Saturday, November 18, 2017

One trick phony

 The Darling
a novel by Russell Banks

Russell Banks a  novelist who gets considerable mileage out of his character's capacity to make themselves miserable, to attract misery without necessarily seeking it out, or being born into a miserable world that makes the bringing of each and every sunrise a cue to begin again for someone to arise and then debate whether to make coffee or slit their wrists.

I've read some of his novels--Affliction, The Relation of My Imprisonment, The Angel on the Roof, Trailer Park--and I have to say that while I find his prose often times gorgeous and genuinely moving, his fiction is so persistently dire, dour and depressed that it's problematic to say that I enjoyed the experience of turning page after page of seems , in hindsight, as little more than a cruel shaggy dog story. The misfortunes visited upon his characters are constant to the point that they become nearly comic in their overwrought attempt to create a saddened tone; the works are quite simply emotional melodramatic. This is less enlightening and far less artful beyond the grammatically pristine quality of the prose ; it may be much and hackneyed to expect qualities  as elemental as a moral of the story, an over arching metaphor, or just a riveting , compelling account of the hard luck  of particular characters existing, subsisting or merely occupying indeterminate space in a particular milieu. 

The Darling, concerning a rich young daughter who joins the Weather Underground during America's revolutionary mid-century who becomes involved in terrorist bombing that winds up killing people, we follow this poor soul as she flees the USA and winds up in Africa, in Liberia, where she gets a government post carrying for chimpanzees in a State Run field station. She winds up falling in love with a government minister who has taken pity on her and helps her, marries him and has sons. She becomes friends with Charles Taylor , the ruthlessly cruel President of the country and , strangely, she narrates at considerable length how she she seems to be communicating silently with the apes who are in her care. Disaster , revolution, race hatred, genocide follow , she flees back to the States and returns to her estranged parents and reconnects with friends from the political days. It was at this point where I closed this book and did not open it again, even though I was but 75 pages away from finishing. The improbable circumstances piled atop each other too quickly, too bluntly; Bank's prose stopped being graceful and tragically lyric at that point,moving in emotional impact and became labored. 

Clearly, he had too much going on and rather than cut sequences, scenarios and conceits that were't working to begin with--the kinship with the caged chimps creates incredulity, not empathy--he is reduced to hurrying through the story, to connect his plot points. In truth, there is nothing told here that could not have been done in 200 pages; we would have had a more powerful novel that might have actually destroyed you in the spot you were holding the book. We might allude to a crass metaphor, that Banks writes the way an alcoholic drinks, that once he gets one minutely detailed incident written into the narrative, he sets up the story for yet  another devastating bit of punishment, and yet more after that, and after, yet more, seeming without end. 


But the amount of things happening, the coincidences, from the heroine's early days as a Weatherman involved in anti-capitalist bombings, to an eventual return to the United States where her terrorist background becomes a secret she must account for, strained credulity no matter how hard and long I tried to suspend my disbelief. Banks' prose becomes mere padding making the page count thicker, consequently making the novel less desireable to stick with.  But we get blather instead, many long paragraphs of what reads like a twenty volume suicide note.You could here the strain and sense the tedium of a plot take its toll. This reads like a novelization of the most pathetic button-pushing mini series imaginable, circa 1973. The novel is a gargantuan bore.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Monkee Bidness


