Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Show Review: Ryan Adams @ The Wiltern Los Angeles, CA.

Ryan Adams

Show Review: Ryan Adams
 @ The Wiltern Los Angeles, CA.

    It is a stereotype of Southern California life that any discussion between two people there begins with a biblical style recounting of the driving route taken to get there, "I got on Fountain, then took the 101 South to the 10 West to the 405 and got off on Santa Monica Blvd.")  That experience is slowly being eclipsed by the Uber/Waze narrative, with the narrator discussing particulars of the driver (in the Uber scenario) or particular details of the route (for Waze) instead of just giving a blow-by-blow detailing of the route itself.   I'm more of a Waze guy than Uber, since I don't typically drink when I'm out, and driving to The Wiltern, located in the center of Los Angeles, from Silver Lake, located on the East side of Los Angeles, is kind of Waze proving ground because it's all surface streets.

  Since I started using Waze to drive to the area around the Wiltern  (Koreatown.) I've notice improvements.  For example, Waze used to have a nasty habit of popping you out onto an unregulated intersection from a side street- forcing perilous crossings and turns without the protection of a signal or stop sign.  I've noticed a firm decrease in this kind of behavior from Waze, now you tend to top out of side streets with signals regulating the intersection.

  By no means a fan of Ryan Adams, or even vaguely familiar with his catalog, I was none the less interested in seeing his live show.  He has an eccentric, unpredictable reputation particularly in the department of his live show and generally seems to embody the character of a capital R romantic artist down to his inner ear issues that give him problems with flash photography and stage lighting, to his Hollywood actress wife Mandy Moore who he won't talk about in interviews, to his robust lack of radio hits since the post 9/11 success of New York, New York.  He's positively a modern day Lord Byron or Percy Shelly.

  For all the drama, last nights show sounded about as unpredictable as a Beach Boys concert, with Adams reliably delivering a mix or classics and new jams with the cold blood of someone trying to demonstrate reliability to a larger audience of music industry and Hollywood types.  His new songs (identified to me by my girlfriend) were pleasing jammy country rock numbers and then the old songs featured new arrangements that typically included steel guitar and/or extended guitar solos.

  Mostly, it sounds like Ryan Adams has been smoking weed in the Hollywood hills and listening to Tom Petty and Eagles records, and it is hard to imagine that he has crafted a sound like that in any way other than it being a simple mirror of his inner life, so songs about heartbreak aside, it seems like Ryan Adams must be in a pretty good place emotionally.

  Currently ranking #389 on the top 500 artist chart (without the plays attributable to Whiskeytown or Ryan Adams and the Cardinals), it isn't  hard to contemplate a Ryan Adams renaissance: sunset set times at major American and European festivals, tv appearances, etc.)  The new record did debut at #4 on the Billboard chart when it was released late this year.

  On the other hand, Ryan Adams has also been doing things like producing the last Fall Out Boy record and of course, Jenny Lewis' Voyager LP.  Lewis came out for a single song last night, but last week they did a joint show together, so that is firm evidence of Adams being invested in Lewis' career beyond making the record.  Producing a Fall Out Boy record is not something undertaken unless one has a clear sense of professionalism and presumably desire for a pay check.  Last nights workmanlike performance can perhaps be further interpreted of Adams desire to establish a reliable persona within the music industry, and undo his top line biography as a willfully eccentric and somewhat self destructive capital A artist.

Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was the obvious inspiration for Nicole Divers, the wife in Tender is the Night(1934.)  The character Nicole is institutionalized in Switzerland when Dick Divers meets her, Zelda Fitzgerald was institutionalized in Maryland while F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night.

Book Review
Tender is the Night (1934)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  Tender is the Night is the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver and his marriage and divorce from the fabulously young and fabulously "crazy" Nicole.  Generations of scholars have pointed to Tender is the Night as ALSO being about the rise and fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote Tender is the Night while his fabulously young and fabulously "crazy" wife Zelda Fitzgerald was institutionalized for schizophrenia for a couple years in the early 1930s.  I believe it is fair to observe that Tender is the Night hasn't aged particularly well for reasons to related its un-politically correct treatment of women and mental illness, but as a similarly aged male who has also experienced a divorce after a marriage of roughly a decade, it's hard for me to simply turn my back on this book and say, "Don't bother."

 After all, is F. Scott Fitzgerald not a major American novelist?  Whether you agree is likely to depend on how you feel about the role of hits in establishing an artistic legacy.  If you are OK with hits being the defining measure of artistic greatness, than The Great Gatsby is likely, by itself, to secure a spot of Fitzgerald in any canon of 20th century novelists.

  If however you are someone who champions the "avant garde" or likes high modernist authors like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, you would probably rank Fitzgerald as second class, and you might use Tender is the Night as Exhibit "A" in your argument, if you don't outright call him a "one hit wonder" and disregard him on those grounds alone.

  I'm not a huge fan of Gatsby personally, but I do adhere to the believe that hits define an artistic legacy, and that, coupled with the "relatability" of Dick Divers to my own personal experiences leave me inclined to recommend Tender is the Night to someone on the fence.   I don't believe Tender is the Night is a "taught" book, especially when you consider how popular The Great Gatsby is as a teachable text.  I'm not sure that modern woman reader would appreciate the frankly misogynistic OVERTONES of Dick Divers, he's like Mad Men's Don Draper without the wink and nod.

  Tender is the Night is a fun read, you won't be bored or challenged by the text, though the shift between narrator perspective gives it some feeling of modernism.  I think a sophisticated contemporary reader should possess the wherewithal to both acknowledge the retrograde attitudes about women and mental illness and appreciate the place and time of Tender is the Night (1934) as a work of art.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Maya of the Yucatan

The accessibility of Mayan sites basically runs in the opposite direction of the expansion of Maya civilization "out of the jungle" and to the North.

  An upcoming trip to the Yucatan has me all excited about the Maya ruins there.  I would say, quite honestly, that the odds of me hitting the Mexican state of Tabasco are about the same as the chances of me hitting the Guatemalan Highlands, so the Yucatan Maya are likely to be it.  The Yucatan Maya are a post-Classic civilization, with a heavy influence by the Mexica/Toltec.  Settlement of the area by pyramid building ambitious types started in the 8th-9th century AD.  Of the three major sites in the Yucatan: Chichen Itza, Mayapan and Uxmal, Mayapan is the most recent with abandonment taking place in the early 15th century, only a hundred years before contact.   Uxmal on the other hand flourished only briefly in the 1000's AD.

   The direct influence of Toltec immigrants seems mostly limited to the Chichen Itza site/polity.  Uxmal is in the style of the Chontal Maya who provided initial settlement of the Yucatan and Mayapan is the product of the existing culture of the Maya after the Toltec arrival.  Additionally, the Chontal Maya themselves came from a place where there were a mixture of settlements by Maya and Mexica.

  The fact that the Yucatan Maya are not a "pure" Mayan civilization is far outweighed by their accessibility.  There's nothing wrong with late period ruins if you are just a casual tourist.  The earlier ruins are, the less impressive and interesting they tend to be for a general audience member.  Both Uxmal and Mayapan have an advantage over Chichen Itza and Tulum in terms of not being totally overrun by tourists already.  The Eastern part of the Yucatan is the tourist nightmare of Cancun, a place I have no intention of visiting.  The western side is centered on the city of Merida, which is experiencing an increase of international awareness due to the efforts of a small group of wealth expatriates to attract attention.

   My experience with the situation vis a vis the Inca sights in the Sacred Valley is that the lesser known sites give as much OR more bang for the buck.  The only thing the better known sites have going for them is more assholes.  If you want to experience an ancient civilization, the less modernity you have surrounding you the better.

  Here are some of my other posts about the Mayans from the past of this blog:

Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs (10/25/10)
What The Hell Happened To the Maya? (1/26/11)
Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (9/29/11)
The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom (10/9/11)
2nd Take: Maya History and Religion  (2/13/12)

  I think I'm ready to see the ruins!

Book Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain

Buddy, you are about to die.  Still from the early movie version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), by James Cain.

Book Review:
 The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
by James Cain

  The Postman Always Rings Twice is popular in both book and movie form.  In book form it is most certainly "hard boiled" but it is not detective fiction, because there is no detective involved.  The Postman Always Rings Twice was shocking in its day, and actually got banned in Boston, and it was an immediate hit.   The hard boiled sex and violence mask a complicated moral universe and the minimalist scenery disguises a book that is very grounded in the Southern California environment of the Great Depression.  Frank Chambers, the narrator and central figure, is a classic drifter/hobo.  An interrogation between Chambers and the local district attorney sounds like the description of a classic hobo lifestyle.

  The Postman Always Rings Twice also touches of issues of class, race and gender- all the central issues of 20th century American life, wrapped in a thick blanket of tough guy talk and hottish sex.  I'm a little disappointed that Double Indemnity, the other classic James Cain hit, didn't make the 1001 Books list. Its absence seems clear evidence of an anti-American tendency within the 1001 Books project (understandable most if not all of the selectors are English authors and academics.)

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past by Daniel Richter

The site in present day Missouri called "Cahokia" is the largest pre-European settlement in North America.  The above illustration is based on a century plus of excavation.

Book Review
Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past
by Daniel Richter
p. 2011
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

  Any attempt to write the pre-European history is faced with three major problems:

1.  Historical anti-Native bias by European scholars
2.  Lack of written records by pre-European North American civilizations.
3.  Decline of the major civilization centers prior to European "discovery" and the European induced epidemics that wiped out 9/10ths of Native populations prior to extensive contact.

   Which is different than saying that there were no pre-European major North American civilizations.  In Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past, Daniel Richter draws together archaeological records, mythology and advances in understanding of non-European native culture to make a compelling case that there was really not much separating the Native power centers of Pueblo Bonito(four corners region) or Cahokia(Missouri) from their contemporary European counterparts of the late Middle Ages.

  He does this largely to make the case that there was not as much difference between Europeans and Native Americans in the period prior to contact as is typically supposed.  This is a thesis which flies in the face of popular "historians" like Jared Diamond, whose "Guns, Germs and Steel" does much to advance the opposite interpretation: That European civilizations were "destined to win."  Instead Richter advances a much more nuances thesis that relies heavy on the Early centuries of contact (1500-1700) and the numerous failure by Europeans to secure a place in North America.

  This is a major difference between the history of Central and South America, which it's central theme of European conquest of existing Native American civilizations like the Aztecs and Incans.  The Aztecs and Inca's may have "lost;" but we sure do know a lot about both of them. I think it's commensical to presume that there were North American analogue civilizations, especially since the history of both Aztecs AND Inca's conclusively links to prior civilizations who were extinguished prior to contact.   A common theme of "New World" history is the fragility of complex culture in the face of environmental factors, and in that way the more unknown sites of North America may have MORE to teach us about current events.

   Richter describes a Native North America that was familiar with the concepts of agricultural, government and trade, but also familiar with the "European" ideas of slavery and genocide.  The picture that Richter paints of the less known North American civilization centers that died out prior to European contact is not a hippy-peace lovefest.  The Chaco Canyon site  in the four corners area of the Western United States of America sounds very much like a place that had much in common with the Aztecs and their predecessors in Tenochtitlan.  Additionally the myths of North and South "match" in that the Aztecs speak of coming from the North and the present day Natives of the four corners region speak of post-dissolution groups heading to the south to "forget" the presumably hard times at the end of Chaco Canyon.

Richter makes the case that Chaco Canyon was a multi-ethnic accumulation with a distinct elite who managed to subjugate surrounding tribes and bring them into the geographic orbit of Chaco Canyon, while the center accumulated tribute.   It resembles the scenario in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Ancient Near Eastern history with "subject peoples" being enslaved by military conqueror civilizations.

  Similarly, Richter described a well settled Mississippi river valley with it's own power centers and subject peoples.  With both civilizations it seems like the "subject peoples" were just as happy to go out on their own, and winners and losers dispersed over the continent.  You can really see it if you look at the distribution of languages across North America PRIOR to European contact:
map of Pre-Contact North American language distribution
     This map shows the clear remnants of both western and eastern centers, with the Uto Aztecan language group dominating the West.  The Mid-West is dominated by the Siouan-Catawaban, with important areas located as far East as the Atlantic ocean. Caddoan and Muskogean appear to be intertwined with Siouan-Catawaban and the North East has a strong Iroquoian presence.  This all goes into the category of arguing that pre-Contact Native American history is "knowable" in a narrative sense, even if we don't have written records.  Looking at other better known civilizations in the immediate neighborhood and from "our" own European and Near Eastern experiences allows inferences to be made in the absence of direct evidence.

   Before the Revolution contines forward into the European contact period, but I found those portions less valuable since there have been many authors re-visiting the Colonial American period in recent decade.  Whereas his treatment of pre-Contact North American civilizations is an able synthesis of the available scholarly material.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner

The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner

Book Review
Absalom, Absalom (1936)
by William Faulkner

    The Ngram above compares the frequency of mention for Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.  Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce are all part of the literature of "high modernism" characterized by the abstraction of the form of the novel and the integration of challenging narrative techniques like stream of consciousness, shifts between narrators without signaling breaks in the text of the book, irregular punctuation and vocabulary and experimental grammar.

  The chart above clearly signals that Virginia Woolf is the most popular, likely due to her popularity of being "taught" to college and post-graduate scholars of fiction.  She has written several short novels, ideal for classroom teaching, and her status as a woman with relatively non-controversial subject matter (and highly controversial personal history) make her an ideal exponent of the principles of high modernism.

  Of the remaining three, Joyce has second place probably on the strength of the combination of legal notority of Ulysses and scholarly interest.  Hemingway and Faulkner share American nationality, but Faulkner employs a variation on the distinctive style of Woolf and Joyce, where Hemingway represents a non-experimental style.  The technical innovation of Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner limit their popular appeal.  Faulkner also carries the burden of being utterly unpolitical correct.

 Absalom, Absalom with a "use of the N word per paragraph" rate of something above 1.0, is exhibit A  the catalog of Faulkernian political incorrectness.  Like The Sound of the Fury- whose Quentin Compson is the narrator of Absalom, Absalom shifts back and forward in time and weaves between narrative perspectives with little more than chapter titles.  Modernist technique abounds, with Chapter VI featuring the current holder of the Guinness Book of World Records record for "longest sentence in a work of literature."

  Although Quentin Compson serves as the narrator, the story is about a friend of his grandfathers, a man named Thomas Sutpen, a son of West Virginia, who made his fortune in Haiti, married a woman with "Negro" blood unwittingly, fathered a son with her, abandoned her, moved to Mississippi, built a huge estate, had two children, saw his son from a first marriage attempt to marry his daughter from his second marriage and ends up murdered at the hands of a tenant whose 15 year old daughter he impregnates with the understanding that if she has a son he will marry her.

  Wikipedia describes the "genre" of Absalom, Absalom as "Southern Gothic" which is rather like calling the text of the Old Testament, "Biblical."  Yes, it's true that has all the elements that would come to characterize "southern gothic" but it's also a late classic of the high modernist period.   Like Woolf and Joyce (but not Hemingway) you don't just pick up a copy of Absalom, Absalom and read it while you are waiting for the bus.

  Most, and arguably all of the top texts of high modernist literature is difficult to imbibe.   At least Faulkner has healthy doses of incest and insanity. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris

This is a video of the Royal Choral Society performing the CHORUS from Handel's Messiah- the entire piece is more than 2 hours long.

Gerorge Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends
 by Ellen T. Harris
Published September 29th, 2014
W.W. Norton & Company

   George Frideric Handel is where the history of the modern music industry begins. Prior to Handel, skilled musicians worked for a specific ruler, the church or both.  Handel essentially created the figure of the musician as artistic celebrity, and he did this in the early and mid 18th century, long before others followed the same path.  Ellen T. Harris has written a Handel biography that, while not harping on the subject, certainly acknowledges the importance of Handel's market-place activity in explaining his long term significance to future listeners.

  This is not to say that Harris, a professor at MIT, lacks the musical chops to explain the stylistic innovations that Handel brought to audiences- quite the opposite.  Some of the most engaging portions of the book involve Harris explaining the specific effects and techniques that grabbed the attention of the audience. For example, Handel used dramatic pauses to heighten the impact of the following music.

  Today, Handel is best known for his soaring "Messiah."  Harris calls it the most important classical work of all time, and I'm inclined to agree, or simply defer, to her expertise.  I don't think there is a single man, woman or child living in modern conditions who hasn't heard, and been touched by the Hallelujah chorus of Handel's Messiah.  In her "Very Select Discography" after the end of the book, she recommends the recordings by Harmonia Mubdi (HMU 907505.52), Chamber Chorus of the University of California, Berkeley, Philharmonia Barogque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan  (includes performances of many variants made by Handel.)

  Harris draws on the underutilized source of Handel's bank records to give a fuller account of the economic life of Handel.  In considering WHY Handel can be considered either the first or immediate precursor of Modern artist musicians, his financial independence from the patronage model of artistic contribution was critical.   His early career is marked by his struggle to free himself from dependence while remaining cognizant of the fact that such a relationship was the norm.  Here, Harris emphasizes the role that his time in Italy in convincing him that there was a new world of artistic freedom in England.

  The subtitle of "A Life With Friends" testifies to Harris' fascination with Handel's social milieu and I think it is clear from her strong academic background that she must be well advised of the interest in the role of social networks in the dissemination of ideas.   I thought that George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris was an excellent work, and likely the go-to for a reader looking for a sophisticated take on Handel's biography, short on the "artist hero" romantic bull shit and long on interesting source material and sophisticated writing style.  

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