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This gave me a good laugh this afternoon: Frustrated writers save New England from flood.
The idea of linking unpublished writers with reconstruction efforts has a Keynesian "multiplier" effect, according to David Simon, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk. "If we can get underemployed writers -- and believe me, they're all underemployed -- to crank out a short story collection at prevailing wages, then use it to fuel a waste-to-energy plant, we will ease unemployment and cut our dependence on foreign oil."
I might just donate my literary archives which, I'm starting to suspect, no university will exactly be clamoring for after my death sixty years from now.

March 31, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Dumptruck vs. Pavement

Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"
Pavement, "Perfume-V"

The narrator of "Autumn Light" is paralyzed by stasis. He lives a dissolute and likely meaningless life, and though well-meaning friends urge him to "get out of here" and try to change for the better, still he sits and does nothing. While he realizes that doing nothing and simply waiting around for change will lead nowhere, still he sits, questioning his (ex-?) lover for her abandoning of everything she's started - as if he's some sort of beacon of perserverance - and wondering where he would go and what he would do next in the unlikely event that he attempted a move. Some unsettling questions indeed.

Narrative is very hard to follow in Pavement songs, that is, if there's any narrative there in the first place. Part of that is due to the lo-fi production, which mostly buries the vocals and gives them no more sonic prominence than, say, the bass, and part of it is Steve Malkmus' lazy vocal delivery. But like early R.E.M., it's likely that even if Pavement's lyrics could be discerned they still might not be comprehensible. Malkmus, like Michael Stipe, might just be willfully vague.

Though it's impossible to deny the sonic thrill of "Perfume-V", its lyrics are just vague enough to keep me from fully engaging with the song. But the lyrics of "Autumn Light" draw me into the narrator's plight, and even if I don't particularly admire what I see there I still find the experience compelling. And because of that, Dumptruck moves on to the semifinals.

Winner: Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"

March 31, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Poe in New York

Just saw this come up on Project Gutenberg: Literary New York: Its Landmarks and Associations, by Charles Hemstreet (1903). Though I may or may not browse through the rest eventually, I was immediately drawn to the chapter "Those Who Gathered About Poe" which charmingly describes the various literary associates and residences of Poe's New York years. Here the author describes the vicinity of Poe's last New York home, in the village of Fordham (now the Bronx):
After passing through these rooms and with the memory of Poe strong upon you, walk away along the street remembering that in Poe's time it was a delightful country road. Stroll towards the Harlem River as he wandered many a moonlight night, his brain busy with the deep problems of The Universe. After a time you will pass on to the High Bridge, that carried the pipes of the Croton Aqueduct over the river,—this at least unchanged since his day. Walk over the path there, high above the water, and visit the lonely spot where the suggestion came to Poe for that requiem of despair, the mystic Ulalume.
The house still stands.

March 30, 2010 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tournament of Tunes: First Round Update

The first round of the 2010 Tournament of Tunes has now ended, with Dumptruck, Pavement, Sebadoh, R.E.M., The Minutemen, Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo and Lou Reed all advancing. Interesting how many big names are there (with the exception of the comparatively unknown Dumptruck) which I suppose is due to the smaller 16-song field. With 64 songs there would have been more entries, a greater variety of artists and potential for major upsets, though there would have also been strong potential for my abandoning the entire contest only halfway through.

To whet your appetite for the next round, I considered handicapping the field, but given that I'm the sole arbiter, that might prematurely reveal who I'm leaning toward and thus eliminate much of the reader's suspense. So instead I'll simply list which year each artist first entered my record collection in full-album form, which you're welcome to interpret any way you like.

R.E.M.: 1986
Dumptruck: 1989
Lou Reed: 1989
Yo La Tengo: 1992
Pavement: 1994
Sebadoh: 1994
Tom Waits: 1996
The Minutemen: 2007

I'm taking the rest of this week off to recharge my judicial batteries, and will resume with the Dumptruck-Pavement contest on Monday. Stay tuned.

