Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Upcoming conferences: Icons and Caddies

Next week will be a busy academic whirlwind tour of two Nordic capitals for me: Helsinki and Oslo. The two main American Studies events of the year are crammed together as consecutive conferences: The Renvall Institute's Helsinki do, The Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference, has reached instalment no. 12 in its fine run (it will be my third time around as a participant). The theme is always broad and this year is no exception: North America - Relations and relationships. My contribution is about the cultural importance of one specific, iconic brand of car: The Cadillac...

I approach this broad topic from a cultural text studies point of view, investigating how the cars are represented as markers of specific identity positions within specific difference hierarchies:

The Cadillac car has long featured in the American imagination as a signifier of cool masculinity, mastery of the road, financial surplus and a predilection for luxury and comfort (cf. the lyrics to ‘Cadillac Man’, quoted below). I propose to analyze a number of cultural texts that construct, establish and eventually subvert these connotations. I am particularly interested in constructions of race and sexual orientation utilizing the vehicle of the Cadillac. Texts to be analyzed include Jack Kerouac’s “fag Cadillac” in On the Road, rock singer and performer Mink DeVille, the persona of James ‘Thunder’ Early (played by Eddie Murphy) in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, and various rock ‘n’ roll lyrics featuring comparisons of Fords and Caddies…

Well I’m the king of the road
Ain’t got no place to go, no place I call home
Seen the world from behind this old wheel
Driving away from those feelings I feel

- Cadillac Man
After a few days in Finland we'll relocate to Norway for the big European American Studies event under the auspices of the EAAS. Here my presentation is in connection with my on-going project on American Icons, more specifically some icons of transgression, associated with the 1960s. I'll give a paper on two celeb-criminals, two very different cultural texts, Patty Hearst and Charles Manson:

All iconic representations of actual persons (living or dead) are caught in a dichotomy between elements of normality/familiarity and elements of transgression. Manipulation of representations of celebrities or famous persons into hero- or other-images can either constitute adversarial or collaborative icon work. In adherence with the conference theme of “E Pluribus Unum or E Pluribus Plura” it would be interesting to examine iconic images that are meant to be particularly transgressive of normality and challenge stereotypical images of American wholesomeness. I propose to look at specific collaborative, yet provocative representations of two 1960s icons of transgression: Charles Manson and Patty Hearst, and to analyze how these particular images simultaneously stylize and sacralize these counterculture (anti)heroes, turning the viewer of the icons from passive consumers into ardent worshippers, consumers or cultural agnostics, all according to our ideas regarding the subjects and symbols in question. The images are reproduced below:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Will to Submission

On the off chance that someone would get the strange idea from my previous post that I have something against male singers with high pitched voices and a penchant for odd hand movements, I offer this counter-evidence:

Here is the sublime androgyny of Antony Hegarty interpreting Leonard Cohen's "If It Be Your Will". Leonard's song is a celebration and embodiment of the total submission to the will of the Other which a man may have to embrace once in a life time. Antony is in some ways that embodiment of the Other which we rarely have a chance to encounter in real life. We are all enriched by the art of both these individuals who give new meaning to the postmodern sublime in their rags of light...

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until I am spoken for
If it be your will

Monday, April 21, 2008

Everybody's Talkin'

I have a lasting fascination with American music from the 1960s. Many of the marquee songs of the era have become short scriptures for a generation of young folks who wanted change (hey Obama, you think you're so original?) and new values to believe in... Next semester I'll be teaching a short elective where I'll use a great book by Philip Beidler as the textbook - and he uses that phrase "Scriptures for a Generation" as his title, indicating that texts function ritualistically and communally in an orally transmitted culture...

Many such songs are 'auditory icons' in the sense that they are associated with specific filmic images through their use in film soundtracks. Think The Graduate, and hear Simon & Garfunkle's "Mrs. Robinson". Think Harold & Maude, and hear Cat Stevens' "If You Want to Sing Out". Think Midnight Cowboy, and hear Nilsson sing "Everybody's Talkin'"...

But wait a minute. Most Danes who hear "Everybody's Talkin'" these days will be thinking SAS, as in Scandinavian Airlines, because the corporate geeks in advertising have pinned their hopes on lifting the dwindling fortunes of the venerable inter-Scandinavian aviation conglomerate on the charms of this little ditty. The commercials give me vertigo (never a desired effect for an airline) and an acute sense of dislocation (not good either when destinations matter). The malady I am suffering from is space-time compression, a side effect of globalization: any text can nowadays be lifted from its original context and re-injected in a new sphere, worlds and decades from the origin. Mild disorientation usually ensues in individuals who know the history behind the original usage...

The lyrics of the song which make nice sense in the context of the film Midnight Cowboy, detailing the futile dreams of escape of two misfits trying to get out of New York City to soak up some rays in Florida, make somewhat less sense in the commercial, which follows a suited businessman as he wafts through check-in, security, arrival and apparently steps straight off the plane and into a sidewalk eatery in Southern climes... Listen:

Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.

People stopping staring,
I can't see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Thru' the pouring rain,
Going where the weather suits my clothes,
Backing off of the North East wind,
Sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone.
Read into a contemporary airport/travel environment the first stanza describes a certain recipe for disaster for the business traveller: acute disorientation, borderline catatonia - you'll never make it to the gate on time... Second stanza: uh-oh, trouble at security, the sunglassed guards have obviously sussed that you feature on every no-flight list known to man... Bridge 1: not exactly the hassle free dream destination depicted in the film, where our business traveller hasn't even packed a cotton-coat, let alone any rain gear... Bridge 2: forgettaboutit - you'll never reach your destination at all - the plane is crash landing on water, Mayday, Mayday...

OK, so the advertising company didn't really pay attention to the lyrics they picked - what they wanted were the feel-good vocals and the sing-along tune. Never mind the queer undertones of the original film, never mind the frustrations and alienation captured in the song's mini-portrait of its dishevelled urban cowboy persona... In the SAS fantasy world we are all wealthy, male professionals jetting across our little uniform globe in safe, sanitized aeroplanes that never have their wheels falling off on landing...

Back to the 60s. Nilsson's versions of the song are in themselves a little strange. Here is the original opening sequence of the film, where soon to be male prostitute, Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight), prepares to get out of Hicksville:

Note the bizarre nasal drone and Roy Orbison falsetto imitation at ca. 2:00 till coda... Now compare with Nilsson's slightly longer hit single version, here recorded for a Beatsploitation Hit-Parade TV-show called Beat Club:

Note the distinctly queer moves Nilsson puts on, attempting a bit of snazzy finger-snapping and hip gyration at ca. 1:00. The foghorn-like moaning comes in the vocal effort already at 1:15 and is redoubled at the coda, where the circular wrist motion also gets a bit out of control... By this time Nilsson was enjoying a mega-hit with the single which had almost transcended the three-Oscar success of the film. Both these versions are cool mementos of an age where music and films like these could enjoy block-buster success.

Nevertheless, there is an even cooler person behind the song "Everybody's Talkin'": the original songwriter, Fred Neil... Compare the Talkin'-light tones with string arrangements of Nilsson's versions to Neil's own stark folk instrumentation, cool guitar solo and deep vocal delivery:

That is a scripture for a generation, folks... Neil was a songwriters' songwriter, having even a master in his own right, Tim Buckley, cover another classic signature song of his ("Dolphins"). For a while in the mid-60s Neil was a powerful presence in the East Coast folk scene, much admired by diverse figures such as David Crosby and John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful fame.

Sadly, Neil never made it big as a performer and, after a spell of living in Woodstock, eventually elected to make his own getaway to Florida, quit the music business and slip into obscurity. His life and times are meticulously chronicled at this website. As usual Richie Unterberger has done some of the best musico-cultural archeology on Fred Neil, which can be read in part in this excerpt...

Here is Richie's take on "Everybody's Talkin'":
Fred Neil [the album] is best remembered, however, for the original version of "Everybody's Talkin'." Much slower and more simply arranged than the famous cover by Nilsson, it clearly laid out his wishes to escape the madness of contemporary life -- the city, perhaps, or the music business? -- into a hermetic paradise. (That destination is most likely Southern Florida, where Neil would spend much of his post-1970 life, given the line about going to a place where the sun always shines through rain.)
In 2001 Fred Neil passed away at age 65, after a long battle with skin cancer...

