Monthly Archives: May 2007

The font of wisdom

One of the coolest features of the old Paris Review author interviews was the sample manuscript page that was often included with the interview, so you could see how much scrawling and revising each writer did on his drafts. Now that PCs have eliminated most of the messy but highly personal aspects of revision, I guess this kind of thing will take its place as a clue to the writer’s personality. Not nearly as much fun, I have to say.  

Rampant geekism

Uh oh. Looks like somebody’s been spending a little too much time with his Frank Herbert novels:

As far as other candidates go, the key clearly is to stake out multiple, positive distinctions from [Hillary] Clinton, and then to perform well in the early states. This won’t be easy, given Clinton’s shrewd and currently effective blurring strategy. To get incredibly geeky for a moment, I think a useful analogy would come from Dune. In order to win the nomination, a non-Clinton candidate needs to be something of a Democratic Kwisatz Haderach who can tap into something so deep inside the collective Democratic unconscious that he can transmute our rank and file’s version of the water of life in a way that a Bene Gesserit like Clinton simply cannot.

I wonder if that means Karl Rove is Baron Harkonnen . . . no, no, NO, I’m not going there.

Okay, Chris, put down that copy of Dune. Back away slowly. Okay, now turn — don’t try to hide that Dune calendar behind your back, you’re not fooling anyone, so keep walking. Once you’re out the door, head for the library. Lots of books in that library, Chris. You need to get a little perspective.

Readings

Blogbud, blurber and excellent novelist Christian Bauman, along with Caren Lissner and Caroline Leavitt, will be reading from Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State, a collection of writings on the oddities of living here in The Land Twixt Hudson and Delaware. All three writers are featured in the collection, which Amazon tells me is on the way even as I type this. The reading is set for June 14 at Symposia Bookstore in Hoboken, and you can read all about it here.  

As for my book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, I’ve added a few more readings. I’m also doing the first of what I hope will be a slew of newspaper and radio interviews, which I’ll post as they become available.

I’ll be updating my list shortly, but the newest reading is set for June 21 at 8 p.m. in The Raconteur, a fine independent bookstore in Metuchen, N.J. I also have an appearance set for Saturday, August 11, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Freehold, N.J.  Oh heck, I’ll just re-run the entire current list here:

SATURDAY, JUNE 2: Jersey City Public Library, Five Corners Branch, 678 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, N.J. Starts at 2 p.m. (201) 547-4543

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6: Borders Books and Music, Mid-State Mall, Route 18 North, East Brunswick, N.J. Starts at 7 p.m. (732) 238-7000

THURSDAY, JUNE 7: Highland Park Public Library, 31 North Fifth Avenue, Highland Park, N.J. Starts at 7 p.m. (732) 572-2750

SATURDAY, JUNE 9: Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield Street, Montclair, N.J. Starts at 1 p.m. (973) 744-7177

TUESDAY, JUNE 19: Barnes and Noble, 465 River Road, Edgewater, N.J. Starts at 7 p.m. (201) 943-6234

THURSDAY, JUNE 21: The Raconteur, 431 Main Street, Metuchen, N.J. Starts at 8 p.m. (732) 906-0009 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 11: Barnes and Noble, 3981 Highway 9 (across from Freehold Raceway Mall), Freehold, N.J.  (732) 308-0912

Blue Monday

How could I have gone this long without a Muddy Waters roundup? Here’s the young, sleek, pompadour’d Muddy doing “Rolling Stone,” the title of which was appropriated by a certain band you may have heard of. The man’s staure was such that he even got Buddy Guy to deliver something extra while playing “That Same Thing.” Finally, here’s Muddy performing “Mannish Boy” with The Band during The Last Waltz. Band member Levon Helm’s memoir This Wheel’s On Fire offers some pretty savage debunkery on the group’s all-star swan song and the ensuing film, none worse than the claim that Martin Scorsese’s people tried to convince Helm to kick Muddy off the roster because the show was going to run too long. I’ll leave you to discover Helm’s response, but if that’s what he means by “country rude,” then it’s not the kind of thing you want aimed at you.

New words for old

The eleven Welsh tales collected under the title The Mabinogion are one of the great underappreciated wellsprings of literature: Robert Graves and Charlotte Guest have dipped into them for arguments, and at least one of the tales reads like a precursor to the legends of King Arthur. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain stories and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service all drew from the Mabinogion.

So this review of a new translation of The Mabinogion caught my eye. I only know the 1976 translation by Jeffrey Gantz, which the reviewer knocks for keeping too much of the Victorian bric-a-brac that cluttered up the earlier translations. I always considered it a pretty trim and modern-sounding version, but the only Welsh I know is rarebit so I’ll have to take the reviewer’s word for it.

