Monday, November 27, 2006

Music: Rockin' out to some music lit

...So I've been on a big rock history book-reading kick lately. I know the old saw that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," but what can I say, I dig reading words about music and lately books about tunes, the people who make them and the ideas behind them have been constant reading for me. The Auckland Library has a pretty awesome selection so I've been regularly raiding their music aisles for books I've always meant to read. Here's some of what's been passing through:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock," by Nik Cohn. This 1968 tome (revised somewhat in 1972) is called the granddaddy of modern rock criticism, written, to my envious chagrin, by Cohn at the pup's age of 22. It's basically the entire history of rock 'n' roll from Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" to the death of Jimi Hendrix, of 15 or so years where rock soared in scope and imagination. Cohn was there for a lot of it, one of the first "rock journalists," and "Awop" (I ain't writing that whole title again) is a kind of love letter and farewell to it all, written as Cohn imagined himself burned out by rock and moving on. It's smooth, sexy writing, with lots of great little turns of phrase. I don't always agree with Cohn, who's cool to the Beatles and Dylan (!!!) while sticking up for Little Richard. Is "Awop" dated? Definitely. Cohn froze music in 1972 and felt that the end was nigh, that pop would only flourish if it were directed to teen angst and didn't get wrapped up in its own pretensions. It's hardly encyclopedic, because although Cohn tries to cram in as many names as possible he often relegates entire careers to a few sentences. Yet all that didn't bother me too much, because "Awop" is so obviously an artifact of its time, and Cohn's authorial voice is so relaxed and chatty. He's sometimes arrogant, often irreverent, but never really condescending, even when he disses The Beatles. Most importantly, Cohn was one of the first to really take rock seriously as the idea for a subject of a book. There's an entire industry of such tomes today, but nearly 40 years ago, it was unheard of. "Awop" is a groundbreaker that's still worth paging through today.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Deep Blues: A Musical And Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta" by Robert Palmer is one of those books I've always meant to read – an examination of the Mississippi "Delta Blues," where it came from and who it influenced, and a look at the lives of characters like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and many more. I spent seven years down in North Mississippi at college and it took me until the final years of my stay to develop a real appreciation for the blues (thanks mostly to Oxford-based Fat Possum Records and such icons as the late R.L. Burnside). Anyway, "Deep Blues" is a fascinating piece of musical archaeology, taking a look at the truths behind the myths of the blues. We all know Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to earn his musical talent, but what was the man really like? Palmer actually got to sit down and talk with many of the blue icons featured here before they died, including Muddy Waters, so the history here feels alive and vivid. (One of the men featured in the book, Robert Lockwood Jr., died just last week at the age of 91.) You've got harrowing tales of plantation existence, how music became an escape for some, and how the Delta blues ended up migrating to Chicago. Palmer traces the blues back to its African roots, then brings it right on up to its mutation into rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. "Deep Blues" evokes the mystery and strange menace of the blues and that's a welcome antidote to the notion that they began with Eric Clapton.

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"Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics," edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carm̩l Carrillo. Blogger Lefty recommended this one recently so I checked it out Рthe conceit here basically being that it's an entire book of negative reviews of allegedly classic albums, from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." DeRogatis assembled a lineup of writers to pick an album they consider overrated and tell us why. It's a nifty idea, even if it doesn't always work. "The point isn't necessarily to change your thinking about a work that you adore, but to prod you to consider anew why you admire that work," DeRogatis writes in his introduction. At the very least, "Kill Your Idols" gives you a lot to chew on. The best essays are the ones where the authors levy solid musical knowledge in their thoughts, and might even be fans of the artist's other work РFred Mills is a big Neil Young admirer, but disdains Young's hit album "Harvest," and gives pretty good rationale for why he thinks it's a "meandering, unfocused affair." Some are wickedly funny, such as the cruelly biting evisceration of The Doors (an act I admit I can't really stand myself) and Jim Morrison's "lounge tune sophomore poetry." A few too many of the essays take the lazy stance that rock can't strive to be "art" and still rock, which I don't agree with myself, that rock has to be messy and raw to matter. And some are just written with such overwhelming bile toward the artist that they're hard to respond to. If the thesis of your argument is that the artist "just sucks," then sorry, I'm not really following along with your wisdom. Still, "Kill Your Idols" is a pretty breezy read that is enjoyable if you don't take the opinions therein as gospel, which after all, is kind of the point. If you can't handle dissenting opinions to your own, skip it, though!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Diary of a stay-at-home Dad, week one

So we're at the Friday of my first week as Mr. Mom, boldly sacrificing the world of deadlines, coffee and, y'know, working to stay at home with my 2 3/4-year-old son whilst darling wife resumes life in the Kiwi workforce. Can a former editor become a doting dad? Can I handle the notion of not working for a few months until I get my New Zealand sea legs (and we adjust to the notion of some kind of day care)?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAny notion caring for a rambunctious toddler isn't work is of course nonsense. For the past couple years, I think Avril had the harder job. That said, it hasn't been the perfect week, but it's been pretty good. Peter is a little befuddled by the absence of his mama, who's been a constant presence in his young life till now. He's acted out a little (worst offenses: ripping pages out of a brand new library book and biting his cousin on the toe. Argggggh), but is starting to settle down and not asking "where mama?" every five minutes. He apparently is under the impression she works at the post office, because he says, "she a mailman now."

The best part is watching the baby turning into a boy; he's nearly through with the nasty bizness of toilet training, having sped through the last two weeks of hardcore action from using a mini-john to now using the real grown-up toilet, and not having an accident all week. And he now wears BIG BOY underpants! (Seen above) Yeah, I'm at the point in life where I'm excited by a mess-free bowel movement. I am so domesticated.

While Peter has never been a napper – or much of a sleeper – he's taken to it this week, napping 3 of the last 4 days. I rock. Our routine is usually some kind of expedition in the morning, then lunch, then maybe a trip to another playground or something in the afternoon. One of the awesome things about Auckland is there's parks everywhere – at least a half-dozen within close walking distance of here, and we usually have the car during the day if we want to venture further.

P's an incredibly active, and if I may say so, smart kid, which is sometimes to his detriment – he gets so hyped up and overworked that it's hard to bring him down sometime. I'm wondering if he'll always be like this and end up some BASE-jumping windsurfing adrenaline junkie, or if he's going to mellow with age. So much of the challenge is coming up with ways to entertain him.

The big thing for me is realizing how lucky I am to get this time with P, rather than champing at the bit to work again or explore more. Writing and the journalism life does get in the blood, after all, so part of me worries I'm wasting time, that I need more than occasional freelancing or blogging to satisfy me.

But then Peter runs up and gives me an unsolicited hug, and all's cool for a little longer.

Happy Thanksgiving, all you American-types!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Music: The "new" Beatles CD, "Love"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAre The Beatles holy writ? Is remixing and "mashing up" their original tunes heresy? Some Beatle-fans are looking at the new release of The Beatles "Love" CD with trepidation. The surviving two Beatles had little to do with it other than approving it, and it was mostly assembled by Giles Martin, the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, with some consultation from his father. Commissioned as the soundtrack to a Cirque du Soleil stage show, it's being billed as the first authorized Beatles remix project.

Purists shouldn't fear — "Love" hardly destroys the Beatles' songs. But in the end, nice as it is, "Love" is basically a slick gimmick lacking any real message besides, "doesn't it sound cool that we can do this?" Perhaps you just had to be at the stage show.

First off, the songs on "Love" do sound bloody wonderful, crisply reworked and remastered (there's also an even spiffier audio DVD mix of the album with 5.1 surround sound and stereo available, which I haven't heard). There's a fullness to it that makes the sounds leap from the speakers. When "Revolution" kicks in, the proto-metal snarl of guitars and screams will just about knock your head off with its clarity. It's miles above any other previous Beatles CD releases.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBut most of the mashups lack any real potency. It's a kick, at first, to hear shreds of the assault of "I Want You" splashing together with fragments of "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite," or to hear "Sun King" turned eerily inside-out for the backwards track "Gnik Nus." Some tracks are gorgeous, like the "Strawberry Fields Forever" that blends stripped-down demo into a slowly building crescendo, tossing in elements of "Penny Lane," "Piggies" and "Hello Goodbye."

But too many others are like "Eleanor Rigby," or "A Day In The Life," nearly the same as the old version, or a failure like "Octopus's Garden," grafted with an awful patch from "Goodnight" that turns it into a lounge track. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" features a new elegant and subdued string score background added by Sir George Martin himself, but as much as I admire Martin's work, "Weeps" version 2.0 has more than a whiff of Musak to it.

I really was hoping "Love" would go further. If anything, it's too reverent, too conservative in its approach.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAnd as many music buffs will tell you, this is hardly the first time something like this has been attempted. There's the famous Grey Album, an illegal bootleg DJ Danger Mouse (now of Gnarls Barkley) did back in 2004 surgically lifting vocals from Jay-Z's Black Album and adding a flurry of chopped-up bits from The Beatles White Album as backing tracks. A whole parade of similar underground "mashups" followed, from "The Black and Blue Album" (Jay-Z and Weezer) to the "Slack Album" (Jay-Z and Pavement).

While few of these were particularly interesting except as experiments, some were remarkable recreations. The Grey Album crushed The Beatles down to their component DNA, pulverizing song fragments until they were utterly remade – which might offend purists, but resulted in some dazzlingly creative listening. Other Internet mixers have put their own stamp on The Beatles' raw material. (There's a nifty complete reworking of "Revolver" floating around on the Internet using samples from a variety of artists that is quite playful fun.)

And that might be the singular problem with "Love" for me – it's just not revolutionary enough, when we've been shown there's so much more you can do. Adding a drum flourish from "The End" to "Get Back" doesn't fundamentally make you view the song in a new light. Ideally, a mashup shows you a facet of the song you've never imagined, like a prism in the sun, rather than just evoking memories of the original tunes.

"Love" doesn't desecrate what the Beatles did; really, the noble intent is to celebrate their talents. But it also really adds nothing new to the legend, other than showing us how fine the Beatles catalog will sound whenever it's all completely remastered to the highest potential. That makes it feel like a movie trailer, a tease for the extra cash we Beatle-fans will be asked to shell out in 2008 or whenever. I can't imagine repeat listening being very rewarding, unlike the original albums.

"Love" is a clip-and-save kaleidoscope of greatest hits and a novel stage show soundtrack, but little more than that in the long run.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mount Eden

...So for about a month now (!), we've been living here in the Auckland district of Mount Eden, just away from downtown. Its name comes from the massive volcanic cone that dominates the area (also known as Maungawhau), now a park and once upon a time a Maori pa or fortress. It's about 600-700 feet tall and the highest point in Auckland, so needless to say one of the fun things to do is hike up to the top of it and get a sprawling 360-degree panorama of Auckland. I didn't get a nice photo of what the cone looks like from afar but why, here's one right here.
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If you're lucky, you'll see the famous Mt. Eden cows up there, a herd that wanders around there and I guess are looked over by the city. It definitely adds to the rural/urban feel of Auckland to look over a view of skyscrapers while avoiding a cow chewing cud.
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Because it was once a volcano, Mt. Eden is actually a huge grass-filled crater now, which makes for a cool sight. (It's forbidden to walk down there now to keep erosion under control.)
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From the top you can see the entire city, the harbor and ocean inlets, and on clear days out to the Coromandel Peninsula. You can also see our neighborhood, above, although we'll be damned if we can quite pick out the exact location of my in-laws' house. If you ever visit us down here in the antipodes, we'll be sure to take you up Mt. Eden.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The latest from Aotearoa

...Yeah, I'm a slacker about blogging lately. Sorry about that. Delayed cultural shock setting in and so forth.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn any case, the big news from this week is that wife Avril has gotten a job. Hurrah! She starts Monday as an applications officer with the New Zealand Real Estate Licensing Board, which basically means she'll be handling all licensing for real estate agents throughout the country. Pretty cool and excellent salary. Not too bad for just over 3 weeks in country!

What all this means is that I get to be "Mr. Mom" for a while and take care of 2 3/4-year-old Peter probably at least until after the New Year, when I want to really start looking for some part-time journalism work. (In the meantime, I hope to try some freelancing.) But at the same time we don't want to put Peter in day care full time if we can help it so part-time is probably all I'm looking at for now.

Father/son bonding, here I come!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Happy Birthday To Me

...Well, if you're in New Zealand, anyway, where it's already the 11th. Otherwise you have to wait hours yet! ...Anyway, 35 is halfway to 70, which is a bit depressing because in theory I could be middle-aged now if the genetic cards aren't lucky. Urk. Of course I'd prefer if I don't reach the midspan of my life until, say, 52 or so.

But at least things have changed quite a lot in the past year which is always one of the benchmarks you use for a birthday - I'm in a new country, jobless and uncertain of what's ahead. On the down side, I'm jobless in a strange country and uncertain of what lies ahead. To quote Steve Zissou, "it's an adventure."

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Chortle chortle chortle

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...My god, I leave America and the Democrats win Congress, Rumsfeld is axed and Britney Spears is finally back on the market! It's madness, I tell you, madness! ...It's been curious watching this election from across the pond and voting via fax as an absentee voter (although the corrupt toad in my home congressional district squeaked by with re-election despite the Democratic tide). Thanks to the Internets of course I can soak up all the media babble I wish, from CNN's Political Ticker to the Post's Media Notes, so it's not like I have to wait for the next steamship for news of the homeland.

But here in the local paper it's interesting because most of their international coverage is picked up from British papers like The Independent and Guardian, which needless to say are not particular fans of the current administration. There's a strong anti-Bush current to most stories, which tend to begin with lines like, "Leaving a thin trail of green slime behind him, U.S. President Bush oozed his way to the podium Wednesday..."

'Tis strange to watch it all happening overseas, and to finally feel like some of the Bush cowboy diplomacy methodology has been rebuked but not to be there to enjoy it. Ah well. At least hopefully I won't get quite as many complaints about "your" President from kiwis when they find out I'm an American. Trust me, GW Bush is about as popular as testicular cancer with 99% of the New Zealanders I've ever met.

Anyway, beside surfing the web we've actually been quite busy this week with milestones – (1. Finishing up the boy's long-delayed ooky toilet training (which went on hold most of September and October due to our traveling and difficulties of going diaper-free during that time); (2. The wife is diligently job-hunting here in Auckland; and ...

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting(3. We bought a new car! After several days of canvassing used-car lots and auto fairs we signed on the dotted line to buy a nice little 1997 Subaru Legacy wagon which we pick up tomorrow. I do love my Subarus and they're quite popular here. Curiously enough our car has actually spent most of its life in Japan - most used cars here are imported from the land of the rising sun, which is a bit dodgy but the way it goes, and it is kind of cool to have a car that used to zip around Tokyo or something. We'll cross our fingers that we didn't get ripped off and not have to impose upon my father-in-law to be our taxi cab quite so often as we explore the daring challenges of Auckland traffic. On the other side of the road. Eep.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Random Self-Promotion

Quick post to thank Dave Hitt for kindly reviewing my book of scribblings, Spatula Forum: Greatest Hits on his blog! 'Tis my first actual review of sorts. Dave examines the mystery that is Nik, diving deep into the Nik-ness and discovering that I am in fact an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum slathered in tasty honey mustard. Anyway, thanks to Dave for the kind words, and go hence and grab a copy o' my book if you haven't!

Saturday, November 4, 2006

NEW ZEALAND: Fireworks for Halloween

ITEM! So Halloween is one of those holidays that's been imported over here but is kind of only half-celebrated right now - many of the older generation see it as crass "begging for lollies" and yet another American cultural invasion, the younger generation is just, "woo hoo, free candy!" But we didn't celebrate it here as we were too exhausted and didn't want to buy candy so we turned off the light, barricaded ourselves in the back of the house and ignored the few door rings. They did have the ultra-cool sounding Auckland Zombie Walk downtown but it was past Peter's bedtime and you know how it is...

But a holiday they do celebrate here is Guy Fawkes Day, which is Sunday. It's a curious day celebrating a failed 1605 terrorist plot to blow up the British Parliament (most of you probably know it best from the "V For Vendetta" movie -- "Remember, remember, the fifth of November"). Basically these days it's an excuse to light up lots of fireworks. And much like July 4 back in the States, people don't just use their sparklers on the holiday, so for the past week or so we've heard a miniature volley of explosions at night. Ka-boom! So we shall climb the mountain near our house Saturday night (when most of the celebrations are held this year) and watch Auckland light up.

ITEM! Finally got around to posting more photos to Flickr of our MegaAmerica Trek and a couple more (I reached my free bandwidth limit last month and was too cheap to pay for more). So if you'd like to see some sexy photos of Yellowstone, head on over. I'll eventually post a few New Zealand pics too once we get around to taking some.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

BOOKS: 'Awake In The Dark' with Roger Ebert

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingCan you be America's most well-known movie critic, a television star and household name, and still be kind of underrated? If you're Roger Ebert, quite possibly. The man who added "thumbs up" to the vocabulary is so famous that it's easy to forget that he's also an eloquent, accessible and continually insightful critic. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, the first film critic to win that honor. Yet when you think Ebert, you might just think, "oh yeah, the thumb guy."

The excellent new compendium, Awake In The Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, serves as a fine way to remind us that Ebert is, first and foremost, a gifted writer. A survey of his 40 years in the business of loving and explaining movies, it's essential reading for anyone who likes film. Besides dozens of his reviews, it also includes interviews, "think pieces" and a fascinating series of debates on the future of film criticism between Ebert and TIME magazine's Richard Corliss. Movie reviews include a look at each of his favorite films from 1967 to 2005, sections on documentaries, foreign films and "overlooked" movies.

Ebert makes it look easy. Avoiding cruelty and cynicism, his best pieces always feel as if he's having a conversation with the reader, rather than lecturing them. Some of the strongest writing in Awake In The Dark is a look inside Ebert's thoughts on the nature of film. "A movie is not about what it is about," he writes. "It is about how it is about it." His celebrity may overshadow what a fine teacher he is.

From blockbusters to unknown curios, Ebert treats them all fairly, asking only that they don't condescend to us. I recall his startling choice for best movie of 1998, an obscure science-fiction film called Dark City by Alex Proyas, which zipped in and out of theaters in a flash. His review illuminated this dazzling movie for me – "created and imagined as a new visual place for us to inhabit," he wrote – and I promptly hunted it out on DVD. Turning you on to something you hadn't imagined existed is perhaps the finest pinnacle of the critic's art.

What exudes from Ebert's work is love. Unlike some critics, you get the feeling he genuinely loves movies, and always goes in hoping to be entertained, rather than angling for how to impress his readers or score points with venom. When he hates a film, you can sense his true disappointment. When he loves a movie, he's its firm champion for life – "I never get to the end of its mystery," he writes of Errol Morris' cult documentary about pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven, one of his favorite films.

His bittersweet closing essay, written as he battled life-threatening cancer in 2004, is a testament to powerful allure of movies, of "healing in their glow" as he writes. Ebert's Movie Yearbook series, collecting all of his reviews for a given year or two, also make for grand reading and offer far more depth than most movie guides, but Awake In The Dark does the job of establishing Ebert's legacy and giving one critic's perspective of 40 years of startling changes and evolution in the picture show.

I know I've discovered many an excellent filmmaker through Ebert's raves – Kurosawa, Herzog, Altman, for instance. I don't always agree with him, of course. That's not the point. But I'm always interested in what he's got to say. Here's hoping Awake In The Dark is both a stirring summation and a prelude to a career that's still got many a movie ahead of it.