March 25, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio vs. Lou Reed

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, "From Up Here"
Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale"

Joel R.L. Phelps is one of my favorite musicians - a sharp guitarist, skilled songwriter and idiosyncratic singer. He first got my attention as part of Silkworm, the band which he co-founded before leaving in the mid-nineties for a solo career. His solo work is considerably lower-key than the more raucous Silkworm, but he rocks out as much as he needs to, though he generally sticks to slower, quieter, more moody material. "From Up Here" is from the most recent Downer Trio release, Customs, which came and went without much public notice. A shame, given what a memorable record it is. The song is minimalist, with drums sticking to a metronomic 1-2-3-4 beat, bass and acoustic guitar playing straight chords with occasional lead guitar flourishes, and lyrics told from the perspective of a soldier. (An interesting narrative turn, as the album's theme is anti-war.) But though I admire the song, I would have liked a little more fire here. The song simmers without ever boiling over; Phelps restrains his caterwaul of a voice. The emotion and passion of Phelps' best work is still there, though mostly held in check.

It's hard for me to speak objectively about Lou Reed. And even harder for me to say anything about his long, high-profile, iconic career that hasn't been said hundreds of times already. I'm a longtime admirer, of both the Velvet Underground but especially his solo work (interesting as it is, the VU was just a bit too avant-garde for me to fully embrace) and this song comes from my favorite album of his, New York. The 1989 album is a manifesto, screed and selective survey of his home city which combines sympathy for the downtrodden with righteous scorn for the indifferent figures who hold power - all of it set to muscular musical backing of two guitars, bass and drums, and of course Reed's timeless sing-speak vocals. "Last Great American Whale" is one of the quieter songs, with lyrics which are an odd blend of plainspoken rant (about environmental degradation) and abstract metaphor (about an Indian chief, a whale, a racist kid, an errant-shooting NRA member - all of which might also be about the environment, though I can't say for sure).

I'd love to advance Joel Phelps to the next round - if just to give him a small sliver of the public recognition he deserves but has mostly been denied - but his song just doesn't completely light my fire. And all of New York has been burning in my head, out of control, for more than twenty years.

Winner: Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale"

March 24, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Yo La Tengo vs. Kevin Salem

Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"
Kevin Salem, "Will"

Yo La Tengo was probably my favorite band during the 1990s, after discovering them in 1992. But for whatever reason they lost me around the time of their 2000 release, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, an atmospheric, almost ambient departure from their previous, more guitar-based work which I loved at first before drifting away from. And as I drifted from the album, I drifted from the band as well. Which is a shame, because they put out some really great tunes during the nineties that I still greatly enjoy, "Sudden Organ" (from Painful) being one of them. The song has such a great vibe - insistent guitar, droning keyboards instead of bass, low-tuned tomtom drums - that makes it easy to love. 

Kevin Salem has garnered some accolades as a producer (of albums by Giant Sand, Freedy Johnston, Madder Rose and many others), side musician (he replaced Kirk Swan as guitarist in Dumptruck) and occasional solo artist. "Will" is from his debut album Soma City and is the best song to be found there. A pounding drumline and loud guitars (louder than most of the other songs on this fairly subdued record) make for a very vigorous sound that mostly covers up Salem's limited vocals. The lyrical message is terrific - a man pledging his eternal friendship and even love to a woman who seems to have spurned him for someone else.

"Will" is a real rouser, but I have to give the nod to Yo La Tengo.

Winner: Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"

March 23, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Not only are my parents awesome...

...but now they've also been immortalized for their roles in what was purportedly the first panty raid in history, at Augustana College in 1949. Just good clean fun, though the starched college elders and many students' parents were scandalized by the event.

March 23, 2010 in History, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Irish March update

We're now more than two-thirds through the month, and my Irish March reading results have been somewhat mixed. First, I thoroughly enjoyed William Trevor's Fools of Fortune (similar in theme to The Story of Lucy Gault, though not quite as good) and John McGahern's Amongst Women (vivid portrait of a bitter Irish republican and his relentless grip on his family). But then I started a highly-praised novel of historical fiction about the Easter Rising, which proved to be so awful that I invoked the 50-page rule and abandoned it. Since I try to stay positive here with my literary commentary, it's not worth it to inventory that book's many shortcomings or even mention the title, so there's no point in discussing it further.

After that book was abandoned, I realized that I didn't have any other Ireland-set fiction by an Irish writer around the house, so to finish off my reading for the month I took some liberties with my original guidelines and started Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which I hadn't read since college. True, Swift wasn't ethnically Irish (his parents were English) and the book isn't technically set in Ireland, but he spent much of his life in Dublin and surely one of the book's sections must have satirized the centuries-old English-Irish conflict. (I'll have to pick up some sort of reading guide to refresh my memory on who the various depicted groups represent.) I've finished the first two sections (on Lilliput and Brobdingnag, homes of the little people and the giants respectively) and am thoroughly enjoying it.

