Sunday, May 31, 2015

Warrior Lore: Scandinavian Folk Ballads (Ian Cumpstey)

What a thoroughly delightful book this is. Ian Cumpstey, a chemist and litterateur from the Northwest of England who spent a number of years living in Sweden, set himself the challenge in this and his earlier volume, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin: Medieval Ballads from Sweden, of conveying the energy and entertainment of medieval Scandinavian ballad poetry in vigorous, accessible, popular language. He has thoroughly succeeded in this goal.

In his Preface, Cumpstey situates these ballads at the intersection of poetry, song, storytelling, and legend. Warrior Lore focuses on fighting heroes and their memorable deeds, some of which end well, some tragically, some comically. The ballad form was (still is, to the extent that anyone wishes to exploit it) highly flexible in tone. Therefore, within an 81-page volume containing ten poems about great warriors, there is nonetheless considerable variety. 

“Widrick Waylandsson’s Fight with Long-Ben Reyser” and “Twelve Strong Fighters” are a twinned pair of fighting ballads with a vein of high-spirited comedy, which together comprise a single story. Two ballads about the young sportsman Heming find him showing off his skiing skills, thwarting a troll, getting the girl, even besting a king.

“Hilla-Lill,” “Sir Hjalmar,” and “The Cloister Raid” look at women’s tragedies within the context of a warrior culture; “The Stablemates” has a more positive romantic outcome.

Confirmed medievalists and Scandinavian enthusiasts will eat all this up. Who else? Well, this material, and the Poetic Edda that came before it, has a lineage that extends into modern pop culture on several fronts. There is a Thor ballad here, “The Hammer Hunt,” that should charm fans of the Marvel super-hero, whether those who began with the comic books in the Sixties, or followers of the more recent movies. The Thor comics were my first exposure to this legendary world, so I can speak from personal experience.

J.R.R. Tolkien was also inspired by the traditional Scandinavian corpus of poetry. One sees Aragorn’s and Faramir’s forebears everywhere in Warrior Lore. Cumpstey also includes a riddle song, “Sven Swan-White,” that irresistibly brings to mind the riddle scene between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit that has such far-reaching implications in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Riddling appears to have lost some steam as a popular activity these days, but Cumpstey reminds us why it has been traditionally and deeply enjoyed in most human cultures.

I think it is far from accidental that a rural Englishman should find this poetry congenial. English poetry has its origins in Scandinavian poetry, after all – think of Beowulf. A world of poetic adventure that has long been lost to most readers is perfectly recoverable with Ian Cumpstey’s enthusiastic assistance.

Skadi Press

Warrior Lore: Scandinavian Ballads

Lord Peter and Little Kerstin: Medieval Ballads from Sweden

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Birthday: Louis Durey (1888-1979)

Louis Durey is the least-remembered of the early 20th Century group of French composers known as Les Six, which included Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Georges Auric. A profile of Durey appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of The Musical Times, and the author, Marc Wood, especially recommended his String Quartets No. 1 (1917) ("a marvellous work that deserves to be much better known") and No. 2 (1922) (the final movement of which "allies adventurous and expressionistic harmony to increasingly fluid rhythmic development"). (There is also a third quartet, from 1928.)

Wood also identifies a number of concert works from Durey's later years - a Fantaisie-concertante for cello and orchestra from the Forties, a Concertino for piano and wind instruments from the Fifties, a Mouvement symphonique for piano and strings and a Sinfonietta for strings from the Sixties. He also mention's Durey's lone opera, the 1929 L'occasion (one act or full-length?), from a story by Prosper Merimee.

I had long been curious about Durey, and had hoped to learn more about him, so this article (unfortunately not freely available on the Web, although it is on JSTOR) was a godsend. There does not appear to be any full-length biography of Durey yet, in any language.

But such a biography would make an interesting read, not least for the light it would shed on the committed French Communist movement of which Durey was an enthusiastic member. He is rather notorious for setting poems by Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh to music. He suffered for this in terms of his "career," which was also under-powered by his non-self-promoting nature. But he never stopped composing, for films (I was interested to learn this) as well as for the concert hall.

Not all his political music is that easily pigeon-holed as extremist. For one thing, it is easy to forget that Ho initially rose up against French colonialism, which is something that Durey and many French intellectuals applauded (and I am sure I would have, too). This anti-colonialism found other expression as well, such as Durey's "powerful plea for Tunisian and Algerian independence, the Cantate a Ben-Ali of 1952, [which] was deemed subversive by the authorities and rehearsed by the choir clandestinely."

I find artists' political commitments interesting to consider, without making them a litmus test for whether I am willing to look at an artist's work. That seems silly to me. I am creatively interested in Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl, and Hans Pfitzner; I am just as interested in Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Louis Durey.

 Here is Durey's Op. 25 Sonatina for Flute and Piano:


And here is a Wind Trio (oboe, clarinet, and bassoon):

These refined pieces are really hitting the spot for me tonight! This disc of Durey songs looks appealing as well:

François Le Roux - Songs by Louis Durey

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Birthday: Al Jolson (1886-1950)

Say what you will about Al Jolson, he was one of the most whole-hearted entertainers ever, and it is that aspect of him which Mandy Patinkin astonishingly channels in this legendary clip from the Late Show with David Letterman.

The Best of Al Jolson: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection

Monday, May 25, 2015

Birthday: Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

It would be hard for me to let Theodore Roethke's birthday pass without offering a poem of his; he has meant so much to me over the years. I have taught "The Waking" to high school students, concentrating on its unusual form (a villanelle). I have found in teaching this and many other poems and lyrics that my students easily became interested in formal and metrical analysis once they were exposed to the basics; they hadn't realize that poetry is not just words you slop down on a page. They knew nothing of technique beyond a crude understanding of rhyme, but we made a lot of progress, to the point where they could scan pop song lyrics with ease.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: A Perfect Couple (dir. Robert Altman, 1979)

When I finally got around to seeing Robert Altman's for-many-years-as-good-as-lost A Perfect Couple, I was extremely impressed. It is a highly unusual piece. Altman biographer Patrick McGilligan says "There is not another movie like it in the Altman canon," and he's not kidding; there is scarcely another movie like it in anyone's canon. The closest I can think of is George Romero's also criminally underrated There's Always Vanilla, which likewise deals with the arc of a romance between "ordinary" people with no touch of Hollywood iconography about them.

A Perfect Couple is conceived in terms of a number of binaries: two families, a rigidly patriarchal Greek family and a rock music collective with its own sort of patriarch; classical music and pop music, which join hands in the climax; a "perfect couple" of two decidedly imperfect, non-glamorous people, and a near-silent "imperfect couple" of two glamour-pusses, whose path repeatedly crosses that of the perfect couple, but in ways that only the audience perceives. (In the image atop the post, the glamour-pusses are on the left, our protagonists on the right.) The perfect couple meets through a video dating service that is a direct precursor to the Internet dating services of our own day; that lends the film an oddly contemporary touch.

The rock music collective, Keeping 'Em Off the Streets, actually existed and concertized a couple of times, but failed to win a recording contract. (The movie soundtrack was preserved on Altman's own Lion's Gate label; it took me a while, but I eventually scored a copy of the LP.) As others have noted, the music is quite delightful, and rather difficult to pigeonhole, with rock, pop, jazz, and theater music elements. There are a lot of musicians, a lot of singers, even a dog just hanging around, in somewhat elaborate and rather magical spaces (courtesy of master designer Leon Ericksen), and the musical numbers seem to emerge from the ambiance. The film is very driven by the songs.

Adding to the flavor of A Perfect Couple is a remarkably casual and positive attitude toward several gay and lesbian characters, so much so that Vito Russo singled the film out in his book The Celluloid Closet as being "special" for its era in its recognition of a "happy, well-adjusted" lesbian couple as a "family."

In the lead roles, Paul Dooley is remarkably winning, and Marta Heflin has a mysterious, somewhat withdrawn quality that is overtaken forcefully in her one solo number, "Won't Somebody Care," which is also one of the great musical sequences in all of movies, if you ask me -- right up there with Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy" in Nashville.

You can listen to the music here, but I recommend seeing the film first. The songs are more fun to listen to once the visual context is in your memory bank:

POSTSCRIPT: I wrote this piece back in 2008, and the film hasn't diminished in my estimation at all. I consider it one of Altman's most cherishable and original films, showing us what Hollywood romantic comedy could be, if Hollywood romantic comedy had ambition to be anything.

A Perfect Couple

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Birthday: Iz (1959-1997)

I had no idea who Iz (Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) is until a friend came back from Hawaii with a stack of Iz CDs. I was glad to be educated: Iz, who died way too young in 1997 at age 38, is hugely important to Hawaiians. He had a delicate, poetic gift as both a singer and a ukulele player, and it is a terrible shame that he was afflicted by the morbid obesity that eventually killed him.

Facing Future (Iz)

Iz: Voice of the People (Rick Carroll)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Birthday: Pete Townshend (born 1945)

As a hard-core classical music guy, I want to pay tribute across the aisle: Pete Townshend is a very seriously under-rated composer. Take Tommy as an example: what is striking now is how of a piece with operatic history it seems, using vivid music to tell and heighten a theatrical story. Granting the work's brilliance and originality, there is nothing all that terribly radical in the approach. Townshend makes his points musically and wins his arguments musically, like Mozart, like Bizet, like Wagner, like Gilbert & Sullivan, like Schoenberg, like Gershwin, like Sondheim. In the number "Go to the Mirror!", the passage beginning "Listening to you..." strikes me as easily the equivalent of any of the other great climaxes in opera:

Tommy [3 CD/Blu-ray][Super Deluxe Edition]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Birthday: Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Dennis Hopper's career during the seemingly fallow period between that magnificent disaster The Last Movie (1971), and David Lynch's reviving his career by tapping him for Blue Velvet (1986), includes some interesting gigs: Apocalypse Now, of course, and later Rumble Fish with Coppola again; The American Friend for Wim Wenders, and some other, very obscure European films; The Osterman Weekend for Sam Peckinpah; The Other Side of the Wind for Orson Welles; O.C. and Stiggs for Robert Altman; Henry Jaglom's Vietnam vet psychodrama Tracks; another post-Vietnam oddity, The American Way aka Riders of the Storm; the Australian outlaw biopic Mad Dog Morgan; James Frawley's stoner western Kid Blue; rock star Neil Young's indie comedy Human Highway; the punk rock drama White Star; and Tim Hunter's River's Edge, which was shot around the same time as Blue Velvet. My favorite IMDB description of a Hopper film during this period is that of Silvio Narizzano's Bloodbath (1979):

Chicken [Hopper], a desperate hippie junkie living in a small Spanish village, is finding it difficult to separate fantasy and reality. This isn't helped by the villagers practising magic and child sacrifice, or his involvement with a group of boozy ex-patriots lost in their own dreams and regrets.

An IMDB commenter adds, "Hopper as Chicken hallucinates frequently, mumbles, rambles, freaks out, shoots up, makes love, quotes Hassan I Sabbah, and terrorises a poor girl by breaking a raw egg in her face and making her sing 'Shortening Bread.' Yup, it's that good."

Hopper's one shot at directing at this time came about by accident, when the original director of Out of the Blue, Leonard Yakir, was fired early in the shoot, and Hopper, on location as an actor in the production, was able to step in. Naturally, he rewrote the whole script.

After a 1983 screening of Out of the Blue in Houston, an inebriated Hopper transported the audience by school buses to a local speedway where he performed and somehow survived the "Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act." There is footage of this, that includes Terry Southern and Wim Wenders who were on hand for the excitement. (Apparently a young Richard Linklater was there too.)

The detail about the school buses is reminiscent of Andy Kaufman's famous use of 20 buses to take the audience for his April, 1979 Carnegie Hall show out for milk and cookies afterwards. I can't help but think that the violent nature of this Hopper Happening must have been an inspiration to the Jackass crew. Hopper expressed pride that he didn't shit his pants during the stunt.

So one thing that you cannot say about Dennis Hopper in this time-frame is that he ceased to be counter-cultural; he kept it up longer than most, and was kind of a go-to guy for crazy projects.


Out Of The Blue

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Birthday: Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980)

I discovered this Polish-born Art Deco painter around 2009, which meant that I was way behind Madonna, who had been "a huge fan and collector of her work" for years, according to Wikipedia. (Madonna and I share bio-rhythms, I'll have you know; I was born on August 15, 1958, she was born on August 16, 1958.) Lempicka, who was bisexual and not shy about it, led an interesting life and was on familiar terms with such as Picasso, Gide, O'Keeffe, Colette, de Kooning, and Cocteau. She has an immediately identifiable style as a painter, "clean, precise, and elegant" as the useful Wikipedia entry rightly states. I'll say more: her paintings are hot-- as in, incredibly sexy. Catch this:

It's called Adam and Eve, and it can certainly make you understand how the human race got going. I'm more qualified to speak about the male figure, which is one of the most erotic I've seen in mainstream art, but both are wows. The story goes that Lempicka, in France at the time, was looking for a male model for Adam, and, in her own words (courtesy of Edward Lucie-Smith's excellent Art Deco Painting):

In the street nearby I saw a gendarme, a policeman on his beat. He was young, he was handsome. I said to him: "Monsieur, I am an artist and I need a model for my painting. Would you pose for me?" And he said, "Of course, Madame, I am myself an artist. At what time do you require me?" We made arrangements. He came to my studio after work and said: "How shall I pose?" "In the nude." He took off his things and folded them neatly on a chair, placing his big revolver on the top.

"Big revolver" - my goodness.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Books: Offbeat Travel Books

The ideas for these two excellent books with Lost in the title are marvelous and original -- not an easy accomplishment in an age of exponentially proliferating travel books!

Daniel Kalder's brashly funny Lost Cosmonaut explores some (there are lots) of the obscure republics of Soviet Europe: Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, and Udmurtia. The surface of Kalder's narrative is "disrespectful" and politically incorrect, which some readers might dislike, but I feel that one level deeper he actually conveys an existential empathy with his destinations that is, as he aptly puts it, "anti-touristic":

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable...The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings...The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year...The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art...The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

And of disorientation, Kalder provides a-plenty.

Riccardo Orizio's Lost White Tribes is also thoroughly disorienting, taking on as it does the rich subject of colonial "left behinds," stragglers of history who never returned to their homelands. We get pockets of Dutch in Sri Lanka and Namibia, ex-Southern Confederates in Brazil (where slavery was legal until 1888, 23 years after the War between the States ended), French in Guadeloupe, Germans in Jamaica, and Poles in Haiti. These remnants are themselves disoriented, probably permanently. Some have become inbred; they are largely poor; most pine for a "golden" past they can never know; their relations with both their countries of residence and of origin are tenuous at best.

POSTSCRIPT: I first published this little note in 2008. Both books have remained robustly alive in my memory. Daniel Kalder's follow-up volume Strange Telescopes is also excellent.

Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist

Lost White Tribes: The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadeloupe

Strange Telescopes

Birthday: Robert Zemeckis (born 1952)

Although I'm not that keen on how the Robert Zemeckis's career has gone since Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I still think his second feature as a writer-director, Used Cars, is one of the best and funniest of all American film comedies. The screenplay, which he co-wrote with Bob Gale, is an intricate contraption in which every seemingly stray line and visual bit pays off, and the execution is supremely high-spirited. Most fans' favorite scene, for good reason, is the last in a series of increasingly outrageous pirate car commercials. "Look out, Marshall Lucky, it's High Prices!"

Used Cars

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Birthday: Alan Ball (born 1957)

The title of Alan Ball's famous screenplay, American Beauty, refers, of course, to the roses that we see Annette Bening gardening in the opening scene (and that continue as a visual motif throughout the film). But there is considerably more to the reference than that; and I haven't seen this pointed out very often (it shows up in the film's Spanish Wikipedia entry, though). At the turn of the century, when the great journalist Ida Tarbell was investigating John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company, Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., let loose a metaphor for which he was never forgiven in a speech at Brown University: “The American Beauty rose can be produced in its splendor and fragrance only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.”

