Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Day the Music Died

On Sunday I compared the book Off the Record to a large party comprised of celebrities from the music industry. One of these was Don Maclean, who talked about his megahit American Pie. The famously long eulogy begins like this:

A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they'd be happy for a while.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn't take one more step.

I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.


When I was in college I had a friend named Rob who made it a point to explain the song to me when it became a hit in 1971. I didn't get it at first because, well, I didn't really understand who Buddy Holly really was.

In Off the Record Don McLean says he wrote these opening lines and the chorus, but then let it drop for three months. Then one day he wrote this whole story about the day the music died.

When I was into the karaoke thing in the nineties, American Pie was in most of the books, but with nine minutes length it was a mood killer when anyone chose to sing it. The song is great, but when you're waiting your turn to sing, it feels like an eternity to get through, especially when someone is up there butchering it.

McLean says that even he and his band were butchering it at first when they tried to perform it. The song didn't fully come together until they were in the studio recording it. Paul Griffin, a piano player who had recorded with Dylan, brought the bounce and dynamite to the lively parts and McLean was able to convey the importance of the rhythm variations.

Shortly after the song became a hit, while I was in college in Athens, Ohio, a bus load of young hippies from the Children of God cult came through town, handed out tracts explaining the song American Pie. It was a time of upheaval and confusion, and their answer was that this was a prophetic song for our time because it was the end of the world.

McLean says that when the song become something of an anthem for the generation, it became a difficult cross for him to bear. He had become too famous too fast and it was hard to follow through the normal paces of a developing artist.

Memorial Day weekend this year I attended a special event at Duluth's Armory where many Northlanders (including a young Bob Dylan) heard Buddy Holly's second-to-last concert. From Duluth he and the band went to Milwaukee, their fateful last stop before ending their careers in an Iowa cornfield. The pictures on my blog here are of photos taken backstage and onstage at that last concert... Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn't play.

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.

And they were singing,
"bye-bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
And them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin', "this'll be the day that I die.
"this'll be the day that I die."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Influences

I heard a great quote the other day that went something like this: "Every artist has influences. It is the artist's duty to transform and transcend them." (William Styron)

One hallmark of the modern era in art is its insistence on originality. Each of us is instructed to find our own voice, to create "authentic" work that is truly our own and truly original. So it is that a Jackson Pollock gets high praise from the art critics not because of the painterliness or skill which he demonstrated, but because of the originality.

The problem with finding your "authentic" original style is the burden it places on young artists as they strive to avoid copying and push themselves straight toward the masterpieces they dream of doing some day. For beginning artists, there is absolutely nothing wrong with copying what you like, or even what you don't, because it will teach you things. As long as you don't claim it as your own.

[Aside: Borges once wrote what I consider to be a hilarious story about copying called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" in which a fictitious writer (I assume, since with Borges it is often hard to sort fact and fiction) Pierre Menard reproduces the Cervantes' master work word for word. the story is written as a book review of the Menard reproduction in which the author declares Menard's work is superior. Two paragraphs are compared and the reviewer rhapsodizes over the improvement Menard brings to his version, even though it is identical.]

On the other hand, what are we to think of those cultures where reproduction is the order of the day in their art. We went to the Southwest last year and saw Native American art where many of the symbols and images have remained unchanged for centuries. In Asia there are artists making pictures the same way they did a millennium ago. What was the process by which a Picasso or Pollock emerged from our culture and not theirs. In this sense we see a huge influence being the culture we find ourselves in.

As artists, we are so immersed in our culture that we're often oblivious to its influence on us, much like the air that surrounds us, which we take into our lungs and is transported into every cell of our being.

Andre Gide (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1924) once said, "Those who fear influences and shy away from them are tacitly confessing the poverty of their souls."

The reality is that we are all part of something bigger than we are. And the people who have made the greatest impact understand this, that they are interconnected in ways both visible and invisible to the greater streams, forces and stories of history.

Food for thought, for another day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music

Imagine that you have been invited to a huge party, and when you get there everyone is a somebody... a Somebody in the history of pop music. Who do you talk to first? Do you walk around looking for your favorites first? Or do you just saunter around talking with whoever you run into next?

That's what it's like to pick up the book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.

Obviously a party like that can only be assembled by someone with connections. In this case the author is Joe Smith, who happened to be president and CEO of Capitol Industries-EMI (the same ones who signed the Beatles, Dylan and so many more.) Before this he had been president of Warner Bros./Reprise and Elektra. A Yale grad who became a popular and successful disc jockey, Smith seems like just the right guy to gather all these other pop celebs under one roof.

