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"
This is one of the first pictures I ever took with a digital camera, which I borrowed from the school library. I think it was a 1.8 megapixel job, with images saved onto a 3.5" floppy disc (remember those?). Anyway, I mention it in case you were wondering why Gerik looks a little splotchy-- it was the camera.
I kind of like this line from Jean de La Bruyere (1645-1696), the noted French essayist:
"The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the
cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who
goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased
Chip Taylor wrote "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning" way back when; he's also Jon Voight's brother. But he really came into his own as a performer when he hooked up with Carrie Rodriguez a few years back. Here's one of their earliest, and best, songs:
You know, with this line I think that Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) hit on the inherent flaw of politics:
"When a man asks himself what is meant by action he proves that he isn't a
man of action. Action is a lack of balance. In order to act you must be
somewhat insane. A reasonably sensible man is satisfied with thinking."
An interesting comment from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976):
"Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we
passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the
worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this
conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage,
makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology."
Another movie I saw this past summer was The Dictator, starring Sascha Baron Cohen. I think I get Cohen's particular brand of comedy, and he certainly makes me laugh pretty regularly, but like his previous films I found this one ultimately shallow and unsatisfying. His idea to spoof the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi is valid, but not as edgy as he seems to think (heck, the Three Stooges took on Hitler even before the US declared war on Germany in World War II). One can marvel at Cohen's deep immersion into character, and the way it carries over into real life, but that doesn't make the film itself anything more than a series of gags, some of which hit and some of which don't. Given the subject matter, some real biting satire would demonstrate actual thought about his subject. But he seems satisfied to zero in on those superficial characteristics that can be played broadly for easy mocking-- the sort of comedic riffing that can be applied to any nitwit fad that captures the public attention, like reality shows or pop stars. To put it another way: if the goal is to take on the truly evil elements of the world (something comedy is well-positioned to do), how about taking aim with ammunition more potent than a fake beard and phony accent.
Something to think about from writer Shel Silverstein (1930-1999):
"Craftsmanship is something that's really going out now. The young people
have no patience with craftsmanship any more. They think, therefore
they am. It's not enough. You don't think, therefore you are. You do,
therefore you are, or else you aren't."
My radio show, Dr. John's Record Shelf, is undergoing some renovations over the next few weeks as we review some of the regular features to determine whether or not they should continue. But you can rest assured that the Top Five List isn't going away, and I'll continue to post them here as they are broadcast. This week's list was inspired by a viewing of the classic Fred Allen motion picture It's In the Bag. Those who've seen the movie will recognize the connection immediately; if you haven't seen it, well, I recommend a visit to Netflix or some other video source...
It's sometimes a bit difficult to understand what the great thinkers are getting at in their pronouncements. That might be the case in this quote from the renowned philosopher Julius Henry Marx (1890-1977):
"Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water.
And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew
them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.
Now you tell me what you know."
For a variety of reasons, I did not post any notes on most of the movies I saw over the past three months. But I did want to address at least a few of them here, as it's turned out to be one of the better movie years in memory, at least from my perspective. The cream of the crop is Wes Anderson's Moonlight Kingdom, which has been widely praised already by both mainstream and alternative critics (I draw the distinction because there's usually a split between the two, with the former overly smitten by commercial prospects and the latter often keyed to some notion of hipster aesthetics). Personally, I've liked all of Anderson's previous films, with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou among my all-time favorites-- though I know the general consensus is that it's the least of Anderson's efforts. Moonrise Kingdom may pass it in my estimation, though I'd want to see each a couple more times before making that call. Anyway... Kingdom is the story of Sam and Suzy, twelve-year-old soulmates who run away together to find some idyllic solace from the dispiriting reality of their daily lives. The story is charming and exciting, filmed with the rhythm and style of a '60s classic of the French New Wave. But what really puts it over the top for me is the characterizations-- virtually everyone who appears in the film displays a realistic degree of complexity in response to the circumstances of the plot. To put it another way, they all seem to be figuring things out as they go along, and often muck things up regardless of the good (or bad) intentions that motivate them. In a cinematic age overburdened with superheroes, that's really refreshing. To give one example, the scoutmaster played by Edward Norton starts out as a seeming hard-hearted martinet, but when confronted with the information that runaway Sam is an orphan, Norton makes palpable the uncertainty that follows the realization that he is something of a surrogate parent to his charges and not just a higher ranking officer. Similar kinds of revelations overtake a number of characters, and they revise their actions accordingly (sometimes to humorous effect). It's brilliant screenwriting matched with excellent acting, and while much of it might seem highly stylized-- well, what difference does that make if it leads to some deeply felt emotional truths? Anderson's work reminds me a lot of that of novelist Mark Harris, who also developed a unique way of having his characters talk to one another. Let me recommend his novels Speed and Something About a Soldier, in both of which you'll find a gentle, idiosyncratically told coming-of-age tale that will remind you of the style and atmosphere of Moonrise Kingdom.
This comes from the mind of the eminent psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937):
"What do you first do when you learn to swim? You make mistakes, do you
not? And what happens? You make other mistakes, and when you have made
all the mistakes you possibly can without drowning — and some of them
many times over — what do you find? That you can swim? Well — life is
just the same as learning to swim! Do not be afraid of making mistakes,
for there is no other way of learning how to live!"
I haven't done one of these in awhile, but I stumbled across this cartoon on YouTube. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and so I thought I'd put it up here. It's a great Warner Brothers take off on the Jack Benny Show, with most of the radio (and TV) show's cast on board for the voices:
Moe Tucker was the drummer for the legendary Velvet Underground. When that group broke up in the early seventies, she kind of faded from view (I gather she was working at Walmart and raising her kids), but eventually came back on the music scene and did some pretty cool stuff like this:
A good line from Sydney J. Harris (1917-1986), a long-time syndicated columnist out of Chicago:
"Most people are mirrors, reflecting the moods and emotions of the times;
few are windows, bringing light to bear on the dark corners where
troubles fester. The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into
You know, I think that William Makepeace Thackery (1811-1863) could have written the following in reference to me:
"For his part, every beauty of art or nature made him thankful as well as
happy, and that the pleasure to be had in listening to fine music, as
in looking at the stars in the sky, or at a beautiful landscape or
picture, was a benefit for which we might thank Heaven as sincerely as
for any other worldly blessing."
This is probably the oddest song to crack the top ten in the rock and roll era, going all the way to no. 3 on the charts in 1966. It's distinctive charms (such as they are) remain undiminished today, forty-six years later....
Trying to think of someplace to go and take pictures yesterday, I hit on the idea of visiting the Idaho Falls Zoo. I took a lot of photos, and here are a few that I thought turned out pretty good.
I took over 100 shots of the penguins, and this is one of about six that looked any good. I don't know why they were so hard to capture-- it wasn't like they were moving around too much.
A lot of the animals were behind wire fences (you can make see the blur of the wire in this shot across the parrot's beak), so it was a bit of a challenge to get good shots. I'm pretty pleased with this one even despite the blurry part.
More fence. These brown pandas were one of the most interesting exhibits-- they were very active wandering around their pen, and I even saw a couple of them get into a brief tussle-- but the fence made it very difficult to get a focused picture. This one was about the best.
The tiger and lions were a special highlight. I'll post some pictures of the latter tomorrow or the next day.
It's not as funny as most of his writing, but this comment from P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) certainly has some merit:
"A man's subconscious self is not the ideal companion. It lurks for the
greater part of his life in some dark den of its own, hidden away, and
emerges only to taunt and deride and increase the misery of a miserable
It's been awhile since I posted something by the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain-- and this clip has something for pretty much everyone, with tunes ranging from the Tin Pan Alley canon to disco. Enjoy:
One can infer some great advice from this comment by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963):
"If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or
other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people
who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it
while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never
I really enjoyed the new film Premium Rush, a movie choice made only because nothing else at the cineplex looked even remotely interesting. It's chief appeal? It looked like there would be a lot of location shooting in the streets of Manhattan, and that turned out to be even truer than I expected. I've thought about visiting NYC each of the past several summers, but for one reason or another I never go. So a movie like this serves as a kind of imaginary vacation, as long as the photography lets you really take in the surroundings. Despite the fact that a lot of this movie speeds along with a bicycle messenger noted for his lack of brakes, there's plenty of chances to appreciate the landmarks, and hustle and bustle especially of the neighborhood stretching north along Broadway north of Columbus Circle (one of my regular stomping grounds thirty years ago). What surprised me is how this stripped down story-- told in barely ninety minutes-- balanced action, romance, and comedy in more or less equal measure involving fairly well delineated characters. That last part is not typical of your standard summer action fare. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the lead character, is a fine actor so no surprise that he brings some depth to the role of the committed speed demon. But the real scene stealer is Michael Shannon as the rider's nemesis-- a cop gone bad trying to intercept the messenger's delivery. In fact, he may be the most entertaining bad guy since Alan Rickman's Hans in the first Die Hard movie. The element that I most appreciated about this movie is that really nothing is overblown. There are some nice stunts, but none that really stretch one's credulity. It's a tightly told story, with great tension and a satisfying ending. There really should be more movies made that adhere to such simple virtues.
Words of wisdom from the pen of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):
"All that man can say or do that can possibly concern mankind is, in some
shape or other, to tell the story of his love — to sing, and if he is
fortunate and keeps alive he will be forever in love. This alone is to
be alive to the extremities. It is such a pity that this divine creature
should ever suffer from cold feet. A still greater pity that the
coldness so often reaches to his heart."
The Leaves came out of the same L.A. rock scene that spawned the Byrds, Love, and the Doors. I don't know why they weren't as big as those other acts, based on the evidence of this (not to mention their other great recordings from the mid-sixties, including one of the best versions of "Hey Joe" ever committed to vinyl):