Friday, November 21, 2008

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Just finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s immensely popular The Savage Detectives. The book chronicles a marginal branch of the Mexican Poetry scene in the mid-70s. Outsider Poets. Who knew the American reading public cared about such things?

The book has three distinct parts. The first and third are told by way of diary entries from a 17 year old, up-and-coming poet who is enamored by and immerses himself into the world of the visceral realist poetry scene. By far these are my favorite sections of the book because they really capture the excitement of what it’s like to be a late teen, diving headlong into a scene—a world of art, parties, politics and sex unfolding before your eyes. Garcia Madero, the narrator of this section, falls deep into the scene and the course of his life starts shifting in an unexpected way. When The Savage Detectives is on, it captures the feeling of that precious turning point in one’s life when one discovers the path that they want to walk down. Few books manage to capture that feeling so well. Similarly, as the book progresses and the scene dies and most of its participants move on, The Savage Detectives expertly captures the melancholy hangover blues of a fading scene.

That said, the book’s middle section, an oral history (think Legs McNeil) of the scene’s two touchstone poets is long, long, long. The history is told from the perspectives of friends, acquaintances, and accomplices of Arturo Belano, a thinly veiled portrait of Roberto Bolaño, and his compadre, Ulises Lima. So many characters, so many places, so many microscenes, so many references to literary scenes that I know nothing about, and ultimately so many sideways glances at Belano and Lima. In a way we learn much about them, but ultimately in an elusive way. They drive the narrative, but we never get inside their heads. Instead, they are a composite of what the world thinks of them, and for me, I felt we never got to the heart of these characters.

Ultimately The Savage Detectives is rewarding in many ways, but a little long-winded in others. When it’s on, it’s a great read, but at times it’s a slog.

The Dream Syndicate, Live, Ann Arbor, 1986 or 1987

No question that The Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses was one of the landmark lps of the 80s. Starting with their follow up The Medicine Show, the band took a rootsier direction and by the time the third lp Out of The Grey hit the streets, original band members and fan faves Kendra Smith and guitar hero Karl Precoda were no longer in the band. Post Days of Wine and Roses, none of the Syndicate records generated as much heat within the fan base as did their stunning debut. I was big fan and went down the path for the long haul, and while The Days of Wine and Roses is still my fave, there was clearly gold later in the career. I saw the band in their Precoda incarnation, as well as with Paul Cutler, who took over on Out of the Grey. I saw the band on the Out of The Grey tour in 1986 or 1987 and, by far, that was the most explosive I’d ever seen the Syndicate.

And hey, I got the tape to prove it. My girlfriend and I decided to bring a couple of super 8 cameras to the show, interview the band and shoot one song on film. It was all we could afford since film cost a lot. We interviewed Cutler before the show and filmed That’s What You Always Say on black and white super 8 (4X film stock me thinks). The film had to be shot silently and we recorded the audio separately on a little hand held piece of crap tape recorder (definitely not a walkman!). We then transferred the film to ¾” umatic video and tried to sync the audio to the picture. We tried for about an hour and then gave up. What a frickin’ disaster. It was impossible. The footage has been sitting in my garage for about 20 years and I decided to give the syncing another chance given the advent of non-linear editing. And wouldn’t you know it, success!

I’ve included the footage here. It’s pretty smoking. First off it’s a blistering, string-shredding version of the song. One thing that's interesting, is that there is little great live footage of indie bands from that era. Of course, a lot of that had to do with technology. Video cameras were bulky and unwieldy, so rarely would one take them into the pit in a club, which basically left the documentation of that era to 1-3 camera video shoots from the back of clubs or cable access tv performances. Each of these set-ups had a pretty cold, canned feel to them, no matter how hot the the performance. Very distancing stuff. Plus most of the video from that era has degenerated in a pretty bad way. Very few people ever shot film because it was so damn expensive or impossible to sync up if you didn't have the right gear or enough money. As for this footage, we were right there in the pit, backs of heads blocking the way, focus fading in and out, light flares galore. The result is footage that matches the energy of the performance. The footage is by no means perfect, very rough around the edges, but then again, that was the vibe of the music at the time.

We audiotaped the whole set which I’ve posted below. As I already mentioned, it’s a barnburner of a set and a testimony to the power the band was still channeling in 1987. The old songs are great and the new songs bristle with an energy not quite captured on the studio recordings. The sound quality is surprisingly good given the recorder that I used. There’s a little bit of distortion, but I think it sounds good. It sounds LIVE!

From an archivist standpoint I do, however, need to apologize. The band launches into an encore of Light My Fire which I chose not to record. Not sure why. I can only guess that the 21 year old me didn’t like the Doors and I decided that I could use that 5 minutes of spare tape for other purposes. What an idiot. Enjoy.

Here's the track listing:

1. Danger Zone
2. Tell Me When It's Over
3. 50 in a 25 Zone
4. Now I Ride Alone
5. Daddy's Girl
6. That's What You Always Say
7. Free Bird
8. When You Smile
9. Still Holding Onto You
10. Boston
11. Light My Fire

Thanks to Chris Xefos for helping me extract and futz with the audio.

Also, my buddy Pat Thomas just had his mid-80s zine, Notebook, pubilshed on the web. Check it out for some hard hitting looks at the Paisley Underground as the scene was unfolding.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nels Cline Singers Live, Cafe Du Nord, SF

One of my fave guitarists to emerge from the indie rock scene of the 90s is the one and only Nels Cline. His ability to wring out tastefully bizarre sounds and tones from his guitar is an aural treat. Over the years, I've seen him add his guitar wizardry to the Geraldine Fibbers, Scarnella, and most recently, Wilco. I've owned a couple of his solo cds, but never seen him perform solo (well as a trio) until last night. It was a great night of experimental, guitar overload. A big channeling of Sonic Youth-like outre progressions, mixed with a dose of 90s math rock precision, and some avant Beefheartian guitar-based, free jazz for good measure. At the height of heaviosity the band was utterly rocking. Totally transfixing. Some of the slower, plinkier jazz interludes I could have done without. Made me think of how much my feet and back can hurt at a rock show. But all told, I was feeling it. If Jim Granato's power 'fro wasn't blocking my line of vision all night, it would have been blissful. As a bonus, the Deerhoof duo guested on a Eddie-Hazel flavored rendition of a Weather Report song.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Can’t rave enough about Slumdog Millionaire, the new film from Englishman Danny Boyle. It’s in the theatres now and the film begs to be seen on the big screen. It’s a cinematic masterpiece that sucks you in from its opening tortuous moments to its redemptive finale. The film focuses on a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. As he stands on the verge of winning the show's top prize, the film delves into his traumatic upbringing, his attempts to rise from abject poverty, and his pursuit of love at all costs.

Boyle has always been a master of combining substance and style as evidenced by Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and even 28 Days Later. With Slumdog he ups the ante. The film clearly has grand aspirations. It’s an epic story that mixes the high drama and sweeping romance of Golden Age Hollywood, 70s Bollywood plotlines, along with the grit and the grime of tough-as-nails gangster movies. Amazingly, Slumdog manages to be simultaneously both epic and intimate, which is a rare treat in the movies these days.

It’s boldly edited and visually stunning, continually finding beauty in its squalid locales. Those elements, along with the propulsive soundtrack, root you to your seat and create an utterly unique universe in which the film operates. The story structure is also inventive, using flashbacks in a unique way to create an added air of mystery to the film.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing an absolutely captivating movie on the big screen. One that leaves you saying, “Now that’s cinema!” Slumdog Millionaire delivers that feeling and then some.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Take it to the Bridge

Each year Neil Young throws a benefit for the Bridge School at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, just outside of SF. I’ve never been one for the big rock fests, and given that the show is often filled with a lot of middle of the road acts that I have a passing interest in at best, I’ve never been willing to plonk down the big money for show tix. Not even the lure of the almighty Neil himself has tempted me. This year I decided to bite the bullet. On tap were Cat Power and Wilco, plus the bill was rounded out by Death Cab For Cutie, Norah Jones and Jack Johnson—all acts that my son has really liked at certain points in his life. I’ve taken him to rock shows before, but this was a tempting bill for his first big rock and roll shindig.

It opened with a Native American blessing and hoop dance (which if you’ve been reading the blog, you know that I was down with) and then Neil took the stage for a brief acoustic set. I Am A Child followed by Sugar Mountain. How awesome was that! It was just like being in the audience for the taping of Live Rust. Plus the hoop dancers came back and pranced about during Sugar Mountain.

Out came Cat Power. I was pretty psyched for this set. I’ve only seen Cat Power once, years ago. Horrid. We left early. Couldn’t watch the on-stage self-flagellation and torture. I’ve heard that Ms. Marshall has conquered her stage fright and knows how to perform now. Drumming was Jim White of the Dirty Three so there was an initial jolt of excitement in my jaded heart. And while she clearly has gotten over her early career stage jitters—heck she even wandered into the crowd for a set—I got to say that the overall set was a hint boring. Don’t know that I can blame her or her band. But the dark and dusty stylings of Cat Power don’t translate to 2 pm on a sunny, Sunday afternoon at an outdoor amphitheatre, playing to a half-filled house. She closed with Neil joining her on stage for Fortunate Son. A classic Cat Power cover given that I never figured out what the song was until I read about it in the paper the next day.

