By request, and in honor of the passing of Roger Ebert, improv’d Mulholland Drive interp from memory

In a nutshell, my take on “Mulholland Drive” (I have not seen it in years but was obsessed intially) is that this young woman (Diane Selwyn I think her name is) wins a dance contest in her native Canada, decides she wants to become a movie star, moves to Hollywood, lives in a crappy apartment and saves her money up working as a waitress and doing bit parts in small productions that don’t really get her anywhere. At some point Diane has a brief NSA encounter with a more successful and beautiful rising starlet who gets her a bit part in something bigger that her fiance is directing, but she ruins by becoming attached and clingy to this starlet and expecting more than NSA which only drives the starlet to spurn her more, to the point of inviting Diane to her wedding announcement party with all these stars, including elderly has-been celebrity Coco and a waiter in cowboy costume serving up drinks, etc.

Diane is utterly humiliated by this ultimate statement of rejection and starts to withdraw and become clinically depressed that all of her dreams have ended in failure. In a fit of vengeful rage, she takes all of her savings and hires a hit man to take out the starlet but then has second thoughts once the process is in motion and she is unable to stop it. She becomes even more distraught and desperate and falls asleep on what turns out to be her last night alive. She dreams about the hit on her erstwhile fling starlet getting botched and the amnesiatic starlet and herself have fun Nancy Drew-ing it up all over the place, even to the extent of trying to track down Diane Selwyn (herself! Creepy!). In this first part of her dreaming, everything is idealized – she’s come to Hollywood and lives in a beautiful upscale apartment with Coco as one of the guests, she gets an interview for a major film and blows them all away on her first audition, etc etc.

But then, as is frequently the case with nightmares, uncertainty creeps in, and then unease, and then things start spiraling out of control, including a scene where she encounters her own body rotting in her crappy (real life) apartment, so forth. As her self-loathing and sense of utter failure insinuate themselves into even her deep subconscious dreaming mind, she has a surreal dream in a theater with a singer singing a sad Roy Orbison song in Spanish but then the singer falls and the song continues. She had a nightmare peak and what strikes me as a moment of self-realization where she sees her life in very bleak and stark terms and knows she’s lost the will to live. She exits up the layers of sleep and awakes to find a normal blue housekey on her coffee table, which was the signal from the hit man that the job was complete.

She has a mental breakdown, where she makes coffee and thinks about the events that led to this moment, then reclines on the couch and violently works herself to an orgasm and then runs down the hall to her bedroom, throws herself on the bed, retrieves a handgun from the bedside nightstand drawer and blows her brains out.

Of course, this is the story told chronologically but David Lynch doesn’t tell it in that order in the movie, and that’s the amazing experience of watching the movie and all the creepy dream references and feeling how uncanny he is at capturing the subconscious and dreaming experience. There’s an incredible dream within a dream, lots of wonderful symbolism, the whole thing works metaphorically for the Hollywood experience, and precisely because it’s so layered and take you “under” with him it makes repeated viewing downright thrilling as you catch more and more references from within the dream about the real world and from the real world and the real world flashbacks at the end about the dreaming.

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Time of the Cataclysm Wolf-Baby

Cataclysm Baby

Having just finished Matt Bell’s brand new novel(la?) “Cataclysm Baby” I must say that it is, after all, a true success.

 

I doubted so on The Road there, but as I progressed through the miring half-light, I went from disdain at the easy pickings of just creating stark creepy snippets to begrudgingly admiring his ability to control his relentlessly desolate texture with such surgical precision – yet texture alone does not the success make, in my ledger, be it fiction, cinema or music, no matter how sexy or groundbreaking or heart-shredding.  By the end, the one-too-many episodes of emotionally icy and despairing beauty mounting up or the grim humor I was sometimes able to connect between the episodes’ baby names and their story content was still not what made me really like this work.  

Rest of review at the PBR Book Club link …

 

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Poem for a Passed Friend

An old friend of mine passed away suddenly a few months ago, shocking friends, family and coworkers with her too-early departure. She was a light. Everyone says that, and maybe it’s always true. All I know is that it was true for sure in her case.

Here is a poem I wrote a week or so later when the disbelief had morphed into a constant haunting of thoughts, always there underneath and on the periphery. It just happened to be on Valentine’s Day. I can share it now that a little time has passed.

Image


Hollow Valentine


On a walk,

On a half-shrouded February night,

I saw mostly bones and skulls in the half-light

It’s been a time for death

Lately

What does it mean to live a life

And then not be here

Anymore



I hear the coyotes whoop,

And one by one, the calls of dogs

Drift to me from hidden spaces

Across the snow



I see the winking light above tracking

Mechanically slowly

Across the patchy pale dark

And the muted starfield beyond



When I was last on the long night flight

Looking endlessly down into the light-sprinkled blackness,

I imagined people in their cozy homes

Or driving around on highways and roads



But I never imagined a stranger unseen

Miniscule in the far below on tiny feet,

With his thoughts searching out and alone

To the distant empty reaches



– Steve Dahlberg 02-14-2012

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Why do we bond with certain music and never really move on?

I’ve always thought we bond more closely with music when the hormones are highest (adolescence into early adulthood). Also there is a certain tight bonding with children that happens with everything they glom onto. Therefore, under this reasoning, a lot of people like the music they bonded to in childhood, but especially the music they listened to in junior high, high school and post-high-school. Even years later, nothing else seems as vital.

Being a musician, I’ve found lots of stuff over the years I really like, and continue to do so, maybe by listening to it a certain way, I don’t know. Still, the overall pattern of my idea about early bonding still loosely holds true underneath my general ongoing curiosity about all kinds of music.

Oh yeah, here is a bit of poppish ear candy I was quite taken with recently – from Finland, Pepe Deluxe and the cut “Go Supersonic” from their relatively new release “Queen of the Wave”:

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tUnE-yArDs An Ear-Ringing Success!

tUnE-yArDs finally made it back to Lawrence after a cancelled previous attempt and they played a very cozy (packed and loud) and warm (hot and sweaty) Jackpot Saloon. I say they rather than she because assistant Nate is apparently now a true songwriting partner with Merrill as of at least their latest album release. And their two-man sax section from Portland made for some incredibly effective sound stacking as this duo delivered blistering and chops-laden bursts of delicious insanity with enthusiasm in spades.

But Merrill (yes I refuse to use her surname as per normal journalistic style) is the ringleader here. You can’t not like her. There’s just no way. She’s so gentle, happy and humble between songs and then she starts to concentrate and lay down foundational layers of sound, her brow furrowed and her stocking feet dancing around the sampling pedals on their racetrack rug, and then this goddess-demoness-dangerous-benevolent-spirit-guide rips its way out through her throat, eyes, and hands, which are screaming discordantly or breaking into high vocal flutters in perfect intonation while building fascinating strata upon strata, glaring or scowling or beaming triumphantly out over the audience to an unseen distant knowledge, and using drum sticks to pound deep toms in rolling rhythms or using fingers to delicately pick or violently bash-strum her brown ukulele.

Feet and Pedals on Racetrack

Feet and Pedals on Racetrack

Experiencing this phenomenon live is hands down more satisfying and revealing than the CD or YouTube experience, which was my only prior benchmark for them.  From about nine feet away (and three feet away from an overhead PA speaker, ouch), I witnessed what was in a nut shell an impressive, deft real-time sonic painting and construction project with massive punch-you-in-the-face vocals and lyrics over embellished primitive African rhythmic structures run through a Minimalist sensibility filter. I really appreciate music that warps the commonly understood agreements about what something like a “song” is but this kind of envelope-pushing is hard to pull off so consistently, masterfully, and with such accessibility.

While the mix was loud at the close range, I’m fairly certain that the decibels from the audience response to her crowd interaction and at the end of songs easily surpassed the house PA where I was standing. At one point she encouraged the audience to hold a specific pitch for her, which we did with gusto, and it became the ultimate final layer of the composition. Nice touch.  It reminded me of that Crown Uptown first Pixies reunion tour a few years back where the audience spontaneously began “oooohhhhh”-ing the descant lines in “Caribou” and suddenly Kim Deal heard it over the stage sound and looked up with a startled look at the floor crowd and then up into the balconies and a huge smile broke out across her face.  There were similar but much more condensed and animalistic moments of sharing at the Jackpot last night and this is what makes live music into something you just have to be there for.

Merrill Garbus and her brown uke

Merrill Garbus and Her Brown Uke

Opener Pat Jordache had their moments but were just not as interesting (to me). The mix was awful to my ears, at least up close to the PA, where it was distorted, garbled and over-driven. Sound check was a litany of intractable hums and buzzes with bad cables and power supplies and who knows what all, while mic checks between songs revealed static and noise on the lead vocal mic, to the discovery of which the singer muttered “oh, this, thing …” which was actually a moment of unintentional humor for those of us that heard it.

At their lesser points they sounded like a generic 80’s pop song demo in a dirty live bar-band mix, but I did get genuinely caught up a few times near the beginning and end of their set when they were in their two-drummer configuration. At these moments they had blocky walls of heavy drums regimenting into tight rock-oriented punchy arrangements with  guitar and heavy bass chording employing tasty stops and a counter-phrased strong vocal on top. In general I liked them best when they went for the rock edge and when they didn’t do this they suffered from a noticeable lack of interesting weirdness which prevented them from being bona fide “experimental.” Then again, trying to out-experimental (or even keep up) with tUnE-yArDs in that arena would be a thankless endeavor for an opening band in any circumstance.

First things last:  A final nod must be given to the wonderfully diverse crowd. First connections were made as I arrived alone and discovered like many to come after me that while there was no sign posted on the door, once you entered you found out that despite the “doors at 8 pm” listed on the website and apparently the tickets as well, we had to stand outside in the chilly blowing rain and lightning for forty minutes. I felt sorry for the door guy having to tell a never ending parade of people pushing in from the cold and in a few cases already a bit feisty and internally warmed by prior libations that they had to wait outside with no definite ETA for coming in.

As we waited, though,  we shared knowledge about the band, the opening band, what was happening; one group had seen both bands together recently in Austin, so forth. Once inside, I offered the two-seater against the wall to a couple that had driven down from Nebraska after being handed a tUnE-yArDs flyer as they exited the recent St. Vincent show at Liberty Hall. They were in heaven later when the show began, by which time (an hour late, right on schedule for the Jackpot of course)  it was densely packed in the front half of the venue –  hot, close, and quite a cultural, social and geographic assortment of fans. There was even some interesting dancing here and there, at least around where I ended up camping out with my friends-during-the-concert compadres, and there was adrenalin-driven solidarity and unity in the experience.

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The Queen of Rockabilly

Words and the couple crappy pictures I snapped can’t do this experience justice. Bottom line:  If you get a chance to catch Wanda Jackson while she’s still touring (she’s in her 70’s), just do it. This is about the Wanda Jackson show at The Granada in downtown Lawrence Wednesday night, May 17.

I got there just before the opening duo of Holly Golightly and Lawyer Dave took the stage and I must admit it was probably the fact that they were opening that got me out of the house. While I’d seen Wanda when she first started touring again around ten years ago (at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City – wonderful show) , the combination of thinking I may not have another chance to catch Wanda plus a chance to see Holly live for the first time did the trick even after a long day of work.

I dug their gritty trancey-melodic set and the irresistible humor of their banter and lyrical content – I was laughing out loud at “Junkpile Joyce”, “Get Out of My House”, and the one about packing lots of cans and guns into a hole in honor of the coming Endtimes this Saturday (seriously, the Endtimes are actually really believed to be coming in two days now, which makes me wonder if there will be a spike in ironic church attendance on Sunday). A note about his drum set up – two pedals that look like they have independent front and back parts that allow his socked feet to operate a stick on a high-hat in tandem with a tom snare beater, a tambourine, and a deep boomy kick drum, which frees his hands up to play nasty sludgy hillbilly-ey slide guitar.

Holly Golightly & Lawyer Dave

Typically crappy phone shot of Holly Golightly & Lawyer Dave

They sing a lot of unison vox and little harmony and it sounds just right. I really like the “just so” delivery in most of the songs, and the near-goofiness at times (the “get outta my house” mantra at the end of that song for example). The set was way too short but they were truly playing the role of the quick opener – I’ve got to check them out next time they hit the Jackpot – the Granada didn’t really feel quite right for them and not that many people were there for them, though it began filling near the end. I bought a cd because this is the kind of non-corporate musical pleasure I like to see proliferating.

The backing band from Nashville took the stage and while not as lo-fi as I would have liked, they were very solid and in retrospect an ideal backing band for Wanda – my friend Derek pointed out that Jack White’s huge gesture to her probably allowed her to have this traveling band with her now rather than the local setups she used to rely on (Google for the album Jack did with her after her long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the promotion and subsequent touring) . They got the suddenly much fuller crowd engaged and primed with a hint of rockabilly followed by a quasi-Chuck Berry-ish steady rock texture and then there she was.

I suddenly remembered her last appearance, where she is just downright charming and vivacious, humble and daring, a graceful link to a now-distant past in American music, a beautiful voice that does everything from shouting to caressing to yodeling to crooning and all of a sudden up comes that cross-cut saw blade ripping through the sonic layers.

And once I was mesmerized, I caught many, many glimpses of the intense young Rockabilly Queen that we can barely make out in the archival footage as we squint through the YouTube lens of the past. But her voice and incredible sense of delivery was the real solid sender that tied it all together.

Wanda Jackson on stage at The Granda in Lawrence, Kansas

Typically crappy phone pic of the still smokin' Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson on stage at The Granada in Lawrence, Kansas

Her stories are fascinating glimpses into a by-gone era and her many facial mugs to the audience and subtle hand gestures while she moves and sings range from nearly-lewd to comical and innocent, and even these hint back to her time with Elvis and feel like clues to a lost era. At a couple points she did some audience hand grabbing and in the initial pass I was surprised when she actually grabbed my hand and held on for quite a bit, singing all the while with those piercing dark eyes. I swear I’m not exaggerating when I say her touch was soft and yeah, sexy – don’t know what I expected but it was an electric moment and the young man next to me had an amped look of wonderment in his eyes when he shook his head and glanced at me once she moved on.

Well, having my hand touched by the first woman ever to record a rock and roll song (and subsequently having her throw water on me) was truly great, but the takeaway if there is one at all is that I just felt consistently good throughout her performance.  There were standout moments, a goose-bump experience or two, but generally I just felt unadulterated GOOD. Twin Peaks without the dark undercurrents in some sense. And when I looked around me, I saw that same feeling in everyone around me, from young to old, hipsters to hippies to clean-cuts. People moving, shouting, clapping, exchanging knowing looks. Did the better part of a simpler time rub off on us through this direct connection? I don’t know.  But I’m glad I went.

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Tuvan Throat Singing Strangeness

What do you get if you roll together Howlin’ Wolf, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits with ancient nomadic culture and alien-sounding flute-like harmonics run through quirky boutique resonance effects boxes?

Last night at the packed Lawrence Arts Center I experienced for the second time in about a year the Alash Ensemble from Tuva , a tiny nation by Mongolia that has belonged to many empires over the centuries. They are billed as Tuvan throat singers, but that doesn’t really do justice to the wide range of instruments and sonic contours this unique group weaves together during their intimate concert presentations. As a musician myself with a long-time interest in ethnic music from around the world, I’ve heard many of the elements before, but nothing quite prepares me for the amazing range of sensations I experience as Alash takes us on journey back to an era before human speech was fully developed and then all the way up through the ages, sometimes incorporating subtle references to modern musical idioms and a powerful group synthesis that transcends the solo-based tradition (recall their nomadic history).

bipanel image of full ensemble in action

Alash Ensemble singing and playing on the Lawrence Arts Center theater stage.

In that hour or so of altered musical consciousness, I’ve felt a connection to something so ancient it gives me the delicious creeps, impulsively laughed nearly out loud with a knowing humor at sentiments I can’t even understand the verbal language of, enjoyed a soporific drift through a flowing dream of shifting textures both soothing and barbed, rolled along beside a mighty river feeling the gigantic uneven saunter of a water buffalo beneath me,  and fought to restrain myself from headbanging in my chair to a wall of implied rhythm and vocal breakdowns that rocked hard without explicitly rocking at all.

The instruments are made of wood, horse hair, animal skin, and hooves and when blown through, bowed, picked, strummed and beaten the resulting effect conjures fantastic mental imagery and unexpected emotions in those disposed to such experiences with music. These guys are truly masters of harmonics and overtones, in so many ways.

bipanel image of two solo performers close-up

Chinese zither on the left. On the right, a possible distant ancestor to the violin and cello, with an incredible range of timbres. Note the headstock carved as a horse’s head.

By far the most distinctive element, though, is the large variety of throat singing that appears during this journey. This is where my whimsical amalgamation in the opening paragraph is useful, as there really is no way to describe what it’s like to receive this sound directly, sitting there in close physical proximity to it. The first time I saw them at Spooner Hall and the first piece had commenced, I had just happily latched onto a mesmerizing Howlin’ Wolf vocal timbre when this beautiful, disembodied high-pitched oscillating harmonic drifted in far above, rhythmically modulating in pitch and sound-shape. I had to fight the urge to look around the flat, open room to see where it was coming from but I could see with my eyes that the same singer was producing both sounds and doing so with a fair amount of effort judging by the intense concentration, reddening face and a trickle of sweat forming on his brow.

This time around in the much better space of the Lawrence Arts Center theater, it was every bit as exotic and spellbinding and I began to hear more nuance in the various forms of throat singing these gifted and acclaimed artists bring us as gifts from the far side of the planet and the from the reaches of millennia. It should grab attention that the likes of Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten have come so strongly under Alash’s spell, and there was an easy connection to the performers with their sincere and humble demeanor radiating through the language barrier with the help of witty and informative appearances by their American-become-Tuvan manager now and then. But I’ll end by saying that for me it evokes sensations that are wonderfully beyond direct description – you will just have to make it a mission to experience this transporting experience for yourself some day.

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