Monday, December 24, 2018

2018: The Year in Delight

2018 will not be a year I readily associate with “delight.”
The view from here.
News of Anthony's death was the equivalent of dropping an anchor through the floor of my little fishing boat. Other matters of concern followed, and I am agreeable to yacking about it person to person — drop me a line if you like. But we all know the deal: there are years when regaining balance requires focus on every single step. 2018 has been that sort of a year for a lot of people, I think.

Nevertheless 2018 was frequently delightful.

I reconnected with a beloved friend this summer — watching Dan Baird & Co. roll up their sleeves and get the job done was a happy bonus. The setlist from that night helps me with same.

My two favourite books this year were Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh, and Julian Barnes' The Only Story.

Walsh's book received a lot of love from a wide variety of readers, and for very good reason. Walsh doesn't just evoke a particular scene — Boston in '68 is pretty peculiar, alright, but it's peculiar in ways that should seem familiar to anyone who watched the '60s gestate and take root in any city in North America. Next to Dream Time by Geoffrey O'Brien, Astral Weeks is the single best portrait of the '60s I have read.

Barnes' book didn't seem to get much coverage, but I loved it. I cannot improve on or in any way reinform Michael Czobit's lovely review of it, over here.

Musically, there were some new releases that caught me by the ears. Kate Dunton's TrioKAIT2 is pleasant; similarly, John Scofield's Combo 66. I have a lot of love for Automata I and II by Between The Buried & Me. Steven Wilson's Home Invasion rescued me — the live version of “The Raven That Refused To Sing” is especially moving, I think.

But most of 2018 was devoted to rediscovering old music. I was grateful for the 50th anniversary spit-and-polish of The Band's Music From Big Pink. But the stuff I queued up most frequently was by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Three Kings of Blues, Savoy Brown, etc.

First of all, it's music that seems to suit this particular moment for me. Secondly, I'm trying to pick up as many stylistic flourishes as I can, to bring my own playing up a notch — which my wife and kids assure me has indeed improved noticeably (no word from the neighbours yet, but that's probably a good thing).

I owe it all to this guy, and the guy who introduced me to him. Justin Sandercoe and his online tutorials have been the single most uplifting element to my existence this year — my heartfelt thanks and appreciation go out to him.

And to you as well, for reading and even interacting with what I've got here. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and God bless in 2019.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Newsflash: Wealthy Mennonites Throw Their Weight Around!

This time in South America — Paraguay, in fact.

Graeme Wood, on behalf of the Weekly Standard, seems bemused that Mennonites can wear ink, play electric guitar in church, race cars professionally and develop somewhat unsavoury reputations during their only-recently-acquired leisure time. In Paraguay, of all places!

Quaint Manitoba is also treated with an off-hand smirk — “There's a motto the Manitoba Tourism Council won't be promoting anytime soon: 'Mennonites come here to clean up their act.' O-ho-ho — please, my sides.

Even a (relatively) robust periodical like the Weekly Standard has a limited budget for fact-finding journalism, I realize. Here, for free, is some of the low-down Wood missed. One reason a former Supknust Schürtzenjäager like Rees-Koa Penner can clean up his act in Manitoba is the Mennonites in Manitoba acquired affluence and influence — and all the vices that attend this condition — several decades before their brethren in Paraguay.
Next: the snows of Manitoba!
We've jumped into the political fray, swung local, provincial and national policy via the usual capitalist levers — and through these and other behaviours we have spread for ourselves a wide smear of notoriety as a result. So it would be fair to suggest Manitoba Mennonites have also acquired some experience in “cleaning up” and returning to first principles a decade or two ahead of the Chaco Mennonites as well.

Wood's reportage of Chaco shenanigans strikes me as fairly lite stuff when contrasted with, say, Mexican Mennonite collusion with the Juarez Cartel. But I am nevertheless grateful for his piece. He's got me meditating on my own history with Paraguayan Mennonites (more later, perhaps), and on the history I was not aware of until I read Alfred Neufeld's outstanding account of the Mennonite Experience in ParaguayPart 1 over here and Part 2 over here. Read Neufeld. That is all.

h/t: thx, pdb!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Józef Czapski, recovered

I'm a sucker for NYRB books.
...a SMALL sampling...
They're just so purty I could go on a tear and fill a bookcase with 'em, if only to please my eye.

I don't, of course — we (VERY POINTEDLY) do not have the shelf space. My parameters of purchase are: was I previously aware and desirous of this particular author/book? Do I enjoy the work of the person selected for the introduction? There are more than a few NYRB editions that I've bought solely for the intro. Sometimes that is as far as I read.

Until this morning, I was not at all aware of Józef Czapski — but with this excellent introduction and this celebration, I have now put Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Inhuman Land: Searching For The Truth In Soviet Russia, 1941-1942 on my list of purchases for my next visit to BMV's flagship store in Toronto's Annex.

Friday, December 14, 2018

“Who is your ideal reader?”

Answer: “The dude who pays me the most money for what I write.”
"Simian speculation is chimp...erm, chump change."
Science fiction writers, hiring themselves out to corporations — sounds like a concept PKD might have run with, in a somewhat different direction.

Bonus links: Steve Donoghue recommends these 10 debut novels from 2018. PopMattersYear-End list of Best Jazz Albums usually yields some pleasant discoveries — I’m particularly enjoying Aaron Parks.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

“We hold these truths to be self-evident...”

When I was a Christian Rock-lovin’ youngster, the most important element to the art was The Truth.

Did these performers express The Truth clearly and unambiguously? If so, turn up the volume and press “play.”

Did they get fudgy about any of it? Well . . . a little of that sort of thing was admissible, if not exactly encouraged. Thankfully, Evangelicals had periodicals to sort through these matters. And woe betide the beleaguered artist compelled to explore nuances in matters deemed settled for once and for all. Step just a little beyond the line, and suddenly an entire back-catalogue of perfectly acceptable Christian Art would be purged and abandoned at the curb along with the offending cause/expression of Doubt.

