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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

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Photo: Decca
British songwriter Bill Fay in 1970, when a Decca imprint released his debut album. After the release of ‘Time of the Last Persecution’ a year later, he seemed to disappear.

Who doesn’t love a mystery? Thanks to mystery fiction, I’ve waded deep into topics and places I would never have known anything about. Nonfiction mysteries can be even more fun. Today’s story is about a songwriter who really wanted to know why the musician behind an obscure album his father loved disappeared from the music scene after the album came out.

Grayson Haver Currin at the New York Times reported on the quest in January: “Joshua Henry never understood why his father owned ‘Time of the Last Persecution,’ an obscure 1971 psychedelic-folk album by the British songwriter Bill Fay.

“Henry, a 40-year-old songwriter and producer devoted to old-school analog technology, grew up in the woods at the edge of California’s Sierra Nevada. His father, Jamie, wasn’t a record collector: He reluctantly served in Vietnam before becoming an antiwar activist, then spent his final four decades as a hardscrabble logger. ‘Last Persecution’ was never issued in the United States, and barely caused a blip in England’s very crowded singer-songwriter scene of the early ’70s. After its release, Fay vanished from music.

“All his life, Henry remained curious about the Fay LP, with a portrait of a disheveled singer on its stark black cover. When he was caring for his father, who was battling cancer, the album became a lifeline between the two men. They’d listen to Fay, dissecting his peculiar mix of apocalyptic vision and hopeful grit. After his father’s [death], Henry began trying to make good on a fantasy they had shared: to find Fay and help him make his first record since 1971.

“[In January, Fay released] ‘Countless Branches,’ his third album in the 10 years since Henry tracked him down and urged him to return to the studio. Fay — now 76 and married, almost all he’ll allow about his personal life — has made as many studio albums this decade as in the previous six combined. …

‘When Joshua told me about his dad and that he’d grown up listening to my music, it was real and profound,’ Fay said by phone from his North London home. …

“Fay stumbled into music in the ’60s. As a college student in Wales, he began to forsake his electronics curriculum for writing songs featuring piano and harmonium. … His self-titled 1970 debut featured idealistic odes to friendship, nature and peace swaddled in swooping strings and cascading horns. But only a year later, he’d turned to thorny rock for ‘Time of the Last Persecution.’

“Fueled by the horrors of the Vietnam War and the violence of the Jim Crow South, Fay railed against social corruption for 14 fractured songs, framing life as a revolving door of chances to get right with God. Dense and challenging, the album flopped. …

“Labels rejected subsequent demos and his father died from an aneurysm, leaving Fay as his mother’s longtime caretaker. During the next four decades, he raised a family and worked as a groundskeeper in a London park and a fish packer in a supermarket. Still, in a quiet corner of his home, he slowly built a meager recording rig with a cheap eight-track and a little keyboard, shaping full-band arrangements of songs he never intended for anyone to hear.

“ ‘I was disappointed,’ Fay said, ‘but music was never my living. And I wasn’t like other people, who had become part of a scene. I went back to what I had always done, which is the gift and blessing of working on music in its own right.’ …

“Jim O’Rourke found Fay’s music while researching Ray Russell, the electrifying guitarist on both Decca albums. … When a small British label reissued both albums on one CD in 1998, O’Rourke began telling his friends. As O’Rourke worked on Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ he played Fay’s debut for Jeff Tweedy.

‘I was astonished: How have I not heard this? How is this not something that is part of our DNA?’ [Wilco’s] Tweedy said of the first time he listened to Fay. … ‘It’s music that sounds like it was designed in a laboratory for me to fall in love with.’ …

“O’Rourke also sent ‘Last Persecution’ to David Tibet, … Despite rumors that Fay had absconded to a Christian cult, Tibet began looking for him; within a week, a British journalist connected him with a guitarist who had once played with Fay and became their intermediary. The two became fast friends.

“In 2005, Tibet released ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow.’ …  In early 2010, Tibet also issued a two-disc sampler called ‘Still Some Light,’ culled from decades of Fay’s home recordings.

“A year after its release, the liner notes in that set finally gave Henry the lead he needed.”

Read what happened next at the New York Times, here.

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A Year of Art Discoveries

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Two Allegory of Justice figures in the Vatican, once attributed to Raphael’s followers, were identified in 2017 as being by the master himself.

This Artsy report on 2017 art discoveries was pretty cool. Curiously, I had already written about one of the finds — here. It was the Rodin sculpture discovered in a New Jersey town hall.

Abigail Cain writes, “Art history is, by definition, primarily a thing of the past — but each year, some small portion of it is rewritten by those in the present.

“In 2017, we gained new insight on the early years of Leonardo da Vinci and the final ones of Andy Warhol; amateur archaeologists were rewarded with major finds; and several masterpieces were discovered, simply hiding in plain sight. From newly mapped Venezuelan petroglyphs to a long-lost Magritte, these are 10 of the most notable art-historical discoveries of the year.”

I especially loved that volunteers made the find that occurred in England. “A team of amateur archaeologists,” writes Cain, “dug up one of the most significant Roman mosaics ever discovered in Britain.

“The discovery was made in a field outside of Boxford, in southern England, by a group of local volunteers supervised by professional archaeologists. Although the project began in 2011, it wasn’t until August of this year — during the final two weeks of the scheduled dig — that organizers realized they’d found something extraordinary.

“As it turned out, they’d uncovered a remarkably well-preserved mosaic, built as part of a Roman villa that dates to roughly 380 A.D. Not only is it a rare find for the country — experts have labeled it the most exciting of its kind unearthed in 50 years — the subject and style of the artwork is highly unusual for the area. The work illustrates the story of Bellerophon, a Greek mythological hero tasked with killing the Chimera.”

Check out Artsy, here, to read about: the discovery that two figures in the Vatican were painted by Raphael and not his assistants; two ancient tombs in Egypt; the likely identity of Leonardo’s mother; a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens found hanging in a historic Glasgow house; a miniscule carving recovered from a Bronze Age tomb with “detailed handiwork centuries ahead of its time”; the last piece of a lost René Magritte painting found in Belgium; and drone technology that helped researchers map “massive, 2,000-year-old petroglyphs in Venezuela for the first time.”

Doesn’t it make you want to go out and discover some long-lost treasure?

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Weather like this is a reminder that simple pleasures are often the best.

A great blue heron flying over Thoreau Street. Buying three Vietnamese fresh rolls and chai tea after tai chi class. Listening to the smart Hillbilly at Harvard program in the car. Sitting on the porch dipping crackers into the famous guacamole from the shop around the corner. Reading in the bath the first Martin Beck mystery by the Swedish partners Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

The pictures show flowers from the yard in a pitcher made by our engineer/potter friend, a bird painted on a utility box, and the garden maintained by the tai chi teacher and his youth classes. He says the care taken with the flowers is the kind of care the school devotes to students.

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My friend Ronnie is a former broadcaster, a poet, and a food maven, who lived in France for years and later wrote a book called Eat Smart in France. Recently Ronnie interviewed the mystery writer Cara Black for a blog called My French Life. Black writes about Paris. Her latest novel is Murder in Pigalle.

Ronnie asks, “What drew you to this part of town?

Black: “There are two worlds in Pigalle. The world of the day with families and people who work in the shops, and the world of the night, where people work in the clubs. …

“I really like Pigalle. I discovered so much I didn’t know. [But] I get intrigued by different districts, their flavor and feeling. If I ever figure them out, I’ll probably stop writing about them.” More of the interview here, including a observations on the German occupation of Paris during WW II.

For a wonderful, unusual book with the occupation of Paris as a setting, I recommend Léon and Louise. It’s an odd love story taking place over many decades in France, written by a Swiss and translated into English. I haven’t read many books by Cara Black, but if you like novels that teach you something about a different part of the world in a rather fanciful way, I recommend Léon and Louise, by Alex Capus.

Photo of Ronnie Hess

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Something fun from Studio 360: the mystery of the Toynbee tiles.

“For more than two decades, an unknown artist has been leaving a message in the streets of Philadelphia. The message is has been cut by hand into a linoleum tile, and pressed into the asphalt by the weight of passing cars. There are dozens of these around the city; old ones wear away, and new ones appear. The message is the same:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN Kubrick’s 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

“The Toynbee tiles, as they’re called, have become a thing in Philly — you can even buy a t-shirt (the tiler isn’t getting royalties). For artists, the cryptic message inspires far-out forms of creativity, but perhaps nothing as ambitious as the ten-minute work by the rapper and ‘bedroom composer’ Raj Haldar, who performs as Lushlife.

“The work is in four parts, one for each line of the tiles’ message. By the end, the ‘Toynbee Suite’ has left behind anything resembling hip-hop, going out on a two-minute clarinet solo.

“But what exactly is the Toynbee message? Alfred Toynbee was a historian and philosopher of the 20th century, known for the 12-volume A Study of History. …

“A documentary film speculated that the tiler remained unseen by dropping the tiles from a car with cut-out floorboards.”

More on the mystery here, where you also can listen to the rapper’s tile-inspired music and check out a map showing where Toynbee tiles are located around Philadelphia.

Photo: Kimberly Blessing/flickr
A Toynbee Tile at 9th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, Pa.

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We had a great time at the Concord Festival of Authors Friday night. The brainchild of book maven Rob Mitchell, the festival has been going strong for about 20 years and lasts a month. The authors and topics are always amazing.

The event we most wanted to see this year featured a panel of mystery writers: Archer Mayor,  Spencer Quinn, and one whose books I know well, S.J. Rozan. The fans of these three novelists — and of Concord-based moderator and author Mark De Binder — filled the lobby of the Concord Library to overflowing.

I already knew from the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mysteries that S.J. had a wacky sense of humor, but Mayor and Quinn also were hilarious in talking about their work and their lives. My husband said, “Who knew mystery writers were funny?”

Read about S.J. at the festival here and at her own site here.

“In her new novel, Ghost Hero, American-born Chinese P.I. Lydia Chin is called in on what appears to be a simple case. An art world insider wants her to track down a rumor. Contemporary Chinese painting is sizzling hot on the art scene and no one is hotter than Chau Chun, known as the Ghost Hero. A talented and celebrated ink painter, Chau’s highly prized work mixes classical forms and modern political commentary. The rumor of new paintings by Chau is shaking up the art world. There’s only one problem—Ghost Hero Chau has been dead for twenty years, killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.” We enjoyed hearing S.J. read a passage from Ghost Hero, in which she had Bill Smith adopt her grandfather’s Russian accent and locution.

Quinn made me envious of his blog’s success. It attracts hordes of people who love his canine protagonist so much that they upload photos of their  pets to be the dog detective’s friend. Perhaps if I weren’t such an eclectic blogger …

If I had one reliable focus, though, I’d get bored.

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