Saturday, August 31, 2013

As Good as Cole Porter

Willie Dixon, 1915 - 1992

I'm reading The Poets of Tin Pan Alley by Philip Furia, a study of the lyricists of the Great American Songbook, and it got me thinking about how we judge the bodies of work of our great composers of popular song. There's no better way of encountering the songs of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern, and others than through the Songbook series that Ella Fitzgerald recorded for Verve in the late 50s and early 60s. What you're getting there is the best twenty, thirty, or forty songs from each of these masterly writers. The level of craft is unsurpassed. The music and words fit together with precision, and they sparkle with urbanity. It is through these songs and performances that people of our baby boomer generation and later know these composers, conveying the impression that they could do no wrong.

The truth is that these composers were cranking out songs for musicals nonstop. People alive at the time know that there was plenty of filler in those shows. Sometimes only a song or two would ascend to timelessness. If we judge the great songwriters of the post-WWII era by the same measure, it gets clear pretty fast that our modern songwriters practice a pretty high level of craft themselves, approaching perfection in their own way, according to their own aesthetics.

Consider the top twenty or thirty songs of the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks and you won't find much fat to trim there. Or consider the monumental American singer-songwriters Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, and John Prine. Same thing. Nothing to trim there. Then there were the songwriters who wrote for others, like Holland-Dozier-Holland in Motown, Goffin-King and Weil-Mann in the Tin Pan Alley of the 60s. And how about Willie Dixon propagating blues wisdom for Chess Records in Chicago? There's more. How about Hank Williams? His poetry is equal to Ira Gershwin's, is it not?

Those of us who have grown up knowing the complete bodies of work of many of these modern artists know that their records include a few clunkers or less-than-stellar songs. But it was ever thus. So, yes, Willie Dixon is as good as Cole Porter!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Violence King Faced

Historian Vincent Harding

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, let us consider this: Did Dr. King espouse nonviolence out of fear? Was he naive about the wisdom of nonviolence? Not at all. In fact, he faced extreme violence early in the movement, and remained committed to aggressive nonviolent action as the only means of true change in the United States, and in the world. Vincent Harding explains in America Will Be!, his new dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda:
On January 30, 1956, King's home was bombed. I believe this event hardened King's resolve, and this is also what deepened the people's respect for him. It would become a magnificent opportunity that would test his philosophy of nonviolence. After the bomb blast people were outraged, and many rushed to King's house, some bearing weapons, both to protect him and to strike out against whoever had committed this violent act. King then took this wonderful opportunity to remind his supporters that vengeance was not the basis on which their struggle must be carried forth, and he called upon them to lay down their arms and to fight with courage rather than with instruments of brutality. King took every opportunity to call upon the people to rise to a higher level of humanity than that of the oppressors.
This context makes King's dream all the more remarkable. As Dr. Harding says, the true meaning of Martin's dream is that he maintained faith in it in the face of harsh opposition. It should be noted that in September 1963, just a few weeks after the March, four young African-American girls died when a church in Birmingham was bombed. To call for brotherhood and sisterhood amid this carnage is one of the great spiritual achievements of our time.

Here's a post I wrote a few months ago on the wisdom of nonviolence, called Nonviolence, Pragmatism, and the Fantasy of Revenge.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Random Art Opinions

Robert Hughes, 1938 - 2012

1. OK, if granted the power to eliminate one movement in painting I would get rid of pointillism, no question. No "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," no problem.

2. Painting is dead the same way a Sonny Rollins tenor sax improvisation is dead: in other words, not. What painting isn't, is new. There are no more formal innovations in painting, but the challenge and richness of painting will endure.

3. The weakness of video and computer art is exactly the strength of painting. Screen-based art lacks texture and sensuality.

4. The pressure of newness in art comes not so much from collectors but from the foundations and funders who feel their mission is to foster aesthetic progress. As they sift through proposals, funders are drawn to high-concept projects that impress as much or more for their intellectual rationalizations than for the power of the completed works themselves.

5. Two great art series available on video: Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New, produced by the BBC in 1980; and art21, a six season series produced by PBS from 2001 through 2012. They couldn't be more unalike. The Hughes series is a tour de force of one critic's blunt but informed opinions about 20th century art, while art21 is presented almost entirely in the words of contemporary artists themselves. It's a trip to ponder the improvement in production values that occurred in the short time between the two series.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Curious Case of Bradley - Chelsea Manning

Let's just set aside any questions of whether Manning was justly sentenced, except to say that anyone who breaks the law in the name of a cause has to know that jail time is a strong possibility. The first thing that is curious to me is whether her-his gender identity issues had anything to do with his leaking of information. I've seen some commentators say that the two things are simply unrelated. Fair enough; we would only be speculating as to motives anyway. However, if this scenario played out in a novel or film the reader or viewer would of course think that the behaviors are linked. And why wouldn't they be? Life doesn't go forth in neat compartments like the cars of an Amtrak train. That said, I'm not actually going to speculate here.

The second curious thing is that s/he is hoping the government will pay for the sex change operation. (Aside: Did anyone else think of Dog Day Afternoon this week?) God and demographers know I am a Massachusetts liberal, but you know what? There are limits. I think the gender identity issue is real, and would never belittle the pain and confusion those facing this must feel . . . but I don't think the operation is necessary in the same sense that treatment for cancer would be. People can live with this condition; there are ways to accommodate. Similarly, I don't think prisoners should be able to vote. By committing a crime the individual unequivocally surrenders some rights, including the privilege of being able to shape society.  I do, on the other hand, believe strongly in educational opportunities for prisoners, education being a cornerstone of personal change and potential rehabilitation and reentry into society.

UPDATE, 8-27:
Now that the federal government has refused to pay for hormone therapy, Manning will do so herself.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cheap Trick: A Logo Is Born

It's easily one of the greatest and most distinctive logos in rock. Young people might not even realize what they are seeing is typewriter type. This article tells the story of how it came to be and how it was almost nixed. Design is funny that way. Cheap Trick are my Rockford, Illinois, home boys. The first time I saw them live was in a bar in Beloit, Wisconsin. It must have been 1976 or something like that. They were just starting to take off and the place was jammed; we stood shoulder to shoulder. Rick Nielsen came out in a full length fur coat, which signaled that they were ready for the arenas. Why not watch them do "Surrender" at Budokan?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Self Talk

We're better than this, aren't we? Okay, we're not. So if we are who we are, who are we? The sterility, that's what gets me, I guess. Days and nights thinking about insurance policies. How did that happen? Most of the books I read and shows I watch feature violence. I don't play video games so at least I'm not the one blowing the scum away. Where was I? Thinking about who we will be when we're not us anymore. Does anyone really want to be who they were? I didn't think so. We can extract nuggets to comfort and buoy us. No harm in that. But seeing like we're seeing now seems so much better than the stained blur of the past. Are we there yet? No, we'll get there when we get there. Now be quiet.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

John Cage the Eternal

John Cage, 1912 - 1992

I have a habit of saving old New Yorkers just in case there is something that I really want to read that I missed when the issue was new. On the downside this behavior hints at hoarding. On the plus side, you can encounter great articles like Alex Ross's piece from 2010 on the life and legacy of John Cage. Cage wanted us to hear the world anew, and he helped lay the groundwork for the whole culture of DJs and sampled music -- quite a legacy. At the time, Cage found more affinity in the visual arts community, but in the end the music community came around, too. Ironically, what he wanted to do was break cages, especially the cages built by our obsession with control.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Vincent Harding on American Potential

Vincent Harding, writing in America Will Be!: Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy, co-authored with Daisaku Ikeda, observes:
"Let me say this with a slight bit of humor as well as something deeper: It's a way of testing the wisdom of God for making such a strange variety of beings, giving them the capacities that we have, and telling them to get together and figure out how to live together, how to love one another, how to share, and how to bless one another and bless this world. I think of this as a reflection on America's potential."

Friday, August 9, 2013

Robert Janz: Janzwork

Robert Janz, corps des chaises, Paris, 4.4.11

What? You haven't spent much time at the Janzwork site lately? You should know that recent studies by both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) prove -- yes, prove -- that for every five minutes spent at one of Robert's blogs dedicated to his ephemeral art your karma improves anywhere from two to four percent. I personally believe the number to be higher, but it's hard to argue with science. My experience is merely anecdotal, I guess.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Random Musical Opinions

1. I'm going to stake out a heterodox position here and say that my favorite Allman Brothers recording is Brothers and Sisters, a fine record mostly shaped by the writing and playing of Dickey Betts. AllMusic, who I link here, doesn't share my opinion.

2. The recording that has most influenced today's jazz is Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, his great Blue Note album of 1964. Every time it comes on I wonder if I'm hearing Ravi Coltrane or Dave Douglas or someone like that. The sound is melodic and soulful but coiled and a little knotty, angular, and dissonant, which is the essence of Eric Dolphy's sound.

3. Bonne Raitt has the sexiest singing voice around. OK, I'm really dating myself here.

4. Someone who was fairly acclaimed in the 70s and 80s, but fairly forgotten now is Bruce Cockburn. Well, forgotten here. He's a national treasure in his native Canada. A true triple threat, he's a brilliant singer, songwriter, and guitar player, and he doesn't know how to make a bad record.

5. Another Canadian treasure is the cosmic country band Blue Rodeo. They are one of the great "Americana" groups.

6. I love guitar-driven indie pop rock, especially Teenage Fanclub, but often the genre features idiosyncratic, nerdy lead vocals (this doesn't apply to TF). I've been able to get on board with that kind of singing from Sloan and Superchunk, but have a harder time accepting the singing of the leader of the Shins.

7. Whenever I hear that a new indie-rock recording is hushed and ancient-sounding I get agitated, or at least cynical. Even I sound good (enough) if I sing in a whisper and slather the sound with reverb and echo.

8. Hands down, Clifford Brown is the greatest jazz trumpet player ever. He died tragically at the age of 25 in 1956, not from drugs, but in a car crash.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Thief Who Became a Disciple

From The World of Zen (Vintage, 1960), edited, with an introduction, by Nancy Wilson Ross:

On evening as Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding either his money or his life. Shichiri told him: "Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer." Then he resumed his recitation. A little while afterwards he stopped and called: "do not take it all. I need some to pay taxes with tomorrow."

The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave. "Thank a person when you receive a gift," Shichiri added. The man thanked him and made off. A few days afterwards the fellow was caught and confessed, among others, his offense against Shichiri. When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: "This man is no thief, at least as far as I'm concerned. I gave him the money and he thanked me for it."

After he had finished his prison term, the man went to Shichiri and became his disciple.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday Haiku


Here's some classic haiku, all taken from The World of Zen (Vintage, 1960), edited, with an introduction, by Nancy Wilson Ross.

Not a single stone 
To throw at the dog.
The wintry moon.

Striking the fly
I hit also
A flowering plant.

Evening rain.
The banana leaf
Speaks of it first.

Sticking on the mushroom
The leaf
Of some unknown tree.

Friday, August 2, 2013

What Is Trust?

Last year I meditated and did affirmations aimed at increasing my level of trust, generally speaking. The only tangible result I saw was that my ability to sing harmony improved. Previously, when singing in the same register as the lead melody voice on a recording, my voice would be magnetically drawn toward it. Now I can find the right notes independently. So that's something! Maybe I can join One Direction! However, when it comes to living with trust, the middle way remains the best. I was scheduled to give a talk that fall, and at the last minute I went to the group's website and saw that the location for the talk had changed, though no one had told me. So . . . "trust but verify" will always make sense -- if one doesn't obsess about the 'verify' part, that is.