Hear the Album Björk Recorded as an 11-Year-Old: Features Cover Art Provided By Her Mom

bjork 11

Iceland’s biggest export, aside from volcanic ash, is that pixyish pop singer, Björk. Or at least that’s how it seems in the American popular imagination. Björk’s first three of albums were pretty much required listening in certain circles during the ‘90s.  Since then, her stature in the indie world has only grown.

Yet before she had a run of beautiful and strange masterpieces; before she was systematically tortured in front of the camera by Lars Von Trier in Dancer in the Dark; and before she was singing about birthdays with her breakout band The Sugarcubes, Björk cut her very first album. It was 1977, and Björk was only eleven.

Björk, whose name rhymes with “work” not “pork,” landed the record deal after a tape of her singing Tina Charles’ 1976 disco hit “I Love to Love” played on Iceland’s one and only radio station. The album, called simply Björk, was something of a family affair. While Björk sang and played the flute, her stepfather Sævar Árnason played guitar while her mom, Hildur Hauksdóttir, designed the album cover. (See above.) Overall, the record sounds exactly like what you might expect an Icelandic album from the ‘70s sung by a tweenaged chanteuse might sound like – part Abba, part King Crimson and part early Miley Cyrus. Björk does pretty groovy covers of The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” (top) and Syreeta Wright’s “Your Kiss is Sweet (middle),” both sung in Icelandic. There’s also an equally groovy psychedelic instrumental track dedicated to painter Jóhannes Kjarval, (below) whose work is on Icelandic currency. Björk reportedly went platinum in Iceland. You can listen to more tracks from that album on WFMU.

via WFMU

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Sylvia Plath Reads Her Poetry: 23 Poems from the Last 6 Years of Her Life

In March of last year, Toronto collector Greg Gatenby auctioned off “some 1,700 LPs, 45s, and 10-inch discs”-worth of recorded literary history, containing readings by such canonical figures as “Auden and Atwood, Camus and Capote, Eliot, Faulkner, Kipling, Shaw and Yeats,” and the recordings featured here from Sylvia Plath. Gatenby’s entire collection went on sale for a buy-it-now price of $85,000 (I assume it’s sold by now), and while we might have preferred that he donated these artifacts to libraries, there may have been no need. Most of them are already, or we hope soon will be, digitized and free online. Sylvia Plath reading her poetry (now out of print) was originally released on vinyl and cassette in 1977 by prolific spoken word record label Caedmon, but of course the readings they document all took place over fifteen years earlier, some at least as early as 1959, the year before the publication of her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems.

Many of the poems here appeared in The Colossus, the only collection of poems Plath published in her lifetime. Some, like “November Graveyard”—first published in Mademoiselle in 1958—were collected late, in the Ted Hughes-edited Collected Poems in 1981, and the rest appeared in Ariel and other posthumous collections. Oddly, the title poem of her first book doesn’t appear, nor will you hear any of the poems that made Plath an infamous literary figure: no “Ariel,” no “Daddy,” no “Lady Lazarus,” though you can hear her read those poems elsewhere. Many of these poems are more lush, less visceral and personal, though no less rich with arresting and sometimes disturbing imagery. Several of these readings took place in February 1959 at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. The album’s official description tells us these are “selections from the last 6 years of her life,” and also include “readings for the BBC before she wrote her controversial novel, The Bell Jar.”

Before Caedmon collected these lesser-known poems recorded readings of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” had already been released on the compilation record The Poet Speaks in 1965. Listening to Plath read these poems may prompt you to pull out your own editions to read them for yourself, whether again or for the first time. To see a full listing of the poems Plath reads above, scroll to the bottom of this bibliography page on sylviaplath.info.

Find more great poetry readings in our audio collection — 550 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Do Communists Have Better Sex?: A Documentary on the NSFW Ideological Question

If I had to point one visible difference between American cities and Toronto, where I’ve stayed this past week, I’d point out the flyers posted around advertising a “Communism Discussion Group.” Maybe this has to do with Canada’s wider openness to the political spectrum; maybe, if you look at things another way, it has to with Canada’s deeper slant to the left. But here, much more so than in most of the United States, I could imagine people openly discussing the question of whether maybe — just maybe — humanity had it any better under communism. Sure, nobody on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain could have enjoyed the food lines, the crumbling housing, or the sheer boredom. But this hourlong documentary has a specific yet enormously relevant and often overlooked sub-question in this line of inquiry to ask: Do Communists Have Better Sex? Or: did East Germans have better sex than West Germans? The divided country offered something close to a controlled experiment for anyone looking to study the effects of communism versus those of capitalism, and here we see the sexual side of that dynamic explored through expert interviews, contemporary newsreels and educational films, and even animation.

The documentary proposes that, for all its deficiencies, the German Democratic Republic actually put forth a remarkably progressive set of policies related to such things as birth control, divorce, abortion, and sex education — a precedent to which some non-communist countries still haven’t caught up. However forward-thinking you might find all this, it did have trouble meshing with other communist policies: the state’s rule of only issuing housing to families, for instance, meant that women would get pregnant by about age twenty in any case. We must admit that, ultimately, citizens of the showcase East Germany had a better time of it than did the citizens of Soviet Socialist Republics farther east. And if the Ossies had a better Cold War between the sheets than did the Wessies, well, maybe they just did it to escape their country’s pervasive atmosphere of “unerotic dreariness.” Still, one likes to believe in the possibility of a better world. Back in Los Angeles, I recently attended Competing Utopias, a show of East German household artifacts at Richard Neutra’s idealistic VDL House — now I just wonder what must have gone on in the bedrooms.

You can find Do Communists Have Better Sex? (2006), shot by André Meier, in our collection of 200+ Free Documentaries Online.

via Network Awesome

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Christopher Walken Reads Where The Wild Things Are

Perhaps you saw Spike Jonze and Dave Egger’s twee, sunlit, achingly earnest adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are. Perhaps you found it irresistibly charming. Perhaps, however, you missed the sharp edges of Sendak’s lean adventure, its undercurrent of feral violence, its flirtations with matricide and cannibalism. Well who better to convey such frightening undertones than master of casual menace Christopher Walken? Just above, hear him read Wild Things like you’ve never heard it before. Walken’s interpolated commentary on the illustrations draws our attention to a few features we probably missed in our several hundred readings of the book, such as the possible suicide of Max’s teddy bear and a potential swarm of giant insects in his transformed bedroom. After you hear Walken’s take, Max’s harmless suppertime daydream might give you nightmares.

Walken has long enjoyed entertaining the kiddies with his creepy interpretations of children’s stories. Just above see him read the Three Little Pigs in 1993 on the British comedy series Saturday Zoo. Once again, he adds his own explanatory comments. He’s a little more Billy Crystal than Captain Koons this time, and if his delivery doesn’t make you LOL, his day-glo sweater and wicker throne won’t fail to. Host Jonathan Ross liked the reading so much he invited Walken to read again in 2009 on his BBC show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. This one’s for the older kids—a deadpan rendition of Lada Gaga’s “Poker Face,” below. Can’t get enough of Walken’s readings? Don’t miss Kevin Pollack’s spot-on parody of the actor Mickey Rourke once called a “strange being from another place.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Only Footage of Mark Twain: The Original & Digitally Restored Films Shot by Thomas Edison

We know what Mark Twain looked like, and we think we know what he sounded like. Just above see what he looked like in motion, strolling around Stormfield, his house in Redding, Connecticut—signature white suit draped loosely around his frame, signature cigar puffing white smoke between his fingers. After Twain’s leisurely walk along the house’s façade, we see him with his daughters, Clara and Jean, seated indoors. Above you can see the original murky version, featured on our site way back in 2010. Here, a digital restoration (which we can’t embed) does wonders for the watchability of this priceless silent artifact, so vividly capturing the writer/contrarian/raconteur’s essence that you’ll find yourself reaching to turn the volume up, expecting to hear that familiar curmudgeonly drawl.

Shot by Thomas Edison in 1909, the short film is most likely the only moving image of Twain in existence. We might assume that Edison also recorded Twain’s voice, since we seem to know it so well, from portrayals of the great American humorist in pop cultural touchstones like Star Trek: The Next Generation and parodies by Alec Baldwin and Val Kilmer. Kilmer’s surprisingly funny in the role, but he doesn’t come near the pitch perfect impersonation Hal Holbrook’s been giving us for the better part of sixty years in his masterful Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook’s vocal mannerisms have become a definitive model for actors playing Twain on stage and screen.

Given the number of Twain vocal impersonations out there, and Edison’s interest in documenting the author, we might be surprised to learn that no original recordings of his voice exist. Twain, we find out in the short film above, experimented with audio recording technology, but abandoned his efforts. It seems that none of the wax cylinders he worked with have survived—perhaps he destroyed them himself.

As narrator Rod Rawlings—himself a Twain impersonator and aficionado—informs us, what we do have is a recording made in 1934 by actor and playwright William Gillette,  an able mimic of Twain, his patron and longtime neighbor. Like Holbrook, Gillette spent a good part of his career traveling from town to town playing Mark Twain. Above, you’ll hear Gillette address a class of students at Harvard, first in his own voice, then in the voice of the author, reading from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Gillette’s performance is likely the closest we’ll ever come to hearing the voice of the real Twain, whose major works appear in our collection of 550 Free Audio Books and 600 Free eBooks.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Martin Scorsese’s New Documentary on The New York Review of Books Airs Tonight on HBO

A quick note: Tonight, HBO will air the premiere of The 50 Year Argument. That’s Martin Scorsese’s new documentary about the influential literary and academic journal, The New York Review of Books.

Writes The New York Times: “Robert Silvers has assigned thousands of pieces for The New York Review of Books, so why not a documentary film? “The 50 Year Argument” … originated along the same lines as one of the lengthy, learned articles in The Review: Mr. Silvers sought out a talented essayist, in this case Martin Scorsese, and asked him to explore a subject — the magazine’s 50-year history — that he was passionate about but not expert in.” The result is a “textured and smart but thoroughly celebratory, a paean to the magazine and the amazingly durable Mr. Silvers, now 84.”

Regrettably, the film isn’t available online. But you can watch the trailer above and then a long Q&A about the film. Recorded in Berlin earlier this year, the Q&A features Scorsese on the stage, along with David Tedeschi (his co-director), NYRB editor Robert Silvers, publisher Rea Hederman, and contributor Michael Greenberg.

We have many other heady documentaries (where else?) on our list of 200 Free Documentaries Online.

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Glenn Gould Gives Us a Tour of Toronto, His Beloved Hometown (1979)

I write this from Toronto, having come to explore, record interviews in, write about, and generally try to understand this big, busy, famously diverse, and sometimes formless-seeming metropolis Canadians appreciate and resent in equal measure. Despite the difficulty of defining or even describing it, the city has nurtured impressive minds. If not Canadian yourself, you might struggle to come up with a list of notable Torontonians, but surely names like Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg, Frank Gehry, Joni Mitchell, and Marshall McLuhan ring bells. Despite having passed in 1982, pianist-composer Glenn Gould may still rank as the city’s best-known cultural ambassador. “I’m not really cut out for city living, and given my druthers I’d probably avoid all cities and live in the country,” he said in 1979. “Toronto, however, belongs on a very short list of cities which I’ve visited and which seem to offer to me, at any rate, peace of mind — cities which, for want of a better definition, do not oppose their cityness upon you.”

He says it at the very beginning of Glenn Gould‘s Toronto, which spends the rest of its 50 minutes exploring not just the city itself but Gould’s ideas of its nature. The documentary, which originally aired as an episode of the CBC series Cities, follows him from the CN Tower which looms over Toronto to the waterfront (on what he calls “the least great of the Great Lakes”) to the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition (a sizable event with a “spirit out of a small-town fall fair”) to the then-new city hall. Along the way, his monologue touches on the peace and quiet Toronto offers him, the reflexive distaste it can inspire in others, the “cultural mosaic” to which it plays host (sometimes insistently), the way it survived the 1960s without enduring the disastrous hollowing-out American cities did, and the friendly rivalry it enjoys with Montreal. Gould’s clear, analytical manner of speech delivers a stream of pointed observations, dry jokes, and childhood memories, revealing his nuanced lifelong relationship with the city: not the simple one of a booster, nor the even simpler one of a detractor. But then, Gould never had anything simple about him — nor, as I’ve come to find out this past week, does Toronto.

You can find Glenn Gould‘s Toronto in our collection of Free Documentaries.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A 1932 Illustrated Map of Harlem’s Night Clubs: From the Cotton Club to the Savoy Ballroom

32 Harlem Map

Harlem’s undergoing another Renaissance of late. Crime’s down, real estate prices are up, and throngs of pale-faced hipsters are descending to check the area out.

Sure, something’s gained, but something’s lost, too.

For today’s holiday in Harlem, we’re going to climb in the Wayback Machine. Set the dial for 1932. Don’t forget your map. (Click the image above to view a larger version.)

This delirious artifact comes courtesy of Elmer Simms Campbell (1906-1971), an artist whose race proved an impediment to career advancement in his native Midwest. Not long after relocating to New York City, he had the good fortune to be befriended by the great Cab Calloway, star of the Cotton Club. Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho! Check the lower left corner of your map.

You may notice that the compass rose deviates rather drastically from established norms. As you’ve no doubt heard, the Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down, but not in this case. Were you to choose those trees in the upper left corner as your starting point, you’d be at the top of Central Park, basically equidistant from the east and west sides. (Take the 2 or the 3 to 110th St…)

But keep in mind that this map is not drawn to scale. I know it looks like the joints are jumping from the second you step off the curb, but in reality, you’ll need to hoof it 21 blocks from the top of Central Park to 131st street for things to start cookin’. Hopefully, this geographical liberty won’t get you too hot under the collar. And if it does, well, it may be Prohibition, but stress-relieving beverages await you in every location listed, as well as in some 500 speakeasies Campbell allowed to remain on the down low.

If that doesn’t do it for you, there’s a guy selling reefer across the street from Earl “Snakehips” Tucker.

As you stagger back and forth between Seventh Avenue to Lenox (now referred to as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Malcolm X), bear in mind that Campbell was the first African-American cartoonist to be nationally published in the New Yorker, Playboy, and Esquire, whose bug-eyed, now retired mascot, Esky, was a Campbell creation.

In the end, he was an extremely successful illustrator, though few of his creations are reflective of his race.

The map above, which did double duty as endpapers for Calloway’s autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, is far closer to home.

Right above, see Cab Calloway perform “Hotcha Razz Ma Tazz” at the famous Cotton Club, in Harlem, 1935.

via Big Think

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Ayun Halliday is an author, Hoos-Yorker, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Rare Footage of the “Human Be-In,” the Landmark Counter-Culture Event Held in Golden Gate Park, 1967

Investigative reporter Steve Silberman awesomely flagged this video for us today. He writes:

This seems to have just surfaced: the most complete recording of the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967 that I have ever seen, by far. It opens with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder chanting, Michael McClure follows, and the Grateful Dead (with adorable footage of Allen dancing) pop up at about 14:00. At 18:00, Dizzy Gillespie is smiling in the audience. So much mythical noumenon has piled up around these events over the decades it’s almost inevitable that the real thing seems a little banal compared to one’s imagination, but it’s still cool.

If you’re not quite familiar with what the Human Be-In, held on January 14, 1967, was all about, let me refer you to this succinct description by a web site called Magic Bus San Francisco: “Announced on the cover of the first edition of the counter-culture zine San Francisco Oracle, the ‘Gathering of the Tribes’ or ‘Human Be-In’ as it came to be known, was the prototype of all 1960s counter culture celebrations. The Human Be-In precipitated the legendary Summer of Love, and made San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury the epicenter of the burgeoning hippie movement.  The Be-In featured all the luminaries of psychedelic counter-culture, including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), Dick Gregory, Lenore Kandel, and Jerry Ruben.  Many of the Haight’s best musical acts also performed, including the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service.” As a curious side note, the Dead didn’t get a mention in the poster promoting the event. Is that because they were a late addition? I’m not sure.


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Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman: Talk Improvisation, Language & Racism (1997)


This most certainly ranks as one of my favorite things on the internet, and I dearly wish we had audio to share with you, though I doubt any exists. What we do have is an English translation from the French of an interview that originally took place in English between philosopher Jacques Derrida and jazz great Ornette Coleman. (We must squint for traces of the original conversation in this double linguistic mediation: exactly the kind of thing Derrida relishes). Now there are those who dismiss Derrida—who consider his methods fraudulent. If you’re one of them, this is obviously not for you. For those who appreciate the turns of his thought, and the fascinating possibilities inherent in a Derridian approach to jazz improvisation, not to mention the convergences and points of conflict between these two disparate cultural figures, read on.

The interview took place in 1997, “before and during Coleman’s three concerts at La Villette, a museum and performing arts complex north of Paris that houses, among other things, the world-renowned Paris Conservatory.” As I mentioned, the two spoke in English but, as translator Timothy S. Murphy—who worked with a version published in the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles—notes, “original transcripts could not be located.” Curiously, at the heart of the conversation is a discussion about language, particularly “languages of origin.” In answer to Derrida’s first question about a program Coleman would present later that year in New York called Civilization, the saxophonist replies, “I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another. I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

As one example of this “democratic relationship,” Coleman cites the relationship between the jazz musician and the composer—or his text: “the jazz musician is probably the only person for whom the composer is not a very interesting individual, in the sense that he prefers to destroy what the composer writes or says.” Coleman goes on later in the interview to clarify his ideas about improvisation as democratic communication:

[T]he idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be… intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

Translating Coleman’s technique into “a domain that I know better, that of written language,” Derrida ventures to compare improvisation to reading, since it “doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.” For him, the existence of a framework—a written composition—even if only loosely referenced in a jazz performance, “compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation.” As Derrida and Coleman try to work through the possibility of true improvisation, the exchange becomes a fascinating deconstructive take on the relationships between jazz and writing. (For more on this aspect of their discussion, see “Deconstructin(g) Jazz Improvisation,” an article in the open access journal Critical Studies in Improvisation.)

The interview isn’t all philosophy. It ranges all over the place, from Coleman’s early days in Texas, then New York, to the impact of technology on music, to Coleman’s completely original theory of music, which he calls “harmolodics.” They also discuss globalization and the experience of growing up as a racial minority—an experience Derrida relates to very much. At one point, Coleman observes, “being black and a descendent of slaves, I have no idea what my language of origin was.” Derrida responds in kind, referencing one of his seminal texts, Monolingualism of the Other:

JD: If we were here to talk about me, which is not the case, I would tell you that, in a different but analogous manner, it’s the same thing for me. I was born into a family of Algerian Jews who spoke French, but that was not really their language of origin [… ] I have no contact of any sort with my language of origin, or rather that of my supposed ancestors.

OC: Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts? Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?

JD: It is an enigma for me.

Indeed. Derrida then recalls his first visit to the United States, in 1956, where there were “‘Reserved for Whites’ signs everywhere.” “You experienced all that?” he asks Coleman, who replies:

Yes. In any case, what I like about Paris is the fact that you can’t be a snob and a racist at the same time here, because that won’t do. Paris is the only city I know where racism never exists in your presence, it’s something you hear spoken of.

“That doesn’t mean there is no racism,” says Derrida, “but one is obliged to conceal it to the extent possible.”

You really should read the whole interview. The English translation was published in the journal Genre and comes to us via Ubuweb, who host a pdf. For more excerpts, see posts at The New Yorker and The Liberator Magazine. As interesting a read as this doubly-translated interview is, the live experience itself was a painful one for Derrida. Though he had been invited by the saxophonist, Coleman’s impatient Parisian fans booed him, eventually forcing him off the stage. In a Time magazine interview, the self-conscious philosopher recalled it as “a very unhappy event.” But, he says, “it was in the paper the next day, so it was a happy ending.”

Hear more of Coleman’s thoughts on language, sound, and technology in the 2008 interview above (see here for Part 2). The year previous, in another conjunction of the worlds of language and music, Coleman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his live album Sound Grammar, a title that succinctly expresses Coleman’s belief in music as a universal language.

Image of Ornette Coleman by Geert Vandepoele

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.