Roth Stops Reading Fiction!

Philip Roth’s interview in the Financial Times ahead of his visit to London to pick up the Man Booker International literary prize is an exercise in avoidance. Roth avoids answering the tough questions by letting the interviewer get away without asking them. For an author who’s used alter ego to advantage,  Roth is presenting himself in a way we doubt is really him.  Way to play it!

If Roth’s claim that he no longer reads fiction is the article’s attempt at something resembling sensationalism  — “I read other things: history biography…I wised up”– the rest is something so predictable that I predict you’ll be bored. What is interesting is the journalist’s hand wringing about the author’s reputation and love of privacy. She can’t believe  he’s being nice. “As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended.” Hers is a sterling example of procrastination and out-and-out avoidance with, no doubt, a bit of hero worship as well, despite that bit at the end about feminism.

She should have slapped the guy. Just kidding.

Even more interesting are the comments that follow The New York Times “Arts Beat” blog item on Roth. People hate the man! They hate fiction!. They hate people who hate fiction! Talk about Indignation! These are exactly the kind of feelings that Roth’s been able to inspire over the last 50 years. This is why we love him. And Zuckerman, too. —Cabbage Rabbit

Comic Investments

Jonathan Last has an interesting article in the Weekly Standard dated June 13 comparing the comic book crash of 1993 — what?! You didn’t know? — to the housing bubble. Yes, yes,  it’s the evil neo-neo-con and self-appointed Svengali William Kristol’s rag… but I think the story makes some interesting comparisons…criticisms below.

While speculation drove up the price of collectible comics, publishers strove to make every comic they released collectible. While you may not live inside a comic (or maybe you do, figuratively) its value, minus speculation, becomes personal. But let’s not forget the role of demand-and-supply or the roguish business practices of greedy middle-men.

Last, a comics collector as a kid, gives a good history of the run-up to the crash, plotting how comic rose from pulp to treasure in a half-century or so. By 1992, “At the investment level, high-value comics were appreciating at a fantastic rate. At the retail level, comic-book stores were popping up all across the country to meet a burgeoning demand. As a result, even comics of recent vintage saw giant price gains. A comic that sold initially for 60 cents could often fetch a 1,000 percent return on the investment just a few months later.”

What brought comics down, he says,  was part speculation and – here’s where housing comparisons become murky –  distribution. The two largest comic distributors, not to be confused with the two largest comic publishers (DC and Marvel), strictly controlled who would sell comics off the shelf. As Last points out, they required financial reserves, large orders and high sales; until 1979. Then the two largest distributors, Diamond and Capital City, in an attempt to do away with their smaller competition, lowered the bar. (It’s worth noting that one of the best authorities on all things comics, Mile High Comics President Chuck Rozanski, believes that the comics speculation bubble of the 1990s is a myth.)

The cut-throat policy of these two distributors, Last says, “had the practical effect of turning many collectors into dealers. Comic book shops proliferated, growing from 800 in 1979 to 10,000 by 1993. Diamond and Capital City were so successful that they drove every other distributor in America out of business.”

Because wholesale comics purchases are made months in advance, and retailers are forced to swallow any stock they don’t sell, the suppliers were unaware that sales had fallen precipitously, even as they continued to add new retailers. The crash of these new, poorly capitalized and inexperienced comic stores came quickly. “The weakest of them folded first, and their demise began a cascade.  Publishers saw a rapid and dramatic decline in orders, so they moved to reduce costs by cutting back the number of titles they shipped. Which led to less product for the remaining retailers to sell. Which pushed the stores on the margins of survival out of business. The death spiral was on.”

Last says that nine out of ten comic stores closed during the crash and that publisher sales dropped by 70%. But the biggest burden fell on the collectors/speculators, many of them like Last himself, still kids. “As a 12-year-old I had a collection worth around $5,000, Last confesses. “By the time I was ready to sell my comic books to buy a car—such are the long-term financial plans of teenagers—they were worthless.”

Last’s comments on comics and the housing market regaining their value are worth reading. Certainly some high-end comics will never depreciate just as housing at the extreme upper end has lost less than your run-of-the-mill tract home. High-value art might make for a better comparison. And the story of what saved comics – movie rights and merchandise sales – has no obvious parallel in housing (apartment sales?). But both have value even though it’s worth remembering that comics, because of their size and easily porous paper, make for poor shelter. Comics weren’t always an unlikely investment for collectors. But their returns, like their tales, often prove imaginary.–Cabbage Rabbit

The Messenger: Gil Scott Heron

Gil-Scott Heron, dead today at 62,  was equal parts social commentator, freedom fighter and pop star. Known as the Godfather of Rap, a title he vehemently denied in an interview I had with him in 1995, he none-the-less influenced generations of rappers and was sampled dozens of times. Most rappers ignored his plea to “not lean so heavily on rhyme and concentrate on the message” (and he meant the socio-political message).

When I talked to Scott-Heron that first time, he had just ended 12 years of recording silence with Spirits. The opening track, “Message To the Messengers” (“if you gonna be teachin’ folks, you gotta know what you’re sayin’…”) was directed at the hip-hop generation, asking them to see where their movement had come from and what it should be about. I was in New York and was hoping to talk to Scott-Heron in person on his own turf.  Complications ensued and I suspected, not without reason, that the man who wrote “Angel Dust” and “The Bottle” was chasing his program, whatever it might be (what did Elridge Cleaver say in Soul On Ice about the sensitive and their vulnerability to drugs?). Most likely,  despite a new recording, he just didn’t want to spend time with a reporter from L.A., or anywhere for that matter.  There was a certain irony in our cellphone conversation as he pursued something around the city’s Upper Westside. The signal kept cutting out.

“Message To the Messengers”  is a lecture of sorts, a plea for peace in a movement that had turned on itself (“they’re glad we’re out there killin’ each other…”). Scott-Heron’s was asking the rap community to remember what had gone before, to show respect and generational brotherhood. It’s also a call to action : “what we did was to tell our generation to get busy/because it wasn’t going to be televised.” Knowing that the revolution has not and will not be televised is as appropriate today as it was in 1972 and 1994: the media is not our message but theirs, we are in this together but not everyone is together with us. “[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

One of my favorite Scott-Heron tunes, “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” addressed the power of music in our lives. Scott-Heron’s music, socially relevant and politically charged, brought truth to that power. Sing on.   — Cabbage Rabbit

Big Bang Big Band

Plunged into a world of 1930s swing bands – Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford and, yes, Count Basie and Duke Ellington — for an upcoming piece in the Playboy Jazz Festival program,  I was in need of some temporal balance, a contemporary counterpoint. Via my high school library’s subscription to Downbeat (every school with a music program should have one) the Exploding Star Orchestra came into my life.

Get this straight from the beginning. No devotee of ’30s era swing music would admit to hearing any similarities between their favorite bands and this 14-piece outfit of Chicago renegades led by cornetist and “electro-acoustic constructionist” Rob Mazurek.  But there are shared qualities, ways that connect the  time passed to now, ways that allow us to say, with an ambiguity we’ve always loved when it comes to this type of band, that the Exploding Star Orchestra is out-of-the-tradition.

How? There’s the glossy sheen of well-orchestrated harmonics; yes the usual section blends but also the drone of various samples that Mazurek has collected: rain, insects, bicycyle pedaling, that sort of thing as well as the weird electronics that Mazurek applies to his trumpet. Did I say weird? One drone is concoted from the sounds of electric eels.

Another commonality? Riffing, almost exactly as Sy Oliver or Don Redman might do it (“Impression #1”) or as they most certainly would not (“ChromoRocker”).  Riffs give us a way to pin down the music, and there are just enough of them to make the contrasts strong and leave us anxious for resolution. As far out as the Exploding Star is,  it occasionally is as down-earth as a Fletcher Henderson ballad.

