Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Nathaniel Raetliff & The Night Sweats

Where has this band been all my life? And why am I just hearing about them now? It's been too long since I had that feeling. And I'm glad it can still happen. Listening on repeat at my desk. Wishing I had tickets for the Richmond show. Wishing I knew of their show in DC a few weeks ago.

Into the void indeed. Sometimes I fear I've lost my words, but they're there. Just bubbling underneath the surface.

Time and Love
has branded me with its claws
I had to go to Florida
dodgin' them Georgia laws.

Planning more south Florida adventures. Airboats and kayaks and salted air. Soon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

I feel just like a
bird of paradise
my bad fortune
slippin' away

You know who's awesome? PJ Harvey.

That, for now, is all. Hitting the road for Ohio this afternoon. Patti's M Train tucked in my bag. And a backpacking book and (of course) Stegner - Remembering Laughter.

Monday, November 23, 2015


I get a little warm in my heart
When I think of winter

At my desk now, listening to Ryan's Ten Songs from Live at Carnegie Hall (11/15/2014), part of that sublime fall 2014 string of shows that kicked off that night at the 9:30 club.

Back from a work trip to the swampy wilds of South Florida. Spinning through the Everglades on airboats. The river of grass teeming with spoonbills, and cormorants ("shags"), and egrets and great blues. Gators on the banks and in the streams. A 99-mile wildnerness kayaking trail that's calling me.. Getting a case in south Florida in the winter isn't a bad deal at all..

Pushing forward into the unknown. A surreal mix of emotions - from relief to regret to joy to exhaustion and back again. We told J on Saturday. The house won't be on the market until late-February at the earliest, giving us time to sort out paperwork and repairs and logistics. And to make the transition smoothly, amicably.

Oh. One more thing. I was watching Master of None on Netflix the other night when the Arthur Russell version of A Little Lost played over the opening credits and, for a second, I was.

Monday, November 9, 2015

So Alive

Everybody sees you're blown apart
everyone feels the wind blow

It's been far too long. My last post references the trip my dad & I took on the Appalachian Trail - an incredible 4 days along Maryland's South Mountain ridge. A chance to just be. Walk. Breathe.

Then the roller coaster. Starting a chain of events that led to a long-inevitable conclusion. And feeling free and loose and confident. But raw and vulnerable. Real. Alive.

Now sitting in Compass Coffee. Organizing. Researching. Writing. A good mix of class Velvets and Jeff Magnum and hipster coffee-shop fare. Spent the morning at the Portrait Gallery with J's Kindergarten class. The questions. The curiosity. It's a truly magical age.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

September Song

It's been too long. Funny how it took almost a year to finalize decisions I knew in my gut back then. A trial in San Francisco will send me there for a few weeks at the end of the month / early October. Then a week of backpacking the AT. Bring it.

Now reading: Purity.

On repeat: Airless Midnight - Ezter Balint.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Nell Zink

She's incredible. Great new interview up here. That, for now, is all.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Baltimore and Books and Bikes and Bardo(g). A Weekend in Fragments.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
  1. Baltimore Museum of Art. Saturday, 11:30a.

    A deliciously grey rainy day. The kind that melts the sky for hours. Sleeping with the windows open, recovering after 3 days of knock-down-drag-out mid-week flu. An impulsive trip up the parkway to B-more. To explore a new museum.. impressive modernist collection (a surprising Schiele, copious amounts of Matisse, a great late-Cezanne Mt. St. Victoire painting) and a good contemporary collection as well. But nothing that took my breath away - except sliding past the Louise Bourgeois tucked in the corner of the Cone Collection and staring at the rain through the plate glass windows..

    A fun dash through the rain for a burger and beer and then to Normal's. Where I picked up Writings and Drawings. Probably to send to JA.

  2. Escobar: Paradise Lost. Angelika Pop-Up. Saturday, 7p.

    Benicio del Toro as Pablo? Shots of the gorgeous Colombian countryside? Sign me up. The rest was fine and exciting and suspenseful - but I'll take Pablo playing in the pool with his grandkids, or the mountains outside Medellin any day.

  3. Fraser's Preserve. Sunday, 11:30a.

    A six mile hike to, and along, the rushing Potomac. Blissfully quiet, empty, serene. Stinging nettles. Puddles. Mud. An out-of-date guidebook. Delicious.

