Saturday, August 12, 2006

Richard Thompson, Front Parlour Ballads

I don't write the headlines. I think my wonderful ex-editor Leonard Roberge came up with this one.

From the Washington City Paper, Aug. 19, 2005

Richard Strange
By Pamela Murray Winters

Front Parlour Ballads
Richard Thompson
Cooking Vinyl

A few years ago, I interviewed Richard Thompson for an article that was never published. Unexpectedly, the session turned into a sort of diatribe on the business the then-52-year-old had been a part of since he was a teenager in the groundbreaking British folk-rock band Fairport Convention. On being a “cult artist,” he said that two-thirds of working musicians are cult artists, because the industry doesn’t support them. He spoke at length of the arrogance of rock musicians, how they lose touch with reality. And I’m pretty sure that the words “back-stabbing bastards” were used.

“Pretty sure,” I say, because all I have now are some notes scribbled down later, after a tape-recorder malfunction. But history bears out Thompson’s disenchantment with the mainstream: Not long before the interview, he’d left longtime home Capitol Records, and since his departure, he’s released two strong, idiosyncratic, and resolutely indie studio albums, 2003’s The Old Kit Bag and the new Front Parlour Ballads.

That Thompson, in a nearly 40-year recording career, has never had a hit record is ultimately a saving grace. Already free of a sense of obligation to his audience beyond being himself, over and over, Thompson seems to have found even more freedom in departing from the style-making and profit-siphoning of the music industry. It never really knew how to market his eclectic arrangements, expressive but low-wankage guitar playing, and shy-lad persona, anyway.

Front Parlour Ballads, he’s been joking at recent shows, was made with “a minimal budget—reflected in the abysmal sound quality but not reflected in the exorbitant cover price.” He’s right about the budget, at least: The album was recorded in his garage studio, with Thompson playing, as the liner notes coyly state, “several things.” There’s only the occasional presence of percussionist Debra Dobkin to indicate something Thompson didn’t feel himself capable of doing.

“A Solitary Life,” the 11th of the disc’s 13 tracks, would seem, by title, to represent this middle-aged muso, diddling with guitars, mandolin, accordion, and sundry muses in the comfort of his own home. In fact, it’s a deceptively breezy look at the road not taken. “Sometimes I long for the solitary life,” he sings, then envisions a workaday alter ego whose career becomes less appealing, verse by verse, from “a serious hobby in the garden shed”—pretty much what Thompson himself has indulged with this album—to a death by “a steady, reliable tumour.” It’s the second-least-surprising tune on Ballads, definitely the most Dylan-influenced, and one of the most extroverted.

“Let It Blow,” the rousing opener, is the most predictable. The tale of a tabloid-grabbing romance, marriage, and divorce doesn’t have much original to offer save Thompson’s delight in his own wordplay. He puts the bride’s family in New Zealand, thus allowing someone to be “speedin’ from distant Dunedin,” but returns the failed groom to England so that, while the bride plots “revenge,” his eye can “stray to the ample bustier of a novelty dancer from Penge.” It’s a fine three-fifths of a limerick, but it wears out its welcome over the repeated listenings an album like this one demands.

Geography is always important to this California-dwelling expatriate—how must he have felt when Del McCoury, adapting his “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” for bluegrass, changed “Box Hill” to “Knoxville”? —and it’s used most effectively on Ballads in “Old Thames Side.” Here Thompson’s protagonist can pinpoint where he fell in love, as his beloved stood “by Custom House Landing/ Like Venus risen out of the water.” A song of naked emotion and breathtaking simplicity, “Old Thames Side” also contains a frequent Thompson motif, of a tongue-tied man overcome with emotion: “I searched for a phrase to capture your ways/That’s a task that will always defeat me.”

Directness and intimacy are part of the new album’s allure, which may be why “Let It Blow” makes for such a misleading leadoff. Throughout the album, Thompson’s voice often seems to be at a conversational or even confiding pitch; the instruments are freer of effects than they are in the concerts at which sound man/road manager/Ballads co-producer and mixer Simon Tassano sits behind the boards. On this collection of “small songs,” Thompson seems freer, too—to take chances, even to fail.

In contrast to the assurance with which he tackles “A Solitary Life,” “Let It Blow,” and “Old Thames Side,” he nearly falters on several attempts at art song. “How Does Your Garden Grow?”—plucked from both Satie and Sondheim—offers a melody that’s hard to follow and lyrics that don’t quite jell; right in the middle is a highly impressionistic guitar solo that’s perilously close to inaccessibility. Here, and on “Precious One,” which demands a vocal range Thompson can barely muster, you get the idea that maybe someone else ought to have been let into the garage. “Cressida,” on the other hand, is a near-perfect oratorio, constructed of single syllables, free of adjectives, embroidered by a gracefully plucked acoustic guitar, and sung in a voice that would astonish anyone who remembered the stammering boy from Fairport or the taciturn presence behind rich-throated ex-wife Linda.

In some ways, Ballads is all about finding that voice, about Thompson stretching himself—not always with complete success, but always with the raw emotion that once was present only in his electric solos. “My Soul, My Soul,” the album’s longest track at just over five-and-a-half minutes, offers all of Thompson’s gifts in fruition, even a bit of electric guitar in an otherwise all-acoustic collection. In a furious search for someone—lover, muse, goddess?—Thompson casts out seemingly random images: “The way she crimps her curls/The way she calls that hog/...The way she bangs the wall/The way she walks the dog.”

Again, words seem to defeat him as strings, accordion, and Dobkin’s tribal rhythms gallop along in some reverse hegira, a quest for a Mecca that might mean rebirth or annihilation. “She gave me my party favours,” he wails. “But nothing was sweet enough.” He caps the final word with a mad “ahhh!” Then his knife-edged electric slices through with the old Thompsonian abandon. Add in a persistent, nearly whispered chant of “My soul, my soul, my soul,” and you’ve got the stuff Thompson fans have been waiting for since his foray into Sufism 30 years ago: holy fire, earthy funk.

“Miss Patsy,” the only track on Ballads that’s really a ballad, likewise offers a questing Thompson, this time in a familiar, almost twee folky setting. In succession, our antihero is held for a ransom never paid, seduced by a religious cult, and subjected to an extreme makeover that lands him in prison. I’m not going to swear that this is a metaphorical representation of Thompson’s own career—dogged by the limitations of Fairport-style folk-rock, a too-literal approach to faith, and the cluelessness of industry weasels—but it sure makes for an intriguing pattern. “Row, Boys, Row” also suggests the demands of the “shark-filled sea” of the music business, or of any corrupt institution. “Seven years of bad luck,” Thompson sings. “Should have read the small print.”

The man who unexpectedly ranted about arrogance and backstabbing and the rest of the godawful biz is fully present here—but not with bitterness or even much regret. After all, he’s a lucky guy: He can go to his home office and turn out a narrow, deep product, with no obligation to brandish his lengthy résumé. Front Parlour Ballads is surprising, challenging, and, above all, peculiar. For Richard Thompson, that’s a fine compliment.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tempest (Washington Post Weekend review, 2006)

OK, OK, that last line is a little cheesy.

The Washington Post, Friday, August 11, 2006; Page WE10

TEMPEST "The Double-Cross" Magna Carta

STICK WITH AN UNPOPULAR style of music -- no, let's not say "unpopular"; how about "niche"? -- and there's a good chance that, sooner or later, you'll overlap the latest cultural trend. The Celtic-folk/progressive-rock group Tempest finally hits on popular relevance with "Captain Kidd," the opening track on "The Double-Cross," which the liner notes describe as "our third in a series about infamous pirates." Tempest's leader and co-composer of the song, Lief Sorbye, takes on the persona of the privateer-turned-scalawag in the lusty, string-flayed tune. The traditional "Hangman," with a brooding melody and a dark bass line, could be about Kidd's execution -- where the rope broke.

The noted British folk critic who once called the San Francisco-based band the worst in its genre must have left his sense of humor in his other anorak that day; the band takes its bombast seriously but itself less so. (It's been known to reenact a scene from "This Is Spinal Tap" onstage.) It's the sort of music the studio tends to constrain and the concert hall tends to favor. Sorbye's vocals are serviceable; his take on "Eppy Moray" can't match that of Trevor Lucas's of Fotheringay, back when Sorbye was still a school kid in Oslo, Norway, but he puts his heart into it. But Tempest's instrumentals outstrip their songs, particularly the inventive, if somewhat cheesily named, "Vision Quest," whose waves of keyboards will make Yes fans say, "Yes, please!"

--Pamela Murray Winters

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch by Kinky Friedman

Publication of this review does not imply endorsement of any political candidate.

I like his books, though.

From the Washington City Paper, Sept. 27, 2002

Git Along Little...

By Pamela Murray Winters

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch
By Kinky Friedman
Simon & Schuster, 200 pp., $24

One of the attractions of series fiction is that the reader can return to a familiar community. The novels of country-singer-turned-novelist Kinky Friedman, which feature country-singer-turned-detective Kinky Friedman (for clarity, let's call the latter fellow by one of his nicknames, the Kinkstah), feature fictional versions of Friedman's real-life loved ones, from Willie Nelson--Friedman's "Village Irregular" fans include many celebrities--to his own family. In Friedman's 15th mystery, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, these cronies--save Steve Rambam, a private investigator in both real and fictional lives--are scarce. Still, Friedman proves himself loyal to both readers and friends--the man's-best-friend kind in particular--by offering quality time up front with his most beguiling, and beguilingly described, recurring character, the Kinkstah's longtime live-in feline companion:

"It's almost good to be alive," I said, paraphrasing my father.

The cat did not respond. She did not believe in paraphrasing anybody. If a cat can't quote things precisely, the cat nearly always prefers to remain silent. If people pursued this same feline wisdom there'd be a lot fewer misunderstandings, a lot fewer wars, and a lot fewer people ripping off Oscar Wilde at cocktail parties.

The Kinkstah, who lives in a West Village walk-up, is a hard-boiled good egg, a guy who barks into the blower "Start talkin'," brags about his morning tent pole, and goes into his rain room to take "a Nixon"--but gets all Doris Day when it comes to critters. Faced in this book with two cases--a missing person and a missing pussy--he's much more interested in finding the cat.

The missing person is an 11-year-old autistic boy, whose only word is the enigmatic "Shnay." The Kinkstah's initial investigation leads him to the boy's bickering parents and dishy half-sister ("It was a rather sad commentary, I reflected, that while Dylan's parents were hoping against hope that I would find their son, I was already halfway hoping that I could hose their daughter"). But it's a halfhearted hard-on; a third of the way through the book, he hands the case off to Rambam, who of course gets the girl himself (with his "patented kosher meat injection"--eeeww!), and heads to Texas to investigate the disappearance of a three-legged cat named Lucky from an animal-rescue center (a real place: see

This visit spurs some uncharacteristic mawkishness from Friedman:

Surely the whole world was a rescue ranch, I thought. Everyone was busy trying to save something. Some people saved money. Some spent their time attempting to save other people's souls. A few endeavored to save the lives of other creatures on the planet. A few even tried to save the planet. But the inexorable truth was that nothing could ever be truly saved. Like love, it could only be given.

But he saves himself from inexorable bathos by beginning the next paragraph: "There were large quantities of dried cat vomit on the living room floor of the lodge."

Still, Ranch could use more raunch--more of the stinky juices of life, fewer of the misty mind-clouds. There are fewer menacing figures, grievous wounds, and big guns here than in your average Nancy Drew, let alone your average Friedman novel, and the perpetually horny, only occasionally lucky Kinkstah gets even less action than usual. (The only creature that gets cozy with his wedding tackle is a sleeping tomcat.) And Friedman the author lets Friedman the gumshoe wrap up one of the two cases by a bit of half deduction, half deus ex machina that even fellow wiseass/softy Tom Robbins wouldn't sink to.

Whereas Friedman offerings such as Greenwich Killing Time and Armadillos & Old Lace are chock-full of laughs and wordplay, Ranch makes it seem as if Friedman's reservoirs are a little low. (Or maybe he's just happy. When Spanking Watson was released, in 1999, Friedman told an interviewer, "At the moment, the books I'm writing, each one seems to be the best one. All I have to do is continue to be unhappy and I'll be fine.")

Don't read Ranch for the plot--or if you do, don't read the book jacket, which blabs three-quarters of the story. Read it for the milder-than-usual but still-welcome laughs ("The rhythm of the falling rain sounded like Neil Sedaka had been bugled to Jesus and had come back outside my kitchen window to play my fire escape like a xylophone"), the inventive urban legends (Asperger's syndrome as Nazi curse? The Three Stooges as Brooklyn building contractors?), and the useful advice from a highly irregular friend:

Never attempt to remove cat vomit, or cat turds for that matter, from any object until the particular detritus in question has fully dried....Just take the object, in this case the boot, out into the sunshine and let it dry naturally.

Coffee and Cigarettes

From the Washington City Paper, May 21, 2004

Coffee and Cigarettes
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Good thing Coffee and Cigarettes is art-house fare, or the folks over at Smoke Free Movies, whose Web site decries onscreen smoking as a “deadly assault on a rising generation worldwide,” would be masticating their carrot sticks all to hell. Still, an early tableau of five coffee cups and a dish full of butts seguing into a close-up of Roberto Benigni’s twitchy face might be enough to scare the kiddies straight. Jim Jarmusch’s 11 conversational vignettes, which originated as a Benigni/Steven Wright short for Saturday Night Live in 1986 and were shot at various times over the next 17 years, portray the title substances as, for good or ill, social lubricants. In “Those Things’ll Kill Ya,” the aptly named Joe (Joe Rigano) empties his cup even as he hectors Vinny (Vinny Vella) about smoking. In “Somewhere in California,” Tom (Tom Waits) and Iggy (Iggy Pop) both claim to have kicked the cancer-stick habit—which leads Tom to grab a pack and declare, “Now that I’ve quit, I can have one.” And in “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” well, that’s pretty much what happens to the White Stripes: Here, coffee and cigarettes are incidental to the demonstration of Jack’s “acoustical resonance” device. The film’s strongest segment, “Cousins?” offers pleasures that are subtler still, as two Brits in L.A. (Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan) sip tea as an accompaniment to their delightfully squirmy meeting. Molina and Coogan are brilliant as a little-known actor and a supercilious It Boy, respectively, in a story about cravings and connections—a phrase which, come to think of it, would make a perfect title for Jarmusch’s slight but exquisitely rendered visual medley. With Frederick Elwes’ and other cinematographers’ repeated shots of checkered tablecloths topped with mugs and ashtrays and Jarmusch’s script’s echoing phrases and ideas—the relationship of music and medicine, the notion of caffeine popsicles—Coffee and Cigarettes offers the mildly intoxicating pleasure of a dream.

—Pamela Murray Winters

Jim White, Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See

From the Washington City Paper, Aug. 13, 2004

Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See

Jim White

Luaka Bop

I’ve spent a good bit of the summer reading Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on Jim White’s reading list, as well. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist—raised in Pensacola, Fla., the reputed American leader in churches per capita—named his 1997 Luaka Bop debut Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and on his most recent release, Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, he still won’t leave the Lord alone. Over 10 tracks of Flannery O’Connor–infected Americana, White uses God for a Cyrano, in “That Girl From Brownsville Texas” (“Lord I might finally be willing to become the religious fool you always wanted me to be...if in return we could just tell that girl I’m the man you and me both know I ain’t”); gets fatalistic, in “Phone Booth in Heaven (“[Y]ou can’t mend what the Good Lord designed to be broken”); and muses, in “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home,” over holy transportation: “If Jesus drove a motor home, and he come to your town, would you try to talk to him?” He even meets his savior in the form of a “blue hair comb with a busted tooth” in the jubilant “Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style.” We’ve heard this tricked-out gospel imagery before, but White’s hick-hop arrangement (real, nonsynth horns, funky keyboards, wandering mouth harp) and church-whispery vocals testify that his heart’s been truly moved—and your hips may be, as well. White likewise bridges the gap between artifice and emotion with that husky storyteller’s tone in the sublime, Iron and Wine–like banjo tale “Borrowed Wings”; he and guest Susie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) give voice to a sorta-dead couple who steal the transport of “sweet-dreaming angels” but can’t travel beyond Earth. White is himself in a sort of limbo on this atmospheric collection (elegantly produced by White and Joe Henry): He loves to play with Southern Gothic trappings, but he’s preaching to be loved as much as depicting haints and demons. The opening track is a case in point: Although he evokes Bone Machine–era Tom Waits with the percussive shuffle and eerie synths at the opening of “Static on the Radio,” and the counterpoint of steady drum-and-rattle rhythms and wide-open wails continues throughout the track, the vocals could just as well be Mark Knopfler or David Gray. Even though the song finds him sitting in his truck outside the Sunday service, musing “Ten years ago I might have joined in...for all my ruminations I can’t change a thing,” “Static,” with Aimee Mann singing backup on the catchy chorus, might well represent White’s most fervent prayer: a chance to find a mainstream audience.

—Pamela Murray Winters

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

From the Washington City Paper, July 23, 2004

Codependent Some More

By Pamela Murray Winters

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

By Ann Patchett

Harper Collins, 258 pp., $23.95

At a religious retreat at a ski lodge one winter of my adolescence, a minister led a discussion of the story of the prodigal son: Which of its characters did we most take to heart? As one well-scrubbed Bethesda teen after another told of her own downfall (pot smoking, necking, dropping out of poms) and prodigal-like rebirth through Jesus, I squirmed in my off-brand flares, awaiting my turn. I was an outsider, brought by a friend, and I set myself apart further by identifying with the prodigal’s goody-goody brother. “I’m glad the son was forgiven and all,” I said, “but it just seems like the story is giving people license to sin just so they can come back and get glory for turning good again.”

OK, so I was a prig. But I think Ann Patchett, whose Truth & Beauty: A Friendship recounts the bond between a Catholic-girl shepherd and a black-tarred sheep, would understand. At least I hope she would.

Ann was friends, for a couple of decades, with Lucy Grealy. The two became roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1985, after knowing each other slightly at Sarah Lawrence. Which is to say that Ann knew Lucy—everyone knew Lucy—in college, but Ann’s only memory of an interaction with her was of the time Lucy pretty much snubbed her in the cafeteria. But when Lucy needs a place to stay in Iowa, who makes all the arrangements for her? Ann. Who listens to her sexual revelations, delivered as lectures? “I would make her a bowl of Cream of Wheat while she talked about pornography, fetish, and whatever had happened the night before,” writes Ann, patiently. Who cleans up half-eaten plates of spaghetti left on the floor? One guess.

The love between the burgeoning writers seems like the deep, inexplicable connection between twins: born of propinquity, ultimately as endangered by personal differences as enriched by them. The Iowa apartment becomes a womb, where these writers- and women-in-training read aloud to one another, deal with housework (one by doing it, the other by ignoring it), and dance in the kitchen:

No matter how dismal things seemed, ungraded papers, brutal weather, we could find the energy to spin around the table under the bright fluorescent lights of our apartment. Lucy was a brilliant dancer and I was tireless in my efforts to imitate her. “Just concentrate on the waist down,” she said. “Take it half a body at a time.”...She moved like water, the embodiment of easy rhythmic confidence, while I hung against the wall.

Lucy’s ease in her body was all the more remarkable for her struggle with it. At the age of 9, she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor of the jaw, one that, statistically, should have killed her—and if it didn’t, the years of crude radiation and chemical treatments might well have. Her face was repeatedly altered, throughout her short life, by surgeries meant to replace her jaw and allow her to have a full set of teeth, to close her mouth, to kiss. The small, slender Lucy seemed stunted by the early trauma—an unplanned pregnancy surprised her because she didn’t expect to be able to become pregnant. Her sometimes childlike emotions were overtaxed by a struggle to understand whether her problems were caused by her face or by something else.

“Enormity,” a word often misused, is an apt one for Lucy’s burden. She had enough success as a poet that she became part of, with novelist Ann, the “Gravy Train”: “[W]e would systematically work our way through just about every perk that was available to us,” Patchett writes of Yaddo, the Bunting Fellowship, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the other havens available to the right applicants. Lucy’s 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which transcends the survivor-story stereotype to examine what it means to be known by others, was a critical triumph and brought her fame on the talk-show circuit. But her medical trials continued, bringing more and more physical and psychic pain. She despaired of lasting love, giving herself over to transient sexual encounters and ruthlessly judging the long-term lovers who might have provided some solace.

Had she accepted them as fully as she accepted friends like Ann, she might have broken them down over time, worn them as thin as Ann by the time she discovered that Lucy, now in her late 30s, was using heroin: “I can’t stand this,” she tells Lucy over dinner in a restaurant. “All these years I’ve watched these things hurt you, things you had no control over, and now to have to watch you hurt yourself, it’s too much for me.” But ultimately, it doesn’t drive her away; a few months after the encounter in the cafe, when Lucy is miserable in a new Brooklyn apartment, Ann orders an entire kitchen setup to be delivered to her: “It was my own special brand of insanity that made me think the trials of Lucy’s life could somehow be eased by the order of Tupperware.”

Ann’s brand of insanity—that’s the only area in which Truth & Beauty lacks depth. So intent is Patchett on showcasing her brilliant, doomed friend that she skimps on her own story. Her references to her own failed relationships are glossed over with far less detail than she lavishes on Lucy’s lovers. And there’s more than a whiff of passive-aggressive anger here and there. In one incident, after Lucy’s memoir has been released to great acclaim, Ann publishes her second novel: “In the same way all the rumblings that preceded Autobiography of a Face made it clear that it was going to be a big book, the comparative silence surrounding this novel made it clear that it was going to sink without a trace....When I was scheduled to give a reading in New York, Lucy suggested that we team up, appear as a double bill...” Ann examines Lucy’s motive: “She was my best friend, and she was lending me the brilliance of her light in a moment when things were looking decidedly dull for me.” The party, of course, ends up being all about Lucy: “[W]e went and sat together at a table where Lucy signed a seemingly endless number of books and I signed a handful.”

Thus do Lucy’s “generous” gestures often seem to be ploys for attention. And the endearments in her chatty letters to Ann are as much about love of words as love of a friend: “Dearest Anngora, my cynical pirate of the elusive heart, my self winding watch, my showpiece, my shoelace, how are you?” When, near the end of her life, Lucy tells her, “[A]t least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted,” Ann is quietly furious—and Lucy is in a “fog of morphine”—but it seems like a declaration that’s been a long time in coming. Patchett the writer backs away from it; Patchett the bereaved woman may well be kept awake at night by it. Perhaps her book, written little over a year after Lucy’s death, may have just come too soon.

Because of Lucy’s wild spirit and obvious artistic gifts, and because of the love that brims from Patchett’s writing even when exasperation, anger, self-doubt, and self-effacement color it as well, Truth & Beauty is ultimately a heartbreaker. It ends with the death that would seem to have been dogging Lucy since childhood finally coming to waltz her off at age 39. But it’s not all one dismal slog toward the grave, any more than real life is. It’s full of delightful quips: Talking about the grim Iowa weather, Lucy observes, “I always wanted one of those ankles that predicted weather....Or an elbow. A snow elbow.” Humor turns to wrenching pain in the story of Lucy’s personal-ad date with a major political dreamboat; it seems to be worth no more than a cocktail-party anecdote until someone suggests that the reason there were “no sparks” was Lucy’s face. Ann’s entanglement with a putative mentor is described with a comic lightness that leans on her own naiveté—but the incident comes in the midst of one of Lucy’s medical crises and, of course, is trumped by it.

Near the end of Autobiography of a Face, Lucy wrote: “[I]t suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror.” Her longing for that annihilation of the surface, that removal of the glass we see in, darkly, was not a longing for death, but death brought about the freedom she craved; in her essays and poems, and in her friend’s merciless yet loving account, she endures as far more than just another face. As a story of Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty is the equal of Grealy’s own work. As a story of a friendship, it is lacking: It leaves the other friend—the prodigal’s long-suffering sister—behind the veil.

Circumference of a Squirrel

From the Washington City Paper, Oct. 24, 2003

Circumference of a Squirrel
By John Walch
Directed by Keith Bridges
At the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts to Nov. 2

Chris Stezin is the Jimmy Stewart of local theater: so genial and commonplace-good-looking and soft-spoken that you can forgive his characters a few quirks. He doesn't so much disappear into John Walch's one-man Circumference of a Squirrel—about a man's love-hate thing with the family Sciuridae—as make it his own, to the point that you'd be inclined to call him Chester if you ran into him in McPherson Square. Chester begins his story in such an urban park, watching a squirrel carrying a bagel, and that sight proves a jumping-off point for a reminiscence that includes family tragicomedy—think Jean Shepherd meets Sam Shepard—lost romance, and more symbols than are really necessary. In the Charter Theatre's production, Thom Seymour's efficient set and subtle lighting design and Keith Bridges' graceful blocking help Stezin move back and forth through time, from a childhood incident in which his father is injured by a furry yard pest, through a grad-school romance with a woman his dad is poised to hate as much as squirrels, to his at-loose-ends present. Along the way, there are tire swings, Christmas wreaths, wedding rings, doughnuts, and literal as well as metaphoric Life Savers—a series of rings for Chester and his father to grasp. Stezin—the company's associate artistic director and the actor/writer whose Charter scripts include What Dogs Do and the Helen Hayes-nominated Hoboken Station—handles Walch's sometimes outsize symbology and rich poetry with his usual down-to-earth accessibility. In uttering such gems as the description of a trapped squirrel, "eyes as wide open as the two O's in the word 'horror,'" he never pauses to congratulate himself; rather, he continues his audience chat-up with as natural a presence as the monologue structure allows. Even when the imagery feels forced—a dying man watching Wheel of Fortune—Stezin just experiences his way through it. And even when the script goes way over into creepiness, with an anecdote that suggests either a bout of magic realism on Walch's part or a case of psychosis on Chester's, Stezin's utter sincerity lets it go on by; if we don't really believe what he's saying, we believe he believes it. During a halting tale of a lengthy death, Stezin pauses at one point to sit down, and only a critic would notice that this actor is better at poising himself on a chair and drinking a bottle of juice than a lot of board-treaders are at Hamlet. It's a mesmerizing performance.—Pamela Murray Winters

Delaney Williams

One of my favorites among my own stories.

From the Washington City Paper, April 4, 2003

Fat Chances

Are there no small parts? Ask Delaney Williams, who is no small actor.

By Pamela Murray Winters

Delaney Williams isn't a star yet, but some people know who he is. "Black guys, 18 to 49, always recognize me," he says. "I'm in Target or someplace, and a 30-year-old black man will look at me: 'You're the fat fuck!'" He shrugs. "'Yeah, fat fuck, that's me.'"

Williams, 40, plays Sgt. Jay Landsman on HBO's David Simon-penned crime drama The Wire, which is filming its second season. It's the highest-profile role in his acting career to date, and it's an unusual challenge for the former stage actor.

"He's a peripheral character," says Williams of the bullish Landsman, who's usually confined to walking through the squad room, sandwich in hand, and needling renegade detective Jimmy McNulty (series star Dominic West). "The story's about the investigation that's out there. You have to live an entire life in the 13 seconds you're conveying the information you have to convey."

We're having lunch on the Wire soundstage, a former Wal-Mart warehouse in East Baltimore. Later, after a day spent learning lines, dealing with wardrobe and makeup ("I think you're going to get a haircut," coos a production assistant, running her fingers through Williams' already short locks), and a whole lot of waiting around, Williams will shoot a couple of scenes in the squad room. A few takes of each and he's done with work on two episodes.

In the first scene he films, when the light outside the squad room suggests midday but the real outdoors is long dark, Landsman rags on McNulty about his latest unpleasant detail: harbor patrol ("Hey, Gilligan!"). Cheerful and professional throughout, Williams seems to relish his contribution to the world of fat-fuckdom. Looking at his lines for a later scene, he cracks, "The only place I eat is here. Every time I open a script."

Williams sits at the desk across from McNulty's and offers me his on-screen colleague's chair. "I play a lot of cops," he says.

This jibes with my recollection of the guy I knew, from a distance, as Bill Delaney: the Russian constable in Montgomery Blair High School's 1978 production of Fiddler on the Roof.

"That was the first of many cop roles," Williams says, laughing. "I did an episode of The District earlier this season for CBS where I played a captain in the Park Police. It just seems like...that's part of my selling point as an actor, I guess, that I play those roles."

Seeing him in The Wire's debut run last year, I recognized my schoolmate instantly. He's a little older and a little larger: 6 feet tall, according to his résumé, and 280 pounds. He's been mistaken at least once for George Wendt.

"I grew into this face; I grew into the characters that I could play," observes Williams, who was still treading the boards long after I gave up any hope of rising beyond a solo in a Fiddler dream sequence. "I would tend to say that I've stuck with it the whole time without risking it," he says. "I guess I chose not to live in a sixth-floor walk-up with nine other people in SoHo 20 years ago. I made that choice. I stayed here, I took classes, I did stage work when I could, I got a day job."

In fact, Williams spent 10 years as a bank manager. "It paid what it pays," he recalls. "It's not horrible, but it's not brilliant, either. But it's work that would have killed me if I stayed another 10 years. The whole time, my interest did not lie there, and I'm sure my bosses knew. I did what I had to do, and the place ran well, and it was one of those things that accomplished what it accomplished."

All the while, he worked in local theater, acting for Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, Signature, and, he says, "pretty much every...small theater in town." He gave it up, in part, to spend more time with his family in Silver Spring: Television work, unlike theater work, allows for weekends off. His credits now include the John Waters films Cecil B. DeMented and Pecker, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, and Chris Rock's new Head of State. Williams will soon begin work on the John Travolta project Ladder 49.

Williams remains unconvinced that it would have made much difference in the long run if he'd thrown himself headlong into acting once he left school. "I'm not sure that I could have worked as much as I work now, and as much as I'll work in the future...because of the characters I play," he says. "I don't think that you're looking for the 20-year-old with the 40-year-old's face and body. You're looking for the 40-year-olds to do that. They had 40-year-olds when I was 20. They didn't need me.

"I'm hitting my stride now," he adds. "It's like an overnight thing that took 20 years to do."

Jay Landsman, the real cop of that name, appears in the first sentence of Simon's classic Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:

Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landman squats down to grab the dead man's chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white. "Here's your problem," he said. "He's got a slow leak."...

They give him a gun, a badge and sergeant's stripes, and deal him out into the streets of Baltimore...Then they surround him with a chorus of blue-jacketed straight men and let him play the role of the lone, wayward joker that somehow slipped into the deck....Jay Landsman, who as a Southwestern patrolman parked his radio car at Edmonson and Hilton, then used a Quaker Oatmeal box covered in aluminum foil as a radar gun.

"Jay's one of my favorite detectives that I followed in Homicide," says Simon. "He's a consummate survivor. He understood how to run a squad and survive—how to deal with the bosses, how to get to the end of the year and clear cases."

The real Landsman is now a corporal in the Baltimore County Police Department, while his fictional counterpart intercedes between The Wire's Maj. William Rawls (John Doman) and the homicide detectives. The office politics are part of the series' overriding theme, which Simon describes as "how individuals endure, or fail to endure, within institutions." Season 1 pitted the Baltimore cops against drug lords and their minions in a slow-building story line that explored the moral ambiguity of both groups.

"These are people in an institution that is malevolent," says Simon of his fictional force. "This is not a healthy police department. Jay's in that world and perceives it for what it is. It doesn't make him noble, but it does make him astute—and it does make him a survivor."

Williams himself is reluctant to describe his character. "As an actor," he begins uneasily, "the way I approach it is, I have to like the person because I have to play the person—I have to be the person who's making these choices because he wants to make these choices....So I can't analyze the character and say, 'He's being a jerk here, and selfish there.' I can't ascribe necessarily negative things, because I have to play those actions."

OK, then how did Landsman come across last season? "A little bit of a buffoon, maybe. A smartass. I think well-meaning," Williams says. "But certainly a kiss-ass. That's the No. 1 trait that's important to the show." He gestures around the squad room. "There's Rawls over here and McNulty over here. Or there's upper brass over here and there's the squad detectives over here. There's the guy who's in between, surviving by keeping these guys from killing each other—and in the end, keeping his place."

"Jay sees the landscape as others can't. He is in no way the foolish Falstaff of the unit," says Simon, who hired Williams for The Wire after seeing him in a previous Simon-does-gritty-Bawlmer series, The Corner. "It was only a line or two," he says, "but he captured it brilliantly and really captured the moment. So when I wrote the character of Jay Landsman, I had Bill in mind."

But Williams wasn't the only actor who auditioned, says Simon: "I also read the real Jay Landsman. But I ended up saying to him, 'You're good, but you're no Jay Landsman.'"

The women on the Wire set love Williams. "He's so funny!" is often their first response when asked about him. Gabbing with a stand-in during the long wait before he enters the squad room, Williams jokes about the tough time women have choosing between him and pretty-boy West.

Back in the squad room, where I'm still a little star-struck that I'm sitting in West's chair, I'm also interested in this man whose success in getting roles on the basis of how he looks must be as much curse as blessing. I ask, cautiously, "Have there ever been roles you wanted that you couldn't get because you didn't have the right look?"

"Well, every single role out there, ever," Williams replies before trailing off. "People used to say, 'What type are you?' And I'd say, 'Think of Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, some dashing young leading man.' Because—" He makes a dismissive sound. "Those same roles? Us fat, ugly people can do that, too. And do, in the real world. We live our lives. But that's not what's bought. That's not a commodity that's out there. I understand that....I get it all the time: 'What role do you want to play onstage?' Like, Hamlet! I'm a 40-year-old fat man. I'm not gonna play Hamlet. I wasn't gonna play Hamlet as a 20-year-old fat man. But I'm never gonna get that chance. But why wouldn't I want to do that?

"I always thought I'd be able to choose what I wanted to do," he continues. "Unless you produce, that's not always the case. And even when I have nailed auditions for parts and I'm sitting across from the people making the decision, and they're like...'We're gonna just prepare the contract, and it'll be on your desk'—and then the phone doesn't ring. There's something else going on."

So he's not auditioning for Hamlet, but if you need a funny guy to lift a refrigerator or swagger around a crime scene, he'll be there. "I've lived a lot of experiences by going, Eh, that's not going to happen," he says. "That's maybe my nature as well as driven by the fact that I look like I look or am who I am. But [there are] those times where you grab the bull by the horn a little bit: 'Hey, come with me, bull.' And the bull comes. And you go, Shit, that wasn't so hard. I'll grab the next bull, too."

James McMurtry, St. Mary of the Woods

Washington City Paper, Oct. 18, 2002

Saint Mary of the Woods
James McMurtry
Sugar Hill

With his first album, 1989's Too Long in the Wasteland, James McMurtry created the template that he has followed his whole musical career: a guitar-based country sound, less Nash Vegas and more Nashbury Park; elegant, laconic wordsmithery about a young man's fear of growing older and a country boy's chafing at small-town smallness even as he enjoys the view. Saint Mary of the Woods, McMurtry's sixth release, is the first of his albums that he's produced himself, taking the reins from such old pros as John Mellencamp, Don Dixon, and Lloyd Maines. It shows that the Texan has finally grown into his darkly nostalgic Western wear; at 40, he's now old enough to credibly look homeward. Saint Mary is a mature, refined album of diverse, sometimes humorous, sometimes gloomy portraits. Granted, they're studio portraits, for good or ill. The elegiac title track, for example, portrays a shattered diva ("Where are you going/Brandy on your breath/Bottle's open, spilled across the desk/Snifter's broken, smashed against the wall") from a literary distance: McMurtry's slightly hangdog baritone and the shimmering, Pro Tooled setting keep the listener out of harm's way. The fuzzed-up "Lobo Town" cuts to the diagnosis right off the bat ("Grand Daddy's good name/Fits like a shackle and a chain") and then catalogs the sickness of a drugged-up rich boy with a 2/4 beat that keeps things moving along as gracefully as McMurtry's narrative skill. It's worth noting that McMurtry seldom bothers to sing; his metier is a Lou Reed-ish patter that hits a deadpan precision. He doesn't sound as if he doesn't believe the stories he tells--which is probably why they're so easy to enjoy. Even when he rhapsodizes about a pair of kissing cousins on the rockabilly family-reunion epic "Choctaw Bingo," it's amusing rather than appalling: "I want to get between 'em/With a great big ol' hard-on like a old Bois d'Arc fence post/You could hang a pipe-rail gate from/Do some sister twisters 'til the cows come home." Indeed, the singer is so entertaining that I figure his shallow shadow brother is due for at least as much of a good time as McMurtry gives us with his tales. --Pamela Murray Winters

Linda Thompson, Fashionably Late

From the Washington City Paper, Aug. 23, 2002

Faithful in Her Fashion

By Pamela Murray Winters

Fashionably Late
Linda Thompson

The cover of Richard and Linda Thompson's 1982 LP, Shoot Out the Lights, shows a room in the aftermath of an upheaval. The wallpaper is torn and streaked by burn marks. A bare bulb swings across the ceiling, lighting the space with a sickly yellow. A man sits in the corner, laughing with his mouth but not his eyes. Above him, on the wall to his right, hangs a portrait of an enigmatic woman, lips parted and unsmiling.

Twenty years later, on the cover of Linda Thompson's Fashionably Late, that same woman sits on a floor, near a similar corner, in a calmly lit room. The carpet looks pricey. The walls are painted dove-gray. The woman's gaze is still direct and solemn. And above her, against the wall to her right, stands an easel holding a gold frame, ascending beyond our vision.

Who's in the picture? In the avid community of Richard Thompson fans--please don't call it a cult--the question has occupied much speculation since the news of his ex-wife's first album in 17 years.

England's answer to George Jones and Tammy Wynette invited life-vs.-art questions two decades ago, when they embarked on their first American tour, in support of Shoot Out the Lights, in the midst of a marital cataclysm. Linda had struggled with vocal problems since the first of her three pregnancies, spent several years of her marriage in an ascetic and paternalistic Muslim commune, and taken the news--a few months before the tour--of her husband's new lover with a rage that was most remarkable for its unbridled visibility. (She has said that she hit Richard over the head with his own guitar, frequently tripped him onstage, and trashed enough dressing rooms to be called "worse than the Sex Pistols.") That the album's sad, desperate songs ("Man in Need," "Walking on a Wire," "Don't Renege on Our Love") predated the couple's breakup made them no less gripping--especially when they were performed by a pair of stellar talents in extremis.

So it's understandable that fans of both Thompsons want that gilt edge to hold Richard's head. In fact, Linda's ex frames Fashionably Late, not the other way around. He plays guitar and sings backing vocal on the opening track, "Dear Mary"; the closer, "Dear Old Man of Mine," features Linda, accompanied only by children Teddy and Kamila Thompson, toasting "the man...Singing like he's got a gun to his head.../It was long ago that I said goodbye to that dear old man of mine." The Fashionably Late publicity machine, knowing its audience, is milking this "reunion" for all it's worth. And Linda has happily complied with the roman a clef readers, telling the New York Daily News, "I was thinking at one point of putting brackets after each song saying who they were for."

The most influential Thompson man on this album is not Richard, however, but 26-year-old Teddy, who wrote or co-wrote six of Fashionably Late's 10 tracks and sings or plays on five of them. Signed to, then dropped from, the Virgin Records roster with barely enough time in between to eke out a creditable solo album two years ago, Teddy has most recently been seen in the touring band of fellow folkie offspring Rufus Wainwright. Not yet having managed Rufus' trick of a reputation independent of his parents', Teddy has, happily for us, capitulated to his genes and given some quality time to Mum.

On "Evona Darling"--by Lal Waterson, a member of yet another folk dynasty--Teddy and Linda's eerily similar voices are entwined in a languid, Everlyesque duet. And on his own "All I See," Teddy and Wainwright sibs Rufus and Martha replicate the ensemble-vocal strength they displayed on Rufus' excellent Poses. But Teddy is most valuable on Fashionably Late as half of a songwriting team with his mother, displaying the family gift for ready-made oldies: the lilting Americana harmonies of "Dear Mary"; the doomy "Nine Stone Rig," on which guitarist John Doyle and double-bassist Danny Thompson pluck their strings into a smoky haze; and the perfectly composed aural daguerreotype "Miss Murray," featuring Doyle, British wunderkind singer Kate Rusby, and a Geoff Muldaur arrangement for fiddle-player Richard Greene and accordionist Van Dyke Parks.

Much of the new album's success, in fact, comes from Linda's surrounding herself with members of her extended musical family: guitarist Martin Carthy and his fiddler daughter Eliza, who bring spunk to the no-boys-allowed "Weary Life" ("Better to be single than be a married wife"); string arranger Robert Kirby, who worked with Linda's old boyfriend Nick Drake and here gives "Paint & Powder Beauty" a woozy elegance; and WNYC's chief concert recording engineer, Ed Haber, who also produced Linda's retrospective Dreams Fly Away in 1996. Haber's modus operandi as producer is to stay out of the way as much as possible: Fashionably Late's tracks are pristinely simple, with a coffeehouse-stage freshness.

If this seems like a lot of name-dropping, it's only fair: Linda has gotten through this record, and through the whole of the post-Richard era, with more than a little help from her friends. For much of the past 20 years, she has been unable to sing because of hysterical dysphonia, an inelegantly named condition in which, as she puts it, "you open your mouth and nothing happens." She managed a 1985 solo album, One Clear Moment, before retiring from the music business. Only recently has she ventured onto the stage again. Pere Ubu's David Thomas literally held her hand through performances of his road-trip song cycle Mirror Man.

Although age, and perhaps disuse, have left their marks on Linda's vocals, all of the hallmarks of her sound are here: the Lalique coolness; the occasional rough edges, perfectly appropriate to "Nine Stone Rig" and "Miss Murray"; and those shiver-inducing low notes, which turn almost funereal on "Dear Old Man of Mine." On "Paint & Powder Beauty," co-written with Rufus Wainwright, Linda even essays some Billie Holiday-style bent notes--and it turns out that heartbroken jazz is a torch she was born to carry.

