Longform’s Best Arts and Culture Stories of 2012
A pair of comebacks, a group that will never leave, and a critically acclaimed artist who works nights at the post office.
This week, we’ll be sharing our favorite articles of the year on Slate. For our full list—including the top 10 of the year, plus picks in sports, politics, tech and more—check out Longform’s Best of 2012.
Portrait of the Artist as a Postman
Jason Sheeler • Texas Monthly
A profile of Kermit Oliver, a reclusive, critically acclaimed artist who designs scarves for Hermès and works nights at the Waco post office.
“Kermit’s wife met me at the door. She wore dish-washing gloves and an apron decorated with red chile peppers, and her hair was up in a turquoise bandanna. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘we’re not visiting people.’ But she welcomed me in, offered me some orange juice, and led me down the creaky plank floors of a dark, cramped hallway. The walls were covered with art: images of exotic animals, elegant ranch-life pastorals in vibrant colors, biblical allegories. We passed a framed scarf, Kermit’s first for Hermès. Displayed behind dusty glass, it was a portrait of a Pawnee Indian chief on a bright-orange background, surrounded by childlike drawings of galloping horses with flag-toting riders.
“Kermit was sitting in the living room, in an armchair covered by a red-and-white quilt. He stood up when I arrived. He was small-framed, with salt-and-pepper hair combed off his forehead. Dressed in loose khakis and an untucked plaid oxford shirt, he gave the impression of a small-town surgeon who’d just gotten off the late shift. His eyeglasses were in his hands, which continuously fidgeted while the rest of him stood still. ‘Why do you want to talk to me?’ he asked.
“I stammered something about his story, how interesting it was. He looked skeptical. ‘Why don’t you tell me what my story is,’ he said. I told him what they had said in Lyon, reciting the words almost like the first line of a fable: ‘There once was a postman who designed scarves for Hermès.’
“ ‘Well, it’s never that simple,’ he said with a mysterious grin.”
Amen! (D'Angelo's Back)
Amy Wallace • GQ
A profile of the singer as he returned to the stage for the first time in a dozen years.
“At one point, he grabs the hem of his wife-beater with both hands and tugs it up—one, two!—in time with the song. The brief reveal of his midsection is a flashback to the trying days of 2000, but it's 2012 now, and the shirt stays on. When the band rips into its encore, ‘Brown Sugar,’ it feels like D has rounded third base and is about to slide to safety. ‘Good God!’ D yelps, kicking the mike stand away, then catching it with his foot before it flies into the audience. ‘Give my testimony!’ he shouts, blowing kisses from the stage.
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for BET.
“The show is a triumph, and soon Twitter and Facebook are on fire. He's really back—no longer a specter. D's band—he can't decide on the name, but he's considering the Spades—radiates happiness and exhaustion as they load onto the tour buses, nicknamed the Amistad I and II after the slave ship. The next night he fills a 1,600-capacity club in Copenhagen, and afterward the buses leave on D-time—a full twelve hours behind schedule. By the time they arrive at the hotel in Paris on Sunday, January 29, sound check for that night's show is just three hours away. Still, despite having traveled 760 miles across Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and France, D and his trainer head directly to the tiny hotel gym. Coincidentally I'm there, too. I ask if D wants privacy. He does. As I head for the door, he steps wordlessly onto the treadmill, a weary man with many miles still to go.”
"I Just Want to Feel Everything"
Dan P. Lee • New York
A profile of Fiona Apple.
“There is a very strong argument to be made that Fiona Apple, 34, is the greatest popular musician of her generation. This, on its face, might seem like something of a misnomer, since Apple moves paltry numbers of ‘units’ and is the antithesis of prolific. She also happens to be a longtime critic of the record industry, specifically her employer, Sony Records. (Strictly for comparison purposes, in the six-year span between Apple’s second and third albums, Britney Spears released five CDs, including both her debut and ‘greatest hits.’) Apple wrote the majority of her first album, Tidal, during adolescence; released in 1996, when she was 18, it was nominated for three Grammys. Her next two—When the Pawn … and Extraordinary Machine, released in 1999 and 2005, respectively—were similarly nominated and appeared atop virtually every top critic’s list of the best albums of the year (Kanye West has said Extraordinary Machine made him want to be the ‘hip-hop Fiona Apple’). But it is her latest—a stripped-down rhythmical and confessional tour de force—which, in its restraint alone, stands as her strongest work yet.
