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Friday, July 29, 2011, 9:30 AM
Running across a copy of Jack Kerouac's most famous novel in the used paperbacks bin of a local bookstore recently reminded me of a painting that appeared several years ago* in the New Yorker by one of the magazine's regular artists, Istvan Banyai. This small picture made a big impression, and the feeling it stimulated has lingered with me ever since.
Anchored by the blank face of a full moon, Banyai's composition in pink, white, and shades of gray captures the essence of the contemporary American road. It contains all the elements of traveling the four lane after dark -- loneliness, isolation, and the feeling of being lost in an alien landscape.
The perfectly balanced late-night composition supposedly shows Interstate 60 heading east, and the big yellow billboard advertising the Durango (southern Colorado) Orchestra suggests the possibility that the painting is the portrait of an actual geographical location on the road. The most striking feature of this landscape, however, is its ubiquity; it could be anywhere, although the bleak, empty landscape suggests somewhere west of the Mississippi.
The picture's elements are horrifyingly inevitable: the long, squat Wal-Mart store, a little further along the Golden Arches atop a long pole, and the semi-truck carrying "FOOD" approaching the freeway on-ramp from the left. An isolated pink sedan follows a white vantruck down the lonely nighttime highway, and way in the distance, the mandatory police cruiser with lights flashing, although you can't tell which way he's going. I've been lost in this landscape many times. It's a disorienting place where nothing seems real, an alien environment where you're afraid to stop for fear of encountering strange beings. The worst thing about it is that it's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Mostly it's nowhere.
*June 25, 2007
Thursday, July 28, 2011, 9:51 AM
Not too many of us read books any more, and even those who do, I'm convinced, are reading fewer of them.
However, here's a recent novel that I think just about everybody who reads is going to want to enjoy -- "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart. I heard of it for the first time a year ago when I saw an ad for it on the inside back cover of the new August 2, 2010 New Yorker. Five minutes later I opened the Seattle Times and my eye fell on a review of it. I read that, then turned on the radio to listen to NPR's Fresh Air, and Terry Gross's interview subject was -- you guessed it -- Gary Shteyngart.
Shteyngart is an interesting guy; brought here by his parents at age seven from the disintegrating Soviet Union -- this was 1989 -- and enrolled in what he calls a "horrible" Hebrew School in Queens. The protagonist of "Super Sad" has a lot in common with Gary Shteyngart.
So I purchased and read this narrative of a dysfunctional romance set against the background of a crumbling, chaotic but nevertheless highly oppressive near-future USA. One reviewer on Amazon summarized the novel very well:
Everyone is plugged in to their "apparats," mobile devices that tether them to their cyber realities. As pedestrians walk the streets of New York City their credit ratings continually appear on poles alongside the sidewalks. The USA is mired in debt but the consumerist orgy is never ending. China completely owns us. We produce nothing.
Is this sounding familiar? The National Guard has set up checkpoints everywhere. These soldiers are all from the south. Racism and fear are rampant. Citizens are asked to pretend that none of this is happening.
The ruling political authority in this day-after-tomorrow America is the Bi-Partisan Party, an entity which, while it doesn't exist formally yet, already describes the reality of the situation. Dystopian near-future writing is usually a sly caricature of the present, and a satire on it.
Shteyngart's personal history as a child in the disintegrating USSR, followed by his experiencing the USA as an outsider, has given him a unique perspective on the subjects of decline and fall, of nobility and depravity, and what human beings are capable of. He knows, recognizes, and understands the signs and symptoms, is educated in history and psychology, and incapable of denial or of flinching before bad news. He may or may not be a great writer -- his technique impresses me as both flashy and sure of itself, but my impressions of that aspect of the book are too new to judge. As a historical chronicler and pundit, however, I'd say he's among the best I've ever read.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011, 10:22 AM
I believe I met Owsley in 1967. At least I think it was him.
I was sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park, dinking unobtrusively on my little tabla, when a smallish, neatly-dressed young guy came walking down the blacktop footpath. He had sandy hair, a well-trimmed beard, and glasses. He wasn't in a hurry, but he wasn't strolling either. He was on a mission, going somewhere.
"It's a pink wedge," he said, handing me a triangular-shaped tablet. "Careful -- it's two hits."
"Thank you," I said to his departing back, for he had many, many pink wedges of strong, pure LSD to distribute in the park that day.
Between 1963 and 1967, Owsley manufactured hundreds of thousands of doses of LSD and gave most of it away. At a time when supplies of clean, reliable pharmaceutical-grade acid had dried up, he perfected techniques guaranteeing a 99.9 percent pure product, and was solely responsible for the shape, content and direction of the Bay Area "hippie" movement of the mid to late sixties.
A lot of his stuff ended up in the hands of people who sold it, but they sold it very, very cheaply.
In addition, Owsley Stanley was an innovative and ground-breaking sound engineer. He invented the "wall of sound" approach to amplification in an era when music and musical poetry were the most important vehicles of revolutionary culture. His close association with the Grateful Dead, and financial backing of their recording projects were decisive in launching the sixties movement.
His early career is proof that one person working alone can single-handedly determine major cultural developments. Another example of this principle from around the same time is the career of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Much of the neocon revolt and the wave of Christianized "movement" conservativism of the last 35 years has been at least in part a backlash against the sixties. Just read anything by Pat Buchanan, or any random issue of The National Review.
The main problem with what happened in the sixties is we forgot. We forgot that by the time those of us who are now over 55 were in high school, the American military leviathan had become a machine, and the machine was out of control. It still is, only now it's much worse. We forgot that the way of life we were and are living is an expression of ecological insanity -- that it's a way of life dependent on resources which will soon run out.
There was a time when these realizations and dealing with them were the stuff of daily life, but we forgot all that because we became first distracted, then consumed by jobs and families and insurance and 401K's and the illusion of security. Nixon was followed by Ford, then Carter by Reagan and Bush I, then came the false hope of the Clinton years, and we forgot.
But now I've noticed people are starting to remember, and maybe just in time.
Owsley went to jail in 1967, and was expatriated to Australia in 1996. He resurfaced in San Francisco 11 years later, and agreed to sit for an interview with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. That interview is apparently no longer available at the Chron's site, but I can tell you that Owsley was unrepentant about his early career, as I am about mine.
Illustration by Rick Griffin, 1944-1991
Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 4:09 PM
A friend took me to see The Adventures of Prince Ahmed a few nights ago, and I have to admit I'd barely heard of it before. Big oversight.
This is not just an unusual and innovative filmwork from mid-1920's Germany, but also the earliest surviving animated feature (two earlier ones from Argentina by Quirino Cristiani are lost). Using scissors, paper, cardboard, and sometimes very thin lead sheets, artist and filmmaker Lotte Reininger, along with her husband, two assistants, and half a dozen avant-garde artists and animators, spent three years (1923-26) cutting the film's human and inhuman characters and backgrounds, while cinematographer Carl Koch painstakingly photographed them frame by frame, in the manner of modern claymation.
The results of Reininger's scissorwork and artistic conception alone demonstrate amazing skill and patience. Look, for example, at the elaborated featherwork on the prince's costume, and the lace trailing from Princess Pari Banu's headdress.
Adapted loosely from several stories in The 1,001 Nights of Scheherazade, the plot includes elements of Prince Ahmed's story as well as the famous Aladdin story, has the inevitable evil sorcerer, a sympathetic witch, and a flying horse. It's pure fairytale and all archetypes.
No original nitrate copy of Ahmed has survived. For a while only black-and-white prints were available (the original was hand-tinted). Using one of those black-and-white prints and a highly-technical, complex process, British and German archivists restored the movie in its original colors in 1998/99.
One more thing made this event memorable: the movie's soundtrack, and yes, silent movies need to have them, lest they lose a lot of atmosphere and mood. On this occasion the soundtrack was played live and in person by David Keenan and Nova Karina Devonie, Seattle composers and performers. They were commissioned to write the score for Ahmed in 2008, and performed it on accordian, guitar, banjo, glockenspiel, viola, percussion, and slide whistle. They've played for this film extensively since '08, all over the world, from Australia to Waterloo (Iowa), and made "Ahmed" very easy on the ears in addition to its being a delight for the eyes.
Monday, July 25, 2011, 3:49 PM
My daughter and her man have been haunting the antique shops and junque stores of their adopted city of Portland, Oregon, snapping up rusty, dusty objects and treating them as the Catholics do the relics of departed saints. A couple months ago they found an upright Victrola in working condition, an essential object of veneration for any serious devotee of antique music.
After a two-day visit to my humble abode in the Puget Sound region, they were able to wed this holy artifact with the thousand or so 78 r.p.m. phonograph discs my mother left behind when she departed this world in December of 2008. The Victrola plays only 78's -- that's all there were in those days, and you have to wind it up with a crank on the side, and keep winding intermittently lest the turntable drive belt wind down and go slack, transforming, let's say, Enrico Caruso from a bright tenor into a gurgling basso profundo. There's no electrical cord.
I got pictures of this combining of precious ingredients via the internet, and I imagine that when they got home with the discs in tow they were up half the night listening to Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, Ukelele Ike, Tony Parenti's Ragtimers (with Wild Bill Davison on cornet and the never-surpassed Baby Dodds on drums), and the flapperish warblings of Ruth Etting, Annette Hanshaw, and Ethel Waters.
It's wonderful to be young, in love, and possessed of enough discrimination and aesthetic sense to know the difference between real music and ambient noise, between life and death.
Sunday, July 24, 2011, 9:42 AM
I want to be anarchy...
--Johnny Rotten, 1976
Watching John Lydon as Johnny Rotten performing "Anarchy in the UK" with the Sex Pistols back in 1976 almost calls up nostalgic and sentimental feelings. Not quite, though.
It's strange now to remember how much the Pistols scared people back then. All the folks out there in TV land watched in horror as images of these twitching, thuggish, dope-fiend, cockney teen-agers rudely invaded their living rooms. They feared that Sid Vicious would become a role model for the little ones growing and fermenting under their own roofs, but Sid didn't live long enough for that, and Lydon's turn as Johnny Rotten was likewise short lived.
Watching the Pistols today doesn't seem as scary as it did then, but the old footage of their performances remains just as loud, screechy, nasty, and anti-social as they were in the 70's, and their competently played, adamantly crude garage-band sound, full of one-note/one-chord interludes, is the perfect vehicle to convey the band's message, which remains appropriate even today. How else are adolescents supposed to react to coming of age and simultaneously realizing they're trapped inside a civilization that's coming apart at the seams?
The mid-seventies was a turbulent time, as much so in its way as were the sixties, and there were several noteworthy and lasting cultural expressions of extraordinary fear and outrage. Besides the Sex Pistols there was the American splatter movie "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," possibly the greatest horror film of all time, and the one that most effectively conveys a sensation of stark terror from beginning to end.
The Wikipedia article on "Texas Chainsaw" relates that In discussing influences on the film, (director and writer Tobe) Hooper cites the impact of changes in the cultural and political landscape. He directly correlates the intentional misinformation that the "film you are about to see is true" as a response to being "lied to by the government about things that were going on all over the world", including Watergate, the gasoline crisis, and "the massacres and atrocities in the Vietnam War". The additional "lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things" that Hooper noticed in watching the local news — whose coverage was graphic, "showing brains spilled all over the road" — led to his belief "that man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film."
Looking back from today, as our leaders contemplate the possibility of declaring bankruptcy and stiffing their creditors, and we see the orderly functioning of society threatened by a generation of Frankenstein's-monster politicians, it's easy to understand why in the mid-seventies, the most cutting-edge music and film expressed hopelessness. The same response would still be justified today, but most of us have now adopted the attitude that despair isn't appropriate to our situation.
Enjoy yourself. It's probably later than we think.
Saturday, July 23, 2011, 10:04 AM
Here are a few artifacts from a lost civilization.
The mantel clock was manufactured in New York City by the Ansonia Clock Company, probably between 1879 and 1920. It was the kind of mass-produced "luxury" item available in the popular mail-order catalogs of the day, such as those distributed by Sears and Roebuck and the St. Louis Hardware Company.
It's a study in contrasts: the extraordinary late-Victorian ugliness of the clock body seems not to belong to the beautiful cast-iron figure of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry with her wax tablet and stylus.
The face of double-headed iron sphinx looks remarkably like that of a Czech gangster I knew in my youth, a hoodlum named Dennis. It was most likely the ornamental top piece for a now-departed large clock.
The framed text is a facsimile of the original King James Bible's (1611) page of Psalm XXIII -- the Psalm of David.
The Victorian composition is completed by the inclusion of "fortune-telling cards," popular at the time.
Photo and images on cards created by Dave b and © 2011 by Daveb, Horney, and Smeavey Productions.
Click on the picture to embiggen.
Friday, July 22, 2011, 8:19 AM
Ukelele Ike was as big a music star as ever hit Hollywood and broke into the movies. He sold over 70 million records in the 20's and 30's. He worked all the time, first in vaudeville, then on the screen, was in demand, and made top dollar.
He was also a remarkable, original, and unique vocal talent. In 1928 he scored a number one national hit record with "I can't Give You Anything but Love," (though it's the "B" side's "That's My Weakness Now" that has the real fireworks, with a scat chorus that goes straight through the roof). The following year his smooth, upbeat rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" topped the charts for three weeks.
But Cliff Edwards, for such was Ukulele Ike's real name, derived neither happiness nor fulfillment from his fame and fortune . He lived carelessly and thoughtlessly, drank too much and played too hard, married too often and spent recklessly. And though he reinvented himself several times, turning from a crooner into a "B" westerns sidekick-type character actor, and finally in 1940 singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" as Jiminy Cricket in the Disney feature "Pinocchio," nothing could compensate for the ongoing train wreck of his personal life, dominated by divorces, bankruptcies, drugs, and that old devil alcohol.
In the fifties Edwards got a little work from Disney, mostly on the Mickey Mouse Club, and continued to record, but by the time he died in 1971 at age 76 he was alone and forgotten, a welfare ghost whose body lay unclaimed for several days in the indigents' nursing home from which he invisibly exited. The Screen Actors Guild eventually got word of his passing and arranged services, and Disney Studios put up the money for a modest grave marker.
Ukulele Ike's story is a Shakespearean-sized tragedy, and conveys an admonition we can't hear too many times: wide celebrity, high fortune, and the attentions of beautiful but inconstant lovers -- these are the glittering but superficial attractions of modern life. Even worse, fame and fortune are dangerously destructive if poured into a cracked vessel, and that lucky person who appears to be living high, wide, and God knows what, is likely to be more miserable than the humblest wage worker.
Consider the fate of Ukelele Ike, one of the biggest star-celebrities in the history of American showbiz, then note that he personifies the words of the Buddha: "At first a fool's mischief is sweet -- sweet as honey. But in time it turns bitter, and how bitterly he suffers."
This lesson is repeated ad infinitum in our cultural heavens, dominated by oversized stars. Is there anyone reading this who doesn't feel grateful on reflection not to have been Michael Jackson?
Thursday, July 21, 2011, 8:22 PM
I understand that when musicians like gangster rappers use vulgar, profane, or obscene lyrics, that some broadcasters choose to ban them from their airwaves. But Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians?
Here's how much our lives have changed in less than a century: the Pennsylvanians' recording of Cole Porter's now-classic "Love for Sale" was banned from radio play in 1931. The song scandalized theatre-goers when it was first performed in the Broadway musical "The New Yorkers," based on a story by the New Yorker magazine's star cartoonist Peter Arno and E. Ray Goetz.
Jimmy Durante starred in it and also wrote half a dozen of the songs. Porter wrote the rest of the music including the song that caused all the trouble, sung by Kathryn Crawford with back-up singers, Waring's Three Girl Friends, in front of a set depicting Reuben's, a popular New York eatery.
Love for sale,
Appetising young love for sale.
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.
Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who's prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.
Let the poets pipe of love
in their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I've been through the mill of love;
Old love, new love
Every love but true love
Love for sale.
One type of criticism the song unleashed which clearly shows the differences between then and now was partly patched over when the producers pulled the young, attractive, and caucasian Crawford and Waring Girls from the performance and gave the part of the prostitute to the Afrcan-American singer and actress Elisabeth Welch, accompanied by suitably black back-up singers and performing in front of a set of Harlem's Cotton Club. But the change didn't help much, and the damage was already done. Middle-class, theatre-going Americans in 1930 could not emotionally accept unapologetic depictions of prostitution on stage, and the show was doomed from opening night.
"The New Yorkers" closed in May of '31 after a relatively short run of 168 performances, but "Love for Sale" turned into one of the biggest hits of the year in spite of the radio ban, or perhaps because of it. Waring's version went to number 14 on the pop music charts, and a version sung by Libby Holman topped out at number five.
To hear a rendition by the Three Waring Girlfriends (without Kathryn Crawford), go here.
Pictured at top: Fred Waring (center) and his Pennsylvanians with their letter sweaters, 1927. Poster designed and illustrated by Peter Arno, who also collaborated in creating the story that would eventually give birth to "The New Yorkers."
Wednesday, July 20, 2011, 9:31 AM
Paul Pena, a blind blues singer, grew up on the east coast but moved to San Francisco in the early '70's. His one major AM radio hit, "Jet Airliner," attracted little attention when it debuted on his second album, "New Train," in 1973, but four years later Steve Miller's cover of it went to number eight on the national pop charts.
And thanks to the modern miracle of YouTube (and I mean that sincerely), we have Pena's wonderful live performance of his hit song from Conan O'Brien's show, where he was backed by a rock-solid TV studio band, in 2001. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 20 years you're familiar with the tune and should be able to hum along.
In 1984 Pena's career took a strange turn when he picked up a Soviet radio station on his short-wave receiver and heard Tuvan throat singing for the first time. Tuva, an extremely remote area of far-southern Siberia, is actually, geographically and ethnically, the northwestern corner of Mongolia.
Pena searched for a record of Tuvan music for years, finally finding one in a neighborhood record store in San Francisco in 1991. He became obsessed with the sound and learned to approximate it through close and tireless attention to the record. Learning the language was tougher, however, since there is no Tuvan-to-English dictionary, and Pena was blind. But he managed to find a Tuvan-to-Russian dictionary, combined it with a Russian-to-English dictionary, and somehow secured the use of an optacon (optical tactile converter), an electronic reader and output device which converts printed material to Braille.
Two years later Pena participated in a Tuvan throat-singing performance at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and met the famous throat singer Kongar-ool Ondar, who encouraged him to visit Tuva in 1995 for a festival and competition there. The story of his arduous and sometimes bizarre journey to farthest-outer Mongolia, how he won first prize in both the singing contest and the "audience favorite" category in Kyzyl, Tuva and became a major celebrity in one of the most obscure corners of the world, are beautifully documented in the 1999 film "Genghis Blues," which won the Sundance Film Festival grand prize that year and was nominated for an oscar in the documentary category in 2000.
After 1997, when he was severely injured by smoke inhalation in a fire in his bedroom and in a coma for four days, Pena's already-tenuous health declined. He died in 2005 at age 55, from complications of diabetes and pancreatitis.
Paul Pena left some worthy monuments, including "Genghis Blues," a joy to watch which also underscores the practical and pragmatic aspect of following that dream, no matter how strange it may seem to others and no matter where it leads, and the video record of his most famous original song linked above.