Sunday, October 19, 2014


For such a beloved guy, we don't have much of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. Because he doesn't wave from Calvin floats in parades, or do convention signings next to cardboard cut-outs of Hobbes, the guy's been dubbed a recluse. Thomas Pynchon, a fella equipped with Watterson's dual interest in and suspicion of the world--albeit peeped at through a very different lens--famously balked at the mantle of reclusiveness, believing that "'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists, meaning Doesn't like to talk to reporters.'" So we're not flush with details of Watterson's life and thanks to his disinterest in butt-sized loads of money, we don't have Calvin and Hobbes-shaped vitamins--or lunch boxes or bed sheets or prophylactics--to help us better internalize those characters we love. All we have is the work Watterson did. Work that is, according to comic artist Wendy Ashbubble in Lee Henderson's new novel, "on a whole other level of goodness."
Watterson has, however, stepped out from behind his strip to share his unfiltered thoughts and feelings on a few occasions. In October 1988, Watterson delivered a speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University. In the address, titled "The Cheapening of the Comics," Watterson extols the virtues of his favourite strips--Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat. "These three strips showed me the incredible possibilities of the cartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring," he says. "These strips are just three of my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how good comics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression."

In his address, Watterson doesn't mention any contemporary cartoons. No Garfield, or Doonesbury, or Cathy, or Bloom County--some of the most popular strips at the time. "Amazingly," he says, "much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium's history." In the alternate reality that The Road Narrows As You Go takes place in, I wonder if Watterson would have also not mentioned Wendy Ashbubble's daily strip Strays

Watterson pops up a few times in The Road Narrows as You Go, along with the likes of Art Speigleman, Charles "Sparky" Schultz, and various other comics heavies; briefly he's drawn into orbit around No Manors, "a five-storey art deco flophouse" that stands out amongst the other "punk squats, hippie communes, and satanic covens in the Bay Area." The book opens with the passing of Hick Elmdale, No Manor's primary resident and notorious ghost artist for Walt Disney strips and all around respected cornerstone of West Coast comics. "Two paid rent at No Manors," recalls the We that narrates, "both comic strip artists. One was dead, and the other was not home. No one knew where to find Wendy Ashbubble. The name wasn't familiar to us, and neither was her comic strip, Strays, but this is her story."

Maybe sired by Ronald Reagan, definitely raised in Victoria, Wendy reinvents herself in San Francisco, claiming to be from Cleveland. She's the creator of Strays, a daily about the animals inhabiting the vacant lot adjacent to No Manors. As Hick is passing, Wendy's meeting with her editor, Gabby Scavalda, ready to shutter her strip, which hasn't taken off like she'd like. Wendy instead inks a deal with Frank Fleecen, an up-and-coming bonds trader who's fond of her work and wants to help Strays achieve a Peanuts-like success. Strip ubiquity is achieved, of course, by getting it in as many papers and attaching it to as many products as possible.

Watterson breaks down the relationships: "The comics are a collaborative effort," he says, "on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all have common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art."

While about a great many things--repressed memory, Satanism, sailing stones, etc.--Henderson's follow up to the award-winning The Man Game is most consistently about that "rocky marriage." Syndicated comics make for a great lens through which to watch business and art cavort. Commercial by design and by ambition, the daily strip--at it's best--is a nuanced balance of the personal and the universal. Watterson's lauded strips struck their own wonderful balance, and I'd argue that Watterson's up there with them. Of course, he was one of the few artists working in that field that didn't subject his subject to licensing.

"There's punk-looking comics," says Biz Aziz, well-known drag queen and underground comic memoirist, about Calvin and Hobbes, "and there's punk-acting comics, and that right there is both." 

"Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing," Watterson says, getting increasingly unforgiving in his address. "Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is... Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products."

Business will almost always alter art, but very rarely does art alter business. In the trickle down heyday of The Gipper's America, no corner was left unsplashed by business. Every manner of art maker passes through the front door of No Manors--under the Old Testament motto "Be not forgetful to welcome strangers, for in this way some have entertained angels unawares--all strata of cartoonists, zine makers, performance artists, fine and conceptual artists. And every bit of art can be profited from, whether it's a strip in the newspaper or rubbings of mysterious desert phenomena in a gallery and or a hard-to-find zine anthologized by a major publisher. As Strays becomes as popular as Fleecen promised--with balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade--as the characters become increasingly associated with products that have nothing to do with their story, Wendy likewise has less and less to do with the strip and--as Watterson predicts--she makes assistants out of a few of strays in No Manors.

"I try to give readers the best strip I'm capable of doing," says Watterson. "I look at cartoons as an art, as a form of personal expression. That's why I don't hire assistants, why I write and draw every line myself, why I draw and paint special art for each of my books, and why I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip's message with merchandising."

Peppered throughout the novel are Strays strips (illustrated by Henderson's, whose style has improved since The Man Game) and, if we're to believe that the work is a personal expression, we can locate Wendy in the art the same way we can locate Watterson. But as Wendy's assistants--the We who narrate--exert more and more influence, it becomes harder to confidently route her out. The Road Narrows As You Go is ostensibly about Wendy Ashbubble, but if Wendy's not telling her own story, as she's not writing and drawing her own cartoon. Singular identity drips away, and what was once personal becomes public, collective and impersonal.

