Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Confessions of a Musical Philistine

Recently a Facebook friend of mine posted a letter she had written in which she extolls the virtues of vinyl records—their longevity, their physicality, their ability to evoke the times and places in which they were listened to. Along with the text, she also posted photos of herself holding up various LPs she was giving away to a young man as a Bar Mitzvah gift. Merely by looking through the photos, I got a taste of the pleasures she was describing in her eloquent letter.

Though I spend a sizable portion of my own leisure time listening to music, however, and have a constant mental soundtrack playing in my head most of the time, I've never been a vinyl guy. In my earliest memories, I can recall listening to a couple of my parents' records: the soundtrack from Grease, the Steve Martin album with the King Tut song on it. I had quite a few read-along records, 45-rpm sized, but that's about it.

When I first started listening to music in earnest, it was on tapes. I didn't get a CD player until I was a senior in high school; and now, mostly, I listen to music on my iPod and my computer. I don't have a particularly nice speaker system. I rarely patronize record stores anymore (particularly since there's virtually none within the city limits)—I buy music from Amazon. In these ways, then, I am anathema to audiophiles, a gauche consumer of tunes without the refined habits of the connoisseur.

Yet, in my own perhaps debased way, I have had something of the experience my FB friend describes. I thought of it a few months ago when R.E.M. announced their final dissolution, and I was moved to pull down from the closet shelf all my old R.E.M. tapes. I took a photo of them and thought of writing a blog post about what R.E.M. had meant to me., but I never got around to it.

Looking at these tape covers, holding the little plastic boxes, I do recall all the time I spent listening to them—working on math homework at my desk down in the basement of the house I grew up in, or hooked into headphones in the back seat of my family's van as we drove somewhere. I remember going to the Streetside Records on Watson Road to buy many of these.

Let's face it, though: tapes aren't the same as vinyl LPs. The cover art is shrunken; the recording material is not as durable; the listening experience is less sensual, and less convenient as well—it's harder to go directly to the song you want to hear.

So maybe it's not surprising that I've become a musical philistine. I never had much of a chance, coming of age in a world of tapes, never having had that formative emotional experience with vinyl. As Huck Finn says, "it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up."

It may be that eventually all my CDs will deteriorate and my MP3s get corrupted. I certainly won't have fond memories of the fleeting moments I spent buying music online (or downloading my free weekly songs legally from the library). I know that I'm settling for a less beautiful life as a music listener. But, honestly, I don't envision ever changing my ways.


An interesting series of covers (with accompanying article) for Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, a collection of stories about Auschwitz by an author who was there.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


The first paragraph of Timothy Noah's review of Paul Starr's Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle Over Health Care Reform is striking:

Barack Obama achieved more significant change in domestic policy during the first two years of his presidency than any president since Richard Nixon has over the course of four or eight. That’s because in 2010 Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. We don’t know how this story will end, but there’s now a law on the books that, for all its many shortcomings and unpopularity, will extend health coverage to most of this country’s uninsured. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the share of legal nonelderly residents who have health insurance will rise from 83 percent to 94 percent. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, some unquantifiable number of people will live who would otherwise die.

As are the final two sentences:

Should the Supreme Court chuck Obamacare, health policy will be back to Square 1, and Obama’s presidency will be instantly transformed from a substantive success to a substantive failure. I fear that Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Kennedy may find that possibility too tempting to pass up.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The provocative opening to Martin Amis's review of Don DeLillo's new collection of short stories:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?

Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Anchored Down

It occurred to me the other day that Michelle Shocked's classic 1988 song "Anchorage" is now a period piece, kind of like the old Marvelettes tune "Beechwood 4-5789"—made quaint by the evolution of communication technology.

For example:

1) The first lines: "I took time out to write to my old friend ... mailed my letter off to Dallas." Who writes letters anymore? Who mails them?

2) Later in the song, the speaker's friend writes back: "Hey girl, it's about time you wrote me. It's been over two years you know, my old friend." Today these two would obviously be friends on Facebook.

3) Near the end of the song: "Tell me, what's it like to be a skateboard punk rocker? Leroy says send a picture. Leroy says hello. Leroy says, As keep on rockin' girl. Yeah, keep on rockin'." In the song, these lines speak of Leroy's yearning for a window into a world beyond his drab workaday existence with the speaker's old friend in Anchorage, Alaska. Nowadays, he'd just Facebook stalk her and look through the albums of photos she'd post of her skateboard punk rock life in New York.

4) I hate to say it, but would it be possible to write a song about Alaska now without making at least a humorous reference to Sarah Palin?

Ah well. It's still a great song.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Revival of Laughter

A nice bit from a review of a posthumous collection of John Updike's essays:

His own word-pictures — of events remembered, books read, pictures seen, games played, loves grasped and relinquished — are among the gifts of our literature. “Perhaps,” he writes in an essay on humor, “one reason we laugh so much in childhood is that so much is unexpected and novel to us, and perhaps fiction revives that laughter by giving us back the world clearer than we have seen it before.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Word of the Day

My day has already been made: by David Remnick's use of the word "callipygian" (look it up) to describe Kim Kardashian in his Comment in the upcoming New Yorker.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Nod to Bob

Today I downloaded some early Bob Dylan tunes (legally!) that I'd previously had only on tape. Listening to them, I became curious about the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, about Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez. Eventually I ended up on the Wikipedia entry for Dylan, where I found this funny little nugget:

In the late 1970s, Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums of Christian gospel music. Slow Train Coming (1979) featured the guitar accompaniment of Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) and was produced by veteran R&B producer, Jerry Wexler. Wexler recalled that when Dylan had tried to evangelize him during the recording, he replied: "Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year old Jewish atheist. Let's just make an album."

Friday, November 4, 2011


From a review of a new biography of Kurt Vonnegut

Mr. Shields provides a good assessment of misconceptions about Vonnegut’s writing. Those impressions persisted throughout his later life, perhaps because the books that followed “Cat’s Cradle,” “The Sirens of Titan,” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” became increasingly unreadable.

“On the strength of Vonnegut’s reputation, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ spent a year on the best-seller lists,” Mr. Shields writes of that 1973 disappointment, “proving that he could indeed publish anything and make money.”

Huh. Should I be embarrassed to admit that Breakfast of Champions has always been perhaps my favorite Vonnegut novel?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Know Who You Are

In my adolescence I read a lot of Stephen King. I haven't read anything more than a short story or two by him in years, but I do tend to pay attention to what he's up to.

His new novel—a time-travel story about a guy who tries to prevent JFK's asssassination—is being marketed as a new kind of Stephen King novel. Whether it is or not, I found this Wall Street Journal article interesting and this anecdote amusing in particular:

Mr. King recalled a woman who approached him in a supermarket in Florida, where he has a winter home.

"She said, 'I know who you are, you're that writer, you write those horror stories, and I said, "Yes, ma'am, I guess," and she said, 'I don't read that kind of thing. I respect what you do but I don't read those. I like uplifting things like that 'Shawshank Redemption,' '' Mr. King recalled. "I said, 'I wrote that one, too,' and she goes, 'No, you didn't,' and she just went on her way."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Slavery and Shaw

Here's a piece I've got up at the Occasional Planet today about a memorial to slaves who attempted to escape from estate of St. Louis's own Henry Shaw.