Friday, December 31, 2010

Unpacking U.N.C.L.E. — Phase One


Merry Christmas to me — and to my family, since we have collectively reached the stage where the television can no longer be watched in seclusion. This was cause for some mild anxiety on my part: while we all seem to be on the same page when it comes to Get Smart, Star Trek and the occasional Bonanza episode, I Spy was given a unanimous thumbs-down and The Prisoner was greeted with cool disdain. As for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it had been years since I last watched an episode, and what I remembered didn't recommend itself.

However the packaging is so gee-whiz kewl! that I momentarily belayed my misgivings and wallowed in its flashy, evocative gim-crackery. When it came time to give the show a spin, I recalled Robert Fulford's dictum that the history of a television series falls into four periods — Primitive, Classic, Baroque and Decadent — and cued up the second season (In Living Color!) first.



It's a hit! Judging from the first half-dozen episodes in season two, it looks like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. found its groove early and shifted from Classic to Baroque the minute it introduced color. At this point the writers still took the characters, peril and complications seriously enough to maintain genuine narrative tension, while the acting and direction indicate that everyone involved was happy to be there.*



U.N.C.L.E. builds on the myth of the office as the place where all the fun happens. Napoleon Solo gets grabby with the secretary in a fashion that would land him in irons today, but whenever he encounters the fairer sex on the field, he and his buddy treat them as an inconvenience if not an outright annoyance. Indeed, everything about the field is an inconvenience. The action can take place in an exotic (inevitably fictional) foreign country where the women are lush and the gadgets are shiny, but both the women and the hardware end up complicating the job, which exists to be completed so that the agents can return to the office as quickly as possible. Compared to the froufrou interiors of various embassies and lairs, the aesthetic inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters is starkly utilitarian. But then that's the aesthetic to most rumpus-rooms from the same era. And there are hints aplenty that these cool kids do enjoy a good rumpus.



Most U.N.C.L.E. fans regard the first season as the best, with the second and the fourth seasons falling behind respectively. Apparently the third season more than qualifies as The Decadent period. The actors speak ruefully of those episodes, which slid into a level of camp that made Batman seem the very embodiment of subtlety. Even the Time Life packagers apologize — more than once — for its inclusion in the set.

That may be the unwatched season in this house. The other three, mind you, remain in demand. Stay tuned for further thoughts, once the contents of the briefcase have been exhausted.



*One episode begins with heartthrob Ilya Kuryakin deep undercover as a street troubador in South America. He strums his guitar, flamenco-style. Then he begins to sing: “Hava Nagila, Hava . . . .” For those keeping track, we are observing a Scottish actor playing a Russian posing as a Hispanic musician singing a Jewish folk song. This is the generation that invented irony.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Music Shorts

My sidebar indicates where my musical leanings are at, and right now jazz is it.

The four albums are a mixed bag, to be sure. The Europeans tend to be freaks for formalism, a tack that often alienates the casual North American listener, but which greatly appeals to me during the Christmas maelstrom. Controlled thematic exploration, formally moderated playfulness — and yet through it all an undeniable yearning and emotional sensitivity. Greg Houben Quartet Meets Pierrick Pédron (e) is earnestly serious about its play, while this recent discovery of an older EST recording is more lyrical — and not a little heartbreaking, when heard as a fond memory of a beautiful musician who's been taken from us.

AfroCubism is a follow-up of sorts to the Buena Vista Social Club, the out-of-the-ether sensation which can still be heard in espresso-serving cafes some 15 years later. The flacks at Nonesuch are branding this as “an album that throws the elements of Cuban and African music in the air and lets them fall in entrancing new patterns,” but as my wife astutely commented when I first played it: “That sounds like West African music.” Indeed — Malian, as a matter of fact. And in a continent that is as huge and musically diverse as Africa, the distinction is worth making.

That bit of parsing aside, the results are remarkable, particularly for listeners with an international ear. My wife's second comment was, “It's curious that this hasn't been done before, given the shared cultural history between Cuba and West Africa.” I don't know if Nonesuch is right to claim innovation quite so boldly, but the music they enabled is delightful, evocative and provocative. It is maybe worth adding, however, that if you were underwhelmed by the Buena Vista Social Club, this sequel isn't likely to make the difference for you.

This month, as I drummed my fingers and searched for something on eMusic to fill my monthly quota of downloads, I perused through the works of Vince Guaraldi, the gentle innovator who gave us the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. I picked up the various “lost cues” from the Charlie Brown shows, then added North Beach, a posthumous collection of live and studio recorded material from the late-60s and early-70s. It's all sweetly-tempered music one might expect from the man who came up with the definitive voice for Charlie Brown. On days when I'm sick of the exclusively seasonal, I'll switch my player to Artist > Vince Guaraldi > Play All > Shuffle Songs for an hour or two of unencumbered relief.

Finally, an important announcement for completists and nostalgics alike: Fusion Is . . . Barry Miles is widely available for legal download (including here). A funky staple from the late-70s and early-80s which had a very limited and extremely hard to come-by CD release a decade later — which I missed. Ah, but this technology is good for some things, yes? Now we only need to rescue a few other titles from the Vinyl Tar-Pits.

Friday, December 24, 2010

WP's Magical Mystery Tour

When I was an adolescent with thirsty ears, it seemed to me that all the cool concerts were happening in Toronto. I occasionally caught wind of a car riding down to Minneapolis to see someone big, but the expense entailed was prohibitive. Worse, these people slept in the car -- usually while driving back home. The people who returned from these ventures were usually so zonked, they couldn't remember who they'd seen.

These days Toronto's concerts are accessible to me. But it looks to me like all the really fun concerts happen south of the 49. So I've put together a fantasy tour, which would look something like this. I'd get in the old Toyota, with a few dozen of my favorite CDs, drive down to Cincinnati to catch Over The Rhine and Joe Henry at the Taft. I'd scoot to Oklahoma City for The Flaming Lips' New Years Eve bash. At the end of that I'd quickly beetle over to Chicago to catch The Drive-By Truckers, on New Years Day.

When that was over, I'd wind down by taking an architectural tour through the ruins of Detroit, and cap that off with a Red Wings game. Man, as much as I begrudge them their wins, I do love to watch that team play.

Then I'd return home to shower, shave and sleep.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pre-Christmas Grab-Bag of Links

Today's post is a grab-bag of links I had every intention of riffing off, but never quite mustered up the wherewithal to get the job done. Still, attention must be paid.



Family and friends know me as a quick mimic, with a tonal range that can catch people off-guard. In my experience, there aren't too many cartoon voices that can't be convincingly aped. Fred Flintstone, however, is entirely beyond my reach. This is a terrific homage to Alan Reed, the man who gave us the incomparable voice of Fred Flintstone.





