Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ag dul ar ais go dtí Tolkien

Ar ndóigh, léigh mé go minic agus go leor. Chuir mé leirmheasannaí ar leabhair anseo beagnach gach lá eile. Mar sin féin, ní bíonn mé scríobh oiread faoi leabhair go raibh mé ath-léamh aríst ann.

Éist mé go téip le J.R.R. Tolkien ag labhairt roinnt le a scéaltaí ar tseachtaine seo caite. Bhí cuimhne liom an spraoi nuair fuair mé faoi Gollum agus Bilbo san uaimh. Insíonn Tolkien seo le fuinneamh. 

D'fhoglaim faoi "An Hobad, no Anonn agus Ar Ais Arís" nuair a bhí mé deich mbliana d'aois. Thúg máite rang cúig ar iasacht dom. Ansin, cheannaigh mé leaghtha bosca "Tiarnaí le Fánnaí" le Ballantine le haghaidh ar an praghas le $2.85 leis mo liúntas féin.

Ach, ní raibh ag críochnaithe an leabhar mór sin ann. Stop mé os comhair an chaibadil seo caite. Ní raibh mé ag iarraidh é ar deireadh.

Thósaim "An Hobad" é anois leis tuiscint faoi ar thromchúis mall ag fás go fíu. Tuigim seo ina chaibadil féin. Beidh mé eachtraíochta go fheicéail Lár-Domhain mar dhuine fásta, níos mó ná daichead bliain níos déanái.

Going back to Tolkien.

Of course, I read often and a lot. I put book reviews here almost every other day. Nevertheless, I don't write as much about books that I re-read again.

I listened to a tape of J.R.R. Tolkien reciting sections from his stories last week. I remembered the enjoyment when I found out about Gollum and Bilbo in the cave. Tolkien tells this with vigor.

I learned about "The Hobbit, or There and Back Again" when I was ten years old. A classmate in fifth grade lent it to me. Then, I bought the box set "The Lord of the Rings" from Ballantine at the price of $2.85 with my own allowance.

But, I did not finish that big book then. I stopped before the last chapter. I did not want it to end.

I start "The Hobbit" now with an understanding about the slow seriousness growing. I perceive this in the first chapter, even. It will be an adventure to see Middle-Earth as an adult, more than forty years later.

P.S. Biolbo Baigin: Eolas faoi "An Hobad" i aistríuchán Gaeilge /Information about "The Hobbit" translated into Irish. Bhí a fhios ag Tolkien Gaeilge air-- ach ní raibh grá liom é. Tolkien knew Irish--but he had no love for it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr's "Black Against Empire": Book Review

Certainly, after the quick rise and repression of the Occupy Movement, this study on an earlier radical faction who advocated more violent urban occupation and resistance merits reflection. Joshua Bloom (UCLA) and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. (UC Berkeley) collaborate to present a study which relies not on oral interviews or "retrospective accounts" tainted by bias or filtered through idealism, but a sober analysis. They base their work on five years of Bay Area archival research: first to assemble nearly all of over five hundred copies of the Party's newspaper, and then to investigate audio recordings from radio stations aired in the 1960s and 1970s about social movements. Bloom and Martin apply an academic approach over four hundred pages of carefully organized and accessibly phrased text that combines a contemporary perspective from which to approach the material with a way to revive the voices in print and on the air--the latter otherwise (perhaps) evanescent.

As other reviews on Amazon have covered this testimony, my overview will offer a quick nod to the sections. "Organizing Rage" tracks what had started in May 1967 for black anti-imperialism and "policing the police." This led in "Baptism of Blood" to the very quick eruption of the Black Panther Party to national prominence. In 1968, armed self-defense, self-determination, and armed opposition emerged as Party platforms and programs. While as one interested in a parallel time when Irish republicanism revived to rally another nation of "internal exiles" across the world, I found no direct correlation made by Bloom and Martin to the Irish struggle, certainly (as Brian Dooley's "Black and Green" documents), parallels to a First World as well as the many Third World liberation movements of the late '60s on point to the continuing inspiration that the Party's leaders and their revolutionary rhetoric--combined with efforts such as the famous Oakland free breakfast programs--left in nations at first sight far removed from the ghettos of Northern California. 

Part three looks at "Resilience," and part four, "Revolution Has Come!" Rebels burst onto the scene, internationally, happened as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Accidentally or symbolically, the transfer in the methods for social change advocated for urban guerrillas to actively fight the state led to understandable media and increasingly (un-)popular attention. The role played by informants, provocateurs, and dirty tricks has often been featured in coverage; this volume collects such FBI COINTELPRO factionalism as an object lesson in how the growth of a grassroots movement creates its own increased repression. 

For instance, when I attended UCLA decades later as a grad student, I heard about the Black Studies Program and a fatal shootout by the US organization against the Panthers in the building next to the one where I took most of my courses. As the authors note in the type of aside showing the scope of their survey, under the leadership of Ron Karenga, US can be credited for starting the holiday of Kwanza. (141)  As Kwanza illustrates in miniature, the advances made by black activists can be seen around us in education, culture, politics, and employment in the nearly fifty years since the Party's power. 

Ramifications of the divide and conquer strategy cynically employed by the government demonstrate the fear that many Americans had, stoked by media coverage, of the Party. "Concessions and Unraveling" as the final section speaks for itself. It reminds me of the Occupy Movement if in less hard-headed fashion, as groups split and individuals watched as conflicting agendas and mutual dissension weakened, frayed, and then dissolved under the relentless forces of law-and-order crackdowns, political disdain, and popular caricature. (Slightly edited 4-15-13 for Slugger O'Toole; as above 4-10-13 to Amazon US.)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

David Ensmiger's "Left of the Dial": Book Review

Over twenty veterans of the punk scene, over three decades on, tell David Ensminger about their formative years and their chosen values. Fragmented identities, made up on the spot, might define their adolescent musicians for years and bands to come. Some wandered beyond what became the limits of punk and hardcore; others sustain punk's eclectic, ornery energy. These accounts compile the intellectual and personal transformations attempted by punks from the late 1970s and early 1980s, freed of the promotional message "via ratty fanzines" or the dutifully chronological approach of "box store biographies." As the interviewer sums up his anthology: "These are the words of punk participants centered on the legacy of punk's sometimes fuzzy political ideology, rupture of cultural norms, media ecology, networking and outreach aims, sexual identity and race relations, and musical nuances."  

Ensminger calls his contributors icons. None matched Joey Ramone's or Johnny Rotten's fame, but  these clever, driven strategists detoured from the dreary dead end of a decade overwhelmed by Pink Floyd, Yes, and Led Zeppelin, when few up-and-coming bands played their own songs rather than covers by FM-radio monoliths who filled stadiums. Few indie bands, according to some interviewed, even existed (at least on the other side of the garage door); this may smack of hyperbole, but depending on the dismal conditions attested to by many here, it's the impetus for this "secret history." 

Peter Case, with proto-punks the Nerves, vowed to break out: "We were going to do what the Beatles did, but our strip bar was across the street" in 1974 San Francisco. Ensminger's focus often settles on California, but given the anglophile emphasis by Jon Savage in his influential account England's Dreaming, first-person verification from the other side of the world proves necessary. As The Damned's guitarist Captain Sensible favors, bursting out from the working classes, the band-driven impetus for musical and social change deserves a hearing lately dismissed by elitist trendsetters. 

This tilt balances the supposition that American punk rock stayed suburban, middle-class, and white. Chip Kinman of the Dils and later Rank and File brought, as a young bassist, a Communist lyrical stance. He figured this would rouse Golden State audiences to confront their fears better than cliched swastikas. Similar to Case, Kinman insists on a rootsier, vernacular, populist strain within punk that aligns it to folk, country, and blues music. He argues articulately for the first wave of American punk, arguably predating if not The Ramones than certainly Rotten, as already established by the mid-1970s in San Francisco and Los Angeles. This oddball, offbeat phase, as L.A.'s El Vez "the Mexican Elvis" or the denizens of San Francisco's Deaf Club typify, comprises part one of Left of the Dial

What soon replaced it in tract-home Orange County and the tonier beach cities of the South Bay, hardcore, sounds to Kinman like "machine bands" fixed on an unrelenting discipline and a forceful rigor, exemplified by Black Flag's SST label in its Henry Rollins phase. As for punk, Kinman labels it the "last white popular music" as he laments its "overdocumented" archival status, and rock's "self-referential" trap which stymies innovation. No wonder those from the early stages of punk remain true to punk's unpredictable spirit--by refusing to mimic their own youthful musical molds or models.

Part two, and two-thirds of the book, shoves its way into a mosh pit of "sound and fury." Mike Palm of O.C.'s Agent Orange sprinkled surf instrumentals into punk anthems. Suburban surfers elbowed into hardcore's mosh pits, to push aside the misfits they would have despised a few years earlier in the glitter-glam era when Hollywood and San Francisco punk staggered and flirted amidst gay bars, squatters, and the fringes of the art world such as the Deaf Club.

But subversive or gender-bending punk faded. A uniform of spiked hair, leather jackets, and big boots hobbled purported non-conformists. Representing the transition to the more violent, tribal hardcore O.C. mood of the early '80s, Palm praises Rodney Bingenheimer, the KROQ-FM Sunday night d.j. who championed the otherwise impossible to find import vinyl straight out of London, which preceded and then propelled the local L.A. punk scene. (This reviewer also attests to the kindness and generosity which "Rodney on the ROQ" unfailingly showed to his fans--at first very few of us in '76. His show was our only local lifeline to fresh, startling sounds from abroad or from the late-'70s underground, before the mass marketing of "alt-rock" by KROQ and imitators.) 

The Minutemen's stalwart bassist Mike Watt entertains with tales of how he and bandmate D. Boon traveled up from San Pedro, forty-five minutes south, to Hollywood's raucous concerts. With a shared love for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blue Oyster Cult, their terse punk-jazz-folk compressed the idealism of populist punk as it embraced the two teens. Watt affirms: "I'm trying to live up to the personal utopia I felt in my life where I could play anything I want and D. Boon could help me. We don't have to live up to anything." Distanced from punk's bohemian ambiance, but lured in, Watt and Boon settled in to a place (on SST) where CCR and BOC covers coexist with a frenetic, experimental band admiring their peers such as Wire or Richard Hell. 

This genial tolerance, as with the plaid shirt sported by Watt in homage to CCR's John Fogerty, supports Case and Kinman's confidence (reiterated in typically reliable fashion here by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dischord Records) that punk's progressive ethos extends its instigators'  principled, D.I.Y. and anarchic aims. Participants agree that punk unity emerges from its diversity, its ambitions, and its open-mindedness. Watt sums it up: "Back in those days, if you considered yourself punk, you didn't say 'I'm punk.' Now, people say, how are you punk rock? You look like my dad."  

Speaking of punk's contrasts between participants and stereotypes, part of the fun of this presentation is playing its players off each other. Kinman reserves choice words for Jello Biafra; Biafra lashes out at his former bandmates in the Dead Kennedys. Ensminger holds Shawn Stern (Youth Brigade) to a couple of inconsistencies in his interview, while Kira Roessler (Black Flag) reminds readers of that band's calculated non-conformity, reacting to the rigid expectations of its own hardcore audience. 

Jack Grisham (TSOL) distinguishes the "attitude" of early punk vs. the "music" and the "look" of its later versions, which usually fail to innovate. Embodying the presence of such an innovator, Ensminger introduces Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Off) via his "extended monologues" during concerts, as "he struts the stage like a well-meaning counselor and history teacher." As a Texas college instructor and cultural scholar himself (and Pop Matters columnist), drummer-editor David Ensminger suitably examines the impact of less-heralded figures who continue to strive for experimentation and agitation within the spirit if not always the template of punk. 

Apropos, Morris speaks of his affection for his former roommate, the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Pierce heaped doses of "aggro" to pepper the Americana musical stew with earthier spices. This pungent blend seeps into an lengthy conversation with Really Red's U-Ron Bondage. Ensminger as a "digital archivist" may let this meticulous contribution go on much longer than his other entries, but the long career of activist U-Ron, from the mid-1960s Texas acid-psychedelic era through the Reagan years into Clear Channel and Vans Shoes' commodification of skate-punk, justifies its inclusion. 

Political, sexual, and racial ramifications feature within later chapters. Beefeater's Fred "Freak" Smith from the D.C. hardcore-funk scene and Article of Faith's Vic Bondi challenge hardcore dogmatism. Straightedge and indulgent factions contend; Ensminger strives for fairness in hearing out the conflict, if leaning far to the left. He pushes a few interlocutors to clarify or defend their claims. He favors the upstarts (after all, this is published by the anarchist-friendly PM Press) to foment small-scale, non-corporate action to spark wider change. Dave Dictor (MDC) surveys the takeover of the alternative movement by the big labels, and he may champion Obama, but he also hopes that the Greens will--eventually after the Democrats fail--replace the powers that be. 

Left of the Dial reminds readers that before Green Day or Rancid, we had Fugazi, MDC, and DOA. The difficulty with this small-scale rebellion endures: how to sustain an audience and make a living from marginal music and radical stances. Many burn out or give in. The little labels themselves encounter difficulties, competing against the majors. Lisa Fancher, founder of Frontier Records who signed many early Southern California bands mentioned here, argues for her side in this complicated situation. Ensminger then appends three "notable persons" to give their testimony. Managers, rights, and royalties, as with any popular music study, play their part in who endures and who succumbs.

There lurk a few slips in transcription (John "Vox" rather than Foxx from Ultravox; "Beechwood" rather than Beachwood for the Hollywood avenue; "Red Cross" or "Kross" for the band who had to respell as "Redd Kross"). Nearly all chapters were previously published; beyond their original readership in fanzines and on Ensminger's eponymous LotD website, some entries needed editorial clarification of band members or fellow musicians casually mentioned only by first or last name by those interviewed. Minor faults aside, this compendium provides a fitting tribute to punk's intellectual and political energy, harnessed to a friendlier, if assaultive, approach that invites in all to play and listen. Better yet, it encourages audiences to become activists, to participate for principled change.

It boils down to protest. Thomas Barnett (Strike Anywhere) nods to the Wobblies and Leadbelly. He cites a Flipside fanzine interviewee himself, continuing the chain of credit lengthened in this collection of voices from those who those stand over but not apart from the crowd. "Punk rock is just urban folk music." (PopMatters 7-2-13; in censored and shorter form to Amazon US 6-9-13, after it rejected many uploads. Only when I eliminated Dead Kennedys, Dils, Circle Jerks was it accepted.)

(Visual Vitriol: Ensminger's digital archive at his Center for Punk Arts) 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics" Book Review

Huston Smith's preface confronts us: "Entheogens have entered Buddhism to stay; there can be no turning back from the point that has been reached." (14) Stephen Batchelor notes in his forward the crux of the Buddhist proscription against "intoxication"--some interpret this as to the "point of heedlessness." "Although certain ecstatic Zen masters and Tantric yogins may be deemed sufficiently awakened to be exempt from strict adherence to this precept, there is no discussion about the role that drug use might play in propelling someone onto the path in the first place." (10) 

Editor Allan Hunt Badiner promotes the individual's empowerment, freer of mediators or power structures:
"The democratization of psychedelics, however, and of Buddhism to a similar extent, has been very much about the breakdown of this restricted access to the divine. In Buddhism, as in psychedelics, the individual takes responsibility for their relationship to the source of their being, and for access to the highest states of spirit mind." (16) Contrary to two superficial reviews of this anthology preceding this one on Amazon, a careful reading of primary material, let alone the thirty or so essays, reveals their nuances.

"While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits, and one does not necessarily lead to the other. One Theravadin monk likened the mind on psychedelics to an image of a tree whose branches are overladen with low-hanging, very ripened, and heavy fruit. The danger is that the heavy fruit--too full and rich to be digested by the tree all at once--will weigh down the branches and cause them to snap." (17)

Arts editor Alex Grey brings in many illustrations. Few of these wowed sober me, but your reaction may differ. A related article by Claudia Mueller-Ebeling and Christian Raetsch argues for a Nepalese and not Tibetan, shamanistic as well as Buddhist, explication of thangka paintings. The contents of the volume originated in the Buddhist American magazine "Tricycle" in Fall 1996. Those familiar with its readership and approach will find many representatives of what's now mainstream forms of Western practice within these pages. Although the lack of an index and the lack of a paginated reference to the illustrations detract from its usefulness, I found this to be more substantial than the small-coffee table format and the generous margins (with some odd typographical choices) suggest.

