Monday, January 31, 2011

Peace/War: Photo and Text by Zarko Radakovic

. . . And then something in this picture moved forcefully: The entry door, wrenched out of its frame, squealed. The weeds on the roof swayed gently. Footsteps (mine?) became audible. From above another tile slid down. From the only part of the ruin still standing the electrical wires announced themselves with a distant humming. But no one moved in the room that stood wide open to the sky, to the sated ground. No rat flitted across this trash heap. No person leapt over the broken moulding, over the shattered board, over the frayed wire, over the collapsed raingutter, not even over the fence (mentioned earlier) or the fallen chimney. Who destroyed this house? -- the severe question from afar. The answer, which could itself be a question, didn't come, lost itself not in the murmur of the day under the weight of the prehistoric being here, in the sudden forceful entry of summer and in the thundering extinguishing of memory. And I saw myself once again in the sweater of undyed wool (the one my mother knitted for me when I was growing out of childhood). I stood at the train station of the capitol city. (It was a time of peace.) . . .

text and photo: zarko radakovic, cologne
german translation: mirjana and klaus wittmann, bonn

Friday, January 28, 2011

Posing Roughnecks?

When the New York Times published this photo last November, I made a copy and have puzzled over it in the intervening weeks.

Yesterday the Deseret Snooze published the photo again, giving Ralph Wilson of the Associated Press photo credit. The caption to the photo read: "Workers move a well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well."

There are three roughnecks in the picture: a couple of floorhands and, perhaps, a motorman or derrick hand or even the driller.

There is no casing in sight.

The only moving going on has to do with the tongs the two floorhands are wrestling with. Tongs are useful if you're breaking apart a couple of drill pipes that have been screwed together tightly. Or if you're tightening them together after you've spun the one down over the other with the chain hanging in the left bottom foreground.

They're not much use if the only drill pipe is firmly anchored in the slips on the floor and there's no drill pipe above it to be attached or unattached.

So what are the roughnecks doing as they push and pull on their respective tongs?

It has been 35 years since I last worked on a rig as a roughneck, so maybe things have changed so drastically that I just can't make sense of the photo.

Or maybe the roughnecks are just posing for a photographer who doesn't have a clue that they're putting him on.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn: Permanent Magic

 My son Tom was in town last week, visiting from his home in Brooklyn.

Tom's a professional jazz musician. He makes a living playing with various groups, including the Drunkard's Wife, Lapis Luna, his own Big Bang Big Band, his wife's Kelsey Jillette Quintet, The Dreamland Orchestra (featured twice recently in the New Yorker) and The Blue Vipers -- check them all out in the internet.

Tom brought me the latest CD by The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, a New Orleans-flavored group he has played with for several years -- in fact, when he drove from Utah to NYC a decade ago he made his rent money by busking in the subway, where he met Billy Nemec. Their recording, rough and early, called the "Henry Jones Swing Trio," is still one of my favorites.

After winning a street-musicians competition, what were now The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn used the prize to record a fine CD called "Forty Days and Forty Nights," the name from a Billy Nemec tune. Check it out at their website.

And now they've released (well, they'll release it in the next weeks -- the NY snowstorm kept the original release party from happening) Permanent Magic, a new album that carries on the band's eclectic and sometimes uneven but always gritty and creative and jazzy and lowdown tradition.

The album begins with a clarinet trill that announces a slow, easy, and haunting rendition of J. Myrow's Blue Drag. Nemec's New Orleans' flat, slack, and still forceful singing sets the tune off from other versions, including this one from the New Orleans Jazz Vipers [click here], which is a fine rendition, and this wonderful version by the Wiyos [click here], and the early version by the immortal Django [click here]. But the Brooklyn Vipers, for me at least, create a version of the tune beyond the others. It's partly because of Nemec's voice -- which I find off-putting and extremely attractive -- and partly because of the way the group works the tune, with voice and then a trademark double, entwined solo featuring Tom's lyrical clarinet and Sam Hoyt's intelligent and fanciful trumpet. Again and again on this and the earlier album, those two voices create a single/double voice I haven't heard anywhere else. The word "entwined" is an attempt to think the simultaneous solos that embrace each other sinuously, respectfully, delightfully. And then Nemec sings the slow drag, the blue drag, and I'm depressed in ways only the blues can accomplish, depressed and delighted at the same time.

Tom's composition, Viperation, is the ninth cut on the CD, a fast moving, intricate instrumental piece that makes good use of Tom's clarinet, Sam Hoyt's trumpet, David Langlois' washboard percussion, Chris Pistornino's bass, and Matt Musselman's guest trombone. In a clarinet solo, Tom effortlessly reaches notes higher than any I've heard on a clarinet, the highest of which he claims is still a note short of Benny Goodman's "B" on a recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing."

There are additional delights here, eclectic (as I've already noted) enough to reach from Willie Nelson's "Nightlife" to a crisp version of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" (Tom's invocation of Boots Randolph here is enough to make me laugh out loud).

When the Vipers release the album, buy it.

You'll love it. And that's not just a proud papa speaking.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Biography, Celebrity, and Identity

Above: Peter Handke, Luc Bondy, and in the mirror, Malte Herwig
Below: Peter and I in the woods outside Chaville
I wrote earlier about Malte Herwig's new biography of Austrian writer Peter Handke, Meister der Daemmerung. In general it was a disappointing book, at least for me, in large part because it basically ignored the literary work and the ideas it manifests.

Since then, I've been struggling with some disquieting memories awakened by the book. This photo especially, reproduced in the biography, has had me squirming.
Here's the problem: the biographer sits opposite the writer and the director/writer Luc Bondy in a brasserie and photographs them. Repeatedly. You can see his head and little camera in the mirror behind the writers. This image haunts me with possibilities of my own stupidities. I too visited Peter Handke at his home in Chaville, outside Paris. I too had my photo taken with Peter during a long walk through the woods near his home.

It was exciting for me to talk with, to walk with a famous writer, a man whose work has been important to me as I've thought how I might best live my life. His dialectical, self-questioning, and powerful sentences, his ways of seeing the world through words, his thoughts about human beings as creatures of language are deeply important to me.

Years ago my friend Zarko interviewed Peter in Salzburg's Sheraton Hotel. The recording he brought back was full of stimulating and important and sometimes funny conversation (like when Zarko mentioned what a sensitive writer Peter is and Peter replied that "sensitive" is a word for condom wrappers). Later Zarko and I followed a character in Peter's novel Repetition across the Austrian border into what is now Slovenia, traveling also to the Tanzenberg school where Peter got an early education and then to his birthplace Griffen. We described ourselves (in the book Ponavljanje -- Belgrade: Vreme knijige, 1994) as giggling schoolgirls looking for a rockstar.

In that self-irony was a nervousness about what we were doing. If it was the work that was important to us -- and it was -- then why the biographical interest? Why the excitement that bordered on silliness?

Later we traveled with Peter up the Drina River, a trip that changed many things in my life. As I wrote about that trip (and here's a photo Zarko took of me writing notes while Peter seems to be thinking), I worried about myself as a possible sycophant, as someone who only has an identity through proximity to someone else.

Peter appears in my text, "A Reasonable Dictionary," but -- at least I hope so -- only because we were traveling together through war-torn Yugoslavia. He is not the focus of my story. Rather, I'm describing events that move me, that teach me, that transform me.

Zarko felt strongly enough about that same question that the text he finally produced to be paired with mine in the book Vampire + Razumni recnik (Belgrade: Stubovi kulture, 2008) doesn't mention Peter once.

The photo of Malte Herwig, however, bordering on the sycophantic, has reawakened fears in me. I try to counter them with thoughts of my work: I translated Peter's Journey to the Rivers, or Justice for Serbia and I have published a dozen articles about his work in various scholarly journals and books and encyclopedias.

Whatever the photos of me with Peter mean, whatever they reveal, aren't they firmly within the context of my scholarly work? Maybe not, and that's what has me worried.

Finally, for now, they're in the context of an event that leaves me as the butt of the joke, not as the image with camera in the mirror (at least I hope so):

9 June 1999, Vienna, before midnight, Žarko’s birthday

I ought to go to bed, but I'm still reeling from the events of the day.

Several hours ago NATO and the Yugoslav Parliament came to some kind of agreement ending the bombing after 78 days.
And, I'm just back from the world premiere of Peter's "The Play of the Film of the War," directed by Claus Peymann. I’ve never attended the world premiere of a play of this magnitude; and I’ve seldom been this moved, this challenged, by a work of art.
Peter has filmmakers John Ford and Luis Buñuel in a Serbian town ten years after the war trying to decide how to make a film of the war. Characters who appear before the directors tell conflicting and complex stories as the play feels its way to questions about war and its aftermath. The really bad guys of the play, three "Internationals" who know all the answers, who dictate all the terms, who can think only in absolutes, appear on the stage as follows: "Three mountainbike riders, preceded by the sound of squealing brakes, burst through the swinging door, covered with mud clear up to their helmets. They race through the hall, between tables and chairs, perilously close to the people sitting there. 'Where are we?' the First International asks. 'Don't know,' the second answers. 'Not a clue,' the third says."           
American and European moralists, functionaries with no hint of self-irony or humor, absolutists who run the world because of their economic power – these sorry excuses for human beings were depicted this evening as mountainbike riders.
            Žarko, I said, Don’t you ever tell Peter I ride a mountainbike.
            No, he whispered, I’d never do that.
            The play drew on several incidents from our trip, including when Peter put his coat around the shoulders of the OSCE woman in Višegrad. After the performance, flushed with enthusiasm and insight, I told Peter how well he had integrated that real event into an imaginative play.
            “Dr. Scott,” he chided. “Always the professor.”