Monday, October 29, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

For my money, the best scene of The Darjeeling Limited, by far, was the opening scene, which somehow managed to convey the potential, the strengths, and the increasing disappointments of Wes Anderson as a filmmaker. The scene, as I recall it:

Start with a aerial view of a dense and exotic Indian town, suddenly zoom in on a taxi careening through the narrow streets, weaving among the shopkeepers, the pedestrians, the bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, cows, pushcarts, and lorries, enter the cab to see a perfectly drably dressed businessman, played by Bill Murray, tense and frantic. Shift the perspective to inside the cab as it weaves through the city and comes to a halt in front of the train station, have the camera follow Bill Murray as he dashes from the cab, carrying his suitcases, running through the train station that is both bustling and lacking in hurry, track him along the train platform as he desperately runs to catch a train that is pulling away. Into the tracking shot, enter Adrien Brody, perfectly outfitted in a thin grey suit as if he is the human embodiment of 1982, running effortlessly past the older Bill Murray. Slow the shot down and start playing a Kinks song, as Brody's long and elegant frame jumps onto the train as it pulls away from the station. Watch him swivel and focus in on his sunglasses, as his sad eyes as he surveys the older Murray, panting, unable to make the train. Allow Brody a wry and knowing smile, and then exchange an oddly diffident look with the coolie sitting on the train's caboose. Pan down to the brightly colored train name, serving as a title card.

The opening sequence, from the panoramic view of the city through to when Murray is running down the train platform is the true genius of Wes Anderson, that, since Bottle Rocket, so rarely shines through. The shot is stylish and timeless, immaculately well-detailed in its visual touches, but not staid and archival. The camera moves deftly and eloquently, but in service of the action, not as cinematic gimmick. The strange, the beautiful, the quotidian, the damned, and the absurd all manage to inhabit the same sequence side-by-side without feeling forced or staged. And the central character, although two-dimensional in a plain yet dapper gray suit, manages to convey real emotion and struggle.

With Adrien Brody's entrance into the scene, you see the greatness that Wes Anderson most readily achieves -- that of a director of art-house music videos to a version of the 1970s that never existed. Cue the cool music, cue the slowed down tracking shots, the great clothes, the actors with iconic faces.

And with Brody's wistful stare at Bill Murray (his past and future?), the pure frustration that are Wes Anderson's films. Why should Brody give Murray a knowing stare? Brody's Peter Whitman, a character without a discernible job, scion of an anonymous, but wealthy family, suffering from a specific but unlikely grief, is looking neither at his past nor his future in Bill Murray. Peter Whitman, like all the Whitmans, and like all of Anderson's recent characters, aren't real people. They wear their emotions like clothes, accouterments to their antic and ultimately fraudulent personalities. So what's there? Nothing. So why do they act like something's there? It is impossible to tell...

Ultimately, that over-long analysis of the opening scene reflects my feelings about the movie, and probably, to varying degrees, about every Anderson movie since Rushmore: beautiful tableaus, stylish sequences, but ultimately, the semblance of meaning, without actual meaning forming the core. Thank god Anderson has Owen Wilson to understand how important charm and whimsy is to inhabiting these fundamentally absurd characters, and is able to draw on truly fantastic actors in Angelica Houston, Adrien Brody, and Bill Murray, who through their eyes, mouths, bodies, and delivery of their lines can turn the ridiculous into the almost-believable.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Let's Stay Friends

I've seen Les Savy Fav a couple of times, notably at the Mercury Lounge in 2001 or 2002, when, in the midst of a frenetic set, the lead singer sat down on the apron of the stage directly to my right, proceeded to wrap his meaty legs around the very thin indie-rock boy standing next to me, sing at him, and then, excruciatingly, lick the boy's face. It was disgusting and weird, and the boy looked very uncomfortable, and Tim Harrington's a pretty big dude, so I was doing a little mental calculation about the likely outcomes of my punching him in the face if he tried the same thing with me, standing six inches to the left. But the band absolutely rocked.

I've seen the band more live than I've bothered to listen to them on record, but did recently buy Let's Stay Friends, which is really good -- totally recommended. Mostly, I wanted to post the album's cover art -- which is the funniest painting/album title pairing I've seen since Dump released Grown-Ass Man.

Also, if indie rock is how you arrived at this blog, I have found Stereogum's "Quit Your Day Job" feature to be modestly diverting...


I dragged ED into Manhattan to see the Jens Lekman show at Webster Hall (a little more on that later). As it was the weekend before Halloween, half the city was in costume (as was all of Jens Lekman's all-girl Swedish band, to which ED remarked, "I hope they don't always do that." I had to reply, "I'm afraid they probably do"). I don't really like Halloween, but I figure I'd dedicate a post to it since some of my favorite people really do, including CC who has been counting down the days until she can wear her latest weird Asian fetishist costume, and JMBP, who basically loves the candy.

Walking around Manhattan on Halloween, a number of things become clear. Women love to dress up in whatever their approximation of sexy is, which too often isn't sexy. Lots of people aren't clever. People in costumes driving cars are surprisingly menacing, even if they don't mean to be. If you have the misfortune to be in the fratty part of town, instead of the gay part of town, on Halloween, the fratty part of town looks basically like the gay part of town, except fatter and uglier. One of the most fun things to watch is girls in ridiculous costumes deal with transportation. For example, the girl dressed as a sexy turtle, who ran stumblingly in high heels down 14th street smoking as much of a cigarette as she could before literally falling into a cab that her friends were holding while throwing the half-smoked cigarette hastily to the ground, at a group of passers-by. Or the two slightly chubby Latinas dressed as vamp-maids, trying lucklessly to hail a cab on the wrong side of the street just outside Union Square.

My three favorite costumes of the weekend: (1) the girl at the FCFT show (new album out, by the way) who dressed up as the iPod commercials, but basically just looked like she was in blackface, and who, when I left the party at 3 in the morning, was standing under an awning on a darkened street, avoiding the rain, staring out as a pair of eyes and a cigarette from the blackness; (2) the couple ED and I passed walking up Park Place last night, two adults in full-sized Teletubbies costumes, who looked like complete idiots facing forwards, but were adorable when viewed from behind, waddling down the lamp-lit street at midnight; and (3) the guy on the subway with the O.J. Simpson jersey. Actually, I don't think that was a costume.

The accompanying photos are from a Flickr search for 'Halloween costume' - the cream of a sorry crop that basically validates my premise. Click through if you want to see dogs in superhero costumes, people who dress up their babies aiming for the entirely too-low bar of 'cute,' and a lot of women for whom sexiness is circumscribed entirely within the pantyhose and bra departments of your local Target or Wal-Mart.

If, like me, you're skipping Halloween this year, maybe you will want to read this reminiscence about Mr. Rogers, instead:
According to a TV Guide piece on him, Fred Rogers drove a plain old Impala for years. One day, however, the car was stolen from the street near the TV station. When Rogers filed a police report, the story was picked up by every newspaper, radio and media outlet around town. Amazingly, within 48 hours the car was left in the exact spot where it was taken from, with an apology on the dashboard. It read, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.”

