Wednesday, May 29, 2013

RIP Ray Manzarek

I was travelling on May 20th when he apparently passed at age 74. All the tributes are in, I guess.

Perhaps no one needs to hear The Doors Light My Fire again - I sure don't. But it's worth remembering the urbane, polite, erudite keyboardist who noodled up maybe the most memorable notes of the rock era. Manzarek was a shockingly old 32 years in 1966 - 67 when he surrounded himself with the very young talents of Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger (19 years old), and John Densmore. It's hard to describe what kind of band they were. Perhaps a very loud jazz trio with a flamenco guitarist and an incredibly charismatic singer.

The story goes they were in rehearsal stumbling through Krieger's folksy Light My Fire when Manzarek told everyone to take a break and began fiddling with some Bach on his organ.

What came out was this...

...a shortened version from the Ed Sullivan show.

On most of their albums The Doors didn't bother with a bassist. Far as I know they never used one in their live shows. Manzarek just casually played a keyboard bass with his foot, or sometimes with his right hand - all while he was playing what sounded to this non-musician like incredibly complicated left hand parts (or vice versa, I forget).

Below is just amazing. No fancy editing. Live brass, live strings, Manzarek playing almost three instruments, guitarist Krieger with a black eye, etc. Morrison blows the beginning of the second verse, but you can still see why he was a huge star.

Below Manzarek gives an interview with music about their desert piano bar murder fantasy Riders On The Storm. He mentions Elvis's bassist Jerry Scheff trying to play the piano line. Manzarek was just so....magnetic and obviously intelligent.

The monumental Mark Steyn briefly tributes Manzarek here.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Janeites: The curious American cult of Jane Austen

Apparently it is the bicentennial of the publication of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" so the BBC focuses on the so-called "Janeites: The curious American cult of Jane Austen".

As one of about ten bros on the planet who enjoy Austen but who 1) are not on faculty somewhere 2) do not have beards, 3) do not wear button-down V-neck sweaters on dates, I was most struck by a paragraph down near the bottom,

"Indeed, the term Janeite was initially coined by the male literary critic George Saintsbury. Rudyard Kipling's 1926 short story The Janeites describes a group of soldiers brought together by their passion for the works of Austen."
And more notably,

"According to Claudia L Johnson, an Austen expert and professor of English literature at Princeton University, the author was widely regarded well into the 20th Century not as a romantic novelist but as a steely, tough-minded, sardonic social critic.
"Now, alas, Austen is typically seen (by my students and others) as chick lit and she is beloved for her love stories," laments Johnson, author of Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. "I think this is a real loss."

At first it sounds ridiculous, but if I squint my ears hard enough I begin to hear Austen as her era's Dennis Miller. I once saw Miller go on a rant that would have taken three pages and 60 subdivisions to outline, and after about 5 minutes he sputtered and said, "Stop me before I sub-reference again."

Here is a single sentence by Austen, from "Emma". I count 99 words, 11 commas and 3 dashes.

"Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity—but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies."

"Screwed" did not have the same vulgar connotation that it does now, but the effect is the same. I suppose modern parents of any private college liberal arts major of any of 3 or 4 genders might suffer a shiver of recognition.

Also, one can see why the stories become chick-flick romances on the screen. Sarcasm at that level doesn't translate well, although a couple film versions of Emma are pretty wry.

Here is Austen's description of an overly-doting mother from "Sense and Sensibility". Austen had no children of her own which perhaps gave her the distance necessary to observe.

"Fortunately for those who pay their court through such foibles, a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing; and the excessive affection and endurance of the Miss Steeles towards her offspring were viewed therefore by Lady Middleton without the smallest surprise or distrust. She saw with maternal complacency all the impertinent encroachments and mischievous tricks to which her cousins submitted. She saw their sashes untied, their hair pulled about their ears, their work-bags searched, and their knives and scissors stolen away, and felt no doubt of its being a reciprocal enjoyment.

"John is in such spirits today!" said she, on his taking Miss Steeles's pocket handkerchief, and throwing it out of window—"He is full of monkey tricks." And soon afterwards, on the second boy's violently pinching one of the same lady's fingers, she fondly observed, "How playful William is!"

"And here is my sweet little Annamaria," she added, tenderly caressing a little girl of three years old, who had not made a noise for the last two minutes; "And she is always so gentle and quiet—Never was there such a quiet little thing!"

But unfortunately in bestowing these embraces, a pin in her ladyship's head dress slightly scratching the child's neck, produced from this pattern of gentleness such violent screams, as could hardly be outdone by any creature professedly noisy. The mother's consternation was excessive; but it could not surpass the alarm of the Miss Steeles, and every thing was done by all three, in so critical an emergency, which affection could suggest as likely to assuage the agonies of the little sufferer. She was seated in her mother's lap, covered with kisses, her wound bathed with lavender-water, by one of the Miss Steeles, who was on her knees to attend her, and her mouth stuffed with sugar plums by the other. With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying. She still screamed and sobbed lustily, kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her, and all their united soothings were ineffectual till Lady Middleton luckily remembering that in a scene of similar distress last week, some apricot marmalade had been successfully applied for a bruised temple, the same remedy was eagerly proposed for this unfortunate scratch, and a slight intermission of screams in the young lady on hearing it, gave them reason to hope that it would not be rejected.— She was carried out of the room therefore in her mother's arms, in quest of this medicine, and as the two boys chose to follow, though earnestly entreated by their mother to stay behind, the four young ladies were left in a quietness which the room had not known for many hours.

I have lived that scene. True, I did not have my ribbons and needlepoint in a "work-bag", but still, I have lived that scene.

Austen wrote 6 full-length (to put it mildly) novels, perhaps 3,000 personal letters, and a smattering of other work before dying at 41. Here Walter Russell Mead compares her to Mozart and Vermeer.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Happy Birthday David Bowie

David Bowie turned 66 today and released a new video.

It’s a bit plaintive for my tastes but it’s nice to see him back in Berlin, the site of his magnum opus “Heroes”.

There aren’t many songs I recognize as great the first time I hear them, but “Heroes” (it should always have the quotation marks like on the original LP) blew my doors off in ’77 and only seems better now. It has a sound like no other of its time and exploded out of the cheap car radios we were obsessively fiddling with near the dawn of the FM rock radio format.
It was recorded in West Berlin’s Hansa Studios, listed on the album cover as “Hansa By The Wall”, and, IMO, perfectly captures the grey paranoia of the cold war, but also inserts a Winston Smith-ish narrator coming as close to full drunken rut as one might be able to manage on the east side of The Wall. The sixth verse (standing by the wall) calls up images of the time of dead East Germans tangled in the barbed wire.

The final verse, perversely shouted by Bowie as the volume fades, finds our hero successful in getting his quarry back to the commie love nest, but, he thinks better of it, and “maybe you’d better not stay”, because, “we could be safer, just for one day”. No opera death scene, no classical adagio, no show tune, no progressive rock, no hand-in-the-air Christian rock, has ever hit this hard.

Bowie participated in the song’s devaluation from epic meditation on the hopelessness of love under tyranny to a vaguely feel-good song about, I dunno, charity & fire fighters & puppies & stuff - and some of his greatest hits collections had a criminally truncated version that robbed the original of its power. That’s too bad, but I guess it’s his song to sell tires with if he wants. Not to mention the godawful Wallflowers version on the Godzilla soundtrack.

But, be that as it may, thanks to youtube user amindenandel, here is the original in its 6:11 glory. If you go to youtube, the lyrics are below the video.

Happy Birthday David Jones.



Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm

Nothing to add really. In the two speaking clips below he shows some of the southern charm that made him perfect for a handful of movie roles. In both cases he's being interviewed by the somewhat-too-urban-to-really-understand-all-this Martin Scorsese.

In the "no embed allowed" (just click) clip below one youtube user comments on how he lights Robbie Robertson's cigarette first.

Most news reports of his death focus on "Up On Cripple Creek" or "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down", but I always thought this version of "Ophelia" was most distictive - perhaps without a difference. I always wondered if he turned his head while singing to keep it from bouncing around so much from the drumming.

There are endless clips including a few movies.

Almost anything by The Band before 1978 is worthwhile. The Last Waltz is essential - full stop.


Monday, April 16, 2012

It Was Five Years Ago Today…

... my Outlook calendar confirms it. I was puttering toward northwest Houston looking for a video equipment rental place to pick up a screen and digital projector for an attorney client (if he wanted to pay legal rates for that, fine) so we could make a presentation on a particular job. I turned on KTRU (Rice Radio) and some insouciant collegiate announcer was speaking charmingly about the end of the semester and the joy he had found playing music all year, and here were some of his favorites, and blah, blah.

A few songs in, I hear ringing acoustic guitar chords and a snot-nosed sounding count-off “two,…one, two, three, four…" and then an explosion of fuzz-toned bass, thundering distorted drums, a two-chord acoustic guitar progression and a passionate and loud-as-a-freight-train singer almost shouting his lyrics.

Since I was driving, looking for an address, and fumbling to turn up the volume, I couldn’t catch all the lyrics; just a snatch of, “but then they buried her alive, one evening 1945, with just her sister at her side”. I remember thinking, “Anne Frank?” More speaker rattling fuzz, but now a rather sharp horn section and, “so sad to see, the world agree, that they’d rather see their faces filled with flies”. Yep, Anne Frank. What the hell was that?

College radio loves to keep you hanging for half an hour before telling you what they played, so at the break I’m scrawling artist and song names on a sheet while still driving. Then I hear “Holland 1945” and something about “neutral”. Ah – must be it.

I’ve lived in Houston traffic for lo, these 25 years, and the few musical epiphanies I’ve experienced have occurred while in cars. “What a Difference a Day Made” – Dinah Washington – KNTH AM, about 1986, driving up US 59 at sunrise to a job I loathed. “Freak Scene” – Dinosaur Jr. – KPFT FM, summer 1988, Friday afternoon, sitting on the Pierce Elevated with my voice pager going off on the un-air conditioned passenger seat. Others, of course.

But never had I experienced the transcendent rush of undiluted dynamic quality that was “Holland, 1945” on that April 16, 2007. Maybe it was the air conditioning and the billing rate. This is the best sounding youtube upload. There are dozens - some with a million views. Not exactly a fresh topic.

Less than 24 hours later I owned “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, by Neutral Milk Hotel. SoundWaves on Montrose Blvd didn’t have it. Best Buy in The Woodlands did. Go figure. Corporate rock suks!!!

And then for about 3 months I was 19 years-old again. A CD released in 1998, when I was 38, and discovered (by me, anyway) when I was almost 47, turned me into a 19 year-old, at least while I was in the car. Every commute, every morning, every afternoon, was devoted to this disconcerting opus from a loose aggregation of high school friends originally from, of all places, Ruston, Louisiana.

The song that hooked me isn’t all that representative of the entire CD. Much of it is acoustic or uses unlikely combinations of singing saw, calliope organ (think circus organ – sometimes called a Wandering Genie organ), horns (including a zanzithophone which was a toy synthesized horn from Casio that I think provides the ear-splitting squall at the end of Holland, 1945), and little if any electric guitar. There are reportedly three singing saw parts on the masterful title song (played by a guy named Julian Koster) and the saw is somehow used to cataclysmic effect at the end (about 3:12) of “Ghost”. I think you can even hear it woogling away in the background of Holland 1945. The CD has been aptly described as sounding “like a mariachi circus fed through a broken amplifier”. I know nothing of producer Robert Schneider other than he plays several instruments and is generally given a good deal of credit for the sound.

The voice, guitar, some bass, bone-jarring “floor tom” and primary pair of bright baby eyes gazing into the pit of doom belong to one Jeff Mangum (one of the streets on my route that fateful day was Mangum Rd. – Whoa…).

It is pointless to try to describe the themes of the entire CD. Anne Frank is there. So is her ghost. So is a two-headed boy floating in a glass jar filled with formalin for whom our singer appears to have an unhealthy attraction, so is the King of Carrot Flowers, so is the face of a friend blown apart by shotgun suicide –
And you left with your head filled with flames,
And you watched as your brains fell out through your teeth.
Push the pieces in place.
Make your smile sweet to see.
You get the picture.

And then there is “Oh Comely”. 8 minutes 15 seconds that begin with what sounds like a strumming and chord pattern practice book topped off with disturbing vocals along the lines of “your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park”. At about 5:20 the voice fantasizes about saving Anne Frank in “some sort of time machine” cautions the listener to "know all your enemies" and then swings wildly up without lyrics while a trombone follows along in almost perfect unision. It is a singular moment.

It is stupid to try to characterize one bit of music by relating it to another, but I will do it anyway. For some reason, Love’s “Forever Changes” comes to mind. That album is far more delicate and maybe more traditionally accomplished than “Aeroplane”, but I can think of no other in which a unique voice cracks open a disturbed noggin and all the scary toys fall out. Arthur Lee of Love has said, roughly, that he thought it was his swan song, and one gets a similar feeling from “Aeroplane”. There was also something so disarming, I guess, about NMH’s wide-eyed, low-fi approach that this CD just burrowed in and got all the worms to sit up and pay attention. I hadn’t experienced this for decades. Probably won’t again.

Mangum is endlessly written about in fanzines as the dude responsible for maybe the most beloved indie CD of all time; who toured a little, released a field recording of Bulgarian folk songs, and then walked away. Pffffft. A nice overview, and the source of the mariachi circus line is here.

The other musicians soldier on in various loose amalgamations.

Annual rumors and hoaxes would tell of Mangum’s return to touring or recording, only to evaporate. It is generally agreed that he is married to a documentary filmmaker in New York and played a few songs at the Occupy Wall Street rape and rob-fest protests.
Well, nobody’s perfect. Maybe it wasn’t him. It was dark. But the voice sounds right and the sweater looks like one of his.

Most of you dear readers will click on one link, listen for a few seconds and, “meh…sucks”. That is the nature of music. I understand. I hope your own epiphany finds you.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Richard Dawkins, granite-jawed....agnostic?

What a little punk.

After years of boldly leading the religion of atheism, Richard Dawkins gets all weak-kneed in the presence of....Rowan Williams?....and acknowledges that he calls himself an agnostic, "The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did."

Talk about damaging your brand. That a mind as flaccid as Rowan William's could cause this public retreat is almost laughable. I hate to think how far Dawkins would have retreated if my friend Pastor Bill had brought out the brass knuckles and jumper cables of Love.

I wish Hitchens were alive to see this.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

One Year Anniversary at Movies Eat the Soul

The Virg celebrates one year of blogging over at Movies Eat the Soul. It was high time to review the blog's name-sake, "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul".

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Buddy Holly

3 years late or 7 years early, let's commemorate 53 years since Buddy Holly's death in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, at 22 years old. At the time he had been relatively famous for 18 months. His widow and others blame producer/manager Norman Petty for witholding about 100 grand in royalties which forced Holly onto a miserable winter tour to pay the bills. But that's another story.

YouTube is full of rough but entertaining video, some of it live, some of it overdubbed. If you're a fan, you've already been through them. First we must say hats off to those who work so hard at these. I don't have the patience. Some start with commercials - sorry.

On Holly's influence, from Wikipedia:
Ian Whitcomb said "Buddy Holly and the Crickets had the most influence on the Beatles."[26] Lennon and McCartney later cited Holly as a primary influence.[27] (Their bug-themed band's name, The Beatles, was chosen partly in homage to Holly's Crickets.)[26] The Beatles did a cover version of "Words of Love" that was a close reproduction of Holly's version, released on late 1964's Beatles for Sale (in the U.S., in June 1965 on Beatles VI). During the January 1969 sessions for the Let It Be album, the Beatles played a slow impromptu version of "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" — although not written by Holly, it was popularized by him — with Lennon mimicking Holly's vocal style;[citation needed] the recording was eventually released in the mid-1990s on Anthology 3. In addition, John Lennon recorded a cover version of "Peggy Sue" on his 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll. McCartney owns the publishing rights to Holly's song catalogue.
A 17-year-old Bob Dylan attended the January 31, 1959, show, two nights before Holly's death. Dylan referred to this in his 1998 Grammy acceptance speech for his Time out of Mind being named Album of the Year:
"And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him...and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was — I don't know how or why — but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way." 
Keith Richards attended one of Holly's performances, where he heard "Not Fade Away" for the first time. The Rolling Stones had an early hit covering the song.
In my unstudied opinion there is no more notable piece of music from the 50s than "Well All Right". Recorded in 1958 with perfect sound, one percussion instrument, played by the somewhat overlooked drummer and frequent songwriting collaborator Jerry Allison, a bass, and, I assume, Holly's acoustic guitar. Holly sings it straight with no trademark hiccups or exaggerated phrasing. Yes, the lyrics are about young love, but never has it sounded more quietly self assured. The first verse is unusually eloquent. This is years ahead of it's time, again, in my opinion. No one in country, rock, gospel, R&B, or even folk, sounded like this. The apotheosis of Americana.

For "True Love Ways" the compiler also provides notes on the musicians who played on the recording. Whatever you think of the strings and saxophone and syrupy sentiments, this is just good. It is also reportedly exactly what Holly wanted. More than most of his contemporaries he had a hand in the sound and production and, in this case, none of the strings were added after his death.

Like all the rapacious manager/producers of the era, Norman Petty slapped his name into the songwriting credits whenever he could. A fine old tradition that relieved performers of royalties. Perhaps a more disciplined student could investigate how much he actually contributed.

Fans of alternative histories usually fantasize about the big things like the South winning the Civil War, or Americans losing the war of independence. Me, I wonder where Buddy Holly would have been on February 3, 1969. Would he have cared that the Beatles had lifted their name from his Crickets? What would he have thought of the Hollies?  Would he have followed his disturbing interest in strings, and what would later be called soft rock, and been playing 8 shows a week in Vegas, or maybe getting ready for some stupid outdoor festival in Woodstock, New York? He would have only been 32, or two years older than counterculture high priestess Grace Slick. Wire-rim glasses, bad afro and sideburns all seem likely.

This clip doesn't really need the subtitles, and they get in the way of watching his chord changes, and he didn't write this song anyway, but...

This is a shockingly good clip of "Peggy Sue". The camera loses Holly right as he begins one of the most distinctive solos ever, but still, it's great. One itty-bitty amp. The patronizing tone of the hostess was standard.

All before he was 23.
No going back.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Blinker Nodder Sleepy Guy

The Virg leaves the house long enough to review a first run movie from this decade. He finds it somewhat moody, mournful and somber. Over at Movies Eat the Soul.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens RIP

He is frequently called a polemicist by a lot of people who don't know what that means, I suspect.  To me, he seemed like the very model of a British man of letters. Polite but abrupt, profane but distinguished (he gives a detailed account of his one experiment with Brazilian waxing), upper class but not unpleasant about it (I fondly remember MSNBC's Chris Matthews on TV referring to Hitchens as "Chris". Hitchens stopped immediately and said, "no, it's Christopher").

This Trotskyite turned knee-jerk liberal turned lord high prosecutor of the odious Clintons and Kissinger turned vigorous proponent of the religion of atheism turned supporter of the Iraq war turned gracious refuser of widespread Christian prayers for his recovery or salvation, just seemed to exude honesty. One could do worse than spend the holidays with his books. I made it through these:

A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq
The Trial of Henry Kissinger
Why Orwell Matters
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
No One Left To Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family

I probably won't get around to his autobiography or endless collection of retrospectives. The story is over.

But his most enjoyable work, in my opinion, is in his rapid-response mode columns available everywhere. Slate has a running list of readers' favorites here. Editor June Thomas observes, "He could not bear the thought of banning words or ideas, and so he wrote powerfully in defense of the F word and N word, the free-speech rights of the Danish cartoonists, and the term Islamofascism, and against the impulse to obfuscate the horrors of the Armenian genocide."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Via Media - Walter Russell Mead's Blog

Walter Russell Mead is an amazingly prolific writer and thinker with a less than knee-jerk conservative bent. He casts a wider intellectual net than any serious blogger I've read. And, perhaps aside from the great Steyn, I can't find anyone who can string multi-syllabic words together in a more pleasing rhythm.

Here he contrasts physicists' response to the recent, doubtful, discovery of a particle traveling faster than light with the worshipers of climate change:

What’s interesting, of course, is how much more mature physicists seem to be than climatologists. Dissent from a scientific paradigm much more firmly established than anything in climate science isn’t greeted with howls of rage, fury and charges of heresy. Many physicists are skeptical, as well they should be, of evidence that seems contrary to decades of experiment and analysis, but the overwhelming mood seems to be one of curiosity rather than rage.


If physicists can control themselves while the most fundamental elements of their worldview are challenged by a handful of researchers with some interesting but quite tricky and potentially flawed results, then the climate world should be able to handle controversy with a little less venom as well. My guess is that the best climate scientists are more interested by the questions critics are asking rather than infuriated by their temerity in doing so. The orthodoxy enforcers and the heresy police tend not to be the finest scientific minds; skepticism and curiosity make for good science, not herd thinking and righteous rage.

Here he bloodies the New York Times editors for allowing what is essentially a press release, and an over-fawning one at that, from a Ft. Collins, CO green urban development plan to be published as news. He quotes,

"Democratized by necessity, the process led to goals that went beyond the predictable safe streets and commerce that planners might have otherwise emerged. In a departure from the old command-down process — planners proposing, residents disposing in public planning meetings — ideas bubbled up in new ferment."

The entire (lengthy) piece reads like this, full of obsequious adulation and namby-pamby greenthink cliches unthinkingly parroted. The article makes no mention of even the smallest criticisms of the new plan, nor does it provide even a hint of caution to leaven the overbearing optimism of the piece. Virtually the entire piece consists of process-worship; there is zero, correct, zero in the way of objective measures (population, productivity, traffic to new stores, employment growth, tax base) that would allow readers to assess how all this beautiful process produced or did not produce real world change. The planners like their project and speak well of it; that is enough to get a lengthy, heavy breathing puff job (hardened newspaper people would use a phrase in place of that one that is unsuitable in a family friendly blog like Via Meadia) in the New York Times. Only an idiot or a propagandist would write such a piece; it is hard to see how any editor would put it in print.
As something of a blog-taster myself, reading the paragraph above makes me want to take my keyboard and go home. It's not fair.

Friday, November 11, 2011

If Groceries Could Talk...

Been travelling waaay to much to post properly. This was the grisly scene outside the south Texas convention center hotel I'm inspecting.  Art and tragedy go hand in hand I guess.