Monthly Archives: October 2008

Lose your illusion II

First I had to find out that the highlight of one of my favorite Duke Ellington records was at least partly a studio confection. But I could deal with that — after all, the epic Paul Gonsalves solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” was the real thing, even though the rest of the concert had to be re-recorded in the studio to bring the sound up to par. But now it turns out that one of the spookiest moments in pop music was actually the result of the tape-slicer’s art. The record in question is still a great one, but jeez . . . what other surprises do these archival recordings have in store? Are we going to learn that nobody yelled “Judas!” at Bob Dyan during that famous concert?

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Friday finds

If you haven’t got anything nice to say, go sit next to James Wolcott and listen to him talk about Philip Roth’s latest novel, Indignation:

The penalty meted out to Marcus Messner for not heeding his elders and committing the sin of intellectual pride is so swift and stark that it’s as if the sole purpose of the Korean conflict was to punish a guy for getting blown and skipping chapel. The butt of everybody’s boring counsel, Marcus learns the hard way the wisdom of such valuable lessons as: Don’t believe everything you see in college brochures; Listen to your father, even if he is crazy; Listen to your mother, she only wants what’s best; Beware of strange shiksas bearing blowjobs; Never leave your socks lying around where someone might jerk off into them; Follow the rules, no matter how antiquated and arbitrary, or end up as shish kebab; Try not to vomit in the dean’s office–it leaves a bad impression.

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Doc Mooney says goodbye to Shea Stadium with a little help from his friends. He also dabbles in one of my favorite hobbies: trimming the “White Album” down to a single vinyl disc (the secret is to treat it as John Lennon’s album, and select songs accordingly).  Meanwhile, Bill Vogt invites you to hear the best kept secret in Texas

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Icelandic sagas and the credit crisis. (It’s a Kaupthing — y’all wouldn’t understand.) Icelandic landscape seen from above. Icelandic criminals need to steepen that learning curve.

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How did one family produce three of the most successful women chess players in the history of the game? Which reminds me — I have to re-read my favorite novel from one of America’s most unjustly overlooked writers.

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“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” — illustrated!

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The fall issue of The Adirondack Review is up.

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Richard Thompson discourses on Scottish literature, pectin and Bush vs. Bush. Donald Fagen explains what got him so angry at Bard College that he dissed it in the classic Steely Dan song “My Old School.” 

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Don’t count your Passenger Pigeons before they’ve hatched

From time to time, I like to offer advice to those readers who, like me, are in the throes of working as professional writers. Today’s tip: It’s smart to plan ahead and try to anticipate trends with your book proposals, but don’t get ahead of yourself. And try to avoid making that oldest mistake in the world — believing your own bullshit. If the headline is a little esoteric for you, watch the video and a get a science bonus.

Of course, Hugh Hewitt need not despair. After the election, he can simply change “won” to “lost” and the proposed title will be completely accurate.

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The litigatin’ life

There’s lots of money to be made writing scripts for films and television shows, but to get it you have to sue everybody in sight. My money’s on Harlan Ellison in this one, but I still reserve the right to chuckle at the headline. And the accompanying photo should crop up on The Daily Show sometime soon, if it hasn’t already been used.

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Mmmm . . . bootleggy

I’m having a swell time with Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment in the Bob Dylan bootleg series. The songs are mostly outtakes from Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, with a sprinkling of live tracks and scattered soundtrack songs thrown in for good measure. As much as I like the song “Mississippi,” I’m not sure I need two more versions of it — three, if you count the version on the overpriced three-disc special edition — but I’m not going to fall yet again into the bootleg-snob mistake of complaining about how this series is mismanaged, how it leaves out crucial tracks from pivotal sessions, how it seems to be organized as collector bait rather than a documentary of one of American music’s most important artists. All of that is true, but even after the complaints have been noted, the facts remains that Tell Tale Signs is a tall mug of strong coffee after the kettle of lukewarm sleepy-time tea that was Modern Times. And, as I think I said earlier, I’m having a swell time listening to it.

Unlike the initial “Bootleg Series” release, this grab-bag volume has no lightning-bolt revelations, no songs like “Blind Willie McTell” that stop you dead in your tracks and leave you wondering what madman let them sit in the can unheard for so long. Tell Tale Signs is just an engaging, entertaining collection of songs from a musician whose leavings would serve as career foundations for lesser artists. If you don’t know Dylan, it’s not the place to start. But if you do know Dylan, and if you know the albums where these songs debuted, Tell Tale Signs is a showcase for Dylan as an artistic explorer, radically altering song structures, tempos and instrumentation as he looks for the soul of every song.

To me, the two biggest surprises so far have been “Tell Ol’ Bill,” a loping piano-driven tune from the soundtrack of an unheralded Charlize Theron film called North Country that just went onto my Netflix queue, and “Red River Shore,” which would have been a signal improvement over some of the more lead-footed numbers on Time Out of Mind. There are also samples from an unreleased album’s worth of songs Dylan recorded with David Bromberg during a period adrift in the early 1990s. Two of the Bromberg tracks are placed as bait on the special edition’s third disc, and they just don’t sound all that good to me. They don’t open up new vistas, they don’t overturn assumptions in the manner of the unreleased Basement Tapes recordings or the original version of Blood on the Tracks, they just certify the soundness of Dylan’s decision to keep them on the shelf.

I guess we’ll have to wait a while for a more complete Basement Tapes anthology, or a double-disc collection of the original Freewheelin’ song lineup, or an in-depth collection of the Blood on the Tracks sessions. But since I already have bootlegs of them (as do you, in all likelihood, if you’re interested enough in Dylan to have read this far) I take an indulgent view of collections like Tell Tale Signs. Perversity is Dylan’s middle name, but that’s part of the reason I still follow his music so avidly, three decades after I bought my first Dylan album, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Anyone who spends a lot of time doing research through newspaper and magazine archives is familiar with the Oh-My-Gawd reaction that results from chance encounters with casual sexism and racism. It never ceases to amaze me how often newspapers referred to black children as “pickaninnies” in their texts, or hows ads like the one posted above (part of a Web site display of creepy old ads) were supposed to represent sophistication about the opposite sex. If like me you’re a Culture Kid of a Certain Age, you may remember “Blow in my ear and I’ll follow you anywhere,” one of the most venerable taglines from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Not until I saw that ad did I realize what they were referring to.

Here’s another tasty example:

If you ever need an illustration of the deep necessity for the feminist movement, spend a little quality time with movies of the 1960s and 1970s in which rape was treated as a jolly Robin Hood escapade, or worse yet, a form of therapy. I’m not talking about porn, but respectable films like The Hospital or Marnie, from everybody’s favorite auteur, Alfred Hitchcock:

That’s an extreme example, but looking at the cigarette ad reminded me of the old TV commercials for an aftershave called Hai Karate, which we schoolyard sprouts used to consider the height of hilarity:

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The view from Booth 2

A Courier-Post photographer took this snap of the Collingswood Book Festival as it was getting into gear. I'm waaaay in back there. You see? The guy with the eyepatch and the hook?

A Courier-Post photographer took this snap of the Collingswood Book Festival as it was getting into gear. I'm waaaay in back there. You see? The guy with the eyepatch and the hook?

The funny thing is, even though I had a booth at the Collingswood Book Festival, I had to read this Courier-Post article to get the whole sense of the event. That’s because the joint was jumping from late morning to late afternoon and I literally could not stray from my spot for more than a minute or so before I had to step back and chat with somebody who was checking out my table. So to all the other authors whose booths I wanted to visit and whose books I wanted to get signed: Sorry. I was flying solo. Anyway, if you had the same traffic I did, you wouldn’t have had much time for conversation anyway.

For a while, I was tempted to imitate the corner boys selling drugs in The Wire, the ones calling out “Dubyoo em-dee, yo, got that dub-yoo em-DEE!” Only I would be stepping around yelling, “Got that Last Three Miles, yo, Last Three MILES!” Turned out it wasn’t necessary. A little eye contact, a little conversation, and everybody ended up smiling.

A great event. Mad props to Jeff Sypeck for tipping me off about this festival. This was my first visit to Collingswood, which I’d been hearing about for a few years, and I can now certify that it is a charming place to while away an afternoon. The feel reminds me of Red Bank or lower Montclair before things started getting really ritzy. (Funny how that happens — I move out of a town and instantly the property values go up. A man could develop a real complex, thinking about that too much.) The festival was jammed with people eager to buy, read and talk about books, which is exactly the kind of crowd I like the best. The weather was perfect, too. For a writer or a reader, the Collingswood Book Festival is a great place to spend a day.

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Blue Monday

This guy was doing a free show in Philadelphia the same day I was hustling my book in Collingswood. The fact that Bruce Springsteen and Steven Hart were going head-to-head didn’t seem to hurt the turnout at either event, so no hard feelings. It’s a Jersey thing, you know? In fact, I’m sorry I couldn’t have been there.

And here’s a commercial done by another great musician, albeit not from New Jersey. Like Bruce Springsteen, Ralph Stanley is a big Obama supporter, and in this race, so am I.

ADDENDUM: Now Obama’s got Shakira on his side! Talk about a hat trick.

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Friday finds

I know where I’m going to be tomorrow. So, apparently, does Jen A. Miller.

I want a library like this.

James Marcus offers the director’s cut of his interview with Philip Roth.

Moorish Girl goes to Germany and talks to an Icelandic writer while trying to escape America. That’s the writing life for you.

Vikings, St. Olga (she’s a killer queen, all right), Stalin’s victims and the Hagia Sophia — all coming together in Bound Brook, N.J. Who’d a thunk it?

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is up.

Karma — it’s a bitch, ain’t it?

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Listening to Charlemagne

Jeff Sypeck, channeling the spirit of Charlemagne, advises you to pay a visit to the Collingswood Book Festival this Saturday and, most especially, drop by the booth of a certain New Jersey author who will be more than happy to sell you a copy of his latest tome and even sign it with his magic author pen. So listen to the man. You wouldn’t want Charlemagne mad at you, would you?

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