I am a history professor who grew up in Western New York, but now find myself teaching in Western Montana. My primary areas of interest and research are in American cultural history, especially in relation to the intersection of popular culture and politics. This blog is primarily to help me keep in touch with my far-flung family and friends, and give me the chance to spout off a bit on whatever happens to be on my mind.
Dr. John's Record Shelf is my weekly radio program on KDWG, 90.9 FM broadcast from the University of Montana Western. My goal is to offer an eclectic mix of various styles, genres and eras, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on music that you won't hear anywhere else on the dial (at least not in SW Montana). My co-host, Art Vandelay and I (with the assistance of station flunky Rico Muckman) also provide some additional bits to liven up the show, including Three People I Know (where I mention three people I know), The Cultural Corner (where we engage in lively banter on art, literature and poetry), Dr. John's Top Five (where we take a shot at ranking almost anything), and Record Shelf Theater (where we re-create a scene from some famous movie, play or TV show). If you find yourself in Dillon, tune us in; otherwise, below are some lists of songs that have been aired on recent shows:
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121104
Bill Fay, "This World"
Steve Goodman, "Turnpike Tom"
Ani DiFranco, "Which Side Are You On?"
Bruce Springsteen, "We Are Alive"
Decemberists, "Don't Carry It All"
Carole King, "Pleasant Valley Sunday"
Bruce Cockburn, "Wondering Where the Lions Are"
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Oh Susannah"
Bob Dylan, "Soon After Midnight"
Charms, "American Way"
Belle & Sebastian, "I Want the World to Stop"
Krayolas, "Find a Girl"
Beatles, "Tomorrow Never Knows"
Neko Case, "Things That Scare Me"
Avett Brothers, "Will You Return"
Craig Finn, "New Friend Jesus"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121028
Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"
Golden Shoulders, "I Will Light You on Fire"
Spoon, "Finer Feelings"
Girls, "Just a Song"
Devandra Banhart, "Shabop Shalom"
Gaslight Anthem, "The '59 Sound"
Those Darlins, "Mystic Mind"
Son Seals, "I Can't Hold Out"
Johnny Ace, "Pledging My Love"
Charlotte Gainsbourg, "Dandelion"
Aimee Mann, "Borrowing Time"
Elliott Smith, "Between the Bars"
Carpenters, "It's Going to Take Some Time"
Hayes Carll, "Girl Downtown"
Fiery Furnaces, "Even in the Rain"
Billy Ward & the Dominoes, "Chicken Blues"
Anna Kramer & the Lost Cause, "You Think You Know Me"
Sophie Zelmani, "Most of the Time"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121021
Cabaret Voltaire, "No Escape"
Us3, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)"
Hank Mobley, "The Break Through"
Rodriguez, "Sugar Man"
Mary Weiss, "My Heart is Beating"
Pete Shelley, "Think For Yourself"
Buddy Holly, "Take Your Time"
Raincoats, "No One's Little Girl"
Detroit Cobras, "Ya Ya Ya"
Public Image, LTD, "Public Image"
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, "Bad Reputation"
Love Is All, "Wishing Well"
Louie & the Lovers, "I KNow You Know"
Forty-Fives, "The Devil Beats His Wife"
John P. Strohm, "Better Than Nothing"
The Naysayer, "Currency"
Sir Douglas Quintet, "Who'll Be Next in Line"
The Seeds, "Mr. Farmer"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121014
TV on the Radio, "Second Song"
Can, "Oh Yeah"
White Stripes, "300 MPH Torrential Downpour Blues"
Mary Lou Lord, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"
T-Bone Burnett, "The Murder Weapon"
New Bomb Turks, "Statue of Liberty"
Ramones, "Surfin' Bird"
Paris Sisters, "Dream Lover"
Lee Dorsey, "Ride Your Pony"
Michael Hurley, "Sweet Lucy"
Gary Numan, "Cars"
Neil Diamond, "Delirious Love"
Undertones, "We All Talked About You"
Shadows of Knight, "Shake"
Cub, "Magic 8 Ball"
Rilo Kiley, "The Frug"
Terry Allen, "Lubbock Woman"
Kinks, "Lincoln County"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121007
Corin Tucker Band, "Summer Jams"
Go-Betweens, "Too Much of One Thing"
Feelies, "Change Your Mind"
Billy Bragg & the Blokes, "Baby Faroukh"
Marcia Griffiths, "Don't Let Me Down"
Velvet Crush, "Hold Me Up"
Chris Mills, "Calling All Comrades"
Insect Trust, "Hoboken Saturday Night"
Broken West, "So It Goes"
REM, "Exhuming McCarthy"
Dire Straits, "Twisting By the Pool"
Tom Rush, "Urge for Going"
Paul Westerberg & Joan Jett, "Let's Do It"
Fred Astaire, "Cheek to Cheek"
The Who, "I Can See For Miles"
Liz Phair, "Uncle Alvarez"
Steve martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, "King Tut"
Here's another experimental-type shot that I think turned out okay-- a self-portrait of me. The question I'd like to ask is, where was it taken? Be as specific as possible and put your guesses in the comments section.