Image may contain: 3 people, people on stage, people playing musical instruments and indoor
'I disliked The Monkees from day one because at the time I was a serious teen who wanted to be Rolling Stone rock critic and considered "our music" done by "our artists" to be a new art for; following, I put together my own home made aesthetic criteria , actually a free floating borrowing of a half dozen other critics opinions and tastes, convinced that it was my duty to protect and preserve the one true and undiluted thing , the music. Let me beat to the punch regarding that last sentence: I was indeed full of myself, intoxicatingly so. Nonetheless, The Monkees were the antithesis of that; my friends and I howled and mocked and denounced the fellows as much as we could, but they sold records anyway. The synthesis of this dialectic, I suppose, was that counter-culture ideas, attitudes and styles, from fashion, music, politics and the like, had been absorbed by mainstream culture. I think Marcuse referred to the process as "repressive tolerance", the notion that the System can neutralize radical impulses in a restless and dissatisfied population merely by allowing their rebellion to express itself through institutional channels. What i do recall is that Frank Zappa, the maestro of rock avant garde and someone the pure of spirit thought was far above the temptation to sell out, appeared as himself in their one feature film "Head". It pays to remember that the Mothers of Invention were not a hippie collective in which everything was done collaboratively. The band, rather , was a business concern of Zappa's and the musicians were on salary to play his music the way he wanted to hear it. Zappa the entrepreneur appreciated , no doubt, the conceptualization and execution of the Monkees as a product created to fill an under served niche even as Zappa the serious artist dismissed their tunes.




Even in movies, the dead should remain dead


Saw’s Billy the Puppet; Han Solo; Superman; and Colin Firth as Kingsman’s Harry
So little of what passes as cultural commentary on the internet is trivial and distracting like an itch you can't scratch that it comes as (very) mild surprise that one of the opinioneers delivered a grouse worth considering. An uncredited scribe in The Guardian mentioned and elaborated on an element of many super hero films that is , perhaps, killing interest in the genre: viewers cannot depend on a character remaining dead if he or she gets killed . The story makes the point that there have been so many deaths-and-miraculous-resurrections of characters that a viewer's willing suspension of disbelief refuses to kick in; it becomes more a matter of plot mechanics than catharsis.

It is one thing that Superman, presented to us as deceased in Batman v Superman, reenters the action in the upcoming Justice League  , since DC has generally made sure the Man of Steel was represented on screen in Christ like terms since the  beginning. It just makes sense just to remain consistent with the analogue and to consistent as well with the comic book canon; Superman simply must come back from the dead. Every dead character returning to the narrative fold, though, kills the fun of these things. Which brings up the point this piece strongly suggests, the nagging question as to why audiences continue to bother showing up for these things. I know it's been predicted often,  but there is a tipping point for this material. We're saturated ,carpet bombed, pummeled with creeps in capes destroying fictional cities and a fantastic and devastating fall off in attendance looms sooner than Hollywood might think. This is to say the studios need to diversify their crops.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Forever Changes" was released 50 years ago!

Chickenbone Slim's "The Big Beat" (album review)

THE BIG BEAT--Chickenbone Slim
Chickenbone Slim is the alter ego of long time San Diego bluesman Larry Teves, bassist, vocalist, and songwriter who many remember as the leader of the popular area blues band the Boogiemen. The Boogiemen were a crackerjack jump blues band in the style of Little Charlie and the Nightcats and, a bristling, swaggering bunch of dedicated blues hounds filling taverns throughout the county with their combustible, guitar and harmonica-driven approach to hard blues swing. The Boogiemen are no more, alas, but Teves is on the scene again in the guise of Chickenbone Slim, with a new disc, The Big Beat, which continues the blues orientation.   

As expected, there is a difference in this recent incarnation, which is that Chickenbone is more than the brawny bluster of riffing over the changes and singing about drinking, smoking, and driving around looking for kicks; the blues are here—the backbone of the Teves-penned songs—but there has been growth. Life has happened, experiences have changed tone, and responses and reactions cut a bit deeper. These are songs from one who’s been through a few situations, has fought his way out of some tight spots, problematic circumstances where it’s something different each time that rocks this blues man’s world. Following suit, the bluesman Chickenbone goes for a broader musical palette, beginning with the swerving, off-kilter strut of the title song “The Big Beat.” A seasoned narrator finding similarities in following the drummer’s accents and the flow of one’s bliss, a message underscored and firmly moved forward with the brash harmonica punctuation from multi instrumentalist Jon Atkinson.The mood becomes more laconic with the strutting and stirring ‘Long Way Down,” a rueful recollection of paying the cost to be the boss, the popping rhythms nicely framing the spare, stinging, and appealingly gruff guitar work from Scot Smart. “Hemi Dodge” goes the other way stylistically, a country jaunt, a road song braced on lonesome harmonica moans and Chickenbone’s sly, galloping guitar.

Chickenbone intones the song in a comically talk-sung manner, a dead pan that very much made me think of a man sharing the wisdom of his experience mere minutes after his most recent disaster. Folk, funk, swing blues, and the swampier varieties of soul and funk inform this refreshing variety of styles. Chickenbone Slim, nee Larry Teves, brings us the blues from neighborhoods where most of us actually live. He plays a rangy kind of music, writes songs with the terse and sharp wit of someone who knows the meaning of living paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s punchy; it’s full of inescapable hooks, cutting guitar and gold-toned harmonica wailing. The Big Beat makes you glad you got out of bed and poured that first cup of coffee.

(This originally appeared in The San DiegoTroubadour. Used with kind permission.)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

I
t's not enough that we have the same first name and the same Irish second initial, my attraction to Berrigan's poems was the rather unbelligerent way he ignored the constricting formalities in poetry and rendered something of a record of his thoughts unspooling as he walked through the neighborhood or went about his tasks. "Where Will I Wander" is the title of a recent John Ashbery volume, and it might well be an apt description of Berrigan's style; shambling, personal, messy, yet able to draw out the sublime phrase or the extended insight from the myriad places his stanzas and line shifts would land on. The world radiated a magic and energy well enough without the poet's talents for making essences clear to an audience needing to know something more about what lies behind the veil, and Berrigan's gift were his personable conflations of cartoon logic, antic flights of lyric waxing, and darkest hour reflection , a poetry which, at it's best, seemed less a poem than it did a monologue from someone already aware that their world was extraordinary and that their task was to record one's ongoing incomprehension of the why of the invisible world. Things To Do In New York City:

"Wake up high up
frame bent & turned on
Moving slowly
& by the numbers
light cigarette
Dress in basic black
& reading a lovely old man’s book:

BY THE WATERS OF MANHATTAN
change

flashback

play cribbage on the Williamsburg Bridge
watching the boats sail by
the sun, like a monument,
move slowly up the sky
above the bloody rush:
break yr legs & break yr heart
kiss the girls & make them cry
loving the gods & seeing them die
celebrate your own
& everyone else’s birth:
Make friends forever

& go away "  --Ted Berrigan

Thor: Ragnarok is the distraction we require

Image result for thor ragnarok
Thor:Ragnarok nearly lives up to the hype, with the accent being on Marvel's patented triplicate move, slick action, lots of jokes and a particularly intense emphasis on making sure the movies from their studio tie into together. It wouldn't be unfair to say that the movie would be incoherent for plot and character if one hadn't seen a long string of other Marvel brand films , in the right sequence. Perhaps part of the promotional hype should have been for Marvel to own the potential impenetrability of this film's core rationale for those other less familiar with this connected universe and provided for them a list of titles to view before hand. All the same, Thor and Hulk seem less Avengers than they do Hope and Crosby of the 'Road" movies. Is the ramped up comedy a good idea?Yes, since is  this is only good Thor movie of the three that have been made. The laughs were honestly achieved from character interaction , personality clash, the whole shot, and the humor was managed much, much better than the repetitive joke-fight-joke-joke-fight tedium of Civil War. Marvel movies are Disney movies, after all, and franchise films are required in this studio to very much resemble in style and tone what was made before; for them, judging their movies becomes how well the individual directors made the house style entertaining and just a little different. The present movie is an inspired variation on the formula.

For special effects set pieces, this effort is among the best of the year, diluted a notch or two for crowding too many into this two hour movie. It works much better than the previous EF fiesta Valerian, which I thought was merely busy despite the amount of money spent constructing that confounding mess. Thor:Ragnarok has the benefit of character recognition--despite what I've already said about potential plot incoherent, the host of characters are known commodities, and well portrayed, full of plausible quirks and comic nonchalance. Matters move along briskly, the spectacle builds well, and the decision to use the design ideas of comic book genius artist Jack Kirby and Thor co-creator is a way to differentiate this picture from the three tepid films in this franchise. It has the psychedelic visual style of Kirby used to good and effective measure here. 

This isn't the game changer for the Marvel Universe that fans are hoping for--for all their polish, crafted fury and a sense  of on going wit, Marvel films have fallen prey to a lurking Disneyism that has all but infiltrated the rebel spirit of the comic book ethos and has made each hit they produce to be other wise indistinguishable from the one    before it. Spectacular effects, superb editing, snappy dialogue, in that order or similarly changed   up to miniscule degrees, are what dominate this connected universe, and there is a mounting tedium in their on going slate of releases, which explains why the punchlines are ramped up in this production and that the small amounts  of self-reflective dread and existential moments are removed or reduced to all but inconsequential plot requirements. If that's the case, it works on its own  terms, a distraction from real world headlines that inform you that the world is filled with awful people doing hideous , heinous , ugly things to other people. This was a hoot, a laugh, a nail biter, the entertainment we need. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

MOHAVISOUL: Hometown Blues (album review)


You may find yourself scrutinizing the information on the sleeve MohaviSoul's new release, Hometown Blues, to see if any members hail from regions that would qualify them as authentic mountain folks. It turns out to be a case of simulacra, but it is worth remarking that this ensemble has a sound that is not what you'd find in the usual soundtrack of a surf-and-sun , postcard-perfect day. MohaviSoul is making music that's catchy and obviously, honestly informed by a love for the Old Schoolers and the legacy they left for the world.

Neither laboriously beleaguered  nor overly sunny, these are stories about the simple ironies and unexpected pains and pleasures a life brings us. MohaviSoul is a bluegrass band, storytellers of woe and joy and love found and lost as their heroes seek fortune and adventure and a better chance around the bend. Formed in Ocean Beach, the beach area’s last outpost of the ’60s idea of being distinct and true to one’s one Thing, the interplay of guitars, fiddle, and dobro are bittersweet counterparts to the plaintive vocals of guitarist Mark Miller and mandolin player Randy Hansen, both of whom are also MohaviSoul’s principal songwriters. They are palpable rustic; their chords and taciturn lyrics seemed to have been written in the dusty patina that would fall on the old,  corroded truck these metaphorical minstrels would use to drive state to state  searching for another day's wage. 


The tunes are sufficiently rustic and soulfully rendered, a sequence of tales reminiscent of depression and dust bowl days; long, dry highways; train whistles; large regrets; and small joy. There is a strong, persistent sense that one shoulders their burden and moves onward, stoic, strong, accepting of what one has been handed throughout their adventures before and afterward. There is, as well, a remarkable lack of the pessimism one would expect from a genre predicated on a world view that borders on the bleak and despairing. The allure of bluegrass and mountain music and the appeal of Americana music in the largest sense are the tales of indomitable spirit and the willingness of the heroes to persevere and greet the next day, lessons learned, with a song and a strong, purposeful stride.

Superbly backed by the interlocking and buoyant mandolin from Hanson; the banjo work of Jason Weiss; and the subtly bittersweet colors, tones, and accents given us by special guests John Mailander on fiddle and Will Jaffee on dobro, the songs of Miller and Hanson are clear and poetically plain spoken, oftentimes declaring that whoever is listening to the varied tales of hardship, heartache, and the lot needs to heed the simplest advice: don’t sweat the chump change. “Gettie Up,” sexy as it sounds but more practical than it is randy, tells us to get on the beam when life becomes the trudge, while “Stay Tuned,” a spritely, rollicking ramble, simply and subtly warns us to be pleasantly surprised when different and better outcomes result from what at first appears to be a grim and final dead end. MohaviSoul’s music is swiftly seductive, full of foot tapping, shoulder moving tempos, simple music accomplishing profound emotional effects. 

(This originally appeared in slightly different form in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with Kind Permission).