28 November 2007

Ernest Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream"

The modern incarnation of the eternal El Floridita in Havana, Cuba

When I was younger, I read Hemingway's Islands in the Stream for the fishing stories, local-Caribbean-color narratives and the crisp Hemingway prose. Now, upon rereading it after setting it aside for a decade, I find depth and solace in the struggles of the older men. Struggles with loneliness, death, lost love, duty, and facing life with half a century behind them.

The bar pictured above is a setting in the middle section of the three movement novel that is the book: I. Bimini, II. Cuba, and III. At Sea. (The fourth book in this series was separated and became the novella The Old Man and the Sea.)

As I read, Hemingway alter ego Thomas Hudson and I are in the car right now, dressed and ready to travel from the Finca Vigia to Havana, with a long stop at El Floridita -- (Wikipedia: .... El Floridita, also renowned for its Hemingway associations [read one of his regular bars], claims to be the “birthplace of the daiquiri.) Papa Hemingway had his frozen daiquiris as doubles without sugar. The bartender, as a matter of bar policy, would leave the shaker with the customer. It contained another drink and a half.

When Papa was slumming it in Key West, he hung out at Capt. Tony's -- not the current location of Sloppy Joe's. In Havana he could get "uptown" past the slums, to the Gold Coast if you will, at El Floridita in the mid-1940's. There were old friends to see, some to avoid -- great old stories to be told and new rum-induced anarchistic toasts to be made. The things we fill our lives with, in war, to make them seem worth living. And then she walks in -- love and death and learning to handle both.

As you could not escape The War in Rick's Cafe' Americain in Casablanca, you cannot escape World War II even at El Floridita. In the end, Hemingway teaches here that all that's left is duty. Truly.

24 November 2007

"One Paper Kid" Covered by Emmylou Harris with Willie Nelson

Emmylou does it again: Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems [SPECIAL EDITION].

When I saw Emmylou Harris a few years back, I checked the set list with one of the sound engineers at the mixing board. The set list did not contain One Paper Kid. My new friend added that Emmylou hadn't done that old recording live in a long time.

This 4 disc, career-spanning collection is exceptionally deep-rooted. I'll cite here One Paper Kid sung in a duet with the perfect person across the microphone, Willie Nelson; and the alternate take of Waltz Across Texas Tonight -- a more electric version than the track included on Wrecking Ball.

Emmylou's magic becomes inescapable after review of the track list to Songbird.

19 November 2007

Bruce Springsteen's New Album: "Magic"

Left to Right: Gary Tallent, Bruce Springsteen, and "Little Steven" Van Zant, November 2007
Landover, Maryland

I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live, for the first times, in 1978 -- twice on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, once in New Orleans and once in St. Petersburg, Florida. At both gigs he and his Jersey-shore band mates cranked out more rock n' fire, laced with burning lead licks from Bruce and gospel/exorcist vocals aflame with intensity. I remember thinking at the time, "How can one little man in a spotlight do that?!"

Gospel wisdom? "It was too many for me." (--from S. L. Clemens)

I never fully recovered; my life-long devotion to guitar rock was now set in granite. If below, I slip into praise of Bruce Springsteen's new album without having listened to it enough to comprehend it, please think of it as a recurring rock critic sin.

Magic is Springsteen's first new studio album of original Springsteen cuts since 2005's Devils & Dust. Rolling Stone magazine gave this new album 5 out of 5 stars, a reviewer's nightmare. What do you write about a record already labelled an "instant classic". (But make your own call, you can hear all the album cuts, in their entirety, at the link that follows.) In his review of Magic for RollingStone.com, David Fricke gets a B in handling his task. He writes in part:
.... Magic is, in one way, the most openly nostalgic record Springsteen has ever made. The arrangements, the performances and Brendan O’Brien’s wall-of-surf production are mined with echoes and near-direct quotes of classic records, including Springsteen’s: the early-Sixties beach-radio bounce of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes‚” the overcast-Pet Sounds orchestration of “Your Own Worst Enemy”, the “Jungleland” ring of Roy Bittan’s piano rainfall in “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” sounds like it strutted over from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. “Livin’ in the Future” is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with a new, thick coat of twang and a full tank of lust. [Emphasis and link added] ....
Bruce reinventing old material here is good news for fans; more importantly, he is showing his commitment to personal artistic evolution. Dylan has been doing this very thing, reinventing his old songs, whenever he's stepped on a stage for 45 years. Reworking songs is one of Springsteen's great contributions to the against-the-tide view that "rock n' roll-can-save-the-world".

The distinctive love-story metaphor and mandolins on the title track are irresistible. Roy Bittan's piano into on I'll Work For Your Love is reminiscent of Bittan's masterful, delicate power on Dire Straits' 1980 Making Movies. It's clear that the deep album cuts on Magic show Springsteen bringing new colors to his music and poetry.

True renaissance in rock music today is all too rare. The last time I heard Bruce do this in the studio is his acoustic version of the song "Born in the U.S.A." It's only when the wall of guitars and rhythm section are taken away that the despair of the verses and the sometimes-tragic redemption of the chorus are revealed. (Note: the two rockers I interviewed for this post turned out not to be Springsteen fans, but both cited the album Born in the U.S.A. as their touchstone with his work.)

One final point regarding the opening cut, Radio Nowhere. Rolling Stone critic Fricke gets it just right:
"... A thousand guitars . . . pounding drums," [Springsteen] demands against the racing squall of his band. But “Radio Nowhere” is actually about how we speak and listen to each other through the murk -- "Is there anybody alive out there?” he growls, over and over --and how a firm beat, some Telecaster sting and the robust peal of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone can still tell you more about the human condition than a thousand op-ed words. ....
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are at the head of the class in helping us understand the human condition with "a thousand guitars" rather that 10,000 news analysis essays. It's no accident that

So let Bruce work his electric-Woody-Guthrie-heir Magic. Why, a skeptic might ask? Just one pearl of an example:

... Well the cops finally busted Madame Marie
For tellin' fortunes better than they do.
This boardwalk life for me is through.
You know you ought to quit this scene too. ...

15 November 2007

For My Fellow Emmylou Harris Fans

The "Red Dirt Girl"

See also, November 24, 2007 post here.

Alas. Two Recommendations Arise.

An associate, whose judgment on The Beatles I trust implicitly, highly recommends Across the Universe, in theatres now.

The genre-pioneering members of this ensemble force a recommendation of The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers. This is where country and rock got the conversation into high gear. "Cosmic American Music" as Gram Parsons called it.

12 November 2007

Essential Albums: the Rolling Stones' "Beggars Banquet"

Mick and Keith
(photo (c) Annie Leibovitz circa 1975)

In an earlier post, I recommended a greatest hits album as an introduction to the late sixties Rolling Stones' music. Now file that one away and get your hands on -- and ears into -- the real deal, 1968's Beggars Banquet.

This is a "transition-back" record -- back that is from the musical disarray of Her Satanic Majesty's Request -- to their adopted American roots: blues, country, and straight ahead Keith-driven rock and roll. And not coincidentally, the Stones hiring Jimmy Miller as producer in '68 to give the band some much need direction; it was from Miller that the Glimmer Twins learned their craft. The result, in the view of many -- I'm an Exile on Main Street man myself -- is the best album the Stones ever released.

The final touch was adding Nicky Hopkins on piano. As Jean-Luc Godard's film Sympathy for the Devil (titled One Plus One in its European release) clearly shows from extensive documentary footage of the song Sympathy for the Devil evolving in the studio, it was Hopkins on piano and Richards on bass that formed the core tracks around which the band and company built the haunting cut the song became. Further, the Godard film shows and the song gave us an aural portrait of the maddening chaos of North America in 1968. As Wikipedia put it, "[t]he dissolution of Stone Brian Jones is vividly portrayed, and the tragic chaos of 1968 is made clear when a line referring to the killing of (John F.) Kennedy is heard changed to the plural after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June [1968]." As a lyric/poet, Jagger has never been better than on Sympathy.

There is, truly, not a bad cut on Beggars Banquet.

Take Street Fighting Man, for example. I listened to this song for years before I tore the chorus lyrics out of it, but it didn't matter. Keith and the band deliver all the revolution you can take without you ever knowing that Jagger's telling us, in the chorus, "But what can a poor boy do, but to sing for a rock and roll band? 'Cause in sleepy London town there's just no place for a Street Fightin' Man."

Further, Jagger and Richards never made the "sum greater than the parts" better than on the vocal/acoustic guitar masterpiece Back Street Girl.

And Beggars Banquet would be the last time -- despite ongoing lack of credit to certain musicians who played on their later albums -- that they failed to give song writing credit as was due. One of the gems of this record is the acoustic parable Prodigal Son, written by but uncredited to The Reverend Robert Wilkins.

The lessons of this record are simple: give credit where credit is due; if you get lost in a psychedelic haze, get back to your roots; and, foremost, if you are unfamiliar with the deep album cuts that I fail to mention above, you simply cannot understand where much of today's "adult alternative" music comes from.

Oh yea, and watch out for those Stray Cat Blues!


10 November 2007

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Mr. Mailer, you will be missed. The Hemingway-esque truth and honesty you brought to your best and your worst work, set a standard for us all.

Requiescat in Pace. You earned it.

07 November 2007

'It's a sin to kill a mockingbird ...'

The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
(- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 23, spoken by the character Atticus)
Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird inspired many a young social activist and prospective lawyer to follow Atticus' example and seek social justice, whatever the personal cost. These young idealists would drop like flies as the realities of the real world closed around them. But a few survived to carry the torch for the equality of all men and women under the law.

And the film's impact stretches even further.

The Story of Movies Foundation uses the film To Kill A Mockingbird in the The Story of Movies as a way to provide middle school children a ".... guide to [the] students in learning how to read moving images. Although teachers frequently use films in the classroom, film as language and as historical and cultural documents is not widely taught. ...."

Lovers of great books -- me, I plead guilty -- are becoming fewer and farther between as the electronic media age progresses and instant visual and audio gratification becomes the status quo. But Harper Lee's novel survives as assigned classroom reading and Robert Mulligan's 1962 film adaptation still inspires idealists young and old to this day.

A large part of the credit goes to Gregory Peck for his performance in the role of Atticus Finch. Peck brings a sense of moral certainty, legal ethics and talent, as well as compassionate single-parent wisdom to the role that is truly astonishing.

Thanks Ms. Lee, Mr. Peck, and everyone who contributed to the creation of this film; I am re-inspired and given hope for humanity every time I see this film masterwork.

05 November 2007

Steve Earle's "City of Immigrants"

The following is a link to an essay on culture, national identity, art, faith, and (my favorite issue) speaking truth to power. Eboo Patel's essay City (of Immigrants) on a Hill is inspired by Steve Earle's new song City of Immigrants. The essay, appearing on the front page of today's WashingtonPost.com, touches all the right bases in relaying a message we all need to hear.

My hats off to Mr. Earle and Mr. Patel. Tell it, brothers, tell it!

04 November 2007

The Allman Brothers Band: "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed"

The above YouTube clip of The Allman Brothers Band playing In Memory of Elizabeth Reed -- from the Fillmore East 23 September 1970. One note from me: watch Dickie Betts as he plays, using the volume control on his guitar to get certain notes to fade out in this blues /jazz fusion composition of his.

The following information comes from the comment archives of the Florida Cracker, December 13, 2006 -- all in response to my question "Who was Elizabeth Reed?":
Allmans guitarist Dickey Betts wrote this. Elizabeth Reed Napier is buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, where Betts would often write. He used the name from her headstone as the title because he did not want to reveal who the song was really about. If you are really interested, you can visit "Elizabeth" while paying homage to Duane and [Berry Oakley] who are nearby.
(Posted by wilmarwil)

Elizabeth Reed Napier's grave was probably a very nice place for writing. It's shaded with cedars ... and has a little bench for sitting. I suspect the use of the first and middle/maiden name came from the way the headstone is arranged. As was common at the time, the family name, Napier, was displayed prominently, and the individual members were listed by first and middle names only. ...
(Posted by Juan Paxety)

I was there ! On our way to the D.C. mall (for the 1976 celebration on July 4) my brother and I (both [Air Force] vets) decided to take the long way...we left [Jacksonville, FL] on the Sunday week before, and wound our way up A1A as much as we could...stopping to replenish the cooler along the way.
MY primary 'special' stop was to visit Rose Hill. It overlooks a river, and within sight of DA and BO's graves is the Otis Redding bridge. When we went, you could actually drink beer and stand right beside the grave(s) littered with joints, pills, and various empties...foregoing a few roaches and somehow magically abandoned fifths of Jack.
Now I understand it has been fenced [...] off from close observation... We listened to Highway Call almost exclusively..except for an occasional Dylan tune or two. [...] By the way, the Napier family(s) were one of the first to settle in Georgia..
(Posted by csason)

The fencing of the graves was a very contentious time. It was initiated by Candy Oakley Johnson, Berry's sister and [Jai Johanny "Jaimo" Johanson's] ex-wife. She said she was tired of the trash, litter and carryings on at the grave site and, as I understand it, put up a tall fence. The historical folks had a fit - none of the other famous graves in the cemetery are fenced off. They finally compromised on a lower, less intrusive fence. ... BTW, Berry's fatal wreck happened on Napier Avenue, named for the same family.
(Posted by Juan Paxety)