Saturday, October 31, 2009

“The Bad Habit”

It’s All Hallows Eve tonight, & what more can you ask for from today’s Weekly Poem than that its author dedicated it to Edgar Allan Poe? This is the case with today’s poem, written by a poet I think should be more widely read, Charles Henri Ford.

Ford had a long career, beginning the lit mag Blues in the late 20s at age 16; not long after this, he moved to Paris & became a part of Gertrude Stein’s salon, where he became friends with a number of writers, including Djuna Barnes. He & Parker Tyler co-wrote The Young & the Evil, which Stein called, “the novel that beat the Beat Generation by a generation,” & he was the partner of dancer Pavel Tchelitchew until the latter’s death in 1957. Ford continued his work as poet, novelist, film-maker & general man of the arts practically until his own death in 2002.

Ford’s poetry is surrealist in nature, & he was aligned with the “capital S” surrealists as editor of the literary magazine The View. His poems certainly evoke the marvelous, with their uncanny imagery; they also often deliver a great deal of poignancy & feeling & the sense that the author is moved by the beautiful, even when the beautiful takes on truly strange forms.

Hope you enjoy today’s poems.

The Bad Habit

for Poe

Drug of the incomprehensible
engenders the freaks of desire.
The bleeding statue, the violin’s hair,
the river of fire:

the blood grows, the hair flows, the river groans,
from the veins, from the skin, by the home of the child
pulled and repelled by Bloody Bones;
renewal of the swoon

mastered, the raw egg of fear,
doped with mystery, the hooded heart:
perpetually haunted, hopeless addict,
herding unheard of cattle!

Rider on the bat-winged horse.

Charles Henri Ford

Friday, October 30, 2009

Octoberflix #4 – Laugh, Clown, Laugh

What better way to end our Octoberflix series than with a film starring an actor who also starred in one of the very greatest horror films (& for my money, one of the great films) ever made: Lon Chaney, Sr., whose role as the Phantom in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera would by itself have been enough to assure his lasting fame. However, Chaney made many films, & a number of them are certifiable masterpieces. According to IMDB, Chaney may have acted in 161 films, possibly beginning as early as 1912, but certainly by 1913, when he was credited for appearing in The Ways of Fate (this seems like a particularly Chaneyesque title). His career ended in 1930 with a “talkie” re-make of 1925’s film The Unholy Three—sadly, he died at age 47 from bronchial lung cancer that had developed following a 1929 bout with pneumonia. In that almost 20 year career, however, Chaney created some of the most memorable film characters ever, & one of his best is Tito Beppi, in the 1928 Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

The film’s narrative has the feel of a fairy tale or Ur-story—a story that is altogether familiar even if we’ve never encountered it in a specific manifestation. Chaney, playing the traveling clown Tito Beppi, one day discovers a very young girl who has been abandoned by her parents. Tito immediately decides that he & his partner, Simon (played by Bernard Siegel) should raise the girl, arguing with Simon (who opposes the idea) that her parents left the child “for the saints,” & “what the saints offer, sinners can’t refuse.” It’s also clear in their first scene together that Tito is completely enchanted with the girl, & when he decides to name the girl Simonetta, Simon relents.

The story then cuts ahead to Simonetta’s adolescent years, & she—played by a 15-year-old
Loretta Young, in her first major film role—has grown into a young beauty. Tito recognizes Simonetta’s transition toward womanhood, but he is profoundly perplexed by it, & by the feelings this stirs in him. The remainder of the film explores how Tito struggles with those feelings, & his ongoing anguish of love for a much younger woman who he raised as a daughter. As such, the narrative is disturbing—of course, many of Chaney’s best roles involved anguished & disturbing characters, many of which were physically deformed in some way—most famously in Quasimodo of the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame—but in this case the deformity Tito suffers is emotional. While Chaney’s brilliant portrayal renders Tito’s torment in an almost visceral, but ultimately compassionate, manner, he also makes it clear in subtle ways that this torment springs from his inability to form a relationship with Simonetta as an adult. In the film’s penultimate scene, we see Tito—now with gray hair—looking over his mementos of Simonetta, & all of these are tokens of her girlhood: a doll, a toy chicken, a ballet shoe she wore when younger (Simonetta had joined with Tito & Simon as a tightrope walker).

The trope of the clown who can make everyone laugh but cannot laugh himself is an old
one—Chaney had done it very successfully in another of his great films, He Who Gets Slapped from 1924—but thru the power of Chaney’s portrayal, & the power of the film overall, this subject doesn’t seem in the least trite, but rather extraordinarily moving. At one point, Tito visits a neurologist because he is weeping compulsively. The neurologist (without any apparent insight from Tito) correctly diagnoses the problem as “hopelessness in love,” & advises Tito to win the girl “without delay.” Here Chaney reveals dramatically how Tito realizes there are legitimate & serious reasons why he shouldn’t pursue this passion: the great age discrepancy (& of course Simonetta will very shortly have a suitor her own age) & also because their relationship mirrors that of a father & daughter. The neurologist takes Chaney out to the balcony & they look across the street toward a poster advertising the act of a clown named Flik. The doctor says Chaney should see the clown perform, because Flik would make him laugh. Chaney answers, with the sort of anguished expression that few other actors could convey, that he could never laugh at that man’s act—& after a pause, the caption comes on screen: “Because I am Flik!”

Although this is Chaney’s film, the other performers all are first rate—Siegel as his clown
partner, Simon; in fact Siegel & Chaney have an excellent onscreen rapport; Nils Asther as the young suitor whose transformation from rake to true lover we grudgingly accept; & Loretta Young as Simonetta. Tho only a teenager, Young brings a dimensionality to her characterization, & we can understand thru her Simonetta’s own torment at becoming an adult & dealing with the awakenings of sexual desire. One would also have to give credit to director Herbert Brenon, as the film’s pacing & staging are all superb. There is a famous story about the film involving Brenon, Young & Chaney. It seems that Brenon was a notorious taskmaster, & that he was quite cruel in the way he spoke to Young—but only when Chaney was not on the set. Chaney found out about this, & for the duration of the filming made a point of being on the set during all of Loretta Young’s scenes, whether he was involved in them or not.

What is Chaney’s greatness? It wasn’t simply his ability to transform himself into “monsters” by the use of make-up (tho Chaney himself participated a great deal in the make-up process & was very skilled in this area). His real greatness is the way he makes these “monsters” human—whether he’s playing the Phantom or Quasimodo or an aging, heartbroken clown, no actor seems so thoroughly human as Lon Chaney.

