Friday, June 27, 2008

Tom Waits at The Palladium in Dallas

Photo from Unfocused Mike

A long time ago during my Austin days, my old roommate Russ worked on a movie called The Ballad of the Sad Café being shot on Willie Nelson's ranch out in Dripping Springs. Russ was the stand-in for Keith Carradine, which meant that he literally stood under the hot lights in the hot Texas sun instead of Carradine as they set up camera shots. When everything was ready, Keith would step on to the set and shooting would begin.

Toward the end of shooting, Russ decided he would allow himself to ask Keith one "Hollywood" question. Because Keith Carradine had recently starred in Cold Feet, the question to Russ – and me – was obvious. "What's Tom Waits really like?"

I don't remember much about what Keith told Russ other than something like, "He's a poet, really." I know the answer was much more comprehensive and thoughtful than that, but I was thrilled to talk to someone who talked to someone who talked to Tom Waits. And for years, I was such a big fan of Waits' music that I assumed that any kind of connection to the man would be some sort of transcendent experience.

So when I finally saw Waits in Chicago back in 2006, it was inevitably a bit of a disappointment. It was fantastic, but not transcendent – except for "Falling Down." However, I'm not sure any artist can live up to those weighty expectations.

Nonetheless, my enthusiasm for the music of Tom Waits remains undiminished and I bought tickets to last week's Dallas show the moment they went on sale.

Much has been written already about the lack of A/C and the dearth of bars. And yes, it was freaking hot in there and the line for any beverage -- with or without alcohol -- was unmercifully long. But for the chance to stand within 50 feet of the man for the entire performance, I'm willing to put up with a lot. However,the conditions may have had more to do with Tom Waits than the Palladium management. At the Tom Waits show in Chicago in 2006, the concessions closed 45 minutes before Waits took the stage and I chalked up the lack of air conditioning to the 100-year-old venue. That show was actually much hotter. If Waits wanted to create a revival meeting atmosphere, lots of heat and no booze are the way to do it.

And that's what it was on Monday night -- a tent revival replete with the showmanship, hucksterism and funkiness. And Waits has always been equal parts Howlin Wolf, Kurt Weill and Billy Sunday with a dash of Cookie Monster playing "Greensleeves." And when he played "Such a Scream" and "Eyeball Kid," he even channeled a bit of James Brown.

My biggest complaint was that the mix -- it was muddy and missing all of the high end. But what surprises me is the songs he played that are among my favorites like "Hoist That Rag" weren't my favorite songs of the evening. The songs I liked best were "Lie To Me," "Fannin Street" and "Black Market Baby" -- not songs I listen to all of the time, but he just blows them out live. And all you "Wire" fans have to love hearing "Way Down in the Hole." It's kind of special.

Transcendent? No. But I've moderated my expectations. Exceptional? Absolutely. Waits is a master showman and I can sleep better at night knowing that I've seen one of my musical heroes not once, but twice. If you ever have a chance to see him, you should. You won't be disappointed. I know I wasn't.

Best Books of the Past 25 Years

Entertainment Weekly released its list of 100 Best Reads of the past 25 years and I didn’t fair too well – four out of 100. Here’s the breakdown:

Have Read
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
31. The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien (1990)
57. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)
80. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (1984)

Have Bought and Not Read
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
26. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
84. Holes, Louis Sachar (1998)

Will Probably Read Soon
37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003)
53. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
64. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
88. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995)

Might Possibly Read Sometime
11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
28. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)
50. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)
79. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

Would Like To Read But Most Likely Never Will
1. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
24. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (1985)
36. Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
42. LaBrava, Elmore Leonard (1983)
47. World's Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)
66. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (1997)
74. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger (1990)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"A Death in the Family" Revisited

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.

So begins one of my favorite book, "A Death in the Family," by James Agee, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1958. Agee was a tortured genius haunted by the death of his father when James was 6, and this novel, published posthumously after his death of a heart attack at age 45 in 1955, is the work of a writer in peak form.

Or so I thought. I read today in The New York Times of a "restoration" of Agee's work to it's original form.

When Agee died, he left a hand scribbled manuscript of a novel that was almost finished. The handwriting was "so crabbed that psychics should have been called in to decode it." David McDowell, Agee’s protégé and literary executor, cobbled together the version of the book that is known and loved today, a lyrical autobiographical account of Agee’s first six and a half years, ending with the death of his beloved father in a car crash.

Scholar Michael A. Lofaro spent years shuffling through the original manuscript to create "A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text," by "tracking down the variants, squinting at Agee’s gnarled handwriting, deciphering illegibilities, comparing drafts, speculating, emendating, annotating — and when it comes to his predecessor McDowell’s version, lacerating."

But was Lofaro able to improve on the original? Will Blythe, writing for The Times says yes:

"At last we have 'A Death in the Family' that appears closer to the author’s original intention. This tidying is good in its own right, but the main reason to celebrate the publication of this version is that it serves as a fresh reminder of the wondrous nature of Agee’s prose — unabashedly poetic, sacramental in its embrace of reality, and rhythmical as rain on a Tennessee tin roof."

I would like to heartily add an "amen" to the previous statement. Even without the novel, Agee would have been remembered for any of his many accomplishments. He was an accomplished poet and a well-regarded journalist who worked for Fortune and time Time in the 1930s. He may be best remembered for his collaboration with the great photographer Walker Evans on their book about the plight of Southern sharecroppers, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," but he is also considered the father of American film criticism, which he defined in his book, "Agee on Film." And, if that wasn't enough, he was the credited screenwriter on two classic films, "The African Queen" and "The Night of the Hunter."

I can't wait to read the new version of this old favorite. If you haven't spent time with Agee, seek out his work at the bookstore or library. Or even spend a moment with this overview from The New Yorker. He is an American original worth remembering.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

7:02 p.m., Wednesday on Magnolia Ave.

I believe in serendipity. Sometimes things just happen that are better than anything you could have ever planned. It's these little surprises that make it worth getting out of bed in the morning.

It was a long day. One of those days where one thing happens and then another and before you know it, it's 7. So I turn off the CPU, grab my bag and begin to head out the door when I see my man, Dan McCarron, Heineken in hand, headed to the fire escape to take seven minutes off of his life. So I grab a cold one and join him.

And in the warm evening sun of a Texas summer, we sit and appreciate the fact that, even though Heineken is kind of a piss beer, sometimes it's just the right thing. It reminds me of drinking beer back in high school, when you were really going uptown if you were drinking Heineken. Of course, that was back in the Eighties when you only had about five beers to choose from.

It's not quite a Proustian memory rush, but drinking a Heineken certainly takes me back about 20 years. And standing in the heat under a wan blue sky in the fading yellows of a disappearing day, telling stories about Coney Island and CBGBs and Joe's Pub and cracking a few jokes with a friend -- I found it an unexpectedly pleasant way to spend a few minutes on a June evening in Fort Worth, Texas.

Yeah, my office is cooler than yours.