May 22nd, 2007

mini music reviews

In the spirit of bluetyson, whose inspired one-sentence book reviews were blogged by Lucius yesterday, I thought I'd post some reviews and crapcam pix of recent shows I've seen.  Without further ado . . .

THE ARCADE FIRE.   This was part of the Bowie-curated Highline Festival.  High points for hot-pants-wearing violinist Sarah Neufeld, also of Bell Orchestre.  Rather than building off audience enthusiasm evoked by their performance, they seemed to want to force-feed their own enthusiasm onto the audience, which rubbed me the wrong way for the first few songs.  But the kids won me over in the end.

Earnest hipsters echo Springsteen and Bunnymen

THE SECRET MACHINES.  Also part of the Highline Festival.  I've seen the Machines a number of times.  Always impressive.  Their drummer is incredible:  loud and fierce.  Perhaps you've seen him:

Wait, maybe I can zoom in a bit: 


This show also featured a Bowie sighting! That's him below, to the right. 

I thought at first that the Thin White Duke might even come down to join the Machines for an encore, as he has been known to do , but alas, it was not to be.

Trippy rockers launch full-on sonic attack

The Machines were preceded by the Bellmer Dolls, a local Brooklyn outfit whose name packs in allusions to Hans Bellmer and the New York Dolls.  The lead singer/guitarist seemed to want to bring back the early 80s scene when punk was just beginning to morph into new wave.  Some great music in those days, so I'm all for it!

We are the feedback kings of rock and roll!

THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN.  Yes, they're back!  I'd never seen them before -- frankly, I was never into them at all and don't know any of their music.  I thought "Head On" was an original Pixies song, for cripe's sake.  I heard echoes of the Fall, VU, Stooges, Morphine, Pavement, New Order . . .  The fabled violence of the Reid brothers and the aloofness of the band itself were not in evidence.  They didn't blow me away, but it was thoroughly enjoyable.  I'm indebted to my pal Dan, the Ticket Master, for filling in this missing piece of my personal rock and roll history!

Music to take heroin by. 


Ed Norton has signed to play Doc Bruce Banner belted by gamma rays in The Incredible Hulk (“Hulk…Hulk”), which will be directed by Louis LeTerrier, who made the Transporter movies. I think this may be an improvement. There’s little doubt that Ang Lee is a better director than LeTerrier, but he pretty much blew the original by opening his film with a terribly passive first forty minutes that consisted mainly of banal conversations between Eric Bana and Jennifer Connolly. I can dig some character development, but this was way too much character development for the materials and, to boot, was surprisingly ineffective character development—Bana and Connolly might have been discussing the comparative virtues of laundry detergent.

Norton, too, should be an improvement over Bana, capable of bringing a sly humor to the role of which Bana was incapable…and speaking of Norton, I recently saw Down in the Valley, a film that didn’t get much press when it came out a couple of years ago. It’s a deeply flawed film—any movie that edits Ellen Burstyn out is very likely flawed, and I think editing was where most of the mistakes were made. Nonetheless, Norton’s turn as a psychologically damaged man who takes refuge in the myths of the Old West is among his best roles and is worth watching just to see him act. Playing a drifter who lives in a sleazy motel and pretends to be a rancher from South Dakota, Norton meets Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), the sherrif’s daughter, and tragedy ensues as Tobe inadvertently enlists the dark side of his cowboy fantasies. Also notable are Bruce Dern and David Morse, as Tobe’s father.
  • pgdf

Tim Powers

I thought folks might enjoy reading my introduction to Tim Powers's most recent story collection, STRANGE ITINERARIES.


Tim Powers is haunted.

Tim Powers is haunting.

These two statements are not mutually exclusive, even though they conjure up the paradoxical image of a ghost pursued by other ghosts.

And why shouldn’t bogeymen have spooks that frighten them? If the study of ecology has taught us anything, it’s that every species has its predators. The chain of littler bugs biting bigger bugs goes on ad infinitum. It seems only right and fair and just that the uneasy spirits that haunt mankind should in turn be continually looking over their spectral shoulders for higher- or lower-level ghouls. In fact, if I’m not taking excessive pride in my own ingenuity, I would call this conceit a very Powers-like notion.

But wait--perhaps I am in fact merely recalling such a pre-existing trope from one of Powers’s many fine novels. After enjoying his writing for over twenty-five years now, ever since 1979’s The Drawing of the Dark, I have tended to regard the world from time to time through a Powers-ish lens. Could my mind and his have become astrally conflated somehow, overlapping at curious junctions, as in one of Powers’s own eerie fabulist tales?

You’ll pardon my temporary mental confusion and the above digression, I hope. It’s just that a concentrated dose of Powers—as I’ve just experienced while enjoying this seminal collection of his rare short stories, and as you are about to experience—has a way of unhinging consensus reality.

Back to our theme of haunting and being haunted.

For Powers, who is surely the closest living successor to the masterful ghost-monger, M. R. James, the world is populated by spectral remnants of emotion. Ambition, frustration, lust, nostalgia, shame, regret, love—these emotions, born in the crucible of the human heart and mind, acquire a life outside their originators, becoming tangible influences in the daily existence of Powers’s protagonists. His ghosts are not so much scary strangers to those they visit, as they are familiar revenants from the past, snippets of the victim’s own personality.

As such, these haunts have a way of distorting the flow of time. Past and present blend into a formless forever in most Powers stories—at least until the protagonist manages to resolve his plight. Here we detect an echo from another famous modern Gothicist, William Faulkner, who proclaimed that the past is never dead, nor even truly past.

So: Powers’s tales, and his characters, are literally haunted.

And as a result of Powers immense talents, these haunted stories become in themselves haunting: unforgettable, tenacious, insistent phantoms perched on the shoulders of his lucky but definitely not-untouched readers. Fiction as near-tangible specters.

Now, my focus on Powers as a dealer in afterlife imagery, while accurate and essential to an appreciation of his oeuvre, I believe, conceals nearly as much as it reveals.

For instance, I have not yet spoken of other major themes in his work, such as the doppelganger motif. In story after story, characters often come face to face with themselves, with revelatory consequences. Just consider, as a prime example, “Itinerary,” which manages to be the best ouroboros-style narrative since Heinlein’s “’All You Zombies.’” Or “Fifty Cents” (co-written like two other selections with Powers’s kindred spirit, James Blaylock), wherein an ostensibly simple craphounding trip across the American desert develops into a mystical journey worthy of David Lynch.

Mention of the setting of “Fifty Cents” brings me to another important aspect of Powers’s writing, and that’s his concern with a specifically American landscape and with forging modern myths.

Powers’s characters and the settings they move through and the objects they come in contact with are relentlessly modern and quotidian and quintessentially of these United States, yet still tinged with magic. No supermen or high wizards need apply for leading roles in his books. (The Zelazny-style clan of “The Way Down the Hill” are an exception to this observation.) His leading men and women are average joes fallen into exceptional vortices of circumstance. And he’s able to imbue such “innocent,” commonplace objects as a chain letter or a garden gnome or a deck of cards—or a simple tomato plant even—with the same mana that lesser writers find in such overblown tokens as magic swords and dragons. By highlighting the overlooked mystery of the everyday locales and appurtenances of our North American lifestyle, he freshens our vision and appreciation of the life we all share in common.

This concern with both representative heroes and with modern mythologies calls to mind two older writers whom serve, I think, as models for Powers. The first, Philip K. Dick, is an acknowledged influence, having been a personal friend to Powers. In a story like “Where They Are Hid,” with its remarkable imagery of characters following scripted routines even when reality warps around them, we can see the pure Phildickian stream of surreality and metareality. Likewise, “Night Moves,” with its threat of a life sentence in an entropic bubble universe and an evil female psychopomp, could have come from the pen of the primo 1960s-era Dick.

The other author I place in the honorable lineage leading to Powers is perhaps less obvious. But it seems to me that Fritz Leiber could be seen as one of Powers’s literary godfathers. Having practically invented Urban Fantasy (arguably more so than even Ray Bradbury), and having in his later years found California a congenial locus for both his physical body and his body of work, as does Powers, Leiber shares more than surface similarities to the younger writer.

Both Dick and Leiber also possessed a sardonic sense of humor frequently ignored or misconstrued by readers and critics. The same is true of Powers. Perhaps above all, in the end, Powers is a comic writer. Tragedy he does not deny. But he affirms the superior resiliency and salving effect of humor, even unto the pratfall. If you don’t find yourself laughing at least a few times in every Powers story, you’re missing something. Certainly the most humorous piece in this collection is “The Better Boy,” whose protagonist experiences one indignity after another, without ever quite losing his essential nobility—a nobility we can all aspire to in its attainability. But even in the midst of such a chiller as “We Traverse Afar,” whose narrator is sorely afflicted, we get a suburban Jesus impersonator rummaging through his sackcloth for spare change. Now, if that doesn’t crack you up, then you’re one of Powers’s undead, who are generally distinguished from the living by precisely that lack of a sense of humor.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Tim Powers face to face on one or two occasions. Our conversation, regretably, has been short and inconsequential, due to the press of circumstances. But even from those brief exchanges, I walked away with the impression of a fellow whose ready smile and chipper mien contrasted with sad eyes and certain inner preoccupations, a man wryly appreciative of life’s entertaining enigmas, fully intent on sharing what wisdom he had gleaned in his life, while also a shade despairing of ever finding any satisfying answers this side of death.

Or beyond.

There oughta be a law

Well, I sat down to work first thing this morning  —  I have a deadline, gotta feed the kids, fix the Mosquito Magnet, do laundry, pack before leaving again early tomorrow, yadayadayada -- but there by my desk was this copy of the July Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with a cover story (novella, actually) by Lucius in it.

So I picked it up -- just a glance, you know, like just a little taste — and I could not put the freaking thing down till I finished it.  I was going to startt writing down the funniest lines (including some brilliant song titles) but there were so many of them I gave up. 

And now it's lunchtime and I haven't gotten a #@%&8! thing done. 

Damn you, Lucius.