On the Artistic Theater of the Cenacolo

Jesus' 15 minutes of fame

A trip to Lugano reminds one of what Italy is missing, and what would make it better — courteous drivers, spotlessly clean streets, apartments and offices free of the suspicious layers of security ones finds in Italy. But in contrast, a trip to the Cenacolo, aside from being a moving experience in itself that should inspire all kinds of questions about permanence and meaning, also reminds one that Italians, diabolical intentions aside, are wonderful at creating a sense of mystery.

You show your ticket, and then everyone is hurried down a short hallway where the temperature drops noticeable. Then everyone crams into an airlock-like chamber, huddled in front of the door to the refractory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The attendents let the tension build. The chatter dies down to silence. Looking at our reflections in the one-way glass, I counted thirteen of us. One can see, at the bottom, a few feet marching somewhere. Then, the curtain — in the form of noiseless, remotely-controlled doors, pulls back, revealing — darkness. Empty space. On a sunny August morning, it takes some time for the eyes to adjust. You look left, but that’s not the right mural, then right, and there it is. The moths are drawn to the flame, and it’s well worth it.

Italian Switzerland is well-worth one’s time, but the Italian arts of surprise and showing off have their moments to shine as well.

Amazon.it Brought to Heel by Levi Law

Hon. Levi

While trying to research publication information on the Italian guidebook that profiled my home state, a visit to Amazon.it, which just opened this year, revealed the following warning:

Dear Customer,

It now seems certain that by September 1, a law on the price of books in Italian will come into effect. The main article states: “It shall be allowed that, on the sale of books to the end consumer, by whatever means or method, including mail order, even if such is brought about by electronic commerce, will have no discount to exceed 15 percent of the cover price.”  In compliance with this law, we will continue to offer great prices on our selection of millions of titles in foreign languages. Soon we will offer you the opportunity to choose from a catalog of hundreds of thousands of used books.

Please be assured that you will continue to find very low prices on Music , DVDs and Blu-ray ,Video Games , Electronics , Computers , Gardening and Garden , Home and Kitchen , shoes and bags , watches and many other categories in the future.

Thank you for your trust in Amazon and we reaffirm our commitment to continue to offer not only competitive prices and free shipping, but also the best buying experience.

The team at Amazon.it

PS Till August 31, we will be offering one last opportunity to purchase up your favorite books at prices never before offered. See, for the next few weeks, more than 235,000 books in Italian that we’re offering at a discount of at least 40% cover price.

The law in question is the Levi Law, named after the 52-year-old Democratic Party senator who also introduced a law to gag bloggers in 2007 (the “Levi-Prodi” law), which hasn’t passed yet. (Prodi, darling of the Anglo press for his liberalist views, gave his name to law by virtue of being Prime Minister when it was introduced.) According to Corriere della Sera, over 1000 people signed a petition against the law and sent the petition to Italian President Napolitano.

Back home, where Wal-Mart rules the roost, I miss my neighborhood book and music vendors. There is an argument for small stores and the specialization that they provide. Transactions can transcend mere consumerism and can be a learning experience and create community. Anyone who’s ever had a favorite book or record store knows this feeling. (I can cite Hawley-Cooke and ear X-tacy in Louisville and Normal’s in Baltimore as contributing heartily to my current ethos and worldview.) Italy’s small stores, when they provide this experience, are to be valued and appreciated. But at a time when Italy’s economy continues to stagnate, for the 40th-odd quarter in a row, with low growth that is the fault of too many small businesses and low international investment, this doesn’t seem like a particularly savvy move.

For whatever reason, Hon. Levi seems particularly harshly opposed to the internet as a means of facilitating communication and commerce in Italy. That he is a typical figure of the Italian left should help explain why Berlusconi has held reign for most of the past decade and a half.

But, Italy’s parliament’s slowness this time may be to the market’s advantage. As the iPhone and various tablets take over e-reading, the law may not have much effect.  Amazon has already signed an agreement with Mondadori to distribute ebooks, and Edigita, a consortium that includes RCS and Feltrinelli, will distribute 1000,000 books from 30 different publishing houses.

I wonder what Tim Parks, who spoke eloquently about the rising costs of publishing to the Foreign Press Association in Milan, might have to say about this.


The Washington Post reports that even in a weak economy, there still is a niche for small, independent booksellers:

The small, independently owned bookstore is staging a modest rebirth in the midst of a bone-killing economy and the exponential growth of online retailers and e-books.

I wish someone would tell Italian lawmakers that you can actually have Amazon and good, small bookstores too.


Update #2:

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the closing of mega-stores like Borders. I’ll never forget being at the flagship Barnes & Noble store in Baltimore‘s Inner Harbor shopping district, watching a clerk tell a customer over and over again that Invisible Man was in the science fiction section. The customer stood his ground and said, “no, not H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Assured by his computer monitor, the clerk told the customer that that book didn’t exist.  I’m sure that up in Washington Heights, Ellison did a series of half-gainers in his grave. And you shouldn’t have to guess the races of the characters in this story.

il Kentucky

We’re often curious as to how others see us. To that end, today’s offering is composed of translations from an Italian guidebook to the USA on my home state and city. Factually, it’s largely accurate, with a couple of exceptions (the Louisville Falls Fountain was scrapped 13 years ago), but the amusement for Louisvillians and Kentuckians should come from the nuance. Largely, the Italians give the Commonwealth high marks for natural beauty and traditional culture. Coming from Italy, that’s a high compliment.


Upon closer inspection, the book is actually the Italian translation of a UK-published volume, DK Publishing’s USA Eyewitness Travel Guide. Well, although not Italian, it is still foreign, so the basic premise remains, but it’s less fun.

Civil War Cannons


With its passages through the Appalachians and hilly pastures where horses run through acres of bluegrass, Kentucky is one of the most picturesque states in the country. The land in the west is mountainous, and was at one time inhabited by Indians who forcefully resisted settlements of the white colonists. Today Kentucky is known all over the world for its horses and in the area around Lexington you can find many thoroughbred farms. One of racing’s most prestigious events, the Kentucky Derby, takes place in Louisville. The state is also famous for its traditional style of country music. Highway 23 along the eastern border of the state is nicknamed Country Music Highway.

Louisville Sluggers



Founded near the falls of the Ohio River in 1788, in Louisville (pronounced “Luuavol”) you’ll find one of the most famous horse races in the world, the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is to Louisville what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans or what the Masters is forAugusta: the event around which the whole calendar turns. Since the first Derby in 1975, countless three-year-old horses have run down the track at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Kentucky’s high society turns out in spring dress for the event, with hats and striped cotton suits. The unofficial drink of the day is the mint julep, a mix of bourbon ice, sugar and fresh mint typical of the south. The song “My Old Kentucky Home” is sung as the horses are led to the track for a race that lasts less than two minutes. The winner brings home the coveted trophy, adorned with a silver horseshoe in the form of a “U” — “so that the good luck can’t escape.”

La mia vecchia casa del Kentucky

The nearby Kentucky Derby Museum shows off the history of horse racing and offers a tour of the racetrack Churchill Downs. A couple of blocks from the old downtown by the riverfront, the Louisville Slugger Museum produces the noted baseball bat in a factory marked by a 36-meter-high bat.

The J.B. Speed Art Museum on South 3rd Street offers a grand collection of paintings and Renaissance sculpture. At Riverfront Plaza on the banks of the Ohio River, between Main and Fourth Streets, there are many paddlewheel boats that offer a tour of the area, and a fountain that sprays water 115 meters in the air. The old warehouses that surround the old downtown have been changed into cafes, galleries and stores.

Three kilometers to the northeast of downtown is Cave Hill Cemetery, one of the biggest cemeteries in the United States. Many Louisvillians come just to feed the ducks or to wander on the well-kept lawns. Fifty kilometers southwest of Louisville you can see the federal gold deposit at Fort Knox.

Country Music and Bluegrass

Poa pratensis, field fodder

Like the Mississippi Delta is for the blues, the strip of eastern Kentucky(along with West Virginia) has one of the biggest concentrations of country music artists in America. English, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought with them their ballads, rhythms and Elizabethan instruments, which they used to create a typically American style now called “country,” characterized by rapidly-played violins, an occasional yodel and lyrics about the hard life in the southeastern United States. Highway 23, which goes from Ashland to Pikeville along the eastern border of the state, is nicknamed the “Country Music Highway” to commemorate the number of musicians born along it. The road passes though the birthplaces of Billy Ray Cyrus, Loretta Lynn, Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam. The great fields of Kentucky bluegrass inspired a particular kind of country music that bears the same name, which comes from a kind of music played at the end of the ’40s by Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. The name bluegrass stuck and this style of acoustic folk music is quite popular in the region. The traditional bluegrass instruments are the guitar, mandolin, five-string banjo, bass and Dobro.

If you outlaw whiskey, then only outlaws...

Use and Consumption of Alcohol

Compared to the rest of the country, inhabitants of the south are predominantly teetotalers. Many are Baptists, a religion that disapproves of the consumption of alcohol. In some rural regions, one can find counties, mainly in the mountains, where alcohol cannot be sold or served to the public legally. But the exceptions to this tradition are legendary: producers of “moonshine”, a homemade whisky made from corn, earned their fame as outlaws in the days of Prohibition by hiding from federal agents in the depths of the woods and using their stills only at night – thus the name “moonshine.” Drinking a mint julep on Derby Day in Louisville is local tradition so beloved that local girls begin collecting the traditional silver cups starting at age 12.



Pants off… again. Hate it how that happens.

Note: Those interested in any of the demo files, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try to respond. It’s hard for me to keep up with WordPress’s changing architecture, but I’m happy to share what I have. 

Evergreen’s self-titled, and only, record finally got its due with a reissue in 2005 on Temporary Residence. That release appended two tracks from a low-fi single on Hi-Ball released in 1994, which along with a bunch of tape compilations documented Louisville’s wild mid-nineties house party scene, which launched, among others, Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers. The record proper, released in 1996, was recorded by James Murphy, more in print recently for selling out Madison Square Gardens with LCD Soundsystem.

What little writing that is out there on the band focuses on the fact that frontman Sean McLoughlin was a party animal, which is true, but he was also a bit of a poet in his own right, an avid reader of Bukowski, Nietzsche and Burroughs who introduced a bunch of Louisvillians to Fellini via repeated screenings of Satyricon at his rented house out Seventh Street Road near Dixie Highway, his Ford Fairlane parked in the driveway.

The band went through several line-up and name changes, made more confusing by a recent reunion of an early and lesser line-up. They started as a metal band called Revenant, morphed into a popular all-ages funk-hardcore act and ended up as one of guitarist Tim Ruth’s musique concrète projects. (NB: The all-ages act released a retrospective in 2009, Wholeness of the Soul, which lately has sounded pretty good to these ears, and which honestly might be getting more airtime at Premesso in the 2020s that Britt’s Evergreen.)  But none of those are the band that made this record.

“Towing image by contact: e”

From about 1994 to 1998, the band was doing something unique, trying to merge roots punk ‘n’ roll à la Stooges with post-rock à la Krautrock. They’d play, à la Can, all night in the woods. Flyers advised the audience to bring a sleeping bag. Britt Walford melded Jaki Liebezeit-like endurance with southern punk rock defiance: at a 1995 Battle of the Bands in Southern Indiana, the power was cut, but Walford kept on playing until two cops picked him up by his armpits and hauled him off, his legs and arms still twitching like some kind of metronymic insect.

But just like McLoughlin was more than a wild man, Walford was more than the drummer. He was responsible for taking the band in a different direction and developing their later sound. All the good bands in those days, up to Nirvana, wanted to record with Steve Albini or his rapidly-budding protégé, Bob Weston, especially Louisville bands (Crain, Rodan), but I’m not sure if Evergreen benefited from their signature stripped-down sound. They had already recorded a lot of four- and eight-track demos, usually with local engineer and musician Steve Good, who knew their sound well. Their summer 1995 Bob Weston sessions don’t sound that different than their Steve Good eight-track sessions. If anything Evergreen gives stronger performances on the Steve Good sessions.

Steve Good, from the ‘zine Hard Times

Walford understood this. The rumor was (corroborated on some long-dead web-page of Murphy’s) that Atlantic Records, on Murphy’s tip-off, had paid for the Weston demos and wasn’t releasing them since the band wasn’t signing. But a listen to the band’s 1996 record suggests otherwise. Instead of Weston’s bare-bones engineering, it evokes early disco more than early punk, with a bouncy low end propelled by Walford’s drumming and bassist Troy Cox’s subtle, funk-informed lines. McLoughlin, far from being a punk screamer, occasionally even hits a melody that disappears into a miasma of sound, such as in the last 40 seconds or so of “Solar Song.”

