Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Congratulations are in order -- Santa Cruz author Elizabeth McKenzie and the Gail Rich Awards

I returned to the Rio Theatre on Wednesday for the first time since that historic Lucinda gig. The big event was the Gail Rich Awards, honoring outstanding community builders and artists. For me, the standout moment was the fine speech/short story excerpt by my friend Elizabeth McKenzie, a fantastic writer whose fiction has appeared recently in the Atlantic Monthly and who has a piece up in the Saturday Evening Post (did you know that was still being published?? I'm very glad to hear it.) She read an excerpt from her story cycle, Stop That Girl, which should be on your reading list along with McGregor Tells the World. I was unfamiliar with most of the other award recipients except for the talented sign maker Steve Hosmer of Stokes Signs, whose funny and profane acceptance speech was one of the evening's real highlights. He explains that his parents told him he could do anything he ever wanted in life "if I had enough ham and perseverance."

Speaking of books that should be on your reading list -- it was a real thrill to get a copy of Lise Pearlman's brand new book The Sky's The Limit, a fascinating nonfiction book that gives you a grand comparative tour of America's 'trials of the century' with a special emphasis on Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers. It was a real kick for me because I, along with the author Sara Houghteling took a look at early drafts of the work-in-progress. I hope to be there for one of the book-launch parties. Incidentally, Lise is a retired Superior Court judge and an absolutely tireless researcher, writer and interviewer. All for now.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Corroboration from hard-core Lucinda Williams fans -- and some words about the best shows ever in Santa Cruz

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks it may well have been Lucinda's best show ever. I'm hearing from lots of folks who have seen her upwards of 26 times and think that Rio show blew all the others away. Anyhow, let's hope she rolls this way again very soon, and let's hope she keeps on drinking that vitamin-fortified tangerine juice.

Meanwhile, here are some of the other greatest shows ever in the Santa Cruz general area:

Neil Young and Crazy Horse: 1996, the Catalyst. You should have been there. Neil didn't say one freaking word for the entire set, but what a set it was, starting off with "Cowgirls in the Sand." My sister kept telling me, you'd never even know he was famous. Neil and the band seemed like they were trying out for something. And it was so punk, and so damned loud. All that feedback, and Neil with his bangs in his eyes, just shredding away. My ears are ringing even now. By the way, the four-hour wait for the wristband was a concert in and of itself. I met one of my best pals in Santa Cruz in that endless line. And the crazy thing is, the Catalyst didn't even try to fill the place. I think they capped the sales at 500 people, so we were watching Neil Young, and there was tons of room to dance and jump around. By the way, someone told me that Neil Young shopped solo at Bookshop Santa Cruz before that show. And no one recognized him. No one!

Midnight Oil, 1994 (?) The Catalyst. Do I have the date right for this one? One of the greatest rock bands in the world, able to fill sports arenas but playing at this little teeny Santa Cruz club? Peter Garrett, the band's left-leaning, skin-headed giant, started things off with "That's Progress," and from then on it was a full-on two-hour assault of the smartest, hardest pop music in creation. It was like hearing "The Dead Heart," "Read About It," "Only the Strong" and "Now or Neverland" in your own living room. Garrett at one point lost patience with a fan who was flying and shaking an Australian flag. "Now, would you put that thing away already?" he asked. I had to buy my ticket from a scalper at a severe mark-up. It ended up costing me a grand total of twenty bucks. I believe this was part of their last full-fledged U.S. tour ever. Correct me if I've got that wrong.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, The Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 2003: So haunting and soulful and spare -- and, just to give you a little context, the Kuumbwa is probably smaller than your living room. Do you ever find yourself having one of those transcendent musical moments, and there's always someone sitting next to you who just doesn't get it? There was someone behind me that night who kept muttering "This is just like old-time church music." And I kept thinking, "Well, what's the matter with old-time church music?"

John Prine at the KPIG Fat Fry, 1994. There's a great little story that keeps circulating about this legendary concert, and who knows if it's true? John Prine was headlining that day, and the crowd was packed in there pretty tight in the Aptos fairgrounds. A fan was hanging back in the shade, and suddenly this guy with a thick gray-brown mustache and a bit of a beerbelly taps him on the shoulder and asks if he might bum a light from him. And when the fan looked up, guess who was asking for that cigarette? Anyhow, believe it or not, but this was the first time I'd ever heard "Sam Stone," "Big Old Goofy World," "You Got Gold" and all the rest. Haiku and three chords. Can't stop talking about it even now.