Two weeks ago I asked you to identify a pair of eyes, and it took awhile, but eventually Catie correctly recognized her younger self looking back at her from the screen, as seen below. Good luck to everyone this week!
Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington, is the kind of movie that would've held down the bottom end of a mid-week double feature back in the old days of film exhibition (that is, when they still had double features). It's plot, characters, setting, etc. are all grade B at best despite the top-line talent involved. That's not a bad thing, but it kind of pains me to realize that millions and millions of dollars were devoted to creating this film, for no discernable reason except the prospect that enough people would see it to generate some profits for the makers. I know our system is based on that kind of commerce, and movies have always been mainly about producing hits, but why couldn't some of that money pay for some thoughtfulness or creativity. Or, if that's too much to ask, show some restraint and give this project to some youngster as a training exercise and do it on the cheap; lots of good movies (and no doubt profitable) were made that way once upon a time. Tony Scott has become a hack (maybe he always was), turning out this kind of big-budget pulp for years. His style is crisp and slick and soulless, and everything unfolds by the numbers to no ultimate payoff for the viewer, beyond 90 minutes of cheap thrills. Again, I don't see anything wrong with that on principle if it could be done without the obvious wastefulness. You know, like the old studio serials or pulp magazines which were noted for their cheapness, even when they included some first rate work. Maybe I'm just sour on this movie because it kicks off with some gratuitous union-bashing, but I'm pretty sure I won't remember much of anything about this a month from now other than it left me feeling disappointed.
Here's one of those things that I never really expected to find on YouTube, but was pleasantly surprised when I typed in the title: a live version of Michael Hurley doing his classic "Sweet Lucy" (from the extraordinary Have Moicy lp). Enjoy:
Yesterday I visited the Burchfield-Penney Art Gallery with Sally and Ben. They had up a show celebrating the work of local artists, most of which revolved around conceptions of home and household objects. The above display featured a kind of visual rescue of ordinary things lost in (or revealed through) house fires.
This installation, projected onto three separate screens (including one that wrapped around a corner) celebrated the art of skipping, which it turns out is a lot more complex than it looks (according to the running commentary).
Upstairs at the gallery was another exhibit with a wide variety of offbeat animal sculptures, including this bird kept not in a cage but behind a filmy black curtain.
We also walked across the street to the Albright-Knox Gallery, where they had a retrospective of photos celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Buffalo Sabres hockey club. There were some really spectacular shots, most blown up to poster size, but they didn't allow any pictures, so I don't have anything to share from that section of the museum. But I did get this shot of the Christmas Tree Creche set up in the Clifton Annex. You can't tell from my photo, but the tree was about fifteen feet tall, and the creche was laid into the side and had to be about 5 or 6 feet high itself.
Well the soup riches just keep flowing (so to speak) as I continue my visit to Western New York. Another great cup came my way the other night, again at one of the local Greek establishments, in the form of Beef Tenderloin & Onion Soup. I love French onion soup, and this variation more or less replaced the chunk of french bread with really big and tender chunks of beef (I guess you could tell that from the name). Very tasty, and it really hit the spot on a cold, cold evening. I followed it up with the full chicken souvlaki dinner, and that was awfully good too. I'm starting to worry though, that I'm spoiling my taste buds for the return to Montana, where the cups of great soup are few and far between. I don't care-- I'm gonna continue to treat myself for as long as I can, and my taste buds are just going to have to deal with the long-term repercussions.
If you were listening to Top 40 radio in the early seventies (as I was), you'll no doubt recall a whole passel of great songs by Jim Croce who sadly died young in a plane crash. Here's one of them (possibly my favorite):
Andi Watson's Breakfast After Noon is one of the better graphic novels I've read in some time. It's the story of a skilled laborer named Rob who loses his job as an assembler in a china plant and is incapable of dealing with this turn of events in any kind of constructive manner. His fiance, who is laid off at the same time, copes more effectively, seeking retraining and moving on with her life. It's a small-scale tragedy, but the story is told in a manner that allows the reader to believe that Rob may in the end be capable of some form of redemption. His loutishness in response to his predicament is both understandable and infuriating, and costs him in all kinds of ways. There are truly forces beyond Rob's control at play, but Watson keeps his story squarely focused on the characters rather than turning this into some kind of political tract. In the end, those bigger issues are exposed anyway to some degree, but its effectiveness is based on making the reader recognize how close they could be to a similar plight as Rob, and forces one to consider just how differently (or not) they would respond to the same personal catastrophe. This highly empathetic approach certainly struck a chord with me, and I look forward to checking out some of Watson's other work.
I suppose one could argue with the practical results of his more radical ideas, but in this statement, I think the noted revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was definitely on to something:
"The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves."
The video on this one is a bit hokey, but the music makes it worth enduring (or ignoring) the images. It's the Drifters with Ben E. King on lead vocals with "There Goes My Baby." This is widely credited as being the first rock and roll song to be recorded with strings. Who knows if that's really true; but, first or not, they sure get it right:
Ben and I spent a little time yesterday atop City Hall in downtown Buffalo, and I shot these pictures with my 300mm zoom looking out over the skyline of the city. The first one above features the Liberty Bank building (with the matching statues on either tower) with the library and Lafayette Square down below and to the left.
The old New York Central train terminal sits at the top of this shot, about a mile or so up Broadway from City Hall. It still looks rather majestic from this distance, though close-up it's become pretty rundown. Ben belongs to a group that is trying to organize and finance a restoration.
The white Electric Tower at Genesee and Washington is one of the signature architectural gems of the city. It has recently been restored and serves as something of a model for other projects around the city. At one time (maybe still the case) Buffalo was the only city that could count buildings by all the great nineteenth century American architects (H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Stanford White, etc.) among its cultural treasures. It's one of the reasons why I enjoy walking or biking around the city: to check out all the cool buildings.
I believe I've mentioned before that one of the highlights of visiting Buffalo is that there are a lot of really good, cheap Greek restaurants, places where I can get souvlaki (which is apparently virtually unknown west of the Mississippi). Normally they have decent soup too, but a limited selection, often down to chicken lemon rice or lentil. One exception is a favorite place called Athena's, which is just around the block from my mother's house. For years and years I never ate there, because when I was that close to home, I'd just opt for the home cooking. But I started going in once in awhile to meet a friend for breakfast or lunch, and quickly discovered they had great food, low prices, and enormous helpings. It also turned out that they offered some of the best homemade soups around-- really hearty cups of thick, vegetable and meat packed concoctions that could not be passed up. This was certainly true a couple days ago when I went in for lunch and had the split pea soup. The chunks of ham were huge and succulent, there was a nice oniony edge to the broth, and there were even whole peas mixed in with the pureed base-- a truly stellar achievement, but perfectly in keeping with what one expects at Athena's. It actually surpassed my entree (well, just barely) as the highlight of the meal. I think when I get back to Montana, I'm going to make it my mission to try and replicate this soup in my own kitchen. If I can perfect this little cup of heaven, I'll be eating especially well the rest of this winter.
Just about everyone remembers the Clash and the Sex Pistols, but why don't the Stiff Little Fingers enjoy the same kind of respect? Maybe in England they do, but let's see if we can't generate a few more fans over here with this clip:
A few days ago I wrote about the spate of fantasy-oriented films of late. A notable subset of that trend are all the comic book adaptations that keep popping up. Thirty plus years ago, I was a huge consumer of comics, and probably spent a fair amount of energy wishing that there were more movies being made from my favorites. But back in the days before CGI and other techniques had been perfected, superhero movies looked silly (except for the Christopher Reeves Superman series, but they depended more on character for their charm), and there weren't yet many non-superhero properties to exploit. Nowadays, just about every major character or series seems to be popping up on the big screen, including a couple that I would've flipped over back in my youth (like The Spirit and The Shadow), though my current perspective is that they generally aren't very good-- essentially the equivalent of the "throwaway" entertainment comics were supposed to be for most of their history. Red, directed by Robert Schwentke, is in that category. I enjoyed it while I was in the theater, and pretty much forgot about it soon after. The one thought that it elicited was that it was an awful lot like another comic adaptation I saw last year called The Losers; so much so that, as time goes by, I expect the two will run together in my head so that the only distinction I'll recall is that Red had some recognizable stars (Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, and especially John Malkovich) while I'm hard-pressed even now to name a single actor from The Losers. It strikes me as a bit odd that Hollywood has turned to the comics as a steady source of material, since the market for the comics themselves collapsed after the speculation boom of the 1980s. You certainly don't see spinner racks in drugstores and 7-11's anymore. They really just seem an excuse to replace thoughtful, human conflict with things that go bang. When I was thirteen, that was certainly enough to make me happy-- but are there really that many thirteen-year-olds buying movie tickets today to justify the ubiquity of these stories? I guess so, at least figuratively speaking (and no slight intended-- I'm obviously in that category at least some of the time).
