Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bonnie Owens

I can never fathom the strange symmetry behind celebrity deaths, but here's another one: Bonnie Owens, who was married to Buck Owens, died on Tuesday after a long struggle with Alzheimers. A month or so earlier, Owens himself passed on.

Casual fans might not be aware of Owens, but hard-core heads know Owens and the crucial role she played as both singer and muse to two of the genre's greatest songwriters, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. She was married to both of them, and the two men openly acknowledged how important Owens had been to their development as musicians and stars. Even after Haggard and Owens split, the pair continued to tour together. "Just Between The Two of Us," a great break-up record in the Conway Twitty-Loretta Lynn mold, was a massive hit for Haggard and Owens in 1964 and played no small role in Haggard's ascension to country superstar. Owens, whose voice sounded somewhat like Lynn's, was a crucial architect of the Bakersfield Sound that bred Haggard and Owens, but all of the solo work is currently out-of-print, at least as far as I can tell (let me know if you know otherwise.)

So raise a glass to a great country gal, ya'll.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Vinyl Remorse

I woke with a start last night, and at first I wasn't sure why. Then it hit me: It was delayed remorse for my lost record collection. Which I sold over a year ago.

After lugging around 30 boxes from L.A. to the midwest then back again, and after much soul-searching, I decided that it was time to give up the vinyl. This was not an easy decision, of course, as those records had helped me find a wife (that's another story, but the short version is, she was the +1 of a party I was hosting, took a gander at the collection, and asked her friend, 'who owns THESE?' It's something they don't tell you about in those self-help guides.)

I thought it was the adult thing to do - to put away childish things and not cling to some pathetic vestige of my youth, which was mostly spent rifling through record bins around New York City. I had finally come to the realization that I wasn't going to re-purpose them by turning into some middle-aged DJ about town. And I had come darn near close to replacing the most cherished stuff with CD's.

Sold them for a song, I'll have you know. Maybe that's what's so painful. Every scratch and nick, every water-damaged cover... you remember, don't you? You always remember. But buyers don't put any sentimental value into some scratchy Dylan record that got you through freshman year; they just look at it as a depreciated asset.

I didn't really bother taking inventory beforehand, and that hurt me big time, because I DID have some valuable assets in there, like all of the Yardbirds albums in mint condition. Those alone were probably worth the money I received for the entire collection. Whatever. I can go on about this ( I didn't even take into consideration the fact that my kids, when they get older, might have derived a lot of pleasure from these pleistocine artifacts). They're gone, and they ain't coming back.

But c'est la vie, right?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Is Casey bound for Mudville?

Casey Kotchman was singled out by ESPN baseball analyst John Kruk yesterday as one of the big-league flops of the early season, and he ain't wrong. I'm wondering whether Mike Scioscia will stick to his guns and let Kotchman play, especially since Robb Quinlan has certainly made the most of his few AB's - and he looks far more comfortable at the plate, for sure. I think the Angels have to give Kotchman at least until June to prove his mettle; it would be a mistake to pull him prematurely, especially since he's not really hurting the team adversely at this point.

Meanwhile, down the street at Arrowhead Pond - is it time for Angelinos to care about hockey again now that the Ducks have spilt the first two games with Calgary? The plot thickens.....

Saturday, April 22, 2006

How To Win A Pulitzer (book genus)

1) Write about genocide
2) Take at least ten years to finish your book
3) Unknown
4) Don't sell any books
5) Tenure
6) Long subhed
7) Gulag, gulag, gulag

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Writing Life: Two (Economic) Views

These two articles about the fortunes of two fine writers -Charles D'Ambrosio and Charles Frazier - should be required reading for all MFA writing students; their professors should Xerox them and pass them out immediately. That way, all of those Alice Munro wannabes who actually think they will somehow scratch out a living as a short story writer will jolt themselves out of their Tin House daydreams and hunker down to write that epic period novel that everyone either seems to have read or at least have placed on their nightstand for a little later.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Flaming Book

Now that The Flaming Lips, after lo these many years, are all the rage, it's time to go out and buy my friend Jim DeRogatis' terrific biography of the band, STARING AT SOUND. Jim has been down with the Okie band from jump street- there is no writer in America that knows as much about the band, and he's developed the kind of trust and rapport with Wayne Coyne and Co. that has made possible this very inside-baseball account of their long and often tortured journey to the peak of hipster-rock-dom. The band's new album At War With The Mystics is unaccountably getting very mixed reviews - I don't get it, because I think it's a stunner, one of the three best records they've produced across their quarter-century career. So my advice is to - go out and buy the record, crack open Staring at Sound, and have your mind Simonized....

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Return of Gay Talese

It's been 14 years since Gay Talese last published a book. In this accelerated culture, 14 years is an entire epoch, and I'm not sure many readers have given Talese a second thought since then. He might as well have been dead.

But now he is finally emerging with a new book called A Writer's Life. Don't let that straightforward title fool you. This is not some sentimental look back at a quiet literary life as pondered from the comfort of a chintz wingback chair, but a wildly discursive, occasionally messy, intermittently brilliant discourse on racism, sexism, sports, culture, food, et al. What it's really all about is Talese, in my view the greatest magazine feature writer of all time, and his search for an identity that existed outside of his profession.

Charles McGrath has written a feature about Talese and his struggles with A Writer's Life in this Sunday's Arts and Leisure section. It's a very nice summation of where Talese has been and what he was trying to accomplish with A Writer's Life. I for one am thrilled to see Talese back on the radar, and I hope people pay attention to the book.

Wither the Lakers?

And what about the Lakers? Are we going to delude ourselves into thinking they could actually take Phoenix in the first round, simply by virtue of a nice late-season run in which Kobe's supporting players finally found that shot of plasma they've been searching for all season, and came to semi-life with some solid production? I'm not buying it, friends.

Angels in April, 2

Now this is more like it. Escobar was nothing short of brilliant last night, with full command of his five pitches. That was a 10K run against a very pesky Minnesota line-up. The offense lit it up, as well. And where would the Angels be without Chone Figgins? He is by far the most valuable player on that team - as he goes, so the offense goes. Kotchman was productive, even if he didn't do anything to boost his anemic batting average, with two productive outs that led to runs. So, the Halos are at .500 at this early, early stage, and I think things are looking solid, if not spectacular. But I'll take solid for the time being.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Overdue Blues

Yes, gas prices are through the roof. But have you checked out a library book lately? Or more to the point, have you held onto an overdue book for any period of time? It's damn expensive now, far more than when I was a kid. The Los Angeles public library system allows patrons to borrow books for an average of 3 weeks; when that period is over, tardy borrowers must cough up a quarter a day.

As everyone with a library card knows, this adds up in a hurry. For writers like myself, who rely on library books as a research tool, overdue books are part of the gig. It's almost a God-given right to hold on to books for prolonged periods of time without sanction; it's the unspoken code of conduct for authors and other researchers. Who can ever remember to renew?

But these fines, well, they're punitive. I turned in a book the other day and had to hand over 7 bucks. Back in the day, I think 7 dollars would cover a year's worth of late fines. This just ain't right! A library user's right to keep his books far beyond the due date is being stomped on by some bizarre code of responsibility and accountability. Stop the madness, LA public library, and let researchers take advantage of your largesse, without fear or fines.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bowden on Wolfe

God bless Mark Bowden. In last month's Atlantic, the great investigative reporter wrote what no critic in America had the guts to say about Tom Wolfe's latest novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons" - i.e., that it's good. I suspect that Wolfe is maligned by the literary establishment for a number of reasons: 1) He's a great writer who also happens to sell millions of books; 2) He's on the Right, and how on earth can a good writer come from the Right? 3) That damn white suit.

If the mark of a good writer is durability, there's no doubt that Wolfe fits the bill; his books will be read 100 years from now as a portal into an epoch, much like Dickens, Zola and other great social writers. "In addition to being one of the most original stylists to ever write in the English language," writes Bowden. " Wolfe has long been America's most skillful satirist."


Friday, April 14, 2006

Fanboy Alert: Os Mutantes, The Fall

In addition to all the desultory summer tour 'fanny-pack packages' and geezer double-chin displays that will roll to your town this year, there is a very exciting development. Os Mutantes, the amazing pshychedelic band that emerged from Brazil's Tropicalia movement in the 60's, is coming to the states for a few dates. They are playing the Pitchfork festival in July apparently, and are hitting some other markets, including a stint opening for The Flaming Lips at the Hollywood Bowl. The tiny itinerary is here, sans the Pitchfork dates.

