Thursday, September 10, 2015

Murakami Haruki: The Strange Library

As of this writing, this is the most recent English translation of Murakami.  The story has a slightly complicated history.  It was published, as a short story, in 1982, under the title "Toshokan kitan 図書館奇譚" (Strange tale of a library).  In 2005 he published it as a stand-alone picture book, with illustrations by Sasaki Maki;  at this point he rewrote the story somewhat and changed the title, to "Fushigi na toshokan 不思議な図書館."  The latter version is what has been translated into English as The Strange Library, and published as a stand-alone picture book;  the illustrations for the English version are by Chip Kidd.  In my last post I linked to a blog by some of Murakami's European translators that mentions the Euro edition of this work, which has illustrations by Kat Menschik, like Pan'ya o osou;  her version of the library story has also been published in Japanese, and as the blog makes clear, in that edition the earlier title was used.  I don't know if that means that (a) the German (and non-English Euro) version of this picture book used the older version of the story or the newer, or (b) if the Japanese edition of the Menschik-illustrated volume (which I haven't seen yet) uses the older or newer version of the story.  But it is clear that the English version, translated by Ted Goossen, uses the 2005 revision of the story, the one made for publication as a picture book.

I suspect that what is happening is that, America always being a little insular, xenophobic, and therefore late to the party, this translation of The Strange Library represents Murakami's English publishers finally deciding to invest in the Murakami picture-book boom that has been taking place on the continent for several years, but also deciding that Menschik's illustrations are less saleable in the US than Kidd's, since Kidd has done Murakami work in the past.  I also suspect that a Japanese edition using Kidd's illustrations is going to appear.  And won't that be interesting?

There are two issues I want to briefly talk about in the rest of this post.

First, the differences between the two versions of the story.  I can't think offhand of a way to render the titles that makes the difference clearer in English, but the original title feels old-fashioned, Sinified, and above all grown-up, while the 2005 version's title sounds like the title of a child's picture book.  Kitan 奇譚 doesn't actually mean horror, but something approaching the effect might be achieved if you imaged the original title as being "The Library Horror" and the the revised title as being "The Scary Library." 

That pretty well indicates the direction of Murakami's revisions.  The revised version is at least masquerading as a picture book for kids, and so he rewrites the story so that it feels like one.  Not completely - I doubt anybody would read this to kids, and I'm sure he doubts it too, so instead it's more like a normal Murakami story cosplaying as a kid's story, for normal Murakami readers who want to cosplay as children.  But still, he simplifies the language slightly, cuts out a few of the more ornate descriptions, and adds a few more references to the child-narrator's mother in such a way as to make it clear that the narrator is a child.  In the original it's not quite so clear - he may be an adult still living with his mother. 

Interestingly, however, the revised version contains more of a sense of loss at the end than the original - in the original, the narrator's pet starling is restored to him at the end.  But there's still a palpable sense of loss at the end of the original version, because (splr alrt) the final paragraph, where the narrator says his mother has just died, is already there.  That is the original ending of the story, not something added in revision.  And, while we're on the subject, I'm disappointed that the English translation prints this final paragraph in a smaller type size, suggesting (with no basis in the original) that it's to be taken as by a different voice, or as referring to a different narrative level, than the rest of the story.  I.e., the translation sets this paragraph off in such a way as to imply that it's by an older version of the narrator, or a different version, or by the author himself (as opposed to the narrator);  this may be the case, but it's not something indicated in the original.  It's an artifact of the translation's book design.

Which brings us to the second point, the illustrations.  I don't see why they didn't just use Sasaki Maki's original illustrations.  Murakami and Sasaki go way back, with Sasaki's illustrations appearing on the covers of many of his early works.  If you read Murakami in the '80s, Sasaki's vaguely Keith Haring-esque illustrations probably influenced your understanding of Murakami's work.  They help to situate him in the realm of pop art, a la Haring.  Sasaki's work for the library book is in the same style, cartoony, childlike, fun.  Murakami's revisions to the story are obviously made to fit just this kind of illustration.

