Armed with my Ferrante (Elena) and my Levi (Carlo) and various guides and phrasebooks, I had plenty of Italy-specific reading to enjoy while visiting the southern region of Puglia last summer. Instead I spent most of the time with the biography of a singer-songwriter from Winter Haven, Florida, who died of a drug overdose when I was eight years old.
Ask ten music fans about Gram Parsons and you’re likely to get eight negative responses, at least some of those hostile. But I’ve long been hooked on his music, the blend of country, western, and rock he christened “cosmic American.” But I knew far less about his life. There's the post-war, Southern-gothic, baby-boom upbringing (father a suicide at Christmastime; mother perishing of alcoholism the night of his high school graduation; a doting, flashy, and alcoholic stepfather who lent Gram his surname but helped plunder the family orange-grove fortune). There's the stint in the University Heights section of the Bronx while fronting the short-lived International Submarine Band. There's his “collaboration” with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, his symbiotic “involvement” with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones around the time of Exile on Main Street, and his “discovery” of Emmylou Harris (quote marks, because the stories are complicated).
After Parsons’s death in 1973 in a California hotel room, a group of acquaintances intercepted his body on its way to the funeral home, brought it to Joshua Tree National Park, and set it ablaze, purportedly to grant Gram his wish to be cremated in the high desert—a tale author David N. Meyer positions as the comi-tragic climax to this thoroughly researched, novel-like bio. No besotted fan, though, he leaves it to the reader to decide where Parsons went right and (sadly all too often) wrong.
Parsons’s harshest critics have called him a poseur and manipulator, a good-looking rich boy whose wan musical progeny include groups like The Eagles. Others point to his talent for wedding un-weddable genres and note we’d otherwise not have had the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and their progeny (Wilco, Sun Volt), or performers like Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Read Twenty-Thousand Roads for the story of Parsons’s life and music; hold onto it for the end notes, discographies, and Meyer’s own extensive (and, I’ve found, indispensable) listening guide.
I usually avoid thousand-page biographies, but I’ll make an exception for Beethoven. Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is excellent on Beethoven’s life but truly superb on the music itself. I didn’t think there was much new to say about his Third Symphony (the world-changing Eroica), but Swafford’s thirty pages of analysis and musical examples not only draw fascinating conclusions from early sketches but propose a revelatory view of how the entire work fits together. The last movement, which can sound trivial and even anticlimactic after the energy and drama that come before, Swafford claims is based on a dance form that, to Beethoven, represented a true ideal society, a dance of equals. Long after I finished the book I was digging out recordings of other Beethoven pieces just for the pleasure of rediscovery. And what more can you ask of a composer biography than that?
Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight (recently reissued by NYRB) was my fiction discovery of the year, a remarkable combination of luminous Italian atmosphere, haunting thoughts of suicide, and perhaps the funniest, most tumultuous baptism in fiction—a baptism that also, unexpectedly, saves a life.
It's four years now since our parish (and the rest of the English-speaking Church) started using the new translations at Sunday Mass. For the most part—whether people greeted the new language with enthusiasm or dismay—we've settled in. Even the parishioners who show up only on Christmas and Easter are used to it by now.
Happily, we're still exploring the vast treasure house of riches that is the new Lead Me Guide Me hymnal (which came out at the same time). Nearly twice the size of the 1987 edition, Lead Me Guide Me is, as a former pastor liked to say, "unashamedly Black, unapologetically Christian, and specifically Catholic."
We're especially benefiting from the work of contemporary African-American composers like Kenneth Louis. Take, for example, his Advent hymn, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." It adds a depth and richness to the congregation's meditation on the meaning of Advent and the Lord's coming that's not found in some other settings of Isaiah 40.Read more
Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down."
What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.
Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."Read more
This week, John Jeremiah Sullivan was among the winners of the Windham Campbell Prize alongside Geoff Dyer and Edmund de Waal in the nonfiction category — an honor that comes with $150,000. Sullivan is the Southern editor of the Paris Review, and an all around gem in contemporary literary non-fiction. If you're tempted to despair at the state of that particular genre, Sullivan's work is a counter-argument.
