Jim Harrison’s Life Story

We admired Jim Harrison for his appetite as well as his art. Word of his death had us turning turning to his poetry — “Sketch For A Job-Application Blank” from his 1965 collection Plain Song and “The Quarter”  (“maybe the problem is that I got involved with the wrong crowd of/gods when I was seven.”) a prose poem from 2009’s In Search of Small Gods —  and his memor Off to the Side— remind us of the powers of his singular intellect and his one good eye. Continue reading “Jim Harrison’s Life Story”

On and Off An Island In the Salish Sea


The wind is storming out of the south east, symptom of a classic “pineapple express,” a line up of low fronts back to Hawaii pulled by a fierce jet stream right over the top of the Olympics to us.Warm rain will fall in copious amounts and the heavy winds will knock down some tree that’s been standing in the same place for two-hundred years, all that remains of an ancient stand of fir cleared before the housing development went in.

Blows like this came again and again in what locals called a dry winter. I was just getting started with the pain and pills and anxiousness. Looking back on it, during one of the wettest seasons in history, its great to remember the bouts of sunshine, that bright light pushing through the clouds, a brilliant blue sky above the gray-green, white-capped water, walks in the soggy woods. Now, off the island on a spreading river delta full of tulips, the water rises in the plowed and planted fields, as it always does in this levy-lined country, before drying away . And the sun’s shining on the little town (Hint: Tom Robbins lives just a few blocks away!) where we live a short walk from a channel lined with Swinomish fishing boats and pleasure crafts…March, 2015, 2016


Home and Away

It’s the first Sunday in December and the Betterday Coffee Shop in Santa Fe is packed its entire length. At the far end, a crowd –some sitting on the floor, some standing — faces a small bandstand where two men perch among a thicket of instruments. The heads of some of those standing in the audience come no higher than the heads of those sitting. Little ones are fidgeting in adult laps. The two-man band Round Mountain is doing their annual family show and the pre-school set is getting edgy.

Suddenly, Char Rothschild, who earlier had taken a trumpet solo while accompanying himself on accordion, pulls out the gaida, a sort of Bulgarian bagpipe made from a goat skin. The whine of the instrument turns the heads of the distracted. Some of them clap with glee as Char’s cheeks puff. His brother, Robby Rothschild, introduces the next song and asks for clapping but not in the usual sense. It’s a uniquely timed clap he wants, something he calls the Ali Farka Toure clap, named for the Malian guitarist. One graying gentleman can’t seem to get it right. No problem. A young lady wearing a denim jumper who can’t be more than four-years old, her hair pulled back in a tight knot, cues him perfectly.

Family concerts come naturally to Round Mountain. The Rothschilds have been playing together in bands for over two decades and their musical connection goes back to childhood. In a phone call after the Betterday appearance, Robby explained the significance of the duo’s name and its ties to the brothers’ shared experience. “Our parents used to drive us up to the Jack’s Creek campground in [New Mexico’s] Pecos Wilderness and we’d hike up to the threshold of the high country there on Round Mountain, have lunch in the big grassy meadows. It’s a very peaceful place and, for kids, has a magical quality. Mom and dad would lie down after lunch and we’d go explore and find bones and stuff. The whole experience had a kind of resonance for us. Later as we started making this music, [Round Mountain] seemed the perfect shrine, a metaphor for the kind of musical exploration we do.”

“As children, we were lucky to have parents who were interested in music and encouraged us,” said Char. “[The idea] of family really has a full connection for us. It’s our way of being. Now we have children of our own, we’re fathers and we have our own set of experiences when we write music. The family has really helped me understand who I am, both in the sense of the nuclear family and how I relate to rest of the world. That’s where our interest comes in the different traditions from around the world, musically, of course, and in a larger sense, how we’re connected and what effect [those traditions] have on us.”

The influence of world-wide musical traditions on Round Mountain is apparent just by seeing the brothers on the bandstand. It’s cluttered with various percussion instruments, including a hi-hat cymbal and djembe, the African pedestal drum. A trumpet stands at upside-down attention on a stand and there’s an accordion at the ready on the floor. Various string instruments – guitar, bouzouki, kora — cluster around. Somewhere nearby is the small gaida or a full-blown set of bagpipes. The brothers attribute their pan-global approach to music to a combination of local Santa Fe musical influences and their travels around the world. “There was a great moment in our history,” explained Robby, “where we met up in Ireland after all of our travels. My wife and I had gone to Mali to do some study. Char was traveling around the Balkans and the Middle East. He had left with this backpacker guitar and when we next saw him he had been transformed. He was traveling with [a Turkish string instrument] the saz and had this cool haircut that he’d gotten in Turkey. In a way it was a very symbolic meeting. We’d been doing this traveling, and we thought let’s do this musically now, let’s do this form of musical travel.”

Describing the brothers’ music isn’t as easy as calling it world-beat or placing it in some all-embracing instrumental category. Its roots are in American folk and its beats can reflect American pop and funk as well as more exotic rhythms. Robby claims a Muppet drum set given to him at age four as his first instrument. Char took up trumpet in the fifth grade and studied it through college. Both took piano lessons from a grandmother who often served as an accompanist around town. The brothers participated in African drumming dance classes and busked together around the old Farmers Market site. Robby spent time as a percussionist with rock guitarist Kip Winger – he’s heard on Winger’s 1998 Down Incognito recording —  and both toured Australia with American–born, Afro-pop star Chris Berry and his band Panjea. Locally, they’ve appeared with the soul band Reverend Carol King Kong and bluesman Robert Pete Williams. Char gained valuable professional experience and acquired the ability – through need – of playing more than one instrument simultaneously while in Tokyo backing the Dream Angels Circus in 1997. “I’d play the trumpet and get a horn section sound from the keyboard,” he said. “Later, I realized accordion would be the perfect instrument to play with trumpet because the left hand can do the bass and chords while the other hand plays the horn.”

Char says that their mix of musical influences has both advantages and disadvantages. Their interests have bounced from Appalachian and old-time music to Turkish and Bulgarian traditions, and their studies of these influences has often overlapped. “Being from a different culture and being interested in many styles means I haven’t been able to travel as far into any one style as I might like,” says Char. “Not knowing these traditions completely, I have to take [the music] to a deeper level where I can try to understand the dialect of what’s being said in [a particular culture’s] music.  By doing that, I can work those different musical directions together in our own music.”

Writing music is mostly a collaborative process for the brothers. “I do have an easier time writing words than I do melodies,” admitted Robby, who’s something of a poet, even when speaking. “But it’s great working with Char, I’m constantly learning something from him. He holds the flaming torch as we enter the dark mineshaft of music and I follow him. We’ve spent hours together in our truck, writing words, sitting with a song and getting it closer and closer.” Added Char, “There’s no real formula as to how we do things. We each have totally different styles of writings. I have tons of fragments, tons of ideas, kicking around. One will come to the forefront and we’ll hammer a song out of it. Sometimes I’ll finish it myself, especially if it’s something I feel super connected to. Other times it’s calling out for some help from Robby.“

Landscapes are a big source of inspiration for the two. ”When we’re touring and driving for seven hours, the highway and the land can move us, reveal something of its spirit that suggests a song or helps finish one. When we were in Australia, we learned the Aborigines sang the songs of their ancestors and the music served as maps. They believed the land was created by these ancient songs as their ancestors sang them. We’ve thought about arranging some kind of song lines about our travels like that. We have West Coast songs and East Coast songs and a Colorado song line, all different. It’s amazing how much of a place can fall into the music when you’re writing.”

The brothers are working on a new recording – their fourth – tentatively set for release next summer. It’s working title is The Goat. Robby revealed that part of the title’s inspiration comes from the fact that he and his wife keep a pair of Nigerian dwarf goats at home. Could he be thinking of making new bags for brother Char’s gaida? “No,” he laughed. “They’re just for milk and making cheese.”   —CabbageRabbit  (portrait by James Stowe)


Drug Lord’s Son

The world seen through the eyes of a child. That’s the best short –phrase description of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ disturbingly charming short novel Down the Rabbit Hole. But Tochtli is no ordinary child and the world in which he is trapped is unlike the one the rest of us know; exclusive, yes, but like a rabbit hole it’s dark, isolating and offering little room for turn around. Tochtli – his name, translated from the indigenous Nahuatl language, means rabbit – is a precocious seven-year-old who narrates the story, starting with the declaration that he is not precocious. One of his habits is to read the dictionary each night before bed. “Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, apathetic and devastating.” These five words appear over and over as Tochtli tells his story. He sometimes uses them to characterize himself, as when he claims to have a devastating memory. But he also applies them to the very few people he knows and the situations outside his narrow existence.  The more we learn about Tochtli, the more we see how these words describe his life. Other words he frequently uses: mute, faggots, corpses.