Calvin and Hobbes, which ran its last strip on December 31, 1995, is now considered the last great comic strip, the last in a line that includes those classics Watterson valorized. The Road Narrows As You Go documents both the heyday and the twilight of the syndicated strip. The business altered the art the point that the art became a kind of business.

What exactly The Road Narrows As You Go actually means as a title is sort of tricky. In some ways, it might suggest that the further you travel down a path, commit to decisions and relationships, the more your options dwindle--as Wendy is increasingly hemmed in by the moves she makes--making it harder to turn back. With the parameters that Watterson lays down, the choices are few once your strip gets big. You either sell out, or you sell nothing. He may look down his nose at those artists who let their work become a puppet for larger forces, but he is also one of the few artists--and certainly the last of his ilk-- who was good enough at what he did, and doing it at the right time, that he could stick to his guns.

But I also kept thinking about the traditional comic strip frame, how the action and story travels from left to right in a 2D foreground. Any path leading into the distant background--to a world beyond the day-to-day hijinks--winnows towards the vanishing point, and any character who takes that path is walking away from the static frame. And as the character moves away, the art of them becomes more basic, less detailed, until they're just an outline, until they're just a dot, until they're just undrawable.

And here's where Henderson is successful in a Watterson-type way. As Watterson did over the progression of his strip, The Road Narrows As You Go realizes its frame and manages to break out of it, escaping the flat foreground and going along with his characters down roads, into backgrounds, in the end taking away the roads all together. The characters can leap into a limitless blankness, becoming fully themselves. Like Watterson's famous final strip, Henderson ends his story with a beginning.

- Andrew

Sunday, October 12, 2014


I sat down over the underused internet with David Balzer, author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (Coach House Books) to discuss everything from utopia to Tumblr to salons des refuses. Balzer, an art critic and short fiction author here analyzes many of the social forces and personalities of the art-world via the increasingly cited and enacted phenomenon of curation. Curationism aptly reassesses popularity, novelty, profitability, referentiality, and influence (etc) as mystifying measures of artistic vitality; while illustrating how we, like curators, present artworks as performative pieces integral to our creative identities (whether we create such works or not).

- Brad de Roo, who once won the Grade 8 Art Award on the meekly nationalistic strength of watercoloured Gretzkys, pastel tall-ships, and baked-clay loons, is brushing up on Art.

Your book offers concisely extensive genealogies, etymologies, hermeneutics, and biographies of the ever evolving concept of curation from classical history through the Renaissance to art and culture today. Could you provide the uninitiated reader with a heuristically salient definition of curation’s aims and qualities?

The central argument of my book is that the Western curator, from Roman times to the contemporary Tumblr user, lends value to things, and thus performs this value (and this act) in a way that is hyper-conscious of an audience. The thing to which value is lent as well as the thing performed changes over time. Now, I argue, curating has turned in on itself, and the thing being curated is also the thing that curates. This defines "curationism": a circular performance of the value of the self, the corporation, the cultural institution, that cannot, in my opinion, be sustained.

You consistently cite the ‘twilight of the avant-garde’ while explaining the increasing reach of curational modes. From your description, I get the impression that, while more and more ‘artwork’ is being created, we have entered a sort of post-structural black-hole swirling with wormholes of hyper-referentiality, nostalgia porn (as you put it), obsessive collecting/documentation, and solipsistic fragmentation. Does this sort of bleak account hold true to you?

I'm obviously not the first person to suggest the death of the avant-garde, something I'm all for. It's so exciting. I acknowledge that my book might come off as bleak to some, but only in the sense that I am articulating the end of a certain way of looking at art—at not only understanding it, but also packaging it, codifying it. We are all used to this model, and that's why it might seem scary to contemplate it not being there anymore. I don't wish for the avant-garde to be rehabilitated; that's completely unnecessary and missing the point. The whole idea of the avant-garde—in the sense of it being experimental, renegade, the pulse of the young, a threat to the establishment—is antiquated and must go.

I'm jumping ahead to your next questions, but the avant-garde way of reading culture—in terms of those who oppose dominant modes also being the ones in charge of challenging and even reinventing them—has proven highly flawed. In the 1990s, the end of the avant-garde's 20th-century grand tour, we spoke of "co-opting": when grunge went mainstream, when Madonna stole voguing from the Harlem queers and turned it into one of the biggest pop songs of all time. The avant-garde quickly, arguably inherently, presented itself as a territory for pillaging, for those with money to exploit. Its insouciance is its vulnerability. This is something Warhol understood well.

Imagine digital culture really facilitating the so-called cutting-edge as always present, immediate—as available to everyone. Imagine a time in which the idea of "shocking" becomes obsolete; in which subcultures are no longer parsed into performative, codified camps; in which cultural history, even physical age, exists radically in the present and future, not as a sort of compartmentalized curio but as a real, always-alive thing. This pluralism, even confusion, would, in my opinion, be the best thing that's happened to culture in a long time. The alternative is the black hole you suggest. Regardless, we are in a time of great noise. Of course I can't predict what will happen. I can only tell you what I hope for.

