Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Charles-Frédéric Soehnée was born on November 3, 1789 in Landau in the Rhineland, to a respectable family who several years later relocated to Paris, where the young Charles-Frédéric studied art. During 1818 and 1819 he painted a series of curious watercolors, filling the pages of three notebooks with scenes set in a mostly barren landscape peopled by human figures whose faces are often obscured or turned away from the viewer and by a bestiary of fantastic creatures. In 1822 he published a volume of researches into the painting techniques of antiquity, specifically the employment of encaustic and varnish. He developed and marketed a varnish formula of his own, which was subsequently adopted by a number of artists, including Delacroix, and which made him a wealthy man. He lived to a great age, dying in Paris, in 1879. As far as is known, he never painted again.

The image above is captioned première halte (“first stop”). The shaggy beast of burden, which appears to be nursing one of its dismounted riders, has a vaguely insectivorous snout. There are other variations. In one painting the animal has an elongated trunk like an elephant's; in another it appears to be breathing fire. There is also an elongated slug-like creature, bearing at least a score of riders on its back, as well as outsized pink crustaceans and beasts whose living bodies are nothing but skeletons. In most of the more developed images there is a single bat, or occasionally more than one, soaring somewhere above. In one tableau a bat, its enormous wings outspread, gapes forward from its perch in the prow of a boat crowded with passengers, some of whom appear to be fishing using some kind of rodent-like mammal as bait.

I don't know much about the sources and traditions Soehnée may have drawn from when he created these paintings. In what appears to be the only volume devoted to his work, a catalogue issued (in French only) by the Galerie Jean-Marie Le Fell, several antecedents are mentioned, notably Goya. He may have had a grand design in mind, or perhaps he was just playing around, amusing himself as young doodlers often do. A number of Soehnée's pages are collections of figure studies, often not colored in, but whether finished or unfinished there is a unity to everything by his hand that has survived, a like desolation, a whimsy undercut by an unwavering emotional remoteness. Like the enigmas of the Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Serafinianus, Soehnée's paintings are fragments of an alien world that will never really quite be ours to enter.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Open road

The title of Peter Case's new CD brings to mind, of course, the Walker Evans / James Agee Depression-era collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, itself taken from Ecclesiasticus. Not being much of a Bible reader I haven't a clue how the author of Ecclesiasticus intended the phrase, but the Evans / Agee appropriation of it was clearly ironic, the idea being, more or less, how can you sing the praises of the mighty when human beings are living in the way this book documents?

I think it's safe to say that Case, on the other hand, intends his praise sincerely. The “Sleepy John” of the title is John Adam Estes, the great Tennessee blues singer whose heyday, at least as far as his recorded output goes, was in the 1930s, though he was eventually “rediscovered,” as they say, by blues fans and made some more records before he died in 1977. Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is not, however, a Sleepy John Estes tribute record. In fact, there's only one blues cover here and, strictly speaking, no Sleepy John songs on it at all, though that's not quite the whole story either (but I'll get to that). It's more of a tip of the hat, or the discharging of a debt, an acknowledgment, I imagine, of the late bluesman's role as an influence and as a model, perhaps, an example of how to make music with integrity and originality and by using the material of your own life and the things you see around you instead of hand-me-down notions about how you're supposed to live and think and pursue your craft.

Case has performed and recorded Sleepy John's material in the past, but I think the real kinship between them is less direct. Estes, after all, is the guy who made up a blues song about the local attorney (“Lawyer Clark Blues”), about a car mechanic (“Vassar Williams”), about the day he nearly drowned (“Floating Bridge”). It wasn't that he didn't draw from the common repertoire of Southern black (and white) music. Whatever our latter-day romantic notions about blues musicians as oracular folk poets, like every working musician of his era he had to keep an audience happy, and that would have meant playing lots of jug band tunes, novelty numbers, and above all plenty of music you could dance to. But Sleepy John found a way to carve out a space for something more personal too. What's more amazing is that somehow he managed to get a good chunk of it on record, which must have been quite an accomplishment given that record companies in the 1930s were not exactly staffed by altruists and the amount of creative control exercised by the musicians was basically nil. As hard as it may be in retrospect to understand, there had to have been an audience back then that appreciated the uniqueness of what Estes was doing, that dug the fact that he was singing about the particular, about people who resembled the people they knew and whose lives resembled the way they were living. (But hell, the guy could just flat out sing.)

Peter Case has had a lot of different lives as a musician, fronting a rock band, busking for change, making records as a singer-songwriter, but his music has always had a similar, unpretentious connection to the lives of people who won't ever make the cover of People magazine. There's probably a reason for that. As chronicled in As Far As You Can Go Without a Passport, the excerpt from his memoir-in-progress that was published earlier this year, Case left home in his teens, headed West, and wound up living rough in the streets of San Francisco in the early 1970s. He slept in flophouses and abandoned cars, battled addiction, spent mornings hanging around outside of liquor stores waiting for the doors to open. Since those days he's cleaned up and moved on, but many of his best songs, from Blue Guitar's “Entella Hotel” and “Poor Old Tom” to “Green Blanket, Part I” from Full Service, No Waiting, have roots in that part of his life. Never afraid of getting his hands dirty, or of encountering the unwashed (not to mention unhinged) he stands squarely in the same great, messy, democratic tradition that produced those restless spirits and bards of the common man, Walter Whitman and Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.

