Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Roy Orbison vs. Linda Ronstadt: "Blue Bayou"

Yuck. I don't like that negativity just hanging there. So let's cleanse our palates a bit. Ladies and gentlemen, here's Roy Orbison, with his 1963 classic "Blue Bayou."

Now the thing about Roy Orbison's Monument records is that they're equal parts schmaltz and genius. The harpsichord, the kitschy harmonica, and those bell-like background vocals (what are they singing anyway?): that's the schmaltz. That valley-of-dry-bones beginning, and of course Orbison's vocals: they're the genius. And the thing is, it's really hard to imagine one without the other. It's a perfect marriage of schmaltz and genius. ...More about that voice. Not only can it make the schmaltziest musical bed sound like the sexiest honeymoon mattress or the barest prison cot... Well, it can do that. That bare quaver, that muscular weepiness: he's crooning from another dimension entirely, about a set of emotions the merely earthbound know in their marrow, and yet can only occasionally summon to conscious articulation.

About that arrangement. The Tanuki's old enough (young enough?) that his first exposure to the song came in Linda Ronstadt's 1977 cover. Her arrangement, despite being pretty California-mellow, is a little more tasteful than Roy's, I always thought. And she can summon a pretty good ache with her voice, too. I don't think anybody can hold a candle to Roy, but she does her honest best, and her version's worth hearing. So here she is in her bloomers, surrounded by muppet frogs, backed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My #@%*$ Generation

Keith Phipps writes, setting up his reassessment of Easy Rider:
Released on July 14, 1969, between the Stonewall riots and the Apollo 11 moon landing, Easy Rider became an unexpected success and, like Woodstock, a touchstone for a generation. Not my generation, though. Before seeing it, I'd imagined Easy Rider as one of those you-had-to-be-there '60s clichés that so irritated those of us who came of age in the '80s—something to be slipped into that-was-then montages between footage of Vietnam and the '68 Democratic Convention.

Film enthusiasts my age had warned me to expect a film with long, often dull, experimental patches and stoner vagaries. When I finally got around to watching Easy Rider, I discovered those warnings weren't entirely unfounded. But I also discovered a more complex and sour movie than the one I'd imagined. More an elegy for a generation that never got where it wanted to go than a celebration of that generation's superiority, it pits hopefulness against resignation and sets the battle on a lovingly photographed stretch of the United States.
Now that's annoying.

First, if you've ever actually seen the film, you're thinking: duh. That's the whole fucking point of Easy Rider: these guys honestly, deeply love America, and they can't figure out why America doesn't love them back. Why does Phipps sound like he thinks he's the first viewer ever to see that?

Second, he's a self-professed film enthusiast, but not only has he never seen Easy Rider, he seems proud of the fact. Pardon me while I gag myself with a spoon. That's such typical '80s-generation idiocy.

I say this as an '80s kid myself. Graduated from high school in 1987, the first (hardly the last) Summer of Nostalgia for the Summer of Love. First learned of the '60s through the very same self-laudatory Boomer clip montages Phipps did. Luckily, though, my parents sat out the '60s, so I never had any Freudian issues with the art of their generation like so many of my cohort did. Sure I found/find Boomer narcissism annoying, that assumption they tend to make that they invented pop culture, but I didn't have to, you know, kill the father in order to listen to his Doors albums or watch Woodstock.

Which is good, because Boomer narcissism aside, there's a lot of great art to be discovered in the '60s and '70s. As there is - and this is my real point - in any era. I don't take anybody to task for liking the culture of their generation and never moving beyond it, but once you take on yourself the mantle of "film enthusiast," or whatever - once you decide you're interested in art/culture for its own sake, in understanding it and contextualizing it and appreciating it and knowing it (in every sense including, perhaps foremost, the Biblical) - then you have no business allowing Oedipal issues to blind you to the good stuff.

Any critic, any lover of art, will have loves and hates, or areas of greater and lesser knowledge. But no critic has any business basing his/her judgments on something he/she "imagines" to be true about a piece of art. That's just ignorance. Sure, we all have our blind spots. But we shouldn't be proud of them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I'm a little late to the party on this one, I know. It's because I almost never read contemporary fiction, non-Japanese. Why? One, because I almost never read contemporary fiction, non-Japanese, so that when I do read a book, I can't properly contextualize it, and I find I have a hard time enjoying art I can't contextualize. So I'm an uptight academic at heart: surprise. Two, because no matter how much I enjoy it (and, to give the lie to that last statement, I enjoyed the bejeezus out of this novel), toward the end I start to feel guilty for not spending this time reading something that might someday contribute to a class, or an article. So I'm an uptight academic at heart: surprise.

But a dear friend recommended this to me, and in such specific terms that I just had to pick it up. Took me a while to get around to it, but.

Well, it is a masterpiece. It succeeds on so many levels, from the exhilarating bilinguality of the narration (I know just enough Spanish to get the frisson of catching some of the asides, and not enough to spoil it by catching them all) to the fascinating composite portrait it provides of, simultaneously, a family of Dominicans, and Dominican society as a whole (a society I freely admit I knew nothing about besides what you'd glean from the Boston media during the age of Manny, Pedro, and Big Papí). Plus, a lot of it takes place in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and by sheer chance I started reading this the day after I got back from a conference there. So I could envision some of the places it talks about...

Two things I want to mention about this book.

It dimly registered while I was reading it that the whole thing's a riff on Hemingway's "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." It's such a magnificent book that you're almost embarrassed for Hemingway: put Oscar Wao in the ring with Francis Macomber, and Wao wins by a knockout in three. But this works to the book's advantage: you so quickly forget that Wao is an allusive variation on Macomber, you so quickly get immersed in the wondrous specificity of Díaz's achievement, that the inevitable ending may still come as a surprise. It was only when (spoiler alert) Oscar is out in that canefield that I found myself thinking, oh yeah, Mrs. Macomber. I mean, I should've been expecting it. That I wasn't shows that the book really worked for me. As an allusive variation. The Hemingway connection enriched the book for me, without overshadowing it.

Also: as something of a Tolkien aficionado, not to mention a nerd for all reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed Oscar's nerdessence. As a whitekid myself I'm always strangely embarrassed and heartened when I encounter people of color who co-inhabit my canon (I mean: why? but also, why not? but also, and again, why? etc.), so that's part of it. But mainly it's because I was moved, as a Tolkien reader, by Díaz's deep application of Tolkien to Dominica. I mean, us Tolkien apologists can talk about how there's depth there, meaning, significance; Díaz demonstrates it, by showing how Tolkien's imagery can, for one fanboy, capture deep feelings and understandings about a real-world event (the Trujillato). That is to say that, on a very deep level, Oscar Wao is about the power of literature in general, and Tolkien in particular, to help us make sense of life: Tolkien gives Oscar (not just Oscar: Yunior: Díaz) a vocabulary to talk about great evil, about torture, about destiny, about great beauty and strength, about death and violence and love.