What, me worry?

Mad magazine is still staggering along lo these past 71 years — I started reading it myself in 1971 or 1972, when I was about 10, and moved on a few years later to National Lampoon. Even though my subscription was short-lived, I credit Mad with changing my perspective on the world in a way that a lot of other Mad readers acknowledge too — and it still makes me laugh when I page through the collections I still own. It was best put perhaps by Brian Siano in a 1994 issue of The Humanist:

For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather: this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Similar encomiums came from Art Spiegelman (“The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids'”) and R. Crumb (“Artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics”), though Mad publisher William Gaines topped them all when he said, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”

Though National Lampoon‘s efforts in other media — including films, television, and the stage — were far more successful, it’s possible that the magazine went Hollywood too quickly, leading to it and its form of satire having perished many years ago. Mad tried too: a moderately successful stage show in 1966 (with original music by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim) and a moderately successful television show beginning in 1995, but a disastrous 1980 Mad film Up the Academy destroyed any ambitions the magazine had of finding its way to success in movie theatres. In 2006 its director, Robert Downey Sr., touchingly observed that it was “one of the worst fucking things in history.”

I myself have written about National Lampoon in the past, and that magazine recently enjoyed the documentary treatment, but it’s been surprising that Mad, which played such a central role in humor and comedy in the post-war era, has remained without similar recognition from documentary filmmakers — until now, that is. Now in post-production, When We Went MAD!, directed by Alan Bernstein, may be the documentary we’ve all been waiting for. Featuring a history of the publication as well as interviews with many of its staff and enthusiasts, the film promises to be to Mad magazine what Ken Burns’s The Civil War was to the Civil War. No release date has been announced, but the trailer for the film is below.

Comics in a bitter age

About a week after the War in Israel began, I picked up Joe Sacco’s Palestine (Fantagraphics Books, 2015), the collection of Sacco’s comic books that provided a journalistic overview of the West Bank and Gaza in December 1991-January 1992. I did this not because of any particular political sympathies associated with the war, but because I thought it important to expose myself to other historical and geographical material about the region. Comics has been one of my lifelong interests, and Sacco is among the most celebrated of the comics journalists, a pioneer in the field of using narrative comics as a means of expressing individual perspectives on world events.

Reading Palestine for the first time at this point in history was a sobering experience. Sacco, who graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1981, travelled to the region as a solo writer, unassociated with any larger media outlet, and visited and interviewed a side variety of Palestinian men, women, and children over a two-month period; he also spent time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, getting to know a variety of Jewish and Arab Israelis as well. He emerged with a saddening chronicle — inconclusive, as all such chronicles must be, but with a deeper understanding of the tensions in the region and the recent past of the Middle East.

I also must confess that I read it as an antidote to the now-unending news cycle, more traumatic during wartime (an eternal wartime, apparently; the Russo-Ukrainian War continues, as well as a variety of conflicts in Africa and other regions, which largely go unreported in the US media). Distant from the military conflicts, I search for a deeper compassion and understanding instead — for everyone involved — and this is not something one finds in newspaper headlines, television coverage, or Facebook feeds.

I came away from Sacco’s Palestine with two notes relating to comics journalism and to independent comics generally. First, comics provide a unique worldview through the juxtaposition of word and hand-drawn image: a deeply personal expression, unique from other literary forms in that word and image always exist in a state of tension, sometimes ironic, sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous, sometimes sarcastic or satiric. In comics journalism especially this is an antidote to the single-dimension approach of prose reportage, whether that dimension is Ernie Pyle’s or Hunter S. Thompson’s. Second, that tension between word and image, between the white spaces of panels in the comics themselves, provide room for the reader to insert their own responses to what is seen and read. Sacco claims that his use of negative and positive space within an image is a response to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s use of ellipses in his novels: a caesura, a pause, a disconnection that readers bridge themselves with their own reaction. What also emerges from these pauses, from these white spaces, is room for contemplation, for thought itself. Every reader of any literary form from verse to narrative prose to reportage, of course, participates in this, but the comics form demands further effort on the part of the reader in negotiating the relationship between word and hand-drawn image. Contemplation and meditation emerges from that negotiation. (I had the same experience, by the way, reading Daniel Clowes’s new disturbing and masterly Monica, which I hope to write about soon.)

I should also note that comics artists are also responding to another current war, the Russo-Ukrainian War; tomorrow, October 24, will see the publication from Ten Speed Graphic of Diaries of War: Two Visual Accounts from Ukraine and Russia by Nora Krug, who most recently illustrated an edition of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny.

Sacco’s work is a continuance of the comics form’s approach to the real world, especially about war, conflict, and anti-Semitism, and in dark days like these that approach, because it breeds complex thought, is essential to making it through our world. I only need to mention the roles that Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis have played in the maturation of the form. Although these works can’t be characterized as journalism per se, nonetheless their status as imaginative, stylized non-fiction memoirs of the terrors of war — as personal responses to armed conflict — elevates them to the level of art.

Music man

Over the past few years — since the below was originally published here in May 2019 — I’ve still been listening to the likes of the East River String Band, Dave van Ronk, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Blind Blake, Patrick Sky, and even the Harry Smith anthology. I haven’t had much time to pick up the ol’ guitar lately, but hope springs eternal. It still sits in the corner, and I tune it up once in a while. (This sits on a music stand nearby.) In another effort to rekindle inspiration, I republish the notes below. Encouragement in the comments always welcome.

Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.

Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.

And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:

Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.

As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.

I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.

The roots of the roots

Originally published here in 2018. The ERSB’s most recent album is Goodbye Cruel World.

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 keep 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.

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, 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. 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 chords (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant 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 misleading too. The music that the ESRB 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.

Footnotes from Mueller’s life

Now available and shipping from Europe, Partial, a new chapbook series from Christoph Mueller, is billed as “Footnotes from the artist’s life.” The first issue looks to be a gorgeous miscellany of graphics, text, and typography from this unique comics artist; the inimitable Chris Ware, another of my favorite comics artists, says that Partial “captures something essential, buoying and truly life-sustaining” — surely high praise in these troubled times. Partial #1 is now available directly from the artist in a limited edition of 250 copies. More information here.

I wrote about Mueller’s work earlier; you can find those passages here.