Table of Contents: > Reader’s Digest of the Blog


Bright Young Things, Pt. 2: Bowie Edition

Fascinating! So, I’m searching online for some an image along the theme of “bright young things” to accompany last week’s post of Muriel Sparks’ poem The Yellow Room. I come across a fragmentary result identifying Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies as the wellspring for David Bowie’s theatrical, spent, and off-kilter masterpeice Aladdin Sane (Vile Bodies? a hilarious, disjointed 1930’s Bright Lights Big City about the careening, hedonistic society set in the 20’s… excellent overview here.)

…the notion seemed familiar, like I had read it somewhere, but vague. The link led to a lovingly preserved recreation of a mesmerizing article from a July 1973 Circus Magazine. (On the cover Alice Cooper, Uriah Heep, free Robert Plant calendar, Seals and Crofts, and Marc Bolan)

The article was entitled “Bowie Sees America in Flames – the inside story of Aladdin Sane” This is relatively familiar territory for Bowie-philes… discussing it he’s always framed the album as Ziggy goes to America (The Velvet shout-outs, Detroit, Sunset & Vine, etc…) and discovers an near apocalyptic decadence.

In the Circus article, though Bowie, says flat out that the idea for Sane burst from him nearly fully formed while reading Vile Bodies, as the full circus of American rock celebrity and decadent notoriety is erected around him.

David Bowie sat in an overstuffed armchair in his suite aboard the ship Ellinis, returning to London from his first triumphal tour of the States. His delicate brows knit in a look of perplexed recognition as he read Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies” – a 40 year-old, futuristic novel about a society of “bright young things” whirling through lavish parties in outlandish costumes, dancing, gossiping and sipping champagne.  Suddenly David lowered the book to his lap, picked up the spiral notebook and pen sitting on the small mahogany table at his side, and began to write the words to the title song of his new LP, Aladdin Sane

“The book dealt with London in the period buy vicodin prescription just before a massive, imaginary war.” David would later confide, touching one finger, with its green-painted nail, lightly to his chin.  “People were frivolous, decadent and silly.  And suddenly they were plunged into this horrendous holocaust.  They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up.  Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today.” But who was the frivolous, romantic young man Aladdin Sane?  At first David merely cupped his hands in a fragile cage and said “I don’t really think he’s me.”  Several days later, Bowie realised who – or rather what – the song, and in fact the entire album, were about.  “It’s my interpretation of what America means to me.  It’s like a summation of my first American tour.”

Knowing this goes along way towards explaining a distinctive stylistic coloring to the record – a dandyish swing that now makes perfect sense in light of the disjointed flapper flamboyance in Vile Bodies. (Songs like “Prettiest Star,” the title track, and especially “Lady Grinning Soul”for your pleasure, below –  are fuller, fed by their associations with the novel.)

Watching him dash away, dragging
an old bouquet-dead roses
Sake and strange divine.
Um-m-m-m-you’ll make it
Passionate bright young things,
take him away to war-
..don’t fake it.
Who’ll love Aladdin Sane
Battle cries & champagne just in
time for sunrise…

The whole article is a must read. There’s a great Philly shout out, highlighting that Bowie was “one of the even fewer rock performers to attract a following so large in one city (Philadelphia) that he was forced to play there nine nights in a row.” Also, there are walk-ones by Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Wayne County, Iggy Pop, Cyrinda Foxe and, my personal fave, punk publicist Cherry Vanilla. (profiled a year ago on the blog, here) Seriously, read it.

David Bowie: Prettiest Star [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PrettiestStar.mp3]

David Bowie: Aladdin Sane [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/AladdinSane.mp3]

David Bowie: Lady Grinning Soul [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/LadyGrinningSoul.mp3]

Swinburne’s Cleopatra

Batshit. Pardon the vernacular, but it’s really the only way to describe Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem Cleopatra. What ridiculous swoops of melodrama. Overripe to the point of sugary bursting. It begins with a vivid litany of Cleopatra’s superlative qualities. It quickly unravels into a hysterical parade of phantasmagoric noodling – histories crushed under her eyelids, something about molten heaven drier than sand, and culminating in a psychedelic apocalypse. Or something. But of course it’s all a dream, but the dream of a lurid goddess, laughing with a red sweet mouth of wine, with history itself under her sway. Superb stuff, enjoy! (By the way Swinburne’s story is riveting and well, well worth reading.)

