Monday, August 31, 2009

Day 03 (round IV) "In the trenches": Musicology greats

May seem incongruous to construe "great writing" with "Musicology", because the stereotype would be that of the turgid translated prose of Germanic musikwissenschaft.

But the fact of the matter is that there is great musicological writing out there. Lots of people have lots of different favorites, of course, but the following are the ones that occurred to me when a colleague recently said "Hey, my niece is hating her music history class; any suggestions I could use for an 'Amazon care package'?"

Well, that's a speciality of the house: ask a musicologist to hold forth on her/his favorites, and all you really need to do thereafter is check back after an hour or so to see if s/he has run down yet. Here are the ones I came up with off the top of my head:

  • Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom; and, really, anything that Guralnick has ever written
  • David Wooldrige, From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives; not particularly musicological, but highly evocative
  • Philip Norman's Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation
  • Scott De Veaux's Bebop
  • Christopher Small's Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African-American Music
  • Richard Crawford's America's Musical Life
  • Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney's Baby Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated History of the Cambridge Folk Years
  • Nick Tosche's Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll
  • Glenn Watkins's Pyramids at the Louvre: Music, Culture, and Collage from Stravinsky to the Postmodernists; also, his Soundings: Music in the Twentieth Century (the one I use for my own seminar), and pretty much anything Watkins has written
  • Susan McClary Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Ellen Rosand's Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre
  • Ted Levin's The Hundred-Thousand Fools for God: Musical Travels in Central Asia
....and, though I blushed to say it, this guy.

Day 02 (round IV) "In the trenches": the Body, unplugged

Catching up here--we're now finishing up Day 03, but I owe the blog a Day 02 "In the trenches" post. We're on a slightly eccentric startup-schedule this time 'round: report date was a Monday, classes started on a Thursday. This means two things: (1) the huge menu of stuff to be done between report and start, which is usually spread out over a week, had to happen in 72 hours; and (2) we get an opening "week" in which each class, either on the MWF or the TR rotation, meets only once before the weekend.

This is actually not a bad thing: the kiddos mostly are not going to concentrate in that first week, so whether you have two meetings in the first week, as opposed to only one, doesn't really enhance the amount of learning you can get done. At the same time, it's not a bad thing to smack 'em in the face--especially the freshmen, and the non-music majors taking a Music Appreciation-type course for the first time ever--with the fact that this ain't high school, this is College, and a different set of criteria and expectations obtains.

This is especially important in the very large-enrollment Rock History course, taught in a Biology lecture hall to close to 500 students. Over the past few years, we've worked out a reasonably sophisticated method for delivering that course with a high level of interactivity, multi-channel presentation, academic rigor, pedagogical credibility (none of which are always the case with a cattle-call music appreciation class). But all of that sophistication works least well on the very first day of the class, before any of the newest crop of kids have had a chance to internalize the expectations and behaviors demanded by the class. On the first day of the semester--a Friday, at that--with a new crop of kids, it can be a challenge to Get Serious as quickly and completely as you want to.

Our Rock History crew has worked this out, in part, by organizing and designating roles and functions: roles for each individual team member (the Console Person and the two Bouncers, and the Lecturer), functions for all the various audio-visual components, and, most importantly, the interplay of all those things. In undergraduate music-education class, they fetishize the construction of lesson plans, at least one principle function of which is simply to keep the lecturer on track, and aware of the remarkably short windows of attention the typical 8-year-old can handle before needing to move to a different topic, activity, or presentational method.

Well, the typical 18-year-old is not all that much different: they have remarkably short attention spans, remarkably attenuated powers of concentration, and remarkably little self-discipline. Nota bene: this does not mean that they're stupid--it does mean that the nature of their experience in the modern world means they function best when the data-stream is constant, energizing, and diverse, and least well if this is not the case.

So the first day of the Rock Class is a crucial time: a time when it's essential to set the ground-rules, hit 'em with the cold-water shock of "Holy shit, they're going to expect ME to take responsibility!", make 'em take notes, insist that they respond, demonstrate critical and engaged listening, and establish the lines of authority.

This year the opening day worked very well: the General, the professor-of-record, opened the class, laid out the ground rules, procedures, and methods of assessment; then Dharmonia, the original designer, took over and smacked 'em with the range of responsibilities they'll have individually with the extensive online component, and then I took over for the opening "mini-lecture" on the Delta blues, where the chronology of the course begins. So they got three different presentational styles, each from a presenter talking about her/his expertise; they got three different variants of the "wake up, you're responsible for your own life now" rap, and they got an active dose of the interaction of onscreen, verbal, and musical demonstration presentation.

It's a room of 500, where the wireless lavalier mics are essential for the professor to be able to avoid blowing-out the voice entirely. But when I step up for the mini-lecture, which combines rapid-fire "you need to know write this down...what's the answer to that?...come on, come on, people, wake up!" and live musical demonstration hammering on the National steel guitar, I don't want to use the wireless. Of course I would (would have to) if I were lecturing 3 times a week, not just because of the physical beating the voice takes, but also because as the professor you want to come across as relaxed and in command in the classroom, and having to project 200 feet back to the raked back wall just doesn't come across as relaxed.

But on that first day, when we're all working together to smack 'em awake and Get Serious, I want to use the the power of a human physical body engaging in conveying a narrative. There's something about a human body moving in the space, the sound of an unamplified LOUD voice (and guitar) beating on your tympanum, the ebb-and-flow of amplitude due to proximity, the sight and smell, the visible physical effort in the presenter's body as s/he pumps that volume out there, that cuts like a knife through the tuneout that happens to all of us, as creatures of the electronic age, when we hear the electronically-amplified voice. When the amplified voice is washing over everyone, at equal volume, regardless of any visible or variant effort, it's a little like the wonderful trombone glissando that they used in the old "Peanuts" specials to signify the blatting meaningless adult voice floating above the Kids' world the characters actually inhabited.

But when it's an unamplified voice, getting louder as the lecturer storms up the stairs toward the back-third of the room where you thought you could hide, text, gossip, or snooze, and here he comes up the stairs right toward your section, and his voice is getting louder and louder, and you can hear the rasp as the vocal cords wear out as he gets closer, and you breath a sigh of relief as he turns toward the row in the other direction, and you see the sweat sticking his shirt to his back, and then that voice suddenly blares louder as he unexpectedly swings back toward you, and you see the sweat on his temples and you can feel this big voice beating on your eardrums, and then he points at YOU and says "what do YOU think?!?"

You wake up.

It's analogous to what I learned from the great blues masters--that it was not skills, accent, or even the amount of melanin in your skin (take that, Portia!) that made the blues such a powerful, personal, and effective expressive medium. It was the intensity with which you embodied the music that made the blues "real".

When we teach, we want to get as real as we can, just as fast as we can.

That's why we do what we do.

I got your "Liberal Professor" right here... cowardly, opportunistic little punks:
College Republicans To Identify Liberal Professors At UT
which list will

"...include professors who students say have let their political views interfere with the way they interact with students in the classroom." [emphasis added]
Bring it, you cowardly little punks. They tried this at my university--no doubt trying to make ass-licking points with the Chancellor, and finally had to admit that they didn't have a list: that they were only "planning" to assemble one.Put me first on your list. As Hunter Thompson said of Dick Nixon's enemies list, "what do I have to do get on it?!?"

Put me on your list. I'll challenge you to debate and/or prove my bias as impacting my classroom teaching, on public platform in the land--and no, you little finks, Fox News doesn't count.

I'll prove that the charge of bias can't stand. And then I'll prove that you're damned before the bar of history. Because that's what I do, see? I'm a scholar of history. I don't need bias: the historical record itself condemns you and your attitudes.

And you know it: that's why you try to use intimidation, rather than the facts.

Bring it, you cowardly, opportunistic punks.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

15 Movies

One of those Facebook memes. I don't have any real aversion to "Crackbook", as a friend describes it, but neither do I feel much impetus toward contributing to their data-mining.

Thought this was interesting, though. Years ago, a good friend described some of the conversation-starter questions he and his wife used to use at parties in order to actually get to know a new person: my favorite was "Tell me about your most enjoyable grade-school field trip." I think this FB meme was a pretty effective one: just asking someone to name their favorite films--before they ever say much else--can really reveal a lot about that person.

Inevitably, the musicologist has to add annotations. Anyway, herewith the list:

Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen movies you've seen that will ALWAYS stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

1. To Have and Have Not
Bacall in her first movie, Bogie & Bacall falling in love onscreen, Hoagy Carmichael in his greatest movie role, the magnificent Oscar Aleman in the cafe band, and a smoother, slicker replay of the Casablanca plot wherein Bogie gets to *keep* the girl.

2. The Big Lebowski
The Coen Brothers do film noir, in LA, circa Gulf War I. some of the greatest characterizations by the Coen stable of actors including John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Peter Storemare, Jon Polito, plus staggering one-offs by Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeff Bridges, Jimmie Dale Gillmore, Sam Elliott, and the from-Venus genius of John Turturro. And, the most perfect writing of any movie I can think of.

3. O Brother Where Art Thou
The other most-perfectly-written movie out of the Coen Bros. As our friend the Good Doctor Masbrow said, "How could anybody not like the most perfect movie ever made?" An ode to the pre-urbanized South, not as it was, but as the music imagined it could have been. The absolutely perfect complement to Peter Guralnick's masterpiece Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.

4. The Seven Samurai
Kurasawa is one of the greatest storytellers the movies have ever had, and he does it almost without words. You don't even need the subtitles, given the clarity, precision, and ferocity with which the actors attack the roles: Takashi Shimura as the Samurais' leader; Seiji Miyaguchi as the Iaido master who is finally vanquished only by modernity's brutal encroachment, and the animal vitality of Toshiro Mifune in his breakout role. One of the only films about war that conveys both its (occasional) inevitable necessity and at the same time its pointless loss.

5. Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman
Maybe not the greatest samurai film ever made, but my personal favorite. The archetypal blind masseur of the title role, played by Shintaro Katsu, is like a character out of Scots ballads or Noh drama--deadly, comic, and empathic all at the same time.

6. The Three Musketeers
Richard Lester's greatest ever. I've blogged about it elsewhere.

7. All the President's Men
Right up there with Wag the Dog as the greatest political thriller ever told. And we thought only *one* of them was a documentary!

8. The Wild Bunch
A dark, sad, autumnal movie: the bloodiest Western ever made 'til that time, by a dark, sad, autumnal director, Sam Peckinpah, who even in his '40s self-identified as a relic, like his characters, of a wilder past. One of the greatest movie endings--after the shootout--ever made in the West: the crazy, cosmic, world-shaking crazy-wisdom laughter that, as Fritz Leiber says, "was the Elder Gods laughing at the world they had made."

9. Waking Ned Devine
A movie about friendship, conversation, and the joy of story, unfettered by mundane reality.

10. The Matchmaker
Pretty slight, and pretty trite, but the two lead characters are cute together, and it has the great David O'Hara, and Janeane's Garofalo adorable smarts, and it has a whole cast of great Irish character actors. And the version of "Carrickfergus" in the Aran Islands scene would be a show-stopper on any concert stage in the world.

11. Apocalypse Now
It's not really what Vietnam *was*, for the people who were there or who went through those years, but it certainly captures something of what it *seemed*. Matched only by Laurence Gonzalez's great rock 'n' roll novel of the same years, Jambeaux, and the masterpiece of Vietnam writing, Michael Herr's journalistic Dispatches.

12. The Last Waltz
The greatest rock 'n' roll documentary ever made (by Scorsese, of course). Robbie Robertson was a self-mythologizing egomaniac--which is practically a job requirement for a songwriter--but the songs just *work*, perfectly. The band is *perfect* (most powerful weapons: Levon Helms's voice, and Garth Hudson's transcendent keyboard work), Allen Toussaint's New Orleans-style horn charts add a layer of funky vertigo, and time after time, almost every time of the chute, the special guests--Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, the great Paul Butterfield, Dr John the Night Tripper, and the earth-shaking Muddy Waters--lift the evening higher than seems possible.

13. Genghis Blues
A beautiful documentary about the ways a shared sense of music's beauty can cross boundaries: of distance, language, and cultural experience. Paul Pena is a wonderful character and splendid musician, though he's kind of a mess as a person. This experience, however, *has* to have enriched his too-short life.

14. Bringing out the Dead
Scorsese's most Catholic and spiritual movie, and that's including Last Tempation of Christ and Kundun (below). Nicholas Cage playing within his zone, Rosanna Arquette's bruised honesty, and a story of loss, dispair, and redemption.

15. Kundun
Scorsese gets 3 out of 15 on this list, to the Coen Bros. 2, and that's about right. The Coens are the greatest writers in 20th century American film, but I think Scorsese might have the greatest eye in the same century. That he brings this to bear on the story of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is apt, and a heartfelt gesture of respect. It is probably too late for Buddhism to save us--but this film tries.

Do the Dean

Belated "In the trenches" post coming later today, as well as a takeoff on that ubiquitous Facebook "15-Movies" meme, but wanted to get this online in a timely fashion:

My friend Dean Magraw (Twin Cities) is quite sick. He's one of my greatest and most admired musical inspirations. Please visit and send him a get-well message. And if I've ever given you a free lesson--*please* consider sending the value of that lesson his way.

We love him & we want him to get well.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Quick hit: humility for the day

I'll have lived a good life if I can live up to the example set by my teachers and my friends.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day 01 (round IV) "In the trenches"

Jeebus H. Sufferin' Moses on a bicycle.

We are opening the fourth iteration of "In the trenches." Well, I'm going to try to keep up with the tradition of blogging the semester, though tonight's is going to have to be a relatively short inaugural hit.

All staff in place: 4 tenure-stream musicologists; 2 tenure-stream other faculty filling loads by teaching Music Appreciation; 3 grad students serving as Instructors-of-record for History of Rock, History of Jazz, Music in Western Civ; 3 grad students serving as Teaching Assistants to instructors-of-record; 3 undergrad students serving as student assistants in the Appreciation classes.

Break in three new instructors-of-record for Appreciation courses.

Jump-start orientation session for new teaching staff.

2 iterations ("Introduction to Research and Style Analysis" and "Music as Cultural History: The Early Period") of the undergrad sequence. Grad seminars in "Music and War," "Chamber Music Literature," "Baroque Music," "Graduate Music History Review," "Topics in Ethnomusicology," and "Music in the Twentieth Century."

100 entering freshman music majors. 525 undergrad and graduate. Thirty-five entering graduate students, with music-theory and music-history placement tests to administer on Tuesday, grade on Wednesday, so they know what/whether remedial classes are needed.

More simultaneous class meetings than there are in the building, hence requiring teaching in satellite locations in the Library.

Switch, within our division, to brand-new (hoped-to-be) online room scheduling software.

Switch cross-campus to comprehensive new billing, registration, student records system, with a very steep learning curve.

Lose one Vernacular Music Center ensemble; inaugurate another.

Wave farewell to five Musicology MM/Ph.D. students (as compared to zero in past years); welcome two new ones.

Wave farewell to six players out of the Celtic Ensemble; welcome twelve more.

Inaugurate campus set-dance student organization.

Locate new site for weekly pub session.

Attend two convocations.

First band/business meeting for Celtic Ensemble.

Play two different service gigs for various "welcome back" functions.

Attend two welcome-back parties, host a third.

Three different staff/service/administrative meetings per week.

3 private lessons and 4 thesis/advising sessions per week.

Finalize 8000-word draft of review article for professional journal.

Assemble, by invitation, materials and referees for nomination to Excellence in Teaching award.


And that's just what we've already done--this week--before the end of Fall Semester 2009 Day ONE "In the trenches."

As the anonymous Confucian bureaucrat wrote, "we are cursed to live in interesting times."

However, here's the note that I sent to my staff at 3:46 this afternoon:

Dang, I am proud of you guys.
That's why we do what we do.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In the department of "Holy Sh*t"

This is the greatest--the only--"Celtic fusion" band. The greatest of them all.

Moving Hearts TV on MUZU.
Moving Hearts.

This is how, and why, and the only time when, "fusion" music works: when you have people who are stone virtuosos in both idioms. Then, and only then.

Just ask Joe Zawinul.

Fuzzy peopl 56: All dogs go to (aquatic park) heaven

Easily the coolest and funnest doggie park I've ever seen:

Boulder, CO. Of course.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What we did on our Holidays

Many years ago, Dharmonia's father, now much missed by all who knew and loved him, used to try to convince her to get a certificate to equip her to teach in the public schools. As somebody who'd been a stonemason, building chimneys and carrying concrete block his whole life, and playing bebop drums and saxophone on the weekends, the idea of a job that let you work inside, teaching music, and gave you the summer off, seemed (rightfully) to him to be an ideal solution. The fact that Dharmonia didn't go ahead and get that certificate/job is more a reflection of the realization that being a public-school music teacher--especially in the belt-tightening arts-economizing 1970s--really meant more like 10 1/2 months of work, and maybe even a part-time job in the summer months to make rent.

But, at the university level, the summer break is an incredibly, fortunate luxury. Historically, both Dharmonia and I have used it not as "vacation"--what college professor, outside the vindictive caricatures of the Robert Parkers, David Horowitz's, and Rush Limbaughs of the world, actually has that time "off"?--but for the ongoing pursuit of professional activities: concerts, workshops, conferences. I've worked for years and years to get to a place in my job where as much of my travel as possible--or all of it--could be funded by outside agencies. If I get to go to Dublin or Galway or London or Mystic or Bloomington or Suzhou on somebody else's dime, and in the pursuit of my profession(s), then my penny-pinching Presbyterian soul is happy.

The side-benefit, of course, and it's not a small one, is that it gets us out of Lubbock in the summer. This is a good place to live, and the jobs we have, in terms of colleagues, students, and duties, are just about ideal--but it's also distant from other places: geographically, politically, culturally, psychologically. It gets very very tiresome to always feel like a minority voter, and Dharmonia and I tend to alternate spasms of being fed-up, when one or the other of us is flipping out over the place's small-mindedness.

This year might be just about the first one, since we came here in Fall 2000, that the summer has played out with as wide a range of satisfying activities--on somebody else's dime--as we might like: enough so that getting ready to go back to school feels like a welcome transition, rather than donning-again the ball-and-chain.

Last day of the semester was April 28.

Exams started April 30. Gave two essay exams (which will require detailed critique in order to grade) on that day; gave another the next day.

Sat May 2 depart for Shannon, for a week serving as External Examiner for the graduating seniors in University of Limerick's BA Traditional Music program. 28 1-hour recitals over 4 days, followed by 2 days of meetings and preparing notes for Examiner's report on the program. In the evenings, grade Texas exams and post all final grades by closing date.

May 10 Dharmonia arrives Shannon with 9 seminar students in tow. 13 days travel, teaching, cooking, driving, problem-solving, touring for the capstone field trip.

May 24 dump students back aboard planes at Shannon and wave farewell; Dharmonia & I depart for three days' touring and itinerary research for future iterations of the seminar course.

May 27 put Dharmonia on a plane at Shannon; head up to Dublin.

May 28-29 give paper at Renaissance Ireland conference; realize that I'm by chance staying in the same hotel near Trinity that we stayed in 11 years before during medieval band tour. A little out of my element at a Renaissance conference but survive. Have some really nice music with John Kelly Jr at his Teacher's Club session. Visit the bullet-pocked GPO for the first time.

May 30 head back down toward the West; tangible, physical feeling of relief as I cross from Meath (Munster) into Roscommon (Connaught). Fantastic night of music with John Kelly (again), Bridget McCarthy (fiddle), and Bridie Lafferty (whistle) at Friel's in Miltown Malbay--Seamus Ennis's favorite pub. Feel privileged to sit in Seamus's seat while playing the session.

Sunday May 31 out of Shannon for Newark and home.

One week at home, finalizing paper for "Music of the Sea" symposium which I was entirely too late in starting (though I knew what I wanted to do with it, still needed to get the damned thing written).

Mon June 8: to Massachusetts for a couple of days' land-search. Sat June 13 deliver paper at Mystic CT. Play a few tunes on the deck of the Amistad--probably the first tunes played on that deck since fiddlers played for slaves being "danced." A peculiar sensation--hoping to replace some bad karma.

Sun June 14 stepfather deceases. While we are looking for his hospital room for a visit.

Not much to say about that.

June 15 back to Lubbock.

3 days home--working to finalize keynote and solo concert to be given in Indiana at end of the week.

June 18: with Dharmonia, to Bloomington, for visit and keynote/concert. We lived here twelve years, and developed friendships that will last beyond lifetimes. Dharmonia found her Dharma brothers and sisters; I found my greatest teachers. A peculiar, but this time not unwelcome, sensation, to return to as honored guest rather than abused graduate student. June 21 return to Lubbock.

June 22-25 four different MM and/or PhD defenses (all of them having to be preceded by massive and time-consuming editorial feedback to authors on their respective documents). 4 "passed with flying colors" results to the defenses--whew!

July 1 turn in outside-reader report for journal submission.

July 2-7 work like a dog on minstrelsy book manuscript--this an ongoing task every time I'm home this summer.

Wed July 8 depart for London for "Migrating Music" conference; housed in the Strand. Do a lot of walking around Convent Garden; visit the site of 84 Charing Cross Road and the British Museum. Friday 10th deliver paper--nice response. Sunday 12th return to Lubbock: glad to get out of London in the very early morning of the "Glorious [sic] Twelfth."

July 13-21: Work like a dog on the book manuscript: this the longest stretch of at-home at-the-desk time since May 1.

July 22 depart for Massachusetts again. Visit to archive for more manuscript research; land-hunting. Coping with single remaining parent's swift mental deterioration. Thanking Quan-yin for the guts and compassion of my brothers, who are bearing the brunt of the burden.

July 28 return to Lubbock. Resume work-like-a-dog on manuscript. Finally manage to get back on a functional cardio- and resistance-training regimen: about flippin' time. Also working hard on various new topics and technology-transfers for the new year.

Treasured senior students depart. New students arriving. A season of transition, of endings and new beginnings.

Aug 8 hood two PhD candidates at TTU graduation. Really proud of both. Crossing my fingers that, in the midst of an absolutely horrific job market, there'll be work for both. Writing a lot of recommendations and doing a lot of cover-letter edits.

Aug 10: resume writing heavy on the minstrelsy manuscript: within two-hoots-and-a-whistle of a rough (very rough!) but nearly-complete full first draft.

Aug 15 The General arrives.

Aug 17-and-onward: gearing up, transferring-over courses and software, getting final staff assignments, taking off the brake and rolling downhill toward the semester.

Aug 26 (looming): Day I of Fall 2009 semester.

And that's what we did on our Summer Holidays.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Buddhist anger and ancient rage

A friend of a friend has referenced a set of actions as my "having gone all Buddhist commando." I don't think he meant it as a particularly positive or complimentary appellation, but it definitely had the salutary effect of making me think about how one conducts philosophical, political, or spiritual conversations--or actions!--in a fashion that is consistent with the Dharma.

One of the things that the sutras warn us against is what Catholicism calls "quietism"--the terminology employed to describe a state of mind which, mistakenly understood as "inner calm," is in fact more mental laziness. In Buddhist circles, it's "the mind watching the mind be calm."

It's an easy trap to fall into, especially if one is trying to find ways to be "in the world" without buying-in to the rage, spite, or egocentrism that fuels our political discourse. There is a difference between anger and rage. Anger is a response (healthy or unhealthy, appropriate or inappropriate) to a present situation: the sight of a sentient being abused, the wilful or careless destruction of the natural world, greed that serves the few and causes suffering for the many. It is appropriate to feel anger to such injustices, and to use that anger's energy to create positive change.

Rage is a response to old suffering--not to the present. Rage is inappropriate, unexpected, or un-called-for--unsuitable to the present situation. Too many of us--too many of the people currently in the news and screaming at the tops of their lungs--are not angry at present situations, but enraged at past frustration, disappointment, and, mostly, fear.

Buddhism recognizes that anger, however, is an appropriate response to some aspects of the world the way that it is. There are great wrongs in the world. There are evil and ignorant actions in the world. There are people who, knowing where the route of compassion and generosity lies, knowingly choose the path of selfishness and greed. There is thus a reason that Tibetan Buddhist cosmology recognizes the existence of "wrathful deities": manifestations of the Buddha who take on wrathful aspects "in order to lead sentient beings to enlightenment":

"In addition to destroying the passions of the mind, the purpose of gods is also to protect the faithful. The wrathful deities, who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish negativity, especially perform this function." [Wikipedia]
It is possible to be an activist, even (sometimes) an angry activist, and a good Buddhist. In fact, MY teachers would have said that, in order to be a good Buddhist, one has a responsibility to be an active seeker of truth, compassion, and justice. It is not enough--indeed, it is irresponsible--to abrogate that responsibility. In my world, such irresponsibility most often takes the form of faculty who just "go in my studio and shut the door"--e.g., rely upon their sequestered experience and their tenured job-permanency to help them weather storms: in fact, to let others bear the brunt of those storms.

For me, that feels irresponsible. My life is one of enormous privilege, personal satisfaction, and material comfort: I'm warm, dry, fed, and protected by the upper-middle-class social safety net--and the much more potent safety net of university tenure. My response is that I have a moral responsibility to work, from this vantage, on behalf of those less privileged. I can't "go in my studio and shut the door." I have a moral--in fact, a religious--obligation to fight for justice.

There are situations of social injustice in which the appropriate response is anger.

This is a common misconception about Buddhism: that its "detachment" equates to a quietism that allows the practitioner to say "I'm just going to tend my garden and let the world go to hell." This is the quietism that led entirely too many Japanese Zen roshis to keep silent about their country's pre-WWII militarization. It is the quietism that led entirely too many American religious or educational professionals to keep silent about our country's pre-Gulf I & II militarization. It is the quietism that leads too many to say "well, this President isn't what I hoped he'd be, so fuck it! The system is fucked, so I'll just go into my studio (into my garden, up onto my mountaintop) and let it all blow over me."

I believe it is possible--indeed, a moral responsibility--to fight for a better world, especially when there is "no hope." The point of Buddhist "detachment" is not that one should "cease caring about the world." Rather, it is that one should abandon attachment to results, and instead work for a better world simply because such work is a good thing to do. Because fighting for justice is, in and of itself, better than passivity, quietism, or defeat. Absent any convictions or attachment to "victory".

When one becomes a Buddhist, in whichever of the traditions, one typically undergoes a ceremony called the "Boddhisattva vows." In this ceremony, the practitioner vows to continue to work toward her/his and all other beings' enlightenment (e.g., "to become a Bodhisattva"), but also--and very crucially--to forgo admission into paradise until all other beings likewise attain enlightenment. It's a vow that says, essentially, "I have the religious obligation to be the vehicle for all other beings' enlightenment. FIRST."

Some of the people I admire the very most in the world are both strong Buddhist or other spiritual practitioners and also strong activists. Their names are legion, and the full list far too long for a blog post, but here are a few, Buddhist and otherwise, the nature of their practice, and the depth of their political commitment:
  • Gary Snyder: poet, environmental activist, Zen practitioner; has worked on behalf of demilitarization, environmental sensitivity, and better stewardship of the natural world for at least 50 years
  • Thomas Merton: poet, Cistercian monk, antiwar activist; traced his own spiritual journey in a series of enormously influential and honest books and poems; explicitly opposed nuclear arms race and Vietnam at a time when no Catholics were supposed to do so
  • Allen Ginsberg: poet, Buddhist practitioner, antiwar activist; faced down rioting cops in Chicago '68 at Grant Park and wrote poems to his muggers
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Lutheran pastor, theologian, martyred under Hitler
  • Thich Nhat Hanh: Vietnamese Zen monk, poet, teacher, peace activist; when asked, in the '60s, "do you come from the North or the South?", replied "Neither. I come from the Center."
  • Martin Luther King: Baptist minister, author, Civil Rights organizer, martyred in 1968
  • Malcom X: black nationalist, Muslim, author, Civil Rights organizer, martyred in 1965
  • Dorothy Day: Catholic convert, anarchist, social activist, founder of the Catholic Worker movement
  • Robert Baker Aitken Roshi, founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship
  • William Sloane Coffin: Presbyterian minister, musician, peace activist
  • Helen and Scott Nearing: radicals, writers, simple-living advocates, teachers
  • Mary "Mother" Jones: socialist, Wobbly, community organizer
  • Shinryu Suzuki Roshi: Zen teacher, author, founder of San Francisco Zen Center
  • Ed Brown: Zen teacher, cook, author of the books (Tassajara Bread Book, Tassajara Cookbook) which first gave me a vision of how cooking could be part of the Dharma
  • Gerrard Winstanley: farmer, Quaker, religious reformer, founder of the Diggers, and author of some of the most powerful liberation poetry ever written
  • Harriet Tubman: Christian, abolitionist, slave smuggler, suffragette
These are just a few of the people who have shown me personally how to be a deeply spiritual and a deeply activist person. The two are not self-contradictory: in fact, each is essential to the other.

Sometimes skillful means requires action, conflict, anger, even combat: "gentle violence," Gary Snyder said, "if it comes to restraining some impetuous crazy."

You cannot be an enlightened person (much less a Bodhisattva) if you do not seek--sometimes even fight for--peace and justice for all beings.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"...until it goes 'Click.'"

I've just got one thing to say to all those teabagging grandstanding democracy-hating gun-toting cowardly whackjobs bringing their automatic weapons to rallies and town halls. And I'll let The Jesus say it for me:

Go ahead, you fucking crybabies!

Protect your piggies

Easily the most imaginative safety-footware ad I've ever seen.

Made my day!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bonus: Gaughan sings Si Kahn

This is why I fight.

Good peasant food: Kathy Morsell's hummus

A young friend-of-a-friend has expressed interest in, and some frustration at, trying to get started cooking in an economical and vegetarian way. Have been working for a while on a blog-post on "Dr Coyote's Kitchen", a kind of jump-start for ways of preparing what I've called elsewhere "good peasant food." But this young friend's request, and the fact that I spent the evening cooking another friend's recipe for another friend's relocation here to go to school, suggested a slightly different approach.

So, picking up from preliminary posts, here's the formalized "Good Peasant Food" series. In each, I'll lay out at least one recipe that fits the "economical and vegetarian" dicta, and also talk about some of the prep, cooking, cuisine, and maybe even philosophical issues that each suggests.

Here's the setup:

I've known The General for at least 10 years, and we're incredibly excited that he's just moved here from Taos NM to work on a Master's degree. Knowing that he's a fan of Middle Eastern food, and knowing that I'd originally got this recipe from a mutual friend, also in Taos, we thought it might be nice if he found a batch of this stuff in his fridge.

One night, years ago, we played, with our little Irish band, in the Adobe Bar of the Taos Inn--an ancient building just off the Plaza in that ancient town, with a fantastic wine-list and more than one resident ghost, which has been called "Taos's Living Room." I'm not a huge fan of the place--there's no real clear and sight-lined corner to set up the musicians, and there's a whole lot of Expensive Posing going on--but my buddy Coop had been going there since he was sixteen years old and skiing the Black Diamond runs in the Ski Valley.

So he was really looking forward to the gig, we had a lot of friends in the house, and a good turnout, and we had a good time. But it was afterwards that the evening really turned magical.

Kathy Morsell, a good friend who lived in a trailer in Sun Valley north of town with a pod of Jack Russells and rescued cats, was cooking at a veggie/organic restaurant called Western Sky, and after we'd broken down the PA system (the Adobe Bar's music shuts down early, because there are rooms just off the second-floor balcony) and loaded the cars, we headed out to the restaurant, whose kitchen itself had just closed down for the evening.

But Kathy, head chef, had stayed on, and had put together a fantastic feast that was all the more magical because it was cooked for us by someone we loved. We all sat around a big table, boarding house-style, with the stars of northern New Mexico through the picture windows flaring above the canyon's rim to the west, about 12 of us--friends, spouses, offspring, lovers, and lucky hangers-on--and Kathy just kept bringing dish after pan after casserole out of the kitchen: all vegetarian, all organic, all fresh, all local, and cooked with the virtuosity of a kitchen expert and the insight of a Zen practitioner.

It felt like we had walked out of the Adobe Bar and driven right off the edge of the mesa into some parallel universe with a million stars and the Milky Way in a night-black sky, where everyone cared for everyone else, where no animals would die, and where no-one need ever go hungry. Kathy Morsell, that night, showed us what such a world could be like: a world in which
we are brave enough, sufficiently aware, to express, moment-by-moment, how much we love one another.

This is one of the things she gave us.

Kathy Morsell's Hummus

Ingredients: chickpeas, lemons, tahini, olive oil, garlic, cumin, sea salt

Rather than giving specific amounts, I'll give rough proportions: adjust to taste.

For each cup of cooked chickpeas, use 1 clove garlic, 1/2 lemon, 3 tbs tahini, 2 tbs olive oil, cumin & salt to taste.

This dish is relatively quite low in calories & fats, high in fibre, and cheap as hell. As so often in cooking from scratch, using fresh ingredients, bought in bulk, provides both the best value, the healthiest result, and by far the best flavor. Buy the chickpeas dry and in bulk; find the tahini (sesame paste) and olive oil at a Middle Eastern market (you can even find Joyva tahini in most chain supermarkets, even here in Texas); buy the cumin in bulk, ideally as whole seeds, also in a Middle Eastern market; buy the garlic as whole cloves. In all cases, the flavors will be FAR better and the costs FAR lower.


If using dry chickpeas, the best way to prepare is in a pressure cooker. These are not cheap, but can very often be found (electric or stove-top versions) in Salvation Army or similar used-appliance store: they were central in 1950s and '60s cookery manuals, but fell out of favor when it became possible to buy more convenient (and more expensive, and inferior) canned beans. If you don't havve or can't afford a pressure cooker, soak the beans in 3x their volume of water overnight. Then bring to a boil, again in ample water, and cook until soft--the husks will start to peel away. Reserve this cooking water--do not discard.

If you want to go the full prep-route, rinse the cooked beans in clean water, and drain the floating husks away with the rinse water.

If using cumin seed, toast (don't burn) them in a dry frying pan over moderately high heat. As they are toasting, stir in the frying pan so they don't stick; when properly toasted, they'll turn dark brown and become quite aromatic. Remove from heat and allow to cool. When cooled, crush to a powder with a mortar & pestle, or in a food processor--another incredibly useful tool, which can be purchased quite cheaply and second-hand (old ones are fine--Dharmonia and I are using one that's at least 25 years old).

Before cutting and squeezing the lemons, here's a trick to maximize juice I learned from friend Terrie: ROLL each lemon, leaning on it hard, on the countertop. This will break-down the internal membranes and release the yield of juice per lemon.

If using whole garlic: separate into individual cloves. Cut off the hard tip and bottom of each clove. "Smack" the clove: that is, place it between the cutting board and the flat of your chef's knife, and smack down on the flat of the blade. This will loosen the dry husk; remove. Then, for additional flavor, lean hard on each clove, essentially crushing the clove flat before chopping. This will maximize the juiciness of the chopped garlic and its resulting flavor.


In the food processor: whirl the garlic cloves until they are finely chopped, scraping the sides of the canister.

Add the cooked chickpeas. Process again, on "puree" setting, and scraping the canister.

Squeeze the lemon. Process again, scraping the canister.

Add the olive oil and tahini. Puree.

If the mixture is still too stiff and/or dry--which it probably will be--add a small portion (like, a couple of tbs) of the reserved cooking water.

Add the cumin and salt. You will probably need to use more cumin and more salt than you might anticipate. But add in increments: it's easy to add one dash more, but overstep--make it too salty or spicy--and you've ruined the batch.

That's it! It keeps very well in the fridge, but it's nicest on the first day, when the ingredients are still fresh and still working with each other.

Hint: refrain from refrigerating, if possible, until you've served it, and ideally until it's all been eaten: hummus is absolutely at the tastiest at warm room-temperature, without having been chilled.

Serve with warm pita, raw veggies, good olives, feta or other aromatic cheese, and a good sharp white: Pinot Grigio is best.

And when you do serve it, hold in your mind the love and compassion and insight with which all the thousands of cooks over many hundreds of years before you have done the same.

Gassho, Kathy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Doc and the General

The Doc and the General are on the road.

Two good friends, and brothers-in-music, the Good Doctor Masbrow and the General, are on the road this weekend. We've known them for a long time and we've all been through lots of changes together--good times and bad times, gain and loss, life and death. But our lives are infinitely greater for knowing them.

And now they're both en route to a new stage in life: the Doc--a Zen priest, signpainter, carpenter, blacksmith, cook, and the world's greatest (if only) Celtic pardessus player--to a double major in music and Buddhist studies at his old alma mater. I had the privilege of writing him a recommendation.

And the General--a plumber, historian, screenwriter, novelist, founder of Zoukfest, and the world's greatest Irish bouzouki player--to a Master's in ethnomusicology. Here. In MY program.

I'm gonna get to supervise his thesis.

I am blessed beyond all measure to have such friends, and, even more, to be able to help make such new adventures possible for them.

Thanks, fellas. May we all get where we're intended to go.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

About goddamned time

I remember when it was literally an arresting offense (in 2002-03-04) to wear an anti-war T-shirt to Bush rally--if you could even get past the FBI screening out the dark-skinned, young, or otherwise "un-American-looking" people.

Some difference now, huh? At least maybe, finally, the Secret Service is being permitted to recognize when "free speech" shades over into "hate speech" or even "felonious threat":

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The Secret Service is investigating a man who authorities said held a sign reading "Death to Obama" outside a town hall meeting on health care reform in western Maryland.

Barbara Golden, the special agent in charge of the agency's Baltimore field office, says an investigation is ongoing but declined further comment.

Washington County Sheriff's Capt. Peter Lazich (LAWZ'-itch) says the sign also read, "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids."

He says the sheriff's office turned the unidentified, 51-year-old man over to Secret Service agents Wednesday after deputies detained him near the entrance to Hagerstown Community College.

About goddamned time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

His Highness: Fuzzy people 54

12-year-old Maine Coon. Picked him up as a very tiny stray kitten on my way out of an orchestra gig in Bloomington IN around 1997.

He's not so tiny anymore.

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

John Putnam's band

John Putnam (c. 1818-1895) was an escaped slave, and a barber in Greenfield Massachusetts. He played the fiddle left-handed, and called square dances, and his dance orchestra (2 violins, corent, 2 clarinets, trombone, and bass) was the most popular in the Connecticut and Deerfield River valleys. Prior to 1865, his home was the local stop for the Underground Railroad, and he maintained a hidden basement where escaped slaves could hide en route to Canada. He played for blacks and whites throughout Western Massachusetts and, probably, southern Vermont, for at least 50 years.

I wish I could have known him.

And I wish I could have heard his band.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Two over-the-top virtuosi:

Stephane Grappelli and Frankie Gavin.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Big Dog

Deleted the Big Dog post, because it broke my own rule about keeping the radical politics rants over on Radical Musicology. You can find it there.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Andy Irvine sings his tribute to the Dublin pub and its denizens and his friends who changed his life.

I pray that someday I might be able to tell my friends, so clearly and so beautifully, how much I loved them.

Go raibh math agat, Andy.

Another reason not to buy e-books

Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle

Now, there is a followup to this: Amazon apologized profusely, having realized that they'd improperly made the book available in the first place, and offered to reinstate a different edition of the deleted 1984. But the real money quote?

“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. “As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”
That's the crux of the biscuit. They've found one more way to monetize, and keep monetizing, something that formerly was a personal, often cherished purchase. I buy used books, precisely because I know that they've moved on from someone else and that, like a musical instrument, they're going to outlive me, and move on to yet another person.

That's what's supposed to happen.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Big Ol' Rock, Tejas-style

A while back, a student radio station in Austin contacted Dharmonia, as the originator of our wildly popular "History of Rock 'n' Roll" course, and asked her for interview footage on the Texas songs that "most influenced rock music." Now, of course, the absurdity and pointlessness of these kinds of "top-5" lists is legion, and was skewered mercilessly and brilliantly in Nic Hornsby's High Fidelity (and beautifully played in the film version by Jack Black and Todd Louiso, with John Cusack along for the ride), but they're fun nevertheless. Dharmonia and I love playing these kinds of games, especially over a leisurely greasy-spoon breakfast with a lot of coffee to fuel the synapses, so here's what we came up with.

Willie Nelson: Crazy (recorded by Patsy and absolutely transformative of country songwriting style)

Buddy Holly: That'll be the Day (Buddy's first major hit; it set the template for his wide-ranging synthesis of R&B, blues, country, western swing, and Tejano)

Bob Wills: New San Antonio Rose (adapting TX fiddle music and fusing blues/country/swing styles)

Lead Belly: Goodnight Irene (very widely recorded, and a hit record by The Weavers)

Blind Willie Johnson: Dark was the Night Cold was the Ground (archetypal instrumental, good enough to keep company with Bach and Gregorian chant on the gold-plated LP that went Out Yonder with Voyager

T-Bone Walker: Stormy Monday Blues (canonic, especially in the Allman Bros. Band version, but also a beautiful illustration of T-Bone's elegant, jazz-tinged approach to the blues)

Roy Orbison: Pretty Woman (Roy's not a personal favorite, but you can't leave him off this list, and this song was a hit twice, three decades apart--the other version was by Van Halen)

Janis Joplin: Piece of My Heart (poor, mistreated Janis is a personal favorite, and this song, by the Brill Building genius of Ragovy & Burns, is surely archetypal)

ZZ Top: La Grange from Tres Hombres (classic Texas: a song about a brothel; and a band that set one post-70s power trio archetype; also early, effective, and very unusual approach to rock video; here, Billy really shows his Magic Sam roots)

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Pride and Joy or his cover of Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (first great star of the 1980s blues revival; he got traction with his Hendrix cops but Albert King was a much bigger part of who he was as a musician)

13th Floor Elevators w/ Roky Erikson: You're Gonna Miss Me (early and influential psychedelic song from 1966; Roky's journey into and out of and back into madness was another kind of rock archetype)

Johnny Winter: Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Coo (Winter is so cool that he was mythologized as a minor character in Laurence Gonzalez's masterful Texas-rock novel Jambeaux, and he'd deserve a place on this list even without his own playing, just because of his collaborations with Muddy Waters)

Townes Van Zandt: Pancho & Lefty (Van Zandt is a classic version of the extraordinary, venerable, and still-vital tradition of the Texas-style songwriter; they've been cranking out great songs since before Buddy, and folks like Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, Cary Swinney, and Wade Park are still at it)

The Flatlanders, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock: unreleased debut More a Legend than a Band (an early flowering of what would later be alt-country; they're the backup band Janis deserved but never got)

Dixie Chicks: Wide Open Spaces by Lubbock's Susan Gibson; or Not Ready to Make Nice (Natalie Maines is one of the more loudmouthed musicians ever to come out of Texas, which is saying something, but these girls get full props for massive chops, and an absolute bedrock, old-school West Texas defiant refusal to back down)

Lyle Lovett: Blues for Dixie with Asleep at the Wheel (Lyle wrote about 1 album's worth of great songs and--as a songwriter--has been running on fumes ever since, but he runs an absolutely impeccable band and as a song stylist he's without peer)

Freddie King: Hideaway (Freddy was bigger than life and without peer; this song was Eric Clapton's post-grad education and his first tour-de-force with the Bluesbreakers)

Albert Collins: Frosty (Albert was always one of my favorites, playing an open-tuned Telecaster with a tone like an icepick punching through a Mack truck--which he sometimes drove; this instrumental was his first jukebox hit)

Fabulous Thunderbirds: Tuff Enough (Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughan; though this song is really more their big for rock 'n' roll stardom--which failed--they were bedrock cornerstones of the '70s and '80s Austin blues scene; Kim especially is an extraordinary musician; the video is dumb '80s soft-porn but the song is killin')

Sir Douglas Quintet: She's About a Mover (where Texas rockabilly, psychedelia, and Tex-Mex/Norteno music met: Doug Sahm was one of the great bandleaders in the history of American music)

Butthole Surfers: Bar-B-Q Pope (from their 1983 debut: I really don't give a shit about the Surfers, and god knows I think they were essential non-functional as human beings, but you really can't leave punk-rock out of any history of Texas rock)

Pantera: Nothin' On (But the Radio) (same with metal: it doesn't speak to me, but they were hugely influential, and they were the for guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott, who re-thought how metal guitar could be played)

Lydia Mendoza: Mal Hombre (the mother of Tejano music; a fantastic 12-string guitar and vocalist, who maintained her own career for a good 40 years);

Flaco Jimenez: Tejano accordion, son of conjunto pioneer Santiago Jimenez St; a nonpareil stylist and sideman, he also played with Doug Sahm and in the Texas Tornados as well as Ry Cooder and Keith Richard;

Freddie Fender: border Tejano and country music

Los Lonely Boys: three brothers in a power trio from San Angelo; grew up playing conjunto; very strong influences from Hendrix and Stevie Ray

Gatemouth Brown: one of the great swing/jump/blues guitarists and bandleaders; the natural inheritor of Bob Wills's mantle. Maintained a great road band for 60 years, stayed on the road, defied cancer and emphysema, came home to Texas post-Katrina to die. A great, great man.

The view from the cross-trainer


Listen: I don't care how cute your workout duds are, or how careful your makeup job: if you're watching "Fox and Friends" raptly on the elliptical, then you're by definition a bimbo.

That is all.

Monday, August 03, 2009

RIP Frank McCourt: the golden tongue

Many years ago, in Furlong's pub in Durham NY, on the "Irish Riviera" (the New York Irish, like the New York Yidden, had favored vacation spots in the Catskills, only a couple of hours north of Brooklyn and the Bronx), I was talking to Jack Coen of East Galway, patriarch of the New York flute player; on the other side of him was harpist Kathleen Loughnane.

It was getting later and louder, and Jack was visibly uncomfortable with the company. At a certain point, he swung his stool around, away from the room and toward the bar, and Kathleen, another Galwegian who understood pub culture, said "Ah, no, Jack--now you're not going to turn your back to the room. Talk to me now."

She had sussed out that, for the old-timers, a pub environment that couldn't foster conversation wasn't worth being part of. It brought to mind the archetypal American workingman's tavern: a line of solitary drinkers at the bar, hunched over their boilermakers, staring into the drinks or the mirror over the bar. Kathleen knew better, and she gently teased Jack into swinging back around and rejoining the conversation.

The Irish, like some others, have always understood the power of the word. Long before there was writing in Ireland, long before Patrick ever brought the Light of Christ or the skills of Brogan the scribe, the Irish were already stringing together words like the jewels of Indra's web. And all the way down to the 20th century, through famine and genocide and the Catholic church, they held onto the power of the word, and the pubs of Ireland were temples to the community that conversation created. It was only when the television invaded the pubs, washing out the warmth of the lamps with the cold glare of the TV tube, that conversation began to die in Ireland.

But there were a few outposts where it still lived--where thoughtful publicans or outraged patrons refused to have the "damned box" in the place--and many of them were in the old Irish enclaves: South Boston, Manhattan and the Bronx, and Chicago's West Side. On a good night, even if you came from the bastard race of the Sassenach and couldn't hold your own in the conversation, you could--like an appreciative punter at a pub session--sit on the edge of the light and soak up the beauty of that old, old mode of converse.

There's a great line in Robertson Davies's masterful The Lyre of Orpheus--about the ill-fated decision by a university DMA-composition candidate to try to complete an unfinished ETA Hoffman opera--in which the book's token Celt, a Welsh director, curses the blessing of the gift of gab: "And they all mistrust me, because I'm surrounded by literal-minded morlocks whose tongues are covered in burlap when mine is hinged with gold!".

I thought of that line when I read Cynthia Kouril's beautiful, heartfelt tribute to Frank McCourt, which she had the good grace to publish at Firedoglake prior to his decease. After a litany of the wonderful old Irish pubs of Manhattan--mostly different ones than I knew, because she's of the literati and I was hanging in the City's music bars--she reminisces about hearing McCourt holding forth after Mass. For the musicians, the weekend mode was to play all night at a house party or--less frequently, at a dance hall--after which they'd shave, change their collars, and go off to Mass, before coming home to a huge Sunday dinner and taking up the tunes again.

For the writers, it was the White Horse in the Village, upon which Dylan Thomas had bestowed a benediction in the '50s, where the idea of the Voice, the greatest newspaper in America, had been hatched, and in which Bob Zimmerman, Mailer, Jimmie Baldwin, Kerouac, Dick Farina, and Hunter Thompson had all congregated to try to touch a little of the ancient Druids' linguistic gold.

And it was there, by God--it was there.

Really, do read the whole thing, but the following is where I think Cindy really struck a little gold of her own:

I am so sad. I remember when he would hold forth at the White Horse Tavern in the Village. He had such an agile mind and strung words together like fine jewels. He was an artist and words were his palette. I remember one Sunday, going there for brunch with Margaret Breen, and it was our great good fortune to be there when “himself” was telling stories. I don’t think that either of us girls said a word, just ate our brown bread, eggs and tea and listened in awe.
Go raibh mile math agait, Proinsias. Dia leat. Safe home.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Taking down Tosches

OK, Tosches, you asked for this one.

There's a school of popular-culture writing which comes out of the great rock criticism of the late '60s/early '70s: people like Greil Marcus, Bob Christgau, the great Langdon Winner, the even greater Ellen Willis, and that wonderful, beautiful, Bukowskian Detroit trash-saint Lester Bangs, about whom I've written elsewhere. Most of these guys were fans first (and, in Bangs's case, last well) who subsequently realized that they might be able to make a buck writing what they thought about music they were listening to anyway. The smarter and more pedestrian ones (Dave Marsh, Marcus, Christgau as the worst offender) realized that you could make more bucks if you dressed-up your essential fandom-style writing with relatively high-flown and abstract theoretical constructs. Over the decades, the ones who didn't burn out or die (like Bangs) or go on to other things, were able to parlay this essential fog-and-pomposity (thanks, Quantzalcoatl) into long-running high-dollar columns (Christgau) or even university appointments. Not all the writing was good, a lot of it was pretentious, much of it was musically illiterate, but at least most of it proceeded from a very sincere love for popular music and a solid conviction that it was good art. And for that they should be commended.

A particularly New Yawk version of that comes from people like New York's Nick Tosches. Tosches is a lot better-read than some of his colleagues, and he, like Bangs, can make language perform remarkable rhetorical loop-the-loops: prolixity is a valuable skill when (a) you don't really know anything technical about the music you're reviewing and/or (b) you're getting paid by the word. Tosches wrote some fantastic stuff about various rock artists in the Seventies--one of his most notorious pieces is an ode to masturbation and Van Morrison in the Marcus collection Stranded--but he's also done biographies and literary essays on people like Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and an absolutely magnificent early collection called Country--still his most consistent piece of great writing. He's at his best when he's "riffing" (to use Marcus's term for the same technique, which he stole from Tosches) across the cognitive landscape of American myth, legend, and popular culture. He's not really a "scholar"--he's way too dependent upon "researchers" (that is, the people who actually dig up the facts that he riffs upon) for that--as much as he's an essayist: someone who, like Faulkner or Joyce or Dylan, simply has the ability to put words together in the magic-realist, incantatory fashion that makes them dance off the page and into the reader's mind. It's a skill that's shared by a lot of street people and people who live near the streets: a skill that New Yorkers from Lenny Bruce to Frank McCourt (rest his soul) have almost always had.

New York is a walking culture--the very best way to see the island is by foot and subway, and the very worst is from behind the wheel of a car--and so ever since the 18th century, it's meant that New Yorkers of all ages, classes, races, and perspectives have bumped shoulders on the street and in the bars. The great New York literati (from Bruce to McCourt to Tosches to Dylan Thomas and so on) have understood this, have avoided the automobile, and have relished the bumping-shoulders contact and the conversations that emerge from it. It's where Tosches, and his spiritual step-son Anthony Bourdain (Bourdain is basically what you get when you cross Hunter Thompson and Tosches--an indebtedness Tony admits), get their language and their world-view.

On the other hand: back in the day when I actually wrote a lot of information-supplying helpful messages to Internet music discussion lists--a habit I've since largely sworn off, as Mencken's "ninety percent of everything is crap" and my "ninety-FIVE percent of everything on the Internet is crap" advises--I would always make a point of excising my academic signature file from those posts. Because I learned, quickly enough, that--especially in the forums I hung out in--the mere presence of an academic .sig file, or of advanced-degree letters after your name, was enough to provoke all kinds of snotty "oh, so you think you actually *know* something, Professor Asshole?!?" reactions.

In the case of the Irish musicians and the blues musicians, this kind of makes sense, because both groups have been treated particularly badly, over the years, by pompous academics who wanted to treat them as primitifs or worse. Colonialism, classism, ethnocentrism: you name it, the academic study of vernacular musics has been riddled with all of 'em. And, the reality is that, in the musical worlds I occupy, the degrees don't--and shouldn't--mean shit: what should matter is the quality of the understanding and of the playing ability, and the degrees are no proof of that. So I just learned to leave-off the letters after my name. And it's actually a good discipline: teaches you to make your points without the presumption that you know better than someone else.

But, on the other hand, it gets really fucking tiresome to hear/read people who don't know about the academic world except and until they DO think they know that academics are all one way or another. I don't doubt for a minute that lots of academics are loudmouthed self-righteous blowhards who are usually treated as entirely unresponsible for any asinine words they express or actions they take (Ward Churchill comes to mind here), but just because they're easy targets for over-generalizations doesn't make those generalizations any truer in the specific. I don't like it when Parker does it--and, Jesus, he got a PhD in Raymond Chandler: how much could he have suffered at the hands of academics, for Christ's sake?!?

And I don't like it when Tosches does it either. His Where Dead Voices Gather is a beautiful, beautiful piece of writing, which captures the seductive historical aroma of the early cylinder-and-78s period, the beautiful period when, as Ciaran Carson quotes Karajan, "everything was gaslight." So there are certain passages, about the doomed, just-too-late-for-stardom, pre-talkies "man with the clarinet voice" Emmett Miller, where Tosches just takes flight:

"A hillbilly string band calling themselves the Georgia Crackers had recorded six songs for Okeh in Atlanta in 1927, the year before Miller's first Georgia Crackers session in New York. In its own rough-hewn way, this hillbilly string band, from predominantly black Hancock County in central Georgia, echoed the same sources that informed their more sophisticated contemporary Jimmie Rogers and his black counterparts: those motes of vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the black songster tradition aswirl in the effulgence of that beautiful thievery that in the hands of one became the blues, in the hands of another country music. It was the nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, through which the mongrel motes swirled. It was the symbiosis and synergy and estuary of those nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that brought forth, simultaneously, before the ascendancy of the guitar, what came to be called the blues and country music. It was the music of those fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that was the true indigenous and autochthonous sound of the nineteenth-century South, mother and wild bride and fickle daughter, enticer and enticed of all that swirled, of that eventual bastard song, neither black nor white, both black and white, of the midnight bottomland crossroads and the great lighted dazzling of Broadway alike. It was the likes of Emmett Miller and others that haunted both commingled midnights."
The absolute transcendent version of this, of course, is his virtuoso carnival sideshow razzle-dazzle tracing of "Cabbage Head" by Dr John, all the way back from New Orleans, to the Child ballad "Seven Nights Drunk," to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, all the way back to Homer, and maybe back further than that. After a while, it starts to feel a little like too much brandy: it's sweet, and intoxicating, but after a while you start to wish for a little more nutrition and a little less intoxicant.

But I'll give him that: the world of literature is big enough for brandy and whiskey and oatmeal stout and all. But sooner or later he's going to have to stop talking smack like this:
"There are no academic blues. There are no academic trughts. There are no academics in really sharp suits or fine snap-brim hats. Academic studies, the pus of the cerebrum in captivity, are nothing more than what Big Joe Turner, in a song title and lyric of 1941, referred to as 'Chewed Up Grass'; that is to say, bullshit."
There are sure-god a lot of academics who deserve this accusation, but the presumption that no academic had, or has, any existence outside the musty groves of self-indulgent masturbatory rhetoric, is phony, and cheap. And it proceeds from, at root, Tosches's awareness (just like that of Christgau, and Bob Parker, and Greil Marcus, and all the rest of them) that it's possible to be both of the street and of the ivory tower. Some of us can--and did--hang in Hell's Kitchen and the Bowery, and still dug ourselves out, and up, in to the ivory tower. More: some of us can still move in both those worlds. More: some of us have made our life's work out of fighting the battles (old joke: "the reason that academic turf battles are so merciless is because the stakes are so small) that would bridge the divide between those two worlds.

And that is the shit that Tosches and his ilk are really carping about. They don't really hate academics--they hate that there's a way of knowing out there that they know, deep down, might actually have value, and that they don't have.

Unless he wants to say it me: ex-biker, ex-bouncer, ex-oil field roughneck, ex-cook, ex-carpenter, earned doctorate, tenured academic professor. You want some home truths, Tosches? I got 'em right here, baby. You decide ever to come back from the Solomon Islands and get on a podium with me, we'll see who can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Aw, hell.

It's still OK with me. Tosches can write like a dark angel, and his prose comes dancing off the page like St John of the Cross (another good Catholic boy who'd lost his faith). That's enough--I'm not gonna demand scholarly rigor from someone who traffics in a different coin.