Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Beatles in Hamburg -- on Record

OF the many great shows your humble blogger attended last year, one of the very finest  was a performance by Bambi Kino, a kind of indie-rock supergroup formed to pay tribute to the Beatles ragged, rockabilly-loving years in Hamburg.

The show, at Echo Park's Taix, was full of so much energy and musical invention (Guided by Voices' guitarist Doug Gillard was especially inspired that night) it made The Misread City crave a document of this quartet's triumph. (Here for my earlier post on Bambi Kino and its mission.)

So I'm happy to report that this group -- made up of members of Catpower, GbV, Nada Surf and Maplewood -- has just released an album, recorded at Hamburg's Indra Club, that captures the spirit of its shows quite well. It's made up, of course, of the music the Beatles were playing in 1960 and '61 -- Chuck Berry's "Talking About You," Buddy Holly's "Crying Waiting Hoping," Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over" -- played with the roughness and speed of the leather-jacketed Liverpudlians.

Rhythm guitartist/singer Mark Rozzo, a longtime friend of The Misread City, recently chronicled Hamburg's current scene for the New York Times magazine.  Rozzo laughs at the irony of his band -- which sometimes plays as much as 60 songs a night and put on a marathon show at Taix -- putting out a succinct, 12-song LP.

Courtesy The New Yorker 

"We didn't want to do any song that ever appeared on a Beatles studio album and we wanted to include a couple of numbers the Beatles were known to have performed but never recorded at all.  Meaning, they were never used for auditions or BBC radio shows or were never bootlegged.  Those would be 'Wild Cat,' by Gene Vincent, 'Ramrod,' a Duane Eddy instrumental they apparently used when they backed strippers, and 'Shakin' All Over,' by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, a big hit in the UK in 1960 that also happened to be Pete Best's audition number.  They were almost certainly playing all of those numbers at the Indra Club in 1960.  We also wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to sing a couple of numbers.

He calls the songs "all insanely fun" to play live.  

"Specifically of the 12 on the album, I'd have to nominated 'Some Other Guy,' because it's our traditional lead-off number and just says so much about Bambi Kino as well as what the Beatles were about in the early days.  'Besame Mucho' is a riot to play; so much going on and it's all so goofy and it also totally rocks. Erik just nails the singing on that one.  Maybe 'Ramrod,' because it's such a stomping instrumental and Doug does something amazing on it every time we play it. 'Shot of Rhythm and Blues' I like because that's one number where you see every single person in the club kind bobbing up and down, rocking out."

(Here they are, by the way, playing "Slow Down," a song not on the album.)

What's the future of Bambi Kino, Mark? 

"The future is the past!" he says. "Let's see... we've got a residency lined up at Bowery Electric in New York for April and then a probable return to Hamburg at some point in 2011. There are more 50th anniversaries on the way, of course. One thing: I don't ever see us putting on suits and wigs and Beatle boots. But we'd like to keep this going for a couple of years and try to learn another 100 songs or so. "

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's vs. The Hayes Code

THE writer M.G. Lord, a longtime friend of The Misread City, has a wonderful, counter-intuitive piece on Elizabeth Taylor, especially the films Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Butterfield 8, in the brand-new issue of The Hollywood Reporter. For your humble blogger -- who belongs to a generation for whom Taylor was best-known for big hair and serial divorces -- the piece was an eye opener.

The story begin this way:

On June 10, 1966, Life magazine did one of its many cover stories on Elizabeth Taylor. Far from her usual smoldering beauty, she looked puffy, haggard, decades older than her 34 years. “Liz in a Shocker,” the headline proclaimed. “Her movie shatters the rules of censorship.”
The movie, of course, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — a scorching drama adapted from Edward Albee’s acclaimed Broadway play. Its frank, gritty language brazenly violated the Production Code, rigid guidelines that had dictated the content of American movies since 1934. 

Lord, of couse, is the author of the cultural study Forever Barbie, the Cold War memoir Astro Turf, and the upcoming How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. (She's also a die-hard, if not uncritical, fan of sf writer Robert Heinlein.)

This week I'm working as a guest editor at the Reporter and I'm proud to have had a (very) small role in the latest issue. Despite my involvement, there's a lot of good stuff -- smart review of The Kennedys, which sounds like a disaster, sharp profile of new boss of Lifetime  -- in there this week.

And just up on the site today, Friday, a smart story on the rise of the Telenovela that I helped edit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Novelist Jonathan Kellerman

AFTER many years as a child psychologist, and more than a decade of rejection slips for his literary endeavors, Jonathan Kellerman discovered a Ross MacDonald novel at a going-out-of-business sale.

Photo by Blake Little
That was about 30 years ago, and this week, Kellerman publishes the latest in his series of Alex Delaware crime thrillers. This one, Mystery, starts with the leveling of an old hotel in Beverly Hills and ventures into Internet prostitution and a whole nasty cast of characters.

I have an interview with Kellerman in today's LA Times in which he talks about his early years, his struggle to get published, his new book, how he stays so productive, and a family that includes authors Faye Kellerman and Aliza and Jesse Kellerman.

Kellerman pere was pleasantly suprised by his success, saying that the movies he likes don't make money. "I don't have commercial tastes."

The author also has a beautifully illustrated coffee-table book, With Strings Attached, on his other passion: vintage guitars. He's played since he was a teenager, and these days concentrates mostly on classical guitar, especially Bach.

Finally, several people I spoke to called Jesse Kellerman, a playwright and thriller writer of a more explicitly literary bent than his parents, the most talented of the bunch. Jesse, who is in his early 30s and lives in San Diego, said he gets tired of these comparisons. "But if I didn't want to listen to them," he told me, "I would have gone to law school."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor in Big Sur

IT'S hardly a great movie, and it seems quite square and timid in its embrace of what we now know as "the '60s" -- art, bohemia, individualism. But I'll never forget Elizabeth Taylor's role in The Sandpiper and those great shots of the Big Sur Coast -- perhaps this blog's favorite West Coast locale.

Liz plays a free-spirited singled mother, with raffish friends, and nearly bursts out every scene.

Richard Burton (as the headmaster of an Episcopalian boarding school) is great too.

Here is a bit on the film.

Rest in Peace, Elizabeth Taylor.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Remembering Jazz Guitarist Lenny Breau

COULD one of the most inventive and technically gifted jazz guitarist of the last half century be an obscure Canadian raised by country musicians? That's what I often think listening to the mighty Lenny Breau.

Readers of this blog know that we try to uncover West Coast culture overlooked by the rest of the nation's media and critical establishment, and Breau was an overlooked West Coast artist par excellence.

Breau’s first professional recordings, The Hallmark Sessions, with their mix of fingerstyle jazz and Spanish guitar, were made 50 years ago (more on that excellent starting point later.) Much of his career took place in California, as well as his untimely end: He was found mysteriously drowned in a swimming pool -- shades of a less posh Sunset Boulevard -- in Los Angeles in 1984; he was only 43. The cause of death may've been drug-related, it may have been strangulation: In any case, it remains unsolved.

As a young man, Breau had gigged a bit in Canada – The Hallmark Sessions featured Levon Helm and Rick Danko of The Band as his rhythm section -- but he was discovered for the wider world by Chet Atkins, an early influence. Breau never entirely lost the twang in his playing, but his style was expanded in a vast and emotionally complex way by the innovations of pianists Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock: He shared their abstract, post-bop approach and blended it with a technical precision that recalls the great Tal Farlow. (Breau and Farlow have a very fine live album, Chance Meeting, that's easy to find online; Breau and Atkins recorded an album together that never made it to CD; here they play "Sweet George Brown" -- you can hear Lenny's wild harmonics.) 

So why haven't you heard of him? Despite two decades as a serious jazz fan, I had barely heard of Breau until music writer Ted Gioia turned me on to him, and he's not listed in many record guides and jazz histories. Here are my speculations.

First of all, Breau was Canadian, which puts him at a tangent to a jazz tradition that tends to be centered in New York and several other East Coast cities. (Here is a very young Lenny on a Canadian TV show.)

The fact that he moved to LA -- perhaps the most critically maligned and misunderstood jazz center in history -- didn't help. He had limited connections to the fervor (and critical press) in New York. (And with a few exceptions, such as periods when Wes Montgomery and George Benson were popular, jazz guitar exists at a tangent to the jazz tradition as well, though that’s another post.)

Second, he was a serious drug addict, with a special taste for heroin. This derailed his career at certain key points.

Third, he was not particularly interested in free jazz or fusion, but in the more contemplative and impressionistic sound world of Bill Evans. St. Bill is very influential today, but to some tastemakers and musicians, he was out of step with jazz history.

But any music fan who listens to The Hallmark Sessions – made by a fresh-faced young man of 20 -- will hear his melodic gift and harmonic daring. This early recording, lost for decades, shows his range: country/western songs (“Cannonball Rag”), Spanish and Brazilian classical guitar (“Taranta”), and jazz standards (“I’ll Remember April.”) That last song has dizzying spiral runs and a Rollins-like sardonic tone that does not trash the song’s frisky beauty. It was the song that convinced me of the guitarist’s genius: No matter how fast or non-linear his playing gets, it nearly always serves an emotional or narrative purpose.

Here musicians from Benson to Metheny to the Police's Andy Summers talk about Breau.

It’s both a cause and effect of Breau’s elusiveness that his work has had trouble staying in print. But a label, Art of Life, was formed in the ‘90s with the primary purpose of reissuing his music. (And the Living Room sessions, recorded in '78 and also released posthumously) should perhaps be second on your list. There is a post-Coltrane side to Breau, some of which you can hear on this one, including his intricate take on McCoy Tyner's "Visions.")

By the end of his life, the handsome lad from Canada had come to resemble, in some photographs, a demonic, beret-wearing Frenchman, and his musical choices were not consistently strong. But Breau’s is a career that every jazz lover or guitar enthusiast should be grateful for.

Friday, March 18, 2011

LA Band Spain, and a Celebrity Fan

THE other night I was lucky enough to catch a short, hypnotic set by Spain, the Los Angeles "slowcore" band that's now back together and starting to appear in low-key shows around town. (The last time I saw them they played at tiny but wonderful Origami Vinyl in Echo Park.)

In any case, the show itself was both completely gripping and without any surprising jolts: Mellow songs with a brooding shimmer, the ghost of country music evident in some of the chord changes, incisive guitar lines, and about evenly split between darkly romantic songs from the band's '90s heyday and new songs including "I'm Still Free," recently released as a single. (We were especially impressed with "I Lied" the band's last song, "Untitled #1," from its first album, though it made us wonder how much better the song would be if it had a real name.)

The Misread City is a longtime fan of this group -- here is some of what I've said before about this band, headed by Josh Haden -- so we were delighted to see that despite the poor showing of this barely publicized gig, one of the great arbiters of Southland music was rocking to the show in dark overcoat: Actor Jack Black.

Black, of course, is married to one of Haden's musical sisters -- they are all descended from great jazz bassist Charlie Haden -- so maybe this was family obligation. But somehow I don't think so.

Your humble blogger has far too good manners to approach a Hollywood celebrity who has strayed into a public place, but his appearance made us recall his peerless role in High Fidelity, one of the great rock music films ever made.

In this scene, Black's character Barry gives a clueless customer a brisk musical lesson, and continues on the record-shop owner played by John Cusack. As you can tell from this clip, Black's taste is quite exacting: A major vote of confidence indeed for the band Spain.

One note: Silver Lake's The Satellite, where the show was held seems to be quite similar to Spaceland, the club it replaced. This is no complaint: The place falls into the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it category. Long may it thrive, under whatever name.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Long Beach Opera on the Edge

WHEN you do what I do, you hear a lot of arts advocates and administrators talk about "reaching out," finding "new audiences," "making connections," and so on, and it gets tiresome. In part that's because it seems so calculated, in part because it usually means watering down programming to make it safer and more familiar.

LBO's next opera: Philip Glass's "Akhnaten"
But Andreas Mitisek, the Austrian conductor who runs Long Beach Opera, has revived the fortunes of the once- struggling little company by redoubling his commitment to its avant-garde point of view. Whether he's putting on opera in swimming pools or furniture stores, or offering premieres of new and challenging work, he's found -- and grown -- and audience that will follow him.

One of his goals, ironically, is to make audiences uncomfortable. “The very first time I suggested doing opera in parking garage, there was some eyebrow raising,” he says of “The Diary of Ann Frank.” “But the response shows it was the right place for the right piece.”

HERE is my piece from Sunday's LA Times on this remarkable group's past and future.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pianist Jeremy Denk Replaces Martha Argerich

Out: Argerich
THE raven-haired Argentine pianist Martha Argerich is legendary both for her impassioned playing of Chopin, Brahms and Liszt as well as for her tendency to cancel appearances. Sad to say, she's done it again, canceling next weekend's Los Angeles Philharmonic appearances with Gustavio Dudamel conducting.

The good news: She is being replaced by one of the world's most intriguing emerging pianists, Jeremy Denk, who plays Ives and Beethoven like nobody else and also runs a provocative blog, Think Denk. Here is my profile of the pianist, and here he is playing and talking about Ligeti.

In: Denk
 To put this in context: The last time I was looking forward to seeing Argerich, in 2006, she cancelled, as did Murray Perahia, who was scheduled to appear that same week. THIS piece looked, with some humor, at the issue of canceling shows. 

I don't wants to knock Argerich, by the way. "Argerich brings to bear qualities that are seldom contained in one person," Alex Ross once wrote of her. "She is a pianist of brain-teasing technical agility; she is a charismatic woman with an enigmatic reputation; she is an unaffected interpreter whose native language is music."This last may be the quality that sets her apart."

Here's the Phil's announcement:
Martha Argerich, who was scheduled to perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall, March 17 – 20, with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has cancelled. Jeremy Denk replaces Argerich in a program that includes Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, “Haffner.”

For further details or questions, call 323.850.2000 from 10am – 6pm daily, or visit

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eric Puchner and the California Dream

HERE at The Misread City, we try to capture what makes Los Angeles and the West Coast distinct, and aim to look at the way the existing clich├ęs – sun, vapidity, bottomless riches -- both inform and distort our lives here.

I can’t think of a better example of this kind of thing than the new essay by Eric Puchner, an Angeleno short story writer and novelis. His new piece in the March GQ, “Schemes of My Father,” is hilarious and heartbreaking.

Puchner’s novel, Model Home, was just named a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. I spoke to him about the novel here. (He's up against one of our favorite recent novels, Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, some of which is set in California.) Eric talks about Model Home and its relationship to SoCal above. 

Back to “Schemes of My Father,” about a charming dreamer who lured his family west: The piece -- read it here -- starts with his family’s move to California:

I don't think I realized how rich we'd become until the moment we pulled up to the entrance of Rolling Hills and the man in the little guardhouse actually tipped his cap. The gate lifted, ushering us into someone's vision of paradise. By "someone's" I guess I mean my father's. There were horse trails and faux hacienda signs and old wagon wheels sitting in people's yards in islands of unmown grass, like the Hollywood back lot for some Waspy New England burg. And yet it was Californian through and through, the ranch-style homes as flat and gargantuan as UFOs. We slowed down to pass a group of horseback riders in skintight pants, and even the manure plopping from their horses seemed expensive to me, better smelling than the dogshit smearing our sidewalk in Baltimore.

The piece develops quite beautifully, looking at the sense of pleasure and possibility that Southern California offers, and contrasting it with the state’s current crisis and deeper rooted problems. “But the truth is, there've always been two Golden States: the one we yearn for and the one that most Californians wake up to every morning.”

I could go on quoting from this excellent piece -- which takes a dark turn partway through -- but you should read it yourself. We’ve enjoyed Puchner’s writing for a long time now, but this takes it to a new level of wit and poignancy. We’d love to see a smart publisher push him into a memoir.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Green Shoots: Highland Park

IN this dismal economy, with the state unemployment rate still around 12 and 1/2 percent, any opening is worth applauding. So it's high time for The Misread City to note the recent opening of Schodorf's Luncheonette, a small but proud sandwich place run by the couple behind Cafe de Leche. (I'm especially fond of their Italian: Reviews here.)

The 'hood has sharpened up a bit from these days
It's part of what's clearly a revitalized Highland Park. Two shops I like have closed over the last few years, but the south side of York, between Avenue 50 and 52, seems to thrive: The York is going strong and several boutiques, including one where kids can design their own T-shirts, have opened recently. Cafe de Leche is almost constantly packed.

Today of course is election day, and Highland Park is part of the fiercely contested race between Jose Huizar and Rudy Martinez. In often apolitical LA, it's been cool to see such investment in this race: Each of the local businesses seem to have a connection to one of the two. (Martinez own Marty's pub, on York, renowned for its Kobe burger.)

Also pleasing: The gentrification in Highland Park has not forced out the Mexican/Latino flavored businesses that have provided the restaurant with its backbone. So we still have Huarache de Azteca and My Taco as well as Crop Salon on Ave. 64 and Good Girl Cafe's version of Vietnamese comfort food.

If I didn't know better, I'd say that Highland Park was becoming the new Eagle Rock. (And parts of Eagle Rock are looking pretty good these days, with the expansion and move of the wonderful Bloom School of Music to the block that includes Colorado Wine Co and Four Cafe.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Arts Hall on Westside

BEVERLY Hills has long had a connection to the movies, as well as a reputation for shameless excess. The city is taking a step in a different direction with a new arts center: Ground will be broken in April, with plans to open the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in 2013.

HERE is my LA Times piece about the center, which will, in the words of executive director Lou Moore, present  "theater, music, dance, small operas and professional children's theater. Coupled with that, we're going to have a children's theater school for serious-minded children," including residencies in which students work with visiting artists.

The center will be built in and around an old 1930s post office with WPA style murals: A glass walkway will lead to a 500-seat theater where larger performances will be put on. The whole thing has been delayed -- I wrote about this originally in 2006, when the opening was supposed to be just three years away -- by an environmental review and the approval process for a parking lot. (This is southern California, after all.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Philip K. Dick at the Movies

Tomorrow a new film based on a Philip K. Dick story, The Adjustment Bureau, opens. I’ve not yet seen the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt film yet, but the PKD fans I know are not impressed with it and don’t think it’s true to the author’s vision and thinks it's been skewed too much in a conventional-romantic direction. (Here is a mostly approving review by the NYT's Manohla Dargis.)

The film is based on a 1954 Dick short story, “Adjustment Team,” which is pretty decent for early PKD has more cinema-ready action than many; within a few pages much of the protagonist's world has crumbled to ash and he's chased with menacing minders -- "men in white robes" -- of the kind the author specialized in. Jonathan Lethem collects the piece in the 2002 Selected Stories and writes that in this story "we meet the Dick of the great sixties novels, his characters defined by how they endure more than by any triumph over circumstances." (I'm gonna take my guess as to whether it's the crashing action or the stolid endurance that plays a bigger role in this film version.)

Director George Nolfi seems to have his heart in the right place.  “Dick was really interested in the line between reality and some mental construct that could be illusion or could be another level of existence,” Nolfi told Geoff Boucher of Hero Complex. “I really wanted to take that and turn it on its head and ask, ‘What happens if you see behind the curtain and it’s unequivocally clear that is the truth?’ What you’ve seen before is only a tiny part of reality, how do you deal with that?”

Here is Geoff's whole piece.

I’m more excited about the announcement that Ubik – tight, funny, philosophical and perhaps Dick’s finest novel despite being a bit of a mess at the end – will be directed by Michel Gondry, whose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of several fine movies that bears the author’s stamp despite not being based directly on his work. Though Gondry has stumbled lately, he’s an imaginative director with a gift for the startling image, and he loves ideas.

Dick scholar David Gill, on Total Dick-Head blog, reports himself “ambivalent” about the Gondry choice. His post here

And let’s not forget Radio Free Albemuth, a no-budgert indie based on an odd and sort-of-autobiographical novel with a quasi-Nixonian conspiracy: The film is not perfect, but it captures the tone of Dick’s novels as well as any adaptation I’ve seen, and the PKD community has lined up behind it. Its trailer is here. (The film's site reminds me that the author died 29 years ago yesterday, in Orange County.)

And brief news today, Friday, that Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? may inspire another movie that could be a sequel or prequel to Blade Runner.

And HERE a link to all of my posts on PKD.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Trouble in Portlandia

ONE of our favorite places, here at The Misread City, is Portland, Ore., and as much as we love the walkable neighborhoods, the groovy coffee shops, and the excellent local cuisine and Oregon Pinots, we find ourselves trapped helplessly in Powell’s bookstore every time we’re up there. (You may also have heard about the show Portlandia starring a member of one or favorite bands.)

So the troubles at the four-decades-old Portland institution, which has both a strong Internet presence and several locations in and around the city, saddens us. The company recently announced 31 layoffs due to the economy and new technology.

When I went to visit Powell’s a few years ago for an LA Times story, I was struck by a contrast: Every morning, at least a dozen people seemed to be waiting outside the main 68,000 sq. ft. store for its 9 am opening, and even on week days the place was full of people buying books.

But Michael Powell, the company founder, glowered through out interview, worried about the book market, changes in the Internet, and passing over power to his daughter Emily.

"Businesses don't transition very well," Powell said. "Most of them fail." But he didn't think twice when his daughter, Emily, told him she wanted to come back to Portland and take over. "I didn't have another option," he said.

To the naked eye, things did not seem nearly as dark as Powell described them, and Emily was charming, smart and optimistic. Still, maybe he was onto something.

HERE is my full story, which describes much of what Powell's -- both like and unlike other American independent bookstores -- is up against.