Sunday, November 27, 2011

Whither The Arts Critic?

I'm not sure I care, and I doubt you do, either.

I read, but didn't bother linking to, this Michael Kaiser lament for the vanishing day of the critic. I'm elitist enough to appreciate where his appeal is coming from, but far too plebeian in my mentality to give it any credit whatsoever. Listen, I miss Pauline Kael as much as any reader out there, but I'm considerably happier living in the current climate than I was in the climate of the 80s when I first discovered her. Kael is gone, movies don't count like they used to, and most of them suck, besides.

If the movies aren't interesting, the variety of little scenes and happenings crowding in to replace them often are. It seems like just about everything is going up for grabs — which is scary, sure, but also not a little exciting. I'm not altogether on-board with Ian David Moss's response to Kaiser, but I did resonate with this line near the end: “(Complaining about the collapsing value of the newspaper arts critic is) like complaining about the oversupply of artists — y’all had better get used to it, because it’s not going away.”


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

... KISS Me Twice ...

My parents got home from Bible Study, and asked if everything was alright. I said, “Yeah,” and kept fiddling with my homework.

“So what's the air rifle doing next to the door?” asked my father.

“Oh,” I said. I'd actually tucked it beneath the coats on the rack, to keep it from being seen, a ploy that apparently failed if you were hanging one up. “Right. I meant to put that away.”


“Ah . . . I got this weird phone call, kinda freaked me out a bit.”

“What'd they say?”

What, indeed? It was hard to explain, so I took it from the top: I was seated at the basement desk, toiling on my homework. The phone rang. In those primitive days before Call Display, if you wanted to know who was calling you, you picked up the receiver and answered the phone. In this case, my caller didn't identify himself. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” I said, guessing at the age of my caller and hoping to one-up him. In fact I was 12.

“Perfect. Who's the greatest rock band in the world?”

“Uh . . .” The truth was I'd only started listening to the radio, and couldn't name more than two, maybe three bands, tops. I was nervous, and lunged for the obvious answer. “The Beatles?”

“The Beatles? No, no. I'm talking about your favourite rock band, the one you listen to the most.”

“The Beatles,” I said, resorting again to the lie. I didn't yet have a favourite rock band, but would have chosen one with a “harder” sound to it than the Beatles.

“Seriously? The Beatles?”


“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “Well . . . I was looking for KISS.” Then he hung up, and I retrieved my air rifle, lest some goon barge through the door to deal me the physical harm I had invited by giving the wrong answer to this improvised bit of polling.

With KISS you never knew. They were obviously tapping into something beyond the pale. The pancake makeup, the flash-pots. Breathing fire, spitting blood. The theatrics tended to inspire a similar degree of extremity in the fans. So far as I knew, none of my Mennonite friends listened to KISS, but there was a Ukrainian Catholic kid in my class who doodled the KISS logo on anything within reach. His locker was papered over with pictures of KISS concerts — a modest shrine compared to his bedroom back home, if you believed his claims (and I did). I wouldn't have classified my classmate as crazy, but I had read the story in the paper about the kid who took his father's shotgun to shop class and blew away another kid, later claiming he'd received direct orders from the band.

The fans called themselves an “Army” and I wasn't about to take any chances. Hence the air-rifle. Now that my father was home I figured I was safe enough. He could absorb the invasion's first salvo, while I crawled out the window and fled for my life.

That ain't workin'...

Thirty-five years later, there's a video of the band making a guest appearance on a sketch comedy show. They show up in regalia as a high-school girl's prom date. Her square parents are shocked and appalled. You can find it pretty quickly, but I'd advise against it. It's gratingly unfunny theatre, because it gets the social positioning completely ass-backwards. These days the scary, dangerous people from the fringe are Dad in his belly-cinched pants and Mom in her high-maintenance coif. The Munsters' high concept has been perfectly reversed, thanks in no small part to KISS.

Indeed the alleged “Knights In Satan's Service” aren't just identifiably human, they're struggling to keep the paint fresh on an increasingly bourgeois facade. Another round of memoirs, another season of Gene Simmons' meta-antics; costumes held together with duct-tape, an inveterate pussy-hound whose marriage is held together with the duct-tape of constructed celebrity drama.

There's the Wizard of Oz, and then there's the chap behind the curtain. Is there a curtain behind the curtain? Is there anything in the comic books that somehow peels back the vital layer and catches a glimpse of the edgy, conceptual power that once summoned an Army?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

KISS Me Once . . .

Allowing my daughters into Canada's Behemoth Box-Store of Books is a risky proposition. They know I can't tell them to cool it with the impulse purchases. But I do try to steer them toward the SALE (remainders) section of the store.

During our last visit I mentioned that a book I was interested in had been originally priced at $80, but was now available for $20. “Too good to pass up,” I said.

“Wow,” said the younger. “What book is that?”

“This one:”

A glance. “Oh, Dad . . . .”

Was that a silent, Why, I heard? Sorry. But it's still coming home with us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power Of Prayer

Commenting on yesterday's post, Paul raises an interesting point about the potentially fraught relationship between mentor and mentee. I suspect this might be a trait more common among dudes than gals, but usually when someone has the advantage of knowledge and expertise, it gets lorded over the wet-behind-the-ears chump standing in his shadow. Said chump is expected to put up with the abuse, a small fee for the few precious gleanings of technical insight.

As I mentioned in response, BD was not above copping a smarmy 'tude in the face of my ignorance — and neither was I, in response to his. If we knew anything, it was how to make the other rankle. And yet we became, and remained, fast friends for quite a stretch of years. When I finally married, I was astonished to see him show up at the final hour of the dinner reception, having endured a Planes, Trains & Automobiles journey to get there.

As I reflected yesterday over the various slings and arrows we endured from each other, I grudgingly had to admit to what kept us friends: prayer. From age 14 on, we were both standing members of our church youth group, schooled in the Evangelical Protestant prayer vernacular of earnest “Father God”s and “Lord, we just”s. Right from the get-go our burgeoning theologies were as divergent as our personalities.

But we could, on occasion, admit to inadequacy. That's when we bowed our heads and appealed to a Higher Power. And although I approached from the left, and he from the right, I think we felt like God was equally pleased to meet us both. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” Some days the assurance of those words was a profound relief.

These days my intercessory mode is more liturgical. And there are precious few people I feel even remotely comfortable praying aloud with. I haven't talked to BD in years. Would the prayer conversation continue, more or less where we left it? It seems doubtful. But there are sleepless nights when I will my words beyond the ceiling, and whisper, May it be so.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Leaves Mulched, Thanks To BD

A sunny morning, with the snow approaching (or so the weather reporter says). I figured I could put it off no longer: I went outside to start the mower and mulch the leaves.

Except the mower would not start. I primed the motor, pulled the rope . . . nothing. I pulled again, and listened closely. None of the usual “pop-pop” sounds to indicate the spark-plug was firing. I fetched my wrenches, removed the plug and gave it a cursory look. Rusty, covered in filthy oil. The whole motor could stand a cleaning, but for now all I needed (probably) was a new plug.

A quick stroll to and from the local Home Hardware, the plug was installed, the motor primed, the rope pulled. I was rewarded with a cloud of white smoke and a “BANG-BANG-BANG, MWOOOOOWER” and a mower that would now mulch my leaves.

Mission accomplished. So why bother trumpeting it? Anyone who knows anything about the internal combustion engine knows the lawn-mower is probably the simplest application to get hooked to one. Thirteen-year-old kids who fail basic math and literacy can get schooled in its maintenance and even earn decent coin from it. Replacing a spark-plug is no big deal.

Except my wife couldn't do it. I have accomplished friends who, if confronted with my mower, wouldn't know where to begin, except to throw the damn thing in the trunk of their car and drive it to Canadian Tire. I paid three bucks out of pocket for the plug; CT probably wouldn't let me leave without charging fifty. There but for the grace of God — and my high-school friend, BD — go I.

BD lived around the corner from me. When I got bored with reading and hearing the same 10 songs repeat on the radio, I wandered over to see what he was up to. It almost always involved an internal combustion engine. Sometimes it involved electronics. I accompanied him to Consumers Distributing when he bought his first car stereo, and I sat with him for a few hours while he took apart the interior of his rusty Toyota to install it.

I learned from BD that cars and stereos and, later, motorcycles weren't organic creations that had been squeezed out from between the haunches of an exotic alien species, but were in fact assembled by human hands, and could be disassembled and reassembled by human hands — my own! — as well.

I don't do it very often, especially when I realize what might take me a day to accomplish could be better done by a pro within an hour. But replace a spark-plug? I'm all over it — thanks to BD.

Another BD recollection, here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

The older I get, the more prone I am to borrowing from the library before I put down money for a book. I was especially hesitant to pick up John Burdett's Bangkok 8, fearing it would be the lurid and grotty sort of “Neon Noir” that British male authors seem to revel in: a cascade of depravity concluding with collapse. (James Ellroy, who writes precisely the sort of novels I most dislike, calls this book, "The last, most compelling word in thrillers.") But the premise held appeal: a murder to solve, another to avenge, both leading deep inside the clandestine world of the illicit jade trade. Lo and behold, the local library had a copy. The price was right!

Around the 200 page mark is a scene that led me to three crucial realizations. It takes place in the back parlour of a bar owned by a Russian pimp. It is a wide-ranging conversation involving the Russian, the book's detective narrator and his American partner, and several of the Russian's bar-girls, and it is fueled by vodka. Here's a snippet, early in the game:

“Every Thai cop apart from Sonchai is a world-class businessman. You simply can't beat them. If I'm not careful they hire the girls, then fine me the price of the the girl — for trafficking in women — less ten percent for my expenses. Not Sonchai,” says Iamskoy, about me. “He's an even worse businessman than me. That must be why I like him, he doesn't make me feel inferior.”

