Monday, January 23, 2006

This Month's Decent Interval

I'm leaving tomorrow morning for a week in France. Given that I woke up this morning and goggled at the temperature being 1 degree Fahrenheit (that's -17 and change Celsius), I'm not at all unhappy about this. Good lord, it's cold out there! I went to the dancer's house last night for dinner, and just walking to and from the subway almost killed me. I know some people reading this live in places like Alaska where you're very likely scoffing at me, but man, this is crazy. Although, on the other hand, it does bode well for the local farmers, many of whose crops -- especially fruit trees -- need a hard frost to bear properly in the summer.

At any rate, this trip will not be based in Montpellier (home of Europe's latest bird-flu scare) -- although of course we'll go there -- but, rather, to Nimes, where I'll be staying near a Roman amphitheater which is currently used for bullfights. Yes, the French also have bullfights.

The reason for this is that I've been working on a project which I've had to keep secret: an English-language magazine for the Languedoc region, which includes Montpellier. It'll be free, and it's going to be distributed over a wide geographical range -- by me and the publisher! That's right: Thursday and Friday will find me in her car zooming hither and yon, handing off copies to shops and tourist bureaus, and anyone else who wants them.

The first issue is available as a pdf download here, and, while it's no masterpiece, it's definitely got potential. And once I'm living down there, I'm quite sure I can attract writers, photographers, and other support personnel to make it a model of a regional magazine.

But first we have to get them out to the folks who need them. I'm definitely taking the camera this time, and there'll be pix here and on Flickr for those who'll want to see them.

And, because the journey's so long, I'm breaking it coming and going with an overnight stay in Paris. Tomorrow, dinner at Chez Paul! Yet another thing to look forward to.

Back here late in the evening of the 31st. See you then.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Best of 2005, Part Two: The Past

Thanks to my gig with Fresh Air, I get far better service from reissue labels than from labels putting out new stuff. This is, of course, as it should be: record labels aren't charities, and they only send press things they think will get publicity. And it must be admitted, this was a great year for reissues.

Biggest news of the year was Motown Select's Internet-only release of three volumes of the complete Motown singles in deluxe packaging with a copy of a vintage Motown 45 slipped into the cover of each one. The landscape this opens up is much wider and more diverse than you'd think, although the real treat is the scores of lost soul acts like the Velvettes and the Contours who recorded for Motown. Motown Select also reissued three of Eddie Kendricks' solo albums, which, although dotted with missteps like many Motown albums of the '70s, go a long ways towards proving my long-held contention that the "disco" era wasn't the arid stretch of musical history so many people believe it is. It'd be stretching it to say that "Keep On Truckin'" is worth the forty bucks alone, but his attempt to clone Marvin Gaye's What's Going On with his album People...Hold On is a very pleasant revelation.

It was a great year for folk fanatics, thanks to Legacy's Charlie Poole box, which, remarkably, doesn't attempt to present Poole's recordings in a straightahead chronological fashion, but, rather, to show the records which influenced Poole and the ones he influenced, thereby proving that this marginally insane drunken banjo player was a force in country music similar to Robert Johnson in blues. An exemplary document, even if the packaging is a bit fragile.

Equally fascinating and welcome as a cultural touchstone is Good For What Ails You, Old Hat's collection of medicine show music, black and white, which was incredibly influential in the days before radio became widespread among rural Americans. Sure, what the "doctors" were selling was, for the most part, booze (as if you couldn't figure that out by some of the performances here), but the music itself came from traditional wellsprings and went into the folk process, too. A great example is "The Mysterious Coon," a song which seems pretty racist from its title (and, by our standards, is), but which invests the "coon" of the title with superpowers any rapper would envy when it comes to standing up to the law. Don't be surprised if you find yourself entertained by this; it was, after all, intended as entertainment.

And the weirdest of all the folk reissues from the era of the 78 rpm record is Revenant's American Primitive, Vol. 2, the last collection curated by the late John Fahey, filled with his love of the odd and singular, and with performances both completely bizarre and breathtakingly moving, often in the same song. It's worth having for the complete (known) works of the mysterious Delta blueswoman Geeshie Wiley, whose "Last Kind Favor" is up there wtih Richard "Rabbit" Brown's "James Alley Blues" and Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" for expressing something dark and deep that we all recognize, even if we've never encountered it before.

The British reissue label Ace (which also reissues soul on Kent) got an American deal this year for distribution, and acquired an American publicist, thereby making it easier for U.S. music fans to finally hear thousands of tracks they've never been aware of. The list of great Ace reissues is too long to post here, but this year's had some killers in it.

Ace has a deal to reissue the King label, which has always stood with Atlantic and Modern in my mind as one of the groundbreaking postwar independents, and in a way, greater than them because it also issued some great country music. Proof positive comes on Fifty Miles to Travel, a collection of the Delmore Brothers' original master recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s, whose clear sound and impeccable guitar pyrotechnics could get you hooked on this duo who were an important link between the '30s brother duets and rock and roll. The King deal also means finally having clean copies of recodings by two almost forgotten rockabilly masters, Charlie Feathers and Mac Curtis, both of whom did their best work for King.

And, naturally, it means that my all-time forgotten doo-wop group, the "5" Royales, get a "hits and rarities" album, It's Hard But It's Fair, which, because the box set I helped curate for Rhino is long out of print, is the best place to find out why I venerate this group, whose co-lead singer, Johnny Tanner, passed away this year.

Another deal Ace has been working on for the past couple of years has been leasing the Modern catalogue, which has not only been out of print forever, but has been sloppily curated on the reissue front. The biggest news out of this deal was the B.B. King box set which came out a couple of years ago, and the reissues of his albums for Kent with original covers and half again as many tracks as the originals. But it's also meant that the likes of Richard Berry and Jesse Belvin are back in print, and this year saw a great double of Etta James' Modern and Kent singles, which will blow your socks off.

Moving into the '60s, Ace also put out two great pop masterpieces. Many of you will be familiar with Jack Nitzche, the arranger and producer who showed up practically everywhere, from Phil Spector sessions to working with the Buffalo Springfield, but until this year he never got the career overview he deserved. Go look for my Fresh Air piece on this if you want a taste of how great it is. And if you like that kind of dramatic pop music, The Best of Reparata and the Delrons will send you to heaven. Fresh Air piece on this one is coming up.

In fact, if girl group pop is to your liking, the mammoth Rhino collection, One Kiss Can Lead To Another, will be a treasure worth finding. Assembled by a British fanatic, a female British fanatic, at that, it's got almost no tracks which duplicate other collections, and yet from the perverse to the pretty, it's as good a summation of this era as you'll find.

Speaking of mammoth Rhino collections, the words "sumptuous packaging" almost fails to describe Pure Genius, which is nothing less than Ray Charles' complete works for Atlantic, down to the famous "rehearsal tape" of Ahmet Ertegun singing the words to "The Mess-Around" as he teaches it to Ray. There's also a mindblowing DVD of an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, a hardback book, and the whole thing is packaged to simulate a vintage portable record player.

The '60s have been mined so thoroughly that there's little rock left to explore -- or so you'd think. Rhino Handmade scored a coup by turning out Magic Hollow, a four-disc celebration of San Francisco's "lost" band. It's inconceivable to me that a group this good could have fallen between the cracks, especially during the whole Haight-Ashbury hoo-hah, but they did. Their version of "One Too Many Mornings" cuts Dylan's to shreds, and yet it never got higher than 95 on the national charts. Warning, though: my copy of this doesn't seem to play all the way through each disc, despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be any physical defect. No idea what's going on with it, but there you go. I'm certain Rhino will exchange defective ones.

And, of course, speaking of Herr Zimmerman, there was the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's documentary, which I have yet to see. The double disc stands on its own, though, especially the second one, which shows Dylan developing things we all know by heart in the studio, as well as two incendiary performances from That Tour.

What killed the '60s, as everyone knows, was the Stooges. Rhino has reissued, as double albums, both their first and their second albums, with disc two in each case featuring alternate versions and outtakes. Most importantly, the sound, for the first time, is perfect, and you can hear history being made in all its trashy glory. Annotator Ben Edmonds, who clearly has read too much of what the Brits have to say, still doesn't get it about my Rolling Stone review of the first album, where I pronounced it "loud, boring, tateless, unimaginative and childish," adding that it was proof that rock and roll was bad for you, just like your parents said, and concluding the sentence with the words "I kind of like it." Ben's irony meter is obviously defective, but Iggy's always understood, and that's what counts with me.

What the Stooges didn't destroy, Patti Smith did. Okay, that's also supposed to be humorous, but this year's 30th anniversary reissue of her first album, Horses, with the album remastered on one disc and then played at a recent concert on a second one, is a fascinating document of an artist's coming to fully inhabit her art. I know Ms. Smith's not for everyone, but this is solid. (Oh, and I understand my article on her Incredible Shrinking Tour from November has just come out in Paste, so run down to the newsstand today!)

There weren't as many country reissues as I'd have liked to have seen this year, but I do find the Johnny Cash collection, The Legend, to be extremely well-curated. I haven't yet seen the liner notes, but the music, although arranged thematically, is, of course, right on the money.

And speaking of Nashville, three Nashville soul collections came out this year which are well worth your notice. The first is the second volume of the Country Music Foundation's Night Train to Nashville, exploring Nashville's heretofore badly-documented R&B and soul scenes. Extra bonus with this set is a picture of Jimi Hendrix on stage with The Imperials, a show band he spent some time with in his early days. And Sundazed has come out with two more discs, neither of which duplicates anything from either of these collections. The first, Shake What You Brought!, is a collection from the SSS International label run by Shelby Singleton, with tracks by Peggy Scott, Jo Jo Benson, and Bettye LaVette (although, curiously, none of the Scott and Benson duets), and the second, My Goodness, Yes!, is all about his Silver Fox label, which I missed entirely, with Robert Parker, more Bettye LaVette, and (gasp) Hank Ballard, he of the "Annie" trilogy and the original recording of "The Twist," singing Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Both are highly recommended.

Finally, bringing us almost to the present day, is something which looks like a ripoff, but, in fact, isn't at all. The Talking Heads Brick may look like a triumph of art direction over utility (and, in that the albums aren't labelled on their spines, is), but it presents each of the band's albums, meticulously remastered by the band's own Jerry Harrison, on one side of each dual disc, and, on the other side, the whole thing in DVD-A sound (for those of you with players for such things) and a wealth of videos. Not all that many outtakes until you get to the later albums, but the sketches for some of the funkier stuff, especially the experiments which were abandoned, are very much worth checking out.

I'm sure that as soon as I post this I'll think of a couple of others, but this should keep you happy until I do my next one, which, for those of you looking for Christmas presents, I'll try to post before Dec. 25 of this year.

No promises, though. The past, after all, is a big place.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Best of 2005, Part One

Like I did last year, I've been meaning to put down a list of my favorite records from last year, but I've actually had so much work it's been impossible to find the time, since this project involves my putting down a lot of links. So today I'm taking a break from writing my book proposal to jot some notes about the best new records I heard last year. A second, much longer, post will deal with the reissues.

There's a major problem, though, about writing about new stuff. I hardly heard any. I don't think there's been a year in my adult life when I listened to less music. I've been puzzling over this and there are a few reasons which come to mind. First, I hardly have any place to write about music any more. There are virtually no "general" music magazines left, and the ones which exist want formulaic, short reviews with no criticism. I find it risible that so many writers call themselves "rock critics" which they don't do a lick of criticism, and concentrate instead on description. Some of them are very good at it, but it's still a recitation of feelings or technical observations with no attempt to link them to any higher purpose or broader context. The majority of my writing this year was done for specialty, ie, genre-driven, music magazines: No Depression, Harp, and the oddly-named Paste. All lean towards the "Americana" label (although No Depression has gone through a salutary re-evaluation, and Paste is more an "adult" rock mag than a purely "Americana" one), and so the few makers of new music who send me stuff tend to be in that area.

