Friday, October 30, 2009

Comics From India

THIS is the kind of high/low, east/west, pop/myth collision i love: a new exhibit at the LACMA called "heroes and villains: the battle for good in india's comics." though the title evokes the beach boys, the show is more about devi, vishnu and other hindu gods and the way they return, through the magic of pop culture, in indian comic books.

here is my story from this sunday's LATimes. i spoke to the show's lead curator, julie romain (who used to assist the LACMA's brilliant and notorious paul holdengraber with his memorable series) and the indian scholar debashish banerji.

both of them framed the context against india's disaspora, globalism and tranformation by western pop. i'll return for a more considered look at this show, which includes a tour through the museum's subsantial south/southeast asian art collection.

Photo Credit: LACMA

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Clean vs. New Zealand Pop

A HIPSTER friend, back in the 80s, turned me on to the new zealand sound -- the clean, the chills, the verlaines -- bands that made what was coming out of the US a the time sound pedestrian indeed. this stuff was pastoral, punk, lo-fi, hooky, and weirdly random all at once. i hadnt heard guitars tuned that way since the third velvet underground record.

the clean is back with a new record, "mister pop," on merge: it sounds nothing like their heyday, but takes them to a new and fascinating place. it's probably my favorite release since their original output from the late 70s/early 80s. (the first song, "loog," with its dreamlike drone and female vocals, is especially enchanting.) here is a video, "in the dreamlife you need a rubber soul," from the new LP.

a few years ago i spoke to the clean's robert scott, who is also in the bats -- here is my piece, which tries to give an overview of the whole scene on the flying nun label.

Photo credit: Merge Records

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Salman Rushdie vs. Los Angeles

WHEN i agreed to hang out with novelist salman rushdie in and around hollywood for a few hours, i would not have been surprised to find myself embroiled in a discussion about george harrison's facility for the sitar, or to be shown the very drugstore where an acid-tripping aldous huxley encountered "the doors of perception." but i did not expect to get into a hilarious story about "starsky and hutch."

that's part of what i like about reading rushdie as well -- you never quite know where his work is going to swerve, but most of the time his excursions reinforce rather than undercut his literary personality. here is that piece, by the way, which is about the most fun i've had on a literary story. and i am very glad neither of us got shot, which looked for a minute like it was about to happen.

a few days ago i visited a new exhibit at the los angeles county museum of art dedicated to comics from india -- more on that in a future post. but the show made me think of rushdie and his wild mixing of ancient and pop-contemporary, especially in books like "midnight's children" (a book i read in a kind of fever it was so good) and his last novel "the enchantress of florence."

these days, i hear from his publicist, rushdie is completing a new novel and the script to a "midnight's children" film. since his books -- as he discusses in our interview -- were so profoundly effected by movies, especially bollywood and "the wizard of oz" -- this project could appealingly close the circle.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wu Man and Ancient Chinese Bluegrass

THIS may sound crazy, but this chick kicks ass! if you doubt me, check this out. or consider the fact that avant-jazz madman henry threadgill caught a gig of wu man's back in the early '90s, soon after she'd arrived in the states from china, and asked her to play on his next record.

today i have a piece in the LATimes on wu, who plays the pipa, a two-thousand-year-old string instrument, a sort of mandolin/banjo, with amazingly contrasting styles. that is, it can be the most lyrical as well as the harshest of lutes.

her admirers include yo-yo ma, philip glass and the kronos quartet, with whom she's about to debut a new piece in new york.

wu plays on tuesday as part of an important festival of chinese music put on by both carnegie hall and the philharmonic society of orange county. she's playing not western classical or sacred chinese music, but as part of rustic "family bands" she has brought over from china.

dean corey, the society's southern-bred boss, remembers working in appalachia and seeing wild family groups come out of the woods to make bluegrass. "that's basically what this is," he says.

Photo credit:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Einstein vs. Picasso

ONE of my favorite pieces of my own, one that sent me on a real intellectual journey, explored the similarities between albert einstein's breakthroughs in physics and the ferment in modernist art and literature.

the artist einstein is usually likened to is cubist-era pablo picasso. these two unconventional bohemians were engaged in what scholar arthur. i. miller calls "the same problem," as einstein shattered newtonian physics and picasso shattered the picture plane.

sunday is picasso's birthday, so i'm posting my story, which was tied to a very fine show at the skirball cultural center.

i hope it proves as mind-blowing to read as it was to research and write.

fun fact: for this story i spoke to a freud scholar named michael roth, who at the time ran a school in california but is now the president of my alma mater, wesleyan.

ps. i also love the modern lovers song.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nordic Noir Finally Arrives

SOME called 1991 – a decade and a half after the rumbles in London – “the year punk broke.” If so, 2009 is shaping up as the year Nordic Noir finally arrived.

Stieg Larsson – a Trotskyist sci-fi fan now, inconveniently, dead – is the movement’s Nirvana, and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a mystery novel with Nordic Noir’s coolest heroine ever, his “Nevermind.” The book’s recent sequel, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” which continues the adventures of a tattooed hacker and crusading reporter, also kicks ass.

The Exene and John Doe might be Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish husband-and-wife team whose classic ‘60s and ‘70s-era policiers – “The Laughing Policeman,” “The Man Who Went Up in Smoke” – are being reissued on Black Lizard.

What makes this grim, snowy stuff, with its umlauts and suns hidden for months at a time, so irresistible? You get, in Henning Mankell’s Wallender books, an existentialist detective who resembles “Point Blank”-era Lee Marvin, dropped into a Bergman movie. (Three of these were just ably adapted by Masterpiece.) With Norway’s Karin Fossum, penetrating glimpses into the psychology of killers. And with Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, storytelling so epic it’s almost medieval.

Modern crime hardboiled fiction first came out of California in the ‘20s and ‘30s, in newish cities where it was easy to fake a past, and where fog and dark alleys kept everything shadowy.

Scandinavia is an old land, overrun for centuries by Vikings swilling mead. But it’s got contemporary problems – drugs, immigration, global organized crime – that make these books feel pressing and urgent. That fact that it’s usually overcast doesn’t hurt.

“It’s the frontier independence frontier self sufficiency and frontier stoicism, combined with frontier weather, frontier isolation and frontier violence that makes these Nordic books so familiar to a US reader,” Junot Diaz of “Oscar Wao” told me. ”And yet the extremities of all these tendencies (and the almost alien history of these nations) are what gives them their unique compelling and ultimately terrifying tenor."

If 2009 is the year of Nordic Noir, then, we say it’s about damn time.

Photo credit: chatirygirl

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eight Decades of Ursula K. Le Guin

TODAY one of the most innovative and intriguing writers in the english language marks her 80th birthday. there aren't many novelists who i enjoy as much today as i did when i was in elementary school; ursula le guin is one of them.

here is the recent LA Times piece i wrote on her after visiting her in portland and re-immersing myself in her body of work and the debates around it. she was a very sharp, wide-ranging conversationalist i wish i could have spent more time with.

and here is a guardian piece in which i discuss her role (alongside berkeley high classmate philip k. dick, among others) in leading my generation of novelists away from realism.

le guin is best known for her "earthsea" books, which are inspired by tolkien and carl jung and in turn inspired the harry potter novels. her two consensus science-fiction masterpieces are "the left hand of darkness" and "the dispossessed," which grow in rereading. but her last novel, "lavinia," which pursues a minor character from virgil's "aeniad," is wonderful as well.

(here is a birthday note from the SFWA, and a characteristically wry note from sf writer robert silverberg.)

looking forward to many more years of productivity from this american original.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Newspaper Layoffs and "The Disposable American"

IN 2007, a mean-spirited robber baron bought an important american media company with money that wasnt his, in a deal that no responsible anti-trust division would have permitted. over the next two years, hundreds of journalists were laid off from the LA Times and other newspapers. in october, i became one of them. departing with me were the deeply talented writer lynell george, the best editor i've ever worked with (maria russo) and many others.

i was given a few hours to clear out my stuff and get out of the building. i was offered a measly two months severance pay and -- thanks! -- free career counseling at the onset of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

earlier this year, after the company declared bankruptcy, another wave of layoffs hit, taking my other favorite LA Times editor, craig fisher, with it. today is yet another wave, which has already felled the talented reporter tina daunt. (the LAT now has less than half the staff it did when i was hired in '02. let me point out too that the tribune executives who sold the chain and let the paper fall behind walked away with golden parachutes in the tens of millions.)

one of the most salient explanations i found to this madness was contained in louis uchitelle's "the disposable american: layoffs and their consequences." this excellent 2006 book, by the veteran new york times economics and labor reporter, looked at the phenomenon in historical terms. what he finds it that the huge wave of american layoffs is not inevitable -- a natural way of responding to the up-and-down cycle of prosperity -- but rather the result of years of legislation favoring big business. if the laws are written for the corporations, they will see the people who work for them as disposable. (and they have.)

some of the layoffs in LA and elsewhere, of course, have to do with the slumping economy and the collapse of newspaper's income source. even the new york times, as was announced yesterday, may be doing some serious laying off. gourmet magazine just closed.

for now, i'm praying, in my agnostic way, for my friends and former colleagues.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Steve Erickson's West Coast Dreams

THE recent release of "a new literary history of america," has gotten me thinking again about longtime LA writer steve erickson. this fascinating volume, edited by greil marcus and werner sollors, includes a brilliantly counter-intuitive essay by erickson, which manages to wrap thomas jefferson and john adams around the songs of stephen foster. (he was born on the day in 1826 on which those two died.)

here is my profile of erickson, around the publication of his novel "zeroville." the book is one of my favorites of his -- set around the time of the manson killings and the emergence of the "easy riders, raging bulls" generation of american filmmakers, and both captures and undermines the myth of the 1960s and '70s.

as a novelist, of course, erickson is often likened to thomas pynchon, tho his work is more obviously anti-realistic. he was drawing from some of the techniques of magical realism before that style became overexposed, and he was an early champion of philip k. dick.

erickson tells me he is hoping to finish his next novel in 2010.

the question of why erickson is not better known outside california has interested me for two decades. his work may simply be too rooted in the clash of reality and surrealism, the confusions of artifice and a disappearing past, that baffles the rest of the world but that we angelenos take for granted.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Glorious Sprawl of Built to Spill

I KNOW i'm not alone in considering built to spill, the boise band that sometimes offers three guitars blaring in a kind of rough counterpoint, to be one of the key bands of the alt-rock heyday of the 90s. unlike a lot of those groups, they've managed to grow in feeling in each record, even if their style has not changed massively in 10 years or so.

they are also one of the greatest live bands in indie rock (that may sound like damning with faint praise.) but anyone who has seen their extroverted shows, including their recent replay of '97's "perfect from now on" lp knows what i mean.

here is my LATimes interview with singer/guitarist doug martsch, who i describe as a noam-chomsky-and-pickup-basketball kinda guy. i also talk about how they break from the neo-puritanism of the indie aesthetic: they are not remaking 60s songcraft or taut post-punk models.

the new record, "there is no enemy," is getting mixed reviews so far. i'll agree that it is not a huge step forward for them, and perhaps it is less concise than their previous few lps. but it extends the warm, dreamy, sprawling sound to often powerful effect. i love the songs "hindsight" and "life's a dream," for instance. (here is an early bts classic, "in the morning," and the more recent "carry the zero.")

though it wasn't part of their original tour schedule, there is now an L.A. date -- an oct. 29 gig at the echoplex. can't wait.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lydia Millet vs. Domestic Realism

ONE of the key impulses of my generation -- what we used to call generation x -- has been the move away from old-school psychological realism into fiction's "borderlands." that's michael chabon's term, and he's generally talking about the wild frontier between literary fiction and fantasy, pulp crime, sci-fi, lovecraftian horror and comics.

but lydia millet is less interested in those fan-boy genres and more committed in her own weird soup of caricature, psychological extremity, obsession, and calvino-esque possibilities. (anyone who's lived in LA knows that those can actually be categories of realism here, but that's another conversation.) her characters are rarely likable, they're sometimes not even feasible, but they're often compelling.

here is my interview with millet from last year, when her bracing short novel "how the dead dream was released on soft skull press, then run by richard nash. millet is also an alum of what i call "the school of flynt," as in hustler: various porn and ammo magazines were her MFA program.

millet has a new story collection, "love in infant monkeys," which is getting good notices -- here is a review from the new york times book review.

this is a writer whose assumptions differ from some of my own, but who thinks in truly original ways.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Italy vs. Rock 'n' Roll

Over the last decade or so, france has launched air, phoenix and a whole host of chanteuses including the heavenly keren ann. sweden has given up komeda, the concretes and peter, bjorn and john. ever germany has the scorpions. (for better or worse.)

but italy -- for centuries the most aesthetically minded nation in all of christendom -- has never sent a decent rock band into international orbit.

i try to get into the reasons for this, as well as what some consider a renaissance, in this piece in today's LATimes. it's pegged to a weeklong festival, with most of the action this weekend, called (H)itweek LA.

my favorite of all the bands is calibro35, a group that reworks the soundtracks from old italian exploitation films from the 60s and 70. classically italian, but with irony and funk.

Photo credit: Calibro35

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Spike Jonze vs. "Where the Wild Things Are"

BY this point, "being john malkovich" is considered one of the masterpieces of the indie-film movement. but when word started to filter down, 10 years ago, about this project by skateboard/ rock video auteur and the then-unknown screenwriter charlie kaufman, it was hard to imagine this working. a film about living inside a celebrity's brain, directed by a kooky guy who had never made a film longer than the beastie boys' "sabotage" video?

jonze -- by now also celebrated for "adaptation" -- is of course on our minds again because of his much-awaited adaptation of "where the wild things are."

a decade ago, writing for the paper New Times LA, i was intrigued by the buzz around "malkovich," and the screening made clear that this was a boldly original film. originally, i was going to meet jonze at a bar for an interview. then, at his LA apartment, which i imagined as full of skateboards. and then, i found out i had to go to new york, for the film's junket, where i would finally get a one-one-one interview.

so i flew to new york. when i got there, i was told that he insisted on having cameron diaz and catherine keener in the room with him. of course, i did not mind the company of these lovely babes (diaz seemed to have gone undercover as an english major for a liberal arts college; when she greeted me like an old friend i thought she might be a wesleyan classmate assisting on the film.) but having two stunning actresses in the room made it hard for both jonze and i to concentrate. it just got weirder from there.

in any case, here is the cover story i wrote for now-defunct new times, which is reprinted here in sister paper SF Weekly.

i welcome discussion of the new film, which opens friday, on this site.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maurice Sendak and "Where the Wild Things Are"

ONE of the fascinating things about literature -- especially popular literature -- is the way it tracks the contours of the society that produces it. which is a fancy way of saying, maurice sendak books like "where the wild things are" not only reflected those churnings in american culture in the late 50s/early 60s, it helped produce what we learned to call "the 60s."

sendak, of course, is in the news because of friday's opening of the long-awaited spike jonze-helmed "where the wild things are" film. HERE is my story from today's LATimes, where i try to set sendak and his most famous book in cultural context. i spoke to sendak, jonze, librarian/ children's writer susan patron, and historian of children's lit seth lerer for the piece.

in the years before "wild things" came out, in 1963, the big kid-lit awards were being won by books of nursery rhymes and american patriots. robert mccloskey and e.b. white had published wonderful book in the protestant-pastoral tradition. (dr. seuss, of course, had hit his stride, though, i'm told, wasnt taken very seriously by the field's gatekeepers.)

something i wish i'd had room to get into the piece: as lerer points out, the 20th century was the first in which children typically had rooms of their own -- dickens grew up with several other kids in the bedroom with him. this allowed kids to develop their own private imaginations, but also generated anxieties -- will the room be here when i wake up? are there monsters in here with me? -- that sendak's "wild things" was one of the first to address so eloquently.

i will post at least one more "wild things" related piece as we build up to the film's release.

Friday, October 9, 2009

John Lennon and "It's Only Love"

SIXTY-NINE years ago today, one of the greatest artists of the rock era, and my first cultural hero, was born in a hospital on liverpool's oxford street.

especially with the madness over the beatles mono and stereo reissues still fresh, john lennon does not need my defense or explication here. i'll just say that i lost most of my elementary school years blasting my parents' beatles records, and all but levitated when i discovered the scarred depths of "plastic ono band," the one solo beatle LP that stands up with the group's work. (here is my old colleague bob hilburn on lennon.)

instead of diving into the man's amazing achievement and apparently contradictions -- his mix of generosity and bitterness, idealism and disillusionment -- i want to focus on just one song, and an overlooked one at that.

"it's only love" is a kind of orphan in the beatles' catalog. it was released on the american, but not the british, "rubber soul" -- in the UK it appeared on "help." over the last decade or so we've seen through the collaborative fiction implied by the "lennon-mccartney" songwriting credit: this is really john's number. he wrote it in a rush, and lated called it "a lousy song." paul knocked it as a "filler" song for its weak lyric.

let's listen to the song though: my favorite version is the incomplete third take on the "anthology 2" set. first of all, it's one of john's best-ever vocal performances: all the bite, the translation of the pain of the blues, is here, and he digs into the ambiguity of the lyrics -- this woman that he wants to love, but cant. or cant love, but does. (we've all been there.)

john's refrain of "but it's so hard, loving you" is as good a document of the group moving from its moptop phase into its darker, more complex middle period, which i think happens between "help" and "rubber soul," as i can think of.

musically, this has the byrdsy, folkrock sound the beatles were beginning to explore, and an unusual chord progression yoked to an unforgettable melody.

is the kind of tune which, if released today, would absolutely captivate people for its songcraft, but the beatles output in the '60s was so incredible it was seen as failed or forgettable.

(let me admit here that the song was recorded 15 june 1965 -- a few weeks from the day my parents were married. a shrink could probably unravel my almost unanimous fondness for the culture of 1965 and '66, but that's another story.)

but it's not just me who thinks this is a great song. bryan ferry recorded it, to good effect, in the '70s.

either way, let's raise a pint to one of the greatest musicians in history today, and wish we'd had more of him.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Happy Birthday to Dune's Frank Herbert

TODAY is would have been the 89th birthday of frank herbert, the west coast science fiction writer and journalist, best known for "dune," who died in 1986.

when "dune" won the best sci-fi novel poll on my blog -- defeating heinlein's "stranger in a strange land," gibson's "neuromancer," and others -- i wrote a bit about the book, which you can find here. i recently reread herbert's novel and found it as good as i recalled (and less daunting than it seemed when i was in 8th grade, fresh off tolkien.) it's certainly the most deeply imagined exercise in world creation i've ever read or seen.

the groovy sf blog io9 recently ran a piece asking if "dune," largely because of its length, ruined the genre, made everything too long and pretentious. not my point of view, by far -- to me sf began to blossom in the mid-60s -- but here is that intriguing piece.

i must admit that i'm not a lover of either the david lynch film, which i think took a complicated book and made it genuinely disorienting, or the more straightforward william hurt-starring miniseries. because of my love of the original dune and some of the sequels, i'm eager to see if the peter berg directed films see the light of day.

