High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, June 30, 2006

Hubris Doesn't Win Friends, Joe OR Blues IV: Harmonica Blues

This morning was our final Blues session up at Oakton Community College. This week, it was time for M to feel the pain and shame with which I've burned watching stupid talented bastards for the last three weeks. There wasn't a guitar in sight, and the piano was used only for the purposes of propping up teaching aids. It was all harmonica, all the time. Feel the Burn.

This week's guide was Joe Filisko, who bears an eerie resemblance to William Hurt. He came armed with harmonicas, natch, but he also had a host of visually exciting (and old and probably fragile and irreplaceable) things for which I immediately started fearing. Basically, the top of the piano had a wide variety of books about some of the seminal blues harmonica folks. Behind him, he'd filled a table behind him with a few pieces of vintage "electric blues" equipment, his "show" harmonicas, some old ads for different kinds of harmonicas, and probably two dozen records, ranging from some original '78s from the 1920s (and one as early as 1904) up through much more recent recordings. I just had this nightmare of people shuffling forward and pawing them. That's probably my stuff though.

He started the session talking a bit about the origin of the harmonica in Europe and its bars to entry on the folk/country/blues scene. After its invention (for sufficiently broad terms of "invention," given that it's based on an Asian instrument in the first place) in Vienna in the 1820s, each harmonica was hand produced, which obviously kept the price high. It was not until about the 1880s that mass production on them began. Once they became economically more available their portability meant that they were pretty readily incorporated into both country music and proto-blues.

Among the earliest known recordings of harmonica are two pieces that amount to exercises: The Train Imitations and the Fox Chase (sometimes called Lost John?), which were often produced as opposite sides on the same record. He started by demonstrating Train. Although we are too polite to discuss such things openly, both M and I were at the ready with water, smelling salts, etc., because it was obvious to both of us that no SINGLE HUMAN BEING could be doing all that without passing the hell out. Joe wisely didn't offer the tidbit that both Train and Fox Chase are the harmonica equivalent of piano scales or staccato thirds until much later otherwise, one of us might have had to smack him.

Having used his trusty Hohner Marine Band G harp (he had a full complement of these in different keys in a kind of harmonica bandolier set off to his left) to demonstrate Train Sounds, he began pulling out some of the other harmonicas to demonstrate their different qualites, up sides, and down sides. The Marine Band harps are standard, 10-hole, diatonic harmonicas. The key to which they are tuned is defined by the chord played on the exhale, although each is capable of playing a different chord (and, therefore, in a different key) on the inhale. Joe didn't mention it, but I find a few references to the fact that Hohner named the Marine Band models after John Phillip Sousa as a means of pimping the instrument. (Hohner appears to have been the world's most dedicated harmonica pimp---inventing nothing, innovating little, but marketing, marketing, marketing).

In addition to his trusty work-a-day Marine Bands, Joe had a Hohner Double-Sided Comet, which sounded bright and beautiful. It also looked very cool when he played it (very briefly), but one wonders if flipping it around isn't just for show. He also had a chromatic harmonica (i.e., one that contains all 12 tones and, therefore, can be played in any given key), and I don't think it was a Hohner. I'm not sure that any other company selling harmonicas is legal in the US, but I swear it had a distinctively non-Hohner outline (sort of shaped like an empanada, with rounded corners). I'm pretty sure it was not a Bloody Stupid Johnson, given that it did not have JOHNSON written all over it.

At the beginning of the session, Joe had proposed the idea that he'd talk and people could save up questions for the end. (M and I both evilly wondered if he'd been briefed by the three previous performers.) Alas and alack, the questions began as he demonstrated the different types of harps. Some were basic information that it might have been helpful to have from the get go, given that the ways of the harmonica are more mysterious than those of the guitar (and, let's recall, there was a fair amount of didacticism about how to make the guitar do the nasty, dirty things it does in blues), others were of the more momentum-killing variety.

My vote for the best question, however, goes to the person who asked if he used his hands to make the notes. This prompted him to shove most of his G harp into his mouth and proceed to play "Oh, Susannah" with his hands ostentatiously stuffed in his pockets. Little did I know it, but this nearly caused the ZK to explode, as he was already pretty enraged by the fact that there were CLEARLY two DIFFERENT harmonicas playing at all times---one for single notes on the melody, the other for chords. Welcome to my freaking talentless world during each of the three previous sessions, my love.

Spousal taunting aside, one of the most interesting things in all four of these sessions was actually watching a solo performer turn a single instrument into an ensemble. It's been particularly interesting to see the techniques used to create the distinctive sounds of the blues. On harmonica, although there's not a lot to watch, it's cool to know that the instrument was never intended for the kinds of bends and slurs inherent to the blues. It's just that the early players didn't get the memo that the harp can't do that.

One of the things the harp really can't do, of course, is talk. Except that I heard it talk. We all heard it talk in the course of Joe's rendition of DeFord Bailey's "Ice Water Blues." Bailey was one of the earliest harmonica players recorded. He was also an important part of the early days at the Grand Ole Opry. The course of his career (and its premature stagnation) in some ways seems emblematic of the course of the harmonica's incorporation into blues, which ne'er did run smooth.

The country roots of harmonica remained firm in endeavors like the Memphis Jug Band and the Cannon's Jug Stompers, which saw players like Will Shade and Noah Lewis laying groundwork very similar to Bailey's. To demonstrate this, Joe played some of "Stealin' stealin'," which is a Memphis Jug Band tune; however, not to play favorites, he did play two harmonicas, a la Noah Lewis. That is, he TECHNICALLY played two harmonicas (which, in this case, is not the BEST kind of playing two harmonicas), but Noah played one with his nose, whereas Joe simply switched between them at lightning speed. Cheater. But jug bands are an endeavor unto themselves. As an individual, despite his talent, Bailey was viewed as a little too limited and a little too rooted in country to go along for the blues ride.

For contrast to Bailey, Joe introduced John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, who is not to be confused with Alex Miller, who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson II. "Our" Sonny Boy, for these purposes, wound up in Chicago in the 1930s. Through his vocal ability and some real innovation in the way he played the harmonica (as well as a little help from luck and location, location, location, no doubt), Sonny Boy Williamson made his country sound an asset, rather than a liability. Although "Good Morning, Little School Girl," seems to be his most frequently mentioned side (thanks, no doubt, to the Dead and to Canned Heat), Joe did a bit of its B-side, "Sugar Momma Blues," which had awesome, complex hokum euphemism lady sugar.

I'm skipping a bunch of key figures I know. Something that struck me during the session was that blues guitar and blues piano, although they obviously have their stand-out players with signature sounds, tend to cluster into regional styles. There's also the oft-mentioned back-and-forth between piano and guitar styles within those regions. The history of blues harmonica, at least from my impressions from the way that Joe presented it, is much more a collection of individuals who "invented" a style, and then were imitated by other players everywhere. So you have the "Look! I've got a band in my hand!" players, then you have players who introduce the idea of the harmonica as an important solo and color instrument, players who electrify (literally), and so on. And as soon as an innovation is made, it seems, it's imitated.
(e.g., Sonny Boy was one of the most widely imitated players of all time.)

From the prespective of writing these things up, I'm finding it a total bitch to remember everyone. I think that's partly attributable to the the individuality factor, partly to the fact that I didn't paw through the records at the end of the session, partly because I've been to see a movie and attended two music classes since this morning, and partly because I'm a dumbass who in four weeks never did get her act together to take notes on these things, so here I am on 3 hours sleep at 2:30 AM relying on my feeble brain. Go team me.

Certainly, even my imperfect memory recalls that Joe more or less wrapped up by deploying the vintage amplification stuff. He had an old cheapy bullet microphone (I like to think of it as the "Plan 9" microphone, myself), which he showed, then set aside. He also had a teeny, weeny amp from Baal knows when with a hand mic. To demonstrate amplified harmonica (and he told no lies---it really does sound like the sexy, dirty bastard child of an alto sax and hammond organ---great googly moogly the Blues is just WRONG in all the right ways), he covered the Sonny Terry half of the Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee saga (as you'll recall, Mark gave the "one couldn't run" angle a lot of air time last week). He played Sonny's part from Finian's Rainbow, a Broadway gig that earned him a fair amount of cash, even if it did consign him to playing the same thing the same way for 1000 performances. That's got some soul-killing potential right there, especially when you consider that, although it's called Sonny's Whoop (among other things), it's basically his take on the old Fox Chase.

I really enjoyed the very tiny glimpse into electric blues that this offered. I have to tell you, I was rooting for that harmonica kid all along, but I was worried, because every other freaking Blues instrument was already loud or worried about getting louder, and there wasn't a lot of progress on that front for the harp until the days of amplification. I was also particularly glad that someone asked a question about Joe's particular style of playing on a Little Walter tune (could not remember what it was with a gun to my head---possibly something called "Ease" or "Easy" based on another piece that, appropriately, has something to do with losing one's mind . . . ?). There was this wild and crazy vibrato going on that, if you didn't think about it too much, you might have attributed to the Flintstone's amp. Of course, if you think about it, the amp is barely hanging on in its core competency of being loud. It is not exactly ready to understudy for Frampton's guitar or DeFord's harp. Of course, it wasn't about the amp, it was all about Joe, his breathing, and his magical freaking pixie dust that allows him to defy the laws by which mere humans are bound.

Thus endeth the Blues session. I'm seriously glad we went, but all the same, I don't see us getting up to drive to Skokie during rush hour for the Cajun and Zydeco stuff. Maybe, hint hint, if Old Town would do stuff like this at their locations, we could be . . . persuaded.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Short-Attention-Span Cable Network

(NB:There are spoilers for the Season 2 finale of !Huff below)

Cable television has totally wanted me for many years, but I've played it coy. Yes, in the past I've needed cable for my Mystery Science Theatre 3000 habit. And then when Macgyver felt the need to be my TV boyfriend, and he brought his friend Maj. (now Lt. Col.) Man!Ho along, and then told me that I'd probably enjoy watching a slow-moving trainwreck involving the 50,000 surviving humans of the robot Holocaust, I'll admit that I was grateful to have cable. Cable certainly brought me hours of fashion, entertainment, the peoples' ovation, and fame forever when I had to see Iron Chef every week.

But did I really NEED cable?

I've seen about 15 seconds of Sex in the City and decided that if I need the inside of my skull scooped out, I'll go the trephination route in loyalty to my geographical area of specialization. I have never---and please have something soft nearby for when you inevitably pass out from the shock of this revelation---seen even that much of The Sopranos. (In fact, I only realized about 2 months ago that one of the A3 songs provided to me by my friend A is the theme song to The Sopranos.) Other than noting from commercials that The L Word seems to follow a standard butch/femme lesbian dichotomy, I couldn't tell you anything else about it. I've seen a handful of Six Feet Under episodes, and although there were times when it piqued my interest, I never tuned in regularly, set up a season pass, or did anyting that could be construed as committment.

Other than with Sex in the City, this hasn't been conscious too-cool-for-school avoidance. I just never felt the yen to check out most of the big shows, and when I did see some of them, they just didn't grab me and make me nervous that the satellite would go out when the next episode was scheduled.

And then things changed. I blame my spouse. I believe we got Showtime first, because it had (or was about to have) Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, and pal M had made Dead Like Me sound intriguing. And it was intriguing. Not in a grab-you-by-the-balls-and-make-you-pay-attention way, but in a raised-eyebrow-tap-on-the-shoulder-jerk-of-the-thumb-in-the-general-direction-of-weirdness way. Throughout the show there were things that frustrated me about it, but there were other things that completely fascinated me and had me slack-jawed as I watched.

When Laura Harris debuted as Daisy, I'd have never predicted that a character, who seemed to be there to do nothing but talk about all the guys she blew way back when, could deliver such a subtle, layered, truly moving performance. And don't even talk to me about Callum Blue. In my mind, Mason was Angel's Doyle unleashed---darker, infinitely more fucked up (and, sadly, with a lot more of Glenn Quinn's real-life tragedy mixed in), and yet fundamentally appealing. In particular, the course of the relationship between Mason and Daisy had me glued to the set. Never seeing how low they could go and how artfully they could, from time to time, transcend their own self-destructive tendencies to be excellent to one another was my biggest heartbreak about the show's cancellation.

