Jesse Jarnow

reading

stella blue’s maiden name

In a bit of synchronicity/convergence that often seems to happen around the Grateful Dead, my beach reading this weekend was Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Though not on the beach, I also spent some time listening to the Dead’s June 17th, 1972 show at the Hollywood Bowl as part of my ongoing #deadfreaksunite project. It’s the first show post-Europe ’72 and likewise Pigpen’s final performance. He doesn’t sing, and his B3 is mostly inaudible on the truly shitty audience recording, with the very big exception of the debut version of “Stella Blue,” which is near-perfect. Music writers (myself probably included) toss the word “haunting” around with abandon, but Pig’s performance on “Stella Blue” is one case where it’s almost literally applicable.

And here’s where the Nabokov comes in:

Line 627: The great Starover Blue

…neither his first nor second name bears any relation to the celestial vault: the first was given him in memory of his grandfather, a Russian starover (accented, incidentally, on the ultima), that is, Old Believer (member of a schismatic sect), named Sinyavin, from siniy, Russ. “blue.” This Sinyavin migrated from Saratov to Seattle and begot a son who eventually changed his name to Blue and married Stella Lazurchik, an Americanized Kashube. So it goes.

And there it is, Stella Blue’s maiden name: Stella Lazurchik. Sounds like a hippie to me. (I was pretty excited to make this discovery but, naturally, David Dodd & Annotated Grateful Dead Song Lyrics site is all over it.)

And here it is, an mp3 of the first version of “Stella Blue.” Note the alternate lyric post-”dust off those rusty strings.”

baseball & the origins of jazz

The first two recorded uses of the word “jazz” were in reference to baseball, via Elijah Wald’s excellent How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music:

The Los Angeles Times of April 12, 1912, quoted a pitcher for the Portland Beavers as calling his special curve “the Jazz ball” because “it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The next sighting was similarly in a baseball context, in a column about the San Francisco Seals, who returned from their Boyes Springs training camp in 1983 “full of the old ‘jazz’.” This time the reporter appended a definition: “What is the ‘jazz’? Why, it’s a little of that ‘old life,’ the ‘gin-i-ker,’ the ‘pep,’ otherwise known as the enthusiasalum. A grain of ‘jazz’ and you feel like going out and eating your way through Twin Peaks.”

Mmm, Twin Peaks.

the man who invented baseball

This passage from Harold Peterson’s The Man Who Invented Baseball was so bizarre and Museum of Jurassic Technology-like that I had to retype it:

By the strangest sort of chance, some thirty-five years ago [c. 1938], just the right man on just the right kind of mission happened into the one small village on earth that could provide the best clue to baseball’s origin and the best evidence of baseball’s incredible antiquity. The man was an Italian expert on population problems who happened to be enough of an Americanophile to be familiar with the game of baseball and even its immediate antecedents. The location, bizarrely, was a Berber village in the desert of North Africa. The reason his remarkably correct conclsions, and those of a Danish colleague, are virtually unknown is that they appeared principally in certain small scholarly journals — for example, in Danish-accented English in an Italian demographic journal, Genus.

On a 1937 expedition to investigate the disappearing traces of a strange blond strain among the Berber tribes of Libya, Professor Corrado Gini of Rome came upon the lost village of Jadum in the Gebel Nefusa, a hilly high desert plateau in western Tripolitania. To his intense surprise, Professor Gini found the tribesmen playing a game he recognized as rudimentary–or not so rudimentary–baseball, Ta kurt om el mahag, the tribesmen called it — “the ball of the mother of the pilgrim.”

Jadum was the last stronghold of the blondish tribesmen; Jadum was also the only place in all of North Africa that om el mahong was known. What gave Gini chills up the spine was his realization, as an expert in population migrations, that all evidence indicated the game had been introduced by the blonds. But this was spooky, since he knew the light-haired tribesmen to be the remnant of an invasion which took place thousands of years ago — in the Stone Age!

More skin-prickling: He and other scholars believed the blond people to be invaders from northern Europe. The latest invaders had been the Vandals, under King Genseric, who established a Nordic African kingdom in A.D. 429. But Gini considered the Vandals to be too thin a veneer of overlords to leave lasting customs behind. Gini–and other anthropologists–were quite sure that the blond Berbers were northerners who colonized Africa in the Old Stone Age — 3,000 to 6,000 years before Christ!

hear the wind sing

from Haruki Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing (1979):

A newspaper reporter once asked Heartfield, “Your protagonist dies twice on Mars and once on Venus. Isn’t there a contradiction here?”

To which Heartfield responded, “Do you know how time passes in outer space?”

“No,” replied the reporter, “but that’s something nobody knows.”

“Then tell me, what’s the point of writing a novel about something everyone knows?”

proust, no. 2

Later in my life, in Venice, long after the sun had set, thanks to the imperceptible echo of a last note of light held indefinitely over the canals as though sustained by some optical pedal, I saw the reflections of the palaces unfurled as if for eternity in an even darker velvet ovver the twilight grayness of the water. One of my dreams was the synthesis of what my imagination had often tried to envisage, during my waking hours, of a particular landscape by the sea and its medieval past. In my sleep I saw a Gothic citadel rising from a sea whose waves were frozen still, as in a stained-glass window. An inlet of the sea divided the town in two; the green water came right up to my feet; on the opposite shore it lapped around an Oriental church, and around houses that already existed in the fourteenth century, so that to move across to them would have been to go backwards through the centuries. (The Guermantes Way, 139-40)

it’s so cold in alaska

“Stephanie Says” – The Velvet Underground (download) (buy)

In the last New Yorker, George Saunders’ merciless Sarah Palin parody, “My Gal,” and Philip Gourevitch’s remarkable dispatch on Alaskan politics, “The State of Sarah Palin,” are fine companions. Under an Obama administration, perhaps they could even marry.

On one hand, Saunders’ insane language games are probably a perfect embodiment of the cabalistic eastern elite that Palin and company often rail against. On the other hand, reading Gourevitch’s piece–for which Palin was interviewed before her VP candidacy–one can’t help but get the impression that Sarah Palin is a Coen brothers character placed on the public stage for the purposes of setting up some cruel, violent prank. Certainly, when she speaks, she sounds like she could be from Fargo. Even more, though, it’s the rhythms, the constant self-interruptions. via Gourevitch:

Palin continued, “Our security detail, when I first got elected, met with us and said, ‘Do you guys got any issues with any threats?’ ” To which Palin replied, “ ‘Yeah, well, by the way, there happens to be—the only threat that I knew of was one of your own troopers.’ And they’re, like, ‘Geez, this doesn’t sound good, you need to go tell your commissioner that.’ So I did. I shared that with the commissioner. So did Todd, and then Todd followed up to say”—at this point, Palin seemed to be quoting her husband: “ ‘We were interviewed back in ’05 before Sarah was even a candidate—what ever happened to that investigation, that interview? We know that the trooper’ ”—Wooten—“ ‘got to see the interview notes; well, we never have, and that’s kind of a scary position for us to be in. We complied with your request to bring you information on this trooper forward, and did we put our family in jeopardy by letting him see the interview notes about the illegal activities?’ ”
Palin insisted that Wooten “did have illegal activities. We witnessed them, and people have come to us with complaints. He Tasered his eleven-year-old stepson. This trooper, he was pulled over for drinking and driving and a witnessed open container in his car, and he did threaten to kill my dad—I heard him—and illegally shot a moose, which is a big darned deal here in Alaska.”

If that doesn’t sound like Jerry Lundegaard reincarnated as an Alaskan governor, then–well–geeze, I just don’t know what to say, Bob. via Saunders:

I know that many times, in my life, while living it, someone would come up and, because of I had good readiness, in terms of how I was wired, when they asked that—whatever they asked—I would just not blink, because, knowing that, if I did blink, or even wink, that is weakness, therefore you can’t, you just don’t. You could, but no—you aren’t.

Later:

Now, let us discuss the Élites. There are two kinds of folks: Élites and Regulars. Why people love Sarah Palin is, she is a Regular. That is also why they love me. She did not go to some Élite Ivy League college, which I also did not. Her and me, actually, did not go to the very same Ivy League school. Although she is younger than me, so therefore she didn’t go there slightly earlier than I didn’t go there. But, had I been younger, we possibly could have not graduated in the exact same class. That would have been fun.

I imagine if Sarah Palin read this–and, especially, Saunders’ glorious conclusion about a moose, which I shan’t give away here–she’d be all WTF? And that’s not a comment on her intelligence, so much as her sensibility. We’re dealing with a language barrier here, I think.

pnin

More summer reading, this time Nabokov.

It was getting quite dark on the sad campus. Above the distant, still sadder hills lingered, under a cloud bank, a depth of tortoise-shell sky. The heart-rending lights of Waindellville, throbbing in a fold of those dusky hills, were putting on their usual magic, though actually, as Pnin well knew, the place, when you got there, was merely a row of brick houses, a service station, a skating rink, a supermarket.

proust, no. 1

Over the summer, I read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In places, I underlined. More forthcoming.