Tochtli lives in a “palace” with his drug lord father, Yolcaut, whose name means rattlesnake. Tochtli does not go to school. A tutor, Mazatzin, comes to work with him. Mazatzin calls his student Usagi, a Japanese name that reflects Mazatzin’s love of that country and Tochtli’s fascination with Samurai films. Tochtli also loves hats, especially three-cornered ones. “. . . hats are like the crowns of kings. If you’re not a king you can wear a hat to be distinguished. And if you’re not a king and you don’t wear a hat you end up being a nobody.” Tochtli, despite living in a palace, says he is not a king. He and Yolcuat, who refuses to let his son call him daddy, are members of the “best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres.” Why eight kilomtres? Because they are realists.

Villalobos’ very short novel is a compact, image-laden tale that serves as allegory for the larger culture. In that it’s something like the late Carlos Fuentes thin novel Aura written when the celebrated author, like Villalobos, was in his 30s. The two books are vastly dissimilar in plot and style (Aura involves magical realism, Rabbit Hole is reality kept at a distance), but both reflect selfish perception’s ability to blind. Comparisons to Fuentes are appropriate in Villalobos’ case. He writes with command and precision (the English translation is by Rosalind Harvey), constructing an engaging story—what’s going to happen to this little kid? — in a way that transcends simple plot. That his themes – the futility of ill-gained wealth, the numbing effect of greed and violence, and how easily reality can be twisted—speak through such direct and innocent narration are testament to the author’s skills.

What Tochtli wants more than anything is a pair of Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses. What he needs is to break free of his isolation and gain human contact. What the story doesn’t have to tell us is what kind of man Tochtli will become. We can guess, from his isolation, from his obsession with hats, hippos, the effective use of Sumarai swords, guillotines, and various caliber bullets; and to his limited contact with the women his father brings to the palace. As his father tells him, “Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is.” This kind of selfish thinking, Villalobos show us, can justify anything.

Mellow Cello

Jazz cellists are a rare lot, often whittling from their own eclectic stick. That’s certainly true of Hank Roberts, a veteran of gigs with outside-thinking musicians including saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Marilyn Crispell, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Dresser’s Arcado String Trio.

Lately, Roberts has found a point of inspiration in Americana, a direction that sees him working folk and traditional-sounding originals as well as rock and jazz-influenced compositions. Everything Is Alive and Well follows suit, its all Roberts-written program performed with long-time associate Frisell, bassist Jerome Harris and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The music ranges across horse-and-buggy rhythms and middle-eastern flavored stewing to backbeat of the sort that goes 4/4 a count better. The themes, often played in a twisted unison with Frisell, are accessible but not necessarily easy.

Roberts’ pizzicato solos dance and leap while carrying their own strange sort of melodicism. In support, he’s constantly employing double stops that make the group sound larger than it is. At times, he sings along with his play, not in the absent-minded way that a bassists grunts to his pluck, or like Keith Jarrett whining along with the piano, but consciously, as if to give the pieces a more natural, more human feel. This is a relaxed, soothing date – music to get comfortable with – not stuffy or tiresome in the least.

Graphic Construction

It’s hard not to separate the draftsmanship from the storytelling in graphic novelist Chris Ware’s work. The pages carry architectural elements, constructions that suggest collages or mandalas. A single page will hold a variety of panel sizes. Small panels are over-laid on larger scenes. Often, they’ll fit together like modular puzzle pieces, a square group of four stacked against a single panel of equal size, or two vertical panels stacked against and between two frames that together take up most of a page. A full-page illustration containing various story elements will precede a jumbled page of small bits and pieces, some so tiny that magnification is needed to appreciate them.

