Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Celebrating -- and Fearing -- J.S. Bach

THIS may jar some, but i think it's fair to say that the greatest composer in the history of western music -- all due respect to beethoven, mingus, lennon/mccartney, etc -- was johann sebastian bach... the old man's birthday -- born in 1685, you dont look a day over 300! --- is today.

those with a good memory for interplanetary expeditions recall that bach's music played a prominent role on the voyager golden record sent out with the pioneer spacecraft. in a more modest context, i sometimes use his piano music to cure hangovers: those strict contrapuntal lines really focus a blurred mind.

there are lots of reasons to love bach's work, as anyone who has heard glenn gould's stripped-down interpretation of "goldberg variations" can vouch... perhaps the first classical music i ever fell in love with was gould's very architectual treatment of "the well-tempered clavier." i also love andras schiff (whose live version of "goldberg" is a lifetime highlight for me), murray perahia (whose sensitivity is the opposite of gould's approach), and till fellner (lately my favorite WTC, almost liquid in its lyricism.) ian mcewan has turned me on to angela hewitt. and the emerson quartet does really interesting things with bach in their "the art of the fugue."

to some people, bach's music is scary -- literally. HERE is a piece i wrote for the LAT a few years back in which musicology scholar kristi brown looked into bach's place in cinema. directors often employ bach's music to suggest an insane or dangerous hyper-rational genius, including hannibal lecter.

but forget about all that. tonight, toast the great man with a nice weimar lager (is there such thing?)

Photo credit: Flickr user hotzeplotz

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chasing Women with James Ellroy

OVER the last year or so i've been lucky enough to hang out with james ellroy, self-proclaimed demon dog of american crime fiction, including a bizarre/memorable dinner at taylor's steakhose at which the author insisted i bring along some good looking women.

because he always seems to be on camera -- barking like a dog, offering off-color anecdotes and ethnic jokes, and generally acting out -- it was intriguing to follow him last week when an actual camera crew was on him.

ellroy was walking around LA's old-money hancock park neighborhood -- his teenage 'hood -- for a video doc playboy will post on its website... the video, like his new memoir/essay in playboy, gets at how the murder of his mother sent him on a tailspin and shaped his relationships with women. (the "relationships" in the hancock park chapter mostly involved stealing underwear and watching girls undress through windows.)

you can read all about it in my latest LATIMES piece. and it's playboy's april issue you want.

i remember moving to LA in 1997, the summer before the film "LA confidential" came out... everyone i knew -- film people, music people, book people -- was talking about the movie and how good it was. that sent me and a lot of other people into a fascination with the mad dog's work. 

here is a piece i wrote last year about the weird inability of hollywood to match LA Conf with another good adaptation. ellroy's next novel is due this fall.

i welcome comments, especially, from anyone who's read the playboy stuff.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy Birthday Kurosawa, and New Poll

MONDAY was the birthday of titan akira kurosawa, born 1910, one of the guys who got me into international cinema and japanese film. from him i ventured into ozu, mizoguchi, ichikawa's "burmese harp" and takeshi kitano... but will never forget first time i saw "rashomon."

dont want to say too much more lest i bias the poll (to right) but a towering artist with more range than usually acknowledged. i was eating soba with sake last night and will hoist a toast in his direction.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Hats off to Oscar Wilde

LET'S have a big irish "cheers" for oscar wilde, winner of my "world's coolest irishman" poll, which just expired. (he drew slightly more than a third of votes.) for much of the poll, joyce (whose "dubliners effectively taught me to read) was leading, but st. oscar made a last minute rally. yeats, that master of swoony celtic romanticism (and later, crisp, steely modernism) came close. van morrison (like wilde and yeats born a protestant), morrissey (an english citizen of irish heritage) and arthur guinness, father of the great stout, did not chart so well.

wilde joins syrah/grenache/rhone ("favorite wine") among recent winners on this blog. (tho i imagine he preferred port or absinthe.)

i'd considered listing john lennon -- take a look at the gaelic last name folks, and he was not the only beatle of irish heritage -- but figured it would lead to confusion or fisticuffs. (there will be a poll with lennon on it shortly.) 

and i hope the enthusiasm that met these celtic heroes is matched by support for japanese film in my latest poll.

as for wilde, i often think of his definition of a cynic: "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

and here is one of his finest aphorisms, one still pertinent today:
"The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years."

Photo credit: Superstock

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grant Lee Phillips at Largo

THE other night i caught grant lee phillips at what i still think of as the "new" largo. i know the phrase "underrated singer-songwriter" is almost always redundant, but it has a special meaning for phillips. the leader of a critically acclaimed but never bestselling 90s band, grant lee buffalo -- who played a kind of sweeping americana that was out of step with everything around them in the LA scene -- he has gone on to a solo career that for my money is at least as interesting as the music he was making in the mid-90s, when rolling stone voted him "best male singer." (Here he is on youtube.)

it was also one of the strangest musical nights of my life. (hang on.)

in the candle-lit "little room" at the largo, where phillips performed, the intimate, emotionally direct songs took up all the space. i was struck by how strong his voice is, with its shades of john lennon maybe a touch of hank williams and something all his own -- it's not studio effects, the dude really has pipes.  and his music comes from dylan and neil young without really sounding like either one.

most striking, though, was phillips' showmanship and wit. it takes a lot to keep an audience entertained with just a guitar, voice and a host of mostly dark songs about love gone bad. but grant lee is better than anyone this side of richard thompson at matching brooding/ doomy songs with great between-song banter and a weirdly understated sense of humor.

for a sense of how good grant lee can be, check out the song "folding" on his first solo LP, "ladies love oracle," which he made with his frequent collaborator, largo's brilliant/eccentric  jon brion. with what sounds like a pedal steel guitar and a harmonica, he plays a kind of country blues about that moment when you decide you have to break up with someone. with his poker metaphor -- okay, i fold -- he captures the sense of resignation when you wake up from "the colorful lie." i'd print the lyrics but like any great song it works with all its elements, including one of GLP's best vocal performance.

grant lee encored by bringing over fiddler sara watkins, prev of nickel creek, who'd been playing at largo's main theater... somehow i'd missed nickel creek during their years together, but that girl can play the fiddle and has a breathtaking old-school country voice. she's got a solo record next month i'm curious to hear.

the weirdness came from the openers -- the dude who played the hippie school-counselor on "freaks and geeks" (who i guess you'd call a comedian), offering bizarre monologues and a weird musical number, and a duo that played theramin and vibraphone to earnest tunes like bowie's "major tom." tho the theramin solos went on a bit too long, this oddball mix took the pretension out of an evening dedicated to sitting in the dark watching a singer songwriter. somehow it all worked.

tho i cant wait for the place to get its bar set up.

Photo credit: Flickr 550

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day

TODAY this blog and its followers celebrate st. patrick's day, a holiday a lot of upper-middle-class people -- including many educated irish-americans -- scorn. slate ran its usual spoilsport/ contrarian piece pointing out that patrick himself didnt rid the country of snakes and wasnt even irish.

i've read this story (which is quite well executed) ever year, and still love st. patrick's. i say this as someone with no interest in green beer, working class homophobia or the slavish worship of the catholic church. but despite my jewish surname i am mostly irish (full disclosure: half of that derives not from heel-clicking celts but from protestant oppressors) and this holiday is one of the few opportunities to connect with a heritage that now seems very remote from the life of southern california. when i was in the trader joe's in glendale a few days ago and asked after the corned beef, a young woman working the floor looked at me as if i had asked for kelp from saturn. of course, in the days of mulholland and doheny, LA was a very irish city.

these days, ireland itself has snapped out of its "celtic tiger" phase and has an unemployment rate of around 10% -- bad for them, tho a touch lower than LA county right now. (here is a great simpsons bit on irish identity.)

but that's another discussion. for now, i am wearing a pine-green american apparel shirt, have a big pot of corned beef simmering away in murphy's stout upstairs, i am going to blast van morrison until my wife makes me take it off, and will try to steal a few minutes to read yeats after introducing my little son to what i hope will stick as an important family ritual. for the timberg/sinnott family, this one goes back to turn-of-the-century, brooklyn -- long ago and very far away. as ian (sorry for the scottish name) would say, CHEERS!

PS. A poll of the world's greatest irishmen to appear very shortly on this blog. i apologize in advance for it being all male, esp since the best irish writer going right now may be anne enright... simply amazing how many great musicians come from this tiny island, esp if you consider, as i do, john lennon and morrissey -- both of irish-catholic descent -- the greatest "english" musical figures of the '60s and '80s, respectively. 

Photo credit: Flickr user 36 and 37

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wagner's Ring Cycle vs. The Gods

ON wednesday night -- that's wotan's day to those of you who speak norse -- i caught "das rheingold," the los angeles opera's take on the first of wagner's ring cycle. it's directed by the avant-german achim freyer and has received quite mixed reviews in my circle. i found it intriguing in parts, hard to fathom in others; my former colleague mark swed mostly admired the production, here. and my friend tim mangan, here, liked it so much he wished it were longer! (yikes -- not without a break for the bathroom or bar.)

