Sunday, January 31, 2010

Will there be a silver lining?

And if there is, will it really be silver?

A lot of questions present themselves. The most obvious one, and the one that largely determines the answers to all others, or at least the direction the answers will take, is: what exactly had J D Salinger been doing since he turned his back on the world in the 1950s, and in particular since the publication in the New Yorker, in 1965, of his last known story?

Rumours have been circulating, of every possible stripe, and mostly contradictory, for a long, long time. (Drinking his own urine? I don't think so. Although Brian Eno writes, in "A Year With Swollen Appendices", of doing just that: what is it with these creative types?) He seems to have confirmed at one point that he had indeed been "writing". The fact that he struggled to describe exactly what it was that he was writing is, of course, entirely consistent with him having done what we all (don't we?) hope that he has been doing: working on the continuing adventures of the Glass family. Of course, it is also entirely consistent with whatever might turn out to have been the case: even if it is that he hadn't been writing anything at all.

And if he had been writing: what are his instructions to his executors? Is it all to be destroyed? And, if so, will they honour that? Should they? Now, there's a good one, isn't it? If he had been writing away, year after year, for much of the last 40 years, say, that amounts to a volume of work. It could, of course, be the ravings of a madman. (And who would decide that?) And if it isn't the ravings of a madman, what right would the executors have to follow Salinger's wishes (to destroy it) in the face, or more particularly to the detriment, of, let's call it, the broader heritage of American letters?

I think I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

(Here is an interesting tangential question: how do, or should, the wishes of the public intersect with a person's last will and testament? Imagine if Frank Lloyd Wright had owned Fallingwater, and that he had stated that on his death it was to be destroyed? Would that be okay? Imagine if only one person in the whole world knew the secret formula for making Coca Cola, and he stated that on his death the secret formula was to be destroyed? Imagine if a famous but reclusive scientist had developed a cure for an incurable disease, and stated that on his death the secret formula was to be destroyed? Would that be okay? I'm not saying yes. I'm not saying no. I'm just puttin' it out there. (Isn't this fun?))

The fact that Salinger's literary representative, agent, spokesperson or whatever has apparently declined to comment about future publications suggests, well, what does it suggest? That there aren't any? That there are? That nobody knows? Oh, this is so exciting.

Another question. The recent Raymond Carver brouhaha has brought into sharp focus the relationship between writer and editor. Assuming there are stories. Assuming Salinger has kept them entirely to himself, and under lock and key, unread by any living soul. Are they to be published (if at all) verbatim, as it were? I would suggest (and here I put on my editor's hat) that that would not necessarily be a good thing. I am not aware of the level of editing that his Glass stories underwent before publishing in the New Yorker. Assuming (as is almost certainly the case) that it was considerably less than Carver's stories seem to have been subjected to, they are nevertheless highly unlikely to have gotten through unscathed. Nothing ever does, not really. (Which is why blogging and talk radio are such problematic media.) So some lucky person may well be given the job of taking the Red Pen of Death to unpublished J D Salinger stories, without the vital luxury of a two-way dialogue with the author. It has been done before, of course. But it is hard to imagine it having been done with such a singular literary stylist, in the face of such expectation, and in what will surely be a pressure-cooker environment, with the eyes of the whole wide Internet upon them.

I don't think I envy the person who gets that job, either.

I have only recently embarked upon the Glass stories. (From the pages of the New Yorker, where they originally appeared, of course, with surrounding advertisements and all that, because that's the kind of pathetic geek I am.) They are extraordinary, they haven't dated a bit, Salinger is a great writer of dialogue (he knows exactly which syllable to emphasise), yes, but not only that, the entire concept, of a series of independent stories involving the same fascinating and complex cast of characters, clearly lends itself to more, and more, and more stories. The Glass family is like a canvas (not a blank canvas, more a kind of multicoloured, geometrically complex canvas) upon which almost anything a fertile mind could think of (and Salinger clearly had one of those) could be written.

The world is full of "if only's". We are about to find out if the mystery of the reclusive writer is another one. If only.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


J D Salinger.

I may have some more to say about this. You may not be surprised to hear that.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Song of the day

"Psykick Dancehall", by The Fall. Ah, there is nothing quite like the feeling you get when listening to prime Fall: the thrashing guitars, pummelling rhythms and Mark E Smith's mouth, all working together in perfect, uh, harmony. I was thinking of calling this blog "Medium Discord" but I couldn't settle on the preferred spelling of "disc(h)ord".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Song of the day

"The Mystery Zone", by Spoon. Depending on who you read, the first three "major" releases for 2010 are "Transference", by Spoon, "Realism", by The Magnetic Fields, and "IRM", by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The first to reach these four walls (and, unless I was looking in the wrong places, the one that hasn't leaked) is "Transference". Spoon, without doubt, are major. They are so good at what they do, so confident, so comfortable in their own skins, that sometimes all you can do is smile. (Imagine if REM had maintained their sense of playful experimentalism, combined with swagger, beyond the first two albums (but remembering that REM managed still to release another four - at least - classic albums after that).)

The new album, on first listen, is a more abrasive, somewhat less user-friendly affair than "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga". It sounds like the members of Spoon have been giving their old post-punk records a spin or two (there is more than a touch of Martin Hannett in some of the production gewgaws). But they know what they are doing, and they do it well. "The Mystery Zone" stands out, perhaps because it is the song that most recalls "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga". Whatever. It has a very classy piano vamp, and strings that could kill. And, as usual with Spoon, the elements of a perfect pop song are stripped back to the absolute basics before various bits are added back - and those are not necessarily the bits you were expecting.

The liner notes for the album finish with the following statement: "Buying records from record shops is cool." How did they know?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nigeria Special

There is still, five (or whatever) years after the most recent change in fiction editor, a recognisable type of New Yorker short story. Of course, any magazine that publishes new fiction on a weekly basis is to be cherished, but for the most part you have some idea at least of what you are going to be getting. Occasionally, though, something comes along that surprises and stays in the mind. That goes back to the 1940s, actually, with the publication of "The Lottery", by Shirley Jackson. (Salinger's Glass family stories, come to think of it, don't really look like anything else, either.) The surprises in my own reading lifetime include a remarkable horror story by Nicholson Baker about (not a typo) Mister Potato Head; the first piece I ever read by Roberto Bolano (whose "The Savage Detectives" I have just finished reading, after toughing it out for almost a year; it was the opposite of a page turner until the last fifty pages or so; but I finished it with the sense that I had just read something extraordinary, and also that I had completely missed what was actually going on for most of the book - I don't know if that is a recommendation or not, read it at your own risk!); "Super Goat Man", by Jonathan Lethem; and a story about a clown set in South America somewhere, name and author forgotten, sorry.

The most recent story to break the mould is "Baptizing the Gun", by Uwem Akpan, from the issue of 4 January 2010 - that's "twenty-ten". You can read it here. It tells the story of a night in hell as experienced by a country priest who is driving his brother's clapped-out VW Beetle when it breaks down somewhere in the badlands of Lagos, a city that, based on what I have read about it, might be a fascinating social experiment if there weren't millions of actual human lives involuntarily caught up in it. The story is a bit like "Slumdog Millionaire" but stripped of the bright colours, stunning cinematography and, y'know, "hope". Nevertheless I can, and do, recommend that you read it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Song of the day

"Rockit", by Herbie Hancock. My friend and work colleague Denis asked me today if I had any songs by Icicle Works. I checked this evening, and I do have one song of theirs, from the 1983 UK top 40. Having listened to it, I put that year on a random rotation and, after several songs ranging from forgettable to slightly above average (1983 pales in comparison to the year that preceded it, but shines in comparison to the particularly fallow years that came after), "Rockit" came on to blow all cobwebs away, just as it did in 1983. The thought of seeing Herbie Hancock on Countdown (were those disturbing robotic contraptions actually designed by SRL, or by some mainstream usurpation thereof?) still amazes. The song itself still amazes. It seems at least 10 years ahead of everything around it (strangely, what comes closest is a throwback to an earlier era [unlike Herbie Hancock? - ed], updated by the father figure of New Pop - I speak, of course, of "Owner Of A Lonely Heart", by Yes).

The other thing I noticed about 1983 is that, if you ignore their vastly different accents, the singing voices of Eddy Grant and Men At Work's Colin Hay are practically indistinguishable.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Home Taping Is Killing Music

Once upon a time, in a galaxy that seemed to be a long, long way away but was actually only a few miles down the road, there was no Internet. Exposure to music was different then. You could read in the pages of the NME about what kids were getting up to in the UK, but you couldn't hear much if any of it. If you were lucky enough to have access to, say, Three Triple R in Melbourne or (what was then) Sydney's 2JJ, you could hear what was bubbling up from underground, but even so, to get played there a band had to have recorded an album in an actual studio, with an actual producer, using other people's actual money.

Aside from personally knowing a young band and/or being able to get out to pub gigs, your ability to hear music made on the absolute ground floor was very limited. (And, correspondingly, the ability of neophytes to get heard was very limited.) But there was one way out: a combination of cassette tape and the postal service. We came in around the mid-1980s, but presumably this sort of thing had been going on before then. Enterprising people like Wayne Davidson in Melbourne and Calvin Johnson in Olympia, WA were somehow able to put together compilation cassettes of what we would now call "unsigned artists" and if you sent them a dollar or two, or a tape of your own, or a fanzine, or a badge, or pretty much just begged them, they would sent you their latest compilation tape. Many of these were of fleeting interest, but others have lasted to this day. I'm thinking of the "Let's Together", "Let's Sea" etc series of K Records tapes, and especially of Toytown's epoch-defining (at least for a small group of youngsters in a small town in South Gippsland) "Display Ideas For Supermarkets".

Some of the bands on these tapes didn't really exist. Others disappeared without trace. But you also had your first exposure to future household names like The Melvins, The Magnetic Fields, The Cannanes, Beat Happening and Mecca Normal. And there was a special feeling you got when what you received was a cassette tape that had been put into a case into which a hand-photocopied and hand-folded cover (and sometimes even hand-drawn, such as one I received from XPressway in Dunedin) had been inserted by a real live person just like you, and it fell out of an envelope that had been hand-addressed by somebody just like you. What you got was a sense of belonging to a community.

Now, of course, you can wander around the Internet and download hundreds of new songs by people you have never heard of, without even looking too hard. But I can tell you from dismal personal experience that you will then delete after one listen at least nine of every ten of them. These are, then, the best of times, but also the worst of times. Who is there to help you? Underwater Peoples, that's who. You can wander across to their site (or the site of someone they know) and download the Underwater Peoples Winter Review. What you get is the C21 equivalent of one of those tapes. You don't get quite the same sense of personal involvement, but if you close your eyes and listen you can almost imagine it.

Obviously on a venture such as this nobody is going to like everything they hear, but there is much to enjoy, and come back to, on what they have put together. The loss leaders on this particular venture are tracks by Real Estate and Ducktails, both of whom aren't exactly household names but have at least poked their heads up above the grass roots. But everyone involved does a great job of evoking the sheer joy of making music for its own sake, in that special but narrow period between when an individual voice is discovered and when commercial considerations, however subtle or benign, necessarily intervene. Sound quality is rudimentary at best, but since when has that been relevant? (If you dubbed it onto a C-60 using a shitty tape recorder you would barely notice the difference, and you would also end up listening to it in the medium it was really designed for.)

You want influences? I hear variously Galaxie 500, T Rex, Jonathan Richman, Sebadoh, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and what might be described as the Pacific North-West branch of the C86 Diaspora.

And if you do download it, and like what you hear, do the right thing and send a handwritten note (or virtual equivalent) to its compilers. It's what the old timers would have done.


RIP Kate McGarrigle. I don't think it was possible to hear the twinned voices of Kate and Anna McGarrigle and not be moved. Even the hairs on the back of a bald man's neck would be standing on their ends.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Song of the day

"Caroline", by Espers.

I felt it was my civic duty to listen to the three albums that sat somewhere near the top of most 2009 critics' polls: "Merriweather Post Pavilion", by Animal Collective; "Bitte Orca", by The Dirty Projectors; and "Veckatimest", by Grizzly Bear. Having done so, I can announce that my considered response to all three of them is a resounding "Whatevah". They all, to my ears at least, have about them an earnestness, a sense of scale, of reaching towards the status of "important", of making some kind of boad, majestic sweep, of, what, bigness?, maximalism?, that makes them easy to admire but, for me (I am clearly in a pretty small minority here), not easy to actually like. No, I have never been particularly keen on U2 or Radiohead either, other purveyors of the serious and/or grandiose, and I also failed to click with Arcade Fire. So either I am old and grumpy (yes), or I am lapsing into a kind of reverse snobbery that I thought was dormant and/or that a one-two combination of Adrienne and Darren had long ago talked me out of (viz, everybody else likes this so there must be something wrong with it), or the pop zeitgeist is somewhere that I don't particularly want to go (as happened with the rise of grunge at the end of the 1980s) and, pop music being the caravan that continually moves on, something more amenable will surely be about to appear.

Of course, I might just be lazy; all of these albums clearly require more work than I have put in. (Or is that no different from "Eat your greens, they taste like filth but they're good for you"?) Outright ejection may well turn out to have been my loss. (I also didn't warm to Fleet Foxes at first, and it in fact took the spark of Adrienne's interest in one of their songs, which was being heavily rotated on the local ABC radio, to get me to give them a second listen, whereupon in no time their album became the most played record at Stan's house ("Whose house??"), and it remains so. This just goes to show, as if any proof whatsoever were required, that I am capable of being very, very wrong.)

If you forced me to speculate, my guess would be that, of all three of these records, I would be most likely to develop warmer feelings for "Veckatimest". There is a song on it called "While You Wait For The Others" that has some nice guitar. That would be my way in, if I were looking for one.

All of which brings me to the third Espers album, "III", which appeared with no or slightly negative fanfare towards the end of last year, and which takes a very different tack from their previous album of extended arboreal psych jams in favour of an appealingly loose but concise take on English folk (there is at least one song on here that could slip unnoticed onto, say, Fairport Convention's "Unhalfbricking"). "Caroline" is lovely. It will have you checking that it isn't a reissue of something that might have originally been released on Island in 1969. It is also one of the few examples I can think of where electrified violin (if that's what it is) actually enhances a song.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Caravan of Love

The Emmerson Travelling Circus went on its annual Victorian jaunt, as usual, over the Christmas break, this (as every) year visiting Geelong and Melbourne. Many families, at this time of year, head off for a relaxing holiday at the beach, or to Japan, or whatever, in order to recharge batteries and regain some semblance of equilibrium in their busy lives. Our family is a bit different: our stresses and anxieties simply relocate to a different place for a couple of weeks. They say a change is as good as a holiday. They aren't necessarily right: we arrived home mentally drained and physically exhausted, almost as if we had never been away (except with bookending full-day drives down and up the Hume Highway to remind us of how bloody far away from Melbourne Canberra is).

Nevertheless we did, as we always try to do, get to say hello to many of the Melbourne people we most like saying hello to. We were looked after, and/or accommodated in one way or another, by so many good and kind people that we will refrain from naming them for fear of forgetting someone. They know who they are and we thank them. Those who were themselves away from home, or whose lives, for one reason or another, we were unable to invade, should be warned: we will be back again in 12 months' time. (And if half of the people who have threatened to visit Canberra in the next month or so to see the Post-Impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery follow through we will have many opportunities to reciprocate people's hospitality.)

And, as Mark E. Smith once said, "Of what went on here, we only have this excerpt".

Santa managed, once more, to find us in Geelong. The world's stocks of Lego have once again been depleted. No matter how many Star Wars kits you buy, you never seem to be able to have enough of them. There is always one more limited-edition mini-figure that must be procured. The word "scam" might come to mind. (The day before we departed Canberra the December Lego Club magazine arrived, with 2010 catalogue enclosed, to enable the 12-year-old to start his 2010 Christmas list before Christmas 2009 had even arrived.) The grown-ups received a game called "Ticket To Ride" (which, amongst other things, contradicts Lee Hazlewood's musical statement that there ain't no train to Stockholm), and Adrienne was the lucky recipient of "Can You Dig It?", a new Soul Jazz two-disc compilation of blacksploitation soundtrack music (highly recommended).

Santa delivered to me, on Christmas eve and via Book Depository in the UK (you cut that one a bit fine, old fella), "Asterios Polyp", a "graphic novel" (one that actually does fit that description, for once) by David Mazzuchelli. (Pocket review: I have a few misgivings about it, although these are maybe the inevitable result of the strong reviews it has been getting, especially in the mainstream media (problem: mainstream media don't usually have "graphic novel" context for the few books that get on their radar, and are inclined to either overstate or understate individual cases accordingly). It is probably one of the most stunning visually rendered comic books I have ever seen: close to as perfect as you could imagine an illustrated story ever getting. The story has a very novelistic trajectory and is satisfyingly told. The reader has some work to do, and that work is well rewarded. There are many instances of seeing something incidental in the corner of one panel and thinking, ah, yes, that refers back to something earlier in the book that didn't make sense then. And yet the writing is not quite right, and this puts the balance between "graphic" and "novel" ever so slightly on the side of "graphic". There are two unnecessarily misspelled words and one glaringly bad example of a dangling participle. (Don't you just hate that?) I am sure these wouldn't have escaped the editor's eye if this were being edited as a "novel". (This makes me a bit grumpy. It suggests that these books are not yet being taken entirely seriously as "literary works". Just because you can't spell-check hand-lettered prose doesn't mean you can't endeavour to make sure it is right.))

