Thursday, March 31, 2016

Vintage Whisky, 2010

If I had to highlight the highest lights from 2010, I'd give it to my Harvey Pekar obit and tribute, Woody Guthrie's guitar, and The Summer of Egress: 1980.

A hundred grand, give or take, should get you
a Socialist's guitar
(Debbie Harry photo not included).





Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Jim Harrison

There was a small piece of moon to light my way, and my walking meditation was full of pleasant thoughts about my limits. A horse could walk, trot, lope, canter, gallop, and run. As children we had scooted around with our cap guns, slapping our own asses as if we were both horse and rider. Of course a horse couldn't read and I was very good at that. Counting was a matter that could be pretty much ignored. Far off along the creek bed I thought I heard a whippoorwill, sometimes called a goatsucker, from the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae). The future was acceptable rather than promising. It was certainly my choice.
Jim Harrison wrote that. It's the concluding paragraph to . . .

On second thought, if you're a reader of his why don't you go ahead and guess? I'll tell you at the end of this.

A friend introduced me to Harrison's work in the late '80s, when he was penning a "food" column for Esquire. The above paragraph could just as credibly come from one of those columns as from any of his other essays or novels or novellas or even, with a bit of tweaking, his volumes of poetry. I can't speak to his Hollywood screenplays, as I've not seen any of the several credited to him. But I suspect they bear as much semblance to an actual "screenplay" as any of his novels do to what we commonly accept as "novel."

Harrison was both cussedly and charmingly determined to give his particular expression of his particular vision of things. His Esquire ramblings won me over immediately and for all time. But as the years progressed, he (like Doctorow) became more "collected" than "completed." I suspect my unwillingness to finish a given work was aligned with the epistolary nature of his prose. He had an aversion to conclusion. You knew, as a reader, he'd continue the meditation again, in another book to be released at a future date. He could have signed them all off with, "Things to do. Later, Jim." Would this have disappointed anyone but his editor?

That's his prose, mind you. His poetry is different -- that I can finish. And return to, again and again -- particularly his late-in-life stuff.
Seven in the Woods
Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.
I wish I was still hearing that silent, "Things to do. Later, Jim." But I'm not. He is gone now.

More Harrison poetry here. Tom Bissell wrote my favourite profile of Harrison, here. It is included with other fine pieces Bissell has written, in Magic Hours: Essays on Creators & Creation, which I highly recommend. Eleanor Wachtel bookends two interviews she did with Harrison in the '90s in this CBC podcast. Next to the poetry, Harrison's The Road Home and Brown Dog are my faves -- good places to start with him, I'd say. Then move on to his memoir, Off To The Side. The opening quote is from The Beige Dolorosa, the third novella in Julip.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Vintage Whisky, 2009




Pictured: not me (so far as I know).

Friday, March 18, 2016

What Sort of Mennonite Reads Playboy?*

*The confessional sort, apparently.

Hey, fella!

Wanna feel old? Decrepit? Skeevy? But mostly old? Rush out and buy yourself the latest issue of Playboy magazine!

Ask a stupid question...
In case you missed the news, Playboy is putting clothes back on its "bunnies." Also, the articles are (reportedly) worth reading. I gave my wife the heads-up (best she not discover the notorious magazine next to the book beneath the bed) then kept alert for the first opportunity to procure my copy of the newly-modest "men's" magazine.

In hindsight, there are so many things I wish I'd done differently.

I should have had my wife next to me when I bought it. Heck, I should have asked her to buy the damn thing. At the very least, I should have taken a look at the contents before committing to purchase.

Had I leafed through it, I'd probably have returned it to the rack. Alas, I was in Canada's Big Boxy Book Behemoth, and they situate the magazine stand right next to the coffee counter. It being March Break, the place was swarming with kids -- and their latte-sipping mothers -- and there was simply no way I could muster the required nerve to casually flip through what is still, at the end of the day, a girly magazine.
I mean, honestly...
So I grabbed a copy and quickly hustled over to cash.

The young woman behind the counter was civil. I didn't blush too profusely. But I probably took the exchange a step too far when I asked if the kids were anticipating a guest appearance from Captain Underpants.
"But think of the children!"
The articles are about as good as reported -- which is to say they aren't that good.

And the girls are about as clothed as reported, which is to say they aren't that clothed. They're all roughly the age of my older daughter, togged out in the fashion favoured by their randy and clueless generational peers. Perhaps there's a frisson to the glossy photographic proceedings that kids these days might get a thrill from. I wouldn't know -- I found it all gloom-inducing.

It occurred to me as I read Brett Easton Ellis and Karl Ove Knausgård -- both of whom are basically my age -- that they are what currently passes for "literary lions." I "get" and "don't get" them both, in equal measure. They're both confessional, finally, often to a degree that is discomfiting and can even seem confrontational. It appears that's what my generation specializes in. And for the most part I tend not to buy magazines (never mind books) devoted to that sort of exercise. Louis C.K. is our acknowledged master of the form. Beyond that, there's always blogs -- n'est-ce pas?

So you're welcome to my copy, but you'll have to rummage through our bluebox for it. Difficult times indeed, then, for men's magazines.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Vintage Whisky, 2008



Nobody looking? Time for some Mark Allan Powell...


Friday, March 11, 2016

God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson

I have a collection of Blind Willie Johnson's original recordings -- a total of 14 songs, almost half of his entire recorded catalog. I doubt I've played it more than a half-dozen times in twice that many years. The last time was on a long, solo trip via car.

I find him difficult to listen to. There's his buzzy, bullfrog vocals, for one thing. The gal singing behind him keens declaratively, making the effect doubly jarring. His slide guitar technique is curious, but nothing so far out of the ordinary as to be remarkable. He favors the Key of C. And he sings about the same thing, over and over and over -- a troubled existence beneath the gaze of God.

But name me one other hard-scrabble gospel singer who's had anywhere close to Johnson's outsize influence on the American songbook. Not in churches, mind you -- you'll hear him on street corners, in pubs, folk- and blues-festivals, or those rare occasions when Led Zeppelin regathers at an international venue, but never in a carpeted sanctuary (and if your church is in the habit of singing Blind Willie Johnson songs, I definitely will not be attending).

Anyway, here we are now with Alligator Records' God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson as rendered by a bunch of just-this-side-of-A-list artists I've heard and even seen perform over the years. And I'm hooked.

Thank you, Kickstarter

The performers all catch what's catchy in Johnson's material. I enjoy the whole stew, but as with any compilation, I prefer some contributions over others. No need to go into specifics, except to say when I first heard "Jesus Is Comin' Soon" I got scared. Johnson's own voice supplies the chorus, echoing back from his troubled time to ours -- a bold and super-canny ploy, to say the least, on the part of a band of locals who call themselves Cowboy Junkies.

Check it for yourself at Alligator Records' site. The New Yorker sent Elon Green to quiz the performers (particularly Sinéad O'Connor) on their aesthetic choices. And this is as good a time as any to add my voice to the growing chorus of pleased beholders: the suddenly-prolific Lucinda Williams is ripping through one hell of a second act, boy oh boy.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Vintage Whisky, 2007

There's little about Aught-Seven that seems worth the look-back, from my point-of-view -- even though I published nearly 200 posts. At the time, a reader e-mailed asking if I was alright, or if something had happened to diminish my snap. Well, yes, "something" had indeed happened -- pneumonia. It embarrassed me -- embarrasses me still -- to get so deflated by a variation of the 'flu, but so it went.

I did music and movie reviews, but most of it has a "If I've gotta say something about this, then I guess . . . " tone to it. The most memorable novel I read that year was The Road, which I hated (still do). After that, I half-heartedly tried to sort out why I liked or kinda-didn't the various items in question, until it finally dawned on me that it was ridiculous to waste my time on anything I wasn't passionate about, one way or the other.

Movies and Music blended together for me that year, with two terrific rock-docs (about mortality, really):
  • New York Doll -- pretty much set the template for how the public receives "vintage" rock acts.
  • The End of The Century -- the story of The Ramones.



Thursday, March 03, 2016

"All that blood will never cover that mess"

Here's a scene from 10 years ago I've been mulling over lately -- a silo-raising I contributed to in Northern Alberta. It's not the day's activity I've got in mind, but the lunchtime conversation midway through it.

As we sat down to soup and sandwiches, I noted and commented on my host's Mennonite surname, adding that I'd pulled the same social stunt some years earlier with a girl I'd just met. Her response had been immediate and loud: "I'm Mennonite in name only!" Alas for her, her bold pronunciation on the matter had the unmistakable flat-vowel inflection of the rural Mennonites I'd grown up with (an accent not too far removed from the one lampooned in the Coen Bros Fargo) -- cause for ironic amusement, I thought.

My host managed a half-smile, then said, "Well, I suppose that's what I am: Mennonite in name only." His grandfather, he went on to say, was probably the last of his family to identify culturally and religiously as Mennonite. Grandfather was the one who came from Russia, where he'd had a large and thriving farmstead and was a promising young up-and-comer in the colony of his birth. "The Russians took all that away," said my host, his face growing dark. "All that, and then some."

So much for "Mennonite in name only."

The ironies remain, but none of the amusement. I'm sure I've heard a hundred variations on his grandfather's story. At the turn of the 20th, the Mennonites, who'd colonized the Russian steppes at the invitation of Catherine the Great, found themselves caught between the Bolsheviks and the Cossacks, and ravaged by either side. And if I know this story, you do too -- all the horrid details, the sort that silently filters down through generations.

Some blessed day we'll be Mennonite in name only.

And yet, and yet . . . here we were on a Canadian prairie farm well over 1,000 acres in size -- on what is historically defined as Treaty Land. His family was comfortably sheltered in a modern house with over 1,000 square feet of floor space. His girls were in the next room, watching Veggie Tales on satellite television. His lovely wife was booked in town for a Pilates class the next morning. And while nobody should ever equate a farmer's lot with a life of ease, my host's vocation was not only freely chosen, but in fact afforded a variety of comforts his persecuted grandfather would never have dared to dream of.

So why the anger?

Well, why not? On some level he's entitled to it. Nobody should have bones like that rattling in the family closet. And we all do.

One of my daily clicks sent me to this piece -- The Cult of Memory: When History Does More Harm Than Good, by David Rieff, which brings all of this musing to the front burner of my mental cookstove.

I might as well admit at the outset that I ground my teeth through the entirety of the piece. Feel free to slag Rieff for his breezy CliffsNotes summary of the cultural conflict you hold dearest to your own heart -- I couldn't stand how he willingly aligns with The Guardian's "stick it to Israel" editorial policy, somehow without noticing the irony that even if all of Israel were to miraculously adopt his "It's time to forget" mantra, aggrieved Palestinians would have to follow suit for the conceit to be any sort of success.

Still and all, I do believe it's among the questions sentient beings most need to ask themselves: at what point does the exercise of memory do me -- and my (acknowledged or not) tribe -- actual harm?

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Vintage Whisky, 2006

Aught-Six was my most prolific year, blog-wise -- 238 posts.

In hindsight, "Peak Blogging" probably happened the year before. Someone, I can't recall whom, observed that early adopters of internet platforms are a restlessly nomadic sort. Settlers in GeoCities moved on to Blogspot, to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, what have you. I wasn't on Facebook yet, and if you check the comments following some of these posts you'll encounter quite an array of characters -- some of whom have become very dear friends. Pen pals, only better -- because the exchange of reactions is so much more immediate. Anyway, swapping links and recommendations and introductions from blog to blog -- it was all very heady and stimulating.

And golly, but we loved our lists!


"Lions! Tigers! Bears! I gotta blog about this!"



  • Whoppers vs. Fiction -- part 1.
  • Whoppers vs. Fiction -- part 2. A follow-up to the first seemed in order: it was the year of James Frey -- as well as Michael Chabon, who somehow stayed in everyone's good graces.
  • Tracking Identity & The Jewish Diaspora -- Philip Roth and Norman Lebrecht, contrasted.
  • Taking "Buk" With A Pinch Of Salt -- I'm as fond of literary "bad boys" as the next reader. But you've got to moderate -- right?