Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Quote of the Day (William Trevor, on the Short Story as ‘An Explosion of Truth’)

“If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.” —Irish short-story master William Trevor (1928-2016), interviewed by Mira Stout for “William Trevor, The Art of Fiction No. 108,” The Paris Review (Spring 1989)

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Flashback, May 1978: Bob Seger’s ‘Stranger in Town’ Climbs Charts

I read somewhere that the songs we remember best are those released when we are between the ages of 13 and 17—roughly corresponding to high school. Indeed, Stranger in Town came out in the last month of my senior year. Through the weeks leading up to graduation, then till the end of the ensuing summer, when I waited with trepidation to begin college, these nine songs by Bob Seger seeped into my consciousness.

When I think back to those warm days, a number of songs and albums form the soundtrack of my life, including Jefferson Starship’s Earth, The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” and, over and above all, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town

But Seger has his place, too, like the good-hearted friend who shared your struggles and joys, finding special exhilaration in the abandon of rock ‘n’ roll. Every note signaled he was just like you, all communicated in lyrics of the most direct, heartfelt emotion. 

They had the same effect across the nation, too. On the strength of four singles—“Hollywood Nights," "Still the Same," "Old Time Rock and Roll," and "We’ve Got Tonight"—Stranger in Town made it all the way up to No. 4 on the charts and sold more than 6 million units. 

It started with that voice, best described as “gruff” and “gritty.” Neither smooth nor pretty, it got the job done, a surprisingly durable product, much like the cars that this Michigan native loved to drive.

Stranger in Town caught Seger at the exact moment when he sought to build upon his recent success even as he moved into an alien environment that might threaten it. After a decade of slowly building a provincial audience through high-energy concerts with a backup band in the Detroit music circuit, he broke through to large-scale national acceptance with his studio LP Night Moves. It was the same formula for success that Bruce Springsteen was using on the East Coast, except that “The Boss” was younger and needed somewhat less time to become a sensation.

Yet Seger’s sojourn halfway across the country to California to record at the heart of the nation’s rock-’n’-roll scene left him wondering about his place in the new order. The “Stranger in Town” of his new LP was himself, newly anxious to match his record label’s expectations in what he termed, in an interview with Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh, “platinum paranoia.” “Hollywood Nights” recorded his alienation, symbolized by his fear of being used and discarded by a woman "born with a face that would let her get her way."

Disorientation also figured into “Feel Like a Number.” Although “Hollywood Nights” took the point of view of a nomad, “Feel Like a Number” lashed out at the indignities visited upon a Rust Belt worker already feeling stressed by a new world of foreign competition and automation. (“I work my back till it’s racked with pain,/The boss can’t even recall my name.”) 

At the time of its release, “Feel Like a Number” felt like an exhilarating vow of identity and independence, a rage against the machine. Forty years on, it sounds more like an omen of what can happen when the suppressed discontent of the blue-collar worker bursts out: a to-hell-with-you-all gesture that creates an opening for a con-man Presidential candidate. 

Younger music listeners today will never know what it was like to experience on free-form FM stations like New York’s WNEW the joy of deejays introducing “deep album cuts”—non-single songs whose length or other factors might militate against airing on three-minute Top 40 formats. On Stranger in Town, the quintessential “deep cut” for my money is “Brave Strangers.”

To my knowledge, Seger has performed this rarely, if at all, in concert in the last few decades. Perhaps he felt exhausted by the effort simply to get this on vinyl. It took 168 takes over 11 consecutive days to extract the optimum version, he told “Redbeard,” who wrote about this interview in his “In the Studio” blog. (In the end, the singer chuckled, “We used take seven!”)

The last song on the album was appropriately titled “The Famous Final Scene,” about the conclusion of a love affair. But for leaving listeners on a high, I think Seger would have been better off concluding with “Brave Strangers.” Its long bridge, chronicling the heart-freezing moments surrounding a raucous sexual encounter (“And my hand it was…shaking!”), is really only a pause in a song where half the fun lies in Seger flinging the words out barely fast enough to catch up with the thumping piano.

