Back from the West Coast

The weather was uncharacteristically warm, dry, and sunny for the first ten days.  And given the approaching solstice, the days were long — the sun set around 10:30 pm and rose about 3:45 am.  That made it much easier to keep the music and drink flowing in the pubs until the wee hours.

On our way up to Donegal we visited Doolin, home to many well-known and accomplished musicians.  We arrived on a Monday and were fortunate not to have too many tourists in the area.  The pubs were busy, but not crowded, so we could sit close to the group at O’Connor’s and enjoy the music.

In Doolin the instruments were not amplified, which seems no longer to be the norm, even for traditional sessions in Ireland.  At sessions later that week in Clifden and Donegal town, amplification for guitars, fiddles, flutes, and drums was used even in small, intimate setttings.

I definitely had an eye out for musicians pushing the limits of traditional music while retaining much of the instrumentation and musical forms.  In a small shop called the Melody Maker, on the Diamond in Donegal, they were playing a CD by Kila which sounded promising.  It was there I found a recent recording with DVD by Téada“Inné Amárach” — not exactly “pushing the limits”, but concert trad of a very high quality.

On our way back to Shannon we returned for a Saturday night in Doolin at the Fernhill Farmhouse where our host Suzanne made us more than welcome.  Unfortunately, the pubs were overrun with noisy tourists this time through, so it was impossible to hear the music over the din. (It’s come to this?  We’ll be back in October.  That should help.)  I did manage to find some Kila CDs (Lemonade and Buns and Luna Park) at Magnetic Music, “the last music cafe before America”. The lyrics are in Irish with translations available on the website.

Don’t Look Beyond: Scorsese on Dylan

There’s been surprisingly little written about Martin Scosese’s documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home .  David Jaffe over at Slate begins his review by suggesting the ways Scosese may have been compromised by the PBS project.

This documentary comes complete with a Starbucks tie-in, an Apple logo, and a celebrity director’s credit. That director is Martin Scorsese, who has surely coveted access to this footage—donated by D.A. Pennebaker, Murray Lerner, and others—having already shot Dylan as the pièce de résistance to his documentary about The Band, The Last Waltz. But before you get too excited about this crossroads meeting, viewer, beware: This project was co-produced by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen. Scorsese was brought in well after Rosen had already conducted the interviews and approved the material.

Jaffe is grateful nonetheless, in spite of the absence of sex, drugs, and Dylan’s more than politically incorrect statements.  One expects a PG rating for “viewers like you”.

But this is more than a PBS-sanitized nonfiction film about one of the defining figures of our time.  It is a failure of the documentary form, capitulating, as it does, to the constraints of the authorized version.

Imagine the same film made, say, by Errol Morris.  First off, the interviews would not have been prefabricated by Dylan and his staff, an approach that minimizes the possibility of cutting through the facade and exposing contradictions behind the delicately composed image of “the man without a past”. Nor would we have the quick cuts away from the singer just when his unguarded backstage behavior starts to be revealing. Recall those long, awkward scenes in Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back when, for example, Dylan indulges in an unmerciful send up of a young backstage visitor, or responds to a professional journalist with an endless series of irritable (and, perhaps, justifiable) retorts and obstacles. As the camera refuses to turn away from its subject and maintains its unblinking gaze, one eventually gets a clear sense of the complexity of the situation and the forces shaping Dylan’s experience.  As this happens, the unofficial truths begin to emerge.

(To be continued…)

Disambiguate Before September Ends

It’s certainly gratifying to see an article in the New York Times by Sarah Boxer reviewing an appropriation and political intervention by independent vlogger Zadi at Karmagrrrl. Zadi’s Quicktime video reframes Green Day’s tune (Wake Me Up When September Ends) as a comment on the devastation resulting from hurricane Katrina and the inability of the U.S. government to protect and care for its own citizens.

While Green Day may have intended their song as a comment on the war in Iraq, the inherent ambiguity of the lyrics leaves it open to a wide range of interpretations. The Katrina disaster, as Boxer points out, seems a more comfortable and compelling fit than Sam Bayer’s emotionally predictable video [or here] showing two young lovers separated by the war.  The subtle editing of video and audio footage gathered by Zadi is both moving and suggestive. It sends a clear message without being in any way heavy-handed or preachy. The final (unattributed line) from the President’s mother, Barbara Bush, is chilling.

Laibach Lives

I’ve often talked with students and colleagues about the Slovenian “band” Laibach and Goran Gajic’s very intriguing documentary about them, Laibach: Victory Under the Sun (1988)

Not only is the band an interesting phenomenon in its own right, but the documentary adds to the pleasure (and perversity) by featuring Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on Laibach and NSK, the multi-media art movement they founded back in the ’80s.

They never received much attention in the US and have been keeping a low profile for the last seven or eight years. They surfaced in July with a new album, WAT (“We Are Time”) and this month in Artforum magazine.

In the former Yugoslavia, Laibach made use of a political strategy that Zizek frequently mentions as being particularly effective under Eastern European communism — being more politically correct than one’s own leaders. By following very strictly certain guidelines and policies of the dominant regime (to which, of course, no one is expected to pay more than lip service), one is able to force the complacent authorities to confront the very symptoms of their adopted ideology.

Could such a strategy work under current politico-economic and cultural conditions in the US? My first response would be the obvious and cynical one that the manifestations of such a strategy by artists would go through successive stages of being momentarily outrageous, puzzling, adopted in small circles by those who catch on and those who don’t, appropriated by the “merchants of cool”, and finally cleaned up for mass consumption, with the result that any remnants of political effectiveness would be neutralized. But perhaps it’s worth looking beyond this rather simple reasoning.

It will be interesting to see what form Laibach takes under the “new world order” and in the aftermath of the transitions in Eastern Europe. I suggest artists in the West pay very close attention.