Friday, May 28, 2010

The Agony and Ecstasy of Daniel Clowes

I GUESS I expected one of those harsh, shriveled social misfits with which he he populates his books. But the comics artist I met in Los Feliz recently was a very cool, reasonably well adjusted guy.

But as I write in a piece in Sunday's LA Times: "In person, Clowes — who has created an oeuvre marked by hard-edged social criticism, over-the-top satire and obnoxious, confrontational characters — is almost disappointingly well-adjusted: He's intellectual without being weirdly intense, skeptical without being bitter, observant without being harshly judgmental."

Here is my piece on the Oakland-based Clowes and Wilson, his delightful new book about a despicable character.

I absolutely love Ghost World -- both the book and the film -- and a lot of Clowes' other work.

In some comments I didn't have room for in the piece, Optic Nerve cartoonist Adrian Tomine described how the expansion of comics, and its new respectability over the last decade, has brought many non-comics obsessives in the field -- people who come from fine art, performance art, and other fields instead of the kinds of geeky collector types who tend to make up the field. Many of these newcomers have less sense of comics history, Tomine said, but nearly all of them revere Clowes.

Clowes also talked to me about the connection he feels to the band Yo La Tengo, in his effort to be grounded in a tradition and an individual, non-corporate aesthetic and to come up with fresh ideas over a long artistic career.

More on this stuff shortly. Check out Wilson. I just wish it was longer; I'm praying for Wilson: The Lost Years.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shocked and Appalled at UCLA

David Sefton -- generally the most intriguing and unpredictable of Los Angeles' arts showmen -- has resigned from his post running the UCLA Live series that takes place at Royce Hall and other venues. Sefton, a native of Liverpool, is being coy about this, but it's hard not to imagine that someone as passionate about his programming, and about his particularly fervent niche of high and low, stepping down unless he received considerable pressure.

Here is the LA Times story which runs tomorrow. Writes Mike Boehm: 'He said Thursday that he quit in response to "a major rethinking and restructuring" of the program that his bosses at UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture are undertaking in response to "increasing fiscal pressures" brought on by the poor economy and the state's fiscal woes.'

In the 13 years I've been in LA, only Esa-Pekka Salonen of the LA Phil has been a more exciting local force in the arts. I recall the jolt the arrival of the irreverent Scouser sent through the local cultural community, and went to as many of these offerings as I could. Here is my LA Times story on Sefton concentrating on his wild theater offerings.

One early sign that a short-sighted and stupid decision might be coming was UCLA's recent (and barlely announced) canceling of the International Theater Festival, the key to Sefton's annual programming and some of the most daring avant-garde performance I've ever seen, from Societie Rafael Sanzio to Complicite to the more traditional but still bracing Shakespeare performances by Mark Rylance's Royal Shakespeare Company. The best coverage of this is by Steven Leigh Morris. (Dean Christopher Waterman of UCLA says ticket sales had been low.)

I also wrote a cover story on Sefton for New Times LA soon after he arrived: I spoke to or corresponded with a number of cultural luminaries, including Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson and late great deejay John Peel, and all sung Sefton's praises and talked about his transforming of London's South Bank Centre. Christ, here's a guy who brought Scott Walker out of reclusion!!

"When I arrived I was an enfant terrible, and now I'm an eminence gris," Sefton told Boehm. "It takes just 10 years."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nada Surf at the Troubadour

The Brooklyn band Nada Surf are one part '90s indie, one part chiming power pop, one part '60s songcraft, and last night they melded all three styles in a loud, forceful Troubadour show that left my ears ringing. The tour -- which continues tonight at the same club -- supports their new record of idiosyncratic covers, If I Had a Hi-Fi.

The show, of course, wasn't perfect, with a few songs that didn't entirely connect, and I'm not sure about the bassist's dreadlocks. But generally this is one of the most exciting bands in indie rock and I'm particularly impressed with their unpredictable way of engaging with music history.

Case in point: While most of the show was given over to their very fine originals, an early highlight was their cover of The Go-Betweens "Love Goes On." Pop-savvy readers of The Misread City need no introduction to this brilliantly wistful and now sadly defunct Aussie alt band, but many audiences do. Nada Surf gets major props both for bringing their names up and for hitting this bittersweet song even more squarely than the its originators did. (A fan handed lead singer Matthew Caws the CD of a Go-Betweens tribute record -- I'd love to hear more about this, which I see here.) Anyway, "Love Goes On" and Bill Fox's surging "Electrocution" were highlights of the show as well as the new album, which drops June 8.

And while it took the band a minute to get the groove right, they played what may be their best song -- "Blonde on Blonde," which captures a retro kind of music love better than anything I know since Philip Larkin's "Reference Back," the anthemic "Whose Authority," their early "The Plan," and "Happy Kid." (I cant stop trying to get the meloody "I'm just a happy kid, stuck with the heart of a sad punk," across on my guitar.) I would have liked to hear the bic-lighter-inspiring "Inside of Love."

Nada Surf, of course, are part of a small but proud cadre of formerly major label bands that went on to thriving artistically on indies. (Spoon and Velvet Crush come immediately to mind.) Their early (and, in retrospect, slightly annoying) mid-'90s hit "Popular," made them seem part of a cynical and "ironic" turn in alt-rock, but they band was soon dropped and has done its best work since on records like Let Go and Lucky. (The new album is very fine, if not as consistent as I'd like: They do manage the musical alchemy of turning out a pretty good version of a Depeche Mode song, something I would have judged impossible. And the album's production may be the best of anything they've recorded.)

I could talk about this show all day but must switch off because the band is about to go onto a KCRW/Morning Becomes Eclectic performance. Let me close by mentioning that besides Caws' skill on the Les Paul (and strong vocals), the band also included Ira Elliot, one of the most inventive drummers in indie rock, and guest axe-man Doug Gillard of Cobra Verde and Guided by Voices. (Gillard's record with GbV's Robert Pollard, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, is by far Pollard's best "solo" record.)

Here's an addendum: Drummer Elliot will be part of an indie supergroup of sorts, including members of Cat Power, Maplewood, and Moby'd band, in Hamburg to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival there. Elliot, like my friend the top-shelf writer/musician Mark Rozzo, is also a member of canyon-rock revivalists Maplewood. (The group will be opening for soft-rock heroes America on some dates this summer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Art's "Cool School" Returns

THE Ferus Gallery is probably the most famous gallery in the history of Los Angeles – the site of Warhol’s first-ever solo show, obscenity charges over a Wallace Berman exhibit, and home base of the “cool school” of L.A. artists which included Ed Moses, Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha. Quite an impact for a place which only lasted from 1957 to '67.

The other night the storied space held an opening – Moses’ exquisite, obsessive drawings from the ‘60s – designed in part to announce the gallery’s relaunch.

Between a very fine rockabilly/country blues band called The Americans – the lead singer played a steel National guitar like Bukka White – a bar serving California wine, and vintage surfing films shown on the building behind the gallery while the crowd gathered outside, it was a celebration of life in the Golden State. There were lots of men in chunky glasses and women without bras.

The gallery, now leased by Tim Nye, is at the same relatively small space it occupied in its heyday – after its closing it was taken over by a tailor, who ran his shop there for four decades.

I met Nye, a sandy-haired hipster who’s run a number of New York spaces over the years dedicated to art and, some evenings, to indie rock. (He is also the co-founder of SonicNet and the heir to a considerable industrial fortune.)

At least at this stage, Nye said, he’s intending to showcase the original Ferus artists, many of whom are still active and working in Southern California. “I’m committed to that generation of artists.”

Ed Moses himself was around: Now 84, he was sporting a long beard and gray ski jacket and was followed by what looked like several camera crews. (The great Ed Ruscha was supposed to make it but was, I'm told, in New York.)

I have, of course, some questions as to how well this whole thing will work, and how it can move forward and avoid being just nostalgia. But overall, a great event and a promising start to the new venture.  

Photo by William Claxton

Philip K. Dick at UC Irvine

ON Friday I braved some of the worst traffic in Southern California for A County Darkly, a panel on Philip K. Dick's years in Orange County.

Overall, the event was lively and fun, even without offering few genuinely new insights. (I wrote about the symposium briefly, here, on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog. And I wrote a lengthy piece on his years in SoCal here.)

UC Riverside scholar Rob Latham read a few passages from the author's OC novels ("Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed..."), and was followed by three of Dick's friends. Generally the most intriguing part of the gathering was getting people who'd really known "Phil" at the same table.

Wily writer/physicist Gregory Benford stressed how funny Dick was a person, describing him as a gifted physical comedian as well as how generous he was, giving much of his Blade Runner money away to charity and poor people he knew. "Even though he lived pretty close to the street himself, he knew what it was like to be down, and tried to help people." Benford also described Dick writing on his old Olympic typewriter on a day Dick was so obsessed with his deadline -- and speed-ed up -- that he had to drag his friend to dinner: "He was hitting the keys so hard and so fast it sounded like a motorcycle." (This took place in the late '60s, a few years before the author moved south from the Bay Area.)

Writer Jim Blaylock emphasized how hard it was to really figure out which of Dick's wild theories the writer himself believed. "He seemed to be evolving in his beliefs so constantly that it became harder to tell from one Tuesday to another," where his thinking was.

Dick told his friends about a thousands-year-old plot involving Jesus Christ and the KBG. "The other night he convinced us that the Soviets had developed a madness ray... which was aimed at Los Angeles... They'd developed the hydrogen bomb as a kind of lark -- what was really going to take us out was the madness ray."

Writer Tim Powers talks about finding Dick's thousands of pages of writing on his visitation by God -- soon to be published as The Exegesis -- while Dick was in the hospital, dying, and stashing it in a large ashtray with "Elvis is King" on it because he didn't want it falling into the wrong hands. "I started to read it, and it sounded really crazy. Out of its proper context it really sounded weird." When he spoke to the authorities after the author's death he told them, "Don't neglect the Elvis ashtray, because that's where all of his theological speculation is."

Powers also mentioned Dick's difficulty with marriage (he was married and divorced five times. "I think he could see, after all of those attempts, that he wasn't very good at marrying people. He wasn't going to do that anymore."

Many intellectual teenagers and young men have an older, eccentric friend who turns them onto weird books and ideas, exposes them to jazz or classical or experimental music, and sometimes buys them beer. (I know I did.) After Friday's session, I sorely regret not having known Philip K. Dick in his prime.

Here is the full announcement and cast of characters:

TITLE: A County Darkly:  Philip K Dick in the OC

TIME:  Friday, May 21, 12-2

PLACE: Humanities Gateway 1030, University of California, Irvine campus


Science Fiction Authors:
*Gregory Benford
*Tim Powers
*James Blaylock

Science Fiction Critics
*Rob Latham
*Jeff Hicks

Moderator: Jonathan Alexander

ABOUT: This panel presentation will consider the inter-relationship of
Philip K. Dick's work and his life in Orange County.  Spending the last
ten years of his life in the OC, Dick composed some of his most important
SF works here.  In many ways, the OC is a peculiarly Dickian space, with
managed communities and a veneer of the unreal.  Conversely, Dick's late
novels (A Scanner Darkly, Valis, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer)
seem at least partly inspired by Dick's life in Orange County.  Our
panelists will explore such connections, bringing the work of the
century's most noted SF author to bear on our cultural imagination of
Orange County, while also bringing our imagination of the OC to bear on
possible interpretations of Dick's work.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Neck and Neck Over Nabokov

WELL gang, Misread City readers seem to be equally split between Pale Fire fans and Lolita fans -- there is a joke here I can't quite summon. In any case, because the vote ended in a dead tie, I have put up this blog's first ever runoff to break the tie.

Please vote for one OR the other and please tell your friends.

All my best,


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Otis Redding Live on the Sunset Strip

Perhaps the most exciting development in West Coast culture this week is the release of one of the greatest R&B records I have ever heard – Otis Redding Live on the Sunset Strip. It should be equally appealing even to people who know classics like Redding’s Live in Europe and other, shorter recordings of these April 1966 dates at the Whisky a Go Go.

Peter Guralnick, in his masterly Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, sketches an indelible portrait of Redding’s emergence from Macon, Georgia, “just another graceful southern city gone to seed,” through early hits like “These Arms of Mine,” and the growth of what he calls “an aching vulnerability seemingly at odds with the self-confidence he exuded to friends and associates.” Redding died in a plane crash near the end of 1967, at his peak, right before his transcendent “Dock of the Bay” – a song showing a new direction -- was released.

The set is made up of three full sets, including the songs “Security,” “Respect,” Chained and Bound,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and his covers of songs like “Satisfaction” and even “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

As much as we love James Brown, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke and others, Otis is our favorite soul singer here at The Misread City. We spoke to Ashley Kahn, author of books about Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, who penned the liner notes for this new 2-CD set.

Q: Some of this material exists in previous sets. What’s new here?

This includes stuff that wasn’t available previously. Most important, it doesn’t try to fix ‘problems’ – it’s warts and all. It’s the performance experienced by the people who were actually there, with his hand-picked road band, which he called his ‘orchestra.’ It also includes Sunday night’s last set: In the jazz world, the last set is where people take chances, pull out tunes you don’t expect them to, sometimes hitting, sometimes not. Normally record companies say, ‘We’re gonna bury that -- put it in the archives.’

You can also hear how the energy build in a live show. And the time allotted to these recordings gives you the pauses and banter between the songs: It gives you the feel of the down-home welcome of an Otis Redding show.

Q: Otis’s Live in Europe is an acknowledge masterpiece – how is the spirit of this date different?

A: That, and there’s also the concert recorded with Booker T and the MG’s at the Monterey Pop festival. By the time of those concerts, he had crossed over from being this R&B guy to someone making pop hits, radio hits. Pop radio was changing, genres were opening up. This is earlier: It’s the working-man’s Otis that you get here.

Q: The live recording has a special place in '60s soul, even beyond its role in rock, jazz, and other genres.

A: Live was when soul musicians were most themselves – its when they’re working an audience and working off its energy. It’s hard to recreate that in the studio. At a live show, musicians are very motivated – it’s hit it or quit it. You gotta make it happen – and that’s Otis at his best.

Q: Even with the great voices of '60s soul, there was something deep and yearning about Otis Redding that nobody could match.

A: There’s a grittiness he never lost. As he said in the great tune, ‘Tramp,’ he did with Carla Thomas, ‘I’m straight from the backwoods,’ with no apologies. It’s there in his voice, his in banter with the audience. Otis had a balance between the down-home and sophisticated mid-‘60s soul.

Q: Otis died when he was only 26. What might he have gone on to do?

A: There were so many changes taking place during his career and after. But Otis was always in the process of shifting. If you think of the territory he covered from just the early ‘60s to the mid ‘60s, when he was listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And he put together, with 'Dock of the Bay,' a gentle folk song on acoustic guitar.

Would he have gone in the direction of Al Green, with a preacherly quality, but elegant and intimate?  Or Barry White and Isaac Hayes, that between-the-sheets soul?

Who knows. He was certainly heading in a more introspective direction.
He was definitely following his own path. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

David Brooks at Occidental College

On Sunday morning I was lucky enough to eavesdrop on the commencement at Oxy, my wife's alma mater, and stand at the far edge of a natural amphitheater, under an old oak tree alongside a eucalyptus grove, to see the address by David Brooks.

The commencement speech by Brooks, the New York Times columnist associated with the neo-conservative movement, came after honorary degrees given to a number of other luminaries, including Warner Bros/ Dreamworks exec Mo Ostin, one of the few non-weasels in the music industry and the man who helped record everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Elliott Smith.

Brooks speech began with a bit of mild, genial standup, but then became more interesting. Mostly, he was there to recount to a mostly liberal or left audience of students and faculty how he had moved, after a childhood as a New York liberal, grounded in the Enlightenment, to conservatism. Once he got going, the address was Brooks at his best.

"When I graduated college, I guess you could say I was optimistic... that solving social problems would be relatively easy," as long as government was full of good and compassionate people. But when he covered Chicago as a reporter, and wrote about the clearing of blighted neighborhoods to build projects, he realized that urban renewal "tore down something they couldn't even see." Social relations were destroyed . "Before long these housing projects were horrible and uninhabitable."

While covering education, the paranoid and un-trusting last years of the Soviet Union, and disease in Africa, he came to see things in in common with various failed policies: "They all had in common a truncated view of human nature, that we are rational, autonomous beings... who respond to incentives."

Instead, he began to learn the role of emotions, unconscious biases, and the limits of utopian planning. "I switched from being a child of the French Enlightenment, to being a child of the British Enlightenment," under the sway of Edmund Burke with his "epistemological modesty" -- and Scots Adam Smith and David Hume.

And he began to realize, as he gradually digested the lessons of Stanford's "marshmallow experiment," he came around to Daniel Pat Moynihan's realization that "culture" and character are what matter, and a Burkean respect for limits, tradition and the way reform can destroy "invisible but important social relations."

Some of the speech was fascinating, if familiar from Brooks' columns. But it was interesting paired with the conditions these Oxy students are graduating into: A national economy destroyed by the "magic of the marketplace" trumpeted by Smith's disciples, by three decades of the kind of free-market/anti-government conservatism Brooks embraces, by all kinds of international and environmental problems created by a president Brooks supported, and a state government in absolute shambles because of the conservative, anti-tax Proposition 13 (which has led to me paying more in property tax for my cottage in a middle-class neighborhood than Warren Buffett pays for one of his Laguna mansions) and an obnoxious Republican governor who has simply passed debt down the road.

Even more boldly, Brooks's almost fatalistic worldview -- however intelligent it evolution -- was virtually contradicted by some of the other speakers honored on Sunday. Most clearly, Father Gregory Boyle, who runs gang-intevention group Homeboy Industries, and the two Latina women in the group - Patricia Alireza and Suzanna Guzman -- who became a pioneering physics professor and an opera diva, respectively, complicate the picture a little bit. (Not to mention our current president, who began his academic career at Oxy and benefited, like yours truly, from tons of financial aid, a progressive plan targeted by many conservatives.) Boyle's group has had an enormous amount of success in gangland L.A. and shows that social change, when implemented carefully, is possible. (The group is no, like most nonprofits, struggling because of the recession and has laid off more than half its staff.)

Anyway, I enjoyed Brooks' speech and the lovely SoCal weather, as I enjoy his column and his book, Bobos in Paradise. (And wishing all those fresh Oxy grads a better economy than they have now.) He is at the very least an honorable, if at times glib, guy. But I would have loved to heat what he, Boyle, and the others would have had to say to each other.

Update: Brooks has posted a version of his speech as a New York Times column, here: "We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment," he writes. "Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pro and Con on Ray Bradbury

THE first Los Angeles writer many people read -- I think this was true for me -- is Ray Bradbury. The fantasy and science-fiction writer, nearing his 90th birthday, gets a very fine treatment from Nathaniel Rich in Slate this week. (Here for his piece.)

I dedicated the book I co-edited, The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles, to Bradbury; my partner in crime Dana Gioia and I regarded him as a contemporary myth-maker whose Martian Chronicles stories are among the very finest work ever written about California. I still love that book and some others, such as the macabre, atmospheric The October Country.

"The best stories have a strange familiarity about them," Rich writes in his piece pegged to the Everyman Library The Stories of Ray Bradbury. "They're like long-forgotten acquaintances — you know you've met them somewhere before. "

Rich makes a real case for Bradbury as a wide-ranging talent who deals intelligently with technology, reckons with disillusionment, and put a strong stamp on the horror genre as well. I'm fond of young Mr. Rich, who recently departed the revived Paris Review; I met him in New York and wrote about his wondrous first novel here in a piece that also looked at two other first-time novelists in New York, Ed Park and Keith Gessen. (The Paris Review also has an interview with RB in its latest issue.)

But I should confess here that while my interest in science fiction and fantasy have come back to me with a vengeance over the last few years, I've been quite disappointed with most Bradbury written since the end of the '50s. One of the toughest pieces I've ever had to write was this review of an earlier career-spanning story collection. 

Why the man's output has decline so severely I can't say. I wish Bradbury well of course, and despite my feelings for his work, part of me is pleased to see the renewal of interest in his work. As I say in my piece, Bradbury's early work can serve as a powerful gateway drug to more powerful stuff and for that we're all grateful.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Artifice and Artlessness With Bonnie Prince Billy

The other night I accepted an invitation to see the Kentucky singer-songwriter Bonnie "Prince" Billy at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. I came out of the show realizing that this enigmatic figure, whose work I’ve known for about 15 years, is vastly more talented as well as much weirder than I had ever thought.

First, the show: The artist formerly known as Will Oldham appeared in McCabe’s 150-seat room, lined with string instruments, with sidekick Emmett Kelly. I would happily pay to see the baby-faced, angelic-voiced Kelly play his understated mix of folk, acoustic country and classical guitar solo.

Oldham, wearing a plaid shirt, khakis he kept rolling up and a pair of slippers without socks, has to be seen to be believed. With his long, scraggly beard, weathered voice and devotion to the Appalachian folk tradition, he seems like the kind of cat who would be obsessed with “authenticity” and the plainspoken quality of mountain and hill music. I expected him to sit in his chair and brood.

But Oldham, a trained actor who appeared as an earnest boy preacher in John Sayles Matewan, has the body language and delivery of a Shakespearean. He’s a recluse who refuses to give interviews to his hometown paper, but onstage he was both gracious and weirdly excited. I’ve rarely seen an indie artist so committed to his material. Between the actorly impulse, the supposed naive quality of rustic music, and the multiple monikers he’s used – I think Oldham was calling himself Palace Brothers when I first encountered him -- there’s a weird play on artifice and artlessness going on here. (Is it all an act? A friend who lives in Louisville talks about seeing him in slovenly dress around the coffee shops, looking like an escaped mental patient, and Oldham himself mentioned that he’d glimpsed himself in the dressing room mirror and thought, “Who is that homeless person?”)

The other thing: Oldham’s voice is as rich an instrument as I’ve ever heard. It sounds good on record – including the new “The Wonder Show of the World,” recorded with Kelly – but in that tiny room it was a whole other thing entirely, raw and piney but with great emotional shading. He opened with the album’s first track, “Troublesome Houses,” singing while Kelly played guitar, and then played a song he called “ a Norwegian folk song. It was written by Norwegian folks.” Both were tense and devastating.

Well, I could go on from here but the magic and intimacy of the night will be hard to recapture. I only hope this is one of those shows McCabe’s chose to record. (The second night’s show, apparently, was recorded without mics, which Oldham said he prefers.) The album is my favorite by him in years, and pretty stripped down, but like much acoustic studio recordings it is a little overproduced and some songs have an instrument or voice too many.

One of the advantage of seeing a show there is being able to check out the instruments and book collection on the way in and out. I was able to strum Lowden’s Richard Thompson model acoustic guitar (!), and picked up an old Leadbelly songbook put together my Lomax and Mo Asch. Also met and spoke to Lincoln, who manages the shows, very cool guy and a serious music lover. In any case, quite a night and I will return to this shrine to the strummed and plucked as soon as I can.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Jonathan Lethem to the Southland

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, though firmly associated with New York bohemia and a kind of Brooklyn renaissance, will be coming to Pomona College to take over David Foster Wallace's old job.

The author of the Brooklyn-childhood novel The Fortress of Solitude and, more recently, the Upper East Side-set Chronic City is well known to readers of The Misread City: He's among the site's core writers, along with Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Michael Chabon and Ross Macdonald. Of this esteemed group, he is the only one not lucky enough to have spent the majority his career on the West Coast. But that begins to change this fall, when Lethem arrives at the liberal arts school based in Claremont, where he begins teaching in January. Here is Pomona's release on the position.

I've gotten to know Lethem slightly in our discussions about various authors, including his college classmate Bret Easton Ellis and his literary hero Philip K. Dick, whose Library of America volumes he has edited. Lethem is among the sharpest, intellectually rigorous and most culturally omnivorous people I know, and he's made an important push in the war to rehabilitate genre fiction. He's also a zealous Dylan fan.

Of course, despite representing a kind of post-Auster, vaguely indie-rockish spirit of Brooklyn writing, Lethem spent the first decade of his writing career in California. He lived in Berkeley from '85 to '96, working at Moe's Books and Pegasus bookstore and helping pioneer rock critic Paul Williams run the Philip K. Dick Society. Raymond Chandler and Macdonald are powerful influences on his early novels especially, and in '07 he set a slender comic novel, You Don't Love Me Yet, in Silver Lake, where he lived while putting it together.

So in some ways he's long been a California writer by osmosis.

The Misread City will speak to Lethem in the next few weeks about his imminent arrival and his thoughts about West Coast culture. Until then, all we can say is, Welcome, homes!

Portrait by Julie Jo Fehrle from Jonathan Lethem: Writer

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Enigma of Artie Shaw

One of the orneriest musicians in history, swing-era bandleader and clarinetest Artie Shaw is the subject of a new biography by Tom Nolan. What a character Shaw was -- rising to great heights, dropping out of music when his fame and talent were at their highest,  provoking no less than THREE of his many ex-wives to write memoirs about him. He spent his last four decades in the west Valley.

Nolan is an L.A. based culture writer who wrote the definitive biography of a beloved figures for readers of The Misread City -- noir novelist Ross Macdonald. His new book, Three Chords For Beauty's Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw, is just out on Norton. (Review here by music historian Ted Gioia.)

The anecdote Nolan recalls on the first few pages, about Shaw's attempt to woo a girl he fancied, is so funny and profane I'm tempted to recount it here. But I'll let readers experience it for themselves.

What follows is my Q+A with Nolan:

Just how famous and influential was Artie Shaw at his apogee?

Artie Shaw, in the late 1930s and throughout the '40s and '50s, was one of the most famous people in the world.  He sold millions of records, was in movies and on the radio, and often made the front-page with news of his sensational career and marital doings.  He was well-known and popular in Europe and beyond. 
In July of 1941, Time Magazine wrote that "for the youth of Germany ... the U.S. ... [is] the land of skyscrapers and Artie Shaw and Clark Gable."  

As for influence: His hiring (at different times) of African-American band-members Billie Holiday, Oran "Hot Lips" Page, and Roy Eldridge hastened the public integration of jazz (as did Benny Goodman's combos); swing music's progressive actions in this regard preceded major-league sports' by almost a decade. 

And his orchestral conceptions, his periodic use of strings and classical horns, and the arrangements he commissioned from such talented men as William Grant Still and Eddie Sauter changed the nature of big-band jazz. The critic Nat Hentoff, in a jacket-quote for this book, called Artie Shaw "the most creative clarinetist in jazz history ... an orchestra leader who not only produced hits but also new dimensions of this music." 

What made you want to write about him?

He was a fascinating person and a great great artist.  He deserved a decent biography. We got along well: He liked to talk, and I think I'm a good listener.
The opportunity begged to be seized. 

Shaw married eight times, called his fans "morons," went from great fame to great obscurity... Sounds like an odd cat -- was he?

He was brilliant, self-centered, very protective, even a bit shy. From a young age, he never felt safe in the world.  He didn't like crowds, but he was dependent upon them for his living.  All things considered, I think he did fairly well. (And he didn't call all his fans 'morons' -- just the obnoxious jitterbugs who'd jump onstage and disrupt the show, something all the bandleaders were upset about in 1939.  Artie was almost the only one with the guts, or poor judgment, to complain in public. And he paid a big price.) 

You call him "jazz's Hamlet"?

Because he could never decide whether he wanted to be a bandleader or a writer, a celebrity or a private person, a married man or a lone wolf -- or so it seemed to the public. 

How do you explain his dropping out of music near the height of his fame?

Leaving was his lifelong way of coping with circumstances not to his liking or beyond his control.  The first time he left music, he wasn't even famous yet -- just very successful as a New York radio orchestra-player; but he hated the commercial sounds he was forced to make, so he bought a farm in Bucks County and tried to write a novel.  He went back to the business as the swing-music craze began and became a huge star, but the pressures he faced were enormous.  "Quitting" in 1939 was his way of getting a vacation, and starting the game again on his own musical terms; he was only gone a few months. He'd repeat this pattern throughout his career -- always coming back with a new concept and playing better than ever. 

How was this project different from writing about Ross Macdonald?

Ross Macdonald left a large archive filled with personal correspondence, which I spent years going through.  Artie Shaw's official archive contains his orchestras' arrangements but not too many private papers.  But Artie gave lots of interviews over the years, and I pored over those.  For both projects, I spoke with many of the subjects' colleagues and friends.  And I visited with Artie several times during the last 14 years of his life.  That was the biggest difference: I never met Ross Macdonald.  But Artie did: During the 1970s and '80s, he often attended the twice-a-month Santa Barbara writers' luncheon co-founded by Macdonald. 

Tom Nolan appears at Book Soup on Sunday May 23 -- the 100th anniversary of Artie Shaw's birth -- at 5 p.m.