Thursday, September 29, 2016


Observing infants and toddlers it appears that their main mission and source of joy is learning what it means be in their bodies in the physical world. As we age we become capable of abstract feats such as writing novels or creating machines that are nearly as omnipotent as God Himself. Yet it seems unlikely that our core task would somehow change, that being physically in the world is no longer job number one. And I say this as a guy who lives in his head way too much.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Arnold's Army Lost Its Leader

I've played golf since I was a kid, and was fortunate to see the late Arnold Palmer play when he came through the Chicago-area for tournaments. He played with style, and won more tournaments than anyone else except for Jack, Tiger, and Sam Snead (I think.) I often hear people expressing bafflement as to why anyone would watch golf, since it's just some guys chasing a little white ball around a course. I don't have time to get into why that is so wrong-headed, so let me say that I guess Miles Davis was just a guy who just blew spit into some metal tubing. Farewell, Arnie! Hopefully they have golf in heaven, and you have a 29-year-old body again.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Art and the God Gene

Liz Larner ceramic sculpture
Evolutionary biologists tell us we have a “God gene” or “religion gene.” What they mean is that for evolutionary purposes not yet understood we are conditioned to believe that there is a transcendent reality — even though such a belief is, in the view of science, just an illusion. The trouble with this proposition is that it tempts us to simply disagree or disagree with it, to lapse into stagnant dichotomy, rather than challenge us to live adventurously with the unknown. One advantage of the arts is that it helps us with this latter, vital task. After all, the core attribute of good art is mystery — mystery as to its origins, and mystery as to its ends, its intentions, its purposes. The work of art doesn’t require us to vote thumbs up or thumbs down, though some may mistakenly think that is required of the informed viewer or listener. It is impossible for a response to art to be an illusion. This is why aesthetic and emotional subjectivity is the most reliable source of truth, the only kind of “fact” you can take to the bank, existentially speaking.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Stanley Kunitz: The Layers

Even in the best of political times (say under the in-my-opinion calm and eminently reasonable leadership of Barack Obama) politics is crazy-making. Now with Trump on the scene (he knows nothing about anything but thinks he knows everything), following politics is a direct threat to sanity. Where then might we turn our attention instead? How about to the sanest thing there is: Poetry! And who is the sanest poet of all? Stanley Kunitz! His language is straightforward, never flowery, but each of his phrases blossoms from the inside out.

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

From The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton, 2000).
Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Silence Is Your Music

I remember you saying, just a couple moons ago,
Silence is my music.
It turns out that Ai Weiwei said that too,
Maybe even before you did.
But that’s OK:
There’s enough silence for everyone,
Even one thousand and one John Cage imitators.
There’s even enough for a million multiverses to emerge from.
Hell, there’s more silence than the sound of
Ten million jackhammers reverberating in Midtown Manhattan
Or the vibrating tymbals of a trillion cicadas,
To say nothing of every folk song in the British Isles.
So now that that’s settled, let me say for the record
That music is my music.
But on that, we can agree to disagree.


John Lennon: Jealous Guy

I suppose John Lennon is responsible for the cringe-inducing confessional singer-songwriters of the 70s and beyond the same way Led Zeppelin is responsible for all those second-rate boogie and metal bands: which is sort of, but not really. The question is then: Why does Lennon's gut spilling work so well where others fail? For starters his melodies and voice are so excellent that a song like "Jealous Guy" works on that basis alone. Plus he's not engaging in humble-brag; this is not a disingenuous back-door gambit to make himself look good. And who can't relate when he says: "I didn't mean to hurt you," which is what we all say after we hurt someone we love.

Bonus question: Is it possible that jealousy is the only vice or shortcoming with no upside? I mean gluttony and greed and lust all have some pleasurable aspects that manifest before things go bad, right?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Highly Miscellaneous

1. Trump admires Putin for his "82 percent approval rating." That's peanuts. Kim Jong-Un enjoys 100 percent approval. Why not aim your bromance that direction?

2. There's nothing in sports that beats a men's Grand Slam tennis final. Sunday's US Open final featured Stan Wawrinka emerging victorious over world number one Novak Djokovic. Since three sets are required to win, great physical endurance is required. But the mental game is even more important. Over the course of three or four hours you can't let it enter your mind that maybe the other guy just has too much game, and you're not up to putting him away.

3. For my money, the biggest music loss this year wasn't David Bowie. I'm torn between the passing of Merle Haggard and the death of the great Rudy van Gelder, engineer of the classic Blue Note jazz recordings of the 50s and 60s. The sound was spacious and immediate, and defined forever what the heart of modern jazz is.

4. Will do a full post on this soon, but have been listening closely to Born To Run. The truth is that as a record it is more impressive than it is great. As Bruce will freely admit, the creating of the album was labored over and tortured. Instead of feeling felicitous and propulsive, many of the songs just feel busy. The many classic songs on this disc found their true life on stage, where they could breathe and cook.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Bob Dylan Is an Excellent Sculptor

Who knew Bob Dylan was an excellent sculptor? Most of us Bob-followers knew he was a good painter, but somehow I missed this aspect of his creativity. He is in the news this week because a new resort casino in Maryland is installing a massive iron gate of his devising. I guess he mentioned in his memoir, Chronicles, that he works with iron, but it blew right past me when I read it. The works are incredibly elegant and energetic assemblages of "found" iron elements from machinery and so forth. It's cool how he makes heavy objects feel as light as a Joseph Cornell magic box. Here's what the New York Times says in their recent article, cleverly titled "Another Side of Bob Dylan," in homage to his early LP:
“I’ve been around iron all my life ever since I was a kid,” Mr. Dylan said at the time. “I was born and raised in iron ore country” — Hibbing, Minn. — “where you could breathe it and smell it every day. And I’ve always worked with it in one form or another.”

Of his new public-art archway (titled “Portal”), Mr. Dylan added: “Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed, but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways, there is no difference.”

The artist uses found objects and scrap metal from junkyards — “everything from farm equipment, children’s toys, kitchen utensils and antique fire arms to chains, cogs, axes and wheels,” according to an announcement from MGM National Harbor.

The key to creating good collage art is to have the correct object at your fingertips when you need it. The picture below (by John Shearer) shows how Dylan's objects are organized in his massive work space. This mode of working makes sense for Dylan, since his songwriting oeuvre was built by combining and re-purposing lyrical and melodic elements from the hundreds or thousands of traditional folk and blues songs that he knows. There's a reason he called on of his recordings Love and Theft.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death"

I'm a fan of the single-metaphor song, not least because they are easy to understand but also because of the way the pieces get cleverly put together by the lyricist. A while back I posted one of my favorites of the genre, Merle Haggard singing Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You." Here's another great example: Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death." I saw this tour, or another one featuring the same band, at a club in Boulder back in the 80s. The song is great not only because of the inspired lyrics but also because of the Byrds-like jangle that drives the thing. Musicology note: Thompson is one of the world's great rock guitarists, but unlike most rockers his sound isn't based on the blues so much as on Scottish bagpipes and other traditional tones of his native British Isles.
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

You can go with the crazy people in the Crooked House
You can fly away on the Rocket or spin in the Mouse
The Tunnel Of Love might amuse you
Noah's Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it's the nearest to being free

Well you're going nowhere when you ride on the carousel
And maybe you're strong but what's the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy. Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Oh let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
Let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
UPDATE: 9-8-16
I must confess I relate to the sentiments of this song in only a theoretical way.  Unlike the Mystic Warriors of the Plains, who, before entering battle, would confirm that "It is a good day to die," the most severe existential threat I face on a daily basis is getting stuck in gridlocked traffic.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Ekta's "Alt-Pop" Art

Juxtapoz art mag has a feature up on the Swiss artist Ekta. He takes the forms of classic abstract and graffiti art and presents them with playful immediacy. It's not Pop Art per se, but it engages like sophisticated pop music does. Here, I will coin the phrase, "Alt-Pop." Look at how the stairs are stairs to nowhere, as in the avant garde Dada or Fluxus movements, but echo pop artist Keith Haring with the thick black lines.

Here's an excerpt from his interview with Juxtapose write Kristin Farr:
Kristin Farr: What do you think makes abstraction unique and meaningful, and have you always been able to make it work?
Ekta: I think I had some vision of what I would like to do, but it took time and many detours to get there. I felt I had something to prove to myself before I could move on. Initially, my work was more illustration-based, and I wanted to move more towards painting. In recent years, I’ve gained the confidence to have a more free approach to my work. I don’t like to be stuck with the idea that the sun is round and yellow; it might as well be square and blue. My ambition when starting to work on something like a drawing, painting or collage is to surprise myself and have a playful approach. I value mistakes and accidents, and things usually start to get interesting just after making a big mistake, either with what is left after you take it out, or what appears when you start to work around it.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Colin Kaepernick is Just Being Reasonable

Well, Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem prior to his NFL games set off a storm of vitriol from American right-wingers. I can understand that many or most people don't agree with his decision, but that doesn't mean that his behavior is somehow off-the-charts in terms of actions responsible citizens might take. A little empathy on the part of white people, a little effort to see how life in the US might look to a person of color, including very successful ones, would help matters greatly. Instead of asking why Kaepernick did it we might wonder why it doesn't it happen more often.

This is not to say that anyone, white or black, has to or will agree with his analysis, but come on. When the Bundy gang seized a government building with the threat of deadly gun violence, conservatives fell all over themselves to champion them. Because they agreed with the Bundy gang, these law breakers were called patriots.

An interesting aspect of all this is that the Kaepernick they hate is a straw man. No, he doesn't think he is being personally oppressed. No, he doesn't need the publicity. Do you think someone would do as he did in the jingoistic world of the NFL if he were just being selfish? Here's a great article on this topic at Slate.

Oh, and when did standing for the anthem become solely about respecting our troops?