Author Archives: John Adamian

Rebirther: A Memoir-ish Book From Singer/Songwriter Todd Snider

todd snider

It must be a little frustrating, or off-putting, or maybe worrying, to be a singer-songwriter who’s best known for telling stories between tunes on stage. Didn’t people come to hear you sing? That’s the strange predicament that the singer Todd Snider has found himself in — he’s made a name for himself because of his outrageous rant-stories that he launches into to set up his material. To be fair, he’s funny as hell, like a jittery speed-freak after several beers retelling some of his best near-death anecdotes for the edification of all. Don’t get me wrong: people like his songs, too. But it’s fitting that Snider has finally written a book, since his narrative riffs in front of crowds always seemed to beg for being set to the page and bound between covers.

Snider’s “I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like” (out this month from DaCapo Press) rehashes some of his best material, about getting wasted, getting arrested, hanging with his idols, or generally pissing off the rich and powerful. It’s a book of unabashed road stories, drunk tales and thoroughly baked shaggy-dog sagas. Continue reading

Dead Zones: The Grateful Dead And Hartford

HC Grateful Dead Concert2.jpgPop music is a prism. To understand changing times, listen in to the music of a given era. Most pop acts are fleeting, lasting a couple years, crystalizing the tastes of the moment before fizzling out or self-immolating. The Beatles were only a band for 10 years or so. (The Jonas Brothers only for eight. Nirvana for seven. Wham! were only around for five.) Setting aside the cryogenic/holographic/devil’s-pact mysteries of acts like the Rolling Stones, now celebrating a half century of rocking, pop music and longevity are generally opposed to one another. A rare exception is the case of the Grateful Dead, which existed as a band for 30 years, releasing new material and touring as a top-drawing concert act for practically that whole time. (To call them a “pop” act is a stretch, though they did hit the charts in 1987 with “Touch of Grey.”)

Over those decades, in shifting focus, the Dead’s concerts were seen to represent the hippie counterculture, the holdover legacy of the ‘60s in subsequent years, a likely scene for scuffles with police, a potential danger of poor crowd control and stampedes, the long-term problem of LSD use, and the scene of all kinds of other cultural curiosities.

The Grateful Dead played over 2,300 concerts in their long, strange career, before guitarist, singer and guiding spirit Jerry Garcia died in 1995. The Northeast was a big market for the Dead, and they played Connecticut often, with numerous shows in New Haven, Waterbury and Hartford. They played the Hartford Civic Center 18 times over a 13-year period. Some of that band’s huge, passionate and talmudic fanbase think that the Dead’s 1977 show in Hartford was among one of the group’s best. What are the odds? (Actually, for each of those two-thousand-and-then-some shows, there is probably someone who swears that one was the best — so the odds are probably pretty good.) Continue reading

Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation

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Jenny Offill’s new novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” is a captivating, strange little mosaic of a book. It’s made up of compressed passages, some as short as a line or two, most about five or six lines, with a only a few pages of unbroken text in the entire 177-page affair. It’s an enigmatic miniature, easy to read in a sitting or three, but way deeper than it is long. There’s a female narrator — “the wife,” as she’s sometimes referred to — there’s a husband, a young daughter, a few in-laws, an “almost astronaut” who’s hiring the narrator to ghost-write a memoir. There’s an ex, a philosopher pal, and a few others.

It’s a leaving-New-York novel, a mother-coming-undone novel, a slightly self-reflexive bit of storytelling involving a writing-teacher narrator who picks apart her own account of things, wrinkling her writerly nose at the cliches — the scenes in the rain, the high frequency of teary-eyes. It’s a coming-of-age novel and a mid-life-crisis novel fed through a particle accelerator. (Offill teaches writing at Columbia University, among other places, and she’s written a number of children’s books and another novel.) Continue reading

Circular Logic: Dave Eggers’ new novel presents a spooky and familiar future of over-sharing and surveillance