Which leads to the second reason I haven't listened to much. Back before cultural overproduction killed off any possibility of being a musical generalist, I'd have listening sessions when I'd grab a given kind of music and play a bunch of related records. One night it might be jazz, another night some kind of oddball pop, another singer/songwriter stuff, another hard rock, another some kind of acoustic quiet stuff. Almost all of this was stuff that came in the mail to me as a reviewer/writer. But without those choices, my evenings now tend to be "Do I want to listen to Americana or not" kinds of affairs. There is, on the newly-made music front, an appallingly monochromatic set of choices in front of me. So, as often as not, I just opt for silence.

Which leads to the third reason I haven't listened to much. I tend to get up late and work late, because nearly all the business I transact is with the United States, which is from six to nine hours behind Central European Time. Thus, at 10 pm, which is when I tend to quit for the day, it's still only 1 pm out on the West Coast. After that there's dinner, and then the traditional time I spend reading and listening to stuff. But there's a law here that there can be no noise after 10pm. For years I paid it no heed. I don't listen to music very loud, and much of what I play is pretty quiet anyway, but as soon as the building next to me changed hands a few years back and became an ownership building instead of a rental one, the two women on the other side of the wall -- a double wall, it should be emphasized -- informed me that they would tolerate no noise after 10, since they're both sensitive artists who need to paint during the daylight hours. So this means that my listening has to be done through headphones. And I hate headphones. Hate 'em! Music, for those of you who are so iPod'd out that you don't remember, should be played into an acoustic space, be it a room or a concert hall. Not inside your head.

So you add it all together, and I'm listening, when I'm listening, to a kind of music which tends towards the personal and confessional, sung by people inside my head, which is much too close, on records which basically kind of sound alike. No wonder I'm opting out.

There's also the fact that I've now been away from the American mainstream so long that there's tons and tons of best-selling, cultural-touchstone stuff that I've just never heard. White Stripes? Nope. Coldplay? Nope. (Although that may be a blessing). Strokes? Uh-uh. Arcade Fire? One track on a compilation that came with Word, the only general music mag I can think of, and probably the best music magazine out there. But it made no impression. And I've just given up trying to seek it out. It would mean buying tons of CDs I'd read raves about, but never heard, and that, I know from long experience of listening to stuff I got free that I'd read raves about, is an experience which would lead to inevitable disappointments.

Is it okay not to care? I do care, somewhat, but I've gotten a lot more passive about seeking stuff out. Yeah, I could download stuff from websites (legally, of course!), but I find it deeply ironic that we've just spent 100 years learning how to reproduce the natural sound of musical instruments as closely as possible to the original, only to enter into the drab world of compressed MP3 fidelity. And (sorry Dr. Jon) I spend enough time in front of my computer all day without wanting to stare at the screen while I play music, too.

So I'm losing interest in new music. Big deal. I've been writing about it since I was 16, had a job where I was out at least five nights a week for five years seeing it live, met and interviewed some of the top people on the scene (and cooked dinner for a bunch of 'em, too!), and now, well, there are other things to engage me. Yes, I'll be going to SXSW again this year, and yes, I'll be trying to catch as much good stuff as I can, but I'm not anticipating any epiphanies.

There's a larger essay here, if anyone's interested (and don't all e-mail me at once, of course...), but I've got other things to write and other stuff to do. Meanwhile, here's the new stuff from this year.


My big discovery this year was a guy from St. Louis named Jon Hardy, whose album Make Me Like Gold is a disturbing, catchy, haunting melange of influences filtered through a very distinctive personal style. I guess the nearest touchstone is Neil Young, but that's actually not very accurate. I'm still waiting (albeit not as tensely as he must be) to find out if he's been accepted at SXSW, because I really, really want to see this band live. If you live around the midwest, you've got a shot at seeing them. If not, the record's only eleven bucks from his website, and I think it'd be a real good investment.