Santa also gave me, pre-installed (how does he get the time to do that? how does he know my password!?), a computer game called "Spore", which (surprise!) the boys have been using and I haven't yet had a go at.

Jules was taken on a nine-year-old's rite of passage, viz, day four of the MCG test match between Australia and Pakistan. It was a compelling, if not always entertaining, day's cricket. He got to cheer Shane Watson's maiden test century. I got to see Pakistan bowling to an 8-1 field, something I can't recall ever having seen before. And the paucity of the crowd meant that we got to watch the cricket from several vantage points.

I managed to fit in a pilgrimage to Pellegrini, but had no time to get to any of the Three M's: Minotaur, Missing Link Records or Metropolis Books. (And it must be eight years now since I have been to Brunswick Street.)

A large amount of time was spent at ACMI. While Jules and I were at the cricket, Carl and Adrienne were watching episodes of "Lance Link, Secret Chimp", a show that I worshipped as a small boy but which surprisingly few people seem to have heard of. "They" probably wouldn't allow it to be made today. Carl, as predicted, was an instant convert. (Me, I love a good "chimpsploitation" picture (copyright Adrienne Gault). One of my regrets in life is not (yet) having seen "Dunston Checks In". At least that one can be remedied.) The next day, which was very, very hot, we all spent quite a bit of time in its air-conditioned galleries. The new permanent display is too big, and busy, to be fully absorbed, but in bits it is great. For the second time we caught an exhibition of the best independently made computer games of the year (my fleeting impression, again, is that this is some of the most arresting visual work being done in any medium), while I snuck off to see the Dennis Hopper exhibition, which I'm not sure was worth the seventeen dollars of admission, although I did get to see a large Basquiat canvas, which is not the kind of thing that comes to Australia every day (c.f. Post-%!@%@#%-Impressionism - mind you we have seen the exhibition and the chance to spend 10 minutes standing in front of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" must, on its own, be worth the price of admission, plus any airfares and accommodation involved).

I should note here that, while we were away, Rowland S Howard died. The visceral, incendiary nature of Howard's guitar playing in The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party was an undeniable part of Nick Cave's development as an artist. As is so often the case, two oversized egos couldn't survive the confines of one band for long, and didn't, after which, as is also all too often the case, one went on to fame and fortune and the other struggled with both his art and his personal life. For a time I owned an Iain Sinclair paperback, which I bought from Penny Siber's second-hand bookshop (which I am pleased to note is still there) in Chapel Street, just across the road from Windsor Station, and which had Howard's full signature on the inside front cover. (Why, I don't know.) I suppose I should have kept it.

Our Melbourne accommodation this year was in Prahran, quite close to where we used to live, so it was nice to spend some time down Carlisle Street way (even if much of that time was spent provisioning at Coles). Carlisle Street hasn't really changed, except for the appearance of many, many cafes. (It was nice to see that Wall 280, which opened not too long before we relocated to the Nation's Capital, is still going strong, but a bit sad that Coco, where Carl spent many mornings as a baby, happily chewing on a corner of bread, has gone.) On New Year's Day we were treated to a display of precision driving by the Caulfield Drivers' Team that far surpassed anything we had witnessed in the good old days. Having survived the Friday-morning chaos of Glick's bakery (Mr Glick, who is of indeterminate but considerable age, hasn't changed a bit in the 11 years since we were regular customers; he must by now be permanently preserved by the haze of flour that follows him around the shop, just as Keith Richards appears to be permanently preserved by various chemicals and Iggy Pop by who knows what) we turned right from Carlisle Street into Westbury Street, only to be rendered stationary by three vehicles, the one in front of us simply not moving, another one half-way across the road and perpendicular thereto, and the third entirely on the wrong side of the road and trying, as far as we could tell, to move forwards even in the face of traffic that would have been on-coming if there had been any way for it to actually move forwards. In other words, just another day on the road in East St Kilda. Some things really do never change.

On the long road home we were accompanied for much of the way by Eric Idle reading Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". He does a terrific job. Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr Fox" opened a couple of days ago. It's definitely on the Do Not Miss Register. January may prove to be Roald Dahl month at our house. You could do worse.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Song of the day

"Take You Home", by Annie. Am I the only person in the world who hears this song and starts singing "North By North", by The Bats?

Idea for Glen Baxter cartoon

Caption: "He hasn't been quite the same since the day he fell out of the vegetable patch".

(Based, somewhat embarrassingly, on a true story.)