Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Review: Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader back a few years ago.

Get new reviews the instant t

Frank McCourt is once again topping the best seller lists, and ‘tis grand to have him back.

It must be daunting for a writer with a popular blockbuster, a critical smash, a Pulitzer Prize winner on his first try out of the box, at sixty six years of age no less, it must, indeed, be daunting for such a writer not simply to sit on his pen and to put himself on the line again. And so when his second memoir, while certainly a pleasant enough read if never quite capturing the raw emotional power of the first gleans a much more modest reception, it is probably no great surprise. After all, how many Angela’s Ashes does one writer have in his life? But then to try still third time. . . .

Well, if Teacher Man is any indication, at least one more anyway. McCourt’s latest trek through the days of his life is a compelling complement to his first volume. If it doesn’t have quite the pathos of the first, it makes up for it with critical insight and contemporary relevance. It is a book as much about the present in its implications as it is about one man’ memories of his past.

Most of the book is devoted to describing McCourt’s thirty years teaching English in the New York City high schools. He begins in 1958 in Mckee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island, spends some time at Fashion Industries High School and then Seward Park, a year at New York City Community College, and ends up at what he and many others consider the jewel of the City system Peter Stuyvesant High School (which was located, as many of you might well know, in lower Manhattan, right across the street from the World Trade Center).

Like his other work, the core of Teacher Man is the anecdote. Frank McCourt is a master story teller. He’ll make you laugh as he explains how he handled the problem of the flying baloney sandwich on his first day of teaching. He’ll get your eyes to well up a little as he tells of the student who describes how her father died while the family was watching the first landing on the moon on television in the next room. He’ll force you to question an educational system that mandates vocabulary words like usufruct and condign for fifteen year old plumbers-to-be as he describes the lament of one mother during his first round of parent teacher conferences. His stories are often touching and always engaging, but they are not merely stories for stories’s sake, they seem usually to have a point, a lesson if you will. There is always something to be learned from experience, and McCourt is, after all, a teacher.

And as all real teachers know, students are not the only ones in the classroom who learn. It is in the high school classroom that McCourt, like so many before and since, truly learn what teaching is all about. He makes it perfectly clear that when he stepped into that classroom in McKee High School in March of ‘58, he hadn’t the foggiest notion of what he was doing. His collegiate preparation in pedagogy was about as helpful in the real world of the classroom as ‘usufruct’ would be in stopping a leaking toilet. Professors of education who more often than not have no actual experience in the secondary school classroom had provided little of practical use to the novice faced with thirty five restless, recalcitrant teenagers. Courses in the history and philosophy of education offered little preparation for dealing with the everyday problems of classroom management, student behavior and lack of motivation. Even the so-called practical methodology courses most usually presumed ideal circumstances with unlimited resources, extensive time to plan and well behaved students willing to listen to the teacher and follow instructions. They offered little help with the student who smiles in defiance and explains, "I don’t got no pen, Teach." Moreover, they still don’t.

Thus, with regard to the episode of the baloney sandwich: "Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom." This was the late fifties. One wonders how much things may have changed.

McCourt describes an educational system in which teachers are discouraged from letting their students see them as anything more than authority figures in front of the room behind a desk. It is a system that values discipline and order even at the expense of learning. This is not to say that education can take place where there is anarchy, but it is to say that quiet classrooms do not necessarily mean that anyone is learning anything. It is a system that asks teachers to patrol halls and bathrooms, to tend to administrative paper work, and make sure that parents are satisfied with whatever it is their children are learning and how quickly they are learning it. It is a system that puts them in five classes with some thirty five students in each, that asks them to take home 175 or so student essays, read them, correct them for spelling and grammar, to edit them for substance and clarity, make constructive criticisms, and finally to put that all important grade on them.

It is a system in which for most teachers the greatest ambition is to escape from the classroom, to become a guidance counsel or perhaps ultimately the goal of goals–administrator.

Although by far the greatest share of the book is devoted to his educational career, McCourt does sprinkle in some seasoning from his life outside the classroom. He talks about working on the docks while attending college. He describes his abortive attempt at a doctorate at Trinity College in Dublin. There is a perverse romantic relationship with one of his college classmates who is also having an affair with one of the professors. There is an inauspicious party with a moderately famous literary figure who takes delight in ridiculing and abusing his guests. There is even an account of an unsatisfactory regimen of psychiatric treatment and group therapy. And always, whether he is writing about his classroom or his bedroom, Frank McCourt is honest; Frank McCourt is entertaining.

Having spent four years teaching in the New York City school system back in the early sixties, myself, I can attest to the fact that the experiences he describes are both typical and accurate. He speaks with authority. He knows what he is talking about. He knows what makes for good teaching and what is merely busy work. He knows that students need to be challenged. He understands that sometimes education comes in strange ways and odd circumstances, maybe even in reciting recipes to musical accompaniment. He understands that some students can be pushed and some cannot, and his thirty years in the business have taught him which is which. A reader couldn’t want a better guide through the maze that is secondary education in a big city school system.

He talks of his successes, his dynamic creative teaching experiences: students writing fictional excuse notes for Adam, for Eve, for God; an ethnic food picnic in the park outside the school. He talks about his failures: a student pressed to describe in detail the dinner he had eaten alone the night before, only to learn that the student was eating alone because his father was in the hospital dying of cancer. These are, of course, his experiences, but in a sense they are the experiences of a good many teachers who have spent their lives in the classroom, and he uses these experiences to pay just a little attention where some attention is long overdue,

In America, doctors, lawyers. generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. Teachers are told to use the service door or go around the back. They are congratulated on having ATTO (All That Time Off). They are spoken of patronizingly and patted retroactively on their livery locks. Oh, yes, I had an English teacher, Miss Smith, who really inspired me. I’ll never forget dear old Miss Smith. She used to say that if she reached one child in her forty years of teaching it would make it all worthwhile. She’d die happy. The inspiring English teacher then fades into gray shadows to eke out her days on a penny-pinching pension, dreaming of the one child she might have reached. Dream on, teachers. You will not be celebrated.

On the contrary, "Teacher Man" is that celebration

Book Review: Positively 4th Street, by David Hajdu

Article first published as Book Review: Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina by David Hajdu on Blogcritics.

Marking the tenth anniversary of its publication, Picador is issuing a new edition of David Hajdu's delicious portrait of the 60's folk scene as it was embodied in two of its greatest lights and two of its lesser luminaries--Positively 4th Street. In some sense this is the story of a quartet of unusual people, the queen of folk, Joan Baez, the prince, soon to become king, Bob Dylan, the queen's little sister, Mimi, and the court jester, Richard Farina. But in their story, there is the story of a decade of social and cultural mutations that were to make a shambles of the Leave it to Beaver picture of the country. This is the story of four people who were right for the time, a time that was right for them.

Although Hajdu does pay some attention to their earlier lives, it is the 60's that is the focus of the book. Folk music which had long been thought of as a niche music form for a limited audience of folklorists and socialists had begun finding a broader audience in the fifties. A group like The Weavers was finding its way onto the pop charts. Harry Belafonte was singing calypso. The Kingston Trio’s first album came out in 1958. People were singing "Irene," "The Banana Boat Song," and "Tom Dooley." The scene was set—all that was needed was some fresh blood to take advantage of it.

And along came Joan. Come from California with her family to Belmont, Massachusetts, she quickly gravitated to the Cambridge coffee house scene, at first joining with the singers from the audience and then moving up to the stage, captivating audiences with her shy soulful soprano. At times she sang duets with her sister, but Mimi was still in high school and not yet ready to compete for attention. Besides it was likely, Joan had little desire to share the stage. There was Farina, a student at Cornell, not really a musician, but ambitious and filled with youthful confidence and braggadocio. He wasn't yet but could be a writer, novels, essays, poems, songs—name it, he knew he could write it. Then there was Dylan, up from Minnesota with a "jones" for Woody Guthrie looking to make a name for himself in Greenwich Village. Hadju discusses at length the arcs of their careers, their inter-connections both professional and personal. It's all there: Joan's championship of Dylan's music, their love affair, Dylan's transition to the electric guitar, Farina's novel and his instrument of choice, the dulcimer, his secret marriage to Mimi in Paris and their emergence as a musical duo. And this doesn't begin to scratch the surface. He talks about their appearances at everything from Gerde's Folk City to the Newport Folk Festivals. He talks about their tours and their records. He discusses Joan's commitment to social and political activism, and Dylan's movement away from political protest. He describes Farina's poetry and his song writing. He shows how Mimi was relegated to a back seat in their professional relationship, despite her superiority as a musician. He summarizes some of the critical reaction to their work and does some evaluation of his own.

The book is filled with juicy gossip. Joan may have stolen her original material from the act of a friend she had teamed up with for awhile. Farina liked to tell people that he had been a gun runner for Castro, that he had fought with the IRA, that he had an steel plate in his head. Mimi was dyslexic. Joan was jealous of her beauty. The first time Dylan met the Baez sisters, he was more interested in Mimi. Dylan picks all the meat out of a stew Joan has made for a dinner party. And on, and on—plenty of little tidbits for all appetites.

He is not particularly interested in writing hagiography. They are not always portrayed as very nice people. Dylan is moody and is not beyond humiliating those around him. He seems to feel no obligation to anyone. Baez is jealous and controlling. Farina is boastful and reckless. Mimi, perhaps the nicest of the bunch, comes across as a naïve romantic, still she is all of 21 when the book concludes, so what can one expect. Perhaps these are the sins of youth, perhaps it is simply the self centeredness necessary for success in the music world, whatever it is, it can be disturbing to see that one's saints may well have those proverbial clay feet.

Now ten years old, the book is still a compelling read. But it is ten years old, and it is filled with references to people, places and events that could use some explanation. Even for those of us around at the time, a little help from our friends jogging our memories would be nice. For younger readers, the addition of explanatory footnotes couldn't hurt. If you're going to do a new edition, why not do a little editing. Sure it's only ten years, but memories are short.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle

Article first published as Book Review: Bullfighting: Stories by Roddy Doyle on Blogcritics.

Perhaps it's unfair, but for many readers it is nigh on to impossible to read a collection of short stories about Ireland by an Irish author without comparing it to what has to be the emblematic collection of Irish stories, James Joyce's Dubliners. Happily the stories in Roddy Doyle's new collection Bullfighting doesn't suffer from the comparison. These are thirteen stories that can hold their own with the best that Ireland has to offer, and that's no mean feat. If there's one thing the Irish can do, it's tell stories. Doyle is no exception; he does them proud. He writes with humor and pathos. He has a justly acclaimed ear for the Irish voice. He has keen insights into the Ireland of the twenty first century and keener insights into the men and women who inhabit it.

The stories in Bullfighting, eight of which had been first published in The New Yorker, all focus on aging men trying to cope with the problems of getting old. They are no longer working, or they are getting ready to retire. Their bodies are falling apart. Their children have grown old and left the nest. The passion has gone from their marriages. They reflect on a past when they felt useful and needed. "Recuperation," the first of the stories in the collection, sets the theme. Hanahoe, the protagonist, is out walking for his daily exercise as recommended by his doctors. As he walks he reflects on both his past and his present. He sees the changes in the city: a kickboxing sign on a local school, Africans selling the Herald, McDonalds, women in trainers who walk faster than him. He thinks back to things that were and things that might have been. In some respects it is a very depressing story, but then at the end when he huddles into a bus shelter, he meets a friendly little girl waiting for her mother. She talks to him and this little bit of human contact renews him: "The rain is gone. It's bright again." While there's life there's hope.

That is the key to most of these stories; no matter how depressing things seem to get, the rain goes and skies brighten. In "Animals," the aging out of work father counts his life, not in coffee spoons, but his children's pets, the fish, the birds, the rabbits. He thinks back to the time he accidently backed the car over their dog and then lied to the family about it. When he tells his son about it, the son reassures him: "We all knew we had a great da." "The Dog" is about a couple that drifts apart, held together for awhile by their pet. In "The Photograph" a photo of an old friend at 25 placed on his coffin provides a kind of epiphany (to borrow a term associated with Joyce) for the protagonist. "Sad," he muses, "and good had become the same thing."
Some of the stories connect aging with changes in behavior. "Blood," a comic story about a middle aged man, who suddenly develops an inexplicable taste for blood dripping raw meat, is certainly the weirdest of these. But then there's "Funerals" where a man begins to take pleasure in ferrying his elderly parents around to the funerals of their relatives, friends and acquaintances, and "Teaching" where the protagonist has to balance his teaching and his drinking as he finds himself meeting the children of his old students in his classes.

"Bullfighting," the title story, takes a quartet of middle aged men to Spain for what seems like a fairly depressing vacation. They are staying in a shoddy house owned by one of the men's brothers. The town, although people seem to be awake at all hours, is described as quiet and boring. There is a bullfighting arena, but even that is described as boring. They drink, they swim, they read. When they are ready to leave, the protagonist in an almost drunken stupor wanders into the bull ring as a bull is being unloaded from a truck. While the bull never comes near him, it is as though the experience has in some way liberated him from the aging process. He goes back to the house and vomits in the pool, but that's alright. "This was living, he thought. This was happiness."

Other than "Blood" perhaps, these are stories that deal with the ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. In most of them nothing significant seems to happen. Men take walks, alone or with dogs. Men have problems with wives. A man finds a dead rat in his kitchen and it seems to upset the order of his universe. A man watches his sleeping wife and thinks back to when they were young. These are stories in which little happens, but what does happen is everything. They are the stuff of lives lived. It is the gift of Roddy Doyle that he is equally at home writing about movie making and the IRA—check out his Henry Smart trilogy—as he is about an ordinary guy rushing off to the hospital with kidney stones. And he can make you care about both.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Michael McConnell

Checked out Michael McConnell's website after being very taken with his cover art for the new Blueflowers album. Thought I'd pass along the link to anyone interested.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Music Review: The Blueflowers, In Line With the Broken Hearted

Article first published as Music Review: The Blueflowers - In Line With the Broken-Hearted on Blogcritics.

The unsettling cover of the new album by the Detroit based Blueflowers, In Line With the Broken Hearted, is a perfect image for the unsettling music within. The cover, a reproduction of San Francisco artist Michael McConnell's Hunting the Surface, is a picture of a young girl's body crowned with an owl's head. She sits back on her heels and in her hand holds a sling shot. The owl peers menacingly directly out at the viewer. Other than the jarring juxtaposition of the girl's body and owl's head the picture has the look of something a 19th century illustrator of Alice in Wonderland or a Beatrix Potter might have painted. McConnell's painting is in some sense a subversive attack on the sentimental sweetness of this kind of pastel world. What McConnell does in this painting is what The Blueflowers do with their music.

There is, at times, a sweet soft pop sound to the music reminiscent of an earlier time that contrasts with a pervasive darkness which dominates the lyric content. The songs, written by guitarist Tony Hamera and vocalist Kate Hinote, a husband and wife team, are filled with (not to sound pretentious) a kind of post modern irony which depends on the clash between style and content. Songs centered on dysfunctional relationships are sung with an almost angelic purity that contrasts with the heartbreak of their content. Kate Hinote's voice can soar from girlish sweetness to dramatic peaks. At times it has a haunting ethereal quality, at times a folksy intimacy. With few exceptions the sweetness of the melodies suggest the fragility of relationships, and even when the music takes a darker turn, as in the throbbing "Make Me Stop" which ends the album, there is still an impressive soaring vocal energy.
The songs on the album run from the sixties pop feel of "Maybe" to the country sound of "Even Now," from the infectious Latin flavors of "The Lovely Ones" to the pulsating rhythms of the title song. It is a set list that has something for everyone. These are songs that will sing in your head long after you've shaken the buds out of your ears. The lyrics are both intense and literate. There are the conceit like metaphors "You Are the Radio (I Am Your Song)" and "One Hand Away From Out." "In Your Shadow" which opens the album has all sensual imagery of a fine poem laid out with dramatic passion in the vocal arrangement, while the equally sensual bitter imagery of "When It Started" is hidden in a soft lilting melody. "Maybe" takes banal teen pop and turns it on its head. "Hesitate" is a darker take on "fantasy gone" when "the clock won't stop racing."

Besides vocals, Hinote also plays a little piano and Hamera who produced and engineered the disc also plays some organ and percussion. Erica Stephens is on the bass guitar, David Johnson, the acoustic guitar and Jim Faulkner plays drums and a little organ. Stephen Masucci has a guitar solo and Al Bongiorno plays trumpet on "Make Me Stop."

In Line With the Broken Hearted is the band's second album. Watercolor Ghost Town, their first album, seems to have been built with a similar aesthetic: dark melancholy couched in sweet melody. Hamera says: "We were going for a dark, moody, yet song-oriented record, utilizing as much analog gear and period instrumentation as possible." "Think Phil Spector meets David Lynch," he concludes. You can check out some of the band's music at The Blueflowers website and get an idea of the results.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Movie Review: Dumbstruck

Article first published as Movie Review: Dumbstruck on Blogcritics.

For a viewer of a certain age, the idea of a documentary about ventriloquists that never mentions Edgar Bergen or Paul Winchell is about as unthinkable as a film about stand-up comedy that doesn't mention Bob Hope. But unimaginable as it may be, that is exactly the case in Mark Goffman's documentary, Dumbstruck which opens April 22 in Manhattan at the Cinema Village and the 29th in Los Angeles. There is a scene at the ventriloquist's museum in Kentucky where I'm sure I saw Charlie McCarthy and Jerry Mahoney in a gaggle of other dummies (or puppets the "politically correct" term that seems to be the preference of most of the ventriloquist "wanabees" and aficionados interviewed in the film). Of course Dumbstruck is not meant to be a history of the art; it is not a film about the past. It is a film about the present. It is a film about an art form that was at one time quite popular, but seemed to have lost some of its cache in recent years; it is a film about those people who still devote themselves to the practice of that art form. It is a film that suggests that perhaps it was a good deal too early to bury the old girl yet.
Dumbstruck opens at the 2007 annual gathering of the faithful, the Vent Haven Convention in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, the ventriloquism capitol of the world. It introduces us to five more or less professional ventriloquists and their puppets in various stages of their careers and then follows them during the course of the year as they go about plying their trade and attempting to move up in the business. They are a mixed group. Their skills vary, but they are all passionate in their pursuit of their pursuit of their dreams.

There is Dylan, a thirteen year old with a black puppet named Reggie and a father who would prefer it if he took up football. There is Wilma, a six foot five woman who performs for senior citizens and seems to bring her puppets with her wherever she goes. Kim is an ex-beauty queen from Ohio now in her thirties, who performs for children and dreams of working on the cruise circuit. Dan has appeared on television and is working on the cruise ships, but while he is making a living, it keeps him away from his family for long stretches and is having a devastating effect on his personal life. Finally there is Terry. Terry has spent 22 years struggling to "make it," when he gets his big chance when he appears on NBC's America's Got Talent.

Terry gets the opportunity and Terry makes the most of it. The film shows a clip from his first appearance on the show. They cut to the judges. David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osborne are clearly less than thrilled. "Oh lord, another ventriloquist," they seem to be mouthing." Then, in what is one of those Susan Boyle moments, Terry's puppet begins to sing and the reaction in electric. Terry of course is Terry Fator. He wins the million dollar prize on the show and even more importantly he gets himself a 100 million dollar deal to perform in Las Vegas. If computer nerds can look to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg for inspiration, Terry Fator and his fantastic success after years of toiling in obscurity is no less an inspiration, for the Dylan's and the Dan's. Not that they need any inspiration other than their own love of the art. Still one thing that is abundantly clear, it is that ventriloquism is not dead.

Goffman's film is an engrossing portrait of a group of people who are willing to give up quite a lot to follow their bliss. They may never get to Vegas. For some Ft. Mitchell may well be the zenith of their careers, but that probably doesn't matter. They are doing what they love, and even with the disappointments that they meet along the way they are happy to be doing it. Goffman's script treats them with respect. Poor performances, unrealistic expectations, he never ridicules them. There is an honesty about the film and the central characters that endears them to the viewer. There is no Edgar Bergen. There is no Paul Winchell. There isn't even a Shari Lewis. But in truth, you don't miss them. Dylan, Wilma, Kim, Dan and Terry will do just fine.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Music Review: 'Round Midnight, Karrin Allyson

Article first published as Music Review: Karrin Allyson - 'Round Midnight on Blogcritics.

'Round Midnight, jazz vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson's latest is set for release in May, and let me tell you, it's a winner. The eleven songs she has chosen are an eclectic mix of pop and jazz standards, a bit of Broadway, and a bit of Hollywood; most are songs you've heard before, but never quite the way Allyson sings them. The elegant clarity of her voice combined with the subtle nuances of her organic phrasing make these songs her own. She can be sad. She can be plaintive. She can be sultry. She can't be cliché. This is a true artist at work.

The album opens with Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars." In her notes, Allyson points out that Evans usually played this up-tempo, but she takes it at a slower pace "with lots of stretched out time." The slower tempo focuses on the darker pathos of the lyric: "Let eternal darkness hide me." "April She Will Come," a Paul Simon composition, is delivered with a simplicity that remains true to its folk rock roots. "Goodbye," perhaps most often associated with Benny Goodman, is treated with what she calls a "rhumba groove," while still echoing the plaintive sadness inherent in the lyric. It is a masterly reading of this favorite. Melancholy, like this, pervades the album. Her version of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" drips with the sadness of unfulfilled dreams, while her take on the classic "Smile" focuses less on the stiff upper lip advice than the tears that need to be hidden. Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" gets a similar treatment. These are great songs interpreted with real emotional truth.

Jazz standards "Sophisticated Lady" and "'Round Midnight" highlight the album. The Duke Ellington classic is handled with a nice easy swinging tempo and some sweet harmonica accents from Randy Weinstein. Allyson's vocal has a sultry quality that is unique on this album. Monk's "'Round Midnight" is a duet between Allyson's vocal and bassist, Ed Howard. His accompaniment and evocative solo work provide an interesting counterpoint to her melodious vocals.

Although most of the songs on the album are well known, there are two that I hadn't heard before. "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" gets a swinging treatment that unlike most of the other songs on the record contrasts with the sadness of the lyric. Allyson's notes point out that according to Fran Landesman who wrote the song with Tommy Wolf the lyric was based the T. S. Eliot line about April being the cruelest month in "The Wasteland." It is certainly bleak enough. "There's No Such Thing as Love," she calls Anthony Newley's "heartbreaker." It is an ironic evocation of all the losses encompassed in the loss of love. Her vocal is accompanied by her solo piano.

Indeed Allyson handles all the piano and keyboard work on the album, for the first time, she tells us in the liner notes. Besides Howard and Weinstein, she is joined by guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Matt Wilson. Bob Sheppard plays woodwinds. His solo work stands out on a number of tracks. He plays tenor sax on "Turn Out the Stars," bass clarinet on "Goodbye," soprano sax on "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," and flute on "The Shadow of Your Smile." With the exception of Wilson this is an ensemble that has played together and knows each other well. More importantly, this is an ensemble that can play.

This is not a collection of happy songs. They are songs of lost love and heartbreak. They voice the hurt of loss and betrayal. While there may be some who find themselves overwhelmed by the melancholy of her selections, Allyson is clear that singing these songs of love gone bad is cathartic. "Embracing the difficult emotions is part of the healing process." If singing them can do the healing, listening to a great singer singing them might do the job for the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A review of Dead Boys by Richard Lange

This article was first published at Compulsive Reader.

Lives of noisy desperation might not be a bad description of the characters that people the twelve stories in Richard Lange’s debut collection, Dead Boys. At best they are people who get by at dead end jobs they despise, at worst they wallow in misery in drugs and alcohol. They live in shabby apartments in run down neighborhoods where a child’s wading pool can’t even be left out in the yard over night. They live in sleazy motels where the desk clerk sits caged behind bullet proof glass and the room next door echoes with prostitutes plying their trade. More often than not their marriages have failed or are failing. They are as like as not estranged from their families. If they have friends, male or female, those friends are likely to be as miserable as they are if not worse. Their hopes and their dreams, if they still have them, are bubbles just about ready to burst. All of this is to say: the world of Dead Boys is not what you would call a pleasant place to be spending your life.

