Posted in Books, Movies, Music

The importance of reviewing books, films, and albums as they are, not as they’re not

I’ve already addressed some of these issues in “Bad vs. Good Negative Reviews” and “Reviewing old books and films with content which unsettles you,” but it’s been quite awhile since I wrote those posts, and I’m discussing a slightly different angle today.

Unfortunately, some people can’t grasp the concept of reviewing a product as it is, not as it’s not. It’s tantamount to whining about a painting because you would’ve put the tree on the left, made the sky overcast, and added more birds. You’re welcome to make your own painting with those specifics, but right now, you can only critique the other person’s painting as it already exists.

George Harrison’s Somewhere in England (1981) originally had different songs, different versions, a different track order, and a different cover, but Warner Brothers thought it wasn’t commercial enough.

George had to record some new songs, remove others, and change the cover and track order. The lead-off track “Blood from a Clone” is a not so subtle dig at these stuffed shirts who couldn’t think outside the box.

It really sucks that record company politics forced him to compromise his artistic vision and release an album that hasn’t aged as well and isn’t as consistent as most of his other work. But we can only review the album as it came out, since that’s the product that actually exists in material reality. It’s not fair to give it a bad rating just because it wasn’t what George intended.

I totally agree with someone at Amazon who said “Teardrops” sounds like an unholy collaboration between Paul McCartney and Elton John, and that it makes you feel like you have to take a shower afterwards!

I came to The Who’s final two albums, Face Dances and It’s Hard, expecting them to be an absolute pile of garbage. So many older fans had talked such smack about them, leading me to believe the worst. Then I actually listened to them and discovered they’re pretty good considering!

It’s Hard is one of my favouritest Who albums, and I’ve never fallen out of love with it since I first heard it on 3 September 2001. I consider Face Dances one of their weakest albums, but most of the songs aren’t nearly as bad as their reputation, and I’d rather listen to a weak Who album than just about any modern music!

Their main beefs with the last two albums are that Kenney Jones’s drumming isn’t nearly as good as Keith Moon’s, and they don’t measure up to the perfection of Who’s Next, Live at Leeds, or Quadrophenia. Well, yeah, duh! No one could ever mistake Kenney for Keith, but since Keith had gone to the other world, and they chose not to retire early, they needed a new drummer.

It’s also unfair and ridiculous to expect a band to spend the entire rest of their career constantly remaking their greatest albums instead of trying new things and evolving with the changing musical landscape.

Looking back all these years later, I realize what a long, slow, steep learning curve silent film was for me, even considering how I always loved silents and never mocked them as laughable, outdated relics. But very often in those early days of seriously cultivating this love, I was too quick to judge films as overrated and bad if they failed to immediately live up to all the hype.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Wind, Faust, and The General were just some of the films I damned as massively overrated on account of this. It never occurred to me that some films, books, and albums need to be watched, read, or listened to multiple times before we start to appreciate and understand them.

The same goes for some classic sound films. Casablanca and Citizen Kane failed to blow me away the first time I saw them, thanks to all the massive hype, so I declared they were some of the most overrated films ever. And I was about 25 or 26, not some kid who knew jack about film history and appreciation!

When I watched Citizen Kane, I was also extremely drowsy and almost falling asleep multiple times, so my physical state of mind wasn’t very good either.

The Haj, by Leon Uris, was going so well until it completely fell apart in the last 50 pages or so. All these characters I’d gotten to know and love suddenly starting acting so out of character, and the entire story unraveled, without seeing storylines and characters through to their natural conclusions.

That’s a valid criticism many readers have made. What isn’t a valid criticism is ranting against an entire book because you don’t like any of the premise, narrative, thematic, character, plot, storyline, setting, development, dialogue, etc., decisions the author made. You’re not reviewing the book that actually exists, but whining because it’s not how you would’ve done it.

I didn’t really start getting into the Betsy-Tacy series until the fourth book, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, and then felt distant again for the next two books. Only with the seventh book, Betsy Was a Junior, did I finally really begin to mesh with the characters and stories.

I feel bad for how I was a bit too harsh on the books in my reviews until I got to that point. I unfairly judged them because I couldn’t relate to Betsy’s cushy upper-middle-class life and focus on social life over school, and was also coming to them as an adult instead of growing up with them.

However, that doesn’t mean they deserved mediocre ratings. When I reread the series, I’m going to try to focus more on what they actually are instead of what they’re not.

And that’s how we should approach everything we review.

Posted in Hermann Hesse, Music

Hermann Hesse Month, Part III (Hermann Hesse awards and memorials)

Since 9 August 2022 is Hermann Hesse’s 60th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m devoting the month of August to a celebration of his life and works. Today we’re exploring his legacy in the form of awards, prizes, and medals named for him, as well as museums, colloquia, stamps, music, and more.

In 1956, in celebration of Hesse’s approaching 80th birthday (2 July 1957),  Fördergemeinschaft der Deutschen Kunst eV (the Association for the Promotion of German Art) in Karlsruhe, Germany created the Hermann Hesse Literature Prize. They felt it was very important to support postwar German literature, and Hesse immediately gave his consent when he was asked about it in 1955:

“I agree with the Karlsruhe Hesse Prize. Since the young poet gains something from it, it may at least be reminded of the past and tradition through my name.”

Originally, the winner got 10,000 marks. Today, it earns 15,000 Euros plus a sponsorship prize of another 5,000 Euros.

The Calwer Hermann Hesse Prize has been awarded since 1990, on 2 July, Hesse’s birthday, for international literary works in his tradition. They can be either original works or translations, and up to three people can win the award every year. The Calwer Hermann Hesse Foundation also awards a scholarship.

Thrice a year, a writer or translator spends three months in Calw, Hesse’s hometown, to provide them with literary inspiration for their work. They’re provided with an apartment and a monthly salary of 2,000 Euros. The prize itself was originally 20,000 marks, but is now 20,000 Euros.

Since 2017, Calw’s International Hermann Hesse Society has also awarded the International Hermann Hesse Society Prize.

Calw additionally shows its great love and respect for its native son through the Hermann Hesse Medal of the City of Calw, awarded since 1964. Recipients demonstrate “outstanding merit or creative work in the civic, social or scientific field or a special connection with the city of Calw.” Winners include politicians, artists, Hesse scholars, literary historians, and bookbinders.

In 1964, Calw archivist Walter Staudenmeyer created a memorial to Hesse above the city’s new archive. Some of the items were on loan from Marbach’s Schiller National Museum, and have since been returned. However, in their place, new additions to the collection were made through the purchase of Hesse’s watercolours and letters, first editions, and other treasures.

A permanent museum was created with these objects in March 1990. Other members of Hermann Hesse’s family, like his maternal grandfather Hermann Gundert, are also celebrated here. Lectures and special programmes are regularly held.

In Calw, there are also commemorative plaques at Hesse’s birthplace and residence from 1889–94, and the publishing house Calwer Verlagsverein, which both sides of his family worked for.

Hesse’s birthplace, Copyright Frank Vincentz

On 13 September 1991, German astronomers Freimut Börngen and Lutz Dieter Schmadel discovered an inner main belt asteroid at the Thuringian State Observatory Tautenberg in the Tautenberg Forest of the state of Thuringia. It was designated as 9762. Seven years later, on 8 December 1998, it was named Hermannhesse (one word).

Hesse Museum, Copyright Silesia711

In 1948, 84-year-old Richard Strauss wrote a four-song cycle based on Hermann Hesse’s poems “Frühling” (“Spring”), “September,” “Beim Schlafengehen” (“When Falling Asleep”) and Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”). Since these were among Strauss’s final completed works, his friend Ernst Roth posthumously titled them Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) when he published them in 1950.

Strauss thought about setting two more Hesse poems, “Nacht” (“Night”) and “Höhe des Sommers” (“Height of Summer”), to music, and started work on a choral setting of the Hesse poem “Besinnung” (“Reflection”), but abandoned the project because it was too complicated.

All the poems except “Frühling” deal with Death, which perhaps appealed to Strauss as he neared the end of his life. The musical settings of these poems are full of acceptance, calm, and coming full circle.

Strauss passed away in September 1949.

The songs are meant for a soprano, and scored for a piccolo, three flutes (the third doubling as a second piccolo), two oboes, an English horn, two clarinets, a bass clarinet, three bassoons (the third doubling as a contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, a timpani, a harp, a celesta, and strings.

Copyright Hans-juergen.breuning

Casa Camuzzi, a castle-like palazzo with an exotic, terraced park in Hesse’s adopted hometown of Montagnola, Switzerland, where he lived from 1919–31, contains a museum celebrating his life and works. It opened on 2 July 1997, his 120th birthday.

Copyright Monster4711

Another Hesse museum is located in Gaienhofen, Germany. There’s also a special cabinet in Tübingen, Germany, where he apprenticed and worked in an antiquarian bookstore.

Many streets, squares, and schools throughout Switzerland and Germany are named for him, and in 2023, the Württemberg Black Forest Railway from Stuttgart is scheduled to be renamed the Hermann-Hesse-Bahn.

In 2002, to mark his 125th birthday, Deutsche Post issued a stamp of Hermann Hesse.