False Teeth

From Buenos Aires, JS sends this promotion for MTV Latin America. Weird enough that it is worth a view, and also for the tag-line "The Opposite of Everything."

We Don't Serve Robots

The Wired photo-essay on the Great Robot Exhibition is well worth a look, if only because all of the robots, with the exception of the analog Karakuri's, are so sinister. Even Asimo! What is it with the Japanese? Do they have no fear of the future?

Well, laughter in the face of impending doom seems the only course. Here are some robot jokes:
A rabbi, an Arab, a robot, and a Catholic priest walk into a bar. Only the robot exits.

A robot walks into a pharmacy. The pharmacist asks him if he'd like anything. The robot replies, "A soul."

How do you stop a robot from destroying you and the rest of civilization?
You don't.

Knock knock.
Who's there?
A robot.
Oh, shit.
More robot jokes...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Useless (Videos)

One for Halloween, and one more for the Japanese...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


From today's New York Times:
TOKYO, Oct. 19 — On a narrow Tokyo street, near a beef bowl restaurant and a pachinko parlor, Aya Tsukioka demonstrated new clothing designs that she hopes will ease Japan’s growing fears of crime.

Deftly, Ms. Tsukioka, a 29-year-old experimental fashion designer, lifted a flap on her skirt to reveal a large sheet of cloth printed in bright red with a soft drink logo partly visible. By holding the sheet open and stepping to the side of the road, she showed how a woman walking alone could elude pursuers — by disguising herself as a vending machine.

The wearer hides behind the sheet, printed with an actual-size photo of a vending machine. Ms. Tsukioka’s clothing is still in development, but she already has several versions, including one that unfolds from a kimono and a deluxe model with four sides for more complete camouflaging.

These elaborate defenses are coming at a time when crime rates are actually declining in Japan. But the Japanese, sensitive to the slightest signs of social fraying, say they feel growing anxiety about safety, fanned by sensationalist news media. Instead of pepper spray, though, they are devising a variety of novel solutions, some high-tech, others quirky, but all reflecting a peculiarly Japanese sensibility.

Take the “manhole bag,” a purse that can hide valuables by unfolding to look like a sewer cover. Lay it on the street with your wallet inside, and unwitting thieves are supposed to walk right by. There is also a line of knife-proof high school uniforms made with the same material as Kevlar, and a book with tips on how to dress even the nerdiest children like “pseudohoodlums” to fend off schoolyard bullies.
Ha ha, Japan, what are you doing you are so crazy I love you!

Chindogu, Japanese for 'queer tool,' are the inventions of the unuseless, uh, the perfectly absurd. It's kind of hard to explain, but really easy to get. Like how Kanji Kawakami, father of the term, describes it:
Kenji Kawakami assumes a serious expression as he brandishes an over-sized fork with an onboard motor. Carefully lulling over his words, he decides that English won't cut it and speaks in his native tongue.

Kito, my friend and interpreter, translates. "Japanese like to make everything in their lives as easy as possible..."

"Anything, everything," Kawakami excitedly interjects in halted Americanese. "So, for example," he twists the fork manually, spinning an imaginary plate of unresponsive noodles with a look of mock pain behind his Ambervision sunglasses, "this is a fault of ordinary fork. And so I got new idea." He presses the button on the handle, and the implement starts twirling and clacking like a weed-whacker.

"The first fault I got rid of, but I got another new, more bigger problem." He holds the vile silverware up to his face and pantomimes getting splashed with sauce.

"Everything, every Chindogu like this," he chortles.
Not yet satisfied? Here are the ten tenets by which all chindogu must abide. My favorites are #1 and #2:

1. A Chindogu cannot be for real use.
2. A Chindogu must exist.
3. Inherent in every Chindogu is the spirit of anarchy.
4. Chindogu are tools for everyday life.
5. Chindogu are not for sale.
6. Humor must not be the sole reason for creating Chindogu.
7. Chindogu are not propaganda.
8. Chindogu are never taboo.
9. Chindogu cannot be patented.
10. Chindogu are without prejudice.

Check out this Chindogu-related site. And this one.

Join the Team!

CIA "Terrorist Buster" logo. Seriously.

Monday, October 22, 2007

NYC - 1982

Some time ago, EBC forwarded me this collection of photos. I don't know where she found them, but they are great. From Flickr user 'Running with Scissors,' they are definitely worth a closer look.

UCS: Louis CK

When I was a kid, I used to come home from school on my own. This was in the era of "latch key kids," when Barbara Walters and Hugh Downing would do specials entitled "Latch Key Kids" on 20/20. For a period of time, I must have been 11 or 12, I actually wore my house-key on an ever-dirtying gray string around my neck, tucked under my shirt. How we invented and agreed upon these ways of living, my parents and I, I'll never quite know. Some combination of innocence and enterprise.

Being at home alone from the hours of 3pm to 6pm had its benefits. In my case, these were namely Rap City on BET and Stand-up, Stand-up, The A-List, and Stand-up Spotlight on Comedy Central, with a healthy dose of cartoons mixed in. I taught myself to break-dance, I molded a Styrofoam chair into the unlikely position of an upside down me, but mostly, I was a stand-up junkie.

Years later, upon moving to New York, I would come face to face with many of my favorite comedians of that era. One of my favorites was Louis CK. I have a perverse and unnecessary memory of being absolutely floored by one of his jokes (which he told both on the stand-up shows, and on the sorely missed Dr. Katz), about being strip-searched by the cops, and when asked to lift his testicles while also being instructed to keep his hands up tried to use the Biblical command "Arise, Testicles!" Doesn't sound funny? Well, you're wrong.

At any rate, for a year or two, we would go down to the Comedy Cellar near NYU ever now and again, and I saw Louis CK perform once or twice. I saw him eating a salad upstairs once. I saw him outside on the corner of MacDougal and W. 4th once, and I think I went up and said, "Hey, man, you were one of my favorite comedians growing up!" To which I think he replied, something like, "Fuck you, I was one of your favorite comedians growing up! Jesus, how old am I?" Something to that effect.

Louis CK is still one of my favorite comedians. His material is a little blue for all you grandmas stumbling on this site, but the clip above is well worth 38 seconds of your time, and the clip below is a good way to waste a few minutes at work, too (get past to the unnecessary opening bit...)

The Spirit of Jazz

NW sends me an email a little out of the blue asking "What's going on with your new comedy show???" Umm, nothing. Although, I guess I have been talking some game lately. Not big game. Just some game. Still, I got to get over that hump and buy a camera. Until then, nothings happening, and it is all talk. Any suggestions, John?

NW also recommended these Brits to me, the Mighty Boosh. I hadn't seen them. I guess NW has cable. And a TV. I don't. I have to admit, I love Gervais, but I'm getting a little worn down by the "Isn't it?" movement in British comedy, a term I'm coining to describe the painfully self-aware comedies that feature painfully un-self-conscious characters hyper-verbalizing their own buffoonery. That's why I found the Kids in the Hall- inspired surreal fantasy of the clip above appealing, and which I really like, more than anything else that I saw of the Mighty Boosh. My favorite part, of course, is about the hat.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


More brilliance from Slate's Picture of the Day feature, drawing from the Magnum archives.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Argentina-Chile opening round World Cup qualifier. Argentina 2:0 Chile. Why should you care? Because twice from over twenty yards out, the goalkeeper does not move an inch....

