Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reeling Over Michael Jackson

ANYONE who knows my music taste will consider me and unlikely chronicler of michael jackson. and indeed, for my money, there's not much post-"billie jean" (that song in specific a masterpiece i think) that lives up to his soul years.

but i'm reeling like the rest of the world from the sudden death of the man known for decades as the King of Pop. Here is the NYT story of his (as of now) mysterious passing at age 50.

i'm shocked and confused partly because of the suddenness of it -- this was, after all, going to be the season for a massive comeback.

but also it's because of my somewhat accidental meeting with him a few years back.

this was at a party at producer robert evans' house, maybe 2003, thrown for the smarmy director brett ratner, who was loudly chewing gum and running around his own party like a bar mitzvah boy on a sugar high.

in any case, sara (my then-girlfriend/now wife) pointed out to me as we were hanging out talking that we were standing right over jackson himself, who was sitting in a couch quietly flipping through a book of photographs. (sara was a huge fan of "off the wall" and that era so was really excited in spite of her own gen X jadedness.)

we did everything we could to avoid invading his space, and since i was covering the party i spoke to a serpentine, but friendly, paris hilton, who told me (perhaps because i was wearing glasses and a bookish expression) that her party days were over, that she just liked hanging out with friends like "bob" and having good conversations. and i found joel gray, jeff bridges, evans himself and other luminaries to talk to.

when i walked back to sara and our friend, i saw a guy on the couch look up and me and kind of motion me over. may've been bc i was carrying a notebook. in any case, this was jacko, who was as friendly and sweet as could be. he asked me if a knew LAT pop critic robert hilburn ("such a nice man") and discussed his love for movies (esp ratner's which he compared to the work of capra).

overall, i was struck by a) how southern and easy his accent and manner were, b) how much more normal (for want of a better word) he seemed.

he seemed to want to go on talking about film all night, but i excused myself and thanked him for talking. i think there were enormous bodyguards standing around us, but the sense i got was that there was a real person here who earnestly wanted to break out of the bubble.

(i actually have a poster of a michael jackson statue from the budapest marzipan museum.)

may he rest in peace!

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"An Edible History of Humanity"

I DON'T think there's a book i've given as a gift more often than "a history of the world in 6 glasses," a brisk and delightful tour, from ancient egypt to 20th century america, in roughly 250 pages. it left me with memorable images : mesopotamians discovering beer, imperial romans swilling wine, coffee being downed in cafes in 18th c. london and edinburgh --where it fueled the age of reason.

the author, economist magazine editor tom standage, has a new book, "an edible history of humanity," which looks at the way food -- the invention of agriculture, the food surpluses that allowed artists and priests to develop, the coming of hierarchy and the use of food in war and politics -- has shaped human history.

HERE is my interview with standage from today's LAT. i spoke to him a few days before a book party in new york that would offer hunter-gatherer appetizers and work though food history with each course.

one of the book’s surprising points: the move to farming was at best an ambiguous step for the human race, involving a lot more work and a less healthy diet: latter day greeks and turks have still not regained their height from their stone age days.

and who knew the ancient romans used to worry about food miles?

i look forward to what this guy comes up with next.

Photo credit: Maurus/ Bridgeman Art Library, London; Giotto/ pinakothek, munich

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Adrian Tomine Vs. Seth

AT this point, most enthusiasts of the graphic novel / literary comics know the work of adrian tomine, who i first encountered in his "optic nerve" comic.

when i started reading his stuff, insiders often complained that tomine's drawing was too similar to dan "ghost world" clowes, but he's since gone on to carve out his own turf, whether it's a younger / hipper milieu than the losers who tend to populate clowes' work, his own japanese-american heritage or the often bleak work of early manga master yoshihiro tatsumi, which he has translated.

and tomine's work now shows up on the cover of the new yorker as often as any cartoonist working. i love his understated style and his use of color, but it's the way he captures people who miss connecting with each other -- his influences include raymond carver and tobias wolff -- that makes his work the most affecting.

