Friday, October 21, 2011

Still Playin'



In the first quarter of the 20th century it gradually dawned on a generation of entrepreneurs and budding media moguls that that there was money to be made out of marketing the artistry of the kind of musicians and singers who, in one form and style or another, had been providing popular entertainment in small towns, county fairs, and rent parties for as long as anybody could remember. As the American Century wore on, and as first jazz and then rock and what for want of a better term would be described as "folk music" was disseminated and gained a national (and indeed international) audience, it was discovered that there was in fact a great deal of money to be made there. For a while, at least for the lucky few, writing and performing popular music offered a viable way up and out of the dance halls and suburban garages and college-town coffee houses where it was created, offering enticements of fame and fortune for those who had the craft or the luck to survive the journey to the top.

For some time, though, it's been apparent that we've been witnessing the long downslope of that process, as commercialization has diluted and cheapened the "product" into bloodless hybrids of country, rock, R&B, and Broadway, and whatever else it could absorb, and as the rise of mp3s and file-sharing has cut into the ability of record labels to convert music into a marketable commodity in the form of LPs, CDs, or whatever the format of the day might be. As major labels cut back on recruiting new acts and terminated the contracts of long-respected performers, boutique labels and the artists themselves were left to try to pick up the slack. Tom Weber's feature-length documentary Troubadour Blues follows a number of talented traveling songwriters and musical performers who are living in the wake of that transformation, but one of the striking things about is that the film doesn't wind up being a lament at all; in fact it's consistently upbeat. The surprise? -- the music keeps on welling up underneath, in good times and bad, reshaping and reinventing itself, and whether or not there are riches to be had there are still people who have the gifts and determination to make it their life's work, and even make a living out of it.

Several of the musicians featured here, like Peter Case and Mary Gauthier, were already familiar to me; a few others I was vaguely aware of, but some not at all. At least a couple have had brushes with fame and, having been tossed aside by the majors, are now out on their own. Others have never had their fifteen minutes and probably never will, but even so, they express few regrets. As one of their number, an Irish-born painter and musician named Karl Mullen, quietly insists, "I have succeeded, because I still continue to do this, and do it for the same reason that I started doing it, in that it makes me feel something that's real." They range in age from veterans in the sixties down to relative newcomers who appear to be in their twenties or early thirties. Though their lives can be exhausting, consisting mostly of long car trips broken by an hour or two of live performing, they keep at it, and continue to connect with people face to face, one on one, heart to heart, in ways that make it worthwhile for both them and their audiences.

The guitar is pretty much ubiquitous here (what other instrument is so well-adapted to a nomadic life?) but the styles range from delicate acoustic finger-picking to Garrison Starr's sweaty hard rock. Some of the musicians readily cross back and forth between styles; in his long career Case has gone from busking on San Francisco street corners to the power pop of the Plimsouls to a life as a solo "folk singer." One of the highlights is watching another veteran, Dave Alvin, (and how is he not a household name?) start off a song with a few soft phrases chanted into a mic and then rip into a blistering electric guitar solo. (It's refreshing, by the way, in an age of endless inaudible YouTube clips, to see live performances captured with some kind of professional attention to sound and camera angle.)

In addition to the music there's plenty of storytelling and a good bit of theater in what these performers do every night. Chris Smither (pictured at top) introduces a song by eerily channelling a long-departed New Orleans fruit vendor, and Mary Gauthier prefaces one about a roadside way station by sagely observing that "when the folk singer has the nicest car in the parking lot you do not want to bring your family to this motel." (Gauthier's insistence in an interview here that she doesn't know how to please an audience is, by the way, belied by the assured deadpan timing of her between-songs patter.)

Peter Case, who's featured on camera the most here, serves a bit as the genial philosopher-in-residence for the project, revisiting the town he grew up near Buffalo and taking at greatest length about his background and what motivates him (he claims, half in earnest, to have tried to run away from home for the first time at the age of three), but the truth is that all of these artists have accumulated stories and wisdom from the road. In the end, you don't do this kind of work if you don't have some idea of what it is you want to say and how to go about saying it.

So there's no elegy here; even the sections which reflect on the loss of the songwriter Dave Carter, who died of a sudden heart attack while touring, are colored more with the fondness and respect his fellows feel for his memory than with raw grief (the passage of time no doubt helped). A few minutes from the end we learn that Peter Case has had to undergo open-heart surgery, but the film ends with him back on the road and in fine fettle, shifting gears once again to record an album with a harder-edged electric sound than he's done in years. It seems you can't keep a good troubadour down.

Troubadour Blues was self-produced by Tom Weber and supported in part by donations through Kickstarter (full disclosure: I kicked in a few bucks). It's being screened in some theaters now but can also be purchased on DVD from the film's website, which also has some clips. Don't miss it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wormwood, and Others



Marvin Malone, who was the editor of the Wormwood Review for almost its entire long run, sounds like he must have been an interesting person. A pharmacologist and educator with a long resumé of scholarly papers and professional accomplishments, he somehow found time to more or less single-handedly put out this little saddle-stitched avant-garde quarterly, which regularly featured such (now) well-known contributors as Charles Bukowski and Billy Collins as well as a host of other writers whose names would have been familiar mostly only to each other, if that.

The Wormwood Review got its start in 1959 in Mt. Hope, Connecticut and almost disappeared after its second number. Malone got involved with #3, eventually took it with him when he relocated to California, and kept at it until the final regular issue, number 144, which appeared posthumously in 1997. A bit of a writer and artist himself, he often used pseudonyms — A. Sypher, Ernest Stranger — to mask his own contributions. The cover art shown here, including the anamorphic design of issue #72, is probably all his work.


Some of the numbers were special issues devoted to the work of one poet, which is why #63 is Ronald Koertge's Cheap Thrills! on the cover and #59 is Lyn Lifshin's Paper Apples. For #70 he created a quasi-anagram from the title.


Each of the above issues was limited to 700 numbered copies, a few of which were signed. There's an excellent website devoted to the Wormwood Review, by the way, featuring a history, complete index, and tributes from some of Malone's regular contributors.

Perhaps due to geographic accident, there's no mention of Malone or of Wormwood Review in Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips's A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, which documents many of the little magazines which were published around the same time, particularly in New York and San Francisco. Their book does, however, mention Dennis Cooper's Little Caesar, shown below, which featured some of the same contributors and ran from 1976-1980. Little Caesar included a few photographs and had a bit of a fanzine style but overall it had the same home-made, one-man shop feel as Wormwood Review.


Nausea, edited and published by one Leo Mailman out of Long Beach, California, was another small magazine of the time, in the same trim size and saddle-stitched format as the ones above. This number, from the Fall of 1975, includes Collins and Wormwood Review regular Gerald Locklin among its contributors. Nausea imitated Wormwood Review in devoting a page or so at the back to the addresses of similar publications.


Finally, not a journal but very much from the same publishing scene is this chapbook from 1975, Tarzan and Shane Meet the Toad which collects the work of three poets, all of whom would have been familiar to the readers of Wormwood Review. It was published by the Russ Haas Press, also in Long Beach.


How lastingly significant was any of this? (Keep in mind that there were dozens, probably scores of comparable magazines at the time, each reflecting the interests and talents of their editors and contributors.) I can't honestly say that most of the material here appeals to my particular literary taste, and some of it is frankly no better (and no less narcissistic) than what appears in the average college or even high school literary magazine, but at least it was lively, it was energetic, and now and then these little chapbooks may have rescued a few gems from oblivion. Everything shown above came from one library book sale I went to a number of years ago. If I hadn't happened to be there that day, if these copies had wound up unsold and pitched in a dumpster, would anyone have been better or worse off? I can't answer that question. The small magazine scene lives on, of course, and today it's often integrated with web-only publications, but I hope in its anarchic way it will continue to leave a paper trail here and there.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Epistolary Rex



"I oughta respond more thoughtfully to your letters. They are letters, aren't they?" -- Peter Case, to David Ensminger


In the spirit of the thing, in the spirit of this book of correspondence between singer / songwriter Peter Case and a friend named David Ensminger, which was written, according to the back cover, in less than three weeks this past summer and printed (this copy, at least) on October 6th, that is, four days ago, I'll try to say what I have say about it off the cuff and on the same evening I began and finished reading it. Normally I'm more of a fuss-endlessly-over-every-sentence kind of guy, which is probably one of the reasons I don't write all that many sentences, relatively speaking, but this is not that kind of book nor does it pretend to be, and had it been that kind of book it would, I suspect, have been much less fun to read than it actually is. Basically, Epistolary Rex is a series of more or less rambling missives between Case and Ensminger, full of riffs, rants on politics, tales of growing up in suburban America, poems, laments for friends who've passed on, notes on jazz and punk rock and Kenneth Patchen, an evocation of the bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, wacked-out fables, and whatever else the pair happened to be thinking about at the time. It's not all brilliant -- in fact maybe none of it is brilliant, exactly -- but that's neither here nor there. Inspired in part by the Beats, by Whitman and Blake, and alarmed at the state of our culture at a time when it seems to be on the verge of evaporating into the digital ether, Case and Ensminger try to step back for a second and conjure up a little bit of the spontaneity and magic that the written or spoken word possessed before it all became tamed by academia and commerce, before it all became endlessly self-referential and "meta," before it succumbed to the imperative of what Ensminger calls "Must Produce Immediate Digestible Content." More or less unfiltered, and mentioning in passing events as recent as the massacre in Norway and the closing of the Borders bookstore chain, the book has the immediacy of a broadside with the ink still damp even as it wanders back and forth in time from the present to the 1960s and '70s to the Civil War and the moundbuilders of ancient North America. One of my favorite bits is this, from Case, which is pretty much a manifesto for the book as a whole, as well as for who Peter Case is and why he does what he does:
I tour playing music for a living, have done for years and years. It used to be the records mattered, (and they still do to me and a few others), but basically for most people they seem like an adjunct to the concert line, now. Once upon a time music was a gateway to the forbidden world, to magic, the invisible, to danger too... and the extent to which that is still true is a measure of its worth as a calling. It can't be about the money. It's gotta be about love, spells, the feel, where you get 'em, secret knowledge, turning the world around, freedom, true escape and redemption, or there's no point in playing it, and less than no point for people to listen.
It's that kind of obstinacy, that refusal to just give in to nihilism and take the path of least resistance, that is the guiding spirit for this curious, rough-around-the-edges book. Get a hold of a copy (they're available from Amazon or at Peter's gigs), turn off the damn computer, and read it, as I did, in one long sitting. If you don't dig it, write your own!

