Monthly Archives: July 2007

Blue Monday

While I’m waiting for my copy of Michael Gray’s newly published biography of Blind Willie McTell, I’m gearing up by reading Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, a refreshingly contrarian take on the music from a man who is both an accomplished musician and an excellent writer.

In a nutshell, Wald’s argument is that the picture of blues as a woe-laden spiritual upwelling from the back roads of the Mississippi Delta obscures the fact that blues was the black popular music of its day, and hugely overestimates the importance of figures like Robert Johnson who are revered (generally by white rock fans and musicians) as the greatest bluesmen of all time.        

I haven’t finished the book, and I may close the cover with a few points to dispute. But it’s very bracing to read a book that dispenses with the voodoo bunk that infests so much writing about the blues: see Mystery Train by Greil Marcus and Martin Scorsese’s misbegotten PBS series for particularly overripe samples of what I mean. To Wald, Johnson is simply a working musician whose playing reflected his eager assimilation of contemporary pop music influences as well as his own indisputable talent. 

Wald isn’t the first writer to point out some of this stuff: it’s no secret that when the folk music revivalists took up blues as an “authentic” counterpoint to pop and rock’n’roll, more than a few bluesmen who’d been flashy electric players in their heyday were happy to play the role of overall-clad rustic sage for their new white fans. Big Bill Broonzy spent much of the 1950s doing just that for U.K. audiences; when cancer made him too ill to tour, Broonzy recommended that Muddy Waters take his spot. Muddy arrived in England with his electric guitar and proceeded to shock British listeners with some full-volume Chicago blues. One reviewer scampered into the men’s room to hear the rest of the set through the muffling walls. For the generation that considered skiffle, trad and “Rock Island Line” the epitome of authenticity, Muddy’s electric style was an abomination, but for the kids who were coming up behind them, it was a revelation.

Wald is more than happy to acknowledge that the clouds of brimstone surrounding Robert Johnson’s legend were a big part of what drew him to the blues in the first place. As for myself, guilty as charged. Who can resist stories of midnight meetings at the crossroads? But it does obscure the fact that Johnson was a real artist trying to hone his skills and better himself in a dodgy business made all the more diffcult by racism and poverty. Anybody can sell his soul to the devil, but hardly anyone can make music so good that listeners think he did so. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.

There’s a famous line of movie dialogue — “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend” — from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence that I’ve always loathed, because the legend is hardly ever as interesting as the truth, and the people who keep printing the legend only make it harder to find the truth. Elijah Wald keeps the legend in its proper place, and so doing helps us get back in touch with the hard core of artistry that keeps people coming back to the blues, generation after generation.  

Snape is a good guy

Yes, I’m thoroughly caught up in Pottermania. Sue me.

Dances With Mermaids, having caught the Harry Potter bug extremely late, is halfway through Prisoner of Azkaban and is all a-flutter at the prospect of attending the pre-release costume party for Deathly Hallows at the local bookstore. I just hope she doesn’t learn too much about what’s to come from the other kids. I really dig seeing her reactions to the various plot twists and character moments, and I’d love to be able to follow her untainted reactions all the way up the line.

A few weeks back I opined that Ron Weasley is toast. This week I’ll throw my wand into the ring and come down on the side of Severus Snape being a hidden good guy. Since he had to take the Unbreakable Vow at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, the crime he commits during the climax seems much less volitional. Remember that once the deed was done, Snape also declined several opportunities to do anything more to Potter than taunt him, though he could have done much worse. I would also point out Dumbledore’s instructions to Harry prior to their going off to find the horcrux: Harry was required to swear that he would follow all of Dumbledore’s commands, even if it meant saving himself at the cost of Dumbledore’s own life. I think Snape and Dumbledore must have had a similar conversation at some point.

So I think Snape will prove to have been Dumbledore’s mole within the ranks of the Death Eaters, that he was backed into a corner with the Unbreakable Vow and therefore had to help Draco follow through on his assignment from Voldemort, and that Snape’s help will prove to be the deciding factor in Harry’s victory over the Dark Lord.

