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Interview With Neal Casal

Posted in books, essays, music, photos with tags , , , , , , , , , on Wednesday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

In 2010, singer/songwriter Neal Casal released his photo book chronicling his time with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, A View of Other Windows. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Neal recently for an intimate conversation about music, photography, and the Cardinals.

Todd Levinson Frank: You’ve obviously been documenting the Cardinals for a while, when did you think it could and would make a decent book? If the Cardinals hadn’t “ended” in 2009, would this book have still come out this soon, or did the timing work out that this book would put a nice bow on the Cardinals era?

Neal Casal: I didn’t know these photos would make a decent book until the book was about 90% finished. I doubted the quality of the work until very late in the game. Once it was finished though, I knew it was up to standards and that we had achieved something special.

I didn’t start taking the photos with the intention of making a book, I was just doing it because I loved to take photos of my band mates. The idea of the photos being a book came much later.

TLF: Both a guitar and a camera are instruments of art, tools of trades, and are dependent on their design and the technology utilized to bring them to life. But a song or a jam can be made up out of thin air, whereas a picture has to be taken of something. So playing music is creating (or recreating) something while photography is capturing and freezing something. What are some similarities and differences between how you approach the guitar and how you approach the camera?

NC: Music and photos are the exact same thing for me. A photo has to be taken “of” something, and a song has to be “about” something. A photo is a song and a song is a photo. They both come out of thin air, and they are both about capturing and freezing something.

There’s a dual action that exists in both of these mediums, and in all things when they’re operating at their best. If you look at the photographs I take, and the music that I make, you’ll see and hear very similar qualities in both. My individual aesthetic is applied to whatever instruments I’m utilizing at the time.

TLF: Musically, the Cardinals have been known to start at a jumping-off point, say, a song like “Easy Plateau,” and then just ride it where ever the jam goes. Have you ever (knowingly or accidentally) had a similar experience with photography? Like you set out to photograph a sunset and ended up finding a bunch of cool birds and bridges instead? Or maybe just head out for the day with your camera with no plan and see what you end up with?

NC: My photographic life is nothing but one jumping point after another, that’s all there is for me. I never plan photos or set anything up, so I just head out for the day and follow where the light leads me. Some days it’s great, other days not at all. You have to be prepared to roll with the ups and downs.

And if I am called to do a specific thing, it always ends up being something different than was originally planned. That’s what keeps it interesting for me.

TLF: Was this book already completely finished and “in the can” by the time bassist Chris Feinstein passed away, or was it a conscious decision to just celebrate the Cardinals and let him live on through the images and music as opposed to turning it into some sort of memorial?

NC: The book was finished and printed before Chris passed away, I want everyone to know this. If there was a chance to say something about his passing in the book, or to have made a dedication, or some appropriate gesture, we certainly would have. There are no words that can ever do justice to the way we all feel about this, but we certainly would have tried, or, at the absolute least, acknowledged it in the book.

TLF: I’m sure there were plenty of albums and bands that inspired you to want to play music. Are there any photographers that made you want to pick up a camera?

NC: The best thing about photography for me is that, unlike music, I started doing it with no influences at all. It was a totally free flowing thing and I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone. I had no idea who anyone was, I had no aspirations other than to just enjoy the incredibly liberating feeling it gave me. Well, I probably had some influences because of how much photography influences all of us, but it was a subconscious thing.

I didn’t study photography, I had no knowledge of it, I started doing it by accident. After I got better at it, I began to discover photographers, and now I collect books and try to see as much photography as I can. But in the beginning, I was truly working in a blissful little void of my own making.

TLF: Can you compare holding the final version of this book, all printed and ready, with holding your first real CD you recorded, complete with cover art as a finished product?

NC: There’s nothing like holding your first record in your hands for the first time, it’s such an exciting feeling that’s never forgotten. But honestly, this book gives me an even better than my first record did.

I guess it’s because photography was so much more of a long shot than music was for me. It’s the high point of my creative life so far.

TLF: A couple guys who I assume are heroes of yours, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, both dabbled with painting. Ryan Adams recently had a well-received art exhibit of his paintings in NYC. What do you think about the connection between music and the visual arts, or is it just natural that the creative mind of a musician is drawn to other artistic avenues?

NC: It kind of goes back to the thing we talked about before, which is that, in a way, all art is all the same. Guitars, cameras, and paintbrushes, are very similar instruments when you get right down to it. They’re just conduits to bring out your feelings and your point of view about the world and your life. This is an oversimplified statement, but I don’t like to over think these things. Just grab an instrument of your choice, dig in, and see what you can extract out of yourself.

TLF: In 2007, the Cardinals played a bunch of acoustic shows as Ryan recovered from an injury and couldn’t play guitar, he only sang. How did that challenge you guys to re-imagine the music and the live show? And is there a photographic analogy? Would it be like switching to a different camera, or lens? Or shooting in challenging light or capturing something in motion?

NC: Those “Blue Cave” shows in 2007 were great because it forced us to focus on details that had been passed over previously. It gave Ryan a chance to really concentrate on his singing, which was always great, but leaped to an entirely different level at that point. It forced the rest of us to really learn those songs, and come up with airtight arrangements that would translate in any live situation. It forced me to step forward on guitar, and for all of us to work on our harmony singing, and tighten down our playing. It was a very strong, hard working, era for us, and we made a huge progression as a band in a short time. In photographic terms, it’s like switching to a macro lens so that you can photograph the tiniest veins on a leaf.

TLF: Other reviews and interviews have mentioned that your inside access as a band member made this much more interesting than simply a book of tour photos captured by outside photographers. When did you start to feel like you were on to a real photo-journal that would capture a band and its moment in time, and not just taking a bunch of personal pictures of what you were doing (which happened to be touring with a band)?

NC: I’d been approaching my life as a real photo journal/journey long before I joined the Cardinals. I photograph almost every day of my life, so when I joined the band, I just continued doing what

I was already doing. It’s just one continuous stream for me. I don’t think of my photos as personal. I take them quite seriously and think of it more as documentary work. Even if no one but me ever sees them, that’s how I’m thinking of it.

TLF: Could you imagine touring with a band and capturing them just as an outside hired photographer? If you could go back in time and chronicle any tour as a photographer, what band/year would it be?

NC: I’d love to hang around with a band and photograph them as an outside guy. I think I could be really good at it. Well, I say that now anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t like it once I started doing it, but I’d love to give it a try anyway.

If I could go back in time, I’d like to be in the deep south, particularly Mississippi, in the early part of the 20th century, photographing the early blues music that was created there.

TLF: One thing captured in the book is some of the time you guys spent recording with Willie Nelson. what was that like?

NC: Working with Willie was an honor of course. Pool was played, whiskey was drank, joints were smoked, shit was shot.

Oh yeah, we recorded some music too. One of the highlights for me was sitting at the piano and teaching him to sing “Songbird.” He would ask me “Ok, how do you phrase this next line?” I’m thinking to myself “Willie Nelson is asking ME about vocal phrasing. Wow, is this really happening?”

TLF: Did you ever feel a bit more conscious when photographing Willie and Ryan? Like “okay, I’ve GOT to get some good pictures of them together, but still have it be natural and casual”?

NC: I’m always thinking that I’ve GOT to get some good photographs no matter who or what I’m shooting. There’s no difference between Willie Nelson and a leaf on a tree as far as that goes.

TLF: What are some of your favorite rock photos? There was always something about that one of Jimi Hendrix’s shadow on his amplifier that I thought was great. Are there any photos (or album covers) that you love or think of as the perfect link between music and photography?

NC: For me, Jim Marshall is the king of all music photography. His photo of early Dylan kicking the tire springs to mind immediately.

TLF: Can you envision doing another photo book? Say, just on scenery, or a random collection of photos?

NC: Music photos comprise only a fraction of my work. I have thousands of photos of other things and dream of one day creating a book out of them. It’s just a dream, but it feels good to dream it once in awhile.

TLF: The title A View of Other Windows comes from the Cardinals song “Evergreen.” How did you come to use that and what does it mean to you in terms of this book? Or was it simply an easy Cards-related title with “View” in it? What others did you consider? Any others from Cardinals song lyrics or titles?

NC: I searched around through Ryan’s deep well of great lyrics and came up with that title. It was the first name I came up with and much to my surprise, the publishing company accepted it immediately. It just works y’know?

I love the title because it suggests being able to see many different layers, or angles, of a particular thing. There’s mystery and depth there, and it’s kinda thought provoking in a way. It takes a minute to really think through all of the different things the title could mean. I like that.

TLF: It seems a lot of critics and fans see this book as a great snapshot (pardon the pun) of the Cardinals as a band. It provides both closure and tangible evidence of the memories. Do you know if there might be a live DVD and/or live CD that might also put a bow on the Cardinals era?

NC: I have no information about any of that.

Neal Casal captures Ryan Adams shamelessly showing off his Black Flag tattoo to one of his heroes Henry Rollins (who manages a casual, I'm-not-flexing flex).

TLF: I’ve read (usually direct quotes from Ryan) that there was a chunk of “rock” material recorded before and/or during the Easy Tiger sessions, tentatively titled Cardinals III/IV. What can you tell me about those sessions and the prospects of them seeing the light of day? (Does this crop include stuff like “Arkham Asylum,” “Trouble on Wheels,” “Typecast,” “Breakdown Into the Resolve,” or is it an entirely different crop that wasn’t played live?)

