Thursday, October 30, 2003

Regarding a couple of last week's purchases: Marquee Moon and Adventure are everything a fan could ask for. Very nicely assembled, with additional tracks and second takes, each with a little history-of booklet.

The first of course is the best: a masterwork of midnight moodiness and yearning, from the classic title cut -- with the stark and seamless tag-team blend of Tom Verlaine's and Richard Lloyd's guitars -- to the introspective snarl of "Elevation" and the razor-sharp melodic pop of "Prove It."

As was true with the Pretenders, Television's first disc defined them, and proved impossible to surpass. Adventure is less adventurous. The band's trademark guitar lines and Verlaine's impasssioned but often weirdly ambiguous lyrics are given a poppier, somewhat brighter ambiance; an interesting and fairly absorbing disc, but not one that commands the attention the way the first disc did and does.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Funny, outrageous, reactionary rant regarding records you should get rid of -- meaning, of course, records the authors are tired of seeing clotting up everyone's "Best Of" list.

Well, they do have a point about Bitches Brew...
Where we ate Monday. Nice place, but a little on the high side for my Wendy's-drive-thru ass.
Alan Dale of The Kitchen Cabinet is my idea of the perfect blogger: more concerned with writing well than hitting the send button. I'm going to print out his comments and respond sometime today. I've danced around my thoughts on Kill Bill too long without ever really tackling the movie head-on; this will be a good opportunity to do it.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Saw the Criterion DVD of Rebecca yesterday. Still holds up as a great romance and near-great Hitchcock. Lawrence Olivier's performance as Maxim de Winter looks today like the stuff of parody; all that mannered, huffing English emoting. Judith Anderson was note-perfect as Mrs. Danvers, and George Sanders -- well, no one ever played George Sanders better, did they? The perfect rogue, delivering every line with perfect timing.

Now, about Joan Fontaine. I thought she was great, but I found it odd that everyone kept referring to her as "plain." Of course, that was the story, she was the second Mrs. De Winter and was supposed to be the inferior to Rebecca, who had what we're told are the three things a man wants in a wife: beauty, brains and breeding. The unnamed Fontaine character, of course, is supposed to be deficient in all these things, so in the context of the movie she's not that pretty. This, however, is pure suspension of disbelief, since any viewer with eyes in his head can tell that Joan Fontaine is a radiant beauty. Once you get past that you see a really fine performance of this lost little creature overwhelmed by the de Winter world.

I bounced around a bit on the "added material" disc. Of particular interest were the screen tests for the lead role. Both Margaret Sullavan and Anne Baxter were heavy contenders for the role, and both would have worked out -- Sullavan, especially, since there really was a certain planness to her. Vivien Leigh's test was pure Scarlett O'Hara -- she seemed less vulnerable that a little bit mad, wily, off-kilter. Loretta Young's test was a botch; thank God she didn't get the role. Interestingly, Joan Fontaine's test was not leagues beyond her competitors; in fact, it was nothing special. Presumably she had whatever x factor that Selznick and Hitchcock wanted, and I suspect that the fine performance she gave was molded and crafted along the way.
Just saw Capturing the Friedmans and in my opinion, the contest for best documentary of the year is over. Granted, I haven't seen that many documentaries this year, but this one sets a standard of ingenuity, intelligence and downright unshakeable interest that I think will be just about impossible to beat. Brilliantly blending together both home movies, original footage, and a restless skepticism toward all participants, this is a riveting story of a family faced with criminal charges that may or may not be true; a family that shatters to bits before our eyes and ears. It makes the viewer a voyeur, a fly on the wall witness to some really awful moments from a family of emotional exhibitionists.

The family in question are, like many families in the past few decades, ones who have committed a good deal of their lives together to film and videotape, the way their own parents and grandparents used cameras. Primarily this is the fixation of Arnold Friedman, who has managed to keep a loose record of his entire life on film. From his marriage and honeymoon with his wife Elaine, to their subsequent life with their sons David, Seth and Jesse, it's as if no celebration, no moment of joy or happiness or plain silliness, is really complete unless the videotape is rolling. The family we see in the footage is, of course, a happy one, perhaps a genuinely happy one; David himself later comments that his memories of his childhood with his father are all good.

