December 2009

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Apologies for the slow posting lately: Cyrus is on the road this week, at the Modern Language Association among other destinations, and I’m up to my neck in an initial screening of over 550 applications to our Ph.D. program. So much for winter “break.”

I’ve been mulling over a list of my favorite NYC-related books of the last year and realized many of them shared something in common: they sit on my nightstand or in my office unfinished! This isn’t the fault of any of them — it’s a sad byproduct of reading so much for my day job. As usual, I’m trying to read too many things at once. And I’m sure I’ll eventually get through them — some of them in the next few weeks before classes start.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

It’s driving me nuts that I don’t have more time just to buckle down and finish this: there’s good reason it’s on so many year-end lists. I’m a little over half way though. Its episodic structure, relying on multiple narrators, lends itself to slow-going, though: I can finish off one narrator and then wait a few weeks before taking up the next one. You’re probably familiar with the basics: McCann uses Philippe Petit’s famous tightwire walk between the WTC towers as a unifying device in his portrait of a cross-section of New Yorkers. His genius, much like that of the documentary Man on Wire, is pulling off a post-9/11 work that’s set in 1974: this is, we’re to understand, one version — or many versions — of the world that made us. Previously. And.

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife by Chad Heap.

Heap, who teaches American Studies at The George Washington University, writes beautifully — without sacrificing historical argument and interpretation — about the forces that shaped, and the consequences that flowed from, a turn-of-the-century craze among upper classes to visit LES low-life, bohemian, Harlem, and gay/lesbian underworlds in New York and Chicago. How did slumming organize social space a century ago? How did it help to produce divisions of race, class, and sexuality that remain in place today? Give me a couple weeks and maybe I’ll have some better answers. Previously.

Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Scene, 1973-1992 by Tim Lawrence.

I haven’t yet got out of the 70s in this one, but damn — what a loving portrait, and rich with biographical detail and cultural insight alike. I’ve sung undying praises for Russell before, but if you’re a fan of popular music and you’ve somehow made it to this point in the century without having purchased this album or seen this film, shame on you! Once you’ve taken those in, you’ll be heading to the bookshop to pick up Lawrence’s bio. Russell has been and will certainly be a key to the rewriting of the downtown scene’s history — one that takes in all its multiple incarnations, from underground disco to minimalism to NY art punk.  Previously.

Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray.

Okay, I can let myself off the hook a bit with this one: it’s a coffee table book! I shouldn’t be expected to have been through it start to finish. A birthday gift from a good friend, I’ve had it next to the sofa all fall and have been rewarded — if saddened — every time I open it randomly and take in a few pages. Some of the storefronts the Murrays photographed are old-friends who’ve since vanished. Bravo to them for preserving this slice of New York life that may not last much longer.

Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York by Donna Dennis.

I may actually finish this one in the next two days. This legal history of 19c print underworlds begins with the story of Fanny Hill‘s suprisingly long shelf-life (or behind-the-counter life?) before moving to an account of the recently recovered and increasingly studied “flash press” — a series of irreverent weeklies designed for young, “sporting male” readers curious about celebrity prostitutes — and the libel trials they occasioned in the 1840s. Other print matter, including “fancy” books and sexual advice manuals, also occasioned prosecution and could be even racier. The climax — perhaps an anti-climax? — arrives in the 1870s with Comstock’s postal policing. What Dennis offers that most print histories don’t is a careful legal and partisan-political contextualization: now the literary historians need to catch up!

Plenty of other books I never even had the time to start, including Doctorow’s Homer and Langley and Lethem’s Chronic City. With luck, in 2010! Anything out there you wish you’d been able to finish — or start? WOtBA had a nice year-end round-up of NYC books if you’re looking for other ideas.

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I’m sure most of you are listed out by the last week of the year, but I’ve had a few “best of 2009” posts I’ve wanted to put up over the last month without ever managing to pull them together. So bear with me.

