George Hunka

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Mark Twain in Vienna

I can truthfully say that, in all my travels, I have never felt so well as in this wonderful gemütlichen Vienna, a city from whose splendid yet graceful proportions I have derived so much inspiration that I could put to good use.

Twain spent nearly two years in Austria from 1897 to 1899 and wrote two of his best late works of fiction, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" and The Mysterious Stranger, there; in Vienna itself he met Sigmund Freud, who said of their meeting, "I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person, which was a sheer delight." Candy Fresacher wrote a short essay about his visit for The Vienna Review in March 2008, and Carl Dolmetsch covered his Austrian stay more comprehensively in Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna.

Posted on March 20, 2019 in /Books
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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The illustrious R. Crumb

For my birthday, Marilyn and I dropped in at Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb, an exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery that runs through April 13. The retrospective show, covering Crumb's career from his earliest talking-animal cartoons to his LSD-soaked fantasies of the 1960s and 1970s to his more recent musings about art, life, and eroticism, is an excellent chance to enjoy an overview of the 75-year-old artist's work — and, given its controversial nature, such an exhibition would be unlikely to find a home at the larger warehouses of contemporary work like the Museum of Modern Art.

Fortunately, the Zwirner Gallery and exhibition curator Robert Storr have no compunction about showing off Crumb's shameless explorations of his culture's and his own perversions. An opening room sets Crumb's career in the context of the work of other graphic arts satirists, particularly James Gillray, William Hogarth, Thomas Nast, and Art Young. Their political interests do carry through to Crumb's own work, but Crumb also plumbs his own worst impulses as well as those of his culture. Not a little of his art is in questionable taste, but then, taste is a social construct, and that taste inevitably reflects the deviancies of that society as well. Crumb is, after all, a satirist in the Swiftian mode more than anything else, and his devastating observations about the sexism and racism of his culture resemble the savagery of "A Modest Proposal" and Swift's more scatalogical parodies and satires. That Crumb implicates himself in his satire as well is another similarity with his Augustan co-conspirator against the human race.

The primary joy of the exhibition is the exquisite craftsmanship of Crumb's art (Crumb may have the greatest visual acuity of any cartoonist at work today, reflecting the traditions of Walt Kelly and George Herriman) — exhibition specimens of his recent work, primarily the Art & Beauty series of publications, demonstrate that he may now be at the top of his form, the detail and texture of his cross-hatching technique most evident with close examination of these original drawings, an examination endlessly revealing.

Crumb is a satirist in the American vernacular tradition, perhaps among the last of them, joining Twain, Mencken, and Gaddis in his mastery of popular form and language. Like them, Crumb can brilliantly parody the varicolored lingo and patois of his nation; like them, too, he revitalizes and reinvents his chosen forms — the comic book, the popular novel, the newspaper column — and twists them to attack his own particular targets. (Crumb, along with being a great graphical artist, is also a great writer, with a rich feel for words and the verbal rhythms of a wide variety of Americans; as Twain once pointed out, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning," and Crumb nearly always has access to the right word and the well-placed pause and ellipsis.)

Most of the Zwirner exhibition is composed of comic book ephemera, tearsheets, and sketchbook pages, and it only scratches the surface of Crumb's career, leaning heavily towards his work of the 1970s and 1980s. Previous exhibitions here and elsewhere have thrown a spotlight on his work with his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and a few samples of collaboration are on view here, but they're not the center of the exhibition's project; nor is Crumb's comic-book rendering of Genesis. Among the most interesting samples of his later work are the Art & Beauty drawings and, most recently, Crumb's two-page evocation of a recent conversation he had with curator Robert Storr. Both reflect Crumb's ongoing discomfort with his status in the culture as an icon of underground comics and, also, as a fine "artist," a more contemplative version of the self-mockery with which he regards himself in the earlier stories for his fine Weirdo project of the 1980s. (A comprehensive retrospective of this project is due shortly from Last Gasp.)

Drawing for Print offers a portrait of a diseased mind in a diseased culture, which Crumb dissects with the acuity of an Otto Dix or George Grosz. These days, Crumb has entered a more meditative part of his life, and exhibitions like that at the Zwirner seem to be something of a last chance to consider his accomplishment. As Crumb himself told ArtNews in a recent interview to accompany the opening of the exhibition:

In my youth, I was constantly drawing. Drawing was the only thing I could do with competence. I was afraid of people. I hid behind my sketchbook. I don't draw all the time anymore. Nowadays, I hide behind my ukulele. I guess I'm still afraid of people. I take the ukulele with me everywhere instead of the sketchbook. Fame has made me inhibited and self-conscious about drawing. I stopped enjoying it. Playing those pretty chords of old-time melodies, though, is relaxing and pleasurable.