Of course, the theme of "success" is a large part of what American Beauty is about. It is scarcely a reach to see Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham as one of the "early buds" sacrificed to the "splendor and fragrance" of capitalism; while Bening's Carolyn Burnham never surrenders her devotion to the ideal ("See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident"), and is further schooled in it by master Realtor Buddy Kane ("In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times"). The variations that Ball works on this theme are lush. Although American Beauty has never been the most popular film with the cinematic intelligentsia, I think it's a stunning piece of work. I've got to assume that Ball knew about the Rockefeller connection, because if not, the serendipity involved beggars belief.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Hell's Half Acre (dir. John H. Auer, 1954)

Director John H. Auer, screenwriter Steve Fisher, and cinematographer John L. Russell (Hitchcock's DP on Psycho) make a good creative team on this underrated Hawaiian noir, which has many points of interest:

Gender -- The two key women in the film, Evelyn Keyes and Elsa Lanchester (playing one of her patented flakeroos), are exceptionally proactive and form an instant collaborative sisterhood. You only see that occasionally in movies of the era. A good comparison is the pairing of Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window (which Wendell Corey made back-to-back with this film).

Race -- Hawaii has long been one of the most poly-racial places on earth, and that is reflected and indeed openly discussed in Hell's Half Acre (Keye Luke's police chief gently suggests that all Orientals might look alike to Keyes). We learn through the dialogue that Corey's girlfriend Nancy Gates is mixed-race; Korean-American actor Philip Ahn (below) is romantically paired with Marie Windsor; Eurasian actor Leonard Strong (so creepy as "The Hitch-Hiker" in the classic Twilight Zone episode) plays a key supporting role. There was a growing fascination in the Fifties with Eurasians and mixed white-Asian romances: think The King and I, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, The World of Suzy Wong, House of Bamboo. This sociological development was inevitable after World War II, the American occupation of Japan, and the Korean War, and it is strongly evidenced in Hell's Half Acre.

Wendell Corey -- Corey, with his ordinary guy looks, seldom got to play lead roles, and is effective here as "Chet Chester," a nightclub owner, racketeer, and part-time pop composer, precisely because of that ordinary quality. (By the way, I love the Chet Chester composition "Polynesian Rhapsody," one of those overblown spoken-word pop suites that were the rage at the time. It actually plays an important part in the plot.)

Location filming -- I am a sucker for location filming. Hell's Half Acre uses its Hawaiian locations well, and in that respect is a worthy precursor of the television series Hawaii Five-O. As with the series, it highlights the seamy rather than the picturesque side of Hawaii. The "hell's half acre" of the title is a Honolulu tenement district with "300 ways in, and 400 ways out," and the film-makers went right into the old A'ala neighborhood to shoot: You can tell that those rickety wooden structures are not sets.

Because there was no law against prostitution at that time, there were many houses of ill repute in the A'ala, Hotel Street and Chinatown areas. The sale of illegal black-market liquor to servicemen also flourished, with some of them also beaten and robbed in back alleys. The substandard living conditions that were particular to these areas of the city also were portrayed in the movie, with some of the scenes actually filmed on location in the A'ala Street area.

The end of the war also brought an unparalleled boom to the A'ala district as elsewhere, with the night life especially enjoyed by many. Huge crowds attended Japanese movies, several dance halls sprouted and other night businesses in the area later years, the beloved A'ala district...[was] finally demolished for modern housing and development. Only fond memories remain today of what was once a busy and bustling area of the city.

Edginess -- Hell's Half Acre is pretty pulpy. Movies were starting to push up against the boundaries of the Hays Code at that time. This film features not just "miscegenation," specifically forbidden by the Code, but also the drugging and beating of women, and a quite nasty attempted rape. It's really a little scuzzy!


Denouement -- But perhaps the most unusual plot element in Hell's Half Acre is that Corey commits suicide at the end by setting up his own ambush. Granted that this might be considered his comeuppance for earlier criminal activity, and that his removing himself from the scene guarantees that his son will never know that his dad was a minor crime lord and not, as he thinks, a war hero; still, it caught my attention as an envelope-pusher. Are there other noir films in which a key character unmistakably commits suicide? I can think of Val Lewton's and Mark Robson's off-genre noir The Seventh Victim, with its double suicide ending (and I still don't know how they got away with that). What else?

POSTSCRIPT: After I first published this in an earlier blog in 2011, a correspondent at The Blackboard pointed out that Van Heflin stages his own death in Act of Violence. I should have thought of that one, and indeed, it is a very similar situation: the protagonist is not who he seems to be, his identity shift is related to what happened during World War II, and he comes to grief over it. (Don Draper's dual identity in Mad Men, also war-derived, has a pedigree in noir.)

Hell's Half Acre

Birthday: Eric Burdon (born 1941)

Eric Burdon turns 74 today - I can't even process that. I love this picture of him, impossibly young, slightly surly and incredibly smart, with that challenging stare (and with book in hand!). In my high school teaching career, I've had students like this, and they are among my all-time favorites. If you can already see through the B.S. as a teenager, you're way ahead of the game. Many adults never get to that point.

Like so many British rockers of the Sixties, Eric Burdon attended art school, the Newcastle College of Art specifically, where he studied graphics and photography and formed his first band. More is waiting to be written about the rock music / art school connection, although Simon Frith and Howard Horne made a start on this with their short (and sadly out-of-print) 1988 volume Art into Pop. Camille Paglia has pointed out that attending art school exposed great future musicians to intellectual influences directly, instead of at two or three removes.

Here are some of the more famous art school attendees (and I'm leaving out many more obscure ones):

John Lennon (Liverpool College of Art)
Keith Richards (Sidcup Art College)
Pete Townshend (Ealing Art College)
Ronnie Wood (Ealing Art College)
Freddie Mercury (Ealing Art College)
Ian Dury (Walthamstow College of Art, Royal College of Art)
Syd Barrett (Cambridge Technical College Art Department)
Bryan Ferry (University of Newcastle upon Tyne Art Department)
David Bowie (Bromley School of Art)
Eric Clapton (Kingston College of Art)
Sandy Denny (Kingston College of Art)
Ray Davies (Hornsey College of Art)
Jeff Beck (Wimbledon College of Art)
Jimmy Page (Sutton Art College)
Brian Eno (Colchester Institute Art Department)

Simon Frith has written:

One of the most obvious sociological characteristics of British rock musicians, particularly of those who emerged in the classic 1960s period, is an art-school background.

James M. Curtis adds:

The art school in England is an institution designed to prepare kids to go into advertising and the like. But in the early sixties it was more than a mere vocational school; it was a lively place tolerant of nonconformity...It was at least in part because of his art school background that John Lennon was so receptive to Yoko's dada and minimalist ideas.

American rock musicians generally did not follow a similar path, and thus tended to be less intellectual and culturally aware than their British counterparts. Jim Morrison is an exception: he began his self-cultivation early, and actually took a class on Antonin Artaud at UCLA. Kurt Cobain had intellectual intuitions, and would have been a natural for art school in the right time and place - but he lacked sustained exposure to the world of ideas, which I believe would have greatly benefited him.

Here is Eric Burdon with one of the early line-ups of The Animals -- if you can keep track of who played in this band when, you're better than I am -- singing "We Gotta Get Out of This Place":

The Best Of Eric Burdon & The Animals, 1966-1968

Art into Pop (Simon Frith / Howard Horne)

Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984 (James M. Curtis)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Birthday: Chris Berman (born 1955)

You have to hand it to ESPN's Chris Berman, who turns 60 today: not only does he have an entire category of phraseology named after him -- "Bermanisms" (Bert "Be Home" Blyleven, Mike "Nova" Scioscia, Jose "Can You See" Canseco) -- but he is also responsible for the now immortal pick-up line "You're with me, leather," which he does not deny using, but whose notoriety clearly annoys him. The master of catch-phrases, hoist by a catch-phrase he never intended for circulation! Something karmic about that.

"Separated at Birth" Department: Is it me, or are Berman and Mike Huckabee looking more alike by the minute? In the face and in the waist.

Chrisnames: An Illustrated Guide to Chris Berman's Unique Characterizations of Sports Personalities

Bill Simmons

I was talking to my good friend Edmund about ESPN's firing of Bill Simmons, which I was not on top of. Edmund was, and sent me this link:

Inside the Shocking, Abrupt Divorce of Bill Simmons and ESPN

What strikes me is this:

ESPN will still own intellectual properties like Grantland and the wildly popular podcast, the B.S. Report.

​As big as Simmons was, and undoubtedly will be - let me put this in the manner of James Franco's fantastic character in Spring Breakers -

He didn't own his shee-it! He D-I-D-N-'T O-W-N his shee-it!

It really makes me think. Simmons, albeit somewhat full of himself, is very talented, and Grantland is a great website. But now Grantland isn't his anymore, and if he started a new, similar website that he does own, he would still be in competition with the sweat he expended in making Grantland what it is. That would have to hurt.

This is the new frontier for talent, especially because of the aggressive middlemen (Mark Zuckerberg, for example) in today's media climate: You've got to own your own material. I'll bet Simmons is KICKING himself now. 

The opposite approach is well-evidenced by thriller writer J.A. Konrath, the King of Self-Publication, who is passionate on this subject. Konrath has benefited greatly by maintaining complete control over his creative output. He is not as rich as Stephen King (who is?), but he does damn well.

Like Konrath, Simmons started in a small-guy-self-promoting vein, with his website back in the late Nineties. But it wasn't too long before he got swept up in Big Media, where he retained his persona but ultimately not his control, as last week's firing underlines. 

Could Simmons have been big without ESPN? As big, probably not. But somewhat big, yes, certainly.

The thing is, though, that to a particular type of sports-and-pop-culture junkie like Simmons, the lure of the "big time" is irresistible. Catch this episode of The B.S. Report conducted at SXSW in Austin, with Jimmy Kimmel as the guest:

That is SO celebrity "inside baseball," calculated to make the viewer feel that he is hanging out with famous guys who hang out with other famous guys. It reminds me of Richard Schickel's acute perception in his book Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, that one of the chief perks of fame is access to other famous people.

For Simmons, that access is like oxygen. Of course, he'll still have it. I'm sure he'll find his way, but getting embarrassed publicly by ESPN has to be counted as a major setback.

I don't mean to rip on the podcast, exactly. It's diverting, and Jimmy Kimmel is by far my favorite of the current crop of television late-night hosts.

But the podcast does model the world-view that Simmons and Kimmel and indeed ESPN share, which is well summed-up in the title of James Andrew Miller's and Tom Shales' history of ESPN: These Guys Have All the Fun.

This world-view isn't as loose and free as it looks. It is very strict, in fact, about which subjects are on the table and which are off. You can talk about Britney Spears and The Bachelor and even some talent agent that most in the audience have never heard of, as long as he vaguely brings Jeremy Piven in Entourage to mind. You don't talk about Thomas Piketty or Michael Tilson Thomas or who won the Pritzker Prize. That's not stuff that a "guy guy" thinks about.

This restrictiveness, and the sycophancy about fame (it can't be considered anything else), are pretty oppressive when you come right down to it, and that's why I have to have somewhat conflicted feelings about figures like Bill Simmons (or Kimmel or Jim Rome, whom I like better than Simmons).

More on the Simmons / ESPN break-up here:

ESPN Is Splitting with Bill Simmons

This Deadspin piece from last September lays out the build-up to what has now happened. The comments are interesting too:

The Sports Guy vs. ESPN: How Bill Simmons Lost Bristol

The usual book links:

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

Now I Can Die in Peace: How The Sports Guy Found Salvation Thanks to the World Champion (Twice!) Red Sox