Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Birds Fall Down (1966) by Rebecca West


Book Review
The Birds Fall Down (1966)
by Rebecca West


  It actually took me just as long to read The Birds Fall Down(377 page) as The Recognitions (960 pages).  The Birds Fall Down was West's last novel, so this is a good place to evaluate her contributions to the 1001 Books list, 2006 edition.  Both The Birds Fall Down and Harriet Hume got the axe in the 2008 revision of the 1001 Books list.  That leaves The Return of the Soldier and The Thinking Reed as her two remaining entries on the list.

  There is a strong argument that The Return of the Soldier is a top 100 title on the strength of it having the first depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder (or "shell shock") in literature, in addition to a strong female protagonist and woman author.  It's less clear that The Thinking Reed belongs.  Based on my own post on that book, I can't make a case for it staying.  West was also an important public intellectual who wrote non-fiction and criticism, so the 1001 Books project doesn't capture her full import.  I've not read anything that would cause me to pursue her further afield.  She is a significant 20th century writer, but not a life changer.

  The Birds Fall Down is about a young Russian-English woman travelling with her exiled Russian Count Grandfather from Paris to the French countryside.  While on the train they encounter a young Revolutionary, known to the Count, and it becomes clear that a trusted aide to the County is in fact a triple agent, betraying both the Czar and the Revolutionaries at the same time.  He's accomplished this by using three different identities, a fact that only becomes clear during the train rider.

  Based at least partially on the shock he experiences at the train-ride revelations about his trusted associate (the triple agent) the Count dies just after exiting the train.  The rest of the book is occupied with funeral arrangements and the consequences of the discovery of the triple-agent.  It sounds straight forward, but I was as confused during the intiial train ride as can be possible while reading a book that doesn't involve any complicated post-modern narration techniques.  It's just three people sitting together on the train, but not until they got off the train did I figure out what had happened.

 
  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Margo Price is Playing Saturday Night Live


Margo Price to play Saturday Night Live on April 9th, 2016

   Margo Price is playing Saturday Night Live on April 9th, with host Russell Crowe.   That is an incredible coup for Margo.

   She also announced a brief swath of dates in the UK, highlights being a Rough Trade in-store on May 19th and a slot at The Great Escape festival in Brighton, either on the 20th or 21st of May.

   Finally, she's playing multiple dates with Old Crow Medicine show in the south east, and the Pickathon outside of Portland Oregon on August 6th and 7th.

   Honestly, I've not seen anything like the reception she has been getting.  Certainly she has already surpassed all of the Artists I kept close watch on between 2006 and 2015. I couldn't even find the last time an indie artist who had just released her first record got a spot on Saturday Night Live.

  

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and the Outlaw Country Revival



Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and the Outlaw Country Revival

 I recently read an article online in something called Brooklyn Magazine, which I don't think is actually a magazine in the sense that there is no printed version.  The article is called Margo Price and the Country Music Purist Problem.  I'm going to be honest, I'm a little unclear on the thesis of that article, something about how the idea that Sturgill Simpson or Margo Price somehow represent "Outlaw Country" is either misguided or false.  Or maybe that's not the point at all.  Author Elias Light says, of the relationship between Outlaw and Mainstream country music,

     "This interdependence existed in the halcyon past as well: the original Outlaws formed in opposition to the prevailing Countrypolitan sound in Nashville, a schmaltzy, string-heavy style perfected by producer Billy Sherrill with acts like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Before he found something to resist, Willie Nelson was a good songwriter with no direction: 1969’s My Own Peculiar Way is remarkable mainly for its lack of peculiarity; there are Christmas records with more guts. And Waylon Jennings took a long time to become a honky tonk hero. In the long run, of course, country found room for both the syrupy mainstream singers and the rugged outsiders. Both are now part of the canon: the Outlaws got the cool name and rebel mystique; George Jones, treacly, over-produced ballads and all, is one of the greatest singers vocalists in popular music, regardless of genre."

  The major omission of Light's analysis of the relationship between Outlaw and Mainstream Country is his failure to take into account the importance of place in the creation of Outlaw Country.  The Brooklyn Magazine article argues that there is "no real difference" or that the difference is exagerated, but this is fundamentally a view of someone who doesn't know the difference between Nashville, Austin and Bakersfield.  In other words, it's the view of someone who writes for Brooklyn Magazine.

   Outlaw Country existed not as any aesthetic difference between music played by different country and western artists but as places outside of Nashville, mostly Austin and Bakersfield, and the constellation of institutions that were developed by artists in those places.  Let's take Bakersfield.  I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in May of 2014, and they had an exhibit on Bakersfield and it's role in the genesis of Outlaw Country.  As I said then:

After ending with an exhibit heavy on the roll of television and radio in the rise of Nashville, the second floor is anchored by an excellent exhibit on The Bakersfield Sound, a Country scene that is most typically identified as being part of the "Outlaw Country" movement.  The main players are Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and one of the revelations of the exhibit is that one woman, Bonnie Owens, married them both in succession.  I wasn't surprised to learn that many of the exhibits were supplied by Buck Owens' own Crystal Palace, a combination steak house/museum that is devoted to Buck Owens (who is the creator of the Bakersfield sound.)

After ending with an exhibit heavy on the roll of television and radio in the rise of Nashville, the second floor is anchored by an excellent exhibit on The Bakersfield Sound, a Country scene that is most typically identified as being part of the "Outlaw Country" movement.  The main players are Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and one of the revelations of the exhibit is that one woman, Bonnie Owens, married them both in succession.  I wasn't surprised to learn that many of the exhibits were supplied by Buck Owens' own Crystal Palace, a combination steak house/museum that is devoted to Buck Owens (who is the creator of the Bakersfield sound.)
  - Museum Review: Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, Tenn

  This legacy is still present in the city of Bakersfield.  In 2011, I went to Bakersfield and ate at the Buck Owens Crystal Palace, which is also a museum that documents the important role Bakersfield played in the development of Outlaw Country:

Dinner was an easy choice: Buck Owens Crystal Palace, a combination Steak house/Hard Rock style museum and music venue started by the legendary country hit-maker in 1995.  Buck also owns a country radio station in town, which is located next door to the Crystal Palace.  Our dinner at the Crystal Palace was what we expected: A great delight for every sense EXCEPT taste.  I'm not complaining, but my advice if you go there is to have a snack at the Brimstone prior, order the smallest thing off the menu at Crystal Palace and "pre-drink": My Budweiser was something like 5.50, and while I'm happy to pay up, I wouldn't want to do extended drinking here.  The Museum aspect is incredible, with an actual emphasis on his individual hits with the various costumery he used to promote each hit filling the rest of the display cases.  Still, if you have one night in Bakersfield and miss this place, you a sucka.  Call ahead for a reservation and get there after 7:30 PM for the band.

- 12 Hours in Bakersfield

  The same can be said about Willie Nelson and Austin.  Of course, Outlaw Country interacted with Nashville and the Countrypolitan sound, but it was physically located outside of Nashville.  So what Elias Leight gets wrong in the Brooklyn Magazine article is a failure to take account on the importance of place.  Treating any artistic development simply in aesthetic terms without taking into account the institutions which combine to produce the development is a common critical mistake made by people who don't get out of the city much.  It's an avant garde version of the "ivory tower syndrome" where academics fail to take into account real world dynamics in their description of problems.

   What is interesting about an artist like Margo Price is that she comes from within Nashville, but the production of her breakthrough LP, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, places itself outside Nashville in terms of the theme (MIDWEST Farmer's Daughter) and the actual production of the record, which took place entirely outside the Nashville cultural-industrial complex.  Margo Price and her husband paid for the record itself, did not use outside writers, recorded it in three days, did not have the assistance of a label or publishing company.  That is Outlaw Country right there, on it's face.  Whether the music is best described as traditional or something else is entirely besides the point.

  In conclusion, Elias Leight is wrong, in that there is no "problem" to be identified with the music of Margo Price or Sturgill Simpson.  Country music purism is meaningless in the way that he uses the phrase in his article.  Margo Price can be squarely located in the Outlaw Country tradition, even though she came from Nashville, because of the means of production of her record outside the Nashville cultural industrial complex.

  Her success points to the diversification of Nashville to the point where it can support both the mainstream Nashville complex AND simultaneously support an Outlaw Country scene within it's own borders, call it East Nashville.  This East Nashville Outlaw Country scene also functions as a self-supporting "indie rock" scene of the sort which exists in almost every top 50 US market. 

The Recognitions (1955) by William Gaddis

The Recognitions by William Gaddis is the first text of American post-Modernism
Book Review
The Recognitions (1955)
by William Gaddis

   The Recognitions is the foundation text of American Post-Modern Literature.  It is also 960 pages long and adopts many of the obscurantist narrative techniques of James Joyce, specifically often not identifying the speaker of dialogue.  Literally hundreds of pages of the text are what you would describe as "party talk" with multiple speakers talking over and to one another for fifty pages at a stretch.  These more challenging portions are interspersed with more conventional third person narration, though characters are frequently in disguise, they often change their names from chapter to chapter and they consciously lie and obscure important facts that contradict earlier statements in the book.

   The Recognitions, in addition to being the foundation text of American Post-Modern Literature and 960 pages long, is also that rarest of art products:  A work of art that was completely dismissed by critical and popular audiences upon initial publication, only to have BOTH audiences reverse their initial decision.  The critical reaction was often disrespectful, with some critics failing even to finish the book before writing their review.   In retrospect, the most amazing fact about the initial publication of The Recogniitons is that Harcourt-Brace, a well known publisher, decided to publish it at all.

  This is such a protean, all encompassing text that it's difficult to know where to begin, besides a bare descriptions of, "An artist struggles with issues related to authenticity when he is paid to create fake paintings by non-existent dutch masters."   This is the central plot, but there are substantial sub-plots with characters only tangentially related to Wyatt Gwyon, the painter.  Personally, I think the major concept that needs to be teased out of the 960 page bulk are the hundreds pages of "party talk."  The party scenes are where the major characters and plots intersect.

 Gaddis is depicting the downtown party scene of the early 1950s.  The parties in question are often in the Village, and sometimes uptown.  The participants are a mixture of artists, professionals in the art world (including forgers) and various characters we would today recognize as "beats" or proto-hippies.   Remarkably, his scathing depiction of this world came even before the primary texts themselves, books like On The Road, had even been published.  Thus, Gaddis' dark humor was targeting a culture which itself hadn't even established itself.

 
   

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