One thing that strikes me is how modern the language is, despite the book being written in 1726. I've read plenty of fiction from the late 19th and even early 20th centuries whose language is much more stilted and archaic than Swift's. I was also delighted by Swift's preface, which is written as a letter to a cousin who purportedly was responsible for the final published form of the book. Swift takes the cousin to task for several errors in the published version, which immediately casts doubt on the veracity of the narrative to follow - thus setting up the book as an unreliable narrative even while the narrator comes across as very sincere. The preface seems like a modern touch, one that's a few centuries ahead of its time.

March 23, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Tom Waits vs. Morphine

Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"
Morphine, "You Look Like Rain"

Despite the length of his career - pushing 40 years now - Tom Waits isn't well-represented in my collection - just Orphans, Swordfishtrombones and a handful of mp3s from later albums. But, wow, is Orphans a great collection, which more than makes up for the lack of quantity I own of his work. Sure, an artist of Waits' immense talents will inevitably have some absolute gems spread over the course of a three-disc set like this, but the quality level here is astounding, especially on the the ballad-heavy first disc (referred to as "Bawlers"). "Never Let Go" is simply gorgeous, much more stately and majestic than you might otherwise expect from this often-ragged troubador. A great song.

"You Look Like Rain" was just the second Morphine song I ever heard, on the great community radio station WEFT in Champaign, Illinois during the early 1990s. Although I enjoyed the song's sultry, low-key vibe from the start, it's telling that I never saved it to one of the mixtapes I was so fond of compiling back then. (Which I did do with the first Morphine tune I ever heard, "The Other Side", also from WEFT.) In fact, though I was already a fan then of Mark Sandman from his Treat Her Right days, those two songs didn't compel me to seek out Morphine's debut album, Good, on which they appeared, with the band not knocking me over and winning my heart forever until their second release, Cure For Pain. So my initial hesitation foreshadows my current muted reaction to "You Look Like Rain." Sure I like the song - there's only a few Morphine songs that I don't like - but it's just a bit too subdued to completely win me over. Sandman sings barely above a whisper, and Dana Colley's sax isn't much louder.

I own every Morphine studio album, and the band is one of my absolute favorites. (I'm even writing a novel about an obsessive, overly-empathetic Morphine fan.) But I have to admit that "You Look Like Rain" just doesn't have the kick of the band's very best material, and certainly can't touch this Tom Waits tune.

Winner: Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"

March 22, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (1)

John McGahern, Amongst Women

In his novel Amongst Women, the Irish writer John McGahern answers the question of what, exactly, revolutionists do after the revolution is over. His protagonist, the former Irish Republican warrior Michael Moran, first hints at the answer early in the narrative:
"For people like McQuaid and myself the war was the best part of our lives. Things were never so simple and clear again. I think we never rightly got the hang of it afterwards."

Moran's character is marvelously drawn. He's bitter, angry and disillusioned over what the country he fought has become, as it forsakes its patriots in favor of the "small-minded gangsters" whom Moran sees as having taken over, putting their own selfish interests first at the expense of the country at large. He's further disillusioned by the status of his old friend McQuaid, who has become a rich cattleman despite being of lower rank during the days of freedom-fighting, while Moran the former commander sees himself as more of a small farmer. Despite his considerable wealth he is very frugal to the point of being cheap - not because he is greedy, but because he sees money as his last source of power in society, the nest egg that keeps him from the shame of the poor-farm.

Moran feels set apart from society, and since he can't exert power there he focuses his energy on controlling his five children: Luke, the oldest, who flees the family home for a new life in London; three daughters - Maggie, Sheila and Mona - who worship their father despite his often cruel treatment of them; and Michael, the youngest, a carefree spirit who ultimately bears the brunt of Moran's frustration and wrath after the sisters have left to start their own lives. As the years go on he steadily withdraws from society and deeper into his household, making life more difficult for everyone involved, especially Rose, his saint of a wife who serves as a buffer between Moran's frequent fury and the children.

The daughters' esteem for Moran is somewhat troubling, for even as they develop lives of their own elsewhere, they run back to him at a moment's notice despite his cruelty. While he can be charming when the mood strikes him, his dark side is so dark that it negates most if not all of his better qualities. Still, Moran is a fascinating if often repellent character, a compelling protagonist that this involving book revolves around and makes for a very rewarding read.

March 20, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: The Minutemen vs. Red Red Meat

The Minutemen, "Corona"
Red Red Meat, "Gauze"

Though often referred to as a hardcore band, the Minutemen were musically so much more than that, throwing funk, classic rock and even folk into the mix. "Corona" is a great example, as it's practically hoedown music, with a brisk backbeat that I could easily imagine cowboys two-stepping to - and, yes, it's about that brand of beer. For the band the song is very straightforward, with none of the stop-and-start that so many of their other songs have. If you're never heard the Minutemen but the song sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it was used as the theme song for the old MTV show Jackass. A loveable gem (the song, that is, not Jackass).

After the major label feeding frenzy had mostly devoured Seattle after the Nirvana breakthrough, the music industry gazed longingly at other cities across the country, wondering which would be the next big "scene." In 1993 one of those cities was thought to be Chicago, which had plenty of buzz thanks to Smashing Pumpkins (Siamese Dream), Liz Phair (Exile in Guyville) and Urge Overkill (Saturation). After that inital surge began to wane, many held hope for a so-called "second wave" of Chicago bands to pick up the slack, one of which was this band, Red Red Meat. Ultimately, however, Chicago did not prove to be the next big thing (the Pumpkins stayed big, of course, but Phair and UO couldn't sustain their promise, and in retrospect probably too much was expected commercially of the second wave) and the industry's focus moved elsewhere. Which is a shame, because Red Red Meat put out some pretty solid (albeit not commercial) stuff back then. "Gauze" is languid and richly-textured, over five minutes long, with weary vocals that are evocative but mostly unintelligble (the only word I can pick out in the entire song is the first one, "medicated"), and impressive overall.

I like both songs quite a bit, but I'm going with the snappier "Corona."

Winner: The Minutemen, "Corona"

March 19, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

I guess I'm either happy, or not a hipster


The inaugural caption contest at Unhippy Hipsters has concluded but, alas, I failed to win. Here was my caption for the photo shown above:

Checking the manual for a third time, his worst fears were confirmed: the parts came only in orange, with none in brown, maroon or tangerine. With utter mortification he realized that his dream of color-coordinating the scooter with the area rug was forever ruined.

And here are the top finalists, as selected by the site:

Zen had come easily to him—sparse interior, shaved head, “rug-garden.” It was motorcycle maintenance he was having problems with. (Sebastian Biot)

He knew she would be happy that he had adhered to the “NO SHOES ON THE CARPET” policy. Finally, he was getting their relationship right. (Brilliant Anonymous)

She broke his heart and then his scooter. (Chad in Amman)

That he’d been volunteered to bring everyone’s luggage infuriated him, but right now, that was the least of his problems. (Dave)

Today was the day. The suitcases would stage the attack. They could no long take his fastidious refurbishment of vintage items he would never use. (A Dollop)

Though she’d taken most of the items of value, it would forever remain his color. (S’Mat)

He had been killing time for a year waiting for that tree to turn orange again. (Giacomo Cesana)

Although he was the only one involved in his embarrassing moped crash in the living room, he insisted both parties follow the correct insurance claim procedures. (Jan Moesen)

He had no intention of ever riding it, or even fixing it. But he decided from this moment forward, all visitors would enter to find him in exactly this position. (Steve Z.)

March 19, 2010 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Teenage Fanclub vs. R.E.M.

Teenage Fanclub, "Catholic Education"
R.E.M., "West of the Fields"

Any doubts about how random the iPod's shuffle play is can now be put to rest. Though I have only five Teenage Fanclub songs on there (out of more than a thousand), up comes this one. I've always admired this song for its propulsive, shambling, crisply-strummed instrumentation, though on further inspection the song is actually pretty slight, particularly the lyrics which consist entirely of "You wanna turn your back on everything/you wanna turn your back on everyone/well I try." The song predates the harmony-laden power pop that the band would become best known for, and which I strongly prefer to this song. (Also, it's curious that the iPod served up this song on the same day that Alex Chilton died, as his band Big Star was a huge influence on Teenage Fanclub.)

"West of the Fields" is the closer to R.E.M.'s full-length debut Murmur. Hearing it right after the sonic bluster of "Catholic Education" makes "West" seem pretty subdued, but it's actually rousing compared to the exquisite but fairly low-key songs that precede it on the album. Michael Stipe's lead vocals are in typical early-career form, imparting more emotion than actual discernable words, and I particularly love how he and Mike Mills alternate phrases in the chorus. A solid effort, though admittedly not among my favorites on this great album.

Had the Teenage Fanclub song been "Star Sign" this would have been much closer, but I can't go against R.E.M.

Winner: R.E.M. "West of the Fields"

March 18, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dead River

Leave it to the good folks at Atlas Obscura to find a local oddity I had never heard of: Dead River in Zion, which flows towards but usually never quite reaches Lake Michigan. Here's a satellite image from Google Maps, which indeed shows the river dead-ending at the beach. As Atlas Obscura mentions, the Chicago River was once the same way - an inconsequential current flowing out of inland marshes, before the dredging of the river's mouth at the lakefront made it permanently navigable.

March 18, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Alex Chilton

Farewell to an icon, and much too soon. In a saner and more tasteful world, children would have indeed sung by the millions for Chilton, as the Replacements once whimsically insisted. "September Gurls" will forever be one of my favorite tunes.

March 18, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tournament of Tunes: The Pogues vs. Sebadoh

The Pogues, "The Broad Majestic Shannon"
Sebadoh, "Got It"

Apparently my iPod knows exactly what day it is. It has to be more than just simple coincidence that the shuffle play served up "The Broad Majestic Shannon" on St. Patrick's Day. The song is the Pogues at their most traditional - highly conventional Irish folk with none of the band's trademark punk energy. It's spring, all is green, love is in the air, and the broken-toothed old lush Shane MacGowan sounds almost delicate and wistful. ("There's no pain, there's no more sorrow"? What's up with that?) The instrumentation is mannered, restrained, moderately paced. It's a very pretty song, one which would have served as a fitting finale to its album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, the band's finest. But true to the band's incorrigable spirit, it's actually second-to-last, with the finale being the morbid dirge "Worms." While I admire "Shannon", however, the song just doesn't quite give me the thrill of many of their bolder tunes. Despite my love for the Pogues, this contest will be much closer than you might expect.

"Got It" is genuine Sebadoh: lo-fi production, distorted guitar, propulsive rythym, world-weary lyrics. And from my favorite Sebadoh album, Bakesale, besides. A very strong competitor indeed. Coincidentally, this song was also the band's entry in the 2006 Tournament of Tunes, where it made the regional semi-finals before falling to the mighty Built to Spill.

"The Broad Majestic Shannon", while lovely, could have been similarly performed by any number of traditional Irish folk bands and simply lacks the thrilling grit that made the Pogues so unique. Meanwhile, the Sebadoh tune is true to that band's spirit. Though I never thought it possible to eliminate the Pogues on St. Patrick's Day, that's exactly what I'm doing, and going with "Got It."

Winner: Sebadoh, "Got It"

March 17, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Pavement vs. M. Ward

Pavement, "Perfume-V"
M. Ward, "So Much Water"

To anyone who knows anything about indie rock, Pavement needs no introduction. Nor does Slanted and Enchanted, the phenomenal album this song came from. But perhaps the song does need some elaboration, as it's not one I generally notice being cited when anyone mentions the album. Maybe because's it's located near the end of the album, maybe because the title doesn't seem to recur anywhere in the lyrics (I'm wondering if this sort of condition lowers a song's visibility for listeners, requiring fans to say "You know, the song with _____"), maybe because there's no obvious chorus. Whatever, this is a hell of a song, just over two minutes of buzzing guitars, dual vocals and typically opaque lyrics. As many times as I've heard this song, the only line I can cite from memory is "she's got the radio on/too bad it makes me feel okay/I don't feel okay" which should give you some idea just how opaque those lyrics are. And yet I love it. Slanted and Enchanted is one of those inexplicable works of art that nearly defies description, as does this particular song. You just have to listen.

M. Ward is a bit easier to explain. "So Much Water" is from his second album, End of Amnesia, all of which sounds like a modern-day updating of old-time mountain music from a craggy old codger. Except that Ward is a younger guy, possibly a hipster (I don't know if his trucker caps are worn ironically or not), who plays exquisite acoustic guitar and sings in a warm hush of a voice. "So Much Water" is one of the better songs on this fine album, full of reflection and regret (the full line that goes with the title is "...under the bridge") and of course that great guitar.

Ward's song is lovely, but it just doesn't have the elusive mystery and instrumental rush that "Perfume-V" does. Pavement it is.

Winner: Pavement, "Perfume-V"

March 16, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Big Dipper vs. Dumptruck


Big Dipper, "The Beast"
Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"

Big Dipper is a late arrival to my record collection. For years all I knew of them was "He Is God" from the old Homestead Records compilation Human Music (a great disc that's really worth hunting down) and "Mr. Woods" as covered by the Gigolo Aunts on the Safe and Sound benefit compilation. Then after reading raves about the band's recent post-mortem anthology Supercluster and hearing a handful of intriguing tracks on the band's MySpace page, I finagled getting the anthology for Christmas the year before last. And am I ever glad I did. This is one of those great bands that inexplicably missed the limelight they deserved - big hooks, catchy lyrics, impossibly high energy level. Why they weren't as big as their Boston comtemporaries the Pixies, I'll never figure out. Anyway, Supercluster collects their first EP, their first two LPs and their final unreleased album Very Loud Array, which was ash-canned by the major label they unfortunately associated themselves with. (The anthology excludes their sole major-label release.) "The Beast" is one of the Array tracks, and has a nice crunchy guitar riff and the band's usual amount of infectious energy, but unfortunately isn't one of their better lyrical efforts. I'm not the biggest fan of songs that overemphasize the chorus at the expense of verses, which is what happened here - each chorus is simply the line "the beast shall come from the inside" repeated four times, and the chorus is sung three times. I would have rather heard more about the odd and likely warped romance that's taking place in a cabin in the woods that is described in the two verses, and less of the chorus.

"Autumn Light" is a typically moody and despondent tune by Dumptruck, from one of my all-time favorite albums, Positively. "Where am I to go now?" the singer asks, over and over, of his spurning lover but when he asks "How can you abandon everything that you've begun?" (one of those things presumably being the singer himself) it's not entirely clear if he's intent on moving beyond this impasse and getting on with his life, or if he'll instead wallow in pity. The music here is very effective - like many Dumptruck songs, it has that sweet-and-sour combination of bright instrumentation and dour subject matter, with a nice interplay of lead guitars.

Big Dipper was a great band and I'd love to advance them further here, but this song isn't one of my favorites of theirs. And certainly lesser than Dumptruck's. "Autumn Light" moves onward. (My apologies to Gary Waleik, who was kind enough to leave a thoughtful comment last time but whose band has now been twice bounced out of my tournament in the first round. Don't blame me - blame my iPod for not shuffling up "Younger Bums" or "All Going Out Together.")

Winner: Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"

March 15, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

2010 Tournament of Tunes

Four years ago I ran my first Tournament of Tunes, a single-elimination competition between 64 songs, each by a different band. Each weekday morning I let my iPod shuffle-play two songs which would be the matchup for the day. There was little objectivity to any of my decisions - most of the time I just went with my gut and my heart, and on many occasions an objectively superior song would lose out to an opposing song which I might have had a long fondness for or had special meaning in my life. In the end, Ted Leo's stellar "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" topped Camper Van Beethoven's beloved "Sweethearts" to win the tournament.

All in all, it was a fun exercise that really made me think about songs in depth and why music means so much to me. On the downside, however, was the sheer size and duration of the tournament - 64 songs meant that for the finalists I would have to come up with new commentary on six different occasions, and often I found myself at a loss for fresh insight. Also, I let it drag out over six months, which was far too long to sustain its early momentum.

So I've decided to do another Tournament of Tunes, albeit in an abbreviated format - 16 songs. Otherwise the structure will be the same as last time, with the championship match coming sometime during the first week of April, or roughly the same time as the the NCAA tournament concludes. Ready? Alright then, let's move ahead to the first match, between two gone-but-not-forgotten Boston bands, Big Dipper and Dumptruck.

March 15, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)


Progress in public education, at last?
The Obama administration on Saturday called for a broad overhaul of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, proposing to reshape divisive provisions that encouraged instructors to teach to tests, narrowed the curriculum, and labeled one in three American schools as failing.
Though NCLB did institute much-needed standards for holding educators accountable for student performance, I've always been concerned about its emphasis on standardized testing and narrow curriculum. Seems like we've been moving dangerously close to our students becoming mere test-takers instead of true learners, which I'm hoping Obama's proposal will correct.

March 15, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the writer could live many lives and all of life..."

