Monthly Archives: December 2010

See you next decade

Say adieu to the year with John Fahey:

Here’s how he did it:

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Your Christmas playlist

How about some Dolemite with that eggnog?

And how about a Bird chaser?

Appropriate this year — not only for me.

A little century-old stop-motion animation from Russia.

Maybe in a few years this will be overplayed and overdone, but right now it’s pretty refreshing.

Heretical of me to say this, but I prefer Brian Setzer’s version to the Chuck Berry original.

Haven’t we all felt this way from time to time?

More people need to hear this song. As for the visuals — I was getting pretty tired of the original, weren’t you?

Greatest Christmas song EVAH.

Heard this one?

A winter’s tale with a twist.

Because around here, John Fahey always gets the last word.

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A thousand points of light

Some people really go overboard on this Christmas decoration business. Here are some others.

The runaway writer

I’m particularly susceptible to ghost stories around Christmastime. I’m probably not the only one — A Christmas Carol is, after all, a four-decker ghost story at heart.

The story of Barbara Follett, who published a critically acclaimed book at the age of 12, isn’t exactly a ghost tale — not exactly. But it is pretty spooky.

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Captain Beefheart

The first time I heard a Captain Beefheart track (“Plastic Factory,” off Safe as Milk), I thought I was listening to a long-lost Howlin’ Wolf outtake. The second time I heard a Captain Beefheart track (“My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” off Clear Spot), I thought I was listening to an up-and-coming blue-eyed soul singer. And the third time I heard a Captain Beefheart track (“Orange Claw Hammer,” off Trout Mask Replica), I thought I was hearing a field recording of a forgotten 19th-century poet in his old age. So when people say Captain Beefheart was an artist of extremes, they’re not kidding. Walt Whitman claimed he was vast and encompassed multitudes, but Captain Beefheart really sounded that way.

Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, just died of complications from multiple sclerosis, and it’s been great to see the range of tributes he inspired. As “obscure” artists go, he will prove to be a very influential one. He was already a role model for Tom Waits in his mid-Eighties transformation, and most of the ambitious post-punk bands owe him at least a name check.

Beefheart’s most challenging music sounded like free jazz, but he notoriously flogged his players into performing his music note-for-note, with no room for improvisation. Even his more straightforward blues rockers contained baffling, surrealistic lyrics that might have been transcribed directly from his id — or broadcast from another planet entirely.  More than one acquaintance described him as a visual artist trying to express his ideas through music, so when Beefheart retired from recording in the Eighties in order to concentrate on his painting, it seemed like the most natural of transitions.

Beefheart was a childhood friend of Frank Zappa, who gave him his monicker, released some of his albums, and used him on some famous tracks, such as “Willie the Pimp” off Hot Rats. Zappa was far and away the better known of the pair, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that Beefheart was the more adventurous and ambitious artist. He had none of Zappa’s instrumental prowess, but it’s impossible to imagine Zappa recording anything as nakedly emotional as “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles,” or as poetic as “Orange Claw Hammer,” in which an old sailor encounters his daughter after decades at sea:

Come little one with yer little dimpled fingers
Gimme one ‘n I’ll buy you uh cherry phosphate
Take you down t’ the foamin’ brine ‘n water
‘n show you the wooden tits
On the Goddess with the pole out s’full sail
That tempted away yer peg legged father
I was shanghaied by uh high hat beaver moustache man
‘n his pirate friend
I woke up in vomit ‘n beer in uh banana bin
‘n uh soft lass with brown skin
Bore me seven babies with snappin’ black eyes
‘n beautiful ebony skin
‘n here it is I’m with you my daughter
Thirty years away can make uh seaman’s eyes
Uh round house man’s eyes flow out water
Salt water

Many of the Beefheart tributes cite Trout Mask Replica as his masterpiece, but I beg to differ. Personally, I find the album all but unlistenable these days. Doc at the Radar Station is a far better and more accessible sample of Beefheart at his most extreme, while Clear Spot and The Spotlight Kid (conveniently available on a single CD) showcase his blue-eyed soul side at its most appealing. They’re still plenty weird, in an approachable way — I wish the Lowell George-era Little Feat had covered “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man.” Or you could try his debut album, Safe as Milk, in which the bluesman and the garage-rocker exist in perfect, jangling harmony.

Top 14 Reasons Why Captain Beefheart Was a True American Genius.

RIP, Captain Beefheart.

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Friday finds

I am seriously pumped to see the Coen Bros. adaptation of True Grit, and this advance review confirms my hunch that the Coens are simpatico with the work of Charles Portis, one of the greats of American literature. But while I’m at it, and since this movie has “Oscar bait” written all over it, let me propose a drinking game for the next Academy Awards broadcast. When True Grit bags a golden guy, have one person take a shot whenever Charles Portis gets mentioned in the thank-you speech, and have another person take a shot whenever somebody gives a shout-out to John Wayne, who starred in the first, barely adequate film version. Judging from the way the Coens handled things a couple of years ago, I expect one guest will be dry as a bone at the end of the night while the other is comatose.

If you think the treatment endured by Bradley Manning is shocking, read Zeitoun by David Eggers and learn that not only can it happen here — it’s been happening for a while.

Frederik Pohl reminisces about Cordwainer Smith here and here.

Crustypunks? New one on me.

So you want to be a freelance writer?

Author and translator Damion Searls talks about Rainer Maria Rilke.

But the entire time I was watching the last two-thirds of the film, I could not get out of my head the fact that the foundation, the groundwork, had been so thoroughly botched that if the film had been re-contextualized as a house, it would’ve been leaning heavily to one side, with the bricks falling to the ground and the roof sliding half-off.”

Some drunks are brawlers and some drunks are bawlers. I guess we know which category goes for John Boehner.

Animation Backgrounds is film geekery at its finest: a blog devoted to the backdrops of animated films. If you think that sounds dull, check out this breakdown of the lush, detail-crammed backdrops from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and yawn no more.

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Tom and tide

Though I don’t particularly give a damn who gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the news that Tom Waits has been invited into the club does offer a handy excuse for posting clips of this ridiculously talented musician and poet, who has traveled farther stylistically than just about any performer I can think of. From the ballads and Beatnik poetry of the first phase, to the deep-voiced blues of the late Seventies and early Eighties, to the Harry-Partch-meets-Kurt-Weill style that started with Swordfishtrombones, the guy has had more creative lives than a cat He’s also frequently hilarious.

Most importantly, he’s the underground Irving Berlin. Everyone from the Eagles to Bruce Springsteen to Rod Stewart has covered a Waits tune, and while some cover versions are better than others, they remain the property of Tom Waits.

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The agony of de feet

Because I grew up stranded in the trackless expanses of Greater Suburbia, where sprawl and inadequate mass transit make an automobile necessary for just about any semblance of civilized life, I have a different definition of “walkability” than some urbanites, particularly certain New Yorkers.

This Atrios post made me laugh because it reminded me of conversations I had about the Martin Scorsese flick After Hours, in which a hapless Manhattanite endures all sorts of menacing Kafkaesque perils because he is stranded in SoHo without cabfare. Not only is it not a very good film, it is a ridiculous one because the hero’s dilemma is so utterly unconvincing. But acquaintances who were New Yorkers, or tried to act like New Yorkers, assured me at the time that After Hours was harrowing and believable.

“He goes through all kinds of hell because he can’t catch a cab,” I said. “Why didn’t he just walk home?”

“He couldn’t do that! Besides, it’s raining.”

“He’s got vigilantes chasing him through SoHo,” I said. “All he had to do to save his neck was walk out of there.”

“He couldn’t do that! He was in SoHo!”

“So? Head over to Broadwalk, point your shoes north, start walking. In an hour or so you’ll be home taking a nice hot bath.”

“Yeah, but still . . . he lived on the Upper West Side!”

“Oh, well, in that case . . . “

Maybe it’s the easy availability of cabs.

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I’m No. 135!

Author and blogger John Scalzi has very graciously opened up a comment thread that allows other authors to hawk their books. Since Scalzi sells more books in any given five-minute period than I do in a year, and has an Internet audience that is ridiculously larger than mine to boot, I am happy to be Author No. 135 hawking The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, which I have to say would make a wonderful gift for anyone who appreciates political corruption, murder, traffic engineering, the march of progress, or any other other things that make the world go ’round.

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Taking care of Fifth Business

It’s downright Jungian. No sooner do I read Geoff’s post on Fifth Business — the first volume of the “Deptford Trilogy,” from Canadian writer Robertson Davies — than a one-volume set of the Deptford books arrives at the store, along with a one-volume set of the next cycle, the Cornish Trilogy.

I don’t know what Davies would have had to say about the Internet, but his presence is all over YouTube in some pretty surprising ways.

If you’ve read the Deptford cycle, you know it takes off from a single incident — a snowball that misses its target and hits a pregnant woman — that turns out to be the watershed for several lives. Fifth Business focuses on the boy who ducked, Dunstable Ramsay, who becomes a teacher. The Manticore focuses on Percy Boyd Staunton, the overprivileged mama’s boy who threw the snowball and went on to become a wealthy creep. World of Wonders follows the career of the boy born to the woman, who went into premature labor after being hit by the snowball. Jungian archetypes are a significant theme linking the three books. Let this young man explain it for you:

Davies is a great writer, and Fifth Business remains one of my favorite Davies novels if only because it was my introduction to his work. But the use of mythological/psychological themes  that gives heft to his novels can undercut them as well. Each of the three completed trilogies that are the core of his work has one novel in which the thematic machinery grinds a little too loudly. Of the Deptford books, for example, I found The Manticore pretty slow going, and the finale of the Cornish novels, The Lyre of Orpheus, puts its players through their Arthurian paces far too obviously. (The performance of the Hoffmann opera, however, goes a long way toward dispelling any annoyance.) If I had to choose, I’d say the Cornish books are the pick of the litter: The Rebel Angels is the equal of any of the Deptford novels (I still nurse a crush on Maria Theotoky, even if she doesn’t exist), and What’s Bred in the Bone can only be described as a tour de force.

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