Archive | July, 2013

Music Worth Listening To: Galt MacDermot

28 Jul

Galt MacDermot is best known for his musical Hair, which was definitely a pop cultural watershed, however it also was very zeitgeisty and is something of a relic from its own time.  He never had anything that approached the success of Hair, and had a few big flops on broadway which made just about anything else he ever made completely obscure.

That being said, MacDermot is completely worth exploring–I certainly don’t think that everything he’s ever done is worth listening to, however he’s  perfect to wander through his backlog and pick out songs to make a marvelous playlist from.   He does a little of everything–art songs, blaxpoitation soundtracks, jazz-fusion instrumental, and a series of the weirdest shows ever staged.   While his instrumentals aren’t to my taste, every album that has vocals on it has a couple of gems hidden in the dross.

MacDermot’s music style is to be a blender of every sort of music pastiching them together.  Sometimes this results in a mess, occasionally the songs are brilliant.  There’s a handful of songs that are enjoyable and terrible and interesting at the same time.

So what would I recommend?  Let’s skip Hair–because that’s a classic that you can suss through yourself, and lets start with The Karl Marx play soundtrack–the music is very twenties influenced and early 20th century operetta. many of the songs are surprisingly tender.  All the songs are very short (MacDermot rarely goes over 3 minutes in whatever form he takes), but the best song from this one is the gospel influenced Holy Mystery.

Then there’s The Many Faces of Song–the odd song set set to synths.  It doesn’t really hurt MacDermot’s music any, and there’s several numbers here worth your listen.  The best is the very first–Fortune and Men’s Eyes, MacDermot has this quirky talent for taking formal poetry and making it into wonderful music (partially because his weak spot is lyrics in general).  This song is just gorgeous and expansive.)   Then we get to Paul Lawrence Dunbar in Song, where four songs particularly take the cake:  He Had His Dream, A Negro Love Song, Whip-poor-whill and Katy-Did, and Invitation to Love–the whole soundtrack is lovely though.

Corporation is a bizarre soundtrack (?) which I can’t tell if it’s against Corporations or making fun of plays that are against corporations.  More than not the lyrics here are particularly strange, but still there’s Robash Tree, a wise little song that sounds like a children’s lullaby.  Then we get to The Human Comedy which has about 80 songlets so picking is difficult here–it shows MacDermot in his wide glory, just about every style he plays with is here, and more often than not it’s good (though I hate the child’s voice, a bit too piercing.)  The songs I really like me is the 50’s influenced I Let Him Kiss me Once, and the aptly titled Beautiful Music.

Then there’s the Thomas Hardy works, very interesting having these poems set to music–they’re all pretty, but my favorite is the selfsame song.

He’s got dozens of more albums, but he’s well worth dredging through–honestly if I were a band I would do a Macdermot tribute album, it would be danged good.

Poetry Review: Albert Goldbarth “Library”

22 Jul

I cannot even begin to go into the scope and beauty that is Albert Goldbarth’s “Library.”   The tone is going into Goldbarth’s personal library from item to item books real and imaginary.  Most of the lines start with “This book….”  many of the lines pop open like hickory nuts, just flashing an image of essence, and we get the impression of being in this marvelous buffet of knowledge of the whole world, from a simple shelf.

Here’s some of my favorite lines:

There are stains in this book that carry greater narrative than the text.

This book is austere:  it is like holding a block of dry ice.

This book was smuggled into the country one page at a time, in tiny pill containers, in hatbands, in the cracks of asses; sixty people risked their lives repeatedly over this book.

This “book” is made of knotted string; and this, of stone; and this the gut of a sheep.

This book is filled with sheep and rabbits, calmly promenading in their tartan vests and bowties, with their clay pipes, in their Easter Sunday salad-like hats. The hills are gently rounded. The sun is a clear firm yolk. The world will never be this sweetly welcoming again.

This book hangs from a string in an outhouse and every day it gets thinner. 

This book set its mouth on my heart, and sucked a mottled tangle of blood to the surface.

There’s dozens more, the lines growing like some strange chant, filled with the books he got spanked for, the books of the holy, the books used as crutches and as attempts to have poise, the good books and godawful ones.  The power to this poem grows and grows.  It’s one of my favorite poems to hand to someone and have them read, just to see what happens.

The best parts are the opening and the closing (though having them without the middle is like frosting without the cake).  The first line This book saved my life.  If you stopped there, you’d think that the poem was going on to explain about this life-saving book, but it goes in another direction entirely–the books not only save life, they ARE life–in each and every form, all representing something bigger than just a simple book.  As all the images pass by, Goldbarth–one of my favorite poets–has a firm hand on the tone, mixing the high art with everyday life to just the right balance, he’s like that friend who always knows when to crack a joke, and when not to.

And then he whips the poem into ascendance, climbing up and up, after all the power of “This book” over and over again, like we really are in a sort of idea library thumbing through books all higgeldy piggeldy.  And here is where he socks you:

I open this book and smoke pours out, I open this book and a bad sleet
    slices my face, I open this book: brass knuckles, I open this book: the
    spiky scent of curry, I open this book and hands grab forcefully onto my
    hair as if in violent sex, I open this book: the wingbeat of a seraph, I
    open this book: the edgy cat-pain wailing of the damned thrusts up in a
    column as sturdy around as a giant redwood, I open this book: the travel
    of light, I open this book and it’s as damp as a wound, I open this book
    and I fall inside it farther than any physics, stickier than the jelly we
    scrape from cracked bones, cleaner than what we tell our children in the
    dark when they’re afraid to close their eyes at night.

It’s as if all boundaries have finally fallen, the edge between books and ideas and us are completely gone, just in that amazing tumble of lines.   But that’s not all.  He ends quietly after all that with two simple lines.

 And this book can’t be written yet; its author is not even born yet.

This book is going to save the world.

Goldbarth’s “Library” is an example of what a poem can be–a huge idea that comes down and almost possesses the reader, words that cannot be shortened or altered in any way, a spell of thought so rich it’s almost painful.  And yes, books can save lives and books can save the world.

I want you to know that.

Book Review: How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton

21 Jul

If you couldn’t tell by now, I have a huge intelligence crush on Alain De Botton.   I am all for taking difficult/obscure ideas to the people, and De Botton is one of the best at this because not only is he super smart, he’s a capable communicator–those two traits inhabit the same person quite rarely.

Anyway, this time his target is Proust,  the writer of In Search of Lost Time, among other things, and you might ask why read a book about Proust if you have no interest in reading anything by Proust anyway?

There’s many reasons why people might not try to read In Search of Lost Timefor one thing it’s six volumes of incredibly dense reading, in fact, I would go so far to say that ISoLT is the second biggest bohemeth behind The Fairie Queene, in terms of muchness.  As for the denseness, Proust has a habit of focusing on each and every detail to such a minute degree that he simply can wear the reader out.   However, Proust is extremely influential and is one of the greatest minds of all the modernists.

This is where De Botton is handy.  He, with a great bit of humor, shows us what Proustian thought and Proustian living mean.   In Proust’s time, just like now, there was a middle class boredom about life, where everything becomes flat, safe, and predictable.   Also, just like now, there was much public handwringing about the emptiness of such a life, and generally people seemed to think that either being lower class or upper class made one have a real life, while the middle class just had things.

Proust didn’t agree.  Proust had a bunch of theories about beauty and living, and the role of art in people’s lives.   Art is there to show the beauty in things.  The problem is that the art people know is out of date–so their “beauty” is based on things and scenes long gone.   That’s why for some people a rowboat is deemed worthy of a painting while a motorboat would not be.  To Proust there would be as much beauty available at your local McDonalds as there would be in a flower garden, if you only had the trained eye for it.

De Botton explains all this, and even further, in such an entertaining manner that you’ll probably half think to at least give In Search of Lost Time a shot.  Really, pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

20 Jul

An episode of Frasier mentioned that one of the best sorts of meals is one that is very good but has one distinct minor flaw that you can pick on all evening.  Star Trek Into Darkness is like that.  Before I get into the meat of this review, I have to say my overall impression is that this movie is fun, quite entertaining, and zips along at a pretty good pace.  Thinking of something to watch for a Friday night?  This is perfect.

Ok so SPOILERS follow,  do not roam beyond this sentence unless you want to know what happens or are aware of it already.