Not a few contemporary Christian “careers” have been derailed by pious consumer impatience.

As adult experience slowly seeped into my adolescent fervour, it became painfully evident this 100% either-or intellectual stance had to go — the confusion and inner turmoil it kept at a roil generated too much hurtful behaviour toward others.

And still does, I am sure. Keeping it in check — or rather, keeping my easily wounded ego in check, which seems always to be a 100% either-or matter — is the difficult business of life. Well . . . one of life's difficult businesses, at least for me.

The first thing to go in my altered pursuit of happiness were the Christian periodicals. In these rags aesthetic concerns were always moral concerns — generating a milieu in which it was impossible to avoid checklist criticism.

The stuff that attracted my attention now was sensual. I had no acumen I could be confident in. FWIW the best I've come up with is: the sensual provokes the emotions. The emotions invoke the intellect. The intellect girds up, and returns to the sensual in hopes of a conditional surrender. The cycle continues.

The critics I love to read were unabashed sensualists. Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, Eve Babitz, Martin Amis, Robert Hughes didn't just explicate — they threw in a lushness and luridness of experience to make the explication sensually comprehensible. They added just enough too much to make me want more. For them, the horizon of aesthetic possibility was perpetually and joyously beyond reach.

Babitz and Amis don't seem to be writing this sort of thing anymore. The others are dead. And today just a glance at the links curated by artsjournal or bookforum feels like a return to the dreaded back pages of Christianity Today. Does your favourite author/director/performer/impresario meet the conditions on the expanding checklist? Do they express and adhere to The Truth, clearly and unambiguously? If not, then to the curb.

Eyeh — instead of complaining, Prajer, why don't you just do?

Yes, yes — to be sure. I promise to try. I'm just saying it's an increasingly lonely business.
Pass me the eggnog, ladies, won't you?

Links: believe it or not, it's Andrew Sullivan's latest that has me ruminating so. And the inverted Manet is by Mara McAfee, found here.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Tumbl Down

I am a purty-pitcher-chasin’ fool, so data-harvesters like Tumblr are a natural draw. And honestly, if Tumblr’s draconian new user guidelines prevent me from tripping into yet another joyless snakepit of porn gifs I’ll be grateful.

However . . .

Those guidelines are worse than absurd. “No female-presenting nipples” is enough to gut content from a beloved site like The Bristol Board, whose curator posts terrific comic book art. And it doesn’t stop there — not by a long shot.
My post title is stolen from Warren Ellis, whose wisdom — and experience — on these matters penetrates. His opening gambit: “I’m a syndicator. I stopped wanting to silo original collections of words in other people’s systems a long time ago.”

Gulp. Where I come from, when a guy like me reads words like that, we say he feels convicted. Actions to be determined . . .

Anyway, shout-out to The Bristol Board fella, who has introduced me to a great deal of super-fabulous stuff — most recently ‘Cave Girls of the Lost World,’ by Richard Sala.
More here, including female-presenting nipples! — check it out while you can.

P.S. TBB-guy, if you’re reading this — if you have a code-writing buddy, you can rig a personal silo like Ellis’s quite inexpensively. And if you don’t have a code-writing buddy, please drop me a note — I’d be honoured to set you up.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Punisher: War Zone, 10 years later

It has been ten years since Punisher: War Zone was quietly released to near-universal critical drubbing, pulling in Marvel's poorest box office returns to date. Since then, amid growing residuals and critical reappraisal, the movie has earned genuine cult status and is arguably THE visual template for the entire line of Netflix/Marvel co-productions. Director Lexi Alexandertell us how you feel!
"It has been a long ten years..."

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Battle of the Venues, with Steven Wilson!

Or: Colonial Edwardian Armpit vs. Internationally Revered, Pristine Victorian Hallwho will win?
Dear P___ -

You'll recall last Thursday night was brutally cold. Consequently I spent more time considering my concert-going wardrobe than is my norm.

It was Steven Wilson at the Phoenix. I'd be standing with 998 of my least favourite people — plus my buddy, the welcome exception. The queue was going to be cold, the interior stifling. I finally settled on the custom Devin Townsend shirt my daughter made me, with open denim long-sleeved shirt and the brown calfskin jacket that certifies my fogeydom.

I retrieved my phone, quickly checked email one last time, and . . . 

Water-main break. Concert postponed til Monday, venue changed to the Toronto Opera House on Queen.

My heart sank.

I called my friend and gave him the news. He confirmed my fears — he had commitments Monday, and could not attend.

I turned on the home computer and stared at the email, trying to decide what to do. Buried near the bottom of the missive was a short sentence offering refunds if tickets were delivered to point of purchase. This was just as inconvenient as attending the concert, so . . .

. . . on the other hand, if the Phoenix fell short of my ideal venue, the Opera House falls woefully short of the Phoenix. I used to give concerts there a wide pass back when I was still full of piss and vinegar — how much worse would it be now in my dotage?

On the other hand, it has been 20 years since we left Toronto — maybe improvements have been made? Building codes are continuously updated, etc . . .

My wife was international, the walls of the house were getting colder . . . I chose to keep the tickets. I recalled the last such concert as a pleasant diversion — how could this one fail to deliver similar uplift? We're talking Steven Wilson, after all.

Monday's weather was very different. Constant pelting rain melted the snow and raised an omnipresent fog. I white-knuckled it into the city. Fortune favoured me with a parking spot, but as I maneuvered in I realized the muffler-free beater I'd thought was following me for the past two blocks was actually my own car.

Matters of concern for tomorrow — on to the venue.

P___, I doubt so much as a coat of paint has been applied in the past 20 years. 

