Banned Books Week: Candide

 

Get ready for Banned Books Week. September 30 - October 6, 2012.

 

Michael Chabon’s Real and Imagined Storefronts

 

Our guest blogger is Matt Werner, author of Oakland in Popular Memory, on sale now at Diesel, Oakland. Visit Matt online at www.mattiswriting.com

 

Jorge Luis Borges wrote fake book reviews of books that didn’t exist. Michael Chabon has taken this postmodern literary conceit beyond Borges. Chabon has not only written fan fiction based on his own writing, but he’s created stores from his fiction in real-life. Take for example Diesel bookstore in Oakland which was converted to Brokeland Records.

 

This fictional record store has replaced the independent bookstore from September 7-14 to correspond with the release of Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue. Chabon opening Brokeland Records goes beyond book marketing. It’s an interesting addition to postmodern literary experimentation, in that it raises the question, What happens when a fictional store you’re writing about, becomes real? And this isn’t the first store to be created from Chabon’s fictional work. The Escapist comic bookstore on Claremont Avenue in Berkeley is named after Chabon’s comic creation The Escapist from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

 

After writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon edited two volumes of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, collecting comics by artists like Brian K. Vaughan and Roger Petersen drawn in the style of the Golden Age of Comic Books from the 1930s and 1940s.

 

To put these fake bookstores and books in context, Chabon writes in his essay collection Maps and Legends about creating realities that don’t exist, and he references Jorge Luis Borges when coming across mysterious book called Say it in Yiddish. Borges writes in his essay, Kafka and His Precursors, “The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” How this quote relates to The Escapist fan fiction is that if a reader who first reads The Escapist comic books and then reads The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay may think that these comics were created first, and Chabon later wrote about these in his novel (when the opposite is true).

Moreover, because Brokeland Records opened on September 7, four days before the release of Telegraph Avenue, a tourist visiting Oakland and seeing the record store and later reading Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue could think the record store predates the novel (when the opposite is true).

Or instead of Borges, perhaps Chabon was inspired to set up this fictional storefront from a more local source: Dave Eggers. Eggers created the 826 Valencia Pirate Store in 2002 to compete with “Captain Rick’s Booty Cove,” an imagine a megastore of pirate supplies on the other side of San Francisco. Eggers created this because the 826 Valencia Writing Center building was zoned for retail, and Eggers needed to sell something in the space. This spawned the trend of where each 826 tutoring center has a fake storefront, like the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., and the Bigfoot Research Center in Boston.

 

And coincidentally, the September 12 book release party at Brokeland Records (née Diesel bookstore) was a benefit for the 826 Valencia Writing Center. It will be interesting if this record store--open for one week to promote the book--inspires a local business owner to create a permanent Brokeland Records, similar to The Escapist comic bookstore. Perhaps one day, an entire street could be populated with stores from Chabon’s literary works!

 

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By Matt Werner

Author of Papers for the Suppression of Reality and Oakland in Popular Memory. Email Matt at editor[at]thoughtpublishing.org.

 

Digital Landscape, Analog River

 

I've played music, toured, and put out records for the past fifteen years. Last week, I received a copy of my own band's new LP in the mail, something that is always a delight and has lost none of its novelty over the years. But this time around, there was a crucial difference: this was not a vinyl release, it was a vinyl reissue, its reprint date falling approximately 13 years after the record's initial pressing. The album artwork had been cleaned up, new photos had been added, the vinyl was a brilliant electric blue, the package included a free digital download of the album, and it felt like getting my first record in the mail all over again - which, in a very literal sense, it was.

In 2012, it's easy to think of music as a purely digital phenomenon; the audio equivalent of a PDF, a file that can be sent and received quickly with minimal degradation, working well enough on various devices, possessing compression rates that are adequate if not ideal. Like the printed word, music is all too frequently reduced to something that sleeps, genie-like, on a hard drive or digital cloud until summoned with a few idle clicks. When the aforementioned record first came out in 1999, vinyl was a secondary, subservient format: CDs were bought and sold by the case, while LPs were just for collectors, generally sold in ones and twos. By 2012, the digital/analog poles had moved even further apart: now, because the reissue came with a free download, a CD wasn't even necessary, and LPs had received a strange, posthumous promotion from secondary format to only format.

 

In addition to being a musician, I'm also a letterpress printer. From a purely industrial perspective, vinyl records and letterpress printing have rise/fall/rise histories that follow similar timelines: to put it in flatly economic terms, both were once-massive industrial processes rendered almost entirely obsolete as they were replaced by late-20th century digital technologies. But in the early years of the 21st century, both have experienced a small but steady resurgence, particularly among younger generations. Even if this hasn't exactly happened at a level that would ruffle the respective music and print industries, it's nonetheless enough to have assisted not just in the survival, but in some particularly hip/hipster areas (Oakland/SF, Portland, Brooklyn, and as of recently, apparently the entire South), an increase in the number of independent music stores and print shops.

I'm not a luddite and I'm certainly not an analog purist. I have an intimate understanding of the ways in which analog music and print cultures are dependent on digital means for their production and propagation. But I also believe that the sound of a vinyl record and the feel of handmade prints are beautiful and irreplaceable things, and should not be filed away in dead archives, but kept alive, and made new in a way that fully embraces modernity, an ongoing flow in the shadows of the digital peaks far above.

--John Peck

 

Linda and the Neat, Pink Turntable

 

With the revival of vinyl as a popular medium for music, I find myself surrounded by a new generation discovering vinyl records for the first time. I’m definitely dating myself here, but I had my first experience with turntables and 45 RPM’s in 1965.

I had a strong and early interest in listening to the radio and the music my dad played around the house. I fell in love with his music: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, The Lettermen, and Trini Lopez. My mother, recognizing this, took me to what was then Gemco and we picked out a very simple, easily operable turntable. On the outside it looked like a small suitcase, pink with a red handle. When you unlocked and opened it, the inside was gray and plastic, with a three-speed dial. Equipped with my neat, pink portable, my mother and I perused the records themselves. Being only six then, I wasn't all that familiar with who sang the songs I would wait by the radio for hours to hear, only how they "went". I had to sing through my favorites until I’d hit upon the title, like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There" (which to my mom's delight were on two sides of the same disc!) and "She Loves You" and "Do You Believe In Magic". I took home those three 45's that day, along with the requisite plastic adapters so they'd fit on the turntable. 

As time went by, I learned more about the artists that were on the Billboard Hot 100 by listening to Casey Kasem on Sunday mornings. We eventually went back for my first LP's by The Mamas and the Papas, Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and The Hollies.

 

--Linda

 

 

 

The Bass Line

 

I first heard Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" when I was 5 years old. Every spring, as part of the graduation celebration for the small grade school I attended in San Francisco, the entire student population (hovering somewhere around 100, all told) would crowd beneath a wildly painted canvas, surmounted by what seemed to be an enormous saurian head, to perform the "Dragon Dance". This quasi-shamanic ritual is probably the most memorable event of my K-8 years.

 

Our whole tribe -- young ones to the rear, towering 8th graders at the head -- would gather beneath the painted serpent, take hold of the waist of the person in front of them (if I happened to be placed behind one of my female classmates, this became doubly memorable -- an institutionally sanctioned opportunity to lay hands on the divine feminine form!) and begin moving our feet in slow rhythmic symbiosis to the hypnotic beat: One-two-three-step! One-two-three-step! (We would kick our feet out to the side on the "step!") Snaking our way through the school yard, I experienced a kind of communion, not only with my fellow classmates as we merged out individual selves into this mythic beast, but also with the generations past and future, who had and would perform the same rite of passage. My soul felt distended across time, as Augustine suggested. We were all merged in the great cosmic serpent that moved to the rhythm of Hancock's "Chameleon".

