June 21, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s a Father’s Day scene. Harrison Street park, Sunday afternoon. The father is a bearded oldster, the son is wearing a New York Rangers sweatshirt. As the camera zooms in we see the two peering through a fence at the houses on Patton Avenue, looking for the duplex where the son spent his first three years of life back in the day when they would stroller up Harrison to play in the sandbox and the slide, both long gone.

“There it is!” they say at the same time, looking through foliage at the only house in sight that has a third floor, a garret where the father wrote novels and rocked the son to sleep to music ranging from Bollywood soundtracks (Sangam and Gumnam) to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, whose 1970 LP Sunflower offered the best bedtime lullabies.

Now they’re on the swings, side by side — the son swinging high, the father slowly, musingly, his thoughts swinging between novelist Cormac McCarthy, who died last week, and singer/songwriter Ray Davies, whose birthday is June 21, the day Town Topics will hit the driveways on Harrison and Patton and all over town. Ray has long been a family favorite, while McCarthy is the author of The Road, one of the most harrowing and brilliant father-son adventures ever written.

After the swings, they sit at a picnic table talking about sports, the son lamenting the end of the NHL season while the father wonders if his Cardinals can hold an early 2-0 lead over the Mets. Later that night the son tells the father the crazy dream he had about going to a Rangers-Islanders game at Madison Square Garden where there was a fight on the ice that ended with players from both teams singing “Beach Baby” by the First Class (“Beach baby beach baby give me your hand….”) and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” with everyone in the building joining in. The dream ended with an affordable housing demonstration that resulted in the son’s finally moving into his own apartment.  more

June 14, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

When I paint smoke, I want you to be able to drive a nail into it.

—Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), from Life With Picasso

When Pablo Picasso died 50 Aprils ago, Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Picasso’s Last Words,” a tribute to the “grand old painter,” the chorus based on what were purportedly his last words: “Drink to me, drink to my health / You know I can’t drink any more.” However, TIME (April 23, 1973) claims he went on to say, “And now I must go back to work,” which he did, painting until 3 a.m. After suffering a heart attack in his sleep, he died at 11:40 a.m.

Orange Skies

The week of orange skies from Canadian forest fires coincided with the June 6 death of artist Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), whose 1964 memoir Life With Picasso (New York Review Classics 2019) “is crucial” to an understanding of him, according to his biographer John Richardson. A June 6, 2019 NJPR piece by Lily Meyer calls it “an invaluable work of art history and a revealing precursor to the literature of #MeToo.”  more

June 7, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Midway through actor Brian Cox’s memoir Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (Grand Central $29), someone asks if he ever thought of playing Donald Trump. After a quick emphatic “No” (“It’s such a bad script”), he explains why he prefers playing Logan Roy, the profane patriarch in HBO’s hit series Succession, which just completed its fourth and final season. “Roy is more interesting because he’s a darker character … He does villainous things but he’s not really a villain. And another thing that interests me about him is that we have this in common: we’re both disappointed in how the human experiment has turned out.”

Cox returns to the same theme in the book’s final chapter, admitting that sometimes “it can be distressingly easy to put on my Logan Roy skin” because besides being about wealth and entitlement, Succession is “about displacement,” about how Logan is “classically displaced, taken from his childhood home when he was very young.” At this point, Cox makes it clear that he’s talking about himself: “I know somebody else who feels displaced, who left Scotland at a young age. Somebody who feels a certain disgust with the rest of the human race, who feels that humanity is a failed experiment.”

Why This Image?

The feeling of displacement Cox mentions may offer a clue to the photograph he picked for the cover of his memoir. Celebrity book jackets generally accentuate the positive. This unguarded image makes you curious about the author’s choice and how it might relate to the show that made him famous. Given Cox’s personal triumph in Succession, his woebegone expression is striking when contrasted to the interior photo of him as Logan Roy, where he looks every bit the confident, all-powerful ruler of a media empire who would have nothing but contempt for an actor who seems to be barely containing a world of sorrow. And although Cox’s narrative is marked by slights, losses, tragedies, failures, absurdities, embarrassing accidents, missed opportunities, and disappointments, it’s also enlivened by humorous turns of phrase and  numerous amusing incidents. more

May 31, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Walt Whitman is America.

—Ezra Pound

I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.

  —Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Walt Whitman was as good as the best when nursing and “being there” for wounded and dying soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. On May 31, 1865, his 46th birthday (today is his 204th), he sat beside a 21-year-old rebel soldier, “who lies a good deal of the time in a partial sleep, but with low muttering and groans — a sleep in which there is no rest. Powerful as he is, and so young, he will not be able to stand many more days of the strain and sapping heat of yesterday and to-day. His throat is in a bad way, tongue and lips parch’d. When I ask him how he feels, he is able just to articulate, ‘I feel pretty bad yet, old man,’ and looks at me with his great bright eyes.”

Whitman expands on what he means by “the worst” in Democratic Vistas (1871), where he finds “the problem of the future of America is in certain respects as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious wilfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us….Flaunt it as we choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress, loom huge uncertainty, and dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it. Democracy grows rankly up the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all — brings worse and worse invaders …. We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices — all so dark, untried — and whither shall we turn?” more

May 24, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I was born in the spring of 1941. The Second World War was already raging in Europe, and America would soon be in it.

—Bob Dylan, from Chronicles

Bob Dylan will turn 82 today (Wednesday, May 24, 2023). This week I’ve been listening to tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who was born 100 years ago February 27, and singer songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who died at 84 on May 1. Incidental music is provided by John Donne (1571/2-1631).

A Tortured Torch Song

Released a year after his death in 1990, Dexter Gordon’s Blue Note album Ballads features standards like “Willow Weep for Me” and “Darn That Dream.” The track that I’ve been fixated on, however, is the relatively little known “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” a tortured torch song with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and music by Jule Styne. Composed for Glad To See You, a musical that folded before reaching Broadway, the tune dates from 1944, when America was three years into the war.

Although I’ve been listening to “Tears” on my copy of Gordon’s 1962 Blue Note album Go, the cover of Ballads is shown here because of Herman Leonard’s justly famous photograph, taken in 1948 when Dexter was 25. Much to my surprise, I found that this seemingly obscure song has been recorded by at least 25 artists, including Frank Sinatra, who sings the line “When I want rain, I get sunny weather” with almost operatic bravura. A big man with a big sound, Gordon produces a work of searing, cry-in-the-night intensity, blowing through the passages that singers have to deal with (“Dry little tear drops, my little tear drops hanging on a stream of dreams”). Still, it’s obvious that Gordon knows and feels the words. The power of his playing makes something strange and wonderful out of this piece of musical comedy make-believe. According to the Dexter Gordon chapter of Gary Giddins and Scott DeVaux’s invaluable book Jazz (W.W. Norton 2009), “Before performing a ballad, he would often quote the tune’s lyrics, as if inviting his listeners to take part in the deeper world of the song.”  more

May 17, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it.

—Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) on Piano Concerto No. 3

Because Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, NPR.org ran a 2016 April Fool’s jeu d’esprit on the composer’s “secret career” as a “performer of amazing feats of strength” in various English music halls. The most amusingly convincing of three doctored photographs of “Rock Mannenough” shows him riding a bicycle carrying three leggy, scantily clad females, one with her thighs locked around his neck, the other two hanging on either side waving to the crowd. The composer’s deadpan face has been photoshopped onto the bike rider’s body.

The painting on the cover of Max Harrison’s book Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings (Continuum 2006) reminds me of poker-faced Hoagy Carmichael, composer of “Stardust” and “Georgia On my Mind.” Although he’s in shirt and tie, Rachmaninoff looks a long way from the concert hall. He could be playing in a bar or a nightclub or at home. Put a trench coat and a fedora on him, give him a gun, and he’s a Russian Bogart with the existential charisma of Albert Camus.

Smiling with Rach 3

My guess is that one of the rare times Rachmaninoff smiled a full all-out smile was upon finishing the Piano Concerto No. 3, or Rach 3, a fiendishly difficult piece. According to Steinway-Piano.com, Rachmaninoff had been told by violinist Fritz Kreisler that “some young Russian” plays No. 3 “like nothing I ever heard, and you have to meet him.” Soon Vladimir Horowitz and Rachmaninoff got together at Steinway Hall, where the composer played the orchestra part on one piano while Horowitz played the solo part on the other. Rachmaninoff was amazed: “He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness.”

 more

May 10, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Musically, it was like the notes had always been part of my nature, the composer’s expressions mirroring the ebb and flow of my own emotions.

—Hélène Grimaud on Brahms

Sunday, May 7, 2023, began online as Google marked Johannes Brahms’s 190th birthday with a series of “doodles” depicting young handsome Brahms and old bearded Brahms at the keyboard. The smooth male voice delivering the minute and a half commentary sounded almost human until the robot referred to Brahms’s Piano Concerto “No” One in D Minor and Symphony “No” One in C Minor. All it took was the pothole of a period after “No” to make the number a negative, and if Harry Nilsson’s right that “one is the loneliest number you’ll ever do,” we’ve got the makings of an A.I. haiku.

Unlovely Angel

Brahms and His World (Princeton University Press 2009) includes a sketch of the “beautiful youth” who dazzled Robert and Clara Schumann with his pianistic and compositional genius one autumn morning in 1853. As drawn by J.B. Laurens, the angelic profile is hard to match with a friend’s word-picture of the young composer’s “unlovely appearance” at the keyboard: his “short, square figure, the almost straw blond hair, the jutting lower lip that lent the beardless youth a slightly sarcastic expression.” His “entire aspect,” however, was “permeated by strength: the broad lionlike chest, the Herculean shoulders, the mighty head at times tossed back energetically while playing.” more

May 3, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

The human face is a terrible place,
Choose your own examples….

—Keith Reid, from “Your Own Choice”

I picked up Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore at the Princeton Public Library after dropping off his novel Norwegian Wood. Around 30 pages into Kafka, the 15-year-old runaway who chooses to call himself Kafka Tamura talks about how he’s lived in libraries ever since he was a kid: “Think about it — a little kid who doesn’t want to go home doesn’t have many places he can go. Coffee shops and movie theaters are off-limits. That leaves only libraries, and they’re perfect — no entrance fee, nobody getting all hot and bothered if a kid comes in. You just sit down and read whatever you want.” Eventually  he moves on from children’s books to the general stacks. And when he needs a break from reading, he goes to the library collection of CDs which is how he got to know about “Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.”

Sounds like a typically welcoming library, not unlike Princeton’s “community living room,” just as Tamura sounds like an interesting kid who might well grow up to be Haruki Murakami — except maybe for the name he’s chosen to go by when he’s on the road. The obvious assumption is that he’s named himself after the novelist Franz Kafka, which immediately puts a somewhat surreal spin on his typical-kidness. Only when the novel is moving toward one of its variety of endings does he tell Miss Saeki, the beautiful 50-something head librarian at the Komora Memorial Library in Takamatsu, that he gave himself the name because “kafka” means “crow” in Czech, and his alter ego is a boy named Crow. In fact, the title of the first chapter is “A Boy Named Crow.”

At this point, I should admit that my wife loved — I mean really loved — Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Until, that is, an ending she thinks he couldn’t find his way out of, trapped in the wonderland of his creation. In Patti Smith’s memoir M Train, she’s so enthralled by the book that she doesn’t wish to “exit its atmosphere.” Among features she mentions is the search for a lost cat, and as readers like my wife and I who both love M Train know, Smith ends up searching for her copy of Murakami’s book.  more

April 26, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I sat me down to write a simple story which maybe in the end became a song

—Keith Reid (1946-2023), from “Pilgrim’s Progress”

The first “simple story” Keith Reid gave to the world took some strange and wonderful turns. According to Beyond the Pale, Procol Harum’s rich, many-leveled website, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has inspired as many as a thousand known cover versions while becoming, says the BBC, “the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK.”

And it all began when Keith Reid mailed the lyrics to singer/pianist Gary Brooker in an envelope addressed simply “Gary, 15 Fairfield Road, Eastwood, Essex” and postmarked South Lambeth. You can see the very envelope on the website, along with a photo of the Burmese Brown cat for whom the group was named.

Introduced by Scorsese

The song that has fascinated generations since it was released in the UK as a single on May 12, 1967 is not by any means Reid’s most impressive accomplishment. In his foreword to Henry Scott-Irvine’s group biography Procol Harum: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade of Pale (Omnibus Press 2012), Martin Scorsese points out that the band “drew from so many deep wells – classical music, 19th Century literature, Rhythm and Blues, seaman’s logs, concertist poetry,” each tune becoming “a cross-cultural whirligig, a road trip through the pop subconscious.”  more

April 19, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m lost amidst a sea of wheat
where people speak but seldom meet

—Keith Reid (1946-2023)

Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation (Knopf 2022) comes with a blurb from Patti Smith, who compares readers waiting for the novelist’s latest work to past generations lining up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. As it happens, the Beatles are at the heart of Murakami’s chapter “On Originality” where he recalls a boyhood moment sitting in front of his “little transistor radio” listening to them for the first time (“Please Please Me”), thinking, “This is fantastic! I’ve never heard anything like this!”  It was as if “air of a kind I have never breathed before is pouring in, I feel a sense of profound well-being, a natural high. Liberated from the constraints of reality, it’s as if my feet have left the ground. This to me is how ‘originality’ should feel: pure and simple.” more

April 12, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is a wild polyphony

—Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) 

During the media’s recent “wild polyphony” on a theme of indictment, I tried a “Brahms/indictment” search online just for fun and came up with Maurice Brahms, founding owner of a discotheque called Infinity, which had a 100-foot-long dance floor surrounded by mirrors, colored neon rings, 54 spinning laser beams, and 70 neon sculptures. Once known as “the uncrowned king of New York night life,” Brahms was the subject of a 1980 federal grand jury investigation into possible tax fraud. So while a terminally fraudulent ex-president was being indicted and arraigned in a New York courtroom, I learned that Brahms had retained Donald Trump’s favorite fixer Roy Cohn, who also represented the owners of Studio 54, a target of the same investigation. Warned by Cohn through an intermediary that his family would be harmed if he fought the sentence, Brahms pled guilty and served two and a half years at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary.

I could have rolled the Google dice and come up with any number of professions for an American Brahms, in and out of the music business, but given the ongoing interest in Trump’s and the country’s current plight, it was worth the search to know that the great composer’s namesake was a player in New York’s 1970s club scene. It’s also worth adding that in his late teens Maurice’s son Eric promoted events at Manhattan nightclubs featuring, among a polyphony of other performers, Run DMC, LL Cool J, 2 Live Crew, Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince, and Fat Joe. more

April 5, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Rachmaninoff is for teenagers. Brahms is for adults!” I overheard this brook-no-dissent proclamation at Princeton’s Cafe Vienna a year before the pandemic shut it down. The speaker was at a nearby table and judging by snatches of conversation coming from his vicinity, he had clout, he knew his stuff, and what he said seemed to make sense at the time.

So began, or begins, this piece on Johannes Brahms, who died on April 3, 1897, 136 years ago Monday, and who was born on May 7, 1833, which makes 2023 his 190th year. I say “began” for “begins” because the first thing I saw yesterday morning when I sat down to breakfast was this headline on the first page of the New York Times’ arts section: “At 150, Rachmaninoff Still Hasn’t Lost His Step.” The opening paragraphs of Joshua Barone’s article mention the composer’s immense popularity, although his reputation has been that of “a sentimentalist and nostalgic who was guilty, worst of all, of being an outlier in classical music’s embrace of modernism.”

So there it is: Rachmaninoff for teenagers, like Classical Music for Dummies. It’s true, one of the few classical records among my mid-teen Basies and Sinatras was Van Cliburn’s best-selling recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. A few years later when I was in college and by then in my late teens, a member in good standing of the Columbia Record Club, the only works by Brahms or any other composer I knew were symphonies and concertos. Solo piano pieces, string quartets and such were waiting for the middle-aged father who discovered Franz Schubert in a children’s book shared with his 2-year-old son. more

March 29, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

…when we read a book, it is as if we were with a person.

—W.H. Auden

You could say that I met Helen DeWitt, the person, in the prologue to her novel The Last Samurai (New Directions 2016), having read the introduction to the first edition (Miramax/Talk Books 2000), which is included in the reprint. After being alerted to it by a friend, my wife introduced me to The Last Samurai, which I’d have read even without her recommendation had I seen a September 2022 interview with Helen DeWitt on exberliner.com. There she recalls watching her ex-husband argue with a fellow academic at Oxford about Sergio Leone, whose films For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly became a passion for me at a time when most “serious” film people were dismissing the director as a maker of Spaghetti Westerns. After going to a video store and renting “all these Leone films,” DeWitt, who before that had “hated any Clint Eastwood movie” or “any movies where people got beaten up or killed,” suddenly had a revelation — “that moment where something I’d started out hating suddenly had me saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is absolutely amazing.’ ” Which is what my wife and I said to each other after our first experience of Leone. The ex-husband, Professor David Levene, introduced DeWitt “to all these different things — Leone, Kurosawa, bridge and poker …. Suddenly all of this was amazingly interesting.”

Readers of The Last Samurai will appreciate the connection to Akira Kurosawa, whose film Seven Samurai not only inspired Leone’s Man With No Name westerns, but is as central to DeWitt’s novel as the Odyssey is to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Besides providing a skeleton key to the book, Kurosawa’s film becomes a life text with a profound impact on Sibylla, the single mother who narrates the first 180 pages of the novel, and her polymath young son Ludo, who takes over the bulk of the narration later. more

March 22, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

At the 2009 Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, I found a book on a cart marked “Declined by Collector’s Corner,” the room where the rarest volumes are displayed. Given the event’s stated purpose (funding student scholarships) and timing (March being Women’s History Month), Hart’s Class Book of Poetry (1845) seemed worth a closer look. Compiled by John S. Hart, principal of the Philadelphia High School, the time-worn little anthology had a name and date written in brown ink on the title page (Lizzie Shipp, June 18, 1858) and under that, the words school almost out.

I bought the book not because it had been marked down to a dollar, nor because it was appropriate to the purpose of the sale or the national occasion; it was the specificity of time and place matched with the owner’s name. If it had been Elizabeth Shipp, I might have left this foundling on the reject cart, except that this was an anthology of selections from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Wordsworth and Coleridge that belonged to a school girl who signed herself Lizzie, a name that for me still sings with the immediacy of the moment. I can almost hear the cries of “Lizzie! Lizzie!” echoing down the hallways and out on the schoolyard. But there’s another, later date at the bottom of the title page: “June 21st 1861 examination next week.” Apparently Lizzie had lived with the book for three years, the Civil War was looming, and now here she is in the 21st century on the magic carpet of this weathered volume, denied a place in Collector’s Corner, like one of the “homeless poets of Bryn Mawr” I wrote about in my first piece on the sale in March 2004.  more

March 15, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Brutus is Shakespeare’s first intellectual, and the enigmas of his nature are multiform.

—Harold Bloom

Since Bill Nighy’s Oscar-nominated performance in Living is fresh in my mind, I’m beginning with him instead of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated on this day, the Ides of March, 44 BC. Nighy’s one of those actors who is always worth watching and listening to, like James Mason, whose only Best Actor nomination was for his role in A Star Is Born (1955), two years after he played Brutus in MGM’s Julius Caesar. Close your eyes and listen and these are two of the rare actors in film you can hear, so distinctive are their voices and ways of speaking. And in Living, Nighy sings! The film would be worth seeing if only for the moment the terminally ill character he plays comes to life singing the Scottish folk song, “The Rowan Tree.”  more

March 8, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Don’t assume that everyone on earth has seen every movie you have seen.

—John McPhee

Now and then A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984) offers an entry that demands repeating, like the one for March 8: “1931: John McPhee (Giving Good Weight) is born in Princeton, N.J.”

Which follows a remark from journalist, novelist, and biographer Gene Fowler (March 8, 1890): “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Which is followed by the news that on March 8, 1935, Thomas Wolfe’s second novel Of Time and the River “was published to great acclaim” and that on March 8, 1941, the novelist Sherwood Anderson “ingested a toothpick with an hors d’oeuvre at a cocktail party” and died of “complications of peritonitus.” more

March 1, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

He is the most daring and the proudest poetic spirit of his time.

—Robert Schumann on Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in everything he ever wrote.

—Alfred Tennyson on John Keats (1795-1821)

At this time last year I was matching the power and poignance of Chopin’s music with television images of  Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, mothers and children fleeing to Poland, gazing out from rain-streaked train windows. For the past week, I’ve been listening again to Chopin while reading Princeton Professor Susan Wolfson’s A Greeting of the Spirit: Selected Poetry of John Keats (Harvard University Press $35). So, no surprise, I’ve been finding Chopin in Keats and Keats in Chopin.

On Chopin’s seventh birthday, March 1, 1817, Keats published his first book, Poems, which contained “To Kosciusko,” a sonnet celebrating the leader of Poland’s 1794 rebellion against Prussian and Russian rule. It’s possible that one of Chopin’s British acquaintances called the poem to his attention during the U.K. visits of 1837 and 1848. Chopin played the last concert of his life on November 16, 1848, at the Guildhall in London, a benefit for Polish refugees (“my compatriots”). He died a year later in Paris. more

February 22, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Why end the last column in February with Carson McCullers, who had the audacity to call her first novel, written when she had barely come of age, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? True, last Sunday was her 116th birthday. But consider the subjects usually associated with this month  — Valentine’s Day; Black History Month; the birth of James Joyce, whose Leopold Bloom “mutely craves to adore”; the death of John Keats, who “always made an awkward bow.” What about the presidents? McCullers’s magnificent title would surely have had resonance for Lincoln, who once said of Anne Rutledge, “My heart is buried in the grave with that dear girl.” And for Washington, born on this date in 1732? According to the Library of Congress (“Presidents as Poets”), of the two love poems he wrote in his teens, one begins, “Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart / Stand to oppose thy might and Power” and ends “That in an enraptured Dream I may / In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose / Possess those joys denied by Day.”

“White and Black Humanity”

After making Black history with the publication of his novel Native Son (1940), Richard Wright reviewed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in the August 5, 1940 New Republic. It’s a stunning notice wherein he celebrates “the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Should Wright’s reference to “the first time in Southern fiction” bring to mind characters like Dilsey in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), Wright mentions a “quality of despair” in McCullers that he finds “more natural and authentic” than the same quality in Faulkner. He also credits her for creating  characters who “live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of.” As for Ernest Hemingway, Wright praises McCullers for describing “incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway’s terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison.”

Wright’s eloquent appreciation, with its reference to “the violent colors of the life” depicted with “a sheen of weird tenderness,” looms above the general acclaim that greeted The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. As if he understood the potential for misreading and mischaracterizing an unknown young author’s first work, Wright closes with an advisory: “Whether you will want to read the book depends upon the extent to which you value the experience of discovering the stale and familiar terms of everyday life bathed in a rich and strange meaning, devoid of pettiness and sentimentality.” more

February 15, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Watching the HBO series The Last of Us, viewers saw computer generated images of a devastated Boston. Last Sunday night it was the shell of Kansas City. So it goes in February 2023, with ruined cities and a fungus-among-us plague conceived during a real world pandemic that killed millions, and now an earthquake with a death toll rising to 37,000 and counting has struck northwestern Syria and southeastern Turkey, where Antakya, formerly Antioch, was among the stricken cities.

According to Friday’s New York Times (“ ‘No More Antakya’: Turks Say Quake Wiped Out a City, and a Civilization”), Antioch was founded in 300 B.C., the modern city “built atop layers and layers of the ruins of long-gone civilizations.” Which inadvertently echoes Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” where “All things fall apart and are built again.” Meanwhile I’m rebuilding a memory that begins in the back of a pickup truck with a Turkish kid from the Antayka region who had spent the previous year in Kokomo, Indiana. Since I was from Indiana, we had a lot to talk about.

“Ancient Antioch”

As soon as the Indiana connection had been made, the boy talked his surly uncle into driving 20 miles out of the way so they could drop me off in “ancient Antioch,” as he continued calling Antakya. He promised to “show me around.” more

February 8, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

In a November 2022 essay posted on nautil.us, Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer refers to SFI member Cormac McCarthy’s “subterranean connections” to James Agee, author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), “a book that we keep in our library and that Cormac retrieves from time to time to remind us of the intimate connections between language and image, indigence and character, and the multifarious beauty found far from so-called civilized spotlights.” 

I found the phrase “subterranean connections” interesting in relation to the richness of McCarthy’s prose, most recently the striking one-page prologue to The Passenger/Stella Maris (Knopf 2022), now available as a two-volume set. It was while rereading the bravura passage describing Alicia Western’s body hanging among the winter trees that I first noticed intimations of Agee’s prose presence, particularly in lines such as “her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered.”

The “multifarious beauty” of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is reflected in a sharecropper’s mirror in one of the homes Agee and the photographer Walker Evan visited in 1936: “The mirror is so far corrupted that it is rashed with gray, iridescent in parts, and in all its reflections a deeply sad thin zinc-to-platinum, giving to its framings an almost incalculably ancient, sweet, frail, and piteous beauty, such as may be seen in tintypes of family groups among studio furnishings or heard in nearly exhausted jazz records made by very young, insane, devout men who were soon to destroy themselves, in New Orleans, in the early nineteen twenties.”

McCarthy’s prologue to The Passenger ends as the hunter who discovers the body “looked up into those cold enameled eyes glinting blue in the weak winter light. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation.” more

February 1, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.

—Cormac McCarthy, 2009

he’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

—from The Passenger/Stella Maris

Cormac McCarthy’s two-volume novel The Passenger/Stella Maris (Knopf 2022) begins with the woman he had planned to write about for half a century.

It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones. One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered….”

The one-page prologue is printed in italics, as are all the first nine of 10 numbered, self-contained chapters of The Passenger devoted to Alicia Western and the theater of her psychosis. Her older brother Bobby’s adventures and misadventures a decade later are recounted in the interspersed unnumbered chapters (including the 10th and last), all printed in standard type, albeit with the author’s characteristic disregard of conventional punctuation. more

January 25, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I try to become a singer. The guitar has always been abused with distortion units and funny sorts of effects, but when you don’t do that and just let the genuine sound come through, there’s a whole magic there.

—Jeff Beck (1944-2023), 2010 NPR interview

The only time I saw virtuoso guitarist Jeff Beck in person was at the Fillmore East, where he, Rod Stewart, and the Jeff Beck Group performed a memorable cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious.” It was October 1968 and Halloween was in the air as Stewart keened “bad luck ain’t got me so far” while Beck stalked his trail like a demonic ventriloquist seemingly reanimating every black cat, hell hound, witch, or nightmare that ever bedeviled mortal man since the raven rapped at Edgar Allan Poe’s chamber door.

I’d first heard Jeff Beck two years earlier on the Yardbirds’ single “Shapes of Things,” which my wife and I played on numerous jukeboxes during a pre-nuptial hitchhiking trip through Italy. It was an astonishing creation, a feedback-driven march into a brave new world of psychedelia. I didn’t know who Beck was at the time, nor that he’d gone to school in South London with my old road companion Roger Yates and played in a skiffle band with several of Roger’s mates.

Later that year in Ann Arbor I saw Blow Up, Antonioni’s remake of “swinging London,” where a cosmically bored, glazed-eyed audience in a Soho club sat silent and unresponsive as the Yardbirds played a blues jam onstage. I still didn’t know that Roger’s schoolmate was the guitarist slamming his instrument into the amp in a futile quest for feedback or some sound or act outrageous enough to bring the dead crowd to life; nor did I know that another future guitar legend Jimmy Page was on the same small stage smiling over the scene as if in expectation of the moment Jeff Beck would throw his guitar on the floor, jump up and down on it, and hold the broken thing in the air, flourishing it before flinging it into a seething, screaming, come-wildly-to-life mob fighting over the remains. It all ended with the film’s photographer protagonist David Hemmings racing down a Soho alley with a piece of the mutilated guitar in his hand, before casting it aside, where the next passersby picked it up only to toss it in the gutter, leaving it there like roadkill.  more

January 18, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Dylan is beyond music and lyrics, he has something else. It’s that indefinable something else that makes him special.

—P.J. Harvey, in The Guardian, March 25, 2001

Bob Dylan’s “indefinable something else” is why I’m writing about him again this week. I’m also still walking around with, haunted by, “Where or When,” the last of the 66 songs in his new book The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan is not only still part of the where or when of life, he’s even farther “beyond music and lyrics” than he was when singer songwriter P.J Harvey said as much in March 2001. At that time he had yet to write Chronicles: Volume One (2004), record Modern Times (2006), and win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

As numerous reviewers have observed, The Philosophy of Modern Song is marred by some of Dylan’s sloppiest writing. Last week I suggested that in spite of the scant coverage of female songwriters and performers and the offensive language inspired by songs like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” the new book could be read as a coda to his tour de force Chronicles. Having returned to that extraordinary work, which I’ve lived in for almost 20 years, thanks in part to its evocation of New York’s Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961, I’m thinking the only “coda” worthy of the name may be the music of Modern Times and 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.  more

January 11, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again

“I feel like I’ve already written about this song before,” Bob Dylan says of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where Or When,” which he saved for the last chapter of The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster $45). “But that’s understandable” because it “dances around the outskirts of our memory drawing us in with images of the familiar being repeated and beguiling us with lives not yet lived.”

“It’s a song of reincarnation,” Dylan adds, referring to Dion and the Belmonts’ 1959 rendition of a number first performed in the 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms. “History keeps repeating itself, and every moment of life is the same moment, with more than one level of meaning.” At this point, Dylan slips into the second person, as he does throughout the book and in some of his greatest songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You were having a discourse, rambling on, thinking out loud, discussing things, letting your hair down, having eyeball to eyeball encounters, playing peekaboo — going backwards, forwards, to and fro — without any difference, with an inkling that it all happened earlier, but you can’t pinpoint the location the district or the region, and now it’s happening again ….”

In fact, Dylan’s new book can be read as a coda to his acclaimed memoir Chronicles: Volume One (2004), which features scattered comments on innumerable songs and musicians, a practice he continued from 2006 to 2009 on Sirius XM’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” and again in “Murder Most Foul” (2020), the almost 17-minute-long epic that includes punning riffs on song and film titles and events of the sixties in a powerful reimagining of Kennedy’s assassination. more

January 4, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Just gently jam the jivin’, drum boogie, the cat is rockin’ with a solid eight, I tell you it’s more to gait, the joint is jumpin’…
—Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea

I was told that upon being asked to name his favorite among his books, Charles Dickens answered, “I love them all, but in my heart-of-hearts, I have a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield.” Well, though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I, too, have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.
—Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)

I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster 2022), which could serve as volume two of his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, or else as a solid place-holder until the next one comes along. In the chapter “Saturday Night at the Movies,” he says “People will tell you they don’t watch old movies for a bunch of reasons — because they are in black and white or maybe there’s a two-minute sequence that changing times have rendered politically incorrect. These people lack imagination and are fine throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Four days into the new year, the time is right for a closer look at two terms — “modern” in the context of Dylan’s new book and “dated” relative to the 1941 screwball comedy romance Ball of Fire, which is about, among other things, New York City, night clubs, gangsters, love, art, jazz, sex, and a group of scholars at work on the “encyclopedia of all human knowledge,” with a New Jersey denouement in an imaginary inn near Kingston. Also about New York and night clubs, the 1937 Astaire-Rogers musical Swing Time’s screwball comedy of a plot is patched together around dance sequences that prove time and again that charm is never dated. In both films, which are a treat for the eye, ear, and spirit in any season, not least on New Year’s Eve, the standout “songs” are spectacles — “Drum Boogie,” a word-jazz jam, and “Never Gonna Dance,” a sublime lament.

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