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Night Falls

Photos from Gregory Crewdson. Inspiration courtesy this blog post.

Michael Clayton / The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

1. Denzel
2. Clooney

Simply put, that's how I see it at the top. The two movie stars that I will pay money to see, no matter what. The two movie stars that when we're old and gray, we'll still talk about, tell our grand-kids about. Like Grant, Bogart, Newman, Beatty, Redford. Big stars. Not Hanks. Not Cruise. Not Crowe. That's just how I see it, folks.

In case you care, other movie stars I would pay money to see: Depp. Clive Owen. Christian Bale. Owen Wilson, when he's melancholy. Walken, when he's serious. De Niro, when he's not being a sap. That's it, I think.

I think we should cancel the Democratic and Republican primaries and allow the electorate to pick two from among Denzel, Clooney, Oprah, and Letterman for who gets to run the country for the next eight years. I'm pretty sure the promise of a signed photograph would persuade even the most perverse of dictators and terrorist leaders to their senses. It's worth a shot.

After a late lunch at Mandoo, a Korean mandoo joint on 32nd Street (good, not great), ED and I caught an early evening showing of Michael Clayton. Numerous glowing reviews had got me excited, notably David Denby's in the New Yorker:
In the “Ocean’s” franchise and earlier movies, Clooney played guys who were on top of everything. He’s very intelligent, and it’s easy enough for him to point his chin, glare, and tell people off. But in “Syriana” and now in “Michael Clayton” he has done something more interesting: he’s playing clever guys who lack the killer instinct, who have some strain of personal honor that holds them back from simply winning.
You couldn't sucker me in to a movie any more easily. Coming in with these high hopes, it was with a curious combination of relief and dread that I felt them deflated by the steady onslaught of absolute crap in the previews. ED has good taste -- you can tell by the faces she makes at crappy previews. I wondered if I was in the wrong theater.

By the time Michael Clayton started, I didn't know what to expect. Thankfully, the crappy previews were a function of seeing the movie in midtown, not a prelude to the quality of the film. Michael Clayton was good, quite good, if a little too tidy. Clooney's graceful bemusement as he eases through the world, as a winner or a loser, is a charming thing to watch. Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton's performances added sufficiently rich texture to Clooney's more narrowly-played protagonist, even if their respective pathos were just a little exaggerated. And I thought director Tony Gilroy's navigation of posh midtown law offices, hotel conference lobbies, Mercedes interiors, and corporate meeting rooms were effective in conveying a sinister menace through their sleek, perfectly appointed anonymity. And, of course, the movie's framing scene, with Clooney on a quiet hill in the chill light of a breaking dawn, was both beautiful and used to great effect.


When I got off the Q train yesterday morning, I dog-eared John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold on page 185. For no good reason, I had until now avoided reading any LeCarre, and had not read a page-turner in probably a few years. My mistake.

The thought had occurred to me to not get off the train, and keep riding uptown for another few stops. Or simply sit down in Starbuck's before going into the office. That would give me time to finish. But I didn't, and when I got back into the subway at Canal St. in the evening, I was livid to find that I had left the novel on my desk. One more day of suspense had to pass.

TSWCIFTC is great. It's hard and bleak, like a Cold War spy should be. It reflects the gray pallor cast over London and Berlin by the constant threat of double-cross and deceit. It twists and turns, turns back and twists again. Violence is taken for granted, yet there is both a professionalism and professional respect among the men who do the dirty work in the shadows of our fumbling diplomacy. The novel reads fast and with an impending sense of consequence. To the end, it's suspenseful and fun.

I have one quibble, and I will extend it back to Michael Clayton (corporate dirty work is our modern-day equivalent of Cold War espionage, no? Where we can recognize our enemies in ourselves, and aren't quite sure whose side we're on?) and perhaps extend it on to our dramatization of the professions of suspense, in general. My concern, of course, is the habit of adding a moralizing coda to each story, too often broadly wrought, as if to bring along the slower among our audience by saying "In addition to being suspenseful and cool, I am showing you how the world is fucked up, power corrupts, and ambition corrodes our sense of decency." A necessary point, always well illustrated throughout the substance of the book, but our auteurs' apparent concern that some among us might miss the point. From TSWCIFTC:
"Christ Almighty!" Leamas cried. "What else have men done since the world began? I don't believe in anything, don't you see - not even destruction or anarchy. I'm sick, sick of killing but I don't see what else they can do. They don't proselytise; they don't stand in pulpits or on party platforms and tell us to fight for Peace or God or whatever it is. They're the poor sods who try to keep the preachers from blowing each other sky high."
Don't we get this, through the betrayal of our protagonists? Through the abdication of justice finely meted, and the almost-always sacrifice of some lamb? In fact, don't those who who act out not just ambivalence, but actual acts of good or revelation generally crushed by the wheels of the machine, that is greater to them, and whose workings, only at the end, are revealed neatly to us?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Autumn Version

We held it at bay for an extra four weeks, but it's here now, in all its bluster. Autumn, my favorite season in New York, although this year it threatens to close quickly. And, of course, the grey threats of winter always loom behind the crisp delights of autumn. Fall is only the knife edge.

Since the winds are blowing up the avenues now, and the leaves are piling up on the side streets, and you won't be going out nearly as much, why don't you check out the following?

- William Saletan's strangely philosophical analysis of the effects of IED's on warfare. Doesn't bode well for our future wars with terrorists. Doesn't bode well for our future wars with robots, either.
- A take-down of Brooklyn writing, which represents my feelings somewhat, and pretty much articulates why, in addition to laziness, I've never taken a project of any ambition off the ground.
- Gay Talese on Frank Sinatra, billed as the best celebrity profile ever.
- An excellent profile of Louis Auchincloss, a writer who I may never find the time to read. Sadly, it seems.
- The vastly under-appreciated Phil Ball, on the travails of the Spanish national team.
- A bemusing video about beer pong -- leading, if nothing else, to a desire for the ability to waste time endlessly, once again.

And of note over on the other blog, in case you aren't a regular of both:

- A bit of concerned rambling about the most recent saber-rattling over Iran.
- Reflections on a talk by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch on Abu Ghraib.
- Modest commentary on the ability of the venture community to really take on the big environmental challenges facing us.
- Speculation about the ability of India's young, upstart middle class to engage in India's social and political problems.

Photos from Flickr user SantaCrewsGirl, used without permission!

Won't Soul Music Change?

"Won't soul music change / Now that our souls have turned strange?" - David Berman, Silver Jews, "We Are Real"
It’s difficult to talk about the racial pedigree of American pop music without being accused of reductionism, essentialism, or worse, and such suspicion is often warranted.

Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album “Double Up.” Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan. The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and an intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk. Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake. If you’ve forgotten where the term came from, look it up. There’s a reason the lights were off.
Two unrelated quotes from the same article, "A Paler Shade of White," in this week's New Yorker, by Sasha Frere-Jones. The first illustrating why I often find Mr. Frere-Jones' music criticism un-readable. The second, why I find him generally compelling.

RM forwarded me this article during the middle of my work day, and I immediately devoured it. This, of course, coming from the same RM who bombastically declared late one evening in 1998 or 1999 that rock music was dead and useless, and that electronic music showed the way forward. So take that, for what it's worth.

A few selected quotes from the article, followed by a few scattered comments:
As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands’ as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire. I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century?

Yet there are also moments in the history of pop music when it’s not difficult to figure out whose chocolate got in whose peanut butter. In 1960, on a train between Dartford and London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then teen-agers, bonded over a shared affinity for obscure blues records. (Jagger lent Richards an LP by Muddy Waters.) “Twist and Shout,” a song that will forever be associated with the Beatles, is in fact a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley
Brothers. In sum, as has been widely noted, the music that inspired some of the most commercially successful rock bands of the sixties and seventies—among them Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Grand Funk Railroad—was American blues and soul.

You could argue that Dr. Dre and Snoop were the most important pop musicians since Bob Dylan and the Beatles

Who would take on Snoop, one of the most naturally gifted vocalists of the day?

Many indie bands seemed to be having complex reactions of their own to musical miscegenation. The indie genre emerged in the early eighties, in the wake of British bands such as the Clash and Public Image Ltd., and originally incorporated black sources, using them to produce a new music, characterized by brevity and force, and released on independent labels. The Minutemen, a group of working-class white musicians from San Pedro, California, who were influential in the late eighties, wrote frantic political rants that were simultaneously jazz, punk, and funk, without sounding like any of these genres. But by the mid-nineties black influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and the term “indie rock” came implicitly to mean white rock. Pavement, a group that the Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau, in 1997, called “the finest rock band of the nineties—by critical acclamation,” embodied this trajectory.

Grizzly Bear, the indie band that excites me most right now, is making songs with no apparent links to black American music—or any readily identifiable genre. (The band’s sound suggests a group of eunuchs singing next to a music box on a sunken galleon.) But, in the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness.

How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain?
Before I get too involved, let me preface by saying, when you come after Pavement, it's knives out, buddy. Secondly, let me put the most insightful comment first, which actually came courtesy of RM:

When we talk about race and rock and roll, citing any of the great, early rippers-off of black rhythm and blues, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, let's not forget for a second that all of those bands are British. So what? Well, RM speculates that maybe these young Brits weren't immediately aware of the racial distinctions of the music they were listening to. Maybe. More likely, the cultural bounds that needed to be crossed to embrace black music for the bands that led the British invasion were less restrictive than for American bands -- both in terms of finding an audience, and the general self-consciousness of playing music that was distinctly "not yours" (but in the case of Americans, was identifiably "someone else's"). Or, as RM put it, for the Brits, "it all seems like one big American lump from across the ocean."

If you list the pantheon of acts from the 60s to the 80s that are the major influences of indie rock, it would look something like this: Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, Neil Young, the Beach Boys, the VU, Bowie, the Clash, Talking Heads. Of that list, only the New York-based American acts ever really embraced the "black" part of black music -- Dylan, the VU, and Talking Heads. The LA-acts, for lack of a better categorization, did not. So it is a bit of a failed premise to start with, isn't it, to lay the failure of rock and roll to embrace its black roots on the lily-white doorstep of indie rock, isn't it? And more so, of each of the bands above, only the Stones and maybe the Clash were really most celebrated for the parts of their oeuvre that directly descended from rhythm and blues, soul, or funk. The rest of the bands really made their name through taking rock in the direction of folk, country, acid, or art.

Or put it another way, if you want to draw a straight-line from the Beatles to the Apples in Stereo, you draw it through Revolver and the White Album, not Please Please Me. Don't you?

And to extend the metaphor, is the inheritance of most songwriter-driven indie rock, as you trace its lineage back through the artists above, finding its way back to Keats as much as the slave origins of rock? It's as much about the words and ideas as the pure emotion and collective release?

Which isn't to say that I don't also regret the increasing trend within the white-washed world of indie rock towards sad-sack mopiness... mind you, not the weary melancholy that I love so much, but 22-year old pathos that really amount to nothing.

Let's not conflate pop and rock.

Sometime between 1965 and 1995, it became possible to get laid based on being arch and having discriminating taste. That killed both lust and dancing as a driving framework for rock and roll. We also got collectively richer. Rock became the province of college boys. We were less the common people of Jarvis Cocker, more the slumming rich-girl art students. And we took drugs - the collective experience and catharsis was no longer in moving to the same back-beat, but finding abandon, release, and then order in the same cascading waves of feedback.

Also, can't we just leave the soul music to the soul singers.

Car Crash

Under midwestern clouds like great gray brains we left the super highway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City's rush hour with a sensation of running around. As soon as we slowed down, all the magic of tavelling together burned away. He went on and on about his girlfriend. "I like this girl, I think I love this girl - but I've got two kids and a wife, and there's certain obligations there. And on top of everything else, I love my wife. I'm gifted with love. I love my kids. I love all my relatives." As he kept on, I felt jilted and sad: "I have a boat, a little sixteen-footer. I have two cars. There's room in the backyard for a swimming pool." He found his girlfriend at work. She ran a furniture store, and I lost him there.

The clouds stayed the same until night. Then, in the dark, I didn't see the storm gathering. The driver of the Volkswagen, a college man, the one who soaked my head with all the hashish, let me out beyond the city limits just as it began to rain. Never mind the speed I'd been taking, I was too overcome to stand up. I lay out in the grass off the exit ramp and woke in the middle of a puddle that had filled up around me.

And later, as I've said, I slept in the back seat while the Oldsmobile - the family from Mashalltown - splashed along through the rain. And yet I dreamed I was looking right through my eyelids, and my pulse marked off the seconds of time. The interstate through western Missouri was, in that era, nothing more than a two-way road, most of it. When a semi-truck came toward us and passed going the other way, we were lost in a blinding spray and a warfare of noises such as you get being towed through an automatic car wash. The wipers stood up and lay down across the windshield without much effect. I was exhausted, and after an hour I slept more deeply.

I'd known all along exactly what was going to happen. But the man and his wife woke me up later, denying it viciously.
"Oh -
What I remember clearly was being woken up as my wheels caught the grass, a feeling of both bumpiness and acceleration. In its essence, out of control. This is where the evening caught up to me, and where getting into a car and driving a car become very different acts. I swung the wheel hard to the left. The road was dark and windy, my headlights cut a quick swath across the double yellow lines, heading straight to the far embankment. I cut the wheel back to the right, braking, too hard again. For a moment I had the road, but then I lost it and found the trees.

When branches whip against your windshield, and you take little body blows from the left and right, you feel harried. Your body tenses. It's the head on collision that ultimately doesn't make any sense. I found a tree, squarely. I had lit up the high grass. The road was at eye level.

The night is surprisingly quiet after a car crash, and the car is surprisingly hot. No broken glass, no air bags deployed, and no injuries, so I forced my way out, knee deep in the wet scrub. Circling the front of the car, I heard hissing. Leaning in to the headlight, bracing my hand against the hot hood and pushing yielded nothing. I got back in the car, turned down the stereo. Tried the engine. It wouldn't turn over.

Twice I've been in car crashes, both times ending it totaled cars. Once, this time, my fault entirely - and a bad decision I'll never repeat. The first time, the other driver's fault, entirely. Both times, I found myself staring into the well-lit New England brush, with a cracked engine casing and steam coming from the hood. It's amazing how calm you can feel, in the dark of the night.

I spent a night and a day in panic. The consequences of a bad choice could have been so much worse. They were not. I am thankful for that. My parents, also, thankful. So thankful that they drove two hours to the temple in Connecticut, to offer thanks. To whom? I don't know. On the way home, they stopped off at Mohegan Sun to play the penny slots. In this life, I guess you have to hedge your bets.

Three weeks have passed, and it's amazing how quickly a car crash can go from being fundamentally unnerving and potentially revelatory to something that happened. We can only move on.

And you can read the rest of Denis Johnson's excellent short story "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," from the collection Jesus' Son, archived here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Story of Me and Yo La Tango

Where can I start with Yo La Tengo? Painful, I guess, is the first album that drew me in. Or perhaps Fakebook. It doesn't matter, although I do have a distinct memory of falling into bed with a girl in college thanks to the twin seducers of red wine and the second half of Painful. It had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the band. So, thanks for that.

But I can't stop there. Because I am a super fan. I am gay for Yo La Tengo. They are my favorite band. More than that, they are the sort of band that, if you fail to have a healthy adoration for them, I might think less of you. I will think less of you. It's not my fault. It's yours. They are the best band in America. Less opinion, than fact.

It was with a great deal of shock and surprise that I found that the "conversation" with Yo La Tengo at Brooklyn's Lyceum, as part of the New Yorker festival was not sold out. I moved quickly. Not that I haven't seen them before. I've seen them many times. Irrationally, I am going to create a list of those times:

- Sometime in '98 or '99 in Providence, RI.
- At Great American Music Hall in SF in 2000 with WMS, LM, JP, PT, CC and others, accompanied by Mac from Superchunk and somebody from the Clean, and supported by Lambchop.
- At a Virgin Megastore in-store in Union Square, upon moving to NYC in 2000, with RM, where they played an entire show of covers, including a great version of James singing "You Sexy Thing".
- Over Thanksgiving at the Bowery Ballroom in 2000, where they played their cover of the Simpsons theme.
- At Maxwell's, with Portastatic for a Hanukkah show in '02, and again, with Steve Wynne in '04 with TL, JJK, and KP (where they played a version of Nuclear War and brought a soccer team of school children in capes and tin-foil hats on-stage for the chorus of "It's A Nuclear War! Motherfucker!")
- At Alice Tully Hall, scoring the Jean Panlieve films as part of the Sounds of Science, with JWW and JZ.
- In Prospect Park in the summer of '03 or '04.
- At the Kerry '04 fundraiser in the Meat Packing district with PT, where Yo La Tengo redeemed the entire event, and I stole two of the best rocks glasses I ever owned.
- At Tonic, in the early winter of '06, when CC threw up downstairs because she ate too much bad rice.
- At the Fillmore in the late fall of '06, with CC, SO, and TCB, where they played something like a ridiculous four encores, including a beautiful cover of "Take Care."

So, have I seen them a bunch? Yeah. And was I excited to see them again? Absolutely.

Because they always rock. And they are always charming. And once again, they held up their end of the bargain.

But here is my superfan kicker! After the show (which was really nice), ED and I went over to Commonwealth for a drink. While boring her with my general adoration of YLT, who should walk in, but James McNew! Rockstars in our midst! And, then, a few minutes later? Ira and Georgia. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but I was starstruck, baby. And ED, for no good reason, decided to prod me for the better part of an hour, to go over and say hello. Not that I was shy about it, but because, well, I don't like bothering people, and the YLT's seemed like they were having a perfectly nice time on their own, with their friends. Because they are regular people, who go to the neighborhood bar in Park Slope, after a show, to hang out with their friends. But after a bit more prodding, which was getting to the level of teasing, and which wasn't being helped by the fact that we were sort of inconspicuously staring at the band (and feeling outraged that in a bar like Commonwealth, the whole place didn't erupt in a mass hysteria of praise, thanks, and adoration -- for God's sakes, someone put on "Speeding Motorcycle" while they were there!), I broke down.

So, finally, I went over to the Yo Las, leaned over their table in the middle of their conversation (although they didn't look that into it) and said:

Me: Hi, I don't mean to interrupt, but... (sits down in an open chair).
Georgia: But you're going to sit down anyway! (Ira and Georgia laugh).
Me: Yes. But not for long. (Ira and Georgia look at me).
Me: Well, anyway, just wanted to say thanks for tonight's show, it was great, and I'm a huge fan of your music. (Ira and Georgia sort of nod, maybe say your welcome, and look at me).
Me: Um, well, that's it. (I get up and go back to my table to join ED).

So is that a story worth retelling? Fuck, no. But it's what I've got. Thanks, YLT, for another great show, and see you again soon.

In the meantime, enjoy this wonderful old video of a youngish YLT covering the classics:

And if you're bored, check out the YLT site, which is actually quite diverting. As a coda, I think CC once told me that she would be willing to walk down the aisle to "Autumn Sweater." I wholeheartedly agree...

Get Hip!

The new fall line of Distilled Spirit is hitting a shop near you. Congratulations to the Ms! And if you're not hip, hey, drop a buck, and get hip ...

Jesus is Magic

Is it the racist asides, the cheap vulgarity, and the sexual jokes that make you blush, delivered with self-deprecating charm and that quirky smile that makes Sarah Silverman's Jesus is Magic so appealing? Yes.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The September Raves List

Lodger, David Bowie

3:10 to Yuma (the continued ascendance of Christian Bale)
Once in a Lifetime (DVD)
A History of Violence (DVD)
The Science of Sleep (DVD)

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolano
District and Circle, Seamus Heaney

Food & Drink
The Smoke Joint, Brooklyn, NY
Sweet and Vicious (backyard), New York, NY / Indian Summer bar night

Richard Serra at MoMA
JH and JJ's wedding
Walking away from a car crash at 4 AM in the Western Massachusetts night

The September Reading List

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Muse Asylum, David Czuchlewski
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolano
District and Circle, Seamus Heaney

The world is a desolate place. Do we need constant reminder of this? Through desert, dislocation, and strife, we still find hope and humor. God speaks through us. This is the thing we call humanity. And this?

I'm still not sold on the consequence of Cormac McCarthy's The Road as a parable of hope in troubled times. Does it shine a light of truth into the shadows of despair, showing us something we don't know or have forgotten? I have my reservations. But as a novel, both as entertainment, and as a spectral vision to haunt our dreams, I can only sing its praises. Where the story's spiritual conversation may not have found purchase with me, the landscape in which it is rendered is simply captivating. As I have written, from picking up The Road, I was not once in a position where I could put it down, even to sleep, without the greatest of reluctance. And, of course, if you can't take my word for it, there is always Oprah's.

