A Man Called Destruction (Alex Chilton biography)

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I just read Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton.  I was a huge Alex Chilton fan in my not-so-wayward youth in the 1980s, as I discussed in this 2010 post (prompted then by the 33 1/3 book on Radio City and the Big Star box set), so it was great to fill in a lot of details and to understand parts of the story that had always been hazy or sketchy for me.  Overall it’s an excellent biography, I thought –at least for a fan; you might not have the stamina for the whole thing if you weren’t already one.

A few observations:

  • This isn’t news, but reading the whole biography made clear how incredibly strange Chilton’s career was, with some weirdly history-defying twists and diversions. He’s a teenage star as the singer of the somewhat manufactured pop group the Box Tops in the mid and late 60s.  When the band finally fizzles out in 1970, Chilton is all of 20 years old.  When Big Star similarly (well, very differently) fizzles out in 1974/5, the guy is 25 years old, having already lived through two full lives in the music business. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that in the immediate post-Big Star years, Chilton spent quite a lot of time in NYC and was even a semi-fixture at CGBGs right in the dawning of the punk scene.  He “stayed in New York for much of 1977, the year punk broke… Ball and Ork had already booked another prime gig: opening for Talking Heads at CBGB March 3-5, two sets each night.”  Chilton told a fanzine, “Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible.  In Memphis everybody thinks I’m a jerk.  Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.”  “CBGBs soon became Alex’s second home…. ‘I could drink free at CBGBs,’ Alex said. ‘The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were all coming out of that scene and were already too big to get close to or to be friends with.  But Richard Hell was omnipresent… The Dead Boys lived right across the street; I enjoyed their company.”  “Alex and the band opened at CB’s for Lester Bangs… The previous night, two of Alex’s favorite bands had been on the bill with Bangs– the Ramones and the Cramps… Alex had become obsessed with the Cramps and saw them whenever possible.”  Etc.  There’s something about all of this that just seems so strange.  Chilton was/ should have been a total legend at this point. But instead he’s this punk fanboy hanging around CBGBs waiting in line to see the Dead Boys.  And he’s still just 26 or so.
  • Perhaps the most mind-blowing such detail, with Chilton as a strange Zelig figure of the late 70s scene: “Alex still had his derelict apartment on East Ninth Street, which now had no electricity. He hadn’t paid rent in two months and was about to be evicted, so he packed his duffel bag once more and headed back to Memphis in time for his 27th birthday. A week later the Sex Pistols played their second show in America… in Memphis… Arriving early, Alex helped set up equipment… and tuned Steve Jones’ guitar for him.”  !!??!!
  • Something else I probably should have realized: Lou Reed’s Berlin was a big influence on Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third.  That makes sense. (That the album contains a cover of a Velvet Underground song (“Femme Fatale”) somehow kept me from considering Reed’s later music as an influence.)  In 1981 a New York Rocker writer and musician (Glenn Morrow), reviewing a dissolute live performance, observed, “Like a Memphis version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,… Chilton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plan t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness.”  Morrow concluded (wonderfully), “To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar player who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off-key.  It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop.  Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?”
  • Few others are likely to care about this, but I was fascinated to come across a citation from a thoughtful piece on Big Star published in 1975 or something by Mike Saunders, later “Metal” Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans!  I knew that he’d been a rock critic, but this still surprised me.
  • Speaking of the Sex Pistols, Chilton’s on-again off-again relationship with the beautiful Lesa Aldridge (a lot of the songs on Sister Lovers are about her) eventually degenerated into Sid and Nancy territory.  Not pretty.  (There’s also at least one verified report of Chilton making an offhand anti-semitic comment, although it’s not entirely clear to what degree this reflected real prejudice, as opposed to being more about trying to shock and piss off the journalist.) The drug intake at times becomes pretty startling even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.  Jim Dickinson on working on the Sister Lover sessions with Clinton: “”The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe,” said Dickinson. “That set the tone.””
  • The biography left me pondering some large questions about causality, character, talent, and luck.  What most explains Chilton’s fucked-up career and the fact that he never really got the recognition he deserved?  The book sometimes feel like it could be titled, Operation: Undermine Music Career. The book can suggest various different possibilities.  One relates to trauma and depression. Chilton’s beloved older brother Reid suffered a powerful seizure (he was prone to them) while taking a bath in 1957, just after graduating from high school, and drowned.  This hit the 7-year-old Alex hard, and he later attempted suicide twice (cutting his wrists), and once passed out in a bath and almost died as his brother did.  One gets the distinct impression that Chilton’s drug abuse was partially (as it usually is, probably) self-medication.  Or, one can read his drug & alcohol problems less as effect of something else, and more the central thing itself: perhaps he just happened to have an addictive personality, a tendency toward self-indulgence, and a dangerous profession for someone with those tendencies.
  • And then, when it comes to his relationship with the music business, do we see him mostly as a victim of a system that couldn’t recognize his genius? Or as bearing more culpability or at least agency in the process?  There’s a lot of evidence for the first view, as Big Star couldn’t have gotten much unluckier when it came to the way their records were handled.  OTOH, Chilton had opportunity after opportunity that he either squandered or passed up, either out of perversity, bohemian intransigence, integrity, drug-addledness, depression, just not caring, following his own muse, not working well with others (choose your own theory).
  • One detail that was fascinating to me: Alex’s older brother Howard got (or worked towards) his PhD in philosophy at Indiana University, and through Howard, Alex got turned onto the ideas of Wilhelm Reich.  He later cited Reich’s 1933 book Character Analysis as a major influence, saying that after reading it, “I began sorting things out.  Character Analysis helped me understand myself and the people around me… From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing and where I wanted to go.”  He also seems to have taken astrology pretty seriously, to the extent that he had to vet any potential musical partners to ensure compatible astrological signs.  (Well, it’s better than Scientology.)
  • I just read Carl Wilson’s good review of the book, in which he makes the nice observation that “Chilton’s story is … a mystery about whatever drives a handful of artists to be great at the expense of being good, to gamble double or nothing on the long odds.”

