Thursday, July 31, 2008

Not in our house

I was never that big a fan of Dikembe Mutombo (other than the fact that he had possibly the coolest name in the NBA), who I thought was a bit of a showboat and a crybaby both. But he did have absolutely great bit of get-in-the-opponents'-head business: as a defensive specialist, when he blocked a shot, he'd turn to the crowd and shake a finger and his head, signalling "not in my house" (e.g., "my defensive backcourt"). It was more than just showboating or even gamesmanship, though--it was a way of signalling, in the language used down on the corner and 'round the way, "hey, you can't get into my head in my own neighborhood or on my own court...this is what I do."

I thought of that today when this little bit of video-verite hit the internet: Obama greeting troops in a basketball court in Germany. Think all those beaming, applauding service-people ("and isn't it interesting, Buffy, that so many of those poor black and brown people choose to serve in the armed forces? They're so patriotic!") find him "presumptuous", or "patrician", or--let's be real, and use the word that the Rove disciples in McCain's campaign really intend all the low-information voters are thinking--"uppity"?

I don't. Or, as they say 'round the way, "I 'on't THINK so!"

Not in our house anymore, you bastards. After eight years of the Bush oligarchy, which has treated the armed services, the population--hell, the globe itself--like their own personal "ranch"--or plantation--not in our house.

Say hello to the next President of the United States. And oh, by the way? He's a black man with a law degree and an absolutely nuclear outside shot.


The lineage of American musicians

Inexpressibly moving: Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, in Italy, strike up the introductory riff of "Old Dan Tucker," and the entire stadium of Italians start singing along.

One of the few things about contemporary America that still makes me proud is the lineage of Our Music.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Indictments, baby

Coming on the heels of the latest revelations about the ridiculous "loyalty litmus tests" administered by the Bob Jones University-trained Buffies and Biffs of Alberto's InJustice Department, this one must be causing some of those Rove-trained criminals to lose their water:

Barack Obama told House Democrats on Tuesday that as president he would order his attorney general to scour White House executive orders and expunge any that "trample on liberty," several lawmakers said.
The Mayberry Mafia has been assuming/trusting/praying that the inevitable Obama presidency will observe the historical "gentleman's agreement" under which, no matter the felonies of the departing administration, the incoming group takes the bullshit "bi-partisan" "we now need to heal our divisions [and sweep all the past crimes under rug]" stance. This is the first shot across the bows of that presumption, that just maybe, just perhaps, Obama's Attorney General (praying for John Edwards, now) isn't go to comply.

That means looking at whether the executive orders were unconstitutional. That means investigating crime.

Indictments, baby!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reverend Gary Davis

Simply no comparison to any other music: Gary Davis singing his greatest song.

The man made his living as a singer on the streets of Harlem for almost forty years.

They were giants on the Earth in those days.

Ted Stevens: you want some jelly with that toast?

Ted Stevens has been one of the crudest, most obnoxious, most contrary members of the Senate for entirely too many decades, trading on a "maverick" Alaskan persona which is no more true of him than of John McCain (he's also the coiner of the infamous "Intertubes" analogy). Now this, from TPM:


Say hello to the new Senator from Alaska, Mark Begich.

[update: here's a wonderful series to get you up to speed on Senator Incredible Hulk, courtesy of the Daily Show]

"The Office" (workstation series) 103 (writing to deadlines edition)

Placeholder right now: working against a deadline for a piece of contract writing ("Rock" sections of a new music appreciation textbook). Working on Fiddlin' John Carson's 1923 version of "Old Dan Tucker," a song claimed by Dan Emmett around 1843 but which probably comes out of the Ohio River wharf-rats and keelboatmen culture; it's that kind of bragging Mike Fink-esque tall-tale braggadocio. Struck, once again, how upon close examination (iTunes on "Repeat One" setting), a piece of "simple" folk music is anything but simple, or random, or crude. This thing, a snapshot into the pre-recording-era musical mind of a man who learned from Civil War fiddlers but lived past World War II, is absolute genius. Not to mention played live, on fiddle and voice, in one take.

Short pop-culture hit: happened to catch a little snippet of Four Weddings and a Funeral while making dinner last night, a film I no longer like because it represents the archetypes of the collection of verbal and gestural tics for which Hugh Grant is too often hired. But, it does have a fantastic cast of Brit supporting players, including the great Simon Callow, and John Hannah's eulogy which, quoting Auden, is one of the great movie monologues ever.

And any character who, in a film, would choose Andie McDowell over Kristin Scott Thomas, must be blind, deaf, and dumb (both ways).

View is from my preferred seat in a coffee shop a block-and-a-half from where I live (the only walking neighborhood, 8/100 at walkscore, in my town). They're independent, roast their own coffee, have free wireless. Writing at home puts me too close to the TV, the fridge, and the garden. Natalie Goldberg, Zen author, in her Writing Down the Bones writing manual, talks about coffeeshops or other public places as good for concentration, likening the "upper mind" to a child who wants attention/distraction, which when supplied by a public place, calms down and lets the deeper mind get the writing done.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jiggity-jig, and, ranting on "the Pounce"

Home again home again. Nice visit out east, remarkable good fortune (e.g., no major fuckarounds) from airlines. Rained like hell, but given how little we get out here, I kind of don't mind the E-coast monsoons. Dharmonia and I are just starting to think about the possibility of affording a little bit of our home-ground and so we spent a little bit of time driving the rutted tree-arched stone-walled roads of my (and her) childhood. Schlepped the new baby (5-string tenor guitar by the great GD Armstrong) in anticipation of sessions and was delighted to find it fits in all overheads, even the little Embraer puddle-jumpers they fly out of here.

But here's the frustration. I expect that when I go back East, or maybe out West, moving more-or-less toward the epicenter of the music that I play, I'd find better sessions and better players and, in general, situations that would kick my ass musically and charge up my batteries for the return to our little scene. And, if I were head down to the Burren in Somerville, or maybe the Skellig in Waltham (sister pub), or Mona's or the Eagle Tavern down in Manhattan (or, for that matter, the Catskills week up here), I could count on getting my ass kicked in the friendliest, most thorough, and most efficacious way possible, and recharging my batteries every bit as much as I needed.

But, anywhere else 'round out there? Not so fucking much. I went to three different pub sessions, at least one of which enjoys a reasonably positive reputation (more on the basis of who used to live in the vicinity and look in there, than on any present conduct), and I was overwhelmingly struck by how fucking joyless and uptight they were. Sessions are supposed to be joyful--or at least conversational. I hate those sessions that are got up by people who either didn't grow up in the music or haven't spent enough time in the music's real epicenters, and who bring such goddamned tension to the experience. The weenies who take over as "leaders" at sessions because they're worried that if they let someone else start a set "everyone" will recognize how many tunes they don't know; the newbies who, because they have not been made to feel comfortable and welcome, feel they have to pounce on every 10-second pause. Why don't these people fucking smile occasionally?

The very best sessions I've ever been to have had as much conversation as, or more than, music. Sessions are supposed to be about people, and their interaction. When there are 25 people in a session and the "leaders" are so worried about keeping control that they don't even know who's there, or can't hear what they can do, it just makes me want to walk out.

Which, in the latter instance, is precisely what I did. Not my preferred response, for sure (the control-freak teacher in me makes me want to somehow find a space in which to wrest the thing toward a more dynamic, interactive, human zone), but I actually just realized I'd rather get out than keep fighting a losing--and frustrating--battle.

As I was packing up, a Tier-2 player (e.g., somebody who comes every week, doesn't have all the tunes, but does go out of his way to take up the welcome-slack the leaders are obviating) said, "are you leaving already? That's too bad, you sound pretty good...How long have you been playing?"

I said, "since 1978."

And left.

[ps: I don't usually like to rant like this, but in this case, the bile comes from a sense of frustration at the way such situations are, versus the way they can be, and the degree to which the music and the participants are short-changed by such dynamics.]

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Fuzzy people 37

There's a great passage in Robertson Davies's masterpiece The Lyre of Orpheus (which should be read by every person who has ever suffered through academic musical politics) in which the Romantic icon (Liszt lookalike, unapologetic elitist, conductor, and lesbian) Dr Gunilla Dahl-Soot says "I would spit on any man who does not have sentiment. Not "sentimentality"; sentiment."

I don't care that the following has a maudlin sentimental song sung by Whitney Houston as the soundtrack; the story itself is more proof--as if any more were needed--that animals are our brothers and sisters and that we should care for them.

Not kill them.

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

lazy quiz-blogging


As a 1930s husband, I am
Very Superior

Take the test!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world

And that's what they were in '75, too. This is the vintage of the E Street Band I remember: the Born to Run tour. At the time, they were the coolest bunch of white boys (pimped-out and all) I'd ever seen, and I wanted to be Clarence Clemons. Beautiful sound on this Hammersmith Odeon show too; probably a radio broadcast.

This is one of my favorite Boss songs, if only for the pure-D rock 'n' roll joy it embodies. Best moment: the impeccable stop-time around 5:58 where Bruce yells: "Bring it home!

Greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world in '75; still are.

They're still standing. So am I.

RIP Danny.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Top Nine movie soliloloquies

Having trouble with blogger posting interface, but here's a short/quick hit to tide yiz over, bootlegged from my comments over at Walking the Berkshires (some of which same activity we engaged in yesterday): Top Nine movie soliloquies. Feel free to add your own in comments!

Bain Boehlke's as Mr Mohra in "Fargo": "And this little guy's drinkin' and he says, 'So where can a guy find some action? I'm goin' crazy out there at the lake.'"

Yul Brynner as Chris's closing lines in "The Magnificent Seven": "The farmers, they're the winners. They're always the winners."

Hillary Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby": "Other truth is, my brother's in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy's dead, and my momma weighs 312lbs. If I was thinking straight, I'd go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some oreos."

Lauren Bacall's as Slim in "To Have and Have Not": "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."

Stephen Tobolowsky's as Ned Ryan in "Groundhog Day": "Ned... Ryerson. "Needlenose Ned"? "Ned the Head"? C'mon, buddy. Case Western High. I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing. Ned Ryerson, got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn't graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson, I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple of times until you told me not to anymore? Well?"

Jeff Anderson's as Dante in the close of "Clerks II": "You're my best friend, and I love you... In a totally heterosexual way."

Michael Palin's as Dennis in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": "Oh but if I went 'round sayin' I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away."

Ian Bannen's (RIP) eulogy as Jackie O'Shea for his friend Michael in in "Waking Ned Devine": "If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I'd congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend."

John Goodman's as Walter Sobchak eulogy for his friend Donnie in "Big Lebowski": "Donny was a good bowler, and a good man. He was one of us."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Let me tell you a story..."

Reviving Beckett one-player shows from Dublin's Gate Theatre, with a top-notch cast: Barry McGovern, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes. Wish I was there.

McGovern and the great Johnny Murphy in the 2001 stage version of Godot:

Nearly as great (and definitely wearing Beckett's drawers): gaming scene from Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I first saw at the Young Vic at age 15 around 1976. Easily my favorite acting from Tim Roth and Gary Oldman--what a pairing!

The British are funnier than we are:

Well, maybe:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fuzzy People 36

More evidence that animals are superior to humans:

Bay Bruh and his dawg:

h/t to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Quick hit

No time to post today--but a nice gig (Dharmonia and self, on 6-string and tenor guitars). Current and former students in the house, others on the road to points PNW, good things happening for all of 'em. Full moon tonight.

Saturday departure looms.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gassho Jan-san

Janwillem van de Wetering has died. Although he rated only six short 'graphs in the NY Times, most of which focused on his authorship of the Grijpstra and de Gier detective novels, I knew him for another reason: his The Empty Mirror, a chronicle of his experience as one of only a few Western students in the (thinly-anonymized) Daitoko-ji Zen monastery in Kyoto in the early 1950s, was one of the first explicitly Buddhist books I ever read. Growing up in Nazi-ruled Amsterdam, the experience had, as he said "caused him to ask questions about life which no one could seem to answer." The book, written in a simple, nearly monosyllabic tone which probably resulted both from his translating from Dutch, and from his own sense of the subject, is a remarkablyl, courageously unvarnished portrait of what the post-WWII Zen monasteries--the places from which revered North American teachers like Suzuki-Roshi and Katagiri-Roshi came--were really like. As such, they were a very different experience than the "American Zen" which those latter teachers, to their great credit and lasting merit, created in North America. At Daitoko-ji, in a Japan still largely prostrate from the economic and psychological disaster of the war, the Zen experience was still deeply Japanese and deeply uncompromising: van de Wetering writes at length of how much he didn't understand, of how psychologically (and physically) difficult it was--his descriptions of the physical discomfort of sitting zazen and the psychological stress of the week-long silent retreat called sesshin, 20 hours a day of cross-legged meditation, were almost terrifying, but also about how profoundly the experience was right for him (he only winds up sitting the sesshin because he thinks, in can't follow the conversation when the teacher tells him, beforehand, that he doesn't have to do it).

I encountered this book around the age of 19--pulled it off the shelf of the "Eastern Philosophy" section of the old Wordsworth bookstore in Harvard Square where I was night manager--and was immediately struck by the essential sanity of the account: the sense that, behind the sore knees and the mental stress and the seeming "failure" of the experience (van de Wetering closes the book by describing his abrupt decision to leave the monastery and sail away on another of the tramp freighters that had brought him to Japan), there was a profound sanity and clarity in Zen's stark sense of the world.

Life is suffering. The First Noble Truth. No one escapes: sore knees or rotten pickles, the loss of a loved one or the the ride on cattle cars to the gas chambers. We are all going to suffer and we are all going to die.

But somehow this was liberating. It was liberating to finally have someone say "No: you don't suffer because you're 'bad', or because you've 'sinned', or because 'God intends it'. You suffer because suffering is inevitable and no one escapes." This book hit me like a bolt out of the blue, not just because, for once and finally in my life raised in the West, someone had found another way to "explain" suffering than the guilt/shame/blame axis of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But even more because of the shock of recognition that I felt: the sense "Yes: I always knew there was another way to look at the universe and our place in it." In the hard-nosed clarity and bedrock, concrete method of Zen (e.g., "sit down, shut up, and count your breath. Pay attention to what you're doing while you're doing it: work when you work, sleep when you sleep, die when you die. Recognize that choices have consequences. Don't ask too many questions--watch and learn."), I caught my first glimpse of another way of experiencing the universe, one that made it possible to integrate all the aspects of existence--work and play, writing and talking, thinking and acting, eating and sleeping, teaching and learning--as part of a sacred way.

It's no coincidence that the other great Zen inspirations of my life have their own connections to van de Wetering: my great hero Gary Snyder is the "poet Gerald" who The Empty Mirror portrays and gently teases, and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, chronicle of an expedition to the Himalayas in the wake of Mattiessen's wife's death of cancer, was the other "first" book I encountered written from a Zen perspective.

Accepting the reality of suffering and the inevitability of death, coming to celebrate the way that, as Natalie Goldberg says "Death is howling at our backs and Life is roaring in our faces", is a profound liberation. It lets you live life as it is, and seek to make it better as it is.

Because it's going to end soon enough.

Janwillem van de Wetering taught me that.

Gassho, Jan-san.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The sanity of the old cycles:

Incredibly inspiring: about still dancing and working within the cycles of the agricultural year. This is the sanity that Henry Glassie was talking about--the sanity that the old ways can still teach us if we just goddamned listen.

As an old hippie I interviewed years ago in Bloomington said, "How the hell can you call yourself a 'pagan' or a follower of the 'Old Religion' if you've never even planted a garden?!?"

"100 Greats" #070: Martin Grosswendt, Call and Response

A few weeks ago, while I was working on other projects, Martin Grosswendt’s version of Blind Blake’s hilarious “Police Dog Blues” came up in the iTunes headphones. It had been months since I’d heard the tune, and years since I had tried to learn to play it—in fact, the last time I tried might have been in the 1970s, when, listening to and watching Grosswendt play live at little coffeehouses on the North Shore of Massachusetts, it was just purely beyond my ken to figure how a piece of music like that worked.

I am sometimes astonished by aspects of my own musical good fortune. Not the “talent” sweepstakes—if “talent” means having musicianship come to you easily, then I must have been behind the barn when they handed it out: when I started playing guitar I couldn’t even tell when two notes matched in pitch (Dharmonia has hilarious—to others—stories about the anguish I would evidence when I got an incorrect answer in her Guitar Workshop ear-training class, where we met).

Years later, though, this led me to an awareness that talent is like a dry day in Ireland: it’s a wonderful surprise that makes life much more pleasant for anybody lucky enough to hit the jackpot that day, but it damned sure it isn’t something you can count on. Years after that, when I went off to a righteous conservatory and met a population of people with the sense of entitlement that always results from having things (even “talent”) handed to you, and started teaching and seeking to motivate others who didn’t have that natural luck, I formulated the aphorism (which I mostly only used when confronted by that sense of entitlement) “Talent ain’t shit; what matters is effort.” Because talent is based upon the luck of the genetic draw, you can’t count on it—and it can be damned difficult, for those to whom musical things have come easily, to develop the self-discipline and the just-plain mental guts that result from facing up to doing things that are hard. And boring. But you can count on effort, if you can learn to count on yourself.

No, I didn’t catch any breaks in the “talent” sweepstakes. But I’m happy to have traded very bit of any of that kind of luck for the astonishing good fortune I did receive—of hearing absolutely peerless music very early, very often, and (seemingly) always when I needed to. I have heard more absolutely transformative music, at more felicitous moments in time, than just about anybody I know. That’s actually, now that I think about it, why I’m a teacher of music: because I am so deeply conscious of the atypicality of my good fortune that I feel a cosmic obligation to try to spread that good fortune. I can’t make somebody talented—but I can damned sure give them the tools and the self-discipline they need to overcome any “defects” of “talent”, because if I could do it then anybody can do it. And I can make damned sure that my students, formal or informal, have a better shot at encountering just how much magnificent music there is in the world.

I first heard both the country blues and Irish traditional music around the same time: around summer 1973, first at the old Me & Thee Coffeehouse, a satellite holdover from the early ‘60s Boston/Cambridge Great Folk Boom. Those experiences absolutely changed my life: growing up in the boring middle-class suburbs (or almost middle-class: my parents had bought a home in a working-class neighborhood, and I and my brothers got the shit kicked out of us by junior-high-school thugs regularly until we each, individually, learned to turn and attack—a major rite of passage for each of us, after which it didn’t happen anymore), I had almost no opportunity to hear any music—there was no music in my immediate family—and certainly hardly any live music, with the exception of the folk and pop acts booked by the Arts Festival my father ran.

Hearing those incredibly visceral, idiosyncratic, and powerful musics, live in a room, eight feet away, changed my life. At the age for 13 or 14, especially if you’re an adolescent male, and most especially if you’re an adolescent male growing up in the boring-ass middle-class white suburbs, you may not know what the hell it is, but you know that you want to make that noise. The first times I heard Bob Franke, or Geoff Bartley, or Paul Rishell, or Paul Geremia play, it was the same—I thought, “I want to be able to make a noise that cool, and I want to be a person that cool.” I knew, as I’ve said before, that the music could provide an avenue to whole realms of experience and expression, and even more profoundly whole communities of people, whose existence I hadn’t even previously glimpsed. I even thought these musicians might provide me vision of a different, better life than the ones I could imagine.

But the king of them all, for me, was Martin Grosswendt, a tall spindly guy with lank blond hair who looked like the post-60s prep-school escapee he probably was. He had none of the affectations of some of us white boys playing the blues: didn’t wear the porkpie hat, or the sunglasses, or the all-black clothes, or affect the mannerisms or accent of a Deep-South bluesman. He was just a funny, articulate, obviously erudite guy, toting a battered National Duolian and a Stella 12-string, who played the country blues with more fire, passion, fluidity, and wit than anybody else. I loved that he had such command of the guitar style, but without the sort of studied (or mannered) self-conscious precision of some others—with Martin, you got the sense that he was playing the parts a certain way, every bit as complex, contrapuntal, and beautiful as Blind Blake or Bill Broonzy, but that he could equally well have played them six other ways. There’s a confidence that comes from having such total command of an instrumental style that you don’t have to trouble yourself with replicating the models exactly, because you trust your own grasp of the idiom, and your ability to get around on the instrument, that you can diverge from the marked trail and strike out cross-country. You don’t have to “play it just like the record”—you can be confident of your ability to say something new with this old music. This is tremendously liberating, both to be able to do and to be able to hear; it’s something that my old friend and musical mentor Dean Magraw, another hugely influential discovery from a few years later, equally had in spades. At the time, I couldn’t do that—I understood that this music was both technically and conceptually incredibly sophisticated, but I didn’t (at age 15) have the skills to hear or replicate what they were doing.

On top of that, I loved Martin’s singing—not just the way he shaped and inflected the songs, with all the bends and whines and microtonal inflections that the style called for, but how naturally it came out of him, and how much it didn’t seem that he was trying to “sound like” Charlie Patton or Son House or Blind Willie Johnson. Partly this was because he had something of a bent for the Memphis and Piedmont blues of Blake, Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, a much more raggy and hokum-oriented approach than the tortured (and thus difficult to imitate) intensity of Patton or House or Robert Johnson.

But it was also that Martin just didn’t try to imitate: his vocal timbre was still that of a white guy with a decent education, his accent still that of a Rhode Island native. Somehow, by letting go of the mimetic/phonographic attempt to “sound just like” the Delta players, he was enabled to access the intensity with which they sang. He still sounded like a white boy—but he sounded like a white boy who was playing and singing just as hard as anybody on the old 78s. That was a great lesson for me—that what made the blues real was not your age, or your accent, or the percentage of melanin in your skin; what made it real was the quality of your experience, your effort and your commitment. Nature and nurture, talent and effort, genetics and aptitude—every individual brings different combinations of experience and resources to the table. I learned that lesson, and it saved me, years later, when various academic types who couldn’t look past skin color were deeply offended by the fact that I played, and knew, black music better than they did. Because I had worked at it longer than they—and because I had the extraordinary good fortune to hear these musicians at the right time.

And, at the same time, he had all the stage-tricks of a Booker White or a Charlie Patton: tossing the guitar in the air, spinning it on its axis or around his neck without missing a lick—I’m not sure he didn’t dance on its top, the way Patton did.

I carried an analog cassette of a Martin Grosswendt concert, circa 1974, at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in Marblehead coffeehouse, for at least eight years after that, playing it in dorm rooms and job-site boom-boxes, on bookstore sound-systems and in restaurant kitchens. I have it still—a beatup, grease-stained Audiofidelity cassette which I’m afraid to play for fear of totaling it into spaghetti.

Then for years I went away from that music—got my jazz degree, wrote my dissertation, made my medieval CDs, beat my brains out playing catchup in the world of classical music. It was only after my degrees were done—even after I had rediscovered and began to recover my Irish trad music chops—that I began to think about revisiting the blues, about which I’ve blogged before. I knew that there had been one Martin solo LP—a nice effort now long out of print called Dog on a Dance Floor—but I hadn’t heard anything from him in years, although I never forgot his music. But that new-fangled thing called “the Internets” made it possible for me to find Martin Grosswendt again—he’s not on the ‘Net himself, but the Google had actually heard of him, and led me to this record. He plays a lot of Cajun fiddle and double-bass these days, but this record features tunes I remember from the ‘70s—meaning he’s been playing some of them 30 years. And it shows.

Perfectly titled Call and Response—after both the fundamental music texture that is a thumbprint of African music in the Americas: the preacher and the congregation, the singer and the choir, the soloist and the horn section, and also the fundamental way in which any modern player has to deal with a tradition that’s essentially 60 years “out of date” (whatever that means)—this record captures most of what I love about Martin’s music: the chops, the great slide and fingerpicking, the wit, the groove, the intensity, the impeccable (and hilarious) song selection, the great singing:

“Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues”: Charlie Patton’s ferocious, and seminal, take on open-G tuning, from which both Son House, and later Robert Johnson, got their greatest licks;

There’s “Floating Bridge”, the hilarious, mandolin-driven Sleepy John Estes tune detailing a misadventure John’s jug band had, coming back in a Model-T drunk one night from a juke-joint gig and not realizing that the 1937 floods had taken out their bridge home—until they were considerably more than halfway over; best line “Five gallons of muddy water/I had drank”; and whose long shaggy-dog introduction I stole from Martin in 1975 and still use;

“Savannah Mama,” one of the only representations here of his wonderful take on the 12-string Piedmont blues of Blind Willie McTell;

“Going to Move to Alabama,” the mordant Patton/Lemon Jefferson party-piece in which, on this record, the “call and response” is between Martin’s own voice,and guitar, and the wonderful fiddle of Karl Dennis (about whom Martin himself says "He is a bluegrass fiddler, for which I forgive him").

Barbecue Bob’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” which recounts his loss to floods of house and wife with the same matter-of-fact bleakness;

“Pony Blues”; Son House's version of Patton’s 1929 slide masterpiece which became the cutting-contest litmus test for every guitarist in the Delta, like House, after him—and they all came after him;

And then there were also tunes I hadn’t heard him play, like the funky, three-finger banjo version of Dock Boggs’s dark “Prodigal Son”—which just goes to confirm that, in the ‘20s, while there might have been the most hateful divisions between black and white people in the South, there was really no difference between black and white musics (a point that the Coen Brothers’ fabulist masterpiece O Brother Where Art Thou makes even more subtly and eloquently).

And then there’s the tune that made me want to play this music in the first place, Martin’s transcendent take on Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues,” a masterpiece of musical and textual composition: funny, rueful, blindingly contrapuntal, and absolutely hilarious. Best line (about the dog): “His name is Rambler, and when he gets the chance/He leaves his mark on everybody’s pants”. As I said, it was my favorite of all the tunes he played, virtually perfect in every way, but completely impenetrable to me as a 14-year-old from the suburbs. But just recently, when it came up in the iTunes rotation, I happened to have a guitar handy (the revved-up National knock-off which I’d wanted for 30 years but had never, until I was a tenured college professor, been able to afford). And, astonishingly, the tune just fell out of the guitar and into my lap: tuning, percussive syncopations, form, distinctive contrapuntal licks. I even found myself singing it, from memory and with his phrasing, intact after 30 years. That’s how much I had imprinted on his music.

There are a few more I’d still love to hear Martin play live: his titanic 12-string-driven version of Lead Belly’s raging “Mr Tom Hughes’ Town”, the hilarious “Don’t Sell It, Don’t Give It Away” (by the perfectly-monickered “Oscar ‘Buddy’ Woods and his Shreveport Home Wreckers”), and the remarkable two-handed percussion part he’d play on guitar for “Booker’s Jitterbug Swing”—when he wasn’t flipping it up in the air—and catching it—between verses;

But hell, this is enough: it’s been a privilege to reconnect with this music, these songs, and this musician, which made such a profound positive impact in my life, so many years later.

Finally, there was the unexpected bonus—that the intervening decades of working so hard at other musics had actually given me the ability to play this one. It was a great blessing to be able to finally learn the Bill Broonzy and Blind Blake songs I’d heard from Martin in the ‘70s—the songs that made me want to play the country blues in the first place, but which, as a 14-year-old I hadn’t the skills (not the “talent”) to learn—and this time find them falling out of the record and into my hands. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a wonderful, unexpected, twilight-years reward to return to a music you loved as a kid and realize, all those years and many musics later, that it really was as brilliant as you thought it was—a tremendous validation not only of the music but of your own self, and of what mattered to you so much, so many years before.

This is the music that made me want to play the blues. That he’s a wonderful man is a bonus.

Or maybe that’s the point.

[NB: One of the nicest things about rediscovering this music through the medium of this record was to make contact with Martin himself, who—remarkably—remembered me 22 years later.Though he’s a brilliant, well-educated guy (degrees in semiotics and law, that kind of thing), and incredibly active as a musician, Martin is seriously old-school when it comes to self-”promotion: no website, barely an email presence. If you want this disc—which is probably my favorite CD of country blues ever, as I’ve only been waiting for it 30 years—here’s his snail address; tell him I sent you!]

Monday, July 14, 2008


Too busy to post--Dharmonia and I leave for Points East in least than a week--but still present here.

In the meantime:

President Bush tours America to survey the damage caused by his disastrous presidency.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hillary is now officially my hero:

Given the heroin-strength egoism that is required to become an effective politician on the the national or international stage, it is (it must be) nearly impossible for someone who's sat at the Big Table to acknowledge that the times and the political environment have moved on and it's time to excuse oneself and depart. Bill Clinton--obviously--has been unable to do that, and so we've been treated to the spectacle of someone who was, at one time, the most skillful politician of his generation--and the best president we'd had since Carter (though six times as successful as Carter) dwindling into a caricature of the flesh-pressing egocentric cracker that his brother Roger always was.

Of the two, Hills is the class act: speaking to a largely-female group of her supporters, about moving-on and supporting Obama, she said this:

It is a process. It does take time for people to take a deep breath, to go forward. ... But anyone who voted for me has so much in common with those who voted for Barack. ... It is critical that we join forces. The Democratic Party is a family -- sometimes a dysfunctional family -- but it is a family. We care about what is going to happen to health care [and education], and in Afghanistan in Iraq. ... That work cannot be done if we do not have a Democratic president in the White House!"

As she wrapped up her remarks and began to introduce Obama, Clinton said, "this is the man -- this is the one -- we should be voting for. ... Do it for your children. Do it for your jobs. Do it for the education of future generations.

Jesus! Why couldn't she have been the 1990s "President Clinton"?!?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Film hit: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Replaying on one of the cable channels. I remember when this flick came out, and our anticipation was riding incredibly high after the coincidental genius of Holy Grail and the flat-out storytelling ( comic, but great storytelling) of Life of Brian, and we--or I, anyway--felt shock at the seeming random, grab-bag structure of Meaning of Life, not to mention the several brutally graphic scenes that almost made me hurl. At the time, I thought it was a huge comedown from Brian, and not even in he same universe as Grail--which I think is still, along with Name of the Rose, the best film ever made about the Middle Ages. But, when it came out in '83, and for years after, both the critics and the Pythons themselves, if they didn't pan the film, certainly thought it was a step down from the earlier films shot while the group was still active.

