Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hector Cruz Sandoval: KordaVision, Part 1

In the beginning of this spirited 2005 documentary, director Hector Cruz Sandoval* provides background on how he became drawn to his subject. He grew up in an urban Catholic Mexican American milieu in the 1960s, becoming more aware of things as he went along. "The Vietnam War was a big issue, taking a toll on our families." In 1969, an uncle was drafted and served in the war. By the time of his return, group conciousness had been raised further and, with many relatives, they became involved in the Chicano civil rights movement; Our Lady of Guadalupe, César Chávez, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Che Guevara were among the movement's icons.

On August 29, 1970, the Chicano Moratorium anti-war rally in East L.A. drew a violent police crackdown. Hector Cruz Sandoval: "I realized that day that to voice one's opinions and to ask questions leads to the truth."

In 1998, he was posted to Cuba to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II. Cut to the Pope's words during that trip: "The world must get closer to Cuba."  The U.S. travel ban on Cuba seemed as ridiculous then as it does now.

Cut back to a deadly explosion on the docked freighter La Coubre in Havana Harbor on March 4, 1960, an act of sabotage (and still, by some accounts, a mystery, like the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898) perpetrated by CIA operatives. La Coubre was unloading munitions from Belgium.

At the memorial service the next day, Cuban leaders, supporters and VIP visitors Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir paid homage to those killed in the explosion and aftermath. Alberto Korda, using his Leica M2 with 90 mm lens, photographed the event. He took two shots of Che Guevara, a portrait and a landscape angle. One of these shots, "a photo that was pure chance," as Korda reflected, became the iconic shot of Che the world has known particularly since 1967, after Che's death: Guerrillero Heroico.

*Note: I'm working from the 2008 DVD; in it, the main credits go with Héctor Cruz Sandoval and KORDA VISION; other variations drop the Spanish accent mark in Héctor, modify the title slightly to KordaVision and add informal subtitles like "The Man Who Shot Che Guevara" and "A Cuban Revelation." The film itself is bilingual with Spanish subtitles during English sections and English subtitles for Spanish sections, a very effective approach.

Excellent documentary. Part 2 tomorrow.

Today's Rune: Signals.  

Friday, November 19, 2010

When The Beats Go Marching In

The Beats are alive and well thanks to a slew of new releases. One example: Yony Leyser's William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010). I love Burroughs' work and persona -- though a little of his writing at one time can go a long way, I could listen to him speak for a great while longer. Like Gore Vidal's, his delivery is often damned near perfect. It's always seemed to me that Burroughs will be perceived as a primary 20th century literary figure, ahead of his time. I Compare him to the now well-recieved visual artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who were belittled or virtually ignored in their own time. It's worth noting that artists like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop have always advocated for Burroughs.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (2010) looks to be good, too. Like most librarians and writers and artists, I've always held free speech as a cornerstone and seen obscenity trials and book bannings/burnings a pernicious joke, the end of freedom. 

Along the same lines as Allen Ginsberg, consider the cases of James Joyce, Henry Miller, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and suppressed voices like Costa-Gavras (try finding even in 2010 a copy of his films État de Siège / State of Siege or Hannah K., in the USA).

Today's Rune: Wholeness.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jaimy Gordon Wins Big

So happy Jaimy Gordon won the National Book Award for fiction! Yeah! The book: Lord of Misrule (McPherson, 2010). Yayss!

Jaimy Gordon is a thoughtful person, very engaging and hard-working. I remember meeting her in Ludington, Michigan, many moons ago, and some of the things she talked about: the layered joys of reading Marcel Proust, comparative literature in general and a tale she was writing about survivors of the Holocaust who lived in a magic cave in Eastern Europe who emerged many years after WWII (sort of like one the those legendary Japanese soldiers). As then, she continues to teach at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Congratulations, Jaimy Gordon!  She graciously signed a couple of her books that I still have in my very condensed personal library of under 500 volumes.

