Monthly Archives: April 2008

The brain of His Bobness

Ever wonder what’s going on in Bob Dylan’s mind? By sifting through the themes and choices revealed in his Theme Time Radio Hour, Vanity Fair has been able to arrive at some conclusions. There’s a chart and everything.

Evelyn and the interviewers

I’ve heard some antagonistic interviews before — the mutual dissing between Gene Simmons and Terry Gross on NPR springs immediately to mind — but this 1953 roundelay between Evelyn Waugh and three interviewers who are, shall we say, not all that impressed with the great man sounds about as convivial as dinner and drinks in the Torquemada family rumpus room.

Oscar and the women

Santo Domingo summers have their own particular allure. For two months, Santo Domingo slaps the diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can; airports choke with the overdressed; necks and luggage carrousels groan under the accumulated weight of that year’s cadenas and paquetes; restaurants, bars, clubs, theatres, malecones, beaches, resorts, hotels, moteles, extra rooms, barrios, colonias, campos, ingenios swarm with quisqueyanos from the world over: from Washington Heights to Roma, from Perth Amboy to Tokyo, from Brijeporr to Amsterdam, from Anchorage to San Juan; it’s one big party; one big party for everybody but the poor, the dark, the jobless, the sick, the Haitian, their children, the bateyes, the kids whom certain Canadian, American, German, and Italian tourists love to rape—yes, sir, nothing like a Santo Domingo summer, and so for the first time in years Oscar said, My elder spirits have been talking to me, Ma. I think I might go. He was imagining himself in the middle of all that ass-getting, imagining himself in love with an Island girl. (A brother can’t be wrong forever, can he?)

So curious a change in policy was this that even Lola quizzed him about it. You never go to Santo Domingo.

He shrugged. I guess I want to try something new.

One of the best things about Junot Diaz’ novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is that it doesn’t read like something that took well over a decade to write. It has the same deceptively light touch and tidal surge of the stories in Drown, his debut collection from last century. When I interviewed him on the occasion of that book, Diaz (a Dominican-American who grew up in Parlin, studied at Rutgers and peppers his work with references that ring plenty of bells for anyone familiar with the Middlesex-Union-Essex corridor) said he actually hated writing short stories. Novels, he said. He preferred novels by a mile.

After reading Oscar Wao, I could see he wasn’t just spouting quotes. Here is the work of a man who benefits from having room to stretch out:

After his initial two weeks on the Island, after he’d got somewhat used to the scorching weather and the surprise of waking up in another country, after he refused to succumb to that whisper that all long-term immigrants carry inside themselves, the whisper that says You Do Not Belong, after he’d gone to about ten clubs and, because he couldn’t dance salsa or merengue or bachata, had sat and drunk his Presidentes while Lola and his cousins burned holes in the floor, after he’d explained to people a hundred times that he’d been separated from his sister at birth, after he spent a couple of quiet mornings on his own on the Malecón, after he’d given out all his taxi money to beggars and had to call his cousin to get home, after he’d watched shirtless, shoeless seven-year-olds fighting each other for the scraps he’d left on his plate at an outdoor café, after the family visited the shack in Baitoa where his moms had been born, after he had taken a dump in a latrine and wiped his ass with a corncob, after he’d got somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in the capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Pizza Huts, the tígueres selling newspapers at the intersections, the snarl of streets and shacks that were the barrios, the masses of niggers he waded through every day and who ran him over if he stood still, the mind-boggling poverty, the skinny watchmen standing in front of stores with their shotguns, the music, the raunchy jokes heard on the streets, the Friday-night strolls down the Avenida, the mind-boggling poverty—after he’d gone to Boca Chica and Villa Mella, after the relatives berated him for having stayed away so long, after he heard the stories about his father and his mother, after he stopped marvelling at the amount of political propaganda plastered up on every spare wall, after the touched-in-the-head tío who’d been tortured during Balaguer’s reign came over and cried, after he’d swum in the Caribbean, after Tío Rodolfo had got the clap from a puta (Man, his tío cracked, what a pisser! Har-har!), after he’d seen his first Haitians kicked off a guagua because niggers claimed they “smelled,” after he’d nearly gone nuts over all the bellezas he saw, after all the gifts they’d brought had been properly distributed, after he’d brought flowers to his abuela’s grave, after he had diarrhea so bad his mouth watered before each detonation, after he’d visited all the rinky-dink museums in the capital, after he stopped being dismayed that everybody called him gordo, after he’d been overcharged for almost everything he wanted to buy, after the terror and joy of his return subsided, after he settled down in his abuela’s house, the house that the diaspora had built, and resigned himself to a long, dull, quiet summer, after his fantasy of an Island girlfriend caught a quick dicko (who the fuck had he been kidding? he couldn’t dance, he didn’t have loot, he didn’t dress, he wasn’t confident, he wasn’t handsome, he wasn’t from Europe, he wasn’t fucking no Island girl), after Lola flew back to the States, Oscar fell in love with a semiretired puta.

When I first encountered Diaz through “Edison, New Jersey,” a story about an alienated young Dominican-American man split between his ethnic roots and his surrealistic day job (delivering and installing pool tables in white suburbia), I was impressed by the sheer readability of his work. That quality is all through Oscar Wao, and it deserves all the praise it’s been getting — including, how about that, a Pulitzer Prize.

Blue Monday

Bukka White performs his 1940 song “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues” shortly before his death in 1977. White was called the master of the National Steel Guitar, and here you see the flashy crossover move with his hands that never failed to impress his audiences.

Bukka White had an impeccable blues lineage, being a first cousin to B.B. King. Arne Brogger recalls a 1974 concert he organized featuring Bukka, B.B. King and Muddy Waters:

Bukka opened the show, Muddy played next and B.B. closed. The show started at 8:00 and B.B. finally came down from the stage at 1:00 a.m. There were 3,500 people there, and no one left. At the close of the show, B.B. called Bukka up on the stage to acknowledge him. Bukka grabbed the mike and began to talk. He reminded B.B. of the first guitar B.B. ever had — a red Stella given to him by Bukka. Bukka said B.B. was about 9 years old at the time. “You remember, B, you was so little next to that big red Stella…” There was absolute silence. B.B. was looking at the tops of his shoes. His eyes were filling. He looked for all the world like a 9-year-old boy standing on that stage. “Yeah… I sure do remember,” he finally said, and then he threw his arms around Bukka. The audience erupted.

Here’s an earlier film clip, with Bukka playing the same song in a much harder, more percussive style:

Dream on

This bit of video for a never-realized film version of Little Nemo in Slumberland, which would have been directed by master animator Hayao Miyazaki, is enough to inspire long stretches of musing over What Might Have Been. The little bit I’ve seen of the film that actually was made looked pretty undistinguished — so undistinguished, in fact, that I’ve avoided watching the rest so that it doesn’t track mud through the section of my brain where Winsor McCay’s astonishing comic strip resides.

This excellent post from Cartoon Brew will fill you in on the background. As to why I consider it a big deal, here’s my take on the fall 2005 publication of So Many Splendid Sundays, the oversized collection that finally allowed McCay’s meticulously detailed panels and layouts to be seen in the correct form. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to rescue the article from the archives of the original StevenHartSite, a handcrafted affair that preceded the current incarnation.

* * * * *

Imagine you’d grown up admiring films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey but had only been able to see them on a medium-sized television screen. Or you’d always loved the Ode to Joy but had only been able to hear it on a boombox or a small radio.

Now imagine seeing the films at a top-line movie theater with a big screen and excellent sound, or hearing Ode to Joy in a concert hall with a great chorus and a superb orchestra. Sheer physical impact is a legitimate artistic tool. Any work of art has its value regardless of the way it’s presented, but for some things, proper scale is needed to put across the necessary feeling of grandeur.

Bear this in mind when I say that even though I’ve admired Winsor McCay and his fanciful comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland just about all of my conscious life, the new book Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays makes me feel I’m looking at McCay’s pioneering artwork for the very first time. In its quiet way, this book took me back to the afternoon at the movie palace when the planets all lined up on the screen and the low rumble on the soundtrack surged into the triumphant Also Sprach Zarathustra, or the breathtaking transition when Peter O’Toole blew out a burning match and the immense screen at the Ziegfeld erupted into a blazing desert sunrise. I’m not saying that So Many Splendid Sundays is how Little Nemo ought to be seen. I’m saying this is how it has to be seen.

So Many Splendid Sundays does something that is both very simple and very difficult — it reproduces the strips in the exact same 16-inch by 21-inch size readers of the New York Herald would have seen them in 1905, albeit on heavier paper stock than tissue-thin newsprint. One result is that So Many Splendid Sundays is a coffee table book that’s bigger than many coffee tables. Another is that the reader finally gets to enter and appreciate the meticulously detailed empire of dreams that Winsor McCay created for his audience. There have been other beautiful and lovingly compiled collections of McCay’s work, but all of them reduced the size of his panels — often drastically. Those books gave you a seat way back in the theater. So Many Splendid Sundays puts you in the front row as Yo-Yo Ma runs his fingers up and down the cello. It makes for an expensive book, needless to say.

McCay (1867-1935) wasn’t the first comic strip artist, but he was certainly the first great one. In a section of the newspaper reserved for raucous slapstick acts like The Yellow Kid, McCay offered surrealistic dreamscapes and immense halls of glass, all rendered with a master draughtsman’s eye for composition and layout. Blessed with a quick hand and cursed by a constant need for money, McCay also produced a stream of separate comics (most notably Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, produced under a pseudonym for a rival paper) and editorial cartoons.

Winsor McCay was the first and probably only cartoonist who could be described as a superstar. For several years in the early 1900s he augmented his considerable income as an employee of William Randolph Hearst by touring the vaudeville circuit, where he wowed audiences by dashing off impeccably rendered sketches of selected couples aging through courtship and parenthood and old age, all rendered with phenomenal speed as the pit orchestra played “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” In 1911 he added a new dimension to the show by incorporating his pioneering work in animation, particularly his short films with Gertie the Dinosaur — a friendly Diplodocus carnegii whose expressiveness made her the first personable cartoon character, years ahead of Mickey Mouse. Ever ambitious, McCay turned the screenings into multimedia affairs in which he stood on the stage and gave carefully timed instructions to Gertie, who would appear to be responding to the man on the stage. The cartoons — collected on the DVD Winsor McCay: The Master Edition — are full of magically smooth animation with tricky perspectives that contemporary cartoonists would leave to the computer animation staff. McCay drew them all by hand, and the results are still pretty impressive.

If McCay’s writing had been as inventive as his artwork, Little Nemo would have been a strong contender for the title of greatest comic strip ever created. But we never learn much of anything about Nemo; after spending years as the centerpiece of extraordinary visuals, he remains a generic Small Boy. McCay could take us into a child’s dreams, but it took somebody like Bill Watterson with Calvin and Hobbes to take us into a child’s soul.

But among his many other achievements, Winsor McCay also paved the way for inspired eccentrics on the nation’s comic pages, and the grand loons who followed — from George Herriman (Krazy Kat) to Charles Schulz and the aforementioned Watterson — owe him a debt of gratitude. Slumberland is still a place I like to visit from time to time, and if you go, too, chances are you’ll come back better for having had the experience.

Battlestar Anglo-Saxica

For a lifelong TV-phobe like me, DVD box sets are a divinely ordained gift. First they allowed me to take in whole seasons of The Sopranos without having to endure the silly dream sequences, and now they let me catch up with The Wire and Battlestar Galactica — the first a superb, multilayered crime saga as absorbing as a great novel, the second quite simply the finest science fiction show ever seen on television. I realize that last statement will have Trekkies sobbing into their Tribble pillows, but hey — the truth is a harsh mistress.

I have miles to go with The Wire, but I’m nearly through the third season box of Battlestar and I’m drawing near the episode in which somebody hears “All Along the Watchtower” being played. Can you jump the shark in a zero-gravity environment? All I know is what I gleaned from the laments on  Ain’t It Cool News and other geek sites, though it did inspire thoughts of an SF series set in a Bob Dylan-inspired universe with planets like Black Diamond World, which is nothing but islands rising  from and falling into the sea, or the Planet of Thin Men, where nobody really knows what’s going on.

And now, thanks to Jeff Sypeck, I learn that the Capricans have been singing Baltar’s praises in Old English. Curiouser and curiouser. I just hope I don’t have to wait too long for the fourth season box to come out.

‘You Have What I Look For’

Today’s poem is a two-fer: W.S. Merwin reading his own translation of a love poem by Mexican writer Jaime Sabines.

Dear John’s letters

The title of Robert Gottlieb’s NYRB piece on John Steinbeck is a little misleading: though he has plenty of worthwhile things to say about the man who produced more bad work than any other “great” American writer, Gottlieb will not be the one to rescue Steinbeck from himself. That is the task of readers willing to work through The Grapes of Wrath (a great novel with terrible things in it) and East of Eden (a terrible novel with great things in it)  while spending as little time as possible with The Pearl, The Red Pony or Of Mice and Men, those lethal weapons generations of schoolteachers have used to kill any youthful interest in Steinbeck’s work. The pity is that so few readers (or critics) seem interested in making this worthwhile journey.

Gottlieb is properly dismissive of Steinbeck’s first novel, the tedious pirate tale Cup of Gold, and To a God Unknown, which reflects the baleful influence of Joseph Campbell. (We can only be grateful that Campbell’s affair with Steinbeck’s wife ended the friendship — one shudders to think of how half-baked The Long Valley or Of Mice and Men would have turned out with more globs of mythic claptrap stirred into the batter.) He is also properly supportive of the overlooked In Dubious Battle, that hard-nosed predecessor of The Grapes of Wrath, and The Log from the Sea of Cortez, that minor masterpiece about a scientific voyage along the Baja peninsula with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the beloved friend who appears in various guises through some of Steinbeck’s best and worst writing. (Gottlieb does, however, fall into the common error of taking “About Ed Ricketts,” written years after Rickett’s untimely death, at face value. ) But Gottlieb apparently hasn’t even read The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck’s first great book, and he makes the huge mistake of treating Steinbeck’s masterpiece, Cannery Row, as a nostalgic retreat to the casting-call ethnic comedy of Tortilla Flat.

The occasion for Gottlieb’s review is the last and least of the Library of America’s Steinbeck volumes, which includes the pallid Burning Bright and The Wayward Bus, and The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck’s last  attempt at a “major” work, and a novel that’s bound to its late-1950s era in ways that The Grapes of Wrath and other period novels are not. Just as To a God Unknown is clouded by Joseph Campbell, The Winter of Our Discontent groans under the influence of James Gould Cozzens and Sloan Wilson, whose notions about The Moral Decline of America read like little more than the fretting of old white guys who feel time passing them by. But it also includes Travels With Charley In Search of America, a sentimental favorite because it was the book that introduced me to Steinbeck’s work, though time and scholarship have not been kind to the old man’s claims of having crossed the country to speak with its people. As Gottlieb says:

Steinbeck’s heart, as always, is in the right place, but there’s something artificial about Charley: many of the encounters he reports sound like pure inventions. His son John put it bluntly: “Thom and I are convinced that he never talked to any of those people…. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit.”

During the Sixties he had become a kind of cultural ambassador for the United States, close to people like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Dag Hammarsjköld. He had always been less radical than people thought he was—the outrage over injustice and poverty in The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle was personal, not ideological. He was, in fact, a liberal, middle-of-the-road Democrat—passionate about FDR, an ardent campaigner for Adlai Stevenson, and eventually close to Lyndon Johnson, whom he liked and vigorously supported, particularly on the Vietnam War.

This position did nothing to improve his standing with intellectuals, but it was sincere. He believed the Viet Cong were murderers, despised the draft-card burners back home, and admired the American troops he encountered as a war reporter on a trip to Southeast Asia in 1966, only two years before his death. Young John was in Vietnam, and Steinbeck managed to get himself helicoptered to an exposed hill outpost where John was fighting. In a surreal moment, the mutually antagonistic father and son found themselves under fire together. The son was to write, “I saw my father behind some sandbags overlooking my position with his M-60 at the ready…. I mean, who, in God’s name, was producing this movie?”

Steinbeck’s problem was a common enough one among old, lauded authors — his Great Writer status was gained through work long behind him, and his attempts to make grand pronouncements about the State of America Today said more about his personel crotchets than anything else. I can’t really knock him for that: a lot of people were baffled by the way America was changing in the 1960s — a confusion that lasts to this day — and while it’s ironic that the onetime bohemian and author of Tortilla Flat couldn’t get his brain around beatniks and hippies, it’s not cause for condemnation. His finest work still stands above his worst, and its easy to find.

Worlds enough and time

When you read John Scalzi’s blog, you learn that science fiction writers have problems above and beyond those of ordinary writers:

World building is hard. You want us to have to build an entire universe from scratch every single time we write a book? Well, okay. You want us to have to run a marathon every time we walk down to the corner store to get some milk, too? Or maybe assemble a car from the wheels up, every time we want to drive to the mall? We spend all this time building this ginchy universe and its rules, and then you say “Oh, that world again?” No one ever pulls that shit with other genres. People don’t go up to Carl Hiaasen and say “What? Another book on Earth?” And he didn’t even make up that planet! It’s an open source planet! Damn slacker.

Blue Monday

Though he’s put his hometown a long way behind him, B.B. King revisits Indianola, Miss., once a year for an annual homecoming. Now he owns a juke joint, the Club Ebony, where he played during his career climb, to add to his empire of eponymous music spots. The growth of blues tourism in the Delta region has spurred the appearance of so many upscale places calling themselves juke joints — Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero being the most famous — that Clarksdale now has its own Juke Joint Festival.

The video posted above is from Ralph Gleason’s jazz show, from the days when PBS was still called NET. Down here is a duet between King and T-Bone Walker from roughly the same period.