Friday, May 11, 2018

Thoughts on Books and Things

With the weather warming, and the backyard a mess of half-finished projects, I'm reading less. Even tired, curled with J for quiet reading at night, I look at my phone far longer than I should. And pick up a book only for the last 10 minutes or so. Maybe it's because Less hasn't fully grabbed me. It's a good palate-cleanser after Little Fires and Stephen Florida, but sometimes I want to dive into something deeper and older.

This write-up of Bowles and Sheltering Sky by Theroux caught my eye this morning and I've been chewing on it. A sense of restlessness. Heading south. The desert. I'd love to re-read it. Or the great white whale itself. Or Anna K.

And then there's Bolano (who I'm craving, particularly Savage Detectives, after hearing Rachel K talk about it at her reading on Monday). And Flamethrowers. Maybe after the new one I'll dive back into Reno's world. Ideally on a bus to NYC to see art.

Now playing: The National. On repeat.

PS - More from LitHub. The Fear / Responsibility / Boredom of Motherhood. (Or single-fatherhood, I suppose). The little one here is littler, but some of the feelings are the same.

Today I tried to explain to my daughter what “dead time” is: “There are moments when we do absolutely nothing, and life is full of those, my love.” She replied, “Who killed it?” I was going to say that what matters is not who killed it but how it was killed—but by then she’d already switched on the TV.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Mars Room

Took a trip to P&P on Monday to see Rachel K read from her new book. She was splendid. Funny, present. And rolled with some ridiculous audience questions.

The Times review is out. I can't wait to dive in:

Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers,” instantly established her as one of the most gifted writers of her generation — on the same tier as Jennifer Egan and the two Jonathans, Franzen and Lethem. As the title suggests, it was a flamboyant book, brilliant to a point just short of showoffiness, and it somehow managed to fuse together sex, motorcycle racing, Italian labor strife and the New York art world of the 1970s. It made everyone’s Top 10 list, was a finalist for a 2013 National Book Award (I was one of the judges) and quickly got snapped up by the movies.

God, I loved the Flamethrowers. As the woman who introduced Rachel explained, it's like you remember scenes from the book as though they actually happened. To you. It gets that far under your skin.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Trouble No More

So I impulsively took a bus trip up to NYC to see Trouble No More last night. Left DC at 12:30p, read Commonwealth on a gorgeous blue-sky early-fall afternoon up through NJ. Had a quick dinner with BL (Thai in Chelsea, 5 tables, not good, not bad, just food and good conversation), then the C train up to Lincoln Center. It was a clear, cool night. Not cold. Just perfect. I queued up in line with my book, remembering why I was always able to finish so many books when I lived in NYC.

I was early enough in line that when they opened the doors I got great seats. It started a little late, a speech from the director. A shout out to Jeff Rosen (seated a few rows up from me). And then the lights came down.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew it wasn't a concert film - but had concert footage. I vaguely knew that Luc Sante had written "sermons" for the film. And I knew it was short (an hour). But that was it.

A quick trip.. #gospeldylan. @thenyff

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So the lights went down and the film opened with a shot of a door. And then the camera moved through it and upstairs and we're in a rehearsal studio in LA in 1980, with Bob and that amazing band (and choir) running through a rough, ragged, slightly aggressive version of Jesus Met the Woman at the Well, that old traditional gospel song he did so well in the 60's -- reborn here. The camera is tight, the band is sweating, and it feels alive.

From there we jump to concert footage that I'd never seen (Buffalo '80?). Dylan looking somewhat tired, the stage small, the crowd pressed in tight. I'd forgotten these were theater-sized shows. But the band is on fire - and his voice is alive and urgent. And the way he moves. Throws his head to the side between lines. Captivating.

Then he walks off stage as the band keeps playing and the film neatly segues to Michael Shannon playing a 30's preacher, walking into a church, and giving a sermon - on removing the plank from your eye before pointing out the mote in your neighbor's eye - a standard text. But I found the delivery compelling. Having grown up hearing sermons like these, they ring true. But they also fit the film. They're plain-spoken, simple, but not condescending.

This rhythm keeps up through the film. Some amazing performances - Solid Rock, Pressing On, Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody, What Can I Do For You?, Precious Angel - interlaced with sermons. Some better than others. Some performances better than others. Generally fitting in the theme. And then, over the closing credits, a real treat - Bob and Clydie King rehearsing Abraham, Martin, and John. A perfect way to bring it all together.

All in all, somewhat to my surprise, I thought it worked incredibly well. It seemed as though they had a pile of 79-80 footage and weren't sure what to do with it. And they had two easy options and a third, more-interesting, option. The easy ways out would have been to do a full concert film of, say, Toronto (either 80 or 81 - or both) - 1-2 hours of pure music. Or they could have done a narrative-style No Direction Home type piece - telling the story of the Gospel Era with some combination of music and interview and voice-over.. But this approach worked even better, I think, and I'm glad they went with it.

And yes, we could quibble for days / months / years about what was left out and why (both here and in the box set). No Tucson '79. No New Orleans '81 (that Lanois mixed!). But I'm incredibly grateful that this exists at all. It was worth the bus ride. I missed the Q&A, alas, to catch the 11p bus back to DC, falling asleep almost instantly, feet dangling across the aisle. Out cold all the way home..

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thoughts on American Epic - Episode 2 - Blood and Soil

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn't have particularly high hopes for the rest of the American Epic series. It seemed trite, half-baked. Simplified.

But, well. A lot can change in an hour. The second episode - Blood and Soil was tremendous. It dug in deep and got it. Let the music speak for itself, and made genuine connections (mostly) - showing how these slices of vernacular music captured (magically!) by record companies in the 20's reached far and wide.

Elder J.E. Burch

The first segment was anchored, neatly, in the sanctified church movement of the early 20th century (who can forget the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers?) - and looked smartly forward and backwards from there.. The role of preacher records, gospel music - all centered around Elder J.E. Burch and the quiet fervor of "My Heart Keeps Singing."

The filmmakers actually show the work - dig in the archives. Travel to Cheraw, SC. And talk to people who knew Burch. (They could do more of this - the story of the search).

Connections are nicely made to the civil rights movement, and Aretha Franklin and Dizzie Gillespie (who grew up next door to Burch!). Nimbly, niftily done. And letting Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Up Above My Head roll for a while at the opening? Spot-on. It frames the whole section perfectly - old and new; secular and spiritual; sensual and gospel and political and oh so powerful.

And, blissfully, no celebrities pontificating.

Coal Country

Just hearing the opening chords of Henry Lee made me smile, deeply. We're firmly on Anthology territory. This segment focused on Logan County - the land of Dick Justice and Frank Hutchison. Some great footage of the mines (including a great juxtaposition at the end of mine cars full of workers matched against an engineer in a lab coat watching a record get cut). Excellent discussion of music as a hobby - and a quick (too quick!) mention of the battle of Blair Mountain and Union struggles.

Could have used a bit more discussion of the connections between this music and the blues - the cross-cultural, cross-regional pollination - the broad range of song styles and traditions. It could have gone deeper into the connections between music and labor struggles. And it could have used a bit more on how these folks were "discovered" by the record companies - and how they saw making records. But these are quibbles, really. We're blissfully spared the Episode 1 nonsense about the Carter's being some sort of purist hillbilly music monks.

Notably this segment includes the first mention of the Anthology. It's well out of scope - but this story could be told again from the other side - from the perspective of the Blues Mafia and that wave of white college kids who went south to "rediscover" this old music. And the canonization of those discoveries in things like the Anthology.. But another time, another film (or book!).

Also, Springsteen doing John Henry did very little for me. I mean, I love the man dearly. But why was this tacked on here?


Probably the best segment yet. The opening was simply brilliant. May 1965. Shindig. Mick Jagger doing Red Rooster, transitioning to Brian Jones introducing Howlin' Wolf.

Then on to archival footage of Dockery with Wolf describing Patton. A line drawn through time in a great, simple, set of segues.