  4. The Two Rivers Ride. Sunday, 6:00p

    My favorite bike loop: Start on Benning Road, heading east to the Anacostia River Trail. Over the muddy Anacostia, full to the brim. Through the playgrounds and cookouts and basketball courts of River Terrace, under the tall trees on the CSX access road. Over the bridge across the train tracks, through Anacostia Park. The view of Navy Yard and the ballpark from the 11th Street Bridge:

    Looking West from the 11th Street Bridge. Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

    A photo posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

    Back across the Anacostia on the South Capitol bridge. Left on P to the Titanic Memorial, along the bricks of Ft. McNair. Then through the radical deconstruction of the SW Waterfront (my god!) to the Jefferson Memorial. Over the 14th Street bridge to the Mt. Vernon Trail. Left to Gravelly Point. Then doubling back to the Memorial Bridge. [NB: Ride can be expanded in either direction here, depending on weather / human conditions]. Swoop south along West Potomac Park back to the Jefferson Memorial. Then re-trace steps through SW / SE / NE (I generally prefer 11th Street), ending at Bardo..

    Trinidad at the magic hour...

    A photo posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

    And that. Is a weekend. I could get used to it.

Now playing: Frank Ocean, Channel Orange. Of course.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I've been listening to this a lot lately. And it's like White Dress in a way. That sample. Gill Scott-Heron as looped by Jamie XX. And the simplicity of the promise.

We all have our nights though
don't be so ashamed.
I've had mine,
You've had yours,
we both know.

And good news from the Cool Grey City of Love.. we won our motion. A win is a win and I'm happy my first argument went well. And now that the decision is out, I feel like a weight has been lifted.

Meanwhile, my old team at HHR is back in Paris indefinitely and YB has been asked to move there (even if temporarily). I'm a bit jealous. Missing my favorite spots. The exploration. The adventure. The long walks at night.. And, the thing is, if I wanted to go back I likely could. Though I'm not sure the trade-off is worth it..

Planning a solo overnight hike to the backcountry in Shenandoah on the 27th-28th. Some options here. I'm leaning towards Hannah Run (Nicholson Hollow) or Overall Run.. something about swimming holes and cascades and elevation.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cool Gray City of Love

Precisely. I'm missing it. And, lately, Paris. Dinner recently with J - in DC from Paris for work - at Bistro du Coin. Pastis and Steak Tartare and Calvados. The simple things. Remembering last summer there - fondly.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Oh San Francisco. Oh California. So many... words. Lost in the pauses and the fog.

I flew out last Tuesday for the hearing. Banking in over the Sierras, the sun shining bright at SFO. Spent two days preparing, holed in the hotel room in the Wharf. Surrounded by tourists and Eat at Joes and crowded boardwalks. But the views! Long runs along the bay, through Fort Mason and into the Marina district. Touching the Presidio.

Dinner and wandering North Beach. Finally making it to City Lights where I bought:

And a postcard.

Then the hearing on Thursday. Treating myself to a mint mojito from Philz afterwards. Sitting in an overstuffed chair, letting the SF conversations wash over me. Two more days of light meetings. Long walks. Drinks at Vesuvio. Ameoba in the Haight. Rambles on the F, sliding along the Embarcadero. Smitten in Hayes Valley. Ducking up the stairs of the old Fillmore West that's now a Honda dealership. Dinner in Chinatown with old friends. Those views - the hills. The smell of the water everywhere.

Reading Mislaid on the flight back (and thereafter). Perfect for my mood. Smart and snarky. Such incredible sentences, wry observations. Wit and intelligence for days. Her answer to the one-question Paris Review interview last winter tells you everything you need to know about her. That and the New Yorker profile. And, of course, the book itself. The plot caves in on itself at the end - but that's beside the point.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Night We Called it a Day (redux)

That, for now, is all.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Coming Through Slaughter

“This last night we tear into each other, as if to wound, as if to find the key to everything before morning.”

More Ondaatje on the flight out to San Diego. I now only have one (novel) left - In the Skin of a Lion. Talking to a co-worker about Ondaatje the other day, I found myself thinking back to Divisadero and just how incredible that book was. How much I still think about Cooper. And Anna.

Coming Through Slaughter was simply splendid. Not that I'd expect less. It's the kind of music novel I've always wanted to read - and write. The blues of Bolden's lines coming through in the prose. The ellipses. The glancing, shimmering approaches to a story - shifting narrators and time and space. Angles. The clues to Ondaatje's later brilliance are easy to see here. And if anything it was too short.

We can swim out past the breakers...

A photo posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

Oh sweet San Diego. What to say. A trip up I-5 to Newport Beach. Somewhat surreal town of yachts and tiny expensive houses and that sunshine.. Learning my way around downtown SD on instinct. A quick jaunt to Coronado on Wednesday evening to walk the beach. On impulse I changed into my suit on the beach and ran into the waves. There's nothing quite like that first time under the water - the cold, invigorating, delicious salty water. The splash of the waves against your chest.

