Friday, January 30, 2009

Classical Piano and the Importance of Good Grooming

Last night i caught Leif Ove Andsnes, the norwegian pianist, at disney hall. (here he is, right, after, presumably, chopping an entire nordic forest.) he played a set of janacek, brahms, mozart and schubert, with violinist christian tetzlaff. (a fine story on the celebrated duo here.)

great concert, by the way. while the ballade in the janacek was nearly heart-stopping, my favorite was the brahms sonata no. 3. (a wonderful unfashionable composer, a true genius of melody and delicate small scale pieces, on whom more another time.)

but the appearance reminded me (chin-stroking music please) of classical music's image problem. as someone who grew up with rock n roll and later the very photogenic era of mid-century jazz, i was amazed as i started to get into chamber music in the mid-90s just how dowdy a bunch classical players tended to be.  and then things started to change a bit: leif ove spoke to me for this piece in the LATimes from a few years back. every time i see a picture of that hedgehog james levine i think of it. 

could it be that classical music is more "deep" than pop music, which has become enslaved to youth and  image? dont forget, these days, even philosophers have style. what do my esteemed readers think?

Photo credit: Flickr user 13 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gastropubs and Highland Park

The other night i went to the reasonably new "gastropub" in the formerly rundown-- now thriving -- area of los angeles called highland park. an english friend, who i sometimes go pub-hopping with near his home off the hampstead heath, grumbles these days when his beloved victorian watering holes "go gastro," in his words.

but i'm in favor of the trend, partly because english pub food, and most american bar grub, is so ghastly. especially when you outgrow buffalo wings or "crisps" as the brits call them.

the place in highland park, The York, reminded me why the trend is so heartening. it's not as ambitious as the great british gastropubs like the Anchor & Hope on london's south bank (where i had a memorable meal after an '07 tate modern visit). but it not only serves one of the best burgers i know (with harissa and pickled onions no less), hand cut fries, etc, but a very fine shrimp bruschetta, an excellent mixed greens with beets and goat cheese, tasty grilled vegetable sandwich, etc.

of course, a pub is largely about drinks, and here the place comes through quite well. the york is primarily a beer place, but their wines go way beyond the usual unholy trinity of over-oaked chard, flaccid melot and overpriced cab here. there's usually, for instance, a very fine white rhone on the list -- when's the last time you've seen that on a pub menu? -- and that still-underrated red, cabernet franc, by the glass as well.

beer-wise there is too much to get into here... i'll say only that along with delights like stone pale ale and fat tire on draft (and rogue and allagash in bottles) they serve my current favorite: craftsman brewing company's old-school ale, which is cask-poured and the kind of thing you usually have to go to britain to get.

the place also also an excellent historical-reuse design that makes good use of old brick and a vaulted ceiling that was not exposed in the place's former life, with very modern lighting.

from my limited visits, i'd say the york offers the best of several worlds: well-rendered contemporary cuisine that a skinny woman can eat without guilt, decent wine list, wide range of traditional ales, and a warm, friendly neighborhood spirit -- very different than the forced booziness of a sports bar -- that can be very hard to find in this most private of cities. great jukebox too.

(By the way, this picture is not of the york but a place basically under london bridge called Market Porter. it is not, for what it's worth, really a gastropub, but it's across from a great farmers market that has been going, i think, since roman times, and right next to a grilled sausage place that i'll wager is of much more recent vintage.)

Photo credit: SRT

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Just back from a LA Philharmonic press conference which is the most elaborate i've seen from any arts group, including i think the getty's launch a decade ago... they're very excited about Gustavo Dudamel, the 27-year-old venezuelan who kicks off his first season here in the fall. the one concert i saw him conduct, which included a berlioz, was as good as the considerable hype. (i have vowed to call him "the dude.")

so we're all looking curiously forward to the guy's arrival. i was disappointed, though, that esa-pekka salonen was not at the shindig -- his time as music director kinda of defines not only my time in LA personally, but i think a period where the city's culture become vastly more sophisticated, unpredictable and hybrid. (i did get to bump into california composer john adams, who is directing a very cool festival of west coast music that includes frank zappa and his own "the dharma at big sur," more on him later.)

anyway what i mean by hybrid, mostly, is a union of fine and pop culture that has been part of LA's genetic makeup for a long time, but which really developed in the last few years. one of my favorite conversations with salonen involve his interest in rock n roll. i'm quite impressed with it, especially if you think of what terrible taste in music most continental europeans have. i mean, italo-pop anyone?

