It was like someone flipped a lightswitch.

I’ve been listening to a number of podcasts from France Culture for the last couple of weeks, trying to tune my ear to a more rapid-fire, more quotidien mode of spoken French than I’ve been able to pick up from any of the French instruction audio I’ve listened to. Some of it’s been interesting, some of it’s been perplexing, some of it’s been an outright mystery, but all of it’s been work.

And then yesterday, I was listening to “le journal de 7h” (a five-to-thirteen minute podcast of the morning’s news headlines), and about three minutes in, I suddenly realized I’d heard it all. Heard, as in understood without actively listening, without paying attention, without trying to — or needing to — parse the sentences. Just heard.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I got a bit self-conscious about it, and the transparency of the language disappeared — but relaxing again, I was able to get it back, or at least glimpses of it. I spent much of the rest of the afternoon downloading and listening to other broadcasts, to see if the feeling was replicable, or if it was just a fluke, produced by the fact that I understood the basic facts of all of the stories presented. (No small feat: the conventions of French journalism are a good bit different from those in the U.S., not least around the amount of background info provided; in a story about the Bastille Day ceremonies, for instance, that mentions the d?©tente between Sarkozy and the army stemming from the Carcassonne affair, you can’t necessarily expect to be told what exactly happened in Carcassonne. It’s assumed you’ve been keeping up, so jumping in mid-stream can be hard.)

It turns out that the feeling was replicable. And even live: I turned on the radio and caught an absolutely amazing Barthesian analysis of the bagless vacuum cleaner, followed by a remarkable interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet.

It was the damnedest thing: one day, I could comprehend fine, but only with effort; the next day, the effort was gone. Like flipping a switch, and now the lights are on.

That sensation will probably come and go — my struggles with this language are far from over — but I wanted to record this moment for myself, so that I can remember that the possibility of fluency is really out there.


Yesterday was the summer solstice, of course, the longest day of the year, which hereabouts began with the first bits of sun, sometime around 5.15 am, and ended with the last bits, well after 10.30 pm. Last night was also the F?™te de la Musique, with live musical events of all genres taking place in squares and on streets throughout the city, stretching into the small hours. R. and I found ourselves at a caf?© on the Boulevard Montmartre, watching a couple of bands playing on the back of a truck parked right in front.

I quite liked the first band, a very young jazz/funk combo that went by the unfortunate name of Funky Chicken. The second group wasn’t bad, but they were a little too hard-core for my tastes. Which is the point at which I realize that I’m old: I have no idea how to characterize the band’s genre. There was clearly an inheritance from punk, though without the speed, and the bass line had a bit of a funk edge to it. But there was something a bit drony about the guitar part that had me thinking trance, except not electronic, and then there was something screamy about the vocals, that brought me around to hard-core. Which is where I realized I was totally making it up, and had no idea what I was talking about. Whatever: they were pretty good, especially the vocalist, but I enjoyed the first band a good bit better.

In any event, it was a fabulous evening. These short nights aren’t helping with my ongoing sleep issues, but the city is helping everyone recover a bit from their f?™tes by being quite grey and cloudy today. It may be the second-longest day of the year, but somebody’s thoughtfully turned down the lights a bit.

More on That Book

If you live in a market that carries Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, you may be able to catch me flogging The Anxiety of Obsolescence in the coming days. The show should also be available online starting Monday.

I’m going to be a little nervous about listening to it, myself; I have never much liked my recorded voice, for one thing, and for another, I honestly don’t remember what I said in the interview. But there it is…

Jazz Fest Photos

Jazz Fest
Originally uploaded by KF.

I took a few pictures during Jazz Fest using the less crappy than you’d expect but still crappier than you’d like camera on my cell phone. They’re now up on flickr, if you’re interested. In this particular photo, you can get a good sense of what I was able to see. Top center is the large video projection screen next to the Acura Stage, on which you see Bob Dylan. If you load the full-size version of the picture, you can see a small white speck onstage, just west of that young woman’s arm; that would also be Bob Dylan. Mostly, though, it’s just a sea of folks, on a gorgeous day.

Me & the Boss

Or, On Not Being a Bruce Springsteen Fan.

Such a subtitle will be greeted as sacrilege by a subset of my old grad school pals, or would be if they were still reading here, as their adolescences were entirely framed by his music. My adolescence moved between classic rock of a much more southern-fried variety and effortless mainstream pop, before finally veering off in a more new wavish direction. What Springsteen I knew was what got played on the radio which, in pre-Clear Channel Louisiana, wasn’t terribly much, and what there was always struck me as being overwrought and way too testosterone-dependent.

So I went into Sunday’s concert, the closing set of the first weekend of Jazz Fest, with pretty low expectations. I figured the highlight of the afternoon would be Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, the dean of New Orleans music and, well, Elvis, performing music from their forthcoming collaboration. What could be better?

See, when I heard Springsteen was playing, I assumed it would be, at least to some extent, the old stuff, the E Street Band stuff, the sort of power-trio-plus stuff, and I figured we’d listen a while and then wander off when it got old.

It didn’t get old.

This was perhaps the most inspired hour and a half of music I’ve ever seen performed. Springsteen’s appearance wasn’t at all the rehash of old favorites I’d expected, but an entirely new venture, the first date in his new tour with the Seeger Sessions Band. I’d been sitting on the ground, waiting between concerts, packed into my tiny, muddy spot of real estate, when the announcer began his intro. And ended it. All he said, in contrast to earlier, effusively descriptive lead-ins, was “Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.” By the time I’d gotten to my feet, the music had begun — and I was stunned to see that there were something on the order of 20 musicians on the stage, all playing acoustic instruments. There were, of course, a couple of backup guitarists and a drummer, but there was also a pianist, a stand-up bass player, a steel pedal guitarist, a five-piece horn section, two violinists, a banjo player, and an accordionist.

Not your average Springsteen concert, I think.

For an hour and a half, the band played an all-out set of Americana, folk and country and gospel-inspired songs, deeply political songs about devastation and hardship and the will to survive, songs that originated in the twentieth century’s many traumas. Most of the songs came from the just-released album, but a couple didn’t, including of course How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?, but also including a few reimagined versions of the older stuff that I thought I was going to hear — so thoroughly reimagined that I didn’t recognize them at all. And while it’s far from an original thought to say that Springsteen is at his best in concert — bringing astonishing energy and joy to his performances, playing on long after the crowd expected that he’d quit — it would be a mistake for me not to note it anyhow. Of all of the concerts I saw over the weekend, each of them worth far more than the ticket price on their own, Springsteen’s was the most amazing, a gift to a city that still hurts, a city that needs its own to come home, but that also needs to know that the rest of the world noticed, and cares.

I would not have expected to find myself, so far from my long-over adolescence, finding Bruce Springsteen relevant, much less rushing out to buy his new album. But here I am.

Jazz Fest

What I had intended was a series of daily updates. Of course, I also thought that I was going to use my hotel’s gym several times this weekend, so I clearly had some misunderstandings about how general time management was going to function while in New Orleans. But then, time management issues are not unusual in this city: there’s a reason why so many waiters and bartenders in NOLA are, or were, at least, in the years before Katrina, fortyish men whom we used to refer to collectively as the Lost Boys. Many of them moved to New Orleans at 18 or so, found themselves caught up in the music and the food and the nightlife, and next thing they knew two decades had gone by, and whatever plans they’d come here with had drifted away, like smoke in the breeze.

Fortunately, this was only a weekend, and one that was meant to be lost, anyhow.

Continue reading “Jazz Fest”

Go, Me

After what feels like days, my head is at last clearing, and I have my sights set on a productive weekend. Today, however, began with (a) me sleeping in, still recovering from the skull-splitting of the day before, and (b) an early-morning meeting, which, ick. But I’ve just gotten my hair cut and colored for the first time in months, and I’m about to do some work I’ve been putting off for what feels like just as long, so life is on the upswing.

Not to mention that I’ve got tickets to see these guys, and also these, tomorrow night. So I’m feeling all fired up.

That is all.

Earworm of the Week

I am frequently plagued by earworms. You know earworms, right — the songs that get stuck in your head? They seem inevitably to be the most annoying songs possible, and though their origins are often mysterious, for me at least, they can usually be traced back to some specific point of infection (muzak in the drugstore, commercial on the television, passing car stereo). And some percentage of the time, at least, recurring earworms are found to be connected to odd phrases of thoughts that trigger connections that link to lyrics that just won’t go away.

For instance, a couple of years ago I was plagued with an infestation of the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This, amazingly, I was able to trace back to the prescription for a certain pain medication, the thought of whose name inevitably tripped me into “chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool and all” for weeks on end.

Some, however, remain mysterious. Such is the current status of my most recent earworm. I find myself at the oddest moments — staring into the refrigerator trying to figure out what’s for dinner is a prime example — with Dope’s “You Spin Me Round” on repeat in my brain. And I’m clueless as to why. I inevitably come in right on the downbeat of the chorus — you spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round round round — as nothing in my thoughts seems to lead me there. And I’m at least not conscious of having heard the song of late, even in sampled or otherwise doctored form.

All I can hope is that going public with the infection will result in its rapid retreat.

A Couple of Updates

A quick update on that music meme there: I’ve discovered another excellent way to keep up with the hip kids and their music — serve as thesis advisor for the radio station’s music director. I got some great recommendations from him that I’ll be checking out over the weekend, and will post more about here soon after.

Also, on Dennis Lehane: I ended up not reading Mystic River on my flight after all, because I couldn’t find my copy of it. I thought I’d brought it to DC. In fact, I thought I had a copy of it at all. I’m completely baffled — if I had it, it’s totally walked off. The good news is that I found a copy of the elusive Gone, Baby, Gone in the Houston airport. So once I finish the Elmore Leonard I’m reading, I’m on to that one.

And, on being home: Good lord, but I love this condo. That is all.