Seeing the light

Workbook (cover)

So, it’s official: This is happening. I’m writing a book with one of my dearest, oldest friends, about one of my favorite musicians, on one of the albums that bonded our friendship in the first place, for a music-related series that I love and respect dearly. Keep your eyes peeled for our book on Bob Mould’s Workbook in 2017.

Here’s the official announcement. Daniel and I have started a Tumblr page for the book that will be updated on Mondays and Thursdays with outtakes from the book, videos, contextualizing pieces, and all the other detritus that’s involved in co-creating a book.

RELATED: I wrote about seeing a Bob Mould concert, with Daniel Couch, almost exactly ten years ago. Things circle back around, don’t they?

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“If two people who have been strangers, as all of us are, suddenly let the wall between them break down, and feel close, feel one, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating, most exciting experiences in life. It is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with, or initiated by, sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting. The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being ‘crazy’ about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.”

—Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

(Hat tip: Brain Pickings.)

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Buster Keaton #13: The Blacksmith (1922)

Blacksmith (7)

1922 was Buster Keaton Productions’ most prolific year, with seven two-reelers produced and released—more than one every two months. Sometimes, it shows. Cops, for instance, has considerable promise and lots of invention but seems too ambitious for Buster’s filmic abilities at the time. The Paleface has iffy racial politics, and takes too long to build up steam. My Wife’s Relations felt, to me, like the master had forgotten half of what he’d learned about moviemaking.

But then I think: Too ambitious for his abilities? What crack am I smoking? Even great artists make bad works. It happens, especially when you’re churning ‘em out at this time. So, I forgive The Blacksmith for recycling the ending of My Wife’s Relations, which features Buster escaping his combatants by dashing onto a moving train. It’s likely that the studio had access to a train for this period of time, and Buster—being the resourceful guy that he was—said, “welp, we better milk this cow for all it’s worth.”

Besides, no apology is necessary, when The Blacksmith improves on My Wife’s Relations in every conceivable way. It returns the cast & crew to single-location shoots (well, mostly—there’s a ramble in the countryside and on the railroad tracks) of 1921. Buster and company make as much use of that blacksmith’s shop as they can, and it’s to the immense credit of sumptuous Elgin Lessley’s cinematography that the place seems vital and dynamic, despite the short being basically a single-location one-act play.

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Buster Keaton #12: My Wife’s Relations (1922)

My Wife's Relations (yeast)

My Wife’s Relations is pure anarchy, with the raw, violent force of the Fatty Arbuckle shorts Keaton worked on before he created his own, clockwork-precise though seemingly freewheeling films. This is just 24 minutes of people socking each other and, though it’s often funny, it feels primitive, unrefined. All the punching gets dull without the counterbalancing grace, timing, and wit of, say, Neighbors or One Week.

Like Neighbors, this one’s about marriage in the tenements, lower-class immigrants of all sorts mashed together in tight space and making do (and making love, of a sort). But there the similarities end. Buster ends up married by accident to a stereotypical battle-ax (Kate Price), and forced to contend with her mean father and bullying brothers. Actually, the whole movie’s pretty mean. Buster and his bride hate each other from the first moment—a Polish judge married them under false pretenses; they thought they were court to settle a dispute; yes, it’s as senseless as it sounds. The family’s hateful, and Buster’s just trying to survive. The brothers throw him around like dead weight. Price clobbers him in his sleep. But, hey, Buster started it by punching her in the shoulder. The only way he gets to eat meat at the dinner table is by convincing the Irish Catholic family that it’s Friday, and that they’d better get that steak outta their mouths. Then they get fooled into thinking he’s rich, and so pretend to be nice to him, until his subterfuge is revealed. And Buster’s so foolish that it’s not even an intentional ruse; he thinks he inherited a fortune from his uncle, too.

So, no one comes off well in My Wife’s Relations. Everyone’s duplicitous, spiteful, putting on airs, and willing to sell out their relatives for a quick buck. There’s marriage but no love, slapstick but little sense, punches but no poetry.

Well, almost no poetry. As in so many Keaton films, the smallest bits shine the brightest. My Wife’s Relations features three glimmers of greatness. The first is that dinner table scene, in which Buster never gets to eat because he keeps getting interrupted and bossed around. Here, the sequence goes on too long, and would be improved upon in Go West but it’s a classic slow burn all the same. The second occurs after the family gets “rich,” and invites a photographer over to take its portrait. Buster breaks the tripod by accident, and the cameraman tries to shoot the image after Buster’s messing-about, which leads to this:

My Wife's Relations (group photo)

The third is a grace note amidst the final slambang chaos. Buster makes his final escape, and has to bull his way past one final oversized brother. He knocks the guy out with a brick but then, just for a moment, returns to the practical sweetness that makes me swoon for Mr. Keaton, even when he makes a mediocre entry, as My Wife’s Relations surely is:

My Wife's Relations (pillow brick)

That’s poetry, and this film needed more of it.

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Buster Keaton #11: Cops (1922)

Cops (Buster on a cart)

It probably says something about me that I keep Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines in my car, as a perfect quick read for when I’m stuck in line somewhere or I forgot to bring a book to the doctor’s office. Fénéon discovered Georges Seurat, published James Joyce in French, worked for anarchist magazines, probably sent (or at least commissioned) bombs on their behalf to government offices, and then ended up working for the French War Department. Along with all this craziness, for a year (1906), he published anonymous news items for Le Matin, a daily paper. His terse, ironic accounts summed up incidents of murder, mayhem, and controversy, bit by bit. Imagine the column as a witty, more mordant version of your newspaper’s police blotter, or an early 20th-century Twitter account focused solely on everyday French lunacy.

His thousands of meanly hilarious, acridly informative pieces do, collectively, give a stunning, bloody portrait of France at the cusp of the modern era. Amid the infanticides, poisonings, wife-beatings, labor strikes, political corruption, and shootouts—France was nuts in 1906—are Fénéon’s renditions of vehicular mayhem. A sampling:

Ribas was walking backward in front of the roller leveling a road in the Gard. The roller picked up speed and crushed him.

At the station in Mâcon, Mouroux had his legs severed by an engine. “Look at my feet on the tracks!” he cried, then fainted.

Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train. She was then run over by a passenger train.

Raoul Blanchard, of the 123rd Infantry, who was riding his bicycle in Tonnay-Charente, killed himself running into a wall.

Fallen from a train traveling at high speed, Marie Steckel, 3, of Saint-Germain, was found playing on the gravel ballast.

Because his friend refused to kill him, a 19-year-old boy of Liffol, Haute-Marne, got himself beheaded by a train.

Marcel Prévost fell, in Saint-Germain, under the wheels of an automobile going three miles an hour. The young man broke his ribs.

Mlle Martin and M. Rougeon will leave behind no progeny. A through train ran them over at Clamart. They were to be married soon.

His foot caught in the coupling of two rails as if in a trap, Gorgeon, of Saint-Dié, struggled. A train cut him in half.

I confess that I’ve always found these items to be the least believable, though I know Fénéon was just recording what he scanned in the papers and putting his own, weird spin on it for Le Matin. How do you get run over by a car going slower than an average man’s walk? How do you ride a bicycle fast enough to kill yourself that way? Did that many people really decide to do the stupidest things possible in the presence of trains? Yes, I realize that automobiles were brand-new at the time, that trains were relatively new, and that suicide attempts were (and are) common. But still. Come on.

It wasn’t until watching Buster Keaton’s Cops that the sheer chaos of early vehicular life became clear to me, and that I could see how automobile/train calamity could be so common.
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Buster Keaton #10: The Paleface (1922)

Paleface (kiss)

The Paleface ends, so far as I can tell, with Buster Keaton’s first kiss. And it’s with Virginia Fox, his loveliest and most nimble-footed foil up to that point. So, it’s got that going for it.

It’s weird that it took him over ten shorts to smooch a girl, given that 1) most of Keaton’s shorts are romantic comedies at their roots; 2) Keaton was rather handsome with that long face, soulful eyes, and sharp cheekbones, and routinely played men who—no matter how prone they were to pratfalls—knew who they wanted and went about getting her, in the rough-and-tumble manner of Clark Gable; and 3) that the women (Fox, Sybil Seely, Bartine Burkett) were equally rough-and-tumble, knew what they wanted (Buster, usually), and were less shy about getting it than most romantic-movie dames at the time.

Then again, maybe not. Even by the boy’s-club standards of slapstick’s creation, Buster’s shorts are oddly sexless. In a Keaton short, finding love largely means finding someone who will slap you around with affection instead of animosity—in short, someone who’ll put up with your bullshit. The possibility of fucking seems incidental to Keaton’s sense of romance.

So, it’s jarring (in a good way) to see, at the end of The Paleface, Keaton swing Fox around for a swooning kiss. He must have known it, too, for he immediately makes the moment ironic, putting it in quote marks. He kisses her hand, and then the swoon-kiss… and then this title card: Continue reading

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Gratitude #3: D’Angelo at the Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA

On the night of 14 June 2015, I saw D’Angelo and his band perform at the Tabernacle, a former church converted into a beautiful, acoustically remarkable, concert venue. I’d been there before, on Valentine’s Day 2014, to dance to Trey Anastasio and his band. That show was terrific but D’Angelo’s was otherworldly. Maybe I just have good luck at that venue.

I hadn’t planned on going. $75 a ticket seemed much; it was a Sunday night; I live in Athens, 70 miles away. Hell, I didn’t even know about the show until my friend Louisa called me to ask if I was going. I’ve loved D’Angelo since back in the day, and Voodoo (2000) was one of Those Records That Got Me Through Life. Something she said in that phone call stuck with me. “Walter, I know it’s 75 bucks,” she said, “and you’ll have to book a hotel room for the night, so more like $150. But I want you to think about this: You could save that 150 bucks. You could. But, in twenty years, if you don’t spend that $150 on this show, will you remember how you spent that money you saved?”

No, I wouldn’t. So I went. And I’ll remember it. Here’s the letter I wrote to her and my friend Dan two days later. It’s slightly edited, to remove personal details, but otherwise this is what I wrote in a rush while the concert was fresh in my memory. Enjoy.


Dear Louisa and Dan,

Around the fourth song, “Brown Sugar” (from D’Angelo’s first album), I did something I don’t normally do at shows. Normally, I’m in the moment, just sweating and shuffling my feet and singing along. And I was doing that here. But I was also at a remove, looking at the show from a bird’s-eye view a bit, and ranking the show as it was happening. As in: Is this the best concert I’ve ever attended? The Bob Mould show at Nuomo’s in 2005 has been in the top #3, with the Old 97’s New Year’s Eve show at the Longhorse Ballroom swapping with the Mould in my mind. The 2nd Phish show I saw (7/26/97, Austin, TX, Southpark Meadows) is always in the mix. Is this show, right now, as good as those? That’s not the question—it clearly is. But is it better?

I was consciously thinking these things as D’Angelo and his 10-piece band roared and shimmied and coaxed their way through a 3-hour show that modulated between hard funk, sly croon, sober meditation, and balls-to-the-wall rockout. I drank only water, so my mind was clear. (Have I ever told you that, on principle, I don’t drink or do drugs at concerts? I might have a beer at a show, but even that’s rare. There’s lots of reasons for this, but mostly it’s that I figure that, if I’ve made the effort and expense to be there, I want to remember it and to experience it, and those desires circumvent any wish to get fucked up.)

What astonished me immediately about D’Angelo were three things:

1) The use of call-and-response throughout the show, with D’Angelo coaxing the audience into singing along and timed hand-claps, gestures… without being overtly theatrical about it. It all felt natural, the movements of a man totally in control of both the band and his audience. He’s up there dancing, changing costumes, interacting with the band, playing guitar and keyboards, singing his heart out in a variety of modes (croon, shout, R&B simmer, angry swagger), and he’s fully present in all of it. He’s pudgier than he was when he last did this, but he’s not fat; he looks like a fit 41-year-old man, which is what he is, after all. But, if I’m that energetic and alert onstage for 3 hours at his age, I’ll be doing all right. He was totally comfortable in his skin, which was sexy as hell, and magnetic. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.

2) His band. They’re as responsive to him as he is to the sold-out crowd. There’s a lot of stagework on top of the musicianship–synchronized hip shakes and dancing, band members crisscrossing the stage and switching mikes, music that stops on a dime (and then starts again). Kendra Foster, mostly doing backup singing, co-wrote many of the lyrics on Black Messiah, and she’s electric. She’s never not in motion, with these hypnotic dance moves that aren’t purely sexualized or provocative—just really cool, spacey, and yet somehow always on point with the rhythms. The band, including D’Angelo, is dressed mostly in blacks and greys, which means that, as theatrical as the show sometimes gets, the motions don’t feel flashy or forced, like “Oh wow we’re going to impress you now.”

3) The songs are both exactly like the studio versions but also expansive, with room to breathe, with breaks for improvisation, with sudden switches in time signature, tempo, and melody. As audience members, we always knew where the songs were and where they were headed, but we were also consistently surprised by them.


D’Angelo played about an hour. As we were cheering, a guy next to me said, “that was good but it seemed short.” I said, “honestly, I think we’re just getting started.” And I was right. The first encore, coming after a delicious wait, lasted about 45 minutes, roaring through stuff on Voodoo (my favorite of his three records) and Black Messiah, plus a vamp that appeared to be unconnected to any particular song. And then another wait.

It was during the second encore that I finally decided that this was the best concert I’d ever been privileged to see. After playing my 2nd-favorite song on Black Messiah—“Tutu (Til It’s Done)”—he dove into the song we all knew he would play, and the song we all knew he was the most ambivalent about. Indeed, he mock-started it at least 5 times, going up to the mike, opening his mouth to start the first verse, and then turning away hilariously at the last second, the band vamping behind him.

When he finally got going, something beautiful and really touching happened. You know how, in Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, the concert starts with just David Byrne onstage, and with each song a new band member comes on stage? This was the opposite of that. The drummer stepped away first, walking up to D’Angelo and giving him a high five, and then walking off the stage. Everyone else keeps playing. We all keep singing, “How does it feeeeeellll?” Then, a minute later, a backup singer does it, giving D’Angelo an honest-to-God hug before he departs. Then one of the guitarists. And so on. Each time a band member leaves, he or she gets thunderous applause. Eventually, D’Angelo’s sitting, playing his Yamaha keyboard, and it’s just him, Kendra Foster, and Pino Palladino. The song has lost most of its musicians but none of its intensity, because the audience’s swaying and singing keeps it going. D’Angelo planned it that way, of course, but it doesn’t feel planned. Kendra leaves, with the crowd thundering for her.

So, that leaves D’Angelo and Pino. If you’ve read my Glide piece, then you know what I think Pino adds to D’Angelo’s vision. The crowd knows it, too. You don’t have the world’s best funk/R&B/soul/dance band in the world without a great bassist. Even before Pino puts down his instrument, people are cheering for him. He gives D’Angelo a hug at the piano—for a second, the music stops (because D’Angelo is hugging him back)—and we keep it going with our singing and rhythmic handclaps. Finally, D’Angelo stops on the perfect cadence, and simply says, almost shyly, “We are so grateful, and so blessed. Thank you.”

And he’s gone.

Look, Robert Christgau wrote a better version of this 15 years ago, but nothing has changed in the interim, except D’Angelo didn’t take his shirt off. He didn’t need to.

It was some show, man.

Love and all best,

P.S. Oh, one thing I forget to mention: I always thought women throwing bras at the stage was a rock-movie cliché that didn’t happen in real life. But, um, no, apparently it’s a thing. Girls were near passing out.


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