Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2019 February 27 • Wednesday

This Man Ray chess set is neat but I might have trouble figuring out which pieces are which.

The castle is pretty easy, I guess, but that's a pretty similar king and queen. Bishop and knight, maybe….

2019 February 25 • Monday

The 558th Soundtrack of the Week, is Akira Ifukube's score for Shinran.

This is a classic Ifukube score, typical in the orchestral colors selected as well as its strength and simplicity.

Most of the tracks are fairly similar, generally exploring a very Ifukubean theme: a melancholy melodic line descends but punctuates its descent with recurring reaches for higher notes. The piano in many of the cues plays a steady tattoo of just a few notes with the regularity of dripping water.

“M-4” surprises with the deployment of harp, while the koto enlivens several cues.

In “M-12” the strings and piano combine forces to increase the drama and intensity, with some crashes on the keyboard sounding like thunder and another appearance by the harp suggesting strong gusts of wind.

A wordless chorus is the primary voice of “M-15”, another powerfully dramatic, stormy piece of music, at least in the beginning. It calms down about two minutes in and just the strings take over for a more subdued section. You hear the chorus again in “M-21” and “M-26”, among other cues.

“M-24” starts with a sharp koto burst but turns out to be a smooth and flowing piece with constantly bowing strings creating a lush foundation. There’s another instrument here, too, maybe an electric piano or some other kind of ethereal-sounding keyboard.

Almost jazzy-sounding wind instruments dominate “M-28” but it might be over before you realize it. It’s only 13 seconds long. But a jazzy, in a haunted, reverby, very alone sort of jazzy way, saxophone is the main voice, accompanied only by piano, of “M-29”, which doesn’t quite make it to the one-minute mark.

“M-31” has a martial, anthemic sound but fades out on a jaunty, clip-clopping section. Maybe there’s a war theme in this movie because “M-36” is a straight-up march, though Ifukube gives the melodic line an interesting shape.
2019 February 22 • Friday

It took a while, since I tend to read hardcover books only at home and not carry them around with me, but I just finished Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

The book's main problem is revealed by its subtitle. Any one of those four people would be a worthy subject of a biography. All four of them together, however, creates an unbalanced, unfocused mess.

And what of "the Golden Age of Science Fiction"? That's in here, too, as sort of a meeting place or common ground for these four, but if you didn't already have an idea of what that might have been, I doubt you'd learn much about it from this book.

There are interesting things about these people and their lives and work, and the reader will certainly learn some of them, but it's hard to maintain a sense of the shape of any single person's life.

In one attempt to do so, I discovered that the book's index isn't very good. On page 343, for example, we learn that Isaac Asimov "was promoted to an associate professorship at Boston University". That's fine, but I had forgotten that Asimov was at B.U. in the first place, since it had been mentioned pretty much only in passing over a hundred pages earlier.

I found that earlier reference in the index but that's the only thing I found in the index. His promotion on page 343 is not under "Asimov, Isaac, at Boston University" and neither is page 344, on which we learn that Asimov stops teaching there. Look up "Boston University" in the index and you only get pages 343 and 344, not the earlier reference to Asimov's being hired.

There's also a problem, for me, anyway, with the writing style. I was reminded of this gem from Leonard J. Leff's Hitchcock and Selznick: "'I'm not sure that I like the fade-out of the sequence with the girl promising "the surprise of their lives!"' Selznick told Hitchcock as the director worked on the shooting script for Rebecca. 'Since she has nothing on her mind at this moment, the line seems a device simply to give us a dissolve, rather than having any point in itself.'"

That's some subtle and sophisticated advice and extremely valuable. Nevala-Lee frequently ends chapters and paragraphs with this kind of "cliffhanger" device and it gets rather tiresome pretty fast.

"And before the summer was over, the golcen age would find its embodiment in a writer whose life would entwine with Campbell's — and Asimov's — in ways none of them could have foreseen."

"If Campbell had wanted attention, he was about to succeed beyond his wildest expectations."

"And he had no way of knowing that the golden age that he had inaugurated was about to come to an end."

Almost every chapter or section ends with a thud like that.

More frustrating is a lack of information. Nevala-Lee raises questions only not to answer them. Early in the book is this bit about Campbell's first wife, Doña Stebbins: "When his mother tried to dominate Doña, as she did with most other people, Campbell put her savagely in her place".

Immediately I wondered, how? What happened? How did Campbell's mother try to dominate Doña and how did Campbell "put her savagely in her place"? (If I wanted to put someone in their place, savagely or otherwise, I'm not sure how I'd go about it.)