I, for one, can't wait, having grooved to the band's albums for a few years now. I'm all for artists that manage to nudge the sick and twisted into their joyful sound, to warp the foursquare melodic logic of pop into odd, abstract shapes. Critics have a vexing time trying to taxonomize this band. They really didn't have much in common with the other Tropicalia players - Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, et. al. So it's best to perhaps listen and then reserve your seats.

Also on the summer tour front: The Fall are apparently playing some dates, but, given that they've blown off tours in the past, I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Who's A Spaz?

Oh, wow, the PC police must die. So Tiger says he putted like a spaz at the Masters, and newspapers around the world excise the offending word from their stories? That's just retarded!

Grand Funk Rules!

Oh, Grand Funk, how misunderstood, how maligned! Critics, even those that lived in your Detroit town, called you ham-fisted fools proffering mindless boogie music for shirtless rock festival fools who couldn't tell Dylan from Ochs.

But yes, that was the point, and what's so wrong, anyway? Some bands need to speak to the inner dunderhead in all of us, the voice inside that demands to dance to over-amped blooze-and-booze guitar rock that has lots of chest hair on it and addresses the ecology, and love, people! And the war, brothers and sisters! And, you know, important stuff like that.

All of which is prelude to the fact that I pulled out a bunch of the CD reissues that came out a few years ago, and Shitgodamn, they sounded great! Grand Funk were kinda dumb, but I love these bands that knew exactly who they were and what they were trying to accomplish, and never really stepped outside of those lines. Of course, Grand Funk re-invented itself as a Top 40 band in the latter part of their career - quite deftly, too ("Bad Time," "We're an American Band" - what's not to love here?) So they were in fact more versatile than critics gave them credit for.

Sad part: Trolling the web to find out "where they are now," I see that there's some bogus Grand Funk band touring around with drummer Don Brewer but not its leader-singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Farner, who is touring with his own band. Kids, can't we all just get along? People let's stop the war!

Angels in April

My Angels are looking pretty good so far, in this very early, practically meaningless part of the season. They stuck it to the Yankees two out of three, which is always a wonderful thing, but there are some warning signs that the pitching, which will carry them through to the post-season if it follows form, needs to air itself out a little. Their last two losses were blow-outs, in which the starters (Escobar and Colon) were hit mighty hard. They are the Angel's rocks, but both pitchers had health problems last year. I'm hoping we're just seeing early issues that will be fixed once their mechanics are straightened out. This is a very competitive division, the AL West, and I think even the Mariners could create headaches. The Angels staff needs to be sound top to bottom to make it into October.

The good news: Casey Kotchman is starting to look like a big league player. He's not flailing horribly at the plate as he did in the first few games (shades of Dallas McPherson - the flailing, that is) and we're seeing flashes of the player that tore it up in the minor leagues.

But it's an interminable season, as we all know. One must wait, and watch.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Everybody's Gotta Live, Everyone is Gonna Die"

I am really sorry to hear that Arthur Lee has cancer and is doing poorly. The great singer, songwriter and guitarist for the fabulous 60's LA band Love is no saint, but his body of work stands up to any of his Sunset Strip contemporaries - yes, I'm talking Jim Morrison, Gene Clark, Neil Young. "Forever Changes," Love's brilliant third studio album, is up there on my all-time list, a highly eccentric and exuberant slice of sunshine-and-paranoia pyschodrama that more people should know about.

I had a very strange run-in with Lee a few years ago, when I was writing an obituary for Paul Rothchild, the producer of Love's first two albums. Lee, who had not yet been incarcerated for brandishing a gun in front of a cop, insisted that I pay him $1,500 for the privilege of interviewing him. After explaining that reporters don't usually make it a practice to pay their subjects, Lee relented. "Man, Jim Morrison stole all my moves," he told me. "He stole my women, too." He had no kind words for Rothchild, other than to say that he didn't fuck too much with Lee's music. It was probably the strangest interview I've ever conducted, but I can't say I was surprised.

After Lee did his jail time, he got his Love-redux band back together (LA band Baby Lemonade) and really threw down - sold-out shows all over Europe, a series of fine shows here in town and elsewhere in the States. But even his own band couldn't deal with Lee's erratic behavior, and they kicked him out of the new Love. Yes, THEY KICKED HIM OUT OF HIS OWN BAND.

