Prince on birthdays

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Prince on birthdays

Reviews and riffs of February-May, 2016 (and an unrelated stag)

Hey, wow. Haven’t done one of these in a while.


I reread William Gaddis’s big big novel J R, writing

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).


I also read and wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History, a scary little primer that argues mass species extinction is

…the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole…capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.

My reading of Extinction—and hence my writing about it—is/was inextricably bound up in a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 eco-fable 1997 , Mononoke-hime. (The film’s title is usually rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think Spirit-Monster Wolfchild is a more fitting translation). I also linked the book to Gilgamesh and Easter. And I used this gif:

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I wrote a post about listening to audiobook versions of “difficult novels,” taking my lead and license from this big quote from William H. Gass’s essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.


99 reasons I didn’t read your novel.


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I reviewed Mahendra Singh’s marvelous satire American Candide. Far better than my measly review is a long interview I did with Singh, who is just a damn genius. I’m most grateful for the final exchange of our review, which was not really a part of the official q & a type thing we were doing—rather, I was bemoaning my ability to write anything lately, and Mahendra offered me the following, which I edited into the interview:

The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.


Prince died.

I wrote about him in a Three Books post.

The three books had nothing to do with Prince.


Despite some fascinating images, I was not impressed by Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise. I concluded that,

While the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.


And I wrote about Ferrante, Knausgaard, and their good/bad/ironic book covers.


Here’s that promised stag (by Diego Velazquez):

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Like 8 minutes of Prince rehearsing “When Doves Cry” in 1984

Three Books

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How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. Third edition paperback from Drag City (DC 124). No designer credited.

I first read Fahey’s collection in 2000 or 2001, when it first came out—a good friend lent it to me and I returned it. Later, he loaned it to another friend who did not return it. I bought the book last summer while visiting the first friend (he took me to the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop in Brooklyn). Fahey’s book is sorta memoir, sorta fiction (at times), all weird and good. There’s a wonderful chapter about Fahey’s work on Michaelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point that culminates in Fahey and Antonioni getting into a fistfight.

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Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy by Will Oldham and Alan Licht. First edition trade paperback from W.W. Norton. Cover design by Faber using a painting (of Oldham) by Becky Blair.

The friend who lent me the Fahey book insisted for months that I pick up Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy; when I kept neglecting to find it, he eventually just sent it to me. The book is basically the edited transcripts of discussions between Oldham and Licht. While there’s a heavy focus on Oldham’s music (and his acting career), the book is ultimately about creation and the artistic process. It is one of the better books about music that I’ve ever read. (A “Cosmological Timeline” at the end of the book begins in 1778 with Captain James Cook’s discovery of the “the Hawaiian tradition of surfing” and ends in 2011 with Jennifer Herrema changing RTX into Black Bananas).

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Sign ‘O’ the Times by Michaelangelo Matos. A 33 1/3 book from Continuum, 2004. No designer credited.

I bought this at a Friends of the Library sale maybe 10 years ago. Matos’s take on Prince’s 1987 double album weaves music history and music criticism into personal memoir. The book ends with Prince seeing Matos seeing Prince at an Ohio Players’ show in 1997.

It’s been 7 hours and 13 days

You know I wrote this while I was looking in the mirror, right? | Prince plays “Cream” (and other jams) unplugged

Three (Purple) Books

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Andersen’s Fairy Tales translated by E.V. Lucas and H.B. Paull. Illustrations by Arthur Syzk. First edition cloth-bound hardback by Grosset & Dunlop, 1945. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is by Syzk. This was a gift from a former student.

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Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi. English translation by Anjali Singh. First Pantheon paperback printing, 2009. Cover image by Satrapi; cover design credited to Brian Barth. I reviewed Plums some years back.

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The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. English translation by Lisa Dillman. 2016 paperback by And Other Stories. Cover design by Hannah Naughton from an image credited to iivangm. I wrote a bit about Bodies here; full review next month closer to its publish date.

I finished Herrera’s novella The Transmigration of Bodies a few days before Prince died. The book’s neon purple cover seemed to glare at me from my coffee table when I returned home on the afternoon of April 21, 2016, stunned—yes, stunned is the right word—at learning of the death of one of my heroes. Not just stunned—but stunned at how stunned I was, how sad I felt, how awful and sick Prince’s unexpected, uncalled for, fucking cosmically unjust death was and is. —Wait, I didn’t sign on for this, you protest, eh, dear reader? —No, I didn’t ask for another remembrance or whatever this is, especially not from some blog dude who never knew the guy; look, Biblioklept, the internet’s seams are burstin’ with other, more interesting folks’ thoughts and memories on Prince, you don’t need to—Well I know but I need to. I loved Prince—I loved his music, sure, 1999 and Purple Rain in particular, every song of those records grooved into my mental ear, I can call them up at will—but I loved Prince as an artist, as the Artist, as an aesthetic—which is what I think we, the Big We, all mourn when we mourn Prince. I could go through litany of personal anecdotes about Prince—tell you in detail about first seeing the video for “When Doves Cry” as a child and just totally losing my shit; I could tell you about buying the Batman soundtrack on tape (one of my first album purchases); I could tell you about the summer and fall of 1991, when I was an impressionable twelve years strong, when MTV dared to air Prince’s video for “Gett Off”—I could tell you about how that video accelerated my puberty (I see you plug your ears, reader); I could tell you about discovering that Prince and I shared the same birthday (we are Gemini!) and I could tell you that I always thought about Prince on our birthday, even after I learned that he didn’t celebrate his birthday; I could tell you that my high school band made an album and we named it Prince (it sounded nothing like Prince; nothing sounded like Prince); I could tell you about the year 1999, when I was a junior in college, and how we wore the apocalyptic vinyl thin; I could tell you about djing at a small coffee shop and playing “I Would Die 4 U” five times in one night because I fucking love that song; I could tell you about pulling over the car, late at night, to cry while I listened to “Purple Rain”; I could tell you about dancing to Prince songs at my wedding, at other weddings; I could tell you about how sad I now feel that I never got to go to a Prince concert but how happy I am that I got to see a few on TV, got to see him play and dance and sing; I could tell you I could tell you I could tell you…but I won’t tell you. Maybe you know—maybe you have your own details, your own I could tell yous (forgive me my rhetorical conceits; sometimes it seems that they are all that licenses me to write)—I think you know, I think you have your own I could tell yous. Prince was a fucking genius and he shared that with us (sometimes he shared his genius with us by withholding it from us). Prince was his own genre, his own aesthetic, his own art. How wonderful to have lived on the planet at the same time that he did.

(Not Quite Reviews of) Stuff I Read in September

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So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.

So, what have I been reading?

Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.

I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.

S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.

I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:

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That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.

Here’s his poem about The Purple One:

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“The Easter Egg” — Saki

“The Easter Egg” by Saki

It was distinctly hard lines for Lady Barbara, who came of good fighting stock, and was one of the bravest women of her generation, that her son should be so undisguisedly a coward. Whatever good qualities Lester Slaggby may have possessed, and he was in some respects charming, courage could certainly never be imputed to him. As a child he had suffered from childish timidity, as a boy from unboyish funk, and as a youth he had exchanged unreasoning fears for others which were more formidable from the fact of having a carefully thought-out basis. He was frankly afraid of animals, nervous with firearms, and never crossed the Channel without mentally comparing the numerical proportion of lifebelts to passengers. On horseback he seemed to require as many hands as a Hindu god, at least four for clutching the reins, and two more for patting the horse soothingly on the neck. Lady Barbara no longer pretended not to see her son’s prevailing weakness, with her usual courage she faced the knowledge of it squarely, and, mother-like, loved him none the less.

Continental travel, anywhere away from the great tourist tracks, was a favoured hobby with Lady Barbara, and Lester joined her as often as possible. Eastertide usually found her at Knobaltheim, an upland township in one of those small princedoms that make inconspicuous freckles on the map of Central Europe.

A long-standing acquaintanceship with the reigning family made her a personage of due importance in the eyes of her old friend the Burgomaster, and she was anxiously consulted by that worthy on the momentous occasion when the Prince made known his intention of coming in person to open a sanatorium outside the town. All the usual items in a programme of welcome, some of them fatuous and commonplace, others quaint and charming, had been arranged for, but the Burgomaster hoped that the resourceful English lady might have something new and tasteful to suggest in the way of loyal greeting. The Prince was known to the outside world, if at all, as an old-fashioned reactionary, combating modern progress, as it were, with a wooden sword; to his own people he was known as a kindly old gentleman with a certain endearing stateliness which had nothing of standoffishness about it. Knobaltheim was anxious to do its best. Lady Barbara discussed the matter with Lester and one or two acquaintances in her little hotel, but ideas were difficult to come by.

“Might I suggest something to the Gnädige Frau?” asked a sallow high-cheek-boned lady to whom the Englishwoman had spoken once or twice, and whom she had set down in her mind as probably a Southern Slav. Continue reading ““The Easter Egg” — Saki”

50 Great Guitarists, All Better Than Slash (In No Particular Order)–Part II

Check out Part I here.

6. Ian Williams

I’ve been blown away each time I’ve seen Ian Williams play, whether it was in the original monsters of crushing polyrhythmic madness, Don Caballero, the avant-weird hyperkinetic not-jazz of Storm & Stress, or in his current band Battles, where he taps the fretboard with his left hand and plays a keyboard with his right. On top of that, he’s a really nice guy.

Ian rocks “Atlas” live–

7. Prince

Prince is such an extraordinary performer and songwriter that his skills on the axe are often overlooked. The guy is awesome though, displaying a masterful command over his blistering, soul-stinging solos and tight riffage.

Prince shows Eric Clapton a better way–

8. Brian May

Brian May had to invent new instruments and equipment in order to translate the melodic heavy metal pop in his head. His triple-tracked leads, chugging rhythms, and ambient harmonics were certainly showy at times, but Queen was a showy band. Nothing wrong with that–it’s called glam music after all.

Brian May rips up a 10 minute solo from “Brighton Rock”–

9. Mick Ronson

Would we care about David Bowie today if Mick Ronson hadn’t been there to boost the one-time fairy-folk singer’s fey melodies and bizarro lyrics with some rocknroll oomph? Maybe, who knows–Bowie was (is) always adept at finding great people to work with (no fewer than three of Bowie’s guitar players will make this list). Besides working with Bowie and the perennially underrated Mott the Hoople, Ronson was always behind the scenes working with all the cool kids–Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Morrissey, etc.

Ronson tears up the solo from “Moonage Daydream” on the Ziggy Stardust tour–

10. Richard Thompson

After making five albums with British folkies Fairport Convention (including my faves Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief) Richard Thompson set out down the solo path, recording some brilliant albums with his wife Linda, including the classic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Although he’s best known for his distinctive folk-rock sound and wiry, spare solos, Thompson also made a significant contribution to the new, punk influenced music of the early eighties with his album Shoot Out the Lights–a masterpiece on par with Television’s Marquee Moon and almost as good as anything the Talking Heads ever did.

Check out “Wall of Death” from Shoot Out the Lights