Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The New Yorker's Young West Coast Writers

THE New Yorker recently announced its 20 Under 40 list of American writers, running some of them in their summer fiction issue and others since.

Two of the bunch – Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li – were fairly recent profile subjects of mine, and I’ve enjoyed, without surprise, watching their rise. Both are foreign-born writers who’ve settled in the Bay Area and show the ability – despite nativist stirrings elsewhere in the culture – of the West Coast to absorb talent from elsewhere.

I spoke to Alarcon, who was born in Peru, right before the publication of his mythic, almost post-apocalyptic Lost City Radio, one of the best debut novels of recent years. Here's my piece.

Alarcon -- at the time teaching at Mills College in Oakland – and I discussed Peru’s bloody history, the war on terror, Russian novelists, and the way American publishers stereotype Latin-American literature.
 Among other things, Alarcon is an exemplar of globalism. He told me how his posses in Lima and Oakland are pretty similar:

"The language they speak is different, but we do the same things. We write, read a lot, nurse drinking problems -- typical bohemians. In Oakland we speak in English, in Lima in Spanish. We listen to the same music, have the same references -- there are certain clubs in Lima where they only play the Cure and the Smiths."

Yiyun Li spent her childhood and early adulthood in China – she has eerie members of being a high school student during the Tianenmen Square massacre – and moved to the states in the mid-‘90s. The characters in her first novel are living through the nastiness of the Cultural Revolution. I spoke to her, here.

"The people here don't see themselves as living in history," she told me at a cafe on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus, near her Oakland home. "Politics is like the weather: People get used to bad weather, talk about the weather, but life goes on. People desire the same things everywhere: a little bit of power, a little bit of money, comfort, love. I don't want to make them victims of the times."

Li considers herself at heart an Irish writer – she remembers being in the army as an 18 or 19 year old and reading Joyce’s Dubliners and seeing a whole world open up. Her first story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is remarkable, especially its story “Immortality.”

Li has another story collection coming, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and she tours on the book this fall. I know I’m not the only reader looking forward to it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Remembering the Go-Betweens

The Believer's Music Issue, out this summer, has a substantial interview with Robert Forster, co-founder of one of my all-time favorite bands, The Go-Betweens. Robert Christgau's Q&A, while offering no major surprises, captures one of the most literate men in rock music with all his aloofness intact.

This is a band I think about a lot -- they were part of my childhood in the '80s before breaking up in '89, I saw them on three appearances in LA after they reformed around 2000, and I can render the guitar chords from "Love Goes On" reasonably well. (Though not quite as well as Nada Surf does on its recent covers record.)

But the interview -- and the enduring quality of their songs -- has made me hear them in my head more than ever lately. They were an Australian group who lived in England some of the time, but I actually hear them when I travel to Oregon: When the band reformed, Portland band Sleater-Kinney backed them up with a rhythm section and sublime vocal harmonies, and they recorded the wonderful The Friends of Rachel Worth there. (For reasons having largely but not entirely to do with production, I may prefer the reunited band to the original. This puts me very much in the minority on these guys.)

Grant McLennan, the warmer and more pop-oriented ("Magic in Here," "Going Blind") of the band's lead duo, told me about how he was looking forward to returning to "my beloved Pacific Northwest," and described how he much he loved the deep green countryside there.

In '05 I was lucky enough to speak to both of the Forster and Grant McLennan about their new record and what turned out to be their last appearance in Los Angeles. Here is my piece, in which Grant describes the duo's original meeting:

"We were doing the same theater course at university," McLennan says, "and I noticed this tall fellow carrying a Talking Heads record, '77.' I didn't think anybody else in Australia was listening to it. It was great to meet someone you felt wasn't going to beat you up, and who was as bad an actor as you were."

About a year later, I came to work to find that McLennan had died suddenly, at 48. I've always thought of myself -- just as I am more a John guy than a Paul guy -- as more of a Robert type than a Grant type. I like Forster's detachment, darkness ("Danger in the Past"), biting ironies. But much of the flowing melodies and sense of regret of the band's best songs came from Grant. He is also one of the sweetest musicians I've ever spoken to -- I wish this had not been my only encounter.

I was both upset and honored to be able to write Grant's obit, which is Here . As they say, the music lives on.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jonathan Lethem Comes to California

JONATHAN Lethem is well known to readers of The Misread City one of the most consistently fascinating American novelists. Nearly all the writers we celebrate here are West Coast figures – Dick, Le Guin, Chabon, Chandler, Ross MacDonald – and Lethem has stood out as a kind of token Brooklyner.

But Lethem, whose most recent novel was the Upper East Side-set Chronic City, has finally seen the light. He moves to Claremont, just east of LA, in about a month, and begins teaching at Pomona College in January. 

(Lethem, I should mention here, has also written a number of important essays that established Philip K. Dick's canonical position, and he edited the Library of America volumes of the sf novelist's work.)

What follows is the most extensive interview Lethem has given on his move west.

What made you want to uproot from New York and come to Southern California?

I'm forced to turn your first question on its head: the conversation with Pomona College began -- and was too flattering, and intriguing, to completely wave off -- before I'd had any inkling of a willingness to make this reverse-migration-to-the-exile-I'd-left-behind. Or, for that matter, any inkling of my little family's willingness, since I'm a "we" now.

So, I didn't "want" to uproot, or at least I didn't think so. I became willing to consider it. And then, increasingly over a long stretch (since the conversation with Pomona evolved slowly), became fascinated, and then drawn. It was never about any pleasure in leaving -- that's bittersweet, or worse than bittersweet. But I began to be completely excited about what Pomona and the Inland Empire scene had to offer me -- and, particularly, my family -- in the way of a next chapter I hadn't anticipated or sought until it was dangled before me.

And about a "return" that was to a place I'd never really been, since the Bay Area is really another California entirely. For that matter, my life is as different as can be from the life that drew me to move to Berkeley in 1985.

You are very associated with the renaissance of post-Auster Brooklyn writing, especially thanks to Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. But you have California roots as well.
Yes: Berkeley and Oakland for a decade, from age 23 to 34. I went completely native, or so I thought. In my first five years I don't think I traveled back to New York more than twice, briefly, and I felt complacently certain for seven or eight years that I'd never want to live on the East Coast again. Married a Californian (who lives in Brooklyn now; not my fault.) Set each of my first three novels in some quasi- or cartoon West. I even learned to drive.

Is there something about the culture of the West Coast that interests you specifically, or even generally?

Sure, absolutely, and I wouldn't want to be the least bit glib or soundbitey about it; as Bernard Malamud said in answer to a different question, "I'd be too moved to say."

In a sense that I regard as deeply and importantly 'received' (i.e., not my own private conception, but no less stirring or authentic an experience for that) I'd been dreaming of a Western Migration, and of a Californian self-discovery or self-transcendence, for longer than I remember -- through the lens of the Beats, and John Ford's movies, and Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, and the Doors "L.A. Woman" and a thousand other renditions of this fundamental but unsimple American myth. And none of that was dispelled by my actual arrival.

Ten years in, I'd like to think I'd scratched the surface of the mystery, but I wouldn't claim more than that.

You went to a small liberal arts college in some ways similar to Pomona, but moved to the Bay Area before you graduated, I think.

Yep. Dropped out of Bennington College as a sophomore, hitchhiked west and got a taste, then turned up six months later and stuck. I do think Pomona in 2010 is a slightly better-organized place than Bennington in the mid-80's, though (cf. Bret Ellis Rules of Attraction).

Despite the appeal of bohemian Eastside LA, where you’ve spent some time, you’re choosing to settle among the groves of academe, near the Claremont Colleges.

I'm all about middle-aged family-values lifestyles right now, my friend. Plus I can walk to work.