David Czuchlewski's The Muse Asylum is a slim, smart, and breezy read about two recent college graduates, one an aspiring journalist, the other insane, who unravel a grand literary mystery that may or may not exist. In an advanced creative writing, I'm sure the novel gives way to layers of meaning and reference -- on the subway, it serves, as well, but more as entertainment. Not amazing, but accomplished for a first novel, and worth the read.

If the poet's job is to convey to us that the world is not only the prose we encounter every day (or, in that prose, there exist deeper avenues to meaning), Seamus Heaney consistently does the job. He does write in a foreign tongue, derived, I'd guess, from his love of an English language no longer practiced, and from the provincial world he inhabits and adores, deeply tinted in amber hues of a slightly more agrarian yesteryear that has not, in fact, entirely faded away. District and Circle is a neat set, in which each poem illustrates the poet as master of both language and something else: history, mechanics, or memory. Taken by the handful in the urban milieu of New York, the poems are transporting, a looking glass through which a simpler but more well understood world is apparent.

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is an outstanding novel about war and life. You should read it.

Why Roberto Bolano has commanded so much of the literary world's attention in the last year still escapes me. Not that his writing isn't deserving, simply that the timing of the interest in his work, and the appearance of a number of high-profile works in translation is unclear to me. The collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth is a perfectly good place to start (although, I have no other reference for Bolano), and of interest to any reader with a keen interest in the literary inheritance of the exiled artistic youth of Latin America's many dictatorships in the 70s and 80s, or for any reader with a taste for the spiritual children of Kafka and Borges.

Life During Wartime

In talking about one war, can we talk about another? Isn't every war somehow unique in its violence and its destruction, at least in the specificity of its theater, its actors, and its purpose? Or does war simply endure, each conflict an instance, wrought from the template of the same basic themes - of violence and illogic and a struggle for power, definition, and ultimately, meaning?

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is a novel about Vietnam, impressive in its scope, as it traces the entanglements of a diverse ensemble of characters, Americans and Vietnamese, soldiers, spooks, and civilians, over the course of twenty years before and after their involvement in the war twists each of their lives. As always, Johnson's scenes and characters are luminously portrayed, shining from the pages with a religious intensity, and his language is direct and insistent, without sacrificing the capacity for poetry, vulgarity, or spiritual convalescence. The novel's center is held by the rogue and charismatic CIA operative Colonel FX Sands and his nephew, the idealistic (about espionage) new agent Skip Sands, and entwines a whole cast of supporting characters in their efforts to engage in psychological warfare and double-crosses against the North Vietnamese regime (although, the novel reads less as a neatly constructed spy thriller, tending towards dropping the reader in an alternating rhythm of lulls, bureaucratic misdirection, and introspection).

Through the conversations between the Colonel and his protege, Johnson provides us an inquiry into the nature of war, both in Vietnam and writ broadly:
"Did you hear Nixon's inaugural address?'
"No," Skip said. "Parts of it.'
"He talked about keeping commitments, preserving our honor - not about winning. Not about the future of Vietnam or the future of the kids we see around here. Nixon. I don't care what he says, you can see it in his eyes: he's played the whole game out in his mind, play by play, and we lose. That's how he sees it. Who did you vote for? The Democrat?'
"Nobody. I forgot to get a ballot.'
"I've always voted with the Democrats, this time reluctantly. Humphrey would have pulled us out even quicker, I think. The big boys see the big picture. So we lose. In the big picture it doesn't matter. When it comes to geopolitical balance, just the fact we've fought the war is enough. For the United States, it'll all be fine in the end. But I'm not fighting for the United States. I'm fighting for Lucky and Hao and folks like your cook and your housekeeper. I'm fighting for the freedom of real individuals here on this ground in Vietnam, and I hate to lose. It breaks my heart, Skip.'
"You think we'll actually lose? Is that what you think, ultimately?'
"Ultimately?" His uncle seemed surprised by the word. "Ultimately I think... we'll be forgiven. I believe we'll wander in the darkness for a good long time, and some of what we do here will never be made right, but we will be forgiven. What about you? What do you think, Skip?'
"Uncle, we're in a mess. A mess."
Tree of Smoke is about Vietnam, and in addition to the central pairing of the Colonel and Skip, two well-educated CIA men who end up with their hands deeply bound to the failed military commitments in Southeast Asia, the novel also relays to us the lives of missionaries, administering to the needs of the less fortunate, ravaged by war, of the Houston brothers, enlisted as a sailor and and a private, respectively, who succumb to the psychological damage of the front-lines of the war quite directly, and who, in a haunting literary trick, have been introduced to us, eventual fate and all, in Johnson's debut novel Angels. Knowing what sins a man commits, how the needle of his compass has been bent, in full, beforehand, enriches the experience of watching the sapling boy of that man get twisted up and scarred in the jungles of Vietnam. Johnson's particular empathy for his Vietnamese characters, humble people with full lives, dreams, and histories, lend a much-needed dimension to this war story, as well, elevating it above the proving ground of men and nations, reminding us of the toll paid by those native sons and daughters of the countries over which the American military marauds.

At 600+ pages, the novel moves swiftly, with its only fault being that it is, in some respect, a spy story with an inconclusive ending, a lock without a key. That Johnson is confronting quite directly the legacy of Vietnam, a war that has perhaps been forgotten by the popular culture, but whose consequences have not yet passed us. Of course, it is also impossible to read the novel without it casting a long shadow over our current war in Iraq. And anchoring it all is a much deeper investigation, psychological, moral, and spiritual, of the ways in which war succeeds and fails in giving us meaning.
The colonel said, "I went to Alaska once, you know. I toured the Alaska-Canada road they build their during the war. Fantastic. Not the road, the landscape. The mighty road was just this insignificant little scratch across that landscape. You've never seen a world like that. It belongs to the God who was God before the Bible... God before he woke up and saw himself... God who was his own nightmare. There is no forgiveness there. You make one tiny mistake and that landscape grinds you into a bloody smudge, and I do mean right now, sir." He looked red-eyed around himself, as if he only halfway recognized his environment. Sands willed himself not to be too disconcerted. "I met a lady who'd lived there for quite some years -- later, that is, just last Christmas is when I had the pleasure. An elderly woman now, she spent her youth and most of middle age near the Yukon River. I got to talking about Alaska, and she had only one comment. She said: 'It is God-forsaken.'
"You poor, overly polite sonsabitches. I read your silence as respect. I appreciate it too. Would you like me to get to the point?
"The lady's remark set me to thinking. We'd both had the same experience of the same place: Here was something more than just an alien environment. We'd both sensed the administration of an alien God.
"Only a few days before that, couple of days before at the most, really, I'd been reading in my New Testament. My little girl gave it to me. I've got it right now in my kit." The colonel half rose, sat back down. "But I'll spare you. The point is -- aha! yes! the bastard has a point and isn't too damn drunk to bring it home -- this is the point, Will." Nobody else ever called him Will. "St. Paul says there is one God, he confirms that, but he says, 'There is one God, and may administrations.' I understand that to mean you can wander out of one universe and into another just by pointing your feet and forward march. I mean you can come to a land where the
fate of human beings is completely different from what you understand it to be. And this utterly different universe is administered through the earth itself. Up through the dirt, goddamn it.
"So what's the point? The point is Vietnam. The point is Vietnam. The point is Vietnam."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Alien Sex Planet

To the extent that you could make a belief system from the works of David Byrne, and the liner notes of Stop Making Sense are its bible, then I am an adherent. So it is with a bias (that of a fan) that I recommend David Byrne's journal. It is regularly amazing. Another form that the man has absolutely mastered - and mastered not by reflecting or subverting, but by simply embracing. It is surreal how banal David Byrne's journal can be. Just a man writing about his life, on the internet. Nothing to see here, folks. Except, of course, that it's David Byrne.