But revisiting Meaning all these years later, with all those years' additional cynicism, and knowledge of history, and most especially knowledge of British social class, I see this film differently--and as much greater than I thought. Now I see it as a last valedictory blast of the rage that fueled the Angry Young Men like Joe Orton, John Lennon's "just rattle their fuckin' jewelry" comment at the Royal Command Performance, and--eventually--the Sex Pistols and the Clash. In all those cases, young people (mostly young men) who had been born during or after World War II were reacting to the system of accent, education, and class that had kept poor people down ever since the Georgians. No one born in the 1940s or early '50s in England, or raised in either public or private education in that period, could be blind to the way that the systems of education and economic opportunity were stacked to maintain the privileges of old wealth. If you went to the wrong school; if you had the wrong accent; if you came from the wrong part of the country; if you chose the wrong parents: the system would carefully and subtley make sure that you never got out of the servant class--so that you would always be available to hew the wood and draw the water and chauffeur the limos and dig the building sites and fight the wars of the rich. Joe Orton knew it--and fought to create a theatrical style that would simultaneously give him an avenue out and cock a snook at the Old Vic establishment. Lennon knew it--and took a decade to figure out how to "break out of the palace"; to his lasting credit, he succeeded. Lydon/Rotton and Strummer knew it, but because they were just a few years younger, they had some 1960s radical models they could draw from--and because Lydon knew enough about Irish colonial history, and Strummer about Third World radicalism.

But the Pythons knew it too--from the other side of the class divide. They were all Oxford/Cambridge types, and so might be thought to have the power of class, accent, and education behind them. But they were all intimately aware of their origins: Palin commented, "none of us were Londoners, we were all from the provinces"--which meant they themselves had had the experience of fighting their way up the rungs of the ladder of class. And, I think it's also a valediction for that generation and that generation's experience: because the Pythons, all six of them born between 1939 and 1943), were the last generation to have gone through a childhood and adolescence being educated by teachers from the pre-War period. Which meant they were the last generation taught under the Dear Old School, "Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," keep-a-stiff-upper-lip, model of education.

Which played well in Tom Brown's Schooldays, or innumerable British films of the period, or in the pages of the Times of London, but in fact was just another abusive system for keeping the poor and the powerless in their place--and which institutionalized paternalistic racism, brutality, child abuse, toxic snobbery, and a life of cauterized emotions. By the 1960s, when working-class yobbos like Lydon/Rotten and Strummer--or, for that matter, Daltrey, Entwhistle, and Moon--were being sent off to trade school and apprenticeships, that Old-Boy ethos had pretty much died out with the last wave of pre-War dons' retirements. So the Pythons, educated in the '50s and very early '60s, were the last to experience it, and the rage that such abuse elicits.

And, more than the other, earlier films--and maybe because they all knew that this was a swan song--in this film they let out the anger, in both set pieces and premises, and most of all in the raging caricatures of unctuous priests, politicians, and public-school masters of precisely the sort the Pythons would have had to endure in their maturation. And they knew they had been lied to: about duty, and about sex, and about "sportsmanship" and "patriotism" and noblesse oblige and death and God Itself.

They end (after the credits actually roll) with Palin in drag reading out what is, if not the meaning of life, then certainly the purpose:

"Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
But they know goddamned well that we won't.

There's a lot of rage in this movie. And it's righteous.

James Webb for Secretary of Defense

I'll vote in support of somebody who says this, for almost any office:

"[Let's say] you're somebody who's a working person in this country, trying to make a living, trying to put your kids through school," he said. "And you look at the people from both parties, and on the key issue [e.g., exploitation of lower economic classes by upper]--you really don't see a difference... This is where the Karl Rove era moved in. They've taken this group that you're talking about, they go after their fears. They go after the abortion issues. And what happens is because people don't see the difference on the issues that are really going to take care of them, then they decide alright, I'm going to vote on who's burning my flag and who's going to let gay people get married. We know all the issues: God, guns, guts, gays, abortion, flag."
That is the most succinct and trenchant description I have ever heard by a working politician of why poor people vote Republican. It is also the most accurate and damning condemnation of the strategic incompetence of Beltway Democrats.

Being rich didn't stop FDR from connecting with poor folks.

Scots wae hae.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 102 (roots of revolution edition)

Let's talk about health care for a minute. Today was my annual exam. Dharmonia and I have a primary-care physician we really like (anecdotal evidence of the fucked-up state of health care in this country: in a town that is the principal medical locus for 5 hours in any direction, we had to change doctors 4 times in 4 years, as they left their practices, relocated, or retired). One of the reasons we like the current doc is that she is simultaneously matter-of-fact and an ass-kicker: when you need to bring your blood pressure or cholesterol down, or your muscle mass up, she just tells you, and leaves it at that: radiates the presumption that you are an adult who is capable of making constructive health decisions--or of consciously deciding to make bad ones.

But here's the ball-buster: Dharmonia and I work for a university system in a medical town, and as tenured/tenure-track faculty we have access to both excellent health plans and a wide range of top-notch caregivers. But there are neighborhoods in this town--mostly to the east and north of "the good sections"--where people don't have the same access: either their employers don't offer health plans, or are ramping down their coverage, or the plans are becoming more and more ruinously expensive. And more and more people, even as the cost of health care skyrockets, are simply having to do without any health insurance.

I remember this. We were poor for a long time, and I remember occasions when we went to the free neighborhood clinic in North Cambridge (a Portuguese and Vietnamese ghetto, by then) because that was all we could afford. And I remember lots more occasions when I simply didn't go--when the cost of paying up-front for health care was so overwhelming that I'd live with the flu, or the sprains or infections, or with my hurting, because we couldn't afford mitigation. I went without dental care for about 12 years because of this, and the only reason I still have any teeth in my head at all is because of the luck of the genetic draw.

This morning, as a result of the university-paid health plan we're on, I had a full annual exam, bloodwork, other vitals, consultation with doctor, gentleman-of-a-certain-age gland checks, and script for the thyroid condition that I, like so many others, only developed after moving here and being constantly exposed to the herbicides in the air and groundwater.

The co-pay--that is, the amount that I have to pay personally in order to "match" the costs paid by the employee health plan--was $20.

Twenty dollars.

Less than 3 hours' work, even at minimum wage.

Less than Dharmonia and I pay for our weekly Sunday-brunch indulgence.

This is profoundly, profoundly unjust. I have enough education and a high-enough income that, statistically, I am far less prone to health issues than someone older, with less education, or a lower income. And yet I pay a fraction (a small fraction) of what such a person, without health insurance, would have to pay. Assuming that s/he decided to go to the clinic, rather than simply put up with the health risks or pain. $20 to me is a brunch, or a stack of used paperbacks, or a bottle of cheap rum. To a single parent trying to raise multiple kids on minimum wage, it's nearly half a day's pay.

What kind of country do we live in, that the poor have to suffer and get sick, while the rich pay chump change to stay healthy? I make enough money that I should (because I could) pay a hell of a lot more than $20 a visit. Why can't we live in a nation where everyone pays the same, income-adjusted rate?

The answer is that we could. But powerful corporate interests don't want us to. So, instead, Dharmonia and I take large chunks of that money we don't pay for health care and donate it to initiatives on behalf of kids and animals.

The roots of revolution lie in suffering. If the system is screwing you, why wouldn't you want to overthrow it?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Here's to Tom Paine

From Steve Tilston's great song:

Here's to Tom Paine, the hidden story
Time shall proclaim the Rights of Man
Here's to Tom Paine, true England's glory
Never a better-born Englishman
Never a better-born Englishman
"He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death. "

Quick hit: Wimbledon

Nadal def. Federer.

Couldn't watch it straight through, as yesterday was a full slate of work, and because the thing took five and a half hours (not only due to rain delays), but nevertheless,

Holy. Fucking. Shit. Certainly the greatest tennis match I've ever seen.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 101 (facin'-up edition)

Some days it's hard to face-up to the work you know you need to do. It can be a personnel issue--where you have to promulgate a decision made by superiors, which you know is unfair and to which you're opposed, but which is beyond your control. It can be a subordinates issue--when you have to give a student a piece of news that s/he doesn't want and won't like. It can be a "do what's good for you whether you like it or not" issue--like taxes or grant writing.

But it can also be work that you really want to do, really believe in, have been really excited about, but upon which you've recently gotten burned. This is particularly true if it's your own scholarly or creative work, once it's out there in the world of assessments, editors, and outside readers. No matter how competent--or autonomous--the typical academic may be, in terms of her/his daily duties, responsibilities to students and colleagues, income, lifestyle, and so on: when it's time to send out a recording, a composition, or a draft, there's still a tinge (or more than a tinge) of Ralphie turning in his theme to the teacher, and a similar sense of vulnerability. It's really, truly out of your control, and--especially given the invulnerable anonymity enjoyed by outside readers for academic presses--the righteous potential for getting burned. And if you don't get burned unfairly, even apt and fair critique can leave you feeling a little bruised.

The body's natural inclination, upon such injury, is to leave it alone--to avoid touching the sore spot, because you're convinced that even a slight contact is going to hurt as bad as the initial impact. This is not physiologically accurate, but it's a pretty-much involuntary and visceral animal/body reaction.

The problem is that this does not get you past it. Avoidance is visceral and animal and understandable--and the more we avoid prodding the bruise, the longer it takes us to realize that it doesn't hurt anymore. Perspective--usually provided by chronological distance--helps this realization. The great Tibetan teacher Pema Chodron says we should actually welcome this painful spots we want to avoid--as she puts it, we should "lean into the sharp place", the places that prick at us and tempt us to avoid them. Avoidance is like denial: it's instinctive but counterproductive. It puts us on the level of responding mindlessly and it doesn't help us cope, or learn to cope, with disappointment. Facing these things--understanding that you can make conscious choices about how you process a painful experience, rather than just dumbly avoiding--is a learning process.

So to today's topic: the first day I've had the clear space, and the mental/emotional energy, to face up to the guts of the minstrelsy manuscript. This was the MS that I sent in around Dec 15 07, on the request of the university publisher, for consideration as part of their impress on American music. In the event, the editor took care and consideration in assigning the sample chapters to outside readers, and it took a while to get their responses. Along about May 15, I had a long conversation with the editor, on the basis of the readers' responses: one brief and effusively positive; one very long and, while proving detailed criticism, essentially optimistic; one of medium length and, as far as I can tell, essentially offended at the premises.

It's incredibly difficult (for me, anyway) to avoid getting defensive and then angry when some jamoke seems to have intentionally misread a MS, seemingly specifically in order to dismiss it. But, one thing that maturity teaches you, and which dealing with a bureaucracy drives home, is not to respond half-cocked. What I wanted to do was write a lengthy and nasty rebuttal to Reader #3 and post forthwith. I've learned that this is not only tactically unsound, but also a faulty psychological strategy: you are not going to feel the same way about the disappointment, after 72 hours, as you do five minutes after getting the bad news.

In the event, after receiving the reader responses, I rang the editor, and asked if we could converse about those responses around a week later. That latter was a very positive conversation, during which she said "well, there's really no reason that we would have to even involve Reader #3 in the assessment of the full manuscript." This was some kind of vindication, not least because she went on to reiterate to me how much she wanted the MS for the series. Though I'd spent 72 hours ranting to myself, and wanting to punch walls, it was a very good thing that I had waited--and that I know myself enough to know that I'm going to feel more optimistic after 72 hours than after five minutes. The editor closed the conversation by thanking me for "being so receptive to the Readers' comments." I didn't feel receptive, that's for sure, but it was a good reminder of the fact that, in a professional situation, what matters is what you do--not what you feel. Yes, you want to know if you're pissed-off and resentful about somebody else's professional decision--but you do not want to respond from that place.

The net result is that, after summer's crazy-busy first-half, and striving to keep punching at extensive other writing projects, today was the day I sucked it up and opened the minstrelsy project files.

And you know what? There is a lot of good shit in there--but the work I've been doing on related projects has substantially impacted (I think enriched) my grasp of the MS. Now I want to rewrite the two sample chapters, because things I intuited, or didn't even recognize, are now much more concrete, realistic, defensible, and original. Getting bruised by two detailed sets of responses--one of them accurate and apt--may have sucked at the time, but the distance, perspective, and additional work I can bring to the material 7 months later mean that the final result will be much better. And that my own confidence in that material will be much stronger--now I know (rather than just intuiting) that Reader #3 is way out of line, and that the material holds water: that it is as original and solid and valuable as I formerly inferred.

Patience is a valuable thing.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Karl Rove's day is past

Watching the masterpiece O Brother Where Art Thou? again and noticing, again, how much the tin-pot sub-Huey Long demagogue Homer P Stokes (played for laughs and ridden out of town on a rail, pelted with rotten vegetables) looks like Karl Rove.

"Is you is or is you ain't my constiuency?"

Not anymore, you fucking direct-mail Goebbels. Not any more.

My America

Goodbye Danny. Thank you for your great effort.

Suzuki Roshi died of cancer in 1971. When Zen masters die we like to think they will say something very inspiring as they are about to bite the Big Emptiness, something like "Hi-ho Silver!" or "Remember to wake up" or "Life is everlasting." Right before Suzuki Roshi's death, Katagiri Roshi, an old friend, visited him. Katagiri stood by the bedside; Suzuki looked up and said, "I don't want to die." That simple. He was who he was and said plainly what he felt in the moment. Katagiri bowed. "Thank you for your great effort."(1)

Lead, follow, or get out of the way --Sam Adams

You're toast, junior. You're going to leave office in Jan 09 and they're going to indict you for war crimes.

Bush II at Monticello--which is an obscenity in and of itself.

"The Office" (workstation series) 100 (Independence Day edition)

Coffeehouse "listening" session last night; old buddy Coop on flute and myself on bouzouki. I really like that duet Irish situation, where I'm the only accompanist, because it provides an absolutely huge palette of choices: I can play a lot or a little, play soft or loud, thick or sparse, reharmonize at will, and so on. I like the way I wind up playing in those situations.

But I fucking hate the contemporary audience's inability to grok that live music ought to elicit a different response than canned music. It's not that they are inherently less-considerate people, but rather that they simply don't grasp that there are live bodies up there making those sounds, and that they might want to tear themselves away from the text-messaging and gossiping and incessant narcissistic self-photography and so on. My buddy Roger Landes, very wisely, has a precept that says he won't take a "listening" gig in any space where they typically play recorded music: he believes that people who regularly come to a space with canned music will have learned a bunch of oblivion-behaviors that make it impossible for them to grasp that, on this particular night, something different is happening--and is called for. I, on the other hand, still take gigs in such spaces, and then (absurdly) get pissed when people behave in an entirely normative way.

So with last night: roomful of posing high-school kids (I have to struggle to remember that, for most people, high school is precisely where they have to figure out who they are going to be as adults, and as a result, many spend most of their high-school time trying out personae, and assessing the external reactions to those variants); large table-ful of kids being led in some kind of Bible study session by a coach-type (as Coop says, "St Matthew says you should pray in privacy, in a closet inside your house with the shutters drawn, and he knew Jesus; why the fuck do these people think they 'supposed' to pray in public?"). We play here because, as with our session pub, though the clientele can be clueless, management is incredibly supportive, appreciative, and respectful. It would be nicer if the clientele was too, but it's hard to blow off management who are this nice. But the posing and the chattering and the just-plain flat obliviousness to their surroundings really get to me.

I have a very short fuse when I'm leading a gig. 25 years ago, I would get snotty with band-mates (Dharmonia can attest to the fact that I was hell-on-wheels as a bandleader in the 1980s). With the advent of many years and just the slightest bit more maturity, I've learned not to take it out on people, and, in fact, to be reasonably charming and easy-going in manner on the gig. This is not however because I actually am "charming and easy-going," but because I've learned to project that in preference to the dismissive short-fused behavior of three decades ago.

