Thursday, November 02, 2017

Seasonal note



Feliz día de las mangostas.
None of us recalls the text of the law that obliges us to collect the dead leaves, but we are convinced that it would not occur to anyone to leave them uncollected; it's one of those things that go way back, to the first lessons of childhood, and now there is no great difference between the elementary acts of lacing your shoes or opening your umbrella and what we do in collecting the dead leaves on the second of November at nine in the morning.
Julio Cortázar's "With Justifiable Pride" can be found, in Thomas Christensen's translation, in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (North Point Press, 1986). I have slightly modified his version in the excerpt above.

Image: Bioenciclopedia.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

On the Town (Peter Case)



Two nights after I caught the Vulgar Boatmen show at Martyrs' I headed out to Berwyn, Illinois, on the western outskirts of Chicago, because Peter Case also coincidentally happened to be playing in the area during my whirlwind business trip to the city. I'd seen Peter live three times before, but not for a span of several years, because the club where I used to see him has gone under. I hopped on the CTA's Red Line, switched to the Blue, and rode it in the company of a dwindling number of passengers to the largely deserted station at Oak Park overlooking I-290, then walked in the dark along the few blocks of South Oak Park Avenue that brought me to West Roosevelt Road and Fitzgerald's, where Peter was playing.

Fitzgerald's is a long-established venue in Berwyn. It has two performance spaces: a larger one (which I didn't enter) and the more intimate SideBar, which has the congenial atmosphere of the kind of neighborhood tavern or beer hall you don't see much anymore, at least where I live. I sat at a table on the forward end of a long bench, and more or less randomly ordered a Guinness draft, which arrived cold and dark and with a head as rich as whipped cream. The room gradually filled up, the opening act played a few tunes (including a version of "Spanish is the Loving Tongue," a great song I hadn't heard in many years), and then Peter came on. Working solo, he played a generous set of material from various phases of his career (including his Plimsouls hit "A Million Miles Away"), drew from his grab-bag of hilarious stories, and even revisited, briefly, some of the first songs he composed as an adolescent. The room has excellent acoustics and Peter was as in fine form as ever. I ordered a second Guinness. After the show I went over to say hello and buy a copy of his newest release, On My Way Downtown, which is just out from Omnivore Recordings, then headed back to downtown Chicago on a Blue Line train that was now vacant except for a few lost souls who appeared to be more or less domiciled on it. I made it to my hotel room around midnight.

The new record presents previously unreleased archival recordings of 18 songs that Peter and accompanying musicians performed in the studios of KPFK radio in Los Angeles in 1998 and 2000. The first nine tracks recapitulate the bulk of Full Service No Waiting (only two songs are missing), largely with the same band as the studio version; the others correspond either to tracks on his next record, Flying Saucer Blues, or to songs from earlier records. Since Full Service No Waiting is a particular favorite of mine (those with time on their hands can read my long post on it here) I was especially interested to hear how these KPFK recordings would sound. The answer is that they come across as both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly different, opening up a whole new angle of approach to the songs. The vocals have a more relaxed feel, the instrumentation is a bit more improvised (Greg Leisz is particularly good), and the whole thing conveys a pleasurable, informal sense of being in a room with good music and among old friends. It'll be essential for Case fans, but it's also not a bad place to start for those who don't know his songs at all.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Harmonic Convergence



The band known as the Vulgar Boatmen is based in Indiana. They don't play many gigs, and in fact as far as I know they basically don't play at all outside of Indiana and Chicago. I don't live in the Midwest, so even though I've been a fan for twenty-five years the chances of my ever seeing them live would seem to be about as good as the chances of my seeing a total solar eclipse.

But total solar eclipses, though rare, do occur. I didn't catch the celebrated one this past August, but in compensation a business trip took me to Chicago on October 19th of this year, which coincided precisely with a visit by the Vulgar Boatmen to a club called Martyrs' in Chicago's North Center. This is called fate; you don't mess with it.

I took the CTA's Red Line, then changed to the Brown Line. At some point during the trip I saw the lights of Wrigley Field in the distance. (The significance of this will be made clear below.)

I got off at a station called Irving Park. I walked along West Irving Park Road to the intersection with North Lincoln Avenue, then took a left. One of the cross-streets I passed was called West Larchmont Avenue. (The significance of this may be explained some other time.) I found Martyrs' without any trouble. I hadn't reserved a ticket ahead of time, but getting in wasn't a problem, maybe because people were home watching the Cubs play the Dodgers. I paid the cover charge, stepped inside, and found a table a little off to the side.

The opening trio, the Sunshine Boys, had already started playing. They were a guitar player and singer named Dag Juhlin, a bass player named Jacqueline Schimmel, and a drummer, Freda Love Smith, whose name I was vaguely familiar with. I liked them. I ordered an Ayinger Weissbier and sipped at it slowly.

The second act was Walter Salas-Humara. Walter was an original member, or at least an early member, of the Vulgar Boatmen, but went off on his own long ago, for a while as the lead singer of a group called the Silos. He was accompanied by Jonathan Rundman, who alternated between accordion and mandola and pitched in on vocals. Walter prefaced "I'm Over You" with a funny story that involved Hootie and the Blowfish and an unexpectedly large check from BMI.

There was a TV over the bar and facing the stage, and every now and then Walter would look up to see how the Cubs were doing. The Cubs were not doing well at all, and at some point in the course of the evening the TV was switched off.

After Walter's set I went over and bought a couple of CDs from him and said hi.

The Boatmen lineup for the evening, in case you're keeping a scorecard, was Dale Lawrence (lead vocals and guitar), Matt Speake (lead guitar), Jake Smith (bass), and Freda Love Smith (returning to the drum kit to pinch-hit for the absent Andy Richards). This was probably a better lineup than the Cubs were able to muster, on that night at least.

They opened with "Heartbeat," done as more of a rocker than the old recorded version, then played an energetic set of about 14 or 15 songs, including "Wide Awake," "Allison Says," "Mary Jane," and other old faves, plus a few covers I didn't recognize.

Dale called Walter Salas-Humara and Jonathan Rundman back to the stage, and together they ripped through an exuberant version of Michael Hall's gleefully antinomian anthem "Let's Take Some Drugs and Drive Around." It was hard to say whether it was Walter Salas-Humara or the beaming Freda Love Smith who was having the most fun on that one (see video clip), but when it was over I don't think anyone in the audience went home disappointed either, except, of course, for the Cubs fans.

Friday, October 13, 2017

An Ainu Ceremony


From Jude Isabella's article "From Prejudice to Pride," about the history and current state of the Ainu, in the online Hakai Magazine. "Kamuy" means "god" or "spirit."
When Yahata and her non-Ainu husband purchased a used Suzuki Hustler, they decided to welcome the little blue car with the white top into their lives as a traditional Ainu family would welcome a new tool. They conducted a ceremonial prayer to the car's kamuy. On a cold, snowy December night, Yahata and her husband drove the car to a parking lot, bringing along a metal tub, some sticks of wood, matches, sake, a ceremonial cup, and a prayer stick.

The couple tucked the car into a parking space and made a little fireplace with the metal tub and wood. “Every ceremony needs to have fire,” Ishihara translates. For half an hour, the couple prayed to the car kamuy. They poured sake into an Ainu cup borrowed from the museum and dipped a hand-carved prayer stick into the cup to anoint the car with drops of sake: on the hood, the roof, the back, the dashboard, and each tire.

Their prayer was a simple one: keep them and other passengers safe. Of course, adds Yahata with a smile, they got insurance...

The ceremony was so much fun, Yahata says, that the couple held another when they changed from winter tires to summer tires.
The entire article is also available as a podcast via the link above.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hard to Find



"In response to the question 'Why do you play such strange chords, Mr. Monk?' he once told a disc jockey, 'Those easy chords are hard to find nowadays.'" — Related by Lewis Lapham in "Monk: The High Priest of Jazz"

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on this date one hundred years ago. Below is a recording of one of his best-known compositions, "Blue Monk."

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brown study



It's drizzling today as I write these words, but the woods have been dry for weeks, and with the days getting shorter and the temperatures marginally colder there hasn't been much new to see. At the halfway point of a two-hour walk I found these healthy specimens of Ischnoderma resinosum, commonly known as the resinous polypore. I'm told it's edible in the early stages, but I don't forage; I'm happy just to enjoy the rich earth-tones and textures and know that the woods still have a few sights to offer before winter shuts down the show.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

To the center



Like many in my generation, I grew up knowing the works of Jules Verne primarily through Hollywood adaptations — mostly bad ones — and comic books. About fifteen years ago, when I read Journey to the Center of The Earth in a well-regarded recent translation, I was underwhelmed. That the geology was implausible was the least of it. The expected dramatic payoff when the travelers finally arrive as close to their destination as they manage to get (they never actually get anywhere near "the center" at all) just didn't seem to pack much of a punch. Reading it now in French, though (my very imperfect French), it seems like a much more considerable book. True, some of it remains very silly. Verne mangles Icelandic names and thinks that a medieval Icelandic manuscript could have been written in a runic alphabet (highly unlikely), and the whole climactic ascent through an erupting volcano is cartoonish and absurd, but on the other hand the trek across Iceland is vivid and evocative, the descent is tautly narrated, and the dreamlike depiction of an immense underground, vaulted sea — illuminated by some obscure electrical phenomenon — is beautiful and psychologically potent. It lacks the epic character of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, but on the other hand you don't have to struggle through page after page of abstruse 19th-century natural history jargon along the way.

There have been many adaptations and imitations of Verne's underworld tale, and there's something instinctively appealing about the whole idea of burrowing down into the underworld. One version that remains elusive, to English-language readers at least, is Hikaru Okuizumi's The New Journey to the Center of the Earth, published in Japan some fifteen years ago. It is untranslated, but we do have Tatsuro Kiuchi's lovely and mysterious illustrations from the original serialization in the Asahi Shimbun to ponder over.