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"
You can find my new blog at this link. The name is Dr. John's Record Shelf and Photo Gallery, and you'll notice right away it looks a bit different from the Journal. Consider it a work in progress, though it may take a few weeks to get it entirely set up, what with the holidays coming up. But you will find the most recent Top Five List there, and it has an interactive component, so check it out. And thanks once again to all who were regular, or even intermittent, visitors to Dr. John's Journal, which I've enjoyed providing over the past four years.
As you've likely noticed, recently postings here have become more erratic than in the past. This is partly due to some other demands on my time, but mostly because I've been having space problems with the site host which has inhibited my ability to post photos (which is one of the main points of having the blog in the first place). Yesterday, I could not post the latest Top Five List, even though videos have never presented a problem in the past. I entertained the idea that it might be time to give up the blogging life altogether, but then figured there must be another option. So... I'm in the process of creating a new blog, one which will probably not be quite as active as this one was in its prime (though I hope to post something at least several times a week). I think I will make the new site somewhat more complementary to my radio show, so the Top Five Lists should continue, along with playlists and perhaps some other snippets from the show. I'll also continue to post photos that I've taken, of family and travels and whatnot, and (because my Mom likes it) I'll probably continue Toonerville Thursdays. I'm still hammering out the layout and other aspects of the new site, but I should have a link posted here by the end of the week. So I hope you will all join me "over there" once it is up and running. And thanks for reading Dr. John's Journal-- I hope it's been worth your time to stop by once in awhile.
It's snowy and cold out here today, so naturally I'm thinking of sunny skies and beaches. Here are Ben and Thomas at the Erie Basin Marina (where Lake Erie flows into the Niagara River), from about 2006.
For the past several months I've been looking forward to getting back to Buffalo to see the Spain Rodriguez retrospective at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center (just a couple more weeks until I get the chance). My anticipation rose considerably after recently reading his collection of stories about growing up in Western New York (Cruisin' With the Hound-- a really great read, especially if you're from the area). Sadly, Spain passed away about a week ago. There have been some great tributes to the man and his career, including the Zippy strip above by Bill Griffith, and the anonymous murals that suddenly appeared in an abandoned part of the old Central Terminal in Buffalo. All of which makes me even more anxious to check out the show at the Burchfield, though its sad to think he won't be adding anymore great work to his legacy.
This past Sunday we celebrated the 400th episode of Dr. John's Record Shelf on KDWG. In honor of the occasion, we played some clips of earlier shows, including several "classic" Top Five Lists, including the following (one of my all-time favorites). This may have been posted before, but I don't mind repeating myself in this instance:
When I was in Las Vegas a couple weeks back, I stumbled on some kind of holiday festival in the plaza in font of the Venetian Hotel. It was a procession and something akin to a theatrical dance performance involving elaborately costumed actors. Here are a couple fo closeups of two of them. The first was actually on stilts, and as you can probably tell, dressed as a tree. The woman below wore a mask that caused her face to change as she bowed to the crowd. I'll probably post some more pictures from the event, but I'm still a bit uncertain if I'm going to run into issues with Blogger, so just these two for now.
Well, I managed to get another picture up, though it took forever to upload (still haven't entirely licked the recent problems I've been having here). But at least I can let you know the blog still lives, for now. This was taken a couple of weeks ago at the Valley of Fire, about sixty miles northeast of Las Vegas. To get to this overlook, I had to walk along an ancient river bed for about a mile and a half, but the view was definitely worth the hike. Here's a slightly different view from the same spot:
Just on the off-chance that anyone reading this is considering getting me a Christmas gift this year, I thought I would post this list of books I'd like to read. If anyone would like to reciprocate by posting their own "list to Santa" in the comments, by all means feel free to do so.
Paul Strathern, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the
Matthew F. Delmont, The Nicest Kids in Town (music
Candace Millard, Destiny of the Republic (history)
Richard Zacks, Island of Vice (history)
Richard Rhodes, Hedy's Folly (history/biography)
Michael Kazin, American Dreamers (history)
Bill Zimmerman, Troublemaker (memoir/history)
Lee Sandlin, Wicked River (history)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema,
Hello Cinephilia (movies)
Robert Pinsky, Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American
Small Town (history)
Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives (Art history/biography)
William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe
Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation:The Making of Modern America 1877-1920 (history)
Here's a memorable line from the novel Anne of Green Gables, written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942): "I've done my best, and I begin to see what is meant by the 'joy of the
strife'. Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and
p.s.- I'm still having space problems with Blogger. For some reason deleting old pictures is not creating more space. So, no pictures (including, sadly, Toonerville strips). I can still post videos, so look for a Top Five List next week, but until then probably nothing unless I get this figured out.
I heartily agree with this comment from the noted anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009):
"Since music is the only language with the contradictory attributes of
being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a
being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of
the science of man."
Yesterday on Dr. John's Record Shelf we did the annual guilty pleasures show where I play a lot of music of admittedly questionable quality (at least in rock and roll terms), but for which I harbor some nostalgic enjoyment. Here's one fo the songs I played (anyone else remember this?):
This picture is actually not from the Burchfield Center, which I only mention because that was the location of the shot I posted a little over a week ago of Natalie (congratulations to the Rosieks for finally guessing that spot). In this case, I believe this was taken at 18 Mile Creek. I know this was posted once before, but it appears that my space problems cannot be alleviated through deletions, so it looks like I may have to create a new account or something to keep the blog going (or just recycle images I've previously posted). I'll keep working on the problem, but it likely means limited posting for the near future.
Okay, I may be losing track of things here, and I may have posted this one some years back. But it's one of my favorite pictures, s we all get to see it again! Maria and Joseph outside one of the rustic buildings in Virginia City, Montana (with a bonus self-portrait in the window reflection).
Here's some insight from the mind of inventor, engineer, and architect Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983):
"Every time man makes a new experiment he always learns more. He cannot
learn less. He may learn that what he thought was true was not true. By
the elimination of a false premise, his basic capital wealth which in
his given lifetime is disembarrassed of further preoccupation with
considerations of how to employ a worthless time-consuming hypothesis.
Freeing his time for its more effective exploratory investment is to
give man increased wealth."
Much to my surprise, I've just received a message from Blogger (the program through which I post this blog) that I have used up all my allotted space. This seems mostly due to the photos I've posted over the years. It appears that I will be able to free up some space by deleting old stored photos, so I'll try dumping the portraits that went along with the first couple of years of quotes. However, the deleted pictures apparently remain in reserve for 24 hours so it may be a couple of days before I have anything up again (at least anything with pictures). Sorry to those looking for family snapshots yesterday (or today). In the meantime, no one yet correctly identified where the picture I posted last week of Natalie was taken, so feel free to scroll back and take another shot at that quiz.
Keen insight from the mind of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment:
"To attempt the destruction of our passions is the height of folly. What a
noble aim is that of the zealot who tortures himself like a madman in
order to desire nothing, love nothing, feel nothing, and who, if he
succeeded, would end up a complete monster!"
Even if you aren't a Replacements fan (hard for me to understand, but whatever), you might like this song by them. It's from late in their career when they (by which I mostly mean Paul Westerberg) had softened their approach somewhat.
Here's the last summary post of movies I saw some months ago, but never got around to writing up. At this point, anyone of these would make a great rental or on-demand choice (since they are long gone from theaters). For the record, my favorite movie of the summer was Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, but Beasts of the Southern Wild was pretty close (the picture above is from that film).
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)- I was won over by this movie almost immediately. Low key and somewhat meandering, the story turns on a great hook: a guy advertises for a companion to join him in time travel. The reporters who pursue the story behind the ad start out cynical and even somewhat predatory, but the sincerity of their target slowly erodes their disbelief in various ways. The cast is filled with TV stars (Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation, Jake Johnson of The New Girl and Mark Duplass of The League), which is not often a good sign. But in this case, I think their small-screen skills keep this on an easily relatable level. I'll be looking forward to what the guys who made this come up with next.