At first, he had experienced only the physical quality of the sounds secreted by the instruments. And it had been a keen pleasure when, below the little line of the violin, slender, unyielding, compact, and commanding, he had seen the mass of the piano part all at once struggling to rise in liquid swell, multiform, undivided, smooth, and colliding like the purple tumult of the waves when the moonlight charms them and lowers their pitch by half a tone. (Swann’s Way, 216)

Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadow, unknown, impenetrable to the intelligence, but not for all that less perfectly distinct from one another, unequal among themselves in value and significance. (Swann’s Way, 362)

the death of fun

Spent some time traveling over the past few days. Through the TSA lines (and especially after they confiscated a nifty swag water bottle I’d gotten), elitist airline terminals (at Delta at JFK, once site of Pan Am’s utopian glass Worldport, coach customers wait in makeshift screening areas, and funnel through a series of endless hallways before only to be spat out at the backdoor of the first class entrance), and down Utah highways, past gas stations (where prices make road-trips for fun or friendship both morally and economically unfeasible), I thought pretty much non-stop of Hunter S. Thompson’s vision of 9/11.

It was the death of fun, unreeling right in front of us, unraveling, withering, collapsing, draining away in the darkness like a handful of stolen mercury. Yep, the silver stuff goes suddenly, leaving only a glaze of poison on the skin. (Kingdom of Fear, 160.)

What a bummer.

lewis shiner’s glimpses

“Smile, part 1 (Tim Smolen mix)” – The Beach Boys (http://www.yousendit.com/download/TTdFblFBdWM0b0N4dnc9PQ">download)

Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses — which I discovered via a review in the back pages of (I think) Guitar for the Practicing Musician — was how I first heard of the Beach Boys’ Smile, which I wouldn’t hear for another eight years after the book’s publication. Written at the tale-end of the ‘zine/cassette era, Glimpses‘ sci-fi reconstructions of lost albums comes from an age when lost albums were more rumors than downloadable fact. Shiner’s narrator, an audio repairman named Ray Shackleford, hangs out with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but it’s his time with Brian Wilson that resonated with me most. Here, Ray arrives at Brian’s Laurel Way home in early December 1966.

The decor was schizophrenic: plaid drapes and pole lamps and heavy Spanish furniture, mixed with Lava Lites and orange-and-blue wallpaper and campy religious icons. It was all I could do not to rub the curtains between my thumb and forefinger, or pocket an ashtray for a souvenir.

Downstairs there were glass doors that led to the pool. A slide curved down to it from the roof of the house. In the steam from the pool, I smelled chlorine, perfume, cut grass. Of the four people who splashed around in the shallow end my attention went to Brian right away. First off because he was so big, six four and really starting to put on weight. There in his baggy trunks, as he straddled a child’s inflatable horse and almost sank it, he seemed larger than life.

the last verse & “honey in the rock” – blind mamie forehand

“Honey in the Rock” – Blind Mamie Forehand (download) (buy)
from Goodbye Babylon (1927/2003)

(file expires May 8th)

Burkhard Bilger’s recent New Yorker piece, “The Last Verse,” is excellent — the type of typically sprawling think-piece/profile that could end up in a future Da Capo Best Music Writing edition. But it also bummed me out. “Is there still any folk music out there?” the subhead asked. It’s an endlessly fascinating question, but — if you limit “folk” to its literal definition — the answer becomes equally limited.

For his own recordings, Rosenbaum laid down only a few ground rules. The musicians could come from anywhere and play almost anything: fiddles, guitars, washboards, or spoons; harmonicas, Jew’s harps, or accordions. (In one recording, a broomstick kept time; in another, a pick-axe.) But the songs had to be traditional, the music learned from relatives or local musicians. He wanted folksingers, as he puts it, not just singers of folk songs.

And, thus, another story about dudes driving the South around looking for old performers and older records. But folk music is more alive than that, pulsing from car stereos and ringtones in the centuries-old rhythms at the core of reggaeton, or in the magpie strategies of the bootleg/mash-up world. Even if hip-hop is the very definition of mass culture — see, for example, the ridiculous Jay-Z/Soulja Boy feud being played through the NBA — it still requires an intricate constellation of references to understand it, many of which can only be passed person to person. While there’s plenty that comes through media, there’s still plenty of slang that can trace back decades, if not more.

The answer to Bilger’s question is unquestionably, “yes.” A truly oral culture is no longer possible, but we have something else — a world where text is so plentiful it becomes both meaningless and ephemeral. How does one collect it?

“all the way around & back” – charles ives

“All the Way Around and Back” – Charles Ives (download) (buy)
conducted by Leonard Bernstein

A Charles Ives piece from 1908 structurally mimics an archaic baseball rule from the composer’s childhood, via Timothy Johnson’s Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground:

The additive process aptly represents the gradual process of the runner. If the initial Db that begins each measure symbolizes first base, then each added note tracks the runner’s progress toward third. The skipped additions (moving directly from five to seven and from seven to eleven notes) seem to depict the runner’s increased speed as he builds up momentum heading for third. Finally, the complete pattern is repeated once more, running as fast as he can, before the whole process is reversed beginning with an extra two measures of the final undecatuplet, as the runner returns to first base in the same way that he traveled in the first place — rapidly at first, then easing up as the base is reached.

At first glance the symbolism of the baserunner, speeding up as he rounds the bases and then slowing down as he returns, seems to be lost in this palindromic reversal, since a runner presumably might easily trot back to first base after a foul ball. However, the rule that determined how quickly one must return to the base after a foul ball changed over the years. The rules of 1883 state that “a baserunner who fails to return to his base at a run following a foul ball is liable to be put out by being touched by the ball while off his base.”

(Thx, Jakebrah. Definitely need to read this.)

out of print

A very small bit of food for thought, via Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece “Out of Print,” about the state of the American newspaper industry:

The news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.

bend sinister

Many wonderful passages in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, but this one — about the nature of literary translation, in the midst of a complex Rosetta Stone explaining the language of the novel’s dystopia — stuck out this evening.

It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator’s inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combinations of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a show exactly similar to that of Individual T — the same outline, changing in the same manner, with the same double and single spots of sun rippling in the same position, at the same hour of the day.

easy riders, black panthers

Via Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:

It was the Golden Age of postwar European and Japanese cinema, the era of the French New Wave, of Ingmar Bergman, of Akira Kurosawa, of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Although these films were “foreign,” they seemed more immediate, more “American” than anything Hollywood was turning out. They hit home with a shock of recognition. Sean Daniel, who grew up to become an executive at Universal and shepherded National Lampoon’s Animal House to the screen, was an antiwar activist in high school in Manhattan in the ’60s. He recalls, “You saw The Battle of Algiers ten times so you could memorize how to build the proper cell structure. I’ll never forget seeing a platoon of Black Panthers, in matching black leather jackets and berets, sitting in front of me, taking notes during the show.”

Reminds of the recent BB post about the 1886 book Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations. The Veil Lifted, and Light Thrown on Crime and its causes and Criminals and Their Haunts. Facts and Disclosures that became a handbook for petty criminals.

“eighth of january” – the kentucky colonels with scotty stoneman

“Eighth of January” – The Kentucky Colonels with Scott Stoneman (download) (buy)

(file expires February 27th)

Thanks to Rev for turning me onto this recording of Scott Stoneman and the Kentucky Colonels performing “Eighth of January” at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles in 1965. In the audience that night was Jerry Garcia.

I get my improvisational approach from Scotty Stoneman, the fiddle player. [He's] the guy who first set me on fire — where I just stood there and I don’t remember breathing. He was just an incredible fiddler. He was a total alcoholic wreck by the time I heard him, in his early thirties, playing with the Kentucky Colonels… They did a medium-tempo fiddle tune like ‘Eighth of January’ and it’s going along, and pretty soon Scotty starts taking these longer and longer phrases — ten bars, fourteen bars, seventeen bars — and the guys in the band are just watching him! They’re barely playing — going ding, ding, ding — while he’s burning. The place was transfixed. They played this tune for like twenty minutes, which is unheard of in bluegrass. I’d never heard anything like it. I asked him later, ‘How do you do that?’ and he said, ‘Man, I just play lonesome.’ (Garcia, c. 1985, via Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life)

By the time the music made it to tape — which is to say, in reality — it was five and a third minutes, proving Garcia’s memory to be about as blown as any Deadhead’s. He’s not wrong either, though. (See also “Cleo’s Back” for the further secret history of the Grateful Dead.)

stengel

If there was ever any doubt that baseball is an oral culture, peep this letter written by legendary manger Casey Stengel to sportswriter Ira Berkow in the ’70s, when Casey was in his 80s. Quoted in Robert Creamer’s superb Stengel, it was a bit of a shock to me to realize that Casey — a raconteurish encyclopedia cataloguing a lifetime of players, plays and stories — was barely literate.

Dear Ira: Your conversation’s; and the fact you were the working writer were inthused with the Ideas was great but frankly do not care for the great amount of work for myself. Sorry but am not interested. Have to many proposition’s otherwise for the coming season. Fact cannot disclose my Future affair’s. Good luck. Casey Stengel, N.Y. Mets & Hall of Famer.

Man, my spell-check loves Casey. Didn’t write in the passive voice, though!

ball four

The steroids hearings today, coupled with the stories about the rise of Adderall and Ritalin prescriptions among players, reminded me off a few passages of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (1970), where the then-active pitcher makes clear how entwined drugs, quack science, and baseball are. Besides speaking of rubs like “First Atomic Balm” and “Heet!”, Bouton writes:

I’ve tried a lot of other things through the years — like butabolidin, which is what they give to horses. And D.M.S.O. — dimethylsulfoxide. Whitey Ford used that for a while. You rub it on with a plastic glove and as soon as it gets on your arm you can taste it in your mouth. It’s not available anymore, though. Word is it can blind you. I’ve also taken shots — novocaine, cortisone and xylocaine. Baseball players will take anything. If you had a pull that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins but might take five years off his life, he’d take it.

More present throughout are the omnipresent amphetamines:

We’ve been running short of greenies. We don’t get them from the trainer, because greenies are against club policy. So we get them from players on other teams who have friends who are doctors, or friends who know where to get greenies. One of our lads is going to have a bunch of greenies mailed to him by some of the guys on the Red Sox. And, to think you can spend five years in jail for giving your friend a marijuana cigarette.

And earlier:

There were 30,000 people in the park and it was exactly the kind of day in which you want to look good against your old club and in honor of the occasion Gary put down at least three greenies. They didn’t do him a bit of good.

fear & loathing off the campaign trail…

It occurred to me the other day that this is the first primary season of my life without HST around to bring a continuum of sanity/humanity (stylized, as it were) to Presidential campaign coverage. Drag.

There is something seriously bent, when you think on it, in the notion that a man with good sense would race out of his peaceful mountain home in Colorado and fly off in a frenzy like some kind of electrified turkey buzzard to spend three or four days being carried around the foulest sections of New England like a piece of meat, to watch another man, who says he wants to be President, embarrassing a lot of people by making them shake his hand outside factory gates at sunrise.

steve martin’s “the bohemians”

The Frow Show will return tomorrow with a special Christmas in Bourgwick episode. For now, Steve Martin’s “The Bohemians,” from Cruel Shoes (1979). Kinda makes ya nostalgic for a simpler age, eh?

Were they rebels? Were they artists? Were they outcasts from society? They were all of these. They were The Bohemians.
These bohemians, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Williams, and their seven children, Biff, Tina, Sparky, Louise, Tuffy, Mickey, and Biff Number Two, lived in a notorious artists’ colony and planned community.

Naturally, the bohemians’ existence thrived on creativity. Early in the morning, Mrs. Williams would rise and create breakfast. Then, Mr. Williams, inspired by his wife’s limitless energy, would rush off to a special room and create tiny hairs in a sink. The children would create things, too. But being temperamental artists, they would often flush them away without a second thought.

But the bohemians’ creativity didn’t stop there. Mr. Williams would then rush downtown and create reams and reams of papers with numbers on them and send them out to other bohemians who would create special checks to him with figures like $7.27 written on them.

At home, the children would be creating unusual music, using only their voices to combine in avant-garde, atonal melodies.

Yes, these were the bohemians. A seething hot-bed of rebellion — the artists, the creators of all things that lie between good and bad.

ornette coleman on interviews

Ornette Coleman, quoted in Howard Mandel’s Miles, Ornette, and Cecil:

When you ask a question or make a statement it’s either that you know the subject that you’re talking about or you’re trying to express something without the persons you’re talking to changing their views of it. You try to make their view of it more clear to them so they can stay more natural, rather than to think that you’re just trying to get them to repeat something to make you feel more secure or something.

Coleman gets at the artificial casualness of the typical interview, where the interviewer has to figure out how to best ask a question without leading the witness, so to speak. Often, this involves some sort of carefully managed reduction of the questioner’s knowledge of his subject. Despite wanting an interview to flow like a natural conversation, the very relationship between interviewer and subject makes it virtually impossible.

once again, william gibson has it all figured out.

On books:

It’s the oldest and the first mass medium. And it’s the one that requires the most training to access. Novels, particularly, require serious cultural training. But it’s still the same thing — I make black marks on a white surface and someone else in another location looks at them and interprets them and sees a spaceship or whatever. It’s magic. It’s a magical thing. It’s very old magic, but it’s very thorough. The book is very well worked out, somewhat in the way that the wheel is very well worked out.

via the Washington Post

google & the myth of universal knowledge

I swallowed Google’s utopian kool-aid at CES a few years ago, and — on a primal level — have a real hard time understanding any argument suggesting that Google’s mass digitization of books is anything but a profoundly good thing. But Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge genuinely opens up the discussion.

Where publishers’ frustrations seemed profit driven, Jeanneney’s analysis of how Google’s economic approach manifests itself in search results is totally essential.

There is a danger that cultural populism will organize channels of access in favor of the most elementary, the least disturbing, and most commonplace products.

Elsewhere:

Despite the false appearance of gratuitousness, the private sector reaps the profits by indirectly selling the use of these books through the advertising exposure that occurs with each hit, and also by global exposure. The company expects this increasingly lucrative business, thanks to Google Book Search, to have an impact on its entire commercial offering. Naturally, what remains of such profits, after distribution to shareholders, will further accentuate the imbalance in favor of the private sector and reduce the influence of those institutions serving the common interest.

In other words, down with libraries! Having run the Bibliotheèque nationale de France for five years, I can see why Jeanneney might fret. His arguments get curmudgeonly on occasion, such as his criticism of Google’s massive book intake, saying that it is the job of a library to carefully pick what they preserve — and totally ignoring the fact that Google is digitizing collections already vetted by librarians. (Though his fear of an American dominance seems totally warranted.)

Jeanneney yearns for some sort of governmental involvement in these projects. And, really, if what he proposes ever occurs, it would be an amazing and useful advance for humanity. While it is true that the internet is a free market (which left it vulnerable to domination by a utopian company like Google), it also has the power to be something else entirely, the same unformed ether it always was. (Maybe this is a particularly American way of approaching the basic metaphor of the ‘net: the old, unsettled west.) People can preserve information with profit behind them, like Google, or because they want to, like Brewster Kahle’s archive.org.

In the case of the latter, it is little different than any national library, at least in the sense that it is an institution that earns its power in recognition. After Jeanneney’s book, I might not trust Google the way I once did, but I do trust the internet. When given the choice of freedom, the result isn’t always a market. Sometime it’s just being free.

no country for old men

In 89 words, Cormac McCarthy zooms from the broadest setting of a scene down to specific detail, nails a mood, sets up a relationship between two new characters, exercises his own typographical and rhythmic voice with the smallest tweakings of grammar and syntax, and creates a momentum that leads irresistibly into the chapter that follows.

The office was on the seventeenth floor with a view over the skyline of Houston and the open lowlands to the ship channel and the bayou beyond. Colonies of silver tanks. Gas flares, pale in the day. When Wells showed up the man told him to come in and told him to shut the door. He didnt even turn around. He could see Wells in the glass. Wells shut the door and stood with his hands crossed before him at the wrist. The way a funeral director might stand.

martin dressler

A particularly lovely fantasia from Stephen Millhauser’s Martin Dressler:

While taking note of the unusual living arrangements, and ignoring conventional features such as lobbies, cafeterias, and a very efficient laundry service, many observers preferred to comment on the large amount of space devoted to services and entertainments not generally associated with hotels: the many parks and ponds and gardens, including the Pleasure Park with its artificial moonlight checkering the paths, its mechanical nightingales singing in the branches, its melancholy lagoon and ruined summerhouse; the Haunted Grotto, in which ghosts floated out from behind shadowy stalactites and fluttered toward visitors in a darkness illuminated by lanternlight; the Moorish Bazaar, composed of winding dusty lanes, sales clerks dressed as Arabs and trained in the art of bargaining, and a maze of stalls that sold everything from copper basins to live chickens…

yo la tengo in port washington, 10/19

“Ripple” – Yo La Tengo (download)
recorded 19 October 2007, Landmark on Main Street, Port Washington, NY

(file expires October 29th)

Yo La Tengo at Landmark on Main Street
Port Washington, NY
19 October 2007
Chris Brokaw opened.

The Landmark being (as we discovered) across the street from Finn MacCool’s, the watering hole of choice for the 1986 Mets, many of who resided in Port Washington, we naturally had to toast Danny Heep en route to the show. Via Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won:

Strawberry did much of his damage at Finn MacCool’s, a tavern in Port Washington where many of the Mets hung out. One night Henry Downing, the bar’s manager, concocted a drink for the Mets that he named The Nervous Breakdown. It was a potent combination of vodka, cranberry juice, tequila, and schanpps, and the twelve Mets sitting around the table eagerly devoured pitcher after pitchers. Among the participants were Ojeda, Mitchell, Dykstra, and Backman — guys who could hold their own. Yet the one who drank the most was Strawberry. ‘I remember he really took to that,’ says Connie O’Reilly, MacCool’s owner. ‘I guess he liked the taste.’ … ‘The next afternoon we were watching the game from the bar, and the broadcaster said Darryl wasn’t playing,’ O’Reilly says. ‘They showed him sitting on tbe bench… something about a twenty-four-hour virus.’