During a recent malaise, I retreated to the comfort of a series of comic books I'd enjoyed in the late 80s: Andrew Helfer and Kyle Baker's tweaking of that hoary old hero of the pulps and radio, The Shadow. In the mid-80s DC Comics briefly dragged The Shadow of old into contemporary Manhattan, with the help of Howard Chaykin. Chaykin's approach wasn't that far removed from the one he used for American Flagg (it's never been far removed from Flagg, really); he does what he does and it pays the bills. When Helfer took over, though, readers got a young writer keen to take the scene into unexpected territory, and an artist — Bill Sienkewicz — who had the surrealistic flair to pull it off. But when Sienkewicz left and Kyle Baker took over, there was a perfect merging of visual-literary sensibility. Jason T. Miles does a terrific job (with the aid of some snazzy scans) of unpacking Helfer & Baker's deft touch with The Shadow. I would only add that by the series' conclusion Helfer & Baker were probably having too much fun: the final six issues detailed, among other things, the travails of the Shadow's sons as they dragged his corpse through one indignity after another en route to Shangri-La.

I don't quite “get” the veneration that significant writers have for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His stuff strikes me as ornate and overwrought — he's too busy describing the horror his characters feel to bother dispensing any for the reader (this one, at any rate). I suspect, though, that my distance is more a product of having encountered him late in life, as opposed to in my adolescence (the ideal time to encounter any pulp fiction).

Having said that, I'm usually up for reading meditations on his work. Over at PopMatters, Dennis P. Quinn explores the rich ironies that abound among the personalities and subcultures that have taken (typically occult) religious inspiration from Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft the man was an avowed atheist who held all religions in contempt; he considered his Cthulu works, for example, an act of ridicule. Ah, but there are acolytes who beg to differ . . . .

Speaking of Cthulu, earlier this year Erik Davis took a close and careful look at the current “Cute Cthulu” meme and was decidedly not amused. I'll post the link in just a minute, but before I do: here is where I riffed off Davis' treatise on Led Zeppelin IV — the best of the 33 1/3 books I've read. On the strength of that I went ahead and purchased The Visionary State (A), Davis' encyclopedic account (with photographs by Michael Rauner) of the various religious expressions unique to modern California. The Visionary State proved to be breathtaking, so I ordered his latest book, Nomad Codes (A), which I'm looking forward to reading through the holidays.

Alright, on to the link. It is NSFW, thanks to a hentai illustration near the bottom of the piece. This might be regrettable to some people, but the truth is Davis could not get to the root of what makes this “Cute Cthulu” business so insidious without referring to hentai. So there it is, and here is the link (NSFW).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Music

I have traveled the highways and byways, beat the hedges and combed the ditches in search of slightly- but-not-too-offbeat new Christmas music. And I have come up empty-handed. That Corporate Repository Of Legal Downloads is giving serious promo-time to Pink Martini, whose interpretations of old stalwarts are snappy enough to keep the group, if not the audience, from falling asleep. I finally gave Bela Fleck's Grammy Winning Christmas album a spin. Fleck nudges the funny-bone without tipping the whole enterprise into Novelty Act.

But, unless you can introduce me to the disc I've missed, I shall rely on the tried and true.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Don Cherry, Exit Stage Right


Rob Ford, Toronto's new mayor, hasn't done much yet to change the shape of his office or the city he's taken charge of, but his mastery over a largely antagonistic media is truly remarkable. The coiffed heads holding out the microphones don't like him, and Ford is often his own worst enemy when he chooses to answer their questions. And yet this week he managed to come out looking sharp, by pulling a sleight-of-hand that completely hoodwinked the camera's (and public) eye. Ford craftily delivered on a flashy, one-time power-play custom-made for voters who'd grown weary of high-minded political prevarication (more later) while conscripting from the audience a loud-mouthed rube to further distract from the mayor's own less-than-appealing public image — one Don Cherry.

Cherry is always game to grab the spotlight, the mic, the camera, the audience member by the ears if he has to. With his pink double-breasted jacket — “For all the pinkos out there riding bicycles and everything” — and his sledge-hammer wit (ibid) Cherry performed to spec, explaining to City Council and the public exactly why Rob Ford “is going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen,” specifically referring to the first act Ford did as mayor-elect: personally and publicly correcting a single instance of bureaucratic bungling that the Toronto Sun had taken on as a cause célèbre. “And put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.”

I was in my car, listening to the broadcast on the radio, and when Cherry put the emphasis on “kooks” I burst out laughing. Ford took the mic next, and, thanks to this splendidly manufactured contrast, came across for the first time in his life as a gentleman of understated and considerate character. I wanted to stop the car and applaud, but behind my revelry was an edge of nervousness that kept me from truly enjoying the moment. Not for Toronto, mind you, or even for myself: left-wing kooks like me actually take a perverse pleasure in public humiliations that prove us, beyond all shadow of a doubt, completely wrong. Those giddy moments bolster what's left of our flagging faith in humanity. No, I was nervous for Don Cherry, because I think I'm watching him write his own final chapter. And it's looking pretty sad.

Don Cherry has paradoxically managed to charm his way into the hearts of millions of Canadian television viewers (including my own) simply by being who he is. He talks about what's important to him, and what's important to him is often what's important to the people watching him: chiefly hockey, of course, but also the fate of our soldiers, and other hard-working joes having a tough time making a go of it. Like many of the extreme-right blowhards to the south of us, Cherry is incredibly showy, but unlike many of the same it is never just for show. The impression most of us have, thanks in large part to the masterful massaging touch of Ron MacLean, Cherry's HNIC straight-man and long-time friend, is that Cherry will never say something he doesn't believe, or force himself to believe something he's been asked to say.

MacLean, however, is carrying more and more of Cherry's weight these days. Cherry's age is showing, and the moments when MacLean has to feed or finish one of Cherry's lines are increasing. And that's just hockey. As for the politics, once the cheerful questioning of a respectful side-kick has been removed, Cherry's perspective on things starts to look shopworn or, worse, naïve.

Adding his bellow to the bullhorns wielded by Ford and Julian Fantino is unfortunate for Cherry. No doubt they're fine fellows at a backyard barbecue, but professionally they have already proven themselves to be slippery and frequently contemptible politicians. The lift Cherry gives these candidates will be temporary. Their final effect on him, on the other hand, could likely stick, and not smell nearly so sweet.

That's a lousy way for one of Canada's “national treasures” to go into that good night. But there it is: it's a sin to entice your sidekick into the grave with you, because the Longest Journey is inevitably a solo one. Cherry seems intent on taking those initial steps now.

Text and audio here. It's sheer speculation on my part, but I wonder if this isn't the piece Cherry was railing against — a must-read for any fan of "Canada's Game."

Friday, December 03, 2010

Mel Birnkrant, The Colorforms Years

Cory Doctorow at Boing-Boing links to Mel Birnkrat's reminiscences of designing toys in the 70s and 80s -- a "golden age" by Doctorow's lights. I saw the Outer Space Men display, and figured I was in for a lengthy exploration of Matt Mason & Co., the "golden age" of toys by my lights. Imagine my surprise, then, when the toy company in question turned out to be Colorforms, a name that during my childhood was synonymous with thrift and lockjaw articulation. These were the toys that quickly found their way to the bottom of the toy box, then the garbage can.

