Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mission Across the Tracks: Fotonovelas

The railroad tracks running east-west divided my home town of Mission, Texas. The north side was the “anglo” side, the south side was Mexiquita, the Mexican side. A drive down the main drag, South Conway Avenue, went past markets, cafes, hardware stores, a Spanish-language movie house, and a pool hall. That pool hall always stayed with me because for years it displayed a campaign poster from 1960, showing John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

One of my earliest and sharpest memories of South Mission is very tactile. This happened in the early 1960s. My mother, a native of Mission, liked to go to a beauty parlor on the other side of the tracks. When she went, she took my younger brother Cooper and me. I remember the tangy smell of the chemicals, the bulbous hair dryers, the pink decor. And I remember the reading material.

As a precocious kid, maybe 6 years old, I picked up any reading I could find, kid-friendly or not. And the beauty parlor had stacks of fotonovelas. Those are comic books illustrated with photographs, rather than drawings. They started in Italy after World War II with stills from movies, then they became an art form of their own. They especially caught on in Latin America, mostly on romantic themes.

I can’t remember any specific scenes. But the heady mix of the beauty parlor and the romantic fotonovelas stayed with me. Fast forward almost 60 years and I became intensely curious about fotonovelas. That’s more than a nostalgic yearning. Rather, as a language buff, I’m always looking for effective ways to learn.

Are fotonovelas a good way to practice Spanish? I wanted to get my pale gringo hands on a batch of them to find out, but that’s harder than I expected. An online search turned up no publishers. A high school pal back in Mission checked out some supermarkets and couldn’t find anything.

 A Latin American Collection in a library at the University of Texas in Austin has 22 available, mostly from Mexico, others from Brazil and one in French from Martinique. If I lived within 100 miles of Austin, I’d hightail it over there for a look.

A group called the Rural Women’s Health Project in Gainesville, Florida used fotonovelas for almost 30 years to deliver its messages on health and family issues. They used the format very well but they weren’t what I had in mind for my walk back on the south side of the tracks.

Etsy and eBay had some collections for sale, some in the horror or crime genre, some in romance. I especially warmed to a Mexican fotonovela series from 1981, Valle de Lagrimas, or Valley of Tears. The particular issue, El Secreto, had the cover line “Hay veces que el destino es implacable!” There are times when destiny is unforgiving!” Now that’s what I’m talking about! That sounds like just the right vocabulary level for a gringo like me.

But, I decided to hold off on El Secreto, as I did with Kaliman El Hombre Increible Coleccion, with drawings rather than photos. That one had an Aladdin adventure vibe to it. Then there was the English-language series Vixens, about the struggles and aspirations of an all-girl musical trio. The photographer has done some other photo novels. But I already speak English so I’ll save Vixens for another madcap reading adventure. 

My sleuthing finally paid off when I did a spin through Google Shopping, a service I’ve never used. I searched for fotonovelas and to my surprise Google Play had a massive 221 page fotonovela taken from a TV series. It has the irresistible name of Dulce AmorSweet Love. And I could download it to my computer, for instant gratification. As I translate the promo text, it’s about a humble boy from the barrio who wants to be a race car driver, and the beautiful intelligent woman who runs some kind of emporium. Not sure what she sells.

I’ve already flipped through the first 40 pages of Dulce Amor: fast cars, chauffeurs, nervous romantic encounters, bubble baths, male strippers, and the kind of dialogue that makes fotonovelas worth my while:

Woman: Nano no es tu hijo. (Nano isn’t your son.)

Man (clutching his head in agony): Decime que no es cierto, Dios! (Tell me you’re not certain, oh my God!)

Woman: Es hijo de Ernesto, que ahora se muriendo, en el carcel. (He is the child of Ernesto, who is now dying in prison.)

OK, so far so good!

So are fotonovelas a good way to learn any language? Absolutely! They deal with basic human conditions in any language. Love, work, family, friendship, hurt. I’ve got my dictionaries ready to plunge into Dulce Amor, ready to learn. And I yearn to be swept away by the wild side of life I first encountered at a beauty parlor in Mission across the tracks.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Я хочу научиться говорить по русски

A few days ago a friend sent me the newsletter of the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives/ NYU Special Collections. The mailing was about an event next week to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Curious, I checked out the special collections and felt the shock of recognition. The archives contain the records of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.

The Council was a communist front group that believed that the USSR and the United States should join together in their common fight against fascism in the 1940s. We all know how that worked out. In 1946, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated it and in 1947 the Council was indicted. It finally closed in 1991 just as the USSR itself was sliding into the dustbin of history. Of course, the Stalinist mindset is now the required worldview on U.S. college campuses and elsewhere. Perhaps that’s what Nikita Khrushchev had in mind when he said “We will bury you,” Мы вас похороним! These days, he might say, "We will give you the ideological tools and strategies so you can bury yourselves." So the flavor of the worst of the USSR is digging in to the current frenzy to unmask spies and wreckers who deviate from the ever-shifting Twitter/media party line. But that's another discussion. 

Anyway, the council helped me realize a long-term dreamto study Russian. I had always been curious about the USSR. I almost took Russian at Princeton, which had a great program, but I got cold feet and took Spanish. My curiosity intensified after I read all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago in 1983. I finally got a Barnes & Noble book on Russian and I earnestly read it for years on the subways. But I always noticed the council’s classified ads on the back page of the Village Voice offering Russian classes. This tempted me, but the name of the group told me it was a front for the Reds. I didn’t want to get on any FBI watch list because of language study. My daring act was buying The English-language Moscow News at a newsstand on West 42nd Street.

My subway reading companion

But starting in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev brought more openness to the USSR, with glasnost and perestroika. The USSR was changing, so I threw caution to the wind and signed up for a beginners class, given at the Ukrainskaya Dom, or Ukrainian House, in the East Village. The teacher was the wife of a Soviet official at the UN.

The challenges were immediate. Russian written in the Cyrillic alphabet, akin to Greek, so I had to learn a lot of new letters. While Russian has some cognates with English, it’s nothing like German or Spanish. And the case structure! I still remember the declensions in this order: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental and prepositional. Perfective verbs, imperfective verbs, soft sounds, hard sounds, words with 30 letters. Pronunciation could be tough. Once I mispronounced the phrase for “crime and punishment," преступление и наказание. The teacher laughed merrily and revealed I had actually said, “Crime and execution!” That must be s a real knee-slapper in Russian.

But I learned something. I wanted to, because I went on a tour of the USSR in September 1987, the high tide of glasnost. I could at least read the street signs. I came back with lots of constructivist-style posters, an art form I greatly admire.

I went on to study Russian at NYU’s school of continuing education. Since then I’ve moved on to other languages. But Russian studies paid dividends. I still have my language books, including this dictionary I got before my 1987 tripI can pick up on words in Ukrainian, Polish, Czech and Serbo-Croatian based on their connection to Russian. I buy CDs in Russian at Goodwill when I see something that interests me, like the greatest hits of Anna Pugacheva. And when I get bored, I doodle in my loopy cyrillic script. Often I’ll write “ya nhe znayu,” я не знаю, which means I don’t know, or ”ya govaryu na-russkom,” я говорю на русском I speak Russian. If you're a James Bond fan, you'll recognize my scribbling of the phrase and organization called SMERSH from Смерть шпионам (SMERt' SHpionam, "Death to Spies.)" I’ve used simple phrases to banter with Russian barbers in New York and Katonah. They get a kick out of this.

I've also seen how learning some Russian, or any other language, can very quickly connect me with other people. It may be for only a few minutes, but acknowledging somebody in their native language can dent the isolation felt by people outside the dominant language culture. This happened when I visited Israel in 2017; many Russian-speaking immigrants work in jobs such as running the checkrooms of museums. At the Bauhaus Foundation in Tel Aviv, the woman who took my backpack appeared to be Russian, so I simply thanked her and said one or two other things I could manage. She was a human with her own language, perhaps she rarely felt recognized as such. She responded positively. I felt like we connected and that felt good. 

Doodles in Russian, meaning something like "The Party is our eternal work!"

So many thanks, National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. Am I on a list in your archives at NYU? I really should check that out. In the meantime,большое спасибо товарищ wherever you are.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Day Everything Changed (Musically Speaking)

I’m thinking back to the moment I realized the world had changed irrevocably. No, I’m not referring to the pandemic, which roared into our lives a year ago this month. I’m going further back, to the moment that shifted my musical tastes in a way that continues to this day.

That instant came in 2005 when I somehow landed on a Latin radio station and heard the 2002 song “Soy Mujer” (I am a Woman) by the Puerto Rico-born salsa singer La India (a/k/a Linda  Bell Viera Caballero). The pulsating music and La India’s blazing, passionate voice grabbed my attention. It also helped that my meager knowledge of Spanish enabled me to understand the title.

Her vocal performance was so dramatic and captivating that I had to go get the CD, probably at Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore. Her videos show a bold physical presence that fills the screen and demands attention. She knows how to belt ‘em out, sort of like a salsa version of French singer Edith Piaf. I loved the rest of her music and began checking out every Latin CD I could find at the Westport and Greenwich libraries in Connecticut.

I had already started moving toward being a big fan Latin music. I grew up on the Texas-Mexico border so I knew about that Tex-Mex genre, even if I didn’t pay attention to it at the time. It pulsed in the background, on the other side of the tracks of Mission, Texas. I had albums by El Chicano, Malo and Santana and liked them all (the Tijuana Brass probably doesn't count). A 2004 trip to São Paulo, Brazil supercharged my interest in all the music from there, so much that I started studying Brazilian Portuguese.

I still like other genres, of course: the Great American Songbook, classic jazz, blues, opera, Israeli and most recently a yen for the bewitching and sinuous sounds of Afro-pop. But Latin music now pulses in the background and foreground of my musical devotions.

So what happens when the world changes? We all know too well the impact of the pandemic. What about when La India rocked my music world in four minutes?

This turned my CD collection in a completely different direction. I had never been much for CDs, favoring vinyl. But given the chance to get Latin CDs, I did, starting in Brazil and never stopping. The Goodwill stores in the area provide me some great buys. I even took a Jewish humanitarian trip to Cuba in 2008, where I was excited about scooping up as many CD sets as possible (and I did). I find them always listenable and a great way to improve my Spanish listening skills.

Then, in the years BCbefore COVIDwas always looking for concerts. Gal Costa at Carnegie Hall to the Texas Tornadoes and also Lila Downs at Celebrate Brooklyn to Los Texmaniacs at Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, I’ve gone far and wide to hear Latin music. Lila Downs, from Mexico, has the big voice and commanding presence of La India, and a very political message. 

Lila Downs in Prospect Park, June 2017
Lila Downs in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, 2017

For my walks around Katonah, a favorite podcast is the Latin Alternative, just the right length at an hour for a lunch ramble.

Latin music often has a political and social edge. A documentary series on Netflix, Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America, covered the musical aspect of political convulsions in Mexico, Chile and Argentina in the 60s to the 80s. A documentary I watched this week showed a concert by Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison, 50 years after Johnny Cash’s epic performance there. I keep looking and learning. 

Los Texmaniacs, 2014

And finally, the music has a retrospective aspect. It connects me with where I grew up. I didn’t pay attention to the border music that surrounded me growing up, but now I do now. I enjoy the accordion-driven sounds of Tex-Mex music and I look forward to heading back to the Rio Grande Valley for a high school reunion and hearing some with old compadres (I call them Landsmen, they call me Carnal, a mashup of Yiddish and Spanish affections). 

Latin music even intersected with that other, more world-historic first moment, when the pandemic began. I had tickets for my partner Naomi and me to see Mariachi Los Camperos at the State University of New York at Purchaseon March 20, 2020. As you can guess, that concert never happened.

Maybe in 2022. If so, we'll be there.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

March 2020: Skating on Thinnest Ice

As the pandemic drags on, my mind keeps circling back to events in the first week of March. They marked the end of “normal” times and the louder rumbles of the avalanche that rolled over society a week later.

I spent the last weekend in February visiting my son in the Boston area. We enjoyed museums, attended a boisterous Bernie Sanders rally on Boston Common and ate Thai food. On Sunday, March 1, we attended the PAX East video game conference at the convention center near Amtrak’s South Station, where I would get the train back home that afternoon

The scene outside the convention center bustled with attendees streaming in. My son and I checked in, I stowed my suitcase and we hit the swirling, crowded floor. The place seemed chaotic, with attendees in costumes of their favorite characters jostling with booth workers from companies with their splashy displays, where gamers could try out games and see demonstrations. We wandered around and he stopped to play a game. Not a gamer myself, I studied the crowd and the sorts of games getting major visibility.

My photos from the day are striking and ominous. They show the packed crowds, with signs posting asking attendees to not block the aisles for photos. I saw masks, both as parts of costumes and, in their plain forms, as a precaution against the virus forcing itself into our consciousness. 

I told my son, "I can't tell if the masks are for costumes or are serious." Whatever the motivation, the masks lent a real-world anxiety to PAX East.

Many games bore a violent, apocalyptic look, typical in the game industry but ironic in light of the events that followed in the coming days, and down to today. Some titles: Zombie Army: Dead War 4, Insurgency Sandstorm, Destroy All Humans!, Wasteland 3 (realized in major cities’ business districts over the summer), Iron Harvest 1920+, The Survivalists, Partisans, Kosmokrats (written in fake Cyrillic letters) and Disintegration (that should be adapted as a game about the economic impact of the pandemic). 

The Amtrak ride from South Station back to Stamford felt typical, quiet and smooth, with plenty of time for reading and no pandemic safety measures. I couldn't imagine it at the time, but this train trip would be the last time I used public transportation in 2020.

Only later did I learn that a superspreader event happened in Boston February 26-27, an international biotechnology conference that ultimately infected 300,000 people. I arrived on Feb. 26—how close did I pass by infected individuals in the days that followed? 

By the next Saturday, March 7, the pandemic demanded notice at a Stamford country club, where the local Jewish Community Center honored a couple I know. There, people talked about the pandemic and even nervously joked about it, favoring fist bumps rather than hand shakes or hugs. Still, by today’s standards, the gala felt normal. Groups posed for photos with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of the night’s speakers, and sat together in tight groups. I bought a necklace for my partner Naomi at a silent auction. I was in a good mood.

I didn’t know that Covid-19 was already spreading fast all around Stamford, with New Rochelle, NY a hot spot. As CNN reported on March 24, “The first known case in New Rochelle was discovered March 2. By March 10, that number had shot up to 108 coronavirus cases, evidence of exponential growth. The containment zone was established two days later.”

Even closer to Stamford, a superspreader event took place on March 5 in Westport, Connecticut, being called “party zero.” A Fox News story on March 24 said the party took place when Connecticut had no cases, but “as of Tuesday, the state is now dealing with 415 cases, 270 of which are in Fairfield County, where Westport is located.”

Did anybody from New Rochelle or Westport attend the JCC gala? I don’t know. I never heard of anybody at the gala getting sick. But it could have easily happened. The place was packed with hundreds of people, many of them elderly. the presence of infection would have been a disaster. Hindsight is always 20/20 but, looking back, we were skating on very thin ice that night, and it’s a miracle the ice didn’t crack and plunge us into illness.

The next day, Sunday March 8, I had a gig at an open mic event at the Tompkins Corners Cultural Center in Putnam Valley, NY. The mood had darkened even from the night before. Ripples of anxiety ricocheted across the center as people kept their distance. We were glad to leave once the event ended.

And then came the week that overturned everything. You know what happened. You were there, you lived it, and we’re still tumbling in that viral avalanche as it leaves social, political and economic wreckage in its wake. 

Viewed from this last weekend of 2020, that first week in March in Boston and Stamford glimmers like a receding star in another dimension. How and when we recapture that freedom of thought, commerce and movement remains unknown. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Walking Westchester County in the Pandemic

The monthly totals on my phone pedometer leapt forward last March as the pandemic hit. The February total was 164,800 steps, in March it rose to 227,300. The walking campaign peaked in August at a lofty 290,000, fueled by massive numbers on a vacation to New Hope, Pennsylvania, with its miles-long walking paths on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the Delaware River.

The great majority of my pandemic steps, now close to 2 million steps since March, came in Westchester County, NY. My partner Naomi and I have become relentless daily walkers. Over nine months, we have had ground-level view of the changing seasons, counting cars in driveways, dodging crashing tree limbs after storms, recognizing dogs more than their walkers (as in, oh, here comes Mr. Greyhounds), and watching with the delight the ongoing artistic magic of anonymous local artist, the Katonah Chalker.

We’ve gotten to the point where we use short hand to set our routes. Lakeside Loop, Valley Road to Memorial Park, Whitlockville to Anderson, Reservoir Road to the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts (while walking past Martha Stewart's estate with the perfectly stacked stone wall), Bedford Hills Metro-North Station, downtown to the Katonah Village Library and back. Our strides are so coordinated that we can estimate to within 100 steps how far we’ll walk in an hour at the rate of 100 steps per minute.

The godsend since the spring has been our membership at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, with its 4,315 acres of well-marked trails. Over the summer we’d slather on bug spray for two-hour jaunts. We especially remember an early one where we confronted a boulder-strewn steep uphill climb that had us gasping for breath. The county-run Reservation has been a great place to meet friends for socially distanced tramping and I just renewed our annual membership.

The search for variety sent us cruising around Westchester. In a time that feels a lot like the endless repeating loop of the movie Groundhog Day, we enjoy the variety of the North County Trail, the Bronx River Parkway from White Plains to the Kensico Dam, and Sleepy Hollow with the vibrant riverfront mural.

The one thing we can’t easily reach in Westchester is a beach. For that, we’ve driven back to where I lived before KatonahWestport, Connecticut. We’ve been to Sherwood Island State Park and Compo Beach, where the endlessly pounding surf is thrilling and relaxing. We typically combine the walk with a late lunch in Westport and a stroll around downtown on the shores of the Saugatuck River. I lived there for 17 years, so the place packs a lot of memories. 

The quest for steps has led us through many towns south of KatonahMt. Kisco, Chappaqua (looking for the Clintons all over), Pleasantville, Valhalla and the mighty Kensico Dam, and White Plains, and then on to posh Larchmont and its waterfront, and Hartsdale. As a camera buff, I find all of these locations highly photogenic.

What have we learned? Mask usage in the pandemic varies widely. The Bronx River Parkway in the summer felt iffy, with unmasked bikers and narrow trails that squished people together. In the Reservation we stood by as lean shirtless young men pounded by on the rocky trails. We feared they were spraying sweat and breath droplets as they whizzed by. These days, we gotta think about that. 

Naomi and I keep looking for new parks, riverside paths along the Hudson, sites like the Glacial Erratic boulder in Rockefeller State Park, historical sites, anything to get us out of the house. With my trusty backpack loaded with water bottles, trail mix, masks, maps, cough drops and a camera, we’re ready for anything. I recommend this walking approach for anybody looking for a way to keep fit and avoid going stir crazy while stuck at home.

And when the pandemic ends? We’ll keep right on walking. Maybe we can even ditch the masks. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

John Coltrane, Miles David and ZZ Top: Restless Artists Deserving a Fresh Listen

Several years ago I attended a lecture at the Katonah Museum of Art that completely changed the way I look at art. A curator spoke about how abstract expressionism developed. That is, artists moved from representations of things we recognize to more abstract forms. Ultimately the curator reached the far end of abstraction, with art of pure colors and pure shapes. 

[An open-mic version of this post can be found on YouTube, here.]

As somebody whose taste leans to the Rembrandt and Norman Rockwell schools of realism, I had looked askance at extreme abstractions. I could take the art in at a glance, I could see nothing much to ponder in it. But you know what? The lecture made me think again. For the first time, I got what the artists were up to. What had been a mystery became something I could understand from the artist’s point of view. What seemed a little jive now looked more complex, holding a story of shades and shapes and their emotional meaning.

The seeming simplicity and randomness of impressionism reminded me of an imagined conversation between an unimpressed observer and an artist. The observer scoffs, “Oh, I could have done that.” The artist responded, “You could have, but I DID.”

These thoughts came to me after I recently watched three documentaries on Amazon, about jazz musicians John Coltrane (Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary) and Miles Davis (Miles Davis: The Mile Davis Story) and the Texas blues-rock trio ZZ Top ( ZZ Top, That Little Ol’ Band from Texas). I’m a huge fan of all of them and have plenty of their albums. I got my first Miles Davis album, The Complete Birth of the Cool, in December 1975 in McAllen, Texas, soon after I turned 18. ZZ Top’s first three albums--ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres--were in heavy rotation on my record player when I was in high school.

Since I got a Victrola 8-in-1 cabinet player, I’ve been exploring my long-unheard vinyl collection. Lately I’m working through the massive 12-record set Miles Davis Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings, 1951-1956. The second disk practically tells a brooding romantic story in the arc of the songs:
  • Out of the Blue
  • Denial
  • My Old Flame
  • It’s Only a Paper Moon
  • Compulsion
  • The Serpent’s Tooth
  • ‘Round About Midnight
Davis’s music especially drills deep into my cortex, provoking all kinds of moody images of misty nights at the Rainbow Room and then, well, 'round about midnight. I could write a novel with those compositions as the chapter titles. The only song missing is Lush Life.

My albums collection shows a sharp break in my interest in their music. Their earlier works appealed to me more than what came later. Coltrane and Davis did landmark work in the 1950s and early 1960s; they were lyrical, emotional, inventive. Those are the albums I gobbled up at places like St. Marks Sounds in New York.

Those phases segued into other sounds. The documentaries made the point that Coltrane and Davis reached a stage in their careers where they went in new directions. Coltrane expressed his spirituality after getting off drugs, Davis an interest in trends like electronic music, Indian sounds, rock, funk.

Those later periods left me cold. I wasn’t the only one. The Coltrane documentary talked about people walking out on his concerts because they expected Lush Life and My Favorite Things and he wanted to perform new material. Davis, who I heard in concert in 1975, ditched his traditional jazz sound for a totally new approach (and even a new way of dressing). My intense attachment to his works ends with works recorded after 1970. Bitches Brew and On the Corner just weren’t my cup of tea.

But after the documentaries, I’m ready to at least give them both another listen. They were artists pushing into new territory, what they wanted to play, not what the public wanted from them. Teen age musicians, unusual instruments, electronic squalls--why not? Neither of them was going to become an oldies act ready to skate for decades on a certain repertoire. That’s not a bad way to manage a career, if you can keep an audience interested in your older material (Chicago, the Beach Boys and other groups often seen on PBS documentaries during Pledge Week). For Coltrane and Davis, their accomplishments gave them the right to play what interested them.

Same for ZZ Top. The trio had pride of place in my record collection in high school, with their first self-named album, then Rio Grande Mud, then Tres Hombres. Songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Somebody Else Been Shakin’ Your Tree” and “La Grange” were in heavy rotation. Then I left for college and sort of lost interest. The documentary talks about how the band moved into new sounds, away from what worked so well in the beginning (although the film says almost nothing about the last three decades of the group's output). People didn’t know what to make of it. I liked their MTV videos like Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin’, but my musical tastes evolved from rock in general.

However, the documentary rekindled my interest. They were like Coltrane and Davis. ZZ Top wasn’t going to rest on their laurels. Different tunings, other influences came into the mix. With 15 studio albums, only some of which I’m familiar with, ZZ Top left a lot of platters for me to spin.

So from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to Davis’s Bitches Brew to ZZ Top’s Mescalero, I’ve got some listening to do. Will my ears perk up, my cortex tingle? I don’t know. But like I learned from the lecture on abstract expressionism, some art deserves a second listen.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Re: Re-Reading

I have favorite books, but I’m not a fan of re-reading them, at least not novels. Some historical books I’ll thumb through for the writing about the gripping events they describe. They typically are about the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the convulsions of World War II. Those include The Great Terror by Robert Conquest, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn and The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson.

With fiction, I’m a one-and-done reader. I know the book and how it ends, what else can I get from it? One rare exception had been Dubliners by James Joyce, with its tales of Ireland, such as “The Dead,” by a native who left his childhood home for college and then Europe. That’s something I can increasingly identify with as a writer who moved from Texas and now feels compelled to write stories set in the place.

[An open mic presentation of this essay can be found here.]

Lately, however, my attention is returning to novels that made a deep impression on me. Some of them I read so long ago that I can’t remember exactly what I liked about them. None are particularly long but all cast long shadows over my sense of what makes literature work.