Here is how "Everybody's Talkin'" ends, long after the SAS commercial is over:
I won't let you leave my love behind...

The Big L

Yesterday was my birthday and my wife treated me to two presents in three phases. First she gave me poetry and then a surprise party. Those were the presents - the phases, while related to the presents, are more complicated: The first phase stretched from February 1996 to the present day and promises to continue. The second phase can be pinpointed to have started at almost exactly 3.30 yesterday afternoon, and it could well be over by now (at least the guests have gone home). Anyway, there is no sign that the third phase has started yet, so it may well be entirely mythological...

The poetry was very good yesterday, as it materialised for the first time in the form of a publication that wasn't labelled criticism or theory, but actually 'poetry'. Camelia has always wanted to be a published poet, and I've referred to her as one ever since her first 'academic' piece appeared in 1999. As I recall, that piece referred to Wittgenstein, as does the most recent manifestation of her poetical prowess, Eight Senses Plus One... As I further recall, none of the many interceding works, nor the first and the latest contain the word 'poshes'. This, the critics find surprising and a potential shortcoming, but that is about the only one they've spotted so far. Bah-bah! they say happily and insistently (critics are usually sheep, but rarely as literally as in this case...)

Yesterday, I didn't do a thank you speech, but here it is: Thank you all for contributing, being a captive audience and moving along your merry way with a nice chapbook in hand, bag or pocket!

I'm going to quote one of the poems, not the shortest nor maybe even the best, but the one that riffs on the L word. From Unison:

It occurs to me that cloning sounds a bit like loony baloney. My husband says, quoting John Lennon: "all you need is love." "It's a good beginning," I say. "The letter L has just cloned itself." Accompanied by Bach it turns itself into a (singing) number. More. Or less.
I figure George Clooney is loony-ballooning in there somewhere, but I'll settle for being a fifty-something like most of the great leading men seem to be these days. Fifty, fit and fighting, I embrace the One Big L.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Nirvana No

Sparked off by some of my recent posts on spirituality and quests for insight in relation to the work of Van Morrison and of the Beats, I have started thinking about some of the conundrums Western artists find themselves in when they become fascinated with Eastern belief systems.

Both Jack Kerouac and Van Morrison have frequently referenced Buddhism in their works (novels, poems, songs) In fact, Kerouac read widely in Buddhist texts over a period of several years, and eventually started composing his own sutras, or contemporary versions of sacred texts. Morrison has, of course, dropped references to both Kerouac's novels and to well-known Western popularizers of Buddhism in several of his songs... One key figure in this gamut is Alan Watts, who was English but lived the better part of his active life as a Buddhist popularizer in the USA (he died in 1973). The author of more than 25 books and avid lecturer and broadcaster, Watts' ideas are still being disseminated in today's media, via posthumous book publications, on discs, DVDs and on the Web... At some point Kerouac met and became friends with Watts, and he appears as a character in two of Kerouac's novel, Desolation Angels (as Alex Aums) and Big Sur (as Arthur Wayne). Morrison primarily glosses Watts' work in a song aptly named "Alan Watts Blues" (on Poetic Champions Compose) where the chorus is a rendition of the title of a Watts book: Cloud-hidden Whereabouts Unknown. The bridge lyrics go like this:

Sittin' up on the mountain-top in my solitude
Where the morning fog comes rollin' in
Just might do me some good.

Such sentiments echo very well with a Beat writer such as Gary Snyder, whose translations of Han Shan's Cold Mountain poems, for instance, sound very similar:

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the word's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

As a result of Watts' acquaintance with the Beats (he first knew Snyder, who was a serious Zen acolyte and also known to D.T. Suzuki, the first scholar to disseminate a knowledge of Buddhism in English) he wrote a fairly well-known essay titled "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen", originally published as a pamphlet by City Lights Books in 1959, then collected and re-published in the Random House essay collection This Is It in 1962. Here are his definitions of the different mind sets to approaching Zen:

Square Zen is a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp (inka) of approval and established authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall. [Whereas f]or beat Zen there must be no effort, no discipline, no artificial striving to attain satori or to be anything but what one is. [He describes its self-defensive underside] But for square Zen there can be no true satori without years of meditation-practice under the stern supervision of a qualified master.

Not only did Watts identify the typical Western approaches to Zen as Beat or Square, respectively - pinpointing these approaches' short-comings (one is not serious enough and seeks instant gratification, the other is more philosophical than spiritual and caters to the intellect rather than the soul...), but in The Joyous Cosmology (1957) he had already offered a more history of ideas founded account of the difficulties of reception of Eastern religion for a Western mind-set:

The practical difficulty is that Taoism and Zen are so involved with the forms of Far Eastern culture that it is a major problem to adapt them to Western needs. For example, Eastern teachers work on the esoteric and aristocratic principle that the student must learn the hard way and find out almost everything for himself. Aside from occasional hints, the teacher merely accepts or rejects the student's attainments. But Western teachers work on the exoteric and democratic principle that everything possible must be done to inform and assist the student so as to make his mastery of the subject as easy as possible. Does the latter approach, as purists insist, merely vulgarize the discipline? The answer is that it depends upon the type of discipline. If everyone learns enough mathematics to master quadratic equations, the attainment will seem small in comparison with the much rarer comprehension of the theory of numbers. But the transformation of consciousness undertaken in Taoism and Zen is more like the correction of faulty perception or the curing of a disease. It is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions. As Lao-tzu said, "The scholar gains every day, but the Taoist loses every day."

The practice of Taoism or Zen in the Far East is therefore an undertaking in which the Westerner will find himself confronted with many barriers erected quite deliberately to discourage idle curiosity or to nullify wrong views by inciting the student to proceed systematically and consistently upon false assumptions to the reductio ad absurdum. My own main interest in the study of comparative mysticism has been to cut through these tangles and to identify the essential psychological processes underlying those alterations of perception which enable us to see ourselves and the world in their basic unity. I have perhaps had some small measure of success in trying, Western fashion, to make this type of experience more accessible.

To illustrate this difficulty I propose to briefly return to the work of first Kerouac, and then Morrison. A poem sequence such as the spontaneously composed Mexico City Blues by Kerouac illustrates the limitations. In this book Kerouac on several occasions riffs on key notions in Buddhist faith, such as Maya (the notion that all, including human suffering, is an illusion - a veil, hiding the true nature of things - namely that no thing exists). He also plays with the idea of Nirvana, a state of grace where the believer has understood that nothing is real, and that Nirvana is the cessation of existence in the world of illusion. In a previous paper I made reference to how a specific sequence of poems approaches Nirvana:

The most discussed and anthologised thematic chorus sequence in Mexico City Blues is the one eulogising Charlie Parker, which rolls from poem 239 through 242 of the collection, and thus forms the coda to the whole book. There are, however, numerous other such chains of choruses with identifiable thematic connections creating coherence across individual pages. A good example of such a chain are choruses 196 through 201, which arise out of a longer, more vaguely interconnected thematic meditation on Buddhist tenets to riff specifically on the notion of Nirvana, and the application of Nirvana as a shade of lipstick, called “Nirvana No”, to barroom girls disturbing or tempting the Buddhist sage in his meditations. Most of the Blues poems are self-contained units, ending as a page gets filled up with text. Poems can however run on, onto the next sheet(s) as illustrated by the identification of chains of choruses discussed above. On the other hand there are many examples of apparently prepared run-on lines ending one chorus, but not being picked up in the next. One good example is the last line in the Nirvana sequence which reads “And they claim”, but we never learn what it is they claim, as the next chorus seems a self-contained meta-poem starting: “A white poem, a white pure/spotless poem” (202). On the whole Mexico City Blues can be said to thematise the quest for purity of mind and belief in a world full of temptations of the flesh, a world where the speaking and writing subject suffers but seeks help and illumination from selected culture heroes, (Buddhist sages as well as Charlie Parker) and as such the collection takes its place naturally among Kerouac’s other confessional works.

