Artists of the Year
Having failed to assassinate Henry Clay Frick with two gunshots and a makeshift dagger, anarchist Alexander Berkman took his fight to the tycoon's legacy. "Henry Clay Frick was a man of the passing hour," Berkman's companion Emma Goldman said, having learned of Frick's natural death on the eve of their deportation. "Neither in life nor in death would he have been remembered long. It was Alexander Berkman who made him known, and Frick will live only in connection with Berkman's name. His entire fortune could pay not for such glory."
Hey, some people don't just forgive and forget. Berkman's curse aside, the steel magnate had an awful lot of fortune. He devoted a goodly chunk of it to a peerless collection of masterpieces by the likes of Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer. In 1912, Frick built a gilded Fifth Avenue mansion to house it all. The museum, which bears Frick's name, remains one of New York's great cultural attractions, drawing a quarter of a million visitors each year. Surely, almost no one gazing at the placid sailing scenes of Aelbert Cuyp is thinking of the barges Frick hired on the Ohio River to deliver 300 Pinkertons to the city of Pittsburgh. There, in 1892, the rifle-bearing strikebreakers confronted a crowd of protesting Homestead steel workers, killing 10 of them. Some 8,000 state militia would be needed to still the violence.
Not a pretty picture, this.
One of Minnesota's modern-day moguls found his name on the front pages this year, and not to his pleasure. Dr. William McGuire left his megalithic HMO, UnitedHealth, after the outbreak of a stock-option scandal. The man who Forbes identified in 2005 as the third best-paid executive in America stands accused of having fudged a few dates to augment the value of his holdings.
McGuire's pillorying by the press is no match for Berkman's point-blank fusillade—although it's worth noting that Frick returned to his desk within a week and McGuire seems unlikely ever to return. (On a real tangent: A former UnitedHealth janitor once claimed to City Pages that McGuire kept a Kevlar-lined bathroom at corporate headquarters, lest the spirit of Berkman seize an enraged employee. Crazy enough to be true?) Though the executive has forfeited some $200 million in stock options, more than a $1 billion more remains in dispute. And McGuire could still face criminal charges. With an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion, he should be able to scrape up a decent attorney.
In time, of course, these front-page stories will sink into the musty recesses of the business section. And then they'll disappear altogether. But McGuire, like Frick, won't be forgotten. There's a new 385-seat theater with his name on it in Walker Art Center and a $2 million commissioning fund for groundbreaking new performance pieces. Those whose dramatic tastes run toward the traditional can see the classics on the McGuire Proscenium Stage in the new Guthrie Theater. Groundlings and other plebes will be able to linger outside the riverfront building in the newly developed McGuire Park.
As the epigram goes, life is short; art is long. What it doesn't say: Endowed real estate is forever.
No one will win immortality by being named an artist of the year in these pages. Most of these creative souls, for all their bohemian ways, would probably take the stock options over one of our valentines. But it beats obscurity, or so we tell ourselves—especially for the local musician, writer, artist, dancer, and filmmaker who kick off our annual issue.
BY CHRIS ROBERTS
I'm 46 and in the midst of a garden variety midlife, um....readjustment. Call it a meet-and-greet with mortality. So far, I'm not terribly proud of how I'm handling it. I tend to cover my ears and look the other way when the C-word is mentioned. A certain epidemiologist's gleefully dire warnings about tomorrow's pandemic make me nauseous with fear. I don't listen to KQ anymore. You never know when "Dust in the Wind" might take its turn in the rotation.
On one level, it's ridiculous, given all I've been blessed with. And yet, at this stage, I can feel the full existential weight of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is" bearing down. It might be some kind of genetic inheritance. For a brief period in the late '60s, that song was a radio staple. We'd be driving back from my grandparents' at night and I couldn't tell whether it was my mom, Mary Lee, or Ms. Lee chatting nonchalantly about the emptiness of life. The chorus would start, and the two would croon in unison. I was startled to hear Mary Lee and Peggy Lee deliver a song of deep resignation with such conviction.
They're topics to explore in a journal—the personal melodrama lingering in a '70s prog-rock band; and the instant when it seemed like my mother and Peggy Lee were interchangeable—but, alas, I don't keep one. Yet in Agnes Smuda's writing circle, I might have the makings of an audio autobiography.
Smuda is a 64-year-old singer, composer, and writer from Maplewood. She and her artistic cohorts, 78-year-old Joan Calof and Nancy Cox, who's 68, released a CD this year that demonstrates how our lives are stitched together by songs.
On Songstories, the three recount some of their formative experiences and sing the songs that have become attached to them. It's part scrapbook and part testimonial, presented like a homespun cabaret. Calof tells of growing up Jewish in Winnipeg in the '30s and '40s. Cox pays a loving tribute to her musician father. Smuda poetically recollects how the WWI-era anthem "The Long Long Trail" became embedded in her family history.
By taking it off the page and into the studio, Smuda and her fellow performers have created a new, more economical model for the memoir. These three women have somehow managed to create an intimate portrait of their lives on a CD that contains only nine tracks. They've made the idea of passing on your life story more manageable, even for those of us still struggling to come to terms with the fact—or is it just a vicious rumor?—that our lives will end some day.
Chris Roberts is an arts reporter for Minnesota Public Radio News and host of The Local Show on the Current.
BY ROD SMITH
Even as a part-time teacher who is well-versed in the ways that fatuous notions sometimes hold sway in academic criticism, I was a bit shocked that David Treuer had to write Native American Fiction: A User's Manual. But he did. The author, scholar, and U of M professor's thesis is simple: that Native American fiction should be read and appreciated as literature—not, as many tenured types have suggested, as a type of cultural artifact for which "authenticity" is the primary measure of merit. Though he convinced me early in the intro, I read on, largely for the pleasure of seeing him demolish the false metric.