Imagine my further surprise when I looked at my computer clock and realized I had actually spent an entire hour poring over this man's memories and illustrations. In the 70s he and a team of artists took their mutual obsession with vintage toys and illustrations and pretty much set the aesthetic template that brought about a mutual renaissance for the licensing suits at Disney and the Children's Television Workshop.

Birnkrat seems a bit rueful about the now predominant image of Mod Mickey with foot out, arms behind back. He won't claim any credit for generating this enduring gust of zeitgeist, but Birnkrat certainly proved himself as a finely attuned weather vane, back in the day. Here's a shot of his desk.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Old Town Hall

Do my eyes deceive me?!



Our current town hall is in the foreground, by the way. And, yes indeed, the shakes and shingles on the old town hall belfry are being replaced -- by professionals.





I haven't yet been inside, so I have no idea what's going on there, if anything. But one could almost take this as a hopeful sign. For contrast, this and this is what the old town hall like four years ago.

Alice Cooper (Yet Again)

One DVD I recently did purchase on impulse is Alice Cooper's Theatre of Death — Live At The Hammersmith 2009 (A). At first glance the package appeared to be an incredible bargain: for less than $20 I got the concert on DVD and CD, with a setlist of 26 songs that pretty much covers his most hummable “classicks.” I didn't take the second glance until I opened the package at home and realized that, in order to run through so many crowd-pleasers in a mere 96 minutes, the act of truncation wouldn't be restricted to the stage guillotine.

While the song-snippet approach reduces the likelihood of me playing the CD a second time, it's certainly an effective tack for Cooper's stage show. The old man and his crew of youngsters don't just canter through his musical ouevre, they sprint through his collected hodgepodge of macabre stage stunts, too. Here, too, the audience pretty much gets the sum total of Coop's legendary antics. I watched it with the kids. I can't remember which one said, “That would be cool to see in person,” but that rather neatly summed up my own thoughts as well.



As I watched the show I took note of a handful of songs I couldn't quite place. The ever-helpful internet informed me they were all from Goes To Hell (1975, A), an album I had yet to listen to. I corrected that oversight, et voila — I discovered toast! Goes To Hell is one very hammy, self-indulgent, entertaining album. And funny, too: the first time the 13-year-old heard Cooper croon, “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows” she burst into giggles.

Thirty-five years later, Cooper's voice has nowhere near the same expressive range, and the Hammersmith show, so tightly focused on delivering spectacle, leaves no room for Coop's former broad smirk. Back in the day he clearly reveled in the absurdity of it all — the growing feedback loop of fame, controversy, infamy — and took deliberate aim at the jocular vein. The clown has been discarded with the infamy, I think. But it's still gratifying to see Alice Cooper working hard to make sure the audience gets its money's worth. It all remains delightfully energetic nonsense.

WP Flashback: 2007 was the year Cooper got my number.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Boxed Set, Continued: Resistance Is ... Futile?

The impulse DVD purchase sure ain't what it used to be, now that video-on-demand is so very accessible. Throw in the chastening effect of considerable personal experience and it's a wonder I buy DVDs at all. How many times have I dropped $25 or more on some “special edition” of a movie I remembered oh-so-fondly, only to take it home, pop it in the player and realize within 20 minutes that I was reheating a turkey? Even if the movie is my personal Citizen Kane the fact is I'm still getting older, time is moving faster, and the list of yet-to-be-seen “Don't You Miss It!” material is growing exponentially by the day.

So how is it my weekly visits to Costco keep rocking me on my heels, despite this jaded state of mind? It's Christmas, of course: the season for boxed sets. I rifle through the display the way I once rifled through hockey cards. “Got 'im, got 'im, need 'im, got 'im . . . uh . . . mm, future rental . . . got 'im,” etc. Springsteen & Co. enticed me last week. This week I saw Costco selling the complete Man From U.N.C.L.E. for the exact same price ($78).



Yowsa, what kitschy packaging! Time-Warner-HBO certainly knows how to appeal to the boy inside the man (and really: how many women get excited by DVD packaging?). If they had Saran-Wrapped the AMT model to the “briefcase” there's no earthly way I could have resisted the lure, even if I'd fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.

But resist I did — just barely. It helped to keep several recent and relatively inexpensive disappointments top-of-mind. I couldn't pass up The Prisoner for $30 — the classic Patrick McGoohan vehicle, of course, not the recent reheat. When I sat the family down and played the first disc, the reaction I received was . . . well, let's just say that my reciprocal reaction to Glee is more ebullient. And even I had to admit this recent exposure was a mixed bag of tricks. As with Star Trek: TOS, much of The Prisoner's enduring charm lies in its period-piece curiosity factor. If the viewer isn't braced for trippy-hippie hijinx and scenery-chewing histrionics, it is difficult to make much of a case for the show's intellectual content. (I had to wonder which acid flashback was the greater torment: The Village or The Banana Splits?)

More pertinently, this summer I picked up the first season of I Spy (five bucks!) a series often touted as the most superior of the Bond spin-offs, what with its interracial duo and international location shoots. Watching it for the first time, some forty years after it first aired, I can certainly acknowledge the innovation and risks that Culp & Cosby took. The first episode sends the two off to China to intercept an athlete intent on defecting to the Reds. The athlete is obviously modeled on Muhammad Ali, and Cosby's character stifles a very convincing impatience with the man's ego and political naiveté. But this is a 90-second scene in an episode that swings a heavy moral hammer to considerably less effect than Roddenberry did, and concludes with a merry little chase-on-foot through the slums of Hong Kong. Family Verdict? “Dad, please. We'd rather watch The Prisoner.”

Also on sale (same price as Boxes Boss & U.N.C.L.E.) is the complete Get Smart, which remains far and away the best DVD investment I've made — one increasingly unlikely to ever be usurped. Get Smart has the period-piece curiosity factor in spades, of course. But more than that, it's remarkable how much better this series was at conveying the same social commentary as the material it was spoofing, while retaining a capacity to entertain through nearly five decades. In fact, now that I think of it, the case could be made that time has only added to the series' already formidable entertainment cache.

And so the U.N.C.L.E. briefcase was returned to its place. And I returned to mine, where I could settle for the better value of another go-round with Agents 86 and 99, while gently nudging the imagination through remembered projections of fevered deprivation.

Links: DVD sets: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (A), I Spy (A), The Prisoner (A). Note the on-line cost difference. And it's increasingly difficult for me to maintain my resistance after reading this guy. Thankfully, there is also this guy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Darkness On The Edge Of My Credit Card Statement

Yesterday at Costco I beheld the Super-Size Me treatment of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The only thing that stopped me from throwing it into my cart was a preternatural awareness of the expenses we're facing as a family on the downward slide into Christmas.



Then I thought back to my zeal for Donald Fagen's boxed set, and how that finally played out. I looked again at this fab bit of packaging and thought, "This is something I'd really love . . . to borrow." I am not dropping hints here. I'm just sayin': my culling instinct isn't done with me yet. And the more I relieve my sagging book-and-music-and-video shelves, the more prone I am to recognize those objects which are unlikely to sustain my interest once the initial "wow" factor has worn off.

Anyhow: Patterson Hood has some deep thoughts (followed by some cool downloads) on the Darkness box (which he was probably comped with) over here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mr. Darwin's Shooter, Take One

It was like the brain had several parts, each representing a faculty of thought, such as love, morality, veneration, greed, preferment, lasciviousness. Covington knew that his own head was a lumpy job. He knew which qualities gave him an itch in the belly, and which made him whistle with hope and pleasure when he woke in the morning and jumped to his duties after saying his prayers. Between the bumps on his head and the blood in his veins there was this third capacity making him glad. It was the spirit of the Lord, the joy of being alive. He would be robbed of his meaning without it.

Thanks to the limits of inter-library loans, at some point today I will have to sit and quaff down the remaining 135 pages of Roger McDonald's fine novel, Mr. Darwin's Shooter (A). I have savored it at a leisurely pace, which I think is how the book begs to be read. Unfortunately I have been too leisurely in my savoring and have exhausted my limit of renewals.

I could, and probably will, buy the book on-line, but I'm now thirsty for the conclusion. This isn't a narrative built on unforeseeable surprises. We meet two Covingtons as the book progresses: a young man taken up by “the spirit of the Lord” and eagerly exploring every pleasure in the wide natural world; and an older, bitter man hobbled with manifold injuries, the worst of which is inflicted on his consciousness. We know from the title some of what has taken place to bring about the latter. Covington is Mr. Darwin's shooter, and in the course of his assisting the young doctor in his efforts to establish the theory of natural selection will find himself bereft of the spirit of the Lord.

McDonald's historical fiction is lovingly detailed, but he imbues his protagonist with a ferocious energy and activity that carves tantalizing gaps in this tapestry. The full story is knit-together — re-knit, really — over the course of the novel. I don't expect it, but even if the final third of the novel were to fall flat, Mr. Darwin's Shooter would be a candidate for the most memorable novel read this year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gasperau, Yet Again

It is old news to Canadians that Gasperau has hammered out a deal with Douglas & McIntyre for the trade-paperback edition of Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists. On further reflection this seems the right thing to do: had they dug in their heels as the sole publishers of this year's Giller winner, Gasperau would have become The Long-Running Skibsrud Show. After all they do have other, equally worthy authors on their catalog.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Circumnavigating Coupland

I know I've been a bit snippy toward Douglas Coupland lately. I've been a bit snippy toward nearly everyone and everything lately, so, World: I apologize. I'll try to do better.

Getting back to Coupland: he was tapped on the shoulder to do this year's CBC Massey Lecture series — here is the official link. Did you see that bit about being "widely regarded as the most important public lectures in Canada"? Kinda says more than the flack who wrote those words probably intended, doesn't it? But first time listeners should be forewarned: it's usually only a matter of time before the stuffed shirt delivering the lectures gets your back up.

Last year's lectures by Wade Davis (A) certainly accomplished that with me. A well-traveled, studied, accomplished anthropologist, Davis is appropriately horrified at the precipice our species teeters on thanks to its heedless submission to the tenets of modernity and materialism. His five lectures tucked into a feast of delicious detail culled from the just-barely-surviving wisdom traditions from a few tenacious tribal cultures in extreme climates. While I appreciated much, if not most, of his appeal, his lush praise for the ancient also struck me as a tad naive, if not conveniently two-faced. In the early 70s my grandfather pastored a Mennonite colony in Paraguay, and was frequently amused by the meddling of ardent anthropology students from el Norte. He told of a meeting he encountered between a tribe and a student. The erstwhile anthropologist was lecturing the chief, beseeching him to pull his people back into the jungle where life was good. The chief listened patiently. When he finally was given a chance to respond, he basically hiked a thumb over his shoulder and said, "The bush is that way, kid. If you like our ancient way of life so much, you're welcome to live it."

So, yeah: Coupland should feel right at home with this format. And you may find yourself, as I frequently do, tried by the tone of voice. But if you don't mind the provocation — if, indeed, you actively seek it out — "the most important public lectures in Canada" might just be your cup of tea.

They are, for the moment, available as a downloadable podcast here (scroll down to 2010 CBC Massey Lectures and right-click on the links). Or, if you prefer a more flingable format, the book can be had at Amazon.

Wiki: Massey Lectures.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Color Is Your Poppy?

The White Poppy is finally picking up some Canadian supporters, and generating the usual controversy that goes with it. Some surviving veterans from World War II are grousing that the white poppy is a sign of disrespect to them, and to the fallen — “our” fallen, as they are inclined to say, ignoring the fact that an increasing number of Canadian families do not have anyone in their lineage who served in either of the supposedly global conflicts.

Two members of my family served, and one is still alive. He is usually mute on the subject, but he once admitted that as his war in Europe was winding down he applied for transfer to the Asian arena because he was sure he no longer had the capacity for civilian life. I think it is fair, if grossly understated, to suggest he has conflicted feelings about his experiences as a combat soldier.

My own feelings are conflicted when it comes to honoring our fallen. Out in this part of Ontario we have a stretch of 16-lane highway that our Conservative Prime Minister has dubbed “The Highway Of Heroes.” Whenever one of our soldiers is killed in Afghanistan, their remains are flown back to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, then shuttled down this highway via a convoy of hearses and police cruisers to Forensic Sciences in Toronto.

I've witnessed this grim convoy three times. The highway is closed and cleared. Bridges over it are filled with firefighters and citizens paying homage. The convoy flies silently over the empty asphalt. One of those black cars is carrying what's left of a man younger than myself. The other cars contain his family members. There are probably a million strange and predictable factors that led to this person enlisting, then fighting and dying in an entirely foreign country. But the blunt fact is he was killed obeying the orders of our government.

Meanwhile, military personnel who return with injuries and/or severe cases of PTSD face the fight of their lives when they attempt to coax medical support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veteran ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran has suggested our country behaves as if it would prefer our soldiers die on the battlefield. Meanwhile, no-one seems able to say how long we'll keep troops in Afghanistan, or what their final objective might reasonably be.

“Funerals are for the living,” my preacher grandfather used to counsel. Remembrance Day services are, too. If participants bore that in mind, we might spare ourselves from both the mawkish and the hawkish. I hope I can be forgiven for wearing both colors of poppy this week.

Also: Tony Hillerman remembers.

How 'bout That?

Well, well. I don't know why, but I expected someone else to win -- the Mennonite, maybe (again). But there you have it: Gaspereau will now make a few people very, very happy at Christmas -- or not.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Gaspereau Press

Last night my wife and I were discussing which posts from the last five years merited a transition to paper. The conversation quickly turned to publishing models, and who might best endure the current stormy sea-change. I raised Gaspereau Press as a group I admired, and hoped would flourish.

Gaspereau places an emphasis on craft and aesthetics. Their books are outstandingly beautiful and, due to their material and construction, will outlast anything on the current hardcover bestseller list. Or perhaps I should say, “Anything else on the current hardcover bestseller list,” because with the recent Giller Prize shortlist, Gaspereau finds itself at an unexpected crossroads.

The Giller is a big deal in Canada. The event itself is Big Top glitz — champagne, tux-and-tails, lovely young things and industry mucky-mucks having a high time of it. It's all quite pleasant for the shortlisted authors, too, regardless of who wins. Their profiles and sales get a significant nudge. The winner receives $50,000 — and a huge bump in sales.

Gaspereau has a book on the Giller shortlist: Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists. Skibsrud has done well with Gaspereau; this short novel as well as a previous collection of her poetry received the top-drawer treatment that honors the author's words with a reciprocal devotion to craft and detail. But with the sudden surge of Giller attention, she and Gaspereau are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Current demand is greater than their arcane production methods can meet. Should Gaspereau farm out production to a larger publisher — temporarily, just this once — to give the author the full benefit of the boosted public attention?

In interviews Skibsrud seems a bit rueful about the effect the Gaspereau philosophy is having on her fortunes as a writer. It's hard to blame her. If the product was available, her royalty cheques would be looking pretty good right now. The difficulty from the publisher's point of view is in ascertaining the actual demand. Unfortunately the final, glum reality is that even Giller winners get remaindered and/or pulped, because book stores (particularly That Canadian Behemoth) anxious for stock inevitably raise projected demand way above the actual demand. This wreaks devastation on the perilously slender profit margins of a small press.

But Gaspereau's aesthetic throws another curve into the problem. As that lovable aesthete, Alice Cooper, has pointed out: if you want to increase demand for a product — whether it's a rock show or a golf club — restrict its availability. Skibsrud's book is the one people are talking about, because when they asked for it at That Canadian Behemoth they were told it is “unavailable for order.”

I hope Skibsrud takes some solace in Cooper's wisdom, because I think Gaspereau is doing the right thing — for the environment, for the publishing/book selling scene, for the public imagination. Hell, if it's the words you want, you can get 'em right now as an eBook for a mere $15 (or less). But if it's the book you want — because you don't just take words seriously, you take books seriously — there's nothing for it: it's cash up front, then join the queue.

Gasperau, Redux

“I like that,” said my wife. “But it would never work for publishers of youth fiction.”

Whoah. Truer words were never spoken. When teens fall in love with a book, they don't just want to read it again and again: they want to read all of its many, many sequels. Trilogies are good, but sweeping sagas are so much better. Authorial typing/publisher printing cannot be done quickly enough to sate the literate adolescent.

The girls polished off The Hunger Games trilogy in short order. Right now they are taken with Michael Grant's Gone series. My older daughter lives in the hope that she will enjoy all four of P.D. Baccalario's Century Quartet books, but I wouldn't put money on it. Baccalario will have to type faster if he hopes to close two more sales before my daughter's growing perspicacity sniffs out his deficits as a writer.

The teen market is significant — in fact it's likely the sole aspect of publishing that's keeping print afloat. And quality control is, for the most part, optional (the sole exception being series continuity: publishers can let grammar take a hit, or authorial voice and perspective slip in a kaleidoscopic flurry, but they'd better keep a sharp eye on continuity). Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had it right: if you have a good thing going with teen readers, the words “too hasty” do not apply to publication.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Comparative Education

My grade seven science teacher reached for the yardstick and asked me to come to the front of the class. He told me to bend over his lab desk. I complied and he gave me a smart swat just above my ass-cheeks, then he told me to sit down again. I no longer remember what I did to earn it, but the welt took just over a week to fade away.

My grade eight English teacher took my friend down to a small room behind the office, where the teacher hit him with a leather strap 16 times. My friend later wondered if this “licking” mightn't have ended sooner if he'd burst into tears earlier.

If you were a stoner or a day-dreamer in my grade nine history class it was only a matter of time before you were hoisted to your feet by the ears. And while the historical record was attended to with some competency, this adult man applied a truly energetic imagination to his verbal cataloging of an individual student's personal failings. One afternoon he spoke fondly of the Flin-Flon high school teacher who used the staff toilet to water-board a 15-year-old Bobby Clarke. In the silence that followed, he gazed at the florescent lights overhead, this image now becoming only a vague memory of the glorious days when a teacher could, with impunity, deal any manner of physical abuse to his adolescent students.

All three of these guys went on to retire with full benefits. I thought of them this morning when I dropped my daughters off at school. My daughters are accumulating the usual wounds of adolescence — that acidic petri dish of Social Darwinism. But, so far as I can see, their teachers aren't actively contributing to the abuse. Instead it looks to me like they're doing as much as we enable them to do to shepherd these kids through to the other side.

It's progress of a sort.

Link: It Gets Better -- for ostracized teens of any sexuality.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Rallying?

Unfortunately, I'm too agoraphobic to enjoy any sort of rally. But thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can enjoy this weekend's funny signs. Link via ALD.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Lonely Avenue: Ben Folds Adds Music & Melody To Nick Hornby's Words

I am not a fan of The Compact Disc. Sure, when it first came out I was as charmed as anyone by the lack of surface noise and the previously non-transferable bright end of the recording spectrum. I sold myself out to it exclusively — my first collection of stereo components did not include a turntable. But it did not take long for the honeymoon to end.

Unlike its more commanding parent, The Long Playing Record, which demands to be either stored away or put on prominent display, there is something about the physical format of the CD that prompts itself toward clutter. There is no attractive way to display these little plastic boxes (or “jewel cases” as they've been erroneously, or ironically, named). And the leaflets they protect are a scant product. What additional material do they give the listener to ponder? A photograph or two of the band, lyrics in an aloof san serif font and the usual “thank you”s — God, Gibson & Grandma. If that. Sometimes all the customer gets is a track listing. When That Corporate Digital Behemoth finally announced it had figured out a way to provide listeners with the sound and performers with a little chump change, I actually rejoiced. Perhaps now I could finally remove all that — here’s the word again — clutter from the living room and refurbish the place with the antique and ornate forms of old: books and albums. Wife permitting, of course.

But there are exceptions — three of them, in fact. That's right: three CDs I would recommend solely for the packaging.

#3: I, Flathead, Deluxe Edition by Ry Cooder
(A). The “shocking full-length false memoire” (sic) enclosed is beautifully formatted, if less-than-compelling, reading. In this case, the substance of it exists as a loving vanity stand for the real material: one of the finest collections of songs to come out in the last five years.

#2: Lonely Avenue, Deluxe Edition by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, with four stories by Hornby and photographs by Joel Meyerowitz (A). Anyone who likes Hornby’s writing can't help but be pleased with this purchase. Four stories, lyrics, liner notes and an e-mail exchange between the collaborators — for this content alone, it is money well spent. As for the music . . . more later.

#1: 10,000 Days by Tool (A). I’m pleased to see that this CD still seems to be required stock in places that still sell CDs. If you don’t yet have a copy of this, hike out to your music store as soon as possible. You should spot this pretty quickly: it is the largest and ugliest looking thing on the rack. It looks like a fat plastic wallet festooned with a pair of cheap magnifying glasses. In fact, those lenses are required for viewing the contents of the package — photos of the band members posing as alchemists, esoteric illustrations by Alex Grey — which are laid out in stereoscopic 3-D splendor. Anyone with the slightest yen for metal should dig the music, too, for its competent use of contrapuntal rhythms and lack of cookie-monster vocals. And for its sincere use of esoterica (also on display on their website). This is the kind of package that gets a guy like Erik Davis very excited, which, once upon a time, was the kind of thing that made rock ‘n’ roll a garish circus you could not take your eyes off of.

Alright: so we have a single Sony product nudging out two by the vastly more ambitious Nonesuch Records. Onward, then, to Lonely Avenue and its music.



First spin: it struck me quite forcefully, as I listened to Folds stretch a musical phrase to make room for Hornby’s syllables, just how suggestive successful pop music has to be, of necessity. And I’m not just speaking of the sexually suggestive, although a little of that goes a very long way. Successful pop music manages to evoke all manner of yearning and regret, shame and joy. The more implicit the sentiment, the more powerful the song. Unfortunately for the cognizant among us, suggestiveness can be accomplished by bluntly stupid lyrics attached to a simply constructed hook. This was made obvious to me when Steve Almond splenetically rendered the unintentional hilarity in the lyrics of Toto’s “Africa” as I read before bed. Next morning, of course, I was passionately singing the offending song as I showered.

As Folds sang Hornby’s incisive lyrics, I found myself chafing against the explicit and yearning for the implicit. Today’s “alternative” acts might be overly smitten with the nonsensical, but any performer who allows the listener to fill in the gaps — no matter how abysmal — is paying the patron the highest compliment. The first time around with this collection, I too frequently felt spoken to.

Subsequent plays, while not as off-putting, still weren’t winning me over. Folds’ music was sweeping, snappy, polished: was I to lay the fault solely at Hornby’s feet? I ruminated over the lyrics. The only song I really dislike is “Levi Johnston’s Blues” for subject matter that already lacks nuance, and which grates on me nearly as much as Johnston’s on-again/off-again mother-in-law does. As for the rest, the best of them approach the comic defeatism of Steely Dan’s “What A Shame About Me” (“Your Dogs” “Password” “Doc Pomus”) minus the reliably ironic back-beat, or unfold with Elvis Costello-like moribundity (“A Picture Window” “Claire’s Ninth”) minus the reliably personal stake that Costello has in all his songs (sorry, Ben, but that’s your department).

Ah, but don’t mind me. Odds are I’m still nursing a grudge for the less-than-glowing review Hornby gave Steely Dan ten years ago. “Steely Dan needs to loosen up a little,” wrote Hornby: “pop music is still pop music, no matter how smart you are.” Any doctor can prescribe, of course. And there is a moment on Lonely Avenue when the “loosen up” is attended to: we hear Ben Folds delivering “Belinda” with all the balls-out ardor of a younger Little Richard. It’s a hint of the sort of playing around that went on behind the scenes as he and Hornby tried to reconnoiter their way into the project, and it’s catchy as hell. Unfortunately, it’s a last-minute throw-on: the final 11 seconds of the album’s final song.

Oh well. Buy it for the package. Maybe you'll love the music, maybe you won't. Either way, you won’t be sorry.

Post-script:
Metacritic tabulates a metascore of 63 for Lonely Avenue, here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hef, Yet Again

At 73 Hef is dating college-age twins (Sandy and Mandy) as well as another young woman (Brande) and a fourth (whose name doesn't rhyme). He starts telling us about how the twins had never been to Disneyland, then goes off on a tangent about staying in touch with the passions of youth. And for a minute — even though this is Hugh Hefner sitting here in pajama bottoms and we're surrounded by nude portraits of his estranged wife and even though we were just talking about the great group-sex parties of the '70s and the man had stopped for a second to clarify that he was “not an eccentric” and then had laughed weirdly — he seems to be channeling the spirit of Walt Disney. Quietly he asks, “What kinds of dreams did you have when you were a kid, and what's the grown-up version of that?”

This is a message of a half century of sexual wisdom. And it is oddly comforting and mesmerizing. He nearly whispers, “Hold on to your dreams and don't be confused by what everybody else tells you you ought to be doing.” There is a cuckooing of exotic birds outside, and you can almost hear Jiminy Cricket piping up:
If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.

"The Road To Boobville"
by Adam Sachs, GQ, December 1999. My thoughts on Hef are here. Ebert, on the other hand, is a little more smitten.

1976 by Lorrie Moore

In 1976 the media culture, newly experimenting with public talking cures, helped foster a more interesting kind of self-pity (farewell to Nixon's antique and unconvincing “I'm not a crook”). In 1976 we had Betty Ford, the outgoing First Lady who later would confess to substance abuse. And we had a new president who would confess to lust — at a time when this was unprecedented and not yet required by the attorney general's office.

Indeed, Jimmy Carter's 1976 grassroots presidential campaign brought us something new, and not just double-digit inflation and soaring interest rates. A president so deeply well intentioned — a president in
denim — was something this country had never seen before. For Jimmy Carter, the denim may have been a statement, but it wasn't yet a cynical costume. For that we needed Reagan. Then Bush, then Lamar Alexander. For Bill Clinton, apparently, clothing itself was a cynical costume.

Lorrie Moore, on her favorite year, for GQ, December 1999.

The Perils of Mid-Life

“Wait a minute,” said my wife. “Did you buy the whole album?”

It was Sunday night. The girls were organizing their knapsacks for the school-week ahead, their mother and I were nursing the dregs of the evening's martini. We were all in the kitchen and music was playing through the speakers. The family has an assortment of “music file players” and we take turns plugging them into the kitchen tunes contraption. Tonight was my turn. The music seemed to catch my wife off-guard, and what she thought might be a singular lapse on my part was quickly proving to be corporate.

“Erm, CD, actually,” I said. “I bought the CD.” A double-CD, in fact — which I did not have the courage to admit. “Ease up, will you? I daresay you know the words to a few of these songs.”

“I know the words to all these songs,” she said. “I'm just not happy about it. Unlike you, apparently. What . . . possessed you?”

Nostalgia. In high school I had a buddy who took over his mother's Plymouth Duster. The car came with an eight-track cassette deck, and three eight-track cassettes. One of those was a gospel quartet, which even we could not stomach. The other two we didn't mind, and played to death. Or so I thought at the time.

I explained this to my perplexed wife.

“Well, sure,” she said. “But still: the Carpenters?

Hm. In hindsight the other performer might have been a touch easier to explain. John Denver, anyone?

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Long, Strange Trip Is Mightier Than The Pen

I had trouble coming up with a title for this post, which is really little more than an excuse to link to Jeff Baker's erudite review of Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD & The Politics of Ecstasy by Mark Christensen. I link because the conversation turned (briefly) to those lovable hippies and their scribes: Kesey, Vonnegut, Heller, Brautigan, Robbins. Hm. All guys, and most of 'em too old to actually be hippies.

Who am I missing -- besides Erica Jong?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Culling, Continued

Sure, it's a conveniently-sized, oh-so-tidy spot for me to store all my music, from the quirky to the glorious to the gloriously quirky. Sure, I've listened to everything on it at least once. But as the song count on my iPod approaches the 5,000 mark, I have to wonder if I'm not the musical embodiment of The Rich Fool.

It looks like Terry Teachout is in a frame of mind somewhat similar to my own.

Tom Carson on Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin is alarmingly at home in The Dirty Dozen. He almost makes its cynical point of view look respectable, not by finding it profound but simply by enjoying himself in a way that amounts to an endorsement. Facing a crop of newbies all eager to go over big — John Cassavetes and Donald Sutherland, for two — he looks as amused by the idea that they can compete with his serene underplaying as an elephant surrounded by chimps. They're all playing murderers and head cases, but to him it's a given that he's more formidably frightening, because he doesn't need to be psychotic to act this way — just to trust his superior acquaintance with how the world works. He sells the movie by finding nothing in it surprising.

"The Big One" by Tom Carson, GQ, April 2005. With fab illo by Tavis Coburn.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mood, Moody, And Reader Response

As our family prepared for a week of vacation in Maine, I deliberated over which novel to bring along. I had hoped to luck into used copies from Maine's literary habitués (particularly Richard Russo and Stephen King) but, alas, geography-specific fiction was not in my cards. Since the plan was to drive through northern New York, which I considered John Gardner Country (even if we would be missing Batavia by a wide sweep), I meditated on his titles for a few minutes before deciding against it. Eventually I settled on my old, previously attempted copy of Rick Moody's The Diviners.

I haven't a clue what made me think this go-round would be any more successful than my previous attempts. Twice before I had returned the book to its spot on the shelf, always for the usual reason: what Moody had hoped would be challenging, I read as self-indulgent and distracting. But then we all know story-tellers who beguile their listeners with those very traits — the uncle who laughs hardest at his own joke — so maybe now was the moment for me to share in the laughter.

Turns out it was. I thought the book was a hoot. I was in a satisfied state of mind when I finished, which stayed with me for the next few weeks.

Given my yin-yang experience of the novel, I doubt I could motivate others to read it. The least persuasive aspect of the novel is its central premise: a malleable story about generations of water-dowsers that inspires everyone who hears about it to put their previous lives on hold so they can to get it into production. So much ink and air was expelled to give this concept life, but since none of it struck me as either funny or moving, it instead came off as lame. Still, the characters that got whipped into a froth over it were lovable mutts. I was glad I'd kept the book around.

There are a few dozen other titles with similar potential, parked on dusty bookshelves in different corners of the house. I live in the hope I'll eventually experience a similar awakening unique to each. Odds are they already occupy space in Richard Brautigan's Bookstore (link).

Getting back to Stephen King for a moment (who, I suspect, had some admiration for Brautigan): Sam Sacks really takes the boots to King, not just for the prose, but for the pose. I don't have a dog in this fight (so far as I know) — I loved this book when I was a kid, and thought these two provided worthy moments for kids and adults — but I have been struck by King's surliness toward critics and prize awarders, and even his own publishers and readers. Dude: you're richer than God, everyone who reads English has read at least one of your books, you have a wife who loves you and children who show up at Thanksgiving — content yourself, o mortal!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Magazines And What's Worth Keeping

The basement purge began in earnest this August. And one of my foremost realizations while purging was, there are very very few magazines worth holding on to past the end of the month.

Not that I've had an easy time throwing them away. I've been slowly culling through the bales of print in the basement, and while 99% of what I'm looking at gets a quick flick into the Blue Box, there is still the occasional issue that returns to the (now roomier) shelf downstairs. Then there are others joining a growing pile next to the door, because they have one or two articles that still engage, or maybe even just a quote or two.

I've decided that if it's just a quote I'm keen on, I should post it up here and give the bundle of paper the old heave-ho. If the article is on-line I will link to it; otherwise, the enjoyable quote just exists as it is, in all its virtual, context-free glory. For the first example, scroll down.

Wayne Coyne Quote

A lot of people ask me what song I wish I had written. C'mon, that's easy — “Happy Birthday.” That's a useful little song, isn't it? You start singing “Happy Birthday” and things start happening. People start smiling, they start singing along. Well, that's what rock 'n' roll is, if it's done right. It's useful. You do it right, and people generally have a pretty good time. They go to the concert, they talk to their friends, they drink beer, and hopefully they go home and have sex. That's what rock 'n' roll is about; that's what it's always been about — that's the deal. But a guy like Beck, he doesn't know that because, you know, he's Beck. He thinks it's about him. He thinks that when he's walking down the hallway before the show, the people out there are thinking about him walking down the hallway, because he's the artist. And I'm like, “Beck, I hate to break this to you, but for most of those people, you're the entertainment. They're not thinking of you. They're thinking of whether they're going to have sex tonight. So entertain them and help them have sex.” And so, at the beginning of this tour, Beck wanted the shows to be very serious. He's a serious artist, he's come out with a serious album, he wants to do a serious show. And I'm like, “Beck, what are you, Elvis Costello? People like Elvis, but secretly they think he's boring. You're Beck. You do that funny little hipster dance. People love the hipster dance. If you don't do the hipster dance, people are going to be disappointed. So do the hipster dance.” And Beck's like, “But I want these shows to be serious.” And I'm like, “Beck, I go out there and pour fake blood all over myself while singing 'Happy Birthday.' The least you can do is dance.”

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, from Have You Met The Lips? by Tom Junod, Esquire Magazine, March 2003.

Still On The "Whither Criticism?" Front:

Over at First Things R.R. Reno wonders if a passion for theory doesn't run the risk of becoming idolatry. Hm — “Whisky Prajer: Man of Letters.” Kinda has a ring to it, I think!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Soundtrack For The Slough

Neither of my trusty comfort food authors — George Pelecanos or James Lee Burke — seem to be reaching me this time around. There’s no point in me getting technical about the distance, since they’re doing pretty much what I’ve always paid them to do. The problem lies with me: I’m momentarily mired in a wee slough of despond, in which the usual charmers have lost their powers to distract.



There are a number of reasons for this. I left my job in June. It was, and remains, the right thing for me to do, and it freed me up wonderfully for the summer. But I haven’t yet found another to replace it, and I miss the contact with other people, especially now that the girls are back in school.

Also, this month marks the second anniversary of my father-in-law’s death, and I think my wife and I miss him more this year than we did last. So it goes. Although there is a certain amount of activity a person should engage in to prevent grief from slipping into self-indulgence, the absence must be acknowledged. Attention must be paid.

Even in this condition, however, it surprises me that Mordecai Richler’s social dyspepsia fails to move me. In preparation for Montreal I pulled Barney’s Version off the shelf, figuring I’d best give it one last read before Paul Giamatti’s mug permanently burned itself into my brain as the lovably difficult (to say the least) Barney Panofsky. I have to say, 45 is a much better age to read this book than 32 was. Even so, I’m taken aback to realize that nearly all the cultural/historical points of reference that Richler/Panofsky comment on with such acidity have pretty much passed their “best before” date. Richler seems to have sensed this eventuality, and wields these details with a canny awareness of their, and his narrator’s — and his own — mortality. Still, it makes my bittersweet read of the book more bitter than sweet. I can’t imagine a 25-year-old Canadian reader connecting with this book at all, never mind at the pleasantly superficial level I seemed to 13 years ago.

Thankfully, music still hath charms. In a last-minute scramble to use up my monthly downloads at eMusic, I tripped across Signify by Porcupine Tree — and fell in love. PT’s rep seems to be “new prog.” I haven’t heard enough of what they’re up to lately to comment, but this artifact from 1996 is moody and ethereal (“atmospheric” to use the parlance), occasionally lyrical in a Flaming Lips sort of way. Sampling is judiciously resorted to: one or two evangelists are recruited for sound-bites that could, but needn’t, be heard ironically (although if one of these evangelists is, as I suspect, Benny Hinn, irony is better than he deserves). They struck me as a Life After God echo, which has a winning sincerity of sentiment for me. Signify plays like the last soundtrack to be broadcast before the Blade Runner world of indentured serfs and privileged enforcers finally took over.



My most recent aural fixation is with True Love Cast Out All Evil by Roky Erickson, former front-man for the 13th Floor Elevators. When it was first released in April I took only vague note of it. Erickson’s reputation to date had been as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most spectacular acid casualties, a la Syd Barrett and Brian Wilsonhere’s the wiki. True Love Cast Out All Evil was hailed as a recovery/comeback for Erickson, a designation that, for me, has all the appeal of reheated left-overs.

On one of my recent forays as Taxi-Driver To The Adolescents, I retrieved a copy of Mojo collecting dust on our coffee-table. I’d bought it some months earlier, but hadn’t yet leafed through it. I perused while waiting for the event to conclude, and found it to be exactly the sort of issue Mojo is occasionally brilliant at. Tom Waitsguest edits”, so that flavors much of what’s present. He interviews Hank III; Joe Henry interviews Harry Belafonte. And Bill Holdship gives a rave review for True Love Cast Out All Evil.

Until I read Holdship, I hadn’t realized just how deep an abyss Erickson has emerged from. And while True Love is all about the gift of recovery, it has a sound that echoes back into that void. Okkervil River, who I never had much of an ear for, prove themselves to be Erickson’s ideal collaborators, conjuring a background that drifts from dreamy to jarring to triumphant. The album is very much a gospel tent extravaganza, with a bloody-heart-on-the-shirtsleeves sincerity that will either convert the listener or send him back out to the cold back alleys of Hell. Something like this will never appeal to everyone, but it certainly feels like it has found me, and not the reverse.



Links: Barney's Version, Porcupine Tree, Roky Erickson, Okkervil River. And this guy writes quite the rave for True Love.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke

Darwyn Cooke's original outing with Richard Stark's Parker was a lushly rendered, graphic tour-de-force. With his second go-round, the aesthetic more or less remains, but much of the energy is gone. Part of this is due, I think, to Cooke's strict faithfulness to Stark's work. There are Parker books where the action is very physical, and moves relentlessly forward, The Hunter being one such. But there are also Parker books where most of the action is in Parker's head, as he adjusts tactics to stay one step ahead of his mark.

The Outfit (A) falls all-too-solidly into the latter category, which must have driven Cooke crazy. Midway through the adventure, Cooke resorts to several varieties of metatext, inserting a (vintage) men's magazine story to provide several pages of back-story, or ritzing out another caper in a Googie-graphic fashion that brought to my mind a very particular incarnation of the Wizard of Oz (source). Meta-text/narrative is a jarring strategy at the best of times, especially so in a work that is fighting stasis from the get-go.

The book concludes with the promise that "Parker will return in 2012." Two things are noteworthy about this announcement: (1) unlike the last outing, it makes no mention of which book Cooke will adapt next (2) Cooke has given himself a deadline that could extend to two years. I think both are worthy strategies with material that is as tricky to adapt as Parker, and I look forward to the next adventure.

Sorry: no illustrations with this post, because the stuff I'm wingeing about isn't the stuff on offer in teh interwebz. Thus far I'm the only one kvetching: this guy makes a strong case for the book. In his review, and other picture searches, all you get is Cooke's super-fab illos, which I've got nooooo beef with whatsoever.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Whither Canuckle-head Criticism, continued

André Alexis responds to his responders (the noisiest of them, at least). I continue to find it all quite thought-provoking, obviously. I realize my own response misses Alexis' larger point (this country's capacity to critically engage with the culture of the published word has faded to the point of obsolescence). But I still think the issue of writer and audience is pertinent. Can any writer content herself with being heard by an audience of one, or, possibly, none?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Lego Wedding Ring


This is amusing. I can't help but notice the Lego "bride" is head-and-shoulders taller than her groom. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I'm curious: are the mini-figs proportional to their human hosts? Also, what's with her ring? The single stud not good enough for her?

If they ever need marriage counseling, I've got the bricks.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stuck In The Middle With Franzen

'Tis the silly season for lovers of the printed (virtually or otherwise) word. It all began with the industry that's built itself up around Jonathan Franzen, of course. Time Magazine and a whole heap of others think he's Jesus with a Mac Book; others are sure he's the anti-Christ. This guy (linked via ALD) equates Franzen et al with "our bankers" -- to which I can only say, "Dude: time for a reality check." If there's a family sleeping in their car because Franzen spent five years writing Freedom, let me know at once.

It's either love or hate Franzen, isn't it? I haven't yet read the new book, but I kind of like his earlier stuff. I have very distinct visual memories from The Corrections, particularly of a younger Alfred in a white shirt, standing on a railroad trestle with a ball-peen hammer in hand. Franzen is, were I to resort to a reviewer-cliche, certainly an evocative writer.

Until it comes to sex: suddenly everything feels staged, and his characters have a distant, critical, authorial point of view I simply can't buy. Perhaps I should be the last to cast a stone, but I thought Enid's discussion of family financial strategy while fellating Alfred (complete with the Crumb-y onomatopoeia "glub") was a particularly vexatious low point in The Corrections -- and it occurs just pages after the scene on the trestle.

In the main, however, I do look forward to reading the new book -- as soon as it's available at the local library.

Elsewhere: I can't write in cafes -- especially not in my former place of employment, where everybody really does know my name. But malls? Give me a Bic and scribbler, and I'm off to the races.