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

Friday, July 31, 2020

Yves Chiron's "Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy": Book Review

{Given my friend designed the cover, and first told me about the mystery man behind the scenes in Rome who's the subject of the book, I reviewed it: Reading Religion, July 25, 2020}

Annibale Bugnini
Archbishop Annibale Bugnini's method to "proceed discretely" (3) to advance his Vatican II reforms attests to his clever persistence and subtle scheming. The "new Mass" introduced fifty years ago owes much of its promotion to this Vincentian cleric. After Bugnini's success, “"conspiracy theories” (7) impugned his loyalty. The truth remains elusive, for his clerical collaborators refuse to release his correspondence. Therefore, drawing on interviews, archives, diaries, and memoirs of his confreres, French historian Yves Chiron in his twenty-sixth book, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, investigates the career and achievements of the past century’s leading liturgical innovator.

Dom Alcuin Reid introduces this book’s English-language edition, averring how Bugnini in Chiron's 2016 study "emerges as a remarkable organizer rather than as a theologian or liturgy expert" (11). Refusing hearsay, Chiron provides a sober account of Bugnini’s life’s work, limited to interpreting the documents at hand. This caution makes this biography trustworthy. It also results in a sober, cut-and-dried recital of facts.

From his novitiate in 1920 at the age of eighteen, Bugnini committed himself to the Liturgical Movement spearheaded by French and German Benedictines, Dominicans, and Jesuits. These pioneers had already invented, for at least a generation, experimental “paraliturgies” (25) aimed at increasing lay involvement and decreasing barriers to full entry by the congregation into the celebration of the Mass through a shift in prayers and songs to what they labeled a living language, the vernacular. Bugnini after his ordination composed a brochure touting such a service, where a lay lector would interpret and comment in Italian upon the Latin.

Starting in Rome in 1943, his bilingual Mass engaged the people with dialogue, as they chanted the responses, prayed aloud, and accompanied the priest's actions with their own gestures. Bugnini's self-published booklet of this version as "Our Mass," by its twelfth and final edition in 1962, had sold a million and a half copies.

Fittingly, by that year, Bugnini had embedded himself deep within the preparations for the ecumenical council announced by John XXIII. Bugnini’s eponymous “method” (82) to advance his liturgical reforms worked this way. First, he assigned specialists to meet separately to convene on restricted subjects. These specialists rarely had a chance to meet with their colleagues for a plenary vote on proposals. Second, he inserted vaguely worded passages into conciliar documents, to avoid censure or scrutiny.

After the Council could then be applied, free from papal censure, the reformers capitalized on their ambiguous phrasing and implied suggestions. This strategy worked; by the time Paul VI figured out how his trusted cleric within the Congregation of the Rite had tipped the scales in favor of the progressives, the Pope could not turn back the experiments which became the new normal in the 1969-–1970 vernacular Mass. Chiron acknowledges his subject's "perfect mix of know-how and communication skills" (109) which broadcast bold models. Concelebrated Masses, altars facing the congregants, and lay-led functions took precedence, followed by Communion in the hand and elimination of all Latin.

Chiron asserts that these features had been incrementally introduced through the 1960s, and that thus they are not as novel as detractors claim. This statement diminishes the ambitions of the reformers to sidestep the Council's insistence that Latin be preserved for the Canon as the foundation of the Mass. All the same, his judgment that by the end of the decade, the new Mass synthesized the updates already inserted by various bishops in certain dioceses or countries remains incontrovertible. A communal meal more than a sacrificial ceremony became the global standard, with every approved Mass entirely in the local language.

After shepherding further reforms in the breviary and other liturgies, Bugnini in his words had "been resigned" (137) suddenly in 1975. Pope Paul may, Bugnini alleges, have been influenced by "court intrigues" and rumors that he was a Freemason. This calumny persists. Translator John Pepino appends further documentation considering its effect on Bugnini a few years later as he denied the charge made in a letter to an American review of homiletics. Chiron sides with Bugnini given at least a reasonable doubt remains of his innocence.Yet Chiron admits he finds the evidence "inconclusive" (168). Until Bugnini's colleagues open his correspondence to public research, the case cannot be satisfactorily judged. Chiron gives Bugnini the benefit of his doubt.

Having no knowledge of Spanish, Bugnini refused the papal command to serve as nuncio in Uruguay. A year later, Bugnini found himself in Iran instead. He empathized with the burgeoning revolution against the beleaguered Shah; again, given the lack of documentation, the context of brief remarks Bugnini had written awaits the release of his letters. He continued writing books on the liturgy as well as his autobiography, which remains untranslated from Italian. He returned to Rome before his death in 1982. With that, Chiron's account stops too quickly, granting only a few paragraphs to his lasting impact after his daring implementation of reforms that have altered the Mass and liturgies ever since.

This brief book provides readers with a compendium of the documents and decisions undertaken over decades of liturgical innovation and experimentation. The audience may remain specialized, scholars of Church history and Catholic liturgy. Chiron eschews commentary or analysis of his subject. All the same, for English-language audiences, this gathers what is known at present from available sources.

Chiron leaves open the question of what impelled Bugnini to dismantle so much from so many centuries of Catholic heritage and accumulated stability. The book delivers the information, which may guide scholars into his proof-texts and the writings of those who worked with, or against, Bugnini.

For the time being, resigned to the embargo placed on full access to Bugnini's personal papers, Yves Chiron compiles what can be said to be known about this controversial prelate's mission to replace a venerable rite with a modern liturgy.