I received reports that my favorite soup venue, Fables Cafe at the Buffalo Library, had changed hands (or vendors, or something), and that it wasn't the same. Well, based on first-hand evidence (though far from conclusive), that seems to be the case. I stopped in last week while out Christmas shopping, and had a bowl of the Sweet Potato Corn Chowder, and while it was reasonably good, it certainly lacked that certain je ne sais quoi I'd grown used to over the past few years. The soup was certainly function-able-- hot and filling-- but there was no spark, no secret flavor that intrigued my palate. Now it's possible that I was so on guard for disappointment that it became something of a preordained reaction, but I don't think so. The dead giveaway that something had changed was that there was a distinctly salty flavor to the soup, something that I've never experienced with their offerings before, and a sure sign that they've employed a less accomplished chef. Naturally, they'll still get my business as I'm in the library two or three times a week when I'm in town, and they still offer three or four options every day, including what appear to remain some fairly off-beat choices. But I'm afraid this is yet another example of how things change, and not always for the better.
This will probably be my last Christmas post of the year, but I figured at least some of you may have missed the annual TBS A Christmas Story marathon-- so here's the original theatrical trailer to whet your appetite for next year:
Here's a little bit of a switch. Instead of posting some full strips this week, I thought I'd put up a few examples of the homemade Christmas cards cartoonists often sent out to their friends. I've stumbled across these sorts of things in books and on-line over the years, and here are a few examples featuring characters you'll probably recognize from the funny pages.
Somehow, I find it hard to imagine Jiggs taking up skiing (especially dressed in his usual coat and top hat!).
Who knew that not only did the Little King never speak, but he couldn't write either?
Last up, the ever-modern Felix the Cat delivering his holiday greetings from an aeroplane (that's how they used to spell it in the olden days).
I remember this cartoon as my first televised holiday tradition, watching it every year through my childhood. For some reason, it stopped airing sometime around the time I entered high school, but I'm glad to see it still can be seen courtesy of YouTube. It's Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol:
No new quiz this week, because I can't believe that no one solved last week's puzzle. So I'm giving you all another week to get your guesses into the comments (here or at the link above). I really thought this was an easy one-- so get those thinking caps back on and give me an answer!
I went to see The Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the other day, and it was a reasonably easy way to pass the afternoon. I don't have much to say about this specific movie aside from that, but it did start me to thinking about something (the previews before the feature also contributed to this thought). Has anyone noticed just how prevalent fantasy adventures have become over the past few years? I'm sure some of this, and maybe the Narnia series in particular, is the result of the massive success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I wonder if there isn't another factor involved. Back in the 1930s there was a spate of lavish musicals that became quite popular, and it's become something of a truism to ascribe some of their success to the demand of depression-era audiences for pure escapism. That's probably a bit of an over-simplification, but the recent fantasy boom strikes me as being the same kind of deal. At a time when so many things are changing, and not really much for the better for most Americans, why not seek a little temporary respite at the cineplex, where super-heroic figures promise to set everything right in the space of a couple of hours. If you think about it, these films require the greatest suspension of disbelief, and getting outside of one's head for a bit might be considered a great form of cheap therapy in troubled times. Personally, I generally find these films too much of a type, with little to offer beyond computer-generated thrills that rarely impress (they're just slightly more sophisticated than cartoons). Give me some real human-scaled drama any day. To put it in historical terms, again referring to the 1930s precedent, let's see more descendants of the likes of Frank Borzage and Frank Capra, and not so much Busby Berkeley.
Here's a couple of Christmas themed examples of Fontaine Fox's great Toonerville Folks panel. These both go back to the late 1920s. I wonder what's being printed on the comics page today that folks'll be recalling eighty-plus years down the line...
I think this statement from the well-known frontier philosopher Davy Crockett (1786-1836) helps explain the somewhat arbitrary nature of celebrity that afflicts our society these days; and it was uttered long before he himself became a Disney-fueled fad for fifties-era youngsters:
"Fame is like a shaved pig with a greased tail, and it is only after it has slipped through the hands of some thousands, that some fellow, by mere chance, holds on to it!"
I think many consider this about the oddest pairing in musical duet history. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but who in 1977 could have imagined David Bowie joining Bing Crosby on a Christmas special? They do alright together though...
It a really weird sensation when you start to read a book, and elements of the story seem to mirror what you're going through at the time. In this case, one main character in Juliet, Naked has a mild heart attack, leading him to think about a whole lot of things he'd previously ignored. I just had a heart attack scare, but those same kinds of issues were floating around in my head for weeks afterward, which corresponded with the time I was reading this book (which I had actually purchased months earlier). It really shouldn't surprise me, given that the author is Nick Hornby, whose main characters are usually men who grew up consumed with sports and movies and especially music, and can't seem to entirely shake the perspectives so deeply affected by their immersion in popular culture. The quintessential Hornby hero is Rob from High Fidelity, but there are strong similarities between him and both Tucker Crowe (the recluse musician) and Duncan (his obsessive academic fan) in this book. As is also often the case in Hornby's work, the women come across as more mature; not exactly free from the anxieties of growing older so common in his male characters, but definitely more inclined to deal with them head on. In Juliet, Naked, that role is played by Annie, who starts out somewhat tired of Duncan's over-the-top hero worship but later becomes smitten herself, though on a much more realistic (if unlikely) way. The title refers to a record album, a stripped down (hence "naked," like the Beatles Let It Be Naked of a few years back) re-release of Tucker's magnum opus appearing years after he more or less disappeared from public life. The mix of the relationship story with that of the mystery of Tucker Crowe's music career is well done, but that's kind of Hornby's forte at this point. It's not as funny as High Fidelity or as touching (to me) as About a Boy or Slam, but it still struck a chord. As my opening comment suggests, it often seems like Hornby knows well guys like me. In fact he may very well be one himself. And I think it's worthwhile to sometimes look into even a fictional mirror, take a good look, and to realize I'm not all that different from a lot of other folks out there. There's something reassuring about that.
"The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls."
Congratulations to my brother-in-law Tom (that's him in the tux) on his birthday plus one (I'm always late with the brothers-in-law for some reason). If I haven't said it recently enough, it's a pleasure having you in the family-- in fact, you can tell that from the pleased expressions on the other faces in this picture.
One of the great treats of coming back to my hometown of Buffalo is that there are lots of good Greek restaurants to visit-- unlike in Montana where they are a distinct rarity. The other day, after some Christmas shopping with Natalie and ben, we stopped at Kostas, one such establishment, for lunch. I had a hard time deciding what to have, eventually electing to go with the chicken gyro; but of course, I also wanted soup. Unfortunately, most of these places don't offer a wide variety of the great liquid appetizer, almost always serving Chicken Lemon or Lentil soup. The latter was on the bill of fare at Kostas this particular day. Don't get me wrong-- I like both Chicken Lemon and Lentil soups, but neither is exactly in the exciting category. So I enjoyed my tiny beans, carrots and savory broth, nice and hot after strolling the cold winter streets on our shopping expedition. But, this post notwithstanding, it really wasn't anything to write home about.
Here's a thought from the ultimate revolutionary (he participated in both the American and French Revolutions), Thomas Paine (1737-1809):
"It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe."
I think I posted some examples of Gene Ahearn's great panel strip Our Boarding House sometime back. But here are a few samples of the Sunday version, where he could really stretch out main character Major Hoople's idiosyncrasies. Hoople was kind of the prototype for characters like Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone of a slightly later generation-- and just as, if not more, funny to me.
Think about this quote from noted historian George Santayana (1863-1952) for awhile and I think you might be inclined to feel better about things (I did):
"A string of excited, fugitive, miscellaneous pleasures is not happiness; happiness resides in imaginative reflection and judgment, when the picture of one's life, or of human life, as it truly has been or is, satisfies the will, and is gladly accepted."
The first part of this is the classic rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as performed by Bob & Doug McKenzie (off the album they put out at the peak of their popularity back in the eighties). The tag is a trailer for what looks like a revival of the characters in cartoon form (I wonder if it ever panned out?). Anyway, the first part is pretty cool:
My first night back in Tonawanda, my Mom made a big pot of cauliflower soup for my homecoming, and it was yummy. Now its possible that I am conflating the happiness of being home with the quality of the soup-- but I don't think so. It stands on its own merits. I've heard that a new vendor has taken over the food service at Fables Cafe at the downtown library, so I'm a bit apprehensive about finding the high quality of soup offerings I've grown used to on past visits. But as long as Mom is still willing to put the kettle on, so to speak, I know I'll always have one great source to satisfy my soup cravings whenever I'm in Western New York.
Continuing our short series of Christmas themed cartoons, here's a true classic from 1939. The date is very pertinent to this story-- it was the year Germany invaded Poland, launching the second world war. I can't imagine any studio today making such a strong statement against the so-called "great" powers of the world, but I wish this one would circulate more widely during the holiday season: