Thursday, October 28, 2004


One new review this week:

The Electric Wizard, They Live

I think this is out in America now, so go get yourself one.

You might also want to check out Jandek On Corwood.

(If you haven't heard the MP3s of his live performance yet, they're available here.)

Monday, October 25, 2004


Since signing up for Netflix I've rented a bunch of movies in a category best named Films I Should Be Seen To Have Seen. Arty stuff of good reputation, canonical stuff. And, just as I sort of suspected as I clicked them into my rental queue, they've been disappointments.

Take Last Tango In Paris. I rented Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. So I figured I should check out Last Tango, since it starred Marlon "greatest actor in modern history" Brando and was generally conceded to be a masterpiece.

I lasted half an hour.

Not only was the sexual interaction sub-porn in its insipidity, the dialogue was even dumber. It was a hash of free love pseudo-philosophy as muttered by a middle-aged guy preying on a young girl who was there for no reason I could divine in the time I wasted watching the thing. The whole Brando-Schneider relationship reminded me of Dick Cheney trying to pick up Mandy Moore.

Brando's terminally overrated anyway. I liked him in Apocalypse Now, and he was acceptable in On The Waterfront, but Lee Marvin ate his lunch for him in The Wild One, and in Last Tango he tries so hard to look like he's not trying that watching him gave me a headache. If you haven't seen this movie, spare yourself.

So, fresh from that disappointment, I rented the first season of The Office. This is another case where something's been canonized, and I've heard/read it hyped to the heavens by pretty much every single person I know. So I knew it was going to disappoint me, because these days it seems like nothing is as good as people say it is.

I think it's a culture-wide movement - it's no longer enough to say something is "tolerable" or "acceptable." It must always be a work of genius, otherwise the opinionator feels like rendering a verdict isn't worth his/her time, or something.

The Office is good, but it's not that good. I've watched the first four episodes of the first (six-episode-long) season so far, and there have been quite a few laughs, but did I weep with joy? No. Did I weep with the bitter realization of my own worthless existence - as I, too, work in an office? No. Was I overwhelmed by the brilliance of the characterizations and the performances? No. I laughed a few times. End of story.

I think it's me, though. I like crap.

Because, you see, in the same batch of mail that offered The Office, I got The Day After Tomorrow, the eco-apocalypse thriller, and I liked that a whole lot. Not just because it had CGI footage of Manhattan being destroyed, and not just because most of the action took place mere blocks from my job, but because it had such a brilliant ending. Sure, Dennis Quaid is reunited with his semi-but-not-really estranged son, and that's supposed to leave us (the viewers) feeling good. But the world has still tumbled into an ice age! So how is this a happy ending? "Gee, Dad, sure is good to see you again. Let's trundle through the snowy wasteland that was once Manhattan, talking about my childhood. You know, before mankind destroyed the environment and rendered 2/3 of the planet uninhabitable. C'mon." [Cue Andy Griffith Show-esque whistling.]

That's what's great about The Day After Tomorrow - it doesn't end with an ironic wisecrack, the way an 80s action movie would. It just presents this tableau of family bonding, deadpan. Brilliant, I tell you.

This week, I've got a documentary on Derrida, and Van Helsing, coming. I can't wait.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


Apologies in advance for the length of this post.

Below is an (abridged) exchange between novelist Neal Stephenson and a reader. My comments come after.

The reader, MosesJones, asks:

Science Fiction is normally relegated to specialist publications rather than having reviews in the mainstream press. Seen as "fringe" and a bit sad, it's seldom reviewed with anything more than condescension by the "quality" press.
Does it bother you that people like Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins seem to get more respect for their writing than you?

Stephenson replies, in part:

[A] while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question - I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.


Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition---which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn't need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them---hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer's conference. Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer---one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous.


So what of MosesJones's original question, which was entitled "The lack of respect?" My answer is that I don't pay that much notice to these things because I am aware at some level that I am on one side of the bifurcation and most literary critics are on the other, and we simply are not that relevant to each other's lives and careers.

What I've excerpted here is about 40% of a much longer, more detailed, and very interesting piece of thought which can be read in full here.

My thoughts? I've always respected writers of so-called "genre fiction" more than writers of so-called "literary fiction." It just seems to me (and yeah, this ought to be counter-intuitive, but somehow it's not) that genre fiction is actually more freeing than literary fiction. Once you learn the rules, you start figuring out ways to bend them and make the story you're telling that much more interesting. But you're still, fundamentally, hewing to the rules that have been established. You're writing a detective story - therefore, there must be crime, investigation, punishment. Once those have been slotted into place, you can talk about any other thing you want. Your detective can be a jazz freak, and go off on pages-long digressions about Thelonious Monk's Columbia albums vs. his Riverside albums, or whatever. And if you're a good enough storyteller, the reader will follow along.

I've only read one book by Neal Stephenson; it was okay, but it didn't give me enough to make me seek out more of his work. I have bought every one of William Gibson's novels, though, and his most recent, Pattern Recognition, is one of the best books I've ever read, genre be damned.

I'm hoping that Running The Voodoo Down will be the last music-related book I write. I'm hoping that the novel I'm currently writing will sell, and sell for quit-your-day-job money. I want to make a living as a novelist. I think this is a realistic aim, because I am writing a novel that is likely to hold appeal for a large number of people. It has sex, binge drinking, porn, scatological humor, violence, sex, heavy metal, midgets, emotionally wrenching family crises, and sex.

I'm not doing this because I'm a hack, scrambling in the gutter for a buck; I'm doing it because this is the story it's in me to tell. If I felt genuinely compelled to write stories of pinch-faced angst among middle-aged New England college professors, or whatever respectable literary authors write about these days, I'd do it. But I feel like writing punchy prose about porn, with midgets and shit jokes and fistfights (and a son's struggle to come to grips with his parents' divorce, and his father's death) thrown in. And if I'm never a literary sensation, that's cool.


I never paid much attention to Converge until the last month or so. When I got their new album, You Fail Me, in the mail, I listened to it once and wasn't particularly impressed. Then I read in about six dozen places that their previous full-length, Jane Doe, was the one to hear; that it was some kind of world-beating noisecore landmark, in fact. So I checked it out. And it was. It was so good, in fact, it made me revisit You Fail Me. This time, the new disc seemed a little more interesting - it was, after all, the work of a band that had released at least one genuinely great album. It still didn't impress me much, but at least I feel like I wrote as an informed listener. Had I not heard Jane Doe, the review I published this week would have been much more harsh - probably unfairly so.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Afrika Bambaataa is back.

I'm only on track 5 as I post this, but so far, it's great. If the last thing you heard from Bambaataa was "Afrika Shox" on Leftfield's Rhythm And Stealth, and you loved that, you're gonna go berserk for this. I can see myself spending the next two weeks or so listening to nothing else.

Heard the new Boredoms today, too (the one that's only available as a $35 Japanese import). The first track is pretty cool, if you've always wanted to hear Alice Coltrane play piano over a hippie drum circle (I hadn't, but it was interesting in a good way). The second track is boring faux-Indian psych-drone with strings and whatnot. Ultra-boring. And since there's only two tracks, a 50 percent success rate spells Do Not Waste Your Money.

Oh, and here's my final, full-length review of Holy Ghost.

And some thoughts on Isis and Pig Destroyer.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004


I've been listening to a lot of Pharoah Sanders lately.

I own Karma, Izipho Zam, Black Unity, Summun, Bukmun, Umyun, Jewels Of Thought, Live At The East (shown above) and last night I bought Thembi. Of the bunch, I think Izipho Zam, Thembi and Live At The East are my favorites, and Karma and Black Unity are the two I play the least often.

(I used to own Tauhid, but sold it some time ago. The same is true of Pharoah's First, his ESP album, which frankly sounds like a Hank Mobley date - nothing against Hank, whose music I frequently enjoy, but if I want that, I'll go to the source. I go to Pharoah for, um, other things.)

And those aren't necessarily the expected things, either. Pharoah's screamin'est moments are also frequently his most tedious, I've found. What I like is the way he assembles a really killin' ensemble, full of African percussion and various chordal instruments (multiple basses, piano, what have you) and lets that ensemble stroll patiently through long modal vamps. When the solos do rise out of the oceans of percussion, it's that much more impressive. The interaction between the two bassists on "Healing Song," from Live At The East, is a perfect example. They circle each other, throbbing and strumming, as the rhythm goes on and on and on, until you're in a trance, floating on pure hypnotized joy.

The same thing happens on "Balance," the second track from Izipho Zam.

(This album is fucking great, and has just recently been reissued on CD in the U.S. in a probably limited edition; by all means snap it up while you can.)

Izipho Zam features one of Pharoah's largest ensembles, including Sonny Sharrock on guitar and Yodelin' Leon Thomas on vocals, plus a tuba player, providing big farting underpinnings as, again, the rhythm section vamps out to the very edge of the universe before locating Pharoah and bringing him in for a lung-busting outburst that almost matches the fire 'n' fury of Sonny's assault on his instrument. (The stuff Sonny plays on the title track is utterly brain-melting, almost Blue Cheer-esque.)

I think Pharoah's records were some of the most interesting to come out of the late 1960s and early 1970s...much more consistent and consistently satisfying than, say, Archie Shepp's contemporaneous output. Even if some are clearly better than others, all the Impulse! (and Impulse!-era; Izipho Zam came out on Strata-East) Sanders albums were created in a similar spirit, mixing ethnic instruments with modal and free jazz and coming up with something beautiful, instantly identifiable and well worth listening to, even 30-plus years later. If you're just starting to head past Coltrane and explore late-60s/early-70s out jazz a little further, these should all be high up on your list.