29 July 2009

IPA heaven

Those folks at Deschutes Brewery know what they are doing. They made killer beer "back in the day" and they are making killer beer today. The lastest special brew we got to taste (thanks, Andrei) was Red Chair IPA. I love coppery red beers--color like that is hard to do right. IPAs are an interesting "style" as they exhibit a great deal of variation. Here in the State of Jefferson we have two excellent brews with the tag "IPA." One is from Etna, and is a full-bodied, very dry reddish ale called Mossback. Mt. Shasta Brewery in Weed makes a floral, aromatic, very pale and silky beer called Mountain High. I think they are both well-crafted, delicious, and satisfying. Red Chair seemed to have the best of both worlds. It had the Mossback's manly flavor and the Mountain High's seductive scents. It was both richly-flavored and velvety-smooth, the very essence of the brewer's art. Deschutes also makes their superb "regular" IPA--Inversion. Tomorrow we are going up to Ashland and I expect to make a stop at the Standing Stone Brewing Company for their outstanding beers. I can already taste that lovely India Pale Ale they make!

27 July 2009

Touch of Evil

Somewhere along the line, noir became something other than cheap, poorly-lit, B-grade crime flicks. It somehow took on a life of its own--a movie could actually, self-consciously, chose to be a noir film. Such is the case with Orson Welles' brilliant 1958 release Touch of Evil. Box-office superstar Charlton Heston got top-billing alongside the glamorous Janet Leigh. Welles' character, the corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan, was supposed to be a supporting role. Once Mr. Welles got his hands on the script and his eye behind the camera, however, Hank Quinlan took over. In an astonshing performance, Welles creates the ultimate bad cop. He's a bloated, hideous, sloppy man, thoroughly cynical, racist, and menacing. On-screen, Mr. Heston has no chance as the prim and proper Vargas, a painfully idealistic Mexican narcotics investigator. (It was an unfortunate bit of casting, as a moustache and rub-on tan fail to convince anyone that Heston is from México.) Even when Vargas finally goes after Quinlan, he does it "by the book," dutifully searching for evidence and enlisting witnesses. In the meantime, the gorgeous Ms. Leigh gets a scene on the bed in a slinky nightgown, but that's merely prelude to a night of harassment and torture in the hands of local thugs. She plays Vargas' wife, and his zealous pursuit of the truth takes him away from her at a critical time, rendering her vulnerable to Quinlan's machinations. It's as if Vargas' morally superior position--the pursit of justice--is mocked as self-serving by his failure to protect his bride on what is supposed to be their honeymoon. The movie is a dazzling visual treat, the opening sequence with the car and the border crossing is agonizingly tense, and the final showdown among the oil derricks and polluted riverbank is both creepy and suspenseful. Welles used every bit of noir style and trickery to create atmosphere and ambiguity, and the nearly two-hour running time never lags. There are some memorable folks in the cast, in particular Ray Hopper (from Perry Mason), Joseph Cotten, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. My favorite is the timeless Marlene Dietrich as a fortune-teller. When Quinlan asks her to tell his future, she says "you haven't got any." I'm watching Welles/Quinlan 50 years later, so maybe she wasn't quite right! The movie is based on the "Whit Masterson" novel Badge of Evil, authored by the famous pulp duo of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. (I blogged about their Hard Case reprint Branded Woman last December.)

26 July 2009

New old music

Dropped by The Music Coop in Ashland and picked up some new CDs. Right now I've got Dwight Yoakam's Dwight Sings Buck from New West on the stereo. Seems natural that Mr. Yoakam should make a tribute album to the late Buck Owens, as he obviously owes much of his musical style to the so-called "Bakersfield Sound." I've been a closet fan of Dwight Yoakam since his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1986. My brother Brian is responsible for piercing my prejudice against c & w by playing this album for me way back then. Yoakam's made consistently excellent music since that time (this disc is no exception), and become an international star. There are a lot of great tunes on Dwight Sings Buck, but it was particularly fun to hear "Act Naturally." The story is that Buck and The Beatles were mutual fans, and that's not surprising. Mr. Owens' music is simple, heartfelt, and singable--great for bars, nite clubs and honky-tonks. I imagine many early pop and rock acts cut their teeth on songs like these before they found their own groove. Next up is Ed Palermo's Big Band, an act we saw at the Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan during our short stay there in June of 2005. (Les Paul, at 94, is a regular performer.) It's all Zappa music, as that is Mr. Palermo's ouevre. The album is "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," and that's also the 2nd track--a lovely instrumental version. The live act was brilliant, and the recording captures their passion and virtuosity. Up third is another bit of old stuff. The first two were new releases (2007 and 2006), but playing older music. This one is a re-issue of The Pogues first record, Red Roses for Me, from 1984. This disc has bonus tracks and liner notes and whatnot, and fills in my collection alongside Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, and If I Should Fall From Grace with God, the "holy trinity" of Pogues music. If any group embodies the perfect blend of modernity and tradition, it's The Pogues, the original British punk/new-wave Irish folk band. There's nothing quite like those Shane MacGowan-led rockers, they do their own thing and it's bloody fookin' grand. That's what's in my disc changer this afternoon, and it's all great and I'm loving it. What are you listening to?

24 July 2009

Halfway around the world

In 1991 I traveled with family and friends to the beach at Mázatlan to see a total solar eclipse. Alas, actual totality was obscured by the very eclipse itself--the fall in temperature produced a short-lived marine fog that blocked our view of the corona. Nonetheless, it was a spectacular event. Lights came on in town, fish leapt out of the water, birds circled and squealed in apparent alarm. The sky took on a sunset color along the entire horizon, 360 degress of twilight! Stars and planets were visible as well. The partial eclipse was also quite beautiful. We were well-armed with aluminized mylar "glasses" and no. 14 welder's glass and could watch the event on both sides of totality. Our appetites for umbra-chasing were whetted, and all of us planned to go to the Ryukyus in Japan for the great July 2009 eclipse. Alas, we did not make it. They are calling this one "possibly the best-observed solar eclipse in human history" as the path of totality crossed China and parts of India as well. There are 20 million people in Shanghai alone, and other cities in the path like Wuhan, Hangzhou, Surat, and Bhopal add millions more of potential viewers. I hope all those folks halfway across the world got to enjoy their 6-1/2 minutes of darkness!

23 July 2009

Old Bardstown

Our local shop--Liquor Expo--recently started carrying a small batch bourbon line. We had a chance to sample a few earlier in the summer. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Ltd., of Bardstown, Kentucky, has quite a number of boutique bourbons, one of which is Old Bardstown Estate Bottled 101 proof. Here at TPP we got a hold of a bottle and dug in for a first look. This is a rich and syrupy drink, the way bourbon should be. It has a full, chewy feel to it, with a nice assault on the palate. The finish seems too mild at first, but the flavor creeps back from the lips to the tongue to the throat, coating the mouth with that unique sweet-sour corn mash taste. It sure is good stuff! These complex beverages require lengthy study in order to fully appreciate them. After we do some more homework, we'll take another trip to Grenada for something else new and exciting. Y'all come back, y'hear?

21 July 2009

Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records is an interesting and entertaining film by writer-director Darnell Martin that chronicles the rise and fall of Chess Records. The story is told in broad strokes, naturally, compressing about twenty years and a dozen personalities into a few hours. It suffers from the sweeping, superficial nature of all biopics, but Ms. Martin deserves credit for a colorful, vibrant, and stylish take on this fascinating slice of musical history. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the enterprising and ambitious immigrant who founded the company with his brother Phil in the 1940s. Mr. Brody never seems fully comfortable in Chess' skin, and he remains a bit of an enigma throughout the movie. Not so with Jeffrey Wright, who grows scene by scene into his role as the great Muddy Waters. It's not a performance that grabs you, rather, by the end of the movie, you come to believe that Mr. Wright is Mr. Waters. An impressive feat, but helped maybe by the fact that we have so much more of Muddy to work with. After all, Chess was a "behind-the-scenes" kind of guy, and what he was "really like" might be lost to history's dustbin. Cedric the Entertainer certainly looks the part of the massive Willie Dixon, but he's wasted in a silly narrator's role. The voice-over historical perspective is superfluous--that stuff should be saved for documentaries. Mos Def inhabits the role of Chuck Berry, who probably should get his own film, and Eamonn Walker gives us an intriguing Howlin' Wolf. Too many characters, not enough time! The film really picks up steam in the second half, though, with the arrival of contemporary R & B superstar Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James. I knew two things about Ms. Knowles before this film: 1) she's gorgeous, and 2) people like her singing. I figured she was just another pop diva, but I found out she can not only act but that she can really sing. Covering Etta James is like batting behind Barry Bonds, but Beyoncé takes on a James standard, "At Last," and does it beautifully. She's got a real voice, rich and velvety and powerful, and her "At Last" is not only the most moving but also the most impressive performance in the film. She also tries her hand at "I'd Rather Go Blind," a masterpiece that is probably impossible to improve on, and does damn well. It's a bit over-the-top, with a lot of breathy vibrato and over-long notes, but the movie seems to demand some melodrama at that point as we see Leonard Chess walking away from the business he built. If you know nothing of the history of American popular music, Cadillac Records is not a bad place to start. If you like what you see, check out the Chess Records 50th Anniversary Collection Series from MCA (CD), and The American Folk Blues Festival Series (DVD) from Reelin' in the Years.

20 July 2009

Happy 40th, Apollo XI!

There are a handful of historic events that I remember from childhood that, looking back on, shaped my world-view and stay with me decades later. I was too young for the 1963 JFK assassination (I remember watching the funeral on TV), and the significance of the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy killings was still a bit beyond me. I admit to being more concerned back then with the outcomes of the 1967 and 1968 World Series! In July of 1969, however, I was 9-1/2 years old and a devoted Apollo and NASA buff. The moon flights had captured me completely, and I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I remember watching the grainy black-and-white television feed in the living room with my family in my hometown of Benicia, California, and finding it incredibly inspiring. It filled me with awe and wonder. Spaceflight continues to do that to me today. Restored footage of Armstrong's famous step has been released by NASA to coincide with the anniversary. Happy 40th, indeed.

18 July 2009

Sin City

How do you describe something like Sin City? I mean the comic by Frank Miller, not the film--that will be the subject of another post. Speaking of post, that's where we live in 2009, the post-modern world. In the post-modern world, everything has been deconstructed. All the modes and tropes of popular art have been re-worked, re-imagined, re-invented, and re-applied. When you dive into a form like a detective story, or a crime novel, or a film noir, you've got a lot a cultural detritus around. There's a fine line between clichéd and clever, between parody and homage. Which brings me back to Mr. Miller. There are enough booze, broads, bullets in Sin City to make any hard-boiled fan happy. The art is almost all black and white, with the broad strokes, sharp contrasts, and long lines of those low-budget 50s films we now know as noir classics. In fact, it's mostly art--there is very little in the way of narrative or dialogue. Tough guys and their hooker allies take on all sorts of corrupt cops, scheming politicos, and evil geniuses in the dark and dangerous world of Basin City, but they don't say much. The stories, despite the convoluted timelines and overlapping characters, are pretty simple, and go by a little too fast. They go by fast because Sin City is mostly a picture book. Sure, it's a comic, I get it. You are supposed to look at the pictures. And Miller is in a soft-core mood throughout the series--there are lots of naked girls to look at. The rest of the time, these curvaceous femmes, whether victims, heroines, or villianesses, are bursting out of their fishnets, bustieres, and unmentionables while kicking ass or getting their asses kicked. It's a Joe Bob Briggs breast festival--nipples popping up everywhere--and a pouty lip parade that'd shame Angelina into another round of botox. Miller is famed for his Batman work: The Dark Knight Returns is both brilliant and brutal, simmering with apocalyptic rage and dystopian longing. He's also known for 300, his fabulistic re-telling of the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae. It's another flesh-fest, this time sweaty, over-muscled, nearly-naked Greek men in a glorious crescendo of suicidal violence. Both these rivers run through Basin City. The underworld denizens move around in impossible, super-hero leaps and bounds, with either a fatalistic nonchalance or an insatiable sadistic lust. It's a heady brew. The best parts are the unique angles and interesting perspectives Miller uses to draw many of the scenes. I also love his sounds. KREK. FUPP. WHUUNG. SPAK. KRNCH. The whole Basin City layout with Old Town, the Projects, Sacred Oaks, The Docks, The Roark Farm, Kadie's Club, and the Santa Yolanda Tar Pits is nicely imagined, making the setting a sort of über-American pastiche. Perhaps it's the hodge-podge nature of the work that ultimately left me a little unsatisfied. It was a fun ride, but it had nowhere near the visceral and dramatic intensity of Dark Knight, and suffered, like 300, from some over-blown adolescent-fantasy imagery. I'm going to give the movie--which I remember liking quite a bit--another go here pretty soon, so I'll be back with more on Frank Miller and Sin City.

16 July 2009

After Dark, My Sweet

She'd led a hard life for a long time, and it told on her face. But she had the looks, all right, the features and the figure. And sometimes--well, quite a bit of the time--she could act just as nice as she looked.

Jim Thompson, After Dark, My Sweet, 1955

Jim Thompson is one of those guys who doesn't bullshit around. He likes to get his characters going, and especially to get them thinking, and once they get to thinking they move inexorably to their doom. Imagine a bunch of small-time, small-town drifters, losers, and wannabes cooking up some half-assed scheme to get rich quick, and then suddenly, violently, actually going through with it. It goes to hell of course, messier and uglier than anyone thought possible. That's a Jim Thompson novel. After Dark, My Sweet is one of a long line of sad, sordid tales of the lost, mad, and lonely and the worlds that fall apart in front of them. It was made into a film of the same title in 1990. This surprisingly good neo-noir starred Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern. Ms Ward certainly fit the bill as Fay, and Mr Dern was perfectly cast as Uncle Bud. I had to warm up to Mr Patric as Collie--his quirks were annoying--but I think, in the end, his performance makes the movie work. The script was strong, borrowing heavily from the novel for dialog, and it moved along at a moderate pace. It was shot entirely in Indio, California (I thought it was Palm Springs) and the desert setting fit the bleak mood of the story. If you want good, contemporary noir, then give this film a chance. And if you want to read genuine, all-American, hard-boiled pulp fiction, then read Jim Thompson.

11 July 2009


I've enjoyed a lot of stuff from DC Vertigo over the years, and today I just finished the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon creation Preacher. Is it noir? It is certainly dark, but the cosmic scale and fanatastic elements push it closer to SF. In the end, without giving too much away, it is a love story. The Reverend Jesse Custer and Tulip O'Hare are doomed to be together, forever, no matter what happens, and neither one wants it any other way. I can't blame the fella, she's quite a catch, one of my favorite fictional femmes, for sure. Proinsias "How're Yez?" Cassidy, an Irish vampire, completes the twisted triangle. They smoke and drink a hell of a lot, like any self-respecting hard-boiled tale, but they battle God, demons, the Holy Grail, the marines, alligators, psychotic hillbillies, you know, the usual stuff for comic books. It's an adventure story--a hero's quest--with a meditation on friendship and a rant against the gods along the way. I loved it, I found that it engaged me completely when I picked it up. It was incomparably illustrated with gorgeous colors, that made it easy. It was at turns funny, twisted, bizarre, scary, wild, and just plain brilliant. Whatta yez waitin' for, ya bleedin' gobshites, read the bloody fookin' thing!

(T'anks to me mate JCP for the loaners)

10 July 2009

The Music Store

On our visit to San Francisco we encountered this lovely spot a half block from the West Portal Muni station. They actually called themselves "The Music Store." They sold vinyl, mostly, and I remarked to one of the youngsters behind the counter that I had no idea vinyl records were still in such demand. He smiled and said "it's the best way to listen to music." He was half my age! They also had--wait for it--cassettes. Alas, I did not see 8-tracks. But they were stocked with used CDs and we had a lot fun rummaging through the bins. I didn't find anything by The Pogues, or Sam Cooke, or John Prine, or a bunch of other folks I was searching for. But I did find a terrific Townes Van Zandt double album, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. The late Mr. Van Zandt's songs have been covered by the likes of Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams. Check him out if you don't know his stuff--he's kind of weird hybrid between Doc Watson and Hank Williams, with a little Bob Dylan thrown in. Over in the rock bin I scored two CDs: 12 x 5 by the Rolling Stones and Beneath This Gruff Exterior by John Hiatt and the Goners. Mr. Hiatt is still pounding out smart, soulful stuff after all these years. The early Stones is mostly covers, with "Around and Around" by Chuck Berry being a particularly good one. "Under the Boardwalk" is lackluster, but, doo-wop is not their style. Can you imagine what Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention could have done with that tune? Back in the C & W bin I found a Best of Dolly Parton collection from 1975 with all her original hits like "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You." I think I did pretty well, don't you?

09 July 2009

The Danhattan

When Mr B. makes a cocktail, you take notice. His cocktails don't just taste like a bunch of stuff mixed together. They're blended. They're balanced. They're concotions. His take on an American classic, the robust whiskey drink known as The Manhattan, is proof of that. Start with the right ratio: 3-parts-whiskey-to-1-part vermouth. Split the whiskey portion: half Maker's Mark Bourbon, half Wild Turkey Rye. Split the vermouth portion as well. Use a drier, more herbal sweet vermouth for one half. For the other half, The Danhattan requires Cynar. That's right, Cynar, the artichoke liqueur. Never heard of it? Hah! Cretin! All this chilled over ice and strained into a large cocktail glass. Then a spot of Fee Bros. bitters, and to top it off, a brandied loquat as the fruit garnish. You heard me right. A loquat. Half of one, actually, sliced open, stone removed. Soaked in a spiced, sugar-brandy solution. What's that you say? You don't go to those lengths to make a good drink? You don't go around inventing them and naming them either, do you? Didn't think so. You wanna play with the big boys you gotta have some game.

I made my notes AFTER drinking a Danhattan, so I am not repsonsible for any errors or omissions in this recipe. Readers are encouraged to experiment.

02 July 2009

Road trip!!

We are heading south to Lake Tahoe for the Fourth of July weekend. After that, we go to San Francisco and get to see some Giants games! Matt Cain is scheduled to pitch on Monday--ain't it grand? I'm cutting the digital cords for the duration. Expect me back in a week.

01 July 2009

New month, new cyber-hell

I thought it was bad when I started blogging, then I made an experimental foray into the dreaded MySpace, and now I've taken the Facebook plunge. Yikes, like I don't spend enough time on-line already? I remember Bruce Sterling (one of my fave SF guys) once being credited with the 21st-century credo: if you're not jacked in, you're not part of the future. Except for the fookin' mobile glued to my ear, and the lack of texting skillz, I'm pretty fookin' jacked in these days. I mean, I can hardly watch a ball game anymore without Gameday and PITCHf/x at my fingertips. I still use topo maps and a compass, fer chrissakes, but I am really and truly planning to buy a GPS device. That way I'll know exactly where I am when I get lost in the woods. It is great living here in the State of Jefferson. We've got seriously old school folks everywhere. Oh sure, there are cowboys roaring around town in their F-250 diesels sippin' lattes and doing the hands-free phone thing, but then there are acres and acres of country where a tin can telephone would be high-tech. I'm going to be 50 this November. I remember learning to program in FORTRAN using punch cards when I was a freshman at Cal in 1977. When I did my student teaching in 1983 we taught "computer science" to 8th graders using Commodore PETs. Now every kid is a "digital native" and the rest of us are just immigrants. I wonder what new and wondrous things the future will bring. In the meantime, I'll try my best to keep up.