Remembering and Celebrating Will Owen

On January 29, 2016, several hundred people gathered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remember and celebrate Will Owen.

Will worked at the UNC-Chapel Hill University Library for four decades. Here is a brief description of Will’s year’s at UNC from the program:

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In Memoriam

On this day, five year ago, December 2, 2015, the author of this blog, Will Owen, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep.

In the coming weeks, I will be sharing some unpublished writings and other reminiscences of Will. If any of his friends are still watching this blog, I would be happy to post your memories of Will.

Walter Stine

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Huck Finn’s Identity

huck-finnI know it’s foolish to try to nominate a single work of art (or anything else for that matter) as quintessentially American (or anything else for that matter).  It’s a parlor game akin to desert isle choices and the favorite child.  Nonetheless, if you asked me to think of the most representative of American of artworks, I’d truthfully choose Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a heartbeat.  In fact, I’d be hard pressed to decide what came in second.  Hemingway famously said that American literature begins with this “one book by Twain,” and there has been “nothing as good since.”  Even an avant-gardist like Laurie Anderson seems to recognize the unique way in which Huck Finn captures the spirit of America.  Her 1984 six-hour, four-part performance art extravaganza was called United States and she concluded it with a short piece entitled “Lighting Out for the Territories,” a paraphrase of  Huck’s plans for his next adventure.

I was lucky with Huck Finn; I was never required to read it in school and so encountered it for the first time in my early twenties.  I’d read plenty of short works by Twain, and had laughed heartily through them, but I was still surprised by how much plain old fun Huck was.  Of course, in recent years the book has become beleaguered by the controversy surrounding Twain’s liberal use of the work “nigger,” and somehow the book has lost its luster as a comic masterpiece, at least in editorial discussion.

So I decided, forty years after my first go, that it was time to read the book again.

It’s every bit as good, and as funny, as I remember it; maybe even better.  There’s an elegance to the plotting and structure of the novel that complements the knowing wink with which Twain perpetually addresses us readers.  Huck’s naiveté is a blind for true sophistication (that we can appreciate as much as Twain does); his guilelessness is matched by his craftiness, his willingness to deceive by his unimpeachable honesty.  It’s clear that Twain has both a high regard and a soft spot in his heart for his creation; we as readers, and more importantly as Americans, do too.  Huck is who and what we all want to be.  Well, at least us white folk.

There are a few fundamental dichotomies that structure the world that Huck lives in and in which he and Jim (and to a lesser degree Tom Sawyer) have their adventures.  Perhaps the most obvious and important one in the story is the distinction between the river and the shore.  The river is freedom, movement, adventure, and high spirits.  When Huck and Jim are on their raft they abide in an Edenic, uncomplicated world.  (The prelapsarian quality of this existence is marked by the unashamed nakedness of the pair as they are carried along on the current.)

In contrast, the riverbank towns are almost always locations of imprisonment and conformity of one sort or another.  From the start, the widow is civilizing the restless Huck until his pap shows up and literally imprisons the boy in a cabin further upstream.  Later in the book the towns along the river threaten the freedom of runaway Jim, and become sites of danger thus for Huck, who is complicit in the slave’s escape.

When the pair meet up with the Duke and the King, their adventures ashore are another kind of imprisonment, forced as they are to go along with the ever more elaborate and dangerous schemes of these faux royals.  Even in the extended concluding episode, when Jim is literally taken prisoner and in danger of being sold down the river, Huck himself has to submit to the madcap Romantic ideals of Tom Sawyer as they plot, in an ever more baroque and ludicrous fashion, to rescue Jim and make their escape back onto the river.

If being ashore means being somehow imprisoned, or at the least, in someone else’s control, that lack of freedom is manifested as well in questions of identity.  Whenever Huck is ashore, he is almost always in disguise or under an assumed identity.  He masquerades as a girl to discover if there’s news of himself and Jim abroad; he plays the supporting actor in the scams the Duke and the King perpetrate.  Finally, and most absurdly, after Jim has been captured, he assumes Tom Sawyer’s identity at Aunt Sally’s, forcing Tom to impersonate his brother Sid when he arrives.

It is only on the river that the boys can be themselves, and here again, their nakedness as they float downstream suggests the truth of their identities aboard the raft: nothing hides who they are and they have to hide from no-one.

They don’t have to hide on the raft because they travel by night: the darkness hides them and keeps them safe.  Is it ironic (as well as naturalistic) that it is only in the blackness of night that Huck and Jim are free?  If the river is freedom, it is also a darkness that the two share, in contrast to the differing colors of their skin.

This pair of refugees is bound together by the very essence of being (Jim) and abetting (Huck) a runaway slave.  Huck knows that what he’s doing is illegal and dangerous and in some way wrong; but he can’t do otherwise.  To turn Jim in, to condemn him once again to slavery and to deny Jim the chance of ever being reunited with his family, is impossible.  Such an act would violate the very core of Huck’s identity.  If Huck is so sympathetic to Jim’s plight, so assured of the rightness of his own actions in keeping Jim free, what are we to make of his persistent use of the word nigger to describe Jim?

Huck never uses any other word.  At the time at which the action of the book takes place—prior to the Civil War—the most common term for Africans and their descendants (at least according to Google’s ngram viewer) was “negro.”  Twain uses the word only in his “Author’s Notice” to describe a dialect he employs in the book.  The next most common term in the Google corpus is exactly “nigger,” which outstrips “coon” by far; “darkie” is rare in comparison. So the available choices, largely, were “negro” and “nigger,” and the latter is clearly more degrading.

I’d argue that its use highlights Huck’s heart, rather than his mind and mouth.  Twain’s “Author’s Note” tells us that “The shadings [of dialect] have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly….”  Huck speaks as he was brought up to speak, but he acts solely upon his conscience, and Twain’s unvarying choice of the word “nigger” demonstrates the difference.

On the campus of my university in the American South there was a building named after a prominent politician in our state who flourished in the years after the Civil War.  He was also a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.  A furious debate went on for months recently over whether the building should be renamed.  (I’ll point out as an aside that the lines were not drawn with respect to race, as one might expect.)  One sides argued that erasing history does not undo its legacy; the other than honoring that history honors that legacy.

It would be difficult to erase The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from American literary history, and self-defeating to try.  I would argue that to bowdlerize is to rob it of one of the chief strategies for articulating its argument about the equality of the races.  If anything, the book demands more from education, not less.   I just hope that in the process, nobody attempts to make Huckleberry Finn cramped up and sivilized.

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Views from the Whitney

whitney-thumb We were in New York City recently for a very extended weekend.  One of the major highlights we were looking forward to was a visit to the new Whitney Museum of American Art, relocated to Chelsea at the very foot of the High Line.  I was excited to see the museum itself: after all museums are one of the prime sites of daring experiments in architecture ever since Frank Gehry built a Guggenheim in Bilbao.  There was also a major retrospective of one of my favorite American artists, Frank Stella.  And expanded space for the permanent collections, I’d heard, and visiting the third floor of the old Breuer building uptown had been a perennial activity back in the day when I traveled to New York more frequently.

Sadly, the museum building itself turned out to be rather a disappointment architecturally.  The view from the street was promising, if not actually inviting.  But once inside a miserable sense of generic white boxes stacked atop and beside one another proved to be the most enduring impression of the space.  Beyond that, it is another pyramidal structure, which I’ve come to believe is a poor choice for a museum, for as you ascend ever higher, there’s less square footage per floor, and therefore less to see.  It breeds a sense of accumulative disappointment.


When the museum opened, much was made of the first exhibition, which devoted all of the galleries to the permanent collection and allowed for the bringing forth of works that hadn’t been displayed in a long time.  Many unfamiliar paintings and sculptures remained on view in the 7th floor galleries, all that remain devoted to the permanent collection now.  But by and large, the works themselves were inferior to those by the same artists that had graced the permanent galleries on 5th Avenue years ago.  The Morris Louis and John Chamberlain pieces were especially disappointing; the Pollocks seemed lifeless, and only the DeKooning and Guston paintings were a pleasure to behold.


whitney-christopher-woolOne floor below, Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner offered a broad perspective on art of the past forty years or so, all of it destined as a gift to either the Whitney or the Centre Pompidou in Paris.  Much of the work could be described as post-Conceptual, set exemplified, perhaps by numerous works in multiple media (as opposed to multimedia works) by American Christopher Wool (one example at right).  Hito Steyerl’s installation of three large Macintosh video displays (“Red Alert”) looked at first to be a triptych of pure red canvas, a kind of überminimalist Ellsworth Kelly spectrum.  But it turns out that the screen are projecting an unending loop of frames of identical red rectangles: it’s a movie that doesn’t move.   Also in evidence were a couple of Richard Prince’s “Monochromatic Jokes” (bad one-liners stenciled onto large canvases: “I went to see a psychiatrist.  He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did and now he’s doing my act.”)

whitney-goberMy favorites in this exhibition though we are pair of Robert Gober’s industrial/medical sinks.  When I first saw these at another Whitney exhibition in the mid-80s, the context of the emerging AIDS crisis made them seem horrific and grim, sterile and heartless totems, creepy and depressing.  Today though, while they retain the traces of all those feelings, I can’t help but find the humor in them, especially given the title of the work (“The Ascending Sink”) and because, somehow, my eye wants to see a pair of cartoon pelicans in them, an effect I’m quite sure the artist never intended, but which still makes me smile.  There was also a lovely 1980 work by Gibert and George, called “Up,” that brought back the days before cartoon color and composition leached much of the subtlety from their photographs.


Given the wealth of what was to be seen inside the museum (and I’ll have more to say about the Stella exhibition another time), I felt almost guilty in the amount of pleasure I derived from looking outside, away from the museum.  For if nothing else, the Whitney’s position on the lower East Side offers some stunning panoramas of New York (and occasionally New Jersey across the Hudson River).  It certainly helped that the day of our second visit was brilliant and clear, a gibbous moon perched high in the sky to the west, the sky a blue that comes all too rarely into view in New York.

Luckily, some of those views include sculpture on the terraces, so I can offer some art in my photographs.

Robert Morris's 3 Ls framed in a window

Robert Morris’s 3 Ls framed in a window

David Smith gleaming against a view of the Empire State Building and the Port Authority

David Smith gleaming against a view of the Empire State Building and the Port Authority

Scott Burton's marble furniture looks even better when people are using it

Scott Burton’s marble furniture looks even better when people are using it

But who’s to say that New York’s architecture isn’t a work of art in its own right?

The southern end of the High Line

The southern end of the High Line


Lower Manhattan is an endless assemblage

One World Trade Center from afar

One World Trade Center from afar

A revolving door leads out to the terraces and stairways

A revolving door leads out to the terraces and stairways

Late afternoon sun sparkles on the Hudson River through protective shades

Late afternoon sun sparkles on the Hudson River through protective shades

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The String Band Mid-Stream

changing-horses-creationOn one of the furtive escapes into Manhattan I made with my friends Tommy and Jimmy during high school, we were hanging out in Greenwich Village when a Bob-Dylan-wannabe-look-alike on the corner of Bleecker and Macdougall offered us tickets to a lecture that promised a vision of a new church for the twentieth century.  We laughed and said, why not?  And dutifully tramped off at six o’clock that evening to a hall where the Dylan wannabe got up to the podium, introduced himself as Howard, and lectured us for the better part of an hour about thetans and clears and reincarnation.  He then answered a series of penetrating questions from audience members.  We snorted impudently in our seats and whispered among ourselves about whether Howard might have been a cow in a previous lifetime.  The bottom of any credulity fell out with a thud when Howard asked if there were any clears in the audience.  I’m pretty sure Jimmy was about to make a fag joke when all the penetrating questioners in the audience proudly rose to their feet.  That was my introduction to Scientology.

I suspect that it was around the same time that the members of Incredible String Band first encountered Scientology because the effects of their interest surfaced in the fall on 1969 with the release of their fifth album, Changing Horses.  The title no doubt was intended to convey the abandonment of weed for a different form of higher consciousness.  But it also reflected a change in their musical style, for along with Scientology came electric guitars, a change that was much more apparent and appealing.

The Celtic folkiness infused with Mediterranean orientalism that had been a hallmark of the style up to this point gave when to more straightforward psychedelic folk rock on several of the shorter tunes that Robin Williamson wrote for this record, starting right away with “Big Ted,” a song about an ex-pig.  WIth Mike Heron picking up an electric guitar and backed by his girlfriend Rose Simpson on electric bass, Licorice McKechnie took on the acoustic guitar duties to free Robin up to play the washboard.  The song is jug band meets music hall, an elegy for a great old pig who’s “gone like snow on the water,” a lovely image whose wistfulness is rather at odds with the rollicking chorus:

A-Boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy [repeat]
Squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly
A-Boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy
Sham sham sharoo, oh, sham sham sharoo, Big Ted’s sold and gone

Changing horses, indeed.

The influence of Scientology comes through most strongly on “Dust Be Diamonds,” the sole composition in the String Band’s output that is credited to both Heron (music) and Williamson (lyrics).  There’s a slightly goofy chorus where all four voices promises you can be “happy all the time” if “dust be diamonds, water be wine,” sung to the accompaniment of kazoo and way-wah pedal.  The wisdom of Jesus and the Buddha is invoked, along with a Hubbardian determination to put past preoccupations behind and face the future without tears or regrets; it’s all in the positive attitude.

Heron also authored a chorale in four-part harmony, “Sleepers Awake!”  Although it owes nothing but its title to the Bach cantata (“Wachet auf,” BWV 140), Heron does try once more to evoke the religious feeling he experimented with on The Big Huge in “The Mountain of God.”  But here there is no overt Christian message, but rather a pantheistic joy in the glory of nature as revealed in a morning full of bird song and sap rising to “the light’s first ring.”  The same optimism that infused “Dust Be Diamonds is here to from the opening invocation:

Sleepers, awaken! The night has gone and taken,
Your darkest fears and left you here,
And the sun it shines so clear,
And the sun it shines so clear.
Oh wake for the world looks wonderful.

Changing Horses is dominated by two long compositions, one by each of the men, the largest canvases that either had attempted to date, outdistancing even Mike’s grand “A Very Cellular Song” from The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.  In the middle position on the first side of the album, Heron presents himself both an an archetypal seeker treading a path of sorrow and as the “White Bird” that represents a kind of redemption and release from worldly care.

Structurally, the song is classic ISB.  Mike, as composer and singer, handles the basic guitar duties, while Robin contributes a mix of exotic instruments including flute, sarangi, and “Chinese banjo.”  Rose handles the electric bass chores and does an especially fine job driving the pulsating middle section (where Licorice adds the organ chops) in which the singer chronicles his despair before the dawn.  The chorus is a simple invocation (“White bird of the morning”) that builds from a slow, almost murmured chant to a rousing, banging, sing-along celebration.  For all that, it’s never been one of my favorites in their repertoire; parts are baggy and noodly, and Mike’s done this better both before and after this point.

changing-horses-white-birdThe lyrics to “White Bird” form half of the artwork in the inner sleeve of the album’s fold out cover.  (The other half is a somewhat baggy and noodly watercolor by Robin.)  Five tondos illustrate in a vague sort of chinoiserie the story of the traveler.  They are lovely amateur sketches, and I wouldn’t remark upon them much except that the fourth in the series is special to me.  Capturing the transition from night today, it depicts a crooked tree branch, almost leafless, poised between a full moon high int he sky and a rising sun.  And I know that when Mike painted it, he was thinking back to the opening of The 5000 Spirits and his song “Chinese White”: “The bent twig of darkness grows the petals of the morning.”  Still my favorite single line from a String Band song.

Robin’s magnun opus on Changing Horses remains near the top of my list of all-time favorites: “Creation.”  Textured and incantatory, the song’s multi-movement structure maintains a coherent sound for almost its entire length, disintegrating only at the end into a strange musical-hall coda.  (Lyrically, even that coda maintains the gorgeous imagery that sets “Creation” apart.  There may be kazoos there, but there’s also an amethyst galleon under a bruised sky’s glance.)

In the first movement, Robin recites his poetry over a swaying, chanted melody, rich with percussion.  The lyrics can be intriguing (“Ask anyone, he muttered, as he spat a small, brilliant blue insect whirring into the gauze”) or silly (“I smiled with that gallantly concealed forcel nervousness that has proved that oysters cry”), but they are always sonorous, and ultimately sound means more than sense.  In the second movement, the female deity, recalling “Job’s Tears” on Wee Tam, works through seven days of creation.  These are scarcely the Mosaic days, though, but a Graeco-Roman planetary colorfest:

In the fourth black and white were mingled into quicksilver
And she coloured Mercury
And she made a day of wisdom
And the signs that are placed in the firmament

The third movement is a lively dance for violin and voices, a Celto-Bulgarian scherzo setting for a series of koans.

I am the pebble in your very own eye
I am the sword and your enemy dies.
I am the storm and the hurricane wind
I am the thorn of an unkind friend
I am desire what colour my eyes?
I am Loki wizard of lies
Catch me, find me, see me if you can
I am the guilt of an honest man

A da capo section follows in which the chanting seems to recount a primeval fall that looses humanity on its voyage.  The extended coda in all its honky-tonk glory can call up another ship of fools with its “amethyst galleon out on the rolling sea,” that reminds me a “Maya” from The Big Huge.

Changing Horses, aptly named, is a pivotal moment in the String Band’s history.  Apart from the Scientology, the advent of electric instruments adumbrates the future history of the group.  The atmosphere of childlike wonder, and mystical naiveté begins to recede as the arrangements become more sophisticated.  The duo of Mike and Robin officially becomes a quartet as Rose and Licorice appear on the album’s cover for the first time—and ironically, the cover photograph is by Janet Shankman, whom Robin would marry in a few years, ending his relationship with Licorice at about the same time as Rose would leave the band.  The seeds of change are sown; the silver age is about to give way.


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Psychedelic Fever

fever-treeStart with a base of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; add a dash of Ravel’s Bolero early on.  Blend in Vanilla Fudge liberally, and do it with Love.  Layer in some heavy soul, and sprinkle liberally with Seeds.  Jazz it up by serving in flutes.  This easy recipe can be made in Texas and California.  Enjoy.

When I was in my second year of high school, the guy who sat in front of me in home room turned to me one morning and said, “You like all that weird music, don’t you?”  The year was 1968, and I had to admit that he was right.  Turns out his cousin worked at a radio station and occasionally passed on comp copies of new albums they’d received and my classmate had something he hated so much he was sure that I’d like it.  Heck, I’m not proud, so I said yes.

The next day he brought in the album for me, which turned out to be the eponymous debut of a band out of Houston by way of LA: Fever Tree.  My classmate turned out to be right: I liked that weird music.

1968 was a good year for psychedelic music from San Francisco, LA, and London, and lots of places in between.  It was the year of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, the Airplane’s Crown of Creation, the Dead’s Anthem of the Sun and Moby Grape’s Wow!.  The Doors released Waiting for the Sun, The Notorious Byrd Brothers changed the band’s image, and Iron Butterfly got Heavy before releasing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, while the Mothers declared they were only in it for the money.  Across the pond, the Nice debuted with both The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Ars Longa Vita Brevis, Eric Burdon returned from Monterey with The Twain Shall Meet, Every One of Us and Love Is, and the Move release their first, self-titled album.  It was the year of Cream’s Wheels of Fire, Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, Traffic, Nazz, and Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets.

Fever Tree was pretty small change amongst all that, but I fell for them hard, perhaps because they blended so many of the themes that were emerging at the time, which is probably just another way of saying that there was plenty of calculating going on about how to make a splash and find a way onto the airwaves.  I suspect they did neither, and I was surprised to find that all four of their albums can still be purchased on CD (in two double-album compilations) on Amazon.  I don’t know a soul who’s ever heard of them.

But when my order of their first two records, Fever Tree and Another Time, Another Place arrived in the mail last week, I took an instant time trip back through 35 years, and every note sounded as fresh in my mind as if I’d hear the albums last month.

Fever Tree opens with a pair of tracks called “Imitation Situation” and “Where Do You Go?”  The first tune starts out with some rattling percussion, a flamenco guitar run, and then the opening riff of the Bach Toccata.  When the vocals kick in, they’re accompanied by trumpet and strings that come straight out of the orchestral arrangements from the classic psychedelic gospel of the previous year, Love’s Forever Changes.  The melody gets cuts off mid-phrase by a modulated electronic glissando and dissolves into a chemically altered guitar wail that serves as the lead-in to “Where Do You Go.”  The instrumental break on that song is supplied by Rob Landis’s flute, and stolen straight from Bolero.   When the verse returns, the guitar gets twisted up and down the scales to produce an effect that’s not far removed from the effects you’ll find on 1968’s great electronic psychedelic episode, The United States of America, another self-titled debut album.

For all these flirtations with classical music and musique concrète effects, Fever Tree’s roots as a bar band are never hidden for long.  Although many of the songs were authored by the producer team of Scott and Vivian Holtzman, there are some great covers that show where the band was coming from, starting with Wilson Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine and One-Half.”  What’s probably the first cover of a Neil Young song, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” did a lot to confirm my newly minted admiration for Young.  I’d been blown away by 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Revisited, where Young actually got to sing his own songs, like “Mr Soul” and “Broken Arrow,” for the first time.  (The version of “Clancy” on the Springfield’s debut was sung by Richie Furay; the producers thought Young’s voice too thin to carry the song, one of the more spectacular misjudgments in rock history.)

There’s a medley of “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” that opens with another nod back to Bach via a contrapuntal harpsichord and guitar introduction.  It gets gussied up with horns interpolating riffs from “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby”: more echoes of Forever Changes.  The transition from “Day Tripper” to “We Can Work It Out” is handled cleverly by fusing the two songs’ lyrics together: “It took me so long to find out / Life is very short.”

fever-tree-2Fever Tree as bar band returned with a vengeance on the follow-up album.  Another Time, Another Place has a completely different sound and feel to it, and Fever Tree announced it right away.  The second album starts off with a reworking of one of the songs from Fever Tree, “The Man Who Paints the Pictures.”  The version on the debut album sounds like the Seeds, with snare rolls and snappy guitars.  The remake begins with slow bass chords that are straight out of the school of electric blues as practiced by groups as diverse as the Blue Project or Eric Burdon and the Animals.  In truth, the sound probably owes more to the Vanilla Fudge and their throaty electric organ sounds than anything else.

The next track, “What Times Did You Say It Is In Salt Lake City,” literally plays homage to the bar band ethos, with a flubbed intro and overdubbed background noises reminiscent of Janis’s atmospheric exertions on “Turtle Blues” from Cheap Thrills.  Much of the rest of the album sticks with this heavy, dark inflection.  The experimentation of the psychedelic era was giving way to the ascendant electric blues and jazz tradition that we’d hear so much of at Woodstock.  There’s a gentle, acoustic interlude on side two, “I’ve Never Seen Evergreen,” that’s sung by guitarist Michael Knust sounding like Donovan without the Scottish burr and that recalls some of the delicacies from Fever Tree (like “Filigree and Shadow” and “Come With Me”).  The seven-minute “Jokes are For Sad People” instrumental trades the honky-tonk bar ambience for the jazz lounge: it’s ambitious but ultimately a little dull.

You don’t have to read what I’ve written hear very closely to find the subliminal message: Fever Tree was not a band of striking, fundamental originality.  They were, however, very good at taking everything that was in the air around them at the moment and fusing into something that could have had real commercial potential and bridged the AM sensibility of snappy pop with the emerging FM tenets of album-oriented rock.  They weren’t a great band, and they certainly didn’t make rock ‘n’ roll history.  On the other hand, they weren’t a cheap rip-off like The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and others best forgotten.  Even the two sides of their early single, “I Can Beat Your Drum” b/w “Hey Mister,” available on volume 12 of Mindrocker are good fun and above average for the genre, if not as interesting as the album material.  An hour spent with these two records serves as a very pleasant anthology of 1968’s musical trends.  I’m surprised by how good they still sound so many years later.

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Detectives Without Borders

may-macleodReading genre fiction offers a host of pleasures.  There’s a certain predictability—in the case of detective fiction these days, often a quirky character who inner life or family life can provide continuity across a series of novels.  Plots can surprise in their details while still conforming to an expected and pleasurable pattern.  If you like, detective fiction offers a challenge—whodunit?—or, if you’re like me, just the enjoyment of watching a cleverly constructed puzzle unfold without worrying too much about how it will end: it usually ends for the best.

But perhaps the greatest satisfaction lies in the knowledge that there will be an almost endless supply of novels by an assortment of writers that in itself seems limitless.  I don’t mind the occasional cozy village story, especially after a spate of Scandinavian noir.  The hardboiled streets of Los Angeles or Detroit offer a change of pace from dastardly realms of academe.  And there are always plenty of friends willing to recommend a new author, a different landscape.

Lately I’ve gotten caught up in the novels of British author Peter May.  May has published approximately two dozen novels, some stand-alone ventures, other in three series featuring different detectives in different locales.  I’ve sampled two of the series, and have been delighted by their ingeniousness as well as the intriguing differences among them.

I started, for no particular reason, with the first of what are known as “The Enzo Files.”  Set in France, these feature Enzo Macleod, a Scottish professor of forensic biology who has retreated from an unhappy domestic life to establish a new living for himself as a professor at a small university in the south of France.

The first novel in the series, Extraordinary People (Poisoned Pen Press, 2006), sets the stage for those to come by positing a bet whereby Macleod will seek to unravel a number of unsolved murders.  Jacques Gaillard was a public intellectual and political gadfly when he suddenly disappeared without a trace.  Macleod travels to Paris to undertake the investigation, and begins by visiting the dead man’s mother.  She has conveniently left his apartment untouched for a decade, and even more conveniently draws attention to Gaillard large collection of films, and then finally and most absurdly reveals his devout spiritual life, centered on a nearby church.

The astute Macleod, having been gifted with these seemingly unconnected snippets of a life, visits the church and immediately recognizes bloodstains at the altar rail.  He is off and running, so to speak, and before long has stumbled on a metal box secreted in a labyrinthine underground series of tunnels, also conveniently exposed by recent construction work in the city.  The odd assortment of items in the box set an irresistible rebus for Macleod, who wastes no time unraveling the pointers they represent to yet another buried cache.

Much of the book follows Macleod, his daughter, her weightlifting boyfriend, a slinky, sexy new love interest, and a poor peasant’s daughter as they race across the French countryside discovering the location of box after box of artifacts, each one pointing them to another, until the last one they unearth leads them back to the location of the first in the Parisian catacombs.  If credulity is strained, the whole escapade is so ingenious and written with such panache that the fun of following the joyride overwhelmed any critical response I might otherwise have mounted to its sheer improbability.

may-firemakerThe tone is quite different (although the sly sense of humor is not) in The Firemaker (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), the first of an earlier series known as “The China Thrillers.” Margaret Campbell, another forensic scientist, has accepted the offer of a six-week residency in China in the hopes of escaping from a deep personal misery that is only hinted at until halfway through the novel.  Almost immediately upon arriving in the sweltering capital of Beijing, her car and driver knock a severe-looking Chinese policeman, Li Yan, off his bicycle, and cultural confusion and confrontation immediately complicate the plot.

Dr. Campbell is called in to perform an autopsy on the body of an unidentified man who was discovered burning to  death in a park at sunrise; two other bodies are discovered nearby soon after.  With panache and improbability that would make Enzo Macleod proud, Campbell quickly identifies the corpse, who fortunately had studied in the United States some years earlier.  An unlikely alliance grows up between Campbell and Li, who quickly fall afoul of the authorities and almost as quickly fall in love, despite the inauspicious beginnings of their relationship.

