Saturday, December 9, 2023

Find my new blog at Substack

I've migrated....the censored "community guidelines" flags, the reticence necessitated by "groupthink" enforcers, the realization that more isn't always better, the switch to themes rather than reviews. You can find my newer writing, inspired by my move to Ecuador from Los Angeles.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Michel Houllebecq's "Serotonin": Book Review

I was going to give this a respectable, solid 4 stars, same as I would most of his novels, which I have enjoyed or cringed at ever since "Platform" and "Whatever" in the '90s. But the last few paragraphs sent this meditation-lament about getting middle-aged, losing libido, having nobody younger notice you anymore, and the general state of a deracinated, de-Christianized liberty-for-all France into a different stratosphere than his typical works. His sharp take on what neo-liberal capitalism, laissez-faire morality, relentless competition from homogenized products and global markets have done to the "Western European" mindset and lifestyle--at least among the comfortable upper-middle classes--has grown more pointed over the past couple of decades. While the Islamic dystopia imagined in "Submission" may not come to pass as soon as fictionalized, the atmosphere in which "Serotonin" floats is all around us. 

And, like the late Mark E Smith of The Fall, Michel Houellebecq makes me chuckle a lot. They share that morbid, droll, and often an allusive-elusive sense of dark humor. One of many: when the narrator contemplates getting away for a lonely Christmas, to stave off temptations of doing himself in, he finds the monasteries are all full of retreatants, ironically or intentionally, given the secularized nation he's part of. 

However, his psychiatrist muses, he might go off to Thailand instead, as flights are cheap and seats open over the holidays, to try his luck with a couple of teenaged hookers. The juxtaposition of these options, told by him (in Shaun Whiteside's smooth translation--check out his version of Wu Ling's "Q"), is rendered deftly on the page far better than I could do here. A companion to this might be a similar semi-autobiographical writer, his compatriot Emmanuel Carrere, in such as "The Kingdom," note.

<a href="" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px"><img border="0" alt="Serotonin: A Novel" src="" /></a><a href="">Serotonin: A Novel</a> by <a href="">Michel Houellebecq</a><br/>
My rating: <a href="">5 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />

Friday, December 18, 2020

Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror and the Light": Book Review

Fantastic. It helped for me to have seen, in the interim between Bring Up the Bodies and this final installment of the trilogy, both the televised Wolf Hall adaptation of the first and second books and The Tudors series. Even so, I had to keep flipping to the cast of characters listed in the book’s front to remember who’s who among all the Thomases and Lords of this and Earls of that shire. That being said, Hilary Mantel provides a vivid, convincing and gripping finale to the saga of Thomas Cromwell. The span encompasses the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution up through the pending marriage of King Henry VIII to his fifth wife, young Katharine Howard.

Cromwell engineers the occasional rise of his proteges or the frequent fall of his rivals. However, power struggles as moderate and reformist factions of Protestants clash will place Cromwell under suspicion for his radical Lutheran sympathies. Mantel, using deft renderings of an indirect first-person narration as if burrowed inside her protagonist’s consciousness, delivers a relentless, compelling evocation of a crafty consultant to the Crown who must survive machinations of a religious revolt and a political subversion he has long planted. This voice churns on, sardonic, sharp and ultimately self-consuming, as Cromwell reckons with his fate. The author immerses you into deadly tumult, where intelligence battles against emotion, and idealism against revenge.

Hilary Mantel deserved her third Booker Prize in 2020—she won back-to-back for her first two titles—for her culmination of a decade’s love and labor spent convincingly conjuring up the scenes, smells and sensations of early 16th-century England. Hindsight may well show the award went to a less qualified contender than this harrowing, intricate portrayal of pride and payback. – John L. Murphy

Best Books of 2020 list at Spectrum Culture 12/13/20

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts from Northern Ireland 1977-1984:" Music Review

Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts from Northern Ireland 1977-1984                                                 Various Artists                     

72 (crackling if scratchy)                                                                                                                

Cherry Red Records                                                                                                                                      July 31, 2020                                                                                                                                                The kids were united: all punks hated the police.

While restive British youth celebrated “white riots” and Johnny Rotten name-checked the IRA and the UDA in “God Save the Queen,” bands across the Irish Sea dealt with grimmer mayhem. Generated by or reacting to that same nation’s dogged occupation in the north-eastern corner of Ireland, these resulting clashes with the natives made their violence tragic rather than theatrical. Rather than a calculated pose struck by slumming art students in Mondrian-patterned shirts, the escalating conflict tallied a death count nearing two thousand by the end of the 1970s. Left out of this stark statistic were hundreds of thousands of casualties with deep wounds less visible.

