Part Sandy Denny, Part Lucy Lawless

My favorite opening sentence of any novel is easily the first line of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest– nothing else really comes close:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

I mention this only because each way I consider starting this post, it starts sounding like a second-rate imitation of this. It goes something like:

I recently learned about Dana Gillespie from my friend, a reluctant drummer called Shuffles Tierney. He passed along this track from her debut album, Foolish Seasons:

Wow! First of all, who ever heard of ‘Dana Gillespie’? Second, the way the guitars and drums sound, and with the hopped-up double-time chorus, it sounds super contemporary. It could practically be … who, The Ting Tings? Actually, the track (written by Gillespie’s then-boyfriend Donovan) was recorded in 1968. You gotta hand it to the late 60s: just when you think they’re all squeezed out material, along comes something else. This was probably only about the 800th-most significant song recorded in 1968, which is pretty amazing. Quite a year for music.

I also like the track ‘No, No, No’ off the same album:

Dana Gillespie – No No No

Now, check out how her look evolved once she dropped the folk rock thing and stopped cavorting with unicorns:


The enclosed article talks about how she’s making an album with Angie Bowie and Angie thinks she’s gonna be a big star… but her look still seems a little intimidating for mass market success circa 1974. I can imagine being 13 years old and thinking ‘Um… I’m gonna stick with my Doug Henning poster, thank you very much.”

As her career continued, her forays into ‘acting’ started to crowd musicianship out of the picture – and when I say ‘acting’, I mean things like this (Dana appears at 0:54):

To her credit, though, she did land the role of Mary Magdalena in a London production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is pretty awesome. Anyway, the point is, I can think of a million less entertaining people than Dana Gillespie whose careers are common cultural currency. Gillespie, I guess, was neither fully one thing or another: not committed enough to be remembered for her (quite creditable) early folk-rock career, and not Farah Fawcett enough to be remembered as a pin-up girl.

(Titbits photo taken from Mr. Blues Man)

Technology thumbs up/thumbs down

Thumbs up: On the plus side, I managed to figure out the adding-a-side-bar-to-the-blog thing that I was alluding to in last post. See? There it is, to the right. That thing with the blog roll in it. That wasn’t there yesterday, and wasn’t built into the blog template we just switched to. I haven’t done any coding in so long that I felt like the bear at the circus who drives the little car around while I was modifying the PHP of the site… but, lo, I have prevailed. I think.

Thumbs down: We woke up for the third time this summer to no running water. Not good. The City of Prague’s response to this? Speeding a little municipal water truck over to the corner:

What is this… Burning Man? Given that Burning Man just ended last weekend, it almost seems like some sort of goofy tribute. I half-expected to see a stiltedly-translated banner proclaiming “Today, we salute the bourgeoise malaise that inspires our cousins from the land of Wilson, Lincoln and Washington to ritualistically head to the desert for reasons that remain mysterious to foreign observers.”

New, new, new

Some changes to the blog! First, we’ve got a new home: If you type in the old address, you’ll be automatically bumped here for the next year, after which point the domain forwarding I set up will expire and you might miss a sizzling end-of-2011 over here.

Second, a new look. I was never exactly happy with the old one. In search of a cleaner, more readable template, we’ve decided to roll the dice with a radical one-column layout. Maybe I’ll succumb to convention at some point and work out how to customize it so that the blog roll and some other features return to the right-hand column… but for the moment, I’m enjoying living outside society.

I welcome your input on the new look. I’m not going to go as far as to put up a poll or anything after the debacle of the Legs of Izolda Morgan round-up, though, where I posted seven book cover proposals and a poll asking people to vote on which one they liked the most. At one point, all seven designs had exactly one vote. Way to come to a consensus, guys. In the immortal words of Bobby Knight: “Start listening to the guys up in the stands, and pretty soon you’ll find yourself up there with them.”

Good Times, 1660s Style

I offer this painting as a response to Dan’s recent “Good Times” post, to suggest that not a lot of progress has been made in invoking dissolute good times in the last 350 years. Here’s a blurb I found describing this painting by the Dutch painter Jan Steen, “The Dissolute Household.” The best part is that Steen used himself, his wife, his sons, and even his mother as the models for the figures.

This painting depicts a “Jan Steen household,” a standard by which all later family dysfunction may be measured. The lady of the house tramples a Bible while having her wineglass refilled. Her husband and the maid join hands in a gesture suggesting service beyond the call of duty. The boy in blue fends off a beggar at the door, thus recalling the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), in which the more fortunate figure goes to hell. Fate hangs over the family’s head in the form of a basket holding a sword and switch (signifying justice and punishment), a crutch and can (forecasting poverty), and a wooden clapper (used by lepers and the plague-stricken). In this (sixteen-) sixties sitcom, Steen himself stars as the father, his wife Margriet van Goyen as mom, and their sons Thaddeus and (next to grandma) Cornelis as themselves.

Top that, Cointreau ad agency!

If Van Morrison is a Jerk, Does That Make "Brown-Eyed Girl" Any Worse?

I recently came upon this interesting interview with Greil Marcus where he talks about his new book on Van Morrison. I’ve always liked but not loved Van Morrison, so I’m not about to run out to buy the book, but I was very interested in how, in the interview, Marcus espoused a form of musical analysis that seems comparable to New Criticism, the old school (mid-20th century) style of literary criticism that they taught at Dan and my high school. In short, it was all about the close reading of texts as self-contained entities, with no regard whatsoever for the biography of the author or, really, any other context. It turned out to be a great way to be introduced to the study of literature, and I’ve always felt that the rigorous training in such close reading has served me well in various other endeavors, including my eventual career as a lawyer.

I no longer believe that such analysis is the end-point for understanding a given work of art, but I’ve puzzled for years over the question of how to determine the meaning of music, which, lyrics aside, is so much more abstract in “form” than any other sort of creative work.

So, anyhow, I was intrigued to see Marcus explaining, somewhat passionately, how he didn’t give a damn what was behind Van Morrison’s classic songs, and whether there was a real “Madame George” or not, and how basically irrelevant such context is to “true” appreciation of the music. I found myself drawn to this approach as a way of helping to explain how a song’s “feel” can be so powerful, even if the words are just “Sweet Thing” over and over again or whatever.

This topic was particularly relevant to Marcus’ work on Van Morrison, I gather, because Van Morrison is this legendary despicable, hateful guy – although to be honest, that doesn’t actually strike me as all that surprising given his music, although I can’t say exactly why.

But then a little bit later in the interview Marcus seems to contradict himself 100% without recognizing it. He talks about this long “dead period” where Morrison failed to produce any decent music, from about 1980 to 1997. And then he analogizes it to a similar dead period for Dylan, which he cites Dylan himself as identifying as stretching from his post-John Wesley Harding recordings (1968) all the way until the early ‘90s:

“Essentially, that entire period — that’s a long time — was worthless, was searching for something that would give him a reason to sing, faking it the whole time. Any Bob Dylan fan would say, ‘Oh, what about Blood on the Tracks or ‘Blind Willie McTell’, that great song he didn’t even release in 1983? I loved Desire, Under the Red Sky. How could you dismiss all that?’ Well, because he knew how he felt singing those songs, making those records.”

Notice the contradiction? Suddenly the “value” of the songs is very much tied up in how the author “felt” while making them – whereas moments before Marcus was espousing this New Critical, context-less analysis of the music. And he even goes on to say that when an audience embraces music that the artist “knows” to be phoney, “it can only breed contempt for the audience. If the people who supposedly care about your work can’t tell the good from the bad, can’t tell the real from the false, why should you have respect for them at all?”

So much for the professed disinterest in where the songs came from. I can’t say that I was really surprised by this turnaround – as much as I always loved Marcus’ ability to capture the “feel” of a song in words, his writings always seemed more about mythologizing the performers than about getting away from them.


Dan adds: I wonder if this New Criticism / Greil Marcus method of analysis can be applied to blogging as well? In particular, I hope it will be invoked to redeem the long “dead period” that I’m anticipating taking place in my own blogging between 2012- 2025.

The Loneliest Number

I saw this yesterday when I logged onto Facebook:

I must admit that the phrasing of this got me feeling a bit lonesome. No one is online?

When do you suppose the final moment in human history occurred when there was no one online? I imagine that various computers, running various inscrutable ‘services’, have been trawling the internet continuously since the very beginning. But what about the last occasion when no human was actually poking around on it? Midnight on Thanksgiving, 1987? Maybe a year earlier, when Geraldo opened Al Capone’s vault?

I remember that around this time, my friend’s dad was a tremendous nerd and had one of those early modems where you actually placed the phone face down onto a receptacle that it yakked into. The whole thing seemed so remote and esoteric that I can sort of imagine a fleeting moment taking place around this time when not one of these bearded guys anyplace on earth was doing this.

Good times

Around the corner from the studio where I work, there’s a nondescript pizza/pasta place where I go sometimes to pick up take-away food for lunch. The owner, an nice Albanian guy, used to make valiant attempts to engage me in conversation while I waited for my food, but we had nothing in common other than the fact that we both had iPhones before you could buy them in Czech, so we would have the same conversation every time where he would ask me if I had upgraded to some new operating system or bought some new app and I would always say, no, I haven’t. Luckily, he’s since delegated counter service to a crew of Czechs who don’t bother to make conversation, so lately I’ve been free to stare at the walls, which are covered in those framed booze ads that are the default decor of restaurants that can’t be bothered to establish any particular kind of atmosphere.

This is how I’ve come to develop a weird begrudging fascination with the Cointreau poster shown above (sorry the photo is so terrible, but I can’t find the image online and I can’t exactly ask to borrow a step ladder to photograph their poster). Sure, on a conceptual level, it’s completely hackneyed and predictable. But, the execution: it’s so…….. good.  How convincingly the principals seem to be Having A Good Time. How many hundreds of shots must have been taken that afternoon to get this one photo. How rung out the three models must have been at the end.

Since it’s really hard to see what’s going on in this photo, I’ll describe it for you: the woman on the left winks and smiles and holds a drink out to you invitingly, all at the same time. The woman on the right howls in hedonistic delight. Meanwhile, the guy in the middle is pure caddishness unpunished. His hand dangles irresponsibly as his expression says Don’t hate me because I’m feckless. The insouciant atmosphere is ratcheted up another notch by the evidence that its clearly daytime, and by the ingeniously cheesy tag-line: ‘Voulez-vous Cointreau avec moi?’.

I don’t even know what Cointreau is, and yet there’s a tiny part of me that wants to drop everything and join these three for a quick bender in Montmarte. At least, until my pizza shows up and I tear myself away from their seductive invitations. Well done, Cointreau.

Return of the Cobra

Having dismissively sworn off yoga in the past, I’ve recently gone crawling back and started taking classes again. The reasons for my about-face: first, the 30 now 35 pound bowling ball problem (discussed here); second, an increasing incidence of disconcerting observations along the lines of ‘Why does my back hurt if I’m not slumped over in a chair?’ and ‘Did I really just tweak my neck while drinking a beer?’ My resistance to yoga has always come mainly from the whole as your lungs gently massage your internal organs, imagine that you are a tiny ant drowning in a giant pond thing– I think the person in the world whom I would be most comfortable taking lessons from would be a high-ranking Chinese party member: somebody who would busily just bark orders and not create this whole parallel new-agey narrative. But, desperate times call for desperate measures.

I will say that yoga classes in Prague are more tolerable to me so far than those in SF for the same reason that differentiates everything here from there: there are less people doing it. You don’t get the same MASSIVELY overcrowded classes that transpire in the Mission where you can’t stretch out your arms without sticking them up somebody’s nose. Also, I’m excited to have an excuse for falling asleep in public once I spread the news that I’m back into yoga these days– ‘Ha ha, no: I was just meditating there for a moment’. But I still have already run into the same essential problem that undermines my yoga practice each time I take it up again: I’m simply not very interested in attaining stillness-of-mind. It’s much more my goal to be entertained. Even when I was supposed to be achieving a calm mental state in this afternoon’s class, I found myself mentally composing this blog post instead.

(Photo: rarely-seen yoga position The Purple Monkey Dishwasher, performed with the aid of a special Indian two-wheel velocipede.)