Saturday, January 30, 2016

Dylan's Beautiful Calvinism: "Every Grain of Sand"

Bob Dylan has been through many phases and stages (to lift a phrase from Willie). None has been more bewildering and disconcerting for fans than his born-again Christian phase, which was represented in the late 70s, early 80s, by the album trilogy Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. But this move actually made sense, I think, and a song title from Slow Train -- "Gotta Serve Somebody" -- gives us an inkling why. It's hard to believe now, but during the 60s rock stars were treated like gods,* and none more so than Dylan. People actually thought that Dylan could tell them the meaning of life. Dylan described how he felt about that in the song "Idiot Wind" on his masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.
People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady
If people want to treat you like a god and you are relatively sane, what do you do? Well, you can submit yourself to the God of the Ages, the God of the Scriptures. Not the choice many counter-cultural heroes might make, but understandable.

The typical Dylan fan didn't really want to hear songs about Jesus, but Dylan being Dylan, people, myself included, gave him a listen. And there was good stuff to hear. For example, Slow Train, the first of the albums, featured Mark Knopfler, who didn't know what the songs were about when he signed on, but brought a wonderful, warm guitar sound to the project. Knopfler went on to produce Dylan's stellar post-born-again release Infidels, in 1983.

In terms of the songs, the greatest to emerge from this period was "Every Grain of Sand." Some theology: The Protestant Reformation featured two great figures, Martin Luther, who kicked the whole thing off in 1517. The other strand was represented by John Calvin, who was a proponent of the doctrine of predestination. The Puritans were Calvinists, so when they saw the indigenous people in the New World dying of disease they figured it was a matter of divine providence (thus the city in Rhode Island).

It's easy to see how this is problemmatic, tempting one to cede responsibility for one's actions. Yet there is sense, isn't there, that there might be layers of existence. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counseled Prince Arjuna not to worry about waging war against his own cousins, since he must fulfill his destiny, and that, at any rate, all things have already happened.

This what I think of when I hear Dylan sing, "In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." I'll post the entire set of lyrics** here, since they are that good. I like the demo / bootleg version of the song best, because of the raggedness and immediacy. And also because of the dog barking at 2:15 like it was meant to be. Oh, and the sparrow reference is to Matthew 10:29.
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

* This is why punk happened. They meant to take the piss out of the whole rock-star-as-deity trip, to flatten the hierarchies a bit.

** All Dylan lyrics are posted at his website. They are searchable in a nifty spreadsheet format that shows how many times Dylan has performed each song live. For the record, "Every Grain" has been performed 185 times. The song has been covered a lot too. And Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow performed it Johnny Cash's funeral, in 2003.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Overexposed and Underrated

The critical reputations of two great 20th century artists are diminished through sheer overexposure. Georgia O'Keeffe has graced too many calendars and posters for art taste-makers to fully or unreservedly admit her greatness. And Bob Marley's best-of set Legend has played over the sound system in too many stores for us to remember what a formidable musical force he was. Part of the problem is that their smooth surfaces make them good candidates for mass dissemination. If you let them sit in the background they do just fine there. But if you pay attention you can tell how much is actually going on. The same can be said of Mozart, and you won't find many today who deny his genius.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jesse Burke Photography

The Boston Globe has a story up today about photographer Jesse Burke and his new show at RISD, where he teaches. This image isn't from the show, but it spoke to me when I went to his website. Setting aside the composition, which is striking, I get the sense from time to time that all of us earthbound folk are passing quickly through a cold and alien landscape -- but with energy and a sense of purpose.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Regarding Those To Whom We Are Unsympathetic

I tried acting for about ten minutes way back when. That didn't stick, but I did pick up a copy of Michael Chekhov's To the Actor while I was at it. Curious about its contents, I just grabbed it off the shelf a minute ago and came across this advice -- advice with relevance way beyond acting.
Endeavor to penetrate the psychology of persons around you toward whom you feel unsympathetic. Try to find in them some good, positive qualities which you have perhaps failed to notice before. Make an attempt to experience what they experience; ask yourself why they feel or act the way they do. Remain objective and you will enlarge your own psychology immensely.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Biggs & Collings Artwork

Commanded, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 inches

I used to enjoy reading the British art critic Matthew Collings in Modern Painters art mag. Each issue featured his "diary" in which he waxed droll and conversational about happenings in contemporary art, mostly in UK, but also in the US. I would be reading him and thinking that he wasn't saying anything until suddenly I'd look up and realize he just said a lot. His writing is incisive in a sneaky way.

Anyway, he now produces artworks with his life partner, Emma Biggs, known as a highly accomplished artist of abstract mosaics. For their oils, Collings handles most of the painting and Biggs takes the lead on composition, though I'm sure there is back and forth. The work above is pretty spectacular. And big. I'd love to see it in person. This is the image Collings and Biggs use on the homepage of their website, so they must think it represents them well. It's complex and elegant all at once. The color scheme is subtly diverse and wonderfully harmonic. As for composition, well, my eye flits all over the image -- it's active. That's good. Patterns rise up and recede. ("Faces come out of the rain.") The individual cells have all sorts of texture.

