Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Who can forget the great comedy duo from the 1940s, Elvis and Costello? Who's on first? Elvis and Costello Meet Frankenstein? Here the comedy duo perform "This Year's Girl," "No Action" and "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea." I don't know who's on first, but the second album was even better. Remember buying this? Remember keyboard neckties?
Okay, it's not Elvis AND Costello--it's simply Elvis Costello (real name Declan MacManus)--a bug-eyed, pigeon-toed geek who came out of the London pub scene and got popular in the punk/new wave era of the late seventies with his sneering and clever lyrics, his relentless rock and his Buddy Holly glasses. After punk rock set the odometer back to Year Zero, promising to jettison that past completely and toss out the stadium rock of the hippie era that had by then ossified, a few hearty souls began to slip cleverness back into the mix. Punk was raw and simple, for the most part, and New Wave was more complex (there was no other way to go) and Costello and Crew retained a nasty intelligence that might have (God forbid) hearkened back to Dylan at his most electric and sneering "Don't Look Back" persona. But different. "My Aim is True" (1977) was a bold debut, but the next album, "This Year's Girl" (1978), was even better--and probably still his best. This clip is from that era, recorded live at the Rockpalast on June 15th, 1978.
As you know if you've read "All The Way to Memphis," the lean mean Elvis was never the same after joining the Army. He came back from the Falklands a different man. The sneer was gone and the frenetic guitars were replaced with orchestral arrangements, the rage and fury replaced by nods to Burt Bacharach and chamber pot music, and all those gawky fans were left standing in the rain on streetcorners queuing up for the dole and trying to score a ticket. The new Elvis was fat and sassy and wore a white sequined cape in Las Vegas and ate too many fried banana sandwiches and stayed up too late at Graceland cleaning his weapons and watching TV and cursing the day he was born. The magic was gone. The gods had turned him from a charro into a churro. He still did some good stuff now and then--not counting those terrible Hollywood movies--but old friends scarcely recognized him. Maybe I'm confusing him with the other Elvis but the story is basically the same so I'm not apologizing. After a couple of decades in a daze, Elvis awakened under an old oak tree with leaves in his hair and a chill wind rustling his whiskers. He struggled to his feet and shook his fist at the sky. Then he cleaned up his act and went on the road. It wasn't quite like old times but he recaptured some of that rebel spirit.
This clip is from an in-store appearance at Amoeba in 2009. Yup, he's gotten older but haven't we all?
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Stephen Colbert speaks "truthiness" to power and testifies before Congress on immigration. Political satire and sarcasm have a long and noble history running from court jesters and Jonathan Swift up to Mart Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and while some might not "get it" and search for funny jokes this faux naif slips under the radar and reminds us the emperor has no clothes. Colbert wears the persona of an arrogant Bill O'Reilly type pundit to ridicule that hypocrite and his ilk, and here he stays in character. Some might feel he's making light of a serious subject but it's obvious he's landing some good solid punches.
Some people didn't like it, including the top Democrat, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md), who called the Colbert testimony an embarrassment.
"I think his testimony was not appropriate," said Hoyer, on Fox News. "I think it was an embarrassment for Mr. Colbert more than the House."
Of course, the Republicans agreed and missed no opportunity to ridicule the Democrats for inviting a comedian to testify. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) disagreed.
"He's an American, right?" she said. "He came before the committee. He has a point of view. He can bring attention to an important issue like immigration. I think it's great."
Thursday, September 23, 2010
As they were talking, they saw thirty or forty of the windmills found in that countryside, and as soon as Don Quixote caught sight of them, he said to his squire:
“Good fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have desired, for there you see, friend Sancho Panza, thirty or more enormous giants with whom I intend to do battle and whose lives I intend to take, and with the spoils we shall begin to grow rich, for this is righteous warfare, and it is a great service to God to remove so evil a breed from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
-Miguel de Cervantes
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Language warning for the underage and genteel: if you're easily offended by language adults use on a daily basis, please turn away now. Cee Lo Green has written a catchy old school song that is quickly becoming an underground hit--underground, because they sure as hell won't play it on the radio. It's actually a great song, it touches an emotional nerve and has a solid dance beat, but it contains a certain offensive word.
You know the word. It's older than the hills and you should probably be used to it by now. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a wonderful resource for word origins and information, the origins of this familiar epithet are hard to trace exactly, in part because it was taboo to the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED) when the "F" volume was compiled back in1893-97.