HERE is the profile i wrote for the LATimes a few years back -- reported from berkeley, where tomine lived at the time.

and here is adrian, a bit later, in a piece abou about tatsumi's work -- which showed him as a kid that comics didnt "have to be about samurais and robots" -- in a piece that concerns the plight of foreign language comics. hint: it's similar to the challenges faced by foreign films or translated literature. (tatsumi's memoir, "a drifting life," was recently reviewed in the NYT's top-gear dwight garner.)

and finally, here is a reported essay on the awkward relationship between comics and the fine arts world.

tomine and the wonderful canadian graphic novelist seth, best known for his retro-cool "palookaville" and "clyde fans" comics and the eerie shades of blue and gray he favors, are currently touring, and will show up at skylight books in LA's los feliz on weds. june 17. these guys are two of the best: dont miss it.

Photo credit: Drawn & Quarterly

Monday, June 8, 2009

Jeff Tweedy Vs. Wilco

EXCITEMENT has burned across many email accounts since the band WILCO posted a streaming link to its new album, entitled just plain "wilco," on its website. the new record is harder to figure out or describe than most offerings by this esteemed american group -- it is not rootsy like "being there," poignant like "sky blue sky", etc -- but it's full of good, tuneful stuff.

this morning i spoke to jeff tweedy, the band's sometimes prickly frontman and singer, HERE. tweedy, who has suffered from migraines for most of his life and seen his share of adventures with alcohol and drugs, was in good humor as he talked about what he's aiming for with the group and how he regards the huge number of expectations piled on to the project. (and all the issues of "authenticity" which swirl around any band with roots in the alt-country movement.)

he even discussed, with evident sadness, former wilco member jay bennett, an important architect of the "yankee hotel foxtrot" LP, who died in may soon after suing tweedy.

my favorite line, regarding the band's many veers from style to style: "it's never been our intention not to sound like ourselves." (that line is nearly an entire mark strand poem. speaking of poetry, tweedy has just picked up a new anthology he was excited about called "american hybrids," and had also just completed a book on darwin's voyage.)

i also laughed out loud as he discussed the band's wearing "Nudie suits" onstage recently. but you'll have to see the whole thing for it to be funny.

wilco launches its US tour this week and lands in LA, at the wiltern, in late-july. see you there.

Photo credit: wilcoworld

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Denis Johnson vs. The Reclusive Writer

ALMOST exactly two years ago i was walking through Book Expo America in ny with the galley for denis johnson's then-new "tree of smoke." at least half a dozen people who saw his name on the oversized spine stopped me and asked, with some excitement, where they could get one. i've never had a similar experience with another writer. 

(the vietnam-set book, of course, went on to win the sometimes noirish, sometimes epic author a long overdue national book award.)

that palpable sense of anticipation -- and my sense that johnson would once again refuse to do press or appearances for the novel -- led me to write THIS piece on the phenomenon of "the reclusive writer." as someone who's loved salinger in high school and pynchon since college, it was a subject i'd been thinking about for years.

as luck would have it, FSG has just released the new johnson novel, "nobody move," which is an expanded version of his monthly installments for playboy last year. (the magazine is trying a similar trick with a james ellroy memoir right now.)

johnson's "nobody move," is a stripped down crime novel that resembles jim thompson or early tarantino.  “What the —? Where’s the literary?" johnson asked when he read part of it in greenwich village not long ago. "I thought I put something literary in my suitcase, but this is just cheap pulp fiction.” 

your humble correspondent, of course, is a lover of cheap pulp fiction. this -- approvingly reviewed here -- is neither at the level of thompson, hammett, etc. nor as good as even overlooked johnson novels like "already dead" or "rescusitation of a drowned man." but it's brisk and appealing in its own way: johnson certainly writes about lowlifes better than anyone i know right now.

as for recluses, i see salinger is still cranky today.

and did anybody remember that pynchon (that's him in the navy cap) wrote "likes pizza; dislikes hypocrites" in his hs yearbook? i cannot think of a better statement of purpose for any writer.