Sundance 2014

TLMW, SA, and I watched 12 movies in 4 days at Sundance this year. We generally pick as many documentaries as we can and don’t try to get into the movies that generate the most hype; a) because they are obviously hard to get into and b) they have the highest probability of becoming available in theaters or on Netflix etc. later on. We prefer documentaries because we have seen some really bad dramas there in the past. Forcing oneself to sit through some incomprehensible, self-indulgent film school crap kind of spoils the whole experience. It’s hard to go wrong with documentaries. That said, the ticketing at Sundance is a complex affair and getting exactly the films one wants is often a crap shot, so inevitably one has to make do with what one gets. One thing about seeing so many movies in such a short time is that one gets into a sort of “Sundance state of mind.” On the bad side, story lines begin to blur into one another as one tries to remember what one has already seen (though this can be quite a trip on occasion when doung inadvertent mash ups). On the good side, with so many movies from different places one begins to feel more “of this world” than by just reading the world news section in the NYT (also see the Ebert quote below). I have always thought that one of the best things about Sundance is the queuing. One learns a lot from others in line and can have some of the best conversations there. (This article in the Guardian summarizes that experience very well.) On to this year’s films:

Rich Hill (★★★★★)

– A very subtle ethnographic film that explores the lives of three adolescent boys living in the rural Missouri town of Rich Hill, who try to overcome their struggles with poverty. A touching movie that just let the camera linger on scenes without ever editorializing. It’s important that films like this keep getting made.


The film won the grand jury U.S. documentary prize at Sundance this year.

All the Beautiful Things (★☆☆☆☆)

– An elaborately staged story of a friendship thrown totally off course by real and alleged domestic violence. The narcissism of this film was so thick that even interesting ideas drowned in it. Shot on 35mm, the film is good-looking in a commercial way: colored lights illuminate rain-slicked NYC streets as steam billows up from the … pretty cliché factory. But all the atmosphere and buildup couldn’t gloss over the fact that nearly nothing of substance was being communicated in the film that is important to anyone other than the two men in the film. Among its most fatal flaws were: 1) the director evidently never could make up his mind whether he wanted to do a story in comic book format, Dinner with Andre-style, Jazz video, documentary, drama or whatever else; each of these formats was interesting but mixed together they didn’t work at all; 2) it’s pretty disturbing to do a stylized and precious account of one’s own life and call it a documentary; 3) the roles of women in the film were ridiculously subservient to the male-dominant plot; 4) the treatment of domestic violence was distasteful at the very least; 5) and perhaps worst of all, don’t ever use Coltrane’s sublime and spiritual A Love Supreme as the score for a self-indulgent friendship!


We Come As Friends (★★★★★)

– Critical perspective about the split of Sudan and subsequent conflict. Complex interests of religion, governments, business, and people. The documentary showed the effects of continuing colonialism in Sudan, motivated primarily by control over its oil. The shaky, handmade two-seater plane (“a flying tin can”) specially built for the film was a superb way of capturing an aerial view of the conflict in Sudan and amazing footage in remote places. Very Herzog-ish story-telling overall. The French-Austrian director’s Q&A session was brilliant.


The film won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Bravery at Sundance this year.

Return to Homs (★★★★★)

– Harrowing documentary account of the effects of civil war in Syria and particularly the destruction of the city of Homs by government forces. The film follows a small group of rebel fighters who want to free their besieged city. They start with large, peaceful demonstrations and progressively turn to more and more armed resistance. Scenes of the utter destruction of the city and of brutal street fighting are shocking. The Syrian director and producer were also excellent in the Q&A session.


The film deservedly won The World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Award at Sundance this year.

No No, A Dockumentary (★★★★☆)

– About Dock Ellis, the 70’s MLB pitcher renowned for his voluminous drug intake and pitching a no-hitter while on LSD. No No was spectacular. Not only because of Dock himself, but also because of all his friends that were interviewed. The film showed Dock on camera tearfully reading out loud a letter Jackie Robinson had written to him. The whole thing was a very funny, moving, and important bio of the Muhammad Ali of baseball. This is as good as documentaries get – while telling one person’s strange life story it ultimately reveals a much deeper tale of courage, survival, and redemption.


I Origins (★★★★★)

– A very poetic film about science and faith without ever crossing the line into pseudo philosophical hokeyness. Well-acted and beautifully shot and with a nice, meandering storyline and atmosphere not unlike Wim Wenders’ movie Until The End of the World. This film will be in theaters for sure.


The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance this year.

Jamie Marks is Dead (☆☆☆☆☆)

– THE rotten apple of the bushel at this year’s festival!! Just an out-and-out horrible film. If you’re into homoerotic ghost stories for teens with a Harry Potter look-alike in dirty underwear, this one may be for you. How this film was selected by Sundance is a mystery worthy of making a documentary about.


Watchers of the Sky (★★★★★)

– Definitely the most important film this year at Sundance. Mostly about Raphael Lemkin who not only coined the term ‘genocide’ but whose perseverance assured a UN convention that eventually led to the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Didn’t know that the legal term of crimes against humanity evidently implied only war time atrocities and therefore necessitated the term genocide to also cover senseless slaughter of people by a sovereign nation during ‘peaceful times’. The documentary was expertly narrated, for the most part by Samantha Powers, and used animation and live-action to tell five interwoven stories of courage in facing genocide from the Nuremberg trials to Rwanda, Darfur, former Yugoslavia, and to Syria. It should be shown in schools and public squares the world over! How Lemkin never won a Nobel Peace Prize after 8 nominations leads one to believe that the award is a sham.



The film won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Use of Animation at Sundance this year.