One could of course argue that writing the ''white poem" is a means of getting to Nirvana, and that would be a Zen stance. However, the follow-up notion that such a poem has to be "spotless" contradicts the move towards Nirvana, by the poet's getting hung up on achieving perfection within Maya. I think the operation in Kerouac's mind is typical of the Western way of thinking within the box of attainment, quality, perfection. Nirvana is not perfection, but the cessation of the striving for perfection.

Van Morrison's tribute to Watts seems to imagine the trip to the mountain top as a small stay at the spa, a detox of the mind, after which the poet returns to the grind of everyday life and its temptations:

I'm waiting in the clearing with my motor on
it's time to get back to the town again
Where the air is sweet and fresh in the countryside
Well, it won't be long before I get back here again.

This again is similar to the way Kerouac ends his Desolation novels, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. The poet returns purified, but with the knowledge that this state will not last. In Kerouac's case the root to the flaw is already laid during the meditations on the mountain top where he has realized that all is illusion, but fails to take the final step of realizing that the suffering caused by this realization is also illusion. In Morrison's case one almost gets the feeling that the cleansing procedure is an established routine, not a one off extraordinary event that might lead to satori...

I end with a video of Watts' Conversation with Myself. There are 2 more parts easily available on YouTube...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Keep it S(h)imple, Shtupid

OK, so I've heard from a few parties about my perhaps overly intellectualized analysis of Van Morrison's song, That's Entrainment, from his new album Keep It Simple. But that was just one way of writing about the record, and as I indicated in my post there is more to be said... This time, though, I'll try to heed Van's own advice and keep it simple.

Van Morrison's output over 4 decades is so massive that it is inevitable that there are repetitions, close similarities between individual songs, obvious influences from other artists, etc. This, on the other hand, need not be considered a weakness in Van's case: One would not consider Manet a lesser artist for the one reason that he kept revisiting the same subject canvas after canvas... Of course popular music with its mass distribution is not the same type of art as fine painting, and artists as diverse as Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade, who have little in common other than being extremely popular, have taken a lot of flak over the repetitive and voluminous nature of their production. Perhaps a similar jadedness due to overexposure is why some early customer reviews at Amazon were quite dismissive of Van's new album as repeating earlier songs and providing simplistic lyrics. I tend to disagree strongly with those uninformed opinions...

What I want to try here is to trace where Van is at and where he is coming from on this album. This could be thought of as a type of intertextual investigation in my academic discipline, cultural text studies, but I intend to keep it nonacademic this time around. Intend to, but no promises...

As a starting point I went to the nice Van Morrison News blog to see what people were saying about the new record. First thing I did was steal their signature Van caricature to use for this post - sorry folks, but I mean it as an honest tribute to your work... Next thing I noticed was the little poll fans can take there about which songs are their favourites from Keep It Simple, and although I don't usually like that sort of thing very much, I fell for the temptation to vote and - not least - see the aggregate results. I have four favourite tracks on the album: Soul, That's Entrainment, Keep It Simple, and Behind the Ritual, so I voted for those. I was somewhat torn when the aggregate results of 380 voters revealed that that is exactly what everybody else thinks too! On the one hand, it was a vindication that I was 'right' in some way, on the other I would have liked to be part of a more arcane elite who can 'see' things in a Van album that others cannot, so the slight let-down of being average stung a bit, too... Here are the results as of today: Ritual, 236 (62% of the voters had this on their list), Entrainment, 136, Simple, 133, Soul, 104...

Nonetheless, I want to say a few things even about the less loved tracks as well (I am quite fond of most of them, in fact): The album opener, How Can a Poor Boy, uses a lot of female back-up vocals, and the obvious association to songs outside Van's own repertoire to me is early Leonard Cohen, where jumpy songs such as So Long, Marianne use a similar arrangement. Likewise, both the title and the distinct use of female vocals clearly evoke Nick Drake's song Poor Boy, where the lyrics brayed by the back-up ladies in a mocking manner are "Poor Boy, so sorry for hisself..." Unique to Van's song, however, compared to Cohen and Drake, is his casting himself in the lyrics as a bluesy priest with congregation, flock, anointment etc. This continues Van's rather unfortunate trend to be messianic in his lyrics, perhaps best exemplified by They Sold Me Out from Magic Time where Van is the crucified Christ incarnate, whose robes are divided up among the Roman soldiers and the rest (himself) sold for "a few shekels more"...

I like School of Hard Knocks which continues the album, mostly because of its driving melody and Mick Green's slightly dirty guitar line snaking its way around Van's vocals. There is quite a dead-pan vocal delivery on Van's part, which always helps when he engages in a rant against the music industry, the Press, the fans etc. This type of lyric has become a staple on virtually every Van album from the nineties onward (Professional Jealousy, Big Time Operators, Songwriter, Look What the Good People Done, New Biography, Too Many Myths), and most fans are a little tired of Van griping about his hard career life. One should note that this is not a new theme in Van's production, not by a long shot... Think back to universally loved songs like Saint Dominic's Preview and its lines about the record company and the journalist waiting for sound bites:
And the restaurant tables are completely covered.
The record company has paid out for the wine.
You got everything in the world you ever wanted
Right about now your face should wear a smile.
That's the way it all should happen
When you're in, when you're in the state you're in;
You've got your pen and notebook ready,
I think it's about time, time for us to begin.
And we're over in a 52nd Street apartment,
Socializing with the wino few,
Just to be hip and get wet with the jet set.
But they're flying too high to see my point of view.
And of course there is an old favourite of mine: Drumshanbo Hustle which eventually came out on Philosopher's Stone. This is Van's best anti-corporation rant, and it's funny!

I think I've covered the significance of That's Entrainment pretty comprehensively in my previous post. I will just add that this track has a distinct first-take ambiance (note the live feel of the coda), perhaps with overdubbed hand-claps, but little else added post production. Again I love how Mick Green lets his guitar bleed into distortion for a few seconds before he sequences back into clean picking w. reverb. Van's ukulele (reported in early live performance reviews as a 'small guitar' - which is a bit like calling a cello a very large violin) is a fresh touch that keeps the rhythm section light and bouncy. Van did mandolins on Down the Road, so maybe we are working our way through all the 'small guitars' in the repertoire...

Quite a bit has been made out of Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore as a paean to senior citizenship and clean living. I don't much enjoy the slow jive type melody and rhythm Van uses here - it's too generic. But let's not forget the tribute element in the song: Jazz standard Don't Get Around Much Anymore is openly cited in the lyrics, and Van recently covered the similarly themed Lightnin' Hopkins song Stop Drinking (on What's Wrong with this Picture, 2003). In his own work, the drinking issue also surfaced much earlier, for instance Got to Go Back from No Guru: "Keep me away from whiskey and porter..."

Lover Come Back is a country nugget which shows what Van's previous Nashville album Pay the Devil could have been (but failed pretty miserably to be). At the same time the song and its arrangement harks back very clearly to Van's mid-80s albums, more specifically the Sense of Wonder, No Guru, Poetic Champions trilogy. The melody, its lilting chorus, the theme of return of the loved one, the humming of the background singers (mixed male and female voices) all resonate with those albums. There is also prominent organ work from John Allair whose stellar retro-Hammond playing adds significantly to the album throughout (Georgie Fame who put a distinct organ stamp on Van's 90s work seems to have gone for good from Van's recordings), and long-time collaborator on guitar, John Platania is also great to have back. And there is lovely pedal steel from Cindy Cashdollar to bring us full circle with that country feel...

Second stand-out track, Keep It Simple, does exactly what its title exhorts us all to do in life as in song-writing. Starting with ukulele strums, the songs builds and circles around its three chord structure. Mick Green goes on fire with distorted guitar in a short solo (I've never heard so much fuzzed-out guitar on a Van song, not even on recordings with Them), there is tasty accordion in the background, but it's Van's vocals that carry the melody forward as all other players are engaged in building the rhythm and the bottom. This must be a first take as well, and the oddest part of the track is that Van clearly sings with a lot of phlegm on his vocal chords. Most artists would have done another take (perhaps after a bit of porter and whiskey) but Van has kept this amazingly vulnerable expression of what the song's lyrics discuss: Keep it simple/And that's that!

End of the Land sounds like a late 90s semi-Celtic song, and Allair does his best Fame-imitation on Hammond to soothe us into a typical Van-lyric about seeking refuge in isolation, communing with nature. We've heard this sentiment and this melody many times before from Van from ca. Avalon Sunset and onwards through Enlightenment and Hymns to the Silence...

Another 'small guitar' gets to open Song of Home - this time a banjo, later supplemented with a mandolin. This again is country anthem time - a bit of gospel and a bit of Celtic harmonies (harbour lights and foghorns appear in the lyrics as echoes of Into the Mystic) are melded in for good measure. This is Ray Charles as a blue eyed Irish Baptist... Irish Heartbeat, One Irish Rover - songs of home are abundant in Van's back catalogue...

No Thing takes a bluesy stroll down pretty tired songlines about routines and repetitions in an aging man's hard working life... We cannot help but like the steel guitar, but the Nashville vocal harmonies that evoke 60s country (Anita Kerr Singers, anyone?) are an acquired taste. Van has been excavating his record collection again before he 'wrote' (channelled) this 'classic' sounding song.

The album draws to a close with two keepers: Soul and Ritual. A great couple... "Soul is a feeling deep within, soul is not the colour of your skin" - those are catchy opening lines to this mid-tempo ramble (broken by another great guitar rave-up by Mick) in which Van casually defines not just the genre of soul, but more profoundly (albeit essentialistically) the soul of man as "the essence from within, where everything begins..." Clocking in at three minutes thirty this is the hit single that obviously will never chart anywhere but in my dreams, but I must admit that this one hits me where it matters the most. It resonates. I already learned it by heart by the third play. Now I sing it aloud at unexpected moments usually misquoting the lyrics: Blue(s) is not the colour of your skin... This is also the first track on the album where Van breaks out his alto sax, and blows a trade mark solo. We have learned to love them, although when those solos first started appearing with regularity around Beautiful Visions and Inarticulate Speech in the early 80s I thought I would never quite settle with them... They seemed a distraction from what Van did best, but now they might be the show case for his best instrumental chops. Certainly, he stands his ground live with the best horn players around - usually the ones he brings on the road with him.

For closers we go Behind the Ritual to find the Spiritual. This song is simplified mastery on the melody side. We begin with a syncopated march time signature, then ringing tambourines and delicately picked guitar signal Van's entry as the Whirling Dervish, high on wine and days gone by. He has already calmly set the scene as that back alley we have been in many times before with Van, usually for jelly roll-related purposes. Here, however, it is clear that the wine is ceremonial, that getting out of our minds is motivated by the spiritual desire to speak in tongues, producing that sound - that jive- that no-one else can understand (it comes out literally as a scatted "blah-blah" for the first time in Van's recorded output (as it often has in live performances) enacting the mystical "speaking all out of our minds"). The song builds as a live tour-de-force, in the ancient manner we have come to expect from Van at least once on each album: Van blows his solo first on sax, the music grows to a full-force gale (call & response: Spiritual! Spin and turn!), then in ecstasy come the scat vocals, upon which Van and co. take it down to pianissimo, pare the sound down, and wind it all up with the simple ukulele chords... We got healed again, we found the spiritual, behind the ritual, in the days gone by.

Van has (as the cover photo signals) become "a man of granite, a man of insight". I am glad he still shares his insight with us and lets us enter into that rich tapestry of distilled influences and variations.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pierre Akendengué

Late at night I like to watch a French TV-channel called Mezzo (half classical, half Jazz/World). I soon figured out that loads of Francophone, African musicians are totally cool songwriters, singers and musicians, but of course they get next to no exposure or airplay in mainstream music.

Soon after hearing guys like Salif Keita of Mali, Baaba Maal of Senegal, and many others I started looking for their music for downloads, and found a site called Calabash Music which has this stuff. I am not affiliated in any way with them, but was very happy to use their services to get this rather hard-to-find music...

On to Pierre Akendengué - he is from Gabon, by now in his mid-60s (in fact he'll be 65 in two weeks), and obviously has a long career behind him (and a PhD in Psychology!)... Highlights include Lambarena - Bach to Africa which is really uncategorizable. It was co-produced by Hughes de Courson, who talks about the process and concept in this interview. Here is a quote from a comprehensive website on Akendengué, run by Radio France International:

Akendengué’s highly original idea for his next album, Lambarena, was to fuse sacred chants from the equatorial forest region with classical cantatas composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Akendengué and de Courson’s innovative musical project involved 250 African singers and a group of 50 French classical musicians - and the resulting album was an absolute masterpiece. Respecting the sacred nature of both the chants and the cantatas, Akendengué proved that these two radically different genres from vastly different cultures could be fused to create a totally new sound.
My wife totally digs the Bach-stuff; I prefer his earlier singer-songwriter stuff, for instance his first album Nandipo from 1974. He has a lovely tenor (the vibrato gets addictive with time), and the sparse arrangement with lots of vocal harmonies, and a little nifty percussion soothes my soul... His lyrics were apparently quite militant even back then, and he had rep. as a protest singer:
Pierre Akendengué’s militant lyrics soon earned him a reputation as a protest singer. In fact, the singer’s next two albums did contain numerous tracks about specifically African themes and several songs explicitly calling for African unity, but Akendengué was not happy about being neatly pigeon-holed in this way. The singer felt there was more to his music than radical statements and fought long and hard to change the image which the media had thrust upon him.
Since my Myéné (Akendengué's native tongue) is non-existent and my French not too good, I cannot vouch for what Akendengué expresses in his lyrics, but again according to the Radio France web site:
Soon afterwards, Akendengué set to work on a new album with a hard-hitting theme: the history of slavery. One of the enduring symbols of the slave trade is the isle of Gorée (just off the coast of Senegal) and the musician chose Gorée as the title of his new album, released in April 2006. In 1997, Akendengué had actually visited Gorée and his trip had proved to be an intensely emotional experience. The musician's experiences on the island led to him writing "La chanson de Gorée", which would later serve as a basis for his album about the slave trade. Akendengué claimed he had been motivated to make Gorée as a way of keeping the troubled history of slavery at the forefront of people's minds and encouraging debate. His album also raised other topical issues on songs such as "De la forêt" which evokes the plight of Pygmies in Gabon, currently being evicted from their rainforest home. Akendengué appears to be happy with his new role of spokesperson, using his music to denounce human suffering and injustice across Africa.
Sounds like some worthy ideas to me... Here is "Bekelia" ("Hope") from the Gorée album:

Here is Pierre's web site...

Pierre on MySpace...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

That's Entrainment

For years I listened to at least one Van Morrison track every day, often playing one of his songs to energize myself before going in to teach a class or give a lecture. We're talking major obsession, here... so bear with me and this long post.

These days my Van-time comes in waves, on and off. Lately it's been on to an unusual extent, due not only to the release of his latest album Keep It Simple, but also to a belated discovery of his 2002 disc Down the Road which I had not paid particular attention to when it was released (being in a Van slump a the time), but which I now realize contains some really good material. To add to this rather muddled frenzy I have also recently acquired the 3CD version of Still on Top, the better of the several greatest hits packages available on a crammed Van-release market... The advantage of such an eclectic bunch of Van sounds is that one gets hip to connections one might not otherwise have noticed between periods, themes, melodic strands and influences in Morrison's output.

