Monthly Archives: August 2008

Elleore dreamin’

Now that summer is pretty much over with, you might want to get a jump on your travel planning for next year. Those of you with fond memories of Leonard Wibberley’s novels about the Duchy of Grand Fenwick might want to book a visit to Denmark and the island realm of Elleore, which began as a satirical flip-off to the Nazi occupiers and persists as a realm where the spirit of Monty Python is filtered through the Danish sensibility.

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Friday finds

Here’s a terrific idea for a blog feature: Friday’s Forgotten Books, in which we are invited to name “books we love but might have forgotten over the years.” Go pay Patti a visit and share one of your picks.

In a similar vein, Leonard Lopate has been highlighting “Underappreciated Literature” on his WNYC show. Show your appreciation here.

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Footloose

The world needs more college students like Patrick Leigh Fermor. Come to think of it, the world needs more writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor. When, as a teenager in the early 1930s, Fermor got himself thrown out of school for giving more attention to a local girl than his studies, he decided to take leave of England and set off on a long walk through the heart of Europe. Starting out from Holland, Fermor more or less paralleled the courses of the Rhine and Danube rivers as he made his way to the golden city of Constantinople, which had been renamed Istanbul only three years earlier. Later in life, Fermor recounted his journey in a pair of books: the first, A Time of Gifts (republished by NYRB Classics in a typically classy package), has been the happiest surprise of my reading summer.

As with all the greatest travel books, A Time of Gifts is as much an interior journey as a travelogue: we get to experience this Brueghelesque landscape through the eyes of an endlessly curious, highly literate and art-mad young man who apparently brought out the maternal instinct in just about everyone he encountered. Tramping eastward along the Danube toward Vienna, Fermor visits Melk Abbey and can describe it only in terms of rich, ornately gorgeous music:

Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues.The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the decor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene. A magnificent and measured polyphony crept in one’s ears. It was accompanied by woodwind at first, then, at shortening intervals, by violins and violas and ‘cellos and then double-basses while a scrollwork of flutes unfurled in mid-air; to be joined at last by a muted fanfare from the ceiling, until everything vibrated with a controlled and pervading splendour. Beyond it, in the church, a dome crowned the void. Light spread in the painted hollows and joined the indirect glow from the ovals and the lunettes and the windows of the rotunda. Galleries and scalloped baldachinos and tiered cornices rose to meet it; and the soft light, falling on the fluted pilasters and circles of gold spokes, and on the obelisks wreathed with their sculpted clouds, suffused the honeycomb side-chapels and then united in a still and universal radiance.

The musical associations aren’t always so lovely. Fermor’s hike through Germany conjures up memories of Wilhelm Muller’s Winterreise and the song-cycle Schubert made of it, but the air is pervaded by the martial music of Nazism, which was tightening its grip on Germany even as Fermor happened to be passing through. Here he is in Munich:

I had expected a different kind of town, more like Nuremberg, perhaps, or Rothenburg. the neo-classical architecture in this boreal and boisterous weather, the giant boulevards, the unleavened pomp — everything struck chill to the heart. The proportion of Storm Troopers and S.S. in the streets was unusually high and still mounting and the Nazi salute flickered about the pavement like a tic douloureaux. Outside the Feldherrnehalle, with its memorial to the sixteen Nazis killed in a 1923 street fight nearby, two S.S. sentries with fixed bayonets and black helmets mounted guard like figures of cast-iron and the right arms of all passers-by shot up as though in reflex to an electric beam. It was perilous to withhold this homage. One heard tales of uninitiated strangers being physically set-upon by zealots.

Though my travels this summer haven’t been nearly as ambitious as Fermor’s, I’ve been reading A Time of Gifts in the same footloose spirit. I read the Melk passage, for example, while watching the sun set from the Fifth Street Pier in Seaside Park, and I’m surprised the ascent from the marshes of Barnegat Bay to the mountains of Central Europe didn’t give me the bends.

A Time of Gifts ends with footloose Fermor on the threshold of adventures in Hungary, Transylvania and the Carpathian mountains. The story continues in Between the Woods and the Water, and I’m torn between my impulse to finish it before the end of the summer and my wish to make this trip last as long as possible.

