Monthly Archives: November 2008

Friday finds


Strange Maps comes up an early Christmas gift for Bruce Chatwin fans: a map and an intriguing post about Araucania-Patagonia, a kingdom of the mind discussed at length in Chatwin’s wonderful debut book In Patagonia. Take it as a signal to get acquainted with (or re-read) a unique writer.

What’s a great way to make a hospitalized writer feel better? Buy copies of his new novel, of course. And maybe drop by his site and offer best wishes.

The Thanksgiving season stirs memories of a friendship with the late poet Robert Lax. After you’ve read it, spend some quality time at the Robert Lax Archives.

For all us foodies (not to mention anyone who plans to do some serious cooking) here’s a new site called Cookstr, spotlighting recipes from great chefs and cookbook authors.

I get most if not all of my entertainment news from blogs like Ain’t It Cool News, which often have a much wider range of interest than fanboy stuff. They also provide more knowledgeable coverage of filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki who hardly ever register with the mainstream prints. Since it started in June I’ve become addicted to this AICN series called A Movie A Day, in which one of the house writers (who normally spends his time keeping ahead of the new-movie curve) catches up on his overwhelming backlog of classic films. He was a lot more impressed with On the Beach than I was, but I enjoy watching the self-education of a film geek. I also appreciate the way some of his choices have been filling out my NetFlix queue.       

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‘The yams did it! The yams did it!’

Back in the day, one of the New York independent stations — WWOR to be exact — devoted a good portion of its Thanksgiving Day airtime to multiple airings of the original King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, with a liberal seasoning of vintage Warner Brothers cartoons to round out the menu. So here’s some nostalgia to go with your stuffing, beginning with Tom Turk and Daffy, a 1944 Chuck Jones short featuring Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Note that the cartoon is credited to “The Staff” rather than an individual writer. Note also that great Daffy line — “The yams did it! The yams did it! Those nasty yams!” — which may have been an early influence on Karen Finley.

Another great Daffy and Porky cartoon is My Favorite Duck (1942), from the early period when Daffy Duck was anarchy incarnate rather than the feathered version of Sylvester he became during the late Chuck Jones period. Porky’s attempts to overcome his epic stutter while singing “On Moonlight Bay” are great stuff.

Continuing our camping theme . . .

Wabbit Twouble (1941) is often dismissed as a weak item from Bob Clampett, but I think it’s a riot. On the other hand, everyone agrees that Clampett’s take on Daffy Duck defines the character:

That’s The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), which has to rank among the Top Ten Warner Brothers cartoons.

That’s all well and good, you say, but what about King Kong? Here you go:

All right, that was “King Kong” from Uncle Meat as performed by the classic Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention lineup, taken from a 1968 BBC broadcast. Man, do I love that gold-top Les Paul Zappa’s playing.

And now, the big sendoff:

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. And a nod to Glenn Kenny for the inspiration.

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The black pages

Via GalleyCat I found this interesting call to literary missionary activity: buying books by black authors for white people.

So: Attention, lit-mart shoppers! I would suggest John Edgar Wideman for those ambitious readers who don’t mind tackling somebody whose reputation for demanding modernist writing is well-earned. Wideman goes in for stream-of-consciousness narrations and abrupt shifts in viewpoint that require some athleticism from his readers — think The Sound and the Fury, or the trickier passages in Ulysses — but his work is well worth the effort. His affecting memoir Brothers and Keepers might be a good introduction, followed by Philadelphia Fire, a novel loosely derived from the 1985 confrontation between the Philadelphia police and an eccentric back-to-nature cult called MOVE.

While I’m at it, let me give a shout out to Wesley Brown, who isn’t as prolific as I’d like him to be. I read his first novel, Tragic Magic, after taking his creative writing class at Rutgers University, and he was one of the first people I interviewed for a series of author profiles written for a Central Jersey print. The story follows a young Vietnam-era radical and conscientious objector who has just done a stretch in prison and is back on the street, trying to make sense of his life, women, masculinity and the dangerous cross-currents of life as a black man in the early 1970s. The prose plays in your head like a private performance of the greatest jazz group ever assembled: a Thelonious Monk melody line here, a Charlie Parker solo there, voices orchestrated by Duke Ellington and a stormy Charles Mingus bass line driving the whole thing forward. The more ambitious followup, Darktown Strutters, makes play with the rise of Jim Crow as it blends fictional and historical characters. Brown is sometimes compared with Ishmael Reed, and the comparison flatters both writers.

I would also recommend Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro, a gripping blend of historical fiction and noir that was one of the best things I’ve read this year. Next I’ll want to read Johnson’s The Great Negro Plot: An Urban Historical.

During a recent spate of recreational ricochet reading — funny how books that have been on your shelves for decades suddenly seem to demand you take them down for another look — I also renewed acquaintances with two Seventies-vintage science fiction authors: Samuel R. Delany, whose story collection Aye, And Gomorrah presents this often demanding writer in his most accessible guises, and Octavia Butler, whose celebrated novel Kindred uses SF devices to ring several intriguing, sometimes appalling changes on the nature of racism and the psychological (and physical) wounds it inflicts on everyone it touches.

And no list such as this would be complete without a pitch for friend, colleague and blogbud Charles H. Johnson, whose two poetry collections are more than worth your while. Unlike some of the writers mentioned here, Johnson has some excellent work posted on the Intertubes, so I’ll just  let his words do the talking.

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The panda’s connected to kung fu, and the kung fu’s connected to nunchaku, and nunchaku’s connected to Bruce Lee, and . . .

This business of explaining cultural signifiers to your children . . . after a while, you can feel like you’re playing the starring role in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

Let me explain.

Dances With Mermaids is on her sixth or seventh viewing of Kung Fu Panda, and when she noted my amusement at the fact that the hero is named Po, I ended up explaining the Seventies vintage TV series Kung Fu, and the role played by Master Po. This in turn led me describe the Kung Fu film craze that erupted when Five Fingers of Death and Deep Thrust started playing in drive-ins, which in turn led to me explaining the brief life and extended fame of Bruce Lee, which in turn led me to this clip of Lee playing ping pong with a nunchaku. Along the way, I also had to explain the concept of drive-in movie theaters.

Of course, that was nothing compared with the amount of explaining I had to do when Dances With Mermaids saw her first james Bond movie. But that’s another post.

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Blue Monday

Sonny Landreth’s From the Reach, released earlier this year, is guitar-geek heaven. It features some of Landreth’s most accomplished songwriting to date, with the angry “Blue Tarp Blues” adding a welcome note of restrained fury at the drowning of New Orleans, but the biggest draw on any Landreth release is the chance to hear his unique slide guitar technique.  Most of the tunes were written specifically to be played in tandem with certain musicians, such as “The Milky Way Home” (above), which Landreth wrote with Eric Johnson in mind.

Guitar Player sat Landreth down for an interview that ran in the October issue. The talk gets pretty technical at times, but even if you’re not a player you have to appreciate the level of craft and dedication Landreth brings to his music:

What did you have in mind when you wrote “The Milky Way Home” for Eric Johnson?
I heard his tone and signature guitar voice on it, and just got into this notion of having a spread of sound where he was on one side and I was on the other. That set up the approach for the rest of the album. We considered putting the solos dead center or using left and right panning for both players, but having the guest player on one side and me on the other gave a more conversational, call-and-response vibe to the recordings. Also, the overall sound works well because the slide and non-slide parts are different voices that complement each other—I got that from the Allman Brothers. Eric was the first to respond to my invitation, and when that track came back from him about a month later, my engineer and co-producer Tony Daigle put it up on the system and we went, “Man, this is going to be a ride!” The waterfall of sound Eric created on that song was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.

Start taking notes, guitarists. By “the glass,” Landreth means the glass-tube slide he wears on his pinkie while playing:

How did you get that eerie sounding tremololike intro on “Blue Tarp Blues”?
If you put the slide at the 12th fret, then you have all these available tones on the left side of the glass when you’re looking down at it. And if you strum those strings from low to high, you get a completely different kind of sound than you would if you strummed them on the right side of the glass. It’s a more ethereal voicing, and it’s really great for building textures on a track. You can extract those textures by using your right hand finger like a bow on what would be the 24th fret on a Strat—which means that you’re doing it right over the polepieces on the neck pickup. It’s a really interesting technique. There’s a lot going on rhythmically and it excites harmonics in the tones that you normally hear on the right side of the glass. So what you’re hearing is a combination of all those things, plus I’m using my hand to create a tremolo effect. I used a G minor tuning—which is just an open G tuning with the second string dropped down a half step— and the slide was my Dunlop 215 Glass Moonshine, which has a special non-slip coating on the inside that was developed by Terric Lambert of Moonshine Slides.

“Uberesso,” one of the instrumental tracks on the record, deserves to be the “Eruption” of the early 21st century. Apparently Landreth’s been working on the technique for quite some time:

Is the fast staccato picking that you’re doing on “Überesso” a new technique for you?
I’ve been working on that for a couple of years. It was an idea that I could hear in my head, and when I hit on it I was totally amazed at the sound. It required a lot of woodshedding to get that machine-gun precision and I thought, “why couldn’t I figure this out when I was 25 years old?” It’s an interesting technique that produces kind of a collage of sound because the bar at all times is across all six strings. There’s a sympathetic thing going on where you isolate the individual notes within the overtones of the other strings, and that’s what really fascinated me about it.

Here’s Sonny playing “Uberesso” at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival:

The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007 DVD set is very much worth your while, because after the amusing intro from Bill Murray — he whacks away at “Gloria” while Eric Clapton strolls onto the stage — the lead-off spot goes to Sonny, and the camera lets you see all the curious things Landreth does to shape and color his sound. Amazing stuff.

From the Reach has been getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention that’s been long overdue for Sonny Landreth. He’s played behind zydeco master Clifton Chenier, so he knows how to keep a party going, and he’s played behind John Hiatt, so he knows great songwriting. All of those skills come together on this record, and if you’ve never heard Sonny Landreth, From the Reach is the place to start.

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Dogged days

Sorry for this week’s posting drought. We had computer issues and a health scare involving one of the Villa Villekulla wunderhunde. Everything ended well, much to my relief. My kids have been growing up with this dog, and while I realize the sad day will come sooner or later, for now the operating word is “later.” Maybe I’ll celebrate next week with a Wednesday Westie double decker.

Friday finds

Mark Doty, newly minted winner of the National Book Award for poetry, reads his poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent” in the clip above. Read an interview here.

It is so fiendishly powerful that its scent causes elephants to flee in terror. And yet, I feel strangely compelled to try it sometime.

This review of Ken Tucker’s Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America doesn’t make me want to give Brian De Palma’s 1983 blood- and cocaine-crusted crime epic another look, though there’s no disputing Tucker’s point that the film has made a huge impact on hip-hop and gangsta wannabe culture. (Oliver Stone once said that when he was in Central America doing research for his 1986 film Salvador, he learned that Scarface was hugely popular among the death-squad members of El Salvador.) But if I do get the urge, I’ll just watch this YouTube clip, which boils the film down to its NSFW essentials.

A tribute to the late critic and cultural writer John Leonard. Here’s some of his advice for book reviewers.

Goggle is posting millions of images from the archives of Life magazine. Warning: Major time-suck potential.

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Born to be filed

The Dewey Decimaters rock the joint at the 2007 Missouri Library Association conference in Springfield, Missouri. Turns out there’s more of this kind of thing going on than you might realize.

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Blue Monday

Odetta Gordon was part of the touring company of the musical Finian’s Rainbow in 1949 when she dropped in at a folk club and turned her world upside down. From that point on she became part of the burgeoning folk revival, and her political activism led Martin Luther King Je. fo call her “the Queen of folk music.” Bob Dylan cites her as an early inspiration; Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez have performed alongside her. Now hospitalized with kidney failure at the age of 77, Odetta is determined to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony, and considering her level of determination I wouldn’t bet against it happening.

Her family encourages fans and well-wishes to offer their encouragement by writing to Ms. Odetta Gordon; Room No. 719, 7th Floor ICU Unit; Lenox Hill Hospital; 100 East 77th Street; New York, NY, 10021.

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