NC: There’s a truckload of great songs from both the Easy Tiger and Cardinology sessions that haven’t seen the light of day yet. We recorded so many songs, 4 or 5 records worth of material. We were pretty unstoppable there for awhile, pretty amazing when i stop and think about it. I have no clue what will happen with them. “Breakdown Into The Resolve,” I think we may have played that one live a few times. Yeah, we played “Arkham Asylum” a lot in 2006 too. I remember that now.

TLF: Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers, Magnolia Electric Co., Jack White and his various bands, Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, Ryan Bingham… these are some of the more popular contemporary artists that have a lot of fan-base crossover with the Cardinals. Do you dig on any of their albums, or ever have a chance to check some of them out live?

NC: It’s a great time for music these days. I listen to all of those records and try to keep up with what everyone is doing, there are so many good bands out there. As for songwriters, I think Conor Oberst is a really gifted lyricist, he’s always blowing my mind with some amazing turn of a phrase.

TLF: I know you’re primarily a “Stones guy,” but what are your favorite Beatles and Dylan albums?

NC: Well, I’m a Dylan guy first and foremost, and so is every other rock musician whether they know it or not. He’s the one who wrote the book for all of us, and that’s an inescapable fact.

Blood On The Tracks is the Dylan album that changed my life forever, but lately I’ve been listening to New Morning a lot. I go through different phases with all of his records. I listened to that song “Up To Me” the other day and wondered how a song so great could have ever been left OFF of a record. Dylan is the real king.

As for the Beatles, I heard the last few songs on Abbey Road as I was walking around in an antique shop today, and it really captivated me. Talk about putting a bow on the end of an era, a decade, and a band. What an incredible way to wrap things up. So sad, majestic, melodic, and poignant. A lot of people like to trash the Beatles but they really were such an extraordinary band.

TLF: Finally, what are your plans, musically, for the near future? Will you be getting back to doing solo albums/tours; will you be forming or joining a new band? Will Ryan or any of the other Cardinals figure into those plans?

NC: I figure I’ll always be out there making music in one way or another. Either as a solo flyer, playing guitar for someone else, taking photos, whatever it may be. I’m into it as long as it’s up to standards y’know? Cardinals family always figures into everything I do. Whether they’re actually there or not makes no difference. We all bonded in a way that will never change. We’ll be making music together in some way or another, that’s my prediction.

The Ultimate Super Bowl Book

Posted in books, sports with tags , , , , , on Thursday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

If Bob McGinn hadn’t titled his new book The Ultimate Super Bowl Book, everyone would have called it that anyway.

This fantastic new book is not only a great resource full of facts and stats, it’s also very well written. It isn’t just a bunch of dates and results: it goes beyond those basics we all know and delves deep into each game and how and why it was actually won on the field.

There aren’t any glossy photos or filler in The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. McGinn doesn’t just rehash the most famous moments of only the best games. He retells the story of each and every Super Bowl through his own reviews of the game films and the fascinating interviews with the players, coaches, and assistant coaches involved in the game.

Throughout the book, McGinn also mixes in several interesting Top 10 lists as sidebars. Another great aspect of the book is the fact that he lists the entire coaching staff for each team. We all know and remember the head coaches, but seeing and recognizing countless names among the coordinators and assistants is a useful football history lesson beyond the considerable information found in the text.

It’s incredible to hear the key players and coaches recount not only the big memorable moments but also the underlying strategies and perhaps unseen plays that swung the game one way or the other. Oftentimes they sound as if the game had just been won (or lost) last week and not years or decades ago.

McGinn, a longtime sportswriter for the Green Bay Press-Gazeett and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has been a finalist for the Mccann Award for excellence in pro football writing and was selected as one of America’s Top 20 Sportswriters by Men’s Journal. His expert storytelling and game recaps make this even better than just an exhaustive Super Bowl reference book, though it serves as that too.

I can’t recommend The Ultimate Super Bowl Book highly enough, especially at just around $14 at Amazon. Also available direct from the publisher, MVP Books.

The Dark Side

Posted in books, politics on Monday, 2008 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

Last week saw the release of what looks to be another great (and damning) book about the Bush Administration: The Dark Side: the Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer.

From the Salon review by Louis Bayard:

The very first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney descended like a cloud on “Meet the Press” to outline the Bush administration’s response. “We’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies — if we are going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to achieve our objectives.”
Around the nation, one presumes, numbed heads were nodding in approval. Whatever it takes to get those bastards. The true nature of our Faustian bargain would not become clear until later, and maybe it needed a journalist as steely and tenacious as Jane Mayer to give us the full picture. “The Dark Side” is about how the war on terror became “a war on American ideals,” and Mayer gives this story all the weight and sorrow it deserves. Many books get tagged with the word “essential”; hers actually is.