It's worth a regular visit, say once a month, but certainly check out his recent post about a cross country-trip. My favorite part? That he stays in Holiday Inns. Budget conscious in America. Just like me. An excerpt:
We cross into New Mexico and arrive at Carlsbad Caverns National Park by 2:30pm. We’ve missed the last guided tour and a chance to clamber down the natural entrance, so we take the elevator down and spend almost 2 hours wandering the marked paths underground. The Big Room is vast, bigger than a football field (one quote claims one could lay the Empire State Building down in here — what an image!), and other spaces branch off from it. There are electric lights cleverly hidden behind rocks and formations so one can see pretty well, but some people still bring flashlights and I saw one couple with lights on their heads.

The formations are creatively named, as they often do in these caves: The Chinese Doll Theater (really!), The Temple, The Klansman(!), the Twin Domes, The Giant, The Lion’s Tail. I remember seeing some hilarious B&W pieces that Mike Kelly did where he made up his own names for cave formations.

I find the formations disturbingly biomorphic, organic, and mostly sexual. Alien sex planet. The names they give them seem to belie what they actually resemble. It seems the underworld is comprised of vast landscape of penises, vulvas, vaginas, tentacles and fleshy flaps. Freud would have had a field day in here: it’s as if our own forbidden images and imaginings have all been forced not merely into the unconscious, as he would have it, but physically underground, in exaggerated form, with elements of the male and the female sometimes mixed together. Other elements seemed strongly sexual, but not quite human, like the sexual organs of insects, or deep-sea creatures. Only in this case it is the sexual organs of rocks hidden 830 feet beneath the earth’s surface, as they should be. Imagine farmer Jim White seeing a plume of weird black smoke being spewed out of the earth near the top of a ridge – these were the bats. At sunset, thousands gushed from its small orifice, the way in to the sexy underground world. Any artist producing objects like these in such quantity and profusion would be considered a pervert, or at least obsessed. In this case, it is the Earth that is the pervert.


During the summer of 2006, the VP days when I was living out in FC, even though we were in the midst of the continued flailings and unending urgency of a start-up treading water, I had built a sufficient reservoir of respect that I could disappear during the mid-mornings to watch World Cup games. And even though I was often working weekends, on July 9th I was down in San Jose, kicking it with cousins, watching France-Italy. I have a distinct memory of the moment when the television replay caught up to the action of the game, after Zidane had been shown his red card, when the jaws of all of my cousins and uncles watching the final simply dropped, and hung open. The room went silent for a good ten seconds. Everybody was stunned.

To this day, I cannot imagine a potential scenario in sport more strange and senseless than Zidane, ten minutes from potentially crowning himself world champion for the second time, and placing himself in a pantheon of five, maybe even three, among the greatest of all time, turning from a seemingly placid jog up field, sizing up Materazzi, and then planting his forehead directly in the Italian's chest. The act was at the same moment so awkward and so violent that it challenged comprehension. In watching the replay, it is as if you can see the exact moment when something in Zidane snaps, and he goes from classy footballer to borderline homicidal maniac.

When PG forwarded the excellent idea to check out a screening of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait at the unfortunately named, but otherwise excellent (part of the we're no longer poor and talented, but rather, rich with exquisite taste movement afoot in Brooklyn) multimedia space and restaurant Monkeytown, over in the WB, I jumped all over it. And the film does not disappoint. Arty without being difficult, Zidane is contemplative and entrancing. Multiple camera angles, all focused on Zidane, are woven together in a complex visual narrative of the match - but one that also feels like football. At a moment graceful, in focus, with sudden bursts of speed and action, stretches that are simply rhythm and flow, alternating perspectives of a part chess match, part ballet of twenty two men, and then closely hewn to the singular actions of physical genius of the individual footballer. And, funny game that it is, the moment you step into the bathroom, a goal is scored. The movie is beautiful, and both the film and sound editing absorbing without being manipulative. It is wonderful to see a film about football in which Beckham is only an extra, crossing the screen out of focus. The pulsating match between Villareal and Madrid servers as a wonderful backdrop, and amazingly, Zidane appears in all his forms: as magician, as mirthful footballer, as workman, and as psychokiller. For someone who is playing in a soccer match, a wonderful performance.

And should his legacy not be one of violent outbursts, a reminder: a genius.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Last Evenings on Earth

The decision to pick up Roberto Bolano's collection of stories Last Evenings on Earth was based entirely on how cool the cover was (green text on black, out of focus picture of men in white formal jackets back-lit by a car's headlights, full of the promise of women, wine, and violence), its prominent position on the display table of a downtown bookstore, and, of course, that they were short stories - perfect for subway reading. Having picked it up, it seems I can't avoid Bolano - see this Slate review of his novel and the companion NYT review.

Compared to most of the Norteamericano short story writers that I've come to know and love (Carver, O'Connor, Yates, Chaon, even Saunders), Bolano is cut from a different cloth. Starker, more abstract, falling much more from the overcoats of Kafka and Borges. The stories are interesting and resonant, but sketch a world in such a fundamentally different way. The language works as math or as poetry, at a level of symbol and abstraction that leaves me with the impression that the stories are less about people, real or fictional, than ideas. And those ideas are alien, too. Haunted by the political oppression of Chile, bearing the unique environmental and domestic textures of Mexico and Spain, populated by disconnected protagonists, fey, exiled, broken. The cumulative effect is disorienting, with only a handful of stories ("Anne Moore's Life," "Mauricio 'The Eye' Silva") offering clear purchase. The remaining stories offer a world, but through characters named B or X, using language that, in translation, seems to still require another act of decoding. But the world is still compelling and strange, and the stories offer transport clear into a foreign set of experiences. So, still worth a read.

Dylan + Hawley

Regularly, like once a month, I pinch a post from the Dust Congress blog. So I'll just throw another recommendation its way: a great blog for art, music, and poetry, and sometimes politics, miraculously updated daily.

