Archive for the ‘Arts & letters’ Category

Something might be gaining on you

September 11, 2021

It’s been a long, long road.

While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and the dying.Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front”

I didn’t have much to say on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and a decade further on down the road I feel even less inclined to hold forth on the topic. A bunch of people got dead, maimed, or insane; another bunch got rich, famous, and powerful; and the rest of us went shopping.

Did we learn anything from the attacks and what Charlie Pierce calls “our blind, feral response?” Doubtful. We check the rear view every 10 years or so, but that’s just reflexive, like glancing at a TV as you pass.

Anything good on? Nahhhhhhh. Same ol’, same ol’. Hey, who wants to go to the mall?

Black Woodstock

July 5, 2021

You’re never too old to learn. Especially when you start from a base of ignorance.

I didn’t learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until 2019, when it came to HBO in “Watchmen.”

And I didn’t hear about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival until 2021, when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson carved a mountain of forgotten concert imagery into a Black Mount Rushmore, creating the documentary “Summer of Soul” for Hulu.

The Tulsa massacre was buried with its victims for reasons that should be all too obvious. And the Harlem Cultural Festival was strangled by the largely white Woodstock — until Thompson brought the late Hal Tulchin’s long-buried footage back to life.

In an interview with The New York Times, Thompson said:

For nearly 50 years, this just sat in a basement and no one cared. … History saw it fit that every last person that was on that [Woodstock] stage now winds up defining a generation. Why isn’t this held in the same light? Why was it that easy to dispose of us? Instead, the cultural zeitgeist that actually ended up being our guide as Black people was “Soul Train.”

We watched “Summer of Soul” last night, and man, what a blast from the past it was. So many cuts from the pivotal days of this whiteboy’s personal soundtrack.

David Ruffin, fresh from an acrimonious split with The Temptations. A young Gladys Knight and the Pips, very much on their way up. Sly & the Family Stone. B.B. King. Hugh Masakela. Stevie Wonder. The 5th Dimension. The Edwin Hawkins SIngers. And artists whose work I didn’t come to appreciate until later, like Max Roach, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone.

All of them on stage in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, playing for a largely Black audience of 50,000 people at a pop, guesstimated at 300,000 over six shows. Admission: Free.

And to think all that sound and glory wound up in a basement tomb, waiting for someone to roll away the stone.

Pull it, sir

June 16, 2021

Luck of the draw.

Well, I didn’t win the Pulitzer for cartooning again this year.

But neither did anyone else.

Back to the ol’ drawing board, everyone!

Happy birthday, Bob Dylan

May 24, 2021

The Master’s eighth studio album.

I backed into Bob Dylan, the way you might bump into an interesting character at someone else’s party.

“Mr. Tambourine Man?” The Byrds sang me that one. “Blowin’ in the Wind?” Peter, Paul and Mary. “All Along the Watchtower?” Heard it first from Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think I really got into the guy that Chazbo Pierce calls “The Master” until “John Wesley Harding” came out in 1967, shortly after my family moved from San Antone to Bibleburg.

My friends and I played the shit out of that one, and then I started rooting around through his back catalog.

I lost interest after Bob found the Lord, though I dug “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Everything Is Broken.” These days I only have the old stuff — “Blonde On Blonde,” “Blood On the Tracks,” “Bringing it All Back Home,” “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan,” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” You’ll find more killer tracks on those five albums than most singer-songwriters could produce in five lifetimes.

As Thomas McGuane put it in “Nothing But Blue Skies”:

No one compares with this guy, thought Frank. I feel sorry for the young people of today with their stupid fucking tuneless horseshit; that may be a generational judgment but I seriously doubt it.

Extra-Credit Dylan:

• At Esquire, Charles P. Pierce discusses the old soul of The Master.

At The New York Times, Jason Zinoman calls Dylan our most underrated comic, arguing that he belongs “in the pantheon of great Jewish funnymen.”

Lever action

May 7, 2021

Many’s the swab who dreams of being the cap’n, arr.

There was something of a “these kids today” thing happening on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast this week, and go figure — it struck a chord with me.

Maron was getting deep into the comedy weeds with fellow comic Mark Normand, talking about their backgrounds, their neuroses, how they became comics, standups they’ve worked with and admired, differences in style, the mechanics of jokes, lines and the crossing thereof, and whether the crossing is worth the caterwauling from a vocal subset of the audience getting their knickers in a twist over the outrage du jour.

They both agreed with Harry Shearer, who once told Maron, “The reason people do comedy is to control why people are laughing at them.” They both bitched about the gatekeepers with the God complexes who had the power to decide whether they would get any stage time Back in the Day.

And they both seemed astonished that anyone might think there’s a magical short cut to where they’ve gotten by dint of hard labor, some high-speed bypass that skirts the long and winding road.

Maron said it was his podcast that saved him in his mid-40s, at what seemed to be “the end of the line,” when he had no clue about what he might do next with his hard-won skill set.

And the idea that “we live in this world where it’s like all of a sudden everyone thinks they can do this” is “fucking annoying,” he added.

“We will all be immortalized as content.” — Marc Maron, “Too Real.”

“Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth,” said Archimedes, speaking of the lever. A lot of us feel the same way. With the right tool, we think, we can do anything.

Mmm … maybe not.

In my racket — and in Maron’s, too — it was the trickling down of technology from Olympus that led to delusions of grandeur here on earth. A MacBook Pro and Microsoft Office don’t make you a writer. A smartphone camera doesn’t make you a photographer. A microphone and a Libsyn account don’t make you a podcaster. The TikTok app doesn’t make you … well, to be honest, I have no idea what TikTok does to you. But whatever it is, it can’t be good.

Some of us who came to bike magazines through newspaper work used to give the old hee, and also the haw, to what we called “fans with laptops,” wanna-bes who thought devotion to cycling and/or the sport’s celebrities outweighed the craft of asking smart questions, remaining skeptical, and writing clean copy on deadline.

All you need is love? Not even The Beatles believed that shit.

“Podcasts are like babies. They’re too easy to make, and not everybody should have one.“ — Mark Normand on “WTF,” with Marc Maron

It’s one thing to play. We have all these cool toys now. We can blog, shoot videos, record podcasts, self-publish books, and broadcast email newsletters, all with a few keystrokes. Damn the gatekeepers, full speed ahead! Hold my beer and watch this! Slap it all up on the Innertubes, the modern equivalent of Mom’s refrigerator, the gallery for all your childhood scribbles.

But gigging is something else. Chops make a difference if you want to turn pro.

What annoyed me about fans with laptops — and what probably bugs Maron and Normand about amateur comics and podcasters — is that too many of them try to skip the whole boring learning-the-trade thing and step right to the pay window.

Sorry, man. No cuts. Maron got there ahead of you. And he ‘s not about to step out of line and go back to his day job. This is his day job.

“What am I prepared to do outside of show business? Nothing!” Maron said.

Preach, brother. Preach.

• Editor’s note: Incidentally, Mark Normand is a funny dude. He has a podcast or two, and you can catch his 2020 special “Out to Lunch” on YouTube.

Space cowboy

April 24, 2021

“Night has fallen on the desert.” That’s Ken Layne, beginning each episode of “Desert Oracle Radio.”

Daylight has fallen on the desert — and in celebration, I just dropped a few coppers into Desert Oracle Radio’s tin cup over to Patreon.

It felt overdue. I’ve been eavesdropping for free, the way you do when you can. But suddenly, while listening to this week’s episode, I thought: “If I’m gonna keep riding this old greydog through the Mojave, I should really buy a ticket.” So I did.

There’s a lot of talk lately about what new “technology platforms” are doing to “traditional media companies.” Yeah, I suppose. You get to write, or talk, or whatever, with a minimum of interference from “gatekeepers.” And if you’re lucky, maybe the audience will forget that information wants to be free, become subscribers, and kick a few Dead President Trading Cards your way.

Most of what I read about the newsletter boom centers on its threat to old-school newsgathering operations. But Will Oremus at Slate seems to hit the nail on the head when he notes that the Substackers are mostly about commentary and analysis, not straight, original reportage of the kind we used to get from our daily blats before Gannett snatched ’em up.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the commentariat has snuck off the reservation. Even in my little backwater, cycling journalism, management realized early on that “analysis” was a whole lot cheaper than sending staffers to the scene because it could be done on the cheap, at the office, where they could keep both eyes and at least one thumb on the indolent tippling slackers. No airline travel or rental cars, no hotel rooms or restaurant meals, no credentials, no worries. Plus the office has reliable internet. Crank up those MacBooks and pound out the thumbsuckers, bitches.

Now the commentariat has realized they don’t need management skimming the cream from their milking of the audience, assuming they’ve built one and can monetize maybe 10-15 percent of it. Good for them, and good for us, especially if it drives management at “traditional media companies” to think about actually suiting up for the game, which is to say covering the news.

As a bush-league blatherer myself I try to keep semi-informed, so I help nurture a variety of operations, from large to small, outfits and individuals I’d like to see thrive. The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Atlantic. Charles P. Pierce at Esquire. Adventure Journal. Padraig and the gang over at The Cycling Independent. And now Ken Layne at Desert Oracle.

Sometimes it’s about the news. Sometimes it’s about the commentary. I’m a sucker for a nice bit of writing, like I heard in last night’s Desert Oracle Radio episode. It put me in mind of some of the grumbling I’ve heard from Hal Walter lately as Weirdcliffe starts to seem a little too big for its Wranglers.

What if, some day … what if we stopped working hard and stopped doing what we’re told? What if we moved to little specks of towns all over the country? Not the places that already have an organic bakery and four coffee shops with more almond milk than coffee beans, but the places built for things that no longer happen and where nobody ever came up with another workable idea. Old mining towns, old cattle-ranch crossroads, the mostly abandoned towns on Nevada’s U.S. 50 or U.S. 6. The real Las Vegas, an hour east of the wealthy island of Santa Fe. Far-eastern Oregon and Washington state. Places where you could maybe afford a house for your family, your friends, whatever arrangement makes sense. Clean air; hopefully, enough water. Clean streams for fishing. Walk your dog out the back door and into the wild. Keep a garden to attract the bees and the hummingbirds. Why not? What are you waiting for?

Green Hills of Albuquerque

April 8, 2021

Descending Tramway Road to Tramway Boulevard.

Down, down, to Goblin-town, you go, my lad!

Well, not exactly. There’s some gobblin’ at the corner of Tramway Road and Tramway Boulevard, all right, but it involves barbecue at The County Line.

The place smells wonderful when your snotlocker works, which mine mostly does not, thanks to seasonal allergies (oak, cottonwood, juniper, mulberry, grass, etc.).

Between being all boogered up and tweaking my lower back the other day I have been in something of a mood. Maybe watching part one of the Hemingway documentary on PBS last night helped a bit. Wasn’t anyone pulling a couple hundred bits of shrapnel out of my legs in an Italian hospital, and I’ve managed to hang on to my first wife, too. So, yeah, winning, an’ shit.

True, global literary fame has proven elusive, but that’s not exactly a surprise. My agent warned me against titling my debut novel “A Farewell to Arfs.”

Adios, Larry McMurtry

March 26, 2021

My Larry McMurtry collection falls far short of his actual output.

Larry McMurtry has loaded up his last rented Lincoln Continental and rolled west, into the sunset.

I didn’t come close to reading his entire output, but I managed more than a few of his novels; it’s a habit I have, working my way steadily through an author’s collected works.

Got started with “The Last Picture Show,” as I recall, after seeing the movie of the same name. Finished with “Duane’s Depressed.”

And is there anyone who didn’t read “Lonesome Dove?” As Skip Hollandsworth writes in his remembrance of McMurtry at Texas Monthly:

McMurtry had spent years railing against writers who produced clichéd novels about the Old West. He swore he would never stoop to writing a western. But he did, and the novel he produced gripped the public’s imagination. “Lonesome Dove” won the Pulitzer Prize and sold nearly 300,000 copies in hardcover and more than a million copies in paperback. It spawned a sequel as well as prequels, and became one of the most popular miniseries of all time, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. To Texans, went one joke, “Lonesome Dove” was the third-most-important book in publishing history, right behind the Bible and the Warren Commission Report.

Like Stephen King, McMurtry was too preposterously prolific for some critics. Also like King, he wasn’t always winning Pulitzers for his work.

But he buckled down and got to ’er anyway. As his writing partner Diana Ossana told Hollandsworth: “Larry is like an old cowboy who has to get up in the morning and do some chores. He has to get up and write.”

Not anymore, he doesn’t. He can pull off the boots, put up his feet, and enjoy a well-deserved rest.

R.I.P., Tony Hendra

March 6, 2021

“It is the job of a satirist to make people in power uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.”

That was Tony Hendra, and he knew whereof he spoke. Hendra, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease on Thursday, helped make a lot of people very uncomfortable indeed with his work for National Lampoon and Spy magazine, among others.

Had it not been for the trailblazing Lampoon some of us would have laughed a great deal less over the past half century. The magazine had a nut-crushing stable of funnymen, among them Hendra himself. And its “Radio Dinner,” “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” and “Lemmings” led directly to “Saturday Night Live,” “Animal House,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” and the “Vacation” movie franchise.

Hendra’s “Magical Misery Tour” was a brutal takedown of John Lennon using Lennon’s own words from an interview in Rolling Stone. I bet John wasn’t laughing when he heard that one.

Hendra may not be as familiar to you as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, P.J. O’Rourke, or Christopher Guest. But he was right in there among them, one of the ha-ha mechanics throwing shit, just to see what might stick, and to what, or whom. Making people in power uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.

One of his last smiles before the disease took those from him came when he learned the results of the last presidential election, said his wife, Carla.

“He was an immigrant who sailed from London into N.Y. Harbor on the SS United States after being given free passage in exchange for performing stand-up,” she told The New York Times. “What was to be a two-week visit became 57 years, because he believed in the promise of America.”

It’s been a quiet week at El Rancho Pendejo. …

February 26, 2021

The wind sketches clouds across the skies west of the Sandias.

It’s been a quiet week, as Garrison Keillor used to say of Lake Woebegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Pink skies to the west.

The weather has returned to something a little more favorable for hiking and biking, and the National Weather Service forecasts a spring that should be drier and warmer than normal.

In fact, we’re already into allergy season here. Junipers and elms. Honk, snurk, hawwwwk, ptui, etc.

Two of the four people we know who have been looking for work have found it, so, yay. The jobs may not be ideal, but neither are the times. So it goes.

I am not looking for work, but it seems to have been looking for me. Adventure Cyclist asked if I wanted to dash off a little sumpin’-sumpin’ that is not a bicycle review, and we’ll see how that goes. Having been without a column for a while now, I’m kind of out of practice as regards busking for bucks.

It’s much easier to do that here, where I’m both organ grinder and monkey, all at once. Out there in the workaday world they expect you to dance to their tune, when they’re hiring at all.