Alas, there is no other information. A look at the end notes doesn't even offer a source for this anecdote, let alone any further details. The question then becomes, why tell us this if you're not going to tell us anything about it?

More seriously, how much money did L. Ron Hubbard make from his various exertions? When he shifts dianetics from a kind of science to being a kind of religion, we're told that "With his newfound wealth, Hubbard purchased Saint Hill Manor, the former estate of the Maharajah of Jaipur in Sussex, England, where he took up residence in 1959". That sounds like quite a lot of money. But how much? $100,000? $1,000,000?

A bit later we get "Hubbard had sailed the Atlantic for years. … He insisted that he was no longer connected to the church—which sent him fifteen thousand dollars a week—but he was just as involved as always".

Fifteen thousand dollars a week is a lot of money. It could be really a lot, depending on how many weeks we're talking about here. Two? Twenty? Two hundred weeks? I have no idea. The end notes don't help with either of these money matters.

Inevitably the book becomes clogged with stories and incidents like this, as well as often not delivering much more than name-dropping.

For instance, in an attempt to convince us that Campbell might have been hypocritical to remark that "No woman has ever attained first-rank competence in literature in any Indo-European language", Nevala-Lee writes "But he also published such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Jane Rice, Judith Merril, Wilmar H. Shiras, Katherine MacLean, Kate Wilhelm, Pauline Ashwell, Anne McCaffrey, and Alice Bradley Sheldon, whom he knew as James Tiptree, Jr.".

That list of names doesn't actually expose Campbell as a hypocrite. Knowing that he published writing by those women doesn't mean we know how highly he esteemed their work. And the effort is weakened by including Sheldon/Tiptree. Even if Campbell had thought that James Tiptree, Jr., was the greatest writer who ever lived, this wouldn't interfere with his sexist evaluation of women writers because he would have believed Tiptree to be a man, as did everybody until years after Campbell's death.

And if Nevala-Lee ever told us anything about Campbell's professional interactions, as an editor, with any of these writers, I don't remember it.

Each chapter of this book begins with a quote and the quote for the acknowledments is the bizarre: "I knew more about Isaac Asimov that I knew about anyone else alive. What more could there be left to add?" is from an essay Martin Amis wrote about Isaac Asimov and can be found in the collection Visiting Mrs. Nabokov.

If you've made it through all of Astounding to get to this part, you might assume that this line is expressing something positive. But it's actually expressing Amis's exhaustion and exasperation with slogging through Asimov's two volumes of autobiography:

Structurally, the autobiography makes an average collection of showbiz memoirs look like Nabokov's Speak, Memory. Furthermore, and on Asimov's own admission, nothing ever happened to him. I toiled through the first volume in a mood of scandalised admiration. How could anyone dare to record a life with such fidelity to the trivial? The book reads like an outsize experiment in tedium by Andy Warhol or Yoko Ono… problems with the air-conditioning, buying a new car ("This time it was going to be a Ford"), his children's bouts of measles, a faulty incinerator in his flatblock… I went along to meet Asimov having just let In Memory Yet Green crash to the floor, and having just winched In Joy Still Felt on to the lectern. I knew more about Isaac Asimov than I knew about anyone else alive. What could there be left to add?

This particular quote, out of context and in isolation, is at best irrelevant, at worst perhaps misleading.

So Astounding is one of those "for completists only" books. It's disorganized and shapeless and worth reading for glimpses it gives you of certain times and places, fragments of cultural movements that existed then and there and an assortment of almost random information about some people who had something to do with it.

Asimov comes off as kind of an archetypal sci-fi nerd and also, sadly, a creep. Campbell was incredibly important to many writers and to the genre itself, but seems unhinged and unstable in ways that are never deeply explored. Heinlein appears to be something of a sad figure, haunted by his inability to become a father and fearful of the world in some ways, veering from left-wing politics to right-wing as he becomes more insecure about the possible ramifications of current events. Hubbard is pretty much a monster, an egomaniacal, manipulative, abusive serial prevaricator and con man. Exactly the kind of person you'd expect to start a cult…

2019 February 20 • Wednesday

Here's a book I wasn't sure I would get around to reading but I plucked it from the shelf the other day and took it out for a spin: Gertrude Schweitzer's The Obsessed.

That's the cover of the edition I have, though there are apparently several others.

I'm partial to Gold Medal books and I can't remember seeing one before that had so many different covers.

Here's the back cover for the one I have:

Believe it or not, the plot of this book hinges on amputated limbs. I bet nobody was more surprised by that than I was.