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)- I've been something less-than enthusiastic about the spate of super-hero movies in recent years. Many are entertaining, but few are memorable. I think this one maybe breaks that mold. There are elements of its plot that I find disturbing, especially it's lack of faith in democratic institutions, or the subtly fascistic obeisance to corporate might. But I have to admit that it treats such themes seriously and not just as a pretext for pyrotechnics. Nolan seems to recognize that the whole concept of a superhero raises disturbing questions about power and how its wielded, and I'd say I felt disturbed leaving the theater, which counts for a lot in making sure a work or art sticks with you.
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)- Okay, technically this was a made for TV miniseries which I saw on DVD. But it was released theatrically, I just never had a chance to catch it. This tale of terror and politics in the 1970s was immensely gripping and the charisma of Carlos (famously known as The Jackal) sure comes across in Assayas' account of his career. It's actually an interesting counterpoint to The Dark Knight, with the politics much more in evidence and the violence more often deferred, lending considerably to the suspense. Carlos begins as a somewhat misguided but sympathetic character but evolves over the three plus hours into an obvious monster. This is the perhaps inevitable result of vigilante-type justice-- no matter how noble the cause. When you set yourself up as judge and jury it becomes impossible to continue exercising such power in the interests of others (despite one's rhetoric), in real life anyway if not in comic books. Assayas is masterful in bringing his audience along to draw just such a conclusion.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)- This was a truly one-of-a-kind movie, in terms of both narrative and style. It recounts the adventures of a youngster growing up in a remote (physically and psychologically) part of the Mississippi delta, where the inhabitants are so deeply embedded in their environment that the consequences of natural disaster are taken to be almost entirely the fault of human error (in this case, the construction of a levy). On one hand, it's a bit hard to generate much sympathy for most of the characters in this story; but in the end there's something ennobling about how fiercely they protect their prerogative to live life their chosen way. It was difficult not to view this as a political allegory, given its election year appearance, but I doubt that was foremost in the filmmaker's mind. Instead, the young protagonist's sense of herself as a part of something much bigger while nonetheless battling to protect her own independence has much broader implications than any narrow current events link would suggest. Overall, a magical, thought provoking movie-- and that combination does not come along very often.
A great observation from American author Clarence Day (1874-1935):
"The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else
that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilization
grow old and die out, but in the world of books are volumes that have
seen this happen."
Drivin'n'Cryin' is another veteran rock outfit enjoying something of a comeback recently -- critically at least-- not unlike Redd Kross and Shoes, each of which have had clips posted here recently. Here's their tribute to fellow Georgians R.E.M.:
I've done one of these in a really long time, but I've had some requests for the quiz to return. So, my question to you is: where was this picture of Natalie taken? A couple of hints, it's from about four years ago, and the location is somewhere in Western New York. Put your guesses in the comments section, and I'll announce the winner next week. Good luck!
Today's quote comes courtesy of the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902-1983):
"The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the
more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion,
his race or his holy cause. A man is likely to mind his own business
when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own
meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."
Something to think about from the pen of the colorful physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988)
“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is
much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that
might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain
unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become
enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the
day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must
leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
This is the second of my catch-all posts passing summary judgements on movies I saw over the past few months (mostly last summer), for which I didn't get around to composing full reviews. Last week I covered the movies I did not like. This week, some that I enjoyed but fell short of classic (or even semi-classic) status.
Hysteria (Tanya Wexler)- This is an oddball kind of movie, with a provocative theme about doctors treating women for the titular malady in the nineteenth century, but the tone is almost that of a screwball comedy. Maggie Gyllenhall, who is usually pretty good, goes over the top with the stereotypical elements of her role as the crusading feminist, but the rest of the cast strike just the right tone (Rupert Everett, as the main character's dissolute best friend is the best). I wouldn't go out of my way to see this again, but it was a pleasant enough way to spend one evening.
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)- This franchise has developed to the point that it requires little more than strong actors and top of the line special effects to maintain its entertainment value (or maybe that's just inherent to the character?). But now, a little while after seeing it, I can't remember any particular points that made it special, and certainly nothing to justify a retelling of the origin story so shortly after the Tobey McGuire version (was that even ten years ago?).
Bernie (Richard Linklater)- I could rank this higher just on style alone, but in the end the story is just a bit too slight to stand with Linklater's best work (though, now that I think of it, the plots to Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and School of Rock aren't exactly Tolstoian in conception either). Jack Black plays a beloved small town mortician who murders Shirley MacLaine playing a small town harridan, and the rest of the community wants him to get away with it. I have a feeling that this is a movie that will grow in my estimation when I see it again, which is almost a sure thing.
God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait)- I was always a fan of Bobcat Goldthwait's stand-up comedy, and he's brought his peculiarly warped sensibility to the movies he's directed (check out World's Greatest Dad as well-- quite possibly the best Robin Williams movie ever). This is truly black comedy, as an ordinary schlub, mistakenly believing that he is dying, goes on a murderous spree targeting all the idiots who diminish our collective humanity (you know, like reality TV stars and high school bullies). The humor is extremely dry as well as dark, so this won't be for everyone, but I found it among the most original movies I've seen in years. The picture above features the stars Joel Murray (Bill's little brother) and Tara Lynn Barr, both of whom are excellent.
Next time, I'll list out my favorites from last summer.
Activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) called it as she saw it, and I think she nailed it:
"That only a few, under any circumstances, protest against the injustice
of long-established laws and customs, does not disprove the fact of the
oppressions, while the satisfaction of the many, if real only proves
their apathy and deeper degradation."
I don't know but that I agree with this idea from Leon Trotsky (1879-1940):
"Life is not an easy matter.... You cannot live through it without
falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great
idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all
kinds of perfidy and baseness."
Shoes hail from Chicago, and I can hear some strains of the New Colony Six (an earlier Windy City band) in their work, though the former are hardly aping the latter. Here's one of Shoes' best (to my ears anyway):
I've fallen so far behind on writing about the movies I've seen in the last six months, that it seems pointless to think I can deliver full posts on each, as had been my habit in the past. So instead I'll just offer a few brief comments on each, and then maybe I can start over with those films that are still fresh in my mind. Let's start today with the disappointments:
To Rome With Love (Woody Allen)- Very lame, mostly half-developed silly stories about a bunch of folks in the Eternal City for one reason or another. The only memorable element of this movie is all the great location shots, and the realization that Woody copied a camera movement that I too used when I found myself in the Piazza del Popolo several years back, though I sincerely doubt it was original with me.
Your Sister's Sister (Lynn Shelton)- This was better than To Rome With Love, if only because of the presence of Emily Blunt, who has recently risen to the top of my list of favorite actresses. But the plot is a bit too obvious, and offers little in the way of suspense or surprises. It's easy enough to hang out with the three main characters for ninety minutes, but that's hardly enough to make this worth seeing.
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden)- Very disappointing given the stellar cast, which is about all that saves this from being a complete dud. Once the interesting concept is set up, it becomes a totally by-the-numbers kind of story.
Lawless (John Hillcoat)- This was the biggest disappointment for me among recent releases, as the previews made this look like an exciting historical action film. Instead it was a pretty but overwrought lead balloon of a movie. I can't recall the last time I saw something so full of itself (probably Avatar), while delivering so little in the way of intellectual or visceral entertainment. Maybe I was victimized by high expectations, but regardless I really did feel like I'd wasted my time going to this one.
Next time, some movies I liked (it's actually a much longer list than this one).
An interesting observation from the pen of Thomas Merton (1915-1968):
"The fruitfulness of our lives depends in large measure in our ability to
doubt our own words and to question the value of our own work. The man
who completely trusts his own estimate of himself is doomed to
Hard to believe this goes all the way back to 1951. Billy Ward and the Dominoes was one of the most influential rhythm & blues groups in the era just before rock and roll broke, which is another way of saying that they need to be considered among the originators of the latter style. You can hear it in this song:
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was a pretty astute observer of human affairs. Here's a good example of that:
"Human life is basically a comedy. Even its tragedies often seem comic to
the spectator, and not infrequently they actually have comic touches to
the victim. Happiness probably consists largely in the capacity to
detect and relish them. A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is
never really miserable."
Louie and the Lovers are one of the great under appreciated bands of the rock era, in my opinion. Their one and only album is loaded with great songs, and Louis Ortega has one of the great rock and roll voices, which is very evident on this, the lead cut on the aforementioned album: