Monthly Archives: November 2008

Blue Monday (The Zappa Phile)

Dennis Cozzalio’s post about the long-overdue stage debut of Joe’s Garage started me on a weeklong Frank Zappa tear, which inevitably led to long stretches of my morning commute in which I am juggling CDs in order to revisit some of Zappa’s greatest guitar solos. I remain convinced that “Watermelon in Easter Hay” (above), the penultimate track in Joe’s Garage, is Zappa’s finest solo showcase, if only because it marks one of the few times Zappa stepped out from behind his wall of sarcasm and satire to express something poignant and lyrical.

While “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is at the top of my list, it’s closely followed by the extended wah-wah workout that closes “Willie the Pimp” on Hot Rats. Zappaphiles can debate this question for hours: just type the search phrase “zappa’s best guitar solos” on YouTube and see what you get. And while you’re at it, you can wonder what might have happened if Bob Dylan had followed through on his initial impulse and hired Zappa to produce Infidels. The collision between Zappa’s infinitely picky production methods and Dylan’s off-the-cuff recording style probably would have resulted in a train wreck, but still . . . you do have to wonder what it would have been like.

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Friday finds

I’m sorry to say I let Miriam Makeba slip by without properly appreciating her during her lifetime. I gather from this excellent appreciation that she was an artist with courage to match her talent: she died giving a benefit performance for Roberto Saviano, a journalist living in hiding because of his work to expose the Camorra criminal organization, in a town that is one of the Camorra’s strongholds. Saviano’s book Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System is a fine, deeply disturbing book. Meanwhile, here’s the place to start catching up on Makeba’s body of work.

Imagine this backroom chat between Barack Obama and Joe Lieberman. Seems plausible to me. Especially that last part.

Some years ago I interviewed Robert Darnton about his book The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, a thoroughly researched and thought-out study of the street literature in France just before the end of the monarchy, when writers and printers faced hard labor and even execution for publishing works that undermined the throne or conventional morality. Darnton was impressed by the level of critical acumen shown by the king’s agents, who maintained dossiers on suspect writers and filed reports on their work — sometimes very knowledgeable and amusing reports. I suspect they were considerably more literate than the FBI agents who kept tabs on Norman Mailer for 15 years. Far more interesting from a professional writer’s point of view, however, is this New York Observer piece on the Mailer estate’s dealings with publishers, and the unusual contract Mailer had with Random House.

It’s the Frank O’Hara video collection!

A review of the first-ever stage production of Frank Zappa’s epic Joe’s Garage serves as the springboard to a lengthy appreciation of all things Zappa, filled out with a generous assortment of video clips and a list of dream directors to consider should a film version ever take shape. My money’s on Stuart Gordon — the man who brought us Re-Animator is the only one to put the mind of Zappa onscreen. Though I think Over-nite Sensation is the Zappa record to start with,  Joe’s Garage is probably his masterpiece. Everything that’s good and bad about his work is right there: the sophistication and the puerility, the charm and the abrasiveness, the satirical smarts and the scatological stupids, all on two CDs.

Oh man, how weird is this?

Madame Mayo talks about translations.

“The experiment of poetry, as far as I am concerned, happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go. The image I have is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting out over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.”

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Uncle Saltie

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Nothing beats a good killer shark story, but tales of killer crocodiles will certainly do in a pinch. Here’s a fun item about a tourist spot in Australia where you can get into a Plexiglas cage and swim eye-to-eye with a real live saltwater crocodile of the sort that would certainly kill you if it weren’t for that intervening inch or so of plastic. That Reuters photo shows a very real tourist and, more importantly, the very real crocodile, a saltie named Choppa.

My fave exploitation horror film this year has been Rogue, a tale of a hungry saltie menacing a boatload of marooned sightseers, directed by Australian filmmaker Greg McLean. McLean’s debut feature, a relentlessly vicious serial killer flick called Wolf Creek, briefly appeared in U.S. theaters; Rogue, his second film, went directly to DVD in this country. It should have been done the other way around. Wolf Creek, though artful and very well made, is practically unwatchable to anyone who isn’t a devotee of torture-porn epics like the Hostel movies. Rogue, while every bit as intense, is a more humane film, though it puts you through the wringer in various interesting ways.

Here’s the trailer:

Both Rogue and Wolf Creek are impressive for the way they use the austerely beautiful Australian landscape to generate awe and ever increasing menace: both films draw a lot of their fear quotient from the realization that when trouble finds you in this unthinkably vast and hostile environment, you really are on your own. Rogue wisely adopts the Jaws method of keeping the monster out of sight until the very end — most of the attacks happen literally in the blink of an eye, and as often as not we never see anyone being taken. Someone will stand a little too close to the water, and a moment later there’s nothing but a few ripples and the edge of the beast’s tail, slipping from sight. The actors are all quite good, and McLean’s script gives them enough character moments to raise the emotional impact whenever a member of the party gets picked off.

This year’s other killer croc epic was Primeval, which was inspired by Gustave, a huge Nile crocodile that has killed hundreds of people in Burundi. Though it’s far from a bad film, it suffers from a split personality. Gustave gets his share of screen time, but his menace is overshadowed by the equally predatory warlords and sociopathic gunmen keeping the hills soaked with blood. Gustave even does the main characters a favor by chowing down on some of the worst of the bunch. And when Gustave pulls off feats of athleticism impossible for any crocodile — e.g., running across miles of savannah at highway speeds — we get the old CGI Curse that’s spoiled many a promising B-movie. Rogue resorts to a mix of models and CGI for the big fight at the end, but McLeans it real . . . well, real enough.

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The long-lived lark

My favorite literary magazine, which is sometimes also my favorite political magazine, is marking its 45th anniversary this month. Here’s a talk with the co-founder, who started the magazine as “a kind of serious lark” and watched it become an American institution.

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The Wednesday Westie

halloween-2008-002

If this Westie appears to looking on with stern disapproval, it may be the result of this blogger’s suggestion that a West Highland White Terrier may not be the best choice for Barack Obama’s daughters as they head for the White House. We’ve got three of them (Westies, that is) here at Villa Villekulla, and growing up with our kids has given them nerves of steel and temperaments that remain on an even keel through all kinds of chaos, though when friends are visiting and the decibel level rises past a certain level, they have been known to sensibly remove themselves to areas beneath tables and armchairs. I am terribly allergic to all cats and many breeds of dog, but I’ve spent years in the company of Westies and never had so much as a case of the sniffles. Though I agree that a pug would be acceptable as well.

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Poetry man

Let the anonymously authored poem “There was a man of double deed” do double duty in the hands of Robert Pinsky, a man who knows a thing or two about verse.

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Story time with Samwise Gamgee

If you want to try using movies and DVDs as a bridge to literature for your children, the Screen Actors Guild has a charming site where some of its members read childrens’ books aloud. You get, among others, Sean Astin (aka Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings) reading A Bad Case of Stripes, Hector Elizondo (The Princess Diaries, The Flamingo Kid) reading Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch and Lou Diamond Phillips (Courage Under Fire, La Bamba) reading The Polar Express. The videos are often very funny and I have yet to find a clip that even comes close to falling flat.

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Blue Monday


After writing this post about Significant Songs of Generations Past, I flashed on “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room,” the great dumbass anthem of 1973. If you are a Listener of a Certain Age, this song brings back all kinds of associations, few of them good.

AM radio was everywhere, and playlists were so tightly regimented you could set your watch to them. (“Terry Jacks is singing ‘Seasons in the Sun’? I better run or I’ll be late for homeroom!”)  It was a time when cigarette-smoking was virtually omnipresent and socially acceptable — in fact, you were considered a rude sorehead if you objected to people making your house stink like a topped-off ashtray. Schoolteachers were rewarded for their idealism, commitment and professionalism with rock-bottom wages and, as an extra-special bit of humiliation, mandatory rounds of “potty patrol” to keep their youthful charges from firing up coffin nails in the school toilet. I’m sure it did wonders for a teacher’s self-esteem to teach poetry and algebra to bored teenagers after spending forty-five minutes standing by a urinal and sniffing the air.

And, to top it all off, they had to endure the prospect of turning on the car radio during the drive home and hearing Brownsville Station hammer away at standard-issue blues changes while Cub Koda sneered, “Teacher don’t you fill me up with your rules.” It’s a wonder one of them didn’t come to school with a machine gun and start blasting away at anything with bell-bottoms or feathered hair.