Anything else? Oh yes. Harry’s scar is also a horcrux. Take it from me. It makes sense in plot terms — remember that murder is necessary to create a horcrux, so Voldemort would have seen the killing of the infant Harry and his parents as a golden opportunity — and symbolically as well: the odd links between Harry and Voldemort have been a running theme in all six books to date. I also have a hunch that the detail about Voldemort wanting to create seven horcruxes is a red herring. I think that Voldemort planned to round out his set by killing off the Potters, and his unexpected defeat left him with considerably fewer than seven.

The Chronic Mamet Quoters Support Group

Shortly after the brilliant film version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross came out, I fell into an office game with some other reporters in the newsroom, in which we would compulsively quote Mamet’s lines at each other on appropriate occasions — like when one of us had done something remarkably dumb. My own favorite was the Ed Harris/Alan Arkin scene — “Are we speaking here or are we really talking about this?” — but the most often used line was, “What you are hired for, the reason you are here, is to help us. Tohelp us. Not fuck — usup. Does that seem clear now?” A close second was “You fucking child,” intoned with a stony stare and Al Pacino’s over-the-top delivery.

The line arrives at the end of one of the most withering monologues ever written, directed at the office manager (played by Kevin Spacey) who has just screwed up a real estate deal and let the very fat pigeon get away. It is not even remotely workplace safe: in a little over three minutes, it offers enough scatology to give Michael Medved material for three or four books denouncing Hollywood. But it’s the kind of scatology Shakespeare would have written if, like Mamet, he had worked at a real estate office full of lowlife salesmen trying to scam people into buying the equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge, and thanks to the magic of YouTube, I can share it with you here.

We were also very fond of Alec Baldwin’s speech near the start of the film, which isn’t in the play because director James Foley wanted Mamet to present the salesmen’s dilemma in a clear, tidy package. This generated the third most popular line: “Get them to SIGN on the LINE which is DOTTED!” Click here for Alec Baldwin’s finest seven minutes on film.

(A few years later, a member of the Chronic Mamet Quoters Support Group went on to The Record, where he interviewed Kevin Spacey for the release of the film American Beauty. When he told Spacey about our affliction, Spacey laughed and said, “What else can you do with great dialogue like that?” He then confided that whenever people recognized him on the street, nine times out of ten they would put their hands on their hips and say, “Will you go to lunch? Will . . . you . . . go . . . to . . . LUNCH?”)          

The game sort of petered out after a while. I thought the Mametosis had been killed off entirely, but then, during a visit to a hardware store with one of those newsroom buddies, we found ourselves looking at a table lamp that had been taken apart for repair. The body of the lamp was intact, and it had a couple of ping-pong ball sized danglies on little chains. We both said, “Do you know what it takes to sell real estate?” Didn’t even have to stop and think.

Glengarry Glen Ross. The gift that keeps on giving. 


As part of my ongoing Get Better Acquainted With Poetry project, I’ve been reading — and liking very much — the work of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, who appears to be a perennial entry on many short lists for the Nobel Prize for literature. His collection The Great Enigma has a place atop the bedside bookpile, where it encourages me to reverse the habit of a lifetime and read more slowly, rather than more quickly.

If Transtromer’s work is as new to you as it was for me, I recommend this new article in the Boston Review as a way into the man’s work. Interesting timing, to have a thoughtful short essay appear right about the same time I’ve become interested in Transtromer. Katie Peterson has a lot more to say about the man’s poetry than I do — for the time being, at any rate.  

The Skyway, my way

So I went on the Leonard Lopate Show this afternoon on WNYC and had a great time talking about The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. The chat lasted only about 20 minutes, but in that time the guest host helped dance me through the book’s key points. I also got to throw in that all-important reference to The Sopranos — gotta have that.

Here’s a link to the WNYC podcast of the segment. I see the comments thread is already filling up. Cool.

Also, I can’t let any more time go by without mentioning Mary’s mention of the book over at BookBlog. Much appreciated.

Size does matter

This teeter-totter bookshelf looks like a great tool for hours and hours of literary time wastage. Do the collected works of Thomas Pynchon outweigh the Saul Bellow catalogue? How about Georges Simenon vs. John D. MacDonald? Kingsley Amis vs. Martin? (Bird-dogged by Mary.)

Who let all those Jersey people into the studio?

There’s going to be a New Jersey state of mind on WNYC this Friday.

First and foremost (to my mind, at least), I’m going to be a guest on The Leonard Lopate Show — to talk about The Last Three Miles, natch. But I’ll be preceded by blogbud Christian Bauman, who will open the show with James Kaplan and Kathleen DeMarco to talk about the new Jersey-themed anthology Living on the Edge of the World.

I expect we’ll have to use the trade entrance, being from New Jersey and all, but I also expect a good time will be had by all.

Blue Monday

There’s no shortage of tragedy in the stories of the musicians who created the blues, but John Lee Williamson — who performed as Sonny Boy Williamson — suffered twice.

The Tennessee-born singer and harmonica player was at the height of his popularity in 1948 when, while walking home from a gig at the Plantation Club in Chicago, he was fatally injured in a strong-arm robbery. He then suffered the posthumous indignity of having his stage name appropriated by another blues performer, Aleck “Rice” Miller, who turned out to be a songwriter and harp player of equal if not greater genius, developing a classic body of work that completely overshadows that of his predecessor. Each man is such a creative force in his own right that blues buffs and scholars have split the different by calling John Lee “Sonny Boy Williamson I” and Rice Miller “Sonny Boy Williamson II.”

What shouldn’t be lost is the fact that John Lee WIlliamson was the first innovator to make the harmonica an essential instrument in the rough, loud Chicago blues style of the 1940s and 1950s. After a long apprenticeship as a traveling musician in the late 1920s and 1930s, Williamson started recording in the late 1930s and quickly made a place for himself alongside Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams. He was the first to record the blues standard “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” then added “Stop Breaking Down,” Whiskey Headed Blues” and “Early in the Morning” (among others) to the capacious blues catalogue.

This documentary about Williamson’s life is available on YouTube as part one and part two, and will bring you up to speed. As much as I love the second Sonny Boy’s work, the original doesn’t deserve to be buried twice.

Passages: Flannery O’Connor

From “Revelation,” a story in Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. Mrs. Turpin has just had a pretty bad day: not only did she have to share a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of trashy people, one of them actually called her a wart hog from hell. Now she’s back home and she’s demanding an explanation from God, insisting that he tell her why, after a lifetime of piety and good behavior, she deserved to be called such a thing:

Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared, returning. She waited until it had had time to turn into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.

Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting halleujah.

One of the things I like best about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is the way she treats religion as a disruptive, scarifying force in people’s lives rather than a comforting flannel blanket for their minds. Religion, as often as not, is like a live wire lying on the ground, pulsing with immense power but terribly dangerous if handled improperly.

Consider the fate of young Harry Ashfield in “The River,” a neglected boy whose visit to a riverside baptism and the words of a charismatic evangelist (“You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.”) leads to tragedy. Or The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who finds the Gospels have thrown everything off balance: “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” Or Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, who spends his life trying to outrun Jesus by preaching The Church Without Christ — “Where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way.”

Mrs. Turpin gets off relatively easy: after enduring a stretch in The Waiting Room From Hell, she gets a vision of heaven in which she really understands what happens when the first are last and the last are first. I’ve read this story for years and I’m still not sure if the epiphany does her any good. Something in the vocabulary and the way her unthinking racism and snobbery remain intact lead me to suspect this is the moment she loses her religion, as they say in the South. But I could be wrong — I could be missing some nuance underneath the grotesque surface. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened with Flannery O’Connor.