Rough and ragged at times but always vigorous and direct, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is the record he says he's always wanted to make; recorded largely solo (but with a few well-chosen collaborations) it's an unflinching, high-stakes, one-on-one with life. It's not a “live” album, in that it was recorded in a studio rather than before an audience, but with only minimal overlaying of tracks the record winds up being all the more intimate for that. There's no cheering audience here to remind you that, after all, you're not really there; it feels instead as if Case is sitting in your living room, or, more likely, playing in a small club (as he often does). That feeling is heightened by the homemade feel of the packaging (which uses hand lettering and Case's own drawings) and by the little quirks and bumps in the performance, things like hearing a fleeting chuckle in the singer's voice at something he must have seen in the studio, or the way Carlos Guitarlos's earthy background vocal, at the end of “Underneath the Stars,” lingers for a priceless second after Case stops singing.

The album's opening cut, “Every 24 Hours,” is a splendid guitar and vocal duet with the veteran British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, now, like Case, a transplanted Californian. Both musicians have strong, and long established, musical personalities that wouldn't, at first glance, appear to have a heck of a lot in common, but the truth is the combination works amazingly well. Case provides the sturdy rhythmic backbone, and Thompson contributes 4 1/2 minutes of characteristically inventive acoustic guitar work that never gets in the way of the song's momentum. In form, “Every 24 Hours” is a road song, narrating incidents of a journey between gigs, or maybe on the way home.
Drivin' twelve hours after the show
Hit the border at dawn and kept goin'
As the moon hit my path I was doin' the math
Will I make it? There's no way of knowin'
Being out in the world, whether that means on the road or on the street, is one of the strands that hold these songs together. Other strands are faith, fate, justice, being away from the ones you love, and that troublesome pursuit that most of us past a certain age can't seem to avoid, of looking back at the years of your own life and seeing how (or if) the pieces fit together. The rest of the songs pick up the threads, one or two at a time: “Million Dollars Bail” is about the special kind of justice this country makes available to those with the money or the clout to afford it; “Underneath the Stars” is about the last hours of a homeless woman; “The Open Road Song” looks back to a childhood encounter with a bum that left Case aching to follow in his footsteps. “Just Hangin' On,” which dates from 1970 and is said to be the first song Case wrote, gives a glimpse into how it all started; and then there's “Ain't Gonna Worry No More,” which begins with a typically vivid Peter Case word-picture:
Bare feet poppin' on a pinewood floor
A tumble-rush of desert flowers 'side the door
Music boxes pretty with the piebald stripes
Dust mote diamonds in a shaft of light
Come on down
I ain't gonna worry no more
Come on down
I ain't gonna worry no more

Everybody's laughin' now, it won't be long
We seen a lot of troubles, now the ghost is gone
Come on down
I ain't gonna worry no more
I ain't gonna worry no more
According to the press material from Yep Roc Records, the recorded take contained here is distilled from a 20-minute performance of the piece. The refrain — but little else, least of all the mood — is borrowed from an Estes tune, recorded in 1935 as “Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More.” It's not one of Sleepy John's more typical, personal songs, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if it was just a traditional Memphis night club staple, something you could have heard any night of the week on Beale Street in its heyday. The 1935 recording, which features several accompanying instruments including a kazoo, is ragged and carefree, the kind of thing that would appeal to people who wanted to let off steam after working all day for little money and less dignity — assuming there was work at all, that is.

Case's song, on the other hand, which he performs with just his own acoustic guitar, is intimate and wistful; it's one man's recollections, looking back at his ups and downs and reflecting on the state of the world around him. The lyrics range widely over events in his life, from trying to buy a bottle of schnapps at the age of fourteen to taking in a Lightnin' Hopkins concert to walking with the woman he loves on Mission Street in San Francisco. The song also touches on the Vietnam War and the price of bananas — and remember, this is just the short version. Some of the verses are as as polished and inspired as anything Case has written, others less so, but that's only to be expected, as the song feels like a work in progress, in parallel to a life in progress, the kind of thing that by definition can never really be finished. It's quite unlike anything he's ever recorded, and it's likely to leave you craving more.

There are other gems here. “I'm Gonna Change My Ways,” which is the only cut on the album to feature anything close to a rock arrangement, nods at Sleepy John's “Everybody Oughta Make a Change,” though, once again, Case takes the barest suggestion from the original and takes it somewhere else entirely. Finally, “That Soul Twist” closes the record where it began, on the road, with “another night, another show”:
Pressure's on
Money's tight
Everything will be all right
Stay awake
Stay alert
Do the things you know will work
The only strength is the strength to live
The only life is the life we give
We live to give
That's the word
And all the wisdom that I heard
But perhaps an even more apt summing-up can be found in these lines, from “The Open Road Song”:
I seek my fortune in the wide world
Take my chances in the cold
Come what may I'll be okay
If I could only find a stretch of open road.