The Weston version of the same song doesn’t even come close, which isn’t to impugn Weston, who recorded some of the best rock records from this period. To compare:

The band was a formidable force that summer. They played house parties and no-name Kentucky clubs with raucous locals like the Auditory Clang and the Quiz. But seeing the band perform at Chicago’s Lounge Ax after they’d been mixing at Albini’s, which was then spread across three floors of the engineer’s house, in summer 1995 was electrifying.

He felt responsible

Like contemporaries the Jesus Lizard, the band was a controlled contrast to frontman McLoughlin’s wild antics.  Ruth played a Travis Bean borrowed from Albini and the harmonics on “Glass Highway” sparkled over the tight and syncopated rhythm laid down by Walford and Cox, clad in a qiana shirt. Steve Good’s recording best captures the dynamic control the band laid down that night. Listen as McLoughlin’s delivery of cryptically bleak lyrics steadily becomes more insistent, resolving in a repeated, one-syllable shout. Audio defects in the original.

For show-closer “Pants Off” one of the Louisville contingent stormed the stage and, true to the song’s name, took off his pants and jumped on McLoughlin, who whipped him with the mic chord. The two ended up in a homoerotic tangle, the singer still grunting “roly-poly roly poly! Pants off again! roller coaster roller coaster eyeball head!” as the band bashed on. [Thanks to JDD, who was there, for the lyrical correction.]

Evergreen had a rock and roll spirit forged in the conservative and Baptist city of their birth that was hard to imitate. Later bands on the dance-punk bandwagon would find it impossible to measure up to the intensity and originality of their live show and sound. This is a band that not only wouldn’t, but can’t, do a reunion-album-tour. They weren’t actors playing out a recital. They existed at a particular moment in time that not everyone made it out of all right, and for better or worse, it’s gone.

What’s left is the record. Listen to it. They made it because they knew they wouldn’t last forever.

Live at the Cherokee Blues Club, 1995

Raiding the Ratings Agencies

Infernal Affairs

The financial news has been so intense this week that I’ve all but given up on trying to blog it. Twitter‘s where you’ll find most of my comments on the tumult in Europe and the US.

Amid markets falling and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic flailing, one bit of rather shocking news did stand out: Standard and Poor’s Milan offices were raided on the orders of a prosecutor’s office in the small Pugliese town of Trani, ostensibly on the behalf of a consumer right’s group.There is little doubt that the raid was politically motivated.

After all, they picked a hell of a day to execute the warrant. The FTSE MIB, Milan’s main index, dropped 5.16% Thursday, and then a mysterious “technical glitch” prevented both the MIB and the all-share index from being released. The raid on the ratings agencies didn’t exactly take away from the conspiratorial edge. After Reuter’s excellent real-time reporting on the event Thursday, other sources have been quick to pick up on the implications. DC-based consultants Sidar Global Advisor predicts that:

There will be strong pressure on credit rating agencies, and the demand for transparency, and further regulation. After Italian police have raided the offices of S&P and Moody`s in Milan, there have been reports on the credit rating agencies` compliance with regulative issues.

True, but I should note that the ratings agencies are seen with extreme suspicion in Italy, as are currency speculators (despite the fact that most of them work to improve the holdings of pension, not hedge, funds). Thanks in part to a general lack of economic education in Italy, ratings agencies and currency traders are routinely blamed for all of Italy’s economic woes, when in fact it is loss of competitiveness, exports and a decade of almost zero growth that, when combined with Italy’s historically high debt-to-GDP ratio, creates a very unpleasant environment for investors. (Not to mention political incoherence/impotence and terrible bureaucracy.)

Simply put, all these factors far outweigh whatever infelicities the ratings agencies may have committed. The raiding of the Milan offices this week is widely seen as a political move designed to discredit the agencies to outside investors. Sowing distrust and confusion is, sadly, a time-tested way of doing politics and business in Italy. Ratings agencies can make mistakes, they too can be political, and they probably need better oversight — but not all of Italy’s problems can be laid at their doorstep and that of the speculators.