HER mouth is fragrant as a vine,
A vine with birds in all its boughs;
Serpent and scarab for a sign
Between the beauty of her brows
And the amorous deep lids divine.

Her great curled hair makes luminous
Her cheeks, her lifted throat and chin.
Shall she not have the hearts of us
To shatter, and the loves therein
To shred between her fingers thus?

Small ruined broken strays of light,
Pearl after pearl she shreds them through
Her long sweet sleepy fingers, white
As any pearl’s heart veined with blue,
And soft as dew on a soft night.

As if the very eyes of love
Shone through her shutting lids, and stole
The slow looks of a snake or dove;
As if her lips absorbed the whole
Of love, her soul the soul thereof.

Lost, all the lordly pearls that were
Wrung from the sea’s heart, from the green
Coasts of the Indian gulf-river;
Lost, all the loves of the world—so keen
Towards this queen for love of her.

You see against her throat the small
Sharp glittering shadows of them shake;
And through her hair the imperial
Curled likeness of the river snake,
Whose bite shall make an end of all.

Through the scales sheathing him like wings,
Through hieroglyphs of gold and gem,
The strong sense of her beauty stings,
Like a keen pulse of love in them,
A running flame through all his rings.

Under those low large lids of hers
She hath the histories of all time;
The fruit of foliage-stricken years;
The old seasons with their heavy chime
That leaves its rhyme in the world’s ears.

She sees the hand of death made bare,
The ravelled riddle of the skies,
The faces faded that were fair,
The mouths made speechless that were wise,
The hollow eyes and dusty hair;

The shape and shadow of mystic things,
Things that fate fashions or forbids;
The staff of time-forgotten Kings
Whose name falls off the Pyramids,
Their coffin-lids and grave-clothings;

Dank dregs, the scum of pool or clod,
God-spawn of lizard-footed clans,
And those dog-headed hulks that trod
Swart necks of the old Egyptians,
Raw draughts of man’s beginning God;

The poised hawk, quivering ere he smote,
With plume-like gems on breast and back;
The asps and water-worms afloat
Between the rush-flowers moist and slack;
The cat’s warm black bright rising throat.

The purple days of drouth expand
Like a scroll opened out again;
The molten heaven drier than sand,
The hot red heaven without rain,
Sheds iron pain on the empty land.

All Egypt aches in the sun’s sight;
The lips of men are harsh for drouth,
The fierce air leaves their cheeks burnt white,
Charred by the bitter blowing south,
Whose dusty mouth is sharp to bite.

All this she dreams of, and her eyes
Are wrought after the sense hereof.
There is no heart in her for sighs;
The face of her is more than love—
A name above the Ptolemies.

Her great grave beauty covers her
As that sleek spoil beneath her feet
Clothed once the anointed soothsayer;
The hallowing is gone forth from it
Now, made unmeet for priests to wear.

She treads on gods and god-like things,
On fate and fear and life and death,
On hate that cleaves and love that clings,
All that is brought forth of man’s breath
And perisheth with what it brings.