I just started reading John McGahern's novel Amongst Women, and in my used copy of the book I was pleased to find a newspaper clipping of USA Today's 2006 review of McGahern's memoir All Will Be Well. (Apparently left there by the book's former owner - one of those pleasant surprises of owning physical books that you'll never get from a Kindle.) I was struck by this quoted passage, in which McGahern describes how, as a career-seeking youth, he first considered writing.
Why, he asked himself, "take on any single life - a priest, a soldier, teacher, doctor, airman - if a writer could create all these people more vividly? In that one life of the mind, the writer could live many lives and all of life. I had not even the vaguest idea how books came into being, but the dream took hold, and held."
I really like that - the writer being able to inhabit a multitude of lives, so much different from his own.

March 10, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

William Trevor, Fools of Fortune

Fools of Fortune is yet another lovely novel by William Trevor, one which addresses his familiar theme of a sudden, violent act which reverberates through the decades, affecting the survivors in various ways but leaving them all quite changed people. In this sense it reminded me of Trevor's excellent The Story of Lucy Gault, although in that novel the title protagonist is changed for the better, developing deep empathy for her social lessers and reaching out to those in need, while Fools of Fortune's protagonist Willie Quinton instead withdraws into exile which is both physical and emotional.

The story is told against the vivid backdrop of the Troubles, as Ireland struggles for independence from England. The Quintons are somewhat of an anomoly, Anglo-Irish gentry who don't quite fit on either side of the conflict - to the Irish partisans they're emblematic of the hated English monarchy (in fact, several Quinton wives through the centuries come from the same aristocratic Dorset family), but to the English they are the enemy, given their sympathies for the Irish republican cause. The family suffers horribly from a murderous act by a band of English soldiers which remains unrevenged by the family's Irish neighbors, and this non-revenge drives the already grief-stricken matriarch (Willie's mother) into even deeper despair as she believes her family has been shunned by Irish society. (This perceived distance is heightened even further by the fact that the Quintons are Protestant, versus the newly-ascendent Catholic majority which comes into power.) Willie, ravaged by guilt, later finds himself compelled to enact the revenge on his own, from which he sees exile as the only viable outcome.

Fools of Fortune is a beautifully written and masterfully told novel from one of my favorite writers.

March 8, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Montgomery Clift's "hold on the popular imagination"?

A NYT preview of a Montgomery Clift film retrospective makes a rather curious claim.
The title of a two-week BAMcinématek series that starts Thursday — THAT’S MONTGOMERY CLIFT, HONEY! — is an indicator of Clift’s hold on the popular imagination: it’s taken from the refrain of the Clash song “The Right Profile,” released on “London Calling” in 1979, 13 years after his death. (“And everybody say, ‘He sure look funny’/That’s Montgomery Clift, honey.”)
A 31-year old Clash song about Clift is pretty weak evidence of the actor's supposed current popularity and cultural relevance. It's even more dubious with a cursory examination of the song's lyrics - naturally, Joe Strummer's fanboy narrator can rattle off all of Clift's films, but the narrator also has to remind his companion exactly who Clift is (or was). So even back in 1979 Clift was no longer a household word, his popularity long since faded. And that much more so in 2010.

March 8, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Moonbeam Returns

Jerry Brown's announcement this week that he is running for governor of California has prompted this fine NYT piece on where his "Governor Moonbeam" nickname first came from: Chicago's own Mike Royko. As a longtime Royko fan, I've always been aware of the nickname (in fact, I can't think of Brown without "Moonbeam" coming to mind) but didn't realize that Royko later distanced himself from it.
“I have to admit I gave him that unhappy label,” Mr. Royko wrote. “Because the more I see of Brown, the more I am convinced that he has been the only Democrat in this year’s politics who understands what this country will be up against.”
What the country would be up against was four years (and ultimately eight) of Ronald Reagan, a prospect which in retrospect we all should have been much more wary of.

March 7, 2010 in Chicago Observations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness."
- Desmond Tutu

March 7, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy Birthday, Chicago!


A very happy 173rd to Chicago, which was incorporated as a city on this day in 1837. Chicago History Journal has some interesting insights on the city's earliest days, including this surprising response to its request for its very first loan:
State Bank Of Illinois, Springfield, May 31, 1837. Peter Bolles, Esq.,

Dear Sir: Your letter of the 18th, addressed to the president of this bank and proposing on behalf of the city of Chicago a loan from this bank of the sum of $25,000, has been laid before the directors of the bank, and, I regret to have to state, declined. I am very respectfully, your ob't serv't,

A. H. Ridgely, Cashier.

Re-JEC-ted! Fortunately, or unfortunately, the city has had absolutely no problem going into debt ever since.

