Sunday, August 27, 2006

If a Tree Falls in the Forest....

According to Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music (Dutton, 2006, $24.95), if there's no one to hear it, no sound is made. Why? Without the sound waves finding a receptor--like the flutters and vibrations and fluctuations around a tiny membrane in our ear-- no pitch results, thus no sound can be registered. I suppose even if a recorder was placed there, no one could know if it had worked properly until the playback confirmed what possibly a seismographic-type of inscription had scrawled. Levitin claims that our musical taste is usually formed by 18-20, as adolescence ends. But I tend to agree with Layne; she thinks it's more like 14, and I'd say closer to 16, but then both of us were music fanatics from early ages. Alzheimers' patients, curiously, can often remember their favorite tunes from when they were 14. Poignant.

KZLA, the country-music station, went over lately as so many have to Spanish-language programming. The reason, as stated in the LA Times, was that the 'demographic' in LA liked more rhythmic music; 98% 'Caucasian' KZLA's listeners did not apparently have the beat. Classical music critic Mark Swed, in the same paper (all three articles I think Aug. 20) has a long piece on the changes in technology and how the on-line experience of sampling and then buying music is replacing CDs in the same way as our long-discarded cassettes, 8-tracks, and LPs of various speeds. Sony tailored the CD's length to allow for the duration of Beethoven's 9th. Swed notes how music has shifted from a social to a solitary pastime. He observes that the vinyl record duplicated in its bobbing as it traced the wave form the very pressure of sound waves (as Levitin explains too) hitting the ear and the electronic impulses carried to our brain for practically instantaneous conversion into what we call music. Lasers hitting shiny discs at least replicate this activity. But with bits and bytes, and with I-pod buds inserted deep into that same tender receptacle of audial bliss, "we have, as McLuhan again predicted, an electronic medium becoming an outright extension of the nervous system." Global villages may be rising, but that does not mean that we'll all be tuned in to the same station. A couple of decades ago, rock music, say, could command 20% of the listeners in a radio market. Now, with the fragmentation of genres, the increasing numbers of young'uns tuned out of music, the older folks tuning out of anything new (and how I often feel closer to that, as I do not listen to the radio but only tapes; if I want to find out about a song or artist, I used to and still do read up on it, and maybe sample if I can on AMG or Amazon or Leo's I-tunes, but given my rarified and esoteric tastes, often I cannot hear ahead of time what I buy) , and the remaining radio listeners breaking up into smaller niche markets. Without a big chunk of those with disposable income tuning into the Fab Four, I suppose that the advertisers have gone as their audiences have from broad to narrow to egocasting.

Swed blames the demise of double-bankrupt Tower (home of the $20 CD, so who cares) and the diminishment of Ameoba's classical shelf space (hey-- I did buy a Gregorian chant CD from the back room last time I was there) on this phenomenon of isolated audiences for music. As for me, except for ironically classical or folk, I can and could never endure amplified concert volume; my ears hurt for days and my ability to hear shrank long after-- while all my friends seemed to walk away unscathed. But, as Swed notes, fewer middlemen between the Man and the Music maaan, may not be that bad. He does think that I-Tunes cannot render classical music with the fidelity it deserves. He likes Magnatune, and also recommends I tried the latter and shrank in horror as 856 concerts by The String Cheese Incident were the #1 musical feature. But, in time, perhaps sense will return to this admittedly great source, as the Wayback Archive has already helped me resurrect the vanished lessons for Learning Irish by Nancy Stenson, at least most of 'em. I spent hours on the Ch. 12 cleachta ach níl freagraí ansin. The numerical representation of nouns and numbers cardinal ordinal I don't know is one of the hardest exercises in any language I have ever encountered. It's either worse or better without the answer key to cheat with.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bart, Homer, Greeks, and U.S./us

Here's a Reuters filler from today's L.A. Times, "We Know Bart, but Homer's Greek to Us." I'll have to try out these questions on my suffering captive classes! See how you'd do, if somehow you could cover up the answers. (I can't get this published--this marks my try.)

NEW YORK — Three-quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court justices, according to a poll on pop culture.

Asked what planet Superman was from, 60% named the fictional planet Krypton, while only 37% knew that Mercury is the planet closest to the sun.

According to the poll by Zogby International, commissioned by the makers of a new game show, 57% of Americans could identify J.K. Rowling's fictional boy wizard as Harry Potter, but only 50% could name the British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Just over 60% of respondents were able to name Bart as Homer's son on the television show "The Simpsons," compared to 20.5% who were able to name one of the ancient Greek poet Homer's epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

Respondents were far more familiar with the Three Stooges — Larry, Moe and Curly — than the three branches of the U.S. government — judicial, executive and legislative. Seventy-four percent identified the slapstick act; 42% the branches.

Twenty-three percent of those surveyed knew Taylor Hicks was the most recent winner of the television talent show "American Idol," but slightly less than half that number were able to name the Supreme Court justice confirmed in January 2006, Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The pollsters spoke to 1,213 people across the United States. The results had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book Review: Light, Freedom & Song

I sent this off to The Blanket; a shorter version I posted on Amazon. A sample of my lit crit for that common reader Woolf sought. Maybe it's you.

Many collections of essays by literary critics tend to be an assortment of talks, reviews, articles, and anecdotes strung together, closely or loosely as the arranger deems. For David Pierce, of the University of York, he in his new book places within frameworks that stretch over the past century many topics perhaps temporarily orphaned, perhaps, after being presented at 'Joyce symposia and Irish conferences' across the world. But, here James Joyce's treatment of cricket finds probably its first analysis, along more familiar subjects as Yeats and the Rising, the Celtic Revival and cultural nationalism, and the Troubles or the famine from over the past 150 years in literature.

These chapters, then, play off extended riffs. What need do we have, still, for another professor's compendium? Pierce pursues the game of the harp vs. the crown. Caught up in the paper chase, he charges past British and Irish fences. Pierce asks how authors stalk a quicksilver Irish colonial-postcolonial phantom. In Beckett, appropriately, Pierce finds a master of evasion and redeployment. Beckett jolts his words, however sparingly arrayed, to transmit precision and defiance. The latter quality, Pierce judges, energises tired clichés and rudimentary utterances. 'Beckett's language is always more than simple texture or local colouring, and not infrequently it seems to belong to a form of slippage, an Irish sense of defiance that can be seen as underlying all his work'. (113) Nothing human is foreign to me, mused a Roman a couple millennia back, and this universality, which we often associate with Joyce in his verbal largesse, also applies to Beckett, who pared down what his predecessor had heaped high.

Beckett's ambiguity as Parisian-Irish, foreign member of the Resistance, Anglo-Irish, non Irish-Irelander, Dubliner schooled in the North at Portara, satirist in English prose who chose the discipline of French: this marks a hybrid character who--as with Yeats, Wilde, and Swift elsewhere scrutinised-- becomes an emblem for Pierce. In his highly recommended anthology, Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century (Cork UP, 2000; reviewed by me on Amazon and a great bargain to boot), Pierce edited a massive tome that crams in fiction, fact, oratory, travelogue, diatribe, song, and verse and combinations thereof. This stirabout, this mulligan stew, satisfies its compiler, who explains movingly in a preface that in its personal revelations exemplifies the value for a scholar to show the hand he's played rather than hold his cards close to his vest, posing with an objective sang-froid none of us can sustain. Pierce, he explains about himself, was born in post-war England but son of an Irish mother, and drawn to the summers spent in his maternal homeland and then back to his own native but not quite home turf. This attraction and retreat, comparatively, marks a writer only beginning to be taken seriously now after years of silence. A decade ago, his first three plays, the Leenane trilogy, teased mid-90s London audiences with their disturbing mix of Synge and Tarentino, Beckett and British television satire (at least that's where I place him early on in his career). Surely the nemesis of the remorseless INLA and tender cat-lovers both (a combination rare indeed?), Martin McDonagh's other early play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, has been revived recently. He wrote seven plays, or most of them, around 1994. Suddenly, he succeeded. And, with his recent stage success after nearly a decade of lying low, The Pillowman (which is not addressed by Pierce), McDonagh again confounds-- with a non-Oirish setting of a grim taleteller collared in a police state-- jaded hipsters expecting another send-up of Man of Aran meets Father Ted.