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The survivor


(Found on the body of a partisan)*

My Dearest M—,

As you are no doubt aware, on the 12th day of this month the invading army, after an extended siege, was able to breach the inner ring of our defenses at several points on the eastern side of the city, leaving our forces in an untenable position. Amid the general evacuation that ensued, our unit was among several assigned to hinder the enemy's advance and thus gain time to permit our army to retreat in an orderly manner and to remove or destroy any remaining matériel. After several days of ferocious fighting, during which we were repeatedly forced to abandon our positions while sustaining severe losses (I am happy to say that we inflicted much of the same in kind on the invaders), several of us, now detached from the other members of our unit, fell back to a textile mill along the L— River, from the upper story of which we had a commanding view of one of the two main bridges leading to the western outskirts of the city through which our army was evacuating. Here we stationed our machine gun at a window and for the time being were able to prevent the advance guard of the enemy from securing the bridge and crossing the river. In the meantime other units, still fighting block to block in the center of the city, were able to prevent the enemy's main column from reaching the waterfront and putting our position within ready range of their artillery.

Of our friends that you would remember, only Trofim was still with us at this time. Some of the others may have escaped after we became dispersed, but I am sad to say that many of those whose memory you cherish no longer walk upon this earth. For two days and two nights we heard the incessant retort of shelling and gunfire coming from across the bridge, and we knew that our brothers were valiantly resisting the oncoming army and perishing in the streets of our beloved city. At last, when all had fallen silent except the roar of the enemy's advancing columns of tanks, a messenger arrived bearing orders to fight on only until our position became impossible, along with instructions on where to rendezvous with other units after our retreat. A few hours later, having used up the remainder of our ammunition and disabled the machine gun, we slipped out of the back of the building just after nightfall, hearing as we did so the percussion of the first rounds of artillery being lobbed across the river at our now empty outpost.

As the enemy chose not to attempt the crossing of the bridge until morning, we made our way unimpeded through the deserted outskirts of the city, where many buildings had been set afire by our retreating army and still smouldered in the dark, but where not a child or a dog remained, all having withdrawn in the army's wake. By dawn we had left the city at our backs and were walking through fields of ripening barley. No longer hearing the sounds of battle, the scene radiated a sense of great peace, though we knew that within days or even hours the enemy's motorized columns would be hastening along these roads in vain pursuit of our retreating army.

It was near midday when we reached our appointed destination, a large farmhouse set in a little grove of chestnut trees. Here we were reunited with several of our comrades, including H— whom you no doubt remember well, but here we also shared sad tales of those who had lately fallen, whose number is too painful for me to relate. A few of the survivors had been wounded, though none gravely, and the kitchen of the farmhouse had been pressed into service as a dispensary and surgery, as well as to provide us with tea and a welcome hot meal after so many days of short rations.

Three small military trucks had been assigned to evacuate ourselves and our remaining supplies, which if truth be told were no longer substantial. A fourth, larger truck, which had been commandeered from civilian use, stood by as well, but the back of this truck, which was open to the sky, was still occupied by a large and thoroughly placid elephant. This beast, which had evidently been removed from a circus or the zoological park during the retreat, seemed reluctant to descend and surrender its place, and four or five soldiers were gently trying to coax it down the ramp at the back of the truck. Though the animal could easily have turned on the men and crushed them against the side of the truck or trampled them underfoot, it seemed to be of a quite genial disposition, only unwilling to be persuaded. At last, lured by a handful of fruit, it trod with heavy step onto the dirt driveway and was left to amble off on its own as the final truck was loaded with guns and ammunition and the remaining soldiers climbed aboard. As we drove off it watched us with what seemed a rather bemused but patient expression, as if it were indulging us in the little game we were playing and expected our return in good time.

As I hope to return to you, in good time, if not in this world then in another.

Your own,

S—

*Unlike the various items of found correspondence that I have posted here from time to time, this one is entirely fictional.