Monday, April 30, 2012

BAD WRITING


It was a cold and windy night, blah blah blah.  Here is a documentary about bad writing (no, not a how-to film, which would be completely unnecessary) that follows a struggling poet on a quest for answers about "bad writing, good writing, and the process in between."  Will this save you time, effort, money for an MFA program or countless hours (days, weeks, years) learning the art and craft of writing?   I doubt it.  But you could do worse than listen to this sterling cast of writers assembled for this film: David Sedaris, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Nick Flynn, Steve Almond, Yusef Kumonyakaa, Lee Gutkind, D.A. Powell, Kim Barnes, Robert Wrigley, Claire Davis, Daniel Waters, Lynn Emanuel, Daniel Orozco, Mark McGurl, David Nadelberg, Josh Olson, Brenda Shaughnessy, Alex Steele, Michael Wiegers, Miles Corwin, Sally Wofford-Girand, and Jenni Ferrari-Adler.  via Bookfox

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE DAY OF THE EXPANDING DAN

So useless to ask me why. Throw a kiss and say goodbye.  I'll make it this time. I'm ready to cross that fine line. Steely Dan morphed from an off-kilter pop band to a jazz rock outfit propelled by crack session musicians under the guidance of co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Loopy and radio-friendly from the start, their music hid a much darker world in its lyrics, and a strange, offbeat, New York sensibility. After all, they named themselves after a sex toy in a William Burroughs novel so how wholesome could they be?  No matter.  Even when they emerged years later playing polished yacht jazz/rock that brought to mind California sunshine and mountains of blow, they kept their weirdness. Good for them.

 
Now they may look like the old men selling egg creams at the Gem Spa, but they're still freaking us out. A friend told me they were touring again, which might be...interesting. Here are a couple tunes, and some studio interviews to pique your curiosity. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

THOMAS PYNCHON WAS A STEEL-DRIVING MAN


A screaming comes across the sky. With those words one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century begins, and many a reader falls down a rabbithole of Thomas Pynchon's brilliant, troubling Gravity's Rainbow. Awesome, life-changing, unnecessarily difficult--opinions abound about this tough, rewarding tome many have begun, less have finished.  Why bring up this 1973 novel now?  Classics are worth rereading. This book changed the face of American letters, but was controversial from the start.  A three-person Pulitzer Prize jury supported the book for the award that year, only to be overturned by an eleven-member board that cited obscenity (no award for fiction was given that year; just like this year, coincidentally) but the novel took the National Book Award.  Awards, of course, are suspect from the get-go, reflecting politics and trends as much as anything, but since the book first stormed the reality studios of our collective mind it has spawned a trillion (exaggerating only slightly) books of its own, guides, concordances, doctoral theses and the odd bathroom graffito. I'm only kidding slightly.  In a world of self-proclaimed, self-promoting "geniuses," flash in the pan sensations and celebrities famous for being famous, Pynchon is a true master, a celebrated writer who shuns celebrity, and a nimble artist of the first rank who has enjoyed more than a few lingering dips and nuzzles slow-dancing with the Muse.  P is a writer's writer and a mystery man (he makes J.D. Salinger look like a social butterfly) you won't see on the talk-show circuit, and the basis of his fame is actual artistic accomplishment, writing that soars and challenges and, like the proverbial Red Ball Jet, runs so fast and stops on a dime.



This film won't clear anything up.  There are no shortcuts.  Sure, there are several interesting clues embedded in this documentary relating to preterition, paranoia, racism, colonialism, conspiracy, synchronicity, and entropy, that, if played backwards, approximate the clarion call of the muted post horn of the secret "Trystero" society, tooting Pynchon's myriad obsessions, but, like P's books, this isn't for everybody--though it may be rewarding for brass aficionados, postal workers and sagacious readers--and it won't simplify the writer or his work.  To really get to know Pynchon, you must read him.  Suit yourself.  He might not be your cup of Lapsang Souchong.  Don't bother.  Throw up your hands and claim he's a hoax, he's overrated, he's corrupting the youth of Athens.  It doesn't matter.  Stay home in the Comfort Zone.  But if you're up for a tremendous, exhilarating, wearying journey, you could do worse than reading Mr. P., but be sure to bring a toothbrush and a change of clothes.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

DOPIN' DUCKS?


