Really Loud Librarians


1) Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl — a memoir (Riverhead Books). No one familiar with Brownstein from her work in Sleater-Kinney, as a singer, guitarist, songwriter from 1994 to now, her mordant NPR music commentaries, her writing and acting in Portlandia—is likely to be surprised by certain qualities of this book. For a memoir by a 41-year-old it is short, under 250 pages, without self-indulgence of any kind. It is modest. Like A Freewheelin’ Time, the late Suze Rotolo’s indelible memoir of her life with and without Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, it is devoid of sensationalism, scandal, or any violations of the writer’s privacy, which is to say the reader’s, too. Brownstein opens with her childhood in the Seattle suburbs, and the collapse of her family, which is rendered in terms of what it did to pets, who give voice to what people can’t: a dog “turned back into a stray in her own home on account of the rest of us surrendering to emptiness, drifting away from anything we could call familiar, her skin itching and inflamed, covered with sores and bites, like tattoos, like skywriting, screaming with redness, as if to say Please, please pet me! But we didn’t.” When the nineties punk scene emerges in Olympia, Washington, in Brownstein’s imagination, before she arrived, “it was Paris or Berlin in the ’20s, it was the Bloomsbury group, it was the cradle of civilization.” She went. As a student there at Evergreen College, and in the cauldron of bands appearing out of nowhere everywhere, Brownstein found “a community in dialogue with itself . . . We operated as if in a constant seminar. Everything was mutable and vulnerable to critique.” She also found the opposite of Paris or Berlin: “The claustrophobia of small-town dynamics makes for new rules in terms of greetings and salutations; privacy and alone time were often only achieved by looking down as you walked along the streets.”

So you can feel what Brownstein is saying by the way she says it: thoughtful, everything put in doubt, a level, sober tone, so that the slightest gesture towards a smile—“They were like really loud librarians” she says of first seeing her future bandmate Corin Tucker’s group Heavens to Betsy—may go off like a little bomb, or make no sound at all. As someone supposedly writing about herself, Brownstein is also a music critic, of her own band, a social critic, of her own milieu, and a literary critic, of her self as she constructed it. She sees from the inside and the outside at the same time. With Tucker’s initial attempt to coordinate with Brownstein’s tuning, “her guitar happened to be in C sharp . . . It’s one and a half steps below standard tuning, which creates a sourness, a darkness that you have to overcome if you’re going to create something at all harmonious and palatable. So even when we’re getting toward a little bit of catchiness or pop sheen, there’s an underlying bitterness to it”—and that is the twenty-year history of Sleater-Kinney as precisely as Brownstein’s following chapters on albums, tours, the demise of the band, and after nearly ten years, a new start at the beginning of 2015. By the close of the book, what the person writing most wants to tell you about herself has a life behind it, a life ahead of it, and the clarity that a “strange world where you lived and examined all at once, questioned everything” can give you: “I can listen to soft songs, but I can’t play them.”


2) Ride service advertisements on Manhattan subway entrances (September 16). The sole copy on this ad from yet another app-based ride service boldly proclaims “$10 rides anywhere south of 110th St.” In other words, anywhere south of Harlem. Isn’t that, you know, discrimination? Racist? Illegal? Or is it that now that there’s gentrification  in Harlem, we can call it post-racial and forget about it?

3) Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray (Universal). It’s no wonder this was the number one movie in the country this summer: it’s a tremendous picture. As the story of N.W.A it’s part Django Unchained, part Selma, far more itself. Over two hours and 27 minutes it’s completely sustained, because the story expands, and not in predictable ways. There’s a naturalism in the acting by the three principals—Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., as Ice Cube, and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E—that deepens at the picture moves forward. The actors grow into their roles, or maybe it’s that the characters grow into themselves. Only Paul Giamatti, as the manager Jerry Heller, breaks the spell: he’s so self-evidently a pro he takes you out of the story.

The story is thrilling, funny, suspenseful, and terrifying, though less for R. Marcos Taylor’s label boss Suge Knight, a glance away from murder every time he appears on the screen, than for the moments when L.A. cops see young black men standing on a street—in front of a house, on the sidewalk outside an office–and immediately pull over and force them all onto their stomachs.  You’re not just in Los Angeles in the 1980s, you’re anywhere in the USA now, and you know now more than you might have known then that one false move and any one of them could be dead.


4) “You Know I’m No Good,” curated by Renny Pritikin, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (through November 1). The main exhibit is “Amy Winehouse—A Family Portrait,” a gallery-filling scrapbook comprising a family tree, a video of 15-year-old Amy leading a student chorus, LPs and DVDs and videos from Winehouse’s own collection, most strikingly a few gorgeous, tiny stage dresses. But in an artist’s alcove in the back, something else is going on. There are color drawings by Rachel Harrison of Winehouse as an artist’s muse, Picasso’s for one (for her face, or her aura of someone definitely out of reach?), and large cartoon works by James Jägel, including New Ways of Thinking, which is Winehouse as the comic-strip Nancy with a big thumb’s up. But most of the space is taken by the Bay Area artist Jennie Ottinger’s series Mouth to Mouth: pieces from an animation of cultural appropriation, inspired by Daphne Brooks’s essay “‘This voice which is not one’: Amy Winehouse sings the ballad of sonic blue(s)face culture,” a 2010 essay from the journal Women & Performance.

You hear Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” layered over audiences clapping for Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, who appear on the walls along with images of Winehouse, the Ronettes, the Supremes, other girl groups, gospel singers—and what immediately strikes you are the mouths. These are all cut-out figures, and the mouths are further cut out from the faces, then pushed out an inch or so from the cheeks and chins (eyes, hair, arms and legs too may be cut out and distended). All over the walls there are countless black mouths floating, disconnected from any faces, as if the sign of hundreds of years of white-on-black ventriloquism, with a dozen or more white legs, cut off at the knee, and feet, too. All of the figures appear passive, or polite, in the way they stand, in the quiet expressions on their faces, but there’s violence everywhere.

Most unnerving is a section where a doubled Winehouse—standing and singing, seated with her legs splayed out to one side—is pictured in front of eight much smaller black women, in groups of two, three, four. Winehouse’s right arm tattoo of her grandmother as a young woman in short shorts is visible, along with Winehouse’s bouffant. An arm cut off from her body is holding a mike. And there’s a line cut right through her head, from the back of the head through the mouth—to suggest a strap-on black mouth, still an inch or two out from Winehouse’s mouth, to say it could never reach the face, become part of it, be anything more than a pathetic mask.

It’s a powerful argument, and a disturbing image absolutely complete in itself, a closed circle. But the violence on the walls is not foreign to the violence in Winehouse’s music—to the faint sounds you could hear of “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Tears Dry on Their Own.” There was a woman coming apart as you listened—and not just Winehouse. The other singers on the walls—Florence Ballard of the Supremes, Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes, so many more, exploited, used, discarded. I see a picture where no woman on the wall owns her own mouth, where no woman is really in possession of her own voice. Ottinger may have meant to show a white woman taking the voices of black women; she may have produced a tableau of women talking to each other, or trying to draw sounds and speech from their throats, and failing to make a sound.

From an adjoining comments wall: “A strange collection of ephemera. Certainly talented, certainly died too young, but totally lacking in anything truly sublime. Perhaps the fault of the exhibit, perhaps my fault, but seems to be a glorification of self-centeredness. Dieing young is easy to do.”

5) Jeffrey Foucault, “Slow Talker” on Salt as Wolves (Blueblade). From a Massachusetts singer, a country plea, a blues reach for facts beyond sound, the sense of immediate doom that only a slide guitar can make in its hesitations, its sense of suspension, that seem to hold everything a step behind where it ought to be. This is scary in the bend of the first note from Bo Ramsey’s milky, softly picked guitar. The way notes continue to break away from each other in the relentless syncopation of the piece leaves you stranded. Yes, this should have been the theme music for the second True Detective, but it doesn’t matter. Listen once, twice, three times—the beat is so elusive it keeps pulling you back—and you’ll hear the whole third season.


6) Wyndham Baird, “Fair and Tender Ladies,” 5th Annual Washington Square Folk Festival (New York, September 13). From Brooklyn, Baird plays all over the map— the Cadillacs’ 1955 doo-wop masterpiece “Speedo” with a country accent, the Nu Grape Twin’s weird 1926 nursery rhyme cum radio-spot gospel-sermon “I Got Your Ice Cold Nu Grape,” alongside Jackson Lynch of the old-timey string band Downhill Strugglers, Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” But among various chestnuts, this touched what the late Mike Seeger called the true vine. Affect seemed to vanish, the crowd disappeared. “You’d make me believe, from the fall of your arm,” he sang in a slow, droning voice, a woman thinking of her false lover, “That the sun rose in the west.” It was a deep dive into the loneliness and abandonment of the song. Baird drifted away from the ends of lines—not, it felt, because he didn’t want to sing them but because didn’t want to hear them.

7) Time Out of Mind, written and directed by Oren Moverman, music supervisor Stephanie Diaz-Matos (IFC). Aside from the moment when Richard Gere, as the confused and homeless George, sits down at an antique piano in a café and plays a harsh and twisting sophisticated blues (“Time Out of Mind,” Gere’s own composition) the music here, like the street noise and constant ambient noise of conversations (in the theater, you look around to see who’s talking), has the texture of weather. In a shelter, a second or two of the Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road” wafts in like a slight change in the air pressure. The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” is heard in a bar, but it feels less like anyone is playing it than that it’s been in the room, like a smell in the walls, since the place opened, or even before.

8) Sleeping with Other People, written and directed by Leslye Headland (IFC). In a college dorm, Jason Sudekis is trying to talk Alison Brie out of a crush she has on a creepy floormate. It’s like telling an Australian aborigine he’s going to hear the greatest music ever made, he says, and then playing him Blues Traveler instead of the Beatles. You’re dooming him to a life of mediocrity, and that’s what’s going to happen to you. Which turns out to be convincingly true, even if it is the high point of the movie.


Grete Stern, “Suenos”.

9) “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola”, Museum of Modern Art, New York (through October 4, 2015). Stern (1904-1999) started working in collage photography in Germany and continued in Argentina when she and the Argentine photographer Coppola (1906-2012), after 1935 her husband, left Europe in the face of the Nazi takeover. Stern’s most immediately striking work is her Sueños (Dreams) project, from 1948, where for the Buenos Aires magazine Idilio she collaborated on the “El psicoanálisis le ayudará” (“Psychoanalysis will help you”) column—then as now, Buenos Aires had as rich a psychoanalytic community as could be found anywhere in the world. Readers would send in their dreams; analysts would interpret them; Sterne would illustrate them. Seemingly influenced by Salvador Dali’s dream sequences in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound,” her collages are blazingly sexual, funny, sometimes obvious, usually not. A hand holds a paintbrush, with a woman’s feathery head of hair where the brush ought to be; people in theater boxes attend a concert where a woman plays a piano made of giant typewriter keys.

Stern’s most subtle and insinuating work—images that are likely to stay with you longer—were advertisements made in the early 1930s with Stern’s partner Ellen Auerbach in their design studio ringl + pit, especially two for the nerve potion Heliocentrin. Both are done in black, white, and yellow, both show women, and both, for anyone raised on the advertising of the last 70 years or so, glow with a grasp for the new, for a spirit of artistic freedom that can speak as loudly in an ad as on a stage, on a wall, on a page.

In one, a plainly depressed woman rests her head on a pillow, her eyes showing bitterness, hatred, and a wish for revenge; it’s clear nothing out of a bottle is going to change anything. A second ad shows a thin woman with very short hair, in a low-cut formal dress, looking away from the camera, to her left, unsmiling, but not necessarily unhappy. She’s not pretty, but she is beautiful, in a way that envelopes her in modernity—in the idea of the modern as a faith, a religion—and what you can see in her eyes, in the way her face holds her features, is someone thinking. About the party where her picture is being taken. About her dress. About her face. About what’s happening in the streets outside the mansion or the hotel where the party is taking place. About why she was born, and how long she’s going to live: how long she ought to live, how long she wants to live, and where, and why—thinking about everything.

10) Jon Stewart’s Daily Show finale (Comedy Central, August 6). Forget the satire, the greetings, the tributes. On this night when the GOP presidential debate offered a glimpse of an American future that may actually come to pass, let’s go straight to the tears: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s closing “Land of Hope and Dreams.” As a push into a future more full of freedom than the original “This Train,” which starts out naming all the people it won’t carry, this train has room for everyone. It breaks my heart every time, but never more so than this night. It pulled no punches, starting with “You don’t know where you’re going, but you know you won’t be back”—nothing could have been easier than to say, with a wave to the host, “You know that you’ll be back.” “This train—carries souls departed,” the heart of the song ends—and it ended. A few bars of “Born to Run” made a dance party finale, but this song hung in the air, over the future that had been prophesied just a click away, just a click away.