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The Paul McCartney of Punk?

Here we see a happy geezer, communing contentedly with his guitar:

Who is it?  Why, it's Mr. Mick Jones, ladies and gentlemen,

Wherefore the McCartney comparison in my post title?  Well, not unlike Sir Paul, Mr. Jones

  • First appeared in the public eye singing and playing in a highly successful band in which he was also one half of a highly successful songwriting team [the Joe Strummer/John Lennon analogy is inexact, but never mind that];
  • Following the breakup of his original group, he formed another reasonably successful band working in a style markedly different from that of the first [the B.A.D./Wings analogy is inexact, but never mind that]; and
  • He's still going [Mick Jones is not connected in the tabloids with a foxtrotting animal rights activist, but never mind that].

Jones and James are vigorous proponents of DRM-free music distribution -- an early Carbon/Silicon track, "MPfree," actively promotes file sharing -- and until recently the MP3 page on the band's official site hosted several dozen songs for free download.  Most of those disappeared at the beginning of March in order to "keep things fresh."  What is up at the moment are six freshly-recorded songs comprising The Crackup Suite EP, including "Buckethead" (inspired by Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash) and "Falun Gong Love Song" (about, of course, Chinese government persecution of followers of Falun Gong).  A selection of the older material is still available through a February post on Some Velvet Blog, which is where I first became aware of the project's existence.  Additional early tracks are available at Gigvideo, which also maintains  a substantial video archive on the band.  See also the Jones/James-endorsed fansite,

Here are some particularly Clash-y examples, any one of which would sound right at home in the middle of, say, Side 3 of London Calling:

And a few more, moreso in the style of B.A.D.:

  • Carbon/Silicon - The Duel [MP3 link]  -- a history lesson with a moral ("Now you can't shoot the Prime Minister, even by mistake")

Jones and James remain politically engaged, and that politics leans solidly to the old-fashioned Old Labour welfare state left.  They seem to distrust Tony Blair and company very nearly as much as Clash-era bete noir Margaret Thatcher.  See, for example, this video for "Global War on Culture":

In short, there is very little we have in common, they and I, but rock 'n' roll is a great leveler. 

Tonight, on Thuringian Idol!

[Those who do not share my late-blooming fascination for the music drama of Richard Wagner can just skip over this post, as it combines a backward glance at my most recent Wagner encounter.  Fear not, musical populists: I have on the burner a post involving electric guitars, Old Labour leftish politics, and "the Paul McCartney of Punk."  I try to alienate only a portion of my audience at any one time.  And so, on to Wagner!]


First year Los Angeles Opera music director and principal conductor James Conlon has made it known that two initiatives top his artistic agenda.  One, launched earlier this month and to be expanded in future seasons, is the "Recovered Voices" project, devoted to reviving the works of the largely forgotten composers of the early 20th Century who in one way or another fell afoul of the Third Reich.  The other is is ambition to make Los Angeles the West Coast American center for Wagner.  In a February 25, Los Angeles Times interview, he took up connection between his twin enthusiasms:

Some people, he said, have questioned how he can conduct Wagner — indeed, aim to make Los Angeles a center for Wagner — at the same time he promotes music that the Nazis suppressed.

'Do I see a problem performing Wagner along with this project?  I see none,' he said.  'In fact, I like it that they're going to be side by side.  I like that historical context, because that's what the Nazis wanted to prevent.  They wanted to prevent all those composers from finding their eventual place in history.'

As for Wagner, he said, 'You can say you hate him, you can say you don't like his music, you can say he was an anti-Semite.  But you can't say that about the music.  What was his theme?  His theme was the same in every opera — redemptive love.'

Ah, love!  Redemptive, oft-fatal love!  Which brings us by easy stages to Los Angeles Opera's Tannhäuser, which I attended back on March 3. 

For its first production of the work, LA Opera opted for the 1861 "Paris" version of Tannhäuser.  Parisian expectations at the time demanded that every opera must have a ballet.  Wagner obliged, but he outraged the locals by placing the ballet at the very beginning of the work rather than smack in the middle of Act II as custom required.  (Parisian gentlemen notoriously arrived late, often for the sole purpose of watching their mistresses dance about in the requisite Act II ballet.)  A riot ensued. 

Charles Baudelaire took the occasion to excoriate the audience in his one venture into music criticism, "Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris."  He was already an enthusiast for the score based on piano transcriptions, and the fully orchestrated version left him enraptured -- although he was critical of the more "redemptive" aspects of Wagner's ending, in which Tannhäuser rejects a life of perpetual sensuality with the goddess Venus in favor of expiring with a pledge of eternal devotion to the pure true love of the virtuous [and freshly dead] Elisabeth.  One's soul seemed to Baudelaire a small price for all that sensuality.

Tannhäuser's Act I ballet is commonly known as the "Bacchanale," although Bacchus is nowhere to be seen.  It depicts the aforesaid life of perpetual sensuality in Venus' subterranean domain.  (It's more of a "Venereale" really.)   As previously noted (here), this production elected to leave very very little to the imagination in the first twenty minutes or so, filling the stage with attractive examples of Southern California physical culture simulating vividly the multifarious uses to which their various surfaces and orifices might be put.  Only the principals in the scene -- Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser (whose curly hair, moderately expansive girth and mustache lent him, in context, a fleeting if unfortunate physical resemblance to porn star Ron Jeremy) and Lioba Braun as Venus -- remained clothed, demonstrating that German opera stars are not so bold as Sir Ian McKellan.  Relieved of active participation in the surrounding sexual foofaraw the two sang splendidly.

Bored with it all and suspecting his eternal soul is indeed in peril, Tannhäuser extricated himself from the Venusberg and we finally had a clear look at the production design.  Rather than the medieval period in which the story is ostensibly set, this production opted for a vaguely fin de siecle look, with formal wear and fedoras (Tannhauser, ever the rebel, favored a tasteful dark jacket over a black t-shirt) and a set featuring a lot of French doors.  What was indoors and what was outdoors was often unclear (see the Act III photo below), and the seasons of the year in which the action took place did not always match the text -- Tannhäuser emerges in the spring, but snow was falling in this production -- but there was no attempt to impose extraneous "meaning" on the proceedings.  The look worked best in the Act II singing contest, in which the massed chorus attending the competition [unfortunately no photos of that scene available]* appeared to have arrived fresh from an adjoining production of Rosenkavalier


* UPDATE [033107]: Ah, you see what a little grumbling gets you?  My complaint that there were no ensemble photos from Act II has been answered with the shot above.  (Click to enlarge.)  As you can easily see, it is not the least bit medieval, but it looks very nice and it shows off Petra Maria Schnitzer, who was a sterling Elisabeth in this production.  Her dress alone is enough to tell you she is pure and virtuous, in contrast to the scarlet-clad goddess/hussy from Act I.  You can also see that Act II is 100% ballet-free.

In the event, once the picturesque and obliging Venusians were dispensed with, the production played things straight musically and dramatically, to overall satisfying results.



  • Tannhäuser is perhaps the most unapologetically hummable-melodic of Wagner's mature works.  It features heavily in the great Bugs Bunny short "What's Opera, Doc?": the love duet of Bugs and Elmer Fudd is set to the tune of the Pilgrims' Chorus and the Venusberg/Bacchanale music is used for their pas de deux -- which occurs smack in the middle, where every Frenchman knows the ballet belongs.  Bugs Bunny was, I believe, a Hasentenor.
  • Although Bacchus is absent from Wagner's Bacchanale, Peter Seiffert last appeared with Los Angeles Opera in the role of Bacchus, in R. Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.
  • As you can see from the first photo above, the Bacchanale was only fitfully illuminated.  No doubt many in the audience were reminded of another German genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and his Famous Last Words: "More light!"

I've Been Workin' on the Underground Grailroad

[Notes on recent reading]


Comma lovers, unite!  Here is a lovely single-sentence paragraph from the book I finished reading the other night:

The explanation of so curious a fact, for it is a fact, and not a mere hypothesis, may, it was suggested, most probably be found in the theory that in this fascinating literature we have the, sometimes partially understood, sometimes wholly misinterpreted, record of a ritual, originally presumed to exercise a life-giving potency, which, at one time of universal observance, has, even it its decay, shown itself possessed of the most persistent vitality.

A Grail? No thanks, we've already got one.The passage comes from Jessie L. Weston's
From Ritual to Romance (1919), Ch. IX, "The Fisher King." If Ms. Weston and her book ring a bell for you at all, it is most likely because T.S. Eliot identified them as the source for "the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism" in "The Waste Land."*  Scholars are divided as to whether Eliot really meant it, or was simply having us on.

