Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cheering George Packer's "The Unwinding"

LORD know this book does not need any more praise, but I want to wave the tattered American flag for George Packer's The Unwinding, which just won the National Book Award. The book is not perfect -- more on that in a minute -- but it is lyrical, powerfully reported, passionately written, and lives  up to its subtitle: "An Inner History of the New America."

As research for my own Creative Destruction, I've spent the last year or two reading numerous books of social criticism, going back to the mid-century American generation of Vance Packard, and up through Barbara Ehrenreich and others, and this book makes an excellent extension of that tradition. (It is also self-consciously in the oft-overlooked tradition of Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy.)

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, wrote about the potentially unwieldy number of piece that make up The Unwinding, some of which originated in The New Yorker. Here's Garner:

It is Mr. Packer’s achievement in “The Unwinding” that these pieces, freshly shuffled and assembled, have speed and power to burn. This book hums — with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion for those who are caught in the gears of America’s increasingly complicated (and increasingly poorly calibrated) financial machinery.

The larger discussion of the book hinges not on its skillful portraits of Florida real-estate busts, political life in Washington, Silicon Valley libertarians, or sketches of Newt Gingrich and Oprah Winfrey (who turn out to the the same person), but on its big picture -- or lack thereof. Here's David Brooks:

When John Dos Passos wrote the “U.S.A.” trilogy, the left had Marxism. It had a rigorous intellectual structure that provided an undergirding theory of society — how social change happens, which forces matter and which don’t, how society works and who causes it not to work. Dos Passos’ literary approach could rely on that structure, fleshing it out with story and prose. The left no longer has Marxism or any other coherent intellectual structure. Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape.

Brooks, with whom I sometimes disagree, is onto something here, and several of my friends on the left have expressed similar reservations. Why is it that a journalist more-or-less on the left is uncomfortable/unwilling to frame his work with an  overarching theory of society or history, the way similar scribes did in the 19th or 20th century? The reasons are long and complex, and I hope to get into this another time. (For what it's worth, Salon's Laura Miller, a critic I like a lot, praises the book because it "pointedly refrains from making sweeping polemical arguments about 'what’s gone wrong.'... In a culture in which everyone is perpetually shrieking their political opinions, it’s hard to convey just how refreshing this is.")

For now, let me acknowledge Brooks' criticism, but assert whole-heartedly that The Unwinding is an incredible piece of work, something that everyone who wants to understand the crisis in America today should pick up pronto.


Postscript: As a reader, and an Angeleno, I am disappointed that Rachel Kushner's The Flame Throwers, a captivating novel about the New York art scene and '70s Italy, did not take the fiction prize. Both of Rachel's novels (The Other is Telex From Cuba) have been greeted with great acclaim (I am lucky enough to have written about both of them), she is as sharp a person as we know, and here at The Misread City we are confident that she will live to write and fight again.   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Digging the New Dean Wareham

DESPITE our well-documented bias for things West Coast, the Misread City gang has a deep and abiding love for the work of Dean Wareham going back to the Galaxie 500 and Luna eras. The day after seeing Luna on its first US tour (opening for the Sundays, if memory serves, and before the first LP), we walked to the local record store in Chapel Hill to pick up the band's Slide EP. (It was what we imagine kids in the '50s used to do.)

Dean -- whose roots are in Australia and New Zealand and whose early bands were based in Boston and New York -- has recently moved to Los Angeles. He's also just released his first solo record, an EP called Emancipated Hearts. (Check out the track called Air.) We spoke to Dean about his new work, the state of the music business, and his feelings for California.

Dean Wareham plays Thursday night at Largo at the Coronet, one of LA's best clubs. We'll be there. Here's our Q & A with him.

You’ve been in a number of semi-famous indie bands – Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta – and are now releasing what I take to be your first solo recording. How is it different from leading a band, and is it strange feeling to be on your own?

 To tell you the truth it still feels like a band effort, these are musicians I have been playing with for some years now: Britta Phillips on bass and Anthony LaMarca on drums, and augmented on this mini-LP by producer Jason Quever, who played keyboards and electric guitar. So anyway, technically yes it’s a “solo” release because it says so on the front of the record. I’m doing all the singing, and I write all the lyrics and melodies, but I depend on those around me to help figure out the arrangements.

That’s not so different from how I’ve been recording my whole career. Perhaps the difference was at the mixing stage, Jason Quever mixed it, and I was there too, but we didn’t have a whole band sitting behind him making comments. Last night the four of us had a rehearsal at Jason's studio in San Francisco and the band sounds really good, both on the new songs we recorded together but also on the Galaxie 500 and Luna songs we are doing.

You’re known for songwriting, but you’ve always had a great knack for covers – Wire’s Outdoor Miner, Jonathan Richman, Sweet Child of Mine, and so on. What makes a song right for you to play, besides, you know, liking it?

Picking covers is hit and miss. Just because I love a particular song does not mean I can pull it off vocally. I covered "Distractions" by Bobby Darin, a sly anti-war song from his folk period. But my rendition was not quite successful. Nor was Luna's rendition of "Dancing Days" by Led Zeppelin, though at least there is a bit of comedy in my singing that. Anyway I do look for songs that are under-appreciated, lost even. 

One of my favorite tracks on here is the digital-only number, Living Too Close to the Ground, an Every Bros song significantly less well-known that, say, Cathy’s Clown. How did you stumble upon this one and what made it seem right for you?

The Everly Brothers are amazing, first for their rhythm guitar playing (and this is more evident in the ‘50s songs), but there is also this ‘60s period where they recorded a number of great albums for Warner Brothers, albums that didn’t do well at radio (at least in the States, they were more popular in England). They were probably out of fashion, but they kept making records. “Living Too Close to the Ground” I think was written by their bassist (though I’m not positive about that, I’ve read a couple different things); anyway it is a great lyric and their recording is haunting and weird. I’m happy with how mine turned out too — there’s a delicious slide guitar solo in there — played by Jason.

You’ve written in your memoir Black Postcards one of the best assessments of the shift from the label era of the ‘80s and ‘90s to our current post-Napster musical universe. Lots of raging debate right now on Pandora, piracy, the joys of going it alone with Kickstarter, etc. Be brief if you like, but how are you enjoying our brave new world?

I didn’t quite realize as I was writing my book, that it was about something that was disappearing, a world of compact discs and tour support and even indie labels giving healthy advances to bands. The book ends in 2005, since then of course many more changes. Back then it was the early days of piracy (or filesharing), now people are just as concerned about streaming.

As you say, there have been some interesting discussions online lately, David Lowery arguing that the internet revolution has been terrible for musicians, and others writing about the dangers of Spotify — and on the other side Dave Allen, formerly of the Gang of Four, arguing that “the internet doesn’t care” and that we are simply in a transitional phase between technologies, with new markets being formed. Maybe that's true; certainly the old marketplaces are disappearing and we can see that with our eyes. Dave Allen also points to artists like Amanda Palmer and Trent Reznor and says they’ve got it figured out -- so what’s wrong with the rest of us? Which sounds like an updated bootstrap argument to me, something Dickens would make fun of. We hear similar thoughts from Thomas Friedman, that if we can continually reinvent ourselves and learn new technologies, we’ll be fine. 

At any rate there have always been challenges, being a recording artist or musician has never been a very reliable job. I know the 1990s were good times for the music business as a whole, it was a golden age where they convinced everyone to replace their vinyl collection with compact discs, how great was that? And if your band had a hit at radio, then maybe you did well. 

It is an interesting time to be in a band; there are certain advantages — it’s cheaper than ever to make recordings and distribute them all over the world, via the miracle of Internet and social media. It's easier than ever to reach your audience. The problem now is it’s more difficult to sell music. We hear a lot that music should be free. Sure, it should be free, and so should health care and education, and recording studios, and my rent should be controlled too. But unfortunately we don't live in that world.

You moved to Los Angeles earlier this year. What’s it like for a longtime New Yorker, originally from down under, to land in California? What do you like here and what do you miss about the East?

I lived in Sydney, Australia, from age 7 to 14. I only know Sydney from a child’s perspective, but Los Angeles reminds me of that city — the sprawl, the perfect weather, the Eucalpytus and Jacaranda trees. I have only been here six months but Los Angeles certainly has its charms, its rich history, good food, plenty of culture. But I miss some of the freedom of New York, where it is much easier to go out at night, easier to wander the streets or ride a bicycle. Life in Los Angeles, as John Cassavetes said, is life by appointment. But the truth is I spend most of my time at home, avoiding traffic, playing guitar, running my record label, making sure the social media is updated — pulling myself up by my bootstraps.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Disappearing Into "Invisible Cities"

THERE’s a phrase of John Cage’s I think about once in a while, despite having radically mixed feelings about the man and his work.  Theater exists all around us,” he once wrote,  “and it is the purpose of formal theater to remind us this is so.”

This notion came alive for me the other night as I caught one of the last performances of Invisible Cities, the wild-ass, Calvino-inspired opera that took place at LA’s Union Station. I’d been looking forward to seeing more work by Yuval Sharon – the youngish opera conductor who co-founded a group called The Industry – since his work on Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City. That “hyperopera,” put on at Atwater Crossing, showed the arrival of something new and exciting in Southland arts life. It was also, for all its ambition and beauty, a bit undigested – some of it was daring, some of it just didn’t come together. (Mark Swed, on the other hand, was almost unalloyed in his praise.)

Invisible Cities showed me everything that Sharon and his co-conspirators (which seems to include, in the orchestra, members of local radical-classicalists wild Up, and dancers from Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project) have tried to cook up resolving almost completely. Or rather, coming together but remaining mysterious and open. As my wife, a recovering rock critic who briefly studied opera as an college student, said to me at its conclusion, “Well, that’s about the coolest thing I think I’ve ever seen.”

As local culture vultures have surely heard, Invisible Cities (music and libretto by Christopher Cerrone) involved a reasonably formal show taking place in a working train station, so the audience drifted from place to place, through the historical core and the station’s lovely courtyards. You walked past travelers rushing to make their train, homeless people collapsed in chairs, sleeping, and locals enjoying cocktails at the station bars. Suddenly, a woman in a blue coat begins speaking into a prewar telephone, and you hear nothing. Or a heavyset man in a baseball cap enjoying a drink at Traxx begans to sing, and only audience members – because of wireless headphones – can hear him. It was both an example of heightened, structured reality and as close as I’ve gotten to seeing art in the everyday. When, in the middle of a dramatic scene, an announcement came on about train departures it felt like not like an interruption but like a part of the play’s narrative of loss, discovery and dislocation.

A few weeks after seeing Einstein on the Beach, I must say that Invisible Cities made the Glass/Wilson extravaganza look conventional.

Architecture hounds know the glories of 1939’s Union Station – some of which is Steamline Moderne, some Mission Revival – but many Californians have never been there. (One of my most architecturally savvy friends held her wedding there.) And somehow Invisible Cities framed everything in a way that seemed fresh. It’s remarkable enough to have the whole station to roam, but another thing to have it aestheticized by the workings of real artists.

I could go on about how much I loved the whole thing -- and my amazement that given all the opportunities for things to go wrong, it seemed to run pretty smoothly. But I’ll just add: I attended a free showing of Invisible Cities, and it was full of people – especially teenagers and other young’uns – I never see at the LA Opera or the LA Phil. There were even more lined up who wanted to see it. At the production’s end, nearly everyone – including some who probably could not tell Cage from Verdi – seemed as taken by the whole thing as I was. (And this is a work in which the audience really is part of the whole thing.)

Here is my piece on the elfin Yuval Sharon that preceded his earlier project. And here is Mark Swed’s review of Invisible Cities. (As Mark points out, much of this opera takes place in your head.)

Looking forward to more great work from The Industry and LA Dance Project. Please forgive the unqualified rave, but this was the kind of thing – production, audience, setting – that made me proud to be an Angeleno.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Arts Journalism Summit 2013

RECENTLY I went to the Annenberg Beach House -- the same spot on which William Randolph Hearst once built a 110-room love nest for his affairs with Marion Davies -- to try to figure out the future of cultural journalism. This summit on the crisis of the arts press was put together by the Getty and USC folks.

On that cloudy day in Santa Monica, the Getty's arts fellows -- a very sharp bunch -- from the US and UK spoke and argued with some local artists and arts leaders, media scholars, tech-kids and foundation types. Some fascinating conversation, some depressing, some encouraging.

I wrote two essays on how the whole thing worked out. In the first, "A Day Full of Questions," tried to document the day's debates as accurately as I could. The second piece, "Some Unanswered Questions," looks at the issues that didn't come up, or didn't seem substantially resolved. (In the first piece, perhaps, I am playing reporter, in the second, a critic.) That one concludes with what ended up being an intriguing dinner at director Peter Sellars' house.

For anyone with an interest in these things, I encourage you to take a good look at the rest of the site, which Doug McLennan, the founder who put it together, calls a virtual summit. There's a lot of spark and intelligence on the site, though no easy answers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Genius of James Booker

IT'S long been something of a cliché to talk about what a head-spinning musical and cultural melting pot New Orleans is. But there’s no other way to frame the protean New Orleans pianist James Booker (1939-‘83), who is very near the top of my list of most individual/ accomplished musician who very few people know about. His musical vocabulary was an odd blend of bordello and concert hall: He didn’t sit squarely in any tradition but drew from the blues, gospel, funk, jazz and classical piano (especially Chopin; an 18-year-old Booker met Arthur Rubinstein and knocked him out with his playing). Booker’s long, improvised piece went in all kinds of directions and reminds me of the old phrase, “the sound of surprise.”

My all-time favorite of his is a solo live album recorded at his hometown's Maple Club in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s called Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah. (If I may sound 20th century for a moment, I looked for that record in half the store -- in blues, R&B, jazz, etc. -- before a helpful clerk told me it was in the "New Orleans" section.)

But nearly as good – and to some, the great Booker album – is the 1982 studio release Classified, which Rounder has just reissued with a bunch of lost material.

Classified: Remixed and Expanded is not quite as rambling and ornery as the live stuff, but he shows off his tremendous range and the weird melange he made of it all. You get Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue,” Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things,” a (new) medley that includes “Papa Was a Rascal,” a lovely interpretation of the jazz standard “Angel Eyes,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” and on and on. You hear his roots in Professor Longhair, and you hear how deep he went on his own trip.

Much of it is solo, with a saxophone, bass and drums on some tracks.

His life is a very long story as well, and a new documentary, Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, has started to appear on the festival circuit. (I’ve not seen it.) 

Booker – a homosexual who lost his eye attacked by a bodyguard he failed to pay, and whose late-‘60s heroin bust stalled what was a developing career -- generally thought of himself as an R&B musician:

“There is nothing I don’t like about rhythm and blues,” he once said. “The rhythm, makes you dance and the blues make you think.”

Here is a bit from an odd-seeming documentary (note the early-'80s fonts.)

What I hear when I listen to Booker is an unbridled and kind of boundless musical imagination, one in a push-pull of creative tension with his training and discipline. Long may his flag fly.