His long-form essays pop up everywhere from GQ, the New York Times Magazine, to the food journal Lucky Peach, and they're never boring or predictable. This owes a lot to his deep research and attention to detail which lets his subjects shine through in all their particular weirdness.
Take, for example, his profile on former star of the reality show The Real World, nicknamed "the Miz." Even only knowing that piece's premise, it is easy to see how Sullivan could have played his subject matter for laughs. "The Miz" is one of a host of reality television stars who make club appearances for a living after their show has aired, but Sullivan doesn't stand apart from the circus and point. The Miz comes across as someone you could have known once. Even more, Sullivan is willing to say more than the obvious about reality television — in all its staged feelings and produced hot-tub scenes — and its appeal, then go ahead and implicate everyone.
And I just get so exhausted with my countrypeople—you know the ones, the ones you run into who are all like, "Oh gosh, reality TV? I've never even seen it. Is it really that interesting?"...To me that's about as noble as being like, "Oh, Nagasaki? I've never even heard of that!" This is us, bros. This is our nation. A people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
Did I mention he's funny? He's really funny.
I particularly wanted to point out one of his more well-known essays, Upon This Rock, which also originally appeared in GQ. Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival — a curious event in itself — but about halfway into the piece's 11,000 words, we discover that Sullivan was once a creature of that vibrant evangelical subculture. So while the essay describes the bands, the Christian rock industry and its colorful fans, it's about confronting a faith that has died, but still haunts you. "I love Jesus Christ," he admits.
"...Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can't I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?
Because once you've known Him as God, it's hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won't slacken.
Sullivan is both faithful to his old faith, and his current disbelief. This might be a strange description of an 11,000 magazine article, but it's full of restraint. Toward the end, he concludes of his new festival-going friends, "They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were."
How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.
Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.Read more
Pentatonix is the hottest a capella group in American pop music. They've got the biggest selling 2014 Christmas album; and it opens with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". It is---and is not---your grandmother's "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", thereby hinting at both the timelessness of Christ's birth and the ways in which each generation can (and does, and must) make the celebration come alive anew.
Building from Pops Staples' incantatory, heavy-reverb electric guitar lines, and raised up by the tight vocal harmonies of his children, this slowed-down version of "No Room At The Inn" from The Staple Singers is about as deeply rooted in the eschatological and prophetic traditions as any Advent song.
It also fits neatly with the Ignatian practice of reading and praying the scriptures, as the narrator vividly imagines---in her own Jim Crow context---the scene from Luke 2:7 ("Well, there was the bellboy, the porter, and the waitress and the maid and the cook") and places herself in it, not just as a passive observer but as an active participant:
"I'm gonna be there (a witness);
In that great judgment day, when we all hear them say how they drove poor Mary away;
They had no room at the inn; they had no room, had no room….”
I am pleased to share with the readers of the blog a project I’ve been working on: a new online publication of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. It’s called The Yale ISM Review, and I’m the general editor. It’s an open-access publication for practitioners of sacred music, worship, and the related arts, and anyone else who may be interested. It includes contributions from Yale faculty and other leaders in the field. I’ve had a lot of fun working on it, and the initial responses we’ve received have been very positive. I hope you'll enjoy it.
The theme of the first issue is song. My introduction to the issue explains why we chose that topic. I’d welcome comments or questions, and of course I’d encourage you to subscribe! It’s absolutely free. If you know anyone who might be interested please feel free to share the link.
Here’s the press release, for more information.
When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.
Considering The Boss's oeuvre in this light is neither flight of fancy nor mere excuse to play music in class. The topic has been covered in the pages of Commonweal, the man effusively praised on the blog, and his stature confirmed back in 1998 by none less than Andrew Greeley, the scholar perhaps most associated with the analysis of the Catholic imagination.
Now it's true that Springsteen has cited Flannery O'Connor before, but I have not seen a quote as exquisite and evocative as this, from an interview in this weekend's New York Times. The reporter asks:
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
And then Springsteen, who had earlier in the interview already cited O'Connor as the first author to influence his career as a songwriter, offers this assessment of his top literary influence:
One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.
Perhaps he has the final scenes of the short story "Revelation" in mind, but really the quote encapsulates so much of what haunts O'Connor's world -- and thereby the American Catholic imagination writ large.
It is the mystery that does not confuse but halts through wonder; the experience of all life as both suffering and glory; the stubborn refusal to separate nature and grace.
Today's New York Times reports:
Carlo Bergonzi, one of the 20th century’s most distinguished operatic tenors, renowned for the refined interpretive taste and keen musical intelligence he brought to his art, died on Friday in Milan. He was 90.
“More than the sound of the voice, it is Mr. Bergonzi’s way of using it that is so special,” Peter G. Davis, reviewing a 1978 Carnegie Hall recital by Mr. Bergonzi, wrote in The New York Times. “He is a natural singer in that everything he does seems right and inevitable — the artful phrasing, the coloristic variety, the perfectly positioned accents, the theatrical sense of well-proportioned climaxes, the honest emotional fervor. Best of all, Mr. Bergonzi obviously uses these effects artistically because he feels them rather than intellectualizes them — a rare instinctual gift, possibly the most precious one any musician can possess.”
Bergonzi began his operatic career as a baritone, only later discovering his true tenor voice. Listening to him was always a joy, tinged at times with a certain angst. Would he succeed in navigating the notoriously difficult b-flat at the end of "Celeste Aida" – the aria at the very beginning of the first act of Verdi's opera? But so artful was Bergonzi's phrasing and so articulate his declamation that even when he cracked, he cracked elegantly.
Dorothy Norwood began her gospel music career in 1943 and her solo recording career spans five decades. In the early 1960s she was part of The Caravans which, in the world of gospel music, is a more or less unimpeachable credential. (It's like being part of Miles Davis' first great quintet, or the championship Boston Celtics teams of the same era.)
Norwood's "Holy Spirit" isn't just a Pentecost song. It's a song that captures, I think, something of what happened with Jesus' followers in what we celebrate today as Pentecost.
From its opening bass/high-hat note and the slow, deep groove that follows, “Holy Spirit” announces that we’re dealing with matters of the utmost seriousness. If it’s not a matter of life and death, then it’s at least a matter of whether life will be worth living. When that much hangs in the balance, then it’s time to pray—and sing—with every fiber of your being.
We can’t do nothing Lord, until you
Come on in the room;
Bless my soul.
We need your power…
We need the fire;
Come on in the room.
The Hold Steady--my favorite band and the subject of a great post here by Eric Bugyis--just came out with a new album called Teeth Dreams. It offers all the pleasures fans have come to expect from the best bar band in America: smart lyrics, rocking music, and an epic, 9-minute song to cap things off. It also offers an example of one great writer, the band's Craig Finn, responding to another: David Foster Wallace.Read more
Sr. Cristina Scucchia of the Sisters of the Holy Family rocked the house and wowed the judges on the Italian edition of "The Voice" with her cover of Alicia Keys' chart-topping 2007 hit, "No One".
(Check out the reactions of the judges, especially at 1:04.)
In an earlier post I linked to this L.A. Times roundup of short-sighted critical reactions to the Beatles' first U.S. appearance, fifty years ago this week. It all reminded me of a favorite passage from Muriel Spark's short stories (in this case, from the 1967 story "Alice Long's Dachshunds"):
Sister Monica has said that there is no harm in the Beatles, and then Mamie felt indignant because it showed Sister Monica did not properly appreciate them. She ought to lump them together with things like whisky, smoking, and sex; the Beatles are quite good enough to be forbidden.
Commonweal didn't properly appreciate the Beatles at first, either, though it didn't get around to mentioning them until September 4, 1964. Then, the editors wrote:
Is there any connection between the fact that the Beatles' latest movie received good reviews in New York and Clare Boothe Luce's candidacy for U.S. Senator? As of yet there is no evidence; but, it is said, the FBI is investigating.
Ho ho. But to be fair, it took a lot of people by surprise when A Hard Day's Night -- not just the "latest" but the first Beatles movie, released in July '64 -- was met with critical acclaim. It didn't have to be good to be a financial success, after all. But good it was. Commonweal's film critic, Philip T. Hartung, contributed his own bemused but positive review in the magazine's next issue (September 18, 1964): "No doubt the biggest surprise of the summer was an English film, A Hard Day's Night, in which the Beatles turned up and proved that these four lads have more than so-so voices and mops of hair.... They are completely unpretentious and have sense enough to make fun of themselves along with everyone else."Read more
Of all the commemorations of the Beatles' arrival on these shores fifty years ago, my favorite is this roundup of hilarious-in-retrospect negative critical reactions, compiled by Cary Schneider at the Los Angeles Times. While teenagers were falling over each other to get a glimpse of a Beatle (and paying good money for mop-top novelty wigs), cultural critics were trying to outdo one another in expressing contempt for the flash-in-the-pan Fab Four.
That critics would have rolled their eyes at the hype is understandable. That they would have gone out of their way to proclaim the Beatles' music without merit is bizarre. And yet, as this roundup shows, one serious person after another declared confidently that the group owed no part of its fame to talent: "Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well," sniffed the L.A. Times. William F. Buckley, as usual putting a little too much effort into seeming totally above it all, proclaimed, "They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as 'anti-popes.'" And Newsweek said, "Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody."Read more
Pharrell Williams is arguably the most influential producer in the American music industry. He's also a talented and successful singer, rapper, songwriter and musician.
On first listen, his latest hit song, "Happy", is four minutes of pure pop confection---one written for the soundtrack of Universal Pictures' billion-dollar hit movie Despicable Me 2.
The video is a sweet confection too: shots of Pharrell and seemingly random Angelenos lip-synching and dancing around their city to the song. (Because this is Los Angeles, it also includes celebrities like Kelly Osborne, Magic Johnson and Steve Carell. Because there's a movie tie-in, it includes characters from Despicable Me 2.)
But "Happy" is much more than that, because there's "24 Hours of Happy".Read more
"Dream Baby Dream" is a 1977 song by the more-influential-than-successful punk band, Suicide. This new version by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band meets what I've come to think of as the First Rule of Cover Songs: You've got to bring something new to it.
Musically, Springsteen and his band fill out the empty spaces in "Dream Baby Dream" and smooth off its rough edges, beginning with just an old pump organ, slowly building to a climax and then receding back to silence. It's no longer a young man's nervous, edgy song. It's an old man's prayer, infused by the hard-earned wisdom of his life's ups and downs.
Visually, editor Thom Zimny captures the quasi-religious nature of Springsteen's live performances with the E Street Band: the ecstatic peaks of mass communion, the quiet, interior moments of contemplation reflected on individual faces, the call-and-response exchanges---both among the musicians and between them and the audience.
Towards the end there is---as there was each night throughout the last tour---a brief "communion with the saints" as images of deceased longtime bandmates Danny Federici (organist) and Clarence Clemons (saxophonist) flash on the screen.
As marketing ramps up for the release next week of Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, it would be a shame if this lovely song and video---released in October at the end of his last tour as a kind of thank-you card to his fans---got overlooked.
Because I am reading voraciously about WWI, the Vienna Philharmonic's 2014 New Year's Day Concert raised this question: Was the waltzing around that accompanied the Austrian invasion of Serbia in 1914 a sign of a society that had lost touch with reality? Post here.
Monday's NYTimes (Jan 6), sees the orchestra squarely in another context, the lead up to and WWII. This self-governing body was in tune with Hitler's agenda, including dismissing its Jewish members. James Oestreich (what an appropriate surname!) reviewing this year's performance, "Waltzing Right Past History in Austria," notes several efforts the orchestra has made to remember and acknowledge its past trangressions.
This year's guest conducter, Argentinian-Israeli Daniel Barenboim, while demurring from entering into the orchestra's past history, had this to say, “How much guilt do you want to distribute to people who came four or five generations later?” he said. “Admitting responsibility is always a good thing, and the Vienna Philharmonic has done that.”
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