Friday’s New York Times was all atwitter about corporate music grinder Andrew Lloyd Webber seeking the publishing catalog of the now-sold Warner Music Group.
It’s called Warner Chappell Music, and includes, among thousands of titles, all of Michael Jackson’s solo hits like "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" from his "Thriller," "Bad," "Dangerous," "HIStory" and "Invincible" albums.
But Lloyd Webber’s interest in Warner Chappell is not the first from a composer. I can tell you now that Jackson himself thought he was buying Warner Chappell just two months ago.
Jackson’s advisors — now in disarray — were unified during the summer. They figured out that Jackson’s half interest in Sony/ATV Music (aka the Beatles catalog, et al) would be enough collateral to launch an inventive deal. They engaged investment bankers at Goldman Sachs, who put together a firm offer for Sony/ATV to buy Warner Chappell. This would have brought all of Jackson’s major publishing holdings together under one roof.
But luck has never been on Jackson’s side concerning such matters. Just as the Goldman Sachs deal looked ready to roll, Warner Music got out of its other merger deals and looked to Edgar Bronfman’s group as a potential buyer. Bronfman wanted the publishing company as well as the record catalog. Almost simultaneously, the Santa Barbara DA began to make his move on Jackson. There was no way at that point for the plans to jell.
Even more perplexing in the Jackson saga: Even though Jackson was making this deal, and even though he’d been on trial in Santa Maria earlier in 2003 for his breach of contract lawsuit with manager Marcel Avram, he never bothered to tell the lawyers and business people handling the Goldman-Warner-Sony proposal that the child-molestation case even existed. All of them — including such longtime Jackson legal advisers as John Branca, Steve Cochran (no relation to Johnnie) and Zia Modabber — found out when the world did, on the morning of Nov. 19 when the Neverland Ranch was raided by the Santa Barbara police department.
Since J Records never sent a copy of "The Diary of Alicia Keys" to me, I bought it on Friday. Bought it, you say? It’s not released until tomorrow. Well, luckily — or so I thought — my Entertainment Outlet on West 14th Street had about a dozen copies proudly displayed.
It turns out, of course, that I purchased a very authentic-looking bootleg version of "Diary." It lacks both a DVD and a completed track. Otherwise, it’s as close to the genuine artifact as it needs to be for these purposes. Isn’t this amazing? All those RIAA crackdowns on downloading and piracy, and here we are with a counterfeit Alicia Keys album. Inside job, anyone?
The uncompleted track is a medley of “If I Was Your Woman” and “Walk on By” with a sample from Isaac Hayes’ version of the latter. The “Walk on By” part is missing, but the first part is there and it’s just fine. Gladys Knight should be proud.
“Diary” is otherwise a collection of songs the 22-year-old Keys has written with various partners since her stunning debut album, "Songs in A Minor." Unlike a lot of sophomore efforts, “Diary” is a leap forward from “Minor.” Some of the songs sample from old R&B; the result is a very early- '70s-sounding soul album with exquisite production, vocals and instrumentals. Keys is, after all, extremely musical. Like Wyclef Jean, Musiq and a handful of others, she is the future of real R&B and not the junk we’ve been served endlessly for the last 15 years.
Keys’ strengths lie in her abilities to compose and sing as if she were from another, more gifted generation. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a beautiful young woman, either, but she doesn’t trade on that. If you want to know the difference between the Real Thing and all those Britney-Christina-Pink-etc. aerobics instructors, just listen to "Diary." It is instructive.
There is some criticism that Keys’ music is derivative, but I will fight that argument. She’s simply working in a vein of music, trying to cut her own patterns. I think it works. There’s a song on “Diary” called “If I Ain’t Got You” that would make Burt Bacharach and Thom Bell smile for all its gorgeousness. To think that a 22-year-old wrote it and “gets” it, is just amazing. The title track is also something of a tour de force, and several more — “Karma,” “Wake Up,” “Samsonite Man” — are among the songs that should propel Keys’ new album to No. 1 next week.
For the deceptively catchy single “You Don’t Know My Name” (you will be humming it soon, believe me), Keys lets Jay Z producer Kayne West take a page from the Jay Z/Beyonce playbook. He uses a sample from an obscure 1975 track by The Main Ingredient called “Let Me Prove My Love to You.” (West and Jay Z did this using the Chi Lites’ “Are You My Woman?” to make Beyonce’s hit “Crazy in Love.”) It was an excellent idea to launch the album, but Keys’ original songs are so outstanding — all sung without any of the awful melismata that afflict today’s singers — that I think they will be the focus as the album matures on radio.
“Diary” is the kind of album you will play over and over again. Bravo!
Tomorrow, the National Board of Review announces its annual awards. There will be much trumpeting about this business, but we’ve learned to take it not very seriously at all. After all, the NBR is composed of fans, not professional critics. They pay $450 a year to belong to the group, and another $400 a head to attend the annual gala dinner at Tavern on the Green in January.
But in 2001, according to its tax filing, the NBR collected about $200,000 for that annual dinner, i.e., 450 people at $400 a pop. Can it really cost that much to feed people a dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes? Interestingly, former Tavern on the Green banquet manager Bob Policastro has been running the day-to-day operations of the NBR for the last couple years.
The strange accounting at the NBR doesn’t stop there. According to their most recent available tax filing — received by the IRS exactly one year ago — the not-for-profit NBR somehow managed to spend a whopping $111,000 screening films in 2001. That’s an increase from $77,000 the year before and a mere $22,000 in 1999. It doesn’t seem possible, considering many of the screenings they have are hosted by the movie studios in their own screening rooms. The studios also often feed the members of the NBR and hold question-and-answer sessions with the directors and stars of the movies they are supposed to judge impartially. I also knew when friends of mine have returned from an NBR outing; they are stuffed.
The NBR is run a little like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” with various Snowballs and Napoleons jockeying for power. In the last year, the NBR’s prickly head, Lois Ballon, was eased out because of illness. But also pushed off the board, I am told, was the esteemed Victoria Wilson, editor in chief at Knopf Books for two decades with an expertise in film and theater. She was probably one of the few people in the NBR who knew anything on the subject. Now running the show are Policastro, whose career prior to the NBR was banquet manager at Tavern on the Green, and Ballon’s former stooge, Carol Rappaport. The costs of the annual dinner — which are huge — are hidden in the tax filing.
So: What will they choose? It’s a frightening thought, considering that this year is perhaps the worst since 1995 for film. The choices are slim and the favorites lean toward the conservative. My guesses for the 10 best movies of the year are, in alphabetical order, "Big Fish," "Cold Mountain,' "In America," "The Human Stain," "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander," "Mystic River," "Seabiscuit" and "Thirteen." I am not including any of the depressing films, such as "Sylvia," "House of Sand and Fog" or "21 Grams." Even the most brilliant acting still makes them each undesirable to watch in many ways.
Good actors were in plentitude: Bill Murray, Albert Finney, Ben Kingsley, Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Wentworth Miller, Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Robert Duvall, and Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale of "The Station Agent" are just a few who will roll into lead and supporting slots. Dinklage is the most emotional best actor nominee; his performance is totally winning, with no baggage to weigh it down.
Actresses were a little tougher to gauge. Nevertheless, Nicole Kidman, the amazing Charlize Theron ("Monster"), Cate Blanchett ("The Missing"), Patricia Clarkson, Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen"), Marcia Gay Harden, Renee Zellweger, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Diane Keaton and Naomi Watts all made the grade. My one dark horse is Uma Thurman, who seems to be getting short shrift from "Kill Bill: Vol. 1." I think her work there is going to be rewarded as we make our way through the awards brambles.