Thursday, April 23, 2009

True Grit!


The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio : These stories, set in the present-day, seem to inhabit some shadowy bygone era of the Pacific Northwest, as if Washingtonians are still living in the blurry, rainy world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I love that mood. D’Ambrosio strikes a reverential tone and finds beautiful images in his final sentences in a way that most writers would kill for. His endings don’t blindside you though. They’re the sort of perfection you expect to find every so often, the sort of genius that seems available to everyone—like the melody of a great pop song—but that very few possess.

Astro City: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek et al : Busiek says in the introduction that if Watchmen was the deconstruction of the superhero comic, Astro City is the series that put the pieces back together. That’s about right; the fullness and detail of the metropolis are similar, but the tone is flipped, rollicking and freewheeling but sacrificing none of the intelligence of late 80s comixistentialism. The Spirit is another point of reference, in the way that each Astro City story ends with a punchline that signals narrative completion.

Other recent reads:

They Came Like Swallows is another small miracle from William Maxwell, who beautifully captures the strange and inescapable fact of being alive. That may sound like a blurb, but it’s true.

Keyboard Presents The Best of the 80s: The Artists, Instruments & Techniques of an Era is a collection of interviews from Keyboard magazine in the 1980s, in which all your favorite synth pop artists talk about their interests, their gear, their live shows, and more. I read the articles about OMD, Erasure and The Human League, and the common factors in their worldviews seem to be these: rejection of punk rock instrumentation but a desire to channel its energy; interest in synthesizers not for the sake of the technology but because “we like the way they sound,” and because synths allow autonomy and don’t require great musical skill. All valid reasons, but the proof is in the music, and these are three of my favorite bands ever. They didn’t use keyboard presets, but built all their sounds from scratch, and it shows in the warmth of their recordings. Andy McCluskey of OMD made a prediction in 1982 that the synthesizer would become the cliché instrument of the 80s for all the wrong reasons, and he was right.

Note: When my WMCN membership expires, I will have to reconfigure this as a music blog, so it’s good I’ve been writing a lot about music-related books recently.

Other recent curiosities:

“The Pavement Tapes” by Alex Ross originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1997 and can now be found in that very cool Brighten the Corners reissue that came out last year. Ross writes about how the meaninglessness (or the meaningfulness that defies meaning) of Pavement’s lyrics is one of the band’s greatest qualities, which I completely agree with. I rarely listen to lyrics except when I feel the music urging me to (making Brighten the Corners one of the few albums I can quote) or when the message is especially tied to my worldview (The Queen is Dead and Pet Sounds being two more albums I can quote). The sound of the words usually takes precedence over the words themselves, and as Bob Dylan might have said, rock ‘n’ roll’s meaninglessness is holy. But Alex Ross writes about meaning/words/holiness much more eloquently than I.

Basically I’ve just been thinking a lot again about the genius of Pavement. I never noticed until recently how absurdly (and subtly) elaborate their song structures are (did they ever write a simple verse-chorus-verse?), and (as The Man Who Invented Himself and I discovered) how much wisdom is embedded in a song as seemingly random as “Gold Soundz.” You can never quarantine a past. You’re empty, and I’m empty. They’re coming to the chorus now. But I don’t want my appreciation to become too academic, because that would negate the deep feeling I’ve always had for them.

I was sent a William Saroyan story called “Dentist and Patient” with my Beefheart, and found that it reinforced what I love about Saroyan (whose novel The Human Comedy is one of my favorites). This, in a nutshell, is what happens: the patient refers to himself as a cheater to the dentist, but the dentist, unwilling to believe him, fails to realize he has been cheated by the patient. Saroyan has been criticized as a naïve writer, or one unwilling to recognize the existence of evil (in the way that Roberto Benigni’s fictional denial of evil in Life is Beautiful makes the film itself evil (supposedly), or whatever). In “Dentist and Patient,” Saroyan seems to be casting himself as the naïve dentist, celebrating his own ignorant optimism. If evil in the world makes optimism wrong, does good in the world make pessimism wrong?

