Saturday, June 14, 2014

Los Lobos 1985-1986: An Essay in Discography

What I think of as the third phase of Los Lobos' career comprised the aftermath of How Will The Wolf Survive? and the run-up to and recording of their second album, By The Light Of The Moon. This took them two full years - the first album came out in late '84 and the second didn't come out until January '87.  And in that, they're once again not quite following the template for rock band careers.  They should have taken no more than twelve months to produce a follow-up.  How Will had been a critical favorite and almost a hit on college radio and the like - I was in high school at the time, not particularly immersed in underground music papers, and I remember reading and hearing a lot about it.  A late-'85 follow-up would have been a smart move, commercially.  But they took their time, and did it right.

In the interim they were touring heavily on that first album.  Nothing from that period has been officially released, but there's a perfect candidate for it on youtube:  a Canadian TV special filmed in Montreal on 4/22/85.  This is prime Lobos, and what's more it's full of rarities:  "Buzz, Buzz" (a Hollywood Flames oldie which they'd later record in the studio), the Howlin' Wolf classic "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy," "Mighty Old Love" (a cover, but I can't figure who of), "The Town I Live In" (Thee Midnighters), and lo and behold, two years before they reimmortalized it, "La Bamba." This show is nothing short of a revelation.  The authority with which they rock Howlin' Wolf, the depth of the groove they get into on "Mighty Old Love," and the way they snap it straight into "La Bamba."  They're unstoppable.

Their cover of "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy" actually made it to vinyl, but not this rendition.  They performed it live with Roomful of Blues on the latter's 1987 album Live At Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel.  Worth tracking down, but it's not quite as satisfying a version as the one from Montreal - it's shorter, and all those extra horns don't add anything that Steve Berlin's not already delivering on his own.

What the Roomful of Blues collaboration does is remind us just how much the band's critical acceptance was matched by their peer acceptance.  It's one of a long series of guest appearances that the Wolves made on other people's records, or that other people made on theirs.  In the period in question there are two others that I know about, each significant in its own way.

One is their collaboration with Ry Cooder on the traditional "Quatros Vicios," which he recorded for the Alamo Bay soundtrack in 1985;  it's widely available because it's on the El Cancionero box, but to me it's a little disappointing.  Rosas and Hidalgo get to sing, but Cooder himself handles the
accordion and bajo sexto parts - which is like asking Eric Clapton to sing on your record, but handling the guitar part yourself.  People wouldn't be making that kind of mistake much longer.

The other is the song "All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints," which closes off Paul Simon's Graceland album, released in 1986.  This would never show up on a Lobos compilation, but the thing is, it should.  Steve Berlin insists that the band wrote it, the music at least (he says nothing about the lyrics), and it's easy to believe him, because it sounds nothing like a Paul Simon song, and a hell of a lot like a song Los Lobos would have been working on to follow up "Will The Wolf Survive."  It has that kind of suspended-over-percussion gentle verse going into that chimey, anthemic chorus.  And of course the boys supply all the instrumental work on the song.  Regardless of how things went down between the artists, it's a great record, tight, crackling with energy, and I've always thought it was a key part of their '80s work. 

I know of one other rarity from this period, which is also easily obtained courtesy of the Cancionero box.  We've already heard their cover of the Fats Domino song "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" on the 1983 PBS special that celebrated their e.p.  They laid it down in the studio in 1986 for the soundtrack to the film A Fine Mess

There's a little live Lobos from '86 around, to complement the Montreal show.  I like this segment from a show in San Rafael on 11/21/86: not only does it include more cool covers ("Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher"! "Tequila"!), but it has them jamming with Carlos Santana.  Not quite a passing of the torch - there's not really a whole lot of similarity between what Santana does and what Los Lobos do.  But still it's a cool moment.

