Books and Films by Andrew Field

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Sunday
Feb192017

Spring 2017 GLS Orientation and Faculty Tour of Shanghai

 

 

My advisees for Spring 2017

On Friday we welcomed our new group of 65 students for the Global Learning Semester. We also welcomed our professors for the first session of our program, who are flying in from Duke or elsewhere to teach.

We began with an icebreaker, which helped everyone to relax and get to know each other.

The faculty introduced themselves during the convocation. Afterwards we all took plenty of photos in our academic garb.

On Saturday, I led a tour of the French Concession for our GLS faculty. We started out at the Garden Hotel on Maoming South Road, which formerly housed the French Club back in the 1920s-1930s, and of course we visited the ballroom on the second floor, which was once the centerpiece of the club.

 

We then walked south to the corner of Nanchang and Maoming Roads, where we visited an old shikumen/lilong/longtang neighborhood, where famous Chinese writer Ba Jin once lived in 1937-1949, next door to Xu Guangping, the widow of other famous writer Lu Xun.

After that, we continued southward and visited the Ruijin Guesthouse, which was formerly the Morriss family estate prior to 1949. From there we passed through the grounds of the former Canidrome race track and hotel, which is now a theater. And we headed to Shaoxing Road to pay a brief visit to the Old China Hand Reading Room owned by photographer Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang.)

We then walked to Jianguo Road and entered the neighborhood known as Tianzifang, a commercialized lilong that houses many restaurants and shops. We had dinner at the Indian restaurant, Golden Lotus.

The next morning, we met at the Astor House Hotel north of the Bund, and toured that historical hotel, including its ballroom. We then wound our way over to Yuanmingyuan Road, where we visited the Rockbund Art Museum and saw the Song Dong exhibit, which everyone thought was quite fascinating.


After that, we took a tour of the Peace Hotel (formerly the Cathay Hotel) on the Bund and visited the 8th floor ballroom where owner Victor Sassoon once held his wild costume balls in the 1930s.

 

We then did a quick tour of the Waldorf Astoria including the famous Long Bar, formerly the Shanghai Club. Finally, we had lunch at the Yunnan Restaurant, Lost Heaven.

Tomorrow, the real fun begins as classes commence and the GLS program goes into full swing. Wishing everyone good luck and a joyful session ahead!

 

 

Sunday
Feb052017

Vinyl School Years: Musical Memories from the 1980s and my Top 20 Albums (Part 2)

11) Security (Peter Gabriel) (1982)

 Image result for peter gabriel security

By my own reckoning, Peter Gabriel was a pervasive force throughout the 1980s. He was always walking a thin line between the avant-garde and the mainstream. He was so influential on my listening habits that he deserves a wordier treatment than most. Around 1983, his song "Shock the Monkey" was getting a great deal of airplay on the radio waves. It had a powerful and unusual bass line and I would later learn that this was the work of Tony Levin, who also played with King Crimson. It also had cool synths and other sounds, giving it a world music sound. I had probably first heard his scratchy, guttural, yet highly expressive singing voice years before in the group Genesis, which he'd fronted before drummer Phil Collins took over. Around the same time, a show called Miami Vice was on TV. During one of the episodes, they played a song from his earlier album, "Rhythm of the Heat." It was a powerful story about dancing round a fire with the natives in the heart of Africa. I found out later that he was influenced by a passage from Carl Jung's memoir about experiencing such an episode, which appears in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections. To this day, that memoir remains one of my favorite books. There was something altogether dark, sinister, and liberating in that song, especially the whispered chant: "Smash the radio, no outside voices here/smash the watch, cannot tear the day to shreds/smash the camera, cannot steal away the spirits." It ends in a great crescendo with African-style drum work and you can imagine the natives dancing away through the night. It was absolutely brilliant. These two songs were off the album Security, which remains my favorite Gabriel album. The first album I became acquainted with was his earlier one often referred to as the "Rainy Car" album because of the front cover. It starts out with "Moribund the Burgermeister," another dark and sinister tune, while the runaway hit is "Solsbury Hill," easily the most approachable song on the album, and also one of his most beautiful tunes. I recall having a cassette tape of this album which I probably borrowed from a neighborhood friend, and listening to it from a boom box while walking around the lake at summer camp. The first album I purchased was the "Melting Face" album, which is also quite heavy and dark, beginning with a childlike song about war, "Games Without Frontiers", then another called "Intruder" about an intruder creeping around in the dark. It ends with a political anthem, "Biko." Somewhere between 10th and 11th grade I acquired Security (at least this was the title used for the US version of another nameless album). In addition to the above-mentioned songs, I was captivated by his tale of the American Indian who is caught in a world of materialism as he watches his own culture die. "San Jacinto" was a powerful and sad song about the loss of native cultures and traditions. There were many other great songs on this incredible album, which required some close listening as well as sleuthing to tease out the meaning of the lyrics. Then around 1986 came his album So, which really propelled him into the limelight, especially with "Sledgehammer," a sexual novelty song with a hard punch that went along with a fun claymation video on MTV. This album also featured some haunting tunes, such as "Mercy Street" about the poet Anne Sexton. I remember hiking the Hardangervidda in Norway in midsummer with a friend who was also a Gabriel fan, and listening to and singing to that album, especially "Red Rain." We also played Gabriel albums incessantly in the car during our two-week road trip with our mothers in Norway, so we tracked the whole trip to his music, from Stavanger to Bergen and back down the majestic fjords. At the time I was reading the book Godel, Escher, Bach, and so Peter Gabriel's music is woven in with that incredible reading journey as well. I also recall the film Birdy, one of my high school favorites, coming out around 11th grade, with a beautiful soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. He was everywhere by then. Later in college, he soundtracked the film of the Kazantazikis novel, Last Temptation of Christ, which was one of my favorite novels from my college days. Once again he'd delivered a haunting album, with many different elements from world music and a middle eastern tone throughout. I used to play it in the car on road trips. One of the highlights of my musical memories from high school was seeing Peter Gabriel perform live at the Worcester Centrum in 1987, along with Tony Levin and others. The concert was spectacular--everything I could have imagined and more. During the song "Lay Your Hands on Me," he did a trust fall into the audience and was crowdsurfed around until he was put back on stage (apparently he stopped doing that afterwards for safety reasons). He ended the concert with his anthem to one of South Africa's freedom fighters, Steve Biko, as everyone in the stadium raised their fists in unison. 

