Friday, April 29, 2011

My interview / review: Elf Power

I had the chance last autumn, on the release of their eponymously titled tenth record, to interview by e-mail Andrew Rieger, singer-songwriter from Elf Power. From R.E.M.'s hometown of Athens, Georgia, where Carolina native Rieger was inspired to attend college so as to be nearer that band. Along with R.E.M., Elf Power (I hear a lot of early Eno crossed with psychedelic textures and folk-rock, a winning combination) remains one of my favorite bands since I heard their eclectic, medievally tinged, feedback-laden, distorted pastoral, Southern gothic drone. Enough adjectives?

Find out more below, and via the links herein. Wandering Through: My Interview with Elf Power
(Featured at PopMatters, 4-7-11)

I also reviewed their newest "Elf Power" album at Amazon US when it appeared...a reprise:

This grows on you. Insects, dirt, bones, ghosts haunt this disc, dedicated to the late Vic Chestnutt. Elf Power, by self-titling their tenth (!) album, appear to let the churning, restless sounds backing wistful, literary, and yearning lyrics sum up their ambitions. The modesty of this homemade album, full of whirring keyboards, efficient percussion, chiming guitars, and processed snippets, continues their recent direction.

That is, progressing from the medieval instrumentation of such as "When the Red King Comes," this shifts away from the dense, early-Eno feel of their work towards a more pastoral approach, from "Walking with the Beggar Boys" onward. While I favor their earlier albums for their daring swirl, they have matured gracefully into a more direct manner of delivering stories as sung and played. With no lyric sheet, you have to pay attention; the graceful thoughts come slowly through the speakers.

There are still hints of their more experimental period, as on the psychedelic riff of "Boots of Lead," or the hints of a waltz on "Little Black Holes." For a band that's been around Athens, Georgia so long, they still stock their songs with textures, even if not as immediately "out of time" as their earlier work showed. Part of the Elephant 6 collective, five members are backed by as many backing musicians. I'm not sure who plays what, as the album credits are sparse, but repeated listenings open up depth in what feels at first a pared-down delivery.

Early R.E.M.'s recalled on "Like a Cannonball," with its echoes and distortions, but most songs sway with a more straightforward musical backing of, as the album progresses, increasingly literary narratives in a few minutes each. "Spidereggs," "Ghost of John," and "The Concrete and the Walls" form a trilogy exploring the underside of life; "Tiny Insects" marvelously conjures up the mystery and oddity of their half-glimpsed realm as it intersects with ours. This sort of Southern Gothic's not macabre, but somehow life-affirming, perhaps part of the message of this audio response to the passing of Chestnutt, a collaborator.

Andrew Rieger sings these short songs, and his pleasant, but not carefree, tone recalls the Southern college-rock ambiance of twenty-five or more years ago in the mixture of a more popular style with a faintly British invasion, prog-psych, folk-rock, and art rock mixed influence. These blend well on this unassuming, but accomplished, album. Give this a chance to play a few times, and the tales tucked inside will begin to unfold. Good accompaniment for a restless night.

Band's website.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Imre Kertész' "Fiasco": Book Review

Returning to Budapest after three concentration camps, Imre Kertész wrote novels he knew would never be published under the Soviet regime. After he won the Nobel Prize in 2002, he mused how “I had the freedom to write as radically as I wanted, to go as deep inside as I wanted.” For, free of a market niche to fill in a democratic nation, he labored as a writer underground. The creation of Fiasco (also known as The Failure—the original title of ‘A kudarc’ in Magyar can mean also “the defeat, abortion, or throwback”—all five definitions fit) follows the two novels which earned him acclaim.

The first, Fatelessness (1975: [my review]), deals with his time in the camps. Its title reveals the existential tone of his account, shorn of sentiment or humanist piety. Its teenaged protagonist watches brutality and rationality combine through German efficiency and mass cruelty. What I liked about this work was its refusal to become manipulative. Granted, Kertész refuses to pander to easy emotion here, and that may put off readers looking for a humanizing, life-affirming or message-laden story.

As with Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), the next work in what is now regarded as a trilogy, I doubt that much is fictionalized here; these novels remain too fragmented and disjointed to unfold as seamless works of art. Kaddish deals in a messy way with the narrator’s refusal to bring a child into this world. 

What Fiasco adds to Kertész’ daunting reputation may surprise those expecting another Holocaust-related story. The title, as before, promises a serious theme, but deadpan Kafkaesque humor lurks, captured well in Tim Wilkinson’s British-inflected but comparatively fluid translation from the novel originally published in 1988. Wilkinson repeats the weighty sentence style and agglutinative word structures of Hungarian without making it too leaden. However, this remains as heavy a novel as his other two in this series, and offers no light read. 

Based on his own life, Kertész begins by confronting his fate. His narrator has come back from the camps—the death factory witnessed as “a kind of student jape”-- so he must write what he knows, about the subject nobody else wants to read. He sits next to a filing cabinet, typing in a dismal flat underneath the beast tenant he calls Oglütz, “the unsilent being” who stomps above him as “a female being who fed on noise.” The narrator, only referred to as “the old boy,” shoves earplugs in against her sonic assaults. He tries to write another novel that nobody will read, any more than they did his previous one about his experiences—honestly told, but the problem is that he cannot tell his readers, if any, or himself, of a false happiness. 

“Auschwitz was present here, sitting inside me as an undigested dumpling, its spices belching up at the most unexpected moments.” This metaphor registers Kertész’ matter-of-fact tone. His protagonist “the old boy” struggles to escape its shadow:  “In place of exemplary death, the facts can only serve up mountains of corpses.” From its impact, he tries to extricate himself from the wreckage, but art offers few consolations. “I was taken to Auschwitz not by the train in the novel but by a real one.” He has returned to a daytime existence after the war less immediately punitive, but just as soul-destroying. 

He begins another novel, and its contents comprise two-thirds of Fiasco.  György Köves finds himself in a land without a name, as featureless as any totalitarian city. Long sentences often delayed from ending by one parenthetical interruption after another mirror Köves’ anxiety. 

His story follows his attempts after he returns home “from abroad” to navigate a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. He begins as a foreigner, as if waking after being haunted. Into a grim city of light, guided by a beam, he works as a journalist and then, after he is fired, as a machine-fitter unfit for such employment, before he or his alter ego has been conscripted into the military as a prison guard. Meanwhile, as fictional layers increase, Köves keeps writing his own fables, and he hears those of his colleagues who invent their own stories to share. 

This saga takes up hundreds of pages. Often, little happens within the laconic expenditure of narrative energy in rendering such a series of unfortunate events. Moments more alive flit by, in a restaurant or the workplace, as Kertész indulges in quick character studies of Köves’ comrades or his lovers, but these caricatures, with passing glimpses of welcome satire, do not linger long. 

Köves cannot control his destiny. The plot resembles “a recurrent nightmare” and only “by gambling away one’s hopes” does any practical aim for Köves appear to be fulfilled, however briefly. In a “restless, half-slumbering state,” he wanders in a system where each citizen must decide what to do. As a functionary explains: “Here they merely give you the opportunity, and then what they do in the room is take cognizance of your decision.” 

His department head, during Köves’ lurch back into journalism (such sudden shifts prove common) tries to articulate the reason the system works as it does. All are servants of “a higher conceptualization,” moving towards an “unbroken perfectionism.” This consists of the system “trying ceaselessly to put people to the test.” In this “power game,” Köves surrenders. He loses track of who’s manipulating who. He fails his lovers. His stints at the local watering hole, The South Seas, offer little escape from tedium. 

“I can only write the novel that it is given me to write,” he tells his colleague after a sudden march under banners “WE WANT TO LIVE!” fills the streets for a moment. He must stay in this city even if as others go abroad to find what they cannot in their unnamed homeland. In the “Slough of Deceit,” both writers, the “old boy” and Köves, accept their fate, that of a writer of unhappy stories as their honest, only ones.  

It’s difficult to read so much about such an enervating existence. Kertész in this allegorical-autobiographical tale far exceeds the incomplete fictions of Kafka. While Köves in his adventures tries to elude the “vague apparition which resembled the drowning man haunting his dreams,” by the end, after three-hundred and sixty pages of dense narration, the reader may understand why Köves and Kertész appear to merge. 

The tale of a writer writing a novel about a writer writing a novel full of stories about shifting identities is a hallmark of postmodernism. Kertész produces a well-crafted work, but it does convey the bleakness of his nation and the era that produced him and his subject, exactly as he convinces himself what the outcome had to be. Whether Kertész captures better the feeling of being trapped by this regime, or his refusal to capitulate to its demands, remains typically ambiguous. As an existentialist writer determined to stare down his fate, he endures. 

Fiasco concludes by slipping into the protagonist’s stoicism faced in the form of “the sweet memory of his fiasco.” For, after his novel has been accepted for publication, the writer takes in his pocket back to his flat a paperweight of grey stone. He places it atop a filing cabinet.  Köves contemplates how the great boulder pushed by Sisyphus must eventually wear down, into such a rock that can be carried in a weary hand as one returns home, again to write what he must .(Featured on 4-5-11 at New York Journal of

Note from Amazon on the author: 

IMRE KERTÉSZ was born in Budapest in 1929. At age fifteen he was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally to a subcamp at Zeitz, to labor in a factory where Nazi scientists were trying to convert coal into motor fuel. Upon liberation in 1945 he worked as a journalist before being fired for not adhering to the Communist party doctrine. After a brief service in the Hungarian Army, he devoted himself to writing, although as a dissident he was forced to live under Spartan circumstances. Nonetheless he stayed in Hungary after the failed 1956 uprising, continuing to write plays and fiction in near-anonymity and supporting himself by translating from the German writers such as Joseph Roth, Freud, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. He remained little-known until 1975, when he published his first book, Fatelesseness, a novel about a teenage boy sent to a concentration camp. It became the first book of a trilogy that eventually included The Failure and Kaddish for an Unborn Child. Subsequent titles include Liquidation, The Pathseeker, Union Jack, and, a memoir, The File on K. In 2002, Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lives in Budapest and Berlin.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Black Watch's "Led Zeppelin Five": Music Review

On many small labels, since 1987, John Andrew Fredrick and his band craft gritty power-pop. On their eleventh full-length album, The Black Watch features what Fredrick, a professor of English, creates with edgily erudite lyrics and a stoic, determined vocal delivery. While his voice recalls Ian McCulloch’s deep, steady tone, his guitar style for me does not hearken back to The Church or the Go-Betweens (frequent comparisons) so much as Scott Miller’s intricate, brainy tunes for Game Theory and The Loud Family.

Miller and Fredrick led California, college-town indie rock ensembles starting in the 1980s. They both remained the leaders, singer-songwriters, and only constant members. Both construct energetic, shifting rock musical templates that they can’t help but tinker with, dismantle, spin about, and rebuild. Fredrick prefers a less quirky approach, however. He sticks on Led Zeppelin Five, despite its cheeky title, to a more serious, less self-consciously clever tone than Miller
in both vocal pitch and guitar-based melody.

This album improves with repeated listening. At first, these somewhat dour, if oddly peppy, songs may sound too similar. They begin to open up as their riffs burrow down in your memory. Fredrick applies his songwriting in a slightly oblique strategy, taking the college-rock styles of the New Wave and post-punk eras while striving to stamp his composed personality upon this solid design.

“Oscillating” starts off the album, menacing by a spare electric guitar, with Fredrick’s voice sounding more like “isolating” as he repeats the word over and over.  “How Much About Love” begins more softly.   It boosts the dynamic into a familiar shift into a danceable but confident heft as the band joins in.

Guitarist Steven Schayer (brother of Bad Religion’s drummer, also ex-Chills in their later stages) with ex-Velouria drummer Rick Woodard and bassist Scott Taylor provide the range Fredrick needs to convey his songs (most of which he takes sole credit for) as accessible to indie-rock fans looking for literate pop-rock. The decline of indie rock stores and stations oriented towards the music of Fredrick’s generation leaves many listeners playing the same old records from 1967 or 1978. It’s a pleasure to hear a record released which compliments these earlier sounds without pandering to them.

For “Emily, Are You Sleeping?” a drier vocal mix continues the guitar-pop with another increase in volume. These first songs recall 1980s power-pop but they do not imitate it. Similarly, “Like in the Movies” takes inspiration from The Smiths through a laconic, if harmony-laden, mid-tempo approach.

“Cognate Objects” floors the distortion pedal, a welcome move for a band often associated with softer, jangly tunes. A catchy riff means this song stands out. Given the title, “Earl Grey Tea” returns to the Anglophile roots which enrich Fredrick’s words and music. This song strives for the energy of the previous half of the album, but it prefers a straightforward, less ornamented performance. At its end, strummed and picked snippets of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds waft past.

This deft blend of British and American flavors defines The Black Watch. The enigmatically titled “The Maid’s Been Round” takes another song reminiscent of The Smiths but slows down the speed. While less lively and slightly less engaging, the lyric “I thought I’d drink away some pain” fits the track neatly.

The Hoboken, N.J., mood of Yo La Tengo and The Feelies simmers into “Only Lasted”; “The Stars in the Sky” as with its title feels slightly methodical, more stiffly conveyed than earlier songs. The second half of the album slows by the seventh, eighth, and ninth tracks. This attests to Scott Campbell’s production and the band’s sense that these may be the places suited for its less swirling, more ringing, polite pop songs. These are respectable, but they represent a leveling off of the album’s previous momentum.

I prefer the louder, aggressive styles which show off the guitar textures and songwriting byways better. “Kinda Sorta” turns this album’s triumph. It meanders but does not wander, recalling again Scott Miller’s parallel trajectory (or that of The Soft Boys), with a frenetic saunter through off-kilter, trippier, neo-psychedelic explorations.

Fittingly, the album closes with a “hidden track” as “Weirdly,” which turns out as far as I can tell to be a  cover of “It’s All too Much” by The Beatles. As with “Kinda Sorta,” this shows off the band’s more lysergic tones with panache, and at seven minutes, it manages to pay tribute to this familiar song without tiring the listener. It compares well also to the cover of this same song by The Church, while keeping it in step with the rest of this smart, ambitious, and satisfying album.

For musicians recording, at least for Fredrick, almost a quarter-century, this album on his own label left me wondering. Not about the band’s abilities, but about the band’s obscurity. With trendier musicians around the band’s base near the Echo Park-Silverlake-Los Feliz neighborhoods of Los Angeles acclaimed for far more derivative styles, the fact that this album appears on Fredrick’s own label registers their neglect by the mainstream. Perhaps this offers them freedom to perfect their sensible sound, as neither Scots pipers nor a swan song. The Black Watch merits acclaim for such a strong album, far into their career. At its best, it displays an enviable command of loud, crunchy guitar-based pop-rock, not too sweet, not too sour.

(Featured at PopMatters 4-22-11; slightly edited here for Amazon US 4-21-11 & 4-25.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rob Young's "Electric Eden": Book Review

What Becomes of the Oaken Hearted? Rob Young’s quest spans the last century’s search for pastoral evocations and folk recreations of a British quest to summon its lingering “ghost memories”. Over 600 pages, narrated with verve and ease, this editor at The Wire music magazine conjures up the contradictions of sound technology harnessed to rural moods, and an urban audience longing for antiquarian lore. In a nation built along Roman roads, the lure of open space limits the adventurer. In a land so long civilized among landscapes tamed, modern freedom seekers turn to the imaginary tale, the mythological ritual as liberating paths. For the British listener, nostalgia and fulfillment lurk in a golden age before machines, yet one which plugs into electricity, and exotic instruments and moods, to convey a retelling of the elusive past.

He begins with the “inward exodus” by singer Vashti Bunyan, whose 1968-69 trek away from London by horse-drawn caravan up finally into Gaelic-speaking Scotland symbolizes this era’s idealism. Young’s discography lengthens as hippies crowd out folksingers; Bunyan’s search brings her to Donovan, producer Joe Boyd, and his clients The Incredible String Band, who epitomize the fashions and styles she imagined but did not know. In “the dual landscape/ dreamscape of Britain’s interior”, rock met and blurred and blended with folk.

The preliminary section, “Music from Neverland”, efficiently explains the contexts for this Aquarian Age. Young charts the contributions of Cecil Sharp and Francis Child as song and ballad and dance collectors. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams enriched classical forms with folk melodies drawn from the last remnants of the oral tradition, its untutored composers from the peasantry. Invented characters as composer Peter Warlock and bard Ewan MacColl enliven this stage. Tension arises between music of a people as Child and Sharp had compiled vs. music from the people as favored by interpreters of the proletariat, often Marxist and radical themselves, in the industrial, trade-unionized post-WWII decades.

This period ends as Bob Dylan enters. He preferred his own words to those in archives, field recordings, or transcribed lyrics. This Americanized approach clashed with MacColl’s class-conscious fidelity to the oral tradition. By the end of 1962, when Dylan visited England’s folkies, revolution looms. But, unlike the uprising predicted by 60 years of diligent researchers, leftist agitators, and earnest re-creators, British Eden would be electrified. The cultural rebellion “would take place not on the streets, but in the head.”

Dylan met fellow guitarist-singer Martin Carthy. Carthy’s renditions of “Lord Franklin” and “Scarborough Fair” impressed Dylan so much that he reworked them for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, as “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Girl from the North Country”.  In 1965, Simon & Garfunkel, after learning the song from Carthy, copyrighted their version (with no credit to Carthy) of what had been a tune nobody had taken credit for authoring, “Scarborough Fair”. Such American ambitions, clashing with the anonymity in which many folksongs had been passed down, reworked, and tinkered with, edged many British singers and songwriters away from jazz and the blues into a more indigenous, yet eclectic, compositional style.

As Dylan and the British Invasion emerged, beatniks returned from abroad with a North African oud or Balkan bouzouki. The DADGAD tuning of Davy Graham’s guitar, the modal music of Bert Jansch, and the coffeehouse stylings incorporating electrification entered folk. Early Music masters David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood revived old instruments that enriched what had been sparer tunes often passed down a capella. While “pop” derives from mass spectacles manufactured for the Roman urban populi, Young reminds us, volk derives from the Germanic peasantry, villagers and vagrants bearing songs from the wood, the forest, the barbaric heath where rituals endured and perplexed their heirs.