Written form only attested from early 16c. OED 2nd edition cites 1503, in the form fukkit; earliest appearance of current spelling is 1535 -- "Bischops ... may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit" [Sir David Lyndesay, "Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits"], but presumably it is a much more ancient word than that, simply one that wasn't likely to be written in the kind of texts that have survived from O.E. and M.E. Buck cites proper name John le Fucker from 1278. The word apparently is hinted at in a scurrilous 15c. poem, titled "Flen flyys," written in bastard L. and M.E. The relevant line reads:
Non sunt in celi
quia fuccant uuiuys of heli
"They [the monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely." Fuccant is pseudo-Latin, and in the original it is written in cipher. The earliest examples of the word otherwise are from Scottish, which suggests a Scandinavian origin, perhaps from a word akin to Norwegian dialectal fukka "copulate," or Swedish dialectal focka "copulate, strike, push," and fock "penis."
It goes on. And on.
Frankly, we think all this fuss over a word--a word--is kind of silly. In these days of war and economic collapse, hunger, environmental meltdown, corporate robbery and the most heinous crimes imaginable in every single morning newspaper, we think folks should learn to relax about a word that expresses so much, with such force, in spite of such overuse for so long. In an age of dirty bombs, smart bombs, neutron bombs, hydrogen bombs, atomic bombs, anti-personnel bombs, and improvised explosive devises, the F Bomb may be the least offensive bomb of all.
Some perspective, please.
A wonderful rare clip of Jimi Hendrix recorded in 1969. As you may know, it's been forty years since Hendrix died after ingesting nine of his girlfriend's prescribed Vesperax sleeping pills, a strong German brand he was unfamiliar with. The normal dose was half a tablet. According to a medical examiner, Hendrix asphyxiated in his own vomit. This was the sad end of the brilliant and influential musician. Hendrix is now buried in his hometown of Seattle.
Monday, September 20, 2010
A rare clip of Jean "Django" Reinhardt, the Gypsy jazz guitarist. Django was born in Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, and spent most of his youth in Gypsy camps outside of Paris where he learned to play guitar, banjo and violin. When he was eighteen a fire destroyed the caravan he shared with his young wife, Florine, permanently disfiguring his hand. In spite of his injury, he became one of the world's most renowned jazz guitarists, forming the Quintette du Hot Club de France with violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The name "Django" is a Romani (Gypsy) nickname meaning "I Awake!"
Friday, September 17, 2010
Wake up everybody no more sleepin in bed
No more backward thinkin time for thinkin ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be so
there is so much hatred war an' poverty
If the song sounds like the socially-charged soul music of the seventies, that's because it is; John Legend and The Roots are covering a classic from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. They've updated it a little, but not much, and you can almost imagine we're back in a time when lyrics were relevant and political and people were committed to positive change--instead of greed, infotainment and the mindless acquisition of material things. Wait, I'm lying. Back in the day folks were like that, too, and we still had rampant racism and an unpopular war, poverty and drugs, reactionary fundamentalists and corporate piggishness--but there seemed to be less cynicism and more heart and some folks -- SOME FOLKS, I reiterate -- were actively working to change the world. Contrary to popular opinion, most people were not, but back then a few hearty souls stuck their necks out to stop a war and fight for civil rights. There was a cultural revolution, too, in music and art and social values. On top of that, people weren't afraid to look foolish attempting the impossible. That's the thing. I can almost hear the cynicism lapping up like waves. That was a Utopian time, people say, all that corny Age of Aquarius crap, and the movement was unsuccessful, anyway. Maybe so. I know I sound like an old nostalgic geezer even suggesting otherwise, but what the hell. I could easily pit that movement against the movements of today, the selfish land grab materialism that got us into this mess, the siege mentality that makes us afraid of our neighbors and turns the homeland into a garrison state, the religious superstition and anti-intellectualism that masks the age old fears with a brand new glossy finish. You can argue economics, politics and social science all you want, and I'm willing to meet on common ground and discuss it, but one thing is beyond discussion. The music. Listen.
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes: I'd put Philly Soul against anything on the radio today.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
"The Wire," season one. Unconventional plot design and the complexity of a novel make this HBO series a favorite among story buffs. It may seem "difficult" but offers a rewarding and emotionally moving experience rare in television, if not film itself.
How many plots are there?* It depends who you ask. If you watch traditional linear Hollywood movies there are not nearly enough. Hack writers recycle the same old stories, over and over, and most people don't seem to mind. That's good enough. Writers keep it simple and familiar, that's the key, and people know exactly what they're in for. Basically, a character wants something, a character struggles to get it, and a character gets it, or in rare instances, doesn't get it. Of course the details change, but this is ninety-nine percent of conventional storytelling. Maybe a hundred percent.
Been there, done that. Two different backgrounds, insurmountable odds, love, tears, etc.
This is not special, secret information. Any basic screenwriting book or class will teach you this in the first five minutes. If you step outside the box and watch a few foreign films or independent movies (and obviously if you read some literary fiction) you'll start noticing the unexpected, the unfamiliar--basically, you will encounter more plots. This will lose some folks right off. "Interesting," people may say, assuming the writer didn't know how to put the same old plot into play. "Quirky," some may say, rewarding themselves for sitting through something "different."
After a while, after you've experienced a few unorthodox stories and enjoyed them, after you've stretched your imagination beyond the norm, it may be difficult to return to conventional stories with any relish. First of all, you will know what's going to happen--what has to happen--from the first moments of reel one. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Boring. Of course, there are times you want mashed potatoes and gravy, cooked exactly the same as always, a familiar comfort food, and there are times you want confit de canard, calves' liver and entrecote. Or Lasagne al Forno. Or Tom yam kung nam khon. Anything but the same old mashed potatoes.
Stories are like that.
Two different backgrounds, insurmountable odds...
Flashback to high school. An unimaginative English teacher draws a pyramid on the chalk board and scribbles the following words as if they were handed down from the mountain top:
Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement
Our teacher, who probably has a novel of his own moldering away in some cubbyhole, reads these words in grand stentorian tones. As a writer, he says, thumbs in his vestpockets, you must get the protagonist up a tree, shake the tree, throw rocks at the tree, get the protagonist down the tree, and take a deep breath. Who knows? Maybe this teacher will actually finish the novel-in-progress following these rules and produce another wildly successful by-the-numbers blockbuster sold in stacks at Barnes and Noble--maybe the next "Eat, Pray, Love," God help us.
Not a hell of a lot of creativity there, but the resulting story will work, to a degree, even if it lacks that spark and appears formulaic and familiar. You may doze off in the middle, leave the room to make a sandwich, maybe take a phone call, and you can pop right back in as the story marches through its predictable plot points toward its predictable resolution.
Two different backgrounds, insurmountable odds, Romeo and Juliet, er, Julia.
There are people who know what's going to happen. It's not uncanny. People who sit down and know where the story is going aren't prescient, they're not savants, they don't have any secret knowledge, they've just studied story structure the way one might study anything, and they're familiar with the conventions.
After all, there are only so many plots. That's what the "experts" say, and we've had it drummed into us from the get-go.
"Pulp Fiction" broke story and genre conventions with glee--including the very chronology of events--which was rare in a mainstream movie. Some viewers were left befuddled.
Though the Europeans and the Japanese had done it before, "Pulp Fiction" took conventional storytelling for a ride, taking familiar story elements and scrambling them to make an unsettling and volatile mixture. Tarantino braided several plotlines together and removed them from a standard chronology. This wasn't accidental or haphazard. The man obviously knew his way around a crime film, and the film is full of "quotations" of other movies, but Tarantino followed Goddard's often-quoted dictum: "A film has to have a beginning, a middle and an end--bot not necessarily in that order." Casual mundane dialogue clashed with crime film convention, humor co-mingled with violence, people showed up who had been killed in previous scenes, and the viewer was left to fend for himself. The risk paid off and the film was commercially and critically successful--ironically, it spawned countless imitations. First rule of Hollywood: copy the last big hit. And copy, copy, copy...
Two different backgrounds, insurmountable odds, been there, done that.
*How many plots are there? Carlos Gozzi and Georges Polti said there were 36 plots. Rudyard Kipling said 69. Ronald Tobias says twenty. There is no magic number. Cut it up any way you like. But tell a good riveting unusual surprising story.
Loren Miller recently listed the supposed 36, as follows:
- Supplication - Persecutor, Suppliant, a Power in Authority
- Deliverance - Unfortunates, Threatener, Rescuer
- Revenge - Avenger, Criminal
- Vengeance by Family upon Family - Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative
- Pursuit - Fugitive from Punishment, Pursuer
- Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune - Unfortunates, Master or Unlucky Person
- Disaster - Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger
- Revolt - Tyrant, Conspirator(s)
- Daring Enterprise - Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary
- Abduction - Abductor, Abducted, Guardian
- Enigma - Interrogator, Seeker, Problem
- Obtaining - Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator
- Familial Hatred - Two Family Members who hate each other
- Familial Rivalry - Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object
- Murderous Adultery - Two Adulterers, the Betrayed
- Madness - Madman, Victim
- Fatal Imprudence - Imprudent person, Victim or lost object
- Involuntary Crimes of Love - Lover, Beloved, Revealer
- Kinsman Kills Unrecognised Kinsman - Killer, Unrecognised Victim, Revealer
- Self Sacrifice for an Ideal - Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed
- Self Sacrifice for Kindred - Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed
- All Sacrificed for Passion - Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed
- Sacrifice of Loved Ones - Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice
- Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior - Superior, Inferior, Object
- Adultery - Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers
- Crimes of Love - Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution
- Discovery of Dishonor of a Loved One - Discoverer, Guilty One
- Obstacles to Love - Two Lovers, Obstacle
- An Enemy Loved - Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater
- Ambition - An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary
- Conflict with a God - Mortal, Immortal
- Mistaken Jealousy - Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake
- Faulty Judgment - Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person
- Remorse - Culprit, Victim, Interrogator
- Recovery of a Lost One - Seeker, One Found
- Loss of Loved Ones - Kinsman Slain, Kinsman Witness, Executioner
Monday, September 13, 2010
Evangelical nutballs threatening to burn the Quran are nothing new. In fact, bookburners are nothing new and have an incendiary tradition that goes back even further than the most famous bookburners, the Nazis.
Girolamo Savanarola, an extremist monk in fifteenth century Florence, was famous for burning books. A fundamentalist enemy of the Renaissance, Savanarola organized the infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities," in which he burned humanist books, priceless Renaissance paintings, playing cards, festival masks and anything else he felt didn't soberly and seriously celebrate God. Florentines were taken under his spell for a time (including the master Botticelli, who submitted many of his paintings to the flames) but eventually grew tired of his religious extremism and burned Savanarola himself on the same spot.
The Florentines weren't the only ones sick of bookburners. The other day, according to news reports, Jacob Isom, a 23-year-old skateboarder from Amarillo, Texas, skated by a religious nut preparing to burn a copy of the Koran. In a flash, Isom snatched the holy book, which had already been doused in lighter fluid and awaited the torch.
"Dude, you have no Quran!" the skateboarder told the evangelist, before making off with the book.
Savanarola meets the flames of fifteenth century Florentine irony
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Jonathan Franzen's new book is out. Like "The Corrections" (2001), the novel that won Franzen the Pulitzer Prize, "Freedom" is also a sprawling satirical examination of the dysfunctional American family in the waning days of the empire. The book is garnering rave reviews. Reviewers are calling Franzen the greatest living American novelist. Not bad, eh? Now he can finally quit his day job and get down to some serious writing.
Flashback: After some initial, odd experimental works, "The Corrections" made Franzen a household word. The book was surprisingly good. It won prizes and huge sacks of money, and even earned a stamp of approval from Oprah herself--which resulted in a huge fight with Oprah, which resulted in more publicity than any recent work of literary fiction has enjoyed in years. As if the Pulitzer weren't enough.
Anyway, I read "The Corrections," and enjoyed it, and now I'm reading "Freedom." Franzen does certain things very well, and he's doing them again. He has a knack for modern detail and language, and while the novel feels very contemporary, very NOW, he's not afraid to employ the architectonics of the Victorian novel to tell his tale. In fact, that may be the conceit of the book. In this age of short attention spans this elaborate structure has fallen out of fashion, but somehow Franzen pulls it off, hearkening back to the nineteenth century classics, even alluding to War and Peace on more than one occasion. He's tipping his hand, of course, and while he may never be Tolstoy (or even our Tolstoy), he's ambitious as hell and that makes reading the novel an exhilarating experience. He's striving for greatness.
Ron Charles of the Washington Post agrees for the most part, but he's not uncritical of the book. Here is his strange video and a link to the full Post review.
For another view, and to hear Franzen interviewed, link to Studio 360.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Those greedy bastards are at it again. According to a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies, since the economic crisis began the CEOs that laid off the most workers received the highest pay. Maybe that's not a big surprise to you, but instead of being ho-hum cynical you should be freaking outraged. Someone is getting screwed here--and unless you're a billionaire CEO it's probably you. Wake up, sporto. They call it "free enterprise" but it's corporate robbery.
"CEOs of the 50 firms that have laid off the most workers since the onset of the economic crisis took home 42 percent more pay in 2009 than their peers at S&P 500 firms."
The capitalist system works--if you happen to be on that side of it. Sure, it's cheaper laying people off. Sure, if you cut wages there is more for the boss, but this is an economic crisis. It's a tough time for people and we shouldn't be allowing CEOs to reward themselves for slashing jobs.
Learn more: Read Executive Excess 2010.
Do something: Stop Executive Excess!
Saturday, September 4, 2010
America has always been a corny reactionary place. Don't get me wrong; Within its myriad selves there have always been edge dwellers pushing the boundaries of the arts and working for cultural and social change--movements that boggle the minds of the conventional. Some worked quietly in the margins, got "clean for Gene" and canvassed door to door, acting like good kids, while others seemed to delight in freaking out the squares. The french had a phrase for it. Épater la bourgeoisie! This was the rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including bad boys Baudelaire and Rimbaud. It means to shock the middle classes.
In America, it didn't take much. We forget how--eventually--outsider cultural movements often influence the mainstream. Watching this television show ("Hullabaloo") trying to hook into the excitement youth culture was generating, which was undeniable at this point, shows the dilution of rock and roll to safe variety show standards. Meanwhile, outside the gates of Studio City, the barbarians were really rocking--the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the Animals, the Kinks and countless others were rattling the cage. The kids loved it. This tired show enlisted Jerry Lewis and his son Gerry (who had his own terrible pop band) to sing a Beatle song. The results were predictably horrendous. Believe me, the kids could tell the difference.
You don't have to read Marcuse or Naomi Klein to see that a vast society based on commodities will co-opt radical change--absorbing and reforming and creating a product based on what was once edgy and shocking. The avant garde becomes the trend becomes the cliche. You want Utopia, you get Fruitopia.
"Help!" was written by John Lennon, and was one of the first Beatles songs to turn inward and away from the tropes of rock and pop to a more personal vision. Lennon was in agony, pure and simple, and--inspired by the strangely personal work of Dylan--decided to write a song about it. Sure, it has a bouncy rock beat, verse chorus verse, but there is also something very real about the song.
Of course, the Lewis family missed it completely. Jerry was an old school Vegas schlocker, a representative of the cheesy show biz world that openly mocked these longhaired British rockers singing "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and stirring up the teenage girls. Jerry's contempt seethes below the surface. This fad will be over soon, he seems to say, but the gods are tricksters if nothing else and love to toy with such arrogant hubris. Now, who looks silly? The revolution moves on, and even the hopelessly reactionary benefit from the artists working the cutting edge. We evolve--reluctantly, perhaps--but finally there is a loosening up of the rules. The vanguard may have moved on long ago, but we can pretend we've discovered a new path on our own.
A teenage John Lennon eyes the world he will change.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
The Friends of the Nib will be appearing at Bumbershoot in Seattle, September 4, 5, and 6 from 2:30 to 4pm in the Olympic Room. The Friends will be appearing as part of a wonderful survey of Northwest cartooning, "COUNTERCULTURE COMIX: A 30-Year Survey of Seattle Alternative Cartoonists," curated by Larry Reid in association with Fantagraphics Books. The Friends will be drawing cartoons live for your pleasure and enjoyment. Stop by and say hello.
Who are the Friends of the Nib? There are many misconceptions, some fueled by jealous pantaloons, but this is the truth: The Friends are a mysterious guild of cartoonists practiced in the arcane arts of dip pens, crow-quills and black pots of India Ink. They are practically medieval in their methods and exhibit a virtuosity rarely found in this modern age of computer-corrected artwork. Like the Magnificent Seven or the Seven Samurai, each of the Friends has a unique specialty. Collectively, they are fingers that form a powerful fist. Come see them work their magic.
Although they generally refuse to be photographed, here is a rare picture of the Friends:
The Friends of the Nib (left to right):
Jim Woodring, mystical cartoonist, winner of this year's Stranger Genius Award and celebrated author of "Weathercraft."
Ellen Forney, author of "Lust,""I Love Led Zeppelin," and illustrator of Sherman Alexie's New York Times' bestseller, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian."
Bruce Bickford, animating pioneer artist and creator of "Baby Snakes" for Frank Zappa, "Prometheus' Garden," and subject of the documentary "Monster Road."
Max Clotfelter, a roughed-up sneaky sketch shanty who boggles the mind with his amazing comics; the hobo behind Snake Meat.
Max Badger Woodring, pound for pound the fiercest animal in the wild and a damn fine cartoonist who sometimes travels under the pseudonym "Wax Moodring."
Heidi Estey, a pip with a pen who produces pretty scary and wondrous work to haunt your dreams and nightmares.
Jason T. Miles, a carnival barker, gandy dancer, the surprisingly fresh artist behind "Profanity Hill" and "Bitter Fruit."
Bob Rini, writer, painter, and cartoonist behind "Fear of Art" and "The Nine Pound Hammer," as well as this blog.
Come and meet us all, and try your luck with the quills.