“Her unique musical DNA—fusing jazz and the old standards with a dose of post-sixties singer-songwriter—seems inextricable from her biological one, a line of workman American performers steeped in vaudeville, big band, theater, and cable television. So that, in ‘Every Single Night,’ the lines ‘Little wings of white-flamed / Butterflies in my brain’ come with a slight fluttering; there is a quickening, a crescendo through ‘Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze’; until, by the time ‘That’s when the pain comes in,’ her contralto rings, erupting to accent when in an E-flat that, taken out of context, could be Callas’s, not to mention the almost diabolical use of robato to construct a chorus out of ‘brain,’ stretched into ten notes, ten slurring syllables, in what it occurs to me very early one morning later in her living room in California, the two of us altered to the precipice of poisoning, green stars orbiting above us, her extraordinary voice ricocheting across space: musical onomatopoeia.
“First, though, she had to come downstairs and meet me.”
Nick Paumgarten • The New Yorker
The Grateful Dead’s afterlife.
“The Dead’s first great benefactor, Owsley (Bear) Stanley, the scion of a Kentucky political family, was a pioneering manufacturer of LSD. He also had an idiosyncratic but fierce interest in sound quality, and, while his technical contributions were not always practicable, his early financial support, near-evangelical dedication to sonic fidelity, and steady supply of acid created an atmosphere of experimentation and advancement that culminated, first, in the creation of a groundbreaking company called Alembic and, later, in the so-called Wall of Sound. The Wall of Sound, which has nothing to do with Phil Spector’s, consisted of six hundred and four speakers, channelling twenty-six thousand watts of power. It has been called the greatest vessel for the amplification of sound in history. Every modern P.A. system is based on it; it employed a so-called line-array system that is now the industry standard. It was also so cumbersome, and took so long to unload and assemble, that it nearly bankrupted the band. It was Stanley, too, who began recording the band’s performances, in 1966, so that they could listen later, to check the sound or mine ideas. (Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had also inculcated them with the ethos of taping and filming everything.) When Owsley went to prison, for making LSD, others, among them Betty Cantor, stepped in for months at a stretch. A taping regimen took root, even as the band members stopped paying attention.
“The other irony is that the very sharpness of live sound and variety in performance that led people to begin compulsively taping the band created a brisk and far-reaching trade in tapes, which, as they were copied, often came to sound like mud. So a drug-addled, rehearsal-averse, error-prone band of non-virtuosos perfected a state-of-the-art sound system that created a taping community that distributed a gigantic body of work that often came to sound as sloppy as some of the performances. Each had a character and odor of its own, a terroir. Some combination of the era, the lineup, the set list, the sound system, the recording apparatus, its positioning in the hall, the recorder’s sonic bias, the chain of custody, and, yes, the actual performance would render up a sonic aura that could be unique. Jerry Garcia claimed to be a synesthete—he said that he perceived sound as color. Somehow, I and others came to perceive various recordings, if not as colors, as having distinct odors or auras.”
Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?
David Denby • New Republic
Blockbusters in the age of "corporate irony."
“In the 1930s, roughly eighty million people went to the movies every week, with weekly attendance peaking at ninety million in 1930 and again in the mid-1940s. Now about thirty million people go, in a population two and a half times the size of the population of the 1930s. By degrees, as everyone knows, television, the Internet, and computer games dethroned the movies as regular entertainment. By the 1980s, the economics of the business became largely event-driven, with a never-ending production of spectacle and animation that draws young audiences away from their home screens on opening weekend. For years, the tastes of young audiences have wielded an influence on what gets made way out of proportion to their numbers in the population. We now have a movie culture so bizarrely pulled out of shape that it makes one wonder what kind of future movies will have.
“Nostalgia is history altered through sentiment. What’s necessary for survival is not nostalgia, but defiance. I’m made crazy by the way the business structure of movies is now constricting the art of movies. I don’t understand why more people are not made crazy by the same thing. Perhaps their best hopes have been defeated; perhaps, if they are journalists, they do not want to argue themselves out of a job; perhaps they are too frightened of sounding like cranks to point out what is obvious and have merely, with a suppressed sigh, accommodated themselves to the strange thing that American movies have become. A successful marketplace has a vast bullying force to enforce acquiescence.”
For more of the year’s best writing, check out Longform’s Best of 2012.