Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #5

Is it possible I never wrote the last post in that series?  I had it written in my mind...  Oh well, they say blogging is dead anyway. 

Another Self Portrait is at its strongest in its look at Dylan's 1970 sessions.  One could argue that it would have been stronger had it just focused on them, but it gestures toward a look back at 1969 (and 1968).  And it also gestures toward a look forward, at 1971.  This makes sense.  New Morning didn't signal a new direction in Dylan's songwriting;  in fact, in retrospect it marks the first time his muse and he would take some time off from each other.  No album of new songs in 1971, none in 1972, and only a soundtrack for 1973.  Only at the very end of '73, with the Planet Waves sessions, would he find his way back into a songwriting groove.

But 1971 was not an unproductive year for Bob.  He released two new non-album singles, and his second greatest-hits album, released at the end of the year, contained a few new recordings.  A few more studio or at least non-live things have filtered out over the decades since, and ASP adds three key recordings to this cache.  Total it all up and you have a vinyl lp's worth of material.  I've always heard it like that, scattered though it is, and the newly released tracks round out this imaginary album nicely.

What is there?

1. "East Virginia," a traditional number recorded in a home-jam setting with Earl Scruggs and his sons in December 1970 for broadcast on a public television documentary in January 1971.  This is the scarcest track, never having been released on CD, but it's worth seeking out on youtube.  It's the only trad number from this year (counting it with '71), and a nice coda to Dylan's collaborations with the Band, Johnny Cash, and others from this period.

2. Three tracks recorded in March '71 with a bunch of people Dylan knew through the George Harrison/Shelter connection:  Leon Russell, Jesse Ed Davis, etc.  "Watching The River Flow" was a non-album single side, a full-band version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" was released on GH2, and ASP adds an alternate version of "Masterpiece," Dylan at the piano with some different lyrics.  "Watching" is fun, but "Masterpiece" is one of Dylan's most important compositions.  The alternate version is one of the really worthwhile things about ASP.

3. Yet another take on "If Not For You," this being the second with George Harrison, taken from the soundcheck for the Bangladesh concert in August.  It's on the DVD.

4. Four tracks recorded with Happy Traum for GH2.  This is a very significant session because three of the tracks were Basement numbers:  "I Shall Be Released," "Down In The Flood," and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."  For a few years there (two decades in the case of "Released") these were the only officially available Dylan versions of these songs.  Seems like it wouldn't be a fair trade but in fact he's in fine form here, and this version of "Released" is an amazing rethink of the song.  ASP adds "Only A Hobo," long a tantalizing absence from the bootleg circuit.  It's a welcome release.

5. Four tracks recorded in November.  The main purpose of the session was the "George Jackson" non-album single, Dylan's first foray into protest song in many years.  One side was a solo acoustic version, the other a small band version (labeled "Big Band" but really just a country combo with gospel singers).  The electric version was released on CD back in the '80s on the Australian-only Masterpieces set, and was rereleased on iTunes for a while in the mid '00s.  For many years the acoustic version was available only on vinyl or bootleg, but it's now on Side Tracks.  Both versions are essential.  The other two tracks are two versions of the original "Wallflower," one of which wasn't released until 1991, and the other of which is new to ASP.  It's a minor composition, but very nicely realized - a perfect little genre exercise, one of the strongest pure-country songs he ever wrote. 

As this summary makes clear, ASP adds three key tracks that round out our understanding of Dylan's '71 very nicely.  It was a year when he seems to have had only fitful inspiration as a songwriter, but the few things he came up with were gems, every one of them.  And his singing - well, the songwriting drought is a tragedy, because he was in really fine voice this year.  His vocals on the Traum sessions are agile, sensitive, and masterful;  all through the year he's in a backwoods-country-soul mode that's distinct from what he'd done in '69 and anytime in '70.  It's one of my favorite periods in terms of Dylan's vocals, and I've always wished there was more.  Now there is, a little bit.