The camera will be there too when everything goes sour. Arnold begins teaching a computer class to young boys in the neighborhood. He also, as the postal inspector discovers, has a taste for mail-order child pornography. He gets busted, the police haul him off to jail, and begin investigating whether he has abused the children under his care. Suddenly Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, then in his late teens, are both accused of molesting young boys over a period of several years.

As the family gets knocked back and forth by this tragedy, David's video camera (andJesse's audio recorder) are there to capture a considerable amount of pain. There's an awareness of the camera, but it doesn't inhibit anyone; in keeping with the old Buck Owens song that plays over the opening credits, the Friedmans "act naturally," both joking about the case and tearing themselves and each other apart over it.

The best documentaries teach you something you don't know; this one goes even further, it's about how difficult it is to trust what we know, what we think we know, particularly as it involves sensational court cases. This is not a film like, say, The Thin Blue Line or Brother's Keeper that seeks to exonerate the accused; rather, it's a film where it's difficult if not impossible to get a grip on what really, truly happened. No testimony in the film -- from the cops, the accused, the accusers -- is completely, totally, take-it-to-the-bank trustworthy; every fact we learn in this case is followed by a "Yes, but..." The cops and prosecutors say he's guilty, but you can't expect otherwise. David is absolutely convinced of his father's innocence, but then again, he loved him deeply; Elaine is a good deal less sure, but then again, she had a rough and mostly sexless marriage with Arnold and hates him for what he has brought on the family. It is a fact that the Friedmans were arrested amidst the child abuse hysteria that was running rampant in the 1980s, when everytime you turned around some daycare or divorced dad or schoolteacher was accused of holding Satanic rituals with five-year-olds; it is also a fact that Arnold really did collect child porn and was excited by young boys. It is true the boys who attended his computer class say he and Jesse both molested them; it is also true some boys and at least one parent firmly and totally deny knowledge of anything whatsoever occurring. Arnold and Jesse both protest their innocence totally, but with both it's hard to tell where reality ends and b.s. begins, especially with Arnold -- in my case, I was not inclined to believe he was guilty as charged, but God knows he wasn't exactly innocent either. I think maybe his wife -- not exactly his best friend -- had it right when she said he "had a need to confess, and a need to go to jail." All we know at the end is that something happened, and that a father and son -- and possibly their victims -- suffered; whether they actually suffered for the sins of which they were accused is much less clear.

It's a documentary Rashomon; I don't think I've seen another film like it.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Addictive track: Television's extended early version of "Glory" on the new reissue of Adventure. I'm listening to it now, and the damn thing keeps sounding like it's about to end, but just won't. Not that I care. Very cool. Hail Verlaine and Lloyd, guitar gods both.

The Greening of Greendale

I put off buying Neil Young's Greendale when it came out two months ago because I wanted to come up to speed on his past. It's a bookish affectation on my part, I know --this tendency to view major atists as mountains to climb, start at the bottom and work your way up, earliest to latest, worst to best, best to worst, whatever formula feels right at the time. I tend to avoid artists in their latest or most popular incarnation, because they already have everyone else's attention, and because you're only getting the latest chaper of the story, and maybe not the best chapter. Jimmy McDonough's bio Shakey had already made it abundantly clear that I've either forgotten a lot of high points of Young's career or simply missed them altogether.

I want to say Greendale is Neil Young's best work in years, but I haven't really followed his work of the past decade. I've focused over the past few months on his peak years of the 1970s, which is also when I first discovered him. It's too early to say that Greendale is on par with, say, Tonight's the Night or Rust Never Sleepsbut it certainly has epic ambition, and it has obviously inspired him in a major way, as if he has pursued and uncorked some major statement that he wants everyone to hear. The disc is 78 wordy-but-never-wearisome minutes long, with some cuts clocking in at the I-can't-stop-writing ten and twelve minute mark, and it comes with a DVD of the songs performed live. There's also an exhaustive website, a reportedly theatrical tour, and a movie of some kind is reportedly in the works. The latter isn't the greatest news, as Young's previous cinematic adventures rank him as a film auteur of the Frank Zappa or Bob Dylan stripe, i.e., he makes unwatchable movies with often exceptional scores.

Distinct from Young's other records, Greendale has a somewhat literary scope to it, as if Young wanted to write a rock and roll Great American Novel, full of fascinating characters and a plot both tragic and strange that says something of enormous import about the times we live in. There's Grandfather Green, a stately old coot who reflects a time gone by, his son Earl, Earl's wife Edith, their daughter Sun Green -- who reminds me a bit of Prairie Wheeler in Thomas Pynchon's novel Vineland -- and Earl's dope-dealing brother Jed. When Jed guns down a police officer named Carmichael, the family is placed in the media spotlight, which rather spontaneously brings on the grandfather's heart-attack and -- for reasons that aren't entirely clear -- inspires the young Sun's career as an environmental activist.

The themes are familiar from Young's past: the withering away of values, and both the naivete, faith and decency of the Green family, namely Grandpa and Sun, in the face of all that's greedy and gaudy. Young virtually acknowledges in the first cut he's said this before: "Seems like that guy singin' this song/Been doin' it for a long time/Is there anything he knows/That he ain't said?" (Nor is this the first time Young has been so reflective and introspective about a rock star's role in the world.) Young also concedes in the rambling notes in the enclosed booklet that the Greendale plot was catch-as-catch-can, made up here and there on the way to the studio. No matter; it's a rock record, and part of the charm of Greendale is that it's an evolving story that exists somewhere at the edge of his subconscious, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair that does, actually, find some kind of strange midnight-in-America focus. We learn a fair amount about these people, and we seem to discover them along with their creator.

The sound overall is very Zuma -- the opening chords on the first cut, "Falling From Above," immediately brings to mind "Barstool Blues" -- but you hear echoes of a lot of different Neil Youngs throughout. There's the raw rocker of "Devil's Sidewalk," the After the Gold Rush soulfulness of "Bandit," and the semi-anthemic "Be the Rain," which will serve nicely as mood music for the next Greenpeace fundraiser. Young and his prowling, growling guitar delivers it all with the kind of improvisational moxie that characterizes his best work.

One thing's for sure: you won't hear another CD like it all year.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

It is Wednesday, and all the stuff that was killing me over the weekend has been completed, including this small thing, which was too much trouble. At least I don't have to cover the Festival itself.

Why do people go to book readings? The same reason they go to rock concerts, I guess. I haven't been to a reading in many years; in my case it was just to see someone famous -- John Barth, Erica Jong -- whom I admired. The appeal quickly wore off.

I am rather inclined to read books and books about the people who write books, but I don't care much to see them, meet them or hear them.

I can't think of a writer I admire, living or dead, whom I'd so much as walk across the street to see. It's unusual for me to do that even with people I know.
Dylan Enjoying Sales Storm -- and I, of course, helped in that regard with Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61. Now I need to get an SACD player. I wonder how Super Audio will take off, and if it will be any kind of salvation for the record industry. SACD discs are recorded on two layers, and I presume you can only copy one. Whether or not this has any impact whatsoever on whether people will continue to file-swap, I have no idea. But if the record industry wants to continue to control its product in this day and age, I suspect it will have to boost things on the technological end, to either make discs that can't be copied or that will render the copied product inferior.
Spent $55 on renewing my Richland County Public Library card for the express purpose of getting my greedy hands on their CDs and DVDs. I ripped, I mixed, I burned: three R.E.M.s, one Patti Smith, one Belle and Sebastian, one Stones, and another staggering pile of Stax/Volt stuff. Somebody hep me ...

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Possible title for a book about movies I hated: I'm Going to Pretend I Didn't See That.
I caught the Edward Hopper show at Columbia Museum of Art a week or so ago -- actually it's Hopper and a lot of other Ashcan realists.

I wrote a review a number of years of a book about realism, and I said in there that it was an "outworn style," which was probably wrong; I think I was reading a lot of Proust at the time. Realism by itself is not longer a total artistic crime in my opinion, even if it's not what I prefer, even if it's not, always, what I think of as artistic. One tends to prefer an artist representing his own view of what is before him rather than, say, a view shared by everyone -- that's really my objection when I think of the word realism; that it connotes populist, democratic, common denominator, "Sovietized" art. Some of the art in the show had that sense to it, but that wasn't the first thing that came to mind.

What came to mind was that you were getting some sense of a vanished time, of New York in the 1920s, mainly -- the Jazz Age, flappers, parties, poverty, fun; the highs and lows of life at the time. It was like opening a window on to the time. It kind of, in its way, made you grateful for basic representationalism, or whatever it's called. Does someone looking at an Abstract Expressionist painting have any sense of the time in which it was created? I suppose if they are art fanciers or students or experts they do, but that's about it.
What I'm Listening To.

One of those mix CDs I randomly threw together of songs I like but don't have much to do with each other.

Der Kommissar 4:10 After the Fire
Army 3:25 Ben Folds Five
On A Night Like This 2:34 Buckwheat Zydeco
Lose This Skin 5:09 Clash
Zydeco Cha Cha 4:07 Clifton Chenier
Can Your Pussy Do The Dog? 3:24 Cramps
Roadhouse Blues 4:21 The Doors
Put Em On The Glass 4:27 Sir Mix A Lot
Baby Got Back 4:23 Sir Mix-A-Lot
Funkytown 6:08 Lipps Inc
Love Will Tear Us Apart 3:39 Joy Division
Who’s Been Sleeping Here? 2:52 Rolling Stones
Out Of Time 5:42 Rolling Stones
Because the Night 3:24 Patti Smith Group
When Doves Cry 3:50 Prince
Love is the Drug 4:06 Roxy Music
Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go? 8:58 Soft Cell
If You Leave 4:26 Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark
My Free-Times editor and I were thrashing about for a way to conclude my haphazard little article in tomorrow's paper on the Fall Festival of Authors when I recalled this great essay by St. James: Barnstorming for Poetry. I had never read it, just heard the phrase, but it's a superb article, and I would have been dead without it. It gave me an ending. Read it. It rocks.
I've got to start posting more. I've been too busy on a lot of work-related stuff, but that's no excuse, because I always find time to post here, there and everywhere else. And there's so much I haven't discussed or bitched about -- like how I had a virtual meltdown a month ago over my book club's refusal to understand the racial angle of Faulkner's "Barn burning" -- still pisses me off to think of it -- or how much I'm nuts over Neil Young or the latest and last Warren Zevon and how much I adore Kill Bill, Vol. I. I haven't even mentioned my new computer. I think I find myself becoming less and less interesting every day.

Now that all that's out of the way, I'm happy to report that at lunch I was able to finally fill out my Papa Jazz card, which entitled me to a freebie. I got the new CD versions of the two Television albums: Marquee Moon and Adventure. The first one is a moody punk masterpiece, one that -- along with the early records of Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Ramones, Blondie, etc. -- virtually defines the New York punk sound of the late 1970s. I've never heard the second disc, which is generally known for being good but not as good. Anyway, I picked them up at lunch and then went to Cool Beans to listen to them. Luckily they both come with informative little making-of books, which are always fun to read.

Monday, October 06, 2003

My Big Fat Brick Lane Problem

Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Scribner. $25.00. 369 pages.

Brick Lane has captured the English reading world. This debut novel by Monica Ali, about a young Muslim woman whose arranged marriage pitches her into the freedom and turmoil of London, became a critical and commercial success, and was unsurprisingly nominated recently for the Booker Prize.

What does surprise me is that it’s only fitfully engaging, and that big chunks of it are rather mysteriously dull. Pinpointing the exact problem gave me a fair amount of trouble, as all my objections kept coming back marked “Return to Sender.” I couldn’t say that it was clumsily-written or poorly-conceived, exactly – indeed, it’s impressively self-assured and mature for a first novel -- only that a certain elusive torpor set in whenever I picked it up.

Was I the problem? Maybe. Even as I was dozing through the book, I could imagine a lot of people seeing in it a perfect distillation of the immigrant experience. I thought it was like meeting the world’s most beautiful, charming, intelligent and caring woman – like, say, the woman in the author’s photograph -- and discovering you have no chemistry. Masochistically, I read it again. The second date proved no more enjoyable than the first, but it was easier to chart the lapses.

It starts promisingly enough. Nazneen Ahmed, raised in a devout Muslim community in Bangladesh, has long been nurtured in the belief that fate is not to be questioned, and neither is her parents’ choice of a husband for her. When Nazneen finds herself married off to Chanu, a roly-poly blowhard over twice her age, it quickly becomes apparent that Amma and Abba have bitten off more fate than she can chew. Chanu whisks her away to London, where he has already spent 16 years trying to break through the English caste system and find someone as impressed with him as he is with himself. Chanu discourages every dream of Nazneen’s, expects her to stay home, keep her mouth shut, and wait on him hand and, literally, foot -- by cutting his corns while he discourses on whatever subject crosses his mind.

The couple’s new home in the Bengali community near Brick Lane is no prize either, as old world culture is adulterated with the new world dangers of racism and drugs. Lest Nazneen dwell too much on her own fate, misery provides more than enough company, such as her friend Razia, who becomes enviably widowed but is unable to control her children. There is, also, the example of her younger sister, Hasina, back home, whose “love marriage” goes as bad as everyone figured it would. While Nazneen is both distressed and enchanted by secular London, Hasina’s life back in Bangladesh is a sobering reminder of what happens to one who has “kicked against fate.” In long letters to Nazneen, Hasina describes a life that will become little more than a series of disasters: banishment, an abusive husband – whom she flees – poverty, rape, and employment as a nursemaid in the home of a vapid rich woman. Hasina learns her lesson, and, like her sister, greets every new humiliation with thanks that things aren’t worse than they already are.

But Nazneen is also possessed by a “djinn,” or imp, that makes her yearn to be free. When Chanu is between jobs and Nazneen takes work as a seamstress, she risks hell by having an affair with a handsome young Muslim radical, a relationship that both torments and emboldens her further.

As the years pile up – stretching from 1985 to the aftermath of September 11, 2001 – and the family expands, east and west exert an opposite pull. Where Nazneen has wanted to leave London ever since she arrived, she flourishes as a woman. Chanu, who has insisted on plugging away in London until he makes his mark on it, becomes increasingly bitter over his prospects, the Westernization of the couple's two daughters, and the growing racial division in the streets. Either way, they're stuck in place, slaves of London who are too heavily in debt to Mrs. Islam, the local loan shark, to ever break free until Nazneen makes a decisive act of her own.

Although Ali deals with the usual themes of Indian life in London – racial violence, fundamentalism, and assimilation – she’s closer in tone to early Anne Tyler than early Naipaul. She observes with a sharp but forgiving eye. Early in the book, at a disastrous dinner party, Nazneen watches as Chanu hopelessly makes a fool of himself before Azad, the local medical doctor: Chanu “cleared his throat, although it was already clear. Dr. Azad looked at Nazneen and, without meaning to, she returned his gaze so that she was caught in a complexity of looks, given and returned, which said something about her husband that she ought not to be saying.” Curiously, Chanu, in all his naivete and self-satisfaction, is more interesting when seen through Nazneen’s eyes than Nazneen ever is herself. Nazneen even notices the unhappiness in her husband’s eyes: “What are we doing here, they said, what are we doing on this round, jolly face?" Likewise, Mrs. Islam is one of those perfectly Dickensian types who put on a show of death’s-door poverty while she bleeds her victims dry. Arriving for her weekly payment, she produces an “aura of the sick bed,” lugging a black bag, coughing into the handkerchief she holds over her face, dousing herself with something called “Ralgex heat spray,” consuming cough syrup by the bottle, popping mints – and offering no mercy. She even speaks in a way that “cut words to a fine point and launched them decisively.”

Unfortunately, both Nazneen and Hasina drag the story down, which is too bad, because they are the story. Nazneen’s averageness maxes out quickly; she’s a little too limited to be consistently interesting, and her personal journey of self-discovery doesn’t arrive anywhere we couldn’t have anticipated. Hasina’s pidgin English becomes a wearisomely precocious tic. Hasina is one of those cases where an author has tried to make a character both eloquent and ignorant, and the result feels so forced that you find yourself losing any sympathy for her plight. It’s only when these two recede from view that the novel has any spark to it. The sisters are, also, too obviously the author’s dummies; you can see her lips moving when they speak, and what she says isn’t, in the long run, all that illuminating.

It may be that Ali’s magic works best at a distance, that she’s just better at observing people from the outside rather than trying to inhabit them from within. Her virtues are real, but they’re only spottily displayed in this frustrating book.

Friday, October 03, 2003

My song of the day is (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame from the unsurprisingly spellbinding ELV1S 30 #1 Hits -- which I got last Christmas. A gorgeous testament from the only King Rock and Roll ever had.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Naturally enough, my dirty mind had go and order this thing from Papa Jazz at lunch. It should be in Tuesday. I can't wait.
Last night's episode of "The Blues" was a little on the lame side, but it did take the unwary viewer into the nasty side of the music. Ever heard of a song called "Shave '`Em Dry?" Scroll down for the unexpurgated version. Little Kim clearly had nothing on Lucille Bogan.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

MilkPlus rocks Forbes. I should post there more often, really.
Not a bad list, but mine's better. Scrap three of the Beatles discs and put Blonde on Blonde, The Velvet Underground and Nico and Forever Changes in their places.
Last night's episode of Martin Scorsese's The Blues -- The Road to Memphis, directed by Richard Pearce -- was quite fantastic. Leaving aside all the wonderful, uplifting and educational aspects of this dual documentary on the seperate journeys of B.B. King and Bobby Rush, I must say that the memory likely every viewer will carry with them is that of Rush's back-up singer, who ought to give classes on ass-shaking. (Lesson One: How to Stand Perfectly Still and Let Your Ass Do All the Work.)

Johno on Blogcritics posts a fitting tribute.
Knock yourself out.

I got a poison headache, but I feel alright....

I'm not going to go into the significance of this record to my life. I've already done that elsewhere. Instead, just a small plug here for the new SACD version, which delivers a remarkably crisp sound even if you don't have -- and at the rate things are going, never will have -- an SACD player. Dylan's best album also, for my money, had Dylan's best band, which helps make it the continually fascinating record it is.

Some great things about Blonde on Blonde that the SACD version makes greater:

* Kenneth Buttrey's mid-chorus snare-drum rolls in "One of Us Must Know." I don't know if roll is actually the word, though. I'm a band flunkie.

*Buttrey, keyboard player Al Kooper, and whoever is playing left-channel guitar on "Memphis Blues Again." I don't even pay attention to the lyrics anymore. I just listen to these guys in the background, throwing a jam session of their own.

*Dylan's rich harmonica and those precise cymbals on "Visions of Johanna."

Note for later: I think The Child of a Hoodlum, Wrapped Up in Your Arms will make an excellent title for either a reflective gangsta memoir or the next writer who can't think up a decent title on his own.