Tom Courtenay
Beanbag Chair
Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House
Fog Over Frisco
Mr. Tough
Ripple (Grateful Dead)
Surfin’ With the Shah (The Urinals)
Cone of Silence
Sloop John B (trad/Beach Boys)
Black Flowers
Luci Baines (Arthur Lee)
Decora
I Found A Reason (Velvet Underground)
Oklahoma USA (The Kinks)
Story of Yo La Tango
Detouring America With Horns
Speeding Motocycle (Daniel Johnston)
You Can Have It All (George McCrea)
*(encore, with Chris Brokaw on guitar)*
A House Is Not A Motel (Arthur Lee)
Tell Me When It’s Over (Dream Syndicate)
I Feel Like Going Home

“julia” & “tomorrow never knows” sped-up & slowed back down

“Julia” – The Beatles (sped up & slowed back down by Editor B) (download)
“Tomorrow Never Knows” – The Beatles (sped up & slowed back down by Lee R.) (download)

(files expire October 26th)

So, Steve McLaughlin compressed the entire Beatles’ catalogue into a single, one-hour mp3. Cute. But then some other dudes, Editor B and one “Lee R” (hmm), took out chunks and reconstituted them back to normal speed. The result is one of the most literally psychedelic remixes ever, a technological approximation of the tricks the acid-enhanced ear plays when listening to even the most familiar music. It’s gorgeous, like watching an image gradually decompose on a xerox machine. Or, more accurately, a xerox of a xerox of a xerox, or even the granular decay of Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room” or David Wilson’s “Stasis.” Thing is, though, while it’s a pretty academic experiment, there are Beatles melodies’ in the middle, rising out of the noise, already complete in most listeners’ minds.

The breaks in the middle of “Tomorrow Never Knows” are fantastic, the famous backwards guitar almost indistinguishable from John Lennon himself. On “Julia,” Lennon’s voice practically pixilates, but it is no less evocative of the subject’s seashell eyes and windy smile, though the beach might now be the silvery landscape glimpsed in William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

The city, if it was a city, was low and gray. At times it was obscured by banks of mist that came rolling in over the lapping surf. At one point he decided that it wasn’t a city at all, but some single building, perhaps a ruin; he had no way of judging its distance. The sand was the shade of tarnished silver that hadn’t gone entirely black. The beach was made of sand, the beach was very long, the sand was damp, the bottoms of his jeans were wet from the sand… He held himself and rocked, singing a song without words or tune.

(Thx, Boomy, for pointing out FMU’s post.)

richard ford’s “a minors affair”

A fine meditation on the slowness of the dog days, originally published in Harper’s, via Baseball: A Literary Anthology:

Everywhere, from Portland to Pawtucket, baseball’s the same slow, sometimes stately, sometimes tedious game governed by extensive, complexly arbitrary rules, and practiced according to arcane, informal mores and runic vocabularies which compel that almost every act of play be routine. Even the great smashes, the balletic defensive turns, and the unparalleled pitching performances — by being so formally anticipated, so contemplated and longed-for by the fans — become ritual, even foregone. It’s a Platonic game in this way, with all visible excellence (and even unexcellence) ratified by a prior scheme of invisible excellence which is the game itself.

under the jaguar sun

It is worth noting, perhaps, that Microsoft Word’s spellcheck assesses the following beautiful passage of Italo Calvino as being written 60% in the passive voice:

As we reentered the hotel and headed for the large lobby (the former chapel of the convent), which we had to cross to reach the wing where our room was, we were struck by a sound like a cascade of water flowing and splashing and gurgling in a thousand rivulets and eddies and jets. The closer we got, the more this homogeneous noise was broken down into a complex of chirps, trills, caws, clucks, as of a flock of birds flapping their wings in an aviary. From the doorway (the room was a few steps lower than the corridor) we saw an expanse of little spring hats on the heads of ladies seated around tea tables. Throughout the country a campaign was in progress for the election of a new president of the republic, and the wife of the favored candidate was giving a tea party of impressive proportions for the wives of the prominent men of Oaxaca. Under the broad, empty vaulted ceiling, three hundred Mexican ladies were conversing all at once; the spectacular acoustical event that had immediately subdued us was produced by their voices mingled with the tinkling of cups and spoons and of knives cutting slices of cake.

lolita

There are many ways to read Lolita: as dark & sexual pulp, as hilarious meta-narrative, as a disturbingly sincere love story. But Nabokov is also a peerless observer of the cultural landscape as it transforms from the old, weird America of folksong and rural roads to the new, weird America of endless asphalt and roadside lodging.

Nous connumes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of their repetitious names — all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mae’s Courts. There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as “Children welcome, pets allowed” (You are welcome, you are allowed). The baths were mostly tiled showers, with an endless variety of spouting mechanisms, but with one definitely non-Laodicean characteristic in common, a propensity, while in use, to turn insanely beastly hot or blindingly cold upon you, depending on whether your neighbor turned on his cold or his hot to deprive you of a necessary component in the shower you had so carefully blended. Some motels had instructions posted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were unhygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage, beer cans, cartons, stillborn babies, others had special notices under glass, such as Things to Do…

“dangerous match #1″ – scientist

“Dangerous Match #1″ – Scientist (download here)
from Scientist Wins the World Cup (1982)
released by Greensleeves (buy)

(file expires May 21st)

It never ceases to amaze me how many genres were invented almost entirely by accident:

Given the heavy demand for dub mixes from sound systems preparing for weekend dances, it is important to realize that these mixes were improvised on the spot, with a mimimum of pre-planning. Most dub mixing was done on Friday evenings, when producers deposited their master tapes with engineers, and sound system operators gathered at the studio so that each could be given a unique mix of a currently popular tune. (via Michael Veal’s Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Culture)

That and the dub tracks that we hippies mellow-out to were intended to be blasted at massive volume, with DJs toasting on top of them — still tripped-out and all, but in a very different way. Accidents will happen.

(I recommend this Scientist cut — and the whole album, for that matter — with a tall glass of chocolate milk. Speaking of which…)

paul williams on bob dylan

I love Paul Williams’ writing on Bob Dylan. Like the baseball columns of Roger Angell, it’s clear that Williams is a fan and can completely communicate that experience. Frequently, of course, he gets carried away. Nonetheless, it is always valuable. In the best stretches of his multiple books about Dylan, it really seems as if Williams holds the key to understanding what Dylan does.

Here, Williams unpacks what is amazing about live performances. He is speaking generally, though what says is more easily applicable to Dylan’s linear/one-man style than most other types of musicians:

The performance is a unit of time. If you think of a movie camera recording the painter’s every brush stroke from the moment and place where s/he starts on the canvas to the place and moment where s/he finishes, you will understand that every painting is a kind of straight line, a movement, a performance, compressed upon itself… as the painting compresses time into something that can be felt all at once, so the performance takes human experience and stretches it out so that instead of just feeling it altogether (as we do in life) we feel it a morsel at a time, in a sequence. (from Performing Artist, 1974-1986)

He resorts often to hyperbole, though it is of the most beautiful, infectious sort. On the July 1st, 1984 rendition of “Tangled Up in Blue” that I can’t really imagine being objectively very good (though am certainly willing to check it out):

The version on Real Live (from London, July 7) is so similar I’m not sure I can articulate what makes the two performances different; yet the difference is as unmistakable as that between an ordinary starry night and the same instant after a lightning bolt has shattered the sky. (from Performing Artist, 1974-1986)

Williams is passionate in his adversity, too, publishing a book-length defense of Dylan’s 1978 conversion to Christianity titled Dylan — What Happened?). Purportedly, Dylan purchased copies to distribute to his friends, letting Williams act as his surrogate. When most fans were abandoning Dylan, Williams committed to Dylan’s new music as hard as he could without becoming a disciple of Christ himself, and in the process teased out some great stuff about what it really means to be a listener. “Some people see this is a threateningly anti-intellectual move from someone they’ve always related to on an intense intellectual level,” he wrote.

The old thing of all of us being in the same psychic space at the same time listening to the same new record albums just doesn’t work anymore. Not that I think Dylan expects it to — but I think that’s what a lot of us still expect of Dylan, that he’ll bring us the news. And that’s why we’re so confused and upset about the news he brought us this time. We keep thinking his news is our news, you see. (from Watching the River Flow, 1966-1995)

the curious case of sidd finch

Perhaps it is true of all sports, but magical realism/fabulism seems to go particularly well with baseball, from Philip Roth’s malfunctioning Ruppert Mundys of the Great American Novel to the entire career of W.P. Kinsella (who I’ll probably post more about as the season moves along). A good answer is suggested by George Plimpton in his own contribution to the genre, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, about an aspiring Buddhist monk who can pitch 168 miles per hour (and does so over several games with the 1985 Mets):

Baseball is the perfect game for the mystic mind. Cricket is unsatisfactory because it has time strictures. The clock is involved. Play is called. The players stop for tea. No! No! No!… On the other hand, baseball is so open to infinity. No clocks. No one pressing the buttons on stopwatches. The foul lines stretch to infinity. In theory, the game of baseball can go on indefinitely.

On Finish’s first big league performance:

Sometimes in a stadium, if it is tense, and the place has a good crowd, enough people identify with the actual flight of the pitch ball — an exhalation of breath — so that the pitch is accompanied by a slight whoomph. With the first ball that Finch threw there was no time for any kind of reaction: we heard the slam of the ball driving the air out of the catcher’s mitt with a high pop! — audible, I suspect, in the parking lot beyond the center-field fence. This was followed by a high exclamation from Reynolds, a kind of squeak, as he stood up from his stance, reached into his glove, and began pulling the ball free.

the coast of utopia (in the end)

Several more thoughts about Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, which I finished seeing last week, and finished reading yesterday…

o I could really go for another three parts. With the recent appetite for serial entertainment like Lost and Harry Potter, it’d be wonderful for a writer of Stoppard’s caliber to tackle a project as epic. Perhaps that’s exactly what Coast of Utopia already is.

o Three women next to us left after act I of part III. What the fuck? Did they make it all the way and give up? Were they tourists who just wanted to see a show at Lincoln Center?

o For numerous reasons — rhythm, dialogue, conceits — it could never translate to film. Does the fact that it can’t be mass entertainment make it pretentious? (It is, of course, but for other reasons, often indistinguishable from why it’s so grand.)

o Perhaps the most beautiful set in the whole show: perfectly vertical Christmas lights lowered from the rafters, creating the illusion (especially in the balcony) of being suspended in the midst of a hyperreal starry night.

o Throughout, Stoppard juggles characters, plotlines, philosophical arguments, and — in part III, Salvage — it was amazing to watch him bring them all to conclusions. In doing so, Stoppard sometimes stepped out of his usual voice. On paper, while supremely eloquent, some of the Big Speeches lack Stoppard’s usual multi-layered verve. But, on stage, calling on the audience’s collective experience with the characters, they were among the most dramatic parts of the trilogy. Alexander Herzen, reflecting:

I sat in this char the first morning I woke up in this house. I’d just arrived in England, and for the first time… for the first time since Natalie died… no, from before that, that I don’t know since when… but for the first time in a long time, there was silence. I didn’t have to talk or think or move, nothing was expected of me, I knew nobody and nobody knew where I was, everything was behind me, all the moving from lace to place, the quarrels and celebrations, the desperate concerns of health and happiness, love, death, printer’s errors, picnics ruined by rain, the endless tumult of ordinary life… and I just sat quiet and alone all that day, looking at the tops of the trees on Primrose Hill through the mist.

satchel paige’s rules for how to stay young

In the Great American Novel, Philip Roth compares legendary Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige to Mark Twain’s slave Jim, from Huckleberry Finn. “Students of Literatoor, professors, and small boys who recall Jim’s comical lingo will not be fooled just because Satch has dispensed with the thick dialect he used for speaking in Mr. Twain’s book.”

Paige’s six-point list for “How To Stay Young” (first published in Collier’s in 1953 and reproduced by Roth) sounds like it’s straight out of Twain, though (I think) could be any one of Twain’s folk weirdoes, white or black. Or maybe I’m just a white liberal.

1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.

2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.

5. Avoid running at all times.

6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

I think often about #4.

the coast of utopia (so far)

Two-thirds through Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy at Lincoln Center (thanks, G’ma!!). Some things I have loved, so far:

o The frayed scrim that drops almost to the stage, reflecting off the shiny floor to create a fairly literal illusion of coastline (which promptly disappears during the rising dystopian tides of part II: Shipwreck).

o Stoppardian zingers like “the whole Army’s obsessed with playing at soldiers” — spoken by deserting military student/future anarchist Michael Bakunin. I thought of it frequently as I passed through TSA checkpoints en route home from Minneapolis earlier this week.

o The woman across the aisle from us in the loge who brought her shaggy, craggy old black dog to the theater, who dozed peaceably under her seat throughout the performance and was quieter than many audience members (myself included) sniffling with mild late-winter colds.

o The ridiculously clever conceit Stoppard uses to establish that, while the play is English, the characters are speaking Russian. The first line, spoken at a dinner table scene on an idyllic estate north of Moscow: “Speaking of which — Liubov, say something in English for the Baron.” Later, the “English” dialogue is spoken with a thick Russian accent.

o The manner in which (as always) Stoppard is able to wrench fabulous emotion from potentially (and, probably, actually) pretentious plotlines — in this case, the entwined lives of privileged Russian radicals in the post-Decembrist/pre-Marxist period. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, played by Billy Crudup:

I’m sick of utopias. I’m tired of hearing about them. I’d trade the lot for one practical difference that owes nothing to anybody’s ideal society, one commonsensical action that puts right an injury to one person. Do you know what I like to do best when I’m at home? — watch them build the railway station in St. Petersburg. My heart lifts to see the tracks going down. In a year or two, friends and families, lovers, letters, will be speeding to Moscow and back. Life will be altered. The poetry of practical gesture. Something unknown to literary criticism!

Can’t wait to see part III next week.

“cleo’s back” – jr. walker & the all-stars

“Cleo’s Back” – Jr. Walker and the All-Stars (download here)
from Shotgun (1965)
released by TML (buy)

(file expires March 26th)

Jerry Garcia on Jr. Walker’s “Cleo’s Back,” via Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip:

There was something about the way the instruments entered into it in a kind of free-for-all way, and there were little holes and these neat details in it — we studied that motherfucker. We might have even played it for a while, but that wasn’t the point — it was the conversational approach, the way the band worked, that really influenced us.

“i love how you love me” – the paris sisters & he’s a rebel

“I Love How You Love Me” – The Paris Sisters (download here)
from Back To Mono, 1958-1969 (1991)
released by Abkco (buy)

(file expires March 20th)

The murder trial repackaging/revision of Mark Ribowsky’s Phil Spector bio, He’s a Rebel, has been a good subway companion this week. On Spector’s arrival at Manhattan’s Brill Building:

Implying that he couldn’t afford to go elsewhere, Phil was allowed to crash that night on the couch at the rear of the office, and would do the same in following days. The truth was, Spector had money in his pocket, but part of his New York music assimilation was to assume the guise of bohemian deprivation.

…Hanging around at the restaurants and other haunts where the music crowd congregated, he ran into many of the working and aspiring songwriters who covered the canyons of Broadway like locusts…

Getting to town just months before Dylan, Spector worked the same game, albeit uptown and across a cultural divide. The differences are legion, mainly in their methods of distribution, but the Village folk scene where Dylan came up and the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the Brill Building had a lot in common, despite the latter becoming a strawman enemy of the former. Besides, they were both kinda corny. Likewise, they both matured: Dylan made Blood on the Tracks, Spector produced All Things Must Pass.

Spector’s 1961 production of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” sure remains pretty, though. With no disrespect to Phil Ochs, I’ll take that most days.

memorial & “tropical-iceland” – the fiery furnaces

“Tropical-Iceland” – The Fiery Furnaces (download here)
from EP (2005)
released by Rough Trade (buy)

Jonathan Lethem’s Harper’s essay on “The Ecstasy of Influence” has been on my to-read list, but this quote, pulled by Return of the Reluctant, caught me eye:

For those whose ganglia were formed pre-TV, the mimetic deployment of pop-culture icons seems at best an annoying tic and at worst a dangerous vapidity that compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always, where it ought to reside.

In the fall, I read Bruce Wagner’s Memorial, which is full of passages like this:

After the make-out session in Griffith Park, Chess shared some memories of his dad. Laxmi enthusiastically echoed how The Jungle Book was a favorite of hers too, from girlhood. (She meant the version with John Cleese.) A few days later, she brought over a Netflix of the original Disney.

Memorial was a thicket of references, both high and low. Dutch theorist Rem Koolhaas, art-rockers the Fiery Furnaces, and David Wilson’s Center for Land Use Interpretation all got name-checked, but so did plenty of McDonald’s slogans, Oprah episodes, and Viagra side-effects. Reading it, I picked up on some, and missed a ton of others.

One’s experience of a book comes in two main parts: the actual real-time reading, and the long-tail memory of it. That is, although I remember Wagner’s methods, what really sticks with me when I think about the book are the peculiar emotional climaxes and plotlines that had nothing to do with the dressings. Though I was involuntarily disgusted by the abundant pop culture references, and didn’t really dig much about the book in general, my brain still filtered it down to the Platonic Always.

I think, maybe, we automatically look for this when we read. In fact, the idea that a given story has a broader meaning to people besides its characters is basically the unspoken contract we have when we begin to read a story. Regardless of pop culture references, then, we fit it into some world that makes sense for ourselves. You know, the imagination. It would take a critical density of allusions to derail that. But it still feels wrong to me.

“metal machine music, part 1″ – lou reed & godel, escher, bach

“Metal Machine Music, part 1″ – Lou Reed (download)
from Metal Machine Music (1975)
released by RCA (buy)

(file expires February 15th)

Being time for the annual, brain-cleansing airing of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, I got to thinking about a passage from Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach:

Achilles: …If any record player — say Record Player X — is sufficiently high-fidelity, then when it attempts to play the song “I Cannot Be Played on Record Player X”, it will create just those vibrations which will cause it to break… So it fails to be Perfect. And yet, the only way to get around that trickery, namely for Record Player X to be of lower fidelity, even more directly ensures that it is not Perfect. It seems that every record player is vulnerable to one or the other of these frailties, and hence all record players are defective.

If there was any piece of music in the universe that might be subtitled “I Cannot Be Played on Record Player X,” it’s Metal Machine Music. In that regard, maybe MMM is less effective now that the easily-disruptable turntable has been supplanted by the quietly humming mp3 box. Certainly, it sounds less scary now, its standing as a piece of music with overtones and melodies and movement a little more obvious.

But its actual musical effect, delirious overload, is no different, and that is because the “Record Player X” in question isn’t a record player at all, but the listener’s brain. MMM still can’t really be played, at least if the listener is trying to do anything else while listening to it — like, say, writing a blog entry. Or probably reading a blog entry, too. This means, of course, that it’s time to turn it up.