She holds her future close, her lips
Hold fast the face of things to be;
Actium, and sound of war that dips
Down the blown valleys of the sea,
Far sails that flee, and storms of ships;

The laughing red sweet mouth of wine
At ending of life’s festival;
That spice of cerecloths, and the fine
White bitter dust funereal
Sprinkled on all things for a sign;

His face, who was and was not he,
In whom, alive, her life abode;
The end, when she gained heart to see
Those ways of death wherein she trod,
Goddess by god, with Antony.

chronic personal tourism

We read… enraptured by [a] gallant attempt to distill a precious meaning from life’s experience – to make a spot on a globe a window into universal circumstance, and to fashion of one’s personal chronic tourism a crystal whose facts reflect an entire life…  – John Updike

Came across the Updike blurb on the back cover of Joseph Brodkey’s Watermark, a vivid personal account of his travels in Venice. What struck me first, as it always does, is the precision cut finish of the language. But as I read, and re-read the quote, it’s buy vicodin overnight impact bloomed and broadened to nothing less than a pocket manifesto. Isn’t this “gallant attempt,” this “chronic personal tourism” the very enterprise we’re up to over here. Updike nails exactly the motives behind documenting the passionate appreciation of the quintessence of things in daily life that so delight and move us. It’s not just cerebral, chin scratching, aesthetic trainspotting. It’s a double act of alchemy – to distill an essence, and to extract from that essence something fundamental to human experience.

Art: Lee Price, Cocoa Puffs, Oil on Linen, 44” x 62”

The Art Imperative, Part I

The Lives of Others is among my absolute favorite films – every time I see it I dwell on its themes and implications for days. In light of a recent viewing, three interconnected posts: this appreciation, an appeal, and some verse.

The flick is about many things: The mechanics of loyalty under duress, the immutability of human corruption, the tragedy of moral compromise, the perverse bond of the spy to his quarry. It has the scaffolding of a tightly wound Cold War thriller and the drapery of a melodrama.

At its core, though, is what it has to say about art and its role in society and, ultimately, to the human condition.

Art, it makes clear, is far from ornament – it is fundamental and necessary. It is the power to reorder our world, to interrogate it. It is a question and an answer. It allows us to explore the topography of our lives and society, the edges of what is permissible or possible. Art gives the idea of freedom where to buy vicodin in los angeles shape, tangibility.

It’s why, when oppression looms, art becomes an imperative – an act of bravery and service. Art forms a haven where freedom can pool, exist, be tended to, shepherded, and protected. It becomes elevated ground from which to fight back.

The entire film frames a simple, gigantic, sobering question – What would we do? This dilemma is what throws the three main characters into sharp relief; the surveillance drone and true believer softened by by prolonged exposure to art and the vitality of life; the self-assured, savvy director galvanized to bravery; the wreck of an actress who’s collapsing under a slurry of accommodations, addictions, compromises and betrayals. Their situations serve the plot, yes, but taken together they provoke an implicit challenge, especially to those who live by and for the arts today. What would we do?

(art by Claudia Varosio)


The Art of Dennis Hopper

A lot will be written, understandably, about Dennis Hopper’s indelible wild-eyed performances as an actor and his stature as a cultural iconoclast. More will be written, deservedly, about his gifts as a director (his 1980’s neo-noir the Hot Spot, with Jennifer Connelly and Don Johnson is a personal favorite…) Too little, unfortunately, will be written about him as an artist – as a photographer, painter, and patron.

Hopper, for all of his hippie-savage persona (and dissolute habits), was a man of considerable aesthetic gifts and a genuine passion for art (instilled in him, in that only-in-Hollywood-sorta-way, by non other than Vincent Price)

He found his home amidst the Pop Art scene, beginning in the early 60’s. He became a friend, collector and patron to Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist , Robert Rauschenberg , and especially, Ed Ruscha. In turn, they inspired Hopper in his own photography and painting – and over the years he built up a respectable oeuvre of solid, earnest work in the genre.

His paintings are the work, in the best sense, of a gifted http://www.mindanews.com/buy-paxil/ amateur – accomplished, passionate, but with visible effort and little transcendence. His photographs, on the other hand, are far more distinguished – characterized by striking graphic compositions, technical adeptness, and a young Jane Fonda. That is, Hopper had an eye & chops, yes, but he was also, um… Dennis Hopper. As a result the photography is goosed by the presence of his fellow famous young and restless – It’s like Ruscha or William Eggleston doing Hollywood candids.