Linda's vocal problems are apparently the only reason this album had to wait until 2002. There's nothing here that sounds more modern than the work she did with Richard, circa 1975. "Paint & Powder Beauty" is unusual only because jazz balladry is one of the few musical paths the Thompsons left untrod. Indeed, Thompsons fans will find much that is familiar: Northumbrian smallpipes, crumhorns, and accordions, as well as old whores, dying lovers, and deadpan humor. Although Linda's voice hasn't quite been frozen in time, the spirit of her music from three decades ago has been preserved.

So is Fashionably Late a swan song or a new beginning? As strong as it is, it won't make Linda a crossover star; it's still going to end up in the Folk bin. Those busy publicists are preaching to the choir. Dysphonia already has a high-profile survivor in Diane Rehm, and Linda and Richard aren't exactly Angelina and Billy Bob. Ultimately, though, none of that matters: Fashionably Late comes off as the album Linda Thompson made for Linda Thompson. It's not about competing with a gaggle of aggressively marketed songstresses, most of them younger, slicker, and tooled for country or pop. And it's not about who's in the frame. It's about who holds the floor.

Pere Ubu, St Arkansas

Washington City Paper, May 17, 2002

St Arkansas
Pere Ubu

Not for David Thomas the romance of verdant hills and crashing waterfalls and itty-bitty butterflies. Irretrievably damaged by the Mistake by the Lake, the Pere Ubu frontman and Cleveland native, now based in the U.K., is immensely fond of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the same publicity screed for the new St Arkansas that acknowledges "All songs written by Pere Ubu" also vows that "the words [of the album were] written by the mighty road from Conway Arkansas to Tupelo Mississippi, I-40 to US 49 to State 6." Ubu's 12th studio album, St Arkansas is a love song to the Highway--not the Road of the musician's well-worn text, but a tar-topped, Jersey-walled place Thomas is apparently fated to roam. He and his fellow Ubu travelers--original member Tom Herman, Robert Wheeler, Michele Temple, Steve Mehlman, and Jim Jones--are nearly all over 40 (drummer Mehlman was born in 1971), and their music seems untouched by anything post-Talking Heads: In "Where's the Truth," Thomas cadges the river-flows-to-the-sea lyrics (in a rare allusion to Mother Nature) from "Ballad of Easy Rider," and the fuzzed-out guitars and smacked two-beat drums in "Phone Home Jonah" sound like garage-band Steppenwolf. But age doesn't mean stagnation any more than influence-brandishing means insincerity. Thomas, who has stated that he doesn't traffic in irony, evinces an utter belief in the voices of his characters. When he orchestrates the 18-wheeler punk of "The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto," all tinny guitars, propulsive drum rolls, keyboard clangor, and screaming theremin, you know he's mentally cruising the Rust Belt. When he unleashes a David Byrne-sy chant in "Slow Walking Daddy," it's a paean to U.S. 322: "I love that road/I love the way it yields to me/It sorta breathes and whispers out my name, that's how it feels." And when he says "AM radio...will set you free," he's talking about the '70s kind, slipping in and out of the car speakers from faraway transmitters like the voice of God, in all its compressed mono mystery. In the exuberant, high-octane soundscape of St Arkansas, the only real threat is standing still--a danger to which the Ubuites, even after 27 years, seem immune. --Pamela Murray Winters

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Keegan Theatre

Washington City Paper, Aug. 4, 2006

Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Written by Steve Martin
Directed by Scott Pafumi
Produced by the Keegan Theatre
At Gunston Theater II to Aug. 19

The comedy recipe calls for at least two parts invention to one part familiarity, and Steve Martin knows that well: The humor of his classic era depended on both his bland persona—his suit, his shoes, and even his hair were white—and the silly, sometimes downright stupid physical and mental contortions to which he subjected it. He was way more of a McCartney than a Harrison back then, but his first play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, revealed a more intellectual side, even if some of the cosmological humor is less insightful than arrow-through-the-head simplistic. Thus, the first half-hour of Keegan’s production feels a little like a convention of fitfully quippy Tom Robbins characters assembled for a History in the Schools project. We’re in the Bar Lapin Agile, in Paris, about 100 years ago: “Don’t be so old-fashioned, darling—these are the Naughts,” says Germain to her barkeep husband. A young Einstein is waiting for a date—even though she’s supposed to meet him somewhere else; after all, it’s up to the order of the universe, right? A groupie comes looking for the local roué: When asked, “Do you know Picasso?” she answers, “Twice.” And then there’s the old guy who always has to pee. Martin’s trying a tad too hard here, and so are some of the Keegan players who haven’t yet found the tone of the piece. It’s not utter farce, but it’s hardly realistic either—if Einstein and Picasso ever did meet in a Paris bar, which they probably didn’t, they certainly never crooned Motown tunes—and although a couple of characters break the fourth wall from time to time, it’s not particularly avant-garde. Who’s found the secret to this tale of life, the universe, and everything? Susan Marie Rhea, for one: As Germain, she’s both sturdily practical and slyly sensual, and as the play progresses, she gets more and more of Martin’s best scenes. Eric Lucas is likewise a perfect Einstein. He’s a little distracted, a tad stuffy, and gifted with some marvelous insights: “Do you know why the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth? The idea isn’t beautiful enough.” As Picasso, Mark Rhea takes a while to warm up to; he seems a little surfacey, as do many of the other players. But when the production gets its wings going, it’s a delightfully goofy flight. When a surprise visitor—played by Mike Kozemchak, in a royal performance—enters the building, it soars even higher. And in a final three-handed scene, it becomes a meditation on fame that’s downright heavenly. --Pamela Murray Winters

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Stolen Child by Keith Donahue

From the Washington City Paper "Artifacts" section last week.

Washington City Paper, Aug. 4, 2006

Agent of Changeling

Wheaton's Keith Donohue does highbrow fantasy lit.

Keith Donohue’s first novel, The Stolen Child, portrays a world in which the magical and the mundane intersect, a world in which, in an instant, a human boy is kidnapped by changelings and one of their number takes his place. The transformation of Donohue—a former speechwriter for the National Endowment for the Arts—into a celebrated author seems almost as magical.

I think I took an unusual route to get to publication,” says Donohue, 47. “I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t write short stories and publish them in literary journals. When I had time to write the book, I wrote the book.”

That process took about three years—during which the Wheaton, Md., resident held down a full-time job and, with his wife, raised the three of their four children who still live at home. “I did the first draft in about eight months. Then I started looking for an agent,” Donohue says. “After I found the right person to represent the novel, we worked a little bit on it…then he sent it out, and it was accepted by Nan Talese.”

Yes, that Nan Talese: publisher of Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, among other literati. And even the mighty Talese had to outbid other takers.

No wonder: The Stolen Child, inspired by the changeling poem by William Butler Yeats, has leapt nimbly over the fantasy-genre barrier to charm such reviewers as the Washington Post Book World (“a luminous and thrilling novel about our humanity”), Kirkus Reviews (“Take that, Bilbo Baggins!”), and The Last Unicorn novelist Peter S. Beagle (“one of the most touching and absorbing novels I have read in years”). According to Donohue, the book has sold 37,500 copies in North America, and has purchased the film option.

The book boasts two narrators, who tell its story in alternating chapters. One, Aniday, is a hobgoblin: a childlike creature who was once a 7-year-old boy named Henry Day but now lives in a hidden warren with others of his kind. The other narrator is a doppelgänger—one of the band of “terrestrial and underground devils”—who has assumed Henry’s identity. The ageless Aniday clings to the shredded memories of his humanity, while the aging “Henry Day”—who has grown to become a composer, husband, and father—struggles with the secrets of his own origins and his desire to reveal himself through his art.

Although the novel’s tension arises from the convergence of these two beings, it touches on myriad themes: the “otherness” of being an artist, the battle between technology and nature, the meaning of childhood versus adulthood. “I wanted to have two narrators, and I wanted to have one remain a child while the other progressed through time—aged, matured—and play those two perspectives off each other,” Donohue says.

The Stolen Child is also the title of the imposter Henry Day’s symphony, the tale of his own remembered past: He tries to write “fast enough to capture the sounds in [his] head,” to “regenerate [it] constantly from the desire to confess, seeking to craft a texture that would allow [him] to explain.” But suggest that Donohue might have fallen prey to a similar madness as he worked, and he demurs.

You do kind of get into that waking dream state where your imaginative life is, in a way, distinct from the life you walk around with every day,” he says. “I’ve always had that ability to daydream and to realize that it doesn’t often have a literal relationship to what I do every day.”

What he is doing these days, besides toiling in an anonymous federal job, is working on his next book. And what’s it about? “It’s about magic and things unseen,” he says, warily, then laughs. “I don’t want to talk it away.” --Pamela Murray Winters

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Richard Thompson, Paste magazine, 2003

Fairport's Cropredy festival is this coming weekend. The opening passage of this very long piece was inspired by watching Richard play cricket there in 2002.

Richard Thompson: Plunging the Knife in Deeper
(credited to "Pamela Winters," but it's me, with the Murray)
Paste magazine, issue 4, 2003

It’s a typically English tableau: On a summer afternoon, on a green field under mackerel skies, a man in white swings a cricket bat at an oncoming ball. Sometimes, missing, he runs to retrieve it, tosses it back to the bowler, then resumes his position, waiting.

Variations on the cricket-white theme pepper the sports field in Cropredy, Oxfordshire. Most are worn by the village team, which is about to play its annual match against a side made up of members and friends of the band Fairport Convention.

Few Fairporters can be found on the field. The festival commemorating the band’s 35th anniversary ran late last night, and the post-concert celebrations later still; some of the lads are probably still celebrating.

But Richard Thompson, a founding member of the group, has his eye on the ball. He hits more than he misses. If practice doesn’t make perfect, it nonetheless makes this good-natured game just a little more accomplished.

- - -

Later on, the skies will open up. Rain attaches itself to Thompson like—well, like lazy journalists attach themselves to clichés. It’s generally in the first paragraph of a Thompson-related story that the reader encounters “doom,” “gloom” or both. The alleged darkness of his vision may be the most famous thing about this relatively fame-free artist.

But come upon him fresh, at the turn of the last century—via his last album for Capitol (1999’s Mock Tudor), his new album on Cooking Vinyl/spinART (The Old Kit Bag, released in the U.K. in February and due in the States in May), a handful of limited-release live CDs and a string of concert performances that keep him on the road over half the nights of the year—and you’ll notice more sunshine than cloud cover. His recent live concerts included songs he’d written for an upcoming children’s album. (Then again, “My Daddy Is a Mummy” kills off Pops in line three before engaging in a lively review of embalming techniques.) And the vibrant spirit of his compositions of the last several years makes it easier to get beyond the dour reputation of this man in black (it’s a stage thing, he says; dark clothes “don’t show the stains”). What with the kids’ songs, the onstage jokes and the smile-smile-smile of his new album’s title, is he whistling through the graveyard, grinning while the bombs rain down?

- - -

“I’m just a happy person,” he says. We are in the greenroom du jour, in the basement of the McDonald Theatre in Eugene, Ore., a few hours before a January solo show. He’s a genial host and a thoughtful interviewee, courteous but exacting, and prone to slip from earnest revelation into defensive humor in an eyeblink.

He divides himself between his visitor and his guitar, playing at some old familiar tune he describes as “a Mary Lou Williams version of Dvorak.” He’s not distracted; he’s just multitasking. Happy to set the guitar down when he’s asked a question; happy to pick it up again when attention turns from him.

About his jovial stage presence, he acknowledges: “I think humor on stage is a kind of a weapon, actually.” His interviewer, who, it must be said, has seen him well over 100 times, can be glimpsed in the audience in two concert broadcasts recorded in two different countries and has Thompson trivia taking up room in the cerebellum perhaps better given to bank account numbers and children’s birth dates, says, “I’ve seen that in interviews with you before.”

Thompson goes playful—pitch raised, eyes wide. “Or it was somebody else, perhaps. Whitesnake. Or Rolf Harris!” Earnest again: “I think humor’s useful for switching—I think it’s good because it’s supposed to be entertainment, music. It’s a lot to ask people to sit through an hour and a half, two hours of music that’s all one mood, where things never get light and bubbly. So I think it just helps the audience attention span, and it helps to soften up the audience, too, in a sense. They’re more relaxed, and therefore you can kind of plunge the knife in when they’re not looking.”

To my shocked laugh, he quickly and sincerely adds: “I mean that in kind of a positive way.”

- - -

Richard John Thompson was born on April 3, 1949, and grew up in London with his parents and older sister. He was a sickly, shy child with a serious stammer. (Later, he would be quoted as saying, “I took up music so I wouldn’t have to talk to people.”) His father was a policeman—a “dour Scot,” Thompson’s mother once said, who loved music and bought his son his first guitar.

By his early teens, he was hanging around his sister’s boyfriends, getting them to teach him guitar techniques. Soon he was playing in local bands with schoolmates. One of these bands became Fairport Convention, a rock band (ca. 1967) turned folk-rock band (ca. 1969) turned musical institution/semi-dysfunctional family (after Thompson left).

Inspired by the music of Bob Dylan and The Byrds, by his father’s record collection and by his own muse, the teenage Thompson began writing songs and also creating many of the group’s musical arrangements. He has been credited with Fairport’s unusual setting of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and with the jazzy 5/4 arrangement of bandmate Sandy Denny’s “Autopsy.” His interest in Cajun music led to the song “Cajun Woman”; across the ocean, a kid named Michael Doucet listened in wonderment to this group of Brits reinterpreting his heritage for youth-culture consumption and started pondering ways to start his own folk revival, which would eventually lead to BeauSoleil.

Fairport, too, moved further into reclaiming its British roots, particularly after folksinger Denny joined after the group’s first album. The young band took up the traditional song “A Sailor’s Life” for its 1969 album Unhalfbricking, with Thompson and fiddler Dave Swarbrick creating waves of electric tumult.

Just before the release of Unhalfbricking, on the road to promote the upcoming album, the band suffered a tragedy. In the early hours of May 12, 1969, while driving back from a gig with most of Fairport in the van, the driver began to doze off. Thompson was sitting up front with his girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. The van left the M1 motorway and tumbled over an embankment to land on a golf course. Nearly everyone was thrown from the vehicle. Franklyn and drummer Martin Lamble were killed.

The members of Fairport recovered as well as could be expected; some wounds ran deep. Denny, who was not in the van at the time, became even more skittish about traveling than before. She left the group within a year, along with bassist Ashley Hutchings, who suffered severe facial injuries. But while pulling themselves together that summer, the Fairporters created the landmark folk-rock album Liege and Lief. Among a bounty of electrified ballads, mostly culled from the Cecil Sharp House folk archives, is a melancholy Thompson/Swarbrick number, “Crazy Man Michael.” In Thompson’s lyrics, a raven taunts Michael that “your true love will die by your own right hand”; when Michael, angered, kills the bird, he finds that it was his lover, transformed. The final stanza shows him as “keeper of the garden” where he has lost his love, limited to whistling “the simplest of tunes.”

- - -

Thompson’s music, actually, is quite simple—in the way that, say, Citizen Kane and La Gioconda are simple and Ulysses and Two Virgins are not. There are take-home tunes, clever but understated lyrics, and a surprising lack of self-indulgent wankage for someone so often deemed a guitar god.

But subtlety doesn’t necessitate impotence. Getting back to knifing one’s audiences, Thompson clarifies: “I think you almost want people’s defenses to be down, so that they’ll let you wash over them with whatever the subject matter is. And because as a songwriter you’re trying to really hit the audience just below the conscious level.”

In a concert setting, Thompson says, the jokes and lighter songs serve a purpose: “You want [the audience] to not have preconceived notions. And if the mood switches a lot, then that breaks up their preconceptions. But you can’t do that with an album. Not as much, anyway.”

A song called “God Loves a Drunk” appeared on his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, but I first heard it in an August 1990 performance at Bumbershoot, a Seattle arts festival. Thompson, alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, called out: “Do we have any drunks in the audience this evening?” To scattered laughter and cheers, he continued: “This one’s for all the drunks!” The first line, “Will there be any bartenders up there in heaven?” was met with giggles, claps and one cry of “You rock!” By the end of the song—which knocks propriety (“Does crawling and wage-slaving win you God’s love?”) in favor of inebriation (“God loves a drunk, although he’s a fool, oh he wets in his pants and he falls off his stool”)—the audience was stunned into near-silence.

“It’s a slightly worrying song, ’cause it kind of attacks the audience,” Thompson, a longtime teetotaler, muses. “Attacks audience values. Which I think is good. ‘Cold Kisses’ is another one.” In that song, from 1996’s you?me?us?, the narrator digs around in his girlfriend’s underwear drawer for photos of her old lovers (“got to see how I measure up to them all.”). “People don’t really talk about it, but it’s a thing that people do quite a lot that they would never admit to. So if you put that into a song, it kind of unsettles the audience—but in a good way—but then the story goes in.”

- - -

When Thompson, in 1986’s “Long Dead Love,” wrote: “Somebody's walking, oh somebody's walking / There on the grave of our love …Why don't they just let it die and fade and grow cold again?” he protested the muckraking of his 10-year marriage to Linda Thompson, which ended in 1982. People are still getting out the shovels, particularly in light of Linda’s 2002 release Fashionably Late, her first album in almost two decades.

Thompson and Linda (née Peters) met through mutual friend Sandy Denny, before first Denny and then Thompson (in 1971) left Fairport Convention for solo careers. Linda had a career of her own—jingles, Elton John demos, the folk circuit—but now she would give voice to Richard’s words. And it was a superb voice. Mellow, capable of snowy obliqueness or passionate warmth at turns, it sounded even better when paired with her husband’s rough-hewn baritone. The couple recorded six albums together—most critical successes, all commercial flops—before their breakup.

Two extramusical elements of that time—the Muslim Thing and the Divorce Thing—get rehashed more often than the Thompsons’ creations get played. The couple’s adoption of Sufism—which Richard has described as less a conversion than a recognition (he told biographer Patrick Humphries, “I just thought, ‘Oh, this is actually who I’ve always been’”) took them out of the musical world for a time, in part because Richard was unsure how to reconcile his art with his faith. (He attempted to become an antiques dealer.)

Linda had other problems, as the primary caretaker of their eventual three children. The couple’s marriage was stormy. Their return to the music business after two years lessened some of the pressures, but Richard’s announcement that he had fallen in love with an American woman was the final blow to the marriage—but not the career.

It was 1982. The Thompsons’ third child had been born; Richard had told Linda that the marriage was over—and the couple, incredibly, followed through on an engagement to tour the States behind their album Shoot Out the Lights. The tour cemented their reputations among American fans, many of whom had sought out Fairport and Thompson albums with bloodhound tenacity in those pre-Internet times. Ilana Pelzig Cellum, a New York-based freelance recording engineer who got to know Richard around that time, recalls: “When I recorded him at Folk City in ’82 [for Small Town Romance], he was astonished at how many people knew his songs.”

He eventually married his newfound love, Nancy Covey, but he spent a lot of time in New York after the breakup, dropping in on shows by his ex-Fairport bandmates Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick. Cellum says she and fellow engineer Ed Haber “got to know him pretty well. It was a hard time for him.”

Simon Tassano came on board as tour manager and soundman during what became known as “the divorce tour.” He’s been Thompson’s right-hand man ever since. “When I first knew Richard, he wouldn’t say boo to a goose onstage, and now he’s the consummate entertainer and has the audience exactly where he wants them virtually 99 percent of the time. And it still grows, in my opinion.”

Time, work and solitude have shaped the onstage Thompson, says Tassano. “When you’re out there doing it all that time, especially when you’re by yourself up there and it’s not a band, you’ve really got to connect with the audience in between as well. And I think necessity has brought about [the naturally shy Thompson’s ease on stage]. When it was Richard and Linda, obviously he was going through a tough time in his life, with emotions and all that kind of stuff, but then as he became just Richard and moved on, he just became stronger, I guess.”

- - -

In Eugene, I joke that I won’t ask him what his latest songs are about because I know he won’t tell me anyway. I’m surprised when he goes on to discuss what they mean to him.

Take, for example, The Old Kit Bag’s opening track, “Gethsemane,” a song named for a town named for a place of betrayal: “It’s the story of a person, a relative of mine, who grew up in a very idyllic childhood—tremendous freedom, what you want for children, that sense of freedom, running through the woods, sailboats out on the river. That thing where as a kid you just disappear for the whole of a summer’s day and come back at evening and your parents know you’re OK. So he had a great childhood, but as he got older, life became more disappointing. Nothing quite lived up to that. And parental expectations—he could never live up to parental expectations. So life became harder, and he began to drink a lot, and he got really ill. …So it’s a boy’s song, about the responsibility of maleness.”

Coming from a man whose 1982 “A Man in Need” took an upbeat approach to familial desertion, that might be hard for some to swallow. There are women who knew him during his first marriage who won’t listen to his music now, who can’t forgive what he did to Linda, even though he and Linda seem to have made their own peace with matters.

Asked about the treatment of her gender in his songs, colleague Cellum allows: “There always seems to be a distrustful, misogynistic element there.” She admits that it makes her uncomfortable before quickly stressing that it’s not at all evident in the way he behaves toward her. When she says, “You wish Richard was better about women,” she means as a songwriter.

Thompson, a 53-year-old white, heterosexual Englishman, writes what he knows. “Everybody has a hard time, be you male or female,” he says. “There are problems, crises and rites of passage.”

He has five children, four now grown: a son from an early relationship, two daughters and a son (musician Teddy Thompson) with Linda, and another son with Nancy Covey. How does he feel he’s done in preparing his sons for the responsibility of maleness? “Having what I would consider to be a difficult and traumatic childhood doesn't automatically make me a great father who knows how to bring up boys. With my two oldest [sons], I've had a lot of catching up to do, because I wasn't there enough in the early years. I probably try too hard to do the right thing, and that doesn't work very well … it's been easier with my youngest, and I've been able to be more consistent.

“But the songs are a different world, and I don't know how they relate to the real world. They are probably closer to the demons of my youth than anything to do with my kids.”

- - -

Thompson has fought those demons by devoting himself to his music. By 1982, he began more solo touring and recording. By the ’90s, he had taken solo and band tours all over the world, and he was as well-known in the States—which has been his primary home for some time now—as in his native England.

Says avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser, who has worked with Thompson numerous times: “An amazing thing about RT that I get to see offstage, that most fans would not get to see, is how hard he works. He works hard at songwriting. He works hard at conceiving new things on guitar and new ways to play. RT never rests on his laurels. He is never lazy. He works hard at growth and pushes himself to try new things. He does not choose the easiest paths.”

Thompson certainly didn’t choose an easy path when he identified himself as a Muslim. He remains a deeply spiritual man, though after a fairly intense discussion of some Islamic themes, he murmurs, “I’d rather people didn’t know about my religious beliefs, ‘cause I think it gets in the way. I’d rather that wasn’t a barrier. If I could start again, I would never say anything about it.”

Because it’s already out on the table, he’s had some heavy responsibilities since Sept. 11. “I got hate mail. But most people that I knew were bending over backwards to try and be understanding. My experience was mostly that people were aware that Islam was something that they really didn’t know much about, and they wanted to find out.”

He is especially quick to rail against fundamentalism of all stripes, notably in the Taliban’s dismissal of Western civilization, which Thompson touches on in The Old Kit Bag’s “Outside of the Inside”: “God never listened to Charlie Parker / Charlie Parker lived in vain …Wash away his monkey music / Damn his demons, damn his pain.”

“I certainly don’t like Christian fundamentalists, and I certainly don’t like Muslim fundamentalists. Probably the worst scenario is where the two collide. Which is a possibility, right? But I think of fundamentalists as basically ignorant. They have their small amount of knowledge which gives them a very superior attitude to other people. And it gives them their little bit of power.

“The person in the song is not someone who listens to their conscience. [It’s] someone who does it by the book. It’s the accountant mindset toward the spiritual. And the end of the song says, ‘when I get to heaven, I won’t know I’m there.’ If you can’t see paradise in this world, how will you see it in the next world?”

For Thompson, “the idea is that you worship God; you’re not worshipping religion. There’s no compulsion in Islam. In what’s called the din”—a sort of contract between the individual and God—“it’s like the life transaction. There’s no compulsion to anybody else.

“The Saudis have prayer police who go out and hit you over the head if you’re aren’t doing the prayer at prayer time and this kind of stuff. This is real Spanish inquisition stuff. It’s the imposition of religion.”

That said, he’s adamantly opposed to the military action that was looming on the horizon when we last spoke. In fall 2002, at several solo shows in the Northeast, he sang Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” along with a new verse about the folly of going to war for oil. A number of audience members tried to shout him down, argued among themselves during and after the show, or stormed out—“which is all good,” Thompson avows. “That’s all I was trying to do, was to get people to talk! Get people to debate, instead of this idea that it’s unpatriotic to challenge the White House at the moment.”

- - -

It might be easy to think that today’s Thompson is streamlined, serene. His live sound is slicker: Tassano, who has worked with him for 21 years, mans the soundboard with an eagle eye. Thompson handles his fans, many of them almost terrifyingly worshipful, with ease—maybe because they’re his bread and butter, but also because, Thompson says, “I’m glad to have people listen to me.” He’s less fazed than he used to be by the Thompson-is-God types: “It’s only strange if you invest in it. Which I’ve never done.”

And his latest album could be called simpler than some of its predecessors. The Old Kit Bag was recorded with a trio consisting of Thompson, bassist Danny Thompson, and percussionist Michael Jerome, with occasional backing vocals from Judith Owen. “That was one of the manifesto decrees of the album,” he says; “we’ll do it as a three-piece, and we’ll use everybody on every track. So we’ll pick tracks that, regardless of how quiet they get and how acoustic they are, everyone’s still gonna be playing on something. Just to give it a kind of unity.” There are a few overdubs—Thompson plays accordion, dulcimer, harmonium and mandolin as well as the expected guitars. “That doesn’t imply a lot of skill!” he laughs. “It just implies convenient things lying around that any fool can have a go at.”

This self-deprecation, like his music, like his humor, is a tool he wields to unsettle. In speaking with him over the years, in settings formal and otherwise, I’ve experienced three or four moments when it seems I've been let in on an intimate revelation, an unguarded comment. But later the happy man with the quick knife appears again. The more I talk with him, the more I learn about him—and the more I realize I don’t really know him at all.

As he picks through shards of memory, images of passersby, hidden photographs, for the elements of his musical alchemy, he uses himself in strange ways: appearing with startling honesty, then disappearing in a puff of smoke.

In Eugene, as my recorder clicked off, he commented: “The tape always ends on the truth.” But whatever truth he’d claimed was on the tape leader, words lost forever.

- - -

If there is an archetypal Richard Thompson character, it’s a man who can’t clear his throat to speak, who stands poised for a great leap, toes tightening, heart beating.

He makes his leaps in those rare extended electric solos, seldom captured on tape. His playing, whether acoustic or electric, is exploratory; you experience him listening to himself. When soloing, he travels the strings, setting up initially dissonant series of notes that resolve themselves, over and over, in unexpected ways. The tension builds, sexually, spiritually—a delicious, disturbing anticipation, ecstatic release, a peaceful return to earth with eyes yet on the sky.

This divine music is among the risks that Thompson forsook for that brief period in the ’70s when he thought it more holy to sell antiques.

He knows the power of what he does: “Music’s something that brings people together. Music’s a great force for good. You could set out to play dark, evil music, but mostly it’s various versions of bringing light from dark. People go away from a concert happy, usually. That’s because it removes the barriers.

“People tell me my songs are sensual, or that they put you in the there and then, but I think that's as often untrue as it is true—because there are different intentions in the writing.”

He knows what his songs mean to him, and he’s open to them being heard differently, though he still thrives on the connection: “Sometimes someone will come up after a concert and they’ll say, ‘I really get that song, I really understand that, that means a lot to me,’ and that’s fantastic. For me that’s the best feeling … the idea that you’ve communicated something to somebody else and they’ve got it, they’ve got through whatever the language is, whatever the medium, they’ve managed to decode it.”

To him, many of his songs are about taking risks. About longtime favorite “Wall of Death,” he says, “I suppose that song is a memo to self. It’s a song to me—it’s just to remind me how I should live, that I should take risks, that I should be on the edge. That I should be the guy who walks down the street muttering to himself, that that’s OK.”

The intoxicating “First Breath,” on The Old Kit Bag, serves a similar purpose: “Another memo to self: Grasp with both hands what’s left of your life.”

- - -

When Michael Jerome was hired to play drums on the tour supporting the 1999 release Mock Tudor, he’d never heard of Richard Thompson. A friend told him: “He pushes the boundaries enough to make it interesting.”

Part of the success of Thompson’s music, says Jerome, is that it’s “all the mind of Richard. He can give direction if he needs to, but the fun of it is he hardly does it.” “I think Richard absolutely knows his own mind and he is unswayable,” says Cellum. “I’m sure he’ll listen to all the comments, but it’s his own vision. And that’s why he makes things that last … I would hate to have to try to change his mind! It’s not that he’s rigid, so much—it’s that he has his own path.”

“Let the man get out there and do exactly what he wants, as far as I’m concerned,” says Tassano. “That’s the best way.”

- - -

He likes sport, this typically British man. He coaches his youngest son’s soccer team. He suffers occasional pain from tennis elbow—brought on by guitar work, yes, but also by pounding the courts. A few years ago, at the Cropredy reunion festival, he didn’t play any music but dutifully showed up for the post-festival cricket, helping the musicians’ team finally win a game against the villagers.

And in his youth, he studied archery. I know a little about that sport as well. And I know that Richard Thompson knows that when you're aiming at a target, you don't look at the arrow.

John Fahey, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life

From Dirty Linen #95 (Aug/Sep '01)

How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life
by John Fahey
Drag City ISBN 0-9656183-2-3 (2000);
291 pp.; $19.98

It's a sad fact that, had it not been for John Fahey's death, just before his 62nd birthday in February, many readers would not have discovered this stack of idiosyncratic scribblings. How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life is usually, for convenience's sake, called a memoir, but that term begs the question: When autobiography and magic realism meet, does the autobiographer believe his own magic?

The oddness of this book is especially apparent to me because I, like Fahey, grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Like him, as a child I found mysteries, magic portals, strange spirits in the very earth of the place. (A would-be archaeologist, I dug in the yard, unearthing shards of pottery that revealed to me a lost Atlantis. Years later, I learned that my house was probably built on a garbage dump.)

Fahey's "Azalea City"(aka Takoma Park) is far more sinister than mine, with child molesters and their corrupted victims behind every lamppost and bungalow wall. The spirits he meets are seldom beneficent, and he's no angel, either. He becomes a kid terrorist ("The ultimate trip was to try to shoot a cherry bomb so that it went into a passing car through an open window and exploded... We never accomplished this noble but technically difficult feat. On the other hand, you'd be surprised what you can do with rotten apples."). He meets girls for furtive sex and cosmic enlightenment in Spring Park. And ultimately he flees his birthplace but returns to it, again and again, in his collection of tales.

In the world outside Azalea City, he meets bluesman Roosevelt Sykes and, in the book's sweetest passages, learns a survival secret. He blasts show-biz types like Steve Goodman and Michaelangelo Antonioni (by whom he was hired to work on music for Zabriskie Point), as well as the "hippies" (who, in a peculiar revenge never described by Fahey but undoubtedly known to him, invaded Takoma Park in the late 60s, transformed it into a cultural and political paradise, and became the educated, gentrified class who unwittingly made it too expensive for working-class folk like Fahey's family and mine to live there). He reveals himself as a seer and a sonofabitch, a man from a fractured past whose encounter with the holy spirit, in the form of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys doing "Blue Yodel Number Seven," further shattered his life into a mosaic of broken glass: cluttered, erratic, sharp-edged, and sometimes blinding in its sharp clarity. In short, his book is a lot like his music, and it reveals its writer's utter, warped sincerity. — Pamela Murray Winters (Arlington, VA)

Be Good Tanyas, Dirty Linen, 2003 (cameos by Richard Thompson and John Fahey)

From Dirty Linen #106, June/July 2003.

