Thursday, December 25, 2008

The English Major

A less positive thought on The English Major -- and not my college degree, which I have no regrets about at all, unless you count not dropping the class with Cowboy Hat Lady, but the Jim Harrison novel.

One of the blurbs, this one from Publishers Weekly, claims that "Harrison is consistently witty and engaging as he drives home his timeless theme: that change can be beneficial at any point in life."

Seriously? "Change can be beneficial at any point in life"? That's it? That's the "timeless theme" that Harrison explores in the book? That's what we should take away from our reading? "Uh, change is good, kids. You know, like, change. It's good -- the change thing."

And I bother to insist, in class, that any discussion of a work's ideas, any exploration of a novel's questions, can (and, perhaps, should) extend beyond platitudes and cliches? Beyond easy-to-digest bromides?

I know that Publishers Weekly is probably not a forum for the working out of ambiguity or difficulty, but, still, that's the best you can do, guys?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Random iPod Song

The Whatnauts: "Why Can't People be Colors Too?"

If the bouncing bassline and the occasional wah-wah licks couldn't place it, the title alone should date this one fairly clearly to the early '70s. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and if you're looking for medium-tempo generic soul, that's a fine era to do a little diving.

And there's nothing wrong with the song, either.

And, for that matter, there's nothing particularly right about it.

It comes in, nods its head a few times, makes its point

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Why can't people be colors, too?

and gets out before overstaying its welcome. Nothing surprising, nothing enlightening, no hint of tension and, thus, nothing to get released from.

Did A Tribe Called Quest sample these drums for something?

Winter Reading

Neal Stephenson: Anathem. Not quite as much fun as Cryptonomicon or The Diamond Age, and, oddly enough, not as immersive as the Baroque Cycle, but still worth its 900 pages. It takes much longer to get going than anything else by him, but the middle third or so is excellent, especially a fine set-piece covering a frozen journey across the tundra and over a pole to a remote island, a set-piece complete with a last-minute rescue by mathematical ninjas. And, sure, maybe ninjas are a bit played out at the moment, but, c'mon, they're like Platonic math ninjas, y'all. Not even Raekwon had a mythology like that.

Jessica Anya Blau: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. She can write, yes. And her 14-year-old narrator is likable, intelligent but not overly-precocious. And I guess I know more about wealthy adolescents in California in 1976 than I did before I read the novel. And I wasn't in any danger of not finishing it. And Stephen Dixon blurbed it. And John Barth blurbed it. But beyond that? I dunno. Once the story arrived at its tipping point, its moment of significance, it felt rushed, surface-y, and, surprisingly, I started to care a lot less about the narrator. She binged and I didn't care. She got drunk and I didn't care. She went to group therapy with her parents and that was funny but then there was a bizarre run-in with the therapist's daughter and I didn't care. Maybe I'm not the audience. Maybe I needed the phrase "fifth freedom." Maybe the Barth and Dixon blurbs are more about Johns Hopkins' writing program and less about Frog and The Sot-Weed Factor.

Jim Harrison: The English Major. This was much funnier in the first half and much more moving in the second half than I expected. I don't think it's going to stand next to True North or the three pieces of The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and if it's a little reminiscent of Warlock, which left me cold, it also has a much more interesting narrator and a more natural structure. What Nick Hornby would call a Good Book That Isn't Boring? Maybe. I certainly won't begrudge the time spent reading it.

Moore + Gibbons: Watchmen. It had been a long time. Still works, though. Still captivating and, even with (or maybe because of) lines like "You argued that human life was more significant than this excellent desolation, and I was not convinced. You attempted to compare the mere uncertainty in your existence with the chaos of the world beneath us. But where are the pinnacles to rival this Olympus? Where are the depths to match those of... the Valles Marineris?" still managing to rise above its time and place and the cultural baggage it has accumulated in the last two decades.

Friday, December 19, 2008

National Board

A serious thank you to last year's English classes for letting me videotape them, take their papers to write about, take their projects to discuss, and use their assessments to reflect on.

Thanks to the bounty of material that they provided me with, I just managed to get National Board Certified.

Again, thanks guys.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Long Shadows

Two little bits of Dylan today:

1. In an interview in Uncut, Chris Shaw, an engineer on Dylan's last several albums, talks about recording "Moonlight," a song from Love and Theft. As part of that discussion, he relates this anectdote:

The thing was, there’s a lyric on the song where Bob sings, "The leaves cast their shadows on the stones," and, when he was singing it live, he was reading his lyrics off a piece of paper, and, I guess, for a split-second, he got dyslexic, because on the live take, he actually sang, "The leaves cast their stadows on the stones." So, the only time I did any editing on that song, was when I heard this word "stadows" go by, I knew he meant shadows, because I had the lyric sheet in front of me. So, when I tried a remix, I took the vocal, and I found a "sh" from somewhere else, and I chopped the "st" out and put that in, so he was singing "shadows," y’know. And Bob was listening to all these mixes, and he kept saying, "Nah, man, I really wanna use that rough mix." Finally, I said, "Well, you know, on the rough mix, you don’t sing 'shadows,' you sing, 'stadows.'" And he took a long hit on his cigarette, and he kind of looked at me deadpan, and he went, "Well, you know: stadows." So, at the final mastering, we figured that we really couldn’t let that stadows go by, because everybody would give him shit about it, so we did sliver edit, literally just for the "sh," like a 15 milisecond edit.

I love that, the image of Dylan sitting for a second, taking a drag of his cigarette, and then saying, "Well, you know: stadows." Perfect. Poetry.

The whole interview is here at Uncut.

2. This longish piece on recording Blonde on Blonde, which includes a fair amount of discussion of the New York sessions for the album. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Mynah Birds

Hip-O Select's The Complete Motown Singles, Volume Six has an otherwise unreleased single by the Mynah Birds, the short-lived group that at one point boasted both Neil Young AND Rick James as members.

Yep, that Neil Young.

And that Rick James.

I've listened to the single (both sides) a few times in the last week and it's pretty good. Not life-changing, as two songs by Rick James and Neil Young could be, but still pretty damn good. The A-Side, "It's My Time" is a sort of Nuggets-esque piece of fuzzy garage-soul that works well. Not particularly similar to anything else Motown had going in 1966, but still effective. The B-Side "Go On and Cry" is almost British in its sound and tone -- and while that might seem even more bizarre than the whole idea of the group, according to what I remember of Young's biography Shakey, Rick James, more than anything else, wanted, at this point, to be Mick Jagger. (And that's awesome in its own right. Here you have Mick Jagger trying desperately to be a black American and, in so doing, inspiring Rick James to be a white Englishman. How can you not love that?)

And then James got busted for being AWOL from the Navy.

And Neil left for Los Angeles.

And Motown never released the single (until now).

And there's supposedly a whole album somewhere that Motown threw in its vaults when Gordy and Company canned the Mynah Birds' single. Perhaps to emerge when Neil's Archives get released? Someday?

Rabbits and Ghosts

It's been a while since I've written about Wallace Stevens and I read a few poems of his during a planning period yesterday and after spending way too much time with "The Dwarf," I came to "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts," which opens like this:

The difficulty to think at the end of the day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

It goes on from there, but I'm most interested in those two stanzas and the insistence, the realization, the recognition that there's a certain bitterness, a certain sadness, at the end of any day -- not just because the day is ending and you'll never have that day again and you have that sort of purple twilight wistful feeling (of the sort embodied in the opening chords of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks) and you know that every day, no matter how good, will end, but also because you can't help, regardless of how you spent that day, but see something else at the end of the same day, fat, content, and peaceful. And presumably not thinking about the day as you are, not happy to see it finally draw to a close nor sad to see it over so soon. Simply red of tongue and full of milk, full of its day in the sun, full of its self in the best sense of that phrase.

And I know that that's not a complete understanding of the poem, or even an attempt at a complete understanding, looking, as it does, only at two of the eight stanzas. And I'm not tempted, over the course of the poem, to read the rabbit, the King of the Ghosts (as the title has it) as somehow symbolic of me, or of mankind, or of Bill Fox, or of Adlai Stevenson, or whatever. Not even suggestive of me or Adlai. But, just as there is pleasure in the whole of the poem, of a poem, there is pleasure in the part, in the shard, in the language of those six lines, in the potential truth even in that fragment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Lost Dylan Album

Not Columbia's Dylan, the one with "Spanish is the Loving Tongue" and "Big Yellow Taxi," but the potential extra record contained within the outtakes and soundtrack work on Tell Tale Signs, the latest volume of the Bootleg Series.

Along with the pleasure of the collection itself, one of the great things about this volume is the possibility of creating an entire additional record to stand alongside Love and Theft and Modern Times. As those are both fantastic records in their own right, and each better than 1997's "comeback" Time Out of Mind, how could a person not want another? And not just a different reading of the songs, as in the "New York" version of Blood on the Tracks, and not just an ideal version of an otherwise mediocre record, like the one you can create from Infidels and its outtakes, but an entirely new thing, an entirely new companion, an entirely new set of googley-moogley eyes with which to see the world.

Or mostly new, anyway.

Here's what I came up with, using studio material only, and while striving for a (relatively) concise single disc and a (relatively) unified sound. And, with the exception of the leadoff track, using only material from Tell Tale Signs.

Things Have Changed
Someday Baby
Can't Wait (version one)
Mississippi (probably version one)
Red River Shore
Marching to the City (version one)
Tell Ol' Bill
Huck's Tune
Cross the Green Mountain

(And those who order early get a "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache" bonus track).

The two uncertainties I have with it are the use (and/or placement) of "Marching to the City," which is a great song, but one I can't quite get to fit in the sequence, and the version of "Mississippi" to use. Soundwise, and sequencewise, the best fit for "Mississippi" would actually be the released Love and Theft version. If I use that one, then I move it to the two-slot, flipping it with "Someday Baby." That's a better sequence, but I can't quite, in good conscience, simply give up and use the already-released take. Not yet, anyway. Maybe later.

The other consideration is that this is, for all intents and purposes, a CD-based track order. If I were releasing this on vinyl, I'd make a couple of other changes. That version would look like this:

Side One:

Things Have Changed
Can't Wait
Marching to the City

Side Two:

Someday Baby
Tell Ol' Bill
Red River Shore
Huck's Tune
Cross the Green Mountain

Provided, of course, that the math works for song and side timings.

"Dreaming of You" gets left out for not quite working with the sound of the rest of the record, by the way. And "Can't Escape from You" becomes a b-side. And, while I like it, I can't get "Ain't Talkin'" to fit anywhere.

I don't know. Maybe I'm too easily amused.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tell-Tale Signs

Okay, so the Hold Steady made another solid record this year, and, okay, I enjoy the Fleet Foxes album more than I thought I would, but the best release of 2008 -- that I heard -- is the latest volume in Dylan's Bootleg Series: Tell-Tale Signs. Seriously.

And I know it's a compilation.

And I know it's material that was recorded, in some cases almost 20 years ago.

But nothing else this year can come close to it for consistency, for coherence, for brilliant moments, and for the way that it makes you rethink what the musician (Dylan) is capable of at any given moment.

As a single volume in the series -- technically the "Eighth," but only the sixth to be released as the first three volumes were released as a box set -- this is up there with the original collection and the 1966 Judas Concert. It's that good.

Consider the way that it reinvents "Most of the Time" as an acoustic companion piece to "Wedding Song" from Planet Waves. Or the way that "Someday Baby" becomes viable, becomes an actual song instead of merely a placeholding downtempo shuffle on Modern Times. Or the way that "Born in Time" acquires passion, interest, humanity, and perhaps even beauty. Or the way that the first "Can't Wait," stripped of Lanois' sturm-und-echo-drang, discovers the anguish at its heart.

And on and on. The demo of "Dignity." The Supper Club version of "Ring Them Bells." The wholescale reinvention of "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" (from the special edition third disc, which is, um, available in a variety of ways). The World Gone Wrong outtake "32-20 Blues."

Not everything is magic, of course. The three versions of "Mississippi," while intriguing, ultimately don't make for a completely new listening experience in the same fashion as "Can't Wait" or "Most of the Time."

And, and, AND, you get "Cross the Green Mountain" (otherwise available only on a soundtrack to a movie nobody cares about) and "Huck's Tune" (another soundtrack piece) and, critically, "Red River Shore," one of the finest (and most perfectly Dylan-like) pieces he's recorded in two decades. And if you can listen to "Red River Shore" and not want to hear more from the man, then you probably never will.

Seriously -- "Red River Shore." It's revelatory. It's like hearing "Blind Willie McTell" and wondering how the hell that got left off of Infidels back in 1983. It's that good. As is the whole of the set.

Good enough to create an entire "lost album" just from the last decade of the outtakes and soundtrack work, an album to rival Love and Theft and Modern Times. No easy feat.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Mind

In How the Mind Works (as he does with more detail and elaboration The Stuff of Thought), Steven Pinker brings up the way in which we do not (perhaps cannot) naturally conceive of our bodies as vessels.

No matter that the Church sometimes refers to Mary in this way. (Doesn't it? Or am I imagining that? Is that a dream?)

So, for example, we find it immediately odd if someone says, "I drove to school today with a gallon of blood in the car. Human blood, too."

Or, as I asked yesterday when a student got up from his chair, "How did you get all that blood off your chair?"


As an occasional break from Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works (more on that later) and Neal Stephenson's Anathem (no more on that later), I picked my way through FreeDarko presents The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats, and Stars in Today's Game.

It's an unwieldy title, to be sure, but the book itself is fine fine fine. If you've ever read the FreeDarko blog, you'll recognize the tone, but given that it's the dominant tone of so much current writing (think Esquire, etc), even if you haven't read the blog, nothing about the style will shock or awe. It's that combination of analysis and commentary, of intelligence and humor, of respect and snark. It's that "we take this seriously, but we also realize how ridiculous it is to take this seriously, so we don't take it seriously even while we take it seriously" thing. It's that gimmick thing, yes, but all analysis ultimately hangs its hat upon a gimmick.

A taste, from "Jerseys for Every Occasion," and its instructions for what NBA jersey might be appropriate attire, for example, for a funeral: "Len Bias, Boston Celtics. The Celtics took Len Bias with the first overall pick in the 1986 draft, after which he promptly died of a cocaine overdose. This tragedy derailed a dynasty; wearing this jersey says to the family, 'I know you'll never be happy again, and that's okay.'"

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Brilliant Marketing, Really

If you're so inclined, check out the Pistons official website (, naturally) and look for ads for "Ladies' Night Out."

Now, remember that not only is the country's economy tanking, but Michigan's is worse than just about any other individual state in the US. Now, imagine that you're trying to attract people to a basketball game, to spend a whole mess o' money on what amounts to a diversion, a luxury. And, sure, maybe there is a certain extra temptation to distraction, to diversion, to entertainment when things are terrible, but keep in mind that Michigan's rates of foreclosures, unemployment, job loss, etc, are essentially off the charts at this point.

So, how do you get people to buy tickets?

Well, if they're ladies, you tempt them with souvenir martini glasses and Walter Herrmann.

Walter Herrmann.

Walter Herrmann + Martinis = Ladies' Night Out.

That's brilliant.

(And it's an autograph session, no less).

There Will Be Blood

I watched this for the second time a week or so ago. And here's the deal:

I'm not sure it's making all that complex an argument.
I'm not sure I like the Johnny Greenwood score that much.

But I like the movie. A lot.

Maybe it never gets better than the opening sequence (excepting the big ol' crash-em-up Greenwood chord), but the whole thing works and works well.

And if it gets better than Daniel Day-Lewis underground, or in the early oil-digging shots, it does so only when Plainview and HW are first on the train together. Brilliant, almost-silent filmmaking.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My Sticker

You're goddamn right I voted.

And, Scantron and all, I was proud of that sucker.

In honor, I copy here a few lines from Mark Craver's poem "Alexandria as Center of the Universe."

"The world itself lets dogs be dogs and I saw genius
in that. But when the work as done the instant faded in

a rush of pedestrians, in the water running past me
in Alexandria, in the concrete and bricks making up
the town. Was this enough? To love the ugly world

is to find yourself at its center and to let it be
enough; to refuse to be saddened by it; to let it end.
That's where it all started for me: at the end."

Perhaps not perfect for the moment, but enough.

Monday, November 3, 2008

24 Hours

It can't go the other way. We can't go back.

We can't.

Because fuck that.

Because, let's face it, your heart and your mind both say that it's right.

Because I just re-re-re-read The Road and there's no way I'm allowing the world to become a song for what once was rather than a song for what, if we're lucky, could be.

Because like Joe Henry says, "This was my country / This was my song / Somewhere in the middle there / Though it started badly / And it's ending wrong." And the ending, you know, doesn't have to mean the end.

Because you betcha.

Because I have a family.

Because when is the last time you wanted, I mean really wanted, to listen to a State of the Union address?

Because Wallace Stevens wrote, "Have it your way / The world is ugly / And the people are sad." And while I'll never write enough about that poem, I won't write more at the moment other than to say it's November, leaves fall, empty branches dance against the sky, and you -- as the poem, of course, insists -- don't have to see the world as ugly and sad. It's a choice.

Because it's not going to fix everything, or even a lot of things, and it's not going to radically change the system, and it's not going to erase the debt, and it's not going to rebalance what is so desperately out of whack, and it's not going to bring back the dead, and it's not going to cast out all the darkness, and it's sure as hell no guarantee of happily ever after, but it might just make us want to be a little smarter, a little more thoughtful, a little more willing to deliberate, a litle more willing to think, to think, and to think. And, no, that's not a lot. But it is something.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


From the AP: Writer David Foster Wallace found dead at home.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Nine

After 28 Magic Treehouse books and a few miscellaneous detours (including, of course, a wonderful revisiting of Fantastic Mr. Fox), we've been trying to find more books to read with Harper.

Not that the Magic Treehouse isn't interesting (and, honestly, Harper loves them), but, after 28 of the suckers, I'm reading for a book or two that doesn't involve time travel or magic.

So, we tried the Boxcar Children, which I remember liking as a kid.


As an adult, the writing is unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable.

I can accept (and even understand the motivation behind) the stock characters (look, Benny is obsessed with food! And, look, every time food gets mentioned in the book, Benny will say something (or, more accurately, "cry" something) about how hungry he is), and I can accept the stock gender roles (the girls cook and clean, the boys explore and build shit), but I can't accept the page-by-page awful writing. Every dialogue tag is "he cried" and almost every line of dialogue merely reiterates what has been narrated in an earlier sentence and every dialogue tag is followed by a dependent clause that explains exactly what the speaker did while delivering his line.

But, then, we read two of them to Harper.

And we may read more in the future.

And I understand why it's that way.

And I understand why it's ridiculous to criticize a book meant for a younger audience through nothing but an adult lens.

But c'mon.

I mean, c'mon.

That said: for now, we're in the middle of Pirate Island Adventure, by Peggy Parish, another that I remember from my childhood. PIA is, technically, a sequel to a book called -- I think -- Key to the Treasure, but I couldn't find that one in my parents' basement before we left Michigan. And, if nothing else, the writing is an improvement over the Boxcar kids.

Summer Reading, Part Eight

Still going.

And trying to catch up before the school year begins.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames - David Sedaris.

I enjoyed this more than his last collection (Dress Your Family...), as Sedaris seems to be settling into his role of a New Yorker essayist rather than, say, a writer for Esquire.

(I mean, can you see the New Yorker publishing "You Can't Kill the Rooster"?)

Not as many laugh-out-loud-in-the-middle-of-an-11th-grade-SOL-test moments as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but many more intriguing pieces than I found in Dress Your Family.

Maybe one, maybe two essays to pull out for class, but nothing on the level of "Jesus Shaves" or "A Plague of Tics" or -- of course -- "The Santaland Diaries."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Seven

Two books on The Beatles:

Tell Me Why, by Tim Riley
Revolution in the Head, by Ian MacDonald

Both books approach the band in the same fashion: song by song through the entirety of its career, sticking almost entirely to legitimately released tracks. And both books have their merits, though I ultimately prefered MacDonald's. Riley can't seem to find anything negative to say about a song (with the exception of unsalvageable dreck like "Only a Northern Song"), whereas MacDonald is willing to take shots at just about every sacred cow the Beatles have if he feels like an individual song is not up to the standards set by others.

MacDonald is also a bit more technical in his analysis of the songs, emphasizing, especially, the critical role of harmony in Lennon's numbers and melody in those of McCartney. When Riley does get technical, though, he tends to do so to push a particular interpretation, something that MacDonald avoids. When Riley does this well, or when his analysis (the intersection of style and theme, right?) seems justified, he's enjoyable (claiming, for example, that in "She Said, She Said," "phrases are extended from eighth notes into triplets to intensify the rhythmic stress, the thin line between confidence and anxiety"). But when the point is less apt, it can feel like he's flailing for something to say, as in this claim about the out-of-tune piano that wanders through the end of "Tomorrow Never Knows" as the song fades: "This is less a self-parody of the message than it is one more random sound tagged on to emphasize the lack of rational hierarchies in the altered state."

Reading the books meant that I got to listen a lot to the Beatles for a week or two, and that's a good thing to do once or twice a year. And there's pleasure, too -- as there tends to be reading criticism -- in finding the points of disagreement, the points where your opinion veers, perhaps sharply, from that presented. MacDonald, for example, has little positive to say about "And Your Bird Can Sing," whereas I love every damn thing about that song, from the little inhalation in the opening, to the rhythm of the guitar riff during the bridge, and from the glorious multi-part harmony during the final verse to the fact that there isn't a wasted second in it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Six

Dave Hickey: Air Guitar

A sweet collection of essays and rants, mostly on art and occasionally on music and basketball.

Some highlights:

"A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac," a post-mortem look at Hank Williams' life, told from the perspective of the man himself. Hickey opens the essay with Hank describing heaven to Bocephus -- and it ain't that great. It's "a big cinder-block structure like the education building of a Methodist church in suburban Indianapolis. It's got beige walls, terrazzo floors, acoustic-tile ceilings, and there isn't any TV or movies. There are just these big felt boards in all the rooms with cutouts of Cain and Abel, David and Bathsheba, and the New Orleans Saints stuck to them, so that you can kind of move around and tell stories if you want to." And, c'mon, that's brilliant. Indianapolis? Perfect. The big felt boards? Perfect. The slightly bizarre inclusion of the New Orleans Saints? Perfect.

"The Heresy of Zone Defense," a simultaneous celebration of basketball (and Dr. J, in particular) and an analysis of the role of rules in facilitating great art. Hickey claims that much joy (including the sort of jaw-dropping play that Dr. J made on a regular basis) is possible only through civilizing rules, rules that "translate the pain of violent conflict into the pleasures of disputation -- into the excitements of politics, the delights of rhetorical art, and competitive sport." Unfortunately, of course, the "liberating rule that civilized us yesterday will, almost inevitably, seek to govern us tomorrow, by suppressing both the pleasure and the disputation." (And the glory of that phrase lies, for me, in the fact that Hickey writes "liberating rule that civilized us" and not "civilizing rule that liberated us." But maybe that's just me).

And "The Delicacy of Rock and Roll," an argument for the primacy of be-bop and rock and roll in twentieth century art. Could the art of Pollock exist without Charlie Parker? Nope. But could be-bop exist without Stan Brakhage? Yep. Likewise, Andy Warhol requires rock, but rock doesn't need Warhol. And I'll need a long passage here, because it's so good, and I have to record a copy of it somewhere:

"Both ages [jazz and rock and roll] make art that succeeds by failing, but each exploits failure in different ways. Jazz presumes that it would be nice if the four of us -- simpatico dudes that we are -- while playing this complicated song together, might somehow be free and autonomous as well. Tragically, this never quite works out. At best, we can only be free one or two at a time -- while the other dudes hold onto the wire... Rock and roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us -- as damaged and anti-social as we are -- might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can't. The songs's too simple, and we're too complicated and too excited."

And that essay ends with this sentence, which, in whole or in part, since Dan Wineman first showed it to me in a copy of Art Issues sometime in 1995, has crept into more journal reflections that I care to add up, anytime I need a quick way to sum up whatever I've been ranting about: "Because in the twentieth century, that's all there is: jazz and rock and roll. The rest is term papers and advertising."

Summer Reading, Part Five

Ann Packer: Songs Without Words

I liked this more than I thought I would. Some of the I'm-so-depressed psychologizing gets a little old, but there is a great middle third in which the central marriage of the novel starts to fall apart that is pitched just about perfectly.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Four

Alistair MacLean: Where Eagles Dare.

