Friday, January 30, 2015

Rattling In My Brain-Pan

I’m sadly short on inspiration. Normally that would propel me out the door and off for a walk. But the view outside my window . . .


. . . is discouraging. Sunshine is welcome, of course, but bright sunshine over a fresh blanket of snow means only one thing: it is very, very cold outside.

I’ll force myself out later. If something brilliant occurs to me, I’ll come back and share. In the meantime, here are some links to material that’s been rattling around my brain-pan.

“The player is not what this is about. It’s about the files” -- Neil Young being Neil Young.


I am a reluctant iPod user, not a fan. But even so, Neil’s lost me on this particular venture, because his claims are baffling.

It is about the files, yes. There are bajillions of inferior-sounding mp3s in circulation, and the m4a files Apple sells on iTunes are of varying quality. Neil is selling FLAC files, and those can indeed sound pleasantly fat.

But c’mon: Neil’s 20 years older than I am, and he’s been playing rock concerts since before I was born. His ears must be in worse shape. Give me the CD and I daresay I could rip an mp3 that is indistinguishable from the FLAC.

The problem for audiophiles of a certain age is not the file format, it is the mastering or remastering that went into the file. And there is a tonne of older material, including Neil’s, that could stand remastering. The big bad record companies all know this, btw. Hence the recent, spanky offerings of old Beatles and Led Zeppelin discs. RUSH is putting a little spit and polish on their back catalog. Say, where’s the shined-up Steely Dan?

Neil Young, RUSH . . . Canadian-bred acts that have stubbornly followed their own muses and stuck to their own unique creative code.

"Record? With Nickelback? Do I have to wear pants?"
“I went to LA and I wrote with a team that produced all the Nickleback stuff . . . And I hate it in such a way that it is hard for me to quantify.” Hm. Seems Devin Townsend is cut of similar cloth. Here is his account of what went down.

Speaking of RUSH, drummer Neal Peart doesn’t give many interviews, but he sat down with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers to discuss his latest book, over here. It is a short, reliably erudite and lovely exchange.

And speaking of Led Zeppelin, I recently posted this passage from Stephen Davis’ LZ-’75: The Lost Chronicle of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour. The entire book, like this passage, is terrifically evocative of that particular time. Also, not a little eerie -- as befits the subject, and the era.

Finally: if forced to choose between pulling a tooth or reading yet another “Here’s how I wrote my latest novel -- in bookstores now” article, I might just opt for the pliers. Jeff VanderMeer’s account of writing three novels in a year is different. If a writer can make something like that entertaining, the books themselves might be worth a look.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Marcus J. Borg, 1942-2015

Marcus J. Borg died last night -- sad news, indeed.

Borg was a philosopher and theologian of a decidedly liberal bent. He was also a perceptive observer of and articulate participant in New Testament scholarship.
Borg, with his collected works of Walt Kelly & Carl Barks
Borg was frequently accused of throwing the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater, but his sensitive excavation of the more troubling dichotomies and outright contradictions that come with professing a faith in Christ encouraged some of us to stay in the fold. In his own unique way Borg was, to his last breath, a Defender of the Faith: rigorously critical, committed, compassionate and humane.
Also: a sharper dresser than most of his students

If introductions are in order, I’d suggest starting where I did: The Meaning Of Jesus: Two Visions (1999, 2007). This chapter-by-chapter back-and-forth with conservative Anglican and academian N.T. Wright is an approachable, almost breezy read, but its oppositional approach does a terrific job of covering the most pertinent “Who was Jesus?” hot-spots. Highly recommended.*


If that whets your appetite for more, you should probably head directly to Borg’s most lauded/scourged works Jesus: A New Vision (1987), Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1997), and The Heart Of Christianity (2003).

But the Borg book that has given me the most cause for musing and meditation is probably one of his most poorly-executed: Evolution Of The Word: The New Testament In The Order The Books Were Written (2013).


Borg proposes a seemingly obvious thought-experiment: to get the clearest picture of how the earliest Christians pushed-and-pulled their religious POV into shape, read the New Testament in historical order, from the earliest books to the latest. Borg’s proposal has me wondering how much of my Bible college angst mightn't have got headed off at the pass if this hadn’t been a first-year requirement.

The book itself, however, is difficult to recommend, and the blame falls squarely at the feet of his publisher. Borg’s introductions to each book are well worth the read, but it seems to me that anybody who could be arsed with Borg’s proposal already owns a NRSV Bible. What could have been a slim and punchy volume -- or, better yet, an e-pub -- winds up as yet another Bible to clutter up the bookshelf. Borg's work is likely to experience the usual posthumous uptick. Say, Harper Collins: no better time than the present to rectify this situation.

RIP, sir -- and, as you were always keen to assert, God love you.

*I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my buddy Professor D. for turning me on to this book, as well as to the lovely GR for procuring it for me, back in the day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“Authors and teenagers share the books that saved their life”

This list gets me reflecting.

The “authors” tend to cite the usual suspects — Judy Blume, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, etc. “Authors” are all older folk, of course, with respectable work they need taken seriously.

So it chuffs me greatly to read the entrants by actual living teens: The Fault In Our Stars, Twilight, Throne of Glass.



Now we’re talking!

Speaking as the father of two nearly-adult book-devouring daughters, I am here to inform you that the holy trifecta of Judy-J.D.-and-Harper represent the assigned bane of my daughters’ readerly existences. And brother, do I ever sympathize — the youngest of these books is over 45-years-old; the other two have passed the half-century mark. 

In other words, the protagonists of these books would all be older than the reader's parents. Yo, curriculum developers: it is time to move on.

I see there’s a chap who admires McCarthy’s The Road. It’s not a book I’ve any use for at present, but I could definitely see my teenage self digging it. Harrowing, fatalistic, over-the-top grim, yet determinedly affirmational despite it all — pretty much exactly what I dug about the Thomas Covenant books, back in the day.

Steven R. Donaldson’s fantasy double-trilogy (I see he’s gone to the well a third time — yikes) didn’t exactly “save my life,” but it did shepherd me into a lightly-informed existentialism I could wield into my 20s, where I finally encountered Paul Auster’s Moon Palace (which definitely had a “life-saving” resonance during that decade).

As a teen, the book that probably “saved my life” was The Long Walk by Richard Bachman.



Rather ironic, given how breezily I dismiss Stephen King in adulthood.



But let’s be clear: a) I didn’t know I was reading a Stephen King book; and b) if I had known, I’d have read everything else on his shelf, because that’s exactly what I wanted — what I needed — to read as a teen.



It’s impossible to say at this point, but I doubt anything else by King would have resonated quite so deeply as The Long Walk.



Walk’s protagonist was a year or two older than I was (17 maybe?), a sensitive, slightly-brooding sort, living in a dystopian world entirely indifferent to his existence — until he voluntarily enters a nationally-broadcast sporting event: a walking marathon, where the winner is the only survivor.

The contestants are all late-adolescent boys, who provoke, or occasionally help, each other as the walk proceeds. They talk without any self-censorship about everything that enters a boy’s head at that age, and at some point there are indicators that our protagonist has been beset with a wee bout of adolescent sexual confusion.

It doesn’t rate as the defining element of angst for our protagonist. Nor did it for me — depending on the day of the week. But seeing the subject raised and dealt-with as matter-of-factly (and profanely) as every other source of male adolescent angst in those pages suddenly reduced its status as Pre-eminent Threat To My Identity — which, at the time, felt like a real life-saver.

I haven’t reread the book, so I can’t say whether I’d recommend it to teens today. And reading is different for every kid of course. What do I know? Maybe most kids are still keen on Catcher In The Rye. If it bothers them enough, today’s teens will go on to retire Judy-J.D.-Harper in favour of voices a little more current. If not, then not.

How about you? Is there a book that saved your teenage life? And is there one you might recommend to save mine in my 50s?
Additional: now that I think of it, my father saved my teenage life when he gave me a Christian defence of Rock 'n' Roll music not a matter that even today's most pious teens seem especially troubled over. Vive le change!

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Contagion Spreads: Afterlife With Archie Infects Another Reader

Following the ascent of Archie, I committed a few nickels to the latest installment, Afterlife With Archie (official site). I wasn't at all sure I'd dig it. Snapshots like the one below, from an enthusiastic review, left me cold:
  
Encountered out of context, the cleverness of the scene is quickly acknowledged and just as quickly dismissed. The Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle: we get it, we get it. "The next 70 years," is a nice wink at Archie history. But is that all this exercise amounts to?

Not by a long shot, in fact. While I'd caught (how could you not?) how Archie's response regenerated the eternal question, I'd missed just how adroitly it reinvigorated his essential appeal as a sweet-natured goof. Sure, he can't decide -- who among us could? -- but he sees how this doesn't just make for sexually tense fun, it also contributes an element of misery to the inner-lives of his two favourite girls. Archie is self-aware -- who knew?

Much is made (and rightly so) of this surprisingly deft exploitation (or "judo-flip") of 70-year-old tropes -- chiefly the work of writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. But there is a larger and equally canny excavation of the overall Archie template, beginning with the aesthetic. Sending Dan DeCarlo kids to battle zombies would leach all tension from the narrative, so we get Francesco Francavilla penning panels that are an artful blend of David Mazzucchelli and Mike Mignolla. Here Francavilla tweaks the concluding "to be continued" splash-panel, bringing stark contrasts and an oppressive color-palette to the usual "Riverdale Gang" closer:
Alright, another typical element from the Riverdale template: a school dance (Halloween, in this case).
Betty and Veronica are both miffed at the other's attempts to sway Archie with their choice of outfit. For the last 70 years, the writer/artist would use a third-person limited approach to the story, following a single character through the maelstrom, occasionally resorting to a dual-narrative that reaches resolution by the end of the gag. In this case, a reader could expect to follow Betty and Veronica on two distinct quests to foil each other's attempts at wooing Archie, before concluding with the two of them in a self-defeated state of dishevelment, watching with chagrin as Archie dances with the beautiful visiting foreign exchange student.

This is not the concern of Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla.To heighten their narrative's actual source of tension -- the arrival of zombies in Riverdale -- they frequently switch from one character's point-of-view to the next, to yet another, including traditional supporting players like gazillionaire Hiram Lodge (Veronica's father):
The death of Hermione Lodge (an infrequent character in the older template) raises the pathos, of course, adding emotional depth and reader investment to Hiram, and his subsequent dealings with an over-indulged daughter and her clumsy suitor.

Other story-lines converging on the larger zombie apocalypse narrative include a couple of new (to me, at any rate) characters, struggling with their sexuality:
So far, so frank -- rather delicately so, actually. If Archie's gay friend Kevin Keller introduced not just gay sexuality but sexuality itself to Riverdale, the Afterlife template treats it compassionately as a matter that imbues not just thrills, but also confusion and conflict -- with others, and with one's self.

None of this is revolutionary in comics, per se -- Ed Brubaker, among others, has been plying this approach for decades -- but it is revolutionary to Archie. Comics artists, says Scott McLeod, work with what the reader brings to the page. In the case of Archie, readers are bringing a set of expectations that have been deeply engraved into the national psyche for the last 70 years. And in the hands of Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla those expectations are proving to be astonishingly malleable.

It's not uncommon to experience vivid dreams following a zombie entertainment. After I'd read Afterlife I had a deluge of them, most of them involving me trying to shepherd my nearly-adult daughters through some all-consuming peril -- a forest fire, in one case.

There was a brief window, when I was roughly 10-years-old, when I read Archie and thought, "Wouldn't it be great if High School was like that?"

It isn't. Your friends can change into unrecognizable ciphers, and so can your parents. So can you. It's like a Zombie Apocalypse, really.

And who better to navigate such treacherous terrain than a sincere, red-headed putz whom even the dodgiest among us . . . kinda trusts?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Ascent Of Archie

Remember this chestnut?
"Frank Miller" does Archie.
I posted it eight years ago, at the end of ’06. At the time, Archie Comics’ attempts at rejuvenating their moribund brand seemed a little desperate and absurd. Archie was clearly at an all-time low; Frank Miller was clearly at an all-time high. Imagine a merger, note the absurdity and cue the derisive laughter.

My, how things have changed.

In 2014, this series was hailed as a comic book highlight of the year:
Now cut to the near-future, where this is being tagged as 2015’s most hotly-anticipated comics release:

Who’s laughing now?

The Ascent of Archie: Peter Derk unveils the persuasive transformation that took place, in “Should You Be Reading Archie Comics?” And Mark Peters talks with Archie CEO Jon Goldwater to find out how it happened.

Further proof that Archie is it right now: Goldwater pretty much nails his Reddit AMA.

So what do I think? Stay tuned.

Friday, January 09, 2015

"Let 'em In!" The Bros. Landreth at the Park Theatre, New Year's Eve, Winnipeg, MB

My best friend and his lovely wife treated me and mine to a fab New Year’s Eve at Winnipeg’s Park Theatre & Lounge.
The Park, on a (considerably) warmer night.
The Park has been transformed from a third-rate “Also-Running” cinema to, frankly, one of the rockin’-est venues I’ve ever enjoyed. Check out their official site. They book acts from all over the map, but whether you’re seeing a girl and her ukulele or a group of head-bangers bringin’ it to the mosh, the environment brings out the best in audiences and performers.

NYE was given over to The Bros. Landreth, who devoted the majority of the night to the music of one Paul McCartney.
"Bros. On The Run"
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Bros. only CD, Let It Lie, skews toward Jackson Brown, with flourishes of Bonnie Raitt (she’s a big fan of the Bros., and no wonder: they’re carrying her torch). My friend tells me these pups cut their teeth as session musicians for various Winnipeg studios before it dawned on them that they might just have their own sound and words — so baseline instrumental competency was a given.

Still, McCartney’s music, from the ‘60s and ‘70s at any rate, is surprisingly tricky stuff to play live. Adding to the challenge: not a single keyboard was to be seen on the stage. So how, exactly, was a guitar band going to pull off an entire night of McCartney music? The opening number (a song I would never attempt on guitar) was, “Let ‘Em In,” and the answer was, “With breath-taking √©lan.”
"Let 'em In": Four-part harmonies, no keyboards.
The Bros. threw in a few of their own numbers, but overall the evening was as advertised. The Bros. were tight, the sets were brisk, snappy affairs, and the overall vibe grew ever more celebratory as the evening progressed. We had ourselves a mighty fine time, in other words.

The Bros. are on a limited tour — if you can catch them, you should. Their live sound has none of the Jackson Brown vibe, but much more Gram Parsons and Allman Brothers — their sophomore album should be killer.

And bring your Significant Other. These fellas are a hunky bunch, and a little of that swoon-factor definitely keeps the spark a-smoulderin’ for a healthy-happy marriage.
Adding heat, way past midnight.
A side-note to the Bros.: I stole a glance at the stage during the “Happy New Year!” midnight-clutch, so I well understand that you boys are not yet in that phase of life where you can inveigle on a long-suffering Significant Other to take over the merch table. But surely there’s a willing cousin? I was not the only person who asked the beleaguered coat-check guy if he couldn’t sell me a shirt, so you had a fairly lengthy gravy train leave the station to attend to baby-sitters back home. That’s gravy that makes the slower nights in Northern Ontario just a little warmer. In the meantime, I shall resort to your website to get my daughter the promised item. Rock on, Bros.