Section one explores intersections. Roger Walsh's "Mysticism: Contemplative and Chemical" compares and contrasts them efficiently, summing up Smith's defense of entheogens, Stanislav Grof's research, and qualifying assertions and denials made for the efficacy of drug-induced experiences. Rick J. Strassman weighs in with a report from a New Mexico clinical trial of DMT. Rick Fields engagingly relates "A High History of Buddhism in America"; while this accurately conveys some of the air of privilege or leisure which surrounds some of the more comfortably placed  practitioners. I note one editor lives in Big Sur and the other Brooklyn, tellingly. Robert Forte interviews Jack Kornfield, and that psychologist's caution about an unstable, or unsustainable, experience based on drugs serves as a smart balance to the more (literally) enthusiastic advocates. Peter Matthiessen offers a typically fluid essay on his and his lover's "shadow paths" as they wander into early-60's lysergia.

In section two, "Concrescence?" enters more personal accounts. One of the liveliest shows observer-participant San Francisco Zen Center's David Chadwick reflecting on himself--in retrospect long after his be-in--a babbling adept, in ecstasy: "No wonder so many people were irritated by hippies." (119) Not all report success--one telling factor; even those such as Chadwick write that the odds of a "bad trip" were one in five. Trudy Walter recalls her tougher encounters championing marijuana,  filtered through such alcoholic proponents as Chogyam Trungpa. While Badiner relates his DMT-laced yagé concoction in Hawai'i, China Galland counters with her careful decision to resist the entreaties of her companions. Committed to a twelve-step program, she decides not to ingest ayahuasca.

The third portion, "Lessons," provides its own variety. To name a few, you can choose from Terence McKenna's interview, John Perry Barlow's "Liberty and LSD," or Lama Surya Das (who coins "premature immaculation" as the temptation of too much too soon with drugs as a shortcut) as their firsthand testimonies mingling with more academic accounts by Charles Tart or Myron Stolaroff which fairly examine the need or not to keep taking drugs. Erik Davis, whose "The Visionary State" ( see my review) on California's "spiritual landscapes" compliments his essay here well, compares the flight simulators for the bardo" of earlier psychonauts with today's more jittery attitudes towards what  Mircea Eliade titled "technologies of ecstasy." (160) 

It closes as Badiner leads a well-chosen roundtable of Joan Halifax, Ram Dass, Robert Aitken, and Richard Baker. They square off, mostly Dass gently and teasingly favoring how drugs toy with the ego and nudge the mind; the other three edge towards caution. Halifax from her work with the dying figures they have enough to deal with already regarding sensation; Aitken relegates the golden age of experimentation to the height of the counterculture and its own awkward adventures; Baker reasons that Buddhist territory rests more in the "neutral" where neither good nor bad are to be grasped, whether as meditative states or drug-induced visions. These insights expand the scope of what's not a caricatured (i.e., entirely pro-plant based or chemically induced by artificial means) selection of contributors. (4-9-13 to Amazon US)

P.S. Book website w/ full forward, preface, and introduction texts, links, and contacts. Zig Zag Zen

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Patrick Lundborg's "Psychedelia": Book Review

Beginning three-and-a-half thousand years ago, unfolding over five-hundred closely printed pages and half a million words, presenting two decades of research, Patrick Lundborg explores "the world's largest mystery cult." Rather than reducing psychedelia to psychology or religion, he envisions a philosophy. His foreword explains how Edmund Husserl's theory of phenomenology melded his study of Aldous Huxley and hallucinations to trigger "several hundred pages of speculative thoughts." Inspired and intrigued by the elusive lack of a label for his pursuit, he provides two sections, corresponding with the two cycles of psychedelic culture.

First, the Eleusinian Mysteries of the ancient Greeks begin an historical magical mystery tour. Lundborg presents recent analyses pinpointing the catalyst for the storied inner journeys undertaken by a coterie of initiates. The Greeks brewed an infested barley-mint concoction which sparked hallucinations resembling those of ergot, refined by Albert Hoffman in the 1940s as LSD-25. Between these two events, part one unfolds the range of "an ancient culture".

In thoughtful vignettes integrating everyone from The Fisher King to Tiki-exotica musician Martin Denny, this delves into hundreds of figures who've established careers and courted notoriety by daring to leave their convention behind, by ingesting substances or immersing themselves in situations open to what Husserl's follower Eugen Fink summed up as "a wonder in the face of the world". This suggestive phrase invites us, I may add, to contemplate these terms: does the psychedelic adept make the "face" of the average human "wonder" as a few rebels depart the mundane "world" by experimental inner journeys? Or does such an adventurer witness the "world" in its true "face" through a burst of released, inherent "wonder"?

Bookended by old and new decoctions from barley's alchemists, part one sets up twelve chapters which crisscross the globe and time. Hoffman, Huxley, the McKenna brothers, Alan Watts, the Grateful Dead, Owsley, Tim Leary: while many names will be familiar as our near-contemparies, appearing as if characters encountered in a vast picaresque novel, the pace remains steady and the learning simmers into a satisfying, if thick blend. Best taken in small doses, given the small font and formidable size (one drawback: the paperback feels enormous, relegating its index to online access only), it's a solid resource on what's been too often left for silly flights of fancy or sophomoric pronouncements an ephemeral topic. Lundborg, as a diligent tour guide through psychedelia in theory and practice, keeps moving forward in time and space. But like his swirling subject, he cannot help pursuing byways, tracking trains of thought, and wandering off on rewarding detours.

Here's a sample of the range in part one: from Neoplatonism to Shakespeare's The Tempest; ayahuasca to DMT; Yeats to peyote; Blake to the first Western Buddhist Beats; Swedenborg to psilocybin; Forbidden Planet to Apocalypse Now. A handy index is missed, as the material can prove enormous to keep track of (beyond a thematic table of contents) as it accumulates, However, its gathering in a compendium enhanced by a blog and pdf index via the author's Lysergia website attests to his ongoing commitment to understanding this notoriously caricatured and misinterpreted subject.

To exemplify the depth of Lundborg's printed excursions, dip into a random page (288) to find a discussion of the 13th Floor Elevators' undeservedly obscure cult 1967 album Easter Everywhere, graced with nods to lyrical allusions to Robert Heinlein's arguably too-well-known cult novel Stranger in a Strange Land, and its predecessor for a previous century of exotic Western seekers, The Rubaiyat. Cymbeline and The Waste Land earn inclusion, to express the meaning of "dust" in on side two as a "life-embracing world-view around a word usually associated with death".

The second section examines psychedelia as "a modern way of life": it flows from preceding treatment of the explosion of interest in drugs and spirituality in the 1960s. Lundborg divides the ancient from the modern era in 1963: that concludes the "Scientific-Artistic Phase" and introduces the counterculture. Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Alpert, and Tim Leary's roles, familiar to many, find juxtaposition with now less celebrated proponents such as Ralph Metzner and the Diggers, who urged radical transformation given the freedom conceived via hallucinogens.

Concerning liberation, the political and spiritual ramifications of such advocacy, the author notes, did not always mesh well with imported academic theories-- or with other novel systems imported. Lundborg astutely warns of the fallacy of many "Western psychedelicists" to too "readily accept the religious-mythical label from a remote and highly complex culture as an explanation for a personal experience," when it comes to spurious applications of such texts as that popularized as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. From 1964, one recalls "Leary-Alpert-Metzner's generally useless guide-book" The Psychedelic Experience as illustrating this "presumed overlap". Instead, Lundborg urges one to enjoy without trying to bias or label the encounter within an esoteric mind state.

Later coverage roams into the rave culture, garage bands, stoner rock, shamans and chillouts, Ecstasy and DMT, and comparisons between LSD and ayahuasca. Philip K. Dick's attempt to describe his VALIS visions enters a chapter reflecting on--as one subtitle has it--"poetry, gibberish and eloquence" appropriately. Lundborg calmly tackles slippery subjects: how can a report on a non-verbal experience be rendered in print? Perhaps film, art and music (also treated here; a few brilliant color and sepia plates try to depict venerable and fresh adepts under the influence) may better capture the plunge or the flight.

Therefore, in challenging closing chapters, Lundborg posits a "Unified Psychedelic Theory" that charts the aftermath of "an effective dose of a major serotonergic psychedelic" on four levels of a "General Trip Model". This necessitates brain chemistry, multiple realities, and perceptions that defy facile reduction. The heft of this volume delivers the results.