And then we're deep into the legend of Patton. As a friend pointed out, more could have been done with the poetry of his lyrics (see Chapter 2 of Robert Palmer's Deep Blues - Heart Like Railroad Steel) or their context as laid out in Elijah Wald's excellent piece . But there's plenty to love here from the lengthy clips (High Water!) and the interviews with those who knew him. The biggest thing I got from the interviews was just how key the role of working with mules in the fields was - to the lope of the rhythm, to the roughness of the voice. Lots of great stories about Patton's showmanship - he was an Elvis. A Jerry Lee. Playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his back. On the ground, kicking dust in the air.

And the links forward were nicely done - to Son House (that footage of him doing Death Letter!) and Robert Johnson and the world. All neatly placed into the context of Dockery Farm - a way of life with its roots before the Civil War.

Simply amazing footage. And hearing Robert Lockwood cover Robert Johnson's immortal Love in Vain reminded me how that song is about the best 2:20 imaginable:

When the train, it left the station, was two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station, was two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind.
All my love's in vain.

And again, no celebrities in sight. Thank g-d.

Next week looks to cover the field - Cajun and Hawaiian and who knows what else. I've ordered the Book (apparently it's quite helpful for context - and reams of unpublished interviews). I may be along for the ride despite myself...

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thoughts on American Epic - Episode 1

So I was taken a bit by surprise by the launch of American Epic. Apparently it's been in the works for years - but I've been out of the Old Time circles, alas.

And I was pretty excited - finally, a chance to see pre-war music get a shot in the public eye! The magic, the mystery. That incredible moment when the music industry met vernacular music on its own terms - and captured the diversity and depth that was out there far better than well-meaning folk song collectors like Lomax were able to. Charlie Patton and Geeshie Wiley. Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. Skip James. Furry Lewis. All recorded commercially. All sublime.

And maybe, just maybe, Robert Redford and Jack White and T Bone could conjure some of that up - put it in context, and show why it mattered. Where it came from and how it grew. And what it tells us about the intersections, the seams, in our fabric.

And. Well. They tried. There's a lot to like in Episode 1. Split between the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band - they let the songs roll where appropriate (instead of just short clips). There's some great old footage - particularly of the record cutting machines. And the story of Peer going to Bristol to record is well told.

[First, though, a confession. I've never really liked the Carter Family. I get why they're important. But I find the fingerpicking repetitive and dull. And, aside from say Single Girl, I never really connected with the songs emotionally. Certainly not the same way I do when hearing Clarence Ashley or Bascom Lamar Lunsford or Frank Hutchison. Heresy, I know. And I don't care.]

That aside though, it makes sense to start the story with the Carters. In Bristol. But the story they tell is full of banal cliches. At one point Redford actually says: "Though poor in material goods, the mountain folk are rich with tradition. And none more than the Carter Family." What does that even mean? They were the poorest? The richest with tradition? Whatever they were, they didn't just appear. Where's the story of where this music came from? The mash-up of british isle murder ballads and the blues? Ghosts and vegetables and death?

Later, there's an assertion along the same lines - that the Carters had "no influences." Really!? All while failing to mention Leslie Riddle - A.P. Carter's African-American friend and fellow song-collector (who taught Maybelle her finger-picking technique). There's a great story to tell here - how A.P. pulled together and synthesized a wide range of song styles (and then took credit for them). But that's not in here.

There's a certain treacly nostalgia that creeps in. Assertions the Carters were "about music and not about money" (noting they didn't charge widows and orphans to see their shows) - when A.P. drug his pregnant wife from rural Virginia to Bristol to get a shot at a record deal? The list goes on.

So, do things improve with the Memphis Jug Band? Yes and no. Jug band music is dealt with as a fully-formed thing - without discussion of where it came from, or that it existed well beyond Memphis. Will Shade is given some well-deserved attention. There's some good discussion about how bands like the MJB played a bit of everything from Broadway showtunes to blues, but not nearly enough.

But then Nas - and Redford as narrator - keep repeating more cliche banalities - this time about the crime and violence and danger of Memphis in the 20's. And it's as false a fetishization as the spin on the Carters. The clip of Nas covering "On the Road Again" is interesting - but what does it really do to help us understand the jump from pre-war blues to Illmatic?! Or is it just a teaser for the separate film / concert / video / CD / stream of the "American Epic Sessions"? I blame T. Bone Burnett (his soundtrack to the concert for the film of Inside Llewyn Davis is pure hucksterism. No matter how good Rhiannon's performance was). [But I can't stay mad. T Bone will always have a spot in my heart for Rolling Thunder 76. Always.]