Throughout Curationism you link the concept of the avant-garde with commercialism and how the avant-garde’s constant focus on innovation and technology further associates it with corporate forces. Is our current hyper mix of corporate interest, cut-throat innovation, and technological homogenization representative of an underlying anti-democratic streak? Is there a democratic aesthetic escape if rich dealers, artists, curators, and institutions continually control the means of production and reproduction? Do the attendant moves towards increasingly dematerialized expressions of art (performance, relational etc) and technology (internet, social media etc) combined with a global alienation from the origins of the objects of work (not knowing who makes things, how they are made, while politically celebrating and intimately claiming these very things) spell a sort of anti-ecological creative doom?

This is a huge, daunting question. I can't answer it fully. I will say I don't think there's necessarily a proportional move towards dematerialized art as the internet dematerializes... some things. Corporate interest facilitates many cultural enterprises, and one of the points of my book is that it always has, and that the art world for many reasons seems to blanch at acknowledging this, and that this has probably made things worse. In her great book Artificial Hells Claire Bishop cites philosopher Jacques Ranciere in terms of acknowledging that perhaps a return to aesthetics vis-a-vis the social or political is what is needed. Does socially and politically engaged work really always have to exist outside material, "spectacle," to be vital? These are things I find fascinating, in terms of imagining how cultural-value inflation might be addressed and even corrected. Certainly the art world could not have, yet perhaps should have, predicted the dangerous precedent set by the readymade and by dematerialization, in which banal or ostensibly nonexistent things became fetishized and thus unprecedentedly expensive (and indeed spectacular) despite, or rather because of, their origins in avant-garde-cum-philosophical conviction. If you wanted to, you could make direct connections here to the subprime mortgage crisis.

I couldn’t help but notice how much certain art exhibitions, pieces, titles, and tropes within Curationism sound like descriptions of our current digital world, especially in light of the resurgent themes of apocalypse and disaster which seem to dominate a lot of current culture narratives (recession, global warming, animal extinction, renewed ancient wars) etc. Names or concepts like ‘Utopia Station’; ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’; ‘the Lobby Gallery’; ‘art islands’; ‘artificial wonderland’; and ‘Xanadu mansions’ sound like they could be Borgesian stories about the age of the Internet. What potential does digital technology, from the internet to the internet of things, offer for art-making, art-presenting, art-critiquing? What kinds of work would need to go into getting better values out of such technology? Could the internet be a radical salon des refuses rather than an overflowing cabinet of censured curiosities?

The internet could be so many things that it isn't, to the point where it seems almost silly or antiquated to talk about what the internet actually is or could be. It is clear we are underusing the internet, just as we underuse our brains, our libraries, our museums. We have always underused storehouses of knowledge, often after battling for access to them. I would add that all of the names you cite are of course utopian, and that an idea central to my book is that curators are utopian thinkers. Like architects (who are in many senses their allies), curators are in charge of materializing and performing ideas; they are ambassadors for "projects." Of course history teaches us that utopia inevitably curdles into dystopia; the only earnest utopian thinkers are totalitarians. Although, as you say, we live in a time obsessed with dystopian narratives like The Hunger Games, our understanding of dystopia is fairly limited. There are a lot of dystopias in existence that are fascinating. The internet, with its frivolity, under- (and over-!)use and corporate policing, is one of them. It is full of possibility and extremely dangerous at the same time.

In the later third of your book you speak of curatorial studies in the context of university education, comparing them to creative writing degrees and MFAs, which are often seen as expensively ineffective means of honing a vocation. Is your book a sort of corrective to a pedagogical standard? Should Curationism be taught in schools alongside other evolutionary accounts of art criticism?

Haha, well, uh, it would be great for sales. Actually one of the points of my section on curatorial-studies programs (and contemporary humanities departments in general) is that the pedagogical standard is institutional critique. Like the curator, corporation and contemporary gallery or museum, academia does not shun structural criticism but rather invites it, as a way of remystifying by demystifying, of making themselves seem available to audiences/clients and ultimately of reifying their cultural capital. There are many more renegade or corrective texts than mine that have been taught in universities for decades. And yet here we are, with humanities academe in its current crisis.

I recently interviewed the music critic Carl Wilson. Certain elements of his empathizing critical project seem to resonate with an attitude of even-handednes that grounds your book. Carl said: ‘I guess part of the point is that there is no such thing as a "right" assessment in pop culture, or even in culture generally - that our diversity of perceptions is a good thing, and that respecting each other's affections is more productive than attacking them”. Do you relate to the critical stances he suggests? 

I love Carl's book, have been influenced by it and think it's important, particularly as a meditation on what taste is. The movement it has become associated with, however, "Poptimism," is not my favourite. I find it curationist actually, as it replaces the cultural teams we were on in the 90s with a very performative and pretentiously cultivated view of popular music, in which it appears as if everything is OK to like for the indie-affiliated music listener, when it fact only certain things are, and then herd mentality and old avant-garde understandings of trend-setting sets in. (Beyoncé's surprise album drop last December typified this for me.) I think Carl's book is kinder and more open than mine. But I wanted to tell a specific story about a main paradigm in the art world. I could have written a book about curators who are doing great work, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.

While describing the proliferation of the phenomenon of curation into our day to day private (if this once very publicized term is even still accurate?) lives - from Soundcloud playlists to Twitter to fashion to weddings to bookstore blog interviews, you write: ‘Gathering things, connecting them, sharing them with others in a way that positions one as a taste-making host: sounds like fun doesn’t it?’ Do you think a drive to curate is an impulse of human nature or, perhaps, just a difficult to avoid byproduct of cultural creation? In other words, how deterministic is curation?

