Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Ending.

I remember distinctly the moment adulthood first beckoned. I would remain a kid for years--ask Kate, I kind of still am. But there was an unmistakable auburn burst sometime in the mid-80's when I stopped ordering off the children's menu, and no longer relied on the Hollywood happy ending to make me feel secure. Turner was showing the movie Cool Hand Luke, and aside from the terrific comedy, and that foxy scene where the woman washes the car, I was, not to overtax the adjective, unmistakable in my love for Paul Newman. It was a galvanizing moment, and looking back, a perfectly natural point in time and space, to insert into a boy's life the weirdness of love.

Most of all I remember the ending; I'd seen Old Yeller, Brian's Song, the Fox & The Hound and all that snot-softening drivel Hollywood generates to cash in on young easy tears. This was different. There was a limitlessness in that final scene, in which George Kennedy still adoring, and still entirely reliant, asks Newman, what next. It was terrifying because I felt as if I could say Kennedy's lines in time with him, match him for his devotion, and most importantly need the answer he was searching for as much as he did. Newman's Luke was the searching, pinned in an abandoned church at night with it--that one last negotiation he couldn't seduce his way through. Or wouldn't--pit the seduction of Paul Newman against the adversity of the known universe and I still say the former wins every time.

The ending was fitting. As a viewer I was asked to make peace with an unjust set of circumstances, and a turbulent heart that rose around them in the strangeness of human comedy and devilishness. I remember lying in bed that night thinking I know how it ends, and yes, I still want to be that guy.

ed. You may notice this image goes out from time to time. All the good pics of Paul Newman are owned by The Devil, who never stops fucking me in the ear.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Everybody Will Help You.

Pieter Breughel the Elder-The Wedding Dance (Dutch 1566)

The new Four Men With Beards label vinyl reissues of Fairport Convention's What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking are superb sounding. Hearing these U.K. folk rock records on vinyl is like seeing Mean Streets on film. The essence is in the light and conveyance. My only misgiving lies in that inevitable moment a week, year or decade down the road when I find original U.K. Island label copies of the lp's and conclude that it would be imprudent to buy them both twice. I suppose I can always take solace in the rare certainty of self-knowledge that I'll buy them again anyway.

For now these are worthy substitutes.

On a related note I have to give honorable mention to the scattering of Dylan covers on these records. "Million Dollar Bash" channels the rusticity of The Band, and comes off like a bonfire anthem for a Breughel scene. But it's the soaring, heartflooding "I'll Keep it With Mine" that caps side one of What We Did On Our Holidays that really stands out. In much the same way the Byrds did, Fairport uses Dylan to augment a compatible in-house songcraft--McGuinn's with the Byrds, and Richard Thompson's earthy romanticism here. In both McGuinn's and Thompson's defense they're both rare experts at letting that influence refine their crafts without turning them derivative. But in this instance the wreath unquestionably goes to Sandy Denny, who ruptures the faux-stoicism of the original, with a delivery that pushes everything out. It's devastating.


On a final and completely unrelated note, you should really check out Sarah Silverman's foxy, morally repellant new pro-Obama video. Not sure how many Jewish grandparents she'll win with this, but her novel approach makes for some instant infatuation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


I must say it has been especially difficult to focus on anything but presidential politics these last few days.  I feel like were either headed for a national redemption--I do SO hope we are, or a watershed downturn to punctuate a decade of downturns, leaving us in latter-day Margaret Atwood science fiction territory.  I have the dog and my family to think about, otherwise I could, in the event of the latter outcome, sell my record collection and move to the south of France.  I would have the rest of my days to learn the art of the omelet, and screw wayfaring students.  Tempting, to be sure, but I'm very much of the attitude that we will, as Faulkner said in his Nobel speech, "not merely endure, but prevail."  I ain't a praying man, and I wouldn't know to what or whom I would if I was, but I'm doing jumping jacks, talking the talk, and going out for  some voter registration tomorrow--something I have not done, truthfully, since the primaries.  

That said, after a half-hearted bash of Sonic Youth (no, I don't like 'em, and yes, I was merely picking a fight--it was a bad day...) I decided to direct as much of my idle time as I could to reconnecting to some of those old records.