BUT speaking of long, outsiders probably dont realize how long this baby has been in the works -- a quick recounting makes it sound like the gods themselves have been conspiring against it.  i remember sitting, in spring or summer of 2001, in the wonderful downtown LA japanese place, R-23, while LAO publicist gary murphy and opera boss edgar baitzel talked about how excited they were to have just hired conductor kent nagano (the globe-trotter who baitzel had finally pinned down to take the job, as memory has it, in some european airport) to lead the company, and that they had george lucas interesting in designing a blowout "ring" that would show the world what california culture and technology could do. 

it would be "the 'star wars' ring," some said later, which is appropriate since wagner's work inspired not only tolkien's ring trilogy but the star wars franchise as well.

since that meeting, a lot has happened. a few months later, new york was attacked by terrorists. a few days after that dark day, nagano conducted a stunning production of wagner's "lohengrin" that is my first good memory of post-9/11 life -- it was soothing (and french-toned, actually) if either of those things can be said about the lugubrious saxon... a truly spiritual experience.

we got involved in two wars that cost a lot and let to a little recession.

somewhere in here the george lucas connection fell apart, probably because of money. 

a few years later, the graceful nagano left the company. after that, the man who ran the opera, edgar baitzel, a restrained german who i'd really gotten to like, died suddenly.

and last year the entire world market tanked. (i'd been hired to work at the LATimes in part on the evidence of my nagano story; last year i lost that job.) this couldn't have helped the funding for such a gargantuan project.

what did i think of the first installment of the "ring," which will continue over this and the next season? i'm still not sure. but with that backstory, i'm thanking the gods, norse and otherwise, that we have it at all.

Photo credit: Superstock

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pinot Noir: California vs. Burgundy

VERY fine NYT piece today on a new trend in california pinots: a backing away from the power of the fruit bomb that has defined the regional style and toward the finesse and elegance of a burgundian style pinot. 

eric asimov, who wrote the story, here, is one of my favorite chroniclers of the vine, and he has the perfect blog voice -- he's a serious but somehow casual drinker, and there is no bs class association to his assessment of wine. (the fact that his uncle all but taught me to read with his wonderful books on science and sundry "facts" only makes me feel warmer to this dude i have never met.)

anyone who has spent time with me in the warmer months knows there are few things i like better -- especially if we are eating salmon, duck, mushroom dishes, some kinds of steak -- than pinot. my original love of pinot came from heavy, fruity california varieties from sideways country -- melville, au bon climate, sanford -- but my taste has since moved to more elegant versions. some oregon pinots -- the hard-to-find cristom -- and new zealand's peregrine hit the sweet spot for me. (i recently had a beaune burgundy at palate food + wine that blew me away.) 

so i was glad to see this development asimov chronicles. he speaks to jim clendenen of au bon climate as well as the guy behind arcadia, which may be the finest american pinot i know. (the latest vintage currently sitting on the shelves at colorado wine co.)


Photo credit: NYT

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Michael Chabon, Genre and Literary Criticism

READERS of this blog probably need no urging on what a fine novelist michael chabon is -- and i direct anyone who doubts over to "kavalier and clay" or a number of his other excellent works of fiction.

but literary criticism, even by as esteemed a talent as mr. chabon, tends to fly under the radar, and that's why it gives me great pleasure to highlight his essay/criticism collection "maps and legends" -- note the nod to great/overlooked early REM song -- which collects pieces from the new york review of books and other pubs. the book recently came out in paperback.

some of the essays provide the background to his life and fiction -- fascinating essay on columbia, md. (about 20 minutes from your humble blogger's hometown), yiddish and jewish identity, golems, etc.

but my favorite work in the book are his pieces of criticism -- on philip pullman ("his dark materials"), cormac mccarthy's "the road," comics god howard chaykin, the sherlock holmes stories/novels of arthur conan doyle, and why norse myth is better than the greek and roman variety. (yeah!)

here is an interview i did with MC on the book and its argument. (and here is the interview i did with him around the time of "the yiddish policeman's union.")

the collection's guiding idea is that the literary and cultural gatekeepers have been wrong about what matters and what endures. chabon's preferred metaphor is what tolkien called the "cauldron of story," in which folkloric materials can transform into "literary" and pop work and back again. it's all bubbling in the same pot.

my only regret is that now it will be harder to find the original mcsweeney's hardback -- with a cover by jordan crane that may be the most beautiful jacket of any book last year.

Photo credit: Flickr user 34

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lambchop vs. Radar Bros at Club Largo

LAST night i saw radar bros. open for lambchop at club largo, the legendary (and newly relocated) venue that helped establish acts like aimee mann, grant lee phillips, master of ceremonies jon brion, and a whole wave of alternative comedy acts that i dont know as well. the old fairfax location, across from canter's deli, was a place you could, if you got the word in time, count on catching a seat-of-the-pants, small-room set by, say, elliott smith (as i did a few weeks after moving to LA in 97.) or, a truly astounding set by the jazz pianist brad mehldau, who i've seen in two or three other settings but never quite as startling and powerful as in the old club largo space.

so i'm glad to report that the new space is really wonderful, even to those like me who miss the old one. medium size theater with real seats makes up the main space, with a smaller spot -- tiny tables with candles on them, grotto-like space -- that recalls what was best about the old room, in an even more intimate setting. brion was standing by the door in an outlandish suit and broad smile -- felt like the old days.

the radar bros. are one of the great undersung treasures of LA rock -- in the 90s they were part of a triumvirate of "slowcore" bands that also included actetone and spain... the joke was that the radars were the only band in history who played SLOWER live than on record. last night the hall's acoustics, the gentle melodies and the weird guitar voicings put me in an almost narcotic place, much like the third VU record. it was the effect i've always craved, and never received, from their live shows.

lambchop have come into their own the last few years, and i've loved their last two records despite not really getting what the whole lambchop thing is all about. they're from nashville, so they're alt-country, kind of, by way of burt bacharach, jimmy webb, and early curtis mayfield -- i think. whatever it is, they were in good form at largo, as a six piece... with the pianist offering the strangest between-song banter i've ever heard. he could make robyn hitchcock sounds like a documentary  realist.

here is a solo acoustic rendition of my favorite song from the new LP, "ohio,"
kurt wagner's voice is one of the most distinctive in rock -- every bit as southern-weird as michael stipe's. and here is wagner solo again, covering dylan's "you're a big girl now." 

any thoughts on these two very distinctive bands or this very transformed LA institution?

Photo credit: Merge Records and Radar Bros.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lang Lang vs. Vienna Philharmonic

THE other night i took a break from watching robert downey jr. in "iron man," which has a party scene in which downey and a cuter than usual gwyneth paltrow nearly begin making out on the balcony of walt disney concert hall, to run to disney hall myself for a concert by the vienna philharmonic. it was nearly as  star-studded a crowd as the movie's scene (though i'm still trying to figure out what rick rubin was doing out with josh groban -- i dont think i want to hear that record.)

were these luminaries there to see vienna, sometimes called the finest orchestra in the world, or guest conductor zubin mehta? probably not. the real heat, i think was around Lang Lang, the young chinese pianist who is either the most exciting phenomenon to hit classical music in 20 years -- bringing emotion and large audiences back to the music -- or a cross between liberace and the devil himself.

here is my LAT piece on the divisive virtuoso.

as for lang, i dont think he embarrassed himself but i would rather listen to rubinstein or pollini or pires doing chopin any day of the week. lang's story -- he was basically marinated in classical music in the womb -- is fascinating, whatever one thinks of his music, and my esteemed friend david ritz (best known for his work with marvin gaye and brother ray charles)  ghosts with the pianist in this book, journey of a thousand miles.

vienna? well. "where are all the women??" an unidentified wag near me shouted as the august philharmonic's players filled the stage, and it is truly odd in 2009 to see an orchestra made up almost entirely of white men. (NOT that there's anything wrong with that.)

as for the concert itself, it was a thrill for me to finally see the burnished, old-world vienna, even if mehta was conducting. and to see schubert's 9th -- a composer i love, and know mostly from his deathbed sontatas and chamber music -- was a pleasure, even if as my friend tim mangan suggests here, was a mismatch of conductor to orchestra. (here is my old colleague mark swed's similarly mixed but quite different judgement on the gig.)

anyone have any thoughts on vienna, mehta, lang?

Photo credit: Flickr user 32 and 33

Monday, March 2, 2009

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss

TODAY i'm wishing a happy 105th to one of the greatest writers this country has known, and one i've come to appreciate more as i've revisited him for the sake of my son. (i only regret that the good doctor did not have the good fortune to be born an aquarius.)

there are many wonderful authors for little kids -- lucy cousins, eric carle, byron barton, ezra jack keats -- but for an adult who loves the sound of language, what an electric jolt it is to get to the point where you can read junior dr. seuss! even a simple, almost monosyllabic book like
"hop on pop" is quite ingenious.

perhaps my favorite of his, and certainly the most poignant of his books, is THE LORAX. here is a recent LAT story, not by me, about that book and how is speaks to both the past and present of the green movement.

part of what has struck me as i've read the book for the second and third time on the same day to my son ian is how stodgy the lorax himself is. that is, here is a book written effectively, in "the 60s" (it came out in 1971), with an enviro/countercultural message, and where the hero is someone who represents not youth but the wisdom of the ages. in fact, the once-ler, the spirit of full-speed-ahead capitalism and innovation, has a younger, more dynamic spirit and actually calls the doomy lorax "dad" in a condescending way. we have geisel, an older liberal, looking at his times and coming to an original conclusion about what's needed. it also presages the way al gore was often portrayed.

(a great overlooked book is "on beyond zebra," which posits a kind of psychedelic alphabet that picks up where ours lets off. appealed to my childhood love of codes and hidden things.)

but you've surely got your own favorites. either way, happy birthday to the good doctor!!

Photo credit: Flickr user 31