I want to re-read them both to refresh my memories of them and see what they mean the second time around. I also want to compare them to novels I’ve read recently. A lot of current fiction just doesn’t click with me. I decided to do a test to contrast what I liked then with what I haven’t liked so much now.

The re-reading project ignited when I found a book in a giveaway box left in front of a house down the street from the library. It’s The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, published in 1981. It’s about the imagined life of a patient of Sigmund Freud, a troubled opera singer. Its tapestry of dreams, fantasies, reality and tragedy gripped me when I read it in my 20s. Some parts of it lodged in my memory and I wanted to see if what I recalled was there. Those passages were indeed there. Given the nature of the passages that impressed me, I won’t quote any of them here. Read for yourself.

The White Hotel is intelligent and powerful without being self-consciously difficult to read. DM Thomas doesn’t write needlessly convoluted sentences that dare you to excavate his obscure meaning. I try to bring that clarity to my writing.

The next book up hurls me even further back in time, to boyhood. That’s Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1883. Do kids even read Treasure Island these days? In any case, this adventure story made a major impression on me back in the late 1960s, along with Tom Sawyer. I looked through it online and Stevenson’s prose has a self-assurance and verve that greatly appeals to me.

While written for wildly different audiences, Treasure Island and The White Hotel have surprising overlaps. Both books feature hotels and deal with dreams. A book with Dr. Freud as a character, of course, will be riddled with spicy dreams and their interpretation. Treasure Island both begins and ends with references to dreams. Is that what struck me as a boy, on the edge of a dawning awareness of life’s complexities? I don’t know, that would take an analyst of Freudian powers to unpack. And what is psychoanalysis, if not the quest for the hidden treasures buried on the island of the human unconscious?

Anyway, consider the first page of Treasure Island, where narrator Jim Hawkins writes ominously of “the seafaring man with one leg:"
How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions.
And the very last paragraph:
The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"
Now that’s writing of the highest order. Let’s read it again: “Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island.” The passage sounds like my reluctance to take Metro-North into Manhattan these days.

So that’s my first take on re-reading. I have others in mind. I’ll talk about them later. For now, I’ll update my reservation list here at the library and get back to reading.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Reflecting on Jorge Santana, The Malo Man

Monday's death of guitarist and band leader Jorge Santana of the group Malo sent me digging into my vinyl record collection in the basement. Malo had been a great favorite of mine in high school and I wanted to get my hands on the platter and relive what the music meant to me almost 50 years ago when I was growing up in Mission, Texas.

I found my copy of Malo's second album, Dos, and also my triple-album set Fillmore: The Last Days, about the final performances at the legendary San Francisco music hall that closed in 1971. The two albums are closely related in my mind. Here's the story about how that happened.

Malo must have first come to my attention when I bought The Last Days on August 16, 1972 (obsessive-compulsive that I am, I write the date I buy records and books on the packaging). I was 14 years old and had a thing for multi-album sets with all the extras thrown in. This package had a poster, a ticket and an illustrated booklet. Plus, the music greatly appealed to me with the Grateful Dead, Santana (led by Carlos Santana, Jorge's brother), the New Riders of the Purple Sage and other groovy groups.

I might have heard Malo's first album before, the one with eye-catching Aztec cover, the explosive opening track "Pana" and their huge hit "Suavacito" on it, but I definitely heard the group on The Last Days, playing "Pana." Santana's group must have made a big impression on me, because I bought Dos on November 17, 1972.  With songs like "I'm For Real" and "Latin Bugaloo," I became a confirmed fan of Jorge Santana's Malo. Lacking a way to play vinyl these days, I turn to YouTube to get my annual booster shot of Malo, early Santana, and the other Chicano group that caught my attention in the early 1970s, El Chicano.

My interest in Latin music remained at a low simmer, defined by teen listening habits, until the early 2000s, when a trip to Brazil turbocharged a fascination with bossa nova and MPB (música popular brasileira) that continues unabated 15 years later. Cuban, Puerto Rican and Tex-Mex music followed and I still listen to more Latin music these days than any other genre. I just like the sounds. It takes me back to those roots on the border.

The great flowering of interest in Latin music really does trace its way back to Jorge Santana and Malo in 1972, perhaps even more than Santana. Santana the group was easy to hear in the 1960s and 1970s, with hits in heavy rotation on the big Top 40 station in McAllen, Texas, KRIO-AM. Malo, however, had a lower profile in the era where you had to hunt around record stores and find "underground" radio shows to hear music off the mainstream. Jorge Santana's music was a small act of teen rebellion on my part, when gringos like me didn't pay much attention to Latin music.

Thanks for all the memories and sounds, Jorge Santana. The music will always be with us. Any day, like today, that starts with "Pana" is going to be a good day.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

My Desert Island Quarantine-Friendly Song List

My team at work is compiling a Spotify playlist of everybody’s 10 top songs for listening when working at home (as we all are now). As we put together our lists, I thought about what music most appealed to me. The final lineup included songs that fell into groups marked by similar lyrical themes (finding and losing romance), along with pulsing, brass-driven boogaloo music, like the selections from Chicago, Tim Maia and Curtis Mayfield. 

Most of the songs call up stories for me: When I first heard them, where, the emotional connotations. Each one carries a satchel of memories and meanings, so I shared some context on each. Without further navel-gazing, here you go, in the order they came to mind:

Time Changes Everything, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. A rueful bookend for the first song played at my wedding, “Waltz Across Texas” by Ernest Tubb.

Out of My League, Fitz and the Tantrums. I heard this on the radio and it single-handedly renewed my faith in the power of pop music, once I tracked it down.

Lush Life, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. This is the lounge lizard life I lived, at least in my imagination.

Já Sei Namorar, Os Tribalistas. I first heard this Brazilian supergroup trio when taking an intensive Portuguese class one summer in New York at the excellent Brazil Ahead language program. The album Tribalistas would be one of my top desert island discs, if I found myself stranded on an island or, in current terms, in a house.

Move On Up, Curtis Mayfield. Everybody up and dancing for this one, from my favorite soul singer, full of drive to keep moving ahead despite the circumstances.

Introduction, Chicago. I've called this greatest first song on the greatest first album ever! From the very first note of its very first recorded song, Chicago showed a total vision and confidence in its music. Nobody’s been able to top the artistry of their first three albums, not even Chicago.

Sharon Jones, in blue dress at left, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park
Stranded In Your Love, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. I had the great honor of being in the right place at the right time to see Ms. Jones at her legendary concert at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on August 7, 2010. I love the line in this song, “Is this romance or circumstance?”

I Can’t Get Started, Bunny Berrigan. From the soundtrack of “Chinatown,” which completely changed my taste in music. I obsessed over this song and the soundtrack for years and finally tracked down a copy at the Virgin Megastore in London in 1984. I carefully brought it back with me to my studio apartment in Brooklyn. I treasure it to this day, if only I had a turntable to play it on.

Encontros e Despedidas, Maria Rita. I heard this song on a Brazilian telenovela in 2004 and it lodged in my consciousness with its evocations of meetings and good-byes in life. This was another song that took years for me to discover the artist and the song. I immediately bought every CD by Maria Rita.

Gostava Tanto De Você, Tim Maia. Here's an upbeat song with depressing lyrics. I think of him as the Barry White of Brazil, his songs are an echo of a certain time and place, full of what the Brazilians call saudade.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

An Annotated List of The Last, So Far

Last dinner with friends at Akdeniz.
Last performance of Live From Here at Town Hall.
Last opening at the Katonah Museum of Art.
Last picture show at the Burns Film Center.
Last Facebook post by the late Jim Salzer.
Last Shabbat at Chabad of Bedford.
Last ride on Metro-North to Grand Central Station.
Last exit to Brooklyn.
Last time in Boston.
Last time in Texas.
Last library book (The Weight of Ink, it's mine until the Katonah Village Library reopens).

Last handshake.
Last vacation in New England.
Last time to check my 401K.
Last trip to the office at 4 Times Square.
Last shopping splurge at Costco.
Last concert at Daryl's House.
Last open mic gig.
Last P-rade at Princeton.
Last gathering of the Class of '80.
Last time at the new MOMA.
Last CHIRP concert at Ballard Park.
Last lingering look.
Last night.

Mission Across the Tracks: Fotonovelas

The railroad tracks running east-west divided my home town of Mission, Texas. The north side was the “anglo” side, the south side was Mexiqu...