Monthly Archives: October 2006

Just asking

Last night, during my umpteenth visit to Home Depot I realized something — there was a rather high proportion of extremely pretty and sometime even gorgeous women working the cash registers. In fact, this has been true of every Home Depot in Central New Jersey — at least, the ones that I’ve seen.

I expect a bar or a restaurant to keep a babealicious staff — but Home Depot?

Is this initiative on the part of Home Depot? Or are the more eligible women hoping to snag a guy who’s handy at home projects? I find that plausible. After all, a job at Starbucks will mainly bring you into contact with moody young men who spend all day staring into laptops and have horrendous coffee breath. A job at Home Depot, on the other hand, gets you up close to men who can build you a backyard deck, or re-wire your house.    

I’m just asking.

Kill the hobbit

From everything I’ve heard and read, being a writer in Hollywood sounds like a great way to spend hours, days and weeks of your life cooped up in meeting rooms listening to the opinions of people a tapeworm would consider beneath contempt.

Of course, I could be wrong.

On the other hand, this excerpt from the upcoming biography of filmmaker Peter Jackson doesn’t give much cause for doubt. Back when The Lord of the Rings was still on track to be a two-part film produced by the Weinstein Brothers (of Miramax fame), Jackson recalls being told that one of the hobbits making the journey to Mordor would have to be killed. There was also the threat, hanging like the sword of Damocles over every meeting, that the Weinsteins would lose their nerve and demand the entire story be compressed into a single film.

Of course, Jackson was eventually able to convince New Line to pick up the ball Miramax was about to toss away, and eventually J.R.R. Tolkien’s huge story was brought to the screen in proper, three-movie fashion. One should remember that the last attempt to mount a Tolkien film, Ralph Bakshi’s animated version, had been a disaster, and Jackson himself was a cult filmmaker who had never attempted anything remotely on this scale. There was plenty of reason to be cautious about committing too many resources. One of the things I like about the three Lord of the Rings movies is that making them took good old-fashioned Hollywood balls.

But, gawd . . . you read about the little psychodramas the Weinsteins staged during story conferences and you wonder how any good films get made at all, much less great ones.

Going to a motel with Richard Ford (on different nights)

I may not have much in common with Richard Ford, but on one point we’re hermanos — we both like the Island Beach Motor Lodge. These and other points about Ford’s affection for the Jersey Shore are covered in this profile, pegged to the publication of The Lay of the Land, Ford’s third book about sportswriter turned real estate agent Frank Bascombe. The book is set in an imaginary Shore town based on Seaside Heights and Seaside Park. Sounds like I’ll just have to read it.

What’s so great about the Island Beach Motor Lodge? For one thing, it’s open year-round and its got these great penthouse-type units right on the beach. For another, it’s very far from the honky-tonk clamor of Seaside Heights, but not so far that you couldn’t go check it out if you were in the mood to do some damage.

But above all, it’s right at the entrance to Island Beach State Park, my second favorite Shore spot after Sandy Hook. Except for some Park Service shacks and bathrooms, it’s about as close to undeveloped as you’re going to find on our Atlantic coastline. You can walk all the way down to the Barnegat Inlet and gaze across the churning boat wakes at the looming Barnegat Lighthouse. There are foxes that flicker, startlingly, across the interior road as you drive through. Mainly, however, there’s just you, the sand and the ocean, and that’s usually the way I like it on the Shore.

Passages: Jacob Bronowski

One of my early intellectual heroes was Jacob Bronowski, whose magnificent series The Ascent of Man aired in the early 1970s on PBS. (It and the original series of James Burke’s Connections rank high on my list of reasons why public television remains valuable and should be defended.) In that pre-VCR era, I was glad to discover that the book drawn from the series was pretty much a direct transcript, which changes made mostly to compensate for the absence of a clarifying image. It remains a great introduction to the works of this remarkable writer and philosopher.

Years ago, during my first visit to Los Angeles, I puzzled some friends by saying the landmark I most wanted to see was the Watts Towers. That’s because one of the segments of The Ascent of Man, “Grain in the Stone,” dealt with the development of architecture through the ages; after a dazzling voyage across empires of time that took in everything from the workmanlike Roman arch to the gaudy splendor of the Gothic cathedrals, Bronowski ended with the Towers and the story of their builder, Simon Rodia. Watching the show as a young teenager, I promised myself I would visit those unlikely monuments as soon as possible. A decade or so later, I was able to make good on that promise, and when I did, I could hear Bronowski’s words again, clear and strong as ever.

There is a philistine strain in many otherwise intelligent people that holds science accountable for atrocities such as the mechanized savagery practiced by Nazi Germany. Bronowski, with great eloquence and a strain of poetry that belied cliches about scientific dryness, defended science against the charge and went on to argue, commandingly, that the endlessly questioning and probing nature of science defies such evils — that it is, in fact, humanity’s best defense against them. In the tremendously moving close to the series, Bronowski stood by a pond behind the Auschwitz death camp and spoke of the real source of the dehumanization that made Auschwitz possible. Via one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, you can watch the YouTube link and see it for yourself.

The need for uncertainty was a thread binding all of Bronowski’s writings and speeches. He returned to the theme many times, often with great epigrammatic wit:

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”

“Has there ever been a society that died of dissent? There have been several that died of conformity in our lifetime.”

“Man is unique not because he does science, and he is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.”

“Science has nothing to be ashamed of even in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human imaginative values which science has evolved.”

“Dissent is the native activity of the scientist, and it has got him into a good deal of trouble in the last years. But if that is cut off, what is left will not be a scientist. And I doubt whether it will be a man.”

One of the most disturbing books I own is an old catalogue of torture implements used by the Spanish Inquisition — part of a touring exhibition sponsored by human rights groups. In it you will find out about such devices and techniques as the twisting stork, the expanding pear, squassation and the Judas Cradle, as well as the specific heresies and offenses they punished. I’m not suggesting you seek it out — in fact, you might want to cherish your ignorance. There have been a few occasions when I wondered if I was better off knowing exactly what the inquisitors did.

But these awful tools are the fruits of certainty, forged and tested in an era when the bodies of men were viewed simply as the envelopes containing their souls, and that the cleansing of the soul (and, by extension, state and society) justified the infliction of horrible pain and injuries on the fleshy container.

The devices in the catalogue show torture at its most grotesquely refined, but they are based on brutishly simple principles that can be carried out with the means at hand. We see the principles at work in the appalling photographs from Abu Ghraib; we hear echoes of their justification in the words of the lickspittle pundits who prate about “moral clarity” and justify torture by telling us that ideas about human rights and values are only conveniences, ready to be tossed over the side in times of peril. Maybe we’ll go back and clean them off and restore them to use when times are better. Maybe we won’t.

“Faith” is an interesting word. It implies that one is willing to accept something on the basis of no evidence beyond the fact that many people before you have also accepted it. There can be no questions about faith, which is why I put my faith in questions.

So did Jacob Bronowski. That’s why his work is more relevant than ever, at a time when the people in charge of America are unwilling to accept any questions, or allow any questioning of their own certainties.

Passages: Robert Hughes

From Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays On Art and Artists by Robert Hughes. This is from his short piece on the Spanish artist Francisco Goya:

[Goya’s] The Second of May is a fine painting but not a great one, renovated Baron Gros with its heroic rocking horse but without the French etiquette of violence, and more abandoned in expression. The Third of May is not renovated anything. It is truly modern and its newness seems to have ensured that, although it was a state commission, it remained in storage for the first forty years of its life. The surface is ragged, for Goya is suppressing his fluency in the interests of a harsher address to the eye. Occasionally the signs of that fluency break through; one is the saber and sheath of the French soldier closest to us — a mere scribble, but what a scribble, of burnt umber, lightened by a swipe of yellow that begins in a round splotch at the tip of the sheath and swings right up the form. Elsewhere the improvised bluntness of his painting is tragically expressive, even — or perhaps especially — down to the blood on the ground, which is a dark alizarin crimson put on thick and then scraped back with a palette knife, so that its sinking into the grain of the canvas mimics the drying of blood itself: it looks crusty, dull and scratchy, just like real blood smeared on a surface by the involuntary twitches of a dying body. The wounds that disfigure the face of the man on the ground can’t be deciphered fully as wounds, but as signs of trauma embodied in paint they are inexpressibly shocking: their imprecision conveys the sense of something too painful to look at, of the aversion of one’s own eyes.

Signs of past art are there . . . above all, there is the man about to be shot, whom we saw dragging the Mameluke backward off his horse on May 2. There he now stands, facing martyrdom in his clean white shirt, throwing out his arms in a gesture that irresistibly recalls the Crucifixion. It is a gesture of indescribable power: it takes the spread arms of the passive crucified victim and makes them active, a flinging out of life in despair and defiance. Indeed, he has a face — coarse, swarthy, dilated in its last moment of vitality. All his fellow victims have faces too. By rendering them as notional portraits — the faces of the pueblo, the Spanish people — Goya grants the living their individuality right up to the edhe of the mass grave. The landscape, however, is featureless: a bare hill and bare rocks. And so are the soldiers, whose row of backs still strikes you as the first truly modern image of war because it is the first to register the anonymity, the machinelike efficiency of oppression. Nothing personal.

As an art critic, Robert Hughes was the right man at the right time — the time being the go-go 1980s, when high rollers flooded the art market with cash as they searched for the Next Big Thing to invest in. All kinds of stumblebums and phonies were being hailed as new giants: Julian Schnabel and his canvasses encrusted with pieces of broken crockery; Jeff Koons and his kitsch that dared you to call it kitsch; “graffiti artist” Jean-Michel Basquiat and his childish scrawlings. Hughes strode into this weird barnyard and immediately set feathers flying with his highly readable combination of pugnacious writing grounded in thorough research and a lifetime of interest in the greatest artists. As another writer once said of Dwight Macdonald, Hughes was very much a rebel in defense of tradition.

He was also a hard-living, well-traveled man, as his newly published memoir Things I Didn’t Know apparently makes clear. Judging from the interviews, Hughes may well be the only man in history who can claim to have caught the clap off Jimi Hendrix — albeit with Hughes’s first wife, a sexual adventuress in the swinging sixties, acting as intermediary.

Though I am usually eager to read anything Hughes publishes, I have no interest in this book. For one thing, who needs a memoir when Hughes’s own art criticism has already put us in touch with his life and personality? His long study Goya, his attention-getting survey of modern art called The Shock of the New, his history of the founding of his native Australia, The Fatal Shore, and his combined travelogue/art history lecture/ political rumination Barcelona are where the interesting and important Hughes can be found. 

Reading with your ears

On BBC Radio, Omar Sharif stars in a dramatization of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Not a bad way to find out what you missed.

Blow the roof off

Aretha Franklin’s place as the all-time great soul singer is beyond any challenge. Turns out there’s more to the story. I’d always thought of talent in pop music as a non-transferable asset (the cutout bins are littered with discs from pop stars who tried to record standards and ended up falling on their faces) but listen to this Crooks and Liars link to footage of Aretha filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards broadcast. She’s singing “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Turandot that Pavarotti uses as his signature closing number. It’s definitely not grand opera: Aretha bumps along the bottom of her range during the opening, then relies on the backing chorus to help her through the soaring close. But she pulls it off, all right, and in her own style. Makes me want to hear more of this from her.

Oh yeah, the 1980s

The Art of Getting By throws down the challenge: Name your Top Ten bands or musicians of the 1980s.  Stand back, everybody, here we go.

HUSKER DU These three deafening guys from Minneapolis owned the 1980s, no contest. It doesn’t even matter that most people never heard of them, either: their eardrum-busting take on “Eight Miles High” is the signafture song of the Reagan years. New Day Rising remains my favorite album on the strength of Grant Hart’s wonderfully skewed love songs (“The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” “Books About UFOs”) and “Celebrated Summer,” Bob Mould’s finest moment as both a guitarist and a songwriter.

PRINCE Like some of the others on this list, he officially started his career in the 1970s but he came into his own during the years of ReaganBushBlight. Purple Rain is an album by a young man out to prove he could do anything he wanted, and succeeding. Sign ‘O’ the Times shows him going even farther. Surrounding those two milestones are a bunch of unjustly underrated records in need of some free time and fresh ears.

PUBLIC ENEMY Yes, the paens to Louis Farrakhan were and are annoying and stupid. But no other pop group in the 1980s released a record as boldly angry and as musically adventurous as It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and no songs transformed the landscape as completely as “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Dense, hard beats layered with intricate raps and seasoned with scraps of speeches, overheard conversation and jagged noise — this is not a comforting or accommodating record, but its brainy fury did more to shatter racial-cultural barriers than the preceding two decades of love-thy-neighbor platitudes. Their next two great records belonged to the 1990s, but on the way out of the ’80s they paused to rattle everybody’s teeth with “Fight the Power,” one of the greatest singles of all time. Nobody else in hip-hop even comes close to filling their shoes. 

TALKING HEADS Yes, their first three records came out in the 1970s: two of them excellent and one a masterpiece. But in the 1980s, starting with Remain in Light and continuing with Speaking in Tongues, the Heads stepped clear of their New Wave origins and staked their claim as unique American band bridging P-funk goofiness with rock and roll chops and far-ranging musical tastes. And, as they demonstrated in Stop Making Sense, the greatest concert movie ever made, they were second to none as a live act.

ELVIS COSTELLO He ended the 1970s with three straight knockouts — My Aim Is True, This Years Model and Armed Forces — then started the 1980s proving that the whole Angry Young Punk thing with the New Wave had been a marriage of convenience. Where Armed Forces had the polished pop sound of a late-period Beatles album, his opening salvo for the 1980s, Get Happy!!, delved into 1960s soul, Motown and Stax/Volt records. (The well-earned shitstorm that followed his drunken bar-fight outburst against black performers undoubtedly played a part in his stylistic choice — he later said in an interview that yes, he wanted to demonstrate to all that he really did like black people.) Trust and the albums that followed (Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom, King of America, Punch the Clock) shifted the emphasis away from Costello’s brute power as a rocker and into his considerable gifts as a songwriter and — surprise! — a singer. It’s all quality work, well worth exploring in depth, but as someone who was weaned on This Years Model, I love the back to basics approach in Blood and Chocolate, the most commanding of his 1980s albums.

RICHARD THOMPSON After several years with the seminal folk-rock group Fairport Convention, and several more as a duo with his wife Linda, Thompson started the 1980s with a broken heart and a bright future as the world’s most famous cult artist  Simply put, the man has it all: mordantly  elegant yet emotionally direct songwriting, a unique guitar sound with threads of Celtic and Arabian influences (he’s one of the few fretmen who should be encouraged to take more solos)  and an arresting, engaging singing voice. He’s also an exceptionally funny and captivating performer — whether he’s performing solo or with a band, his live shows are must-sees. Gosh, where to start? Hand of Kindness? Rumour and Sigh? Daring Adventures? Avoid the gimmicky Strict Tempo as well as the morose Small Town Romance and Across A Crowded Room, but you can’t go wrong with any of the others. He’s got a huge catalogue — have fun exploring it. 

PERE UBU They started out strong in the late 1970s and seemed to have petered out by their third album, and reigning genius Dave Thomas wandered off into whimsical solo projects. But then 1988 brought The Tenement Year, a good stiff shot of the old industrial-strength weirdness that made The Modern Dance and Dub Housing so bracing. They even went on tour to support the record, and their live shows were absolute monsters. An acquired taste? No doubt about it. But in my book, one well worth acquiring.

ROBERT CRAY You’ll find no better pop-blues record than Strong Persuader, Cray’s 1986 commercial and artistic breakthrough: tough songwriting, excellent singing and fierce guitarmanship. Cray is the Richard Thompson of blues music: he operates at such a consistently high peak of quality, people tend to take him for granted.

VAN HALEN The mid-decade replacement of David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar nearly got them crossed off my list, and their lazy ways ensured that even on their best 1980s albums (Women and Children First, Fair Warning, 1984) there was usually barely a half-hour of music, even then padded with sonic doodles. But between Eddie Van Halen’s revolutionary playing and Roth’s heavy-metal-goes-Vegas schtick, this used to be one great hard rock band, and 1984 — cheesy synth curlicules and all — is pure up from the word go. 

TOM WAITS The 1980s dawned with Waits at the end of his creative rope: the Beatnik poet poses, the blowsy balladeer phase and the raggedy bluesman exercises had all been played out, and Heartattack and Vine left even diehard fans who’d made it through the Bette Midler duet wondering why they should bother listening. So Waits did something quite remarkable: he reinvented himself and his sound so completely that people who loved 1970s work like the wisecracking Nighthawks at the Diner practically have to be argued into believing they’re listening to the same guy. I play Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years and I hear scraps of Kurt Weill, galumphing Harry Partch percussion, blues howls ripped straight from the chain gang, cocktail lounge wisecracks, Nelson Riddle jazz orchestrations and, every once in a while, straight rock and roll. The unassailable masterpiece is Rain Dogs, an overflowing cornucopia of great songs and character turns. Killer lines (“There’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix”) and bizarre whimsy (“Nobody brings anything small into a bar here”) flit past like faces in the crowd. And just when you begin to worry that there might be nothing going on beneath the collection of funny masks and jangling sounds, Waits turns and delivers “Downtown Train,” a love song so heartfelt that everyone from Rod Stewart on up has tried to make it his own, and yet so idiosyncratically attuned to Waits’ rough delivery that the song remains completely, perfectly his. A great American songwriter and performer — the underground Irving Berlin.                                       

From R’lyeh, with love

The current issue of my favorite literary magazine, the New York Review of Books, has a good article about H.P. Lovecraft keyed to the recent Library of America edition of his stories and Michel Houellebecq’s biography/polemic.

The reviewer, Luc Sante, is quick to note the irony of HPL being enshrined in a Library of America edition, since the king of American critics, Edmund Wilson, not only conceived the idea of the Library of America, but took great pleasure in cocking a leg over Lovecraft’s work in 1945.

Wilson’s ghost has actually been howling in outrage since 2000 over the fact that two of Lovecraft’s sonnets were included in the Library of America’s survey of twentieth century poetry. The fact that “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Rats in the Walls” have now made it into the black jacket club ahead of Memoirs of Hecate County probably has that same ghost roaming between the Princeton University eating clubs, pulling out what few hairs remained in that patrician dome of his. Karmic payback is a bitch.

I would have linked to the article earlier, but NYRB only recently put it online. The link was bird-dogged by, appropriately enough, Blog-Sothoth.

Get your droog on

The Raconteur, one of my favorite area bookstores (yes, that’s it down there on the Homes Away From Home blogroll) is presenting a staged version of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange. Performances will be given Oct. 26 through Nov. 4, with special performances on Mischief Night and Halloween.

The look and style of the production will be completely different from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film version, and the production (which will be mounted at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen) is gauged for ages 16 and up.

Color me intrigued. I’m no great fan of Kubrick’s film — in fact, I think it was his first genuinely bad movie after the amazing run that took him from The Killing to 2001: A Space Odyssey. A stage production will put the focus back on Burgess’s amazing wordplay and the subtle ways language is used to twist and warp reality.

Break a leg guys. Considering the storyline, getting away with niothing worse than a broken leg would be quite a feat in itself.