The University of Oregon's celebrated Ducks have gone to pot.  According to the Eugene Register-Guard, "a report on marijuana use by college football players published Wednesday by ESPN suggested that about half of the University of Oregon football team uses the drug, which under athletic department policy can lead to dismissal from the team after four failed tests."

ESPN reported that perhaps 40 to 60 percent of the current team uses marijuana.  “I’ve heard weed was bigger before I got there,” said one Duck, “but [Coach] Chip [Kelly] cracked down on that. He’ll actually attend classes with guys. If you miss a study hall, he’ll drug-test you.”



According to the Register-Guard, "Former players interviewed by ESPN detailed the culture of marijuana use in Eugene — fostered, they said, by the local hippie culture and the months-long rainy season that encourages indoor activities."  Okay.  It's rainy in Oregon.  Add boredom, and the chronic pain experienced by many football players, and you have a recipe for Crispy Duck.

I'm not surprised. This is I-gene, after all. The lines have blurred. Back when I was in high school in Oregon the jocks drank beers and the freaks smoked grass, but toward the end of my senior year the athletes and hippies were going to the same parties and (can we say this?) everyone was inhaling bales of weed.  I'm not naive.  Many might deny it now, or have trouble admitting it in our current anti-drug climate (which is actually schizophrenic, since polls show at least half of Americans favor legalization or decriminalization) but back in the Seventies weed was as common as beer, and though they might deny it to employers, voters or their children, they probably inhaled.

 

Pro ballplayer Dave Meggyesy wrote a classic book about the dehumanizing aspects of pro sports, took on the NFL, basically, and also challenged stereotypes of the "dumb jock," being an extremely bright fellow who participated in anti-war activities and union organizing. He also mentioned widespread drug use among players, and not only painkillers (I remember one record-setting field goal kicked on mescaline, if memory serves). The NFL was furious. A lesson learned about stereotypes. Who knows, maybe someday less draconian pot laws will allow us to treat cannabis the way we treat an ice cold martini--not for everyone, not for minors, not to overindulge in, not while driving or operating heavy machinery, but for adults, in moderation, and probably not during an election year.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

LEVON HELM

Love & prayers to Levon Helm, musician, singer, actor, former drummer for the Band, who is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. He gave so much heart and soul from his earliest days with the Hawks all the way through his down home Midnight Rambles. He sure as hell brought a lot to the party.



Here is the message from his family that was posted on his official website:

Dear Friends,
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey. Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage… We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy

Watch Quick Hits: An Interview with Levon Helm on PBS. See more from Sound Tracks.

Monday, April 16, 2012

HOORAY FOR THE WOBBLIES

Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize. -- Joe Hill's telegram to Big Bill Haywood, written on the eve of his execution.



Hooray for the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies) working for fair treatment, decent wages and workplace democracy since 1905. According to the Wicki, the IWW first came together in Chicago in June 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists from all over America (mainly the Western Federation of Miners). "The IWW's efforts were met with violent reactions from all levels of government, from company management and their agents, and from groups of citizens functioning as vigilantes. In 1914, Hoe Hill (Joel Hägglund) was accused of murder and, despite only circumstantial evidence, was executed by the state of Utah in 1915. On November 5, 1916 at Everett, Washington a group of deputized businessmen led by Sheriff Donald McRae attacked Wobblies on the steamer Verona, killing at least five union members (six more were never accounted for and probably were lost in Puget Sound)."

Friday, April 13, 2012

REVOLUTION!



That down home, swampy, voodoo-infused, R&B-flavored funk coming off the bayou is wicked new music from our old friend Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr., otherwise known as The Night Tripper, the Zu Zu Man, or just plain Dr. John. This time out, the great New Orleans piano man joins forces with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who also produced this brand new, old school album, "Lockdown." The album has a retro feel, like old R&B you might catch on a super station in the middle of the night coming out of Louisiana. This is dark and rich as Nawlins gumbo--not your typical fast food radio fodder, but a bubblin' roux of spicy crayfish, andouille sausage and red hot peppers. No doubt about it, Dr. John has got his mojo back, and this might be his best album since he talked the gris-gris and walked on gilded splinters. Here's a tasty little lagniappe, REVOLUTION.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

VONNEGUT ON FICTION



This is worth reposting. If you've spent a few hundred midnights hunched over a manuscript like a hyena picking at a carcass, you know writing is difficult to do well. The key phrase here is, "to do well," since most people write to a certain degree of proficiency, at least enough to knock out an email now and then, all too easily, but even after one masters the rudiments of grammar and syntax (a step that takes one beyond the crowd clogging the trailhead) the journey has just begun, and one is still a long way from expressing something unique, unified, precise and meaningful on the page. Learning the rudiments is essential, like playing scales on the piano, but that's where the real work begins, because writing is more than just the mechanics of craft--even with all the structural questions out of the way, there is still that strange elusive bird--the poetic, the artistic, the mythic--that escapes our imperfect nets, a bird most writers may never capture or even spot. And we're only talking artistic success. We haven't even mentioned getting the work published, which is next to impossible. That might explain the nearly obsessive nature of writers (or artists, or pianists, or anyone who would excel at something) and the long hours they put in, day after day, that may never "pay off" in the marketplace. Just as a cellist in the symphony might seem like a perfectionist to someone with a tin ear, the writer is seeking artistic success. That might explain why serious people continue to write, to attend workshops and MFA programs,to risk so much at a profession in which so few will find success(I've heard that only 1% of those with MFAs in writing will make a living from writing--a failure rate that would close down any other professional school). So why write? Why, why why?

When Kurt Vonnegut started writing, there were only two programs that offered degrees in writing. He attended neither.

"There are now at least 100 creative writing programs in American colleges and universities," he wrote in an essay, Despite Tough Guys, Life is Not the Only School for Real Novelists. "That the subject is taught anywhere, given the daunting odds against anyone making a living writing stories or poems, might appear to be a scandal, as would be courses in pharmacy, if there were no such things as drugstores."

Vonnegut is a rumpled truth-teller, a sad-faced old prophet, a pessimist and a realist who won;t candy-coat a bitter pill. He's telling the truth, even if it is discouraging, because it is the truth. No, it's not logical, and it's not vocational training, and it probably won't provide its practitioner with a huge sack of money, or money at all. Yet he goes on.

"The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one's soul to grow. So the proliferation of creative writing courses is surely a good thing. Most came into being in response to demands by college students during the 1960's that their courses make more use of their natural impulses to be creative in ways that were not emphatically practical."

Vonnegut the pessimist suggests there is more than money and the marketplace, and even suggests there is such a thing as a soul--not in the religious sense, and not in the pinched, narrow sense --and says practicing art is good for it. How out of phase with the modern world, this Vonnegut. What a sad, rumpled, truthful and wise old man telling us what we don't want to hear. The truth. And that--not simple cliches, not hackneyed phrases, not comforting lies--is what we hope to write.

And so it goes.


Kurt's rules for writing are worth reposting:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

EASTER EVERYWHERE


Silly Symphony presents "Funny Little Bunnies," a cartoon classic from 1934.

Easter is coming! Whether you celebrate the traditional Christian holy day of the Resurrection, or the pagan spring fertility festival that preceded it (with symbols of birth such as eggs, chicks, rabbits), or the non-secular chocolate-eating holiday, this is the weekend you've been waiting for. Just look at these two joyriding icons and don't tell me the disparate elements of Easter can't get along. Passover, too. Just don't tell Mother Superior or Rick Santorum, since they want to spoil all the fun, and besides, when it comes to killing our buzz Santorum and Mother Superior jumped the gun. Let it be.

As for popular culture, the 13th Floor Elevators, a prototype garage psych band from Texas, titled a record "Easter Everywhere." Patti Smith, punk laureate, titled an album "Easter." The list goes on. Why? We all crave rebirth. It's the American story. Fitzgerald said there are no second acts, but he was wrong.

I am the spring, the holy ground,
the endless seed of mystery,
the thorn, the veil, the face of grace,
the brazen image, the thief of sleep,
the ambassador of dreams, the prince of peace.
I am the sword, the wound, the stain.
Scorned transfigured child of Cain.
I rend, I end, I return.
Again I am the salt, the bitter laugh.
I am the gas in a womb of light, the evening star,
the ball of sight that leads that sheds the tears of Christ
dying and drying as I rise tonight.

--Patti Smith

Food plays a big part at Easter, and here's a recipe for Calabrian Easter bread:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

FRANKIES GO TO SICILY



I know it sounds like an old movie, "The Frankies Go To Sicily," maybe a road picture with Bob Hope and Der Bingle, replete with laughs and crooning, but our good friends at Frankies Spuntino are no Hope and Crosby (too ethnic, for one thing, and besides, Hope and Crosby would never visit Sicily--the spicy food would probably kill them) but when we heard they were heading to the Old Country we packed our bags and waited by the phone. And waited. You know how these things go. Anyway, we missed the trip but now we've got this little video so we can pretend.

In case you don't know, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli are restaurateurs, authors and first rate chefs, but they're not your standard Food Network foodies or haute cuisine celebrities dancing with squirt bottles--these guys are keeping a tradition alive. They make deceptively simple Italian food with fresh, healthy, local, humanely raised ingredients. Inspired by grandma's cooking, but brighter, with more vegetables and freshness, these dishes are hardly old fashioned, and yet...they are. This is Italian-American comfort food, but not the dull, cliched, checkered tablecloth and chianti bottle minstrelsy of Olive Garden or Buca di Beppo--this is a beautifully balanced cuisine, a symphony of tastes, food for the soul whether it's tomato and onion salad or fancy lobster with fava beans. Try their recipe for the old standby meatballs here, or their delicious Cavatelli with Sausage and Browned Sage Butter here. Better yet, buy their book, or visit one of their two tiny joints in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The sauce is always on.

The Frankies: these guys could be my cousins.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

MUDDY SINGS THE BLUES



Muddy Waters would have been 99 tomorrow. As an awe-struck cub reporter, all of 22, I weaseled my way into "interviewing" Muddy backstage. Our meeting consisted of lots of listening on my part (I was at least that smart) while we drank champagne. I kept thinking, I'm drinking champagne with Muddy Waters. Obviously, I'm still pretty impressed with my good luck. Celebrities come and go, but this man made it all happen. Happy birthday, Muddy. Cheers!

Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Jug's Corner, Mississippi, in 1913. In 1940, he moved to Chicago for the first time, then returned to Mississippi where he ran a juke joint, complete with gambling, moonshine and a jukebox. He came back to Chicago in 1943 and brought the Delta sound North, electrified it, and changed music forever--leaving his mark on all that followed: blues, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, hard rock, folk, jazz and country music. Yes, the Rolling Stones named themselves after one of his songs, and Dylan gave him a nod in his biggest hit, Like a Rolling Stone. He's been covered by everyone from Led Zeppelin to Eric Clapton, and today his influence can be heard notably in the music of Jack White (of the White Stripes) and the Black Keys.



Liner notes: The players on the top clip ( at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960) are also outstanding bluesmen: That's Sonny Boy Williamson on harp, Willie Dixon on bass and Otis Spann on piano! Below: a great performance from the 1968 Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where Muddy's band consists of "Pee Wee" Madison on guitar,
 Otis Spann on piano,
 Paul Oscher on harp, 
Sonny Wimberley on bass and S.P. Leary on drums.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS



People talk about "alternative music," but it's not everyday you get to see some really jumpin,' pre-commercial, old-time music in the flesh. This music is rooted in the past, but don't get the idea it was just a time capsule, a musicologists presentation, or a reenactment of something on a wax cylinder from a vault in the Smithsonian--this was a kick-ass performance with all the sass and energy of an after hours tent-show. The Carolina Chocolate Drops brought the house down. This talented string band, led by dynamic Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, play Southern black music from the 1920s and ’30s—"string-band music, jug-band music, fife and drum, early jazz"--and last night in Seattle they even went back to the 1850s on one number, and threw in a few originals as well. What a show! Am I raving? Well, I should be. This is what music can do.



This film clip is a promo video of their 2010 album, "Genuine Negro Jig," which won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. The line-up has changed (the top clip shows the current group) but co-founders Giddens and Flemons remain. In answer to your question, "How come I've never heard of these guys?" let me remind you about the nature of commercial radio and TV, and how it's built to "move units" and appeal to a mainstream demographic--they play what sells, so if most people want Justin Bieber or Lady Ga Ga (or whatever current confection the industry chooses to poop out) that's what you're going to hear. Over and over. In spite of all the talk about "alternative music," to find music that is truly alternative, innovative, and creative you need to leave the well-trod path and dig a little deeper. Trade music with friends. Stay alert. Get up early. Support the good stuff. (maybe you learned about these guys here--if you like them, look them up and buy a record. Supporting real music guarantees its existence). Enough testifyin.' Listen! And take a look at the Carolina Chocolate Drops' website by clicking HERE.

The Seattle crowd goes wild. Photo by Rhiannon Giddens