Some 1000 of us were packed in like sardines, crammed cheek to jowl on the predictably sticky floor. There was a time when five-foot-ten was the average height for the North American male. In this day of suspect nutrition, that era has been superseded — the young fellas ahead of me were all above six feet. Every time I maneuvered to get a better view, I looked behind to see I'd gained vantage at the expense of someone's shorter girlfriend. After three songs, I retreated to the back of the venue.

The sound was shit. The digital backdrop Wilson and band were interacting with trumpeted from disparate corners of the venue. This probably sounded passable to the basketball guards flanking the soundboard. But even on the floor there was a high-end clarity to the digital stuff that did not interact well with the band mix — which, in the presence of too many bodies, was reduced to a substandard muffled-concert thump.

I tried the balcony. No better.

I fumed. Meanwhile the young woman next to me was bopping happily to the beat. The sound was just as bad for her as for me, her view worse. What the hell was wrong with her?

Right question, wrong subject.

I returned to ground floor, politely interrupted the merch-gal's internet chat-session and purchased a shirt. Then I exited, started my newly-noisy vehicle and white-knuckled it back through the elements to house and hearth.

While driving home I mused over all the venues in the city of my birth that offered aesthetic and acoustic values vastly superior to this dump and its like. These prairie venues, and others like them elsewhere, that offer ease of access to local talent and their eager audiences constitute just one more reason why the bulk of this country's cultural content is being produced in the hinterlands.

Here at the Centre of the Universe all we've got is Drake.
"And I am all about the acoustics!"
Yesterday I realized my experience of the venue — amplified, obviously, by circumstantial emotional baggage — was slowly poisoning my opinion of the performer I'd come to see as well. 

This had to stop.

The Blu-ray of Steven Wilson Home Invasion In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall arrived here a week before he was slated to appear at the Phoenix — I hadn't watched it for fear it would taint my experience of the Toronto performance.

Now the weather had changed again — a gentle snow was falling. I did have a drive ahead of me, but it was to the roadhouse in the neighbouring village, to pick up my daughter after her kitchen shift. I had the house to myself. I had time.

I tore off the cellophane and slipped Wilson into the player.


Really, the only thing that needs to be said is my respect for Wilson and his craft isn't just restored, it's been elevated. The sound and the spectacle are superlative, of course. More than that, however, I could detect no signs of it having been doctored. Cats like Wilson and his crew (“I want to be the worst musician in my own band. I want these guys to do things I could never do”) clearly operate at the high end of the spectrum of musical ability. Even so, most concert videos these days sound perfect — this one keeps the occasional pinched voice, unexpected improvisation, etc. It sounds real, in other words — real good.

Nuffadat. Toronto venue-owners and their easily-satisfied patrons can rest serene — I am back in retirement.

Let us meet soon, and discuss other, better matters.


P.S.: I changed my shirt!
Hey, did you somehow enjoy my koncert kvetching? I've got more of 'em: here, here, here and here (plus some others, prob'ly).

Monday, November 26, 2018

William Goldman, master of the airport thriller

When I heard William Goldman died I checked my stacks to see which of his books I still kept around. To my surprise, besides a hardcover of The Princess Bride I'd given my wife some Christmases back, I had only one other title — Control, his 1982 . . . what? . . . paranormal thriller, I guess you'd say.

For my money William Goldman was the master of airport thrillers. He excelled at stoking a fever of expectation — Goldman knew what his characters wanted, and he knew how to make the reader want those things for the character, too. Often, after a tortuous cat-and-mouse pursuit, Goldman would grant the character's deepest wish. Then, just as reader and character were exhaling a post-coital sigh, Goldman slipped in the hook and yanked the whole thing sideways.

Slipped in the hook — no, I'm getting the sequence wrong. The whole thing went sideways, that's for sure — violently, more often than not. And what the reader realized at the end of the astonishing was that Goldman had actually slipped the hook in some chapters earlier.

Goldman's astonishment-delivery-system wasn't just attuned to the “Oh NO!!” end of the spectrum. My first Goldman novel was Marathon Man, which I read in my final year of high school (1983). I hadn't yet seen the movie, but I'd heard about, “Is it safe?” I read Marathon Man in one sitting after taking it home from the library. Goldman trotted out various characters, giving them each a chapter and narrating events from an authorial point-of-view that sat behind the character's eyes and sorted through episodes, thoughts and feelings.

“Doc” Levy is some vaguely-defined professional who works for The Agency (again, no specifics) and what preoccupies Doc's thoughts is his lover Janey. He mulls ruefully over Janey's teasing expressions of concern, and admits to himself that this sass is what made him fall for Janey to begin with, how the early conversational exchanges led to longer exchanges and finally to the glorious realization that Doc wanted Janey there beside him for every morning of every day, and — joy of joys — Janey felt the same way!

I don't recall how much further into the book it took — probably one or two more chapters — for me to realize, “Wait: Janey is a GUY?”

I can't overstate what a liberating realization that was for an adolescent who'd survived the '70s. Since I didn't know any gays personally (ikr?) I'd been puzzling over how it all worked, and what the hell was really going on with Those People. Goldman threw open the blinds, cranked out the window and let in the fresh air — and all for an “inconsequential” plot-twist.

That's how his thrillers worked — the prose was disarmingly casual, often jokey, always focused on where desire was leading or mis-leading characters.

I loved his sex scenes. Not for Goldman the pornographer's tired lexicon of placement and rote sensation. Goldman's sex was sensational to be sure (this being, for the most part, the '70s after all) but never gratuitous. Goldman preferred the dance toward and into the boudoir reveal elements of yearning and conflict unique to the characters and the story.

When I recovered Control I was all set to do another sex scene dissertation à la E.L. Doctorow. I gave Control a quick re-read and decided there were far too many integral narrative threads running through the first, lushest sex scene for me to explicate. What's more, with Goldman, once the element of surprise is exhausted re-reading becomes a very cold and calculating experience. After investing so much emotion in the first reading, applying analysis to the next feels strangely like a disservice to the author.

Which is why William Goldman's thrillers were the perfect airport novel. Reading one was the equivalent of Daffy Duck swallowing a hand grenade. The novel blew up and rearranged your innards. You weren't ever going to forget it, so you lurched to your feet and staggered onto the airplane, leaving the novel behind for the next unsuspecting reader to pick up and be blown away by.

RIP, sir.
The William Goldman I knew and read had a handle-bar mustache, and slightly stoned visage.
Were I to rate and recommend them I'd say:
  1. Marathon Man — newcomers should definitely start here.
  2. Magic — but only if you haven't seen the movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret, which is not bad, but contains all the spoilers.
  3. Control — this is my favourite, actually. Goldman never shied from looking outrageous, and this time his premise is beyond bizarre. I got into an argument with a friend who'd read it and thought it ridiculous. My friend is right, but that only deepens my love for this novel.
  4. Heat — contains Goldman's last good sex scene, at the opening of the novel between two characters we never see again. They manage to find their passion together, but the degree to which the participants are world-weary and disingenuous with each other is a jolt, and mirrors my sense of where Goldman was at with the tropes he was working. Alright, you've got a washed-up Vegas “fixer” who gets on the wrong side of the mob because he still cares about something. Why should the reader — why should the writer — care? Goldman devotes the novel to this personal quest, and it has a subtlety that finally works. Heat provided material for two movies, one starring Burt Reynolds in post-Smokey freefall. Wild Card is the other, starring Jason Statham — surprisingly solid and worth streaming.
  5. Goldman followed up Heat with Brothers, a sequel to MM which reads like a sad version of a late-career Charles Schulz Road Runner cartoon. That Goldman never wrote another novel after Brothers seems to have surprised him, but probably not his most ardent readers.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Friday, November 16, 2018

Japanese candies, on ice-skates!

Brought this back from the Asian supermarket.
Inside were a number of individually-wrapped hard grape-ish candies, all moulded to resemble the largest character on the package.

These ... guys ... are wearing ice skates. The other side of the package (not photographed, sorry) has a sequence of images suggesting a competition of sorts between them. There was some artwork on the wraps of the individual candies also, as well as heaps of script. It's as if Jack Kerouac and Wesley Morse had a love-child obsessed with Elvis Stojko, and went to work for Tokyo's version of Madison Avenue.

Perhaps it's best not to puzzle too long or hard over how a person goes about parlaying a passion for figure skating to generating enthusiasm for grape candy in unsuspecting passersby -- it just works!

Friday, November 09, 2018

Hey, look over there!

Oof. Plate got a bit full this week. I will have to forward you to YouTube.
Hey, you want to know what a young, super-promising Nashville session musician makes a year  don't you?

A year ago when Devin Townsend introduced a Mooer guitar pedal (the "Ocean Machine") I thought, "Pfft! Like he'd ever use that!" Turns out . . . .  (side note: I followed about 8% of what went on here, and I'm proud I managed that much).

Friday, November 02, 2018

Bathroom R̶e̶a̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ Ridding

A Jewish friend (her, actually — again!) once asked me if I kept reading materials in the bathroom, and if so, what variety.

“Sure,” I said. “Usually a magazine or two, maybe a comic book.”

“What about serious stuff — literature, philosophy, religion?”

Now the question was high-caliber loaded. Mine was a tight bathroom, with precious little space for learned volumes. But I had two or three ungainly reference books I kept in steady rotation. I didn't think serious-minded readers were likely to regard any of them as especially serious in content, however. “No,” I said, “that's not the sort of thing I keep in the john.”

“Do your people have any sort of prohibition against that sort of thing? Religious material near a toilet?”

I squirmed. The truth is I've encountered no shortage of Evangelical encyclicals parked next to the crapper — never, I hasten to add, at my parents' place. In their house the family bathroom was a fastidiously kept place where occupants got the job done, then courteously tidied and vacated with all possible dispatch for the next in line.

“I never heard anyone inveigle one way or the other on the matter. But my parents maintained literature-free bathrooms. Still do.”

“Well, it's highly taboo with most of my bunch,” said my friend. “A big no-no. Reading while defecating you disrespect the content, and it carries down the line from there, is the thinking.”
"Um...honey, could you call the contractor?"
I will admit this exchange has permanently jarred all further personal meditation on the matter.

On the one hand, I come from a long line of Protestants. The asshole whose movement this was, wasn't just a ruminating-whilst-defecating enthusiast, he was a ruminating-about-defecating enthusiast.

Not that my particular cohort was well-versed in Martin Luther's logorrhea. When they weren't fleeing for their lives, Mennonites built economies based on agrarian practice — you kept busy, in other words, or you died, your laziness probably taking a couple of family members with you. The only moments of sustained reflection occurred in church or in the out-house. Perhaps a tract or two was just the thing to readjust one's line of concern from the duties of tending the soil to matters more heavenly?

On the other hand, the toilet is no place for sustained reflection. You don't want to spend, say, an hour there. That's just not healthy.

Social media posts strike me as the platonic ideal of bathroom reading material — in tone, in content, in provocation . . .

. . . in quality . . . .

To be clear, that is NOT where I consult my social-media feeds. I'm not a germaphobe, but I am also not a complete idiot.

But for those precious readers who have made it this far, here is my modest proposal-to-self — I wonder what would change if I devoted no more daily time to social media than I do to my morning ablutions?

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Roy Orbison: Black & White Night With Friends

Every now and then I make a point of consulting the Wall Of Plastic to see which items are still wrapped in cellophane — usually when my wife is away on business and I've given up on sleeping, as was the case last month. Lo and behold, I hadn't yet broken the seal on the 30th Anniversary Edition of Roy Orbison's Black & White Night. I tore off and discarded the plastic, inserted the DVD into the Playstation and ...
...more impressed than the fellow seated next to Roy's microphone.
I thought I'd already seen it, back in the day, but the set and setlist were new to me. I'd confused it with another Orbison-doo — there were a number of televised Orbison celebrations/attempts at resurgence in the '80s, most of them underwhelming.

I grew up thinking of him has a has-been — the guy in the black wig and sunglasses who'd sing “Oh, Pretty Woman” on variety shows my grandparents watched. Indeed, until I read his Wikipedia entry this morning I'd no idea just how far Orbison's star had fallen in the '70s. He went from being bigger than the Beatles in '63 to being a John Belushi punchline in '78, all while reeling from a devastating chain of personal tragedies.

Orbison's music has its challenges. The sad stuff — Cryin', Only The Lonely, It's Over, The Comedians — is so intense and strange (k.d. lang says “Roy Orbison doesn't write pop songs, he writes epics”) it did not make for rotational material on radio stations. The Texas Rockabilly material — Go! Go! Go! (Down The Line), etc. — I can listen to all day, but is still niche music that was not going to receive airplay until the nostalgia loop rotated back to the era that launched Orbison.

Which finally happened in the mid-'80s. Suddenly the big stars of the day weren't just trying to keep Orbison's star from fading, they insisted on backing him up and catching a bit of his shine. I have recollections of Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thoroughgood serving as Orbison's humble guitarists for some televised shindig — and Thoroughgood being given the solo because he was the bigger star at the time.

Thoroughgood “eclipsing” Stevie Ray was exactly the sort of high profile trainwreck I expected Black & White Night to be. C'mon — you've got names like Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang . . . Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits fer cryin' out loud. These are all highly distinctive voices generally not enlisted for backup singing.

But that is what they do. I suspect post-production pulled Springsteen's voice into a smoother collaboration with Orbison than was probably the case during the performance. But he is clearly there for Roy, and I should add that Springsteen proves himself to be a more adept guitarist than I've generally given him credit for. And while T Bone Burnett is fêted for making the show happen, it sure looks to me like J.D. Souther is the unelected field marshal giving all the marching orders on stage.

The evident bond, however, is between Orbison and guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt — musicians with whom Orbison played his entire life. It's lovely to see.
Burton, far left, providing the lead.
The bonus footage is so-so, but worth watching if only to see Orbison show up for rehearsal in sweatpants.

  • Roy Orbison's final interview with Rolling Stone.
  • Wikipedia — hey, I'm older than Roy Orbison! How did that happen?

Friday, October 19, 2018

“The fray is the thing”

Wrote that in my notebook this morning — go ahead and use it (attribution is always nice, but I already presume).

Caught up a bit with my father yesterday, and he asked me why podcasts were so popular. My reflexive answer — convenience. I listen to 'em while cleaning the house, or the church. We agreed that neither of us could be bothered with them while sitting down in front of the computer — reading is just that much more efficient.

Reading is just that much more efficient. Is it really? That may once have been the case, but I'm beginning to wonder if the act of reading still merits such elevated status.

My browser history indicates I've read five long-form pieces this morning. In all cases I read the first paragraph. Once I gleaned the gist of the argument, I switched to speed-reading — centre-scanning paragraphs, searching for the element of surprise. Where surprise occurred, I stopped, returned to the beginning of the piece and reread it at a slower pace.

Here are the five links: an interview with novelist Tana French; an interview with playwright Elizabeth Chomko and actor Robert Forster; n+1's editorial on the ruinous ascent of the editorial; a glowing review of Hiking With Nietzsche; and Rich Cohen's meditation on Saul Bellow's Herzog.

I returned and slowed down for the latter two pieces. In the case of Hiking, this was the second time I'd read it. The first time I'd breezed through and moved on. Days later it showed up in several aggregates I follow, prompting me to give it more careful consideration — by the piece's conclusion the second reading struck me as unmerited, but not egregiously so. Cohen's piece, on the other hand, with its character and nuance was worth savouring.

Cohen's piece has my thoughts scattering in different directions. Monitoring Jewish responses to German philosophers is a Mennonite pastime with a very long (by Mennonite standards) history. Also: “character and nuance” — how could those qualities be so evident in this writing and so maddeningly absent in Cohen's short-lived HBO series, Vinyl? Also: I am personally overdue for a re-reading of Herzog. Etc.

Four of these links are arguably devoted to the subject of reading. After I'd read the n+1 piece (missing: the element of surprise) I scanned ArtsJournal for other links of interest (missing: the element of surprise). I closed the browser and meditated some more on Cohen's writing.

It struck me then that argument has become so binary — this is not just the state of our public discourse but our private discourse as well — that there is no longer any sense of intellectual quandary being worked out in real time, or being worked out at all.
"Wait: 'Frasier is the last good sitcom'? AYFKM??"
Intellectual quandary, being worked out in real time — the better podcasts retain this sense, I think, which is one significant reason why they are so popular — at least with me.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Tim Chandler, 1960-2018

In 1982, midway through my 11th grade, I took a bus to a small music store on the other side of Winnipeg and spent 250 of my favourite dollars on a bass guitar. This purchase was largely motivated by what I'd seen and heard Tim Chandler do with a bass guitar in a church concert in LA in January of that year.

Chandler was the newest member of Daniel Amos, a group I obsessed over. A dishy dude with a Tom Selleck mustache, he was stepping in for DA stalwart Marty Dieckmeyer. Dieckmeyer had laid down the bass foundation for ¡Alarma!, an album I committed to memory — word for word, note for note. During that concert, Chandler proved not only familiar with Dieckmeyer's fundamentally solid bass-line, but keen to inject and resolve points of tension that were uniquely Chandler's own.

This was just the beginning for him. Good rock 'n' roll bass guitarists — think Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, even a meat-and-potatoes bassist like Cliff Williams — play just a whisper ahead of the drummer. Not only that, in many songs they introduce the melody anywhere from a half- to a whole-beat ahead of the rest of the band (listen to Williams on “Hells Bells” for a primary example of this). Chandler had these techniques down, and lots more besides.