Because it's also an Iron Maiden song.

Summer Reading, Part Three

Richard Price: Lush Life.

I read a bunch of Richard Price five or six summers ago -- whenever Samaritan came out -- and got around to Clockers this spring. My parents happened to have Lush Life sitting around the cottage, so I read it back in early July.

It's good. Maybe not as good as Clockers, which was fantastic, but better than Freedomland. Like Samaritan, I guess. Lots of fantastic dialogue, an intriguing look at a piece of a city in transition, some guilt, and an occasional attempt at redemption, whether personal or social.

But a serious problem with trying to capture a reading experience that took place a month ago is that it's just not fresh enough, at this point, to be meaningful in the sort of way that might matter in a few years when I'm wondering what I did with the summer.

By the Time He Gets to Phoenix

A sad day for soul.

Isaac Hayes is dead.

Killed by a treadmill, apparently.

He wrote "Soul Man."

He wrote the theme from Shaft.

He wrote "Hold On, I'm Coming."

Sure, the whole Scientology thing is a damn shame, but, still. No one should get killed by a treadmill.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer Reading - Part Two

Don DeLillo's Falling Man.

It's about as good as you expect a DeLillo book about September 11 to be. Which is to say that it's good, and if you like DeLillo's writing, you'll probably like the book, but also that if you've read other books by him (especially Libra), little in it will surprise you.

(And as far as books that attempt to grapple with moments of individual historical tragedy, I found Libra to be much more thought-provoking, especially in its implicit claim that we make events like this happen. Not that they're our fault necessarily, but that we create them. We will them).

And this is DeLillo who, after all, in one of the best moments of White Noise, claimed that "All plots tend to move deathward."

But this is also DeLillo who so perfectly captured the entire second half of the 20th century in Underworld that Falling Man, in its introduction to the 21st century, is bound to feel a little anti-climactic.

Summer Reading - Part One

July was good for reading, and I'll try to write about some of what I read so that the books don't fade from memory quite as quickly.

Harper took a break from the "Magic Treehouse" series after book 24 and we read Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox together.

It's one of Dahl's shorter books, but it still has enough misanthropy to keep it moving: Farmer Boggis is tremendously fat and rather ugly; Farmer Bunce is a potbellied dwarf who stinks of goose livers; and Farmer Bean is a tall, thin drunk who subsists entirely on cider.

I wasn't sure how he would deal with Mr. Fox getting his tail shot off in an early chapter, but it turned out that one of Mr. Bean's employees -- a nasty old woman who wants Mr. Fox's head for herself after he's dead -- was all that bothered him.

My favorite part as an adult? When Mr. Fox refers to the intoxicated rat who haunts Farmer Bean's private cellar as a "saucy beast."

Saucy beast.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The End of July

More posts coming, if I can find the energy and, in a beautiful Michigan evening, a spare fifteen minutes that cry out "forget the sunset, forget the deepening twilight, forget the coming stars, forget the changing lake: fire up the laptop and write something for your blog, man."

And, to be honest, a few sets of fifteen minutes have cried out exactly that, but then they've always called me a loser, and reminded me that I'd probably regret that quarter-hour away from said lake/twilight/etc, so I've chosen to allow the computer to remain off.

So why not write something quickly during the day?

A couple of photos might adequately respond to that question:

There you've got Harper, playing a rather wild game of "Can't Touch the Waves."

And there you've got Maya, obtaining via sand whatever critical nutrients we aren't providing her.

Monday, June 23, 2008

June Books

Not to be confused with junebugs.

It's been a hit-or-miss month for reading, and here are some brief thoughts:

Warlock, by Jim Harrison. Didn't like it. I mean, it's Jim Harrison, and from back in 1982, so its protagonist drifts, drinks, cooks lavish meals, and sleeps around, all while considering just how it is that he's supposed to live his life. But that was it.

Checkpoint, by Nicholoson Baker. I liked Mezzanine. I liked Room Temperature. I'm intrigued by the sound of Human Smoke, but this was a waste of 90 minutes. It's short, obviously, and reads more or less like a play -- but it's also the kind of self-indulgent, self-righteous sanctimonious nonsense that I would have written at age 17, if I actually knew how to write. I'm obviously not claiming that Baker can't write, or that he writes like a teenager, or that I could have done better, or even that I disagreed with anything in the book. Still, what's the point? You're upset with the administration. Not exactly a lonely position, is it? You think Donald Rumsfeld is an idiot. Daring, no? You think our country has committed atrocities overseas that our population is all too willing to ignore. Is this news? Are we supposed to be shocked (or tickled) that one of the two characters is actively considering assassination as a rational act of protest? And are we supposed to care?

Little, Big, by John Crowley. Now, this is much better. The first time I read it, I liked it, but didn't pay much attention to it. This month, I allowed myself to sink into it much more deeply, and was rewarded for it. It's good. Even really good. It has its indulgences, sure (come on, try to make an argument that Moby-Dick doesn't, right? "Cetology," anyone?), and its insistence on referring to The Tale every four pages gets tiring, but it holds together to present a world that is simultaneously beautiful, in its own way, and heartbreaking. Make your own comparisons to life from that, if you wish.

All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. I want to reread the Border Trilogy this summer, so I (obviously) started with this one. No particular surprises on this, maybe the sixth or seventh time through it. I've never read all three of the Border novels back to back, though (and don't remember liking Cities of the Plain much at all), so we'll see how this goes. At least in this rereading, sans the other two books, I'm still convinced that everyone who reads this as some great Western Romance has got it completely wrong.

It's June. Still.

School is out.

And while I'm sure that I'll have years in my life, or parts of years in my life, that will feel tougher, I'm glad to see this one close itself out.

An extra class.
National Board madness.
Adopting our second child.
Somehow coming down with mono.
Only having a week off at Christmas.

Clearly, I wouldn't trade parts of that (at least the second child part of it) for anything else in the world, but, still...

Isn't mono something you get when you're 16?

In any case, one of the great things about teaching seniors is that you get to see them graduate in the same year that you teach them. So, while you miss out on the potentially amazing changes that can take place between freshman and senior years, when you might see a student realize that he can be a writer, decide to be a writer, and then become a writer, you get the ultra-compressed version of high school that a single senior year offers. And a week ago, I watched this year's students receive their diplomas, bound for whatever college, the military, or work brings them, and sifted through the incredible number of memories, stories, and moments of joy, frustration, laughter, and insight, that they gave me over the course of nine months.

I'm not going to detail them here -- at least not now -- but I will say thanks, as I would extend thanks to that group of every year's students that insist on teaching me, inspiring me, reaching me, and making me laugh, grit my teeth, question, and pound my head against the desk in wonder, frustration, or disbelief.

Thanks for reading at least some of Moby-Dick with me. Thanks for talking about Cormac McCarthy with me. Thanks for not falling asleep everyday. Thanks for only plagiarizing stupid shit from Sparknotes in September. Thanks for being willing to articulate what you believe and why you believe it. Thanks for taking an occasionally-honest look at Breathless. Thanks for giving Malick a few minutes of your time. Thanks for writing. Thanks for asking whether Borges was serious or not.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Quentin's Soundtracks

I saw Death Proof a couple of months ago and didn't like it at all. It didn't work as homage, it didn't work as trash, and it didn't work as entertainment.

(Though I was entertained when a student insisted to me that it was a "perfect homage to all of those great 1970s drive-in movies and car chase movies and ultra-low-budget New York gore movies" and then couldn't name or honestly claim to have seen a single one such film).

I at least expected entertaining dialogue and, while there was certainly a lot of talk talk talk, all of it read like juniors desperately trying to write what they think Tarantino movies sound like.

But, what it did have was a brilliant soundtrack. And, sure, that's to be expected, but this one had truly surprising things on it. Most prominently, and most brilliantly (with an honorable mention for "Chick Habit") are these two:

1. "Hold Tight" by the improbably named Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. How I had never heard this before is beyond me. It's the perfect blend of fuzzed-out guitars, melodic (but ever-evolving) simplicity, rhythmic complexity masquerading as simplicity, '60s harmonies, and the adherence to maxim that anything sayable in fewer than three minutes shouldn't be padded out to four. I picked up a collection by the group and much of it is just as good. There's no doubt that they're a bunch of Brits; the songs have got those little melodic quirks that you find in, for example, work by the Kinks, and that never seem to show up in otherwise-similar American songs (not after 1950, anyway).