In a New York Times opinion column, Frank Rich points out that, “In [Mayer's] telling, a major incentive for Mr. Cheney’s descent into the dark side was to cover up for the Bush White House’s failure to heed the Qaeda threat in 2001. Jack Cloonan, a special agent for the F.B.I.’s Osama bin Laden unit until 2002, told Ms. Mayer that Sept. 11 was ‘all preventable.’ By March 2000, according to the C.I.A.’s inspector general, ’50 or 60 individuals’ in the agency knew that two Al Qaeda suspects — soon to be hijackers — were in America. But there was no urgency at the top. Thomas Pickard, the acting F.B.I. director in the summer of 2001, told Ms. Mayer that when he expressed his fears about the Qaeda threat to Mr. Ashcroft, the attorney general snapped, ‘I don’t want to hear about that anymore!’”

From Andrew J. Bacevich’s review of Mayer’s book in The Washington Post: “As Mayer makes clear, the White House seized upon the prospect of open-ended war with alacrity. And why not? In the near term at least, going to war almost invariably works to the benefit of the executive branch. War elicits deference from Congress and the courts. As a wartime commander-in-chief, the president wields greater clout. In this particular case, war also helped deflect demands for accountability: Despite what Mayer describes as ‘the worst intelligence failure in the nation’s history,’ the aftermath of 9/11 saw not a single senior official fired.”

Bloomberg’s Craig Seligman takes note of how the book traces torture and other atrocities directly back to Vice President Dick Cheney, his chief aide David Addington, former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo: “Wrapping themselves in the flag, repeating the mantra ‘security’ and attacking anyone who questioned this insanity as soft on terrorism, they succeeded in disgracing their country before the world, and now they deserve to be called what they are: traitors. In a just world they would be prosecuted and convicted.”

According to some of the books’ revelations reported in the Washington Post, “A CIA analyst warned the Bush administration in 2002 that up to a third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake, but White House officials ignored the finding and insisted that all were ‘enemy combatants’ subject to indefinite incarceration, according to a new book critical of the administration’s terrorism policies.

“The CIA assessment directly challenged the administration’s claim that the detainees were all hardened terrorists — the ‘worst of the worst,’ as then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time. But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees’ cases.”

The book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying, “There will be no review. The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

This all seems to echo the opinion of the late historian Arthur Schlesinger: “the Bush administration’s extralegal counterterrorism program presented the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.”

Unwritten, part 2

Posted in books, essays on Wednesday, 2008 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

I read a lot. Mostly novels, contemporary stuff. Some quasi-hippie neo-classic shit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Strange rambling epic stories like all of Tom Robbins books. Loved John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, but also A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.

I’ve always found excuses to wander into a bookstore and just sniff the spines. For different reasons, I have the same love for danky oddly-organized dimly lit underground used book stores that I have for the bright huge chain stores that offer best sellers, a warehouse-sized store full of every book under the sun, and a mini pseudo coffee shop in the corner.

While you can’t beat the mystique and value of a mom’n’pop used book shop, I also love the smooth new books. You can just pull them off the shelf with that ffft sound and gently imitate it by wooshing your palm across the cover. Ffft.

Sometimes I’ll visit books I’ve loved… just to touch them again. Remind me of the feeling I had when I was with them. And to make sure certain title are there. Are they in the right place? On the proper shelf, waiting to be chosen so they can give those same feelings to someone new.

I love to pick up nice crisp new books, even if they’re old titles new in paperback, the actual book itself is new. Pages unruffled, spines unbent. Like a little gift waiting to be unwrapped; to share its story and dreams and imagined worlds.

If I haven’t read it, it’s new to me.

Even books I know nothing about by people I’ve never heard of attract me. I like to turn these books over and read the glowing quoted snippets promising “a journey like no other,” and “a mesmerizing tale” or “a world of infinite possibilities playing out in a small town.”

“Redemption.”

“A tour-de force.”

My favorites were the quotes about the author. “As compelling a first novel as has ever been written.” “A strong new voice.” “Perhaps the first great voice of his generation.”
That’s what I wanted to be.

But I was a sham. All my unused pens, still full of ink, and stacks of empty pages were proof that I was nothing. I wasn’t a writer. I was the first great waste of my generation’s voice. But slowly I was forcing myself to speak.

9/11: if you think i’m whacked

Posted in books, politics on Monday, 2008 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

if you think all of us crazy “conspiracy theorists” have had all of our “crackpot notions” debunked, i highly recommend you read the following book:

he even discusses how the phrase “conspiracy theory” has taken on a negative connotation and is used to quickly dismiss anyone who doesn’t buy the official version of what happened that day. talk about crazy conspiracy theories: 19 Arabs circumvented our multi-trillion dollar defense system and even managed to crash a plane into the Pentagon about an HOUR after we knew we were under attack by hi-jacked aircraft?? really???

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