THE BEST OF 2013: 13 Films For ’13

From "Behind the Candelabra"

A Provisional List Of The Year’s Best Films by Craig J. Clark

For the third year running, I have been tasked by The Ryder with providing a summary of the year in film. As ever, it’s difficult for me to compile a proper year-end list when there are still so many major films that I haven’t been given the chance to see. Among the ones that didn’t make it to the Bloomington area by press time are the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Spike Jonze’s Her, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. Even after removing those from the equation, though, there are still plenty of great films left for me to pull together a baker’s dozen that are worth seeking out, either at home or (in some cases) still in theaters.

One thing that hung over the first half of the year, cinematically speaking, was Steven Soderbergh’s impending retirement from film directing. If he sticks to it, that would make his last domestic release Side Effects, a solid medical thriller in the same way Haywire was a solid actioner and Contagion was a solid disaster film. Side Effects was merely a warm-up, though, for his true swan song Behind the Candelabra, which premiered on HBO in the States, but actually screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and has been shown in theaters virtually everywhere else in the world but here. Anchored by Michael Douglas’s flamboyant performance as Liberace – one that extends beyond mere impersonation and finds the beating heart beneath all the sequins and razzle-dazzle – and Matt Damon’s take on hunky up-and-comer Scott Thorson, who finds himself caught in the glitzy showman’s orbit, Behind the Candelabra is a compelling portrait of a closeted entertainer and his overwhelming need to see himself reflected in the beaming faces of his (invariably) younger lovers.

From "Frances Ha"

“Frances Ha”

Summer brought with it the usual conflagration of big-budgeted blockbusters and star-driven spectacles, but I was more taken with the intimate character studies of Frances Ha and Before Midnight. Filmed on the streets of New York in luminous black-and-white, Frances Ha is an unabashed love letter to the city and to its lead actress, Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. As an understudy for a cash-strapped modern-dance troupe who is struggling to hold onto her dream of dancing professionally, Gerwig’s Frances has a lot of growing up to do over the course of the film, which is why it’s so gratifying when she finally comes into her own.

While Frances is trying to find her place in the world, Céline and Jesse, the protagonists of Before Midnight, have settled into an uneasy partnership that threatens to dissolve during an evening of no-holds-barred self-examination. Returning to the characters they previously played in 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke continue to compel us to care about them as a couple, raising the stakes in a way that feels organic to the story, which they once again concocted with director Richard Linklater. If they plan on keeping to this schedule, I look forward to seeing where the two of them are in another nine years.

From "Before Midnight"

“Before Midnight”

The closest analogue to the Before trilogy is Michael Apted’s Up series, which has been checking in with the same group of Britons every seven years, starting when they were seven years old in 1964’s Seven Up! Over the years, some of the participants have dropped out and then dropped back in again, but 13 of them made themselves available to Apted’s camera crew when it came time to make 56 Up. (As is sometimes the case, one who’s been absent since 28 Up returned mostly to garner some free publicity for his band.) Taken individually, the Up films may not seem that revelatory, but their true power lies in the accumulation of detail as each installment builds on the ones that came before it. And I’m not ashamed to admit that the way each one ends with a replay of the closing moments of Seven Up! never fails to bring me to tears.

The capacity of human beings to be moved by the plights of strangers (or not, as the case may be) is at the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, which examines the fallout from Indonesia’s anti-Communist purge following the military’s 1965 coup. Cannily, Oppenheimer does this by telling the story of Anwar Congo, a gangster-turned-executioner who’s more than happy to demonstrate his wire-strangling technique for his camera. “This is how to do it without too much blood,” he boasts, but when he’s shown the footage later on he’s not impressed because it doesn’t look realistic enough. When Congo’s given the chance to do some re-enactments with the help of actors, makeup artists and the like, though, he starts to recognize just where his bad dreams come from. The result isn’t always a pretty sight, no matter how baroque some of Congo’s fantasies are, but the birth of a conscience is a rare thing to capture on film.

Another rarity in the world of film is the work of multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth, who went nine years between his debut, 2004’s Primer, and his follow-up, this year’s Upstream Color. Like Primer, Upstream Color is designed to be the sort of film that one needs to see more than once in order to fully grasp everything that’s going on, but it can also be appreciated for its hazy, dreamlike atmosphere. This is a quality shared by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, which stars Toby Jones as a soft-spoken British sound engineer who’s summoned to Italy to supervise the mix on what he’s dismayed to learn is a horror film. On top of that, the longer he works on “Il Vortice Equestre” (or “The Equestrian Vortex,” which doesn’t have all that much to do with horses), the less Jones is capable of distinguishing between it and reality, leading to a break in the film that matches his mental state. I guess seeing yourself dubbed into Italian can have that effect if you’re not prepared for it.

From "Upstream Color"

“Upstream Color”

While the protagonists in Upstream Color and Berberian Sound Studio have a difficult time adjusting to the circumstances they find themselves thrust into, the dangers of living in the past are ever-present in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, in which his co-writer Simon Pegg gets his old mates back together 23 years after they failed to complete The Golden Mile, a twelve-pub crawl in their hometown. In the years since, his mates (whose ranks include uptight real estate agent Martin Freeman, soulful property developer Paddy Considine, weedy car salesman Eddie Marsan, and teetotaling corporate lawyer Nick Frost) have managed to grow up and become productive members of society, so they’re reluctant to give it another go, but as the oft-repeated refrain goes, there’s no point in arguing with Pegg. The perfect film for anybody who enjoyed the first two parts of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World’s End also pulls off its “end of the world” scenario with a lot more heart than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s similarly apocalyptic This Is the End, which has its moments, but was less interested in combining them into a satisfying whole.

From "The World's End"

“The World’s End”

One of the nastiest surprises of the summer came right at the end of it with the belated release of You’re Next, a well-plotted home-invasion horror film that had the misfortune to come out a few months after The Purge (which should have been purged from multiplexes). Unlike a lot of its impatient ilk, You’re Next eases the audience into its milieu, introducing us to the potential victims and their attendant quirks before a trio of thugs in animal masks descend upon them with an array of sharp weaponry at the ready, prepared to pick them off one by one. Once the games get underway, we discover just how thorough the hunters are — nobody can get a signal, their cars have been disabled, the power is cut — and how surprisingly resourceful one of the would-be victims is in an emergency. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett keep the surprises coming, though, making it impossible to predict who’s going to be next or how they’re going to get it.

The last four films on my list are all recent enough releases — and are garnering enough attention from various critics groups — that I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about them. Interestingly, three are about how individuals hold up when they’re dealt an unlucky hand. J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is a compelling tale of survival starring Robert Redford as a highly resourceful yachtsman whose boat is damaged beyond repair in the middle of the ocean, but in the gritty-determination department he’s matched by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts set adrift in orbit after their ship is struck by space debris in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. They’re all trumped, though, by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the wrongfully enslaved freeman in the pre-Civil War South who goes from one untenable situation to the next in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. In comparison, Bruce Dern’s borderline-senile would-be sweepstakes winner in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska doesn’t have it so bad, now does he?

Craig J. Clark’s Top 13 of 2013 (listed alphabetically)

  • The Act of Killing
  • All Is Lost
  • Before Midnight
  • Behind the Candelabra
  • Berberian Sound Studio
  • 56 Up
  • Frances Ha
  • Gravity
  • Nebraska
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Upstream Color
  • The World’s End
  • You’re Next

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Film

Scene from "Mud"

Much Ado About Mud And More by Robert Singer

2013 has been a truly bountiful year in cinema, with plenty to offer for both the casual filmgoer as well as the seasoned cinephile. With so many wonderful films to have been released this year, it can be difficult to choose which were the overall best. I myself am a huge comic book and sci-fi geek making it temping to compile this best of the year list: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Man of Steel, and Star Trek: Into Darkness — and just call it a day. Conversely, I’m a cinéaste and lover of independent cinema, tempting me to make a list that looks like this: Upstream Colour, Europa Report, Mud, Gravity, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelve Years a Slave, Blackfish, Dallas Buyers Club, Frances Ha, etc. But as in years past when I have compiled my list for The Ryder, I’ve found it best to go with a list of the films that I found to be the most enjoyable of the year. So, without further ado, the Most Enjoyable Films of 2013.

Man of Steel Zack Snyder, director

The temptation must have been great for Warner Brothers to come up with a darker take on Superman after the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Producer Nolan, writer David Goyer, and director Zack Snyder were wise enough to key in on the fact that what makes Superman so great is the hope he inspires in all of humanity and in turn, Superman is inspired to do more and be more by those he protects. Henry Cavill makes us believe that he is Superman in much the same way that Christopher Reeve did, but with a bit more nuance and angst. The film is visually splendid with many of the flashback scenes evoking the majesty and poetry of a Terrence Malick film, while Snyder’s masterful understanding of the visual language of comics invests Man of Steel with some of the greatest super-powered action set pieces ever filmed.

Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon, director

A far cry from 2012’s The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon’s modern take on Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy is a hilarious delight and Whedon’s most mature film to date. Filmed over 12 days in Whedon’s home with many of his friends and Whedonverse alums, Much Ado About Nothing boasts the best and most underrated ensemble cast of the year. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are electrifying in their roles as the rivals-turned-lovers Beatrice and Benedick while Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk provide hilarious turns as two buffoonish and inept detectives.

Mud Jeff Nichols, director

A folksy coming of age story evocative of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mud follows 14-year-old Arkansas buddies, Ellis and Neckbone, as they cross paths with outlaw Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is in hiding. The boys strike up an unlikely friendship with Mud, as they become his accomplices in evasion. What follows is a deeply rewarding Southern Gothic fable that is as whimsical and hopeful as it is dark and suspenseful. Between Mud and 2011’s Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols is emerging as a truly unique voice in American cinema, turning simple stories about ordinary people into tales that feel much larger and mythic in scale.

[Photo of Ellis & Neckbone from “Mud” at the top of this post.]

Gravity Alfonso Cuarón, director

The word that comes to mind most upon viewing Gravity is ‘awe.’ Awe at the beauty of Earth, awe at the infinite scope of the universe, awe at the breadth of the human soul. Director Alfonso Cuarón meticulously crafts a film of such intense visual splendor that one might worry that the story or development of character would get lost. Not to worry — Cuarón is at the height of his prowess as a master filmmaker. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney turn in exceptional performances, especially Bullock who gives us a heartbreaking heroine for the ages. The 13-minute long continuous opening tracking shot may just be the greatest tracking shot of all time, beating out the famous “uprising” scene from Cuarón’s Children of Men.

Europa Report Sebastián Cordero, director

In the near future, a private space travel company sends a crew of six to the icy moon of Europa, orbiting Jupiter. Their mission is simple: to uncover evidence of life in the frozen seas beneath Europa’s patches of ice. This impressive indie sci-fi thriller is one of the best and most believable films about space exploration ever made. From its clever use of the found footage aesthetic to its grounding in hard science, the film goes to great lengths to convince the viewer that they are watching a very real space expedition. The performances in the film are likewise grounded and believable. As month after month passes by for the crew, the anxiety and feelings of isolation become more and more palpable, culminating in a truly stunning hold-your-breathe spacewalk scene that rivals that of the other space travel film on this list. Once the crew lands on Europa, they are already completely altered by the struggles of their journey but still resolved to carryout their mission. The film takes a powerful turn here as the crew faces new and deadlier struggles on the alien world, culminating in what is a truly astounding climax that simultaneously fills the viewer with hope and dread.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Fiction

Bulawayo

by Justin Chandler

If 2013 proved anything, it’s that the novel still has a place in today’s fast-paced consumer culture. The rights to Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel sold at auction for $2 million dollars, or that three first-time novelists received six-figure deals at the London Book Fair. The fact that more people are reading books than ever before is only bittersweet because it means more people are writing books than ever before too. There’s just no time to experience all the great things that 2013 had to offer. One of my biggest regrets of the year is that Richard House’s The Kills remains unread. But here’s to hoping there’ll be plenty of time to read when we’re dead. Either way, here are five very diverse books that you really ought to check out (preferably before 2014’s bounty arrives).

Mira Corpora Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio, 186 pages)

Mira Corpora is the first-person coming-of-age account of Jeff Jackson. The author? No? Or maybe, because if not, who’s the one narrating the tiny chapters on writing that are wedged between the episodes of his life? But surely, probably, hopefully not the author.

Book Cover

The novel follows “Jeff” through an early childhood of orphanages, foster homes, and brief stints living with an alcoholic, abusive mother. At 11 years old Jeff finally runs away, into the wilderness, where he finds other wayward children who’ve created a primitive community without adults. Though he has some very formative experiences, Jeff ultimately leaves this community behind, and readers next find him living on the streets, alone but called out to from graffiti on the walls and mail that miraculously finds its way to its addressee, “The Kid in the Alley behind the Chinese Place on 1st Avenue.”

The summary so far may sound simple and harmless, but it isn’t. Mira Corpora is overflowing with fear, with the threat of violence, and the possibility that however close Jeff comes to creating some semblance of home, it might at any moment be torn away.

These fears come to a head with the appearance of Gert-Jan, an ominous German who accosts Jeff on the streets, informing him that he, Gert-Jan, knows someone who can cure Jeff of what ails him. What is that? We — and Jeff — don’t know. But in the next chapter we’re introduced to a nameless sex-slave version of the novel’s central character, ostensibly cured, who is now called “the body” and has only two phrases it can utter: “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

And this is like only halfway through the novel. It’s terrifying, and trippy, and you’ll likely read the thing in one fevered, nightmarish sitting.