 

Music is powerful, and the influence repeatedly exerted upon my impressionable spirit at that tender age is difficult to measure. In some hard-to-fathom way, that song is indelibly etched in my mind; its rhythms shaped me like the potter’s hands on the wheel by regular and ritualistic immersion in its lava-like soundscape. After all, the fingers of the track extend knuckle after knuckle into the blue-violet dusk of 15+ minutes. You definitely have to slip into a different state of mind to stay on board for the whole trip. That ritual and the music that accompanied it were an early and important consciousness-expanding experience.

 

It wasn't until I returned to the song as a teenager, during my brief foray into jazz band, that I came to appreciate the depth, complexity, and sophistication yielded by sustained attention to a single theme. I remember the bass player of the jazz band bemoaning the boredom he experienced playing the same bass line over and over again while each musician took his or her solo. But this was one of the elements of the tune that drew my attention most. I realized that it would take a special kind of focus to breathe new life into a repeating figure, following something musically akin to Pound's poetic dictum to "Every day make it new", or some of Bach's work in the Brandenburg Concertos. And of course subtle variations in tone, touch, and tenor color each iteration as the piece moves through its rounds. The tune alerted me to the importance and magical potential of learning how to return again and again with renewed vitality and attention.

 

And, through my college years, I did return again and again to the piece, now as a bass player myself. Eventually I took something of a minor personal vow and committed myself to learning the entire piece: in and out, all the way through, until I had it in my bones, which is a way of musically saying one has come to share something of the composer/performer's mind space at the time of the performance. It was more a matter of persistence than talent (I still consider myself a mediocre bass player), but I learned that piece and I learned it well. I know it in the way one knows the body and preferences of a lover of many years. And it still satisfies to play it through.

 

Another physical lesson I took from my time with this tune was how to hold my arms and wrist and work with sustaining the energy in the hands. Before I came to jazz, I had mostly apprenticed at the feet of Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Frusciante, both players who sling their instruments low along their bodies, letting their arms fall to the strings. When I saw Hancock live, I noticed how his bass player kept his instrument high and tight across his chest. Adopting this physical posture in my own playing, I observed how energy flowed differently. Instead of allowing the energy to dump out of me like a torrent or cascade, this posture encouraged a measured and steady flow, with undulating waves of intensity as mood and moment suggested. Not necessarily better, but very different from Vaughan and Frusciante, from most rock and blues players in general. Adopting a different physical posture in my playing led to a different mental/emotional posture as well. I had to learn, not control exactly, but restraint. All the little hiccups and triplets in the bass line's moments of greatest tension became much easier to express after learning how to hold my energy differently. The physical change precipitated a psychological change. And, to my surprise, with restraint came freedom and fluidity of expression.

 

Many years later, I learned of Hancock's well-established meditation practice in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. All of a sudden I recognized the inherently meditative dimension of the music to which my young ears had pricked. I bow to this tune for helping me develop sensitivity to and appreciation for the numinous dimension of life and art.

 

If you’re interested in Hancock’s road to Buddhism, read more here.

 

-- Alex  

 

 


L.A. Noir

 

This is an essay about Los Angeles, Noir, black metal, and jazz. The only jazz record I listen to with regularity is Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I will not say that all jazz sounds the same to me, defensive shorthand for acknowledging a lack of appropriate training to understand a genre of music. That being said, I do lack the appropriate knowledge and training to suppress my incredibly powerful associations between jazz, elevators, and low-reception highways in economically depressed regions. On the other hand, when people tell me they don't like "classical," I want to self-immolate. Fiery death brings me to another obtuse genre, Black Metal, which incidentally, was my doorway to Charles Mingus. 