Friend of Art & Argument Judith Trepp told be that for an abstract work to transcend the merely decorative it has to posses a combination of intellect, emotion, and breath, or spirit. I haven't seen this in person, but my hunch is it hits all three points when viewed close up. Suffice it to say right now that I like it plenty.


Race, the Oscars, and the Arts

In my personal hierarchy of the arts, film comes in fourth behind music, the visual arts, and literature. So when I heard about the "white-out" tarnishing this year's Oscar nominations, my first thought was, "Who cares, the Academy Awards are way overrated anyway." But when I take a step back, I have to acknowledge that movies are at once the most important art form of the last century and the most popular, which is partly why film is king. Another reason is that film harnesses and develops the most advanced technologies of the time, thus making films representative in a very important way. And that technology is applied in the interest of creating dream worlds, which is cool.

So, yes, the Oscars are important, and therefore race issues relating to the industry are important, too. My own relative lack of interest isn't germane then. What is germane, however, is the fact that naming a "winner" in any of the art forms is ridiculous. The film industry's obliviousness to this fact is annoying, and contributes to the nagging sense that the Oscars are just a massive ritual of self-congratulation.

I do love to read year-end best-of lists for the arts. The thing is, I don't treat the lists as hierarchical. When I read a best-of list of jazz recording in Downbeat or Jazz Times I consider all 20 or 30 or 50 works to be roughly equally. And because of my own aesthetic preferences, I might be more likely to purchase (and yes, I do purchase), number 27 than number one. The Oscars would better if they just chose 10 people in each acting category and then structured the evening around a celebration of that, with no winner declared. (I know: Like that will happen.)

So, why are people of color so underrepresented in film? I think a lot of it it has to do with the massive costs on the line, which makes the money people wary and conservative about funding anything that doesn't fit the formula of what has already worked in the past. And we can toss in people's unfortunate tendency to be most comfortable with people like them.

In music there is a much lower cost threshold, and there are many, many ways to get your music out there. So maybe that contributes to the strong presence, even domination, of people of color in popular music. A list of key figures in popular music would certainly place Kanye West and Beyonce right up at the top. And rap/hip-hop is the most influential popular form of the past 20 years, without a doubt. My own playlist has a heavy presence of African Americans, since jazz is my most abiding aesthetic love. I should add that the jazz musicians I love are equally obscure to the people of all colors that make up the listening public. And I like it like that. I'm snobbish that way.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Is Real

Writing in the Boston Globe last week, Michael Andor Brodeur had this to say about the media aftermath of David Bowie's death:
But “Blackstar” wasn’t Bowie's only parting gift. This is going to sound kind of petty but I promise you, it isn’t: Bowie, somehow, changed Facebook. In the days following his death, Bowie’s songs surged on Spotify, his videos overtook YouTube, and these and other streams all converged into our social media channels — likely already flooded to the banks with posters mourning his death. For a solid few days, my feed was freed of rancor and bluster, political bickering was briefly quelled by Bowie’s quavering voice, cutting through like a comet (or, in this case, a meteor shower), and what Bowie called “the flowered news” was left, for a while, to wilt. It was as though the pollution had parted and you could see what the sky was supposed to look like. 
Full disclosure: Bowie wasn't that important to me, though I surely liked and respected him and his work. So I'm quoting Brodeur here not because of Bowie per se but because he puts his finger on something important. Doesn't it feel like the things relating to creativity and open-mindedness and courage are somehow what is real in life? That when it's time for some spiritual accounting all the noise will be just that, and things we celebrate, like beauty, will be seen as the only things that really mattered, and also the only things that will last.

Read the full article here.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Drip As Feedback

I've been looking at the late paintings of Cy Twombly. He's known for his scratch and scrawl style of oil and mixed media paintings, which was quite influential. But his latest works add and even emphasize dripping as part of the aesthetic. This isn't an innovation, of course. Dripping has been a tool of abstract expressionism from the get go.

This got me to thinking about whether we can find a corollary to dripping in the other art forms. I'll assume that the key attribute here is that the drip is both controlled and uncontrolled. Here's what I came up with: The best analogy is the use of feedback in music performance. The feedback has a life of its own, emanating from the unintentional interplay of electronic technologies. (It's physics, and so is dripping.) What the musician does is try to shape that noise into something coherent or pleasing. Out-of-control feedback will drive an audience to ear-covering wincing in a flash, but controlled feedback can be beautiful. I'm thinking of Hendrix and Santana.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Gregory Corso: Two Short Poems

Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, 1973, photo by Elsa Dorfman

Last Night I Drove a Car
(a dream)

Last night I drove a car
not knowing how to drive
not owning a car

I drove and knocked down
people I loved
. . . went 120 through one town.

I stopped at Hedgeville
and slept in the back seat
. . . excited about my new life.

I Gave Away . . .

I gave away the sky
along with the stars planets moons
and as well the clouds and winds of weather
the formations of planes, the migration of birds . . .
"No way!" screamed the trees,
"Birds are ours when not in transit; you can't give it!"
So I gave away the trees
and the ground they inhabit
and all such things as grow & crawl upon it
"Hold on there!" tidaled the seas,
"Shores are ours, trees for ships for ship yards,
ours! you can't give it!"
So I gave away the seas
and all things that swim them sail them . . .
"No way!" thundered the gods,
"All you gave is ours! We made it all, even the likes of you!"
And so I gave the gods away

Poems from Mindfield: New & Selected Poems

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bowie, with George Murray on Bass

As it turns out, our friend Irv Murray's brother George Murray played bass for Bowie during the late 70s, early 80s, the period considered by many to be Bowie's artistic peak, with records like Station to Station, Low (featuring the ultra-groovy "Sound and Vision"), Heroes, Lodger, and Scary Monsters. After this run of great records Bowie broke up the band, so George quit the music biz, moved to LA, got a regular job, and settled down. Music is a crazy business, so I get that.

The musician and writer Tom Semioli has a great feature up online called Know Your Bass Player. Here's what he says about George.
Many fans, including this writer, regard Station to Station as David Bowie’s finest 37:50. With guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, drummer Dennis Davis, and bassist George Murray as the core band– the Thin White Duke intermingled soul, hard rock, avant-garde and dance into a work of aural art hitherto unheard in the amazing year that was 1976. Murray’s piercing, treble tone which he miraculously coaxed out of a Fender Precision coupled with his unadorned funk grooves fueled Bowie during his trailblazing Berlin period which yielded such classics as “Golden Years,” “Heroes,” “Fashion,” and “Ashes to Ashes,” among others. On subsequent Bowie albums George emerged as a formidable foil for Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew and also shined on Iggy Pop’s best album The Idiot, and Talking Head Jerry Harrison’s underrated The Red and Black. After Bowie dispatched this band, Murray disappeared. I recently asked Mr. Slick of George Murray’s whereabouts – Earl had no clue! My search continues . . . .

Monday, January 11, 2016

How It Works

You have to walk into the darkness in order for the light to come on. It's no use looking for a switch. There isn't one. But remember. If you sit still for too long the light goes out again.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The New Orleans Sound

I don't listen to music according to what's new, so I can't offer a Best of 2015 list. I did spend a fair amount of time last year listening to New Orleans music, inspired by our trip there in August. I listened to three recordings in particular.

1. James Booker, Classified. Booker is in the New Orleans piano tradition of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair and others. This record really nails the New Orleans funk. For me, "One for the Highway" is the quintessence of the NO sound. They call NO the Big Easy, and you can hear it here in the way the rhythm section takes its time, strollin' and hangin' toward the backside of the back beat, and even more so in the supremely relaxed tenor sax solo.

2. Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi. For this LP the late maestro of funk, R&B, and soul assembles a bunch of modern jazz greats to tackle New Orleans classics in an elegant and stately manner. The soloists push a bit at the edges, which strengthens this wonderful set.

3. Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. This is actually bluesier than Satchmo's typical sound, and that's just fine. I wish Louis would stretch out more, but his sound is at once funky and authoritative -- what chops! -- and he leads everyone through a rather joyous recital.

Sunday, January 3, 2016


We saw Spotlight yesterday -- at the theater, something we don't do nearly enough since getting a pretty good home viewing system and getting hooked on all those high-end television shows. I have to say, the viewing experience was more engaging and immersive: there is a difference. As for the film itself: 4 stars, easily. The director, Tom McCarthy, kept every thread of the investigation (into the Catholic Church's complicity in the atrocity of priest sex abuse) comprehensible and zipping right along. Truly riveting, even though we know the outcome, or perhaps because we already know the outcome.

The ensemble of A-list actors really nailed it, too. Maybe Mark Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes will be singled out for acclaim because his character is the most visibly passionate about the case. Michael Keaton's Walter "Robbie" Robinson was also very good, especially in the way Keaton portrayed the dawning realization that he and the Boston Globe had also been complicit in avoiding the truth of the sex abuse story, having years before buried stories, which, if pursued adequately, might have brought us to the truth sooner. This was an important part of the film's message. Crucial stories and issues can be introduced only to slip away if the truth is something we don't want to or are scared to own.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Yes, a Frank Lloyd Wright Gas Station

Let's start the year with an aesthetic anomaly: a Frank Lloyd Wright gas station! It opened in Cloquet, Minnesota, in 1958, one year before Wright's death at age 91, and it's still in operation today. Read more at Slate's Atlas Obscura travel blog.