I had in fact written briefly about portions of Down the Road in a piece I published a couple of years ago on the theme of exile and homecoming in Van's songs. Down the Road contains a song that I think is pretty unique in Van's output as far as lyrics go. "Choppin' Wood" (which musically is not very interesting) tells the story of Van's father as an Irish emigrant to the US who eventually came home to Ireland disillusioned and lived out his days in Belfast ("a life of quiet desperation", as Van puts it borrowing a phrase from Thoreau), working the shipyards to feed his family ('choppin' wood' is Van's Walden-inspired metaphor for that grind and routine) yet never giving up his inner life and fascination with America. Van's many heroes have always been literary greats and musical mentors, but this one time we hear about his personal history and the person who moulded him the most. Van often talks about his father in interviews, but usually just about his record collection and interest in blues and jazz music. Recently, though, Van told an interviewer (Barry McIlheney, in the Members only portion of Van's official web-site) a more personal anecdote:

My father used to get this magazine called Jazz Journal and I read a review of a Ray Charles record in that. And my dad used to tune in to AFN, the American Forces Network in Germany, and one night lying in bed after midnight I was listening to AFN and I heard "What’d I Say", and I just knew it was Ray Charles. And I shouted down the stairs, “Is that Ray Charles?”, and my dad shouted back, “Yeah, it’s Ray Charles”. I don’t know how I knew as I’d never actually heard anything by him ever before that night, but somehow I just knew it was him.
I really enjoy how Van's father gets to OK that Van gets a new, musical 'father' in Ray Charles by just 'knowing' him over the airwaves...

My little academic piece on Van was mainly about how a stream of references to exile and homecoming and all the questing that lies between runs through Van songs covering 5 decades and also shades and shapes his album covers, the names he gives to his production companies, touring bands, and every aspect of his public appearance. The latest albums have done nothing to change that impression - quite the contrary, I see Van's post-millennium work as largely a revisiting and reworking/refining of the same themes. Here is a quote from my article, "The Celtic Ray - Representations of Diaspora Identities in Van Morrison Lyrics":
In numerous songs spread out over his whole recording career, Morrison references his origins, childhood and youth in Belfast, where he was born in 1945. He grew up on Hyndford Street in a lower middle class neighbourhood in Protestant dominated East Belfast. However, his parents were not typical Ulster Protestants: Morrison’s father, George, came from a family with Scottish, Presbyterian roots, and was an electrician by trade, but really more interested in his passionate hobby of collecting American blues, bluegrass, country and jazz records. Morrison’s mother, Violet, unexpectedly developed an intensely religious zeal at the time when Morrison was around 10, but contrary to the norm she channelled her beliefs into Jehovah’s Witnesses activities (hence Morrison’s tribute “Kingdom Hall” on his 1978 album Wavelength). This combination of a worldly father, whom Morrison has repeatedly described as an atheist, and a spiritual mother, would immediately seem to have set Morrison on his subsequent path of vacillation between belief and doubt. The parents seem to have embodied the same polarity of personality facets that Morrison himself exhibits: The father an introverted uncommunicative non-believer, ultimately disappointed with his life in Belfast; the mother an extrovert, performative personality, eager to communicate her views to people even to the extent of trying to convert them religiously.
Other than the rare glimpse of family history found in "Choppin' Wood", Down the Road also contains such nostalgic songs as "The Beauty of Days Gone By", which on later albums such as Magic Time and Keep It Simple has found companion pieces in "Celtic New Year" and "Song of Home," respectively. The title track from Down the Road and the closing track on that album, "Fast Train," are songs of leaving home but never escaping completely, and on Keep It Simple they are echoed in the song "End of the Land". So, the weaving of this strand of longing for belonging is clear even in Van's latest songs, as indeed they have been since the 60s (but you'd have to read my article to get that analysis. You can find it in the book Re-Mapping Exile, available here as an E-book)...

The other strand that runs pretty consistently through Van's songs is his fascination with the spiritual and his ceaseless quest for finding ways of touching the sublime and ineffable. This quest had led him along some strange by-ways, including Scientology and the bizarre esoteric work of Alice Bailey and the reincarnated "Tibetan" sage she channels in her work. Van has also been into Celtic mysticism, gnostic Christianity, Buddhism and other Oriental brands of religion and spiritual techniques. It is perhaps not surprising that he continues to write about such matters, also on Keep It Simple... After all, many such belief systems are exactly attempts at simplifying and clarifying a person's life on Earth (sometimes in preparation for a better afterlife or return, depending on what one expects in terms of karmic rewards).

I said a bit about this in my article too, so you get one more quote for free:
Morrison’s notions of Celtic brotherhood can be seen as a hybrid between American New Age philosophies and Irish identity positions (both identity constructs oscillate between collectivist messages and individualist realisations of them). Morrison’s quest for enlightenment became more and more explicit throughout the eighties as witnessed by album titles such as Beautiful Vision from 1982 and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart from 1983, as well as Sense of Wonder (1985), Avalon Sunset(1989), and finally Enlightenment (1990). Only on a surface level did an intervening album title from 1986, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, appear to contradict the singer-songwriter’s quest for esoteric knowledge, since that album title is in fact a quote from Krishnamurti, the mystic messiah trained by the Theosophical Society (founded by Madame Blavatsky) to enlighten the world. Morrison songs from the 1980s are glosses of teachings from a number of esoteric, New Age or occult beliefs, including Scientology, whose founder L. Ron Hubbard, is explicitly thanked in the liner notes to Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. The richest vein mined by Morrison in those years is, however, the writings of Alice A. Bailey, whose theories concerning illusion, glamour, maya, and the strange entity known as “The Dweller on the Threshold” – all obstacles to true enlightenment – can be traced on several Morrison albums.

The postulate here is that this hybrid of esoteric knowledge, Irish identity longings, and a cross-cultural musical style and performance, creates the only viable recipe for life for Morrison whose character reflects a contradiction between an extremely shy and private persona, and an extroverted performer persona whose only existence is in the public gaze. Morrison is thus seen to be “Hiding in the Light”, to gloss Dick Hebdige’s 1980 book of the same title, which details the narcissistic paradox of hiding and exposure inherent in subcultural deviance, which seems apt to characterise Morrison’s desires as well. This duality is further mirrored in Morrison’s own internal and external exile positions, and partly explains his continuing quest for identity, figured as a battle between revelation in the form of enlightenment and concealment in clouds of mysticism.
People have not yet made the connection between Eastern mysticism and the lyrics on Keep It Simple, but I'll gladly be the first one to point them out. Most reviewers have commented on the track "That's Entrainment" (which is one of the really sublime songs on the new disc, captivating you with its simple chords, repetitive chorus, Van's vocal riffing and the accompaniment effortlessly laid down in what sounds like a first take) - often wondering what the strange word 'entrainment' might mean. Some reviews offer dictionary definitions (Physics: 'the process whereby two interacting oscillating systems assume the same period'); others like the one in Rolling Stone gloss it as being in a 'trancelike realm'... Dave Heaton in PopMatters makes a full paragraph out of a valiant effort to describe the song and understand the title:
Partly because of the singing, “That’s Entrainment” immediately stands out, one to add to the lengthy list of classic Van Morrison songs. The third track, it’s the first riveting moment of the album, possibly the first from Morrison in a while, where he holds time still like he used to. He starts singing right at the song’s opening seconds, painting a picture of a countryside, then of himself standing in rapt fascination, struck by the pure beauty of an unspecified “you”, seemingly the spiritual force of nature, but sung to like a lover. Handclaps and other hand percussion provide the song’s backbone, as Morrison sings up and down the hills of that countryside, eventually expressing his awe in the terms of classic R&B—when “you” come around, it makes him holler, makes him want everyone to shake their collective moneymaker, shake it on down. At first the chorus of “That’s entrainment” is jarring amidst all this ecstasy and calm, if only because it begs the question, “What the hell is entrainment?” As far as I can tell, it’s all about being drawn in and transformed, the way air forms into a cloud.
Well and good, all - but no cigar, as Freud said to his mother. Entrainment is indeed both "the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm" and the practice of "the practice of tuning one's brainwaves to a desired frequency", but while I wouldn't put it past Van to have read books about biomusicology and neuroscience, I find it a million times more likely that he once again dipped into his extensive library of Eastern religious esoterica and New Age philosophy. Let's do the same: 'Entrainment', in the esoteric sense of the word, is a concept directly related to music and poetry and the performance thereof. Read this (lengthy, sorry!) excerpt from a home page on Indian music and its function in worship and meditation:

The musical forms, kirtan and bhajan, are essential components of virtually all Hindu worship, as well as of related traditions, such as Sikhism, where they play an indispensable role. More similar than different, both are related to jaapa, or repetition of the Sacred Name, and group participation is usually emphasized. An interesting distinction is that while bhajans are commonly performed as such for listening audiences, kirtan - usually a group devotional practice - requires participation, rather than taking the form of a performance. Kirtan typically employs fewer and much repeated phrases, while a bhajan may contain elaborate verses and melodic improvisations, sometimes with sung mono-syllables (generally, the names of the notes, themselves). Both employ melodic structures based on the Indian classical raaga form, where the emphasis is on rhythm and melody, rather than harmony. And, while kirtans generally take only the names and qualities (guna) of the Divine, bhajans often employ ornately poetical lyrics from the greatest of Indian poets, including Rabindranath Tagore, Tulsidas, the Sufi Kabir, and the great woman saint, Meerabai.

A delightful aspect of kirtan participation is the opportunity for entrainment. Entrainment happens when one object or person comes into rhythmic synchrony with another. Experiments have demonstrated that two clocks placed side by side may begin to tick together after some period of time. Similarly, the strings of one lute may resonate sympathetically in relation to a nearby lute, identically tuned. According to this principle, the members of a kirtan sangha may come into synch with one another during the process of chanting melodically and rhythmically. Further, as the root forms of kirtan typically derive from classical raagas, the melodies may help to synchronize us with Nature or the Cosmos, itself. Also, when we sing or chant, the breath necessarily becomes rhythmic, and this may encourage balance and equanimity. This factor, along with the sounds or meanings of the sacred and ancient words, may have multifarious beneficial effects on the mind, body, and spirit. Also, it is said that one need not even participate in kirtan to derive its many benefits; merely listening attentively to the devotional music may uplift, inspire, and even heal the listener at some level. Stress, negativity, and "self-grasping" may all be let go during participation or listening to kirtan.
"...merely listening attentively to the devotional music may uplift, inspire, and even heal the listener at some level." Did ye get healed? - as Van asked us back in '87 on Poetic Champions Compose (thanks for the correction, Eoin), one of many albums drawing heavily on a mix of literary influences (Yeats) and religious inspiration (Alan Watts' notions of Zen). The above quote gives us the necessary understanding of Van's idea of entrainment: phrases such as 'repetition of the Sacred Name', 'elaborate verses and melodic improvisations, sometimes with sung mono-syllables' are often applied almost verbatim to describe Van's performances. Van also frequently borrows ornate lyrics from great poets, and I am positive that he is familiar with Rabindranath Tagore, the anglophone Indian Nobel Laureate (1913 - the period Van often evokes through Yeats, T.S. Eliot and other modernist poets). So, Van's entrainment is his kirtan (what we get when we sing along) and bhajan (what Van attains when he goes into the zone of private performance)...

Not yet convinced? OK, did you read carefully enough to catch the reference to 'the Sufi, Kabir'? Kabir could easily be one of several inspirations behind Van's "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher", as the paradoxes of some of his poems reveal:
O SERVANT, where dost thou seek Me? Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me:
thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.

Kabir says, "O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath."

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath.
Seeking, meeting, breathing - all vintage Van obsessions... And who translated Kabir's poetry into English? Rabindranath Tagore, of course...

The reference to Sufism on Keep It Simple comes in the most bhajan-like song on the album, the 7 minute long closer, "Behind the Ritual" ('Behind the ritual, you find the spiritual'). Van wails about days in the alley (a familiar locality from many Van songs, usually associated with 'jelly roll'), spent "drinking that wine, making time, and talking all out of my mind" (rituals involving drinking wine and speaking in tongues, anyone? How about the Eucharist and the descent of the Holy Ghost...?) At one point Van refers to himself "turning and spinning in the alley, like a Whirling Dervish in the alley" - and that is your reference to Sufi mysticism - the ritual that a specific Sufi sect devised to achieve entrainment, spinning around your own axis until you attain enlightenment and oneness with God:
In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the semazen's camel's hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt represents the ego's shroud. By removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God's unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God's beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God's spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, "All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!"
Van's pan-esoteric religion has often led him to "pray to the One", go "across the bridge to the other side" (sometimes it's just a stairway leading to Vanlose railway station, but it is all one bridge leading to enlightenment) and "dump" his ego "on the burning ground"... Sufism is just the latest facet this Irish Dervish (a Persian word for the 'ascetic mendicant' - a propos of "Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore" - whose function is to be a "source of wisdom, medicine, poetry, enlightenment, and witticisms"). Examples of punny wit abound on Keep It Simple - here are two:

"That's Entrainment" puns on the old Musical (retrospective) film That's Entertainment! and not least its punny title song. ("The chase for the man with the face: That's entertainment!")

The mantra, "Behind the ritual, you find the spiritual" reveals and hides at the same time that the word 'spiritual' is a portmanteau of the two words that are key to understanding the album: 'spirit' and 'ritual'...

Keep It Simple is a delightful album that turns a trick or two on you: it ain't as simple as you might think. More to follow...

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mock-pluck Sonnet

OK, this should have appeared on April 1, but since we are still Fools, I guess I can go on and post it. The 'work' originally came about as a comment to my wife's post on Philosophy and Aesthetics: Actant Art: the 'je-ne-sais quoi' as a 'notarikon'. As I have no doubt as to what I prefer, I cast the following 'sonnet' as the taunt of an aesthete to a philosopher:

Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
Hold in perfection but a little moment.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast.
Such civil war is in my love and hate.
O! Change thy thought, that I may change my mind,
Plod dully on, to bear that weight in me.
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made,
Yet do they steal sweet hours from love's delight.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
Like to the lark at break of day arising,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end -
Haply I think on thee, and then my state.
Note how the aesthete is preoccupied with beauty rather than honour and titles, and exhorts the philosopher to 'change thy thought'. The aesthete ends with a transcendent leap, 'like to lark at break of day arising', soaring above the heavy philosopher and disappearing in sheer heavenward bliss...

Of course, the 'sonnet' doesn't rhyme, and the sense it makes is quite fortuitous, for I coupled it together from lines from at least 10 different Shakespeare sonnets, plucking lines almost at random... Why? Read the first letter of each line as a vertical word, as one would in a primitive notariqon, and you will instantly see what I really think of philosophy!

All in good fun... of course. Camelia quite justly responded with a truly Shakespearean insult, calling me a paunchy plume-plucked puttock!

White Bicycles

I recently finished reading Joe Boyd's memoirs of 'making music in the 1960s', White Bicycles. Boyd is famous in an underground sort of way for producing a large number of British and American folk, rock, pop and jazz acts in the 60s and 70s, and for occasionally taking on more contemporary projects during the folky/jangly guitar revival years of the early and mid-80s (he did the 3rd R.E.M. album Fables of the Reconstruction / Reconstruction of the Fables in 1985, as well as a 10.000 Maniacs album). Later years have seen him focus almost entirely on world music projects. My main interest in Boyd comes from my enjoyment of the music of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson, and more than anything, Nick Drake. Boyd produced many of these artists' seminal records, and this must remain his main legacy in the music world.

Boyd's book is from 2006, and has in fact been complemented by a
CD of the same title featuring some (mostly rather obscure) titles by a bunch of Boyd's discoveries and inventions, including early Pink Floyd material, as well as rather dated 60s stuff such as The Incredible String Band and Vashti Bunyan. Purer folk material such as Shirley Collins, bluesy Eric Clapton material and psychedelia from Soft Machine is also available on the disc.

The book is pretty captivating, as one follows the roll call of artists Boyd intersected with at various stages in his burgeoning music business career. It begins with his interest in the blues, and his earliest attempts at promoting events with obscure and almost forgotten black, original practitioners of the form. The book then moves on to his involvement with the Boston folk scene where Boyd was friends with many of the best singer/songwriters of the pre-65 folk wave which featured a major rivalry between the Boston and Greenwich Village scenes. Boyd was at the Newport Folk Festival in 65 when Dylan single-handedly ended that stage of the folk revival by 'crossing over' to the electric, rock side of music. While Boyd was never close to Dylan, he recognised early on that Dylan was the Caravaggio (Poussin famously said of fellow artist Caravaggio that he 'had come to destroy painting') of the sixties folk scene: the figure who would transcend the narrow confines of any one scene or musical ghetto and in the process destroy many of the older, pure forms while creating a newness no one could have anticipated the violence and beauty of.