They don't fit Chip Kidd's style of illustration.  Now, I like Kidd's work, as a rule.  His irony-laced appropriative graphic style is great for certain things.  I've never thought it very appropriate for Murakami, however;  Kidd favors a kind of triple-lutz Orientalism that puts the East Asian subject in so many quotation marks that you can't quite parse it (is it ironic? is it ironizing irony? is it ironizing the ironization of irony?).  The problem with this kind of thing is that irony is a fugitive pigment, and can evaporate over time, so that what might have been meant as a daring, meaning-laden appropration of an Orientalist image ends up being just another Orientalist image...  The problem with this kind of thing for a Murakami cover is something different:  it's that Murakami himself doesn't engage in this kind of thing.  He famously, obviously has little time for thinking about "Japaneseness."  The issues that Kidd's covers think about have nothing to do with what Murakami writes about - all they relate to is an American reader's cramped inability to forget that this is a Japanese writer, a member of the Other. 

And that's what's going on here.  There's nothing in The Strange Library that relates in any way to the found-image arch-ironical Orientalism of the images Kidd provides for the American edition of the story.  On their own, they're quite attractive images, and Kidd treats them, crops them, manipulates them, and transforms them in beautiful ways, and then juxtaposes them with the text in intelligent ways.  But they strike notes wholly dissonant with the story, unlike Sasaki's wholly consonant original illustrations.  And fairly frequently the irony just fails - when you read about an old man and turn the page and see a photo of a noh mask, all the careful photoshopping in the world can't distract from the fundamental equation being made.  Japanese old man = noh mask.  Reductive, essentialist, bad.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Murakami Haruki: Pan'ya o osou

I've been on a Murakami Haruki kick last couple of weeks.  Catching up with a couple of recent things I hadn't read yet, and delving into some of his older stuff that I hadn't yet touched.

One of these was a curious publication from 2013 called Pan'ya o osou パン屋を襲う (To Raid a Bakery).  Murakami fans reading English will know of his short story "The Second Bakery Attack" (Pan'ya saishūgeki パン屋再襲撃), translated in The Elephant Vanishes.  They may also know, because it's mentioned in Rubin's book, that there actually was an earlier story called "The Bakery Attack" (Pan'ya shūgeki パン屋襲撃), which hasn't been translated into English.  As Rubin notes, the second story summarizes the first story as part of its plot, so if you've read the later one you more or less know the earlier one - but still, I'd like to see it translated someday, for reasons that will become clear below.

In German, both stories have been published together as a book entitled Die bäckerieūberfälle, with illustrations by Kat Menschik.  Since the Japanese Murakami industry loves to keep track of his international reception, this book was recreated in Japanese in 2013.  That is, the two stories were published as a single book with Menschik's illustrations.  At the same time Murakami decided to revise the two stories slightly, changing the titles (thus "To Raid a Bakery" instead of "The Bakery Attack").  (Menschik has illustrated other Murakami, which you can read about here.)

The illustrations are nice.  Beautiful, even, all in forest green, gold, and white.  Not necessarily the way I imagine the stories, but they add a real stylishness that complements the stories' inventiveness without disrupting them with a contradictory aesthetic (which is the problem with the English version of The Strange Library, which I'll get around to discussing soon, hopefully).

Murakami's revisions are fairly minor, to the point that if I hadn't been going back and forth between the new versions and the originals I only would have noticed a couple.  He adds a descriptive phrase here and subtracts one there, but not really the kind of thing that makes much difference.  The substantive changes I noticed seemed to be geared toward (a) making the two stories work together as if the second one was a sequel to the first, and (b) making the second one feel as if it's taking place in the present, rather than in the early '80s. 

The latter is accomplished by changing a few cultural references.  The famous Betamax ad at the end of the second story is now an ad for Blu-Ray - a canny change.  A Bluebird in the original is now an Accord.  Did he have to make the second story take place in the present?  Well, sort of.  Given that it's supposed to be taking place over a decade after the first bakery attack, and that the first bakery attack is taking place at a moment when "God, Karl Marx, and John Lennon are all dead," the second bakery attack couldn't be taking place in the early '80s.