Tim Chandler was a vigorous explorer of the pocket, sussing out every possible point of tension and exploiting it with a virtuosity that was wholly unique. On his second album with Daniel Amos — Vox Humana — the decision was made to replace the drummer with a machine, a move that would prompt most bassists to roll their eyes (“Why not just let the synth do me, too? Or the singer? Or everyone?”). Instead Chandler was all over it like a kid locked inside a candy store.

This variety of stylistic virtuosity is enough to send all but the sturdiest drummers screaming (the machine, which was never heard from again, may indeed have suffered a nervous breakdown). Drummers — in fact all band members — appear to have immensely enjoyed working with Chandler. Judging from his Facebook page, Chandler was predominantly a pleasant personality, openly affectionate, with a kid-brother sense of humour that kept the studio and tour van exploits breezy.

Alas for him and the listening world at large, Chandler grew his legs in the most fenced-in ghetto of the music industry imaginable — both from within and without. The groups he played with were not only devoted Christians, they were cussedly committed to exploring genres and styles that ran against the grain of CCM and Christian Rock. “Christian Alternative,” in other words — exceedingly rarefied stuff. If the unwary listener did not approach with an appetite whetted for exactly that, odds were stacked heavily against ever acquiring the taste for it.

In a good and just world Chandler would be an in-demand session bassist, who played with the likes of Brian Wilson and Donald Fagen. Chandler's untimely death at 58 curtails that fantasy with grim finality.

Rest in peace, Tim Chandler.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

This Kavanaugh thing...

...pretty visceral, isn't it?

I haven't watched so much as five seconds footage, yet here I am, drawn into the fray.

I have my reasons.

I don't like 'im, but that's largely immaterial — judges, particularly soops, aren't often likable people.

I've given both my daughters the “If you're at a party...” lecture.

I imagine Kavanaugh's given similar lectures to his daughters. He and I are the same age.

I would deeply dread any job interview that could dredge up episodes of my behaviour from my high school days.

If I remember rightly — and I am willing (am I ever!) to accept correction on this matter — I was frequently a jerk.
Pretty much.
Not all the time, not hardly. And not as big a jerk as some guys were. I was largely pious, which put a curb on some varieties of jerkish behaviour (I wasn't yet a drinker, for one thing) but led to others which were inexcusably cruel — episodes where I was not just thoughtless but a deliberately hurtful and unlovable jerk. This was the general pattern of behaviour well into my 20s, I'd say. There are people I've apologized to for this. And there remain people to whom I owe an apology.

Which is all to say, I am not without compassion for Justice K_ and his family. But at the end of the day, I'm with this guy.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

In praise of letting music collect a little dust

I am a big fan of letting books steep on the shelf — just ask my wife.

I take a similar approach to music. According to my Infernal Device I have 47.2 days worth of music. The “most-played” list indicates I keep roughly five days in constant rotation. But once a week I'll put the ID on random, just to see if there exists any good reason for the other 90%  to languish in obscurity. Occasionally something gets rescued and thrown into the spotlight.

Steven Wilson hasn't been an “obscurity” for me, exactly — but he did slip in status from “golden-haired child.” That sobriquet went to the no-haired child.
The hair-tint still applies, however.
I had about five years of acquiring and exploring Wilson's ouevre. It was all one big delirious treat for my ears — until it wasn't. At some point I realized that if this guy had a sense of humour he wasn't about to let it slip into his music, so I gravitated to the funny guy and didn't look back.

These days I'm not feeling the LOLs quite so deeply, so I gave this setlist a play while doing the weekly house-clean. To my surprise, I found myself consulting the ID and giving “two- or three-star” songs a bump of an additional star or two. I even bought tickets to his November show. More anon, I'm sure.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Recovering brand integrity

Seems to be le mode du jour:
Buruma apparently has a wife and daughter -- I don't know if it's a relationship in good standing, but giving them first dibs at vetting Ghomeshi's mea culpa (absque 'culpa') would have been a stellar idea. Heck, just running it by the office fact-checker would have been a stellar idea.

It's a shame -- NYRB is a publication I've long admired, and Buruma's round in the editor's office appeared (from this distance) to be keeping its reputation on-track. But this move was so unfathomably stupid -- was perennial "poor misunderstood me" Mark David Chapman not available for a clarifying closing editorial? -- it makes Buruma's prompt sacking entirely explicable. And that's not even bringing into account Buruma's awkward attempt at defending the piece.

Paying Ghomeshi real money to address the public from a prestige platform remains a fireable offense -- this is good news.

"I don't ever want to hear his voice again." I wrote that four years ago, and my feelings have not changed one iota. And alas for the Mother Corp, my feelings of distaste and revulsion have expanded to include our national public broadcaster and many of the products they have on offer. It is curious to read this account of the post-Ghomeshi gong show and note which names associated with him and the enabling of his behaviour are still pulling in a Corporation paycheque.

I doubt I am alone in my disappointment, nor in my deliberate shift away from unqualified support of the Corp. CBC's brand, in other words, is still struggling to recover from l'affaire Ghomeshi.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In search of lost books

Somewhere in this house is the copy of Frank Herbert's Dune which I first bought and read 40 years ago.

It is one of a handful of books that generates a cascade of memories with its physical, visual presence. Were it to disappear completely, and were I to buy as exact a replica as I could find, the replacement would not hold the same value. It would not be the book I bought at a second-hand bookstore in Abbotsford, B.C., the summer I bunked at a friend's place, waking up early to pick raspberries for five hours, then spending the rest of the day riding 10-speed bicycles and visiting derelict shops run by hippies.

Outside these shops the air smelled of cedar trees and rain. Inside it smelled of cigarette smoke (Player's Navy Cut) and patchouli oil.

Do you think I can find this book?

I'm pretty sure I last retrieved it three years ago, figuring the 50th anniversary of its publication was a good reason to re-read it. A few pages in, however, I realized two things: 1) this book was going to fall apart if I proceeded any further; 2) I wasn't sure I had it in me to proceed any further.

The prose read pretty much how I remembered it. Amalgamated linguistics aside, Herbert could hardly be called a “stylist.” He believed in sturdy narrative architecture, and laid down words like so much bricks and mortar. And I'd forgotten about the Appendices — an obvious source of inspiration for David Foster Wallace (whose writing I've only consumed in short doses).

Somewhere I put down Dune, and now I can't recall where. If you see it let me know.
It looks like this.
This podcast did a terrific job of covering the novel for me, and saved me the effort and heartbreak of buying and reading another copy. Coyle Neal introduces fellow host Danny Anderson to the book and they discuss it at length. I was chuffed not just to have my recall of its contents affirmed, but also my innate pronunciation of the novel's various Fremen words and names. A very enjoyable hour-and-a-bit — so much so that I aim to check out Anderson's earlier, pre-Dune-enlightenment sci-fi social-crit gabfest with Carter Stepper.

And if any of that appeals to you, then check out The Christian Humanist's discussion of H.P. Lovecraft — which I consider among the clearest explorations of the qualities and themes that make Lovecraft's horror horrific (and nigh-unto-impossible for today's super-enlightened writerly types to emulate).

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Puppet Uprising — now more than ever

In '77 I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a hippie. It didn't matter what the returned prodigals were saying before submitting to baptism, hippies were still doing all the cool stuff. They'd given us Sesame Street, H.R. Puffnstuff and Lidsville. Hippies brought us Star Wars, and the Muppet Show. And these cats all knew the rat race just produced more rats. They were gonna change things, we still had a generational revolution taking over, you just had to seek it out with greater fastidiousness and commitment —
Wait: this ain't Lidsville!
Eyeh. No need to go any further down that yellow brick road.

My childhood church didn't have many hippies. But it had a puppet troupe.
"Praise the Lord with clashing cymbals, with felt-clad hands and googly eyes..."
Actually our church had a number of super-cool youth initiatives, courtesy of the youth pastor Ken Dalenberg (quietly indefatigable) and his wife Sharon (the very definition of vivacious, and who should have been paid for her contributions — which were considerable — but never mind).

It was the mid-70s and hippies were returning to the fold, eschewing past misadventures with poverty and stench and consciousness-altering substances of dubious quality (with fellow travelers of dubious quality) and introducing disruptive ideas and dynamic modes of expression to the staid worshippers who had remained in the pews — and youth pastors like Ken were receptive. So our church took over a condemned property and put together a haunted house for Halloween. And none of this “Hell's Gates” bullshit. I'm talking a proper haunted house, with monsters and ghouls and giant spiders and Tussaud's usual gallery of physical torment — only with real people screaming.

The admissions line stretched around the block. Letters to the local newspaper shut that down pretty quickly and rescued the kids from all that satanic stuff.

But Ken and Sharon had other projects that caught fire — coffee houses with entertainment that used actual electric guitars; the usual bevy of hay-rides and wiener roasts; a choir with enough pop infusion to attract teens who genuinely wanted to sing the songs...

...and a puppet troupe.

Operating a sanctified muppet at the age of 12 was indeed a transformational experience — for the puppet, somewhat, but moreso for me. For a performance art, puppetry is surprisingly free of ego-related angst. As a beginner I was predictably inert. But that didn't matter — the puppet was cute and attracted all the attention. I became better at manipulation, but there was no singular “genius” at work. These puppets were interacting with each other, and many of them required more than one person to bring them to life.

It sounds wacky, but if you've been behind the curtain you know what this means — the puppets communicate with their handlers more intimately than they do the audience. The more attuned to the puppet the puppeteer becomes, the better the performance. And by the end of the show, the puppet receives all the adulation, while the puppeteer is the same Peter Parker schmuck everyone knows on the street — but he has that magical, near secret modality, that creative intimacy in which he can get lost.

I miss that.

Anyway — in an alternate universe there is an alternate version of myself that met this universe's Peter Schumann and joined his Bread & Puppet Theatre.
“We are the Bread & Puppet Theater because we offer good old sourdough rye bread together with a great variety of puppetshows, some good, some not so good, but all for the good and against the bad. The art of puppetry helps women, men and children alike to overcome the established order and the obsessive submission to its politics and consequent brutalities.” 
– Peter Schumann
Schumann's gig is belligerently artistic in a manner that eschews FINE art — “These puppets are all made from garbage.” It is political in its horrified response to the damage political identity wreaks on individuals and community. It is religious in its reverence for the sacred and its impatience with formal ritual.
I have probably surpassed the age of guru-submission, but I thoroughly grokked David Cayley's Puppet Uprising: The Art of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre, over here. I will not be running off to join the circus, but I could envision a road trip to a remote museum filled with garbage.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Barnes, Kerr, Wittgenstein, Grayling: Ottawa in the spring

I'm staring at two books I bought in late spring, one I finished quickly, the other I hope to (re)open soon — Julian Barnes' The Only Story and Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling.
I got them both at Perfect Books — in Ottawa, where I accompanied my wife on a business trip. While she did the pro thing, I shuffled around town and bumped through establishment doorways like this one.
I knew I was going to polish off the Barnes novel — if E.L. Doctorow is the most partially-read author on my shelves, Julian Barnes qualifies as among the most fully-read. I've never had trouble finishing a book by him. The “lesser” stuff, the highbrow stuff — it all grabs and sustains my interest. The Only Story concerns a young man who falls for a woman old enough to be his mother, in '60s suburban England — lovely review by Michael Czobit over here. So yes: easily devoured. Now to Grayling and Wittgenstein.