Doc Watson and David Grisman at the Mello Center, 1998. Not one of those pairings you see every day. At one point, Doc turned to Grisman and ordered him to make his mandolin bark like a dog.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lucinda Williams's best concert ever? Live in Santa Cruz at the Rio Theatre

Best Lucinda Williams concert? Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz, 1/18/12

(sorry, I keep updating this danged thing. Little details keep incorporating themselves into the story. Scroll to the bottom for complete set list if you're into that sort of thing.)

Nothing against the Catalyst Club in downtown Santa Cruz but every time I go there's some 250-pound, 7-foot tall drunk guy standing right in front of me, swaying to the music and stepping on my feet, while blocking my views of whatever band is playing that night.

That's why it was a special treat to see Lucinda Williams"in full soaring voice" (my sister's description) at the historic Rio Theatre on Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz. Imagine -- seeing Lucinda in a place with crisp, clean acoustics, and being able to sit down.

I've never seen Lucinda this good or this candid, and I've been going to her concerts since the days of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (she started off Wednesday night's concert with the title song from that breakthrough LP before launching straight into "The Night's Too Long" from the Lucinda Williams album. The night was full of meditations about her literary influences, from Carson McCullers to Mary Karr, along with a lot of juicy deep cuts, a nice, swampy version of "Concrete and Barbed Wire," "Side of the Road" and "Greenville." A chilling solo version of Woody Guthrie's "I Aint Got No Home" was part of her hard-times/recession theme, along with Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and her own "Memphis Pearl," inspired by a woman she saw rifling through a trash can in Los Angeles many years ago.

Let's give some credit to the talented Blake Mills (not to be confused with Lake Mills, a city in Wisconsin), who played beside her, and was much too good -- too precise -- for me to call him a mere "accompanist." Mills, a Venice, California-based singer/songwriter, was bold enough to include a cover of a Lucinda song -- "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad" -- in his solo opening set, along with some of his own standouts like "Hey, Lover." Mills is a thoughtful, flexible interpreter of Lucinda's songs. All the arrangements were faithful to the material but he never overpowered it, like some of Lucinda's overenthusiastic pickers from the distant past. His playing and singing always heightened the emotional impact of her voice and lyrics without ever gumming up the works, whether he was charging through . "Honey Bee" and "Change The Locks," or plucking a 10-string tiple for songs like "Well, Well, Well."

Lucinda responded with a combination of tact and mischief to shouted-out audience requests. When someone bellowed for "Lake Charles," she smiled, raised her eyebrows, and said, "Another song about a beautiful loser. Here's another one." Then she launched into "Pineola," her tribute to the Frank Sanford, "a brilliant young poet" who committed suicide in 1978. Once, during his rave-up at the end of "Pineola," I heard someone in the audience grumble that Blake Mills was "too blaring and loud" toward the end of that song-- but if you know "Pineola," you know that it has to be there; some painful truths require a lot of feedback and amplification. (At the end of Mills' solo, Lucinda laughed and said, "You're trying to blow me off the stage with that thing!"

Besides, in past Lucinda concerts, the band, if anything, was too faithful to the records. Sometimes they sounded like a note-for-note mock-up of the records, only breaking out of their little boxes during the long, overly noisy solos. I think the 'duo' format gave Mills and Williams a lot more leeway. Last night they could get a little loosey-goosey with the arrangements in a way that made the songs surprising and more powerful than the full-on rock-band treatment ever could.

The stripped-down arrangements brought out song shadings I'd never noticed before. The drawn-out, repeated vocal at the end of Randy Weeks' "Can't Let Go" seemed desperate and pathetic and funny at the same time, with Lucinda playing the role of a jilted lover who couldn't acknowledge defeat. She ramped up the laughs by turning the song into a commentary on GOP candidates squaring off against one another, falling and rising with Whack-A-Mole regularity: "Come on, Newt! It's over but I can't let go. Mitt, Mitt, Mitt, it's over but I can't let go." The arrangements also let you focus on the sorrowful objects that make up "Bus To Baton Rouge" -- a song about a pilgrimage to a strange old family house with a "piano nobody played," and a locked room where no kids could set foot. The song made her so emotional that she had to pause and catch herself before she could launch into it. Afterward, she cryptically explained that the song came from "the side of the family where the mental illness came from. Look for them in my memoirs. I'll have to wait until everyone's dead so it doesn't hurt everybody's feelings."