Photo credit: Flickr user 12

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Don't know about your private hell -- remember orwell's "room 101"? --  but mine is to be locked in a room and made to listen to barry manilow croon "i write the songs..." 

turns out it actually happens, in at least one town in colorado -- strikes me as a new chapter of the "scared straight" franchise. the story was buried a bit in today's LATimes, but it's an interesting and cautionary read about cruel and unusual punishment.

my interest in the topic -- and the relationship between aesthetics and politics is almost always interesting -- goes back to a piece i wrote for the same paper a few years back: it concerned the use of classical music as "bug spray," in the words of one of my sources, to keep ruffians from gathering.

it sent me on this excursion on the place of classical music and by extension high culture itself in these post-highbrow times. i discuss the difference btw classical music and elevator music, the notion of "cool," pavarotti's voice, and the way classical music has become something new, in the terms of ucla's Robert Fink, now that it's not "classical" anymore.

Photo credit: and Flickr user 11

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Amazing amount of excitement, anticipation, and i expect resentment and suppressed fear right now around the obama inauguration... i will try to avoid getting too deeply into politics in this blog despite my fascination with it -- i've learned the hard way over the years that there is actually some wisdom to the old warning about talking about politics and religion across the dinner table.

but obama's arrival has me thinking about someone else: old-school children's writer ezra jack keats. we learned about him as children, as the first writer to bring black characters into mainstream kid lit -- i guess i assumed he was black himself. but turns out he was of polish-jewish descent -- his dad's last name was "katz."

so first off, i love the fact that the offspring of european jews took the surname of england's greatest romantic poet (who was himself a cockney and spoke that weird rhyming slang) and created a character who resembles, both physically and in his habits of mind, the nation's first black president. (born just a few months before keats' best book was released.)

by that i mean that the protagonist of "the snowy day," 1962, who lives in that keatsian world of brooklyn-ish brownstone pastoral, shares not only a haircut but an introspective, analytical temperament with the nation's soon-to-be-leader. there are several scenes, including one of peter in from the cold, soaking in the bathtub, where there are virtually no words on the page and we see him >thinking<: it's among the few images i know from kid lit that show characters in the act of reflection or imagining. (peter also shows up in another book i like, "whistle for willy.") there's a wonderfully simple illustration of his footsteps across the white snow that reminds me of the work of alt-comic artists like seth.

it's too soon to tell how obama will govern, and how he will handle this incredibly bad economy and a demoralized nation -- i will not make any predictions... but i think it's fair to say it's been a long while since we've had a president with this reflective, even poetic, temperament that we find in keats' books. (there's probably a counter-argument here that what we need is "a man of action." let's table that for the moment.)

so my final irony here is that my son ian, a blond, blue-eyed two-year-old living in the hills above 21st century los angeles, can respond so fully to the tale of a black kid walking in the snow, almost five decades ago, in a city my kid has never visited and a season he has never really experienced. the book gives ian a glimpse into a world he's never seen before.  through his enthusiasm, he's taken me there too.

Friday, January 16, 2009


I want to talk for a minute about los angeles' Haden family: you could define true musical eclecticism as the ability to dig all the branches on this multigenerational family tree. jazzheads know missouri-reared bassist charlie haden for his ability to match the country twang on ornette coleman's early (and best records) -- charlie grounds free jazz stuff that might otherwise be rootless: some of CH's solo stuff is awesome too: lester bangs once called him "hypnotically inventive."

the new haden family LP, "rambling boy," includes the whole gang, which means rachel and petra haden, both of whom made that dog's "retreat from the sun," from 97, one of the best sunny-LA records since brian wilson cracked up. (petra's all-chick-a-capella version of "the who sell out" must be seen to be believed.) tanya is violist for let's go sailing, another fine LA group, and -- fun fact -- she and hubbie jack black camped in the hospital virtually next to my wife and me and had their first kid the same week we had ours. (i did not say hi.)

but my favorite member of the haden family these days is Josh, whose band Spain is one of the great lost groups of the 90s. in the dark days before xmas i found my old copy of "she haunts my dreams" -- 10 years old this year!! and let's just say it has actually haunted my dreams. some of what i wrote about in the 90s sounds dated today -- this has only gotten better. (here they are at the getty, btw.)

listening to it now, it's striking how much it pulls from the haden tradition of stripped-down, plainspoken, ozark mtn country music: it's also a cousin to such wonderfully bittersweet records as the scud mountain boys' "massachusetts" and the works of LA's Acetone, Radar Bros, and the career of gene clark, the great, yearning, semi-tragic byrds singer/songwriter. (and now we are back in missouri.) spain's "spiritual" was covered by johnny cash.

"she haunts my dreams" is also one of the BEST BREAKUP RECORDS of all time. it begins with the simple, heartsick repetition of the song "i'm leaving you," and just gets deeper and deeper into its theme... anyway, if you think LA music is all about shallow narcissism or studio trickery or hipster bs, check this one out on a dark night of the soul... 

WONDERING: what do my distinguished readers consider the other great breakup albums??? i'm thinking richard and linda thompson's "shoot out the lights," beulah's "yoko," beck's "sea change"... and anything  by quasi, a great band that actually >is<> a divorced couple.

Photo credit: Flickr user 9


Thursday, January 15, 2009


Over the last couple years i covered books, mostly novels, almost exclusively, and there's no way anyone can read everything. but let me call james howard kunstler's "world made by hand" my favorite undersung novel of '08, or something along those lines.

the book is the tale of a little village in upstate new york in a world suspiciously like ours, but after resources have run out almost entirely. the residents have returned to a kind of rustic 19th century simplicity -- they homebrew beer, shop for stuff in an elaborate town dump, wish they had electricity, worry about some religious zealots wandering up from down south, etc... alan weisman, who wrote the wonderful/chilling "the world without us," called it "a poignant, provocatively convincing novel," which sounds about right.

i can just add that nothing i've read captures so well the tone of life after the economic meltdown. it's not exactly reassuring, but shows how life can and will go on, in ways both better and worse. here is a NYT essay (not by me) on this and its precursor "ecotopia."

kunstler is a left-leaning social critic (and longtime novelist) and i must say, i had all the reasonable fears of a novel penned by such a fellow. (i mean no disrespect -- some of my best friends are lefty social critics.) but i was completely unprepared for how lyrical and gently persuasive the book is -- for me certainly more affecting (sorry, cormac mccarthy) than the grim and powerful "the road."

the author's earlier books include the acclaimed, "the long emergency," which is an important jeremiad about the coming collapse of oil, environmental devastation, etc -- well written, tirelessly researched, etc, but kind of relentless as a read. this one is like, i dont know, dylan's john wesley harding record or "music from big pink" or something.

but dont take my word for it -- "world made by hand" just came out in paperback.

Photo credit: Grove/Atlantic and Flickr user 8

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


The pioneers of my favorite period of jazz -- the '50s and early '60s -- have been dying off at a dispiriting pace lately. A few weeks ago we lost trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, whose "Open Sesame" and work on early Herbie Hancock records i love. The other day i walked into amoeba's jazz room and heard the clerks blasting his classic "Hub Tones."

but over the last year or so i've been rediscovering the work of andrew hill, a pianist who died in 07. hill did not define a chapter of jazz the way thelonious monk or bill evans did, but you can tell exactly who's playing when he comes on. with weird harmonies, odd chromaticism and a brooding, intellectual quality to much of his playing, it's crossed with just enough avant-gardism to keep you a bit off balance. but like saxophonist joe henderson, with whom he had a lot in common, this music is essentially tuneful.

hill's most famous record is the wonderful "point of departure," though that record is dominated by eric dolphy's out-there saxophone and other weird horns -- dolphy took over a record the way peter lorre took over any film he was in. so i've been trying to find more "pure andrew," and sinking into 60s blue notes like "judgement!" and "smokestack." you get lots of hill on both, with no horns, and lots of richard davis, the incredibly resonant bassist who helps make van morrison's "astral weeks" so soulfully spooky.

photo flickr user 7

Monday, January 12, 2009


Readers and media-watchers here in LA have followed the dismantling of the LA Weekly as editors like Joe Donnelly (who i once worked for) and film critic Ella Taylor were shown the door... here's a long, provocative "autopsy" by longtime lefty journalism Marc Cooper that is a kind of mini-history of the alt press, perhaps the bookend to the elegantly written but somewhat puzzling louis menand piece on the village voice in the recent new yorker... 

scroll down for comments by donnelly, former new times LA editor rich barrs, and others.

and i will maintain my policy of not taking sides in the endless new times vs. LA Weekly battles -- having worked for the former (and been weirdly both fired and rehired) and later marrying a former freelancer associated with the latter it's just full of too many weird contradictions for me... but here is a first-person column i wrote in 02 when new times LA suddenly shut down. i think parts of this are still pertinent today...

