Artists Of The Year
by Will Hermes
Artists are like lovers: They serve us life's passions on a platter--sometimes silver, sometimes not. This year, the essays collected in The Art of Eating by the late M.F.K. Fisher have been constant companions and a reliable source of nourishment and titillation. The volume collects five books written between 1937 and 1949: the wittily historical Serve It Forth, the bivalve rhapsody Consider the Oyster, the life-during-wartime How To Cook a Wolf, the playful The Alphabet of Gourmets, and the preciously autobiographical The Gastronomical Me. Writing about food and friendship, food and lust, food and love, and food and virtually every brand of human froth and folly, she posits a life best enjoyed in serious bites. Gastronomy is just the lens: As the critic Clifton Fadiman puts it in his introduction, "Her subject is hunger."
Mary Frances Fisher moved about a lot in her day and, like most great writers, cultivated something of a loner's aspect. So she understood how deeply food can create a sense of home when you're displaced--a state which, as late-20th-century Americans, seems to be part of our birthright. As I spent the latter part of this year adapting to (yet) another town and (yet) another life, Fisher's tales and recipes helped me survive without the Modern Cafe's exquisite pot roast and those lunatic double-dose cinnamon buns from Isle's Bun & Coffee on Hennepin and 28th (not to mention those good folks I shared them with).
In a prose style so meticulously elegant that Hemingway might have modified his strategies had he spent enough time in its company, Fisher's writing chides me out of the house and away from the sad old spaghetti pot, toward cramped taquerias serving plantain burritos, macrobiotic dinner parties hosted by Silicon Valley Rastas, and the strange community stirring among those sharing the pleasures of the table. It's a reason to say grace.
Will Hermes is a Bay Area writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Simon Peter Groebner
"When the spaceships come down from the sky/Who will stand by your side?" sang John Kimbrough of Walt Mink in 1997; for me, it was the most romantic lyric of the year. I mean, who indeed will be there when the sky finally falls? I don't know, myself, but I did hear of 39 en-Raptured, Nike-sportin' Californians who decided to force an answer. I know, you're thinking: alien-artists? Well, yeah. The Pleiadians, Sirians, or whatever the hell they are chose '97 to force a Roswell-50th-anniversary-gala stranglehold upon the American popcult. They had supporting roles in smash summer epics like Men In Black and Contact and landed the cover of Time. Extraterrestrial bands like Supernova and Man, or Astro-man and alien separatists Mog Stunt Team joined the battle on the punk-rock front. And did you see the year's record-breaking crop circles? Tetrahedrons! Double helixes! Encore! Encore!
Alien censorship scourged through politics this year: A Phoenix City Council member faced a recall election because she dared investigate a UFO laser light show witnessed by thousands in March. (The coup failed.) And, like all great artists, ETs pissed the hell out of fundamentalists. Revelation-spouting televangelist Jack Van Impe released the $19.95 video Extraterrestrials: Global Invasion Approaching, the best anti-culture treatise since 1989's The Dangers of Rock Music. Radio host Bob Larson wrote the definitive UFOs and the Alien Agenda, which railed against "the End Times agenda of these evil aliens!" with a totally straight face. In July, Pat Robertson implied that all UFO believers should be stoned to death. Sometimes you find validation in ironic places.
As for me, I couldn't even tell you if I believe. But in the year when the big-eyed, gray alien head became the smiley-face icon of the '90s, and subsequently hit merchandising pay dirt at Urban Outfitters, it was impossible to deny that something of a foreboding magnitude is happening to us. Aliens are no longer a '50s metaphor for the Reds--they're a religion. And in the midst of this great crisis of faith, it beats me how "Is Mulder Dead?" failed to become the "Who Shot J.R.?" for the millennium.
Simon Peter Groebner is an associate editor at Fate magazine and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
THE SPICE GIRLS
by Debbie Stoller
Yeah, yeah, I know: Applying the term "artist" to those five little British tarts is stretching the word about as far as the average Spice Girl's tube top. And sure, by this time next year each of them will be known only as Old Spice. Still, say what you want about their "music" (myself, I prefer to Just Say No), but those platform-tottering trollops were possibly the most influential pop-culture phenomenon of the year.
The Spice Girls danced onto the scene parading a new brand of feminism--one they called Girl Power. And it does seem, on the surface, that the Spice Girls have as much to do with Gloria Steinem as Vanilla Ice does to Malcolm X (although Sexy Spice does sport those fetching, Gloria-like blond streaks in the front). But ask any little girl worth her sparkly blue nail polish what she thinks "girl power" is and she'll give you an answer that'll knock your old-school Birkenstocks right off. "It means girls are as good as boys, and sometimes better" and "It means that no matter what happens, you'll always have your girlfriends to turn to" are a couple of the answers I got from some randomly selected 10- and 11-year-olds, which led me to concede that those hateful little harpies have somehow managed to accomplish what an entire year of Take Your Daughter To Work Days never could have: getting little girls to embrace feminism like it was a well-worn Sleep-N-Snore Ernie.
Ophelias who need no reviving, the Spices have brought riot grrrls' pro-girl message--albeit without the grrrowl--to the mainstream. But best of all, they've made corporate America finally realize that little girls aren't sugar and spice and everything nice. In the rush to capitalize on the market's hunger for spice, everything from perfume to jeans to cars is now being sold by appealing to women's desire to become selfish, loud, and aggressive power-sluts. Like a Trojan horse, the Spices have managed to break through the barricades of the anti-feminist backlash. Now it's up to the rest of us to jump out and do some real damage.
Debbie Stoller, a.k.a. Celina Hex, is editor of BUST.
by Ira Kaplan
Though pleased to be asked to contribute to this survey, I must confess to a certain hesitancy. It seems reasonably obvious that, no matter who I choose as hero, and whatever I say ostensibly about that person, I'll really be writing about myself, and at first I wasn't altogether comfortable about being so open. Then I hit upon a choice that seemed to meet my criteria for privacy: If describing someone else would reveal too much about me, isn't it axiomatic that if I write about myself, I reveal nothing? Sure it is. That said, I nominate for the hero of 1997, me, Ira Kaplan.
Is that a little crass? No, it isn't. Take Norman Mailer--he's good, right? Well, maybe not as good as he used to be, but that's my point. Quite a few years ago, he wrote a book called Advertisements for Myself. See? Of course, I'm not sure I read that one. I did read The Executioner's Song, I think. I definitely saw the movie and loved the scene where Rosanna Arquette visits Gary Gilmore in prison.
I've spent a fair amount of time touring Europe this year, which has found me unusually inundated with Brit pop, a phrase I don't think I knew at this time last year. If there's one thing I've figured out from reading about Damien and Jarvis and Noel and Liam, it's that you can go around tooting your own horn.
Hey, it's not as if I didn't have a hell of a year, and I'm not the only person that thought so. Your mayor--I don't recall his name just now--saw fit to name a day after me in June. Technically, the day was named for Yo La Tengo, so you might suggest I mention Georgia Hubley and James McNew, but I must, humbly--strike "humbly"--disagree.
I seem to have run a little longer than asked, but that's just the kind of behavior you can expect from me in 1998, when I hope to have an even better year. Billy Corgan, your days are numbered. Look out Courtney--here comes me.
Ira Kaplan sings and plays guitar in Yo La Tengo.
by Jelena Petrovic
Several people I know were ready to pack their bags and move to London after DV8's terrific performance of Enter Achilles at the Ted Mann a couple of months ago. A good dance concert has us secretly "testing" the moves on the way home, but a terrific one--and those are getting to be rarer than diamonds these days--is a life-changer.
A working-class pub is the setting for Enter Achilles, an alternately exhilarating and disturbing look at the peculiarities of macho dynamics. The piece's eight superb performers (with karaoke-singing, rope-climbing Liam Steel as an exceptional standout) guzzle Guinness, boogie to "Stayin' Alive" with their pants rolled down, and police all behavior deemed "unmanly." The latter may include wearing anything lighter than blue on the color spectrum, not holding a pint at all times, and having rhythm--which, given that all the performers kick some major butt, is a little hard to convey. During the pivotal rope scene, in which two of the dancers spent a good 10 breath-defying minutes en l'air, the audience burst into sweet, uncensored applause.
But the main thing about DV8 that makes you want to call your travel agent is that it dares. It's a dance company (or a theater company with trained dancers, some would argue) with the balls not only to impress you physically but also to provoke you and at times offend you. This state of affairs owes much to Lloyd Newson, DV8's charismatic founder and choreographer, who doesn't tread lightly on any subject, least of all on the state of contemporary art: "Maybe good art is about disturbing people, not pleasing people," he says. Indeed, what is dance really for in the end? "Is it just for prettiness? Prettiness is OK...but for me, dance can't be wallpaper." Hopefully, they'll provoke us this way again soon.
Jelena Petrovic is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
The cast, crew, money, and minds behind
by Terri Sutton
Sometimes commercialization actually complicates an idea and, therefore, improves it. Because Nothing Sacred is a prime-time TV drama, it must cover sex, violence, issues of the day, and moral confusion. Because this particular show stars Kevin Anderson as an inner-city priest, religion (Catholicism, in this case) takes a bath in sex, violence, etc. This metaphorical baptism doesn't, of course, introduce the Church to any demons it hasn't already met--except, perhaps, candidness and her sister, acceptance (a far shyer duo than confession and forgiveness). Nothing Sacred's marriage of thirtysomething and Gunsmoke results in some mushy and bizarre frontier justice, the sort I would describe, at this hour, as more than a little holy.
Nothing Sacred strikes new sparks off the usual petrified stories. In its episodes, frustrated male priests are taught, by women, to value their sexual vitality as an aspect of the divine. Warriors from dueling doctrines reluctantly bare their vulnerable places, toward a mutual respect. It's a talky show: Any temporary easement of pain or doubt arrives through communal effort, as energy (the sacred, if you must) passes from hand to hand and back again. That sounds treacly, and sometimes it is. But because Nothing Sacred prizes communion, the writers also know when to shut up and, per Iris DeMent, let the mystery be. Between the knowing and the unknowing, I've sat for a while and imagined a thicker definition of self.
Terri Sutton is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Jane Dark
Compared to the work of manic idea-techs like Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry's architectural postmodernism is practically pedestrian; for all his success, his main contribution to semipublic space has been, well, huge fucking hotel lobbies. But stood against the structures that actually get built--far from the dreamy blueprints and plans--his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is a building that goes boom. From the outside, it's an optical dream, with a front door approached downhill. While you arrive, the museum, with its light-gathering titanium skin, ascends through the field of vision like a pomo sun. Inside, it's a series of suspended explosions--a reminder of the tension between the plastic arts and time's arrow. The effect, inside and out, is so phantasmic it's like a theme park for art (too bad the collection, as yet, is mostly Mickey Mouse).
And no wonder: Gehry's next big thing is the Disney Museum, an on-again/off-again love letter/bomb to his Los Angeles homeland. And in his spare time, he makes adorable lamps, etc., signed with his fish motif. The Guggenheim, meanwhile, finally pays off the promise Gehry made when he blew up his own residence ("The Gehry House" in Santa Monica) as a form of home improvement: Call it better living through terrorism. After a few years of music crit, one look at the new Gugg made me want to drop it all and start an architectural 'zine. Gehry makes art that makes you wanna make art too; in his world, the future is something to look forward to.