Curating has definitely allowed a lot more people than ever before to feel creative. That's not a bad thing. It can be empowering—after all, I argue that curating is the impartation and performance of value, and if the thing at its centre is you, well, it makes you feel great. But feeling creative is not being creative. Curating clothes, parties, social circles... the bourgeoisie has always done this. A hyper-awareness of curating leads to problems: first, to an over-valuing and over-thinking of these gestures (such as the new social network Ello, which snottily prompts you to separate your contacts into "friends" and "noise"—aren't they often both?); second to a distraction away from the thing being curated, which is should be the real subject of interest. Curating now so often takes the place of engagement. In a way curationism (not curating) is the ultimate gambit of the person who wants to be famous for being famous.

You requested to shadow a curator in action while writing this book, but were turned down. If you were given carte blanche pre-approval what collections, exhibitions, biennials, and museums would you have view in curation?

It would have been so eye-opening to go behind-the-scenes at any major art-world event. I mean, I'd have to pick the big ones, Venice and Documenta: being a fly on the wall there as they devise and set up and micromanage their team would just be the most fascinating thing, maybe because it would be the most boring thing. I have worked for or know people who work for large cultural institutions in Toronto, but to spend a few months at the MoMA in New York, and witness how that machine is driven, would also have been a needful exposure to that on the largest scale. What I'm particularly interested in of course is how audience, or rather a notion of audience, would inform everything they do.

Lastly, you conclude Curationism, with an evocation of ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet contemplation’ as essential modes for your personal understanding of art. Positively echoing my previous question, are there places where these modes of experience can be reliably found (collections, museums etc)? Do any curators, paradoxically, achieve such tranquil constructions?

Fantastic curatorial work is being done all over the place, all over the world. It does get covered in major art magazines but often it is not the curators who are the focus; it is the art, the artists, the exhibition, etc. Non–star curators have hard jobs; these are the majority of curators. They have delicate and frustrating relationships with the bureaucratic institutions for whom they work; they work under oppressively small budgets; many are underpaid; they have little time to devote to professional development inside office hours and so are constantly working and liasing. Putting an exhibition together is tough. The curator should be there for the art and ideas, because it is not a glamorous job. I'm not saying they shouldn't get credit, but when the curator becomes the main focus, and furthermore when a curatorial mode becomes the focus of art-making, actual things and actual concepts get pushed aside—the very things that facilitate curation in the first place. The best curators create that context of stillness in an exhibition, letting the art, in all its multiplicities, mysteries and even confusions, speak for itself.

Monday, October 6, 2014


In 2001, Will Oldham was the first and only guest on an IFC pilot that never got picked up, Tripping with Caveh. The premise: indie filmmaker Caveh Zahedi takes some manner of mind-monkeying drug with a celebrity or person of interest; they trip. There's your show. This sole episode is a bit of a disaster. Oldham and Zahedi snarf chocolate-covered mushrooms with the idea that they'll cavort and capitulate around the grounds of director Richard Linklater's Austin estate, but Zahedi has a rotten trip. Oldham tries to hang out and comfort him, but mostly just wants to ride go-karts. At the end of the day/show, after he's fled from some bees in only his underwear, Oldham plays a few songs off his then new album Joya for an audience of Zahedi, who's barely holding it together, and Zahedi's girlfriend, who is clearly in love with Oldham.

But even if Zahedi hadn't sunk into the couch cushions of his own miserable introspection, I don't think the trip would have gone that well. Things get off on a bad foot when Zahedi gushes to Oldham how much his music means to him. "I love your music," he says. "So I love you." Oldham, who has released precious few albums under his own name, is having none of it. "I don't think that's right," he replies, after shaking his head and sighing. "I'm not the person people love when they love the music," he explains. "Not at all."

He just writes and plays some songs, he goes on, and if you get anything out of those songs, good for you--just don't drag him into the experience. Oldham points at some trees edging the field, and asks Zahedi if he'd praise the trees for being beautiful when all they're doing is just standing there. It's all downhill from there.

Oldham has never seemed totally comfortable being personally associated with his music, or personally associated with a listener's experience with his music. His releases throughout the 90s were attributed to some variation of the Palace moniker, and since the new millennium he's performed behind the hillbilly death's head mask of Bonnie "Prince" Billy--a combination of Bonnie Prince Charlie and William "Billy the Kid" Bonney. At the time, it might have seemed like Oldham was just partaking in some indie rock cheekiness--the same way those Pavement boys never properly identified themselves in their album credits--but as time went on, the fudged attribution matured into statement about the rift between person and performer. Ostensibly, Will Oldham was the guy writing the songs and Bonnie was the performer of them.

2004 saw the release of Sings Greatest Palace Music, a covers/tribute album by Bonnie to Palace. This followed what many consider to be three of the most important albums of Oldham's career, if not of contemporary American music: I See a Darkness, Ease Down the Road, and Master and Everyone. In their moody frailty, their delicate bawdiness--talking both writing and execution--that troika was a reasonable extension of the work Oldham had done as Palace. But Bonnie's 2004 interpretations of those classic Palace songs were robust and confident; well-played and well-produced; a complete 180 in terms of sensibility. An eccentric for sure, Oldham had left fans scratching their heads for a decade, but this Palace Greatest move left some fans, those for whom the sonic and performative aesthetic were seemingly as important as the songs themselves, scratching their heads until they were bald as Bonnie. Contrast and compare "New Partner," first from 1995's Viva Last Blues, then from Oldham's 2004 "sell out" album:

The question/condemnation that reigned among dissenters was, Why did these Palace songs need re-doing? Weren't they perfect to begin with? Was it Oldham, as Bonnie, declaring a split from his out-of-tune, broken-voiced days? Or was it just a sorta weird guy doing a sorta weird thing?

Though he's well-established as alt-country's weirdo half-uncle, and fairly well respected by critics, Oldham has never really fished in the mainstream. The closest he's ever come--other than appearing as a cop in R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet epic, as a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D, and co-star, along with Zach Galifianakis, in Kanye West's alternate "Can't Tell Me Nothing" video--is when Johnny Cash covered "I See a Darkness" from that titular album.

Rick Rubin fostered a final hurrah for the venerable Cash by setting before him an American songbook that had both traditional, classic, and contemporary selections. Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails was a big deal, and he brought a weight to that song that completely recontextualized Trent Reznor's angst. His covering Will Oldham was not such a big deal. But while Cash's American Recordings project felt like it had jogged in from the outfield, it was simply a return to the type of album-making that reigned supreme when Cash was pink cheekedly starting out.

In music, the idea of the Artist is relatively new--capital-A Artist suggesting that a song is performed by the same person who wrote it, with the creation and execution being fundamentally braided. We may get a little ways blaming Bob Dylan--one of the more visible poet/players--for this, who authored a few songs on Cash's Orange Blossom Special. Of course, Dylan--née Robert Zimmerman--too, has long tugged at the leash between who he is and what he sings. Since the 60s, it's become increasingly important for us that that connection is firm. We think a little less of performers who don't write their own songs, hold in high regard those Beyoncés that do. 

Pretty much gone are the days when everyone and their dad took a swing at "House of the Rising Sun" or "Unchained Melody" on their album. We can name the Animals, and The Righteous Brothers (though, for my money, Willie Nelson's "Unchained" is the best version out there), but trivia night would be dashed if most people had to come up with the writers of those hits.

All of this is to say that our ideas about what a song is have changed considerably since the Baby Boom. And more interestingly than any other artist right now, Will Oldham's relationship with his own catalog, and his relationship with Bonnie "Prince" Billy--who Oldham often speaks of as a separate person--bothers those notions. In its Nashville-ization,Sings Greatest, more than anything, exposed the strength of Oldham's writing. You could remove these songs from their initial context, and they'd stand up. They weren't shivering baby birds whose mother wouldn't go near them after they'd had another stink on them.

Since that first covers album, Bonnie's released about an album a year, some of which--especially 2009's Beware--maintain the slick robustness of Sings Greatest, some of which--like Wonder Show of the World or Wolfroy Goes to Town--maintain the quieter oddness of his earlier work.

2011's Wolfroy was one of Bonnie's most focused albums since 2003's Master and Everyone. Since Wolfroy, he's put four albums: Last year, Oldham executed a sort of guerrilla release, dropping off a self-titled independent album--Oldham's been stabled with Drag City and Domino Records for almost two decades--to stores by hand. The other three releases have been cover albums. 2012's What the Brother's Sang was all Everly Brothers, and the other two are reinterpritations of Oldham's own catalog. 

2011's EP Now Here's My Plan scooped up some scattered Bonnie corkers from earlier in the decade, most notably a revivification of his seemingly untouchable "I See a Darkness." The result was a jaunty dirge, more a celebration than a lamentation now. More than Cash did, Bonnie infused that nearly fifteen year old Oldham chestnut with different meaning, different life, shoring up the adaptability of his songwriting.

With Now Here's My Plan, there was a few year's distance between iterations at least, a different temporal vista from which to view the work. But Bonnie's new album, Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues, takes another look at the three year old Wolfroy material. That dust has barely had a chance to settle before Bonnie kicks it all up again.

Wolfroy is maybe most remarkable for its sustained solemnity. In subject matter, it comes closet to the mournful The Letting Go; in sound, closest to Master and Everyone. The Wolfroy songs that appear on Singer's Grave are reperformed with a rich energy that hasn't really appeared beyond Bonnie live albums--more specifically, 2009's live collaboration with The Pickett Line, Funtown Comedown. That material didn't need to be returned to, but--as importantly--it could be returned to. Though the songs are ostensibly the same, Wolfroy and Singer's Grave are very different albums. Each equally worth our time.

Though it's a fact known to a small group of listeners, Will Oldham is maybe one of the most important, reliable songwriters of the past two decades. But so far only a few iterations of the Palace boys and Bonnie "Prince" Billy have tackled his songbook. Are you hearing Will Oldham bare his soul when Bonnie "Prince" Billy sings "Today was another day full of dread, but I never said I was afraid. Because dread and fear should not be confused: by dread I'm inspired, by fear I'm amused?" Maybe as much as you're hearing Hy Zaret bare his soul when he wrote "Lonely rivers flow to the sea, into the open arms of the sea" or Robert Hazard when he wrote, "When the working day is done, girls just wanna have fun." More often than not, meaning lives in the interpretation. A song is only as good as the performer bringing it to life. And, as great a songwriter as Will Oldham might be, it's Bonnie "Prince" Billy, in different moods and with different bands, who interprets and animates the material. Bonnie has become, as Oldham writes in "So Far and Here We Are" (or, if you're listening to Wolfroy, "New Whaling"), "a monarch who rules over all that he sings."

