FKA Twigs, "Glass & Patron"

FK My review of the new single and video from FKA Twigs is now up on the terrific music site, Sound It Out. You can also read it below:

OK, places everyone! Here’s the video concept for the new FKA Twigs single, “Glass & Patron”: a white van is parked in the middle of the piney woods and inside a pregnant FKA Twigs goes into labor and gives birth to a magician’s endless multicolored silk streamer that billows in the breeze … fade into a “Paris is Burning”-meets-“The Cremaster Cycle”-style vogueing ball that takes place on a long mirrored runway in the middle of those woods, with an enthroned FKA Twigs judging from the far end and telling the half-dozen dancers: “Hold that pose.” Got it? Go!

The bizarre, fascinating new video (from the album LP1, released by Young Turks) is classic FKA Twigs, with its slow build, extreme close-ups, high-drama sexuality and energetic dancing. As with all her videos, Twigs directed this herself.

The FKA Twigs cocktail is a mix of equal parts “Controversy”-era Prince + the falsetto soul of James Blake + Manchester-based late-1990s trip hop/drum and bass duo Lamb + the daffy physicality of Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s version of “Popeye.” She’s really something. Weird, intense, with a beautiful wavering soprano that floats over the stuttering static and deep bass undulations of her band, this is dark, erotic music. No matter how much you dig it, this will never be your summer jam. It’s more of a darkest-night-of-winter jam. “So do you have a lighter?” she sings, “Am I dancing sexy yet?/I can’t wait to make your body my own.”

Like Madonna and Lady Gaga, she emerged from an underground club scene (Twigs performed in London’s burlesque clubs and was a backup dancer for Kylie Minogue and Jessie J) with a highly refined total vision of herself, from the music to the fashion to the performances. Many of FKA Twigs’ points of reference seem to borrow from early 1990s Madonna, especially “Sex,” “Erotica” and of course, “Vogue.” But Twigs is no copycat. This isn’t Miley Cyrus licking a wrecking ball. This is something more convincing: a serious performer with a 360-degree artistic vision. She may be young, she may look like Prince’s runty kid sister, but like that crazy club kid Maddona Louise Ciccone before her, this little Bjork chop clearly has world domination on her mind.

You can watch the video here: [youtube][/youtube]



Life in Bettyville


Betty Baker Hodgman

Book Review: Bettyville by George Hodgman (Viking, 2015) 279 pages.

If Roz Chast’s recent book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) and George Hodgman’s terrific new memoir Bettyville (Viking, 2015) are to serve as guides—and I think they should—to writing about the often exhausting task of taking care of one’s elderly parents, it’s clear that you need to come armed with three things to make the caretaking and the writing about it work: Humor, patience, and humor.

“She is wearing the jeans she will never take off and a blouse with stains she cannot see,” George Hodgman writes about one site of struggle with his aging mother: the battle to convince her to wear clean clothes. “For many days this pairing has been her choice. I have given up trying to control her clothes. God grant me the serenity to accept the clothes I cannot change.” A veteran of rehab himself, George has no illusions.

Bettyville is the story of a man leaving New York City to return to his childhood home in tiny, tattered Paris, Missouri to help his ailing mother, Betty. It is the story of the love between the two of them; Betty, a beautiful, flinty woman full of opinions (“One could safely say that she considers the absence of bric-a-brac to be a social problem roughly comparable to malnutrition.”) and George, her big, smart, gentle, middle-aged gay son (“I was no Huck Finn,” this son of Missouri writes, “though I thought the hat was interesting.”) Betty knows George is gay. But it’s not a topic of conversation. It never has been.

[Side Note: In a perfect world the casting of the movie version of Bettyville would be easy: George would be played by a younger Oscar Levant; Betty: an older Bette Davis; George’s naughty rescue dog Raj: a spray-painted Asta from The Thin Man movies. And it would be directed by Preston Sturges. Obviously]

“By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back,” Hodgman writes. “‘I just wanted a house with a few nice things,’ she told me once. ‘That was my little dream.’” And that’s where they find themselves, all these years later, in that house, in that little dream. Big George, the father, has long passed on, and now it’s just Betty persevering in a part of the country that is withering in population though plagued with the same challenges facing all parts of America: joblessness, meth labs, depression. Yet it's not a depressing story. "I was over to Wal-Mart  and asked some kid for help, said I was visually impaired," says Evie, one of Betty's friends. "Five minutes later I hear over the loudspeaker, 'Blind woman needs help in drugs.' I mea, what else do they say on the loudspeaker at Wal-Mart? 'We got a bitch in toys?'"

Like Evie, Betty is fully herself, with all her peccadilloes intact, from the “awful” sandals she insists on wearing, to her love of hate-watching Wheel of Fortune. And George is so funny, so self-deprecating and  sweet: "In the course of ten years my existence has gone from Looking for Mr. Goodbar to Driving Miss Daisy... I have been away from New York a long time am tempted to make love to a hanging basket. Recently, the discovery of the Big Wang Chinese restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks has sparked my fantasy life."

They both have their limits, of course. Betty can be irritable and snappish. But as George writes, “Betty’s crankiness is an act, I think, a way to conceal her embarrassment at having to ask anything of anyone. When I do something for her, she looks away. Accustomed to fending for herself, she hates all this.” And George isn’t quite the superhero he wants to be. “I would fix the mailbox, but am not handy,” he admits. “Nor do I assemble. A trip to Ikea is enough to unhinge me. I would prefer a spinal tap to putting together a coffee table.”

The time away from New York City, where George has worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and Henry Holt, allows him the chance to reflect on his own life and relationships. George is single, a fact that sometimes haunts him, despite his preference for privacy. As he puts it, “I have been called emotionally unavailable. I prefer to think of myself as merely temporarily out of stock.”

The ballad of George and Betty is a lovely one. It’s the story of a mother who needs her son, and a son who needs his mother, and the beautiful way they come together. “On Betty’s journey,” George writes, “I have learned something I had not known: I am very strong, strong enough to stay, strong enough to go when the time comes. I am staying not to cling on, but because sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home.”


Book Review: Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James McGrath Morris

Ethel Lois Payne

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on Sunday, February 15, 2015.

‘Somehow, I felt I was woven into the drama that was going on,” said Ethel Lois Payne of her experience as a reporter covering the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott for the Chicago Defender newspaper. “This was something taking place for me and for all the people that I knew . . . It was like a historic battle being drawn out on a field, but you were part of it.”

During her 30-year career Payne seemed to be present for every pivotal moment of the struggle for black civil rights. And like the African-American Defender itself, she didn’t pretend to be objective. As Payne said, “We are soul folks and I am writing for soul brothers’ consumption.”

James McGrath Morris has written two other biographies about journalists, “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power’’ (HarperCollins, 2010), about newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, and “The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism,’’ (Fordham University, 2003), about newspaper editor Charles E. Chapin. In “Eye on the Struggle’’ he focuses on a less well-known yet equally important aspect of American journalism history: the black press.

As Morris shows, the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers were often the only news outlets that regularly reported on the injustices facing the African-American community, from the early days of the civil-rights protests in the South to the first reports on the murder of teenager Emmett Till. And Ethel Payne was often first on the scene.

Payne was born in Chicago in 1911. Morris’s portrait of the Midwestern metropolis challenges the widespread belief that segregation was confined to the American South. Strict racial divides prevailed in the city, including the schools Payne attended. “When it comes to morality, I say colored children are unmoral,” said one assistant principal of a predominantly white Chicago high school. “Not that we segregate them: the white keeps away from the colored.”

Payne was a bookish girl whose hero was “Little Women’s’’ Jo March, but because of a struggle to get a good education and the economic crisis of the Great Depression, her dreams of becoming a writer were put off for years. Payne was 40 years old when, in 1951, she finally published her first story at the Chicago Defender.

She may have started late, but “[h]er ambition, stoked by years of closed doors, gave her the energy to match younger reporters.” Payne took her readers into the action of the civil-rights movement, her folksy, down-to-earth personality and writing style putting her subjects and readers at ease. She was one of the first reporters to understand that the black church was the source for new leadership in the fight for civil rights. “ ‘A new type of leader is emerging in the South,’ ” Payne wrote in one of the earliest newspaper profiles of King. “ ‘He is neither an NAACP worker, nor a CIO political action field director . . . [he] carries a Bible in his hand.”

Payne’s personal relationships with leaders of the civil rights movement, as well as her political connections in Washington, earned her the title of “First Lady of the Black Press,” and her career as a journalist and, later, as a union organizer and political activist took her overseas for meetings with world leaders including Nelson Mandela, whose antiapartheid cause she had long supported.