But nestled in all the dark and hideous acts and thoughts is a sense of hope, I think. Told from the perspective of the young, the disenfranchised, the victimized, the homeless and orphaned and too, mortal, born with a body of flesh and blood and subject to the terror of being alive without your choosing, the book can be read as a striving — in its darkness, in its many refusals — toward a life of fullness and freedom. This striving is both the terror and the hope of youth, an insatiable hunger for union as the world expands to reveal how very large the gaps between yourself and everyone else are. There’s a feeling, reading these pages, that despite everything that’s happened to Jeff, anything — someone he’s just met, or a mixed tape from a complete stranger — might give the chance to come back to life, to begin again, forever fresh, gone but returning, newness itself a sort of grace.

Orkney Amy Sackville (Counterpoint, 224 pages)

Orkney tells the story of a professor on his honeymoon with a former student nearly forty years his junior. The bride has chosen the Orkney Islands as their getaway, and their island is largely uninhabited, giving the whole novel — which details the two weeks that comprise their honeymoon, each chapter devoted to a day — reads as a very intimate portrait of the beginning and possibly the end of a marriage.

Richard, technically still on sabbatical, is supposed to be working on a compendium of the various enchantment narratives he’s been studying his entire career, but for much of their vacation he can’t do more than stare longingly out the window at his wife, thinking back on the few brief encounters they had before he asked her to marry him. When he’s not reminiscing, he’s watching her, jealous of anyone or anything that might potentially steal her away from him. As she walks the shore, passing across the frame of his window, or sits on the beach, contained and stilled, searching for nothing in the nothing gray of the sea, Richard longs (even in the midst of it) for their time together to never end. Each night they come back together to make love and attempt to get some rest, the wife despite her nightmares of drowning and Richard despite his worrying over her. By the end of their stay together, small cracks are beginning to show in the armor of Richard’s idyll, though these signs in no way prepare the reader for what’s to come.

The novel is subtle and layered. That they are practically the only two characters in the book, and given that Richard’s first-person account creates such distance between his bride and the reader, it becomes hard in some ways to tell how the relationship works, just what’s at stake, whether what we’re reading is a story of true love, depraved misogyny, or an enchantment story not unlike the kind to which Richard has devoted his life.

This is a quiet book, one that should be read with care, when time is not of the essence. Don’t force your way through it. Float across the pages as if riding the sea. It’s ruminative, meditative, and it deserves a slow and careful reading. Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt if you read it by the fire.

Byzantium Ben Stroud (Graywolf Press, 192 pages)

Because I’ve been working on a novel of my own, most of the books I’ve read this year have been novels. I missed out on a lot of good story collections, but I didn’t skip over this one, and I’m glad for that.

Byzantium contains ten stories that vary widely both in terms of time and place. The title story takes place in the 7th Century AD, and follows the son of a deceased general who’s offered the chance to reclaim his family’s lost nobility. This opportunity, as any in this collection, comes with a price — if the narrator wants to serve the empire, and reclaim that nobility, he must castrate a seemingly innocent, possibly miraculous monk whom the current emperor fears is a threat to his rule.

Here, as in many of the stories in this collection, what’s really at stake goes deeper than the outward struggles. The reader consistently finds Stroud’s characters torn between two worlds, as if they’re nearly resigned to the life they’ve been offered but feel still called to another version of life, one more genuine and harmonious but far more difficult to navigate. Their choice, as well as the meandering ways they attempt to delay or forego that choice, is what these stories really want to show us.

This is nowhere more obvious than in Amy, a story that comes later in the collection. A foreign-exchange professor teaching in Germany for a semester (and “fleeing a failing marriage”) runs into an acquaintance from high school. A strange and pitiful affair—if it can be called that—ensues and escalates, despite the narrator’s wishes, and by the end of the story our narrator has not only lost his chance with Amy and his wife, but seems in some ways content with this, as if his loneliness were not only his fault but what he wanted all along.

Don’t let my penchant for the more lugubrious stories in this book fool you. If Stroud casts a wide net in terms of time and place, the net he casts for tone is even wider, and there are plenty of moments that will leave you pleasantly surprised, even laughing. It’s an incredible first collection, full of stories where characters struggle to tell their own.

We Need New Names NoViolet Bulawayo (Reagan Arthur Books, 304 pages)

This coming of age story begins in Zimbabwe and follows the path of Darling and her friends as they run amok in a shantytown called Paradise, stealing guavas from the rich, daydreaming of America, and growing into an awareness of the instability of their lives.

Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo

Throughout the first half of the book we are given glimpses of the unimaginable difficulties of being a child in an impoverished and war-torn country, and reminded constantly that Darling’s aunt in America will someday soon be taking her to live there. When the aunt finally comes through on her promises, Darling’s America is not quite the one she’d envisioned. The celebrities and fancy cars are still very far away, and worse, what Darling has lost in leaving Zimbabwe seems incalculably greater than the safety and privilege she has gained in coming to the USA.

Bulawayo’s ear for voice is incredible, and Darling’s story is sincere and moving, but probably the most powerful force in Darling’s narrative is a prevailing question that haunts it: what can activism do? What does it mean to give voice to suffering? Just what can activism do when it is so far removed from what it is trying to help? Often, what masquerades as activism becomes commodified, another badge to be worn (think here of TOMS’ “One for One” concept, or The Gap’s “Red” campaign) rather than a sustained investigation into poverty and suffering. It is the commodification of caring that appalls Darling throughout her time in America, the pity  that revels in the cruelty and poverty witnessed rather than making any concerted effort to understand and overcome.

Bulawayo’s novel is one of the few places where the voice being heard isn’t an uninvited, indifferent observer, commenting on the suffering the way a connoisseur might a sip of wine. As Chipo, one of the children Darling left behind, says while they are Skyping together some years after Darling has left Zimbabwe, “But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 640 pages)

While the preceding books were in no particular order, I have to admit that I’ve saved the best for last. And my god is it good. Shacochis’s second novel, 20 years in the making, is the type that defies summation and demands you experience it first-hand. And I demand you read it first-hand too, if I’m allowed to demand something. Because it’s so damned good, part of me doesn’t want to talk about just on the principle of you experiencing it on your own. But I’ll give it a try anyway.

 Shacochis

Bob Shacochis

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul begins with Tom Harrington, a human rights lawyer, being asked to accompany a relative stranger down to Haiti to investigate the inexplicable murder of Renee Gardner. Turns out Harrington not only knew the deceased but was intimate with and betrayed by her, though she was known by another name at the time. Harrington’s search for justice is carried parallel with his reflections on their time together, and by the end of the first of five books that comprise the novel Harrington has uncovered far more than he’s solved, leaving readers with a strangely satisfying anti-climax.

But what seems an entire story in and of itself turns out to be only one of the final turns of the screw, as the next book takes us back fifty years to Croatia, at the end of World War II, to explore the beginnings of a struggle Harrington was barely able to even glimpse. It’s here that the story finds its chronological beginning and its seed, and for the next four-hundred pages what opens itself up to the reader is a beautifully rendered blend of mystery, history, and family drama.

