Thursday, July 31, 2008

Archive of the Day

The first two paragraphs of The Unquiet Grave, a little (150 pp.) gem of a book by the acerbic, quotable, strict Cyril Connolly (writing as "Palinurus"):
The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having made the admission, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, for they will not acknowledge that it is their present way of life which prevents them from ever creating anything different or better.

All excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, are doomed to disappointment. To put of our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, so it should never be undertaken. Writers engrossed in any literary activity which is not their attempt at a masterpiece are their own dupes and, unless these self-flatterers are content to write off such activities as their contribution to the war effort, they might as well be peeling potatoes.

White v. Moore

I try to make a thorough read of The New Yorker each week, but if I can't, I make sure not to miss work by certain names -- Louis Menand, Atul Gawande, Anthony Lane. I'm learning to add Jill Lepore to that list. Of her excellent pieces, I most distinctly remember one about Noah Webster from a couple of years ago. Her most recent, about E.B. White's Stuart Little and the criticism it received from Anne Carroll Moore, a pioneering children's librarian, is well worth your time.

After she first read the book, Moore wrote a letter to E.B. White explaining, among other things, that she found the commingling of fantasy and reality to be harmful for children. It was White's wife, Katharine, an editor and writer at The New Yorker, who took the most offense at Moore's ideas about what was and wasn't appropriate for young readers:
“It is unnerving to be told you’re bad for children,” E. B. White admitted, “but I detected in Miss Moore’s letter an assumption that there are rules governing the writing of juvenile literature—rules as inflexible as the rules for lawn tennis. And this I was not sure of.” He shrugged it off: “Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. They go over it like little springboks. A fence that can throw a librarian is as nothing to a child.”

White did not write back. His wife did. “K refused to show me her reply,” White wrote to his brother, “but I suspect it set a new world’s record for poisoned courtesy.” It did and it didn’t. “I agree with you that schools won’t be likely to use ‘Stuart Little,’ ” Katharine wrote to Miss Moore, “but, to be very frank just as you have been, I can’t imagine libraries not stocking it.” And she couldn’t help asking, “Didn’t you think it even funny?”
You should read the whole thing. And the magazine's web site has some strong bonus material -- Lepore explaining part of her research for the essay, and an audio clip of Lepore discussing the piece along with Roger Angell, Katharine's son (and E.B.'s stepson).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Song That Deserves a Bigger Reputation

It may not be the first -- or hundredth -- song that comes to mind when you think of Bruce Springsteen, but "My Father's House," off Nebraska, is one of my favorites. So, for Wednesday, here's footage of him performing the simple, heartbreaking number. It starts without any picture and a spoken intro, but the camera does eventually focus (mostly) on Springsteen. Enjoy:


Everything is Borrowed, the new album from The Streets, is coming out in the UK on September 15. I assume the U.S. release date can't be much different. Check out the video for "The Escapist" here. . . . I have recently discovered (and added to the blogroll) a very funny site called Animal Review. I highly recommend passing your time there. Sample sentence: "For example, if Nature had to assemble a softball team out of prosimians and primates, it’s easy to think the tarsier would be picked last (after the wooly lemur) and sent out to right field." . . . Congrats to Norm Geras, who recently celebrated his blog's fifth anniversary.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stay Positive

This post has been revised. My review of Stay Positive, The Hold Steady's latest, is a bit longer than originally posted on the Stop Smiling site. They may be posting the full version, but just in case, here it is in its entirety:

The Great American Rock Band tends to be like the novel of the same name -- fun to theorize about; almost impossible to capture in the wild. But with their fourth record, Stay Positive, The Hold Steady make their fourth straight convincing claim for the title.

The group’s music -- with influences like Thin Lizzy, the E Street Band, and The Who -- is famously democratic. They’ve been called a “bar band” countless times, not because such small spaces are appropriate for their talent, but because there’s something both gregarious and unpretentious about their reliable delivery of monstrous riffs.

Still, when you’re in the mood for The Hold Steady, no one else -- including their many influences -- will do, and that’s because of singer and lyricist Craig Finn. With the unpretty urgency of his spoken-sung vocals, he has chronicled the chemically altered nights, flailing romances, and stunted dreams of a cast of Minneapolis residents with names like Charlemagne, Gideon, and Holly (short for Hallelujah; the characters are religion-haunted as well). Finn moved from Minnesota to Brooklyn before forming The Hold Steady, but it's his former midwestern home that has given his songs their sense of place.

On Stay Positive, things are further flung. For one thing, no members of the regular cast are identified by name. And instead of singing about how “everyone was comin’ towards the center of the city,” as he did on the last record’s “Massive Nights,” Finn name-checks Sacramento, Cheyenne, Texas, Memphis, and Aberdeen. Whoever these characters are, they can’t be contained by Minneapolis. Finn even seems reluctant to utter the name of the band’s most Dionysian out-of-town party spot, singing on “Slapped Actress,” the closing track, “don’t tell them Ybor City almost killed us again.”

If Stay Positive isn’t exactly a refutation of all the dangerous-but-good times in the band’s previous work, it has the sore joints of a long-overdue hangover. Yes, the first two tracks offer familiar pleasures. On the raucous opener, “Constructive Summer,” Finn sings, “we’re gonna lean this ladder up against the water tower / climb up to the top and drink and talk / this summer.” And the first single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” features the closest you’ll get to a 12-word summation of his lyrical style: “in bar light, she looked all right / in daylight, she looked desperate.”

But “One for the Cutters,” laced with harpsichord, includes murder and a courtroom. And “Lord, I’m Discouraged” finds Finn profoundly worried about a girlfriend in the hospital, who may or may not be the aforementioned Holly. On “Joke About Jamaica,” he sings “we were kids in the crowd / now we're dogs in this war / we were wasps with new wings / now we're bugs in the jar.”

This isn’t to say Finn has lost his caustic sense of humor. There’s room on Stay Positive for hoping that girls kiss you even though they’re “pretty pissed,” and hanging out where someone cat sits, and raising toasts to “saint Joe Strummer.” But Finn turns 37 soon after the record’s release, and it sounds hard-earned when he sings, “we were hot, soft and pure / now we're scratched up in scars.” It was inevitable that the crises of faith that quietly ran through previous records would find their way to center stage, as they do here. Finn questions God, the drugs, and the cost of having once felt invincible. But the band still makes a mostly celebratory noise behind the rueful lyrics. Coming out of The Hold Steady’s amps, even the scars carry some of the afterglow from the massive nights.

The High Priest

Having decided late last week with a few friends to see Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium last night, there wasn't much time to anticipate the pleasure. I had seen Springsteen years ago in Houston, when he was on a solo acoustic tour to promote The Ghost of Tom Joad. The intimacy of that show with a superstar like that made it something special, but I've always wanted to have the full E Street Band experience.

Overshadowing the concert was the transportation on either end. Getting to Giants Stadium from New York, when one doesn't have a car . . . there are people who have gone through less to escape undetected from fascist countries. But even given the torturous journeys, and the seats a mile from the stage that made it more like watching a concert on TV, Bruce did his best to make it a memorable night. The man is remarkable. He is 58 years old, and at the end of the three-hour set I'm sure I was more exhausted than he was. This is not a guy going through the motions to retain rock star status -- he was bounding all over the place, and has the physique of a 26-year-old Olympic cyclist. I'm convinced he's done something insane, like had a shark-blood transfusion.

The night was a little overlong. It's amazing that Shark Man has the energy to get through a 26-song marathon without a break, but with a bit of pruning the event would have been better and no less impressive as a feat of endurance. Crowd participation is a big part of the band's agenda, and there were times -- when a song was newer, or the crowd was flagging -- when the singalongs were much quieter than they should have been. But when they were full-throated -- as on the regular-set-closing "Badlands" -- they were something to hear. Other highlights (for me) were "No Surrender," "The Rising," and "Long Walk Home," a song off the latest album that was lifted by a passionate closing vocal from Steve Van Zandt. I was very disappointed not to hear "Bobby Jean," which he's been playing a lot on this tour.

The encore was the one misplayed part of the night. On the plus side, it included "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run," which sent everyone into a frenzy. On the negative side, it began with the dull "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and ended with an extended "Twist and Shout" that sounded more like something from a Bar Mitzvah. All in all, I left with more love for Bruce, even though I'd still vastly prefer a set list from 1984.

If you're worried about his staying power as he approaches his 60s, fear not: some of the most charming sights on the big screens were several young girls, no older than 11, belting out every word. Put another way:

Early in the show, one of us mentioned that drummer Max Weinberg better not have a heart attack. I asked, "What about Bruce?" Another of us answered, "Bruce will never die."

Monday, July 28, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Groups to Pray for Lower Prices at Gas Stations

Box Office Isn't As Bad As It Seems

Inflation can make us look even dumber than we are. I'm talking about the movie box office. As The Dark Knight passed the $300 million mark over the weekend, and could conceivably become the second highest-grossing film of all time before it's done, I was heartened to find box office rankings adjusted for inflation.

On the non-adjusted list, Titanic is at the top, and the top 10 includes Shrek 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the first two Spider-Man movies, and -- most alarmingly to me -- Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (that was the last of the "prequels" to come out, meaning audiences had already absorbed the awfulness of the first two before launching Sith into the top 10).

On the adjusted list, Gone With the Wind is the champ, and the top 10 includes Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, and The Exorcist.

It's a little deeper on the lists, though, where the benefits to our image of adjusting really become clear. Movies like The Sting, The Graduate, and The Godfather are buried on the all-time list (150, 357, and 213, respectively), but jump to 15, 18, and 21 when inflation is taken into account.

The List Cannot and Will Not Be Stopped: 80-71

In order for me (and you) to have some energy left for the later stages, I think the next couple of installments will feature 10 albums at a time, with less description. Like so:

80. Patty Griffin -- Living With Ghosts (1996)

Stripped-down arrangements and a powerhouse voice. (Favorite song: “Forgiveness”)

79. Lyle Lovett -- The Road to Ensenada (1996)

Lovett might be one of my 20 favorite musical acts, but he’s never quite captured on any single album the greatness of his live shows, so this is the highest slot he gets. (Favorite song: “The Road to Ensenada”)

78. Uncle Tupelo -- No Depression (1990)

The debut by one of my favorite bands. More on them later. (Favorite song: “Whiskey Bottle”)

77. Son Volt -- Straightaways (1997)

Nearly as consistent as their debut, but with songs just a bit less potent. (Favorite song: “Left a Slide”)

76. Everything But the Girl -- Amplified Heart (1994)

This band became something stronger and more original when they took a turn for the dance-oriented, but this earlier album is nothing to be ashamed of, despite its adult-contemporary vibe. Smart writing and Tracey Thorn’s gorgeous voice make this the best of their earlier sound. (Favorite song: “Two Star”)

75. Bruce Springsteen -- Nebraska (1982)

The Boss’ famous step back from his bigger persona, a very quiet collection of songs about brotherhood, desperation, regret, and in the title track, young killers. (Favorite song: “Atlantic City”)

74. Mountain Goats -- The Sunset Tree (2005)

Smart, sad lyrics, and a closing trio of songs as pretty as on any other album I own. I wrote lots more about this band here. (Favorite song: “This Year”)

73. Belle & Sebastian -- The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998)

When I first heard this album, about ten years ago, it might have made the top 25. Maybe ten years hence it will jump up again, but for now I’ve reached a plateau with this band. The B&S album before this one, and the album after, are arguably just as good or better, but this one will always be my favorite, associated as it is with a great trip to Boston with friends. (Favorite song: “The Boy With the Arab Strap”)

72. Billy Joel -- Turnstiles (1976)

Growing up on Long Island, I had little choice but to love Billy Joel, and I’m glad about that. (Favorite song: “Summer, Highland Falls”)

71. Fleetwood Mac -- Rumours (1977)

This list is so ridiculous, especially from 50-100, because of how susceptible it is to my mood. Let’s just say this is the lowest this album would ever be. It could only rise, depending on the day. (Favorite songs: “Dreams” and “Go Your Own Way”)


Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Works

Last night, I went to see the Brooklyn Cyclones play the Staten Island Yankees in Coney Island. Over at Existent Light, I've added two posts that I hope you'll like: shots of Coney Island, and shots of the fireworks show over the boardwalk after the game. Here are three of the fireworks shots:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Were Fish and Chips Twins?

If you feel bad about your name (at all), stop now. In New Zealand, a kind judge has legally changed the name of a 9-year-old girl who had been living with the name Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Embarrassed by the name, she had asked friends to simply call her "K," which I can only assume stands for "Kill my parents, please."

In citing other unfortunate names that had been blocked before they had a chance to become official, the judge listed Fish and Chips, Yeah Detroit, Keenan Got Lucy, and Sex Fruit. But among names that had gotten through? Number 16 Bus Shelter.

(Thanks to SD for link.)

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Over at Pajiba, I review the latest exploits of Scully and Mulder:
The X-Files ended its beloved run on TV more than six years ago, and the first (very good) movie based on the show is now a full decade old. So The X-Files: I Want to Believe faces a couple of very fundamental questions — why again? why now? — and never comes up with sufficient answers. In fact, it never appears to be remotely concerned with such questions, never strains to justify itself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight

I went to see Batman: He's Coming For Your Wallet this afternoon at a packed theater in Union Square and left feeling predictably underwhelmed. I’ve gotten used to pre-release hype, but post-release hype is another thing. It can sometimes mean that a movie actually exceeds expectations, but not in this case. I can understand longtime Batman geeks getting excited, because it’s their guy. But I have to believe the wider twitters are tied up in a combination of Heath Ledger’s legacy and a need to believe in summer blockbusters again.

Admittedly, I’m not currently a comic book nerd. I’ve seen most of the movies based on them that have come out in recent years, but I can’t say I understand any deep love for comics that isn’t rooted in nostalgia. There are books for grown-ups, after all. But trust me, I understand the nostalgia -- in Texas last week, I was quite excited to find several old comics I thought I had lost years ago hiding in a remote closet. I even did a little dance.

And it’s true that superheroes can make good fodder for the big screen. (To my mind, the best of the genre remains the first X-Men movie.) The Dark Knight is a fine way to spend two and a half hours out of the humidity, as I did today. There are a few thrilling scenes, some genuine scares, and the cast is excellent. (Why does it feel like Aaron Eckhart is still underrated?)

That said, after a swift, excellent opening scene (a bank heist), things generally turn into the muddled, overlong mess that most blockbusters are these days. The details of Gotham's crime problem had me thinking unlovingly of the intergalactic council meetings from The Phantom Menace. Christian Bale, when he’s wearing the Batman suit, speaks in a ridiculous thick whisper. (If people don’t recognize his distinctive mouth -- settle down, ladies -- why can’t he just use his undisguised voice, too? Do they think that last inch of suspended disbelief is going to break us when we've already given in to the idea of a crime fighter in a rubber bat suit?) The dialogue is mostly pitched at a middle-school reading level, and characters scream things at each other like, “Goddammit, will you stop pointing that gun at my family!!??”

The movie’s supposed depth comes from an over-explained theme of what motivates men. If it’s news to you that some people are attracted to evil without purpose, The Dark Knight will blow you away. Otherwise, the final third of the movie will leave you itching. Poor Ledger gets shackled with a couple of late scenes in which he painstakingly describes to others how he just loves anarchy. Plans aren’t for him. No, sir. Of course, most of his escapades require Rube Goldberg-level planning. (And why can’t anarchy be someone wanting to live off the grid in Maine to avoid the taxman and just fish? Why does it always have to be someone in face paint intricately wiring hospitals to explode?)

Most critics I’ve read have miraculously argued that the movie’s relation to current events is tangential at best. Ahem. The Joker’s actions, and the language used to describe them, are clearly the stuff of terrorism, and Batman eventually hooks up an (absolutely ludicrous) sonar system that allows him to listen in on all of Gotham, leading to an oh-so-subtle debate about privacy vs. security.

Aside from the surrounding circumstance of Ledger’s death -- and his admittedly charismatic performance here -- The Dark Knight was nothing special that I could see. Ledger has a lot of fun, and the establishment will presumably reward him his young passing with an Oscar, but he was more deserving for Brokeback Mountain, which will still, rightfully be his longest lasting work. I think he had a brilliant career ahead of him, but his Joker is a hammy, tic-ridden performance, perfectly enjoyable for a comic-book villain -- the bogeyman to Nicholson’s buffoon -- but hardly the stuff of transformative legend. (Again, see his Ennis Del Mar for that.)

I don’t mind having contributed my $11.75 to the movie’s haul, which could climb to a billion or so if the crowds on this Wednesday afternoon were any indication. I’m less surprised by the box office it's generated than by the passion.

Sinatras for Wednesday

Your song for this week is the Trashcan Sinatras doing "Leave Me Alone." Enjoy:

For more of the band, here's a great live version of "Hayfever" from a record store in Arizona.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Those Poor Frogs

Just back in the sweltering city -- twenty degrees cooler here today than in Dallas, but tell that to my sweat glands -- and I'm going to dinner. Back in the saddle tomorrow. But first, a shot of a billboard in Oklahoma that made me laugh:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thumbs Down

In this week's New Yorker, two critics on two very different displays, one of which I'm eager to see and the other of which you couldn't pay me to see. First, in a brief note, Peter Schjeldahl disses J. M. W. Turner, the subject of a current retrospective at the Met:
Indisputably masterful, Turner invested little watercolors of quotidian subjects with tonal sparkle, and bombastic battle and disaster canvases with lyrical dash. But unlike John Constable, his quieter, more profound peer, Turner conveys only irritable ambition. We must never forget to admire him. This tires.
I'm going to make up my own mind on that one. As for the other, Mamma Mia!, I'm happy to take Anthony Lane's word:
The script is by Catherine Johnson, who also wrote the stage play on which it is based, although “play” may not be the word. It was more like a theatrical kebab, onto which she skewered as many Abba songs as humanly possible: a clever move, given that half the people in the Western world have the Abba sound stuck itchily in their ears, whether they like it or not.

Checking In From the Road

I've had an eventful three days, including about 700 total miles of driving. On those travels, I took some photos I like, and I'll post a bunch of them once I'm back in New York tomorrow -- some of them here and some of them on my award-winning photo blog. I'll also share however many details of my highway time you'll be able to bear before falling over. For now, more of more than you could possibly want about my favorite records, below.

The List Lives: 85-81

This is fun, but also pretty high-maintenance for a weekly feature. That's what I get for trying to match the obsessiveness of Dezmond.

85b. Dixie Chicks -- Wide Open Spaces (1998)

Yes, “85b.” This is the only mulligan I’ll take, I promise. Eagle-eyed readers (anyone?) may have noticed that when last week’s installment first went up there were unexplained references to the Dixie Chicks in the Hank Williams paragraph. One of my team of proofreaders (they sit around my apartment wearing headsets, like Time-Life operators) alerted me to the error, and I fixed it. The Chicks had been in that group of five albums until I realized that in trying to choose a Cat Power record, I had left her off altogether. So, I eliminated the Chicks, partly out of practicality, partly out of some sense of guilty-pleasure shame. But they deserve better.

The group had recorded three albums by 1998, but Wide Open Spaces was its first with singer Natalie Maines, whose brassy voice has come to define the band. I first heard the title track while sitting in the press box of a high school baseball stadium in Texas. It was polished and accessible and consciously twangy and had vague lyrics of empowerment. My first thought was, “Why don’t I hate this as much as I think I should?” There are plenty of moving ballads with hints of the old country tradition here, like “You Were Mine” and “Loving Arms,” and an admirable choice of source material, like songs by Maria McKee and Bonnie Raitt. The thick studio polish is made up for by the fact that they’re talented musicians, and the band’s visual aesthetics -- which can be a Miley Cyrus-like strip-mall mess, as seen in this clip -- are forgivable because the music has something like roots, and the best of it might last.

85. Bruce Springsteen -- Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

With the title track, “Glory Days,” “I’m On Fire,” and “Dancing in the Dark,” U.S.A. scores pretty high sheerly judged by the criterion of Durable Radio Hits. It might have just missed the list, though, if it didn’t also feature “Bobby Jean,” one of my favorite Springsteen songs. Allegedly inspired by the departure of Steve Van Zandt from the E Street Band (I have a feeling someone I know might be able to verify that), the song is most easily heard by the unknowing as the story of a guy who missed out on a chance to say goodbye to an old girlfriend (Platonic or otherwise) before she left town. When the song reaches its peak, culminating with the lines “I'm just callin’ one last time / not to change your mind / but just to say I miss you, baby / good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean,” I get misty every time. And that’s what Springsteen is about at his best -- unapologetic emotional music. His songs about lost souls, highways, and humming engines make him easy to parody (I wonder if someone’s created Springsteen Mad Libs yet: make of vehicle, year in the Carter or Reagan administration, depressed New Jersey town, etc.), but equally easy to love.

84. Neko Case and Her Boyfriends -- Furnace Room Lullaby (2000)

When Neko Case sings a song, it stays sung. The fact that someone with those pipes also has discriminating intelligence is something to celebrate. Everything she’s done has integrity, but Furnace Room -- an appropriate image for her pretty and burning voice -- gets the nod because of one song in particular, “South Tacoma Way.” Otherwise, you could flip a coin between this record and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I’ve written before about that song, and how she sings, “I can't comprehend the ways I miss you / they come to light in my mistakes.” It’s my favorite moment in a song that’s one long great moment.

83. The Innocence Mission -- Befriended (2003)

I’ll be writing a longer appreciation of this band later on (earlier on?) in the list. They’re too smart to ever be embarrassed, but when crystalline-voiced singer Karen Peris’ lyrics grow too simplistic, or the band’s musical accompaniment too spare, or both, the results can be underwhelming and precious. More often, though, as on Befriended, The Innocence Mission maintains a delicate but powerful balance. Peris and husband/bandmate Don Peris are Christians, but her loving attention to detail makes her broader lyrics, like “I’ve had enough of this trouble” or “tell me how I can just start over again,” sound like prayers for the religious and secular alike.

82. The Black Crowes -- The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)

I was in high school when this record came out, and I wasn’t much interested in classic rock, much less bands aping classic rock. I had liked the poppier songs off the Crowes’ debut, but this follow-up sounded too gritty and southern-fried for my taste. Luckily, my friend Brett championed it and got me interested. It’s a good thing, too, because despite the infectiousness of lead single “Remedy,” there weren’t many easy routes into the album. It remains a more impressive accomplishment taken as a whole than as individual pieces. But the pieces are pretty great. You won’t find a more driving blast than “Hotel Illness,” or a more laconic (well, stoned) groove than the anti-ballad “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye.” And then there’s show-stopper “Sometimes Salvation,” which is one long bluesy yelp (capped off by yelps that are less bluesy and more full-fledged freakout).

81. Red House Painters -- (Rollercoaster) (1993)

Mark Kozelek is now recording under the name Sun Kil Moon, but this album -- actually eponymous, but called “Rollercoaster” after its cover image, to differentiate it from a previous eponymous album -- came out in 1993, when he was still going by Red House Painters. “Katy Song” is probably the song here most indicative of the style, morose and pretty, stretching more than eight minutes and including the lyric “glass on the pavement under my shoe / without you is all my life amounts to.” But it’s the opener, “Grace Cathedral Park,” that speaks loudest to Kozelek’s talent. It might not make a list as select as my 100 favorite songs, but it would certainly get strong consideration. The lyrics, like most of his, are smart but might look maudlin on the page. The song’s full, lilting music helps, as does Kozelek’s delivery -- his voice is husky and understated, which keeps his words from inducing the cringes they might if screamed by an emo singer desperate for you to hear his lifetime of pain in every syllable.

Speaking of Springsteen, Rollercoaster also includes “New Jersey,” with its central couplet of, “you’re as good as dead / New Jersey ain’t the whole world.” Kozelek has made a recent habit of releasing entire albums of covers by the same (unlikely) artist -- AC/DC and Modest Mouse -- and he contributed two strong turns to a John Denver tribute album. The Boss’ catalog might be an interesting choice for a future project.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Cheapies but Goodies

Someone recently gave me the good advice to look more carefully at the racks of one-dollar books outside The Strand each time I visit. The only downside is that you'll occasionally buy something you don't really want or need just because it's a dollar, but the upside is finding both bargains and books you would have never otherwise known about, like this one:

I was drawn to it by the jacket, and then I learned that Knopf published it, that Hunt wrote for The New Yorker, among others, and that this is a first edition from 1959. In other words, here was a beautiful object that I also wanted to read. For a dollar. Done deal. (One acquaintance said he's found books in these stacks, once or twice, that go for $80 or $90 online. Alas, copies of this first edition can be found for little more than what I paid.)

I haven't seen the show Mad Men yet, but I imagine that Hunt's author photo alone does nearly as much to sum up its era. In this post, as in most, clicking to enlarge photos is recommended:

The Fundamentals

I'm spending a few days in the south, heading to Oklahoma City on Saturday for a friend's wedding. The flight to Dallas was uneventful in all the important ways, but there was a screaming baby two rows ahead of me who was easily the most adorable thing to ever make me so miserable. When I got off the plane, this sign cheered me up. Welcome to Texas:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Diseased Laureate

I linked to a poem of Kay Ryan's not too long ago. She's a favorite of mine. So I'm especially pleased to hear that she's being named poet laureate, even though poet laureate seems like a position with no real benefits or power. This is great:
“I so didn’t want to be a poet,” Ms. Ryan, 62, said in a phone interview from her home in Fairfax, Calif. “I came from sort of a self-contained people who didn’t believe in public exposure, and public investigation of the heart was rather repugnant to me.”

But in the end “I couldn’t resist,” she said. “It was in a strange way taking over my mind. My mind was on its own finding things and rhyming things. I was getting diseased.”

The Exiles

I’ve written before about Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a beautiful black-and-white film from the 1970’s that was released in theaters last year. Milestone, the same admirable company that brought Killer of Sheep back, has now, with the help of Burnett and American Indian author Sherman Alexie, released The Exiles. I saw it last weekend at the IFC Center in New York, and Burnett was on hand to introduce it.

Kent MacKenzie wrote and directed the movie, a fictitious story with a documentary tone. It was originally shown at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and never officially released after that. Just 72 minutes long (it still took three years to finish, due to monetary problems and several members of the crew being drafted), The Exiles follows a group of American Indian friends for a single night in Los Angeles.

The stunning composition of the movie is its most enduring achievement. The Village Voice review put it well:
The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.
The amateur actors were found while MacKenzie was researching a nonfiction project, and their performances are raw but powerful. They spend the night drinking, gambling, getting into bar fights, drinking some more, and finally dancing, chanting, and fighting with fellow American Indians at the top of a hill as night turns to morning. All in all, The Exiles feels like Swingers might have if it were written and shot by Dorothea Lange.

Because the cameras used were so noisy, much of the dialogue was redone post-production. This gives it a somewhat distracting Godzilla feel, but luckily there are extensive (and mostly affecting) voice-overs that don’t suffer from the technical glitches.

I wondered how the portrayal of American Indians by a guy named MacKenzie would come off, but as Alexie recently said:
It’s a little problematic in that it’s a white guy’s movie about us. But in learning how the film was made, I think people will discover it was truly collaborative. The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.
This absolutely comes through as you watch it.

The Exiles evidently caught someone’s eye when it was mentioned in the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. That movie, a nearly three-hour look at the history of the city in cinema, sounds terrific, but I think difficulty in obtaining all the necessary rights for clips has kept it from being released on DVD. I’m now kicking myself even harder for missing it when it briefly played in theaters here a few years back.

Gallery 17

From the series Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water by Asako Narahashi


Wednesday with Cat

This is Cat Power performing "Metal Heart" in San Francisco in 1998. Pretty great.*

*Still, for the behavioral difference sobriety and antidepressants can make, see here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mr. Hamilton Goes to New York

I'm traveling the rest of today, but there will be lots more this week...

For now, I clearly missed something pretty great last night. Usually, the Home Run Derby, as part of baseball's All Star festivities, is just another ESPN-filling distraction. But last night, Josh Hamilton hit 28 homers in the first round of the competition. The number is pretty extraordinary, but the story is much more so: In 1999, at age 18, Hamilton was the top pick in baseball's draft. Two years later, after a car accident, he fell into a years-long spiral of drug addiction. Now, at 27, he's playing his first full season as a Major Leaguer, and he has 95 RBIs at the All-Star break (that's incredible, for those who don't know). His story is pretty well known, but read this for the whole thing.

So, last night, in front of almost 55,000 at Yankee Stadium, in the last year of that historic park, Hamilton takes his pitches in the first round from Claybon Counsil, a 71-year-old from North Carolina who had thrown batting practice to Hamilton when the slugger was a teenager. The crowd chants his name, and the moment is one of those that represents sport at its best. Here's video of the tail end, by which time the crowd, still loud, was apparently exhausted from all the cheering it had already done:

Billy at Shea

Billy Joel plays two concerts this week at Shea Stadium, to commemorate the ballpark's final year, and Dan Barry had a good piece in Sunday's New York Times about the singer:
Someone must sing a proper song of farewell for Shea Stadium, the nice try of a coliseum in Queens, as its dismantling draws near and a new ballpark rises just yards away. But that someone must be able to convey emotions specific to the place, emotions beyond the sadness of many lost Mets summers and the euphoria of two World Series championships. There is so much more.

The romantic idealism and the yeah-right realism. The quickness to mock and to take offense. The need to prove oneself better than any Upper East Side twit and the guilt from having conceived such a hollow ambition. The restlessness, angst and ache of the striver. The Long Island of it all.

Of course the meeting of Shea muckety-mucks to discuss who should sing this farewell probably lasted as long as it took to say: Billy Joel.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The List Rolls On: 90-86

No preamble this time, because this post is pretty long as is:

90. Julian Velard -- Make Me Feel (2003)

I was serendipitously introduced to Julian Velard’s music a few years ago through a New York friend who had gone to school with someone in Velard’s band. At the time, Velard was in his early 20’s, spending his days as a kindergarten gym teacher, and we were watching him play at a bar in a remote Brooklyn neighborhood with something like six other people present. The band played for about three hours, including an intermission, and I was hooked. Velard, who admits to being most influenced in his childhood by Michael Jackson and Pee-Wee Herman, is not your average songwriter. Well, not in 2008. He’s your average songwriter in 1978. With (additional) early influences Elton John and Stevie Wonder, and a rich voice like a younger, much less ravaged version of Tom Waits, Velard can remind you of a lot while sounding only like himself.

He studied with jazz musician Yusef Lateef, and his original band -- which backs him on this live CD -- is terrific. There are trumpet and violin solos, and a general energy that wasn’t properly captured on the previous studio record. Every song here is a standout to my ears. My least favorite might be the title track, an extended, radically remade cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” but that’s only because I enjoy the originals so much.

Velard recently moved to London to capitalize on his popularity in the UK. He never found the audience he deserved in New York. Every time I saw him play, which was every chance I got, the crowds were devoted but small. In current-day hipster New York, it’s hard for a writer and musician as eager to please as Velard. He’s also moved in a poppier direction -- less obvious jazz touches and more Ben Folds-style piano rock -- as in his new, catchy-as-hell single, “Jimmy Dean & Steve McQueen.”

89. Cat Power -- The Greatest (2006)

I thought about choosing Moon Pix instead, when Chan Marshall was firmly ensconced in her cocoon of vaguely southern-Gothic weirdness, but there is something undeniably and appropriately great about The Greatest, on which she sounds soulful in a way that's much more engaged with the real world. It helps that she's backed by some legendary Memphis session players. The music is both more friendly and accomplished than on her previous records. Her smoky, disaffected, sexy voice hasn't changed, though, and it makes for a remarkable combination. The title track cribs from "Moon River," but that's not why it -- and most everything else on The Greatest -- sounds like it will last.

88. The Police -- Synchronicity (1983)

When I mentioned this record to a friend the other night, she claimed it was her least favorite by the band. It made sense, since her tastes would naturally lead her to prefer the band’s earlier, punk-ier work, but it still gave me pause. I considered whether or not this slot should be reserved for Outlandos D’Amour instead. That record has “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” and my favorite Police song, “So Lonely.”

So this turned out to be a close call, but I still give the nod to Synchronicity. First of all, it doesn’t have the same reggae influence as the band’s earlier work, and this is a judgment based on the goofiness of post-Police Sting, but the idea of him dabbling in reggae seems sillier now than it probably did at the time. On Synchronicity, there’s more of a straight-ahead pop sound, and it’s achieved so well that the songs were (are) overplayed to the point of catatonia. But to have grown tired of “Synchronicity II,” “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is not to deny the accomplishment of those four songs appearing consecutively on the same album.

87. Ride -- Nowhere (1990)

I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed with the fact that Wikipedia has a page about “shoegazing,” but I can say that this fact makes me happy in a way that I can’t articulate. This despite the fact that, according to Wikipedia itself, “This article or section has multiple issues. Please help improve the article or discuss these issues on the talk page.”

While the issue-plagued article admits that the term was probably over-extended by a British music press intent on defining and propagating scenes, it still has a definition that seems pretty accurate: “Common musical elements in shoegaze are distortion (aka 'fuzzbox'), droning riffs and a 'wall of sound' from noisy guitars. Typically, two distorted rhythm guitars are played together to give an amorphous quality to the sound. Although lead guitar riffs were often present, they were not the central focus of most shoegazing songs. . . . Vocals are typically subdued in volume and tone, but underneath the layers of guitars is generally a strong sense of melody. While the genres which influenced shoegazing often used drum machines, shoegazing more often features live drumming."

Ride fits the description fairly well. You can hear my favorite two songs off Nowhere on YouTube: “Vapour Trail” is accompanied by a still shot of the album’s cover art; “Polar Bear” by a weirdly hypnotic line drawing.

86. Hank Williams -- 40 Greatest Hits (1961)

It’s extraordinary (as well as sad) to think that he died at 29 -- he sounds like an old man in many of these songs. Williams penned songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which has been covered by a trillion people, and which includes the classic opening lines, “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill / he sounds too blue to fly.”

While classics like “Lonesome” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” are here, of course, it’s some of the deeper cuts that caused me to pick the 40 hits, rather than a smaller collection. I’m particularly fond of the terrifically titled “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” the regretful prison tune “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me,” in which Williams sings, “why don’t you love me like you used to do? / how come you treat me like a worn-out shoe? / my hair is curly and my eyes are still blue / why don’t you love me like you used to do?”

Jazz -- a genre that doesn’t qualify for this list -- is rightfully hailed as perhaps the greatest American contribution to the arts. But country music is also an American original, if an amalgam, and Williams represents it as well as anyone.


Melville Online

I can't imagine reading anything like Moby-Dick online, but this version of the Melville classic (with highlighted annotations) is, as Maud Newton says, "handsome." I might still prefer books -- at just 34, I'm feeling more and more ancient these days -- but if this is how classics can look in the computer age, I'm all for it. People will likely visit Gawker in greater numbers, but at least they have the option for something better.

Thought for the Day

"In wise love each divines the high secret self of the other, and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life." --Yeats

Friday, July 11, 2008

New Photos

I know what you've been asking since I last updated my modest photo blog on September 13 of last year: Why does he even have a photo blog? I'm sure the question has distracted you from work on more than one occasion.

Well, I've been lazy about updating it. And I haven't been carrying the camera around nearly as much as I should. But today I added a couple of posts -- two shots from the subway, and a few shots of water towers, which have caught my interest lately. Sometimes the towers play a starring role, sometimes a supporting role, as you can see in these two examples:


If you had told me a year ago that one of my good friends would be regularly blogging about a small, fluffy white dog, my good friend at ANCIANT might have been at the bottom of my list of guesses. But, I'm glad he's doing it. The posts are entertaining me. . . . Dezmond stays ahead of my albums countdown with his #75-71. . . . I've seen this piece about gas stations in literature and film linked to in several places, so I'll add to the pile-on. . . . This piece on realtor Willie Kathryn Suggs is thought-provoking. She doesn't come across as very sympathetic, but the larger issue of housing costs in Harlem is interesting. I tend to come down on the "barring any terrible practices, let the market do its thing" side, but that's just me. . . . Schedule reminder: The new mini-series from the creators of The Wire starts on Sunday night.


After I read my story at Literary Death Match a couple of weeks ago, one of the judges commented on my name. In short, he said it wouldn't work for a literary career. John Williams is a common name, after all, and the composer who shares it will likely be better known no matter how much I accomplish. I think the judge was at least half kidding, but let's run with it (please also run with any presumption inherent to this post). I've always felt it was a challenge of sorts -- to become respected (not famous) enough to overcome the difficulty of being identified. But even in the literary world, there is at least one cult classic written by a John Williams.

Here were the top ten names for baby boys in the U.S. in 1950 (via Megan McArdle):

1. James
2. Robert
3. John
4. Michael
5. David
6. William
7. Richard
8. Thomas
9. Charles
10. Gary

I was born many years after 1950, but still. My full name is #3, followed by #4, followed by #6 with an "s" at the end. It seems the only likely combination with a lower quotient would be James John Roberts. (Chief Justice John Roberts' middle name is Glover. He was born in 1955.)

I'm not complaining. I like my names. And I think I'm sticking with them. Initials and nicknames and such...they have the air of trying too hard. J. M. Williams? That's not me.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Battle of the Dumb Bestsellers

Over at Intelligent Life, Tom Shone -- whose book Blockbuster I enjoyed -- takes part in the time-honored tradition of delving into bestseller lists. He was inspired by a recent comment from Clare Alexander, president of the UK's Association of Authors' Agents, who said of Britain, "We have the stupidest bestseller list in the world at the moment."

Is that possible? Perhaps, on a technicality. As Shone writes:
There's another, more prosaic reason for the top-heaviness of the American lists; in 1985, the New York Times editors grew so weary of titles like "Jane Fonda's Workout Book" dominating their list--it had spent six months at number one, and more than 16 months in the top five--that they sectioned off all the self-improvement titles into a separate list, called "Advice." If you remerge the two lists, to show which books have actually sold the most, things don't look so civic-minded for the Americans. In, with a bullet, come titles like "Stop Whining Start Living," "Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?" and "How Come That Idiot's Rich and I'm Not?," a common feeling for those perusing these lists.

A, B, C, C.M.

Time for a quick test of your humanity. If you can watch this clip without feeling joy, you hate one or more of the following -- children, the Muppets, our alphabet, yourself -- and you've got a lot to think about:

(Via Crooked Timber)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Royalty for Wednesday

Just a little extra digging on YouTube can go a long way. Today's gem is an example. On the fifth or sixth page of results for Aretha Franklin, I came across a few clips from a 1968 concert in Stockholm. This is my favorite upbeat song of hers, "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone." The clip gets extra points for Aretha on the piano, and for those great back-up singers. Enjoy:

This is Where We Walked, This is Where We Swam. Take a Picture Here.

At the web site for Polar Inertia, which also has a print publication, there are some stunning shots of abandoned swimming pools:

There's also a great series of Soviet-era bus stops:


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

One Earthquake, Two Witnesses

I’m reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, which focuses on the Catholicism and writing (and the influence of each on the other) of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Only about 50 pages in, it’s very good, but I’m writing because of something it shares with one of my favorite books, Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James.

Both books begin in the early hours of April 18, 1906, when a historic earthquake hit northern California. William James and Dorothy Day experienced the event firsthand. James was 64 years old at the time, a visiting professor at Stanford. In Palo Alto, he greeted the fierce quake with feelings, he later wrote, of “glee,” “admiration,” “delight,” and “welcome.” As Richardson explains:
(James) no longer believed -- if he ever had -- in a fixed world built on a solid foundation. The earthquake was for him a hint of the real condition of things, the real situation. The earthquake revealed a world (like James’s own conception of consciousness) that was pure flux having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it.
Dorothy Day was eight. Her family had moved from New York to Oakland because her father took a job in journalism there. Elie writes that, “Of all her family, (Dorothy) alone was religious: she prayed in school, sang hymns with neighbors, went to church by herself because the others would not go.”

Not surprisingly, she felt differently that morning:
Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself.
Most obviously, she differed from James because she was a child. But I’m interested in the extent to which people’s essential characters are in place during childhood. Perhaps because my mother was also independently religious at a very young age, I’m fascinated by Day’s reaction. For her, the aftermath of the quake brought menacing dreams of God. As she put it, “They were linked up with my idea of God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love.”

Despite the record of her early attraction to spiritual life, Day later said, “Stories of pious children tend to be false.”

Graduation Day for Words

Merriam-Webster just announced this year's new entries for the Collegiate Dictionary. According to M-W, the words are picked "after monitoring their use over years."

That's fine for "fanboy," which was, surprisingly, first used in 1919. And for "wing nut," which dates from circa 1900 (perhaps it was used to describe William McKinley's assassin).

But is 10 years really enough time to justify adding "webinar," a "live, online educational presentation during which participating viewers can submit questions and comments"? Isn't it possible that in a couple of years we'll come to our senses and start (or return to) calling this an online seminar? And "mental health day" -- that's a phrase, made up of three words, none of which are even remotely new.

Over the weekend, on NPR, I heard someone mention the word "staycation," for staying home during a holiday weekend. If the good people at Merriam-Webster are reading this -- please give that one a solid 200-year test run.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Gallery 16

Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber Use Their Top Hats
to Hide Their Faces, January 27, 1942
by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)


A List Continues: 95-91

Honestly, this week and next week (and maybe even the week after that), we're still in the territory of Albums That Made the List at the Last Minute. I like them a lot -- they're on here for a reason -- but in a different mood, I might have chosen something else in their place. Also, at least four of the artists below (with the exception being the gentleman at #94) are on the list despite the fact that I like several bands and singers more who aren't on the list. I guess this is where I'll disclose that the Rolling Stones didn't make the cut. In addition to being more (much more) of a Beatles guy, the Stones to me are a collection of songs chosen from various albums. There are 15-20 Stones songs that I love, but they're scattered over the course of the band's 432-year career. So, with that in mind, here are a few selections from people with less (sometimes much, much less) stature than the Stones:

95. Peter Gabriel -- Us (1992)

So had the bigger hits -- “In Your Eyes,” “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time” -- but I prefer this follow-up. It was a long time coming, released six years after So, and it’s wildly uneven. If everything on here was as good as my three or four favorites, the album might be 50 spots higher. Then again, without one or two of those favorites, it wouldn’t even come close to being considered at all.

The review on Amazon complains that “the pop psychology of ‘Love to Be Loved’ and ‘Washing of the Water’ is overwrought.” But, come on. We’re talking about someone whose very best songs contain lyrics like “in your eyes / the light, the heat / in your eyes / I am complete.” Peter Gabriel traffics in overwrought pop psychology (just look at that cover image -- it has to be the goofiest on the list); some of it is just better than the rest. On “Come Talk to Me,” “Blood of Eden,” and “Secret World,” Gabriel walks right up to that overwrought line and straddles it, the result being that you shake your head at feeling so moved by songs trying so hard to move you.

94. Lyle Lovett -- Lyle Lovett (1986)

Lovett’s 1986 debut arrived complete with his trademark dry wit, reedy vocals, and musical catholicity. On “God Will,” he sings to a cheating lover that God will keep trusting her, loving her, and saying he wants her, but he won’t. (“God will / but I won’t / and that’s the difference / between God and me.”) “This Old Porch” (co-written with Robert Earl Keen) is certainly the best song that ever has -- or could -- include the lyric “this old porch is like a steamin’, greasy plate of enchiladas / with lots of cheese and onions and a guacamole salad.”

But it’s on the ballads “If I Were the Man You Wanted” and “Closing Time” that Lovett proves -- as he has time and again -- that beneath the clever, stoic, private persona is a large, attentive heart.

According to the collective wisdom at Wikipedia, Lyle Lovett was named “one of the top 100 albums of the 1980s by the Italian magazines Il Mucchio Selvaggio and Velvet.” I rest my case.

93. The Connells -- Ring (1993)

The standards I'm using here vary from album to album. The same way that Peter Gabriel benefited from a few standouts, The Connells benefit equally from an emphasis on consistency. There aren’t any songs among the 13 here that would make a list of my 300 favorite songs (with the possible exception of “New Boy”), but there isn’t a throwaway in the bunch. Sure, The Connells would probably like to be R.E.M. and end up closer to the Gin Blossoms, but you don’t get the sense that they’re underachieving. Just the opposite. None of the elements here are outstanding, but they add up. On two occasions -- “74-75” and “Spiral” -- the band (successfully) veers into ballad territory, but otherwise this is just mid-tempo, jangly rock, with lyrics that can be both funny and sad, as in, “If I disappointed you, I’m so sorry / You’re a disappointment, too.”

92. Band of Horses -- Cease to Begin (2007)

This is the most recently released album on the list, which means five or ten years from now it will have undoubtedly climbed up or fallen off. This band’s first two records are remarkably well produced.

I’m sure many people would choose the debut, Everything All the Time, instead, but I think this one is slightly more diverse. The band's confidence and ambition are clear from the start. Like The Joshua Tree -- on a lesser scale, of course -- Cease to Begin puts three of its best songs right at the front end. Those three and "Cigarettes, Wedding Bands," in which the band crafts a singalong chorus from the word "lied," guarantee this album's lasting power.

91. George Michael -- Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990)

For some, this will require the most vigorous defense of any of the 100, but it shouldn’t. Male pop stars have a harder time being taken seriously than female pop stars. I’m sure there are several academic departments scattered around the country that are devoted to Madonna. But George Michael -- who can actually sing and has at least as many good songs as she does -- is just a punch line to late-night-TV jokes about public restrooms.

It’s true that this is one of the weirdest entries on the list. After Michael’s debut solo album, Faith, became a huge hit, he could have emerged with a shiny follow-up. Instead, he mounted an attack on his own image and recorded a set of loungy and somber songs. The exception, of course, was the radio smash “Freedom ‘90,” but the lyrics to that song spoke very directly to Michael’s dissatisfaction with his image, and he pointedly replaced himself in the video with a string of supermodels. The rest of the record features a faithful cover of Stevie Wonder’s haunting “They Won’t Go When I Go,” an overly earnest but somehow still effective song about the fact that “God stopped keeping score” (“Praying for Time”), and a really great centerpiece (“Waiting for That Day”). The result was a record that sold "just" two million copies in the U.S., after which Michael has never been as big a star.

To balance out the Gabriel image above, Listen Without Prejudice also has one of my very favorite covers -- an unadorned, severely cropped version of a shot taken at Coney Island in 1940 by the photographer Weegee. Here’s the complete photo:


Praising Pittsburgh

A few years ago, my friend and I spent a couple of days in Pittsburgh. We were thoroughly impressed by the city and its baseball stadium. Today, the New York Times' 36-hours feature spotlights Pitt, and the account starts like this:
Pittsburgh has undergone a striking renaissance from a down-and-out smokestack to a gleaming cultural oasis. But old stereotypes die hard, and Pittsburgh probably doesn’t make many people’s short list for a cosmopolitan getaway. Too bad, because this city of 89 distinct neighborhoods is a cool and — dare I say, hip—city.

Home, Reluctantly

I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday weekend. Not to be a jerk, but I’m sure you didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks to generous friends, I spent Thursday to Sunday steps away from a lake in Old Forge, New York. (The photo to the right captures the general area pretty well. I foolishly left my camera at home, but one of our hosts is a professional photographer, and I hope to share some of his shots in the coming days...)

There were eleven of us there (including a four-month-old), and even though some friendships go back much further than others, the group got along as if we had all gone to college together. In the sun, it was warm; in the shade, it was cool; at night, it was cold. In other words, my perfect weather system. The days were filled with an honor roll of leisure activities. It was an all-time great weekend.

Coming back on Sunday afternoon -- a 300-something mile trip that, with a stop at Denny’s, took nine hours -- we heard Casey Kasem on the radio. Did everybody know that Casey was still going strong? (He’s 76. I could have sworn he was 76 in the mid-’80s.) The long-distance dedication was Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” -- sent from a man to his recently deceased cat. I had no idea the dedication could be so long-distance as to reach the great kitty beyond.

Re-entering Manhattan, the smell of rotting garbage wafted through the car window. Today, leaving the apartment was like diving into a bog, and the next two days are supposed to be even more humid. I head up to Saratoga in 43 days, but who’s counting?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Gone Fishin'

I'm heading out of town for the holiday weekend, starting Thursday morning. I will not, but I will read, and barbecue, and stare into the middle distance. The computer will stay behind in New York to think about what it's done. Happy 4th to the rest of you -- enjoy the festivities, but safely, so that when I see you Monday we still have all our fingers.


Sam (and, um, Howard)

For Wednesday, the great Sam Cooke singing "Basin Street Blues" on the Mike Douglas Show. His talent can't even be dimmed by annoying intrusions by Howard Keel, a fellow guest. (In fairness, I think this was a segment at the end of each show in which guests were encouraged to goof around with each other, but still).



In the new issue of Stop Smiling, which has a gambling theme, I have an interview with horse racing announcer Tom Durkin. I also reviewed a book about the history of gambling.

There are three covers available. My favorite is the one with Elliott Gould. (The issue also features a package about California Split, Robert Altman's terrific gambling movie, which starred Gould and George Segal.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Holding Court

There was a lot of talk about the Supreme Court's recent decisions, and Slate had a stimulating roundtable about the issues involved. The first installment is here, and there are 18 after that (some briefer than others). I particularly liked this post by Cliff Sloan, because I agree completely with this:
When somebody says, "activist," it often simply means, "I don't agree with that decision." That's what it means, at any rate, when it's not being used merely to score cheap political points.
And because Sloan, like the others involved in the discussion, tends to take both sides seriously, as he does here:
I happen to disagree with the court's conclusion in both these cases, and I think the dissents have the better of the arguments. But I don't think there's anything inappropriately "activist" in the court's determinations today that the political branches exceeded constitutional bounds. Justice Scalia's opinion in parsing the peculiarly written Second Amendment certainly is not a frivolous interpretation. I do think his interpretation can legitimately be faulted . . . But the project of construing constitutional language and enforcing constitutional provisions is exactly what courts should be doing, and we shouldn't disparage it as some "activist" frolic, even if there's a lively debate about the correct constitutional interpretation.

A Film Syllabus

At the end of this interview with film journalist Peter Biskind, we get this:
Appelo: What about people who write about Hollywood and are worth reading? Can you give us an Honors Exam required reading list?

Biskind: David McClintick's Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street, Stephen Bach's Heaven's Gate: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven's Gate, Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, John Gregory Dunne's The Studio, Leo Braudy's The World in a Frame, Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System. And you have to have Lillian Roth's classic book on John Huston, The Picture.
I had just recently heard about the Lillian Roth book, and I've always been a big John Gregory Dunne fan, so both are on my list. The rest are probably worth adding. Of course, he didn't mention himself, but Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a great book. I wrote about it here, and here.

(Via 2 Blowhards)