From Mn Artists, this is where the conversation about the arts and culture hits home, right here in Minnesota.
FAR AFIELD Like a scarecrow with its missing eye up to a telescope in the wee hours of another starless night I fooled myself into believing I’d seen all I needed of life — as if lightning isn’t always about to flash/strike somewhere along the horizon. *** Brian Beatty’s writing has […]
Like a scarecrow
with its missing eye
up to a telescope
in the wee hours
of another starless night
I fooled myself
into believing I’d seen
all I needed
of life — as if lightning
isn’t always about to
Brian Beatty’s writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications. His column of one-liners, “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” originated at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and wound up in the gutters of the front spreads of METRO Magazine, which also once rated him among the funniest people in the Twin Cities.
Alec Soth is a photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and proprietor of Little Brown Mushroom. He has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Jerome Foundations and was the recipient of the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography. His photographs are represented in major public and private collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Walker Art Center. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial and a career survey at the Jeu de Paume in 2008. His first monograph, Sleeping by the Mississippi, was published by Steidl in 2004 to critical acclaim. Since then Soth has published NIAGARA (Steidl, 2006), Dog Days, Bogotá (Steidl, 2007) Fashion Magazine: Paris/Minnesota (2007), Last Days of W. (2008), Broken Manual (2010) and Siren (2012), and several limited-edition installments in his LBM Dispatch series created with writer Brad Zellar. He is represented by the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.
A retrospective of his work, Alec Soth: Until Now, is on view at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, March 21 through May 10, 2014.
For mnartists.org’s occasional Broadside, artists are presented with a selection of written works and asked to respond in kind to a text of their choosing, with an image drawn from their own body of work. The text and visual art are presented on equal footing, neither one merely accompaniment or illustration for the other, more like artist-driven, mixed-media call and response.
LOAM The first snow of the year started flying an hour ago. It’s still too warm for it to stick, but here I sit watching where our garden used to grow. Dumb, I know. You were out there just last night, or maybe another few weeks have passed, picking late herbs, […]
The first snow of the year
started flying an hour ago.
It’s still too warm for it
to stick, but here I sit watching
where our garden
used to grow.
Dumb, I know.
You were out there just last night,
or maybe another few weeks have passed,
picking late herbs, squash, tomatoes.
Digging up what was dead.
Making room, I suppose,
for where winter comes from.
Brian Beatty’s writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications. His column of one-liners, “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” originated at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and wound up in the gutters of the front spreads of METRO Magazine, which also once rated him among the funniest people in the Twin Cities. Brian took a turn at penning “The Columnest” for a few months, and he continues to host mnartists.org’s monthly literary podcast, You Are Hear.
Gregory Euclide is an artist and teacher living in the Minnesota River Valley. His work has been featured in shows at MASS MoCA, Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio among others, and was recently on view in a solo exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art. His work is also featured on the 2012 Grammy Award winning album covers of the musical group Bon Iver and on the cover of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #43. Euclide was awarded two Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grants through the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Jerome Foundation Residency through the Blacklock Nature Sanctuary. Keep track of upcoming exhibitions and browse through his series of prints made from the Bon Iver album art on the artist’s website, http://gregoryeuclide.com/.
If you ask me, the word “genius” gets bandied about all too often in the arts. And I should know. The areas of creative expertise advertised on my website and my business card happen to be, “Writer. Comedian. Bearded Genius.” Hubris? Sure. But nobody else was going to say it unless I did. Unless money […]
If you ask me, the word “genius” gets bandied about all too often in the arts. And I should know. The areas of creative expertise advertised on my website and my business card happen to be, “Writer. Comedian. Bearded Genius.” Hubris? Sure. But nobody else was going to say it unless I did. Unless money entered into the equation, maybe. (It’s a lot easier to risk being caught in a lie than it is to dole out cash you’ve not got in the bank. Awkward embarrassment, I can afford.)
Writer, critic, translator, illustrator, painter and University of Kentucky professor Guy Davenport won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1990 — the one better known as “The Genius Grant.” So don’t expect me to vouch for his smarts to unnecessary lengths here. Davenport, who died in 2005, was a revered polymath even capable of frying up his favorite fried bologna sandwiches, then eating them standing over his kitchen sink. Entertaining only profound thoughts as he chewed, I hypothesize.
You don’t have to take my word for any of this. The Guy Davenport Reader includes the anecdote about fried bologna sandwiches, as well as generous selections of Davenport’s short stories, essays, poems, translations and journal entries. Several of the stories and essays here also appear in Davenport’s 2005 miscellany, The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing, but Reader editor Erik Reece (a former student of Davenport’s and his literary executor) has done a fine job honoring his mentor’s intellect and interests.