Why bother with McDonagh? Pierce considers him only momentarily, but McDonagh for me plumbs Irish doldrums: folks mired but happy as a pig in slop. This is our greedy, ironic, twitchy mentality. Pierce seeks hybridity. Well, ghosts of Gaelic haunt the syntax of McDonagh's eagerly anglicised Gaeltacht folk. Even as they revel in cartoonish violence in his 1990s plays, they-- and I would align McDonagh's The Lonesome West cautiously with moments in Tarentino's 1994 Pulp Fiction-- trip upon a threshold beyond which beckon meanings hidden within but inimical to a tawdry existential wasteland. As an aside, Pierce's anthology includes all of Lonesome, less prominent than Beauty Queen of Leenane or Cripple of Inishmaan, but in my judgment his best Irish play to date. Speaking to Fintan O'Toole in the 6 March 2006 New Yorker, McDonagh recalled the 'lunar' landscape near his father's birthplace around Lettermore. 'Skulls in Connemara'. And, so we return to Godot. Beckett's anguish finds itself prolonged rather than terminated or abandoned, through the career of a Londoner who went back during his summers to Connemara found himself taking in much more as a teen in the 80s than he probably expected. John Lydon in Rotten tells of his early disappointment, a couple of decades earlier, when he was ridiculed on his holidays by his Galway relatives-- Lydon being a fine Connemara name, by the way, not far from Leenane in many clan manifestations. McDonagh credits listening to the Clash around 1982 (at twelve) with inspiring his distrust for regimes, whether paramilitary, clerical, or familial. For McDonagh, propelled straight after his own media blitz manipulated by/for Johnny Rotten into the notoriety enjoyed by Tarentino a dozen years ago, the self-taught playwright produced drama in a Hiberno-English that seemed to emerge without his intention, as he heard the voices of his relatives in the characters he created. He credits the Pogues for their example: the trash could be separated from the treasure that Irish tradition still offers us. With the anarchy that punks mimicked and terrorists perverted, McDonagh taunts us further. He shoves his characters within this garish spectacle. He forces them and so us to witness a neglected, fragile, all-too-human soul.

Think of Johnny Rotten onstage in the spotlight, before the mike, eyes unfocused, dazed in a too-large wooly sweater, weary, hands wrapped around his skinny frame: a well-known circa '77 snapshot. Shane McGowan hushing the mosh pit to make them listen to Eric Bogle's lyrics as 'The Band Played "Waltzing Matilida". Tarantino's protagonists wondering what light emanates from the suitcase, and why one says it's the most beautiful sight he's ever seen. Or, Pierce invites, ponder The Lieutenant of Inishmore. 'Very few characters or situations in modern Irish literature lie outside the known or familiar. Padraic tells his distended victim: "If it hadn't been such a nice fella I would've taken one toenail off of separate feet, but I didn't, I took two toenails off the one foot, so that it's only the one foot you'll have to be limping on and not the two".' (qtd. 42) Pierce observes what could be said of Beckett or Tarantino (where to place Lydon: "we're the flowers in your dustbin, your future"?): McDonagh knows his stereotypes, of the nutting squad, of republican comrades who find themselves victims of yet another INLA split to find themselves hung inverted about to be split. Recent reviews often contained warnings to the potential audience-- likely more to weep for the fate of a cat than of the torture of three men. So weary are he, we, and they of such Jacobean revenge. McDonagh parades violence but subverts power's futility.

Irish tendencies towards gallows humour, mordant moralism, superlatives, the speed of craic at 90: this element rears with McDonagh but then fades in Pierce's study. Pages whir by with asides to authors and their texts, many barely mentioned. Still, as with an itinerary that must speed us past minor points-of-interest to better spend our tour at our destination, the journey's worthwhile. No matter how familiar you are with Irish literature, you will discover in this book writers you never knew. Much more could be said. Areas of merit: he opens up fresh perspectives on Northern feminism against and within the republicanism of the 80s. He places John Banville, John McGahern, Glenn Patterson, Denis Johnston, Francis Stuart, Robert Ballagh's art, Julia O'Faolain, Kathleen Coyle, Derek Mahon, Jamie O'Neill, Medbh McGuckian, and Aidan Mathews alongside much acclaimed Irish scribes. From Padraic Fiacc, an unjustly overlooked Belfast poet, Pierce cites his horrifying Missa Terribilis [1986] from 'Crucifixus' and 'Introit'. These poems transfix Christ-figures in agony, one from sectarian murder and another in the immolation of British soldiers. Even within academia, some on this list get short shrift by critics infatuated with Heaney's new verses. The reading public's more likely to hear of whatever Malachy McCourt's press agent's promoting. I would have wished more space given to newer arrivals. Only in passing does Pierce notice Ursula Rani Sarma (...touched and Blue), Conor McPherson (a hurried nod to Shining City), Hugo Hamilton (his enigmatic memoir The Speckled People), and Rosa González in her critical essays on 'the cultural greening of Britain'. With the predictable exception of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's treatment of homosexual desire, Irish-language writing receives little notice. Still, in hundreds of references, Pierce offers plaudits to both bestselling celebrities and those still humble (both feted at 'symposia and conferences' as he attends) for the success of recent Irish writing.

One failing of this otherwise solid book is that the illustrations-- often apropos from unexpected sources-- do not always match what Pierce is on that page explaining, and what he discusses could have gained more clarity if he had selected an appropriate postcard or photo. Few errors remain, but Westland Row station was not Connolly station pre-independence (136; Amiens=Connolly, Westland Row=Pearse). Irish-language lenition as rendered into English "h" is garbled and in one case misspelled in the captions translating Seán Ó Sullivan's map of Corca Dorc[h!]a from Myles na gCopaleen's An Béal Bocht. (A novel that I find anticipates McDonagh's charmless squalor praised by tourists to this Wild West.) However, a superb semi-bird's eye view map on pg. 138 from The Sphere paper, 6 May 1916 showing locations for the rebellion reveals graphics surpassing the flat perspective we see on conventional diagrams of the Rising. The book's atypical format, halfway between standard and small 'coffee table/art book' size, makes a heavier volume to hold but worth the price for its wealth of colour and, as in the Rising map, better rendered pictorial details previous studies did not know of or could not afford to reproduce. Pierce's diligence, although intermittently erratic in its distribution, of the archival as well as the textual research gathered (as in his anthology) shows an eagle-eye rivalling that of The Sphere. He enriches context with a 1930 AA roadmap or plastic bullet photo or the infamous shot taken of Countess Markievicz with pistol ready. He displays the cover of the 2 July 1953 BBC weekly The Listener to indicate this 'extraordinarily time-warped sentence' to bolster his point about imperial British fealty: 'Her Majesty will today receive and reply to addresses of loyalty.' (30) Pierce's meticulous attention enriches his effort. This BBC caption is in tiny print under a large photo of the Houses of Parliament. Only a sharp-eyed reader would notice this regal reference on a mundane magazine page.

Pierce in his enthusiasms to link Clongowes Wood to The Crying Game to MLR James via West Indian cricket, for instance, proves unwittingly how even when he cannot stop interpreting (for then he dashes into comparing them to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano), he manages to keep you reading. Inevitably, we must give way to the trailblazer. We lag behind Pierce's furious cogitation as he associates everything he's ever read to the purported topic. (A fault I sympathise with generously.) Pierce-- as veteran anthologist-- recalls snippets from hundreds of literary works, so to deploy the mot juste, check off that text, and hurry on to another dozen references from often equally overlooked books to back up his latest bold assertion. You'll have a hard time keeping pace if you lack the stamina. The chapters are best read one by one, with pauses for mental or physical refreshment. Knowledge of Irish literature, from Pierce's own anthology or a refresher from Neil Corcoran's After Yeats and Joyce (OUP) or Seamus Deane's A Short History of Irish Literature (U of Notre Dame P), would be a wise pre-requisite. Rarely tainted by jargon or puffed with theory, Light, Freedom and Song is not for absolute beginners. But, if you already know your Yeats from your Keats, it follows one man's trail into the blizzard of print from an island prolific to the extreme in its inhabitants' wish to have out on paper what's been too long stored up inside as potential poem or persuasive prose.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

No Wonder This Review Quotes Beckett!

This discouraging summary in the Sunday L.A. Times Book Review, August 13, of someone arguably more depressed than even the author of "The Unnameable." My Irish reference!

I can't go on, I'll go on
*The Way We Are. Allen Wheelis. W.W. Norton: 160 pp., $23.95

By Jonathan Kirsch, Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 11 books, including the forthcoming "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."

IN his 90s now, San Francisco psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis has spent a long lifetime in search of the secrets of the human psyche. " 'Say everything that comes to mind,' the analyst says to the analysand, 'nothing must remain hidden,' " he writes in this dark valedictory, "The Way We Are." And yet he is compelled to confess that the whole effort has been futile. "Below the deepest uncovering one yet deeper is possible," he contends. "Dirt is endless. Fur and feces and bones, and ever deeper, but no bedrock."

Ironically, Wheelis is best known for "How People Change," a book whose title holds out the cheerful promise of self-improvement. Now he declares himself disillusioned with "the promise of psychology" — the notion that we can achieve happiness if we try hard enough — and he is understandably "obsessed with death," a condition he characterizes as "not a private terror but the unchanging backdrop to the stage of our existence." Prodded by his own terrors and obsessions, he seeks to understand and explain nothing less than "the human condition itself" or, as he puts it in a lyrical moment, "the ways of power and the ways of the heart."

"What is the minimum penalty for being a conscious and self-conscious creature living simultaneously in an eternal symbolic world of our own construction and in the natural world in which, looking straight ahead, we see our oncoming death?" This is the question he poses.

If you are bummed out by these preliminaries, be forewarned — the book doesn't get any brighter.

For example, Wheelis confronts us with the unpleasant but unavoidable fact that life feeds on life, no matter how diligently we distance ourselves from what goes on in the slaughterhouse. "Poet and philosopher sit to meat, speak of love, charity, rights of man, sacredness of life," he muses. "Far away blood flows, cries rise in the night." And he insists that human beings do not simply kill to eat and eat to live: He draws an unbroken line from the abattoir to the worst atrocities human beings are capable of committing. "There is no good man," he concludes. "We all are killers, we live on others."

His mind's eye searches anxiously for meaning in human history, ranging from the savannas of prehistoric Africa to the monuments of ancient Egypt to the smoking ruins of Dresden and Hiroshima. His conclusion is that we are not so different, after all, from wild and ravening beasts. "The violence that individuals have given up in the course of becoming orderly and moral has not been eliminated," he writes. "It is passed on; it is handed upward. It collects at the top, in the White House, Number Ten Downing Street, the Reichstag, the Kremlin."

Indeed, Wheelis holds that the lower orders of life are far better off than Homo sapiens precisely because, as far as we know, animals are not cursed with self-awareness. "There is no knowledge of death, no watching of one's fateful progression, no history, no vision of one's actual condition," he writes, "hence no need to transcend that condition." After a million years of evolution, the human animal has finally achieved consciousness, but it's all bad news, according to Wheelis. "This is the Fall," he intones. "Culture is about to begin."

Culture, according to Wheelis, is only a way of describing the various "schemes" by which humankind seeks to redeem itself from the sure knowledge that life is nasty, brutish and short. "If [man] can find such a scheme and make his life 'mean' something in it, that is, contribute to it, make a difference, he will have ferried something of his mortal self across the gulf of death to become a part of something that will live on." But Wheelis seems to suggest that all such schemes are essentially pretty lies we tell ourselves to hide an unendurable truth. "The immediate horror man perceives is his own death, but beyond that he begins to see the entire life process as carnage, as eating and being eaten," he writes. "A terrible screaming pervades the universe. Man is the first to hear it. This is the vision we cannot accept. It drives toward madness or despair."

Wheelis dismisses religion as a collection of failed myths that established moral and sexual boundaries but only until they began losing their power to bedazzle us. "There is no God to establish any position; so every position is arbitrary," he observes. "With no authority beyond humanity, by what standard can we designate anything as absolutely wrong?" Nowadays, the redemptive solace formerly offered by religious rituals can be found in chess playing or stamp collecting. "One seeks distraction," he concedes. "[O]ne may achieve briefly the illusion of mastery. But not for long. Within the confines of a single life, death is unmasterable."

When he shifts his gaze from the individual to the community, Wheelis sees even greater moral squalor. "The state would like to eat up all individual power, all independence, discretion, freedom, autonomy," he writes. The stirring words of John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you … ," remind him of Adolf Hitler: "The unison of Sieg Heil by the packed and disciplined masses at Nuremburg, that is what the state wants…."

Wheelis pauses now and then to recall a vivid childhood memory or engage in a "thought experiment." He admits to his own struggles with sexual temptation. "I want to be fair to my wife," he allows, "but fair also to myself." At one point, he evokes the pleasures of Cape Cod in August and describes in intimate detail his own fantasies on beholding a scantily clad young woman at play with her baby. "I think she knows she is torturing me, making me want to do with her what she is doing with the baby," he confesses.

But even his carnality is the occasion for yet another joyless revelation: "These fantasies are anti-mortality dreams….We all swim upstream against the overpowering current, ever more doomed and desperate, trying at the last moment to throw something ashore, some little thing that will remain, bear witness that we were here."

Wheelis may well connect with the audience that made "Everyman," Philip Roth's gloomy contemplation of death, a bestseller. But I suspect he is content merely to wrestle in public with his own devils — "My plight, my curse, my demon, a savage yearning for something I'm never going to get," as he puts it. For the rest of us, "The Way We Are" turns out to be a sobering and even a shattering experience, the heartrending cry of a man who has lived long, seen and done much and ended up in the grip of cold despair.

Harper's Magazine Sept. 2006: My treadmill tidbits

Forcing myself to mount the hamster wheel, I tell myself at least I can read a magazine for the half-hour, unless near the end when I crank it up to 4.5 mph.
For your edification, a sampling of what I've found from an hour's perusal.

76% of Irish Catholics favor an end to mandatory celibacy for priests. [The Irish Voice noted that in a poll conducted by Durex how the Irish claim to have sex an average of 103 times per annum, above the 93 or so European tally.] The final page Findings column concludes its deadpan coverage: "Images of pretty women can be distracting to men and can cause them to make bad decisions. A thirty-three-year-old meth user in Oregon who went to a hospital complaining of a headache was found to have shot himself in the head twelve times with a nail gun. [As Michael Palin was wont to moan: "My brain hurts."] Scientists said that the best way to measure happiness is simply to ask people how happy they are."

Peace walls in Belfast at the time of the '94 ceasefire: 30. Now: 41. I've earlier shared here the Beckett biz advice. Marilynne Robinson on neo-fundamentalists
"who treat the matter as if the central issue were the existence of God or the literal truth of the Bible. They overlook the implications of the dignity conferred on every human being in the narratives of creation. They speak of a right to life, an oddly disembodied phrase which, isolated from the human context, tends to devalue the incarnate person." All true, but the local bible college or storefront church doesn't teach Teilhard de Chardin, so where are those who look only at the KJV and not at theology past John Calvin not to mention the First Great Awakening going to get the idea of immanence or an event horizon?

Wal-Mart controls 20% of retail in the U.S. and up to a third of many products sold are in its stores, which dictate to companies what they should supply, how they must package their products, and allots a "captain" 70% of the shelf space for their type of goods, and that captain then dictates to the other industries with which it competes how they can stock the other 30% of the shelf. Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, Gillette, Coca-Cola, Levi-Strauss all suffer under this regime, not to mention Sears, Toys r Us, K-Mart, and Albertson's. Capitalism at its best, some say, but Barry Lynn argues that what capitalists refuse to accept from government oversight due to laissez-faire claims they grant to Wal-Mart: control that, as that firm itself complained when battling Tesco in Britain in an anti-trust action, when any marketer gains 30% of a market, "there is a point when government is compelled to intervene." The CEO admits this; Wal-Mart already controls more than 30% of many markets and seeks to double its sales.

The review of the Timothy Leary book has also been summarized earlier; a few more Irish-related lit crit connections can be discerned in a review of the pair generally consigned to the lower 50% of Nathanael West's four novel output. David Gargill places West well in his time. West believed that we need abstraction. But, in his 1930s, he judged how we have abandoned the idea of God; we lost the comfort of ''our most potent and edifying illusion." The people desperate to regain meaning and fulfillment, Gargill explains, West saw

"in his contemporaries' embrace of the spurious faiths of their time an increasingly wanton and fevered dream dependency. The cheap pantomimes of modern-day prophets, the success myth and its deification of the acquisitive nature of man, the dime-store pop novels, the salacious newspapers, the Hollywood endings-- all these he judged to be hollow conceits. The meretricious dreams of mass culture served only to debase the individual, leaving him in barren terrain well below the spiritual poverty line, barely able to suppress his hysteria, swollen with the need to avenge himself against his false idols, which had, in time, only come to reflect his own hollowness. the escalation of this paralyzed frenzy into anarchic violence was the apocalypse West foresaw, and in his ambivalence toward dreams-- their necessity, their danger and duplicity-- was his warning."

I wish Harper's was on-line. A lot to type out myself. But worth it, given Harper's lack of a generous cyberarchive. Gargill goes on to show how The Dream Life of Balso Snell burlesques the silence-cunning-exile "incantation" of Stephen Dedalus. West, basically a brilliant child who had read Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Flaubert, found himself little able to put up with the hoi polloi. Our h.s. dropout ubermensch faked his way out of Tufts through Brown. But, try as he might, he was still Jewish, and the frat wouldn't pledge him. Name, manners, his own will could not triumph over this ineradicable identity, in the prejudice of others if not in his own pride.

Those last thoughts are mine rather than Gargill or his subject's. Thinking as I ponder of my own and my children's hybridity, and how this inevitably is the American Way into a present and ever more a future of millions of kids who admit "I dunno, I'm just white, or 1/16 Cherokee, or my grandmother was from Spain." I'm reading David Pierce, an English critic of Irish maternal heritage fittingly, and he has a chapter in Light, Freedom & Song: A Cultural History of Irish Literature called "The Hybrid Character of Irish Literature." Hybridity bothers Dedalus as well as his family and schoolmates, as much as it does Bloom. As Pierce shows, the harp fights the crown for dominance of early 20c Ireland---and early 21st I'd add. Tescos, for instance.

Hybridity figures also in Robert Boyers' review of John Updike's Terrorist. Curiously, Boyer thinks "no doubt academic books will soon be devoted to something called 'the terrorist novel,' and scholars will again debate such hoary topics as the ability of fiction to do justice to politics and to reality itself. Well phrased, although I can look behind me at the spine of the doctoral thesis published as Gangsters or Guerrillas? Representations of Irish Republicans in Troubles Fiction, by Patrick Magee, who had been imprisoned after failing to blow up Thatcher in Brighton in '84, and remind Boyer such works have long filled shelves, if not as prominently as a novel by a heavyweight contender like Updike.

Boyer's beef is that Updike's too complacent to penetrate the cardboard figure of Ahmad he sets up as the protagonist and sticks to throughout the novel to its detriment. Compared to The Princess Cassamassima or even The Secret Agent, Updike's fiction fails to explore the depths of his character's inner motivations or how those around him who influence his revenge themselves can be as complicated as we realize humans are and expect our finer novelists to show in more nuanced and recognizable portrayals of characters who can convince us if not of their ideological truth than of their common bonds with us. We cannot get into Ahmad's head.
"We can believe in such a character but he cannot inspire in us solicitude or pity or even loathing."

One memorable instance: "Ahmad is numbingly earnest. Even when he is offered oral sex by a naked girl, he speaks in the usual stolid accents of his discipline ('I still hold to the Straight Path. . . Islam is still my comfort and guide.')" This reminds me of Ss. Jerome or Anthony tempted in the desert--surely even those we are instructed to admire if not emulate in conventional Catholicism display similar fanaticism in their determination, distorted into caricature as it seems to us, to renounce the wiles of women and their wicked ways. Francis of Assisi rolling in the briars naked to rid himself of lustful thoughts. Dominic brandishing the flame at that poor nameless humiliated girl pushed into his room by his family to tempt him away from his vocation. Kevin tossing the gal off a cliff (I think!) at Glendalough. Maybe Joseph dashing away from the couch of Potiphar's wife--although I always suspected maybe more out of fear of P. catching them in flagrante delicto rather than piety per se as the saints seem to reify if unrealistically for us sinners. More realistically the rabbis told the men if they had to sin, to do it with a woman on the other side of town, in the shadows, out of sight of the gossiping neighbors. That old Irish setting: "valley of the squinting windows." Think of Jesus, come to think of it as shown so well in Scorcese's film, speaking of desert seductions repelled. Hard example for the rest of us to aspire to let alone imitate succesfully, but such are the narrow paths to salvation.

Boyer imprisons Ahmad (who it is to be noted has a spacy but more familiar character type if only by contrast with dour suicide bombers, an Irish-American earth mother type mother, turquoise-bangelled) alongside straitjacked of flat figures with whom we readers cannot emphathize. Updike, Boyer argues, resists fleshing out his character to make him less one-dimensional and more like we see his mom or his Jewish high school counselor depicted. I have not read the novel yet, and the reviews have generally been harsh, but it does rouse my curiosity for Updike's attempt to--even if aesthetically it distances us from his protagonist--give us the unblinking true believer.

I think back on Irish fiction to try to find analogies. Troubles fiction is, as Magee would concur, not given to rounded Loyalist or Republican protagonists, and rarely are they in this category throughout a novel rather than as its antagonists. Off the top of my head, it seems all the republicans I can think of as main characters tend not to end their stories intact in their ideological allegiance and/or their physical condition! O'Flaherty, O'Connor, O'Casey then--naturally not McDonagh now: who has defied their norm? Perhaps fiction by its very insistence upon humanism (I guess I out my own ideology here) or at least the primacy of the humane over the mechanized, the reed that bends rather than breaks, gives writers an archetype few can counter. The contrast of the unbending injunctions and threats in The Green Book compared with the change of heart by Stephen Rea's protagonist in The Crying Game. Nuanced Collins vs. devious Dev in that film and in political myth. But, don't writers always want to check the advances of the regime? To detour around the barricades and undermine the impenetrable peace walls? Even when they lose the good guys will one day win, the example of the fallen inspires the fanatic to recognized the error of his ways and of his mates and of his flag, the duty to the individual trumps the allegiance to the ideal.

I had liked James Hynes' The Wild Colonial Boy more on first reading over a decade ago than when I re-read it a couple years back, but it does try to give us the p-o-v of an American lured into the clutches of the 'ra. But, I suppose, the fact he gets away at the end and keeps trying to give up the mission into which he's compromised while the bad guys don't win shows that he's not truly a terror-loving central character. I'll have to mull this over more: protagonists who do not surrender their Cause by plot's end. Conrad's twist in his novel holds promise--I wonder if Irish writers ever took it for their own revisions?

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Carraigín, tae, nó mise?

Leo brought home from Trader Joe's the other day a box of decaf Irish Breakfast Tea. Precisely what I was curious about, as I the day before I thought, needing a mid-day pick-me-up, that I can't always stomach some decaf green, chai spice, chocolate-flavored, or white version all of which occupy pantry space. The box, informative as TJ's products often dress themselves, assured me that it's not just for breakfast, and that the Irish drink the pungent, dark, strong brew up to six times a day. I always wondered how they get to sleep at night. But, I guess that six cups are not that many considering what's in a teapot, and that the caffeine's I suppose equivalent to 2 1/2 cups of coffee, which is de rigeur for most everyone except me these days.

I tried some now. While dunking the teabag as the box told me a few times as the tea steeped, I noticed it smelled like fish. I like fish, but this is that metallic scale-y smell. When I took out the bag, it smelled even more. Tasting it with milk and sugar after it rested awhile, I noticed the fish again. If I with my poor olfactory sense could sense it, I wondered, how strong was it? The '''finny tribe," as Pope or was it Dryden called 'em, seemed to have swam from Éire into my tea. I wanted a reminder of the oul' sod, but not that maritimically or piscatorially. The Piscatorial School, founded 1851, on the Claddagh side of the Galway harbor across from the Spanish Arch.
Perhaps my fork that I used had been in contact with fish, don't ask me how. The tea will have to await a repeat before I can tell for sure, after all the variables in the experiment account for themselves.

How sea follows tea, not only alphabetically or rhythmically: Dreyer's (not to be confused with Breyers) makes low churned and slow churned ice cream. One-half to 2/3 less fat--by law, half is the FDA minimum to call a product low-fat. Fosselman's last week: rum raisin; before that Scoops' brown bread. Two great flavors swirling in butterfat but without the factory touch. The NY Times mentions that most ice cream has fat-imitating textures, often from "carragereen" seaweed from the Irish Sea. The new versions try to mimic mouthfeel and improve on the unstable emulsions of air, water, and fat that seek separation constantly, and ruin a traditional pint exposed to the warmer climes of a kitchen counter or a loading dock. I checked the word, as "carraig" is rock, and I wondered the derivation of the seaweed strand. "Feamainn" for seaweed, as I checked, but Ó Donaill gives "carrageen moss" as "carraigín," or dimunitive rock-een. Dúlra agus Dúlchas, my bilingual school text about sea life, showed me a drawing--it's one of those tubular tree-like yellow-puke colors that I find repulsive.

Mise? Well, or bhuel, here's a wonderful site about Harrogate's family-owned (so say in English and French all the redesigned product labels for that massive conglomerate Johnson & Johnson; Niagara bottled water sold at the 99-cent stores also mentions this on their label and trucks, with a totemic happy beaming beaver) teashop Bettys (no apostrophe) and Taylors. Their Yorkshire Gold--from which I made somehow accidently last Saturday a perfect cuppa, just as the box predicted--excels over other teabags if you must use them. Their website's extremely informative, well-designed, and enjoyable to find out all about tea and more Brit bits:

So, there you have it: seaweed moss, tea, and me.

"Sam Beckett's Secrets of Business & Branding Success"

So promises Stephen Brand in Business Horizons, March-April, excerpted in the July Harper's Magazine under the classification of "Revelation." If Machavelli (Makaveli to you) can inspire rappers and Jane Austen sociologists studying mating patterns á la Darwin, then why not? Here's the magnificent seven...

1) Tenacity--SB's "principal personality trait" to, as the 70s poster exhorted us with the dangling kitty, to "hang in there!"
2) Brevity, his "aesthetic trademark" in works so short that "his language was compressed to the point of brevity." Minimalism, for advertising, is compared to saying more with less, or selling class without the chain store ubiquity, as with Armani's understatement.
3) Luck, as in SB's stabbing by the tramp--it figures--in 1938 that Beckett survived, duh. No reason for the crime, our Irish Parisian was told, no motive. Obviously this affected his outlook." Brown opines how "an air of contigency pervades his published work." He notes that luck rarely appears in the MBA curriculum, yet serendipity plays a role--the Wal-Mart greeters were introduced after one store manager's problems with shoplifters.
4) Ambiguity, in his refusal to explain the meaning of his plays--yet (and I have contributed my buzz to the swarm, yes, finally in print after five years gestating in a Dutch printer's devil in Beckett, Joyce & the Art of the Negative on "Beckett's Purgatories"') such is the emptiness of his ouevre that we all can rush in to comment, interpret, and turn (hey, not my PhD) "dissertation-writing drones." Well, indirectly, since my diss. was on purgatory, after all. Brown compares the contradictions of Target selling exclusive product lines to millions, and how unclear meanings attract consumers who love intrigue, intensify involvement, and accumulate committment. I suggested to a student yesterday that why the I-Pod succeeded where the earlier Rio player did not may have been to Apple's cultivation of the cult mentality that commands allegiance among its besotted millions more than this Dell does that I type this on.
5) Paradox shows in the persistence of memory in Beckett's sepia-toned nostalgia. Personally, I think that he is a writer for us as we age; Joyce appeals to the younger soul--even Poldy's only about 40--while Beckett's figures, think of Krapp or Nell or Malone--live in twilight at best. Their crepuscular fading, raging against the dying of the light, shows, Brown suggests, in retrpspection and recycling by dogged PR teams desperately driven to push even capitalism backwards however unaccustomed it may be to that direction.
6) Narrativity shows in the corporate craze for storytelling, and how so many management tomes (usually rather thin it seems to me) are hackneyed versions of the ancient quest myth--as with Star Wars as I tell my literature classes. But happily-ever-after, Brown notes, is insufficient, and corporate cubiculites still await their Joyce, Woolf, or Beckett to chronicle their angst. Although I suggest they read "Bartleby the Scriviner, or a Tale of Wall Street." Many anthologies leave out Melville's subtitle, curiously.
7) Refusal: to alter, adapt, or amend one's work. Take it or leave it, Brown urges his peers. Customers may not always be right, and, perspicaciously, he notes too that a degree of dissatisfaction's also key for consumer desires to be stoked and then cooled. For, why purchase a new product unless the current one has been shown to be outmoded, obsolete, or insufficient?

Brown's summary, however admirable albeit put to the service of a surprising argument and audience, cannot find room for what I'd add. That editrix of that Beckett collection, Colleen, pointed out to me what I agree with: she'd have rather met Beckett than Joyce, as Sam was more compassionate, more moral. The resistance is the most well-known example, but Anthony Cronin's biography tells of other generous gestures, all untrumpeted, none of the handshake at the banquetwhile holding up the enormous check. The bestowal of his Nobel Prize winning on up-and-coming unknowns--a MacArthur grant predecessor?-- and his care for the son of an early liaison and the maintainance of the boy's mother once Sam had been told of the results of his long-ended affair--not to mention Sam's love for a Kerry Blue Terrier!--all endear me to him.

Beckett makes another appearance later in this issue. In John Leonard's reviews of new books--what a lucky monthly column to get to write--he looks in at Robert Greenfield's bio of Timothy Leary (Harcourt, $25). It got savaged in the NY Times, and predictably a handler of his estate and a son both signed a complaint to the Book Review lamenting that the book only harped on the negative but did not accentuate the positive. Hard to do, perhaps, when one of his wives kills herself after he left her, and later a neglected daughter would do the same. Leonard observes, accurately, how feckless--that Oirish word for wouldn't Tim have been left at fourteen by a drunken and womanizing pa himself--the Merry Pranksters were as they went off to Millbrook, dumping the ones who had drank the Kool-Aid off at a Houston loony bin while the survivors drove off playing their mandolins. "One of the reasons America hates the Sixties may be because so many of its performance artists, like Jerry Rubin and Hunter Thompson, were such tiresome clowns, showing off instead of hunkering down." That is, failing to lay the ground for real, lasting, substantial social change rather than the escape beckoning through a sheet of Mickey Moused acid-dipped stamps. Beckett? Well, he refused to meet with our jester as the latter traipsed about on his lysergic Grand Tour.

Lewis Lapham, in his typically mandarin column, does make a similar point this month. The Dems have abdicated their role, over the past quarter-century resembling "a troupe of performance artists capable of little else but the showing of emotion." The scriptwriters, fundraisers, and pols all weep crocodile tears for the little men beaten down and the beasts killed and the tribes decimated, "for any aggrieved interest group that knows where to send the check." Mau-mauing the flak catchers, as our bard Tom Wolfe once put it. "When, however, it comes to the work of restructuring the status quo, they find reasons not to fool around with the heavy machinery--to say nothing possibly unpatriotic or uncivil, to stay the course in Baghdad, vote for the bankruptcy and drug-prescription bills, endorse the windfall tax laws comforting the corporations and the top-tier rich."

I read Dorothy Healey's obit today--once "the Red Queen of Los Angeles" as our hometown rag called her in her heyday. I always wondered how she got the Irish name; she's actually a daughter of Hungarian Jews, and the obit made no mention of a spouse, only a son (who co-founded the DSA--whatever happened to them? I think they got absorbed by the Dems in the time that Clinton was laying the groundwork for his ascension.) At least she had the sense to doubt the party post-56 and to leave it in '68, although she never renounced her communism, only the party version. What makes someone so committed that they spend most of their nine decades totally caught up in radical activism? Does Healey leave a better legacy than Leary?

