Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black Congress

An early incarnation of Black Congress convening in the triangulated epicenter of a spilled PBR can, somewhere in the expansiveness of Texas.

Well, I'm still loyal to my beloved neighbor Oaklanders the Diesel Dudes, but I stumbled upon Houston, TX's Black Congress, and goddamn they are good. 

Their album from about a year ago, Unfortunate Hubris, (I know, I'm always late to the party) is a glorious thing: it begins with an 18 minute-long opus called "Little Arms," the most beautiful prog-hardcore I've heard in some time -- including a Meddle-era Pink Floyd-esque electronics component, a Ministry-esque guitar line (circa the seminal, breakthrough Psalm 69), Tool-esque drumming, Triclops!-style vocals, and a truly impressive, repetitive, carpal tunnel, punishing bass line that makes my ol' buddy Les Claypool look like a.. well, an aging hippy. The album then brilliantly has two under-two minute post-thrash songs in the 2nd and 3rd song slots, and some excellent songs closing the album out. And the fucking thing is free in this pay-what-you-want day and age, on good ol' Bandcamp. 

It looks like Black Congress have had some band member changes o'er the years, which is of course natural. Their early stuff lacks the electronics of more recent recordings, and it was funny to see this 7" cover that features a man who looks a lot like my girlfriend Claire's boss, Dave Eggers, in some kind of blood-flowing transcendental state. 

All in all, excellent music coming out of Houston in the ol' Lone Star State. Dark, driving, and punk without punk's sometime pretentiousness, this is some good shit. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Apt Pupil Revisited

Something in me, perhaps a desire to revisit older experiences and compare/contrast them to how I feel/am/think/live now, drew me back to Stephen King's novella "Apt Pupil." It first appeared in the 1982 quartet collection of novellas Different Seasons under the "Summer of Corruption" heading. It tells the story of a young, all-American boy who discovers a Nazi war criminal hiding/living in his southern California neighborhood, and the way evil can be infectious. It shows King's strong eye for detail, culture, and realism.

I grew up an avid reader, and had a special love of King's writing when I was in my teens. I like King as a person a lot as far as what I've heard about him. He's been self-deprecating in saying he knows his writing is not the stuff of deep, canonical literature, and I really admire how he's pleaded to be taxed more -- he's uncomfortable with how the wealthier you are, generally the wealthier you grow and stay and get away with paying less tax, relatively, than a poor or middle-class person. King seems to care about the world, and if his plea to be taxed more sounds socialistic, then so be it. I wish more super-wealthy people were like him. I admire him and Roger Waters for their humanitarian outlook on their own respective wealth and success.
A lot of supernatural stuff doesn't scare me, so a lot of King's stuff I find flaccid. I don't believe in the Xtian idea of God, I don't believe in supernatural evil and idiotic fare like Paranormal Activity, I don't fear hell in the afterlife (there's enough, now, in this life), etc. But what does scare me is the human capacity for evil, and the damage that vengeful, hurt people and/or overpowerful and arbitrary government agencies can do. The misunderstandings between people, sick people and sick systems, the injustices and tragedies of human society -- the kinds of horror Charlie Kaufmann was trying to show in Synechdoche, New York --  these things are non-supernatural, completely realistic, and happen every day. Will Self once wrote about the horror of simply being alone in a big city in the afternoon.
Rereading "Apt Pupil," I was reminded what a good writer King can be, what a good storyteller and even raconteur of the human condition he can be. "Pupil" has nothing to do with supernatural, hokey, suspension-of-disbelief horror, and everything to do with plausible horror.
I remember excitedly seeing the film and being quite disappointed by the altered film ending, which ended -- I thought at the time -- with a whimper rather than a bang (the novella wonderfully builds the suspense and tension in a slow-ratcheting technique, with a pitch dark ending beautifully expressed in one sentence). But I do admire that the film adaptation's director said he couldn't do the novella's ending justice, so he didn't try. And now that I reread the novella and rewatch the film, I view it differently -- rather than the dramatic, apocalyptic ending of the novella, the film's more subtle, light touch approach that the evil young man threatens to destroy another human being with "rumor and innuendo" is almost as sinister as what happens in the novella -- if not more. While the novella's ending was immediate and blunt and ultraviolent, the film's depiction of one human being being evil to another and destroying them with words, untruths, fabrications, fear-mongering, etc, over a period of time, is almost worse than what the evil young man does in the novella (although the destruction wrought there is devastating as well, in a different way).
Philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote a book about his readings of films not so much how the films factually are (what happens, what characters say, etc) but how he remembers them. I thought this was an interesting approach. Were I to review the film version of Pupil now, I'd give it higher marks than I did then.
Either way -- novella or film, Apt Pupil is a dark exploration of human beings gone wrong. Would you (and those you love) rather be destroyed by an evil person immediately and surprisingly, or over time through their manipulation of systems, their lies, their deceptions, their sickness, their abuse of power, their feigning of innocence and victimhood, their accusations?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Splintered society, splintered log

Whew, exciting times 'round here. Living in Oakland, Ca, (and very near Berkeley) is living at times in the epicenter of passionate social upheavals and protests. Last night, protesters saddened and frustrated by the indictment outcome in the Ferguson, MO, took to the streets (including a major freeway!) and actually had a standoff with a scary, militarized phalanx of police within walking distance of where I live. We watched undercover vehicles (not even identifiable by Exempt license plates), mass-arrest paddywagons, tank-looking Hummers, and full riot gear cops seem to appear out of nowhere to push back a huge group of protesters lest they spread their message to wealthier, whiter areas like Berkeley and Emeryville. It was interesting to see our tax dollars at work. 

On a more personal level, I went camping alone a few months ago and found at the campsite a leftover log that'd make good firewood. It was heavy as hell and rolled around violently in the back of my car for awhile
Then I brought it inside and did some body strengthening exercise with it, lifting it while listening to Diesel Dudes
Then I became obsessed with splitting it into firepit burnable-size pieces. (Note the tent stake I foolishly hammered into it thinking that might split it. Now it's just stuck in there.) 

But let me tell you, this is an incredibly hard log to split. I won't say that it's beginning to petrify, but it must be elm, gum, or pecan, because this sumbitch wouldn't even split with a heavy duty wedge I bought (left, below). 

I get obsessed with seeing things through, so I went to the awesome Temescal Library Tool Lending place and borrowed another wedge spike (that looks like an upside-down Drumstick ice cream cone made out of iron or something) and a 4 lb sledgehammer. After working it a bit (and fearing I might bring down the wooden back porch in the process), I finally heard a crack in the wood.

I'm gonna get this fucker split. I am Fitzcarraldo. I'll keep you posted. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Apocalypse Audio

I found the Apocalypse Now soundtrack on vinyl at a used record store. I used to have the AN soundtrack done by the Rhythm Devils, on vinyl. That one was the indigenous-sounding musical soundtrack made with a lot of drums and natural material instruments by -- ugh -- members of the Grateful Dead. I'll admit some of the songs fit very well into the film, though. 
But this one I found recently is basically the whole movie in audio format split over four record sides. It's pretty cool. 

So I guess there are multiple soundtracks. I like this one a lot -- it presents the movie linearly, with tons of film dialogue, sound effects, music: really it's a show-off record of Walter Murch's incredible sound mix this film is known for. It's also obviously the source for the sample used in Joe Preston of the Melvins' solo album song "Bricklebrit." I had always wondered why the sample in this song had record  player snap-crackle-pop on it, when most audio samples from films are pulled from VHS or DVD sources (I'd imagine). 
Like listening to a podcast or radio production, the cool thing about these two records (oddly split as side 1/side 4, and side 2/3, inexplicably) is that, listening, one makes their own mental images, which of course recall the powerful images in the film, but also the power of one's own imagination. I noticed this record is worth a little on eBay, etc, and I got it for a steal. Thanks again Econo Jam Records, Oakland
(And to connect this post to a previous one, yes, the Captain Willard character of Ap. Now is where I derived my band name Willard's Canteen.)

By the way, there's a great line of dialogue from the film captured on the Ap. Now record, when Captain Willard talks toward the film's end about Colonel Kurtz and says "Even the jungle wanted him dead. That's who he took his orders from, anyway." Totally reminded me of Werner Herzog filming Fitzcarraldo and the difficulties he encountered, and his feeling at one point that he was battling the jungle itself, and the jungle was winning (documented in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams). 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Willard's Canteen

...because as a one-man band, there are no rules.
                                                               - Bob Log III

I have had a one-man band side project for a long time called Willard's Canteen. I was most active from 2004 - 2008, releasing a prolific slew of albums -- which, if not in quality, was impressive in quantity -- and playing shows in Sonoma County. The awesome Sara Bir did a write-up of the project. (My former/married name is Matt Pamatmat.) "Project" sounds pretentious -- it's just a 1-man band that I don't take too seriously. Think early Ween w/ only person, perhaps.

Lately I have been making music and trying to get back into the spirit of the language of music and the fun. A local Oakland record store sells my tape, and I put a song up on Soundcloud that's representative. Check it out.

Please note for the wholesomer-than-thou crowd, this tape does carry a parental advisory lyrical warning.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Harry Crews Part 2

By the way, here are the Harry Crews books I own that I could find. I have The Gospel Singer around somewhere, too. I've read Feast of SnakesBody, This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, All We Need of Hell, Car (included in Classic Crews), The Gypsy's Curse (also in CC), Celebration, The Mulching of America, The Knockout Artist, etc -- mostly as library books. Unfortunately I've lost some books along the way, even more unfortunately some of the small press, rarer ones (American Family; Where Does One Go...?). By the way: Crews and I don't always see eye to eye. He thinks Naked in Garden Hills is his best, and I actually couldn't finish it (his morbidly obese protagonist kinda turned me off, somewhat for personal reasons), and I've never understood (nor agreed with) the James Dickey quote ("Guilt is magic") that opens Scar Lover. I'm philosophically ok with cockfighting, but I think dogfighting gets too tragic and vicious. So I'm not a blindly faithful devotee of all things Crews. 

Naked in Garden Hills is very rare and collectible, especially the one I own (pictured; first edition paperback) -- if anyone is interested in buying it (because you like Crews, not because you wanna buy low and sell high, yawn), contact me. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Destroyed Rooms

I'm watching James Franco destroy a room.
Perhaps, more accurately, he's destroying a set, but it's a well-made, realistic set, resembling something out of a catalog or maybe a really detailed, lifelike Ikea exhibit. (Or whatever they internally call the "sets" at Ikea.) 
But it's a room: bed made, pictures on wall, mirrors, framed photos on the wall, bookcase, dresser, etc. And JF comes in grumbling to himself, dressed dapperly, and proceeds to wage war on the room itself. For about thirty minutes. 
Those of you who know know I'm talking about Wholphin #8, the DVD magazine of short films put out by McSweeney's, yet now sadly defunct. Two other actors -- an actress from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and an actor from The Office -- also had room sequences, but handled them in ways more about themselves as actors, and with considerably less damage done to the room. What I like about Franco's performance is how he instantly transforms himself from a suit-and-tie guy into a kind of crazy homeless-looking guy, offers very little clear dialogue, and just goes to town on the room. It's all one long take and I found it compelling throughout.

Franco's end result also reminds me of the art piece The Destroyed Room by Jeff Wall, also the album cover of a Sonic Youth release*. 

It's sad that Wholphin couldn't continue, but apparently it was prohibitively expensive to make a DVD magazine for the income generated from it. It really was a little gem of the short and experimental film world, giving light to such awesome oddities as an animated short about baseball player Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter on LSD in the 70s ("Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No", Wholphin #11), Hesher director Spencer Susser's postapocalyptic zombie short "I Love Sarah Jane" (Wholphin #10), and Wholphin Editor Brent Hoff's beautifully scored "Ptychogastria, Spatulate"(again, Wholphin 10). Conceptual artist William Lamson's amazing "Hunt and Gather" (#10) gives me a little hope in humanity in that some people's creativity is just astounding -- and inspiring. I have to confess: as Dave Eggers' first book (A Heartbreaking...) exploded on the lit scene along with a slew of other NYC-area writers, and Dave put $ into McSweeney's, I remained a bit less than enthusiastic. It seemed like a new hipster literati: urban, Millennial, self-absorbed, etc. (And at the time I was heavily into contemporary Southern lit, which is very the opposite of the McSweeney's crew.) But I was too judgmental, a flaw of mine. As I retroactively view Wholphins and read things that come and came out of the Eggersverse, I think there's a lot of raw talent there and really well-done stuff. (And of course not to mention the humanitarian arm of McSweeney's, the truly heartbreaking Voice of Witness book series.) McSweeney's and its "products" aren't some plaid-clad group of bearded, intentionally bad hair cut-wearing, white San Francisco hipsters who think the Eggersverse is the actual Universe as they sip their  PBR and Fernet -- it's a diverse collection of artistry in various medias that is largely very worth spending time looking into. McSweeney's, my apologies. Y'all are alright.  

* connecting this blog post to my one about Harry Crews, Sonic Youth were also huge Harry Crews fans. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

the hawk is flying

I had read everything Georgia-cum-Florida author Harry Crews had ever written except for some very obscure and hard-to-find things. In not as lean financial times, I bought and read Where Does One Go When There's No Place Left to Go?, a limited-edition novel by Crews that interestingly pitted him against, and kidnapped by, characters from his novels. I read one of the last things he published before his death (again, small press and pricey), An American Family: the Baby with the Curious Markings. I wrote to Crews in the early 2000s at his address at the University of Florida, not knowing at the time that he'd retired. The third tattoo I got was a skull and some words in homage to Crews and Werner Herzog, two of my heroes. I absorbed as much as I could about Crews' stomping ground for much of his life: Gainesville, Florida, from the excellent book on punk band Radon by Aaron Cometbus and Travis Fristoe, as Radon used Gainesville for much of their lyrical inspiration. ("Don't get too excited about Gainesville," my Georgia-born girlfriend Claire cautioned, "--it's a college town, but it's pretty deep South. Think Spring Breakers." She's of course referring to the Harmony Korine film set in the semi-trashy, so-called "redneck Riviera" of the Florida coast). I watched Crews amble around in the quasi-documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and tried unsuccessfully to scare up the rare The Rough South of Harry Crews mini-documentary. I traveled to Georgia with said girlfriend and proposed the idea she later took credit for that we drive to south Georgia (her interest was in the Honey Boo-Boo family, mine in the land that spawned Crews). We went, and the differences between the fairly affluent, middle- and upper-middle class greater Atlanta area, and south Georgia, are stark. We were actually a little scared to get out of the, sorry --- insert embarrassment here -- Prius her sister and brother-in-law kindly lent us for the intrastate voyage when we got a little lost trying to find McIntyre, GA. South Georgia is not Prius country, and thank goodness it was between elections so there were no giveaway lefty political stickers on the car. But Claire is and always will be a native Georgian, so she shepherded us through the naturally beautiful if economically bombed-out small towns of south GA. She spoke their language, even if that language was about bloodworms for fishing and dirty chitlins and Bud Light in the can. I was enthralled to be in Crews' origin-place, amongst the Georgia pine and red dirt and redneckery. (Crews of course is as much known as a Floridian as he is a Georgian, perhaps a tad more the former even though much of his fiction and nonfiction is set in the latter.) I even read Crews' descendants like Larry Brown and student writers that Crews taught in his creative writing classes. So what does this long paragraph mean? As you can see, like Crews' own obsessiveness, I was and am a big time Harry Crews fan(atic). 

Crews at home in Gainesville, with a Los Angeles Raiders (!) shirt

The only thing I hadn't read of Crews -- and a rather gaping hole it was, as it was made into what I think is an overall excellent adaptation of a film by Julian Goldberger -- was The Hawk is Dying, published in 1973. (The film saw the light of day in 2006.) So I read it. 
         Hawk is a beautiful, confidently-written, fluid, darkly comic novel that fictionalizes the tragic death of Crews' firstborn son in a drowning accident in the 1960s. One might find the novel dark (even bordering on nihilistic), strange, and refreshingly honest, but a layer of pathos is added when one knows about the reallife drowning. Crews was obviously working out some demons and coming to terms with the loss of his son; he wrote the incredibly moving and confessional essay "Fathers, Sons, Blood" that talks about the drowning nonfictionally. Hawk combines the sudden and devastating loss of a son, or in the story a boy like a son to the protagonist, with some of Crews' trademark themes: being out-of-step with, misunderstood by, and even hunted by the family and community one is from; unpredictable yet essential women; whiskey; obsessive behavior; and the dark humor and surrealness of everyday life (everyday life in the 1960s - 80s, Crews' most productive years). Crews usually felt alienated from the academic philosophers and philosophies of his colleagues at the U of F Gainesville, but damn near everything he wrote has a philosophic richness to it, and Hawk is no different. It tackles some of the biggest issues: work, relationships, midlife crisis, death, grief, obsession. But despite its wrestling with dark themes (Crews reminds me of the Buddhist monk who ran at the vicious dog attacking rather than away from it), Hawk is not as bleak as some of Crews' other work, most notably the brutal A Feast of Snakes. What is life-affirming in Hawk is that Crews seemed to find some meaning in his characters', and his own, suffering, and the process of writing is often a more therapeutic tool than anything -- poor man's therapy, as Rollins called it. It's a novel of special interest to those interested in birds of prey, falconery and austringery (training hawks), death and grieving, midlife crises, disabled or different children, and anyone who has ever felt the pressures to conform or be true to oneself. (To a lesser extent it's of interest to people into Gainesville, Southern culture/language/ customs, and the craziness that comes out of fixated interests and loss.) My all-time favorite Crews novel remains, to Claire's befuddlement, Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, but Hawk ranks up at the top. 
           It was good to read Crews again and be reminded of the camaraderie and kinship I've always felt with how he viewed the world. It's certainly not a majority-held or comforting weltanschauung, but one  which has always come naturally to me, and better expressed by Crews than pretty much anyone else. Crews has written that he's always hated himself for what he saw as the necessary task of getting over his son's death, but if the Buddhists are right that terrible things happen to distract us from something beautiful being born, that beautiful thing is the novel The Hawk is Dying.