From Ritual to Romance is unabashedly inspired and influenced by Frazer's Golden Bough, meaning Ms. Weston is able to find beautiful young dead, dying, and resurrected gods just about everywhere.  Weston's premise is that the legends surrounding the Holy Grail derive from ancient pre-Christian sources and are outgrowths from and accretions upon rituals and mysteries devoted to maintaining or restoring fertility to the land and its peoples.  The book is great fun, if you have the proper frame of mind for it.  I am inclined to believe that it did influence Eliot, of only a little, particularly in its discussion of the links between the Grail legend, "vegetation rituals," and the suits and trumps of the Tarot. 

In many ways, FR2R feels like an early-century precursor to Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, though there is much less sexiness in it and Weston's self-regard is not nearly so overpowering as Paglia's.  Each book is a vigorous, engaging presentation of theories that are consistently intriguing, for which the author never fails to find evidence wherever she looks.  Both go wrong at least as often as they go right and both have been mocked by fellow scholars (whose own books are typically not nearly so interesting).  Both are grand intellectual larks, and recommended as such.

FOR EXTRA GRAIL CREDIT: The extravagantly thorough Monsalvat site is a source for all things Grail, at least insofar as they relate to Wagner's Parsifal.  The site includes long extracts from Ms. Weston's Legends of the Wagner Drama, on Wagner's use of medieval sources.

* UPDATE [1320 PDT]: By email, Brandy Karl points me to this 2005 post of hers, linking  to "Exploring 'The Waste Land' - The Poem by T.S. Eliot," an even more elaborately hypertextualized, cross-linked, frame-enabled  version of the poem than the one I linked above.  Thank you kindly, Miz Brandy!



Led on by a pair of intriguing references to it on Henry Gould's weblog (here ["better than Pynchon, . . . (speaking as one who hasn't read Pynchon)"] and here), I spent the month or so prior to embarking on FR2R reading The Underground City (1958) by H. L. Humes, tracked down via the Glendale Public Library.

Humes is a fascinating figure I'd not encountered before.  In 1953, he co-founded The Paris Review with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen.  He published two novels in the late 1950's: The Underground City and Men Die.  For a time he served as "agent" for the great hipster monologuist, Lord Buckley.  He was a fixture of New York intellectual circles, even managing one of Norman Mailer's early-60's campaigns for Mayor.  And then he essentially lost his mind.  He lived until 1992, but spent much of his later years living on the streets.  A January New York Times profile gives much, much more on the remarkable history of "Doc" Humes, who is also the subject of a new film by his daughter, documentarian Immy Humes.

TIME magazine, reviewing The Underground City, called it "the most indefatigable first novel of the year," likely a reference to its 755-page length.  The TIME reviewer found it all a bit much, concluding that "there is everything in The Underground City to make it an important novel except a little poetry and some scalpel work by about twelve editors."  A year later, TIME lavished rather more praise on the much shorter Men Die, a tale of racism, the military and high explosives.

Paris_sewer_by_nadar The Underground City begins in post-World War II Paris with the pending trial of Dujardin, a southern French police official who while working with the Resistance has also collaborated with the Nazis.  In the wake of the D-Day invasion, he betrays and causes the arrest of a Resistance group that includes an embedded American, John Stone.  The arrestees -- all, it seems, but Stone -- are executed by the fleeing Germans concurrently with a horrific massacre of the entire population of the village of Montpelle.  The German perpetrators all having been killed in a later engagement -- ironically before anyone has learned of the massacre -- Dujardin is the only person left to be charged with responsibility for the atrocity, although he himself neither ordered nor participated in it.  Stone, who remains in Paris, is the key witness to Dujardin's attenuated role.  Beginning just prior to Stone's testimony, the novel circles back in its long central section to Stone's experiences undercover during the war before returning to Paris in the aftermath of the trial.

Ultimately, l'affaire Dujardin is a mere pretense, a Gallic MacGuffin allowing Humes to explore seemingly everything that was on his capacious mind about post-war France, the challenge of achieving an honorable patriotism, whether "security" should be permitted trump liberty -- Humes's take on that issue is strikingly contemporary -- the mechanics of conducting an undercover arms operation in an occupied country, and (heck, why not?) man's place in the universe.  Stone is something of an existential cipher, but several other characters -- the cynical French Communist Carnot, the Evelyn Waugh-style journalist known as "Sharktooth," and particularly U.S. General-turned-Ambassador Sheppard -- are vividly and memorably drawn.  Given its length and the sheer quantity of material Humes stuffs into it, the novel threatens to outstay its welcome and peters away less than perfectly at its conclusion, although not before treating the reader to a drunken nocturnal tour of the Paris sewers and the unexpected fate (the only moment in the novel that might be called Pynchonesque) of Ambassador Sheppard. 

Imperfect it may be, but the quality and intelligence of the writing in The Underground City is very high and the book deserves to find a contemporary audience.  Out of print for the better part of forty years, both of Humes's novels are scheduled to be reissued in Random House trade paperback editions on October 9.  They are currently available for pre-order through Amazon.



MORE HUMESIANA: In February 1963, TIME included Humes alongside the likes of Updike, Roth and Malamud in "The Sustaining Stream," a "recommended reading list of American novelists whose first work has appeared within the last few years."  Here is the Humes passage, which includes a fine one-sentence summation of The Underground City, and gives a further sense of his audacious turn of mind: 

H. L. Humes, 36, a founder of the Paris Review and the author of two books, Underground City and Men Die, is a New Yorker who was trained as a scientist at M.I.T. and whose interests include cosmological theory, civic reform in Manhattan, and the feasibility of selling houses made of paper.  Humes's novels have excesses that mark them recognizably as first and second books, but they are rich with life and intelligence.  Underground City, set in France during the Resistance and the early postwar days, is, notably, the only novel in memory that achieves both dignity and passion in dealing with the predicament of the patriot who is not a flag kisser.  Men Die, which is concerned with race hatred and other crippling manias, is audaciously and successfully arty.  The central incident of the book is an explosion that wrecks a Caribbean naval base.  Humes's time sequence begins with the detonation and is hurled about in jagged fragments — precisely the imprecise arrangement of an explosion.  The author gets away with this, which suggests the quality of his skill.  Humes is now at work on a play, two movies, and a scientific treatise in which he hopes to explain, among many other things, the origin of hailstorms and the nature of magnetism.

That article will cause some d'un certain age to wax nostalgic for an era in which TIME's "back of the book" culture coverage was genuinely worthwhile. 

Additional fun is to be had in comparing TIME's 1963 assessment with the various writers' later careers.  I particularly like the comments on Philip Roth -- still five years away from unleashing Alexander Portnoy on the world -- and his acceptance of the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus: "The tone of the speech was not that of a young tiger intent on astonishing his elders but of an accepted member of the literary world whose high position is beyond the need of proof."  He's still at it, I'd say. 

That we really are in 1963 is driven home by this passage, sure to induce a cringe forty-four years later: 

Ralph Ellison, a Negro, is skilled as a novelist to the degree that James Baldwin, also a Negro, is skilled as an essayist.  That is to say, he is among the very best of all U.S. writers, whatever the shade of their skin.

Well intentioned but painful, that.  (On a related note: Harper Lee, who gets no more than a dependent clause to herself, is the only woman mentioned anywhere in the piece.)

Next up on my reading agenda, something much lighter than Weston or Humes: Tim Powers' time travel story, The Anubis Gates, a copy of which I have recently received from MC Rick.  After that, who knows?

Blawg Review #100: Life is a Carnival

There have been complaints in certain circles concerning the prolonged presence of Moose Ball! as the most recent post here these past 2+ weeks.  I apologize to both of my readers for having permitted the vicissitudes of Life and the Practice of Law to interrupt the steady flow of self-indulgence and witty repartee around here.  And the unplanned quasi-hiatus is not quite over yet.

But what's that on the horizon?  Why, it's Blawg Review #100, in which the anonymous Editor of Blawg Review marks the lexophilic carnival's Centennapostary with a ramble back through the 99 preceding Editions, and an update on the status of all those earlier hosts, including a link back to this weblog's hosting of the "April Fool's Day Prequel" to Blawg Review #51 last April. 

Poor Ed. is reduced to linking that confounded Moose Ball post, as I had nothing fresher on offer.  That seems particularly inconsiderate on my part in retrospect, given that this Fool is the duly-credited source for Blawg Review's current tagline: "It's not just a blog carnival; it's the law!"

On behalf of a fool in the forest and our lawful sibling Declarations & Exclusions, I regret having had nothing more exciting and current just now for inclusion in Ed.'s  survey.  Decs&Excs will, however, be hosting Blawg Review #102 a mere two weeks from today, and I promise to do so with gusto.  Regular posting should also resume there and here in the interim, as conditions permit.

Are You Ready for Some Moose Ball?

The weekend is nearly upon us, and I have not indulged my fondness for moose in quite some time.  That is all the occasion I require to post

Moose Ball! 

A bizarre love triangle constructed with simple tools: one moose, one ball, and the melancholy aria of the dog whose ball it once was . . . .

Because good things must come in threes, we round out our moosecapades with two food-related clips.  Next up, a tasty dessert recipe from the late Jim Henson as the Swedish Chef:

And to conclude, an advertisement circa 1964 for Post Crispy Critters breakfast cereal -- "The one and only cereal that comes in shape of animals!" -- announcing the addition of Orange Moose to the sugar-spangled oat menagerie:

More information on Crispy Critters and the associated characters -- notably Linus the Lionhearted, voiced by Sheldon Leonard and star of his own Saturday morning cartoon show and associated comic book -- is available via Scott Shaw's Oddball Comics and at Topher's Breakfast Cereal Character Guide

If I recall correctly, the Orange Moose were a sequel of sorts to the previously introduced Pink Elephants

As a former consumer of Crispy Critters looking back forty-plus years later, two things about this ad particularly strike me:

  • Apparently, there was a time when cereal makers believed they could hold their target audience's attention for a full 60 seconds.  Almost nothing is advertised at that length today, let alone breakfast cereal.
  • How difficult is it to sell cereal on the basis of a new color scheme when your ad is in black and white?

Corrective Measures

Here is a passage from Mark Swed's Los Angeles Times review this past Monday of Los Angeles Opera's new production of Tannhäuser.  (The overall, ahem, tenor of the review is slightly more favorable than this excerpt suggests, though hardly rapturous.) 

L.A. Opera has always in the past treated Wagner as special.  David Hockney designed its 'Tristan and Isolde,' Julie Taymor directed 'The Flying Dutchman,' Robert Wilson set 'Parsifal' aglow.  This time, the company made less effort.

Gottfried Pilz's sets of revolving walls of tall doors were adapted from a Salzburg Festival production of Mozart's
"The Abduction of Figaro" (it can be seen on a new DVD).  Pilz's second-act costumes are Salzburg similar as well.  Judge, who is an L.A. Opera regular, had the unenviable task of anonymously updating 'Tannhäuser.'

Can you spot the error that slipped  -- or perhaps was surreptitiously inserted -- into the second paragraph?  Someone caught it, and the Times published this correction on Wednesday:

Mozart opera: A review of Los Angeles Opera's 'Tannhäuser' in Monday's Calendar section called a Mozart opera 'The Abduction of Figaro.'  It is 'The Abduction From the Seraglio.'

(Correction first noted online by Regret the Error.)

Alas, even the correction is incomplete, as it corrects only the title of the Mozart opera from which the Tannhäuser sets have been lifted.  (The LA Daily News review got that fact straight on the first try.)  The Times does not address the other plain attribution error in its review: the immortal W. A. Mozart was not the composer of "The Abduction of Figaro."  That work -- a "simply grand opera" -- was, and could only have been, written by an immortal of a different kind, P.D.Q. Bach.  (For further information, see the New York Times review of the American premiere production of P.D.Q.B's "Abduction" from 1984.)

  • I read the review in the paper on Monday and missed the mistake completely.  Mark Swed is a clever fellow, well-versed in both Mozart and all the multifarious Bachs, so I would love to know whether he was the one who made the original "error" and, if so, whether he did it on purpose.
  • Three years ago this week, a copy editor's ill-considered insertion in another Swed review -- of LA Opera's gorgeous Hockney-designed production of R. Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten -- unleashed a veritable Carnival of Corrections.
  • As noted below, LA Opera's Tannhäuser comes with warnings of "nudity" and "strong sexual content".  At least some print ads also warn of "adult language," which is curious because
  1. I do not believe such language is included in Richard Wagner's text, and
  2. The production is, properly, being sung in the original German

I can only assume that someone has gotten carried away and inserted non-authorial expletives into the supertitles for this performance.

  • In all seriousness: Before it disappears into the archives, southern California operaphiles will want to read this past Sunday's Los Angeles Times interview with LA Opera's new music director, James Conlon.  He appears to have sound priorities going forward, although he acknowledges that the real power in the company resides in Placido Domingo.