Quick hits (January 2011)

2010 was a long year for me—not bad, necessarily, just long.  La Bella and I switched houses and neighborhoods in June; I’ve struggled with writing since the summer (though check out two pieces that I’ve really proud of having published); finances are still in disarray (though stabilizing); we traveled practically every weekend in November and December, and got to missing our home beds.  You know, the usual bullshit.

What’s been hardest to deal with, though, is the lack of new books, movies, and CDs into my brain, as I basically cut my entertainment expenditures down to zero.  (I saw fewer than ten 2010 movies, and half of those were on DVD.)  Entertainments outside of literature have always jumpstarted my writing, so it was difficult to learn to rely on blogs, essays, and library books almost exclusively.  (“Almost exclusively,” my ass, of course—a third of what’s on my bookshelves are books I haven’t read.)  As the flow of new “immediate” art dwindled away, I found myself increasingly unable to enjoy those forms—music, especially.

To shorten the lengthy days and to keep culture churning in, I turned to podcasts, talk-driven ones in particular.  Now, I’ve never been a talk-radio listener.  In fact, I haven’t been much of a radio listener since high school; I have Pandora stations—who doesn’t?—but they’re mostly unused.  Still, I was able to find quick bursts of energy, downloaded without my conscious efforts (thank you, iTunes!), that served as good background music and foundations for my critical thought.

As for my fiction, it’s ongoing.  I’m working on a children’s novel and an adult novella, and I recently submitted a short story to One Story.  Wish me luck on the latter.

Anyway, this is a long preamble to this month’s edition of “Quick Hits,” which reflects a lot of my interests over the previous year.  I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, with more details about the future of the site—which, if I do say so myself, looks pretty good.  Here we go.

The Deadpod: I’ve written before about “The Grateful Dead Hour” and my frustration/fascination with the San Francisco band, but “The Deadpod” throws it into relief, as it’s far superior to, and more focused than, GDH.  Each week, the Professor uploads a single set from a Dead show—they played two sets a night, so every two weeks, you get a full show.  The host usually picks shows with the highest sound quality, so there’s less grot and fuzz than on traded tapes.  Occasionally, he’ll throw in full shows from the Dead’s many side projects—Jerry Garcia Band, Ratdog, the Other Ones, etc.  He gives a quick, enthusiastic rundown on the concert’s context and significance, and clues listeners into moments to watch for.  Despite my difficulties with the band, I find that these full sets serve as wonderful background noise for me as I write—interesting but not totally engrossing, with enough nuance and tonal changes to stir the mind, propulsive but not completely absorbing.  B+

Derek’s Daily 45: Every day, except for weekends, there’s Derek, slinging out a hot 45 onto his blog.  Due to rights issues, the songs are streaming rather than downloadable.  And the songs are only up for a little while, so Go! Go! Go!  He veers towards 1960s and early-1970s soul, psychedelia, and garage rock, and he loves equally the one-hit (and no-hit) wonders along with the obscurities from big stars.  He provides snippets of contextual and production info, and even an image of the actual slab of vinyl.  A little brother to Funky 16 Corners, which posts downloadable full mixes and leans toward funk as well, Derek’s site is nevertheless essential for a full understanding of what pop music was up to in the 1960s, especially the African American corner of it.  A

Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts: There’s no Deadpod equivalent for Phish, a band that I revere far more than their jam-band predecessors, but this blog comes closest.  Mr. Miner—an allusion to one of Phish’s most beloved songs—updates daily with streaming live songs, concert photography, promotional imagery, YouTube videos (which often look as if they were taped on an iPhone), news updates, links, and (of course) full concerts.  The full shows span the breadth of the band’s career but the streamed songs mostly comes from the present.  The concert sound quality can be spotty, and Mr. Miner’s fanboy writing lacks any sort of critical distance.  Because I love Phish, I find that, surprisingly, doesn’t make for good writing music, unless I’m so involved in a piece that I could keep going through an air raid.  Still, this site is invaluable.  A-

The Watt from Pedro Show: In the punk and post-punk world, Mike Watt is damn near a patron saint.  But Robert Christgau got at the root problem in a quick album review: “Credwise, Watt’s got it all. He was the fulcrum of a great band, he’s serious with a sense of humor about it, he’s got not just politics but class consciousness, he talks a great game, and, oh yeah, he networks like crazy. The only thing he isn’t is a compelling artist.” Indeed, I find most of Watt’s solo output and post-Minutemen collaborations to be unlistenable.  So why is his weekly podcast so enjoyable?  Part of it is that he takes the “buy local” aspect of punk seriously.  Most of his interviews aren’t with famous people but instead with locals (Watt hails from San Pedro, California) who fascinate him—the 13-year-old drummer who plays in a band down the street, the guitar-store owner that Watt buys his basses from, music bloggers that he likes (I found “Derek’s Daily 45” because of a TWFP episode, roadies for his various bands.  In some ways, Watt uses his (relative) fame the way David Letterman did in his early years at CBS—to promote, showcase, and goof off with the non-famous people in his immediate orbit. Part of it is that Watt takes the inclusive, deeply personal aesthetic of punk seriously, too.  He’s encyclopedically knowledgeable about punk and garage rock, sure, but also jazz and early R&B, soul and the latest electronica.  (All of this shows up in the show’s playlist.)  Every episode begins with a John Coltrane tune to set the scene.  Part of it, of course, is that Watt is so genial—he talks and interviews like your favorite stoned, pop-besotted uncle, though he’s probably stone-cold sober at all times.  Still, three hours of this at a time wears my patience, and some of the music is truly godawful.  B

WTF with Marc Maron: Easily the best podcast I’ve ever heard, “WTF with Marc Maron” is a glorious boon for comedy nerds.  I’m not a comedy nerd but I’m enthralled, anyway—and I’m becoming one, slowly, because of this show.  Twice a week, Marc Maron interviews someone from the comedy world—standup comics, improv actors, sketch writers, film/TV actors and directors, parody musicians, literary humorists, and others.  It’s a surprising broad range of talent.  Because he’s a comedian himself, he can draw out conversational details about specific comedy scenes (the Chicago sketch scene, nightclubs in Philadelphia) and key figures.  I’ve said, more than once, that comedians and jazz musicians tend to make for the best talkers, because conversational exchange is a crucial part of what they do for a living.  Here, they never disappoint.  It’s not so much that they’re funny—often, the interviews are quite serious—but that they are extremely articulate about the sources and methods of their work, and about how rigorous and soul-searching it becomes.  Maron, a garrulous and aggressive interviewer, asks tough questions but is willing to give his subjects full reign to explore ideas.  The effect is that the interviews, nine times out of ten, quickly become true conversations, with the interviewee asking as much as the interviewer.  Interviewers open up—unlike late-night talk shows, the talk isn’t polite soundbites; these people name names and give full air to grievances and professional failures.  I often feel like an eavesdropper at a comedy club after a set, listening to two pros have drinks and really get down to it.  It’s thrilling.  A+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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