Saturday, July 27, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

The best thing about the film is hearing all those glorious voices singing all those glorious songs on big glorious theater speakers.  See it in a theater.  For that, if nothing else, it's time and money well spent.  You may well come out of it saying, as the friend we saw it with did, "Gawd, music today sucks."  But hey - she's not wrong.

As a documentary exploring the art of the background singer, it has some haziness, some fuzziness, some ambiguity, about some of the points it's making.  In some cases this unfineness of point is probably to the film's intellectual detriment (although no doubt to its commercial benefit):  it skirts issues of race and gender that could have been fruitfully explored.

But one point of ambiguity is to the film's intellectual and artistic credit.  It's never quite sure how it feels about backup singing as a calling.  It wants to celebrate it:  it wants to make us appreciate how integral the backup singers are to so many classic records and performances, and to make us feel that the calling of the backup singer is a noble one.  It advances Lisa Fischer as the marquee example of a singer who has chosen, with seemingly a minimum of wistfulness, to remain in the background, and be stellar at what she does there.  But then the film spends a whole lot of time exploring the attempts and failures of other backup singers to move to the center of the stage and establish successful solo careers:  Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, even Darlene Love (although her story has a happy ending).  Which constitutes at least a half-hearted argument that lead singing is better, more fulfilling, more rewarding, and ultimately more worthy of celebration than backup singing.  At first I thought this indecisiveness was a problem with the film, but now I think it's an honest reflection of what these singers have felt.  There's no contradiction between saying, "I want to be appreciated for doing this well" and also saying "I want to do that."

What touched me deepest about the film, though, was something almost beside the point.  Bruce Springsteen gets a lot of screen time to talk about the art of the backup singer (and his own special relationship to that position was wisely left an unspoken but delicious bit of subtext).  And at one point he was talking about how Darlene Love started to gain fans on the strength of her expert and distinctive backing vocals.  But it's how he put it that struck me.  He said something like, "you begin to feel an allegiance to that voice."  That's the word he used:  "allegiance."

And it hit me:  that's a perfect word, and a quite unexpected one, to describe one kind of relationship we feel to singers.  I'm used to describing it as "like" or "love," an emotional quality, and if I was to explore the singing itself more I'd use a whole lot of other adjectives;  and if I was to explore the listener's relationship to the singing I'd probably reach for things like "identify with" or the like.  All of which are compatible with "allegiance," but think about what "allegiance" implies beyond that emotional response.  It implies loyalty, a choice based as much on a perception of qualities that one shares or (more likely) admires - it's an ethical response as much as an emotional one, a choice as much as a reaction, a pledge of fealty owed more than a confession of pleasure received.  It's a true description, at least of some singer-listener relationships, and it's one I never would have thought of.

This Bruce Springsteen:  he might be a really smart guy.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Los Lobos in Springfield, Oregon, July 20, 2013

Los Lobos were playing in our neighborhood last weekend.  Next town over, anyway (proposition:  Springfield is to Eugene what East L.A. is to L.A.).  Despite, or perhaps because of, our disappointment with them last time we saw them, we'd been wanting to see them again.  So we did.

The setting was a community parks & recreation department sponsored Summer Fair thing on Island Park, a little riverside park on the edge of town.  Nice outdoor setting, nice breeze as the sun went down.  Not too crowded, and I couldn't believe it was big enough to lure Los Lobos.  But then again, Cheap Trick's playing the Lane County Fair this weekend, and they once played Budokan. 

The opener this time was Curtis Salgado, a local blues guy who's been on the bill at a number of fairs and festivals I've gone to since moving to Eugene, but who I'd never actually managed to see.  For me he was a big meh.  I wanted to like him more, but as a singer he struck me as someone living out John Belushi's dream - it's no surprise that Salgado was evidently the real-life inspiration for the Blues Brothers.  But I like the Blues Brothers, so why didn't I like Salgado?  ...Anyway, vocally he was overbearing and hammy.  And his band was tight but unsubtle:  his drummer had a beat like a cop (to borrow a phrase from Rob Stoner), and the other guys were just as obvious.  Hard where they should've been gentle, stiff where they should've been supple, rigid where merely hard would have done.

But David Hidalgo seemed to like Salgado - he could be seen watching from the edge of the stage during the last few numbers, and then he brought Salgado on for a couple of numbers near the end of Los Lobos' set.  And the drummer (which was a shame - I think LL's touring drummer Enrique Gonzales is much better).  Salgado was a much better harp player with LL than with his own band, really adding some blues to "West LA Fadeaway," and helping burn down the barn on the big jam on "Killing Floor." 

