Monday, March 31, 2008

Technical Difficulties

Sorry for the pause -- technical difficulties, doncha know. I'm told it's not my service provider's fault. In fact, I'm told it's never the service provider's fault.

Meatier subject matter forthcoming.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

King Leary by Paul Quarrington

While standing in line to pay for my groceries, I glanced over the usual World News headlines, gazed for a bit at Betty & Veronica, then turned to check out the left side of the queue. There were a couple of books, most of them devoted to recipes, astrology and whatnot. Also, a paperback novel by Paul Quarrington.


Turns out Paul Quarrington, probably the nation's most reliable producer of literary amusements since the passing of Mordecai Richler, won the CBC Radio Canada Reads competition for his 1987 novel King Leary. For the first time since the Corp cooked up this crazy competition I was a) surprised and b) delighted.

For the uninitiated, Canada Reads is a competition CBC Radio put on air just as Survivor was flexing its television muscle and turning prime time into a “reality” wasteland. The CR concept is something the SCTV crew would have had a field day with: five Canadian celebrities (see what I mean?) are pulled in to promote their favorite Canadian novels. At the end of the show, one novel is “voted off the island.” At the end of the series, the winner receives a chunk of change, along with invaluable Corporation attention, promotion and production (a dramatic rendering of the book). And so it is that I can now stand in line at my local grocery store and purchase a 20-year-old novel about an aging hockey star from the days before The Original Six.

Getting back to Richler for a second, he used to say that Ken Dryden's The Game wasn't just the best book ever written about hockey — it was the only book about hockey worth reading. This was in the early 90s, and I was always a little miffed that Richler didn't give Quarrington's novel the time of day. But then Richler was reluctant to give the time of day to anyone younger than he — unless they looked good in a skirt (Quarrington never had a chance). Dryden's book is a must-read for hockey fans, but Quarrington's has an appeal with a much deeper reach. Here's the closing of the first chapter:

I scored the winner, you know. We were in overtime, in Montreal playing the Canadiens. What happened was, Cy Denneny took out Odie Cleghorn along the boards. Odie was one mean son of a bitch, but nowhere near as bad as his brother, Sprague. The puck pops out and I scoop her and go into the Bulldog. Then I see Newsy Lalonde coming at me. He was the King of the Ice before me, you know, and as nasty a piece of business as was ever turned out of Creation. Yes, sir, Newsy was intending to take me into the boards and probably into the Maritimes, that's how fast he was coming. But then I hear, “Psst, Percy!” and I know Manny is behind me. So we pull a stunt we pulled when we was playing together on the Bowmanville Reformatory's boys' team. Brother Isaiah used to call the play the Magic Stone, but I called it the Doorstep. I drop the rubber between my legs, and put a little spin on it so that it stops almost dead, leaving it at Manfred's doorstep, so to speak. I begin to double back, Manny comes up and collects the puck, and he takes the check for me. That's the point of the play, you see. Manny and Lalonde collide. My Lord, Newsy had his elbows up and he took apart Manny's face with them. Manfred was fair handsome previous to that, you know, but ever afterwards his puss had an out-of-kilter aspect to it. Anyway, the rubber dribbles out from between their legs, and I've timed my circle perfect so that it tumbles onto my blade. Now there's just a lone defender, namely Bert Corbeau. Well, I go into the Whirlygig, and I pretzel the mook! I twist him around so good that his socks end up on different feet. The goaler is Nap Minton, the Little Napoleon. He moves out of the net, and I notice for the first time that his eyes are two different colors, blue and green. I clear my mind, the way the monks showed me. I shoot the puck into silence. Then I hear Manny shout, “Hey!” and from the stand I hear Clay Bors Clinton say “Yes!” and I know that the puck is in the net.

That's how it was back in one-nine one-nine. A marked improvement over how things is now.

Quarrington's fabulist approach perfectly captures the “escape” that hockey offered to the thick-skulled boys from the farm, reformatory school and reservation. He also establishes quite the voice: an outsize ego, the teller of tall tales, but someone who has the inner steel to make it persuasive. Of course, then he has to close it with “Things were better then, than now,” which cinches the novel's set-up. This guy is lying about something — to us, and to himself. Somewhere in his past is a cause for genuine regret, and you have to read this ribald, poignant novel to find out what it is, and if Leary is up to the task of rectifying it.

I'm happy for Quarrington. And I don't believe he could have found a better spokesperson than Dave Bidinimusician, author (including a couple of hockey-related titles) and all-round mensch. And though I remain a little skeptical about the whole enterprise, if the Corp can find it within itself to promote a book that isn't just moving but genuinely funny, I might just tune in to the next round of Canada Reads.

Amazon here. And if I'd been in on this round from the start, my secondary allegiance would have gone to Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl In The Ring (amazon).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Podcast: Youthful Desires

Youthful Desires is available as a podcast. You may download the mp3 here, or stream it here. The file is 36 minutes long.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Vintage Rock Ts & Kids These Days, Take II

The other night I attended a school drama my daughters were performing in. I sat with a bunch of other parents and followed the chatter wherever it went. As more and more kids came into the auditorium, the topic of conversation became solely focused on their clothes. It was a very rare and unique kid who wasn't wearing a "vintage" rock t-shirt. Led Zep, AC/DC, Rolling Stones, RUSH, Bob Marley, The Ramones ... all present and accounted for -- even KISS.

Even KISS.
Start 'em young,
We all scratched our graying noggins trying to puzzle this phenomenon out. We covered most of the comments in this post. And it's worth repeating that these bands (most of whom are in stasis, if not dead) all have items available at Wal-Mart for a fraction of what they cost at concerts back in the day. If a Cheap Trick concert T cost $15 back in 1979, the inflation calculator works that out to a value of $44 in 2008. That's not far off what today's concert Ts actually sell for (with the few remaining big acts, at least). But drive to Wal-Mart, and you can buy a "vintage" Cheap Trick T for less than $10. If you run the calculator backwards, the original in 1979 would have had to sell for $3.50 to compete.

My friend beside me piped up. "Surely it's not the music. I mean, there's no shortage of new music."

"You wouldn't think that if you spent a day with my boy," said a mother. "Nothing but Led Zeppelin for him. The newest he'll go is Guns 'N' Roses."

"But that's over 25 years old!" I blurted. "What's this all about?"

The mother shrugged. "He can play it on his guitar."

"With a little practice, a kid can play Jack White on his guitar," I said.

"It's not the same thing," she said. "I kind of wonder if the new stuff doesn't make kids feel like they're stupid or something. The old stuff doesn't talk down to them."

There were a few more thoughts, but that was the one that hit me between the eyes. When did rock 'n' roll become so supercilious? I mean, nearly every rock band has demonstrated some contempt toward its fans (given the conditions, who could possibly resist?), but that almost seems to be the starting point for most acts these days. "Just try to figure this out!" as opposed to realizing where the kids are (their parents' basements, playing video games and/or texting their friends) and speaking directly to them. Now everything has been "elevated" to "college rock."

I have some other guesses as to why the new music isn't catching on with the kids. What scrawny kid hoping to make out with the girl two rows down, even as he wonders if he isn't really gay, is going to wear a T-shirt that says (to take two examples from eMusic's front page today) "Breathe Owl Breathe" or "Plants & Animals"? And tell me which intro will generate the most triumph when a 14-year-old finally masters it on his Les Paul clone: "Sweet Child Of Mine" by GnR, or "Aberinkula" by The Mars Volta?

What really surprised me was the concern of the parents. It actually bothered most of us that our kids were listening to this old stuff, and not something they could properly call "their own." So much for the idea of human progress! (in rock 'n' roll? Just what is that supposed to look -- or sound -- like?) I wonder what, exactly, our anxiety signifies? I suppose "No, it's okay dad: keep it on this radio station. I like your music!" could probably translate to, "But, dad: why do I have to move out .... ever?" Or perhaps we now face a world where our concepts of progress have become threadbare and too porous to hold much value. How are our kids going to "advance" if it doesn't get any better than watching free movies on a hi-def plasma screen? Who wants to go out, if nothing looks as good as blu-ray ... or sounds as good as Slash did in his 20s?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Words Reduce The Hero: 3:10 To Yuma vs Eastern Promises

Elmore Leonard's very short story Three Ten To Yuma was a masterful exploration of an underpaid marshal's motivation to defy the odds (and death) and incarcerate an outlaw. After I posted this, I was curious to see what a Hollywood feature-length treatment of the story might look like. I would have preferred the 1957 original, but I had readier access to last year's big budget remake, so that's the one I watched.

It quickly became apparent the filmmakers' concern was not “What motivates a man?” but “What motivates a Hero?” The film is cluttered with comic book violence (dreary Frank Miller mode), but rather than embody or give lie to the dialog, the action serves mostly to distract from the dialog, the entirety of which is devoted to (yep) “What exactly is it that motivates ... a Hero?” Thus we get Russell Crowe as a Trickster Shamen, cajoling, tormenting and physically endangering the not-quite Hero (Christian Bale) until the novitiate finds it within himself to utter the magic words (a confession) that transforms the demon into personal ally. '07-3:10 is entirely the stuff of comic books, and the film is about as successful in what it does as most of the last two-dozen comic book movies have been.

Happily, the other half of my two-for-one rental was David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. After watching Cronenberg trip himself up with comic book banalities in A History Of Violence, I didn't hold out much hope for Eastern Promises, which on paper reads with the same broad strokes: a downy naif has unquestioningly absorbed the presumptions of liberal democracy, and thinks she can change the world by standing alone and speaking the truth to power. Running parallel to her story is that of a ronin-type figure who has insinuated himself inside the corridors of power, and realizes there is no justice without embracing the methods and mindset of the enemy you hate. Thankfully, Cronenberg doesn't take the “Chatty Cathy” approach to character development — we get to see the characters slowly unfold through actions that eventually make enough sense to keep the tension strung. This time Cronenberg isn't reinventing the wheel (The Fly) or attempting the impossible (Naked Lunch), he's delivering the goods — including one of the most harrowing, physically persuasive fight scenes I've seen in years (I was physically moving in my seat to avoid the blades). Eastern Promises is a taut, focused thriller that left me, well, thrilled. Hey, the 50/50 equation still holds!

Post-script: while watching EP I kept thinking back to Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, but couldn't put my finger on why that was (beyond the fact that both movies explore immigrant ties in present-day London). Turns out they were both written by the same guy: Steve Knight.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My flexible Podcast schedule

I'm off-schedule again. I fought a fever in bed yesterday. When I woke up my voice had dropped an octave. This Ken Nordine effect might actually be charming, if it weren't for the accompanying phlegm. Please stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

I've never been much of an Elmore Leonard reader. I've probably read a half-dozen of his books, at most. It's not like they're a chore to read -- I polish them off within a sitting or two, and usually take away two or three memorable scenes or exchanges. In the main, though, the characters just don't stick to my ribs. Leonard's narrative mode is to stand at an analytical remove, then take a half-step back from that, the better to keep the reader guessing.

The final effect is just a little too cool to completely draw me in. So when B.R. Meyers proclaimed Leonard to be The Prisoner of Cool, and went on to say his westerns were anything but, I figured I'd wait until I happened across a used copy of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, and take the bait. Perhaps then I'd catch the Leonard bug.

This Christmas I noticed McNally Robinson selling remaindered copies of the Western Stories, so I laid down the cash. Reading the short stories was, indeed, a revelation. Leonard's curt descriptions of action and appraisal work well in this format. The same approach to the inner life of his heroes and (occasionally) villains can sometimes feel like a bit of a put-on, but more often than not the younger Leonard's powers of psychological observation serve him very, very well. His short-short story Three-Ten To Yuma (which has now been bloated into a feature length movie twice) is just one example of Leonard's precision:

The man at the post watched [Paul Scallen] go and tilted his hat against the sun glare. And then it registered. With the hat low on his forehead Scallen saw him again as he had that morning. The man lying in the armchair ... as if asleep.

He saw his wife, then, and the three youngsters and he could almost feel the little girl sitting on his lap where she had climbed up to kiss him good-bye, and he had promised to bring her something from Tucson. He didn't know why they had come to him all of a sudden. And after he had put them out of his mind, since there was no room now, there was an upset feeling inside as if he had swallowed something that would not go down all the way. It made his heart beat a little faster.

Jim Kidd was smiling up at him. "Anybody I know?"

Scallen and Kidd spend most of the story in a small upstairs room of a hotel. Scallen, hoping to escort the outlaw Jim Kidd to the train and five years' worth of incarceration, looks out the window and spots the hatted man. Now he gets intimations of his mortality, even though he would never say as much, while Kidd proves himself a canny, and potentially lethal, observer of the emotions that cross and betray a person's face. The tension between these two men, and the gang of ciphers outside who hope to spring Kidd, grows from here. And within that tension, Leonard artfully explores what motivates men to do what they do.

Just before they prepare to step outside into the violence that awaits, Leonard gives us this exchange:

"I don't understand you," said Kidd. "You risk your neck to save my life, now you'll risk it again to send me to prison."

Scallen looked at Kidd and suddenly felt closer to him than any man he knew. "Don't ask me, Jim," he said.

This surprising scene, which is entirely true to the tone of the story, brought to mind another writer of short stories, famous for delivering the same sort of emotional left-hook to the jaw: Raymond Carver. Shortly after, Three-Ten To Yuma speeds to as gratifying a conclusion as any short story in recent memory -- with guns a-blazin', of course.

All in all, a recommended collection of short stories, particularly to those of us who don't go for his novels (Amazon).

Monday, March 03, 2008

Jeff Healey & The Jesus Freaks

Last night I watched a bootleg video of a concert from the mid-80s. The performers were a quartet of Jesus Freaks, the same vintage as Larry Norman. The venue looked to be a church basement.

When I was finished, I shut everything off and prepared for bed. I quickly checked my e-mail one last time, and was informed that Canadian blues-man/jazz-man Jeff Healey had died. It all felt strangely of a piece, and I spent much of the night trying to figure out why.

First, the video. I was struck by the frugality of it all. Four guys on a badly-lit stage, probably working with something short of 40 watts of power. Musically/creatively speaking, they were working with considerably less. Most of their records sounded stale the second the cellophane came off, and the intervening quarter-century hasn't helped a bit. But they did what they could to bring something BIG into that basement room: slides were projected against a white sheet pinned up behind them, and every now and then a female mime (the drummer's wife?) crept onstage to illustrate a particular lyrical insight. As for the lyrics, it's best I not scrutinize them too closely. The band and the kids in the audience were there to rock, and the best way to do it free of guilt was to fill the choruses and between-song chatter with a whole heap of Jesus.

When the video was over I was left with mixed emotions. Back then the clowns taking charge of the evangelical circus were energetically trying to persuade the flock that this music was of the devil. Even so, these Jesus Freaks performed under the conviction that God had given them something worth saying, and the permission to set it to music that kids could dance to. Back then I gave these issues serious consideration (*sigh* ... still do, apparently). Now while lying in my bed and reminiscing I could be discouraged by the seeming banality of the show, or grateful to these guys for mustering up the courage to mount it. Truth be told, at the time it felt like this music was saving my life, or at least my sanity -- probably because it was.

Next, Jeff Healey. The one time I saw him play was at an Ellen McIlwaine concert in the mid-90s, during the height of his post-Road House fame. She was playing a tiny blues bar in Toronto's Annex. Healey wasn't on the bill, but she announced his presence after the first break. He came up, played and sang one of his songs, then played and sang with McIlwaine on one of hers. Then he and his mate left through the kitchen. McIlwaine, it should be noted, is a prodigious talent, and if this were a just world her name would be as widely recognized and her retirement fund as secure as Bonnie Raitt's.

But when it came to Healey ... wow, did that guy ever leave an impression. Today a lot of people are remarking on his method and calling it his "style" but that's an unfortunate confusion. Not that his method wasn't remarkable. He was blind, so he had to be led on stage and very carefully set up. He sat in a chair, planted his feet wide on the floor and placed his guitar flat on his lap, then used an overhand technique to get what he needed from the guitar. That's how he played and sang, but he was hardly the first guy to do it that way. What was impressive about him was, in fact, his style. He was a fluid player and could bend a note until you thought it would break, then revert to a rough and aggressively percussive style that finished off the solo and brought it back to the dirt-base of the blues. And if you think a white guy sitting in a stacking chair can't take full command of a stage, think again.

Healey's genius was manifold (I hope someone will appraise his style of trumpet playing, which I thought was rather snappy), but was chiefly manifest in his capacity to surprise and delight an audience. Healey didn't work against his perceived deficits; he drew from what he had, and used that to exploit the stage to its full potential.

Which pretty much sums it up. It doesn't matter if you're a Jesus Freak singing to kids in the evangelical culture ghetto, or a white guy from the suburbs who happens to be blind from cancer. You've got the hand you've got, and odds are you don't know the half of it. Take a little time to figure out how you're going to play it, but don't think about it too long. Life is short, and second-guessing will kill you just as fast (or slow) as any tumor.