Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Birthday Junot Diaz (and Happy New Year to You)


TODAY is, by most accounts, the end of a decade -- and a mostly bad one at that. But it gives us here at the Misread City some pleasure to nod to a writer of the oughts who we're hoping will be an even bigger figure in the 2010s. Today is the 41st birthday of Junot Diaz, author of the story collection "Drown" and the Pulitzer winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."


I spoke to Diaz here about his love of science-fiction -- like me, a passion he chased for several years as a kid but gave up when adolescence hit hard. Writing "Oscar Wao" -- about a "ghetto nerd" who aimed to become "the Dominican Tolkien" -- brought Diaz back to sf in his mid-30s. (Why I returned at about the same time I can't quiet explain, but I think fewer people are asking.)

In any case, the novel is kickass and manages to wrap humor, a coming-of-age story, and critique of immigrant culture into an international history lesson like nothing I've seen.

I also wrote about Diaz in a Sunday essay about cultural hierarchy -- the division between what's long been considered high and lowbrow art, literature, music, etc., and why those categories seem to be breaking down. (It's a long piece, but  one of the best read things I've written, for what that's worth.)

Wishing the novelist Junot Diaz -- who also had the good sense to teach in '09 at my alma mater -- a good 41st.

And to readers of The Misread City, thank YOU for your interest and attention, and a Happy New Year to All.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Saturnalia to All


SORRY this is a few days late, I've been busy burning wax candles, praying to the god of the harvest, wearing goofy hats and drinking watered-down Roman wine, but let me wish everyone a happy Saturnalia.

To those who celebrate otherwise, a happy holiday to you as well.

May the New Year and its harvests smile on you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Congratulating Spoon -- Alas

FIRST of all, I'm awfully pleased that one of my favorite working bands -- the Austin/ Portland combo Spoon -- has been voted the decade's best indie rock band, American division, by the readers of The Misread City. More proof that my Steve McQueen/ '59 Miles Davis/ Audrey Hepburn- digging followers have great taste. (And an incredibly retro sensibility, but maybe that is my fault.)

For this indie list, I tried to concentrate on groups that were of the 21st century rather than '90s bands that held on. I included Sleater-Kinney, because of a very strong Indian summer, but left off some of my favorites, like Built to Spill and Yo La Tengo. And while Spoon began in the '90s, and put out at least one good record before the turn of the century, the winning streak that began with 2001's "Girls Can Tell" has made them the most consistently exciting indie band of the period. They're also a sharp, focussed, driven live band, and they no longer remind me unduly of their influences -- Pixies, Wire, Revolver-era Beatles.

Some of their best songs: "Rhythm and Soul," "Don't Make Me a Target," "Sister Jack." Here is the atypical tune "I Turn My Camera On," which still has their characteristic mix of minimalism and rhythm. And here is the sly, funky "Don't You Evah," with a more typical nasal Britt Daniel vocal.

So I've already said I love this band., and I can't wait to hear their next LP, "Transference," which comes out in mid-January. (Here is Sunday's NYT piece, not by me.)

But there's also something a bit deflating about Spoon being the decade's winner. This is a modest group that does something very specific and often low-key. Compared to the greatest Amerindie bands of the 90s -- Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, etc. -- they are stylistically conservative. Compare them to 80s indie -- Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Replacements -- they seem unambitious.

I won't blame Spoon for this -- they are a kickass group and keep getting better. But it makes me wonder if indie has lost its ability to innovate, to surprise us. Another of decade's most celebrated bands, The Strokes, sounds to me like a pedestrian pastiche, and groups that I was once excited about -- Interpol, for instance, the Shins, the Decemberists -- haven't really gone anywhere.

We're a long way from indie rock being a dead language, but it has certainly become a constricting one. Here's hoping that the 2010s show a group or movement arriving to open it up a bit. Two of my runners up -- TV on the Radio, with their baffling blend of Eno, dub and hip hop -- and Wilco, with a commitment to a personal vision -- may show the way forward.

Until then, I"ll be blasting "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga."


Photo credit: Merge Records

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas With John Fahey

AN underrated West Coast guitarist, the great and mysterious John Fahey, is best known for gloomy, weird, angular records like "Blind Joe Death" and "The Voice of the Turtle" that begin in Charley Patton territory and in some ways anticipate the anti-folk movement.


But for me, Fahey and his "American primitivist" style is most important as part of my Christmas experience, and has been for decades now. Around this time of year, I develop this weirdly atavistic connection -- the kind I would surely find corny in others -- to my Anglo-Irish roots, and I play a lot of dark Celtic folk music, old and new. But there's nothing I play as often, or soak up as deeply, as Fahey's solo acoustic Christmas record, "The New Possibility," which I know from my parents.


In some ways -- I'm glad to say -- it's as gloomy, weird and angular as his other work. Fahey (who died in '01 -- here is his posthumous website) was an odd cat.


Here is the album's first song, "Joy To the World."


Here he is teaching "auld lang syne" behind dark glasses.


And here, a subdued reading by a young Fahey of the Anglican hymn, "In Christ There is no East or West."


Anyway, alongside Johnny Cash's gospels recordings and Bach's sublime and lonely cello suites, this is stuff is almost enough to make me love Protestantism.

Update for fall 2013: Fantasy has reissued The New Possibility on vinyl, and put out a new CD compilation of his four holiday albums called Christmas Guitar Soli with John Fahey. They're on their way to me, look forward to hearing. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jazz, 1959 and Today

ONE of the exciting things in music this year was the excuse a 50th anniversary gave to us jazzheads to return to what I consider the best year ever in the history of the art form. Okay, I know that sounds like something between an advertising slogan and a gloomy denial of the ensuing 50 years. But in a year when Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, etc. were all punching at their respective peaks, it's hard not to miss it.

The winner of this blog's poll for best 1959 jazz album, of course, was Miles' "Kind of Blue." HERE is a link to my Sunday LATimes piece on that album and its musical / cultural context.

Sony has reissued that masterpiece as well as several others in expanded editions this year. The 2-CD versions of "Blue," Brubeck's "Take Five," "Mingus Ah Um," and Olatunji's "Drums of Passion" -- which the late great dj/critic Tom Terrell called one of the century's overlooked masterpieces -- make perfect Christmas gifts.

(I'm happy to say I own the deluxe-anniversary set of "Blue," bigger and alas pricier than the 2-CD version, with photographs of the session and vinyl LPs in addition to outtakes.)


For those of you interested in listening closer to the present, HERE is a best-of-2009 list from Jazz.com's Ted Gioia (author of the truly awesome "West Coast Jazz") which includes albums by Joe Lovano, The Bad Plus and Matthew Shipp. Those three alone make me happy -- as much as I love the old-school cool of 1959 -- for the form's last five decades of evolution.

 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday to Philip K. Dick


This blog has drifted into Africa and Italy recently, so let me return for a moment to our West Coast home ground: Today would be the birthday of one of America's most intriguing, frustrating and brilliant writers -- Philip K. Dick.

It's hard to know where to start on a figure like this, but let me defer to David Gill, a Bay Area lecturer who runs the clever and instructive Total Dick-head site. Check out his new posts.

Most of you need no introduction to PKD (who lived, sometimes erratically, primarily in the Bay Area and Orange County) or his body of work -- novels like "The Man in the High Castle," "Ubik," "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" and movies like "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "A Scanner Darkly." He was an important inspiration for everything from "Brazil" to "The Matrix" to "Being John Malkovich." And the careers of many important novelists of my generation -- Jonathan Lethem is the clearest case -- were shaped profoundly by him.

Even the mighty Thomas Pynchon bears his stamp.

These days I am reading and rereading a lot of the work of this author who LA's Steve Erickson helped save from obscurity, Art Spiegelman called the Kafka of the late 20th c., and who Ursula Le Guin called "our own homegrown Borges." So I'll leave the rest of my thoughts to a piece I think will drop next month -- which I hope will be the first of several.

I read some of Dick's work as an SF-loving teenager. Not all the stuff I read then stands up -- Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" seems to wrap a wonderful premise around endless libertarian rants, and the characters in Asimov's Foundation books seem even flatter than than were when I was 13 -- but Dick's work, for all its flaws, has only grown in my estimation. (I won't quite class him with Beethoven, but enjoy the coincidence that the composer and this dedicated fan of Austro-German classical music were both born on Dec. 16.)

On what would be PKD's 81st birthday, I'm struck, as is everybody else, by how clearly he seemed to get where our culture was going -- in books written as early as the early '60s. I'm not talking about literal prediction (of, say, technological gadgets) but a broader understanding of human nature and society and religion that makes his vision far more prescient than that of the more optimistic, often militaristic Golden Age writers who preceded him.

For now, I'll leave my readers with a wonderful piece by Laura Miller with the title "It's Philip Dick's World, We Only Live in It." For better and worse, that is.

Chinua Achebe, Past and Present

PERHAPS the most consistently engaging critics of new books these days, the New York Times' Dwight Garner, has a fine piece today on the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, author of colonialism classic "Things Fall Apart." Achebe's new collection of essays -- his first book of any kind in two decades -- is called "The Education of a British Protected Child."

In the new collection, which I've not seen yet, Achebe talks about Joseph Conrad -- Achebe's writing on the  "Heart of Darkness" and its racism have become well-known over the years -- the English novels he grew up reading, Nigerian politics, and his decision to write in English and not one of his nation's more deeply rooted languages.


When "Things Fall Apart" -- an enduring and incisive novel -- turned 50 last year, I spoke to several African novelists, including Achebe himself and fellow Igbo Chris Abani. Here's my story. And I look forward to seeing Achebe's new collection.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Berlusconi and Italy's Dark Heart


IN the "couldn't happen to a nicer guy" department comes the recent attack on Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in Milan. The attack broke two teeth and fractured the media mogul's nose.

Italy and its culture are very close to my heart, but this nation does not have a very good track record when it comes to governing itself. And for all the soaring wonders of Italian art, literature and opera, the pop music utterly sucks.

British journalist Tobias Jones captured these contradictions, as well as the insularity and xenophobia that lays behind the charm, in a book which became a success d' scandale. HERE is my review of the sharply written "The Dark Heart of Italy."

As with Barzini's "The Italians," which is very much about Mussolini -- those chapters are laugh-out-loud funny, by the way -- this book is about culture and society (especially of the north and Emilia-Romagna in specific) but with Berlusconi's power and corruption sitting at its center.

"Repo Man" and Punk LA

NOT long ago the LA Times put together a Sunday package on the best films about Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to draw "Repo Man," a movie I watched so many times, with two different posses of high school friends, that the film's dialogue became a kind of subcultural code.

The film is being screened tonight at New York's Lincoln Center, in an honor we would not have expected as we shouted lines back to the TV screen while drinking pilfered beer back in the '80s.

And of course I was pleased to see "Repo Man" screened at the Guadalajara International Book Fair a few weeks ago as a canonical LA film -- alongside more obvious choices like "Chinatown" and "LA Confidential." (The latter was the number one movie in the Times piece, by the way.)

Returning to the film as a nearly 40-year-old adult, I was struck by both how well the film had stood up and by the sense of lost promise of its director and stars. (Alex Cox, who now lives in Oregon, like a lot of people who burn out on LA, released a memoir in 2008.) Much of the soundtrack -- Circle Jerks, Plugz, Black Flag doing "TV Party" -- still sounds excellent to my ears. This movie captured something -- culturally, and in terms of the talent assembled -- that didn't last long. But it's now a rich and complex part of LA history.

Here is my little note on the film.


Los Angeles has symbolized the end of civilization in a long list of films but rarely as memorably as in this sci-fi-inflected portrait of punk-era dead-enders. Using dirty, dingy locations in East L.A. and downtown, and under freeway overpasses, the film tells the story of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a self-proclaimed "white suburban punk" who repossesses cars after his career shelving generic foodstuffs -- labeled FOOD, BEER and DRINK -- doesn't pan out. Not only does this premise offer us a deadpan-comic tour of the seamy underside of L.A.'s car culture, it allows director-writer Alex Cox to fold in a story about alien invaders, the CIA and the invention of the neutron bomb (all with a nifty nod to the '50s noir classic "Kiss Me Deadly.") This is the City of Angels in the wealthy '80s, but it's far from glitzy: L.A. is filled with guns and almost no vegetation, a huge swath of the population seems to be unemployed, racial tension is high, buildings and lots are abandoned, and every convenience store we visit is in the process of being knocked over. Instead of responsible adults we have homeless savants, televangelists and blissed-out ex-hippies. Years later, the film -- a kind of hinge between "Taxi Driver" and "Pulp Fiction" -- shows an L.A. that doesn't seem that far from where we're heading.
Bookend: Cox, who grew up near Liverpool and now lives in Oregon, worked briefly as an L.A.repo man. He's got a memoir coming in September called "X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker.

And here -- harder to read than I'd like -- is the entire LA Times feature on the city's defining movies. Now, if you'll excuse me, "Let's go do some crimes."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Los Angeles vs. the Gastropub


We seem to be in the grip of a full-scale beer renaissance here in LA. It's taken a while to get here -- as beer expert Hallie Beaune has pointed out, Southern California's proximity to wine country and the (often mistaken) impression that beer has more calories than cocktails or wine has held back beer's progress in this slimness-obsessed town. (Even as a wine-lover, I cannot help but think that the nouveau-riche association of wine with "classy" has helped wine and again, hurt beer.)

In any case, beer is here, and places like the Verdugo Bar in Glassell Park, the York in nearby Highland Park, and Father's Office in Santa Monica and Culver City remind me why I like the stuff so much. (And why Budweiser and most American lagers are so meager by comparison with, say, a Craftsman real ale or Scotland's Bellhaven.)

HERE is a piece I wrote for Portland's Oregonian (it comes out on Sunday) that looks at five gastropubs from the Eastside to the ocean. Where's Golden State, with its delectable sweet potato fries? Where's Ford's Filling Station, with its handsome celebrity chef? Sorry guys, I only had five. In my list I was looking for places with strong, unusual beer lists and good-to-excellent food, which I define -- for most of these spots -- as requiring a very fine burger as well as a range of less conventional offerings.

Those with strong opinions should vent them here or hold them for an upcoming poll on the city's best burger.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ross MacDonald and California

Sometimes it's the outsiders who tell us the most. And Ross Macdonald, the Canadian-reared detective novelist who spent most of his career in and around Santa Barbara, wrote some of the most enduring private eye novels set in the Golden State as well as, between the lines, some of the best social history of the postwar period.

HERE is my piece on the work and life of MacDonald (1915-'83), who would celebrate his birthday this Sunday. He's inspired other crime writers -- Robert Crais loves his work and carries his mantle in some ways, and James Ellroy has often talked to me how the emphasis on family roots in MacDonald's work has shaped his own. But more mainstream/literary writers have taken off from his as well: You can see private eye Lew Archer sneaking around the shadows of Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" and Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union."

For my piece I speak to writer Crais, biographer Tom Nolan, LA noir queen Denise Hamilton and his old editor Otto Penzler.

Besides incredible plotting and psychologically rich characters, I love the way the author captures the gradual and seismic changes in California culture in the '50s and '60s -- the coming of long hair and rock music and drugs, changing sexual morals, the excitement of the young and the disorientation of the older generation. He writes about it all with sensitivity and grudging sympathy.

More on Ross Mac later. To answer your first question: Start with "The Galton Case."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Return of Morrissey

Thursday night, Morrissey returns to LA for a show at the Gibson Amphitheater, and he just dropped a new collection of B-sides called "Swords" (including a short disc of songs from a Warsaw concert.) When Mozz played Coachella in the spring I wrote about the man and his influence HERE.

I am such a hardcore Smiths fan I ventured to the band's hometown -- Manchester -- and wrote this travel piece about an old industrial city -- the first in the world, in a sense -- reimagining itself. Of course, Manchester -- the setting of "24 Hour Party People" -- was also home to the Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Stone Roses, and here is my sidebar on the 10 best albums from the city. (By sorta coincidence I also had the good fortune to be married on the man's 45th birthday.)


As for the Morrissey show, The Misread City hopes to see you there.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

John Lennon vs. High Culture

Twenty nine years ago, on a cold December morning, I woke up to see my mom, a bit addled, standing in my bedroom doorway. "I've got some bad news," she said. "John Lennon was shot."

"Well, is he okay?" I asked.

I was in 6th grade, and I'd spent much of the previous few years sitting in the basement while my head spun along with the turntable to the Beatles music -- especially "Revolver" and an album my best friend had given me the year before, "Rubber Soul"; I especially liked the psychedelic "I'm Only Sleeping," the reflective "In My Life" and the darkly romantic "It's Only Love."  Of course I liked all the Beatles, but John was my first and fiercest cultural hero; I memorized the lyrics to his songs and read everything I could about him.

Not everyone was as zealous as me, and some friends preferred Paul or George, but it seemed inconceivable that someone might not like the Beatles.

I trudged to school, where the teacher was a supposedly "tough" customer who'd taken a special liking to me for some reason -- she was a kind of hero of mine as well. Partway through school, maybe at the lunch hour, she brought up Lennon's murder.

She was shocked, in fact -- because an opera singer had died the day before and no one had noticed. And here this "druggie" had been killed, and people were crying in the streets. Why all the fuss for a rock n roll singer?

Of course, this didn't exactly endear me to my beloved teacher. What was even weirder than the pitting of high vs. popular culture -- something I've always hated and still fight against, and especially wrong in the case of John -- was the fact that none of the other kids seemed as shaken up as I was. I knew my folks were upset, and an old friend from a different school called me later in the day and we talked forever about it. But had I landed in some baleful alternate universe where nobody liked the Beatles? The conversation moved on to another topic, but I didn't.

I'm the kind of person that likes to reconcile opposing points of view, to understand people's perspectives in the widest possible context. Maybe on the 30th of John's death I'll be able to see my teacher's reaction with more detachment. But today, I'm still so upset about John's death, and realize that day -- the end of his life -- was the beginning, for me, of the distrust of authority that I'm now old enough to read in his songs and life.

RIP John Lennon. Tonight I will blast "Rubber Soul" for my Beatles-loving three-year-old son all the way through.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hometown Pasadena and Eat LA

Tonight is a party for the new edition of "Eat LA," a sharp and useful guide to food and drink in greater LA put out by Pasadena's Prospect Park Books. I especially like the way this book stretches from traditional restaurants into bars, bakeries, taquerias and neighborhood joints.

I first met the publisher and main author of that book, Colleen Dunn Bates, when she was putting out "Hometown Pasadena." This was an ingenious idea -- to provide an informed guide to living in your own city -- that has resulted in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara editions as well. New York publishers have not generally treated California topics very intelligently or fully, and Bates' press is kind of the publishing equivalent of the "eat local" movement.

HERE is my article on Bates and the larger issue of micro-publishing.

And HERE, speaking of restaurants, is perfect little piece by Jonathan Gold from the Weekly about Palate, which has become one of my favorite local places to eat and drink. I love what he says about restaurants having multiple personalities (I've worked in enough to see that quite clearly.) Anyone wondering how the Falstaffian scribe landed a Pulitzer should only glance at this little amuse bouche.

This Sat, Feb 20, is a tasting and signing by the Eat LA gang at Book Soup.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thomas Pynchon as LA Writer


ONE of the highlights of the Guadalajara International Book Festival -- devoted this year to the literature of Los Angeles -- was a panel considering Thomas Pynchon's California Trilogy. This means "The Crying of Lot 49," his shortest and perhaps finest novel; "Vineland," set largely in Mendocino County and perhaps his slightest work; and "Inherent Vice," a neo-noir set in the South Bay at the end of the '60s.

(Here is a piece I wrote not long ago on Pynchon, Denis Johnson, Salinger and other reclusive writers.)

The conversation -- moderated by obsessive Angeleno David Kipen, with postmodern LA novelist Mark Danielewski and Brit noir-head Richard Rayner -- was largely speculative, in part because of the lack of solid information about Pynchon's life story. (As Danielewski -- who has had just come from a panel on Bukowski that had trouble getting away from the barfly-poet's life story -- points out, this obscurity has the effect of focussing most discussion of Pynchon where it belongs, on the work itself.)

Both panelists recalled picking up copies of "Gravity's Rainbow" (in which LA makes a brief but important appearance) and being simultaneously baffled and attracted -- the American author thought it must be written by an Englishman, the Brit was struck by how distinctly American it was. The style, said Rayner, was "both relaxed and incredibly tight, slangy and elegant."

Rayner also worked to show how approachable TP can be, pulling out a passage, set on the Berkeley campus. "The guy just writes killer sentences," he concluded. "He's fun -- he's a comedian."

Danielewski discussed some of TP's influences -- Dickens, South American writers, Rilke, detective fiction going back to "Oedipus Rex" -- and asked, how effective a social critic is Pynchon? (Quite, others concluded.) He sees TP's enduring themes as "trust, loyalty and betrayal," and the search for the informant who will betray the other characters to "the system," however that's conceived.

Overall, Rayner said, Pynchon's work is "fascinated with the idea of what America could have been... what America has lost" -- with California as a metaphor for all that.

(Those who know me are aware of how powerfully swept away I was by the novelist as a young man and of my brief, er, unrelated experience with the Pynchon family.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Amanda Knox and Italian Noir

THE strange case of Amanda Knox -- a cute American exchange student accused of killing her British roomate -- just took a yet stranger turn as she was convicted of the murder as part of a bizarre sex game. (She is sentenced to 26 years in prison; the family will appeal.)

The fact that this took place in Perugia, the capital of the lovely and green Italian region of Umbria, known as the land of the saints -- is only element that makes me think of the consummate Italian noir writer, the late Englishman Michael Dibdin. In fact, Dibdin even taught at the University of Perugia, where Knox studied -- he set his first novel, "Ratking," there -- and settled in her hometown of Seattle before he died in 2007.

Dibdin captured a tone of weirdness and irony so well, and perhaps because he was a foreigner, could see through Italian charm -- and unravel Italian bureaucracy and political intrigue -- like a great cultural critic.

HERE is my LAT story on the author and his work. Part of what's fascinating about Dibdin's career is the way it demonstrates -- as Pico Iyer has so eloquently observed -- the strength and flexibility of the Chandleresque detective novel (born of course in LA) in wide-ranging international settings.

For those new to Didbin's work, I'd recommend that debut, or the more poltical "Medusa."


This Knox case is likely to get stranger still, I'll bet.

Culinary Adventure with Jonathan Gold



THE food writing of Jonathan Gold is so vivid, colorful and at times almost embarrassingly sensual that as a reader, it's not hard to feel you are actually along for the ride with him as he seeks out restaurants dedicated to, say, regional Mexican cuisine, a groovy wine bar or the street food of urban southeast Asia.

But it's even more delectable to be able to follow the celebrated scribe to a meal in a foreign city, as yours truly was able to do during the international book festival in Guadalajara. Somehow I'd spent a day and a half and not had much of what Mexicans call "tipica" cuisine -- some fine enchiladas at the hotel, and some white wines from Baha, both decent but not memorable.

The first excursion came after Gold appeared in a panel on LA writers and humor, which also included writers Jerry Stahl and Paul Beatty. (Gold recalled his days editing the LA Weekly's humor column: "I thought what would make it distinctive," he said, "is that nothing in it would be funny.")

After the panel, a caravan of us followed Gold and his journalist wife Laurie Ochoa to what seemed like a remote neighborhood, Tlaquepaque, for a restaurant called El Parian. The cab driver seemed a bit confused by our request to head there, telling us (we thought) that we'd have to walk a long way after he dropped us off and that we'd know where we were because we'd see, "too many restaurants, too many artistanos, too many mariachis." I could not tell -- as we used to say in high school -- if this was a threat or a promise.

The meal ended up being very good: Many of us, including The Misread City, got birria -- a dish of stewed meat that is usually goat but here was calf. The restaurant's speciality is what may be the largest drink in the world: Mostly fruit, ice, triple sec, with a large shot of tequila on the side, its container is so large it is marked "BAR" -- the quotes are theirs, not mine -- presumably so it is not confused with a large soup bowl. (Across from me was UK-to-LA novelist Geoff Nicholson, an excellent guy whose Psycho-Gourmet blog I am digging.)

Gold said of the day's eating that he had consumed so much beef that he was constructing a cow in his stomach, piece by piece. (Now I know why he turned down the offer of the very fine pickled pig skins I was nibbling on.)

Somehow, by the way, the mariachis never showed up, though Gold, Ochoa, and novelist Mark Danielewski ended up, after the meal, at a bar at which two musicians serenaded them and a couple of drug lords who had footed an enormous bill for the performance.

The second night was longer and harder to explain -- all I will say of it is that Gold led us to a very cool bar at which we seemed to be the only gringos. And I think the man's reputation must precede him, even abroad -- a plate of what looked like pig's feet, served with lime and a chile paste, showed up next to Gold before, I think, anyone had had a moment to even order a beer.

Photo credit: I will not compromise the man's privacy by posting his picture, so here is a cow.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Calder Quartet vs. Airborne Toxic Event

ONE of my favorite LA bands is the Calder Quartet, who accompany another of my favorites, the Airborne Toxic Event -- yes, the name comes from DeLillo -- Friday night at Disney Hall.

I met the Calders soon after they graduated USC's conservatory, and caught up with them a few weeks ago  to discuss their latest travels. They've stretched outward, into rock and experimental music, as well as inward, intensely studying Haydn in Berlin, and they've begun to play internationally.

HERE is my piece in today's LATimes: I talk to members of the band as well as Mikel from Airborne Toxic, who has become one of my favorite indie rockers.


Part of what I like about these guys is their commitment to the art of chamber music -- not an easy way to make a living, for reasons having to do not just with economics but with the strange personal bonds and tensions. I also admire their ability to keep their eyes -- and ears -- trained on the outside world and the larger swim of pop culture. They're both regular guys, in a sense, and something extraordinary.

Very much looking forward to this show.

Photo courtesy Calder Quartet

Mexican Saints, Playboy Bunnies and a Brown James Dean


ON Tuesday night at the Guadalajara Intl Book Fair I also took in a robust panel on LA's creative nonfiction writers, moderated by Veronique de Turrene. It included:

Crime novelist Richard Rayner, a native of Yorkshire who worked for Time Out in London and helped revive Granta in Cambridge, recalled how he dropped it all to move to LA to follow a Playboy bunny to whom he was only briefly married. (Imagine that.) He also talked about -- more seriously -- William Mulholland's breaking of a Central California dam, to slake LA's thirst for water, that drowned hundreds of immigrant farmers in its rush to the sea. The image is a template for his new book about the California crime, "A Bright and Guilty Place."

Artist J. Michael Walker talked about how years spent living in Mexico after his life in the States seemed to have bottomed out led him to connect deeply with Catholic iconography and Latin culture, which he brings into his work on saints and neglected, often Latino parts of LA.

East LA native Luis Rodriguez ("Always Running") discussed his connections to his mother's native Chihuaha, how his sense of political purpose led to his artistic purpose, and his work to establish a local press create and sustain a literary and cultural space in LA.

Polymath writer Ruben Martinez recalled his parents meeting as his mother walked out of a church in East LA: According to family myth, his father was turning the corner in a red MG, "looking like a brown James Dean," and the rest is history. Speaking of history, Martinez spoke eloquently about LA as an amnesiac "anti-historical city," projecting itself into the future rather than reflecting on the past.

All in all, fascinating stuff. And that's Mulholland on the right.

The Future of Publishing?


WITH dignitaries including saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Ray Bradbury, and displays ranging from publishers' new books to the history of the low-rider, the Guadalajara International Book Festival -- dedicated this year to the literature and culture of Los Angeles -- has been quite packed already. I'm going to try to offer a few snapshots of Tuesday's festival -- hoping to get time for a second post on last eve's wild night.

The afternoon included a typically elegiac, mandarin speech by former LATimes book editor Steve Wasserman on the future of publishing. We've entered what he calls "an ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge."

It's also, he said, a time when digital technology, conglomeration, the collapse of bookstores, independent and otherwise, "renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant." He fears a "hollowing out" of the culture of sustained argument that makes for an informed citizen.

Literary people, Steve feared, will become "the party of the past." He compared the situation in the U.S. to Europe and especially Germany, where state controls (forbidding price-slashing) kept an indie bookstore culture thriving even in bad economic times.

He offered two contrasting phrases. First, Philip Roth's prediction that the novel will go the way of Latin, known only to a small elite. And second, Auden's line, "It is always a danger for the present to write history in the future tense."

Monday, November 30, 2009

"LA Confidential" in Mexico

THE Misread City just landed in Guadalajara, where an enormous book festival will pack in 500,000 or so by week's end.

Tonight I took in a panel on one of the best movies ever made about Los Angeles -- "LA Confidential." Actually, it was just die-hard Angeleno David Kipen interviewing the film's director, Curtis Hanson, but the conversation was quite revealing.

Hanson talked about his fight with Warner Bros. to cast lesser-known actors in the role of Bud White (which went to Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and said he almost lost the film because of the casting issue. "But here's the deal," he said. "I want to shoot unknown."

He also described trying to find parts of LA that still existed from the novel's 1950s setting, to capture the city's continuity rather than the fragmented memory that's typically the way old LA is remembered. Hence the use of the Formosa Cafe, near his grandparents' house, and where he took the actors to talk about their roles.

"I didn't want the movie to feel like the snapshot of a period that doesn't exist anymore," Hanson said.

And he talked about the role of "Chinatown" as a precedent for his film, and how he showed the actors the great Bogart film, "In a Lonely Place," as well as Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," to set the tone.

Even then, by the way, Crowe was known -- as the director put it -- as "trouble."


By the way, here is my LATimes piece about films based on Ellroy's work. All in all, a fascinating discussion about one of the great works of art about the city.

This movie came out a month or so after I moved to town and was a very big deal for me and everybody I knew back then. For me, the movie stands as an important step -- as well as Kevin Starr's histories, most of Ellroy's work, and books on West Coast jazz and Central Avenue -- in which this city that often has amnesia began to recover some of its own past.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Viva Gustavo

FRIDAY night I was lucky enough to take in the concert Gustavo Dudamel conducted as part of the LA Philharmonic's "West Coast, Left Coast" festival. (The concert was repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.)

I say lucky because not only were we seeing the nation's most exciting young conductor -- albeit one born, raised, and trained in Venezuela -- but a program that made the case, if it still needs to be made, for the West Coast as the site of much of the freshest, most distinct music post-World War II. This weekend that meant Esa-Pekka Salonen's "LA Variations," which seems to me his breakthrough piece, Lou Harrison's Asian-accented, alternate-tuned Piano Concerto, played by Italian phenom Marino Formenti, and John Adams' "City Noir."

The Adams is the newest piece, debuted just last month. Adams is known as a minimalist, and this piece offered some of the genre's use of repetition, but also drew from film noir soundtracks, Gershwin, mid-century West Coast jazz, automobile sounds, and other signifiers of Southland culture. Even by Adams' high standards this was a wonderful piece. (It was inspired by the excellent books of California history by Kevin Starr.)

Here is Mark Swed's LA Times review of the show.

None of this music is an obvious fit conductor Gustavo "The Dude" Dudamel, but he brought it alive. I really wanted to be a detractor on this guy, but he keeps winning me over.

Amazingly, we sat right in front of Adams, who is a very cool guy, Frank Gehry -- who of course designed the hall we were sitting in, and legendary tenor Placido Domingo. Next to us was Phil boss Deborah Bordah. Quite an evening -- and more proof that traditional "high" culture in LA has long come of age. The fact that the show sold out also proves that the audience is on board with the explosion of serious music here.


Photo credit: LA Philharmonic

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Misread City Goes to Mexico


NEXT week I will visit Mexico for the Guadalajara International Book Fair -- the biggest event of its kind in the Americas, second in size only to Frankfurt, and this year dedicated to the writing of Los Angeles. I was invited to moderate two panels partly because I co-edited a book on literary LA, and am in the process of renaming this blog for the book: The Misread City. (You can now get to the blog with themisreadcity.com.)

In his Slate review of my book, critic Adam Kirsch suggested that the title could make a good literary quarterly on the city and its culture, and I've come to think of this blog as the 21st century equivalent. (Even if a few posts on evil Eastern and British subjects sometimes creep in -- LA, of course, welcomes all kinds.)

Anyway I will be running a panel called "The Short Story: LA in a Shot Glass," with writers Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Ana Menendex and Mary Otis, on Tues. Dec. 1 at 630 pm. And a second panel, "They're From Where? LA Bred Writers Who Live Everywhere But," with Jane Smiley, Dagoberto Gilb and Paul Beatty, on Dec. 2 at 530 pm. (Please note that I did not name these panels.)

Hope to see some of you there. I will be enjoying the tequila, mariachi, Orozco murals and what I hear is a mellow pace of life there, and trying to catch as many writers and panels as I can myself.

HERE is a piece I wrote on my visit to Mexico City and the colonial silver city Guanajuato.

And wishing everyone a great Thanksgiving, with or without cactus salsa.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The West Coast vs. Classical Music


ON Saturday night I took in an intriguing if imperfect concert at Disney Hall that involved Kronos Quartet, electronica duo Matmos, rocker Mike Einziger and minimalist pioneer Terry Riley. The evening -- with the coolest crowd I've ever seen at Disney Hall -- was the kickoff to the Phil's "West Coast, Left Coast" festival, which runs for the next several weeks. (Review of show here.)

The festival, which aims to seek and present what's most distinctive about West Coast music, is curated by Bay Area composer John Adams, and I first heard about the festival last year, when I flew to Berkeley to interview Adams about his memoir. In "Hallelujah Junction," Adams writes about his New England roots in "the era of the clarinet in American music," his move to California in the early '70s, working menial jobs and flirting with experimental and electronic music, and his eventual development of a personal language that nonetheless synthesizes various strands of West Coast tradition.

HERE is my interview with the composer. The book, now out in paperback, is a delight, and is a work of not just musical but cultural history. Will be writing more about the festival in this space.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Birth (and Death) of the Cool



NOT long ago, I attended a lively discussion at LA's Book Soup about the origins and demise of cool. Ted Gioia, the author of "West Coast Jazz" and "Delta Blues," was talking about a seismic, beneath-the-surface cultural shift. The cool detachment --sometimes spiked with irony or cryptic gestures -- originated by Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young and Miles Davis is reaching its sell-by date.

How can cool lose its cool? And what kind of "post-cool" culture will replace it?

Now, I don't agree with every line in Ted's new "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool." At times he is too reductive and sweeping, and movements like '70s soft rock show that a yearning for feeling and authenticity can exist right in the middle of an otherwise "cool" era. But he's certainly on to something, and I like the audacity of the way he puts modern jazz, styles of acting, trends in black culture, and corporate sponsorship into the same argument. Overall, he's persuaded me.

Here is my conversation with Ted. We've become friends, but I read his work (starting with the book-length essay "The Imperfect Art") a decade and a half before we met.


Q: So where did cool come from?

A: There was a major shift in American culture in the 1950s as people embraced cool in a way that previous generations hadn't -- after fighting for survival during the Depression, they were adding some flair to their lives. Cool came out of nowhere via jazz, from actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando. And in the '60s and '70s it was in the ascendancy.

Q: Why did so much of cool come from black culture?

A: In an odd sort of way, the predicament of black culture in the early part of the 20th century predicted what would happen to everybody. Urbanization, being torn from family roots, from cultural roots -- this happened to black people when they came to this country. The modern predicament is to have these ties cut loose. And many of the mechanisms for coping and surviving from black culture were adapted by everybody.

Q: Is there a special West Coast resonance to the notion of cool?

A: When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the '60s and '70s, it was far more pronounced than it is now. I remember the first time I went to New York, the intensity overwhelmed me.
The works of art that came our of the West Coast had that tone: West Coast jazz played off that cool sound and found a receptive audience. People responded more fully to the music because they associated it with the lifestyle of California -- a Hollywood of the mind. Bill Claxton understood the psychology of the West Coast and captured it in his photography.

Q: What happened to cool?

A: A number of things too place in the last 10 to 15 years to rob cool of is centrality -- 9/11, the mortgage meltdown, terrorism. The aging of the Baby Boomers.
But more important, cool has been commoditized by corporations eager to market it, and as people have become suspicious of corporate marketing they've become suspicious of cool as well.
You can generalize: There are eras where people follow the crowd, and others where they follow deeply held convictions. There's a fundamental instability to cool: When you decide you want to be cool, you're looking outside.
Cool is always in danger of being replaced by something deeper and more intrinsic. I list the lifestyles that are replacing cool -- eco-friendly, Nascar dads, the return to traditional religion. These people have very little in common, but they all believe they are going beyond cool.
There are many good aspects to this -- people are embracing the authentic and sincere, and returning to roots. But there's a downside: I think there's a connection to the new anger and confrontation in our discourse.

Q: What does postcool music sound like?

A: Part of the problem the music industry faces right now is they're still operating under the cool paradigm. When someone like Susan Boyle or Norah Jones emerges, who appeal to authenticity or feeling, they're puzzled by it.

Q: Anything that's surprised you as you barnstorm the country talking about cool?

A: About 10% of the people get angry. They don't want to discuss it -- they just rant. I realize now, These people must think they're really cool. It's like I had attacked their religion or something.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Riding West With Cormac McCarthy


ONE of the least likely success stories in recent years is the rise of Cormac McCarthy -- the reclusive, thesaurus-clutching author of unfashionable, hyper-violent Southern Gothic, who became the equally reclusive author of unfashionable Western novels of cowboy-myth.

But with "All the Pretty Horses," McCarthy became a literary superstar, with the critical and cinematic success of "No Country For Old Men" he became canonized in the academy, and with "The Road" he becomes one of the hottest properties in Hollywood.

Here is my LATimes story, which runs Sunday. I spoke to a UCLA scholar, the screenwriter and producer of "The Road," and Billy Bob Thornton, who directed the first McCarthy adaptation and wishes the world could see the film the way he shot it.

Screenwriter Joe Penhall, a playwright and former music journalist, was especially eloquent, talking about the novel's similarities to "Waiting for Godot," his interest in expanding the role of the wife/mother character, and the resonance between McCarthy's vision of the wilderness with the Australian tradition. (Both he and director John Hillcoat grew up there.)

"It's all about the elements, the landscape and pioneering endeavors," Penhall told me of McCarthy's work. "And man's endless struggle with the landscape, what it does to his psyche and his corporal existence. It's part of both nation's [Australia, U.S] mythologies. The countryside in Britain is the bosom, where you run in times of danger." In the American and Aussie tradition, "it's a place of tremendous, danger, despair and challenge."

For an experience of danger, despair and challenge, check out what they did with "The Road," which opens next Wednesday and which I found powerful and harrowing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Passion is No Ordinary Word"


I'M kind of giddy to note that this week marks the birthday of British "Angry Young Man" Graham Parker. Parker broke about the same time as Elvis Costello, bringing with him righteous anger, a voice that resembled Van Morrison and perhaps American R&B, and a musical traditionalism grounded in The Band and other US models.

Though he never hit as hard as Elvis or even Joe Jackson -- those glasses probably didn't help --Parker has been a minor idol of mine since my high school days scrawling out his lyrics out in an attempt to teach myself literary imagery.

This song, from his 1979 "Squeezing Out Sparks" LP, gives the best sense of why we love the guy. Word-drunk, bitter, and catchy, he just destroys this song, "Protection." These "Local Girls" fare similarly, dispatched by what may be the worst dressed band in history! And this is a live "Passion is No Ordinary Word."

Shrewd listeners will note a backbone of Jamaican music in his style -- the one kind of music punks could admit to liking -- and here plays Bob Marley on Conan. Could not find a video for my favorite reggae tune of his, "Crazy Baldhead."

Finally, a stripped-down "You Can't Take Love For Granted." Ouch!

I spoke to Parker a few years back, around the time of his No Depression inspired "Your Country" LP. (In which Parker told me, by the way, that he had heard Gram Parsons.) I'll post it as soon as the LATimes archive is back. In any case, Happy Birthday to an underrated musician!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Twilight of the '80s with Richard Rushfield


FOR years before I met him, I knew of Richard Rushfield as this dark legend -- a nihilist wit who ran an underground humor magazine, an online savant with a Nixonian five-o' clock-shadow who had come into the LA Times to destroy the print world from within.

When I finally met Rushfield, at an art opening a few months back, I found him oddly innocent and charmingly bewildered, and I'm pleased to report that his new memoir has some of these same qualities. "Don't Follow Me I'm Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the '80s" is about a time and place and a series of comic misadventures, but also very much the story of a dazed, Hawaiian-shirted Angeleno lost in a particularly decadent niche of East Coast culture. I spoke briefly to him about his experience.

Q: What made you want to go to Hampshire, which by the '80s was already a legendary hippie school?

A: I grew up here in Los Angeles, so I always thought about going back East for college. When you go to Crossroads [prestigious LA high school] you pretty much think, by 16, that you know everything you need to know. How dare any college tell me what to study? So the progressive education appealed to me. Going to school in the woods of New England was a kind of idyllic fantasy -- but this was kind of the "Mad Max" version.

Q: Your first night there was a pretty embarrassing welcome to the college experience.

A: My first experience getting drunk on red table wine included emptying the contents to my stomach on a hall which didn't much want me there in the first place. Their affection for me did not increase.

Q: I get a sense there was a real culture clash for you as a California kid?

A: It's a very different world there, and it got stranger as it went along. If you're from Los Angeles, you're presumed to barely be able to spell your name -- they speak very slowly for you. And the hippie culture doesn't really exist here -- prep school kids who didn't bathe, with heavy sweaters, driving Volvos...?

Q: It sounds like you eventually found your tribe.

A: It was a school of outcasts where I thought I'd fit in great. But I had to find the outcasts' outcasts. This was a group [known as the Supreme Dicks] whose response to the culture was to wholly check out, burning the bridges with society. The ethos came to be known as "the grunge era" years later, where to have any motivation or enthusiasm was the most uncool thing you could do. Ambition, relationships, goals, studies -- you'd never heard of them.

When the grunge era came around, it was the first mass movement with absolutely no agenda. It was Gen X's one moment of ruling the stage, in between the Boomers and their kids. And our moment was to say, Let's stay in and do nothing.

Q: Does reflecting on those years tell us anything about higher education, Miami Vice, the Reagan '80s, or generational change?

A: Certainly if I could look at myself at age 17, I could conclude that a 17-year-old should not be entrusted with his own eduction.

I also feel like we came at the end of this enormous party, from the disco '70s to the go-go '80s, before things became very earnest and political with Gen Y. We showed up at the party at 3 a.m., after the buffet had been cleaned out and there were just a few cheese cubes left. And the people right outside started this really earnest movement.

More Rushfield here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"The Naked Pint"



AFTER years as a wine drinker, I've begun to reorient slightly back to beer -- I think this is happening to a lot of people, especially in LA. so I was delighted to come across the new book, "The Naked Pint: An Unadulterated Guide to Craft Beer." Author Christine Perozzi is a celebrated beer sommelier who founded beerforchicks.com and Hallie Beune helped manage Father's Office and taught at the gastropub's beer school. Despite a few moments of cutesy writing, the book is accessible, engaging and full of good information, including descriptions of international beer styles -- wheat beers to stouts and porters -- advice on cooking with beer, and instruction on home brewing.

I spoke to Hallie the other day. (This is the first, by the way, of a series of brief author q+a's, involving books with West coast themes.)

Q: Let's start with the obvious: Chicks and beer. Age-old stereotypes tell us women drink wine, men drink beer.

A: It's funny, we mention in the book that historically women brewed beer, even in ancient Egypt. When women were in charge of cooking, they were also brewing ale. So it's funny that women look at a pint of beer and say, 'No thanks, I'll have a white wine.'

But when we went through Prohibition, it made it hard to brew at home. And later, advertising showed that if a woman is around beer she has to be wearing a wet T-shirt.

Q: It seems like LA has come belatedly but quite strongly to the craft beer renaissance, after being a wine town for a long time.

A: New York has had this scene for a lot longer than LA. We're right next to wine country, and LA suffers from the fact that everybody's looking for something low in calories. All these cocktails made from fine ingredients are anything but low calorie, by the way.

But people here love food like they do in any city, and there's a more casual trend in dining these days. And it just doesn't make sense to have a mass produced light lager list next to a great wine list and a menu of locally sourced food. Once people try the craft beers they won't go back.

Q: What are some of your favorite places to drink, and your favorite California breweries?

A: We love Craftsman Brewery in Pasadena, he makes a beer brewed with hand-picked sage. Russian River does really interesting beers, up north. And Stone helped to spread the word about craft beers. There's a new brewery opening in Eagle Rock -- it's starting to happen in LA.

We also like the Verdugo Bar -- he's truly passionate, and you know you'll find something interesting. We love the Golden State, over on Fairfax, where they have a beer float. And we love the Daily Pint on the Westside.

The other cool thing is restaurants realizing they need to have a good beer list, like BarBrix in Silverlake and Mozza [Nancy Silverton's pizza shrine.]

Q: What do you hope people will do after reading your book?

A: I would love it if people who think they love one style of beer go through the book and see the variety of flavors. There's a beer for every dish.

If we could change the conception of beer around the country, that would satisfy us.

Photo credit: That's my pic of downtown LA's Wurstkuche.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles





BOOKS on chandler's LA have become a kind of cottage industry. still, i'm enjoying a new book of photographs called "daylight noir: raymond chandler's imagined city." the book could be a companion volume to judith freeman's "the long embrace," which visited the dozens of SoCal locations in which the novelist lived with his elusive wife cissy, tho the aesthetic of "daylight noir" is starker and less personal

the author is catherine corman, daughter of roger "king of the Bs" corman, who i wrote about when she came up with an eccentric book about joseph cornell. here she matches her own black-and-white photography with very brief excerpts from chandler's novels. we get some obvious LA landmarks, past and present -- bullocks wilshire, musso and franks, etc -- as well as lonely hotels, lush private residences, a spooky pier. when i leave LA, this is the way i want to remember it.

"in chandler the hardboiled style became above all a way of seeing," jonathan lethem writes in a brief introduction, "not far from photography itself." in his progress across the city, marlowe become "a kind of camera, a ghost."

besides the book jacket, these photos -- some of which remind me of antonioni's films -- are from the book. i'll post my story on corman's cornell project as soon as the LAT fixes its web archive.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"After the End of History"


IT'S the kind of phrase, however memorable, that the speaker probably wishes he could take back. when francis fukuyama responded to the fall of berlin wall -- the close of the cold war -- by calling it "the end of history" it seemed to make sense, and it fit into an argument by postmodern scholars -- fredric jameson especially -- that we were living in a context-free epoch that had no use for history either in its literature or popular culture.

but history continued to happen, and this week the berlin wall moment is back in the news. i'm also reading an intriguing new book in which samuel cohen, an english professor at the university of missouri, argues that history did not disappear from our literature either. cohen sees the 90s -- the period between "the end of history" and 9/11's "end of irony" -- as "an interwar decade," and looks at six of the best novels the period produced and two that came right after.

those novels are by thomas pynchon, philip roth, toni morrison, tim o'brien, joan didion, jeffrey eugenides, jonathan lethem and don delillo, all hefty books well worth the study.

i know cohen only slightly, from speaking by phone for two stories on updike, here and here, and i like his gen-x perspective. updike himself doesnt much figure in the new book, but he offers this delicious epitaph from "rabbit at rest": " 'i miss it,' he said. 'the cold war. it gave you a reason to get up in the morning.'"

so i'm enjoying cohen's tightly and clearly written "after the end of history: american fiction in the 1990s" -- and not just because it's the kind of study i might have written had i stayed in the academy.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Living by Chance With Rachel Rosenthal


IF laurie anderson was a parisian-born octo-genarian theater pioneer she might be rachel rosenthal. for rosenthal -- to whom many figures of the american avant-garde are indebted -- john cage's "indeterminacy" proved as influential as the velvet underground's dazed strum was on anderson's generation. (okay, that's enough metaphors for one paragraph.)

here is my profile of rosenthal, who extols the importance of "chance" in art and life and recalls new york in the 50s with cage/ cunningham/ rauschenberg/ johns.

she also talks about saturday's birthday party at Track 16 Gallery, her new book ("the dbd experience") and the improvisational theater troupe she launches early next year.

meeting rosenthal was a real trip -- a major iconoclast, associated with radical feminism, animal rights and her own shaved head, who is also into a courtly woman with a gertrude stein haircut and a soft, pan-european accent. (she calls herself a gay man inside a woman's body.)

my favorite quote that didnt make the article: "much of what's called performance art is not interesting to me. i'm not interested in shock -- there's enough shock in everyday living, every time you turn on the tv."

Photo credit: Michael Childers

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"The Tyranny of E-mail"


WHAT does a sumerian love poem have in common with that email you just sent to your boss? probably not a whole hell of a lot. but both are means of communication made possible by the technology of the day, and it's the kind of thing john freeman gets into with his new book, "the tyranny of e-mail." (the old-school spelling is his.)

here is my interview with freeman -- who was recently named editor of british literary magazine granta, from sunday's LATimes. this year, of course, marks the 40th anniversary of the first electronic text message.

part of what's most interesting in his book is the history -- the arduous route for instance, a letter would take to find its recipient in the ancient world, the way the catholic church took over in the dark days after the roman empire crumbled, the coming of mass literacy in the english speaking countries, the way lincoln was besieged with telegrams in the same way obama is chained to his blackberry, and so on.

freeman is especially strong on solutions, calling for a new style of communication based on the "slow food" movement. this photo, by the way, is of a civil-war era pony express rider.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Inverting Alice in Wonderland


WHEN world-class ski champion and hollywood film producer frank beddor approached me about his book project a couple years back, i wasnt sure what to think. the fact that, he told me, he had taken lewis carroll's "alice" stories and turned them into a rather violent YA novel, as well as a graphic novel and video game, made me wonder if this was just a case of corporate-style "synergy" gone mad.

but beddor's first book, "the looking glass wars," was powerful and smart, and entirely un-cynical, as was its sequel. here is my story on beddor, and here's what i wrote at the time:

'What's most impressive about them is that the novels seems to be recounting a universe fully imagined ahead of time. Beddor admires what he calls "the epic world creators" such as J.R.R. Tolkien, "Dune's" Frank Herbert and Philip Pullman of "His Dark Materials." Beddor's books seem tailor-made for kids who've completed the "Harry Potter" series and are looking up, a bit dazed from the experience, eager for somewhere else to go.'

i'm writing about beddor today because the third book in the trilogy has just come out, and my old colleague geoff boucher of hero complex, speaks to him, here, about the project. and dont forget: a tim burton "alice" film comes out in march.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monster of Folk: Bert Jansch


I'M not sure i can think of another musician who's been powerfully influential on both johnny marr of the smiths and zeppelin-era jimmy page. bert jansch, the british folk guitarist born on this day in 1943, has not only put his stamp on heavy metal and early indie rock -- not to mention his own generation of folk rockers -- he's a hero to freak-folk types like devendra banhart.

jansch was born in glasgow, scotland and came of age with the british folk-rock movement of the 60s: he helped found the band pentangle, like fairport convention dedicated to digging into the origins of british and celtic music and myth. his solo stuff is wonderful, if uneven, veering between acoustic and electric: it's best heard on the 2-cd compilation "the dazzling stranger." i love the way he bends the hell out of his notes and drones and tolls.

here is an old video clip of the solo acoustic "black waterslide," which zeppelin basically stole.

my favorite jansch, oddly, is his '06 record, "the black swan." not only are the songs strong from first to last, it includes delicious contributions from banhart and beth orton. mostly, this is a dark record that i play incessantly in the winter, alongside john fahey and bach's cello suites. "the black swan" was graham coxon of blur's record of the year in '06.

here are two songs from that record, with, alas, no video. the second, "when the sun comes up," has beth orton on lead vocals.

Jansch cancelled a US tour this summer because of illness, posting this on his website:
"Bert is very sorry to be missing the tour, and apologises to all the fans who were hoping to see him. He is looking forward to rescheduling as soon as possible.

here we are looking forward to the return of this monster of folk. we'll toast a small glass of single-male scotch to you this evening.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Torments of Stephen Elliott


SAN francisco writer stephen elliott is the baudelaire of the mission district.

after reading his new book, "the adderall diaries" -- which begins with a possible murder and winds its way to a certain one -- i wasnt sure what kind of guy i'd be meeting for my interview at alcove cafe in los feliz. this is a man with numerous drug episodes, childhood years in rough group homes, a heroin OD after a year of stripping, and a career of what i will call "unconventional" sexuality.

but the writer ended up being well-adjusted, an engaging conversationalist, and, like his very fine memoir, without an ounce of either self-pity or self-indulgence.

here is my LATimes story on elliott.

i'll just say one more word about the book, which is subtitled "a memoir of moods, masochism and murder": i dont tend to read books about addiction, psychological flameouts, kinky sex, etc -- i outgrew my interest in the demimonde (as well as alliteration) in my 20s. but elliott's memoir is so crafted, so precisely distilled, so damned well written, it comes up with a blend of apollo and dionysus of the sort i have very rarely seen.

i also urge everyone to check out the blog he runs with a gang of other literati, the rumpus. today elliott has a new post about liz phair.

Photo Credit: Lydia Lunch

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sigmund Freud vs. Britney Spears


WHEN i heard that a biographer had gone into therapy impersonating britney spears (that's the way it was teed up to me), i thought, this guy must be very cynical, or have really bad taste in music. or maybe both.

but the young biographer i met at a cafe in venice beach was an engaging, earnest lad from a small town in yorkshire who had made unorthodox use of a therapist to gain insight into the mind of the pop princess who had denied him the more traditional kind of access. (and steve dennis, who makes his living as a ghostwriter, ends up being a fan of singer songwriters like bon iver and david gray.)

does this method work? that's the question i put to a small panel of experts. dennis himself points out that meryl streep never met julia child, but was still able to render her with sympathy in "julie and julia."

here is my story from the LATimes. my favorite moment is when dennis called his british publisher, explaining his idea of therapy-by-proxy, and got a strange silence on the line. then: "you really have been in L.A. too long. forget the herbalist and soy lattes -- this is a step too far."

Photo by Max Halberstadt