There's no easy answer to where the love really lies with music, whether it's in the text--authored, in the this case, by Will Oldham--or in the text's execution--here's Bonnie--or in how we interact with that relationship, how we make it our own. Whatever love's pinpoint in this triangle, Oldham-as-Bonnie-as-maybe-Oldham-again, more than any other artist-and-peformer, simplifies the locating of love by complicating the hell out of it.

- Andrew

PS For a sorta completely different take on Singer's Grave, do check out Vish Khanna's recent interview with Will Oldham.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Michael Jackson was a lot of people to a lot of big things. Fashion, Film, Entertainment, Design, Business, the Media, the Law, Dance, Music, American History - each of these narratives held a pressurized place for a perceived side of him. Many of the supposed views overlapped into mystifying images, weirdly magical accounts, seemingly perverse illuminations of his true essence. At times the vast tally of speculations threatened to match combined albums sales, ticket stubs, and diehard fans. Ultimately, following 1991s Dangerous his career faded against these astronomical standards. He was rehearsing for 50 shows in London when he met his now anatomized death. Michael Jackson became a thing to a lot of proportioning people a freakish star caught in fame's prism, bleeding colour out.

Somewhere along a dispersive line of light moonwalks an artist of inter-spatial  and multi-generational significance. Dazedly, one could get stuck gawking at the surface chimeras of the general pyrotechnics involved, but retrospectively some critics and scholars are reflecting past the flashbulb bubbles and pixelated pixies to focus on the mature body of the work the man in the mirror left behind. Susan Fast is one of these focused people. She is the author of Dangerous, the latest, and hundredth, volume of the 33 1/3 series signalizing albums for further study. I asked her to share some of her critical moves with our book-lined dance circle.

- Brad de Roo (who in 1991 bought Dangerous as the first entry in his new allowance sponsored cd collection, chosen on the strength of the bitty soundtrack to Sega Genesis Moonwalker video game which he sometimes was allowed to play in his pal Pooks basement).

BRAD MJ was one of the most popular musicians ever. Period. Why have serious studies of his oeuvre been so absent? Why has Dangerous - a monster international hit selling tens of millions of records, spawning short films, books, and world tours - been widely overlooked?

SUSAN There are a number of reasons for this. As I wrote in an obituary essay, Jackson's difference gendered, racialized, generational was too great for most people to really understand. When he was younger with a squeaky clean image, these differences could be overlooked, or perhaps people found them interesting and charming. But as Jackson got older and he began to find a more directly political voice, I think many people became confused and frightened by his difference. The focus was almost exclusively on the events in his life, on his perceived strangeness. Of course, once the allegations of child molestation were made, many were convinced that their suspicions about his difference had been confirmed. His career never recovered (let alone his soul). I think his work might also have been neglected because he was such a commercial artist who was brilliant at crafting music that sounds, on the surface, effortless and accessible. You might think there's not much to say about it. But if you start looking a little deeper there's in fact a lot to say. Few critics took the time during his life. Jackson wasn't hip, or indie, or overtly intellectual. He didn't say much about his music.

Why does he get such censure when someone like Woody Allen is widely considered to be a great filmmaker worthy of much aesthetic analysis - despite similar allegations against him?

Someone like Woody Allen is more easily readable; not as confusing, not messing with so many cultural codes all at once. That being said, there is an enormous respect for Jackson as a musician and dancer by his peers. And critics and academics are coming around, albeit slowly. It's still easy to take many of the ludicrous things that were said about him at face value.

In the book you speak of Jackson's continuation of R&Bs Soul Man persona, carrying on from where Wilson Pickett and James Brown left off as accented by glamorous Hollywood divas (glitzy clothes, hair, and makeup with bubbly voice) and perceived adoptions of white culture (straightened hair, classically oriented ballads, lightening complexion). Is this hybrid part of a greater tradition?

Musicians have always borrowed from a number of sources but Jackson is particularly interesting to consider in this respect. he was such a gifted musician that he could move effortlessly among disparate musical styles. Not all musicians can sing Broadway tunes and gritty R&B and sound convincing in both styles.

You choose to analyze the album in a chronological track by track order - organizing the chapters in sequential sections clustering songs by theme or feel. Chapter 1 is Noise, 2 is Desire, 3 is Utopia, 4 is Soul followed by a brief coda entitled Dangerous. What brought you to this form?

I think the songs on the album lend themselves to this kind of grouping. Jackson seemed to be interested in exploring a theme through a group of songs on this and later albums, examining an idea from a number of different musical perspectives.

Do you think the chapter subcategories apply beyond the album to MJ's larger artistic career?

Yes; I think the chapter headings do pertain to Jackson's life more broadly, and I explore that. For example, in the chapter called desire, I talk about the ways in which Jackson's sexuality, was, and still is, called into question by critics not only his heterosexuality; he was regularly called asexual or, by one critic pre-sexual, whatever that means. This is very different from the ways in which many fans understand him as a very sexy guy. I explore this in some detail because there are many songs on this record that deal with love, romance and sex many more than on previous albums.

