Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes Vs. Hollywood

OFTEN, i wonder aloud how it is that certain authors -- john updike and donald westlake are two recently deceased masters who come to mind -- have been either overlooked or royally screwed up onscreen.

with the sherlock holmes novels and stories of arthur conan doyle, the phenomenon is the opposite: holmes is not only thought to be the most adapted character in history (200-some films with 70-or-so actors), some of these films have been quite good.

but it's been a long time since there's been a major holmes movie -- my generation has only musty memories of the great rationalist/sleuth/wit/morphine addict.

so it's intriguing and possibly exciting that TWO new holmes adapts seem to be coming down the pike, with guy ritchie's film starring robert downey jr. (!) and jude law coming in christmas, and a comedy starring sacha "borat" baron cohen and will ferrell coming next year, though the studio seems to be in confusion on this one.

HERE is my story in today's LATimes, for which i spoke to ritchie, producer joel silver, a very serious conan doyle fan, and champ literary critic michael dirda.

i must admit: i grew up in a house with calvino and chandler on the shelf, but no conan doyle, at least i dont think so: unlike a lot of kids, i NEVER read this stuff. in the last few months, knowing this story was coming up, i have delved into the holmes stories and novels and it's been a real pleasure.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Who Put the 'M' in Manchester

DON'T know how i missed it, but friday was the 50th birthday of one of the key figures in british rock post-clash: 
patrick morrissey. (the fact that the day was also my anniversary may explain why i am posting several days late.)

in any case, mozz celebrated his half-century with a concert in his hometown, manchester, UK, which was in some ways the capital of the industrial revolution as well as the capital of several waves of rock music, from joy division's post-punk to the "madchester" scene to acid house. cue "24 hour party people." 

it was partly my love of bands from manchester -- mozz's old group the smiths, buzzcocks, stone roses, joy division -- that sent me to visit the city not long ago. HERE is the travel piece that ensued, and here is a sidebar on music.

and to anyone who didnt see it, here's my piece, tied to last month's coachella performance, on morrissey and his influence.

Photo credit: SRT

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ursula Le Guin Vs. Oliver Cromwell

SOMEHOW, without quite knowing it, i wrote two brief pieces on ursula le guin, and both have recently gone up.

the first is mostly an extended intro to my LATimes profile, which adds some excised lines from author/ essayist/ cosmopolitan pico iyer as well as sci-fi scholar/ critic annalee newitz.

the second, here, is the seed of what i hope is a bigger project some day on the transition away from dogmatic realism in american (and to a lesser extent, british) literature. i begin with david mitchell's enchanting "black swan green" before ending up with jonathan lethem, oliver cromwell, and others. (it ran on the Guardian's books blog and is my first piece in an english paper since i was a student in brighton almost 20 years ago.)

as for the movement to genre/fantasy, etc. michael chabon has written quite well on the issue, of course, and i recommend his recent essay/criticism collection "maps and legends" to all.

Christoph Eschenbach, Elegant Cosmopolitan

LAST week i went to meet christoph eschenbach, the conductor/pianist who's been part of one of the nastiest divorces in the classical music world during a strained tenure at the philadelphia orchestra.

here is the way my colleague mark swed described him: "Thin and erect, with shaved head and large cranium, dressed in avant-garde sleek black shirt and slacks, he looked like some inscrutable creature of advanced intelligence out of the future."

he was an imposing, very germanic guy, you could say, but one of the most culturally curious people i've ever interviewed, and he loosened up when we started talking about rilke. he's the kind of guy so in love with music it literally wakes him up at night.

HERE is my story in today's LAT.

looking forward to seeing eschenbach play schubert (d.960!) at disney hall tonight... he's also conducting a program of mozart and bruckner this weekend. those of you in DC can count on him taking over as music director at the National Symphony -- which he has pledged to bring into the 21st c. -- in 2010.

Addendum: here is the review, not by me, of last night's dvorak and schubert concert.

David Benoit and Classical Music

MOST serious jazz people detest "smooth jazz" -- let's get this out of the way at the beginning. (here's an example.)

but recently i sat down to talk to david benoit, the pianist who is one of the key figures in the movement, and quite enjoyed myself. why? because we mostly talked about classical music. and i was surprised to find that this exemplar of the pleasant and tension-free had been moved at an early age by the work of frank zappa. (he also digs bill evans, but who doesnt?)

benoit has been building a parallel career in classical music, as a composer and conductor, with guidance from kent nagano, the brilliant conductor who departed LA Opera a few years back. (i've never heard german music sound so graceful and translucent and well, french, and very much miss kent's baton.)

HERE is my story on benoit, with some comments from nagano.

Photo credit: and

Friday, May 22, 2009

The 88 and "Highway 61 Revisited"

FOR a week or two now i've been hearing whispers about the LA band the 88 -- that their fan base was dwindling, that their latest show would be empty, that they were gonna have to put out their next record by themselves, etc.

so i was pleased to walk into their gig at the key club on sunset last night and find the place quite well attended and the energy level high. is the band in trouble? maybe. but their exhausting, two-set stand last night was triumphant and at times, transcendent.

HERE, btw, is my piece on the band from last fall (i interviewed them before leaving the paper and it ran after i left -- an eerie conjunction.) more cheerily, here is "how good it can be" from their 2005 show at sea level records, most of which is also on youtube.

indie geeks know this: a few years back, bands started -- as the traditional "album" became a relic thanks to ipods and so on -- playing their classic records (another nostalgic term) all the way through live: sonic youth doing the two-decade old "daydream nation," for instance. about the same time, bands performing classic albums by OTHER groups became retro-chic as well.

it was in this spirit that the 88 -- who are typically likened to the 60s kinks -- played as their first set the entirety of dylan's "highway 61 revisited" album. from the first drum kick to "like a rolling stone," i could tell this was going to be awesome and it only got better.

keith sletterdahl is not a particularly dylanesque singer, and he found a happy medium between his own style and the 60s dylan's combination of hesitation and bite. (there were mercifully only a few moments of sletterdahl's distinctive/annoying jumps in vocal register. which i think were accidental.)

after the first song, keith mentioned how "ridiculously fun this is for us,"; i've rarely seen a band enjoy itself so much onstage.

what was most amazing was the band's energy -- esp keyboardist adam merrin, esp since this record is built around the keyboard -- and the way they reminded you how incredible that record is. this is when dylan was smart, cryptic, bluesy, and tons of fun. his lyrics were so perfect -- i've not played that record in years, but i knew almost every line. is there a bad or even forgettable song on that record? (and for my money it is not even the best dylan record.)

"queen jane approximately" was especially good, i thought.

the last song, "desolation row," started with keith on guitar, with the band filling in gradually -- a familiar technique that worked, and offered a nice change of dynamic from the full, almost cluttered, organ-driven rush of the other songs.

overall, an incredible show, and the second set, built on the 88's own songs, was fine too, though "highway 61" was a tough act to follow. this is a band known for its songwriting, and the set reminded us how perfectly crafted songs like "how good it can be," "coming home," "nobody cares," etc are, and there were some new songs as well. some of these were so high-spirited i worry that the band will give in to continuous sugar high at some point. (they may need a little grit to bring them back to what they do best.)

the show drew an unusually crowd -- older, generally heavy men who likely remember the day "highway 61" was released, 16-year-girls who think the singer is cute, and a few geezers in the middle like yours truly. when the sets changed, the average weight in the put in front of the stage went down significantly.

in any case, a reminder of the dialogue with the past that music can offer.

Photo credit: the 88

Camera Obscura and the Glasgow Sound

EVER since i first heard lloyd cole and the commotions at an impressionable age, i've been crazy for scottish rock n roll and especially bittersweet music of glasgow. it's one of the finest legacies in rock music history, putting supposedly sophisticated cities like san francisco and boston to shame. only, i think, portland, ore., and manchester, uk, have better batting averages. (i'm overlooking quarterflash here, btw.)

one band that both exemplifies glasgow's tradition of melody and intelligence (heard in glaswegian bands as different as the jesus & mary chain and teenage fanclub) and fights against its associations is camera obscura, whose new LP just came out. HERE is my interview, which advances a US tour and will run in various metromix papers around the country.

they are tired, TIRED of being told they sound like belle & sebastian, but if you cant wait for the new LP by stuart and the boys waste no time in picking up "let's get our of this country" or "my maudlin career." here's a video of the new single, "french navy," a song that begins "in a dusty library" and then travels the world.

i spoke to traceyanne campbell, the band's singer and songwriter, about music -- she grew up loving patsy cline, and her grandfather cried when roy orbison died -- as well as her own depression and how she deals with it in music. (i think of donne's line about "grief brought to numbers.")

(serious glaswegians will know that the wonderful "country" record began with "lloyd, i'm ready to be heartbroken," video here, an answer song in to cole's early "are you ready to be heartbroken?" i was pleased to hear from campbell that cole's work is still a major part of indie culture in glasgow and that bars and clubs play his stuff readily. more on cole's music in another post.)

as for camera obscura, they'll be in LA, at the henry fonda, on june 11. as i say in the interview, their show last time around was surprisingly extroverted and fun.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Dune" and Science Fiction

THIS blog's recent poll was taken by frank herbert's novel "dune," which was trailed closely by gibson's cyberpunk classic "neuromancer" and le guin's political novel-of-ideas "the dispossessed." it was, despite an obscure seeming topic, the most heavily voted of my polls so far. (interestingly, these top three all by west coast authors.)

that "dune" is the winner is not much of a surprise: it's considered the bestselling sf novel in history (more than 10 million last i heard), and it is, perhaps along with heinlein's "stranger in a strange land," which drew almost no votes, probably the best-known sf novel to those outside the church.

it would not have been my vote -- that would have been asimov's foundation series of something by le guin, i think -- but the book's achievements are simply bewildering. here is a book published in 1965, the year of "the sound of music" and "help!", before "the 60s" really blew up, that envisions the world we live in today and seem to be moving rapidly toward.

that is, herbert, a the time a journalist working in the pacific northwest who had been sent to the coastal dunes of oregon for a travel assignment, imagined a world of a) something very close to jihadist muslim fundamentalism, b) resource depletion/conservation that speaks to our current situation with water and oil, and c) widespread drug addiction. these are probably the novel's central subjects, and they are arguably our central subjects in the world today.

the fact that the plot rips doesnt hurt. in fact, the rapid nature of the plot may be why the adaptations so far havent worked. this may reveal me as a philistine, but even as a david lynch fan i thought his film a disaster. the miniseries with william hurt was better, a more earnest attempt to capture the book's complexities, but i had the misfortune to watch is at roughly the same time i was catching up with "battlestar galactica," and it simply cannot compete on any level -- acting, writing, visual design, etc -- with that.

by the way, here is a review of the book from what is becoming my favorite literary blog, run by ted gioia.

from a technical point of view, "dune" is still, forty-some years later, still probably the greatest example of world creation in sf. there have been many since, but this one is both scientifically feasible/ thoroughly worked-out, like an old-school hard science book, AND successful on a poetic/metaphoric level, the way bradbury's mars was.
the writing? this was at the very beginning of sf's growing ambition to be literary. it is not straight pulp writing exactly, but could be overemphatic and portentous. (count the exclamation points on the average page if you doubt me.) the characters are decently sketched, no better. but i'll say this for it: when i read "dune" in 8th grade -- the first sf novel i ever read -- it seemed incredibly weighty and complex. as an adult, it doesnt feel overly difficult, but rather deeply imagined, and it's got very little fat on it.

here's hoping the expected peter berg adapt finally does this great novel -- and if all goes well, its sequels -- justice.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Olives, Wine and the Central Coast

DON'T think i know too many places greener or more bountiful than the coastal strip that runs from big sur to just north of santa barbara. a wonder that the forces of develop- ment and suburb- anization that have wrecked much of the golden state haven't domest- icated this stretch too with an endless vista of malls and car lots.

i had the good fortune to visit san louis obispo, right in the middle of this graceful stretch, last month, looking for scenery and relaxation as well as the ultimate olive oil... the fact that there are wineries, many of which are a few miles north (and about 10 degrees hotter) in paso robles was icing on the cake.

HERE is my NYTimes piece, which ran today.

we visited mount olive farms, pasolivo, olea farms, and the unfortunately named weolive shop. that may seem yuppie-ish (anyone remember yuppies?) but let me remind my readers: homeric heroes and spartan warriors anointed their bodies with oil, and the branch, fruit or oil itself has played a key role in almost all of the major western religions.

my wineries assessment here

overall, a place i could return to almost endlessly.

Photos of Tolosa Wintery, Pasolivo and the Sanitarium: SRT

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Miles Davis and "Kind of Blue" at 50

MORE proof that my taste hasn't changed much since i was 20 is tomorrow's LAT piece on miles davis's "kind of blue" record, which marks its 50th this august. (miles himself would celebrate his 83rd birthday on may 25 had he not died in 1991. i still remember that dark day and going to dc's cafe lautrec to see a trio knock out some miles classics that eve.)

HERE is my piece. i spoke to jazz critic ashley kahn, fred "mr. 1959" kaplan, and my longtime journalistic idol, gary giddins, one of the greatest writers on culture in any genre. my goal was to put it in context with jazz at the time as well as that period of transition in american culture.

i only regret having lost, because of space, some of kahn's musings on the record's success over the years. (tho it's now the bestselling jazz record of all time, it was not even the bestselling record of 1959, and albums like brubeck's "time out" and 1962's getz/gilberto outsold it initially.) 

kahn credits the slow build to the record's "aphrodisiac" quality, which many people he spoke to for his book "kind of blue" mentioned without provocation: "if you didnt get over by the time of 'flamenco sketches,' " the album's last track, "she wasnt going for your game."

as for me, i'm quite happy that this record i've known and played for 20 years stood up to the constant revisiting i gave it for the week i thought and wrote about it. like the best work of the beatles, bach, and coltrane, it never gets old. i look forward to sinking deeper into its musical, cultural and sensual pleasures.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Wonderful Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

ONE of the greatest thrills of my professional life was the chance to interview the novelist ursula le guin last summer at her home in portland. HERE is my piece, which runs sunday in the LAT.

le guin is one of the few writers from my childhood -- 5th or 6th grade i think, for the "earthsea" books -- who gives me the same pleasure, if in a different key, as an adult.

in person, i found her  -- at nearly 80 -- to be intellectually and physically tough, like a frontierswoman. which fits a dedicated westerner who has fought to redraw the boundaries between serious and genre fiction. 

her latest novel, "lavinia," which takes off from virgil's "aeniad" and just came out in paperback, is fantastic. its puts some in mind of robert graves' delicious "i, claudius."

my only regret is that the idea of a "long" LATimes piece has changed drastically since i started the story, and the result is too short to really capture the full sweep of a half-century long career, and a writer who has been acclaimed, controversial, and in and out of fashion over those years. either way, her accomplishment is profound.

Photo credit:

Monday, May 4, 2009

Reservoir Restaurant in Silver Lake

FIRST of all, let me say how pissed i am that LA Mill cafe and The Park in Echo Park are no longer BYOB. because they are applying for permits right now,  you can neither order a drink nor bring your own beer or wine in. the worst of both worlds!!

it's for this reason that my wife and i ended up at RESERVOIR, a new place, natch, near the silver lake reservoir, across the street from club spaceland in the old netty's space. 

the place only opened a few weeks ago, and may need to work some bugs out, but we were quite pleased with the place. its pedigree is similar to several other newish eastside places: seasonal, market-driven cuisine, and a chef who'd toiled in prestigious kitchens (lucques, AOC, blair's) before finding the chance to open her own place.

the wildcard is the way the menu is structured: you pick your main, and then match it to one of several arrays of sidedishes. so sara got the scallops, which were seared with a bit of curry and fantastic, with tuscan kale and potatoes, while i got the short rib and paired it with farro with pine nuts. (this is trickier from the chef's point of view that it looks, as all the mains have to match all the sides.)

we also had a beet salad with hazlenuts which was quite fine, and the service was friendly and warm and on time.

setting and sleek modernist design quite cool, tho for some to be sitting at netty's (or looking out at the 7-11 nearby) and paying real restaurant prices will be dissonant. 

overall, i'd say it's similar to canele' in atwater village -- another case of chick-chef from fancy place looking for her own place -- tho at canele' the emphasis is on simpler dishes and pure ingredients. 

the chef at reservoir is working hard to make every dish distinctive. my wife prefers it slightly to canele'; i know the atwater place better and my heart belongs to them.

my one caveat about reservoir is that the wine list was good but a bit pricey: every glass i was interested in was $12 or up. we paid the $15 corkage and dug into the domaine carneros pinot i'd happened to have on me, which was not perfect with anything but close enough with all of it.

Photo credit: Reservoir