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Blue Monday

All of Sonny Landreth’s albums are worth checking out, but he kicked things into high, angry gear this year with From the Reach, highlighted by “Blue Tarp Blues,” his denunciation of how Bush & Co. let New Orleans drown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That unhappy anniversary is less than a week away.

“Blue Tarp Blues” was a highlight of Landreth’s performance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The sound in this clip is admittedly a little muddy, but while this doesn’t harm Landreth’s usual fiery playing, it’s the lyrics that warrant close attention:

Air Force One had a heck of a view
Air Force One had a heck of a view
Looking down on the patchwork of the blue tarp blues.

I went a-walkin’ through the water
sprung a leak in my shoes
I went a-walkin’ through the water
sprung a leak in my shoes
that hole in my soul
give me the blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.

There’s a crack in the ceiling and the system too
There’s a crack in the ceiling and the system too
But we got full coverage of the blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.

No it wasn’t the weather that sank me and you
It was a bad fix of politics, greed and fools
That levee of lies couldn’t hold back the truth
We’re in deep but not out of reach
Throw me somethin’, mister.

I’m gonna fly my colors and watch for you
I’m gonna fly my colors and watch for you
Like a flag of hope, above the blue tarp blues

I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.

The lyrics are clearly printed in the booklet accompanying the CD, but every now and then I come across the lyrics on other sites, and I’ve noticed some bowdlerization going on that removes the song’s obvious anger at George W. Bush. Naughty naughty.

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Beaucoups of Bobness

Nick D. is having a Bobapalooza over at his site. Not only did he and his son head upstate to take in Dylan’s Sunday show in the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (where it appears His Bobness was wearing hand-me-downs from Jack White’s flirtation with Zorro chic), but the trip also involved hunting for folkie ghosts in Saratoga Springs and reminiscing about taking in the Rolling Thunder Revue (the 1975 leg) in Niagara Falls.

Meanwhile, William V. (who just joined my Listening Around blogroll) saw his Bobness at Foxwoods and was pretty much blown away. And Michael G., whose books The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and Song and Dance Man are gold-standard reference works for Bobcats, has mixed feelings about the mixed bag that will be the next installment of the Bootleg Series, particularly the marketing of high-priced collectors’ bait in the guise of “deluxe editions.”

And finally, in the spirit of crass commercialism, I offer the above YouTube clip.

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A poet who kept his word

Last week I heard that the management of the Asbury Park Press is going to lay off another 50 people. Two weeks earlier, the Star-Ledger — which for years had seemed like the last bastion of real journalism in New Jersey, a place where reporters could do their jobs without getting dicked around too much — announced it would have to lay off a couple of hundred nonunion employees or the paper would be put up for sale. Before that, the Record announced it would be forcing most of its reporters to work from their cars. And, of course, the newspaper industry as a whole has been suffering from declining circulation and a host of other troubles, made all the worse by three decades of management decisions that rival those of the American auto industry for short-sighted pigheadedness.

At times like this, I think of Kenneth Fearing and the first poem of his that I ever read. It’s in Stranger at Coney Island, the book that introduced me to Fearing’s work:

NEWSPAPERMAN

This charge was laid upon me long ago; Do not forget;
Remember these lives, that the world in turn will not forget –

Big John Marino, the terror of his district,
Where none were as strong as he, none as handsome, as cunning, as cruel,
Saying, before the state destroyed him:
“Tell them the truth. Tell them everything, so they will always know.”
Now always, therefore, the great, the ruthless and bold, the one and only Big John –

Do not forget the fabulous bankrupt, and the vivid fortunes that somewhere, surely, the years still guard.
Keep the memory of an heiress, flashlit favorite in a season that cannot fade;
Never let fade, altogether, the programs identifying those others, miscellaneous members of the cast –

Each of them unique, though now the names, faces and stories are obscured.
Each saying in words, or underneath the words, and some with their sealed eyes and cold lips
(But even so they were sure of themselves, still sure)
Urging always: “It is vital;
You must remember the fateful beginning, fully to understand the end.”
(Though of course there can be no real end);
To grasp the motives, fully, it is vital; to remember the stamp
of the mind,
Vital to know even the twist of the mind . . .”

You will remember me?
Do not forget a newspaperman who kept his word.

One of the reasons I like this poem so much is that aside from its plainspoken diction — Fearing’s verse reads like a meeting ground between Walt Whitman and John Dos Passos — it captures the sense of mission shared by most journalists. That may sound funny nowadays, after decades of conservative whining about liberal bias and corporate dumbing-down of newspapers, but it’s true. A lot if not most of the people who went into the newspaper business went into it because, like me, they wanted a job they could live for rather than off.

That’s what buoys you through the low pay and lousy working hours, that’s why you put up with a job that makes you a magnet for cranks and pests, that’s why you have straight-faced conversations with people you know are lying to you as a matter of course, that’s why you endure the corner-cutting, shoddy thinking and management game-playing. Your sense of mission requires you to capture what is happening and relay it to your readers. You are the one who knows the score, and you take pleasure in that. And on the day the bullshit finally crests whatever intellectual dike you’ve built for yourself and you think, The hell with it, I’m sick of fighting with these idiots, I’m just going to do my job and go home, that’s the day you start looking for another job. Because if newspapering no longer gives you that exhilarating sense of mission, why on earth would you want a job at a newspaper? Working at a newspaper is addictively romantic, right up to the moment it becomes unendurable drudgery.

Though he briefly worked for Time magazine, Fearing was never a journalist, nor was he ever a lumberjack, a millhand or a salesman, as he sometimes half-jokingly claimed. He was always a freelance writer, most seriously of poetry, though he was too self-deprecating to call himself a poet. He also wrote pulp fiction and softcore pornography under a variety of pseudonyms, and several novels under his own name. Born in 1902, Fearing came of age in the Roaring Twenties and clawed his way through the Depression, an experience that only heightened his innate pessimism.

As a writer, Fearing is not quite forgotten but not really well known. His novels, like his poetry, were praised by critics but sold poorly. Even the critics deserted him in 1942 when he published Clark Gifford’s Body, a fractured storyline littered with two dozen or so narrators and a timeframe that skipped back and forth across several years. His brief moment in the sun came in 1946 with The Big Clock, which ranks with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as one of the most perfect noir novels ever written, and suddenly big money came rolling in from Hollywood. Fearing, who had been a functioning alcoholic for most of his adult life, could suddenly afford to start drinking first thing in the morning, and it affected his work as well as his health. Failed marriages, loss of critical esteem, penury and even a brush with McCarthyism did nothing to lighten his final years, and he died of cancer in 1961.

Fearing probably wouldn’t have been surprised by his lingering semi-fame, but there’s no doubt about the continued durability of his best work. The Big Clock (as well as Clark Gifford’s Body) was recently reissued in a handsome paperback edition by NYRB Classics and (as Geoff will tell you) it remains as intricate, thrilling and surrealistically funny today as the day it was published. It has inspired two official adaptations — The Big Clock and No Way Out — as well as Out of Time, an underrated 2003 Denzel Washington vehicle with an unacknowledged debt to Fearing’s premise. The Library of America has a nice selection of Fearing’s verse, and the National Poetry Foundation has collected all of the man’s poems in a single volume for pretty much the same price.

As I said, Fearing was never really a journalist, though he put his time at Time to good use by making Henry Luce the model for the murderous publisher in The Big Clock. But his pessimistic temperament would have made him a perfect fit with many of the journalists I know: that strange combination of pride and self-abnegation that makes them ferocious in pursuing a story and passive in looking after their own interests. Their sadness — maybe I should call it their tragedy — is that their commitment is not mirrored by equal commitment from their employers. Reporters are spending the best years of their lives winning daily battles. Meanwhile, the generals have been hard at work losing the war. Kenneth Fearing would have understood.

The newspaper trade has always been an industry that takes more from its employees than it gives, but with this recent news I’m afraid many of my old newspaper buddies are looking less like journalists than abused spouses. It’s beyond sad. They kept their word. If only the business they work for would do likewise.

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Blue Monday (on Tuesday)

Jerry Wexler, who died Friday at the age of 91, brought an extraordinary range of interests to the work of making records, and perhaps for that reason he became one of popular music’s greatest pioneers. Like his friend and fellow blues obsessive John Hammond, Wexler was the right man in the right place at the right time, and it’s safe to say that if Jerry Wexler had never been born, American popular music would have taken a much different course.

As a young journalist under the spell of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain and John O’Hara, Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace the “race music” term used to ghettoize black music. As a producer and partner in Atlantic Records, Wexler helped turn R&B into a commercial as well as an artistic force. He took young Aretha Franklin, whose career was going down the drain after some jazz-flavored recordings for Columbia Records, and brought out the sound that made her the Queen of Soul: with her first two Wexler-produced singles, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect,” Franklin became a superstar. Wexler went on to produce Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and Dusty Springfield, and cultivated a relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records that brought its powerhouse soul music roster to a worldwide audience. Like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who invited him to join Atlantic in 1953, Wexler was a hipster with business sense and invincible confidence in his own tastes, and (like the Erteguns) he was usually right.

When Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian in the late Seventies, he abandoned his previous seat-of-the-pants recording philosophy and asked Wexler to produce his first gospel album, Slow Train Coming. Wexler, not knowing the turn in Dylan’s life, was surprised to find himself recording a disc of hellfire Christian ditties:

Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals — as Bob did — but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived. That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral . . . I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel . . . [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, “Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.

The work paid off. Slow Train Coming remains one of Dylan’s best sounding records, and the strongest of the gospel works that made everybody’s jaws drop in the early Eighties.

Wexler’s 1993 memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, is a long out of print collectors’ item, but worth tracking down for great stories about musicians and the music business.

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Out the airlock

Fred K. informs us that The Starlost, one of the great non-success stories of 1970s television, has been exhumed for DVD release next month. Maybe there are people so addled by nostalgia that they’ll spend forty bucks on any piece of cheese they remember from their childhoods, but my most vivid memory of the thing is the acute, soul-shriveling embarrassment I experienced when I hyped my father into watching the first episode with me because the series had been created by Harlan Ellison, whose stories I had been reading voraciously for a couple of years. It was gonna be good. Of course, it turned out to be baaad, and not in the Sweet Sweetback way, and my father walked off convinced that his only son and heir had been dropped on his head a few times in the Hackensack Hospital maternity ward. Be that as it may, The Starlost festered for several more episodes, but I only got fleeting glimpses of it during the early Sunday evening channel-flipping that happened whenever 60 Minutes was delayed by a football game.

(Those of you from the pre-remote, pre-cable era will remember this ritual: “Has 60 Minutes started yet? Click-click-click-click-click. “Not yet.” “Arrggh. Click-click-click-click.” Repeat as necessary or until channel selector dial falls off the TV set or melts, whichever comes first. So many wonderful memories come cascading back from the mere mention of The Starlost.)

So why am I filing this post under “The Writing Life” instead of a more obviously appropriate category — say, “Nostalgia for Alzheimer patients”? Because The Starlost had been conceived by Ellison as a gold-standard series, the first real shot at getting actual science fiction onto the tube instead of the watered down approximations we’d seen with Star Trek or Lost in Space. You can get glimmerings of why this was not allowed to happen in this summary, or by tracking down a copy of Phoenix Without Ashes, Ed Bryant’s novelization of the original Ellison script for the first episode, with an introduction by Ellison detailing all the ways he was double-crossed, hoodwinked, undercut and bamboozled by the producer, and how a series that was going to harness top-flight SF talent was undone by minds even smaller than the screen the show would fill. If you watch one of the YouTube clips from the show, keep your eyes peeled for the “Cordwainer Bird” credits — Ellison’s patented, contractually mandated fuck-you to the whole misbegotten project.

A cautionary tale for those who want to get into the scriptwriting game. At least Ellison has been able to dine out on the story of how it all happened. Most scriptwriters don’t even get that much satisfaction.

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