Like most people who listen to and write about what’s still somehow called “indie” music, I was simultaneously pleased by and wary of the big Brooklyn breakthrough, the culmination of five or six years of scene-building across the river. The three albums I played in 2009 more than any others — Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca — have topped any number of lists, and they top mine too. If, like a close friend of mine, you don’t care for what he calls the “choir” bands, this music may not suit you. But I could IV these albums to my brain 24/7 and never quite tire of them; and as a cultural historian interested in “scenes,” I’m quite taken by the fact that these folks all know each other, and to greater or lesser degrees collaborate and cross-pollinate. (DP’s Angel Deradoorian, for instance, also plays in Department of Eagles, the side-project of Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, and over time there’s been a little inter-band romance among the Brooklyn triumvirate as well.)

I’ve followed all three bands since 2004 or so, which lets me off the hook from feeling like a media tool. I’m still a little disoriented that my tops coincided with Pitchfork‘s so perfectly, though. Typically I see Pitchfork’s top choice as a little time-bound, something that won’t be around four or five years down the line. (Their top album of 2003 was by The Rapture, for instance. How long has it been since you’ve dusted off that CD, if you ever even owned it?) But folks are already covering the newest Animal Collective songs, which suggests there may be a future for this tribal soundtrack after the pot clouds have dispersed. I would have put both DP and GB ahead of AC in terms of songs and albums, but maybe that’s just me.

My fourth favorite NYC album of the year was the recovered treasure chest that is Connie Converse’s How Sad, How Lovely, which doesn’t appear on most critics’ end-of-year lists but really should.

Three of my favorite songs this year not only emerge from New York scenes, past and present, but also speak to conditions of apartment living in ways that complement one another nicely. I’d wanted to bring this trio together in a post about my favorite songs of the summer earlier this year, but never got around to it.

The first is a reworking of the song that topped Pitchfork’s songs list: Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” Amanda Petrusich’s spot-on write-up for the Pitchfork list pegs it as an anthem for new adults,

a life preserver for people tottering on the precipice of adulthood. Panda Bear might be apologetic about his craving (“I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things,” he hedges), but “My Girls” is ultimately a celebration of the simplification–of desire, of priorities– that comes with growing up.

Maybe so, but the pressures to provide are still fresh even for this old man. Maybe the song’s about the perpetual drive to grow up, something my generation’s done a good job resisting. While “My Girls” was very likely my most-played track this year — and comes with a video well worth watching in its own right — I actually came to prefer a mashup with the song “Your Love” by old-school NYC/Chicago underground dance DJ Frankie Knuckles. It makes me want to party like it’s 1989:

When I first heard the chorus to the Animal Collective original, I couldn’t quite make out the words and misheard the lines in the chorus — “I just want / Four walls and adobe slats / For my girls” — as “I just want / Four walls and an East Side flat / for my girls.” And I kind of like it better that way. Adobe? In Brooklyn? Or is the desire for a “proper house” eventually going to drive Panda Bear to New Mexico?

More songs about buildings and love: Here’s Connie Converse’s “Empty Pocket Waltz,” about the freedom to dance once you’ve scraped all your change together to make rent (sign-in to lala may be required to hear the full song, but it will be worth it):

And finally, a song from 2008, but one I listened to over and over again in the summer of 2009 — David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Strange Overtones,” a song about hearing your neighbor singing through thin apartment walls:

With its throwback to 80s beats I thought of it as a nice companion piece to the Animal Collective/Frankie Knuckles mashup.

Byrne was involved in another of my favorite songs (and live performances) of 2009: his collaboration with Dirty Projectors on “Knotty Pine,” my favorite track from the almost uniformly enjoyable Dark Was the Night compilation:

Aside from the recent DP show at Bowery, one of my favorite sets from an NYC band came early in the year, when Grizzly Bear rolled out most of the songs from Veckatimest at BAM with the Brooklyn Phil backing. As much as I enjoyed the new stuff, I really dug what the orchestra did with some of their earlier songs. Back to the theme of apartment living, here’s Yellow House‘s “Easier,” orchestrated by the wunderkind composer Nico Muhly, who’s playing piano on the far left side of the stage:

And as far as the Grizzlies themselves go, “Two Weeks” was deservedly the universally praised video, though the one for “While You Wait for the Others” is also pretty amazing. As is this one, for “Ready, Able.” In fact, maybe this is my favorite video of the year:

For the sheer thrill of it, though, I loved where Sonic Youth went for their video to “Sacred Trickster”:

And you? What were your favorite NYC-based songs/albums of the year?

