Friday, April 24, 2009

The Return of Bret Easton Ellis

NEW yorker scribe dana goodyear turned out an engaging "talk of the town" piece on brat pack novelist bret easton ellis and the new film made of his story collection "the informers."

i've had several encounters with the "less than zero" author over the years, and HERE is one of the latimes pieces i'm proudest of. the piece looks at his early breakout, the backlash against "american psycho," the gradual assumption that he was some kind of 80s relic like duran duran, and the underground appreciation of him among bona fide intellectual types like a.o. scott, alex ross and others.

it's also one of the longest piece i ever written: it was envisioned by my genius editor maria russo as the first of a "reassessments" series that would consider major west coast writers and wrestle with their critical reputations. because maria and i were both drop-kicked form the times the following year, this stands as the first and only in that ambitious series.

bret was a cool guy to hang with.

Photo credit: wikipedia

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Visions of Robert Silverberg

THE term "literary science-fiction writer" is nearly as awkward as renaming comic books "graphic novels." but for some figures it's important to understanding, as it is in the case of robert silverberg, author of "nightwings," "the book of skulls," the valentine series of fantasy novels and the darker-than-dark philip-roth-gone-telepath novel from the early '70s, "dying inside."

i had the great honor to meet silverberg up at his medieval style home in oakland recently, and HERE is the ensuing LATimes story. was surprised by silverberg's presence -- he is a kind of dignified old dude, gore vidal in the body of a straight jewish libertarian. his idols are h.g. wells and edmund burke.

glad to report that my rereading of "dying inside," which was just reissued and which i had not read since i was a teenager, confirmed my earlier ardor for it. michael chabon and jonathan lethem, who i interviewed for the story, share my fondness for the novel. the esteemed pulitzer winning critic michael dirda just penned this wonderful washpost review.

interested parties should come see my panel at latimes bookfest this saturday, where i interview silverberg alongside SF legends harry harrison and joe haldeman.

Photo credit: Locus magazine

Saturday, April 18, 2009

National Record Store Day

TODAY is, they tell me, national record store day... it's hard not to be both excited and sadly nostalgic. i've been haunting record stores in every city and town i've ever lived in -- severna park maryland; middletown, ct; brighton, england; baltimore; chapel hill; new london/mystic, ct; LA -- and almost every place i've visited. okay, i'm a junkie.

i loved newberry comics in boston, waterloo in austin, and the now-shuttered schoolkids in chapel hill... not to mention other music in new york. and pickadilly in manchester, UK!

HERE is a piece i wrote about LA's greatest record store clerks. it should surprise nobody when i point out that several of the stores in question have closed since i reported the story. either way, a lot of my education, musical and otherwise, came from hanging out in (and working in) record stores.

and here is an ap story on natl record store day.

a friend is writing a book about great record stores. what are my illustrious readers favorites?


Photo credit: Flickr user rocknroll_guitar

Friday, April 17, 2009

Birth of a Wine Shop

ANYONE interested in wine, or how a small business gets off the ground, should check out this series of youtube videos about the birth of colorado wine company -- conceived as the dream of a restless young couple in brooklyn who left everything they had in new york to drive to eagle rock, LA, to build it from the ground up.

HERE is the first of the four little segments of the show "radical sabbatical." you can also cut to the chase with segment two. (maybe because it was recently passover, i read it too fast as "rabbinical sabbatical," which doesnt sound like quite as much fun.)

in the show, john nugent and his lovely wife jen talk about their ambitions, the hoops they're jumping through, upgrading an old space, their push to get open by christmas. there's more drama than you'd think. "here we are, the future location of colorado wine company," john says, without much confidence, standing in front of a papered-up storefront. you cant help shouting, good luck -- you'll need it!

what's interesting now, in 2009, is how many of their goals they've met. the place i know matches the original dream for it -- an accessible but still sophisticated shop that serves as a meeting spot for the neighborhood -- oddly well.

it's also hard not to feel a little sadly nostalgic watching this: the shop opened in 2005, in a very different economy. how many johns and jens out there have dreams they are not able to pursue, neighborhoods they are not able to enrich, because the economy was allowed to get so bad?

Photo credit: Colorado Wine Co.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Seamus Heaney on Recession and Heroism

MONDAY marked seamus heaney's 70th birthday. i know this blog is in danger of drowning in a sea of green -- between morrissey and john lennon, both of irish descent, oscar wilde's poll position, and st. patrick's day, i am flying the celtic flag high.

but let me discuss the nobel-winning irishman for a second. i am sympathetic to the argument that heaney ceased being a great poet when he became, in the eyes of the world, a charming irish sage... he has done no single book of poems quite as tough as "north" for decades now.

but his translation of "beowulf" was terrific. i had the pleasure of speaking to him a few years back for this slate piece about the anglo-saxon epic, heroism and the sound of poetry in general. in fact, his essay "england of the mind," on the way larkin, hughes and geoffrey hill each use a different version (with respective historical and religious echoes) of english in their work is one of the best things i've ever read on the art.

tim rutten, LAT columnist and irishman himself, offers this fine column on how heaney and his work inform our present slumping moment. in barest form, heaney suggests fortifying one's inner life to survive life's ups and downs -- the latter a subject the irish know well, especially with death of the celtic tiger.   
i'll look forward to going back to the man's poetry and essays this week. 

enthusiasts of heaney's work should also know of this very extensive fan site.

anyone have a fave heaney poem with which to toast the man's 70th?

Photo credit:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Legacy of Morrissey

THIS year's coachella festival is filled with all kinds of major historical figures -- not just paul mccartney but leonard cohen, the jam's paul weller and shoegaze pioneers my bloody valentine (who i had the ear-blasting pleasure to see play last fall in santa monica). 

one of the most influential is morrissey, the former smiths leader whose solo career finally started getting interesting a few years ago, and who has managed to generate a devoted latino fanbase  in the whitest of all musical genres.

all kinds of unlikely figures -- ryan adams, jk rowling, bono, outkast -- sing his praises.

HERE is my story in today's LAT on mozz and his influence. i hear him or the smiths everytime i hear the shins, the pains of being pure of heart, belle & sebastian, of montreal, the clientele, many others. and here is a live take of "first of the gang to die."

i had the fortune, or misfortune, to be in high school right in the middle of the '80s. tho i am neither gay nor latino nor a recovering catholic, the smiths spoke to me like no other contemporary band during that dreadful and jingoistic time. (okay, maybe r.e.m.) in college i would sometimes go to halloween parties dressed like him.

i am such a zealot i went to manchester, england -- one of the world's most important rock cities and mozz's hometown -- two years ago to walk in the footsteps of the smiths, buzzcocks, stone roses, etc. HERE is the ensuing travel piece, and here the top-10 manchester albums sidebar.

mozz celebrates his 50th birthday with a big concert in manchester on may 22... were it not my anniversary (that was an accident -- really) and were i not quasi-employed i would try to be there.

Photo credit: Flickr user gussifer

Monday, April 13, 2009

The End, and Beginning, for Esa-Pekka Salonen

SATURDAY night i took in one of the farewell concerts by esa-pekka salonen leading the los angeles philharmonic. of all the reigning  arts heads from when i arrived here a dozen years ago, i'd bet that salonen is the only one still in place. some institutions -- and this includes hollywood studios as well -- have turned over leadership several times in that period.

this was about as strong a concert as i've ever seen the phil offer: first was a wonderfully eerie short ligeti pieces, "clouds and clocks," in which strings and female voices made their own harmonic world without forgetting melody.

second was salonen's new violin concerto, a wide-ranging piece that sought to sum up his 17 years in LA and his 50 years on earth. except for an overly literary nod toward pop culture (with rock drumming) he almost entirely succeeded: the final movement, the adieu, is one of the most deeply felt adagios i've ever heard. and this from a man often considered an icy nordic. i am no scholar of contemporary music -- here is the nyt's tomassini's review of the same program. but my sense is that salonen's compositions have taken an enormous jump forward in the last five or six years, since about the phil's move into disney hall.

finally, the program's second half devoted to beethoven's fifth. wondering how this once-young-turn modernist would render this hoary old warhorse -- ironically? with a contemporary-music coolness? salonen jumped right in, literally. this is a hard piece to really >hear<, after all these years, but salonen and the phil made a convincing go of it.

there are some all-stravinsky programs coming, with visuals by peter sellars.

as we left disney hall, my wife and i lamented that the la times would not give his retirement (to compose fulltime) the attention it deserves, get into the whole sweep of the man's 17 years here. the next morning we found that we were wrong: this very fine story by mark swed gets at al of it.

HERE is my discussion with salonen re. his interest in rock music.

besides changing classical music's culture -- making it more contemporary and pop savvy -- and helping get the acoustic marvel disney hall built, salonen exemplifies a certain graceful, crisp and balletic conducting. he may lack the power or heft of the tradition austro-german maestro, but he brought something new and valuable to southern california.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Wine Tasting on the Central Coast

LAST week my wife and i made a trek to california's central coast to visit wineries and olive farms. more on the olives and oils later. and what a beautiful time to be up there, with its rolling, deep green hills and plentiful wildflowers.

we had time to visit only three wineries, tho it's quite impressive how many of the local juice ends up on menus of san luis obispo restaurants like big sky and novo.

the three places we visited below:

halter ranch is a relatively new winery that's generating attention. it's just past the end of paso robles' vineyard drive, a truly remarkable setting, and because it's toward the west side of paso, it's a bit cooler than most of the region's wine country. wines were strong all around; we picked up the grenache-syrah-mouvedre but i was tempted by the sauv blanc and a dry, earthy, complex syrah as well. sweet picnic area outside.

lone madrone should be more widely celebrated: it's the personal label of tablas creek's winemaker. quite an informed pour girl, extremely refreshing and unusual white blends, very fine nebbiolo (!), an english west-country style cider and big, heavy bordeaux blends with goofy names. i hit this place every year.

tolosa is down a dreary highway outside SLO but is as lovely a winery as i've seen, with gently hilly vineyards dramatic under the day's cloudy skies and a stylishly modern tasting room. we bought a bottle of the pinot, though the rhone blends were quite fine as well. i did not love the "no-oak chardonnay" as much as i'd hoped but this has a real following.

my favorite under-the-radar winery in the area, which we did not have time to visit this time, is linne calodo, which  turns out to be expanding its tasting room and facilities. they specialize in rhone blends and blended versions of zin. i can still remember tasting their big but nuanced wines two years ago.

i'm sorry those are all blandly positive reviews, but i tend to check these places out ahead of time to see if they're to my taste. and indeed, these were. just wish i'd time for more like adelaida, tablas, c&c and others.

Photo credit: Flickr user D LeRoy

Kurt Andersen vs. Art Center

THE writer, public radio host (of the eclectic culture show "studio 360") and SPY magazine co-founder kurt andersen has been at pasadena's art center college of design over the last few months. his title -- this gives him the appropriate degree of embarrassment -- is "visionary in residence." (art center is a very cool design school, in a stunning hillside/modernist setting, that has experienced some turmoil recently.)

HERE is my piece on andersen and his time in socal in sunday's LAT. i found him about as i expected -- smart, cool, somewhat midwestern. in high school and early college i was a spy fanatic so was a kick to meet one of the guys behind it.

also really enjoyed his piece "the end of excess: is this crisis good for america?" this is a long, thoughtful and somewhat speculative cover story of the kind american magazines almost never run: it makes absolutely clear that we can no longer dismiss time magazine, where it appeared, as mere middlebrow fluff. (as the whole culture has sunk, middlebrow has become increasingly valuable.)

his piece takes as its premise that the '80s -- with its worship of unregulated capitalism, material pleasures, celebrity and so on -- never ended, until last fall. he asks, what was that long weekend about and what comes next?

Photo credit:

Back From the Grave: Charles Dickens

HE was the star of the 19th century, and has become fiercely relevant in ours: take a bow charles dickens!!

thanks to the plunging economy, the awesome show "the wire," and a bunch of bbc adaptations, dickens is back in a big way. HERE is my piece from today's LAT in which i speak to a producer at mastepiece (theatre), a ucla literary scholar and former wire scribe (and onetime baltsun colleague) rafael alvarez. 

given where newspapers are these days, i'm pleasantly shocked that i'm still asked to do this kind of meaty deep-think story for the daily press.

anyone who knew me in highschool would be shocked to see me writing such a piece in any form: my freshman english class read "great expectations" and i HATED it. i think i simply wasnt ready for it. wasnt until a college assignment of the atypical "hard times" that i realized what a fool i'd been.

was a real pleasure to go back to some of the work, especially "david copperfield" and "oliver twist." much more awaits.

Photo credit: samuel lawrence and Superstock


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Kicking Ass with Evan Wright

SO far the most acclaimed first-person account of the current Iraq War is "Generation Kill," in which LA journalist evan wright embedded himself in a marine battalion quite different from the soldiers who fought the vietnam war.

today i have an LA Times piece on wright, who i sat down with recently. a very serious, sincere and complicated dude who makes the case (both in his work and in conversation) for print journalism. (i got the un-macho ohioian in a very dazed state, just off a plane from japan, and he seemed to slowly reorient as his espresso kicked in.)

anyway i knew i was going to like wright's new book "hella nation" -- chronicles of neo-nazis, would-be porn stars, a runaway agent -- when he distanced himself from hunter s. thompson and instead quoted the godlike a.j. liebling. 

the book collects pieces wright wrote when he was "ambassador to the underbelly," as his dad once put it.

one of my favorite pieces in the book is about taxi-dance places in LA, originally edited by renowned editor janet duckworth, then at the LA weekly. the piece is a masterpiece of empathy and historical vision.

Photo credit: Flickr user Viajante

Friday, April 3, 2009

Marking Six Decades for Richard Thompson

THE godlike guitarist and peerless singer-songwriter richard thompson turns 60 today.

thompson is in my dont-get-me-started category of musical obsessions: i've loved his work since i was a teenager and songs like "valerie" and "a bone though her nose" were showing up on alt-rock radio. when i dropped into his back pages i was riveted; speaking to him over the years has been a real education.

Here -- one of my proudest moment from my on-again-off-again music journalism career -- i talk this englishman about his decades living in los angeles, and about how they have and havent changed him.

but for those new to the party, RT is the former guitarist for british electric folk band fairport convention, who after a fruitful (and painful) partnership with wife linda went off on a solo career that has to be seen to be believed. i mean that literally: seeing RT live, esp in a solo acoustic setting, is about as close to a religious experience as your humble blogger can report.

in a nutshell, his song takes the tradition of english/scottish folk (he played guitar on some of nick drake's finest tunes, incl "time has told me") and bends it around chuck berry, chet atkins and sufi modalism. he's an encyclopedia of guitar styles, but it doesnt come across like pastiche. his songwriting is often heartbreaking, other times wryly funny.

play around on youtube for him -- a solo valerie, a solo 1952 vincent black lightning, and i misunderstood following a quick interview. (and after a similar interview, perhaps his finest acoustic song, beeswing. fans of acoustic guitar might enjoy this 07 ucla rendition of cry me a river.)

i will shock and appall many for saying this, but compared to that other LA-based singer-songwriter bob dylan, i would take RT's output of the last 25 years over st. bob's any day of the week. the englishman has certainly not done anything to touch "highway 61 revisited" or "blonde on blonde" or a few others. but his work since the mid-70s has been very fine and there are not troughs like there are with dylan's career.

either way, i will hoist an english pint to this non-drinking sufi tonight.

Flickr user 6tee-zeven