Boyd's most productive years were spent in London, during the so-called 'Swinging London' era, where he ran The UFO Club, a psychedelic dance club with live acts; recorded and produced a number of new artists crossing over from the English folk mould to a more Americanized singer/songwriter practice; and, interestingly enough, also worked as a road manager for a number of jazz r&b and blues acts criss-crossing Europe, where the audience for these older types of (primarily black) music was much larger than in America. Boyd also took under his wings a number of African musicians who had come to London as exiles from political troubles or apartheid, hoping to make a better living and a career in Britain and Europe.

Boyd describes in some detail his work with studio technician and producer/engineer
John Wood who worked with Nick Drake on all his recordings. We also get more biographical glimpses of what made great musicians and artists such as Sandy Denny and Drake tick, but overall there is little attempt to psychologize or sensationalize the lives and deaths of these people. Some reviewers have criticized Boyd for not revealing more about these controversial characters and their sad ends, but I appreciate his reticence and decorum in letting them rest as peacefully as possible. It does, however, leave one a little disappointed and wondering if there might not have been more Boyd could share with us without violating his friends' privacy, especially when other far less interesting indiscretions actually are revealed (usually involving affairs of the heart and flesh)...

I am a particular fan of Nick Drake, as discussed
in a previous post, so the rather superficial description of Drake Boyd leaves us with is quite irritating. Boyd seems to have been a person who sometimes absented himself at the exact point in time where musicians and friends needed him the most, and this may have been particularly true in the case of Nick Drake, causing Drake's anger and often recounted outburst against Boyd, and a never quite resolved remorse on Boyd's part. Boyd has been working on keeping Drake's legacy alive, though, and perhaps that is ultimately a way for him to atone for his relative neglect of Nick while he was still alive. Here is a snippet from one of Boyd's recent newsletters:

I flew to California for two evenings built around the release of new Nick Drake material and screenings of the film “A Skin Too Few”. Sometime in the late ‘90s, the BBC approached Gabrielle Drake and me about making a documentary on Nick. I was impressed with their young director and the production unit was one of the best in the BBC, so the project went ahead. While that was being shot (working around the fact that there is no footage of Nick performing), some Dutch guys started pestering me about a film they were making on the same subject for Dutch tv. In the cause of spreading the word about Nick’s music to the Continent, I took part in their film as well, despite the fact that I found their methods a bit off-putting. The BBC film was eventually aired and was very disappointing. A few months later, I attended a screening of the Dutch film with very low expectations. Naturally, it was brilliant. This is the film that was shown in San Francisco and Los Angeles at the beginning of October. In Los Angeles, Gabrielle Drake and I were upstaged by Robin Frederick, who did her brilliant de-construction of a couple of Nick’s songs. She plays and sings, not attempting to put across a performance, but in order to demonstrate what Nick is up to with his complex harmonies, melodies, rhythms and lyrics. After listening to Robin, you gain a new understanding of why Nick’s music has endured.

Other, more fun parts of Boyd's book include the account of his brush with Scientology which claimed a good deal of the original anarchistic creativity of the main members of The Incredible String Band, and almost got Boyd sucked in too. Also the anecdotes from the first Blues and Gospel Caravan tour of Britain are hilarious, including a description of how Rev. Gary Davis would eat his morning eggs... I am also happy now to have understood why South African sax player Dudu Pukwana appears on one track on Mike Heron's 1971 solo album Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. While wasting away my youth in the 70s pondering such things (ah, the days before the Internet!), I could never work out the connection between such disparate musical traditions as Heron's and Pukwana's... Now I realize that one of Boyd's supreme contributions to the music scene is his ability to bring talented musicians together across such boundaries.

Minor beefs of mine with Boyd's otherwise spot-on assessments of musical quality and the lack thereof include the, to me inexplicable, off-hand dismissal of Eric Andersen's song "Thirsty Boots" as "hack-work" - and it also gets a little tiresome to keep reading the ever-growing list of artists which Boyd either didn't sign or was robbed of by more powerful players, esp. the part that involves missing out on the distribution rights for ABBA-songs...

Boyd is obviously interesting from a historical point of view, and also continues to be a force in the music business, supporting 'real', live musicianship in an age of sampling and depleted talent. His work in world music is on-going and important, with especial excellence in his
Cubanismo! recordings and in recording the music of Mali's kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate. Perhaps he will at some point let himself become a freer and more interesting writer as well, rather than just the inhibited eminence grise he self-labels himself as - now that would be in the true sixties spirit!

Some resources:

NPR has a good feature on Boyd here.

Boyd's own home page is here.

Here and here are congenial reviews of the book.

Serpent's Tail Books promote White Bicycles here.

Richie Unterberger has a superb interview w. Boyd here.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Upcoming conference plans: Little Magazines before and after the Web: The Case of Robert Gibbons

A month ago I posted about my plans to present a paper on the prose poetry of Robert Gibbons, seen as a form of life writing. Due to some shuffling of workshops and some wheeling and dealing behind the scenes I have instead been sold down the river to a workshop with a more overt cultural history and politics perspective, so that my paper now will have the title indicated in the heading for this post. That is fine by me - I intended all along to write a longer piece (and who knows, maybe a proper book) on Gibbons' fascinating practice and poetics - including a focused look at how his poetry is both political and personal.

On my university homepage I keep a log of my lectures and other speaking engagements. I now feature a page on ESSE-9 in Aarhus where I am going to first present my Gibbons-paper...

Here is the abstract:

The Survival of a Dissident Poet: Life in the Little Magazines before and after the Web – the Case of The Evergreen Review and Robert Gibbons

Robert Gibbons’ new volume of poetry Beyond Time – New and Selected Work 1977 - 2007 forms a rare vantage point from which to open a discussion of the themes proposed for this seminar on innovative voices on language and self. Over four decades Gibbons has remained an unincorporated, strongly political, and consistently dissident voice in the American landscape of little magazines and independent publication. Unaffiliated with any formal movement or coterie Gibbons has instead focused on developing his personal poetics of nonconformity, specializing in the hybrid form of the prose poem.

While being forced early on to depend on the acceptance of journal editors to find publication outlets, Gibbons has latterly begun utilizing internet and web-based publication options to a much larger extent. His spontaneous composition ideals make his output, which at times mimics forms such as the journal, the almanac and the blog, ideally suited for a quick turn-around in terms of publication. His confessions and reportage from a place-bound life on the streets of his favorite cities and among clean, well-lighted book-stacks balance carefully between the personal and the political, detailing the vagaries of having a compulsion to write for dear life while simultaneously being compelled to work for a living.

Parallel with his increasing utilization of ‘fast’ media, Gibbons has continued to work within more traditional little magazine outlets, such as The Evergreen Review, where recent poems have just appeared. The multiplication of publication outlets provided by the Web means that publication and gate-keeping in the arts have changed completely, and that whole new rules for peer, coterie and/or self-publication are now in place. Gibbons has navigated this new multifaceted field in a manner that could well be characterized as a celebration of 'indefatigable privateness', i.e. the visions of the individual – yet equally so as an indefatigable political commitment to a community, both local and global.
Some of my previous work on Gibbons can be found here:


The Atlantic Community

Gibbons' previous book, Body of Time, is reviewed here in The Evergreen Review

And here in Cercles by Camelia Elias in her inimitable fashion...

More info on Gibbons' work can be found here...

Here is how he presents his view on work, language and self at his relatively new web site:
Language having more to do with blood than dictionary, physical as much as cerebral. Spontaneous more than calculated. Rife with sensuousness. As internal as dream, eternal as memory. The insistence of pulse, breath, & bodily fluid. Blood of Love, I wrote once, dripping it repeatedly down the page, Blood of Love, Blood of Love, which could have culminated in a yell, “Stella!” If that were her name. Always the feet tracing streets from Paris to Barcelona; a dialogue of the citizenry of self with city & history. Skin & bone & wound. Letter by letter back home documenting experience. The second life of writing, as intense, or more so, than living. Aesthetic based on the tactile. The chew of the word. A certain taste, not always familiar. I’d film words like Godard, if I could, chant like Coltrane, if need be, paint a sign like Kline, however one has to get it down, send it out, make a note. Thrust & parry, the battle & pleasure.
Check out the rich vein of poetry flowing to his readers from his daily Log... A recent poem:
The Pleasure of the Text
Thursday, March 27,

She arrived via the elevator of the dream announcing that my sources were in order, which meant the latest stack of books included the Goya amidst the foundation of black notebooks, Black Sun, again by Kristeva, the newly added Basic Writings of Nietzsche, & topped off by a little yellow paperback version of The Pleasure of the Text by Barthes, intimating that this latter held the greatest interest for her. Just the night before we’d already spoken of the transparency of the Soul, whenever it appeared in dreams, whether the rose enclosed in double panes of glass floating down the aisle of a public bus, or the vitrine that appeared after I told her I also loved the back side of her Soul. Now, for Barthes, the pleasure of the text culminates in the unveiling of the sex, but such an exposure that cannot come too quickly, & must be justified by the rhythm of the language leading up to its revelation, whether it be the rhythm of the dance, the musical counterpoint of Debussy humbly seeking to give pleasure, voyeuristic clothesline strung taut in a long novel, or the slow emergence of ideas from the body, which he says differ from those of his own.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Cool Numbers

Math has probably never been cooler than it is right now. This is caused by the usual cocktail of money and image/exposure. Two geeky manifestations support my claim...

Lately, more popular science books on maths related themes than ever before have begun to appear. I know because my wife likes to read this type of thing, so I pick them up at airports and similar places. Barry Mazur's Imagining Numbers (Particularly the Square Root of Minus Fifteen), John D. Barrow's The Book of Nothing, Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, Brian Clegg's Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable to name but a few.... Amazon literally provides dozens of similar titles.

Now even more focused and specialized phenomena have become the topic of 'biographies' in this vein. Where Zero and Infinity seemed the dynamic duo, the Robin and Batman of the previous generation of popular math books, the new protagonist superheroes are the Prime numbers. Partly, this is due to the publicity afforded quite esoteric matters such as the Riemann Hypothesis and other conundrums in math since the Clay Mathematics Institute offered a million dollars for the solution of each of seven big problems in math that had so far resisted proof, including the Riemann.

So far, the most publicity has gone to a rather obscure and eccentric Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman, who seems to have dealt with the so-called Poincaré Conjecture, although it may turn out that adjudicating whether proposed solutions are truly valid or not may not be a trivial thing. Certainly I cannot quite figure out if Perelman has been given his million yet - or even wants it (he did get the so-called Fields Medal for his work but declined the award )... The BBC has a somewhat poppy video on this.

Back to the Riemann issue. This problem has to do with the frequency and distribution of prime numbers in the list of integers or whole numbers. It seems indisputable that there are proportionally more primes among the lower numbers in this infinite list, but what one cannot really prove is that despite the fact that there are fewer primes among higher numbers there will never be a point on the list where the last, highest prime is located. One assumes that there will never be a final prime - but can this be mathematically proven? This is not in itself a particularly sexy problem, and it doesn't even seem to be a problem whose solution will automatically generate a lot of practical advantages in the form of patents, products or other money-making propositions...

Despite this, the Riemann hypothesis has generated at least 5 popular books after the announcement of the Millennium problems: John Derbyman's Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics; Marcus Du Sautoy's The Music of the Primes: Seeking to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics; Dan Rockmore's Stalking the Riemann Hypothesis: The Quest to Find the Hidden Law of Prime Numbers; Keith J. Devlin's The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time; and Karl Sabbagh's Dr. Riemann's Zeros (apparently also published as The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics)... One notes that most of these titles try to sex up the subject by borrowing terminology from best-selling genres: Detective novel: "Unsolved mystery!" True crime: "Stalking!" and Romance: "Quest to Find!"

I only have one of these books, Sabbagh's volume, and my comments therefore only really specifically address his book. His prologue is illuminating: It starts with a comparison between popular anthropology books and books about mathematicians, the premise being that math geeks are also an exotic tribe whose behaviour can be very exciting to follow from a safe distance comfortably seated in your armchair. The Trobrianders, the Nuer and the Geeks, same thing: foreign languages, bizarre rituals and social customs, uncharted sex lives... This is of course familiar territory from other popular representations of math geeks: John Nash, the schizophrenic real-life protagonist of Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind (and the less-known Gwynneth Paltrow-vehicle Proof, which follows his daughter's problems with her father's legacy), is the most prominent case in point.

Sabbagh then moves on to anecdotes about how kids choose the math-path at a very early age and through all their stories talk about their considerable persistence, tenacity and stubbornness is following their calling. This rather makes math whiz-kids sound like missionaries and similar zealots. Again the attraction lies in the extraneous narratives rather than in the actual math. Sabbagh's book inscribes itself in the life writing genre in this portion. Many of the points the mathematicians Sabbagh has spoken with make have to do with exactly the intersection between math and their lives, such as the professor who thinks that the most remakable thing about his turning 60 is that that number is wedged between a twin pair of prime numbers: 59 and 61.

The first chapter of the book gives an intro to prime numbers and to the history behind Riemann's fascination with them. Again the most interesting part of the chapter consists of interview snippets from Sabbagh's encounters with mathematicians. My particular favourite is the Japanese professor, Yoichi Motohashi, who loves primes because of their 'tactile' quality:

In mathematics most things are abstract, but I have some feeling that I can touch the primes, as if they are made of a really physical material. To me the integers as a whole are like physical particles.
Motohashi is not only an essentialist who believes in the mysterious presence of some signs - in effect playing the same mythological role as words in the Adamic language which captures the innermost essence of that which it names - but also ignorant of etymology: After all integer means exactly 'untouchable' (teger comes from the Latin tangere, to touch). Good luck, Professor Moto, touching the untouchable!

OK, by the end of chapter one I began losing interest in Sabbagh's book, proportionally with the amount of specific math content growing, relative to the anecdotal material diminishing. I suppose the prime (time) stuff (i.e. anecdotes) became fewer and further between as the amount of ordinary integers (math for math geeks) increased... I'll leave the rest of Sabbagh for sleepless nights.

My other manifestation of geek cool of course comes from the media sphere. I've already mentioned how hunky Gladiator star, Russell Crowe, became mentally ill math whiz, John Nash, in the award-winning biopic A Beautiful Mind. Life writing again - we need to know what makes the freak tick and the woodwork squeek. It used to be that tortured geniuses a la J.D. Salinger came primarily from literature, or philosophy (Ludwig, oh Ludwig), or music (Ludwig, oh Ludwig), but now there is a new type of geek in town.

The latest and most fun example of the cool geek is the TV-series Numb3rs which features two math superstars on its roster. One is the cool (but geeky) type, Charlie Eppes, played by David Krumholtz. CBS provides this character info for him:
Charlie Eppes, professor of mathematics at a Southern California technical university, uses math to help his brother Don solve perplexing crimes for the FBI. Charlie is wary of people and enthralled with objects...
His geeky (but cool (well, sort of) sidekick), Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, played by the inimitable Peter MacNicol (almost reprising his brilliant character from Ally McBeal) gets this rap sheet:
Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, Charlie's friend and colleague, urges him to focus his attention more on his math studies than on FBI business. A brilliant physicist, Larry is awkward in social situations...

These two have seriously sexy, big brains but aren't much to look at in the conventional sense. Yet they drive the humour of the show, rendering the actual FBI-stuff involving shooting, stalking and capturing the bad guys relatively secondary in this 'crime' series. The show's motto also downplays the police procedural aspect:
We all use math every day; to predict weather, to tell time, to handle money. Math is more than formulas or equations; it’s logic, it’s rationality, it’s using your mind to solve the biggest mysteries we know.
Geeks thus rule rationality through formulas whose application invariably and logically leads to the necessary clues that solve the equations and then the crimes. Psychology, philosophy, medicine have all had their heyday as auxillary disciplines in detective shows, but now math has finally reached its prime!