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.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Millipede


Narceus americanus
Do millipedes dream? This one wasn't moving when I found it draped over a dead twig this morning. Its head (to the left in this picture) was bent down, so maybe it was sleeping off a rough night, or more likely it had a face full of whatever it is that millipedes eat. I took pictures at leisure — there's something to be said for an inert subject — then gave it a gentle prod. It moved off, but in no great hurry.

It appears to be Narceus americanus, the American giant millipede, which lives as long as ten years and can emit a noxious fluid to deter predators.

Elsewhere, I found a gloriously ruby-colored patch of what I believe is hairy pinesap (Hypopitys lanuginosa).

Monday, September 18, 2017

The owls



I was walking on a quiet back street in the next town north. Some twenty feet up in the branches of a great oak that rose up next to the sidewalk I caught sight a family of owls — two parents, and a fledgling — then saw three more owlets sheltered in a hollow at the base of the tree, peering out at me as I approached. That the owls were visible in broad daylight was not as remarkable to me as was the fact that they were sharing their quarters with a comparably-sized family of cats, who played and curled up with the little owlets, tails and wings fluttering and shaking together as I watched, as if nothing could have been more natural.

I hadn't brought my camera with me. I ran home — a distance of some five miles — and when I returned again I took a wrong turn down a parallel street. A Frenchman approached, seeing my camera and indicating his own which he carried around his neck, and asked me a highly technical question regarding photography. As I am essentially an ignoramus in that regard I apologized and said that I couldn't help him, but as compensation I offered to lead him to the tree, where he was sure to find a promising subject for his lens. We walked the few blocks that remained, but when we arrived we learned that the health department had ordered the people who owned the cats to send them away, as their presence was deemed a threat to the vulnerable owls. There was nothing left for the Frenchman and I to do except shake hands and exchange our farewells.

Image by Toshi Yoshida.

Friday, September 08, 2017

The world is inside of nothing


It's funny how the world is inside of nothing. I mean, you have your heart and your soul inside of you. Babies are inside of their mothers. Fish are out there in the water. But the world is inside nothing. I don't know if I like this or not but you better write it down.
I just watched Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 film Round Midnight again for the first time in nearly thirty years. This scene, in which saxophonist Dexter Gordon, playing a fictional jazz legend named Dale Turner, philosophizes while a friend's daughter plays on a French beach, is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It's a bit hokey, of course, but that's show business.

I can readily understand why a black filmmaker like Spike Lee had issues with a film like this, and there's much that could be said regarding its rehearsal of cultural clichés about black men who are in one way or another damaged being sympathetically "minded" by whites, as well as about the portrayal of jazz musicians as oracles rather than as disciplined, skilled professional musicians (see Cortázar's "The Pursuer," which may have been one of the inspirations for this film), but on the other hand this is one of the few fictional feature films from the second half of the twentieth century in which jazz musicians are actually played by jazz musicians rather than by professional actors. In addition to Gordon, who reportedly contributed to the development of the script, the cast includes Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and other luminaries. The music is splendid (and plentiful), Gordon and co-star François Cluzet are splendid, and you have this scene on the beach, all of which ought to count for something.

Maxine Gordon (Dexter's widow) has written a nice appreciation of the film.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Support DACA



More information on DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, can be found here.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Lal Waterson: To Make You Stay



Mike Waterson's songs on Bright Phoebus, like the title track or "Rubber Band," which contains such whimsical lines as "just like margarine our fame is spreading," tend to be fairly jaunty major-key sing-alongs with simple lyrics. His sister Lal's compositions, on the other hand, are more brooding and cryptic (I can't, for instance, make much sense of "Never the Same," pretty as it is), and they're also odder musically.

"To Make You Stay," which seems to be addressed to a child, is one of the lovelier ones. I'm no musicologist, but the melody, with its chant-like descent and sudden swerve at the end of the verse, doesn't seem to fit conventional Anglo-American song styles at all, and that fact is a tribute to this "folk" artist's originality. (Lal's singing is also much stranger than Mike's, which is earthy and distinctive but nevertheless not unfamiliar.)
Dear, dear, dear, I once had a starling
Dear, dear, dear, a pretty little darling
Dear, dear, dear, but she flew away in the nighttime
From under me right hand
This unofficially posted version, by the way, is not the remastered one recently made available on CD from Domino Recording. The album as a whole is well worth a listen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Coral Garden of the Forest


Clavulinopsis
Coral reefs aren't doing all that well these days, and in any case there are none within range of a day trip where I live, but on the other hand we have these coral and club fungi, which seemingly mimic some of the same shapes and colors.


These species aren't particularly rare, but on the other hand they're easily overlooked. Most of these examples were found in one small area a bit off the trail. The deer, which are plentiful in these woods, seem to have stripped off the undergrowth from this particular patch of ground, which just makes the fungi easier to spot.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Public Service Announcement



Some practical advice for eclipse-watchers, from Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lal & Mike Waterson: The Scarecrow



A beautiful, melancholy song with a sinister twist of child sacrifice in the third verse, "The Scarecrow" first appeared on an LP called Bright Phoebus in 1972. The artists, siblings Lal and Mike Waterson, were one half of the popular English folk quartet the Watersons, who were known for their a cappella renditions of carols and other traditional songs, but the LP, which featured original compositions and instrumental accompaniment, was poorly received at the time and has been largely unavailable since. It has now been remastered and released in the UK by Domino Records.

At least one of the other songs on Bright Phoebus ("Child among the Weeds") is said to have been prompted by the stillbirth of one of Lal Waterson's twins. The third verse of "The Scarecrow," however, was reportedly Mike Waterson's contribution.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On Rayuela



Every novel is philosophical, in that it consciously or (more usually) unconsciously embodies a theory of being. We know that this is true because novels are, by definition, fictive, that is, false. The rules by which a novel elaborates its false world (the "true" one being, in all likelihood, unknowable in any case) constitute its theory of how things are.

Interesting novels embody interesting theories of being, banal ones banal theories. Rayuela, as an antinovel, is antiphilosophical; it questions (by first thoroughly exploring) the very possibility of understanding, the possibility that any theory of being capable of expression in words (and how would it be a theory if it were not?), could ever be valid or even meaningful. Language is seen as self-refuting by nature. The real nature of being — if such a thing even exists — is irredeemably contaminated by the act of referring to it. A lemon may be adequately named by the word "lemon," at least for utilitarian purposes, but "love" (to choose just one example) is an idea whose referent is fatally entangled with its linguistic sign. To grasp what love is without taking into account how it has been named would require us to revert to a prelinguistic state. Such a project would, naturally, be self-defeating.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Purpose of Things

Guy Davenport, on family expeditions to gather arrowheads, when he was a child:
What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things – earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem never to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums...

I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing. My family, praises be unto the gods, never inspected anything that we enjoyed doing; criticism was strictly for adversities, and not very much for them. Consequently I spent my childhood drawing, building things, writing, reading, playing, dreaming out loud, without the least comment from anybody. I learned later that I was thought not quite bright, for the patterns I discovered for myself were not things with nearby models. When I went off to college it was with no purpose whatsoever: no calling in view, no profession, no ambition...

I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons. It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer. My father became so good at spotting arrowheads that on roads with likely gullies he would find them from the car. Or give a commentary on what we might pick up were we to stop: "A nice spearhead back there by a maypop, but with the tip broken off."

And it is all folded away in an irrevocable past. Most of our fields are now the bottom of a vast lake. Farmers now post their land and fence it with barbed wire. Arrowhead collecting has become something of a minor hobby, and shops for the tourist trade make them in a back room and sell them to people from New Jersey. Everything is like that nowadays. I cherish those afternoons, knowing that I will never understand all that they taught me.
"Finding," in Antaeus 29.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Coming Attractions



What I'll be reading this Fall: Mike Wallace's Greater Gotham, the long-awaited sequel to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the definitive history of the city that Wallace (no relation to the CBS correspondent) co-wrote with Edwin G. Burrows and published in 1999. Though slated to be slightly shorter than the first installment (which ran, with index, to nearly 1,400 pages), this follow-up covers a span of a mere twenty-one years — which, as it happens, corresponds fairly exactly to the period in the city's history that interests me most. Good news, even if it does leave one wondering when — if ever — the third installment will appear. A release date of September or October is projected for this one.