2. "Staggolee" by Pacific Gas and Electric. A traditional song, and a badass one at that, and this group, whoever they are, take it and treat it like The Band had grown up not in Canada and Arkansas but in Watts instead -- and a Watts burning simultaneously with soul glory and psychedelic frustration. And while there are probably 38,000 versions of it in existence, at the moment, I'd be willing to argue that it's the best version of the song ever set down, easily eclipsing Dylan's version from World Gone Wrong, or that of RL Burnside, or (believe it or not) Neil Diamond, or Mississippi John Hurt, or even the Isley Brothers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Thousand Page Novels

I looked at one of the bookshelves in my classroom this morning and realized that, yes, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has defeated me again. It's been long enough since I picked it up that I wouldn't feel right starting anywhere but the beginning whenever I next get the urge to try it.

I remain confident, though, that I'll read it, in its entirety, well before Neil Young ever releases one of the Archives boxes. The bastard.

Ants with the Staggers

It has been raining in Virginia. A lot. And while I’d like to say that it’s all puddle-wonderful, it’s mostly just wet. And muddy.

But it is spring, as I said last week. And, in honor of the leaves, of the flowers, and the sunroof days that insist on "Can’t Hardly Wait" and "The Kids Are Alright" and Al Green’s version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," I offer this poem by Ted Kooser. Check out the image of the ants – and this is perfect – with the staggers. The staggers. Damn.

Decoration Day

It takes the hard work
Of a dozen ants
To open each bud
Of a peony.
For weeks, there they are,
Biting the sutures
And licking the glue.
Then, one by one
On Decoration Day,
The blossoms explode,
Tossing the ants
All over the yard.
Early that morning,
We find these flowers
Opened, pink and white,
And in the wet grass,
Hundreds of ants
With the staggers, all
Watching the sky.

On Modern Poetry

From, this Robert Pinsky FAQ about unrhymed poetry, difficult poetry, free verse, Emily Dickinson, and more. I recommend it, partially for the Wallace Stevens appearance, but especially for the final question -- perhaps not coincidentally number nine:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


That's brilliant.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

One Long Sentence

I'm reading CK Williams' collection Repair this morning. Here's one:


Even when the rain falls relatively hard,
only one leaf at a time of the little tree
you planted on the balcony last year,
then another leaf at its time, and one more,
is set trembling by the constant droplets,

but the rain, the clouds flocked over the city,
you at the piano inside, your hesitant music
mingling with the din of the downpour,
the gush of rivulets loosed from the eaves,
the iron railings and flowing gutters,

all of it fuses in me with such intensity
that I can't help wondering why my longing
to live forever has so abated that it hardly
comes to me anymore, and never as it did,
as regret for what I might not live to live,

but rather as a layering of instants like this,
transient as the mist drawn from the rooftops,
yet emphatic as any note of the nocturne
you practice, and, the storm faltering, fading
into its own radiant passing, you practice again.

I can't argue with that. Not with the opening image of the individual leaves set trembling by the rain. Not with the flocks of clouds. Not with the movement toward and into the reality of the third stanza and the speaker's realization that living forever would not, ultimately, be about living every moment possible, but about the lengthening of individual, otherwise-transient moments into eternity. And not with the spinning out of the single, extended sentence of the poem, its individual moments becoming, in sum, its own eternity.

Stevie Loses His Mind. On Vinyl.

I've had Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants for a long, long time, but hadn't ever managed to listen to it.

Until yesterday.

And the verdict?

This is the point where the man, genius though he may have been, actually lost his shit. Maybe the title of the album gives that away. Maybe promising your audience a chlorophilic trip of this nature should be considered a clue. Either way, the thing is strange. Mostly instrumental (and where it's not instrumental, it's actually even stranger), mostly slow, and, as far as I can tell, mostly disconnected from anything I remember from 9th grade biology.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spring and All

And here’s another bit from “A Matter of Meaning It,” this time courtesy of Martin Luther via Cavell: “All our experience of life should be baptismal.”

Because it’s spring.

Which makes me think of Greg Brown’s “Spring Wind,” and these lines:

Children go to sleep now
Don’t you know it’s getting late
I know you don’t like to miss nothing
And school ain’t that great.

Which makes me think of the rest of that album (Dream CafĂ©) and the song “Sleeper” and these lines:

It’s another happy April
For another happy fool
And you move through my dreams
Like a trout moves through a pool

And, of course, “Laughing River,” as I contemplate the tiny possibility of finding a teaching job in Michigan for next year:

I reckon where I’m headed
I’m going to need me different clothes
Way up in Michigan
Where the Laughing River flows.

Late Night + Stanley Cavell

I was up at 1:30, at 2:00, and at 3:00 last night with Maya and after trying for much of that time to return her to sleep with the lights off, I gave up, turned the kitchen light on, and tried to read while walking in circles, rocking her, and waiting for her to surrender. For this, I chose Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say, which I’ve wanted to revisit. I moved in slow laps around the kitchen, listening to four gallons of Belgian Strong Dark Ale as it bubbled beneath the kitchen table. Each page of Cavell’s text, seen in motion and through half-lidded eyes, took on a strange sort of luminescence, individual lines read and re-read until they glowed. I felt I understood.

It’s been hard to recapture that feeling this morning, but here are a few thoughts, put down primarily in an attempt to cement them for myself.

In “A Matter of Meaning It,” one of the essays in which Cavell deals with film (Fellini, in this case), as he responds to questions about what constitutes art, I found this sentence, quite relevant as my AP students write papers on the last four works that we’ve read together, trying to offer clear, coherent investigations in central concerns, questions, or ideas in at least two of them:

“I had suggested that a certain sense of the question ‘Why this?’ is essential to criticism, and that the ‘certain sense’ is characterized as one in which we are, or seem to be, asking about the artist’s intention in the work.”

And there you go. Investigating a work of art, a novel, a poem, a piece of music, is a matter of asking why X is present, or X is used, or X appears, or X recurs. And this questioning, ultimately, brings us to issues of whether or not a given reading, a given idea is “intended” by the author. Or, as my students put it, “Did he really mean that?”

For some critics, according to Cavell, this questioning pushes them outside the work. But, as he puts it, “The fact is that the correct sense of the question ‘Why?’ directs you further into the work.” And it is being brought further into the work that I love about reading criticism, about discussing books and poems, about hearing others talk through their understandings of movies, and about returning repeatedly to books or poems I’ve read before and music I’ve heard before.

But what about that matter of intention? What can we say about how or whether an artist “intends” certain things in his work? What if we read something into a poem that the poet didn’t “intend” to put there? Here’s what Cavell says, in a thought that, last night, tired, more distracted than I wanted to be, seemed to me to bring the questions to answer in a fashion that would have pleased Borges: if an artist’s work produces, say, a resonance, or reflects an allusion, or an idea that he didn’t, in some sense “intend,” it’s okay. The reading is still relevant. The idea still matters, for “he re-discovered, or discovered for himself, in himself, the intention of that myth itself [referring, in this case, to Fellini], the feelings and wants which originally produced it.” And even if he didn’t “intend” it, “I shall still use it in my reading of the film, not because his intention no longer guides me, but because what it does is exactly guide me (as it guided him).”

And the end of the piece, probably my favorite part: “In art, [asking about intentions] has to be earned, through the talent of understanding, the skill of commitment, and truthfulness to one’s response – the ways the artist has earned his initial right to our attention. If we have earned the right to question it, the object itself will answer; otherwise, not.”

That helped.

Friday, April 4, 2008


Reading Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, and, Holy Jeebus, this is a fantastic book, and it's funny, too. Plus, it teaches me new words. My favorite so far: murenger. I think I'll make it the name of the Strong Bitter I made a few weeks ago. Murengers' Bitter.

And it has this sentence (right on the second page, for crying out loud):

"Where hunters and woodcutters once slept in their boots by the dying light of their thousand fires and went on, old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity, wave on wave of the violent and the insane, their brains stoked with spoorless analogues of all that was, lean aryans with their abrogate semitic chapbook reenacting the dramas and parables therein and mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark's total restitution could appease."