Bloomington’s Little Free Libraries (2)

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are two more Little Free Libraries on or just off Davis Ave. a little to the West of Bryan Park.

Here’s the one on Davis.  When it’s closed, it’s not at all clear what the green wooden box is — it almost has the look of a green electrical box — which may be a disadvantage, although I also kind of like the suspense in opening the latched box and finding out what’s inside.

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Right now its contents are hit or miss.  7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How to be a Success, the Boomer Burden.  Also a Barnes & Noble edition of Vanity Fair, Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation, and an old edition of a Horatio Alger novel. I didn’t take anything.

The box has a lovely situation next to a brook, with a bench, and in the middle of a series of gardening boxes (you can see some lettuce in the foreground of this photo).

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Right around the corner, by the corner of Davis and Franklin, is this neat tree-mounted Little Free Library:

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Since I was last there a day or two ago, it seems that someone has added several old-school 60s-70s male literary novelists: John Fowles’ A Maggot (just checked, actually 1985), Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business (everyone in my family was reading that some summer when I was 12 or so– I barely remember it but recall thinking it was great), John Barth’s The Floating Opera.

Also, this stern note: Wed. May 28- I Wonder Why Someone Took All the Books?  Uncool, folks!  Take one or maybe two and try to come back to replace them!

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Bloomington’s Little Free Libraries

The Little Free Library movement apparently began in 2009 in a town called Hudson, Wisconsin, and has spread like wildfire.

What is a Little Free Library?

It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share. You can, too!

[The founders] were inspired by many different ideas:

  • Andrew Carnegie’s support of 2,509 free public libraries around the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
  • The heroic achievements of Miss Lutie Stearns, a librarian who brought books to nearly 1400 locations in Wisconsin through “traveling little libraries” between 1895 and 1914.
  • “Take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and public spaces.
  • Neighborhood kiosks, TimeBanking and community gift-sharing networks
  • Grassroots empowerment movements in Sri Lanka, India and other countries worldwide.

The group’s original goal was “to build 2,510 Little Free Libraries—as many as Andrew Carnegie—and keep going.”  But “this goal was reached in August of 2012, a year and a half before our original target date. By January of 2014, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 15,000, with thousands more being built.”

I was delighted to come across one of these a few weeks ago near Bryan Park in Bloomington– it’s on E. Davis street, about a block and a half or so West of the park.  This one is a metal [actually painted green wood] box, if I recall correctly, with a door that shuts with a latch.  I took a book from it, although I am already forgetting what it was.  I owe them a book!

Then, the other day, I was walking home and came across this magnificent new one on the corner of First street and Highland Ave.  It has a glass door, so you can see the spines of the books from the sidewalk, enticing you to stop to look more closely; and as you can see, it has an extra bottom shelf for some guardians of the library, and a sort of visitors’ notebook.