Shellshock Rock follows multi-disc CD sets from Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland and Sheffield. Cherry Red Records diligently compiles both the few familiar and the many forgotten lineups who took advantage of DIY energy to form or sign with start-up labels, and whose reputations rose or fell depending on their marketing savvy, word-of-mouth acclaim, and, inevitably, sales.

What distinguishes this fifth anthology from others issued by this long-time indie purveyor? John T. Davies’ DVD of his eponymous film (not provided for review) boosts the impact of these three discs. While this discography remains the lowest total compared to Cherry Red’s anthologies to date from Britain, these scrappy Irish contenders bring energy, restlessness, and bravado. 

One of the leading voices, Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers, issued a single that titled their debut LP, Alternative Ulster. That long-player included similar protests in “Suspect Device” and “Wasted Life.” Such tunes caught the attention of BBC DJ John Peel, who would insistently play another ditty from a cheerier group from Derry City, The Undertones. “Teenage Kicks,” heavily promoted by Peel, led to the band’s appearance on Top of the Pops and a tour with, inevitably, The Clash.

While these two bands endured as successful musicians with major-label careers into the early Eighties, their peers tended to languish. However, as the liner notes to Shellshock Rock detail, Terri Hooley’s hippie-anarchist loyalties did not prevent him from stocking punk singles, and then channeling the garage-grunge sounds of local punks that he could beckon to into career opportunities, thanks to the label named after his shop (just like Rough Trade who’d sign SLF), Good Vibrations. Rudi, Protex, Victim, The Idiots and Ruefrex followed, with paper covered-45s.

These took inspiration from Dr. Feelgood and resembled at times Joe Strummer’s pub-rock The 101ers. Yet, as post-punk and gloomy keyboards replaced punk in the favor of British fans, Good Vibrations failed to exploit the next decade’s trend. IT Records had its product destroyed by a car bomb in Portadown. Polydor did not release the Chas Chandler-produced album by Protex. They issued the one by Xdreamysts, but only in Holland. Yet, odd credits testify to the endurance of talent. For instance, Colin Bateman managed Dogmatic Element before breaking out as a novelist. Ballymoney’s bassist Clive Culbertson bridged the rock era. He was spotted by a showbiz magnate would worked with Them—a Belfast quintet where Van Morrison first gained the spotlight— and Clive’s career crested into New Wave, country rock and power-pop, before he backed up Van the Man on tour and in sessions later in the 1980s. The ragged or catchy music assembled here by Culbertson and his peers captures the now-vanished sensation of youth in small towns or urban ghettos far from the presumed center of the action, integrating their record collections and cassette tapes of Peel on air into their amateur vision of what energy and passion might change. The long echoes of the Nuggets sounds—and that of Them itself circa “Gloria” during the British Invasion—which emitted from similar bands fifteen-odd years earlier emanate from many of Shellshock Rock’s inclusions, as raucously renewed.

As for the film documented by Davies, Thurston Moore somehow caught it shown in the East Village in 1979. This shows how ripple tides of provincial scene-setters may leave distant and lasting imprints. That alternative that SLF’s Jake Burns promised may have been considerably delayed, but whatever the status of today’s Ulster, it’s a more peaceful place for rock’s veterans.

By John L. Murphy, Spectrum Culture 8/26/2020...

Friday, August 7, 2020

Miracle cure

After hearing three people today claim "when we get the vaccine, it's on our way back to normal," I wonder: We see how few get flu shots, and how those only diminish the impact, as this is not a cure as for polio. Many will not get a COVID vaccine or refuse it (like anti-vaxxers)....

Which means a lot of people at risk, who even if they do not die, may suffer for months on end, and have damaged lungs or immune systems....

Meanwhile, the gov't wants to have schools and businesses practically 'immune' from litigation by students or workers, who surely will bear the brunt of "get back to normal" as pressure builds to get kids in schools and parents to jobs. Being worn out with this whole "virus situation," for I don't use the word "pandemic," don't ask me why, I teach online, wonder what will happen if and when I am mandated to be "back onsite," and wonder how much my students are dealing with. 

Reason is I have done rough calculations in my head. Since March, I recall offhand around seven students have claimed they have had the virus. And I have taught a total of about 300 students to date. Which makes 4.285% of a random selection, many Southern Californian, most likely in their twenties, but not all. With a large balance of folks of many ages from many places all over the U.S.

The ones who have reported being ill skews young. I have not heard of any of my fellow teachers or staff coming down with the virus, by comparison, from a higher-risk cohort. Many have written by now billions of words about this, let alone tweets. So I don't have any pearls of wisdom or sage counsel. But I reckon we'll be dealing with this a lot longer than a flu season. 

