Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Music: Louis Armstrong

"Satchmo"(short for "Satchelmouth," because of the damage his forceful technique caused to his lips) was born in New Orleans in August of 1901, although he proudly claimed July 4, 1900 as his birthdate for the rest of his life. Armstrong's childhood was fractured by abandonment, poverty and a stint in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, a reform school. His salvation was Storeyville, the red-light district of New Orleans and the birthplace of jazz. Armstrong said, "Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans...It has given me something to live for.”

Most people are familiar with Louis Armstrong as a jazz legend, and I don't need to gloss over that legacy here. As I learned more about him, I found the breadth of his talent even more astounding. Satchmo seems to have had a drive to create--all the time, in any medium. He authored two autobiographies, the first when he was only 35 years old, and was a prolific correspondent. Then, there's the collages. When Armstrong was on tour, he carried a steamer trunk of reel-to-reel music tapes with him, since they were lighter and less fragile than records. In addition to music, he recorded his own reminiscences, and sometimes just left the deck on to pick up ambient noise. Queens College houses the Louis Armstrong Collection archives, which includes 650 of his tape boxes. Nearly all are decorated with Armstrong's collages, and scrapbooks are bursting with even more. When not touring, he made at least one a day, the kind of discipline most artists would envy. A book of his artwork is due in early 2009.

It's hard to choose songs from such a vast catalog, so I just went with my sentimental favorites. "Saint James Infirmary" was recorded in 1929, and "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" in 1947.

Reel to Reel Louis Armstrong(Paris Review, 2008) [Link]

Monday, September 22, 2008

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

Shoulda brought a real camera with me to the Hideout Block Party, which happens to be the best outdoor musical event in Chicago, evah. The people-watching alone is worth the price of the ticket. When attending Pitchfork, one can get the low-down on the single outfit that everyone between the age of 18-25 seems to be wearing this summer. At the Block Party, every rocker getup of the last 40 years is on display: purple hair, engineer boots, full tat sleeves, torn fishnet stockings, ragged straw cowboy hats--sometimes a combination of the above on a single person. The lineup was equally eclectic--Americana, hip-hop, electronica, African blues, and even some regular old indie rock.

One of my favorite moments was last night, when Robbie Fulks and his crew did a set of Michael Jackson songs, culminating with "Thriller." Staff from the Hideout (which must be a great place to work) got on stage and did the zombie dance routine. Hilarious!

nicked from someone with a good camera

One of my resolutions post-cancer is to try doing a few things different. Like pushing right up to the stage during shows, for example. Never used to do that. I was up front for the hip-hop act Rhymefest, who had just given a shout-out for Obama, when a guy three or four people away from me started shouting insults at the performer. A McCain supporter, apparently. Rhymefest was launching into a free-form rap about being a black man in the city when McCain2008 screamed "That's bullshit!" and some comments I couldn't catch. Rhymefest, belying his tough ghetto persona, huffed off the stage and refused to come back. Several of us scolded the guy, a tall dork wearing a smirk. He got up in my face. "Who the fuck are YOU?" he asked. I pointed out to him his good fortune in that the audience was 99.9 percent white and relatively timid, and that perhaps under different circumstances he would get a serious ass-kicking. I may have raised my voice and said a few bad words while making this point of argument. I glanced to my side, and realized two men with press badges were up close, filming us. Oh god. Wonder where that will appear? A few furious young women surrounded us--no hipster "men" in sight--and McCain2008 apparently realized he was outnumbered and left the area. I treated myself to a gin and tonic after that.

I bellied up to the barriers again for the Brooklyn electronic rockers Ratatat. I was surrounded by young men, many of them over 6 feet. I chatted with a few as we waited, mostly to make my appearance known and prevent elbows from hitting me in the teeth. The boys conducted themselves very well; all seemed tenderly aware of the fact that a woman the age of their moms was amongst them and that violent moshing would be inappropriate. Ratatat was great, and eventually my hearing will return.

Appropos of nothing, the big hit "Wildcat," from their last album.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Music: Down with Genres

I have little tolerance for genre-based taste in music. Honestly, if you only listen to industrial metal, or rockabilly, or indie freakfolk, you can hardly call yourself a "music lover." Every genre and every type of music has produced an artist or a handful of songs that are worthy of a listen. Even [wince] modern bluegrass.

With that in mind, I once again bring you the immortal CloClo, and his adaption of the Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)," accompanied by the hot-pants-wearing Les Clodettes. I don't know why--I just love this guy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Infinite Jest

Melancolia Albrecht Dürer

I have to admit that I haven't read any of David Foster Wallace's fiction. I have a pretty short attention span, and his masterwork Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages long, and extensively footnoted. Some of the footnotes have footnotes. I have enjoyed his essays though, like this one, about the McCain campaign press bus during the 2000 elections: The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub

As most of you know, Wallace took his own life last week. He suffered from chronic depression for years, and it grew resistant to medication. His father told the New York Times, "Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore."

