Monthly Archives: October 2008

Early to bed, late to revise

This isn’t exactly headline news, but my blogging this week will be severely restricted — i.e., nonexistent. I’ll be back Monday after I deal with a load of personal and professional demands, and maybe even the possibility of some more paying work. Have a good time while I’m out, but don’t mess with the stereo, okay?

Friday finds

A recording of John Steinbeck talking about “certain angers” he felt while writing The Grapes of Wrath is now available as part of a CD set of author interviews issued by the British Library. Listen here. The recordings, many of them unheard until now, feature 30 Brits and 27 Yanks: F Scott Fitzgerald reciting Othello; Tennessee Williams lambasting critics; Raymond Chandler drunkenly slurring his way through an interview with Ian Fleming; the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf; the sole recording of Arthur Conan Doyle, talking about spiritualism; and an apparently incomprehensible explanation of her writing method from Gertrude Stein.

Years from now, after the dust clouds of snobbery have cleared, Stephen King may turn out to be the midpoint between H.P. Lovecraft and Flannery O’Connor. At least, that’s what this interview has me thinking. I liked the original incarnation of The Stand, but when the “restored” version with an additional 400 pages of text came out, my reaction was to say that life is too short. Now I’m thinking I should give the novel a look (or a hoist) sometime soon.   

More hoodoo poppycock has been written about Robert Johnson than any other blues musician. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to think that someone may have turned up a previously overlooked photo of the man, of whom only two photographs are known to exist.

Philip K. Dick’s screenplay for a never-made film version of his novel Ubik is now available. Read it while wearing one of these uber-cool T-shirts.

Tour Italy with Jen. Tour the Weidelsberg with Gabriele. Tour the Erie Cut with Bill. Tour a real crystal palace with Neil. Cross the Great Plains with Brad. Ian goes inside the head of Chris Berens. And Lance sees a junco, partner.

If you’re going to be in the vicinity of New Brunswick, N.J. this coming Wednesday, you might want to go see this guy at this place. That’s what I’m going to do, if the commute from The Land of Overpriced Dirt isn’t too bad.

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My so-called literary life

Hudson County residents beware — next week I’ll be speaking at not one but two events on the Frank Hague era and my book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway.

The first event is Monday, where I’ll be the featured speaker at a dinner meeting of the University Club of Hudson County. The food-fight begins at 6 p.m. in Rita and Joe’s Restaurant at 142 Broadway, Jersey City, N.J. That’s right, practically in the shadow of the mighty (and mighty rusty) Pulaski Skyway.

The next night (otherwise known as Tuesday) I’ll be at the Brennan Court House in Jersey City for a 6 p.m. fundraiser on behalf of WomenRising of Hudson County. The courthouse is at 583 Newark Avenue and the contact number is (201) 333-5700. Since budget constraints won’t allow me to deploy my usual supporting cast of chorus girls, acrobats and trained elephants with kazoos, the organizers will be projecting images on the wall behind me. Kind of an Exploding Plastic Inevitable sort of thing. Who knows — maybe I’ll bring a guitar and croon “Heroin” after regaling the audience with tales of corruption and murder. Sounds like a fun evening to me.

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Blue Monday (The Day After)

Shame on me for missing the 20th anniversary of the death of Son House, collaborator with Charley Patton and role model for Muddy Waters. The clip above is Son House performing “Death Letter,” and the clip below is “John the Revelator.” Let Michael Gray fill you in on the rest.

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Blue Monday

There are albums that started out as great concepts that never quite gelled, though they still boast one or two transcendent moments that linger as an example of what might have happened with more time, additional planning or simply better luck. Duke Ellington’s 1962 collaboration with John Coltrane is a good example: it’s a very pleasant, listenable record, but nothing else on it matches the brilliance of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which opens the disc on a high note.

Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective is a case in point. Byrd started out as a trumpeter on some fine hard bop recordings before his career coasted to a close with the lackluster R&B of the Blackbyrds. The idea of placing a septet alongside a choir of wordless voices (in this case, the Coleridge Perkinson Choir) was inspired, but the music only becomes truly inspirational on one track: “Cristo Redentor,” written by pianist and arranger Duke Pearson and inspired by the sight of the huge statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

I first heard the song via blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite, whose capacious catalogue includes two separate runs at the tune. This version of “Cristo Redentor” is from his 1967 debut album, and while Musselwhite’s playing is superb, I think he knocked it out of the ballpark when he revisited the song on Tennessee Woman. This version has borderline cheesy organ accompaniment instead of the later version’s gospel-derived piano, but concentrate on Musselwhite’s harp and you’ll get religion:

Harvey Mandel, the guitarist in Musselwhite’s Stand Back era band, took up the idea his own arrangement of “Cristo Redentor.” I’m not a fan of Mandel’s version, which pushes Pearson’s arrangement all the way into Muzak, but this animation is fun:

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Friday finds

Caustic Cover Critic offers a beautiful roundup of Geoff Grandfield’s noir cover designs and illustrations for various editions of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” and other books. Personally, I think the black and white interior illustrations (such as the one above, which I assume is from The Power and the Glory) are the best of the bunch. Grandfield’s work on these Raymond Chandler special editions is also nothing to sneeze at.     

Show of hands, please. How many people remember Welsh artist Kit Williams and his Masquerade challenge? For some reason, the Great Minneapolis Octopus Hunt reminded me of the search for the golden hare. 

The perfect vacation destination for the typographer in your family.

Michael Swanwick’s post about the power of words has gotten me re-reading Samuel R. Delany’s short stories. Which goes to prove his point.

Liz and Dick, Kurt and Courtney, Brad and Angelina . . . Sylvia and Ted?

Apparently the Federation of Light did not make its scheduled appearance in the skies. Wow . . . didn’t see that one not coming. (Maybe this was the Federation that Blossom Goodchild had in mind.) Anyway, we all know that flying saucers came here a few decades ago.

The news that Paul Krugman had won the Nobel Prize in economics had heads exploding the length and breadth of right-wing punditry and blogitry. Here’s your chance to pick the winner from “the five most impressive spontaneous human combustions” tracked in the wingersphere.  

An international team is preparing to study the Gamburtsevs, a puzzling mountain range buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice. “You can almost think about it as exploring another planet – but on Earth,” said Dr Fausto Ferraccioli from the British Antarctic Survey. “This region is a complete enigma. It’s in the middle of the continent. Most mountain ranges are on the edges of continents, and we really can’t understand what these mountains are doing in the centre.” I can think of at least one explanation.

Now that music writer Alex Ross has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, you’ll want to listen to excerpts from some of the music he describes in his book The Rest Is Noise

What is generative music? And why am I not surprised that Brian Eno is involved with it? The Guardian article is worth reading simply for the news that when Music for Airports, Eno’s first collection of ambient music, was finally played in an airport, “people complained of nameless, gnawing anxieties – not what one needs moments before boarding an aeroplane.”

From the Roman Empire to the steps of a bankrupt Icelandic bank — follow the verbs.

What would you rather do: Attend a Baltimore City Language Arts professional development session, or get poked in the eye with a flaming stick? You want some time to think it over? I understand.

There have been two recent films based on the poem Beowulf. The good professor reviews the one you ought to see.

In memoriam, Neal Hefti: composer of television themes that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.

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Memories of tinitus past

Watching these clips on YouTube gave me an idea for a story about a guy who starts seeing his life appearing as bits of Internet video. Naturally, the clips start showing things that are about to happen as well. What they show would depend on whether you want a romance or a horror story. Just my luck that there’s nothing like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits on television these days.

The Clash clip is from their 1982 stand in the Asbury Park Convention Center. A terrific show, loud and sweaty and deafening, but then I never ever saw the boys on a bad night. Even the reconstituted Clash that Joe Strummer fielded after sacking Mick Jones rocked its balls off when I saw them at Rutgers. I remember lots of disillusioned Clash fans standing around making snide remarks and letting everyone know they were inwardly keening for their lost ideals, but the group sounded just fine to me. After Sandinista and the muzzy-sounding Combat Rock — odd how the band’s weakest album became its first big hit — the Clash were due for a back-to-basics overhaul. The trouble was, Strummer threw out Mick Jones with the bathwater, thus ending one of the most fruitful creative pairings in rock music history.

This post was occasioned by a viewing of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, a 2007 documentary that I just caught up with this week, and which annoyed and frustrated me like no other movie I’ve seen in years.

Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not a documentary about Strummer or the Clash. That would be Westway to the World, a far superior piece of work. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a movie about a bunch of people, some of whom are famous and others who simply act that way, sitting around campfires and talking about Strummer while a Parkinson’s patient trains a digital camcorder in their general direction.

The director, Julian Temple, also mixes in scraps of concert footage and sound bites from Strummer’s BBC radio broadcasts, which demonstrated the man’s omnivorous musical appetite and generous, expansive nature. A little of that expansiveness would have greatly improved this movie, but Temple’s hipster arrogance is so complete that he can’t even be bothered identifying the people speaking to the camera. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is the first documentary I’ve seen that can only be understood by people who already know the story. That’s quite an innovation; it’s also quite a wasted opportunity.

Here’s another fond memory, brought to me and now you by the enterprising contributors to YouTube. Nirvana playing the big black room at Maxwell’s, just before Bleach was released:

This was in the spring of 1989. Was the show any good? Like a private bellydance from Shakira, like Jennifer Lopez wrapped in bacon — that’s how good it was. Nevermind was still a couple of years off, but Kurt Cobain’s songcraft and the band’s power were all in place. I’ve never had more fun losing my high-end hearing.

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Particleboard theory

Looks like Ikea-bashing is becoming the underground craze of the 21st century. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, since I still own Ikea bookshelves that I put together over 20 years ago, but something’s definitely gone wrong with the brand. I bought a new bookshelf unit a couple of weeks ago that turned out to be complete crap: the wood was soft and punky, the widgets pulled loose whenever I shifted the unit around, and when I finally heaved it upright the whole thing tottered like a drunk on high-heels. And don’t even get me started on what it was like to return the thing. What’s the Swedish word for “junk”?

Matt Yglesias appears to have had a slightly different but still blood-pressure-elevating experience with Ikea products, and of course fans of The Wire already know the show’s creator, David Simon, has long had a particleboard chip on his shoulder about the chain’s furniture. See the clip above. Even if you’re not blasted on Jameson during the assembly, getting Ikea furniture from its natural flat state to three dimensions can be a pretty trying experience. But this level of rancor surprises me: has anybody else been burned by Ikea lately?

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Words up

The Dalkey Archive Press has posted interviews with — among others — William S. Burroughs, Carlos Fuentes, Milan Kundera, Ishmael Reed, Hubert Selby, William Vollman and David Foster Wallace.

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Blue Monday

The Allman Brothers Band performs “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, a tune from their Idlewild South album, for a September 1970 show at the Fillmore East in New York. I was a latecomer in appreciating this group — chalk it up to coming of age in the years when Gregg Allman was better known as Cher’s drug-sozzled paramour — and the appreciation has been spurred mainly by Duane Allman’s distinctive guitar backup for the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Boz Scaggs. And, of course, Layla — the only Eric Clapton record I have much use for. You can’t judge artists by their imitators, and if the Allmans gave rise to legions of long-haired Southern rock boogie bands ramblin’ their way through endless blues cliches at top volume, that doesn’t diminish the quality of Idlewild South or The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East one iota. But there’s still no getting around the fact that I would happily spend the rest of my life without ever again hearing “Whipping Post,” much less “Free Bird.”

This clip, taken from unused PBS footage, is one of the few bits of film capturing the Allmans in their early 1970s prime. That’s Duane Allman on the Les Paul, meshing his sound wonderfully with Thom Doucette’s harmonica. As was his wont, Duane is playing slide with a Coricidin bottle. (Coricidin was a high-octane decongestant Allman used for recreational purposes — one of many pharmacological amusements that could have killed him if he hadn’t died in a motorcycle accident in 1971.) The muddy sound is unkind to Gregg’s singing and it doesn’t so much for their two-drummer lineup, which was a pretty advanced idea for any rock band at the time. As the two-volume anthology series demonstrates, Duane Allman was a one of a kind talent who should have stayed around a lot longer.

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