The book is handled just right. There are no long interviews. Like the party, you can bounce around for a brief spell with Tom Petty, then George Harrison, Little Richard, Ray Charles. Over here is Dylan and is that Yoko Ono? Oh yes, talking with Joni Mitchell, Phil Collins and Ella Fitzgerald. Joan Baez, Robert Plant and James Taylor seem to be enjoying themselves over there with Tina Turner and David Bowie. Then you see the jazz guys, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck staring out the window onto the lawn where Quincy Jones is listening to Robbie Krieger, Mary Travers, Frankie Valli, Al Kooper and Herbie Hancock. Donovan pensively listens to John Fogerty and David Lee Roth. Judy Collins seems to be reminiscing with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. I Lou Rawls and Tom Petty can't seem to get enough of Henry Mancini.

O.K., you get the picture. And the stories they tell are fascinating because pop culture has played a role in all of our lives.

My bedtime reading ended with Mike Nesmith talking about the Monkees. They were not a music group, they were characters on a television show. The purpose of the show was not to end up with hit records, he says. But one day they're driving along in the car and hear that their song Last Train to Clarksville is #2 on the national charts. Nesmith says the very notion of it was bizarre. Suddenly everything changed.

The Monkees were shipped to London to prepare for a road tour as a music group, but they weren't really sure about how they really felt, nevertheless they followed through. One strange quirk about the tour was having Jimi Hendrix open for them. Mickey Dolenz had heard Hendrix in a London club and made the recommendation, which Nesmith off handedly thought was O.K., sight and sound unseen. When they arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, to do their first gig, the Hendrix trio is mind blowing, even in appearance, but the teeny bopper screamers are there only for one purpose, and it's not the Experience of Jimi Hendrix.

Nesmith says he disguised himself and went into the crowd to snatch a listen. He'd never heard anything like it. "It was the most exhilarating, the most majestic, the most entertaining, the most fulfilling music I'd ever heard," said Nesmith.

But the mismatch was self-evident and after eight gigs Jimi had had it. The girls were chanting, "We want the Monkees," and in the middle of a song the most incredible guitar player of a generation left the stage in the middle of a song, disgusted.

For the record, this book offers a lot. It's real, it's intimate, up close and personal. Recommended.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Steve Wynn's Famous Oops

Time magazine called billionaire Steve Wynn one of the world's 100 most influential people. Certainly having suitcases full of money gives one a fair measure of leverage in circles of power, and even though the troubled economy reduced his net worth by half he still remains in the billionaire league.

You can't go to Las Vegas without seeing Wynn fingerprints everywhere. Beginning with The Mirage, Wynn established a new standard for lavish casinos on the Strip. Ultimately, through various investment and development deals, and superb timing, Steve Wynn achieved the kind of fame and fortune most people won't even dream about because it's just too far out there.

There are probably two primary reasons people go to Las Vegas. One is to gamble, and the other is to see the shows, many of which are quite spectacular. The highlight of one of my business trips to Vegas was seeing Steve Wynn's personal art collection which used to be on display at the Wynn Casino.

I do not know how extensive his personal collection really is -- he owns paintings by Cezanne, Gaugin, van Gogh, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Andy Warhol -- but for a very small fee I was able see a portion of it here. It was set up so that when you walked into the room, they gave you a headset which enabled you to hear Steve Wynn warmly describe each piece, it's history and what he particularly enjoyed about it. Sadly, the gallery closed in 2006, though many of the works are purportedly still on display around the resort.

The centerpiece of Wynn's collection was Le Rêve, a Picasso portrait that was the working name of this resort project. Wynn purchased the painting in 1997 for $48.4 million. In 2006 he reportedly was preparing to sell it to fellow art enthusiast Steve Cohen for $139 million, which would at that time have been the highest price paid for any piece of art. Unfortunately, two days after reaching they came to an agreement, Wynn got a wee bit too close to his masterpiece and put his elbow through it, while showing it to a group of reporters. Wynn apparently suffers from an eye disorder and failed to notice how close his elbow was to the surface.

Needless to say, Wynn still owns the painting. Hopefully he will retain enough of his eyesight to continue appreciating it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Light and Sound

I remember once when I was a teen in New Jersey watching a neighbor pounding a metal stake into the ground with hammer at dusk. The interesting part was that I was several houses away and that when the hammer hit, I would see the sparks, but the sound came a couple seconds after. This delay made an impression on me.

Last Sunday evening here in Duluth I re-experienced the same phenomenon during the Garfield Avenue time trials, that is, drag racing. My family and I were up on Skyline Drive, overlooking the bay. Down below on Garfield cars were revving it up and giving it a full go, with gusto. The noise up close must have been deafening, but from where we stood there was no sound at all when the cars leapt from the starting line. Three or four seconds would pass and then we'd hear the muted roar.

The speed of light is approximately 186,282 miles per second, the speed of sound approximately 1,125 feet per second or 768 mph.

Here's one way of comparing. A superloud ka-boom would take about 16 hours before it could be heard on the other side of the world, whereas light would be there (if it could bend) in a fraction of a second. In short, light and sound travel at different speeds.

What I was thinking is how there are things in life that are a little like the differential between light and sound. For example, we see something happen now but the impact of what we saw takes time to reach us.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor was something on this order. The surprise attack hit the news wires almost immediately. The drums of war quickly followed. The mobilization of America's young men and the impact of those war years took longer still.

The collapse of the housing market and the subsequent economic turmoil is another such example. I knew people who saw the light, but it wasn't till later that we heard the moans.

There's an interesting line in Bob Dylan's Lonesome Day Blues that twists this relationship between light and sound on its head. "Last night the wind was whispering, I was trying to make out what it was. I tell myself something's coming, but it never does." What if we think we see light and anticipate an explosion, but the explosion never comes? It's been said that 90% of what we worry about never happens.

I guess that's why history books aren't written in advance. That's really part of the adventure of living because we really don't know what's going to happen next.

Have a thoughtful day, and a very special weekend.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Conquistadors

I've recently been reading a book about the Conquistadors, with its focus specifically on how Hernan Cortez conquered the Montezuma and the Aztecs. It is an almost unbelievable account of how an army of hundreds brought down the most powerful empire of what is now called Central America. The population of Tenochtitlan, the island city at the center of the Aztec empire, had been as much as 200,000. So the Cortez expedition was audacious in the extreme.

A week or so ago I came across an interesting document assembled by the U.S. Marines called Elements of Combat. I had been intending to blog it and make comments on how it applied to Viet Nam (I had just finished watching Hamburger Hill) and World War I (I had just finished Kubrick's Paths of Glory, also) and then see how it applied to the Civil War as well.

As I read through this list, I thought about the men whom Cortez was leading into the heart of the continent back then in 1519-20. Their eyes might have been mesmerized by the prospects of gold, but their hearts were undoubtedly set on home.

According to the NAVMC 2767, “User’s Guide to Marine Corps Leadership,” the nine elements of combat are:
• Violent, unnerving sights and sounds
• Casualties
• Confusion and lack of information (fog of war and friction)
• Feelings of isolation
• Communications breakdown
• Individual discomfort and physical fatigue
• Fear, stress and mental fatigue
• Continuous operations
• Homesickness

Pray for our young people in Afghanistan today. You can be sure it's no cakewalk.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Warhol and Lichtenstein

I picked up some Warhol books from the library yesterday. Andy Warhol, A Retrospective is an overview of his art and influences. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and Back Again) is a potpourri of insights and observations on everything, from the Warhol perspective. When I was looking at it last night it reminded me of Jack Handy, a weird wrinkled way of looking at the world. I noticed also, based on a photo in The Life & Death of Andy Warhol, that he died at age 58, the age I will be in a few weeks.

What led me to pick up the Warhol books was an article on Roy Lichtenstein that I had seen recently. Lichtenstein was a pop artist who produced large reproductions of comic book panels or paintings in that comic book style. Both he and Warhol, with those soup cans, had emerged big time on the New York art scene in the 60's. As an early 70's art student I was put off by both. I took my inspiration from painters, from Picasso and Matisse to Dali and Magritte. Even Duchamp, who abandoned painting altogether, was at least philosophically stimulating. The pop art movement didn't get me, or rather, I didn't get it.

A half century later I believe I was half right. Even though Lichtenstein continues to be praised, I just don't get into his work. He coined a style and I think the style silly. I would love to discover that in some private part of his life he was actually painting landscapes or tigers and that these comic book blow ups were just what he did for a living because a few rich people were willing to pay him a small fortune to do it.

Lichtenstein is referenced in the book 501 Great Artists, "a comprehensive guide to "the giants of the art world." And this Urban Monarch page called him one of five artists you should know about. But why? Who decided this stuff was great art?