Still with me? Good, because now the story gets better. Brownsville Station called it quits in 1979 but bandleader and guitarist Cub Koda spent the next two decades cementing a reputation as a highly knowledgeable blues scholar and journalist whose work served as the cornerstone for the All Music Guide to the Blues. He also continued playing and recording music, most of it blues and roots music with a Dr. Demento-ish sense of humor. In fact, “Random Drug Testing,” done in the style of a Delta field holler — “Well, the boss man said you gotta pee in the cup, pee in the cup, pee in the cup . . .” — achieved its widest audience through the good doctor, who underneath his goofy image is one of the most consummately serious music lovers around. If his sense of humor and showmanship offended the sensibilities of what Koda called “blues nazis,” so much the better:

I’ve never understood how someone can obviate their own personality to crawl inside somebody else’s skin,” he continued. “If I can’t bring something of my own self to it, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. And, to me, you should throw your heart and soul into that music. The thing I don’t agree with with the blues nazis is, ‘Oh, you’ve got to play it just like the original Checker 78.’ If you mummify something and just turn it into a museum piece, it won’t live. That music’s vibrant, and you’ve just got to play that stuff like you’re killing rattlesnakes in your backyard–with a vengeance.

In the years before his untimely death in 2000, Koda played a series of Christmas season shows that were a local institution in his home base of Ann Arbor, Mich. Though he never disavowed “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” or the white-jumpsuit and platform-heels days with Brownsville Station, Koda did occasionally allow that “We were very much of our time.”


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Birthday of a prairie girl

Joni Mitchell turned 65 today. Time for some listening.

This song, “Marcie,” is one of the finest and spookiest moments from her 1968 debut album. Song to a Seagull.

Here she is performing “Coyote” from her album Hejira, one of the great underappreciated records of the 1970s. The clip is from The Last Waltz.

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Friday finds

If you thought the chariot race in Ben-Hur was exciting, check out the flea chariot race in the clip posted above. Be sure to watch the credits so you’ll know what became of flea-Messalla. Then, if you’re itching to learn more, hop over to Flea Circus Research and get up to scratch on how to buy and supply a flea circus, the history of flea circuses, the P.T. Barnum of flea circuses and how to have more fun with your fleas.

You know how I’m always saying that writers need literary agents? Well, here’s another reason to get one.

Walden Pond sure has changed a bit since Henry David Thoreau wrote about it. A rather less well-known pond conjures up some memories for Reuel Wilson, son of Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy.

He’s recorded some of the quirkiest, most interesting pop music of the 1980s. He’s produced award-winning albums for Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. But the really big news is that Don Was now has his own damn channel on the Internets.

Geoff spent his last day at the Book telling his kids a ghost story. A real-life ghost story. You know it’s got to be good when one of those corner boys says “I can’t listen to this.”

Here’s how to add lie-correcting subtitles to the creationist propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

Several years ago, a cache of hundreds of cylinder recordings made on an Edison phonograph turned up in a Russian archive. The recordings, which date back as far as 1890, include the earliest known recordings of works by Bach, Verdi, Chopin and Schumann, and even include Tolstoy reading passages from his own works. A sampling of the recordings is being issued by Marston Records.

Here’s a charming anecdote about the late mystery writer Tony Hillerman.

John Norman is hustling a new novel in his S&M SF series about Gor, the planet where Edgar Rice Burroughs meets the Marquis de Sade. If you want to take your gag reflex out for a spin, here’s his sales pitch for the book.

Jeff has resumed his project to review all of Lloyd Alexander’s books — that is, the ones not involved in Alexander’s popular Prydain series. He takes a run at The Eldorado Adventure and The Iron Ring.

If you are a Geek of a Certain Age, the name Forrest J. Ackerman carries all sorts of associations: Famous Monsters of Filmland, gruesomely bad puns, the Ackermansion and other reminders of life before coverage of B-movies and genre flicks became mainstream.  A geek’s geek talks about Ackerman’s rapidly failing health and gives an address where people can send their best wishes.

It’s a rare thing to find genuinely sophisticated financial reporting about the film industry, so I was fascinated by this post on how the folding-up of New Line Cinema left a gaping hole in the independent international film market. It’s deep-dish stuff, but in a few weeks I’ll be doing the traditional Christmas Lord of the Rings semi-marathon with Dances With Mermaids, so I was caught up in the details of how over two dozen independent overseas distributors financed a large portion of the Rings budget through presales, how the success of the series brought overseas distributors out of a financial slump, and how the same financing method unexpectedly killed off any hopes for follow-ups to The Golden Compass. It’s the kind of information that makes you realize how deeply misleading those Monday box-office rundowns can be.

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