Lundborg presents a "supra-state" which "birthed our consciousness" but which we don't rely upon for daily survival nowadays. Beyond this level, we can "poke holes through our common mindstate" so as "to peek into" a higher state. Enough of a dose, and "we may put our heads through the wall" and communicate with this state, which has accompanied us since we were born. On the final page of this massive, energetic, and reflective study, we find that this Stockholm scholar has barely nudged open what Blake, Huxley, and a certain rock band testified to as the "doors of perception". (Slightly altered state to Amazon US 1-31-13; as above to PopMatters 2-7-13)

Author's website: Lysergia

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Golden Void": Music Review

Named after a track from, for me, the last of the classic mid-'70s Hawkwind albums, Golden Void introduces Earthless' Isaiah Mitchell leading this Bay Area band, rooted in the bluesy, spacy, psychedelic sounds of forty years ago, when longer songs and a less frenetic attack typified album-oriented hard rock and concert jams. As with kindred San Francisco and Santa Cruz bands from this millennium, Golden Void kindles this slow-burning swagger. Yet, like Hawkwind then, it now does not fit easily into only a "stoner rock" category: this debut sustains seven tracks through depth, menace, and eerie moods.

"Art of Invading" opens frostily with Mitchell's echoed,  vocals--with its silhouetted shades of Ozzy--blurred over Justin Pinkerton's nimble percussion and Aaron Morgan's steady bass. Certainly, Black Sabbath fans will like this. But it's neither (too) sludgy nor doom-laden; Mitchell prefers to capture with wah-wah guitar breaks the spirit of his inspirations.

Camilla Saufley-Mitchell, of Assemble Head in Stereo Sound, who joined in 2009 what had been a core trio working together since their teens, emerges on "Virtue" interspersed within another dense mix. Here, the guitars and drums pick up the pace. Similar to the band's colleagues Farflung, this song enters an orbit where Hawkwind's sonic whoosh mingles with a sense of anticipation, or fear.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Tara the goddess of compassion is titled "Jetsun Dolma"; so is track three. As the download provided me does not allow me to consult lyrics, it appears to pay homage to this bodhissatva. Here, Saufley-Mitchell contributes a Ray Manzarek-styled organ accompaniment to a mid-tempo tune, with touches of psychedelia matching those of Assemble Head's revivalism.

"Badlands" follows in classic-rock form, dependably if like some of its AOR FM predecessors (Steppenwolf, the Doors, Deep Purple), without standing out for any particular moment as a homage to beauty amid bleak peaks. "Shady Grove" flecks in bits of the blues as it flows down a guitar-dominated, reverberating channel. Similarly, "The Curve" applies the pedals to slow the guitar down.

Closing the album (I think: my download shuffles the order on the official release), "Atlantis" starts with soft harmonies, layered and increasing into an assured, repeated structure where Mitchell's voice remains steady, while his concise riffs climb and descend over the reliable bass, drums, and organ support. It warbles and shivers, suitably.

Golden Void wisely does not allow its songs to wear out their welcome. They expand, but they avoid tedious or flashy solos. The forty-seven minutes move along smartly. While the murky production to me could benefit from more clarity, the haze will entice suitably altered listeners.

Less crunchy, more dispersed than some of its Northern California peers, Golden Void seeks out swirls and thickness, less febrile and more woozy, as its name promises. If you enjoy the bands name-checked in this review, you'll welcome this addition to the genre, another fine contribution from veterans of the assured Bay Area stoner rock scene. (Amazon US 12-18-12; 1-11-13 to PopMatters . Official website)

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Read the Beatles": Book Review

Fifty articles, album reviews, interviews, reminiscences by the Four and their fans, book excerpts--and a poem or two, one by Allen Ginsberg--add up to a solid resource for Beatles enthusiasts. Astrid Kirchherr offers an affectionate but brief forward; editor June Skinner Sawyers introduces this collection, and puts each entry into a quick context. As one who has heard the band all my life (they broke up officially when I was in third grade but somehow I did not learn the news until I was in fifth, already so ubiquitous their enduring influence seemed), I admit their music itself does not lure me in, so familiar and constant in my background it's been, as much as studying their cultural impact.

On this subject, I've reviewed Jonathan Gould's "All You Need Is Love" and Bob Spitz' "The Beatles: The Biography," and I agree with them that the challenge for those who've grown up with or somewhat after the band is to avoid either easy dismissal or uncritical acceptance of every note played by the Beatles-- the dominant reactions in the media still seem trapped in the nostalgia of the older boomers who watched the band emerge. The tendency's strong from this cohort to depict the Liverpool, Hamburg, and Beatlemania phases in a romantic light, and this can be seen in "Read the Beatles" understandably. As on-the-spot, sharp, nuanced reporting, it's great to read Gloria Steinem's determined 1964 scoop for "Cosmopolitan." She finally grabbed a few words with John at 4 a.m. in a hotel: her last comment to him, "who looked worried: 'I hope you're as true as you seem.'" (68)

This reveals Lennon's unease, and fits into the rarer voices cautioning over the mob mentality and the shelf-life of teen idols. They also fear a consumer crowd that lacks discernment, treating every utterance or every song as perfection. This hesitation, rarer than the shouts, unfolds in critiques by the conservatives in the press, such as Paul Johnson during the initial British frenzy or Robert Goldstein's panning of much of "Sgt. Pepper." It's telling that Goldstein himself was in his mid-twenties when he wrote this, not an old fogy as outraged readers assumed.

In fact, as the editor wisely pairs Goldstein's astute if unpopular June 1967 review from the New York Times (which I admit I find a lot of agreement with, so I put myself in a minority already) with Robert Christgau's typically insightful rebuttal, Christgau tempers his response with respect for his fellow critic's take on the instant phenomenon. It's one of four pieces on the LP, which merits its place, but it does tilt the balance. This chronicle seems to leap from the early days to '67 abruptly, with too little given to the transitional period from "Help" through "Revolver"; it also rushes past the follies of filming "Magical Mystery Tour" and doesn't even glance at the chaotic Apple boutique. Such missteps, for me, would have enlivened and expanded the scope beyond the usual guided tour.

It's over too soon, yes. The Paul is Dead hoax in the article that started it all gains welcome inclusion, and the "Helter Skelter" episode unfortunately but accurately shows the downside of lyrical interpretation among a certain fan. Some sections here seem too beholden to youthful effusions by contributors and others feel extracted as textbook accounts or musical monographs by the tenured, but they would complement a course taught on pop music and the band's legacy. Two Liverpool maps display the neighborhoods mythologized, charted for tourism and the National Trust. The chronology prefacing this anthology's comprehensive, the bibliography's solid as of 2005, the discography's helpful. However, given that some LPs lack any real coverage, more annotation about each (the band's if not every solo effort!) might have helped. A few get a few sentences, others nothing.

After the split, Lennon gets the most press, as expected. David Sheff valiantly tries to hold his own against John and Yoko in a 1981 "Playboy" interview. Simon Frith in a few pages pins down Lennon's energy: private tension--song used to cope or celebrate-- vs. public duty to address his audience and his world in his music and his stances. McCartney appears in a 2004 interview with Jon Wilde as surprisingly fearful of his reputation by comparison with John. It's moving to read Paul's "Here Today" for his partner, a simple song that must have been difficult to compose. George Harrison's coverage in David Simons' 2003 article's excellent, reminding readers of his contributions made to many studio tracks in light of the proof on "Anthology" of John's difficulty with composing. Ringo Starr, alas, gets only two entries, both about the early years. 

It ends with recent reflections. My favorite's Greg Kot's "Toppermost of the Poppermost." Kot sets the success of "Anthology" or "1" in context for those listeners who appreciate the band but lack the total adoration of many of their 60s predecessors. As I fit into this slot, I found this sensibly argued!
(Amazon US12-1-12)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Alexander Theroux's "The Grammar of Rock": Book Review

Given his passion for "exactitude," Alexander Theroux's latest book rambles, rants, and roams past the subtitled realm of "Art and Artlessness in 20th Century Pop Lyrics" into his typically vast territory. An incorrigible expounder of amplified rhetoric, he appears never to have forgotten a song heard, a movie seen, a broadcast aired, or a book read. This total recall in his essay collections, the brief (by comparison with this 336-page closely printed text) "The Primary Colors" and "The Secondary Colors" generated exegeses of some of the same lyrics, scenes, and usages. But, tucked within the limits of the visible spectrum, their chapters were organized by hue and somewhat more cohesive in length and breadth.

As with his 2007 novel the nearly 900-page "Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual," or his 2011 foray into opinionated non-fiction not quite fact, "Estonia" (my PopMatters review), "The Grammar of Rock" bickers with its titular subject.  Theroux comes back to it, teasing, jostling, cuddling, kicking the object in question. Then drifting.

Without chapters, pauses, or preface, Theroux's scrutiny may overwhelm. Having read all of his fiction and essays, I recommend a thick skin and a wry smile. Theroux explains his stance: he listens to the silence when words are spoken. He quotes Harold Pinter, when "a torrent of language is being employed.  This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear." Theroux advocates Pinter's attention as a moral act: careful listening to both registers. Theroux apostrophizes: "So look for me, whether with approval or not, over there at the far table-- one chair-- scribbling with a pencil."

One chair leaves him scrutinizing alone, the better to hone in on his many likes and more dislikes. Two pages leap from George and Ira Gershwin to Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Van Gogh brothers. Another verso-recto pair connects St. John the Evangelist's eagle symbol with Henry David Thoreau's pantheism and Ilse Koch, "the Bitch of Buchenwald". Theroux soars into aesthetics and sinks into invective at whim. He hates arch whimsy, but he veers off into meticulous instances of soundalike celebrity voices in film rather than staying on task eviscerating sorry singers. He indulges mocking methods, and his mad takes on the traipsing of Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow glide alongside appreciation for the phrasing of Frank Sinatra, Slim Whitman, and Sam Cooke. 

His three novels, two essay collections, and travelogue feature, or lapse into, similarly fulsome praise of (or, more likely, fulmination against) what we find promoted as literary, musical, or cinematic standards. Disdaining talk radio and populist cant, grammatical inconsistency and "slanguage", Theroux exocoriates dumbing down, even if he revels in inspired silliness. What he cannot stand: linguistic inanities, sung howlers, spoken clunkers, and verbal tics. 

Was a cultural "slippage" in "signaling profundity without having to demonstrate it" always thus? He admits every decade since the 1930s had its faults; he gave up on music as he did movies around the age of disco, he claims. (But he listens still, as he examines Ghostface Killa, The Fall, Public Enemy's Chuck D., Morrissey, and Tim McGraw among his cast of thousands.) He alludes to a qualitative decline in our lyrics and scripts today, which may make the gaffes and fumbles of the past century appear as if composed by Cole Porter or Noel Coward. The constant distractions we plug into and pump up the volume for make it "nothing less than a miracle that a human being living in the United States nowadays can entertain a single consecutive thought worth anything." (Kurt Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron" comes to my mind.) Any reader of Theroux will not endure him long if he or she lacks delight in satire, denigration, and "snobservation": that term appears in his first paragraph as fair warning.

Yet, as any critic worth consideration, if Theroux admires an artist, he can sum up his or her appeal smartly. Neil Young's "voice with its twang resembles the harmonica he often plays, full of quivering movements like a Canadian aspen"; Theroux hears "something in it like cherry and chocolate making a Black Forest cake." 

Naturally, the fun of "The Grammar of Rock" lies in its acerbic prose as well as its aesthetic insights. "Andy Williams loved schmaltz more than a fat kid loves a lazy dog." P. F. Sloan penned the lyrics for "Eve of Destruction" but the "words could have been written in five minutes on the back of a matchcover with a crayon!" 

He supports his shrill or sly claims with a hectoring, stentorian recital of gleeful evidence as demolishing proof. He wonders if he crushes butterflies under his wheel. For instance, cringing from a dubious display of warbled Yuletide cheer from Rosie O'Donnell and Roseanne Barr, he commemorates them "circling" as if "Mrs. Butterworth and Sara Lee Cheesecake on the Pancake Channel". You'll either laugh or you won't. I laughed.

"Who in Tinseltown did not sing?" Apparently nearly nobody, unless Marcel Marceau graced a marquee. Paul Lynde's lisp on a 1966 episode of "F Troop" or Telly Savalas' attempt to cover the Beatles collide with Alfred North Whitehead's apercu that it "requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious": the "grammar of rock" signifies a syntax beyond that genre. Theroux's ability to explicate the "obvious" by expounding upon hundreds of blunders filmed, performed, and recorded impresses by its relentless energy. Yet its sheer overload proves its own exhaustive diversion, undoubtedly for less patient readers than me (who admires this encyclopedic style even as I admit its entropic spin) no less than those tiresome touts he skewers on vinyl and rips from celluloid. 

Theroux's knack for character demolition spurs a dizzy audience on: "psuedophilopatristic" flag-waving posers should be "deported on the the first leaking submarine". This potent caliber of wordy ammunition, for those plunked near Theroux's full-bore assault, might be easier to endure for a raw recruit than the high-capacity vocabulary bursts shredding his debut novel "Darconville's Cat" with rhetorical blow-back. It's easier to follow his roaring trajectory as he fires away at the detritus of popular culture. As with "Estonia," his concentration on real-world targets steadies his aim. 

It may be blasting away at two garish plastic fish in a carnival (or casino?) barrel, but who can resist a couple of pot shots? Celine "Dion's singing reminds me of Thomas Kinkade's cloying paintings, glowing, over-saturated, commercialized, with every last window lit to lurid effect as if the interior of the structure might be on fire." Or, "Cher with her gross unmusicality is so bad in virtually everything she sings [sic] validates the assertion that Al-Qaeda leader, the fanatical Puritan Osama bin Laden, makes when he darkly stated that music being played in a house is 'unethical'." 

For support from more congenial arbiters of taste, Theroux turns not only to Ike Turner for cogent sense, but to Voltaire: "Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung." Theroux credits Claude Levi-Strauss' observation. "Music unites the contrary elements of being both intelligible and untranslatable." Theroux never pauses to fully elucidate the meaning of his book's title, but true to its subtitle he heaps up evidence. Philip Larkin decries modernism, Ice Cube defies hip-hop consumerism, and NPR denies Christmas reverence, within a few paragraphs. Links between topics may lurk very subtly, but careful perusal reveals them. 

From an author so formidably memorious (to borrow from Borges' tale's title for Funes), Theroux betrays unease at any challenger to his pugilistic stance. He warns parenthetically: "(Don't doubt me. I know almost every song ever written, as Marlon Brando's mother supposedly did.)" He may betray his own joke in the qualifying adverb. 

He's not joking in his final peroration to take his book seriously. "Industry tampers with both nature and art--accepts anything--until one ends up, tragically, preferring prints to paintings, eating fast-food instead of home-cooked meals, choosing chop-logic to truth, and aimlessly wandering around department stores looking for something you want to need to buy rather than walking the Cape Cod dunes. If you think this is asking too much, so be it." Few of us live near him in Massachusetts or a shore for that matter, but we can admire his admonition, in the spirit of his beloved Thoreau, chiding against what "you want to need to buy."

He concludes, as his novels and essays reliably do, by returning from his digressions and irritations to a steady course set by a moral compass. "I am only asking for a workman's true art." Theologically, aesthetically, and argumentatively, Alexander Theroux urges us to contemplate the shoddy present "state of our creative souls".

Granted the state of Theroux's archives and his creative decades of compiling trivia in the pursuit of what his medieval forebears in scholastic erudition classified as the quadrivia, a couple of faults must be mentioned. Not nearly as egregious as the copy editing not done by his publisher Fantagraphics in "Laura Warholic," but roughly equivalent to the number in "Estonia," errors in a few factoids and typography persist. For example, the quote about Cher above includes the author's [sic], but another bracket might have been added by this reviewer, as Theroux's sentence lacks revision. For an author so finicky, one wonders if Theroux's editors are as intimidated by his onslaughts as his discriminating audience. Many proper nouns lack inclusion in the index which looks as if it meant to list them all.

One last nod to Robert Crumb's cover image. A schlubby nudnik slumped on the couch peruses the album titled "The Beatles"; any fan knows how many lines of copy Richard Hamilton's 1968 cover design compiles. A cleverly minimal play off of Theroux's maximal compilation of hundreds of pages of thousands of facts and tens of thousands of opinions? (PopMatters 3-22-13; in shorter form same day to Amazon US)

Monday, July 15, 2013

An lá samraidh an-mhall

Chuaigh ar ais go dTehachapi aríst inné. Chonaic muid ár chara i bpríosún ansin go hionduil. Bhí Léna agus mé ag teangail an uair seo leis ár dhá mhac, mar ní fhaca sé siad ar feadh tamaill.

Is maith liom ag gabhail go dTehachapi; tiomáint muid am atá caite an radharc seo. Ith muid ina bialann Mheicsiceo ar dtús nuair ag fhágail ar mhorbhothair. Ansin, chuir muid cuairt in aice leis cúig uair ar chlog leis ár chara de gnáth.

Áfach, ní raibh cuairt go easca ann. Bíonn stailc ocrais sna príosúin na gCalifoirnea go déanaí. Tá agóid i gcoinne mí-úsaid leis an luí seoil ina h-aonaracht gan teoireannachaí ansin.

Ach, níl ábalta a fheiceáil sé muid go dtí go luath. Bhí moilliú oibre ar an gardaí in aghaidh na príosúnaigh go léir ann. Mar sin, chaith sé a teacht agus a fhágail dá uair an chlog go luath cé go raibh gach cuairteoirí a fanacht sna príosún ar cheile féin.

Fhill muid ar ais abhaile ina teas an tsamraidh. Ag imeall na Cathair na hÁingeal, bhuail muid trácht is trom. D'fhoghlaim muid go luath go raibh na bóthar mór ag dúnta ó dhóiteán breosla ollmhór. B'fhéidir, bhí muid níos mó i limistéar iata í níos mó ná mar is gnách inné againn, gan amhras.

A very slow summer day.

We went back to Tehachapi again yesterday. We saw our friend in prison there as usual. Layne and I were joined this time with our two sons, as he had not seen them for a while. 

I like going to Tehachapi: we drive past this site. We eat at a Mexican restaurant at the start when we leave the main highway. Then, we pay a visit nearly five hours with our friend, usually.

However, it wasn't easy there. There's a hunger strike in the California prisons lately. It's a protest against the abuse of confinement in solitary without limits there.

But, he wasn't able to see us until later. There was a work slowdown by the guards against all the prisoners. Therefore, he had to arrive and leave over an hour each early while all we visitors waited in the prison together ourselves.

We returned back to home in summer's heat. On the edge of Los Angeles, we hit most heavy traffic. We learned later that the freeway was closed from a massive fuel spill. Perhaps, we had more confinement than usual yesterday, without a doubt. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Peter Hook's "Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division": Book Review

As a "working-class tosser from Salford," bassist Hooky tells his band's brief tale of sound and fury. Told not by a madman, but a droll, deadpan participant-observer, this long saga of Joy Division's short span signifies far from nothing. The nihilist poses traded in by those who imitated singer Ian Curtis, before and after his suicide, mock the serious intent of the four members to convey music transcending metal, prog, or glam. Inspired by the Sex Pistols, self-taught, spare guitarist Bernard "Barney" Sumner (né Dicken and Albrecht) and, soon, jazz-trained drummer Steve Morris pioneered not punk--it inspired them in greater Manchester--but expansive, tense, echoed post-punk.

A conventional rock-star bio's touchstones don't weigh this down. Hook begins in media res at a local gig, steps back to nod to Cockney Rebel's Steve Harley as a musical model, and gives credit to his inspiration, the Pistols. While a quick dramatis personae precedes his band narrative, and timelines intersperse comments on gigs, album tracks, and studio work with chatty chapters narrating the band's fortunes, Hook shepherds us rapidly along as punk bursts and fades as quickly into a cold future.

They blunder on in a grim British environment. They may come back from a gig at six in the morning only to go to work at seven. With little help (Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks advised them as a barely elder punk predecessor from their hometown), they learned how to play, how to record, and how to swagger--when no "careerists" or "The X-Factor" peddled advice.

No art school, no music lessons at the age of five, nearly no doting parents or off-stage siblings: this unpretentious narrative conveys conversation about what the "tone-deaf" bassist knows and the band's fans want to learn, but it strips away digressions. It may dash ahead here and there into New Order or current d.j.-related territory, but these detours branch from the musical path blazed from the late-1970s onward under a thoughtful if cranky, wry guide. Hook relies upon an understated, efficient, and acerbic tone, as if he's sharing his reflections and memories with you at his corner pub.

Brisk episodes in declarative form convey the chronology of the band which started as Stiff Kittens after the June 4, 1976, Sex Pistols show commemorated in 24 Hour Party People. At that time, the fifty-odd Manchester fans all dressed in mid-Seventies fashion: flared jeans, long hair, wide lapels. By the time the Pistols played their second gig in the city, on July 20, the punters had changed. Hooky, Bernard, and Terry (Mason, their longtime associate) had shorn their locks, razored their thrift-store gear, and vowed to follow Johnny Rotten's commitment to a wall of distortion, a fierce integrity, and a musical vision that transcended the limits of punk. Even by December, in the wake of the Pistols' televised appearance that led to headlines of "the filth and the fury," punk was giving way to deeper, harsher, more reverberating soundscapes. Within these, the band as Warsaw by May 1977 and then as Joy Division at the start of 1978 pioneered post-punk. Foreshadowing what fans of Joy Division and New Order know, first Ian and then manager Rob Gretton's deaths leave the three restive musicians as if "islands," stranded as their ship "captains kept dying on us," Hook confides.

The band never gelled as best friends. Three roles tangled Ian: a lad, a literate lyricist, and a married father carrying on an affair. Barney bickered with his boyhood pal Hooky. Steve kept to himself. But, as musicians, the trio energized Curtis' adroit lyricism, and riffs tumbled forth, from "Transmission" on, by mid-1978, a year after they first played in public.

Taking provocative stances in fashion--Scout uniforms for Barney, a plastic cap and mustache for Hooky, a rigid perfectionism for eccentric Steve, a brooding, unpredictable presence for Ian (exacerbated by his diagnosis of epilepsy, dramatized in the film Control, as they began to gain fame)--and given their name, from the prostitution wing in a Nazi concentration camp, the band made its sly and smilingly sinister impact known as punk waned and post-punk loomed. An Ideal for Living seven-inch e.p., despite abysmal fidelity, drew attention for Barney's cover art: a Hitler Youth beating a drum. Hooky admits to the band's WWII interest, as they grew up around bombsites, but he dismisses then as now any ties to fascist ideology. He's weary of such a facile association. (Two rejected names for the band may cancel out any alternative history of chart success imagined for the four: "Slaves of Venus" or "Boys in Bondage.")

The band vowed to outflank the divisive D.I.Y. Mancunian scene. Then, they stumbled upon their own sound. Hooky's cheap amp forced him to play high on the neck of his bass; Ian liked this as Barney's "low chords" rode over Steve's "jungle drums"; Rob approved, and they honed their style.

Starting with the insistent "Transmission," Hook commends Curtis: "His songs from that point were like having a conversation with a genius, sort of profound and impenetrable at the same time." The band wisely steered free of London's hype and major label pull, to keep their civic autonomy, their financial acumen, and to express their loyalty to local media maverick Tony Wilson and his nascent Factory Records ensemble. Driven by the tape skills and psychic manipulations of their manic, experimental producer Martin Hannett, they plumbed icy depths (often in frigid rehearsal spaces and a Northern English studio) for their accomplished 1979 debut LP Unknown Pleasures.

For this bleak, defiant album, despite all of the tension "sniggering" Hannett created and exacerbated, Hook credits this producer with steering himself and Bernard away from a "metal wall" to what Ian and Steve preferred along with Hannett: not "RARRGH!" but a "ptish" from its "spacey, echoey ambient sound." This conveyed what few records from any era sustain: the gift of "timelessness." From memory, from playing live in a studio over two weekends at night to save money (and a third weekend to mix), the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere resulted in the only album Hooky played on where he combined focus with fun.

Soon, the press noticed. Hooky disdains media patter and PR, however. "One minute you're playing to a handful of people yawning their heads off, then six months or eight months later you're playing the exact same material to a packed audience all going bonkers." By the summer of '79, Joy Division toured more widely, not only Britain but France and the Low Countries. The second half of Hook's narrative mingles lighter and darker moods as the band found success (albeit limited as they still had to decide on whether to spend their £1.50 per diem on a meal or two pints, but not both).

A tour as the up and coming "rough cousins" to their "fat and bloated--musically and physically" neighbors the Buzzcocks enables Hooky a chance to entertain: maggots, mice, a magician, and shaving foam loom large. Ian's often-mythologized role deflates by Peter's affectionate reflections. Watch Ian laughing at a turd in a concert's portable toilet; see Ian miming the bosom of "girls" he tries to chat up after a concert via a clueless, monolingual Belgian. Hooky rises to the challenge here, mixing the fond vignettes with the painful revelations. His insights into his conflicted, boisterous, and wayward companion emerge through a series of plainspoken, compassionate, and blunt evaluations.

Ian's recently diagnosed epilepsy worsened with exposure to strobes onstage; his barbiturate addiction to counter his ailment increased his difficulties leading to a separation from his wife Debbie (and their infant daughter Natalie) during Ian's affair with Annik Honoré. Hooky laments the band's inability to solve Curtis' predicament. "Selfishness, stupidity, willful ignorance, and a refusal to accept what was going on right in front of our noses--we were all guilty of it, even Ian." But, as working-class jokers bent on pranks and taking down any pretentiousness which increasingly Ian and Annik indulged in, Hooky and his restive mate Barney "carried on" for the sake of the band and for lack of any alternative method of treating Ian. "Because this was what we'd worked and waited for."

What they waited for happened: the second album Closer as "the soundtrack" to Curtis' pain solidified their popularity. As Hook observes, it's hard to tell what is guitar, drums, bass, or keyboard with the band. Reliant more on electronics, chillier than even its predecessor, the album's success secured their first U.S. tour. Yet, the addictions, infidelity, and Debbie's filing for divorce signaled Ian's decline. On the night before their departure for America, he hung himself in May 1980.

"It took me a long time to realize that a child had lost a father, a mother and father had lost a son, a sister had lost a brother, a wife had lost a husband, a mistress had lost a lover. All a lot more important than me and the band; we pale in significance." At twenty-two, what do any of us know compared to what we do eventually? Hook wonders about Curtis' enigma: "on the one hand, he was ill and vulnerable; on the other, he was a screaming rock god." By taking Ian Curtis down to his own level, Peter Hook provides his mate with a fitting tribute, neither sordid nor facile, pat nor pandering.

Hook's maturation may have taken long to settle him down, but the honesty with which he accounts for his confusion then and his insights now sustain this detailed but engrossing narrative. Simply but vividly told, it wrestles movingly and boldly with contradictions. As one who had waited that spring nearly thirty-three years ago for Joy Division to tour my city, I never got the chance. (I did see the first New Order gig there.) At the time, many fans across the world heard of Curtis' fate and the decision of the band to continue from a distance, but through rumor.  In its stead, the truth now can be told by a comrade, and the gothic props buried. Unknown Pleasures as a book meets the challenge of the album, and the music Joy Division crafted: it enters the void but survives the plunge valiantly. (In 1000 words 1-29-13 to Amazon US; as above, 2-1-13 to PopMatters)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Fall's "Re-Mit": Music Review

This album sustains the claustrophobic ambiance and subterranean moods of The Fall's recent releases. Produced by Mark E. Smith, it captures the spookier, isolated feel of the latest incarnation of the long-lived group, on its thirtieth studio record since 1977. With attention to depth, the mix combines murk with menace.

While trumpeted by Smith as far superior to the previous record, Ersatz GB (reviewed by me on PopMatters), I did not find Re-Mit drastically diverging from Ersatz, Our Future Your Clutter, or Imperial Wax Solvent (all reviewed on blog + Amazon US). However, it's tighter, focused (if blurry), and no song ambles or annoys for ten minutes. The line-up, by the shifting standards of Smith and whomever he and his wife, keyboardist Elena Poulou, hire, seems stable for now, with Kieron Melling (drums), Dave Spurr (bass), and Peter Greenway (guitar). It's the first time one version of The Fall has endured for four albums straight.

"No Respects" opens with a short, perky instrumental, dominated by hissing synthesizers. "Sir William Wray" nods to pioneering roots-distortion guitarist and influence on Smith and comrades Link Wray, blending Smith's trademark warbles with another peppy array of keyboards layered on cymbal splashes and guitar sputters. This typifies this album, and the past half-decade of the band.

"Kinds of Spine" clangs and submerges within gray depths; "Noise" fits into the subdued noodling Smith favors lately: declaiming by gargles and strangles a crumpled sensibility. He nestles into a character out of a play by Samuel Beckett: shards of emotion dragged over a sensitive, prickly soul.

"He emerges from the ground...sands/ white robes to the ground/ you don't hear him." So begins "Hitite [sic] Man" as it conjures up a familiar specter from Smith's imagination. Long fascinated by the occult and the marginal, Smith comes closest on this track list here to a narrative, if an unsettling one. "Pre-MDMA Years" closes what's labeled side one with more gurgling about altered states, although the added unpredictability of the musical backing makes this more listenable than similar tracks on recent records that plumb this same terrain of confusion and hesitation in a liminal realm.

Reprising with a vocal version of "No Respects" the second half marches along as Smith "for twelve years in fast" (I think, given the limits of a download file and lack of a lyric sheet) with "eldritch and me" verbally whooshing and musically swirling around the listener. "England a stranglehold [or swinehold?]/ why are you here?" Again, this drags the audience into Smith's own tilted fun house.

This album presses you into a corner, or plunges you under the sea. "Victricola Time" features Smith's wordplay although his initial squawks here make Captain Beefheart or John Lydon resemble  crooners by comparison. Part of the fun: trying to decipher what's coming out of Smith. Meanwhile, Poulou's keyboards churn on steadily as Melling's steady percussion backs the vocalist's chatter.

In the past, Smith's featured fine guitarists. Greenway's contributions get pushed down into the muck, yet "Irish" lets him struggle for a riff above Smith's trilling. He regales us with snippets difficult or nearly impossible to decipher. My guesswork transcribes "out of reach/ the women and...the bad dream/ is out of reach", "James Murphy is their chief", "they show their bollocks when they eat/ commercial radio awaits" and "make the pledge".

A martial beat and a shuffled vocal tracks by bandmates construct a shaky story about a novelist, airline queues, London flats, Viennese summer, winter in Florida, Italian Sundays, and euros compressed into "Jetplane". Multilingual phrases and Spurr's bass try to propel this shambling tale. It lands leaving the listener wondering what happened. It conveys the jet-lagged blur of travel, certainly.

With a title like "Jam Song", Poulou's patterns over in-the-studio background chatter segue into Smith's affected European accent, carrying over from the previous track into what builds into a shambling construction of drums, synthesizers, and whirring sounds. Unsurprisingly, it wanders.

Closing with "Lodestones", The Fall rouses itself from the pedals and playthings to stumble towards a bigger presence. Guitar and keys mingle to push along the bass and float the vocals. It's the closest song to the earlier incarnations of the band which explored a more accessible, propulsive structure.

It's a dry production, as if at studio monitor levels. The sterile, dessicated spatters heighten the altered states evoked by Smith's declaimed vocal fragments. They erupt over bursts of processed strings arrayed across a constant, if often attenuated, amplified buzz and vacuumed squawk of keyboards. Splattered effects from guitar and bass both mash into the production's compacted delivery. The results come across as thin and wobbly, playing against the thickened studio mood.

Smith's production reveals a band determined to explore its denser, edgy, introverted character. The songs burrow down and hunker close. You approach them; they do not reach out to you. As with nearly all of The Fall, this album does what it wants to do, forcing the listener to submit to its terms.
(PopMatters 5-23-13; Amazon 5-14-13)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wilson Neate's "Read & Burn: A Book About Wire": Review

A long study of a band best known for frenetic bursts, like its subject, this surprises. Rather than rehashed discographies, press-kit rewrites, or gushing song-by-song trivia, Wilson Neate keeps a cool distance while he intimately probes, by interviews and interpretations, the three stages of this enduring, thoughtful, and fractious group. Hung with the albatross of its 1977 debut LP Pink Flag, still its best-known recording, Wire refused for decades to play its minimal, stuttering, edgy songs live. When it does include its title track, it may twist and thwart its original under-two minutes into nearly ten. Wire moves forward after--or away from--the promise announced by punk's birth. It doesn't prop up punk's posing corpse.

Mojo magazine in 2006 summed Wire up: "no guitar solos, no clichés, no mates"; this spins off of guitarist Bruce Gilbert's credo: "No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don't chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms." All but perhaps the last the band violated sometime in the three-dozen years Neate documents, yet this too attests to Wire's restlessness with any conventions of rock music.

Gilbert approaches Wire as not a band but as "living sculpture"; he asserts not to have bought a record since 1980 when he stopped "consuming music". Their mutual, sly curiosity about mundane  marginalia--honed by the art-school training of most of Wire's members--conveys an enduring engagement with London-based avant-garde as well as Central European aesthetics. Bassist Graham Lewis shares his partner's (they collaborate as the duo Dome) immersion in cacophony and dread; his lower-pitched, rounded vocals play off of guitarist Colin Newman's contrary love of melody and pop. Robert Grey's spare percussion compliments his chosen identity as a drummer, not a musician.

Entering the year after punk's breakout as older (average age 26; Gilbert 31 in 1977), their confidence alienated audiences resenting their early non-conformity to punk's "second wave" of imitators. "The only things we could agree on were the things we didn't like. That's what held it together and made life much simpler." Gilbert's defines the band's disposition; Neate observes that while they lacked "technical sophistication", Pink Flag pushed them as far as possible, under Mike Thorne's live-in-the- studio production. Sequenced well by Thorne, 21 tracks leapt out with linear cohesion and variety of songcraft. Their oblique phrases resembled aural collage; compressed tunes distorted punk's limits.

Distance distinguished the band onstage: they chose monochrome over day-glo. Their name, their album covers (always dissected well by Neate), and their attitude resisted rockist poses. Still, as Neate notes with "Ex-Lion Tamer", some signifiers date: "All punk bands had an anti-TV song." He astutely pinpoints in Newman's recollections a nascent unease with Thorne's production. The friction for the rest of the core four's incarnations grew from Newman's abrasion against the experimental axis of Lewis and Gilbert. That duo preferred "an independent, objective" decision an outside producer afforded. Did Wire ignite better with more purr or more sparks? Tension endured over who drove the band along: producer, one songwriter-guitarist, or a guitarist-bassist pair of songwriters.

Therefore, an angular, nervy strain distinguishes Chairs Missing, the 1978 follow-up. Newman loathed (even on Pink Flag) punk's "rolling smoothness". Post-punk's chillier handling as on "I Am the Fly" features pedals, effects, and boxes. The band and Thorne huddle and regroup. While Johnny Rotten's t-shirt claimed "I Hate Pink Floyd", Wire--on the prog-rock friendly EMI imprint Harvest label--condensed pastoral and pretty textures with its erudite excursions into space, as the Floyd had.

154's (1979)  title tallied Wire's number of live gigs to date. Back from CBGB's in New York City, and encouraged by exposure to German audiences and ambiance, Wire dismissed purists decrying its "inauthentic" project to widen frames of reference beyond rock's grids. Its tracks, road-tested, revealed a wariness with art-rock's trajectory. Opening for Roxy Music to disastrous reception, Wire  tightened its set, reducing it from 45 to 30 minutes, without cutting any songs. The band feared following Roxy's decline from art-school rebels to stadium-rock easy listening. But the third album brashly replaced some of Wire's playfulness with an oversized self-regard. As Bryan Ferry's crooning pushed out Brian Eno's tape manipulations, so Newman's aims contended against Gilbert and Lewis.

However, Neate allows every member his own voice, and a chance to respond to charges. Newman counters: "Pink Flag was just the sound of the band playing, Chairs Missing was a fantastic leap into the unknown, and 154 was between brilliant and rubbish." Fragmentation appears; solo efforts beckoned. Members began holding back ideas and material. Gilbert's rejoinder typifies the band's enduring internal debate, heard on record, on stage, and year after year: "What qualifies as music?"

While some of Neate's attention to management, touring, and bickering detail, shared by all the band in candid recollections, verges on appropriate if similarly repetitive obsession, the title of the band's live album in February 1980 captures the book and band's rationale. Document and Eyewitness featured Wire as artists, true to Gilbert's vision. But, playing to "the dregs of punk's living dead" in Neate's phrase, calling out for "12XU", Wire might have regretted scheduling its performance art installation the same night that gigs by Joy Division and by Throbbing Gristle enticed London's more adventurous punters. Newman reports: "I can't recall any bottles being thrown. Abuse was thrown."

Inevitably, the band at odds with Thorne, dumped by EMI, with no funds, and no direction, Wire wearied. Lewis bristled: "With 154, it was like we were climbing Everest without oxygen." A long hiatus could not keep the band apart. Returning to "unfinished business", as Gilbert puts it, Wire released The Ideal Copy (1987). This tried to reboot at "Year Zero" with Wire as an eager Newman's "Beat Combo" yet this period, full of big snares, big shoulders, big hair, and big studios with new digital machines, enervated Wire. Gilbert and Lewis liked the devices and the process of open-ended music. Newman preferred the product, often smoothed out rather than grating. Neate pegs much of the studio results as "flat and affectless".

A Bell Is A Cup...Until It Is Struck by its title (and some lyrics) confounded listeners, and Gareth Jones' second production for the artists, now on Mute, tried to mesh Wire's subversion with 1988's college rock and danceable post-punk. For instance, "Kidney Bingos" featured Newman's "saccharine" vocals against Gilbert and Lewis' "macabre" cut-up lyrics. While some improvement over its predecessor, on record and on stage, this stretch for stage two of Wire defined what Neate terms its decadus horribilis. Replacing Joan Rivers, Suzanne Somers hosted The Late Show on Fox. Wire's attempt to entice or enrage its American viewers Neate charitably dismisses as "an opportunity squandered". Yet the band on this 1987 U.S. tour came up with a brilliant, serendipitous strategem.

Critic Jim DeRogatis interviewed the band for an alt-rock paper. He confessed his own cover band played the Pink Flag Wire did not. The Ex-Lion Tamers, then, for pizza, beer, and $100 a night, were hired as openers for Wire. DeRogatis and his mates enjoyed the tour; all the same, some fans, after one concert after the first act, demanded their money back. They complained: "Wire really sucked."

Grey came to agree, in his own reticent manner. 1990's Manscape and the dugga-dugga-dugga of the extended workout The Drill found the band trying to master their mechanical muse. Edged aside by the sequencers adored by Gilbert and Lewis, unable to meet his own redundacy with a lateral move into MIDI mixes (he might play only a snare, bass drum, and hi-hat), Grey left. Neate finds a bit more to praise in this programmed period than I did. After a plodding album The First Letter, as Wir (dropping the last letter to mark the drummer's departure), the remaining trio disbanded.

Producer Jones encouraged the band to reconvene to play their first three albums at the Royal Festival Hall. Perverse as ever, of course Wire agreed, eventually reuniting by the millennium. ProTools excited Newman; Lewis admired thrash metal in his adopted Sweden; Gilbert never stopped bringing the noise. Grey, refreshed by tutelage in African drumming, returned from his organic farm.

Neate looks askance on Wire's third phase. Newman's "hectoring" vocals and the "maniacally" driven, "two-dimensional" industrial assault (as finally Gilbert and Lewis find common ground with Newman's interest in the post-punk of McLusky and Liars) predominate. As "unbalanced spiel" on two Read + Burn e.p.'s, these aggressive taunts were dismantled and altered into tracks for Send, all from the early 2000s.

This reviewer disagrees. "Coppiced riff meets aphorism." So Newman snaps in his wry yet elegant concision on "1st Fast". These records may throttle a listener into submission more than release joy, but in their surges more than ebbs, played by men in their fifties (Gilbert nearing 60), they drown an audience in waves of shimmering distortion and "barking" half-"arch", half-giddy amplified menace. The band sounds as if entertains itself as much as the audience on the 2004 DVD The Scottish Play.

It couldn't last. That DVD caught the foursome's final apogee. The concord engineered by Newman-- who oversaw the band's label, management, promotion, and touring--shifted control over the band, to Gilbert's predictable departure. After a few years to cool off, as a trio, Wire chose an airier "tunes with zoom" attitude for the tentative, transitional, but far less claustrophobic Object 47 (2008).

Choosing 23-year-old guitarist Matthew Simms for Red Barked Tree (2011) proved wise. Simms adds a lighter, lilt to its title track with a bouzouki, and the band merges artsier with accessible tunes modestly but steadily. After an "archeological dig" into post-154 material excavated treasure, the band's "reimagining" for this year's model of Wire propels the band forward impressively. Change Becomes Us titles appropriately the filigreed, fussy, yet lively and alert spirit of Wire, version 3.1.

Neate calmly narrates over 400 pages a microscopic epic. Hundreds of musical and lyrical artifacts occupy this meticulous display. Neate concludes by asking each member their post-mortem take on Wire's "major missteps", taken "with the meaningless luxury of hindsight". He echoes back at the band its own detachment--and its dry wit. This reverberates with his own sharp, honest, but affectionate reaction to Wire's sounds and moods. Neate conveys contending and competing versions of Wire's ambitions to match its own confrontational sounds and oblique images--messily or neatly. (As above 5-6-13 to PopMatters; in shorter but altered and amended form 4-21-13 to Amazon US)