Like Night Moves, Stranger in Town used the services not just of the Silver Bullet Band but the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and its studio in northwest Alabama. That group amply demonstrated why they became among the most in-demand studio musicians of the Sixties and Seventies. Particularly brilliant was pianist Barry Beckett, whose work on "We’ve Got Tonight" supported Seger in one of the most sensitive, soaring vocals of his entire career. 

But Seger’s touch was so golden at this point in his career that even studio mistakes could turn out to be happy accidents. Such was the case with "Old Time Rock and Roll," when Seger liked an engineer's error so much—an elongated da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da on the piano—that he used it as the song’s infectious opening. (Five years later, that opening would give Tom Cruise all the time he would need to skid across the floor at home in an impromptu dance in Risky Business.) 

Stranger in Town confirmed that Night Moves was no fluke. Rather than freezing in “platinum paranoia,” as he had feared, the album demonstrated Seger’s growing self-assurance as a songwriter, vocalist and studio force. It continued a run of successful albums that lasted well into the late ‘80s, ultimately ensuring him a place in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Quote of the Day (Mel Brooks, on How to Live Longer)

“In order to stay alive, work. Keep working no matter what if you can, at something you love to do. Never ever retire. Never sit when you can stand, never stand when you can walk.” [Pause.] “But don't leave out the Raisin Bran — that may help.”—Writer-director-actor Mel Brooks, 91, on the secret to longevity, quoted in Henry Mance, “Back in the Saddle,” Financial Times, Feb. 17-18, 2018

Monday, May 28, 2018

This Day in Civil War History (Birth of P. G. T. Beauregard, ‘Napoleon in Gray’)

May 28, 1818— Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, perhaps the most multi-faceted, colorful, and ubiquitous senior commander in the Confederate Army, was born in St. Bernard Parish, La., 45 miles from the New Orleans that would be his base for much of his civilian life.
 Although he won the South’s first two military encounters at Fort Sumter and Bull Run and directed sterling defenses of Charleston and Petersburg in the late stages of the Civil War, he saw his hopes for greater glory dashed because of his conspicuous vanity, a troubled relationship with President Jefferson Davis, and an inability to produce results equal to his schemes. 

Three decades ago, a co-worker of mine told me she had a cat, Beauregard. I don’t know the reason that my colleague and her husband called their pet that, let alone their Civil War interests. But the name conjures up something exotic, intent on its prerogatives and full of self-regard—not unlike how detractors (and even some defenders) might view “The Little Creole.”

That latter nickname did more than indicate an ancestry; it pointed to a Continental appearance and cast of mind for this Zelig of the Civil War who seemingly popped up everywhere, from the first shot at Fort Sumter that he directed at his old artillery instructor and friend, Major Robert Anderson, to final surrender in the Carolinas four years later. Not for nothing did T. Harry Williams subtitle his biography “Napoleon in Gray.”

This scion of the Louisiana plantocracy was practically silky, with smooth olive skin, half-lidded eyes, and a moustache that, according to Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, was waxed daily by a faithful attendant. He grew up with French as his primary language, not even learning English till the age of 12, when he was in private school. Even as an adult, wrote John Sergeant Wise, a VMI cadet, “his voice was pleasant and insinuating, with a foreign accent.” 

It was a voice made for seduction—not merely of women (his post-Appomattox possessions, scoured by Union forces for evidence of treason, largely comprised “mash notes from the general's female admirers,” wrote biographer Williams), but of men he sought to convince that he was just the person to serve in office, lead an army, or head up a commercial enterprise. 

It was all facilitated by undoubted energy and intelligence. Familiarity with French gave Beauregard an affinity for the writings of Antoine Henry Jomini, a member of Napoleon’s staff, and the little Louisianan graduated second from his West Point class of 1838.

“On casual meeting the Louisiana soldier could be impressive: his flamboyant martial air, his hauteur, his infectious zest for war combined to give him stature greater than his five foot seven inches,” observed Frank E. Vandiver in Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy. “In moments of public enthusiasm his rhetoric rang Demosthenic periods and his self-confidence ran beyond decency. At such times he bordered on self-caricature. But never quite sure of what he wanted, he could never quite win against himself.”