It's too bad Lee's going out on that discordant note - but his legacy will stand. Go out and buy Forever Changes and Rhino's two-disc anthology Love Story

Monday, April 10, 2006

I'll See You Courtside Live

Last night, during the Lakers-Clips game, I stumbled upon something wondrous. I think it's been around for a while now - maybe this season, maybe last - I haven't watched enough Lakers to know. Anyway, it's called Courtside Live, and it's an alternate broadcast shown on the other Fox Sports Net channel. It's the game beamed to you from a handheld video camera positioned at court level. That's it. There are no commentaries, hardly any commercial breaks, no obnoxious time-out music. This is cinema verite sports ladies and gents, and it should be the future.

By providing an unvarnished view of the game, without any slam-cut edits, Courtside Live allows you to feel the ebb and flow, the real pacing of a professional baskeball game. It's kind of like watching a movie before the editors have grabbed the raw footage; instead of the freneticism of the usual broadcast, you feel the downtime, the way the players huff and puff on the sidelines and try to regenerate themselves before stepping back out onto the floor. There's a lot of attention paid to the benches and it's a revelation; last night, you saw the players on the Laker bench try to psych themselves up with playful nudges and smack talk. Or Clipper guard Sam Cassell, holding a giant ice pack on his bald pate to cool himself off and re-group.

It feels more like a "you are there" broadcast; Courtside Live shows all of the goofy fan participant time-out games, and most important, the Laker Girls and their tight torsos. You can hear the arena announcer thanking Jack In The Box for its support, or offering two tacos for each fan as a Laker win premium (even though the Clippers played, it was officially a Laker home game). It was, in a word (or two) way cool, as if Fredric Wiseman had decided to direct sports instead of interminably long documentaries about mental institutions. There's only a handful of regular season games left; do check it out if you can.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Where are the Ugly Writers?

Remember when writers were ugly? Jowly, bald, fat, slovenly -- that was the writerly look for ages. Writers were the anti-photogenic strivers that lurked on the margins. Now, it seems like everyone's a looker. Just thumb through the NY Times Sunday Book Review on any given Sunday - damn, when did novelists become major babes and hunkolicious studs? I do hope this isn't a new prerequisite for publication -you know, a nifty prose style and a creamy complexion, that kind of thing. Otherwise, I'm in deep shit.

Lefty, a True Gent

Phil Mickelson might be a crackhead. He might enjoy looking at videos of young boys having sex. How do we know, really, what the man is all about? His own wife might not even be aware of his predilictions.

But I'm willing to wager my sand wedge that Mickelson, who won his second Masters today, is a pretty decent sort. He seems well-mannered - the kind of man who says "Thank you" when the waiter fills up his water glass. And that's why Mickelson, as well as Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Tiger Woods, and the rest, are good for sport- they are the last good guy athletes.

We have yet to find Andro lurking in the golf bag of any top ten player, and I doubt Rocco Mediate, say, will someday dissemble his butt off about some mysterious substance , which he rubbed on his 3-wood prior to the final round of the British Open, that might or might not have been flaxseed oil. Golfers are true gents - almost too good to be true, I suppose. But it was so refreshing to see Mickelson and Fred Couples, the last pairing on Sunday, engaging in the kind of sportsmanship that has completely vanished from the sports landscape - giving each other reassuring pats on the back, sharing private jokes, laughing, just enjoying the heck out of the moment. Never mind that a major title and a million-plus dollars were at stake.

So I salute Phil Mickelson for a job well done and a code of behavior that should be a model for every high-priced athlete. In this Barry Bonds era, it's a salutary corrective indeed.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Gene Pitney

Celebrity deaths tend not to get me too worked up, but I am distraught over Gene Pitney's passing. I guess I just felt the man never did get the proper respect he deserved. Yes, he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for what that's worth. But that only happened after years of lobbying on Pitney's part. It broke my heart when Pitney, during his HOF acceptance speech, thanked everyone who had petitioned his nomination.

This was an artist whose acheivements shouldn't have warranted a get-out-the-vote campaign. He wrote one of Phil Spector's greatest productions, The Crystal's "He's A Rebel." And "Hello Mary Lou," perhaps Ricky Nelson's greatest record. His own hits were all wonderfully lurid, melodramatic pop - "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Only Love Can Break A Heart," and the brilliant "Town Without Pity."

