Monthly Archives: August 2010

Blue Monday

I’ve been going through a heavy Jimi Hendrix phase with the bookstore playlist, balanced off with additional Seventies-vintage Eno tracks as palette cleansers. For years I favored Are You Experienced over any other Hendrix album, but I’ve come to realize how badly I underrated Axis: Bold As Love. I’m particularly taken with “Little Wing,” and apparently I have plenty of company. Lots of musicians and groups have put their own spin on the Hendrix classic.

This one by the Corrs is the biggest surprise:

I guess it’s only to be expected that Steve Vai would have a version. While there’s no denying his musicianship, I find Vai’s music often comes up short in the soul department, particularly in this case:

Now this is more like it:

I have never liked Eric Clapton’s bombastic take on “Little Wing.” Part of the song’s charm is its offhanded feel. It sounds like something that popped into Hendrix’s head while he watched a woman walk past.  I invariably skip past the Claptonized version when I listen to the Layla album, but for some listeners it was their way into the Hendrix catalogue:

But why should they have all the fun? Here’s your chance to play it yourself:

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Bruno and the drunk guy

The drunk guy showed up a little past three in the afternoon, when business at the bookstore starts to slow down. I know he was drunk because he told me, right off the bat: “I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m pretty wasted right now.” I shrugged. It was a blazing hot day, part of the crushingly humid heat wave that made summer 2010 such a trial. Nothing was moving outside the store. On a day like that, drinking yourself into a stupor wasn’t the worst thing you could do.

For a guy who was blinking, owl-eyed drunk, he was pretty articulate. “I just finished an engineering exam and I wanna read something different,” he said. “I don’t wanna beach book. It has to be something demanding.”

“Nonfiction?” I asked.

“Nonfiction,” he said. “I’m reading a lot of philosophy right now.”

Engineering and philosophy? “Have you read Jacob Bronowski?” I asked him.

“No. Don’t know him.”

We headed to the cool of the back room. I plucked The Ascent of Man off the philosophy shelf.

“He was a trained scientist but his first books were about poetry and William Blake,” I said. “He was all about how the spirit of science and asking questions was the best defense against dogma and evil.”

“That sounds interesting,” he said. I handed him the book.

We went back to the front. I rang up the sale, wrapped the book up, and handed it to him.

“Keep it here, okay?” he asked. “I going to Charlie Brown’s for some more drinks. I don’t want the book to get messed up.”

“No problem,” I said. I stuck the book on a shelf behind the counter and watched him head out the door. He didn’t stumble or trip. Some people are like that when they’re really drunk.

That was well over a month ago and the drunk guy has yet to return. The Ascent of Man remains in its spot. I wonder if the drunk guy is sober now. Does he even remember buying the book?

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I took The Divine Miss T bowling yesterday, and . . .

Okay, I’ll just stand here while you run through your Big Lebowski jokes. I’m a patient man. Dum dee um dum. Voe doe dee oh doe. I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist . . .

All done? We can go on now? Great.

It’s been years since I went bowling, and I discovered that I need to start stretching in the morning. The old flow-through technique was hard to get into. Though I like the monitors that automatically keep score, I could really do without the distracting music videos on the alternate screens. Meanwhile, The Divine Miss T — soon to be a second-grader — stood by the foul line with her legs planted wide, bent and swung the ball as hard as she could make it go. The ball would then take a leisurely roll up the alley, caroming off the bumpers at least once, before nudging its way into the pins.

Midway through the first game, I was lining up a throw when this big bald doofus sidestepped couple of feet in front of me. He had activated the two lanes to our immediate left and was using his right leg like a broom, swishing side to side along the foul line. If I’d completed my throw, I could have fractured his ankle with the bowling ball.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Excuse me,” he snapped. “I gotta get the dirt off the foul line.”

There was a subtle undercurrent of weirdness in his tone, so I immediately went into observational mode. While Miss T did her thing, I watched the guy sidelong as he alternated bowling on the two lanes he’d reserved. Every time he switched lanes he would perform a little ritual with a towel, flapping it over the hand dryer as he stepped around to the other side. Each time he prepared to make a throw, he would perform an odd little tippy-toe dance before stepping off.

I might have thought he was a league bowler staying in  practice, but he wasn’t bowling that much better than I was. I scored 118 and 119, and when we left he was finishing up a little over 120 in each of his lanes. He was a museum-quality specimen of obsessive-compulsive disorder at work, and it was something to see.

As we saddled up and headed to the front desk to return our bowling shoes, I was tempted to call out “Hey, you missed a spot!” If I’d done it, the guy would probably still be doing his chim-chiminny chim-chim-cheree  foot sweep at closing time.

But I didn’t do it. Instead, we headed to the arcade for a couple of rounds of knock-hockey.

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Blue Monday

Embarrassingly enough, my first actual Jimi Hendrix album purchase was not one of the certified classics — not Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, or Electric Ladyland — and not even the two posthumous albums compiled from the songs Hendrix had mostly completed just before his untimely death — The Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge — but Crash Landing, the first of two 1975 albums cobbled together by producer Alan Douglas from the huge backlog of Hendrix work tapes. The releases scandalized Hendrix fans because Douglas had peeled off the backing instrumentation and re-recorded the tracks using anonymously competent studio pros. Douglas claimed the existing versions were unreleasable, but fans and critics noted that the move also allowed Douglas to grab co-songwriting credits on two very lucrative albums.  The result was that Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning were the only two Hendrix albums to appear in record-store cutout bins, which is where I found them. I’d been meaning to check out this Hendrix guy for a while, and to my teenaged brain this seemed like a low-cost way to do it.

So I listened, and heard some great guitar playing, but hardly the kind of thing to justify the John-the-Baptist imitations that happened whenever critics mentioned Hendrix. Forgive me, people, I was young and ignorant. The only Crash Landing track that offered a glimmer of understanding was “Peace in Mississippi,” a dose of feedback heaven that riveted my attention.

Compare the Crash Landing version with the untampered-with version at the top of this post, and you’ll hear the subtle differences. Eventually I found my way to the original Hendrix albums, and I understood what I’d been missing. And decades later, the Hendrix family managed to wrest their late son’s legacy from the hands of the vandals, and the Hendrix legacy was properly released.

Ironically, both Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning — long deleted and out of print — have become collector’s items. What I assume are bootleg CDs go for upwards of forty bucks. If you’re the sort of completist who must have everything the man played in every conceivable configuration, that price might seem worthwhile. But believe me, the two bucks I paid for them in the late Seventies was just the right price — even more so today.

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Friday finds

Ain’t It Cool News has been running behind-the-scenes photos from well-known movies, including this snap of Dustin Hoffman testing the patience of Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man. If you’ve read William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, you know Hoffman was more than a bit of a dick with Olivier, playing method-acting-young-turk to Olivier’s old school Shakespearean eminence grise. The most cringe-inducing moment came when Hoffman badgered Olivier into a round of character improv, which the ailing lion endured despite very obvious pain and discomfort. Olivier got his own back during the filming of the famous Nazi dentistry scene, which Hoffman prepared for by going without sleep for days, arriving on the set looking so strung-out that Olivier, in his best stage legend voice, said, “Dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

Now here is a reason to visit Asbury Park!

Uchenna Ikonne,who blogs about African pop music at With Comb & Razor, was just interviewed by Public Radio International. Give it a listen.

Time to check in with James Lee Burke.

Ray Bradbury’s a little old to follow through on this, but I’m sure he appreciates the thought.

“Hitchens’ remarks on the passing of Jerry Falwell were on the mark. Interviewed during a CNN obituary of Falwell, Hitchens brought a sharp turn in the program’s tone: ‘The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God’s punishment — if they hadn’t got some kind of clerical qualification?’

I’ve read quite a few remembrances of actress Patricia Neal since her recent death at 84, but this one at The Sheila Variations is far and away the best. She rightly gives pride of place to the earthy, world-weary sensuality of Neal’s performances as Alma Brown in Hud. Playing against Paul Newman at his studliest and Melvyn Douglas at his flintiest, Neal did more than hold her own: She made Alma the true moral counterforce to Hud’s greed and selfishness, as opposed to the father’s inflexible moral rectitude. Good, thoughtful arts writing isn’t dead — it was exiled to the Internets by newspapers and magazines.

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Abbey Lincoln

Singer, actress, activist, and all-around creative powerhouse Abbey Lincoln died over the weekend at the age of 80.

Sorry to say, I never got to hear Abbey live. I was privileged to see (and interview, hot damn!) her ex-husband Max Roach, composer and drummer, whose We Insist! Freedom Now suite is still the context in which many people remember Abbey Lincoln.

As much as I love Abbey Lincoln’s singing, it was her acting that first caught my attention. The late and fondly remembered Wells Keddie screened Nothing But a Man (1964) in his labor studies class. Though the focus of the film is Duff, played by Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln’s performance as Josie gives him plenty to work with. Check out this scene:  She does more with her eyes than  many actresses do with their bodies.

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I may just have to sue Eric Alterman

I’m giving serious thought to the possibility of litigation over Eric Alterman’s list of The Top 20 World’s Worst Songs, because of the nightmares it’s going to give me.

I mean — dude, it’s been decades now since I even thought about “The Night Chicago Died”  or “Wildfire,” and you had to go and remind me about them? What possible good could have been served by springing “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” from the lead-lined, triple-locked, concrete-jacketed, impenetrable bunker I shoved it into in the sub-basement of my subconscious ages ago? Geeeeeezzz,  it takes me back to the days when the sound of that fife-and-drum intro dribbling from a nearby transistor radio meant there were only two options for preserving sanity: (a) wrap one’s head in a couple of blankets and wait for the song to pass, or (b) smash the radio before the song could get going.

Nothing makes me cherish my iPod and Internet radio more than the memory of the era when AM radio was ruled by music stations with playlists so tight you could set your watch to them. (” ‘Afternoon Delight’ is on? Damn, I’m five minutes late for work!”) Future generations of music scholars, reading the works of Seventies music critics like Lester Bangs, will wonder at the intemperate tone of a piece like “James Taylor Marked for Death,” and have to imagine for themselves the way pique could be goaded into anger by the knowledge that in a world brimming over with new and interesting music, you were going to be flogged with “Sometimes When We Touch” for the umpteenth time by whatever radio station was playing.

I’m my own radio station now, and so are you and everyone else, and boy is it an improvement. Now the only time I have to think about “Baby I’m A Want You” is when somebody like Eric Alterman reminds me. Time to look in the Rolodex for my lawyer’s number. This mental trespass will not stand.

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Going the extra ‘Miles’

This cool cat has written an almost embarrassingly complimentary post about my book, The Last Three Miles, and the terrific audio version read by Dion Graham. Much appreciated.  One of the fun things about having a book published is that unlike an article or newspaper column it stays out there in the firmament, drawing attention well after publication.

Newt ye shall always have with ye

Though I’ve always found a certain horrid fascination in watching Newt Gingrich’s adoption of various self-destructing personas — conservative “intellectual,” futurist, family-values tub-thumper, race-baiting demagogue — I confess that I was startled by the sheer weirdness that comes across in this Esquire interview with the lil’ lizard’s second wife. How to describe this bizarre troll? Damaged little boy? Deluded sociopath? How reassuring to know this strutting gnome no longer has a chance to getting anywhere near the levers of power.

I’d like to think the interview will kill Gingrich’s standing in the GOP, but tribal identity politics are all that remain of the party’s principles, and the lil’ lizard knows all the shibboleths and secret handshakes that grant access to the great bedlam of movement conservatism. There’s certainly no way he’ll ever disappear from FoxNoise or the Sunday squawk shows, where the rubes never fail to squeal whenever Gingrich, like a blowsy strumpet flashing a bit of thigh, starts hinting that this just might be the year he makes a try for the White House.

The legend of Sleepy Earl

He’s an elderly guy, thin as a bunch of Slim Jims joined at the ends. Very polite, very affable. He shows up for the Saturday movie nights at the bookstore, buys a snack — usually an ice cream bar or a cup of coffee — heads into the TV room, and falls asleep for the next few hours.

A couple of weekends ago, I showed a double bill of The Wages of Fear and Diabolique — two of the most suspenseful films ever made. When I walked by the side entry to the TV room. All around the room, people were staring with big round eyes, mouths slightly agape, utterly spellbound as Yves Montand tried to get a truck full of nitro around a hellishly tight switchback road. In the middle of all those rapt faces was Sleepy Earl, chin resting on his chest.

I’ve shown a lot of great movies here since the store opened, and Earl has slept through some of the best. He’s slumbered through Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien. He’s zizzed through The Conversation and The Rain People, napped through Memento and Proof, conked out for The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Pillow Book, and drowsed through The Chosen and My Son, the Fanatic.

Last night I showed House of Games and Homicide, with Earl staking out dreamland in his usual spot — corner of the viewing room, cloth-covered armchair. On his way out, Earl paused and said, “You really hit a home run with those two.” I managed not to ask how he could have known that. I’m going for epic romances next week: Out of Africa and The Way We Were. I expect that well before Robert Redford flashes his first crinkly smile, Earl will be out like a light.

Surely there’s a bluesman out there willing to immortalize Sleepy Earl in a song. If nobody steps forward, I might just have to do the job myself.

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