There was only one drag about the concert, and that was the almost total lack of young-ish folks. At one point in the lobby just before the set, someone shouted out, "Is there anybody here who is under 45.' "I am!" I replied, but I noticed only two 20-somethings anywhere in the crowd. Young folks, you're missing out.

Finally, it bears mentioning that Lucinda could seem distant and grumpy in those old late 1990s shows. Here it was like hanging out in her living room. Why the change? Who knows. I think she must be living right and drinking a lot of tangerine juice.

"Thanks for digging into your pockets and buying a ticket to see me during these tough economic times," she said. "I really appreciate it. I hope I gave you a little something to take home with you."

Set list at the Rio:

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

The Night’s Too Long

Side of the Road

Memphis Pearl

Bus to Baton Rouge


Words Fell

I Didn’t Know

Stowaway in your heart

Concrete and Barbed Wire

People Talking

Well well well

Can’t Let Go

Drunken Angel

Don't Let the Devil Ride


Changed the Locks

My Little Honeybee

I Aint Got No Home


Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

Get Right With God

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tea Obhreht at Bookshop Santa Cruz: Advice for young writers (and a few words about headaches, heartaches, pitchforks and false starts)

Tea Obreht on failing better and growing a novel

"Any advice for young writers?"

Tea Obreht handled that musty old question with grace at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Her response is good enough to clip and save.

"You're writing for a reason: you love it," she said. "It gives you something. Your family may not be pleased with you for doing it but you have a need to write so write. Don't write anything just because it's trendy.Write what you love to read. If it fails, who cares! If it fails, learn from it and write the next one. It's a lonely process but continue doing it because you love it."

During her talk, she spoke about the role of circumstance, having her early drafts shredded in a writer's workshop, and the chance viewing of a television documentary. In her estimation, her book started out as a "very bad" short story that somehow took on weight and beauty when she stretched it out, pruned and reworked.

Born in Belgrade, Obreht, who did her undergraduate studies at USC, and earned her MFA at Cornell, began the book in graduate school. At first, she didn't realize it was a book at all.

She stumbled upon one of the book's main ingredients while watching TV.

It happened like this. Obreht had moved to upstate New York and was looking forward to locking herself in a room, drinking hot chocolate and getting to work on some writing. That cozy state of mind lasted a day or two.

"Then the snow fell and I dug up the wrong car because it was the same color as my car. The windowsill (of my room) was on the level of the street. When the snow started falling, it was as though you were in an hourglass."

In just such a snowstorm, she was supposed to be writing. Instead she sat around biding time and watching a National Geographic special on Siberian tigers. The program mentioned a woman who raised tigers and used a soothing voice "to talk them out of the most horrible rages."

Taking a cue from the program, Obreht began to write about a young deaf mute circus performer who arrives at a Balkan village in the middle of a snowstorm in search of a circus tiger. "I was very excited about the story. I wanted the little boy to be the eyes and ears of the story"

Then she took it to her Cornell MFA workshop -- "and it got completely destroyed. It was a terrible short story. I was sweating, and a colleague of mine said, 'there is pitchfork-wielding rabble but the story isn't Frankenstein. There shouldn't be pitchfork-wielding rabble in a story that isn't Frankenstein!"

Chastened, she threw away the pitchforks and the torches, but something about the tale kept calling her back. "The story was 25 pages, and then it was 30 and still bad. Then it was 40 pages, and it was a little bit better, perhaps because the badness got dispersed."

She pressed on. The moment that it became a novel was no cause for celebration, nor was it even a 'moment." "I didn't go the workshop and say, 'I'm writing my novel,' and then my classmates carried me on their shoulders. That's not how it happened. It just kept growing until it was 70 pages long-- and at that point, I couldn't really say it was a short story anymore."

The final book was a long process, the result of "obsessive work habits, tics and antisocial tendencies" and a return to Belgrade, where she researched vampires for a magazine, had a few doors slammed in her face, and also joined the locals in a powerful fruit brandy that she compared to turpentine, "but more awesome." She also made some brutal cuts. "I learned to lop off sections of my writing as if they were bad flowers in pruning."

Her next project? "I don't think I'm done with the Balkans just yet," she said.