Up next were Wilco. Outside of Neil’s set, this was the set I was most anticipating. Saw Wilco on the last tour and was blown away. One of the best shows I’ve seen in the last couple of years. What I quickly learned about the Bridge show though, was that all bands had to play acoustic. It’s a rule. And I got to say that while that’s cool in theory, some bands were a little hog-tied by that and Wilco was one of those. You’d think Wilco, could have kicked out the awesome acoustic set, but I must say it was a bit flat. I think they’re a band that’s developed into a live dynamo due to the incredible amount of dynamic tension between all the instruments (acoustic and electric). Nels Cline is one of my fave guitar players, but he’s an electric kind of fellow and all acoustic the band didn’t have their full arsenal at the ready. All of that said, one of the day’s highlights was Neil joining them for I Shall Be Released. It’s pretty clear that live, Wilco channels The Band in a heavy, heavy fashion. And here they were playing a Band song live…with Neil Young. It made total sense and was breathtaking. And what became evident is how awesome of an acoustic guitar player Neil is. He knows how to use that instrument and have it cut through the wash of instruments on stage. Whenever he appeared on stage throughout the day, it was as if the clouds parted and a beam of light shone down on center stage.

Death Cab For Cutie were next. I was getting a little worried. Death Cab are a band I’m lukewarm on. At times I think they’re a tad boring. And if Wilco had trouble pulling off the acoustic thing, how would these mopey, emo boys manage? As it turns out, their set was one of the strongest of the day. A fantastic set. The lock-solid rhythm section playing off the crisply, plucky guitars was fantastic. It was a live set that has made me revisit the band on cd and I must admit that I’m into it. This was the set my son was looking most forward to and it was cool to see him so excited at a rock show. At the start of every song, he gleefully turned to me and said "We know this song!" Ever since the show, he’s been hanging out in his room, listening to Death Cab and reading their lyric booklets. I can start to see the teen years looming.

Smashing Pumpkins were next. Not a huge fan, but whenever my high school kids played them throughout the 90s they always sounded good. I was ready for the golden oldie hit machine. But I guess they must have a new record out cause I only recognized the last song, Disarm. And for that they had opera boy Josh Groban join them on lead vocals. I heard one grey-hair later beef, “They only played one hit. What was that about?”

Josh Groban was up next and that was our cue for a snack break. Not much of a sweet selection at the Shoreline. Settled on some hot chocolates (it was getting chilly) and my son immediately deposited half a cupful of the steamy mess on his lap. Things could have started turning for the worse here, but we rallied. Got back to our seats to see Neil join Mr. Groban for a phenomenal version of Harvest Moon.

Nora Jones up next. Very nice. Some Johnny Cash songs, some Hank Williams songs plus a cover of Jesus, Etc by Wilco. It was a great version, maybe the best Wilco song of the night. Am I wrong to think she's kind of hot?

Surfer dude Jack Johnson was next and I have to go full confessional here. I like this guy. Every bone in my body says I should hate him, but what can I say, I find him entirely enjoyable. Utterly pleasant. There I've admitted it. Sling your barbs. I don't care. Next to Death Cab it was the best set of the day. The guy knows how to craft a feel-good, acoustic set. Neil joined him for Harvest. Yet another highlight.

Then it was time for full-on Neil. Going in, I never anticipated that my son would be up for staying for the whole show. When I bought the tix, I assumed and came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t make it to Neil. I gave my son plenty of chances to call it quits throughout the day, but he gave me incredulous stares and shot the occasional “Why would we leave?” That’s my boy. When it became evident that we would see the whole set, I was ecstatic. I love Neil more than any other. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, but only in full Crazy Horse mode. The acoustic moments throughout the show were awesome and I was giddy for the set. I was singing along, jotting down the set-list, and snapping, pointless, blurry photos like a schoolgirl. What can I say? Neil totally rules. It was awesome. Oh, Lonesome Me, Unknown Legend, the big hits from Harvest all ruled. The finale of Comes A Time with all the artists joining him on stage (including the hoop dancer) was a mindblower. If I had to choose, I’d choose Crazy Horse Neil over acoustic Neil, but I was shocked that live, Acoustic Neil was just as powerful as Crazy Horse Neil. That set was worth the price of admission alone.

We then headed out to the parking lot and in classic fashion couldn’t find our car. Honest to god I thought it was stolen. The last time this happened I was 16 and my Dad, my stepmom and I circled the Potniac Silverdome in a snowstorm, fruitlessly looking for our station wagon after a Lions/Vikings game. In a similar fashion, we managed to find our car when there were only 10 cars left in the place. At least all the traffic had dissipated.