Monday, October 29, 2012

Richard Thompson's "Cabaret of Souls"

HIS tunes are famously dark. But anyone who's paid attention to Richard Thompson's between-song banter, or seen his semi-comic 1000 Years of Popular Music, know how funny the guy can be. (He was beaten only by Hendrix for The Misread City's poll of favorite guitarist.)

So we wasted no time checking out his Cabaret of Souls, a theatrical staging of the Underworld that is sort of an oratorio, sort of a rock concert with strings, sort of a medieval torture, and sort of like a talent show in hell. And while it's not quite perfect, it's also far better than I'll be able to make it sound, and either the weirdest great show I've seen recently or the greatest weird one.

I'm not going to try to describe the plot of this strange hybrid of a beast except in barest terms. The audience is swept into the narrative even before they enter the hall -- at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica (snazzy arts center, by the way), the parking attendants and ushers wore devil horns. The band -- a chamber orchestra, basically -- limps out like a gang of zombies. A costumed Harry Shearer serves a narrator.

From there, we get a series of songs, some sung by Richard, some by Welsh folkie Judith Owen, some by others, in a variety of styles. Some characters represent variations on the Seven Deadly Sins -- gluttony, pride, and so on. Among the best of these was a gangster's moll whose song, "My Dave," was both tuneful and filled with the kind of self-deception Richard's songs are known for. Is there a songwriter better at capturing the lies we tell ourselves? Cabaret of Souls took advantage of his knack for creating widely disparate characters.

The music was in a huge range of styles, and I'm glad to report that in almost all the songs, it was still possible to hear the wonderful chiming fills he got from his acoustic guitar. (Still baffled how he gets that tone -- I've even played the Lowden guitar designed for him and cannot get close.) Also at this staging was double-bassist Danny Thompson, a Brit-folk hero since his days with Pentangle and a fruitful, longtime Richard collaborator of no relation.

Some concerns: There's an archness and mean-spiritedness to some of the characters that was jarring at the very least. (A few moments recalled the moralism of, say, Roald Dahl.) This was a quasi-medieval setting, and Richard's work is all drawn from the grim and unforgiving world of British and Celtic folk music, so perhaps it was in tone with the show's origins. It was still a bit jarring.

And the piece gets going quite nicely about 10 minutes or so in, but seems a little confused at first as we get various introductions to where we are, what's going on, etc. The piece has, I'm told by friends who saw the Royce Hall performance, been improved and made more theatrical since then. It could still use a bit of refining, I think.

But Cabaret of Souls was also funny, musically adventurous and at times, perhaps in spite of itself, genuinely moving. Richard Thompson continues to confound us.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Robinson Jeffers at USC

READERS of this blog know that we've got a special place in our collective hearts for Robinson Jeffers, the great California poet of the '30s and '40s who settles in the rugged, unpopulated coastline north of Big Sur. (He was voted Best California Poet right here on The Misread City.)

On Thursday, a festival devoted to Jeffers' life and work will take place at USC, one of his two alma maters (he shares Occidental College with our president, Ben Affleck and my wife.) As the university's release has it: "The panels and exhibition will explore Jeffers’ relationship to the natural world, Jeffers and the art of the book, and his story as a young poet in early 20th-century Los Angeles. Jeffers manuscripts and photographs, many of which are rarely seen by the public, will be on view."

One of very few people I know whose ardor for Jeffers outstrips mine is my old friend Dana Gioia, whose essay on the poet in Can Poetry Matter? made me think about Jeffers in a new way.

Dana and I discussed the poet and his legacy here.

Robinson Jeffers seems like the most distinctly California poet conceivable. It's really hard to imagine him coming from anywhere else, isn't it?

Jeffers was a poet who could only have developed as he did in California and probably only in the Modernist era.

His search for a distinctly modern voice took an entirely different course than any of his Eastern contemporaries. The still pristine landscape of California gave him a direct relationship with nature (and a skepticism about human civilization) that would not have been possible in New York or London.

What's the purpose of the Jeffers Festival at USC? What will it be like?

My aim is to bring Jeffers back to his alma mater. He is the most considerable writer ever to have attended USC, and the university has mostly forgotten him. I want to reclaim his legacy. I am pleased to report that everyone I have approached here has been eager to help. We have deliberated put together a conference that is not just literary chatter. Our speakers -- a great historian, a major sci-fi novelists/naturalist, a fine press printer, and a biographer -- will celebrate aspects of Jeffers' work not likely to be discussed in an English department.

What is your relationship to his work?

Jeffers has had an impact on my imagination. He showed how powerful and original poetry could be written out of my native landscape. His work also showed that a great Modernist could write in ways that were both innovative and accessible.  

Can you mention a poem, or a line, by Jeffers and tell us why it
resonates with you?

I love so much of Jeffers' poetry that it is hard to pick a single poem or single line. "To the Stone-Cutters" is only ten lines long, but it has a 
huge resonance.  It begins:
   Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated 
   Challengers of oblivion
   Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
   The square-limbed Roman letters
   Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain.  The poets as well
   Builds his monument mockingly....

That seems to be true of time, life, and poetry. I love the way the free verse lines alternate long and short and quietly echo the long lines of Latin and Greek poetry without ever making an issue of their lineage. It's learned but light, clear but incisive.

Monday, October 15, 2012

In Search of Ryan Adams

EVERY few years, Ryan Adams surprises me. He'll put out a song or album that reminds me what a goddam genius the self-destructive lad can be. 

He's someone I'm always on the verge of writing off as a  narcissistic showboat, or a pastiche artist, but he comes through with some of the most poignant and alive work in the entire alt-country tradition. It's a bit low-key for me, but last year's Ashes and Fire LP was one of those reminders, and some days I play the nine great songs on Cold Roses and just marvel at what a singer and songwriter the North Carolina native -- now long settled in Los Angles -- can be. 

I don't have nearly the same kind of roller-coaster relationship with the work of David Menconi, the longtime Raleigh News and Observer music critic, and frequent contributor to No Depression magazine. (Since I met him at South by Southwest, years ago, I've respected him for his knowledge of the tradition and his gift for clipped, distilled phrase-making.)

Menconi was among the first journos to notice Adams, and stayed on him during his early years with Whiskeytown and then as a solo artist in North Carolina. 

Those years, and the ones that came after, are the basis of Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown, Menconi's new book. It's the kind of short, well-reported musician's bio I wish we had more of. And it's the second in the American Music Series that Menconi is editing for the University of Texas Press.

Here is our recent Q&A on Ryan Adams.

You open the book with a night where you saw Ryan play at what was practically an open-mic in 1995. What struck you about his musicianship and performing style that first night?

Even in that informal a setting, Ryan’s raw talent was obvious. Precocious, too; he looked like a little kid, but his playing, singing and songwriting already seemed fully developed. And he was also remarkably mature in terms of expressing emotion. Every song, it really did sound like he put a little slice of his heart out there. He was remarkable.

The Ryan you met that night was already conscious of being a star. It seemed important to him from an early age, didn’t it?

Absolutely. His love for the music was also obvious, and he already conveyed a sense of swagger. He wanted to be big, larger than life, to matter. Plus he was just so enthusiastic about most everything, it was impossible not to be charmed. I thought so, anyway.

“He especially liked the rock clich├ęs,” one musician and journalist said of him. How has that worked out over his career?

Way back when, that would manifest itself in Ryan adopting what one of his peers derisively called “rocker constumes” – dressing the rock-star part and carrying himself with a kind of Keith Richards vibe. During his solo era, he has spent entire albums aping his idols; “Gold” was Ryan doing a classic-rock playlist, “Rock N Roll” was him paying tribute to his new-wave favorites and so on. The results have been mixed, but he’s just so danged talented that pretty much everything he does is at least worth listening to.

How has Ryan seemed to have developed as an artist since, say, the first Whiskeytown recordings, or the beginning of his solo career with Heartbreaker?

My perspective, which I’m quite certain Ryan himself wouldn’t agree with, is that he has done his best work when he had something to say and peers to answer to. I don’t think it’s coincidental that his best record, Whiskeytown’s “Stranger’s Almanac,” was produced by a demanding taskmaster (Jim Scott) who kicked Ryan’s butt. I’m sure that was an unpleasant process, but the results were great. Ryan has done some fine work since then, but also a lot that sounds self-indulgent and unfocused. Last year’s “Ashes & Fire” was his best in years, so maybe he’s getting that focus back.

After covering him incessantly for years, you and Ryan had an odd falling out in 2001, and he’s not spoken to you since. How did that make the book harder, and how did you make up for that?

Ryan’s non-cooperation turned out to be less of an obstacle than I feared it might be. I felt like the most interesting part of his career was the Whiskeytown era, and I had voluminous archival material that I’d hung onto over the years (sometimes it pays to be a packrat). So his non-cooperation naturally moved the focus toward that period; and in some ways, I felt like it was a better book without the present-day Ryan in it. He changes his mind a lot and says numerous contradictory things, and I’m told his memories of that time aren’t terribly sharp. Anything he would have told me about those days probably would have been steeped in revisionist history.

For years it seemed like Ryan was going to either end up dead on the floor of a bar, or become bigger-than-Wilco huge. He seems less naturally suited to the middle ground, or to a hip, culty following of the kind Alejandro Escovedo or Gillian Welch have. Or is it just me?

Well, there is kind of an unrequited vibe about his career. Implosions of the band’s lineup and then the industry (the 1999 Universal/PolyGram merger) scuttled Whiskeytown’s chances; and then the record that was supposed to make him huge, 2001’s “Gold”…well, didn’t. At the same time, however, Ryan has a career that would be the envy of almost anyone. He can put out albums and sell into six figures, and play live as much as he wants while selling out 3,000-seat halls. In 2012, that’s about as good as it gets.

Tell us a bit about this American Music series you’re helming with Peter Blackstock of No Depression.

Glad you asked that! It’s being put out by University of Texas Press; and the rough thumbnail description is that if you can imagine a No Depression magazine feature about someone, then they might be a subject. Over time, we hope to broaden the subjects beyond Americana and alternative country and to have a wide array of authors. Peter and I are co-editors, and I’d liken our roles to record-company A&R people. We cast the nets among writers and artists, and bring suggested projects back to UT Press. They get final say since it’s their money, but we get a voice and a vote.

Don McLeese’s Dwight Yoakam bio was the first in the series, and Ryan is the second. Up next will be Merle Haggard by David Cantwell, and more are at various stages, including Los Lobos and the supergroup Flatlanders. I’m most excited about Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses writing about the late great Vic Chesnutt.

What do you expect is next for Ryan Adams?

Well, “Ashes & Fire” was a good step back in the right direction, and it made me hope he was back. Since then he’s spent time doing a lot of different stuff – producing his wife (singer/actress Mandy Moore), producing/playing drums in the Lemonheads, recording with deadmau5, producing D-Generation. I’m sure he’s having the time of his life, and good for him. But…I think the cause of civilization and rock ’n’ roll would be better-served by Ryan bearing down and making his own record. Maybe he will. I hope so. Despite it all, I’m still a fan.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Future of the Movies

THIS week in Salon, I interview David Denby, one of the New Yorker's film critics. We spoke about his new book, a collection of new and old essays and reviews, Do the Movies Have a Future? here.

A few years ago, I might have told you that Denby was too pessimistic and a little stodgy. I think it's clear today that his cautionary tone is warranted. In a nutshell, he's concerned that films have been reduced to corporate marketing for children and that real artistry is becoming hard to find. Movies for grownups have never had it so bad.

And this will make more sense after you've read the Q+A, but here are some bits that Salon did not have room for.

I think there’s good criticism in every genre if you know where to find it. I guess, it seems to me, that it’s bigger than that and has more to do with -- and this is true on Pitchfork as well -- popular tastes going one way and quality going another. I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know quite what happened, but I think we could -- whatever our differences in, say, musical taste -- probably agree that The Beatles, Dylan, the early Stones -- this is all stuff that has happened before I was born so  this isn’t Boomer nostalgia on my part -- was a period where a mass audience... and maybe 50s Miles Davis and some other things... where mass taste and quality were moving forward on the same track more or less. Even though, yes, some things were overlooked. Something is changed. Not just in rock and roll, but in film and perhaps in culture at large. Perhaps there is a larger cultural explanation for this. I don’t know what it is, but it feels like that’s happened in a number of different places.

Well, it’s the way the market system works. And the way people’s tastes are developed when they’re very young, and what they’re caught by. Cultivated taste in all the arts -- whether it’s literature, painting, music, film -- gets developed slowly by steps. And that’s why I said it was so important that, when you were a kid in the 50s and 60s, you were dragged to the movies by your parents. You half understood what was going on, but it aroused your curiosity. What was all of this sexual intrigue? The psychological complexity. Why was that person in a rage? It’s partly about how young people are educated into taste. I mean, very few people have naturally high-developed taste right from infancy or being aged 7 or 8. And that’s why I’m so upset that the movie business doesn’t seem to be laying the ground for grown up taste in the future. People will just drift off to television, and quite rightly, since there is all sorts of interesting and serious stuff there. It’s a calamity. Basically, the studios have attached their future to the birth rate rather than developing an audience that will go to movies in their 40s, 50s and 60s. That’s what they’re doing and I think it’s profoundly self-destructive.

I’m going to close with an old hero of yours. Pauline Kael was a mentor of yours and an undeniably brilliant person with an electrifying prose style. But she was also a critic who gradually ignored foreign films, exposed sensation for its own sake, insulted the art house audience as well as seriousness and cultivation. How does she fit into your argument?

Personally, she had an enormous affect on me and about 50 other people. She stuck a cattle prod into my side. And she changed her mind about my talents later on, which was a growing up experience that was painful, but I think, in the long run, healthy and necessary. Yes, she disliked overly controlled, formal exercises from Europe and austerity. She preferred the vitality and the mess of American popular culture to the highly controlled European art style. Although she did certainly push the young Goddard and the young Bertolucci, and she adored Kurosawa.

All influenced by American cinema, obviously.

Yeah. She adored Kurosawa, and then that influence of Kurosawa came back onto Spielberg and Lucas and many other people. But, I think, basically, your description is correct. As she grew less and less interested... For instance, she couldn’t do anything with the Germans in the 70s.

Fassbinder, she completely ignored.

Fassbinder was just, to her mind, thoroughly unappealing. And she just felt in a terrible mood everytime she saw one of those movies, so she didn’t write about them. But she didn’t really respond to Wenders or early Herzog, either. She felt... I quote some of those reviews where she felt her strength was being “sapped.” You know, her All-American energy. She was a California farm girl, she was not going to be pushed over by these European phonies. That was the persona. So, you know, I think that was wrong and some of us feel that she went too far in demanding craziness and zaniness and that she missed out on some interesting and exciting things. But all I can tell the young people is it’s great to have a mentor, and it’s great to be rejected by your mentor. Painful as that might be. Because then you’re forced to shed some of those early influences and find your own voice and interests.

I’m teaching a criticism class right now and encouraged all of the students to pick up a critic, read his or her work, do a report and get to know it. But, the next step is to transcend the influence of Dwight Macdonald or Ellen Willis or Pauline Kael or whoever it is.

You have to read everything. You have to absorb everything good. I always tell young people, “Don’t forget that your medium is words.” The artist’s medium might be music or film or digits, but your medium is words. That means you can’t just read journalism. You have to read Shakespeare. You have to read Wallace Stevens. You have to read fiction because otherwise you’re just going to fall into a kind of jog trot of journalese phrasemaking. You’re going to date yourself very quickly, and have nothing much to say. So, you’ve got to continuously freshen the language. And the people who do that are the ones who survive. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Remembering Rodney King

IT'S not often that a theater performance stops me cold. But last week's Rodney King, a one-man-show by Roger Guenveur Smith at the Bootleg Theater left me both impressed and a little shaken up at the very least.

When I moved to LA in 1997, the city seemed like a sunny, youthful, high-spirited place after a few years in New England. But underneath the good times, there was a sense that I was living on the scene of a crime, one connected to an four-century old Original Sin.

A kind of scar seemed ripped through the city  when I drove past the intersection of Florence and Normandie or along Olympic Blvd -- names I first heard in news broadcasts. Nineties LA was, for me, simultaneously hedonistic and haunted.

All this came back to me at the Bootleg the other night. I should not say anymore -- I'll add that while this was a one-man-show by most measures, the sound design and lighting were excellent and made the whole thing work, and the Bootleg is becoming one of my favorite venues in town.

I won't say anything else about his King performance, except to say that Smith was sparked to put it together by King's death on Father's Day.

I wrote about Smith here, last year. Here's hoping that several of his shows, including this powerful, painful Rodney King project, get return engagements.