The preview for next week mentions Charlie Patton. I'm holding my breath. There's real magic possible here - a world just waiting to be put into context and explored with actual intellectual depth and rigor. Amazing, explosive stories about how our country came together (and didn't, and haven't). Stories of Love & Theft. And they're waiting to be told. Still.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Heart Like a Levee (Tift Merritt / Hiss Golden Messenger, Bootleg Theater, LA - 10/22/2016).

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Back from the desert, back from LA - and back to bullets. For efficiency's sake, of course.

  • There's something about the desert. The space, the land, the sense of time on a geological scale. The stars at night. Then driving down, out of the hills, into the impossibly sprawling megalopolis. A stolen weekend - MOCA and LACMA and Point Dume - actually making it to the sand this time, body-surfing, riding wave after perfect wave into shore.

  • Saturday night. Bootleg Theater. Small, but warm. Wood beams and hipsters and craft beer sold from a folding table. Exposed rafters in the back room, warm, lovely sound. I caught the end of Tift Merrit's soundcheck, an almost-empty room, hanging on every word. Then, later, once the show started she was incredibly present. Human. Funny. With a voice like Emmylou's and some solid songs.

    Hiss Golden Messenger had a Dawes-type feel. Polished, but heartfelt. And I missed a bit of Tift's raggedness and earnestness - but it all fit together quite well.

  • Sunday brunch in Los Feliz with amazing family. Wonderful, rambling conversation. Bookstore wandering. That sky. Prolonging the drive back to the airport until the last possible minute..

  • Then home. Words sent into the space. Accepting a new job offer on my birthday, then taking J to Ted's Bulletin to celebrate.. Dancing into the unknown, but excited about the possibilities. Returning to the world of museums and libraries and archives. On the cusp of big changes - technology, copyright, trade. In a position where I can make a difference, hopefully.

  • Off to Shenandoah again over Veteran's Day with J. To test the new backpacking tent and some new campstove recipes and try some new trails. Skipping St. Paul & The Broken Bones to do so - but excited about Mitzki and Loretta Lynn and Zadie Smith. And oh so much more.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Vaya Futoro / Fishlights - El Imperial (Mexico City) - October 8

So it's been far too long. I have drafts of reviews of Jenny Lewis and those Watson Twins (Lincoln Theater - 9/18) and Okkervil River (9:30 Club - 9/19) and Sturgill Simpson (DAR - October 11) all queued up. But they're just gonna have to wait.. .

Writing this from an airplane to sweet California - I splurged and got WiFi. Flying into LA, then off to the mojave for a week to ramble around the desert - for work. Back to LA on Friday and a few stolen days in the city of angels. Almost two years to the day that I was there with J on that great western ramble. Thinking about retracing my steps (Getty / Malibu) - but also ready to push into the new. LACMA. Griffith Observatory. Thrift shops. Los Feliz. Tacos. The beauty of the freedom of now.

Instead of those reviews, though, I'm still stuck in that tiny club in Roma Norte, CDMX - El Imperial.

Vaya Futuro

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First of all, Mexico City was incredible. Solo traveling is incredible. The looseness, the ease. The deliciousness. The rambling. The tacos. The art. The music.

Second - the show. Fishlights came out first. That's them in the clip above (despite my Insta mislabeling) - which only captures a tiny sliver of what it was like to be there. The lead singer had a loping, languid presence - but was simultaneously the center around which the band spun. The keyboard player sang backup vocals and her parents were in the audience, easily the oldest (and happiest) ones there. Cheap drinks, beautiful people. Hipster night out. But they played a kind of heartfelt, guitar-based, lightly psychedelic music that I hadn't heard from an American band in years... I was in the front row. Toe-tapping.

And then, after a short break.. Vaya Futuro took everything up a level. A tight four-piece with a charming lead singer. Long instrumental passages that were aggressive, visceral, yet tender. They took no prisoners. This was for keeps. And I didn't realize until later that they're from Tijuana... border music. Liminal. And I was in the front row. Dancing. Moving. Slip sliding along the floor in my new shoes.. free.


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