Unfortunately, this film appears hard to come by unless one shells out for the Warner Home
Video Lon Chaney Collection, which also contains The Unknown & The Ace of Hearts). As a true believer, I say it’s worth it, but some would probably not agree. Shockingly, this film doesn’t seem to be a NetFlix selection—Netflix is weak when it comes to silent films—& while Turner Classic Movies has a good record of screening Chaney films, it’s not on the schedule the remainder of this year. Of course a video rental shop with a solid collection of silents really should have this. If & when you get a chance to see Laugh, Clown, Laugh, I give it the highest recommendation—Eberle does too!

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

White Teeth! Fresh Breath! 10 (Truly) Old School Beauty Tips

[Audrey's back again, this time with some 17th century beauty tips! Enjoy.]

Long before drug store aisles were lined with creams, potions, and miraculous lotions, women invented their own beauty treatments and shared their favorites among close friends. Seventeenth-century writer Hannah Wolley, author of at least seven books on cookery, etiquette, and medicine, included recipes to address common cosmetic concerns of the day. Her tips range from the plausible to the grotesque.

The promises sound familiar, and when you consider the things modern women do for looks—chemical peels, bleaching trays, injections—the ingredients may not seem so bizarre. Although not for the squeamish, their organic credentials are ind
isputable. Do they work? Probably about as well as many of the claims we fall for today!

1. To make the Hair grow thick: Make a strong Lye, then take a good quantity of Hyssop-Roots, and burn them to Ashes, and mingle the Ashes and the Lye together, and therewith wash your Head, and it will make the Hair grow; the Ashes of Froggs burnt doth increase Hair, as also the Ashes of Goats-dung, mingled with Oyl.

2. A Water to take away wrinkles in the Face: Take of the Decoction of Briony and Figgs, each alike quantities and wash the Face with it.

3. To take away
Hair: Take the Juice of Fumitory, mix it with Gum-Arabick, then lay it on the place, the Hairs first plucked out by the Roots, and it will never permit any more Hair to grow on the place: Also annoint your Head with the juice of a Glo-worm stamped and it hath the same Virtue.

4. To take away Freckles in the Face: Annoint your face with oyl of Almonds and drink Plantain-water, or annoint your Visage well and often with Hare's blood.

5. To take away Pimples: Take Wheat-flower mingled with Honey and Vinegar, and lay it upon them.

6. To make the teeth white as Ivory: Take Rosemary, Sage, and a little Almond and Honey, and boyl them together in fair Running-water, and when it is well boyled, strain out the fair water, and keep it in a Glass, and use it sometime to wash your Mouth and Teeth therewith, and it will make them clean.

7. To make the Breath Sweet: Wash your Mouth with the water that the shells of Citrons have been boyled in, and you will have a sweet Breath.

8. To make the Nails grow: Take Wheat-flower, and mingle it with Honey, and lay it to the Nails, and it will help them.

9. For the Lips chopt [chapped]: Rub them with the Sweat behind your Ears, and this will make them smooth and well coloured.

10. To smooth the skin: Mix Capons-grease with a quantity of Sugar, and let it stand for a few days close covered, and it will turn to clear oyl with which to annoint your face.

Hannah Wolley, The Accomplish’t Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying & Cookery (1675)

Audrey Bilger © 2007-2009

Pix from Top
Hannah Wolley
Male & Female Glowworms
A Black Java Rooster (probably not "caponized," but you get the idea)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Graveyard Tunes #4

All Hallows is just around the corner, so this is the final installment of Graveyard Tunes; thanks everybody for being so supportive of the series—there will be another song list series coming up in December.

Eberle says I should tell you all that among my many “jack-of-all-trades” jobs, I worked for two summers at Mt Calvary Cemetery in Burlington, VT as a grave-digger/groundskeeper. While we spent the majority of our working hours mowing lawns & weed-whacking fence lines, there was actual digging involved, & we did it the old-fashioned way, with spades & shovels. It wasn’t a bad job all in all—out in the sun, & tho there was some hard work, I was a young fellow & up to the task. Did this experience give me any particular insight into the Graveyard Tunes? Probably not!

Enjoy—five videos as a grand finale!