 

12) Violent Femmes (Violent Femmes) (1983)

Image result for violent femmes

Speaking of gems, this was another. I recall first hearing about the lead song "Blister in the Sun" in summer camp the summer of 1984. A female camper from California brought it to our attention, along with "People are People" by Depeche Mode. "When I am walking I strut my stuff, I am so strung out..." What was this weirdness? Somewhere in 10th or 11th grade I bought the album and it became a favorite among me and my mates from the neighborhood. It had so many great singalong songs that captured teenage angst, sturm, und drang. Probably the most memorable one is "Kiss Off": "So you can all just kiss off into the air, behind my back I can feel them stare, they hurt me bad but I don't mind, they hurt me bad, they do it all the time..." You didn't have to be a maladjusted kid to love this song and the others on this album. I think that around that time I was discovering girls, and learning to relate to them, and somehow this album went along well with that phase of life. There were a couple of girls who we befriended and went on various group "dates" with to Boston or other places, but they remained aloof. I also associate this album with the swim team. I have one memory in particular of playing the album, or at least attempting to do so, on speakers in the bus during a swim meet, probably in junior year. The other team members told me to shut it off and asked me if I had anything better, so I put on the Beatles. The following year, they were all singing along to this album. I guess I was ahead of the times, thanks to my gal friend from California.

 

13) This is Big Audio Dynamite (Big Audio Dynamite) (1985)

Image result for this is big audio dynamite 

While I never got into reggae or rap music in any big way, I was aware of these musical forces bubbling up out of the streets onto the airwaves in the 1980s. There were the aforementioned Bad Brains who mixed reggae with punk hardcore, and straight-up rap acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, whose song "New York New York" I can still chant from memory (thanks to summer camp and also our local station WHAB). Run DMC was also getting popular in the mid-'80s. Maybe the closest I ever got to digging rap was through B.A.D. Fronted by guitarist Mick Jones after his removal from the Clash, their first record was a crossover album that in some ways continued the project of Sandinista. I acquired it around the time it came out in '85, maybe as a gift from a friend. This album entered into heavy rotation on my eardrums and pretty soon I could recall every sound effect. The lyrics grabbed you by the cojones. There were plenty of add-ins to compete for your attention as well, such as samples and sound clips grabbed from the legendary western-- "Wanted in fourteen counties of this state..." along with the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Great punchy political messages were laced with cynicism, and pick-me-up choruses: "When you reach the bottom line, the only thing to do is climb..." There was dubbing scratching and a whole lot else going on in this multiracial group's songs, which included Jamaican artists Don Letts and Leo Williams. Altogether it was heady stuff. My favorite was of course "E=mc2": "Richer life is relativity..." which was probably the hit of this album. "Medicine Show" was good. And "Sony," even though it might be construed as racist today: "western gals and Lexington queens, are the prettiest gals I ever did see, I'd gladly trade some hard-earned yen, just so I can be with them..." With the stream-of-consciousness lyrics they seem to have presaged songs like "It's the End of the World" by R.E.M. The next album was not quite as good but still had some memorable tunes. Maybe they also paved the way for other acts like the infamous white rappers Beastie Boys who came out the following year and were being played ad nauseam by my classmates.

 

14) Singles 81-85 (Depeche Mode) (1985)

 Image result for depeche mode singles 81-85

As mentioned above, my first intro to Depeche Mode was through the song "People are People" at summer camp in 1984: "People are people and why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully?" which was being shared and sung by some friends at summer camp in 1984 along with "Everything Counts (in Large Amounts)". By the following year, they came out with "Shake the Disease," one of my own personal favorites from this band, which I associate for some reason with the novels of Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony (I was deep into these sci-fi fantasy authors at that time and reading their oeuvres). I picked up the album of Depeche Mode singles around the fall/winter of 1985. While their earlier sounds were more poppy and synthy, other songs like Master and Servant were different. They had a choral sound like dark monks, celebrating the black rituals of the flesh (sure enough, they came out with Black Celebration later down the road). Truth be told, this band was a fair bit more poppish than most bands I preferred, but they had great synth work, unusual chord changes, and a sense of high drama. I had no idea how popular they would become of course. By college they were THE band for anybody into the electronic pop genre. 

 

15) Three of a Perfect Pair (King Crimson) (1984)

Image result for king crimson three perfect pair 

I bought a copy of this album sometime between 10th and 11th grade. I wasn't that familiar with King Crimson from previous decades, but that was a different configuration. This was Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin. They were a tight act all right. I was familiar with some of these musicians from other acts like Talking Heads (Adrian Belew played with them) and Peter Gabriel (Tony Levin played his Chapman Stick on his album Security and joined him on the So tour). The album had some fairly straight up pop-rock songs like "Not a Model Man" but with inventive melodies and leads, and the guitar work was fantastic. The lyrics were interesting--after all, what did "Three of a Perfect Pair" really mean? It also featured some experimental industrial rock sounds as exemplified in the song "Industry". I loved the album and bought the others from this phase in King Crimson History: Beat and Discipline. I didn't realize until many years later that one of the songs from the latter album, "Matte Kudasai" was a Japanese phrase meaning "Please wait." This was great experimental rock music and I recall listening to a cassette tape of it while camping out on the shores of Moosehead Lake in Maine during one of our family trips there. It brought to mind some of the works of Stanislaw Lem, whose sci-fi novels I was devouring at the time. It also paved the way for my interest in Brian Eno, also a collaborator of the band members, and soon I had a few of his albums as well, including (my absolute favorite) Before and After Science. For a guy who was emerging as a science nerd, this was good music indeed!

