Thursday, April 28, 2011

Quote, unquote

"What d'you remember most about the sixties?"

Haynes didn't reply for several seconds. "The music," he said. "And, in retrospect, the innocence."


As memories, and sentiments, go, that's just about perfect.

(Ross Thomas, Twilight At Mac's Place, 1990, p. 53)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Janis Ian

I have been a fan since her first album (Janis Ian, 1967), which I bought, oddly enough, on the same day I got Blues Project Live at Town Hall (also 1967).[1] [Links from album titles are to the CD store on Ian's web site.] The song on that first album, of course, is "Society's Child," but, for me, it's maybe the fourth or fifth best song. "Hair of Spun Gold," "Tangles of My Mind," and "Janey's Blues" are all more memorable, better musically and lyrically. [Links to individual song titles are to video/audio recordings online.]

But beginning in 1974, and running through 1979, she released six albums in six years which make up one of the best sustained sets of music I have ever heard.

Stars, the first of the six, is bloody brilliant. The opening track ("Stars") opens : "I was never much for singing/what I really feel/But tonight I'm bringing/everything I know that's real..." And the chorus leaves me breathless: "Stars they come and go/They come fast or slow/They go like the last light/of the sun, all in a blaze/and all you see is glory." The real trick is that the album gets better from there. "Jesse" is probably the best known (and most-frequently covered--by Roberta Flack and Joan Baez, among many others), but "Dance With Me" ("I'm leaving by night/I'm leaving alone/I'm leaving it lie/When you waken I'll be gone/I would not beg for me/As I would not beg for you/Though I'd Like to be the one/To see you through") and "Applause" are also wonderful.

In 1975, we got Between the Lines, with (by my estimation) eight beautiful songs, starting with "When the Party's Over," followed by "At Seventeen," and running through the closer, "Lover's Lullaby." "At Seventeen" almost has to move anyone who was, in high school, far from being an insider, and remains young enough to remember it (and in 1975 I was only 10 years out). "Bright Lights and Promises" is a song about feeling lost, lonely, and somewhat shopworn by it all, but still manages an air of defiance. "Between the Lines" is the song on the album I remember most strongly ("So strike another match/We'll have another cup of wine/And dance until the evening's dead/Of too much song and too much time/There's never much to speak about/Or read between the lines/Of what we dream about/When we're apart/And no one's looking on/To say you're mine"). This is not a joyful set of music, but it is stunning.

Aftertones, in 1976, is not my favorite of these six albums (that's coming shortly), but it's still remarkable. "Love Is Blind" still blows me away, with an opening (and closing) so strong and so poignant ("Love is blind/love is only sorrow/love is no tomorrow/since you went away/Love is blind/how well I remember/in the heat of summer pleasure/winter fades"), the song so clearly written in the mind's winter. "Aftertones," which opens the album, with its reference to T.S. Eliot ("and measure out the time in coffee spoons") and its oddly uplifting chorus ("'Til all that's left are aftertones/I take them home/We live alone/But I remember chains of melody/It pleases me - this song's for free").

I love the title track on Miracle Row (1977). The lyrics, admittedly, aren't all that great, but, musically, the song is just about perfect, propelling you through the story with barely time to breathe. "Let Me Be Lonely," another song song about a strong person, moves me: "Ooo, let me be lonely/I'd rather be by myself/Than with you acting holy/I want to be the one/I want to be/or else I want to be free/Ooo, let me be lonely..." Maybe the best song, though, is "I'll Cry Tonight," which ends: "One day the rains will come/and wash away the years/Sunlight will fade the tears/Midnight comes too fast/and I don't want/the night to last..."

Then we get my personal favorite, from "That Grand Illusion," which opens the album, and from which I can't quote a line or two, it's all of nothing (and here are the lyrics), to the elegant, haunting closer, "Hopper Painting" ("I'm the one in the photograph/you painted yesterday'A high relief reflection/of your promises and pain/See me disappearing/like a shadow at high noon/I will follow when you want me to"), and everything in between. "Tonight Will Last Forever" may not read like a love song, but it sure sings like one, and I guess that's all that counts. "Streetlife Serenaders" is a hymn of praise to cities ("And I want to go back to the city, back to the city/Back to the city again..."); of course, "The Bridge" is, too ("I want to get back to the city/where the neon lights shine pretty/all day long..."). And the last words on the album are "Believe in me/before you throw it all away/Believe in me...I know the way." And that, my friends, is one of the greatest albums of all time, Janis Ian II.

Finally, in 1979, Night Rains. Clarence Clemmons shows up on a couple of tracks ("The Other Side of the Sun" and "Have Mercy Love), Ron Carter, the World's Greatest Bass Player (TM), plays on "Photographs," and Chick Corea and Janis play pianos on "Jenny (Iowa Sunrise)." "Night Rains" has, I think, the strongest lyric ("I have seen the starlight fading/into echoes on the floor/And I dreamed the star's parading/like tin soldiers on the shore/The city casts no shadow now/At midnight, and the whores/come out and dance with darkness/and the night rains pour"), and "Jenny" has the strongest music.

God, what a run.

There's much great music later. God and the FBI is a brilliant album, with a half a dozen or more wonderful songs; I'm particularly fond of "Murdering Stravinsky" and "The Last Comeback," and "Boots Like Emmy Lou's" always makes me smile. Breaking Silence and Revenge both give me chills (if you don't believe that, listen to "Take no Prisoners" on Revenge). And Billie's Bones is not exactly chopped liver.

But for sheer sustained brilliance, I'll take the six year run of Stars, Between the Lines, Aftertones, Miracle Row, Janis Ian II, and Night Rains. Do yourself a favor. Listen.

[1] If you are not familiar with Blues Project, well, you should be. But that's another post, not this one.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

This entire post is a spoiler, so skip it

...if you're intending to read Nicola Upson's second mystery featuring Josephine Tey, Angel With Two Faces. The first book in this series, An Expert In Murder, was good enough to get me to buy and read the second. Which was bad enough that I'm not going to read the third.

In Angel..., Tey and her close friend Archie Penrose (of Scotland Yard) travel to Cornwall, to his home village, to get away from London. The setting (which is real) is well-enough evoked, but the plot seems primarily designed to provide (fictional) evidence for Sherlock Holmes' tirade about the countryside (from "
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"):

"It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.… The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

I don't know if I can convey a complete sense of how unpleasant the people in this Cornish village turn out to be, but let me try.

The story is set in Archie's home town/village/manor in the 1930s. The character whose actions generate, really, the entire book (Harry) has a long-standing (and consensual) incestuous relationship with his twin sister Morwenna. When his parents discovered that relationship (some years before the book opens), he burned down their house, killing them, and himself escaping only by the efforts of his neighbors, who also rescue his younger sister (Loveday). (He apparently didn't care whether she lived or died.) (And Loveday is widely considered to be a bit simple-minded.)

Harry subsequently, in a drunken rage, kills a stranger to the village, fakes his own death (using the stranger's corpse). He finally kills the man (Nathaniel) who had been his best friend for most of his life.

Nathaniel, the curate, (a) has discovered that he is in love with Harry, an affection he tries hard to disguise and (b) has been told, by Harry's younger sister Loveday, what Harry did the night his parents died. (He confronts Harry, which ultimately triggers his death.)

Archie's mother (Lizzie), as it happens, was the victim of rape by her younger (Jasper) brother many years before. (Archie, you will recall, is the Scotland Yard guy.) Jasper, now the vicar, is stealing from the church and also corecing at least one member of his parish (Beth Jacks) into a sexual relationship. Beth's husband, the gamekeeper on the estate, beats her regularly for no particular reason. This is widely known, but no one does anything about it.

Lizzie married and had a long and happy marriage, until her husband (whose name I cannot remember or find) began to suffer from what we now call Alzheimer's disease. Ultimately, she poisoned him (to relieve his suffering) and then, some weeks later (long enough that the two events would not be directly linked) apparently also poisoned herself. Not that either of these poisonings was suspected.

The cook at the manor house, Dorie Snipe, was also badly abused by her husband. He, however, was discovered by his brother, Jago (now the undertaker), who told him to leave (which he did).

Jago and another man in the village (Joseph Caplin) both lost their wives in childbirth at about the same time. The village wise woman (Morveth) convinced Caplin to given up his son to the orphanage-cum-old-people's-home-cum-poorhouse, convincing him that he would not be able to raise the boy on his own. Morveth then removes the boy (Christopher) from the orphanage and gives him to Jago, whose baby daughter died along with his wife, telling him that he could provide Christopher with a good home and life.

Christopher, now an apprentice undertaker and believing himself to be Jago's son, falls for Loveday, and gets her pregnant (which she doesn't realize). Morveth (the wise old woman) and Morwenna (her older sister, Harry's twin) conspire to induce a miscarriage (both think the child was Harry's).

In the end, Harry comes secretly back home, where Morwenna feeds him a sleeping potion and then sets a fire in his bedroom (after helpfully locking him in). She then hangs herself in the wood, at least making sure that Loveday does not discover either Harry's body or hers.

Meanwhile, no one much gets upset by any of this. Morveth wants to cover it all up. As it all slowly comes out, Archie loses it when he finds out about what his uncle did to his mother, and Josephine loses it when she is struck by the full realization of Morveth's influence over everyone. But there's a pronounced lack of shock or amazement or revulsion or shame or concern for the lives of those left behind, especially given that the story is set in the 1930s.

Virtually every character with a significant role in the book (the exceptions are Archie and Josephine, Archie's cousins Lettice and Robbie, and their father, Archie's uncle, William) has a dark secret, all of which are exposed as we go along. By the end, the accretion of all this is almost painful. And, by the end, all the killing has been done by people who are now dead, so all those other secrets look likely to remain secret.

I'm not sure how one is supposed to feel about that ending, but it's sure not comfortable...