My other big discovery this year, which kind of unsettles me, is that I'm beginning to like some jam band music. I always hated the Grateful Dead, and the genre's other antecedents, from latter day Little Feat to post-Duane Allman Brothers, did nothing for me, either. But when fearless publicist Ken Weinstein sent me the North Mississippi Allstars' new album Electric Blue Watermelon, I remembered going out one evening in Memphis with Jim Dickinson and his wife to hear his boys play in an awful grunge/metal band called DNA and found myself wondering what they're doing now. This is what they're doing now, and I find it more rooted than most jam music -- and in fact didn't snap to the fact that it even was jam music until I heard their previous record, Hill Country Revue and realized what was going on. Anyway, I'm watching these guys.

A band I caught at SXSW this year which really impressed me, although they have a ways to go, is the Heartless Bastards, whose debut record (on blues label Fat Possum, no less), Stairs and Elevators, doesn't quite capture their live show. Frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom, however, is a force of nature, and I'm very curious to see where they go from here, not to mention whether they get sued by James McMurtry, whose band has been using that name for a couple of years now.

I usually hate superstar records, where a bunch of "guest vocalists" come in to sing on a track, but all rules are off for Los Super 7, who are only sometimes a band and exist mainly as a project that's a vehicle for just such records. At any rate, this year's celebration of Texas border radio music from them, Heard It On The X, is a sheer pleasure right up to its final track, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown singing Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," which has nothing to do with what preceded it, but was probably the song the cantankerous old man insisted on recording and nobody could talk him out of it. Did he have a premoniton that he'd die last year? Eerie. The rest of the record celebrates the wild mixture of R&B, rock and roll, and Mexican border music the "X" stations broadcast. Of particular note: Raul Malo's rendition of Doug Sahm's classic-to-be "The Song of Everything."

While we're on the cross-cultural tip, it seems appropriate to mention Ry Cooder's much raved-about Chavez Ravine, which has everything going for it: great story-line, performances by Mexican-American legends like Little Willie G, Lalo Guerrero, and Don Tosti, and impeccable production. Trouble is, I find it a chore to listen to. Cooder can no longer sing, nor can Bla Pahinui, who's brought in for the album's pentultimate number, "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium." A lot of people enjoy the recording of the Coasters' "Three Cool Cats" here, saying how it brought out the Latin rhythms, but they're there on the original, which is better sung. I'm going to play this a few more times, but if it's still hard going, I'll file and forget it, and relegate it to the category of stuff critics all like but I don't. It sort of brings back memories of those awful Latin Playboys albums that spun off of Los Lobos some while ago.

One band I was happy to see come back this year was the Go-Betweens, even if that long-legged blonde drummer of theirs has retired. Still, on the evidence of this year's album Oceans Apart and the half-concert I saw in July, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan -- who are the Go-Betweens -- are still writing amazing songs which sound almost effortless, and still performing them brilliantly. Their back catalogue, too, is worth exploring.

Another band which re-formed this year kinda sorta is Son Volt, and although I haven't played it as much as I should have (I lost it: record companies send me advance copies in plastic sleeves, and they just get lost on the shelves: guys, I do want production copies, too!), their new album Okemah and the Melody of Riot shows that Jay Farrar isn't quite as limited melodically as his solo albums would have you believe. (He's no Brian Wilson, either, of course). This year also saw the old Son Volt's Best of, A Retrospective, for which I wrote the liner notes, which involved interviewing the usually taciturn Mr. Farrar. I still haven't seen a copy of this. Thanks, Reprise!

And as far as reunions go, howzabout that Cream? Yeah, I know, it's a guilty pleasure, but their recorded reunion at the Royal Albert Hall definitely had its moments. Inessential, but fun.

Outside of rock, or whatever you file the above under, I really didn't hear much new that was worth crowing about. One exception (which might need to go under reissues, but the originals were barely issued in the first place) was Numero Records' reanimation of the Belize pop scene of the 1970s, Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up. No indigenous musical tradition to turn into world-pop? No problem! Steal liberally from others and make the rest up off the top of your head! This may be the year's goofiest album. It'll sell dozens, but it deserves more.

Finally, one jazz album. One. Jason Moran ruined SXSW for me this year by playing a set on the first night that set the musical bar so high none of the poor rockers I saw afterwards came anywhere near. Moran's not always easy to listen to, but boy, does he have ideas, and boy, does he have the skills to express them. He also has a killer band, and some very modern ideas about what to do with samples. At any rate, one day when I found a little extra cash in my pocket, I bought the album he excerpted that evening, Same Mother, and was blown away, as I thought I would be. Too bad, though, that it has such an astonishing amount of copy protection that my portable CD player, the machine on which I listen to everything, doesn't recognize the disc.

But that, again, is another rant for another day. That's just barely ten records there, too. Gone are the days when I'd submit four different top ten lists to four different magazines because of the embarrassment of riches I'd heard that year.

Still, ten good records is ten good records.

Reissues later, okay?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

January Crumbs

Had a couple of beers last night with yet another person who's giving up on Berlin -- or so he thinks -- and returning to New York at least through the end of the World Cup. (Incidentally, he's trying to sublet his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, so if you're interested, toss me an e-mail).

He says that in recent months, nine of his close friends here have left. Nine. "And how many close friends do you have at any given time?" He can't seem to make a living, although I'm not sure how hard he's tried, but the stuff he's doing to pay the rent disgusts him, so he's reached a sort of career impasse.

One does hate to see someone in such misery, but I do take some sort of comfort in the fact that I'm not at all alone in this.

Now if I could figure out what that stuff the bartender made us drink before he'd let himself be paid, I'd be okay. It sure wasn't a good dessert for Bohemian black beer, I'll tell you that.


Yes, folks, there is a German sense of humor. One separate from the usual crude slapstick and excrement jokes. Heard today:

"Why do neo-nazis make such lousy DJs?"

"They can't tell the difference between '33 and '45."


It's hit me. In four months I'll be gone, if all goes as planned. It makes it hard to look around the apartment and think, I'm going to have to either pack or get rid of a lot of this stuff. It makes it hard to concentrate on the book proposal I'm writing about my time here. It occasionally give me a twinge of melancholy as I look at something and think "next year, I'll be looking at something else." For instance, the Grüne Woche, the big food trade fair that's been a landmark, a sort of start-of-the-year tradition for me for the years I've been here, opens tomorrow, and I'm making plans to go, but it'll be my last unless chance catches me visiting Berlin when it happens again. I guess I'll be settling for Vinisud from now on. And pining for a Berliner Pilsner.

Monday, January 09, 2006


The dancer was over the other night, trying to look on the bright side of the weather. "At least today we had one whole hour of sun," she said. Indeed, I know when that happens: the sun shines straight into the window of one of the buildings across the way, which then reflects it straight into my eyes as I sit here at the desk trying to work. "But at least when it's really cracking cold like this, it doesn't snow and we get sun."

I like that. No idea if it's a German idiom she translated or not, but that exactly describes the current weather, down in the teens at night, but fortunately not with a serious wind. It can still be painful to walk in, though, and no matter how good your gloves are, your hands ache for a while after you get back into the warmth.

Still, we cracked out into the night last night for a concert: a viol consort named Labyrinto at the Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie, playing 17th century German repertoire. Several of the players seemed to be moonlighting from regular Berliner Philharmoniker gigs (including one guy who'd been with the orchestra since 1970), and several numbers were sung by the disconcerting male alto of Michael Chance.

I'm not sure about my reaction to this performance. My consort experience has been limited to listening to the English repertoire (and one wonderful concert by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XX), and it could be that what I perceived as an over-Romanticizing of the music -- dramatic dynamic effects, lots of legato -- is authentic to the German repertoire. Two of the composers on deck, Johann Rosenmüller and Franz Tunder, I'd never even heard of, and I'm an old music buff, but there was a full compliment of Sch's: Scheidt, Schütz, and Schein.

I also wish I could have seen them play. The Kammermusiksaal is part of what I've always thought of as one of the ugliest buildings in Berlin, and it turned out to be as confusing inside as it is unappealing outside. The good news is that, for chamber music, the performers are in the round. The bad news is, it's not exactly round, it's polygonal, and there's definitely a direction in which the performers face. "Tickets on that side were fully twice what they are for these," the dancer told me, and while the sound was good (I assume it was mostly the natural sound: boy, is that room rigged with "clouds" and other acoustic jiggery-pokery), when the ensemble took its bows, we mostly got to watch their asses.

That said, this was my first live music since Bob Dylan came to town in October, and live music of a sort I rarely get to see. I'm hoping that more off-the-wall stuff like this plays Montpellier because it's more of a backwater and doesn't have the self-importance that Berlin's cultural establishment seems to feel it has to display. For that matter, Jordi and the boys and girls are just a few hours away, so maybe some spinoffs of all that Hesperion energy will make themselves manifest.

On our way out, a woman was handing out cards advertising forthcoming concerts. "More old music," she said, "next weekend." I didn't look at the card til I got home, but it was advertising Bach cantatas. Sorry, to me Bach's not "old."

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hairy Beans and Liquid Asparagus

One thing about holiday feasting around here is that it's never going to be too good. I was reminded of this just recently when I unexpectedly got a big check. Oh, sure, I was going to spend most of it on rent and other silly necessities, but there's always an element of celebration when you find a wad of money you hadn't been expecting sitting in your account.

So I went to the Italian wholesale place to replenish the supplies of good olive oil and professional-grade pasta and discovered that it was salsiccie day. Now, Americans can just go into the supermarket and buy "Italian sausage," but it's a distinct rarity around here, so I got a kilo. The rest of the stuff I wanted was also there, and I got off with only €50 worth of damage, 13 of which was the sausage.

When I got back home, I tossed all but two links into the freezer and, with the super-cheap white cannellini beans I'd gotten, I realized that I could take two of these fresh links and make pastafazool, a kind of bean, sausage, and pasta stew. But...what to have with it?

Well, the local supermarket was in the throes of holiday fever, and lo and behold, they had green asparagus, another rarity in a land where only white asparagus, fibrous and devoid of any vitamin content, is considered fit to eat. True, it was €3.99, but I was celebrating! So I tossed it into my basket and got the rest of what I needed and went to the checkout.

Back home, everything went well. I cut the sausage into coins and fried them, prepared the tomato-based stew base/sauce, and set it all bubbling and perfuming the house. I was looking forward to this meal, after which I'd sit and read a good George Pelecanos book I'd found on sale. Time to start steaming the asparagus, since I was already melting butter and infusing it with garlic.

Now, the way this asparagus is sold, it's wrapped in paper right up to the tips. I don't know why this is, but the packer in Greece does it this way. Sometimes it hides old stems, but on the rare occasions when I've found it, there have never been any problems. So I popped the paper and found...decay. I'm talking about greyish stems, oozing liquid, and a stench.

I kicked myself. The reason I'd seen the asparagus in the first place was that it was prominently displayed. Under lights. Hot lights.

And I knew about this, and should have realized right from the start that there was going to be something wrong. I was just so euphoric about what the rest of the day had brought that I zoned it out completely. And it's not like I haven't bought bad vegetables there before.

Germans don't eat much greenery, at least not in this part of the country, where it's historically been hard to raise. Around here, there are all kinds of root vegetables, and there are pumpkins in season, but a lot of the other stuff comes from Italy, Spain, and Greece. Mid-winter there's always a crop of green beans from Egypt, which I think is cool, and on the rare occasion you can get authentic Haas avocados, the only ones I'll consider, they come from Kenya. But the stores do carry a limited number of green vegetables, and I, of course, buy as many as I can. I'm just not into big radishes or parsnips.

But, although I'm completely certain that the stuff arrives from these exotic lands in decent shape, the idiots who run the supermarket here don't seem to get it. Okay, the stuff's not cooled at all, which is one big mistake, but needn't be fatal. But the bright halogen lights? They're cooking them right on the shelves. Once, you could buy as much or as little as you wanted, which meant that you could actively reject the rotted stuff, but no longer: everything gets packed in these plastic panniers, and then wrapped in cellophane. Then, under the bright lights, moisture evaporates from the vegetables and sits on them. And this, in turn, encourages mold and rot. Many is the pannier of 500g of green beans I've bought, only to discover that, in the center, they've turned to a black liquid mass surrounded by other beans sprouting white fuzzy hair.

I could have taken the asparagus back, if I'd wanted to walk back to the store, if it weren't past 8pm when the store closes, and if I'd thought I'd have a chance in hell of getting anything out of it but grief. But you have to factor in the German "the customer is always wrong" attitude. You should have looked more closely before you bought it. How do we know you bought this here? How do we know you bought this today? Anyway, the guy who could take care of this, if you're not lying, which you almost certainly are, isn't here.

Instead, I carefully trimmed the tips and ate what remained of the 500g bundle as buttered asparagus tips. I don't remember what they tasted like, because I was so pissed off at myself for not realizing I was about to be ripped off when I bought them in the first place.

At least Pelecanos delivered.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

First Crumbs of the Year

New Year's wasn't so bad at all, which led the Krautmeister to ask in an e-mail whether this reflected the state of the German economy. I think it's partially that -- who wants to spend substantial quantities of money on stuff that just goes bang when money's tight, after all? -- but there also seemed to be a technological shift taking place this year.

In previous years, there were mostly really loud explosions, but from what I could hear, these bombs have been refined. There was one which seemed to make a huge splashing noise after the explosion, and another that seemed to be a composite, where there was hissing, then a lot of tiny explosions and then a few big ones: sssssssskkkkkkkkkktttttktktktktktkABOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Presumably there was a visual display with this as well. But by far, the majority of what I heard until I went to bed about 1:30 in the morning were whistlers. The night sounded like thousands of suicidal canaries were about.

And the next morning there were fewer red sidewalks. What inevitably happens on New Year's evening is that at some point the snow starts to melt, and the cheap dyed paper wrapping the fireworks falls into the water and the cheap cardboard holding the powder is blown up and it all turns into mush. The tubular firecracker corpses become indistinguishable from the tubular leavings of our doggie friends, so red sidewalks are best avoided.

Anyway, it's over until next year, at which point I hope to be annoyed at citizens of an entirely different country.

And this year's dead guy was Buhaina Art Blakey. The classic Blue Note period, but also the 1958 album of his band with Thelonious Monk. A great way to usher in the New Year.


Strange English of the month has to go to the Volksbühne, Berlin's beloved hard-core lefty theater, which has been presenting a play with the enigmatic title Life Is The New Hard. What, for heaven's sake, was the old hard?


The odd business called Mörder (murderer) has opened a few doors away. Very hard to tell what goes on in there, although it seems to sell wine, Gummi Bears, and soda. On the first, it was offering pickles and aspirin. Ah, well. At least it's not White Trash Fast Food -- or likely to become a draw like they were.


Thanks to Natalie for this article from the Berliner Zeitung (and, thus, in German), which states the amazing fact that the best selling records in Germany last year were...German! This may not seem like much, but it's actually a pretty ground-breaking event. Pop music in postwar Europe has, for years, been all about colonization by first the Americans, and then, after the Beatles, the British. When I first moved here, German divisions of the major labels signed German acts as tax-losses to offset the profits from their Rod Stewart and Tina Turner releases, and you'd almost never hear anyone singing in German on a pop station. The Hamburg band Element of Crime were considered radicals for making pop music in German, and they were about the only big-selling band that did so.

All in all, I think this is a healthy development. Pop music in Europe is multilingual, so that we get the occasional world music number or tune in another language on the charts. Germans have avoided their own pop and folk culture and language because of the residual memory of the uses Hitler and company made of them, but maybe those days are over. Certainly the days of the major labels are over, and the next few years in what the record industry calls the GAS Territories -- Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the German-speaking market, which is the second-largest in the world -- should be very interesting to watch.