Friday, March 30, 2012

Messing with the Once and Future King

Sometimes I think reinventing classics is an unnecessary and arrogant way of putting one's own personal stamp on an icon, or take advantage of the brand to line one's pockets. Hollywood loves to do this with just about everything. Sometimes though, it is refreshing to have a new approach to an old standard. I feel that way about Christopher Nolan's Batman, and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood.

There are plenty of iconic, legendary characters out there to unearth, rewrite, revisit, parody, etc. However, depending on the character, there are some staunch scholars that do not like having their icon messed with. A good example recently would be the cry of outrage by Star Wars fans over George Lucas's editing of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars in 1997. The theatrical release in 1977 has Han Solo shooting Greedo the bounty hunter first.

Han Solo, although a Sci-Fi icon, is not truly a legendary character, in the true sense of the word. There are epic characters, true legends, whose origins are so far removed that sometimes it is difficult to truly state whether they are fiction, or actually existed in some form. Beowulf, Achilles and Agamemnon, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Roland, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Robin Hood are all good examples. Even characters from more modern American tales can fit this category, like John Henry, Paul Bunyon, and Mike Fink.

Then of course, there is Arthur.

King Arthur of Camelot, the heroic, tragic, legendary defender of England, and chivalry. Tales of Arthur can be traced back as far as 828 as recorded in Historia Brittonum. Since then, Arthur has been elevated to mythic status as a medieval Christian hero, defender of Britain from pagan evils, and leader during the "good old days" when England was at peace in a simpler time.

and things were animated cell by cell

This brings me to The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. Since the earliest known record of Arthur places him as a real person in 6th century England, Bernard Cornwell writes his trilogy placing Arthur in that time period as accurately as one can. Beginning with The Winter King, Cornwell builds the time period, narrating it through the first person experience of a third party. The narrator is Derfel of Cadarn and is based on Sir Bedivere.

This Arthur in this setting is not the romantic, chivalrous Christian hero that Arthurian scholars and fans would expect. The world Cornwell has dropped him in is brutal,and unforgiving, with very different priorities, customs and beliefs that all contribute to how the character behaves. He is a warrior, a reluctant king who finds himself in the midst of invasion and political conflict and comes out a legend.

 This Arthur is not perfect. The character is portrayed as a normal man, full of hopes and dreams, one that makes mistakes, and one susceptible to lusts, and deception. This Arthur is all of those, plus he is portrayed as indifferent to religion (Christian or pagan), but heroic all the same.

Those are pretty large changes to the Arthurian legends formed through hundreds of years of folklore, Christian interpretation, and popular novellas. However, there is more. The beloved character Lancelot has a complete makeover.  Instead of a chivalrous, heroic, moral knight in shining armor, as the name Lancelot has come to be synonymous with, Cornwell has turned the character on its head. This Lancelot is cruel, deceptive, a coward who pays minstrels to sing of his chivalry, glory, and heroism which comes as all undeserved. This Lancelot is a revenge seeking opportunist. Cornwell gives all of Lancelot's legendary attributes to his version of Galahad, who is portrayed as Lancelot's half brother.

These differences, of course, have made the Romantic Arthurian fanbase very angry. They behave very much like comicbook fans discussing changes in continuity. However, fans of historic fiction, and realism have nothing but praise for this brilliant reworking of the classic characters and legends.

The sheer amount of folklore gave Cornwell many characters and events to work into this historical time period. He does pretty well. Arthur, of course, is there, as is Merlin, Derfel/Bedivere, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Mordred, Morgan le Fey, Nimue, Kay, Culhwch, Owain, Tristan and Isolde, Sagramor, Pellinore, Bors, and Balin. These characters don't always match up to their folklore counterparts, but they all make appearances, just as classic Arthur story lines make appearances. The grail quest, Tristan and Isolde, and the round table bear no resemblance to the folklore, and mirror mostly what would happen in real life in 500 AD instead of idyllic romantic tales.

These books are well written, exciting, and interesting; not just for historical fiction buffs either. Even if you are one of these Arthur purists, credit must be given to Cornwell for using the characters so well. This trilogy, for me, is like an Elseworlds tale published by DC comics. Everyone knows who Superman is, but things get interesting when you place this iconic character in the USSR, or the wild west, or in the middle of the Congo raised by apes. It may not be true to the canonical Superman, but these stories sure are cool. I feel Cornwell's trilogy about Arthur is like that. Even though it may not be true to the Arthurian legends that fans and scholars venerate, the story is still good, and it's fun to find where he has put the iconic characters, and how he approaches the classic tales.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Frunobulax, a Very Large Poodle Dog

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Roxy and Elsewhere
1974, DiscReet
produced by Frank

I'm sure there are better Mothers albums out there. This one is live. I actually never bought anything else, although I could. My dad had most of his records. This is the only one he let me play when I was a kid, claiming it was the least vulgar.

As live albums go, it is great. It is not a complete live show, but rather a show spliced together from live performances at the Roxy in Hollywood, the Chicago Auditorium, and Edinboro State College. Even the individual tracks have been edited, using material from the three shows to create Frankenstein-like tracks.

There are a few instrumentals showcasing the versatility and musicianship of the group, and clever antics like Dummy Up. Notable musicians in this line-up include Napoleon Murphy Brock; Bruce, Tom, and Walt Fowler; and Ruth Underwood. My favorite track is Cheapnis, an homage to B-movie monster flicks.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beware the Man in Black

Johnny Cash
American Recordings
1994, American
produced by Rick Rubin
  • Delia's Gone
  • The Man who Couldn't Cry
This is more about proving that even though a man is old, he can still make music. There is also something in this about the ability to cross over between audiences... and how record companies are pretty ignorant when it comes to marketability, or talent, or anything really.  

This album brought Johnny Cash, a country/Nashville legend, the Man in Black, the dark side of country music past to the Gen Xer. Thrown out by Columbia Records, and condemned by the CMA after nearly 30 years, Cash was united with Rick Rubin from American Records. Rubin helped country music's old outlaw reemerge and make hit records again. This is the first. American Recordings won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album in 1994. This has become a must-have for any fan of Johnny Cash.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bourbon, Scotch, Beer

John Lee Hooker
The Best of John Lee Hooker 1965-1974
1992, Universal

I know,  I know, it is a best-of album, and most of the time best-of albums ought to be avoided at all costs.

However, sometimes they are a good idea, especially if it's an artist one is trying to get into and learn more about. The exception to this good idea is the GratefulDead. I've said this before, do not buy best-of Grateful Dead albums, you'll be cheated.  

Anyway, this particular John Lee Hooker album is great. Not only does it have good recordings of some classics like Boom Boom Boom, and One Bourbon One Scotch and One Beer, it also has a pretty excellent track with Van Morrison. Unfortunately, my copy is scratched and all the tracks work, except the Van Morrison track. Just my luck. And I can't even buy that one online, as it is an album exclusive. Bastards!