Shirley Collins defines for Young the essence of “an ideal folk voice, sounding as though it was grappling with the words for the very first time, and yet equally as though it was so inured to the pain and suffering so often portrayed in the songs that it had insulated itself from them”. Symbolically, Collins no longer worked with American folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax by the Summer of Love. Her new producer, via Elektra Records, arrived to run London’s UFO club. During 1967, Joe Boyd hosted Pink Floyd (producing their “Arnold Layne” single) and lysergic luminaries, accompanied by acid-rock lightshows. Nearby if not always blended into this heady milieu, folk-rock fermented.

Boyd had already produced The Incredible String Band. He continued with Fairport Convention, as jazz, jug-band, and rock-schooled rhythm sections joined with a sprightly sets of singers and guitarists. For Pentangle, their “aerated play of light” fragmented into “a sonic mirage” with “a curly line between a courtly medievalism and the enlightened foolery of Haight-Ashbury”.  Vocalist Jacqui McShee, acoustic guitarists Jansch and John Renbourn created above Danny Thompson’s string bass and Terry Cox’s brushed drums a typical tune which patters “like butterflies trapped in a balsa-wood box”.

Boyd’s Fairport played their first gig in May 1967 and two months later opened for Pink Floyd at UFO, before cutting the first of four increasingly daring records. They often covered Dylan and followed an eerie parallel. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident required The Band to retreat to Big Pink and regroup as a rooted ensemble, so Fairport faced a fatal van crash. Survivors recouped to refine their sound.

They departed from their genial West Coast harmonies. “A Sailor’s Life” from Unhalfbricking featured the first recorded use of sticks with drums to back up a folk tune. Dave Mattacks earned percussive credits on countless sessions. His “funky plod” provided “the ideal foil for the mushy instrumental palette of English electric folk, propelling its accordions, fiddles, abrasive guitars and astringent harmonies forward without denying their bulk and grit”.

Liege and Lief, under the influence of venerable folk interpreter A. L. “Bert” Lloyd, transferred the century’s leftist, proletariat, song tradition to the flower children. While Pentangle’s members grew up with folk transmitted on the BBC and taught in classrooms, Fairport matured with skiffle and Elvis. Richard Thompson’s and Simon Nicol fuzzed their guitars, over Sandy Denny’s ethereal voice, Dave Swarbrick’s slashing fiddle and Ashley Hutchings’ thumping bass guitar. Fairport, at the center of this book and this tale, epitomized the late-60s evolution.

These musicians fueled the next decade of folk-rock. But their heyday rushed by. Advertising copy for 1969s Liege promoted it as “documenting a (very brief) era”. Even during “A Sailor’s Life”, Young asserts that Denny tired of folk’s limits; she went solo after Liege. Young explains her neediness and her search for companionship as she pursued a singer-songwriter pop-folk muse whose comforts eluded her.

Hutchings also left then, hastening backwards to ‘70s sonic fidelity, if that makes sense for his leadership—in its first and boldest two of many incarnations—of a plugged-in Steeleye Span, grounded in archived ballads and decked in burnished apparel.  Their first two albums “are textured with a loamy, atavistic grit.” Tellingly, while Mattacks played on their debut, their follow-up left out drums but added Martin Carthy’s power chords distorted across a “massive Fender amplifier”, to mesmerizing and exhilarating effect on Please to See the King. But, the fireworks dimmed. Hutchings left to revive with his new wife Shirley Collins and then The Albion Band an “English country music” reviving Morris dance and performance, delivered in acoustic intimacy as intricately plotted and researched presentations.

Another of Boyd’s protégés, Nick Drake, shared this gentler, erudite approach. Young takes us, as with Denny, cautiously along as we watch the demise of another talented troubadour, soon reduced to a “withdrawn, solipsistic, shrunken seer”.  John Martyn’s existential pain earns a chapter, as his Echoplexed guitar, full of distortion, adapts free-jazz and dub techniques to his “boiling electric lyre”.

West Coast psychedelia celebrated summer meadows, but for the British, this could be a brief picnic. “When Joni Mitchell sang of getting back to the garden, you felt she pictured a lot of naked longhairs disporting themselves in love games off the coast of Big Sur. For Brits, the image that springs to mind is a cheeky reefer in the potting shed before getting back to work on the allotment”.

The period 1967-71 earns the most entries in the appended discography arranged by timeline. Its highlights, as with Pentangle, Fairport, and Steeleye, flickered and flared rapidly. Pioneers of folk-rock expansion, Boyd’s first clients The Incredible String Band, concocted a “global village” world music sustaining an ecumenical if acid-driven vision quest. But their records, for all their “very cellular” song structures and shape-shifting scope, could not sustain a career, given the heady vistas and drug-driven nature of their ambitions. After the bonfires collapse, as Young asks: “What becomes of the oaken-hearted?”

The book’s cover shows a semi-acoustic band, Heron, in a Berkshire field the summer of 1970. A piano nestles in a meadow, as pastel-shirted, long-haired musicians sit and play. Pye Records miked them to “capture the ambiance of the great outdoors.”  Booms surround them. This depicts an “electric Eden” created by an idealistic, disenchanted middle-class whose dreams and (lack of) ambitions mirrored Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson’s 1986 film of two unemployed actors fleeing to the Lake District in 1969.

Weariness pervades the songs of Drake and Martyn. Folk’s early-‘70s singer-songwriters woke to a comedown. Tiring of their past, Young argues, glam emerged with David Bowie and Marc Bolan as these gnomic performers reinvented themselves for the future, turning away from “warped Victoriana”. The riots of 1968 followed “Strawberry Fields” and an endless summer filled with “vertiginous trippiness and crooked-mirror Anglicana”. Mr. Fox, trained folk archivists and musicians, briefly kept the firmest hold on electric pastoralia that followed Steeleye and Fairport’s ascent. 

Fittingly, all three were guided by the enduring “Bert” Lloyd, whose book Folk Song in England (1967) was the first commission for Hipgnosis. They gave Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin “classic” rock album covers, while Young excels at explaining how urban-pastoral sepia tension seeps into artwork gracing Fairport’s Unhalfbricking, Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, and the album Denny sang on, Led Zeppelin’s fourth.

A Shattering of the Rosy Lens

Magic and the supernatural beckoned bands away from confessional ballads towards often twee and fey attempts (Young possesses admirable patience as he sums up their efforts) to channel invented forces. Young pinpoints currents joining Wicca and folk as artificial energies. This does not diminish their organic power. “The Cruel Mother” may be sung with different lyrics by various voices, but she “will continue to be haunted by the guilt-inducing spectre of her child, because, whether sung by a Highland crofter, an acoustic duo in a folk club, an electric rock band at an outdoor festival or in a home studio with an electronic ambient backing track, the song itself is undead, a ghost that refuses to be forgotten”.

Festivals link neatly with Young’s survey of the British inheritance of the commons; unlike Greil Marcus’ over-determined Lipstick Traces, Young constructs his argument modestly and carefully. He shows how anti-authoritarian responses transmitted over the centuries persisted in debates over access to land. The ecologically-aware Glastonbury Fayre and its charity donations outlived the massive freak-outs which doomed the Isle of Wight’s festival. Disenchanted city dwellers tried to create, if for a weekend, alternative communities. New Age and environmental causes benefited greatly from cross-promotion.

Diminishing returns meant folk fans met with caricature, all bearded, clogged boffins with pewter flagons desperately seeking real ale. The ‘70s bring economic recession and political gloom; later chapters convey this strain in the realm. Arthurian and medievalist films flourished in the first half of the decade. The Wicker Man (the original version) still haunts with its imperious pagan revival. But, as Monty Python’s Camelot collapsed into stage sets of canvas and plywood, the English fascination with a manufactured soft-focus past ended.

Musically and culturally, the rise to prominence lasted only a few years. After 1972, Steeleye Span in another incarnation had, as with similarly successful musicians, outgrown the small folk music circuit. They opted for glossier, amplified stadium rock, while Richard and Linda Thompson spent the decade struggling “with a sense of hard-won knowledge, a literal dis-illusionment, a shattering of the rosy lens. It was as if the music permitted a wallowing in an imaginative world of filth from which Sufism might elevate and insulate them”. The String Band departed for Scientology, while Young passes over intriguingly if quickly such micro-genres as the Jesus People’s incorporations of operatic or mystical folk.

Young delves into the underground, but when its musicians emerge to Top 40 success, they fade from view. As a boy, I first heard Sandy Denny as a guest on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin’s new, fourth LP. I discovered via a dim recollection of Denny her folk-rock lineage much later. I imagine for fans of Ireland’s Horslips (mentioned once), Scotland’s Runrig, or England’s The Oyster Band (both unmentioned) as these bands merged traditional folk into louder rock, the impulses to track back to British “visionary music” trickled down from the top of the charts rather than up through cult releases.

Similar shortcomings arise when The Kinks get one sentence for the title track from 1968’s concept album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Surely this LP encapsulates the sylvan chronicling and macabre components of British invention that define Young’s project. Jethro Tull’s “kitchen prose and gutter rhymes” may earn contempt from folk purists, but their ditties opened ears to search out venerable melodies. Pink Floyd explored experimental pastoral electronics in their later-‘60s and early-‘70s albums, but Young understates their popular impact.

In this massive compendium, I found some slips. Donovan’s songs here and there are jumbled as to what appeared where. “A twelfth-century Saxon church” is a misnomer. Robert O’Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran filmed fishermen off an Irish rather than a Scottish island. Marshall McLuhan, while he taught for a time in the US, should be identified as Canadian rather than American.  Irish-born Chicago police chief Francis O’Neill’s Music of Ireland “bible” contains 1,850 pieces of music but it was not published in 1850. It debuted in 1903. Young’s black-and-white illustrations (at least in the proof copy) often strain the eye; many telling details reduce to thumbnail-sized reproductions of LP covers.

One album cover for Young depicts the downward spiral of ‘70s folk-rock. Steeleye Span’s fortunes crashed in the year punk hit, 1976. Their Rocket Cottage in free fall (its hideous art as fatal portent) frames a quirky semi-fictionalized chapter where Young allows a skewed sensibility freer rein. Diminishing returns meant folk fans met with caricature, all bearded, clogged boffins with pewter flagons desperately seeking real ale. While Young ignores Robyn Hitchcock, who with and after The Soft Boys applied hallucinogenic, hyper-natural lyrics to rambling folk tunes wired with new-wave vibrations, he does champion admirably another survivor of these end of the ‘70s mash-ups, Julian Cope.

Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian gazetteer near the millennium surveys his native landscape aligned with soundscapes of “attritional and introspective rock.” Young tells how “Cope sings, speaks and writes in the voice of the heathen—the aboriginal ‘people of the heath’ who worshipped the earth as a mother goddess”. In this “alternative, humane heritage movement”, room for the dissenter must be built: “no poetry without heretics”. Cope and his monumental concerns seek to separate the pagan substrata from the non-Christian detritus. Delightful as the hobby-horse set can be, cobbling together patchworks of tunes and dress, Cope seeks what he hears as “mysterious and tortuous” beneath these motley fabrics.

Kate Bush floats past steampunk, David Sylvain into alchemy, while Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis finds solitude. Their connections appear tenuous. For all I know The Skids and Big Country merited worthy analysis. What goes missing is in-depth discussion of contemporary electric folk. Young never cites Britta Sweers’ 2005 study. He neglects Gaelic-influenced bands. Scotland fades early, while Ireland earns diminishing returns, typified by the odd absence of Mark J. Prendergast’s 1990 history of its folk and rock, The Isle of Noises.  Nic Jones and June Tabor, John Tams and Home Service, Fairport’s Cropredy reunions, fanzines and the Net, the Free Reed label, the revival of English dance bands: such topics may or may not earn but a sentence. Inclusions of bands and musicians add often only lists of names.

Later chapters, reflecting instead Young’s own tastes rather than providing a comprehensive survey of post-‘70s trends, may appeal to fans lured here by personalities from the video era. The sounds do not linger as long on the page, and readers who aren’t listeners may struggle to figure out the sonic appeal of the poetic songwriters profiled. Young displays the private, personal evolution of a few malcontents, as they drift away from the new-wave charts and MTV publicity to burrow into uneasy moods. These tunes seem to resist Young’s capture in print. The tradition of backwards sight as a forward direction for cultural and musical progression among these self-marginalized seers endures.

Martyn Bates exemplifies this complex contemporary stance, inheriting the legacy of those with whom this narrative commenced. After singing in the post-punk duo Eyeless in Gaza—which included avant-folk—he released in 1994 Murder Ballads (Drift). He paired with Mick Harris, drummer for thrash-metal exponents Napalm Death. Harris and Bates sought, as had earlier hippies and folksingers, a quieter if no less disturbing way to conjure darker tones. Bates later worked with Max Eastley, cohort of Pentangle’s John Renbourn and of Donovan. And, with the latter paisley pop star, we return to the destination Vashti Bunyan sought. Donovan had opened up his land bought in the Isle of Skye for artists and musicians to settle. By the time Bunyan reached Skye, traipsing north across Britain by horse-drawn caravan, a year and a half had passed. Donovan had long left what was now his half-deserted fiefdom, for Los Angeles.

Young concludes with a sobering message. Misfits and a few progressives still gravitate towards the volatility of unconventional folk. Its dream of rural self-sufficiency, for an overpopulated and suburbanized island nation, cannot sustain itself. Wilderness shrinks. Sixty million Britons may long for their national symbol, their own enclosed garden. Yet this collective dream must endure. Young proclaims that “to preserve the sense of enchantment with British landscape that is hard-wired into the nation’s psyche it will become even more important to screen out modernity, to not quite see what is actually there, but to distort through the antiquarian eye and the mental scrying glass”.

This enchanting and engaging, if uneven, contribution to cultural musical history deserves to grow dog-eared. It will be opened by a contemporary reader turned informed listener, rather than shut up by an antiquarian.

(PopMatters featured April 21, 2011; in shorter and altered form on Amazon US &

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kevin Holohan's "The Brothers' Lot": Book Review

Promoted as a comic satire but often an ironic fable, Holohan’s debut excoriates the Catholic-run schools in a vaguely postwar Dublin. As a graduate of the Irish Christian Brothers’ schools there, he incorporates his own memories into the imagined re-creations of the abuse, mayhem, and foibles which characterized Irish education for most working-class boys. The Brothers, as the congregation is known in Ireland, have dwindled after their sometimes sadistic role in “industrial schools” as reformatories has become exposed in recent decades. But, as Kevin Holohan and his imaginary characters never forget, nobody in his novel’s ignorant of the fate meted out to miscreants who report on their abusers. He embeds parallels to the real-life girls who, after delivering their illegitimate babies, find themselves referred to as numbers instead of names in the Magdelene laundries, here "Jezebel's" workhouses for “Fallen Mothers”.

Such slightly exaggerated parallels speckle this story. For those familiar with Ireland, the novel’s allusions to its famine and its civil wars, alongside geographical and cultural referents, deepen with context. A playful yet wry tone resembles the satirist Flann O’Brien, as when a Fr. Mulvey, S.J. rides his bicycle into the plot. The industrial school lurks in Drumgloom; the Jezebel’s run by the Sisters of Forebearance near Dullow. Bishops of Dervish and Ossory, Cloynes and Bardgey, and Spokes and Duggery, or the place Knockpaltry-on-Fergus, sound plausible. Drimnagh’s orphanage run by the Oblates of the Impervious Heart of Herod reaches Monty Python’s heights of nomenclatural application.

This shift in names dominates the narrative. It enlivens its wit while sharpening its critique. Holohan strives to balance humor and dismay and The Brothers' Lot shows his skill. As Paul Murray in his 2010 novel [see my review] Skippy Dies did for today’s Irish secondary Catholic schools, struggling after scandals and secularism to survive as vocations dwindle and lay-teachers dominate the faculty, so Holohan does for the recent past. But then, legions of Brothers tyrannized the lot of those consigned to their care.

“Lot” in the novel works three ways. Builders seek to take over the “lot” which for the Brothers of Godly Coercion’s School for Young Boys of Meager Means has supported a towering but ramshackle edifice for a century, founded to educate the humbler students for what one teacher predicts as “the lowest levels of the Civil Service or the Electricity Supply Board or the rare Gaelic football prodigy who might get slid into a sinecure at the bank”. Its North Dublin location represents a humbler status compared to the schools for the upper classes, as their rival visitor, a Jesuit superior, conveys in his tone, “with the assurance of one accustomed to never needing the imperative mode to have his bidding done”.

The “lot” of these lowly Brothers does not escape sympathy. They come from rural backgrounds, and they are tasked with trying to re-Gaelicize with football and leather straps a rabble of Dublin lads who resist their every dull lesson. The Brothers themselves may be recruited, orphans, or all but press-ganged as teenagers, the second son or the eighth. In Ireland, these boys did not inherit the farm but could earn an education and a sort-of sinecure in a job-starved Ireland. But, sinecure means “without worry”, while these Brothers do fret. So much that with their charges and among themselves, they reveal their lack of learning, their fear at being found out as less than masterful.

They whip and beat into their pupils, their own sorry “lot”, these deadened recitals of Latin, Gaelic, or geography by rote, as they teach to the state curriculum and its own pointless tests. Holohan sends up the mangled French and Irish articulated by recalcitrant or dull-witted students, and as for the Latin, a few samples from the Hail Mary convey the lighter tone that enlivens what can be a serious story. “Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus” transforms into a classroom chorus of “Ate Benny dicked us, fucked us, dangerous Twohey jaysus”. ”Ora pro nobis peccatoribus” translates as “Oh, rat, provo peck a Tory bus” .“Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” turns “New kettle Nora, more tits no stray”.

But communal fear lashes out against such class-based frivolity, as the Brothers and (most of) their lay-teacher colleagues conspire to suppress any rebellion. This turns, as the novel’s course enters darker moods, into a rising death count and a massive cover-up. Symbolically, as the building begins to collapse, the novel depicts the doomed imposition of a sin-free school zone. “In the small shed Mr. Hourican was busy checking for sins of thought, deed, or omission, committed alone or with others, and on the far side of the yard stood Brother Walsh with what looked like a small pair of binoculars”.

Tally sticks must be worn by students; each sin earns a notch, with beatings accrued. No one is innocent, for no human equals Christ in perfection. Kafka’s penal colony may even stir within such episodes. “Yes and no had turned into equally wrong answers no matter what the question was”. This predicament hearkens back to the punishments inflicted on Irish-speaking students forced to learn English under the Crown: “for Irish people to use them on one another was vile and sickening in a deep, disturbing way,” comments the unseen narrator, filtered indirectly in Joycean manner here via Spud Murphy, one of the few lay-teachers who listens to his students. Holohan reserves his greatest contempt for the penalties and beatings meted out by lay-teachers, as they, unlike most of the Brothers, knew better: these teachers entered and left the schools to live each day out in the real world.