The last 36 hours have formed a laconic constellation of trances, reveries and zonings out;  Green-era Fleetwood Mac, Debussy--because he's fun, and irresistible Candi Staton.  What a soulful time.  

Oh, and do please fight the good fight.  Keep fighting the good fight.  Think ahead to that positive, no doubt tearful, sigh in November, when we can thank ourselves, and begin to truly put things back together. 

UPDATE (in the wake of Thursday's financial crisis meeting in Washington):

It is to the ongoing bewilderment of clear-headed Americans that there are, a. ANY undecided voters left in this country; and that b. ANYONE could witness ANY two consecutive moments of John McCain's campaign and not be instantly convinced to vote,  if not for Obama, then at the very least, against McCain.  If we needed any convincing that the unspoken, smoldering, stubborn-as-a-mule form of racism is the worst kind we truly need look no further than this contest, in which a young, equinanimous political visionary and constitutional law scholar and educator is facing off against a novelty noisemaker and counterproductive heap of putrescent white flesh, and the putrescent white flesh very much has a fighting chance...Fucking wow!

Exquisite corpse.

If public opinion was forming Voltron, for the tracking, hunting and merciful killing of the Rovian Way and petering Republicanism in its lesser forms, the exhausted ideas, and bald ploys, I suspect we just found the codpiece.


Late this afternoon I sat down after taking a walk with Miss Ella, and re-read one of my favorite early chapters in Speak, Memory; I keep it on the lid of the toilet, so in a way I'm never not reading it. Still, in Nabokov's heartthrobbing chromaticism I snatched this recollection, a fine proxy for the present hour:

The old and the new, the liberal touch and the patriarchal one, fatal poverty and fatalistic wealth got fantastically interwoven in that strange first decade of our century.

This, friends, is why we form VOLTRON!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Empress Milf's Required Reading

One of the things I love about Maureen Dowd--among the as many that I find aggravating, is how, resistant to the conventional wisdom of anti-intellectualism in politics, she manages to not only rhapsodize at length in highly referential language, with the kind of academic and literary heft that could benefit greatly from footnotes (and lots of them) but that she does so with the same biting, highly sexualized air of the most offensive and effective Republicans. She's a devilish man-baiter, and a diligent disciplinarian of the meek Left. In a national moment when the term milf is thrown around capriciously--I take this quite seriously, she is Empress Milf. The very definition. That she can carry that dusty volume of Stendhal Al Gore dropped in a mud puddle back in 2000, or that her impressions of Obama's then-emergent victory over Clinton in the Democratic primary led her to an analogy to Strauss' opera, Der Rosenklavier, prompts frustration, envy, and utter nerdout infatuation.

I do wish she wasn't so complacent with the gulf between her own articulate command of the canons of the West and a greater sense of indifference, or even vilification from a Right-goaded America--then again writing for The New York Times she knows her audience. But who among us can't share that frustration. And even as it chafes, the notion that anyone among us in her choir needs to hear those sermons for the gospel, when all we really care about is the song, is both delusional and counterproductive.

That said, fellow-choir singers, I find her synopsis of our gripping financial crisis highly gratifying. Be a good, blushing pinko like me and buy today's New York Times:

Republicans, who have won so many elections painting Democrats as socialists and pinkos, have now done so much irresponsible deregulating and deficit spending that they have to avoid fiscal Armageddon by turning America into a socialist, pinko society with nationalized financial institutions and a financial czar accountable to no one and no law.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Host

Gerhard Richter-Candle (German 1980's)

With MacGuyveresque ingenuity did Edith Wharton once proclaim that both a candle and a mirror could spread light to dark corners.


I had a grinder fit a moment ago when, snapping back from a perfectly transcendent state, I suddenly realized the vulgarity of Sonic Youth, and the album cover to their overpraised 1988 album, Daydream Nation. The older I get the more spiritually bound I feel to Richter's tensile blurs and ephemeral interpretations of objects. So much so that when I see one in the context of a Sonic Youth album cover it feels like a cheap, haute hipster appropriation. There is a wild mystery that lies so close to normal life in Richter's more literal works, and to see it this way just kind of makes me sad.