“Eye on the Struggle’’ is a fast-paced tour through the highlights of 20th-century African-American history, with Payne as witness. But we hear very few details of her personal life. One gets the impression that Payne was highly protective of her intimate relationships — assuming there were some. Yet perhaps that’s fitting for a woman whose profession was her identity.

“For black journalists, particularly me,” she once said, “[w]e were absolutely unable to make the distinction between what is ‘objective journalism.’ So I adopted a code of trying to be fair, but I could not divorce myself from the heart of the problem, because I was part of the problem.” As Morris’s exhaustive and heartfelt biography reveals, Payne was also a large part of the solution.

There's Something I Want You to Do: stories by Charles Baxter


Book Review: There's Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter. (Pantheon, 240 pages) This review was originally published in the Boston Globe on February 6, 2015. 

There is a direct link between the fable and the fabulous, and the fiction of the beloved Charles Baxter has explored it for more than four decades, in novels such as the National Book Award-nominated “The Feast of Love” (2000), a reimagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ set in a 20th-century college town, and “Saul and Patsy” (2003), the intimate story of a marriage threatened by obsession.

Baxter was born and raised in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He now teaches at the University of Minnesota. His new story collection, “There’s Something I Want You to Do,” is mostly set in the Twin Cities, and we witness, from different angles, the same scenarios again and again, with one story’s protagonist reappearing as a minor actor in someone else’s tale later on. Baxter edited “Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories” (2012) for the Library of America, and Anderson’s influence is obvious here; “There’s Something I Want You to Do” is in many ways Baxter’s “Winesburg, Ohio,’’ an intimate look at the emotional lives of everyday folks sharing the same geography.

It’s Baxter’s presence as the gentle overseer of this fictional Minneapolis that gives “There’s Something I Want You to Do” an old-fashioned feeling not too different from the relationship Garrison Keillor has to his own Minnesota community of Lake Wobegon, or that of the Stage Manager to the residents of Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” In the story “Avarice,” an aging widow, visits her husband’s grave, “here under the balding blue sky with its wisps of white hair.” While the image suggests God looking down on this pious woman, the presence of Baxter himself, the Great Narrator, hovers over, too.

It is Baxter, after all, who has created these characters and their lives and assigned them to stories labeled like a book of fables, each one named either for a virtue (Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, and Forbearance) or a vice (Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Vanity). In their weaker moments they can read as morality tales, preachy and unreal. Yet at their best, Baxter’s humanity and imagination reveal the magical aspects of everyday life, as in “Chastity,” when Benny Takemitsu recalls meeting his wife as she stood on the edge of a bridge, about to jump, and realizes that it was her love of pranks and jokes that kept her alive: “[W]hat he mistook for a charade and a pastime, a stunt, a form of harmless amateur wickedness, was for her a tether that tied her to the earth.” That ghostly connection lingers in the imagination — Benny’s and ours.

Baxter seems most engaged with his characters when writing in first person, as in “Loyalty,” in which a mechanic named Wes describes his extended family. “She has tried to keep it a secret from me” Wes says of his mother, the aforementioned Dolores, “but I know my mother was and is interested in extraterrestrials (although she is a registered Republican).” That parenthetical reveals a lot about Wes, a deeply philosophical man who would never describe himself that way.

When Wes looks at his depressed ex-wife who has returned to his doorstep and realizes “I have to let her remain here if she wants to. She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins,” it’s clear Baxter has the same feeling of duty to his characters. A flash of Flannery O’Connor’s percipient gaze sometimes falls across these stories of sadness and loss, but in Baxter’s rendering, the mistakes and foolishness of the human race are registered with compassion rather than O’Connor’s chilly, if brilliant, detachment.

Although Baxter never steps in to mingle with his characters like the Stage Manager in “Our Town,’’ he’s always there on the sidelines cheering them on. In the story “Charity,” another first-person narrative, Harry tends to the illness of his addicted boyfriend. “Do you think anything is watching us?” the boyfriend asks. “No,” Harry says. “Nothing is ever watching us, Matty. We’re all unwatched.” But you have to wonder if Harry — or Baxter — really believes that’s true.

Love, God, Murder: Johnny Cash


Book Review: Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown), 679 pp.

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 27, 2013.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”