 

16) Two Wheels Good (Prefab Sprout) (1985)

Image result for prefab sprout two wheels 

I recall acquiring this album sometime in 11th grade after listening to the song "Goodbye Lucille #1" on the radio. It had a retro-50s flavor to it ("oooh Johnny Johnny Johnny, she is a person too/she has her own will") but it came with some really cool atmospheric sounds and I liked the lyrics and the alternating of the male and female voices of Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith. It was no coincidence that the album was produced by Thomas Dolby, who supplied the atmospherics. Soon I had this album on heavy rotation and was listening to it frequently on road trips--I recall one in particular to Princeton University as I was checking out colleges. With its cover featuring the band on a motorcycle, and the songs, it has a road-trippy feel to it. My favorite song is probably "Moving the River": "You surely are a truly gifted kid, but you're only as good as the last great thing you did, so where've you been since then, did the schedule get you down? Have you got a new girlfriend, how's the wife taking it? If it's uphill all the way, you should be used to it and say, my back is broad enough sir, to take the strain..." Great little ditty, still resonates with me now and then. Even though I didn't continue to follow this band after they made this album, it still remains one of my favorite gems from high school days.

 

17) Big Night Music (Shriekback) (1986)

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This was one of those oddities that nevertheless had a profound influence on my own life course. I believe I picked up this album in winter of 1986. I had their previous album Oil and Gold, which I enjoyed with its eery, underwater sounds and songs. I was originally aware of the band because one of the founders, Barry Andrews, was formerly of XTC, one of my favorite bands (and coming up on this list). Big Night Music begins with a blast in the form of the opening song "Black Light Trap" and then goes into one of my personal favorites, "Gunning for the Buddha." This song was based on the philosophy of Zen which basically posits that the harder you look for enlightenment, the harder it is to find. The idea of gunning down the Buddha was somehow appealing. I'd been into Zen Buddhism since the previous year, and I credit this to a combination of skiing and swimming. I remember my step-father buying a book called The Centered Skier, which I read too. It was about using some techniques of meditation borrowed from Zen to help with your skiing skills. Well, they didn't help me much, because that winter (1986) I had a terrible ski accident on the slopes of Whaleback Mountain in Lebanon NH. I had misjudged a jump that dipped in the snow and ended up crashing and busting my spleen. It was a life-or-death accident that left me in the hospital for days, contemplating my mortality. As fate had it, I was sent to the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, NH. This was certainly the reason I chose Dartmouth College as one of my select schools the following year. Anyhow, The Centered Skier led me to other books about Zen that were in my parents' collection. In senior year, I was using Zen meditation (or what I thought it might be) to help conquer my nerves and achieve more personal bests in the pool. I was swimming more than ever before, morning and night, and I needed some philosophy to get me through the hard slogs of workouts and the tensions of swim competitions. Music had always been an antidote, but it wasn't enough. While looking through these books, I became interested in the wonderful calligraphy that appeared in them, which seemed to swim across the pages like the creatures in a Shriekback album. When this album came out, with its amazing cover, I was selecting colleges and wondering what courses to take when I started my freshman year. In addition to "Gunning...", another song that I enjoyed was "The Reptiles and I." It's a rhythmic song that takes you right back to your reptilian existence, and the lyrics chant out various lists, including a list of elements, and another list of exotic-sounding languages. I remember chanting it out during a house party I hosted in senior year, with a group of kids with similar weird music tastes chanting along and dancing some strange reptilian dance. (Of course we put on some more party-oriented tunes later). The combination of the two songs may have swayed me to consider taking the "exotic" Chinese language in college. At any rate, I did so, and as a result my life course changed irrevocably. So in a way I owe my strange life as a Sinologist to the wondrous tunes of Barry Andrews and Shriekback.

 

18) The Whole Story (Kate Bush) (1986)

 Image result for kate bush whole story

The way by which this British singer came to my attention and probably most other Americans was through Peter Gabriel's album So, in which she sings a lovely duet with him for the song "Don't Give Up." Her soft voice went well with the tender yet uplifting lyrics and tone of that inspirational ballad, which was about as pop as I could ever go. As anybody who is reading this list ought to have figured out by now, I was not into female singers. However, through the influence of my parents, I'd grown up listening to great female vocalists including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt and many others. There was something about Kate Bush's voice and image that appealed to me, with the beautiful and lilting tones of a dark enchantress. In senior year of high school, I acquired a cassette tape of her greatest hits compilation album, which began with the tune "Wuthering Heights." I happened to be reading that book for English class and was deep into the story, and I recall reading the novel while listening to the album, which evoked the heroine’s longing for the wild Heathcliff about as well as a modern song could: "Oooh it gets dark, it gets lonely on the other side of you." While I appreciated the unusual melodies and chord progressions, all this pining and moaning wasn't really to my tastes, nor in fact was women's literature in general, but somehow this album came along at the right time and it mesmerized me. The other songs on the album included "Army Dreamers," "Running up that Hill," and the unforgettable "Baboushka" with its Russian-like chanting in the background. I recall listening to the album during a big swim event held at Brown University. Perhaps my clearest memory is listening to this album while reading the Bronte novel in a big gym, waiting for our races in the North Sectionals. This was an important event for us, since ABRHS had for the first time defeated our nemesis, Weston, and we were the county champs. Could we defeat the bigger teams like Chelmsford for the regional championship? It turns out we could, and did. We licked them in a final unforgettable relay. Of course, our victory song was the overplayed  “We Are the Champions” by Queen, but “Running up that Hill” always reminds me of that day.

 

19) Skylarking (XTC) (1986)

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I must have picked up this album in the spring of 1987. At the time, all my high school friends were getting together for extended parties and other events to say our goodbyes before heading off to college. I had been a fan of the British punk-pop band XTC since junior high. The first single I bought was their song "Generals and Majors," which I absolutely loved (and still do). I associate the album English Settlement with long bike rides in 8th and 9th grade, one four-day trip in particular where I cycled with my dad from New Hampshire to coastal Maine and back. I also associate some of their songs like "Blame the Weather" and "Tissue Tigers" with long car rides to Delaware and Maine, the two poles of my existence, where my grandparents on my mother's side had regular and summer homes. I remember using the song "Jason and the Argonauts" on English Settlement as an example of poetry in popular music in my 10th grade English class. "I've seen acts of every shade of terrible come from manlike creatures, and I've had the breath of liars blowing me off course in my sails. Seems the more I travel, from the foam to the gravel, as the nets unravel all exotic fish I find like Jason and the Argonauts..." While that album had great tunes like "Making Plans for Nigel," "Ball and Chain," "English Roundabout" and of course, "Senses Working Overtime," "Jason" was my personal favorite, especially because I'd been a huge fan of Greek Myths from childhood. All throughout high school I listened to this band, collecting their earlier records like Go-2, their frenetic punkish dance band album, Drums and Wires, and their collection of singles. They had a comical British sound that dovetailed well with my love for Monty Python and just about anything produced by BBC. There was definitely a strong Beatles influence in their music and poetry, but they carved out their own niche with their poetic themes around various metaphors for love and life. When Skylarking came out, it was on the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Peppers and the parallels were rife. Both albums featured songs that blended together into medleys, and both celebrated the joys of otherwise banal everyday life in city and countryside, with songs like "Summer's Cauldron," "Big Day," and "Work Enough For Us". "Supergirl" was the fun novelty hit of the album, while "Dear God" was their more somber hit. I liked the ethereal "Satellite" and the jazzy "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul." The joyous "Season Cycle" ("who's pushing the peddles on the season cycle?") and "1,000 Umbrellas" backed by violins were amazing as well, and the album ended with "Sacrificial Bonfire," which builds up beautifully into a song about rituals and the flow of life: "burn down the old, ring in the new...". Years later I could listen to this album and tears would still come to my eyes by the end. I associate it strongly with those heady summer days of canoeing in the rivers of Concord MA and dipping into forbidden reservoirs with friends while awaiting the inevitable day when we would all disperse into the big wide world.

 

20) The Joshua Tree (U2) (1987)

 Image result for u2 joshua tree

U2 first came on my horizon sometime between 8th and 9th grade with the song "Two Hearts Beat as One." This song was playing on alternative stations--or what passed for them--but soon the band tapped the big vein of the mainstream with songs like "In the Name of Love." I wasn't a big fan of the band, nor well versed in their politics (didn’t realize this song was about MLK until much later) but when they came out with The Joshua Tree with its American themes, it struck a chord with me and with many of my classmates in senior year of high school. The unique guitar sound of The Edge with a country-western twang to it was appealing. I listened to a lot of Dire Straits and other pop rockabilly bands from the era, so don't get me wrong: while I preferred collecting and listening to alternative music, I was just as exposed as anybody from the 1980s to the big bands and artists of the age, from Michael Jackson to Prince to Paul McCartney (who'd jumped the shark with his duet with Stevie Wonder “Ebony and Ivory” if not well before) to Rush, Foreigner, Journey, the Police, and all those other mega rock bands that were filling huge stadiums and being played endlessly on mainstream radio. You couldn't avoid those bands in those days if you tried, and while I didn’t collect their albums (it wasn’t necessary) I do have many fond memories of their songs as well. It's just that being super-saturated by these bands and artists on the mainstream airwaves made me somewhat less interested in them. While U2 was already well on its way to becoming a mega band in the 1980s, this album had a charm the others didn't, at least to me. Of course their ballad “With or Without You” was getting a tremendous amount of airplay. ”Running to Stand Still" was one of my favorites on the album. The bluesy, country, gospel feel of this album drilled deep into a subconscious well of American musical memories. I recall listening to this album on cassette tape during a road trip up to New Hampshire with some friends, where we met up with another high school chum whose mother was a motorcyclist. She and her pals were on their BMW motorbikes, and we took turns riding on the back along the Kancamagus Highway that winds and weaves through the White Mountains. I recall following them in my step-father's SAAB Turbo (for keeping up with their weaving around other cars, I was later complimented for my driving skills by one of the motorcyclists) while listening to this album all the way.  “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was a fitting theme song to this restless period between high school and college, when I was gearing up to head off into the unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Jan312017

Vinyl School Years: My Favorite Albums from the 1980s (Part 1)

Recently (at least, prior to the election), the topic of "favorite record albums from my teenage/high school years" has been making the rounds of Facebook. I thought I'd pitch in with my own list, especially since my dad, Jeff Field, posted a list of some of his most memorable albums on his own blogsite. They say that the music you listened to in high school shapes your listening habits for a lifetime, and while that is only partially true, I can say truthfully that these albums have left indelible memories on my psyche (for better or worse).

During my teenage years, particularly in high school (ABRHS 1983-1987), I favored listening to and collecting albums of what would now be called "alternative music", that is, music that usually wasn't being played on the major radio stations, and that, for want of a better word, sounded weird or offbeat. Off the beaten track, that is. This included music that at the time was labeled punk, hardcore, or new wave, art rock, post-punk, and other music that defied labels.

While friends of mine from high school introduced me to some of these bands, others I discovered from listening to local radio stations. I should begin by mentioning that ABRHS had its own wonderful radio station, with my fellow students playing the role of DJ.

Also, the Boston College radio station WZBC played alternative music, and what I liked to do was tape a segment of the program and go back and listen to it again and again until I found songs that really grabbed me. Then I'd try to identify the song and the band.

The next step was to head to Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, which had the best selection of alternative music albums, though back then they just called it "modern rock."

I was also influenced by a program that was broadcast in the early 1980s on the more mainstream Boston rock radio station, WBCN. It was called Nocturnal Emissions and was hosted by a mysterious dude, who went by the name of Oedipus. It also featured an eclectic mix of songs from bands that wouldn't have made it onto mainstream radio.

Some of the bands or artists I listened to eventually made it big (or were big already when I discovered them), while others languished in obscurity.

Below is a list of albums and bands that were influential to shaping my tastes in music, listed roughly in the order by which I discovered them. I decided to break this into two parts, so below are the first ten, and I'll post the next ten later.

I've chosen these albums according to the following criteria:

--The album came out around or during the years when I was in high school (1983-1987)

-- I personally bought the album during high school and still own the vinyl or the casette tape

-- I listened to the album so many times that the songs remain firmly embedded in my memory, and I can sing along to most of them

-- The album inspired me to dig deeper into the lyrics and music and background of the artist or band, listen to more albums from that artist/band and/or explore a whole area of musical subcultures

-- Recalling the album or hearing songs from the album still evokes a cascade of memories from my high school years

-- Finally, I've chosen to limit this list to one album per band. However, I discuss other albums by those bands as well. So, here we go:

1) Sandinista (The Clash) (1980)


Probably introduced to me by my neighborhood pals, my love for The Clash began with their first eponymous album, The Clash, which had its US release in 1979. I bought that album sometime between junior high and high school and had it under heavy rotation for a while. I was attracted to the strident energy and the rebellious lyrics of songs like "White Riot" and "I'm So Bored with the USA". While I skipped over their next two albums (my friends had them) I believe I bought the double cassette tape of their triple album Sandinista sometime around the start of high school. I remember listening to it repeatedly on my Walkman and also putting it on during long car trips--in fact, the album was great music for long rides. The Clash was my entry point into the domains of punk, ska, dub, and reggae. One memory that stands in my mind was listening to the album during a car ride with my dad, and him commenting on the politics that influenced the band's lyrics. With songs like "Washington Bullets" and "Police on my Back" (an Eddie Grant cover) you could say that this album was a sort of political awakening for me as well, in the age of Ronnie Ray-gun. in 1984 (George Orwell's prophetic year), my step-dad took me and the Bennett boys to see The Clash perform live at the Worcestor Centrum. It was my first rock concert, and I recall that it took a few days for my eardrums to recover.

2) Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (The Dead Kennedys) (1980)

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I think it was "California Uber Alles" that first grabbed my attention when I heard it on the radio. "Welcome to 1984, are you ready for the third world war? You too can meet the secret police. They'll draft you and jail your neice." If the Clash was beer, this was a stiff shot of whisky. I distinctly remember buying this album in a little record shop in our neighboring town of Concord MA, which sold alternative music to restless suburban youths. Jello Biafra's singing was even more frenetic than Joe Strummer of The Clash, the rhythms were faster, and the political messages were punchier and more sardonic. "Holiday in Cambodia" stands out in my mind as the most memorable song on the album--"It's a holiday in Cambodia, and you'll do what you're told!" with "California Uber Alles" coming in at a close second: "Last call for alcohol, last call for freedom of speech--happy hour is now enforced by law..." And who could forget those golden oldies: "When Ya Get Drafted" and "Kill the Poor?" an anthem for all times. This album marked my point of no return into the more obscene world of hardcore. Soon my friends and I were exchanging albums and casette tapes of other hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, D.O.A., and Psycho. But as with punk rock, the message got diluted by its transmutation into fashion. By high school, even my trendy younger sister was sporting a "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" t-shirt.

3) I Just Can't Stop It (English Beat) (1980)

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This album was being passed around by friends about the time I entered high school. It's worth observing that my best friends were two or three years older than me and they were introducing me to music that most of my ninth grade peers weren't listening to at the time. Maybe The Clash primed me for digging this ska band with its amped up Jamaican-style tunes backed by horns. I remember listening to this album on casette tape during a bus trip to a swim meet in ninth grade. I loved the rhythms and the rhymes of Ranking Roger, the toastmaster of this band from Birmingham, UK. "Mirror in the Bathroom" is the standout song, though "Hands Off She's Mine" is also a favorite of mine. This album led me to other ska bands and to the ska-punk band Bad Brains. While I was listening to the album on my Walkman on the way to that swim meet, the captain of the team asked to take a listen. "You must have an older brother," he remarked after hearing the song.

4) Above the Fruited Plane (Polyrock) (1982)

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This new wave band from New York City came across my radar screen through a tape I made of WZBC's "modern rock" program. On the tape was a tune called "Working on My Love" with a very catchy synth bit. I went out and bought the EP (probably at Newbury Comics). I enjoyed the male-female vocal combo and the minimalist sounds and synth backings. Later I learned that the band was produced by Philip Glass, whose music I came to appreciate later in life. I went on to collect their other albums Polyrock and Changing Hearts, which were not easy to find. I think I found them in a record shop in Washington DC. While they didn't last beyond that album, Polyrock helped set the stage for my reception of other art rock bands coming out of NYC like the Talking Heads.

5) Feline (The Stranglers) (1983)

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I first discovered this band from a cassette tape recording I made off the radio, WZBC, possibly the same one that had the Polyrock song on it. The song was "Midsummer Night's Dream," a dreamy, maudlin chant backed by heavy synths weaving a story about meeting a wise old man who tells you what it's all for. It led me to this album, which represents the softer side of a band that was known for its raucous, raunchy tunes like "Peaches." It's a magical album that evokes the glamour and despair of Paris, Rome, and London. This album led me to a lifelong love of The Stranglers' music, which is difficult to place into any particular category of rock music. During my teen years, I became a young acolyte to this medieval menagerie of tunesters, and I collected several of their albums, starting with The Collection, a set of their bests including such unforgettable tunes as "Nice and Sleazy," "Golden Brown" (which I later found out was about heroin), and "Strange Little Girl." I then went on to other albums including Black and White, La Folie, and The Raven. Some of these rare albums I found in shops in New York City or DC, others in Boston. Aural Sculpture marked their turn to more popular, accessible tunes, which were nonetheless marked with their particular genius for wordery. One particular association I have is with the band is reading the novel Dune by Frank Herbert, in the summer between ninth and tenth grade. For some reason, I found that their album The Gospel According to the Meninblack went well with that epic story.