She couldn't say much more. Stay tuned for my reflections on the Lucinda Williams concert, which has just sold out.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Music, books and shrooms: Lucinda Williams, Tea Obreht, and great glowing globs of flaming fungus

Well, I just went and purchased a ticket to see Lucinda Williams live at the Rio Theater next week in Santa Cruz. I think she's a songwriting genius, so we should all indulge her a little bit, even if she sometimes gets grumpy, and even if she sometimes chooses to perform her own songs while reading the lyrics and chord progressions off a music stand set up near the front of the stage. The best Lucinda concert I've ever seen was at the Warfield, just after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out. Pure bliss. Another time I saw her, she had some kind of loud on-stage tiff with the bass player at the Fillmore. They worked it out, but it was a little dodgy there for a while. By the way, Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife, is coming to Bookshop Santa Cruz this Friday, while the mighty Fungus Fair -- an exhibition of tasty, poisonous, beautiful and just plain disgusting mushrooms -- rolls into town all this weekend. You'd better believe I'll be there at all three events. I love this town, but sometimes cultural events come in these little bursts. No matter where you live, you've got to grab culture where you find it, even when it's fungal. (and, by the way, if either of my two readers is curious about Lucinda's music, and I know you are, the best places to start are the albums Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Sweet Old World, and the epynomous record Lucinda Williams. If you like all three of those and want to go a little deeper into the discography, let me know)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Q and A with Nikki Giovanni

Here it is. I wrote this up to spread the word about the upcoming
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation in Santa Cruz. I hope you enjoy this. By the way, I have a few more Q and A's set up with various nonfiction and fiction writers so stay tuned. I'll write and post those when I can.

Poets and grandmothers in outer space: A Q&A with Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni, acclaimed poet, bestselling author, creative writing professor, and living connection to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, is this year's keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation in downtown Santa Cruz.

King's assassination, and his memorial service, which she attended, inspired some of her earliest published works. She has the authority and credibility of a '60s activist from the front lines of the civil rights movement. Giovanni also has an insurgent sense of humor and the delivery of a seasoned stand-up comic, breaking up audiences with her incisive wit and deadpan expressions.

Giovanni had a free-ranging conversation with UCSC News & Events about her memories of King, her 20-year friendship with Rosa Parks, the importance of bearing witness, America's great economic divide, and her wild dream of sending poets and grandmothers into outer space.

You are a National Book Award finalist for your autobiography, and your children's book about Rosa Parks received Caldecott honors, but poetry is your enduring love. How did you choose poetry as your art form?

It's always been with me. That's how poetry enters your life—your mom, your aunties, and your grandmothers do these little rhymes for you. Some of us keep it, always, and some of us, unfortunately, push it out of our lives. We're told it doesn't matter. We're told we're soft for reading and writing poetry. My students ask me, 'Can I write poetry?' I tell them, 'Of course you can! You just can't make a living on it.’ But that's not why we write it. We write for joy. I'm not going to say you don't need money. Look at me. I'm an old woman. You need food, your dogs need shots, but there's a limit to what money can do. Money is totally out of control right now. There's nothing wrong with being rich, but there's something seriously wrong with being a billionaire.

Do you support the Occupy Wall Street movement?

I'm a '60s person. We were allowed to do our sit-ins, and I think they should be allowed to do their protests. I enjoy watching the Occupy movement because they are saying, 'Something is wrong, but we are not powerless.' They are all about changing the conversation, and that is incredibly courageous. That was what we were trying to do during the Vietnam War.

You often talk about following your own conscience regardless of public pressures.

Well, I'm not a big fan of going along with the mob. I resented (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia) when he called the Occupy movement a mob. Mobs lynch people and throw bricks through windows and burn things. Eric, where did you go to school, baby? Occupy is not a mob. We have a right to peaceably assemble. That's not a mob. That's citizens doing their job.

Speaking of nonviolent resistance, you were a friend of the late Rosa Parks, and an acquaintance of Martin Luther King Jr. You've often said that Parks should loom larger in the American memory.

I like to wish people a happy Rosa Parks Day, and when they look at me and say, 'I didn't know there was a Rosa Parks Day,' I tell them, 'There should be.' I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. King. We weren't friends but he knew who I was. He'd say, 'Hi, Nikki.' (Laughs.) We've got this great big statue of Martin now, but without Rosa, we would not have had the occasion to meet Martin. Martin was not calm. He wanted to get things done. He had the urgency of 'now.' But Rosa had that calmness. You always felt that whatever was going to happen, it wouldn't be so bad with this woman around. Rosa Parks would never have given a 'March on Washington' speech like Martin did, but on December 1, 1955, she said, 'I'm going to take my seat today.' Let me be clear. Martin was a minister. He was used to leading. His father, his grandfathers, were all ministers, but it is the Rosa Parkses of the world who gave him his handle. The Rosa Parkses of this world provide the Kings of this world with the opportunity. Martin couldn't have just said 'Let's have a boycott."