What makes the novel so amazing is that in dealing with all of these subjects it is able to transcend them too, to achieve an aboutness that is beyond the bounds of its content. The novel is more than merely what happens: in its closeness and depth and its attention to acute details, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ends up being about both a fully-realized individual and everyone who has ever lived. It’s great, and more than that, it’s one of those rare great books that might just be for everyone.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: Five Books

Newcomer

◆ by Carrie Newcomer

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Rachel Joyce

Recently retired, Harold Frye receives a letter from a friend he has not seen for 20 years.  Instead of mailing his response he decides to walk many hundred miles across the English countryside to deliver it in person. This is a lovely little story about a physical journey, but also a journey toward forgiveness and redemption.

The Sweet By and By Todd Johnson

This tender book is narrated through the voices of four very different women. It is a beautiful exploration of memory, aging and the power of a small kindness. It was refreshing to read a story that explores what we lose and what we embrace as we age.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver

Set in the hills of Appalachia, Kingsolver again has created a window into community, family and the natural world. I absolutely loved the character of Dellarobia, a young woman confined in so many ways and learning how to fly. Kingsolver seamlessly presents social and environmental issues within the context of a very powerful human story.

Breakfast with Buddah Roland Merullo

This book is a delightful twist on the “road buddy” story.  The main character begins a journey back to the midwestern home of his childhood.  Unexpectedly he ends up traveling with a Buddhist monk, encouraging a new perspective on the American landscape.

The Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar Cheryl Strayed

A collection of letters that were originally part of an advice column called “Dear Sugar.” The letters and Strayed’s responses are tender and edgy, human, wise and funny, all at the same time.  It will make you laugh and sigh and think, “Yes, life is like that isn’t it.”

[Carrie Newcomer (pictured at the top of this post) is a singer-songwriter who will be releasing her new album and a book of essays and poems, both entitled A Permeable Life, in the spring of 2014.]

The Ryder ◆ January 2013

THE BEST OF 2013: Music

Charles Bradley

We feel confident in declaring 2013 one of the top ten years in new music in this century. Our reviewers list their favorite albums of the year.

by Jason Fickel

Robbie Fulks Gone Away Backward

A breathtaking set of songs from one of our greatest songwriters. This album is what all the other little Americana-country albums want to be when they grow up.

Daft Punk Get Lucky

We didn’t know it and couldn’t know it in the 1970’s, but disco became our New Folk Music. The New Dylan: Nile Rodgers.

Alex Chilton Electricity by Candlelight/NYC 2/13/97

Chilton

The power-pop/soul genius at his Ardent peak plays an acoustic set of covers when the power itself goes out at the Knitting Factory. He brings it all (Gershwin, Cash, Baker, Monroe, Wilson, Harpo) and then just gives it away like it was nothing.

Allen Toussaint Songbook (Deluxe Edition)

Another NYC live set, this one has the composer playing highlights from his own wonderful catalog, including Southern Nights and Holy Cow — a Chilton favorite. If there’s someone more central to the music of this nation than Toussaint, I’d like to know who it is.

Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, Mark Hummel, James Harman & Sugar Ray Norcia Remembering Little Walter

Today’s harmonica masters celebrate the Earl Scruggs of the humble harp. Walter could swing it like nobody and these guys have fun keeping it going.

[Jason Fickel is a singer-songwriter-guitarist and performs frequently with vocalist Ginger Curry as Jason & Ginger.]

by Cathi Norton

James Cotton Cotton Mouth Man

A celebration of James Cotton, a heavy harmonica and blues influence on generations of players.  Many artists guest on this disc (Buddy Guy, Greg Allman, Keb Mo, Ruthie Foster, Delbert McClinton, etc.) to honor Cotton’s pervasive influence over his long career as a blues man. Top of the line stuff.

Trampled Under Foot Badlands

Trampled Under Foot

Trampled Under Foot is great at respectfully working traditional blues into something of their own.  Each member plays like blazes, song-writes like champs, and lead vocalist Danielle Schnebellen’s vocals are by turns scorching and sweet. She and brothers Nick and Kris Schnebellen make up a full power trio that rocks-, funks-, and blues-it, soaring all the way.

Toronzo Cannon John The Conquer Root

Toronzo bursts out of the cannon (pun intended) with high-octane performance mojo. Describing himself as “a bus driver that plays guitar,” he quickly proves that an understatement. A love of Jimi Hendrix and respect for blues has not been lost on avid audiences. He’s lately been setting the blues world on fire with expressive vocals, great originals, blistering guitar work and fun-loving showmanship.

Cash Box Kings Black Toppin’

Post-war blues aficionados from Chicago spread out — mixing in Delta and Louisiana “swamp” blues and even rockabilly with their trademark jump tunes. It’s great to hear a younger set of Chicago players hit the blues groove as solidly as these boys do.

Sugaray Rayford Dangerous

Native Texan Sugaray Rayford is a big man with a big voice who reminds me a lot of Howlin’ Wolf without the growl. Backed by great L.A. session players, Rayford’s voice is the real deal as he moves through blues with soul deep conviction and easy confidence. Glad we can add another soulful singer to the blues world.

[Cathi Norton is the Blues Genre Director at WFHB 91.3/98.1 FM radio.  She reviews most of the blues CDs for the station and also works as a disc jockey for the “Blue Monday” show.]

by Michael McDowell (Top of the World)

Leyla McCalla Vari-Colored Sings

Fine Haitian folk songs meet the poetry of Langston Hughes on Leyla McCalla’s debut; if that’s not enough, she also plucks and strums the cello. You might have seen McCalla, who usually tours with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, on her own at the inimitable Lotus World Music & Arts Festival of 2013.

Ballake Sissoko At Peace

Accompanied by French cellist Vincent Segal, Sissoko, a kora virtuoso, weaves melodies rare and exquisite on At Peace, a dream dedicated to his troubled homeland, Mali.

Various Artists The Ladies at Joe Gibbs

Beverley, Hortense, Marcia and more — the ladies are here, singing sweet roots reggae over sultry rhythms that rock slow. Legendary producer Joe Gibbs gave the world some of the best music to come out of Jamaica in the seventies, and this album contains some of his finest work.

Yasmine Hamdan Ya Nass

Hamdan

Yasmine Hamdan founded what may have been the first indie/electro outfit to appear in the Middle East, Soapkills. Though she now lives in Paris, Hamdan began her career in Beirut, and this is the roundabout tale of Ya Nass, a unique blend of popular and traditional Lebanese music and contemporary indie sounds. And it sounds nice, too.

Roberto Fonseca Yo

Roberto Fonseca took Ruben Gonzalez’s place in the Buena Vista Social Club. He has toured with Omara Portuondo (also of the Club), and is widely regarded as one of the most gifted to pianists to emerge from Cuba in decades. This adventurous album melds contemporary jazz, African influences, and the rhythms of Cuba, and is absolutely an item to add to your collection.

[Michael McDowell is the World Music Director at WFHB.]

by Markus Lowe (Electronic)

Kaleidoscope Jukebox Infinite Reflection

Indiana native producer Clint Carty takes you on a global-electronic fused journey. Plenty of smooth and soulful chilled beats, old swing reworks, sitar-laced rhythms and warm horn drenched space funk.

Letherette

Wolverhampton duo brings you trappy and trippy dance music that bubbles with fun. Brilliant synth glitch arrangements and atmospheres take in many moods from the introspective to the upbeat.

Alunageorge Body Music

Long awaited debut album from duo Aluna Francis and George Reid. Slippery and seductive sounds that breathe 90s pop/R&B flavor with modern electro groove and styling.

Boards of Canada Tomorrow’s Harvest

Scottish duo surprise return offers their most dark and visceral sound to-date with rich textures and deep layers that unfold like a haunting film score transmitted from a distant galaxy.

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Daft Punk

Triumphant return of French robot rock pioneers, ditching the computers and crafting an astonishing blend of their signature robotic sound with vintage disco dance rhythms and smooth instrumentation.

[Marcus Lowe is the WFHB Electronic Music Genre Director.]

by David Smith (Metal)

Abyssal Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius

Abyssal have created a terrifying monster of an album. Their superb musicianship creates an atmosphere that is unimaginably dense, absorbing, and perfectly claustrophobic.

Aosoth IV: An Arrow in Heart

This black metal masterpiece is full of menacing riffs that are at once rhythmic and cerebral. Aosoth balance their understated, avant-garde tendencies with focused brutality.

Church of Misery Thy Kingdom Scum

The thick, fuzzed-out, groove-laden guitars and massive beats lay the perfect foundation for this Japanese doom quartet to explore the darkest realms of the human psyche.

Gorguts Colored Sands

Gorguts

With their first release since 2001, Gorguts exceeds all expectations. They have taken their trademark dissonance and meticulous composition to new heights in this deep and dizzying collection.

Nails Abandon All Life

An absolutely crushing, perfectly-engineered amalgam of hardcore and metal, these short bursts of intelligent aggression and fury pummel the listener into a state of blissful submission.

[David J. Smith is metal genre director and host of “Sedimentary, Igneous, and Metalmorphic” every Friday night on WFHB.]

by Jamie Gans (Acoustic Roots, Bluegrass, and Celtic)

The Paul McKenna Band Elements

Upon my last visit to Scotland, I was asked by a native Highlander, “Where ye frome, lad?” “Indiana”, I told him. “ “Ach aye, well I guess, someone’s gaw’ta be from thaya”, he jokingly responded.  Hailing from Glasgow, The Paul McKenna Band is currently recognized as one of the top Celtic groups.  They’ve cranked out one of their most inspired albums yet, Elements, which includes their heartfelt rendition of Farewell To Indiana about a Scotsman’s return to the Scottish Highlands from living a few years in the lowlands of Hoosierland.

Liz Carroll On the Offbeat

Chicago-Irish musician Liz Carroll recently came to Bloomington to perform at The Buskirk Chumley Theatre for the 2013 Lotus Festival, treating us to her dazzling, virtuosic fiddling. Her new album, On the Offbeat, is adorned by some of the best players in their field including the internationally acclaimed Scottish harpist, Catriona McKay and Belfast guitarist, Sean O’Graham. Liz raises us to the next dimension of her musicianship on both her on and off beat.

Ruth Moody These Wilder Things

Moody

From indie rock to indie roots, Canadian vocalist Ruth Moody of The Wailin’ Jennys takes us on a sleigh ride of her new original material. This thoroughly enchanting album is tastefully seasoned with some of the finest instrumentalists and vocalists from both sides of the border and Atlantic including Jerry Douglas, Aoife Donovan and Irish piper, Michael McGoldrick.  Ruth’s golden voice swings us into only the best of moods on These Wilder Things.

Ron Block Walking Song

As the guitarist of Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ron Block demonstrates his prowess not just as an instrumentalist featuring a few toe-tappin’ tunes, but most remarkably as a singer and melody maker on his new solo recording, Walking Song. Ron composed the music, but he collaborated with poet Rebecca Reynolds, who wrote the lyrics to this collection of mesmerizing originals that are guaranteed to melt your heart.

Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby Cluck Ol’ Hen (Live)

If you say you are on the fence about bluegrass music I can tell you that you will soon be off it dancing in your own imaginary meadow of bluegrass to Skaggs and Hornsby’s new live album, Cluck Ol’ Hen. Ricky Skaggs and his band of high talent, Kentucky Thunder, will dazzle you. But the real power ingredient that will make you roll off the fence with joy is Bruce Hornsby’s inspirational piano playing (and singing). Makes you wonder why the piano isn’t a regular in every bluegrass band.

[Jamie Gans is both a self-employed musician and a radio programmer for WFHB’s “The Celtic Road” and “Rural Routes” shows.]

by Robert Meitus

Charles Bradley Victim of Love

Charles Bradley

Before you listen to Charles Bradley, watch the documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, and you will be sure to fall in love with this 65-year-old former James Brown tribute singer.  He was discovered by Daptone Records and has taken the world by storm, including Bloomington, now a regular stop on his tours. 100% joy and love listening to CB. Even better to see him live.

Milk Carton Kids The Ash & Clay

It’s not unusual for me to learn about something very cool mid to late in the game. This duo is what you might get if you mixed the DNA of Simon & Garfunkel with that of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. Great songs, great vocals, great guitar work.

Bela Fleck & Nashville Symphony The Imposter

Buy this album to hear what you missed when the Nashville Symphony cancelled its performance with Fleck at the IU Auditorium last fall. It was a great concert nonetheless, with Abagail Washburn saving the day. But the album is also very compelling if you are open to a banjo concerto.

Bear’s Den Agape

I discovered these guys opening for Mumford & Sons this summer and have fallen in love with their simple melodic folk/rock sound. Reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s Michigan era at times.

Olafur Arnalds For Now I Am Winter

A very quite, beautiful album of mostly instrumental strings and loops.  Also, Icelandic and highly creative, but much mellower than Sigur Ros.

[Robert Meitus is an entertainment lawyer. He purposefully excludes his clients’ albums from this list (e.g., great new releases from Joshua Bell, Cage the Elephant, Foxygen, and others).]

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: TV

"House of Cards"

 

Meth Dealers and Time Traveling Aliens ◆ by Dan Melnick

 

Thanks to the ubiquity of the DVR and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, many like to say that we live in the golden age of television. Whole seasons are only a click away with next to no commercial interruption and a year’s worth of episodes being delivered at once. Sometimes it feels like waiting week to week for the next installment is a thing of the past. With networks like HBO and Showtime raising the bar, cable has had no choice but to follow suit and offer a similar level of excellence to its programming in an effort to compete. Years ago, everyone talked about HBO, but it’s AMC, a staple of basic cable packages that had the best show on TV in 2013. There may be internal wars going on between basic and premium channels; the internet and cable providers, but one thing is certain, we the consumers are reaping the benefits. And oh, the bounty is plentiful. It’s been a great year of television.

Justified

Season four was a way of reinventing itself. The show has had its ups and downs, but the season four finale proved that it was worth the wait.

House of Cards

 

[Photo of Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood at top of this post.]

 

The best example of the new TV model. It may have had a rocky first couple of episodes, but having all of season one available from the start greatly helped this show get off the ground.

 

Happy Endings

Sadly, 2013 saw the cancellation of this sprightly comedy that was so much more than a Friends rip-off. It could have gone on for its own ten seasons if only it was seen for the gem that it was.

Archer

 

"Archer"

The current season was more dialogue heavy than spy thriller, but it proves that good writing is good writing. It may be a cartoon, but many a show could take characterization lessons from Archer by watching a few episodes.

The Big Bang Theory

 

"Big Bang Theory"

Now that the creators have embraced situational humor over cheap shots at nerd culture, TBBT continues to expand, attracting viewers like stray electrons making it one of the most watched shows on television.

Parks and Recreation

It may have started as a clone of The Office, but it’s become so much more since then. PaR continues to grow in terms of scope and in characters in new and wonderful ways. There’s no tighter cast on TV.

Game of Thrones

 

"Game of Thrones"

Each season gets better than the one before. The source material only provides so much as it’s the striking visuals and impeccable casting choices that keeps this show fresh. Political intrigue is so much more interesting when knights and dragons are involved.

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary

A perfect retcon, reboot and revitalization, this love letter to Doctor Who fans had three Doctors on screen at the same time — one of them, John Hurt! — what more could Whovians have asked for? Thank you, Steven Moffat.

Sons of Anarchy

Another example that bad guys have more fun, the boys of SoA have never been better. Utter destruction is always one step away and no character is safe. Each episode is like racing down the freeway on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet. It’s OK to scream while you hold on.

Breaking Bad

 

"Breaking Bad"

A perfect end to a perfect show. The five-season arc from mild mannered chemistry teacher to drug kingpin was completed with a painter’s grace. We’re sad to see you go, Mr. White, but it was one heck of a ride!

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Television

"Orphan Black"

The Most Cutting Edge Series of 2013 ◆ by Robert Singer

 

Television in 2013 has shown us that it’s evolving at a rapid pace both technologically and conceptually. Where Hollywood seems to be stuck in a creative rut with every other film release being an adaptation or a remake, television is proving to be the breeding ground for uniquely original visual storytelling. Fueling this creative renaissance in television is the understanding by today’s showrunners that the serial nature of television lends itself perfectly to delving deeper into the development of characters and experimentation with form in ways that few films these days can. The following list is the best that TV had to offer in 2013.

Arrested Development ● Netflix

"Arrested Development"

The return of a cult classic started off rocky but ended up worth it by season’s end. While this fourth season of Arrested Development was its weakest, it proved that it is still smarter and funnier than the majority of comedies on television today.

Doctor Who ● BBC

"Doctor Who"

The classic British sci-fi import celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a bang and shattered ratings for BBC America. This season had its ups and downs but the Anniversary Special and Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor made up for the season’s flaws. The popularity of Doctor Who keeps rising not just in Britain but also around the whole world.

Legend of Korra ● Nickelodeon

The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Air Bender came of age this season as we saw the series tackle questions of spirituality, political persecution, and the connections between good and evil. The animation has skyrocketed from its already top-notch quality to create some of the most striking visuals on TV this year, especially when paired with the show’s exquisite music. This is definitely not just a show for kids.

Fringe ● Fox

The best hard science fiction series on television ended its five-season run with a suspenseful, thrilling, and heartbreaking fight for our Fringe agents against a dystopic future. This show needed a shot of energy after its mediocre season four and it got one with this game-changing final season. It is outrageous that John Noble has never been properly recognized at the Emmys for his brilliant performance as Dr. Walter Bishop.

Mad Men ● AMC

"Mad Men"

Just when you think that Mad Men might be losing steam with its characters devolving back into old habits, Matthew Weiner and company throw a whole bucket of wrenches into the gears, forcing every character to have to deal with a myriad of status quo-altering changes. Don’s evolution (or degeneration depending on how you look at it) provided many entertaining shocks this season.

Downton Abbey ● BBC/PBS

Really Julian Fellowes? Really?! Killing not one but two major and beloved characters? Ugh! I’ll never forgive you. Ever. But seriously, can January hurry up and get here already? We need more intrigue and melodrama of the highest order. Fine Fellowes, you have me for one more season and then that’s it! I mean it! (Let’s be honest this show is too addictive.)

Orange Is the New Black ● Netflix

"OITNB"

Netflix has a gem in this show that feels like OZ meets Weeds, making for one of the best surprises of the year in TV. Orange Is the New Black began as a send up of white privilege but eventually evolved into an absurdist dark dramedy about the necessity and power of human connections, especially when we are at our most desperate.

Orphan Black ● BBC

 

[Photo of Tatiana Maslaney at top of this post.]

 

The sleeper hit of the year is this British-Canadian sci-fi drama about a young woman who discovers she is a clone when one of them commits suicide right before her eyes at train station. Tatiana Maslaney deserves every major television-acting award for her portrayal of six, yes six, different characters (the clones) that all have their own unique personalities, idiosyncrasies, and body language. If Orphan Black is any indication, Maslaney is an actress to watch in the years to come.

Game of Thrones ● HBO

Dragons. Giants. Undead. Murder. Betrayal. Torture. Honor. Weddings. Just a few words that could be used to describe the latest season of the HBO series based on the George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire books. The first two seasons saw change come to the Seven Kingdoms and the Free Cities across the Narrow Sea, but this season showed how change begins to truly affect the show’s ever expanding cast of characters. No one felt the change more than the victims at the Red Wedding, the most shocking and horrifying plot twist in the history of television.

Breaking Bad ● AMC

TV’s best drama the last five years finally ended in 2013 with one of the strongest, most satisfying final seasons ever broadcast. The conclusion to the saga of Walter White’s evolution from glum schoolteacher to cold-blooded drug lord was everything a fan could have hoped for: intense, shocking, bloody, funny, and, much like Walter, precise. We’ll never look at Stevia the same way again.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: Ten (Plus) Sound Bites

Cruz

◆ by Kevin Howley

 

On August 21, Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. In a press statement Manning said, “If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” Manning’s sober assessment of his life and times was one of the more moving sound bites of 2013: a year marked by dramatic revelations of NSA spying, a divisive and costly government shutdown, and all manner of gaffes, blunders, and apologies uttered by politicians, pontiffs, and other media personalities.

10. But the difference with Green Eggs and Ham is when Americans tried it, they discovered they did not like green eggs and ham and they did not like ObamaCare either. They did not like ObamaCare in a box, with a fox, in a house, or with a mouse.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz [pictured at the top of this post] channels Dr. Seuss during his “sort of” filibuster of the Affordable Healthcare Act, September 24.

9. Women go to the doctor much more often than men! Maybe they’re smarter or maybe they’re hypochondriacs. They live longer. Who knows?

FOX News “analyst” John Stossel offers his expert opinion on women’s healthcare, October 31.

8. Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to.

When asked what Bashar Hafez al-Assad could do to avoid US military strikes, Secretary of State John Kerry stumbles toward a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, September 9.

7. Words are important. I understand that, and will choose mine with great care going forward. Behavior like this undermines hard-fought rights that I vigorously support.

Baldwin

Serial offender Alec Baldwin makes amends with GLADD for homophobic remarks the actor hurled at a member of the paparazzi, November 15.

6. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

President Obama explains “American Exceptionalism” during a nationally televised speech on the prospects of US military intervention in Syria, September 10.

5. I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden explaining his decision to leak classified documents detailing the scale and scope of US surveillance programs, June 9.

4. If I knew, I would tell you.

House Speaker John Boehner, when asked when the government shutdown might end, during an appearance on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, October 6.

3. I would never do that. I’m happily married. I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.

Toronto “crack mayor” Rob Ford defending himself. Again. This time for allegations he propositioned a female staffer to perform oral sex, November 14.

2. If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?

Picture 3

Humility becomes Pope Francis in comments regarding the Catholic Church’s
position on homosexuality, July 29.

1. I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now.

Armstrong

Cyclist Lance Armstrong reveals a gift for understatement during his
“worldwide exclusive” interview with Oprah Winfrey, January 20.

Honorable Mention

Now people expect me to come out and twerk with my tongue out all the time. I’ll probably never do that shit again.

Miley Cyrus has second thoughts on her headline groping grabbing performance at the Video Music Awards, September 24.

In Memoriam

If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

The Dark Genius Of William S. Burroughs

Burroughs

◆ by Laura Ivins-Hulley

[The Burroughs Century, a five-day festival at Indiana University and in local venues, will take place February 5-9, celebrating what would have been Burroughs 100th birthday and featuring  events devoted to the author’s written and visual artworks, his life, and his legacy. There will be a film series, art and literature exhibits as well as a display of Burroughs’ shotgun paintings, speakers and panels, musical performances, and more.] Though slight of build, William S. Burroughs was no gentle soul. His life and writings are marked by a certain violence. Not the violence of those literary adventurers — though Burroughs certainly had adventures — who went to war and ran with bulls and reveled in masculinity, but a violence nonetheless. Fascinated with guns and possessing a morbid streak from an early age, Burroughs’ life had many close calls and a few formative tragedies, something reflected in the form and content of his novels.

A member of the Beat generation of writers, Burroughs’ impact on 20th century art and literature is far reaching. He helped inspire cyberpunk literature, and such musicians as Roger Waters and Kurt Cobain have cited him as a primary influence. In 1992, while in his late-70s, Burroughs collaborated with Kurt Cobain to create an album called The ‘Priest,’ They Called Him, a mixture of Burroughs spoken-word art and Cobain’s music. In 1989, he appeared an aging addict in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and in 1991, David Cronenberg adapted Burroughs most well-known novel, Naked Lunch, for the big screen.

Notwithstanding his longstanding influence as a counterculture figure, William Burroughs was born to rather innocuous circumstances, on February 9, 1914. His grandfather invented an adding machine for banking, and a century ago, one would associate the Burroughs name with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, which remained a key computing company well into the 20th century. His parents were well-to-do inhabitants of St. Louis, and the young Burroughs grew up with a maid and a nanny.

Burroughs

Burroughs never quite fit into the respectable life of the bourgeoisie, which many of his classmates and neighbors inevitably noticed. He looked, they thought, “like a sheep-killing dog” or “a walking corpse” and one of his schoolmates considered him “a character” of “the wrong kind.” Fooling around with a chemistry set at the age of 14, the young Burroughs nearly blew off his hand. He received morphine for the surgery and spent six weeks in the hospital, but luckily did not lose the limb. This would be his first close call, and the trauma coincided with his first experience with morphine, a drug that would come to dominate his life three decades later.

Around this same time, Burroughs discovered a memoir, You Can’t Win, by a cultural outsider with the pen name Jack Black. Black was a high school dropout, an addict, and a crook; he was just the sort of hero Burroughs didn’t know he was looking for. The book contained colorful characters like “Salt Chunk Mary,” who dealt in stolen goods, and detailed a world of criminality that was foreign to the adolescent Burroughs. You Can’t Win remained a touchstone for the author into adulthood, and after several years of living his own outsider lifestyle, Burroughs modeled his confessional first-published novel, Junkie, after Black’s memoir.

Despite this early inspiration and a few interesting pieces written in his youth, Burroughs did not become a “writer” until almost 40. And moreover, he was older than his Beat generation comrades, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. By the time the trio met, Burroughs had traveled through Europe, explored a never-realized career in psychoanalysis, and plunged himself into an ill-fated affair with a hustler named Jack Anderson, a relationship that ended with Burroughs cutting off the tip of his finger in a bitter, Van Gogh-ian gesture. When he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in 1944, he was 29, Kerouac nearly 22, and Ginsberg 17. Well-educated and with a self-possessed demeanor, Burroughs quickly became a mentor to these two young writers, though it had been several years since Burroughs had written anything himself.

Later that year, though, Burroughs did pick up the pen again, but the circumstance that led to him writing represents one of the formative tragedies in his life. In August 1944, two good friends of his got into a drunken argument by the Hudson River, and one (a man by the name of Lucien Carr) stabbed the other to death. Carr immediately sought out Burroughs, who told him, “Get a good lawyer,” and “make a case for self-defense.” Carr then went to see Kerouac, who helped him get rid of the dead man’s glasses and the murder weapon. After Carr turned himself in, the police arrested Burroughs and Kerouac, though both were promptly bailed out, Burroughs by his parents and Kerouac by his girlfriend. The murder shook up the three friends, and they each attempted to write about the event, with Burroughs and Kerouac collaborating on a novel they never managed to publish in their lifetimes.

Burroughs, Carr, & Ginsberg

Burroughs (l), Lucien Carr (c) & Allen Ginsberg

Still, though Burroughs was doing some writing, he was not yet “a writer.” He had to undergo more hard living and an almost overwhelming tragedy before he would earnestly begin his writing career.

Enter Joan Vollmer.

Like Burroughs, Vollmer hailed from a well-to-do family, but rejected following her parents into a bourgeois life. She was intelligent, attractive, and sexually free, and although Burroughs had long expressed a sexual preference for men, the pair developed a personal intimacy that led them to become common-law spouses. Their relationship continued between poles of intimacy and frustration. A friend once commented on their telepathic connection, and their devotion to each other — as they traveled from New York to Texas to Mexico, on some scheme or escaping failed schemes — was clear. Still, Burroughs maintained more sexual interest in men than in his wife, and both were addicts. Burroughs alternated between opiates and alcohol, while Vollmer preferred Benzedrine and later turned to tequila while in Mexico. Vollmer was often left frustrated, but the pair did manage to conceive a child, William S. Burroughs III.

While living in Mexico, Vollmer’s health deteriorated, and their relationship grew volatile. However, no one could guess how things would actually end. During a night of heavy drinking with some friends, Burroughs joked, “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell act.” Unbelievably to the others in the group, Vollmer put a glass on her head, laughing somewhat as she did it, and then Burroughs took aim at the glass and shot. The glass fell, unharmed. The shot through Vollmer’s head was fatal.