  • Scarey Day Blues: Here’s another tale of the mojo, in this case something that Blind Willie McTell’s woman has that puts “the jinx” on him in the boudoir (as it were). At the same time, his woman seems to have certain characteristics of a freight train (shaking & wobbling, like the “Central” & the “L&N”). Although Blind Willie expresses optimism about being able to find the mojo, she “keeps it hid.” I think you get the picture. Blind Willie McTell’s playing is always amazing, as on this up-tempo number—check him out in the video below. Blind Willie McTell: The Best of Blind Willie McTell (Yazoo)
  • See That My Grave Is Kept Clean: This great Blind Lemon Jefferson song is one I wrote up in a feature on Just a Song—this is a much condensed version. It's no under-statement to use the word eerie when describing this song, especially in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s version. When he sings “my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold,” it is a spine-tingling moment, as is his singing about the “church bell tone” & the “coffin sound.” Blind Lemon Jefferson had an immediately recognizable guitar style, & his flowing runs & intricate rhythms always make for good listening, even in such a chilling song. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 3, Songs (Smithsonian/Folkways); also The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson (Yazoo)
  • Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard: Here we move from the blues of the southern U.S. to the calypso sounds of Jamaica. The old, pre-Belafonte (& Andrews Sisters) calypso was an extremely interesting form—a mixture of lovely melodies & rhythms over which the calypsonian singer would often extemporize in verse, often describing local events or singing about political issues. In a way, calypso is “the news,” & the news Lord Executor delivers in this calypso song from the 1930s is, as the title suggests rather grisly. It may interest you to know that Lord Executor goes on to list real tragedies which, he asserts are “worse than the seven skeletons the workmen found in the yard.” Lord Executor: Calypso Breakaway 1927-1941 (Rounder)—sadly, this fine collection of vintage calypso has been discontinued.
  • She Moved Through the Fair: This traditional Irish song about a ghostly love has one of the most beautiful—& haunting—melodies I’ve ever heard. When that melody is sung by Jean Redpath, who is simply one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, the results are stunning. Ms Redpath performs “She Moved Through the Fair” a capella, but her voice combines a remarkable purity & clarity of tone combined with true insight in delivering the lyric. Jean Redpath: First Flight (Rounder)
  • Skeleton Jangle: Moving from the sublime to the…less sublime, we have a fun early jazz number from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The recordings made by this combo in 1917 & 1918 were among the first recorded jazz numbers, tho the music had been in existence for some years at that point. “Skeleton Jangle” was recorded in March of 1918, along with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s version of “Tiger Rag.” The song itself is a fun romp, as the combo’s music generally was. The “skeleton” is supplied by the drummer as he taps out time on woodblock. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band: The 75th Anniversary (Bluebird)
  • St James Infirmary: This song not only features a “cooling board” scene, as we experienced with Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” & Blind Willie McTell’s “On the Cooling Board,” but it also features an extravagant funeral procession—not up to the standard of McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter Blues,” but still including singing chorus girls, six crapshooters & a jazz band on the “hearse wagon.” It’s a good song—fun to perform. New Orleans great Danny Barker took it to a whole other level, however, both musically & in terms of pure lyrical surrealism. Why Barker isn’t better known baffles me—as far as I know (& I know there are a few NoLa readers, so please correct me if I’m wrong), his recordings are all out of distribution, as are those of his wife Blue Lu Barker. Barker was an exceptionally talented musician—a fantastic guitar player & banjo player, an excellent singer & a fun songwriter—how many folks realize he wrote “Save the Bones for Henry Jones”? Ah well, if you can only listen to one of today’s videos, make it the Barker version of “St James Infirmary.” There’s nothing quite like it. Danny Barker: Save the Bones (Orleans); as I said, discontinued & hard to come by.
  • Sweet William & Lady Margaret: I included two very different versions of this old ballad—another ghostly love song. Jean Ritchie’s full-length treatment goes from disturbingly surreal dreams filled with swine to true love knot tied between a rose & briar; Buffy Sainte-Marie’s short version is a dark tale of mad love & suicide. Both versions have great power, so do give them a listen; & speaking of excellent singers, both Ritchie & Sainte-Marie are fantastic. Jean Ritchie: Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition (Smithsonian Folkways); Buffy Sainte-Marie: Little Wheel Spin & Spin (Vanguard)
  • Trouble Gonna Take Me To My Grave: What a way to end! Big Joe Williams of 9-string guitar fame. Yes, a 9-string guitar is that odd—I’ve never heard of anyone else playing one. In the blues, we know what the ultimate destination is, & we know trouble just hastens one on the way! Big Joe Williams is a delight, & not well known to general listeners. Tho this tune isn’t on YouTube, several are, so look him up some day when you’re in the mood. Big Joe Williams: Big Joe Williams at Folk City (OBC); this now is only available as mp3 downloads, but what the hey!

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

“The Squirrel”

[Here’s the next poem from our Poetic Mystery Guest, B.N. Please do enjoy!]

The Squirrel

For a week
a squirrel has been
trapped in the attic. He moves
on weak hind legs like a voice
between the walls
and the beams. I find his
hairs caught by the places
he thought: escape.

In the bedroom we rise
and fall
to each other
like small gusts of wind
slamming doors. This way
we suggest passions
the way the mirror imitates
companionship. The reflection
of the flower in the flower
that opens onto the flower, the
yellow center.

We should be required to live once
Like the animals full of animal hours
And that strange craftiness—
Always the will to live.
By now the squirrel
is home or an afterthought.

© to the author 1983-2009

This poem previously appeared in the
Memphis State Review

“The Forest In The Axe”

It’s the last Tuesday in October, so we’re bringing André Breton month to a close on Translation Tuesday. Also, don’t forget to tune in this afternoon (if you’re on this particular continent) for the next poem by our good pal & Poetic Mystery Guest, B.N. Starting next month, Translation Tuesday will alternate with B.N.’s poems, so translations will appear on the 3rd & the 17th, & B.N.’s poems will appear on the 10th & 24th.

“The Forest in the Axe” (“La Forêt dans la hache”) comes from Breton’s 1932 collection, La Revolver à cheveux blancs (The White-haired Revolver), as did “The Verb To Be” & “Murderous Rescue.” Re-reading my translation for the first time in a good long while, this examination of physical & spiritual death kept bringing me back to the Eluard’s line that’s quoted in the film Alphaville: “mourir de ne pas mourir” (“dying of not dying). There’s more than a little of this in the present poem.

Thanks everybody for being so enthusiastic about the Breton translations, & hope you enjoy this one.

The Forest In The Axe

Someone just died but I’m still living although I no longer have a soul. I have nothing but a transparent body inside of which transparent doves throw themselves on a transparent dagger held by a transparent hand. I see effort in all its beauty, real effort that nothing can calculate, just before the last star makes its appearance. The body I live in like a hut and on lease detests the soul I had that’s floating in the distance. It’s time to be done with that famous duality for which I’ve taken so much blame. The time’s past when lightless and ringless eyes drew turbulence from the pools of color. There’s no more red or blue. The unanimous red-blue fades away in turn like a robin redbreast in the hedges of neglect. Someone just died— neither you nor me nor them exactly but all of us, save me who survives in many respects: I’m still cold, for instance. Enough of that. Bring fire! Fire! Or better yet some rocks so I can break them, or better yet some birds so I can follow them, or better yet some corsets so I can lace them tight around dead women’s waists, and this will resuscitate them and they’ll love me with their tiring hair, their dishevelled glances. Bring fire, so we don’t die for a glazed fig, bring fire so the Italian straw hat isn’t just a performance. Hello, lawn! Hello, rain! It’s me, the unreal breath of this garden. The black crown placed on my head is a cry of migratory crows because until now there were only those buried alive, not many for that matter, and now I’m the first of the aired-out dead. But I have a body not to be undone, to force the reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, mistletoe eyes, mouth of dead leaves and glass (the dead leaves stir under the glass, they aren’t as red as one might think, when indifference lays bare its voracious methods), hands to pluck you, minuscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore. Ah, my shadow, my dear shadow. I have to write a long letter to the shadow I’ve lost. I’ll start with My dear shadow. Shadow, my dearest. You see. There’s no more sun. There’s only one tropic out of two. There’s no more than one man out of a thousand. There’s only one woman out of the absence of thought that characterizes in pure black this damned epoch. That woman holds a bouquet of everlastings in the shape of my blood.

André Breton
translation John Hayes © 1990-2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

I Was a Preteen Bubblegum Queen!

[Betcha never thought you'd se the name Miley Cyrus on Robert Frost's Banjo! Check out Audrey's rollicking account of her early life as a bubblegum queen! Be sure to stick around to watch Audrey's hand-picked bubblegum vids, too.]

