Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed is dead.” I saw the news where everybody else saw it — so-called “social media” — and read it aloud. I was surprised by the catch in my voice, the sudden blurriness of vision.

My wife heard it too. “Oh no!”

“Who's Lou Reed?” asked my daughter.

“A rock 'n' roll singer,” said my wife. “When I first met your father, Lou Reed was the artist I most associated with him.”

Yes, that was it — exactly. She and I met between New York (w) and Magic & Loss (w)at a point when I was completely taken with Lou Reed.

1991: Yours Truly, taking the adulation juuuuust a little too far.

I'd heard “Walk On The Wild Side” of course, but New York was my first real exposure to Reed. “Busload of Faith” closed an otherwise forgettable movie — I stayed in my seat to catch his name in the end-credits scroll, and on the strength of that one track went ahead and purchased the CD.

That album won me, heart and soul. It catalogued and put into perspective all the unsettling noises I heard in the hallways of my crappy apartment building. It catalogued everything I was afraid of and enraged by. And more than anything else to date, it perfectly catalogued the vague intellectual apprehensions that were forming in the tension between my faith and doubts — or rather, “Faith and Doubt.”

Following that up with the magisterial Magic & Loss only deepened my love for the man and his music. I had a lot of catching up to do, and he obliged me with Between Thought & Expression — the book, and the boxed set.

And then, of course, I came to realize I wasn't completely on-board for the whole of the enterprise. Some of the material was, if you pondered it for any length of time, downright terrifying. Some of it was tedious. “Unpleasant” was a term that applied often enough to keep me from hitting “replay.”

But “Uninteresting”? Never.

If you aspired to follow him, he was likely to shake you off — sooner, rather than later. This middle-class, middle-aged listener's response to the bulk of Lou Reed's ouevre is, “Mm — more your bag than mine, Lou. But good on you, man.” The thing is, somewhere in that massive catalogue is a piece, an album, a single line or image that absolutely nails it for the listener — any listener.

Lou Reed exuded the sense that there wasn't anything he wouldn't risk for the sake of his art. Although the risks he took were often so much greater than those of his compatriots, I'm not sure that's the final truth of the man. He also exuded the sense that he could be perfectly candid — but here, too, I'm unsure. The bulk of his candour, it seems to me, is concerned with other lives, and the risks he saw others taking.

At some point you heard him being candid about you — and you either loved him or hated him for it. Or both.

A few favourite Lou links: this 1992 interview, with Neil Gaiman, is rather charming. Also, Jian Ghomeshi's recent radio interview is here in its entirety, and the un-aired tech set-up segment in the first four minutes is a rare treat. And of course there are heaps of mediocre tributes besides my own, but really — how can hacks like us possibly top the legendarily tempestuous back-and-forth between Lou Reed and Lester Bangs? We can only link, in awe.

Finally, here is Lou's website — dude took a good picture right to the end.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke

Confession: I am not a fan of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. I don't dislike it — there's much to admire in its furrowed-brow po-mo perambulations — but I've never been blown away by it, the way so many readers seem to, because — Holy Henry James, Batman! — is it ever wordy. And this is from a guy who loves to read.

Watchmen isn't just wordy, it is also cluttered. And static. And pretentious — which I actually kinda like, so let's get back to the other faults.

Wordy, cluttered and static — generally these aren't terms I want applied to sequential art. A little flow and zip go a long way toward the successful seduction of the innocent. Watchmen had just enough flow and zip to keep me reading to the bitter end, but not nearly enough to make me swoon.

So when DC launched its line of Watchmen prequels, and Moore vigorously protested, I had no dog in the fight whatsoever. DC could transform the Watchmen into Baby Muppets, or make a Lucasian mess out of continuity — me, I was all, “What me worry?”

But then Darwyn Cooke came on board. I've long admired his approach to other people's intellectual property: against all odds Richard Stark's “Hunter”, the Justice League of America, Cat-Woman — even Will Eisner's The Spirit — have been well served, even reinvigorated under Cooke's attentions. There was no question whatever Watchmen prequel Cooke took on was going to have flow and zip to it. Could he bring anything else to the project, or would that be enough to ignite my interest in this property?

Cooke's Minutemen are the forebears of the Watchmen, and he focuses on the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. Cooke renders Mason in mid-life, struggling to get his memoirs into print. Watchmen readers are familiar with the work (Under The Hood) as it was finally published: Mason recounts a giddy era when Super-heroes were just beginning to imprint themselves on public consciousness. In Moore-Gibbons' Watchmen Mason's memoirs are a source of amusement and derision, to be read ironically. Cooke's post-Golden-Era/pre-memoirs Mason, however, reveals that the impetus of his project was to unburden himself of a guilty conscience.

He wants nothing less than to tell The Truth.

Readers of Watchmen are well aware of the naivety of this enterprise, even if they possess (with only one gruesome exception) vague intimations of what Mason might have been privy to. As Cooke's story progresses, it becomes clear Mason's confessions compromise every one of the the Minutemen — himself included, of course, although in this regard he is not at all aware of just how damning the full story truly is until it is brutally laid out for him in the final pages.

Mason's choice to reinforce the Official Version of events while he silently shoulders the burden of The Truth can be seen as the existentially heroic deed of a sweet-natured man, or an act of abject cowardice from a gormless doofus relieved to have finally met his match. Cooke's portrait allows the reader's needle to swing freely from either extreme — Minutemen is Cooke's darkest work to date.

The artwork, of course, is vintage Cooke — excellent, as always.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke (A) Next post: tripping out on Amanda Conner's Silk Spectre!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Byrned Out

A musician friend of mine put out a CD in the '90s, at a price that covered all his costs so he could break even. After production, shipping and incidentals he landed on a sticker price of $32. If you bought it from him face-to-face, he let you round it down — or up — at your own discretion. I gave him $40, and wished him success.

The monetary value affixed to music — or any art-form, really — has always struck me as arbitrary. I've dropped an unconscionable sum of money on a concert in which the performer informed us that he wasn't enjoying the night any more than we were. And I've parted with a pittance for tunes that make me happy I'm still alive. At the intersection of art and commerce there is no equity, and there never has been — only artists who have garnered enough success to be comfortable can persuade themselves otherwise.

Which brings me to David Byrne. If Amanda Palmer is Indy Rock's Joel Osteen, Mr. Byrne has assumed the mantle of Grocer of Gloom (just as well, since Leonard Cohen seems to be getting lighter of foot and mood the closer he gets to his grave). I find I'm both surprised and somewhat depressed at Mr. Byrne's slipping into codgerdom, even if said slip is both punctual and well-deserved.

It's not Mr. Byrne's tone that bums me out so much as it is his content: “Starving artists can no longer afford to starve in New York City”; “Interweb streaming is killing art, so I'm pulling out my entire digital cache in protest.” Really? Geez-Louise, man: those horses haven't just left the barn, the barn's been levelled and paved over for a few more precious slots in the enormous Theme Park parking lot that's replaced the Farm.

It's the naivete that kills, the almost whispered expectation that maybe somehow the Powers That Be might do something to entice those edgy arty types back to the now-gilded Big Apple, or come up with a sliding scale to protect aspiring musicians like St. Vincent from putting on the blue smock and greeting customers after the tour has wrapped up.

You can curse the darkness or light a candle — or, better yet, do both! And so I refer you back to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's “acceptance note” for Canada's Polaris Prize — here. It has a refreshing clarity of perspective that I find lacking in Mr. Byrne's laments. The simple fact is there is no more valuable characteristic we can cultivate in our post-Gutenberg youth than the perspective of a free-lancer, because it doesn't matter if you play guitar, sell books or lay bricks for a living — we're all free-lancers now.

And if you happen to be one of those arty free-lancers, you have one small advantage over the rest of us: you can appeal directly on behalf of your most pertinent needs. Production funds, food and lodging, medical care, shoes for the kids — there's no longer any point to being coy about any of this. Go ahead and ask. Your most ardent fans will want these things for you as badly as you do.

And if they don't, you can always join me in the Blue Smock Brigade.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cécile McLorin Salvant 's WomanChild

It's Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada. I went and put Cécile McLorin Salvant 's WomanChild at the front of my Thanksgiving Playlist. This may have been a mistake.

When Ms. McLorin Salvant starts singing, people stop what they're doing — conversation, the dishes, you name it. “Who is this? What a voice!” Indeed. Listen at your own discretion. Once you start you won't stop — until she's done.

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Friday, October 04, 2013

Your link to good karma!

We all know how the interweb works: if you can get past the photos of naked celebs and their naked celebrity daughters, you'll get to the bad news. Really, really, really Bad News.

I'm here to give you a break. Let's start with 3D Printers. Sure, some genius went global with info on how to use 'em to make a gun -- and brother, we are sure to see beaucoup karma returns coming in on that "gift" for a long, long time. So why not kick-start a little good karma, by using 3D printers to produce affordable prosthetics for the poorest of the poor?

Here's the deal: go here, watch the two-minute video, and click "like." The more "likes" the video gets, the better its chances are of getting funded. It's slack-tivism at its best!

Full disclosure: my wife works with these people. Which I am terrifically proud of -- I don't bang the drum on their behalf nearly as often as I should. These cats are among the best of the best. Any time you spend with, and on, them inevitably improves you. It's that "good karma" thing I'm talking about. So go. Now. (Please.)