Jonathan Franzen might have had more success skewering the Twitterverse had he written a dystopian novel set in a web-obsessed future that doesn’t seem too much different from the present, a future where social-media participation is near mandatory, a paranoid future where the idea of privacy immediately makes people ask ‘What do you have to hide?’ A future where opinions and feedback are harvested and monetized. Where everyone is engaged in one big never-ending circle-jerking popularity contest. A selfie hall of mirrors. Much like Dave Eggers’ new semi-satirical, but mostly just creepy novel The Circle, a book that charts the arrival of the narrator Mae Holland as she gets a job at the Circle, the most powerful and most important tech company in the world. Google multiplied by Facebook times Twitter times Amazon squared. (Eggers, who has lived in the Bay Area for most of the past 20 years, says he hasn’t visited the tech campuses of any of those companies, and he didn’t interview any of their employees or read any books about them in preparation for this book, which he hoped to be “free of any real-life corollaries.”)

Franzen, you may recall, got picked apart by digital tweezers for complaining about how novelists seemed cheapened when they entered the blaring funhouse of social media. He also suggested that we were losing the ability to think and read in certain slow, uninterrupted ways. But Eggers’ vision is more pessimistic, more critical of the web-culture-as-lotus-eaters generation. Has Eggers somehow slid this one by all the guardians and protectors of the honor and glory of the internet? I expect the debate about this strong and unsettling novel, which has been out for under a month, will ripple for the remainder of this year. Continue reading

Bach, Duke, Moz & Kiss

It’s a big season for music books. For big music books. Copies of new bios of Duke Ellington and J.S. Bach are weighing down my nightstand. And there’s reading for fans of Kiss and Morrissey, which should pretty much cover just about everyone.

Ask a handful of avid listeners to pick five of the most towering figures of music and — depending on their tastes and tendencies — there’s a good chance that Duke Ellington and J.S. Bach will show up in the list. Both lived long lives and produced tons and tons of music of almost mind-blowing expressiveness and variety. And despite the fact that there are whole library shelves devoted to their lives and works, somehow both remain slightly unknowable, which is all the more remarkable in the case of Duke Ellington, since he was a 20th century celebratory, wrote his own autobiography, and was often followed around by camera, microphones and reporters. Continue reading

Uncertainty Principles: Javier Marías’ The Infatuations

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In 2009 Padgett Powell published a book called The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which was written pretty much entirely in the, you know, interrogative mood, meaning it was made up of a series of questions — the whole book. It seems like a post-modern trick, doesn’t it? How do you tell a story with every line inflected up in that way? Did it remind people of that book by Georges Perec that didn’t use the letter “e”? Does the reader ever get past the conceit/constraint? Does it add anything to the story? Who can say? Well, Spanish novelist Javier Marías’ captivatingly strange new book, The Infatuations, is a little less invested in its trickery, perhaps, but it could have almost been called The Subjunctive Mood. Students of Spanish can probably clarify the finer points of the subjunctive for us, but it’s a grammatical mood used to express states of unreality, possibility, uncertainty, wishes or actions that have not yet occurred. In English, the verb tenses are often altered from what they would normally be in order to convey the uncertainty or not-yet-having-happenedness of things. Large sections of dialogue in The Infatuations are written in the subjunctive, or the conditional — not sure which, both? — with spoken sections introduced with “he would have replied” or “he might have said one day.”

Why would that be?

In part, because the narrator, a woman named Maria, is imagining much of the spoken exchanges between the other characters. She’s forced to do that because, it’s not much of a spoiler to say, there’s a murder at the center of the novel. The second sentence alludes to the killing. Maria sees a picture in the paper of a man who “had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn’t dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is senselessly, and what’s more, not just once, but over and over, with intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then.” Sentences roll on like that. Rippling, darting sideways, circling back on themselves and pressing to the finish.

Post-modern flags are raised, perhaps, because — though there’s thankfully no character named Javier Marías after the author, there is a central character named Javier, who’s a close friend of the murdered man, and the narrator is named Maria. Make of that what you will.

The Infatuations is an impressively literary thriller of sorts. The characters ruminate on stories, novels and plays — ones by Balzac, Shakespeare, Dumas, mainly, tales of murder, justice, betrayal, suffering and guilt. This is perhaps less unrealistic than it seems: Maria works at a publishing house, and she spends a lot of time with writers, most of whom she finds needy, annoying and inane. One of the writers that Marías does bring to mind here his Jorge Luis Borges, particularly Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” which is about a writer who is set to die before a firing squad and who prays to be given time to finish his work, and he finds his wish has been granted, only the year of time he is given occurs in a sort of frozen reality between the moment the bullets of the firing squad are fired and when they finally hit their target. In essence he’s left to contemplate the single instant of his death for an entire year. It’s his wish, but it’s also a kind of devilish torture.

“The Secret Miracle” is evoked because that moment of death — the one after the guy gets stabbed a bunch and right before he actually dies — is speculated about, obsessed over really, at length by the narrator. And she imagines the victim’s wife trying to imagine what went on in the dying man’s mind. She imagines the victim having a conversation in which he imagines his demise. There are layers of imaginings. The narrator meditates on the way that the manner in which we die somehow colors the whole of our lives, at least in the eyes of those who survive us.

Shades of Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment loom over the book too, with long philosophical explorations of the meaning of murder, the debt of guilt and the pervasiveness of lawlessness. “There are so many unpunished crimes in the world,” reflects Maria, or is it Marías?, at one point.

What all of the subjunctive convolutions and all of the meta-literary business end up doing is to draw extra attention to the potential not-having-happenedness of all writing, all stories. Fiction is already an act of suspended disbelief or dream-weaving, but this fiction is fiction about the fiction of fiction, and how all of our interactions and relationships involve a degree of storytelling and fictiveness.

Imagining your way into other people’s lives — the central act of writing and reading fiction — becomes part of the subject here. “It’s never easy to put yourself in a non-existent situation, I can’t understand how so many people spend their whole life pretending,” writes Marías And elsewhere “We do tend to believe things while we’re hearing or reading them. Afterwards, it’s another matter, when the book is closed and the voice stops speaking.” And: “Anything anyone tells you becomes absorbed into you, becomes part of your consciousness, even if you don’t believe it or know that it never happened and is pure invention.”

The details and stories we do and don’t believe are all bound up in a story — a mystery, really — about a murder.

As Maria tries to make sense of that murder that we learn of in the opening paragraphs of the book, slyly interrogating those she suspects of being involved, secretly listening in on conversations, she keeps coming up against the difficulty of ever getting to the bottom of what others say.

“His narrative or retelling had started out that way,” things the narrator, “as a mere illustration of my conjectures, a verbalization of my suspicions, and had, as far as I was concerned, imperceptibly taken on an air or aura of truth, I had started listening to it as it it were an out-and-out confession and was true. There was still the possibility that it wasn’t.”

Her confusion is our confusion. And the uncertainty is part of the pleasure, part of what holds our attention. And then there’s this: “I would never know more than what he told me, and so I would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous.”

Bill Callahan: When Things Are Beautiful, Just Keep On

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Bill Callahan is an oracular songwriter. His baritone is a lovely deadpan instrument. It’s always easy to understand what he’s saying, in a kind of cast-iron musical voice-over, but one rarely knows what exactly he’s getting at. One doesn’t immediately know if lines like this, about drinking in a hotel bar, are meant to be humorous, or just ominous: “The only words I’ve said today are ‘Beer’ and ‘Thank you,’ ‘Beer’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Beer’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Beer.”” That’s from “The Sing,” the first track on Dream River, his new record, which is being released by Drag City this week.

There are dreams, and flight, and dreams of flight, and elemental forces of flood, wind and hurricanes. There are trains, planes, and boats that thread through these songs. And homecomings, too. Eagles, roosters, seagulls and beavers all make appearances, as do arrows and javelins. A couple songs refer to letting the land be your guide as you travel over it. He sings about wanting to make love “with a careless mind” to someone “in the fertile dirt” in “Spring.” The music is clean, with Callahan’s vocal melodies getting embellished and echoed by trebly electric guitar lines, or a breathy flute, with everything propelled along with subdued hand-drumming or the wooden clack of a clave pattern. Occasional sonic dust storms of feedback and reverb swirl through a song’s final moments. Callahan’s music has a sun-baked poetry to it; it reminds me of the intimidating grandeur of scanning the horizon from a desert vista, the heat causing vaporous ripples, and the scope and breadth of everything making you feel puny, maybe even threatened. “The road is dangerous/and pretty and white” he sings on “Winter Road.”

Callahan, 47, is up there with Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt in terms of songwriters of heavy-hitting life-plumbing seriousness, leavened with just a dash of sneaky sandpaper humor.

Dream River was recorded earlier this year, and it’s Callahan’s first release since 2011’s Apocalypse, which it has much in common with, including that looming sense of destruction that’s cooked into the working of the seasons. The Austin-based singer and songwriter makes songs that have an timeless gravity to them, but he throws in unusual pop-culture references — to Marvin Gaye or Donald Sutherland here, say — that root the material in the loose present. Though there is a visionquest element to many of the songs, a hint of fever dream. “I wonder if I’ll ever wake up, I mean really wake up,” he sings on “Seagull.” It’s not clear if he’s singing from the perspective of the seabird of the title, or some other character layered in the story. Callahan has said in interviews that some of this material came to him in dreams, and that he’s begun taking supplements to help him recall his dreams better. It’s paying off.

Callahan sings this on “Winter Road,” the last lines of the record: “I have learned, when things are beautiful, to just keep on.”

‘What Is This Shit?’ — Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait Revisited

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Bob Dylan
Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)
The Bootleg Series Vol. 10
(Columbia)

Die-hard Bob Dylan fans are — a little like the artist himself — a contrarian lot. If you say Dylan’s voice sounds like shit, they say you’re missing the point. If you say that ever since, say, 1990 or so, Dylan has been mangling the melodies and phrasing of his own best material, undermining its appeal, they say that’s part of the charm: his trickster’s ways, his restless willingness to dismantle his own myth. And what about all those crappy records he made? you ask. What crappy records? they answer.

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A New Record From Sam Phillips

samphillips

Sam Phillips

Push Any Button

(Littlebox Recordings)

Sam Phillips is an adventurous songwriter with a talent for Beatles songcraft and just enough junkyard grit. On Push Any Button, her first physical album of new material since 2008, Phillips sings with a hint of world-weariness, but when she piles on her impeccable vocal harmonies her songs grow sweet. Her tunes take surprising jazzy, sometimes dark, harmonic turns. She stretches out syllables for maximum melodic effect. (Phillips co-produced this record.) Though the material harkens back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Phillips has been engaged in some very 21st century music-making projects, making EPs — and videos, writing, interviews and more — available through digital subscription. Fans who haven’t checked in with Phillips since Cruel Inventions, her very good 1991 record, will be happy to hear she’s still making solid and idiosyncratic records.

 

Guitar Visionary: A New Documentary About John Fahey

In Search of Blind Joe Death: the Saga of John Fahey

The enigmatic guitarist John Fahey, the subject of a new one-hour documentary, was an early icon of idiosyncratic and independent music making, and he was a hero of fans of long-lost American roots music. The film, In Search of Blind Joe Death: the Saga of John Fahey, explores his life, career and legacy. Decades before numerous fringe characters started their own record labels in the ‘80s, Fahey had trod that ground, co-founding Takoma Records in 1959 to release his own recordings as well as albums by country blues artist Bukka White and others. Fahey, who died in 2001, helped re-discover White, who hadn’t recorded in over 20 years. Fahey also palled around with Joe Bussard, a legendary collector of old-time, country blues, and obscure-78 rpm records. The two made rowdy home recordings at Bussard’s Maryland home, and, like Bussard, Fahey also roamed the country looking for old 78s. Fahey was particularly infatuated with the music of Delta blues guitarist Charley Patton, whose raw style and wide-ranging repertoire was the subject of Fahey’s masters’ thesis at UCLA.

John Fahey.

John Fahey.

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