Archive for November 2007
Where does inspiration come from?
When I’m working in a particular form, I sometimes get ideas when encountering a piece of art in another medium. Particular films were essential as I was constructing The Sandinista Project, and two Van Morrison songs were playing when I wrote my short-short for The Connection way back in 1998.
Even though I’m writing a novel about rock’n'roll and you’d guess that music would provide the crucial inspiration, I’m finding it more in paintings and photographs. Some of those images are music-related. In recent months, I’ve found worlds in the iconic late-’60s photography of Elliott Landy. And, like so many others, I’ve been most taken by his Woodstock photos of Bob Dylan and The Band.
There’s one in particular that I can’t shake. Elliott made me a big, beautiful print of it (although getting it to me required both of us to become far more familiar with how FedEx works than either of us ever wanted). He lists it as “a friend helps lighten the mood, Bearsville, Woodstock NY, 1968″:
I was too young to be a full fan of The Band during its present-tense existence. They stopped working together when I was only 14 and I had just learned about the group via Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. I saw The Band in person only once, on their final original-quintet tour, in a ragged New York performance that was a warm-up for their “Last Waltz” gig. All I remember from that night more than 30 years ago is that Garth Hudson played plenty of long solos (his “Genetic Method” intro to “Chest Fever” may still be going on) and it seemed like Richard Manuel was losing the ability to sing as he took on “Georgia on My Mind.” (Little did I know then that singing high and on the edge was what attracted so many listeners to Manuel.) So, perhaps because I came to know and love The Band’s work second- and third-hand (first, through a book, and then when the group was no longer a working unit), I knew The Band mostly as myth: the guys with their families on the back of Music From Big Pink and especially the rustic images that adorned the front and back of The Band (see Landy’s famous mythmaking shot here. It was only when I got to my 40s that I read a pair of biographies that confirmed that the members of The Band were not lumberjacks or Shakers but rock stars, people who indulged in all the opportunities made available to wealthy rock stars. Richard Manuel wasn’t a beautiful loser to be worshipped for his inability to function in the real world. He was a drug addict who needed to be treated.
OK, back to the photograph.
I am simultaneously entranced and repelled by the above image, shot to, as Landy puts it, “lighten the mood” as he was working on this shot:
This photograph is the myth: five rustic, rugged, self-sufficient men on the edge of the woods. The outtake, with the naked woman there as object, victim, comic relief, is the reality behind the myth, something closer to the real, not-ready-for-LIFE-Magazine lives they were living up in Woodstock. As I’m trying to write a novel that captures some of the difference between the public image performers send out and what is really going on in their lives, the “lighten the mood” image provides much inspiration. It was clearly a funny, open moment, but nearly 40 years later it’s hard (for me, anyway) to look at that picture and not think about coercion. I sense a dark side that I doubt anyone on either of the camera felt at the time. But that’s what happens when you share art with other people. Because consumers of art bring with them ideas and baggage, they see or hear or feel something different, and perhaps more complicated, than what the creators intended. And since the story I’m trying to tell in my novel sometimes entrances me and sometimes repels me, this is a multi-layered, engrossing image to have nearby as I try to tell a compelling story. We’ll see in a year or so whether it’s anywhere near as compelling as the story Elliott told in an instant with his camera. Thank you, Elliott.
(Note: The Band has been on my mind and in my CD player quite a bit lately. Owen and I attended a thrilling Midnight Ramble, and this post details someone else who looked to Woodstock and The Band for inspiration.)
“Jewels and Binoculars” will be sitting in traffic until Monday morning. Be back then.
I’ll look for your responses in the comments. First prize is a free subscription to “Jimmy Guterman’s Jewels and Binoculars.” Second prize, of course, is two free subscriptions.
(photo from the website of Shore Fire Media.)
It didn’t bother me that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were in town last night and tonight to end the U.S. leg of their tour and I didn’t get around to getting tickets. Maybe it’s because I don’t love Magic. Maybe it’s because the Hartford show I saw wasn’t great. (Here are my long-winded comments on the record and opening night of the tour.) Maybe it’s because I’m still burned-out after writing the book. Maybe it’s because I’m an idiot. Probably a combo of all of the above.
Anyway, I was saved from my own idiocy by a late-afternoon call (thank you, Chris and Bernie!), a GA ticket, and an unexpected pass into the pit. By any measure, this evening’s show was a giant leap ahead from the more tentative performance at Hartford last month. The set list was much more exciting (“This Hard Land”! Three songs from Wild and Innocent!), the blues-boogie version of “Reason to Believe” scorched, Garry Tallent sang backup on a world-record four songs, and almost every number played from Magic finally sounded like it deserved to be played by this grand unit. Peter Wolf looked thinner and wobblier than usual when he came out, along with a wine bottle, for backing vocals on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” so it’s probably a good thing they didn’t make a run at “Dirty Water.”
It’s hard to type out an instant review of a strong, loud rock’n'roll show when the most important thing hanging over it was left unspoken. Although no official source has commented, the state of keyboard player Danny Federici’s health has been widely speculated on the Net in forums both reliable and wacko, Sessions Band keyboardist Charlie Giordano has been spotted at several recent shows, the tour is about to go to Europe, and it’s easy to add one rumor to two facts and cook up a scenario. Indeed, it was a big night for Federici. Good for one or two solos most nights, he was called on for many more this evening, including a loose, luxurious break in “Kitty’s Back” that Springsteen kept gesturing him to extend, and sundry band members gathered around Federici’s platform to look up and listen. At the end of the evening, several E Streeters hugged him, Springsteen tried to inch Federici forward to the center mic, but Phantom Dan, true to his nickname, shook his head no, waved, smiled, and wouldn’t be pushed. It was reasonably clear what was going on — and I suspect it will become clearer shortly.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are one of the luckiest rock’n'roll bands ever. All the members from the unit that coalesced in 1975 are still with the group. Indeed, all of them are still alive, which you can’t say about the members of many other bands that hit their first peak in the Seventies. If the rumors are true (and, of course, I hope they’re not, but the evidence seems to point in one direction), it may be that the luck has begun to run out, as it will for all of us eventually. As the band played top-rank songs both 35-something years old and less than a year old (I’m thinking of “Devil’s Arcade” and maybe “Long Walk Home” for that second category), I couldn’t help but marvel how long this has lasted. It’s not just the band that has been lucky. It’s his audience, too. May Federici’s luck hold out, too.
(Thanks to Michael for passing on the link to this video)
It turned out, to his surprise, that a hip-hop musical comedy about lawyers was exactly what the Broadway audience wanted that season.
“[Name redacted], a leading provider of enterprise search, automatic categorization and eDiscovery systems for law firms and enterprises, today announced the availability of the [name redacted]™ 5.1 platform, which combines robust navigation and grouping controls over external content with multi-layered security to deliver a deep and powerful federated search framework.”
Thirteen years ago, when I was working in Cambridge for a doomed online service owned by Rupert Murdoch, I used to get early-morning calls from one of my bosses. He lived in California and he would bark instructions to me via a shaky mobile phone connection while he drove via the Pacific Coast Highway to his pre-dawn surf group. Usually, he would suggest I do whatever he had just thought up in the car. He’d never remember after the call was over, I’d never follow up, the next day he’d have another idea, and the pattern continued for months until my job moved to Manhattan and I didn’t. My colleagues and I would call these ideas “Pacific Coast Highway Ideas,” notions that seemed like genius for a brief moment, then something else would come up.
I had what I think was a Pacific Coast Highway moment today. The past few weeks I’ve been listening a lot to a great obscure soul singer and songwriter whose work I love (and have celebrated in print — and, long ago, on this very blog) and whose work, recorded over more than 40 years for what seems like more than 40 labels, really deserves to be collected in a thoughtful, fun box set. While I was in the car this afternoon, I heard, unexpectedly, a fine profile of that singer on public radio. It was, I determined based on mere coincidence, a sign that I needed to produce that box set right away. Within the hour, I called a few people for advice, connected with a likely record company, and found the guy’s email address. (Yes, obscure soul singers do have email addresses.)
I just told some of this to Jane, who — while being generally supportive — pointed out that producing another box set, while satisfying, would be easy compared to the novel I’m trying to write. The book I’m constructing from scratch; the box set would be made of materials someone else has created over a long, fascinating career. The hard work would have been done already — by someone else. Most of the creativity involved in the project would have been expended long ago. Maybe I’ll do the box set someday, maybe I won’t. But, thanks to Jane’s 10,000th intervention, tonight I won’t let a Pacific Coast Highway Idea get in the way of a riskier but potentially more fulfilling creative endeavor. And now it’s time to stop blogging and start real writing.
Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything (Telegraph) (Thanks, Harris!)
“And, if we do it in the manner I’ve suggested, there’s no way the Tolkien estate could sue.”
It’s more fun posting a single line of dialogue than any description. So I’ll do that for a while.
“No, it’s Agnes Moorehead.”
I’ll send a free something to the first reader who gets the reference.
