Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Experiment

I realized this morning, and not for the first time, that bicycle riding changes my thought patterns. Subject matter that is mulled over the duration of a ride is often distilled into something almost manageable by ride's end. I'm not sure why I should bother with a public log that chronicles this and other insights, except as some sort of recompense to my faithful readers for any lack of insightful blogging here.

If you're truly curious about the trivial turns of my aging mind as I spin my wheels (in every sense of that phrase) go here and read on.

Public Service Announcement

If it's not too late, and if you're not going to church, go here. Then brew yourself another pot of coffee, pick up the morning papers (if only for the crossword puzzle) and enjoy the music and pertinent absence of attitude.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Music With Legs: Ry Cooder

I continue to have a difficult time when it comes to listening to music. The past season was little more than a prolongation of my mid-life summer of discontent. I could get pissy on the the subject, but I don't want to take it out on the bands, or even the labels, really. God knows everyone in the biz is having a hard time keeping up with the sea-changes roiling among contemporary listeners. Keep fighting for that fourth chord, kids. Just don't hire lawyers to do it for you, or you might as well call it a day and start landscaping.

Here is a review I really enjoyed reading. I gave the act, Dr. Dog, some cursory attention, but quickly moved on to other distractions. After reading Sam Sweet's appreciation I had to wonder what threw me off the scent? Some of the usual culprits come to the fore: the arm's-length album art, the striving for genuine expression even though the group chose a goofy band name. That last aspect is a greater prejudice than I'd like to admit. The fact is I'm more inclined to grant respect to a metal act for the sincerity of their revolting idiocy. I don't have to ponder the names of most metal bands -- unlike, say, Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood. Sincerity matters more and more as I get older.

But what is a young band to do in times like these? The ice-caps of critical distinction have melted, and the seas of genre have merged to become universal, tepid and inchoate. If a group has the chops for it, they can struggle to forge something distinct. Or they can ape their favorite Band Of Yore, in hopes of finding their own sound somewhere between the beloved chord progressions. And there remain some tidal ponds in which Tradition is still hallowed. But the odds that any of these strategies will erupt and create the sort of enormous public stir that can contribute to a musician's retirement fund are poor. Best to just keep playing the lottery.

In an environment such as this, it's hardly surprising that The Concept Album has once again become fashionable, or that Prog Rock has resurfaced as a legitimate sub-genre. When I consider the music I've listened to in the past 12 months (an eMusic subscription of 50 downloads a month translates to roughly 60 albums a year, by my reckoning) it's the concept albums that stand out, because, frankly, a good concept is just about all an ambitious band can cling to. The National, My Morning Jacket, The Hold Steady, The Mars Volta ... hard workers and accomplished musicians, one and all. And thanks to their catchy concepts, I've developed the facility to identify their sound whenever I encounter it in public. But it takes me longer than it did in the "good old days."

Go back 25 years. Angus Young or Keith Richards only had to play a single note for the listener to think, "Ah: AC/DC!" or "The Rolling Stones!" These guys actually laid claim to their own guitar tone. Could that ever happen again? Should it? What guitarist in his or her right mind would attempt such foolishness?

No, best to stick with the concept, and cultivate the sound that works around it. And so I unsheathe my favorite album of the summer, I, Flathead by Ry Cooder. Cooder has spent his professional life exploring musical traditions -- typically roots, folk, jazz, or some combination thereof -- and doesn't mind exercising a little sonic experimentation within said traditions. His most memorable albums leave me with the impression that I've just heard a concept album, even if the concept has not been made explicit.

I think this is chiefly due to the voice Cooder fashioned for himself. Spin Ry Cooder's first disc and you encounter that voice: high, whiny and pungently self-assertive. "Prohibition's good if it's conducted right," concedes the singer in "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" But it's a passive-aggressive statement, the sort of concession a whipped dog makes when it hopes it can get in one last really nasty bite before he ditches the scrap and runs for the hills:

Officers kill without a cause
Then they complain about the funny laws
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Thirty-eight years later, the voice has become lower and gruffer, but remains elemental in its assertiveness: it's all five-o-clock shadow, drenched in Aqua Velva charm. Thirty years ago, that charm suggested a character with more years on his soul than the singer's body had endured. Now it suggests an irascible spark of youth, complete with mischief and a leaning toward irresponsibility that refuses to die out. The characters in these songs are still scrawny and slouched over, but they've got a bit of a beer-gut, and the fug of tobacco and axle-grease cannot be washed away. For these guys, the automobile is the vehicle into and through every aspect of life -- especially love and loss.

As ever, Cooder harkens back to days gone by, this time to that brief decade when vets from WW2 and Korea dealt with their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders by dragging an old Ford into the Salt Flats to see how fast they could make it go. Cooder suggests romance, while eschewing nostalgia. Even his clods and buffoons bear hints of tragic underpinnings that add nobility to their quixotic quests. Throw in Cooder's unmistakable guitar tone, and the disc becomes the season's surefire winner.

But enough of my yakkin' -- go pick up the disc and give it a spin. Better yet, pick up the Deluxe Edition -- "featuring a shocking full-length false memoire, for those who can read!" -- just to give yourself some idea of how this seminal performer sticks to the shadows of his own imagination to keep his musical dreams gloriously alive. And while you're doing that, I believe I'll give Dr. Dog another spin.

Post-script: guess who just received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association? Yep -- these guys.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Frank Miller, Incubus of Depression-Era Comic Book Heroes

Funny how Frank Miller somehow manages to keep generating controversy with his irreverent treatment of DC characters. After I finished DK2 I sincerely hoped DC was finished with Miller -- DK2 read like a joyless exercise, was obvious in its execution, and worst of all looked, by Miller's standards, lazily penciled. But such trivialities didn't affect Miller's Midas touch, apparently. DC made money on the book, so he's back with a "script" for All-Star Batman & Robin. The controversy? Potty-mouth schoolyard trash talking, insufficiently blacked out by the publisher's censors -- some pages are here, for the morbidly curious.

Hard to say just what I think of the whole thing, really. This latest exercise strikes me as being about as controversial and subversive and entertaining as Paul Krassner's Disneyland Memorial Orgy -- which, to my eyes, fails on all three counts. But if that floats your boat, lay down your plastic and chortle to your bitter heart's content. Miller got the last laugh when he cashed yet another paycheque from DC for typing up a dreary retread of Marshal Law.

I think the more pertinent question now is, was Miller the right guy to write and direct The Spirit? The movie is still being referred to in some quarters as "Will Eisner's The Spirit" but that's about as accurate as calling DK2 "Bob Kane's 'The Batman.'" The movie is Miller's, and the keepers of Eisner's creative flame should probably brace themselves: as with Batman, it could well be Miller who takes complete ownership of The Spirit's identity.

Speaking of retreads: here is my public fan-letter (with reservations) to Miller; here is what I thought of the Sin City movie. My chief kvetch? "The flick was too talky. Always with the voice-over narrator, that let-me-Spillane-it-to-you prose, yak yak yak. Which can be Miller's weakness, as well -- though I usually credit him with a sense of humour he may or may not have toward his own material." Hm. Anyone want to take me to the movies this Christmas?

Finally, a tip o' the hat to Occasional Superheroine, whose post on the ASBAR controversy provoked 82 comments, and counting.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


“The likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit.” --- David Foster Wallace (here and here)

David Foster Wallace/Spalding Gray

Jessa Crispin at Bookslut intuitively links David Foster Wallace to Spalding Gray. This strikes me as appropriate. Foster's writing, with all those crazy footnotes, was surprisingly kinetic. And as with Gray's performances (and writing, for that matter), I found that when I liked it I REALLY liked it. And while I wasn't able to sustain my focus on either DFW or Gray, I kept them both in my peripheral vision.

I was happy they were there. And now I'm sad they are gone.

Verve Remixed

For a jazz label, Verve has been among the most clever at recycling and selling their considerable back catalog. When I was a kid with a new stereo Verve's Compact Jazz series ably served as my portal into the musical genre. Each compact disc ("Made in West Germany"!) was a generous platter of musical victuals, invariably clocking in at over an hour. They could be found in most of the larger record stores, usually selling for $10 a CD -- or half of that, if the CD was used. I amassed a collection of these discs, some of which still receive regular rotation.

Sometime between the Jackie Brown and Ocean's 11 soundtracks, however, I shook the habit of buying mixed CDs. Friends were giving me their own mixed CDs, most of them better than anything put out by studios. And with the advent of the mp3 file, variety jazz CDs dropped into the gauche status of chai latte accessory.

This weekend, while driving around and listening to the radio, I caught the Gotan Project remix of "Whatever Lola Wants" as sung by Sarah Vaughan. What a terrific tweak! It's anchored by the standard dance club thump and bass-line ("dub"? Someone hip please throw me a bone!), garnished with tango-accordion flourishes and flamenco-style guitar strumming. Sarah's crooning, already seductive, regains the youthful sinew that knocked her original audience on its ass.

I was smitten, but since I did not have access to my computer I had to resort to a CD store. The person I talked to wasn't sure she knew what I was after, but thought the Verve Remixed series might be a good bet. I scanned the backs of the jewel-boxes: "Whatever Lola Wants" was on Remixed 2.

And that is how I got back into the habit of buying Verve compilations. Some of the remix selections of 2 struck me as being just a tad "busy" for dance club treatment, and one or two tracks left me wondering if some of the DJs aren't perhaps a little too in awe of the source material to exercise the sort of mischief a project like this requires. But overall the tracks fall easily on the ears, and none of them strain credibility. The store I visited sold the Remixed/Unmixed double-disc for the usual ten-spot, making this an incredible deal. Furthermore, women seem to be especially fond of it. Music nerds take note: we now have another excuse to go to the record store.

The Verve Remixed site is here. The Gotan Project site is here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

How To Inspire Bicycle Lust

BoingBoing links to Ray Dobbins' photo-workshop, where he explains how to take jaw-droppingly gorgeous shots of bicycles while on a budget. I followed some of his instruction until the neat-as-a-pin garage/workshop caught my eye and distracted me. His gallery is here. Medici, de Rosa, Eddy Merckx ... what: no Sekine? You're still slummin' it, dude!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pre-Reunion Thoughts

I'm flying out to my high school reunion this weekend: #25. On grad night 1983 I borrowed my friend's spanky new Trans Am, put on my spanky new nearly-adult clothes, then drove out to pick up the lovely girl who agreed to ride wi' me. The banquet was held in a church basement. We arrived to a parking lot filled with rented Firebirds. But ours was black. With a Screaming Chicken on the hood. Like this guy's.

It's funny: I disdained Knight Rider as the entertainment of simpletons. But one look at my grad photo reveals a kid unwittingly aping the 'Hoff, with just a scraggly dash of Selleckian lip-shrubbery.

Here is Toronto's CHUM FM Top 100 for 1983, a list that depressed me at the time. Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, all those songs from Flashdance, Taco ... you got any cheese to go with this? Of course I possessed no shame in playing my own favorites from this list: John "Cougar" Mellencamp, RUSH, Loverboy, Police and my dearly-beloved Talking Heads. And I did like the spare, throwback delivery of the Stray Cats. (Say did anyone else notice what an oddity Jackson Browne's entry was for that year?) My female friend requested we play Toto IV in the car's tape deck that night. Who was I to refuse? The reflex to please became so deeply ingrained I still turn up the radio when "Africa" comes on. Truth be told, though, when it came to music I was already nostalgic for 1979.

Alright, nuffadat. The airplane leaves tonight. Time to turn and face the strange.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Worst Form Of Government": The Northern Edition

I've got to hand it to our PM -- no-one plays with public concern quite so adroitly as he. I only wish that was higher praise. Consider:

Day Two into a 36-Day election run, and what are the talking points for our three contenders for the PMO?

Stephane Dion (Lib): Carbon Tax (link). Is this playing well with anyone besides bicycle couriers? Speaking from my lofty rural perch, Dion's emphasis on environment has single-handedly removed him from the farming vote. Assuming for the sake of argument that the "Green Shift" is enforceable and sustainable and beneficial to everyone across the nation, Dion still doesn't have the first clue how to sell it. Farmers (and the rest of us) hear Dion saying he's got yet another tax to wallop 'em with. One alternative is to sell the "Shift" as a means to law-enforcement, punishing the nation's worst offenders. But no: it's a sophisticated package, conveniently summed up in 48 pretty pages for voters to give their most serious consideration before October 14. Lessee, that's slightly less than two pages a day ... what are the odds on a general populace LOC?

Jack Layton (NDP): Halt Alberta Tar Sands Approvals (link). That's just Hogtown-stupid. Even if Layton, by some miracle, garnered a landslide victory into the PMO a "halt" simply would not happen because it cannot happen. Jesus could return in clouds of glory over the skies of Alberta and personally command a halt to tar sands approvals and nobody would lift a finger. Oil is the god we're bowing to at the moment; Jack and Jesus will just have to wait their turn until we run out.

Getting back to Layton, his platform demonstrates not just a personal unwillingness but a genuine incapacity to speak seriously about what central power can and cannot do. The man is determined to keep his party in the fringes of power. Voters will decide for themselves if this is a good thing.

Finally, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (PC): Cut Excise Tax On Diesel (link). We have a winner!! Since most of Canada's goods are shipped by truck this will mean a temporary halt on across-the-board inflation, and a gentle upward nudge on an economy fated for a downturn. That should help voters forget all this foolishness about the environment.

Oh, also this: The Pooping Puffin (link). Harper's party came up with it, and he saw fit to apologize with a shrug and a "It's beneath me." Dion, on the other hand, spluttered with indignation and took aboard the maximum amount of umbrage. Winner: Mr. Pink*. That is, uh, Harper.

Oy: 34 more days of this....

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Flashback City: Denver's Casa Bonita

In the "You owe me a coffee and a keyboard" department: BoingBoing links to a pictorial tour of Denver's Casa Bonita restaurant.

My family spent some time in Denver from 1977 to 1979, where my father completed his doctorate. I have any number of very resonant Denver-based memories. Here is one. Another is the Iliff library (greatly expanded and improved, I'm told) which had a corner devoted to pop cultural concerns that seemed like it had been assembled by a very advanced (ahem) 12-year-old boy. I'd hang out in that corner until the library closed, then walk downhill to the student housing complex where we lived. Denver is also where I first heard cicada song.

Our first year there some family friends took us to the Casa Bonita restaurant in Lakewood. What a wild, crowded, circus of a place! The BoingBoing tour and the comments that follow pretty much sum it up. I'm not surprised the place is all but deserted; I am surprised it's still in business. They've still got the revolting food. But do they have Speedo-clad torch-juggling "cliff" divers? Gunfights that conclude with Black Bart tumbling into the chlorinated lagoon and splashing the patrons? Mariachi bands that stroll from table to table? Prestidigitators plying their trade? Puppet shows?!?

Now I need someone to provide a pictorial history of Cinderella City (wiki).

Monday, September 08, 2008

James Wood on Marilynne Robinson

"I do not always enjoy Robinson’s ecstasies, but I admire the obdurateness with which she describes the difficult joys of a faith that will please neither evangelicals nor secularists" --- here.

Whither "The Worst Form Of Government (Except For All The Others)"?

I have gone out of my way to ignore the circus to the south of us, but this is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition now that McCain has moved himself out of the picture and pitted a lovely young hockey-mom against the coherent (and lovely) young black man. "Young" ... there was a time when kids couldn't trust anyone over 30. Now we can't trust anyone under 70. Are these, by any chance, the same "kids" making up the rules of the Trust Game?

The chattering classes up here guess as to why Canuckleheads are so resolutely in favor of the Democrat candidate when it is a matter of record that Republican presidents have been better for our economy. I think there are two reasons for this trait. First of all, Republicans leave the impression with the rest of the world that they are more trigger-happy than those soft-hearted, soft-headed liiiiii-brul Dems.* This matters to Canadians, not just because we're likely to follow our American neighbors on at least some of their military misadventures, but because ... well ... we took this country by force ourselves. It's only reasonable to assume that sooner or later someone is going to do unto us -- right? And who is better equipped for it than the Americans?

The second reason only became clear to me this morning, when I woke up to see that our government had called a "snap election" for this October. You don't have to look too long and hard at the candidates for Prime Minister's Office to realize that the most capable of the bunch is Stephen Harper. How pathetic is that? This guy likes short election campaigns because the less he has to explain himself the better he sounds. I sometimes wonder if most Canadian voters don't look at how sweet things have been for the province of Quebec, and secretly wish the Separatist Gilles Duceppe was running for PM.

But the truth of the matter is we want Barack Obama for Prime Minister. His youth, his brains, his skin color and ability to communicate are no impediment so far as we're concerned. The only thing keeping him from the PMO is his citizenship. So, my American readers, please consider: should you actually send the hockey mom to Washington, could you please forward Mr. Obama up this way? We need him -- now more than ever.

*Post-script: on this issue too the public record suggested otherwise -- until Iraq.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sway by Zachary Lazar

There is a moment when the knife must be pushed in coldly, otherwise the victim triumphs. He looked at her, aware that the moment was passing --- Solo Faces by James Salter

This passage came to my mind as I read Sway by Zachary Lazar. Lazar traces the dark line of attraction that drew the Rolling Stones, filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Charles Manson to literally act in concert and pull the curtain on the 60s. And what these people all have in common is a varying capacity for precisely the sort of coldness Salter describes. It chiefly comes to the fore once the aggressor’s interest and appetite for manipulation is sated. And during the upheaval of that decade there was no shortage of victims willing to subject themselves to another’s manipulation — beginning with Brian Jones, and continuing on to the half-million attendees suffering the madness of Altamont.

Lazar follows some of the same dark currents that Don DeLillo has made a career of exploring. But where the latter frequently drops back into a meta-frame, Lazar takes care to view the sixties through the eyes of the characters, leavening these observations with critical insight, as in this early passage:

[The Manson ranch] was like a lot of places he’d been in the past two years — everywhere along the coast now there were groups of young people with nowhere to go and no money to spend. It was as if they were living in a fort or a tree house. They scraped meals together out of plants they grew or things they scavenged from the trash outside of supermarkets.

Later, Lazar again sifts through some of the spectacle via Kenneth Anger:

Someone had erected a pavilion of different colored bed-sheets. Around it were people in costume — a boy with a flute and a leather vest, a boy in a painted cape and a wizard’s hat. It was a style that mostly eluded Anger, an irreverent humor that never settled on innocence or sarcasm but wavered between them.

Childlike romance, or grimy reality? These qualities are constantly in flux, until a steadily growing litany of abuse finally obliterates the romance for everyone.

As I sank into the narrative, I quickly registered my own willingness to be manipulated, even as Lazar substituted great personal desperation (à la Anger) for dewy romance. Of course, any story involving Manson can’t help but be profoundly unpleasant. Nor do the Stones make for welcome company, although Lazar’s measured account of their nasty charm provides moments of grim amusement. Consider this passage depicting Keith Richards’ dismissal of girlfriend Anita Pallenberg:

She had given him a lot of things to forgive lately. She had slept with half the people he knew — that was what he had signed on for, he knew that. She had even slept with Mick, because she was crazy, or just to hurt Keith, or possibly just because she wanted to. She was threatened by Keith in some way. Maybe she had reason to feel threatened, because after all he had forgiven her even for Mick. She didn’t have as much power to faze him as she thought. He had forgiven everything except the scene last week, when she had taken too much heroin and blacked out close to an hour.

“She had given him a lot of things to forgive lately” — I love how that droll, blunt understatement captures Richards’ voice. Note also how these incidents are considered, with threadbare irony, as a gift. They are a means for Richards’ manipulation of his girlfriend, the mother of his child, into rehab and (for the moment) out of his life. The use of “forgiven” is the real irony: Richards' true capacity is for indifference, not forgiveness. And it is an indifference to everything but a medical episode that could have put him back behind bars on charges of drug possession. “Blacked out close to an hour”?? To resort to the era's nomenclature, Not cool.

I read this book shortly after viewing the Martin Scorsese Bob Dylan doc No Direction Home, a one-two punch I highly recommend. As Scorsese establishes Dylan's creative origins there are a few framing shots that suggest how the entirety of 1950s America — including New York City — was Small Town to a degree that is nearly impossible to recall or conjure up with any clarity. The 60s erupted with a howl from that Small Town, and for one ugly moment the Stones, Anger and Manson were howling the same note.

Forty years on I can't imagine attending a Stones concert and freighting it with any greater significance than I would a Country Bear Jamboree. But this is a generation that is not through with being manipulated, this time with a wink that assures everyone it's all been just so much good clean fun. The audience dances and cheers, while the younger generations collectively wonder if any of us will, in fact, survive the 60s.

Furthur: BOMB magazine alerted me to this novel, via Christopher Sorrentino's interview of Lazar. The BOMBsite has an outtake from the interview here. Amazon: Sway and Solo Faces.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Geek Love

(With apologies to Katherine Dunn....)

At WIRED, via Maude Newton: Lucasfilm has its very own Star Wars continuity cop. (Psst -- has George got the memo yet?)

Also, WIRED gives Neal Stephenson the full-geek love-in in anticipation of his latest novel, Anathem (A). Gee, it's only a mere 960 pages. I'll go on record and give that a better LOC than his thrice-the-length Baroque Cycle (which I've yet to finish).