What began as a clash of cultural and temperamental opposites between Beauregard and Davis ended as a nasty multi-decade public feud over strategy, honor, responsibility and recrimination.  The Protestant, humorless, ascetic, Confederate President could only have cringed at the sight and sound of his Catholic, bon vivant general opposing his policy of dispersing troops rather than concentrating them at a strategic point—then of Beauregard urging that his self-aggrandizing proposals should be implemented “at once.”

Annoyance turned to apoplexy when Davis read Beauregard’s official report on the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run, to Northerners) in 1861. The account, printed in an anti-Davis newspaper, implied that Davis almost lost the battle by tardily reinforcing Beauregard with the troops of Joseph Johnston, and gave further fuel to a controversy over whether Davis was responsible for the failure to pursue the fleeing Union troops. Understandably, Davis scolded his general for “an attempt to exalt yourself at my expense.”

The following year, a failure to pull out a victory seemingly within his grasp at the end of the first day of battle at Shiloh, Tenn., followed by Beauregard’s taking of medical leave without asking prior permission, gave Davis the excuse he needed to relieve Beauregard of command in the West.Their quarrel continued with self-serving memoirs that each wrote in the 1880s.

For years, because of the loss at Shiloh, I believed Beauregard was not a particularly good commander. But when I voiced that view on a trip to Charleston some years, my tour guide strongly contended that was not the case. 

Even my sense that the guide may have held at least some residual sympathy for the South could not argue against his central point: At a time when the rest of the Confederacy was reeling from the blows of the Union Army, and Charleston was facing vastly superior Northern naval and land forces, Beauregard masterminded defenses that enabled the men in gray to hold out for two years. 

He performed equally capably by helping Robert E. Lee hold off Ulysses S. Grant for the second half of 1864 in the siege of Petersburg, preventing the immediate collapse of Richmond and the end of the Confederacy.

One other Beauregard contribution to the Confederate cause was devising the Confederate flag now most recognized by posterity. Though the flags initially used by the rebels in the Eastern theater already incorporated “stars and bars,” they still looked enough like the Stars and Stripes to cause confusion on the battlefield.

Beauregard’s solution—inserting the St. Andrews’ cross—solved the problem. But, though created for largely utilitarian reasons, the “Southern Cross” ended up creating a longer-lasting symbolic problem, with military sacrifice merging into the original religious martyrdom signified by the Cross. Descendants of these soldiers did not want to hear that their symbol of ancestral heroism could signify inherited hatred to African-Americans.

In the postwar era, Beauregard sought to integrate back into larger national life and move beyond the agricultural economy envisioned by the Confederate States. For a short period, he rented rooms on New Orleans’ Chartres Street, and today the Beauregard-Keyes House functions as a museum that offers insight into the general and a later occupant, Frances Parkinson Keyes, who wrote a fictionalized biography of the “Little Creole,” Madame Castel's Lodger.

But his principal activity was business, as he promoted the Louisiana Lottery and became president of the Jackson and Great Northern Railroad as well as the New Orleans and Carrollton Street Railway, for which he invented a system of cable-powered streetcars. 

The Confederate statue-removal movement that spread nationwide after nine worshippers were shot at an African-American church three years ago in Charleston has now ensnared Beauregard. Last year, the equestrian statue at the entrance to New Orleans’ City Park was removed and carted off in the middle of the night.

The problem with this move was that a blatant attempt to whitewash history by honoring a cadre of traitors who led their people into a war that devastated their way of life and destroyed their young sons was followed by a more recent trend toward making these leaders Soviet-style “non-persons” removed from history. My own preference is for signage that establishes a fuller understanding of the motives and consequences of these soldiers’ and statesmen’s actions. 

Such a context would not turn General Beauregard into a saint or sinner, but it would establish him as a recognizable human being rather than a bronze figure lacking his considerable conceit and charm.

Quote of the Day (Walt Whitman, on a Fallen Union Soldier)

“Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground.”— American poet and Civil War volunteer nurse Walt Whitman (1819-1892), “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” from Drum-Taps (1864)