This week, I steal this great Oxford American article on Dylan's writing and recording of Blonde on Blonde. Excerpt:
That spring, an equally controversial single, with an eerily similar opening, had quickly hit No. 2; and by summer, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” had reappeared as the opening track on the mysterious double album, Blonde on Blonde, by Bob Dylan, who said the song was about “a minority of, you know, cripples and orientals and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live.” Over Coppertone-slicked bodies on Santa Monica Beach and out of secluded make-out spots and shopping-center parking lots and everywhere else American teenagers gathered that summer, it seemed that, the ba-de-de-bum-de-bum announcing Dylan’s hit about getting stoned was blaring from car radios and transistor radios, inevitably followed by the ba-de-de- bum-de-bum announcing Jerry Samuels’s hit about insanity. It would be Samuels’s last big recording; and after July, Dylan would be convalescing from a serious motorcycle crash.

Such were the cultural antinomies of the time, as Bob Dylan crossed over to pop stardom. Blonde on Blonde might well have included a character named Napoleon xiv, and the album sometimes seemed a little crazy, but it was no joke (not even the frivolous “Rainy Day Women”); and it was hardly the work of a madman, pretended or otherwise. At age twenty-four, Dylan, spinning on the edge, had a well-ordered mind and an intense, at times biting, rapport with reality. The songs are rich meditations on desire, frailty, promises, boredom, hurt, envy, connections, missed connections, paranoia, and transcendent beauty—in short, the lures and snares of love, stock themes of rock and pop music, but written with a powerful literary imagination and played out in a 1960s pop netherworld.

Blonde on Blonde borrows from several musical styles, including ’40s Memphis and Chicago blues, turn-of-the-century vintage New Orleans processionals, contemporary pop, and blast-furnace rock & roll. And with every appropriation, Dylan moved closer to a sound of his own. Years later, he famously commended some of the album’s tracks for “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” which he had begun to capture on his previous albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited—a sound achieved from whorls of harmonica, organ, and guitar. Dylan’s organist and musical go-between Al Kooper has said that “nobody has ever captured the sound of three a.m. better than that album. Nobody, even Sinatra, gets it as good.” These descriptions are accurate, but neither of them applies to all the songs, nor to all of the sounds in most of the songs. Nor do they offer clues about the album’s origins and evolution—including how its being recorded mostly in the wee, small hours may have contributed to its three A.M. aura.

And while you are reading about great songwriters, though not quite as major, a bit under-appreciated, even, but I am excited for Richard Hawley's new album. Coles Corner was stunning, and the DJ at PK and LGK's wedding had the good taste to play it while no one was paying attention. I had to wander over and pay my respects. Of course, I didn't quite have the guts to put it on the mixtape for JJK and EBCK's reception. Too fucking sad. That was my only self-imposed restriction. Check out this interview from

Netflixin' It

Another benefit of living in ER's is that I have a reliable mailbox, again. So, for the first time in my life, I have signed up for Netflix. I know you have no way of knowing all the movies I have already seen, but here are the movies that I am planning on seeing. Any recommendations are welcome. So far, my first installment of Once in a Lifetime, A History of Violence, and The Science of Sleep, was satisfactory.

Our Man in Pyongyang

The history of my relationship with The New Yorker magazine is short. Growing up, I don't think my parents had a great deal of context for the cultural significance of the magazine. We didn't live in New York, so we didn't read it. I know it occasionally ended up in my childhood home - I can only imagine that free subscriptions accompanied airline frequent flyer miles or credit card offers, or perhaps our kindly neighbors, the Plotkins, brought it over to share an article of interest. I have a vague set of recollections pairing my general incomprehension of New Yorker cartoons with a broad-side joke on Carson or Leno or somewhere about the general incomprehensibility of New Yorker cartoons.

Four years in the carelessness of California and college didn't bring the New Yorker into much greater circulation in my world. Truthfully, only once I hit New York did I become a regular. And then, it was reading RM's issues second-hand, lazily on the couch in an overheating living room in those halcyon days of regular unemployment. Even though there were three of us living in the apartment, three of us checking the mail, reading a new copy of the New Yorker first hand was not allowed. This became abundantly clear one evening, as RM stewed as PT flipped through a new issue on a Tuesday evening. From then on, the lines were drawn, clear, and well understood. I can't be sure, but JW may have even secured a separate, second subscription - presumably to sit in the icy cool of his air-conditioned room.

For a little while, now, I've read the magazine, although I've been enjoying it less and less often. Now that I am living in ER's apartment, with ER's paintings hanging on the wall, washing ER's dishes in ER's sink after eating my food, and checking ER's mail, well, I've got a copy of The New Yorker on a daily basis once more. And, until today, it has largely disappointed.

But, today, wow. I don't know what Rebecca Mead must have thought when she walked in with her profile of Bobby Egan, but, wow. What a fun read. I don't even know where to begin. Simply: Bobby Egan is a regular guy who owns a barbecue restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey. The profile photo shows him in a suit, holding a semi-automatic handgun in the galley of his kitchen. Mr. Bobby is a self-styled confidante of the North Korean government, having one day decided to start befriending ambassadors at the U.N. And, as I said, the story is a hoot. A sampling:
Egan says that he respects Kim as a leader, just as he respects Bush as a leader, although there are important differences between the two men. “Put it this way, O.K.? I’d rather have George Bush mad at me than Kim Jong Il,” Egan said one day at Cubby’s, leaning confidentially over the table. “I have no problem with George Bush coming in the restaurant and yelling and screaming at me. I would sleep real good that night. I wouldn’t want to get His Excellency Kim Jong Il angry. I wouldn’t sleep well that night.”

Although he admits to having been thrown in jail a few times, he has no felony convictions. As a young man, he was convicted on a misdemeanor: “We were all drunk and we parked out in a lot, and my dog’s running over to the firewood pile and bringing us firewood back, and we’re throwing the firewood in the pickup truck,” Egan said. “And we got arrested for taking firewood off the lot. My hunting dog did it. And I took the rap for it.”

Egan is a patriot of a particularly vivid stripe, and, having been denied a chance to fight for his country in Vietnam, he declares himself more than ready to kill for it, should duty call. “If you told me that to get bin Laden I’d have to physically eat him for dinner—his whole body—I’d say, ‘Well, we’ve got a lot of barbecue sauce. Let’s barbecue him.’ ”

According to Egan, he and Han used to joke about having the opportunity to fight each other if it came to war between the U.S. and North Korea. “I said to him, ‘When I get to you, I am going to yank all those teeth out with pliers before I kill you,’ ” Egan recalled. “He laughed and said, ‘You don’t even want to know what I’m going to do to you.’ ”

“I said, ‘I think you have to bring it up to another level,’ ” he told me. “I said, ‘Forget all this war rhetoric and all this crap. Don’t blow up a plane, don’t send another submarine to South Korea—don’t do any of that stupid stuff.’ ” Instead, he suggested, the North Koreans should show the Americans exactly what they had. And, in his telling, they listened. “I said, ‘You have them, right? Maybe you should test one. Maybe they have to see it.’ Four or five months later, the Koreans did that nuclear test. I called the Embassy that morning and said, ‘Congratulations, you are in the nuclear club now, boys.’ They were all happy and stuff. I said, ‘Watch the ball start rolling now.’ And it did.”
Seriously. The whole thing reads like this. Ten pages. Check it out. It's awesome.