Manchester, New Hampshire Road Trip

Wil Barnet

“Let’s go to Manchester, New Hampshire!” Said no one you know. Ever. It may one of the best-kept secrets in all of New England. Most people see this city of 110,000—if at all—as they zip past on the interstates, the Merrimack River fronting red brick corridors that look like tombstones to bygone factory work. Those are what’s left of the Amoskeag Corporation, a complex of textile mills that once made Manchester the largest manufacturing city in the Western world—even bigger than its English namesake.

Until recently you’d be right to think of Manchester without the Amoskeag as akin to New Bedford without fishing, Holyoke without paper mils, Pittsfield without GE, or Lawrence without woolens. There’s actually more going on than you’d think. Segways are built there, you can find good French-Canadian bakeries, and several colleges keep things lively. The city has a new AA baseball stadium, AHL hockey, a reviving Lumberyard retail/restaurant area, and affordable housing. But the biggest thing that gives it a leg up on other deindustrialized cities is a dynamic cultural heritage anchored by the Currier Museum of Art, which is truly an underappreciated gem.

The Currier often launches creative special exhibitions, but let’s take a look at its permanent collection. First of all, the Currier also administers tours of the nearby Zimmerman House, a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home that was supposed to be Wright’s foray into affordable middle-class housing. You’d really have to stretch the definitions of affordable and middle class to take up residency in one of these, but it’s always enlightening to consider Wright’s mercurial vision.

Childe Hassam
The museum proper intrigues by allowing one to sample great art rather than gorging upon it. It holds about 13,000 works altogether and when you consider that Boston’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts holds over 346,000, you can readily imagine that the Currier is less likely to cause sensory overload. (All museums display only a small percentage of their works at a time.) In other words, if you want to see a few Impressionists, there’s a smattering of Monets, Pissarros, and Hassams—not entire wings of the museum.

The Currier opened its doors in 1929, just as Manchester’s industrial might was peaking and about to collapse. In practical terms, it means that the Currier’s strength lies with twentieth-century art—Ash Can painting, precisionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism…. A moody Charles Sheeler of the Amoskeag mils is one of my favorites as it embodies both Manchester’s former might and portents. I also like Lyonel Feiniger’s The Mill in Spring as we can see in it both where painting has been and how new thoughts on line, shape, and space herald new ways of filling a canvas. They light the path to new movements embodied in works such as Will Barnet’s The Aawkening, Michael Mazur’s Painted Edge, or the colors and textured blocks of Mark Rothko.


Museums like the Currier slow us down so we can find small treasures. Even when you stumble upon an O’Keeffe, a Hartley, or a Sargent, they are generally not works you’ve seen in art books and on coffee mugs! Among my favorites are works from the underappreciated Arthur Dove, a dreamy Maxfield Parrish, a simple Salvador Dali, and an amusing work from O. Louis Guglielmi titled Sisters of Charity. Look carefully; the only word we can trust in that title is “of.”

Guglielmi is not an artist I knew and discovery is the great fun of the Currier. Another new one for me was Edwin Sheirer. His ceramics, textiles, carvings, and paintings were inspired by tribal art, myth, whimsy, and imagination—wells from which Modernists often drew.  

Breathe deeply. You can say it. “Let’s go to Manchester, New Hampshire!” I predict that as you enjoy a cup of coffee in its laidback courtyard you’ll wonder why it took you so long to discover it.

Rob Weir


Brigsby Bear is Either Stupid or Perversely Brilliant

Directed by Dave McCary
Sony Pictures Classic, 97 minutes, PG-13 (brief sexuality)

Brigsby Bear is a strange, but charming film that scarcely stretched its costumed paws before being sent back to the den. I get it; it's the kind of movie you either take to immediately, or exclaim, "WTF?" and turn it off before the TV is even warm. What is it, exactly?

That's hard to say. At times it seems as if it’s a movie about teens that was hijacked by them midway through; at others it feels like an afternoon special, or perhaps a really offbeat Disney project. In my mind, it’s the movie equivalent of music by Flight of the Conchords or They Mighty Be Giants: zany, often ridiculous, and yet strangely affecting. I lump it with idiosyncratic films such as Eagle vs. Shark, The Price of Milk, and Lost in Paris. This is to say, Brigsby Bear has its charms, but don’t expect Citizen Kane.  

Here’s the setup: James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney) lives in a desert biodome-like structure that’s half buried in the Utah desert. He has been told by his “parents,” Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), that Earth’s air has been poisoned, that he should seldom venture outside, and that he can never do so without a gas mask, the likes of which he sees Ted don every time he drives off. James’ contact with the world is largely through VCR cassettes of “Brigsby Bear,” a sort of cut-rate children’s sci-fi educational show whose titular hero is a man dressed in a cartoonish bear costume with a papier-mâché head. There are math and science lessons embedded into the plots, but these mainly involve Brigsby’s adventures with the Smiles twins in thwarting the plans of an animated and personified sun to destroy the world. Never mind that the whole thing is cheesier than Wisconsin and the acting so stiff it makes Season One of Dr. Who look like Shakespeare, insofar as James knows, Brigsby is real and has an audience of millions.

James’ world is blown apart when law enforcement officials raid the compound, shackle Ted and April, and take James away to meet Greg and Louise Pope, the biological parents from whom he was kidnapped as an infant. He even has a sister, the largely disinterested Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Here’s the serious part of the film: How do you socialize what is essentially a feral child trapped in a 24-year-old body? After all, he’s only just learned he can breathe the air, so he has little interest in the beach, basketball, board games, and other such ‘family’ pursuits. What he really wants is access to the new cassettes of “Brigsby Bear.” They, of course, don’t exist; it was Ted in the outfit all those years, but through various plot devices I won’t reveal, he gets a VCR and a few back episodes. He also falls in with his sister’s teenaged friends, one of whom digitizes them and, viola! Brigsby is a YouTube sensation. Courtesy of those same age-inappropriate friends, Brigsby Bear: The Movie is on and along the way James has lots to learn: about communications, sex, controlled substances, and what a bad idea it is to research making explosive devices.

Again, this is either all endearing and delightful or puerile and stupid—depending upon your point of view. The film also stars Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, and Greg Kinnear as a cop who misses his college thespian ways. Simpkins is engaging as James’ sister, as is Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. as Spencer, the teen who (sort of) gets James. If you’re a film snob and can’t abide sentimentality, goofiness, or scripts with more holes than a fish net, steer clear of Brigsby Bear. As for the rest of you, give it a try. If you like it, you’re welcome; if not and you suspect I have taken leave of my senses, I understand.

Rob Weir


Welcome Back Joyce Luna/Zymeck

Joyce Luna, Every Road We Take

Folks in the Northeast know Joyce Luna under her given name of Joyce Zymeck* and as half of the beloved duo Justina and Joyce. Joyce moved to Tucson a few years back and took a hiatus from music to deal with some serious medical and personal issues. The latter—much of it related to matters of the heart—became fodder for a passel of new songs just out on Joyce's first solo recording. Coproduced with Ryan David Green, Every Road We Take is an honest and soul-baring look at the things that make the soul leap and those that make it weep. The title track sets the mood. It opens with the line I had a love that burned me down completely. So what do you do when a new possibility comes along and you find yourself—in Luna's delicious phrase—stuck on the karma carousel?

Yep—it's that kind of vulnerable album. It's also an unabashed folk music record with Luna singing like a nightingale and the instrumentation—though often woven tightly around the melodies—never competing with the vocals. The flavor of the album, though not the music itself, reminded me of the sort of projects Sally Rogers used to make. Tentative steps are taken again in "We'll See," and Luna is open to any of three possibilities: fling, false hope, or real thing. Psychological healing gets a work out the record. "Choose" closes the gap between the labels others put on you and what you know to be true of yourself, with lines such as To get rid of the bad, we have to give up some good a true reckoning of the cost when we choose a new family. There is also the balm of music, which Luna explores on the rhythmic clap-and-sing "Love, Dance, Sing."

For me the album really catches fire "A Million Years," with its big guitar sound and memorable riffs that enhance the drama of whether or not to open the door to a person who sees you with all your scars and fear and refuses to turn away. Luna follows with a dynamic remake of "Sip of Water," a Justina and Joyce favorite. The new version surpasses the original and is so sexy and hot you may need a cold shower after listening. These two songs set the stage for more diversity in theme and production. The cello accompaniment—from Linda Ronstadt's nephew Michael—to "(Why Do You) Hide Your Heart" and the ever-so-dark piano to "Trust" give each the feel of late-night-café folk. They are followed by the giddy and cheeky coyness of "First Kiss," which is where Motown, early 60s' girl group, and folk collide; then comes "Heaven," a novelty song confession of her love of the Weather Channel," followed by the album's two social justice songs.

It is an ironic tragedy that I am writing this review the day still another school shooter murdered ten in Texas, as Luna's "We Shall Be Seen" is her anthem against gun violence and she is backed on the album by singers from Every Town for Gun Safety/Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety. One wonders what else can be done to address the nation's paralytic inaction on the slaughter of innocents.  I wanted to scream out We say No, No, No! the repeating chant from "Affirmation (The No Song," the album's second remix and its concluding selection."

This is an expertly produced recording and it's a true joy to hear Joyce's voice once again. If you like folk music that doesn't pretend to be something else, this is the record for you. My sole reservation is with the order of the songs. Perhaps that doesn't matter in the age of individual downloads, but I would have counseled to leave more space between relationship songs. (Though such matters are truly the artist's choice.) And, as my mother used to say, if that's the worst you have to complain about….

