Monthly Archives: March 2009

True dat

Undercover Black Man informs us that the DVD editions of my most favoritest TV show, The Wire, are such a hit in the U.K. that the BBC has started rebroadasting all five seasons, five nights a week.
 
My day job frequently has me calling bankers and other executives in London and a number of other time zones. Several years ago, when the Beeb started broadcasting The Sopranos, one London banker practically had an aneurysm when he heard I sat with my back to the Hudson River five days a week. Imagine a thick, slightly nasal toff accent for the banker:
 
BANKER: Where is your office, anyway?
 
ME: Hoboken.
 
BANKER: (Voice rising in pitch) I know that! That’s where the Sopranos live!
 
ME: Uh, well, actually, they’re a little west of here. You know in the opening credits, that bridge Tony drives over . . .   
 
BANKER: (Voice even higher) I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!
 
It was rather startling to talk to someone who thought of New Jersey as an exotic, interesting place, so I told him that Hoboken is in Hudson County and the Sopranos were more of an Essex County bunch, though they certainly had tentacles extended and bodies buried all through the Meadowlands. I hadn’t finished writing The Last Three Miles, otherwise I’d have talked up the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits. Maybe the investment bank would have bought a couple of cartons for its Christmas party. Oh well. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
 
I wonder how many Baltimore cubicle-slaves will have people with British accents asking them if they know the spot where Stringer Bell bought the farm, or where Omar got arrested, or how close they are to Prezbo’s school. If one of my London phone-buds says “True dat,” I’ll know the show is having an impact.

ADDENDUM: I just remembered the second season episode when Jimmy McNulty, a working-class American cop played by a British actor (Dominic West) doing a pretty damn good Yank accent, poses as an English businessman in order to get access to a private sex club. So the BBC audience is going to get treated to a Brit playing an American doing a Brit with an American’s bad idea of what a British accent sounds like. I don’t know if Dominic West has a Yorkshire accent in his regular speech, but if he does, then British viewers will probably be able to pick it out.

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Lit tats

Via GalleyCat I found Contrariwise, a site devoted to literary tattoos. I can only admire people who love literature enough to wear it on their bodies, but I don’t think I’ll be following their example. If I started wearing my favorite passages from different books, I’d end up looking like a less buff combination of Guy Pierce in Memento and Robert De Niro in Cape Fear.

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Blue Monday

In the years before his death on May 25, 1965, harp virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the chief beneficiaries of the British blues craze. He toured the U.K. and Europe on the roster of the American Folk Blues Festival tours, where performers who had been largely forgotten in the U.S. found themelves greeted by cheering crowds, attentive audiences and a level of respect never accorded to black musicians back home.

Williamson stayed in the U.K. for a while, serving as a living touchstone of authenticity for young Brits gutsy enough to approach him. There are early recordings of Williamson performing with the Animals and the Yardbirds during their Eric Clapton-led phase, and I’ve heard that he played at least a couple of gigs with the Moody Blues, who began in 1964 as an R&B obsessed Merseybeat group. Their first album, The Magnificent Moodies, closed with Williamson’s “Bye Bye Bird,” which Williamson performs above and which the Moodies perform below:

This is the era when the Moodies were still led by guitarist Denny Laine. Bassist Clint Warwick had already been replaced with Rod Clarke, and in due course Laine and Clarke would be succeeded by guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge. A few years later, Sonny Boy would be replaced by Sgt. Pepper as the band’s key influence, and the rest is prog-rock history.

 I’ve returned to this era few times because, aside from having grown up with the rock music the English developed from their inspirations, I’m fascinated by the idea of teenaged Brits in the Sixties adopting the decades-old music of black Americans for their own. Even the Who, probably the least bluesy sounding band in the classic rock canon (their “Maximum R&B” slogan to the contrary), gave Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” . . .

. . . a place as the only non-band composition on the rock opera Tommy.

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Dylan destinations

I heard about this pretty late, but I’m seriously considering a trip to Brooklyn tomorrow night to see Clinton Heylin, who will be signing copies of his new book Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973 at Spoonbill & Sugartown, an indie bookstore in Williamsburg. Heylin’s Behind the Shades is the best and most comprehensive biography of His Bobness now on the shelves, and Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions is the kind of thorough spadework future scholars will appreciate as they study one of the landmark American musicians.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing Michael Gray give his talk “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues” this Friday in Nyack, N.Y.  Quite a music-oriented week coming up.

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Peter, Laurence, and Richard (and Bill)

It’s a Richard III weekend here! This clip is from a 1965 Granada television special, The Music of Lennon and McCartney, which featured Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics of  “A Hard Day’s Night” in the manner of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. The Beatles had been fans of Sellers since his Goon Show days, and at their request he had presented them with their Grammy Award earlier that year. Sellers’ recitation was released as a single and actually sold pretty well.

In case you need a refresher, here’s Olivier’s version of the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech that opens Richard III.

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Ian, William, and Richard (and Gandalf)

Watching Ian McKellen play King Lear a few nights ago reminded me of how much I liked his take on Richard III, released in 1995. It may be heresy, but I much prefer it to the Laurence Olivier adaptation, even if the text has been cut pretty drastically. The setting is still England, but an alternate-history fascist version in the 1930s. So, no, this is not a straight version of the play. If that’s what you want, there are other places to look. With a production like this, you either stamp your foot and complain about gimmicks and cultural vandalism, or you assume you’re watching the work of intelligent artists —  McKellen himself co-wrote the screenplay — and pay close attention. This Richard III warrants it.

