Monday, November 8, 2010

Incongruous Amazon Orders

Amazon informs me that they have shipped my most recent order:

Seamus Heaney, Human Chain: Poems

William Tapply, Outwitting Trolls: A Brady Coyne Novel

I suppose it could be an odder combination (Seamus Heaney and Mickey Spillane?), but, still, it's odd enough.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The greatest song ever written

The morning dj on my favorite radio station (Lin Brehmer on WXRT-FM, 93.1 on your FM dial, or over the limitless internet) frequently tells us he's about to play "the greatest song ever written (I think he up to 193 of them so far). It is, of course, just a little trope, but it always makes me think...what is, for me, the greatest song ever written? Which is, of course, just a trope for me.

But there are three songs for which I can remember the first time I ever heard them, so maybe that'll do for a start.

"Mr Tambourine Man," which came out on Bringing It All Back Home in March 1965...I heard it first when three of us were driving around the east side of Indianapolis in a 1957 Chevy convertible and it came on the radio. Which was tuned to WBZ in Boston. I heard Dylan's version before I heard the Byrds' truncation of it, and I can still hear that song anytime I want.

"Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’,
Swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone,
It’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces
Of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time,
It’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing..."

The ending especially:

"Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Sillouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With no memory or fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today
Until tomorrow..."

There's not a wasted word, not a wasted syllable in the whole song...

Five years later, I was driving from Madison, Wisconsin, to Greencastle, Indiana, on bitterly cold February night, just north of Wolcott, Indiana. The snow was so deep that I felt like I was driving in a tunnel (but the pavement had been plowed), when, all of a sudden, on a radio station I don't remember (but it must have been Chicago), I heard this:

"When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all..."

I felt like I already knew that song, like I could sing along with it having never heard it before...

"I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down..."

I felt like Paul Simon had heached into my head and managed to know what I felt...

"When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I'll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down..."

I felt like I was sailing, through the black night, to somewhere I would be safe...

"Sail on silver girl, sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind."

I can still hear Art's beautiful tenor and feel the music. Right then, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" seemed like the greatest song ever written.

Another five years, January 1975. Another road trip. This time, driving from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Indianapolis, Indiana. Somewhere around Louisville this:

"Early one morning the sun was shinin'
I was layin' in bed
Wond'rin' if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red..."

Another vision of which I felt like I was a part...

"So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they do with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue."

No one had to tell me it was Bob Dylan (again changing my life). I can still sing that song to myself, and I often do. "Tangled Up in Blue" still makes me stop and listen (and, to this day, I think that Blood on the Tracks has to be one of Dylan's four or five best albums).

(An addendum, about something which, believe it or not, I hadn't noticed until I was writing this post. Look at how the perspective shifts from verse to verse:

"I was laying in bed..."

"She was married when we first met..."

I had a job in the great north woods..."

"She was working in a topless place..."

"I lived with them on Montagu Street..."

Ending with the narrator:

"So now I'm going back again..."

It's an amazing song.)

Are these the greatest songs ever written? Well, probably not. But they are the only ones I can place in time and space, the only ones that I can hear, every time, as if it were the first time...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Where were you?

For many people about my age, four dates stand out in our memories.

Where were you when John Kennedy was shot? (November 22, 1963)

Where were you when Martin Luther King was shot? (April 4, 1968)

Where were you when Robert Kennedy was shot? (June 6, 1968)

Where were you when Alison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were shot? (May 4, 1970)

In memoriam...

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio
Four dead in Ohio
Four dead in Ohio
Four dead in Ohio

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two American Photographers

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered two photographers whose work has just blown me away—Robert Adams (born 1937) and Andrew Moore (1957). Their work is very different—Adams is more a landscape photographer, while Moore seems drawn to urban settings, with some emphasis on urban decay. But both of them have created works of immense beauty.

I saw a review of Robert Adams’ book Summer Nights Walking, a recent republication and expansion of his 1985 book Summer Nights, both published by
Aperture, which is virtually a guarantee that the technical aspects of the book, and its physical appearance, will be perfect. Aperture’s website describes the book as follows:

Illuminated by moonlight and streetlamp, the houses, roads, sidewalks, and fields in Summer Nights, Walking
(Aperture/YUAG, September 2009) retain the wonder and stillness of the original edition, while adopting the artist’s intention of a dreamy fluidity, befitting his nighttime perambulations. The extraordinary care taken with the new reproductions also registers Adams’s attention to the subtleties of the night, and conveys his appeal to look again at places we might have dismissed as uninteresting. Adams observes, “What attracted me to the subjects at a new hour was the discovery then of a neglected peace.”

These black-and-white photos, shot in Colorado in the 1970s and 1980s, lead you through a community you’ve never seen, and make you a part of it. His other images take you through an American west that is endlessly interesting. His images are generally uncluttered, with a clear central focus; they are always sharply observed; the viewer, even one seeing a familiar setting, sees it differently, changed. A recent exhibition at the
Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco focuses on trees—stumps, seedlings, (what looks to me like a clear-cut) mountainside, mature trees…again, an American landscape transformed by how it is viewed.

Andrew Moore has worked, it seems, largely in color. His recent exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, is the basis for his book
Detroit Disassembled. This is a stunning collection of a city in the midst of collapse, with images from the industrial heart of the city (photographs of Ford’s River Rouge plant, Fisher Body, the old Packard Motor Car Company plant), to municipal buildings, to civic landmarks to the neighborhoods. It’s interesting to contrast his photographs of the Rouge (e.g., on pp. 9 and 13) with the extremely elegant photographs in Michael Kenna’s The Rouge. Kenna worked in b&w, and his images are understated, the decline and decay less obvious behind a foreground of strength and solidity.

Moore takes us inside, shows us the rusting equipment, the empty factory space, bare of equipment and people, stretching, it seems, almost to infinity. Two struck me with special force. The first is an office at the former Ford headquarters building (p. 31), with what appears to be a sumptuous green carpet, but may be, you realize, sumptuous green mold. The second is an elegant brick building, obviously abandoned (p. 103), when you note the homeless man in the entryway. It’s the University Club of Detroit, once the locus of upper-middle-class power in the city, now covered with vines, in red, yellow, and green.

But throughout the book I saw images that arrested me—an old, classic movie palace turned into a parking deck; a (closed) library branch, with carousels of paperbacks still there…

Take a look yourself, at the work of both of these photographers, and be prepared to have your way of seeing changed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (Volume I)

I was doing my usual today, driving down I-65 for a couple of hours, for which I need music of my own for the 90 minutes or so I'm out of range of decent radio (no sattelite radio for me yet). I'd brought along Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, which I played. (Man, is than one short CD--35-40 minutes, max). Ten songs, which are (albums, with links, in parentheses):

"Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" (Blond on Blond)
"Blowin' in the Wind" (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)
"The Times They Are a-Changin'" (The Times They Are a-Changin')
"It Ain't Me Babe" (Another Side of Bob Dylan)
"Like a Rolling Stone" (Highway 61 Revisited)
"Mr. Tambourine Man" (Bringin' It All Back Home)
"Subterranean Homesick Blues" (Bringin' It All Back Home)
"I Want You" (Blond on Blond)
"Positively 4th Street" (not previously released on an album)
"Just Like a Woman" (Blond on Blond)

Now, that's quite the set of music. But as I listened to it, I thought, you know, it'd be possible to do another 10 songs, from the same period (i.e., nothing past Blond on Blond), and it'd be easy enough to call that his greatest hits, too. So I thought I'd try it. Here's the rules: Same number of songs from each of the same albums; nothing that was subsequently released on Greatest Hits, Vol. II (which, from these albums, would rule out "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," "All I Really Want to Do," "My Back Pages," "Maggie's Farm," "She Belongs To Me," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

So that's three from Blond on Blond, two from Bringing It All Back Home, one each from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited, and one previously unreleased. Hmmm...leaving out the things on GHII could make this tricky.

So, three from Blond on Blond.
"Visions of Johanna"
"Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine"
"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"

Two from Bringin' It All Back Home:
"Gates of Eden"
"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding"

One from Freewheelin':
"Masters of War" (that was easy)

One from The Times They Are A-Changin':
"One Two Many Mornings"

One from Another Side...:
"Chimes of Freedom" (probably the weakest song so far)

One from Highway 61...:
"Highway 61 Revisited" (although I'd be happy to take "Desolation Row," too, or "Tombstone Blues")

One unreleased:
"Farewell, Angelina"

So let's line them up:

"Visions of Johanna"
"Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine"
"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"

"Gates of Eden"
"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding"
"Masters of War"
"One Two Many Mornings"
"Chimes of Freedom"

"Highway 61 Revisited"
"Farewell, Angelina"
Bonus tracks:
"Desolation Row"
"Tombstone Blues"

I'd buy it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pat Metheny's Orchestrion

I have greatly enjoyed Pat Metheny's work since I first heard him play (on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, released in 1981). The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) is one of the great soundtracks ever, in my opinon. The Pat Metheny Group CDs that I have [Still Life (Talking) (1987); Letter From Home (1989); The Road To You (1993); We Live Here (1995); Quartet (1996); Imaginary Day (1997; this is a truly brilliant CD, and has one of the most intriguing covers I have ever seen--I wish I could decode it); Speaking Of Now (2002); and The Way Up (2005)] are filled with wonderful music; I play them often. His collaboration with Charlie Haden, Beyond the Missouri Sky (1996), is a stunningly beautiful set of music. Song X (1986), with Ornette Coleman (and DeNardo Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, and Charlie Haden) is a work of immense majesty. The work with Brad Meldau [Metheny/Meldau (2006) and Metheny Meldau Quartet (2007) is truly wonderful. I have not yet mentioned One Quiet Night, a solo album (2003), which is lyrical and entrancing. His collaboration with Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Roy Haynes andDave Holland, Like Minds (1998) swings. His works with John Scofield [I Can See Your House From Here (1993)] and with Jim Hall [Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (1996)] help define what you can do with guitars. I could go on, but I think this makes my point. Pat Metheny's music has pleased me and challenged me and stimulated me immensely over the years.

So my expectations for Orchestrion (2010) were extremely high. Metheny plays all the instruments on this CD (described as guitars and "pianos, marimba, vibraphone, orchestra bells, basses, guitarbots, percussion, cymbals and drums, blown bottles, and other custom-fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments, keyboard"), in what he describes as an attempt to " idea from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the technologies of today to create a new, open-ended platform for musical composition, improvisation and performance."

My problem is that the music, while mildly interesting and definitely inoffensive, is also unobtrusive, and, frankly, forgettable. I have played the CD twice in the past two days, and nothing I have heard caused me to listen intently. Nothing created an emotional engagement. Nothing challenged me, beyond the intellectual challenge of trying to pick apart the sounds I heard into their constituent elements. Metheny's guitar playing remains fluid and melodic, but, in this case, it's a fluidity and virtuosity without much in the way of interesting musical ideas. It seems more that he has forced his playing into conformity with an idea for creating music, rather than having created music which led to a way of playing.

This is a set of music that is easily listened to, but all too easily forgotten. And that's too bad.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Michael Gilbert, Fear to Tread--And Rationing

One writer whose work I have come very lately to is Michael Gilbert (1912-2006). A couple of months ago I read his first mystery novel, Close Quarters (1947). I subsequently read Smallbone Deceased (1950). (I give thanks nightly for Tom and Enid Schantz and the Rue Morgue Press, whose work keeps a large number of authors in print, when they might otherwise be entirely forgotten.) And I just finished his 1953 novel, Fear to Tread (1953) (out of print, but available from numerous used book sellers).

In Fear to Tread, Gilbert tells the story of the headmaster of a minor council school (what we in the US would call a public school) in London, to whom a series of unusual events occur. Largely because he can’t leave well enough alone. The plot moves right along, even if the ending is somewhat forced (everything sort of comes down with a thump at the end). What is perhaps most interesting to me is that the book deals directly with post-World-War-II shortages and rationing in England. Gilbert lays out a convincing scenario for the development of a highly organized black market operation, convincing enough that I wondered whether it was based on fact. The principal characters were reasonably well-developed and acted in ways that their characters would have suggested. All in all, a reasonably good book, one I’m glad I read and more than glad to recommend. And Gilbert was, I think, still developing as a writer; it was only his 7th book.

What it made me think about, though, was the persistence of rationing and explicit shortages in post-World-War-II England. While I knew that such shortages had existed, I had never read an explanation for it, and so I investigated.

Tony Judt, in his book Postwar (which I cannot recommend strongly enough; it is magnificent), provides this explanation:

“In order to increase the country’s exports (and thus earn vital foreign currency) almost anything was either rationed or simply not available: meat, sugar, clothes, cars, gasoline, foreign travel, even sweets. Bread rationing, never imposed during the war, was introduced in 1946 and not abandoned until July 1948. The government ostentatiously celebrated a ‘bonfire of controls’ on November 5 1949, but many of those same controls had to be re-imposed with the belt-tightening of the Korean War, and basic food rationing in Britain only ended in 1954—long after the rest of western Europe” (pp. 162-163).

This is not really an explanation. Simply rationing consumer goods will do nothing (to speak of) to increase exports, which are dependent on demand for British goods in other countries. So it’s income in other countries that matter, and the prices of British goods. Rationing has no effect on either of those. The exchange rate—the price of the Pound in other currencies--matters greatly, and what Britain needed was for the Pound to become less valuable—lower-priced, That would have led to expanded exports. But the world was under a regime of fixed exchange rates during that time, and the value of the Pound remained roughly constant at (for example) $2.80 to the Pound from 1950 on, after depreciating by about 30% from the end of the war to 1950.

Judt suggests that the objective was to amass foreign currency—but to what end? Dollars, or Francs, or Lira were valuable only as a means of purchasing goods from other countries. And while rationing was not effective at boosting exports, it was (in combination with currency controls) effective at reducing imports.

Exports did, in fact, roughly double between 1947 and 1954, but this is hardly a surprise (given that British exports during the war were essentially zero). Imports also roughly doubled.

The only plausible alternative explanation, since Judt’s won’t work, is that the British government used rationing as a means of damping down inflationary pressure. This seems to have worked moderately well, as the average annual rate of inflation in Britain in the decade immediately following the war was about 6% (and most of that in 1946. 1947, 1950, and 1951). Except that the measured rate of inflation is hardly a useful guide to the “real” rate of inflation when rationing and other controls are in place.

So I’m still looking for the “why” of rationing. Gilbert’s book does a very nice job with the “what,” in the context of ordinary people’s daily lives.

The happiest songs

Joe Posnanski has posted a list of 277 (and growing) songs that make him happy; it's a very personal list, as he points out, and there's a lot in it to disagree with (including his rules--one song per artist?), and his Bob Dylan song ("Don't Think Twice, It's Alright") is almost the antihesis of happy. But I did start thinking...and since I listen to a lot of jazz, here's what I have come up with, so far, in no particular order and with no restrictions:

Miles Davis, "Stella by Starlight," live on My Funny Valentine

Cannonball Adderly, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," live on Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (Of course, that whole album is happy..."Fun," "Games, "Sticks," "Hipadelphia,"
even "Sack 'o Woe"

Dave Brubeck, "Take Five," on Time Out

Pat Metheny, "Last Train Home," on Still Life (Talking) and live on The Road to You

Charles Lloyd, "Dream Weaver," on Dream Weaver

John Coltrane, "After the Rain," on Impressions

Stan Getz, "Con Alma," on Sweet Rain

Antonio Carlos Jobim, "The Red Blouse," on Wave (maybe the sexiest album I know of)

Oscar Peterson, "Let There Be Love," on Live At the Blue Note

Duke Ellington, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," one place is on The Essential Duke Ellington

Louis Armstrong, "Walking My Baby Back Home," one place is on The Essential Louis Armstrong

I'll add to this, but right now I have to get back to work.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A beginning

I read a lot.

And I listen to a lot of music.

And I have opinions.

So I thought I'd create a place where I could record what I'm thinking about what I'm reading (mostly mysteries) and what I'm listening to (mostly jazz, with some classical and somewhat more rock).

I don't expect to post very often, but I do expect to have some fun here. See you soon.