Davenport wrote the opposite of beach reading. He populated his fictions with familiar characters and unfamiliar ideas that demand (and reward) attention. He cast the likes of Thoreau, Kafka and Nixon in stories, but it was as much what their characters represented as the men acting as characters that interested him. “The Concord Sonata,” “Belinda’s World Tour” and “The Richard Nixon Freischutz Rag,” respectively, turn into intellectual writing exercises at times, while a simpler tale like “A Gingham Dress,” in the voice of a naive rural child, rings bells that echo longer.
A favorite of fabulist Donald Barthelme, Davenport lacks Barthelme’s easygoing humor and natural charm, though there’s no denying his erudition or the musicality of his writer’s ear.
Davenport’s essays are even more impressive than his stories. “The Geography of the Imagination” maps exactly that, considering Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce and Grant Wood along the way. “Finding” and “On Reading” are personal narratives that reach beyond such marketing categories as Creative Nonfiction or Memoir. “The Symbol of the Archaic” and “The Hunter Gracchus” were too smart for me. But I tried. I found myself underlining entire paragraphs, as if I was going to be tested on the material later. I’m glad I’m not.
My favorite of the essays in the Reader is Davenport’s piece on visionary Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, which previously appeared as the introduction to Steidl’s 2005 Meatyard collaboration with the International Center of Photography. Davenport helped curate the Steidl/ICP collection, just as he helped Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society usher The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater into the world back in 1974. Davenport acknowledges Meatyard’s quirks at the same time he recounts his ordinariness and praises the boundlessness of his curiosities:
One could usually find the Meatyards up to something rich and strange: making violet jam (or some other sufficiently unlikely flavor), model ships, fanciful book covers; listening to a superb collection of antique jazz, or to recordings which Gene seemed to dream up and then command the existence of, like the Andrews sisters singing Poe’s “Raven” (“Ulalume” on the flip side, both in close harmony.)
Davenport’s passions are more academic, perhaps, but just as varied. His own verse, for sure, is more academic (read: less interesting) to me than his translations — which still didn’t engage this reader to the degree his journal entries did, because they revealed a brilliant mind at work and play: “There is no reversal possible of American mediocrity, which will worsen until we have total depravity of the idea of freedom. There is no American business: only diddling the consumer.” Davenport goes on to blame this deprivation on Congressional incompetence and irresponsibility.
Here’s a writer who was as brave as he was bright, who refused to shrink away from the good fight. In the vintage Polaroid that adorns the Reader’s front cover (snapped by Jonathan Williams sometime in the last century), a young Davenport appears to be daring the reader to challenge his ideas. Only a fool would take that dare.
Like millions of my fellow Americans this summer blockbuster season, I won’t be caught dead entering an air-conditioned multiplex showing Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Unlike most Americans resisting the train-wreck temptation of Johnny Depp’s monosyllabic redface-blackface minstrel routine, I was, initially anyway, anticipating The Masked Man’s big-screen revival. My dad and I spent a considerable […]
Like millions of my fellow Americans this summer blockbuster season, I won’t be caught dead entering an air-conditioned multiplex showing Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Unlike most Americans resisting the train-wreck temptation of Johnny Depp’s monosyllabic redface-blackface minstrel routine, I was, initially anyway, anticipating The Masked Man’s big-screen revival. My dad and I spent a considerable chunk of my childhood Sundays watching re-runs of black-and-white TV westerns he’d first watched during his own childhood. The 1950s television adaptation of The Lone Ranger radio show was one of my favorites — up there with The Wild Wild West.
1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a hard lesson for an eleven-year-old boy. Long before that legendary bomb’s end credits rolled, I suspected that I’d been robbed of something more valuable than my matinee ticket price. And Hollywood’s 1999 adaptation of The Wild Wild West seemed tailor made to turn me against my fondest childhood memories. (I watched it on TV once, too, just to confirm that suspicion.)
I never trusted Disney to get The Lone Ranger right. I don’t mind them updating the story with over-the-top digital special effects. That I understand. I used to draw swooping bats, rock slides and mushroom clouds into the melodramatic scenes depicted in my beloved Lone Ranger coloring books. But it was obvious from the first online trailer I watched that this movie was, from the beginning, only seen as an old-fashioned Disney franchise opportunity, complete with baby boomer brand loyalists and a few spry stunt horses for when CGI wouldn’t do.
But that’s okay. The westerns I’ve been reading (and re-reading) this summer didn’t need CGI effects to blow up the genre.
David Markson’s The Ballad of Dingus Magee transforms low comedy into high art. Absurdities and coincidences abound in this “immortal true saga of the most notorious and desperate bad man of the olden days, his blood-shedding, his ruination of poor helpless females, & cetera,” but it’s all in the name of wildly entertaining the reader. Remember entertainment? Markson’s later works were critically revered for how they toyed with the novel form, but, word for word, this bawdy page-turner is no less accomplished. Looking for a down and less-dirty pulp tale to haunt your next trip to the cabin? Joe R. Lansdale’s The Magic Wagon is a creepy crawly mash-up that can be tough to find, but if you do it’s worth an afternoon and sleepless night. There’s no resisting a yarn that begins, “”Wild Bill Hickock, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of sorts.”
An overly generous Dean Koontz cover blurb on my copy compares The Magic Wagon to True Grit — a comparison that undervalues the Charles Portis classic in exactly the way that Dean Koontz would. As much as I enjoyed Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers film a couple of years ago (which was more than I enjoyed John Wayne in the role when I was a kid and hadn’t yet read the book), my favorite thing about 2010’s Hollywood adaptation was how it inspired me to look up Portis. True Grit is a complex tale of revenge for the whole family.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, is the most adventuresome of the westerns I’ve perused this summer. Structurally speaking, anyway. Its combination of impressionistic poetry and prose, recounted in the first-person voice of the legendary desperado, defies familiar genre conventions at every turn. Which might be why I’m enjoying Ondaatje’s pseudo-autobiographical take on the outlaw myth as much if not more than Markson’s coarse cowboy farce.
I’m hoping to revisit Ishmael Reed’s “HooDoo Western” classic Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, too, before summer ends. Because I love genre-derailing literary hijinx as much as I loathe plastic Lone Ranger soda cups with my Subway sandwiches.
Outlaw country music singer-songwriter/multimedia artist Terry Allen unravels fine art genres in ways that leave me feeling ill-equipped to critique what I’ve just experienced. Most of the time I’m lucky if I can make sense of my visceral response to what he’s done. I think that’s because he does it all — usually all at once. Allen draws, paints, sculpts, assembles installations and writes and performs theatrical pieces for/with his wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen. Everything of Allen’s I’ve seen or heard or read about challenges audience expectations and explanations.
Droll wit and good-old-boy drawl aside, Allen has a febrile imagination.
Mostly I’ve listened to his country albums and recordings of his works for the stage. Allen’s a great songwriter, but one typically lacking either a band or a budget equal to his brilliance. His classic 1979 double album Lubbock (On Everything) is the most listenable exception to this disappointing matter of fact, but even so, you have to be in the mood to be transported to a 1979 juke joint when you press “play.” Lubbock (On Everything) is a classic album, yes, but it’s not a timeless one. (Lubbock highlights “Amarillo Highway” and “New Delhi Freight Train” are also available on 2007’s Americana Master Series retrospective on Sugar Hill Records.) Legendary musician/producer Lloyd Maines joined Allen, as usual, on this year’s Bottom of the World, Allen’s first studio album in 14 years, but it remains a disappointing listening experience. Minimal instrumentation and non-existent production undermine Allen’s latest too-smart two-steps and Tex-Mex shuffles.
For her part, Jo Harvey Allen has always been equal to (and bettered, I would say) whatever her husband has created for the stage. As muse and chorus in his theatrical productions, she embodies reckless abandon and erotic energy. Her spirited presence also helps ground Allen’s collage-ish assemblages of poetry, narrative, song and ambient found sounds.
Every time I listen to Dugout, Pedal Steal or Ghost Ship Rodez, I discover something new in Terry Allen’s aural mythologies. Based loosely on the lives of Allen’s parents and his own childhood in West Texas, Dugout is, according to Allen, “a love story, an investigation into how memory is invented, a kind of supernatural-jazz-sport-history-ghost-blood-fiction.” That the University of Texas Press’s book accompanying the hour-plus performance spans 260-some pages suggests just how complex the story is. Suffice it to say that baseball has never seemed so metaphorical or Texas in the 1950s so avant-garde. 2010’s Ghost Ship Rodez dramatizes Antonin Artaud’s delusional, deteriorating mental state during a 17-day freighter journey from Ireland to France — which the incapacitated playwright spent straightjacketed and chained to a metal cot down in the ship’s hold. Artaud’s nightmarish fate, particularly as the Allens detail it, becomes the stuff of legend, for sure, but it remains human and humane, too.
Originally commissioned in 1985 as a soundtrack for a performance by San Francisco’s Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Pedal Steal is my favorite of Allen’s theatrical works to be released as an album. A fictionalized account of the life of roadhouse pedal steel guitar legend (and drug casualty) Wayne Gayley that Allen originally envisioned as a fictionalized account of the life of Billy the Kid, this 35-minute tone poem tribute to his late friend traverses an incredible range of sentiment and emotion via sensory overload. Tape-recorded interviews memorializing Gayley give way to Native American chants give way to Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar dive-bombs give way to sultry R&B sax — which all give way to Allen’s deadpan narration and electric piano.
“He had pictures living behind his face,” Allen imagines at one point during Pedal Steal. “They ran out of his head like movies. He’d sneak into them and watch, then go back outside and make up his life.” I suspect that’s also as true of art/music maverick Terry Allen as it is of any character he’s ever honored in story, song or staged multimedia event.
No sooner had Alec Soth’s email appeared in my inbox than I was overthinking how performing as a stand-up comedian and storyteller had transformed my idea of a successful story — and not just because overthinking things is how I usually kill time. For once I wasn’t avoiding new work, new audiences and/or new doubts. […]
No sooner had Alec Soth’s email appeared in my inbox than I was overthinking how performing as a stand-up comedian and storyteller had transformed my idea of a successful story — and not just because overthinking things is how I usually kill time. For once I wasn’t avoiding new work, new audiences and/or new doubts. The photographer and publisher had emailed to ask me to think (and then talk out loud, egads) about comedy and performance for Little Brown Mushroom’s “Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers.” (Previous media coverage here, here, here and here. Soth’s camp recap here. Camper Julian Bleecker’s recap here.)
My problem, why I was having to remind myself to inhale and exhale, was that it had been months since I’d last wandered onto a stage to make people laugh. It might as well have been forever ago. Typically, this wouldn’t have bothered me, but suddenly I was feeling out of my element on every level. Maybe because I really know only one thing about photography: what I like.
I own the complete collection of Little Brown Mushroom’s Dispatch series pairing photos by Soth with texts by writer Brad Zellar, as well as their House of Coates collaboration. My tiny photo book collection also includes a copy of From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America (the exhibition catalog for the Walker Art Center’s 2010 survey), Lost Boy Mountain (a zine-ish little book attributed to Lester B. Morrison) and another rare trio of zines (Lonely Bearded Men, Library for Broken Men and Lester Becomes Me) culled from Soth’s hermetic Broken Manual project. William Eggleston’s Guide and a William Wegman coffee table book of dog Polaroids round out my collection, even though I prefer the oddness of Wegman’s early short films and recent paintings.
What terrified me most of all as I prepared was the idea of showing up at his camp like some fawning Soth fanboy, out of my depth, struggling to present what I do (when I do get up on stage) as an art form. Oh, and I was also supposed to make myself helpful somehow. Campers would be looking to me, I was told, for help figuring out what to say during slideshow presentations for what they’d been up to during their week at camp — an event that I’d also agreed to emcee, mostly because I like doing stuff at The Soap Factory.
Then I remembered I had another column due soon, too, and the panic seizing my chest ratcheted up a notch. Hyperventilating a little, I fired off a quick email.
A THREE-QUESTION INTERVIEW WITH ALEC SOTH
What inspired Little Brown Mushroom’s “Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers” in the first place?
I’m regularly approached to teach workshops in places like Cuba and Spain. But the idea has always made me queasy. For starters, these workshops are expensive. I’d be worried that the students would feel cheated. And since most of my photography is defined by its Middle-American-ness, I don’t know how I could help people navigate these exotic locales.
But I am hungry to be involved in education. I had a teacher who totally changed my life. I’m not saying I can do that for anyone else, but I want to at least be involved in some sort of educational dialog. So rather than jet off to Rio, I decided to bring the workshop to me. And by making it free, I was able to make it more experimental and dampen some of my anxiety about the participants feeling ripped off.
The whole idea behind Little Brown Mushroom is that it is a sandbox to informally collaborate and make things. This workshop seems to fit with that idea.
What has photography taught you about the value of storytelling?
Like a lot of people, I’m trying to figure out what it means to call oneself a photographer in the era of Flickr and Instagram. When I was a student, it was considered an achievement to make a decent exposure and then be able to finesse the print in the darkroom. My six-year-old can do that now. It isn’t nearly enough to make good pictures. The challenge is to string pictures together in a meaningful way. One way is to tell stories.
But photographs are limited in their storytelling capacity. They are so fragmentary — so specific — that they tend to suggest stories more than tell them. So I was interested to see what happened when I combined words with pictures. That has been the primary aesthetic goal of Little Brown Mushroom: to experiment with the way that words and images can be combined to tell stories.
Unlike painting, photography can magically reshape itself in different contexts. I’ve never thought my photographs have had a fixed meaning, so I enjoy watching the meaning change as the contexts change. One of the exciting things about this camp experiment was to see how the meaning of images shifts when presented in front of a live audience.
Why were you interested in having a stand-up comedian (of sorts) speak to your campers?
For me, the fundamental form of visual storytelling has always been the book. But over the years, as I was forced to do more and more public speaking, I realized that the slideshow was its own unexplored form of visual storytelling. I mean, the old family slideshow where mom and dad talk about their trip to Paris — that’s visual storytelling. But more often than not, of course, that’s bad visual storytelling. Mom and Dad show fifty pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Everyone else falls asleep.
How can one make this experience more engaging? I figured it would be good to learn from people who directly engage audiences, who make art out of public speaking. Comedians do exactly that.
TWO THINGS I WISH I’D REMEMBERED TO SAY
I’m not sure that I made art out of anything I said that last day of LBM camp. The short talk that I’d planned to give was to be a mix of jokes, personal anecdote, an examination of performance art vs. stand-up comedy vs. traditional storytelling, this crackpot theory I’ve got about story fundamentals, another joke or two and a few little humorous poems — because rhyme is a guaranteed closer every time. It was going to be dense with info, a little weird and, hopefully, hilarious. Unfortunately, by the time I talked to the LBM campers, neither they nor I much cared what I had to say. They were scrambling to finish their slideshows for Saturday night’s event, and I was more interested in what they’d been up to all week than I was in listening to myself blab.
I opened with three short, socially awkward stand-up bits to establish my cred with the campers. What happened next was a variation on the multiple themes I’d intended to hit upon and more — delivered with no focus or sense of form whatsoever. In that moment, I don’t think I could have been trusted to sing along to “Happy Birthday.” My scribbled outline/setlist (memorization has never been my strength) looked more foreign to me every time I glanced at it. I fumbled my way through scraps and pieces of what I had planned, but my talk was more socially awkward than I’d intended, for sure.
At least I was quick to sit up straight in my chair in the center of the room when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the guy with the camera covering camp for a Japanese photo mag snapping my picture.
Two things I wish I’d said to the LBM camp crew but didn’t remember in my rush to be done:
- There is nothing better you can do in front of an audience than remain present in that moment. That’s the only way something magical is going to happen. Performing has taught me that much. (Though I too rarely remember it.)
- I learned an incredibly valuable lesson about audiences doing performance art as an undergrad. Screaming at dead birds to fly as I threw them at classroom and campus art gallery windows, shouting about the myth of Icarus, I learned that, more than anything, people really hate performance art.
ONE MORE AND DONE
I wish I could’ve been clearer with Soth’s campers about one other thing I’d been overthinking.
My crackpot theory about “story” is that it’s not as complicated as the five elements or three acts we’re taught in school. An effective story can be as simple as “I” and “why.” A character (the “I”) merely needs to take some sort of action, which will define the story’s shape (elegant or egads). Revealing that character’s motivation (the “why”) will reveal the story’s heart (its emotional truth).
If I’d just said that, it would’ve been enough, I think.
A few years ago when I pulled the plug on “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” which had appeared online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for more than three years and in print in the gutters of METRO Magazine’s front pages for about a year, I was confident that I would land a new column in no time. […]
A few years ago when I pulled the plug on “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” which had appeared online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for more than three years and in print in the gutters of METRO Magazine’s front pages for about a year, I was confident that I would land a new column in no time. Well, confident by my standards. I’d moved beyond mumbling droll one-liners on stage and was eager to put them to some sort of more interesting use as a writer, too.
What I hoped to do next was dish out inane quips in response to genuine reader pleas for advice.
Amy Sedaris was still writing her crazed “Sedaratives” column for The Believer. Dan Savage’s snarky syndicated sex advice was often the best reading in City Pages. The Rumpus was around, but Oprah favorite, Cheryl Strayed, hadn’t yet assumed her “Dear Sugar” responsibilities. But I’d picked up a used copy of The Slice from a dollar bin somewhere. That cheap paperback retrospective of the advice column novelist Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) wrote to pay the bills in the 1980s was the only proof I needed that there was no shame in pretending you knew it all.
Or, in my case, pretending that I knew nothing. (My pitch line for “Badvice by Brian Beatty” was, “There are no stupid answers,” though that was exactly what I had in mind.) That I was entirely unqualified to offer anybody advice — good, bad and/or absurd — wasn’t nearly as entertaining to editors as it was to me, I soon discovered. Nobody I approached expressed one iota of interest in publishing a column predicated on the idea of getting it wrong every time.
I was stunned. Well, stunned by my standards. Because Americans are usually suckers for awful advice. For a bunch of know-it-alls, nobody’s more desperate than we are to be told by some total stranger what to do next. There are even people who listen to Dr. Phil.
What if I’d performed on (cable) TV before? Perhaps appeared in a holiday ad campaign for Target? Would my ridiculous pitch have been taken seriously then?
Stand-up comedian Maria Bamford (last seen in the new Netflix episodes of Arrested Development) recently launched an online series called “Ask My Mom!” for My Damn Channel. And not so surprisingly, she gets just about everything right. The episodes are short. Her viewers’ questions aren’t sitcom cute or alt-comedy geek clever. And the back-and-forth between Bamford and Bamford-inhabiting-her-mother is the ideal showcase for an addled, passive-aggressive caricature that epitomizes stereotypes at the same time it skewers them with quick, off-kilter wit too smart for Hollywood.
“Minnesota nice” and “Mother knows best” are banal abstractions easily reduced to meaningless cliché. And ridiculing clichés, meaningless or otherwise, typically makes for lazy, expected comedy. But Bamford’s take on her mother, familiar to fans of the comedian’s stand-up, is neither lazy nor expected. Whether a complicated mother/daughter dynamic originally inspired the impression doesn’t matter at this point. It’s the dark, distracted advice Mom Bamford utters in response to viewer emails that is the real draw here. So far, episodes have been fatalistic and funny in equal measure, reminding me on more than one occasion of my favorite throwaway aside from Bamford’s The Special Special Special download last year. Performing stand-up in her own living room, for an audience of her parents, a lounge keyboardist and the video crew documenting the gig for posterity, the comedian recounts an hour-long online chat she found herself having with a woman who’d forgotten about her baby in a sweltering car.
“We’re all doing the best we can,” Bamford empathizes, finally, remaining wide-eyed with disbelief. “And sometimes it is…not that good.”
“Ask My Mom!” is better than good — way better. And I’m not just saying that because I can now see how a column like “Badvice by Brian Beatty” might have destroyed innocent lives. New episodes appear every Thursday. (Hint, hint.) So far Bamford has addressed sex, child-rearing, religion and show business, in about a minute each.
It’s a shame that all advice can’t be kept so stopwatch concise.
David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College’s 2005 graduating class, published in bestseller form as This Is Water, could’ve been cut to half a minute long and not lost its entertainment value. Once past his opening “didactic little parable-ish” anecdote of naive young fish oblivious to the wet world surrounding them (spoiler alert!), the precocious literary maximalist could hardly be bothered to address the grads assembled before him as grown-ups.
Wallace instead spends the remainder of This Is Water condescending to his young audience about the humdrum adult challenges they can’t possibly imagine ahead of them, explicating trite self-help clichés until he’s revealed the secret, significant truths he’s convinced they contain. Even with prodigious white space (to accommodate reader note-taking, no doubt) and not a footnote in sight, This Is Water is a slow, sanctimonious read that feels more self-helpless and cynical than sincere in light of Wallace’s suicide a couple of years later.
The shame is that since graduation seasons roll around annually, it’s possible This Is Water could wind up with more readers than Wallace’s infinitely more empathetic and emotionally resonant fiction and journalism.
“Make interesting, amazing, glorious, fantastic mistakes,” prolific fantasy author Neil Gaiman advised University of the Arts grads toward the conclusion of his 2012 commencement address. Now in bookstores, Make Good Art is far more inspirational than Wallace’s fish-in-water tale — even if features what has to be the ugliest work of celebrated book designer Chip Kidd’s career. Gaiman’s self-deprecating remarks and firsthand insights ring true because Gaiman is willing to confess that his address is based on his own trial-and-error life experiences, while Wallace keeps his audience at an authoritative, academic arm’s length. Gaiman’s grad address is a lighter read than his usual fare, too, though that in no way excuses the pastel color palette and gratuitous typographic winks that make Make Good Art appear, at first glance, sherbet-sweet and/or mind-numbing.
The book looks scratch-n-sniff — not cool.
I’ve decided that Kidd couldn’t be bothered to read what Gaiman wrote. Or perhaps he did, and it inspired Kidd to make his own “interesting, amazing, glorious, fantastic” mistake as a tribute. Buy Gaiman’s book for your shelf, if you must, but watch his speech here, too, if only for his accent.
It’s unfortunate, but many readers will miss Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? (Subtitle: Advice for the Young.) Since his 2007 death, quickie electronic publications of Vonnegut’s trunk texts have flooded Amazon.com’s Kindle store. That the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Copyright Trust is behind this deluge of posthumous publications suggests that the decision-making has been more legal- than literary-minded.
Nice is an ugly book padded out with oversized margins and giant print intended for e-reader screens, but it’s still worth a download or online purchase. Vonnegut was often as entertaining (and insightful) behind a mic as he was in his stories and novels. The pieces brought together for this thin volume reveal an older, crankier Vonnegut than we might remember from his Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Palm Sunday and Fates Worse Than Death non-fiction collections. But for all of his vitriol, Vonnegut still has room in his heart for Indianapolis, good music, the University of Chicago’s Anthropology Department, his Uncle Alex and anybody devoted to public education.
Vonnegut was a seasoned speaker when he delivered the talks here. He knew better than to preach — unlike Wallace and Gaiman both, to varying degrees. And, as ever, Vonnegut makes it look easy.
Several anecdotes recur from speech to speech, and in some pieces Vonnegut does “sound” tired, but it’s a delight to realize how unreformed he was re: his political, cultural and humanist values. Vonnegut succeeds as a speaker because he’s more personal than he is prescriptive. His advice, if/when he finally gets around to it, is blunt, for sure. But his old-fashioned directness — minus vague, new-age niceties — is refreshing for its candor. He knows who he is. You do, too. That’s why he’s here.
“If you don’t know what the Sermon on the Mount is, ask your kid’s computer,” Vonnegut advises the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana in a speech that he concludes with a rhetorical question, which he then answers in a way that challenges audience assumptions. “What did The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and all that have to do with our present enthusiasm for women’s rights? Not that much, really. Women just got lucky this time.”
So it goes.
In a recent Esquire Magazine interview, Maria Bamford explained the genesis of “Ask My Mom!” this way: “I wanted to do a show with my mom for a long time and she used to answer questions on my website for people who were looking for advice. That was good until she started getting inundated with questions that she didn’t like.”
Fortunately, Bamford discovered an entertaining workaround, so this time we’re the lucky ones.
When I picked up What’s Left of Spider John, a brand-new Spider John Koerner album (available as a download or as an import CD from fledgling UK folk label Hornbeam Recordings), the first thing I noticed was a track title new to me. Among the traditional folk standards and the original “made-up” tunes Koerner has […]
When I picked up What’s Left of Spider John, a brand-new Spider John Koerner album (available as a download or as an import CD from fledgling UK folk label Hornbeam Recordings), the first thing I noticed was a track title new to me. Among the traditional folk standards and the original “made-up” tunes Koerner has been mining since a couple of decades before the end of the last century, there it was, staring at me from the back of the faux-letterpressed case: “God’s Penny.”
I dropped my 20 bucks without a thought.
The joke was on me. “God’s Penny” isn’t a song old or new. It’s one of those cornball groaners Koerner often chuckles through as he switches out harmonicas or tunes his guitar during performances, the kind of folksy-witticism-with-a-moral-at-the-end I imagine Garrison Keillor dreams of writing. “God’s Penny” wasn’t even all that funny the first time, but I have yet to skip it, however many times I’ve listened to What’s Left by now. There’s a Zen koan quality to it, heightened by Koerner’s wry, even drier than usual, delivery.
Accompanied on perfectly spare fiddle, bones and barroom piano by Chip Taylor Smith, Koerner’s latest recordings of “The Leather Winged Bat,” “Ezekiel,” “Good Time Charlie” and “Last Lonesome Blues” remind us that there’s still plenty left to discover inside his syncopated guitar playing and shout-singing — and that Koerner’s still doing his share of that discovering. Earlier this year he confessed to the BBC that he’s tired of playing, but to my ears he sounds more engaged here than he has on any studio session since the 1960s folk revival heyday of Koerner, Ray and Glover.
To hear him revisit “Rattlesnake” (a trickster tale of a field holler that Duluth traditionalist Charlie Parr included as a tribute on his recent album, Barnswallow) is to appreciate those crazy-wisdom Zen masters infamous for pranking their minions toward enlightenment.
At the very least, Koerner is Minnesota’s last, best holy fool still out there carrying on our nation’s songster folk tradition. That it still sounds like he’s “carrying on” when he picks up his 12-string is laudable, too. In his mid-70s he remains as vital and relevant as his Dinkytown protege from more than half a century ago, Bob Dylan. (Maybe you’ve heard of him.) What’s Left’s spirited new take on Koerner’s own stream-of-conscious rhymefest “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” might even have convinced me, at long last, that Spider John does, indeed, represent a “major threat to the jet set,” more than 40 years since he first wrote and recorded the tune with buddy (and renowned category-defying bandleader) Willie Murphy.
That’s valuable information to have, too. Because daily economic news reports to the contrary, the well-heeled still lurk among us — and they’re ready to bargain for all they don’t already own, including the soul(s) of the Metro area art scene. These greedy devils were last seen in the Twin Cities last month, during Art-a-Whirl weekend. Or so I assume, given the many Art-a-Whirling artists that seemed to be on the lookout for them. Ready to deal, too.
How else am I supposed to make sense of some of the prices I saw? I should probably be embarrassed to say so, but I didn’t and still don’t get it. Artists of all ages and ability levels apparently have arrived at the same singular conclusion: Pricing will be what establishes them as professionals. Materials, time, toil and/or what the Northeast Minneapolis art market can bear might have figured into artists’ economic equations, but I didn’t see much evidence of that. Instead, what I saw in more than a handful of the studios I stepped into looked like grand displays of unrealistic hope and/or unfortunate hubris.
Something I never saw during Art-a-Whirl: a single moneyed collector carrying anything that looked like four- or five-figure art out into the drizzle.
After wandering from building to building, squeezing into steep, claustrophobic stairwells crowded with herds of shoppers and gawkers and huggers unaware that their cheery reunions were screeching the precision-tuned workings of our Metro area art scene to a halt, I found myself craving a beer to wash down all the salts and sweets I’d been taking in. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I stumbled upon Indeed Brewing Company’s taproom just in time. Our beers hit the spot, but what I appreciated even more, enough to pocket a coaster featuring it in miniature, was the vivid label art for Indeed’s Midnight Ryder black ale.