The tradition the Star most honors is that of the Chicago avant garde. Mazurek uses the same methods of development and cacophonous backgrounds to frame solos as did/does the best of the AACM (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; you know,  Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, those guys).  Like the best outside composers, Mazurek is a master of resolution. The long opening track, “Ascension Ghost Impression,” starts on a lips-only whistle, heats up, comes to a boil, then simmers, suddenly resolved in a wonderful brass chord. Terrifying dissonance resolves in moments of startling calm.

The main innovation here is texture, the way Mazurek combines reeds, brass and percussion with the samples and strange electronics. Mazurek’s cornet adds Miles-like electronic trumpet effects. Central to the mix is Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone which adds both natural and hand-manipulated sound, soothing one moment,  jangling the next. Soloists — the jagged sound of flutist Nicole Mitchell, Greg Ward’s alto saxophone, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet — add edgy, questionable behaviors.

High on our current play list, Stars Have Shapes captures the ups and down of modern life, its beauty as well as its confusion.  That it’s dedicated to the memory of Bill Dixon and Fred Anderson says a lot. The big band the Orchestra most resembles? Sun Ra. It employs some of the same melodicism — floating, gentle — as soloists bubble to the surface.  Also like the Arkestra, Exploding Star falls into worm holes even as it travels into deepest space.  How can you not believe in time travel?–Cabbage Rabbit

Mehldau Moments

A feature in the March Downbeat on the classical influence in Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider fails to mention one thing: his previous recording.  Conceived under producer Jon Brion, Largo was a turning point in Mehdau’s style,  showcasing different  instrumentation and styles.  Mehldau even plays vibes on a number of cuts.

Critics were quick to note the rock influence when Largo was released and quick to credit Brion, who’s produced Fiona Applegate and Kayane West among others ( and owns the club that lends its name as the recording’s title).   Put aside the  rock and pop influence–Mehldau’s famous for his variations of  pop and alternative  tunes–and you hear a wider embrace.

You can hear it in the first tune’s instrumentation, the woodwind harmonics adding embellishment and counterpoint. Other tunes area bit more eclectic–French horns, trombones and bass trombone–but to the same purpose.   Radiohead’s, “Paranoid Android” has a Chopinesque interlude.The final cut, complete with Brion and Mehldau’s story of  how their relationship began, his pure 20th century piano music.

We always thought reviewers had missed this boat when celebrating Largo‘s release but that wasn’t entirely true. Now we think they’re missing it again.  Largo is a much more interesting recording than Highway Rider, classical touches aside. Largo has more varied influences and all fit well. The themes in Highway Rider aren’t as interesting and we’re often disappointed to hear them return. And the orchestration isn’t as perfect a blend as it is with the putty-treated piano of Largo.   There’s a certain pinched quality to the tunes, as if too much were squeezed into the recording’s digital binaries.  (Inside sources at the recording studio told me that tracks were piled on tracks as the finished product was realized…but that shouldn’t matter, should it?).

Ted Panken’s thoughtful Mehldau piece outlines the pianist’s long interest in classical music–he even notes Mehldau’s Germanic-inspired liner notes from years past–and charts its influence on his previous recordings….except one. Meanwhile, Mehldau continues to pursue the direction. And, let’s hope, others as well. —Cabbage Rabbit

Taking the Long View

For many of us, the 1960s never ended. Tom Hayden takes that belief a step further. The ’60s continue…for everyone.

Hayden’s book, The Long Sixties, takes the political history of the ’60s and finds its legacy alive today in the social movement that brought Barack Obama to the presidency. He sees Obama as a reflection of the movement politics of that decade. Movement politics –the actions of groups sharing similar visions or issue positions– can be found  in the emerging progressive- populist, anti-finance and anti-corporate movements and in the ignored but tangible anti-war movement. These movements, anchored in their correctness, grow in reaction to the resistance they meet. Without the ’60s, Hayden suggests, hope would go missing from our politics.