Read Salinger on the flight back - a beat up paperback copy of Raise High the Roofbeams / Seymour, an Introduction that I got at Crown Books for $0.50. I think I idolized him all out of proportion back in High School. Reading it now, it felt forced and juvenile and pedantic and cold. Finished Roofbeams. It will be a miracle if I make it through Seymour before moving on..

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

A line comes back to Marie-Laure from Jules Verne: Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

Finished All the Light.. the other day, reading it in sustained bursts - on the metro, on the escalator, on the bus, late at night. When I should have been grading papers. But it was captivating. Short, tight chapters. A wonderful puzzle-box plot. Interesting characters. And, of course, lovely Saint-Malo. I remember staying in Saint-Malo, in that hotel along the sea wall to the east of the old city. Watching the sun set as the tide came in and J danced while the waves smashed against the wall. It's a magical place.

Off to San Diego this afternoon. Reading Coming Through Slaughter - to see the origins of Ondaatje's style. This may be my favorite book of his of all... though I was thinking about Divisadero again the other day.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Walker could do that to you, set the truth so close to the lie that they leaned into each other – forming an arch that only he could squeeze through. And when his voice slipped into a pleading moan, the arch became a doorway, slung open to the world and the truth was only as real as those who heard it wanted it to be. They could make their own truths – slip out of the mills or mines or fields on Walker’s shoulders, grinning and tapping their toes the whole time.

Don't Let Your Deal Go Down

So, back now from two weeks in St. Louis, on the banks of the muddy Mississippi. Running beside the arch and along the river, past the tourist paddleboats. An earthy, loamy, Midwestern smell.

Back to the office now, only to find Grooveshark gone... Like Ohio. The playlists only memories now.

Random thoughts, in lieu of a full post:

  • I finished Gilead on the plane out to STL. It was beautiful in its way, and complex and quiet. With lots of digression on theology, which was interesting enough. I didn't feel like I truly got to understand the narrator - and large swaths felt unnecessarily trite. A bit like Kundera's Unbearable Lightness... But there were elements that I liked. The narrator's relationship with his father - the trip they took to find the narrator's grandfather's grave.. and the voice.

  • Now reading All the Light We Cannot See. Back in Paris (and St. Malo! Lovely St. Malo) in the midst of WWII. The pages turn easily and there's a subtle building that is well-handled.

  • I like to read the Russians in the winter. Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Illych & Other Stories (P&V translation, of course) was perfect. And someday I'll tell the story of how Crime & Punishment made me a literature major..

  • A month of baseball has passed and I'm finally going to my first game tomorrow.. the Reds are treading water - but are a much better team than they've let on.

  • Off to sunny San Diego next week. Then San Fran in early June. Time, time, time - see what's become of me.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Carribean Wind (Live - Warfield SF - 1980)

The rain is good for my garden. Peppers and peas and tomatoes are in. Beans are coming up. The early-spring plantings (radishes, onions, lettuce) are thriving. The little things.

Saturday on the water with J. She was so proud that they gave her her own paddle. And though she didn't use it, we had a fun spin around TR Island in that blue kayak. Turtles and geese and ducks and cormorants.

Oh the joys of (semi)-public journaling. I've been doing it for a long time.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Simple Twist of Fate (redux) [Dylan - Lyric - 4/11/15 / Rhiannon Giddens - Lincoln - 4/12/15]

It's the magic hour. On a Monday evening. The light hitting the buildings on Montello just right.. DC Brau. Oh Mercy spinning.. battling congestion I'll blame on allergies.

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Oh how quickly a year can pass.

Saturday was Dylan again. I spent the afternoon planting beans and fixing up my bike. Walked down to BR's and we hit the road. Oh Baltimore. Gritty in a way DC isn't. And old. The Lyric was amazing - beautifully restored. Old theatre seats. It was the same setlist as the November show. That "gorgeous sense of loss, yet hope" was still bubbling underneath. And the songs all hit deep again. Forgetful Heart ("The times we knew / who would remember better than you"). Simple Twist of Fate. She Belongs to Me. Love Sick, of course. And somehow it was even more poignant, and pointed, and powerful than last time.

Then Sunday. Fishing for shad on the Potomac with DW. I caught (and released) over 30 in roughly 4 hours - an incredibly peaceful way to spend a gorgeous spring morning. The simple, repetitive act of casting and reeling. Over and over. Nothing else to think about. Eagles and osprey and cormorants (or shags, of course).. the little things.

At the last minute I bought tickets on StubHub (at a discount!) for Rhiannon Giddens at the Lincoln. A half-smoke at Ben's before-hand led to a fantastically surreal conversation with Collin - former high school (and Howard) basketball star. Career cut short by injury. Now playing comedy sets at the Handsome Cock. With a six-month old baby and twins on the way. But I digress..

Rhiannon was nothing short of incredible. There's a power to her voice, an immediacy to her presence, that doesn't really come out on the last record. Though the historicism of the songs can be a bit precious, she narrowly evades making them living museums. And (re)inhabits them. I read Gilead and overheard conversations from the over-40 NPR crowd, but was glad I went out.. She was barefoot. Dancing. Alive. I rode my bike home down Florida, happy.

So much more to say. But some things are best put on paper. Or into the air.

Friday, April 10, 2015

30 Great Albums

So a friend of JS's wrote her recently, stating:

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I almost never listen to music (I've instead been a voracious consumer of audiobooks). I feel like I'm missing out, so I set a goal of listening to 30 full albums before I turn 30 next April.

Problem is I don't know where to start. Would you be willing to point me in the direction of good music?

Which we both took as a challenge. For posterity, here's my list of 30 (as of right now):

One compilation including one or more of: Buddy Holly / Gene Vincent / Eddie Cochrane / Elvis / Ritchie Valens etc.

One compilation including one or more of: Hank Williams / Ernest Tubb / Roger Miller / Bobby Bare etc.

One compilation including one or more of: Robert Johnson / Blind Willie Johnson / Blind Willie McTell / John Hurt etc.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music - Ray Charles
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis (Alt: Sketches of Spain)
Astral Weeks - Van Morrison

Bookends - Simon and Garfunkle (Alt: Bridge over Troubled Waters / Sounds of Silence)
Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
Revolver - Beatles
Let it Bleed - Rolling Stones

Blue - Joni Mitchell (Alt: Court and Spark)
Harvest - Neil Young (Alt: After the Goldrush or On the Beach)
GP / Grevious Angel - Gram Parsons
Red-Headed Stranger - Willie Nelson
Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan (Alt: Desire)

The Velvet Underground & Nico - VU
Horses - Patti Smith

Thriller - Michael Jackson (Alt: Off the Wall)
Purple Rain - Prince
Graceland - Paul Simon

Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
College Dropout - Kanye West (Alt: MDBTF)
Blueprint - Jay-Z (Alt: MTV Unplugged)
Ready to Die - Notorious B.I.G.
Illmatic - Nas

Elephant - White Stripes
Doolittle - Pixies
MTV Unplugged - Nirvana (Alt: Live Through This - Hole)
Automatic for the People - R.E.M. (Alt: Out of Time)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

I Need My Girl

Y played this all the time in Paris. Would come to my office and make me put it on YouTube.

And though I have my doubts about Indie Rock at times, on a gray, rainy day like this it fits somehow, just right.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On Self Respect

In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and with United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.
- Joan Didion, On Self Respect (1961)

More Didion. Worked my way through Slouching Towards Bethlehem on the bus to NYC. Only to get on the subway and lean over to check the map and notice that the girl to my left was reading the same book. And the same essay I'd just finished. It's a funny world. I told the story to the clerk behind the counter at McNally Jackson and he just laughed and said that New York was Didion country.. The East Village, at times, did feel a bit like an extension of SF. Or perhaps the other way around?

On Self Respect is really an incredible essay.. It gets at the crux of what I realized last winter. That I couldn't please everyone. That it was OK to say No. Otherwise you end up in the territory of those last two paragraphs. And to learn (as I just did) that she wrote it at the last minute, to fill in for a missing piece, and wrote it to fit a pre-set length not just to the word, but to the character.. impressive.

The usual New York rambles. The Egyptian collection at the Met. And the recently (to me) renovated Greek / Roman galleries. With a side-trip to the 20th Century. My favorites (mostly) still there. The little things. Bookstores in the East Village and SoHo. Picked up:

  • Coming Through the Slaughter - Ondaatje
  • My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy - 33 1/3 Series
  • Lou Reed: The Last Interview and other Conversations
And then, The Thing in Greenpoint (with its piles of unsorted vinyl) yielded a great Ghanian record and an ancient BB King 45. And some incredible pictures and some grammar books. I grabbed a few random letters (written between high-school friends who had just started different colleges in 1976) from a box of detritus and they turned out to be much less interesting than I'd hoped.. Alas. Great dinner at the Spotted Pig. And pierogies at Veselka. A knish at Yonah Schimmel. The views, those corners, it all came back - effortlessly. I miss it there. For sure.

Listening to Lou Reed's New York on Grooveshark at my desk. His interviews were simultaneously interesting and off-putting. The same themes, repeated.. But given that I was on a Bowie kick before the trip, it's not that far of a leap. And it fits, somehow. The book on MDBTF was mildly illuminating. Short. And helpful in that it got the sheer joy of his collage - but the endless discussions of twitter and narcissism as defining characteristics of our age. Well. It got old.

Looking forward to Dylan on Saturday. And that week alone to sort things out.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On Chesil Beach..

This is how the entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was blurred, receding against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light

- On Chesil Beach

This was my second McEwan. The first, Amsterdam (wonderfully enough not set in Amsterdam at all, much like Prague), I finished on the Eurostar on my way back to Paris from London on a late mid-summer Sunday night. I'd bought the book at an Oxfam on Saturday morning and devoured it between double-decker bus rides and the train rides back-and-forth to Cambridge.

After getting off the train at Gare du Nord, I fell into an American bar near Montmartre (on that back north-eastern side) where I chatted, over Brooklyn Lagers, with an American composer (from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) who was in Paris to rehearse a dance troupe from Lyon for the performance of her orchestral pieces. And given that Amsterdam is one of the few books I've ever read featuring a composer, I gave it to her. We then discussed Kanye and she told me to listen to Beethoven's late string quartets (where he's deliberately breaking form with noise) and I jotted down the opus numbers. And then we both disappeared into our respective nights..

On Chesil Beach is beautifully distilled - superficially simpler than Amsterdam. And can be summarized, completely, in a few short paragraphs. But what's missing in that synopsis is his sentences. The care he takes in crafting the narrative. The physicality of it all. The subtle turning points. And yes - so much depends on so many little things.

Off to NYC this weekend. Dylan in Baltimore on the 11th. Rhiannon at the Lincoln on the 12th. A concert buddy for the latter would be greatly appreciated.

That, for now, is all.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The English Patient

“I believe this. When we meet those we fall in love with, there is an aspect of our spirit that is historian, a bit of a pedant who reminisces or remembers a meeting when the other has passed by innocently…but all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur.”   English Patient

On the road again.  This space again silent for far too long.  A whirlwind trip to San Diego two weeks ago - where I finished Where I Was From in one final gulp at the Dallas airport on a layover.  Then most of last week in (now warmer) St. Louis.  Where I read the English Patient in between meetings and on airplanes.  Oh Ondaatje.  Those sentences.  The way he feels his way around - and discovers so much in-between the cracks. 

I've been playing with fiction again on my flights.  It's incredible how much work it is.  Each draft accreting layers upon layers.  A palimpsest. 

Quick thoughts on various and sundry things:

  • Where I Was From was just what I needed as I work my way into California.  That strange tension between independence and self-reliance and massive government investment.  The Spur Posse.  Water.  McDonnell-Douglass.  And those Didion sentences..  California continues to amaze.  I'll be in SF for a longer trip in late-April / early-May.  Including a weekend. 
  • Now on to another McEwan - On Chesil Beach.  I'm almost half-way done and it's still the first scene (punctuated by flashbacks).  But the slow tension and the distinct disconnect between the characters is palpable..  and incredibly well done.
  • I've seen far too few shows lately.  And, aside from weekend rambles at Great Falls, haven't been outside nearly enough.  I'm craving Spring.  And speed.  And altitude.  And baseball.   Rhiannon Giddens is coming to the Lincoln.  There's a lot I like about her. 
  • Another semester almost over.  The year rolling around again.  A lot can change.. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Night We Called It a Day

It's the little things.  Ryan's "Stay With Me" playing over the Parc55 lobby as I was checking out of the hotel in San Francisco...

Talking about this song / album over drinks with BR at the Queen Vic the other night, only to come home and find this video...

Now on to Part 3 of Where I Was From.  Oh those Didion sentences..

Friday, February 27, 2015

Where I Was From

Flew back from SFO last night, a lemon in my pocket, blue bottle coffee beans tucked in my bag, reading Didion's Where I Was From (picked up at Books, Inc. - where I got a 10% discount for recommending - strongly - Adam Johnson's Orphan Master's Son to another customer).  Spending today in a coffee shop in Shaw, grading papers...  over-caffeinated.  But rolling..

Oh California.  Everything is warmer there, Joni.  There was a lemon tree on the property in Alameda - an incredible sight in late-February for a non-Californian.  

And what to say about SF?  There's an energy there, an attitude, that I find quite compelling (and a bit surreal).  A real city.  Incredible contrasts block to block.  Post-hearing, JS took me on a tour of his favorite spots.  Cocktail bars where I had variations on rye, savoring the zest..  huge overstuffed burritos and Negro Modelo.  Conversation stretching back 10 years..  the world of audio-visual archives still largely the same.

It was just a taste.  A slice.  And a thin one at that.  But I caught views of the hills.  The bay.  Cormorants drying their wings...

Didion's take on Cali is fascinating.  I read the White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem long ago and have always loved her voice.  Her direct, unflinching approach.  And that great liminal novel Play it as it Lays.  Where I Was From fits neatly into Stegner, interestingly enough..    and after reading the discussion in WIWF, I now want to read Norris' The Octopus...

Monday, February 16, 2015

Inherent Vice

This space has been quiet for a while.  Perhaps too long.  Another trip to St. Louis squeezed in there somewhere.  And off to sweet Alameda next week for a hearing.  Motion due tomorrow.  I measure my days in coffee spoons.

At a seminar last week Bryan Garner suggested we write more letters.  Sound advice.  And what he said is also true - if you can write a good letter, you can write anything.

I got out Sgt. Pepper's tonight for no particular reason (other than I tried to sing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" earlier and couldn't remember the words)..  And it's amazing how much comes back.  Those afternoons as a kid in front of the speakers, tucked behind the La-Z-Boy in the living room.  Sifting the stacks of my dad's vinyl.  Now that same copy in my hand here.  On a snowy DC night...

So I finished Inherent Vice the other day.  And it was much better than the film (which I also liked).  My first Pynchon and full of these levels of paranoia.  It's easy to disappear down the rabbit holes - the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, ARPAnet, the Golden Fang.   Nothing is real, as the Beatles might say.  Or rather, it all is - and you soak in what you can.  As though by pushing the hyperbole to the edge he arrives at something you don't get to by playing it safe.  That said, it wasn't particularly easy to read.  Or follow..  but c'est la vie say the old folks.

Now reading Rivka Galchen's story collection and I stumbled across this story ("The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire") on the X2 this morning.  I remember reading it in the New Yorker back in that 20 under 40 issue in 2010 - and loving it.  But somehow it struck me today.  Fresh.  There's a richness, a tautness, to every word - and she manages to pull it all off without it seeming writerly:
“Men like me,” I said, hand on the belly that housed a being of unknown gender. “They really do. Just yesterday a man stopped me on the sidewalk to ask me if I was Italian.” 
“Who was talking about not liking you? You’re just in pain.” 
“Maybe I’m not in pain.” 
“I’d put my money on pain. It’s the Kantian sublime, what you’re experiencing. There’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.” 
A silence ate at the air in the room. Sublime. I thought of it as a flavor. Maybe related to Key lime. I didn’t know what the Kantian sublime was.
And yeah.  When I was in London last summer I asked for Galchen's (then-new) short story collection at W.H. Smith and the clerk was flummoxed.  I referenced her novel (the great, but somewhat surreal, Atmospheric Disturbances) and she told me, after searching the computer, that they had once had one copy - but they'd returned it unsold.

It goes to show you never can tell.

Dylan in Baltimore in April.  And there should be so much more, not of orange, of words..   More later.  Including thoughts on Wild and NW and Rhiannon Giddens and Shadows in the Night.  And so much more.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Three Become One - Yeezus in Pieces

This has been in draft for about a year, if not longer.  I finally polished it up a bit and feel like I should post it before a new album comes out.. 
But the balance of a meal is that when people walk in, they want water first. People definitely weren't getting water first on Yeezus.  - Kanye

So, perhaps from an objective perspective, I listen to Yeezus far too often.  It came out in the summer of 2013, when I first arrived in drizzly early-summer Paris.  And something about it resonated deeply with me at that moment.  Walking and riding my Velib along those rain-slicked streets in a gauzy bubble of language-displacement. 

First off, Lou Reed is exactly right.  It's an album that's thrilling sonically.  The lyrics are thrown-off and unpolished at times and often juvenile.  Though he'll catch you at times both with his humor and his intelligence.  The biblical references ("After all these long ass verses / you're tired / I'm tired / Jesus wept.").  The sharp insights into human nature.  The anatomy of a failing relationship ("How you gonna lie to the lawyers / are you trying to destroy us?").  Of a man flailing in a world just inside, and out of, his control.  Not that he's the next Joni Mitchell (who tackles all of the above in mystifying depth, from all sides).  But he's soaked a lot in - and puts it back out, recontextualized and raw and startlingly beautifully at times.

And second, Yeezus is, in many ways, a continuation of My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy.  The protagonist on MDBTF's most revealing songs (All of the Lights, Runaway, Blame Game, Lost in the World) is quite similar to the protagonist in Part II of Yeezus.  A man floating between worlds.  Liminal.  Lost.  Frustrated.  Exhilarated. Angry.  Sad.   Shattered and rebuilding.  

But Yeezus strips away some of the narrative protections on the MDBTF songs.  The man who loses custody of kids in All of the Lights ("Restraining order / can't see my daughter / Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order / Public visitation / we met at Borders") is part of a narrative that's several steps away from Kanye's own person(a) (though I've always loved how he turns Borders into an actual border).  It's a Fantasy (albeit one that's Beautiful and Twisted and Dark).  Yeezus is not.  It's viscerally real like a Bolano novel. 

The more I listen to Yeezus, the more I get.  The more I want.  The more I hear.  And I've come to think that the album makes the most sense when seen as three loosely-related clusters of songs, each carrying a separate emotional coherence (more than a pure narrative one) and a distinct statement. 

Part I - "As soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you.."

On Sight
Black Skinhead
I am a God
New Slaves

The first third of the trilogy is an assault - musically, lyrically, thematically.  It's a call to revolution.  A fuck-you.  That opening sound, a synth-buzz is deliberately grating but resolves musically into a rhythmic distorted staccato through-line that breaks disjointedly.  The first words - aggressive, swaggering, boisterous, tossed-off.  But then, after the first verse and refrain he asks "How much do I not give a fuck?" and everything stops.  Silence. Beat. Then a chorus comes in over a warm, lush, sampled old-school beat - "He gives us what we need.  It may not be what we want."  Worlds opened sonically.  But as soon as the sky opens, it closes.  He's playing with texture.  With sound.  Collage.  And he'll do it over and over again for the next 40 minutes.

Then on to Black Skinhead (with that Gary Glitter beat) and breathless, gasping, shouted lyrics.  There's something manic here - driving.  Angry.  It's a revolutionary song.  The references to the "black kids in Chiraq," the fears of middle-class America  With his "leather black jeans on / [his] by-any-means on."   .And while he's always been political, he used to do it with a dash of humor ("I'm like the fly Malcom X / buy any jeans necessary" - Good Morning (Graduation, 2007)).  Here, it's on.  He's not holding back.  And he no longer cares what you think.  Which makes him both fearless and frightening.   The song ends with Kanye repeating "God" in exasperation, frustration, then resignation which fades perfectly into..

I am a God is the closest there is to a Part II song in Part I.  A brag so far over the top that it falls into (intentional) moments of self-parody of entitlement ("In a French-ass restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants").  But what matters is the sound.  It opens with a reggae sample underneath a heartbeat with flashes of staccato.  It's as if On Sight came back, slowed down.  Then the intensity picks up - "as soon as they like you / make 'em unlike you."  The struggle of pushing forward creatively, but trying to do so inside a bubble of privilege and entitlement.  Another verse, then the screams.  Visceral, unhinged, but, at this point somewhat restrained.  Pointing forward to Part II.  Then Justin Vernon's voice floating on the outro...

The opening beat of New Slaves is simple, a descending base-line.  Seductive yet aggressive.  Then stripped down to its most essential elements.  References to "Blood on the Leaves" point forward to Part II, but the overall theme here is political again - references to private prisons ("the DEA teamed up with the CCA") and he's ready to tear shit down.  It's revolution.  It's aggression.  Ending with the ultimate mic-drop: "What the fuck you gonna do now?"  But then it breaks wide open at the end with Frank Ocean's falsetto soaring, we're back in wide-open space, floating over a sample from a 70's Hungarian rock band..  which pulls us right into Part II. 

Part II - "I can't handle no liquor"

Hold My Liquor
I'm in It
Blood on the Leaves
Guilt Trip

Coming out of the end of New Slaves, Justin Vernon's voice floats, hesitant - "I can handle my liquor" - but you know he can't.  And then tough-guy Chief Keef slides in, confirming your suspicions, sounding vulnerable - "I can't handle no liquor" - then going further, deeper - "You say you know me... / but you really just know the old me."  He's losing control.  Just barely, it's slipping.  A fast-heart beat synth..  then Kanye jumps in, telling a story in one quick verse.  He's waking up out of a coma.  But this isn't the monster coming alive again.  This time he's aware of the damage caused.  He's sorry.  He's confused.  He's lost.  Hung over.  With cravings.  And his girlfriend is getting advice to end it ('he's just a late night organ donor").  But at least he's out of his coma.   And then the song just floats.  A swirling mix of sounds, synths rising, pulsing- that fast heart-beat underneath it all.


And then we land hard.  I'm in It is straight seduction (if you can call it that).  Raw, vulgar.  But there's Justin Vernon's voice floating underneath it.  And Assassin jumps in with his dancehall Jamaican flow, and then Kanye and Vernon take the middle of the song and we're back in lushness punctuated by intensity. 