This dictated piety is constructed as the Brothers, and their opportunistic Diocesan Investigator of miracles, Fr. Mulvey, seize their chance to save the lot from demolition by builders. The Brothers seek to cash in with relics after a supposed miracle witnessed by one of their more mentally feeble members occurs on the crumbling site. They hasten to credit their Order’s founder, the Venerable Saorsach O’Rahilly, whom they wish to advance to sainthood.

The Venerable Saorsach’s life, commemorated on his death day yearly in a dreadful school pageant, earns its cameo. We watch as enacted by sullen students the story of his stereotypical life. We see his pious mother’s demise after her son runs off to sea and her bag of gold meant for the leprechauns to ransom him is stolen, Saorsach’s rejection of “harlots” dressed as third-year students in old kitchen rags which “would not have tempted the most starved lothario”, and finally his “dementia and death from something that very much resembled syphilis but was referred to as a ‘fever’”.

This endless ritual, Holohan’s omniscient narrator tells, “flapped its leaden wings on the first stage of its long flight toward lunchtime”. Often, the author opts for this elevated tone, which may seem either subtly overwritten in the style of too earnest a teller or intentionally pitched for the satirical mood which Flann O’Brien favored. “Around the whole school the desultoriness of last class gasped its way toward the final bell”. The radio news with its “quotidian normality clashed horribly with the laden silence oozing out of the oratory”.

Finally, the whole building nears its end. While this escapes the realistic bounds of what might be expected on a day class is still in session when the school's been falling apart, and fatally on top of some Brothers, Holohan describes the weighty scene: “Every weakness, every crack and fissure, every stress point and loose shingle had only to will itself and it could put an end to its sorry lot of bearing witness to the daily enactment of a vision twisted and thwarted that now blighted everyone and everything in its ambit”. Meanwhile, under the tension of the Brothers who scurry for proof of their miracle, an inspection team arrived to survey the curious situation, and the growing anarchy among the students, a “big blackout”, a mass refusal to cooperate, breaks out among the boys. “Every imaginable annoyance was brought to bear in one united front of provocation”.

The novel concludes with an island-wide rebellion as the very institutions give way and their lunatic keepers turn their own incarcerated, doomed victims within the walls they have erected to lock up sinners and somehow keep out sin from infecting themselves or the rest of Ireland. It’s a metaphorical end to the story which Holohan builds up as an indictment of the Irish nation’s cynical republicanism built on a corrosive clerical power and a crony-ridden leadership which refused to honor its own ideals.

Holohan shifts his narrative, from where I expected it to settle, on Finbar Sullivan, a boy newly arrived from Cork coming in to the school. Instead of a following a conventional way into the school, through a newcomer’s eyes, the novel refuses to settle. It roams from the Brothers, to Fr. Mulvey, to the parents and--more briefly-- the inspectors and builders and bureaucrats. The shifts in tone and indirect narration via the omniscient voice may surprise those looking for a lighthearted romp. This novel, using clever dialogue and outlandish names, disguises but does not deflect its serious intentions.

It may demand closer attention, and it may force the reader to examine how everyday complicity works to poison pure intentions. This refusal to stick with one perspective characterizes the author’s approach towards a sensitive subject. To address a topic as painful as clerical abuse abetted by state collusion and lay cowardice, he opts for passages of pain alternating with those of play. The novel grows grimmer as it continues, yet Holohan’s honesty forces him, as we who read it, to question our own participation and reactions to similar situations, however obliquely conveyed, that confront us.

Upon this ethical foundation for an entertaining tale, Holohan follows a satirical tradition which questions authority, undermines cliché, and upends the social order. Reading The Brother’s Lot, I thought not only of Flann O’Brien and Kafka but of another Dubliner, Jonathan Swift. He constructed his own moral tales inflating the small and deflating the large, while working at a splendid church across the Liffey River, on the nicer side of the city. Not far from where sometime late this past century, this school of Godly Coercion is said to have risen and fallen. (Posted in shorter, censored, rewritten form to Amazon US 4-5-11 & 4-21. As above featured in RePrint 4-11-11 at PopMatters.)

P.S. The school is set on "Greater Little Werburgh St"...After I wrote this, the author noted: "Here's a little allusive tidbit that you may know already - the real Werburgh Street is near Christchurch and Swi[ft] was born on nearby Hoey St and baptized on St Werburgh's Church on Werburgh Street."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ceithre eile ó MoMA

Scríobh mé as Gaeilge faoi ceithre chéad chúid íomhannaí leannta agam i mó aiste riamh ar lá eile. Anois, bím ag insint agaibh faoi ceithre eile ar an Músaem na hEalaíne Nua-Aimseartha i Nua-Eabhrac. Is maith liom siadsa, ar ndóigh, den chéad scoth orm. 

Ar dtús,  chonaic mé saothar péintéireachta bréa le Amedeo Modigliani, "Lomhnocht a chlaonadh" (1921).  Bím súim dó de gháth. Mar sin, d'fhan mé ar aghaidh seo ar feadh tamaill. 

An dara ceann, rug mé ar fíor le Paul Klee,  "Cat agus Éan" (1928). Níl fhíos agam go leor de réir Klee. Ach, chuir sé fonn gáire orm. 

Agus a trí, fuair mé cosúlacht go hairithe le James Ensor,  "Dóláis Naomh Antoine"  (1887).  Go nádúrtha, tharraingt mé seo go díreach. I dtólamh, bím dúil ag foghlaim faoi radhairc domhain eile. 

Mar chríoch, chuir grianghraf seo as dom go mór.  Cheap Dorothea Lange "Mathair agus Leanbh" (1954) i gCathair Naomh Prionsias ar an tSráid Mhargadh. Má tá a fhios agat dom go han-mhaith, beidh tú a thuiscint cén fáth a bhí mé an léiriúchan.

(Feic anseo; tú ábalta a feicéail dhá ceithre ó MoMA mo chúid ar chéile as Béarla.) 

Another quartet from MoMA

I wrote in Irish about my first quartet of a share of favorite images before, the other day. Now, I'm telling you all about another four from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was pleased by them, of course, as for me of the top quality. 

At the start, I saw a fine work of painting by Amedeo Modigliani, "Reclining Nude" (1921). I've had an interest in him habitually. Therefore, I stayed in front of this for a short while.

For the second one, I caught a likeness by Paul Klee, "Cat and Bird" (1928). I don't know much on account of Klee. But, I was amused at it.

And thirdly, I found this distinctive likeness by James Ensor, "Tribulations of Saint Anthony"  (1887). Naturally, I was drawn to this immediately. Always, I've had a desire to learn about views of the other world. 

Finally, this photograph moved me a lot. Dorothea Lange composed "Mother and Child" (1954) in the city of San Francisco on Market Street. If you know me very well, you will understand why I included this representation. 

(See here;  you're able to view my share of the two MoMA quartets together in English.)
Grianghraf/ Photo: Josef Koudelka, MoMA: "Ireland, 1972"

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Taispeáint: "Brí na Gearmánach"

Thug mé cuairt ar an Músaem na hEalaíne Nua-Aimseartha i Nua-Eabhrac Dé Domhnaigh seo caite. Chuaigh mé ansin gach uair riamh. D'imigh Léna agus mise go Nua-Eabhrac faoi dhó i 1990 amháin. 

Chonaic mé an obair mór "Duilleogaí Bháite" le Claude Monet na aon agus fiche blianta ó shin. Áfach ní raibh cuimhne liom oibreachaí ealáine ar chor ar bith go feicthe go ham fada seo! Mar sin féin, is cuimhne liom an radharc ag feicéail síos le an fuinneoig is mó in aice leis bpictiúr ar an bplás.

Caith muid leath agus dhá uair ansin. Ach níor rug muid oibreachaí ealáine go leor. Is maith liom ag fáil rudaí níos lú agus níos mó. 

Mar sin, rinne muid ag cur cuairt ag fáil taispeáint de réir "Brí na Gearmánach." Bhí mé dith ag foghlaim faoi Egon Schiele. Léigh mé an mhí seo caite úrscéal "Taibhse Ochrach" ("mo leirmheas") le Keith Kachtick. Bhí ealáine clúdach air leis tarraingt le Schiele, "Bean suí táilliúra." 

Ní fhaca mé sin, ach bhí maith liom beirt uiscedath is dana agus is an-ghrách le Schiele. Faigh "Cailín leis gruaig dubh" (Mädchen mit schwarzem Haar, 1912) agus "Dealbh lomhnocht leis stocaí corcarghorm agus gruaig dubh"  (Akt mit violetten Strümpfen und schwarzem Haar, 1912) ag fáil leis nascannaí.  Mheas go bhfuil dhá líniú is neamheaglach ann. 

Tá caoga greanadóireacht is gránna le Otto Dix ansin. Is cósulacht siad le sceitsí frith-chogadh le Goya. Seasann an fód an eitséail seo le Dix orm: "Téann chun tosaigh trúpaí turrainge scaoileann gás faoi," (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) le An Cogadh (Der Krieg, 1928-32).

Ina dhiadh sin An Cogadh Mór, tharraing Max Pechstein "Paidir na Tiarna," (Das Vater Unser, 1921). Is dosean greandóireachtaí adhmaid. Smaoinim go raibh siad trua a chur ar dhuine. 

Inseoidh mé oraibh faoi an chuid eile na roinnt na oibreachaí leannta orm. Tá aiste as Gaeilge agam tuilleadh san huair tamaill. Léifidh sibh faoi ceithre oibreachtaí eile go raibh maith liom ansin.

Eolas: Suíomh MOMA. Íomhá: "Bean ag suí táilliúr" (níl líníocht de MOMA le Schiele; nílim ábalta foghlaim an áit go cruinn fós)

Exhibition: German Expressionism.

I paid a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past Sunday. I went there but one time before. Layne and myself took off to New York twice in 1990 only. 

I saw the great work "Water Lilies" by Claude Monet twenty-one years ago. However I didn't recall any other works of art at all seen that long ago! All the same, I remember the view seen down from the large window next to the painting onto the plaza. 

We spent two-and-a-half hours there. Yet we did not catch many works of art. I like to find fewer, better works. 

Therefore, we made a visit to get the exhibition about "German Expressionism." I wanted to learn about Egon Schiele. I read this last month a novel by Keith Kachtick, "Hungry Ghost" (my review). The cover art was a drawing by Schiele, "Squatting Woman" [="sitting (like a) tailor"]. 

I did not see that, but a pair of most bold and erotic watercolors by Schiele pleased me. Find at the links "Girl with Black Hair" (Mädchen mit schwarzem Haar, 1912) and  "Nude with Violet Stockings and Black Hair"  (Akt mit violetten Strümpfen und schwarzem Haar, 1912).  I think they are two daring delineations.

There's fifty horrible engravings by Otto Dix there. They're like the anti-war sketches by Goya. The standout etching for me from Dix: "Shock troops advance under gas," (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) from The War (Der Krieg, 1928-32).
After the Great War, Max Pechstein drew "The Lord's Prayer," (Das Vater Unser, 1921). It's a dozen wood engravings. I think they would move a person to pity.

I will tell you all about the other share of my favorites. My essay in Irish is to be continued next time. You all will read about a quartet of other works that pleased me there

Info: MOMA site. Image: "Squatting Woman" (a non-MOMA Schiele; I'm not able to find out precisely where yet).

Friday, April 15, 2011

"This is New York City. Nothing's free."

That summed up my visit for a weekend in mid-April. I heard this aperçu while waiting in line, nearly two sunny, bright hours, for the Ellis Island ferry. A city worker good-naturedly informed somebody ahead of me, in earshot, of the way life works in this relentless, definitive metropolis.

My family had never been there together. We'd been as a couple there twice around 1990. I don't recall much. I saw Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" at the Museum of Modern Art. I noticed the amount of pro-Palestinian pamphlets on sale at the UN. Seeing at last not only the Metropolitan Museum of Art but so much more arrayed up the river along The Cloisters turned out the high points for medievalist me.

We back then took a ferry to that same Ellis Island while posing as the tourists we were for Layne's film colleague who used us as footage with an big old stand-up moving camera on a tripod. He took us for a great Chinese onion pancake dinner. A college pal of Layne's treated us to another dinner; he was a wine purchaser, so wherever it was must have been well-chosen. You can see my recall of these two excursions remained dim; I did go to the Strand and bought a little Modern Library Synge.

We stayed both of our visits at an old hotel, with tiny elevator and operator, near Central Park. I wore my long trench coat and gloves for the first time, and the only one outside NYC (except when I took it to Ireland last visit when the ice storm hit Dublin, and one time when I wore it to Dodger Stadium and got soaked in the rain). I declined to take her on a horse carriage ride around the park on Valentine's Day night due to the frigid temperature. She never forgave me, but we did get married the next year.

When younger, my wife and I discussed vaguely her wanting to go again. Logistics, expense, and difficulty of corralling the boys dissuaded at least me if not her. But, news in The New Yorker of an Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney impelled her to keep sighing "I wish I could see the Hopper before I die" for what seemed endless nights, ever since this year started, into her pillow, in earshot, mine.

So, a week before we departed, we announced it to the boys. Niall has long wanted to go; Leo as predicted seemed less enchanted. But, a family vacation after so much stress had been merited by my long-suffering spouse, and the combined tickets, she assured me, were somehow in her calculations cheaper than if we'd booked the airfare and hotel separately. Despite my frugality, I capitulated somewhat gracefully.

The flight over? My wife and I sat together, the kids ahead: non-stop and seats free between us made this a quick trip and an easy one. I started the novel I'd been advised by my son to take, Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho." Its branding, relentlessly cynical and brutally witty accumulation of status, worry, and insanity all appealed to me as a Reagan years artifact from the city I'd visit. As my son also warned, given the explicit violence and a couple of sexual passages, I was glad nobody else sat next to me or saw the cover. My wife started the only NYC novel I could find from my stacks unread, Henry James' "Washington Square." As this was given to me, and as I "prefer not to" (as Manhattanite Bartleby might chime) read the Master, at least the book earned a reader after sitting on my shelf about as long as the time since we'd last seen NYC.

With my phone and a few music files, the arrival in Newark happened swiftly. Our driver in the shared van we'd booked looked Russian, with a silver coiffure that had to be seen to be believed, but we heard him speak Spanish. He seemed befuddled, and the passengers, a frumpy woman who seemed to have delayed our departure as she just showed up after we'd been waiting a long time, a Celtic-looking black curly-haired but American-accented guitarist, and a younger black woman headed for Long Island, took awhile to assemble. The driver kept vanishing with a clipboard; I figured people called the service just as the plane landed but then took forever to actually get to wherever they were to be picked up by the shuttle van.

The guitarist spoke on his phone the whole time, so I learned of his many cross-country friends and gigs, even if to his father he talked about two terse minutes (apologizing at one point for waking him up, so I wondered what time zone dad lived in, it being about 6 p.m. EST) compared to nearly an hour with pal(s). I am sure my sons would treat me and do treat me no different on the phone. Not much else to occupy my thoughts. The driver kept leaving with his clipboard at stops in the airport lanes, and it took a while to get out of the place, and then face a cliche come to life, a Garden State panorama of refineries, ruins (abandoned multiplex overlooking decaying multistory factories in the evening haze), and rush-hour traffic. If this was heading against it into Manhattan, I could only imagine, or I did not want to imagine, the other way out of the tunnel.

We descended into the Holland Tunnel from Jersey City, naturally. Very slowly as the radio played The Boss, Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." I learned the other day he incorporated his nearby (but doubtlessly farther from Asbury Park than he used to be) manse as a farm to avoid taxes. Layne likes him; all I can say is that I bought some of his records back when and never upgraded from vinyl, "Nebraska" excepted.

We emerged already nearly at our Hilton Garden Hotel in Tribeca. It is within earshot of the Tunnel, very close. So much that the driver fooled us by pretending he was lost when we pulled up in front, clueless as to where we were. It's a great location, with a patient staff, right at the "triangle-below-Canal" Street that gives this gentrified neighborhood its name. The film festival running all month rose on a nearby marquee.

Dinner at Cinque, a menu divided into fives as choices, proved decent. As we sat down, I noticed a boy about ten chattering away in a booth all by himself on a cellphone. My wife wrote about all of our meals on Chowhound, so I will not repeat what she better documents at "Long weekend with frugal husband and hungry teens". Suffice to say this was the other raison d'être for her destination. I add only that I liked the beer better than some meals. Read her typically informative post to find out about both bills of fare.

I append that the oatmeal, at respectively Bubby's (fake farmhouse with cow outside) in Tribeca ("18th c style" as granular) with raisins and brown sugar, The Kitchenette (gingham nightmare welcome to the dollhouse) on Chambers St. in the Financial District ("Irish" as flaked) with a nice fruit compote, and at the Grey Dog's Coffee (raw walls, hip art as I stared at a large painting by Laura Cuillé, "Revolution," most of an hour, a naked woman semi-frontal, photographed in two-tone and appliquéd with her hands raised, repeated four times and then reversed facing the other four, under a spray painted descent of golden globes and blue circles. Any artwork sticks with me after an hour, especially if attractive female nudes are involved) on 16th St. in Chelsea ("Baked" as if bread pudding) turned out well-chosen each breakfast. Prices for meals and drink were about a third higher than L.A. overall. I used to eat corned beef hash on the rare times I went out to breakfast on the rare trips I'd make, but since I converted to pescetarianism, I've switched dietary allegiances. I prefer a simple, no-nonsense food to test my meals by; compare my fish-and-chips habit!

We walked down Greenwich Street from Cinque that first night to the World Trade Center site. Not much to see as the tarps around the fence obscure the view from pedestrians. But seeing St. Paul's Church with its once-ash covered colonial gravestones as the witness to death across the street reminded me of the impact.

The next day, I roused myself from jet-lag enough to wonder where to go in search of Irish New York City. A search brought up to my mild surprise no local Hiberno-museum, given that the Italians and Chinese and even Ukrainians had theirs, but I did learn where the Irish Hunger Memorial was, close enough to walk. I learned later it opened the summer after 9/11. This Wikipedia entry links to the brochure and the insightful "Architectural Record" photo-essay by Roger Shepherd which for me sums up the effect of this half-passage tomb, half-reconstructed ruined home atop a mound of native Irish flora. Together it looks as if a piece of the old sod dropped out of the sky. Which, for a few million hit by the great hunger, and then landing in the New World, it might have felt like, for both observers and participants.

As the Irish memorial's but two blocks from the WTC ruins, I walked around the site again, on my way down and around the Hudson River parkway that led me to Battery City Park's esplanade. This site was built on land excavated from the WTC's original construction. I welcomed the fresh air, the quiet atmosphere, and what I first could view from atop the Famine memorial, the prospect of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

On my way, I listened. Coming out onto Vesey St. near the Irish half-acre site, I heard a foreman tell a group of departing hard-hats: "Here's one you haven't heard for a while. 'If we ain't got it, you don't need it.'" He then went on to explain this again. "That is, 'if I don't have it, you don't need it.'"

Later, on the Esplanade, an Asian-American woman was told by her blonde-dyed companion, both in their late-twenties and in office clothes: "So I tried it out.... He was so attentive! He listened to everything!!!" She related this revelation half-mockingly, half-marveling, in a typical, slightly Yiddishified inflection that I suppose any native New Yorker or new arrival must soon enough adapt as articulated camouflage.

I kept on walking. It was less than fifty degrees; the river air revived me. It took about fifty minutes to get from my hotel to Castle Clinton, the round fort which in "The Gangs of New York" unforgettably records another throng of Irish arrivals, and their immediate citizenship and inducting into the military for the lads off the boat and onto another for the Civil War. Meanwhile, the camera tracks to show coffins of the Union casualties unloading at the port. Only Pier A remains, soon to be restored, which is where the following day I heard while in line with my own half-Irish son the line that titles this entry.

But that first day, there were no lines. The last ferry, I'd learn the next day, for Ellis Island already had departed, leading me to a false expectation that there'd be no wait. I didn't know "airport-style security" loomed as well. So, another Mick newly docked gets fooled.

Speaking of half-Irish, I wondered around there if the Mitzvah Tank might pick me out on this lengthening pre-Shabbat afternoon (it was getting late for driving if you're Orthodox, but I suppose Chabadniks had all the getaways covered). I'd heard an amplified "yay-yay-yay" blasting the intersection where State St. and Broadway and Battery Place meet, near the Museum of Jewish Heritage (which seemed more like a Holocaust one, given the empty Student Workbook I found on a bench from it). Before I saw the Tank, I wondered if it was that (I'd never seen one in L.A. given I live far from any Jewish neighborhood) and not somebody cranking up reggae.

It stopped at a light, and a tall, fit, thirtyish man with a shaved head and a very slight beard walked by. He could have passed for a M.O.T. A young man with payes leaned out of the passenger window to ask him in a loud, inflected (that accent) voice if he wanted to lay tefillin. The man declined, the van turned, and I lost whatever nuances might have been exchanged due to traffic and those "yay-yay-yays." The man walked towards me and told his petite female companion about what that conversation was all about, at least from the snatch of speech I could pluck from the air full of that tune, as annoying as an ice-cream truck's jingle.

I told my wife this as I'd been speculating when hearing the tune before I even saw the Tank, what if they saw me? What would I say if asked? "Not Jewish enough for you?" But she insisted they'd never pick me anyway.

In front of the Castle, a group of black men, in their late-twenties or early-thirties, gathered in a half-circle. They appeared to challenge one of their own. One man posed as if beating down on another unseen figure. "I saw it. You were punchin' rocks through his head when he was down." I kept walking, head down.

The next day on the Ferry as it left the Statue of Liberty for Ellis Island, the seats were still few and the standees many. I offered twice my seat, but each time the elderly women declined. One confided, if in a loud local accent redolent of a character in, well, any Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese film: "you're a lost breed." She went on that such chivalry had ended partly as "they"-- her fellow feminists of the days of rage, I suppose?-- "really brought it on themselves," so that we gentlemen felt as if we offended the fairer sex if we implied they couldn't stand on their high heels or sensible flats as sturdily as we oafs. I thanked her for her courtesy as she had my attempted display of chauvinist etiquette, and I agreed tactfully.

On my way to Battery Park that day before, still, I did three good deeds. I say this not to appease my Recording Angel for the Book of Life, but to assure my doubting wife that I am not always the misanthrope I seem, at least out of her purview. An Irish-looking gent in his sixties asked me as I left the hotel where Walker's Restaurant was near Varick and Moore Streets. I knew already where both were, and I gestured to that location a few blocks away. I was not positive where the eatery itself was, of course, as I'd never seen it, so I took him back inside the hotel with me to confirm with the helpful bellhop.

(We'd go to Walker's with its worn wood floors, friendly staff, and packed tables for decent fish and chips with a good local Blue Point Spring Fling pint, a great Original Sin bottled cider for her the following night, as the alternative, a greasy if genuine dive bar across from the hotel, Nancy Whiskey's Pub, from my net research appeared too insulting and too much attitude. I feared they'd spit in my Guinness. They had but five dull other brews if a couple bucks cheaper. I figured the nearby NYPD First Precinct, whose van we saw pulled up two nights later, could keep their haunt to themselves if they wanted to mock us blow-ins.)

Anyway, I also helped an elderly Chinese lady whose groceries spilled out as she tried to cross the vast expanse of West Street on my way back to the river after seeing WTC following the Irish site. I caught her apple rolling down the crosswalk, others picked up other sundries, so all was restored to her sack. I then crossed against the light alongside similarly wary pedestrians under the "go ahead, I dare you" eye of the policeman doing traffic duty. 

On my way up the river walk from Battery Park, I tossed back a large rubber ball. A Chinese-American man had been hoisting his daughter up on a wall above the esplanade. She'd been waiting, I guess, for somebody to come along and see it and retrieve it. I obliged.

Passing Stuyvesant High School as it let out, I heard a girl shout "Taylor, call me later!" Given the prevalence of that name for this cohort, I wondered how many heads would turn. A student's frisbee slid perfectly into my foot as I waited for a light, legally. I bent to pick it up but a boy politely apologized and came over to grab it. Along the way nearing and past the school, I noticed the crowds of young people out of school: chess, handball, basketball all occupied them, and Indian and Asian faces predominated the ranks, with few white and fewer black faces. Throughout my stay in Manhattan, the number of Indians stood out, far more, or at least far more concentrated, than I'd see in Southern California. Not to mention nearly every taxi driver.

Speaking of cabbies, I passed the Irish memorial on my way back up the river and I visited it again. Then, just north of it, I noticed a "Relieve World Hunger Action Center" building. Coincidental? It promised that whether one visited a few moments or a few hours, one could help. Scientology?

As I mused about this juxtaposition, a cabbie, I presumed African from his demeanor and features, made a sharp and sudden u-turn in front of me. He hit the sidewalk at the next building, sharing space with the Hunger one as Poets' House. He mounted the curb in his hasty move. I heard a loud pop, and it looked as if the front right tire had exploded, but I could not see that side. I glanced at him with a sort of "wtf?" look, but he just acted as if it was a normal event in his daily commute. Yet, the taxi slowed in front of another one as I walked past both. I passed the taxis and didn't look back. Scientology?

After breakfast at The Kitchenette late next morning, Niall and I decided to walk down to go to Ellis Island, as we were halfway to Battery Park already from Chambers St. It was noon by the time we started. We stopped at St. Paul's and took in briefly the 9/11 memorials accumulated by the volunteers and firefighters who camped out there in the aftermath. Photos of the lost and missing and dead filled one display. I felt then a glimmer of what the city had endured. So, it was half-past by the time we got tickets at the Castle Garden.

Our wait crept by inch by inch, a quiet, genial black man from Texas in his thirties ahead of us (his elderly mother had sat way ahead before the railings and lines narrowed), and three loud Turkish men in their twenties yammered incessantly behind me, raucously laughing and doubling over every other second. They'd replaced four aging walrus-mustached somewhat still muscular ruddy men of a certain age, one of whom flamboyantly boasted of his unemployment and his desire to take a cruise to Italy and then the Greek islands on his income. I'm not sure if I'd have preferred hearing them emote for two hours compared to a language jabbered incessantly and shrilly from leather-jacketed louts from a nearby sun-baked nation less touristed. Maybe that scene in "Midnight Express" dissuades most today, despite Giorgio Moroder's disco-era score.

Not much to report otherwise; the busker entertaining the inching throngs made up a ditty for those near him after he asked each group their civic or ethnic origins. Luckily I got past him as he inquired from a pair of British students on the other side of the line. Reflecting the city, we were from everywhere else, it seemed, once again on the dock.

Ellis Island, after we passed but passed up the Statue of Liberty while I crouched down to see it from the window, proved as interesting as the first time. Nearly three o'clock by the time we disembarked. Thanks to an excellent guided tour, by  park ranger Victoria B. Scott, Niall and I spent forty-five minutes learning about the luggage sorting, the medical inspections, the lines and sorting, the myth of the name changes, the future of those 2/3 who never landed in NY but went straight to Jersey's shore for trains inland, and the fates of the 2% who were eventually sent home for mental or physical or financial limitations.

A chart in 1900 tallies 15% of Jewish arrivals as tailors and seamstresses, while the same percentage of Irish toiled as "laborers." Song sheets regaled us with images of what the public bought as caricatures of every ethnicity, or a few popular (or unpopular?) varieties. I could have stayed there all day.

