Friday, April 21, 2017

Billy (Dylan, Rawlings, Welch)

Well, they say Pat Garrett has got your number
So sleep with one eye open when you slumber
'Cause every little sound might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun.
This Bob Dylan song first surfaced on the soundtrack of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a 1973 Western I've never seen (and in which Dylan has an acting role). The song has a number of verses, but this much later live cover by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings pares it down to four, in keeping with the starkness and simplicity of the performance (and the black-and-white cinematography). Rawlings's guitar work, in fact, is anything but simple, but he plays, as always, with such unassuming, seemingly effortless command of his instrument (a vintage Epiphone archtop) that it never jars or interferes.

Four verses, four plain-spoken lines each, scraps of a tattered tale about a long-dead gunslinger, it's almost enough to reconcile one with a world that is, more evidently than ever, far too much with us. Hopefully there's a quiet corner of the future where things like this still matter.

This version of "Billy" is available on a DVD entitled The Revelator Collection, which can be purchased from Gillian Welch's webstore.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017



Though I never really gave much thought to it at the time, I grew up in a region whose contours were profoundly shaped by the requirements of New York City's water supply, and by a series of remarkable engineering projects that created a system of interlocking reservoirs in an area that had previously been criss-crossed by a network of modest streams. Vast tracts of farmland were inundated, or seized by the city in order to protect the watershed, and in a few cases whole communities were flooded (or moved). Today you can drive along certain winding roads (as I like to do) and see miles of largely unbroken woodland, almost none of which existed a century ago.

All of this was accomplished well before I was born, and large-scale modification of the landscape is, at least in the Northeast and for understandable reasons, no longer in fashion, but I can't deny that the changes have had their aesthetic, as well as utilitarian, benefits, adding an element of grandeur to an area that, whatever its virtues, might otherwise have lacked drama.

The video above shows a portion of the spillway of the New Croton Dam, inaugurated in 1906, at about 6:30 on an April afternoon.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Reykjavík Blues, revisited (again)

I've just discovered that the complete contents of several KK & Magnús albums have recently appeared as playlists on YouTube. As I write this, there are no previous views for these files. Go for it!

The three albums, originally issued between 1996 and 2000, were combined into a three-disc set called þrefaldur that was released in 2011. Of the three, Lifað og leikið is a live album and a bit more blues-oriented than the other two.

Earlier posts:
Reykjavík Blues
Reykjavík Blues, revisited

Friday, March 31, 2017

Reykjavík Blues, revisited

KK (his full name is Kristján Kristjánsson, and his initials are pronounced "cow cow") is an Icelandic singer-songwriter whose music I first encountered entirely by chance during a boat trip in Reykjavík harbor a few years ago. I picked up some CDs while I was there and managed to obtain another after I got home, but his records aren't exactly easy to obtain in the US (though as it happens, he was born in Minnesota). The three songs below are from a 2008 album called Svona eru menn. I speak no Icelandic so don't ask me what any of the lyrics mean, but I really don't care; I could listen to this music all night (and I just may). One of these years I may even get my hands on a copy.

Earlier post: Reykjavík Blues

Friday, March 24, 2017

Seamus Heaney: "What will be our trace"

From "Station Island," II. The narrator converses with the shade of William Carleton:
'The angry role was never my vocation,'
I said. 'I come from County Derry,
where the last marching bands of Ribbonmen

on Patrick's Day still played their "Hymn to Mary".
Obedient strains like theirs tuned me first
and not that harp of unforgiving iron

the Fenians strung. A lot of what you wrote
I heard and did: this Lough Derg station, flax-pullings, dances, fair-days, crossroads chat

and the shaky local voice of education.
All that. And always, Orange drums.
And neighbours on the roads at night with guns.'

'I know, I know, I know, I know,' he said,
'but you have to try to make sense of what comes.
Remember everything and keep your head.'

'The alders in the hedge,' I said, 'mushrooms,
dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged,
the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open

in your hand, the melt of shells corrupting,
old jam pots in a drain clogged up with mud—'
But now Carleton was interrupting:

'All this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds—
another life that cleans our element.

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.'
He turned on his heel when he was saying this

and headed up the road at the same hard pace.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017


Walking a woodland trail the other day through an area with a number of dramatic rock outcroppings, I zeroed in on this particular boulder incised with what, to my eye at least, very much resembled the profile of a crow, a raven, or perhaps a buzzard, with a second, more ambiguous profile directly behind it. The resemblance — the protruding beak, the circular eye — became more convincing the longer I looked.

It's at least dimly possible that a human hand has been at work here, perhaps in adding detail to a stone that originally looked only vaguely avian, but I suspect it's entirely the chance work of nature. With different light, from a different angle, on a different afternoon, the "profile" might not be evident at all. But our psychological impulse to find facial figures even in inert matter must be very strong, and lies, I suspect, at the origin of many things — art, language, religion. The ability to recognize a pattern, to transform that pattern into an information-bearing symbol, is surely the first step down the road to reading. And yet the ability must long predate us; animals too know instinctively what a face is, and even if differences in vision and psychology make it unlikely that they would see anything at all in this particular boulder, they are alive to all kinds of signs — visual, aural, olfactory — whose interpretation is a key part of their mental world.

Below are two more woodland presences: a stone cat (with a bit of imagination), and a howling Ovidian wood-beast.

Update: Below: the Dog.

Sunday, March 05, 2017


A man accidentally time-travels back to 1959, and is arrested on suspicion of counterfeiting when he attempts to buy lunch with a five-dollar bill dated decades in the future. His story is disbelieved until police open his wallet and find a photograph of a woman sitting under the completed Gateway Arch in St. Louis, ground for which has only recently been broken.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tout va (très) bien

I'm in the early stages of a long slow re-read of Cortázar's Hopscotch, and this time I'm making a point of annotating some of the many allusions scattered through the pages of the novel, allusions which would have been time-consuming to identify in the pre-internet when I read it for the first time (c.1978?), but which can now generally be tracked down in a matter of seconds. (There's even at least one Spanish-language blog specifically devoted to the task, Mi Rayuela.)

More on that project, perhaps, another time; this morning I looked up a scrap of French that can be found in Chapter 71: Tout va très bien, madame La Marquise, tout va très bien, tout va très bien. Here's a performance of the song from which those words were taken:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"No Amount of Walls"

"At the extreme, if climate change wreaks havoc on the social and economic fabric of global linchpins like Mexico City, warns the writer Christian Parenti, 'no amount of walls, guns, barbed wire, armed aerial drones or permanently deployed mercenaries will be able to save one half of the planet from the other.'" — Michael Kimmelman, "Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis," the New York Times, February 17, 2017

Also this week, Mike Males writes, in the Los Angeles Times:
Over the last two decades, California has seen an influx of 3.5 million immigrants, mostly Latino, and an outmigration of some 2 million residents, most of them white. An estimated 2.4 million undocumented immigrants also currently live in the state...

And yet, according to data from the FBI, the California Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control, the state has seen precipitous drops in every major category of crime and violence that can be reliably measured. In Trump terms, you might say that modern California is the opposite of "American carnage."...

Before the early 1990s, California had one of the country’s highest rates of violent death. It has since fallen by 18%, and did so as the average rate of violent death across the rest of the country rose 16%. Overall, Californians are 30% less likely to die a violent death today than other Americans.

In fact, compared with averages in all other states, California now has 33% fewer gun killings, 10% fewer murders overall, and 30% fewer illicit-drug deaths. When overdoses from illicit drugs rose 160% in the rest of the country, between 1999 and 2015, they rose only 27% in California.

In nearly every respect, California’s statistics contradict the image of America painted by Trump in his inaugural address — a place of rampant violence, drugs and crime, all stoked by liberal immigration policies.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Refuge (Harry Mathews)

The attractions: solitude and secrecy—the orchard in the hills like a kingdom, the forbidden manufacture of liquor a prowess all my own, blessed with the contemplation of fir and beech, wild plum and cherry, and the company of the shy marten and jay as well as of cocky wrens and wagtails; the challenges of hiking, labor, and barter; the relief of exhaustion; the reassurance of a smartly contracted horizon; the refuge of my dwelling, small, neat, and warm, with its pots of flowering wallpepper and thyme, my pet dormouse staring around the thyme, and the new ikon over my writing stool whose wood shines in the clear frame of stenchless fresh oil; soft if short hours in the lamplight, pen in hand, showered with the random amber of phantasmal summers, abundances, triumphs of art; visits from the widow.
The title section of the late Harry Mathews's Armenian Papers: Poems 1954-1984 purports to be an adaptation of an Italian translation of a lost Armenian original, "a manuscript of medieval poems that had mysteriously and irrevocably disappeared during the decade preceding the First World War," whose existence was revealed to Mathews, Marie Chaix, and David Kalstone in 1979 during a visit to the Armenian monastery of San Lazzaro in Venice by a certain Father Gomidas. San Lazzaro does in fact exist, and the three writers may well have made such a visit; the rest is made up out of whole cloth, perhaps inspired by a package of papier d'Arménie.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Beasts of the Northern Wild

This morning I crossed paths with a foraging possum. I'm not sure which of us was the more startled (the trail was otherwise deserted), but I took my pictures and went on my way.

Elsewhere, I found the decaying skeleton of a great horned wood-beast.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Monday, January 30, 2017

Krazy Kat's banjo

Cartoonist Chris Ware, in the New York Review of Books, on Krazy Kat's banjo:
I may be in the minority here, but I really think that most if not all readers of Krazy Kat during Herriman's lifetime would have had a hard time thinking of Krazy as anything but African-American... one detail in Herriman's strip that would have absolutely cemented this identity in the minds of contemporary readers has since passed into obscurity: Krazy Kat's banjo. Through received clichés and shifts of poverty and culture in America, the banjo has come to be thought of as an instrument of poor whites, but at the turn of the century, it was as emblematic as a watermelon as part of the African-American stereotype. In fact, the banjo has a solemn origin: descended from the West African akonting, xalam, and ngoni instruments, played as an accompaniment to storytelling by Wolof griots in Senegal or the Jola in Gambia, early instruments like what became the American banjo were recreated by American slaves from whatever plantation materials were at hand — gourds, turtle shells, coconuts, animal skins — to try to hold on to a memory of life and culture torn from their grasp.

To the modern reader, the banjo in Krazy Kat might seem a lighthearted accessory, but when Krazy picks it up to sing "There is a Heppy Land Fur, Fur Away," the meaning, to thoughtful readers of the 1920s to the 1940s, would have been clear. Even more astonishingly, Krazy never plays a "proper" banjo, but plays the gourd or coconut banjo, the origins of which by the time of the strip's appearance would indeed have been obscure. Herriman knew what he was doing, and it's not insignificant that the very last strip he left unfinished on his drawing table showed Krazy playing a gourd banjo.
Chris Ware, "To Walk in Beauty."

Related post: From the Archives: Krazy Kat

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sleepy Hollow, rising

Washington Irving's drowsy little village is now a busy multi-ethnic town, and today some 500 people from Sleepy Hollow and neighboring areas turned out on a beautiful winter afternoon for a march against the current administration's anti-immigrant policies. As the march passed street signs bearing names of immigrants dating back as far as Dutch times, the atmosphere was festive, friendly, and inclusive. The mayor joined the speakers in a park overlooking the Hudson, and there were plenty of dogs, strollers, and families.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Dreamers, rising

"Succeeding for me is how I can get my revenge. I want to break the stereotype of us being here taking jobs away and not helping the economy. I want Trump to see we're the total opposite of what he thinks." — Indira Islas, quoted in Dale Russakoff's article, "The Only Way We Can Fight Back Is to Excel," from the New York Times, January 29, 2017.

Also, from The Nation: "How to Fight Trump's Racist Immigration Policies."

Black lives, in black & white

"It was a real neighborhood, and a black experience no one talks about, because it wasn't filled with drugs and it wasn't filled with poverty. It was public schools, it was playing ball, it was playing music." — Arthur Bates, quoted in Anne Correal's account of how she recovered a discarded family photo album and traced the lives it recorded, from the New York Times, January 27, 2017.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Harry Mathews (1930-2017)

The writer Harry Mathews died yesterday. Weirdly, I found out because I looked him up to see what he was up to, well knowing that he was getting up there in years. I don't have anything particularly profound to say at the moment except what I would have said to Harry if I ever had the opportunity (we never met): "Thanks for writing those books." The obituary notices so far are mostly in French, but the Paris Review has a brief note and provides the one piece of good news: he completed a forthcoming new novel before he died.

My post from a few years back is here: Permutations of Mathews. Worth a listen is Isaiah Sheffer's hilarious reading of Mathews's story "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" (you can skip ahead to 1:10 or so).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Philip Roth: Presidents, real and imagined

From a New Yorker interview with Judith Thurman, Philip Roth on comparisons between his novel The Plot Against America, which imagined a Charles Lindbergh defeat of FDR, and our present situation:
It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump's American forebear is Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville's last—that could just as well have been called The Art of the Scam.
From the same interview:
I was born in 1933, the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I've been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish* than English.
On the present condition and role of the writer:
Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven't had their driver's licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don't live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump's river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.
* Jerkish: A term popularized by the Czech writer Ivan Klíma in his novel Love and Garbage. Said to have been developed for communication with chimpanzees, Jerkish has a vocabulary of only 225 words. Klíma characterized it as the standard dialect of Czechoslovakia's Stalinist-era politicians.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


These photos were taken in and around a tiny dry stream-bed or rill a few minutes' walk from where I live. Partly obscured by fallen trees, the location is only a few yards off a well-traveled trail, and there are signs of occasional visitors (water bottles, beer cans), but all things considered it's surprisingly pristine. There's no visible water in the gully, at least at the moment, but the water table is high enough to support a rich growth of mosses, lichens, fungi, and other flora. There are some interesting rock formations and veins of minerals as well.

I spent an hour or so clambering up the slope, trying to avoid crushing the delicate vegetation, taking as many photographs as I could, until I reached a knoll surmounted by the stone sentinels shown below. I'll go back again, but in the future I'll stick to the edges. Some things need their own space.