Springsteen, Landau and Weinberg

I think Tyler Cowen first identified for me my problem with much of the latter day Bruce Springsteen catalog – “monotonous rhythm section” (see this blog post). Along these lines, I found a couple passages from Clinton Heylin‘s book “E Street Shuffle” to be especially on target.

First on page 114, discussing the band and period of touring just after Born To Run album came out. The ‘he’ here is Bruce.

He wanted a drummer who imposed a beat, and left it at that. When he told a court transcriber in 1976 that Landau “taught my drummer … how to play drums in a rock band,” he meant it as a compliment. However, this more metronomic style of playing failed to complement much of the material on which a prodigious live reputation had been forged. In other words, this was not the band Landau recently proclaimed to be “the future of rock ‘n’ roll,” making any ongoing promotional use of the that review almost smack of misrepresentation.

Jon Landau was the critic who wrote the ‘future’ line, and he became Bruce’s manager and confidante. He seems to push things in a very orthodox rock direction, and Heylin zeroes in on this point on page 84.

Landau’s interest had been piqued by the second album and, like Ed Ward, he was curious how they sounded live. If Landau’s local review of The Wild, the Innocent, posted in the window of Charlie’s Place, was essentially positive, he thought Lopez’s drumming “a weak spot,” and found the recording to be “a mite thin or trebly-sounding, especially when the band moves into the breaks.” When Springsteen introduced Landau to his producer inside, Appel rightly called him out, “So you don’t like the album’s production, huh!” Coming from the man who had gutted the most abrasive band to ever come out of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom (Landau produced the MC5′s weak second album, Back in the USA), Landau’s comments suggested an expertise he simply did not have.

From this account, it seems clear that Jon Landau pushed toward the metronome drumming that Max Weinberg quickly mastered. And I guess that helps explain why I still prefer Bruce’s first couple albums over all the rest. Which is not to say that Bruce and the E Street Band don’t put on a great show.

Best of 2012!

I’m going to stick to music this year. Here are the releases I enjoyed most from the year just past. No particular order.

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Menomena – Moms
Grizzly Bear – Shields
The Evens – The Odds
Swans – The Seer
Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction
The Dbs – Falling Off the Sky
AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets
Redd Cross – Researching the Blues
Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando
Steve Lehman Trio – Dialect Fluorescent

Best live shows
James Blood Ulmer – Porgy & Bess, Vienna
AC Newman – Doug Fir, Portland
Rhys Chatham – Issue Project Room, Brooklyn
Swans – Hawthorne Theater, Portland
Tirtha – Crystal Ballroom, Portland

Bikes in Mexico City

I made a trip down to Mexico City this past week, and wanted to highlight a bit of what I saw in terms of bicycling.  On Sundays, they close off a portion of the biggest avenue in the city, Reforma, and until 2pm open it to bikes, runners, rollerbladers, etc.

There are numerous bike share racks along the avenue.

And it appears they have racks set up in quite a few places around the big city.

Here’s a closer look at one of the Eco-Bici machines.

At one end of the avenue, they set up an ‘urban cycling school’ to help folks learn to ride.

I saw a fair number of painted bike lanes around town, but Mexico City riding looks daunting to me – lots of cars, lots of intersections without stop signs where the most aggressive drivers just shoot through.  But I did see some riders braving the open streets, including one guy riding against traffic in between lanes!!!

Anyway, looks like there are also some big organized rides.  This billboard was up in one of the Metro stations (cheap and frequent service), for a Halloween/Day of the Dead evening ride on Oct. 29.

Basquiat – The Radiant Child

Last night I watched a DVD documentary on the 1980s artist Jean Michel Basquiat, called “The Radiant Child”, which included footage from an interview done in 1985 in LA.  The picture above is from another interview, I’d guess around 1982, and I just liked it cause he’s unexpectedly wearing the Wesleyan shirt (my alma mater).

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate his work more and more.  He grew up in Brooklyn in relatively well-off circumstance, but apparently had quite a complicated relationship with his businessman father, and ran away from home several times.  He ran away for good at age 17 in 1978 to Manhattan, and his initial efforts were doing graffiti with a friend under the name SAMO.  This was not standard graffiti – SAMO had messages for the world which were legibly written on building walls in block letters.  Despite being mostly homeless, he had a strong desire for fame and seemed to find his way into it remarkably quickly.

His painting shares similarities with the SAMO work – it’s mostly flat, often features words and lettering, and is frequently covered over with various layers of paint – almost like a building wall that’s been partially painted over and then more graffiti applied later.  The colors and images are stark and striking.  The last one I remember seeing in person was at the Pompidou in Paris, and it nearly jumped off the wall in comparison with most of what was in the gallery.

His work dealt with many aspects of art and racial awareness and his black heroes.  Unfortunately in life he was apparently derailed by the sudden fame and money and hangers-on.  By 1988 when he died, he was feeling almost washed up already, though some of the late work is just as strong as ever.

Duchamp on change

Last time I was in San Francisco, I paid a ritual visit to City Lights bookstore, where I am usually able to find something I’ve not seen before.  On this occasion it was a book titled “Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance” by Herbert Molderings (2010).  This short work focuses on a single work by Marcel Duchamp, “3 Standard Stoppages” which was initially created in 1913 but not really exhibited until 1936, and by that time he had changed the format of the initial work considerably.  The basic idea of it is that he took a string one meter long and dropped it from a height of one meter, and captured the random curve formed when it landed.

While the book takes a variety of interesting tangents and alleys in describing the work, and Duchamp’s various comments about the work, I particularly liked this simple quote from Duchamp:

“Change and life are synonymous. We must realize this and accept it.  Change is what makes life interesting.  There is no progress, change is all we know.” (p. 114)

And here’s one more:

“My work has been an attempt to show that reason is less fruitful than we think. We think we find solutions through this function of rational thought but we do not. The mind is much freer than this type of thought would indicate.”

An interesting book that challenges many opinions of what Duchamp was up to.

Understanding Money

For a long time I’ve been convinced that we mostly don’t understand how money really works.  It’s way to easy to think that the government must operate just like a household, and ensure that it doesn’t overspend – thus many of the current calls for austerity.  And obviously there are limits – we all know about 1920s Germany and Zimbabwe and many other examples of runaway inflation.  But typically there are additional circumstances driving such situations (such as reparation payments and crazy dictators)!

I found this column “Not Enough Money” from the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru interesting, because he believes many of the folks warning of impending hyper-inflation are probably fighting “the last war” instead of truly understanding the current situation.  Here’s a taste:

In warning about inflation, conservatives are crying “fire” in, if not Noah’s flood, at least a torrential rain. It may be that they are stuck not so much in the 1930s as in the 1970s — the time when conservatism forged much of its current outlook on economics, and a time when monetary restraint was badly needed. Conservatives also tend to think that loosening monetary policy is a kind of intervention in free markets, and therefore to be suspicious of it. But this is an error.

Conservative States / Liberal States

This posting over at Richard Florida’s Creative Class blog caught my eye: The Conservative States of America.  There he shows a number of statistical view of the 50 states, and some of the general trends that are evident.  Here’s an excerpt:

Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America’s least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservativism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind.  The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism’s hold on America’s states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.

Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama admiration and the Democratic Party moving forward.

But, the much bigger long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, open and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine.  And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.

In many ways I think this raises more questions than anything else:  is conservatism a reaction or a cause? how truly ‘conservative’ are conservatives, especially around programs like Social Security and Medicare?  But it’s all certainly worth thinking about!

Dion’s ‘Wonder Where I’m Bound’

I was quite happy to come across the CD re-issue of Dion’s “Wonder Where I’m Bound”, an LP issued in 1969 but featuring mostly recordings from around 1965.  Columbia wanted to piggy-back on Dion’s renewed success with the single “Abraham, Martin & John” and threw this together from sessions Dion had recorded with various folks including producer Tom Wilson.  I have a copy of the vinyl, but this CD has a nice booklet with detailed notes on Dion’s lost years in the mid-sixties.  It’s a good set of songs, with a couple Dylan covers – early folk-rock-blues that never got a chance at the time.

Here’s a site with the title song.

Climatopolis – Matthew Kahn (2010)

Climatopolis is a recent book by Matthew Kahn, an economist and ‘green’ thinker, focusing on the effects of climate change on cities (subtitle = How our cities will thrive in the hotter future).  It’s a fairly short and easy read, and has some interesting findings and ideas, taking some level of climate change as a given and suggesting that market forces will provide mechanisms of adaptation as city amenities (like weather and flood risk) change over time – leading people to move around as they see fit.

I find various passages in the book to be annoyingly glib however.  Too often Kahn simply parrots free-market ideas without much consideration or subtlety.  Here are a couple examples.  Page 27, he says that high taxes “encourages people to work less and take more leisure” – well, perhaps, for some portion of the ‘people’ who find that the marginal work effort is not worth the marginal gain, but most people have pretty fixed expenses and will probably work just as much if not more.  Page 45, at the end of a chapter on a variety of responses to city disasters, he writes “One theme that emerges from this chapter is that government policies can significantly increase the degree of climate -related risks that a population faces” – yet one of the sections in the chapter talks about the use of better building codes to increase the quality of buildings and reduce potential damages…  so obviously bad policies can make things worse and good policies can make things better – it’s not a one way street!

As noted on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, there is also a rather casual treatment of past instances of mass violence and death, citing statistics that show that both the A-bombed cities of Japan and Vietnam got back fairly quickly to their longer-term growth rates.  Not much comfort for those in the midst of the onslaught.  And likewise for those caught in climate-change disasters, it’s not going to make the going any easier to realize that probably all will be back to normal in 15-20 years (assuming that’s true).

Kahn includes in the book some closer looks at issue that Los Angeles, New York and the new Chinese cities will be facing, and it is worth a read just to stir one’s thoughts on the future (with a critical eye open).

Here’s Matthew Kahn’s blog on Environmental and Urban Economics.

Christgau’s List

For many years now I’ve perused the Pazz and Jop best music poll results, but these days I find I get the most out of Robert Christgau’s yearly ballot, regardless of where it appears.

Today I picked up a few CDs from the list that I hadn’t heard about during the year, and so far they’re all good.  He’s got wide-ranging tastes – from contemporary country like Elizabeth Cook to Afro-pop, hip-hop and beyond.  Personally I think he’s got a very good ear and can distinguish between the merely good and the stuff that will stand up over the years.

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