We ran out of time, literally, from the detailed exhibits on immigrant life, to catch the ferry. Ahead of me, a young Indian pair. Behind me, four Italian students. Then, young Canadian Mennonites, the girls in modest wear, the man with a closely trimmed beard without a mustache. More Indians, then Spanish-speakers. All in line fondled cellphones. I tugged mine out to check e-mail while waiting for the next ferry. Globalization. I was third in line when the gangplank gate had slammed shut, so I stayed to think about my fate on the docks, in sight of Lady Liberty. I wondered who in my family had immigrated exactly when, as I remain clueless and likely given current states of affairs will go to my grave now as such. Niall went back in to try to look up records on his maternal side. Another ferry, the last. We neared Battery Park and watched the skyline grow.

Our trek up Church Street let us look east down Warren to the gleaming gold-statue topped City Hall. A demonstration had ended, full of gray-haired activists, many women with close-cropped hair, wearing vests with badges and slogans, in their sixties and seventies boarding a pair of coach buses (oddly labeled limousines). Their placards stacked up in the holding bin: "Stop Islamophobia. Israel out of Gaza. Free Palestine. End Zionist Apartheid." (I learned today in the Forward how Judith Butler, a queer theorist from Berkeley of Jewish descent, praised Hamas and Hezbollah as "progressive" organizations of the "global left." The paper's contributors, two LGBT campaigners, wondered how Butler'd fare under a Muslim theocracy.) With more hair, if dyed of course golden, we passed a worse-case scenario. Botox, nose job, and tanning straight off of Real Housewives of Jersey Shore: strutting and yapping as she strode out of a hotel, logoed bags filling each hand, proving there's always a sequel for coiffed and scary admirers of "Sex and the City."

Speaking of earlier civic demonstrations, we wondered how close was the old Irish ghetto Five Points, featured in "Gangs of New York." We saw a good deal of the Financial District. This was Niall's favorite area, being an intrepid walker while his brother slumbered, as I predicted. The next night, they opted for Katz's Deli despite or in spite of combined parental warnings that it'd not live up to their expectations, as they'd feasted at Langer's in L.A., which we all know's the best. (For once, Mom and Dad proved right, as the boys confessed by cellphone during our own, considerably more refined, fare that following evening.)

After the ferry, the four of us ventured to the former Meatpacking District at the West Village's north border. Two Indian women, early twenties, wrangled drunkenly with an Indian man about the same age. "I love you more than both of you," he shouted in equivalent powers of control as they bumped and ground lasciviously against each other, one up against the wall, the two women grappling as the man egged them on. They were loud. It was seven p.m. I realized I did not get out much on the town. I never get out much in any town.

We were there in this hip, but somehow appealingly gentrified, stretch of the beautiful and the damned to meet Layne's film colleague Rosemary at La Gazzetta. Even though I noticed we'd been seated at the back booth next to another family, while blondes and babes filled the window tables and a considerable din, alcohol-fueled, increased as our meal and their cocktails continued from a party of six single white females, I resigned myself to my elder statesman eminence grise. I found no Italian beer that appealing, so I was happy to drink the tap water again as throughout my stay. It lacks the sediment that makes L.A.'s sink drainings so unappealing, and my hair turned out much better under the shower, as it does anywhere else but at home.

Leo and Rosemary talked impressively about cinema, and Niall and I tried to hang in there. Later, we walked starting at Gansevoort St. on the High Line, a former railroad used by the warehouses, now an urban mini-park built on the right-of-way. An elevated promenade for about eight blocks, this impressed me. We could see the dark Hudson, of course, and lit skyscrapers peeked above silent apartments. The photo above taken by Leo's my favorite from many that night there, as if the viewers silhouetted can see the "picture" glass framed as city life below the line, above near16th or 17th Streets, as an endlessly changing flow of images.

Later, we took a cab slanting to the Village's other edge, past Henry James' Washington Square all tree-lined and silent, past NYU, into the once beatnik still hipster enclave. Leo noted Justin Theroux, who happened to be in the just-released dreadful stoner flick "Your Highness," sitting in a cafe window. Along such beats, there I suppose the just-deceased former girlfriend of Bob Dylan depicted on the album cover, Suzi Rotolo, had strolled with the troubadour (about as old as the guitarist on the shuttle bus?), arm in arm, nearly five decades ago. Caffe Reggio (1927), all green paint, was too jammed; Caffe Dante (1915), down MacDougal St. past Bleecker, drew us in. My first cannoli, recommended by our Boston Italian-raised host, pleased me there.

My third full day in the city, hammered by three nights of shouting and carousing by hotel guests slamming doors and yelling guffaws deep into the night and early into the morning, my sleep was off. But, off we went via the Grey Dog and two subways to the MoMA, as I've written about separately so you can see the eight works of art I liked best. After a rest in the hotel, time for our final meal (see my wife's post linked above for a rundown) at Colicchio's and Sons in that same High Line-adjacent district. An appealing place to watch the river and ales both flow. Our waiter, Ryan, was training as a "cicerone," a counterpart to a sommelier, so he knew his brews. We overlooked the river, and sunset accompanied our lovely salmon and standout beers.

The flight home was preceded by a very officious gatekeeper scrutinizing our carry-ons. This would be repeated before we re-boarded in Chicago: neither departure was particularly soothing. I felt sorry for the woman in a wheelchair moved directly in front of me into the "airport-style security" line. That we all had to subject ourselves to such patting and pawing makes me wonder how Professor Butler would lecture us for our imperial, Zionist sins vs. the sacrifices inflicted as well as endured by indigenous, "progressive" saints.

I'm reviewing Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam. French philosopher Michel Onfray argues that God won't go away soon given our wish-fulfillment fantasies. But, monotheism based on denial of the material and flight to the spiritual should erode: lest we increase ignorance and blood sacrifice. Onfray contrasts how monotheisms born from desert sands conjure lush paradises. Celestial visions lure crusaders, raise or raze walls, seduce suicide bombers. "By aiming for paradise, we lose sight of earth. Hope of a beyond and aspiration to an afterlife engender a sense of futility in the present. If the prospect of getting taken up to paradise generates joy, it is the mindless joy of a baby picked up from his crib."

One worker I passed as he left his shift from the WTC site had embroidered on his day-glo green safety vest over his heart and flag patch "9-11-01: I didn't forgive. I didn't forget." I watched a composed young woman, resembling Natalie Portman, davening out of a tiny blue book she held near her face as she recited softly the prayers for over half an hour; the flight from Newark had many travelers in full Orthodox garb.

I sat next to a man in a modest suit, aging, white, silent. I figured a businessman. No word the entire flight, no book in his hand. Near the end of the flight, he pulled out a humble, stapled booklet in three dozen languages. No illustrations; brochures stuffed in showed a colorful message aimed at passersby or children. One looked as if titled in Tagalog; another for all I know Albanian, Esperanto, or Ruritanian. Vaguely Slakan cognates stumped me. Each page of his polyglot pamphlet repeated an appeal for a Jehovah's Witness to recite while proselytizing. Even Hebrew. The script in English to which he turned was composed in a confident, confiding tone. The last paragraph had a place for the speaker to tell the listener his or her own name, and then to ask the listener for his or her name. This led to an gentle invitation to learn more about the missionary's message.

On the second half of the flight home, I was set among a hijab-clad contingent from O'Hare to LAX. Albeit randomly, this may have marked me as undesirable if not alien, Ellis novel in my hidden hand. Certainly this narrative's devoid of God, but no better for it. A swarthy, bearded but in that icky hirsute way, hipster lay ostentatiously on his tray table a new copy of the late David Foster Wallace's unfinished "The Pale King," all about alienation in a midwestern IRS office, all 560 pages cobbled together from thousands of scattered notes when the author committed suicide. Wallace would have been exactly the same age, born the same year, as Patrick Bateman, Ellis' protagonist. The chairman of the elite college English department where Wallace had tenure (replaced now by Brooklynite fabulist Jonathan Lethem) was a few years ahead of me in grad school, anointed for his ability to charm his elders if not his classmates. The bearded one did not get very far into Wallace's evocation of acedia-- it was bookmarked at the start-- before opting for his I-Pod.

I thought about my wife reading James's droll comedy of mores 150 years before "American Psycho." It's set near the end of the 1980s in that same city. The callow, well-educated but callous (a challenge to convey) protagonist-- in all his pornographic paranoia and grim greed, if leavened for a discerning few who might endure this impersonal, dehumanized, incisive (yes, all the more for its alienated rhetoric and numbed litany) tragicomedy of terrors with deadpan dialogue and gobbets of gallows humor-- turns out to be born a year after me. A terrible story of inflicted pain and endured estrangement, told chillingly and tautly. Its anomic plot unfolds around the same time my wife and I met, ending a year or so before we first landed in Gotham.

A crowded way, both ways. Chicago's layover however brief did not endear me to an airport I've suffered before. The trashcans still had the old mayor's name on it, not the newest, whose profanity levels exceeded even those yuppie scum as Ellis's preppie brokers. But, I was happy to sit next to Layne again the last leg. I ate my pistachios. I piled up the shells neatly bagged in my empty plastic cup for the dour blue-nailed stewardess to pick up with a sneer, as Ellis's narrator hacked up and jacked up his body count in Manhattan.