Why actresses? I’m raising two of them (haha, sexist dad humor. Please kill me).
Listicles step from the brain-mist when a writer hears a certain song, sees a certain film scene, reads a book etc, and asks, “how many other songs/films/book do that? Am I lazy enough to feed the internet with an answer? Shall I play Pokemon Go and collect $200 dollars in unemployment benefits?”
I have asked myself those questions and many more like them.
Here, I will try to omit many of the usual suspects, like Toto’s serenade of Ms. Arquette, or Kim Carnes’s ocular ode to Ms. Davis.
Bryan Ferry wrote a few songs about Jerry Hall both during and after their marriage, but she’s more of a model than an actress. Same goes for Kate Moss, although I love Arab Strap’s song “Kate Moss.” We can’t open this up to models, or I’d have to add Roxy Music’s entire catalog, not to mention also being forced to including Prince & the Strokes. Yes, I know Sparks wrote a song about Katherine Hepburn, and there’s a K-OS song about Natalie Portman. They’re lousy.
If any of that’s a problem, get over yourself. In ascending order:
8. Matthew Sweet – “Winona”
When it was released, it was my least-liked song on Sweet’s 1991 blockbuster “Girlfriend” album, but I like it a tad more, now, not only for its dated production and honey-sweet steel guitar, but in bittersweet hindsight, given how this song was unavoidably innocent to the future fall Ms. Ryder would take from stardom (although with Stranger Things, that’s being currently reversed, and fast – if she stays out of the mall. )
7. Serge Gainsbourg – “Initials BB”
“Initials B.B.” is just the title track of an entire 1968 Gainsbourg album recorded about and with Bridgette Bardot following their short affair in 1967. Aside from this version recorded with the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra, it’s not one of SG’s best moments. In Bardot, Gainsbourg amazingly found a vocalist worse than he was, but talent means something altogether different in France than it does anywhere else in the world. Serge and BB spend the album singing about stuff like HG Wells novels and Jack the Ripper, really nothing to write home about aside from the fascinating backing tracks. Luckily, one of SG’s best songs in his whole catalog, “Bonnie and Clyde,” appears on this album, a song simultaneously about both the movie and probably his affair with Bardot.
6. Woody Guthrie – “Ingrid Bergman”
Higher in quality than to be expected from attempts of its kind, the 1998 “Mermaid Avenue” project of contemporary artists setting music to Woody Guthrie‘s reams of un-notated lyrics included almost no missteps. First smart move was conscripting the top-notch songwriting chops in Wilco and Billy Bragg, with careful sprinkling of Natalie Merchant. It also revealed Guthrie was a normal guy, in that he could write a song about the stellar Ingrid Bergman with not a little bit of winking filth in the chorus: “this old mountain /it’s been waiting / all its life for you to work it / for your hands to touch its hard rock.”
5. Wesley Willis – Alanis Morrisette
Don’t forget: Ms. Morrisette was an actress, first, and still works as one. And, according to Wesley Willis, she could really rock Saddam Hussein‘s ass. Not to mention Dave Coulier’s derrière. (double French entendre ftw)
4. Nirvana – Frances Farmer Will Have her Revenge on Seattle
Many of us old enough to have experienced Cobain in real time figured his most interesting work was ahead of him, hinted by songs like “All Apologies,” or by covering songs from the unassailable “Meat Puppets II.”
There was much of Nirvana I could take or leave, maybe half of all of it, as I was weary of Cobain’s grunge vocal affectations as he probably was by the time he ate lead. Plus, without Grohl’s drumming (see “All Apologies”), much of Nirvana rides the same mediocre road as Pearl Joke. Yet, not infrequently, Cobain’s songwriting was oddly inspired, taking on Seattle-specific subjects like the tragic public life of Seattle native Frances Farmer, whose rising film career was destroyed by amphetamine-exacerbated paranoid schizophrenia and, adding insult to injury, ended at age 56 by fatal esophageal cancer after a shaky comeback.
3. American Music Club – “What Holds the World Together”
A double whammy win of movie taste and songwriting chops. Few songwriters other than AMC’s Mark Eitzel could pull off a love song from the viewpoint of an already- dying John Cassavetes directing his wife Gena Rowlands. The chorus “The world is held together by the wind / That blows through Gena Rowland’s hair” becomes Eitzel’s comment on the world because Cassavetes is saying it to the world, not just to himself.
As a band, American Music Club went silent for nine years following this song, from 1994’s San Francisco, and has been silent again, since 2008, maybe due to their lineup shifting amid members’ geographical diaspora and possibly due to the untimely deaths of revolving but crucial members Tim Mooney and Tom Mallon, who had to be essential (or, maybe it’s all Vudi)to AMC’s elegiac, thunderstorm-in-the-distance (and sometimes upon you) sound.
2. The Embarrassment – “Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face”
The Embarrassment only lasted four years, but didn’t make no crap. Hailing from Kansas in a pre-Internet age, there was little chance of getting the word out, aside from gigging and recording. Following their breakup in 83, Bill Goffrier formed the superb Big Dipper in Boston, recording some of the Embarrassment’s leftover material, as well as a song about Embarrassment drummer Ron Klaus destroying his home.
As far as their song about Ms. Montgomery, I have to agree with the Embarrassment about watching Bewitched as a young man and thinking, um, not so innocently, uh, wow.
The lost official video has surfaced:
1. The Go-Betweens – “Lee Remick”
Unbeatable. “Lee Remick” was the Go-Betweens’ first single, in 1978. A legit signed photo, sent to band member Robert Forster, adorns the back cover. Like a lost Modern Lovers track (they were fans) in its simplicity (“She was in The Omen/with Gregory Peck / She got killed / what the heck”) “Lee Remick” is catchy, charming, and straightforward without sounding like a stalker’s mash note. Which it is. This was the special frisson of the Go-Betweens; to launch gorgeous pop amid an undercurrent of pointedly literary alienation. I missed them, live, in their original iteration, but I did catch their first NYC show as Mach 2 Go-Betweens version on June 8, 1999, at the Mercury Lounge, during which I looked to my left and noticed the tiny woman standing next to me was PJ Harvey (and lest you disbelieve me, ask Ann Powers, who was also there). No, I did not plotz.
Click here for the original version of “Lee Remick”, but check the following out, recorded shortly before Grant Mclennan, as much a solid interviewer as he was an excellent solo songwriter, died waaaay too soon: