And so it begins. My new book — Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon — appears tomorrow, and I’ll be voyaging around the country in the coming weeks giving readings. Please come if you’re in the neighborhood for any of these. If you’ve been thinking of moving out of the United States — and lately who hasn’t? — this little volume could come in handy.
September 16, New York City, KGB, 7 pm
September 17, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 5 pm
September 24, Los Angeles, Book Soup, 4 pm
September 25, Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory, 7 pm
September 28, Cambridge, Mass., Porter Square Books, 7 pm
October 12, Portland, Maine, Print Bookshop, 7 pm
October 16, Atlanta, A Cappella Books, 7 pm
October 27, Chicago, Book Cellar, 7 pm
November 13, Baltimore, Pratt Library in Roland Park, 6:30 pm
November 18 or 19, Miami Book Fair
An excerpt appears in the September issue of Nautilus magazine, now online. I don’t know about the writing, but the illustrations are really far-out.
Most beautiful cover of “Moon River” ever:
Randy Newman has a new album out, Dark Matter, his first in nine years. One cut that especially struck me is called “Sonny Boy,” which tells the story of Sonny Boy Williamson I, the blues-harp pioneer, and how his name and legacy were appropriated (ripped off) by one Aleck “Rice” Miller, who came along later and billed himself as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Today even serious blues fans get them mixed up. I assume Van Morrison, who has covered both of them, knows the difference. Newman does. But they’re two of the few. So here, as far as I can untangle it, is the deal:
Sonny Boy I came out of Madison, Tennessee. Not only did he turn the blues harp into a lead instrument, he also came up with the call and response technique of playing — bursts of harp between bursts of lyrics — that virtually every practitioner’s used since. Based in Chicago, he began his recording career in 1937 with “Good Morning Schoolgirl” on Bluebird. Take the impact of that, multiply it about a hundred times and you’ve got the scope of his career. It was cut short, way short, in the summer of 1948 when he was killed by stray gunfire walking home.
By then Rice Miller was already slip-sliding around pretending to be him. Great player in his own right, no question; thief, also no question. And once SB I died, SB II could keep saying “the one and only” and be telling the truth now, if you think in terms of how many Sonny Boy Williamsons were currently breathing.
Rice Miller recorded great sides for Checker (“Don’t Start Me Talkin’,”Your Funeral and My Trial,” many more) and he cemented his legacy-sucking reputation in Europe riding the blues revival of the 1960s. Miller took well to success. He was spotted in England wearing a two-toned suit with a bowler hat and umbrella. On the other hand, he apparently set fire to his hotel room trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator, so it’s not like he went totally uptown.
Herewith samples of their work, I followed by II.
SB I was the big innovator.
Actually this recalls the big Pinetop pile-up. But that’s another post.
Ondrej Havelka and His Melody Makers, whose music I’ve played on the show a couple of times, are like Max Raabe and His Palast Orchester only weirder and farther east. Havelka, a Czech, has been fronting a live-wire retro-swing band since 1995, sleek, chic, everything you could ask for, but what really sets Havelka apart is his videos. They’re trippy black-and-white reinventions of old movies, or what would have been old movies if they’d ever gotten made, scenes he meticulously creates and then blows apart with invasions of song and dance. He’s got all the moves. He can do the Fred Astaire cane thing, the Donald O’Connor hat thing. He’s a brilliantly skilled anarchist, just the thing I guess for an area like Eastern Europe though God knows we could use him here if only to cheer ourselves up. A couple of clips for your delectation and amusement. You’ll love these, I promise:
Last week being pledge-drive time at the station (wmpg.org, it’s never too late) I brought back some old favorites and didn’t get into new A material. So instead of talking about tunes from the playlist I thought I’d pass along an arresting link from our friends at Open Culture. Here it is, “Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Used to Treat Mental Illness:”
Inevitably this device reminded me of the work of Louis Wain. He was an English artist who thrived during the years leading up to the First World War painting almost exclusively cats. He painted them in costumes, driving cars, playing golf and so on. This was a brand-new idea at the time, and his work became wildly popular; it went a long way in fact toward turning cats from barn-dwellers to house pets.
In mid-career, however, Wain had a schizophrenic break, and he spent the rest of his life in institutions. He kept painting cats. But now they were very, very different:
Amazing stuff. But would you want it on your wall?
Pick hits from my program last week: In 1924, three weeks before he premiered Rhapsody in Blue and shot to fame, a show featuring the music of George Gershwin premiered on Broadway. Not the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, who at that point was still loitering around stage doors hoping to break in; words by Buddy deSylva (“April Showers,” “Look for the Silver Lining”) instead. The musical was called Sweet Little Devil, a show so obscure today that when people talk about forgotten musicals they forget this one. Nevertheless, in 2012 — 88 years after it bloomed and died — a guy named Tommy Krasker, listed as “former archivist to the Ira Gershwin estate” (wasn’t that Michael Feinstein?) resurrected the score, assembled some Broadway performers (Rebecca Luker et al) and produced the first cast recording. Granted, it’s a little vapid around the edges, but a couple of numbers really caught my ear. Given my severe technical limitations, the best pathway I can suggest is to pull up the album (Sweet Little Devil) on Spotify and go to numbers 6 (“The Jijibo”) and 14 (“Matrimonial Handicap”), which are the utmost in my opinion. In the first you can really hear that yearning, bluesy Gershwin sound which is just about to get very famous. A musical egg is hatching….
I’m early on reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (900 pages, journey of a thousand miles), a fact I’m sharing because I came across a mention in it of a song called, “Would You Rather Be a Colonel With an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private With a Chicken on Your Knee?” Immediately wondered if this could be a real song, looked it up and so it is: first presented by Eddie Cantor in the 1918 edition of Ziegfeld Follies, released the following year by one “Eugene Buckley,” an alias apparently though why he would want to hide his involvement is a mystery because it’s a great record. Here it is, one of the big hits of 1919:
Penny Lane’s mind-rearranging documentary NUTS! — about goat-testicles titan Dr. John Brinkley, the ur-Trump of 1930 — started the year as a prize-winner at Sundance (Best Editing, I mean the six animators alone…). It’s streaming now over Amazon and iTunes. And as the year-end lists come rolling out:
Richard Brody’s “Best Movies of 2016” at The New Yorker
“Weirdest Pop Culture” at The Verge
“Ten Best Documentaries of 2016” at Flavorwire
“Best Documentaries of 2016” at NonFics
“The Best-Reviewed Women-Directed Films of 2016” at Women and Hollywood
All this in spite of the fact that I turn up in it as a talking head:
Last week I was putting together a set of songs for my show (Dog’s Dinner, Wed eves. 8:30-10, wmpg.org) on the subject of Mexicans, walls and so forth, for example this gem from Tom Russell:
In the course of my researches I discovered that the U.S. Border Patrol has been quietly commissioning pop songs for Mexican radio on the subject of illegal immigration — specifically, how trying to slip across the border will be a horrible mistake and probably get you killed. Some of these numbers, like La Bestia Norte (aka Death Train) have gotten really popular on commercial radio:
It’s so catchy the lyrics come as a surprise:
…The threatening snake appears/
Her scales made out of iron/
Her womb as well…
And we haven’t even boarded yet.
If this stuff is selling — and it is — and if we the people are producing it — and we are — where’s the money?