It's a suspense thriller that might remind you of Lucille Fletcher's work, in that you're presented with a baffling and potentially dangerous situation and you have no idea what's what.

Basically here are two women in conflict here and the suspense comes from not knowing which one of them is a psycho. The writing breezes along efficiently and enjoyably. The first line is "Dr. Duane straightened and let his breath out gustily, still staring down at the figure on the operating table".

There was a painter named Gertrude Schweitzer who lived at the same time as the novelist. I don't think they're the same person.

2019 February 18 • Monday

Erlon Chaves is probably the composer of the 557th Soundtrack of the Week, music for Procura-se uma Virgem, apparently a Brazilian soft porn movie. I say "probably" because Chaves's credit is as arranger and director of the Orquestra St. Moritz. If he didn't also compose this music, I don't know who did.

The record kicks off with "Procura-se uma Virgem (prefixo) tema de abertura", which I suppose means opening theme. It's a sunny, groovy, upbeat lounge number with jazzy organ solos. Melody is handled by wind instruments and the electric bass playing is noticeably strong. This gets reprised at the end, so it's the first and last thing you hear on this record.

Next is "Procura-se uma Virgem (valsa) (duo cantate) and sure enough, this is a jazz waltz version of the previous piece with a man and woman singing the melody wordlessly as well as breaking into laughter and occasionally scatting. The rhythm section gives it a great groove.

"Grilo" is a more powerful piece, with some tough breakbeat drumming, a monomaniacal organ figure and some sharp, stabbing figures. Lots of organ soloing, all really good.

"Os Tres Ladrões" is a goofy sort of number that sounds like it could be for a wacky comedy section or a children’s cartoon or something. It’s interesting to hear the instruments in this combo blended like this. It’s a versatile group.

It's no surprise that we get a bossa nova on this loungey Brazilian soundtrack. "Uma Velha Bossa" has a nice melody and everything but the drummer’s feel is the star even though the organ and guitar take the solos.

"Vamos Nos" starts with horns blaring and then kicks into a sick driving groove with another melody like “Grilo”, just a few notes played a lot, over and over. Also another great organ solo.

After this comes "O Anjo E O Diabo", a funk jazz piece with flute and organ handling the melody and a piano solo as well as an organ solo.

You might have expected a love theme of some kind and here it is: "Tema de Amor". It's a very pretty tune sung by a female vocalist over a medium tempo waltz groove, the organ creating harmonic foundations for her while the bass player slinks around. There’s a little bit of delicate piano soloing too.

The only other cue is "Ba Õba Õba", whic has a familiar Latin rhythm, though I don’t remember what it’s called. It’s at a moderate tempo, very laid back and unhurried, with the electric guitar and organ alternating being the main voice.

2019 February 15 • Friday

For $1 you can get this reprint of What If #13, in which we find out What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?

You can see a Star Wars poster in the background. While this comic has a February 1979 cover date, the action takes place in July 1977. Not only has Star Wars been in theatre for a couple of months, Conan's sudden appearance in this different time and place ends up causing the New York City blackout of 1977.

Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson notice some of the fuss Conan's presence causes but they don't do anything about it, even though Peter is wearing his Spider-Man shirt.

The best part is that the big climactic fight takes place in the Guggenheim. "Conan vs. modern art" is the sequel to "Tarzan vs. IBM that" we'd all been waiting for.

This was surprisingly enjoyable and at only a dollar, the price was definitely right. I'd never read any Conan before, not that I remember. And now I guess I sort of have.

2019 February 13 • Wednesday

In the movie The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950) Lee J. Cobb has his hands full as a homicide detective trying to cover a murder that's being avidly investigated by his new partner who happens to be his younger brother.

While Cobb's character didn't commit the murder he did dispose of the body and is trying hard to steer the police away from the killer and to a suitable scapegoat.

This is a stressful situation, naturally, and Cobb has to keep his cards close to his chest, to borrow a metaphor that the younger brother uses to refer to Cobb in another context.

And so, when you see Cobb reading a book in bed about halfway through this story, it makes sense that he'd be reading a book called Memories of a Poker Player.

Not only is he keeping his cards close to his chest, gambling and bluffing and hoping for luck, he also has to maintain a poker face.

At the climax of the movie he actually says that he's going to try a bluff, so this card game thread is deliberately woven throughout.

So deliberately, in fact, that it seems that this Memories of a Poker Player book was created just for this scene in this movie. As far as I can tell, no such book existed in 1950.

2019 February 11 • Monday

The 556th Soundtrack of the Week is a mixture of song and score, with Kenny Loggins providing most of the former and Johnny Mandel in charge of the latter, for the classic comedy Caddyshack.

Kenny Loggins had a good run of movie themes back then: Footloose, Top Gun and Caddyshack. I'd never thought much about him before. He waw funny on Archer when he showed up to play the "Danger Zone" song that had been a running joke in the show. And I'd always liked the song "Footloose" and can remember a few bits from the movie.

But when I saw Loggins on Live at Daryl's House doing these songs live, I got really into them and became a fan. (He tells the story of having written a theme song for Flashdance as well but wasn't able to sing it well enough because he'd broken a few ribs so that one wasn't used and ended his movie theme streak.)

As far as movie theme songs go, Loggins's "I'm Alright (Theme from Caddyshack)" is one of my all-time favorites. It's a favorite song in general and I've probably listened to it a hundred times in the last few weeks. It has a few different sections, several different musical zones and tones, a sense of humor as well as a feeling of triumph and it all coheres perfectly. If this were the only thing Kenny Loggins had ever done, it would be enough to make me a fan.

He does sappy love songs, too, though, as the piano ballad "Lead the Way" demonstrates. The song is nice but not really special. It's a good showcase for Loggins's voice, a strong and versatile instrument.

Then there's "Make the Move", which starts out as an extension of the "own heart beating" section from "I'm Alright" and then takes the verse groove from that song and adds different lyrics ("Make the move" instead of "I'm Alright").

Mr. Loggins gets "funky" and frisky in "Mr. Night", at least in the very beginning. Then it settles into a fairly square but brisk and uptempo "rock and roll" toe-tapping sort of song with some country seasonings. It's not bad but "I'm Alright" is a really hard act to follow.

After this comes the Journey song "Any Way You Want It". Decent song but... there's nothing to say about this, is there? If you've heard it you know everything you need to know about it. If you haven't heard it, all you have to do is hear it and then you'll know too.

"There She Goes" by the power-pop band Paul Collins' Beat comes next and this was a new one for me. I like it a lot, it's driving and high-energy with a nice blend of instruments and voices.

And then we finally get some Johnny Mandel score, though "Divine Intervention" is an intentionally obvious pastiche of the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" and doesn't have much to offer beyond that.

Mandel's "Marina" is a bubbly lounge piece that has to be source music for the upper crust and WASPy country club where I presume this movie takes place.

Then there's "Something on Your Mind" by Hilly Michaels, an agreeably goofy and tongue-in-cheek overblown rock pop song.

The record closes with another classical music pastiche by Johnny Mandel, this time the 1812 Overture with drums and synth and electric guitar and it's all pretty silly and probably works perfectly in the movie.

2019 February 08 • Friday

When we picked up the November 1954 issue of Esquire, our first thought was to wonder why we had it in the first place.

The reason is that it had a Walter Tevis short story in it, never published anywhere else as far as we know, and it was even about pool hustlers.

Also in that issue was a fairly longish biographical piece about Red Norvo, this being a high point for jazz as a popular cultural force.

Near the back of the magazine, the ads become much smaller and somewhat more dubious: Half-price accordions, .12 caliber pistols, various massage things, "a fireside bikini" (velveteen with rhinestone initials of your choice).

And then there's this one:

It could be for something totally innocent but, like we said before, it seems dubious.

2019 February 06 • Wednesday

Here's another movie tie-in advertisement from the November 1954 Esquire we were reading the other day.

John Payne is brought on board to sell tuxedos.

That ad tells the reader that Mr. Payne is co-starring in Love Is a Weapon.. In November 1954 that was indeed the plan but the movie itself wouldn't come out until May 1955, by which time it had been re-titled Hell's Island. (Other pre-release titles were, apparently, Chubasco and The Ruby Virgin. It also got re-released in 1962 as South Sea Fury.)

Hell's Island, or whatever it's called, sounds like a movie I'd like to see. According to Wikipedia, it also got dragged into a Senate subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency, in which the president of Paramount admitted that the poster for the film was "very bad" and inexcusable. So I guess the poster for this movie played some part in warping impressionable young minds?

If so, then nothing could be more irresponsible and dangerous than posting an image of the Hell's Island movie poster online, so here are four of them.

Juvenile delinquents ain't what they used to be, of course, but none of these posters shows John Payne clutching a bathing suit-clad Mary Murphy, which is the image described by Wikipedia in their item on the Senate subcommittee hearing.

So perhaps they meant one of the lobby cards and not the poster.

The one on top left does show clutching and a bathing suit.

2019 February 04 • Monday

The 555th Soundtrack of the Week is Elliott Sharp's music for Calling All Earthlings, a documentary about a UFO cult of sorts.

The first piece is a groovy tune with a slippery melody played on slide guitar, conjuring up images of the desert.

"Area 52" is a bluesy and minimalist piece that sounds like it's played on a resonator guitar with a slide, perhaps exclusively.

Brushes on drums propel "Saguaro" forward while Sharp's acoustic guitar playing, echoed by some device, creates a lush and billowy atmosphere.

The electric guitar creates the almost funky mood of "Xaloc". At first it's almost entirely rhythm guitar but then some other electronic noises come in and add layers that expand the borders of the piece.

"Harmoniously" has an agreeable sort of shuffle played on the drums while dreamy guitar figures float above the rhythm section, suggesting island music or clouds. Other electronic voices come in and give it an otherwordly feel.

Bells announce the beginning of "The Builders", which becomes a vehicle for horns and percussion. It never really settles into a groove although there are repeated figures and suggestions of rhythmic and lyrical phrases.

"The Slip" starts out as a straight rock instrumental, but when the other instruments come in it's... what? Some kind of space-age dub lounge piece maybe? Whatever it is, I like it.

Spirally electric guitar fingerings are the primary voice in "Ifrit", in which the use of delays effectively builds layers of sound.

"Dry Gulch" sounds like it's a title, with snaky slide guitar slithering over sparse drums and bass, successfully evoking the aridity and wide open skies of the desert.

Another case of honesty in titles comes with "Low Twang Clan". Sharp's guitar does not sound like Duane Eddy here, though it would be easy to say so. Low and twanging and reverby it may be, but this has a different personality. It's admirably restrained and lyrical and a good illustration of how you can say a lot with a little.

The next cue, "Kreuzy", is almost like a new wave instrumental, with the drums pounding out a catchy beat, the bass just playing a couple of notes here and there and different electronic keyboard (I think) lines appearing and disappearing.

"Niltsi" is conceptually similar to "Ifrit", though in a lower register.

"Zauberpilze" is like some kind of avant pop song that could have come out of Germany in the '80s. Maybe. There are weird vocal-like flutterings on top of a cool drum beat and odd electronic lines.

The feel of "Gila Monster" and "Dry Gulch" is expanded on in the echoey electric guitar solo "Desert Visions".

"This Is This" belongs to the category of "Kreuzy" and "Zauberpilze", probably best described as some kind of minimalist avant pop instrumental.

Things get lush and multi-colored with the dreamy and eccentric "Amphibious", which takes elements of rock, jazz and blues but smears them together into a gentle but brightly colored sonic image.

After this comes an actual song with lyrics, "No Way Out", kind of a country rock song on downers.

"Horrors of La" is an instrumental with a psychedelic rock feel to it and finally, "Twang Cloud", the last cue, is a splendid desert piece with strong and vibrant guitar chords billowing and swirling around.

2019 February 01 • Friday

A few days ago the weather app assured us that it would feel like 1 degree Fahrenheit outside even though the actual temperature was around 10.

We never need much encouragement to stay inside but this was an overwhelming amount.

And so we settled into our rocking chair and flipped through the November 1954 issue of Esquire magazine while sipping some bourbon.

Bourbon turned out to be exactly right, and not just for the usual reasons. There were ads for fourteen different whiskies or bourbons in this magazine, along with ads for fourteen other kinds of alcohol: various liqueurs and cordials, gin, brandy, cognac, rum, sherry and vermouth, even an ad for angostura bitters.

Another trend in advertising was the movie tie-in ad. Despite having seen Rear Window numerous times, probably even as many as ten times, we had never given much thought to Wendell Corey's shirts in that movie. In fact, perhaps since it's been several years since our last Rear Window viewing, Wendell Corey's entire presence in the film had slipped our mind. This is just one difference between 2019 and 1954, no doubt.

His ring is more interesting than the shirt, though the shirt isn't bad.

It's not just movies, either. When I saw this ad for pajamas that dragged in one of the stars of The Pajama Game, I assumed it was the movie. But that movie wouldn't come out until 1957 and the ad was relying on readers' familiarity with the Broadway musical, which opened in 1954.

And a classy mag like this even acknowledges the existence of opera!

The copy tells us that the woman in the picture is "lovely Metropolitan Opera soprano" Patrice Munsel. About the men who are boring to look at she is quoted as saying, "A little less monotony and a little more imagination in their choice of clothes would certainly make a big difference".

Some of us have been wearing the same black sweatpants and black shirt for the last three days...