Virtually every significant romance in my life has revolved around music. My first boyfriend was a singer/songwriter, my first girlfriend was in a band with me, and my wife rocks my world on a daily basis (they were/are all guitar-players, but I’m sure that’s beside the point!). Each relationship has had its soundtrack, the sharing of tunes, and much musical exploration.

But my earliest loves were those bubblegum boys with their bright pop melodies, who made me long for who knows what when I was seven-to-twelve years old. At that time, in the 1960s, there was no shortage of amazing music on the radio and in the air. You could turn on a local station and hear Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and The Stones side by side with Frank Sina
tra, Dusty Springfield, and Tom Jones, followed perhaps by Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and The Supremes.

The Beatles were a band my older cousins listened to, and I really dug their songs. I twirled my
hips as a toddler to “Twist & Shout,” and at four, I could sing along to “She Loves You” (I liked the “yeah, yeah yeah” part). Even as a kid, though, I felt that there was something edgy and adult about their material. I couldn’t believe they were singing to me, and images of Beatlemania on TV were worrisome. Why were those girls screaming? Bands like The Doors actually scared me, with their moody organ riffs and sensual vocals. “Riders On The Storm” seemed to come into my head whenever my family was on a camping trip. I’d worry about that “killer on the road,” whose brain was “squirming like a toad.” I think the lines, “Take a long holiday/Let your children play” that followed must have fused the idea of camping and this psychopath in my mind, and Jim Morrison sounded like he sided with the bad guys. Don’t even get me started on “Paint It Black”!

I can’t remember when I first heard Davy Jones singing “Daydream Believer,” but I know that
by second grade, I was a dedicated Monkees follower. I watched the show—even though I had no idea what those madcap fellows were up to. Innuendos, drug references, criticism of the Vietnam War—I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted to hear that soft English accent and get to the part where they played a song. I’d shut myself up in my bedroom and play their music on my portable turntable with its lift-up lid and pull-out speakers. I’d stare at their pictures on the record covers. I’d even make up scenarios in which I was included in those tangled story lines. Even though I now know many devoted Monkees admirers (and am even friends with the person who wrote the definitive day-by history of the band, which you can check out here), I have to confess that in my single-digit years, I never questioned whether they were real artists or not, all I wanted was more of those sugary pop songs.

In 1968, I discovered Bobby Sherman on the TV show Here Come The Brides, and later I
swooned over his hit “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” He wasn’t as deep a crush as Davy Jones had been, and I’d like to think this had something to do with their relative merits, but that’s definitely my adult self talking (and I know there are those out there who would fight me on this). When I looked this song up on YouTube to refresh my memory, I couldn’t quite believe that this sort of song appealed to a fourth-grader. It sounds incredibly schmaltzy and like it’s aimed at bored middle-aged housewives, so I’m just guessing there must have been a crossover audience. Suffice it to say, this infatuation faded fast.

1970 was also the year that launched another TV music sensation,
and this time I was the perfect age for the both the show and its tunes. By the end of the year I turned ten, “I Think I Love You” by The Partridge Family was at the top of the charts, and I was, to put it mildly, obsessed. For two years I practically embraced the television set on Friday nights. David Cassidy was dreamy. Those eyes! That smile! The shag haircut! I wore out their records. I studied the lyrics. Every word was, I felt in the deepest fiber of my being, meant for me. I read in Tiger Beat that David was moody, and I took that to mean he was thoughtful and sensitive (I wouldn’t have thought then that moody meant he didn’t want ten-year old girls to be his major fan base, but apparently that was closer to the truth).

I don’t remember how I fell out of love with David. I
only know that when, for my 12th birthday, my parents gave me a life-sized poster of him, I felt awkward and embarrassed by it. I’d moved on by then. The last of my bubblegum crushes was already underway. Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love” had set my heart pounding. Like my former idols, he was soft-featured and sweet-voiced (effeminate?). I resented my mom’s references to the Annette Funicello version that, coincidentally, charted the year I was born. That was then, Donny was now. Not yet there myself, I nonetheless felt the pain of being mocked, as the song put it, “just because we’re in our teens.”

Times had changed for me by this point, though
. I didn’t obsess over Donny. Maybe I recognized that the magic window was closing. What might at first have seemed like an advantage—he was only a few years older than me—was actually a liability. In retrospect, I think I could see him more clearly as not fully genuine. By 1972 I was listening to The Carpenters, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and even Janis Joplin. I made mix tapes off the radio with songs like Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” Three Dog Night’s “Joy To the World,” and Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By the Schoolyard.” I started actively working to cultivate taste and became acutely aware of what was considered cool and what wasn’t.

In spite of the four decades that have passed since I last gave my heart to a teen idol, I still can’t resist a strong melody, a solid hook, and soulful pop vocals. Long before the Spice Girls co-opted girl power as a PR slogan, at a time when the real teens were turning on and tuning out, female preteens became a powerful force to be reckoned with. Speaking as one of those girls grown up—and this probably holds true for those who love Miley Cyrus and, you know, whoever else it is that kids listen to these days—bubblegum introduced me to the basic way music can move and validate you. Rather than feeling embarrassed by my early addiction to silly love songs, I like now to think back to when I danced around my room with the volume up high, singing at the top of my lungs, my heart an open book and my spinning turntable the center of the universe. To blow another bubble from those bygone days, “Sugar…Oh, honey, honey”!

© Audrey Bilger 2009

This doesn’t do justice to the truly lovely production quality of the album version, but it’s the only clip I could find that shows young Davy performing it.

They seem to be at a feminist rally in this clip from the show, check out the POWER OF WOMEN sign over the stage.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Octoberflix #3 – “Alphaville”

At long last, here’s the latest Octoberflick for your consideration! What better for an October evening than a tale of a mad scientist who’s seeking world—even intergalactic—domination thru a super computer & enslavement of the population? Of course this brings to mind any number of 1950s B-movies; but it also describes Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

In fact, Alphaville combines the sci-fi genre with the hard-boiled detective genre in a way that pre-figures films like Blade Runner—the latter film even echoes Alphaville in some of its plot elements, especially in the underlying love story. Alphaville’s narrative concerns Secret Agent Lemmy Caution’s mission to destroy the super computer Alpha-60 & capture or kill its creator, Professor Von Braun. In the course of this, he meets & falls in love with the Professor’s daughter Natasha (played by Ana Karina). Looked at in its bare bones, the storyline indeed could be taken from a B-movie—which is pa
rt of Godard’s scheme: he places his character Lemmy Caution in a direct line with Dick Tracy & Flash Gordon during a dialogue between Caution & an older agent Henri Dickson (played by Akim Tamiroff).

But while Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine, who made a career out of portraying this character in film &
television) is a gun-toting, tough-talking agent in a trenchcoat & fedora, a machismo hero who engages in gunplay & car chases, his weapon for destroying Alpha-60 & for saving Natasha is poetry, specifically surrealist Paul Eluard’s Capitale de douleur (this is translated as both “Capital of Pain” & “Capital of Sorrow” in the sub-titles, & both are correct—“douleur” does mean pain in an emotional sense). When he’s interrogated by Alpha-60, they don’t exchange dialogue in typical science fiction fashion—instead, they speak in quotes from Borges & Pascal. At this point, we’ve moved a long way from the realm of genre films.

Reams have been written about Alphaville—it’s the sort of film that actively invites interpretation, & my goal here is to give rather briefly a flavor of the work, not to say anything new & insightful—after all, I’m a musician, not a semiotician. I would say, however, that the
world of Alphaville is not easily reducible to plot summaries or other quick summation. It is in fact a world in which action erupts in erratic bursts—as does Paul Misraki’s score or any number of strange beeping sound effects. The dialogue is also “interrupted” in a sense—fragmentary, koan-like (Eberle’s characterization, which I like), with characters’ speech seemingly inhabiting hermetic spaces—this is notable in the dialogue between Caution & Natasha even in the midst of what could be a romantic breakfast in his hotel room—she has said the forbidden word “why” & is obsessed by remembering when she said it, while Caution is obsessed with her remembering her own past in the “Outlands” (“les pays exterieur,” the other “planets,” such as Tokyorama & Nuevo York, where Caution has come from).

In fact, memory is one faculty that is forbidden in Alphaville: Alpha-60 repeats that no one lived
in the past & no one will live in the future; there is only the present, which is made of iron (this is a quote from Borges’ essay A Refutation of Time, which also provides the language for the film’s opening, as well as Alpha-60’s “dying” speech). Words are also forbidden: "tenderness," "redbreast," "conscience"—Natasha finds that "conscience" has recently been removed from “the Bible,” which is in fact the continuously updated dictionary (a bellhop brings a new edition when he brings their breakfast). We see in this scene, before the breakfast, that Natasha can be saved, as she admits fondness for these excised words; we also see it when she cries a single tear, made almost luminous in a fade to black, when Caution has been beaten by the Professor’s henchman. She cries this single tear—apparently unnoticed—despite the act that weeping is a capital offense, & they have just gone to witness a public execution—actually a bizarre sporting event in which the condemned are gunned down from a diving board & then pursued thru a swimming pool by knife-wielding bathing beauties. Natasha's tear also reminds us of the Tamiroff character’s dying words to Caution: “Save those who weep.”

I must say something about the film’s mise en scène, because it’s rather remarkable—not
remarkable, as we might expect in a contemporary film by being graced with elaborate sets & special effects, but remarkable in fact for the very opposite: Alphaville was filmed in Paris, & Godard transforms the City of Light into a cold, stygian darkness only illuminated with neon signs & fluorescent lights—at one point while Caution is being escorted by the police away from the interrogation chamber, banks of fluorescent lights come on & a policeman remarks: “It’s day.” There is very little natural light in the entire film; sometimes, as in the image to the left, the film is "solarized" to produce a "negative." I believe someone once described the Caution character not as a man of the present in a city of the future, but as a man of the past in a city of the present. Also, tho the film is set at some indeterminate future point, there are a number of references to what was the recent past in 1965: Los Alamos (commentors also point out the connection between “A”-bomb & “Alpha”ville) & Guadalcanal; of course, Professor Von Braun also reminds us of Werner Von Braum, the German rocket scientist. In the final scene, as Caution & Natasha are escaping Alphaville, they are driving thru “intersidereal space” in a Ford Galaxie driven along a nighttime freeway.

This film is difficult—although I’ve watched it many times, Caution’s obsession with
photographing everything still puzzles me (just as a for instance)—but to my mind its strengths far out-weigh its opacity—& to a great degree, arise from aspects of this opacity. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, I recommend giving it a try. You can get a bit of an idea of the film from the clip below, in which Karina recites from La Capitale de la douleur, enumerating those qualities that can provide salvation from the human/inhuman monstrosity of Alphaville—it is crucial I think to the film to remember that this isn’t a story about a good hero toppling an evil villain, but about the struggle between our own “humanity” & “inhumanity.”

Alphaville isn’t scheduled for Turner Classic Movies in the foreseeable future, but it is a Netflix
selection & should be available at video rental stores with a good foreign films section. What better time to journey to this city of the “dead,” where people (in Eluard’s words) “die of not dying” (“mourir de ne past mourir”) than this season, when our cinematic thoughts often turn to death & monsters: the death & monsters of Alphaville are indeed the most frightening of all: in potential, ourselves.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

“The name—of it—is ‘Autumn’”

It occurred to me the other day that we haven’t posted any Emily Dickinson poems here on Robert Frost’s Banjo for some time, & so I began the sometimes daunting task of flipping thru Dickinson’s Complete Poems—I always mean to dip into a good selected volume like Final Harvest, but somehow my hand always reaches for the more familiar if also more formidable tome.

The poem below—number 656 (composed around 1862 & standing just before the more well-known “I dwell in Possibility” in the Complete Poems) is a rather spectacular evocation of autumn; Dickinson could evoke more in 12 lines of her highly compressed verse than practically any other English language poet: we have the color red—a typical feaure of New England autumn—transformed to a vivid & disturbing memento mori, as the falling leaves become the blood from a severed artery. The final couplet is a pleasing poetic enigma: has this autumnal bloodflow been transformed to a rose that carries us off to some “better place?”

I find this poem quite fascinating. Hope you enjoy it too.

The name—of it—is “Autumn”—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels—

Emily Dickinson

The picture shows the Dickinson Homestead

Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sister Beverly!

Today’s the birthday of our dear friend Sister Beverly of Marymount Hermitage, & I’d like to extend a big Robert Frost’s Banjo birthday greeting to her. Sister Beverly is a staunch friend, loyal & supportive—just as one example, she’s come to rescue to my rescue at practically a moment's notice when I was stranded 50 miles away (& up the mountain in McCall) with a cracked head gasket! She is also a deep thinker & a person of strong faith & convictions—yet within that framework, she is remarkably tolerant, & I believe truly follows the rule of Marymount, which is to “receive everyone as if they were Christ.” Tho Sister Beverly & I view the cosmos very differently, I consider her a close friend who has supported me consistently since we first met the Hermit Sisters back in 2003—& not simply when I had car trouble!

