Saturday, July 30, 2016

Discography - Week 15

We are now fifteen weeks into our Discography discussion.  First off, I should make the general announcement that it's time to start thinking/planning/scheming for our second thematic week, which will fall on Week 17; so, not this week nor the next, but two weeks hence.  Through a secret negotiation with the esteemed and occasionally excellent Gary Beatrice we'll be discussing Guilty Pleasures.  This can include either a particular band or an album or a song.  You know, one of those groups or songs that you find yourself listening to on the QT, and not quite understanding why you like them, and hoping that your more music savvy friends don't find out.  This will require honesty and courage, which, in the general populace are in short supply, but abides in abundance in this select fraternity.  This week (and next) we'll be reveling in our usual anarchic approach of talking about whatever we're talking about (to quote the truly excellent Sanford Zale).

Gary Beatrice

Amy Winehouse, You Know I'm No Good
Amy Winehouse was the first musician that I was a big fan of at the time who died at the peak of her powers. I was too young to appreciate the sixties legends at the time, and there have been a slew of my favorites who've passed on since then, but to the best of my recollection each of them had peaked. Winehouse left us some great music and performances, but I believe she could have been a giant. To me she sounded like a 21st century version of a rat pack vocalist fully immersed in the music and the themes of modern life.

I love "You Know I'm No Good" and it also makes me terribly uncomfortable. Lyrically and vocally Winehouse spews self hatred and anger, and if I sent the correct version the rapping at the instrumental break that break only serves to intensify those feelings.

It may be better to burn out than it is to rust, but not at 27.

Dave Wallace

Bif Naked, Twitch

Bif Naked is a Canadian singer-songwriter with punk rock roots, who made several very good albums in the late 1990s/early 2000s.  Her ode to bad boys (with a hint of her bi-sexuality tossed in), Twitch is a kick-ass rocker, and I love the quick nod to My Boyfriend's Back, which is a clear thematic influence.  After that reference, the song just barrels along to the end, steamrolling everything in its path.  A great driving song with an excellent guitar solo.

Miranda Tavares

Van Morrison, Cleaning Windows

So, we're all Truckers fans here. You know that Jason Isbell song Something More Than Free? Beautiful song (although I'd be hard-pressed to find an Isbell song you couldn't call beautiful) about how work is killing a man, but he still thanks God for it every day, partly because he needs money, partly because he needs to feel useful and worthwhile, mostly because it's just how he was raised and he doesn't know any other way to be. Or that Chris Knight song Enough Rope that Bob did a few weeks ago, where the man is so stuck in his daily grind he can't even see death as a way out? Yeah...this is not those. 

Morrison sings about carrying ladders and cleaning the fan light, reading his Kerouac and listening to his blues, playing his saxophone and smoking his smokes. He doesn't try to make these things any more or less important than they are; they are simply his life, at least for that moment. He is incredibly self- aware...and he is happy.

I was raised on Sesame Street. I was taught "chase after your dreams!" and "you can do anything you want!" and "just work hard and nothing can stop you!" The most obvious problem of all of those sentiments, of course, is that none of them are really true. But even as a kid I understood the idea behind a sentiment, understood that it wasn't strictly literal, so I wasn't too damaged by that piece of the lies the muppets told me. What caused me angst throughout childhood, into my 20's, hell, up to about 5 years ago, if I am being honest (and why would I not be; we are all baring souls here, in one way or another) was that these sentiments presupposed that I had dreams, and specific goals in mind, and a plan to work hard at. I didn't.  I don't. I never have. I don't want to change the world. I don't care if I leave a mark. I just want to read my Stephen King (he may not be Kerouac but he's a goddamn genius), listen to my blues, and smoke my smokes. And, I suppose, collect the paycheck that allows me to enjoy those aforementioned things. I will never cure cancer, I will never run for office, I will never win the Pulitzer or a Nobel prize in anything. And it took me over 30 years to realize that that's ok. I'm happy cleaning windows. 

Nate Bell

Sting, Fill 'er Up

I appreciate Sting.  I'm not a superfan, but I do have a real appreciation.  I think in the 80s he made quite an impact on pop music with the Police. His solo works, I find a good handful of them ethereal, soulful, and with some very rich imagery.

Now my wife, well...she HATES Sting.  She complains about his "whiny" voice, she thinks he is pretentious and self-involved, and you can play a Sting song and just watch her become visibly angry.  (similar theme is true for Neil Young, BTW).

One night writing this blog I challenged her, that I would play a Sting song and if she would only listen, I guaranteed she would like it.  This is that song, and I was correct :)

Fill 'er Up is a playful, tongue -in -cheek homage to a revival tent Baptist spiritual.  It's fun, has some very nice phrasing, and Sting does a credible turn at being a down-south rural blue collar guy:

Mobile station,
Where I stand
This old gas pump
In my hand.

The Boss don't like me
Face like a weasel,
All on my hands
The smell of diesel.

it *doesn't* take itself very seriously, and yet still manages to hold the same rousing Big Church feel as a real come to Jesus  song---and he closes the piece out with a full-voiced choral narration.  
With as much musical help as Sting always has, there is plenty of complexity (slide guitar, piano), and a large amount of vocal backing.

Still very fun and tells a good story, and has a good moral lesson which is, to quote the Best TV Show Ever:  "If you can't do something smart, do something right".  And I can't honestly come up with anything better than that, myself.

Dave Kelley

Townes Van Zandt, To Live Is To Fly

"Everything is not enough, and nothing is too much to bear."  Townes Van Zandt  "To Live is to Fly"

It was inevitable that I would pick a Townes Van Zandt song eventually.  The only hard part was deciding which one.  Recently fellow esteemed musicologist Miranda and I caught a great acoustic set by Darrell Scott at a tiny venue in Cincinnati.  Not surprisingly, Scott did a cover of a Townes' song.  He chose "Loretta" and I soon began a week long binge listening to some of my favorite Van Zandt songs.

As Gary pointed out in his comments about Townes, his mental health and substance abuse issues interfered greatly with his recordings and often his live performances.  They did not interfere with his writing however.  His studio records are hit and miss, and I would suggest that someone starting a collection of his work begin with "Live at The Old Quarter" which features just Townes and his acoustic guitar.  Alcohol, heroin use, and bi-polar disorder are a pretty lethal combination and wound up killing Townes in his early fifties.  Steve Earle has said that Townes was a great teacher but a horrible example.  He spent years living in cheap hotels and shacks in the middle of the woods and apparently sold the rights to much of his music to get money to score heroin.  I highly recommend a documentary about him entitled "Be Here to Love Me."

Tortured genius is an overused cliché for sure, but it is one that applies to Townes.  Listening to his music and his lyrics, one is just stunned by his talent.  He should be up there with Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Bruce in the pantheon of great American songwriters based on his work.  I think his personal issues are to blame.

Unlike many of his best songs, "To Live is to Fly" is not overwhelmingly sad.  The singer (and I feel certain that this is autobiographical) is a rambling man who is always ready to leave where he is and move on to the next place.  Much like the John Wayne character in "The Searchers" he has some regrets about this but has to follow his nature.  If you think the journey is more important than the destination, this one's for you.

"Living's mostly wasting time
and I'll waste my share of mine
but it never feels too good
so let's not take too long"

"Days up and down they come
like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
but don't give none away
everything is not enough
nothing is too much to bear
where you've been is good and gone
all you keep is the getting there"

"To live is to fly
low and high
so shake the dust off of your wings
and the sleep out of your eyes"

"Goodbye to all my friends
it's time to go again
Think of all the poetry
and picking down the line
I'll miss the system here
the bottom's low and the treble's clear
but it don't pay to think too much
on what you leave behind"

I think religions and schools of philosophy have been based on less than what he says in the final verse.

"We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that's real
some fall on you like a storm
sometimes you dig your own
The choice is yours to make
Time is yours to take
some sail into the sea
some toil upon the stone
To live is to fly
low and high
so shake the dust off of your wings

and the sleep out of your eye"

Gary Scudder

Kathleen Edwards, Pink Emerson Radio

OK, part of this relates to my recent pilgrimage to Quitters Coffee in Stittsville, a suburb of Ottawa, Ontario, where I was lucky enough to meet the excellent Kathleen Edwards.  I managed to embarrass myself by telling her how much I loved her music (she had brought me my lunch, a great smoked meat sandwich [this was Canada, after all], which was a little disconcerting) but she hung around for a few minutes and chatted about how much she liked Burlington. I'd been planning on submitting this song (and doubtless several other of her songs) soon anyway.  While I'm seldom guilty of hyperbole (shut up), and even factoring in that she's very early in her career, I think she's got the potential to be this generation's Lucinda Williams.  This is the first Edwards song that I fell in love with, and I still think it's great.  Essentially, I think it's a dark rumination on figuring out what's important in life, and having the sense to grab it when it's time. This is from her second album, Back to Me, which I still think is her best effort.  I'm happy to see that she's been playing a few gigs, which gives me hope that she'll get back in the studio soon; that said, I hope she keeps the coffee shop.

Friday, July 29, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 212

"The truth is that I scarcely belong to this earth upon which I feel myself such an exile; it takes all the force of the law of gravity to hold me here, to keep me from escaping into another sphere. I belong to a different planet."
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, p. 156

Proust runs into his friend Legrandin, who shares these thoughts.  I don't know why this particular brief passage speaks to me so directly, but it does.  As we've discussed my Dad always complained/opined that I was never really truly there.  I was not hard to raise, just often distant.  These words are the Proustian version of the brilliant Neil Young song On the Beach.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 211

   "Alas, it was this phantom that I saw when, entering the drawing-room before my grandmother had been told of my return, I found her there reading.  I was in the room, or rather I was not yet in the room since she was not aware of my presence, and, like a woman whom one surprises at a piece of needlework which she will hurriedly put aside if anyone comes in, she was absorbed in thoughts which she had never allowed to be seen by me.  Of myself - thanks to that privilege which does not last but which gives one, during the brief moment of return, the faculty of being suddenly the spectator of one's own absence - there was present only the witness, the observer, in travelling coat and hat, the stranger who does not belong to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places which one will never see again.  The process that automatically occurred in my eyes when I caught sight of my grandmother was indeed a photograph.  We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it.  How, since into the forehead and the cheeks of my grandmother I had been accustomed to read all the most delicate, the most permanent qualities of her mind, how, since every habitual glance is an act of necromancy, each face that we love a mirror of the past, how could I have failed to overlook what had become fulled and changed in her, seeing that in the most trivial spectacles of our daily life, our eyes, charged with thought, neglect, as would a classical tragedy, every image that does not contribute to the action of the play and retain only those that may help to make its purpose intelligible.  But if, instead of our eyes, it should happen to a purely physical object, a photographic plate, that has watched the action, then what we see, in the courtyard of the Institute, for example, instead of the dignified emergence of an Academician who is trying to fail a cab, will be his tottering steps, his precautions to avoid falling on his back, the parabola of his fall, as thought he were drunk or the ground covered with ice.  So it is when some cruel trick of change prevents our intelligent and pious tenderness from coming forward in time to hide from our eyes what they ought never to behold, when it is forestalled by our eyes, and they, arriving first in the field and having it to themselves, set to work mechanically, like films, and show us, in place of the beloved person who has long ago ceased to exist but whose death our tenderness has hitherto kept concealed from us, the new person whom a hundred times daily it was clothed with a loving and mendacious likeness.  And - like a sick man who, not having looked at his own reflexion for a long time, and regularly composing the features which he never sees in accordance with the ideal image of himself that he carries in his mind, recoils on catching sight in the glass, in the middle of an arid desert of a face, of the sloping pink protuberance of a nose as huge as one of the pyramids of Egypt - I, for whom my grandmother was still myself, I who had never seen her save in my own soul, always in the same place in the past, through the transparence of contiguous and overlapping memories, suddenly, in our drawing-room which formed part of anew world, that of time, that which is inhabited by the strangers of whom we say, 'He's begun to age a good deal,' for the first time and for a moment only, since she vanished very quickly, I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, vacant, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old woman whom I did not know."
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 141-143

In the wake of my mother's long decline and eventual death, but also in light of just spending several days with my father, this is a painful but also very honest passage to reread.  As Proust reminds us, "since every habitual glance is an act of necromancy, each face that we love a mirror of the past . . ."  In this passage Proust is reflecting upon walking into a room and catching his grandmother unawares, and how he is distressed to find, not the woman of his memory, but, instead, "sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, vacant, letting her slight crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old woman whom I did not know."  However disconcerting, isn't it our duty to get beyond the break from memory and understand and love the new normal?

The other reason why this passage hits home is the growing realization of my increasing frailty.  When Proust writes, "But if, instead of our eyes, it should happen to a purely physical object, a photographic plate, that has watched the action, then what we see, in the courtyard of the Institute, for example, instead of the dignified emergence of an Academician who is trying to fail a cab, will be his tottering steps, his precautions to avoid falling on his back, the parabola of his fall, as thought he were drunk or the ground covered with ice . . ." I have the feeling that he could have describing the view that my friends and colleagues have of me.  A few years ago I was engaged to a woman much younger than me, who had told me that the age difference meant nothing to her, but in the end I suspect that the reason why she called it off was because she realized, to her horror (because she was a very sweet soul), that it actually did matter.  I threw my back out once and she had to help me on with my shoes so that we could go out for a walk on a foreign trip, and if I had to pick out a moment that marked the beginning of the end of the relationship it would be that otherwise tender moment.  In my, admittedly romanticized, reflection on that moment it represented her understanding for the first time that this was doing to be the future, not then, but eventually, and it was a shock to the system.  It seemed like she never viewed me the same way.  However, as we've been discussing for months, memory is a malleable and undependable tool, and by making this about age then I'm giving myself - and her, I guess - a pass for other ways that we both failed the relationship and instead blamed it on something we couldn't control.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 210

   "It has been said that silence is strength; in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved.  It increases the anxiety of the one who waits.  Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart; and what barrier is so insurmountable as silence?  It has been said also that silence is torture, capable of goading to madness the man who is condemned to it in a prison cell.  But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silence it is to have to endure the silence of the person who loves! . . . Besides, more cruel than the silence of prisons, that kind of silence is in itself a prison.  It is an intangible enclosure, true, but an impenetrable one, that interposed slice of empty atmosphere through which nevertheless the visual rays of the abandoned lover cannot pass.  Is there a more terrible form of lighting than that of silence, which shows us not absent love but a thousand, and shows us each of them in the act of indulging in some new betrayal?"
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, p. 122

These words hit home with me, and in a very painful fashion.  I've been in too many relationships where the person I loved would use terrible, frozen silence as a weapon.  It was one of those things which in the short term work because I don't like confrontation, not simply because it's unpleasant but also because I don't handle it well, so I would inevitably do whatever was necessary to smooth the waters and end the silence, even if it wasn't necessarily my fault or I had to make unconscious compromises to do so.  In the end, however, we both lost because I just found myself withdrawing into my own silent world.  I've promised myself that in future relationships I would fight more, rage against the silence, although I still have a tendency to disappear.  We always have the sense that a cutting remark from a lover is terribly cruel, but there are far worse things, the most obvious being silence.  There is a reason why most civilized nations (not the US, obviously) view isolation as cruel and unusual punishment.  So why do we do this to each other?  I suspect it is a curious combination of cowardice and cruelty.

Monday, July 25, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 209

   "'I'm furiously jealous,' Saint-Loup said to me, half laughing, half in earnest, alluding to the interminable conversations apart which I had been having with his friend.  'Is it because you find him more intelligent than me?  Do you like him better than me?  Ah, well, I suppose he's everything now, and no one else is to have a look in!' (Men who are enormously in love with a woman, who lives in a society of woman-lovers, allow themselves pleasantries which others, seeing less innocence in them, would never dare to contemplate.)"
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, p. 118

In this short passage Robert is mock scolding his colleagues for paying more attention to Proust than they are paying to him.  I can't decide whether Proust is just trying to be ironic here - or who is more in denial, Proust or Robert?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 208

"'The breakthrough in the centre at Rivoli, too - that will crop up again if there's ever another war.  It's no more obsolete than the Iliad.  I may add that we're more or less condemned to frontal attacks, because we can't afford to repeat the mistake we made in '70; we must assume the offensive, nothing but the offensive.  The only thing that troubles me is that although I see only the slower, more antiquated minds among us opposing this splendid doctrine, nevertheless one of the youngest of my masters, who is a genius, I mean Mangin, feels that there ought to be place, provisional of course, for the defensive.  It isn't very easy to answer him when he cites the example of Austerlitz, where the defensive was simply a prelude to attack and victory.' . . .

. . . 'You interest me enormously.  But tell me, there's one point that puzzles me.  I feel that I could become passionately involved in the art of war, but first I should want to be sure that it is not so very different from the other arts, that knowing the rules is not everything.  You tell me that battles are reproduced.  I do find something aesthetic, just as you said, in seeing beneath a modern battle the plan of an older one; I can't tell you how attractive the idea sounds.  But then, does the genius of te commander count for nothing?  Does he really do no more than apply the rules?  Or, granted equal knowledge, are there great generals as there are great surgeons . . .?'

. . . 'In fact I may may perhaps be wrong in speaking to you only of the literature of war.  In reality, as the formation of the soil, the direction of wind and light tell us which way a tree will grow, so the conditions in which a campaign is fought, the features of the country through which you manoeuvre, prescribe, to a certain extent, and limit the number of the plans among which the general has to choose. . .'

. . . 'Whereas the more intelligent of our teachers, all the best brains of the cavalry, and particularly the major I was tell you about, consider on the contrary that the issue will be decided in a real free-for-all with sabre and lance and the side that can hold out longer will be the winner, not merely psychologically, by creating panic, but physically. . . .'

. . . 'In the course of a campaign, if it is at all long, you will see one belligerent profiting by the lessons provided by the enemy's successes and mistakes, perfecting the methods of the latter, who will improve on them in turn.  But all that is a thing of the past.  With the terrible advance of artillery, the wars of the future, if there are to be any more wars, will be so short that, before we have had time to think of putting our lessons into practice, peace will have been signed."
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 112-116

OK, I've cherry-picked several different passages out of lengthy discussion that Proust is having with Robert and his colleagues about war.  It's one of the most poignant moments in Remembrance of Things Past so far because they are on the cusp of an almost apocalyptic war that cost the lives of millions and began the process of knocking Europe off of its throne as rulers of the world.  Some of the comments are just foolish, and even the ones that hint at greater wisdom, such as the last comments about the "terrible advance of artillery," are still handicapped by classic misunderstanding.  How could they know?  World War I was going to be so profoundly different than any war that preceded it that it almost negated prophecy.  There is an old saying that the generals always fight the last war, meaning that they use what worked last time - so any time there is a new general with a new vision they are almost always successful.  You see it so clearly here.  Remembering the period that Proust is discussing, and the folly and horror that awaited, makes the novel all the more painful and also beautiful.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 207

   "'But now we really can't keep them waiting any longer, and I've mentioned only one of the two things I wanted to ask you, the less important; the other is more important to me, but I'm afraid you'll never consent. Would it annoy you if we were to call each other tu?'
   'Annoy me?  My dear fellow!  Joy!  Tears of joy!  Undreamed-of happiness!'
   'Thank you so much.  I'll wait for you to start first.  It's such a pleasure to me that you needn't do anything about Mme de Guermantes if you'd rather not.'
   'I can do both.'
   'I say, Robert!  Listen to me a minute,' I said to him later during dinner.  'Oh, it's really too absurd, this conversation in fits and starts.  I can't think now - you remember the lady I was speaking to you about just now.'
   'You're quite sure you know who I mean?'
   'Why, what do you take me for, a village idiot?'
   'You wouldn't care to give me her photograph, I suppose?'
   I had meant to ask him only for the loan of it.  But as I was about to speak I was overcome with shyness, feeling that the request was indiscreet, and in order to hide my confusion I formulated it more bluntly and amplified it, as if it had been quite natural.
   'No, I should have to ask her permission first,' was his answer.
   He blushed as he spoke.  I could see that he had a reservation in his mind, that he attributed one to me as well, that he would further my love only partially, subject to certain moral principles, and for this I hated him."
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 101-102

Proust continues his campaign to get a photograph of Mme de Guermantes, in this directly asking her nephew, and his friend, Robert for his copy.  It opens with Proust asking Robert if they could use the more informal form of you, tu, as a mark of their friendship, which Robert agrees to happily.  However, Proust then follows up shortly thereafter by asking for the photograph, which makes you question the sincerity of his proposal to use the more informal form of tu.  I found myself writing in the margin, "Proust is kind of a jerk."  However, maybe all of us become total jerks when we're in love (queue that recording of When a Man Loves a Woman).  And maybe the best proof of how Proust's love for Mme de Guermantes is shown by the fact that as soon as Robert hesitates, and thus sets limits on their relationship, Proust decides he hates him.  Of course, he doesn't actually hate him, but such is the temperament of Proust, and especially as Proust as a young man.  It's important to keep in mind how young the protagonist was during this time period, both chronologically and emotionally.  It also makes me consider how we expect unconditional acceptance and support from our friends and lovers, but are so infrequently willing to provide the same.