Friday, September 27, 2013

Let's Not Live Forever

The most annoying subset of "cutting edge" thinkers is the one composed of people who want to eradicate all disease (and aging) so that our life spans might double or triple, or indeed so that we might live forever. The first question that occurs to me when I hear them going on is, What the hell would we do with all that time? I picture a guy, 174 years old, greeting people at Walmart. Or worse, a woman 230 years old sitting at the same desk job she's been working for 191 years. On the plus side, there would be 400,000 reruns of Law & Order to watch, so that's something. Other questions: Would people lose their sex drive, and if so, when? Age 150 or so? What would constitute a May-December relationship?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Poet You Should Know: Afaa Michael Weaver

When we think of approachable poets, i.e., those who write poetry for those who don't like poetry (which is almost everyone, and maybe rightfully so), we think of people like Billy Collins. I nominate Afaa Michael Weaver as a better choice for that role. His work is more complex than Collins', but it's never obscure. Plus he lives a few blocks from us, so part of my purpose here is some Somerville boosterism.

Here's Afaa's website.

Here's his page at the

Here's a recent poem:

"Blues in Five/​Four, the Violence in Chicago"

In movies about the end of our civilization
toys fill the broken spaces of cities, flipping over
in streets where children are all hoodlums, big kids
painting themselves in neon colors, while the women
laugh, following the men into a love of madness.

Still shots show emptiness tearing the eyes of the last
of us who grew to be old, the ones the hoodlums
prop up in shadows, throwing garbage at us,
taping open our eyes, forcing us to study the dead
in photos torn from books in burned down libraries.

Chicago used to be Sundays at Gladys' Luncheonette
where church folk came and ate collard greens and chicken
after the sermons that rolled out in black churches, sparkling
tapestries of words from preachers' mouths, prayer books,
tongues from Tell Me, Alabama, and Walk On, Mississippi.

Now light has left us, the sun blocked out by shreds
of what history becomes when apathy shreds it,
becoming a name the bad children give themselves
as they laugh and threaten each other while we starve
for the laughter we were used to before the end came.

Afaa M. Weaver 蔚雅風
Pushcart prize 2013
first published in Ibbetson Street Press
Editors: Doug Holder, Dianne Robitaille, Richard Wilhelm
Advisory Editor: Harris Gardner

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What Is "the News"?

In T.C. Boyle's novel When the Killing's Done, he describes the new life of one of his protaganists, Rita, who has gone to cook for a farm on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California near Santa Barbara.
She had Bax and Anise, half a dozen ranch hands and upward of four thousand sheep to keep her company, and she was absorbed so in the workings of the ranch--in the details, everything inhering in the details--that all the rest of the world seemed to dwindle down to nothing, as if she'd dreamed it, as if the whole town of Oxnard had been thrown up like a movie set or hardened in place out of a shower of fairy dust. And the news--what was the news anyway but a long trumped-up shriek of impending doom and current disaster that just made everybody sour and distrustful and hateful of their fellow man? She didn't need it. Didn't miss it. The news for her, the news that mattered, was written on the wind and it dripped out of the fog and bleated from the throats of the sixteen hundred ewes about to drop their lambs in the rain-fed grass of the lower meadow that she could hear and smell and taste even as she got up to feed more wood into the stove.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Fountains of Wayne: Fire Island

 Fountains of Wayne

Here's a great song for understanding the genius of Fountains of Wayne, the supreme indie power pop band from NYC. "Fire Island" is a song from their album "Welcome Interstate Managers" about upper middle class teens throwing a rager while the parents are out vacationing at Fire Island. Lyrically, you get their trademark specificity and humor. Fire Island is a signifier of hip bourgeois taste, as is the later reference to Steamboat Springs. These parents know how to live the good life. As for the kids' activities, my favorite is "feeding chocolate to the dog," a perfect encapsulation of adolescent heedlessness.

