Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Moons Over St. Louis: The Power and Glory of Prisonshake

The tumult of the autumn at Richard Byrne Inc. led me to put a number of essential tasks to side. One of the most important was to obtain the long-awaited Prisonshake double record -- Dirty Moons -- and let it sink in long enough to have something intelligent to say about it.

Finally did so. Put simply, Dirty Moons is more than worth the 15 year wait since the last Prisonshake record, 1993's The Roaring Third.

You're excused if you're not familiar with the 'Shake. God knows they can be hard enough to track down. Infrequent gigging. A back catalogue scattered over mere continents. But when the band has erupted into song (1986-1992ish in Cleveland; 1993-1995 in St. Louis; now), they're among the best rock bands in the United States: brainy without being wonky, muscular riffs bouncing off lyrics both cynical and tender.

Ringleader Robert Griffin (who also runs Scat Records) and lead vocalist Douglas Enkler have formed the spine of the band from its conception, but the addition of drummer Patrick Hawley and bassist Steve Scariano added power and fluidity to the band that really pays off on Dirty Moons.

In line with the "brainy not wonky" line above, while there is no high concept here, there are some elegant conceits and jagged formalistic moves (the "suite" on side two; traditional vinyl sides dubbed as "multiple entry points"). Don't let them turn you on or put you off. Most of what's here is good ol' American rock and roll -- recorded in analog at various levels of fidelity but with unflagging inventiveness and energy.

I could reel off a bunch of moments that stand out on multiple listens: "Fake Your Own Death" swerves from its jammy introduction into moody and sinister Jeff Beckisms before disintegrating and coalescing again a few times, or the moment when that aforementioned side two suite revs up for take off on "Rebecca, You're the Rain."

But for me what shines through are the sometimes dueling, but more often complementary sensibilities of Griffin and Enkler. For all of his dinged and dented hardboiled aesthetic shell, Griffin writes some of the best love songs in rock. (Just check out the furious romanticism of "Dream Along," or the unabashed erotic revelry of "Crush Me" -- the latter song married to smash and grab riffing.)

And Enkler? Well, the acidity of his observations cut through any and all bullshit posing, and the record is studded with his sharp lyrical gems. "The Cut-Out Bin" is worth quoting at length because of the song's savage look-back-in-anger at a life in rock:

Back in the day, before songs were numbered
And only bikers and sailors had tattoos
I'd work all day, selling records to assholes
Huffing boo and screwing you

Some say rock and roll has died
And at times like these I wish they were right
Watch 'em spawn a litter, watch none survive

No one gets a twilight to their career anymore
No one gets a chance to make
Mediocre record number four
When they bring back the cut-out bin
Save a place for us behind the Pretty Things

The other highlight on the record for me is Enkler's performance on "Fuck Your Self-Esteem," which may be one of the most finely-chiseled bits of rock on the topic of sexual mayhem ever penned, and yoked to savage riffs that propel the song along:

Well the next free moment she tells me, "fuck you"
I say that's not nice I'm the only one who loves you
That's not a brain, that's flaps and triggers
Slots and levers like a Mousetrap game
Does someone need a punch in the mouth?
Please don't let on that I knew you when....

You can get Dirty Moons on e-music, but everybody (except me, of course) makes more money if you order it directly from Scat Records. (The Dirty Moons page at the Scat site also has an mp3 of "Crush Me.") Griffin also keeps an indifferently updated blog about the record; there's plenty of cool back matter there.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Clash of the Titans: Blogging MLA

This is the first time in five years that I have not been to the annual meeting of the Modern Languages Association (MLA), which is being held this year in San Francisco. (Yes, the wife is delighted.)

But two awesomely-talented former colleagues of mine are there toiling in the book exhibit, the panels, and the dark murky corners where a lot of the business of the meeting really gets done.

Scott McLemee -- Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed, and Quick Study blogger at Arts Journal -- is giving his take on the meeting here. (And many thanks to Scott for a terrific link to my Nation piece on Renaissance Journalism at Quick Study that pushes the ball much further down the field by adding C.L.R. James' thoughts on the topic.)