There’s been the usual orgy of pro-military coverage today, even on NPR. I have no problem taking in stories of soldiers’ heroism and sacrifice. Indeed, I’ve been moved by many of them (see The War Tapes). But I wish somewhere today I had seen, heard, or read a single tribute to the stupidity and futility of war — and what our umpteen candidates for president might be proposing to ensure that none in our armed forces have to suffer through it anymore. What better tribute to veterans today or any other day than get us out of war?
Do you need more evidence that Gail Collins is the most trenchant and entertaining op-ed columnist in the country? Here.
A great band, a great special guest, a great song, a great cause. Enjoy.
He realized there would be more terrible records to defend, so he kept quiet.
As many of you know, I’ve been trying to write a novel that doesn’t stink. I’ve considered several ways to track its progress (or lack thereof) here. I thought of delivering daily reports (“Figured out a plot point, but now I have to redo that transition scene in Chapter 7.”) or maybe numerical updates (“Wrote 1,403 words, 263 of them worth using.”)
Jane led me to a better idea. She said I should post excerpts, which I’m not ready to do. But I am ready to post a sentence a day from my writing each day. I will present those sentences completely out of context, giving no real clues at to what’s happening in the broader text, but I wonder whether, a year from now, after you’ve read 365 disconnected sentences, you might have a tiny idea of what I’m trying to do. At the very least, it’s a structure that will force me to show at least some progress every day, even if I share only a sliver of it. So, here’s today’s sentence:
“I wanna be like that.”
I’ve been using Blogger to publish my personal blog for 6-1/2 years. For a variety of reasons (mostly functionality and reliability), it might be time to change. If readers here have strong opinions over what system I should use, I’m all ears.
I have a new mobile phone number. Those of you who use my mobile number, please contact me and I’ll give you the new number.
I’m preparing a presentation for which I need good examples of accidents that turned into something: a product, a service, a work of art. Dear J&B readers: If you could pass on any examples of that, I’d be grateful.
It’s got to be “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” by the Hold Steady, recorded for the I’m Not There soundtrack. This isn’t quite as mind-bending as Dylan’s original (hey, this is only the greatest record of all time for one week), but it’s weird and wonderful in its own ways. Fans of pre-Max-and-Roy E Street Band will no doubt chant “Hey Santa Ana” over the intro, and the explosion that follows feels like the late-’70s E Streeters near their peak. Most of the double-disc soundtrack is too timid and reverential for my liking (although that approach might make sense for the movie, which I’ve not yet seen), but this is enormously fun and spirited. Could use a little more cowbell, though.
Fellow Twin Peaks nuts: Don’t buy the new “gold box” DVD of the series. Its 10 discs do a good job of collating what’s available into one package (it’s convenient to have both the U.S. and international versions of the pilot, for example), but there are only a mere NINE MINUTES of deleted scenes, none of them particularly illuminating. This is only worth buying if you’re such a completist that you want to have to have the flyer for David Lynch-branded coffee.
Headline of the week (thanks, Eric)
I’m reading Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. It’s engaging, except for the fragmented, repetitive, unrealistic, topic-sentence dialogue. For some reason, all these characters talk like they’re characters in a Don DeLillo novel. What’s up with that?
I’m biased, of course, but if you want a blog that’s more than just random musings you should be reading Jane Kokernak’s Leaf-Stitch-Word. In it, you’ll learn, among other things, that Henry David Thoreau was a blogger, sort-of.
Back to work…
Semi-random thoughts that I started while the girls were asleep and Eli watched South Park last night but I forgot to post until today
The following is self-indulgent, self-referential, and self-involved. In other words, it’s a blog post.
I don’t eat much candy, so I don’t have much of a chance to read candy wrappers. But it’s Halloween, and the side of the Milky Way package says it “may include peanuts.” May? Don’t you think they should know what’s in the candy?
I can’t stop listening to “Ordinary People.” It’s way too short. Neil, is there a longer version?
Reading while writing is dangerous. I just finished Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills. It’s got lots of talking and lots of sex and, surprise surprise, the fiction I’m working on now has much more talking and more sex than it did a few weeks ago. It’s hard — for me, at least — not to have my writing be infected by something good I’m reading. I shouldn’t read at a time when I’m trying to write.
Forget “Ordinary People.” I can’t stop listening to “I’m Not There.” Having the legendary song liberated from decades of bootlegs hasn’t robbed it of any of its dark allure. Until this week, it was certainly Dylan’s greatest unreleased song. Now I’m wondering whether it’s one of his greatest, period.
And, in the spirit of randomness, let me leave you with the amusing/pathetic/whatever image of the Sex Pistols on The Tonight Show: