Friday, September 29, 2006

Big Band crooner honored in Oroville, teams with Magalia writer to tell life story


He begins the story this way: "Smog hadn't been invented yet when I was born Harry Bradbury Albretsen on Oct. 21, 1916, in Eagle Rock, California, a suburb of Los Angeles."

Almost 90 years later, on Sept. 17, 2006, this same man, now known as "Garry Stevens" (a stage name he adopted in 1941), was honored with a surprise birthday celebration as he sang at Feather Falls Casino in Oroville with "The Fabulous Swing Kings," the Chico-based dance band. It had been a long road, but Stevens was still smiling.

Pictures from the birthday bash appear on the Jazz Connection Magazine Web site ( Publisher Stephen Fratallone of Magalia helped organize the surprise; he writes me that "I have always been a fan of Big Band music since I was 12 (I'm 49 now). I play saxophone and I took private lessons from Don Raffell, a prominent studio musician who played in the Charlie Spivak band when Garry was Spivak's boy vocalist. That's when I first heard of Garry Stevens." Fratallone discovered that Stevens was still alive, living in Benicia, and they became fast friends.

That friendship has led to the publication of "Band Singer: An Autobiography" ($15 in paperback from by Garry Stevens with Stephen Fratallone. The book contains a discography and a generous sampling of black and white photographs. Stevens by now has outlived most of his friends, and he notes their passing throughout the narrative. But the story is full of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" as Stevens works to "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." It's a fun book.

Stevens worked with Nelson Riddle, also a member of the Spivak band, and he writes that "one of Nelson's arrangements became a chart-topper for the band and it helped to keep me in the public ear for a couple of years during the musicians' union strike. It was Irving Berlin's holiday classic, 'White Christmas.' We recorded it on July 1, 1942, in New York. ... Bing Crosby, of course, had the definitive hit version of the song" but Stevens' version continued to be played on jukeboxes through the mid-1940s. He also recorded "My Devotion," which "became one of the more popular romantic ballads to come out of World War II."

Stevens enlisted in the Army Air Corps. "Before the war, I was named one of the top male band vocalists in the country. I was going to go back to civilian life and try to pick up where I had left off. It didn't occur to me that the music business had changed during those years and retracing my steps would prove to be very difficult." He joined the Gordon "Tex" Beneke band, whose pianist was Henry Mancini. No longer a "boy singer," Stevens began to relish the term "band singer." "A band singer sings in tempo. Cabaret singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett sing more ad-lib. ... When you sing with a band, you sing for dancers and in tempo. If you start to ad-lib, you'll throw the dancers a curve, and they won't like it."

In the 1950s Stevens had a local television show, later worked in real estate, and got back into music in 1980, eventually moving to California and joining the Big Band Academy of America. Stevens' personal life has had its ups and downs, but music has been his soul. He calls himself the "oldest self-taught band singer in the business." At 90, he's still jazzed.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Former Chicoan explores some fanatical hobbyists; returns to Chico for book signing


Denver-based freelance journalist Shari Caudron, once a reporter for the Enterprise-Record, is a Chico State University graduate and a former communications director of the Chico Chamber of Commerce. She will be returning to Chico

next week to sign copies of her new book, "Who ARE You People? A Personal Journey Into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America" ($14.95 in paperback from Barricade Books). The book signing will take place at Barnes and Noble at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and the public is invited.

Caudron admits to being a dabbler. In her 20s "I hooked up with a group of pagan, Mother-Earth, goddess-worshipping feminists. I became a vegetarian. I bought Tarot Cards. I attended week-long festivals in Yosemite National Park with topless 'womyn' who chanted, wore crystals, believed in past lives."

That lasted about a year. Then she took up running, followed by "backpacking, Buddhism, Scrabble, snowshoeing, bridge, belly dancing, golf, gardening, fencing, piano and an abundant amount of non-professional, highly unstructured wine tasting." Though Angela, her partner of more than a decade, was big-time into dogs (well, dog-sledding), none of her other friends had any "singular, all-consuming interest."

So, asked Caudron, where was the passion? She discovered a wealth of passionate special-interest hobby groups online and decided to report on some of them, at the same time trying to discover what they had that she didn't.

She begins with the National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention in Denver, moves on to the Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest in Granby, Colo.; pigeon-racing in New York; the World Boardgaming Championships in Baltimore; the annual Mayberry Days Festival in Mount Airy, N.C.; a meet-up with the Grobanites, rabid, mostly middle-aged female followers of young singer Josh Groban (one observer said they were "like a post-modern menopausal version of the Deadheads"); and a science-fiction convention in Illinois.

She also tracks tornados with storm chasers in Kansas and attends the Califur Conference at the Holiday Inn in Costa Mesa, at which participants ("followers of furry fandom" who find a certain eroticism in the anthropomorphic representation of animals) often dress up in animal costumes (like Disney characters) or even surgically alter their faces to look more like animals.

It's all about the people. Everywhere she goes Caudron meets social misfits who have found others just as passionate about, say, Legos or Otis the Mayberry town drunk and who fit right in. Though never sharing those passions, Caudron does admit that, for example, "these Mayberry fans are teaching me what it feels like to be fully yourself without apologies."

Later in the book the author investigates the historical sources of hobby passion and looks at its psychological and even genetic basis. There have been "50 years of socially approved fun combined with 30 years of self-absorbed self-interest, 20 years of wealth, 10 years of online connectivity, (and) five years of social trepidation," as even one's neighbors are less trusted than your own group of like-minded Barbie Doll collectors or filk singers ("filk" is a folk song with a science-fiction theme) or pigeon racers. Some years ago the book "Bowling Alone" suggested the unraveling of community in the United States; Caudron finds community alive and well in passionate hobbyists.

In her quest to find her own single-minded obsession, Caudron is often funny and self-deprecating, and in her sometimes salty accounts of "passionate fanatics" she finds at long last what she is really looking for. Herself.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Well-publicized first novel is worth all the attention


She cracked the Big Apple. Marisha Pessl, sometime actress and now one hot author, garnered a front cover review (very favorable) in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review.

She's going to get another review here (very, very favorable) for writing Blue van Meer into the hearts of readers. Blue is the excruciatingly well-read 16-year-old heroine of "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" ($25.95 from Viking), who tells her story as if it's a Western civics course, with chapter headings such as "The House of the Seven Gables" and "Things Fall Apart." But this is no dry-as-dust recitation. It's Blue's life, seen through books and films and her Dad's Harvard-trained erudition.

"Dad" is Gareth van Meer, widower, a devilishly handsome cynic who attracts "June Bugs" (middle-aged women with thoughts of reform) and who takes all kinds of professor jobs at third-rate institutions throughout the South, traveling, traveling, all the while training Blue to recognize the causes of revolutions, to recite pi to umpty-ump places, and to memorize the works of Keats. Eventually, for Blue's senior year of high school, the two settle in Stockton, N.C., so Blue can attend St. Gallway School.

"The catalogue featured the proverbial wound-up rhetoric drenched in adjectives, sunny photos filled with bushy autumn trees, teachers with the kind faces of mice and kids grinning as they strolled down the sidewalk holding big textbooks in their arms like roses. In the distance, looking on (and apparently bored stiff) sat a crowd of glum plum mountains, a sky in wistful blue. ... A diminutive stone chapel did its best to hide from the massive Tudor buildings slouched all over the lawns, structures christened with names like Hanover Hall, Elton House, Barrow and Vauxhall, each sporting a facade that brought to mind early U.S. presidents: gray-topped, heavy brow, wooden teeth, mulish bearing."

Into this world steps Blue, and the first part of her long book revels in description and being befriended by part-time art teacher Hannah Schneider, mid-40s, thin, elegant and gorgeous, a mystery. She has surrounded herself with a group of student misfits, Charles, Nigel, Milton, Leulah and Jade. Hannah insists that Blue join the party. It's a difficult fit, but Blue warms to Hannah, her talk of life and art, and pushes away the dull normalcy of one Zach Soderberg -- Blue's group calls him "the coupon" ("he really was all bar code, all Great Savings, all $5-Off with Proof of Purchase") -- to embrace instead a quirkier and more exciting world.

Until, on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains with the group, Hannah is found, hanged. "She hung three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord. Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman and they saw nothing. Or else that was the problem, they'd seen everything."

It's suicide, of course. Isn't it? Hannah had wanted to tell Blue a secret, and now this. "Such things as anguish, woe, affliction, guilt, feelings of awfulness and utter wretchedness, the bread and butter of Days of Yore and Russians, sadly have very little staying power in these lickety-split Modern Times." But in "Calamity Physics" they make their return. In Hannah's True Life Story lies Blue's anguish -- and hope.

Read the book, read it carefully, then turn around and read it again.

There's a final exam at the end.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

World-renowned muralist returns to Chico for book signing, reception


Author Kevin Bruce writes that he first met John Pugh in a Los Gatos pub in 1984. The two became fast friends, and now Bruce has expanded his Stanford University master's thesis on seven of Pugh's murals into a breathtaking study of 35 of Pugh's finest works. "The Murals of John Pugh: Beyond trompe l'oeil" ($35 in hardcover from Ten Speed Press) features stunning full-color spreads of Pugh's art along with telling close-ups of areas the eye might well miss.

The term "trompe l'oeil" means "trick of the eye," and it's applied to two-dimensional art that fools the eye into seeing a three-dimensional space. Though such techniques were practiced in ancient Greece, as Bruce notes in his historical overview, Pugh's real precursor was the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who in 1931 "produced a trompe l'oeil mural ... at the California School of Fine Arts" that saluted "the 'skyscraping' construction in the United States."

Pugh himself got his start at Chico State University majoring in art. In his senior year he received a commission "to create a mural on a wall of Taylor Hall, which housed, most appropriately, the Chico State Art Department." As Bruce writes, "Begun in the fall of 1980 and completed in the spring of 1981, this mural would receive international recognition and launch Pugh's career in a spectacular fashion." The mural was called "Academe" (acrylic on concrete, 24 feet by 36 feet).

Pugh and Bruce will launch the new book in Chico Friday with an illustrated talk in Ayres Hall 106 at 4 p.m. and a reception honoring them both at the Taylor Hall mural. The public is invited. (A news release notes that "Pugh was honored as the College of Humanities and Fine Arts' Distinguished Alum in 2003. He returned to Chico that summer and spent a week refurbishing the mural, much to the delight of Chicoans who visited him long into the hot summer nights as he repainted the wall.")

Bruce writes that "at Taylor Hall, Pugh's first step was to establish a site-specific conceptual scheme: 'I kept looking at the wall thinking of how to best reveal in a mural the meaning of the art building both architecturally and conceptually.' He decided that the best symbol to accomplish this dual statement would be to 'go all the way back to the original Doric-style Greek column. ... My intention was ... to tap into the concept of the Greek academe as the essence of our western educational system'."

Rather than simply paint a realistic-looking series of columns, Pugh was influenced by a dream to "break open" the wall on Taylor and, as Bruce puts it, "fill this fictive space with relevant narrative creations -- intended to engage the viewer on deeper levels."

It is this narrative element in Pugh's work that sets it apart from mere trickery. Since his Chico State experience Pugh has painted many public art pieces, murals for hospitals, parking garages and libraries that attract the mind as well as the eye. Some are controversial, like his 2005 piece, "Drain," in Bishop, which evoked strong emotions about the "water wars" in the late 1900s. Other pieces, such as the mural in a San Jose cafe, "Art Imitating Life, Imitating Art, Imitating Life," are stunningly complex in their narratives.

"The Murals of John Pugh" includes chapters on his studio, techniques and future projects, a fitting 3D tribute to a visionary artist -- which is no illusion at all.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.