Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Locus Solus (1914) by Raymond Roussel

Map of Locus Solus, the estate of wealthy inventor Martial Canterel, in the book Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel

Book Review
Locus Solus (1914)
by Raymond Roussel
University of California Press

  Locus Solus is what you call a "surrealist classic" in that it is surreal, and widely read.  It is not a classic in the sense of adhering to some objective criterion about what makes for a "classic novel" though it is a novel.  Locus Solus is another entry in the "books I wish I'd read 20 years ago" with a plot that involves a mad scientist/inventor type, Martial Canterel, who invites some friends over to his vast country estate which is filled with a variety of bizarre experiments, including water that allows people to breath in it (and hairless cats) and a substance that reanimates corpses, causing them to endlessly repeat what they did immediately prior to death.

Author Raymond Roussel, surrealist author of Locus Solus (1914) and Impressions of Africa (1910)

 Locus Solus is exactly the type of book that will win you cool points with groups of artsy students and young people in cities world wide, but has limited relevance to anyone outside of literary circles or over the age of 30.  Any dedicated fan of the roots of surrealism will find Locus Solus a must, non fans should pass.  Of the two Raymond Roussel titles that made the 1001 Books list, I would say this, rather than Impressions of Africa, is the more accessible.  Impressions of Africa is barely readable, whereas Locus Solus scans as bizarre kind of H.G. Wells early science fiction type piece- familiar ground.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Les Enfants Terribles (The Holy Terrors)(1929) by Jean Cocteau

Les Enfants Terribles is both a 1929 novel by Jean Cocteau and a 1950 film directed by Jean Pierre Melville, but adapted by Jean Cocteau.  Nicole Stephane played Elisabeth and Edouard Dermithe plays her brother Paul, here in the famous bathtub scene.

Les Enfants Terribles (The Holy Terrors)
 by Jean Cocteau
p. 1929
Translated by Rosamund Lehmann
Published by New Directions in 1930

  Here is another proto-existentialist work that represents the French take on the themes of the American Lost Generation and generally predicts the self-obsessed youth culture of the mid to late 20th century. Cocteau also made Les Enfants Terribles into a memorable film with French Auteur Jean Pierre Melville, in 1950, giving it a second life with a new generation of fans.  The "story" concerns orphaned twins Paul and Elisabeth, who exist in a kind of narcotic haze (with actual narcotics.)  Their mom dies of a lack of a will to live, a wealthy uncle looks after them, Elisabeth becomes a fashion model.   All this incident happens with little reference to any world outside the book- Les Enfants Terribles could be adapted to a 2014 Los Angeles setting (or New York, or London) with little or no effort.

    Les Enfants Terribles contains line drawings by the author, the New Directions paperback I read was 200 pages but actual text filled maybe only 150 pages or so, with blank pages on the back of the pages with line illustrations.   One category of books from the 1001 Books project is "books I wished I'd known about in college."  Les Enfants Terribles is just the gift for that literature major you are dating in college, but doesn't have much resonance for someone living a productive life.  Cocteau certainly knows how to evoke "langueur."

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Babbitt (1922) by Sinclair Lewis

Nobel Prize winning American author Sinclair Lewis: Fun at parties?

Book Review
Babbitt (1922)
by Sinclair Lewis

  American author Sinclair Lewis placed two books onto the 1001 Books list, Babbitt and Main Street.  Main Street, published in 1920, was a collosal hit, as was Main Street, and both works figured prominently in the decision to give him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.  Both books are satires of contemporary American life, with Main Street targeting the rural/small town environment and Babbitt focusing on the mid sized American city- think Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis.   Babbitt is the last name of the main character, George F. Babbitt, a real estate broker in the mid sized Midwestern city of Zenith.  He is married, and has two college aged children, one boy and one girl. He is, by design, a most average fellow, who at the outset of the novel is concerned with little besides his next deal and his next meeting at the local civic club.

  Aside from satirizing contemporary American mores, the plot of Babbitt deals with a very small scale rebellion of Babbitt against his circumstances: He goes on a vacation with a male buddy of his in the woods of Maine and leaves his wife behind (for the first week of a three week vacation, she joins him for the second two weeks.)  Later, he has a brief extra marital affair and has some "wild times" with a group of non-respectable people called "the bunch."  He refuses to join a proto-anti-communist civic league, and speaks up in the defense of strikers and a local leftist politician.

  Nearly a hundred years later, the satire of small city America is intimately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an episode of the Simpsons, watched any number of films from the past fifty years or knows anything about the intellectual history of the United States in the 20th century.  Back in the 1920s, Lewis was one of a few writers working this territory, and the only novelist.

  Whether Lewis truly hates his subject is left open to question by an upbeat ending that restores Babbitt to the good graces of his civic booster club.   Any reader interested in the culture of American in the 1920s would be well advised to read Babbitt for his depiction of "Middle brow" America.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Show Review: SIR SLY & Wolf Gang @ The El Rey in Los Angeles, CA.

Sir Sly has a new record out with this ghost symbol, which I saw stenciled all over Silverlake

Show Review: SIR SLY & Wolf Gang
@ The El Rey in Los Angeles, CA.

   This wasn't the first time I've seen SIR SLY- in February of 2013 I checked them out on a Monday night at the Casbah because that's what I was doing in those days.  Back then, I had heard from a friend that they were being managed by Monotone: managers of Vampire Weekend, Jack White, Dangermouse, The Shins, Ratatat, Foster the People, Cold War Kids but also Jamie Foxx and Jonah Hill etc.  Flash forward a year and a half and I've now been seeing an Artist manager at Monotone for a year. I often find myself in Los Angeles and will stay an extra day on either end to attend a Monotone band show in LA.


  I'm also increasingly interested in venues and crowd more than bands themselves, and the El Rey is a small sized theater booked by Goldenvoice (as of last year?) that has long interested me. It is quite fair and even obvious to say that my status as a +1 in the real world of the music industry has changed my perspective.  First of all, I've realized that to "those people" my status as a criminal defense lawyer is waaayyyyyy more interesting than any involvement I have with indie music and record labels.  Criminal defense lawyers are considered to be cool by most music industry professionals, indie record label owners are considered to be a joke.   There is nothing good or bad/positive or negative about that observation, it's just a fact, and it has led me to appreciate my first job as a defense lawyer.
Max McElligott is the main man in Wolf Gang, the English band, not the Odd Future collective

  So yeah, you could call me cynical or jaundiced, but I'm also a fairly astute observer of reality with personal experience seeing local bands go national and fail to go national.  I've spend and earned x amount of dollars trying to induce people to purchase music. I've read hundreds of books and watched hundreds of movies as a way to better understand the relationship between artists and their audiences.  And I realize that when I write about a band like Sir Sly, if I get 500 page views, 400 of them will be Sir Sly fans who have no interest in this blog.

  I didn't go into Monday nights show entirely cold, there was the aforementioned live viewing a year and a half ago.  Over the prior several days I had seen the ghost stencil at least six separate times on the streets of Silverlake and Echo Park in Los Angeles.  There is a billboard on Sunset as you drive towards Echo Park and Downtown from Silverlake.

 Openers Wolf Gang are an English act that share a record label with Sir Sly.  This show was, in fact, part of the Cherrytree Tour, and Cherrytree, a subsidiary of Interscope went so far as to SELLL Cherrytree merchandise at the merch booth. Calm down, Cherrytree. Of course, I support a label actually being ambitious enough to "sponsor" a tour for their artists, more power to them is my default attitude today towards expenditures by major labels on behalf of lesser known artists.  Like, "If they want to do it, great."
This is a view of the main floor at the El Rey from the balcony. It is easy to see the converted-theater prior usage in the size and layout.
What both bands shared in common besides a record label was Top 40 level upside.  Neither band is there yet (the capacity of the El Rey is akin to that of the Echo) but every song popped with layers of radio friendly hooks, sing along lyrics and enthusiastic performances from the band.  Wolf Gang had a generically English stage presence and it was impossible to peg them as being from any specific part of the British Isles besides "London."  I'm not saying they are not from someplace besides London, simply that they come off as being from London the same way that bands that move to Brooklyn from upstate Massachusetts might come off as being "from" Brooklyn.

  Their two million plus Last Fm plays clearly demonstrates that they are big in the UK.  The people at the show appeared to be either already fans or ready to be converted.  The soaring pop song structures were hard to miss even from the back of the VIP balcony where I was discussing Fantasy Soccer moves with my date's co-workers.  The concept of a band doing well in the UK and having a much smaller footprint in the US is so familiar as to be cliche.  Today was another good reminder of that with the re-issue of an Oasis record- a band that was literally the biggest band in the UK, who I saw play a high school auditorium in Oakland, CA. during the height of their fame in the UK.

 As far as I'm concerned, the quantity that separates the made-it's from the also-rans is a hit on adult contemporary radio.  Modern rock radio success is fine as a first step, but the economies of scale don't really kick in until you are charting on Adult Contemporary type stations.  So if you are talking about getting on radio, that is the job of the label, so that is on Cherrytree.  I wish them the best of luck on their quest for success.

  Sir Sly, being of Los Angeles-ish origins, were obviously stoked to be in front of the enthusiastic, hometown crowd, which was largely composed of well groomed Orange County type looking people. I sensed a distinctly female heavy audience, which is usually a good indicator for the potential for mass success (men will follow women anywhere.)  Several fans actually wore Ghost costumes to the show in what was either a spontaneous expression of genuine fandom or a clever marketing ploy by Cherrytree.  Either way it was impressive to see them down in front, as it were.

  Sir Sly was polished what was already a polished presentation in 2013.  The obvious comparison is with Foster the People, also managed by Monotone. The obvious comparison to make is between Landon Jacobs and Mark Foster.  Foster, of course, has written his top 10, cross-over hit, and Jacobs has not.  There were several songs in the set that could be candidates for radio play, but Jacobs compares favorably to Foster in terms of stage practice and energy, but less favorably in terms of vocal "chops" and poetics.  They clearly connected with what may not have been a total sell out, but was a well filled venue.

  The El Rey is very much a step up from the Echo in terms of it being a converted theater, but the location (deep dark mid city/Wilshire) and facilities are inferior to that of the Echo. The bathroom situation is risible, literally liking going to the bathroom at an old single screen movie theatre.  I am generally a fan of Goldenvoice and their staff, but was somewhat distressed by having to witness some kind of confrontation over a young woman smoking pot (I think?) in the VIP section.  Take that shit downstairs if you are going to do that shit to people in LA.

  Parking was 10 USD at a garage around the corner and two blocks BEFORE the venue if you are coming from the East Side.  The spots in the El Rey dedicated garage were small enough to make my Prius blush- make other plans if you drive a high end/big luxury type vehicle or park at your own risk.

  As always at these shows where I am a +1, I am thankful to the promoter and my date for inviting me. When you get right down to it, the main difference between "major label" and "indie" is the same as the difference between amateurs, semi-pros and professionals in any area where people try to turn a passion into a living.  Anyone who "hates" major labels and the professional music industry is living at the lowest levels of the amateur game or is, to a certain degree, a hypocrite.   The fact is that the ugly realities of the music business in 2014 apply MORE to the bigger players than the smaller, so in a certain way they deserve MORE support. 

The Green Hat (1924) by Michael Arlen

Katherine Cornell played the doomed Iris Storm in the successful Broadway play version of Michael Arlen's The Green Hat

Book Review
The Green Hat (1924)
by Michael Arlen

  The copy I managed to obtain of The Green Hat by Michael Arlen was original (i.e. from 1924) via the San Diego State Library.  Pages that had been folded over as book marks by prior readers actually snapped off in my hand if I tried to manipulate them.  In the fashion of 20s novels, the margins are ample, making a 200 page book 350 pages.  Arlen was a bit of a one hit wonder, and if The Green Hat is the hit, you could almost call him forgotten.

  Michael Arlen was born as Dikran Kouyoumdijan, to Armenian parents, in Bulgaria, which was then still part of the Ottoman Empire.  His father was a successful merchant who moved the family to England in 1901 because, duh.  Arlen attended school in England and went to college at the University of Edinburgh.  As a young adult he was what you would call a dandy, and The Green Hat was one of a number of "shocking" jet set tragic romantic fables that dot the literary landscape of the 1920s, typically under the rubric of "lost generation."

   The Green Hat is supposedly a roman a clef about Arlen's peer in the London smart set of the early 1920s, and features syphilis and homosexuality as major plot points in a story that involves a tragic lover affair between at wealthy but disgraced older woman and an also wealthy (and married) younger man.

   The 1924 publication date marks The Green Hat as an early example of the lost generation genre- The Great Gatsby wasn't published until 1925, The Sun Also Rises until 1926.   

Monday, September 29, 2014

British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World by Peter Clark

British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800:
The Origins of an Associational World
by Peter Clark
Oxford Studies in Social History
Oxford University Press, 2000

  True, I get off on reading expensive books.  Not owning them, I'm not much for possessing things, but I am a demon for the possession of expensive knowledge.  At 150 USD new, British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World, well qualifies in that department, and it was a main stay of my Amazon Wish List for nearly a decade until I located a copy at the Geisel Library at UCSD and requested it via the San Diego Public Library.

  The subject may at first blush sound obscure, but it is an area of interest both to savvy political commentators (Alexis de Tocqueville and Jurgen Habermas to name two) and conspiracy nut jobs (Freemasons, Illuminati) alike.  In his famous Democracy in America treatise, Alexis de Tocqueville posits that the peculiar nature of American democracy stems from an abundance of "private associations."  By his reckoning, private associations were the lattice work upon which the garlands of democracy were hung.  Two centuries later, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas placed the development of the "public sphere" at the center of his wide ranging theories regarding the centrality of communications at the core of the experience of modernity.

  On the lighter side of the scale, you have the pop cultural obsession with Freemasons and Illuminati.  According to a single reference in this book, the Illuminati were a sub-organizations of Freemasons in Europe, and did not figure in the British experience (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Colonies of England and their successors.)  Finding sober information about the Freemasons is tough, and there are plenty of fanciful accounts of their origins and influence.  The Illuminati are even more difficult to track, but a working knowledge of German and French would be a first step.  The absence of Illuminati dealings in the English speaking world makes English language sources on the subject questionable.

  Clark presents a well accounted description of the rise of  his "Associational World."  With some roots in the country-side tradition of county feasts, the associational world was a quintescentially urban experience with a distinct London center.  The earliest roots came in the mid 18th century, with an explosion between 1750 and 1800.  This explosion is illustrated with actual charts and graphs.  For example, in England alone, the Number of Clubs went from 200 in 1750 to 1200 by 1800.

  These clubs hand numerous different areas of interest.  They ranged from early 18th century groups of men interested in science and ancient civilization, to the more popular Mason type fraternal lodges that mixed social networking with heavy drinking and rituals, to the associations of the working class which were often specifically set up to pay for burial benefits and poor relief.   There were also many morally focused associations set up by wealthier people to "help the poor,"

  Clark makes it clear that the groundwork was laid by the "loosening up" of rules by the King in the areas of freedom of the press and the ability for small groups to meet privately.  This last point may seem obvious, but Monarchs were often quite defensive about groups meeting privat

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