These are helpless people caught up in the web of a deterministic universe: they wriggle and they writhe, they moan and they complain, but they cannot escape, Most of them have given up even trying. Here’s one of his narrators (all twelve stories have first person narrators) forecasting his future: "Christina’s sister will crash at my apartment for a few days, and it will be fun and all, but we’ll finally come to our senses. I’ll tell her to leave, and she’ll try to stab me with a broken tequila bottle. After that I’ll be lonely for a good long while, but then things will get better. I’ll find a job, lose it, find another. A few years form now I’ll come into enough money to take a trip to Hawaii. I will not enjoy it." In another story, the narrator’s relationship with his wife is described as running in circles as he waits for her to come home from some party where he’s sure she’s seeing someone else. In a third story the narrator is haunted by the memory of his wife who jumped from a highway bridge. He blames himself for her suicide, and he blames her ghost for everything that has gone wrong in his life since–everything from his car breaking down to his inability to keep a decent pair of shoes. "She wants me to suffer, and I have obliged, but the price of peace remains a mystery." There is no peace for any of the people in these stories.

They are set for the most part in Los Angeles, but although there are the stars on the Walk of Fame and every once in awhile someone gets a view of the Hollywood sign, they might as well take place on another planet. The L.A. Lange describes is "a rough neighborhood, graffiti twisting like angry black vines up the sides of the buildings, half the streetlights shot out," where the grocery market is a "windowless bunker that’s been tarted up with a thin coat of hot pink paint." In the meat department pig snouts are on sale, and "a fly that’s succumbed to the cold lies belly-up on the hamburger." The dining spots of choice are Macdonalds and donut shops. Far from the Beverly Hills Hotel, Lange’s people step into lobbies where "a few men are hunched on the spavined couches, rapt before a silent television chained to a shelf up near the ceiling." The man next to you smells like "yeast and moth balls." The hotel sits on streets that the "sun never quite reaches. . . .and those who have chosen to live in this constant twilight collide with those who have no choice and those who are simply, in one way or another, lost." Forget maps to the homes of the stars: "The sky out this way is a map of hell–blood and fire and gristly bruised clouds." This is not red carpet; this is filthy motel shag.

Society’s dregs caught in the lower depths–there was a time, over a hundred years ago now, when this kind of thing was innovative and startling, scandalous even, for an author to turn to the social under belly for his subject matter. This was the time of Emile Zola and novels like "Nana," of Stephen Crane and his Maggie. That time has long gone, taken the last of the exits to Brooklyn. Authors have long since freed themselves from the confines of the genteel and the socially acceptable. There is no class of people, no actions of these people, no language to describe them and their actions that has not been mined for it potential ore. There is a good deal of ugliness in the world and it has been a long time since writers have chosen to ignore it.

Given this truism, it isn’t saying much about the quality of Lange’s stories to say they are gritty pictures of the seamier side of life in glamorous L.A. To say this is merely to place them in a tradition, what gives them their life and their power is the author’s ability to create characters, who despite their many failures and flaws, despite their depravities and cruelties, can still manage to stimulate a reader’s compassion. Sometimes they can even seem likeable. To take weak, unpleasant, and even evil characters and have your reader coming away perhaps finding something to like in them, this is no mean feat.

All the first person narrators are flawed in some way. They drink away their problems. They subject themselves to faithless women. They take advantage of friends and relatives. They blind themselves with illusions. Yet listening to them is much like sitting at a bar next to a slightly tipsy stranger rambling on about his life and loves in the pleasant glow of a warm buzz. You know deep down he’s only a seedy drunk, but you can’t help kind of liking him. So when the narrator of "Bank of America" talks about robbing banks to set up a nest egg for his family, the last thing you do is make moral judgments. He seems like such a nice guy, he just wants "a Subway franchise somewhere quiet with good schools." When the narrator of "Blind-Made Products" describes how he treats his blind girlfriend at first, you can almost forgive him the way he treats women in general, if not quite his slimy treatment of her at the end of their affair. It’s not that his drunks and his dopers are loveable, it’s just that they’re all too human. And if they are bad, and they are, there are so many others that are worse.

Moreover, they speak so well. They are nothing if not articulate. Sometimes one has to wonder if they are perhaps not too eloquent, if their descriptive abilities are a bit too articulate.

The speaker in "Blind-Made Products" talks about the difficulty he has trying to describe things to his blind girl friend. Yet he doesn’t seem to have any problem describing things to the reader.