I’m on much higher ground, though, when it comes to knocking the reviewer for overlooking Evangeline Walton’s four commanding fantasy novels drawn from The Mabinogion. In particular, the second and third books — The Children of Llyr and The Song of Rhiannon — are more powerful than anything J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, and a film version of those two linked novels would challenge Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for sheer grandeur and emotional impact. There are plenty of splashy special effects opportunities in Walton’s novels, but the dark heart of her storytelling is the way she has fleshed out the characters, most memorably, Evnissyen, one of the most convincing and monstrous villains ever caught on paper.

I’ve heard so many complaints about the omnibus edition put out by Overlook Press, you might be better off seeking the separate editions of the original novels: Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon and The Island of the Mighty. And if, like me, you are inspired by them to check out the source material, the new translation by Sioned Davies sounds like a good place to begin.

The Second Annual Bobcat Birthday Challenge

Demands on my time kept me from coming up with as many items as I would have liked for this year’s Bobcat Challenge. In fact, I ended up missing Bob Dylan’s birthday entirely. So, to compensate, I’ve tried to make the quiz times a bit more difficult than last year’s. As before, I’ll leave the items up for a week and then randomly pick a winner from the entrants who correctly answer each item. The winner will get an appropriate Dylan-related item.

1. The hairiest thing Bob’s ever done.

2. She doesn’t look anything like it now.

3. What’s just like a woman?

4. What women authors has Bob read?

5. Flagging down the what?

6. Who’s the slut?

7. Contact my nearest surviving relatives when this happens.

8. Where he always hears his name.

9. He thinks Bob is the scum of a bag.

10. Every time you turn around, you hear one of these.

11. What can that little horsie do?

12. Do that bird, suck that pig, and then what?

13. They backed him on Bob’s first Letterman appearance.

Send you entries to me at hart.stevenhart[at]gmail.com, and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

The toppermost of the Bobbermost

A couple of years ago, one of the Brit papers played off the broadcast debut of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (the DVD has been out for about a week) by asking various celebrities to name their favorite Dylan songs. Some of the replies were unsurprising (Patti Smith loves “Like A Rolling Stone”); one was a cheat, albeit a fun one (Tom Waits names all of The Basement Tapes); one was unexpected (Respect MP George Galloway is keen on “Tangled Up In Blue”). I guess that’s one of the defining misfortunes of being famous: people think nothing of calling you out of the blue and asking you questions like, “What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?”

But if some reporter comes knocking on my door one of these days, I’ll have my answer locked and loaded: depending on my mood, either “Visions Of Johanna” (off the incomparable Blonde On Blonde) or “Every Grain Of Sand” (from the underrated Shot Of Love). In the universe of great songs Dylan has created, those are the two stars that shine the brightest for me.

“Visions Of Johanna” is, among other things, a treasury of great lines, starting right from the opening: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?”. Intriguing, puzzling and inviting, it makes the listener hold his breath and listen as the song sketches in a finely observed, somewhat rundown apartment in a closely-packed building (“Lights flicker from the opposite loft/ In this room the heat pipes just cough”). If I were writing a novel and hit upon that kind of opening line, I’d be torn between knocking off for rest of the night, or crashing forward for another few hours in the hopes of capturing its mate.

A seemingly tossed-off phrase (“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial”) generates a stream of lines that creates, in the viewer’s mind, a veritable museum of absurdist imagery (“When the jelly-faced women all sneeze . . . Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”). But it always comes back to a vision of someone who isn’t there — someone the singer longs to see.

It could be romantic longing, but the writing doesn’t support that. Indeed, the song’s most famous line — “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” — is hardly warm praise. I think Johanna is a muse, a reminder of what the singer should be working toward, instead of wasting his time at a dull party.

“Every Grain Of Sand,” the startlingly gentle coda to the loud and angry Shot Of Love album, is the song I want played at my funeral. The two hard-nosed gospel albums that preceded it (Slow Train Coming and Saved) were all about the harshness of certainty. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is the evangelical version of “Like A Rolling Stone” — where the earlier song aimed its knowing scorn at an anonymous Miss Lonely, its born-again successor targets the listener and anyone else who doesn’t share the singer’s hard-shelled faith. That the song is expertly played and well produced — qualities not always found in the Dylan canon — hardly makes it more inviting: the singer is eyeballing you through a slot in the church door, and odds are you haven’t got the right password.

What an unexpected pleasure, then, to find this evangelical cycle come to an end with “Every Grain Of Sand”, a song about the beauty of doubt. The comfort of faith is there, but the singer is no longer convinced that salvation is his. Sometimes he even seems to doubt salvation itself:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/ Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.