I last wrestled with Ludwig Wittgenstein some 25 years ago. And what I call “wrestling” is nothing any self-respecting academic would deign to recognize — one or two long walks after reading, some notes tentatively scratched into my journal. But then it was time to chase down the next paying gig.
Throw in a visit to Haus Wittgenstein, and we're done.
I did a double take when I first saw this fetchingly slender book. I don't know much about Wittgenstein, but I do know he defies summary — “short” or otherwise. Still, if anyone can take a commendable stab at it, it would be A.C. Grayling, another Brit whose writing I've enjoyed over the years. I picked it up and made my way to the cash register.
Lovely photo, Jordana!
Another reason for the Grayling/Wittgenstein purchase: I felt compelled to buy something Philip Kerr related — Perfect Books put a “RIP Philip Kerr” sign beneath their selection of Kerr's Bernie Gunther mysteries. This was the first I'd heard of Kerr's passing. In '92 Kerr wrote A Philosophical Investigation, a futuristic thriller (set in 2013!) that had a serial killer protagonist named Wittgenstein who hunted down other potential serial killers, while conducting interviews with the detective trying to identify and bring him in. I am nowhere near as fond of that book as I am of Berlin Noir, but I already owned the published Gunther novels so this tenuous philosophy connection was just further motivation to pass Grayling's book over to the cashier.

“Yes, I'm sorry,” said my book-steward, when I asked about Kerr. “He died a couple of months ago. There's apparently one more Bernie Gunther novel in the pipeline, due to be published soon.”

I returned home and retrieved the Gunther novels I'd started but hadn't finished — Kerr was closing in on Doctorow, frankly. His stand-alone novels usually left me cool — with one exception — while the later Gunther novels had lost the fever-dream of the original trilogy and showed occasional signs of writer-weariness.
To wit.
Still, Kerr had a definite lock on his protagonist's voice, and it remains music to my inner ear. Gunther surveys the scene around him — Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, the retreat from Stalingrad, the Nazi flight to South and Central America, etc — and asks, “Surely we are above all this?” He also looks within, and concludes, “No. No, none of us is.” A POV that can't help but feel just a little timely.

Now I am finishing those novels, and wishing Kerr was still around to write more. Alas.

Anyway, the stand-alone that really stuck to my ribs is The Second Angel, which readers seem to have limited use for. Hopefully I'll revisit it and do a little excavating here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Does Star Wars need saving?

J.C. Macek III asks, “Can Star Wars be saved?”

I didn't think it was a franchise that needed saving — one so-so box office return hardly spells inevitable doom, to my mind — but it's entirely possible I'm wrong.

Star Wars is a massive intellectual property — not counting the movies, there are several TV series, voluminous (and on-going) comic book runs, video games and, of course, an expanding library of novels set in the expanded universe.

The catch to its saleability, however, is that its appeal is almost strictly North American. Unlike its rival/bedmate, the Marvel Comics Universe, the international audience for the Star Was Universe is scant to the point of insignificance. So if a Star Wars film tanks at home, it tanks — period.

That means Star Wars is losing its audience.

Disney does not want that.

Macek's screed is predominantly a rant — but an exceedingly well-informed rant. The points he scores are criticisms that never would have occurred to me because I haven't read more than a handful of the expanded universe novels. In a throw-away comment in my review of The Last Jedi I said, “If you have a jones for thematic exploration, you'll love it; if consistent world-building is more your thing, this movie will make you crazy.”
To wit.
Continuity and consistency are a very big deal to Macek, and I think his is a voice that ought to be considered by the suits at the whiteboard. I flip-flop rather egregiously on the issue of continuity. If the visual panache is sweeping enough and delivers emotional punch, I'll give continuity concerns a pass. If the heartstrings aren't tugged, I suddenly get tetchy about continuity.

I'm a hypocrite, in other words (what else is new?). But follow the money. Listen to Macek.

Also, listen to SWU continuity cop Leland Chee. Keep this guy in the boardroom and mebbe ask him which of the expanded universe properties resonate (hey, you recently acknowledged the value of The Clone Wars — now that's what I'm talking about!). Those are the elements, I would think, that you want to bring in and nurture.

“I was writing about self-deception, and deceiving myself while I was doing it.”

Logged in last week to see a picture of my friend situated beneath the crummiest headline imaginable. Now his family, colleagues and friends — including me — are recalibrating.

I have been listening to this collection of 24 T Bone Burnett songs — a lot.

“I’ve written a lot of really tough songs; I’ve been really tough on my characters a lot of times. But at the same time I know that any discussion of morality begins with one’s self, and the person I was really dealing with in all those songs was myself.”*
Burnett’s reticence toward these songs contributes to their draw, for me.

Some of his ambivalence (to put it mildly) has to do with production issues — of the eight songs he included in his 40 song retrospective from 2006, Burnett went back into the studio and painstakingly re-recorded five.
But Burnett’s aversion to revisiting the rest of this material feels more personal. He seems to dislike the young punk situated in that particular time and place, the dude who had the brass to give direct expression to his darkest shadows and commit it all to the reel-to-reel.
“All these songs are about ridiculous people. ‘Strange Combination’ is about an awful person. [‘Amnesia And Jealousy (Oh! Lana!)’] is about a terrible person. ‘Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her’ is a completely sardonic song addressed to a phony lover. The only thing close to redeeming is ‘My Life And The Women Who Lived It,’ but even the title is kind of a horrible thought.
“Is there a moment of light on this record? I don’t think so. I was just starting to come out of a dark personal time, and was working these things out of my system. My original title was Beneath The Trap Door. That’s how it felt.”**
Ridiculous, terrible people — people I can nevertheless to some degree recognize within myself. Pretty much exactly what I need to hear right now.

*Blog heading and LA Times quote are from T Bone Burnett: A Life In Pursuit, Lloyd Sachs.

**Liner notes to the 2007 re-release of Trap Door/Proof Through The Night/Behind The Trap Door.