Photo credit: Flickr

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Afraid the days are past where i could do a definitive top-10 of all the year's music, but here are a few new ones i've really liked:

Beach House is a dream-pop duo from baltimore, sort of a chick-led version of Galaxie 500, a less strung out Mazzy Star or a non-Japanese Sugar Plant. I've played this one, the aptly named "Devotion," incessantly; it is perfect hangover music and gets you to a really otherworldly place without drugs. get high on life! My favorite song is the shattered "Gila," which you can see them playing here at a record store in Dallas. and here's a more polished performance of "Master of None." this just in: beach house play LA's henry fonda, with the killer band The Walkmen, on Jan. 20.

i think we're beyond the point of being surprised by anything Lucinda Williams turns out -- the outlines of her records are pretty familiar, the mix of you-done-me-wrong with country traditionalism, alt-rock attitude and literary smarts. but "little honey" is my favorite record of hers in a while -- it's not entirely unified but it's not all gloomy. i cant deny that "tears of joy" for instance recalls earlier LW songs, but it's one of about half a dozen great tunes on the new one, with a kickass band. and while it's hard to imagine elvis costello spending a night in jail, enjoyed his hammy duet with lucinda on "jailhouse tears." my friend david letterman agrees.

my favorite non-rock music over the last decade or so has been downtempto, neo-dub, whatever you call it. one of the finest is Nightmares on Wax, a sound system from Bristol, UK (home of the trip-hop scene) who mix soul with jamaican with very shadowy, abstract beats... i love everything they put out, but was very happy to discover "though so..." at amoeba the other day. here's my favorite from the record, "195 lbs." (and the track "da feelin'," which is less mellow than the rest.)

and in case anyone is wondering about my pov on vampire weekend, i think they are better than the backlash allows..... 

Photo credit: Flickr user 5

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


FOLKS, here is my debut as an LA Times freelancer. i'll be doing regular film writing for them.

the story is about the prolific crime writer donald westlake, and the generally poor job Hollywood has done handling his talents. 

there are lots of European adaptations i didnt have room to get into -- i hear great things about costa-gavras' "Le Couperet," made from the novel "the ax." (the novel and film are about a laid off guy who begins to literally eliminate the competition -- seems like an idea whose time has come.)

here is an example of the softcore porn he wrote in the 60s under a pseudonym -- shame this never fell into the right director's hands.

if you've not read any of the parker novels that he wrote under the pen name Richard Stark, run dont walk to get the new university of chicago press reissues. they are as pure a distillation of the noir sensibility as i've ever read.

Photo credit: Flickr user 4


well i plan to run a full set of links to my old LATIMES stories somewhere on this blog, but in the meantime i've been going through a serious jazz revival over the holidays, playing a lot of monk and billie holiday and lester young in particular... it's gotten me thinking about one of the truly coolest people i ever had the pleasure of knowing in roughly 20 years writing about artists of all kinds.  (it's a long tale, but my '99 new times cover story on claxton, lost to the sands of time until a friend found it here and here, with wonderful pics, is the only story i've ever written that's literally gotten me a job.)

re claxton, this recent appreciation is one i'm sentimental about... every time i drive toward la canada/flintridge, and see the sun on the mountains, i think of clax, who grew up there and died (in beverly hills) late last year. it's hard to think of chet baker, art pepper, steve mcqueen and others without seeing his images.

Photo credit: Flickr user 3

MAN MEN, RICHARD YATES AND MY DEBUT IN KENTUCKY is a piece i wrote for my good friend david daley, who is an editor at the Louisville paper and runs the cool fiction site "five chapters" ... he gave me chance to get into my love of overlooked aspects of the early postwar period... of course there is much else to say about those years. i wish i'd had room to get into the tradition of social criticism, on topics like alienation and "the cultural contradictions of capitalism" that were born in that period.

speaking of, i rec all serious readers check out rich perlstein's goldwater book, "before the storm," when it is reissued this spring. 

if any of you shared a prosecco with me one New Year's Eve you could see i was sporting what i call my "Mad Men tie." 

Photo credit: Flickr user 2


Hi Gang, I'm glad to report that after a period of enforced silence I'm back with a few stories I'm proud of.

Here's the first, a New York Times piece on a 70s cult novel called "Ecotopia."

The novel is not as well written or nuanced as Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia," which by coincidence i reread at about the same time (that is tough company)... but it's a "novel of ideas" that you can read on an airplane, and how many of those are there? my story concentrates on the way the book anticipated some of the environmental movement and the michael-pollan eat-local thing. "ecotopia" was green before green was cool, you could say.

This blog will keep interested readers up to date on my stories, which will be appearing in numerous places now, as well as various thoughts-of-the-day on interests such as wine, science-fiction, indie-rock and California weather. At least, I think so.



Photos courtesy Callenbach