I finally watched the feminist masterwork True Grit, whose central character is an androgynous lesbian teenager (Kim Darby, my new icon) who recruits an alcoholic marshal (John Wayne) to help avenge her father’s murder. The film doesn’t quite deliver on its initial promise as a playful and progressive Western; Wayne, being such a dominating personality, eventually takes the spotlight, and while it’s a thrill to watch him do any old thing, it’s at the expense of Darby’s own “true grit.” Even so, the film puts most “revisionist” Westerns made in the 40 years since to shame, and has a touching denouement. Wayne and Darby stand by the dead father’s grave, and Darby says that one day she will be buried in this plot, and that she would like Wayne to be buried beside her, as he doesn’t have any family of his own. “But you should be buried next to your husband and children,” Wayne says, and Darby doesn’t respond. Here’s what she wants to say:

“You know I’ll never have a family. This country, in this unenlightened era, won’t let me marry who I want to marry, nor adopt children. You and me, we’re meant to be alone. You, because you’re just a loner, and me, because I like womenfolk. Let’s be each other’s family.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Blogging About Architecture


They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell : Just barely begun, but the Maxwell touch is already evident in this, his second novel, published 43 years before So Long, See You Tomorrow. Again, the narrative perspective is impossible to define (third person close? retrospective first person with swapped pronouns?) and even seems to break rules, but rendered with such authority that it needs only be defined by the story itself. There is a strange blend of child and adult points-of-view here. Maxwell is not David Gordon Green, making his child characters wise beyond their years. Instead, he shows them following codes, trying to be good, with a sadness and complexity usually reserved for grown-up characters.

Other recent reads:

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle : The thing I admire most about this book, Doyle’s first, is its complete lack of hesitation when attempting to represent the power of music in words. The novel chronicles the career of an 80s era Dublin soul band who mostly play Motown classics, and the lyrics to those songs are sprawled across at least a quarter of the book’s pages with such reckless enthusiasm that the ability of soul music to excite and inspire is always right at the surface. That famous line that says writing about music is like dancing about architecture becomes almost laughable when you see what Doyle can do. Never let anyone tell you music can’t be written about, or that it can’t change lives.

Also admirable is the book’s narrow focus: it moves from the band’s inception to their first practice, rehearsal to rehearsal, gig to gig, with no subplots outside of these distinct scenes. Doyle is a master of what might be called micro-scenes, two or three sentences that accomplish as much as two or three pages by any other writer. For these and other reasons, it might be wrong to call The Commitments a novel (under that category, you might find it “insubstantial”). It doesn’t concern individual characters so much as an entire community (not unlike one of the band’s covers, “Chain Gang,” a song about collective struggle, not any individual man’s). The book is very much about how community grows and how it falls apart, and what’s left behind when it does.

The Commitments’ music might be seen as white appropriation of black culture, but that would be wrong. Instead, it’s a recognition of kinship not previously suspected. There’s a beautiful moment early on when the teenage boys who will soon form The Commitments listen to James Brown’s “Sex Machine” for the first time. There are these white lads listening to the record, and the black lads who sing backup for James, and pretty soon the pronouns start to merge and it becomes one collective musical experience. Black and white disappear; it all takes place via a record player anyway. Then we get this great parenthetical: “The lads (in Jimmy’s bedroom) smiled at each other. This was it.”

By book’s end, The Commitments have dissolved and the remains of the band are looking now to the sound of The Byrds. They’re searching for a new style that can make them famous, sure, but Doyle isn’t being cynical: they really did like soul music, and now they really like jangle rock (notice how the lyrics are represented the same for both styles; that’s the language of love). When Doyle says The Byrds are “the best they’d ever heard,” the boys are simply succumbing to the hyperbole that any music lover who lives in the moment knows.

I could say some of the same things about Mystery Train (which I have finally finished). For one, Greil Marcus often falls victim to the hyperbole of the present moment. There are dozens of songs he believes to be the “most frightening” he’s ever heard. That doesn’t bother me. I do it myself. What does bother me a bit is the way he relies on lines like this, to describe the power in any and every blues vocal: “He sounds as if he has already lost more than anyone can return.” Nobody knows what that means, but it sounds nice, and evokes a tantalizing cult of masculinity that Marcus of course can’t help but get behind in his very masculine book.

But I admire his approach to music writing (like I do Doyle’s). Marcus truly believes that music can tell us what it means to live, and that these meanings can be put into words (only once does he describe a song as “too beautiful for words”). I would happily read his thoughts on anything. Moving through the distinct sections of his book, anticipating what he might say about the next artist—Sly Stone…Randy Newman…Elvis—I had that childhood feeling of playing a video game, progressing through the levels, breathlessly awaiting the next boss. A weird metaphor, I know, but true.

Home Land had many more laughs, some unbelievable carnage, and ended on a cosmic “this is what life means” level, unexpected but satisfying proof that the author was all along aware of the philosophies embedded in his absurd scenes. Hicksville wasn’t as full of laughs or carnage, but while comics tend to be more ambiguous in their meanings, it also reached its own cosmic closure. Hicksville’s library of unpublished comics is one of the great fictional places, like Oz or the Death Star or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama.

Sam Barry

80 pages.