And the wonderful Jennifer Howard -- who blogs at her own eponymous site and occasionally pinch-hits at Bookslut --is giving her blow-by-blow on the Chronicle of Higher Education's news blog. (Jennifer's first few posts are here and here and here.)

Between McLemee and Howard, you'll have that San Francisco MLA feeling without the papers on Althusser and the trolley car.

What Can Renaissance Journalism Tell Us Today?

So at long last, my piece on an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library -- "Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper" -- has been published by The Nation in its latest issue. (You can see it online here.)

The good news is that though it took awhile to get it published (I wrote it back in November), the exhibit itself continues until the end of January, which gives you plenty of time to go see it yourself. (Details and opening hours are here.)

In all the clatter and cacophony of debate about how the newspaper is dying, it is useful at times to have a look back at history and see what it tells us about the seeding and blossoming of an industry. Christopher Kyle (a historian as Syracuse University) and Jason Peacey (a historian at University College in London) did a masterful job of doing that.

I hope you'll read the whole article -- and particularly if you're in journalism -- take a quick trip over to the Folger and have a look around. It's the sort of exhibit that will inform -- in a subtle but powerful manner -- the decline and transformation of the print news industry.

Image of the front page of the "Mercurius Rusticus" courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New York Times on Bosnia and Islam

An interesting story -- though a couple years late, perhaps -- on how the investment in what one might call "Islamic evangelization" by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations is progressing in the New York Times today.

The story touches on all the (all-too) familiar contrasts and fault lines between pre-war and post-war Bosnia: the urbanity and lightly-worn Islam of pre-war Bosniak Muslims versus the increasingly open displays of overt Islamic fashion ("fully covered women and men with long beards"). Serbs versus Bosniaks. I pa da.

Some of the quotes in this 2008 article are vintage 2000 and earlier, such as this one from Mustafa Efendi Ceric, who is the chief spiritual leader of Bosnia's Muslims: "The Serbs committed genocide against us, raped our women, made us refugees in our own country. And now we have a tribal constitution that says we have to share political power and land with our killers. We Bosnian Muslims still feel beseiged in the city of Sarajevo."

Sigh. It is more than 12 years after Dayton, yet the rhetoric plunges the reader right back to the mid-Clinton presidency.

Amidst the rehearsal of a few Balkan favorites (attacks on a gay pride event, for instance), the article does report a few new twists, including a multiethnic battle against Islamic kindergarten in state-run schools in Sarajevo.

The article doesn't really get into two key issues, however.

The first is the extent to which the investment in promoting Islam by outside players -- which is also more than a decade old now --has not taken root, despite the $700 million dollars poured into the country. When I lived in Sarajevo nine years ago, my neighborhood -- Alipasino Polje -- was a key target in that effort. It's where the immense King Fahd mosque (mentioned in the article, and funded by Saudi Arabia) was erected, for instance, just three dozen paces from the front door of my apartment complex.

Back then, the residents viewed it with a quintessentially Sarajevan mixture of pride, mockery and opportunism. (Who doesn't love sporting complexes in the neighborhood?) On my last visit two years ago, the feeling was much the same, though clearly attendance at the mosque was up a bit.

The other issue is just how any Islamic revivalism has taken root -- to whatever extent it has -- in Bosnia.

The demographics of ethnic cleansing -- on multiple levels -- have definitely driven the phenomenon. The first level is the effect of the siege and the war between 1992-1996 on Sarajevo itself: the brain drain and the shredding of the delicately-woven multiculturalism of the city drained Sarajevo of much (not all) of its fabled urbanity. But like any urban center, the city filled back up again with a massive influx of refugees from other (less urban) parts of Bosnia that had been ethnically cleansed by Serbs and Croats. Those refugees came from places where equally-delicate (though much less cosmopolitan) social fabrics were also torn asunder.