Clockers was a fun diversion, and The God Delusion, like I said, was about what you'd expect. And I read some of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, which has an entertaining chapter on Neil Young, but, as far as I could tell, not much else.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Garfield Minus Garfield (again)

This, by the way, is my favorite, so far, of the brilliant Garfield Minus Garfield series:

Copyright, if you wish, to, um, probably Jim Davis, and the United Press Syndicate, and whatever brilliant mind scrubs the cat out of each frame.

What it makes me think about immediately:

The Stranger
The Sun Also Rises
All the Pretty Horses

Borges' story "The Babylon Lottery" -- or even "The Labyrinth," with its possibility that there's nothing at the center of the universe, the possibiilty that, yes, the weather simply turns colder. And you know what that means. And it's nothing.

Random Journal Page #2

from May 3, 2007

... can fight the system not by attempting to confront it directly (to take arms against a sea of troubles, which will end only in defeat) but by refusing to participate at all. Choosing not to participate (that is, refusing to perpetuate the system even to the extent that fighting it would) is the only adequate response.

If it’s adequate.

It could be that it’s inadequate even as it is simultaneously the only option that exists.

May 4, 2007

I get the whole senioritis thing. I do. But I don’t accept it as this kind of blanket nonsense excuse for whining inactivity. Again, if you choose to do nothing (with an hour, with a class, with an opportunity, with your entire damn life), then so be it: you’ve chosen to do nothing. Congratulations.

But, then, goddamnit, just shut up about it. Don’t whine. Don’t wheedle. Don’t whinge. Don’t offer excuses and piddly blah blah blah that you think rationalizes or excuses away your lack of action, your lack of engagement with what is in front of you.


As if I’m not guilty of this myself. But, I think I’m getting better at simply acknowledging when I’m wasting time, or doing nothing, or procrastinating, or attempting to foist responsibility rather than trying to…


That’s where the page ends, right before I started writing about Catch-22 again, which my last bunch of classes read a little later in the year than the current crop. This year, I managed to make it part of a trifecta of Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Hamlet. Which I like. Which makes sense to me.

That said, I found some humor in the page that flipping open the journal gave me. Not in what was said, necessarily, but just in that awful, self-serving, ultimately whiney complaint about, yes, whining. Humor of the not-funny variety.

Particularly not-funny, I guess, in light of how I stayed up all night Sunday working on my National Board entries, stayed home from school on Monday to continue working on those same entries, and still would have failed to meet the deadline if the local post office didn’t have one of those nifty automated package mailing machines that allowed me to postmark my box o’ procrastination at 7:43 on Monday night and still have it count as March 31. Much of which could have been avoided by working as much on it throughout the year as I should have, spreading the hours out over several months rather than into two days of Spring Break and the 48 hours before it was due.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hamlet + Brad Mehldau

Two unrelated quick notes:

One, I'm teaching Hamlet and feeling particularly thankful that I, somehow, got myself a job that requires -- actually requires -- me to read, talk about, and write about literature. Like, someone pays me to read Hamlet. Someone pays me to start (and try to stay out of) discussions about Heart of Darkness. Someone pays me to talk about Beloved. Someone pays me to reconsider the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And, on the best days, someone pays me to read a student paper that makes me see a book, a poem, a play, even a word, in a new light.

And two, there's a cover of Oasis' "Wonderwall" on Brad Mehldau's new CD. And it's brilliant. Completely reinvents the dang thing, beat first, keeping enough of the melody to showcase its smart simplicity, transforming enough of the melody to make it obvious that its simplicity is not necessarily its strength. Drums, bass, and piano keep unlocking and relocking, unlocking and relocking in this wonderful almost-chaos that's never as close to collapse as it appears.

Plus, Mr. Mehldau's trio plays out here at the end of the month.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ten Days to National Board Deadline

National Board deadline in ten days. Made for a fun spring break, kids. Really.

But, here's the real deal: I know that ten o'clock on a Friday night is no time to be writing (or "blogging," as some might say, verbing in a manner that I can't, just can't, bring myself to), but I had to share this, as I'm confident that I'll forget by whatever point next week that I remember that I, one, have a blog, and, two, have the ability to post to it.

It's Garfield Minus Garfield. Brilliant. Simple, and brilliant. Brilliant like the way that Yossarian finds the 22nd catch brilliant. Brilliant like the Liquor Giants are brilliant -- that perfect combination of coulda-done-it-myself and damn-i-mean-damn-I-wish-wish-wish-I-had-managed-to-think-of-that.

And how can you not like that?

Outside of Garfield, and National Board, and brewing twice, here's what went down this week:

1. Cormac McCarthy's first novel: The Orchard Keeper. I'm happy to be on this McCarthy kick. And this one was great. Floods, bootleggers, bars collapsing into the sort of crazy yawning abyss that they only dream of in the Garden State. And a funked-out not-quite-Oedipal conflict that develops every way but how you think it will. And a brilliant opening vignette.

2. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I liked this more than I thought I would, based on interviews that I've heard Dawkins give. In interviews, he comes across as a self-righteous, half-intelligent, faith-based preacher of no-faith, spouting platitudes and possibilities as if they're supported by the kind of evidence that he insists all such spoutings should have as their foundation. But, the book has enough interesting moments to keep me with it. Sure, there's a little too much "and then I got this email from a reader in Topeka" and "and then I found myself in a debate with a distinguished Anglican believer and I tried to dissuade him from his etc etc," and I ultimately found myself liking Sam Harris' style and voice more, but there was something about this British guy, this educated British guy, trying to get all righteous and angry while remaining sensitive to everything in the whole damn world (except faith) that amused me. And, yes, that's mostly because my understanding of the British comes, first and foremost (and, therefore, most importantly) from National Lampoon's European Vacation, and I understand that. Understanding it, though, doesn't make it less humorous, to me, to read this discourse that's trying so hard to be angry, to be righteous, to be shaking-fists-pissed, in the voice of an unfailingly polite Brit.

3. Richard Price's Clockers. Because it'll be another eight or nine months before the last season of The Wire hits DVD.

4. I found Ha Ha Tonka's album at a used CD store for 3.99 and picked it up. So far, it hasn't impressed me as much as Panda Bear's record has. We'll see how it goes from here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Detroit - Denver

Couldn't seem to get this one on the laptop, making me wonder just what spring break is for, if I can't stay up past ten o'clock watching the Pistons score 136 points -- 136 points -- against the Nuggets.


The endless playoffs are still a ways away, in any case. And, as they do every year, they'll start, and I'll get fooled into thinking that it means that the school year is about to end, only to wind up, months later, writing and grading exams during the Finals.

Which makes me wonder: if I, loving my job as much as I do, still look so forward to my two months off every summer, how awful must it be to simply cruise through, simply tolerate one's job, and dream about future vacations?

But the real point: should anyone decide to make this jersey available, I'll buy one.

And the secondary point: I went looking for a Rasheed Wallace jersey for Harper, figuring that it best fits his personality, but it seems as though the kiddies have to choose between Chauncey and Rip. No Sheed. (And no Lindsey Hunter onesie for Maya, either, damnit).

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Sunset Limited

On a student recommendation, I read Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited a week or two ago. It’s a single act (McCarthy calls it a novel in dramatic form), a single setting – a room in a New York City tenement – and only two characters populate that setting: White and Black.

A fast read, fast enough so that you can go back and read it again immediately after finishing it, and well worth reading. White and Black carry on what is, in essence, a Platonic dialogue about faith.

Through the first half, I found myself entirely an observer, not particularly taken by anything either character said. Same old same old, really, I felt, when it comes to this sort of conversation. But, midway through Black’s “jailhouse story” (notwithstanding that the entire dialogue is, in essence, a jailhouse story, the door to the tenement room being covered in locks and chains) of conversion, White describes the tale as “the story of how a fellow prisoner became a crippled one-eyed halfwit so that you could find God.”

“Whoa,” says Black.

Whoa, said I. I was no longer an observer. What White said was exactly what I would have said, and exactly what I have said, about such stories. This is what has, for so long, fundamentally offended me about assertions like, "All things happen for a reason," or "God must be trying to teach me something," or "God sure showed me what I needed to know, now that I look back on it." And McCarthy saw it and gave it to White.