“hey bulldog” – the beatles & songbook

“Hey Bulldog” – The Beatles (download here)
from Yellow Submarine OST (1968)
released by Capitol Records (buy)

For whatever reason (soundtrack cut, etc.), the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” totally eluded me, and that’s rather awesome. There’s no reason to validate my love for the Beatles, or even to analyze what I love about “Hey Bulldog.” But it was pretty rad to discover, for me, what was essentially a new Beatles tune. If you’ll forgive me the rockist gushing, it reminds me of a Nick Hornby quote from Songbook, the warm ‘n’ fuzzy type of rock criticism that makes somebody like Hornby just as necessary as somebody like the Beatles.

In Victorian London they used to burn phosphorous at séances in an attempt to see ghosts, and I suspect that the pop music equivalent is our obsessions with B-sides and alternate versions and unreleased material. If you can hear Dylan and the Beatles being unmistakably themselves at their peak — but unmistakably themselves in a way we haven’t heard a thousand, a million times before — then suddenly you get a small but thrilling flash of their sprit, and it’s as close as we’ll ever get, those of us born in the wrong time, to knowing what it must have been like to have those great records burst out of the radio at you when you weren’t expecting them, or anything like them.

Hyperbole, I guess, but Cosby sweater/feel good hyperbole, and not entirely wrong. Beneath that, though, there is something a bit sad. The quest for b-sides, I think, can often be an attempt not to find out what something sounded like new, but to find something that might approximate an experience that one has worn out. It grows from the most atavistic of pop impulses: to want to hear more of what one liked before except, y’know, different. It’s not often that anything about the Beatles sounds new to me. Eventually, though, “Hey Bulldog” will dull, too. It will still be wonderful, of course, but that internalized, well-understood wonderful instead of that cue-and-recue-that-opening-groove wonderful. That’s maybe a little sad, because then I’ll (maybe) have no more Beatles songs to discover. For now, though: rawk.

james brown? james brown!

It occurred to me over the weekend that, before it is all over, James Brown could still be arrested for something. As my friend Bill is fond of saying: even in death, he’s James Brown. So far, he’s died on Christmas, been http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-12-28-james-brown-funeral_x.htm ">pulled through Harlem in a horse-drawn carriage, caused lines down the block when he lay in state at the Apollo (check Amy’s photo-essay), had the locks changed on his wife, been at the center of a paternity test, and isn’t buried, but literally chilling in a temperature-controlled room in his own house until the lawyers figure it all out. I can’t say how it’ll happen, but there really is a chance that James Brown will once again end up in police custody. It also sincerely and deeply warms my heart to note that, during the last week of the year, Brown topped Saddam Hussein and Gerald Ford on the Google Zeitgeist.

Dude’s still the hardest working man in show business.

Oddly enough, just before the holiday break, I read the best book about music I’ve read in ages, and it happened to be about James Brown: Douglas Wolk’s 33 1/3 entry on Live at the Apollo. Check his mesmerizing science drop on hypeman Fats Gonder’s introduction:

Fats Gonder ramps up his delivery from a salesmanlike incantation to rabid enthusiasm. He’s got a singer to sell. What’s the man he’s introducing done with all that hard work? “Man that sang, ‘I Go CRAZY’!” The snare smacks as the horn section blares a G-chord. It’s really “I’ll Go Crazy,” but Gonder’s determined to out-country JB’s enunciation. “Try ME!” G-sharp. “YOU’ve Got the Power!” A. “THINK!” A-sharp….

Gonder’s speech has been setting up a couple of subliminal effects. Starting with “You’ve Got the Power” and running through “Bewildered,” there’s a steady 6/8 rhythm to the words he accents and the band’s stabs — a tick-tock swing that’s at pretty much the same tempo as Brown’s ballads. There’s also a hidden message in those emphases — Crazy-me-you-Think-Want-Mind-Be-WILL-Lost-Night-Shimmy! This is a night for total abandon, the suggestion goes; for thoughts to become desires and then to simply be, through sheer will; a night to be lost to shimmying.

All that, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Chitlin Circuit. Well worth the read — but, then, what about James Brown isn’t? One couldn’t ask for a better subject. Philip Gourevitch’s “Mr. Brown” profile from the New Yorker is a must-read, too, and contains perhaps my favorite section lede ever:

There are no computers in the offices of James Brown Enterprises. “He’s got this strange notion that they can see back at you,” Maria Moon, one of his staffers, explained. “I guess he watched too many Russian-spy movies when he was young or something, but he thinks that they can see you and that they can track everything that you do.” Mr. Brown put it slightly differently: “I don’t want computers coming feeding direct off of me, ’cause I know what I got to tell a computer that it ain’t got in there, and I don’t want to. If the government would want me to be heading up the computer people, I would give ‘em a basic idea what we should put in a computer—not just basic things, you know, but things that will be helpful in the future. We don’t have that, but I could tell ‘em a lot of things.”

Jonathan Lethem’s Rolling Stone piece from last year ain’t nothing to sneeze at either. As Wolk points out repeatedly, the idea behind Live at the Apollo was for James Brown to sell himself as an attraction. Or, as the Tom Tom Club put it, in their “Genius of Love”: “James Brown? James Brown!” Even still, James Brown remains the answer to his own question.

season ticket

Missing baseball, I recently spent some time with Roger Angell’s Season Ticket, which contains some of the best writing I’ve ever read about the pleasures of being a fan. That Angell’s fandom happens to be of baseball often feels incidental. Here is a rain-delayed in game in Toronto:

Then it rained — downward and side-blown sheets and skeins of water that streamed down the glass fronting of the press box, puddled and then pounded on the lumpy, too green AstroTurf playing field before us, and emptied the roofless grandstand around the diamond. Glum descendant clouds swept in, accompanied by a panoply of Lake Ontario ring-billed gulls (a celebrated and accursed local phenomenon), who took up late-comer places upon the long rows of backless aluminum benches in center right field and then settled themselves thickly across the outfield swamplands as well, where they all stood facing to windward, ready for a fly ball, or perhaps for a visiting impressionist French film director (“Quai des Jays,” “Toronto Mon Amour”) to start shooting.

(It also happens to be available for $1.00 from AbeBooks.com, or one cent from Amazon.)

“go where i send thee” – golden gate jubilee quartet

“Go Where I Send Thee” – Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (download here)
from Gospel Music (2006)
released by Hyena Records (buy)

(file expires January 12th)

We can talk all we want about popcraft, but the most genuine hooks are those in folk music — real folk music, that is, the type that existed before recordings. In fact, after a song has been passed from generation to generation and continent to continent, all that’s left is what people can remember: hooks.

Like the Beverly Hills Teens theme song, “Go Where I Send Thee” — performed here by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet — has been lodged in my head for most of my life without me ever owning a proper recording. I suspect I learned it from a lily-white Pete Seeger rendition, but I’m not really sure. (The 1937 GGJQ version is from Joel Dorn and Lee Friedlander’s awesome Gospel Music mix.)
In Folk Songs of North America, where it is labeled “The Holy Baby,” Alan Lomax traces it as such:

Versions of this ancient mystic song have been recorded everywhere in Europe. Archer Taylor (Journal of American Folklore, LXII, p. 382) suggests that its origin may be found in Sanskrit, but that all European versions are probably derived from a Hebrew chant for Passover (Echod mi Yodea, first printed in Prague in 1526). The earliest known English translation of the Jewish religious folk song appeared in the seventeenth century, but a number of distinct forms soon developed.

To my ears, “Go Where I Send Thee” — the melody at its core, anyway, the specific part that never left me — doesn’t sound particularly like any of these cultures, the American South included. The refrain, the little drop between “send” and “thee,” just sounds like something I remember, everything whittled away except for its exact emotional effect. To paraphrase Frank Zappa: Folk isn’t dead. It doesn’t even smell funny.

on cell cams at shows, cont: western keitai

In the introduction to Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, a fascinating collection of academic essays (mostly translated from Japanese), Mizuko Ito defines keitai networks:

In contrast to the cellular phone of the United States (defined by technical infrastructure), and the mobile of the United Kingdom (defined by the untethering from fixed location) (Kotamraju and Wakeford 2002), the Japanese term keitai (roughly translated, “something you carry with you”) references a somewhat different set of dimensions. A keitai is not so much about a new technical capability or freedom of motion but about a snug and intimate technosocial tethering, a personal device supporting communications that are a constant, lightweight, and mundane presence in everyday life.

Maybe, the relentless clicking of cell cams at shows constitutes part of what might be described as Western keitai. That is, along with mp3s both financially and corporeally devaluing recorded music, it is possible that concerts are slipping into the realm of the day-to-day. Taking pictures, then, isn’t an attempt to capture anything momentous, but to simply mark the occasion, like a diary entry. And, sure, maybe that’s a defiling of live music as sacred ritual/spectacle, yadda yadda yadda, but it’s probably time for a change, anyway. Wouldn’t wanna be late for the future, after all.

travels with charley

The summer before eighth grade, in 1992, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley as an assignment for fall English. If I’m remembering correctly, that same English teacher — fresh out of college and new to the school that year — passed out an untitled/uncredited novel chapter on the first day of class. After a few days, maybe, he explained it was from a book called On the Road. Later, he assigned us Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. It is probably not a coincidence that, the same autumn, I discovered hippie music.

But when I read Travels With Charley, I was bored by all Steinbeck’s sightseeing (at least, that’s what I remember the novel being about). What completely enchanted me was the preparation for the journey.