But this City Pages package celebrates artists, not scholars, and it's The Translation of Dr. Apelles that proves Treuer's mettle. His third novel—published, like NAF, by Graywolf in September—is an intoxicating confection, grounded in Treuer's extensive knowledge of Native lore and customs. Just as central to its appeal, though, is a narrative complexity that recalls the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabakov. In prose slicker than Brilliantine and more lush than the Amazon Basin, the author shuttles between two stories. The first involves the titular Ph.D., an underemployed, middle-aged linguist of Native American descent who falls in love (first, with love, then with a hot, bibliophilic co-worker 18 years his junior) for the first time while translating a manuscript that only he can read. The second recounts the adventures of the manuscript's subject: two extraordinarily gifted Indian kids who have a knack for getting out of jams that become more gloriously harrowing as the narrative progresses—and less likely. While he's great at complexity, characterization, and charm, nobody tells a better American tall tale than David Treuer. And he's full of 'em.
Rod Smith is a Minneapolis writer and DJ and an instructor in media and criticism.
BY STEVEN LANG
"Dessert" may be the last label you'd give to the rough-hewn carpentry of St. Paul artist Chris Larson (a termite might feel differently). Yet at the opening of his current Minneapolis Institute of Arts solo show, "Crush Collision," exhibition coordinator Stewart Turnquist called Larson's lumber constructions just that. Perhaps Turnquist was referring to Larson's sweet countenance, because in truth this artist is best known for cooking up a formidable main course. With his penchant for cultural and physical collisions, Larson has brought forth such imagery as a wooden Dukes of Hazzard car careening into Ted Kaczynski's hate shack, and a cardboard-clad house buoyed for months on a Wisconsin lake.
"Crush Collision" includes the weather-beaten house itself as well as a 10-minute film featuring Minnesota musicians Michael Bland, Grant Hart, and gospel group the Spiritual Knights, along with performance artist Britta Hallin. The film (originally shot on 16mm, shown on DVD) is a miracle of concision: How many performance art films beg to be longer? In it, we see Larson's machine creaking and oozing at the hands of Hart and Hallin. The end product is a large, white ring of wet clay. On display in a nearby gallery, the now dry, hardened ring suggests a sort of visceral, primeval recording—one that could possibly be remounted in the machine that created it and played back like a giant long-playing record.
Showing across town at Northeast's Creative Electric Studios is "Shotgun Shack," another full-scale Larson installation. "Shotgun Shack" is partly the aftermath of an opening-night performance with Hallin and Hart, partly a photo and video exhibit. The performance—the stuff of future Minneapolis lore—is available from the gallery on DVD.
With both shows running through the first week in January (and "Shotgun Shack" heading to Milan, Italy) Larson has been busy of late. But he has already enjoyed concurrent shows on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Curiously, Larson's drawing and photo show in Berlin sold out completely, while its New York counterpart lagged behind (until European collectors bought out that show, too).
Some viewers of Larson's work describe references to torture, slavery, class, and race. Others see only raw materials, physical effort, and ambiguity.
As Larson puts it, "That's enough for me."
Steven Lang is a freelance writer and artist living in Minneapolis.
BY QUINTON SKINNER
Bradley Greenwald sported a lot of strange looks in 2006, including (but perhaps not limited to): a padded Grinch outfit, a sleek Satanic number, a batch of rags, and a demure lady's dress with stockings. Between performances and rehearsals, he surely spent more nights working than not. Happily enough, his toil was distinguished in quality as well as quantity, with performances that were kaleidoscopic in their variety.
February found Greenwald portraying Don Quixote in Nautilus Music-Theatre's Man of La Mancha, lending a booming voice and daft presence to a stripped-down production. The next month he took the stage in Jeune Lune's stylish opera Mefistofele, his hair dyed shield-your-eyes blond, swaggering in the title role with demonic magnetism.
While Greenwald has long established his credibility as a classical and early music vocalist, his appearance at the Jungle in I Am My Own Wife beginning in June was nothing less than a breakout acting performance. Here Greenwald took on the elderly Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a survivor of both the Nazi and East German regimes, and a lifelong transvestite. He also tackled more than 30 other characters in the one-man show, carrying the story with a mix of delicacy and power.
In the fall, Greenwald reprised a role in Minnesota Dance Theatre's Carmina Burana, but it was December that put a bow on his gifts to Twin Cities audiences. Currently appearing as the Grinch in Children's Theatre Company's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Greenwald slithers and snarls hilariously. And his operatic vocals fill up the big room nicely: I should know, having caught the show at the last minute and sat in the back row of the main floor, where none of Greenwald's gestures were lost.
Bradley Greenwald's better half must go to a lot of movies alone, but that's not our problem. He might be due for a break, but let's hope he doesn't take one any time soon.
Quinton Skinner is theater critic at City Pages and the author of 14 Degrees Below Zero.
BY CAROLINE PALMER
This year dancer Eddie Oroyan has found himself in a few hair-raising situations, including dangling by a rope from the rafters of the State Theater in the Metropolitan Ballet's Dracula: A Ballet of Passion, Life and Death. Fortunately, the 27-year-old, who just as fearlessly works as a substitute teacher by day, has the ability to jump "like a flea," according to the New York Times. This particular gift for Tigger-style bounding has helped him spring in and out of many unexpected positions.
Since arriving in the Twin Cities in 2002, Oroyan has caught the attention of the dance community for his often playful, Labrador-like approach to movement. He's not a big guy: Oroyan has the efficient build of a gymnast, muscular enough to pull off the hard work but also unfailingly agile. What really amazes is his seemingly superhuman ability to engage his muscles into acrobatic jumps that transfer him from one place to another before your brain even registers his change in location. Oroyan's performance with Carl Flink's Black Label Movement this August provided ample opportunity to showcase his athleticism, as did his wonderfully twisted turn as Renfield in Dracula. Here, Flink's choreography offered the spirited dancer a juicy opportunity to descend into full-on madness.
At the same time, Oroyan can button down his natural springiness and magnetic presence to deliver serious and tender moments. This is the mood that guided him throughout Shapiro & Smith Dance's celebration of heartland dreams, Anytown: Stories of America.
Oroyan has been fortunate to work with savvy choreographers who know how to harness his unique energy without turning him into a glorified acrobat. Which is to say that this is a dancer who is just as comfortable in flight as on terra firma. He may jump like a flea but he also knows how to soar.
Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis-based attorney and frequent contributor to City Pages.
BY ROB NELSON
"Banking and farming don't mix" becomes a gentle refrain in Ali Selim's Sweet Land, a film about independent farmers that was financed entirely through private investment and tended like a precious crop before the harvest. Banking and filmmaking mix incestuously all the time (as do banking and farming these days), but not here. The fortysomething writer-director knew what he had in his heartfelt adaptation of Will Weaver's short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," and he held it firm for almost 15 years before committing a single frame to old-fashioned celluloid. Even when the film was finished, after 24 days of shooting around southern Minnesota, and it had begun to garner well-deserved acclaim at festivals around the world, Selim continued to clutch his hard work as tightly as his characters Olaf and Inge hold onto their land and each other in 1920. As good fortune comes to those in Sweet Land who wait (for the honeymoon not least), the many lessons of Selim's simply profound film include these: Be patient. Don't value convenience over community. Keep going. Breathe.
Therefore it might sound inappropriate to observe that Sweet Land—earnest, playful, exceedingly tender, rich in detail and emotion—has earned more than half a million dollars in fewer than 10 weeks of release in cities around the country. But the box-office gross is the sweet epilogue of a story that is in every way about the benefits of defying convention in the name of love. To indie dreamers in Minnesota and well beyond, Sweet Land has borne fruit, and that fruit gives hope. And we need it.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
BY KEVIN MURPHY
For years I've endured hoo-hah about "craft-brewing" and how it would do for beer what California had done for wine. In part the hoo-hah has come true: A decent beer now costs more than it ought to; there are enough of them out there in sufficient varieties to make your head hurt before the first sip; and a whole new era of snobbery's begun. I've belched my way through any number of stanky concoctions of various malt backbones and specific gravities, rarely to find anything consistently drinkable.
Then hops entered my life, with bitterness so pure it removed my own. Hops in the form of Surly Brewing's Furious Ale, cooked up in Brooklyn Center. Brewing prodigy Omar Ansari has in one step vaulted above the august legion of local small brewers by making an ale worthy of a wine glass and capable of altering the senses far beyond any national macro-brewed urinal filler.
I'll forgo the beer-science babble and beseech you to taste it yourself. Smell it first; stick your nose in the glass like a wine slut. Throw down a cool swallow. The soft palate puckers as the hop fumes wheedle your sinuses with a nearly overwhelming variety of fragrances and flavors. I won't describe them here; it'd be like ruining the plot.
But is it art? What's on the page, the stage, or the screen; in the frame or form; in the body, rhythm, or melody is at its best a sense of its creator's heart, channeled through the craft of his chosen medium and presented for us to encounter with our senses as we will, ideally enriching us for the effort. In the case of Furious Ale, what's in the glass is every drop the work of an artist.
Kevin Murphy is a writer and television producer living in Burnsville.
BY T.D. MISCHKE
Waiting most afternoons for a good time to visit the aged Moriaritys who lived on the corner. One day finding Jim asleep in his wingback chair. I couldn't wake him. Fetching Mrs. Moriarity.
Hearing her wail,
"Jim. You promised me that I could die first."
Learning what it is to bring sadness home.
—from Carol Connolly's "Poem for September 9, 2006"
I live in a haunted town. Haunted by dead politicians, dead traditions, dead buildings, dead writers. If you want to bring a town like this to life, you call in the poets. They outdo the finest faith healer.
St. Paul should have had a poet laureate in every decade of its existence. The poets were all there, waiting to be called. In saloons, late afternoons, speaking just a little softer and a little straighter than the rabble. But no one bothered to choose one, to hold one up. Not until this year.
I haven't spotted Carol Connolly in any St. Paul tavern, but I know my town when I see it, and I see it in her poetry. Where does St Paul's first poet laureate hold court if not in our watering holes?
How about at the mayor's 2006 budget address. The political arena, after all, is one of the seven great arenas in this city of "seven green hills," as Connolly refers to it in her poem delivered at that address—the hills where the "new music of 120 languages now hums." The seven great arenas: the political, educational, religious, business, residential, athletic. And that arena of dark wood and brass, where drinkers and poets still reside late afternoons. I find them all in Connolly's poetry, along with that bittersweet humility that most St. Paulites share, sitting in the shadow of our big sister to the west:
I am a full-time fraud,
passing as a poet.
It's filthy work. But
someone has to do it.
line my walls,
crowds my room
with maggoty mounds
of mediocre metaphors
in my hallway
take all the best lines,
and I have a headache.
I woke up with it. But
everyone wakes up
T.D. Mischke is the host of The Mischke Broadcast, weekdays on KSTP-AM 1500.
P. O. S.
BY PETER S. SCHOLTES
The night before I rolled into New Orleans in late February, P.O.S. played a show in front of a small crowd at the Howlin' Wolf. Mardi Gras was underway by then, despite the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (the first clue I spotted that the rebuilding was not going well: a still-smashed-to-shit McDonald's sign). But the parades weren't spilling over into a concert by an emergent indie-rapper from Minnesota, and my friend who was there said the place felt empty. Walking out onstage, P.O.S. announced he would do the show from the floor, and soon everyone gathered around him as he flowed a few feet from their faces.
"The club went from feeling empty to feeling like the whole world was all around us," says my friend. "It was a good thing for me, and New Orleans."
There are plenty of punk samples on the second album from P.O.S., Audition (Doomtree/Rhymesayers), but the punkest thing about him is the way he engages his audience directly, with urgency and an insistence that he and they are a part of something. The MC's extended Doomtree crew has the ebullience of the 2006 Saturday Night Live, another cast emboldened by radicalized times.
The erotic noir video for P.O.S.'s duet with Slug, "Bleeding Hearts Club (MPLS Chapter)," is a local breakthrough all around, directed by Minneapolis photographer Bo Hakala, edited by rapper Träma, and starring any number of people you would see at the Dinkytowner or the Triple Rock. The music is a moody bastardization of drum 'n' bass and "Hand Clapping Song" by New Orleans greats the Meters—produced by Lazerbeak, a.k.a. Aaron Mader from the Plastic Constellations. "I've been your ride the last few years/I've seen you through when no one's there," P.O.S. croons to his private club gone national. Thanks, man.
Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.
BY LAURA SINAGRA
From the first moments of The Wire's first season, it was clear that this cop show-slash-love letter to Baltimore's mean streets was no Law and Order. Largely devoid of hooky episode arcs and emotional shorthand, it banked on structural bravura, a deft twinning of police and drug-economy hierarchies, timely tangles with issues of surveillance, and a giddy fluency in the arcane jargon of its two very different bureaucracies. But even after Season Two's brilliant dissection of post-industrial union corruption, and Season Three's blood-soaked tragedy of organizational implosion, creative kingpin David Simon had trouble getting re-upped for a fourth on HBO. Thankfully, the Baltimore reporter behind TV's Homicide and The Corner, working closely with former Baltimore police detective and public school teacher Ed Burns, convinced the brass to go two more rounds.
This fall, Season Four's look at Baltimore's schools and the nuances of caretaking and "paternalism" put a devastating twist on the Stand By Me conceit, tracing the miseducation of four kids: one living in gangland privilege secured by his jailed street-soldier dad; one whose safe foster home gives him courage to hustle; and two on the margins—one with a drug-addicted mom and the other with no family at all. Their journey from prankish innocence to hard-knock, shell-shocked experience is woven through the matriculation of a new teacher, the success and squashing of an alternative education program, and the city's mayoral election, with all its racial wrangling, quid pro quo, and promises of reform.
The emotional punch, and there is one, comes from the ways in which characters chafe against definition by station, their desperate efforts to reach across and redraw the lines. Some even seem to exist in a magical realm: the laconic young drug lord who holds meetings in a wooded ravine; free agent thief Omar, who somehow survives to uphold his quasi-noble killer's code; and the show's most fantastical stroke yet, a Rosencranz and Guildenstern duo of assassins who deserve their own horror flick. Such flirtations between sociology and the surreal only bode well for the season to come.
Laura Sinagra is a New York-based writer.
BY NATE PATRIN
There isn't much precedent for Ghostface. Most MCs don't peak in their mid-30s, and fewer still can claim the kind of artistic persona he has: a fusion of comic-book iconography, martial-arts mythology, Nixon-age R&B, and the last two decades of crack-damaged project life. He's breached the ghetto hustler/geek-culture backpacker divide more deeply than Kanye did; anyone who can get underground heroes MF DOOM and J Dilla production credits on a Def Jam release and then take that record to #4 on the Billboard album charts must have something going for him.
And that something going is the skill to hook you in eight bars. As writer, director, layout artist, and forensics examiner of his own four-minute epics, Ghost is one of those microphone auteurs who demands you hang on every carefully chosen turn of phrase. He doesn't just toss out a bunch of metaphors and punch lines and call it a day; his verses are breathless, rattled-off strings of breakneck narrative. When he spins a story—the coke-stash holdup in "Shakey Dog," the Hollywood backstabbing in "Alex (Stolen Script)," the psychotropic pilgrimage to Atlantis in "Underwater"—he delivers it in this "oh-shit-didja-just-see-that?" wail. Traditional beat-riding takes a back seat to sheer sensation; listeners who try to parse his flow wind up feeling like passengers in a speeding getaway car.
Amid lyrical information overload, Ghostface still manages to emphasize small, sometimes-ancillary details that sell his scenarios to the listener. Including a punished child's sobs in "Whip You with a Strap," breaking down the coke-cooking process on "Kilo," providing play-by-play for a doomed crap game during "Outta Town Shit"—it's like Ghostface has spent the last decade collecting vivid memories for future reference. Can't wait to find out what he'll sound like when he's 50.
Nate Patrin is listings editor at City Pages.
BY LINDSEY THOMAS
Bill Buford has had a bad influence on me. Since leaving my post at City Pages and moving to New York, I've been receiving emails from concerned friends and parents about whether I've found a full-time job yet. And the answer is generally, "Well, no. But I did make some amazing pork chops with balsamic vinegar and sweet peppers today." Call it a shift in priorities, one that I think Buford would understand.
A few years ago, he gave up his job as The New Yorker's fiction editor to work for free in one of the city's top restaurants. What started as a profile of celeb-chef Mario Batali for the magazine turned into Heat, which details the writer's transformation from amateur kitchen-tinkerer to practically professional chef. While his gluttonous mentor provides plenty of juicy material, the real story is the food itself. Driven by curiosity and obsession, Buford devotes whole chapters to the history, preparation, and cultural significance of polenta, and finding out when exactly the egg was introduced as an ingredient in pasta dough.
To counter the jealousy that amateur foodies are sure to feel over the multiple trips to Italy and the free-of-charge training with culinary masters, he's also candid about his screw-ups, like reaching into a pot of hot, spitting oil while browning short ribs or spending hours cubing carrots only to find out he's been doing it wrong and they all have to be thrown out.
Buford's story is inspiring to anyone who's ever considered a career change, not to mention maddening to those of us who can't afford to spend a couple of years without a salary. (Life with a book deal is hardly real life.) Still, you have to respect a guy who can create his own opportunities and now, butcher his own hogs.
Lindsey Thomas is a freelance writer and the former music editor of City Pages.
BY ROBERT CHRISTGAU
It was a hell of a year for old New York bands. The Dolls' stab at immortality sank even deeper than Dylan's, Sonic Youth stayed focused, and Yo La Tengo eclecticked around. Yet all three were matched by one act, which (if you count its principal spin-off) put three albums in my top 20. The 250 Klezmatics fans at Manhattan's Henry Street Settlement December 4 noticed this outpouring. You probably didn't.
Two decades after its revival began, klezmer's ethnicisms still aren't for everybody. As one Jewish-music moonlighter I know jokes: "How do you define optimism? A clarinet player with a beeper." But the boom in another Eastern European outsider music opened the door for Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. His mostly Jewish Klezmer Brass Allstars elicited, as his notes noted, "true Ambivalent and Universal laughter which does not deny Complexity but affirms it" with the Gypsy brass record of the year, Carnival Conspiracy.
Fronting the Allstars, London is the compulsive collaborator-as-anarchist boss. At Henry Street, his imp of the perverse shared the spotlight with violinist Lisa Gutkin's nonstop MCing and singer Susan McKeown's sculpted cameos. Yet all three took a backseat to two dominating presences. One was seen: Lorin Sklamberg, whose true tenor would be recognized as one of the great American voices if he didn't sing in Yiddish. The other was unseen: Woody Guthrie, whose big book of lyrics-without-music provided the source material for the Klezmatics' Grammy-nominated Wonder Wheel and their giddy Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Both are klezmer. Both are in English.
On the Mermaid Avenue albums, Billy Bragg & Wilco took Woody folk-rock. But as the Hanukkah record reminds us, four of the Okie's children were half Jewish, and given the Klezmatics' melodic resources, their rendering of Guthrie is equally apt and more magical. Plus, Sklamberg could out-sing Billy Bragg with a head cold. To hear Sklamberg sing Guthrie's vision of streets "laid in finest of plastics" is to know why socialism is one of the great religions. And to hear him promise kiddies Hanukkah dances and Hanukkah gelt is to realize that not all love songs are erotic.
Robert Christgau is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
BY SAM OSTERHOUT
I've had this recurring dream since I was about 15: Gary Louris and I are best pals. We're sitting at our favorite bar, in our favorite booth, under dim, bluish lighting. Gary looks awesome.
I say, "Is your favorite poet William Stafford?"
Gary says, "Totally," and we high five.
Later, my friends are like, "Were you and Gary Louris high-fiving?" And I'm like, "Yeah. Now we're going bowling. Later, chumps."
And then we go bowling.
That's the dream. More recent versions have grown to include the two of us discussing the work of William Carlos Williams and exchanging cowboy shirts. The dreams increase in frequency when Gary Louris puts out an album that excites me, and virtually every album he's on excites me, even if I don't love it.
In July, Golden Smog released Another Fine Day, which, as its title suggests, is an upbeat work full of pop music that is guaranteed to add 20 pins to your bowling game. But it's not Another Fine Day that excites as much as it is the work of Gary Louris, in general, that excites me.
His language, like the language of William Carlos Williams and William Stafford, is spare and plain. It's nothing fancy. And its simplicity allows for greater truths and broader emotions to exist, but go untold. In his poem "North of Liberal," William Stafford writes, "at a bluff on the north bank/forty years ago someone/did not come to meet you." Compare this with lyrics from the song "You Look So Young," on the Jayhawks' 2003 release, Rainy Day Music: "You look so young/Have you ever been afraid?" Both passages break my heart, but neither tells me why. This is magic that all great art should perform.
So I've decided to issue Gary Louris the first ever Sam Osterhout Lifetime Achievement Award. I'll be at Bryant-Lake Bowl every Wednesday night if you'd like to collect your prize, Gary. And if you'd like to bowl a few lanes, no big whoop. I'll be the guy in the cowboy shirt high-fiving everyone.
Sam Osterhout is a Minneapolis writer and co-founder of the Lit 6 Project and The Electric Arc Radio Show.
BY SARAH ASKARI
How often do you have sex? How much money do you make? What do you mean, None of your business? Don't tell me the only thing that matters is whether you and your husband are happy. Maybe it's true, you Smug Marrieds. But I need more information in order to judge you.
Nicole Holofcener is the writer and director of this year's film Friends with Money, a meandering look at four women in varying stages of domestic and personal discontent. Holofcener, the writer/director behind 2001's Lovely and Amazing, lets women obsess over the question Am I Normal? for as long as necessary, which is to say that the film closes after an hour and a half without a conclusive answer.
Yet I could have watched these characters for 48 more hours. Catherine Keener's Christine bickers constantly with her mate/screenwriting partner. One minute I was convinced that Christine was an unreasonably needy whiner with a victim complex. The next minute I found myself scoffing at her husband, "Whatever, iceman. You're a dick—that's the problem."
Frances McDormand's Jane enjoys professional success and a solid marriage, but starts rebelling against middle age with an alienating, frumpy hostility. Meanwhile her friends whisper that her kind, adoring husband is gay. "You gossipy bitches! You're just jealous," I would think, while conceding, "Or right. And please, god, Jane—wash your hair."
Onscreen (as in real life?) Jennifer Aniston is everyone's pathetic low-water mark, a pot-smoking maid who is depressed and alone. While I originally wanted to reach up and wring Olivia's neck for her criminal lack of ambition, I rose to her defense when the air of superiority around her became suffocating. "Don't confuse being luckier than Olivia with being better than Olivia," I raged at Joan Cusack's air-headed heiress Franny.
Holofcener understands that whether a woman is alone in front of a mirror or at a dinner party surrounded by friends, it's always judgment day.
Sarah Askari is music editor at City Pages.
BY ALI SELIM
There is a myth about Haley Bonar: A couple of years ago, she felt too much of the wrong career coming at her too quickly, so she walked offstage and went away to find herself, to be true to her music and be known by a smaller, more manageable audience.
I am a member of the unmanageable audience. I had this idea that she should sing the theme song for my film Sweet Land (which she ultimately did!), but I didn't know how to find her. One day I was walking out of the post office on University and she was walking in. Excitedly, I blocked her way and asked, "Are you Haley Bonar?" She looked at me for a long time—worried, I imagine, that this crazed fan wouldn't let her pass—and then she finally said, "Maybe."
Haley Bonar is about to be known by everyone. This year she released her third album, Lure the Fox. Though, at 21, Haley is barely out of her teens, this album's maturity is proof that she can hold her own among the crowded and accomplished world of singer-songwriters. Her voice is an invitation to amazing places. Whether she whispers or rocks, you follow her. And yet, with her quiet insouciance, she is a somewhat reluctant, withdrawn host; she'll travel with or without you because it's her journey and she's going now. Her lyrics are often so beautifully poetic that it takes me a while to catch up. "The sun is wearing out your eyes/They look across the land/But they can't tell sea from sand/Now who will hold your hand?/And who will rub your back?/Your chains run deep/Your chains run deep."
Haley's music is a gateway to understanding the world around us and the world within us. Her songs reveal stories and philosophies that are very personal to her (or else she couldn't have written them), but somehow they speak to us. Only a true and complete artist has that ability.
John Cassavetes said that if you create it specifically, it will be understood and appreciated universally. Listen closely to the singer's universality. She is definitely Haley Bonar, no maybe about it.
Ali Selim is the writer-director of Sweet Land.
BY DIABLO CODY
Brandon Flowers brought back the ascot. Actually, he didn't just bring back the ascot, he brought back the sentiments we associate with ascots. Grandiosity. Verve. Panache. Foppish, sloe-eyed braggadocio of the type possessed by Billy Zane's character in Titanic. (Just swap ominous strings for synth licks.)
Fittingly, Flowers almost brought his own ship down this year when he boasted to Giant magazine that his likable show band, the Killers, had just recorded "one of the best albums of the past 20 years." This remark had the unwanted effect of rendering said album the industry equivalent of the cocky sophomore kid everyone wants to pummel senseless. Hipsters who had begrudgingly embraced the Killers' first record were now feeling far less charitable.
Even if Sam's Town had lived up to Flowers's grandstanding, one suspects that it still would have been pulped by eager bullies. The album was unabashedly ambitious: Like the blighted Vegas landscape that inspired Flowers, Sam's Town—gorgeous as it was—sounded gaudy, overcrowded, and a little windy. Rolling Stone delivered the expected critical spanking (how dare a new band imitate the Boss?) and fans of the Killers' candy-coated debut felt neglected. Even Flowers's new, "serious" facial hair fell under intense scrutiny.
But really, what's so bad about swagger? What's wrong with a goofy mustache, or bragging to the press, or too many saxophones? Humility is more overrated than Radiohead. In the '60s, geniuses like Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and John Lennon believed that they were crafting masterpieces and had no qualms about matter-of-factly informing us thereof. Who needs false modesty now? Sam's Town kicks ass because it tries too hard, blows its own horn, and struts like the rent is due. Just like Brandon Flowers.
Diablo Cody is a screenwriter, the author of Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, and TV critic at City Pages.
BY DYLAN HICKS
Magazine and newspaper copy gets ever shorter, in deference to Americans' alleged paucity of time and attention. Yet, paradoxically, in today's lit biz one's commercial prospects dim as one's word counts decrease, putting short-story writers just ahead of poets among the widely unread. Fortunately, several masters of the form, unswayed by publishers' pleas and generally supported by teaching gigs and grants, see the short story not as apprentice work but as a life's pursuit. Deborah Eisenberg is at or near the top of that pack.
Twilight of the Superheroes, released in early '06, collects six of Eisenberg's recent stories: the flawed title tale, set in New York around 9/11, and five near-perfect companions. These stories tend not to lead toward climaxes or epiphanies—Eisenberg on epiphanies: "There's something about the idea of it that I simply reject"—but that's not to say that they lack suspense. The pleasure isn't in seeing her heroes proceed from point A to Point B, but in seeing Eisenberg color in their outlines.
In "Like It or Not," Kate, a divorced American schoolteacher, visits an old friend, an Italian aristocrat she met decades ago at a college "to which Kate had been sent for its patrician reputation and its august location, and to which Giovanna had been exiled for its puritanical reputation and backwater location." In Italy, a titled art-and-antique dealer escorts Kate to the coast—it's something of a blind date—where he proceeds to seduce or be seduced by a young woman not much older than Kate's students. Eisenberg doesn't create cheap drama by having Kate discover the seduction—she doesn't need to; loneliness permeates the story and infects all. And when the author takes on the bachelor aesthete's point of view, she's just as knowing.
Eisenberg is a chameleon and a surveyor. In Twilight she brings to life the poor and the superrich, urban and rural, male and female, gay and straight, young and old. The collection ends up being a rather thoroughgoing portrait of contemporary existence, and though the stories cover big social themes—death and domestic abuse, schizophrenia and 9/11—the drama almost always has the subtlety of a slice of life, only you're given the whole pie.
Dylan Hicks is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
BY DENNIS LIM
As you may have heard by now, David Lynch loves digital video. He loves it with the boundless zeal of a new convert and the reckless wonder of a kid in a toy store. At 61, in self-exile from an industry that increasingly seems the focus of his obsessions, he also sees it as a lifeline, a chance for independence, a hedge against film's increasingly obvious mortality. Inland Empire, his monstrous, wondrous three-hour trawl through the broken psyche of a Hollywood star heroically embodied by Laura Dern, marks the beginning of an unshakable commitment to DV, a medium the director is wont to describe, somewhat controversially, as "beautiful."
The dingy video of Inland Empire is a world—and many millions of dollars—away from, say, the screensaver night skies of Miami Vice. What's "beautiful" here is the relative absence of barriers between the director's unconscious and what he puts on screen: No waiting around for money or even for the big picture to emerge. Just as the structure of Mulholland Drive—with its decisive fault line and eureka epiphanies—reflects its evolution from open-ended TV pilot to stand-alone feature, Inland Empire is also shaped by the conditions of its creation. An experience of total immersion and continual slippage, it feels like the product of a sustained, unedited brainstorm. For all its Lynchisms, there has never quite been a film—not even a Lynch film—like Inland Empire. A testament to the singular vision and the marketing genius of its maker, this self-distributed art-house hit shatters the complacency of its audience and ventures to the far shores of dissonance and abstraction. What it finds there is exactly what Lynch promised: beauty.
Dennis Lim is the editor of The Village Voice Film Guide.
Let's not mince words: Just as America was blessed to have the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among us during the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, King's legacy is blessed to have Taylor Branch as the biographer of that era. At Canaan's Edge, the third and final book in Branch's chronicle of America in the King years, came out earlier this year. Like the other two, it is a panorama of heroism and villainy rendered with all the detail of a RAW-format photo (and at 771 pages—plus 220 pages of notes and citations, and 11 pages of bibliography—there's no shortage of data). The sources for this project are legion: hundreds of interviews—many gleaned from once-skeptical principals won over by his reportage in the previous volumes—and thousands of once-classified government documents, in addition to an omnivorous review of all the other archival resources. Quietly but steadily, Branch thrills the curiosity of his readers with the sheer depth of his discovery.
At Canaan's Edge opens amid the rural violence of February 28, 1965, which initiated the pivotal march from Selma, Alabama, and it ends with King's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Along the way, the narrative ricochets from community schoolhouse meetings in Lowndes County, Alabama, to treacherous briefings by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to President Lyndon Johnson. While we see these figures acting individually, Branch also suggests the tidal pull exerted by the Black Power and antiwar movements.
For all the book's historical precision and painstaking rigor, Branch provides us with insights that resonate far beyond the days and months he's re-created here. One can't help but be struck, for instance, by the parallels between the debate that raged over the fiasco of Vietnam and the current talking points regarding the war in Iraq; or by the ongoing friction in the black community between those who advocate confrontation and those who advise reconciliation.
As I near the end of At Canaan's Edge, I feel like a junkie who knows his main connection has split town. Taylor Branch is reportedly working on a history of the Clinton presidency. Wish him godspeed.
Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.
BY MELISSA MAERZ
This should have been the year America laughed itself smart. But watching lefty audiences trade knowing I'm not a redneck! titters over Borat and The Colbert Report, I fear the opposite happened: Maybe we laughed ourselves smug. Absurdism—the art world's tool for cutting through an irrational, amoral worldview with a real sense of wonder about how it came to be—turned into an excuse not to question your own status quo. That is, until Banksy sent a blow-up doll to Disneyland.
Now, I don't know what the British graffiti artist was saying when he placed a life-sized replica of a hooded Guantánamo prisoner on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. Or when he spray-painted a naked man outside the Brook Young People's Sexual Health Clinic in Bristol, England. Or when he decorated the Palestinian side of Israel's West Bank Barrier with portraits of ghostlike children playing across the wall. But works like the strange Krylon drawings he's done in London's poorest neighborhoods (a hitchhiker whose sign reads "Anywhere," a rat who's painted the slogan "I'm out of bed and dressed, what more do you want?") are proof that, even in the most dire times, comedy can be a magical, whimsical, bold alternative to easy, anti-everything ennui.
That idea's more powerful than you might think. In his manifesto, Banksy quotes Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, one of the first British officers to help liberate a concentration camp in 1945. Gonin, who'd ordered basic necessities for the freed prisoners, received only a box of lipstick. Though initially outraged, he later sees the genius of the act. "Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips..." he writes. "I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm."
Maybe Banksy's no lipstick. But I like to think of his art as a mustache drawn on the world—a reminder that people can still be shocked and outraged into feeling human again.
Melissa Maerz is an associate editor at Spin.
BY LISA CARVER
What is it like to be the child of William S. Burroughs? Terrifying, dizzying, wide-open, hopeless. Hashish happens. Visitors molest you. Meanwhile, dad sits stock-still on the roof in the gathering gloom of twilight, receiving transmissions.
But that was when Billy was 14. Let's back up to when he was four, when his father shot his mother and sent Billy to live with his grandparents. They did a good job, but then they went senile and died. Dad flew in from London and, Billy writes, "cornered me in the kitchen one night, [saying]: 'For one thing, this damn house is haunted. It's obvious as a cop.'
"He was right," Billy decides, "but I came right out and asked him what in God's name he expected me to do, wave a wand? I wasn't having any more fun than he, and besides, I was starting to get symptoms whenever I went too long without a shot. We both apologized wordlessly and shook hands."
It was generous of him to take his father's wordlessness as an apology. Billy Burroughs was nothing if not generous. And wry. And unfinished.
Teen Billy moved from jail to rehab to radical reform school. Twenties Billy wrote two beatniky, autobiographical novels—Speed and Kentucky Ham—drank, methamphetamined, womanized, wandered, picked trash, and found treasure. And died. Liver failure caused a heart attack and coma. He was brought back to life and became one of the first dozen people to survive a liver transplant.
Billy fell in love with his liver, which he viewed as his wife. It had come from a lovely woman named Virginia, who died at the same age as Billy's mother. To keep his body from rejecting the organ, Billy went on massive doses of the steroid Prednisone, which led to a paranoid/delusional disorder. His wounds never quite healed; he leaked pus.
He found God. God rejected him. Homeless, he applied to be a monk, but the diocese turned him down for emotional instability and lack of priestly training. "Did St. Francis have a high psychological image? Was he college educated?" Billy shot back in a letter he was too sick to mail. He died in 1981.
It was left to David Ohle to organize Billy's box of unfinished manuscripts, letters, and notes, adding interviews with the (mostly famous) people who'd known Billy Burroughs. The result is a fascinating and heartbreaking book, Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr., which came out in October of this year.
Billy Burroughs was a good apple who had the misfortune of falling from an inescapably shitty tree. He never had a year of his own when he was alive; I am pleased, as such, for this opportunity to name 2006 as his.
Lisa Carver lives in Dover, New Hampshire. Her latest book is called Drugs Are Nice.
BY WILL HERMES
Last February, sort of by accident, I caught Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme's handsome Neil Young concert documentary. In it, Young mentions that his father had just died, following a long bout with dementia. How odd, I thought: My father had died just a few days earlier under the same circumstances.
Young also stared down his own death in 2005 when he was treated for a brain aneurysm. So there was a special weight to the movie's second half, with its classics about time's passage. "I Am a Child" and "Old Man," great if over-familiar songs, glowed anew. And by the opening line of "Heart of Gold"—"I wanna live"—tears were running down my cheeks.
But old musicians singing about mortality is one thing; making art like mortality is your last concern is another. In April, Young streamed his new Living with War free online. It featured a 100-person chorus singing "Let's Impeach the President," the year's most cathartic political song by my measure, which Young also strummed, very amusingly, on The Colbert Report. And it was one of the few new songs that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played in August in Bethel, New York, at a new amphitheater built on the site of the original Woodstock festival. Young didn't once mention the gig's historic resonance (the group effectively made their debut at the '69 festival). He just sang, and played his electric guitar with a ferocity that seemed to astonish even his bandmates. It testified to a spirit that—like the spiritual catalog my dad left me—will outlive him. And it argued that, even in the midst of an oldies show, nostalgia is for suckers.
Will Hermes is a freelance writer and co-editor of SPIN: 20 Years of Alternative Music.
BY CECILE CLOUTIER
As much as I like Michael Yonkers's music, to me he's an even better role model for how to handling adversity with grace. Upon hearing the rough mix of his disc with the Blind Shake, Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons, I present:
A SIMPLE, THREE-STEP PLAN FOR KICKING ASS AND TAKING NAMES EVEN THOUGH YOU DONE GOT OLD AND CAN'T DO THE THINGS YOU USED TO DO BECAUSE YOU DONE GOT OLD
1. Make hay while the sun shines
We all know there's an end to everything. In Yonkers's case, ongoing battles with arachnoidosis (a rare form of multiple sclerosis) give every record that comes out an urgency and poignancy beyond what's burned on the Mylar.
So, selfishly, I'm glad that he's got four new releases coming out in the next three or four months. There's a reissue of 1969's folky Grimwood on Destijl/Sub Pop; home-brewed electronic music on Mark Trehus's Nero Neptune label; and the long-delayed 2003 Michael Yonkers Band album (Yonkers with Seattle friends Dean Whitmore and Jed Maheu), on Go Johnny Go this spring. And, yeah, there's Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons (also due out on Go Johnny Go this spring), a fistful of short, sharp songs led by Yonkers's fraught vocals and screaming, searing guitar. It's rougher and rawer, more searching and restless than records by people a third of his age. Yonkers turns 60 next year.
2. Ask lots of questions
Even the song titles are quizzical on Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons: "Can It Be," "Why Don't," "What's a Comin,'" and, natch, "I Ask You Now." You don't know if he's interrogating fake friends, unhelpful bureaucrats, a higher power, or that old rat bastard arachnoidosis who dogs his every move. "I wonder if you're even here. I wonder if you even care," he wails. But what's crystal clear is his need to understand, to figure out the why, to keep breaking through the seemingly impenetrable.
3. Lose what you don't need
As he cut down his guitar to a slice 30-odd years ago, the same thing is happening in his songs. Yonkers mostly keeps the tracks under three minutes, strips the melodies down to rudimentary frames for his glorious guitar noise, and manages to distill a whole lot of modern woes into one simple couplet: Hey, hey, what's the problem? Carbohydrates, hydrocarbons.
Cecile Cloutier is a Twin Cities music critic and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
BY GARRISON KEILLOR
Bob Altman had a lot of fun making a movie at the age of 80. He was in the throes of cancer, had a weak heart, was barely mobile, had to lie down and rest in the middle of the day, but he had a big time watching the video monitors and envisioning what he wanted.
Sitting in a canvas chair at Seventh and St. Peter at 4:00 a.m. on a Sunday in July, directing a scene from A Prairie Home Companion in which Kevin Kline gets up from a stool in Mickey's Diner and goes out the door and across a rain-soaked street, pushing to beat the sunrise, Mr. Altman loved looking at that walk and lighting it, angling it, all the while offering running commentary to his audience of minions and extras. He was a happy man. He managed to put mortality aside and pay attention to the work. He paid exquisite attention. He was a famous Hollywood independent—the daddy of the big indie film movement that has taken off thanks to digital technology. He worked from his own experience and insight and refused to be seduced into being somebody else. And if Hollywood turned him down, he simply went elsewhere.
He loved the work. That's what I take from Bob: Do your work and don't waste a minute fighting battles you're going to lose or worrying about what happens two years from now. You are so lucky to be able to create things—music, dance, film, writing, comedy—so be lucky and enjoy the work.
Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of A Prairie Home Companion, which first aired in 1974. He is also the author of 16 books.
Workers Who Wrote Graffiti in an Old Plant in Northeast Minneapolis
BY MIKE GUNTHER
They were here then and we're here now.
They ran the freight elevators, worked the chute, and stacked the bags of seed, all in a basement, no day or night, always cold. The last crew left 20 years ago, but in the stairwells, on the walls and concrete pillars, they left their names, addresses, bets, jokes.
One wall in a stairwell had these names:
G Zlutensky March 26 1922
W G Stowers 2539 Polk Street NE 4-11-28
A W Krueger 3532 37th Ave So
Arnie Johnson 606 34th ave North
Harry Hyrare 6+55 4th Ave NE
Dale Halgren 8-25-81
Albert Kruger Bought a new Plymouth 11-16-35
Is the shits
Deeper in the basement where the toughest jobs were:
Glen Schoen 7/10/69 to 10/24/75
left for "California"
Mike Reid 9-21-71 to 7-29-77
Left for USAF
$5.00 1st one to smoke owes the other
Tacks is going to loose his ass in Vegas
Orv Walters Passed up 8 hrs overtime $160 lost
8 hours again
Dec 13 1981
Chute job 7:30 am
Bill says Walters won't keep his new car
A year and a half
Help! Lay me off!
Nixon Resigns 8-7-74
Back on Chute 11/9/78
Nov 13 1972
April 4 1973
Kyle + Dick
Strike in 1984
There were people working down there from 1917 to 1986 through two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the rise and fall of unions—through so many dark times, but with hope and perseverance.
Now, in what often feels like a very uncertain time, it reminds me that maybe this is just our uncertain time, and that the good old days are only good because they're gone.
Mike Gunther leads the local band Mike Gunther and His Restless Souls.
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