Inside those panels are square lines, right angles, and crescents that picture stain-glassed windows or foreheads. Buildings, with their slanted roofs and tight-lined windows, stand in geometric contrast to living ovals, depicting both bees and human beings. The twist of a bird’s head is pitched a perfect 45 degrees from the straight line of its tail and red body. Everything is at once circular or neat and square. Large block text contrasts with smaller cursive statements. Arrows, bubbles, and wiggling lines are sometimes used to direct readers along the orbital path of the layout.

Ware’s latest book is a natural progression, a dimensional expansion of these techniques. Building Stories comes in a box that contains 14 various pieces; strips, bound volumes, stapled chapbooks, and fold-open displays, one a collapsible game board on which to follow the progress of his subjects. The architectural elements of Ware’s design carry over into his narrative as he reveals the quiet desperation of the lives conducted within and without a three-story apartment building. The building gives form to the lives of the main characters, each occupying a single floor. One of the volumes follows them through a single day, September 23, 2000. That book’s inside cover, reflecting Ware’s habit of calling up style elements from classic comics and other publications, suggests the yellow endpapers of The Little Golden Books children’s series, right down to the open volume waiting the owner’s name. But this book, like the others in the collection, isn’t for children. Its first few pages are narrated by the building itself as it considers that it has a vacancy and remembers its sometimes glorious past. One page reveals its tenants in see-through ovals. Another page reveals the building’s various rooms by taking away its roof and sides. It’s characteristic Ware, jumping through time and space in a single view, telling multiple stories at once, even as that day in September begins promptly at midnight.

In an interview  shortly after the second installment of Building Stories was released in 2007 in The Acme Novelty Library: Number 18, Ware explained how the spaces he creates, many springing from his past, serve as outlines for his stories. “It probably comes back to memories of the house I grew up in and memories of my grandmother’s house. I navigate those places almost daily in my mind, and the three-dimensional ‘maps’ I’ve internalized are all also filled with stories, so for better or for  worse I frequently try to work that way when I’m writing and drawing  fiction. In the case of [the Building Stories  installment], it was very  specifically designed to be about one day in the life of a building  itself, and so began and ended with images of it. “

Ware’s style has evolved through the 20 volumes of his Acme Novelty Library, the first released in the early ‘90s, and subsequent collections including Quimby the Mouse and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth. His characters, mostly lonely, alienated Eleanor Rigby types, often enliven reality with fantasy. Jimmy Corrigan transcends time and space in a depressingly lonely epic of fathers and sons. Ware’s Rusty Brown series is a coming-of-age-delayed tale of a man-child in love with collectibles. Quimby the Mouse—he’s no Mickey– avoids real life as he indulges in the worst pop culture has to offer. Early editions of Ware’s Acme Novelty Library  contained arcane and satiric advertisements straight out of marketing’s quaint past. Sample pitch: “Break Into Surgery; Exciting Field Offers Multiple Opportunities.”

Some of the same playful salesmanship is found on the back of the Building Stories package: “within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a fully apportioned variety of reading material to address any imaginable artistic or poetic taste.”  The accompanying pictures show each of the 14 pieces which are then connected to a line drawing of “an average, well-appointed home” indicating where the readers might “set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents.” No clue is given as to the order in which they should be read. This two-paragraph blurb also states the collection’s purpose as it summarizes the author’s view of human existence: “Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public.”

The characters here, all worthy of sympathy, aren’t from the usual literary class. The old woman on the first floor — none of the characters have names – transcends her isolation through nostalgia. The couple on the second floor is alone together, leading separate lives (and having separate fantasies) even as their days are intertwined.  The central character of the collection lives on the top floor. She’s a young lady with only a leg-and-a-half, a girl too eager to be loved and who suffers insomnia, the ignorance of an indifferent society, and nagging self-doubt of the sort that seems to surface often in Ware’s writing and sketch books. She eventually enters a relationship, has a daughter and moves out of the building into a home of her family’s own. But the storyline takes a backseat to her alienation. Panel after wordless panel shows her in bed or moving through the mundane events of the day. Only her daughter seems to fill the hole she sees in her existence.