Equipping Rocinante was a long and pleasant process. I took far too many things, but I didn’t know what I would find. Tools for emergency, tow lines, a small block and tackle, a trenching tool and crowbar, tools for making and fixing and improvising. Then there were emergency foods. I would be late in the northwest and caught by snow. I prepared for at least a week of emergency. Water was easy; Rocinante carried a thirty-gallon tank.

I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters. I took paper, carbon, typewriter, pencils, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaries, a compact encyclopedia, and a dozen other reference books, heavy ones. I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.

I suppose I was in preparation myself, which is perhaps what appealed to me about it. It was a good summer, though, reading-wise. I also acquired my first Bloom County collection, Penguin Dreams and Stranger Tales, and, on a trip to visit family friends in Maine, a copy of Hunter S. Thompson‘s Great Shark Hunt.

POSTSCRIPT: After posting last night, I got into bed & finished off Jonathan Ames’ What’s Not To Love?. In the epilogue, Ames spends a paragraph talking about what he’s bringing with him to Europe, concluding, “well, enough of that, but packing isn’t talked about sufficiently in travel writing.” Pleasant convergence.

brian eno on recordings & noise

It’s always fun to go through old issues of Wired from early in the first cyberboom. On the hyper-colorful mess of an index for the May 1995 issue, they refer to cover subject Brian Eno as “a prototypical Renaissance 2.0 artist” — funny to see the 2.0 meme/self-image already in play, even then.

I was in high school at the time, so I didn’t really grasp most of the hilarious hippie optimism of the whole affair (nor all the details). Still, I quite uncynically read interviews with a lot of heady hitters. I didn’t consciously hear Eno’s music for another few years, but this quote stuck with me right away.

Try it with a British accent. It sounds more thoughtful.

So, what happened with recording is that suddenly you could hear exactly the same piece of music a thousand times, anywhere you chose to listen to it. And this of course gave rise to a while lot of new possibilities within music. I think the growth of jazz, especially improvised jazz, was entirely due to recordings, because you can make sense of something on several hearings — even things that sounds extremely weird and random on first hearing. I did an experiment myself last year in which I recorded a short piece of traffic noise on a street. It’s about three and a half minutes long, and I just kept listening to it to see if I could come to hear it as a piece of music. So, after listening to this recording many times, I’d say, Oh yes, there’s that car to the right, and there’s that door slamming to the left, and I would hear that person whistling, and there’s that baby coming by in the pram. After several weeks, I found I loved it like a piece of music.

“california” – dr. dog

“California” – Dr. Dog (download here)
from Takers and Leavers EP (2006)
released by PTV Records (buy)

(file expires November 1st)

Been taking a leisurely slog through Writing Los Angeles, an anthology of great writing about the place. Here, in an essay titled “Paradise,” Double Indemnity writer James M. Cain writes about what he thinks of as the shallowness of L.A.:

But what electric importance can be felt in a peddler of orange peelers? Or of a dozen ripe avocados, just plucked that morning? Or a confector of Bar-B-Q? Or the proprietor of a goldfish farm? Or a breeder of rabbit fryers? They give me no kick at all. They give themselves no kick. The whole place is overrun with nutty religions which are merely the effort of these people to inject some sort of point into their lives; if not on earth, then in the stars, in numbers, in vibrations, or whatever their fancy hits on.

Thing is, all those things do have kick: what a weird, mystical place southern California must have been in 1933, between the wars. Dr. Dog evokes it perfectly on this Western Swing-on-a-soundstage number from their Takers and Leavers EP.

wonders, inc.

Without question, one of my favorite books as a kid was Crawford Kilian’s Wonders, Inc., about a boy’s trip to a massive, mysterious factory on the outskirts of town that manufactures (among other products) lines, space, proverbs, music, dreams, and more. John Larrecq’s psychedelic illustrations certainly didn’t hurt. Here, the dopey tour guide, Mr. Whipple, and the bright-eyed Christopher wander through the surrealist mechanics of the Clockworks:

They walked among the machines, Mr. Whipple pointing them out, “This one makes part-time; this one full-time; that one three-quarter time, time-and-a-half, and double-time. We also make Greenwich Mean Time, bedtime, pastime, nick-of-time, and a good variety of specialties.”

“Specialties?” Chris repeated.

“Oh, yes. We turn out a fine brand of split seconds, not to mention fleeting moments and carefully aged days. There’s a great demand for the good old days, you know.”

“Maybe among grownups,” Chris added, “but I prefer nowadays.”

“I thought you would. We make the best nowadays on the market.”

Though it’s super outta print, Amazon has many copies starting at $1.05. Wish there were some illustrations online.

jerry garcia on comas

via David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen Novick’s Voices from the Edge:

It just gave me a greater admiration for the incredible baroque possibilities of mentation. The mind is so incredibly weird. The whole process of going into coma was very interesting, too. It was a slow onset — it took about a week — and during this time I started feeling like the vegetable kingdom was speaking to me.

It was communicating in comic dialect in iambic pentameter. So there were these Italian accents and German accents, and it got to be this vast garbling. Potatoes and radishes and trees were all speaking to me. It was really strange. It finally just reached hysteria, and that’s when I passed out and woke up in the hospital.

the library of babel

Sometimes, when I think of the vastness of the internets — that faith that nearly any piece of information I could ever want can be found behind some URL, some combination of letters, numbers, slashes, and tildes — I think of Jorge Luis Borges’ “http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html">The Library of Babel” (available in http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&an=borges&y=0&tn=collected+fictions&x=0">Collected Fictions):

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist — somewhere in some hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind’s hope. At that period there was much talk of The Vindications — books of apologiœ and prophecies that would vindicate for all time the actions of every person in the universe and that held wondrous arcana for men’s futures. Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, upstairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane… The Vindications do exist (I have seen two of them, which refer to persons in the future, persons perhaps not imaginary), but those who went in quest of them failed to recall that the chance of a man’s finding his own Vindication, or some perfidious version of his own, can be calculated to zero.

Borges was obviously not a Googler.

ladies & gentleman, the bronx is burning

Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City is a map of a Manhattan just out of my reach. Though I wasn’t born until 1978, Jonathan Mahler’s scope encompasses familiar locales, as they were (more or less) when I was a child. There is reference to the Stewart House, a building in lower Manhattan so large that it constitutes its own voting district, crucial to Ed Koch in his bid for mayor. It also happens to be where my grandmother moved later that year after my grandfather died (and where I spent much time during high school). There is Bushwick, too, the neighborhood that properly begins a few blocks from my home, and how its own residents essentially burned it to the ground in the mid-1970s, and gutted it during in a massive riot during the 1977 blackout. And there are the Yankees, in their full mustachioed glory, the all-too-human personalities behind faces I vaguely recall from baseball cards. But mostly there is New York: cars and restaurants and gray buildings and dirt and endless people.

By European standards, New York remains an infant, free of the millennia of history that most European city-dwellers take for granted. While some of the figures in the book, especially in Mahler’s excavation of New York politics, seem ancient, they also seem perfectly contemporary, like the same stories could be happening with only minor variations this very minute. In that, The Bronx is Burning is a trick: one could pull multi-tiered historical narratives — maybe not about baseball and disco, but somethin’ — from any period in New York history. But they probably wouldn’t be as engaging.

this shape we’re in

The slimness of Jonathan Lethem’s This Shape We’re In works to its considerable charm. Its 55 pages read as a quick immersion into Lethem’s almost literally cartoonish other-world. In the first sentence, before he can even establish a plot, Lethem creates a central tension: just what the hell is going on?

It began when Belkan came into our burrow during cocktail hour and told us he had been in the eye. Early and Lorna were sitting around sipping gin and tonics and watching me grill a hunk of proteinous rind which I’d marinated pretty nicely and was basting like a real pro and my immediate response was to tell Belkan to go to hell. Marianne offered him a drink and he took it with both hands like it was hot chocolate and went back to boasting about his extraordinary meaner and the culture of the forelimbs and the things he’d witnessed peering through the eye: the inky depths of interstellar space (his words: inky depths, interstellar space).

Why wouldn’t you keep reading (especially when it’s available for $5 at the McSweeney’s bookstore)?

the light of l.a.

If Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an album that has inextricably bound me to a group of friends, then Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders is its literary equivalent. The book, as well as David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which it is about, have been the root of a half-dozen convergences in my life — doubly strange, given the importance of the word “convergence” in Weschler’s vocabulary.

In 2004, Weschler — a former New Yorker correspondent — published Vermeer in Bosnia, an eclectic collection featuring pieces about the director Roman Polanski, artist David Hockney, Shakespeare, war trials, and many other topics. Several of the pieces focus on Los Angeles, including a beautiful, brilliant entry called “The Light of L.A.” In it, he surveys filmmakers, artists, scientists, and poets, synthesizing it all into non-fiction transcendence.

Weschler has just learned of “airlight,” a scientific term describing the interference between one’s eye and the mountains beyond, when there seem to be “a billion tiny suns between you and the thing you’re trying to see.”

The next morning, I happened to be jogging on the beach in Santa Monica, heading north, in the direction of Malibu, as the sun was rising behind me. The sky was already bright, though the sun was still occluded behind a low-clinging fog bank over LAX. The Malibu mountains up ahead were dark and clear and distinct, and seemed as if freshly minted. Presently, the sun must have broken out from behind the fog bank — I realized this because suddenly the sand around me turned pale purplish pink and my own long shadow shot out before me. I looked up at the mountains, and they were gone: lost in the airlight.

to the lighthouse

Today, something — I no longer remember what — triggered a memory of a Virginia Woolf quote, from To The Lighthouse. It was a vague, flickering memory, and I could hardly remember the meat of the passage. So I went looking through my copy of To The Lighthouse, probably not opened since sophomore year, and thumbed through the 20-year-old me’s underlines and bent-back page corners. I don’t think I quite understood the book, though I think I thought I did at the time. I found the quote without too much trouble…

…like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. …Still, if he could reach R it would be something.