The manuscripts, artwork, and other artifacts from his estate are kept in various archives and libraries in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Since 1977, the International Hermann Hesse Colloquium has been held in Calw every few years, and since 2000, the Silser-Hesse Days have been held in Sils-Maria, Switzerland every summer. (Hermann Hesse Literature Prize) (Calwer Hermann Hesse Foundation) (German text of Four Last Songs) (Hermann Hesse Montagnola Museum)

Posted in 2000s, Music, The Who

Remembering John Entwistle on his 20th Jahrzeit

It’s hard to believe the Earth has revolved around the Sun twenty times since John Alec Entwistle, the greatest bass player in rock history, left the material world at the relatively young age of 57, on 27 June 2002. Whereas no one was shocked by George Harrison’s passing seven months earlier, John’s untimely death was a bolt from out of the blue. He seemed in perfect health.

What made it even more shocking and heartbreaking was that it was on the eve of a huge summer tour of the U.S. And though I’ve always felt very strongly that It’s Hard is The Who’s swan song, John’s death made me wish they had put out a new album, one final musical memory of him. (To date, I’ve still not listened to the recent albums Pete and Roger made, apart from a few songs coming up on auto-generated YouTube playlists.)

It was a Thursday, and I had recently, unhappily come home to Pittsfield after graduating UMass–Amherst. While reading the day’s digest of IGTC (a Who mailing list), I saw a message from someone who said he heard John had just died. We thought it was a joke or terrible false news, but confirmation quickly came in, and multiple news and music sources began reporting it.

A big debate broke out re: whether Pete and Roger should continue the tour without John or pack it in and gracefully retire. I thought it was the right decision to play the first night as planned, since they did it in John’s memory, and Pete and Roger (famous longtime frenemies) shared a very emotional hug onstage. But after that, I felt it was wrong to keep touring without John. It’s one thing to lose a single bandmember and find a solid substitute, as they did when Moonie died and Kenney Jones joined them, but it’s an entirely different story when only half of the original band remains.

Almost no one liked John’s replacement, Pino Palladino. How does one even begin to try to fill such mammoth shoes?

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock (155628xa)
The Who – John Entwistle
‘Various’ – 1960

And then we found out about John’s shenanigans with cocaine and a groupie stripper the night before, and we were so disappointed. But I’ve already said everything I needed to say about that matter in the pages of my journals over the years. John is no longer here to explain and defend himself, and we should let the dead rest in peace.

For at least a month following his untimely passing, I wrote about John and the ensuing events every single day in my journal Athena. The fan community’s emotions were so raw, and we needed time to process what had happened. Yes, we didn’t know him personally, but he still meant a great deal to us for so many years. It felt like losing a friend or relative. People who aren’t longtime passionate fans of a band will never understand this.

I said Kaddish for John every week during the period of shloshim (the first thirty days after death), possibly through to his first Jahrzeit (death anniversary). And during shloshim, I finally made the switch from saying mechayeh hakol (who gives life to all) to mechayeh hameytim (who gives life to the dead) in the second blessing of the Amidah. In the wake of John’s death, it felt so comforting to imagine the dead being resurrected in the Messianic Era.

Mechayeh hakol is Reform liturgy, which I just couldn’t get myself to abandon even after I began attending Conservative and Orthodox services. But ever since that summer of 2002, I’ve said it as automatically as I say anything else in the liturgy. Perhaps I would’ve eventually made the switch anyway, but John’s passing hastened that aspect of my spiritual growth and development.

May you rest in eternal peace, dear Junnykins, and may your beautiful memory be for an eternal blessing. I love your bass-playing, your quirkiness, your dark sense of humor, your skeleton suit, your deep Boris the Spider voice, your songwriting, your quiet one status within your band, your stoic state onstage while the other three were going bananas, your handsome face. The world is a better place because you were in it.

Posted in 1940s, Music, Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history

The Ukrainian Quintet of Borys Lyatoshynskyy (Український квінтет Бориса Лятошинськия)

Borys Mykolayovych Lyatoshynskyy (22 December 1894/3 January 1895–15 April 1968) was born into an intellectual family in Zhytomyr. His father, Mykola Leontiyovych, was a renowned history teacher; his mother, Olga Borysivna, was a pianist and singer; and his paternal grandfather was a famous doctor.

From a young age, Borys showed himself a musical prodigy, particularly with the violin and piano. However, he didn’t start taking music seriously until he was at gymnasium in Zlatopol (where his dad was director). He played in the school orchestra, studied violin, and at age fourteen wrote several compositions.

In 1918, he graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Kyiv, and in 1919, he graduated from the Kyiv Conservatory. From that point on, he was almost constantly composing. He also was a professor at several conservatories including his alma mater. 

A great honour came in 1939, when he was elected chairman of the board of the Union of Composers of Ukraine. Another triumph followed in April 1941, a concert of his music being performed by the Kyiv Philharmonic to great success. Borys himself conducted.

Following the Nazi invasion of June 1941, Borys was evacuated to Saratov, where he taught at the relocated Moskva Conservatory. This city was also the location of the underground Ukrainian partisan Taras Shevchenko radio station, which broadcast from 23 November 1941–10 March 1944. Borys and his wife, Margaryta Tsarevich, regularly participated in these broadcasts. He also was instrumental in rescuing Ukrainian musical manuscripts and transporting them away from danger zones.

Borys wrote many compositions during the war and arranged more than eighty Ukrainian folk songs. Among his musical output was the work which became his central focus of these years, the Ukrainian Quintet, for which he received the Stalin Prize in 1946. The version he débuted in 1945 is a bit different from the later revised version.

The Quintet harnesses melancholia, renewal, pessimism, decadence, despair, anxiety, revitalization, modernism, atonality, polyphonic writing, folk motifs, and a vital driving force.

This version was recorded by Lyashynskyy’s own students!

During the summer of 1944, Borys returned to his homeland and moved into an apartment in the Rolit Writers’ House in Kyiv, where he lived until his death in 1968. He continued to compose just as prolifically as ever, and was awarded the title Merited Artist of the USSR and the medal For Valiant Labour in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945 in 1945, and another Stalin Prize in 1952.

Several music schools and streets have been named for Borys, and his beautiful music is still enjoyed and appreciated by people of all generations.

Posted in 2010s, Music, The Monkees

The Monkees’ perfect swan song album

Copyright Rhino Entertainment; image used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

The Monkees’ final album, Good Times!, was released 27 May 2016 and instantly became a huge surprise hit. Many other bands who release albums so far past their peak of popularity, and without having made any albums regularly for a long time, can only dream of such commercial and critical success. Almost all reviewers had a very positive opinion of it, and lauded it as The Monkees’ finest in years.

The album was #1 on the U.S. Billboard Vinyl Albums chart, #10 in New Zealand, #14 on the U.S. Billboard 200, #20 in Australia, #24 in Scotland, #29 in the U.K., #57 in Switzerland, #58 in Ireland, #83 in Belgium, #95 in Canada, and #130 in Japan.

Rhino executives John Huges and Mark Pinkus suggested the idea of an album to celebrate The Monkees’ 50th anniversary, and hired Adam Schlesinger of the band Fountains of Wayne as producer. A few of the songs were written back in the Sixties, but never released, not even on rarities collections. The leading track incorporates an old demo by Harry Nilsson, and to represent Davy, they used an alternate version of “Love to Love” with new backing vocals by Micky and Peter.

Prior to the release of Good Times!, on 28 April 2016, a music video for “She Makes Me Laugh” was released. This was a great choice for the first sneak preview. The song very much evokes their Sixties sound, and the video is so sweet, fun, and adorable. You’d never guess Micky was anywhere close to 71 when it was recorded! He truly is one of the most criminally underrated male vocalists in rock.

The next song to be released prior to the album’s début was “You Bring the Summer,” which is also a really fun, quintessentially Monkees’ song.

Track listing:

“Good Times” (written by Harry Nilsson; sung by Micky and Harry)
“You Bring the Summer” (written by Andy Partridge; sung by Micky)
“She Makes Me Laugh” (written by Rivers Cuomo; sung by Micky)
“Our Own World” (written by Adam Schlesinger; sung by Micky)
“Gotta Give It Time” (written by Jeff Barry and Joey Levine; sung by Micky)
“Me & Magdalena” (written by Ben Gibbard; sung by Mike and Micky)
“Whatever’s Right” (written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart; sung by Micky)
“Love to Love” (written by Neil Diamond; sung by Davy)
“Little Girl” (written and sung by Peter)
“Birth of an Accidental Hipster” (written by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller; sung by Mike and Micky)
“Wasn’t Born to Follow” (written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King; sung by Peter)
“I Know What I Know” (written and sung by Mike)
“I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” (written by Micky and Adam Schlesinger; sung by Micky)

Bonus tracks on various editions (none of which I’ve yet heard):

“Love’s What I Want” (written by Andy Partridge; sung by Micky) (Japanese edition, Barnes & Noble 7″ vinyl, and and 10″ vinyl Record Store Day [RSD] Black Friday Exclusive)
“A Better World” (written by Nick Thorkelson; sung by Peter) (FYE edition, B&N vinyl, and RSD)
“Terrifying” (written by Zach Rogue; sung by Micky) (digital download and RSD)
“Me & Magdalena” (Version Two) (digital download and RSD)

My favorite tracks are “Me & Magdalena” (so gorgeous!), “She Makes Me Laugh,” “Love to Love” (though was the Davy vault really that dry they had to use an alternate version of an already-released song?), and “Wasn’t Born to Follow.”