There’s little that’s comic in Building Stories. Told without pictures, these tales would be tedious. When the lonely young woman wanders out of the building coatless in a snow storm declaring, “Let it bury me, for all I care…” readers might want to look away in embarrassment. But Ware’s telling illustrations won’t allow it. Not everything in the package is without humor. A small, heavily stylized chap book Branford: The Best Bee In the World is a joke-filled allegory of how we mistake happenstance for acts of God. The Daily Bee is a newspaper sized fold-out that is a laughable look at the male role in society and how futile are our attempts to stand apart from the swarm. How does it connect to Building Stories? Branford is seen coming home to a hive in a tree outside the apartment building to suffer the same existential and relationship problems of the humans next door.

Aside from being housed in a box, Building Stories is unique for the way it melds narrative and illustration into an artistic whole. In an art form with a long history of serialization, Ware’s 14 installment assembly can be entered at any point and read inside out. He has taken the comic far from the strip with page layouts that twist multiple narrative threads into a single strand. His most frequent design element is his most successful. He’ll center an image, often an eyeless mask, or, in the case of the young woman, her entire body, in the middle of a page and let the story circle around it.  Ware has insight into psychology and every day existence. But it’s his ability to illustrate the human condition in constructive ways that keeps the stories meaningful. In this sense, Building Stories is like peeking through a window and getting a glimpse into a life.

Sons and Brothers

Michael Chabon’s new novel is all about nostalgia and the consequences that come of change, both threatened and realized. It’s also centered on that other favorite Chabon theme: friendship.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, a vinyl mecca of jazz, funk and soul lps located at the far end of the namesake avenue that connects Berkeley with Oakland. By now, 2004, much of that famous avenue has been co-opted by coffee franchises and corporate retail. Archy is black, Nat is white. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are dedicated midwives working together as the Berekley Birth Partners. Both Brokeland and Birth Partners struggle to survive in the 21st century. Those struggles strain the relationship between each set of business partners as well as the couples themselves.

Other couples complicate the story. There’s Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, the once John Shaft-like blaxplotation film hero, and his leggy, but aging co-star Valetta Moore. Luther exists largely in hiding –there’s something unseemly in his past — and his future is hooked on producing and starring in a new film. Then there’s Archy’s son Titus, who Archy has just recently admitting to have fathered. Titus is having a relationship with Nat and Aviva’s son Julie, a brother despite his name.

Into this mix come former NFL quarterback Gibson “G Bad” Goode, now an entrepreneur who want to build a Berkeley edition of his Los Angeles Dogpile Megastore, an extravagant cultural mall that will include, in addition to a multiplex theater, a giant vinyl record store. Goode, a man whose past holds more than football, has the support of councilman Chan Flowers, once Stallings’ friend. Flowers is anxious to find out where Stallings is keeping himself these days, something to do with the never-solved, Black Panther-linked shooting  of Popcorn Hughes at the Bit O’ Honey Lounge in 1973. Add to this Pynchonesque cast, venerable jazz organist Cochise Jones and his musical parrot, a memorabilia dealer named Mr. Nostalgia, a feckless attorney and a couple toughs, and you’ve got more characters than you can follow in a plot that’s not as complicated as it sounds: if the megastore is built, it will spell the end of Brokeland.

That Chabon makes us comfortable in this tangle is a testament to his abilities. The book turns as smoothly as an old Issac Hayes lp, complete with pops and clicks. Chabon’s expert at making music meaningful to his story, as he does when describing the effect John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has on Archy. His dialogue is both smart and street-wise at once. He makes the most absurd circumstances work, as when Goode tries to sway Archy by taking him up on his private zeppelin.

Like Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer prize winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this unlikely buddy novel makes retro a religion. Archy, the most troubled of the characters—caught cheating on his pregnant wife and failing all those years to mention that he had a son—finds salvation in a decades-old bakery’s signature pastry “Dream of Cream,” still good after all these years. The post-racial relationship difficulties seem uncomfortable in that race is never mentioned as part of the problem. The only ones who seem above all this color-blind nonsense, Titus and Julie, are from the next generation. When the story finally does wind down like a record to its last groove, it’s a disappointment; not because of the way it ends but because, like the last sweet sounds on your favorite album, it does.