Another big winner: Patti Smith for Just Kids (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2010) -- in the nonfiction category. Another yayss! Smith pretty much does it all.

And these aren't just kids: Jaimy Gordon is 66, Patti Smith, nearing 64. I love it!  And they both have Michigan connections.

For an earlier take on Patti Smith (Dream of Life):

Today's Rune: Journey.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Darnell Martin: Cadillac Records

Finally got to see Cadillac Records, Darnell Martin's spirited 2008 biopic revolving around the world of Leonard Chess, Chess Records and associated recording artists. The excellent ensemble cast includes Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters), Gabrielle Union (Geneva Wade), Cedric the Entertainer (Willie Dixon), Mos Def (Chuck Berry), Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess), Beyoncé (Etta James), Columbus Short (Little Walter), Eamonn Walker (Howlin' Wolf), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Revetta Chess), Albert Jones (Hubert Sumlin) and Suzette Azariah Gunn (Minnie Ripperton).

If you liked Walk the Line (2005) or The Doors (1991), you'd probably like this, too.

Recognizing that the story is streamlined, telescoped and takes some poetic license here and there, I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience from beginning to end. It's fun and interesting with strong performances, some given in bursts (Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Beyoncé), others woven through the longer arc of the film.

Throughout, Cadillac Records provides a very comprehensible cultural-historical context for following what transpires throughout the film, which is a lot.

Today's Rune: Partnership.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lightnin' Hopkins: Cryin' for Bread

Two idiosyncratic blues greats, Sam Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, both use the "cryin' for bread" trope.  Transcribing their lyrics is tricky, because they glide in and out of present, past and future, using irregular grammar and muttering some words so that at certain points I have no idea (at least yet) what they're singing or saying. Here's my first shot with Hopkins' "Cryin' for Bread" and second with Hooker's "No Shoes."  The Hopkins track was recorded in Houston, Texas, on April 11/12, 1968, with Lawrence Evans on bass, Ben Turner on drums and Cedric Hayward on piano.  It's a deeply wrought lyrical improvisation, involving two men, a woman, hungry kids, money and a matter of land ownership.

"Cryin' for Bread"  by Sam Lightnin' Hopkins

Sure is sad
I come home and
My baby was cryin' for bread
But when she told me
You oughta heard what poor Lightning said
I said it don't look like my baby
She ought to be cryin' for bread

She had takin' all my money
Whoah she throwed it all away
Whoah she had taken all poor Ligntnin's money
Do you know that girl had throwed it all away
That's the reason I come home and caught her cryin'
She was cryin' on one Saturday

But a women will do them things
You gotta watch her close
When you gone somebody will come by
And lead her to the door
... and my children done got tired
And they can't eat no more

He tell her never unless you go to bed with me
I let your whole family
Go down the drain just like old Monk and me
But that's something that people don't understand
What a woman will do to a man

Then he went in the house
And made him feel real good
Then she give him the money
Then holler at the kids that

I didn't do what I should
She done mistreated her whole family

All in the world and me is gone
Ah there ain't no tellin' how soon
Your Daddy will come home
But you take a woman, she's weak
She can't hardly help herself

I can pass the house with a little money
When you see it . . .
She said the children just come

And look at the money
And that man's hand
If I could overtake him and get it
We would own this land

But the children said to Mama, Papa
He doin' the best that he can
When Papa come in, I believe
He'll make us all . . .
That be my Daddy
Yes and them books said that he will . . .
I believe that he would be your husband
And will take care of his baby child

Yes but when Papa come in
This is what he see
He see the baby boy standing at the door
He would sure look at me
He said Daddy, there's been a man by here
Led Mama to the door

Papa rapped her across the head, and she said
I never do that no more
No, she wouldn't
'Cause everything in the world she got was gone
Well, that would be all right, you know
Them childrens can't live there by themselves

Compare with John Lee Hooker's "No Shoes" (1960). (Note: this plays briefly in the background during Ridley Scott's American Gangster [2007] in a scene where Frank Lucas gathers his family in Greensboro, North Carolina, establishing in mood how far he's come since childhood).  "No Shoes" makes no mention of a woman, but like "Cryin' for Bread" involves hungry children, a man, money and improvised living arrangements.

"No Shoes" by John Lee Hooker

No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
My children cry for mercy
They ain’t got no place to call their own

Hard times, hard times
Hard times seem like a jealous thing
Hard times, hard times
Hard times seem like a jealous thing
If somebody don’t help me
And I just can’t be around free much long[er]

No shoes on my feet
And no food go on my table, oh no
It’s too sad
The children crying for bread. 

 Today's Rune: Journey.  Happy Birthday to Hubert Sumlin!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Texas Tea: Four Comedies About Money and Manners

Considering four Anglo-American comedies trading heavily in the complexities of socio-economic relations and expectations, I ask: why do they work? What are they saying? Above, a scene from the American series Sanford and Son (1972-1977), adapted from the British series Steptoe and Son (1962-1964, 1970-1974).  Sanford and Son is set in Watts, L.A., USA; Steptoe and Son, in London, England.

Set in London: Are You Being Served? (1972-1985).  Class conciousness is clear as a bell in this one, and the butt of many jokes.

Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995), set in the West Midlands, England.

The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971).

How people play the cards they're dealt is central to each series. Perceptions, ideological differences, vanities, foibles and conflicts are all in there. Advanced aliens could probably reconstruct a lot about human civilization and modern societies simply by decoding how these comedies work. Indeed, aliens may be decoding these broadcasts deep in space even as you read this! 

In all instances, characters are beloved by their creators, not belittled, which is interesting in itself, especially since so many characters spend so much time belittling each other over perceived personal insults rooted in socio-economic, gender and cultural differences. This two-faceted approach moves sensitive and often masked matters out into the open like all good comedy tends to do.

Today's Rune: Journey.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Signifying Mary Johnson: Western Union Blues

A couple of early tunes from Mary Johnson transcribed by yours truly. A new pair of classic style headphones is making this process a hell of a lot easier.

"Room Rent Blues" was recorded in Chicago on May 7, 1929, and "Western Union Blues," two days later. Same backing players for both: Ike Rodgers on trombone, Henry Brown on piano.

These ditties serve as heralds for The Great Depression. Also applicable during The Great Recession, although Western Union discontinued telegram deliveries in the USA in 2006.

"Room Rent Blues" by Mary Johnson

My room rent is due this morning
I did not have a dime
My room rent is due this morning
I did not have a dime
The landlord told me
He'd give me till half past nine.

I said kind Papa
Will you please give me a chance

Please give me a chance
I'll get myself some money
And pay my room rent in advance.

I'm just a poor girl
I have no place to go
I'm just a poor girl
Have no place to go
I haven't got no good man
And I'm zippin' from door to door.

I'm going to the radio station
Put my voice on the air
I'm going to the radio station
Puttin' my voice on the air
And maybe by broadcastin'
I can save my room rent somewhere.

"Western Union Blues" by Mary Johnson 

I woke up this morning
As the clock was striking three
I woke up this morning
As the clock was striking three
I heard the doorbell ringing
And it sure did worry me.

I got up in a slumber
And put on my shoes and clothes
I got up in a slumber
And put on my shoes and clothes

I thought about my Daddy
And opened my front door.

I received a message
And I began to weep
I received  a message
And I began to weep
It was a telegram from my Daddy
Dying of a heart disease.

I know I loved my Daddy
And him I hated to lose
I know I loved my Daddy
And him I hated to lose
That's why you hear me singing
I've got these Western Union blues.

Western Union Man
I hate to see you pass my door
Western Union Man
I hate to see you pass my door
Make me think about my Daddy
That I'll never see no more.

Two comments: I use the term "zippin'" as in zippin' around, also nipping in and out of places.  Glad to see it already in use 81 years ago. Secondly, did her Daddy actually die, or did he merely find a new Special Lady Friend?

Today's Rune: Harvest.