Monthly Archives: August 2008

Castle keepers

A lot of us never got over our youthful fascination with castles, but few of us deal with it as gracefully as Gabriele Campbell, a writer whose blog The Lost Fort goes immediately to my list of keepers. Let her take you on a tour of the Regenstein, lead you along a road of Romanesque churches and take in spectacular views from the castles of Wales. Damn the exchange rate, I wanna see these places now.

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The worst writing award for 2008

No, smartass, I didn’t get it. That honor went to . . . well, read for yourself. Alert readers will note the winning entry’s bonus snarking at New Jersey.

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Theodore Solotaroff

I never met Theodore Solotaroff, who died last week at the age of 80, but I will always remember him fondly as one of the people who helped usher me into the realms of Quality Lit, Contemporary Division. He did it with a publication called New American Review, which is why I feel a personal connection with a guy I never met.

I was a wee suburban lad making his weekly pilgrimmage to Schiller’s Books at the Garden State Plaza, and after years of trooping through the front door, passing to the right of the island with the cash registers and to the left of the new fiction and nonfiction tables, past the remainder counter and then directly to the science fiction and fantasy racks, I had started exploring the other areas of the store. I wandered into the academic section, the classics section, the revolving display of paperback art books (including a display of palm-sized books offering miniature reproductions of works by Daumier, Van Gogh and the like — somebody’s strange idea of bringing art to the masses)  great art devoted) and the wall of deep-dish fiction where I found Hemingway, Faulkner and the like. There I came across New American Review, a literary magazine published in paperback book format, and I bought Number 14 because its enigmatic cover (a psychedelic painting of a naked woman hugging herself) promised a nice combination of high-mindedness and smut. Number 15 came out soon thereafter, and I bought that too because it had an intriguing cover painting by the great Roger Hane, whose work I knew and loved from Carlos Castenada’s books and my boxed set of Narnia titles. As you can see, I was using some pretty lofty standards back then.

And so, in my bumbling overreaching young teen way, did I have my first encounters with the works of Brian Moore, Philip Roth, William Gass, Robert Coover, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Robert Stone, Leonard Michaels, Russell Banks, Ellen Willis and Lore Seagal. Among others. Oh, and I got my smut, too — the cover story of No. 14 was “Detritus,” a groaningly pretentious novella about the sunset years of a compulsive womanizer — imagine Bob Guccione imagining himself as Leonard Cohen and you’ll get the idea — and an outrageous Coover story called “Lucky Pierre and the Music Lesson” that is still one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. But the good stuff stuck to my ribs, and my brain, and riffling through the set on my shelves I can tell you there was plenty of good stuff indeed.

New American Review (later American Review) really was an amazing thing, and Solotaroff guided it from its launch in 1967 to its final issue in 1977, winning the patronage of three different publishers and consistently publishing top-notch writers. Solotaroff’s intellectual fingerprints are all over the current incarnations of Paris Review and Granta, places where the mix of quality fiction and nonfiction is never predictable but always reliable.     

After his paperback magazine ran its course, Solotaroff went on to a high-flying career as a book editor and essayist. He published two volumes of memoirs, and his harrowing recollections of Depression-era life in Elizabeth, N.J., under a father who had crushed his mother’s spirit and was ready to do the same for him, made his later accomplishments all the more remarkable.

I gather that Solotaroff was a pretty lousy golfer, but that’s fine — I don’t play golf. But I do read, and when I was at an impressionable age he reached across the Hudson River and into Bergen County and messed with my mind, and for that I am grateful.

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Blue Monday

Here’s where my Club Hipster privileges get revoked, but whatever. It’s never been hip to like Robin Trower. From his first album onward, rock critics dismissed him as a Jimi Hendrix imitator, and Trower certainly made it easy for them. Arctic white Stratocaster? Check. Hendrix-style wah-wah and other guitar effects? Check. Jazz-inflected drummer with a taste for cymbal splashes? Check. Overall spacey feel to the music? Check. Trower even emulated Jimi’s turn toward funk on Band of Gypsys by replacing original drummer Reg Isidore with Bill Lordan, a Sly Stone alumnus as earthy and grounded as Buddy Miles.

But where Hendrix was all improvisational flash and fire, Trower tempered his obvious love for the blues with a cooler, dreamier style entirely his own, immeasurably boosted by James Dewar, an underrated blue-eyed soul singer in the Paul Rodgers mold. He had only one great album in him — his second, Bridge of Sighs, from 1974 — but he had a few more great songs, and even the wobbliest records of the 1980s and onward contain at least one barn-burner.

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Bernie Mac

I don’t know about the rest of y’all muthafuckas, but I didn’t catch on to muthafuckin’ Bernie Mac until The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), in which he showed himself capable of holding his own among the likes of muthafuckas like D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey and Cedric the Muthafuckin’ Entertainer — no small feat. One of my favorite bits was when Bernie went off on why he was having a hard time getting his own television show:

The Bernie Mac Cooking Show? I’d have paid good money to see that muthafucka.

Bernie finally did get his TV show, and along with that and the Danny Ocean movies he was really coming into his own. Now he’s dead at the age of 50, and it’s a crying shame. Like Robin Harris, who died just after his cameo appearances in Do the Right Thing and House Party moved his career into high gear, Bernie Mac was a big talent who looked ready to keep on growing.

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Linkin’ linkin’ I’ve been thinkin’

You need to read these blog posts. Don’t try to sass me, just do like I say and everythang will be everythang. 

Sheik and bake with Jeff. Read about Matters of Faith with Kristy. Make fun of sophomoric folk-pop with Nick. Hear about writing, Hoboken and writing about Hoboken from Christian

Study Old English with Professor Nokes. Concoct zombie rhymes with John. Watch for the Antichrist with Scott.

And once you’ve done all that, go on an odyssey with Lance, contemplate shape-shifting reptiles with Henry and sing along with James.

Have a good weekend, too.

Deeper waters

He regards his empty hand, the indifferent sea. If he were to step out upon that sea, would he be swallowed like an insect or supported like a king . . . Might he remove his slippers and walk upon the waves amongst the tiny fishes and draw from the swell a symphony of moans and hisses . . .

The world would be a dimmer place without Patti Smith, but her place in it would shine much more brightly if she ditched the rock star routine. Of all the titles Smith has assumed — poet, Bob Dylan acolyte, bandleader, shaman — “poet” has always been the one that worked best. Her mission in life is not to do lame covers of “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rider,” or try to recreate the raw excitement of her 1975 debut album, Horses, 30 years after the fact. Her mission is her poetry, and her new recording The Coral Sea is a reminder of just how commanding she can be when she steps onto a stage armed only with words.

The Coral Sea, the collection of linked prose poems Patti Smith published in 1996, was a remarkable book: a tribute to her lost friend Robert Mapplethorpe that was dreamy, angry, despairing and ecstatic all at once. Unlike the wobbly recordings that marked her mid-1990s return to performance, The Coral Sea showed the world that Smith’s muse had continued to develop during her long absence from the spotlight, burning bright with the William Blake influence that had always sustained her best writing, but with a fresh strength and focus to go with the bombast that will always be part of her work. The book was a gorgeous art-object in itself, thanks to the accompanying photographs (most of them by Mapplethorpe), but the words created the brightest images and the deepest shadows.

How should I be charged? Should I be charged for wanting so much, for wanting so much bounty, for wanting so much beauty? For re-arranging eyes? For being one with nothing?”

The Coral Sea captures two live performances by Smith, accompanied by Kevin Shields, the man behind My Bloody Valentine’s dense wall of sound. His settings might be called aggressive ambient music: tidal washes of noise that challenge and enhance Smith’s readings without overwhelming them. The second performance sounds more aggressive and assured, but both offer enough nuances and fresh discoveries to repay close attention. Simply put, The Coral Sea is Patti Smith’s most powerful recording since Horses.

I’m not dismissing her other 1970s band albums — there are good and even great things to be found on all of them. But Horses/Horses, the release that paired her seminal debut album with a live 2005 recreation, sounded forced and unconvincing. Comparing the two versions, it was hard to decide if Smith and her bandmates had grown past the material or diminished to the point that they could no longer reach it.

There are no such doubts with The Coral Sea. Like M, searching for the Southern Cross in the night sky, Patti Smith steps out onto the waters of her inspiration and goes exploring, held up by the sheer force of her artistry.

By a happy coincidence, I bought The Coral Sea during a time when I had Songs for Drella, Lou Reed and John Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol, on more-or-less continuous play on my car stereo. Both records are passionate, loving tributes to artists I had considered to be lightweights, if not outright phonies; both records are collaborations that tower above the recent individual works of their co-creators; both records, produced by consummately serious artists, forced me to reconsider my opinion of two men I’d thought of as fundamentally unserious.  

Oh yes — both records are also wonderful, captivating, multilayered works that demand and repay multiple listenings. So to all involved I say, thank you for the challenge.

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