Overall, though, the timbre of The Firemaker is far more serious than that of the Macleod novels; this is a political thriller laced with a murder mystery and an exercise in cross-cultural confrontation at personal and social levels.  Eventually, things get very dangerous for the pair of sleuths, and their final attempts to elude a steely contract killer by escaping to Mongolia offer an opportunity for a panoramic look at China’s varied cultural and geographical landscapes.

If I had to choose one word to characterize the three novels by May I’ve sampled so far (including the second Enzo Macleod, The Critic, about the quintessential French occupation of winemaking), that word would be “fun.”  The stories are well and intricately plotted, but there’s an undeniable Gaelic mischievousness that never sinks far below the surface of mayhem that carries the plots along.  The write-ups on Amazon of his latest “Lewis Trilogy,” set on the bleak Outer Hebrides, hint that May has turned serious in recent years, but the books have proven so popular at the public library that I haven’t been able to get my hands on them yet.  But however that turns out, I’m looking forward to a few more years of indulgent delight in May’s international wit.

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Mix Tape #1

The musical landscape in my head has changed a lot lately.  I guess this all goes back to seeing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Paris last year.  And then last November at Lincoln Center, the Bach Mass in B Minor.  In the Saint-Chapelle, it was just thrilling to see musicians sweat through those famous gyrations.  In New York, I began to think for the first time about how Bach put vocal music together, how choruses worked in contrast to soloists, how I heard obbligato instruments contrasting to voices while they simultaneously supported them.

It became obvious that it was time for me to listen more, to no longer content myself with the Brandenburgs or Vivaldi’s chiming concerti for mandolin.  I needed to acquire a new corpus of music to listen to.  Thanks to iTunes and Amazon, I’ve built a grand new library for myself in recent months, and I’ve taken to loading up the iNano for listening on breaks from the office during the day.

My first mix tape was a winner.  Here’s what I discovered.

vivaldi-cello-sonatasI started off with the first of a two-disc set, Vivaldi: Complete Cello Sonatas, recorded by Ophélie Gailliard and Pulcinella.  From the first notes there was an athleticism to the sound of this music that I wasn’t expecting at all.

A lot of that stemmed from ignorance: I didn’t really understand the notion of the sonata form as essentially written for a solo instrument with continuo (at least that’s how it worked during the Baroque).  Nor did I know that the sonata was built in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast.  I was really thinking about the concerto: solo instrument with larger ensemble backing and typically fast-slow-fast structure.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that when the Largo from the Cello Sonata No. 3 in A minor came through the earbuds.  I just knew that the cello sounded unusually strong and gutsy.  You can hear the bow bounce off the strings sometimes, and I like the immediacy of that.  After a while I realized that although occasionally a conventional harpsichord is used, mostly the continuo is provided by a guitar.  And often the guitar is strummed, adding to the slap and verve of the music.  Pulicnella is clearly not your garden-variety chamber ensemble.  This is an album I’ve been playing a lot when I sit down at the computer these days.

bach-motetsNext up on the mix was J. S. Bach: Motets, recorded by Philippe Herreweghe with La Chapelle Royale and the Collegium Vocale Gent.  I’ve learned enough about Bach interpreters to know that Herreweghe is considered among the best; my ear tells me that he is among the gentlest.  That seemed just the right touch for this collection of the six canonical (if you’ll excuse the pun I think is lurking in there somewhere) polyphonic compositions for choir and basso continuo.  Sitting on an old stone wall next to the gigantic snowball-white blossoms of an oak-leaf hydrangea, I could close my eyes and imagine that the warmth of the sun was streaming instead through the stained glass of the Sainte-Chapelle onto my upturned face. I was floating, buoyed up by melodies crossing from one voice to another as the Renaissance gave way to a more complicated age.

handel-masterworksThird on the list was a selection from an enormous set called Handel Masterworks, which would have occupied 30 CDs worth of shelf space had I invested in physical media.  Now I was back on the relatively familiar territory of the concerto form, but I have to admit this was the most disappointing selection on Mix Tape #1.  Six concerti, the first half of Handel’s Opus 6 for two violins, cello, and a backing quartet of strings.  Although Handel was almost Bach’s exact contemporary, these concerti sound to my ears more like Beethoven than Bach: there is the occasional lilt, but there’s far more grandiose unison playing that swells heroically.  Maybe it’s all those violins, but this left me cold.  I’ve always had a preference for the colors that woodwinds and reeds add to an ensemble, and the relative sameness of timbre produced by massed strings (even on such a small scale as this) doesn’t capture my ear or my imagination.

vivaldi-basson-concertiI returned to Vivaldi for the final movement of my mix tape.  If you’d asked me six months ago to guess how many bassoon concerti had ever been written, I might have counted on the fingers of one hand before answering.  To discover that Vivaldi penned 39 in a short period of time is another flabbergasting discovery.  To listen to even eight of them, the first of five discs of the Complete Bassoon Concertos as recorded by the English Chamber Orchestra, is equally astonishing.  I’ve known one of them, the B-flat concerto called La Notte (RV 501), for decades and always thought it an aberration, the only possible way of turning the bassoon into an expressive voice that has humor and joy, serenity and sadness to offer.  The best part of listening to this selection was knowing that I have thirty more  bassoon concerti to discover somewhere down the road.

And there’s far more territory to traverse in all, even if I limit myself to these three composers.  But there are other Baroque gems I haven’t listened to in a while and that are due for time in the rotation: Albinoni’s Oboe Concerti and Telemann’s Tafelmusik, to name just two.  I’ve even bought the new album of old concert recordings by Yes, Progeny, that promises to improve the quality of material that was released forty years ago on the miserably mastered Yessongs.  But that’s going to have to wait a while; I’m just not in the mood for prog rock right now.

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Rethinking the Beach Boys

beach-boys-Heroes_and_VillainsAlthough the classic question of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-Sixties was “Beatles or Stones?” in the neighborhood where I grew up there was more of a nationalistic cast to the debate: it was “Beatles or Beach Boys?”  Sociologically, in all-American terms, this was also the age of the Jets and the Sharks, and if the Stones might stand in for the bad boys, the Beach Boys represented the whitebread, clean-cut side of that divide.

As an adolescent, I was terrified of the local hoodlums with their greased hair and pointy shoes, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make me want to listen to the insipid harmonies of the California Boys.  I was an Anglophile before I even knew the word, an underdog who identified with the blues and its artists.

And then there was the other problem with the string of early Beach Boys hits: “Surfin’ Safari,” “409”, “Surfin’ USA,” “Shut Down,” “Surfer Girl,” “Little Deuce Coupe.” Surf, cars, surf, cars, surf, cars.  The subtext of both was “high school” and “girls.” Taken as a whole, the Beach Boys’ early catalog was a compendium of everything that I had zero interest in, and worse, that represented everything that made me feel inadequate and abnormal.  I despised the Beach Boys and everything that they stood for.

And despite what Paul McCartney (or anyone else) said, Pet Sounds did nothing to change my mind.  The orchestrations that supposedly enriched the vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll on that album to me were just variations on Motown or Phil Spector.  Putting Pet Sounds up against other albums of the summer of 1966, Revolver, Aftermath, Sunshine Superman, even on the American side of the pond, the debut of The Doors, seemed just silly.

Of course, “Good Vibrations” changed all that.  It’s impossible for me to remember what it sounded like then.  The psychedelics hadn’t kicked in yet, even if the Beatles had introduced the sitar and in a way let  theremin of “Good Vibrations” in through the door they had opened.  The classical, multi-movement experiments of the Nice were still years in the future, and nobody was expecting Sgt. Pepper’s, or even, for that matter, “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  I do remember that by the time that the single’s followup, the even more complex “Heroes and Villains” appeared, whispers of the Who’s plan to write a “rock opera,” whatever that meant, were being heard.

And then there were the rumors soon to follow about a mad masterpiece called Smile and a song that sounded like it would take the Beach Boys’ history and radically revise it, “Surf’s Up.”  There were stories about the recording studio going up in flames, the tapes destroyed.  There were stories that Brian was unraveling.  And that brief flash of greatness, “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains,” and the promise of “Surf’s Up” wicked out.

It didn’t take long for the Beach Boys to start hawking nostalgia for their old way of life.  “Do It Again” is essentially a commercial for the days of sun and fun and California Girls. The funny thing was: it worked.  I loved the song, and I was willing to give the Boys a chance.

And in the decades since then the Beach Boys have become synonymous with American nostalgia, entertainment for patriots, everlasting symbols of a different kind of Camelot.  For those of us of a certain age, those odes to surf and cars evoke pleasures that I, for the most part, never experienced, never wished for.  And yet they are potent symbols, expressive of freedom from care, of times when the sun shone and the water was warm.  The greatest irony, of course, as Brian Wilson says in a scene from the film Love & Mercy, is that the Beach Boys themselves were never surfers and the real surfers never liked their music.  It’s all a dream, even if it is a very compelling one.

But the tug of the simple and unburdened life, where you always won the race and got the girl (or Rhonda would be there to help you get over the one who got away) came at me strongly when I saw the trailer for Love & Mercy, with its amazing montage of shots recreating the most iconic photographs of the Beach Boys with their surfboards and woodies, with their pet sounds in the studio.  And the promise that half of the movie would focus on the creation of Pet Sounds, dramatizing the days in which Brian Wilson edged closer and closer to creating his rock ‘n’ roll masterpieces, kept me on the edge of my Netflix queue all summer long.

In anticipation, I scoured the web for videos and anecdotes, read copiously in Wikipedia, and learned a great deal about how Pet Sounds (and later, the prototype of Smile) was put together.  And I’m glad I did, because I feel like the movie (whose tag line is “the life, love, and genius of Brian Wilson”) slighted the genius in favor of the life and love, and the chance to portray another tortured, misunderstood artist.  But I guess I should have known that melodrama would trump music, that creativity is hard to capture in the retelling and probably doesn’t make good theater even as it happens.

Still, armed with the knowledge that Brian crafted dozens and dozens of snippets of music, and layered them with all the instruments that weren’t native to rock ‘n’ roll, as well as with random noise and accident, I enjoyed the studio scenes.  They were told with more economy than I’d hoped for, just as all those iconic photographs of the Beach Boys were compressed into a few flashing seconds at the introduction to the movie.  Mostly, though, they helped me to hear the dense textures of Pet Sounds more clearly.  In addition, the scenes in which Brian’s sketches of songs—like the awkward piano performance of the early draft of “God Only Knows” reveal the simple pop song structures that underlay the songs.

And although the movie doesn’t dramatize the creation of “Heroes and Villains,” the central song of the late great triptych, it suggests how the combination of short melodic ideas and densely built-up musical, aural textures combined to create some of the most original and startling tunes of the Sixties, this side of Sgt. Pepper’s.  The film also gives us a glimpse of the genesis of “Surf’s Up” somewhere in 1966.  Even thought most of the world had to wait until 1971 to hear the song, when the Beach Boys released it on the album of the same name, I can’t help but wonder if an acetate found its way into the Beatles’ hands sometime back then and influenced the creation of “A Day in the Life.”  After all, Derek Taylor was doing publicity for both bands at the time.

One final note about Love & Mercy.  Although the reviews made a great deal of the somewhat audacious decision to cast two quite different actors to play Brian Wilson during the 60s and the 80s periods presented in the film, I found the real genius to be in the casting of all the Beach Boys in their heyday.  It captures, especially in Paul Dano as Brian and Brett Davern as Carl, just how young the boys were.  Brian was all of 23 when Pet Sounds was released, and Carl hadn’t yet turned 20.  I’m ten  years younger than Brian, so it seems only reasonable that I regarded him as a grown-up maestro when “Good Vibrations” blew me out of my chair, but now looking back, I’m astonished at the extraordinary talent and vision he had, even if madness lay that way.

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Highway 61, Revisited

sundstol-v2Many months ago I wrote a review of Vidar Sundstøl’s Land of Dreams, the first volume in his Minnesota Trilogy.  In it, a vacationing Norwegian tourist is found bludgeoned to death on Highway 61 along the northern shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.  The body is discovered by Lance Hansen, a forest ranger, who investigates the murder with the help of Eirik Nyland, a detective sent over from Norway to help resolve the case.  Although Lance has strong suspicions about the identity of the killer, at the end of the book Nyland returns to Norway, and Hansen remains unconvinced that the Ojibwe Indian locked up for the crime was truly responsible for it.

Hansen is a local history buff, and one of the questions he asks himself as the investigation gets underway is whether there had ever been a murder in the area before.  The evidence for an earlier crime exists, but it is as shadowy and inconclusive as that related to the present-day homicide.  The victim may have been another Ojibwe, known as Swamper Caribou; the potential killer an ancestor of Lance’s by the name of Thormond Hansen.

Thormond, a newly arrived immigrant from Norway, was making his way along the lakeshore to the cabin of relatives.  He fell through the ice crossing a creek on the way, and eventually turned up, half frozen to death and bearing unexplained wounds.  And at around the same time, the shadowy Caribou vanished—except that a man resembling him continued to be seen in the vicinity, always on the edge of disappearing from view.

The tale of Thormond Hansen and Swamper Caribou served as an extended metaphor for the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the present-day murder and the ultimate impossibility of assigning responsibility and blame.  In the second volume of the trilogy, Only the Dead (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), Sundstøl takes up the story of the nineteenth century mystery and plays it off, extensively, against Lance’s continuing uncertainty about the modern murder.

The action of the book is compressed into a November weekend during which Lance and his brother Andy spend two days walking the woods along the Superior shore hunting deer.  This annual ritual is about all that remains of the brothers’ relationship after years of mistrust and buried hostility.  But the bonds of blood are as unshakable for Lance as the fascination with his ancestor Thormond.  Sundstøl intercuts the narrative of the brothers’ hunting expedition with a second story that details a fateful encounter between Thormond and Swamper, but whether or not that second tale is simply Lance’s imaginings as he prowls the winter woods on the hunt is never quite made clear.  The narrative indeterminacy once again echoes the moral dilemma that Lance is trying to resolve.

Sundstøl injects both tales with tension and dread, and in both the severe winter weather and the utter isolation of the lakefront are as threatening as any potential human conflict—maybe even more so.  Thormond is alone in an unfamiliar landscape, stumbling in darkness, the exact location of his destination unknown.  He is terrified of the strangeness of the new land.  When he encounters the mysterious stranger in a wide-brimmed hat, he is not only unable to understand what the man says to him, but can’t be sure whether he’s being spoken to in incomprehensible English or another language altogether.  His fear of the physical danger that surrounds him is compounded by fear of spiritual danger, of somehow being beholden to a heathen and dying without the blessings of a Christian burial.

Lance is beset by similar fears and dangers as he trods alone through the forest on his hunting weekend.  He and his brother Andy alternate standing on point, waiting for the other to flush out the deer.  In the dense, dark woods, there is always the danger of a shot gone awry, of the sound of snapped twig being mistaken for prey.  When Lance thinks he sees a stranger—is the another human or the ghost of Swamper Caribou?—disappearing in the forest, his dread is compounded.

And although Lance manages to avoid falling into a creek like his ancestor Thormond, he is equally endangered when, on the second day of the weekend, cut off from his brother, an ice storm sets in.  Sundstøl’s description of the onset of the falling ice and the way in which it inexorably builds a threatening layer of slick danger all through the woods constitutes the most vivid and frightening prose in the novel.  His helplessness is described in gripping and truly frightening detail as the ice freezes solidly around his rifle and he is buffeted along the frozen flume of the highway that should have represented escape from the dangers of heavy, pendulous icicles hanging from the mesh of birch branches over his head.

Only the Dead ends with an ambiguity almost as vexing as the first novel in the trilogy, and provides no more sense of its potential resolution than Land of Dreams did.  But surprisingly, the novel succeeds as a tale in its own right.  I suspect that a reader who chanced upon this book without having read the previous installment could enjoy its mix of mystery and terror quite independently of the larger stories that frame it.  It is a tale of a man trapped by nature, threatened by the indifference of everything around him to his fate, to his values, to what little is left of his dreams.  Only the Dead is a nightmare tale in which the boundary between fear and strength, between reality and imagination, is increasingly blurred by implacable forces both human and environmental.  I found it even more compelling that the first book of the series, and am now eager to see how Sundstøl will bring the story forward in the concluding installment, The Ravens.

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