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October 30, 2007

Note Books - Michael Kentoff (The Caribbean)

The Note Books series features musicians discussing their literary side. Past contributors have included John Darnielle, John Vanderslice, and many others.

In its review of the Caribbean's new album, Populations (out today), Pitchfork described the band's songwriting that "maps a world caught between childhood imagination and adult drudgery, where you can be a secret agent one minute and stuck in a dead-end job the next." The band (and its music) is smart and literate, the musical equivalent of a Stewart O'Nan novel, and frontman Michael Kentoff is a perfect fit for the Note Books series...


In his own words, here is the Note Books entry from Michael Kentoff of the Caribbean:


For a long time after college and grad school, I found it nearly impossible to read fiction. Although my condition has improved, I still struggle with a lot of modern literary fiction; much of it – and I’m not naming names here – just seems like fussy, overwritten navel-gazery to me. In its place, I discovered some great non-fiction that altered my view of things and made me excited to get home from work and finish dinner.


Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis by Ian Kershaw [1998-2000]

Some well-meaning people harass guys like Kershaw or the filmmakers of Downfall, a German film about Hitler’s final days in the Berlin bunker, for “humanizing” Hitler – as if Hitler, whatever else might be said, were something other than a human being. When we demonize people who do terrible things, we learn to zoom in on the result and pay little mind to the chain of events and decisions that led there. It is far more instructive and interesting to see how someone like Hitler, a flawed, average, somewhat interesting young man with comprehensible aspirations becomes the nefarious Hitler of history who sanctioned and cheer-led some of the most disgusting crimes in modern history. In the first volume, Kershaw, who clearly finds Hitler lacking in some important components of virtue at a fairly young age, spares few details in tracing Hitler’s path from a small Austrian town to bitter homelessness in Vienna to finding his own “voice” in Munich with the National Socialist party. It was, in part, Hitler’s homelessness, near starvation, failure as an artist, and complete desperation to find his way in the world that made him particularly receptive to the more virulent strains of anti-Semitic rhetoric floating around Vienna before, during, and after World War I. That he was very fond of his family’s Jewish doctor and had many Jewish patrons of his paintings [when he finally did have patrons] wasn’t enough to divert his path from demagoguery and genocide. Kershaw deftly ties Hitler’s early flaws into those that led to his [and the Third Reich’s] undoing in the 40s. When it’s all over, you realize that real people are much more frightening than monsters; you often can’t see them coming.


Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick [1986]

Guralnick can write about anything and make it stick in my brain. His biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke could easily stand in the place of this choice, but Sweet Soul Music – probably because it spends so much time in one of my favorite cities, Memphis, and details the rise and fall of two of my favorite labels, Stax and Hi – gets my nod based more on feeling than merit. If the stories of Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Al Green, Booker T & the MGs, and countless others don’t make you want to pick up a Telecaster and eat some greasy food, a life in music or as a fat person is probably not for you.


Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios by Jim Cogan and William Clark [2003]

I realize John Vanderslice already referenced this book, but another vote from a graduate of Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland can’t hurt. This is stuff for geeks, no question, but the photograph of Gentleman Jim Reeves crooning into a Telefunken U-47 is worth the price of this book alone. RCA Studio B in Nashville – with Chet Atkins at the helm – delivered some of the most luxurious, lush music in recorded history. Now I know I know why it all sounded so amazing: they refrigerated the reverb plates! It all makes sense now!


My Dark Places by James Ellroy [1996]

As a devout watcher of A&E’s Cold Case Files, this was a natural for me. What I didn’t expect was to discover such a freakishly brilliant writer. The story alone of the unsolved murder of Ellroy’s mother in El Monte, California in 1958 [when Ellroy was 10] and his subsequent personal disintegration and piece-by-piece re-integration is enough to sustain this reader. Ellroy’s prose, however, is kinetic, streamlined, ridiculous, and beautiful and led me into the warped world of his wonderful novels like American Tabloid and L.A. Confidential. It was this book, in a way, that led me back into fiction, tramping through the fertile fields of noir [Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald], back into more “classic” literary territory like Philip Roth and Evelyn Waugh and odd, jazzbo geniuses like Philip K. Dick and James Tiptree. I even got the word “jazzbo” from Ellroy – pretty sure.


The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Third Edition [2003]

Speaking of jazzbo, Kees was a renaissance man in 40s and 50s San Francisco – poet, fiction writer, pianist, painter, essayist, sketch writer, jazz critic, photographer – who probably died on July 18, 1955 [his car was found on the north end of Golden Gate Bridge and he was never seen nor heard from again]. Aside from the fact that July 18th is my birfday, Kees’s poetry sparked the synapses in my left hemisphere immediately. The first thing I noticed was that he was an artist out of time. His writing is post-modern and immediate, currently ageless. Take the poem, “Crime Club,” which, with a title than might be at home on a Trans Am record, could have been written [but for references even then a little untimely] at any time in the past twenty years or even next month, but 1943?

No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open
And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
Passing. The corpse quiet dead. The wife in Florida.

Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,
The torn photograph of a Weslyan basketball team
Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,
The note: "To be killed this way is quite all right with me."

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.


Caribbean links:

Free and legal mp3 downloads from the band:

"The Go From Tactical" [mp3] from Populations
"Bees, Their Vision and Language" [mp3] from Populations
"First & Apple" [mp3] from Plastic Explosives
"French Radio" [mp3] from Plastic Explosives
"Siamese Sons" [mp3] from Plastic Explosives
"William of Orange" [mp3] from William of Orange
"The Go From Tactical" [mp3] from The Go From Tactical b/w The Beverly Boys
"Bulbs & Switches" [mp3] from History's First Know-It-All
"Fresh Out of Travel Agent School" [mp3] from History's First Know-It-All
"What Would Jane Jacobs Say? (Jane Jacobs RIP: 1916-2006)" [mp3] from Verse by Verse
"Help Would Only Confuse Me" [mp3] from Verse by Verse

the band's website
the band's MySpace page

Pitchfork review of Populations
Erasing Clouds review of Populations

Caribbean tracks at Hype Machine
Caribbean tracks at Largehearted Boy


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Note Books submissions (musicians discuss literature)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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