, is more matter of fact and naturalistic, and yet, somehow more mythic. Her story in the hands of the flmmakers, ends up less as ripping yarn and more aesthetically stimulating, catering more to the cerebrum than the gut. And it's darker and colder, and somehow more cartoonish--particularly Matt Damon's delirious offering of comic relief as the ridiculous (and indestructible) Texan, Le Boeuf.

Be that all as it may, can the book or the films or the band answer the question of which grit is the genuine article? Grit is the irritant/catalyst that generates pearls inside of oyster shells. Grit can cause the friction that rubs off a superfluous surface. Grit is more than skin deep--so, it's not the grit on the outside that matters. Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is missing his right eye, John Wayne the left. Some Le Boeufs die, some live. All of the Mattie Rosses are tough enough to take action against a sea of trouble (making her the opposite man to all the Hamlets soliloquizing through the centuries). Maybe grit can't be explained--only experienced. Grit is more than the sum of its parts. You can tell where it's been by the debris, but there's no knowing where it's heading. Fake grit turns to rust and tarnish. Through the tests upon inner mettle that chisel away pretense, real grit reveals new identities and vistas. And whether you're dealing with murderers & horse thieves, or wrangling a touchy chorus & quarrelsome chord cycle, grit will get you stomping your foot & singing along. And saying, "damn! I like that! But I'm glad someone else tried that, so I didn't have to!"

Monday, January 03, 2011

Blur at the Bottom of the Harvest of the Noe Valley Aubergine

Andrew stayed in town for three weeks in October. We rehearsed a handful of new tunes. We played some gigs. This last clump of shows followed in the wake of over fifty appearances this past year. So. The last full band appearances (and really, the past 18 months) have blended together into a single glob in my head. Here's the glob:

We launch into our set opener. I pound the keys. The kickdrum thumps, cymbals shimmer, the bass vibrates the whole stage. Some smiling faces peer up at us from the side of the stage. I smile back. Riffs. Chords. Basslines. Backbeats. Tunes. I sing the words of "Syllable": "wish I were a centipede" and I mean it, dude! The lyrics of "Lucy", "Opposite Man", "Emily". Gary harmonizes, miraculously matching my jagged phrases. The song is winding up. Vaulting onto the piano I demonstrate the love that dare not speak its name. I hop off the keyboard. Applause! Thanks y'all!! I sip a tasty beer. We ease into another tune. The set ebbs and flows and pitches and yaws and wows and flutters. We play "50,000 Names" followed by "Opposite Opposite Man". "Bow-legged Romeo shrugs down the street, the wind at his collar and a poem in his teeth". The audience has been watching curiously, appraising, and now when the drums make their surprise entrance in the middle of this stealth ballad, they are drawn into the storyline and forget themselves--just like us. "Comforting the Castaways" maintains the collective state of suspended disbelief. Then "Make Them Beg" snakes through its syncopations and reaches an insistent peak. I knee and stomp the piano clanging discordant bliss while the bass rumbles and duels with the drums. Applause! The show is done. We drag our instruments offstage into a waiting vehicle. It's raining. Sad streets steam silently silvered in the smoky fog. We drive away from the venue. Towards home.