Monday, April 27, 2015

Husker Du and the Replacements in Minneapolis in the '80s

(Requested by reader Skip D. Expense)

I don't like the term "Amerindie," it's nearly as ugly of a word as "blog," but it's the scope you need to start with for Husker Du, the Replacements, and Minneapolis in the '80s, which I was fortunate enough to be around for (until 1985 anyway). Husker Du and the Replacements would make their lasting outsize impacts on pop music and rock 'n' roll currents, but there was another powerful stream of Minneapolis music in the '80s coming from the north side of town, in the person of Prince Rogers Nelson, who contended with them for ultimate supremacy of influence, musicianship, songwriting, guitar playing, hip cachet, future of rock 'n' roll, what have you. It's clear now who made the biggest dent—and more importantly, by implication (especially when you factor in those Amerindie dominations of Husker Du and the Replacements), just how much fun it was to be in Minneapolis at the time. Note: As a native more or less of the Minneapolis environs, I unfortunately come with all the in-built prejudices. Please read "Twin Cities" or "Minneapolis/St. Paul" whenever I say "Minneapolis."

Within that Amerindie scope, there was a vaunted Minneapolis tradition that traced through soon after the beginnings of rock 'n' roll from the Trashmen ("Surfin' Bird"), Castaways ("Liar, Liar"), and Novas ("The Crusher") in the mid-'60s, and then carrying on into the '70s with acts such as Skogie & the Flaming Pachucos and the Suicide Commandos. Aided and abetted by a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis called Jay's Longhorn, all this led to the Twin/Tone label in approximately 1977 and a rash of often worthy acts: the Suburbs, Curtiss A, the Hypstrz, and others (Big Hits of Mid-America Volume III is the essential document here). Besides the Longhorn, much of this activity was hived around a record store in south Minneapolis named for Skip Spence and Roy Harper albums, Oar Folkjokeopus. And here it was that arrived one day a fabled demo tape which became a record contract for the Replacements. An instant legend too good to be true, they were impossibly young—Tommy Stinson, the bass player, was 14 when the first album came out in 1981, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Zap Gun (1964)

Philip K. Dick himself called this novel "a turkey"—and it's true, it's probably not his best, although it does have my favorite of all his character names in Lars Powderdry. This near-future tale was written at the peak of the Cold War and one of its weaknesses is that it doesn't seem able to imagine much beyond that. But nonetheless it has many nice Dick touches along the way. To save money on defense spending, for example, the US and USSR have secretly conspired to roll out fake new weapons, dreamed up by psychics in trance states. That's Lars Powderdry's work, in fact, as a "weapons fashion designer." Almost incidentally, halfway along and offstage, aliens appear and begin to attack Earth (New Orleans, specifically)—now what are the humans going to do? Crises in Dick novels, though they arise continually as in most fiction, are by and large beside the point. The problem isn't so much the invading aliens as how the fraudulent governments plan to cover up their decades-long malfeasance in the area of national security. Events meander about. Powderdry has any number of intrigues to manage, and some love affairs too. This occupies a good deal of the narrative. We never get much sense of who the aliens are or what they want, beyond vaguely taking slaves. Toward the end there is a bum's rush of events, including a time travel puzzle and more or less total collapse of government. I came away a little confused about the intentions of The Zap Gun—Cold War satire seemed most likely, but at that it's a little obvious, with too-easy insights. Maybe it was more dangerous in its time? There's a murky love story in all this too, with Powderdry falling for his Soviet counterpart, Lilo Topchev (another excellent character name, which put me absurdly in mind of the Bravo reality TV show). I'm sympathetic with anyone's attempt to satirize the defense industry and its self-serving lies and exaggerations, but The Zap Gun is loaded up with distractions no matter what it is: invading aliens drama, time travel paradox, cheerful polyamory anecdote, gratuitous paranoia exercise, meditation on psychic powers, and so on. Eventually the aliens are defeated by development of an electronic child's toy which engages, develops, and then betrays the player's sense of empathy. Emotional treachery is yet another familiar Dick note. It makes me wonder again about Dick's writing process—it sometimes feels like he enters fugue states, riffs on a handful of his favorite themes, and hopes something comes of it. Because certain remarkable and unforgettable things actually did come of it it's almost surprising when nothing or very little does (though I am reading probably only a fraction of his catalog). The Zap Gun might be more for the hardcore fans.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Father Goriot (1835)

Aka Old Goriot or (Le) Pere Goriot, this is widely considered one of the best novels by one of the best novelists, Honore de Balzac, and since it was my starting point in my meager career of reading him I'm happy to point to it for anyone so inclined. It's positively masterful about the fundamentals of fiction: setting, characters, action, like that. It's so purely conceived and executed, in fact, that it does not appear to require chapters or even section breaks (in my translation by Ellen Marriage). It is rich with insight and incident, moving easily about the playing field it sets for itself: a seedy boardinghouse, the foolish, gallant, and ultimately disquieting figure of the title character, an old man slowly sinking into poverty in order to give his daughters the lives he thinks they deserve. His love for them is impressive if not altogether unsullied, if only because he is a man of the world after all, who earned his fortune as a vermicelli maker. I thought Balzac was amazingly good in this short novel at moving about among the social strata of 19th-century Paris, dwelling among the students and the indigent in the boardinghouse (who are nonetheless furiously attempting to maintain dignity, and position) as well as the elaborate money-dependent rituals of their betters, among whom Goriot's daughters now move. The purity of the narrative stream is all the more remarkable considering that it was originally published in serialized form. This is the novel where Balzac began to enlarge his vision of his larger project, "The Human Comedy," first beginning to use characters from previous novels, as scenery, as context, and as key players in their own right. His characters are always interesting, both as stock types and, as we get to know them better, with their many bottomless complexities. I particularly like the way Goriot's doting over his daughters is hardly an unmixed thing. It's kind of sick actually, and not just on the part of the daughters who use him and take him for granted. It is always recognizable and familiar human behavior.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Kwaidan (1964)

Kaidan, Japan, 161 minutes
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Writers: Yoko Mizuki, Lafcadio Hearn
Photography: Yoshio Miyajima
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Editor: Hisashi Sagara
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Osamu Takizawa, Ganjiro Nakamura, Noboru Nakaya

Kwaidan was released very late in 1964 (December 29, thus barely skating in on the criteria of my ongoing Movie of the Year project) and went on to make something of a splash in art film circles, winning a Jury Prize award at the Cannes film festival the following spring and also getting an Oscar nomination in 1965 for Best Foreign Language Film. The way it proceeds, and the timing of its release—coming at about the time that Rod Serling's Twilight Zone was finally being put in the ground for good—makes me think it might have had some influence on a later Serling project for TV, Night Gallery.

First and most obvious is its anthology structure. Kwaidan is composed of four shorter pieces, most of them about 30 minutes long with one dominating for an hour. The stories are unified by tone, mood, and some general thematic elements but otherwise unrelated—different casts for each. More than that both Kwaidan and Night Gallery represent a kind of intellectualized horror, taking the usual elements that send people screaming around and hiding their eyes and abstracting them into deliberately realized, highly stylized bits and pieces: with harsh discordant music that can feel more like sound effects, strangely colored lighting, filters, and makeup, and weird stories of regret, loss, cruelty, and hopelessness, often with ghosts, vampires, witches, and such. It's not often outright scary, but usually at least a little unnerving, and always impressive as production design.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Something about the mysterious little wonders of reading and books went into my experience of finally getting to the towering Norman Mailer's first towering novel. It's possible that it is the last mass market Signet paperback I will ever read—purchased new in 1975 (the date dutifully inscribed into the inside first page), for approximately $1.25, I carted it around with me everywhere I moved until I finally picked it up and read it over 25 years later. And wondered why I had taken so long to get to it. Well, that's not actually a hard question to answer (because the harder question, perhaps, is what is one to do about the towering Norman Mailer). The author in thrall to Ernest Hemingway, taking World War II more or less as novelist career opportunity, and all the way down to the "fugging" language, this seemed impenetrable every time I tried, until finally it wasn't. There's some fine storytelling here after all, convincing and vivid "War is hell" passages, a schematic cross-section of America in the soldiers of the platoon a la Blackhawk comics, forward momentum like crazy, and evidently the author more in thrall to John Dos Passos than Hemingway, a pleasant surprise. I loved it in all its pulpy juicy lunatic experimenting glory. I like the Pacific theater setting. I like the sure way it grinds along. Certainly it bears all the elements of the brand Mailer would create and build on, the self-aggrandizing wise man buffoon with such an acute eye for detail and lacerating wit, though at the time he seemed more a natural match with James Jones and James Michener, who were also making slab-o-book careers out of World War II. It's worth noting Mailer had plenty of time to burn, publishing this as something of a prodigy at the age of 25, which is truly remarkable given how self-assured and well done it is. So he had a decade to flail around some and try this and that to find his way to a man of letters career—it's those subsequent agonies as much as anything that make him so much fun still to read. In the meanwhile, he always had this very fine war novel to fall back on for literary reputation. On the "fugging" issue: Look, I know, different times, different times. But fair or not, in a weird way it makes Mailer look a bit of a moral coward. He's brave enough to want to reproduce the language of soldiers, but acquiescent to his publisher who insists on at least softening "fuck" to "fug," giving birth to one of the more annoying tics in all literature. At least it gave us the Fugs in the '60s. And Mailer did go to war to get the experience to write an important literary work, so there's that too. This is a good one.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Oscar Wilde is of course one of the great epigrammatists so found myself scrambling to save some as they swam by: "One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing ... Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner ... It is only shallow people who require years to get rid of an emotion." There are many more. It surprises me a little that this is the only novel he produced—it's so good, above and beyond his language, which was witty no matter what he wrote about. One could quibble that Dorian Gray is more of a fantastic tale, inflated to the size of a novel. Perhaps. I actually wish there were more about the bad behavior of our hero and object lesson Dorian Gray—the specifics. Obviously he had an illustrious depraved career. We might have been shown, for example, whatever it is Gray had on the chemist Alan Campbell that enabled him to blackmail Campbell into doing something so abhorrent and contrary to Campbell's character. More on the women Gray ruins too. It's still a fine first novel. The arc of Wilde's career seemed to be toward the theater—his plays are still produced today—but it's always tempting to speculate what might have been, particularly as he died at 46. I like the fantastic element to this story, and I like the way it remains unexplained. It proceeds in many ways like an unusually chattering Henry James, but the macabre and dark forces go well beyond anything James imagined in The Turn of the Screw or elsewhere. This is closer to Poe—to "The Cask of Amontillado," where everything is all convivial and easygoing good fun ... until someone has to go too far. In Dorian Gray that is largely Dorian Gray, and when Wilde pulls back the curtain even a little on the evil in which Gray traffics—as how forcefully he makes Campbell cooperate—it can be a little alarming. My gnawing question: What did he do? Yes, I know, there's a whole school of argument that the details of such things are best left to the imagination. Fair enough. I've imagined plenty now. One more nice point: a good nervy scene that takes place here in an opium den somewhere in London near the river. Mostly this is just a blast to read.

In case it's not at the library.