“I wondered,” I say, sipping more vodka.

“That and the fact that he's even more of a head case than me. You should have heard our last conversation. It was like Hindu science fiction. I guess he didn't enjoy it as much as I did, though, because he stayed away three years.”

“You passed out after insulting the Buddha.”

“I did? Why didn't you shoot me?”

“I didn't think you were alive.”

“Anyway, what did I say?”

“You said that Gautama Buddha was the greatest salesman in history.”

To Jones: “I was right. He was selling nothing.”

The group explores and debates the plasticity of identity — religious, national, cultural, individual, sexual, even gender — the various interlocutors monologing with greater passion as the scene builds. I was completely entranced, and realized: 1) I no longer cared if the narrator exacted his vow of vengeance, because I didn't want the book to end; 2) I hadn't read a scene of such compelling, plot-forwarding dialogue among a group of people since Dashiell Hammett or Robertson Davies, and 3) Hold on a sec: Robertson Davies?!

Yes, indeedy. Burdett is adept at playing playing with mystery, in every sense of the word, wreaking a subtle mischief on reader expectations. The chapters are short and easily consumed, but the sense of immersion they provide is exceedingly deep. I took frequent stops, to consider how a once-alien point-of-view had just been ingested as clear common sense. Burdett accomplishes that most valuable of novelistic achievements: making the foreign seem not just explicable, but familiar.

And now I must return this copy of the book to the library, while I wait for my copy to arrive in the mail — so that I can reread this fabulous book with a keener eye, and sharpened pencil.
View all my reviews

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Very She & Him Christmas

The CD cover shows our heroes decked out in retro hipster gear, standing before the crimson curtain, poised to deliver that retro sound we've come to expect: soaring strings with a haunting sha-boom, sha-boom chorus.

The cover, alas, is misleading. A more accurate photographic portrait of the musical contents would have revealed Him in boxers and a beater, and She in curlers and a fuzzy housecoat. Stripped-down is an understatement, and the “retro” these hip-cats reach for is no older than 23 years: the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session. There's very little instrumentation happening beyond ward's ukulele-strumming, and Deschanel very occasionally resorts to multi-tracking her voice to provide a sonic palette only slightly larger than the Junkies' singular album. This is much too muted to get noticed at Christmas parties, but it might set a pleasantly contemplative tone for late Christmas Eve eggnog sipping, if that's what you're after. I've got plenty of more satisfying alternatives for that purpose, and would have given this disc a pass if I'd been forewarned. So now I'm telling you.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Recording Artists vs. Marginal Utility

“Marginal Utility” is one of the few terms I still remember from the Intro To Economics course I took some 20 years ago. For those who can't be bothered with the wiki, here's how it works.

Let's say it's a hot day in July and you've just spent an hour mowing the lawn. You step into your kitchen, and your daughter hands you a tall glass of cold water. You gratefully accept it and guzzle it down, thinking this just might be the most satisfying glass of water you've ever drunk. She takes the empty glass from you, fills it again and hands it back. You take it and toss it back — it is, after all, a very hot day. She repeats the process, and this time you only take a sip, before putting the glass on the counter to return to later, if at all.

If you were to ascribe a value to these glasses, you might call that first drink of water a Five-Dollar Glass. You were still pretty thirsty when you got the second glass, so maybe you'd give a dollar for the refill. The third, however, rates only pennies. That decline in value is marginal utility in action.

This week I've been listening to a new album from an artist I admire and have very much enjoyed in the past. It's the fourth album of his I own, and I can tell it's terrific. The poetic sensibility remains acute, the orchestration is subtle and effective. There are people who already love this album. I might eventually become one of those people, but right now that doesn't seem likely.

It's not his fault. It's not like he got lazy and just slapped together something people have a right to ignore. I'm not going to be a dick (as I have been on occasion) and give him advice in the vain hope he might woo me back to the fold. And he will remain unnamed (you realize, of course, I might even be bluffing on the gender).

There's no delicate way to put this, but I'm wondering if the product of recording artists doesn't have a corresponding marginal utility. In fact, I'm wondering if the magic number for satisfying albums isn't three (3).

There are artists who seem to defy the odds. If my CD collection were cited as evidence, the case for Exceptionalism could be made for the Beatles, Bruces Cockburn and Springsteen, Los Lobos, Rush, Steely Dan and Talking Heads. And Megadeth. But in terms of actual play, Steely Dan is the only act who escapes the three-album fate. And that insidious, 10-year-old device — which relentlessly tracks play-count — bears this observation out.

What to make of it all? Nothing, really. The most important thing is for recording artists to proceed as if none of this mattered. There's no telling which three will make the final grade. The artist I referred to earlier put out eight(!) albums before producing the first-of-three that hooked me. Who knows? One or two Dylanesque reinventions might yet eclipse those.

But more than that, you can't argue with a live performance, which is what most albums harken back to anyway. Keep on keeping on. And please don't take it personally if I lose track of your latest greatest record.