…but felt little connection to the vast meaning I once thought it had. We tend to think of books strictly as unchanging vessels of information. That is, a book on my shelf exists precisely so I can find the page with the words that contain the knowledge I desire. But books are very much temporal experiences, and reading one is an action that one takes, same as going to the market or climbing a mountain. My memories of To The Lighthouse are dreamy and indistinct, possessing autonomy equal to memories of things I actually physically did during the same period of time as I read it.

When I thought of the above quote, I was remembering it as an experience: a eureka! moment that occurred only after I’d read the previous 33 pages. It was information I am now unable to access, the words — the same, exact words — lingering on the page, teasing.

the nearest faraway place

The newsman sez that the Beach Boys “reunited” the other day, which apparently means that Mike Love and Brian Wilson met on the roof of Capitol Records for a promotional event and managed to have a public conversation without slapping the other with a lawsuit. The Beach Boys’ story is one act in a long family saga that didn’t get too particularly weird until the Boys themselves came around.

Late Billboard editor Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience is one of my favorite rock bios. White is less interested in placing the Boys in pop history as he is in an exacting contextualization of them as the product of a Southern California family in the mid-20th century. It’s really beautiful stuff.

From all [Brian Wilson] had been taught, from every risk taken in his own family tree, from what he could see and guess about the pain in his milieu and its sources, he believed he had no choice but to trust in the power of improvisation.

Southern California was itself an improvisation. As a Los Angeles newspaper columnists of decades past once quipped, in these parts “tomorrow isn’t another day, it’s another town.” Like his sunshine-bound forebears, Brian Wilson believed in the idea of California more than the fact of himself, feeling that the energy focused on the romantic concept could carry over into the substance of his existence.

The impossible hope that runs through this story live a river, bending, swerving, and nearly reversing itself over the course of five generations, is that California could eventually expand to become more than a mere destination, that the land of sun would finally fulfill its unreal promise as Improvisation Rewarded — the shortcuts of heart songs alchemized into the intricate accomplishment of a sonata.

impro

Keith Johnstone’s http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0878301178/102-4511526-5303341?v=glance&n=283155">Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre was unofficially required reading for a group of friends near the end of college. Though nominally about, well, improvisation and theater, Johnstone’s very British writing about human interaction is lucid and fantastic. His work on status, especially, is a useful way to think about any relationship, be it between people, objects, or some combination thereof.
1. from ‘A psychotic girl’

We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. Nobody seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!’

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorising, and on selecting. Actually it is crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of a child in this way.

2. from ‘Status’

‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic,’ and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless.’ It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t both to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally, we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality, status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.

have you ever been to electric ladyland

Over the weekend, I lent my friend Mike a copy of http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0385334389/102-5657614-4424918?v=glance&n=283155">Gates of Eden, a book of short stories by Ethan Coen of the Coen brothers. Each piece is like a miniature, unmade Coens’ picture. “Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland” (a statement, not a question, in the hands of Coen) is one of my favorites.

The opening two graphs of the story still blow my mind. In 93 words, Coen establishes a legit voice with its own phrasing, a rough sense of who is speaking, who he is interacting with, and (most importantly) a momentum, propelled by the fact that something has happened. And it all sounds, uh, Coenesque taboot, filled with awkwardly incomplete thoughts, nervous side-chatter, and an often subliminal throughline. The whole story is just masterfully timed and well worth reading.

I don’t know. I do not know. A sick fuck. A sick, twisted motherfuck, that much is obvious.

An individual name does not come to mind. I’m not saying it was a stranger. Though it could be. Senseless, random. Or not random. A stranger, but not random. Because, officer, if you have, like me, a certain renown, name in the papers, well — I don’t have to tell you that there are nuts out there. You know that better than anyone. A lot of nuts. And this, clearly — this is nut’s work.

stumbling on happiness

There’s an old SubGenius maxim that runs that if Satan can use the Scriptures to his own ends, then SubGenius slackmaster J.R. “Bob” Dobbs can quote anything to prove anything. Reading pop psychology can sometimes feel like that. Harvard prof Daniel Gilbert and his thoroughly enjoyable Stumbling on Happiness are cut from the same contrarian cloth as New Yorker staffer Malcolm Gladwell (who gives good blurb on http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400042666/102-5657614-4424918?v=glance&n=283155">the book’s Amazon page).

Gilbert hangs his arguments about what makes humans happy from a narrative of anecdotes. In short, he says, “when we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.” This is what we must consider, he argues, when we think about how to be happy (which, presumably, is what we want).

The endless stream of footnoted studies is powerfully dizzying. In one test, subjects “imagined the poster on their wall, noted how they felt when they did so, and assumed that if imagining the poster on the wall made them feel good, then actually seeing it on their wall would probably do the same. And they were right.” Score one for intuition. But 25 or so pages earlier, Gilbert writes that “when humankind imagines the future, it rarely notices what imagination has missed — and the missing pieces are much more important than we realize.” So… we shouldn’t trust intuition?

At one point, Gilbert uses graphs to show that eating at the same restaurant over and over can be clinically more satisfying than eating at a variety of restaurants over the same period of time — which goes a long way towards justifying my San Loco obsession, but could just be rhetorical fancy-pantsing (or, in other words: anything to prove anything).

Surprisingly, the end result of Stumbling on Happiness is a cohesive composite of a deeply elusive emotion. Gilbert never puts his finger on exactly what happiness is, but who could? Instead, he provides a vocabulary (see: “presentism,” “pre-feeling,” etc.), to chart its idiosyncratic dartings. If that all sounds a l’il fuzzy and self-helpy, then I suppose it is, but Gilbert offers no cure-alls, just methods of observing one’s own thoughts mid-flight. Sure, Dobbs or Gilbert can use anything to prove anything, but Gilbert has chosen to prove the existence of happiness, and that’s not such a bad goal to have.

johnny bench

One more baseball posting to close out the week…
Two excerpts from http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060103248/102-5657614-4424918?v=glance&n=283155">Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench by Johnny Bench and William Brasher. (see also: Johnny Bench by, uh, me.)

1.

1972 World Series, versus the A’s.

I, meanwhile, had to prepare for a World Series not against Baltimore and Mr. Brooks Robinson, but against Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s: mustaches, mules, and all.

We were the bad guys. It was 1972, the streets belonged to the people, flower children were alive and well, and the Cincinnati Reds were the Establishment being shoved up against the wall by the A’s from Berkeley.

We wore white suits at home, gray on the road, with low-cut socks and black polished spikes. They wore gold, green, and white uniforms in every combination, shiny high-cut silks, and white spikes.

We were clean-shaven with trimmed, short hair (Pete still wore a flat top) and no sideburns. They were longhairs, with sideburns and mustaches — thanks to Charlie Finley’s contest to see who could grow the most stylish upper lip — and the results were muttonchops, handlebars, and Fu Manchus.

…Before the series began in Cincinnati, I got together with Reggie Jackson and went out for something to eat. … Later I drove him back to the hotel, Reggie was on crutches, and when we went up past a few players’ rooms, I smelled the sweet, unmistakable odor of marijuana. A couple of the Oakland A’s, the American League representatives in the World Series, were smoking dope. That really shook me. I thought, “How in the world can they be doing this?” (pp. 109-111)

2.

1973 National League Championship Series, versus the Mets

“Grab a bat!” I yell. “Everybody grab a bat! Make sure Pete gets off the field.”

Sparky takes it up, mobilizing the whole team into a civil defense corps. We’ll go out there swinging to get him if we have to. Our hitter slaps a grounder, Pete runs a few steps toward second, then dashes for our dugout.

“Here they come!” someone shouts, and the fans are pouring over the walls and onto the field. Pete bulls his way, knocks a few kids on their cans, and makes it into the dugout. By now the people are on the dugout roof and coming over the top. I stand there with the fat part of a bat in my hand. I swing at a kid who comes at me and rap him in the shins. I can hear the thwock against the bone. He yelps and drops back and others back off. (p. 144)

cosmicomics

Because I like the moon, a bit of Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino:

How well I know!–old Qfwfq cried,–the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full–nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light–it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there…
There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s-breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.

and now a word from p.t. barnum

Apropos of absolutely nothing, a quote from Struggles and Triumphs, the 1869 autobiography of P.T. Barnum. Here, Barnum describes the burning of his second American Museum, where mermaid bones were displayed side by side with genuine artifacts:

The cold was so intense that the water froze almost as soon as it left the house of the fire engines; and when at last everything was destroyed, except the front granite wall of the Museum building, that and the ladder, signs, and lamp-posts in front, were covered in a gorgeous framework of transparent ice, which made it altogether one of the most picturesque scenes imaginable. Thousands of persons congregated daily in that locality in order to get a view of the magnificent ruins. By moonlight, the ice-coated ruins were still more sublime, and for many days and nights the old Museum was ‘the observed of all observers,’ and photographs were taken by several artists.