The argument has been made--and is gospel among my generation (the same generation that touts M.I.A. and Sufjan Stevens I might add), that Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation is the ideal fusion of high art conviction and raw youthful self-consciousness. And I'm not gonna say these SY folks are dummies just for the sake of being iconoclastic. They're bright and talented and all the things you love. However as I age away from their ethical unrest, to a different restlessness the autonomy and unmarriageable authority of Richter's images require more and more space and quiet. Through the labor of seeing and execution, the ambivalent nod to photographic flaw, and the poetic thunderbolt of object and arrangement, the painting is timeless in a way the record is not. The relationship, if you concede my point, is less of a compelling contrast than it is a parasitic juxtaposition.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Please Scare Me.

Une Nuit Sur le Mont-Chauve-movie still-Alexej Alexeieff (Russian-French 1933)

I know I ought to save this for Halloween, but the truth is that Muse is a fickle creature, even for a diarist.  Maybe especially for a diarist.  One day you concoct a Cheeveresque reflection on the workday commute morning moon.  Dazzling, pathetic.  But, you know, dazzling.  Then, two weeks later you get hit by the Love Train, talented blue songbirds and yellow stars, live to tell with perfect kissmarks on your collar, and when the time comes to put pen to paper you got nothing.  Come late October I could be dry as a bone. Back to making best records I ever heard lists, or getting ripped on rye and writing dirty odes to Alfre Woodard.  I wouldn't put it past me.

Today's find is a magnificent Soviet-era 10" lp of Moussorgsky's Sur Le Mont-Chauve--a piece that even in the ignorance of my youth when only the crummiest kids knew about classical music, I was not only aware of A Night on Bald Mountain, but was riveted by its alien characters. The graphic art here is striking, laid out in proletarian gray and white intersecting lines, with a small Deutsche Grammophon-style title frame. It's impressive from this historical distance to glimpse a government's struggle to provide not just an economic and social framework for its people, but a unified artistic identity as well.  Say what you will about the outcome of the U.S.S.R., this semblance of a national creative spirit is remarkable--even as a relic.

The recording is much as I expected it, sound buried beneath the weight and color of dust, surface wear, and that ephemeral milk-cloud of a long time that separates any object from its native era.  A few nights ago I saw Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, the psychological horror movie from 1942.  Thanks to producer, Val Lewton's, imposingly small budget the film is a wonder of smart creative decisions--most effective among them, omissions.  We see no monsters, we're pestered with no flashy special effects.  The movie is joyfully bereft of Cat People!  Left with nothing but the human elements of this compelling story, Tourneur is forced to make some profound observations on real fear, jealousy, bigotry, cultural relativism and terror.  

I'm often reminded of it, and of the general notion of "horror" as a genre (though more accurately A Night on Bald Mountain is a macabre poem that never explicates actual horror) when I think back to what made me happiest as a child.  Childhood was boring.  You couldn't drive, and even if you could, you couldn't drive at night.  You couldn't get a drink.  Everybody stared.  So horror was a kind of mystical exercise in adventure and salvation.  You went out, got scared and came home.  Convincing thrills capped with reliable safety, that was childhood.  At least in Carlisle it was.

Moussorgsky's lush, doomy Russian fantasy is a rib of lost innocence, far more than it is a work of art, or a canonical composition, which I wouldn't know how to define or qualify anyway.  I love that disconnect from form and genre.  In Speak Memory, Nabokov eschewed the Freudian readings he saw threatening his autobiography.  His concept framed memories of childhood as attempts to re-establish a sublime moment of mystery and natural essence--the primordial.  I like that.

The Gimmel 100

I'm inching ever so much closer to restoring--in true, working form, the podcast feature on the site. I won't bore you with the litany of setbacks and idiotic mistakes made by yours truly that have put it off this long. Sufficed to say, it'll be back and better than its crappy predecessor ("The Gimmel 80").

For now I'll tell you this evening has been a Bossom Buddies checkerboard of Dan's Iron Maiden and my Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Oil and water, I tell ya. But we're being diplomatic about it, and, splitting the difference, I threw Gary Numan's Pleasure Principle on. Hopefully some time in the weekend's flurry there'll be an hour or so to get dusty-kneed in the classical aisle at Jerry's--it's like looking for Datsun owners manuals in the Library of Congress. They keep 'em in the mop closet next to Marilyn Quayle's novel(s).

You'll receive a full report.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

This Dog Has More Common Sense Than Me

Occasionally one loses the way, falls out of love. I'm not talking about a particular person, or people. It's more a love of momentary things.

Well, luckily there's something biological or anthropological or something that makes it stick. It's kind of like getting old motor oil on your hands, hard to get off, and you secretly want it to stay there so everyone sees it and knows what you've been up to.

So I'm nursing a terrific hangover this morning, having spent the better part of last evening with Dan at my pal, John Doran's, dj night at Kelly's Bar.

John played lots of great punk--if anyone was gonna get me to enjoy Mission of Burma again, or The Saints, or any rock, which I didn't think I liked anymore, it was gonna be John. We drank beers until the whole place and its long mirrored wall slid off the edge of the cliff of all nighttime, and must've looked, from certain East Liberty hills, like an upset dinner table, with a lot of laughing people just sort of heaped in with the broken crystal stemware and the cursive name cards. I wound up with a lemon garnish in my hair and a pork chop stuck to the lapel of my jacket. I saw people I hadn't seen in many years. The dirty table cloth, I remember thinking, looked like a sleeping Dalmation, spotted, and eyes turned inward.

As we passed late-nite Wendy's there was a caravan around the place for the drive-thru. I remember shouting, "You fucking people are gonna burn yourselves out young, eating that shit!" Though in truth I just wanted to make a funny kind of connection and felt shouting was the most cosmic means. I passed out with my forehead pressed in a cold quinoa flan, and awoke with the dog licking maple sugar crystals out of my hair. It was sort of embarrassing since I tend to think of myself as the dog's father.

But man, that music was fantastic. It was sort of like being in that hotel in The Shining. Only, you know, just the good times...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

I like to pretend you're the other.

Two records continue to blissfully haunt me from Philadelphia, each with the magnitude and erotic charge of Deborah Kerr in a nun's habit.  The first is--I suppose this one is kinda obvious, Billy Paul's  360 Degrees of Billy Paul.  It did indeed yield one of the great Philly soul hits, "Me & Mrs. Jones", which I continue to love--though for my money, Candi Staton's "Mr. & Mrs. Untrue" can't be beat.  Paul's throaty, scatting delivery peaks on Carole King's "It's Too Late".  Fucking sincere and awesome!

The other is one folks who know me well have probably grown a little tired of my touting so persistently.  I can't help it: Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece is astonishing stuff.  I'm all hung up on the arrested development on the opener, "Fair Play".  Morrison's signature stream-of-consciousness lyrics were dead by 1974, when this homecoming lament was recorded, if critics are to be believed.  Though as I'm increasingly inclined to say, "to hell with the traditional media".  Old Ivan turns the shipwreck of marriage and America into a stirring celtic woundsalve.  "Fair Play" is like Coleridge's "This Lime Tree Bower", so rife with natural endorsements, and emotional frailty.  So much spiritual violence warming around a juvenile human center; Van sounds angelic.  There's William Blake, Geronimo, a laudable Levon Helm impersonation, and a soulful falsetto so broad and deeply penetrating that everyone from Sinead O'Connor, to Prince, to name-your-blue-eyed-soul hot thing, owes it a long genuflection.   
I'm still learning the mp3 link thing for the Mac, so, alas, no free downloads right now.  But maybe if lightning strikes my kite tonight I'll have something up by morning.  Short of the that, and regardless of that, go out and buy em.  The world is so full.  

Friday, September 12, 2008

As One Speaks to stone, as you.*

Albrecht Durer-Self-Portrait (German 1500)

*Ed.: That was Paul Celan, translated (John Felstiner). Untranslated, this is Nabokov, speaking freely on a cherished subject: what Vivian Darkbloom saw first:

I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged--the same house, the same people--and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.

