Monthly Archives: May 2010

Friday finds

This talk by David Simon, the man behind The Wire and Treme, really touches on a sore spot for me. He talks about how The New York Times refused to review his book Homicide because it was “a regional book” — i.e., not set in New York City. I’m surprised he was able to find a publisher at all. When my agent started marketing The Last Three Miles to publishers, we heard the R word over and over again. Here was a book about the transformation of America by the automobile, a book about the first superhighway project in America, starring a political boss with enough clout to intimidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it happened in New Jersey so it was a “regional” story. If Jesus ever does come back, he better not make his appearance in Hackensack — nobody would cover it.

In part because I’m enjoying the hell out of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, I decided to link back to this very interesting Crooked Timber seminar on Mieville’s Iron Council. I can see what John Holbo is getting at when he says that Mieville wants to give fantasy its first novel with the gritty visual density of Blade Runner, though I might point out that the vividly described, multilayered squalor of Lankhmar made Fritz Leiber’s heroic fantasies stand out as far back as the Sixties and Seventies. Leiber’s obvious relish for city life went against the grain of Tolkien-derived pastoralist fantasies, and even the briefest adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser made Lankhmar seem inhabited in a way Minas Tirith or Edoras never did.

Here’s a place I want to visit next time I’m out California way.

Times like these require a real take-charge kind of hero. In other words, times like these require — Godzilla.

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State of playlist

Here’s what people are hearing when they come to Nighthawk Books:

Charlie Musselwhite: “Christo Redemptor,” from Tennessee Woman.

Keith Jarrett: “Solara March” from Arbour Zena.

Gil Scott-Heron: “The Bottle,” from Winter in America.

Patsy Cline: “She’s Got You.”

Bill Withers: “I’m Her Daddy.”

Louis Jordan: “Knock Me a Kiss.”

X: “In This House That I Call Home.”

Frank Zappa: “Montana.”

Drive-By Truckers: “That Man I Shot,” from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.

Emmylou Harris: “Where Will I Be,” from Wrecking Ball.

Simon & Garfunkel: “Punky’s Dilemma,” from Bookends.

Lena Horne: “Stormy Weather.”

Richard Thompson: “How I Wanted To,” from Hand of Kindness.

X: “The New World,” from Live in Los Angeles.

Frank Zappa: “Camarillo Brillo.”

Bob Dylan: “Isis.”

Joni Mitchell: “Marcie.”

REM: “Losing My Religion.”

Led Zeppelin: “Hots On For Nowhere.”

REM: “Man on the Moon.”

David Bromberg: “When First Unto This Country.”

Blue Van Gogh: “Myth.”

Howard Shore: “Bondage,” from Dead Ringers.

Cassandra Wilson: “Strange Fruit.”

Talking Heads: “Swamp”

Neil Young: “Mansion on the Hill”

Corrine Bailey Rae: “Paris Nights/New York Mornings.”

MIA: “Paper Planes,” from Slumdog Millionaire.

Tom Waits: “Downtown Train”

Keith Jarrett: “I’ll Remember April.”

Tom Waits: “Alice.”

Pogues: “Down All the Days”

A.R. Rahman: “Dreams On Fire.”

Glen Burtnick: “Watching the World Go By.”

K.D. Lang: “Constant Craving.”

Ian Dury: “Reasons to Be Cheerful.”

Rolling Stones: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”

Sugar: “Come Around.”

Eric Bibb: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

Talking Heads: “This Must Be the Place.”

Rolling Stones: “The Last Time.”

Prince: “Kiss.”

Drive-By Truckers: “The Righteous Path.”

Pogues: “Gridlock.”

Led Zeppelin: “Fool in the Rain.”

Roseanne Cash: “Heartaches By the Number.”

Paul Simon: “Father and Daughter.”

Frank Zappa: “Black Napkins.”

Pogues: “Lorelei.”

Beatles: “Dear Prudence.”

Paul Simon: “Peace Like a River.”

K.D. Lang: “Wash Me Clean.”

Steely Dan: “Any Major Dude.”

Led Zeppelin: “That’s the Way.”

Pogues: “Sunnyside of the Street.”

My Bloody Valentine: “Soon.”

U2: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Glen Burtnick: “Palookaville.”

Parliament: “Flash Light.”

Led Zeppelin: “For Your Life.”

Living Colour: “Broken Hearts.”

Creedence: “It Came Out of the Sky.”

Beatles: “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”

Lyle Lovett: “She’s No Lady.”

Jonny Greenwood: “Prospectors Arrive,” from There Will Be Blood.

Richard Thompson: “Walking the Long Miles Home.”

David Bromberg: “”Shake Sugaree.”

Thelonious Monk: “Thelonious.”

John Fahey: “Sligo River Blues.”

Nyckelharpsorkestern: “Vastanmadspolskan.”

Bob Dylan: “Visions of Johanna.”‘

Talking Heads: “Drugs.”

Joni Mitchell: “Jericho.”

Led Zeppelin: “When the Levee Breaks.”

Michael Franti: “Bomb the World.”

Ian Dury: “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.”

Creedence: “Effigy.”

Simon & Garfunkel: “At the Zoo.”

Captain Beefheart: “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles.”

Prince: “Alphabet Street.”

Thelonious Monk: “Easy Street.”

Cassandra Wilson: “Body and Soul.”

Drive-By Truckers: “The Southern Thing.”

Drive-By Truckers: “The Three Great Alabama Icons.”

Drive-By Truckers: “Wallace.”

Marianne Faithful: “The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.”

Ravel: “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” played by Robert Casadesus.

Curtis Mayfield: “People Get Ready.”

Duke Ellington: “Lotus Blossom.”

John Lennon/Beatles: “Julia.”

Otis Taylor: “Black’s Mandolin Boogie.”

Richard Thompson: “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven.”

Rolling Stones: “Shine a Light.”

Bob Dylan: “Black Diamond Bay.”

Louis Jordan: “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”

Bob Marley & The Wailers: “Concrete Jungle.”

War: “Low Rider.”

Michael Hyman: Track from The Draughtsman’s Contract soundtrack.

Frank Zappa: “I’m the Slime.”

Roxy Music: “Amazona.”

Led Zeppelin: “What Is and What Should Never Be.”

Emmylou Harris: “Every Grain of Sand.”

Blue Van Gogh: “Top of the Mountain.”

Patti Smith: “Dancing Barefoot.”

Django Reinhardt: “Nuages.”

Grateful Dead: “Ripple.”

‘Snacks’ time

One of the shows we hosted at the bookstore, “Snacks Live,” is covered in this video clip. You get some nice looks at the store (though we’ve since whacked away the shrubbery in front of the building) and you get a hint of how much fun the kids had that morning.

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Frank Frazetta

If Thomas Kinkaid can get away with calling himself “The Painter of Light,” then I move that the late Frank Frazetta shall henceforth be known as The Painter of Id. If the late Baby Boom generation’s sexual fantasies could be transferred directly to canvas, chances are they would come out looking like one of Frazetta’s paintings: lusciously curved and endowed women and overmuscled men in armor, poised just as they are about to launch themselves at some snarling monster. Frazetta’s work embodied everything good and bad about American pulp: its vivid trashiness was as undeniable as the technical skill used in its making.

To put it bluntly, Frazetta painted sex. Scratch that — he painted lust. Other fantasy artists, like the Brothers Hildebrandt, were stately and decorative; Frazetta, bless him, was always down and dirty. There were no skinny women in Frazettaland. They were always buxom and built, with fleshy bellies instead of killer abs. When Rolling Stone decorated its profile of Jennifer Lopez with photos of her posing as a Frazetta heroine, no male reader under the age of 50 had to question the choice. It was as though Frazetta had already been painting her for decades. It’s no accident that Frazetta is identified with the slutty, down-market end of the fantasy genre. Though he occasionally ventured into the Tolkien universe, the sexlessness of Middle-Earth didn’t call up his strengths as an artist. Contrast the childlike hobbit in this drawing with the avid menace of the wolf hunting him. On the other hand, this image of Eowyn killing a Fell Beast does leave you wondering what might have been.

I was introduced to Frazetta’s work at just the right age, via multiple avenues. First, I was a pretty dedicated fan of James Warren’s horror comics — Creepy, Eerie, and of course Vampirella. I didn’t know from EC back then, but the Warren titles hewed pretty closely to the EC formula: gutbucket horror stories, usually with gruesome twist endings, introduced by a host armed with the kind of puns that normally get punished by a firing squad. Warren’s addition to the formula was a bullpen of top-flight commercial artists, and Frazetta loomed large among them. I bought my first issue of Creepy because it featured a Harlan Ellison story, “Rock God,” done up in comic form, but I spent long periods of time staring and musing over the Frazetta cover, which showed the titular deity seeming to form itself out of murky colors and impasto  swirls.

At about the same time, I stumbled across the Lancer paperback editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The first two I bought were Conan of the Isles and Conan the Usurper. Who the hell knew what a usurper was? But the cover art had a guy with muscles on his muscles, chained in place astride a giant snake, in a dungeon full of leering monsters. How could I possibly go wrong buying a book like that? There was also a giant snake on the cover of Conan of the Isles, but it had a generic, lifeless look to it. Frazetta’s snake looked like it might eat the reader for dessert, once it polished off Conan. There’s an almost tactile quality in the way its weight rests on the ground, in the tension of the chains and the muscles of the man straining to break free. It’s the junkiest kind of fantasy image, but it breathes. It was the kind of feat Frazetta pulled off many, many times. The man was incapable of painting a dull picture.

Now that books and magazines are no longer at the center of culture, I wonder if the generations beyond the horizon will get their own Frazettas. Those pulp magazine paintings (and the paperback covers that succeeded them) created a private theater of the mind unlike that of film. Though Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice was meant to capture the Frazetta spirit, the film seems almost lifeless when compared with any one of the man’s pictures. Frazetta’s art was about the tense stillness of an image, a frozen moment of action. It’s a quality that lives only on the painted canvas, the inked paper, and the printed page.

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Peristaltic closure

One of my long-held personal beliefs — that no experience, however unpleasant, is ever truly wasted — was put to a severe test this week when, motivated by morbid curiosity and blog buzz, I poked around the Internet for information about the new horror film The Human Centipede. Having learned far more than I needed to about this sick-making epic, I can tell you that as much as I enjoy horror movies, nothing on Earth short of a credible death threat or a substantial cash payment — in advance — could induce me to watch The Human Centipede all the way through. If you know nothing about this thing, cherish your ignorance.

Which left me to mourn the minutes and brain cells lost to the search.

Meanwhile, I’ve been greatly entertained by the blog-spanning discussion of the intellectual flatlining of the conservative movement, hastened by the rise of all-wingnut-all-the-time radio, television, and Internet media. This insularity, which allows patently ridiculous ideas to go unchallenged or even questioned within the ranks of the faithful, has been labeled “epistemic closure.” To watch a serious conservative intellectual — to the extent that such wraiths actually exist — try to debate this topic with an intellectual veal calf like Jonah Goldberg is to wish Samuel Beckett were still with us to use such material.

Indeed, “epistemic closure” hardly does credit to the case-hardened resistance to reality that now typifies movement conservatives on such matters as climate change and the alleged Marxist tendencies of President Barack Obama. If anything, the way conservative talking points are passed from pundit to pundit brings to mind the appalling digestive situation created by The Human Centipede. If one can imagine Rupert Murdoch as Dr. Heiter, and the test subjects eager to take part, then it becomes clear that auteur Tom Six has provided us with the perfect metaphor for life as a wingnut pundit. Especially if the human centipede’s head is connected to its tail, which for all I know will happen in the planned sequel.

Well now. That experience wasn’t wasted after all.

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Friday finds

Speaking as someone who found the bogus movie trailers to be the most watchable part of Grindhouse, I’m happy to see a full-length Machete flick about to become a reality. I also like the idea of the film taking a few jabs at teabagger fever. If nothing else, it will give Andrew Breitbart something new to froth over — even he must be getting tired of whining about the left-wing messages in Avatar. And won’t William Donohue be thrilled with all the scenes of nuns and priests toting shooting irons? Can’t hardly wait.

The different types of mothers. The negative side of positive thinking.

Via 3:AM Magazine, a three-part transcript of an interview with John Fante, the cult writer’s cult writer: inspiration to the Beats and Charles Bukowski; author of Ask the Dust, the quintessential prewar Los Angeles novel; creator of the literary alter ego Arturo Baldini. Read part one here, part two here, part three here.

The rise of Cute Cthulhu and what it says about us as a civilization.

“Many years ago, I saw the world through crap-colored glasses, and my writing was quite crappy because of it. These days, however, I look at the world with an almost childlike wonder. I don’t let mainstream reality control what I see or what I don’t see. I live in a semi-haunted Victorian farmhouse, and I believe in ghosts. They believe in me, so it’s only fair . . . I can’t speak for other writers, but my perception of reality is what makes my writing what it is. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate.”

Undercover Black Man interviews gangsta rapper Ice Cube and learns about the perils of singing “Fuck Da Police” in Detroit.

As a Pulitzer-laureled movie critic of many years’ standing, Roger Ebert might be expected to emulate Richard Schickel and other credentialed gasbags blatting about how the Internet has ruined arts criticism. Instead, he states what has long been obvious: When it comes to film criticism (or, I’ll add, any form of arts writing) blogs are where the action is.

There is now an actual Intercollegiate Quidditch Assocation. Who knew?

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Swimming with kangaroos

You don’t believe me? Click the clip.

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Stutter steps

Three months ago, when we opened the bookstore, free WiFi access was part of our keen business strategy. It would serve as a loss leader, bringing in potential customers who would use the WiFi, then buy books and coffee.

Trouble is, it hasn’t worked out that way. For every laptop gypsy who grasped the concept — that if one enjoys and appreciates a quiet, comfortable place with free WiFi, one should support that place — there were a dozen who were happy to come in, suck up the WiFi for a few hours, then head out the door without buying anything. One clown developed a whole cheeseball comedy routine where she would march up to the counter, fluff a few bags as though considering a purchase, then head back to a table and another hour of grinding.

I really don’t want to be the kind of store owner who prowls around snarling “Those tables are for customers!” I did a lot of that last week, and I really didn’t enjoy it. But I also don’t want to go bust paying utility costs for a bunch of moochers. Yesterday, I changed the WiFi password and put out flyers announcing that Internet access would only be available for a flat fee. Will this affect my traffic and sales? Let’s see.

I hope I don’t alienate the good customers. I’ve met some great people at this place. But the twerps who treated me as somebody to get over on sure have left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Blue Monday

The fourth Pogues album, Peace and Love, is usually written off as the band’s first stumble, coming after two gem-packed records (Red Roses for Me and Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash) and a certified masterpiece, If I Should Fall From Grace With God. But I’ve been playing it a lot at the store lately, and if Peace and Love marks a falling off, it’s the kind of falling off most bands could only dream of.

I’m particularly taken with “Down All the Days,” the band’s tribute to Irish writer Christy Brown, who fought his way through poverty and a body wracked by cerebral palsy to become a celebrated author and poet. The song led me back to My Left Foot, the film version of Brown’s autobiography, which takes its title from the fact that Brown could only rely on one of his limbs to accomplish anything in life. The film established Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the mature Brown, as a god of acting, but Hugh O’Conor, playing the younger Brown, is every bit as good.

This scene, in which the boy first proves to his family he has a functioning mind, never fails to slay me:

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Getting bossy

If you’re free the evening of Monday, May 17, I’ll be at the Union Free Public Library to talk about “New Jersey’s Notorious Political Bosses,” specifically the ones I consider the most interesting: Frank Hague of Jersey City, and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson of Atlantic City.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you know that Hague is a major figure in my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. He is not simply one of the most powerful political bosses of the twentieth-century, he is also one of most influential and least understood figures in New Jersey and national politics. One of these days I’ll be able to interest a publisher in a full-length Hague biography, but until then I’m happy to say — nay, boast — that The Last Three Miles brought new information on Hague into the light.

Johnson is in many ways equally interesting: Hague’s contemporary, and his mirror image. Hague was a Democrat, willing to tolerate bootleggers as long as they paid their way, personally abstemious, and cunning enough to fight off a number of state-level corruption investigations. Johnson was a Republican, committed to running Atlantic City as a wide-open town catering to every vice, a friend to gangsters of every stripe (he even hosted a convention attended by the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano), and he was finally brought down by a federal investigation.

The talk will be at 7 p.m. I’ve appeared at the Union library before, and they know how to do it right. Did I mention that admission is free? Come by and say hello.

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