Jimmy Guterman


Hanging Out with Kim Jong-il

Like many in the insulated west, I've long been fascinated by North Korea, what life is like in there, and what will happen to the peninsula after the walls come down. (Of course, I'm half a world away, so I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea. Life inside the country, I suspect, is beyond rough and might get even worse in the first years of inevitable reunification.) I've read extensively on the country, enough so that I almost understand the concept of juche. And I've explored the country a bit in my fiction. My novel-in-progress has a sequence in which an over-the-hill rocker is invited to perform a goodwill concert in Pyongyang, although I'm not sure the subplot it's part of will earn space in the final draft. My hometown website boston.com (disclosure: I used to consult for 'em) has a terrific feature called The Big Picture that tells news stories in photographs. A year and change ago, the section ran a gripping Recent scenes from North Korea, a collection of 32 photos, all taken in 2008, some from wire services, some from freelancer Eric Lafforgue's then-recent trip, some shot inside the nation, some shot across the border. And now you can see On the Spot with Kim Jong-il, 31 photos from North Korea's state-run "news" agency, showing Dear Leader, usually in a parka, inspecting various industrial facilities. It's an astonishing series of portraits of a man and a culture disconnected from reality, surveying an empire that does not exist.

Son House, "Death Letter" (Greatest Song of All Time of the Day)

I could go on all weekend about Son House, one of the top and longest-lasting country bluesman, but I'll be kind to you and get to the music quickly. His original recordings are messages from a foreign land, his sessions and concerts after rediscovery rival Skip James' (hear an interview with John Fahey and the future Dr. Demento from that period), and both his lyrical and guitar styles are slashing and unforgettable. "Death Letter" is as deep as country blues gets. National resonator guitar!

Richard Thompson, "For Shame of Doing Wrong" (Greatest Song of All Time of the Day)

Almost every Richard Thompson song could be subtitled, "Watch out!" You never know where it's going next and you always have to be wary, even when he's having fun. Thompson is as familiar with the dark end of the street as any songwriter, he's a singer of uncommon emotion, and as a character in High Fidelity, the first novel by closet rock critic Nick Hornby, notes, he's "England's finest electric guitarist." Thompson is both tasteful and wild; one of three (so far) overlapping box sets of his recordings includes a disc labelled "Epic Live Workouts" that includes precisely zero wankery. "For Shame of Doing Wrong" is one of Thompson's strongest compositions. It began life on Pour Down Like Silver, one of the '70s recordings he co-headlined with Linda Thompson, they recorded it again for the sessions they abandoned in favor of the Joe Boyd-overseen Shoot Out the Lights (a strong candidate for Greatest Album of All Time of the Day), and this version, recorded live in 1985, is Thompson at his best. The lyrics overflow with regret without turning maudlin, the band rocks, and the only thing wrong with the extended guitar solo is that it isn't long enough. Enjoy!

Striking new Edgar Allan Poe collection

mongeon-poe.jpgBoing Boing readers are interested in Edgar Allan Poe (examples 1, 2, 3, and 4), so I suspect you'll want to be the first to know about 4 by Poe, an upcoming collection of four Poe stories designed and illustrated by Eric Mongeon. Mongeon is best-known 'round these corners as a fabulous magazine designer and art director (and as the man behind the look of a record that's particularly close to me), and this is a new project for him, although one that has haunted him since design school. Each story will be published quarterly as an individually-bound limited-edition softcover volume. Mongeon promises surprises:
"4 by Poe isn't going to be yet another cinderblock tome, printed on crummy paper, typeset by a designer who dares you to actually read the text, and embellished by an illustrator who operates from a safely detached position of irony. This is going to be an illustrated collection for us grown-ups. One that approaches Poe's stories of murder, mystery, and mayhem on their own beautiful, sensationalistic terms. One that highlights the black humor, celebrates the philosophical insights, and yes, revels in the violence ... Poe's deviants lived in the real world, and that's how I'm going to show them."
Subscribe. I just did. 4 by Poe: A collection of four short stories by Edgar Allan Poe

Free ebook download: Scott Kirsner's "Fans, Friends & Followers"

kirsner.jpgTo coincide with South by Southwest, journalist Scott Kirsner is making his 2009 book Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age available free, in digital form, for the duration of the festival. You can download it here. Lots of folks you've seen at SXSW are featured in the book, including artist Natasha Wescoat, pioneering videoblogger Ze Frank, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, Burnie Burns of "Red vs. Blue," comedian Eugene Mirman, documentarian Curt Ellis, DJ Spooky, and plenty more. And, if you're at SXSW this year, Kirsner will be conducting a "fireside chat" with Ze Frank on Saturday. Scott Kirsner's "Fans, Friends & Followers" (PDF) mirror site if the link above is slow or cranky

Boyoyo Boys, "Back in Town" (Greatest Song of All Time of the Day)

Everyone from Malcolm McLaren to Paul Simon heard something in South Africa's Boyoyo Boys that they wanted to appropriate. Their '80s records are lively and surprising, both original and emblematic of their time. You can hear where whole chunks of popular American music, from Graceland to Vampire Weekend, were born and raised. After listening to "Back in Town," you'd have broken a UN boycott to work with them, too.

Sex, technology, and diabetes

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"A $6,000 insulin pump with an on-board computer chip is not alluring. Neither is the white mesh adhesive patch on my naked abdomen or the length of nylon tubing that connects the patch to the pump. There is only illness, and there is no way to make that sexy. After several years as a medical device wearer, I know."
Those are the opening sentences of "Tethered to the Body," an essay the writer and teacher Jane Kokernak wrote about her adjustment to wearing an insulin pump and its affect on her sense of sexual self. It connects disability and sexuality in novel and moving ways (it also introduced me to the term "disability erotica"). The essay, which originally appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, has been reprinted in A Sweet Life, a site for the "healthy diabetic." The story is close to me for many reasons. I'm diabetic, too, although I am not insulin-dependent, and, more important, Jane is my wife, so the sex she's talking about in the essay is with, well, me. You may wish to consider my recommendation with that in mind, but I guarantee you that this will be the only piece you ever read in which the two tags are "Insulin Pump" and "Sex."

Amy Rigby, "Balls" (Greatest Song of All Time of the Day)

When she's not dropping everything to catch up on Twin Peaks, transatlantic troubadour Amy Rigby sings, writes, and performs some of the funniest and some of the most heartbreaking songs you've ever heard. Sometimes she does both in the same number. "Balls" is an all-out rock'n'roll barnburner that captures the frustration and excitement of desire with anger and several great punch lines. It's nasty, it's welcoming. It's as confusing and wonderful and awful as your life. Did I mention the slide guitar? Did I mention how Amy tosses off the aside "this one's gonna hurt"? Did I mention it's on two great albums: The Sugar Tree (along with "Rode Hard," another greatest song of all time of the week candidate and perhaps the most convincing argument for bad behavior on disc this side of "Dead Flowers") and 18 Again (a terrific greatest hits record, but all her records are greatest hits records)? WARNING: The YouTube clip below, however worthy, is not the version I've just raved about. It's a live solo acoustic version, the only take available on the Interwebs. Rigby's song is great in any context, but you've got to see and hear her as a bandleader to get the full sense of how brilliant she is. Anyone out there got any full-band footage to share? The rest of you: invest 99 cents and buy the song at your favorite online outlet. It'll be the smartest and longest-lasting buck you spend today (do you really need another cup of coffee)?

Did Charley Patton play that way?

copyright Blues ImagesOver the past seven years, I've had the outlandishly talented country blues singer and guitarist Charley Patton looking over me. (Don't know Charley Patton? Hear him here and then buy what may be the greatest CD box set ever.) For many years, a photo of Patton was as hard to come by as a pic of Robert Johnson, and -- as with Johnson -- the legitimacy of the image has been challenged. For our purposes today, let's assume that this is Patton. I draw your attention to his left hand, how it is posed over the frets like crab legs. Patton's style has always felt a bit eccentric compared to other country blues purveyors, and I wonder whether he might have fingered the frets in an unusual way, too. Now I know there are plenty of other guitarists from the 1920s and 1930s who have posed in similar ways, but I wonder: does this photo reveal something about Patton's style. I know there are a lot of guitarists here (hey, the guy who let me in here builds 'em), so I'm eager to hear any theories, no matter how dubious. And to learn more about the fellow in the photograph, see R. Crumb's comix history of Patton. (The Patton pic above belongs to Blues Images.)

Nina Simone, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (Greatest Song of All Time of the Day)

In the 60s, Columbia ran a "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan" advertising campaign. It's absolutely true that Bob Dylan's unprecedented voice is the ideal way to deliver his unmatchable compositions, but it's also true that the guy is one of greatest songwriters we'll ever hear, so it's no surprise that a long list of top voices have wanted to wrap themselves in his words and music. For example, everyone from Neil Young to Bryan Ferry have performed ace interpretations of Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," which I present here in Nina Simone's version. I recognize that Simone's RCA years aren't among her best, in part because she performed too many songs intended to ingratiate her with a young audience and this recording was probably part of that attempt. But this slowed-down take brings the original new places, most of them both luxurious and unsettling. I couldn't find a clip of Simone singing this song, but Jesse Dylan did locate a weird mashup on YouTube: Simone's performance as the soundtrack for clips from an unfinished Marilyn Monroe movie. (It's very mildly NSFW.) "Somehow it works," Jesse notes.

Free download returns: Tribute to The Clash's Sandinista!

sandinistaprojectcoverlores.jpgA few years ago, I produced The Sandinista Project, in which 36 performers each covered one song from The Clash's Sandinista! It was a fun and crazy project. Last summer, on Joe Strummer's birthday, as reported by Mark, I made the record free for a day. The free download was a great success although what I learned from the experiment was more mixed. I've been having a wonderful time here during my guestblogging residency and I'd like to say "thank you" by making the record free again, for a limited time. Instead of making it free for one day, which slowed the hamsters running the guterman.com servers to a crawl because everyone downloaded at once, I'm going to make the record, along with digital images of the packaging, available until midnight U.S. eastern time on Sunday night, so you'll have plenty of time to download this before it goes away. The Sandinista Project, once again free for a limited time

Design thinking tips from the masters

Photo: (c) Austin Kleon (Flickr/Creative Commons)As Mark noted in his post introducing me, I'm winding down a stint as executive editor of MIT Sloan Management Review. One of my greatest pleasures during that assignment was developing a special report on design thinking. Most of what gets published about design thinking focuses on getting analytical types to think more creatively. Usually there are a bunch of examples from Apple and IDEO, leaving CEOs and CFOs more confident about arguing over which shade of mauve to use as the background on a web page. Instead of taking that approach, we wanted to deliver some more practical and global lessons. Thanks to my fellow editor Sean Brown, two of my favorite elements of that special report, usually locked behind a paywall, are now available to all. In How to Become a Better Manager ... By Thinking Like a Designer, I talk to two of the smartest people on the planet when it comes to presentations, Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds, and we talk about how to influence and persuade in different ways than executive usually do, regardless of whether you ever have to communicate via PowerPoint. In How Facts Change Everything (If You Let Them), I sit at the feet of the information design giant Edward R. Tufte. He explains how businesses would think better, make better decisions, and present themselves more powerfully if only they would learn to talk -- both internally and externally -- in facts. (Late-breaking Tufte news: he has just been appointed to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel. In other words, someone whose whole career has been about promoting accountability and transparency will now be able to do so in the context of public service. We're lucky to have him.) I hope you enjoy these newly freed articles. And I hope you learn something from listening to Duarte, Reynolds, and Tufte. I know I did.

Ida Maria, "Oh My God" (Greatest Song of All Time of the Day)

Regular visitors to my blog are likely sick of my outsize enthusiasm for the songwriter, singer, and guitarist Ida Maria; now it's time for you to suffer. I've written about the excitement of discovering her debut album, trying to get my then-12-year-old daughter into a 21+ club to see her (I received some hilarious help from the Internets on this front), succeeding at getting said daughter into a show, and my sadness at Maria's apparent genuine breakdown onstage one night. If you haven't heard Ida Maria, start here. "Oh My God" is ferocious in every way a great rock'n'roll song can be ferocious, climaxing with a scream as frightening as Johnny Rotten's and as powerful as Roger Daltrey's. There are few better ways to start the week.

Lawrence Lessig scares a room of liberals

I should say upfront that I'm a big fan of Lawrence Lessig's causes and his presentation techniques. My favorite might be his 2007 tour de force at TED about John Philips Sousa, Jesus singing "I Will Survive," and the joys and dangers of remix culture. A few days back he spoke at TEDxNYED about what conservatives can teach the free culture movement. I may be getting into trouble recommend a talk about conservatives here -- some of the email I received last week suggests that a good percentage of the readers here might find a Kucinich-Sanders ticket to be hopelessly middle of the road -- but this talk is classic Lessig, from its "I Was a Teenage Republican" opening to his real-time Wikipedia fix, to a reminder that Republican Walt Disney (the guy, not the company) was something of a remixer. There's plenty to argue about here and he presents in black and white some issues that are full of grays, but chances are you won't spend 20 minutes today with a smarter person. It's worth watching and thinking about even if, like me, you agree with only part of it.

Magazine marketers give up on marketing magazines

newfortune1.pngI fly a lot less than I used to (and I never flew that often), so I was surprised when I received this piece of mail that seemed to be about frequent flyer miles expiring. It was either open the junk mail or keep cleaning the kitchen, so clearly I had to open the junk mail right away. I was surprised to learn that the direct mail had hardly anything to do with frequent flyer miles; it was a solicitation to restart my subscription to FORTUNE. newfortune2.pngThis is how bad it's gotten for at least one prominent print publication: It has to masquerade as something other than what it is to entice customers to open an envelope. Time Inc., the newly AOL-free owner of FORTUNE, has a history of misleading marketing offers (example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4, example 5), but this particular maneuver feels like desperation. It's as if the marketers realize that their best chance to get readers to return to their product is to trick them. The marketing says, "Yeah, we're doomed."