That forced population transfer and the residual ill feelings from the war doubtless has provided some fertile ground for some Bosniaks to assert a more overt identification with Islam. But it's simultaneously ironic and pathetic and morally bankrupt for Republika Srpska prime minister Milorad Dodik to label Sarajevo as a "new Tehran" -- as he is as quoted as saying in this article. Because if it's true (and a weighty preponderance of evidence is to the contrary), Dodik and his fellow Serb citizens of Bosnia made it that way with their destructive war.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Švejk vs. Schweyk: Encounters with Brecht

Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War is my favorite novel. Sure, there are others that give me plenty to chew on, and plenty of entertainment. (I think number two would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.)

But Hašek's book has given me by far the most to think about in my career -- about war, about the human condition, about beer and grog. Plus, it has the advantage of being the ultimate Balkan and Bohemian book -- set mostly in Prague and South Bohemia (and Budapest and Galicia) -- and yet starting with the key Balkan event of the last two centuries: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

The key to Švejk's enduring relevance is the profound mystery of its protagonist's character. For a literary invention that has often been advanced as a symbol of the Czech national character (much to the chagrin of some Czechs), this mystery seems particularly crucial. Is Švejk -- as he so often explains as he seeks to shirk military service for the hapless Hapsburgs -- "a certified idiot?" Or is he a supremely cunning and subversive force?

The argument for idiot is the sheer pathos and farce of the situations in which Švejk finds himself -- jail, mental hospital, the train station in Tabor drinking beer after beer with a Hungarian, causing a riot in Kiralyhida, and then literally captured by his own troops. What normal and sensible -- let alone a crafty and cunning -- person would place themselves willingly in such situations? And yet Švejk so often outwits and flanks the officers, judges and bureaucrats who would crush him that it would seem foolish to accept the "patent idiocy" that he produces as a catch-all excuse for his behavior.

My own theory is that Švejk is neither idiot nor savant, but rather that a sense of play -- the innocent and yet often brutal play of children -- so deeply permeates his character that it forms the blueprint of his behavior in any situation. It is a sense of play that results both in punishments and in tiny triumphs of the human spirit. (My theory also addresses that notion of Švejk as an expression of the Czech character: Švejk does tap deeply into a mischievous and cruel vein of Czech humor as a resistance to cruel and oppressive realities.)

These deep thoughts about Švejk bring me in roundabout fashion to the question of Bertolt Brecht's attempt to interpret Hašek's iconic character. I recently tackled the German playwright's Schweyk in the Second World War -- which reimagines Švejk as he might have functioned in the more brutal and efficient thrall of the Gestapo.

If The Good Soldier Švejk is my favorite novel, why wait so long to check out Brecht's take? Well, there's a natural inclination to keep one's favorite thing pure somehow within the mind. (Impossible, yes. And yet we try...)

But there's also my own complicated dramatic relationship with Brecht. It's hard to argue that Brecht's best works (Dreigroshen Oper, Mutter Courage, Galileo, Arturo Ui and many of the poems) are among the last century's greatest. But there is a stridency and oversimplicity-- not to mention Brecht's fraught relationship with his collaborators -- that gives me pause, and puts me in the camp of Peter Handke in preferring Odon von Horvath's work. Handke wrote back in 1968 that "Horvath ist besser als Brecht" -- and have you read The Measures Taken lately? Read it and then read Horvath's Faith Hope and Charity. The gulf between the sensibilities and moral feeling of these writers is immense, but boil down to Brecht's feeling (and sometimes "unfeeling") for humanity as a striving mass, whereas Horvath sees -- and feels -- the individual and the power of jargon to warp and pervert societies.

I finally succumbed to curiosity, however. (It didn't help that Brecht scholars feel the play to be in the middle ranks of his works: John Willett and Ralph Manheim write in the introduction that"the whole notion of pitting Hašek's beautifully ambiguous figure... against Himmler and the SS is a deep misconception which distorts both recent history and Hašek's novel.")

Having read it now, I vigorously disagree. There are certainly moments when the critique above applies -- particularly in the ending dream sequence where Švejk encounters Hitler outside Stalingrad. But Brecht succeeds on two key levels in his Schweyk: he keeps much of Švejk's sense of mystery and play and yet skilfully adapts the original material to meet a transformed historical context. Brecht's play is darker and less comic than Hašek's novel (which is dark enough despite its comedy), but one feels the intrusion of Brecht the propagandist in the moments where the play drifts toward pastiche of the German war effort. In its adaptation of the novel to the much-less ambiguous patriotism of the Czech resisatnce, however, it is terrific -- and Brecht has incredible mastery of the pub talk and bureaucratic subversions that fuel Hašek's classic.

So yes, Brecht's Schweyk is imperfect. But if you're interested in how Hašek's iconic figure has transformed other writers and been transformed in turn, it's more than interesting. It is, in its way, quite brilliant.

The Beer War Over Budvar

The battle between Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar and American mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch (which is now owned by European giant InBev) over the "Budweiser" trademark has extended to almost a century now, but last week saw the Czechs take a victory in the European Union's courts.

Last week, an EU court ruled that AB was not entitled to a blanket claim to the "Budweiser" trademark across the union. That was a victory for BB because it already has the right to the "Budweiser" trademark in a number of EU countries -- and can keep it in those places.

The battle over the Budweiser trademark has been waged in hand-to-hand fashion across numerous international market. (In the US, for instance, the Czech Budweiser is marketed as "Czechvar -- and, oddly enough, imported by AB/InBev.) The history between the two entities is complicated by a competing thicket of historical claims, but it's clear that when Adolphus Busch decided to name his American lager "Budweiser," he was seeking to trade off the reputation of Bavarian and Czech-style lagers -- which had been invented in the 1830s and 1840s.

The battle ramped up after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when AB attempted to muscle its way into position to buy the Czech thorn in its side. But the Czechs held firm and the battle continues. Beer drinkers can be thankful for that on balance, because the Czech Budweiser is an excellent lager -- a bit sweeter and smoother than the other great major beer of the Czech Republic: Pilsner Urquell.

Back in 1992, I had the privilege of going to the Budejovicky Budvar brewery to interview Jiri Bocek, who had just assumed the top post at the company, for a story that ran in the St. Louis alternative newspaper The Riverfront Times. (Alas, it predates the online archives of the paper, but this story from the Prague Post a few years later is a useful synopsis.)

Bocek asked that my girlfriend Katerina (who was translating) and I arrive at 7 a.m. We got a tour of the factory and then settled into Bocek's office. Coffee, tea or beer?, he asked.

The opportunity to taste a factory-fresh Budvar was not wasted. Bocek said that I was the first Americna journalist to opt for the beer at that hour. It was very productive interview.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On the Move

So it's been like a war zone here at Balkans via Bohemia HQ. There's been loads of work for the new magazine, a feverish spot of Christmas shopping, illnesses (though not malingering) amongst the ranks, and marching and more marching coming up -- in particular, a concerted assault on the Bradenton/Sarasota reboubt with a possible North Carolinian anabasis. As Svejk once said: Maul halten und weiter dienen.

But when we get to Jaroměř -- metaphorically, that is -- there will be joy. I promise that readers will be treated with a steady stream of posts through the late Christmas season and then with increasing frequency into the new year. We have passed the great tribulation and have now emerged into a reasonably priced pivnice with fresh Velkopopovicky on tap.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas Cabaret Cheer!

Local chanteuse and friend of Balkans via Bohemia Barbara Papendorp has finally announced the dates for a special Christmas cabaret in Washington, D.C.

The Mall, The Merrier plays over five consecutive nights starting on December 18 at The Warehouse Theater in Northwest DC. Papendorp is joined by Elver Ariza and Scott Sedar for what she promises is "seasonal song and schtick."

And if you want some Papendorp in your stocking, you are in luck: Barbara is also featured on a new CD of a live performance of Jill Leger's cabaret, Googling My Ex (and Other Obsessions), back in June of this year... (Click on the link above to order.)

The Mall, The Merrier
will be a cozy and cheerful revue. Reserve your tickets here.