 The prologue, devoid of dialogue, takes the events from the conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3 — the direct predecessor to Richard III — and shows Richard leading the Yorkist assault that destroys the Lancastrians, ends the War of the Roses, and puts King Edward IV, Richard’s brother, on the throne.    

I particularly like the way the film sets up the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, and McKellen’s delivery. It starts about five minutes in, once the credits are done.

By the way, nothing is wasted in this title sequence. Not only do we get glimpses of all the major characters, but the song — Christopher Marlowe’s contemporaneous poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” redone as a swing tune — ironically foreshadows Richard’s later words of seduction to the Lady Anne, whose husband and father he has just killed.

When Richard rises to speak, he is full of praise for Edward:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries . . .

Here is where Richard’s tone curdles from fawning praise to acid contempt. In traditional stagings of the play, this entire speech has been delivered straight to the audience — we as viewers are made Richard’s co-conspirators right from the start. The film, however, begins as highly stylized realism, with Richard delivering the first lines directly to the triumphant Yorks. How will the film manage the transition?

By jumping to a men’s room, of course. Richard now literally pisses on the good fellowship and merriment taking place around him: 

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass —
I-that am rudely stamp’d,
and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph —
I — that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them —
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

McKellen does something quite bold here by injecting some famous lines Richard himself delivered in Henry VI, Part 3. It’s in Act 3, scene two:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.

And then, Richard catches our eye — the audience’s collective eye — in the men’s room mirror. From this moment on, we become complicit in Richard’s plans. McKellen then returns to the original text:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid,
inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams
,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up —
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul. Here Clarence comes.

Now watch the film’s conclusion at the Battle of Bosworth Field, with forces led by Henry, Earl of Richmond, coming to depose Richard. (Fans of The Wire take note that Richmond is played by Jimmy McNulty himself, Dominic West.) Richard’s last words are actually taken from his speech to the troops just before the battle:

Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell. 

What a wonderfully cynical ending. Richard cheats Richmond of the chance to kill him. As he topples off the roof, Richmond — who hesitated with Richard in his sights — fires a couple of ineffectual shots and then, like Richard, locks eyes with the audience just as Richard did at the beginning. I guess that tells us everything we need to know about how this new ruler will turn out. And what a sendoff for Richard, eh? Straight to hell, a taunting smile on his face right up to the end. What a cur, what a swine — outstanding!

A few years after Richard III came out, McKellen went from murderer to maia in another big movie role that involved a spectacular, fiery fall:

“Hand in hand to hell” indeed. To paraphrase a rather Shakespearean line from a completely different film, that’s falling with style!

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Friday finds

beefheratThe first volume of John “Drumbo” French’s memoir of his years in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band is coming out in June. The Captain Beefheart Radar Station has the good news, and some teaser pages from the publisher. Here’s a recording of a 1993 interview (with musical accompaniment) that Beefheart did with Co de Kloet on Dutch radio station NPS. Here’s a 13-minute documentary about the Captain from 1994, loaded with his curious takes on life and interesting turns of phrase. Check out Raymond Ricker’s report on the Captain’s 1981 performance at the late lamented Stanhope House in northwestern New Jersey, highlights of which included Ricker’s jaw getting pierced by the broken end of the headliner’s gong mallet. Beefheart novices will find this bargain CD collates the best two of his listener-friendly records, while this CD showcases his jangly, weird style to best effect.

Joyce Carol Oates reviews Brad Gooch’s new biography of Flannery O’Connor. Guess I’m just going to have to buy the thing.

Hollyword: ActorViggo Mortensen has his own boutique publishing house, Perceval Press. Now director Bret Ratner has Rat Press.

Desolation vacations: Sail the Great Pacific Garbage Patch! Visit the world’s deserted amusement parks!

Hmmmm — this looks interesting. A spring trip to Washington D.C. may be in order.

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Madame Mayo has lots of advice for writers. Good advice, too.

A secret passage or hidden room is the perfect addition to your home, and Creative Home Engineering will build it for you. Dennis Cooper’s post includes video clips of secret entries employing rotating fireplaces and bookshelves that slide back when you pull on a favorite title. There’s also a rundown of some of the better-known mansions equipped with secret passages. If this all sounds like nothing but good spooky fun, be sure to read the tragic history of the Sessions House.

Stop Smiling is, in the words of editor Nate Martin, a magazine that “harkens back to the golden age of magazine publishing — think 70s-era Esquire — with plenty of long-form interviews.” Sounds good to me.

Yea, verily, Robert Crumb hath completed the Genesis project. The first book of the Bible, retold Crumb-style as a 201-page graphic novel, will be issued in the fall. On a related note, my single favorite piece of Crumb artwork has been reissued as a gorgeous, top-quality giclee print. Maybe if I sell a book this year . . .

a-short-history-of-america3

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Prose’n’pillage

Spring is in the air, and a young man’s thoughts turn to . . . oh, you know. Springlike kinds of activities. Starting a garden. Tidying up the backyard. Raising a crew and heading off in a dragon-prowed longboat to rape and pillage in far-off lands. Stuff like that.
 
For those looking to get in touch with their inner berserker, I recommend the title story of Wells Tower’s new collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Check out the video pitch for the book above. Though I already knew about the winsome little atrocity the Vikings called the blood eagle, I have to say Tower describes it with a vividness that would make even Quentin Tarantino feel a little woozy. If you want to know more, read this review.

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The Wednesday Westie

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Eternal-vigilance-against-squirrels-and-passing-dogs-is-the-price-of-freedom edition.