Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bubblegum, Popped

Gary Lewis and the Playboys
Kultur // 2005 // 45 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“This pop confection doesn’t shine for me anymore.” ~ So sez Cinematic Cteve.

Let’s (Sorta) Rock:
Gary Lewis and the Playboys perform their best-known hits in this revival concert. Neither the band nor the tunes have aged well in the four decades since they last made the charts (that's Lewis on drums, at left; yeah, and dig the misspelling of the band’s name...). In his heyday, Lewis delivered heartfelt vocals on sweet ballads and bubblegum rock. As an oldies act, his nasal whine, shockingly similar to his father’s distinctive voice, grates on the nerves in stereo.

But back in the day, specifically 1964, the son of comedian Jerry Lewis inked a contract with Liberty Records and took off like a bottle rocket. Gary and his band scored a number one hit the following year with “This Diamond Ring,” a jilted lover’s lament and easily the group’s best-remembered song. Cash Box magazine named Lewis “Male Vocalist of the Year” in 1965. His reedy vocals beat fellow nominees Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. True, dat. An incredible bit of pop-music trivia, eh?

That was then. Today the best that can be said is that this DVD offers clean audio and video. The camera stays focused on the musicians, with a minimum of distracting cutaways to the audience. Problem is, there’s just no getting beyond the cringe-inducing sound of Lewis’ voice. Billed as part of the Pop Legends Live concert series, Gary Lewis and the Playboys offers a respectable sampler of the band’s music. However, the real value can be seen in the maddeningly brief clips of the group at its peak in 1965, before the ravages of time would dilute their vocals and date their tunes. The DVD might provide a pleasant evening for retirees in the mood for some innocuous nostalgia. Then again, the original lineup has changed quite a bit through the years, with a new guitarist and drummer. Gone is former lead guitarist Tom Tripplehorn, father of actress Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct, Very Bad Things). The Playboys are the same band in name only.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. “A Conversation with Gary Lewis” is the lone extra on the disc. This material was apparently culled from a much longer interview, highlights of which are interspersed with the concert footage on the main program. Among the revelations, the singer says John Lennon was his favorite Beatle.

Reminiscing about the glory days, Lewis (who now plays guitar, above left) recalls his father’s encouragement and shares some of the strategies that even the son of a celebrity had to follow to score AM radio airplay. The interview is punctuated with video of father and son from the early 1950s and a clip of Gary and his band playing the Ed Sullivan show. Turns out Lewis was originally the drummer. On this oldies tour, he’s moved to front and center on rhythm guitar. In concert the old exuberance is still there — it never seems like Lewis & Co. are just going through the motions — yet there’s something vaguely creepy about a man in his sixties warbling about Little Miss Go Go while shaking his ass in black-leather pants.

Of the 11 tracks on this disc, Lewis co-wrote two. Leon Russell (!) collaborated on more than half the songs included here — all written 45-plus years ago — which is another surprising bit of trivia that illustrates the value of sticking through the closing credits on a concert DVD. A bit of research reveals ol’ Leon was a session man on some of the Playboy’s early tracks, as their record label apparently didn’t have enough faith in their musicianship to let them perform on their own.

Gary Lewis and the Playboys still tour. His official web site lists more than a dozen dates slated nationwide through the end of this year.

Let me be clear: No one begrudges an aging pop star’s desire to earn a few bucks and take another bow in the limelight at the twilight of his career. But only the most devoted pop-music fan should feel compelled to trade money for this disc.

My dad owned a restaurant in the mid-1960s near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and he used to bring home the 45s from the jukebox when the vendor would load the old wurlitzer with fresh, hot wax a couple of times a month. Nobody saw any value in returning spent 45s to the record label back in L.A., so dad would come home with a bunch of records and let us kids spin 'em on the automatic mono record player that dropped one 45 at a time on the platter as the tone arm tracked over and plopped down and hit the grooves. I remember doing a two-step twist to “Little Miss Go Go,” which was the B-side to “Count Me In.” I would have been about two years old.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Our minds embellish and burnish the memory to a fine lustre. Finer, in fact, than the reality ever was. Racking my mind, I try to recall why it was so much fun shagging to “Little Miss Go Go” and a hundred other singles. Gary Lewis, 63, is banking on the belief that people still wanna remember. And in watching this disc, all I wanna do is forget.

Dig, when you're a toddler, everything is magic.

Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now.

Set list:

• “Count Me In”
• “Without a Word of Warning”
• “Everybody Loves a Clown”
• “This Diamond Ring”
• “Save Your Heart for Me”
• “Sure Gonna Miss Her”
• “Little Miss Go Go”
• “Green Grass”
• “Look Through Any Window”
• “Sealed With a Kiss”
• “She’s Just My Style”

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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