30 April 2009

I Am the Blues

With apologies to Willie Dixon.

(click to enlarge)
Aleck "Rice" Miller
aka Sonny Boy Williamson

Musical treasure

The folks at Reelin' In the Years have done it again. They've added a fourth volume to the American Folk Blues Festival collection. I own the first three DVDs, which are compilations of 1960s German television performances by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner--the pantheon of blues greats that created modern American music. The new collection is taken from the same era (1963-1966) but set in the UK. The highlights are a spectacular "What'd I Say" from Junior Wells, and a rocking Sister Rosetta Tharpe, singing, of all places, in an empty train station. My only complaint is that the disc is too short. These digital records of these remarkable artists are surely a musical treasure. My first reaction is an almost reverential awe at their sophistication and style. Then the catchy beats take over and the toes start tapping and the fun begins. These guys were entertainers, not museum pieces, and you want to clap your hands, dance and shout when they perform. All their moves and even their songs were copied by the rock-n-rollers, and their music laid the foundation for just about all the pop music we hear today. My personal favorite, Sonny Boy Williamson (i.e. Aleck "Rice" Milller), contributes three cuts. He opens the whole thing with "Keep it to Yourself," coming on stage with his briefcase, a schtick Dan Aykroyd borrowed for his Elwood Blues character, and he is later seen in his famous two-tone suit. The man plays his harmonica with his nose at one point! What a privilege to see this great singer, showman, musician and songwriter while he was still vibrant and full of life. He died in 1965.

19 April 2009

J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

There is nothing quite like Mr. Ballard's work. It is bizarre and surreal, yet oddly familiar and comforting. His characters do weird things in strange settings, but seem like normal, postmodern Westerners. In fact, Ballard's entire appoach to fiction and non-fiction alike is to make the mundane seem psychotic, and, in doing so, make the psycho-neuroses of the world seem as necessary as breathing. It's a tough act, and you've got to have the chops to pull it off:

I dreamed of other accidents that might enlarge this repertory of orifices, relating them to more elements of the automobile's engineering, to the ever-more complex technologies of the future. (Crash, 1973)

He looked down at his pallid, blood-flecked body, a trapped adolescent puzzled to find himself in this senile flesh, caught after hours in the therapy room with his broken toys, yet still cunning enough to put on an ingratiating smile. (Hello America, 1981)

Streamers of smoke wove through the trees on either side of the path, and a blizzard of unsettled insects swept the cliff face. The albatross rose from their rocky perches, soaring out to sea as the grey billows enveloped the summit. (Rushing to Paradise, 1994)

Apparently he lost his battle with cancer early this morning. We are in the midst of William Gibson's Spook Country, and if any contemporary author owes J.G. Ballard a debt, it is Mr. Gibson. They share a fetish for pop-culture's detritus, for brand names and technology, and have similar sense of dislocation in their work, as if they see the truth behind the facade, but find the facade to have a more powerful allure than what it is hiding. Gibson is a Luddite, drowning in a cyber-sea, the oscillations of the endless upgrade-obsolescence cycle propelling his fictional vision forward. Ballard is a psychoanalyst unfettered by Freudian orthodoxy probing the dreamscapes of the neurotic. Both are obsessed with the fuzziness of the future, and especially its dystopian--though suprisingly appealing--possibilites. But where Gibson is diamond-hard, almost brittle, with crisp, percussive prose, Ballard is sinuous and musical, with a rhythmic grace, smooth and soothing. Both are essential, and carve out the territory of modern SF.

David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg made films of Ballard's work, and both Crash (1996) and Empire of the Sun (1987) provide an excellent introduction. His short work, in particular Vermilion Sands and The Terminal Beach, will give you the essence in small doses. Fair warning: once you start, you'll be hooked. It's a good thing there's a lot of it. After you are fully immersed, then try The Atrocity Exhibition. I think you'll find it an essential balm for the chaos and confusion of the 21st century.

Requiescat in pacem.

11 April 2009

Mercenary territory

HCC-053, Hard Case's March release, is The Cutie by the late Donald E. Westlake. This was his first novel, originally published in 1960 as The Mercenaries. Hard Case is known for its covers, and this one--by Ken Laager--features a dangerous-looking redhead in a cocktail dress and heels loading a revolver while standing in front of a briefcase full of cash. Great cover, very much in the style and tone of the series, but having absolutely nothing to do with the story. There's no sexy gun moll, no femme fatale, no dangerous dame. There's no big wad of cash either, and the only important weapons are a knife and a .45 automatic. There's just another great Westlake story, this one about an organization man, a hard, smart, smooth lieutenant to an NYC crime boss, who finds his life turned upside down when a junky named Billy-Billy shows up on his doorstep. What consistently amazes me about D.E.W. is his consistent excellence. You are almost never disappointed by his novels and that's the case whether you like the hard-boiled or the humorous ones. He was an amazing talent, something the Hard Case folks know, as they've re-printed four of them (one as Richard Stark). I understand the desire to have cool covers, and much of the reason I collect the books is so I can eventually display the cover art. But this time the incongruity between the art and the story is so great it caused me irritation and clouded my read-through of the book. In the story, a "cutie" is organization slang for an adversary, one who has upset the carefully ordered world and bosses and workers, someone who will be getting their comeuppance soon. There are dancers, showgirls, hookers, and hot chicks aplenty in Westlake's world of The Mercenaries. None but the bad guy are called "cutie." But once the cover goes up on the shelf I'm sure I'll forget my annoyance and enjoy its lurid pulp appeal. After all, you can't judge a book by its cover.

03 April 2009

Don't Mess w' Mike!

I love this stuff. Mike Nomad is "da man." This is from the same batch o'strips I've blogged about before. The year is 1971. I was 11 going on 12, and I read Mike Nomad in The San Francisco Chronicle every day. This is a frame from a Sunday panel (note the color). The sheet I have is 11-1/2 by 14-1/2 inches in size, so it is equivalent to a half-page of newsprint. I remember the Sunday Chronicle had a separate, magazine like section for the comics at one point. This was after they stopped doing the Sunday funnies in the full-sized pages, with a fold in the middle just like all the other sections. I 'm glad I was a kid when they still had good funnies in the newspapers. I caught just the tail end of that era, but it was like having a pass key to a new world. Reading leads to more reading, and reading the funnies leads to reading more funnies. The history of this form is filled with riches, and new stuff (alas, not much in the newspapers) is happening all the time. Telling picture stories is high art. I'm no critic, nor comics scholar, and I've no idea where Messrs. Saunders & Overgard stack with the big guys in the field, but the brisk action, crisp dialog, clean lines, sharp edges, vivid characters, and likeable anti-hero is tops in my book. Apparently Mr. Overgard is credited with the creation of our anachronistic man-of-action, even though he's the artist on the strip. Mr. Saunders was also known for Mary Worth. His son John took on the task of keeping Steve Roper and Mike Nomad going in the late 1980s. The action-adventure format is not really noir, mostly due to happy endings (or at least acceptable endings), but think about my description above. Doesn't that sound like film noir? Maybe its just that Mike is a 50s guy in a 70s world, and his schtick would work great alongside a 50s femme fatale like Lizbeth Scott or Marie Windsor!