 

I worked with a guy at Celebrity Rehab who was from Columbus, Ohio and had tattoos of skulls and frogs. He kept pushing Black Metal on me. Black Metal arose from Scandinavia in the 90's, a movement locally appreciated for church burning, murder, and satanic worship. Bands such as Mayhem and Gorgoroth sacrificed goats at their stage shows. The Ohioan insisted its grimness, its unwillingness to compromise were good qualities. I bought De Mysteriis Dom Sathanis by Mayhem from Amoeba Records on Sunset. I couldn't get more than a minute into it. It was too much. The drummers use double bass drums. The singers imitate goblins. Not orcs, or trolls, which I would be fine with.  I love trolls. I don't like goblins. They are, by nature, devious. That was my first encounter with metal.

 

Which brings me to vodka. You should try Sobieski and apple juice. This is a Polish thing that I learned in Poland from the bar-tending son of an Occupation singer for American troops. Besides how to make this drink, he also told me to visit the metal club and emphasized the importance of avoiding the gay bar situated next door. Perhaps he had made this "mistake" with disastrous results for his personal identity. Speculation.

 

"Do not go up the stairs with the rainbow lights. On the right. Go down the stairs to the left, underground. That is the metal bar."

 

I went to the metal bar. There were two kinds of Zywiec on draft, dark and light. There were flaming gates painted on the far wall of the underground crypt. Metal was playing. It was great. That was my second encounter.

 

One night at college, drinking Sobieski and apple juice, I was transported back to Krakow-in-winter, the closest I've been to my Swedish Viking heritage. I was put in a pagan mindset. I heard the war horns of the icy, barbarian host in my heart. I asked my friends if they wanted to hear Mayhem. They were ready for anything. We lit candles and a fire in the fireplace and listened to Freezing Moon. Very romantic, cozy. Got really drunk. A funny thing happened. I began to notice the subtle melodic variations. It adopted  a "classical" complexity. The goblin sang:

 

It's night again, night you're beautiful

I'll please my hunger, on living humans

Night of hunger, follow its call

Follow the freezing moon, yeah

 

This sounded almost happy to me at the time, probably because my emotional register had been recalibrated by the Sobieksi and Berserker impulses. That was my third encounter with metal. Since then I have taught myself a little about the metal genre. I know what I like, which is doom, sludge, and classic metal. I occasionally dip my little toe into the brackish death metal pond.

 

But what does this have to do with Charles Mingus?

 

One day, I was reading an NPR blog on metal. It linked to an interview with Aesop Dekker, the drummer for Ludicra (Ludicra has a female singer, which is rare for Black Metal), and a list of his five favorite jazz albums. Number one on that list is Charles Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Dekker described the sound as "A Lovecraftian noir soundtrack." This was a perfect storm of associations for me. I first listened to the album while driving. It's an intense downward trajectory full of sex, humor, and chaos. It's like a supernatural fixative for Los Angeles. 

 

I grew up in Los Angeles. This city is obtuse, like jazz, classical, and black metal. It's difficult to get a conceptual hold. People who just moved here will probably disagree with that statement because they live in Silver Lake or Los Feliz or Downtown, all of which have their own twenty-year-old ecosystems that are, fundamentally, trying very hard not to be boring. It is impossible to consider certain aspects of life when it remains perpetually dynamic. One boring day, my dad's friend took us to Philippe's the Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich. When you grow up on the West side you seldom go Downtown. There used to be nothing there, just artifacts like Philippe's. It's a different atmosphere now.  Back then I recognized the spirit of Philippe's, the city it represented. I remembered it from black and white movies, Chinatown, and Roger Rabbit. Noir. You can make an argument against that, you can say it’s French or something, but Noir is an ideal pair of glasses to wear in Los Angeles, a desert paradise of corruption on a permanent slow burn. And The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is the soundtrack to that city. A city where Protestant drunks in the Los Angeles Country Club harass Filipino waitresses, desperate women race their nine-elevens around Mulholland, the city where James Ellroy lives. I wouldn't have that magic rotting oasis without black metal, Noir, or Mr. Mingus. It's a nice place to visit when the sunshine gets too bright.

 

-- Cameron

 

 

 

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