What really elevates the song, though, is the transcendent melody. The verse, or 'A' section, is built on ascending, then descending, lines that don't repeat, sort of like an arching Brian Wilson melody. The bridge, or 'B' section, builds to a perfect peak, followed by four bars that lead right back into a restatement of the melody of the first verse. The key to everything is that the song's tone is one of aching, melancholy resignation, thus making the line "We don't need no father or mother" poignant rather than defiant. Films always play the summer teen party as a thing of transgressive, outrageous independence. Here, it's just a bit sad, suggesting that the parents, for all their taste and discernment, are maybe a little too into themselves.

I love this live version of the song.

Here's the studio version.

Here are the lyrics.

Driving on the lawn
Sleeping on the roof
Drinking all the alcohol
All the kids from school
Will be naked in the pool
While our parents are on Fire Island

Cranking up the tunes
'Til the windows break
Feeding chocolate to the dog
Jumping on the couch
'Til all the feathers come out
While our parents are on Fire Island

We're old enough by now
To take care of each other
We don't need no babysitter
We don't need no father or mother
We're old enough by now
Don't worry 'bout a thing
Don't you remember
Last December
When you went to Steamboat Springs

Driving on the lawn
Sleeping on the roof
Drinking all the alcohol
All the kids from school
Will be naked in the pool
While our parents are on Fire Island

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Hamburger Meditations

1. The key to a great hamburger is the bun. It must be completely fresh and not be so heavy that it competes with the meat.

2. No hamburger should cost more than 15 dollars. I don't care what celebrity chef made it.

3. Burger eateries are proliferating wildly at the same time food consciousness is on the rise. Are we at war with ourselves, between our better and worse angels?

4. You can be happy with veggie burgers as long as you never, ever taste a beef hamburger.

5. McDonald's hamburgers don't actually taste like hamburgers. They taste like "McDonald's hamburgers," which are delicious, but not identifiable as part of any food group.

6. There's no need for a hamburger to weigh more than 6 ounces, 8 at the very outside.

7. Cows just aren't good for the environment, so I should eat far fewer burgers.

8. Condiments and toppings: More is not better. Especially when the more includes a tasteless tomato, which can really drag the whole enterprise down.

9. Chuck Berry reminded us that the USA is "where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day." Yep.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Townes Van Zandt: If I Needed You

Townes Van Zandt, Songwriter, 1944 - 1997
One of the most beloved songs of the legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt is "If I Needed You." It's bone simple, but each line resonates with beautiful rightness. I think this is because the song came to Townes fully formed in a dream. He actually changed one line, he said, because it had something to do with a cow, oddly. This is one of the songs that seems like it must be traditional and anonymous. It's been covered a zillion times, but there's nothing like hearing Townes sing it, what with his distinctive style of hitting notes slightly off key and then gliding into tune. The song becomes a little less pretty that way, a problem that creeps in when Emmylou Harris covers his songs. (Don't get me wrong: I love Emmylou!)

Here's a high quality video from 1975.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Walter White's Modes of Mendacity

Is it too late to weigh in on "Breaking Bad"? No? Well, here goes. For me the most amazing thing about Bryan Cranston's performance and the character of Walter White is the breathtaking facility with lying. Walt spends easily half his time deceiving people, in wondrous, virtuosic ways. Some examples:

1. In the most recent episode, Walt lies to Jesse's ex-girlfriend by working in the mode of fatherly concern and bewilderment, with a pinch of powerlessness tossed in.

2. In his blackmail video, Walt sends victimhood to new depths, even breaking into a flood of tears at the end, pondering how his evil brother-in-law could abuse his family that way.

3. Early in the season, in a conversation with Jesse, he performed one of his best variations, namely the incredulous, how-could-you-even-think-that-of-me soliloquy. It goes something like this. "Jesse. Jesse! Jesse, look at me. Look at me. I. did. not. kill. Mike. That's crazy! How could you even imagine such a thing? You know Mike. He can take care of himself."

There are a number of Supercuts out there featuring themes from the show: Jesse going 'yo' or 'bitch.' Walt dressing Jesse down. What I want to see is a Supercut of all Walt's modes of mendacity.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Comparing Public Support

Some of the articles analyzing the potential military strike against Syria feature a polling chart showing that support for invading Iraq in 2003 stood at around 59 percent while support for a strike against Syria is maybe in the high 30s, or something like that. This is surely good news. The public has been properly chastened after the disastrous war in Iraq. These numbers are not evidence of us becoming unreasonably timid or isolationist, but rather that we're a bit wiser now.

What isn't mentioned in these pieces is that the support for the Iraq War was based on four falsehoods that the Bush administration actively promoted: 1) that Hussein had ties to 9-11 (preposterous, but accepted by millions); 2) that Hussein had WMDs that he was prepared to unleash on the US at any moment (Condi Rice's infamous "mushroom cloud"); 3) that the war would last only a few weeks or maybe a few months (as Rumsfeld put it); and 4) that the war would be paid for by oil money and would cost maybe 50 billion dollars. (Eric Shineski was fired for suggesting a cost of 200 billion. As we know now, it has easily topped one trillion.) If these things were better understood, support for the war would have been much, much lower, though some support would have remained out of a desire to get revenge on somebody.

The Bush people sold us the war like you sell a defective used car. Shame on us for not kicking the tires and looking under the hood. I'm glad Obama has put this to Congress and that the American people are more skeptical now about what could be achieved by bombing.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Neither Better Nor Worse

Often, when it's difficult to reach a decision or make a judgment it's because there isn't a right solution to be gleaned. The classic case is whether the toilet paper roll should unfurl over the top or from the bottom. Over the top can make the sheets easier to reach but from the bottom the sheets might hang more consistently. Further up the ladder we can weigh whether it's best to live in the city or the country. At the highest, most serious level we can debate whether or not to intervene in Syria. Decisiveness means that one chooses among nearly equal options and stands by it. This was George W. Bush's attitude toward invading Iraq. It made sense when he called himself "the decider." Nevertheless, there are times when our options actually represent right and wrong, and waging preventive war is always wrong.

Friday, September 6, 2013

P-Town Playlist

Provincetown Sunset, 09.05.13

Essential listening while while tracking the ever-morphing Cape Cod Bay in P-town: Buddy Holly; Marvin Gaye; Sly Stone; Gram Parsons; Jackson Browne; Hugh Masekela; Keith Jarrett; Emmylou Harris; and, of course, the best of Otis Redding, including "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." I know, I know, it's an old person's playlist. But it works for me. And it might for you, too. Even those of you under, say, fifty.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Monday, September 2, 2013

All Blues Are the Facts

Muddy Waters, w/ Robbie Robertson, Bob Margolin & Paul Butterfield

Willie Dixon lays down the essence of the blues in this 1988 interview published in Paul Zollo's indispensable Songwriters on Songwriting. When you see the blues done right, with an audience fully and properly attuned to the aesthetic, you know that Mr. Dixon is spot on: the blues alchemizes all experience, even the putatively "bad," into celebration; a celebration that flows out of shared recognition.

ZOLLO: As you said, most people think the blues are down. But so many of your songs are happy blues, such as "I Love the Life I Live."

DIXON: In fact, all blues are happy. All blues are the facts. The facts, whether they are good or bad, are the truth. Most people can't understand that. Of course, they've been brainwashed into believing that it's got to be down, or it wouldn't be the blues.

See, they ain't gonna be singing about the nutty squirrel or three little pigs and all that stuff. They're gonna say the facts: "I just wanna make love to you." How many times did you feel like that and not say it? Evil, ignorance and stupidity are a fact. All these are true facts of life.

The reason I put them into the type of songs I put them in, is so people can remember these facts. And when you remember a fact, whether it's good or bad, it gives you encouragement to live a decent life, one way or the other, one way or the other. To judge.