Despite the tired joke that memory of that special decade implies absence, Hayden was there. He was a founding member of the Students For a Democratic Society and led the drafting of the student manifesto The Port Huron Statement. He was indicted as a co-conspirator of the Chicago 8, charged with inciting riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (his conviction was overturned in 1972).  He traveled to North Vietnam during the war with Jane Fonda (in 1973), an act that still inspires outrage from his adversaries, before going on to spend time in California politics in the 1980s and ’90s. He has not only been controversial among his enemies on the right, but with radical progressives who, at times, saw him compromising to join the political system.

Hayden describes his political and social beliefs with “the M/M model,” progressive movements in opposition to the Machiavellians “power technicians” who represent the various power institutions of government, business and the military. He places the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the anti-corporate movements of the ’60s in this model. The movements  grow, as he says, “when sufficient rage and frustration lead to a perception that all peaceful, legal means have been exhausted.”

The majority of the book frames many of the seminal radical events of the decade inside the model. In the process, Hayden paints a history of the times that counters attempts at whitewash and demonization.  His “Promoting Amnesia” section warns, “The general approach is to reduce the whole sixties to a blurred story of violence, sex drugs, and rock-and-roll signifying nothing. This requires a difficult removal of civil rights, feminist and farmworker movements…” The most visible example of rewriting history from the era, he says,  is the effort to “wrap Vietnam in triumphalism…”

Hayden declares that while the political successes of the era were compromised in the following decades, the ’60s counterculture revolution succeeded in taking over the culture at large. “Sixties music and artists still retain a dominant influence. The general public is supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana and a treatment-centered approach to drugs. Things organic, foods and medicines, hold vast sway. Above all, environmental programs  such as renewable energy and conservation derive from approaches that were considered part of the extreme fringe thirty years ago.”

Hayden is quick to point out that the sixties did not hold onto its political victories. War, repression, racisim and exploitation of workers continues and, indeed expands. The movement was absorbed and co-opted, he states, and parts of it were separated from the whole. “Green politics still remain white politics,” he says, echoing Van Jones. The Machiavellians, ascendant during the first several years of the new century firmly control the agenda.

It’s when Hayden ties the movement lessons of the ’60s to more recent events that his book speaks the loudest. And nowhere is this most apparent than on sections devoted to Obama. Hayden, along with Barbara Ehrenreich and others, famously endorsed Obama in a March, 2007 piece for The Huffington Post (published in the book). Yet Hayden has not relented any of his positions to support the president, taking him to task for his extension  of the war in Afghanistan and calling out the media as well as the White House for ignoring its casualties.  “…one hard lesson has become clear to me from experience:” he writes with added emphasis, Domestic progress has been continually derailed by dubious wars.” Though he has not addressed class struggle and the financial crisis as thoroughly, he has, in true Hayden style, linked the two to the actions and philosophies of the Obama administration.

“Obama is trying to navigate between Machivavellians he has either inherited or appointed–the generals, military contractors, national security elites, Wall Street bankers, and hedge fund speculators–and a public opinion of high hopes and growing anger…” he writes in the book, which was published in 2009. “To permanently shift the American balance of power in a progressive direction, the Obama administration needs to encourage both structural shifts and cultural ones, not policy change alone…” But even some of Obama’s recent policy, despite its achievements, must unsettle Hayden.

The book’s last sentence addresses both the president and ourselves. “What he needs, then, and what we need is a New Left.” In other words, what’s needed is a return to the movement politics of the sixties, founded on unclouded understanding of the issues, cast in current terms and propelled by contemporary technology. We’ll be looking to see if Hayden’s take on Obama and the current state of America has changed in the last two years when the paperback edition of The Long Sixties, hopefully updated, is published in April.–Cabbage Rabbit

Details ’69

Making sense of the 1960s is a futile task. Rob Kirkpatrick doesn’t even try. His comprehensive 1969: The Year Everything Changed, offers an overwhelming  compendium of events in that cataclysmic year. The book’s thoroughness, without over-riding purpose, is apparently an attempt to find the year more influential than, say, 1968. Suggesting the threads of the moon landing, the Vietnam moratorium and I Am Curious (Yellow) will knot cleanly, Kirkpatrick instead ends up with a tangle. If only he’d spent more time trying to unravel it.

But Kirkpatrick has done us great service. He points out that the decade’s most examined year–1968– boasts any number of books (among them Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, Charles Kaiser”s 1968 In America: Music Politics, Counterculture and the Shaping of a Generation and Jermi Suri’s anthology The Global Revolutions of 1968).  Certainly the political upheavals, not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well, mark 1968 as something of a turning point in the revolt against the rigid status quo. Kirkpatrick’s thesis, that 1969 marked “the death of the old and the birth of the new–the birth, …of modern America,” not only gives his text meaning but form. As he explains, “One of the pleasant surprises in writing this book was the ways in which these chapters emerged ‘organically’–e.g., stories of the sexual revolutions of springtime, the flowering of the counterculture in the summer, the apocalyptic standoffs at the year’s end. Life does not happen in neat and orderly ways, as if following a timeline, but the story of 1969 is one that develops in dramatic tension, builds to a climax, and concludes in its December denouncement.”

What follows is a litany of the year’s events, from Nixon’s inauguration and Led Zepplin’s first American tour (which actually began in December, 1968) to the violence at Altamont. In between, he addresses the student revolt, the Jets Superbowl victory over the Colts, details of the moon landing, the tragedy at Chappaquiddick, the nation’s discovery of the My Lai massacre (which occurred in April, 1968), the installation of the first Automatic Teller Machine, the Stonewall Riots and the New York Mets rise to the World Series.  Kirkpatrick’s thoroughness provides more than a few memory-jogging surprises (I somehow remembered Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which changed our percpetion of Dylan more than 1966’s Blonde On Blonde, came out a year or two later; likewise Mario Puzo’s epic novel The Godfather). Those paying attention at the time–and what 19-year-old student radical wasn’t?–won’t learn anything new. Instead, Kirkpatrick delivers the pleasure of recount, reminding us of events not thought or discussed for years. Remember Tom Seaver saying, “If the Mets can win the pennant, why can’t we end the war”? Neither did I until Kirkpatrick  pointed it out, drawing the chronological connection between the World Series and anti-Vietnam war National Moratorium Day.

What Kirkpatrick doesn’t do is attempt to make sense of it all. The Mets and the war stand apart, as one would expect, despite Seaver’s query. He tells us that he wants to define the year’s “zeitgeist–literally the ‘time spirit'” of that year. He quotes historian and social critic Theodore Roszak (The Making of a Counter Culture) to explain what he is seeking: “that elusive conception called ‘the spirit of the times’ [that] continues to nag at the mind and demand recognition, since it seems the only way available in which one can make even provisional sense of the world we live in.” After reading 1969, the nagging continues. Kirkpatrick is hesitant to take sides in political issues and seems reactionary in his treatment of say the Black Panthers and the Students For a Democratic Society and their frustrations with the status quo. Though there are parallels and influences to be drawn from the roles of politics, art (especially movies and music) and athletics, Kirkpatrick doesn’t offer any. His common thread is little more than the expression of 1969 being exciting times.

In the final chapter, Kirkpatrick does attempt tracing the year’s influence (or lack of influence)  into the future. The war– eventually–ends. The environmental movement goes on. Rock music becomes big business and album-oriented. Outdoor music festivals thrive despite Altamont. Free agency changes baseball. The sexual revolution leads to Studio 64. Just as Tom Hayden sees the ongoing legacy of the 1960s in his book The Long Sixties: From 1960 To Barack Obama, Kirkpatrick sees the decade as formative to modern times. “Whether American society had come full circle or had simply circled back on itself, the ripples of 1969 continued to emanate throughout the rest of the century and into the next.” Unlike Hayden, he leaves us wondering at what those ripples stirred.

Still, there’s plenty of thought-provoking room to draw conclusions.  Kirkpatrick doesn’t address, say, the irony that the film Easy Rider and it’s anti-mass culture message creates as it influences a generation in dress and lifestyle. But he does quote  Jack Nicholson’s character Hanson, stating, “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”  We’re left to wonder alone, some 40 years later, how much more  has gone wrong.–Cabbage Rabbit