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The Gigantor of Art: Alex Ross’ new book Wagnerism LA Review of Books, September 2020

IN AN EPISODE OF Curb Your Enthusiasm called “Trick or Treat,” Larry David whistles Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” outside a movie theater. Another patron confronts him about how he must be a self-hating Jew to whistle Wagner so nonchalantly; after all, the Nazis played that music in the camps. Alex Ross describes this scene, in his dense new book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, as a train wreck of political earnestness and comic conceit. Israel has long had a “no Wagner” policy in its theaters and concert halls, but allows broadcasts of his operas on radio and television, and Larry David toys with this history, his response amounting to a classic projection-denial: “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.” For revenge, he leads a brass band playing Die Meistersinger outside his antagonist’s window, waking him up in the middle of the night — “[m]uch as Wagner serenaded [his second wife] Cosima with the Idyll,” Ross points out.

In some quarters, you can’t so much as mention Wagner without inviting a hailstorm of derision and defensiveness. And as Ross makes plain throughout his encyclopedic study of Germany’s second-most controversial figure, the composer/writer earns both awe and contempt in spades…

Puppies, Rainbows, and Ken Burns: Country Music, Smoothed Over
truthdig, September 2019

A very good friend of mine, now deceased, interviewed Buck Owens back in the 1990s as the Buckaroo promoted his box set. My friend pitched Owens his favorite softball: “Hank or Lefty?” Owens, without blinking, shot back: “Merle.” In Ken Burns’ new 16-hour PBS documentary, “Country Music,” Merle Haggard muses fondly about the early 1950s, when every jukebox posed that weighty question to all honky-tonkers: Hank or Lefty, savior or sinner, martyr or scoundrel? The music’s gentle surface barely concealed its emotional sting.

Hank, Lefty … or Merle? It’s the kind of messy argument you won’t see or hear in this ambitious yet unremarkable PBS history, nor from the 560-page book tie-in Burns co-authors with Dayton Duncan. The clever way Owens lands on “Merle” won’t make any more sense after you read this book…

No Success Like Failure: On Will Birch’s Nick Lowe biography
LA Review of Books, August 2019

Nick Lowe biography

WHEN I FIRST SAW Nick Lowe at a standing-room-only club in Boston in 1990, it felt as though every person in the room had once sold me a used record. Lowe was fronting his Cowboy Outfit, a tightly coiled ensemble that summoned ballast and menace as they worked through the songs on Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988), encoring with that album’s shaggy-dog closer, “Big Big Love.” My girlfriend and I soon had that title engraved into the inner band of our wedding rings…

more clips

Return of the Unrepressed: White Album and Imagine box, LA Review of Books, January 2019

Evolution of a Medium, truthdig, July 2019

Dylanizing the Great American Songbook, LA Review of Books, January 2019

#BlackLivesMatter and the Untold Story of Altamont, truthdig, September 2018

Serkin, Gould and the Pianist’s Ideal, truthdig, January 2018

Sticky Fingers, truthdig, December 2017

The American Sputnik: Van Cilburn Heats Up the Cold War, LA Review of Books, May 2017

I Am Brian Wilson, truthdig, March 2017