Which leads us to the former goal, making the two stories work together as if the second one was a sequel to the first.  Because, when you read the originals, you realize that this is not the relationship between them.  The time scheme doesn't work, but there are other inconsistent details.  In the first bakery attack story we're very specifically told that the baker is listening to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" on a radio cassette player, while in the second story we're told that he had been listening to Wagner overtures (including Tannhauser) on lp.  A small inconsistency, but one that tells us that the second story, as originally written, was less a sequel to the first than a rewriting of it, one that moved the events of the first into the past and thereby recontextualized them against the end of the '60s counterculture rather than early '80s malaise.

Murakami resolves that inconsistency in the new versions of the stories.  In both references the baker is listening to "Tristan and Isolde."  Which means that this book gets to read like a book, a kind of double coming of age story, the imposition of a curse and its resolution, a comparison of friendship to marriage, and a whole lot of other things.  But it also means that the critique of the boomer generation that had been implicit in the original "Second Bakery Attack" ('60s radical compromises his ideals, goes straight, tries to recover some of his outlaw essence with his new wife) is gone, or at least muted, here.  An interesting change.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Herman Melville: Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850)

[So I still can't quite commit to giving up this here blogging thing, so I guess that means I should make another try at committing to blogging.]

Redburn and White-Jacket are what Melville wrote in a hurry after Mardi tanked.  He was in danger of not being able to make it as a professional writer, but not willing to give up on it.  So he wrote a couple of quickie conventional novels.  Well, conventional as he could get.  They restored his fortunes, commercially, and allowed him to write Moby Dick.  So goes the story.

I read Redburn last summer and can't remember a damn thing about it.  I just finished White-Jacket a couple of weeks ago and am in a better position to comment about it;  but what I mostly recall about the experience of reading Redburn tallies with what I felt reading its successor.  These are bad Melville. 

For one thing, he's milking his seafaring experiences pretty dry by this point - on the evidence of these books I would have advised him to find a new theme;  but then he wouldn't have written Moby Dick, so what do I know?  But his success-to-come in this genre doesn't really redeem the sense that he's just rewriting the same old observations about life at sea.  I'm not familiar enough with early 19th century maritime books to say for absolute certain, but I'd wager a fair amount that most of the detail he gives us in these books was readily available in other books.  I doubt there's much new here, in other words, and yet he's presenting it all as if he's chronicling for breathless readers a world never before revealed.  Yankee hucksterism, it smacks of. 

For another thing, in both books he's trying his best to restrain his poetry, when in fact his poetry is all he has going for him here.  In White-Jacket in particular, he does let himself go from time to time, and it's only there that the book begins to transcend.  F'rexample, when he falls off the yardarm into the sea at the end of the book and we get this wonderfully lucid, evocative description of the moment after the plunge:
With the bloody, blind film before my eyes, there was a still stranger hum in my head, as if a hornet were there; and I thought to myself, Great God! this is Death! Yet these thoughts were unmixed with alarm.  Like frost-work that flashes and shifts its scared hues in the sun, all my braided, blended emotions were in themselves icy cold and calm. (p. 397, Oxford World's Classics edition)
Here the allegory (plunge into the water at the end of the voyage as metaphor for death at the end of life) comes so close to the surface narrative line that the two merge, and I think that's part of what looses Melville's tongue here.

Elsewhere, as in Mardi, he's dedicated to maintaining the proper relationship between surface narrative and allegorical significance, and the results are as cloying here as they were there.  It's not that he ever really submerges the allegory - far from it.  He likes to just keep it floating alongside, so he can point to it at any time and say, see? This is what this means.  But the meanings are so obvious that you just want him to stop pointing it out;  not to mention, they're so pedestrian that you wish he wouldn't work so hard to bring them up. 

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.