Does pop cultures move away from long-play statements complicate a critic's attempts at locating historical or cultural identities?

The great thing about the 33 1/3 series is that it offers an opportunity to go back to albums as a whole. Many of us dont listen in this way anymore. This is neither good nor bad - there are many ways to listen to and appreciate music - but artists often had, or still have, and overarching idea for an album and it can be interesting to take that into account.

What do you think of the posthumous releases, Michael and Xscape? Are these after death hybrids of old tapes, new guests, and modern production in keeping with the artistic force of Dangerous?

I'm not fond of them. The demos that were released with the deluxe version of Xscape are wonderful to hear; many of them have been floating around on the internet for years. I think Sony should have released them as part of, say, the 25th anniversary re-issue of Bad, or the re-release of the one of Jackson's other albums. The contemporized versions of the demos leave me cold. That's in part because I don't think the producers really captured the essence of a Michael Jackson song, especially his nuanced sense of rhythm. I'm not interested in what L.A. Reid or Rodney Jerkins thinks a Michael Jackson song should sound like; I'm interested in what Michael Jackson thought they should sound like. But it's also clear that Jackson despised Sony and wanted nothing more than to be free from that company, yet here they are making money off his name when he's dead (and when he died under enormous pressure to make these big companies a lot of money).

What's your ideal post-industrial wasteland desert island holed up against Thrillerish schizo-nomad zombies 5 song MJ playlist?

Wow, that's difficult! Really, I can only bring 5?

I created a playlist shortly after Michael's death that never seems to get old; I'm still listening to it five years later a lot. It's my go to mix. The first five songs are: Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)- extended; that's a Jacksons' song, written by Michael and Randy Jackson; Wanna Be Startin' Something from Thriller; Another Part of Me - live version from Wembley, 1988 (ok, I guess that's been added more recently; Smooth Criminal and Dangerous. The next song on that mix is Blood on the Dance Floor, which is pretty wicked too and part of his later, less well-known, repertory that deserves a listen. Of course, that doesn't include any ballads; I have a different mix for those and because Jackson's ballads are so amazing, I'm going to take the liberty of cheating and listing five of those as well: Human Nature, Smile, Stranger in Moscow, Earth Song (not really sure this counts as a ballad) and Speechless. Really, if you haven't listened to Michael Jackson beyond Thriller and Bad, you're missing out on a tremendous amount of amazing music.

Monday, September 22, 2014


This Sunday at 8pm, Vocamus Press will be holding their annual Book Bash in the eBar, a chance to celebrate, meet, and learn more about the literary community of Guelph. Book Bash 2014 will also be the launch event for The Rhapsody Anthology 2014, the annual collection of Guelph poetry and very short prose that Vocamus Press is publishing to increase public awareness of our authors.

The evening will include performances by local spoken word artists and music by Mo’ Kauffey and by The Rolling Blackouts. Former Bookshelfer and host of CFRUs Book's For Breakfast (B4B) Dan Evans will host the bash. Dan and Vocamus co-founder Jeremy Luke Hill pumped each other up with a back-and-forth over email.

DAN EVANS You and the Vocamus team have programmed a little literary festival in September. Many would see this as the territory of the Eden Mills Festival. Are you going for the same crowd, or are you counter programming to that larger, more CanLit festival?

And, also: Book Bash offers audiences a taste of the homegrown literature that is for the most part otherwise hidden. Are you hoping that this event introduces readers to new authors, or is this more a celebration for the writers and their ilk? Isn't there a tension in programming a books- and reading-based social event for readers?

JEREMY LUKE HILL Book Bash is less a literary festival than a party for the books that Guelph authors have written. Where Eden Mills is interested in Canadian literature, Book Bash is interested in Guelph writing of all kinds and genres. Where Eden Mills targets the traditional literary crowd, Book Bash wants to engage the community of Guelph, even people who wouldn't usually think of themselves as interested in literature. Book Bash is about building community through local books.

We do hope to introduce local readers to new authors, of course, but we also hope to introduce authors to other authors, readers to other readers, authors to their readers, authors to publishers, publishers to readers, and so forth. We believe that a robust literary community or literary public is comprised of readers and writers and publishers of all kinds.  We're trying to make those elements aware of each other so that they can push each other to read, write, and publish better.

As a counter question - truthfully - what did you think when I first sat down on B4B and described our project? It seemed nebulous even to me at the time (it still does in some ways), and I often wondered what impression our first fumbles at self-definition made on people.

DE You have a nice speaking voice. There's a bit of gravel to its texture. (Is sonic texture called "Timbre"?) When you first joined me in studio on a Thursday morning Books for Breakfast broadcast, I thought: Neat dude. I bought into your promise of literary industry; I wholly expected to see the fruits of your musings, both in books built and distributed, and community gathered around the web portal. I believe in you, man.

I also thought: I don't really want to read many of those books you're describing. I was interested to tour through the titles you'd published, and to sip at the bios of the authors you were supporting, but it was a pretty slim roster at that time (I think it was your own book; your mother-in-law's poems; and one of John's books...?). I'm not proud of that voice, but that's me aiming for a "true" snapshot of what I thought. You also lost me a bit with the technical details of your layout software.