Oh, you:

Oct. 1, 1955: Mitch Miller-The Yellow Rose of Texas

Oct. 1, 1965: Hang On Sloopy-The McCoys

Feb. 1, 1975: Neil Sedaka-Laughter in the Rain

Oct. 1, 1975: David Bowie-Fame

Oct. 1, 1980: Queen-Another One Bites the Dust

Oct. 1, 1985: Dire Straits-Money For Nothing

Oct. 1, 1990: Maxi Priest-Close To You

Oct. 1, 1995: Mariah Carey-Fantasy

Oct. 1, 1999 (my 2000 was odious, I kicked the ground, loved Mahler, and was Raskolnikov): TLC-Unpretty

Oct. 1, 2005: Destroyer: The Music Lovers

Oct. 1, 2007: Richard Hawley-Serious

Chart your lineage with Josh.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

It was real. (w/UPDATE)

Ben Shahn Allegory (American 1948)

Over the weekend, in a crowded theater in the Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room, I saw the premiere of Carl Cimini's documentary, Dancing in Amdo. I had certain expectations, primarily because, apart from a warm acquaintance with Carl, one of my closest friends, Todd, joined the filmmaking journey to India to record the audio tracks. I have been relayed enough anecdotes and unfilmable moments from the voyage that the movie itself had come to feel like a mere index, something useful in cementing the free-floating pieces of a journey into a conventional narrative form, but in and of itself secondary.

The look and sound were very much what I'd hoped for, which is to say gritty, and not so different from the way we remember travel:  arrested pictures of a moving world, and then rambling attempts to catch hold of it again.  It is something I grew to love in Harmony Korine's movies--maybe the best of this generation.

My big question at the premier, which went unasked, though not unanswered exactly, was how this was supposed to appeal as a work of art?  Was he happy with the pictures and sounds they collected? Is the skin of political and religious purposes a red herring?  Now, in my defense I don't go around asking "is it art?" every time I'm forced to wear a button-down Oxford outside the office, but personal relationships being what they are I couldn't help it.  I wanted to connect the dots between the movie and the aspirations.

It's not that I was scared to ask the "art" question--though phrasing it tactfully is seldom easy.  As time went on, both in viewing, and in the ensuing q&a, the consensus was that artistic merits had limited space in the discussion--though in plugging another movie culled from the same voyage, Carl distinctly tipped his hat.  The audience had political questions, religious questions.  Fine, fine.  

Carl opened the night by congratulating the audience for being among the enlightened one percentile of moviegoers willing to see either a documentary or a subtitled movie, noting with wry pride that Dancing was both.  I imagine most of the folks in attendance would've contended that the lively discussion that followed testified to the success of the film-as-art--though as much of that discussion emanated from globetrotting bloviators and trust fund bleeding hearts.  The lot of them reminded me of one of my first masters lit classroom discussions.  The short story was Andre Dubus' "The Fat Girl".  It was about a fat girl, and all anyone could say was gee, fat girls have it rough.  And God, people can be so cruel.  

The reason this question of art ran so contrary to the heart of the audience's discussion is that, contrary to surface appearances, Dancing in Amdo is not a political movie.  Nor is it a religious movie.  It is, quite purely, a document of curiosity. A manifestation of action and time spent.  Anything beyond that obscures the very real and rewarding story, a story that, I might add, is not the Dalai Lama's, nor the monks' in whose company he practices, nor the peoples' of India, nor the peoples' of Tibet.  

Perhaps it was the absence of a first person narration--the "traveler's voice".  Certainly it owed something to the distractingly large subject being sought:  call that the Dalai Lama, the essence of Tibetan Buddhism, or whatever you like.

Still, I found the most magnetic--the most instantly magnetic, quality of the film to be that engine of curiosity.  The movie is filled with new things.  Most of us had never seen the rituals, the art (how very much like western Modernism those young Tibetan paintings are) and walking-around lives of these places before.  It was a kind of coming alive.

I read something the late American artist, Ben Shahn, wrote in his essay, "The Biography of a Painting", which I thought lent itself nicely to the issues I faced in seeing this movie.  In it he described his reaction to a negative criticism he received for one of his paintings, at the hands of a close friend and critic, Henry McBride.  The story goes that after a long, almost predictably favorable, critical relationship with Shahn, McBride saw in 1948's Allegory, violent, politically charged elements which, he felt, disagreed with the temperament of the artist.  Shahn pored over the DNA of his work, examining it for any correlation to the points his friend made against it.  He found none.        

Instead the artist steeled himself with the words of another critic, Clive Bell:

The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, but it is always irrelevant.  For to appreciate a work of art, we must bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its affairs and ideas, no familiarity with its emotions.

Wasn't this what I'd just been thinking?   What Shahn then added, however, was that personal artistic confession.  Yes the external world is irrelevant to art, but no it cannot be excluded.  Shahn, rather than accepting this tenet quietly, named the historical, then autobiographical, and finally mythological symbolisms which might have informed Allegory.  He knew the irrelevance about which Bell spoke, but could find no comfort in it.  Nor could he resist succumbing to it.


The life of a movie is strange.  I remember a picture from one of Bob Dylan's Hollywood scrapbooks, it depicted a stirring crowd at the center of which was an aged Marlene Dietrich looking sad and confused.  The occasion was Gary Cooper's funeral.  What struck me about it was how Dietrich's iconographic aura broke down for me in that instant.  As if seeing her made her the human being I never knew in her movies.  Perhaps Dancing in Amdo worked on such a profound level for me for the exact opposite reason:  with the transgression of dragging the external world into art, I saw people I knew, or at least the traces of their story, as something devastatingly outside my world.  

UPDATE:  This is sorta sidetracking, but the fantastic Artblog by Bob has recently, coincidentally, chimed in on Ben Shahn.  As ever his clarity and incisiveness inspire me with due love (and envy).  What do they put in that Philadelphia water!?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fake Classical

It was a bracing shot, some eighteen years ago, when in the customarily sympathetic goth fan -mag, Propaganda, I read sharp words of criticism for the latest Dead Can Dance album, Aion. I considered it a betrayal, not because the writer was critical of the work--it's not my favorite, either, rather it was the conclusion he reached. To paraphrase, he knocked what he saw as a fake classical approach. You could always go to the symphony, so why would you want to waste your time with something so achingly indebted--and juvenile by comparison. Had there but been some pop element to save it from its own pompous identity crisis the verdict might've been milder. Favorable even.

Over the years I've fallen for a lot of fake classical. I genuinely enjoy it. There are moments with canonized works (Brahms' Tragic Overture, since it has been a recent favorite, will serve as a fine example) that the terrain of the music is so frenetic, or erratic, moving with such uncompromising conviction, that the very notion of an "intended audience" seems impertinent. The music seems to have a mind of its own, and very little time for the cosmetics of simple melody, or the repetitiveness of pop that makes it so instantly digestible.

Porn Sword Tobacco is one of those slick, one-man-show projects, whose one man, Henrick Jonsson, has the fake classical gift. And it is very much a gift. So many artists, from latter-day Tortoise, to Explosions in the Sky, to Ulrich Schnauss, revel in the subterfuge of wordless music. The results alternate between predictable rise-and-fall dynamic "post-rock"exercises, and boiled-beef-gray ambient sedatives.

One of the defining virtues of Jonsson's music is how simple it sounds. Like the best tossed-off moments of This Mortal Coil, or the criminally underrated Scottish organist, Bill Wells, PST traffics in deceptive product. The excellent, New Exclusive Olympic Heights, embraces Mike Oldfield, the luxurious dolor of early Kind Crimson, and John Hassell. The substance, under closer examination bears no real similarity to what we broadly call classical music, but that it is instrumental, and lacks either the ethnic character of a global music tradition, or the rambunctiousness of jazz.

You could say records like New Exclusive owe more to the moody interludes of rock, the outros, the extended intros. In those fragmentary moments the secret composer aspirations of many an artist are on display, half-hidden, as if being test-marketed between radio songs, or rock and roll, or whatever.

What I'm loving about Porn Sword Tobacco is the no-shame-in-the-game embrace of fake classical. The beat is down-tempo, and most of the melodies go in the same downward sloping direction. But the appeal lies in a certain attitude of aestheticism. I suppose that part doesn't waver, regardless of genre. Either the attitude corresponds with the moment or it doesn't, leaving the gravity of evolved musical composition in a suspended state, or at the very least, in question.