Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sliding on the Strings

What is it about a lap acoustic guitars, whether it's a National, a Weissenborn, or just an old acoustic with raised strings? For me, the type of music doesn't matter all that much. It can be blues, Hawaiian, jazz or country music. Now it seems, with the release of Paris, Plages d'Hawaii 1930, I guess I'd also have to include French chansons. But then I'll listen to anything that entails an acoustic guitar sound played with a steel bar. Okay, so I admit, it’s a specialised taste. But there is also something universal about acoustic lap guitar and a slide that, when put together, evokes the human voice, as well as horns, whether saxophones, trumpets or trombones. It’s also a supremely melodic instrument, as opposed to a harmonically oriented nature of a standard six-string guitar. Though I’d played the standard guitar for years, I could never really get the sound I wanted from it. But from the moment I began playing my Weissenborn (made by Marc Silber in Berkeley CA), I knew that was the sound I'd been after. Within a couple years I'd traded my Gibson 335, which had been sitting in its case for years, for a square neck National Tricone.

I think my love of acoustic lap guitar began from the moment I heard, at age seventeen, Bernie Shields play acoustic lap guitar in the great but unsung Six and Seven Eighths String Band. A parlour group from New Orleans, it featured, as well as Shields, the great Dr Souchon on standard guitar and William Kleppinger on mandolin. Never heard of Six and Seven Eighths? That's hardly surprising. Though they'd been playing since sometime around 1915. However their only record that I know about was the 1956 Folkways release. Shields was unique in that he could make his lap guitar sound like any number of instruments. It could well be that R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Seranaders based themselves on Six and Seven Eighths. If not, they should have done so. You can still get a copy of the Six and Seven Eights record from Smithsonian-Folkways. Their version of Who’s Sorry Now sounds as good now as it did all those years ago.

Some years later, my interest in lap guitar was revived when I heard my old banjo teacher David Lindley play Weissenborn guitar on one of his records. These days I listen not only to Lindley, but phenomenal old Hawaiian players like King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Hoopii, the Kalama Brothers, etc.. And, unlike many people, I prefer the National guitars to dobros, though there are moments when I wish I could produce the tight sound that you can only get from a dobro. Yet dobros don’t seem to have the flexibility of Nationals, nor the organic wood-based sound of Weissenborns. On the other hand, Jerry Douglas playing a Weissenborn is a joy to behold.

If I were to make a list of recommended lap guitar artists, it would include the following players:
King Bennie Nawahi
Black Ace
Casey Bill Weldon
Kelly Joe Phelps (the first three CDs)
Sol Hoopii
David Lindley
The Henrys
Kalama’s Quartet
Chris Darrow’s Slide on In

Hawaiians in Hollywood, Andy Iona, 1934-36
Vintage Hawaiian Stell Guitar Masters, 1928-34 (Rounder, put together by Bob Brozman)
Sliding on the Frets (Yazoo, put together by Robert Armstrong)
From Honolulu to Hollywood (Old Masters)
Hotter in Hawaii (a fantastic four CD set on JSP)
Paris, Plages d’Hawaii (Guitarres Hawaiiennes 1930, Paris Jazz Corner, compiled by Dominic Cravic and Cyril LeFebvre from R. Crumb’s Les Primitifs du Furtur a la Plage. An eye-opening and wide ranging collection)

Friday, March 17, 2006

I finally managed to get hold of a copy of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema. This was a DVD transfer from VHS- average picture quality and barely readable sub-titles. Though I hear there is a Japanese version now available at four times the price. The main advantage, other than picture and subtitled quality, of the latter, so I understand, is that one can, by a mere flick of the remote control, call up information regarding the various films cited by Godard through his text or images. I first saw Histoire(s)... when it was broadcast on Channel Four in the UK a number of years ago, and have wanted to view it again ever since. I once proposed writing an article on the films cited by Godard in Histoire(s) and how they relate to the director's view of cinema and his politics. The Japanese DVD would have made the writing of such an article a lot easier. Nevertheless, it would have still been a daunting task. Of course, copyright laws prevented Godard from including more than a handful of clips. Instead, he uses stills which he carefully edits into the text. Meanwhile the copyright laws partially constitute the film's subtext. Fortunately, the film magazine my article was intended for ceased publication, saving me the embarrassment of having to produce such an article, which could easily have comprised an entire book. To help write this never-to-be article, I managed to get hold of the ECM audio version of Histoire(s). It’s a remarkable set, beautifully put together, which is, amazingly, the soundtrack of the film(s). The logic behind the ECM CD set can only be guessed at. Suffice it to say that Histoire(s) without the images and their relationship to the soundtrack is hardly what Godard is about, and leaves much to be desired. Though less than half of the end product, it's an interesting idea, particularly if one suffers from some kind of visual disorder. As I suspected when I first saw the films, Histoire(s) may well be Godard’s most important work, and most interesting. The ideas and thoughts fly past one, so the audio version, accompanied by the text, is welcome. One can easily quote from the text, but that would only be half the story, or, in this case, half the picture. Here are just a handful of quotes:

“the cinema like Christianity/is not founded on a historical truth/it gives us a narrative.”

“Images and sounds like people/ who have met while travelling/ and can’t bring themselves to part”

“at bottom the cinema isn’t part of the communications industry/or of show business/but of the cosmetics industry/the mask industry/....which is itself merely a minor branch of the lies industry”

cinema is a “nineteenth century matter resolved in the twentieth century.”

As I watched Histoire(s) I kept thinking of what Godard said about Michael Moore- that Moore makes political films, but he doesn’t make them politically.

More to come...

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Last Refuge

It's not so much that power corrupts,
but that the corrupt seek power.
Two Sides of the Same Bloody Coin

Ed Dorn:
"Business is a form of terror-- you leave the victim,
the customer, even the mere low-end shopper wasted,
drained of cash and will and shackled to the future..."

Patrick Chamoiseau:
"A proletariat without factories, workshops and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of the odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an existence like a path through embers."

An addendum:
The Last Refuge
It's not so much that power corrupts...,
but that the corrupt seek power.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

As far I'm concerned, the film Capote has by now just about been hyped to death. Not that it doesn't deserve more than a little praise. After all, it’s an interesting movie, particularly regarding, heaven forbid, how the mind of a writer works. Or, at any rate, a certain type of writer. By which I mean, the type that deals with public concerns, and the genre that has come to be known as creative non-fiction. In the film Capote we discover the lengths to which a writer will go to get his or her story. Was Capote more ruthless than other writers? Perhaps, but who can say? Certainly, he was amongst those responsible for establishing the cult of the writer as a public personality. Not that this was anything new; it’s just that Capote was able to exploit it, and the media, better than most. Capote, the film, is, of course, laudable for its acting- Philip Seymour Hoffman, as everyone says, is brilliant- as well as the camera work- extraordinary shots of Kansas flatlands- and script- condensing a long story into a short one. Of course, this isn’t the only film, nor perhaps even the best film, about writing or writers. What about Billy Wilder’s Front Page and Ace in the Hole? Or Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and, to a certain degree, Mackenzie’s Sweet Smell of Success. And, even though it was a failure as a movie, Wim Wenders’ Hammett did a pretty good job of portraying how the public and private sides of the writer intersect. Of course, any film that honestly attempts to show a writer at work is doubtlessly laudable. At least Capote the film is never boring. Having said that, I was left somewhat unsatisfied. And it wasn’t because of the various inaccuracies. I’m all for poetic license. No, what bothered me had to do with the way the movie commodified what had already been commodified. For Capote had already packaged the underbelly of 1950s American culture, and would soon turn himself into a commodity. By writing In Cold Blood, he may well have have altered the direction of American fiction, but, as the film, says, he would never finish writing another book. Instead, he became a celebrity of dubious proportions, and a sparring partner for the likes of Mailer, Baldwin and Vidal. One can't help but wonder if these things are connected. Meanwhile, the entire culture would be fair game, put for sale and privatised for the benefit of the quickest pen and sharpest mouth. Perhaps one day we will get a film or book about the making of the film about the writing of the book, or, in other words, a commodity of a commodity of a commodity. Hey, perhaps profitability really is infinite. Just be sure to leave your clown costumes at the door.