Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Show Review: War on Drugs @ The Greek Theater in Los Angeles, CA.

Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs played the Greek Theater in Los Angeles last night.

Show Review:
War on Drugs
@ The Greek Theater
Los Angeles, CA.

  I'm at the age (39) where I see people who look "old" to me on the street and ask those around me, "Do I look like that?"  The problem is exacerbated in Southern California, where the sight of a 50 year old millionaire riding a skateboard dressed in clothes that would look more appropriate on a 15 year old is not uncommon.  Similarly, you might be looking at a 50 something woman with the body type and personal style of a teenager.

  Perhaps that explains why my initial reaction to seeing The War on Drugs singer/band leader Adam Granduciel was asking my show companions, "How old is he?" He's 36, but he could easily pass for a 50 year old in my neighborhood. If, like me, you are in the category of casual The War on Drugs fan, you probably know that Kurt Vile was in The War on Drugs and left to pursue his solo career.  I've actually spent a fair amount of time listening to Kurt Vile, and almost none listening to The War on Drugs aside from the single I've heard on Sirius XMU.   The similarity in vocal delivery between Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel is impossible to ignore.  The differences are in the style of music, with The War on Drugs featuring a Springsteen wall of sound era luxuriousness (two keyboardist and a saxophonist/french horn player) and Vile adhering to a more spartan "man and his guitar" sound.

  The wall of sound was very much apparent at The Greek Theater last night, with the combination of a sustained organ being counterpointed with a more staccato piano.  Granduciel plays the part of the 80s heartland rocker to the hilt.  I can't remember the last show I've been to where the audience cheered BEFORE the guitar solo (also after.)   The audience being very much into what Granduciel and the rest of the band was dishing out was the headline of the night.  The War of Drugs are the kind of middle of the road rock band that is almost extinct and last night was the equivalent of traveling back in time and watching one of the last big dinosaurs walking the earth.

  Newish successful rock bands are few and far between, and in 2015 it doesn't seem fair to criticize a rock artist for anything retro about their sound.  The fact that The War on Drugs exists, and that they sold out the Greek Theater last night is all that needs to be said.  Also, that they have hits, and they should continue to write hits, and that if they do that they have a chance of making it onto radio and filling stadiums.  The Greek Theater has over 5000 in capacity, and they sold it out, so they are already on their way.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison

Young Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952)

Book Review
Invisible Man (1952)
 by Ralph Ellison

  Invisible Man is one of the greatest one hit wonders of all time.  Ralph Ellison lived an entire life after it succeeded. He did write non-fiction, and a novel was published post-posthumously based on notes he left, but Invisible Man was it in terms of novels published by Ralph Ellison in his lifetime.    I have a great deal of respect for the one-and-done artistic career.  The way I see it, most artists who put something out there for a public audience: studio artists, novelists, musicians, film makers, actors- are super, duper lucky if they have even one work attached to their name that earns them a living, secures long term attention or both.   And then there are those who secure a living but fail to earn "respect" from the appropriate critical community.  And of course there are those who receive critical respect but fail to earn a living.  It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, and good luck even getting to the point where you get to be damned one way or the other.

  Thus, for an artist to hit it one the head with one try and then to have the good sense to pack it in for the rest of their life without attempting to match the earlier work- that is the ultimate.  And that is what Ralph Ellison accomplished with Invisible Man.   He spent the rest of his life teaching.  Boom. Done.  Invisible Man really is an incredible accomplishment and it holds up in a way that other mid century African American bildungsroman's like Native Son and Go Tell it on the Mountain.  Where the narrators in Native Son and Go Tell it one the Mountain are cowering in the shadow of the overwhelming power of 20th century racism, Ellison's unnamed narrator is a community organizer not afraid to stand up to his white superiors in the New York Communist party.

 Not that his bravery goes unpunished.  The framing device for his narrative is that he is literally living underground, off the grid, stealing power and living in the sub basement of a partially abandoned building.  Ellison takes the reader back through the education of the narrator at a historically black college, where he takes a disastrous turn chauffeuring a wealthy white donor around the campus.  He is dismissed after an illusion shattering conservation with the head of school, and sent to New York.
  There, he has an eventful day working for a company that specializes in white paint and eventually falls in with the Communist Party, recruited on the strength of an impromptu speech delivered on the street during an eviction.  Although the term "Invisible Man" is one applied by the narrator to himself, by the end of the book it feels like his status is self imposed, the product of his vast disillusionment with both fellow Africian American activitsts and his white superiors in the Communist party.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ancient Road System of the Anasazi/Ancestral Pueblo

The ancient road system of the Anasazi/Ancestral Pueblo

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene

They made a version of The Quiet American in 2002 with, amazingly, Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine.

Book Review:
The Quiet American (1955)
 by Graham Greene

Graham Greene Book Reviews - 1001 Books 2006 Edition
England Made Me (1935)
Brighton Rock (1938) *
The Power and the Glory (1940) *
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
The End of the Affair (1951) *
The Quiet American (1955) *
Honorary Counsel (1973) *
* =  core title in 1001 Books list

   Seven deep into the Graham Greene oeuvre now.  Like The Heart of the Matter (1948) takes place in the developing world, there it was English West Africa, here it is French Indo-China (present day Vietnam).  Thomas Fowler is an English journalist covering the nascent Vietnam War.  He is married, but unhappily, and is involved with a young (20 year old) native woman, Phuong.  In the film, Michael Caine plays the role of Thomas Fowler so you can instantly see how the relationship which animates the plot- the love affair between Fowler and Phuong, borders on the inappropriate. Into the picture comes Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser in the 2002 movie), an American working undercover for the CIA.  Pyle is the kind of American who has learned everything he knows from books, and he is in the area to find a "third force" between the existing colonial administration and the communists.

  He also wants to steal Phuong from Fowler. Only 200 pages in length, you can't really discuss the plot without running through the entire thing.  It's not quite a spy novel, not quite a roman a clef, and it's definitely not the tradition marriage and property set up. The Quiet American is certainly the first significant work of English language fiction to be based in Vietnam.

Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place, Second Edition by David StuartThe

This map shows the rough territory of the Anasazi people, who were dominant in the four corners region for eight hundred years, peaking during  a two hundred year period which ended circa 1100 A.D.  Stuart makes the case that the modern day Pueblo people are a successor culture

Book Review -
Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place (2nd Edition)
by David E. Stuart
Published 2014, University of New Mexico Press

   Something I've learned about reading ancient history is that modern people are only interested in ancient peoples to the extent that scholars can make the case that the ancient people have some relevance to modern life.  Thus, the West has long been interested in ancient Rome and Greece as inspiring our own cultures, and as you spread out there the interest generally tracks the "discovery" of ruins by Western scholars or the need for practical knowledge in the course of some specific colonial enterprise.   Both of those traditional justifications for modern people being interested in ancient history are somewhat passe and they've been replaced by the idea that we can learn lessons from disparate cultures and apply to our own experience.
This is an example of Anasazi pit house, the kind of dwelling used outside of the major complexes of the Anasazi and successor civilization.

  These two projects are not diametrically opposed, but the former approach emphasizes the superiority of our Modern culture to the ancient ones, whereas the later, and more modern approach, tends to downplay the superiority of one people to another.  Native Americans, huge losers under the first approach, may be winners in the more modern approach, specifically as we grapple with the impact of climate change, the experience of the Native American civilizations of the desert Southwest is of increasing relevance to our everyday existence.

 Stuart blends his state of the art knowledge about discoveries in this field with a polemic that resembles the editorial page of a left leaning daily newspaper.  He is obviously a critic of income inequality and has concerns about many social and environmental issues.  Stuart is also not afraid to engage in the kind of large-scale theorizing/creation of narrative that has fallen out of favor in academic history for the last half century.

  Stuart makes the case that the rise of the great Anazasi great houses of the high period- roughly 900 to 1100 A.D. was very much tied to a historically wet period of southwestern history, particularly a period when rain in the summer was very constant.  This allowed for a dramatic temporary expansion in population and spurred the building of many late period houses immediately prior to the collapse of said civilization in the late 12th century- 1170-1180 AD.
The great houses of the height of the Anasazi culture were out in the open

  After the collapse there was a split between elites who either tried to hold on in the great houses or moved north and east and common farmers who moved east and engaged in mortal combat with indigenous peoples who occupied that territory.  After the collapse of the great houses of Chaco Canyons and environs the bigger structures were the "cliff houses"- built for a less expansive and less secure time and place.

  Stuart makes the case that one consequence of the collapse of the great Anasazi of the 900-1200 AD era was the deliberate rejection of the elite culture of those people. Successor cultures showed less stratification between elites and every day citizens.  He makes the case that the modern day Pueblo and their very egalitarian approach to existence is a kind of less learned from the collapse of the Anasazi.

  Stuart makes a passionate, and I would say strong, case that there is no reason to suppose that the Anasazi "disappeared."  The name itself is Navajo and means "the enemies of our ancestors" and Stuart actually cites Navajo folk tales that involve Navajo people travelling to the Chaco Canyon great Anasazi houses.
This the Taos Pueblo, present day.

 Of course, the Pueblo are very much a people of history, with documentation from the 16th century onward.  They also showed an ability to adapt and react to colonization and indeed, endure in their ancestral lands that is almost unmatched.  Nowhere else do you have Native peoples who continue to occupy their pre-contact territory.

 Stuart argues that succesor civilizations learned from the Anasazi that they needed to diversify their sources of nutrition by spreading out through different environments and placing their dwellings on "ecotones" places where two eco systems intersect. In his telling the Anazasi were done in by putting all their eggs in the basket of dry land farming of corn, beans and squash supported by regular summer rains, and when those rains disappeared, the Anasazi were toast.  In comparison, the cliff dwellers and modern day Pueblo draw from nearly a dozen different environments.

  Although the politics may make even the sympathetic wince, this is an area of world history in great need of the kind of narrative that Stuart willingly provides, and hopefully this work will be a foundation of new generation of narrative history in the desert southwest.

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