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One of Bryan’s favorite concepts is metatheatricality — those moments when a play seems to be aware of its own status as a piece of theater and comments on it. Bryan talks about the concept in our “Writing New York” course and in his contribution to our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, using an example drawn from Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast.

Well, here, for your viewing pleasure is a metatheatrical trailer — designed to promote what would become one of the most famous and beloved Christmas movies of all time. The problem was that the producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, was determined to release the movie in May, because he felt that people were more inclined to go to the movies at the beginning of the summer rather than at the end of the year. So this trailer is designed to promote the film without revealing that it’s actually a Christmas movie. It depicts a fictional producer complaining about the trailer he’s just seen, which promises too many things: “hilarious, romantic, tender exciting — make up your minds, it can’t be all of those things!” He then proceeds to the back lot where he meets a series of stars  — such stars as Rex Harrison, Anne Baxter, Peggy Ann Garner and Dick Haymes — who tell him that the movie is, well, all of those things.

Have you guessed what movie I’m talking about? Click the continuation link to find out.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Papa Hemingway

I am writing to you from the Florida keys, Islamorada to be precise (west of Key Largo and east of Key West), where I’m spending the week with my wife’s side of the family. If you’re an English professor-type, the spot inspires thoughts of Ernest Hemingway.

I wrote earlier this month that Clement Clarke Moore’s penning  of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” might make a good “scene” for our cultural history.

Well, now that it actually is Christmas Eve, it seems appropriate to invoke Moore’s poem once again.

The poem, they say, is one of the most parodied in the English language. Given my current locale, it seems right to present for your reading pleasure James Thurber’s parody, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas IN THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY MANNER,” which originally appeared in the December 24, 1927 issue of The New Yorker.

It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them.

The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.

“Father,” the children said.

There was no answer. He’s there, all right, they thought.

“Father,” they said, and banged on their beds.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“We have visions of sugarplums,” the children said.

“Go to sleep,” said mamma.

“We can’t sleep,” said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.

“Can you sleep?” asked the children.

“No,” I said.

“You ought to sleep.”

“I know. I ought to sleep.”

“Can we have some sugarplums?”

“You can’t have any sugarplums,” said mamma.

“We just asked you.”

There was a long silence. I could hear the children moving again.

“Is Saint Nicholas asleep?” asked the children.

“No,” mamma said. “Be quiet.”

“What the hell would he be asleep tonight for?” I asked.

“He might be,” the children said.

“He isn’t,” I said.

“Let’s try to sleep,” said mamma.

The house became quiet once more. I could hear the rustling noises the children made when they moved in their beds.

Out on the lawn a clatter arose. I got out of bed and went to the window. I opened the shutters; then I threw up the sash. The moon shone on the snow. The moon gave the lustre of mid-day to objects in the snow. There was a miniature sleigh in the snow, and eight tiny reindeer. A little man was driving them. He was lively and quick. He whistled and shouted at the reindeer and called them by their names. Their names were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.

He told them to dash away to the top of the porch, and then he told them to dash away to the top of the wall. They did. The sleigh was full of toys.

“Who is it?” mamma asked.

“Some guy,” I said. “A little guy.”

I pulled my head in out of the window and listened. I heard the reindeer on the roof. I could hear their hoofs pawing and prancing on the roof.

“Shut the window,” said mamma.

I stood still and listened.

“What do you hear?”

“Reindeer,” I said. I shut the window and walked about. It was cold. Mamma sat up in the bed and looked at me.

“How would they get on the roof?” mamma asked.

“They fly.”

“Get into bed. You’ll catch cold.”

Mamma lay down in bed. I didn’t get into bed. I kept walking around.

“What do you mean, they fly?” asked mamma.

“Just fly is all.”

Mamma turned away toward the wall. She didn’t say anything.

I went out into the room where the chimney was. The little man came down the chimney and stepped into the room. He was dressed all in fur. His clothes were covered with ashes and soot from the chimney. On his back was a pack like a peddler’s pack. There were toys in it. His cheeks and nose were red and he had dimples. His eyes twinkled. His mouth was little, like a bow, and his beard was very white. Between his teeth was a stumpy pipe. The smoke from the pipe encircled his head in a wreath. He laughed and his belly shook. It shook like a bowl of red jelly. I laughed. He winked his eye, then he gave a twist to his head. He didn’t say anything.

He turned to the chimney and filled the stockings and turned away from the chimney. Laying his finger aside his nose, he gave a nod. Then he went up the chimney. I went to the chimney and looked up. I saw him get into his sleigh. He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed.

“What was it?” asked mamma. “Saint Nicholas?” She smiled.

“Yeah,” I said.

She sighed and turned in the bed.

“I saw him,” I said.

“Sure.”

“I did see him.”

“Sure you saw him.” She turned farther toward the wall.

“Father,” said the children.

“There you go,” mamma said. “You and your flying reindeer.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.

“Can we see Saint Nicholas when he comes?” the children asked.

“You got to be asleep,” I said. “You got to be asleep when he comes. You can’t see him unless you’re unconscious.”

“Father knows,” mamma said.

I pulled the covers over my mouth. It was warm under the covers. As I went to sleep I wondered if mamma was right.

James Thurber

Merry Christmas! (You can read an illustrated version of  Moore’ original at thenostalgialeague.com, where you can also find an introduction to Thurber’s parody.)

White Christmas

Irving Berlin believed it was the best song he — or anyone else — had ever written. Maybe he’s right. It is, after all, the best-selling, most recorded song of all time. (The Bing Crosby original on its own was the world’s top selling recording for over 50 years.)

The tune debuted, along with a few other chestnuts, such as “Happy Holidays,” in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, about a country retreat opened by some Manhattan expatriates tired of the demands of the city’s night life. The eponymous resort only opens on major holidays, offering the opportunity for a whole slew of holiday songs to roll out. “White Christmas,” of course, outstripped them all. When the song first turns up in the film, Bing is teaching it to leading lady (and love interest) Marjorie Reynolds, whose singing voice is dubbed:

Lost in this version (which won an Academy Award for best original song) is Berlin’s original opener for the song, which locates the song not in the snowy Connecticut countryside but in sunny Beverly Hills. Apparently he hated spending Christmas in California:

The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
I’ve never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills LA.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up North.

Berlin inaugurates the tradition of American Jews providing long-lasting expressions of Christmas cheer. (Here’s Babs’ version of the song, the most unselfconsciously Jewish and California-inflected one I know.) If this seems a little strange, consider Philip Roth’s take on the matter, quoted by Jody Rosen in his breezy, highly enjoyable book about the song:

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.

Rosen has a little more fun along these lines; he also provides interesting commentary on the use of “White Christmas” as background for the lead-in to the film’s Lincoln’s Birthday number: a minstrel tune called “Abraham” in which Crosby appears as a blacked-up Honest Abe. Crosby’s character talks Reynolds into blacking up as well — in order to keep her hidden from a rival lover. Spike Lee features a clip from the start of this scene in his famous Bamboozled montage. Apparently “White Christmas” wouldn’t have been quite so white without a little blackface to throw it into relief:

A revision of Jolson’s backstage scene, blacking up for his shiksa girlfriend, in The Jazz Singer?

Previously.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

smileyNew Yorkers are unhappy, it seems. In an article from today’s New York Times entitled “New York Ranks Last in Happiness Rating,” Clyde Haberman reports on an article published last week Science magazine by two economists, Andrew J. Oswald (University of Warwick, UK) and Stephen Wu (Hamilton College). Why are economists publishing in Science? Accoding to the article’s abstract, Oswald and Wu’s study “has some potential to help to unify disciplines” because it brings together subjective and “nonsubjective” data.

Oswald and Wu’s article is called “Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-Being: Evidence from the U.S.A.,” and it brings together data collected in two separate studies. One was Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2005-2008 in which a random sample of 1.3 million United States citizens in which life-satisfaction in each U.S. state was measured. This data was merged with data published in 2003 by UCLA researcher Stuart Gabriel that considered various indicators from for each state, such as precipitation; temperature; wind speed; sunshine; coastal land; inland water; public land; National Parks; hazardous waste sites; environmental ‘greenness’; commuting time; violent crime; air quality; student-teacher ratio; local taxes; local spending on education and highways; cost of living.

New York apparently came in 51st. No that’s not like the 11 on Spinal Tap‘s amps: the District of Columbia was included in the study. Here are the bottom ten:

41     Pennsylvania
42     Rhode Island
43     Massachusetts
44     Ohio
45     Illinois
46     California
47     Indiana
48     Michigan
49     New Jersey
50     Connecticut
51     New York

Haberman chooses to see a silver lining in this results, citing what he calls the “Harry Lime” principle:

We’re from the Harry Lime school. If you’ve seen the film classic “The Third Man” [1949], you will remember that character’s admonition: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.

“In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

On the other hand, there are reasons to think that there’s something, well, dated about the data, because the number one state turns out to be … Louisiana! (You can see the full ranked list in this article from the University of Warwick website.)

Steve Reich

I’ve had a hectic couple weeks and not been able to post as much as I would have liked. All last week, in fact, I wanted to get something up about WQXR’s week-long Steve Reich festival. It’s over now, and unfortunately a good chunk of it doesn’t appear to be archived on the station’s website. But lots of amazing stuff is still there — including almost 30 years of local radio interviews — and I think I have a strategy for making the most of Reich’s introductions to several of his key pieces.

Take New York Counterpoint (1985), for example, originally written for a solo clarinet with additional pre-recorded clarinets backing. Reich’s introduction is here:

Although they don’t allow you to stream the piece from the site once you’ve listened to these intros, you can find most if not all of the pieces mentioned at Lulu, where you can listen for free (and find info about purchasing if you’d like to). For some of the more popular pieces, you may be able to find live performances archived on YouTube. Compare these versions of New York Counterpoint, for instance, one using clarinets, another using saxophones, all parts played live rather than having some of them pre-recorded:


It’s hard to think of a living composer more identified with New York City than Reich; the WQXR archives — though I wish they contained archives of the entire festival — will provide long-time fans and newcomers alike with several hours of distraction, er, background noise, while you’re doing something very productive. Such as updating your blog.

Previously.

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If you’re looking for a warm nook to shelter you from the storm, today’s the last day for the DBA East Village crafts fair. Last week I bought some knitted goods, homemade jams and butters, and some handsewn bags and such for the ladies in my life (who, luckily, don’t really read this site and hence won’t have their surprises spoiled). Today I’m going back for some small ceramics. Everything’s sold by the folks who made it. I stole some truffles when my daughter wasn’t looking and can say with confidence she’s onto something good.

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This afternoon our Writing New York alum and long-time neighbor Andrea K. dropped off this spectacular Christmas cookie. She obviously shares our penchant for Melvillean marine life. Having just graduated last week — possibly the youngest graduate in her class — she’s on her way back upstate to seek her fortune. We’re sure we haven’t seen the last of her — but she will be deeply missed anyway! They don’t make them like Andrea in every batch. Bon voyage!

vintagesubwaysign

Will I get out of my lower Manhattan neighborhood this weekend? Maybe only virtually. But perhaps there’s something here that will be useful to you …

A treasure trove of holiday advice, from 25 Brooklyn gifts for under $25 to borough-specific volunteering opportunities. [Brokelyn]

Meet the Garabedian family, Pelham Parkway’s most decked-out decorators, with updates to follow. [BoogieDowner]

A vintage tea party on the V train to LIC (and more “nostalgia train” dates!). [Gothamist]

Harlem School of the Arts holiday shows today and tomorrow. [Harlem Bespoke]

Santa is expected to show up for Breakfast with the Beasts tomorrow at the Staten Island Zoo. We’re still bummed we missed SI’s singing nun spectacular. Next year!

Nostalgia train photo at top by Zodak via Gothamist.

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