And that brings us to the second album, recorded in 1986 and released as the New Year (which would be Los Lobos' miracle year) of 1987 began.  By The Light Of The Moon was a much-labored-over album, by all accounts, and in the end all that work was overshadowed by the fluke success of La Bamba later in '87.  And that's an entirely different phase of the band's career.  So I like to try to hear the second album the way I heard it when I first bought it, when it first came out:  in isolation, with no inkling of what would come after.  Taken on those terms it's a beaut.  It's clearly trying to hit most of the notes the first album hit - you have the chiming-guitar anthem ("One Time One Night"), the rockabilly bruiser ("Shakin' Shakin' Shakes"), a Spanish number ("Prenda Del Alma"), and a bunch of chugging r&b with a Latin flavor.  But it feels no less original for that - rather, it just feels like this is a band that has staked out its territory, and knows how to work it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Horie Toshiyuki: Kuma no shikiishi (2000)

Horie Toshiyuki 堀江敏幸  shared the 124thA-Prize, for late 2000, with Seirai Yūichi.
The title story, Kuma no shikiishi 熊の敷石, is the winner:  a novella whose title could translate as “The Bear’s Paving-Stone.”  I’d be tempted to translate it as “Bear Paving-Stone,” for the pun, but there’s no pun in the original.  Rather, it’s a direct translation of a French proverbial expression, “le pavé de l’ours,” which comes from the story in La Fontaine’s Fables about “The Bear and the Gardener.”  A lonely gardener made friends with a lonely bear, and things were going well for a while, each doing the other favors, until the bear took it upon himself to chase away all the flies.  One landed on the sleeping gardener’s nose, and no amount of shooing would drive it off.  So the bear picked up a paving-stone from the garden and chucked it at the fly.  And killed the gardener.  Because bears aren’t too smart.  The moral being:  be careful about your friends. 
The effect of the story, for the Japanese reader (or any non-French reader, really, this one included), depends on not knowing that proverb, though.  The story begins with a dream of the narrator’s about rambling in a forest, then realizing that the path he’s on is actually the backs of bears, all running toward a hill in the forest.  I.e., the bears themselves are (in the dream) paving-stones.  The dream isn’t commented on or explained, and only at the end do we have the narrator coming across the French idiom and learning its meaning and reflecting on how it fits his life…

The story is mostly flashback.  The present-moment frame is the morning after the dream.  The narrator wakes up in a house in Normandy.  He’s a guy in his 30s from Tokyo who makes a living translating from French to Japanese.  He was on a research trip to Paris, buying books and making notes on what might translate well before he approaches publishers, when he had a free couple of days and decided to call up an old friend, Jan.  Jan is about to leave the country for Ireland, but he invites the narrator out to Normandy to visit him for the afternoon, and the narrator ends up spending the night, and staying on a couple of days to work alone in the empty house after Jan leaves.
The bulk of the story has us following the narrator as he rides the train from Paris, meets Jan, and drives around the vicinity of Avranches.  Much of it is their conversation.  Jan is a photographer, and they drive picturesque granite quarries, the monastery of Mont Saint Michel, and various villages and cafés and country lanes.  Their talk runs to books – Jan brings up Jorge Semprún, and it’s at this point that the narrator realizes that Jan’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  They also talk about Émile Littré and his Dictionary;  the book the narrator is scoping out for possible translation is a biography of him, and he’s amazed at the coincidence that he’s now in Avranches, because that’s where Littré’s family was from. 
The story ends with the narrator in Jan’s house after Jan’s departure.  He finishes his work on Littré, and in the process runs across the idiom that gives the story its title.  He finds a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables and looks it up, and takes from it the moral about being careful about one’s friends.  And as he’s eating lunch with Jan’s landlady before she drives him to the train station, he wonders if perhaps he wasn’t a bear to Jan’s gardener – doing him harm by forcing him to talk about things too personal or difficult for him, such as his grandmother’s experiences in the Holocaust.
I loved this story, and I loved it more the farther I got into it.  It’s unprepossessing.  The style is light but subtle – just off balance enough to force you to pay attention.  And the characters and their relationships are realized with the same graceful touch.  It helps that the situation and the setting are unfamiliar, so that we have to trust the narrator but we don’t know how much we can.  Horie himself is an accomplished French translator, so when he has his narrator getting together with an old friend like this out of the blue, staying at his house with no warning, we trust that maybe this is the way friendships work in France, or in Horie’s France.  And when Jan opens up, we assume the two friends must have a history to justify it – but we’re never told that, so we’re free to speculate all sorts of relationships.  And then at the end we find that the narrator wonders if he has been presumptious.  Like, it was a weird relationship all along, but the narrator never considered how weird.  And why not?  Because things always get weird for expats?  Because after all these years he’s still not sure he understands how the French do things? 
Jan’s landlady tells the narrator over lunch that Jan had talked about him before he came.  Saying that you can’t believe national stereotypes – we always hear that Japanese are workaholics, but I have a Japanese friend who’s as happy-go-lucky as they come.  And the narrator turns it into a nice joke – he’s adroit that way.  But for the reader it sinks in:  this story is about the fragility and unknowability of friendship at all times, but particularly across cultures.
There’s more going on than that:  I’ve only touched on the Holocaust theme, for example, which is handled very deftly and lightly, but with reverence.  And there’s the way photos and dream-images bleed into each other – there’s a lot of thinking about how the images captures thought, or transcends it.  It is, in short, a very deep story, but told with a wonderfully delicate and light touch.  This is the work of a master.

The other two stories are somewhat less memorable.  The first, “Sunauri ga tōru 砂売りが通る” (The Sandman goes by) has the narrator getting back together with the younger sister of a deceased friend, on the third anniversary of the friend’s death.  She had been a child when the narrator knew her, but now she is an adult, divorced, with a daughter of her own.  Most of the story involves the three of them walking on a beach;  we also get reminiscences of the friend, the woman’s childhood, and the narrator’s time in France.  The second story, “Shiroato nite 城址にて” (At the ruined castle) takes place during one of the narrator’s earlier trips to France.  He visits a (different) friend in Normandy, and the two of them climb the wall into a historic site where an old castle is being excavated and rebuilt.  They’re caught by the crotchety caretaker and separated.  The narrator ends up wandering alone in the dark, broke, almost panicked before the friend and his wife find him.  These stories share the title novella’s prose style and its way of balancing the perspective of a lone individual against his need for others and/or others’ need for him.  They’re not quite as moving, but then maybe that’s why they didn’t get the Prize.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Third thoughts on Terrence Malick

So there we are.  Rewatched The Tree of Life and watched To the Wonder.  My opinion on the former hasn't changed at all;  and I'm sorry to say that I'm not even sure that watching the rest of his films deepened my understanding of that one any.  Having seen anything by Malick (in my case, The Thin Red Line) is probably advisable, just so you don't go in expecting anything conventional.  But too many probably would have blunted the impact.  It certainly did with To the Wonder.  It felt like self-parody in places.  I laughed out loud, rolled my eyes, and snorted as often as I nodded my head in appreciation.

To the Wonder is a puzzling film.  A lot of critics seem to be taking from it the same thing they took from Tree of Life, but I see it as trying, at least in part, to do something different.  That film was largely about an ecstasy (embodied/accessed by/through the mother) that can never be effaced - the light that never goes out.  This one is at least sometimes trying to be about what happens when that light does go out.  Loss of faith, God, joy, love, beauty, what-have-you.  That's a bold enough departure that I was swayed, sometimes.  Parts of the film are undeniably there.

But I suspect (and Malick's such an auteur that you almost can't help but judge his films based on the personality they present, even if it's not real) that Malick hasn't ever actually felt what his fallen priest Javier Bardem feels.  There's too much angelic twirling in the fields in this film:  too much of the Wonder seeps in.  So it feels like he's gesturing toward a depression that the mortals who surround him assure him exists, and that he feels he should probably try to address if he wants to get everybody to tune into the Wonder, but that in the end he's clueless about.

And again, I think it's because he's clueless about actual people.  The Real Oklahoma People that Javier Bardem encounters are not presented as anything but grotesques.  They speak, but just like the rest of the actors their words are drowned out by Emotive Music and whispered voiceovers by other people.  They're not individuals, and in the end they're hardly human.  We're certainly not invited to empathize with them as we are with Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams.  And there's no in-between.  In Malick's universe there are Beautiful People and then there are grotesques. 

I'm starting to find myself puzzled by the cult of Terrence Malick.  His films are dazzlingly shot, provocatively edited, exquisitely scored, and in so many ways different from typical film that I can understand the initial excitement.  But so far he's only demonstrated an ability to do one thing, and it's not the kind of thing that lends itself to reiteration.  His themes are almost childishly naïve, and his spirituality is a combination of New Age facileness and old-style Catholic mysticism.  And his characters - okay, granted he's trying to deal in human archetypes, not individual characters.  But what are those archetypes?  Man goes out and works upon the world.  Woman stays home and waxes maternal.  I mean, he's utterly regressive. 

I imagine Terrence Malick as the cinematic equivalent of Sarah McLachlan singing "It's A Man's Man's Man's World."