Sister Beverly & Sister Rebecca Mary founded the Marymount Hermitage in Mesa (ID, not AZ!) 25 years ago—they just celebrated their 25th jubilee, & Eberle & I were privileged to play music for the very well-attended mass; in fact, the pic at the top of the post shows Sister Beverly & Eberle at the party following the mass. When the Sisters first came to Mesa Hill in the 1980s, they lived in conditions that most of us in the States have never experienced—they hauled water, for instance, winter & summer (both of which tend to brutal extremes on the Mesa) & lived without electricity. Their existence was a true example of “pioneering,” & they persisted under very arduous circumstances.

As a little birthday card to Sister Beverly, I’m including a video of yours truly playing what is doubtless her favorite song from my repertoire—“Froggie Went A-Courtin’.” It’s great fun! Usually I play this on the banjo, but I couldn’t get the banjo not to distort today on the webcam mic; then I realized I couldn’t get the guitar or my voice not to distort either. Finally I played it in a lower key than usual & this seemed to do the trick.

As an aside: I haven’t forgotten about the Halloween Films series—I just got kind of swamped yesterday, & today is hectic as well. All things being equal, I expect to post the next film review on Sunday. Those who are looking for a good Halloween film review, however, might want to check out Jacqueline T Lynch’s write-up of Bell, Book & Candle at the always excellent Another Old Movie Blog. I really like this movie, & it’s always a pleasure to read Ms Lynch’s writing.

Hope you all enjoy this, but most especially Sister Beverly—many happy returns!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Weiser River Pillow Book #11

[Here’s the October installment of Eberle’s 2000-2001 Weiser River Pillow Book; as written, this would have been the end of the manuscript—so you should indeed put some stress on the final word of these lists. We began posting the Pillow Book entries last December, so next month’s installment will be the last]


Drifting sea background, 4 purple diamonds, 1 dawn-pink circle.

4 hubcaps.

Large metal hoop mandala encircling: teapot, trowel, sawblade.


The smell of the earth, a soft pungent gratitude.

Looking at the roof, trying to remember where the leaks were last year.

Sitting on the porch steps watching the clouds roll down from the mountains.

Summer-hatched guinea hens, who have never seen rain, sounding affronted.


Ajax cleanser.

Mercury automobiles.

Olympic stain and paint.

Toyota Cressida.

Argo cornstarch.


Being in a dance routine with bathing beauties.

Being coronated pope.

Running a school board meeting with a hammer for a gavel.

Witnessing one’s own funeral.



I dreamed I was writing music, and when the hoot owls started outside, I dreamed I had written music for hoot owls, who then came in, right on cue, at intervals of a perfect fourth.


America on Alert!

America’s New War!

America Strikes Back!

Now More Than Ever.


Cellophane rattles like distant thunder, echoing with all the flimsy disposable flotsam of the last century.

Dead leaves look like mice.

It seems overwhelmingly tragic that the chickens have no scraps to eat that day.


How engrossing cutting labels from computer print-outs my companion designed for the feed containers: turkey grower, scratch, crumble, and rolled oats.

I remember how intent I was, years ago, cutting out place cards for my mother’s formal dinner parties—cards that would be inserted into the mouths of the golden metal insects that served as place-card holders.

How lovely to have animals instead of formal dinner parties.


Knowing that all lives are equally valuable. Consistent action based on this knowledge would eradicate hierarchy, elitism, war, oppression, and car commercials.

Not having children.

Making art instead of money.


Listerine beetles.




The purpose of art is not so much even a question of product, but of commitment to a process that takes you away from the life proscribed by the agents of greed. It returns you to what is sacred, it ritualizes connection.


Strange sight, a fast food roadside shrine, children of a superpower lining up quietly to eat what will kill them.

Putting down money for it too, the hush at the altar of the cash registers, the softly spoken orders. Many people have the verses memorized, don’t need to read the phrases posted in the place where, in church, the hymns would be posted.

Strange method of ritual suicide, within earshot of the roar of another monster to whom we make regular voluntary human sacrifices—the freeway.

Fast food is pseudo-sustenance based on omission: communicants participate in the omission of connection to its production—the land where it came from, the people involved in growing it, making it—the omission of making it, sharing it.

Fast culture works on the same premise—the cult of celebritism substituting for human connection—no involvement in its production, buying it, not making it: the whole business is just another death cult. Of course, death cults are not an illogical response to life in this country.


Hoover Concept.





Power Max.


At best, education provides for an ability to entertain oneself without having to pay for it and feed the beast of consumer culture. Like learning to make love instead of supporting a sex industry. Learning to get ideas for free instead of supporting the non-information industry. In this country, recreation without consumption is a radical act, and leads naturally to freedom of thought.





Freedom Crest.


Albert the Great.



On the lawn, among the browning leaves the occasional underside of a cottonwood leaf bright and silvery as a coin winking up at you.

The internal voice, that laughs at itself. A friend, who echoes it.

Coming home on a cloudy night, past Mesa Hill, the scattered lights of houses around the post office and the store down in the valley.


The beating of your heart.

The stories you use to make up the world.


Eberle Umbach © 2000-2009

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Graveyard Tunes #3

Welcome to this week’s eerie old-time eight: it’s time for Graveyard Tunes again, & this week there are some real notables examples! At least half of these have high hair-raising potential, while the rest are just plain good songs with a somewhat supernatural angle.


