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Not Fade Away

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Larry Rohter in the Times:

Brian Jones is to the Rolling Stones what Leon Trotsky was to the Russian Revolution: organizer, ideologist and victim of a power struggle. Jones founded the group, gave it its name and recruited the schoolboys Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who then marginalized him, eventually expelling him from the band. Since his death in 1969, a month after he was forced out, Jones has largely been airbrushed from the group’s history.

Paul Trynka’s biography “Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones” challenges the standard version of events, focused on Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, in favor of something far more nuanced. Though Mr. Trynka sometimes overstates Jones’s long-term cultural impact, his is revisionist history of the best kind — scrupulously researched and cogently argued — and should be unfailingly interesting to any Stones fan.

Specifically, “Brian Jones” seems designed as a corrective to “Life,” Keith Richards’s 2010 memoir. Mr. Trynka, the author of biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and a former editor of the British music magazines Mojo and Guitar, has interviewed Mr. Richards several times over the years and obviously likes him, but also considers his memory of events highly unreliable.

[Photo Via: The Groovy Guru]

A Very Funny Fellow

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One of Woody’s heroes. 

[Photo Via: Biography.com]

Deep Dish

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Another week, more fun book reviews by Dwight Garner at the Times. I remember enjoying when Ruth Reichl wrote restaurant reviews for the paper. I wasn’t interested in going to fancy restaurants I just enjoyed reading her. I feel the same about Garner, although sometimes I do want to read what he’s reviewing–I just like reading him.

Here he is on pair of celebrity memoirs. The first, Yes, Please, comes from the comedienne Amy Poehler:

Amy Poehler’s memoirish book is titled “Yes Please,” as in Bring it on, but its tone is more “No, Really, Make This Stop,” as in Get me out of here.

Composing “Yes Please” was a burden, this gifted comic actress says, that she shouldn’t have shouldered. “I had no business agreeing to write this book,” she declares in a preface, pleading a hectic existence: young sons, new projects, a recent divorce, a new love. What’s it been like to write “Yes Please”? “It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

…Ms. Poehler’s slow drip of gripes (“Dear Lord, when will I finish this book?”) breaks Rule No. 1 about comedy and about writing: Never let them see you sweat. Her persecuted mood is airborne and contagious. Reading “Yes Please” is not like hacking away at a freezer. It’s like having the frosty and jagged contents dumped in your lap.

The second, A Curious Career, comes from the British journalist, Lynn Barber, who is famous for her interviews withe celebrities:

Ms. Barber’s interviews are prized because of her ability to seize on a telling detail, and to not let go even if clubbed with a stick.

“I do believe that detail is everything,“ she says. “Detail is evidence. When I interviewed the novelist Lionel Shriver, she obviously thought I was mad to keep asking about her central heating. But I was trying to nail my hunch that she was frugal and ascetic to the point of masochism, and I needed the evidence — which indeed she delivered. She told me that she prefers to wear a coat and gloves indoors rather than have the heating on, even though she suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which means her hands and feet are always cold, and she will only let her husband switch the heating on if it is actually freezing outside, but not until 7 p.m.”

 

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

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Dwight Garner reviews The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lapore. He writes that is is “a long, strange thing to chew on”:

On the one hand, the story it relates has more uplift than Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane or her eagle-encrusted red bustier. It’s a yea-saying tale about how this comic book character, created in 1941, remade American feminism and had her roots in the ideas and activism of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?

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Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.

Here’s James Guida writing about the lessons of Dr. Funkenstein over at The New York Review of Books. 

[Photo Credit: George Clinton]

New York Minute

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Mr. Cab Driver…from Pete Hamill:

Taxi drivers are the most enduring oppressed minority in New York City history. Race, ethnicity and religion are not sources of the oppression. It lies entirely in the nature of the work. Trapped for about 12 hours each day in the worst traffic in the United States, taxi drivers must suffer the savage frustrations of jammed streets, double-parked cars, immense trucks, drivers from New Jersey — and they can’t succumb to the explosive therapy of road rage. Their living depends on self-control.

At the same time, they face many other hazards: drunks behind them in the cab, fare beaters, stickup men, Knicks fans filled with biblical despair, out-of-town conventioneers who think the drivers are mobile pimps. Some seal themselves off from the back seat with the radio, an iPod or a cellphone. All pray that the next passenger doesn’t want to go from Midtown to the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens. They hope for a decent tip. They hope to stay alive until the next fare waves from under a midnight streetlamp.

[Photo Credit: Matt Draper]

The City That Never Sleeps

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Man, this review of Thomas Beller‘s slender new biography of J.D. Salinger, really speaks to me. Writing in the Times Book Review, here’s Cathleen Schine:

Salinger, Beller notes, writes about New York landmarks like Grand Central Terminal or the Museum of Natural History in an “offhanded way. . . . They are not monuments to be ogled, they are part of the landscape through which his characters move.” Beller writes about New York in the same easy, familiar way. He has also found a way to write about J. D. Salinger, surely a literary monument if ever there was one, without ogling. Salinger, like New York, becomes inevitable, a landscape.

…Because Beller gets New York with all its nuances of class and money, he understands the Salinger family’s triumphant rise from Upper Broadway to Park Avenue and what it must have meant not just to the proud parents, but also to a boy leaving the familiar Jewish West Side for the WASPy Upper East Side. Beller bestows on his insights an invigorating physicality. As he stands in Central Park one cold, blustery day facing the now defunct private school Salinger entered in 1932 (and was expelled from in 1934), he says, “A lot can happen in the interval between school and home, especially when school and home are two points at opposite corners of Central Park.” With that simple observation — that Salinger made his way across the park twice a day, five days a week, often getting home just in time for dinner — the park’s prominence in “The Catcher in the Rye” and other Salinger works takes on a new poignancy. But the park and the city are there, Beller says, “in all kinds of ways that are less quantifiable.” A writer’s influences can be “nonliterary and often unconscious. The street lamps in Central Park at dusk, or the gray hexagonal-block sidewalks that line the perimeter of the park, which look the same today as they did when J. D. Salinger was a kid, are present in his writing without ever being mentioned. The city is itself a worn and used thing, the stones smoothed by a million heels pounding on them like tidal waves on rocks, its landscape unforgiving but also a refuge to which one can adapt, and within which one can, at least for an afternoon, disappear.”

[Photo Credit: Ric Garrido via Loyalty Traveler]

Scary Monsters

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I tried to read The Hobbit when I was a kid but I thought it was boring and I didn’t make it too far. I never read J.R.R. Toilken’s famous Lord of the Rings triology. But I did enjoy Joan Acocella’s review of Toilken’s newly-published translation of Beowulf:

As an adult, Tolkien could read many languages—and he made up more, including Elvish—but the number is not the point. Even in secondary school, Carpenter says, “Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all.” Or, in the words of C. S. Lewis, his closest friend, for a time, in adulthood, he had been inside language. Perhaps he couldn’t come back out. By this I don’t mean that he couldn’t talk to his wife or his postman, but that Old English, or at least that of “Beowulf,” was where he was happiest. He knew how it worked, he loved its ways: how the words joined and separated, what came after what. Old English is where he spent most of the day, in his reading, writing, and teaching. He might have come to think that this language was better than our modern one. The sympathy may have gone even deeper. Like Beowulf, Tolkien was an orphan. (He was taken in by his grandparents.) He grew up in the West Midlands, and said that the “Beowulf” poet, too, was probably from there. He did not have difficulty living in a world of images and symbols. (He was a Catholic from childhood.) He liked golden treasure and coiled dragons. Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love.

[Picture by Jeffrey Alan Love]

The Real Harlem

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Darryl Pickney reviews a terrific book of photography for the New York Review of Books:

Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips. Their black tenants defied them and in many cases the landlords walked away from their buildings, left them to run down.

Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it. People would disappear for days into the cathouses and shooting galleries. One guy told me that at his corner of 124th Street and Lenox he once saw the garbage collectors in their truck nodding from heroin. They were parked for hours, the trash uncollected when they finally left. Delivery trucks at stoplights got held up. Sometimes a driver would be enticed by a woman to a room where he was then tied up. Down in the street, an orderly line was forming for the sale of his truck’s contents.

Drug money circulated fiercely. People could get shot in the middle of the afternoon and if you chanced to be on the street where it happened, you knew that you had seen nothing, heard nothing, and would say nothing. Many gave up because the streets and the schools were so bad, especially middle-class blacks who could at last go elsewhere. But jobs were plentiful in the city. If you didn’t like your boss, an old head told me, you could quit and have a new job by the end of the day. Some people had jobs as well as welfare. Blacks felt that they ran the place. You could pass out on a traffic island in Harlem and no one would bother you all day long. The only people around in those days were black, old heads say. If whites found themselves in Harlem, then they had to run. But you can meet whites who have spent their lives in Harlem, in their family homes, tolerated because they’d always been there, hadn’t run.

Buy Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto here.

Million Dollar Movie

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In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Denby reviews Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War:

In early 1944, John Huston made a film about an infantry unit’s tortuous struggle to clear the Germans out of San Pietro, a small town northwest of Naples, and the surrounding countryside. When “The Battle of San Pietro” came out, in 1945, it was hailed for the power and the grit of its combat scenes and for its portrait of civilian misery, and Huston was praised for his courage. The film has been honored in those terms many times since. Yet, as Harris reports, the scenes in “The Battle of San Pietro” were largely re-created after the town had been taken from the Germans. Huston had access to official accounts of the struggle, culled from interviews with soldiers who had fought in it, and he used maps and a pointer to keep the American tactics and the chronology straight. But the bloody progress of the G.I.s across fields and along a stony ridge outside the town was staged; Huston’s actors were soldiers whom the Army assigned to the project. The men certainly look the part, their faces fatigued and worried. Huston asked them to stare into the camera now and then, as people do in newsreel footage. At times, the camera jerks wildly, as Ford’s camera had in Midway. Huston turned the signatures of authenticity into artifact.

“San Pietro” ends with text that demurely admits that some of the footage was taken before or after the actual battle—which hardly amounts to full disclosure. Harris has seen the mass of uncut footage, and he’s indignant about the imposture. Yet the issue remains complicated. Certainly, it’s dishonest to claim that something is authentic when it’s not. But all movies are illusions of one sort or another, and perhaps it’s best to say that some illusions are truer than others. In the case of war, what kind of representation brings you the most vivid and the most accurate sense of a terrible event? Steven Spielberg, staging the D Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan,” delivered a greater sense of the deadly turmoil on Omaha Beach than either John Ford or George Stevens, both of whom were in Normandy during the landing, with multiple crews and hundreds of cameras. Many of the cameras were unmanned or didn’t work; the footage recorded that day is largely out of focus or grisly in a fragmentary way.

The War Department wanted morale-building movies for the home front, and, under pressure, both Ford and Wyler softened their groundbreaking work. Ford added hokily reassuring dialogue (spoken by Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda) to “Midway”; Wyler included scenes of ceremonial visits to the Memphis Belle by top generals and by the King and Queen of England. In “The Battle of San Pietro,” Huston offers no such reassurance. As the soldiers advance through smoke and mist, many of them falling to machine-gun fire, the tone of the narration, which Huston himself speaks, is grim. The beautiful old town, when the Americans get there, is nothing but rubble. The survivors look exhausted—not jubilant but merely relieved that their part of the war is over. Huston not only presents the physical hardships of battle; he creates the war as a cultural and moral catastrophe. The sense of desolation is broken only at the end of the movie, by a scene of children playing in the street, their innocent faces making a minimal claim against despair. Even if the images are mostly contrived, “San Pietro” is aesthetically of a piece—and magnificent.

Million Dollar Movie

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Jeanine Basinger in the New York Review of Books:

Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck were separated by fifteen years in age, and arrived in Hollywood more than a decade apart. Although both were famous stars, neither ever won a competitive Academy Award. (Gardner was nominated once for Mogambo and Stanwyck four times, for Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She received an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her “unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”) Both were at the top during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, but one difference between them is fundamental: Ava Gardner was a product of the “star machine” and Barbara Stanwyck was not.

Gardner, from a not very well off but stable North Carolina family, arrived in town with a minimum of security and no acting experience, but was fed into a system that might be expected to take care of her if she behaved. Stanwyck, coming from a hardscrabble background in New York, arrived from Broadway with the security of a contract and solid experience, but took up her career independently and never let anyone own her.

Gardner’s security came with a price. Unable to pick and choose, she was assigned pedestrian films she had to carry (The Great Sinner in 1949, My Forbidden Past in 1951). She wasn’t given many opportunities to grow as an actress. The studio didn’t need that from her, and because of her spectacular looks, she presented something of a casting problem. Who would believe Ava Gardner as a nun, or a rocket scientist, or a neglected working girl in a tuna cannery? She was born to grab the spotlight, and having shaped her image as “a magnificent animal” (her billing for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Hollywood was content to present her that way.

Gardner became resentful and restless, and began to carouse, have affairs, and create problems. She didn’t care if she caused a scandal, particularly when she took up with the married Frank Sinatra and became the most famous “other woman” of her time. Ironically, it was easy for her studio to fuse this off-screen behavior to her on-screen persona, and the role of “Ava Gardner,” bad-girl-good-time-gal-sex-symbol, became an unbreakable image.

Stanwyck’s independence meant that she could negotiate her films and salaries, but she had to accept that she had no priority in any studio’s plans for casting. She lost significant roles as a result, such as the lead in Dark Victory (1939), which went to Bette Davis. Wilson points out that a studio “would have steadily built her up picture after picture,” as MGM did with Gardner, but Stanwyck didn’t want that: “She found it a constraint.” Stanwyck had to fight to get good films, but she had her own supporters, including her first husband, Frank Fay (an established born-in-a-trunk performer), a shrewd agent, Zeppo Marx (the fifth Marx brother), and particularly director Frank Capra, who saw what she was capable of and who guided her in four of her earliest films. As curator of the Frank Capra Archives, I spent many hours talking to Capra about his career, and Stanwyck was a subject he loved. A great admirer of her talent, discipline, and professionalism, he always stressed that since Stanwyck was never owned by a single studio for any length of time, no specific image was created for her. She had to create her own.

Million Dollar Movie

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In this weekend’s book review, Molly Haskel reviews the massive first volume of Victoria Wilson’s new Barbara Stanwyck biography:

Start with the voice, which seems to have been around since the world began: lush, weary, tender, worldly, skeptical, ranging nimbly between hard and soft. It could be metallic, mannish and brittle or gentle as a down pillow, sometimes within the same film, as befits an actress who was at ease in every genre, from woman’s melodrama to the western, with noir and screwball comedy in between. Though film buffs have treasured her for years, Barbara Stanwyck has burned less brightly among general moviegoers for whom a higher voltage is synonymous with stardom.

She was neither a great beauty nor a glamour puss, and the importance of this — her refusal or inability to be simplified into a single image — has to be seen as a major factor in her longevity. More iconoclast than icon, more a character star on the order of Bogie or Cagney, she was often the second or third choice after Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis and Irene Dunne. Yet she has worn especially well. And if she was underappreciated in her time, her minimalist gifts — the fluid movement, the stillness in repose, the sense of interiority — have come to seem ultramodern.

If ever there was an actress who was ready for prime time, it is Stanwyck, and this enormously informative tribute — juicy yet dignified, admiring yet detached — is the book to bring her to center stage. Or books, I should say, for this full-dress treatment is not for the fainthearted: “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940,” at 860 pages of text (notes, index and appendices bring it to 1,044), is only the first volume, beginning with Stanwyck’s birth and ending with the films preceding World War II. Wilson stays resolutely and sometimes frustratingly within this time frame, resisting even an anticipatory peek at those glorious ’40s films. I confess to having felt a certain alarm when I heard that Wilson, a vice president and longtime editor at Knopf whose first book this is, was writing two volumes on Stanwyck. In general, only someone of global consequence merits such exhaustive and demanding length. It seemed — and still seems — especially disproportionate in the case of Stanwyck, whose talent for passing under the radar was one of her charms. But Wilson’s aims are far more ambitious than documenting the minutiae of a movie star’s life.

What she does is provide context of ­extraordinary breadth, taking in not only Stanwyck’s life, her beginnings in poverty and tragedy and her emergence as an emblem of self-sufficiency, but also the world through which she moved: the cultural and political forces that shaped her years in show business as she went from burlesque and theater in New York to the turbulent Hollywood of the 1930s. Each film from this period is recounted in detail — indeed not just the films she made, but the ones she almost made and the parts she didn’t get. These descriptions are interspersed with mini-biographies of the various participants, forays into Stan­wyck’s social life (or antisocial life, as the case often was), along with politics, both local and national.

Margaret Talbot picks some of Stanwyck’s finest work over at the New Yorker.

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New York Minute

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A day in the life of Pete Hamill:

If it’s a beautiful day, I love taking walks. The walks are always aimless. From where I live, I like walking to the Battery, where so many people, including my own parents, came through that harbor and passed into Ellis Island and became Americans. You can just sit on a bench and look at the harbor, or look at the people. Like being a flâneur. You can just wander around and let the city dictate the script.

And here is Hamill’s review of The Boy Detective by Roger Rosenblatt:

To enter the world of this wonderful memoir is to leave the dull certainties of home and go wandering. The author’s destination is always the great wide world Out There, and through his sharp, compact prose, Roger Rosenblatt takes the reader with him. He is, after all, what some 19th-century Parisians called a flâneur, a stroller sauntering through anonymous crowds in the noisy, greedy, unscripted panoramas of the city.

In that role, Rosenblatt has no exact destination. In unstated homage to such wandering scribes as Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, he doesn’t consult Google Earth or a guidebook. He doesn’t need a tour bus or a taxicab. He walks the streets like a poetic stray, embracing chance and accident, inhaling the gritty air of his true Old Country, a Manhattan village called Gramercy Park. He is not, however, parochial. Sometimes he slips over the border to make the strange feel familiar. Along the way, he bumps against human beings he almost surely will never see again.

Those nameless men and women are moving in the streets, retreating into shops, escaping snow or wind in the churches, the schools or the malls that have replaced the arcades once so precious to Parisian flâneurs. At times, a single person is the object of his scrutiny. Above all, his subject is people one at a time. He studies them, he says, like a detective. Clothes, hairdos, shoes, postures. And eyes, which say so much without words about what used to be called the soul. Rosenblatt tells us he has been doing this since his age was written in single digits. Detective fictions filled his head with ways to see the world, really see it, and then try to figure out what he was doing in that world. He suggests that though he studied at Harvard, and even taught there, his most important education came from popular fiction. Above all, detective fiction, starting with Sherlock Holmes.

[Photo Credit: Dave Sanders]

Hip to Be Square

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Peter Schjeldahl has a kind word for Norman Rockwell:

Rockwell’s populous American mythos is ever more to be valued as the shared beliefs that used to gird it devolve into hellish divisions. His lodestar was Charles Dickens, naturalized to New England towns and to suburbs anywhere. And he drew and painted angelically, with subtle technical ingenuity, involving layered colors, that is still underappreciated. I took instruction on this point from de Kooning, who opened a book to a reproduction, handed me a magnifying glass, and made me peruse Rockwell’s minuscule but almost fiercely animated painterly touch. “See?” said de Kooning. “Abstract Expressionism!” Solomon reports that de Kooning remarked of Rockwell’s astonishing imitation of a Pollock drip painting, being viewed by a fancy gent in “The Connoisseur” (1962), “Square inch by square inch, it’s better than Jackson!” I agree, though the pastiche is unpersuasive overall. Rockwell had labored mightily to get the Pollock look right, not as a parody but in homage. He said, “If I were young, I would paint that way myself.” Never anti-modernist, he was always in awe of Picasso.