6) Quartet (Ultravox) (1982)

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I seem to recall that I discovered this band on my own, though I'm not too sure. The big song off this album was "Reap the Wild Wind" which got played on WZBC and perhaps on Nocturnal Emissions as well. I believe I bought the album at the same time I purchased Feline, and so Ultravox and The Stranglers have always been closely associated in my mind, even though they their styles are different in many respects. They both share a love for synthesized music and for songs that seem to hark back to some medieval European fantasy world. Everything about this album appealed to me, from the urgent melodic voice of Midge Ure to the keyboard work of Billie Currie. It is no coincidence that the album was produced by George Martin, famed producer for the Beatles's albums, which I'd loved and collected since I was a wee laddie. This album led me (and other friends) to others including Vienna and Rage in Eden, and also to their earlier more punk-oriented, dystopian albums like Ha!Ha!Ha! which featured John Foxx on lead vocals. The band seemed to peak with this album. Their next release, Lament, which I also picked up, wasn't nearly as important to me. It seemed that they'd played out their big ideas with Quartet. Decades later the members of the band reunited to make another studio album, Brilliant, which was a nice 30-year reunion for those of us who once loved this band.

7) Speaking in Tongues (Talking Heads) (1983)

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Then came David Byrne with his unique singing style, always on the verge of hysteria, but reining it in. Who could resist the upbeat sound of this band, which came out on the airwaves in the summer of 1983 with their funky hit song "Burning Down the House?" This new wave band from NYC was making the rounds and everyone was digging them with their danceable beats and catchy songs like "Making Flippy Floppy" and "Girlfriend is Better." I recall listening to this album around tenth grade, and in summer camp. This album propelled the band into the mainstream, and their next album Little Creatures was a bit poppish for my tastes. I did enjoy watching David Byrne dancing around in his enormous Zoot Suit in the Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense, which I recall watching with friends in the attic room of my home.

8) Greener Postures (Snakefinger) (1980)

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As with some of these other bands listed above, I found Snakefinger while re-listening to a ZBC program I'd recorded on casette tape. It was a song called "Trashing All the Loves of History." It sounded like some sort of underground cult that was pushing up out of the earth. And the slide guitar was creepy and cool. The name itself was worth a deeper investigation. Soon I had his album Greener Postures, with its bizarre artsy cover, and was listening to it with neighborhood pals. It made you want to sacrifice some innocent creature to dark spirits. Seriously though, it was cool, bizarre music that was just on the edge of sanity. From "The Golden Goat" to "The Picture Makers vs. The Children of the Sea," this was a highly imaginative world indeed for a young teenager. I have a distinct memory of my friends singing that haunting song "We are little children of the sea" while swimming and diving off a raft in summer at a local pond. "War? No, no, war's no good Snakefinger." "That's what they want you to think--it's the little wars they give us that are bad. We need a real war, but we have to wait til we're ready" was an oft-quoted line amongst us. Snakefinger was a mysterious dude all right. He proved to be an entry point into an even more bizarre world of music off the label Ralph Records. We bought some of his other records and singles, and because the local record shops (even Newbury Comics) didn't have them on site, I mail-ordered a set of other Ralph Records albums, featuring most famously the Residents--about as cultish and bizarre a group as you will ever come across--and other bands like Tuxedomoon and Yello. Later in high school I found out that Snakefinger was the stage name for Philip Lithman, originally a bluesman from the UK, so-called because of his unique abilities on slide guitar. I also found out much later that he was quite an accomplished bluesman. And in July 1987, after I'd graduated from high school, his obit appeared in the Globe.

9) Murmur (R.E.M.) (1983)


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It may have been the same tape as Snakefinger, I'm not sure (wish I'd kept those tapes), but the first song that I heard from this band hailing from Athens, GA was a delightful little ditty called "Gardening at Night." It had that folkish guitar work and the scratchy folksy voice of Michael Stipe that became the signature sounds of the band, at least until they went mainstream and varied their act. Their debut EP Chronic Town featured this song. That and Murmur, their first full album, were my initiation into R.E.M. At the time I started listening to them around 1983, they were just an obscure little college band out of Georgia. Nobody could have predicted then that they would become the mega-band of the 1990s and beyond, but catchy songs like "Radio Free Europe" and "Talk About the Passion" indicated they had a bright future ahead of them. After Murmur, they quickly put out a succession of albums: Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Life's Rich Pageant, all of which I listened to and collected, and shared with friends. I associate the band with long bike rides deep into rural Massachusetts. Their grounded, folksy songs were sometimes haunting and melancholic, other times rocking and upbeat. They evoked the tall grass of summer and the rusty red leaves and yellow orange pumpkins of fall. By the time Pageant came out, they were on their way to stardom. They had ceased to be that little college band when I entered college in 1987, and became something much, much bigger.

10) The Golden Age of Wireless (Thomas Dolby) (1982)

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Around 1983, a fun novelty song called "Blinded by Science" came out on the airwaves. Backed by synthesizers, and featuring the voice of a "known scientist," this song got a great deal of airplay in the Boston area, even on more mainstream radio. About that time, a new channel called MTV came out and everybody was glued to the tube watching music videos. Of course the king of the new music video genre was Michael Jackson, with videos of songs from his new album Thriller, notably the title song and "Billie Jean." Dolby's song rocketed up to the top with its video of the mad scientist at work in his lab. His song was funky and danceable, and (I found out later) even gained the attention of Michael himself. I wasn't too impressed though. It wasn't until a friend loaned me his album The Golden Age of Wireless that I discovered the depth and beauty of this "novelty" artist. I was hooked into an alternate world with songs like "Radio Silence," "Flying North," and of course, "One of Our Submarines." The synth work was fresh and highly original, and the lyrics poetic and sci-fi. I associate this album with swimming especially (I was on the swim team in high school) and also with sci-fi films like Blade Runner, which came out around that time. The following year, his next album Flat Earth came out. His Michael Jackson soundalike song "Hyperactive" was in heavy rotation on mainstream stations, but the other songs were far more interesting, and "Screen Kiss" was the standout song on that album. After that, by my junior year in high school, he teamed up with funkmaster George Clinton to make "May the Cube Be With You" off the album Aliens Ate My Buick, which I devoured ravenously with its danceable beats and pomo takes on pop culture. The most accomplished song out of that album was the more serious and brooding tune called "Budapest by Blimp," which hovered over the history and legacy of Europe: "All the treasure we pilloried, splendour we stole ...They never told you that in school." This was around the time (give or take a couple years) when Indiana Jones first came out in the theaters, and I think that and Dolby's music blended together into my mind. There were other worlds to explore out there, and ancient mysteries to unravel.

Tuesday
Jan172017

My 2016 in 10 Favorite Books

With all these lists of favorite this or favorite that from your teenage years going around FB, and with Obama weighing in with his own reading list of favorite books that helped him through 8 years of being the Big Man on Campus, I thought I'd start the new year with a blog on my favorite books from the past year of reading. Like most academics, I am a chronic book reader. It's a terrible affliction being literate, and it completely disqualifies me from any higher office (just kidding, Pres. Obama, but you know who I'm talkin' bout). But to tell the truth, like most academics, especially in my field of history, I usually don't read books cover to cover. Rather, I dig into them, and take them in in dribs and drabs. I use them for all sorts of purposes, including writing my own articles and books, not to mention as elevation support for my monitors and screens, where I do my REAL reading on the Net.

So, here are 10 books that I actually enjoyed reading cover to cover (or thereabouts) in 2016. And if your book didn't make it on my list, don't worry, I'll be back at the end of 2017 with another one!

1.Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

Written by S. C. Gwynne, this is a great work of historical non-fiction about the inevitable conflict between the hunter-warrior tribe known as Comanches and white settler societies in post-Civil War era Texas, focusing on the story of "half-breed" Quanah Parker, whose mother was captured by a Comanche tribe and went "native". An epic story that all Americans should read to better understand the history of our great nation, especially for those who like a bit of the old ultra-violence. Spoiler alert: it doesn't end well for the Comanches.

2. The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology

I've been a fan of Thomas Dolby's music since his breakout song "Blinded By Science" hit the airwaves in 1983. In this memoir, he tells the story of how he went from a nobody to a celebrity musician and back again to a nobody in the 1980s, making several amazing record albums and pioneering the art of synth-pop in the process, followed by his extended foray into the world of sound technology. It's a story of genius, dogged persistence, and sheer luck, told by a fantastic story-teller with a gift for self-deprecating humor.

3. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Ever since I first started teaching world history many years ago, I've always been fascinated by the ways that different historians package that grand story. Peter Frankopan has written an ambitious history of the world with a strong emphasis on Asia's central role in that story, and even for a seasoned world history reader such as myself, there are new insights and info on every page that make this a worthy slog. Truth told I'm still in the middle of the book, so I may have to provide a final analysis next year!

4. The Invincible

I was a huge fan of the works of Stanislaw Lem in high school and college. His vision of the future, sometimes fantastical, sometimes cynical but always fascinating and grounded in hard science, has influenced me more than any other Sci Fi writer save perhaps Philip K Dick. Yet until last year I had never encountered this novel about the discovery by space explorers of an alien planet featuring some bizarre technology. It's a gripping story that might have made a great film. Even though some of the tech seems laughishly outdated (he wrote it in an era when data was still stored on magnetic tapes), the themes are timeless.

5. The Invisibility Cloak

I must confess that I don't read enough Chinese literature these days, perhaps because I live in China and I'm already surrounded by and embedded within the China Dream. But when this author Ge Fei came across my radar screen, I was curious enough to check out his novella, translated into English by Canaan Morse. I found it totally absorbing and read it in a few late-night hours. Familiar as I am with Chinese society and with Beijing, where the story takes place, the novel and characters were both recognizable and haunting. It's a story that reminds us that tribal affiliations are at least as important as class or regional ones, and that an obsession for something as esoteric as hi-fi audio equipment can lead to all sorts of unexpected consequences.

6. Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World

A couple of years ago, I met the author Taras Grescoe in Shanghai and took him on my tour of the Bund. He was working on this non-fictional book, featuring the story of the love triangle between Victor Sassoon, Emily Hahn, and Shao Xunmei in 1930s Shanghai. The result is a well-crafted work of non-fiction, which often reads like a novel that brings back to life those heady and tumultuous years in the Paris of the Orient. While it comes with the caveat that the author isn't a China historian, it's about the best you can do as an "amateur" in our field and it is backed by a significant amount of original research into the lives of these people.

7. Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique 

I stumbled upon this edited volume while researching an article I was writing on the femmes-fatale figures of Shanghai. As a scholar who takes music seriously as part and parcel of empire- and nation-building, I was pleased to find so many like-minded scholars crammed into one book. It includes a great piece by Andrew Jones on the circulation of Chinese pop music in the 1960s, as well as a chapter by Nan Enstad on the connections between cigarettes and jazz in 1930s Shanghai. I'm still going through the articles in this fascinating book, which provides countless insights into modern music and its connections to the other forces that shape our world.

8. On the Move: A Life

I've been a fan of Oliver Sacks since my college years, when I was deep into studies of the mind. His memoir, written while he was in his 80s, is a beautifully written account of his rather unique life and career as a doctor, a scientist, and a writer. Above all it's a testament to the power of obsession. We learn about his early career phase, when he was a champion weight lifter and a motor-cycler obsessed with speed. We learn of his various drug addictions. We learn about his sexual life as a rather closeted gay man, who had a great deal of trouble with his identity. But most of all, we learn about his struggles to research and write about the subjects that most fascinated him: human beings with debilitating brain injuries and/or mental states that made them behave in strange and mysterious ways. Throughout his life story, he comes across as somewhat of an Arrowsmithian figure, trying to maintain his integrity and sanity in a discipline that didn't easily allow for the sort of insights and methods he was bringing to the table.

9. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters

Ever since I took a job as associate dean of a university that plans to launch a liberal arts degree program in China, I've been reading a lot of books about liberal education and why it is in crisis. Actually, it's been in crisis ever since it began in the nineteenth century (or earlier depending on how you look at it), but that's another story. Among these books, this one by Wesleyan president Michael Roth is probably my favorite. He draws upon great American philosopher-statesman Thomas Jefferson, and philosophers, activists, and intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jane Addams, William James, W. E. B. Du Bois and many others in the history of our pluralistic society to dig into the history of higher education and to further the argument that what we need from our schools is not "practical" education that will land graduates jobs, but rather "to kindle the fires of the mind" (to misquote Emerson). 

10. History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

Why do we like lists of 10? What is it about this number that seems so definitive? After all, isn't it just an arbitrary number, which happens to be the same as the number of fingers on our hands? Well, if you are like me and you like the number 10, you'll love this book as much as I did. Greil Marcus is one of the most uniquely talented writers and critics of the history of rock'n'roll, which you'd know if you'd read his other books. In this one, he tackles the history of rock music by focusing on ten songs, most of which are pretty obscure to anybody who didn't grow up in the 1950s. Each song tells a story of the power of music through a "web of affinities" involving those who produced and reproduced the music. While you don't have to agree with his choices--after all, this book could be written in hundreds of different ways--his descriptions of the music, its producers and performers are poetic and insightful in a Benjaminian way.

 

 

Monday
May302016

On Chinese Characters and Typewriters--some reflections upon listening to a talk by Tom Mullaney

Image swiped from The China Beat
I just came across a radio interview with my Stanford colleague Tom Mullaney based on his extensive historical research on the Chinese typewriter.  This is one of many fascinating interviews of academics conducted by Robert Harrison for his Stanford-based show Entitled Opinions. One of my favorite new podcasts by the way.

Tom, if you're out there, I really enjoyed your talk--you have a great radio voice--and look forward to acquiring your books, if just to make me look erudite as they sit on my shelves gathering dust--just kidding, I will read them!
Just a few questions and observations about your talk: First, are you sure about the number of characters one needs to know to be fully educated? You mentioned 8 to 10,000 if I recall correctly. I go by the standard of the Liang Shi-ch'iu Dictionary which has around 8500 characters in all, and my guess is that even the most well-educated Chinese PhDs (i.e. earned in China or in a Chinese field) don't know more than 5 or 6000 or so without having to look them up or make an educated guess.
But using individual characters as a benchmark for literacy is a bit misleading--as we all know, at least when it comes to reading modern Chinese, the language of newspapers and novels, it's the knowledge of compounds, i.e. more than one character hitched together to constitute a word that counts, so it'd be even more interesting and telling I think to guess at how many compounds a highly educated person knows. Would you say 50-60,000? And I wonder if that total number would be comparable to the number of English language words (including the arcane 'zoomorphic') that a PhD from an English-speaking institution knows.
Seems that a discussion of compounds was missing out from Tom's talk, though I know he had a great deal to cover in the space of an hour--and a fascinating one at that. Also missing (I think) was the connection between Chinese and Japanese in terms of the creation of those compounds, many of which derived from western terminology being introduced to Japan during the Meiji restoration--you know, xianfa, zhengfu, shehui, wenhua and the likes, which were then imported to China by Chinese scholars studying in Meiji Japan. Again, I look at the story of modern Chinese language from more of a social/intellectual historical perspective than a technological one, but I do think that the average listener who doesn't know Chinese misses out if not aware of some of these trends.
Still, I enjoyed greatly hearing Tom's talk, with many fascinating observations and comparisons with different styles and philosophies of language construction and its technological expression and predictions for the 21st century. One of the most interesting points was how predictive text arose in the Mao years--which makes complete sense when you think of how uniform the language was in that period. 
And this relates to my point above, which Tom actually enforced later in his talk at least in two ways. During his discussion of Chinese predictive text, he mentioned that when typing a couple of characters an entire Tang poem might be predicted by the computer or device--which reminds of how the Chinese education system works in terms of forcing kids to memorize Tang and Song (and Ming and Qing and other dynastic) poems til they stick in the brain in one big togetherness. Then there are the four-character chengyu or idioms that all Chinese must know--including the one Tom alluded to in the excellent bit on his philosophy of history--Sai weng shi ma yan zhi fei fu 塞翁失马,焉知非福, which I absolutely loved and will have to steal. So the question is, in addition to compounds, how many chengyu and how many tang/song/ming/qing shi must an educated Chinese person know? And how does that number compare with the number of idiomatic or latinate phrases or classical biblical phrases or classic poems that an educated American or Englishman or Irishman/woman for that matter must know?
Let me peck away at just one more teensy tiny infelicity in Tom's talk, and this in no way is meant to repudiate Tom's awesome knowledge of East Asian Languages and Cultures (being a fellow Columbia grad in that department, how could I even consider such a thing?): I think at one point he mentioned the kana, the Japanese syllabary, as a 'phonetic' form of writing. I believe that Japanese kana are purely syllabic--i.e. each kana sound corresponds exactly to how its written no matter what other kana it is juxtaposed with, whereas in a phonetic language, the spelling and pronunciation are not always in line with each other, which makes spelling English a maddeningly difficult task for anybody learning the language (I remember in first grade running through a long list of words with my teacher and getting stuck on 'sword' because it just didn't make sense!) Whereas with Japanese kana, what you hear is pretty much what you see on paper. But this is just very minor scribbling and quibbling. (and by the way Tom, or anybody, if you'd like to tear apart one of my own podcasts,or even blogs for that matter, please go ahead--I'd be deeply flattered!)
Continuing on with the nihongo, and this is more for Robert Harrison's sake because he asked the question, the Japanese language is actually quite distant from Chinese--it's considered an Altaic language (though this family is a subject of much historic dispute) and it's more closely related to Korean, Mongolian, and Turkic languages than to Chinese or Tibetan languages. The most basic difference is that Chinese, like English is SVO whereas Japanese is SOV. Japanese has verb tenses and other linguistic features that Chinese doesn't have, and vice versa. And of course, Chinese has tones. Ah, those wonderful, wonderful tones!

Anyhow I'm waxing pedantic, but it's not out of disrespect to my old pal Tom, just an attempt to fill out some details that were missing from his fabulous talk--and how can you capture all that hard-earned knowledge in a one-hour radio show anyhow? Tom, I'm greatly looking forward to your forthcoming books and will read them alongside David Moser's new book for a real mind-blowing Zen experience : )