Dave Van Ronk, a quintessential 1960s Greenwich Village folksinger, never became a superstar. But he was always a part of the folk-rock fabric, and the superstars listened to him. Bob Dylan swiped his interpretation of the traditional "House of the Rising Sun" from Van Ronk, and later the Allman Brothers picked up Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" from one of his records. The gravelly-voiced strummer/shouter died in 2002. I was lucky enough to hear him perform once, at a beatnik poetry tribute at St. Marks Church, in the late 1990s.
I've just heard some great news: the Coen Brothers' new movie Inside Llewyn David is loosely based on Van Ronk's posthumously published memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. If the Coen Brother handle the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene as beautifully as they handled the 1930 Delta blues scene in O Brother Where Art Thou, then we're all in for something very special. Here's an early glance at the movie's trailer.
If there is such a thing as a typical volume of letters, The John Lennon Letters edited by Beatles expert Hunter Davies is certainly not it. John Lennon didn't write the kinds of letters that Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov did.
Though he wrote many hundreds of songs, John Lennon was not a prolific letter-writer. He tended to keep it short, and his impatient, impulsive epistolatory style, packed with half-puns and gutteral utterances, indicates some proto-form of A.D.D. But Lennon had a strongly visual and artistic mind, and he always took the time to illustrate his chaotic notes and scribblings with cartoons and diagrams. He also wrote in a cheerful, loopy hand, and this is why editor Hunter Davies made a smart decision to create the complete volume of John Lennon's letters (the first serious volume of collected letters, as far as I know, of any rock musician) as a facsimile collection, with high-quality photographic reproductions printed on thick, good paper.
I've been thinking about the word "redemption". Since utopian political ideologies are currently out of style (as we discussed last weekend), "redemptive ideologies" might be a less off-putting term for similar ideas. The term does not carry the same sense of overreach, the connotation of a naive attempt to build a transcendent and perfect Platonic society. Few people will admit to being a utopian, but perhaps many people will admit to believing in redemptive ideologies?
Well, wait a minute. Something is going wrong here, because I searched Wikipedia for "redemptive ideology" and got sent to the Ideology page, only to find this slap in the face awaiting me:
Today, many commentators claim that we are living in a post-ideological age, in which redemptive, all-encompassing ideologies have failed, and this is often associated with Francis Fukuyama's writings on "the end of history".
So redemptive ideologies are out of style too -- and this is a funny thing, because I know for sure that redemptive ideologies are wildly popular today. They drive our beliefs, our practices and, every election day, our votes. So what's this denial all about?
I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.
Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).
I once had a chance to play a sitar for a few minutes. To a guitar player, a sitar feels like a crazy contraption, a transformed beast. There are strings and frets, but the frets are curved, arching up high from the neck so that the strings can be bent not up or down, as with a guitar, but in and out, leading to a warped, spacy effect. Then there is a second set of strings under the raised strings, which are never touched at all. These are the sympathetic strings, which drone in sympathy with the melody. There is no such thing on a guitar. No wonder sitar masters like Ravi Shankar inspired so much awe when they entered the popular music scene in the 1960s.
Ravi Shankar has died at the age of 92. During one peak of his amazing long career, he collaborated on several projects and concerts with George Harrison of the Beatles, who saw in the subtle, spidery complexity of the sitar's sound a new way to advance the art of pop/rock lead guitar. Promoted to sudden celebrity status by Harrison and others, Ravi Shankar used his fame in the west to serve as as a cultural ambassador for India, for Bengali culture, and for Hindu traditions. He was invited to perform at the most epic rock concerts of his age, including Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. In 1971, Shankar and Harrison created together the Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale charity rock concert, which featured Leon Russell, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Here's his opening number from that concert (as always, when playing for western audiences, Shankar would have to begin by explaining that the sounds the band just played had not been the first song; it is customary for classical Indian musicians to tune up onstage, often producing a hypnotic cacaphony that sounds like strange music).
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck has died. Recordings of his snappy number Take Five have been flying around the Internet in the past two days, but I like this video even better. Brubeck is playing a small concert in Moscow, and obliges when asked to improvise on a Russian theme. But watch what happens -- especially the surprised (and instantly delighted) look on Dave Brubeck's face when he discovers that a member of the audience has begun playing along on violin. A joyful moment.
Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
I'm psyched to be included in an impressive series of interviews about the Beat Generation conducted by Michael Limnios at Blues @ Greece, a Greek web publication devoted to underground music and culture.
While we're watching counterculture moments on television from the 1960s,here's something else I just stumbled across: the joyful jazz composer, performer and beatnik David Amram on the kid's show Wonderama. He demonstrates his favorite instruments, and naturally leads a jam session with the kids, who are way into it.
Amram turns 82 years old this weekend, which means the promising new film David Amram: The First 80 Years must be nearing its second birthday ... and I haven't seen it yet! I hope this documentary film will reach more theaters, and will get a much-deserved spot on public television or some other music channel. One thing's for sure: audiences will love it, because Amram never fails to win an audience over. Here's the trailer for the film:
Efrat Ben Zur, a talented young Israeli singer with a forceful style that reminds me of a lot of Natalie Merchant and just a little bit of Sinead O'Connor, has released an entire album of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems. Here's her spin on "I'm Nobody", a short, fascinating enigma from Dickinson's found works, rendered here into powerful rhythm and melody:
The album can be downloaded here.