The song includes two of the longest harmonica solos Dylan has ever played on record. I think Dylan’s harp playing is underrated, but I realize part of the reason for that is he usually goes for the hardest, sharpest sound possible. The playing on “Every Grain Of Sand” is still a little rough, but also gentle and, in the most surprising way, reassuring. It carries the song and the listener into the very center of what the singer is striving for, and doesn’t quite realize he has within his grasp.

Dylan Noir

I’ll have this year’s Bobcat Birthday Challenge posted later today, but right now I want to talk about the Bob Dylan song I’ve been playing most obsessively these past two weeks.

With the war grinding on, you’d think it would be “Masters of War” or “With God On Our Side,” but no — it’s “Black Diamond Bay,” the penultimate cut on Desire and second only to “Brownsville Girl” on the roster of Dylan’s shaggy dog story-songs. (I know that most people would put “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” at the top of that roster, but personally, I’m tired of the thing.)

“Black Diamond Bay” is one of the Desire songs Dylan co-wrote with Jacques Levy, and like them it has a wide-screen cinematic quality. In this case, the movie is a 1930s noir from Warner Brothers, shot in black-and-white with the usual character actors.

There’s all kinds of huggermugger about a tropical island resort with a mysterious woman, a Greek man trying to kill himself, a soldier and a dwarf conducting business and a perennial loser in the resort’s casino. The song is really about the easy wit with which Dylan and Levy manipulate stock players and situations, then cross it with a different genre by having a volcano erupt and send the whole island to the bottom of the sea. And we end up with Dylan in Los Angeles, “watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news,” and catching the tail end of the disaster. Too bad, he shrugs, but he never wanted to go there anyhow.

There’s no standout line like “Nowadays even the swap meets around here are getting corrupt, but “Black Diamond Bay” always cracks me up when I play it.

Free TV

Television playing for free? At the Central Park Summerstage? On Saturday, June 16? How crazy are you if you miss this?

I mean that — the original two Television albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure, are two high points of late-1970s rock music, and bandleader Tom Verlaine’s first solo album — cleverly titled Tom Verlaine — is salted with enough leftover Television concert staples like “Kingdom Come” and “Breaking In My Heart” to qualify as the unofficial third Television release. (The official third release, which came out in 1992, sounds less like the band than a weak Verlaine solo record.) Guitar junkies owe it to themselves to hear Verlaine and his foil, Richard Lloyd, throw themselves into one of the live raveups that were the band’s concert trademark.

If you wanted to play a rock version of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” Television would allow you to make lots of connections. Legend has it that Tom Verlaine was the one who convinced Hilly Kristal to open CBGBs up to bands like the Ramones and Blondie, and original bassist Richard Hell quit the group to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids. (If you want to know why Richard Hell couldn’t cut the mustard, check out this YouTube video of him trying to learn “Venus.”) Replacement bassist Fred Smith was also being courted by Blondie, but he decided Television had better commercial prospects — not, as it turned out, a very astute career move. Verlaine himself was an early addition to Patti Smith’s gallery of rail-thin rock and roll boyfriends, and he played on her first album, Horses.  

The albums should be your first stop, but here’s a clip of Television playing “Foxhole” on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Summerstage show, incidentally, runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and features two support acts, Apples in Stereo and Dragons of Zynth, that I’m told are heavily influenced by Television. We shall see.   

Everything old is new again

Crawdaddy, the first American magazine to promote the idea of serious rock music criticism, has been revived again as an online magazine. This time the resurrectionist is Wolfgang’s Vault, which offers everything from vintage tickets and posters to streaming audio of various bands.

I didn’t read the original incarnation of Crawdaddy, but I did get the regular slick paper magazine-size format edition that ran for most of the Seventies. It wasn’t bad. It was way ahead of Rolling Stone in covering reggae and the political overtones of those catchy songs by Bob Marley and his colleagues. It also had a semi-coherent column by William S. Burroughs, and a cabal of reviewers as distinctive as any found in Rolling Stone, or later on, Spin. The magazine evaporated when some genius had the idea of throwing away the Crawdaddy banner, which at least had some history to it, and renamed the magazine Feature. Briefly.

Fans of His Bobness will recognize the founder of Crawdaddy, Paul Williams, as one of the early critical champions of Bob Dylan, and one whose enthusiasm for Dylan frequently tips his articles and reviews into inane fanzine gushing. I first heard of Williams through Myra Friedman’s 1973 book Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin, in which Friedman amusingly razzed him for using the term sprechstimme in a review of a Supremes album. Williams’ brand of seriousness, sorry to say, is a big part of why it’s hard to take most rock criticism seriously.