i welcome discussions on dune and herbert -- a journalist who discovered the setting for sf's bestselling novel while writing a travel piece about the oregon coast -- on this blog. either way, happy birthday to a writer who saw the future -- drugs, religious zealotry, and environmental devastation!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Neil Halstead and Mojave 3

ONE of the most undersung men in british rock music turns 39 today -- take a bow neil halstead!

halstead has made an unusual transition -- he first became known as leader of the shoegaze combo slowdive in the late 80s... they are sometimes compared to my bloody valentine and ride. that is a wonderful chapter in english rock, but to me he got better with his next band.

mojave 3 -- whose name was suggested by angeleno indie scholar wendy fonarow, a friend of the group and singer rachel goswell -- marked a huge step forward. here the group came up with the cornwall/english equivalent of america's alt-country movement, merging nick drake mystery with pedal-steel and a western-shirt aesthetic. several of their records are near-masterpieces, and their last, "puzzles like you," from 2006, is excellent even if it's a bit less gentle. (here is what may be my fave mo3 song, "some kinda angel"; here is the quieter "love songs on the radio.")

the most recent halstead-related release comes from his solo career -- the band is not exactly broken up but is on hiatus. that's "oh! mighty engine," maybe the mellowest thing he's done. as you can see here. it's rooted more firmly than ever in brit folk, with bert jansch as another point of departure. somehow in his music i often hear the breezy beauty of the southwest english landcape. anyway, keep up the good work, mate.

Photo credit: Brushfire Records

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Delicate Beauty of the Clientele

SOME days my favorite newish british band is the clientele, a group from england's beautiful south who create an eerie, lonely sound rooted in chiming guitars. they are as english as nick drake but also rooted in west coast light psychedelia of the 1960s -- arthur lee and love, the byrds, perhaps the beach boys or mamas and the papas. they have been over-compared to belle & sebastian because of some shared influences; i dont think the groups sound all that much alike.

HERE is the new album from the band, which merge records is streaming for now. it comes out today.

when i want stomping guitars and extroversion, i turn to british sea power, my other fave brit band that hasnt entirely broken in US. but the clientele create something hazy and introspective -- check out the title track, "bonfires on the heath." as someone who's spent a fair bit of time in england, their music makes me think of wandering alone on the gently rolling hills of the south downs, or through the greener-than-green hampstead heath itself.

they play joe's pub in new york on oct. 29. still remember their troubadour show in LA a few years back. (they had just added a hot cello or viola player with a great 60s bardot-inspired haircut as i recall.)

so far my favorite LP is "strange geometry," with the wonderful song "since k got over me." i also like their folk-rocky "reflections after jane." i dont love it when they pump their sound up or amp up the production to make it less intimate, so i wasnt crazy about "god save the clientele." still digging into the new one -- what do my readers think?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Greil Marcus and Five Centuries of the U.S. of A.

WHAT do thomas jefferson, linda lovelace, and pentecostalism all have in common? oh, probably a lot of things. but at the very least, they're all part of a huge new book called "a new literary history of america," which has just dropped on harvard university press. no anthology is perfect, but this one is full of fascinating stuff.

HERE is my new LATimes piece.

part of what makes the volume interesting is that one of the editors is both a west coaster, a rock critic, and a man conspicuously without a Ph. D., greil marcus. the book is full of left coast subjects and contributors. the mystery train author, who has had family in the bay area since he 1880s, explained to me that he doesnt see california as a strange of exotic part of america: beach boys songs like "in my room" not only reflected american reality but helped create it.

(the other editor is multiculturalism scholar and harvard professor werner sollors, who first experienced american culture through the US occupation of germany.)

i asked marcus who would read it: he said he didnt know, but was wishing he could leave it on street corners and watch who picked it up -- and what they felt moved to cheer or argue about.