Sure, one might wish for a release that presented these sessions together, something resembling what's outlined above.  And that's my general take on ASP.  It's full of revelations, minor masterpieces, interesting dead ends, and welcome details.  And it's comprehensive enough to feel like it's intended to be the last word on this era.  But one hopes it isn't, because a closer look reveals that it's nothing approaching comprehensive.  It's a patchwork, very much like the Self Portrait album itself.  Cute idea, but I'm still not sure it does any of the sessions justice. 

Except the Isle of Wight show, which is complete, and therefore definitive.  There's a lesson there, which luckily the Bootleg Series czars learned in time for the next installment. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Shiriagari Kotobuki: YajiKita in DEEP

The author is Shiriagari Kotobuki しりあがり寿, and the title is YajiKita in DEEP (弥次喜多in DEEP).  It was serialized from 1997 to 2002; I read it in a 2005 book edition.  It won prizes.  I don't think it's been translated.

For the first half, I thought it was very amusing, even charming.  For the second half, I alternated between feeling it was brilliant and finding it maddening.  I think I ended on brilliant.

I think it can be mostly summed up by the convenient word hetauma.  Google it.  Good-bad, (un)skilled, pick your own rendering.  The art style fits the label perfectly:  on the surface it's artless, amateurish, school-desk graffiti level, but after you've read a couple of pages you realize nothing's accidental, nothing's drawn the way it is because of lack of control.  And sure enough by the time you've reached the end you've encountered panels and passages of beautiful near-photo realism, nuanced effects of tone and line and shading, skilled pastiches of other artists' styles,  and all manner of effective variations on the author's basic style.  So it's obvious that the bad is an aesthetic choice, an embrace of amateurishness that opens the door to all kinds of experimentation.  It unhooks the art from realism, so that anything's possible - including occasional realism.

Usually hetauma is used to describe the art style, but I would apply it to every dimension, every level, of this work.  F'rexample, the adaptational aspect of it.  As the title suggests, it's a riff on the old chestnut Shank's Mare, with two Edoites, Yaji and Kita, tramping down the old Tōkaidō to visit Ise.  But it lowers your expectations immediately by having Our Heroes ignore a warning and take a right turn onto the new still-under-construction Super Dream Tōkaidō:  we're given to expect that nothing is going to be like the original.  And indeed there are precious few correspondences with the original, but it's not like the author is just using Kita and Yaji as an excuse for dreamlike happenings.  He sticks closer to the frame than you might expect.  He never totally abandons the early 19th-century setting, for example (despite all kinds of sly anachronism).  And most of the surrealism is grounded in Edo-era fantasies, or at least jidaigeki renderings of them.  The village full of religious fanatics at the end, for example, is clearly informed by an awareness of medieval ikkō-ikki.  Indeed, the mystical symbolic significance Ise takes on from about halfway through the story is a kind of Godot-like existentialism that doesn't have to be, but really is, grounded in the source material. 

Halfway through.  Yes, it changes around then.  For the first half it's (like the original) highly episodic.  The moods of the various episodes range from nonsensically comic to quite horrific, and so the author has already succeeded in transcending the gag-a-page promise he seemed to be making at the beginning.  But in the second half he goes somewhere completely different.  The episodes all connect, and we start to get secondary characters, and then Kita and Yaji are transformed into a cross between Hindu myth-monsters and tokusatsu kaijū, and then they battle for a hundred pages straight, and then they drop out of the story entirely...  It gets weird, dark, and super-violent, and the early episodes' flirtation with myth and religion reveals an obsession with the mechanics of messianic cults.  And then we learn that maybe, just maybe, the whole second half was a dream, and/or an allegory of a boy's fears on entering puberty. 

There's a whole documentary on it here, which I may someday have the patience to watch. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Jimi Hendrix: March 1969 collaborations

So here's what you do.  You take "Let Me Move You" from People, Hell And Angels, "Georgia Blues" and "Blue Window" from Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, and "Jimi/Jimmy Jam" from Hear My Music and you put them all together in that order.  What you've got is a good forty-five minute look at Jimi Hendrix in non-Experience musical settings in the final weeks of the Experience.  Jimi with horns and another singer, Jimi with another guitarist.  And, right, it's all brilliant.

I love Jimi enough to have collected almost everything that's been released.  But there are issues, man...  One is that the official releases, although they've mostly been pretty conscientious in the last couple of decades in how they treat the individual recordings, have been real chaotic in how they compile them.  You never get anything like an orderly look at any given set of studio sessions or period of his career - it's always just thrown together.  And only part of this is the record companies' fault:  after he broke with Chas Chandler, Jimi's studio work itself was chaotic.  As everybody knows he spent two years trying to come up with a follow-up to Electric Ladyland, and instead came up with a mountain of semi-finished, or maybe over-finished, recordings.  He worked so much on a lot of it that it gets hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins.  It's all good, but it's all real confusing.

Every once in a while I dive back in and try to make sense of it again.  Right now my strategy is to break it down into manageable clusters of recordings, not only dating from the same general period but maybe linked by some secondary factor, like what might have been on an album if he'd been forced to submit one that month, or something like that. 

Anyway, that's how I arrived at putting these four tunes together.  In early '69 he was still working with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding as the Experience, but he was getting restless.  He'd dissolve the group in June, but in fact early/mid April saw their last studio sessions together.  In late April and May he'd be recording with Mitchell and Billy Cox, rather than Redding:  a different bag.  But as these four recordings show, Jimi was already taking tentative steps outside the experience in March.

"Let Me Move You" and "Georgia Blues" see Jimi reunited with R&B singer Lonnie Youngblood, with whom he had recorded as a sideman back in 1966.  Youngblood and his band, as evidenced by these recordings, were tight, professional, and very soulful.  The first track is a driving, up-tempo hard soul number, and Youngblood's Otis Redding-ish vocals prove a good match for Jimi's juiced-up R&B guitar.  Lonnie's saxophone and John Winfield's organ keep things much tighter than the average Experience recording from this period, and to good effect.  Jimi reveled in freedom, but a few musical restrictions often seem to have focused his playing in salutary ways.  This is a great record and it's hard to believe it stayed in the vaults for over forty years.  "Georgia Blues" is slightly less revelatory, if only because this kind of slow blues is familiar to Hendrix fans, but it's just as masterful.  Again the crowded musical setting forces Jimi to focus his playing, and he sounds like a comfortable and authoritative member of a strong ensemble here.  In both cases Jimi is credited as the songwriter, which suggests that he had something in mind with these sessions, rather than that he just dropped in on old friend. Wonder what kept him from pursuing this direction.

"Blue Window" was recorded with the Buddy Miles Express, minus their guitarist.  Jimi sings on this one, another original;  Buddy scats a little late in the jam.  Once again it's a big band performance:  this time multiple horn players, plus keyboards and a very assertive drummer.  Miles would of course go on to play a big part in Jimi's music over the next few months (and Jimi had already played producer for him), but always in a trio format.  This revue-style thing was not something Jimi would revisit.  But this record is wonderful.  It's a beautiful groove they lay down, and Jimi sounds comfortable and, again, like part of the band.  Even though it's a totally different lineup, this complements the two Youngblood tracks nicely.

The last one is a slight change of pace:  no horns, no keyboards.  It's a jam between Jimi, Mitch, bassist Dave Holland, and Buddy Miles's guitarist Jim McCarty (not the Yardbird of the same name).  It's much looser, unsurprisingly much more of a jam, but still really interesting.  It cycles through several different moods and grooves, and both Holland and (more surprisingly) McCarty are wonderfully assertive.  McCarty takes a long, satisfying solo late in the recording, and his tone and moods are wonderfully different from Jimi's - nice contrast, and technically able to stand in the same room as Jimi, if not on the same platform.  They even do some dual-guitar lines near the end, conjuring up shades of the Allmans. 

There's more from this session, and no doubt it'll be released in some form someday, but I don't find it nearly as interesting.  Both the McLaughlin/Hendrix jam and the "Jimi/Jimmy" jam meander, but whereas I find the latter consistently interesting, always changing, and always going somewhere (even if it is at a pretty leisurely pace), the McLaughlin one seems pretty repetitive to me.

Thus, these four tracks.  They work well together.  There's your Jimi for the afternoon.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Robert Hunter: Jack O' Roses (1980)

The Grateful Dead were the best, the quintessential, American band.  This is so obvious that I won't discuss it.

What surprises me is that, even so, there's a lot of Dead that's obscure and poorly understood.  Like, I've never understood why the Hunter/Garcia partnership wasted away at the end of the '70s.  Really after Terrapin it just kind of dried up, even though the band kept trying to make records for a couple more years.  And since Hunter was never a performing member of the Dead, what does that mean for him as part of the Dead family in the early '80s?  It's easy to consider him all but a member (and records even listed him as one for a while) in the '70s.  But what's his relationship to the Dead in the '80s?

What raises this question for me is that I just recently listened to his 1980 record Jack O' Roses for the first time.  Previously I'd only heard Rum Runners and Tiger Rose, and to be honest I wasn't too impressed.  They're valiant attempts at records, but it was easy to see that while he's one of the music's great lyricists, he just wasn't that great a singer or player. 

But Jack O' Roses is brilliant

Among those who've heard of it it's best known for having the full (or at least a fuller) realization of
the "Terrapin" lyric.  But that's not all.  He surrounds it with a number of other tunes that are tied to it lyrically:  his version of "Stagger Lee," which seems like it should be the wrong movie but makes sense with the expanded "Terrapin";  the traditional "Lady Of Carlisle," which is the matrix out of which "Terrapin" was born; and the original "Book Of Daniel," which retells the older version of the lion's den story.  Those seem to be the key ones (although they're not the only songs on the record).  And heard together like this they're a masterful examination of folk song idiom, a demonstration of the folk process.  You can hear how this singer/writer found his way into the old songs and came out with something new;  you can hear "Terrapin" now as a deeper meditation on the strange courtship and faith-testing rituals of the old songs, on the archetypes of soldier, sailor, prophet, lover, on the meaning of the throwaway motif of the fan, and on everything that connects Old Testament time with Old England time and Old South time. 

So it's smart and eloquent.  But we knew that about Hunter.  What floored me about this record was how beautiful it is.  It's just him and an acoustic guitar and a bit of echo, and he sounds comfortable and authoritative.  His guitar work is very capable in a folk-revival mode, and at times really powerful.  And his voice, as he approaches middle age, no longer sounds like a weird castoff of the psychedelic movement:  it sounds like that guy at the bar who, when he starts to speak, you shut up and listen.  Not 'cause he's mean or loud, but because he's got something to say. 

And so naturally this is among the most obscure and scarce records in the Dead's extended family.  Didn't even get a US release until four years after it was recorded.  But it belongs on any short list of essential Dead records.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Eve opera: Elixir of Love

For the third year in a row we rang out the old year at the opera.  This time it was Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (Elixir of Love). 

Long ago I heard somebody make a comparison between kabuki and opera.  At the time I knew nothing of either.  Now I know a fair bit about kabuki;  more than I know about opera, at least.  And I know enough in general to know that comparisons are, yes, odious, but sometimes useful, and often interesting.

This opera reminded me of kabuki.  Obviously, the music's different:  more precisely, kabuki music is pretty rudimentary, compared to opera, where the music's the essence.  But:  they share an attitude toward emotion, toward drama.  They both go for broad strokes.  There are infinite subtleties in both, but those subtleties come in the context of emotions that are depicted in as much intensity as they can be.  Sadness, joy, love, hatred are reduced to their essences.  Primary colors.  They're both really simple, once you get that:  all the weirdness of staging and acting, all the unnaturalness, is there to heighten the effect of the emotional presentation. 

It's totally ahistorical to think this way, but it really puts me in mind of a kind of global 19th century.  Dulcamara, with his showy medicine-show patter, would have made perfect sense to an Edo audience.  It's Uirouri

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The death of the iPod

I mean that in two senses.  I dropped my iPod Classic on the concrete floor of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas a few weeks ago.  Broke the hard drive.  Not repairable.  It felt like a part of me had died, plus then I had to listen to insufferable modern country music while waiting for the plane.  That felt like all of me was dying...

I replaced it immediately, because I had a long plane ride to Japan ahead of me, followed by six weeks there, and then a long plane ride back.  I needed an iPod, and since I love music, and own a great deal of it, it had to be another Classic.  I debated switching to a Nano or a Touch, but to be honest I don't give a fuck about album art - it just wastes space - and so the big screen and the swipe function are just useless, and a bad trade for more disc space.  I want the disc space.

I'm glad I bought the machine when I did, now, because I learn that Apple has discontinued the Classic.

This is typical Apple behavior, and why I hate being a Mac user in exact equal proportion to how much I love being a Mac user.  I'm only a Mac user in the first place by accident - at the moment I finally had enough money to buy my own computer, and was starting grad school so I needed one, it was still much easier to do Japanese in an English environment on a Mac than on a Windows machine, so I bought a Mac.  (This was back in the Kotoeri days.)  Then about three months later Windows figured it out.  If I'd waited three months I probably would have gone the cheaper route... 

My Apple love/hate is intimately connected to the big part Japan has played in my life.  I was born in 1969:  my formative experiences with cars and electronics were all in the '80s, when American cars sucked, and Japanese cars didn't.  My parents had American cars up to about 1985, and they were all lemons, every single one of them.  Always breaking down, not to mention guzzling gas and taking up far too much space.  I learned to drive on one of these boats.  My parents finally got sick of it, like so many Americans did in that period, and started buying Japanese cars.  Reliable, well-designed, compact, economical. 

In other words, my formative experience with any machine that mattered was this:  America could only make shit.  Japan made good stuff.  The Walkman?  A godsend.  Then I went to Japan in the late '80s, and got used to the idea that pretty much everything could be reliable, economical, and attractively-designed.  Not that you can't find cheap disposable shit in Japan, too, but even the cheap disposable shit does what it's supposed to do. 

The only exception, as far as I'm concerned, has been Apple.  Apple stuff is well made, does what it's supposed to do, is reliable, and is economical when you take the long run into consideration (certainly not cheap up front).  And it's attractive.  Which should be standard, but usually isn't.  That's why I've stayed a Mac user all these years.  Mac stuff feels to me like Japanese quality and design sense.  Computer use (not tech obsession) is a huge part of my life, and it's nice to have that kind of peace in that area.  Every time I have to use a Windows machine it's like I'm back in the worst, most American situation:  it may be cheaper, but it's chaotic, jury-rigged, and buggy.  Like our economy, our infrastructure, our politics.  We pay for cheap in all sorts of ways.

That's what I like about Apple.  What I hate is just as persuasive, though.  I hate the attitude - the hipster arrogance, the young snottiness, the design-journal aesthetic absolutism.  In 1999 when I bought my first computer Apple had convinced us all that color was the answer, that the whole world was blooming, and that boring white was the enemy.  Then a couple of years later color was gauche, pure white was the thing, and let's just forget we ever thought any different.  Still have a grape iMac?  What's wrong with you?  And don't get me started on those "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials - those alone were almost enough to make me switch to Windows.

Part of the absolutism is their policy of making old stuff obsolete.  As a Mac user I've had to learn to live with the sneers of young Mac store tech personnel - if your laptop is more than four years old you might be told that "we don't work on vintage machines."  Like, crawl off and die, you cheap old fart. 

The iPod Classic is now an example of this.  A great product, great enough to become an important part of your life.  Indispensable.  I could wish it were a little sturdier against concrete airport floors, but still, all things considered, it's pretty reliable.  But it doesn't fit with their vision of what we should be doing, so fuck it.  Apple invented the portable mp3 player, but now they don't want us to own our music anymore.  That's passé.  They want us to cloudstream it.

Never mind the fact that if I was using a cloud stream philosophy, I'd be SOL for the six weeks I'm in Japan.  And never mind the fact that when I'm not moving, I still like CDs, still like to have physical copies of my albums, with the liner notes and art and stuff.  I'm certainly not the only one.

In short, the Classic fits my life the way I want to live it.  Apple has decided, however, that they're no longer interested in people who live their lives the way I live mine.  They're only interested in people who live their lives the way Apple wants them to live them.  That's the thing that bugs me about Apple.

They're kind of totalitarian.  I guess we knew that back in 1984, though.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises)

Ghibli's had a productive couple of years, and now they're taking a little break, I read.  We're still catching up.  Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) came out just after we left Japan last summer, and I hadn't seen it in the States.  I've been looking forward to seeing it with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

The dread came as soon as I learned what it's about:  the early life of Horikoshi Jirō, the guy who designed the Zero fighter plane for Mitsubishi, the one that became so notorious during WWII.  I'll note here that I'm not at all familiar with Horikoshi's life story;  but the theme alone made me worry that in his old age (he's announced that this is his last film, but didn't he say that about Ponyo? I'm not actually too sure he's totally retiring) Miyazaki was going to turn to nationalism.  Under the Abe administration Japan has been swerving to the right to a worrisome degree, and a rightward, nostalgic turn in old age is a known issue with Japanese artists, so I half expected this;  but Miyazaki has always had such a multicultural, all-embracing aesthetic that I particularly didn't want to see him go in that direction.


On that score, the film isn't nearly as bad as I'd expected.  It makes Horikoshi into practically a saint in his personal life:  impossibly virtuous, in a Traditional Values sort of way, which is a typical strategy for rehabilitating right wing nasties ("but he loved dogs and cherry blossoms, so how could he be evil?").  But the movie resolutely avoids the political issues surrounding the war.  It's not an apology for Japan's actions.  It doesn't condemn them either, and that's a problem if you're looking for one. 

But it seems that what Miyazaki's aiming for is a portrait of a guy who's essentially apolitical, who just wants to make airplanes, and not think about what they'll be used for.  Jiro in the film is actually disturbed by the knowledge that his planes will be used for war (which is a certainty, given that his company is working on military contracts).  This comes up a couple of times.  I wish it had come up more.  That's the theme this film could have centered on:  the conscience of an artist or inventor who can't control the uses to which his work will be put.  Or who can control them, but only at the expense of the work itself.  There's a deep ethical issue there, but Miyazaki raises it only to essentially shrug it off.  So while the film isn't the nationalist thing I was afraid it would be, it does mostly dodge the moral issues raised by its subject matter.

On the other hand, it's not as good as I'd expected either.  It's a film about airplanes, about flying, intended (ostensibly) as a final statement by an animator who has made fantastic films about flying in the past.  Think of how integral the imagination of flight is to Nausicaa, Laputa, Spirited Away.  Think of Porco Rosso (my favorite Miyazaki film of all), which isn't just about flight but, like The Wind Rises, about airplanes as machines.  Think of all that flying and you're bound to expect this film to be, if nothing else, a triumph of glorious visuals.  But it's not.  It's pretty enough, and there are certainly some wonderful moments.  But really nothing we haven't seen Miyazaki do before, and often better.