Created for Indeed by Minneapolis-based illustrator/designer Chuck U, the Midnight Ryder label caught my eye and captured my imagination even before my beer arrived. How could it not? Its scene implies a fantastic novel of a story. (And if anybody at the upstart brewery happens to be reading this: Even the cheapest digital banner ad campaign would cost you more than the price of the cardboard marketing prop I filched. Consider this free plug my plea for forgiveness.)
Which reminds me: Posters of the Midnight Ryder label can be purchased at Indeed’s web store — along with other merch featuring Indeed branding, created by Minneapolis commercial art studio Aesthetic Apparatus. Chuck U also offers an enormous array of prints for sale via his Etsy shop.
Nothing available from these sites will set you back four or five figures, and you will have to put out your own snack trays, but it will still feel great to support local artists earning their living from their work.
Lester Bangs. Greil Marcus. Robert Christgau. Pauline Kael. Dave Hickey. Just as cowboy boots have figured into my footwear rotation off and on since I was a kid, critics have been among my writer heroes since long before my first published byline — which was for a book review (of poetry) in some scholarly humanities […]
Lester Bangs. Greil Marcus. Robert Christgau. Pauline Kael. Dave Hickey. Just as cowboy boots have figured into my footwear rotation off and on since I was a kid, critics have been among my writer heroes since long before my first published byline — which was for a book review (of poetry) in some scholarly humanities journal nobody’s heard of.
I discovered Bangs, Marcus and Christgau in high school when I was still an over-zealous music snob. Kael I found out about in undergrad, during my Woody Allen/Wim Wenders/Terry Gilliam phase. Heard about Hickey’s seminal Air Guitar essay collection from a friend of a friend when I was living in Chicago, dividing my evenings and weekends between bookstores, Art Institute exhibitions and free jazz and alt-country concerts.
I quit reviewing books and CDs for money and promotional merch when I started performing comedy for free several years ago. I’m dumb that way sometimes.
Over the years I had lucked into some sweet regular gigs, penning reviews for Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi, All Music Guide and Blues Revue. And I’d only tried out comedy in the first place to fulfill a magazine assignment. But after a successful-ish open mic or two, I decided the world had had its fill of my pretentious opinions and now deserved to sit quietly through some of my pretentious one-liners.
I told you. Dumb.
The big problem with my plan, it would turn out, was that I never really stopped having opinions. I only quit publishing them for a decade or so. Did you miss me? Did anybody even notice I was gone? Probably not, according to my mother. Which is why I live up here in Minnesota, not down in Indiana near my family.
I like to think my Hoosier roots help explain my recent purchase of cowboy boots, at least a little. Steve Earle’s new album, The Low Highway, might have something to do with my new boots, too. That, and the FX TV serial Justified. And the Minnesota poet Robert Bly, too, while I’m playing the blame game.
My graying 22-year-old beard doesn’t characterize me as a man the way it used to. Whenever I see hipster dudes younger than my beard walking around with their chin stubble all grown out, I find myself wondering if my facial hair is an ironic statement or a sign of authentic laziness in the grooming department.
I always hope that it’s the latter. I’m so, so tired of irony — or, at least, I like to think I am.
After all, lately I’ve been listening to country music from a Texas troubadour now based in New York City, loving a television drama that barely distinguishes between hill country crime and justice, and revisiting Bly’s Jungian examination of where myth and manhood meet.
There is one thing I can tell you with some certainty: I’ve determined that Tony Fitzpatrick, the self-taught Chicago artist/writer/actor/man whose works grace many of Earle’s album and book covers, is my favorite working visual artist at the moment. Show posters and prints of his work hang throughout my house. (His drawing Dirty Dove is in the permanent collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.) The four Fitzpatrick pieces that adorn the cover and insert booklet for The Low Highway I’ve loved since I first saw them in the pages of This Train, Fitzpatrick’s incredible 2010 book of collages and corresponding journal entries inspired by the hobo alphabet, the legend of Crazy Horse and the poetry and politics of what it takes to live in Chicago these days. Which is what it takes to live anywhere in America, I’m afraid.
Like a hobo passing back through a town he’s visited before but skipped in a bit of a hurry, I have more questions than answers. Especially about what I’ll notice and make note of here every couple of weeks. There will be a lot less about me, for starters — and more, for sure, about Minnesota arts. You have my word as a man. Whatever that means.
Brian Beatty’s writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications. His column of one-liners, “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” originated at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and wound up in the gutters of the front spreads of METRO Magazine, which also once rated him among the funniest people in the Twin Cities. In addition to penning “The Columnest” twice each month, Brian hosts mnartists.org’s monthly literary podcast, You Are Hear.