Saturday, March 24, 2012

Promisorry Notice

Life gallops on, with or without blog-worthy thoughts. Thoughts, I've had a few; but then again, too few to mention.

The most stellar of them gravitate, as they are so prone to do, around Star Trek. Every so often, in the midst of that gooey cheese fondue that passes for space opera, there are a few lines that really sing. Or maybe they just settle in my consciousness like grit inside an oyster.

Or maybe they beckon like pearls before a swine.

"I don't like where this is going..."
Alright, enough of the metaphors. The line I've been mulling over, from time to time these last few days, occurs late in the sixth Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country. Spock, discovering that his disciple (played by a pre-Sex Kim Cattrall) has, under the sway of a peculiar strain of logic, betrayed him, his ship and his beloved Federation, declares (rather angrily): "Logic is the beginning of wisdom — not the end of it."

Ah, but that makes the old heart goes pitter-pat. For one thing, any peek behind his impassive mien, and his devotion to Vulcan principles, is welcome. More than that, it's hard not to get goosed by the script-writer's ballsy, and very conscious tweaking of the Judeo-Christian code: "The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (from Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10). It's also a very pointed tip of the hat to Gene Roddenberry, that Great, determinedly Humanist, Bird who got the whole (*cough*) enterprise going.

There are nuances and ironies aplenty to explore — but not tonight. Too much on my plate, my friend. Content yourself, if you can, on previous provocations. I'll be back.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Swinging The Bawdy Eclectic, With Sleigh Bells, Updike and DFW

What's an ambitious rock duet gotta do to distinguish itself from all the other riff-raff duets out there? Sleigh Bells surely know, but they ain't telling.

The prestige treatment they received in the glossies prior to the release of their sophomore album was something I hadn't seen since the Followill Boys groused their way to drunken stardom. Every glossy on the stand seemed to offer a blizzard of Photoshopped snaps of Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss in full-pout mode. A solid month of facing these two cutie-pies as they copped a surly 'tude made me want to bring them home and liquor them up with peach schnapps, just so I could watch them pee on the roses and puke on the cat.

I settled instead for buying the CDReign of Terror — at Walmart, and I've gotta say: I should have stocked up on the schnapps. Reign Of Terror is fine enough. It has its moments of sonic interest, even catchiness, and certainly suggests what must be a terrific stage show. But it's not going to get much repeat play in this household.

Another recent, impulsive CD purchase that won't be getting much repeat play: The Song Remains The Same. In Zep's case, though, I'm very fond of the music and the performances; it's just unlikely that I'll often be in the mood to indulge Jimmy Page's 28-minute attempts at tripping the light fantastic for his New York audience. Nor was he alone. All four of those dudes were ready and willing to unleash solos that ran as long as the average Sleigh Bells concert. I'll say this about that: whenever Zep took over a stage or studio or abandoned castle they made a point of hammering out music that they, at least, would never get bored playing.

A lofty ideal which, if Robert Plant's current attitude is any indication, ultimately failed them. It's also an ideal which the super-fragmented digital culture has lost all track of. Audiences and performers have changed, as they must, but I can't help nursing the codgery thought that today's music is just a wee bit (gasp!) disposable. But so it goes. Lofty expectations rarely serve anyone well in the mercurial world of rock 'n' roll.

I had lofty thoughts of my own, back when I was Sleigh Bells-aged. That was the early 80s, when I spent most weekday evenings penning Very Important Prose in Scribner notebooks. Like any young “artiste” I approached my chosen form the way Houdini approached a pair of handcuffs. Every short story was a brilliant reinvention of the wheel; every longer piece was . . . well, who knows what the hell they were? In the end they became a huge pile of paper in a box.

As I wrote I didn't mentally bother with any of my peers. If the cover of Esquire was any indication, they had yet to distinguish themselves. And while the generation of writers just ahead of me weren't without interest, I didn't pay much attention to them, either. My get-published strategy, such as it was, was to head directly for the king of the hill and push him off with the apparent immediacy of my own brilliant spin on their game. I figured there were three guys who routinely seized the title of America's Most Important Writer: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike. Or, as my “peer” David Foster Wallace succinctly described them: the Great Male Narcissists.

My strategy (thankfully) didn't pan out. My peers, however, developed a unified strategy of their own that did indeed distinguish themselves from the GMNs, a protagonist they've shared in common: The Great American Loser. Elaine Blair surveys the field and admits it's a tactic that works, for her and a whole lot of other readers. But at what cost?

It's been curious to me the collective sigh of relief we've breathed at the passing of the GMNs. Roth still stirs a few people because he's still alive and writing, but is either Mailer or Updike on anyone's required reading list? It's been years since I bothered with either of them, so I recently thought I'd try an Updike, to see if the contents retained any sort of potency. I reached for Couples, figuring the voluminous sexual activity would, if nothing else, retain my interest.

After 75 pages I resorted to speed reading. A few more tries at that, and I finally put the book down, unfinished. The sex is boring, chiefly because the women are pliant ciphers. A few hundred pages of that can leave the reader with an impression of a fantasist whose masturbatory goals are best accomplished to the sound of his own voice.

This was a tune the GMNs never got bored of singing. It may be true that in the passing of their voices, our culture has swung decidedly to the fragmentary and disposable. But who could blame us?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Current Curiosities

There's an old (2005) CD I dusted off, after hearing someone lament the unknown stature of the band that recorded it. I spun it while doing the housework, and thought, “Not bad.” I spun it again while taxiing the daughters to their various gigs, and thought, “Actually, this is pretty damn good.” Somewhere around the half-dozenth spin I was thinking, “Why aren't these guys a household name?”

Breaks Co-Op
— originally from New Zealand, now residing London, UK — have a unique and entirely palatable sound. It's hard to pin down. Apple calls it “Electronica,” someone else qualified it as “House.” I'm catching traces of Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads, Paul Simon and Trap Door-era T Bone Burnett — “World Beat,” I suppose. But then I'm also catching Buffalo Springfield, so what are you going to do with that? Any way you want to cut and dry their sound, Breaks Co-Op is deeply infectious. You should retrieve your own copy of The Sound Inside and give a spin or two, just to see if you don't find yourself listening to it for the half-dozenth time and thinking . . . there's something happening here.

Speaking of infectious: Here We Go Magic has released their first single, “Make Up Your Mind,” from their forthcoming album, A Different Ship due out in early May. It's got a lot of what I like, particularly in its West African-style guitar riff. Stream it, or even download the mp3, over here. And if the spectre of young women in their skivvies contorting in a squeamish state of erotic despair is your thing, by all means watch the creepy video, too.
"Gasp! Is that ... Plotto?!"
The case for bricks-and-mortar bookstores: some books really should be bought on spec, and not in good faith. Philip K. Dick's Exegesis is chief among them. Having skimmed through In Pursuit Of VALIS, the earlier Reader's Digest version of the Exegesis, I'm inclined to trust Rob Latham's judgement: Dick's metaphysics are best absorbed in his fiction, which has the incalculable benefit of having being written with publication in mind. And yet, and yet . . . looking at the list of contributors adding annotation to Dick's tome, I am still sorely tempted. (Addendum: r. crumb gives you his summary.)

Also worth a glance, if not a purchase, Plotto by William Wallace Cook. Its press makes it sound a bit like the first “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. But I could also envision (vaguely, at this point) a novel in which this book attempts to enforce a plot on the central character, and even the reader. Did Plotto anticipate the meta-plot? If so, this book poses a threat to life as we know it — and belongs on my shelf. (Addendum: uh-oh: Lytle Shaw knows!)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Martinis: Shaken, Not Stirred. Galahads: Bloodied, Not Pampered.

I hadn't read Jeffrey Deaver prior to picking up Carte Blanche, the latest James Bond thriller commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate. If this book is indicative of Deaver's craft, my ignorance was bliss.

Deaver takes a “Road Runner” approach to Ian Fleming's hero: the wily villain paints an elaborate and seemingly foolproof scheme to corner our hero, only to discover at the moment of execution that the tables have been utterly reversed. The appeal of this uniquely American variety of the thriller genre depends entirely on whether the reader's sympathies lie with the coyote or the bird. Those of us who want to see the bird roasting on a spit should steer clear of this book.

More grievous is Deaver's penchant for post-climax foreplay: explaining, after the fireworks have gone off, exactly how this impossible feat was accomplished. If this is how Deaver wrote his other books, then his appointment by the Ian Fleming Estate is absolutely baffling.

The front cover blurb for the paperback enthusiastically claims that Deaver, “brilliantly captures Fleming's style.” He does no such thing. Fleming restricts his narrative perspective to James Bond's POV, pitting Bond against the villain in an early and victorious face-off, before the villain gains the upper hand, and slowly feeds our hero through the shredder, feet-first. Oh, and some women get bedded. The main thing is, Bond gets the living shit kicked out of him, a scenario Fleming seemed to relish, as he excelled at repainting it with heartfelt variety.

That was Fleming's “style.” Deaver flits from brain to brain as he sets the mouse-trap. Through it all, Bond doesn't suffer so much as jet-lag.

I picked up Carte Blanche because the Fleming Estate's earlier choice — Sebastian Faulks — was spot-on, and did, in fact, “brilliantly capture Fleming's style.” Here's hoping there is a return to form with their next appointment.

Those of us who prefer our Galahads well-bloodied can't do much better than Philip Kerr's Nazi-era Berlin gumshoe, Bernie Gunther. I've read all the books, but the litany of torment is so extensive I've lost track of what happened when. Has Gunther survived the deaths of two wives, or only one? Certainly a veritable harem of girlfriends awaits him in Purgatory. Not that he's troubled by such a prospect. Surviving the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, including a short stay in Dachau and the sordid indignities of Russian and American occupation, has been Hell enough for our Bernie. Somewhere in this Grand Guignol he also lost a finger — painful at the time, but quite trifling in the larger scheme of things.

That Gunther made it to his 60s is nearly miraculous, never mind that he's retained his ability to walk, and a willingness to do so directly into yet another stinking cesspool of corruption and carnage. After bearing witness to variegated German collusion with government atrocities, first at home and then abroad in South America, in this latest adventure Bernie is nearly done in by the collusion between the Jewish Mafia and the Cuban regime. And Kerr, ever the resourceful psych-thrill-meister, has teasingly unveiled new motivations for the reader to buy into.

But then I easily surrender my disbelief around Bernie Gunther. His happiness is never that happy. At best, it's fleeting; at worst, it turns around to deliver a lifelong hang-over of regret. Through it all, the poor bastard retains a moral equilibrium of sorts, even as he gets battered into near-submission. It's enough to keep me hoping he'll live into his 80s, to absorb the outrages of the Nixon-Brezhnev era.