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.