But let's face it: Dead Like Me was always Showtime's also-ran. When your award nominations are limited to Saturns, Image Awards, and the insult-to-injury Emmys in music and visual effects, you're not long for this world. And given the flaws in the show, its cancellation was a bittersweet break up, particularly because DLM introduced me to what I've only just learned is my rebound guy: !Huff. But I'll get back to that, because it's really the source of my intense rage of the moment.

Let's turn to HBO for a moment. If Showtime is your 90s start-up in terms of cable network addiction, HBO is supposed to be your blue-chip company. Am I right? I mean, any time someone from Showtime DOES get an Emmy nomination, the snarky scuttlebutt is that someone checked the wrong box on the ballot. Being a bit backwards, we didn't get HBO until after we had Showtime, and you can thank the Carnies for that. My spouse cannot resist Carnies.

So, slowly but surely, we get drawn into the incredibly complex dust bowl dimension of Carnivale. We marvel that we have actors ranging from the Little Man from Another Place on Twin Peaks to Jupiter, the wrestling promoter, on Nikki acting the fuck out of their roles on the same canvas. We go a little funny in our heads because casting Clancy Brown as a satanic depression-era preacher should have a very extensive warning label that emphasizes the inevitable night terrors. We come to the realization that Nick Stahl is one of the most brilliant young actors out there. We wonder if Joss Whedon kept his invisible girl alive and well and sheltered by the CIA because he KNEW about Clea Duvall. But all the while, we have a false sense of security. THIS is HBO. These characters will be around for some time to come. This storyline has years in which to get so much more fucked up than it is right now. Except not so fucking much.

And then there's Deadwood. Ok, I am so very not ready to talk about Deadwood, but you should all prepare yourselves for the wailing that will rise up from the Windy City when the last episodes air.

So that leaves this week's suckerpunch: !Huff. On paper, !Huff had an easy time of it with the denizens of Telecommuniculturey. Hank Azaria? What could not be good about the man who brings you Apu AND Moe? Paget Brewster? The cancellation of Andy Richter Controls the Universe is one of the greatest pop culture crimes of our time, and when the pop cultural revolution comes, there will be a reckoning. In short, Paget Brewster getting excellent roles is a big score for the good guys. Oliver Platt? Is it possible not to love Oliver Platt? Don't answer that. I don't have time to weep for you sad, sad people.

That said, !Huff, didn't take immediately. It took a couple of episodes to find its feet, but I can pinpoint the moment when it did: Beth finds lipstick on the crotch of her 14-year-old son's underwear. The family wackiness that ensues was just brilliantly done, from Beth's (possibly willful) maternal cluelessness to Byrd's teenage inability to see the hammer coming, to Huff's own "Ooooh, she's gonna kill you for that." At that moment, every single one of those characters became my peeps, and I came to crave the unflinching determination on the part of the writers to show me the absolute rock-bottom, scum-sucking aspects of these characters side-by-side with their ability to transcend it all from time to time.

I knew that "Which Lip Is the Cervical Lip?" was the finale of season 2, because, well, it had been advertised as the finale of season 2. It was brutal, and it was wonderful. Over and over again, I was struck by the performances in the episode. Everyone was ON. Everything was clicking.

Although the entire show is (and has been from episode 1) fundamentally about point of view, this episode really showcased that take and technique. Throughout, the camera literally tricks us into jumping between perspectives as, for example, !Huff walking down the hallway of the Four Seasons ends as he passes a curtained window and the perspective cuts over to Russell being marched to a holding cell.

But lest those kinds of techniques seem like "look what I can do" tricks, they're really working the metaphor to a purpose in the finale. Over the last few episodes, Rachel Style has been playing Kate, a young patient of Huff's who is going blind from retinitis pigmentosa. She's a tremendous actress who doesn't seem to have all the extensive a resume. In the opening shot of the episode, we see !Huff from her perspective (a startlingly realistic representation of what someone at her stage of the disease would see). Huff, who is probably at his most narcissistic in this episode, gives into her desire for a bit of personal information about him, more out of boredom than because he is moved by her plea. (And I've got to tell you, it's a testament to Hank Azaria as an actor that he was able to maintain the bored, distracted facade throughout, because this young woman was riveting.)

I have a son, he says. And out of this scrap of information, Kate spins a tale of his perfect life, one that couldn't be farther from the truth. As she finishes, Huff looks like he might give into the temptation to make the session into his own by correcting her, and she orders him not to, because that's "How she wants to see it."

On the flip side of the narratives that demand cogency and linearity (no matter how wrong those turn out to be), we have the dynamic, fractured, piecemeal, perspective of Teddy, Huff's schizophrenic brother. All season long, Teddy has grasped little bits of success and normalcy for himself while the audience waited for it all to come crashing down in a spectacular, hideous way. Only because I know that the writers of this show are complete and utter bastards with some kind of sick need to actually challenge the audience did the tension creep up several notches just when Teddy made a move that could have defused the situation, coming clean with his girlfriend about his illness and the lie he'd been living since he met her.

Rather than the relationship resolving itself in network television, absolutist, flowchart, choose-your-own-adventure fashion (To break up with Teddy, turn to page 87; To prove yourself to be the good-hearted woman who will cure him of his schizophrenia with the mighty healing power of your vagina and self-destructive nature, turn to page 113), things linger and fester. Alyssa doesn't leave Teddy, and yet Teddy's condition quite realistically continues to deteriorate. When he hatches a plan for them to run off to Mexico, she stands him up. And until the last horrible moment before his complete break, the audience has no way of anticipating what his reaction will be (or of preparing for its naked brutality) when she shows up out of guilt later that night.

If I had to pick my "weak link" in the cast, it would have been Anton Yechin as Byrd, Beth's and Huff's son. (And, shit, how fair is that? The kid was actually 15 when the show started.) Until the finale, that is. His breakdown and palpable connection with his father---its obvious parallels to Huff's hopelessness in his relationship with Teddy---great googly moogly, that's excellent, no matter what the medium. And, well, it goes on and on. I haven't even talked about Blythe Danner as Izzy, which is an essay all on its own.

So I emerged from the finale, exhausted, tantalized, and filled with the mixture of gloom and anticipation that comes with the end of a season I've really loved. And M drops the bomb: It's not the end of the season, it's the end of the series.

I can't really blame the writers, I guess, because the season finale was well in the can when the network announced cancellation two days before it aired. However, given this incredibly unpleasant reality, I can't say strongly enough what a complete disservice it is to the series to have ended it that way. I mean, Jesus Fucking Christ! Russell starts the episode with a dead hooker in his apartment (a black hooker, and a recurring character, dead of a coke overdose), and ends by delivering his own son. Just an episode or so ago, Huff spent a squid-juice-fueled night with a Korean hooker, and he ends looking like the good guy as he deals with Byrd when Beth can't, then tries to do the "right thing" by asking to come home and gets shut down by Beth, who isn't ready. Izzy, after 20 years of ignoring Teddy, is suddenly the one to bring him out of his break.

On the one hand, there are a million maddening loose ends and roads not taken. On the other, as a series finale, "Which Lip Is the Cervical Lip?" makes the entire run seem shallow and pat, complete with a number of unsavory racist, misogynist, motherhood-is-ultimately-magical-by-default overtones. I've got no doubt whatever that all of those pretenses of closure were intended as all-too-temporary respite before the world got blowed up real good again. And yet . . . goddamn, it's frustrating. It's almost enough to make me mention 7th Heaven, if I didn't know that it would make my bud C cry.

Dude. Seriously. W. T. F? Isn't this cable? Isn't this where we're supposed to be freed from the whims of advertisers and the Parents Television Council? Aren't we supposed to focus less on ratings and more on quality? Guess not. I am SO going to have to choke a bitch.