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Most Oppressed People Ever, or The Other White Meat

With "The Sopranos" apparently winding down to its last season whenever, who's the media's new white ethnics--my title refers to the acronym spat at Irish claims to have suffered, say, more than those murdered in the Shoah, as well, odd juxtaposition, of the old ad campaign promoting pork consumption rather than chicken--that HBO and Showtime need? Virginia Heffernan, on July 28,2006 in the NYTimes , tells, well not all, since we Irish (and in our American varietal) don't tell all, only act like we do so. Sit with an Irishman all day and he'll talk and tell you nothing about what's really happening deep down, so they--everybody else--say/s.

Disclaimer: I actually am watching "Brotherhood," thanks to the miracle, if not cheaply granted, of HBO on Demand and the same for Showtime, thanks to Leo' s mastery of the remote and his endless stance, slouched in front of screens. Both leads are named Jason. In ten years the ranks will be filled with Dylan. Jason Clarke, from the promo clips, is evidently "really" British! Layne & I are caught up, and, unlike the Sopranos whose madcap follies I could not watch as I missed out on the beginning years when we did not have premium cable, I felt like I could not fully appreciate. "Brotherhood" is complicated enough for me, and a reminder of why I don't read mysteries, thrillers, or anything that depends on you following a convoluted plot.

I remember that my ex-brother-in-law among others commented how my dad always reminded him of Archie Bunker. Yeah, but a "G-rated" as no invective stronger than "crap" has ever passed his careful lips.

And the Award for Most Dramatic Americans of the Moment Goes to ... the Irish

Among the legacies of “The Sopranos” is a new artistic fantasy: producing the Great American Television Drama has supplanted writing the Great American Novel. Eager to replicate the achievement of David Chase’s masterpiece without presuming to compete with it, producers are casting around for narratives that are quintessentially American but don’t star the Mafia. It’s got to be possible. Certainly David Milch (“Deadwood,” on HBO), David Simon (“The Wire,” also HBO) and Aaron Sorkin (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” on NBC this fall) have ventured plausible hypotheses. Maybe television’s America will, for all time, be played by the old West, or Baltimore, or — e pluribus unum — Hollywood.

But, really, who will be our echt Americans, if not Mr. Chase’s Italian-Americans?

Enter, clamorously, the Irish. Television is suddenly filled with them. There are actors, of course — Frances Conroy, Lauren Graham, Alec Baldwin, Denis Leary, Louis C. K. and Donal Logue, to name some of the most visible — but also Irish-American characters and Irish-American dramas and Irish-American neighborhoods. In the two most captivating dramas of the summer, Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me” on FX and Blake Masters’s “Brotherhood” on Showtime, Irishness, for better or worse, is the killer app of narratives: a concept that alone sets actions in motion. “Rescue Me,” after all, resounds with a catchall explanation from Tommy Gavin (Mr. Leary) for every kind of rambunctious behavior: “We’re Irish.”

Not so long ago, on the reality programs that used to pervade prime time, American seemed to mean “all-American.” Blond, that is, low-key, good-natured and lacking a a strong ethnic identity.

But in a great American television series — a scripted show — characters cannot be low-key or good-natured. They have to have histories so they can bear grudges. And they absolutely cannot be averse to drama, as reality-show personalities often claim to be. Sex, death and money must be tightly intertwined in any hourlong series of the “Sopranos” era; punches must be thrown; opera must ensue. Unsentimental reality contestants don’t have the heart for our grand national themes, on television or in films. No reality girl could have played Laura Linney’s part in “Mystic River” or Marisa Tomei’s part in “In the Bedroom.” Roles like those must be left to actors made of rowdier stuff.

For producers trying to keep a show relevant and suspenseful, what do Irish characters have going for them? Let’s see. Well, you can always give them alcohol problems: the bipolar excitement of drunkenness and hangovers. And there’s the taut suspense of sobriety, which — as Mr. Leary’s Tommy shows — is always about to snap.

Those Irish can also brawl, as Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) does to impress Tommy’s sister (Tatum O’Neal) on “Rescue Me” and Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs) does to intimidate almost everyone on “Brotherhood.” Being Roman Catholic, they can also repent and turn abstemious; they can fall into romantic dramas that contrast virgins with whores; they can be gay or homophobic, with serious consequences; they can go to Mass and macabre funeral wakes. Being strivers, they can run for office or become police officers and firefighters; they can try to pass for Protestants; they can fall and fall and fall and try to do better.

That’s plenty of action, which means plenty of chances to annoy Ray Flynn, the former mayor of Boston, who is incensed about what he considers cartoonish representations of Irish in the media. But Mr. Flynn might not mind the dialogue, which is less profane than “The Sopranos” and at times even Jesuitical. On “Brotherhood,” the police detective Declan Giggs (Ethan Embry) is faulted by his Italian-American partner for using “mick logic”; Giggs’s offending statement is “it’s the exception that proves the rule.” The partner says he doesn’t need to understand because “my ancestors had the good sense to invent scaloppini and cannoli while yours were happy eating potatoes and dirt.”

He makes a fair point, but for these shows, what does it matter? So we don’t get old Coppola/Scorsese scenes of tough guys with fagioli and razor-thin garlic. And if the lives of Mr. Leary’s and Mr. Masters’s Irish characters are less sensuous and sybaritic than those of Mr. Chase’s Italian-Americans — picture beer for wine, ballgames for strip clubs, and bars for restaurants — they can at least be more cerebral. They’re loquacious, even poetic. Which is not to say these shows as a whole are smarter than “The Sopranos,” just that the characters tend to make arguments, debate points and discuss current events. No one is reticent.

Which brings us to the other Irish-Americans on television: Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly. As loath as Mr. Leary and Mr. Masters might be to admit it, these mouthy cable commentators paved the way for the new style of Irish-American drama. They brandish their tempers, their volubility, their high color and their decidedly post-post-Kennedy politics. Nostalgia for the ward politics and union loyalties that inform “Rescue Me” and propel “Brotherhood” has also turned up on the talk shows, especially when the subject is immigration.

American viewers have simply built up a tolerance for the beguiling blarney of television Irishness. And, with Paul Haggis starting the uber-Irish “Black Donnellys” on NBC in the fall, no one will be going on the wagon anytime soon.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Top 15 "LPs" & Best/Worst CDs 2005

With a Corgi on my lap and a half-poodle at my bare feet, I try to type. I provide here a slightly updated version of a February post to my two good friends in Santa Cruz who are music aficionados. One of whom's supposed to provide his list, but never did; the other chastised my inclusion of Hawkwind's live LP (70-ish photo above: the band in concert but Stacia, their rather hefty more than merely buxom topless dancer, not to be seen) among my Top 15. True, parts are Spinal Tap's inspiration: those Science Fiction lyrics intoned po-faced by the band's own poet! But parts are magnificent, too. And I usually hate live albums. This list also has to reckon with my future one for folk all time, and the genres overlapping for my beloved folk-rock bands from the 70s, so I may delete Fairport from these 15 to leave room for a worthy contenders who ran up to the wire but failed to make the cut, to mix my metaphor. Anyhow, here 'tis. Oh yeah--it's only rock, not folk--that I meant to compile, although it's hard to know where to place Richard Thompson or Horslips. We'll see.

I have this weird habit when doing these lists to type only what'll fit on one page for each category, at normal font size. At least in WordPerfect. This keeps me from blathering, makes my comments telegraphic, and reveals my inspiration: Henry Adams used to write on foolscap and his letters show how he fitted them--not the handwriting so much as the content--to that paper sheet's size. I did restore bolds & italics for clarity. Enjoy, and send me your lists!

Top 15 JLM as of today 2/27/06: not necessarily the best rockish records ever made, simply ones that succeed more than less in making you believe in the world they conjure up, and perhaps forget your own world, for forty-odd minutes. Great titles for albums, w/Hawkwind’s exception?

