Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Gentlemen by Bob Gendron


This entry in the 33 1/3 series is the first one that I've come across that covers an album that I'm actually familiar with. This is partly a matter of timing, as much as a matter of personal taste. The 1990s were the first time that I had any kind of an income that allowed me to actually own an album on CD (having only recently acquired a player) as opposed to checking out the clunky, over-played cassettes from the local library system.

"Indie-rock doesn't handle sex too well, particularly when openly discussed."

I picked up the Afghan Whigs for the same reason I would later latch on to Portishead: I was an R&B kid in a punk rock world.  There were a few vocalists left on the radio, but they were mainly of the squeaky, shiny Mariah Carey mold. All the post-Nirvana rock bands were equally cleaned up and made safe for the masses. This is a culture, after all, that had been recently shocked by George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."

So, I probably shouldn't have been surprised to find out that no one else bought Gentlemen when it came out in 1993. As author Bob Gendron points out, Greg Dulli gives us a break-up album, but one wherein the songs portray the typical rock'n'roll male attitude of excess and blame as being responsible for the situation. The woman may have done him wrong, but he's no better, and is probably addicted to the cycle to boot. Not really what the whiny, girl-allergic fans of Candlebox or The Offspring wanted to hear.

"There was a panel during [the 1993] College Music Journal Festival that I believe was actually titled 'How Do You Market the Afghan Whigs?' We were so fucking weird."

It takes a bit of slogging to get to that point in this book, however. There are a lot of great stories about the band, and some insights into ideas that made it onto the album. There is also a long track-by-track analysis that spends too much time telling the reader what the lyrics are saying in each song. Gendron obviously loves the album, and his enthusiasm is very apparent in every chapter. This may be a bit off-putting to casual listeners, who were probably not expecting an English 101 style examination. Be prepared to learn a lot about the Whigs, but also be prepared to just nod your head for a while until the author gets on with the next bit.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Li'l Abner and Abba Gold

I had some time yesterday to read two "fluffy" books on pop culture. The first one is an oddball that I found at the library.


Somehow, a 1970 cultural studies book on Li'l Abner made it through many years of weeding. The strip ended in 1977, leaving people of my generation with a detritus of merchandising that would quickly be replaced with Peanuts and Garfield media tie-ins. I doubt anyone younger than myself knows of Dogpatch at all.

Not that they necessarily should. I've read a few "best of" collections, and they come off as, just, alright. Al Capp had a tendency to tell the audience the moral of the storyline, over and over again. It is funny and well drawn, but doesn't have the elegance of Peanuts, or even of that other continuing middle-class humor strip For Better or For Worse.

At it's height the strip did have some effects on mass culture, and added some nonsense words to the American language, but it's hard to make an argument that any of those effects were lasting. I can read this book as a historical document, but the author is writing in the present tense from the 1960s, when the mania for Dogpatch was fresh and visible.

Berger is attempting here to show that Li'l Abner is a reflection of American Society. The problem with this sort of argument is that, objectively, any form of communication reflects that original author's view of his audience, more than the audience itself. Additionally, with mass media, the audience is limited to a "choice" offered to them by corporate editors. There's a mention, for instance, of Italy's comic strips reflecting a more conservative view while adhering to a strict Moral Code. Berger doesn't seem to know about the similar American Comic Book Code, much less take into account the standards held by syndicates, newspaper editors or local censorship groups. If Americans are offered many variations on mediocrity, are they really choosing something that reflects their own views, or are they just reading to keep up with the water cooler conversations?

For this is a large part of the Li'l Abner image that Berger doesn't go into, the constant merchandising, contests and magazine interviews that Al Capp churned out. If this comic strip is a reflection of culture, than surely something must be said about how the readers are treated as a mindless crowd of consumers willing to buy anything with a Shmoo pictured on it.

Berger does much better when he examines Al Capp as part of traditional American humor writing, particularly as compared to Southwestern humorists such as Thorpe or Harris. There's also a brief look at Yiddish traditional humor and possible etymology for the word Shmoo. He then moves on to try to analyse the technique of the strip, which is interesting because Berger is working in an academic vacuum. It was obviously much easier for him to research the history of satire than to find any serious writings on comic strips.


In most rock criticism, the concept of "keeping it real" vs. "selling out" usually takes precedence over any actual weighing of musical ability. With this prejudice in place, albums that are perceived as whole conceptions are analyzed while collections (which I'd wager that most consumers actually purchase) are seen as not worthy of discussion. And any mention of the fact that this music exists in order to generate money would destroy the illusion of artistic individuality.

So Vincentelli has an interesting battle to fight before even getting down to a discussion of the album itself. She has to show that not only can a "greatest hits" collection be worthy of analysis, even over "real" albums in an artist's catalog, but that something like Abba Gold can have an important cultural impact. Which she does with great a plumb and humor.

For despite the best efforts of the manly, Rolling Stone-led music press, the taste for Abba had a revival in the 1990s that coincided with the release of Gold. And really, was the co-current trend for Seattle rock bands any less contrived than the renewed popularity of a band associated with gay sub-culture and disco fashion? As Vincentelli points out Abba may actually be more "rock" and "rebellious" than most of the popular music of that decade.

When getting to the discussion of the collection itself, the author groups the songs according to what albums they originated from (or, in the case of a few orphan singles, would have originated from). I found that this led to my listening to the songs in a new way, having grown very used to the Gold playlist order. And I highly recommend listening to the album along with the book, with a good pair of headphones.

As a calculated pop group, Abba rewards close listening more than many rock bands, with weird layers of vocals and instruments. Vincentelli takes us through these orchestrations, pointing out the repeating tricks that Benny and Bjorn used over the course of the represented time period. We also get an interesting look at which tracks were Agnetha or Frida songs, and whether their personalities were revealed in any way by these vocal roles.

In the end, this book is a bit of a love poem written for a popular band which is still somehow considered obscure and marginalized. People who believe in the mythology of rock probably won't be swayed by the context presented in Vincentelli's argument, but anyone interested in the intersection of commerce and art should give this a look.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Nights at the Circus, Part Three


Magical Realism is a curious thing. It asks the reader to accept things that are "out of place" in the narrative, but that the characters take in stride. It is a test of our ability to believe whatever the narrator is telling us.

'Look, love,' I says to him, eventually, because I'm not in the mood for literary criticism. 'If I hadn't bust a wing in the train-wreck, I could fly us all to Vladivostok in two shakes, so I'm not the right one to ask questions of when it comes to what is real and what is not, because, like the duck-billed platypus, half the people who clap eyes on me don't believe what they see and the other half thinks they're seeing things.

Even in the more fantastic genre categories, there is an expectation of internal consistency.  When things just happen we are placed in the realm of fairy tale, the realm of story-teller and dream-weaver. But as Alice asked, who exactly is dreaming who?

Fevvers felt that shivering sensation which always visited her when mages, wizards, impresarios came to take away her singularity as though it were their own invention, as though they believed she depended on their imaginations in order to be herself. She felt herself turning, willy-nilly, from a woman into an idea.

And this is what our heroine Fevvers has become in the last third of the book; she's lost control of the carefully-constructed narrative of her life. The circus train has derailed and all is helter-skelter. She is no longer Scheherazade staving off death, stopping time through story-telling, but has started to age.

So, as Walser recovered from the amnesia that followed the blow on his head, he found himself condemned to a permanent state of sanctified delirium -- or, would have found himself condemned, if he had been presented with any other identity but that of the crazed As it was, his self remained in a state of limbo.

Jack Walser also ages, growing an impressive grey beard in the process, due to the influence of the tribe who have brought him in as a shaman's apprentice. Or, we should say, the influence of a different kind of time affecting an ancient way of life. This year's mid-winter festival brings with it the turn of a new century, and the threat of the modern, progressive world. And so we have two main characters without the protection of their fiction-suits, facing the ravages of narrative time.

It was a panopticon she forced them to build, a hollow circle of cells shaped like a doughnut, the inward-facing wall of which was composed of grids of steel and, in the middle of the roofed, central courtyard, there was a round room surrounded by windows. In that room she'd sit all day and stare and stare and stare at her murderesses and they, in turn, sat all day and stared at her.

There is a wonderful aside set in a prison for females who have murdered their husbands. The black widow warden spins in her chair all day, watching her wards for signs of penance. Today, we are probably over-familiar with Foucault's take on Panopticism as a model for a society where all information is controlled, but Carter shows this type of prison as imperfect. Her Russian prison falls apart when the guards silently fall in love with their prisoners, through slight gestures of touch and messages written with bodily fluids.

A miracle of frail violets, frost-nipped and pale, the colour of tired eyelids, yet big with perfume and optimism, were in full bloom among the sheltered roots of the big pine. Violets!

 The Panopticon was just another attempt to stifle time's flow, and so fails. The long, arctic winter has to give way to the shaft of light coming from the first sunlight of the year. And the stories woven by the virgin to stave off the king have to come to an end.
  'We told you no other lies nor in any way strayed from the honest truth. Believe it or not, all that I told you as real happenings were so, in fact; and as to questions of whether I am fact or fiction, you must answer that for yourself!'
The book itself is an attempt to keep the reader strung along in a fiction that benefits it's main characters in that they don't have to face change. Every focus on a secondary story gives Fevvers and Walser another opportunity to avoid the implications of coming together and forming a new narrative. It's a novel-as-prison, framed in an argument brought to the fore in second wave feminism.

'And, when you do find the young American, what the 'ell will you do, then? Don't you know the customary endings of the old comedies of separated lovers, misfortune overcome, adventures among outlaws and savage tribes? True lovers' reunions always end in a marriage.'

 As fictional men are often portrayed as having to sacrifice a bit of their individuality, their masculinity, when entering into a marriage with a woman, Fevvers has to face her own loss of identity. As a modern woman, the story she tells of her life is one of self-reliance, of meeting men on their own terms. She isn't a princess waiting to be rescued, but even with role-reversal, this fairy tale still seems intent on ending in marriage. The question raised by Carter seems to be whether the narrative of female independence can be as stifling as that of housewife-in-training. The answer seems to hinge on whether "modern" men can be created to match the give-and-take of a modern woman.

And then she saw he was not the man he had been or would ever be again; some other hen had hatched  him out. For a moment, she was anxious as to whom this reconstructed Walser might turn out to be.

And so the second function of this novel would be to weave a story that can communicate to men the position that women find themselves in. Our waltzing Walser was doubtful from the beginning about the veracity of feathered Fevvers life story; by joining the circus and having his own narrative re-built from the ground up,  he may just be able to meet her as an equal.

'That's the way to start the interview! she cried. 'Get out your pencil and we'll begin!'

Sunday, February 15, 2015

New Comics Round-up

Whew! I've been out sick, again. Such is the life for those of us who man the cash registers, handling your germ-befouled money, passing back new viral infections with your change. Anyway, to make up for lost blogging, I've decided to do a quick run-down of some current comics on the stands that may or may not be worth reading:


I gave the first issue a bit of a pan when it was released, feeling that Warren Ellis had dumbed down the introduction to his story a bit too much. Since then, he has brought it back up to his usual speed, barely waiting for the reader to absorb a new idea, character or plot before moving on to the consequences of a passive alien invasion. Mysterious obelisk-shaped craft have landed on Earth, causing damage to some cities, but otherwise leaving everyone alone (outside of the random dumping of toxic waste). The various governments are treating the "trees" in different ways, leading to different cultures springing up around each, from a segregated artists' colony in China to the scientific research team in Svalbard. Ellis (and artist Jason Howard) has done a great job at presenting a broad cast spread out around the world, giving us interesting views into the possible future interactions of technology and culture. And, of course, there is still the question as to what the "trees" are actually doing, as a new species of flower starts blooming near the arctic circle...


With the racks dominated by Super-Heroes who get together to argue and whine as much as to fight "evil," it's a welcome relief whenever a title comes out that remembers that this is inherently a ridiculous genre. Deadpool and Secret Avengers have both been used recently to parody the Marvel style of storytelling, but without being able to break away themselves from the idea, that even in a absurd universe, fighting is still the best way to solve a problem (although SA did have a fun sub-plot involving a suicidal bomb who had to be talked out of exploding, this is still the exception rather than the norm). Squirrel Girl is only two issues in, but appears to be following a trope that has rarely been used since Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man, that of the hero who would rather disarm the situation than beat up the bad guy. She has the proportionate strength and powers of a squirrel, but still knows that sometimes Kraven the Hunter just needs a new hobby.


Also just launched, Crossed+100 is Alan Moore's turn at the wheel of Garth Ennis' vehicle of moral exploration. This is set a hundred years after the initial outbreak of the possible viral infection that turns human beings into permanent Bacchanals, giving Gabriel Andrade free reign to illustrate a stunning world that mixes the remnants of civilization with the ever-encroaching wilderness. This theme is also reflected in the dialogue as Moore gives us a consistently mangled English spoken by a self-taught generation of Crossed survivors. It's a big "what-if" story, but he's also following up on a question raised toward the end of Ennis' original story; would humanity's being wiped clean from the planet actually be a bad thing?  Nature, as it were, goes on regardless. Intriguing, intellectual fun.


Apparently, this is what everyone is reading this month. We've had two issues of Marvel's Star Wars and one issue of Darth Vader, both highly interlocked to the point where panels from the one are reprinted as a flashback in the other. Which illustrates the height of editorial oversight being displayed here, that we can't lose one reader of Darth Vader #1 who may not have read the issues of the main title that are out simultaneously. Both writers involved, Aaron and Gillen, are two of the better voices that Marvel has, but both are buried under the requirements of the franchise. Most of the pages consist of scenes mimicking the movies, with dialogue lifted verbatim from the "original" trilogy. This is the sort of thing that would have made more sense back in the 70s and 80s, when being able to watch a movie was more of a special event, instead of something that anyone could do at home. In our internet age, I'm not really sure what the point of generic movie spin-offs are, other than an exercise in keeping the trademarks active in people's minds. This is just expensive fan-fic, without the sex.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Paging through the New Olympia Reader


I've also been making my way through a Quality Paperback Club version of The New Olympia Reader. Those of you who are bookish already know of Olympia Press as the small French publisher who first put out famously banned "dirty" novels such as Lolita and Naked Lunch. The first Olympia Reader collected excerpts from this famous time period; this sequel, from the more mediocre sixties.

I think that part of the problem is that the 1960s had less of a need for a pornographer to publish struggling talented writers. With the sexual revolution came much-needed challenges to various censorship laws, making it much easier to purchase Lady Chatterly's Lover, as well as cheap paperback smut. Where once Penguin was the only "legit" publishing house willing to go to court to defend their rights, bookstores in most major cities now had access to more challenging "adult" fare from a variety of imprints.

Which left Olympia Press as the place for already established writers to make a little money on the side writing middle-brow smut under various pen names. Which means that the books were fairly well-written, but written mainly to fill up pages of "Traveller's Companion"s with easy-selling sex. Some of these are also attempts to try the new post-Joyce or Burroughs style of modern writing, not always successfully. John Voigt's "Nether City," for instance manages to be sexy, funny and challenging in that stream-of-consciousness way, while Ronald Tavel's "Street of Stairs" is a fairly unreadable Burroughs pastiche.

So far, most of the excerpts have fallen somewhere in between, with Ed Martin's "Busy Bodies" being a welcome excursion into Topper-style comedy with a seance that turns into an orgy. The best piece by far is Diane di Prima's "Memoirs of a Beatnik," her wonderfully written re-enactment of those post-war Kerouac/Ginsberg years. Which means I'll have to search out the whole book. The other authors represented herein, not so much. It's a giant collection though, so perhaps more gems are yet to be found.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Nights at the Circus, part two

I'm making just enough money now from selling tarot cards on eBay (and robotically taking surveys for consumer study companies) that I can afford a small monthly allotment of internet access. Still, I'll be going to the library for large photo uploads or ridiculous Windows upgrades, so I'm not out of the lower classes quite yet.

Every little bit of time helps, not having to trudge through the snow to the library every day (or to work; thanks to global warming, I've been able to bike most days this winter) allows me to actually get housework done, make more artwork or even catch up on my piles of books that need to be read.


I've just finished part two of Nights at the Circus. As I anticipated, Angela Carter shifts narrative gears completely, telling this part of the story in third-person, but switching to first-person whenever a character comes into focus. Setting the tone for this section, she opens up with a Russian Grandmother who starts to tell a story to her grandson, then stops completely out of indifference. Her role in the story itself disappears, but she is always in the background, keeping the stove going.

Our intrepid reporter Jack Walser starts out as another narrator, through his typed reports back to the American newspaper that is paying him to become an embedded circus clown, then loses his ability to type due to an injury. It's an interesting switch, trading the "hero" of the story for various female members of the circus, giving them small narratives. These little stories give them a bit of power over the audience (as Fevvers' story did in the first part), and an ability to be independent in a masculine world.

Along side the sexual role reversal, the circus animals themselves appear to be the ones actually running the circus. The U.S.-flag-bedecked owner Colonel Kearney relies on his oracular pig (shades of Lloyd Alexander?) to make major business decisions, dancing tigers become jealous of human performers and the entire monkey troop leaves after renegotiating their own contract.

All this topsy-turvey gradually creeps up on the reader, leading up to a final night between Fevvers and one of her Russian royal admirers that concludes with a surreal passage involving Faberge eggs. I expect this will lead the story back to focus on her again for the last part....

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Life imitates John Hughes: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Fast Times

Last week I rented an "80s comedy" DVD pack from the library. It contains three movies that I'm supposed to be familiar with, having been in that decade and young: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, thirty years too late, right?

And The Breakfast Club was definitely around when I was growing up, it just never caught my interest either on VHS, or later, on TV. I would catch a few minutes of it and wonder why these kids were sitting around and being so hysterical (the pot smoking having been edited out for the American public). I could tell, however, that it seemed to have some sort of reality-filtering effect on everyone else.

Just as The Godfather supposedly affected the way that actual crime bosses behave, this movie seems to have convinced everyone that teen-agers fall into, and only hang out in cliques of, five stereotypes. Older movies have generic designations of jocks or brains, but this may be the first time when kids who go to the same small town high school are presented as not even knowing each others' names.

I mean, I went to a city high school, but it can't be too different. Everyone has to take the same basic classes, go on the same field trips. At the least, some of them would be in gym together. I don't think I ever saw one person purposefully ignore someone else in a hallway. The real division and distance would be between the students fighting to survive their surreal world of obedience and testing and the faculty who are invested in keeping the machine running.

Yet everyone now swears to me that "this is how high school was." That there really were groups of teens who would only talk to each other. And of course, most "teen" movies now present their reality in that fashion.

Which is curious, because John Hughes' first movie doesn't present any kind of clique hierarchy, but defaults to generic popular/geek dynamics. Everyone goes to the dance; they don't always like each other, but they don't ignore each other either.

This may be because Sixteen Candles is so rooted in WASP-y suburban culture. It's not a case of rich vs. poor, because they all have money. Nor do they have any real problems; Molly Ringwald's character is threatened by unrequited love. The boy she likes doesn't like HIS girlfriend anymore. That's about the extent of hardship presented here.

There are outside characters, but they are sublimated to harmless comedic fodder. Exchange student Long Duk Dong's every appearance is punctuated by a cringe-worthy chinese gong sound while the implied Italian criminal family that Sam's sister is marrying into are written off as wacky "greasy bohunks."

Which leaves Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High looking like a serious teen drama. There are actual consequences of what would be "wacky behavior" in other movies: sexual experimentation leads to pregnancy and losing one's temper at rude customers leads to getting fired. I'm especially fascinated by the concept of affluent kids actually working. In my experience, the whole point of working now, for teen-agers, is to "get away with" as much as possible, because they have no fear involved with getting fired.

And that's how this movie works best now, as a snapshot of the transformation into conservative 80s America. Writer Cameron Crowe was a practitioner of what we now called "insertion" journalism. Really, it's what any kind of writer should be doing, talking to and learning from people. It's probably most telling about our distance from the idealistic 1960s and 70s that we have a special term for non-fiction writing that involves something more than doing research on the internet all day. But it is that willingness to do extra work that creates good dialogue for people who happen to be young versus just writing about how hard it is to be a jock or a nerd.