A drawer full of panties is "arrayed like the lustrous black and blue and red pelts of small exotic creatures." He talks about the hands of blind people preparing their coffee as "seeming to have an intelligence of their own." A sheet of black plastic blowing up against a car’s windshield "flaps and billows in the wind like and ugly ghost." And he is not the only narrator with the gift of language. They all seem to have it. Razor wire looks like the skeleton of a snake chewing on its own tail, according to the security guard telling the story of "Loss Prevention." In "Telephone Bird," the narrator describes a marihuana high: "How nicely th couch cradled me then, like the softest cloud. I lost touch of the game, charting the snaky creep of darkness across the rug and up the wainscoting. The black tide slopped over onto the wallpaper, drowning the roses row by row, and I was right there when it reached the ceiling, the only witness as night overtook us."

Sometimes the figurative language echoes the kind of fanciful indulgence of the 17th century metaphysical poets: "The rain comes down so hard it cracks the night into a million pieces. All I can see through the windshield is glistening shards of cars and blacktop and the kaleidoscopic whorl of a woman skedaddling across the parking lot." This is brilliant description–literate and precise, but is it appropriate for someone starting on his first night as a security guard in a ghetto market, even if he did go to college? I don’t know what the answer is. I do know I wouldn’t want to lose that gem of description.

Often the author lays a symbolic leitmotif over the narrative. The smoke and ash from an out of control fire that covers everything in "Fuzzyland" parallel the haze and dirt that pervade the character’s lives. The stench from the decaying body of the suicide in Room 210 that fills "Love Lifted Me" is a constant reminder of the decay which surround us all and compliments the running theme of the suicide the narrator’s wife. The bird who mimics the telephone ring with its false promises, the brick wall that the one window of a tiny apartment faces, the action figure of a man who finds out he’s a robot: all develop into significant comments on the narrators and their lives. Perhaps none more so than the running fantasies of Scarlet Johansson in "Loss Prevention." She represents the kinds of dreams that get a lot of people through the smoke and ash covered night," marihuana, alcohol, Scarlet Johansson.

Finally, Lange’s narrators often add a touch of irony to their stories that seems to put things in just the right perspective. When killing a bird brings no divine retribution, the narrator observes: "I knew the disappointment some criminals feel when their most daring transgressions fail to make the papers." Or as he later observes: what’s the good of being crazy if you still feel shame? There is the Yuppie in a dead end job who ends up putting on his ex-con brother’s T-shirt and socks. The narrator of "Love Lifted Me" deflates the Jesus spouting father of a street punk by asking him how long it has been since he’s seen his son. "The guy’s smile goes mushy at the edges," he tells us. "It’s the kind of reaction I was looking for. I’m fucked that way."

On the one hand one might argue that such insights and such literary eloquence in general is out of character for the kinds of people who are supposed to be speaking, yet this has always been the paradox of literary naturalism unless it is presented by some third person observer more literate that the characters described. Not everyone, however, can have a Huck Finn speak like a Huck Finn. After all who wants to read transcripts of the conversations of alcoholics and petty criminals. The real question is does the author manage to get the reader to forget the chasm between the speakers and the way they say what they say. Nothing is duller than the stories of drunks when you’re sober. It is art that makes these drunks interesting. It is art that makes us realize that attention must be paid. And it is the art of Richard Lange that he manages to do just that.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Music Review: David Lowery, The Palace Guards

Article first published as Music Review: David Lowery - The Palace Guards on Blogcritics.

In one of those odd coincidences that seem to presage something momentous but are probably more common than they seem, I had been listening to a podcast of a 2008 concert by Victor Krummenacher and his band on Americana Rock Mix when David Lowery's new solo album, The Palace Guards, arrived in the mail. If you believe in signs, well, here was definitely a sign. Of course, the podcast had been sitting on my iPod for several weeks and I had ordered the Lowery CD awhile back and was awaiting it expectantly, still if it wasn't quite the conversion of the Titanic and the iceberg (with apologies to Thomas Hardy), it was nonetheless a sign worth noting. The only question was a sign of what.

I synched the CD to my iPod; I listened for a couple of dadys, and it wasn’t long before I knew of what. If the eclectic alternative rock of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker lit you up, Lowery's new album is going to make you a very happy camper all over again. The nine tracks on The Palace Guards, eight written by the singer, are as good as anything he's done in the past, and he's done some mighty good things in the past. He opens with "Raise 'em Up on Honey," a folksy gospel romp with a sweet melody that belies its subversive lyric. He ends with, "Submarine," a gentle rocker where once again the sweetness of the melody contrasts with an undercurrent of bitterness in a lyric that describes wasted lives focused on beauty contests and gin rummy.

Many of the songs between follow a similar pattern where the music and the lyric seem to undercut and subvert each other. "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me" plays like a rock anthem for cheaters. It is written in the voice of a serial cheater who has finally loaded one straw too many. The lyric in "Big Life" is in the voice of someone who has lost love and art in his pursuit of popular success. His answer to any regrets he may feel is that he at least got the "big life." The only problem is that the big life may also be the empty life. "I Sold the Arabs the Moon" is a political comment on the limits of power in the voice of a con man who at best offers a transient moment of dominance. He sold the Arabs the moon, but the power of the crescent didn't last. He sold the English the sea and that power didn't last. He sold the Yankees the sky; the implication is clear. "Marigold" is the cryptic symbol that awaits us all at the end of our journey, at the end of our walk through the jungle—heaven, beauty, love. "Deep Oblivion" has the quality of a bad trip, or a bad dream at the least.

Lowery says he called the album The Palace Guards after the song he liked best. He doesn't say it is the best; it is simply the one he likes best. On his website he talks about the song at length and a discussion he had with his son about the song and its meaning. What he suggests is that the Palace Guards are like super heroes who have gone over to the dark side: "They've gone from being the public's protectors to being overprotective, secretive and controlling. They've turned into Stalkers." His son says the beginning sounds like a children's song, and in a sense he is right. The palace guards represent a government that treats its citizens like children. They have our "best interests at heart;" they will do what's best for us even if it kills us. This is a truly nightmarish political vision. It is a dark song that captures the essence of a very dark album, very dark but very important.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Music Review: Robbie Robertson, How to Become a Clairvoyant

Article first published as Music Review: Robbie Robertson - How to Become a Clairvoyant on Blogcritics.

It has been more than ten years since Robbie Robertson, he of The Band, has put out a new record, but come April 5 that vacuum will be filled. He has a new album, How to Become a Clairvoyant, and it's a gem. There are twelve songs on the CD: eight written by Robertson alone, two in collaboration with Eric Clapton who also plays on a number of cuts, one with album co-producer, Marius de Vries, and one Clapton solo composition. Most are highly personal songs written with compelling honesty. They are about his high flying days in New York; they are about his wrenching decision to leave The Band. He says: "I've never before been able to write about those times. . . . But enough time had passed that suddenly all of these thoughts and feelings finally crept under the door with a certain urgency." It is an urgency that comes out clearly in the passion of his performance.

Probably of greatest interest biographically is his treatment of his exit from The Band in "This is Where I Get Off." It evokes the problems that come with success, how "working the graveyard shift" will "drift" you "off course." It never gets more specific than "somebody done me wrong along the way," but there is a real feeling of sadness at making this break that was never "part of the plan." Besides, there is an infectious hook that will echo in your head long after the song ends. "The Right Mistake," with its paradoxical title may also be a comment on the break, although if it is, it is even less specific than "This is Where I Get Off."

"He Don't Live Here No More" is a confessional: "there was a cloud hanging over me." It is the bluesy acknowledgment of a life run amok. The title song, "How to Become a Clairvoyant," talks about some of the weirdness in New York around the Chelsea Hotel and environs, the home away from home for a good many of the avant garde artists back in the day. Patty Smith talks about it at length in her award winning memoir, Just Kids. It was a freaked out place and the song mirrors that spaced out quality, especially as it ends. You have to wonder if while looking back at all of the excess and strangeness, there isn't also some regret for a time when one was still young and nothing seemed impossible. "When the Night Was Young" is a more overt lament for the dreams of youth, the time when you thought you could change the world. "She's Not Mine" couches the regret over the choices we make in a big wall of sound that just seems to fall apart at the end.

"Fear of Falling," written and sung with Clapton has that unmistakable Clapton sound, and his instrumental "Madame X" is as sweet a melody as any he's written. Steve Winwood is featured on the organ in "Fear of Falling" as well as two other songs on the album. "Tango For Jango," the other instrumental on the disc is something quite apart from everything else on the album. Besides Robertson on gut string guitar and keyboard, it features de Vries also on keyboard, and Frank Marocco on accordion, Anne Marie Calhoun, violin, Tina Guo, on cello. The rhythm section is bassist Palladino and Ian Thomas on drums. Not only is the orchestration unique for this album, it is also the only piece that doesn't highlight the guitar.

This is not strange. What would be strange would be any album that features such great guitar players as Robertson and Clapton that didn't highlight the guitar. Add to the mix on selected tracks Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Robert Randolph and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and you've got a high powered crew that promises some real excitement, a promise that is delivered in spades. It is no accident that the album includes a thumping tribute to the great guitar players: "Axman." This is Robertson's acknowledgement to the masters of his instrument. It is his nod to his musical ancestors, just as "Straight Down the Line" is an ironic look back at the beginnings of rock when all too many saw it as the work of the devil: "the demons are out tonight." Robertson sings with a gleeful demonic rasp, and the cut ends with a powerful driving guitar solo. Guitars—fantastic guitar playing is all over this album.

Robertson has been busy writing for music for the movies. Indeed, we are told he broke off work on this album to work on Shutter Island for long time associate Martin Scorsese. He says it gave him a chance to "clear his head." If this album is any indication, his head is plenty clear. Let's hope it stays clear and there's more to come.