Through some shady legal wrangling, Vollmer’s death was ruled an accident, and Burroughs ultimately spent only 13 days in jail. The event, however, haunted him throughout his life, forcing him to write as a means to chase sanity. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,” he once claimed. “So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write my way out.” Burroughs son and Vollmer’s daughter from a previous relationship went to live with grandparents, and Burroughs began a series of adventures in South America, hunting for a drug called yage which had purported mystical properties.

Burroughs Burro

In 1953, a dime-back press published Burroughs novel, Junkie, the cover marketing it as a pulp confessional. The book proved a relative success — selling over 100,000 copies — but Burroughs was still in South America looking for yage and seemed not to care. Like his childhood inspiration, You Can’t Win, Junkie plunges into an underworld of drugs and criminality and was culled from many of Burroughs’ own life experiences. Written in a matter-of-fact style, the novel contains explicit descriptions of drug use and the culture of addiction, but moments of philosophical candor pervade the text. It is not simply a dime-back confessional, but a vivid meditation on the meanings of addiction.

Returning to New York from South America, Burroughs attempted to kindle a relationship with Ginsberg, but his friend rebuffed his advances. So, rejected and tormented, Burroughs path eventually led him to Tangier, Morocco, where he continued his junk habit and wrote the bulk of his most famous novel, Naked Lunch.

The years spent in northern Morocco proved a dark, lonely period in Burroughs’ life. He had difficulty in getting over his affection for Ginsberg, his addiction intensified, and his physical appearance assumed a ghostly character. He wrote compulsively, but could not manage to organize his many pages of script, and though his friend had rejected him, letters to Ginsberg served as a lifeline during this period.

In 1955, at the age of 41, Burroughs had hit an emotional wall. Alienated from his friends both geographically and emotionally, he lived a hollow cycle of need sated briefly by needles. Later, he would remark, “I suddenly realized I was not doing anything. I was dying.” At this point he made a decision. He was determined to quit junk.

Of course, Burroughs had made this decision before, quite unsuccessfully. Somehow, though, now it worked. With renewed vigor, Burroughs returned to his writing, experiencing a level of productivity that was completely new to him. Soon, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky, traveled to Tangier to visit Burroughs, marking an end to that tormented chapter of Burroughs’ life. Ginsberg and another mutual friend spent a few months helping Burroughs edit Naked Lunch, and the novel was published in 1959.

Violent, relentless, and lacking any coherent linearity, Naked Lunch was a revelation. As with Junkie, the author drew from his own life while writing, but it cannot be characterized as autobiographical. The story moves promiscuously through different times and settings, with mysterious agents and explicit sex and, of course, frank descriptions of drug use. The purposefully obscene content prompted multiple bannings of the book, as well as an obscenity trial in Boston. Considering Naked Lunch a great literary accomplishment, Norman Mailer testified in Boston on the novel’s behalf. At one point he told the court, “There is a sense in Naked Lunch of the destruction of soul, which is more intense than any I have encountered in any other modern novel.” Mailer’s observation assumes an additional air of truth when we think about Burroughs tormented existence through much of Naked Lunch’s writing.

In Naked Lunch, we can see Burroughs marrying violence of content to violence of form, but it was not until he discovered the “cut-up” method that this impulse was fully realized. A form of verbal collage, the cut-up method involves literally slicing up pages of text with a pair of scissors, and rearranging those pieces to create unexpected juxtapositions. Not everyone in the literary community appreciated such a method (Samuel Beckett once referred to it as “plumbing”), but through it Burroughs produced a fascinating set of novels called The Nova Trilogy.

The three editions of The Nova Trilogy — The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express — contain pieces drawn from multiple sources. Readers familiar with Naked Lunch will recognize its presence in the trilogy, and it also contains scraps from Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The novels possess a similarly explicit content as Burroughs’ previous works, but the cut-up method leads to text that is more fragmented and yet more rhythmic than Naked Lunch. Phrases recur like a refrain in poetry, but it is not always clear how they relate to the scenes surrounding them. Partially inspired by surrealist methods for creating art, the novels lead readers to explore their own associations, making it impossible to pin down definitive meanings for the disjointed imagery.

Burroughs

Though Burroughs’ career as a writer began later than his peers, his influence is wide-reaching. Ultimately, despite being several years older than both Kerouac and Ginsberg, he outlived them both, dying at the age of 83 four months after Ginsberg. Now, in the 21st century, Burroughs continues to be a touchstone for a new generation of writers and artists who seek to push the limits of language and adventurous living.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

Wiiliam S. Burroughs At The Bluebird

Dancing Cigarettes

◆ by C.K.

 

[On March 19, 1981 William S. Burroughs gave a reading at the Bluebird, accompanied musically by Bloomington’s legendary Dancing Cigarettes. The following is an excerpt from C.K.’s journal.]

 

Thursday saw my last day of class, and the long-awaited William Burroughs/John Giorno gig at the Bluebird. I could scarcely wait. Michael C. declined to go at the last moment, so I went with Melanie and my brother Jim, who was recording the show for posterity by agreement with the Cigs.

John Giorno of “Dial-A-Poet” came on first and read (or shouted) four or five poems which were very aggressive and anti-woman, yet amusing. (“Making love to you is like making love to someone on the subway!”) After a long and dramatic pause, Burroughs came forward led by a young preppie-looking asshole said by the Cigs to be his secretary. Burroughs was shorter than I had expected, and skeletal, and frail, yet he read his selections with a vengeance which everyone loved. He sneered and snarled and hung over each word like a hooded viper in a way wonderful to behold. I was sitting with Melanie and Bill Weaver and the Cigs and a few other artsy friends right before the stage by the steps, and had a view of him which could not be equaled anywhere else in the house.

Burroughs finished all too soon, and accepted the crowd’s roars of applause, deigned to give a short encore of a piece about the origin of the universe (our universe is a drop of grease which a giant billions of years ago shook from his fingers, the grease not having quite hit the floor yet) and departed amidst tumultuous acclaim. There came an intermission while Burroughs sat down and signed autographs on copies of Armies of the Red Night and the Cigarettes set up their equipment. I talked to Jim, who had been recording in the same corner with Burroughs and Giorno all night. He was not much impressed with either of the two poets’ readings as such, but was impressed with their repute. He said with evident pride that he had shared a joint with Burroughs, and Giorno had had a pleasant conversation with him and tried to pick him up. I was amused to see that Jimmy was having such fun.

The Cigs began and I danced. I lasted through two sets, yet I had little encouragement from any of the Cig devotees except Bill Weaver. Melanie split early, Laurie didn’t have the money to attend tonight, and Margot went home feeling ill after Burroughs ended. It was discouraging. My screams and shouts lacked enthusiasm or wit. I danced almost all the songs but did not cross over the border. Bill praised my efforts and made it all worthwhile.

[Feature image: The Dancing Cigarettes.]

 

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

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