  • The House Carpenter: For those of you who don’t know, “The House Carpenter” is one of the ballads Francis James Child collected in the late 19th century. Originally a British Isles song titled “James Harris,” it also became a staple of the Appalachian repertoire. “The House Carpenter” tells the story of a “daemon lover” (another of the song’s titles) who spirits the earthly woman he loves away from her husband the house carpenter & her “own wee babe.” This modal song sounds best with instruments like banjo or dulcimer, because unlike the guitar, they don’t tend to smooth its edges. Accordingly, you can’t go wrong with the versions by Clarence Ashley or Jean Ritchie. Ashley’s may be a bit spookier (they’re both pretty high in this quality), but they both make a remarkable impression. Check out Mr Ashley’s version below. Clarence Ashley: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways); or Clarence Ashley: Greenback Dollar: 1929-1933 (County); Jean Ritchie: Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson Live at Folk City (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • I Ain’t Superstitious: This is just pure Chicago Blues fun with the man who was “300 pounds of heavenly joy,” Howlin’ Wolf. We have black cats & brooms & itchy trigger fingers & howling dogs, all under the auspices of the singer claiming that he “ain’t superstitious.” For musicians out there, the song is interesting because it breaks a bit from the typical blues chord pattern: the vocal actually begins on the IV chord instead of the root chord, as almost always happens in blues. But hey, this is nothing to get to academic about. Give it a listen, & then if you’ve got a guitar, try playing around with it! Howlin’ Wolf: His Greatest Sides, vol. 1 (Chess—this is vinyl, but it’s currently available on Geffen’s Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection, & also on other compilations)
  • The Lady Gay: Our second foray into the Child Ballads, this is a rather blood-curdling tale of a mother’s grief for her dead children originally titled “The Wife of Usher’s Well.” Buell Kazee’s version of the old tune—just Kazee’s amazing voice accompanied by his masterful frailing-style banjo—is truly unforgettable; as with “The House Carpenter,” the banjo’s crooked harmonic corners allow the song’s haunting modal character to come thru. The song tells the story of how the woman sends her three children away to “learn their grammarie,” how the children are stolen away by death, & how she prays that they will return. They do return, but as ghosts, telling her in an unforgettable line “Every tear that you shed for us it wets our winding sheets.” Buell Kazee: Buell Kazee (June Appal). This essential (my opinion) old-time recording isn’t available from some of the big name online retailers, but can be purchased directly from June Appal & is also usually stocked at the best all-around music store I know, Elderly Instruments.
  • Mojo Hand: The title doesn’t refer to the amazing fingerstyle guitar skills Lightnin’ Hopkins routinely displays in his music. A mojo hand—also called (among other things) simply a mojo or a mojo bag or a conjure bag (&, if worn by a woman, a nation sack)is a bag containing various charms. As such, it’s part of the hoodoo belief system, which itself goes back to west Africa, & which turns up often in old blues—the “nation sack” for instance makes an appearance in Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” In this case, Lightnin’ says he’s going to “Louisian” to get a mojo hand—in this case, the conjure will be to keep his woman from cheating on him. There’s also some suggestion in one version of the song that his woman may have laid some spell on him, since the word “fix” is used both for what the mojo hand will do to the woman & for what the woman has done to him. As always, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ singing & playing are top notch—just see for yourself in the video below! Lightnin’ Hopkins: Prestige Profiles (Prestige)—this is also available on any number of Hopkins’ compilations.
  • Oh Death: I’m a huge Dock Boggs fan—love his singing, his repertoire & just about everything about his banjo playing; & I must say that when Eberle & I first heard this song some years ago, I thought it was one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’d ever heard. In somewhat the same way as the Reverend Gary Davis’ great song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Oh Death” comes from a time & place when death was a more common occurrence in the midst of everyday life—neither the garish & gory fakery of movies & TV nor the invisible sequestered death of nursing homes & hospitals. This is a serious & moving song, chilling in its intensity & somberness—check it out below. Dock Boggs: (playing with) The New Lost City Ramblers: Old Time Music (Vanguard); also on Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years 1963-1968 (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • On the Cooling Board: Blind Willie McTell’s song is a graphic depiction—in terms of both emotional & physical details—of a man’s grief for his dead lover. According to Wikipedia, "A cooling board is a board used to present a dead body. In winter months it would be difficult to bury the dead due to the earth being frozen, so the body is wrapped and propped in a barn until the ground thaws out. Referred to in a number of Blues songs, for example by Blind Willie McTell.” Of course, that’s this song being referred to. The term also comes up in Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String (Atlantic)
  • The Pale Horse & His Rider: A country music vision of the apocalypse, co-written by four people, including Kitty Wells! Hank Williams didn’t write this one, but his version is probably the best known; it’s a rather stark call for repentance, before the day when “the Pale Horse and his rider goes by.” You’d have to assume this was a theme that spoke to Williams, as his life, amidst his talent & fame, was severely troubled at the time he recorded this in 1951 by alcoholism, drug addiction & a failing marriage. I do know another excellent version of this tune—it’s by Freakwater, an alternative country band I’ve admired for years; they’re still performing & releasing new music, so check them out! Hank Williams: Turn Back The Years - The Essential Hank Williams Collection (Mercury Nashville); Freakwater: Feels Like the Third Time (Thrill Jockey)
  • Pretty Polly: For this list I’ve avoided the sort of “happy” bluegrass murder ballads like “Banks of the Ohio” or “Knoxville Girl”—I don’t care for those songs. But I am including “Pretty Polly” on the basis of its flat-out eeriness, & one of the best versions I know is by that master of old-time eeriness, Dock Boggs. Like “The House Carpenter” & “The Lady Gay,” this is in origin a British Isles ballad, & also like those songs, it’s modal in nature & thus lends itself to a banjo treatment like Boggs’. Of course, “Pretty Polly” has been covered by everybody from Burl Ives to the Byrds & from Ralph Stanley to the String Cheese Incident. An interesting side note: Woody Guthrie based the melody & harmonic structure of his wonderful song “Pastures of Plenty” on “Pretty Polly.” Dock Boggs: Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings (Revenant – sadly, this has been discontinued & doesn’t seem to be available for a reasonable price).

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oceanside Evening Edition

Happy Tuesday evening, all (or Wednesday morning, as the case may be)! In case any of you were wondering what deserted spot we'd found last week & this weekend with no internet access, it was Manzanita, OR, or more precisely, our favorite vacation rental there, which stands right next to the dunes & has many charms & amenities but no wi-fi or any other hook-up.

We had a grand time! The weather
was stormy (both rain & wind) much of the time, but we played music & explored the surroundings by car, & got to eat at our favorite coast eateries, Cranky Sue's Crabcakes & Cannon Beach Thai. We also did a little house hunting in Garibaldi, & have even made contact with a realtor—but I assure all our friends, local & otherwise—that nothing's imminent.

I'm posting some of our vacation pix below (the pic above shows shorebirds at Cannon Beach). But first: a couple of new blogs to check out—Kat of the wonderful Poetikat's Invisible Keepsakes has started a haiku blog called Kigo of the Kat—check it out right here. & my San Francisco pal Ray Halliday has started a wildly adventurous blog called 12tuna. All I'll say is the adventure concerns cans of outdated Chicken of the Sea, so it's not for the faint of heart.

Cannon Beach gull & crow

Some traveling companions show the view from the rental's front porch

Dunes, driftwood, breakers: the beach at Manzanita

There was some big surf that day: the winds were very stiff & probably approaching a gale

Eberle on the beach

Me, likewise

Eberle on the path home; our rental is the lighter colored building to the left

“Broken Line”

It’s Translation Tuesday once again on Robert Frost’s Banjo & time for more André Breton. Today’s poem (“Ligne brisée”) is a relatively early piece from Breton’s 1923 collection Clair De Terre (“Earthlight”). As is fitting given the poem’s title, the poem is essentially fragmentary, tho the lines beginning “We” do tend to create some sort of cohesion, at least in the sense of a return.

Hope you enjoy it!

Broken Line

for Raymond Roussel

We dry bread and water of the sky’s prisons
We love’s cobblestones all interrupted signals
Who personify the graces of this poem
Nothing explains us beyond death
At that hour when night slips on its polished ankle boots to go out
We take time as it comes
Like a wall adjoining those of our prisons
Spiders bring the boats into anchorage
There’s only touch there’s nothing to see
Later you learn who we are
Our labors are still well protected
But it’s dawn on the last shore the weather grows worse
Soon we’ll carry our burdensome luxury elsewhere
We’ll carry the plague’s luxury elsewhere
We a bit of hoarfrost on human firewood
And that’s all
The brandy dresses wounds in a cellar through an air-vent
          through which is seen a road lined with big empty patiences
Don’t ask where you are
We dry bread and water of the sky’s prisons
The card game in the starlight
We scarcely lift an edge of the veil
The mender of crockey works on a ladder
He seems young despite the concession
We wear yellow in mourning for him
The treaty hasn’t yet been signed
The sisters of charity provoke
Flights on the horizon
Do we perhaps palliate good and evil at the same time
It’s thus that the will of dreams is carried out
People who are able
Our rigors are lost in the regret of what crumbles
We are the leading men of the most terrible seduction
The crook of junkman Morning on blossoming rags
Casts us to the fury of treasures that are long in the tooth
Add nothing to the shame of your own pardon
It’s enough to take up arms for a bottomless end
Your eyes with ridiculous tears that relieve us
The belly of words is golden this evening and nothing’s
          in vain any more

André Breton
translation by John Hayes, © 1990-2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Meet Star & Micey

[Check out Audrey's latest foray, this time into another of her great passions: pop music! Many thanks to Audrey, & also to Joseph Davis of Ardent Studios for asking Robert Frost's Banjo to review Star & Micey!]

Up to this point my appearances on RFB have primarily focused on early women writers. Today, in keeping with the miscellany spirit of this remarkable blog, I’m writing from a different place altogether—as a huge fan a
nd voracious consumer of pop music. When I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia—where I met John and Eberle for the first time—I DJ-ed at the UVA radio station, WTJU (get it? “TJ” for Thomas Jefferson). There, I got to spin actual vinyl records in the mid-1980s until we were forced to transition to CDs as the decade wore on (not as good for those slick segues). I used to troll through the current bin, checking out the latest treasures and oddities that appeared during that golden age when college radio prided itself on “breaking” bands like Camper Van Beethoven, R.E.M., and Nirvana, to name a few. These days I mostly play music to please myself, and I have a customized current bin. My wife, Cheryl—record collector extraordinaire, label executive, and star producer—picks out whatever new things she thinks might appeal to me and leaves them in a box for me to listen to at my leisure. I keep my ears open and love to hear whatever comes my way.

So when John invited me to write about the debut record of Memphis-based band Star & Micey, I checked out a few sample tracks and jumped at the opportunity. They made it onto the RFB radar because of the piece John wrote on the Big Star boxed set last month. Like Big Star, the group Star & Micey belon
gs to the legendary world of Ardent. They recorded the album at Ardent Studios, and they’re signed to Ardent Music, who will be releasing their album tomorrow.

In their bio, Star & Micey memorialize the event that gave them their quirky-so
unding name—an encounter between the band’s founder, Joshua Cosby, and a homeless man named Star who had written a song about his ex-wife Micey. The true origin of this record, however, is another even more fortuitous meeting between Cosby and Ardent engineer Nick Redmond. Redmond caught Cosby’s performance at an open-mic night and liked what he heard so much that he joined forces as Star & Micey’s lead guitarist and brought the group to Ardent. Geoff Smith is the third core member of the group, playing bass and percussion on the new record.

Ardent Studios have a reputation not only for state-of-the-art recording facilities and equipment, they’re also renowned for nurturing talented musicians. From what the members of Star & Micey have to say about their experience there in interviews, t
hey benefited greatly from that tradition. Crosby calls their recording sessions “a dream come true” and says that working there, “you feel like a kid, you feel like you can do anything.” As you can see from their pictures and in the interviews, these guys are young and brimming with optimism, and that’s what makes their gorgeously produced album such a fresh surprise. It has an old school sound and vibe with a 21st-century alt-folk-rock sensibility.

On the self-titled record, Star & Micey sound like they’re having a great ti
me. They lead off with a swampy, southern-rock flavored track, “Salvation Army Clothes,” a reproach to someone who’s made a habit of casting off “all the good people” and is about to do it again. From there, they move into a cheerful old-time gospel praise track, incongruously titled “So Much Pain.” Although songwriter/lead vocalist Joshua Cosby sings about how much grief he has caused those he loves, the tone is relentlessly perky because it’s ultimately a tune about forgiveness and transcending the pain one has caused, concluding with the simply expressed lines:

I just feel so grateful,
I just feel so gratefu
I just feel so grateful
About everything.

The tracks that follow are unified by Crosby’s smooth, confiding vocals, which are nicely complemented by harmonies from Smith and by flawless arrangements. Guest musicians include Jody Stephens, the drummer from Big Star (and Ardent studio manager), on “Nelson” and Luther Dickinson, of The North Mississippi Allstars and The Black Crowes, on “So Much Pain.”

One of my favorite songs on
the album, “My Beginning,” has a sweet soul flavor and congeniality that typifies this band’s overall personality. They’ve been sporadically keeping a blog of their current tour at, and if you read some of their entries, you can tell they’re having a blast out on the road. They write about playing house parties, busking in front of fraternity houses, and getting invited home by kind folks for tasty meals and places to stay.

After spending some time getting to know this band, I found myself rooting for them to do well. If these guys come to your town, go see them. And if they need a place to stay, let them sleep on your couch!

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