Thursday, March 22, 2007

Futuristic Punk-Soul.

Yesterday I completed a four-disc set I’ve been slowly working on for about a year and a half: a comprehensive overview of the music of Ike & Tina Turner.

There are two primary misconceptions out there that need debunking:

1) Ike held Tina Turner back from achieving her full potential until she went multi-platinum in the 80s with “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”

2) Ike & Tina Turner were a relatively minor act in the history of r&b, soul, and funk, hampered by second-rate material and pedestrian arrangements.

If you think the first is true, I have nothing to say to you. Enjoy your shallow little hell of Billboard-charting music. The rest of us will be over here, listening to the good stuff.

The second misconception is more serious, and more widespread. Part of it is simple rockism (which can be code for racism): “album artists are more important than singles artists, legendary labels like Atlantic, Motown, Sun, and Philles are more worth paying attention to than thousands of small, no-budget labels, and Beatlesesque diversity, ambition, and writing-their-own-songs are the marks of the true artist.” Part of it is an understandable desire to ignore a wife-beating, time-serving asshole like Ike Turner (so why are Phil Spector, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown still revered?). And part of it is the almost legendarily fucked-up state of their discography.

A large chunk of Ike & Tina’s music remains trapped in vinyl grooves, never issued on CD (or even LP!), and only showing up in drips and drabs on quasi-legitimate reissues and budget-priced compilations. The Turners recorded for more than ten different labels while they were together, and very few of those labels are speaking to each other, even today. Until Rhino manages to get everyone to play nice — and good luck prying Phil Spector’s gunpowder-stained fingers off the tracks he owns — and issues the definitive collection, this wholly imaginary one will have to do. All the tracks here have been issued on CD; it would take some work, but you could track them all down.

Ike and Tina Turner were one of the greatest musical acts of the 1960s and 1970s, that golden age of Greatest Musical Acts, easily on a par with Sixties legends like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Sly & the Family Stone, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown. But they were also profoundly influential at the very beginning, not only of rock, not only of soul, but of rock & roll.

Ike Turner played on and probably composed one of the finest claimants to the title of The Very First Rock & Roll Record, “Rocket 88.” He was a great barrelhouse pianist, comparable to Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and when he picked up the guitar, his stinging, nasty tone and piercing solos made him the equal of blues legends like Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. When he hooked up with a Tennessee r&b singer named Annie Mae Bullock, the foundations of r&b shook. Ike & Tina’s very first record, “A Fool in Love,” released at the dawn of the 1960s, was something new under the sun: it opens with a low, bluesy, daemonic wail from Tina, who moans, “there’s something on my mind....” and then the Kings of Rhythm and the Ikettes burst in, all explosive rhythm and insistent, chanting vocals. Tina’s raw, sandpaper voice shrieks, howls, fights, screams, as the Ikettes gleefully taunt her with being a fool whose man is gonna run out on her. (And life imitated art. Over and over again. The constant undercurrent of Ike & Tina songs is that love means jealousy, violence, betrayal, and revenge. They are the bluesiest soul group ever.) Nothing quite this raw, or this highly-charged, had soared up the charts before. And they remained raw. Trebly, nasty, with Ike’s fuzzed-up guitar and Tina’s hoarse shrieks, they’re the opposite of what a lot of soul fans love. When they tried to be smooth, they only became deeply strange instead, and bankrupted Phil Spector into the bargain. Ike’s insistence on overcharged dynamics and coked-up tempos can even, for brief flashes, make them sound like some kind of futuristic punk-soul. When they’re not exploring the deepest, darkest corners of the lived-in blues, that is. At the end of the 60s, with support from the Stones, they made a bid for rockist relevance, covering Lennon, Mick ’n’ Keef, and the Family Stone, and their greatest (only great?) album, Working Together came out of that period. They got funkier with the times, and rocked harder, and lived harder, until finally Tina reached escape velocity. She appeared as the Acid Queen in the film version of Tommy, and never returned to Ike. When they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (riding the coattails of Tina’s cheese-pop 80s hits), Ike was in prison.

They were always an autonomous force, a touring orchestra that could be split up into any number of configurations to meet whatever the market demanded. The reason they never stuck to any one label is that they never needed to: no studio musicians or big-shot producers could take the place of the Kings of Rhythm and Ike himself behind the knobs. With a massive, constantly-rotating personnel, they were perpetually on the road, on the chitlin circuit or maybe a step or two higher, rocking and socking The People, not particularly caring whether the college kids who were supposed to be the future heard them. And so the college kids didn’t; and the Baby Boom generation has forgotten what Ike and Tina could really be. Which is where this collection comes in.

The set opens with fourteen tracks by various pre-Tina configurations of or pseudonyms for Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. The focus is generally on Ike, though: his piano, his guitar, or his singing. The version of “Box Top” is not the one that Tina sings backup on (and which was her recording debut); that’s also unavailable on CD. The set is more or less in chronological order, with some fiddling due to pacing considerations. The Ikettes, of course, sang Ike & Tina’s backup vocals, and issued a number of great girl-group singles, mostly produced by Ike. And Tina sang on a lot of them. Venetta Fields and Dee Dee Johnson were both Ikettes. When the artist name is curiously-formatted, that’s how it appeared on the 45rpm release of the song. Only one song (a cover of Charles Brown’s “Driftin’ Blues”) was not actually issued during the years the set covers; it was a previously-unheard bonus track on a recent release. And everything here is a studio recording; while they were dynamite live, that’s a whole nother set.

With The Ikettes, The Kings of Rhythm, Jackie Brenston, The Family Vibes, and More!

Disc One: 1951-1963
1. Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats “Rocket 88”
2. Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm “I’m Lonesome Baby”
3. Ike & Bonnie Turner “Lookin’ For My Baby”
4. Lover Boy “Love Is Scarce”
5. Ike Turner & His Orchestra “Loosely”
6. Ike Turner “All The Blues, All The Time”
7. Lover Boy “The Way You Used To Treat Me”
8. Ike Turner & His Orchestra “Cubano Jump (Hey Miss Tina)”
9. Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm “Matchbox (I’m Gonna Forget About You Baby)”
10. Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm “Rock-A-Bucket”
11. Ike Turner & His Orchestra “She Made My Blood Run Cold”
12. Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm “The Rooster”
13. Icky Renrut “Ho Ho”
14. Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm “Box Top”
15. Ike & Tina Turner “A Fool In Love”
16. Ike & Tina Turner “I Idolize You”
17. Ike & Tina Turner “I’m Jealous”
18. Ike & Tina Turner “Poor Fool”
19. Ike & Tina Turner “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”
20. Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm “Prancing”
21. Ike & Tina Turner “Tra La La”
22. The Ikettes “I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)”
23. Ike & Tina Turner “You Should’ve Treated Me Right”
24. Ike & Tina Turner “The Argument”
25. Ike & Tina Turner “Tinaroo”
26. Ike & Tina Turner “You Can’t Miss Nothing That You Never Had”
27. Venetta Fields With Ike Turner’s Band “Through With You”

Disc Two: 1963-1966
1. Ike & Tina Turner “Don’t Play Me Cheap”
2. Ike & Tina Turner “No Amending”
3. Ike & Tina Turner “Mojo Queen”
4. Venetta Fields With Ike Turner’s Band “The Cheater”
5. Ike & Tina Turner “All I Could Do Was Cry”
6. Ike & Tina Turner “I Need A Man”
7. The Ikettes “The Camel Walk”
8. Dee Dee Johnson & Ike Turner “You Can’t Have Your Cake”
9. Ike & Tina Turner “It’s All Over”
10. Ike & Tina Turner “Merry Christmas Baby”
11. The Ikettes “I’m So Thankful”
12. The Ikettes “Peaches And Cream”
13. Ike & Tina Turner “Chicken Shack”
14. Ike & Tina Turner “Keep On Pushin’”
15. The Ikettes “(He’s Gonna Be) Fine, Fine, Fine”
16. Dee Dee Johnson & The Ikettes “Living For You”
17. Ike & Tina Turner “Somebody Somewhere Needs You”
18. The Ikettes “Can’t Sit Down ’Cos I Feel So Good”
19. The Ikettes “Blue On Blue”
20. Ike & Tina Turner “I Can’t Chance A Breakup”
21. Ike & Tina Turner “Gonna Have Fun”
22. Ike & Tina Turner “Stagger Lee And Billy”
23. Ike & Tina Turner “Make ’Em Wait”
24. Ike & Tina Turner “Flee Flu Fla”
25. Ike & Tina Turner “Dust My Broom”

Disc Three: 1966-1969
1. Ike & Tina Turner “River Deep, Mountain High”
2. Ike & Tina Turner “Oh Baby!”
3. Ike & Tina Turner “Save The Last Dance For Me”
4. Ike & Tina Turner “Hold On Baby”
5. Ike & Tina Turner “Such A Fool For You”
6. Ike & Tina Turner “I’ll Never Need More Than This”
7. Ike & Tina Turner “A Love Like Yours”
8. Ike & Tina & The Ikettes “So Fine”
9. Ike & Tina & The Ikettes “Betcha Can’t Kiss Me”
10. Tina Turner With Ike Turner & The Kings of Rhythm “You Got What You Wanted”
11. Tina Turner With Ike Turner & The Kings of Rhythm “Too Hot To Hold”
12. Ike & Tina Turner “Shake A Tail Feather”
13. Ike & Tina Turner “Cussin’, Cryin’ And Carryin’ On”
14. Ike Turner & The Kings of Rhythm “Funky Mule”
15. Ike Turner & The Kings of Ryhthm With Tina Turner “Driftin’ Blues”
16. Ike & Tina Turner “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”
17. Ike & Tina Turner “I Am A Motherless Child”
18. Ike & Tina Turner “The Hunter”
19. Ike & Tina Turner “Bold Soul Sister”
20. Ike & Tina Turner “Early In The Morning”
21. Ike & Tina Turner “I Know”
22. Ike & Tina Turner “Why I Sing The Blues”
23. Ike & Tina Turner “Stormy Weather”
24. Ike & Tina Turner “He Belongs To Me”
25. Ike & Tina Turner “Raise Your Hand”

Disc Four: 1970-1975
1. Ike & Tina Turner & The Ikettes “I Want To Take You Higher”
2. Ike & Tina Turner & The Ikettes “Honky Tonk Women”
3. Ike & Tina Turner & The Ikettes “Come Together”
4. Ike & Tina Turner & The Ikettes “Contact High”
5. Ike & Tina Turner “Young And Dumb”
6. Ike & Tina Turner “Proud Mary”
7. Ike & Tina Turner “Workin’ Together”
8. Ike & Tina Turner “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter”
9. Ike & Tina Turner “Evil Man”
10. Ike & Tina Turner “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”
11. Ike & Tina Turner “I’m Yours (Use Me Anyway You Wanna)”
12. Ike & Tina Turner “The Game Of Love”
13. Ike & Tina Turner “(As Long As I Can) Get You When I Want You”
14. Ike & Tina Turner “I Wanna Jump”
15. The Ikettes “I’m Just Not Ready For Love”
16. Ike Turner & The Family Vibes “Garbage Man”
17. Ike & Tina Turner “Nutbush City Limits”
18. Ike & Tina Turner “Sexy Ida, Parts 1 & 2”
19. Ike & Tina Turner “Sweet Rhode Island Red”
20. Ike & Tina Turner “Walk With Me (I Need You Lord To Be My Friend)”
21. Ike & Tina Turner “Baby — Get It On”
22. Ike & Tina Turner “Delilah’s Power”
23. Tina Turner “The Acid Queen”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Global A Go-Gone.

I don’t know if you’ve listened to Global A Go-Go by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros recently — I hadn’t heard it for about five years before popping it into my car’s CD player this morning. I recommend returning to it, unless you’re fortunate enough to have it left to discover for the first time.

The third track, conveniently enough the title track, is a whimsical jaunt through the global musical landscape, inspired by Strummer’s own stint as a DJ for the international version of the BBC. He namechecks about twenty artists or songs, and another twenty or so locations, and I decided that I would try to make a playlist based on the song. I began with the last decent Clash song as a nod to Strummer’s past, and then just went straight through the song lyrics, trusting my own taste to wring some cohesion out of it. I ended up with a 2xCD mix, which I hereby share:


1. The Clash “This Is England” [London]
2. U-Roy “Chalice In The Palace” [Jamaica]
3. The Stray Cats “Built For Speed” [Massagua, NY]
4. Thomas Mapfuno & The Acid Band “Hokoyo” [Zimbabwe]
5. The Buddy Rich Orchestra “The Beat Goes On” [Brooklyn, NY]
6. The Sacred Drums of Burundi “Promenade” [Burundi]
7. Suzan Yakar Rutkay “Sevda Zincri” [Armenia]
8. The Who “Armenia, City In The Sky” [London]
9. Big Youth “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” [Jamaica]
10. Detty Kurnia “Dar Der Dor” [Indonesia]
11. Nina Simone “Buck” [Tryon, NC]
12. S. E. Rogie “Nor Weigh Me Like That (Woman To Woman” [Sierra Leone]
13. Abdulah Ziat “Joujouka Black Eyes” [Morocco]
14. Louis Prima & Keely Smith “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” [Las Vegas, NV]
15. Bob Dylan “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” [Hibbing, MN]
16. Big Joe Turner & Pete Johnson “Roll ’Em, Pete” [Kansas City, MO]
17. Rajkumar “Yaare Koogadali” [India]
18. The Easybeats “Pretty Girl” [Australia]
19. Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet “Our Weapons Are Useless” [Canada]
20. Alton Ellis “Girl, I’ve Got A Date” [Jamaica]
21. Zhou Xuan “Night Life in Shanghai” [China]
22. Bo Diddley “Roadrunner” [Chicago, IL]