This article was a blast to do--I still think of these women every time I see a honey bear.

Me and my instinct for musical cross-pollination: When I interviewed Richard Thompson, not long after this, for an article in Paste, I was telling him about the honey discussion, and we had one of our own, during which he agreed with Trish on the strangeness of honey bears: "It also means that your honey has to be a certain consistency, whereas the best honey is much thicker...Things that Europe does better: honey, bread, and yogurt. There are no equivalents in America. It’s a bit more real."

If you haven't read the chapter "Honey" in John Fahey's How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, you're missing something sweet.

The Be Good Tanyas
Moving Hearts & Moving On
by Pamela Murray Winters

The three women of the Be Good Tanyas — Samantha Parton, Frazey Ford, and Trish Klein — are chatting over tea. The conversation is flowing—voices in counterpoint, sentences begun by one and ended by another—but the honey isn’t.

Bears work better for dish soap than honey,” declared Klein, fruitlessly jabbing a near-empty plastic cub at her mug. “Because then you get the cute little bear standing on the counter looking at you every day. So he’s still around, but you don’t have to deal with the frustration where you want to rip his little head off.”

It’s not the first dark act recounted by the Tanyas, whose songs speak of more gloom than a mortuary full of goth kids. And it won’t be the last — their latest album offers such mordant titles as “The Junkie Song” and “Waiting Around to Die.” But the British Columbia-based trio is never hard to be around. It’s not merely that they’re charismatic and charming and, yes, cute, although that’s certainly part of the equation. It’s a certain clear-eyed idealism and direction that permeates their music as well as their offstage presence. With just two albums since their formation as a band in 1999 — 2000’s Blue Horse and 2003’s Chinatown — Parton, Ford, and Klein have made a worldwide impact, by being, as the BBC’s Charlie Gillett put it, “single-minded young women with a sense of purpose and not the slightest intention of following any of the rules laid down by the music industry in its current form.” Or, less elegantly, by “speedqueen13” on “i mean, i know joni mitchell and neil young and fred eaglesmith are all canadian and they’re all great and everything, but i think [Blue Horse] is the first canadian album in years that has completely floored me.”

Ford and Parton first encountered each other at a tree-planting camp in British Columbia’s Kootenay Mountains, about eight hours east of their native Vancouver. When the lumber industry takes down the old growth, it offers a sort of amends to the forest by sending planters out to fill in the deforested areas with new growth. The seasonal work brought Ford and Parton together, and they discovered their shared musical interests. When planting season was over, they parted. A few years later, Klein met Ford — singing an a cappella version of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” — at an open mic while both were attending music school in Nelson, British Columbia. It wasn’t until 1999 that the three of them, along with Texas songwriter Jolie Holland, finally came together in Vancouver. Parton had toured the States with performance poet Chris Chandler and sung country with the Illegitimate Daughters of Johnny Cash; Ford had played trip-hop music in Montreal, and Klein and Ford were part of the jazz/folk band Saltwater June in Vancouver.

Holland, who per-formed on both Tanyas albums, introduced them to a song called “Be Good Tanya,” written by her friend Obo Martin. Taking their name from the song, the women began to develop a group style through listening and jamming.

A discussion with the women reveals their musical omnivorousness. On tour with them in the States in January, in their various CD holders, was music by Blackalicious, Jimmy Cliff, Wilco, Tom Waits, Kathryn Williams, Lou Reed, and Mary J. Blige. “We have very diverse tastes,” affirmed Ford. “We listen to everything, except for folk.”

I think it’s funny that none of us really listen to folk music,” Parton put in.

We get folked out,” allowed Klein.

Indeed, the Tanyas say they may have mistakenly ridden the O Brother wave a few years back, when Blue Horse came out. “There’s harmony on the album. There’s a banjo!” Parton laughed. But they trace their international buzz, in part, to the keen ear and enthusiasm of the British music press, in particular BBC Radio 2’s “Whispering Bob” Harris.

I have to say that in England, the listening audience, people who go out and seek out music that’s not mainstream, is so much huger,” said Ford. “And your access to this type of music through the magazines and the press is so much more available. We lucked out, too — they have these iconic DJs over there, and they play your album, and it’s just like everybody listens to the BBC there, so if they decide that they like you for some reason, it’s like you automatically have this big audience. So we lucked out with that there, and then it just sort of spread to Australia.”

England is just so openminded about music and is just so hungry for something fresh,” said Parton. “But they also have this really rich sense of tradition that they’re really tied to. So maybe the fact that we’re slightly traditional yet somewhat fresh worked in our favor.”

Whatever the reason, Blue Horse was enthusiastically received. Recorded in a shack outside Vancouver, with the band and Futcher producing, it featured cover art by Klein and songs by Parton and Ford along with Holland and other writers. Traditional material was represented, as well, including “Lakes of Pontchartrain” and “The Coo Coo Bird.” The opening track, a Parton/Holland co-write called “The Littlest Birds,” brought the group a nomination for Best Song in the BBC2 Folk Awards (it lost to Linda Thompson’s “No Telling”). The Tanyas also received a nomination for Best Group but were bested by Altan. Still, for three North Americans who’d just made their first album, the nominations packed a wallop. Tours in Australia and the U.K. also helped bolster their international notice.

Some would say that to fully appreciate the Be Good Tanyas, you’ve got to see them live. There’s a wholeheartedness to their presentation, mixed with an appealing vulnerability. And there’s the music — a mix of guitar, banjo, and mandolin with sweet voices blending through.

Emmylou Harris has said, “I think I was pulled in by the sound of their voices and harmonies. They have this quality that is very minimalist, but there’s something very fearless about what they’re doing.”

For Chinatown, the Tanyas took over production by themselves, although Klein noted, “Saying ‘production’ is kind of funny. We feel that our whole sound is really unproduced.” The recordings attempt to capture “the sounds of us live.”

We went into a process for [Chinatown] where we multitracked a bunch of songs,” she continued. “Then we went away for a month.” Listening to the tracks, they decided to try a more direct approach, using overdubs only minimally. “In the end, we realized the spontaneity and feeling and groove is better” than sterling perfection, Klein said.

Released in March 2003, Chinatown is named for the area in which all three women live. “It’s the oldest neighborhood in Vancouver,” said Klein of the Strathcona neighborhood.

Vancouver is kind of a vacuum city, for whatever reason, and the area that we live in is one of the more soulful areas,” said Ford. “We can feel the history and soul. The more I live there, the more little stories I hear about what it was like 50 years ago.

A lot of the interesting neighborhoods kinda got destroyed in the 80s because the real estate went up like 10 times…I think a lot of money flowing through a city in a short amount of time can do that. I think it’s starting to recover, though. It’s been in an economic slump for a while, and I think that that’s always good for the soul of a city; it brings out the artists.”

Economic ups and downs have also made for some problems. Said Klein: “Unfortunately, a lot of the nicest part of Vancouver has turned into this really high concentration of addicts. Some of the most beautiful old buildings in Vancouver, old hotels and old cabarets and stuff, they’ve basically become these heroin hotels. That neighborhood — I don’t see how it’s going to recover.”

Parton disagreed, seeing a hope for a rebound: “It’s right on the edge of the highest property values. They keep trying to edge in. But Vancouver has the worst heroin problem in North America, so the junkies are everywhere. And concentrated in an area just on the other side of Chinatown from us.”

But Vancouver’s going through an interesting change of politics right now,” Ford said, in reference to new civil governments that offer more humane, “European-style” treatments for addiction. “The last couple of civil governments we’ve had attempted to adopt the American war-on-drugs policy, which didn’t work. So they’ve done a lot of research. There were a lot of cities at one point, like Amsterdam and Frankfurt, that were as bad as Vancouver, if not worse. And they’ve managed to deal with the problem and create a more humane way of dealing with it.”

The Tanyas address these issues in “Junkie Song,” which was written by Ford. “It’s a funny thing to live in a place where you’re surrounded by misery,” she said. “And you don’t see it every day. I think when you move to a city you learn to put on these kind of blinders, because just to be confronted with the level of human misery every day and try to live your life and be happy is a paradox, but then at a certain point that blinder may break down. That’s what happened right before I wrote that song. Suddenly [I realized] these people live just outside my house, and this is how they live, and this is how we choose to see them or not see them, but they’re still there, and they’re part of our psyche, and they’re part of our life. It’s shocking and sad that people walk by — or just that we haven’t responded. And I think that collectively, as a city, Vancouver’s come to a point where it’s just gotten so that they can’t not see it anymore.”

That, and that they’re in for the Olympic bid for 2010,” Klein added.

Ford persisted in her idealism. “But an overwhelming number of people came out and voted, and the main issue was a government that was gonna deal with the problem. And there was like an 80 per cent voter turnout. And a lot of people were saying we’ve ignored this problem long enough and we want to respond in a way that was humane.”

How does a songwriter like Ford address social issues in her work? Very carefully, says Ford: “I think that that’s a really hard thing to do and that it [can come off] as preachy…I wish I could write great political songs, but it seems like very few people in the world can actually do that. You have to be subtle, and you can’t hit people over the head.”

And it’s gotta be groovy, too,” Klein observed. “It can’t just be like you’re reading the newspaper.”

Ford went on: “I think a song comes across if you’re really responding as an individual to a feeling that you actually feel. But as soon as it becomes an abstraction, an ethical idea, that’s a really hard thing to convey and still create any emotion or interest for it.”

You’ve gotta put a bit of a human element to it,” said Parton. “It’s gonna be more effective if somebody’s telling a story that really hits home about an actual person, what actually happened to them. For me, anyway. It’s gotta, like, move my heart for me to want to actually listen to the message behind it.”

The Be Good Tanyas intend to go on moving hearts wherever they pass. Though touring is being curtailed by Ford’s pregnancy — the baby is due in May — it seems unlikely that they’ll stop drawing on the wellspring of creativity that feeds them. “We have a really strong bond with each other,” Klein said. “You go through so much with each other, it’s like siblings, or a marriage…Sometimes it’s really hard, but we can still laugh. I’m always surprised at the resilience of our friendships.” While touring, beset by issues of privacy, transportation, laundry, and bad food, “we still get up in the morning and do yoga together.” And even though they plan to stay apart when they’re not on the road, self-imposed separation never works: “I’ll call up Frazey and say, ‘I’ve just made a Greek salad!’”