Not to mention, I muse after inserting the above illustration, the looming likelihood that PETA may be protesting the use of genetic tests on mice for the vaccine?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Gun Club's "In My Room": Music Review

The Gun Club - In My Room (2017, CD) | DiscogsFiery debuts by talented misfits may not herald a future discography by multitalented musicians, but muffled efforts that fade into a subdued and less satisfying later releases. These often feature the sole surviving singer-songwriter-frontman with a hired and fired interchangeable back-up crew. What leapt out of the studio as fresh and fanatical a decade or two on shuffles about, with glimpses of the early promise flickering or blurred. The marquee name is not taken down, but the attraction dwindles to third-tier status for a few committed fans. Critics and spotlights shift away to brighter newcomers.

Fire of Love (1981) introduced the howling vocals and keening punk-blues of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Terry Graham's bashed drums and Rob Ritter's nimble bass backed Pierce with Ward Dotson on manic slide and electrified guitars. Probably the first successful blend of roots and punk, it jolted what remained of L.A.'s underground. Lyrically, Pierce compressed poetry and passion into deft, concise lyrics. His phrasing and poignancy gained rather than lost eloquence in his rough, blunt or heartfelt warbles and jittery cadences. "Why are these songs not taught in schools?" So asked Jack White in 2008, citing "Sex Beat," "She's Like Heroin to Me" and "For the Love of Ivy."

What followed fumbled. Pierce had been a Blondie fan club devotee, but the pairing of Chris Stein on production and Deborah Harry on backing vocals failed to rouse 1982's Miami from its sophomore slump. Stein chose a dry approach to recording that kept all the instruments at the same level; this muddied the music and weakened Pierce's songs, traditional or original. The return of their first guitarist, Kid Congo Powers after his stint with The Cramps, bode well, even though the loss of Ritter, then Dotson and Graham, attested to the increasingly contentious nature of Pierce's control.

Overlooked, The Las Vegas Story (1984) incorporated more sophisticated compositions, increasingly integrating jazz as well as blues influences. Leaving America for Europe, The Gun Club dispersed into an unstable procession of well-chosen but briefly tenured musicians supporting Pierce. He broke up the band in 1985 but reformed it a year later. Mother Juno (smoothly produced by Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie), Pastoral Hide and Seek and Divinity were cobbled together over the next few years.

This backstory introduces the unreleased recordings of whatever this last roster of performers under the Gun Club banner set down. In My Room gathers 14 tracks from 1991 to 1993. By then, Pierce was increasingly hospitalized. The results may satisfy devotees, but this is an odds-and-sods jumble.

"Be My Kid" begins with acoustic folk-blues picking. Pierce sounds wobbly at first, but steadies with the yearning harmony of his straightforward repetition: {If you be my kid, I'll be your teddy bear.} "L.A. Is Always Real" aligns with later stages of the pick-up band, with a mid-tempo beat, and an element which from Las Vegas Story on began to shunt aside their cowpunk style, a subdued jazz-tinged riff. "Land Of 1000 Dances" gives Wilson Pickett's danceable tune a suitably quick, efficient delivery. The next three songs mingle the groovier, spoken-word and nightclub ambiance which typify Pierce's final approach leading his band--or as here, keeping their name but flying solo.

The inspiration has reached cruising altitude too. "Zonar Roze" blends the opening melody from "Heat Wave" with another series of simple chords. "B-Side Jammin" lives up to its title exactly as what one expects: a slick workout, another basic structure. "I Can't Explain" presents The Who's hit rendered with neither flair nor distinction. Pierce resurrects some of his last songs which appeared on the later series of albums, in alternate or instrumental versions. Surprisingly, Pierce comes alive.

While "Sorrow Knows" (Alternate Version) extends it into guitar noodling for seven minutes too long, "Keys To The Kingdom" (Instrumental) allows listeners to appreciate its rhythm section's support for a funky, naggingly winning hook. "Not Supposed To Be That Way" offers a twangy homage to Pierce's "high and lonesome" mood of this Texas native's 1985 LP Wildweed with a return to slide guitar (far too rare in The Gun Club's maturity). "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" captures a stripped-down Pierce, with dignified pacing as a mournful balladeer. One wonders if this Mel Tillis plaint about a paralyzed veteran of a disastrous Asian war pleading with his unfaithful lover not to step out on him has been chosen for parallels to his own condition. Pierce had broken up with his Japanese bassist; he had been long laid low under recent medical care in Vietnam.

An elegy of sadness and pain, "Mother Of Earth" (reprised from Miami) ends this concluding four song sequence well, its alternate take emphasizing for the last time the earthier feel of Pierce's post-reunion work. While In My Room never equals the band's best moments, the fragmented style of Pierce's struggles to keep himself together and his songs coherent testifies to his determination. His  addiction would soon leave him in a coma, before an early death in 1996. If this compilation entices hearers to return to the band's back catalogue, then In My Room will have done its posthumous duty.

3/16 Bang Records 3:5