1. Juha Vainio “Kaksi Vanhaa Hinttaria” [Finland]
2. Sun Ra “Rocket Number Nine” [Birmingham, AL]
3. George Miller & Joseph Merrick “Funeral Song” [Omaha, NE]
4. The Skatalites “Black Sunday” [Jamaica]
5. Willie Colón “Che Che Cole” [Bronx, NY]
6. The Stooges “T. V. Eye” [Detroit, MI]
7. Arsenio Ródriguez “La Vida Es Un Sueño” [Cuba]
8. The Bhundu Boys “Pombi” [Zimbabwe]
9. Lola Beltrán “Cucurrucucú Paloma” [Mexico]
10. Grandmaster Flash “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” [Bronx, NY]
11. Daljit Mattu “Taweet” [Pakistan]
12. Ali Farka Touré “Timbarma” [Mali]
13. Susana Harp “Pinotepa” [Mexico]
14. Baaba Maal “Salminanam” [Senegal]
15. Vladimir Vysotsky “Troie” [Russia]
16. Kim Kwang Suk “Nuh Moo Ah Peun Sarang Eun Sarang” [North Korea]
17. Pierre Akendegué “Chant Du Coupeur D’Oukoume” [Gabon]
18. The Crystals “Do Ron Ron” [Brooklyn, NY]
19. Ráfaga “La Negra” [Argentina]
20. Yat-Kha “The Steppe, The City, The Sea” [Tuva]
21. The Meters “Live Wire” [New Orleans, LA]
22. Jaco Pastorius “Donna Lee” [Fort Lauderdale, FL]

Aside from the Clash piece, every one of those songs has some referent in “Global A Go-Go,” the third track on Global A Go-Go, the 2001 record by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, released in a pre-9/11 world, and from where I sit in 2007, a hopelessly idealistic record.

Not, perhaps, the best use of my time. But it’s surprising how listenable this mix is.

(Forgot to mention: of course I didn’t have all these songs, or artists, at my fingertips when I started. Wikipedia did most of the heavy lifting, research-wise.)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jen Kirkman.

My desultory investigations into the world of stand-up comedy have returned substantial riches; my life would be significantly poorer without the viewpoints of Eugene Mirman, Mike Birbiglia, Demetri Martin, Maria Bamford, Jimmy Pardo, Louis CK, and Todd Barry. It may be noticed (if you’re deeply into the scene) that these are all comedians with CDs out. I hardly ever see live stand-up, partly because Phoenix is a shit town for comedy, and partly because I hardly ever go out to see anything, even movies. I’m a reclusive bastard.

But I was thrilled when Jen Kirkman’s debut CD, Self Help, appeared as the debut release on Aspecialthing Records. I knew of Kirkman from’s podcasts and message board (I lurk) as one of the greatest unkown comedians in the LA scene. (Unknown in the wider-culture sense, that is. In comedy circles, especially what used to be called alternative comedy, she’s a star. I found out about this whole scene, by the way, by Googling “alternative comedy.” Internet 1, real world 0.) I ordered the CD online, and had it in a surprisingly short period of time. After spending a few weeks with it, I’m prepared to make the following statement: Jen Kirkman is awesome.

It’s doubtful that she’ll ever be a superstar, though; and not just because of the glass ceiling for women in comedy. Her performance persona is too close to what most of us are used to thinking of as “real” — she hesitates, fumbles, leaves one sentence half-said and jumps to another one as though it’s all being made up on the spot, as though all the ideas in her head are battling for expression. She sounds nervous, even though she’s not, and at first that unusual delivery put me off, until she won me over with content. And then I discovered that she rewards repeat listenings; those apparent stumbles and half-expressed thoughts are part of the structure of the joke. She’s intentionally keeping the audience off-balance, never letting them get into the setup-punchline rhythm familiar from so much mainstream comedy, good as well as bad. Quite often the funniest lines are buried in her delivery, as though she doesn’t think much of them or as though they’re not the point of what she’s talking about. The point (the pseudo-point, that is; the real point is always laughter) is self-expression, a sympathetic caricature of a woman baring her soul in deprecatory self-analysis. Sure, there’s plenty of faux-humiliation, and she gets plenty of mileage out of realities, like her Catholic upbringing or her fear of flying, but she’s much more grounded and sane than she pretends to be for the sake of the act (and is annoyed when people can’t tell the difference). I might be able to work in something about her feminist subversion of the typically-male power structure of comedy, but that sounds unutterably dull and besides I’ve analyzed the comedy too much already. As Jimmy Pardo puts it on his Pompous Clown CD, “There’s no pressure on you people! Sit back, strap it down and laugh your asses off, you motherfuckers! Goddammit!”

I linked to her blog earlier; I also wanted to point out a few posts that not only made me smile, they’re two of the finest examples of Internet writing (that quintessentially ephemeral form) I’ve seen. First, a random grace-note in an ordinary day. Second, a series of posts about youth and age that contains some of the clearest, least-self-involved thinking I’ve ever read.

If it weren’t such an overintellectual killjoy, I’d say something about the overarching humanism in the comedy that I love, the underlying demand for respect and even common decency without failing to bring the funny. Shock comedy, funny only because of its amorality, we have with us always, but those who have a point of view worth listening to are all too rare.

Common Sense and Uncommon Sentiment

“You know what I’m glad Xhiv never got into?” my brother asked, apropos of nothing in particular one Sunday afternoon before he had to return to his military base. Anne of Green Gables.”

Our mother replied mildly that Xhiv, our fifteen-year-old sister, had been into Anne of Green Gables — when she was a good deal younger. My brother only grunted in return, and the conversation took another tack.

I’d been listening to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, downloaded from Audible, in the evenings when I worked on my daily comic strip. But The High King was drawing to a close, and I wanted another not-particularly-challenging series to replace it. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne series had been the one I was thinking of, for no real reason except the mysterious sense that tells you what song should come next in a playlist, or what movie you’re in a mood to see. My brother’s unexplained disdain of it made me curious: what was it really like, after all?

So when Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, had become High King of all Prydain, with Eilonwy of the red-gold hair as his Queen (oh, whoops — spoiler), I downloaded Anne of Green Gables. I hadn’t thought particularly about the book, or the series, for nearly twenty years. I’d read them all, rather in a gulp, when I was twelve and my family had just moved to Guatemala; the family we stayed with for those first few weeks had the little Bantam paperbacks, and I had always dealt with anything uncomfortable by burying myself in books. A few years later, my sister (the other one; married now, with kids) had gotten into the series. I don’t know if she ever read them, but she borrowed the CBC adaptations from somewhere and the family watched them during our Sunday-night ritual of popcorn and VHS tapes.

I remembered the sentimental basics of the plot: red-headed orphan goes to live with astringent elderly couple, wins their hearts with her unpredictable ways, grows up, et cetera. My haphazard investigations into popular fiction of a hundred years ago had given me a somewhat better impression of L. M. Montgomery than of the other three plucky-girl novelists she would have been compared to in her day: Eleanor H. Porter (Pollyanna), Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and Gene Stratton-Porter (A Girl of the Limberlost). And I didn’t remember wanting to throw up over Anne’s excesses, as I had when I read Pollyanna around roughly the same time, so that was in her favor.

I don’t know that I’ve ever cried so much over fiction.

Let me remind you (in case you ever knew): I’m a twenty-nine year old man, not particularly given to displays of emotion. (One of the few girls I ever thought I loved once asked me irritably why I never reacted to anything.) I’m large, soft-spoken, and very much given to sneering disdainfully at popular culture, especially anything that tries to play on the emotions. Yet several times over the past three weeks I’ve had to wipe tears not only from my eyes, but from my cheeks. While sitting at my desk, under fluorescent lights, in front of a computer, surrounded by co-workers. I’m not sure there’s not something wrong with me.

(Not that anyone noticed; or if they did they never said anything. My countenance is probably best described as “stolid.”)

