Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tango Through the Wreckage

Anyone who, like me is fascinated by tango music, particularly its old school singers, as well as by Jorge Luis Borges, and contemporary Buenos Aires, should have a look at Tomas Eloy Martinez’s The Tango Singer (published by Bloomsbury in the UK). Even better than his last novel, Saint Evita, Martinez’s latest begins in Buenos Aires in 2001 with inflation spiralling out of control, and the city on the verge of chaos. Arriving in the city is Bruno, in search of an elusive tango singer who is supposedly better than Gardel. Bruno is writing a Ph.D. thesis on Borges and interested in tango singers and songs that Borges refers to, and which were written during his era. . Upon arrival in Buenos Aires Bruno meets El Tucomano who takes him to a boarding house where Borges set his story The Aleph. Bruno finds that in Buenos Aires nothing is as it seems, words appear before the things they represent, streets change names overnight, and the shape of the city is altered as much by those who inhabit it as by corrupt city planners, politics and poverty. I read The Tango Singer at the same time as the thought provoking Planet of Slums (Verso) by my friend Mike Davis, a book that indicates in no uncertain terms that the world is even worse off than you can possibly imagine. Davis provides some mind boggling statistics, as he takes the reader through the world's urban underside, including Buenos Aires. It's a sober read. For starters, from 1950 to 2004, the population of Buenos Aires has increased from 4.6 million to 12.6. But that's nothing compared to Mexico City which has gone from 2.9 in 1950 to 22.1 in 2004. But that’s the most obvious bit of Davis's book. It goes far wider and much deeper than that. In any case, Davis corroborates what Martinez hints at in his novel, that thanks to internal and external political decisions, Buenos Aires has altered over the years, leading to poverty, economic disaster, unrest and discontent. Both books are essential reading (and perhaps should be accomapnied by viewing Naomi Klein's documentary The Take). By the way, while on the subject of Latin American, where are all the novels written about contemporary Lima? I know they exist, but not in translation.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

From Primitivism to Medicine Shows

Two of my favourite CDs over the past few months have been Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937 on Old Hat, and American Primitive Vol.II: Pre-war Revenants 1897-1939 on Revenant. Both of these double CDs indicate that there is still a wealth of material from the pre-war era that has yet to be reissued, and that so much of it is excellent. Though some of the material here has been presented before, these two collections place it in a new context. While listening to them I kept wondering about the original audience for this music. Because some of the music, particularly on American Primitive Vol II is so eccentric that it makes you think about just how many records were pressed and sold. Was it a question of Say’s Law or could it really have been supply and demand? Who knows? And what exactly was the criteria for recording music at the time. I'm going to have to delve back into a book like Paul Oliver’s Songsters and Saints to see if I can find the answer to that one.

As for the CDs themselves. Some of the material on American Primitive might have appeared on Good For What Ails You and vice versa. APII, the follow up to API, which I never got around to hearing, was the last compilation put together by John Fahey, and it’s, as to be expected, the more eccentric of the two (Homer Quincy Smith sounds like Paul Robeson stuck in a turn of the century recording booth, Tommy Settler's nose trumpet is nasally evocative, Cousin and DeMoss sound like the John Jacob Niles's grandparents, and the Bubbling Over Five combine soprano sax, harmonica and piano to a haunting degree). With the exception of Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, most listeners will not have heard of many of these artists. Yet there are some real gems, such as John Hammond (yet another JH) whose banjo style and singing fits somewhere in between that of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward, and Bayliss Rose's Black Dog Blues (revived back in the 1960s by Koerner, Ray and Glover). The problem with the Fahey collection is that there isn’t any real centre to it, other than the musical tastes of Fahey himself, which are always going to be interesting. The liner notes, which veer between the Faheyistic to pithy Harry Smithisms, don’t shed all that much light on the subject. Maybe there isn't all that much light there in the first place. Nevertheless, this is a collection that won’t disappoint any lover of old time music.

Of the two collections, Old Hat’s Good For What Ails You may be less surprising, but there is probably more substance and context here. At the same time, producer and the main writer of some excellent liner notes, Marshall Wyatt, has included some stunning music from the likes of Gid Tanner, the Dallas String Band, the Mississippi Sheiks, Gus Cannon, Daddy Stovepipe, Papa Charlie Jackson, Chris Bouchillon, Pink Anderson, Kirk McGee, Walter Smith, the Carolina Tar Heels and Frank Stokes. For me, the most remarkable track has to be Emmitt Miller’s The Gypsy, a hilarious and surreal critique of medicine shows themselves. Miller of course would become a big influence on Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers. What becomes clear from Wyatt’s collection is that medicine shows were a fertile breeding ground for an unparalleled cross-cultural musical exchange. Trading off styles, it was, as Eric Lott and Bob Dylan have said, a case of love and theft. Unfortunately, all that we have left are the racist overtones, and not its substance and content. Because this was where blues, country music, ragtime and string band music all came together. Without medicine shows rock and roll would not exist, and ragtime and country music would be something entirely different. But it wasn’t only musicians who played played the medicine show circuits, but Houdini, Buster Keaton and Pigmeat Markham. It was, one imagines, the beginning of mass entertainment. Though released in 2005, as was APII, Good For What Ails You is already my record of the year and it’s only February.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I was interested that, in his blog today, Ron Silliman mentions Bill Anderson in relationship to an anthology of post avant-garde African-American poetry entitled Every Goodbye Ain't Gone (Univerity of Arkansas). I knew Bill quite well while living in San Francisco back in the late 1960s. Not only was he a very good poet, but, stylistically and politically, he was one of the best journalists I’ve come across. His articles on the first Huey Newton trial, the demonstrations in Mexico City during the ‘68 Olympics, Bobby Kennedy’s assasination, the International Industrialists Conference at the Fairmont and the Living Theater are all classics. Most of them can still be downloaded from the archives of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Bill was a new journalist before the term was ever invented. But Bill wasn’t so much interested in the relationship of journalism to fiction, as were the likes of Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe were, but journalism’s relationship to politically engaged poetry. He deserved more recognition as both a poet and a journalist. It’s good to see that Bill has finally been given some of the recognition that he deserves.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Is there a better or more perceptive commentator on the current political climate, both in the US and the UK, than Gary Younge? I couldn’t agree more with his article in today’s Guardian entitled "The gullibility that led us into the last war could yet bring us a new conflict”. In it, he writes, “The power of both illusion and delusion should never be underestimated. The compulsion to believe in something we need and want to be true, rather than see reality for what it is, can at times be astounding.” In showing how our perceptions are affected by what we are meant to perceive, Young cites Colin Powell speaking at the UN prior to the war as well as eye witness accounts of the de Menezes shooting in London. In the latter case, witnesses testified to seeing something entirely different from reality- one saw a Pakistani male, another saw a man with wires coming out of his jacket. This, says Younge, is indicative of a wider problem, one inherent in a culture of bad politics, rolling news and instant reaction. “What is insidious," writes Younge, "is the propensity of people to arrange an array of possibles, probables, maybes and might-bes, and construct from that a reality that is both definite and wrong...The power of suggestion, assumption and presumption is everything.” Younge points out that the war in Iraq is the prime example of just how potent this market in bad ideas is based on flawed perception has become. “Bad ideas helped take us into the war; and unless we examine what they were and why some managed to believe them, they will prevent us from getting out.” He goes on to say that when reality refuses to match up to the idea that is being promoted, people “do not change their ideas; they change reality.” Who is better at promoting this than those in the Bush-Blair axis. But even the likes of Kerry who supported the war when it was opportune, now, in retrospect, say had they known what they know now, they would not have supported the war. Obviously the relevant questions is why couldn’t these people see what was blatantly obvious to millions of others. And are these people simply reversing their opinion because it is, as the opinion polls suggest, equally opportune to do so? Younge also cites Powell’s aide, Colonel Wilkinson questioning whether the intelligence leading to the war just might possibly have been spun to the advantage of the administration. Like Younge, and millions of other people, I would have thought that was a no-brainer. Yet the argument of people like Wilkinson or Murtha is that we should get out of Iraq because the war is unwinnable, not that it was immoral to invade the country in the first place. Thanks to the media, and lowest-common denominator polticis, we’ve become so alienated from reality that there is hardly any need for what was once so crudely referred to as brain-washing.

Friday, February 03, 2006

These days I seem to read more and more crime novels in translation. To me, a lot of American crime fiction just doesn't surprise me like it used to. Though, of course, I always look forward to the latest by the likes of Pelecanos, Crumley, etc.. I've recently finished Thierry Jonquet's Tarantula (Serpents Tail, UK, City Lights, US). Originally published as Mygale in France (1995) and the US, this is a short, dark story about a doctor with a penchant for cosmetic surgery, and the woman he imprisons in his isolated chateau. There are shades here of Sade and Highsmith, as well as Jim Thompson. It's definitely not for the faint-hearted, even if the finale remains somewhat predictable. Still, it is probably the best French crime fiction in translation I've read since the two recent Jean-Patrick Manchette novels (also published in the US by City Lights). Jonquet is less of a formalist than Manchette, yet both were influenced by May 68 and French leftist politics. Moreover, both deploy a form found less often in the US and UK, where crime fiction has assumed a considerably larger canvas. In contrast, many French noirists prefer shorter narratives that move by their own momentum. The closest equivalent in the US would be James Sallis, yet even he tends to opt for a more complex and discordant type of novel. Yet this more grandiose form is a fairly recent phenomenon, unheard of back in the days of Thompson and Goodis, both of whom deployed a shorter form thanks to the restrictions imposed by paperback publishers such as Lion and Gold Medal. By contrast, the French have continued this tradition. Not only Jonquet and Manchette, but any number of writers, including Carriere (The Adversary) and Franz Bartelt (Le Jardin du Bossu), whose work owes as much to Serie Noire fiction, and its requirements regarding length and pace, as to the golden age of film noir.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Another State of the Union

"The state of our nation is far from healthy, and will never be so long as I am your leader. Therefore I call upon the American people to show its strength by immediately arresting me for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, for trampling on the constitution, for stealing elections, for spying on otherwise law abiding citizens. I ask for your forgiveness. Please take me to a place where I cannot harm anyone. Pump me full of tranquilizers. Keep me in a padded cell. Or maybe in a nice open prison where I can ride my mountain bike without harming anyone. In my defense, let me just say that it’s congenital. My father is an idiot. So is the rest of my family. For the benefit of humanity, do not let me or any member of my family hold public office. I ask for your help in my hour of need. The state of the union depends upon it."

A far more sane view of America than that of our leader can be found in the selected prose and poems of Don West, No Lonesome Road (edited by Jeff Biggers and George Brosi, University of Illinois). West was a poet-activist from the Appalachians, who grew up dirt poor, but never lost his progressive vision of the American south, and the Southern Mountains in particulaer. As well as a poet, he was a preacher, union organizer and founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, instrumental in training civil rights workers. Pictured on the cover is West atop his Indian Chief motorcycle, which he used to help him escape on various occasions from the KKK. Though I didn't know it at the time, West was also the father of folk singer Hedy West, who must have been one of the first musicians I ever saw who played traditional music and frailed the banjo in the old time style. Don West published a number of volumes of poetry, much of which, along with a selection of his prose, is published here. Hedy, by the way, died not so long ago. While West's poetry is somewhat dated, it is still very moving and can be compared favourably with the work of his friend, Langston Hughes. No Lonesome Road makes for a wonderful antidote to the real State of the Union, and is a testement to what America might have been, and could still possibly be.