CD Review: Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart

I don’t really know if the cover is technically a Currier and Ives print or one of those knock-offs that makes me think of Currier and Ives. There are horses, snow, a sleigh, a man in a fur hat and a bushy moustache, and a young woman with a fur muff covering her hands. It’s winter fun circa 1890 the way we think of it, especially if we’ve seen The Magnificent Ambersons. I half expect the sleigh to be overturned as it rounds the corner.

The back cover is a cartoonish silhouette of three kings/wise men riding camels, chasing a very bright star. If you’ve been exposed to the Christmas story as understood by Christians, you’re gonna know who these guys are and where they’re going to wind up right away. We’re immersed in myths, both on the front and on the back; secular winter joys meeting sacred festival celebrations.

Bob Dylan doesn’t mind myths – the man comes out of the folk tradition, and he long ago seemed to have decided that popular culture, at least as it existed during his lifetime, is as ritualized as any ancient murder ballad or tale of a bawdy house. Myths are central to traditions – once something becomes formalized enough to be carried on, it’s at least a step or twelve removed from the original human occurrence which gave birth to the idea at hand. And Christmas – holy cow! It’s had 2000 years to mess with its original intent.

There are those who view Christmas in the Heart with a jaundiced eye, or perhaps with the hope that Dylan is kidding. Not me – I find it to be as moving a work of art as I’ve heard in 2009. For here, with songs representing both the front cover and the back cover, Dylan expresses the view that these myths can be beautiful and essential parts of our souls. Christianity can lead down all sorts of paths both ugly and beautiful, but there is a simple elegance to the basic concept of believing in good will on earth and peace to men. And the commercialization of the holiday represented by its merger with popular culture can lead to greed and banality, but there is a simple joy and delight in the basic ideas of the average pop Christmas song from the middle of the last century.
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All Hopped Up on Music: An Interview With Tony Fletcher

Since he was a teenager, Tony Fletcher has had the music bug. He was fortunate enough to create and run a fanzine in London, then the epicenter of punk and post punk, before moving to New York where he established himself as a music journalist, DJ and band manager.

In addition to writing for several publications, Fletcher has penned biographies on the Clash, Keith Moon, REM and Echo & the Bunnymen. His latest book All Hopped Up & Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77 is by far his most ambitious writing project to date.

Written with perfect pitch and pacing, the book begins with the Depression-era rise of Afro Cuban jazz and Cubop and ends with the beginnings of hip-hop and the apex of the punk rock movement. The book takes the reader on a musical journey through the boroughs, bars, backstreets, nightclubs that have made New York arguably the most vibrant and significant musical city in the world.

Tony Fletcher spoke with me via phone about tackling such a monumental slice of musical history.

RL: In your book you have covered the music scene in New York from 1927-1977, a broad swath of time. Which of those five decades that you covered do you think you have gone away the most interested in?

TF: I would say probably the earlier decades. Writing about the early days I was genuinely nervous about taking on material that I didn’t know enough about but I really wanted to tell the story. I got really fascinated particularly by the story of the Cuban crossover and just how integral New York City was. Afro Cuban jazz really had its birth in New York city and Cubop had its birth in New York city and for that matter Bebop had its birth in new York city. I was very nervous even mentioning the “jazz” word because there’s already so much about it. I think I found an angle to write about, and I came away feeling like I learned something and hopefully I’ve shared some of what I’ve learned.

RL: When you read the book you don’t get so burdened down with the back-story of jazz that you can move on.

TF: That was deliberate. It goes back to what I just said. I thought that if I explained anything about the history of jazz lots of people would jump all over me. It’s just not worth going there. By starting in 1927 we’re in the midst of this really cool jazz age. Jazz is America’s most popular music. Let’s take that as a given and see what happens next. You know one thing actually that I thought hadn’t been covered enough was the Cuban movement in jazz, people like Mario Bauza who is the first character I introduce. I’d open up books on Latin music and they really wouldn’t touch upon American jazz. I scratched my head because it is self-evident that between Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Buaza, and Charlie Parker these guys were interacting all the time. There weren’t books that covered this crossover. I’d like to believe I go at a little bit of different angle on that and that I’ve been able to tell a story that hasn’t been widely told in that regard.

RL: On your Web site you mentioned that the book took five years to write.

TF: It was a five-year project. I wouldn’t have been able to live off the advance over those five years. This has taken me longer than anything I’ve worked on.

RL: When you do a five-year project like this, do you come away at the end of the project that it has changed you as a music journalist?

TF: I don’t know to what extent it has changed my writing style. I went into it willing to put in the extra mile to try and write something more than a biography of one artist; by taking on the biography I realized I was probably taking on a mountain that I may not possibly be able to climb. So the subject matter was that much deeper then anything I’d done before. I think I came away with a greater understanding of how these musical forms interplay. All the books I have written have tended to be about scenes. The Keith Moon book came out of a scene, REM and Echo & the Bunnymen really came out of regional scenes. I find all of that stuff extremely exciting. I find the nature of music scenes to be a very exciting thing. None of them ever happen in a vacuum. There’s a reason hip-hop was a born in the South Bronx. It couldn’t be born anywhere else. It was very similar to the early days of disco. Equally similar about the vocal groups that were coming out of Harlem and the Bronx even though that was happening in other cities as well. You kind of keep tracing the story back and back. So I’d like to think I came away with a greater appreciation for the overall arc of the musical history and a little less focused on one specific group or one specific scene.

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KDHX Podcast: Interview With Owen Clarke of Hot Chip

Photograph by Bevis Martin & Charlie Youle, 2008

Photograph by Bevis Martin & Charlie Youle, 2008

On February 9, 2010, British electro-whizzes Hot Chip will be releasing their fourth studio album, One Life Stand. The two songs leaked so far from the album are a bit of a departure from the buttery soul and quirky synthpop of 2008’s Made in the Dark. “Take It In” is a dead-ringer for the Human League’s nighttime keyboard pop, while the breezy-but-insistent title track conjures a new-wave discotheque in the Caribbean. (View the official video for the latter song below.)

Last week, guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Owen Clarke and I chatted via phone about all things Hot Chip. Download or listen to the exclusive interview below.

Interview With Owen Clarke of Hot Chip – 12/10/09

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2009 St. Louis International Film Festival Sparkles and Shines

The night glowed as the talented, Saint Louis-curious international film community closed out the 18th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival with a party on November 22, 2009 at the Moonrise Hotel.

Open-minded and opinionated filmgoers of all kinds lit up the evening with sparkling conversation beneath the additional star power of the Chihuly chandelier.

For me, one of the festival standouts was Bollywood Beats, an example of a recent wave of Indian talent. Directed by Mehul Shah, the film features actress Mansi Patel and Bollywood star Pooja Kumar (a native of Saint Louis). Another exceptional film, now making the rounds of mainstream theatres, is Up in the Air, a George Clooney and Jason Reitman (the writer and director of Juno) project shot principally in Saint. Louis. This festival winner is one to keep an eye on, for sure.

I spoke with two Australian filmmakers, Melanie Annan and Luke Eve, who were fresh from showing off the short comedy Man’s Best Friend. They seemed happily surprised at the Saint Louis scene.

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Announcing the KDHX YouTube Channel

The Magnolia Avenue Studios of KDHX have been humming with some amazing performers. Just this Fall, White Rabbits, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Peter Yarrow, Jason Isbell, Lou Barlow, Joe Pug and the Bottle Rockets have all performed live, exclusive sets for 88.1.

And now we’ve got videos — in HD, to be exact.

Check out the KDHX YouTube Channel for recordings of all those artists (and dozens more). Subscribe to the feed or become a friend, and never miss a single upload. There’s lots more video to come.

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