Anything you’re dying to do the day you land here?

There's a Pho joint in Montclair I want to get back to pronto. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

John Lautner House Imperiled

AN EARLY and long overlooked Beverly Hills house by architect John Lautner -- celebrated by fans as an "organic modernist" -- may soon be history.

That's the situation a new story of mine, which runs in Saturday's LA Times, describes. 

The house, which has fallen into serious disrepair, has been owned for 23 years by a couple, originally from Chile, who have lost patience with the place. Preservationists and Lautner fans, such as Swiss-born, Silverlake-based architect Frank Escher, want to save the house, but laws and regulations don't seem to be on their side. 

The owners, the Mannheims, want to build a new house, and say the Lautner crowd have had decades to persuade them.

Here is the piece, in which architectural historian Crosby Doe says of the 1951 Shusett House:

"Lautner is like Picasso — every one is important. We've lost some wonderful architecture lately through shortsightedness. This is not the masterpiece that some of his other pieces are, but every Lautner house is worthy of restoration. Ultimately the owner has the property rights. If you want to burn your Picasso, you can."

First-ever Philip K. Dick Festival

JUST a few days ago in Colorado, scholars, fans and various oddballs gathered in honor of Philip K. Dick, the eccentric visionary who is a major presence on The Misread City. Your humble blogger was not able to attend, but David Gill, the San Francisco-based savant behind the Total Dick-Head blog chronicled the gathering -- the first of its kind in the US -- for groovy sci-fi/futurism site i09.

Gill sets up a detailed report of the festival this way:

Phil Dick's science fiction often features characters alienated by the technology that surrounds them, overwhelmed by the immense absurdity of the Universe as well as the drudgery of their daily lives, but who are ultimately saved through genuine human connection. As our world grows to look more and more like a PKD novel, the adjective Dickian has come to describe the way reality seems frayed at the edges, too strained with irony and weird synchronicities to maintain its apparent stability for long.

Here is Gill's entire piece. His lecture on Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? can be found here.

Also, Dick's old friend, science-fiction writer and UC Irvine physics prof Gregory Benford, gave a funny, revealing speech about the author in the '60s and '70s at a small but intriguing panel at Irvine recently. I've linked here to the text, which includes moments like this:

As success came to him, he was generous to the poor. He told me in 1981 that he had made $180,000 that year and gave most of it to charities. Even though he lived pretty close to the street himself, he knew what it was like to be down, and tried to help people. The one person who would not have believed in the prominence of Philip Dick in our culture now was Philip Dick himself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ray Bradbury, Still Going at 90

THIS Sunday marks the 90th birthday of the first Los Angeles writer I ever read. I can still remember some of the images and moods in his story collection The October Country. And the yearning lyricism and use of The Red Planet as a metaphor for the American West makes The Martian Chronicles, some days, one of my 10 favorite works of fiction.

Critic Ted Gioia has a wide-ranging tribute to Bradbury on his blog Conceptual Fiction. It gets into Bradbury's earliest work, his Midwestern-to-Los Angeles life story, and his discomfort with the science-fiction genre.

HERE is a piece I wrote in 2003 that began this way:
Ray Bradbury is the first Los Angeles writer many people read. He's also the first reasonably serious writer -- someone concerned with political and moral themes -- many encounter. His early science-fiction novels and story collections have drawn readers, especially intellectually ambitious teenage boys, for a half-century now. Many of these Bradbury fans become lifetime readers, moving into all kinds of weightier fare, from the darker, more complicated science fiction of William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick to mainstream literary work without end. He's the ultimate gateway drug.

Despite my mixed feelings for Bradbury's recent work, he's one of the finest citizens of literary L.A., and it's appropriate that Fahrenheit 451 has become, especially lately, his most talked about and read novel -- even if its meaning has changed a bit with time. 

The threat the book lays out is not so much censoriousness as ignorance -- the sense that books are relics of the past. This man with minimal formal education has been a huge advocate for reading as well as for public libraries. As the husband of a school librarian laid off (like all of her peers) by the city of Pasadena -- this will likely result in us leaving the state in the next month or two -- I can assure everyone that Bradbury has better values than those directing institutions in contemporary California.

Long may he thrive. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Return of Levon Helm

LAST night I was lucky enough to catch Levon Helm, former drummer for The Band and one of the great comeback stories in rock music. The show was about as stirring as any I've seen lately, and ended as a kind of celebration of American roots music in its many guises and -- especially thanks to an appearance by Steve Earle -- made explicit Helm's role as a father figure to the alt-country movement.

Helm, who led a 11-piece band complete with horn section, opened with "Ophelia" and played a number of Band classics ("The Shape I'm In," "It Makes No Difference") as well as Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues," Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell," and some New Orleans number led by the pianist playing in a Professor Longhair/ James Booker style.

He's still suffering some of the effects of throat cancer, so the Arkansas-born Helm sang only a few the songs. Even in the old days of the Band,  of course, Helm was one of several singers, and only the leader of the group in a symbolic sense, since he was the only American in this group dedicated to reviving lost strains of American music. And the group, which was built out of the Midnight Rambles held at his Woodstock farm, featured several good singers, with fiddler/guitarist Larry Campbell often taking the lead.

The big surprise for me was Steve Earle. I've always respected the gruff troubadour's songwriting genius and politicized anger -- it's hard to disagree with his anti-corporate point of view in these troubled times -- but found him sometimes too harsh for my taste. Last night he played on only a few songs -- including a stirring number from a recent Helm record and the Stones classic "Sweet Virginia" -- and he was biting and gracious in equal measure: I'll see the dude again anytime.

The encore brought Earle back, as well as -- you guessed it -- Harry Dean Stanton, to perform big, moving versions of "The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released." Punk and post-punk bands made fun of this sort of thing, but rarely has it seemed more justified.

Jenny Lewis, best known for her leadership of Rilo Kiley, warmed up for Helm after an opening spot for Jim Bianco (which I missed.) Lewis was better than expected, performing in front of a 7-piece band with a combination of sultriness and indie diffidence almost shading into hostility. Her new song, "Just One of the Boys," was among the best, and her band closed with a lovely a capella song that made a perfect final note before Helm's appearance.

This was a show about an important musician who has not performed in LA in three decades, who has beaten what could have been a fatal disease and outlived several members of a star-crossed group. It's very hard to explain what the sensation was of seeing this 70-year-old demigod drumming, playing mandolin, straining to sing his old songs. It was -- a term I almost never use -- an evening of triumph, and the kind of thing where you really had to be there. I'm very glad I was.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"California Crackup"

Anyone living in California right now knows how hard the state is straining, with unemployment above 12 percent and well over that in some inland areas, schools slicing teachers and firing librarians, the infrastructure rotting, and very little faith in our action-hero governor.

Joe Mathews was one of the many talented investigative journalists at the LAT Times when I arrived, and like many he chose to leave what he considered a sinking ship. He is now Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author Mark Paul, a former state deputy treasurer and journalist, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. The book is brisk, well-argued, at times darkly funny -- and deserves an audience far broader than the policy wonks who will be drawn to it.

What follows is a Q&A with Mathews on the crisis facing the state, and the hope that things might change.

 -For all the wealth, creativity and innovation in the Golden State, we're near the bottom in a number of categories, including employment. What are the direst indicators?

California has traditionally lagged the nation in unemployment, one of the consequences of being a state that attracts lots of fortune-seekers and risk-takers. (Such people often fail and experience hard times). The most dire indicators have to do with education and higher education, which is where the budget crisis has its most pernicious effects. Before the current crisis, California was not producing enough college graduates to meet its own economics and jobs needs; the Public Policy Institute of California says we'll be short one million college grads in 2025. That's a problem not just for the state but for America. U.S. competitiveness has lagged as we've fallen behind other countries in college graduates. To catch up, California needs to produce more graduates. Because of our problems with governance and the budget, we're going to be producing fewer graduates now and for at least the next few years.

-Every state has its problems, especially these days. Why do California's seem so intractable?

Because we have a governing system that does not allow us to make decisions in a timely, democratic fashion. Our system is three systems at war with each other. We elect lawmakers and executives through a majoritarian system -- first-past-the-post, plurality elections, which is in essence a British system for making majorities. Then we ask them to govern in a system that requires two-thirds votes -- essentially consensus -- to get things done. And on top of that, we throw a third system, an initiative system that permits voters to lock in all kinds of spending and tax mandates into the constitution, without providing off-setting moneys or cuts in the budget to make things balance. Such a system simply can't work. So Californians are in a position where they know there are problems that need to be addressed, but they live under a governing system that gives them no clear means to address them.

-How much of a culprit is Prop. 13 and other instance of so-called direct democracy like initiatives and recalls?

Recalls aren't a problem of this system. And there's nothing wrong with the use of initiative--other states and countries use it, and don't have California's governance problem. The real problem is with the rules around our initiative process--particularly the inflexibility of the process. California is the only place on earth where an initiative can't be amended by the legislative body without another vote of the people. And California, unlike most places with the process, does not give the legislative body an opportunity to get involved in the process. We've made it a fourth branch of government, beyond the reach of the other branches.

Prop 13 is a contributor to this, not so much because of what it did on property taxes but because of its role in centralizing power in Sacramento. Prop 13, by making it hard for local communities to raise their own taxes and revenues, essentially shifted power into the hands of a very few people in Sacramento, who make all the tax and spending decisions (albeit with all sorts of restrictions also imposed by the people). And when those people don't get along, the entire state -- including every local government -- suffers.

-The Governor has said he inherited a broken system, which your book bears out. Does he deserve any of the blame for the mess we're all in now?

He does and he doesn't. I'm more sympathetic than most Californians to the job he's done. I think he's made multiple, difficult, honest attempts to fix the state's broken budget system. But he hasn't been able to convince voters -- and frankly, his proposed solutions, while having some important elements (he has pushed for a larger rainy day fund than the ones we currently have), haven't gone far enough in unwinding the current system we have. And in political reform, he wasted time too much time pursuing and winning very, very modest reforms in redistricting and open primary when we need bolder changes (such as multi-member districts that include proportional representation) to create real political competition.

And in his own policies, he pursued too much borrowing, particularly at the beginning of his first term with Prop 57. But as with nearly everything in California, voters went along. And that's the most important point: the authors of the current system are voters. To blame a governor or legislators is beside the point; they are merely the clean-up crew for the constitutional messes we ourselves have made.

-What are some of the things that need to be done?

Three big things. First, we need a new election system that makes every vote count and gives the legislative body enough credibility so that voters can be convinced to restore a saner system. The best way to do that is by adopting the best of successful voting systems all over the world (in the same way Apple took the best technologies from around the world and molded them into an iPhone). We should have regional legislative districts with multiple members, some of whom are chosen by proportional representation, so that every vote counts (a party needs every vote it can get in a proportional system, so both parties would compete everywhere), so that media cover legislative elections and agendas (regional districts would solve if they were based on the regions covered by media organizations--with single-member districts, regional media like TV stations or the LA Times have no incentive to cover each little legislative race), and so that everyone has representation (even Republicans in San Francisco might have one or two Republicans representing them in a regional district).

Once you've done that, you need to get rid of the two-thirds rules that govern budgets, taxes, school funding, local government funding and just about everything else. The majority party in the legislature must be accountable for what happens in the legislature; two-thirds rules obscure accountability becasue both parties must sign on. As part of stripping the constitution of all sorts of budget restrictions, we need to devolve power back to local governments -- including the power to raise taxes -- so that spending and taxing decisions are made on a particular program are made at the same level of government.

Finally, we need to update our system of initiative and referendum in ways that give more power and choice both to the people and to their elected representatives. The initiative process should no longer provide a way to do an end-run around the legislature; the legislative body should be able to change anything the people do, and ballot initiatives that mandate spending or tax cuts must live within the legislative budget. But by the same token, it should be easier for the people to call a referendum on an act of the legislature. The goal is to get a noisy conversation going between the people and their government -- that's direct democracy.

-Given that Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman are lined up for the gubernatorial election, and giving the existing mix in Sacramento, what are the chances the state'e leadership will take these kinds of serious steps? What will it take to get real change?

I don't see any hope in Brown or Whitman. They are running conventional campaigns that at best ignore -- and at worst lie about -- the realities of the state's governing system. If we're lucky, the next governor will be irrelevant to the reform discussion. Voters also might note that if they leave their ballots blank when they vote for governor, that decision will make it easier for reformers to qualify ballot measures to change the system (since the qualification standards are a percentage of the number of people who vote for governor). A none-of-the-above vote has real force in California.

Real change requires major constitutional changes. That can be done either through a convention or through a revision commission. It will require multiple votes of the people. And it will require years of work to educate the public and put public opinion in line with reality. Californians believe they can have something for nothing from government (they also believe things that are wrong, like that prisons are the number one state expenditure and that the lottery provides significant money to public education).
I am not terribly optimistic about the ability of Californians to be educated and take the action that is needed.

If you look at California history, it often takes a truly terrible event -- a profound catastrophe like the San Francisco earthquake (which fueled the major Progressive changes of the early 20th century) -- to get Californians engaged in making major government reform. I'm afraid that it will require something of that scale to spur us to action. In other words, if we're not doomed, we're probably doomed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Beatles Come to Hamburg (Again)

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the Beatles came to Hamburg's tawdry Reeperbahn district and, dressed mostly in black leather, transformed themselves into the best rock band in the world. Later this month, a group of American indie rockers will play the band's old club, the Indra, to commemorate the raw, fast, very early Beatles.

Named for an X-rated movie theater where the Liverpudlians stayed when they first hit town, Bambi Kino is made up of drummer Ira Elliot from Nada Surf, bassist Erik Paparazzi from Cat Power, guitarist Doug Gillard from Guided by Voices, and guitarist Mark Rozzo from Maplewood. (Here they are playing "Slow Down" at the Bowery Ballroom, by the way.)

[Update: Bambi Kino plays at Taix in Echo Park on Saturday, Oct. 9, which would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday.]

Rozzo -- a gifted writer I know from the journalist trenches, who is so talented can forgive his wrong-headed advocacy of Paul over John -- spoke to the Misread City about the band's upcoming gig. 

What did the Beatles sound like during their Hamburg period and what were their shows like?

Well, they actually evolved a lot during the 28 months they went back and forth between Liverpool and Hamburg.  They started August 17, 1960, at the Indra as a five-piece band with a bass player (Stuart Sutcliffe) who could barely play and a drummer (Pete Best) who hadn’t even been in the band a week.  (His big audition number was “Shakin’ All Over,” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.)  They ended New Year’s Eve 1962 at the Star Club with Paul on bass, Ringo on drums, and their first single (“Love Me Do”) climbing the British pop charts.  (They were, in fact, pretty bummed to be in Hamburg during that crucial time, but the residency had been booked by Brian Epstein months before.  These are the shows captured on the famous Star Club bootlegs.)  

It’s pretty easy to get an idea of their sound through various bootlegs, audition tapes, and the backing they did with Tony Sheridan in Hamburg in the summer of 1961.  It was, to quote John Lennon, “straight rock” – a pretty raw and pounding sound.  In fact, they seemed to set out to be the loudest, rawest band anyone had ever heard up to that time.  But that’s really selling it short.  It was quite a mix of rock and roll, R&B, rockabilly, and the odd standard (“September Song,” “Over the Rainbow”), and as time went on they became better and better at showcasing the individual members and, as they went into 1962, started streamlining their sound, in response to some of the newer music coming out of Motown.  It’s as if the old 50s tailfins were coming off the chassis.  
But the Hamburg shows are famous for the Beatles’ response to the German encouragement to “mach schau” – to make a show.  So they did all kinds of wacky stuff, like playing sets with toilet seats around their necks, stretching out “What’d I Say” for half an hour, having a contest with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (Ringo’s band) to see who could be first to destroy (literally) the stage at the Kaiserkeller club.  (The Hurricanes won.)

How did you and others recover these songs and the way they were played... Do recordings exist?

Many recordings of the Beatles exist from the period of 1960 to 1962, which we’ve claimed as our Bambi Kino turf.  You can begin with the home recordings done at Paul McCartney’s house at 20 Forthlin Road in the spring of 1960, which includes early versions of “One After 909” and “I’ll Follow the Sun,” along with covers like “Matchbox” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” which they would play for years.  Next would be the Tony Sheridan sessions recorded in Hamburg in the summer of 1961, with Paul now playing his trademark Hofner bass.  (Think “Ain’t She Sweet.”)  

Then there’s the disastrous audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962, which gives an idea of the Beatles’ almost too-broad set list, which by this time literally ran into hundreds of songs.  They did their first BBC broadcast early in ’62, and then the tests and sessions for EMI at Abbey Road that year, a recording for Granada TV at the Cavern in August of ’62 (just a day before John Lennon got married and not long after Ringo joined; you can hear the crowd yelling out “We want Pete!”), and then the Star Club bootleg, from December of 1962.  The first LP, “Please Please Me,” was recorded February 11, 1963, so that gives a good idea of what the band sounded like and what they were playing in 1962.  

But what really interests me for Bambi Kino is the material that never got recorded, which includes anything from Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” to Duane Eddy’s “Ramrod” to the aforementioned “Over the Rainbow,” which they modeled off Gene Vincent’s rockabilly-ballad version.  Many of their set lists have been documented and they do total up to hundreds of songs; I couldn’t tell you the exact number.

What were Hamburg and the Reeperbahn like in the early '60s?

Hamburg was then all of 15 or 16 years out from being leveled by an Allied bombing raid.  I believe it was then perhaps the largest port in Europe.  But much like today, the city had an educated, bourgeois population despite the gritty reputation.  It was no accident that the Beatles’ first avid fans were so-called “exis” – self-styled existentialist art students from middle-class backgrounds, most famously embodied by Astrid Kirchherr (Sutcliffe’s beautiful photographer girlfriend) and Klaus Voorman (who would go on to play bass with Manfred Mann and collaborate with various Beatles on various projects).  

Then as now, the Reeperbahn was the most notorious sex district in Europe.  The Beatles used to like walking down the walled-off Herberstrasse, where prostitutes still hang out of windows in states of undress and fire squirt-bottles full of urine at women who dare enter.  Many of the young Beatles’ fans and friends were drawn from the local population of sex workers.
This is kind of a below-the-radar indie supergroup... What was the thinking in putting the band together?

We didn’t want to be a traditional tribute band that dresses up, does all the mannerisms, plays everything note for note.  That can be a fun experience, but sometimes you end up paying more attention to the haircuts and boots.  I liked the idea of drawing great musicians from great American bands; musicians who have made albums and written songs and toured and generally had experiences of being actual musicians.  Musicians with personality and creativity to bring to the project.

Everyone has a favorite Beatle. For these gigs you play guitar -- George's instrument -- but you are a dedicated Paul guy. What draws you to him over the others?

Remember, John Lennon also played guitar.  And Paul McCartney played guitar in the band until the spring of 1961 (and then, of course, later on many Beatles recordings).  We don’t do role-playing in the band (I know, it sounds like SM), so each of us might sing songs originally sung by John, Paul, George, Pete, or Ringo.  

I’m not sure I’m a dedicated Paul guy.  I don’t think I’d ever say that, but I’d always gravitated toward him for whatever reason.  I think when I was younger my singing voice most closely matched his and I do think he’s a melodist of a very high order and quite obviously the most capable and complete musician in the band.  He was essentially the Beatles’ musical director and the way I’ve said it before is that McCartney is a musical genius while Lennon was a pure artist.  In Bambi Kino, I sing many more John songs than Paul songs.  I don’t have the top of my range that I used to have (remember:  Little Richard sang “Long Tall Sally” in F and McCartney raised it up a notch, to G!) and, since I play guitar, there’s something more organic about singing John’s stuff.  (Although, just to get annoyingly technical, John’s and Paul’s vocal ranges were much more closely matched than most people assume.)  

And yet… oddly enough, when Maplewood was opening for America on some shows last month, a lady came up to me after we played and said, in a mega Jersey accent, “You remind me of Pool McCawtney!”  Um, OK.  Not that I see it!

Photos show Sutcliffe and Harrison up top, George, Paul and John below.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

R.E.M., Britfolk and White Bicycles

A lot of us are excited that Fables of the Reconstruction -- R.E.M.'s most poetic and mysterious album -- has just gotten a deluxe reissue complete with remaster and new material. Much of the weird, echoey Southern Gothic mojo on that 1985 album came from Britfolk producer Joe Boyd, and I'm reminded how great Boyd's memoir of the '60s and early '70s, White Bicycles, is.

In fact. I will second the statement of Brian Eno, who calls it "a gripping piece of social history and the best book about music I've read in years."

I knew Boyd's name for his work with Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Vashti Bunyan and Nick Drake. Boyd was an American college boy who went London while very young and helped invent British folk rock. He met Drake when the sad poet was a lost Cambridge student. He also ran the London psychedelic club UFO which helped birth Pink Floyd.

What I hadn't known was that Boyd got his start as a teenager -- whose friends had discovered that the great Lonnie Johnson was working as a cook in a Philadelphia hotel, tracked him down and invited him to play a house party in Princeton before they left for college.

Within a few years he was accompanying Muddy Waters and Coleman Hawkins through Europe as part of the early '60s boom in blues festivals... And Boyd became stage manager for the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at which Dylan notoriously plugged in. The book puts him close to much of the action, in a kind of Zelig-like way.

Of course, all of this would be a kind of glorified name-dropping if Boyd could not write and observe so well. White Bicycles is as good a document as I know on the social revolution of the '60s -- the utopian dreams and musical possibilities as well as the drug casualties and damage done by kook religions.

In any case, here is one book where I am quite eager for the sequel.

Let me close with Fables for a second. This was the first R.E.M. record whose release I was aware of -- and I remember the bizarre, muted beauty of songs like "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Maps and Legends" on the local alternative radio station, and the weirdly understated video for "Driver 8." It was around time I started to open my own taste up from the steady and fervent diet of Beatles-Stones-Dylan to the music of my own time.

And while R.E.M. went on to put out at least two records I feel strongly about, there's something on Fables they never captured again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Going Medieval With the SCA

As a retro kinda guy who often thinks music and clothes have not improved since 1965, I've always been interested in people who work hard to live in the past. So I was intrigued to come across a book of photography by Venice,  CA., based E.F. Kitchen, which captures chain mail-clad members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

HERE is my brief piece in Sunday's LATimes on this photographer who works in platinum prints and other large format, old-school styles. Her book, Suburban Knights, is elegantly produced and just out on PowerHouse.

Part of what's fun about the book is the quotes from these weekend warriors. Some of them sound quite desperate. Says one: "If I hadn't found the Society for Creative Anachronism, I would probably be in prison, dead, or on a wanted list somewhere."

Photo credit E.F. Kitchen