But there are a couple of reasons for this flood of emotion that I want to get into. The least interesting is that I was already in an emotionally precarious state anyway. Ordinary cycle of depression, nothing to be alarmed about. But when I’m in that state, I’m much more inclined to feel innocence and beauty — in the abstract — as emotional realities, to compare them to the dust and dryness of my own life, and to feel heartbroken at the result. (Can’t make head or tail of what I’m driving at? Never mind. Very likely I won’t either, before long.) Anyway. Lucy Maud Montgomery deserves to be known as more than a writer of books for children; but as long as otherwise sensible people conflate a commercial distinction with a critical or aesthetic one, then she’ll never really be understood.

There is deep, unruffled wisdom in these books, a shrewd understanding of the soul’s delight in beauty, an intelligent appreciation of all the good things in life (nature, friendship, family, work, study, food, religion), a sense of humor that keeps nearly all mawkishness at bay (but only nearly all: once or twice Anne’s pensive flights of fancy made me snort with laughter and think of Madeline Bassett), and, especially in the later books, an intellect as handy with a classic quotation as Lord Peter Wimsey or Jeeves.

I’d been afraid she might turn out to be the disappointment that Louisa May Alcott was to me — I’d thrilled as a youth to Little Women, but on returning to Alcott as an adult I found her insufferably preachy, the mothers and sisters forever laying insipid little guilt trips on the boys about drinking alcohol and reading trashy pulps (which Alcott herself wrote, one remembers with a grim little smile) — but no, Montgomery presents a world of almost unnatural charm in which it is a positive pleasure to lose oneself for hours on end. The saving grace (and the word is apt, when you think of what grace actually does, theologically) of the books is their sense of humor. Unlike Alcott’s prim little New England towns, Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island villages are steadfastly rural, which at that time meant comic. Anne’s somewhat overripe fancies are always balanced out by the practicalities and common sense — always humorously expressed — of other characters, and on the whole the tone is one of calm amusement at the foibles and follies of humanity. If women’s literature is on a spectrum with Jane Austen at one end and the Brontës at another, Montgomery is much nearer Austen — which is, of course, why I liked her so much.

Before I go farther, that “almost unnatural charm” crack: yes, of course Anne (Avonlea, Gilbert, everything in the books) is too good to be true. That’s one of the ground rules for this sort of fiction. Of course Anne has only to set her heart on something for her to get it; the pleasure is in discovering how. There are no surprises, no curveballs; even the death in Rilla of Ingleside is necessary by the rules of good fiction. (You don’t send three sons to war and have all three come back any more than you leave a loaded gun unfired.) And anyway, even if none of the characters are wholly human in the furiously-degrading twenty-first century sense — the sexual act doesn’t have any particular existence, for example — they are infinitely more amusing and sympathetic than any more naturalistic figures would be. (But this gets into my theory of light fiction, on which more later.)

The first book, Anne of Green Gables, is deservedly a classic, ranking with Tom Sawyer, Penrod and Sam, and The Railway Children as superb fiction about children which leaves room for adults. And Anne’s overactive imagination, fanciful and tempestuous, is treated mostly as a comic device, allowing her to make absurd speeches and getting her into absurd difficulties. But as the series continues and the child grows into a woman, what was briskly comic in youth deepens into sudden lyricism, or into half-painful stabs of nostalgia. (A hopelessly trivial word, much abused by those who don’t understand its power. The German sehnsucht would be better, if one could be certain of its being understood.) (Actually, after a jaunt on Wikipedia, the Portuguese saudade and the Japanese mono no aware also fit.) (And Virgil’s “sunt lacrimae rerum.”) (Not that Montgomery meant that for a persistent theme; I’m somewhat cracked on the subject.) The long passages of delight in natural beauty (does anybody even do that anymore?), the thirsty romances of everyone, young and old, who passes through the pages — the very anecdotality of it all — it satisfies something deep and persistently hungry in me. I’m sick of urban, man-made territories, of cynicism and idol-smashing and “going right deep down into life and not giving a damn,” as Wodehouse said. O for a house made of wood that acknowledges the seasons, to look out of one’s windows and not see your neighbors crowded all around you, to laugh and cry and bleed and feast and die surrounded by love, or even by companionship.

And then I have to laugh, because when all is said and done the books are Canadian, and as an American I can never quite take Canada seriously. There’s something risible about the World War I-era patriotism of Rilla of Ingleside, even though I know I wouldn’t feel that about American, or English, or even French patrotism.

Still . . . I just realized that the first girl I ever thought I loved had red hair, and I met her not long after reading these books for the first time. I’m not saying there was a connection — but I have my own opinon.