Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Story of Chess Records (1998)by John Collis

Leonard Chess

Book Review
The Story of Chess Records (1998)
by John Collis
Bloomsbury Publishing

   A few years back I read the excellent book, Record Makers and Record Breakers: Voices of Independent Rock n' Roll Pioneers by John Broven (University of Illinois Press, 2009.)  That review has garnered a surprising number of page views, 1719 to date, putting it in the top 20 or so posts of all times in terms of views.  I remember at the time thinking I should review more books about classic rock and roll labels from the 50s and 60s, but there is a lot of expensive, mediocre material out there, and I basically abandoned the area until recently, when I revisited some of my Amazon Wish List titles from that time period, and found The Story of Chess Records on the shelf at the San Diego Central Library.
Muddy Waters

   The most recent piece of culture that focused on "the Chess Records story" was the thinly veiled Cadillac Records, with Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, which literally was the Chess Records story under a different name.  Today Chess Records is known for three things:

1.  The label that broke Muddy Waters and played a huge part on the pre-rock and roll era with their Chicago area "electric blues" records.
2.  The label that, along with Sun Records and Modern Records, essentially invented rock and roll, with Chuck Berry being the stand out artist.
3. Ripping off their artists by not paying appropriate royalties.

  I'm sympathetic to Leonard Chess on the payment of royalties- as I've pointed out on this blog before, very often successful artists end up subsidizing the less successful artists simply because of the limited resources of most independent labels- robbing Peter to pay Paul, or to pay for the manufacture and distribution of Paul's records, more like.

 Muddy Waters isn't my taste, and neither are his noted English imitators like the Rolling Stones, but it is interesting how the Stones managed to revive interest in Waters, a forgotten man in the music business prior to the British Invasion by a series of bands who worshipped the Blues.
Chuck Berry
   Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was an interesting dude, but since this is the Story of Chess Records and not the story of Chuck Berry, the reader gets very few deals of Berry's very interesting personal life.

   On the balance, the most interesting part of this book are the numerous rare photographs and gig posters that immerse the reader in the look and feel of the glory days of 1950s-1960s independent music.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Testament of Youth (1933) by Vera Brittain

Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain in the 1979 BBC2 mini-series version of Testament of Youth.

Book Review
Testament of Youth (1933)
by Vera Brittain

  This is the first volume of Vera Brittain's three volume auto-biography, covering the period between 1900-1925.  Notably, it gives a first hand account of Brittain's work as a nurse during World War I, where she was stationed during some of the heaviest fighting.  She lost her fiance, brother and cousin in the course of the fighting, and her memoir is also significant in terms of her experience as a woman who began pursuing her degree at Oxford University even before the start of World War I.

  In addition to the vital first hand testimony about the horrors of war, Brittain conveys the actual change in mindset among the young before and after the war.  This shift in attitude, which is often described in terms of "the Lost Generation" is well represented by Brittain both in terms of her material and her position as a well-to-do early feminist living in London after the war.

  I think any reader facing the prospect on whether to engage a 650 page auto-biography about a World War I nurse is going to ask him or herself whether the time investment is "worth it."  I would yes, for the female perspective, for the value of Brittain as an insider the post World War I English literary scene (she wouldn't call herself that.)  Can one really read too much about World War I?  Testament of Youth, published a full fifteen years AFTER the cessesation of hostilities, is still grappling with questions that remained unresolved for decades afterwards.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Invention of Tradition (1983) Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

The modern kilt was an early 18th century invention, by an Englishman no less.

Book Review
The Invention of Tradition
 Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger
Canto Edition 1992
Cambridge University Press
book cover showing how the highland "Scots" dressed in the 16th century.
      I watched the recent independence vote in Scotland with interest (I was pro-Union, anti-Independence) and it was a good cue to revisit my Amazon Wish List Titles and read The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hosbawm and Terence Ranger, which contains a key chapter on the explicit English involvement of many of the trappings of so-called Scottish Nationhood in the 18th century.  The chapter in question is called The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland, and it concerns the integration of a previously Irish/Celtic highland ethnicity into the greater Scottish nation.  And although I don't normally take the approach on this blog of presenting lengthy recapitulations/descriptions of the material I've read, I think it is worth abandoning that habit where The Invention of Tradition is concerned, since the Scottish vote is so recent in memory, and since the "Yes" votes are like an echo of the 18th century creation of the Scottish national tradition, which itself intimately involved the English, also involved the relegation of a brother Celtic culture in favor of the Scottish identity, and, I would argue, would tend to show up the very idea of an independent Scotland as an example of "false consciousness," or at the very least a manipulation of the sentiments of the less educated by a local elite with much at stake in terms of personal gain.

   Hugh Trevor-Roper, the author of the Highland Tradition of Scotland chapter starts with the state of play before the invention of a highland culture,

      "Before the later years of the seventeenth century, the Highlanders of Scotland did not form a distinct people.  They were simply the overflow of Ireland.  On that broken and inhospitable coast, in that archipelago of islands large and small, the sea unites rather than divides and from the late fifth century, when the Scots of Ulster landed in Argyll, until the mid-eighteenth century, when it was 'opened up' after the Jacobite revolts, the West of Scotland, cut off by mountains from the East, was always linked rather to Ireland than to the Saxon Lowlands.  Racially and culturally, it was a colony of Ireland."

   You can't get more explicit than that.  Further:

   "Being a cultural dependency of Ireland under the 'foreign', and somewhat ineffective, rule of the Scottish crown, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were culturally depressed.  Their literature, such as it was, was a crude echo of Irish literature."

   Trevor-Roper describes a three step process: the cultural revolt against Ireland, the artificial creation of new Highland tradition and finally, the offering to and adoption of these new traditions by the people concerned.    This first part is very much part of the story of the Novel and 18th century British literature, specifically the famous Ossian forgery that created a fake epic poetic history of native Highland Scots.  The fact that the Ossian epic was eventually exposed was no matter, for it got the ball rolling and eventually led to the pioneering work of Sir Walter Scott, a Scot with strong English ties, who blew the door wide open on the so-called Scottish highland tradition and essentially created a national mythology out of whole-cloth.

  This literary invention was matched by the creation of the Highland tartan by Thomas Rawlinson, a member of well established English Quaker family.  In 1727, he made an agreement with a local Scottish chieftain to lease a wooded area and operate a furnace to create charcoal for industrial operations on the north of England.  While he was there, he became interested in the Scottish costume as it related to the efficiency of his own workers, who wore a "belted plaid" that was inconvenient for work in and around the furnace.  He used an English tailor to create the "felid beg," phlbeg, or "small kilt", which was achieved by separating the skirt from the plaid and converting it into a distinct garment, with pleats already sewn.  Rawlinison himself wore this new garment, and his example was followed by his Scottish associate, Ian MacDonnell of Glengarry.  After that, the clansmen, as always, obediently followed their chief and was promptly adopted by the rest of Highland Scotland.

  This transmission of an invented tradition from top of the social scale to bottom is repeated in many of the others chapters in this book.  Everywhere, the motivation is to inspire nationalist fervor in populations who previously lacked such an attitude.   Considering the detrimental impact of Nationalism on the course of history in the last several hundred years, it is important to understand the role tradition plays in supporting the acts of political and economic elites, and the way such traditions are consciously  created by those elites for a variety of purposes, benign and otherwise.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Show Review: Newcastle Bartender Gigs w/ Real Estate

Newcastle Bartender Gigs have featured Titus Andronichus, Bleached and Real Estate

Show Review:
Newcastle Bartender Gigs
w/ Real Estate
The Casbah San Diego, CA.
Real Estate the band played Newcastle Bartender Gigs with Real Estate

  If you deal with marketing types, you may be aware of the term "activation event."   To my understanding, an activation event is something where an advertiser provides some form of entertainment, often a band, for free, in exchange for consumer information, typically an email address, with the ancillary goals of engaging the participants in social media activities on platforms like Facebook (page likes), Twitter and Instagram.  I have gone to events where I have been provided with the correct hashtag in advance, along with confirmation of the RSVP.

 The show at the Casbah last night was a good example of an activation event, with Real Estate as the free entertainment AND, most importantly, free Newcastle Brown Ale AND Newcastle Werewolf Red AND swag type stuff such as high quality bottle openers and easily liftable Newcastle branded goblets- sorry if I wasn't supposed to take those but my girlfriend is a big Newcastle fan!

  In a sense, I'm on the front lines of this activity, albeit without being directly involved in throwing any such events.  I hear about them a lot- proposals mostly, and I attend a fair amount of them.  I say all this as preamble just as a way of introducing my opinion that Newcastle Bartender Gigs are a good example of the species, and that I enjoyed going to the San Diego version of this event.   My online research revealed that other editions have featured Bleached in Los Angeles and Titus Andronicus in New York City.  So clearly, whoever is booking these events knows their shit around indie bands in the United States.

  The venue branding was intense- there was a full size banner on the wall of the venue facing the smoking patio.  In the back bar, every available surface of the area behind the bar was covered with Newcastle Brown Ale towels.  Newcastle set up a third bar inside the Courtyard itself, all the more to dispense free Newcastle Brown ale and Red (Ale?) Newcastle was also giving away large bags of chocolate covered caramel corn, which was delicious but not a good combination with Newcastle Brown Ale, so there was some tension there.

  Personally, I would have liked to see some high quality t-shirts for the ladies- seems like that if you just make a bunch of small and medium women's shirts, you will be getting some good "word of mouth" out of that shirt, if you know what I mean.  What I mean is that guys stare at pretty girls.

  It seems impossible that this would have been the first time I'd seen Real Estate, though I can't find a prior show review nor actually remember seeing them at... Soda Bar?  I want to say I've seen Real Estate before.  I knew going in that they aren't dynamic live and they are really not- just some guys with a bookishly cute lead singer banging out swirly psychedelic guitars and emotionally astute lyrics like there is no tomorrow.  I say this with the very utmost respect, but it must be said that Real Estate are boring life.  Not that it matters to a band that is so eminently listenable.  This is precisely the kind of music that people want to hear:  Mild, mellow, virtuosic, non-threatening.  Maybe there was a time when I resented such music and its fans, but clearly bands like Real Estate are the winners, and it is the bands that try challenging their Audience that fail in the long run (there are exceptions of course.)

  Real Estate have done an excellent job of building their Audience size without compromising their image as a band routed in the legitimate DIY indie world.   Merely reviewing their number of average weekly listeners on Last.FM is sufficient to confirm their status as a top tier indie rock band.  No cross over yet, but surely commercial radio airplay and major festival action is on the horizon for the next LP.  I don't believe Real Estate will ever wow fans with the life show, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter for them because the songs and execution is so strong.

  Didn't recognize anyone in the crowd except the people I was there with and SD Dialed In Rosey.  I guess I don't go out much in San Diego these days, but it wasn't a real scene type San Diego show.  Good job Newcastle Bartender Gigs- it was a fun event!

The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in the 2013 movie version by Baz Luhrmann.

Book Review
The Great Gatsby (1925)
 by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    This is a book that I always expected I would read in school, and yet somehow it never happened. I never saw the 1974 film version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and I certainly never saw any of the three other filmed versions made before that one.  And then, in early 2013 or whenever I saw a poster for the Baz Luhrmann movie and I was like, "Fuck, I haven't read this book, and I should have read it, and now this ridiculous fucking Baz Luhrmann version is going to be the indelible image that I have of it."   So I was like, "OK, well I won't watch it, and eventually I'll get around to reading it, and then I can go back and watch it."  And then I fucking watched it on HBO or some shit, like DVR-ed it, and then fast forwarded to the point where watching the whole fuck fest took about 30 minutes.
Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby in the 1974 filmed version of F. Scott Fitzgeralds 1925 novel.
     And then I'm reading through the 1920s as part of the 1001 Books Project, and there is no free ebook, and not even the fucking library has a copy in, because they only have a single copy and it is always checked out, of course.  So I fucking buy a used copy on Amazon for a penny and it is literally the most marked up, highlighted version you could possibly ever see.  Like this high school girl inscribed her name on the inside cover, she wrote her last name in black marker on both the top and side of the closed book.  She had a SIX COLOR highlighting scheme, took a dozen notes on each page, and wrote little chapter summaries at the end of the first three chapters.  Unlike many students, she kept it all the way up till the end, and though I would presumably be annoyed at having to read such a marked up copy, I couldn't help but admire the amount of effort this young woman put into reading The Great Gatsby.  So Lyndsey Lafitte, if you are out there, Googling yourself- fucking amazing job, and if you want your copy of The Great Gatsby back, I will gladly send it to you.
Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
 Mind you, for all the popularity and success of The Great Gatsby it's still only 170 pages soaking wet, more a novella than a novel by the standards of the 1001 Books project.  It's also one of those books where the popular success has transcended and eclipsed the actual text- similar to what is described by the ascent of Jane Austen in The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott by Annika Bautz. In that book, Bautz succicently  describes the fact that in the late 20th/early 21st century, "liking" Jane Austen and her characters is possible without ever reading one of the books, and the knowledge that these fans have of the underlying work and Artist is somewhere between minimal and non-existent.  This is not a bad thing, just a fact, and a testament to the enduring success of Jane Austen and her work.   Passing from an actual work of art into the collective consciousness of an entire society must be one of the highest accomplishments a specific work of art can achieve, and it is fair to say that any art work that does so is worth detailed attention.
Cary Mulligan was terrible as Daisy Buchanan in the 2013 Baz Luhrmann movie version of The Great Gatsby, but it probably wasn't her fault.
    Considering how profoundly unlikeable the characters of The Great Gatsby are, its unarguably transcendent status is all the more impressive.   Fitzgerald constructs his narrative out of the thinnest filaments:  a detached narrator participant interspersed with a third person narrator who steps in when the narrator/participant is unavailable.  It is a neat little trick, and I'm sure that Fitzgerald wasn't the first to do so, but the way he does it in under 200 pages without the reader even being cognizant of it, is a testament to his skill as a novelist and a concrete reason for why this book is so popular.
Alan Ladd played Jay Gatsby

  Another attribute to account for the resonance of The Great Gatsby is his mastery of the "Horatio Alger" rags-to-riches myth.  It is an irony that The Great Gatsby, which is of course a cruel parody of the original idea of the man from nowhere making a fortune, is now better known for that principle than the Horatio Alger stories themselves, which are never read.  The Great Gatsby is both a book that emulates the broad, simple outlines of non-critical booster type literature while savagely critiquing it.  The double success seems to be something common to transcendent works of art that permeate the popular consciousness.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Glass Key (1931) by Dashiell Hammett

One of two movie versions of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett, this one starring Veronica Lake

Book Review
The Glass Key (1931)
by Dashiell Hammett

  Dashiell Hammett is one of those authors, like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, who have been so wholly absorbed into popular culture that they cease to exist as independent works of literature.  Dashiell Hammett did not invent crime fiction, indeed, crime fiction went back to 18th century penny dreadfuls and crime played a prominent part in early 18th century novels like Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. But Hammett essentially elevated the genre of "Hard boiled crime fiction" from something thought as genre fiction to serious art.  Of course, the effect of his work WITHIN the genre was significant as well, patterning multiple generation of books, films and television series.

  Unlike Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key lacks a specific geographic location to serve as a focal point for the action.  Instea, The Glass Key takes place in a nameless American city.  This gives The Glass Key an abstract quality that is lacking in the more concrete Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon.  At times, the dissociative quality of a nameless location and machiavellian manipulations in the course of the plot give The Glass Key an experimental quality, or perhaps a Platonic quality- the perfection of the form without the distraction of San Francisco.

   Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key all share a fascination with corruption, power and wealth. Dashiell Hammett is very much an example of an artist who was both popular and critically acclaimed, and he has endured as a result of this combination, staying in print, and inspiring classic work in other artforms, particularly film.

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