Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Darkest Evening of the Year: Dean Koontz (Bantam) I just finished the latest of Dean Koontz’s many awful novels and believe I am beginning to uncover at least a morsel of their irresistible attraction. It has been obvious for some time that I share many of the same notions and ideology as the typical Koontz villain. Despite the fact, I almost never indiscriminately or otherwise shot people with silencer-fitted automatic weapons. Nor does the concept of killing fill me with satisfaction. Nevertheless, I do share the Koontz bad guys’ basic mistrust of humankind. It is debatable if this mistrust should be defined as misanthropy. Yet, much like the villainess in The Darkest Evening of the Year who enjoys torturing her own child and burning the homes of strangers after sex, I look forward to reading The World Without Us.

Koontz often warns his readers about the fiction of other writers. Usually these unnamed prose stylists are described vaguely for their dark humor and ironic stories of human folly and the meaninglessness of life. Great stuff, obviously. And unnamed until now. Several hundred pages into his latest masterpiece, Koontz reveals that his latest killer/drug dealer/literary enthusiast -- an amiable fellow named Billy Pilgrim -- has read Finnegans Wake three times. Billy also enjoys Kafka and Wallace Stevens, though it is unclear if these are the favorite authors he often mentions. Of course, despite ruthlessness and training, Billy is no match for the golden retriever-loving protagonists at the center of Koontz’s story. The heroic couple has love and hope and a shared belief in the power of goodness on their sappy, soapy, cliché-ridden side.

It is very easy to belittle Koontz, but despite his microwave ready plots and cornball dialogue, he continues to sell many thousands of books. The list of 51 titles inside his latest does not include the dozen or so science fiction novels Koontz published prior to his commercial breakthrough with Demon Seed. Unlike most of his fans, and I must count myself as a fan, I read his books because they do not speak to me. I have long recognized Koontz is some variety of conservative, if not a full-blown neocon, but I am just beginning to understand that my opposition to Koontz is profound. I will no doubt continue to read Dean Koontz and dislike his every moment at least until I can fully understand the complexity of our duality.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Clockcleaner: Babylon Rules (LP/CD) For a number of years and years ago, I was on the promotional mailing rolls of a large number of record companies. This was the tail end of the era when record companies only produced actual records. During those distant marijuana-clouded times, hardly a business day would pass when I did not receive a long-player or three in the mail. Therefore, I was much more qualified to compile my annual end-of-the-year record lists. These days I buy all my CDs and LPs. Regardless of the number of records I am able to get my hands upon, I will no doubt always compile these stupid “best of” lists. And in my mind, I continue to add to and rearrange my lists as I uncover new music and re-evaluate the old stuff. This year, re-evaluation has already begun and the year is not even done. No doubt I should have waited until January to post my ten. After listening to this one non-stop for a week, I believe I would plug the new record by this (new to me) band somewhere around the #6 position. Babylon Rules appears to be Clockcleaner’s third release and first full-length record. I have not heard the band’s previous efforts. The new one is a loud and relentless container full of noise, if not exactly a musical breakthrough. Much like so many of the new bands these guys (and a gal) are all about the old sounds, which does not bother this old fart. The sound of nothing happening was good enough for John Cale all those years ago, and it is still more than good enough for me. It does make me laugh to hear this stuff called “new” in any context other than that it was recently released. This very week, I was standing in line at my favorite coffee house. One of the young hipsters working behind the counter noticed I was holding CDs by Clockcleaner and another new generation punk/noise outfit called Om. My young friend made some comment about how I was “keeping up with the kids.” I should have said the kids were, in fact, keeping up with me. At least these annoying "kids" are keeping up with the sort of sounds I was listening to when I was an annoying 20-something artbrat. Though reputedly from Philadelphia, Clockcleaner builds upon the sound of such Australian -- Detroit-drenched -- outfits as Grong Grong and Scientists. The repetitious drone is a beautiful thing to these old ears, and fuck what the kids are doing. We love repetition. We love repetition. We love repetition.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A few thoughts.
After Dan Berger re-ignited my interest in ‘60s era radical politics with his excellent Weather Underground book and inspiring appearance at A Cappella Books, I have inadvertently positioned myself as something of an expert on the topic of anti-American activities of the late sixties and early seventies. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am the definition of the novice student of radical sixties culture. I know the soundtrack of the period very well, but when it comes to more substantive matters, I am a passionate beginner, a very late beginner to be sure, but a beginner. Do not get me wrong. I have always wanted to change this fetid government of ours, but I was not clear on the history of the subject, until quite recently. Over the course of the last two years I have been catching up and reading everything I can get my hands on. Perhaps my status as a new comer to this material makes my opinion worth hearing. My eyes are nothing if not fresh. For whatever it is worth, I will continue to give my four cents worth in these non-pages. Anyone who cares to hear what I have to say is very welcomed, indeed.

Several friends have recently asked what I considered to be a definitive overview of the Black Panther Party, a book that does for the Panthers what Berger’s book does so very well for Weather. Unfortunately, I am not aware of such a book. I have written at length about several beautiful art books of Panther photography and art, but that is hardly the same thing. I have mentioned in passing several excellent anthologies on the subject of the Panthers. These include Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party, (Routledge Press, 2001), edited by Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas and The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered), (Black Classics Press, 2005), edited by Charles E. Jones. Both titles are excellent collections of essays by dozens of scholars and ex-panthers. There are two similar collections I have not previously mentioned: In Search of the Black Panther Party, (Duke University Press, 2006), edited by Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams, and, just published, Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party, (Indiana University Press, 2007), edited by Judson L. Jeffries. These are likewise recommended, though hardly definitive.

There are a number of interesting memoirs written by ex-Panthers. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power (Anchor Books, 1994). Three lesser known works I would also recommend are: We Want Freedom (South End Press, 2004) by Mumia Abu-Jamal, A Panther Is a Black Cat (Black Classics Press, 2007) by Reginald Major and Will You Die With Me? (Washington Square Press, 2006) written by Flores Alexander Forbes.

Two recent mixed media releases offer some things that books cannot give. The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service: 1967 – 1980) (Atria Books, 2007), edited by David Hilliard, includes a DVD with some interesting footage and interviews with Hilliard, one of the few surviving Panther founding fathers. On the other hand, the accompanying music-video style footage did not do much for this viewer/reader.

What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library (AK Press DVD), is a floodgate of Panther related information and footage. I have only begun to swim through this material and it is a fun, eye-opening adventure I recommend to all interested parties.

I am still searching for that definitive book on this topic, but in the meantime I will enjoy this new DVD and continue to find much worth finding in the many books already written on the important, vanguard political party called the Black Panther Party.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I’m Not There: Todd Haynes (director). This smart, fun new movie by oddball director Haynes is one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a while. The all but unprecedented genre of celebrity fantasy bio-picture makes this a delightfully difficult movie to classify. Perhaps Haynes’ own unseen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story would be the place to start. I cannot help there. So let’s begin in the obvious place: Haynes choice of actors to portray his protagonist(s). This is the gimmick promoters are using to sell the picture, and it is no doubt the handle critics will seize to size up this remarkable movie. So why should this critic be any different?

Haynes employs not one actor, but six to play his Dylan figure. The fact that Dylan’s name is not used should indicate just how iconographic the idea of Dylan has become. It also might indicate that Haynes (or his financers?) is gun shy after his experience with Karen Carpenter.What we have are six actors in search of a character. Christian Bale plays a duel role, Jack Rollins, the folk singer and the disturbingly on-target Pastor John, a creepy, born-again former rocker. Cate Blanchett is as-always brilliant playing the self-possessed rock star, Jude Quinn. Heath Ledger, an actor I heretofore would have dismissed, is very effective as Robbie Clark, the actor. Ben Whishaw plays Arthur Rimbaud, though not exactly the famous French poet of that name. A very young African-American actor named Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody Guthrie, though not at all the famous singer/songwriter of that name. Confused? Don’t think you are alone.

Confusion was obviously the goal of Haynes' mix and match cinematic strategy. Yet by film’s end the director has woven a picture of a character that in many ways is Dylan. All these characters are a piece of the man and artist known to almost everyone as Bob Dylan. There is one striking moment when the audience is led to believe some representative of authority is about to declare that the man’s real name is “Robert Zimmerman.” Of course, in keeping with the obvious anonymity employed throughout the film, some other similar name is used. Dylan is a conman, a liar and an asshole. Or was he? The schizo-Dylan of I’m Not There is all these things and none of them.

Perhaps the two most intriguingly interwoven characterizations are Woody Guthrie and Billy the Kid. Youthful actor, Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young myth in progress. We meet Woody on a boxcar talking to two ancient hobos. Haynes cleverly reverses role expectations, showing these elderly men entranced by the stories a child has to tell. Likewise, Billy is no kid. Richard Gere re-imagines the Kris Kritofferson role from Sam Peckinpah’s classic, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. According to Jurgen Muller, discussing the Peckinpah film: “Kristofferson gave Billy the aura of a hippie idol – and with the outlaw’s demise, the film also buried the hopes and ideals of the Woodstock generation.”Haynes does not kill Billy/Gere. Instead we see our hero catching a ride on a boxcar, taking the real role of the kid, returning to the safety of youth and dreams and perhaps leading onward toward Dylan’s post-born-again era. The film does not otherwise address the last 25 or so years of Dylan’s prodigious career. And this might well be its greatest weakness, because it is Dylan’s ability to comeback (artistically) and continue to produce better than most records long past his heyday that most distinguishes Dylan from his contemporaries (Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Van Morrison, etc.). Although in our current reunion friendly era, where nothing seems to be musically dated, and likewise, nothing much represents the now sound, Dylan is more and more looking like just one of many great oldsters who occasionally manages to eek out a new decent enough record that will be championed as a five star item in the pages of Mojo or whathaveyou.Perhaps I’m Not There is needed to remind younger viewers just how special Dylan was. Unfortunately, I am uncertain that this movie does any such thing. One hardly needs to admire and understand Dylan to watch this wickedly time-warped film. History is non-linear, if not non-existent under Haynes direction. Truth and fiction are carelessly blurred and whether novice to Dylan’s story or aficionado, viewers come out of this movie with a decidedly impressionistic image of a Dylanesque character study.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The "best" music of 2007. More than ever before, my ten favorite choices are available only as CD's, but I still consider the 12" longplayer to be the quality musical format for a whole variety of reasons anyone who knows me is very sick of hearing.

At this point in history my preference for the vinyl L.P. does not signify that I am some sort of rebel, but simply that I am old. When asked their format preference, given three choices: CD, LP or MP3, two men whose opinion I value, Robert Wyatt and Thurston Moore both replied with a fourth all but forgotten musical format choice: cassette. So perhaps I am championing the wrong outmoded medium. Honestly, since I bought a new car with a very good sound system and CD player my relationship with CD's has much improved. In whatever format they are available these are the ten "albums" I have been playing most these recent months:

1. Enon: Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds (LP/CD)
2. Grinderman (Mute CD)
3. Throbbing Gristle: Part Two: The Endless Not (CD)
4. Peter Case: Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John (CD)
5. Liars: Stumm 287 (LP/CD)
6. These Are Powers: Terrific Seasons (Hoss Records) (CD)
7. Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade (CD)
8. Z’ev & Stephen O’Malley: Magistral (CD)
9. The Bags: All Baged Up: The Collected Works 1977 – 1980 (LP)
10. ESG: A South Bronx Story 2: Collector’s Edition -- Raities (LP)