Land Ho! (★★★☆☆)

– Charming though somewhat inconsequential comedy about two old friends going on a trip to Iceland. The actor playing the character of Mitch in the film apparently was an actual surgeon in Louisiana and had never acted in anything before. Best line: “That dish tastes so good, it’s like angels pissing on your tongue.”


Cesar’s Last Fast (★★★☆☆)

– Portrait of Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farmworkers Union, which cuts between a recap of his overall career and a more detailed chronicle of the 36-day protest fast he undertook in 1988. Not much new in the film but the archival footage of his fast and funeral a few years later, shown here for the first time, were very touching.


Director Interview and Clip:

Freedom Summer (★★★★★)

– This film was outstanding start to finish. Exceptionally well crafted. I’ve seen so many documentaries on the civil rights movement that I was wondering beforehand what more could be brought to the table – and I was amazed at the amount of new information and perspectives presented. It covered the campaign that was launched in 1964 to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had historically excluded most blacks from voting. The project also set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in small towns throughout Mississippi to aid the local black population. Recent interviews with student volunteers from that time were juxtaposed with amazing archival footage. The film surprised me with some of its historical details similarly to the film “Slavery By Another Name” which we saw at Sundance a couple of years ago and which is now also available on PBS in its entirety.


The film has been purchased by PBS and will appear on American Perspectives later this year.

Life Itself (★★★★★)

– A fitting end to a great run of films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Beautiful and moving biopic of Roger Ebert who passed away last year. Some of the scenes showing Ebert’s facial deformities from cancer toward the end of his life were very hard to watch. Great interviews with some of the people who knew him best provided some funny anecdotes. E.g. I knew about Ebert writing the screenplay for the soft porn parody “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” but I had no idea of Siskel’s stint as a regular in the Playboy Mansion. I hate to admit it but I used to think of Ebert as a sort of windbag for a long time and I mostly sided with Siskel on the movies I actually cared for. But I grew to really appreciate Ebert for his profound humanity and wit on the blog he was writing in his later years when he was too debilitated to regularly appear on TV. Martin Scorsese, who is he Executive Producer of the film put it well here. “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine of all the arts. When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life a little bit for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.(Roger Ebert in his autobiography Life Itself) What he said! That is exactly why I love going to Sundance where the opportunities to do precisely that are so plentiful!! “I’ll see you at the movies.”



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Sundance 2012: Around the World in 12 Films

Earlier today I accidentally stumbled upon some notes on my iPhone from a trip to Sundance 2012. Proper Manky was blogless at that time last year so they are belatedly posted now below.

The Stops Along The Trip
© 2012 Proper Manky

Starting from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, TLMW, SA, and I went on cinematic whirlwind tour around the world. Our first stop was Russia (Putin’s Kiss) to get an in-depth view of a pro-Putin nationalist youth movement shockingly similar to the organization and methods of the Hitler Youth. We followed a young girl from becoming famous for kissing Putin, to intensely idolizing her ruler, to eventually becoming disillusioned when a friend of hers, a journalist opposing the government, is beaten up by a pro-Putin gang. With its close-up coverage of shifting loyalties and political manipulation, the film provided some disturbing views into the many methods of an oppressive regime.

Next, we got a handheld, street-level view of the Arab Spring in Cairo (1/2 Revolution) from two Egyptian filmmakers who, along with their families and friends, became embroiled in the first two weeks of protests around Tahrir Square. The shaky and occasionally blurry pictures gave the film an urgency and immediacy that made us feel as if we had been right there in the middle of the non-violent protests, making the brutal response from the government and armed forces feel personal and all the more difficult to bear. In the end the film become somewhat tried with its overly self-aware focus on the apparent dangers facing the film crew.

We then returned to Arkansas in the US (West of Memphis) to follow the trials and tribulations of three innocently convicted men that illustrated both the horror and promise of the criminal justice system. The men were accused of killing three boys in what was said to have been a satanic ritual. Among the ‘evidence’ was that they enjoyed heavy metal music. It took the support of Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson and many others more than 18 years before the West Memphis Three were set free. Absurdly, even though they were clearly innocent, they had to plead guilty as part of a convoluted legal maneuver to assure their release.

From there we went to Los Angeles (Middle of Nowhere) to follow the intense interactions between a husband sentenced to many years in prison and a wife’s love and loyalty. This was a beautifully filmed story with great psychological nuance and outstanding acting by an All-African American cast. It’s so rare to see serious dramas this moving and accomplished, so attuned to real people and their complex, recognizable emotions! After the screening, FWIW, the director told us that “black skin is very difficult to light in movies”.

After that, we were whisked away to a small village in the Czech Republic (Four Suns) where several eccentric characters struggled with their daily lives and relationships with each other. The film was full of humanity, a wry sense of humor and lots of empathy for its many imperfect characters.There’s often something poetic and absurd, not to say Kafkaesque, about Czech movies and this one featured one of the most delightful characters we encountered on our trip: Karel, a kind of shaman or new age mystic, always dressed in the same goofy sweater and slightly disheveled or disoriented who added a perplexing dimension whenever he appeared in a scene. Also, just hearing the Czech language again after so many years was an added joy. In a brief discussion after the show, the director was asked about the meaning of the film’s title and replied that it had no “deep interpretation.”

Our next stop (Father’s Chair) took us to Sao Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil which turned out to be one of the true highlights of our tour. We saw the painful transformation of a father from a self-absorbed, career-focused hard-ass to someone who managed to re-connect with his father and wayward son on a wild trip to the Brazilian hinterland.The main character gave one of the finest performances in movies I had seen in a long time. At first the film developed almost like a psychological thriller and then slowly evolved into a story about redemption with an almost magical realist ending. Along the way, we encountered wise men in favelas, stoned hitchhikers, a philosopher ferryman living in a floating shack, a whacked-out tractor driver, a car mechanic with a talent for pornographic drawings, and other interesting characters. Yet, this wasn’t a ‘freak show’, but a rather polished, charming and deeply moving film with real emotional depth.

