Monthly Archives: October 2009

Friday finds


All you need to celebrate Halloween the H.G. Wells way. (And the George Pal way, and the Oson Welles way, and the Hugo Gernsback way. . .) The image above, incidentally, shows Michael Condron’s sculpture of a Martian tripod in Woking, Surrey, where all hell breaks loose in the original novel. Check here for the New Jersey location used in the radio broadcast.

How about some literary costume ideas for trick-or-tweeding?

Halloween, B’more style.

Continuing our Halloween theme, it turns out that Dan Aykroyd based the Ghostbusters storyline on the psychic exploits of his own dad.

Novelists nominate books they think have been unfairly neglected.

A medievalist tries his hand at the Dante’s Inferno board game.

Taking on Knut Hamsun.

No need to be skeptical about Martin Gardner.

Patricia Cornwell’s latest mystery tale is playing out in court.

Gore Vidal’s sunset years.

How Paul Shaffer was crucified and resurrected by Bob Dylan.

There’s nothing more pathetic than a whining contrarian.

Maurice Sendak has three words for parents who think Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for their kids.

The Guardian harkens back to its coverage of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature. A writer retraces the journey described in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s first big hit as a filmmaker, but his son ended up making more money off it than he did.

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If you don’t have the dime, don’t do the wine

I have to agree with J.D. Rhoades that the idea of a bottle of tequila that sells for over two grand is pretty astonishing. I mean . . . tequila? Cactus juice? Grapes, okay, maybe. Grapes are friendly. They practically ask to be squished and bottled and allowed to ferment in a dark place. There’s nothing friendly about a cactus.  Cacti mean to do you harm. They practically say: Yeah, fool, c’mon and try to squish me, see what happens. You wanna take off your shoes and stomp on a big vat full of cacti, go ahead, be my guest.

In point of fact, much as I love my red vino, I’d be afraid to drink a two-grand bottle of wine. I can’t imagine what would be there in the flavor and bouquet that could justify the premium price, but if I found out, I’d be stuck with a jones for something that costs the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment to enjoy. At present, my vices have a pretty manageable price tag. Unless the publishing industry loosens up, and unless Oprah comes calling, they’d better stay that way.


The Wednesday Westie


Did-you-hear-something? edition.

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Ire land

There’s an old joke to the effect that when an Irishman gets Alzheimer’s Disease, he forgets everything except his grudges. No Surrender, a pitch-black U.K. comedy from the late Eighties that’s crying out for a DVD release on this side of the pond, is tailor-made to illustrate that line. The story takes place in the Thatcher era, while the Troubles were still tearing Northern Ireland apart, but the mood and tone are strangely prophetic of the Good Friday Agreement that was still more than a decade off.

The script — the first and so far only film written by playwright and television scenarist Alan Bleasdale — centers on a nightclub that rises like a penitentiary cellblock in a particularly grotty part of Liverpool. The new manager (Michael Angelis) arrives to find that his predecessor has skipped out after booking a New Year’s Eve party for two feuding groups of Irish emigres, one devoutly Catholic and the other hardline Protestant, as well as a busload of pensioners with senile dementia, a punk band whose members can barely finish a song without getting into fistfights onstage, and an inept stage magician (Elvis Costello, in his first movie role) whose rabbit is on its last legs. Meanwhile, the club’s gangster owner is giving somebody the back-room treatment, and police are busting down so many doors in their search for terrorists that carpenters are kept on standby for repairs.

The new manager’s only allies are Bernard, a bouncer whose mental energy is used up in the maintenance of his pompadour (Bernard Hill in his pre-Theoden days, and hilarious), and Cheryl, the club’s sole waitress, played by Joanne Whalley, whose status as the thinking-man’s bombshell would be cemented with her roles in Scandal and The Singing Detective. It all builds to a gratifyingly chaotic conclusion, and a line of dialogue — “I’m know I’m a nobody, but I’m nobody else’s nobody” — that could serve as the motto of beleaguered commen men everywhere.

“Auld Lang Syne” provides an ironic background for the movie’s other plotline, which follows Bill McRacken (Ray McAnally), a onetime Unionist thug known as “Billy the Beast,” who has turned away from his violent past and found a measure of peace as a Liverpool businessman, though he still refuses even to speak to his Catholic son-in-law. On this night, looking for nothing more than a night out with his friends, he finds himself with too many auld acquaintances to deal with. One, a gun-runner from the old days, is threatening reprisals against McRacken’s family unless he gets help hiding from the police. Another, Paddy Burke (James Ellis), is a Catholic bruiser spoiling for one last round with Billy the Beast. Though blind, Paddy is an ex-boxer still tough enough to beat the daylights out of a pair of would-be muggers, and he has a nasty surprise planned for McRacken.

Bleasdale is known for what used to be called kitchen-sink realism: he made his name in 1980 with The Black Stuff, a television play about some Liverpudlian workmen who land a choice job laying tarmac at a new housing development, only to lose their savings and their jobs after trying to do a little business on the side. The show aired on BBC One and proved popular enough to spawn a sequel, The Boys from the Black Stuff. The cast of No Surrender is studded with Black Stuff alumni, notably Angelis and Hill, and the story showcases the deft blending of politics and gallows humor that remain Bleasdale’s trademark as a writer. No Surrender is angry but not despairing: the diehard fighters on both sides are viewed as bloody minded clowns, and when Cheryl, a Catholic, defuses a situation by singing a hymn and getting the others to join in, there’s a sense that both sides can find a way past the violence if they use a little ingenuity.

For me and a lot of other American viewers, the biggest revelation in No Surrender was  Ray McAnally, an Irish actor well known for his stage and television work in the U.K. After No Surrender, McAnally enjoyed a late explosion of high-profile roles in big ticket films like The Mission, We’re No Angels, and especially My Left Foot, in which he played Christie Brown’s roughneck father. When death took him too early in 1989, McAnally was set to play Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film version of The Field. The role went instead to Richard Harris, a gluttonous scenery chewer, and one can only imagine how much better the movie would have played with McAnally’s more reserved approach at the center. His Billy McRacken is outwardly easygoing and ready to laugh things off — when his old gunrunning buddy shouts “No surrender! No foooking surrender!” McRacken shrugs and says, “I surrender. In fact, I give up.” But the old steel is still there, not too far from the surface, and when McRacken gets pushed too far the results are pretty spectacular.

There was a time back in the late Eighties when American filmmaking had become effectively brain dead, and it seemed the theaters had nothing to offer that wasn’t big, loud, and stupid: Stallone movies, each one worse than the last; John Hughes teen-worship flicks; formulaic fodder from the Jim Cash-Jack Epps hack stack (Top Gun, Legal Eagles, etc.); special effects extravaganzas from the Spielberg-Lucas production plant.

What saved the latter half of the decade was the appearance of a string of low budget, high talent films from the U.K., most of them black comedies with terrific character actors and scripts that were, if not overtly political, then certainly politically aware. At the time it was simply a relief to be able to see a movie that was about something real, instead of the umpteenth retread of the go-for-it formula. My Beautiful Laundrette is probably the best known of these semi-cult films: it helped launch the career of Daniel Day-Lewis, just as Withnail and I turned Richard E. Grant into a cult hero. Among the others were Letter to Brezhnev, A Private Function, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Not all of them were great, but most of them were at the least very good, and now that I’ve been able to find a VHS copy of No Surrender, I can confirm it’s one of the best of the bunch. Won’t the nice people at Criterion give this one a little buffing up (the soundtrack desperately needs remixing) and put it back into the spotlight?

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Play the guitar like a Sex Pistol!

SteveJonesGibsonI had no idea that Gibson had issued a Steve Jones model Les Paul in honor of the Sex Pistols ax-man. Though it was discontinued some time ago, it appears to have been a sturdy mid-Seventies type Les Paul without a whole lot of gewgaws, aside from the Varga Girl decals on the bottom.

As for the sound, here’s a clip in which Steve Jones himself demonstrates some of those big nasty riffs off Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

I read about the punks before I heard them: the early coverage in Rolling Stone pretty much went along with the “Sex Pistols can’t play their instruments” conventional wisdom. It took a network TV program of all things to set me straight. The NBC series Weekend with Lloyd Dobyns did a segment on punk rock that showed Johnny Rotten recording the vocal track for “God Save the Queen,” and I realized that (a) the Sex Pistols were anything but incompetent, and (b) they played rock and roll the way I’d always wanted it played. Then I heard the “God Save the Queen” single, purchased at Armand’s Sound Odyssey in the Cherry Hill Mall, and learned that Steve Jones was in fact an unsung monster on the electric guitar.

It’s interesting to hear the riffs stand by themselves, without the multiple overdubs that made Never Mind the Bollocks into a veritable maelstrom of guitar. (The original versions quickly became available on a semi-official bootleg called Spunk, which is worth tracking down.) Clinton Heylin has called the album’s sound “guitar soup,” but I think it’s extraordinary: a universe of snarling riffs, pounded home by Paul Cook’s exemplary drumming.

As for the Steve Jones guitar, let a hardcore fan demonstrate how it sounds:

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Blue Monday

It’s only to be expected that a blues singer who was born in Maine and records for a Canadian label would stand the music on its head, but that’s what Samuel James does most entertainingly on his two recent discs: Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy and his new one, For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen. James is a superb fingerstyle guitarist and harp player, but for me the biggest selling point is the antic way he twists and remolds blues forms, acknowledging the past but using it very much to his own purposes.

Here’s James playing “Baby-Doll” from the first record:

James has crafted himself a trickster stage persona — imagine a halfway point between Keb Mo and Flavor Flav — and his songs are usually in storytelling mode. Two recurring characters, Big Black Ben and Sugar Smallhouse, liven things up in the new release. Ben tricks a bunch of Klansmen into shooting each other instead of him,  while Smallhouse shows up at his girlfriend’s place on Valentine’s Day with nothing but excuses: I bought you a puppy but it fell down a well, I bought you a rose but I just planted it and it needs time to grow, etc. If you’re tired of overly reverential blues (or punishingly bombastic guitar solos) then Samuel James will be a breath of fresh air.

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Tempus fugit, and then some

Bradbury F&SF

How nice to know that The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has been around long enough to get a 60th anniversary anthology in its honor. How weird to look at the table of contents and realize I’ve been around long enough to have read most of the stories already as they appeared in the magazine. And how wonderful to be reminded of the pleasure those stories gave at the time, and continue to give.

F&SF was the second genre magazine I started buying regularly at the newsstand. The first was Analog: Science Fiction, Science Fact, a few years before editor John W. Campbell’s death, when the magazine was pretty much moribund — a fact my teenage loyalty would only recognize after I’d read the F&SF annScience Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies and looked at the publication dates of the Astounding/Analog stories in the books. Campbell’s impact on the SF field was undeniable, but the major authors he’d nurtured had all left the bullpen, leaving gimmicky hacks like Jack Wodhams who were willing to write to Campbell’s increasingly cranky specifications.

Moribundity was not a problem with F&SF. The first issue I bought featured the initial  novel in Jack Vance’s Durdane cycle, and that’s the kind of reading milestone you don’t quickly forget. A few months later came one of F&SF’s tribute issues to selected authors — Poul Anderson, in this case, which introduced me to another fine genre writer. Though come to think of it, I doubt I ever read a single issue of F&SF that didn’t introduce me to at least two authors worth following, along with others I already followed.

Let’s see. I first encountered Michael Bishop through a deeply creepy short story called “Darktree, Darktide,” and later a novella called “The White Otters of Childhood” that shares more than a few affinities with A Canticle for Leibowitz, my personal gold standard for science fiction. The book reviews by  Joanna Russ, James Sallis, and James Blish (and later, Algis Budrys) were several levels better and more sophisticated than anything in Analog.  When Frederik Pohl completed some short stories started with his late partner Cyril Kornbluth, F&SF was the only place for them. I still have the issue that featured Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird,” the novella that marked a turning point in his writing, and I remember the thrill of figuring out what he was up to. (The bright wrap-around cover painting by the Dillons was pretty spiffy, too.) The magazine’s literary standards have always been high enough to command respect even outside the genre. In fact, I would say F&SF was second only to New American Review in its impact on my young reading brain.

As Michael Swanwick has pointed out, genre magazines aren’t exactly thriving in the current market, and if the thought of F&SF not making it to another big anniversary strikes you as a pity, then the best thing to do is buy a subscription.

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Friday finds

Miskatonic University Embroidered PatchWant to give this year’s Halloween celebration a Lovecraftian flavor? Then Propnomicon is the site for you.

Now here’s somebody who really does it up brown for Halloween. The Martian invasion alone must have required a second mortgage.

A Chicago boy, Roger Ebert, writes about another Chicago boy, James T. Farrell.

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, and the wages of literary fame.

An evolved writer and thinker talks about evolution.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns. John Scalzi considers the economics of the writing market in Fitzgerald’s era, as does Walter Jon Williams.

Writing the life of a writer who has already written his life quite well.

More than most writers, James Tiptree Jr. lived by silence, exile, and cunning — or, in this case, like an opossum.

A close encounter of the Pauline Kael kind.

Naturally, “Low Rider” deserves the top spot for any list of the “Top 10 Cowbell Songs.” But where the hell is “Mississippi Queen”?

Inspired film geekery over at Trailers From Hell, which gives directors a chance to riff about their favorite movies over the trailers for said movies. You get Eli Roth giving mad props to Forbidden Planet, Bill Duke singing the praises of The Spook Who Sat By the Door, Allison Anders rocking out to Privilege, and Larry Cohen getting paranoid over the original Invaders from Mars.

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Smash palace

Pete Townshend’s career as the avatar of guitar destruction began by accident — during a Who gig in 1964, he broke the headstock of his Rickenbacker on the low Guitar smashceiling and smashed the rest of the instrument in frustration — but once it began he pursued it diligently enough to warrant a Web page devoted solely to his ex-axes. As someone who loves guitars for their sheer beauty as well as their musical qualities, I deplore any such demolition, but it’s particularly painful to see havoc being wrought on a gorgeous Gibson Les Paul Custom, the instrument being maltreated in this poster for the Who movie, The Kids Are Alright. I mean, look at this thing. Why on earth would anybody want to smash something like that? Even if it would make for a great climax on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”?

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