Monday, February 28, 2011

Steve Erickson Novel Coming

LONGTIME Los Angeles writer Steve Erickson will have a new novel next year, These Dreams of You, his publisher, Europa Editions, just announced. 

Erickson is the writer I point to first when I'm arguing about a difference in East Coast and West Coast literary sensibility. He grew up in a Granada Hills neighborhood wiped out for the freeway, and that sense of spatial dislocation and a disappearing past -- central to life in the Southland -- runs through all his work. He was hot to Garcia Marquez and Philip K. Dick before they were cool.

HERE is my profile of Erickson on the publication of his last novel, Zeroville. That struck me as a real return to form, with a new note: The book was accessible but didn't give up any of the old Erickson weirdness. (His interest in experimental fiction is expressed in the Cal Arts journal he edits, Black Clock.)

"It's not a Hollywood novel," Erickson said of the book set among, kind of, the '70s generation of maverick filmmakers. "Those tend to be about how movies get made. I wanted to write about how movies have become part of the modern nervous system, the dream language we all converse in from time to time."

For what it's worth, I began reading Steve's work as a teenager back east, and it both puzzled and fascinated me. Some of the specifically Californian tone makes more sense to me now, after 14 years in LA, but the sense of things not being quite what they seem remains: I'd say his work continues to puzzle and fascinate me.

The new novel's title, presumably, comes from one of Van Morrison's best songs. In any case, always a pleasure to get a new novel by Erickson.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Return of the Found Footage Festival

ALL I can say is, it's one of the funniest things I have ever seen. The Found Footage Festival, a collection of oddball training videos, celebrity promotions and home movies, rolls though Los Angeles every year or so, curated and presented by two Letterman-like dudes who scour thrift stores and garage sales.

One of host Nick Prueher's favorite videos from this year's festival, on Tuesday (March 1) at Largo at the Coronet, is something put together by Linda Blair called How to Get.... Revenge!

“The tips she’s offering are far too real to be anything but genuine,” Prueher says of the Exorcist star. “And some of them are illegal – like putting a hose through somebody’s mail slot. Some of them are federal offenses. We didn’t know where to categorize that one.”

HERE is my piece from the new LA Weekly.

Prueher speaks quite lovingly of VHS -- like a vinyl junky, he loves the low-fi imperfections of his medium -- and considers the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s the Golden Age. In the early '90s, movies started to be priced for sale to consumers and not just video stores and libraries, and after a few years they began to push out the stranger stuff.

"That was a loss if innocence," he says. "It cluttered video stores with endless copies of Jerry Maguire that are of no use to us."

Here's the kind of thing they go looking for.

Oh -- and legendary doc Heavy Metal Parking Lot will open the show. I grew up in Maryland in the '80s, so this verite' shot outside a 1986 Judas Priest concert at the Cap Center has a special meaning to me. Don't miss it. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Versus Tours the West Coast

I MUST admit, I'd forgotten how good a live band the New York trio Versus could be. Last night's show at the Echo -- part of their first full-scale tour in a decade -- was devastating, reminding me both how strong their playing is and how bogus the notion that indie rock is wimpy.

In some ways Versus were typical of '90s indie bands in their use of jangly guitars, strong melodies and distortion. But they always seemed to the closest thing to the Pixies -- with their sense of menace, wild swings of loud-soft-loud dynamics, their incongruous bits of quiet beauty amidst the noise, the male-female vocal trade-offs and perhaps leader the hint of surf guitar in Richard Baluyut's playing. Some of their songs have such evocative fragments of imagery to them that they could suggest entire novels.

Tuesday night -- with what I think of as the original lineup, plus the addition of a keyboard/violin player -- all their best qualities were out in force for a small but devoted crowd. The show had a nice balance between old stuff and new songs from their latest, On the Ones and Threes, more proof that the people running Merge have the best ears in the business.

After a slightly too long period of sound checking and what Richard called "uncomfortable silences," the show started with a kick and kept its force all the way through: Two highlights "Circle" "River" from the band's full-length debut The Stars Are Insane, but I was struck during the whole show by how good this band is at generating drama in its songs and in giving each one a sense of shape.

Here they are playing one the best on the new record at a show in Brooklyn.

Mostly, this was a great, bracing time-machine show without any huge surprises. One thing was different: The old laconic, slightly surly Versus has warmed up, and even sometimes-fearsome vocalist Fontaine Toups was playful and joking with the crowd. The whole show took the sting out of having missed Gang of Four the night before.

They're on to San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Martha Graham vs. Isamu Noguchi

TWO very different artists -- with equally contrasting temperaments -- enjoyed one of the richest collaborations of the 20th century. They were also shaped in some ways by their time in California.

Graham with Bertram Ross
Dance pioneer Martha Graham and sculptor/ designer Isamu Noguchi worked together for more than two decades on about two dozen sets; three of them, including Pulitzer-winning Appalachian Spring, will be staged in Orange County this weekend. HERE is my LA Times piece on these two figures.

These SoCal performances have an additional resonance: Noguchi was born in Los Angeles (and will be the subject of a Laguna Art Museum retrospective opening in June) and Graham spent an important part of her teenage and young adult years in Santa Barbara and L.A. 

Graham talked about the vast expanses of the West as given her ballets a greater sense of space.  And life on the West Coast had a more temperamental effect as well.

A contemplative Noguchi
“My people were strict religionists who felt that dancing was a sin,” she told Dance Magazine. “”They frowned on all worldly pleasures…. But luckily we moved to Santa Barbara, California,” when she was 14. “No child can develop as a real Puritan in a semitropical climate. California swung me in the direction of paganism, though years were to pass before I was fully emancipated.”

And here is a video of Appalachian Spring.

Creativity and Depression

LAST year I saw a recital of Robert Schumann's music by the great pianist Andras Schiff. The pieces he played were lyrical, full of feeling, and almost consistently uncomfortable -- it was like hearing the mood swings of a rich but unsettled mind. (The composer is sometimes called "the most romantic of the romantics.")

The relationship between that unsettled mind and the often transcendent melodies that spilled from it is the subject of an event next month put on by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: The group will play various Schumann pieces and UCLA's Dr. Peter Whybrow will discuss how depression effects artists and Schumann in particular. Two similar events -- with cheerier contexts -- will be staged by the LACO in April, one with a neuroscientist and the other with a brain surgeon. HERE is my whole piece on this series dedicated to music and the mind.

Schumann, like Van Gogh and many other artists and writers, likely had a combination of depression and a mild kind of mania called hypomania. “When you’re hypomaniac, you’re very willing to talk to anybody. People like to talk to you, and suddenly you ‘re the center of attention, which excites you because you’ve spent the last three years sitting against a wall drinking beer.”

This is a little different than more conventional mania, which sounds unpleasant. “They became sexually promiscuous, spending money they don’t have, running around insulting people. The manic people tend to fall out of favor.”

By the way, here is a recording of the great pianist Richter playing Schumann's Fantasy in C; with better video, here it Richter on the composer's Toccata. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Indie Rock God Ted Leo

ONE of my favorite indie rockers is Ted Leo, a man of great integrity who channels The Jam, the Clash, King Tubby and Thin Lizzy. He usually records and tours with backup band the Pharmacists, but this weekend he makes a rare West Coast solo appearance

HERE is my interview with Leo; the piece runs in Friday's LA Times.

We talked about his interest in Celtic music, the way he approaches melodies, how we're still stuck in Reagan's America, and the transition he feels his career is in these days.

Two of my favorite songs of his are "Timorous Me" and "The High Party." Check em out here.

The thing that defines Ted Leo for me -- more than his songwriting, his propulsive melodies, his political commitment, etc -- is his gift with melodies that keep unspooling. There's nobody like him. He's at the Skybar Saturday and the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts Sunday.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Social Network Producer Mike De Luca

From the outside, The Astaire Building, the early-‘90s structure on the Sony lot where Michael De Luca Productions is housed, is about as rock ‘n’ roll as the dancer which lends the edifice its name.

But De Luca’s office – which includes the usual neat stacks of scripts on the desk, scattering of books, and LCD television – shows that something a little more personal is at work here.
The mod rug that evokes the work of Charles and Ray Eames, crisp Mad Men-style couch and framed black and white photographs – selections from California pop artist Ed Ruscha’s photo-doc of the mid-‘60s Sunset Strip – suggests that this guy has style. And maybe some taste, too, for classic modernism’s austere intellectualism and sharp edges.

“I like those clean lines,” says De Luca, who once lived in a sleek modernist house above Sunset Plaza when he was the bad-boy production head of New Line. “My wife doesn’t, though, so we’re living in a Cape Cod-style house in Brentwood right now. This is an homage,” he says with a little smile, neither boastful nor embarrassed, “to the bachelor pad I had to give up.”

A lot has changed for De Luca -- and the industry -- since indie’s heyday, when he developed American History X, Menace 2 Society and Boogie Nights – and helped convince the ambitious little studio to put aside unprecedented sums for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Or has it? Industry buzz has De Luca, now 45 and father of a 2-year-old girl, on the verge of a comeback, or the early stages of roll of great movies. The Social Network -- directed by David Fincher, whom De Luca helped break with Seven – has become the most talked about film of last year, showing off a half dozen great performances and one of the most admired scripts in memory. 

Here is my Hollywood Reporter Q+A with De Luca, who talks about past, present and future.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Indie Rocking with Smith Westerns

EVERY year or so I find a newish band that excites me, that brings back memories of the music I fell in love with as a teenager but that puts its own stamp on a tradition. A bit more than a year ago, I feel hard for the xx, with their moody, intimate take on trip-hop and British gloom.

 This year, the young band I’m most excited about is Smith Westerns, a trio of Chicago kids in thrall to glam and Nuggets-style garage rock. They were teenagers when their first, self-titled LP came out in 2009 – it’s so fuzzy and lo-fi that All Music Guide says it could have been recorded in a washing machine.

But what I’m really turned on by – what’s sending me out to their sold-out show at the Echo Friday night -- is their new LP, Dye it Blonde. Their interest in T. Rex and the Standells is still clear, but this is a far more distinctive effort, inspired by a romantic kind of power pop, and they have become catchy as hell. Listen to "Weekend," the album’s opening track, powered by an unforgettable guitar line, or better yet, watch this video. There's a memorable guitar riff on almost every song, and though this mostly extroverted music, some of the textures have a bit of shoegaze to them.

Besides more attention to song structure, the new record is marked by vastly different production, which makes the melodic turns clearer and more powerful. Here is an interview on Noisevox, where the band talks about Dye it Blonde. "We wanted to make something super lush and layered," Cullen Omori says, comparing it to the first record which he saw as "pop songs recorded poorly." They also talk about being unjustly pigeon-holed as a garage band.

Jeff Tweedy and others seem to agree with me, because the band is now opening some of Wilco’s dates in the South and appearing at Sasquatch Music Festival in May. All hail Smith Westerns!!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Eyes Peas Memoir

Most of America knows that L.A, hip hop band The Black Eyed Peas will perform at the Super Bowl’s halftime show on Sunday. As it happens, one of the group’s rappers, Taboo, will publish his memoir, Fallin' Up: My Story, next week.

The book is ghosted by Angeleno Steve Dennis, a Yorkshire native who’s made much of his living ghosting books including a footballer and Lady Diana’s butler. (Not the same person.)
Black Eyed Peas; Taboo second from right
I met Steve because he wrote an eccentric book on Britney Spears in which he enlisted a psychotherapist to help understand the troubled singer. Here is my story on the book and its controversial reception. 
And Dennis tells me this about the Taboo book:

“It's the first memoir to emerge from one of the Black Eyed Peas, charting
their rise from LA underground group to their current "global dominance" (Rolling Stone)

The book charts both Taboo's personal story -- rising up from gangland turf in East LA, becoming a teenage dad at 18, achieving the dream, almost de-railing the dream with drink/drugs addiction, before finding redemption -- and the group's unique musical story.

Along the way, there are great anecdotes throughout the journey from 1995-2010 about Eminem, Macy Gray, Sting, James Brown, U2, the Rolling Stones and Prince.”

The book, on Simon and Schuster, comes out on Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Novel by Robert Crais

LOS Angeles thriller/detective novelist Robert Crais will probably always be known for his detective hero Elvis Cole, a rock n roll fan with a taste for loud shirts. His latest novel is the third to focus on Cole's sidekick Joe Pike, a laconic,  unknowable badass: I've only just started The Sentry, which kicks off in New Orleans before moving to LA, but the damn thing takes off like a rocket. (The LA Times review of by Paula Woods.)

HERE is my profile of Crais, who is one of the best adjusted novelists I've ever spoken to -- someone who seems comfortable in this world as well as the imaginary world of his fiction. The piece tells the story of his long slog up from TV writing, his embracing and then (partial) outgrowing of Raymond Chandler's influence, the development of his private eye character Elvis Cole, and the emergence of Pike into the lead position in some of his novels, beginning with "The Watchman."

"Pike has always been this mysterious, enigmatic background character," Crais, with just a touch of his native Louisiana left in his voice, told me in '07. "But I knew there was more. His presence has been growing with each of the books, and I couldn't deny him anymore."

Crais is one of the most consistently strong writers I know, and he gets LA and its social geography better than just about anybody. Looking forward to digging deeper into The Sentry.

Update: I'm about 100 pages into the novel, which is so far set mostly in Venice gangland, and with Pike's well-earned rep as an ass kicker complicating his relationship with law enforcement. I'll say no more for now except that I can't put the damned thing down; it's my briskest read since the Keith Richards book.