Onward, we returned to the US and Brooklyn (Red Hook Summer) for a much touted Spike Lee film. There was a lot to like about the movie: outstanding acting by the bishop and the drunken deacon, brilliant monologues, biting social commentary on poverty, religion, homelessness, drug-dealing, AIDS, pimps, underage mothers, pedophiles, pollution and everything in between, as well as Lee’s feel for the neighborhood and his over-saturated camera work. Yet, there was a lot more to hate about the movie: a bizarre, doobie-induced plot with a flabbergasting twist half-way through, gratuitous iPad plugs, Lee delivering yet another pizza in his own film, his odd Jesus bromance and his bully pulpit both literally and figuratively, dreadful dialogues, atrocious performances by the child actors, unresolved story lines, and much more. After the screening, Lee came out and went off on a rant about the black experience and studio films. The film had all the makings of a Spike Lee Dis-Joint.

From there we criss-crossed the American South (Slavery by Another Name) in a re-enactment documentary about the southern states’ convict leasing system to private enterprise. This far more wide-spread practice than I had previously realized made a complete travesty of the 13th Amendment and the spirit of reconstruction. Immediately after the Civil War and up until the 1950s, in most cities of the South, black men without jobs could be capriciously swept off the streets and hauled into court, fined, and given lengthy jail sentences. Rules that required a prisoner to “work off his fine,” meant that even light sentences often became never-ending. I learned a lot from this film and was very moved by the absurd suffering recounted in the many harrowing stories. It was troubling to learn how many US presidents and attorney generals at the time directly or indirectly perpetuated this system of involuntary servitude and peonage which gave the film its name. In a fitting twist, it was a pretty remarkable moment for us that Eric Holder, the first African American US attorney general, also attended the premiere of the film. (Holder’s wife recounted part of her family history in the film). In a discussion afterwards, Douglas Blackmon, on whose book the movie was based, gave a riveting account of how he came to research the enslavement of African-Americans well into the 20th century. Someone also announced that the movie had already been picked up for distribution by PBS.

We continued moving back and forth across America in a chronicle of the environmental movement (A Fierce Green Fire). Featuring a lot of archival footage, it covered the rise of conservation ethics, grassroots activism, the creation of Earth Day, and other milestones, mostly in the US but also with a few global examples. These included the Love Canal catastrophe, Grand Canyon dams, Greenpeace movement, deforestation in the Amazon and many others. Most impressive to me was the lengthy coverage of the fight Lois Gibbs, a local housewife turned activist, led against pollution at Love Canal. It was not only inspiring to see her in grainy footage forcing President Carter’s hand at the time, but also to see her live on stage afterwards recounting some of her courageous and subversive strategies to raise attention to the toxic disaster. Also very interesting was a discussion around the adequate degree of radicalism in the environmental movement, centered on the controversial activism of one of the early Greenpeace members, Paul Watson. As informative and inspiring as this documentary was, it was also frustrating to watch given the daunting scope of the many environmental problems around the world.

Next up was a return to the Middle East (5 Broken Cameras), specifically the Palestinian village of Bilin in the West Bank, where we followed villagers in their protest against encroaching Jewish settlements built nearby on disputed land. Shot almost entirely by one of the villagers, who bought his first camera to record the birth of his youngest son, the footage was edited with the help of a Jewish filmmaker. Over the years, the villager used 5 different cameras, always replacing one that broke or was smashed during five years of turmoil in the village. “I feel like the camera protects me,” he said in the film, “but it’s an illusion.” The film also featured another great character, a gentle giant named The Elephant. It was an amazing documentary of injustice, one that took a lot of courage to make and one that without any overt propaganda gave us an almost visceral feeling of oppression and dispossession. It was one of my favorite films.

From the Middle East we returned to Los Angeles one more time (Nobody Walks). There, we all suffered through asinine sexual power plays among artists (?) motivated by – well, it never really became clear by what. Perhaps by boredom? Perhaps stupidity? Whatever it was, there was zero redeeming value to any of the characters in that film. It was the only one on this trip that we came close, very close, to walking out on. This was nothing but a pretentious, self-gratifying film school project that wasted away considerable production value on the bizarre mating behaviors of a femme fatale and the members of a dysfunctional family and, for good measure, those of ants and scorpions. All in all painfully pointless. A better title would have been Nobody Watches.

After the only real lowlight of our trip, we crossed the Atlantic yet again and ended up in London for our final stop (My Brother The Devil). The movie was about the complex relationship between two teenage brothers, who immigrated with their parents from Egypt to London’s East End. It’s rare to see a movie that can tackle heady sociological topics like race, drugs, gangs, homosexuality etc. and never once feel pedantic or pontificating. Instead, it was a fresh and beautifully filmed movie that defied the usual clichés of inner-city gang films. It told a sensitive and believable story with charismatic characters and unexpected twists and turns. It also had some terrifically natural performances by a young and mostly non-professional cast. This was the kind of film I could watch repeatedly and discover different nuances on each viewing.

[Tangent: As we were waiting for the film to start, I had a pleasant conversation with a lady next to me about which movies we enjoyed the most so far. I mentioned Father’s Chair and she raved about Searching for Sugar Man. Once the movie started, I couldn’t shake the thought that she looked vaguely familiar. Repeated, rapid neuronal firing eventually resulted in the realization that I was sitting next to Patti Smith. It was my only brush with celebrity on this trip.]

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Sweet Old Southern Thing*

Lucinda Williams at the MIM on Friday
© Proper Manky 2013

Went to see Lucinda Williams at the MIM on Friday with TLMW and MS.

The 300-seat auditorium at the MIM was an intimate venue for Lucinda Williams and her typical low-key, self-effacing style. She was superbly accompanied by guitarist Doug Pettibone and they played a full, uninterrupted set of standards plus a couple of newer songs.

Their set started out with Car Wheels on A Gravel Road and her homage to New Orleans, Crescent City. Next up was 2 Cool 2 B 4-Gotten, with that great “june-bug vs. hurricane” line. LW started playing the song on her guitar but quickly gave up for not getting the tune right (“that’s so fucking embarrassing”) and launched into a boisterous version with just her wonderful, gravelly voice.

Next came People Talking and Jackson, both songs showcasing her strong foothold in roots and Americana music. In Born to Be Loved, a song from her newest album, LW sang with a deep voice full of hope rising above words of pain and anguish, reminiscent of an Odetta song.

This was followed by a pretty ballad, “Place in My Heart”, apparently a new song the two performed alone for the first time. Next up was Blue with a great verse:

Go find a jukebox and see what a quarter will do
I don’t wanna talk I just wanna go back to blue
Feed’s me when I’m hungry and quenches my thirst
Loves me when I’m lonely and thinks of me first

Daughter of a poet. That was followed by Bitter Memory, one of the songs she just recorded for the new ABC show Nashville and Jail-House Tears in a swinging duet with DP. He did a passable job, but few can be as convincing a bad boy loser as Elvis Costello was when he recorded the song with LW a few years ago.

Following that came the famous country song, Apartment #9, which is normally unbearable to me when sung by Tammy Wynette, but LW brought out all the soul in this old torch song. A wonderful version of Well, Well, Well came next.

One of my favorite LW tunes is Pineola, her moving eulogy to the poet and family friend Frank Stanford who committed suicide in the 1970’s while LW was living with her family in Arkansas. She introduced the song saying that she took some poetic license with the song and changed Stanford’s religious affiliation from Catholic to Pentecostal. It’s a lovely touch not only because it gives the song a “Southern Gothic” feel overall but also because it allowed her to rhyme:

Born and raised in Pineola, his mama believed in the Pentecost
She got the preacher to say some words so his soul wouldn’t get lost

LW next performed her song Drunken Angel, which she said she wrote for a promising songwriter in Austin named Blaze Foley who was shot at a young age. But, she said, she could have written the song about any other singer/songwriter who died too young, like Gran Parsons, Curt Cobain, or Townes Van Zandt. Her southern charm, however much a cliche that may be, was on full display during the intro to this song. She then turned to a rocking version of Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings.

Next came her rendition of an old Skip James song, Hard Times Killing Floor Blues. “He wrote this during the Depression,” LW said, “but of course it’s still relevant today.” She closed the main set with two uplifting songs. First came Joy, an updated version which has taken on a whole new meaning as part of the West of Memphis soundtrack, and then DP and her rambled through Honey Bee, a classic rock ‘n’ roll tune with a dose of children’s music so corny only someone like LW could pull it off:

Oh, my little honey bee
I’m so glad you stung me
You’ve become my weakness
Now I’ve got your sweetness
All up in my hair

One wonders what she’s really singing about.

For one of the encores, LW played a beautiful version of John Denver’s This Old Guitar, which she apparently just recorded for a tribute album. The last two songs were her rocking Change the Locks and her Delta blues Get Right with God, performed in the Mississippi Fred vein. For the encore songs, LW and DP were joined on stage by Walter Salas Humara, founder of The Silos, who also opened up for her.

All in all, the show developed slowly at first. There were a few rough spots and LW quipped she had been told before that she “had a lot of soul but needed to work on her stage presence”. Yet, LW and DP eventually found their groove and put on a relaxed and at the same time very passionate performance. “It’s all kind of lose tonight,” she told the audience, “hope everyone else is too”. She got through it all just fine and left no doubt that she is still one of the most gifted songwriters in American music, all of her songs full of detail, poetry, and humanity.

* At one point during the show LW, referred to herself as just a “sweet old southern thing”.

Addendum: The concert at the MIM on Friday was so delightful, that MS and I decided to drive up to Flagstaff on Saturday and also see her concert at the Orpheum. And we’re glad we did! While we fully expected to find ourselves in a Groundhog-Day-like time loop, much to our surprise about 60% of the set list turned out to be different from the night before.

Lucinda Williams at the Orpheum on Saturday
© Proper Manky 2013

There was a different vibe about this show: LW seemed more confident and in charge and started off the first half of the set with a series of elegiac songs that set a great mood. The atmosphere was electric inside the Orpheum on a bitter, cold night. The place was packed with limited open seating and standing room. LW and DP clearly enjoyed themselves and let it rip in the second half. LW in particular was in rare form. “Maybe it’s the altitude”, she offered. They unleashed their inner Neil Young and even Jimi Hendrix on several songs and generally jammed brilliantly all night.

Ventura sounded beautifully stripped down to just two guitars and LW’s voice. In Fruits of My Labor she sang about lavender, lotus blossoms, tangerines and persimmons, sugarcane, grapes and honeydew melon in a way one could almost smell and taste them. Her ode to the West could as well have been a love song to Arizona and featured a nice, long DP solo. A song about lost love, Over Time, was another beautiful ballad – only Willie Nelson was missing to sing in a duet with her. Something Wicked This Way Comes, a title she borrowed from a Ray Bradbury novel, was apparently also in contention as a theme song for the ABC series Nashville. LW and DP treated the song like a hellfire and brimstone, Gothic country tune. Afterwards, LW went off on automatic assault weapons, the 2nd amendment, muskets, the NRA, and “John Bonehead” for several minutes. Bitter Memory was one song that sounded a lot better than the night before at the MIM. The Delta Blues Down the Big Road was raw and powerful.

Altogether, two very enjoyable concerts in two days!

Lucinda Williams at the Orpheum on Saturday
© Proper Manky 2013

MIM – Friday January 11, 2013 Orpheum – Saturday January 12, 2013
  1. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
  2. Crescent City
  3. 2 Kool 2 B 4-Gotten
  4. People Talkin’
  5. Jackson
  6. Born To Be Loved
  7. Place in My Heart
  8. Blue
  9. Bitter Memory
  10. Jailhouse Tears
  11. Apartment #9
  12. Well, Well, Well
  13. Pineola
  14. Drunken Angel
  15. Real Live Bleeding Fingers
  16. Hard Time Killin Floor Blues
  17. Joy
  18. Honey Bee


  1. This Old Guitar
  2. Changed The Locks
  3. Get Right With God
  1. Can’t Let Go
  2. Metal Firecracker
  3. Right in Time
  4. Ventura
  5. Place in my Heart
  6. Fruits of My Labor
  7. West
  8. Over Time
  9. Jail House Tears
  10. Apartment #9 (aborted)
  11. I Lost It
  12. Drunken Angel
  13. Something Wicked This Way Comes
  14. Essence
  15. Down the Big Road Blues
  16. Joy
  17. Honey Bee


  1. This Old Guitar
  2. Apartment #9
  3. Change The Locks

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I have long been a huge fan of storytelling or spoken word “songs”. My definition for these types of “songs” is simple: spoken lyrics plus music, but no singing. To illustrate by way of exclusion, my definition does not include any of the following:

  • “songs” that have, for example, spoken intros but then continue in sung form
  • poetry readings without music or long storytelling monologues like the ones by Spaulding Gray (but it might include, for example, Beat poetry that is accompanied by music)
  • “songs” using a vocal technique somewhere between singing and speaking, what the Germans call Sprechgesang in which pitches may be sung, but generally the articulation is rapid and loose like speech. Examples are e.g. many songs by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Gianmaria Testa, Paolo Conte, and many others.
  • as a matter of principle, anything by William Shatner
I’ve made no attempt at putting together an encyclopedic playlist of “songs” under the above definition. Hence, another limiting criterion I have applied to the working playlist below is that I have to like the “song”. I could have included many other examples but, as the case may be, I just didn’t care for the story, the voice, the music, or something else. In other words, the playlist below has been rather fickly curated with my whims and biases in mind.

For the vast majority of “songs” included in the list below I have found, and edited where needed, the corresponding lyrics. Precisely because many of the “songs” tell stories – some sad, some strange and surreal, some insanely funny, some angry, some poetic – it adds to the pleasure of listening to them when one can also read along. A PDF version of the lyrics is here – individual copyright claims apply even if not stated.

Needless to say, I am always on the look-out for new material. Please pass on the good stuff.

# Artist Song Album Time
1 Regina Spektor Whisper Soviet Kitsch 0:45
2 The Velvet Underground The Gift White Light/White Heat 8:19
3 Belle & Sebastian A Space Boy Dream The Boy With The Arab Strap 3:02
4 Looper Columbo’s Car Up A Tree 4:54
5 Moby If Things Were Perfect Play 4:19
6 Touch and Go Tango in Harlem I Find You Very Attractive 3:26
7 Ralph Acid Jazz On a Rainy Day This Is for the Night People 3:43
8 Gotan Project Feat. Juan Carlos Cáceres Notas Lunático 4:21
9 Jim Morrison & The Doors An American Prayer An American Prayer 3:04
10 Jim Morrison & The Doors Hour for Magic An American Prayer 1:18
11 Jim Morrison & The Doors A Feast of Friends An American Prayer 2:11
12 Ginger Baker Trio East Timor Going Back Home 4:42
13 Bob Dylan Three Angels New Morning 2:10
14 Belle & Sebastian A Century of Elvis Push Barman to Open Old Wounds 4:29
15 Quincy Troupe Change The United States Of Poetry 1:29
16 Tom Waits Frank’s Wild Years Swordfishtrombones 1:54
17 Federico Aubele Mona Gran Hotel Buenos Aires 1:58
18 Up, Bustle & Out Havana’s Streets Rebel Radio Master Sessions, Vol. 1 4:02
19 Kevin Johansen Volutas De Humo City Zen 2:08
20 Leo Ferre La vie d’artiste (Version Piano) Léo Ferré 3:35
21 Looper Dave The Moon Man Up A Tree 5:12
22 Jim Morrison & The Doors Lament An American Prayer 2:19
23 Gianmaria Testa Plage Du Prophète Il valzer di un giorno 1:35
24 Barry Adamson Vermillion Kisses Oedipus Schmoedipus 3:03
25 Herbie Hancock The Jungle Line (feat. Leonard Cohen) River – The Joni Letters 5:01
26 Antipop Consortium & Matthew Shipp Monstro City Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp 3:05
27 Ruth Forman Stoplight Politics The United States Of Poetry 1:43
28 The Shangri-Las Past, Present and Future The Very Best of The Shangri-Las 2:42
29 Tom Waits Army Ants Orphans 3:26
30 Serge Gainsbourg Melody Histoire De Melody Nelson 7:32
31 Tindersticks My Sister Tindersticks (2nd Album) [Deluxe Version] 8:11
32 Slint Good Morning Captain Kids Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 7:39
33 John Cooper Clarke Beasley Street The Very Best Of 6:44
34 Talking Heads Seen and Not Seen Remain In Light 3:25
35 Jim Morrison & The Doors A Feast of Friends An American Prayer 2:11
36 Ben Watt & Estelle Pop a Cap In Yo’ Ass (Radio Edit) Buzzin’ Fly – 5 Golden Years In the Wilderness – Unmixed and Selected By Ben Watt 4:08
37 Cake Short Skirt/Long Jacket Comfort Eagle 3:24
38 Tom Waits Nirvana Orphans 2:13
39 Arab Strap New Birds Philophobia 6:28
40 William S. Burroughs A Thanksgiving Prayer Dead City Radio 2:22
41 DJ Vadim Your Revolution (feat. Sarah Jones) Ninja Tune Retrospect (No. 1) 4:12
42 James Brown King Heroin There It Is 3:58
43 Tom Waits What’s He Building In There Mule Variations 3:20
44 John Cale & Lou Reed A Dream Songs for Drella 6:33
45 Cake Mr. Mastodon Farm Motorcade of Generosity 5:28
46 The Specials & Rhoda Dakar The Boiler Stereo-Typical: A’s B’s & Rarities 5:47
47 Tindersticks Chocolate The Something Rain 9:04
48 Gil Scott-Heron The Revolution Will Not Be Televised The Revolution Will Not Be Televised 3:07
49 Van Morrison Coney Island Still On Top – The Greatest Hits (Deluxe Version) 2:04
50 Jim Morrison & The Doors The Ghost Song An American Prayer 5:16
51 Lazyboy Underwear Goes Inside the Pants Underwear Goes Inside the Pants – Single 4:54
52 Dead Kennedys Night of the Living Rednecks Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death 5:10
53 Tom Waits Missing My Son Orphans (Bastards) 3:38
54 Billy Bragg Walk Away Renee Must I Paint You a Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg 2:24
55 The Clientele Losing Haringey Strange Geometry 4:02
56 Arab Strap The First Big Weekend The Week Never Starts Round Here 4:53
57 Maxïmo Park Acrobat A Certain Trigger 4:43
58 William S. Burroughs Words of Advice for Young People Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales 4:42
59 Linton Kwesi Johnson Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem) Reggae Greats: Linton Kwesi Johnson 3:52
60 Looper Impossible Things #2 Up A Tree 5:23
61 Gil Scott-Heron Whitey On The Moon The Revolution Will Not Be Televised 1:29
62 Benjamin Biolay Brandt rhapsodie La Superbe 4:44
63 Eminem & Dido Stan The Marshall Mathers LP 6:44
64 Leonard Cohen Democracy The United States Of Poetry 2:27
65 Serge Gainsbourg Variations sur Marilou L’homme à tête de chou 7:40
66 Saint Etienne Over the Border Words and Music By Saint Etienne 5:05
67 Indran Amirthanayagam So Beautiful The United States Of Poetry 2:34
68 Milosz, Czeslaw Gift The United States Of Poetry 1:09
69 Tom Waits Children’s Story Orphans 1:43
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SF Trip Gallery

Click on an image to view in slideshow mode.

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Applehead at Starbucks?

Below are photos of a Starbucks store in downtown San Francisco near Market Street and New Montgomery St. I was there recently, taking a break from walking around and browsing through a bagful of books I had gotten at the Alexander Book Co. around the corner.

At some point I looked up and glanced straight at the big Starbucks logo hanging in the window. Something right away struck me as odd. It was one of those subliminal occult symbolism “I see Jesus in my burnt toast” moments. The  twin-tailed mermaid in the logo here looks remarkably like a stylized portrait of Michael Jackson. The comparison with the official Starbucks logo below clearly shows the differences (i.e. eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth) that create this strange likeness.

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Public Transportation Story #69

Public Transportation Story #69:

Sitting at the bus stop. Chilly morning, half awake. Burly Black dude in his 30s saunters up to the stop. He wears a black hoodie and leans stiffly against the shelter. About to light up a smoke. He puts a white plastic bag next to his feet. I stop paying attention.

A few minutes of day-dreaming later I see him changing position and I notice he dropped his Marlboro Reds. I make eye contact with him and point at the pack on the ground. Immediately, I get the death stare.

I look at him and the pack, just meaning to be helpful. Sneering stare now. Perhaps he thinks I’m somehow calling him out for littering. He keeps staring a hole through me. I’m too tired to explain. Finally, he looks straight in my eyes and grunts: “It’s empty.”

A minute later he picks up his plastic bag and walks off. Which is a bit odd. People don’t usually wait at a bus stop and leave before a bus arrives. The only other people at the bus stop are a mother with her young daughter, whom I know by sight, and someone who looks like the mother’s sister travelling with an enormous suitcase. Next to me sits a Hispanic kid duded up to the nines in hip-hop clothing. Sharp, replete with woollen condom hat and custom kicks.

All of us stare after the Black dude who is now randomly crossing and re-crossing the nearby intersection. The kid next to me takes his right earphone out of his bling-studded ear and says to me, very slowly: “Looks – like – this – gangsta – has – no – respect!” He goes on: “Must be an Eastsider!” And then: “I’m a Southsider, man, and I got respect!” He gets up from the bench, picks the pack off the ground, and carries it to a trash can. He sits back down and turns to me: “I’m only 15, but I bet I have more respect than this gangsta.” And he double-fists himself on the heart.

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The Bad Plus

Saw The Bad Plus with TLMW at the MIM. I’ve loved their work ever since they came out with These Are the Vistas and their raucous interpretation of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (rivaled really only by the Robert Glasper Experiment version).* This was the very first time they performed in AZ.

As expected, they played like three seemingly crazed musicologists each doing their own thing yet doing so together splendidly. Sometimes they drifted into sonic chaos, or they created symphonic sounds reminiscent of film music, and at other times they played around with “shrewdly lurching syncopations.”

On this night, they leisurely burned through a 1.5 hour-long set, basically ignoring their trademark, off-the-wall pop covers of early albums, and sticking almost exclusively to the ecclectic material from their brand-new studio album, Made Possible. I realize The Bad Plus claim that they are “deeply earnest” about everything they do, but there’s something obviously subversive and anarchic about these guys. Along with their sly wit, they also clearly have a profound sense of performance art and the absurd.

While the album is full of electronically produced synthetic textures with layers of synthesizer and electronic drum sounds, the concert was mostly a straight up acoustic affair with a few entertaining effects thrown in. At one point in Sing For a Silver Dollar there was a long abstract-improv section of piano-string pluckings and percussion rattlings and in The Empire Strikes Backwards the drummer Dave King worked on two rubbery E.T. toys to produce hauntingly high-pitched squeals. Reid Anderson, the bassist, clarified with tongue only half in cheek that the E.T. intermezzo in the concert version didn’t make it on the album due to copyright reasons. Throughout the concert he made similarly off-beat comments on their playlist.

Seven Minute Mind was my favorite, just a jaw-dropping orgy with whiplash tempo changes exerting “an accretive force, moving from barest breeze to prairie twister,” as the NYT put it in a review of the album. The tempo control in that song was absolutely astounding. “Thriftstore Jewelry” was a full-on blast of Latin rhythms and jubilant playfulness. As an encore, The Bad Plus played a lovely extended version of the Aphex Twin’s Flim.

The acoustics at the MIM that night were spectacular, every note crisp and clear, and the trio’s sound well-balanced even for us sitting stage left.

While all three muscians were quite brilliant in their own right, what really stood out for me was Dave King’s work on drums, perhaps somewhat helped by the fact that we pretty much sat right in front of him. This guy is simply amazing, an incredible, ingenious, and idiosyncratic wizard on the skins.

As was announced at the end of the concert, The Bad Plus are planning to be back in town next year with their rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s entire ballet The Rite of Spring. Apparently they have been working on a commission from Duke University and Lincoln Center and been rehearsing their own version of this complex composition for the past eight months.

The playlist was a follows (from Made Possible unless otherwise noted):

  1. Pound for Pound
  2. Wolf Out
  3. The Empire Strikes Backwards (from Suspicious Activity?)
  4. Re-Elect That
  5. For My Eyes Only
  6. You Are
  7. Sing for a Silver Dollar
  8. Thriftstore Jewelry (from Prog)
  9. Seven Minute Mind
  10. In Stitches
  11. Flim (from These Are the Vistas)

* Another early cover by The Bad Plus (and there are several) is their spectacular version of ABBA’s Knowing Me, Knowing You with exquisite musicianship by the trio throughout, especially the fierce, Rachmaninoffish piano motor boating at the 5 minute mark.

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Fire Screen (Part 3)

Well, 7+ years of grudgingly enduring the decrepit and dysfunctional screens on our fire place have finally and happily come to an end. In the intervening years, there were a lot of false starts (including a completely misguided attempt at forging screens myself) and we never found anything suitable off-the-shelf.

After meeting several weeks ago with Howie H., a welder, blacksmith, and steel artist, and giving him measurements and some ideas for a custom design, TLMW and I drove up to Flagstaff again today to pick up the finished fire screens.

Previous posts on the firescreen:

North Side – Before Howie North Side – After Howie
South Side – Before Howie South Side – After Howie
Design View
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Public Transport Story #68

September 22, 2012: Not exactly Night on Earth or a Taxicab Confession, but still a worldly whirlwind of a taxi ride.

I got into a quiet Prius taxi today near downtown to go back home. It was still light out, pleasantly hot on one of the last days of summer. I climbed into the back of the cab and gave my directions. The driver, in his early 30s and perhaps from somewhere in East Africa, right away read my name off his electronic dashboard and asked me where I was from. I told him and he asked what Germans are known for or are really good at. I mentioned the usual: cars, engineering, beer, some wines, food, soccer, the mighty Mittelstand, castles, gummi bears, those sort of things. It was hard to think of a good list. He said he had spent some time in Frankfurt and one thing that had totally amazed him was the cleanliness, “so friggin clean you could do a surgery on the sidewalk.”

He asked what the biggest economic powers were in the EU? Did Germany and France now get along, or were there still animosities over the world wars? What about Alsace Lorraine, was that area part of France again? I told him that had mostly been settled after the first world war and that the countries got along well enough now, had some common goals and principles, but with divergent positions on many things as well.

He wanted to know how Germany recovered after the second world war, whether it was just “through hard work.” I mentioned the German economic miracle, the Marshall plan, the Allies, the dismantling of the German steel industry, the development of Germany as a market for US products, the US interests in the country for its geopolitical place, etc. He said he absolutely loved the PBS show Beyond Our Borders which regularly profiles a different country with every new episode.

He wanted to know whether Germany still had Gypsies and Roma, and whether reparations still had to be paid even today. He had been, he said, to Marseilles once and gypsies were everywhere there and they regularly were being deported by the government. I mentioned Django Reinhard but he had not heard of him. He asked where gypsies came from. We talked about Indian origins and Transsylvania and the corruption of the word Egyptians and the gypsies that came every year through my hometown with big American cars and long trailers and feisty kids that would beat us at soccer and take all our marbles. He didn’t think there were any Gypsies in America but thought the Irish Travellers were just like them.

He asked why the US was not helping Africa develop, why China was everywhere now on the continent building airports, dams, highways, harbors, entire cities, all with Chinese workers. I said I had read the Chinese had been selling loads of heavy machinery to Eritrea for agriculture, construction, mining and so on. I said I had always wanted to go to Asmara in Eritrea, that I had seen pictures of the capital looking like a beautiful city in Italy with modernist architecure from the 1930s and that I would love to one day take that infamous steam train up from the coast to the highlands of Asmara.

He said Asmara was not like Frankfurt but it was also very clean. He scoffed at Italian colonialism in Eritrea saying that the Italians were racists who couldn’t really fight. They were not very successful in taking the farmland they wanted from local tribes and they also never managed to occupy Ethiopia for any length of time, even though they really wanted their coffee beans. They lost the guerilla war against the British fighting “like little children.” Italians, he said, didn’t have much to offer to the region. “What could they give us? Pasta, wine, the Mafia, what were we gonna to do with such things?”

He said he was from Djibouti, a small place on the Horn of Africa. “You can see Arabia from there,” he told me. Djibouti had practically no imports or exports, and many people there still lived like gypsies, like nomads. It would take centuries for a place like his country to look like Frankfurt.

I asked about stability in the region and the pirates. He said they were mostly Somali and from further south. There were no pirates from Djibouti because of a US naval base there.

I asked if Somalia was still a failed state without a unified government. He told me that just last week Somalia had elected a president in the first freely contested presidential election there. Times might be changing, he said. But he also mentioned that many of the clans still fought with each other and true unification would not happen for a long time. Especially the Isaac clan, he said, in the northwestern Somaliland region was trying hard to achieve de facto independence.

We finally formally introduced ourselves. I had seen his name on the driver’s ID card. His name was Hassan B. and we shook hands at a red light. He told me he had become an American citizen seven months ago. He said he spoke English, Arabic, Afar, and French. I hadn’t realized that French was still an official language in Djibouti and that the relationship with France remained very deep, in particular in terms of economic assistance. We continued our conversation in French. He mentioned that he eventually wanted to work for the American Embassy in Djibouti. He had a bachelor’s degree from NAU and with all the languages he spoke he thought he might have a good chance. He said he had met the current US Ambassador to Djibouti and she had encouraged him to take his foreign service exam.

When we got to my place and I paid the fare, Hassan told me that he was saving money and studying downtown at the public library and that he would try taking the exam next year.

Driving time = 25 mins

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Public Transport Story #43

Another item found in my notes:

Dec 22, 2011: An elderly African American woman with dreadlocks a meter long told me on the bus line #96 this morning that I looked just like Graham Chapman from Mony Python.

I said that I didn’t remember him or knew what he looked like. “It’s the eyes,” she told me.

She went on to say that the dead Norwegian pet parrot was “my idea” and that they had originally wanted to use a toaster. “I” died, she said, about 20 years ago from throat cancer and that “my” ashes were spilled somewhere when Terry Gilliam tripped over “my” urn.

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Public Transport Story #35

I found the following in my notes today:

I love the humanity and short stories of public transportation.

May 13, 2011, today’s new acquaintance: Louis, truck driver, originally from Newark, NJ. Black polo-shirt, day-glo swim trunks, black sneakers, black socks. Mid 50s. Below, summary of friendly chat with Louis on Light Rail between Roosevelt/Central Ave and 24th/Van Buren stops after he asked me whether he needed to swipe his day ticket anywhere on the train. (Answer: No, man, you’re good).

As told by Louis: “Had a layover here in Phx for 12 hrs today. Need to get back to the terminal now to catch my Greyhound bus to LA. Going to pick up my truck there to drive a load to Chicago. Don’t have a home no more in this country, I live in my truck. Everything I got here is in my truck or in storage at Greyhound. It’s just 5 bucks a locker. Spent day downtown wandering around, checking shit out, drinking some wine – need to catch some zzzs on the bus ride over night. Been married 8 times. Yeah, tell me about it. Got 7 kids, oldest is 37, youngest 3 yrs 2 mo. I make 800/wk, that’s take home. I send 700/mo to the Philipines to my new wife. Met her on Must have interviewed like a hundred women. Took me 18 months to find her because I was looking for someone who wanted to stay in the Philipines. You know, 98% of women there only want to come to the US. My monthly wire transfer triples in the Phillipino village where we built a 3-bedroom house. It’s got all the amenties of a Western home in the suburbs. When I married my wife 4 years ago she immediately became the 3rd richest women in her village. My wife is as tall as my nipple, that’s from the floor. Ha! She weighs 78lbs. She’s real tiny, like a 9yr old American girl, but she’s fully matured. She gave us the most beautiful boy you can ever imagine.” He showed me pictures of his house there, his wife, and his youngest son. Ran off the train turned around, smiled, and said: “If I dropped a 100 bucks on my seat, you can keep it.”

Total travel time together – 6 minutes. So much said, so much more to imagine.

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Exit Music

Done reading.

Second to last title (so far) in Ian Rankin’s Detective Inspector John Rebus series set in Edinburgh. I think there are about 17 in that series before that. I may have read one or the other a long time ago, but I just can’t remember. Rebus seemed vaguely familiar. If this book is any indication the series is an excellent one. Rebus is an interesting, if not altogether likable character and the backdrop of Edinburgh with some socio-political commentary (e.g. “less concern with the underworld, more with the overworld”) is pretty fascinating, too. The police procedural in Last Exit takes place roughly at the time of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. That story comes up a few times and leads one to believe that a similar conspiracy is afoot here in the murder of a Russian poet.

I bought the first 8 in the series to slowly catch up from the beginning.

Some nice expressions:

  • Perish the thought.
  • Slay us with an insight.
  • Bully for you.
  • Fancy a fry-up?
  • You taking the piss?


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