Here's a collection of samples from the just released album.  These are better recordings than the above YouTube postings.

Rob Weir

*Full disclosure: I have known Joyce for many years and, lately, she has been a great help in helping me negotiate some of the same back pain issues with which she has had to cope. But lest you think this a "puff piece," my standard in reviewing records from friends is that if I don't like them, I politely beg off and pass them to other reviewers. Honestly! 


What the Blazes is a Knickerbocker?

Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. By Elizabeth L. Bradley. Rutgers University Press, 2009, 151+ pp.

 This academic review appeared in NEPCA Journal but might be of general interest. I was fascinated by it!

In his 1963 breakthrough novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. coined the term granfalloon to describe hollow collectives to which one accidentally belongs. For instance, if you live in California you are a “Californian” until the day you move to Vermont and become a “Vermonter.” Such identities are intrinsically meaningless—unless they mutate. Elizabeth Bradley’s fascinating study of the Knickerbocker identity suggests that more is afoot when we look at how such terms are created, recreated, and appropriated over time. Her book was originally published in 2009, but is back in the Rutgers University Press limelight at a time in which the larger “American” identity is weakening and Balkanization is ascendant.

Most regional identity terms follow simple grammar rules as they move from noun to adjective. It doesn’t require much mental effort to associate an Iowan with Iowa or a Mainer with Maine. It’s trickier when the adjectives are endonyms, terms used almost entirely by those within a region. Perhaps you can work it out that a “Toner” resides in Washington State, but you probably need to live in South Carolina to identify with Sandlapper, or follow sports to think of Cornhuskers, Tar Heels, and Hawkeyes in the same breath as Nebraska, North Carolina, and Iowa, as none of those terms are officially recognized collective pronouns. Sometimes insider terms become official—Buckeye (Ohio), Hoosier (Indiana), Nutmegger (Connecticut), or Yankee (New England)—but all such unusual adjectives are called demonyms and, as often as not, their Ur usage is obscure and spawn theories ranging from logical to fanciful.

Knickerbocker is rare in that we know its precise origins. It was the pseudonym used by Washington Irving (1783-1859) to perpetuate a great literary hoax. Irving appropriated the surname of a Rensselaer County Dutch family to invent Diedrich Knickerbocker, a deadbeat historian whose manuscript Irving “discovered” in a New York City hotel room from which Knickerbocker fled before settling his accounts. Irving fashioned a brilliant publicity campaign to go with his literary invention; he took out ads stating his intention to publish Knickerbocker’s manuscript unless he came forth to claim it. Not surprisingly, Kickerbocker was a no-show and, in 1809, the struggling Irving made his early reputation with A History of New York from the Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.

You could learn a lot of this by wasting a few hours on the Internet. What you’d not learn, though, is the social history and contemporary sociology associated with Irving’s ruse. Also in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut introduced the karass, an intentional network of people connected in significant ways. Though she does not reference Vonnegut, Bradley shows how the Knickerbocker has been appropriated in identity-forming ways. Direct Dutch control over its New Amsterdam colony officially ended in 1665, but the transfer to English control did not change the fact that the colony’s white population was predominately Dutch. Nor did the American Revolution and the passage of 144 years alter the fact that those of Dutch surnames and ancestry were disproportionately distributed among New York’s wealthy families, politicians, and taste arbiters. Many New Yorkers were amused by Irving’s trickery, but not all got the joke; some saw the Knickerbocker icon as confirmation of their assumed social and cultural superiority. Irving’s purpose, of course, was the opposite; he lampooned Dutch calcification specifically and social airs in general, but Diedrich Knickerbocker unleashed proved an infinitely malleable demonym.

Bradley titles her chapters “The Picture of Knickerbocker,” “Inheriting Knickerbocker,” “Fashioning a Knickerboracy,” and “Knickerbocker in a New Century.” Bradley breezily transforms the Knickerbocker into a synecdoche for two hundred years of New York history, politics, culture, commerce, and identity. In effect, one can draw a straight line from the boastful Diedrick Knickerbocker to the insouciant swagger of today’s New York City dwellers. That is, the Knickerbocker became New York City’s brand. No wonder those in the 19th century associated it with everything from bread and buses to “nostalgia and nativism” (59). And let’s not forget Santa Claus. Through time, the Knickerbocker lost some of its Dutch ethnicity in the American melting pot, but there were always Roosevelts, Van Rensselaers, and Vanderbilts to drop hints; German and Dutch brewers to lubricate myths; and basketball heroes, place names, and the mystique of the Big Apple to suggest that Gotham speaks a Dutch dialect. Moreover, as Bradley reminds us, no city comes close to New York in capturing imaginings of the essence of the United States. Never mind that little of this looks like the frontispiece from Irving’s 1809 satire; myths have enormous power even when their veracity is in doubt—just as an intentional karass is generally more empowering than an accidental granfalloon.

Rob Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst