Saturday, July 13, 2024

Peter Case: North Coast Blues

This song appears on Peter Case's 1993 Vanguard album Peter Case Sings Like Hell, where it's the only track that isn't a cover. In three quick verses with no chorus or bridge it vividly sketches a setting without ever telling whatever story lies behind it. Accused of an unknown offense, a man sits in a jail cell, one more schlub caught in machinery that may or may not ever let him go; it could be a John Garfield flick or a deleted scene from a novel by Franz Kafka. Over the relentless syncopation of the melody the sharp, economical lines tell us everything we need to know about the attitude of the authorities: The priest came in to talk about mercy / the sergeant nodded by the door. Where is this "North Coast," with its stockyards and "the roar of the stadium"? I don't think it matters.
Now what I got is what I started with
even that I'm bound to lose
so if you hear you better say a prayer
and hope you never get the North Coast blues

Thursday, July 04, 2024


A quick visit to a local book sale yielded two books, neither of which I had heard of, though the topics of both are of longstanding interest to me. The first, which I haven't started reading yet, bears the eyecatching but alas entirely innocent title of The Hookers of Kew: 1785-1911; the subjects are, of course, the British botanists William and Joseph Hooker, the latter a great friend and key ally of Darwin. Written by Mea Allan, it was published in 1967. This copy has been nicely rebound in green quarter-leather with raised bands on the spine, perhaps because the original binding fell apart. Sadly, the original decorated endpapers are gone, as is the genealogical table that would have been originally bound in at the back.

The other volume is a facsimile of Robert Robinson's 1887 work Thomas Bewick: His Life and Times. Bewick (the great wood engraver), the author, and the publisher of the facsimile, Frank Graham, were all based in Newcastle upon Tyne, and the printer of the facsimile was Howe Brothers in nearby Gateshead. (More on Graham at the bottom of this post.)

Robinson's book is frustratingly organized, leaves unaddressed matters one would have expected him to touch on, and veers into digressions of questionable relevance, but for all that it's a delight, elegantly printed and abundantly illustrated with some 200 crisp reproductions of wood engravings by Bewick and his circle. There is a list of subscribers at the front, and Robinson makes clear that the volume was aimed at a very specific clientele:
To meet the wishes of friends and collectors, the size of it has been altered to imperial 8vo, so as to range with the largest paper copies of [Bewick's] Birds, Quadrupeds, and Fables, thus enabling gentlemen [sic] to have a uniform set of the whole.
There's no bio of Robert Robinson on the facsimile edition, though it's evident from the contents that he was involved in the trade in fine books and prints. With a bit of digging I turned up an obituary. According to The Bookseller (October 14, 1903), he was
at one time one of the most famous booksellers in the North of England. Mr. Robinson was widely known in connection with the literature appertaining to Thomas Bewick's life and labours, and he was also an antiquarian bookseller of more than local distinction. He was apprenticed to Thomas Brown, of the Royal Arcade, Newcastle, in 1833, and he commenced business for himself in 1840 at the "Bewick's Head" at the corner of Shakespeare Street and Pilgrim Street, occupying the same quarters for little less than half a century. His enthusiasm for the great wood engraver was unbounded; he enjoyed the acquaintance of Bewick's daughters, Jane and Isabella; [...] He was greatly respected in the Tyneside town, and his funeral, which took place in Jesmond Old Cemetery on the 1st inst., was largely attended. We notice that more than one of our respected contemporaries refer to the deceased gentleman's friendship with William Pitt, but we are afraid to believe in this precocity.
As for Frank Graham, who reprinted the book in 1972, he had a backstory one would hardly have expected from the publisher of such regional titles as View on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and Beuk O' Newcassel Sangs ("A fine collection of local songs with magnificent illustrations by Joseph Crawhall"). Born in Sunderland in 1913, the son of a draper, he became politically engaged, joined the Communist Party, and fought in Spain with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Unfit for service in the Second World War because of wounds he had received in Spain, he pursued various occupations, including that of milkman, before becoming a teacher. Identifying a lack of regional books in the publishing market, he turned entrepreneur and eventually published nearly 400 titles (many of which he also wrote) with total sales in excess of three million copies. He sold the business in 1987 and died, age 93, in 2006. Northeast Labour History has a full obituary.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Road life (The Bear Comes Home)

I have no idea whether this wooden sculpture of a saxophone-playing bear, spotted while I was driving along a back road in Maine, is intended as an homage to the protagonist of one of my favorite novels, but I choose to believe that it is.

Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home was published in 1997 and won a PEN/Faulkner Award the following year. I must have read it at least four times by now.

Earlier post: Of Love and Bears

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Materia medica

Harry Mathews, summarizing the medical theories of the "philosopher-dentist" R. King Dri:
The human body, richest of nature’s fruits, is not a single organism made of constituent parts, but an assemblage of entities on whose voluntary collaboration the functioning of the whole depends. “The body is analogous to a political confederation—not to the federation as is normally supposed.” Every entity within the body is endowed with its own psyche, more or less developed in awareness and self-consciousness. Aching teeth can be compared to temperamental six-year-old children; an impotent penis to an adolescent girl who must be cajoled out of her sulkiness. The most developed entity is the heart, which does not govern the body but presides over it with loving persuasiveness, like an experienced but still vigorous father at the center of a household of relatives and pets. Health exists when the various entities are happy, for they then perform their roles properly and co-operate with one another. Disease appears when some member of the organism rejects its vocation. Medicine intervenes to bring the wayward member back to its place in the body’s society. At best the heart makes its own medicine, convincing the rebel of its love by addressing it sympathetically; but a doctor is often needed to encourage the communion of heart and member, and sometimes, when the patient has surrendered to unconsciousness or despair, to speak for the heart itself.

Raymond Roussel:
Paracelsus regarded each component of the human body as a thinking individual with an observing mind of its own, which enabled it to know itself better than anyone else could do. When it became ill, it knew what remedy could cure it and, in order to make its priceless revelation, only awaited questions cleverly put by a shrewd doctor who would wisely limit his true role to this.

Locus Solus
I had read Tlooth many times before picking up Locus Solus, though Mathews always made clear his debt to Roussel. As far as I can tell, the attribution to Paracelsus is spurious, although the Swiss doctor did have some curious (and progressive) ideas. The translation of the Roussel, from 1970, is credited to the mysterious Rupert Copeland Cuningham, evidently a pseudonym. An earlier version of the passage from Tlooth can be found at the website of the Paris Review. The book version incorporates numerous minor changes, most of them clear improvements; the word "communion" in the last line, for example, was originally "communication." The name R. King Dri is probably a pun or anagram of some sort.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Grand Hotel

For a commonplace book, notes on hotel rooms and the solitary travelers who visit them, sometimes only in the mind. Image: Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Hotel de l'Etoile: Night Skies, Auriga), 1954.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, et al.
Cornell traveled primarily only as a child and even then never beyond New England. His ability to evoke the character of a place or period as well as the sense of a traveler's yearning for experiences and sights is uncanny nonetheless. He often described himself as "an armchair voyager" to earlier eras and other countries... Initiated in 1950, the Hotels reflect his impressions of Europe's grand old buildings, poignant all the more for his emphasis on European culture during the postwar era's reconstruction efforts. The organizing motif is the window, which invites us to consider interior and exterior views.

Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday
Raymond Roussel:
It was at the end of the eighteenth century that a Norman, Guillaume Cassigneul, had founded the establishment in question, known as the Hôtel de l'Europe, which was still run by his descendants to this day.

For its sign by day and night, he had a broad, high lantern hung over the entrance, bearing on its front, painted upon the glass, a map of Europe in which each land had its special tint – the attractive colour red being reserved for the motherland.

Locus Solus
Pablo Neruda:
I have come again to the solitary bedrooms
to lunch on cold food in the restaurants, and again
I throw my trousers and shirts upon the floor,
there are no coat hangers in my room, no pictures of anyone on the walls.

"The Widower's Tango" (translation by Donald D. Walsh)
Julio Cortázar:
Petrone liked Hotel Cervantes for the same reasons that anyone else would have disliked it. It was solemn, peaceful, almost deserted. A then associate had recommended it to him when he was crossing the river on the Vapor de la Carrera, mentioning that it was located in central Montevideo. Petrone agreed to an en suite room on the second floor, which overlooked the reception area. He knew from the number of keys hanging on the wall in the front desk that there was hardly anyone staying; the keys each had a heavy bronze disk with the number of the room, a naive attempt from the management to prevent clients fitting them in their pockets.

"The Condemned Door" (translation by Rebecca Bourke)

The Icelandic musician KK (Kristján Kristjánsson) performs a song entitled "Grand Hótel"; it appears on his 1995 album Gleðifólkið and also (in a different version) on Lifað og leikið, a 2000 collaboration with Magnús Eiríksson (aka Maggi Eiríks). I understand exactly two words of the lyrics (the title), but the music is suitably haunting, or haunted.

Robert Coover wrote a short book entitled The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell). It's out of print and the publisher (Burning Deck) no longer exists. I haven't been able to track down a copy at a reasonable price.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Bright Lights

It's hard enough for me to wrap my head around the idea that a record I first listened to when I was in my twenties is now fifty years old, and even more remarkable that the people who were responsible for it are still around to reminisce about its creation. Richard and Linda Thompson's album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight was released on April 30, 1974. Though the recording process, which had taken place a year earlier, had been a breeze, relatively speaking, Island Records was unenthusiastic with the result and it took a change of management to get the album out of the can. When it did come out it failed to sell. A decade or so later (about the time I discovered it) critics began to talk it up and by now it's widely considered a milestone.

One of the finest electric guitar players of his generation, Richard was a veteran of the British folk-rock combo Fairport Convention and had produced one quirky solo album, Henry the Human Fly, which also initially failed to find an audience. Linda Pettifer had some experience doing musical odd jobs and had recorded a few singles. They met, eventually married, and began performing as a duo. Richard was developing his songwriting gifts (hers would lie dormant until much later, after they split up); Linda was the better singer. He played the primary instrumental parts and wrote out most of the rest. Corporate involvement in artistic decisions appears to have been nil. What suit, after all, would have approved a record that featured a guitar solo imitating a bagpipe, that made use of an eclectic array of instruments including krummhorns, a dulcimer, and a silver band, that boasted not a single love song, and that ended with an instrumental part lifted from Erik Satie? Or that began a lullaby with lyrics like the following?
I feel for you, you little horror
Safe at your mother's breast
No lucky break for you around the corner
'Cos your father is a bully
And he thinks that you're a pest
And you sister she's no better than a whore
The album's few relatively upbeat songs include one about looking forward to death, another about heading out to a dive to watch drunks get into fights, and this cheeky, in-your-face ditty sung by a one-legged panhandler:
I've been down to London
I've been up to Crewe
I travel far and wide
To do the work that I do
Cause I love taking money
Off a snob like you
For I'm only a poor little beggar girl
All of this grimness and despondency would be insufferable if it wasn't simultaneously funny. The witty, unsparing lyrics draw on the repertoire of the British music hall and other national vernacular song traditions, but it's only superficially a "folk" record. It's a mature, nuanced artistic statement about life from a couple who, incredibly, were still in their mid-twenties. There isn't a bad song in the lot.

The Thompsons made five more albums together and had three children before their marriage went up in flames. (They are now on friendly terms.) Richard still performs and records regularly. Linda eventually had to give up singing because of dysphonia but she has remained involved as a songwriter, most recently by means of a record entitled Proxy Music, on which friends and family handle the vocals. The website Life of the Record has put together an hour-long program devoted to Bright Lights; it features extended commentary by Richard and briefer remarks by Linda (read by their daughter Kami). Other fiftieth-anniversary appreciations can be found below:

Pop Matters
New Statesman