Monthly Archives: June 2009

Clearwater runs deep

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From this moment forward, I will hear no more aging hippie jokes. You want to crack wise on whining investment bankers, deranged wingers or Christianists who think they’re persecuted because the Constitution doesn’t allow them to turn public school sessions into pulpit calls, I’m with you. But it’s time to retire the snarking at Birkenstocks and veganism and all the other slings and arrows aimed at anyone who understands that the Sixties were about a lot more than sex and drugs. I spent the weekend at the Clearwater Festival in Croton Point Park, headlined this year by Arlo Guthrie (above), and you would have been hard-pressed to find a more wonderful bunch of people in one place anywhere else.

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The event was started forty years ago by Pete Seeger, and he remains the presiding spirit of the festival, and this was his 90th birthday weekend festival. That’s him in the pink shirt, playing the banjo next to his grandson Tao during a Sunday afternoon session, and I can only hope I’m drawing that big a crowd when I’m 90. (This is the point where our conservative friends can insert their standard boilerplate condemnation of  Seeger for not condemning Stalin, or at least not doing it fast enough to please John Podhoretz. Assuming they can stop weeping over the memories of Franco and Pinochet, that is.) As one would expect, Seeger’s performance was a series of exhortations set to music, but they were good things to be reminded about. “Don’t say it can’t be done,” he chanted, “your fight has just begun.” The sheer amount of goodwill Seeger generates is remarkable.  

Yes, there was quite a bit of gray hair in the crowd. The people in the audience were, in fact, the best possible advertisment for growing old with ideals. The sort of assiness that usually afflicts large-scale gatherings of this sort was completely absent. This in the face of constantly changing weather — intervals of sunshine between stretches of hammering rain — that would have caused riots anywhere else. When the weather cleared, you had vistas like this only a few hundred yards from the main stage:

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I’m always startled by the sheer size of the Hudson River along this stretch — I might have been looking out across Barnegat Bay.

The headliners were honorable old pros — except for Susan Tedeschi, of course, who is still just an honorable pro — doing what they’ve been doing for decades, and doing it with enough ease and intimacy to make big public spaces feel like a rec room. Taj Mahal, Seeger and Guthrie have been living this music for decades, and there was a noticeable weight of history throughout the festival. Guthrie joked about having played at another very muddy outdoor music festival a few decades ago, in fact — “it’s the same rain!” 

About four songs into Guthrie’s closing set, a wall of rain clobbered the place and set less stouthearted souls running for their cars. Guthrie played on: as long as people were ready to listen, he was ready to continue. The night ended with Clearwater’s other headliners joining Guthrie for a group performance.

The most impressive of the whippersnappers was Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, a big loud band with a flashy guitarist and a singer who’s spent quality time with her Led Zeppelion records.

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My mind is elsewhere

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And so am I, for the remainder of the weekend.

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The bibliography of nowhere

The Invisible Library is a collection of phony books and phony authors invented by real authors for their real books. Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, John Irving and John Crowley are all here, along with lesser-known fabulations such as Isaac C. Parker, the Famous Border Judge cited by Mattie Ross in True Grit.  

But there are curious omissions. Unless I’m missing something, H.P. Lovecraft — who, along with his circle of correspondents, concoted a library annex worth of bogus titles — is represented only by the Pnakotic manuscript — no Necronomicon, let alone any of the ancillary texts created by Robert E. Howard and the rest.    

On the other hand, there is The King in Yellow. And while I know haven’t kept up with the Dune series (read the bulky first novel and stopped halfway through Dune Messiah, which at one-third the length seemed three times as long) I’m still surprised to see how many books Princess Irulan churned out about Muaa’Dib: she worked that Atreides boy harder than Carlos Castenada worked Don Juan.

Now a London art gallery is hosting a show of 40 books from the Invisible Library. The dust jackets glimpsed in the photos don’t seem particularly inspired. Looks like a job for the Internet.

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Friday finds

Today would have been film critic Pauline Kael’s 90th birthday, and to mark the occasion film blogger Jason Bellamy has turned his site The Cooler into a clearing house for arguments about all things Kael. The clip above is from a four-part 1982 interview on the occasion of her book 5001 Nights at the Movies, and if you like it you can watch parts two, three and four.  

Pauline Kael. She’s never said a good thing about me yet. That dirty old broad. But she’s probably the most qualified critic in the world. Cause she cares about film and those who are involved in it. I wish I could really rap her. But I can’t. Cause she’s very very competent. She’s knows what she’s talking about.”

Of trains, Secaucus Junction, William Carlos Williams and Paterson, N.J.

What did you do for Bloomsday?

Time to catch up on John O’Hara.

Call me crazy, but the time to stop your boss from trying to murder your only son with electric bolts is before he starts, not several minutes in when your kid is smoking like a grill full of baby back ribs.”

Learn more about Anna Julia Cooper and why she belongs on that stamp.

A chat with Michael Moorcock.

What were people reading during the Depression? Take a stroll through back issues of Publishers Weekly to learn who was “the best paid author in the world” in 1933, and to find ads for Mein Kampf (a “stirring autobiography [in which] you will find Hitler’s own story of his meteoric rise from obscurity to world-wide fame”).

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The dangerous woman

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Patricia Highsmith’s cycle of novels about the affable sociopath Tom Ripley — The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Ripley Under Water — have been reissued as an attractive but rather pricey boxed set. There are cheaper ways to get acquainted with Ripley, an art forger whose taste for the finer things in life leads him to wrack up a formidable body count, but anyone with a taste for pitch-black humor and writing of almost claustrophobic intensity should make it a priority to arrange the introduction, whatever the price tag.

I’ve already argued for Highsmith’s inclusion in the pantheon of great American authors. This Michael Dirda piece in The New York Review of Books is an excellent summary of the five “Ripliad” novels, as well as a fine overview of Highsmith’s backlist for novices:

Tom, as his indulgent creator tends to call him, first appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). This was Highsmith’s fourth published book, preceded by three highly original novels. In Strangers on a Train (1950)—later filmed (and softened) by Alfred Hitchcock—two men, hitherto unknown to each other, “exchange” murders, Bruno agreeing to kill Guy’s estranged wife in return for Guy doing away with Bruno’s hated father. Each will consequently possess a perfect alibi. In The Price of Salt (1953, published under the name Claire Morgan) the nineteen-year-old Therese falls in love with the married Carol—and perhaps for the first time a novel about lesbians ends happily. In paperback this story of “a love that society forbids” sold over a million copies. In The Blunderer (1954) Highsmith fully established what would become her trademark theme: the blurring of fantasy and reality, usually reinforced by some sort of folie à deux, in which two very different people, almost always men, grow symbiotically obsessed with each other, ultimately to the point of madness and mutual destruction. In this case, a successful murderer is undone because a blundering fool hopes to emulate him.

Dirda sums up the Highsmith worldview as “life is little more than an absurdity and a cheat, when not a downright horror.” That may not be your idea of entertainment, but even Highsmith’s most devoted fans readily acknowledge that her writing is an acquired taste:

Such a bleak outlook makes even Highsmith’s best work upsetting and, to some readers, distinctly unpleasant. Yet she’s seldom graphic in her brief descriptions of violence and she never depicts the details of sexual encounters. The hallmark of her work is a calm, hallucinatory intensity built on sentences of unemotional plainness and clarity. Her hypersensitive protagonists, logically, inexorably, spiral downhill from ordinary anxiety to murderous rage and madness. Like animals keenly alert for invisible traps or New Yorkers in the first uneasy months after September 11, Highsmith’s characters move through their lives with an ever-increasing and sometimes justified wariness. Graham Greene famously called her “a poet of apprehension” who had “created a world of her own — a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”

That “calm hallucinatory intensity” is what impresses me most about Highsmith’s work, but it also makes necessary a layover between novels. I once read a bunch of her books in sequence and spent a long time afterward feeling like I’d just had a bad acid trip. 

What’s amazing to me is the thought that when Highsmith went to the Yaddo writers colony to spend some quality time on the manuscript of Strangers on a Train, her colony-mates included Chester Himes and Flannery O’Connor. I would love to have been in on those dinnertime literary conversations.

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The Wednesday Westie

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Westie-in-the-garden edition.

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‘Seen’ but not heard

I loaded a  few discs of the massive Ulysses audiobook into my iPod in honor of Bloomsday, but more visually oriented types will probably enjoy Ulysses Seen, Robert Berry’s graphic adaptation of the novel. Go here to access each chapter. Sorry, there’s no skipping ahead to Molly Bloom’s interior monologue. Some things are worth waiting for.

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Harlequin romance

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During my bright college days, whenever I got into a particularly motormouthed sesquipedalian stream-of-consciousness state, a friend would warn: “You’re Harlaning” — i.e.,  channeling Harlan Ellison. It was a habit I picked up in high school, when I devoured every Ellison book I could get my hands on. It seems to be a common affliction among people who encountered Ellison’s work at an early age.

Not necessarily at an early age, either. During my senior year in high school, I showed my English teacher Ellison’s long cri de couer against a loathsome pre-teen beauty pageant in The Other Glass Teat and the teacher ended up reading the whole thing aloud to the class. He even Harlaned a bit later on. That’s what happens when you’re exposed to a highly distinctive, thoroughly engaging literary voice. No less a figure than Stephen King, in his introduction to Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, confessed that he’s done his own version of Harlaning, so I can say I have at least one thing in common with Stephen King.  

Since I have been reading Ellison’s stories and interview for some decades, I found very little that was new in the documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth, not that I minded one bit. If anything, as a longtime acolyte of the Ellison legend, I was able to fill in The Woman Warrior on some details omitted from the interviews. For instance, the fact that the dead gopher was mailed with a recipe for dead gopher stew. Or that the incident that resulted in an ABC executive suffering a broken hip came about because, during a story conference on the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he told Ellison, “Writers are toadies, you’ll do as you’re told,” prompting the Painesville Pugilist to charge him from the other end of the conference table. (If that’s what the guy really said, I hope that model of the Seaview that fell on him during the altercation was really, really heavy.) And that bit about whether Ellison actually threw a pushy fan down an elevator shaft was explained in great detail in “I Don’t Know You, You Don’t Know Me,” the essay included in the July 1977 Ellison tribute issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. There’s even a scene from The Oscar, which effectively ended Ellison’s screenwriting career. We’re talking history here.

So for longtime admirers of Ellison’s work, watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth will be like hearing your favorite anecdotes, this time coming directly from the horse’s mouth. (And with prompting from his friends Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman — you need a 10-cylinder mind to keep up with the man.) Everyone else will want to read the man’s stuff, immediately. 

Of course they will find a very mixed bag. One of the earliest critical assessments I read of Ellison’s work came from James Blish, who in reviewing Alone Against Tomorrow said Ellison seemed incapable of writing in any way except the top of his voice, which could be wearing in long doses. True then, true now. The universal injunction against reading an entire short-story collection in one sitting goes double for Ellison, who at his worst (“Paladin of the Lost Hour,” for example) consistently uses overwriting and sentiment to cover thinly imagined material. I was sick of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” even when I was only halfway through the story, and if (as the film claims) “Harlequin” is one of the most anthologized short stories for students, it cannot bode well for high school English classes.

But even with the mountain of clinkers Ellison has produced, there are gems like “The Deathbird” and “Croatoan,” novels like Spider Kiss (still the best look at the early days of rock and roll), screenplays like “Demon With a Glass Hand” from The Outer Limits, the rollicking TV and film criticism, the two landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies and the fact that Ellison’s very existence seems to drive fundies and similar wackos to vein popping, spittle-flying rage. These are all great things, and Dreams With Sharp Teeth tells you enough to serve as a a spur to further exploration.

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Blue Monday

Driving home from a family occasion last night, I heard a truly awful cover version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” on the radio. This is a gospel song I had previously considered virtually impossible to do badly. With so many good cover versions out there, it takes almost superhuman diligence to find one that makes you glad you don’t spend a lot of time in cocktail lounges.

You can hear Mayfield himself sing the tune up top. Here’s a typically soulful version from the Blind Boys of Alabama:

Strat cat Jeff Beck has a run at an instrumental version:

How about a reggae version from Ziggy Marley . . .

. . . and a concert version from U2, with a little help from some Jersey guy.

And since on this blog, all roads ultimately lead to Bob Dylan, here is a lo-fi but high-commitment version that is one of the buried treasures of the “Basement Tapes” sessions from 1967. 

Moments like this are the reason hardcore Bobcats won’t be satisfied until the bowdlerized official release of The Basement Tapes — larded with outtakes from The Band that were recorded without Dylan, and in some cases much later — is supplanted by a longer, well engineered true-life version that gives a more accurate picture of what happened in that big pink house. After the sustained madness of the 1965-1966 period, Dylan set out to reconnect with his muse — and Curtis Mayfield was one of the songwriters who showed him the way back home.

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Separately through life

Music scholar and Dylan expert Michael Gray has finally commented on Together Through Life, and it turns out he likes it even less than I did. In fact, I’ve come to think my own comment on the disc may have been a little too forgiving. Since Gray has just wrapped up his speaking tour “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues,” which kept him marinated in Dylan’s best work for an extended period, it’s a wonder he didn’t get the bends while making repeated trips between the pressurized creativity of Dylan’s peaks and the lightweight doodling of these recent discs.

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