THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2018, Countdown)

10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!

9) The Rascals Anthology: 1965-1972 (1992)

This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.

I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.

6-8) War All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)

No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.

Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.

More coming…eventually…I promise.

4) The Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)

The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”

But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!

Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.

3)  The Stylistics The Stylistics (1971)

Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.

Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.

If there could be such a thing.

2) Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1989)

It would be hard to overstate how hard “Buffalo Stance” hit the radio in the wasteland of the late eighties. It has lost nothing. It’s one of those records like “Eve of Destruction” which no one but a genius could ever follow up.**

Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.

1)  Al Green Green is Blues (1969)

Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.

**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.

BECAUSE THERE HASN’T BEEN ONE IN A WHILE….(Occasional Sports Moment #32)

And because, if you read the linked article, you can get a bit of a window into how we live now. I confess when I saw the video on Ttwitter (linked by almost everyone I follow), my first thought did not run to the negative…nor did any of my subsequent thoughts.

And Columbus has had an NHL team…for eighteen years?

Crazy.

Strongly advise you listen with the sound off, as the accompanying commentary is a little too redolent of how we live now….among the Brain Dead.

HOW NEAR A THING….

Rarely in warfare has the arrival of a single officer on a battlefield been more timely and consequential than Hancock’s at Gettysburg. One of his subordinates gave the picture: before he came, “wreck, disaster, disorder, almost the panic the precedes disorganization, defeat and retreat were everywhere.” After he appeared on Cemetery Hill, “soldiers retreating stopped, skulkers appeared from under their cover, lines were re-formed”: in place of a rabble seeking Cemetery Hill as a sanctuary, an army with a purpose–under a leader who could lift it to extraordinary efforts–confronted the Confederates.

There was something dominating and inspiring about Hancock. The men of his corps were essentially the same as those of any other, but at the end of the war they could say that the Second had captured more enemy guns and more enemy colors than all the rest of the army combined. After Grant had taken command and had gone through the Wilderness, Hancock could tell him proudly that the corps had never lost a color or a gun, though oftener and more desperately engaged than any other. The Galena tanner was to use the corps cruelly at Cold Harbor, but it nevertheless finished the war, and with a record of a larger number of engagements and an aggregate of more killed and wounded than any other corps in the Northern armies.

(High Tide at Gettysburg, Glenn Tucker, 1958, p. 192)

It’s a theme of the egalitarian part of American identity that individuals make no difference. One person is as good as another after all, before the tide of history as before anything else.

It’s a fiction of course.

Winfield Scott Hancock is now remembered by Civil War buffs, fans of Ron Maxwell’s battle films (Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) and virtually no one else.

And yet, at every moment when it seemed victory was in the Confederacy’s grasp during the crucial spring and summer of 1863, Hancock was there to save the day. Historians debate the “high tide of the Confederacy”. Some say the first day at Chancellorsville, some the first, second or third days at Gettysburg. At some point on each of those days, the Confederate armies seemed on the verge of routing and destroying the Army of the Potomac which was the guarantor of the Federal government in Washington D.C.

At the crucial point on each of those days, it was Hancock’s leadership that determined the outcome and saved the day. It was his men who rallied and staved off Stonewall Jackson’s charge at Chancellorsville after the Confederates had collapsed the Union flank with a brilliantly conceived and executed surprise attack; his presence (after George Meade gave him the command ahead of two higher ranking generals who were already in the field) that stabilized the panicked Yankee retreat on the first day at Gettysburg and held the crucial high ground for the Federals (according to Tucker, it was literally Hancock’s decision both to take a stand at Gettysburg and where exactly the stand would be made); his decisions regarding troop movements that stymied Lee’s furious attacks on both flanks on the second day; and it was Hancock who held Cemetery Ridge (where Lee had correctly surmised the Union line would be both weakest in manpower and least expecting an attack) against Pickett’s Charge on the third day.

Though he never commanded an army–his various commanders considered him too valuable to recommend for promotion elsewhere–one could make a strong case that Hancock was at least as essential to the preservation of the Union as Lincoln or Grant.

After the war, he was the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1880, losing a close election to James Garfield (the popular vote was the closest in American history, though Garfield won pretty comfortably in the Electoral College–naturally, allegations of fraud were thrown about in the close states, especially New York). As the Hero of Gettysburg was a strong supporter of states’ rights, the opposition painted him as a man likely to hand back the Union victory to the post-Reconstruction South (which voted for him overwhelmingly).

Such is politics.

Garfield was assassinated a few months into his presidency. Hancock continued his military service until his death in 1886, by which time he had, among other things, served as president of the National Rifle Association.

Such is life.

A few statues have been erected in his honor and there’s an elementary school named after him in his native Pennsylvania.

Removing statues of Union heroes is a thing these days, so visit while you can. Because, however bad you think things are, you can rest assured they’d have been a whole lot worse without him.

PRONUNCIATION AND POWER (Adventures in Language: Sixth Journey)

I’ve never felt as strongly about the local pronunciation of Appalachia as Sharyn McCrumb, the great Appalachian novelist who traces her ancestry (early 1790s) to almost exactly the date I do, expresses here…

…But, having been corrected more than a time or two myself, I understand where she’s coming from. Having a quarter-millennia’s worth of forebears who might have taught you a thing or two cuts no ice with those (all good people) who long to “correct” you.

I’ve never argued with anyone about it. No sense in that. Everyone knows what they know and everyone knows that what they know is right.

“My people were the ones who named the place, they oughta know how to pronounce it!” is of no value whatsoever.

It might be the principal reason that, when we’re forced to choose, we all run back the tribes. Because, deep down, we all know the better world waiting won’t be found here, no matter how many times we’re promised that, if we just vote the right way a few more times, we won’t be forced to choose because, pretty soon, well all get along….or else….

WHAT GOES ON…THE SERGIO LEONE/BOB DYLAN TWO STEP (Segue of the Day: 4/14/18)

I had a chance to finally see The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on a big screen this week so I took it. College audience, pretty good turnout. Writ large, everything great about the movie (Eli Wallach’s magnificent, best-ever Falstaff, Eastwood and Van Cleef’s eyes, Morricone’s music, the more than occasionally striking visuals) got even greater and everything less-than-great about the movie (the leaps in logic–some people call them plot holes but that might be a tad ungenerous–the cruelty for the sake of a joke, or just for the sake of making the audience feel superior to anyone with whom an average person might identify) got even lesser.

Fun night, then. But nothing matched walking out and hearing a group of college-dorm males (do they ever change?) warmly discussing something one of them had read to the effect that Blonde on Blonde was Bob Dylan’s first attempt to either imitate himself or imitate all the other people who were already imitating him.

“So,” one of them said. “Does that mean it’s the greatest Dylan album, or the just the greatest album by a Dylan imitator?”

I walked on by. It took all my willpower not to start singing this…

…just to see if they would laugh.

But, just as I was about to take the leap, one of them started whistling this…

And I laughed instead.

I’ve walked through that space many times. It’s part of the normal time-space continuum, so I know I wasn’t being transported back to the late sixties. It was just another reminder of how little of what has happened in between matters. Twenty year old kids are still taking about 1966 as though it were yesterday….or today.

Because what would they talk about if they talked about what happened since they were born into the Frozen Silence?

Not anything they could be sure the rest of the group would be on board with….or even know about.

They’re left with the only present any of us have, absent a culture.

It’s what used to be called the past.

We’ll know we’ve moved on when it can be called that once more.

Meantime, we still have our memories, even if we have to borrow them from a time before we were born.

ANOTHER DIMENSION (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #134)

The other night I was listening (as I often do) to Up, Up and Away, the 2-disc 5th Dimension collection from the late nineties that begs the question of how many acts from the rock and roll era can sustain a forty-song comp without breaking a sweat, yielding a single weak cut or ever so much as having been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I don’t know the exact answer, but I’ll bet you don’t need your second hand to count them.

Then, in the middle of the second disc, with the headphones on after midnight, I also realized something else, namely that, if this was indeed done in front of an audience in Las Vegas (hard to tell), it is almost without a doubt the greatest live harmony vocal ever recorded.

And if, by chance, it wasn’t recorded in front of an audience, this was…

Which means the greatest harmony vocal ever recorded in front of a live audience still belongs to black people who have never been given a tenth of the credit they deserve because the crit-illuminati–white to a man–decided they were too white.

That it’s also a master class in stagecraft (carried off–on television, where every mistake is magnified by a power of a thousand–by two people who are now approaching their fiftieth wedding anniversary) is just proof that Keats wasn’t wrong. A thing of beauty really is a joy forever.

That it took me this long to notice it’s a standout is a testimony to how strong their catalog is. Because, honestly, until just the other night, I thought it was just another good record by a group that made too many to count.

And, yes, They’re on the short list for a Track-by-Track….

THE PAST STARES BACK…(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #134)

…From the pages of a book:

The Eleventh Corps had an unenviable reputation in both armies. It was preponderantly German, made up mainly of immigrants who had fled their mother country during the uprisings of 1848, and who were drawn to the Federal cause by their leaders, notably Benker, Schurz, and Franz Sigel. Being chiefly artisans, most of them had settled in the North. Their ardor for the cause could not be expected to equal that of soldiers possessing an American heritage. Their inability to speak English caused Confederates to believe they were mercenaries like the Hessians of the Revolutionary War. Antiforeign sentiment was still rampant at the outbreak of the war because the heavy immigration  had depressed wages in the 1850s and crowded the slum areas of Northern cities. The antipathy had its expression in a wave of nativism and, politically, the Know-Nothing Party, which had made substantial headway for a time in the decade before the war.

(High Tide at Gettysburg: The Campaign in Pennsylvania, Glenn Tucker, 1958)

That quote is from pages 124-125 of my edition. The battle is just being joined. Thus far, Tucker’s history has offered dozens of similarly concise descriptions of the Federal and Confederate units converging on the southern Pennsylvania farmland in the summer of 1863, and the matrix of political, military and economic considerations that brought them there. I hope he does as well by the battle itself, because so far it is the best kind of history….the kind that respects how little things change underneath, irrespective of how obsessed we are with the latest, newest and shiniest surfaces.

I, TOO, WANT TO RUN….BUT THERE’S STILL NOWHERE TO GO (Memory Lane: 1998, 1966–1974)

Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the first great Jewish-American baseball star. Also subject of the fine documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, whereby hangs a tale, of identity…and other things.

I found this (which I strongly recommend to all my readers) linked to a Terry Teachout re-tweet.

The original tweet read, in part: “I have had two Jewish friends in the last week tell me that their families have moved money out of the UK ‘just in case we have to leave’.”

I imagine the feeling in the rest of “civilized” Europe is, if anything, more widespread.

Should this general unease turn to panic (rational or irrational), Jews will be down to, at most, a few destinations: Israel, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and here.

The tweet, and Mr. Jacobson’s column, brought to mind a memory.

About twenty years ago, Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ baseball star of the 1930s and 40s (despite missing three years serving in WWII, he led the American League in home runs and RBIs four times apiece), was the subject of a good documentary which made the rounds of the art-house circuit.

There was a theater in Tallahassee (now long gone, alas) which showed offbeat movies, so I had a chance to see it on the big screen. The nominal narrative thread was Greenberg’s 1938 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (60, set in 1927–Greenberg’s attempt, which came up two short, perhaps because umpires wishing, for especially unsavory reasons, to preserve Ruth’s record, squeezed the strike zone on him in the season’s final weeks, was the last real run at it until Roger Maris broke the record in 1961).

But the movie’s real reason for being was to showcase Greenberg’s struggles–and triumphs–as the first great Jewish-American baseball star.

I saw it with a close friend. When we were walking out, she asked if I had ever heard of Hank Greenberg before (she hadn’t). I had been a baseball stat freak in my youth so, yes, I had heard of him.

“I never knew he was Jewish, though,” I added.

“Seriously?” she said. “Greenberg?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.”

It’s true. I wasn’t.

She still found my ignorance a little hard to believe, so, for proof, I gave her another, better, example.

My first eight years of public school, in any class where seats were assigned alphabetically (which was most of them), I was always seated next to a girl whose last name was Roth. She was quiet, soft-spoken, studious, got exceptional grades. Her best friends were other girls–not always as soft-spoken–who also got exceptional grades. But even among them, she was counted elite. Not just by girls. The same boys (who also got exceptional grades–their fathers were doctors, lawyers, NASA engineers) who were awed by my ability to recite the batting and home run champions for every year the National and American Leagues had been in existence, were even more in awe of her–every single day.

I moved after the eighth grade and it was only years later, after I saw the Godfather movies (one of which featured a Jewish gangster named Hyman Roth) and read a novel called Goodbye, Columbus, a plainly autobiographical story by an author named Philip Roth, that I realized it was just possible the girl I sat next to all those years was also Jewish.

To this day, I don’t know it for sure. It just seems a pretty safe assumption.

Had I known it then, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.

Except to note it as an interesting anecdote about my childhood (that I probably sat next to a Jewish girl in school without having any clue she was Jewish), I don’t think anything about it now.

Like I told my friend: I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.

Assuming she was Jewish, though, my knowing it would have made one possible difference.

It would have meant that, if she was ever attacked or insulted for her Jewishness (or any other quality that left her in a lonely minority), it would have been my duty to come to her defense.

Whether I would have had the courage to do so–or the wit or strength to do so effectively–there is no way of knowing. Of all our motley public school crew, I may have been the only person less likely than she was to speak without being spoken to, to break my own public persona and assert myself in a circumstance where all of us–not just the studious ones–were expected to be quiet.

Had I acted according to my conscience, it would have been a supreme act of the will.

Instinct and my nature would have played no part.

My instinct–then as now–was to stay in the shadows, and observe.

As it happens, it never came to that. If the girl I sat next to in the deep South of the 1960s and 70s was ever made uncomfortable for having a Jewish name–and I don’t say she wasn’t–I wasn’t aware of it.

But if it had come to pass that she was insulted for being Jewish, and I knew it and failed to defend her, I would have been both keenly aware of my failure and ashamed of it. I would have known I needed to ask forgiveness for the sin of forgoing my faith in a testing hour.

I was raised to pay no attention to people’s names. and I was raised to ask, of my own volition, without prompting by ritual, for forgiveness of my sins–all sins, conscious (as this would have been) and unconscious–from the God of my faith.

And to seek to redress the consequences of those sins where possible. That would have included apologizing to Miss Roth and making my future willingness to stand by her side known to any possible tormentors.

Else living with immense guilt and a moral assurance that I was a coward.

It was a hard school, my faith.

It still is.

These days, it is most often called Evangelical Christianity. How it came to be called that in common parlance (when we never used the term ourselves in any church I attended growing up), and then came to be mingled with, and deliberately mistaken for, any number of other things–including, most ridiculously, the Shadow Force that runs the Republican party–is a subject for another day.

I will only say for now that, having known literally thousands of my fellow “evangelicals,” and having been made familiar with their carefully deliberated core beliefs in the most stringent intellectual and moral circumstances (among other things, my father attended a bible college when I was in high school–that was the reason we left the place where I had sat next to Miss Roth in school all those years), I have always found it amusing to note the tendency of the great thinkers of the age to mock us for our unwavering support of Israel one minute and accuse us of the rankest anti-Semitism the next.

That, too, is a story for another day.

Don’t worry. If I live long enough, I’ll get to all of it sooner or later.

These days, however, reading stories like Mr. Jacobsen’s, I find it all a bit less amusing, a bit more alarming.

Well aware as I am of my tribe’s actual sins–more aware than any without it, and most within it I assure you–I take cold comfort in knowing that, of all the tribes who might produce a person likely to spit on a Jew, in modern England or anywhere else, none is as unlikely as mine.

But, as we are all forced to contemplate the next run for the shadows–as Evangelicals themselves begin wondering, not without some justification, whether we’ll be left standing when the world is through with accusing us of being the secret cabal that runs everything and thirsts for the Apocalypse (supposed to be the real reason we support Israel, for instance)–I still haven’t forgotten my tribe’s most valuable lesson, one I’d have learned from no other that operated in my world, not even Miss Roth’s or Mr. Jacobson’s, concerned, as they must be, with their own interests and their own survival:

When you raise your children in the way they should go, teach them to pay no attention to people’s names.

And, like those who are not afforded this luxury, be ready to depart for some other land–or the next life–at a moment’s notice.

POLITICS AND PARIS (Quarterly Book Report: 1/18 through 3/18)

I didn’t have time to do monthly reports on the one or two books I was finishing each month in the first quarter, so I decided just to round them all up here. I’ve got mini-reviews of a ready made bestseller about Hillary Clinton’s almost successful presidential campaign and the first four novels in the Inspector Maigret series. The latter are better than the former…

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017)
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

We’ve since moved on to other things, and swiftly enough that this book is already forgotten. It probably deserves to be, but it’s not without interest.as a window on the world Hilary Clinton (and her husband) moved in for decades, a world in which the authors themselves are so thoroughly entrenched they’re hardly aware of their own insularity. It would take a skilled novelist to do the job of tackling the roiling psychodrama that is Hillary Clinton right. Allen and Parnes are barely competent as lackey journalists.

But, perhaps for that reason, they’re less likely to have any sort of filter. Expecting to do what Theodore White did for the 1960 election and what Mark Halperin and John Heillemann did for the 2008 election (i.e., insinuate themselves into history on the winning side) they were just as shocked as you were when Ms. Clinton lost. And, like many people, they were also not only shocked but hurt–not just because it was likely to cut sales in half. At no point do they draw any kind of bead on Donald Trump (the real story of the 2016 election even if he had lost). Having set out to write a book with a preconceived narrative–the first woman president’s stroll to victory–they were forced to backtrack.

When it was all said and done, they found every vindictive Clinton loyalist under every rock on the road meant to pave Hillary’s Napoleonic assault on the presidency. The Little Corporal’s field commanders were likely kinder to their fallen leader on the retreat from Moscow than the toadies interviewed here.

That said, Ms. Clinton must take full responsibility for the quality of her help. She handpicked them and, worse yet (displaying a quality Trump will never be accused of), trusted them.

This was her principal failing and the real reason for her downfall. Unable to organize a boat race in a bathtub–a fact that has been in evidence since at least those early days when her husband set her up to botch HillaryCare back in his first administration and a weakness which Allen and Parnes zero in on early and often, like mosquitoes feasting on a bulging vein–she also demonstrated, through two presidential campaigns and a disastrous reign as Secretary of State, that she had no capacity for choosing people who could do the job for her.

What that meant, in the end, was a constant need to intervene–or have blind loyalist toadies like Huma Abadin do it for her.

We all saw how that worked out.

Now it’s possible that the talent pool in our modern political parties is so dry no one can be rescued from themselves. Clinton did at least get within shouting distance of the prize. That’s more than you can say for Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who started with just as much love from the people whose job it is to limit our choices each election cycle. Trump’s nomination (let alone his election) was an Establishment failure all around–their first since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, and one with, I suspect, more far-reaching consequences.

Donald Trump is president because he was/is opposed by those who, like the ubiquitous sources–named and unnamed–quoted endlessly here, tend to describe anyone who opposes them as shit-for-brains.

Like Hillary Clinton, and the authors themselves, they cannot quite grasp their fundamental error–refusal to look in the mirror.

Worth reading, then, for those who need reminding.

Pietr the Latvian (1931)
The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931)
The Carter of La Providence (1931)
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931)
Georges Simenon

These are the first four novels in Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series, which eventually ran to the 1970s and 75 volumes. Simenon wrote good mysteries. Maigret is an interesting character sketch (who perhaps became more than a sketch over so many books–I’ve only read a handful of the others before so I’m not prepared to make a judgment on that as yet).

But the principal merit of the Maigret novels is in capturing a time and place–Europe, France, Paris, before, during and after WWII.

That’s a sufficiently daunting task–and broad pallete–that, in combination with Simenon’s skill in choosing, page after page, just-right details to both establish a pointillist milieu and sustain a world-weary mood, it would stand as a considerable literary achievement even if Europe, France, Paris (before, during and after WWII), were of a great deal less interest to the present and future than they are.

All the books held my interest. But that Simenon (already incredibly prolific–he published all these in the same year) was just beginning to hit his stride is suggested by the fourth, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, being by far the strongest. It’s the first to pass from standard, if well-made, mystery plotting to a brush with both psychological horror and the air of political menace we all assume was an essential component of so many personal and national moods between the wars. It’s one thing to have written such novels after the war, with the benefit of hindsight. But this precedes even Hitler’s rise to power–and you can still feel something stirring that won’t be contained by mere politics. Meaning, in a presumably pulp form, you find conversation like this, as part of an explanation for three dead bodies:

‘And it was if we were rediscovering the world all on our own, naturally! We were full of opinions on every great problem, and full of scorn for society, established truths and everything bourgeois. When we’d had a few drinks and smoked up a storm, we’d spout the most cock-eyed nonsense, a hodgepodge of Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Moses, Confucius, Jesus Christ…

‘Here’s an example: I don’t remember which one of us discovered that pain doesn’t exist, the brain’s simply imagining it. One night I became so enthralled with the idea that, surrounded by my excited audience, I stabbed myself in the upper arm with a pocket knife and forced myself to smile about it.

‘And we had other wild inspirations like that…We were an elite, a coterie of geniuses who’d come together by chance and were way above the conventional world with its laws and preconceived opinions. A gathering of the gods, hey? Gods who were sometimes dying of hunger but strode through the streets with their heads high, crushing passers-by with their contempt.

….I don’t remember anymore who shouted, “True genius is destructive!”

It ends in murder, of course. And that’s only the beginning…of course. The survivors of the blood bath learn the hard way that it isn’t genius that’s destructive but nonsense and the only thing they end up destroying is each other.

The denouement has some real emotional power, unusual in detective novels and almost unheard of in procedurals. There was a reason Simenon drew raves from the likes of William Faulkner and Andre Gide.

I’m planning to read all the Maigret’s before I die. I read Maigret’s First Case before I started on these (being under the mistaken assumption it was the first written), so I’ve got seventy to go. I’m thinking I’ll need to live a few years at least…but I’m happy they’ve been put out in handsome, uniform editions. The spines will make a nice display on whatever shelf they finally adorn en toto.

But, on the strength of these, I suspect that what’s inside will always be more valuable.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2018…

This is an especially strong class. I was a surprised that Johnny Gimble wasn’t in long ago…but then the Country hall does have strict guidelines and standards. Ricky Skaggs made a joke at his induction about not having to explain to people anymore why he wasn’t in the hall. And I’m strong for Dottie West any day of any year. A class all country music fans can take to heart.

One of the architects of Western Swing…

The savior (almost single-handed) of bluegrass…

And the woman who survived horrific child abuse (including sexual abuse) to become one of the great voices of her generation, racking up dozens of hits on her own across two decades (more than a few of which she wrote), plus many more with her three Hall of Fame duet partners, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Kenny Rogers. She was also the first female country singer to win a Grammy.

She even wrote jingles. Then made hits from them….

They broke the mold on these three. The Hall did itself proud this time around.