(Image: Saloon Building at Clark and Lake Streets, which housed the first City Hall.)

March 4, 2010 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)



Nice piece here on Joliet local favorite Chicken-N-Spice.
It was hard not to panic back in the 1980s when many businesses were pulling out of downtown, Pat Reimer said.

"To look across the street and see everything boarded up was just scary," she said.

In 1979, Reimer and her husband, Ken, had taken a chance on opening a restaurant, Chicken-N-Spice, in a building at 251 N. Chicago St. that had originally housed a Jack in the Box and then a Popeyes. Then they watched as most of the retail stores and car dealerships left downtown.

"All of these things provided customers," she said of the fleeing businesses. "You can't help but have that sense of fear."

Great food, obviously good people. Downtown Joliet could use a lot more committed entrepreneurs like the Reimers. They have kept it simple (Chicken-N-Spice is totally a no-frills kind of place; the seating appears to be unchanged from its Popeye's/Jack In The Box days) and stuck with what they do best. Though Will County's growth has boosted the number of workers downtown (Joliet is the county seat) businesses continue to struggle there and vacant retail space remains a problem.

(Photo by John Patsch, Joliet Herald-News.)

March 3, 2010 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two views of Craigville, Minnesota



This is fascinating - two very different barroom scenes, taken from the same perspective, in the same town (Craigville, MN), by the same photographer (Russell Lee), during the same month (September 1937). Judging by the architectural details of the two rooms, they appear to be separate establishments. The mood of each photograph couldn't be more different - the jovial, boisterous group scene of the first (in fact, part of that image was used in the opening credits of the TV show Cheers) versus the lonely, desperate tone of the second, whose emotional desolation is leavened only by the odd presence of the kitten.

Seeing that first photo today made me scramble to find the second, which I was already familiar with - in fact, it was the inspiration and basis for my short story "Deep in the Northwoods" which appeared in Wheelhouse Magazine in 2007. When I first saw that photo I was so struck by the sadness of the scene that I tried to imagine how it had come about, and where it would lead, with that story being the end result. (Had I had come across the first photo instead, I doubt that I would have been inspired to write a story about it.) The story is part of my chapbook This Land Was Made for You and Me which I've been unsuccessfully shopping around to numerous publishers.

March 1, 2010 in Fiction, Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

Gabe Durham, The Complete Genealogy of Everyone, Ever

I recently read, and greatly enjoyed, Gabe Durham's story chapbook The Complete Genealogy of Everyone, Ever. Durham writes in an easy, whimsical and very funny style, with protagonists who are just barely this side of loserdom but still inspire empathy in the reader. I found myself pulling for each one of them, even while fully aware that their lives will all fall just a bit short of the mark. Durham still has a few copies of his self-published chapbook available, so if you're interested in purchasing feel free to contact him at his website. I'm sure you'll be glad you did. I'm looking forward to reading much more of his writing which, based on item #5 in this interview at The Collagist, there should be plenty forthcoming.

March 1, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Irish March

Longtime readers of this space may recall that every March I read nothing but Irish fiction. This year I got an early start on Irish March, cracking open William Trevor's Fools of Fortune early this past Saturday morning. I've owned the book for several years after Julie picked it up for me in a used bookstore in Chicago, but I'm only just now diving in. Trevor is in typically marvelous form, quickly immersing me into Anglo-Irish gentry life during the time of the Troubles. Interestingly, despite their wealth and partially English heritage, the Quintons are sympathetic to the republican cause, which quite tragically does them no favors with the royalists.

In the past Irish March has been an admittedly mixed bag. So far I've tackled James Joyce's Dubliners (very good) and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (very maddening), with my frustrations over the latter negating any possible desire to read Ulysses. I've thoroughly enjoyed Trevor's Death in Summer (though I must admit I remember almost none of the plot), John McGahern's debut The Barracks (which is prodding me to read his acclaimed Amongst Women this year) and a re-reading of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, which was every bit as wonderful as when I first read it during high school. At the other end of the scale, considerably less enjoyable have been Patrick McCabe's Winterwood (interesting premise, but poorly executed) and Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (whose hype will forever puzzle me).

Both the Trevor and McGahern books are fairly short, so even with my typically slow reading pace I think I'll be able to fit in a third title this year. Any suggestions you might have are greatly welcomed - my only requirements are that the author be ethnically Irish and the book either be set in Ireland or be dominated by Irish characters.

March 1, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)