The Who Sell Out Concept 1967 mimics transistors: how we all grew up hearing music as three minute bursts on tinny radios, compressed by ads, enticed by lyrical rhymes and anguish, soothed revelations shrinkwrapped and mourned, pirate radio, disposable but durable. At best memorable.
REM Murmur “The spiritual side of punk”: Village Voice. My tail-end demographic needed its own album. Athens not Woodstock, pings and 1983 echoes 23 years later as murky as the kudzu on its cover, dropouts swallowing whatever we erected against nature, time, and cruel evolution.
Byrds Notorious Byrd Brothers Released New Years Day 1968. Post Love Summer. Comedown. Morning after glitters war, shards, spurs flight back to the garden--to try, if only try, to start over.
Fairport Convention What We Did on Our Holidays Anglican hippies strum 1968 West Coast vibes but transpose them into busker ditties chapel-chanted. Haunting, sleepy, not all that sad.
Buzzcocks Another Music From a Different Kitchen Punk skips away from gender. Iambics to be warbled at “you” not “he” or “she.” Sly, coy, whether 1977 or 1967, vs. au courant men in black.
The Fall Perverted by Language Our second Mancunian ranters here: 1982 we’re desperate to kill thr idols whether stage or marketplace. They might’ve even read F. Bacon as well as seen his paintings. Revisionist autodidact lipstick traces sworn to smear Thatcher’s nation into groo/a/ve.
Kinks Village Green Preservation Society Back to nature 1968: London stops swinging. Whether idiots, eccentrics, or fanatics, they too deserve commemoration, celebration, and immortalization.
The least rocking album of the ten. Best heard in small doses to counteract whimsy or whinging.
Beatles For Sale How they spent summer vacation. Swinging London. Weary four: the cover shot’s blurry, the lads weary. When it’s ‘64. Contract-fulfilling sop: half covers of Hamburg set, half leftover tunes. Works better than the dross before or the drugs after, as/on the decade’s cusp.
Roxy Music Country Life (Close second: debut.) Even ‘74 post-Eno, a streamlined cruise ship looms: oboes, Triduum chant, arch narcolepsy, distilled ennui, possible Ophelia title allusion?
Verlaines Juvenalia Late 70s singles pressed for pocket change by starving Kiwis. Three gangly music majors made from what finally floated them in Antipodes: unraveling guitar epics, woozily smashingly Mahleresque swirling dissonance, Gitanes, literacy, unrequited achy breaky hearts.
Yardbirds Roger the Engineer I like titular double-entendre. They never cut coherent albums, but combining Gregorian chant, ragas, freakbeat, and I suppose Blow-Up, they experiment better than 1966 Stones. Doomed to secondary status: rotating lead guitarists, a braying singer, and less than pin-up mugs. True musos translate R&B but remembered that they, sans Clapton, talk white.
Pavement Slanted & Enchanted Smug 1992 liberal arts majors who “borrowed” the Verlaines. REM. The Fall. Somehow they managed by sheer guitar grace to chunk out sounds that not only got attention but out of pothead demos and scrawled babble jolted sonic GenX bricolage stolen.
Pogues Rum Sodomy & the Lash. I saw Shane stare down, 1st LA concert, 1986, crowd with an anti-war dirge that silenced us all. Determined, committed, eloquent, before that Guinness hype did him in. His bandmates chugged Irish & punk, rawk & reel, raised middle fingers to all of life.
Hawkwind Space Ritual Double live album usually = label obligation Xmas filler. These poetry- addled libertarians combined SF blather, Krautrock obsession, and tuneful chaos winningly. You want their 10 minute songs to go on forever, and how many 1973 2xLPs still meet that standard?
Wire The Scottish Play. Live DVD: South London art-yobs with accents like skins. But pounding forbiddingly repetitive, dental-drilling, and agonized mantras. Reformed 2x. 2004 in their 5/60s.
They never smile, but do sweat. Minimal rivet art. Unlike Stones, will not play at Super Bowls.

2005: Purchases: 10 warmed me up past luke-, 10 caused me to wail/ gnash teeth, i.e., 10 tepid, 5 vomited out of my mouth, paraphrased Holy Writ. (+ reissues, boxes, compilations). For more, see the asterisked, more obscure, ones reviewed by me on Amazon, awaiting your positive votes--[see easy link on this very blog!--ed.]

1) Gravenhurst. Fires in Distant Buildings. Dark horse places first. “See My Friends” transforms Kinks romp into dirge. Mixes shoegaze guitar, electronic textures, intelligent vocals. Proof too that a one-man band (w/drummer) need not be self-indulgent or self-abasing. A keeper.
2) Oneida. The Wedding*. Took me five listens for it to click. Former NYC metal-goofs with B.A.s lured by Krautrock, unclassifiable early 70s vibe, droney singalongs. They keep improving.
3) Kinski. Alpine Static.* Similar to #2. Space-rockers also converted. More dissonant, it’s hissy buzzy tinny tracks for driving, as the title indicates. Best groove: “Passed Out on Your Lawn.”
4) Radar Bros. The Fallen Leaf Pages.*Another from a near-local Atwater trio. Even though my dreaded Dave Fridmann (the Mitchell Froom of the alt-rock scene, who dooms by so-precious production punks in Flaming Lips & Mercury Rev to abandon acid to nip prozac) is at the helm. What Charlie Manson could have penned if he’d had talent. Disturbing desert ditties of desertion.
5) Black Mountain. s/t.* Tough one to fit. Derivative yet innovative, as they combine Sabbath, N. Young (better than Jesse Colin Y.), folk, white-funk, and, again, Krautrock, into frothy cocktails.
6) Alastair Roberts. No Earthly Man. Gloomy troubadour of aul’ Scot missives of doom. Spare, nearly a capella, unrelenting post-punk grip on murder ballads that outshadow N. Cave in purity.
7) Maximo Park. A Certain Trigger. Newcastle’s contribution to this decade’s Brit Invasion. Roxy Music meets Smiths. Slick, polite indie-glams who deserve to win in a very crowded race.
8) The Fall. Fall Heads Roll.* Jokers wild, as usual. 28th studio album? They start with one of their all-time worst songs, but then soar. Takes many listenings to sort out from their other lp’s. Lineup #37 or so, w/MES wife #3, knows their tenure’s brief, but they’re resigned deftly to back Grumpiest Man in Showbiz as he rants & raves post-bender plus ca change. Defines a cult band.
9) Mary Timony. Ex-Hex.*Fugazi drummer produced, how it shows. Former DC punk-gone-faery slapped out of kosmik dayz long enough to stoke her unsteady singsong warble which I don’t like with testosterone-boost guitar skronk that claws your lap intimately as it shreds your eardrums.
10) Sons & Daughters. The Repulsion Box. Many call this J. Cash meets Glasgow. I call it fun.

1) The Soundtrack of Our Lives. Origin 1. I can’t decide. I like these hirsute Swedes’ resurrection of The Dark Side of Tommy’s Sticky Fingers for its ability to rip off these albums while making the early 70s punchy, catchy, and as silly lyrically as ever, multiplied by ESL. This starts off better than it finishes, so the drop in enthusiasm portends not well for 6 nimble brutes.
2) Super Furry Animals. Love Kraft. For our Welsh counterparts who raid the same decade, their electronic-beats-guitar confections often taste like Kit-Kats. They save their best 2 songs for last; Leo found this too, independently. What does it mean when the ballads sound better than the fast ones? This band’s cursed by doing what they do well, but doing it in a rut, doing it til it falls off?
3) Oxford Collapse. A Good Ground.* Frenetic Mission-o-Burma-Wire-Cure. Spazzy but yodels.
4) Circulus. A Lick to the Tip of an Envelope from a Letter That Has Been Sent.*One of the few genres from early 70s not yet disinterred: Brit-electric folk-prog. Two instrumentals are the best by far; but insipid lyrics making it tough to know if these dour earnest nine are in on joke or not.
5) Low. The Great Destroyer. Dave Fridmann to blame for this one, you Duluth 2/3 Mormons. Cool artwork, I love the death concept album theme, but retreat from soporifics to rock unwise.
6) Echo & the Bunnymen. Siberia. First listenings raised my hopes, but this soon slipped. From the title you know they aren’t toe-tappers, but there’s not enough of old kick, just too much scuff.
7) Kingsbury Manx. The Fast Rise & Fall of the South.* My Amazon review, although rated 0:3, fairly mapped out pitfalls that snared shy tarheel talents as they sought to channel (again) Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks. It’s been done already the past ten years ten-squared by you Chapel Hill sensitives. Stop it now. Look what happened to REM. Better rumble in da’ jungle (or pines).
8) M Ward. Transistor Radio. I did not know he was a darling of the NW coffeehipsterseen. His get-up on indie rocker does 1930s austerity has moments, but they weren’t on this disc, sho’ nuf.
9) Sleater-Kenney. The Woods. Speaking of Seattle, intellectually I understand what these PC-canonized femmes do. Riot grrls turned up amps to 11. Oh-ok, but it’s not that stunning, Miz/Ms.
10) Dungen. Ta Det Lugnt. Return of 1971, 1-man electrical [Scandia] # 348. I bought it just before its domestic release w/bonus disc appeared, so I may have been jilted. The lurches of prog-jazz I do not like in any form they assume; otherwise, early-70s aura, again, gentleman’s C.

1) Steven Malkmus. Face the Music. Look who else is stuck in said era. He credits lots o’ pot in Portland, and from hearing clever album, it’s beatifying him big-time if not this listener. Self-indulgent, wayward, convinced of its utter brilliance as only a preppie trustafarian can be.
2) Rakes. Capture/Release. Later in the 70s, that’s where these Londoners steal their bits/hits.. Reading comparisons to the Fall, I rushed out. Sounds like ‘78, but I heard it first time around.
3) Richard Thompson. Front Parlour Ballads. Unlike the Fall’s latest, starts off with amazingly good song. I thought, mediocre ratings CD garnered: all false? Next 11 songs prove me wrong.
4) ...Trail of Dead. Worlds Apart. Leo & I differ. He likes it. I love artwork and themes. Decent protest lyrics for young’uns. But when a quartet loses founding key member, it’s hard to keep the spirit, and all the production, graphics, video bonuses, and sheer volume cannot disguise his loss.
5) Sigur Ros. Takk. This is not that bad, really, but after hearing it a few times, it’s not that great.

1) The Fall. Complete Peel Sessions: 1978-2004.* See Amazon review. 5 hours. Chunks of this horrendous, shards of it genius. If you’re a skeptic, a bedside pan of spew & bile. Late St. John Peel’s favorites: “always different, always the same.” Appeal puzzling as the Dead.
2) Yo La Tengo. Prisoners of Love. I sprang for all 3 discs, even though Layne made me turn the covers one off. Hoboken’s rock-crit collectors show off two decades of bowing to Velvets whip.
3) Welsh Rare Beat. v/a.*Sain label, all-Welsh, late 60s-70s. I knew only three words, but it kept my interest. Even pop-gal singers here carry a grit and menace that their spry English peers lack.
4) Gather in the Mushrooms. v/a.*Acid-folk Anglo equivalent cannot match Welsh bite, but this does take you back to utopian attempt to reclaim rustic and the charmed, in all its daft sincerity.
5) Swervedriver. Juggernaut Rides.* Ravin’ shoegazers with honed metal edge. Relentless guitar assaults, eloquent ballads, combined here on retrospective that pursues their laser-molten rattle.

Two I can’t decide where to place:
1) Wilderness. s/t.*John Lydon, PIL vocals anew. But this all sounds the same, save the piano instrumental that closes it. I love this dub-punk R. Smith-J. Wobble funhouse, but monochrome?
2) Doves. Some Cities. More accessible third try. Not as panoramic, more groov-ey. Not sure yet.

Two released from vaults:
1) Galaxie 500. Peel Sessions. Harvard egghead trio strains male vocals with hushed crescendos. Wimp factor, but they manage by cool covers to sidestep whimsy if not elude her grip. Like the Pixies, should have let their gal bassist sing more, not their prematurely solo-singer/bloated ego.
2) Belle & Sebastian. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds. Uneven B-Sides; cloy feyfolk sidle up. Art-schoolers epitomize such, but since they know risks and write a song about bookworms here, a brief reprieve. Amid jumbled lot of odds & ends, a few astonishing tunes carried off spare time on tiny budgets. How clever cynics do, Oscar Wildish, out wit/kast vamps, careerists, and posers.

P.S. I later bought The Clientele, lauded by crits “Strange Geometry,” which will likely have made this list in the third of 2005's categories. Sigur Ros does not really belong so low among the damned, to be fair, but I struggle in vain to court its spark as much as I strike its elfin flint. I’ll nudge the Icelanders up to lukewarm, relegate Clientele to bed-sit land’s limbo. Echo & the B did dance better after another spin with me: about half CD’s songs pass muster, no mean feat, pops’s.

This past year, in fact, much of what I listen to is not on this list, which took effort considering I buy fewer new albums made the current year as years and I move on. Thanks to Amazon and a few dwindling other venues, I do sample bands I/they thought I’d like, such as lately A Northern Chorus, Engineers, Rogue Wave, and Of Montreal, none of whom moved me to more. Others, like Editors, cannot be sampled, so they wait on my backlist, too expensive (imports) to be gotten and squandered. Some on the lists of sub-pop top-ten contenders, like ...Trail of Dead, Low, Oxford Collapse, SFA, Kingsbury Manx, TSOOL, Sigur Ros, Messrs. Thompson, Malkmus, and Ward, Miss Timony, and Echo & his Bunnymen, I bought simply as a loyal fan who has their oeuvre and adds to it faithfully despite recent gaffes, hoping always– and in the case of the Fall sometimes rewarded in such faith– for a comeback or third wind in their next time up at bat.

I have enjoyed Acid Mothers Temple, a hairy Japanese collective mingling, in the earlier 00's, Terry Riley (they played “In C” recently at UCLA), Krautrock, freakout guitar meltdowns, Can, and other unclassifiable influences. They have now gone back to kool lava/lavish molten metal. Likewise, one of AMT’s forebears, Hawkwind, in their Tapsy 72-75 period did blunder to put out memorable space-rock, anchored by future Motorhead bassist Lemmy, whose melodic and assertive playing– as in John Entwistle’s parallel case– led the band even more than the guitars. Lemmy kicked out for wrong drug: speed! Acid heads with dwarf-as-synth player; also counted as a full member a heftyish hippychick gyrating on stage, invariably less than fully clothed during their 769.2 concerts annually. They, like Can & Neu!, were notable favorites of John Lydon and Pete Shelley, et alia who would hotwire their own rattling musical engines later in that 70s show.

This list also neglects folk music, whose Irish, and sometimes Hungarian and British, variants I listen regularly to, especially Horslips on the early-morning stages of my Volvo Express. {I will make a folkish list soon, but I notice I put Fairport on my all time top-15, and that's cheating. I'll somehow weasel out of this one--Ameoba Records does classify Steeleye, Pentangle, and their Cropredy cousins under folk, and moved Horslips over from rock back to their Irish peers , tucked away beyond bluegrass and Romanies and Greeks. ed. } There weren’t, however, a lot of notable releases last year. Me-so-foxy Eliza Carthy put out “Rough Music,” a totally respectable CD in a long series of such; Altan, leaders by default of Irish trad scene, was hailed as eluding their former Narada label’s New Age vapor that had slickened their early pristine sheen. But “Another Ground,” or whatever in their reliably generic album titles was issued last year, sounded like the jaded pick-up lines as easy listening that have impregnated so many Irish crooners post-Riverdance. Richard Thompson’s massive box set of semi-bootleg, soundboard, and demo tracks has just appeared this spring; despite Free Reed typically semi-boot sonics, acclaim makes it my must buy. Lúnasa, whose live “Kinnity Sessions” was similarly meant to steer them and their disappointed fans away from the California-produced and therefore glossily burnished “Redwood,” taped a so-so seisiún, but again, re: Altan, they’ve succumbed to Windham Hills lotusland. As do Danú, formerly among great white hopes. Last two CDs– not counting the instrumental disc made solo by members on discrete tracks– replaced male with a female vocalist. Not in itself bad/good, but she cannot sing powerfully, so the formerly buzzing fiddle-guitar combination has to slow down in pace and lower its volume to ease her pitch. So, “The Road Less Travelled” is about as predictable as its title would lead you to expect. ☺☹♬