The second half, then, took off. I certainly did not become White, nor did I identify entirely with what he said throughout the rest of the play, but I found myself paying much, much closer attention. And that’s a great experience, when literature, when art, when a film, when a piece of music, when a landscape, when a moment, can grab a relatively passive you, shake you, wake you up, and push you, even for a limited time, into wakefulness.

Now, would I teach it? Probably not, just given that I don’t want – at least, not yet – my entire English class to be built around McCarthy. And since we already read The Road, and most of my students read No Country for Old Men, and some read All the Pretty Horses, I think I’ll leave it at that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Keep It or Lose It? Why Is It There?

Okay, so I know that 80 GB of music in portable form is, in some rational sense, too much. I know that having access to another 20 GB wouldn't -- again, from any rational perspective -- improve my life. Wouldn't even change it, really.

And I know that another 500 albums sitting in a pocket isn't, just by virtue of being more, automatically, better than not having another 500 albums.

And I know that the quest for the perfect collection of artists, the perfect combination of familiar and new music, is quixotic, at best.

And I know that the word quixotic marks me as an idiot.

But, just like using more activator only stimulates the jheri curl to want more activator, I find myself, every week or so, having to decide what GB of music to move of the iPod in order to make room for a different GB's worth.

Which brings me to this post. A few songs, shuffled up, and a decision, upon individual reflection, whether to keep or lose each one.

1. "Glass Hotel," by Robyn Hitchcock. There are only a few RH songs on here (and a handful of Soft Boys' numbers, as well), and all of them from Eye. I don't know that I necessarily need, say, "Queen Elvis" or "Certainly Clickot" (which I put on the iPod originally only so that sometime, somewhere, I could hear the lines "I had one chance to stop her eggs / Pronounced 'eggs' or 'Brad,'" lines that I used to find quite funny), but this one I like. It's got a great, delicate melody. And unlike "Beautiful Girl," which I like, but that originally made the cut mostly because it makes me think of Dan Wineman and my sophomore year of college, it's one that I like because of the song itself, not because of associations with it. And although I haven't listened to Eye in a few years, hearing this song now, out of context, made me want to hear the album again. So, it stays.

2. "I Don't Mind," by James Brown. The track itself was ripped from the Star Time box, but the version of the song originally came from Live From the Apollo. I'd rather hear the song in the context of the live album -- 30 perfect, joyous, pleading, soulful, knee-dropping minutes if there ever were -- but so good is JB here, and so good is his backup and so immediate and keyed in is the audience's reactions to his every cry and moan, that it has to stay.

3. "Billy Preston," by Miles Davis. From the Complete On the Corner Sessions. Now, I love me some On the Corner. It's chaotic, it's dark, it's dense, it's abrasive, yes, but it's also hypnotic, rich, layered, and, ultimately, melodic. And there are parts of the box set that are fantastic -- though mostly those parts, like "He Loved Him Madly" that had already seen release elsewhere -- but, like the Jack Johnson box, too much of the extraneous material doesn't work on its own. It might have a certain impressive cumulative weight over the course of several discs, but a track like this, 14 minutes of relatively aimless, formless searching-without-finding can't hold up to being excerpted from that context. A great bassline, with plenty of space, but nothing particularly interesting riding atop it. It should get cut, I guess.

4. "Percy's Song," by Fairport Convention. Dylan originally wrote this, and hearing his version, on the Biograph collection, when I was a sophomore in high school, was one (of soooo many) of the more formative musical experiences of my youth. FC's rendition lacks the weary sadness of Dylan's, and while it has an impressive arrangement, and great harmonies during the refrains, and fantastic guitar, it still sounds, in the end, like a bunch of good musicians singing a folk song. And that's not a bad thing, necessarily. And it does, in the end, achieve a certain catharsis. And it reminds me of what it was like to hear, really hear, Dylan for the first time. And, in that, it reminds me of what it's like to be open to getting, on such a wonderfully regular basis, absolutely blown away by music that you haven't heard before, to having your freaking life changed, man, by an album or song or cracked vocal or three-part harmony in a middle-eight every three or four days. So, it stays.

5. "The Clairvoyant (live)," by Iron Maiden. From the bonus disc included with some pressings of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Now, this is a Tuesday afternoon I can get behind. Sure, I desperately need to finish up a unit for my National Board Certification Seminar this evening, and I can't, in good conscience, spare the time to continue to write this nonsense, but, damnit, I like this song. I like the album. I'm tempted to cut it -- because, really, do I need a relatively straightforward live reading of an album track? It's not like they rearrange it for solo piano. And Bruce never, say, implores the audience to scream for him. But, instead, I think I'll cut the album track and keep this. It has less of a synthesized guitar sound.

6. "Long Lonely Nights," by Lee Andrews & the Hearts. From Rhino's first doowop box set. Now, here's the problem with this exercise: I don't want this thing to shuffle up when I'm driving home from school on a perfect spring day, or even while driving to an afternoon class on a perfect spring day, and so, part of me says, "Cut it. Cut it. Be a man and cut it, for Christ's sake, and quit your crying. 'Tis unmanly grief, as Claudius says." But, right now, in this moment, I like it. Sure, a little doowop goes an awfully long way, and I don't need 100 slightly different iterations of this song and sound, but isn't the occasional perfect doowop moment worth the 4 MB this thing probably takes up?

7. "Tell It to Me," by Tom Waits. From Orphans. No brainer: Tom stays. Unbelievable bass sound on this. I find the pedal steel to be a little intrusive, but only because the song is already so perfect before it wanders in. "For all of your faithless beauty / I'll give all of my tomorrows." That pretty much captures it, doesn't it? And don't be afraid to check out this Waits site:

All that to cut one song?

Random Journal Page

I wanted to get a post in today -- lest I let slip another two months -- but only have a few minutes before a department meeting. So, I thought I would offer a re-run. Not a post, but a random page from a journal. I grabbed a notebook from the wardrobe in my classroom (turned out to be the fall/winter 2005 journal) and opened to a random page. Here you go:

demand of the universe that it provide answers, that it unmask itself and reveal its meaning, even if "there's naught beyond," even if its meaning is, in fact, meaningless.

"Time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more... All loveliness is anguish to me." (37)

Now, Ahab has his reasons for feeling this and while might not relate completely to those reasons, I can certainly relate to the feeling itself. That sunrise that once spurred us becomes the sunrise that leaves us squinting and bleary becomes the sunrise that leaves us indifferent. And it's where he goes from there that is so marvelous:

"Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power." (37)

It's Prufrock. It's self-justification and self-abnegation rolled into one messy nautical package. He is damned, he says. Damned in the midst of paradise. Damned in the midst of that which he used to love so strongly. Damned in the midst of a universe that used to make sense, that used to present more answers than questions, that used to order itself in a perfect, aesthetically

And there the page ends. Sorry for the pretension of having it be about Moby-Dick (a classtime writing assignment, I'm sure), but once you decide to excerpt a random page, you can't go picking and choosing what the random page will be.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Quintessential American Rock Band

This Faces binge (especially the Five Guys Walk Into a Bar box) was brought about, in part, by a friend asking me what I thought the quintessential rock and roll band was.

Not the best, or the most important, or most ambitious, or most intelligent, or whatever other critical tag you want to affix, but the quintessential. The one that, in its existence and its music, summed up and pushed forward not only rock and roll, but also the country of its origin.

And I couldn’t come up with one.

Plenty of American solo artists could define rock and roll, and most of those artists had significant bands behind them, but I couldn’t come up with a band.

With the Brits, it’s easy. They’ve got the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, the Faces. Take your pick, right? Any one of them, one way or another, could be argued as representing what’s quintessential about the form. Even if you don’t like one of them, you have to concede their status as fundamentally Rock. Like, most of the time, I have little to no use for Zeppelin, but I have to admit that there are few bands who might be said to so strongly for the ridiculous middle-school machismo of rock and roll. (And, sure, maybe the Kinks are the odd bunch out, but, they’re so damn good that I had to include them anyway).

So, the Brits have those, and we’ve got the Beach Boys.

And Grand Funk Railroad, for God’s sake.

And there’s no quintessence there.

Yes, we’ve got Muddy, Buddy, Elvis, Dylan, and Bruce. But those aren’t bands.

We’ve got “River Deep, Mountain High” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder Road” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” but we don’t have the band.

I mean, we’ve got The Band, and, for one or two albums, they were the best ever, but they were mostly Canadian. And Canada, obviously, ain’t the U.S.

I thought maybe REM or the Replacements, but REM has now officially sucked for more than 50% of their time in existence, and, as for the Replacements, I just don’t think enough people ever listened to them. (The future issue with the Hold Steady, I suspect).

So, who is it?

Who can define rock and roll in that quintessential way, that way that leaves no question, when you hear it, that leaves no doubt that, you know, that’s frickin’ rock ‘n’ roll, man.

Cheap Trick? Closer than Grand Funk Railroad, that’s for sure, but not close enough.

Guns ‘n’ Roses? Could be, but I don’t think a single album can get you there.

Who am I missing? Tupelo? They fit the bill in that they can, like the Stones, even make a fiddle sound completely badass when necessary (has there been a straightup nastier fiddle than on “Factory Girl”?), but, like the Replacements, they never sold. And being Rock means having an audience.

The Byrds? Never as good as they thought they were. And they never made an album without a ridiculous amount of filler.

The Doors? Honky, please.

Creedence? Velvet Underground? The Stooges? The Ramones? Nirvana?

I kept turning the question, sure that I was forgetting someone, sure that there was some big ol’ obvious elephant that I couldn’t see, some big ol’ pachyderm hiding in plain sight.

So, yes, I felt pretty dumb when I realized it was Aerosmith.

Like Zeppelin, it’s not a band that I necessarily want to listen to with any frequency (though, let’s face it, Toys in the Attic will outlive us – as will, I suspect, Pump), but, for the sake of that bizarre, wonderful mixture of machismo and melody, of homage and growth, of hurt and celebration, of, yes, guitars, bass, and drums, that, together, are capital-R-rock.

If it’s actually some other band, please let me know.

Rod Stewart

Haven't you always wanted, secretly wanted, to title a post such?

As part of a recent binge on the Faces, I’ve been thinking about Greil Marcus’ claim, speaking about Rod Stewart, that – a rough paraphrase here – rarely has a singer betrayed his talent so completely. And that’s a wonderfully perfect statement. It’s pure rock criticism, and, it’s in its purity that it achieves perfection.

It single-handedly and in one stroke obliterates an entire segment of a man’s career, purely because the speaker takes issue with it. Takes everything a man has done, everything a man has become, after some given point, and labels it betrayal. Deems it worthless.

It positions the speaker as superior, as omniscient, as he who is capable of true sight, of true hearing, of true understanding, of cutting through all the bullshit of headlines and advertising. It makes the speaker, the critic, just as important as the performer.

And it’s right.

Because Stewart, with the Jeff Beck Group, with the Faces, with the loose, wild backing on his first three solo albums, was, honestly, amazing, capable in his best moments of embodying, even only as an act, everything that the male rock star could be: fun, hurt, macho, sensitive, a little drunk, boorish, in love with the world around him even as he recognizes its capacity for pain, and with a voice that could ache simultaneously with fragility and whiskey.

Or, at the very least, he, with those others, made good records. Not perfect, not consistent, not particularly tight, but always spirited, always human, always blending so well the joy and hurt that the best rock and roll represents.

And that’s why it’s perfect rock criticism. And why Marcus can feel free to argue – as ridiculous and grandiose and self-important as the claim might be – that “Hot Legs,” “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” etc, represent not just an artist in decline, but a fundamental betrayal.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to claim, even implicitly, that there is such a thing as behavior traitorous to the founding principles of rock and roll, to the constitution of rock and roll, or that it might have been better, somehow, to keep making, ad infinitum, the same three or four records for the next thirty years, but that’s what’s so great about the best pop culture criticism: it elevates something fundamentally trivial and yet of such day-to-day importance into issues of living, national importance.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ipod Statistics

You know that "Play Count" column for your iPod? Out of curiosity, I sorted for it today, and here's my top three:

Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" -- 22 times. Jeebus.
The Smiths' "Please Let Me Get What I Want" -- 21 times.
The Persuasions' "I'm So Glad" -- 13 times.

Those are all Harper's fault, either from car trips or from times when he's felt like sitting on the couch with headphones on. Rounding out the top five -- with ten plays each -- are two songs with no relationship to Harper:

"My Baby Crying," by Bill Fox and "Birds," by Neil Young.

I feel okay about that.

But twenty-one plays for The Smiths. Jeebus. I'm not sure whether to be ashamed, or just happy that the song less than two minutes long.

What's interesting -- at least to me -- is that, with the exception of Harper's requests (and other examples of those, like James Brown's "I Got the Feelin," are scattered through the top twenty), these numbers are essentially the result of only using the iPod as a shuffling device. I rarely take the time to scroll and select an individual song. I might create and move randomly through playlists, or occasionally select an entire album, but, by and large, I simply let the shuffle do its work. (And maybe that is its own source of shame; I'm not sure).

So, "Birds" has shuffled up ten times and been listened to ten times. Go figure.

Al Green's version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" has seven plays, tying it with "Bugs Are Really Swell" (Harper) and "Rudie Can't Fail" (not-Harper).

On the flip side of the coin, Tom Waits' "Singapore" still, unfortunately, has zero plays. We'll remedy that on the way home today.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Still Catching Up

Way too much reading and listening to try to deal with after months away from this, but here are a few quick (I promise) thoughts:

Joe Henry's Civilians is brilliant. I've listened to it already much more than Scar or Tiny Voices.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had great moments. But a lousy ending (in the sense that it was both cheap and predictable).

Tree of Smoke is fantastic, but more in the abstract of its writing, its chaos, and its scope, than in the reality of its characters or coming to care about any of them.

Pinker's The Stuff of Thought was interesting. And it held together better than a lot of contemporary "accessible" science literature, most of which sets out a great introduction, a fascinating first chapter, and then a disheartening series of iterations and reiterations, each of less interest and relevance than the one before. Whatever that means.

George Saunders makes me laugh. And despite the weight of what he sometimes addresses, his style is light enough to make for acceptable three a.m. rocking a baby to sleep reading.

Thanks to Zach's recommendation, I read Cavell's Must We Mean What We Say, which was great. Especially in its discussion of films.

The Coen Brothers' adaptation of No Country for Old Men gets less impressive on repeated viewings. And it becomes more and more a betrayal of the heart of the text, too.

Six discs of Miles Davis On the Corner is overkill, but hearing the original album with more depth, if not more clarity, brings the fear in a way that the previous CD couldn't. Plus, if you buy the whole box, you get another excuse to listen to "He Loved Him Madly," which is one of the most brilliant (or at least entertaining) explorations of nothing happening quickly that I can think of. It's like "Once Upon a Time in the West." And just as Greg Lawson insisted that if you don't like that movie, then you don't like movies, I would argue that if you don't like that song, then you don't like music. Or not. Maybe "Gimme Shelter" is a better example of such a dichotomy.

And, having used the word dichotomy, I am forced to publish.

Maya Joyce

Right. In December, we went from a family of three to a full-scale, full-size, full-force family of four when we adopted Maya Joyce, born on November 2, and, as you can see, beautiful.

Harper says he loves her.

But, then, he does seem to time his loudest renditions of "I Walk the Line" or his loudest imitations of brachiosauri for when she has just fallen asleep.

Whither Goest Honky?

Some lessons of the last season and a half:

1. Never take an extra class. Sure, your department may offer one to you. Sure, it might help your colleagues to take it. Sure, overall class sizes will decrease. Sure, your district will probably pay you a little more. Sure, you might think you're man (or wo-) enough to handle it. Nonetheless, don't do it.

2. Never decide to try for National Board Certification in the same year that you take on an extra teaching responsibility. Sure, you can get through it, but only in the sense that you can get through a marathon without training, in the sense that you can survive just about anything. Surviving, of course, ain't living.

3. Never take an extra class and try for National Board Certification if there's any possibility that the number of children in your family might double during the year.

4. You can survive on very little sleep (and catch up 75 seconds at a time at stoplights, too), but, as I said, surviving ain't the same as living. Plus, going without sleep has removed the already-tenuously-attached filter from my mouth, allowing way too many things to be said that shouldn't be said. Not in class, anyway. (I'm proud, though, that earlier today I resisted the urge, when asked whether I considered myself a master of anything (in the context of higher education, for what it's worth), to reply that I'm actually pretty good at putting worms on hooks. To say nothing of crafting stupidly complicated sentences).

The next post shall address #3.