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The collection of books was excellent, and I snagged the recent (published March 2014!) Philip Marlow re-boot, Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)’s The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel.  Not too shabby!  Today I took a dog walk back to the box and delivered what I think was a fair trade for that prize, an extra copy of Don DeLillo’s Underworld that I’ve had for ages– which you can see here.  This is clearly a pretty highbrow/ high-quality L.F.L.  There’s a copy of Wonder by R.J. Palacio, one of my kids’ favorite novels.

The proprietor of the box were doing some landscaping work around it when I showed up, and I learned that her L.F.L. is not part of Bloomington’s developing system (which the Monroe County Public Library is organizing, with help from a grant), but is a free agent. She also told me that there’s another box around the corner from the one I’ve seen on E. Davis, this one attached to a tree, like a bird house.

Here’s also a video about the Little Free Library story:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/72957294″>Little Free Library Story</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user13666567″>Beargrass Media</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

The whole idea could be accused of having a whiff of Portlandia-style preciosity or twee-ness to it.  But I’m a fan.  I can definitely never pass one of these without checking out its contents, and it’s fun to think about how each book got there, and where it may end up.

I will be on the lookout for the new L.F.L’s in town that should be cropping up.  Check them out!

Live-blogging Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels

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The Picador single-volume edition of the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk — is quite the extraordinary bargain at a price of $12.98 on Amazon (although hey, you can afford to buy this one from your neighborhood store).  It had been sitting in a stack in my bedroom for quite a while because I began the first book, Never Mind, and was genuinely concerned that getting to the scene in which the five-year old Patrick Melrose is raped by his father (a scene narrated from Patrick’s own perspective) would give me such disturbing nightmares as not to be worth it.  But now I’m about halfway into the remarkable series and will certainly keep reading to the end.

James Wood describes these novels as seeming to be “not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds.”  (The novels are apparently highly autobiographical, based on St Aubyn’s own experience of childhood sexual abuse and his years of drug addiction from age 16 to 28.) Wood adds that “St. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories.”

I’d agree that Never Mind in particular (first published in 1992 – I’d be curious to see reviews/ response to it at that point) reads like Evelyn Waugh meets Tacitus. Or, that Patrick’s father David Melrose is kind of like Wilde’s cruelly witty Lord Henry meets Caligula. The Roman references are woven into the text: David loans a “friend” a copy of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, of which we’re led to assume that the chapters on Nero and Caligula must be his favorites.

Never Mind is quite amazing — I can’t think of anything quite like it.  There’s witty, there’s savagely witty, and then there’s this, something beyond that. I remember a critic’s observation that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) reads like a jaundiced, deeply disillusioned return to the Jane Austen world of wealthy, aristocratic European leisure a century later, from within the knowledge of that world and that class’s self-destruction. St. Aubyn extends this logic further in the most corrosively savage, and yet very funny, depiction of dead-end English country-house elites ever.

Here’s one dinner guest, for example, Vijay Shaw, an old Eton acquaintance of Victor, the social-climbing philosopher whose wife Anne’s perspective is articulated here (the only vaguely sympathetic characters, aside from the five year-old Patrick, are women; are the men are repellent, although Victor the least so):

[S]pending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence.  His wife, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel.  When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting lead thrown onto a fire.  Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness, and would attack only easy prey. His voice seemed to be designed exclusively for simpering… Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered…. A little Indian guy being sneered at by monsters of English privilege would normally have unleashed the full weight of Anne’s loyalty to underdogs, but this time it was wiped out by Vijay’s enormous desire to be a monster of English privilege himself.

The Roman/ Caligula references crystallize the novel’s emphasis on social life as a species of mutual torturing, and St Aubyn also suggests that the English aristocratic fox-hunting ethos has been literally miniatured and trivialized in David Melrose’s ongoing torture of ants:

David Melrose, tired of drowning ants, abandoned watering the garden. As soon as the sport lost a narrow focus, it filled him with despair. There was always another nest, and terrace of nests. He pronounced ants ‘aunts’, and it added zest to his murderous pursuits if he bore in mind his mother’s seven haughty sisters, high-minded and selfish women to whom he had displayed his talent on the piano as a child…

David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along in both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace.  Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies… With his cigar he caught a stray ant which was escaping with signed antennae from his last incendiary raid…. The ant ran away with astonishing speed, was about to reach the far side of the wall when David, stretching a little, touched it lightly with a surgeon’s precision. Its skin blistered and it squirmed violently as it died.