Keep in mind, I comfortably label myself a book nerd. And not with the cool parts of nerdery. It's amazing to rally a gaggle of like-acting people around any activity. I commend a bunch of fiction writers in a terrestrial room, over booze and snacks, for coming together to be at least slightly vulnerable with one another. Seeking the vulnerable moment of asking for honest feedback, and mining it for useable advice. You run with a brave set. No wonder books get made.

The allure of writing for me is the quiet, lonely epiphany of creation that offers answers to general confusion. When I'm with other people, I'm distracted from my own strange flow of questions and worry. But I don't think I could be a full-time writer, because, though I fantasize about it, I've never accepted how hard it is to be alone for long periods of time with those worries and questions.

How do you do manage?

JLH I'm really amused by the account of your reaction, and I think it's how many people react -- 1) cool idea, 2) not so sure about your catalogue yet, 3) please don't try to explain that whole LaTeX deal. We're working on number two, and I'm learning not to bring number three up in the first place.

The contrast you're describing between the solitary act of writing and the communal act of writerly conversation is an important one I think, and I would add to it a third category as well, the taking on of a public writerly persona. I find that managing these different roles is a major hurdle for many writers. Some occupy the persona very well -- they read interestingly in public, relate well to readers, and so forth, but really struggle to do the work of writing, even if they have some talent there. Some are by nature more solitary -- they are disciplined writers, often quite productive, but find speaking in public frightening and talking with readers uncomfortable. The transition between solitary writer and public author is one that many people find difficult. 

This is why I think writerly conversation is so important (though it can also be difficult for the reasons that you mention). Ongoing conversation with a community provides resources for writers both to write and to engage the public better. So John can (and often does) offer me advice on a particular passage I've written or on my writing process in general (though I often ignore him), while Valerie can (and did) offer to help me with the performance aspects of my reading (which I confess are deeply lacking). This kind of community takes vulnerability -- a willingness to speak truthfully and a determination not to be offended -- but I think the benefits are very much worth the effort.

Your last comment, about being alone with difficult questions, touches on the reason that I think writing (and other arts also) are so important (more so perhaps than ever), because in a culture that is increasingly dominated by technologies that demand our time and our attention, there is less and less time for quiet and solitude and reflection on any questions, never mind the difficult ones. To the extent that the creation and enjoyment of art forces us to make space for this kind of reflection, the artist plays a vital role in keeping us human, coming to occupy almost alone the role that also used to be played by the priest and the elder.

This is my complaint with much contemporary literature, that it does not seem to come out of serious and sustained reflection, out of real wresting with the problem of being human.  It is not moral in the sense that John Gardner talks about "moral fiction", as a kind of writing that never lets go of the questions troubling the human experience. 

I could get way more philosophical here, but I won't, because the format of the conversation doesn't have the space for it, but it leads me to a question I want to ask of you -- As someone with experience in a range of bookish roles (The Bookshelf, PS Guelph, Books for Breakfast), how do you see the cultural role of books developing, and how could we at Vocamus contribute to that role best in a local context?

DE Thanks for your generous answers. It's late on a Sunday, and I've been procrastinating with my answer because you've softly sucker-punched me. (Sucker-nudged?) I'm feeling cautious. These are the moments I retreat into style, so permit me to introduce (or forgive me for doing it) headers:

Public Writerly Persona
This is good. Thanks for bringing this up. Writerly Persona is tough because it can be the thing that alienates a reader. Inasmuch as a reader is a non-writer. The writerly persona can come off as attractive, but also pompous, and condescending. Maybe part of your role through the Vocamus community is to work on helping create a readerly persona in prospective readers. The total protein of a literary community must rely as much on readership (the rice, if you will) as it does on writers (the beans, no doubt).

And so maybe Vocamus is a laboratory and a workshop for the development of a healthy Writerly Persona in its members.

Performance Aspects
A good literary reading is rare. A good book launch is less rare, and there are things that can be done to make a launch exciting and nourishing, even if the reading is poor, or mediocre. Forms of interactivity with the audience like moderated Q&As, or facilitated conversations. Game show stuff. A small crowd gathers for various reasons to honour a book's existence, and the stage is perfectly set to introduce the readers to one another, in order that they might share, criticize, negate, argue, and enthuse collectively.

Literary readings could stop aspiring to affect audiences the way cinema does. No need for post-event introspection. The lighting isn't as low at a reading, and there's beer instead of popcorn and skittles.

Determination not to be offended
I'm with you. The skin thickened against editorial suggestion. A good tool for all artists. And at the same time, I feel like "being offended" is the perfect state for the artist to exist within. It might just drive a writer back to the keyboard, to attack that moral question you're rightly pointing to. I think offense is one of the rich conditions for an artist when it comes to serious reflection about the human experience.

The Cultural Role of Books
Geez. This is the sucker-nudge, right here.

What can I say? I want people to have access to the wildness, the mind-expansion, the language blooms, the strangeness, the affirmation and the permission that I've been privileged enough to experience through books and stories. I still believe in the book ("the codex", whatever,) as an inspiring and effective information technology. Books can be so good with mood, voices, safe quandaries, and salvos (among so many other things); and they are such pleasures to the senses, on top. (I smell books, and hear them, besides touching and seeing them.)

You Vocamus folks are waving a bright flag, and peeing in the appropriate corners -- I'd say you're already doing the job you should do: rally the troops; sharpen the skates; unpurple the prose; and engage the masses... one thoughtful book, one inclusive event, one true engagement at a time.