Hundreds of literary sites and blogs have posted tributes. The heartbreak of his friends, colleagues and readers is palpable. One bewildered question keeps bubbling to the surface, and I'll paraphrase here: He was so funny/humorous/witty. How could someone with such a great sense of humor commit suicide?

In A Treatise of Melancholie (1586), Timothy Bright described the paradox of a depressive personality. Aside from the Aristotlean physiology, it's good enough for the DSM-IV.

The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian [sardonic], and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason.

For the depressive, humor (sometimes of the sardonic variety) bridges the gap between the shadows of his reality, and the sunshine of everyone else's. Cassandra predicted a future that nobody wanted to hear; a depressive experiences a present that most can't comprehend.* I don't think David Foster Wallace's sense of humor was inconsistent with his depression. And, it probably kept him alive for much longer than if he had been without. Rest in peace, DFW.

*I speak from personal experience, although I hasten to add, mostly to reassure my family, that in no way have I ever been as ill as Wallace. He was hospitalized more than once, and received electroconvulsive therapy when nothing else worked.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Music: Cl**de Franç**s

Take that, you folkies! Here's how how a Frenchman does "If I Had a Hammer." Cl**de Franç**s is barely known here, but he was a huge, huge, HUGE star in France. "CloClo," as he was known to his fans, was beloved for his frenetic dancing, sequined suits and shameless kitsch. (See "Le Telephone Pleure--Tears on the phone" on YouTube) Franç**s made his contribution to American culture with his 1968 hit "Comme d'habitude," which Paul Anka reworked into "My Way," a signature tune for Frank Sinatra. Franç**s lived a charmed, or perhaps cursed, life. He was seriously injured in a car accident, then narrowly escaped death during an IRA bombing in London, and then a crazed fan took a shot at him. In 1978, he tried to remove a broken light bulb while standing in his bath, and was electrocuted.

I found a timeline of Cl**de's life, written in Frenglish. Here's a couple of the entries:

"September 1975: Cl**de goes down from his helicopter and by taking again its take-off, this one is crushed"

"June 25, 1977: Cl**de is taken in hunting by criminals when it drives car to go has Dannemois"

More near-misses...I think.


Update: Isn't a shame how the flying copyright monkeys waste their time taking good stuff down? Never mind that it might turn a few people on to some artists they've never heard of before...Anyway, I hope the aster*sks may prevent the monkeys' search engines from hitting this one.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Music: Kris Kristofferson

Today we feature everyone's favorite helicopter pilot/Rhodes scholar/actor/singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson.

At one point, Kristofferson was sweeping floors at Columbia Studios in Nashville, while Bob Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde. Much of his bio is similarly picaresque. Johnny Cash was one early admirer; Kristofferson delivered a tape of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" via helicopter, landing in Cash's yard.

Although he personally recorded the songs in this playlist, Kristofferson sings like...well, a songwriter. His voice is better than Burt Bacharach's, but not as pleasant as Randy Newman's. Kristofferson's songs are best enjoyed when covered, and boy have they been covered. "Help Me Make It Through The Night," sung by Sammi Smith, shocked some country fans with when it was released in 1971. Women weren't supposed to pursue one-night stands, especially in the Bible Belt. Johnny Cash's version of "Sunday Mornin'" wasn't the first, but it's my favorite. The classic Janis Joplin cover of "Me and Bobby McGee" has just the right mixture of bitter and sweet. However, I couldn't resist including this knee-slappin' Loretta Lynn cover. The arrangement is pure Nashville Baroque. Just when you think they're done adding tracks, they pile on a change of key!

"Kris Kristofferson talks booze, hellraising and landing a chopper on Johnny Cash's lawn." in The Guardian [Link]

"The Kris Kristofferson Story" at the Country Music Hall of Fame [Link]

Friday, September 5, 2008

More vacay: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

I finally edited and uploaded the pictures from my trip to the Bay area. Among my favorites are photos from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which just celebrated it's 100th birthday. It's a wonderful living museum of amusement; the indoor arcade seems to have every game produced in the last century. I lost four bucks in tokens on Asteroids (c. 1979), proving that my lack of skill has remained intact throughout the decades. Also worth seeing/riding: the Giant Dipper roller-coaster, which has been making 'em scream since 1924, and the Looff Carousel, fully restored to it's 1911 splendor.

More in Flickr set [Link]