Sunday, October 26, 2008

A good hoax.

Timothy Leary, Danny Rose & Ricky Gervais at Altamont

This morning I took an Ink Spots record off the shelf I picked up somewhere along my way, to which I listened maybe once or twice. Thanks to You is a live recording from the "Beautiful Brookdale Lodge" a little north of Santa Cruz, CA (there's a handy map to the location on the jacket). Scant on liner notes, I'd guess this is from the early fifties. Their 1946 hit, "The Gypsy" is missing from this set, but there is a pronounced modernity to the singing style and arrangements that leads me to believe it was merely an omission, not convincing evidence that the record came before the song.

The group's career spanned three decades and saw significant line-up changes along the way, as such this record reinforces my basic impression of them as being a kind of professional act whose best effects were measured, timed and practiced like mortal feats in a circus. The vocal harmonies feel warm and broken in, but not casual--whatever the recording date, the guys were still very much working for it. And the pervading aura is of a proto-doo wop pioneer group settling confidently into the era they'd helped to foster in.

It put me in the mind of a fantastic pipe dream I've carried for a few years now. I got the idea while watching Woody Allen's 1983 faux documentary, Zelig. If you're not familiar with it (shame on you!) the story concerns Allen's Leonard Zelig, an everyman who through a mysterious accident developed the supernatural ability to morph into people in whose company he found himself. It's a clever materialization of Allen's own affinity for the popular culture of the jazz age, an era frustratingly not his own. Allen concocted a soundtrack of (also faux) period pop tunes that, several generations removed at any rate, sound like the real deal.

The idea I had was to produce an archival collection that transitions seamlessly between songs from the Zelig soundtrack (period songs known to be inauthentic), the bigs ones, like charleston dance hit, "Doin' the Chameleon"; songs from that era--any old croaky thing from Charley Patton would do fine; and "newly discovered tunes" (songs unknown to most as inauthentic, but you know, sounding spot on) and present the set as Music From the Zelig Era. Yazoo, or El or any number of archival labels could successfully pull it off--Nick Tosches could write the notes.

I think what made the Ink Spots record jog this memory was the prescient way they moved their catalog hits (1939-40 was their banner year) into a new context. Zelig worked in reverse, taking brand new compositions and tailoring them to long past conventions, recording effects and cultural signifiers. Music From the Zelig Era would, in essence, do both, transparently--though not explicitly, winking at the listener who will find his or her own distinctions within the assortment of actual and virtual, ideally coming to the conclusion that the whole thing is authentic.

Friday, October 24, 2008

'Cant blame God if we dont roll,'

Van Beuren Studios-The Magic Mummy (American 1933)

I must say not only was I not aware of this macabre gem from the Van Beuren Studio, I wasn't aware of the Van Beuren Studio itself. Those coppers are Tom and Jerry--no relation. And their caller is to nab a corpulent warlock whose, I think, rather foxy soprano undead paramour has been swept away to the aforementioned's crypt lair and underground theatre of the dead. She is disrobed of her muslins, and reanimated into the kind of cinematic song-spectacle only the thirties could produce.

If that ain't sick enough I ran through it a second time with the sound off--it's clearly one of those public domain-quality sound transfers anyhow, and happened to be listening to the Callas-led cast of Lucia di Lammermoor (Seraphim 1954). The harp intro to Lucia's aria---this'd be late in Act I, made me think of A.K.A. Mary, and that fantastic piece she did with Fursaxa. The two sound nothing alike stylistically, but once you get the feather of music in your brain it tickles you silly!

I turned around, thinking an explanation was in order. One must always explain cross-hatching. Except Wyeth, he didn't have to. The dog just kind of looked at me.

Monday, October 20, 2008

You and yours folks, me and my folks.

A wild weekend has come and gone, and one thing is certain. The long windy season of brown liquor and ice-colored skies is back. Of late I'm finding it somewhat difficult getting back to my ALS voice, having spent the last month sacking out on Facebook and basically writing whatever bullshit comes to mind. Not entirely unlike now I suppose.

But in that time I've had a number of small, but enjoyable, breakthroughs, most notable among them a renewed fascination for my old pal, Larry, a Gooski's lifer with a soft-spoken pugnacity and entirely strange disposition. He hates liberals--all those dudes do, loves a good wine, and is a close reader of the regional Amish newspaper. Given a change of heart on the subject of gun ownership, he'd surely join a community; He already has the hat.

I'm trying desperately to get him to agree to be interviewed. I'll keep you posted on that as developments break.

For now let me state simply, and in my best Auld Lang Syne writing voice that I am confident in our prospects for Election Day; the Democratic Party seriously owes Barack Obama a Rolex and a trip to Hersheypark for the rejuvenating effect he's had on the party and voters alike.

On the subject of music I can't say enough nice things about the new Rosebuds record, or for that matter this mash-up. Four Men With Beards continues to impress me with their vinyl reissues, most recently Funkadelic's dark funk classic, Maggot Brain. Never heard it sound this clear before. Last Thursday's show at Garfield Artworks, a double-headliner with my pal, Jack Rose, and U.K. folk legend, Michael Chapman, was revelatory. I keep waiting for the spell to be broken with Jack, having seen him enough times for the magic to wear off, but the man is full of surprises. He is given to moments that to me recall the funniest of the Hoosier Hotshots or Thelonious Monk; for whatever reason I turn back into a kid, giggle, and wonder how that silly music happens. Man, it's good stuff! Chapman sounded like John Martyn, with a bit gravel in his throat. Gone are the days of these superb lyricists. It's heartening to hear a guy who can write, play and sing with such narrative clarity and magnetism. After the gig the guys crashed on our couches and Chapman regaled us with stories of his days in academia, catching gigs of then-unknowns, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll and a youthful Stevie Winwood getting off the train for his shows with the Spencer Davis Group still wearing a school uniform. The whiskey flowed and the Jerry Reed records went round well into the hours.

Finally I'm honored to have fulfilled a long-standing ambition to have an ALS mix in the Gooski's jukebox. In my grad school days it was the paragon of boozy late night cool, with the first Strokes record, lots of Fall, and the Runaways. So you can haul ass up Polish Hill, have a ko-bossie and a Newcastle, and take in the sounds of the ALS. Just don't get Marcus started on politics.

Breathing New Life

I try to never pile my posts, since what's at the top of the page naturally overshadows what's below. That said, Zbigniew Brzezinski compelled me. Just this morning the former Carter administration member did what I feared only Barack Obama himself could do, which is he made an eloquent, authoritative survey of the political moment, making plain why Obama is the best choice, and why McCain shouldn't even be a choice. He hit on a lot of the elements of Obama's identity most controversial in Plumberland, in comforting but firm language.

This statement embodies Brzezniski's practical but optimistic anti-Kissinger voice in a way that is absolutely crucial to America in the Age of Obama. My hope is that this man gets an office near Powell's.

The footage is fantastic and that smug bigot, Joe Scarborough gets it in the ear!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

No center

Piet Mondrian-Broadway Boogie Woogie (Dutch 1942)

I have long held that The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle is nothing but a Thursday puzzle on juice. All water weight, it lacks the treachery and sophisticated wordplay of a Friday or Saturday. With their monosyllabic clues and answers that run from horizon to horizon those Friday and Saturday puzzles are diabolical, and carry the engagement of strongly crafted poetry. So I see no reason that anyone should waste a perfectly good Sunday morning prostrating himself before that thing. But folks do. I suppose it beats the shit out of church, where as a child I would draw pencil-in timecharts--which come to think of it resembled the handless clocks of dreams, to mark off the five minute increments til those liberating words, "God go with you" or "God be with you"...or whatever.

The Sunday puzzle is a keystone in the awkward maze of the paper. I never cared for Sundays, and I certainly never felt the secular peace liberal intellectuals describe in connection with the day and its enormous newspaper. I prefer drinking coffee while pacing a floor, puzzles standing up, like labyrinths, and croissants almost never.

That said, there is some convenience to 'The Way We Eat' appearing adjacent to the puzzle in the Sunday Magazine. Oh, and you usually get an article length real estate advertisment for Qatar or the Phillipines, replete with testimonials from investment bankers and the vice president.  These countries figure if you like food, and if you like puzzles you're a shoe-in to like them.  What utter desperation.

How did all of this start? Oh yeah, I was looking at a picture of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie and was sort of startled by the ingenuity of it. Mondrian is one of those artists who, I think, always worked better on a conceptual level. His paintings aren't really about apparent beauty, are they. It reminded me of something the novelist and ardent Christian, C.S. Lewis once said about atheists, that their world is like a maze without a center. No hope of achievement. But isn't the point of a maze the pure folly? Unless you're a mouse and there's cheese at the center there really is no point. Even then hunger compels you to the center, and what compels you out?  The feeling of being had, of being a fool for cheese!  You get to the center and you are, geographically speaking, as fucked as you could possibly be. So it goes with the world, and puzzles. 

I feel better already.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Magi

"Black Hula" is one of the few lasting impressions I carry around from the often good early 90's Mtv show, Liquid Television. I remember with what naive insight I thought history must be alive. In memory I improved it by casting it in black and white--as it stands the brilliance refers to Peter Max. I had a picture of something akin to an Otto Messmer short in my head. Truthfully until now I didn't remember that much apart from the wayfaring white explorers, and of course that hypnotic song. Over time I came to learn it was "Mauna Kea", as performed by King Bennie Nawaahi's Hawaiians, probably from the thirties.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Grey and Purple Blues


There is a trending among the lefty op-eders at The New York Times, a kind of energized indignation that, I feel, wasn't always there. Or perhaps it was always there, but many readers had no confidence in believing the rants might bear out in reality. I think that has changed.

Years ago I remember sitting on my couch with a steaming purple and green glass bong full of water the color of shit on my lap, giggling, watching John Stewart, thinking, with the cracked strand of an operational brain I was given, that John Kerry would lose the 2004 election, and the complacence born of "indignation entertainment" would be somewhat, if not largely responsible. We were substituting political humor for activism. This was before Rachel Maddow.

The course change of our collective political heart has made indignation entertainment palatable in a way I never thought possible. Hell, it's downright rejuvenating. You can read Maureen Dowd and feel unashamed of the books (without pictures) you've read. Even Dick Cavett, who is a largely self-sentimentalizing industry at this point--a terrific one, I must add--barbs his work with anti-Bush-McCain observations. Again, was this always the case? I'm sincerely asking.

There is a collective sense that the era of right wing anti-intellectualism is dying. It cannot happen quickly enough.

Roger Cohen preaches to the choir in today's piece, which should come as little surprise. It's a sharp piece nonetheless, and better than any I've read in a good long while. Cohen epitomizes the surge of positive intellectualism, employing refined, if slightly purple, thought, and actual--hold your fucking horses, poetry! Apparently thinking is no longer a disease. Cohen righteously dismantles Sarah Palin's wince-inducing language and the hollow-ringing cliche of being a simple American.

It's not the kind of writing that wins elections, nor should it have to be. But it does restore dignity. I remember now.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I Have Always Been In Love

Ernie Bushmiller-Sluggo's Prouncement (American 1930's?)

Who was it that said, "in dreams begin responsibility"?  Yeats!  Thank you Google!  Fifteen years ago I'd have said Bono.

Anyhow it's true.  They begin there in the rectitude of our adjustments, when the lighted world is at bay and a second moves in and surrogates our failed attempts at joy.  

I made chili this morning.  It's just the usual stuff, except between the green bells, cubanellas, and jalapenos, I fit a palmful of dried arbols.  They're the wee fire ants of the the chili world:  Mean, stoic and mesmerizing, leaving  paisleys the color of oxidized blood in the wake of otherwise clear space and then upon purple arterial shadows--they provoke hallucinations unattainable by chemical means. 

At the risk of appearing forward I am throwing open the door to the (non-pussy) world.  It is fantastic.  I will tell you about the light, and will probably bake up some honey cornbread to go along with the chili.  4516 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA.  

Wrestling and neighbor-startling antics to follow.  

Friday, October 3, 2008

Slob's Matinee

So with all the free time on my hands pursuing new careers in this new town I've had plenty of time to drink coffee, listen to old records, dick around on the internet (72 hours on Facebook and I feel like Don Jose at the end of Carmen, only, you know, not a murderer) and of course watch lots of movies.  

Fearless Vampire Killers (dir. Roman Polanski, 1967)  Just before Polanski's eye for the eerie went stone sober with the following year's Rosemary's Baby, he made this light-hearted vampire comedy.  Like Woody Allen at the time, Polanski was soaking in classic hyperkinetic slapstick, adding erotic and intellectual nods--doubtless in both instances from compulsion.  Fearless specifically owes a debt to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, one of the rare comedy-horror mash-ups that offers genuine scares.  The bawdiness--difficult as it is to get past the awkward pathos of lusting after Sharon Tate, accentuates some of the great themes of horror--the dangers of lust, the mysteries of love, etc.  Overall its a little slow-moving, but the set designs are exquisite--especially the snowy lunar-blue landscape of the Carpathians.  Komeda's score--with whom Polanski would reprise for Rosemary lends a lush ambiguity to the hunt.   

Volver (dir. Pedro Almodovar, 2006 )  My good pal, RP, once defended Penelope Cruz from my barrage of common insults (she's mousy; she's a stereotype of the fiesty Spanish babe; her eyes are cloyingly mournful) by suggesting I see her in a Spanish-speaking role--it would make all the difference.  Dammit, it did.  Cruz makes perfect sense in the bi-generational family mystery. Her sexuality is bright and complicated, and the psychology of her character is deep and well-played.  There is a spirit world mysticism to the movie that rings out an awful lot like Joyce's sometimes off-putting Irish Catholicism, but in either case I'll gladly concede when the unfamiliar territory is convincing.  This was a first for me, both in taking to Cruz, and digging into Almodovar.  What next, RP?  

Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut 1960)  I know, I know, a guy goes outta work for a few weeks and he becomes an aesthete!  Truth be told I've been watching as much Beavis and Butthead and Murder She Wrote in the stretch.  Philadelphia-born David Goodis wrote this noir.  And from the outset I was skeptical of a French new wave adaptation; I'm still scratching my head over Kurosawa's High and Low.  This movie is a fantastic bait and switch.  You get sucked into this meandering Parisian lamentation just long enough for it to spin on its heels into full-on noir.  But genre-play is, remarkably, lesser among the virtues at work here.  For one thing, the photography of human beings is superb.  I know that sounds a little pretentious, but it's essential to the works.  The faces of the cast linger, while the brusque comedy  keeps tragic events from overwhelming the basic loveliness Truffaut seems intent on capturing.  Bumbling kidnappers, hopelessly pretty, witty women and droopy-eyed bums comprise the ultimate proto-Coen ensemble.   The finale is breathtakingly shot, in a distant, blurred frame.  No spoilers, you gotta go forth, seek it out...

Thursday, October 2, 2008

This must be that dream.

William Steig-The Duke's Men-album cover (American 1938)

The cover art you may recognize as that of William Steig, late American cartoonist best known for his New Yorker comics.  In some instances, but not this, it is appropriate to not judge a book by its cover.  Not in this case because before we hear Barney Bigard and His Jazzopaters generate in flame and melody a fantastic "Caravan"--and I hear way more bad versions of this than good, you come to this lovely image.  I guess the idea is this poor guy is down and dreaming on account of the wise cats--Duke's Men.  Incidentally the other three (in case the image proves difficult to read) are Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams.

Now I hate those euphoric white guy ruminations on the auld lang syne as much as the next, er, euphoric white guy.  So let's us make a promise to one another:  humor me in these final moments of a birthday hangover which pathetically involved a mere 4 beers, and maybe one tallish whiskey, and I'll keep it short.  

And I get to keep the name...

Why do so few artists try to approximate their dreams anymore?  Or worse still they forget what's appealing in them and become unctuously psychedelic--in my heart I believe this is why, if only intuitively, Charles Mingus avoided fusion jazz; those Miles Davis records from the late 60's and early 70's sound like they were made in a White Castle dumpster--greasy, littered with sticky debris, and redolent of all the ugliest aspects of the human appetite.  Dogshit.

I don't mean to say this collection of Ellingtonia, made under the direction of these four famous sidemen throughout the late 30's, is clean by contrast.  There is good luridness in the geometric city-soul of "Echoes of Harlem" (imagine a "Tijuana Bible" designed by Piet Mondrain...), led by Cootie Williams; the aforementioned "Caravan", with its loping canteen exotica , and Williams' high-moaning brass coils is anything but fit for tender ears.  

It's made all the more subversive by that innocent picture of a prone man, overwhelmed by grinning cats, whose knowing eyes address the stars with corkscrewing dirtymindedness.  The contents of that dream...