But I still have a very short fuse, and very small incidents of what I perceive to be inconsiderate behavior from audience members can evoke absolutely towering rage (see my recollections of policing the room at the old Idler in Harvard Square during Dean Magraw's gigs). I've tried to figure out why this is, and I think I actually know why. Realistically or not, enittled or not, I have a tendency to perceive those spaces in which music occurs as sacred spaces; at least for the duration of the performance, when it's working right, the music actually creates the possibility of an alternate, better mode of consciousness. Many musics know this: African-American gospel, Bach's Masses, Pakistani Qawwali, and thousands of other music idioms were created and are maintained because they make an alternate universe of experience possible, at least for the duration of the performance. Certainly some of my own most transformative experiences have happened to me during, and because of, a musical performance.

That's also what I try to create when I play music: at least the possibility, for whichever members of the audience might understand or intuit same, of a transformative experience: something that will take you right out of your body and show you the possibility of an entirely different way to experience the world and other people. I go way the fuck out of my way to try to do that: in terms of sequencing tunes, in terms of involving other players and the audience, in terms of what's said or done, how people speak or move, how we respond to feedback from the audience and so on. When it's a formal setting (concert hall or theatre) you have a lot more control: lights and sets and start-time and so on: in fact, I'd argue that this is one of the great afflictions of 19th/20th century concert music: composers (only slightly down the hierarchy of creation from God, and substantially higher up the scale from the conductors whose existence composers reluctantly acknowledge) were so obsessive about control, critics were so dependent upon an odor of superhuman Greatness, that they conspired to take everything away from the audience.

But I'm a jazz and roots musician and I was raised up to make things happen for an audience, with the audience's participation. The problem is that, to make such things happen, the audience has to get it, if not to the same extent then at least in the same experiential universe and values-system that the musicians are occupying. When you're dealing with an audience who don't know this and are barely conscious that it might exist, then you're already fighting an uphill battle.

Which is why so many of our gigs demand audience education--teaching people (usually by demonstration and example) about what the music can provide, if they engage and respond. Mostly you have to do it implicitly. At the Celtic Christmas, almost all of the staging directions, lighting, programming, pacing, and so on, are set up to create a sense of the circle around the croft fire at the show's opening, and the experience, for the audience over the whole course of the show, of that same circle getting bigger and bigger and bigger, until it encompasses everyone present. Mostly it works. But it's a hell of a lot harder to accomplish when you control almost none of the parameters.

I have a standing joke with my students that, in "my parallel universe, musicians drink for free." That sounds like an aphorism, but I'm deadly serious: we don't set up gigs where we, or any of the participating musicians, have to pay for their booze. Drinking or eating for free, even absent any cash changing hands, in exchange for playing music, takes us back way before Romanticism, out of the modern world, back before the Industrial Revolution, to the places where the music began: the fireplace, the campfire, and the sacred circle. And when people in an audience don't get that, it really chaps my ass. And when the Bible-study leader decides to stand up and fake his way through a couple of faux-Riverdance steps, I have deeply unholy reactions.

So here's my parallel Universe, and the real Independence Day celebration, and the real American heroes, in that universe:

Where the marching band is Jim Reese Europe's 369th Hellfighters Band, sashaying down the streets of Harlem, playing charts by Charles Ives, with Charley's beloved-but-died-too-young father George, the youngest bandleader in the Civil War, trades off the baton with Lt. Europe, with James Brown as the drum-major, with banners heralding Peace and Freedom and Justice flying at the head; and marching in the van are all the boys who didn't have to die in America's contemptible elective imperial wars;

with a picnic on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where Buddy Bolden, healed from the "madness" that was the only possible to the insanity of Jim Crow, trades trumpet licks with Clifford Brown, who walked away from the car wreck miraculously unscathed, and Janis, with a man who loves her and a church family that supports her, kisses Jimi and congratulates him on a fair record deal, and Bessie Smith, the Queen of the Blues, donates her royalties to a charity hospital for poor people;

and Blind Willie Johnson asks the blessing, and Gary Davis sight-reads the hymns, and Duane Allman and Charlie Christian trade choruses on the offertory while their grand-babies pass the paper plates, and Bird and Trane and Dolphy and Ayler man the horn section, and Fela and Miles swap licks and each agrees that the other is the greatest player;

and Zappa gives the patriotic address, and Bo and Mr Jelly Roll and Mongo and Lemon and Robert Johnson compare their versions of the hambone and argue good-naturedly (while the beer never runs out) about whose is better;

and there's corn and slaw and pickles and peach pie and mashed spuds and sweet tea and pulled pork and barbecue and Hebrew National hotdogs and fried chicken, but no animals ever had to die to provide them, and Tom Binkley approves the hummus and dandles his grandkids on his knee,

and my father is there, sober and happy, sketching the scene,

and saying "just lemonade, thanks."

I will work until I die to help make this nation more what it could be.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Lamest of lame ducks: meet The Shrub

Allies Worry About President's Schedule

Some of President Bush's allies tell the Political Bulletin they are embarrassed and angry that the White House seems to be wasting Bush's time on frivolous events when much of the country is suffering through economic hard times. "Look at the schedule for Monday," says an outside Bush adviser. "A highlight of his day was witnessing a tee ball game. ... He is being reduced to child's play."
Well, we already know that Big Boy baseball is too hard for him.

"The Office" (workstation series) 099 (blue-collar edition), and Fuzzy People 35

I worked in the trades for a number of years: oilfield blowout-preventer mechanic and framing carpenter principally. I worked some other blue-collar gigs as well: janitor, restaurant line-cook, grocery-store bag-boy. Some quasi cubicle-drone gigs: administrative assistant, data-entry operator. Some quasi-white-collar gigs: bookstore manager and guitar-studio manager. I've had a job since the age of 12 (still remember the parental tantrum that made it clear that I wasn't going to be able to engage in any cost-intensive sport if I didn't earn the money for same) and I've got no doubts about my work ethic.

But if you're someone of a certain age, upbringing, occupation, and/or set of political convictions, having people working for you brings up some ambivalence. Currently, Dharmonia and I have a "yard guy" who comes twice a month and a "house-cleaner" who does the same. In both cases, we pay somebody else their asking rate (plus an across-the-board +15% "respect" bonus) to do something, faster and better, than we could do ourselves. If it's a question of me spending 2 hours wrestling with a lawnmower--and doing a bad job with it--or 2 hours writing an article, the latter is both (a) probably more lucrative and (b) a better use of our respective skills.

On top of that, this month we have a contractor in doing some renovations (rescuing a garage--an essential appurtenance in this golf-ball-sized-hail-prone climate), adding some french doors and a sun tunnel in the house. This is a guy we've used for several years, off-and-on, to do "quality of life and property value" upgrades (my brother, a really bright guy with a good deal of practical sense about his own wealth, says "you should prioritize those renovations that will either add to your quality-of-life or the value of the house--and you should really prioritize those that do both"). He does great work, at a good price, and he's got a hell of a lot better design-sense and sense of practicality than either of us do. If we come up with an idea, and he says, "You don't want to do it that way; do it this way instead," we pay attention.

But--White Guilt: having a black or brown or blue-collar person coming to work on your house on an hourly wage, doing stuff (house-cleaning, yardwork, renovations--remember, I used to frame houses) that you could do yourself--poorly, but cheaper--is likely to evoke certain levels of ambivalence. Or White Guilt.