The ants/ aunts discussion also made me think of Roald Dahl, of all people.  There may be a tiny touch of James and the Giant Peach in St Aubyn’s gleeful anatomizing of the selfish cruelty of an English family.

And yes, the rape scene is hard to take, and audacious– I’d imagine many readers in 1992 of this first novel by an unknown author must have thrown it across the room.

Bad News resembles the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Philip Roth’s Paternity in focusing on a son’s experience of his father’s death, and specifically of his father’s corpse: here, David Melrose’s incinerated ashes in a can that the 22-year old Patrick carries up and down New York City with him on a celebratory heroin, alcohol, and cocaine bender.  (His appetite for drugs is bottomless enough, and his trust fund still for the time being sufficiently ample, to demand almost continual negotiation with various dealers to keep the supply coming.) Of the two novels, I found Bad News less original; what ant-torturing scenes were in Never Mind (actually way more so), excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the injection of heroin and cocaine speedballs into often recalcitrant veins are in this novel, and at times it becomes a little too Bret Easton Ellis, although it’s never less than brilliantly witty.

I’ve just started Some Hope, in which Patrick is 30 years old and struggling to stay sober after a few bouts in rehab, and — having squandered much of his inheritance — is studying to become a barrister.  St Aubyn suggests a link between aesthetic & personal style and addiction in that Patrick, off drugs, is forced to explore new attitudes, ways of behaving, forms of speech and verbal habits.  He is

trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; canceling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; … desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning only what irony could convey.

That says a lot about the novels themselves, which seem to be, much like Knausgaard’s books, an attempt at once to tell the truth about the author’s own experience but to fictionalize, ironize, and transform it.

The year of Wrong Living: Jenny Offill’s *Dept. of Speculation*

I loved the new Jenny Offill novel Dept. of Speculation.  (Here’s a good piece on it by Elaine Blair in the NYRB, and James Wood also wrote about it recently in The New Yorker (March 31 issue)… And here’s the NYT review.)

As Blair comments, and Wood may draw the same parallel, in voice and form it slightly recalls Renata Adler’s cult novel Speedboat (recently reissued by the New York Review of Books press) and the essays of Joan Didion.  But imagine that kind of witty, cool, alienated young-female-intellectual voice combined with, I don’t know, something like Tina Fey’s memoir.  (Maybe Sheila Heti’s work would be the most obvious current analogy.)  It’s an autobiographical novel, sort of, but also can read like a philosophical essay, comprised of brief, gnomic chapters, often consisting just of an observation or two, an anecdote, decontextualized quotations, chunks of prose that seem patched in from some other genre entirely, etc.  It eventually reveals itself as the narrative of adultery and divorce, as the 40-something narrator, “the wife,” a novelist in Brooklyn struggling to write her second book, realizes that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman.  It’s also a book about motherhood, chronicling the narrator’s experience as a mother to an infant who becomes an early school-age girl in the course of the book.  It has some of the best, truest, and least sentimentalized evocations of the experience of taking care of a baby & toddler I can remember (in this and some other things it reminded me a little of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle vol 2).

Offill explains how she came to the novel’s form in a recent interview with NPR:

Well, the book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction. But at a certain point, I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together; and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and led me down this path.

That makes perfect sense, and explains the sense of freedom the book conveys in the playful, unforced way it shifts between voices, styles, tones, and forms of address.  (Shuffling around the index cards.)  As Elaine Blair points out, the form and the approach is that of experimental, avant-garde fiction, but one never loses the thread of the story and of the organizing consciousness.

Here is the holiday letter that she would have written (her husband “won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead”).  The “bugs” refers to the family’s epic struggle to rid their daughter and their apartment of lice & bedbugs.

It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.

Great material on yoga throughout, which she takes up therapeutically in the midst of the breakup:

The Yoga People always travel in pairs, their mats under their arms, their hair severely shorn in that new mother way. But what if someone sucker punched them and took their mats away? How long until they’d knuckle under?…

The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighborhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live. Sometimes the wife cries as she is twisting herself into positions. There is a lot of crying in the class for old and sick people so no one says anything.

I wished the book had been longer (you can almost read it at a sitting)!

Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion? Five great recent world music cds

For some reason most of what I’ve wanted to listen to for the past few weeks has been these more-or-less “world music” albums (and Otis Redding– I’ve just wanted to mainline the most pure vocal emotion & soul, I think).

  • Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu.  Not on Spotify, I bought the cd at Landlocked Music in Bloomington.  (And just to suggest how cool this store is, they had a copy in stock.)  Here’s a piece on NPR about it; I learned about it from Robert Christgau’s year-end best-of (he ranked it his #5 album of the year).  It’s the soundtrack of the annual festival in Mali which is “inspired by traditional festivals held by the Touareg people” but is in fact a polyglot modern hybrid; Western rock stars like Bono and Robert Plant have performed at earlier Festivals, but this CD is all-African and skews pretty raw.  A few tracks reminded me a little of the Konono Nº1 Congotronics cds (which are very primitivist, musically, but are themselves very far from any kind of pure “folk” music).  Inharhan sounds very much like the Malian desert blues of the great Tinarawen (here’s an earlier post of mine about them); Douma Maïga jams mesmerizingly on the kurbu which seems to be a simple guitar-like instrument; Mauritanian Griot singer Noura Mint Seymali is passionately amazing.  Here’s a bit from an interview with her that conveys a sense of the authentic-modern-polyglot synergy that characterizes all of the music on the cd:

WCP: What singers do you like to listen to?

NMS: I enjoy several Mauritanian singers, like Dimi Mint Abba of course, and Arab singers, blues singers like Etta James, and must admit to faithfully following the Arabic version of TV series, The Voice, and Arab Idol.

WCP: Who influenced your husband’s guitar playing?

NMS: Jeiche loves Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix. There are several great Mauritanian guitar players as well who have influenced his playing.

WCP: Who does he like to listen to? Certain African artists? American funk or soul artists? Which ones?

NMS: All kinds of stuff—roots and dub reggae, Senegalese mbalax, some Malian artists like Oumou Sangare, blues artists like Magic Sam and Albert King. And we have both been listening to more Indian classical music since collaborating with Jay Gandhi, an Indian classical flute player whom we met at a festival in Senegal…

  • Qat, Coffee & Qambus – Raw 45s from Yemen.  Again, I bought at Landlocked.  This cd of Yemenese music from the 60s and 70s is incredible.  At $12 it includes beautifully elaborate packaging and liner notes, so quite the bargain, as well.  I have probably played it through a dozen times, and like it more now than the first time; it has that rabbit-hole-into-the-unknown quality that I especially love in so-called world music, in a big way.  The tracks sometimes verge on a cappella, often just a voice or two accompanied by a simple rhythmic oud and drums. From the label’s site:

Compiled by Chris Menist, Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen features vintage oud and vocal music inspired by the qat-chewing, coffee-sipping, qambus-playing culture of Yemen. Although part of the classical Arabic musical tradition, the music of Yemen takes its rhythmic lead as much from the East African coast (a mere 20 miles across the Red Sea) as the surrounding Arab Peninsula. Little has been written about the music and culture of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and each 45rpm disc gives a small glimpse of the poetic tradition, the unique local oud styles as well as an insight into people’s day-to-day lives, or the highs and lows of human relationships. Overall, the compilation gives a flavor of the sights and sounds of Yemen, with detailed notes that tell the story of the hunt for music that has mostly lain forgotten in the antique markets of the capital, until now.

One detail I enjoy, three of the nine tracks’ titles begin with “hey” or “hello!” in translation: “Hey You, Passenger!,” “Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?” (incredible!), and “Hello, Welcome.”  Another great title: “They Made Me Fond of Love.”

Here’s one track, “Haya Abu-Saif” by Amna Hizam:

  • Orchestra Baobab La Belle Epoque 1971-1977 (Syllart).  On Spotify.  Orchestra Baobab were formed as the house band at Club Baobab in Dakar, Senegal, and started to attract a global audience in the 1980s.  If you’re going to start with them, you might go for the Nonesuch albums Pirates Choice, Specialist in All Styles, and/or Made in Dakar, but this is wonderful too.  Robert Christgau: “Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae–no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit… They released many (shortish) albums back when they were the toast of the post-colonial elite at downtown Dakar’s Club Baobab. Salsa was the rage of Senegal’s emergent ruling class, and there was always clave near the heart of Baobab’s groove. But cosmopolitanism was also on the agenda of a multi-tribally multilingual unit that could bring off its worldwide ambitions because its band sound was as solid and unmistakable as the Rolling Stones’.”  Pure pleasure; it is difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying this graceful, sinuous, beautiful, funky music.  Not weird and raw in the same way as the last two, probably more accessible.
  • Rokia Traoré, Beautiful Africa.  Another Malian singer.  This is the most conventional, cross-over-y of the five — she is a classic world-music chanteuse/ diva — and in truth I don’t love it quite as much as the others, but it has some high points such as the absolutely gorgeous and moving “N’Téri.” Here’s an intense live performance of that one:
  • Débruit & Alsarah – Aljawal. On Spotify. This one’s a bit different, yet less-“authentic” and more of a hybrid than any of the others I’ve mentioned, and arguably falling partly outside of “world music” as a category– kind of a trance-y dance music record. (I may have learned about it from this NPR world music top 10 of 2013 list, can’t remember for certain.)  Recorded in Brooklyn, “a modern, haunting take on Sudanese music heard through the sonic lens of French artist / producer, Débruit and the poetic, ethereal lyrics and melodies of Sudanese-born singer Alsarah.”  In the same universe as someone like DJ/ Rupture (and/or his radio show- I would be surprised if DJ/ Rupture were not a fan of this album), with Alsarah’s soaring vocals and Sudanese folk melodies woven through stuttering, throbbing electronic beats, loops & rhythms.  Probably my favorite is the amazing “Alhalim” (video below) and “Alhalim Suite” which has an electronic melodic line one might find on a Radiohead album.  “Louila” is nearly a cappella, beautiful, could almost be one of the 30-year-old more traditional tracks from the Qat, Coffee & Qambus cd.

Support authentic/ inauthentic/ weird/ indigenous/ global pop & folk music!  And consider actually buying music from your local record/ music store once in a while (I love Spotify – so wonderful to be able to, e.g., browse through Otis Redding’s entire catalogue when the spirit so moves- but I try to keep the cd purchase stream going too.)

BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD: two great stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Kelly Link

I picked up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 volume and was blown away by the first two stories I read (both of which were among the three faves chosen and written briefly about by the volume’s editors).

Deborah Eisenberg describes her “Your Duck is My Duck” as being about “the ravages of climate change, including the growing populations of climate refugees; the worldwide plight of the embattled and looted middle class; the co-option and trivialization of art; and the relationships — especially in regard to the use of resources — between the middle class, the looters, the artists, and the new wretched of the earth.” It is narrated by a painter who hates her day job in a photo studio, and thinks she might get let go anyway; she is complaining at a party to a wealthy acquaintance of hers, Christa, who invites her to join her and her financier husband at their “beach place.”  This turns out to be somewhere in the tropics, where the painter is set up in a lavish guest house with another visiting artist, an avant-garde puppeteer who puts on a show about a revolution against a king and queen and the brutal subsequent repression of the revolt by the generals:

There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons — serfs, bats, and donkeys – linked by heavy chains.  The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.

In the awkward moment after the first act, the host, Christa, comments hilariously, “We love to have artists working here.  It’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation.”  Meanwhile, outside the estate, the island is collapsing from flooding and can no longer support the local residents, who are attempting to flee.  The story is an allegory of artists today who experience themselves as “serfs” to the wealthy, whom they are expected “to entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer.”  It reminded me a bit of Eisenberg’s husband’s Wally Shawn’s blackly satirical plays.  Completely great!

And I also found amazing the Kelly Link story “the Summer People.” It’s a fairy tale with Alice in Wonderland qualities narrated by a teenage girl whose father has abandoned her, very sick with the flu, to their family’s job as caretakers for “the summer people,” who turn out not to be human.  They are never quite seen directly, but are experienced via the strange, enchanting, sometimes malevolent toys and devices they construct.  They live in a house that is marked with signs offering cryptic advice: “BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.”

There was a sea serpent made of tubing and metal rings that swam endlessly in a circle. There was a sluggish river, too, closer to the door, that ran red and stank and stained the banks.  The summer people were always setting up miniature bridges over it, then blowing the bridges up.

Come to think of it, the “summer people” have a certain amount in common with the wealthy “looters” of Eisenberg’s story, although their motives and character are harder to assess.  They are figures of imagination and creativity: “They make things.  That’s what my mamma called them, makers.  They give away things.  Like the toys. They like children.  When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”  But they can clearly do harm to those who fail to follow the rules of the house, who may disappear or find themselves transformed.

It is seriously creepy and magical!  I have been curious about Kelly Link, and definitely need to read some more of his her stuff (just picked up Magic for Beginners).

Now I need to read some of the other stories in the collection, although I will be surprised if they can match these two.

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