At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

fet·tle n.
1. a. Proper or sound condition. b. Mental or emotional state; spirits: was in fine fettle.
2. Metallurgy. Loose sand or ore used to line the hearth of a reverberatory furnace in preparation for pouring molten metal. (

Pere Ubu Cloudland [1989, Fontana]
"We'd never been asked to write a pop record before," David Thomas says. "I guess it never occurred to anyone." Thomas was happy to oblige. No private visions of decaying cityscape, just equally obscure (and evocative) love songs, down on their knees to rhyme with please. Produced mostly out of Ubu's old Ohio home, then smoothed down and hooked up in London, their signature avant-garage survives with its stop-and-go effects and unsalable recitative in fine fettle. If you're a fan, the six Stephen Hague-produced or Daniel Miller-remixed cuts will sound misbegotten at first. But if you're really a fan, you'll come to recognize them as the urban pastoral of Thomas's whimsical period adapted for the cheap seats, which deserve the attention. A- (

China Night

Last night I joined J.E. and his wife Y. for dinner at one of our local pseudo-Chinese buffets, then went back to their house to see two movies that were both based on the story of the Emperor of Qin: The Emperor and the Assassin, a stately historical drama, and The Hero, a glossy kung fu flick.

It was almost inevitable that I would be disappointed by the former, since director Kaige Chen's stunning Farewell My Concubine is one of my top 30. Emperor, a sobering tale of how the ruler's ruthless political ambitious alienated him from everyone he cares about, was competently done, but lacked the intensity and originality of Concubine.

Hero was also a mild letdown. Looks like director Zhang Yimou might be jealous of Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director who broke out of the art-film ghetto with the blockbuster success of his first action film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or perhaps it's a mere coincidence that Yimou, after a string of excellent dramas like Raise the Red Latern and Not One Less, has now decided to venture into the hyperkinetic world of cinema kung fu. But I doubt it. Hero stars Tiger's Zhang Zimi, and one scene of warriors flying magically over the treetops was especially derivative. Still, it's a good view. The Roshomon-style narrative structure is interesting: framed by dialogue between a minor public official who calls himself "Nameless" and the Emperor, the movie first portrays Nameless's version of events, then the Emperor points out inconsistencies in the story, accuses the official of lying, and we see the plot as the Emperor supposes it happened; and finally the official confesses to the deception and corrects the Emperor's hypothesis with the true account. The cinematography is chromatically rich, although the action too often gets bogged down with Yimou's pretty, carefully composed shots; e.g. a duel between Maggie Cheung and Zhang Zimi is interrupted by a slow-mo shower of golden leaves.

After the viewing we talked about Chinese history a bit. Y., though not a Communist, defended her homeland from what she perceived as the Western media's bias. According to her, for instance, the crackdown at Tiananmen Square was provoked by students murdering soldiers and threatening to destroy Beijing's central power station.

Y. is at least twenty years younger than J., so I guess there's hope for me yet--although it might involve moving to China. (Maybe the West is both exotic and prestigious in Chinese eyes and this combination enhances the perceived attractiveness of Westerners?)

In other moviegoing developments, one of Lubbock's megaplex's is showing two movies I'm interested in. Le Divorce has gotten mediocre reviews but I'll attend simply out of loyalty to the Ivory-Merchant brand name; Dirty Pretty Things has been more favorably received and stars la tres belle Audrey Tautou. Since the rain kept me from taking any camping trips this weekend, I might splurge on the cinema.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Another entry in the "vice is virtue" series.

Der Häßliche Amerikaner

My brother and I just bought tickets to Frankfurt for Sept 19-28. He'll be celebrating the completion of his Ph.D. candidacy exams and I have some accumulated vacation days to spend. By a happy coincidence, Oktoberfest begins in late September! Bro and I will be clinking mugs in Munich, if all goes according to plan. I dread the long flights, though. Wine and Sominex got me through the grueling L.A.--Hong Kong trip back in '98, so I'm thinking similar chemical assistance might be called for here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Notes to Felix re. Gifts

I finally got an issue of the Oxford American. It's the one with the story about Flannery O'Connor's home outside Milledgeville. The heated letters to the editor made me think I missed something interesting in a previous issue.

I dropped my pipe and broke the mouthpiece. I guess now I'll really have to switch denominations, if only so that you can buy me another one as a confirmation gift.

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

per·fi·dy n. pl. per·fi·dies
1. Deliberate breach of faith; calculated violation of trust; treachery: “the fink, whose perfidy was equaled only by his gall” (Gilbert Millstein).
2. The act or an instance of treachery. (

Miami Sound Machine Primitive Love [Epic, 1985]
CBS's preemptive strike at MCA's TV-soundtrack capability casts Gloria Estefan, in real life the daughter of a Batista bodyguard, and her hub Emilio, "Percussion, Manager," as minstrels to Viceland's cocaine trade in crossover mode. Real criminals like their music tougher (also live-er), but before you tsk-tsk the perfidy of cops you should heed your body and note that these prefab grooves move--not least the one called "Mucho Money." B (

Monday, August 25, 2003

On Friday afternoon I exchanged the flat farmland of the South Plains for the scrubby, rolling oilfields of the Permian Basin in order to attend a Christian rock festival in Midland. It beat staying at home, but events conspired to cause me a lot of frustration as well. I arrived at Beal Park on the outskirts of town at around seven o'clock, a few hours after the beginning of the concert, and cruised around looking vainly for a parking space. People were even parked in empty lots, and it was in one of these that I finally I found a slot, nestled between two church vans--the space was apparently left empty because of some bushes growing there. In one of my less noble moments, I gave in to my fatigue and, environmentalism be damned, squashed the shrubs as I rolled into the spot. But Gaia would not be mocked. When I stepped out of the car I saw that these bushes were spiked with thorns two to three inches long. I cursed inwardly and scrutinized the tires for puncture wounds. I didn't see any at the time, but the next morning I went out to the car to get my camera and, sure enough, the front left tire was flabby. Fortunately it had enough air to get me (slowly) to a nearby Exxon, where three concertgoers were already getting their tires repaired for the same reason.

Getting back to Friday evening: after fretting over the prickly mesquite bushes for a few minutes I grabbed my camp gear and walked to the park, a large treeless field with an impressive sound stage at the east end, a colorful village of camping tents at the west end, and a row of big pavilion tents for vendors and organizations on the south end. The sky was overcast and a high wind whipped grit into my eyes. An announcement boomed from the sound stage: "A severe storm is heading this way in 10 minutes. Please find shelter immediately. Tonight's concert is canceled." I scurried to the camping area and set up my tent in a panic, expecting a thunderstorm to roll through at any moment. But despite repeated warnings over the next couple of hours, the threatened storm never materialized. As on the first night of my Taos trip, I spent a long evening in my tent with nothing to do. And I didn't get much sleep either because the rambunctious whippersnappers in the camping area just wouldn't bed down at a decent hour, including the four teenage guys who decided to set up camp right behind me and hit on girls until 3 a.m.

The music resumed late the next morning. After getting back from the Exxon station and using one of the long line of port-a-johns, I set up my camp chair at a distance from the stage, with hundreds of other older folk and young children doing likewise, while the teens crowded together up front. I had my Žižek book to while away the time in between sets or during boring acts. I didn't see too much "Jesus junk", i.e. evangelical kitsch, except for T-shirts with slogans like "Yahweh or the Highway," "Satan is a Nerd," and "Body Piercing Saved My Life."

The sun was set on Broil and I sweated in a slow burn, although that finally changed at around seven o'clock in the evening when, yes, a bank of black clouds drifted towards the stage. But no announcement was forthcoming--perhaps the previous night's mistake had made the organizers wary of giving false alarms. Despite this, when the wind picked up I folded up my chair and walked back to the camping area. I was just getting into my tent when I heard distant screams coming from the stage area, and a couple of seconds later a tidal wave of wind crashed into my tent. The walls rippled violently but I had pounded the pegs flush into the ground with a rubber mallet and so the tent remained firmly anchored. A downpour followed the burst of wind and drummed loudly on the taut nylon. Thousands of teenage girls screamed with (probably gleeful) fright. Through my air vent I saw the crowd packed tightly under the pavilions.

I settled in, enjoying the feeling of being cozy and dry with just a few square feet of fabric separating me from a West Texas storm, and read The Interior Castle until the weather cleared. I then decided to stretch my legs. While chomping on a sno-cone I drifted to the stage. I was surprised to see a message on the jumbotron stating that "The concert will resume. We're setting up the stage right now. Pray that God's will be done." After a long wait the performance continued with a poem, a sermon (which the kids ignored), a trailer for Mel Gibson's Passion (introduced by Mad Max himself), and finally an hour-long set by someone named Toby Mac.

The music wasn't anything special, but I sorta liked Superchick, who played sprightly pop ska, and Toby Mac, who fronted a talented ensemble of musicians pumping out a rap/r&B/pop/metal melange often based on the rhythm tracks of old school classics (Sugarhill Gang, Chic, etc.) which the kids in the audience probably didn't recognize. I don't know if it was deliberate, but the program included a wide variety of genres--besides the aforementioned, there was T-Bone, a west-coast style rapper, Salvador, who did Latin flavored rock, Justifide, a clone of Rage Against the Machine, and a classic-rock band who did a very convincing imitation of AC/DC. Christian rock is handicapped, though, by the fact that the set of devout believers and the set of musically talented people are both small, and it stands to reason that the intersection of the two would be even smaller. (Although it might be argued that churchgoers have an advantage, in that they get an informal education in popular music by singing hymns every Sunday, and certainly the black church has been an effective school for the training of r&b artists.) I think secular rock remains more innovative and compelling, although CCM has come a long way from the days of Sandy Patti and Amy Grant (sorry Khads). I love Van Morrison and early U2, but although they are Christian rock artists, they aren't Christian rock artists, if you get my drift.*

*I recently found out that Michael Omartian, one of the many hotshot studio musicians hired by Steely Dan in the late 1970s, has a double life as a Christian rock musician. I might want to give him a try. I also haven't gotten around to investigating the albums of Dylan's Christian period.

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

kvell v. to beam (at), to be delighted (with). (

The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury [4th & Broadway, 1992]
As critics kvell, skeptics eye their p.c. quotient: a black rapper with white adoptive parents and Asian American DJ who subsumes his racial analysis in an explicitly antihomophobic, antixenophobic leftism and allies himself with the Piss Christ and the Dead Kennedys. And for sure a few of the ideas are pat or simplistic and a few of the metaphors flat or anticlimactic ("politics is merely the decoy of perception"? wha?). But if Michael Franti is no Linton Kwesi Johnson, neither was LKJ at 25. His wordslinging isn't quite Chuck D., subject of the ballsy imitation/tribute/parody/critique "Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury," but his intellectual grasp thrusts him immediately into pop's front rank--I'd put money on his thought quicker than Michael Stipe's or Michelle Shocked's, not to mention Richard Thompson's or Black Francis's. And then there's the DJ that isn't--with crucial help from Consolidated's Mark Pistel, industrial percussionist Rono Tse is a one-man hip hop band. He creates more music than he samples, stretching Bomb Squad parameters to carry the tracks whenever Franti falters. I'd like to think the two could penetrate right to hip hop's fragmented core. But if they never achieve full cultural resonance, their art will have to suffice. And it will. A- (