I hope to visit the exhibition again; there's more to say about it. For now, though, you should get there yourself. (The Guardian also ran an interview with Crumb on the occasion of the opening of Drawing for Print.)

Posted on March 19, 2019 in /Art
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The roots of the roots

Originally written and published in November 2018

When American roots music is celebrated, it's usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to put this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it's going to make anybody rich, as this band recognized 30 or 40 years ago.

So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John's East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing "a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century" for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album "roots music" — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like "Nobody's Business if I Do" and "He's Funny That Way."

This is not particularly concert music like formal ragtime, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody's porch. (It's something that Charles Ives knew well.) Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.

Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman's tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I've heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She's bawdy and even a little beyond on "Moonshine," "Skinny Leg Blues," and the delightfully dirty "Adam and Eve," though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like "Nobody's Business," "He's Funny That Way," and maybe my favorite song on the album, "Arlena." She's backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher-in-the-best-sense moments (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, "Desert Blues") and Crumb's vibrant and subtle ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on "Moonshine." The "Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players" — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.

It's worth pointing out that the term "American roots" is a little specious. The music that the ERSB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it's only because that we've grown to hear it that way. This music didn't magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn't take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John's Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.

If you want to support this kind of music and the research that inevitably follows once you've developed an interest, why not cough up the monthly sawbuck that buys you membership in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings? Better yet, support your local band by purchasing a few of these fine offerings. And best, play them for your kids. My daughters Goldie (10 years old) and Billie (a year younger) joined me in listening to Coney Island Baby yesterday evening, and immediately started snapping their fingers and tapping their toes along to Eden, John, and the rest of their stylish gang. They loved it. So I'm doin' what I can to corrupt the next generation. Order the album for a measly $14.99 (they're throwing postage and handling in for free) and tell 'em Goldie and Billie's dad sent ya.

An informative interview with Eden Brower and John Heneghan can be found here.

Posted on March 12, 2019 in /Music
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Friday, March 08, 2019

A toast to ...

I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

Yesterday I mentioned in passing the great American satirist H.L. Mencken; many years ago I had the opportunity to visit his home on Hollins Street in Baltimore, which had been kept up as a museum. Alas, a few years later, economics dictated the closure of the home, and it's been off limits to the public ever since.

It was a pleasure, then, to find yesterday that the Baltimore National Heritage Area has leased the house and, with a $3 million bequest from Max Hency, will renovate and restore it, with an expected opening to the public of September 12, 2019, which would have been Mencken's 139th birthday. More information in the BNHA's press release here.

The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, has also been on my must-visit list for some time. Comparisons and contrasts between Twain and Mencken, two great American humorists and satirists, are interesting if not necessarily instructive; one is especially impressed that despite the bourgois comfort and respectability of the residences of both, it doesn't appear that this comfort and respectability blunted any of their harsher conclusions about the role, status, and significance of the human race in this vast universe of ours. And I for one would love to hear what they would have had to say about Congressional condemnations of bigotry and prejudice — about as pointless, I suppose, as Congressional condemnations of fog and the color blue.

All in all, between the two, Twain must take precedence over Mencken in so many ways, and Christopher Hitchens offers a few cogent reasons for this in this 2002 book review in the New York Times. Quoth Hitchens:

Not unlike his hero Mark Twain, [Mencken] fulfilled the unofficial office of a one-man opposition. Mencken resembled Twain in his contempt for religion and his distrust (to put it no higher) of foreign adventurism and political hubris. He was also, like Twain, a tremendous humorist and satirist and even entertainer. But there was a largeness and humanity to the laconic Samuel L. Clemens that was crucially absent in the Sage of Baltimore ...

The contrast with Mark Twain is revealing at all points. I possess a recording of Mencken's only known radio interview [possibly this one — GH], which he employed to attack the idea of radio in rather cranky and ponderous terms. It is difficult to imagine Huck's creator making such a paltry use of such a great opportunity, and it is impossible to picture him composing euphemisms about the Führer.

Even so, reading Mencken today still has its pleasures.

So this afternoon at Cafe Katja I'll be raising a glass to the BNHA, the Mencken Legacy Group, and the man himself. Until next week.

Posted on March 08, 2019 in /Toasts
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Thursday, March 07, 2019

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Two things quickly become clear from a re-read of Henry David Thoreau's Walden: First, that the man never had a job; second, that the man never had children. It's all well and good that he enjoyed the leisure to hang out at the edge of a Massachusetts pond for a full two years, and I admire his carpentry and gardening skills (neither of which I share), but it takes a certain kind of arrogance to declare, as he does,

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man, — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind, — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.

To which this old man, nearer 70 than the 37 at which Thoreau cobbled together his screed, must respond with a phrase unprintable in family newspapers. In any event, if I were to take Thoreau at his word and regret my behaving in a way that allows me to keep my job, raise my kids, and pay my bills — well, you can feel that way when you're 37. Bad behavior before 40 is at worst embarrassing and can be marked up to the zest and excesses of youth; after the age of 50, bad behavior is catastrophic at best. Fortunately one doesn't have the desire or the energy for it.

On the other hand, Thoreau did have a point when he said, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail." What you see here today, on this journal, is my own small way of simplifying one or two things — my writing and its dissemination in particular.

Two other writers born in the 19th century suggested that I turn my attention to that. Sam Clemens and H.L. Mencken, unlike Thoreau, did not attend college or university (Thoreau was a Harvard man) and chose fairly early on to make their way in the field of journalism. To that end, they spent their apprenticeships not in writing or higher education but in the art and craft of print. Both men worked for newspapers when there were hundreds more newspapers than there are today, learning the technical intricacies of setting type and running a printing press. This practical knowledge formed a background to the ways in which they thought about the writing they did in their maturity. In his youth, Mencken was given a small toy printing press with which he published a household newspaper; Twain in his youth worked with the real things. (Even in his maturity Twain remained enamored of the mechanics of publishing, pouring a disastrous amount of money into an impossibly complicated new typesetting system — which led, in the end, to his declaring bankruptcy.)

In Philadelphia during my early 20s, I too worked for a newspaper — a legal newspaper, but a newspaper nonetheless — in a building that housed both the editorial and production plants for that publication, so I also learned a little bit about hot and cold type, page composition, layout, and the rest. The emergence of the world wide web, and especially blogging, meant that publishing technologies were newly democratized. Instead of a printing press and typesetting machine, all you really needed to publish your own work was a computer and some kind of software.

Among the earliest blogging applications, and one which appealed to the computer tinkerer in me, was Blosxom, released in 2003. Unlike Blogger or WordPress, blogging programs that emerged at the same time, Blosxom was a pared-down, simple program that ran from a command-line interface. Unlike Blogger or WordPress, too, Blosxom was released without a great many features except for the display of short texts in reverse chronological order (although Blosxom was highly extensible through a plugin repository). It was left to the enduser to design the web site through HTML and CSS and extend the basic Blosxom script as he or she saw fit.

Just as Clemens and Mencken received mechanical training in 19th-century publishing machines, I picked up some technical training in using Blosxom — and not just how to use Blosxom. WordPress is a fine program, but the more you use it, you only learn about WordPress. Because Blosxom is a CGI script, learning and using it means that you learn and use the Unix operating system, HTML, CSS, and even a bit of CGI scripting, a much broader educational experience than learning only one application. It permits you to poke around into the innards of computing technology itself, and through poking around how to control it, how to tell it to do what you want.

I've taken a bit of Thoreau's advice to heart. I have "let [my computer] affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand"; instead of maintaining a blog at one place, my email at another, I've brought everything together at my internet service provider Panix. (As it turns out I'll be saving some money too — a matter of a few dollars and some cents, but also I don't have to deal with Google mail, with its data fishing and advertising, among other more esoteric concerns.) And in doing so, I'm going back to the application with which my writing this journal began. It's a first step towards that simplification of my everyday life. I'm fully aware that simplicity can quickly shade into negligence. On the other hand, it means that there will be fewer details with which I'll be frittering away my life.

I do maintain an archive of my old posts, and from time to time will be republishing a few of them here (though many of these can be described as fritters too).

Posted on March 07, 2019 in /Simplicity
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