Monthly Archives: February 2008

Sad news

Jim Jones, Pere Ubu guitarist and longtime pillar of the Cleveland music scene, has died. This site has news items and performance clips, including Pere Ubu’s appearance on David Letterman’s show.

Breaking the Mould

Personally, I prefer Bob Mould in a band setting: with Husker Du or Sugar, to be exact. His solo records don’t do much for me, beyond a song or two, and that remains the case with his new one, District Line. Mould may want to reinvent himself in the confessional singer-songwriter mold of, say, Neil Young (whose Harvest Moon has been cited by Mould more than once), but Mould has none of Young’s gift for melody. Even in the Husker Du days, the real popcraft usually fell to the drummer, Grant Hart. Mould is the go-to guy for power, texture and riffage, and his chosen career direction plays to none of those strengths.

But this profile of Mould in the Guardian is one of the better articles I’ve read this week, and it contains the revelation (revelation to me, anyway) that Mould decided to try something really new at the end of the Nineties:

A wrestling fan since childhood, in September 1999 he took a job as a scriptwriter for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling franchise. There followed a seven-month schedule of travelling and stress unlike anything he’d endured before, as Mould’s role extended beyond merely deciding who Hulk Hogan was pissed off with that week.

“The show would go live and I’m sitting behind a curtain as the liaison between the wrestlers and the production people, telling the referee on a wireless earpiece how to direct traffic in the ring so we can make our commercial breaks. I’m doing this for three hours, with explosions, people yelling and bleeding – chaos! It’s a different Broadway show every night.”

After playing “New Day Rising” for several years, Mould must have found it a breeze to be scripting wrestling matches.

That thing you Du!

Oh, what the hell. Let’s make it a Husker Du kind of day.

When I lived in Jersey City in 1980s, I frequently commuted home via the Pulaski Skyway, traversing miles of hellishly ugly industrial landscape, with a Husker CD blasting away on the old Alpine. Now that I’m talking about the Skyway a couple of times a week during readings for my book, I’ve started craving the old Minneapolis Wall of Sound once again:

Husker Du’s 1985 album New Day Rising is pure up from the word go — or, more accurately, the first pounding of the drums on the title track. I once read that Robert Palmer (the Armani-clad singer, not the music writer) often did a cover version of “New Day Rising” as a concert encore. I can’t even imagine.

From there, the band immediately leaps into “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and “I Apologize,” making for a combination punch as unforgettable as the opening tracks of . . . oh, A Hard Day’s Night, for instance. Grant Hart’s songwriting was never stronger than it was on this album, and there are some killer lines in “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.”

She’s got a big room and it’s always a mess
Worn out shoes and a worn out dress
A worn out smile that she’ll wear some more
And a worn out welcome mat by her door

The next few numbers are fine, but they work best as the lead-in to “Celebrated Summer” — one of Bob Mould’s finest songs, and a tune I have to play as often as possible during the opening weeks of June.

Love and hate was in the air, like pollen from a flower
Somewhere in April time, they add another hour

I guess I’d better think up a way to spend my time
Just when I’m ready to sit inside, it’s summer time
Should I go fishing or get a friend to hang around
It’s back to summer, back to basics, hang around

Getting drunk out on the beach, or playing in a band
And getting out of school meant getting out of hand

Was this your celebrated summer? Was that your celebrated summer?

They weren’t a band for everybody, but they were definitely a band for me.

Take me home, Jersey roads

I’ll beĀ at the Union Free Public Library tonight to talk about my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. I’ll also be appearing Thursday to spout off on the same subject before the Bergen County Historical Society in Hackensack. I’m bringing books to sell and my Special Author’s Crayon to oblige anyone who wants a book signed.

That milkshake line

There was a time when I thought no recent film could be a more reliable source of memorable lines than Glengarry Glen Ross, but that was before I saw There Will Be Blood. “I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” has become the film geek version of “Don’t tase me, bro,” but I’m doing my bit to popularize “You’re just a bastard in a basket.”The milkshake line has even become the name of a discussion group devoted to There Will Be Blood, and I recommend it most highly.

The first time I saw There Will Be Blood, I was so overwhelmed I didn’t trust my reaction. Daniel Day-Lewis’ epic portrayal of the rapacious Daniel Plainview is the kind of oxygen-sucking, all-eyes-on-me performance that can be mistaken for something great, simply because it dominates everything around it. But another viewing has only deepened my appreciation, and reminds me of how happily startled I was to learn in the mid-1980s that the gay street punk in My Beautiful Laundrette and the twitty Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View were played by the same actor. Everything I’ve seen him in since then only confirms that Daniel Day-Lewis is a titan of acting.

Even when ostensibly forced into a passive role, the actor makes Daniel Plainview a pillar of banked fires:

The greatest thing about the milkshake line is that it sounds improvised, but writer-director Paul Thomas Andersona actually found it while reading through the Congressional testimony that followed the Teapot Dome oil-leasing scandal of the mid-1920s, and he wrote it into the crazed rant that ends up fulfilling the promise and threat of the film’s title.

So — no more doubts on my part. There Will Be Blood is a great film, and Paul Thomas Anderson is a great writer and a great director — in large part because he understands that the latter is only made possible by the former.

A weathered eye

John Howe, like any professional artist, is always looking for fresh visions and images to open up his work. So when he takes a trip to the Alsatian village of Colmar, he notices things like a line of sandstone balusters and comes away musing on the importance of erosion in architecture and art.

Blue Monday

To call J.J. Cale a master of understatement hardly begins to touch on the tightly reined-in quality of his music. Personally, I find a little of his stuff goes a very long way, but he’s built up a tremendous following over the decades, and his admirers include Eric Clapton, whose covers of Cale standards like “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” are among the highlights of his career. The two just won a Grammy for their collaboration, The Road to Escondido, so here’s a Cale performance that I think displays his low-key approach in its best light.

The Mad man

A movie is in the works about the career of William M. Gaines, publisher of Mad magazine and the gore-bedecked EC Comics line, and I am so there.

I guess I must have been in the fifth grade when I took part in the all-American rite of passage of having the school principal confiscate my copy of Mad magazine. Let me immediately throw myself on the court’s mercy and say that I had brought it to read during lunch and another kid had borrowed it (yeah, sure) and the magazine had been swiped from his desk by another kid (uh huh, tell us another one) who tried to read it in class (come off it) and thus incurred the wrath of the school’s Termagant in Chief, forcing me to head to her office, hall pass in hand, to recover my precious magazine.

Very few things would have induced me to stand before that gimlet-eyed old bat, but I’d only had time to skim the issue and what I’d seen suggested that greatness lay within those pages. The centerpiece was a parody of the then-current film Patton, renamed Put-On, with those intriguing punctuation marks filling in for great swatches of the dialogue growled out by George C. Scott. Seeing those marks, one always paused to count them and figure out which three-, four- or seven-letter cuss-word was being bowdlerized, so don’t tell me Mad had no educational value.

What happened during the brief meeting was a mark of the influence Mad had upon me that. The Termagant opened her desk drawer, removed the offending magazine and eyed the cover (Alfred E. Neuman as Patton, saluting before an American flag backdrop) as though it were a dead cat that had been scraped off Cambridge Avenue with a shovel and deposited on her desk blotter by an overly zealous janitor. She then gave me a look that probably curdled every carton of milk within a five-mile radius and said, “I think you could find better things to spend your time on than this.” And my only thought, as I returned to the classroom, was that the people who put out Mad magazine probably would have loved a home movie of the principal to use as a TV commercial.

The damage, you see, was already irreversible. Thank you, William M. Gaines.

The value of Mad magazine as an incubator for the satiric instincts of a whole generation has already been documented by sociologists. Less appreciated, however, was the magazine’s role in infiltrating Yiddish into the cultural mainstream. It was through Mad that I connected my German-born grandmother’s frequent, incomprehensible bursts of invective with the Borscht Belt humor that flitted through the variety shows that still reined supreme on television. I don’t remember the first time I used a Yiddish term like schmuck with real authority, but it was the culmination of a process begun by Mad, so once again: Thank you, William M. Gaines.

I came along too late to read the old EC titles like Tales from the Crypt, though I did devour the Warren ComicsCreepy, Eerie, Vampirella — that followed in EC’s lurching footsteps. Since the Gaines biopic is going to be directed by horror auteur John Landis, I expect the furor created by the EC line will dominate the movie. I hope the Mad years get their due as well. To have assaulted the foundations of decency even once is the kind of achievement most mortals can only dream of, but to have done it twice? That is the mark of greatness.

The first ‘Howl’

Turns out that Allen Ginsberg’s first recording of his seminal 1956 poem Howl took place at Reed College in Oregon, where a tape has reposed all these years, unheard until a researcher discovered it while preparing a biography of Ginsberg’s fellow poet, Gary Snyder. Read all about it — and, best of all, listen — here.