Jane Dark is a Bay Area writer.
by Jon Dolan
Great year for livin'. And 1997 was full of Artist of the Year options: Tom Frank's essays in The Baffler, Law and Order's Brisco, Amy Goodman's stern daily declaration "This is...Democracy Now," and my pal Joe Golden's advice on the perfidy of the human genitalia. All amazing to say the least. But I need pop music, and there wasn't much to go around. Biggie's money problems, Janet's whispers over Tip's "Joni Mitchell never lies," the new Dylan, and Yo La Tengo's "Green Arrow" all hit like shots of redemption. But they couldn't save the year in which the "great plunderer" Snuff Daddy invaded post-Biggie America like some sort of crypto-Columbus, and my beloved electronica remained a cellar dweller. So I freaked out and fled like a refugee...
To Cuba. There were tons of records there, but my highest Fidel-ity was to two artists: Celia Cruz and Rubén González (left). González is a 77-year-old piano player who debuted this year with a beautiful record called Introducing. His constantly unpredictable, strangely paced, but always elegant and slyly self-aware playing makes me as happy as that of my favorite American jazz pianists--Bud Powell, Monk, Bill Evans.
Celia Cruz has been around forever. To Cubists, she's as important as Aretha. A ferociously expressive singer (and my own Afro-Cuban Corin Tucker), her greatest late-'50s and early-'60s recordings--compiled this year on Rhino's 100% Azucar--speak a salsa I don't wanna imagine trying to resist. Her genius was for firing off syllables with machine-gun accuracy and filling in the holes with soul sauce. I use her "Saoco" as my benchmark for understanding how Cuban singing--hell, soul singing--should make me feel. I'm hearing it right now, and I rarely feel this good.
Jon Dolan is music editor at City Pages.
by Julie Caniglia
Some consider filmmakers the most egotistical of artists, and Atom Egoyan, despite being well-known for his modesty, is no exception. Up until now, this Canadian had written and directed (and, in one case, starred in) a series of masterful, coolly analytical art films in which virtually all the characters, as he's said, were shards of himself. (Hence his company's ironic name, Ego Film Arts.) But he eventually found this approach growing stale: He was, admittedly, running low on Things To Say. So the egoist willingly compromised himself but aimed high nonetheless, adapting the most unadaptable novel from acclaimed author Russell Banks.
Interestingly, one of Egoyan's own idols, Francis Ford Coppola, was reduced to doing a John Grisham novel this year (for reasons that point to fundamental differences between the U.S. and Canadian film industries). And unlike the blandly worthy The Rainmaker, Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, his sixth feature, is an unmistakable masterpiece. It has no momentous breakthroughs, no resolutions--and, despite a lawyer as a protagonist, not a single courtroom scene. The simple narrative, which edges as close to melodrama as this director may ever come, allows for a dazzling, almost prismatic plot structure. And the clear, cold mountain light of British Columbia--a naturalistic version of Egoyan's usual, somewhat clinical aesthetic--accentuates one of his major motifs: the emotional chasms between the most intimate people.
Ultimately, The Sweet Hereafter may not carry the weight of other cultural artifacts from 1997, but in a year when directors went to all sorts of extremes in terms of length, violence, budget, sex, and promotion, Egoyan made a radical move by stepping quietly into an arena that is, for him, something close to normal.
Julie Caniglia is a New York writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
JOHN and PATSY RAMSEY
by Greil Marcus
From the start, their brilliant performance piece ("Death of a Princess") rewrote the rules of the form. The combination of vulgarity (a killing on Christmas night? Come on!) and austerity (the cold, steely, statue-like refusal to submit to police interviews until the rules of that form had been rewritten) would by itself be enough to lift the work far beyond such temporarily diverting but ultimately ordinary affairs as Susan Smith's "White Mom/Black Stranger" or the generic, small-market variations on the classic "Man Kills Family, Self." But what really marked the murder of 6-year-old bottle blonde JonBenet Ramsey as a ground-breaking art statement was its commitment to Time as the fundamental element of an exercise that predictably has been more celebrated for its variations on such more or less conventional tropes as Public Grief and Media Manipulation (as the New York Times put it in a hilarious aperçu, "[the Ramseys] mounted a defense team that sounds like a defense lawyer's Christmas carol: eight lawyers, four publicists, three private investigators, two handwriting analysts and one retired F.B.I. profiler").
It is not simply that the Ramseys have managed to command an audience of (for the once-marginalized and mocked field of performance art) unprecedented size and diversity for a year--and with no end to the piece in sight. If one looks closely at the, as it were, "building blocks" or Lincoln Logs of the work, one can conclude that the piece began, in terms of preproduction, with or even before JonBenet Ramsey's birth: that is, with the decision to fashion a name for the conceivably sex-selected offspring out of the first and middle names of her father. The daring is stunning: making the murder victim into a veritable part-object of the father, instantly throwing suspicion on him as a performer acting out his own suicide through murder. And yet, as with so much else in the work, the twist only tangled the viewer into a greater knot.
It's this--the brazen placing of drop-dead clues in plain sight, and then, through silence more than any other aesthetic strategy, making the clues mute in their turn--slapping the audience in the face and then convincing the audience that no such act ever took place--that seals the work.
Certainly, there have been moments when one or the other of the Ramseys (but never both at the same time) have seemed less than certain in their roles. John Ramsey emerging from the basement of his house holding his dead daughter not cradled in his arms (some clichés cannot be altered if a piece is to hold its shape) but held away from his body like the corpse of a wild animal betrayed a squeamishness real artists learn to put behind themselves (as John Ramsey since has); Patsy Ramsey's declaration, after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that "JonBenet was America's 'people princess'" could only be seen as an unseemly attempt to gain an even bigger audience for a work that was perhaps beginning to lose a certain momentum.
But that is quibbling; again, it is the Ramseys' use of Time that has elevated them above their colleagues, their imitators, and even their extra-genre media representations (the versions of the Ramseys' piece that ran on NYPD Blue and Homicide were prosaic and obvious by comparison). They have insured that they will never be forgotten by means of creating a work that will never end.
Greil Marcus is a Bay Area writer whose most recent book is Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes.
by Brad Zellar
In the 1930s and '40s, Austrian immigrant Arthur Fellig cruised New York City with his Speed Graphic camera and a police-band radio, and the thousands of photos he took of the New York streets left his darkroom bearing the stamp "Weegee the Famous." New York has inspired more than its share of great photographers, but there is perhaps no one who deserves the title of the Big Apple's Atget more than the astonishing Weegee. All the evidence anyone should need of his greatness was available in a major retrospective at the International Center for Photography in New York this year, and in a beautiful and exhaustive new collection of essays and photographs, Weegee's World.
Weegee was equal parts paparazzi and hard-boiled news photographer, but he had the eye of a great writer, and his Naked City (the title of his landmark 1945 collection) was the New York of a million flyover adolescent dreams: a world of bright lights, saloon singers, drunks, car wrecks, circuses, parades, gangsters, dead bodies, and blood as black as motor oil. Naked City includes a photo of one of Weegee's check stubs from Life magazine--$35, it says, for "Two Murders." Yet the man who began his career as a prototypical police-beat photographer for Acme newspapers ("Weegee is a rather portly, cigar-smoking, irregularly shaven man," wrote one of his editors) became in time a chronicler of all the wide and wild diversity of New York, from the Bowery to the Metropolitan Opera and out to Coney Island. For newcomers to the artist, Weegee's World is a book of photo literature to place on the shelf next to the stories of Damon Runyon and Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel.
Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
LIFE IN A BLENDER
by Camden Joy
In this year that found me more lost (and found!) than ever, the senses split the Artist of the Year ballot six ways. Tied for near-perfect in my book are the sound of Raul Mondesi's bat, the touch of Vanessa Chase's glance, the sight of Hale Bopp's tail, the taste of Reese's peanut butter cups, and the smell of Charles Johnson's mitt--while, towering above them all, looms my sixth-sense choice: Life in a Blender!
A group of three (or four or five--or sometimes six!) musicians accompanying the incomparably warm (no--cool!) singer/songwriter Don Ralph (née Rauf), Blender didn't get much out of NYC this year, but they did release a CD (although I doubt it got much out of NYC either!). Ralph himself narrowly escaped being walloped by the bartender at his CD-release party for unplugging the jukebox in order that his band might begin their set. Ah, youth--fleeting and impetuous! Eventually, everybody got home safe--most importantly, me, holding this great thing of theirs called Two Legs Bad (Fang), a recording that made me feel so good I began to toss aloft my CD player several times a day, literally juggling my favorites. That's Life in a Blender!
Camden Joy's The Last Rock Star Book, or Liz Phair: A Rant will be published this spring by Portland's Verse Chorus Press.
by Michael Tortorello
Every year is a good year to fixate on one's mortality. That is, until the clocks start running backward, the cosmos contract, light particles lose a step on their 149 billion-meter dash from sol to Seattle, and the inexorable pageant of birth, school, work, and death takes an infinite intermission and we all come to live forever. Can I get an amen?
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is the latest documentary by Errol Morris (best known for The Thin Blue Line), and it's less an amen than a long night of revelatory visions in the Chapel of Meditation. Consider the film, Morris's fifth, a kind of intricate cinematic bricolage based on themes from Shelley's "Ozymandias." Four men appear throughout the work--a topiary gardener, a researcher of naked subterranean vermin, a robot engineer, and a lion tamer--and they discuss what they do, what it means, and what the future could bring to their particular, peculiar callings--and what that might mean. It's both a fairly talky film and a film of ideas, implicit and central among them being the notion that we're all going to die and that our rat and robot masters won't be chartering philanthropic foundations to advance the treasured tenets of liberal humanism. Hold that amen.
When I reviewed Fast, Cheap & Out of Control this fall, I made note of a fifth character in the film, also toiling toward some illusory mastery of his treacherous medium--that being Errol Morris, whose filming and editing of this 10-year project marshaled a kind of sublimity to the screen. The retreating haunch of a circus elephant. The manic, semidemented glint in a scientist's eye. For three months after, every overedited image on TV appeared as banal and profanely pointless as I knew it to be. Say hallelujah.
Michael Tortorello is arts editor at City Pages.
by Bart Schneider
Don DeLillo's 800-page beauty, Underworld, was clearly the best book I read this year, and perhaps the finest novel I've read in the '90s. As a longtime DeLillo fan, I've come to expect a lot--the exquisite ear for American idioms, the penetrating queries about our culture, the compelling characters who, even in their small and fallible lives, attain a certain majesty from being so credibly rendered. But nothing prepared me for the scale of DeLillo's masterpiece, for how human a book it is. Not since Toni Morrison's Beloved, to my mind, has a novelist so successfully combined formal inventiveness with a full-blooded emotional narrative.
Did Underworld change my life? Well, it certainly became a part of it, and it slowed me down like a great meal does. Twenty pages in, I knew what I had and realized that only a fool would wolf down this novel. DeLillo's ode to the senses, to language, to the old neighborhood, to Cold War America, to the life of art, to garbage, and to our anxious future requires a slow reading, a savoring season. For a radiant month of the summer, I lugged the galley around like a newborn (less than three pounds without a slipcover) that I couldn't bear to put down. Consequently, my reading copy barely survived the adventure, becoming wine- and coffee-stained, bloated by lake water, and smeared with the guts of a walleyed pike.
Bart Schneider is editor of Hungry Mind Review. His novel Blue Bossa will be published in March by Viking Press.
FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI
by Christina Schmitt
Blame it on a misfiring pituitary gland, but I've always been a late bloomer, always falling for artists like Fela Kuti a little too hard and a little too late. By the time I first heard the rerelease of his Buy Africa, Kuti was already gone (he died this past August from AIDS-related heart failure at 58). But regardless of my own timing in the matter, the post-bop that Kuti learned at school while in London--which he later combined with James Brown and West African rhythms to make what he called "Afro-beat"--is simply the sexiest music I've heard this side of Al Green's Belle Album. His anti-establishment lyrics, often sung in pidgin English, make Tricky sound like a poseur.
This isn't to say that my love affair with Kuti was always smooth. Since he was a practicing polygamist, marrying the 27 or so dancers and singers in his group back in '78, I wondered how much affection I could keep for an anarchist who embraced misogyny--and whether I'd be forced again to stand outside the music made for a culture that wasn't my own. So it was with relief when I later discovered that he divorced his wives in '85 because, as he put it, "no man has the right to own a woman's vagina"; and that Kuti's mother was at the forefront of Nigerian feminism. Soon I wished that I could have lived in Kuti's compound (a zone he called the Kalakuta Republic) with his band, the 30- to 40-piece outfit called Africa 70 (and later called Egypt 80). Or at least I would have hoped to live there in the time before the legendary '77 raid--when more than a thousand police officers stormed the pot-smoking and free-living refuge, breaking Kuti's hands and imprisoning him, and throwing his mother out a window to her death. Like I said, one's love affair with this great musician--unlike his music--cannot be smooth.
Christina Schmitt is A List editor at City Pages.
by Britt Robson
Rick Bragg is, in the best sense of the phrase, a momma's boy. The luckiest of us have a father who pushes against us, and a mother behind us who provides the curve of character and compassion that lets us be. Rick Bragg was not lucky. He had an alcoholic father who pushed too hard when he pushed at all, who brutalized and then abandoned Bragg, his two brothers, and, most of all, his mother.
All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg's memoir of growing up in the pine woods of Alabama, tells of a father who killed a man in the Korean War and then drank to forget it, brawling with the things he wanted to love. But most of the book is about the woman who pretended to forget to eat so that her children would have enough, who absorbed the shrapnel of a blasted life so that her sons could be spared. The painstaking, mundane, heroic sacrifice of parenthood is one of the hardest things for any writer to capture. Bragg has done it better than anyone I have ever read. There is an organic, sagacious magic to his writing. His prose has the curve and compassion his mother willed him, clean and plumb as finish carpentry, with a plain grace immune to artifice. A 1996 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his feature writing in the New York Times, he knows how to feed and restrain a real-life melodrama, how pain and poignancy resonate longest from the simple truth.
Others have compared All Over But the Shoutin' to Melville and Faulkner. I only know that my stomach knotted as I read Bragg describe the violent pall that hung over his childhood home, and that I wept with happiness reading of his mother's first escalator, her first restaurant dessert tray, and the shy smile that obscured her toothless gums after he coaxed her to New York to watch him accept his Pulitzer. From the first paragraph of the prologue--in which a redbird attacks its reflection in a mirror until both are smeared with blood--I knew this was a great book. When I finished I knew it was a masterpiece.
Britt Robson is an associate editor at City Pages.
by Robert Christgau
Although I normally teach college because I enjoy intimacy with my youngers, my elders were there waiting when I took over a graduate course in "cultural reporting" this fall. I learned plenty while re-encountering the masters who lured me into my trade--for instance, how much of the journalism I treasure, including early Kael and Macdonald and Sontag's Notes on Camp, was written for journals that paid even worse than this one. But the permanent revelation was A.J. Liebling.
New Yorker stalwart Liebling was not one for noble poverty. But neither did he have much use for the bourgeoisie, except insofar as it underwrote French cooking. Instead, he specialized in what his bourgeois colleagues would call low life, including a pre-rock & roll study of the Brill Building. Plus, oh yes, press criticism, such as "Death on the One Hand," in which he described the cavalcade of phony experts who took over Gotham's dailies during the news blackout that separated Stalin's fatal stroke from his actual demise. But however hilariously he preached (and practiced) just-the-facts orthodoxy, Liebling's best writing was always full of Liebling, all 300 pounds of his unmistakable first person. The touchstone is "Ahab and Nemesis," an account of the 1955 Archie Moore-Rocky Marciano fight in which the African American represents art and reason and his white opponent takes the role of nature. It ends with Liebling fressing a "smoked-salmon sandwich on a soft onion roll" while two cops discuss Kafka's Metamorphosis. How low can you go?
Robert Christgau is a senior editor at the Village Voice.
by Sarah Jacobson
Besides my mom, who is my lifelong hero, my biggest hero of 1997 is Lori Barbero from Babes in Toyland. In the last year, I've gotten to know her pretty well and I'm always totally blown away by her kindness and her honesty, no matter what weird circumstances are swirling around her. Once I was staying at her house when I found out that my film Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore had gotten a really harsh review from a very big, important magazine. I was totally devastated. Lori said to me, "That's nothing. Babes in Toyland has gotten such nasty, horrible reviews that once we made a T-shirt out of one." She was one of the few people who could have brought me back to reality, speaking from real experience.
Being a "creative" woman always has its weird quirks that a very limited number of people can understand and be sympathetic to. In the last year, it's been such a godsend to talk to Lori and to discover that things that I take so personally are sometimes just par for the course. I get so inspired by how Lori's priorities are her love of music and her relationships; she's able to keep ego and pettiness out of her artistic life. And I love how she's a supporter of the arts as much as a participant.
It's easy to underestimate how much she's done for the music scene. I think she deserves a lot of credit for helping to build an underground network of people, which despite the corporate-music explosion still allows a lot of artists to create work and show/play/screen it without the mainstream's permission. Lori is brave, caring, solid, genuine, creative, and strong in a way that is totally unique.
Sarah Jacobson is a Bay Area filmmaker and the writer-producer-director of Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore.
by Sarah Vowell
While the book on every amateur politico's lips this year was all about the "dark side" of entertainingly dead Kennedy Schmennedy and his kinky Camelot fun, I couldn't get Steve Erickson's painfully relevant American Nomad out of my head. This beautiful but bleak '96 campaign diary is almost hilariously no fun at all, requiring the reader to face up to "the meaning of America" circa last year. And who has the energy to talk about that? But the book kept on conversing: with those sad Bob Dole credit-card commercials, with Bob Dylan's lonesome new record, with The X-Files' Fox "I Want To Believe" Mulder when he confessed he no longer knows what he believes.
Erickson, a novelist, set out to cover "a year in the inner life of the country during the campaign" for Rolling Stone (a publication that hasn't had an inner life for years), got fired for doing exactly that, and decided to keep going, gluing together a poetic collage out of all kinds of voices--from Pat Buchanan to Patti Smith, from the memory of what Erickson calls Lincoln's "undaunted heart" to the reality of speeches by the likes of "the irrepressibly berserk Robert Dornan." This book contains the sanest, smartest writing about Bill Clinton I've ever read, which is to say that it is unsentimental and heartbreaking all at once, conceding that "he was bound to let us down" while reminding us that, on the night of the inauguration in '92, "cynicism wasn't smart; it was for cowards." Remember that? That one fine day when, for a few hours, all the nomads had a home?
Sarah Vowell is a Chicago writer whose book Radio On: A Listener's Diary was published by St. Martin's Press.
by James Diers
Tucked somewhere between Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale on the rubbernecking Interscope Records roster, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith is all but doomed. Never mind that the man is a tender, folk-tinted marvel whose superhuman melodicism owes zilch to Dylan (and whose sworn devotees include John Hiatt and Elvis Costello). Unless you're a yodeling chanteuse from Alaska, it seems the pop world still isn't entirely safe for softspoken troubadours.
Still, Sexsmith's Other Songs proved to be the most spellbinding midyear respite from 1997's trashy rock maelstrom, boasting toasty acoustic wonders that only crack co-producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake could have nurtured. The album's thumbnail poetics and understated Anglo-Canuck soul didn't defy this year's global/urban/electroni-ska mélange so much as they quietly mopped up the emotional mess left in its wake. If Nick Drake had lived to see Prozac, he would likely have envied Sexsmith's dour optimism and delicate revelations, sealed with a vibrato sent straight from Heaven, Ontario.
For Sexsmith, real truth lies in the simple things: city buses, cemeteries, circus clowns, honest mistakes, and that cute girl back in the fourth grade. "This warm and reckless kiss/...Nothing good could ever come from this," he figures with an air of ambivalent triumph on "Nothing Good," surely one of the most gorgeous modern-rock radio ditties that no DJ in the country got within a mile of all year long. No worries, though. If third-wave folk hits it big in '98, this gentle giant ought to have it made.
James Diers is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by John Pierson
I know it's completely uncool to shill for a former protégé at year's end. But given how the Twin Cities embraced Kevin Smith's influential debut Clerks three years ago; served as a location for the much-derided follow-up, Mallrats; and then launched a backlash against the widely acclaimed, back-to-his-indie-roots Chasing Amy, I can't resist.
Artist of the year? As far as the new breed of entrepreneurial young filmmakers goes, Smith is the paradigm of the year. The smart, crudely funny, heart-on-its-sleeve Chasing Amy started Kevin's comeback, at age 26, at Sundance in January. His new maturity still left room for hockey fights, Lando Calrissian, and, as always, oral-sex banter. If nothing else, Mallrats provided Amy's exceptional cast.
And before labeling Smith's second feature a studio sellout or one-time aberration, consider the many seeming contradictions throughout Kevin's 1997. He writes Hollywood screenplays intended to revive the Superman and Fletch franchises while preparing to shoot a scabrous (yet spiritual) religious satire called Dogma. He also personally brings his friends' Good Will Hunting script to Miramax. Time practically puts him on the cover yet he communes with his fans on his Web site every day. He directs a $1 million Coca-Cola commercial for the next Super Bowl while financing four first-time features from his View Askew base in Red Bank, New Jersey!
Don't box Kevin Smith in. This was the year that "Silent Bob" talked a blue streak.
John Pierson is the executive producer of Chasing Amy and the author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes.
by Randall Heath
You won't find Richard Grossman's The Book of Lazarus on the New York Times' list of "Notable Books of the Year." Once again demonstrating their penchant for overlooking anything that wasn't published in their own backyard, those folks in New York have missed out on some of the more daring writing of today. Lazarus is a perfect example of the kind of visionary work being advanced by small-press publishers throughout the country--in this case Fiction Collective Two of Normal, Illinois.
The second installation in his "American Letters Trilogy," The Book of Lazarus is a thorough dissection of the withered psyche of post-'60s America and at the same time a masterfully conceived testament to the possibilities of fiction. Concocting a startling amalgam of genres and narrative voices, Grossman hauls the reader through a contemporary gauntlet of murder and madness as he traces a band of particularly drug-addled radicals to their untimely demise. Poetry, politics, and visual "iconography" all find their way into the mix, creating a kind of hallucinatory landscape in which Jim Thompson meets the Divine Comedy.
In a year dominated by predictable praise for books that reinterpreted the underworld of America, The Book of Lazarus has been unjustly overlooked. Coming on the heels of his earlier novel, The Alphabet Man, Grossman's latest effort proves without a doubt that the avant-garde is alive and well and not necessarily published in New York.
Randall Heath is co-editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books.
THE FULL MONTY GUYS
by Phil Anderson
Dropping trou' to survive when you're jobless is a pretty symbolic show of emasculation. Who knows what the world will see there and whether they'll give a damn about it? These guys, charming and befuddled in their own right, stood in for a larger crop of men-at-risk in the movies this year, all of whom found solace in the arts (in a loosely defined sense). The Monty guys turned to dancing, such as it was--and, despite their accents and non-beefcake bods, gained an American mallplex audience. The successful-but-glum Japanese accountant in Shall We Dance? was a dancer, too--this time of the ballroom variety--and, though happily married, he even exchanged furtive smiles in the men's room with a fellow aficionado. And the angry, confused ex-miners of 1991 in Brassed Off turned to their colliery band, showing Margaret Thatcher what "economic dislocation" meant in a flourish of trills, blares, and fanfares.
You can throw in those Promise Keepers and their stadium conferences if you want, and maybe Marv Albert fits in this thesis somewhere. But the channeling of aggression and shame into loud, muscular, and/or manly art forms is a novel twist. Matched with the noisy stage-set touring shows of dancers in jeans from Scotland, Australia, and the South Bronx (Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk), this is a significant new mélange of heavy metal and hurt feelings.
Phil Anderson is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Amanda Ferguson
How can you not marvel at the work of a brilliant young Filipino-Mexican-American artist who mixes images of rats, the KKK, Catholicism, and Alfred E. Neuman most irreverently and then sticks them with solemn German titles? Manuel Ocampo is a young artist with plenty on his mind. His paintings, most of them done in oil or acrylic on canvas (give or take a bit of color Xerox collage), are simply beautiful. In "Die Kruzigung Christi," a pinched and gloomy-looking baby closes his eyes to the red-hooded Klansman who charges forth on a horse while gray cities crumble in on either side. Overhead float a few crossed bones and liquor bottles, the words "Das Leben Der Tod" stuck up in the left-hand corner. I couldn't have put it better myself. Other recent works include the "Junior Masturbator," "The Lord's Supper/The Holy Feast" (complete with grapes and toilet bowls, and scurrying mice), and "The Virgin Destroyer," or "VD."
"VD" is one of my favorites, a most noble looking baby (could it be Jesus?) with red, white, and blue wings holding up a crowned and sceptered cockroach. Look closely and you'll notice all the nice details, like the stream of excrement that the cockroach is letting loose on his champion/savior. The critics say that Ocampo's work updates the tradition of political allegorists like Gericault, Goya, and Leon Golub. But that's neither here nor there. Already well-revered in Europe, Ocampo's work will hopefully be better known next year outside the sheltering walls of L.A. and New York galleries.
Amanda Ferguson is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Caroline Palmer
Ruth MacKenzie is responsible for the ancient Finnish tunes that still resonate in my head. Her original music-theater epic Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden played at the Southern Theater just long enough this summer to convert several hundred Twin Citians into fans of obscure Scandinavian and Finno-Ugrian vocal techniques. The phenom centered around MacKenzie's voice itself--a hearty instrument to say the least--and the performer's extraordinary collaborators, including choreographer-to-watch Wynn Fricke, Frank Theater artistic director Wendy Knox, singer Barbara Cohen of the trip-hop duo Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and several of the area's most versatile musicians.
Kalevala is the retelling of a Finnish myth in which Aino, a young woman facing those timeless parental pressures to make something of herself, becomes a salmon to elude the scurrilous advances of a 900-year-old magician. In pre-Christian times, the salmon represented fire and truth, so Aino's transformation actually adds up to something more than the typical story of the one that got away.
MacKenzie, who traveled to Finland to study the demanding otherworldly techniques of itku virsi (cry singing), loitsu (spell singing), and kulning (animal calls), used her newfound talents to propel Aino's story onstage. Dressed in traditional garb reflecting the intersection of Estonian, Lapp, Asian, and Magyar influences present in Finnish culture, MacKenzie and her fellow singers confidently reproduced a singular vocal style that pierced the air like a call from a mountaintop. Meanwhile, Fricke, joined by Zenon company members Megan Flood and Christine Maginnis, brought the myth of Aino to life through dances whose energy seemed drawn from a primeval source. The combined effect was akin to time-traveling, except our destinations were fantastic locales that may never have existed, like Avalon or Atlantis.
Forget Minnesota Scandinavian kitsch. MacKenzie's Kalevala tapped into our collective contemporary fascination with prehistory to expose an aspect of Finland we might never have known existed but will now always remember.
Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
JOHN WOO and WONG KAR-WAI
by Rob Nelson
In the year of Hong Kong's "handover" to China, directors John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai took opposite approaches to films about change. Woo's Face/Off and Wong's Happy Together import surrealism into classical Hollywood and subversion into the new Hong Kong, respectively; the former portrays two men who swap places, and the latter, two men who part ways. Woo ingeniously parlayed his clout from the anonymous Broken Arrow into regaining final cut and his former style; Wong boldly spurned the potential franchise of his Chungking Express by reaching for a new kind of one-on-one contact with his customers. Face/Off is an ultraviolent action epic with faint hints of the homoerotic; Happy Together (opening at Oak Street Cinema on April 10) is a gay love story in which the lovers spend most of their time fighting.
But the similarity is that no two films this year were as vividly imagined or energetically assembled, pushing the boundaries of genre while blowing away the head, the heart, and the gut. Neither film appears to deal with the handover, but their metaphors are undeniable. Face/Off isn't about trading faces so much as identity and appropriation in general: Mirroring the course of Woo's relationship to Hollywood (and Hong Kong's to China?), the hero has to pretend to be someone else in order to earn the right to be himself again. Happy Together is an HK film shot in Argentina and ironically subtitled A Film About Reunion: Like its lovers (and the new Hong Kong?), it seeks solace across the ocean but pines for home. Woo's idyllic final scene suggests that the house will look the same as when you left it. Wong, a more anarchic sort of optimist, can't help picturing Hong Kong upside-down--and getting a kick out of it.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
by Kate Sullivan
I can't be profound about this. Anyway, it would be pretentious to try. This musician's death by drowning at age 30 didn't say anything in particular about our generation, about the music industry, about the state of American culture. It was, to all appearances, a stupid accident and an unadulterated, unsexy tragedy.
But Buckley's music is another matter entirely, and its importance is particularly apparent if you compare it to Nirvana's. What made Nirvana a great rock band was, mostly, the very thing Kurt Cobain could never forgive himself for: pure ambition in the form of testosterone-driven power-chord guitar godliness and hook-loving pop songcraft. Buckley's ambition was equally powerful, and he never apologized for it. But his was an emotional ambition: He wanted to express more than any sensible rock dude should. Grace dared to untangle a poetic snarl of emotional forces (somewhat like In Utero, or even Live Through This, actually); to prove that a guy could be both a little bit scary and swooningly romantic; to finger the recesses between violence and vulnerability. This is not just the job of the female rocker. The human heart is the most terrifying of all frontiers, and too few artists of either gender navigate it with any skill.
Buckley tried, intoxicatingly--which may be why, as with Nirvana, I can hardly bear to listen to his music anymore. It's too real, too raw, too rich for my thin blood.
Kate Sullivan is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Jim Walsh
In January, his "Shelter from the Storm" played over the closing credits to Jerry Maguire. In May, the same month he turned 56 and the same month he was recast by Greil Marcus's groundbreaking Invisible Republic, he was hospitalized with a near-fatal heart and lung ailment. In July, his kid's album hit the 3 million mark, outselling any of his own bestsellers by a million. In August, two months after getting out of the hospital, he was back on the road, an anti-legend playing any stage that would have him: in theaters, clubs, high schools, arenas, and at festivals.
In September, he was in Italy, playing for the pope. In October, he released his best record in more than two decades, the perfectly naked Time Out of Mind. In December, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Kennedy Center for the Arts, the citation for which barely got it right when it called him "The single most influential and continually compelling presence in American popular music, and the foremost songwriter of our time."
Jim Walsh is the pop-music critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
by Katherine Spielmann
Scott Walker's astonishing album Tilt finally made it to these shores this year. On its initial U.K. release in 1995, someone dubbed its nine tracks "rock lieder"--or, to translate, "German art song." But the self-exiled American singer/songwriter forges a new idiom on Tilt, complete with tragic yet thrilling visions rarely offered to a pop-music audience--if ever.
Walker's voice, once Jack Jones-schmaltzy when he chalked up U.K. hits in the 1960s, is now pared of its vibrato excrescence and emotes with an impeccable, tensed-up ring. Trailing shreds of melody, each song struggles between desolate private affliction ("all of the trembling vein that you can bare"), fearful conspiracy ("see how it blows/a mile up the road"), and hushed communal appeal ("save the crops and the bodies from pestilence, hunger, and war").
A musician who keenly studies the forces of history and politics ("Patriot" views the Gulf War from ground-level Iraq), Walker writes music led not by beats or even melody (though the melodies go deep), but by lyrics and meaning. To this end, instruments, arrangements, and structures well beyond current rock norms are drawn into play: "Farmer in the City," for instance, adds to its basics the London Sinfonia's strings, an oboe, and a cittern. The lyrics of "Farmer" review aspects, known and imagined, of the mysterious murder of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. The thrill and horror so tenderly sketched here prepare us for a tapestry of modern violence and despair set forth throughout Tilt, as ideas--always physically manifested--lure a listener down corridors seldom explored in songs of any kind.
Katherine Spielmann is senior editor at Puncture.
THE AUDIENCE OF 6-YEAR-OLDS
by Ira Glass
There's something about stumbling across greatness where you least expect it, and believe me, Late Night with Conan O'Brien is where I least expect it. On August 8, 1997, Conan replaced his normal studio audience with kids aged 6 to 8. It was jaw-dropping television. Conan told typical talk-show jokes ("So Alan Greenspan made some news today at the Federal Reserve..."), and, of course, bombed. Typical talk-show guests like Dave Foley (News Radio) began typical talk-show anecdotes and were booed mercilessly by the audience in under a minute. It was disturbing, the atmosphere of the thing, as if Conan had decided to do a performance-art rendition of a network talk show, designed to make us feel the strangeness of something we take for granted.
It was stunningly inventive. At one point, Conan tells the kids he has a treat for them, a special guest: Dustin Hoffman. The 6-year-olds are unmoved. So Conan gives them a choice: Dustin Hoffman, or Dustin Hoffman in a Snoopy costume. Naturally, the kids choose Snoopy. So a guy in a Snoopy costume comes out, waves at the kids, and leaves. A pause. A girl yells from the audience: "Let's see him without the head on!" Conan declares it's too late: Snoopy has left the building. The kids get unruly. It feels on the verge of flying out of control--truly out of control--any minute.
When does that ever happen on television? Watching it, I felt the rarest thing one feels watching TV or listening to the radio: surprise.
Ira Glass is the host of This American Life on Public Radio International.
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