Few folks are familiar with his amazing album of duets with George Jones, but I recommend that you seek it out. Strangely enough, it was in heavy rotation in my car the last few weeks. These two voices shouldn't really work together - it's kinda like having Kobe and Iverson in the same backcourt - but they do. Bear Family released the album with a bunch of extra tracks a few years back and it's a real treasure. I interviewed Pitney about ten years ago for an article I wrote about the record, and he was a total gentleman. He had gone into the country club business in Connecticut as I recall, and he led a prosperous and contented life.

He will be missed.

The End of Network News as We Know It

The hiring of Katie Couric to take over the anchor spot for CBS News represents the death knell of that network's long and distinguished history of dignified broadcast journalism. This is the network of Murrow, Severeid, (younger) Mike Wallace, etc. I am disturbed by the fact that the network has taken the path of least resistance instead of either keeping Bob Schieffer on, or developing someone new to take over. Now, even the conceit of an anchor at least having a hand in the reporting and writing of news stories appears to be out the window. I am aware that Couric has a news background, but come, now. Now that Mike Wallace has announced his retirement, the last link to the network's venerable roots will be severed, and CBS will wallow in the muck of garbage journalism like the rest of them.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

YouTube, Me Addict

Sure, I love those goofy lip-synching shorts as much as the next YouTub-er. There's something very endearing and refreshing about the fact that one of the most popular sites on the web is a repository for rec room silliness, sans potty-mouth humor or other scatalogical antics. It's as if thousands of webcam exhibitionists have been infected with some virulent virus contacted from saliva-swapping with Napoleon Dynamite.

But that's not why I keep clicking back to YouTube. For me, it's all about the music clips. So, so many clips. For any TV rock junkie, like myself, who has had to swap umpteenth-generation David Frost shows like Samizdat in order to get that coveted clip of Trini Lopez from Shivaree, YouTube is the greatest web thing ever. It's as if all of the insane TV rock bootleggers collectively stepped out from the shadows, sqinted into the light, saw YouTube, and decided to set their booty free. And I for one say, thank you, whoever and wherever you are.

I can punch anything in the search engine - Captain Beefheart, Can, Roxy Music, Grand Funk, Minor Threat, whatever - and find a handful of clips that blow my mind. Stuff I've never seen before, things that have been mere rumors for years and years. Some of it IS nth-generation crude, which is part of the charm; it gives you a little frission of illicit kicks to see, for example, a very fuzzy clip of the Clash performing on the rotten SNL ripoff Fridays, or Captain Beefheart trying his level best to be a coherent guest on a very early Letterman show (from 1983?)

Problem: Too much time wasted on YouTube, which can bring on severe lumbar and neck pain, and put you way behind in your work. So I must click on to it judiciously, lest the thrill be gone too soon. Ah, I don't think I've ever seen B.B. King actually perform "The Thrill Is Gone" when that song was new - I wonder if YouTube has it. Let me just check......

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Dutton's wasn't really All That

OK, I'll bite: I enjoyed Dutton's as much as the next bibliofiend. Whenever the words on my computer screen would bear down with such force that I had to duck out of the way, it was a nice place to browse for a well-earned break, to look at other writer's words and reassure myself that, yes, it CAN be done.

I have read all the encomiums in the local press - there have been many. Sure, the place had its haphazard charm, hidden treasures abounded, blah, blah, blah. But I have a beef with all of this Dutton's love and it has to do with the pricing system of the place. That is, for a used bookstore, the discounts were measly and hard to come by. Over the years, I became inured to the following routine: Pick up an interesting looking volume (invariably some well-thumbed paperback with crisp brown pages) flip to the inside cover, only to discount. This shock is similar to the one you get when pulling an empty carton of milk from the fridge that you assume is full: one thinks, Why on earth would anyone do THAT?

Dutton's would sell 30-year-old books that were worth no more than 50 cents for their original retail price. I found this to be an egregious, unconscionable offense, especially for all of those penny-pinching book lovers who look to used stores for their supply. It's too bad that L.A. is short another used book store, but I can't say I will mourn Dutton's passing with any rueful regret for its glory days.