It's clear that you value the importance of courage in everyday life.

Courage is always important. That's why we read Ulysses. That's why we try to understand the journey of Hamlet.

You've taught creative writing for decades, and you currently teach at Virginia Tech. One of your former students is Nikky Finney, who won a National Book Award for poetry. I'm hoping you can share your writing and teaching philosophy.

What I say to my students is, 'Write what you know.' They don't realize that it is so clear when they don't know what they are talking about. I have a friend who likes to write English novels, and I'm thinking, 'No, baby, you don't know anything about it. The British write English novels!' You are your own muse. I know I have some students who think I don't care because I always look and say, 'That's good.' The whole world will find something wrong with your writing. It takes a certain commitment to say, 'This is good,' and a certain level of faith to say, 'If she says this is good, and I respect her, I can build on that.'

In your own words you are a "Black American, a daughter, a mother, and a professor of English. You have earned 25 honorary degrees and have received the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage award. Is there anything else you're still hoping to accomplish?

Well, I am a big fan of space, and I am incredibly sad that every penny we put into (the war in Afghanistan) could have been used for space travel. If I were a young man going into outer space, I would be so nervous, so why not send a few grandmothers into space? I would go, by the way. People will say, "But Nikki, you won't come back!' I'd say, 'look, I'm 68, I'm going to die anyway.' Let's send the poets and the grandmothers. That would be my ideal space crew. Maybe throw in a painter and one songwriter, and we would need to get a cook. We'd have a good time, and if we survive, wonderful. If we don't, we'll have taken a great route to that next step. We don't know very much about death because some of us don't know very much about life.

Speaking of fate and circumstance, do you ever wonder what you would have done with your life if you hadn't become a poet?

I am compulsive. I could have opened a cleaning business. I would have called it Nikki's Cleaning.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Read along with me ... if you dare.

OK, both of you. First of all, it was nice to see you last week, and second of all, here are some good books to read. Get your hands on Elif Batuman's hilarious, startling and clever book The Possessed, about freaks like me who can't get enough of Russian literature. She is always so funny and surprising. I once sent her a fan letter and got a nice response. You're 11 years too late to celebrate the book's sesquicentennial; still, this is as good a time as any to conquer Moby Dick if you haven't already, and if you can, get your hands on the Arion version, which is beautifully illustrated and has a nice big font size for nearsighted folks like me. Don't listen to all those people who make it seem as if reading this book is like taking a daily dose of codfish liver oil. The book has marvelous pacing and, for the post part, it rollicks along. The digressions - some of them pure journalism, some of them pure fantasy -- enrich the story, and have a metaphorical power that keeps building right up to the book's abrupt ending. I just finished reading it and I'm glad I waited. I'd heard so many horror stories about this long, fishy tale that I wasn't prepared for Melville's wry, self-effacing humor and the endearing jokiness. (Melville darkens the mood and eases up on the jokes as the Pequod begins its final pursuit of the treacherous Dick.) As a treat, I'm going to read Nathaniel Philbrick's book about Moby Dick afterwards. Another book I read for the first time ever: the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina. Read it, but it will ruin you. No other book is better than this. I should also point out that this translation is excellent. A great translation makes a big difference. If you don't believe me, check out the clunky, grinding translation that is available for free on the Amazon Kindle. I agree with those who say the Levin scenes in the country side were not quite as interesting as the rest of the book, but I think they place the book a different register and help balance out the domestic misery/horse racing/adultery scenes. You will also enjoy the hilarious Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, though I was mightily confused about the missing chunks in book two. (Initially, I did not realize that part of the manuscript was lost to time.) As part of my job, I am just about to interview (I hope!) an extremely successful production designer for the movies. To prepare, I am reading an interesting book called Ken Adams, the Art of Production Design, about the man who, among other things created the sets seven classic James Bond flicks and the war room in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Lately, I can't get enough of the criticism and essays of the late John Updike, whose books, Just Looking and Still Looking are like taking a stroll through a museum with a funny, self-effacing and extremely learned amateur (and I mean amateur in the best sense of the word!) And finally, you should get your hands on Eleanor Henderson's 10,000 Saints which is so full of surprises that I don't want to ruin anything, even by giving you a plot synopsis. Just get a hold of it as soon as you can. That's all for now.