Friday, April 29, 2011
All this meaningless pomp and circumstance with the royal wedding makes me sing along with punk perennials the Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen! She's not a human being! There is no future in England's dreaming!" Like it or not, the elegantly useless royals have drawn us into fairytale land. One knighted celebrant, Sir Elton John, will be playing at one of the wedding parties(as he did at Lady Di's wedding and funeral, respectively) and while he may not be your cup of tea, this queen can sure play piano and sing. He's done some great songs, pop ballads and the like, but he'd better not drag out "Candle in the Wind" one more time, new lyrics or not. The clip above is from 1972, the first performance of a song that hadn't yet been released, "Rocket Man." This was a ballad about the loneliness of the long distance astronaut--and a hundred lightyears of solitude.
Elton in full flower
Over the years, Elton morphed into a million faces, wore a duck outfit and huge glittering spectacles, became our generation's Liberace, had the requisite troubles with booze and cocaine, and probably surprised no one when he came out of the closet in the 1970s. In 1988, he received a knighthood and became Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE. In 2005, he entered a civil partnership with longtime boyfriend David Furnish, and on Christmas day of last year, Elton and Furnish had a 7 lb., 15 oz. baby (through a surrogate) Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Sir Elton and Furnish arriving at the royal wedding, 2011
As everyone knows, Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid, so Elton has settled into portly respectability and looks like a burgher with his thumbs in his vestpockets. No more duck suits, coke-fueled tantrums or channeling Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood. Now Sir Elton is a well-respected philanthropist, a Hall of Famer, a parent and an A-list guest of the royals. We're glad he's happy, but we prefer when he was just a piano player with a good strong voice who wrote some great songs. Anyway, we wish him the best of luck. Never mind the bollocks, god save the queen.
The early seventies. In a clip from "Almost Famous," Elton's music perfectly captures the feeling of a fragile morning after a night of debauchery, drugs and drink as the band leaves town. You had to be there.
Guerres des Étiolles Existentielles is "Star Wars with a french existential twist," and the sole collaborative work of George Lucas and Jean-Paul Sartre. Starting as a 13-page treatment called Star Wars, which was a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Lucas experienced writers' block when attempting to expand it to a full screenplay, and the epic space opera franchise would have blown up like the Death Star if not for a certain myopic French philosopher who happened to be vacationing nearby. "Sartre popped in," Lucas says, "and he looked like one of the creatures from the cantina scene on Tatooine--big bug eyes, tiny neck, puffing on a pipe. I don't speak French is the thing. Sartre asked me what I was working on and I handed him the treatment. He wrote a draft in ten minutes." Apocryphal or not, the existential version of the film was never released. "Too heavy," Lucas says. "People don't go to the movies for heavy. They want to be entertained. With the lights out it's less dangerous. They've got their popcorn and they want their special effects and wooden acting." Si ca se trouve.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Say goodbye to Hazel Dickens, an American singer, songwriter and guitar player who passed away this week. She was the eighth child of an eleven-child mining family in West Virginia, and she sang in a high lonesome voice about coal country--mining songs, union songs, feminist songs and songs about growing up dirt poor. "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People," was how she put it on one of her albums. She recorded for Folkways, and became part of the bluegrass and folk music scene in the early 1960s. Hazel appeared in the coal mining documentary "Harlan County, USA" and the John Sayles' film "Matewan."
Hazel Jane Dickens (June 1, 1935 – April 22, 2011)
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
The date is 4/20, which evidently has some numerological significance to hopheads. As different states loosen their laws regarding cannabis and medical marijuana is no longer just a pipedream, it's worth casting a sober eye toward the actual chemistry of cannabis. Of course, that's hard to do, since we've been raised in a moralistic culture with a love/hate relationship to drugs. We condemn drugs and lump them all together--from pot to heroin, methamphetamines to barbiturates--yet we joyously consume alcohol like it's going out of style, smoke cigarettes, pop Vicodin and Valium and various other prescription pharmaceuticals. Alcohol is a social lubricant, and to believe the advertisements it will make you carefree and clever and popular with the opposite sex. It relieves stress. It calms the nerves. It's legal and available and very sophisticated.
But there's a downside to this depressant. Alcohol is responsible for over 100,000 deaths each year. By comparison, there are virtually no marijuana-related deaths according to the health department. That doesn't mean you should suddenly start smoking bales of pot, but it's good to put booze, a legally-sanctioned, socially-acceptable drug, into perspective.
# 5% of all deaths from diseases of the circulatory system are attributed to alcohol.
# 15% of all deaths from diseases of the respiratory system are attributed to alcohol.
# 30% of all deaths from accidents caused by fire and flames are attributed to alcohol.
# 30% of all accidental drownings are attributed to alcohol.
# 30% of all suicides are attributed to alcohol.
# 40% of all deaths due to accidental falls are attributed to alcohol.
# 45% of all deaths in automobile accidents are attributed to alcohol.
# 60% of all homicides are attributed to alcohol.
(Sources: NIDA Report, the Scientific American and Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario.) Also see Alcohol Consumption and Mortality, Alcohol poisoning deaths, CDC report)
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
And cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war,
For a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Good news: Twin Peaks is on Netflix Instant-Streaming, so if you've got Netflix (and you're a fool if you don't) you can watch it for free on your computer, or better yet through a Roku box in high resolution on your TV. This isn't a plug, but it's money well spent--and not much at all. The Roku is a one-time purchase and minimal Netflix is down to $7.99 a month. It makes good sense.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."
~ Albert Camus, 1955, The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays, p. 3
"I would say that our patients never really despair because of any suffering in itself! Instead, their despair stems in each instance from a doubt as to whether suffering is meaningful. Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it."
~ Viktor Frankl, 1961, Logotherapy and the Challenge of Suffering,
In Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Volume 1, p. 5
And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
The existentialists could really clear a room. Not exactly cheery bastards, you probably wouldn't invite most of them over for dinner. Okay, Camus I'd have over. And maybe Sartre. We could always have fun hiding his glasses. But Nietzsche? Forget it. He thought he was beyond good and evil and he'd stuff his pockets with your silverware. He'd never bring anything. The rules didn't apply to the Superman, after all, and the cranky old nutter would drink all your booze and probably rifle through your medicine cabinet for drugs. He could've used some drugs, actually--If only anti-depressants had been invented back then a huge swath of philosophy would have been wiped out. Same with the others. To hear them whining, you'd think abandoning the comforts of God in the face of chaos was something to complain about. Crybabies!
Then again, maybe the existentialists were just ahead of their time. Maybe we've finally caught up with them. Depression seems to be the order of the day. Look around. The world is in flames, war is raging, earthquakes and tsunamis rock our foundations, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Depression might be the appropriate response. We're all going to hell in a shrimpboat, so stop rearranging the deck chairs and get depressed!
Fooled you, didn't I? What's the matter, Bunky? Can't tough it out? Nobody said this would be easy and now you're moping around in a bathrobe and slippers like somebody just shot your dog. Buck up. Lots of people had it worse than you and they never said a word. They just grew ulcers. I'm not suggesting simple stoicism--which is basically the flipside of the self-involved coin. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and go outside and smell the goddamn flowers. The best revenge against death--and isn't that the underlying fear of all fears, the root problem of all trivial problems?--the best revenge against death is living, really living. Don't fall for empty peptalk--that's not what I'm saying--but get out of your shell and connect with people, real people, and recognize that they, too, are experiencing such an onslaught. Connect! Regardless of what Nietzsche may have told you, you're nobody special. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, therein lies the key.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the cranky old soup-strainer stayed home a lot
If you're still filled with existential dread this rare expressionistic cartoon may cheer you up. That's the voice of Peter Lorre (from the Fritz Lang classic, "M") with music by Andy Prieboy, and of course the cartoon is Quickdraw McGraw. The whole mash-up was envisioned by Merril Markoe. Brilliant.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
An informal meal or a snack; also, a casual Italian eatery.
My favorite cookbook this year is "The Frankies Spuntino--Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual" by Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo. After years of working in professional kitchens, they wanted to return to the Italian-American cuisine they'd grown up on, "back when every Sunday meant a visit to Grandma's house and a huge spread of the Sunday Sauce."
So they started a tiny Italian restaurant in "a tin-ceilinged old tenement building" in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. This wasn't the gimmicky approach with the checkered tablecloths and the kitschy pictures on the wall--this was the real deal and they delivered the food they loved since childhood. It was a hit. After a while they opened another spot on the Lower East Side, another tiny place. My parents, two very good cooks in their own right, ate there last week and gave it two thumbs up. Dad said it may have been the best Cavatelli he's ever had--and Dad knows Cavatelli. The recipe is in the book.
The cookbook captures the down home feeling of good homemade Italian cooking and reminds me of those Sundays at Grandma's, too. I suggest you buy the book, and check out the Frankies' website and menu.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
One of the most interesting aspects of my father's grocery is his unique creation, the muffuletta sandwich. The muffuletta was created in the early 1900's when the Farmers' Market was in the same area as the grocery. Most of the farmers who sold their produce there were Sicilian. Every day they used to come of my father's grocery for lunch. They would order some salami, some ham, a piece of cheese, a little olive salad, and either long braided Italian bread or round muffuletta bread. In typical Sicilian fashion they ate everything separately. The farmers used to sit on crates or barrels and try to eat while precariously balancing their small trays covered with food on their knees. My father suggested that it would be easier for the farmers if he cut the bread and put everything on it like a sandwich; even if it was not typical Sicilian fashion. He experimented and found that the thicker, braided Italian bread was too hard to bite but the softer round muffuletta was ideal for his sandwich. In very little time, the farmers came to merely ask for a "muffuletta" for their lunch.
However you pronounce it--and they do in various ways--the sandwich is a monster of delicious Italian coldcuts and olive salad on a massive roll. If you ever make it to New Orleans, head over to the Central Grocery on Decatur in the French Quarter and get in line, where it all began. Or make one yourself. Renowned New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme, who serves as an unofficial ambassador the the city (and serves as a reminder that we all eat salad once in a while) shows how to assemble this classic sandwich. Mangia bene, y'all.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Louis Zamperini lived an incredible life. The son of Italian immigrants, he spoke little English when he started school so bullies picked on him--at least until his father taught him how to box. Louis had a knack for petty crime and became a first-rate juvenile delinquent, getting into trouble constantly until his brother Pete (pictured below, Pete on the right) encouraged him to straighten up. Pete ran track, and suggested Louis try running, too. Louis surpassed his brother and became a star, breaking records and running for gold in the 1936 Olympics--where he actually met Hitler.
Then World War II broke out, and Louis became a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific. His plane was shot down, and he survived with two others on a small rubber raft for 47 days surrounded by hungry sharks. They finally floated ashore, only to be captured by the Japanese and thrown into a hellish POW camp where they were starved and tortured. Knowing who Louis was, the Japanese refused to release Louis' name to the Red Cross, so the military--and his family--never knew he'd survived. After a year, his official status was changed from MIA to KIA. Meanwhile, the lives of the POWs was a living hell. Worse for Louis, the sadistic head of the guards singled him out for particularly brutal treatment. The guard, nicknamed "The Bird" by the prisoners, was bent on breaking Louis' mind and spirit. The torment escalated, and despite being near death, Louis refused to be broken.
For more about Louis Zamperini, read the excellent biography, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," by Laura Hillenbrand. For part three of this video, click here. Part four is here.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a "Christian" religious cult famous for protesting military funerals with signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags!" The leader of the group, Fred Phelps, is a particularly virulent hatemonger who's not afraid to speak for God, whom he apparently interprets as a narrow-minded, vengeful bigot with a big old country helping of holier-than-thou attitude.
This 24-year-old girl was born into this ball of snakes. Because she questioned its dogma and chose to leave the church, she was cast out of her family. Good riddance, we say. We wish her the best.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
I'm looking forward to reading The Pale King, the unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace that will be released later this month. Advance reviews have been glowing. Why read an unfinished book? According to one reader, "The Pale King is, for great swaths, an astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka’s Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine." High praise, indeed. And while this may seem like hype, Wallace has delivered the goods in the past and this highly awaited novel--finished or not--may be the publishing event of the season. According to Time Magazine, "If The Pale King isn't a finished work, it is, at the very least, a remarkable document, by no means a stunt or an attempt to cash in on Wallace's posthumous fame. Despite its shattered state and its unpromising subject matter, or possibly because of them, The Pale King represents Wallace's finest work as a novelist."
Wallace was a thoughtful, extremely intelligent writer who suffered from depression and took his own life in 2008--and certainly that will be the angle of many reviews, that this is his crowning achievement, the culmination of his life's work, his swan song. In our newsy society, everything is reduced to a human interest story, and if death is involved all the better, but DFW's suicide is really just a footnote to this book. If you know his work, you've enjoyed his dark wit and keen eye and you know how funny he can be--depressives make the best comics, truth be told--not funny ha ha, but funny in a sardonic way that encompasses our foibles. For the uninitiated, these highlights from the Charlie Rose Show will help open the door a crack. Better yet, read one of his books. The Pale King will be released April 15th.
I know my way round town.
Used to live around here.
I know the sites to see,
the things they mean to me,
and how we tore it down.
Let me walk with you cuz it's breaking my heart.
The things that we had,
the good and the bad - now it's parking lots.
Père Ubu is a strange, underground proto-new wave band that avoids rockist cliches in favor of raw, direct, theatrical avant-garde garage rock. Formed in 1975, when mainstream radio was having a love affair with Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, the band rejected slick pop production values and anticipated the rough, weird world yet to come. Some say they were the missing link between the Velvet Underground and punk rock. Whatever they were, they were outside the box. The group took its name from Père Ubu ("father Ubu"), the protagonist of Ubu Roi ("Ubu, the King"), a play by French writer Alfred Jarry, which gives you a clue to their intentions. Greil Marcus, rock-crit emeritus, said "Pere Ubu boards a train that passes through a modern nation as if it were an ancient land, all ruin and portent, prophecy and decay. Thus the terrain makes the familiar terrain strange, unseen - new." The question that comes to mind is, "Who's the fat guy?" That's David Thomas, the only constant in this ever-changing band from Edge City.
Welcome to Mars!
It's open all hours.
Bill's in the back and Fred's on the phone, sayin,
"What are we doing here?"
Oh, he was sayin that you are never alone in the Twilight Zone.
What are we doing here?
Waiting. For. Mary.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year
It's national poetry month. I don't expect all sentient beings to have Blakean visions or to scribble down poetic thoughts or to even read a poem. Most people are too busy. Most people lack the imagination, or the willingness to risk seeming foolish, to write a poem. Most people quake in their boots and stare at the ground and scratch and spit and think poetry is for gays and weak sisters, juvenelia written on PeeChees--or think that poetry is something off a Hallmark card or has to do with an old woman who once lived in Nantucket. Can't blame 'em. They're too busy to slow down and smell the poetry. They're too important to waste their valuable time communing with the Muse. If you could look into their hearts you would probably find that they're deathly afraid of those naked, unguarded moments of the unchained mind--that poetic state that comes unbidden at three in the morning. That state must be kept at bay, distracted, subdued, tricked into silence--and if they ever let up and stopped their internal, sub-vocal peptalk for even a moment what angels or demons would they be inviting to slowdance?
Most men, said Thoreau, lead quiet lives of desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. How sad, and how boring. No guts no glory. As if in retort, Jack Kerouac, in his overquoted phrase, would utter "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..." and so on. And then he drank himself into a stupor and backed off from such a demanding proclamation he himself couldn't live up to. His rowdy days were over long before he buried his guns. He chickened out in the end.
A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. Robert Frost said that. It's as good as any description of what inspires the subversive act of poetry. What good are poems? No good whatsoever. If anyone tells you otherwise be suspicious. In the right hands, poems are about as useful as beach grass, as October light, as the midnight of the soul, as an unspoken truth, as tits on a bull.
Gide, the thief, once said, "Please do not understand me too quickly."
My father took me back home, back to Greenwich Village, and he thought by taking me out of the orphanage he'd be out of the World War too. But no way - they got him anyway. He went in the Navy and then I lived on the streets.
Anyway, I lived on the streets and did pretty good until I got caught stealing, what was it? I kicked in a restaurant window, went in and took all the food that I wanted, and while coming out I was grabbed. I remember the people I knew in prison; I was very fortunate to know them - they came from 1910, 1920, 1930. I was what? - twelve years old - and I was thrown in the cells with these people, so I learned fast. The lucky thing was that I was Italian; when the other Italians saw me fight back, they came to my defense.
They, that unnamed "they," they've knocked me down but I got up. I always get up-and I swear when I went down quite often I took the fall; nothing moves a mountain but itself. They, I've long ago named them me.
--quotes from Gregory Corso, American poet (March 26, 1930 – January 17, 2001)
Friday, April 1, 2011
The love of a good sandwich can't be beat, whether it's a Cuban pulled pork or a croque-monsieur, a juicy French dip or a chicken parmigiana, a double-decker Dagwood my mother stuffs with hot peppers or the Reuben my friend Jim pan-fries for poker parties.
“There are sandwich shops in New York which offer the nobility and gentry a choice of no less than 100 different sandwiches, all of them alluring and some of them downright masterpieces.” -H.L. Mencken
Mencken was right. The great delis of New York--the Carnegie and the Stage and Katz's--have elevated the sandwich to godlike levels, in particular the hot pastrami sandwich. This is food, sure, but this is Art as impressive as anything you might catch on museum mile. Pastrami masters are zen monks of an exacting faith. They have looked into the void and returned with a sandwich. They have created something beautiful. Check out these deli guys and you might get a clue.