Monthly Archives: December 2006

Christgau’s cameos

Some writers were meant to create grand epics. Think James Joyce and Ulysses, or John Dos Passos and U.S.A. Others were meant to create small masterpieces. Think Saki and his brief, punchy chillers, or Ambrose Bierce and his three-page evocations of minds on the verge of snapping.

In the latter category, place Robert Christgau. Nobody calls him the “Dean of American Rock Critics” anymore without at least a trace of a smirk, but the short, sharp shocks he meted out while doing his “Christgau’s Consumer Guide” column for three decades at the Village Voice — collected in three successive volumes — remain models of economy and wit. True, the 1990s volume contains a distressingly high ratio of clinkers to nuggets: Christgau tried to expand his range into world music and specialized areas of hip-hop, and ended up stretching himself too thin. But as one who was there, I can recommend the 1970s volume and to a lesser extent the 1980s collection as not only impeccable criticism but stellar examples of a critic at the top of his game.

And yet Christgau’s muse apparently only functions in bursts of about a hundred words. His feature-length articles (sampled in the collection Grown Up All Wrong) are frequently blowsy and overwritten, but that’s nothing compared to the annual horror of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll, which Christgau used as the springboard for a lengthy survey article that read like a scholarly dissertation from a field of no particular interest — translated from the original Mayan.

Christgau was unceremoniously fired from the Voice this past summer, so I’m pleased to see his “Consumer Guide” has been taken up (in abbreviated form) by Microsoft Networks. The first installment finds Christgau in a lenient mood: not only does he give Bob Dylan’s Modern Times an A-plus (it’s an A-minus or B-plus if ever I heard one), but he gives an A to Maria Muldaur’s collection of Dylan-penned love songs. Music fans of A Certain Age will never forget the sexy kick Muldaur gave to “Midnight at the Oasis,” but the trouble with Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan is that she sings every song as if it were “Midnight at the Oasis.” That’s fine for “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Lay Lady Lay,” but on “Wedding Song” she sounds as clueless as Linda Ronstadt singing “Hasten Down the Wind,” until now the pyrite standard for misconceived interpretations.

Well, it’s Christmas and time for good will toward all musicians. Now that his job prospects have been settled (and I’m sure MSN pays a lot better than the Voice), Christgau will no doubt recover his acerbity in time for the next installment.

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Passages: Alan Lomax

From The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax, an account of the folklorist’s song-hunting travels through the American South. This passage is about the field hollers sung by convicts in levee camps and work gangs:

In this anonymous world of the pentientiary, every man is given a distinctive moniker that ticks him off in an apt and sometimes cruel way. This nickname, once slapped on as a joke by a guard or another inmate, can last as long as the convict’s sentence, even for life. A fine-looking young mulatto might be teasingly nicknamed “Yaller Gal” and then have to fight off sexual attacks for the rest of his sentence. Our friend Tangle Eye was painfully cross-eyed, but completely accustomed to the guards yelling, “Come up, old Tangle Eye.” The Texas singer James Baker was christened Iron Head after a live oak fell on him and he never lost a stroke of his ax or a phrase of his chopping song. The great Leadbelly won his name because of his fabled endurance in the fields as “number-one man in the number-one gang in the Texas pen.”

We set down a sheaf of these fanciful black convict names, each one a humorous or a witty assertion of the deathless singularity of an individual in the seething anonymity of the prison farms. Each nickname helped to shield a personality from extinction, maintaining the man’s privacy by keeping his real name out of prison currency. For these hard-pressed exiles, all dressed alike in striped clothing and herded like animals by guards on horseback, the nicknames asserted and underscored their identities in the darkness of the penitentiary. Moreover, each man also had his own self-composed, self-identifying musical signature.

You could hear these peronal songs — sometimes no more than a few notes long — coming from far away across the fields. These so-called hollers, which belonged to the same family as the levee-camp songs, were pitched high out of a wide-open throat, to be heard from far off. A convict, by raising his holler from time to time during the long day of toil, could announce his existence and fend off the crushing anonymity of prison anonymity. His signature song voiced his individual sorrows and feelings. By this means, he located himself in the vast fields of the penitentiary, where the rows were often a mile long and a gang of men looked like insects crawling over the green carpet of the crops. Listening to a holler, some con would say, “Lissen at old Bull bellerin’ over there — he must be fixin to run” or “That’s old Tangle Eye yonder. He’s callin on his woman again.”

My father and I recorded scores of these old “field hollers’ or “old corn songs” or “levee camp hollers,” as they were variously called. They were thickest in the river-bottom country, south and west of Memphis all the way into the river lands of Texas. Most of those we found in the Southeast had been imported from the Delta. you can recognize the Delta hollers because they have have a shape different from the majority of black folk songs, which tend to be short-phrased, to conform to a steady beat, and to be performed by groups. By contrast, Delta hollers are usually minory solos, sung recitative-style in free rhythms, with long embellished phrases, many long-held notes, lots of slides and blue notes, and emphasis on shifts of vocal color. They are impossible to notate and very difficult to sing.

As a youngster, I tried to sing whatever we recorded, with varying success, of course, but I could never do a “holler” to my own satisfaction. Then came a moment when a holler spontaneously burst out of me. It was the evening of the day I had just been inducted into the army. On this first endless and awful twenty-four hours in a huge army reception center, when I had been yelled at, examined, put down, poked at, handled like a yearling in a chute, I drew KP. It was a sixteen-hour assignment, in which we KP’s helped to set the tables for several hundred me three times a day and then clean up afterward. Along about eight o’clock that evening my feet seemed to be on fire, every muscle in my body was complaining, stinging perspiration was running into my eyes, and my arms were deep in greasy, boiling dishwater. I had never been so miserable in all my life, and there were still two hours to go. At that moment, without thinking, I let loose with a Mississippi holler. Loud and clear, my levee-camp complaint rang through that hellish army kitchen:

Well, I asked my captain what time of day,

What time of day?

And he looked at me, good pardner,

Threw his watch away,

Ohhhhhh, threw his watch away.

A couple of guys looked up, but thank God most of the others were too unhappy to notice. I went on hollering and the sound got better. I got to feeling good. All those years and finally those Delta blue notes were coming out of me. Suddenly, the black KP sergeant appeared. I kept whooping and washing dishes. I felt sure I’d be condemned to another day of KP. But all the black sergeant did before he walked off was to say in a kind of nice way, “Hey, man, you sound like you from down home.”

Among blues fans, or anyone with an appreciation for American music, Alan Lomax is an irreplaceable figure. He was the first to record great musicians like Leadbelly, Son House and Muddy Waters, who as soon as he heard himself singing, decided “I can do this!” and headed for Chicago to make his name as the king of electric blues.

That’s part of the story, anyway. I recently acquired two recent books that shed new light, not all of it flattering, on Lomax’s work. Lost Delta Found claims that Lomax relied heavily on the work of a team of black scholars from Fisk University, only to downplay their contributions when he wrote his ow recollections of his song-hunting excursions. America Over the Water is Shirley Collins’s account of her romance with Lomax, which led to her accompanying him on a song-hunting trip that culiminated in the first recordings of “Mississippi” Fred McDowell.

Lost Delta Found apparently accuses Lomax of all but burying the work of competing scholars in order to keep himself in the spotlight. I’ll have to finish the book before I try to reach any conclusions.

But while I’m perfectly ready to accept the idea that Lomax may have been a bit of a shitweasel in his dealings with others, a check of some of the comments on the book’s Amazon page leave me wondering if he isn’t going to be the new Sam Phillips. Though Phillips, the head of Sun Studio in Memphis, was a blues nut in love with the sound of Howlin Wolf, there’s been an apocryphal phrase attributed to him — “If I could find a white boy who sings like a nigger, I’d be a millionaire” — that is a vile slander on the man’s character. A man who could listen to Wolf and say “This is where the spirit of man endures” would never say such a thing.

Was Lomax a credit hog? Could be. Is the story more complicated than that? Could be. For now, all I can say is that the man whose uncondescending love for blues and black American culture suffuses every page of The Land Where the Blues Began — a love he communicated to me, back in the early 1990s, sending me back to the blues after a long time away — deserves the benefit of the doubt.

A change of classics

Last night I listened to the BBC Radio 4 production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and I highly recommend it. For those of you who don’t know the poem, it’s a charming tale of decapitation, interrupted Christmas dinners, pointless violence, fulfilling oaths you were tricked into taking, and riding off to face death without even the chance of finding brief solace with your host’s hotcha wife.

I’ve had plenty of Christmases like that, which is why I like to re-read the poem around this time of year. The BBC version has the added benefit of narration by Ian McKellen in his best Gandalf the Gray voice. It will be accessible on the BBC Web site for the next few days — just go here and click on the Thursday play.

Lately I’ve noticed that the quality of what gets called a Christmas classic has improved dramatically since I was a kid. In the green remembered hills of my childhood, a “Christmas classic” was usually something to be dreaded, and I’ve learned that my memory hasn’t played me false. We recently went through a run of videos in search of good, old Christmas movies, and most of them were terrible. Miracle on 34th Street was the worst of the bunch. I mean, come on — a long, talky flick about a bunch of greedheads trying to get Santa Claus clapped into the loony bin. Could there be a less attractive premise for a Yuletide story? And the other movies sent to manhandle our heartstrings — White Christmas, et al — aren’t much better. It’s a Wonderful Life and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol are still fine movies, but they are to film what “Stairway to Heaven” is to music — classics so overplayed that I can no longer even hear them.

The changeover came slowly, but I think the turning point was A Christmas Story in 1983. A few years later there was Carroll Ballard’s Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, an underrated film from one of the most unjustly neglected directors in movies. And of course Elf, which you knew was going to be a Christmas perennial even as you watched it the first time. Come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings is, at bottom, a Christmas story — check J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeline at the back of The Return of the King and you’ll see that the mission to rescue the world from all-conquering evil begins on December 25. At least Tolkien knew how to deliver his Christian allegory with a light hand — a lesson his buddy, C.S. Lewis, certainly needed to learn. I’ll include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the Christmas classic film list, but only because my daughter would excommunicate me if I didn’t.

If there are any other films to add to the New Classics list, let me know. Just don’t be surprised or offended if I take my time responding. My holiday break is here, and my oldest wants to watch all three Lord of the Rings films with me, in as close to continuous sequence as we can manage. Now there’s a Christmas tradition I can get behind.

I survived the American Girl Place

It seems like only yesterday that I staggered out of the American Girl Place in midtown Manhattan, desperately clutching my credit card as it tried to slip through my fingers and ring up sales for more and more dolls and their accessories. My oldest daughter had caught the American Girl bug from a friend; since I had to attend a function that same night at the Marriott Marquis, I decided to do my shopping in the eye of the storm, just to see what it was all about.

What I found, dear reader, was something that combined the most striking features of a gated community, a toy store on steroids and one of the outer rings of Dante’s hell. The official line on American Girl dolls is that they offer a wholesome alternative to the hooched-out Bratz and Barbie, but the money-humid atmosphere at the American Girl Place reminded me less of Little House on the Prairie than Dynasty while Joan Collins was on a rampage. This very entertaining WaPo article gives a pretty good idea of what it’s like to visit the store: four stories of activities, dreams and consumer fantasies, each with its own hefty price tag. 

We got another American Girl doll as a Christmas gift for Dances With Mermaids, but we were careful to order online. Under no circumstances will we ever take her to the Manhattan store, and neither should you let your kid go there. Felicity, Molly, Kaya, Elizabeth, Josefina and Addy may be cute by themselves, but let them gang up on you and you’ll end up in bankruptcy court. 

Ghost story

Maryland blogger Geoff, whose Blog-Sothoth site is one of my regular stops, has a real-life ghost story unfolding in his house. Maybe he’s starting to regret giving his blog a name that plays off the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Or, maybe he’s pulling our collective leg and doing it with a poker face that would shame Mount Rushmore. Either way, this initial post sets the stage quite nicely. Be sure to read it first, because this follow-up post dials the creep meter all the way up to 11. 

Note to Geoff: Let everybody know if you’re going away and won’t be blogging for a bit. Otherwise, if too much time elapsed since your last post, I’d feel obligated to drive down to Towson and make sure everything’s cool.

By hook and by crook

Miss Snark, my favorite literary agent whom I’m not signed with, is offering her comments on a whole lotta author queries. If you’re looking for good (albeit snarky) advice on what kinds of wording to avoid when querying an agent or publisher, you’d be crazy not to pay her a visit.

The yechhh files

Carl Zimmer, one of my all-time favorite science writers, has made a speciality out of the weird ways of parasites and how they manipulate the behavior of their hosts. Kind of appropriate, when you think about it — a guy who builds his career by specializing in knowledge of the behavior of critters that build their careers by specializing in the behavior of critters . . . woah, I’m starting to lose track here.

You want to know about the wasp that paralyzes the brains of cockroaches and uses their antennae to steer them into a specially dug burrow, where they will spend the rest of their days waiting for baby wasps to hatch and devour them? You want to know about the fungus that invades the brains of its host insects and induces them to climb to the tops of plants, so its spores will get the widest possible dispersion? Sure you do — and Zimmer is your go-to guy. His book Parasite Rex would be an ideal stocking-stuffer for anyone you know who’s still mourning the cancellation of The X-Files — a show that dipped into parasite lore more than once for story ideas.

Zimmer recently gave a speech on the subject at Cornell, and his Web site obligingly offers a video link. If you don’t have time for the full lecture, this tasty bit of YouTube should serve as a bonbon.

Is Michael Crichton a dick, or what?

Literary revenge is almost as old as literature itself. Evelyn Waugh paid back his first wife’s infidelities by making her the model for the appalling Lady Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust. Ernest Hemingway lampooned his old patron, Gertrude Stein, with one character’s tautlogical dialogue in For Whom the Bell Tolls. My esteem for John Katzenbach increased twelvefold when I learned that a group of imprisoned psychopaths in his serial-killer novel The Traveler were all named after his old editors at the Trenton Times. Reaching the bottom of the barrel, neocon eminence grise Norman Podhoretz devoted an entire book, Ex-Friends, to his tiffs with Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman and Hannah Arendt, among others.

Even so, there is something tiresome and cheesy about Michael Crichton’s little jab at New Republic writer Michael Crowley, who incurred the author’s wrath with a March 20 cover story that handily demolished Crichton’s ludicrous novel State of Fear — you know, the one about how global warming is a scare story cooked up by a conspiracy of bloodthirsty environmentalists. As a bonus, Crowley charted Crichton’s decline from his early years as an honestly entertaining pop science fiction novelist (the guy writes about marauding dinosaurs and killer germs from outer space, so let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) to the rather creepy pamphleteer who revived the Yellow Peril in Rising Sun and made sexual harassment out to be the work of predatory women in Disclosure. When President Bush, whose administration is notorious for trying to muzzle honest science on global warming, chose to have a chat on the subject with Crichton, director of not one but two killer-robot movies, it was a match made in hack heaven.

So Crichton tried to get even with Crowley in his new novel, Next, by giving a sound-alike name to a child molester. He seems to have forgotten Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice about not starting an argument with a man who buys ink by the barrel — or, in this case, pixels. All he’s managed to accomplish, it seems, is to remind people of how much fun it was to read Crowley’s old cover story. Shucks, instead of reading Next, I think I’ll pay for a TNR subscription and read Crowley’s piece again.

A man tries to get back at an enemy and ends up kicking himself in the ass. Sounds like a funny idea for a novel. Just don’t expect Michael Crichton to write that book — he’s living it.    

Christmas on Desolation Row

Cool Christmas events keep popping up. Now it’s a special two-hour Christmas edition of “Theme Time Radio Hour,” Bob Dylan’s weekly broadcast on satellite radio station XM, highlighted by a recitation of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” from His Bobness. The idea of Mr. Tambourine Man wheezing and growling the names of Santa’s reindeer sounds like a joke that wandered in from A Prairie Home Companion, but I have to admit I’m intrigued.  

Once and I’m a philosopher

No, I’m not going to read the new Thomas Harris novel, Hannibal Rising, even though I’ve been a keen reader of Harris since his first novel, Black Sunday. Red Dragon, the book that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world, knocked me for a loop when it came out, and when The Silence of the Lambs came out it marked the first and probably only time I will give books about a cannibalistic mass-murderer as Christmas presents.

But Hannibal was a money-churning scam through and through: the work of a writer who’d found a lucrative gimmick and was going to milk it for all it was worth. It was hard to tell what was most offensive about the book: the ramshackle plotting that kept Hannibal and Clarice apart until the last fifty pages of a very blowsy book; the transformation of Lecter into a kind of James Bond, outwitting legions of enemies while dispatching his victims with finely honed quips; the gallery of coarsely cynical and/or monstrous characters, all pretty obviously designed to be more disgusting or frightening than Lecter, thereby making him a more palatable hero; or the betrayal of Clarice, a character Harris had developed with enormous sympathy and artfulness in The Silence of the Lambs.     

Actually, the worst aspect of Hannibal is continued in Hannibal Rising: the filling-in of Lecter’s background, and the childhood traumas that put him on the road to psycho-hood. The bizarre conclusion of Hannibal (the novel, that is) effectively closed off the possibility of another sequel, but Harris wasn’t going to walk away from the prospect of another fat payday. So — a prequel.

The problem is simple. There is nothing at all realistic about Hannibal Lecter: he is an overlay of about a dozen different serial killers, with a dash of monster movie hokum to make his atrocities intriguing and spooky rather than simply tawdry and depressing, as with real-life serial killers.  I’m no law-enforcement expert, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time covering police and courts, and I’ve sat in on some pretty gruesome murder trials, and I’m here to tell you that the worldy, cultivated art lover of The Silence of the Lambs couldn’t be less like the damaged, twisted people — almost all of them horribly abused as children, then cast out to finish the job with drugs and alcohol — who figure in most homicide cases. It was far better to leave Hannibal as a fictional paradox who took cocky pride in his own unbelievability: “Nothing happened to me. I happened,” as Lecter tells Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. ” Trying to give Lecter a realistic background exposes the silliness of the whole enterprise.

Maybe I should give Harris another shot, but quite fankly I felt like such a sucker after buying and reading Hannibal that I swore Thomas Harris would never see another one of my dollars. This off-the-cuff review from Chris Kelly in the HuffPo only confirms my worst suspicions. I used to be one of his most rabid fans, but from now on, Harris can dangle all the bait he likes — unlike his most famous creation, I’m not gonna bite.