But—or really and—Rockwell was an obsessive-compulsive, anxiety-riddled, miserable hypochondriac, as at least two of his three schoolteacher wives and his three emotionally stunted children could testify. He didn’t behave badly so much as he hardly behaved at all, outside his studios in, successively, New Rochelle, New York; Arlington, Vermont; and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His psychoanalyst—no less than the renowned developmental psychologist and pioneer of psychobiography Erik Erikson—is said to have remarked that Rockwell funneled all his happiness into his art. Solomon plumbs a suspicion (almost de rigueur in biography-writing lately) of homosexuality. Her verdict: temperamentally so, but moot in one who was puritanically shy of intimacy. I can almost imagine Edmund Wilson, whose “The Wound and the Bow” (1941) theorized a link between psychic trauma and creative genius, adding a chapter for Rockwell. (Wilson’s leadoff essay is about Dickens.) Certainly, there can be few more extreme endorsements of W.B. Yeats’s chilly dictum, “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.”

 

Kansas City Lightning: Bird’s Early Years

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Over at the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz reviews the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s long-anticipated Charlie Parker biography:

That Parker was a child of Kansas City swing should be obvious, but it has been obscured. The temptation to hear Parker’s music as a complete rupture with swing has been fed not only by his beatnik admirers, who saw him as a kind of natural wonder, but by Parker himself, who insisted that bebop was “no love-child of jazz” but rather “something entirely separate and apart.” Indeed, Parker’s work sounds utterly different from the music that preceded it, particularly in its unusual phrasing, and in its splitting of the four beats in a bar into eight. When Parker launches into his improvisation in “Ko-Ko,” his exhilarating reworking of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” he seems to be taking flight and bidding farewell forever to the Swing Era.2 To listen to the recordings Parker made for Savoy and Dial in the mid-1940s is to feel you’re witnessing the birth of modern jazz, with its eighth notes, flatted fifths, and breathless velocity.

No artistic movement, however, is born of immaculate conception. Thanks to the work of Albert Murray, Gary Giddins, and Scott DeVeaux, we now know that the music of Parker and Gillespie evolved from the big-band swing against which it rebelled. Murray, in his 1976 book Stomping the Blues, described Parker as “the most workshop-oriented of all Kansas City apprentices,” rather than a highbrow modernist “dead set on turning dance music into concert music.”

Crouch has praised Stomping the Blues as “the most eloquent book ever written about African-American music,” and there is a lot of Murray in Kansas City Lightning: the celebration of the battle-of-the-bands milieu of Depression-era Kansas City; the insistence that jazz is a proud dance music, rather than an aspiring art music pleading for admission to the concert hall; and above all, the evocation of what Crouch has called “the rich mulatto textures” of American culture. These Murray-esque riffs will be familiar to anyone who has read Crouch’s cultural criticism. But Crouch understands that Bird was more than a gifted exponent of the Kansas City style, and that his inspiration arose from a hidden place that cannot be located on any map. Kansas City Lightning is about what Parker owed to his native city, but also about why he had to make his mark elsewhere.

The glories of Kansas City big-band jazz, which Crouch describes in lush detail, are well known. The formidable leaders of the “territory bands”—Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Walter Page, and others—all plied their trade there. They clashed with one another in fierce, joyful “cutting contests,” and sometimes raided one another’s bands for members. The more than fifty cabarets between 12th and 18th Streets provided an education for young black musicians barred from attending the city’s musical academies. The pianist Mary Lou Williams, who later took part in the bop revolution at Minton’s, remembered Kansas City as a “heavenly” place. It was also a sinner’s paradise, where sex was easily purchased and clubs were supplied with Pendergast’s own brand of whiskey. (When the temperance advocate Carrie Nation came to Kansas City, she was shown the door and told never to return.)

Take a Letter…

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Oh, this is good. The wonderful Letters of Note site has published a book.

The Big Crowd

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Our pal Kevin Baker’s new novel, The Big Crowd, was reviewed by Scott Turow yesterday in the Times:

The novel succeeds in creating a compelling imagined world. Most of the telling is through dialogue, and Baker’s re-creation of the cadences and diction of another time is impressive. Charlie is described as “a jake guy,” while Toots Shor says of a bet he’d like to make, “I could use the kale.” In anger, Tom barks “Nuts,” rather than the coarser language of today. And the hit men have the colorful nicknames of bygone times: Kid Twist, Cockeye Dunn, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum.

Best of all, the novel delivers on what the title promises, a detailed rendering of the relationships within that era’s power cabal. “A city like New York,” Charlie tells Tom, “it’s got to have great men — not good men — to run it. . . . We’re held together against the chaos by the grip of a few strong men, that’s all.” Baker offers a vast array of secondary characters — cops and thugs, politicians, bureaucrats, clergymen, bosses and hangers-on — who grow increasingly vivid as they appear and reappear in the gradual recounting of various incidents, like the murder of Peter Panto, an upstart organizer on the docks. Actual historical figures, including Robert Moses and Cardinal Spellman, are served up unsparingly.

I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making in that environment. Baker doesn’t like the Big Crowd any more than Tom O’Kane does, but, fortunately for us, he understands its workings very well.

[Photo Credit: Mark Nadir]

Talkin’ the Talk

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Over at the New Yorker, Anthony Lane delivers the finest tribute to Dutch Leonard that I’ve come across so far:

Once you hear the Dutch accent you can’t get it out of your head, and for innumerable readers it became a siren song. I fell prey to it in the mid-eighties. Leonard had a breakout, with “Glitz” (1985), and it led many of us to raid the back catalogue with glee. Some of the books weren’t easy to get hold of, and the hunt only sharpened our zeal. A friend and I ravened through whatever we could lay hands on; there is a strange, barely sane satisfaction in happening upon an author—or a painter or a band—and making it your mission to consume everything that he, she, or they ever produced. You rarely succeed, yet the urge for completeness is a kind of love, doomed to be outgrown but not forgotten. I have often pursued the dead in that fashion, but Leonard may be the only living writer who spurred me to such a cause.

…One proof of literary genius, we might say, is a democratic generosity toward your mother tongue—the conviction that every part or particle of speech, be it e’er so humble, can be put to fruitful use. If that means trimming the indefinite article, leaving us with a Albanian and a oyster, so be it. Nothing need go to waste. Richard again, aiming at the formal locutions of a police report, and missing by yards: “I cruised the street and the street back of the residence, the residence being dark, not any light on, but which didn’t mean anything.” So much dumb-ass delusion in so little space, and the linguistic shortfall squares with an overriding sense, throughout the novels, that our grip on the world—and this goes for all of us, not just the chancers and the thugs—is never as secure or as enduring as we would like. Marriages crack like plates; one side of the tracks has no concept of life on the other side, though it may harbor a risky desire to find out; and words will not stay still. That is why the movies inspired by Leonard’s fiction (a slew of disasters plus the odd success, like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” and “Jackie Brown,” which was based on “Rum Punch”) struggle to match his equilibrium. The souls that he surveyed, even when they were played by George Clooney and John Travolta, were unquiet and fairly uncool. Leonard’s gaze was cool, but, in all honesty, it belonged in a book.

I’m curious what Leonard’s reputation will be in 40-50 years. He sold a lot of books in his time but was also a critical darling. Not many writers enjoy both kinds of success but he sure did.

[Photo Credit: AP]

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