I've played music for hire for decades, and I can say that I have been treated best by people at one or the other end of the economic spectrum: either the poor folks (Portuguese fishermen's weddings in Gloucester, MA, where the groom's dad would set aside a special table for the musicians: "you guys got enough to drink? Is the food OK? Y'know, I had an uncle who played music, and I really admired him"; Irish tunes in Mexican mariachi restaurants in the Southwest, where the response is "hey, ese, slow down! Damn you guys play a lot of notes"--much laughter) or the richest folks (house parties for White Russians--Romanovs--who moved to the States and married rich) are the ones who treat you the best. The poor folks know what it's like to work for a living--mostly, they work a hell of a lot harder than the white-collar folks--and they appreciate somebody with a special and unique skill like music. Les anciens have been hiring people to work for them for generations, and they know how to behave to them (noblesse oblige is not a fiction--it exists).

Who treats you the worst? Nouveau riches: the ones who only recently came into money, and want to make damned sure you knew it, and found your very presence distasteful (I still remember the Midland/Odessa oil wives who bitched when, in the 1979 oil bust, hubby decided they couldn't take the company jet to Neiman's-in-Dallas for the afternoon any more), and would tell you to come in the back entrance, and grimace when they had to interact with you, and act resentful when you had to remind them to pay you.

So White Guilt (wonderful punchline from an old Martin Mull routine: "But what if they weren't really from the United Negro College Fund and we never get the magazines?!?"): even though you worked your ass off for literally decades to get a decent-paying job in your area of aptitude, even though you have the money, even though you're paying asking-rate-plus-15%, even though they're doing the job massively better than you could, when you hire somebody to do work you could for yourself, you--or, OK, I--still think "jeez, what the hell kind of a bourgeois asshole have I become?"

The contractors and household help aren't thinking that: they don't give a shit about your White Guilt except insofar as they might have to deal with some kind of weird over-compensatory nastiness (note: when the contractor or yard-guy or house-cleaner decline the offer of a house-key "for convenience's sake", it's not because it wouldn't be more convenient--it's because they've seen Liberal White Folks regress to some nasty shit when something turned up missing). the reality is that all anybody wants out of an equitable services-for-hire contract is a fair (OK, maybe high-end) price and decent treatment, and that the client keep all the weird-ass guilt-and-compensation shit out of the equation. So, as the client, how do you convey respect, and keep your own White Guilt out of the exchange?

Well, you treat people like peers--recognizing that the contractor's ability to re-roof a house tight and swift, so it won't leak at all, is as valuable and practical a skill as your ability to craft a lecture or a lesson plan; you say "Good Morning" and offer coffee or "Have a good night" and offer a beer; you engage with people as people, asking after their families and kids; you back the fuck off your own timetable (nothing is dumber than to bitch-out a contractor, who is working to a quoted price, about the number of hours it's taking--the only person who ought to care about that is him, and trying to bring the job in at cost in the fewest number of hours); and, when you can be constructive about it rather than just being a pest who's getting the way, you pitch in next to them, and haul trash or sweep up. Most importantly, you recognize that, in the hierarchy of skills, the most useful thing you can typically do is stay the fuck out of the way, and be appreciative of the caliber of the work they're doing.

If you do it right, and you just put your White Guilt to rest, abandon the Liberal "What do they think of me?" neurosis, and engage with what those other people working for you can actually use, then, over the course of three days, you have a plumber, a contractor, and a yard-guy, who, in taking the coffee, or the iced tea, or the beer, all three say "Thank you, brother."
You got that right.

Below the jump: Mister Man snoozes.

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Open up another can...

...of ass-whuppin', because McCain is toast:

Shake Up At Top Of McCain Campaign:

Steve Schmidt is taking over the day-to-day operation of John McCain's campaign, according to multiple campaign sources. At a staff meeting in the campaign's Arlington, Va., headquarters this morning, campaign manager Rick Davis made the announcement about Schmidt's new role. Schmidt, a bald and barrel-chested operative known for his aggressive brand of political combat, responded by exhorting campaign aides with a speech that one staffer likened to a locker room pep talk out of the football movie "Rudy."
'Cept this ain't Hollywood.

"The Office" (workstation series) 098 (samsara edition)

To conflate two aphorisms: some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear shits in the woods. Some days the world is at pains to confirm the wisdom of the First Noble Truth: that life is, inescapably, filled with suffering (dukka). To be born, to live, is to commit to suffering. For me, one of the greatest sanities in Buddhism is the unblinking recognition of this: suffering is not, at its fundamental root, due to "sin" (Original or otherwise), but rather to the ignorant attempt to deny this Noble Truth. If we try to avoid suffering--if, even worse, we mistake the causes of suffering, attributing it to guilt, or sin, or "ungodliness", then we increase suffering .

You visit cities in China in which, as buddy Coop points out, "there's not a square meter that's not either under construction or under cultivation," cities where 'most everyone subsists on a tenth of the material possessions and a quarter of the living space of the "average" American, and, by anecdotal observation, works about twice as hard and has about 1/3 the body fat. Places where you literally can't see more than 5 blocks because of the air pollution. Because "environmentalism," in the modern world, is a luxury for First-Worlders--poor people around the world are still just trying to find enough to eat and clean water to drink. And this is the nation that, due to the and incompetence of the American presidency, now owns (and will continue to own) most of our credit: we're not going to get to dictate environmental policy to the Chinese. Or the Russians. Or the Saudis. No matter how much cartoonish sabre-rattling the war criminal in the White House engages in: they own our fat asses.

There's a spot in the South Pacific which consists of a giant, swirling island of accumulating plastic, the final, deadly detritus of our addiction to fossil fuels. There will be no polar ice cap within fifty years. Polar bears, running out of living space, are drowning. Or swimming to Ireland, where the fucking gardai shoot them for fun. T. Boone Pickens is quickly developing a monopoly on clean water in the American West, because, as he admits himself, the way to get ahead in America is to figure out whatever non-renewable resource is next to run out--and to buy that. The Bush Mafia family bought hundreds of thousands of acres in Paraguay for the same reason, because, until a leftist government just got in, Paraguay had no extradition--which is why Nazis fled (and flee) there.

Reading today about the emigration of potato Famine refugees from the Lansdown estates in Kerry to Five Points in New York, and the scope of suffering that they both left, and traveled with, because the factor Trench who was charged with managing their emigration cut corners everywhere he could in order to pocket the difference. Was re-reading yesterday Thomas Berger's great Little Big Man, about the only white man who survived Greasy Grass because having being raised by Cheyenne--and about the greed, suffering, and stupidity which caused the '76 Sioux Rebellion. Last night talking with buddy Coop about Lubbock's burgeoning homeless problem, and the Town Fathers' typical reaction (confiscate their shopping carts and sleeping bags and tell them they have to "get off the street"). And then caught a fragment of Fernando Meirelles's great version of John le Carre's The Constant Gardener, a quasi-documentary thriller about the complicity of international governments and pharmaceuticals in the continued genocide and exploitation of Africa; as le Carre says "By comparison with the reality, my story [is] as tame as a holiday postcard." Even filming the story was so harrowing for the cast and crew (Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz leading) that they created an NGO to at least address the suffering of those they met. The wheel of fortune turns and turns again and the poor and powerless are always, again and again and again, ground into dust by the wealthy and powerful.

Suffering is real. No-one escapes suffering and suffering will never end. Refusing to accept that First Noble Truth is precisely the cause of suffering's continuation (the Second Truth says "the cause of suffering is desire"; I would add "the cause of suffering is the desire to avoid suffering"). We have to accept that suffering is real. That we are probably environmentally doomed. That children and animals will be tortured, starved, neglected, and exploited for the gratification, adornment, or luxury of the rich. The wheel of samsara will never end.

But, as Sokei-an said about Buddhism in America, "you must hold the lotus to the rock, until such time as it should take root." As one of our own great teachers said, "You have to show up for the impossible."

More: in this generation, we have to show up for the apocalypse. As the world crumbles and suffering logarithmically increases, through greed, ignorance, and delusion, you have to take one positive action.

Because the only alternative is surrender.
Now playing: Chumbawamba - Song on the Times
via FoxyTunes