But the heart of the whole album is Blood on the Leaves.  Opening with just a piano and it's Nina Simone's plaintive voice - "Strange fruit hanging, from the poplar trees..."  Not Billie Holiday's version - but there's still a quaver in her voice.  It's arresting.  A beat and Kanye's in.  He needs to clear his mind.  A slight auto-tune warble, mirroring the Simone sample punctuating the background.  It's falling apart - his relationship.  His marriage.  "We could have been somebody."  He goes back - "to the first party."  Playing it all over.  "You were screaming that you loved me" / "remember we were so young."  But something strange is happening.  And he's trying to understand it.  Then the killer lines:

Before you call all the lawyers
Before you try to destroy us
How you gonna lie to the lawyers?
Are you trying to destroy us?

Then a shift.  He's angry now - lashing out.  Slightly funny lines about alimony - the same themes from Gold Digger ("win the superbowl / drive off in a Hyundai) - but it's darker now.  Real. 

And it shifts again.  The outro.  He's resigned.  You "live and learn."  Living.  Lonely..   an entire relationship, an entire life, charted out in a beautiful arc.  This feels real.  And it takes me straight back to walking the cobblestones on the quay next to the Seine.  Floating.

Part III - "Rock Forever 21 but just turned thir-ty"

Send it Up
Bound 2

Remember how you liked the old Kanye's jokes?  The intelligence?  The references?  Well here they are.  But he's not going to make it easy.. 

Send it Up as Lou Reed notes, has the great Beenie Man at the beginning asking that incredible question and answer - "Relivin the past?  Your loss!"  He's moving on.  Classic Kanye quips - the club, rising again.  Clever and funny, but taut and aggressive.  That hard-synth beat fades to Beenie singing the rest of "Memories" - they don't live like people do..   hung over a bit from the emotions of Blood on the Leaves.

And what to say about Bound 2?  It's a great sample.  But somehow feels unfinished to me.  People latched onto this song as a throwback to the old Kanye - and it is and it isn't.  Some generally funny lines.  A love song, of sorts.  And that video?  It feels like misdirection after the soul baring.  Starting over, pushing forward.  "I know you're tired of loving / with nobody to love."  The tentativeness of something new ("we made it to Thanksgiving / maybe we'll make it to Christmas").  And the last real couplet - "After all these long-ass verses / I'm tired / You're tired / Jesus wept."  That's the closest you'll get to seeing Kanye cry.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Words, words, words...

What do you read my lord?
Words, words, words..
What is the matter, my lord?
Between who?

Back from sweet San Diego. Oh the sunshine. That air in from the water. Sea lions basking on buoys in the harbor. Clean and chill, but somehow vacant. Missing something. Or at least I didn't find the right places.. Though there were moments, standing near the border, looking up at those hills when I found myself thinking about the desert.. and Joshua Tree.

Surprises in store when I got to my desk on Sunday afternoon to push piles of paperwork around (oh the forms!). What to say? Words. But I'm unfortunately buried in them now. Piles to push through, miles to go before I sleep. Or some such thing. I'm feeling the need for a weekend in the mountains. A cabin. Something simple. And sweet.

Thoughts on Wild and Crossing to Safety and NW to come. Also currently enjoying the new Kanye single and R.L. Burnside (of course) and that Dylan AARP interview..

Edit (1/28): Searching for the RA setlist from September, I found this. Oh the Internet Archive.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Crossing to Safety

“A western buckaroo, I share his scorn for people who go camping by the book, relying on the authority of some half-assed assistant scoutmaster whose total experience outdoors probably consists of two overnight hikes and a weekend in the Catskills. But we have just had that confrontation. The one who goes by Pritchard's book is Sid's wife, and I am wary. It is not my expedition. I am a guest here.”

I finished Crossing to Safety in the air over South Carolina last week. And sighed. There's so much tucked in there. So much that resonated. Both things I want - and things I wonder about. The contrasts between Sid and Charity's relationship and Larry and Sally's. The slow and quiet growth - of people and places - over time.

After seeing Inherent Vice the other night, I'm going to take the book with me to San Diego tomorrow.. it should read just about right in that warm California sun. Today, working on a summary judgment motion in the quiet office. Waiting for spring to come, smokin' down the track.

Friday, January 9, 2015

St. Louis Blues

My first work trip has been a bit of a blur. Somewhat surreal. And brutally cold. There's so much musical history so close - from Yank Rachell to Scott Joplin to Chuck Berry..

I finished half of Crossing to Safety on the flight out. And can't wait to finish. It doesn't have as many moving pieces as Angle of Repose, but that incisive, simple voice is there. The power of some of those sentences and observations. The nuances of the intersection of lives in motion..

Next week in South Carolina.. then back to Cali.