Listening Lately: Janis Joplin

For years now, when I’m getting ready to host a dinner party, Janis’s is the music I listen to as I sweep the floors.  This connection between Janis and domesticity feels dissonant in a productive way.  I might be chopping vegetables and making bread and wiping counters, but just listen to that scratching, full-bodied rock howl.

This fall, I put a Janis CD on in my car.  In recent months, life has leveled me.  But here is Janis.  Honest and complex and full of raw, defiant jubilance.  And here I am in my car, holding somewhere inside a glimmer of renaissance — of possibility — listening to Janis wail.

Listening Lately: Edith Piaf

Music has been challenging for me recently.  As I go through some significant life changes, I find that a lot of music cuts too close.

I’ve been listening to Edith Piaf a lot though.  There are other singers of her ilk whom I love (Ella Fitzgerald, most notably), but Edith Piaf is the one I’ve been listening to now.  I think it helps that because she sings in French, I can focus just on the movement of her voice — the rich throaty force of it.

Listening to Piaf in my father’s kitchen a couple weeks ago, he mused that it would have been amazing to hear her sing in person.  What a lovely thought.  I imagine her in a nightclub in the 1930s.  That’s where I’d want to hear her.

There, or right here, in the kitchen with my father.

Listening Lately – Jimi Hendrix

I really like the ‘new’ Jimi Hendrix album released earlier this month.  There are a lot of good, previously-unreleased recordings on People, Hell and Angels.  Even after a lifetime of admiration, Hendrix’s work still blows me away.  I especially like “Somewhere.”

Shortly before People, Hell and Angels was released, I went searching online for video of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock.  I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism as I write my book, and something about that performance — the force of its innovation, its venue and context in time — seems particularly complex and loaded.

(Note: One family story I’ve always loved is that after Hendrix’s performance that summer, my aunts and their classmates petitioned to change out the stock “Star Spangled Banner” recording their school played during morning announcements.  All that next year they started their mornings listening to Hendrix’s version over the P.A.)


I got on a documentary kick this winter and saw three that I’d especially recommend.

1. Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man

This documentary won an Oscar this year, and I’m so glad it did.  It’s an amazing story about the unpredictable nature of artistic influence and recognition.

Since we saw the film, I’ve been listening to Rodriquez’s gravely song “Cause.”

(Note: Don’t read too much about this documentary before you see it.  The narrative structure of the film is part of why it’s brilliant.)

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Here’s another Oscar winner.  We didn’t get around to seeing Exit through the Gift Shop until last month, but it’s an incredible — and thought-provoking — documentary that, like Sugar Man, asks us to think about the nature of art and its intersection with artistic recognition.  It has a fascinating meta-level that you can read about after you see the film — and then you’ll examine all the film’s questions from yet another, more challenging angle.

(This is another one you don’t want to read too much about before you see it.)

3. Mansome

This documentary is much different from the previous two.  It features Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, so it’s often very funny even as it touches on some legitimately interesting topics related to appearance and masculinity.  At times the documentary feels a bit cursory (it’s too big of a topic, really, for this film to take on), but the segment about the beardsmen is outstanding — funny and touching and utterly fascinating.  And the documentary overall is so wholly enjoyable to watch that I can forgive its not always being rigorous.  For a hard-won Friday night, it’s an excellent choice.