Here’s the thing though – To view Hopper as derivative is to miss what makes him matter as an artist. Genres and styles are defined by a handful of brilliant outliers, driven by a primordial vision that guides their craft. They do the heavy work of clearing spaces in the cultural landscape. The vast majority of us who want a passionate relationship with art inhabit these spaces, either as viewers, artists, critics, or patrons. Hopper’s work, for me, is a testament to that dynamic – not to defining art, as much as living within it.

He & She

He & She is a lost classic, a fizzy cocktail of a sitcom, with an easy going, effervescent sophistication, and starred one of the most appealing couples in showbiz… I caught wind of it after doing some digging around about Paula Prentiss after seeing her in The World of Henry Orient (itself a real gem of a flick, a quirky mid 70’s Upper East Side lark about two precocious teenage girls that form a crush on a caddish conductor played by Peter Sellers.)

It ran on CBS in 1967. Prentiss co-starred with real life husband Richard Benjamin as a young, smart and more than a little goofy New York couple. Benjamin portrayed Dick Hollister – cartoonist and creator of a popular comic strip and TV character called Jetman. Prentiss played his wife Paula, a social worker. In the annals of great screen couples they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles. They’re that good – hilarious, effortlessly stylish with an infectious, natural rapport.

Equally distinguished was Jack Cassidy,  Shirley Jones’ husband, and, of course David and Shaun Cassidy’s dad. He played Oscar North, the obliviously egotistical actor who played Jetman on TV. His every appearance is a veritable one man symphony of flamboyant hamminess.

The show itself is a sheer delight. Great set ups, witty dialog, and a deft mix of comedy, ranging from literate banter, absurdist humor and sheer slapstick. It was cancelled after just one season but in it lay the DNA for everything from the Bob Newhart Show and Mary Tyler Moore all the way to Fraiser. The world is a brighter funnier place for its existence. Also, Prentiss and Benjamin are still together, which adds a really sweet overtone to watching the show.

Sadly, it’s never been in circulation on DVD. It floats around in scratchy, ghostly, glitchy versions lovingly compiled off of old broadcasts and VHS tapes by fans. One version can be gotten here, from the amazing folks at modcinema, but searching around is recommended.

True Romance

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These covers were painted by Robert McGinnis, the dean of American paperback illustration. McGinnis’ reputation rests on the more 1000 pulps that literally define the genre, as well as the iconic movie posters he did for Barbarella, James Bond, and the Odd Couple. So, off the bat, they are sexy, torrid – simply killer – illustrations.

What’s more interesting is that they are the result of a fascinating development in paperback book illustration. In the early 70’s photography supplanted illustration as pulp’s preferred mode. Pressed out of the genre that made their careers, and in some cases fortunes, some illustrators retired to fine art, some to advertising. Others, in the case of McGinnis and Robert Maguire – two of the absolute best – migrated to romance covers.

What distinguished their efforts are the the noirish touches that they brought over from the pulps. Their penchant for eggshell hues, alabaster skin tones, muted colors and gestural brushstrokes gave the paintings a real allure. Also, they conjured powerful atmospherics – an epic historical sweep, a genuine sexiness, more than a touch of danger, and a sense of swashbuckling adventure.

Oh, and design-wise, these are seriously great. The typesetting is perfect in its own way and the compositions unusually dynamic and well ordered. As a exercise in serial design this Johanna Lindsay series in particular is a knockout – issuing forth in double barrelled salvos of modes – color blocked, on-white, and full lurid bleeds.

Together the design and the painting lift the covers from from usual ham handed, frosted glop to the status of real melodramatic art – which requires, along with an overheated imagination, more than a fair share of skill and technique.

Blanche Fisher Wright

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At this point, I read to my daughter from The Real Mother Goose mostly as an excuse to pour over the illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright. Elegant and utterly charming, they sit shoulder to shoulder with the work of the great turn-of-the-century illustrators like Edward Penfield and Jesse Wilcox Smith (Philly’s own, Smith, born in Mt. Airy, studied at PAFA under Thomas Eakins and Howard Pyle at the Brandywine School) But what really captivates me about her work is the degree to which, stylistically, they recall the work of Art Nouveau http://www.health-canada-pharmacy.com masters like Alphons Mucha. They share the regal faces, flowing outlines, graphic crispness and posterlike composition. What transforms them into bewitching illustrations is her wonderful animating sense of gesture and flair for scene staging. Given her skill and achievement, her complete anonymity is surprising. Other than a few basic illustration credits, no biographical information exists online. She is absent from Walt Reed’s comprehensive Illustrator in America survey. Although The Real Mother Goose remains in print and easily available, Blanche Fisher Wright, at least for now, seems a near to complete mystery.

Bell Jar Pastoral

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Warren, MI, 35mm film, 2008

So strange… This suburban neighborhood was jammed between a cluster of extended stay hotels off a major trunk road in Warren, a suburb of Detroit. It seemed so cut off from its surroundings it might as well have had a glass dome over it. Everything seemed to stop at its perimeter: the pavement, the landscaping, even the weather and ambient light conditions seemed to terminate abruptly.  The scale seemed surreal, just slightly shrunken. For the entire duration of my stay in the adjacent hotel I never saw a single instance of human activity. Adding a final ominous flourish to the vignette was the plume of clotted gray smoke rising in the distance.

That plume is the link to another oddity…

Continue reading

Image Compression Standards

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This is a crop of a photo of Lena Söderberg, the centerfold of the November 1972 issue of Playboy. In 1973, engineers at the USC Signal and Image Processing Institute used it as a test image in their research. The data they collected from the image, specifically the red, green, blue color channel data, have become the standard benchmark for image compression quality ever since. That research also built the foundation for the image compression algorithms used in JPG and MP3s. It adds, I think, a nice resonance to know that the quality of much of what we listen to and see online is tuned to this fetching image. (two great geeky observations and articles on Lena here and here)

Blast Off!

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I came across this diagram recently while flipping through one of my old Junior Mechanics books. Thirty years later, what strikes me, besides the awesome Dr. Who-ness of the design, was the insane level of detail in the plans. As a kid I used to obsess over this illustration, and its specificity embedded in my little noggin not the notion of it’s construction but the inevitability of its use in my imminent exploration of outer space….

Around the same time, when I was little, 5 or six or whatever, I forget… my cousin explained to me in great detail how I could build a personal rocket ship from parts found in used car lots, hardware stores and workshops. The description left an in impression so vivid and specific – fuel mix, cockpit glass, etc – that I can still dredge up whole chunks of its imagined schematic. Still rattling around in my imagination is a faded loop I can replay at will….  zooming around in my rocketship, hugging the giant strips of no-mans land following the power lines behind our house.  Dwelling on all this now, I think it might be one of the last signposts of my childhood – when yearning imagination could still be as tangible as reality itself.

Andrew Wyeth and John Updike: Convergences

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1. Andrew Wyeth and John Updike seemed to have a preternatural communion with the fundamentals of their art. Updike apparently brokered a separate and special understanding with the English language. Wyeth seemingly could will individual bristles to do his bidding in a brutally unforgiving medium awash with chance and accident.

2. Both were, fundamentally, sophisticated traditionalists. Neither flinched from the progressive edge of their art. In fact both, for the sheer love of craft, frequently experimented beyond the comfortable boundaries of their mastered style. As a result they were able to continually infuse their renderings with a freshness and modernity that kept their work free of a willfully grumpy stodginess.

3. Their aesthetic sensibilities were rooted in the landscape of rural Pennsylvania. In my own noggin, there is a direct and immediate shortcut from Updike’s descriptions of the sandstone farmhouse he grew up in Plowville to any number of Wyeth’s paintings.

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4. Oddly, Updike initially set out to be an artist and graphic illustrator. He attended The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in London. It was in there and then that E.B. White offered him a position at The New Yorker, setting him on the path to becoming John Updike.

5. Wyeth, it seems, could easily have been an invention of Updike’s. His frail, sickly boyhood could have been inspired by a mix of Updike’s own rural upbringing and with his youthful artistic aspirations. Wyeth’s father, the legendary and formidable illustrator NC Wyeth, embodied pure and lusty storytelling, as well as the heady days of classic newspaper and magazine illustration that Updike so clearly adores. Wyeth’s long, determined dedication to an unwavering artistic vision as the fads and movements of the art world swirl around him make of him a Rabbit Angstrom like barometer, taking the measure of a changing culture. Even the ill fated Helga escapade feel more palpable as a fictional gambit. As Updike puts it in the beginning of his review of the Helga exhibit, “What do you do with the girl next door?” With that one sentence he hauls the entire affair under the purview of his great obsessions. The secret studio sittings, the bracingly lusty implications of the poses, the vectors of adultery and faithfulness, the complex role of Wyeth’s wife, it all feels of a piece with Updike’s milieu. To think what Updike would havr done with the evocative contradictions and elegiac beauty of the scene depicted in one of Wyeth’s last paintings… The sleek, cream and burgundy wood interior of the artist’s private plane, a woman in a immaculate, white, elegant coat staring through the window down at a gritty farmhouse, a tiny toy miniature of the world that Wyeth spent a lifetime mapping in exquisite and painstaking expressive detail.

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6. Both men were targets for a certain smarty pants critical set. In the long view, arguments about the “merit” of representational realist vs. abstract art seems rather, um, “academic” and has everything to do with personal aesthetic and ideological affinities and toss-all to do with any external objective measure. Both had their trouser cuffs perpetually nipped by hipster accusations of a certain snobbishness and squareness. Measured against the accumulated bodies of work, how small and prune-faced the given griefs seem!

7. That said, both reputations accumulated scuffs and dings. Wyeth stumbled badly in the gauche hype he whipped up for the Helga paintings, needlessly overshadowing what was simply a worthy addition to his oeuvre. As for Updike, while his essays and the occasional short stories remained sharp and well turned, in his latter years he slipped from the height of his craft. Reviews settled into a predictable, dispiriting series of polite, genial soufflés that inflated what was in essence a consistent three letter critical verdict: “meh.”

8. Updike was an unaffected and perceptive enthusiast of the visual arts. Unsurprisingly, his writing on art is beautifully descriptive, insightful and free of larded cant.  In his review of the Wyeth’s Helga paintings he observes that the roughly painted swathes of hatched backgrounds, while surely evocative of the high art abstractions of Franz Kline, are just as suggestive of the background techniques of the great commercial magazine illustrators like Al Parker and Jon Whitcomb. He goes on to suggests that Wyeth’s close comfort with the illustrative tradition helps account for his critical ostracism. Updike, an enthusiast of the American vernacular, is rightly untroubled by the inevitable promiscuous interplay between commercial and fine art.

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9. Last year the National Endowment for the Humanities invited Updike to present the Jefferson Lecture, the government’s highest humanities honor. Updike’s lecture was entitled “The Clarity of Things: What Is American about American Art.” It is well, well worth reading. He concludes, fundamentally, that ” The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. [He developed] a bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being” Updike builds to that conclusion with a nimble and catholic survey of 200 years of American art, and weaves this common tread to bind together earnest Copley, creamy Sargent and stern Sheeler, arch Warhol and jazzy Pollack. We are all, realists, really.

10. A last convergence. Wyeth often worked in egg tempera, which involves hand-grinding dry powdered pigments into egg yolk. As I was thinking about the exacting preparation and application, it struck me that it served as an unusually apt metaphor for Updike’s prose – Sharp, rich specific details suspended in a flowing medium which quickly hardens, fixing the scene in enameled perpetuity.

(a note: These ruminations are heavily indebted to Lawrence Weschler’s convergences – essays that explore connections and resonances between disparate images or ideas. His amazing and beautifully designed collection, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, can be bought here.)