Los Lobos' set was very bluesy, perhaps in response to Salgado's warmup - but then, they've got a lot of blues in everything they do.  A longago Rolling Stone review said "they play the blues like a Latin Zeppelin," which was only really true on one cut on their first album, but which was true all night tonight.  It was a raging take on "I Walk Alone" that brought the quote to mind for me.

They started the set with "Dream In Blue," which took shape out of a jam that I swear included a nod to Santana's "Batuka."  Played four songs from The Neighborhood, an underrated album, including "Emily," which would seem to have been too delicate for the mood of the evening, but which they nailed anyway.  Otherwise it was blues:  "Down On The Riverbed" and "Georgia Slop."

And of course it was night and day with Salgado's band.  "Georgia Slop" wasn't too far from the kind of thing Salgado was doing, but in Los Lobos' hands it was just effortless.  It simultaneously swung and slammed, shouted and giggled.  If soul means anything, it means what Los Lobos got.

One of the joyful contrasts with the last show was how thoroughly they explored the Spanish-language side of their music.  Not one but three cumbias (I still think their first, "Maricela," is their best, and it was tonight, too - they nailed the song's the sinister mesmerism).  And "Ay Que Te Dejo En San Antonio," and "Volver, Volver."  No surprises, if you check the setlists, but good God:  "Volver" was a grinder.  Wonderfully raunchy, drenched with sweat.

The surprise highlight for me might have been "Don't Keep Me Wondering," the Allman Brothers tune that they pulled out during Curtis Salgado's guest spot.  I know it's been in their repertoire for a while, but it was a surprise to me, and proved yet again that Los Lobos can play anything, and own it. 

It was a very satisfying show, and I'm not sure I have any more profound analysis than that to offer.  It was just one of those sessions where I was getting off watching instrumentalists do their stuff in perfect cooperation.  Lozano's double-wide bass combining with Gonzales's rolling, tumbling drums, not one not two but three count'em three guitarists soloing, riffing, and rhythmeening, Steve Berlin adding just the right textures behind it all, the shortstop who lets nothing get by him.  They're a great band.  I can't think of any higher praise.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Murakami Haruki: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013)

I've been intentionally avoiding reviews of Murakami Haruki's new book until I had a chance to read it and put down my own thoughts on it.  I didn't want to be influenced by anybody else's opinion - didn't want to be arguing against anybody in my head while I read it.  (And I usually don't bother to point this out, but I will here:  this essay will contain spoilers.)

Tazaki Tsukuru is a 36-year-old train-station construction engineer in Tokyo in the present day.  He's from Nagoya.  Single, living in the same condo he's been living in since he came to Tokyo for college.  All but friendless.  Lives a quiet, industrious life colored by a little classical music (the theme for this book is Liszt's "Le Mal du Pays," from the series Years of Pilgrimage), a little Cutty Sark, and a lot of introspection.

The introspection mostly centers around his ostracization from his circle of high school friends.  There were five, including Tsukuru, and other other four all had last names that included color-words;  Tsukuru didn't, so they would joke that he was "colorless," which explains the rest of the title.  They were inseparable in high school, but after he went to college, they abruptly told him not to try to see them anymore.  Uniformly, the other four rejected him, with no explanation.  This sent him into a fugue of depression - for months, as the narration puts it, he thought of nothing but death.  Came this close to offing himself;  never quite knew why he didn't.  Even now, sixteen years later, he's still nursing wounds from that rejection - he's only had one serious friend since, only a few girlfriends, and none of these relationships lasted either.  Now he has a new girlfriend, or almost-girlfriend, and she encourages him to seek out the four old friends and find out what happened;  she suggests that unless he deals with his old hurt, he'll never be able to move on.

Much of the book concerns Tsukuru's meetings with three of his old friends, Blue, Red, and Black.  When he meets Blue (Ao - so it's possible that when this is officially translated this character may show up as Green, but since there's also a Midorikawa character, which can only be Green River, I suspect Ao will be Mr. Blue), he learns that the fourth, White, is dead.  He also learns that the ostracization was the result of White, the Pretty Virginal Girl of the group, saying that Tsukuru had raped her.  They never told him of this accusation, just cut him off;  many years later, living on her own, she was strangled in her apartment in a crime that was never solved.  Tsukuru knew of none of this.

Blue and Red are both men.  Both are in business, and still live in Nagoya.  Blue, an ex-rugby player, is now a very successful Lexus salesman, while Red, a former intellectual-in-the-making, is a kind of management/training guru running his own consulting business.  Both of these occupations are explored in somewhat more depth than is typical for Murakami;  Tsukuru's own occupation isn't totally fleshed out until very late in the book, but it's clear that he's setting up a contrast between Tsukuru, who makes things (which is, of course, what his name means), and Blue and Red, who don't;  Blue just sells things, while Red does something that the other characters in the book, and even Red himself, regard as little more than a con.

Black, the other female in the group, the Witty, Sarcastic Second Fiddle girl, is married to a Finn and living in Helsinki with her husband and two daughters, Tsukuru learns.  The climax of the book is a visit to her at their summer house south of Helsinki, where she tells him all there is to know about White's accusation, breakdown, and death.  Incidentally, Tsukuru didn't do it, and at least sixteen years later, none of the others actually believe he did either.  It was just that White was so insistent that they had to believe her, or act as if they did;  either she or Tsukuru had to be sacrificed, as Black puts it, and Tsukuru seemed more able to take it.  As is, White never psychologically recovered from the rape (which was real, even if her accusation of Tsukuru wasn't).  Her death wasn't related to the rape (it seems), but it somehow strikes everyone as the natural endpoint of her downward spiral.

Tsukuru, meanwhile, seems to achieve some closure by learning all this;  he comes to see White as more of a victim than himself, is reassured by the others that they always admired him (he had suffered from low self-esteem ever since their rejection), and in the end realizes that he needs to stop being passive, and embrace life, in the person of his current almost-girlfriend Sara, whose urging sent him off on this sentimental journey to Nagoya and Finland in the first place.


The book is written in the third person, and without any of the alternating-perspective business that marked 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore.  It's his most conventional third-person book, and in some ways his most conventional book yet.  Precious little surrealism to it, although there is mystery, and there are quite a few narrative cul-de-sacs and loose ends that keep it feeling like a Murakami book.

Despite those cul-de-sacs, it's basically a linear narrative, too.  For a while in the early chapters it jumps back and forth between the present and his post-rejection college years, but then it settles down in the present.  Its closest cousins in his oeuvre are Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, and it shares with those books (and, of course, with the third part of 1Q84) a concern with the heart above all, love and what may make love possible or impossible, the roots of which usually lie in memory.

I don't think it's as good as Norwegian Wood - I don't think anything is.  But I might as well deliver myself of an opinion here:  I liked it, mostly.  I enjoyed parts of it a great deal, and overall I think it's more successful than 1Q84 (although if 1Q84 had ended at Part II it would have been better than this).  But I think it suffers from some of the flaws of that book, and I think they both could have been remedied if Murakami was the type of author to rewrite and revise, but it seems he's not;  he sits down to write and writes until he's done, and then he's done, is the way I hear it, and so in this book we get character arcs that are unnaturally truncated, character development coming as he thinks of it, not as it's needed, subplots and subtexts coming and going seemingly at random;  and we get passages of flabby prose, where he's clearly riffing, trying to find the melody that will carry him to the next plot point or epiphany.  The last fifty pages of the book were positively maddening in this respect:  anticlimactic, repetitive, aimless, but including passages of great insight and beauty that, if they'd been placed elsewhere in the book, would have made a great deal of sense.

I'm thinking, for example, of the extended meditation on Shinjuku Station and Tsukuru's job that begins Chapter 19.  It's one of Murakami's great hymn-to-Everyman passages, some of his best writing on that post-'95 theme of his, but it's misplaced.  It fleshes out Tsukuru's character, and the significance of his job, beautifully, and if it had come two or three hundred pages earlier it would have given us a much deeper understanding of this guy.  It may be that by placing it at the end, Murakami's trying to suggest that only now is Tsukuru coming to understand himself to this degree, but that's not quite how it reads, to me.


The lack of surrealism is another area that feels to me like the result of improvisation, not planning.  For most of the book, I submit, it's not clear whether or not Tazaki is a reliable point of view character.  (He's not the narrator, but we're so locked into his p.o.v. that he might as well be - we only know what he knows.)  And early on he has a sexual dream about Black and White that, while reminiscent of other dreams he's had, is not quite a dream, or at least doesn't seem to be one at the time - it's presented as if he's awakened into Another Space, that very typical Murakami alternate reality or dream world.  As it happens, we never go back there, but when he learns that White had accused him of rape, and then that she had been murdered and her murderer never caught, we the longtime Murakami readers can't help but wonder if maybe Tsukuru did it after all, but only the world of dreams.  Murakami's done this before, right?  He seems to be laying the groundwork for it here, but then he doesn't go there;  he so doesn't go there that in Tsukuru's climactic conversation with Black in Finland, he has Tsukuru imagine having done it, and tell Black that maybe he did do it, and then has her tell him they all felt like they did it.  It's just his guilt over not being able to save her talking.  And nothing else in the narrative contradicts that.

I'm not actually sure if this is a strength or a weakness in the book.  It's a path not explored, a narrative cul-de-sac, but I do allow that a certain amount of narrative messiness increases the sense of mystery and makes it an enjoyably offbeat book.  And although Murakami drops the dream-communication motif, he comes back to sleep as an important process, late in the book.  In fact, the book ends with Tsukuru turning off the light and committing himself to sleep, the night before he's to meet Sara and (he hopes) commit to her forever.  It's a nice moment to end the book, and a nice note of irresolution - we don't know if he actually gets the girl, just that he's made up his mind, and now that he's made it up, he goes to sleep.  What does sleep do?  What will he do in sleep?  It's a suggestion that, if nothing else, there are things going on beneath the surface of Tsukuru's life even now that he's supposedly come to terms with his past.  It's a beautiful moment, and it goes a long way toward recuperating the letdown that (I'll admit) I felt when White's whole situation is left so unresolved. 


There's more going on in this book.  For example, there's a whole subplot I haven't mentioned involving his one post-rejection college friend, Mr. Gray (= another color).  Gray comes into his life, all but moves in with him - they become swimming buddies, reading buddies, music-listening buddies (it's Gray who educates him about Liszt), and almost sexual partners.  The is-it-a-dream that starts with White and Black ends with Tsukuru coming into Gray's mouth - in the dream.  Evidently.

And then, not immediately, but not too long after, Gray disappears from the narrative.  There's a suggestion, much later, that this loss too is something Tsukuru's going to have to resolve, but he never does;  another narrative cul-de-sac.  But a very interesting one, not least because of its wonderfully confusing incorporation of homosexual desire into the Murakami protagonist's mental life.  In fact this book is another in a long line of Murakami works to deal, not completely unproblematically to be sure, with homosexuality.  I'm going to be really interested to see how this aspect of the book goes over in translation (and how it's handled in translation), because at first read it doesn't seem to be quite as enlightened a take as he's provided in the past. 

There's also the whole color thing, right?  The characters aren't quite as schematized as my summary makes them sound - they have real, plausible, normal Japanese names that just happen to contain color elements, and so in the narrative there's never the sense that we're just talking about types, or allegories.  But there's no escaping, on the broadest level, the fact that he is schematizing these people;  I find it elegant and playful, especially because he makes the characters themselves conscious of it.  Tsukuru's fear that he's "colorless" begins as an entirely plausible joke, but then comes to dominate his self-image, as he sees himself as a drab, boring drone.  Meanwhile, as they reminisce, the other characters come to feel that they were playing simplified roles in their five-person group - that they were types, not quite individuals.  Part of the story is about how when we play roles in relationships, but can be fully individual when alone, and how growing up is partly a process of leaving behind community for solitude - we lose warmth but gain personal authenticity. 


For me, personally (and I know that other readers have reached this point sooner), this is the first Murakami book where I've really felt that his method lets him down.  I pretty much hated the third volume of 1Q84, but that wasn't because of how he wrote it, but because of what he chose to write about.  Here I think he's got the makings of a really nice novel - minor Murakami, but that's often the best Murakami anyway.  But it would have benefited from a careful rewrite.  He's telling a relatively conventional story, and I think it might have benefited from being told in an even more conventional way - he's got his character development inside out a lot of the time, and if he'd straightened it in a rewrite out the novel might have been more satisfying.  And if he'd gone back and struck out a lot of the verbal riffing that, in his draft, he needed to go through to get from point A to point B, just tightened the whole thing up, I think it would have made the whole thing much more effective.  Of course, the fact that he doesn't do that is what we've come to expect from Murakami.  And I'm on record as liking the shaggy-dog-tale aspect of a lot of his books. 

But this time he lost me.