Thursday, December 11, 2014

Well, this is nice...

The good folks at Full Stop chose my July 8 piece on the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle as one of the ten best reviews they published in 2014.

Damn thing took forever to write. I had originally planned to write about the first couple of volumes, but time got away from me, so the arrival of the third volume was kind of a blessing. Then it was just a matter of cobbling pages of notes into a few thousand words.

Volume 4 arrives around Spring of 2015 -- I can only hope the Full Stop people let me tackle it. I'm already on the list for it... 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

RIP, The New Republic

The New Republic may be, in the words of owner Chris Hughes "bigger than any one of us" -- but is it bigger than the 50-plus staffers who have now fled? No.

Hughes and new CEO Guy Vidra now own a dead magazine, a "vertically integrated digital media company" with no vital signs.

The only hope is that after a few months of poking and prodding the corpse, the near-billionaire Facebook co-founder will sell TNR at a fire sale price to some thoughtful entrepreneur who can lure back the old staff and restore a great American institution to its former glory.




Thursday, December 04, 2014

Nabokov, At Least

Has anyone ever drafted a "Nabokov: From Best to Worst" list?

If so, Laughter in the Dark would likely have a fairly secure spot among the lower rungs,  along with bad plays like The Tragedy of Mister Morn and certain early (Glory) and late (Look at the  Harlequins!) novels.

Which, of course, is not to say it's all that bad -- quite a fun read, actually -- just not VN at the height of his intricate powers. (Maybe it would better to call that list: "Nabokov: From Most to Least.") 

Part of the problem, as Brian Boyd pointed out in Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, is that this cruel tale of fate, which has echoes of The Blue Angel -- old man, young woman, naivete, lust, betrayal, et al -- is that it's just a little too obviously commercial. Like all writers, VN wanted a crack at the movie market, and he wrote a story that he hoped would be snapped up by the studios.

"Geared to the clack of the clapboard," Boyd wrote, "it cannot like the other novels open all the shutters and doors and lids of the mind."

Originally written in Russian, it was translated into English as the work of "Vladimir Nabokoff," but Nabokov disliked the translation so much that he extensively re-did the job himself.

As John Colapinto discovers in the latest New Yorker, the fault wasn't just the translation. It was the original book, which an older, wiser VN rewrote, lifting it from awful to (by his standards) mediocre.


It has been said of the Beatles that there is not a clunker of a song in their oeuvre because they simply never let the bad stuff get released. The same might be said of Nabokov—for “Camera Obscura” shows that he was indeed capable of writing a second-rate novel. (He knew it, and rewrote it.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Addictive Tune for the Day

On Light Up Gold, their break-through second album from 2012, Brooklyn-based Parquet Courts established themselves as a great funky punky bar band with a get-in-and-get-out aesthetic. In the vein of The Ramones, The Minutemen and Wire, their songs were tight and melodic and smart and over just like that, with a running time usually of anywhere from one to three minutes. Their style and sensibility, however, was pure Pavement: songs about slackerdom and weed, invested with lively word play.

Since that terrific start, they seem to be on a roll, releasing one EP (Tally All the Things That You Broke) and two full-length albums (Sunbathing Animal and Content Nausea) in the last 18 months or so, and they seem to be branching out a bit as far as toying with their formula.

Clocking in at 7:38, "He's Seeing Path" (from Tally) is their longest song ever, well over twice their average length, but it's both hip and hypnotic, with the band's standard skewed street poetry bouncing off a hip-hop by way of Beastie Boys rhythm. Maybe I hear a little Talking Heads in there, too, circa Remain in Light. Definitely one of those songs where the world moves and it swivels and bops.

I've been playing it all day and have no plans to stop.

Thought for the Day

No one ever looks at a mugshot and says "I think he's innocent."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

RIP Kent Haruf, 1943-2014


"My stories all start with character, and because they all have trouble and they have to figure out what they are going to do about these troubles. That trouble makes plot. That trouble makes story line."

RIP Mark Strand, 1934 - 1980



Friday, November 28, 2014

The Triumph of Blind Joe Death

I don't know the language of music, so I always have to scramble around in my toolbox to find some kind of emotional or metaphoric terms to explain what's going on in my head when I listen to Bach or Ornette Coleman.

Or the great, late John Fahey, my latest obsession -- although I've always kind of been an appreciative fan. Years ago, I bought the vinyl of The Best of John Fahey, which is quite a stellar collection, but only lately have I been pursuing those great early records of his, where he established his so-called "American primitive" acoustic guitar sound -- although primitive is never the word that comes to mind. I think of him as, let's see, a ghostlymystical, and eerily transcendent artist, who can manipulate six taut strings to transport the listener to other worlds.

Maybe it's the mixture of his death-haunted titles and his alternately sunny and melancholy melodies. It's a rare tune of his that doesn't make me think of the deep past, of a world that no longer exists, of Southern haunts where long-deceased Civil War generals and maidens still walk the deserted grounds.

Or maybe it's the famous nom de plume that started his career in the late 1950s.

Growing up in the Era of Joe McCarthy and Ozzie and Harriet, Fahey did what very few white kids (except Robert Zimmerman and a few others) dreamed of doing: developed an abiding interest in the blues of Charley Patton and Skip James, and in 1959, when he was all of 20, even tried his hand at following in their footsteps.

The result was his first album, Blind Joe Death, which he presumably tried to pass off as the work a genuine late bluesman. No one bought the ruse or the record -- of which only about a hundred copies were pressed -- but anyone who heard it knew it was no joke.

It's a lonely record steeped in the traditions of a world where life was hard and brief and heaven was the only hope for the future. The titles of these old songs tell the tale: "I'm a Poor Boy A Long Ways From Home," "Uncloudy Day," "Desperate Man Blues," "Sun Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday Blues," "On Doing An Evil Deed Blues." Maybe Heaven is the best you can hope for; Fahey's peerless rendition of "In Christ There is No East or West" certainly gives that impression. Even at it's most sprightly, it has a doleful undertone


After that, death was in Fahey's blood. Next came records like Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes from 1963. my favorite The Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites (1964), and then The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965).

Somewhere in there, more assured of his technique, Fahey re-recorded his debut album twice, in 1964 and 1967, both of which can be heard on the CD The Legend of Blind Joe Death.

I've listened to nothing but these records for weeks on end. They add luster to the best days, carry you through the darkest times, fire the imagination during sleepless nights.


Here's "Sligo River Blues," one of the cuts from the first album that Fahey would re-record later. It's a Fahey original,  which means it's the work of a 20-year-old who had somehow imagined himself into the world-weary skin and fading eyesight of of a bluesman whose time is running out.

For my money, this first version really remains the best, maybe because you can feel the rawness, the unsureness that would later be gone. The more assured and confident versions don't have the same spontaneity and don't pierce the heart quite the same way.

Wilds Times

I gave Julia Elliott's short story collection The Wilds a bit of a rave some weeks ago, amidst interviewing her for the Free-Times. I loved her wit, her tangy prose, skewed perspective, and fervid imagination.

I was pleased to read just now that the book also snagged a brief New York Times review by Benjamin Nugent. He was more divided over the book than I was. In the first half of his paragraph, he thinks she's read so much George Saunders she sounds tipsy; in the second half, he talks of her finding her voice, writing of the flesh, building to an ingenious climax, fashioning angular phrases and, best of all, making "us hear contemporary English in a new way."


All good, all true, hope it leads to bigger and better things.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sufjan sells out

Looks like that great Sufjan Stevens Christmas song " Put the Lights on the Tree" is now being used to sell chicken.

A Mood for Despair

A few years ago on this very blog, I explored my fascination with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an enormously ambitious and prolific filmmaker who left behind an extraordinary body of work before his death at 37. Many of his films (The Merchant of Four Seasons, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) are brilliant, at least one is great (the massive Berlin Alexanderplatz), and some are just awful (Whity, Satan's Brew). He had more highs than lows, but there's no question that a number of his early movies were tossed off too quickly, and don't leave that much of an impression.

And then there are a few that are tossed off quickly and still leave an impression.

Such is the case with Gods of the Plague (Götter der Pest). I could find almost nothing to say about it when I first saw it, mainly because it just seemed a routine, very underwritten crime drama. 

Saw it again recently. It still lacks story and character, but it's very much of a mood piece. It's an evocative slice of early 1970s low-down German realism, aided in no small part by the stunning cinematography of Dietrich Lohmann -- who continued working with the director for many years -- as well as the lugubrious instrumental score by Peer Raben. You can smell the dank bars with their lingering cigarette smoke and spilled beer, the stale atmosphere of cramped apartments, and you can feel the somewhat desperate love of his characters for each other.

Strong performances by the wonderful Hanna Schygulla and (future world-class director) Margarethe von Trotta.
Started reading Joseph and His Brothers yesterday. Mann requires additional help.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Grace Jones' Fascinating Cover of The Pretenders' "Private Life"

 I'm a huge, huge fan of the first LP by The Pretenders, but it wasn't until this evening that I saw this riveting 1980 cover of "Private Life" by the strange and forbidding chanteuse known as Grace Jones. The video is one long close-up, with a nice special effect at the beginning, but that's all it takes for a singer with this much presence. It's a brutal song of sexual intrigue, sung by a woman tired of the guilty dramatics of her married lover. The lyrics by Chrissie Hynde are cruelly direct; Jones voices each line with icy precision and cuts you dead with that strange penetrating gaze of hers. As break-up songs go, this one is a little like Marianne Faithful's "Why'd Ya Do It?" -- a final ruling from the Court of No Mercy.

Friday, August 02, 2013

I'm not remotely a naturalist, but a quick Google search suggests this is a female Polyphemus moth, which flew into the study and was subsequently carried out and set free.