Also on the horizon: Harry Mathews's last novel, The Solitary Twin, is scheduled to be published by New Directions in March 2018.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

In Color (Spencer Holst)



"On moonless nights he walks over the oozy bog in snowshoes taking time exposures in color of luminous mushrooms. It is the police chief's son." — Spencer Holst

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Poems in their kind


Ramaria
Amanita
Russula parvovirescens
Oct. 10, 1858. The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest for us, compared with a mere mass of earth, because it is so obviously organic and related to ourselves, however remote. It is the expression of an idea, growth according to a law, matter not dormant, not raw, but inspired, appropriated by spirit. If I take up a handful of earth, however separately interesting the particles may be, their relation to one another appears to be that of mere juxtaposition generally. I might have thrown them together thus. But the humblest fungus betrays a life akin to my own. It is a successful poem in its kind. There is suggested something superior to any particle of matter in the idea or mind which uses and arranges the particles.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal
Mycena leaiana or Galerina marginata?
Artomyces pyxidatus?
Phallus
Cortinarius iodes?
Possibly Amanita amerirubescens
Lycoperdon perlatum
Humidicutis marginata

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sibyl's Testament


Pausanias (Book X in Peter Levi's edition) mentions a sibyl named Herophile who prophesied at various sanctuaries, including those at Samos, Delphi, and the Alexandria near Troy (not to be confused with the more famous Egyptian one). In the last she was temple-keeper to Apollo Smintheus — the name means, or was interpreted to mean, Apollo of the Mice — and after her death the following epitaph was inscribed in stone above her remains. (Phoibos — Φοῖβος — is Apollo.)
I Sibylla, Phoibos's wise woman,
am hidden under a stone monument:
I was a speaking virgin but voiceless
in this manacle by the strength of fate.
I lie close to the Nymphs and to Hermes:
I have not lost my sovereignty.
An earlier and more pedestrian translation of the epitaph reads: "Here hidden by stone sepulchre I lie, Apollo's fate-pronouncing Sibyl I, a vocal maiden once but now for ever dumb, here placed by all-powerful fate, and I lie near the Nymphs and Hermes, in this part of Apollo's realm."

In one of his copious footnotes Peter Levi tells us that the Sanctuary of Apollo Smintheus was identified in 1853 and excavated in 1866. "The bronze votive mice associated with this sanctuary turn up from time to time."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Naima



Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. Richard Williams has a brief appreciation at The Blue Moment. Below is a track from Giant Steps (1959).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liu Xiaobo



The Chinese critic and activist Liu Xiaobo has died. A related New York Times article by Chris Buckley reflects on the bleak prospects for democracy and free expression in China. With authoritarianism of various stripes firmly entrenched in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and the lack of interest in human rights issues shown by our own current administration, the optimistic days of 1989 now seem very distant. Never forget.

Here is the full text of Charter 08. A related New York Times article examines the grim prospects for China's human rights lawyers.

Also in today's obituaries is one for Irina Ratushinskaya, former Soviet-era political prisoner and author of a fine memoir, Grey Is the Color of Hope.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pale arrivals



One of my favorite moments of the year — the emergence of Monotropa uniflora, familiarly known as Indian pipes. They've waited out the spring, and with the first days of summer they pop up in little clusters here and there among last year's fallen leaves, in decent abundance if it's a good year and you know where to look. True flowering plants, they don't photosynthesize but take their energy from an association with fungi concealed in the ground, often in the vicinity of beech trees. They rise and unfurl, and as summer wears on fade into inconspicuous brown stalks. But for now, standing there ghostly white or faintly pink, silent, inoffensive, they seem welcome and restorative.