Reboots are an interesting phenomenon, essentially they are the same things as remakes except their intent is to bring back a whole franchise rather than pay homage to a specific movie.  Unlike a remake (and that word has been backburnered since the word reboot has come up) reboots can change nearly everything about the original picking up only what they really deem useful.  Unfortunately reboots are quickly becoming a tarnished endeavor, tending towards slick empty product rather than quality pictures.  Fortunately Star Trek does not follow that trend.

You’ll get all the interesting bits about how the new Star Trek series ties into the original stories, but I have to say the redesign and the callbacks to the source material are darn clever, the execution isn’t always that smart, but how these movies have neatly hopped to an alternate timeline with a completely different look while still staying faithful to the spirit of the thing is amazing.  You’ll enjoy this movie the most if you’re a fan of the series enough to know what’s being referenced but not a diehard trekkie who will say things like “Spock wouldn’t do that” and get all irritated (then again that may be their way of enjoying things too.)

In other words, you’ll want to get into the spirit of the thing.  The science here is just next door to magic, but if you’re looking at any Star Trek movie for hard science you’re already in trouble anyway.  Many parts of the movie are dumb–Spock’s half-human thing to name one thing, but again, there’s many other scenes that are smart.  Khan’s character is smart.  The whole showdown with the Commodore is smart.  The whole Spock/Kirk relationship is smart.  So you’ve got those things.  One thing I found is how lovable Spock is in this series–his opaque stare and stiff way of doing things make him seem lovably awkward.  I don’t even mind the Spock/Uhura romance (I mean she was the only woman in the ship half the time you can’t imagine something wouldn’t have come up sooner or later.)

The only thing that I think keeps this movie from being A-1 is that it suffers from final act drag.   I would have been happy if the movie ended with them landing the enterprise on earth, and the follow-through from there.  However, they tack on this Spock/Khan fight on the top of a hovercraft that drags on forever, and doesn’t even match the rest of the movie.  It’s like they felt like they had to have a one on one fight because of how action movies function these days.  Old Trek wouldn’t have done that, in fact they rarely got into hand to hand anyway because it was about the technology, but here, there it is, shoehorned at the very end.

My other quibble is there’s a scene where Khan takes his spaceship and smashes it into a bunch of buildings in a city.  There’s this new thing I’ve seen popping up in movies where 9-11 seems to be referenced in this very odd fashion (Superman does it too), so while you see no bodies, or nobody being harmed, you get this sort of scene.  Now I’m certainly not one who thinks that 9-11 is a sacred cow that should not be in movies, however, in a movie  like this one, when you reference a tragedy, it brings in a lot of subtext that isn’t really conducive to the movie.  I know they did it to show that Khan was evil (rather than just misunderstood) and to raise the stakes, but having a scene such as this one reminds people of death and suffering, and since this is a movie that is not about death and suffering at all, it comes off as a bit manipulative.   I don’t even see the point of trying to show Khan as a terrorist–after all there’s lots of bad people in the world who aren’t, the whole link seems to be a little stretched.

However those things are at the very end of the movie, and the whole set-up coming onto it is so good I can’t help but recommend it.  The movie is fun, and often a hoot.  Go see it.

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

17 Jul

*******WARNING, SPOILERS BELOW***********



Ok, so we run into the second book of the First Law trilogy, Before They Are Hanged (from here on in, we’ll be calling it BTAH, which is a pleasantly Glokta-ish word.)

Anyway BTAH shows a great leap forward from The Blade Itself which in itself was a big wonderful read.   While TBI was mostly set in Adua with a claustrophobic atmosphere, BTAH is truly epic in scope, following three story threads in three different sections of the world.  We barely see Adua at all.  In fact, since all the people seemed scattered around the world I was wondering how these stories would come back together in the end.  Let me save you the tension to tell you they don’t–at least not yet, though a sharp eye can see connections between the three.

The first thread is about Glokta and how he roots out disloyalty in Dagoska–a lone city owned by The Union on the edge of the Gurkish Empire.  The Gurkish Empire wants this city back, naturally, after they had lost it in a war.  On top of that, the city counsel is completely corrupt and had the previous high inquisitioner murdered.  This is by far the best of the three tales told here (though they’re all good.)  Partially it’s because the pressure is pushed to the max here, with Glokta really being in danger through most of the book.  Actually, themes like vulnerability, being exposed, out in the open are all here throughout all the tales.  It’s fascinating watching Glokta at work.  The funny thing is the mystery is a sort of macguffin, driving the plot forward, but not really where our attention lies.   Glokta escapes just in time before the city falls.    Also we get a glimpse of the eaters and they are a thousand times more creepy than you could ever imagine.

The second thread has to do with Major West and the troops to the north fighting the northmen.  The Dogman has decided to support the Union side, and there’s a great deal of battle.  This part has the most heart wrenching scenes in the whole series yet, particularly in the battles which are short, ugly, and filled with pointless death.  In these books, wars have no real winners, and even though the fight in the north goes better than the Dagoska seige, there’s some great losses.  Major West transforms into being like the northmen when he has to join them in escape (after the prince sets up a terrible battle that was basically a suicide mission).  He murders the prince and earns the nickname “Furious.”  He bites a man’s nose off.  What’s interesting is as soon as he’s back with the troops he reverts back to his old self.  One thing about these books is that characters act according to their environment, so changes always happen, but they’re usually temporary.

The third thread is Bayez and crew going on a trek across the old empire.  Here we have the most Macguffiny of Macguffins as they go to get The Seed, and it turns out it’s not there.   Logan and Ferro get in a very uncomfortable love affair.  Jezal learns humility, at least for the time being.  This was the weakest of the three stories, though all the characters develop interestingly.   The weakness comes from Bayez’s fondness of telling the old stories, and I could not keep track of all his lore and who was who in is tales of olden times.  Not to mention that Bayez is very clearly not to be trusted, so I’m not sure how much of his storytelling is real in the first place.

I ate this book up–the gloves off feel of the storytelling really makes the risks palpable.  I have to continue my warning though, if you like your good people good and your bad people bad, this is not the book for you.  The “heroes” here are all deeply flawed, and nobody, and I mean nobody, wins.  Sound depressing?  It’s not–because what makes these books touching are the little ways that all the characters cope in such a rough cruel world.

Highly recommended, but read the first book.

Poetry Review–Gerald Stern, “The Naming of the Beasts”

8 Jul

Well, today we get all Biblical–today we are talking about “The Naming of the Beasts”  a clear call-out to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

You were wrong about the blood./It’s the meat eating lamb we are really terrified of./Not the meat eating lion.

The idea of a meat eating lamb is horrifying–a strange unnatural image that certainly would be terrifying on a whole new level than a lion.  These lines bring all sorts of Biblical images, how the lion will lie with the lamb, the lion of Judah, Christ the lamb.  In fact the lamb/lion dichotomy is one of the most vivid pairings in the Bible.  Also, the lamb is sacrifice and innocence.   According to the speaker, the lamb scares us more than the lion.

The noisy soul shrieking and spitting and bleeding set us off–/the smell of nice green grass confused us.

The image of a lamb being slaughtered, and the lamb is a stand in for that person’s soul.   And if we go back to the first line, being wrong about the blood, this might be a response to someone saying that blood created the horror, it didn’t, it just “set us off” as if it were a doorway to the horror, not the horror itself.    What is confusing, is the grass, which indicates safety and bounty.   The reason that a lion is not as terrible, is because a lion makes people’s guard go up, so that whatever it does it won’t get a person at their most vulnerable.  A lamb however, is helpless, and that very helplessness creates pain.  It’s interesting to think that ritual sacrifices were more often things like lambs than big horrible animals.

It is the eyes, the old sweet eyes showing just a little fear./It is the simple mouth full of honest juices./It is the little legs crossed at the bony joints.

It’s clear that the animal has done nothing to earn such a fate, but we find what the person thinks of himself in contrast that’s implied.   Jaded, terrified, complex, dishonest, big.  Also, that last line, little legs at the bony joints as if we were seeing this lamb tied down to an altar, isn’t that exactly the sort of thing that a terrified person would look at, that tiny detail?  Also it emphasizes the fragility of this creature.

–It is not greed–it can’t be greed–it is fasting.

We’re still trying to define that terror.  The line is right, greed isn’t terrifying, we can be disgusted by it, but it rarely creates a physical reaction like fear–fasting is what people are more afraid of.   What’s interesting is the fear of fasting or doing without is what creates greed.  Also, the indication is that this lamb which is offered up to god isn’t put there because of greed because this family will not be able to eat it.

It is not divorce–it is custody;/it is not blood–it is supineness.

This rite is not a divorce–I take that to mean that it’s not just getting rid of the people’s unworthiness rather it is making them own that unworthiness.  Think about it, if you had to kill a lamb after every wrong deed wouldn’t you really feel even worse about whatever it is that made you do it than before? As for the blood/supineness dichotomy, what I think the meaning is, is that the fear of drawing blood is not the reason that this is so brutal, but the absolute “supineness”–supine is a tricky word, which is why Stern pulled it out of his hat.  Literally supine means laying on the back, so being laid out vulnerable, tied down, completely exposed is one part of what terrifies the speaker, but also, supine means passive, not responsive, so becoming the lamb frightens him as well, because the lamb has no control or even concept of it–by being lazy/indifferent you are set out to be a martyr to those stronger than you.  This is what Stern is naming, that passivity that makes you sacrificable in the first place.



The Great Things about the United States

4 Jul

Ok, so today I want to make a little list, in honor of July 4th.  To begin, I want to emphasize that I’m not making a list that is how the U.S. is better than other countries, any country has its strengths and weaknesses and America is no different.  Nor am I saying that the United States is without its problems and issues.  However, I do want to show my gratitude for this country that I’ve lived in most of my life, so think of this as my little fireworks show for Independence Day.

1.  The United States has some lovely (and variable) country.  From the majesty of Niagara Falls, to the mind-boggling hugeness of the Grand Canyon, from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, the Smoky Mountains, Hawaii’s island paradise, Alaska’s frozen wonders, Southern beaches, the glorious west coast–every state has something marvelous to look at, some well known, some obscure.   This country is a road-trippers dream.

2.  The people here are just as varied–the United States has people from nearly everywhere in it, and the cultural make-up changes wildly from area to area.  This includes everything from religion, to ancestry, to local flavor.   It’s amazing that (in most ways) we work together so well.

3.  The United States’ history moves in a general direction from limited freedoms for some people to greater freedoms for greater amounts of people.  This trajectory has been hard-fought and has been seriously challenged in the past, but it’s still there.

4.  Americans love being entertained.  For things to pass the time, there is an endless array of different things to do.  Also American audiences are VERY appreciative when entertainment is good.  Our applause is heartfelt and enthusiastic.

5.  If there’s one common thread to much of American culture it is the infinite capacity of dreaming.  I’m not just talking about the American Dream, but the very idea that the world is full of opportunity for anybody with a little know-how, grit, and hard work–that’s a charming worldview.   Honestly, this capacity has brought more healing and hope in times of trouble than anything else.

6.  The freedom of expression is an obsession for Americans.  I can’t think of a time where people’s right to say what they think hasn’t been seriously discussed.  It comes up in nearly every political issue, from both sides of the aisle.  Not every country has that freedom.

7.  When someone captures the American public’s heart, America is a very giving country.  I’m thinking of every internet story where someone was mistreated and strangers step in to try to make things right.  Every day I hear inspiring stories of common citizens trying to do the right thing.  It’s wonderful.

8.  You like big bustling cities?  We’ve got them.  You like a home in the middle of nowhere?  We’ve got that too.  Are you fast-paced or a slow-poke?  Take your pick, we’ve got room for you both.

9.  American food–yes it’s often bad for you, but who can deny the simple happiness that a hamburger, or a slice of pizza, or Coca-Cola, and yes, Apple Pie.  Americans love comfort so much that all their distinctive foods are comfort food.  And don’t forget the regional dishes–Southern Cooking, New England fare, New Orleans’ spicy stewpot, California Cuisine–and also all the different peoples of the world that came to this country and made an American version of their foods–go to any Italian restaurant or Tex-Mex diner or Chinese take-out and you know what I mean.

10.  And finally, I want to praise the regular ordinary people of this country.  The ones who are not famous or important, at least not in the ways that get on TV.   I want to tell the rest of the world that these are the people worth getting to know.  Yes, there’s a few bad apples, but by and large, a vast majority of Americans are good people who work hard, who have simple virtues like friendliness, openness, neighborliness, sharing, curiosity, and a whole lot of fun.

God bless this country.  Let us continue to improve and prosper.