Warhol, on the other hand, might be one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century. Can most people even name an artist from that period? Paula Rego? Giovanni Anselmo? Donald Judd? Claes Oldenburg? O.K., most people have probably seen an Oldenburg sculpture, but probably don't know his name. I liked David Hockney's paintings, and Rauschenburg's innovations, but these talented guys have never transcended the art scene have they?

Warhol's work, on the other hand, bled across all barriers so that his most basic observation about fifteen minutes of fame is as well known as a line from Shakespeare. Warhol himself was a work of art, his persona crafted. "Oh, that's interesting." But his process of mass reproduction (via screen printing) enabled collectors all over the world to have a piece of his action.

Whether you like the man himself, or his values, his genius for self-promotion and his understanding of the culture are both undisputed. Hence his cult status in many circles. Was his art really a joke? I don't think so, even if much of what he said comes across that way.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Amazing Daisy Rosebud

I met Daisy Rosebud on July 31 when I went to the March for Freedom on behalf of the hikers taken captive a year ago in Iran. Cindy Hickey, whose son is still imprisoned, had been a dog agility trainer with Daisy being one of her incredibly talented clients, and Kim Vogel Daisy's owner. Cindy's involvement with training canine athletes explains why there were dogs present on the day of the march when Senator Franken led us from the Lakewalk to the Tech Center. While waiting for the senator's arrival I was introduced to Daisy and Kim.

Kim: This is Daisy Rosebud. I have 190,000 pictures of her.

Ennyman: 190,000!

Kim: Ever since she was a puppy, she's 8 ½ now, I've taken the pictures. I have a little studio and I'd dress her up in different holiday outfits, different themes. She also does agility*, so we do pictures of agility. And she's also a registered therapy dog and she responds to over 200 commands. She goes to Gillette Children's Hospital and does tricks for the kids.

E: What are some of the commands?

Kim: Oh, she licks her lips, and she waves, and she does the hokey pokey and patty cake, and roll over, and wave, and bow, and what else? She can spin around in circles, weave through my legs and do serpentines around cones, and agility. All the agility things and the therapy type things. And the Minnesota state lottery commercial, of the dog eating the roast beef, the pug, that's her. And now she's posing for Target.

E: Is that on YouTube?

Kim: I don't know, I don't think so. When she poses, you can put her in any position, and get her to pose, move her eyes anywhere you want, turn her head, so they really like her. So she poses for Target ads. She was just recently in the Target ad in a big billboard above the rugs.

E: So is she destined for the kind of fame that will give your children an inheritance?

Kim: Probably not. You don't get a lot of money, you do it just for fun. I train her every morning so she responds really easily. I can teach her tricks really, really easily.

There sure are a lot of interesting people in the world... and dogs, too!

*Agility is an international dog competition. The trainer guides the dog through an obstacle course involving tunnels, jumps, weaving through poles and more without actually touching the dog or the obstacles. Dogs are judged on their speed and accuracy.

Kim and Dennis Vogel are chemists at 3M in St. Paul. Read more about Dog Agility Training at eHow.


FREE THE HIKERS. Josh, Shane and Sarah have now been detained 389 days and counting.

Photos courtesy Kim Vogel. Click images to enlarge.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ten Minutes with Andrew Perfetti

It's been said that if a man is worth knowing at all, he's worth knowing well. I met the entrepreneurial Andy through his business Goin' Postal, a Fedex/UPS/shipping store here in Superior, Wisc. When I saw some of his photography I was impressed. And through Facebook learned he is a musician in a number of bands.

Ennyman: How long have you been doing photography seriously?

Andrew Perfetti: Seriously? I've been doing photography seriously for probably about a year. I've been shooting pictures for about 2 years, so I haven't been doing it for that long but it’s become kind of an obsession.

E: What drew you to photography?

AP: Honestly, this is going to sound very strange, but the show Six Feet Under. My family, the last couple years we've been going through some health issues; my father has gotten cancer pretty serious, and my grandfather had cancer, and we took him down the road and he finally passed away last February. But the show, I started watching the show Six Feet Under, and it’s this family of funeral directors. Anyway, one of the characters is a young woman who's having this hard time dealing with her life, and she's very artistic and she finds photography by chance, and finds it to be something she can use as an outlet. Ironically enough, that's kind of what happened to me. So the more that I got absorbed in that show, I thought it could be something that I could really use as a benefit to my personal well being.

E: Doing photography?

AP: Yes, photography. I borrowed my dad's old film camera about 2 years ago. Actually he gave it to me because I didn't have money to buy a digital camera, so I thought I would try this out. So I took the camera and I went out and bought a bunch of rolls of film, and I went over to a friend of mine that had a concert, one of my fellow musicians, and I took pictures at his show. When I developed them, I was surprised how they turned out. So I started reading all kinds of books on photography, and got inspired to pursue it further by this television show, which is kind of shallow, but I just started getting a knack for it and it became sort of a healthy obsession. I'm the kind of person who needs to be doing something all the time. I'm not good at just sitting and not doing anything. I have a hard time relaxing, and photography gives me an excuse to get out of the house and go out and be social, while normally I would be kind of cooped up watching movies and playing music and not interacting with the outside world.

E: You do more than just take pictures. You work with Photoshop and you fine tune, and you seem to have a very interesting vision with regards to your work. Did you have that when you were young and when did this first come out like that?

AP: A lot of that has to do with music. When I was in high school I painted a picture of Jimi Hendrix in my art class, and it took me a couple weeks and it’s a very simple portrait, but I listened to Jimi Hendrix the whole time and I was just obsessed with it through the music. And of course Jimi Hendrix is one of my huge inspirations as a musician. I think if you look at my photos, the feeling and the mood of how I work with color and contrast in my photos is very related to the music I'm listening to while I'm editing them. I listen to a lot of Velvet Underground, a lot of drone music like that, Arcade Fire, things that are very emotive in their context, and music inspires that emotion in me. If I'm in an angry mood I listen to angry music, and my rock and roll photography comes out very aggressive looking. But if I'm listening to melancholy music then my colors are a little softer and there's a little more fog and mystery in the photos. The darkness tells more in a photo to me than the light does. I tend not to use a lot of flash and things like that, but I do a lot of rock and roll photography and a lot of band photography, so that music element kind of dictates how I frame the shot and in the end it dictates how I address the photo in Photoshop. I try not to do any real modification outside of enhancing color, sometimes adding a color filter to change the color a bit and I will enhance or decrease the contrast, but I don't do any photo manipulation per se. I don't add outside structure to my photos or anything along those lines.

E: So you mentioned painting Hendrix to the music of Hendrix. I also paint listening to music and a lot of artists do, probably. But you're also a musician yourself, you play guitar and you're in a number of bands. How did that emerge?

AP: Well when I grew up, my brother and sister were Duluth Accordionaires, and I used to have to go to all of their shows. My parents would load us up in the minivan and we'd drive to Iowa for an Accordion show or Chicago or so forth. And I really, really made it a point to my parents that I did not want to play accordion. I was a fan of rock and roll music from a very young age. My first cassette tape was Michael Jackson’s Thriller when it came out when I was in kindergarten and the very next tape was Iron Maiden Piece of Mind. So I always gravitated towards guitar oriented music and as far as the guitar aspect, when I was in high school, or junior high, I think I was in 8th grade, I had a paper route for many years, and I saved up my paper route money and bought a guitar and I became very attached to it. As a matter of fact when I was a kid I used to sleep with my guitar, and bring it to school with me. I didn't really know how to play it for a couple years but it was always on me, on the bus. I took lessons and I didn't really grow too much until later in high school I became a real fast player, heavy metal, which at the time was kind of popular and I wanted to play fast. And Jimi Hendrix… I liked to listen to that kind of thing but it didn't really appeal to me as far as playing it, because I don't think I was at the age where I understood what they were trying to say. At that age you just have a lot of angst and energy and you just want to play.

I kind of fell out of it and joined the army and through the next eight or ten years didn't really play any music. My parents sent me a guitar when I was overseas in the army and that was nice but I didn't really play much. Then about five years ago, some friends from college needed a band for a college party and I always helped organize events and I said I can’t find a band but I'll just put one together. So that started me back into it. Just like my photography obsession, when I get into something artistic I pursue it to the nth degree. And I played in several bands and I help promote shows and I teach guitar.

I teach advanced soul techniques and stuff like that. I've moved away quite a bit from real structured music and I play reggae now, whereas I used to play blues and heavy metal quite a bit. I feel like guitar helps me paint layers of sound. I use a lot of multiple delay pedals and wop pedal and a lot of effects to build intensity like a whirlwind of sound, and kind of use that to add a layer over to the music. And that's kind of what I feel like I do with my photography. I look at things in layers and add layers or take things away so. It’s always got to be dramatic, which is maybe a downfall, but it’s what I have a flair for.

E: It's who you are.

Lower right: my interpretation of Andy, bringing it home, on guitar.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dylan Art Show Opens In Denmark

If you are Denmark any time between September 4 and January 30, you owe it to yourself to check out the Dylan show on display at the National Gallery in Copenhagen. Yes, the venue is an art museum, and the show is not a live performance but rather a collection of 40 paintings and 8 drawings by the artist Bob Dylan.
Most Dylan fans have been aware of this other side of the fabled songwriter/musician. Yet many do not know how serious he has been about his art through the years. So it is quite interesting that a major gallery has also taken notice and given Bob the opportunity to create a collection just for this purpose, kind of a high level commission.

According to a story in the ArtDaily, ”I've been to the National Gallery of Denmark and it definitely is an impressive art museum. It was more than a little surprising when I was asked to create works specifically for this museum. It was an honor to be asked and a thrilling challenge. I chose Brazil as a subject, because I have been there many times and I like the atmosphere,” Bob Dylan states.

Bob Dylan’s new series reflects the settings and people he came across in Brazil. Here, we find depictions of everyday scenes in cities and in the country. Wine growers, gypsies, politicians, gamblers, and gangsters. A motley collection of motifs and subject matter that accentuates the artist’s fascination with the diversity of Brazil. The works appear almost like anthropological records, shorn of any romantic sentiments, preconceptions, or social commentary. The motif itself, its compositional potential, and the underlying narrative would appear to be the features that most interest the artist.

The article went on to say, Dylan's visual art should not be interpreted in conjunction with his music, that clues for meaning or understanding are within the art itself, which is a separate universe from his music. Said Dylan, "If I could have expressed the same in a song, I would have written a song instead.”

Frankly, I don't think I'll be able to make it to the show since I have no trips to Europe planned any time soon, but I might buy the book. The piece I saw looked quite interesting.

Top: Favela Villa Broncos by Bob Dylan, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 106.7 x 142.2 cm. Posted here without permission.

Here's a link to my own most recent portrait of Dylan.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Is there a God?

At the 125th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church this summer in St. Paul, MN, Peter Cha, an associate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, gave a message about the questions college students are asking as pertains faith issues.

Forty years ago, Paul Little of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) recorded that the four most prevalent questions asked by college students in the modern era were these:
1. Is there a God?
2. Is Christ God?
3. Is the Bible reliable?
4. Is it full of errors?

Today Rick Richardson, an IVCF evangelism associate, has studied the recurring questions college students are asking in a post-modern era. They are these:
1. How can I trust the Church that has done such terrible things in the name of Jesus?
2. Does your religion help society, especially those who suffer and are marginalized?
3. Aren't you just another self-serving group?
4. Doesn't the Church justify and maintain racial and gender hierarchical structures in the society?

The questions are harder, and reveal much.
If I were to assemble a list of questions I hear, I don't know that it would be identical to this. But there is one question that does seem to recur. It is less about Christianity specifically and more about religion in general. Here is the question: Why is there so much violence in the name of religion?

Clearly, the evidence is all around us that we live in a broken world. And people are uncertain where to turn for answers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dedication


Dedication
A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke

I have great faith in all things not yet spoken.
I want my deepest pious feelings freed.
What no one yet has dared to risk and warrant
will be for me a challenge I must meet.

If this presumptuous seems, God, may I be forgiven.
For what I want to say to you is this:
my efforts shall be like a driving force,
quite without anger, without timidness
as little children show their love for you.

With these outflowing, river-like, with deltas
that spread like arms to reach the open sea,
with the recurrent tides that never cease
will I acknowledge you, will I proclaim you
as no one ever has before.

And if this should be arrogance, so let me
arrogant be to justify my prayer
that stands so serious and so alone
before your forehead, circled by the clouds.


For more poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and others visit PoemHunter.com.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

While in college I had some good friends who introduced me to jazz. A world opened up and my musical horizons expanded considerably. Names like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane had meant nothing to me before that. They introduced me to a vast array of new sounds of which I had previously been unaware. Some of the names were uttered with a measure of reverence by these guys. One of these was a guy named Mingus.

Jazz fans greatly rejoiced in the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the history of jazz. As I watched the series it unearthed forgotten memories and led me to pick up a few new CDs. To help with making selections I looked at a list of the top fifty jazz albums of all time. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was #2 on that list and I accidentally purchased two so that we have a "his" and "hers" copy. Great album.

Number one on this particular list was Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I purchased it soon after.

It had been a long time since I listened to Mingus and the strangeness of the sound was initially off-putting. I gave it a chance and then just couldn’t get into it. For more than a year, it may be two now, I had that CD in my car without giving a second listen. Till yesterday, when it blew me away.

Under the Volcano

It may have been twenty years ago I first picked up Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, in part because its setting was in one of my favorite cities in Mexico, Cuernavaca, and also because it was on of the top ranked books on the Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. Because the book is dense, convoluted, and not easily accessible I set it aside after two or three chapters.

A couple years later, I again picked up the book, beginning at the beginning. I did not do much better the second time either. But after yet another year, it seemed that when I picked it up a third time, I was transported. I understood the characters, and seemed to grasp what Lowry was striving to achieve with this tragic story.

My point is this. Whether it be music, art, literature, don't draw "conclusions for a lifetime" just because your first encounter with something original or different was jarring. (The same probably applies to people and cultures.)

For some reason, yesterday, when I slid The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady into the CD player in my car, I was mesmerized. I could see plainly that this was a work requiring significant arrangement, that it was rich with the variety one finds in a Beethoven symphony, a symphony of jazz both evocative and remarkable.

THE FOLLOWING EXCERPTS were extracted from the Wikipedia entry on Mingus in an effort to give a brief intro for those unfamiliar with his life and work.

Charles Mingus, Jr. (April 22, 1922 – January 5, 1979) was an American jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and civil rights activist.

Mingus's compositions retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third stream, free jazz, and classical music. Yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz.

Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona. He was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. His mother's paternal heritage was Chinese and English, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a black farmhand and his Swedish employer's white granddaughter.

Mingus developed an early love for jazz, especially the music of Duke Ellington. He studied trombone and later cello. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument in high school. He studied five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with Lloyd Reese.

Mingus often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around 8–10 members) of rotating musicians known as the Jazz Workshop. Mingus broke new ground, constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Those who joined the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) included Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson and Horace Parlan. Mingus shaped these musicians into a cohesive improvisational machine that in many ways anticipated free jazz. Some musicians dubbed the workshop a "university" for jazz.

In 1963, Mingus released The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a sprawling, multi-section masterpiece, described as "one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ray Bradbury Hates Big Government

What does it mean to call for a revolution? This week Ray Bradbury, sci-fi author of The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451 said, “I think our country is in need of a revolution. There is too much government today. We've got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people and for the people.”

In an L.A.Times article titled Ray Bradbury Hates Big Government we can read a litany of other things Mr. Bradbury dislikes, including cell phones (too many), machines (too many), our failure to build a base on the moon so we can explore Mars, and President Obama. Mr. Bradbury is 90 now, that venerable age when you can pretty much say whatever you want.

I think there are a lot of people who have a dislike for Big Government to various degrees, from visceral hatred to perpetual annoyance, but at what point does one actually call for a revolution? There are idealists who believe any change will be a change for good but a revolution sounds like a dicey proposition to me. The French Revolution brought a reign of terror. The Russian Revolution resulted in rivers of blood during the Stalin purges. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag paints a pretty grim picture of that catastrophe.

I agree with Bradbury that we have too much government. But who will do anything about it? Or who even agrees which areas of Big Government should be trimmed? The GOP strives to tap into this discontent for votes, but the record shows how neither party delivers on that score. The State grows and grows, has grown for a hundred years and will most likely grow a hundred more.

The problem is that the people presenting alternatives (Libertarians, among others) are probably unelectable because many people do not like too complete of a paring back of government's role. Here is a selection of quotes from Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party candidate in the 2004 presidential election.

"Drug prohibition has caused gang warfare and other violent crimes by raising the prices of drugs so much that vicious criminals enter the market to make astronomical profits, and addicts rob and steal to get money to pay the inflated prices for their drugs."
Michael Badnarik

"Government is necessary for our survival. We need government in order to survive. The Founding Fathers created a special place for government. It is called the Constitution."
Michael Badnarik

"Gun bans disarm victims, putting them at the mercy of murderers or terrorists who think nothing of breaking the gun laws."
Michael Badnarik

"Gun control means being able to hit your target. If I have a 'hot button' issue, this is definitely it. Don't even think about taking my guns. My rights are not negotiable, and I am totally unwilling to compromise when it comes to the Second Amendment."
Michael Badnarik

"I am opposed to any individual taxes until we eliminate all of the unconstitutional agencies, and I suspect we wouldn't need a tax after that."
Michael Badnarik

"I find it very offensive when the government tells me what I can and cannot watch. Censor yourself."
Michael Badnarik

"I just want everyone to know that 20,000 gun laws in the United States are unconstitutional. They infringe on your right to protect your life, the lives of your loved ones, and your property."
Michael Badnarik

"If we really want liberty - if we really want liberty - then we need to go out and get it, we need to take it, because nobody is going to give it to us. And we need to do it now."
Michael Badnarik

"On average, drug prisoners spend more time in federal prison than rapists, who often get out on early release because of the overcrowding in prison caused by the Drug War."
Michael Badnarik

"The first lines of defence against criminals are the victims themselves."
Michael Badnarik

"The government never does anything successfully."
Michael Badnarik

"The question is: how bad do things have to get before you will do something about it? Where is your line in the sand? If you don't enforce the constitutional limitations on your government very soon, you are likely to find out what World War III will be like."
Michael Badnarik

"When the state or federal government control the education of all of our children, they have the dangerous and illegitimate monopoly to control and influence the thought process of our citizens."
Michael Badnarik

I wonder if Ray voted for Michael in the last election? My guess is that Mr. Badnarik wouldn't want tax dollars spent on that trip to the moon, and Mr. Bradbury wouldn't like that either.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Valkyrie

Last week I saw the film Valkyrie for the first time. The 2008 film starring Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg got panned by the critics, or at best mixed reviews, and may not have achieved the wider audience it deserved as a result.

I found the film, essentially about the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, worth seeing because it answered a question that has niggled in my head nearly two decades. Why were 5,000-7,000 people arrested by the Gestapo when one man carried a bomb into the Wolf's Lair field headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia? The answer is, because the people who plotted Hitler's assassination were not just trying to eliminate der Fuhrer, but had also laid out a comprehensive plan for taking control of the nation and setting up a new government.

The film centers on Claus von Stauffenberg, a colonel who came home from the North African front not only missing a hand and some fingers, but with a new resolve to end the madness. The war was lost, yet the fighting went on. Upon his return to Germany, his access to Hitler made him valuable to the other conspirators who understood fully the risks involved in this most dangerous game.

Unlike SPOILER ALERT the fairy tale "happy ending" in Inglourious Basterds, where Hitler is successfully eliminated, we know at the outset the plot will fail. Despite that knowledge, the tension remains palpable throughout, a true achievement for director Bryan Singer who previously gave us The Usual Suspects and Superman Returns.

There is some really great dialogue in the film as the conspirators wrestle with their personal justifications and fears as regards taking the next action. Each one understands that if the plot fails, they are all dead men. In other words, the movie uses the incident as a metaphor for our own life decisions. Most of us live pretty cushy lives and are not in these kinds of circumstances where we must put everything we love and own on the line. If and when the time comes, a film like this might speak to you in an even more profound way.

Recommended.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Arabesque

ar·a·besque /ˌærəˈbɛsk/ [ar-uh-besk] –noun
1. Fine Arts . a sinuous, spiraling, undulating, or serpentine line or linear motif.
2. a pose in ballet in which the dancer stands on one leg with one arm extended in front and the other leg and arm extended behind.
3. a short, fanciful musical piece, typically for piano.
4. any ornament or ornamental object, as a rug or mosaic, in which flowers, foliage, fruits, vases, animals, and figures are represented in a fancifully combined pattern.


A greeting on Twitter from @ozdalt, a fellow from Turkey, led me to an interesting blog entry about Arabesque music. I had not given any thought whatsoever to the Arabesque musical form in decades so I found it interesting to read a short essay about some of the issues raised with regard to a current debate over Arabesque in Turkey. I will return to this blog entry after allowing other Arabesque ideas be briefly explored.

Arabesque in Art
Wikipedia begins with the following information about the most common meaning of Arabesque.
"The arabesque is an artistic motif that is characterized by the application of repeating geometric forms and fancifully combined patterns; these forms often echo those of plants and animals.[1] Arabesques are, as their name indicates, elements of Islamic art often found decorating the walls of mosques. The choice of which geometric forms are to be used and how they are to be formatted is based upon the Islamic view of the world. To Muslims, these forms, taken together, constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. To many in the Islamic world, they concretely symbolize the infinite, and therefore uncentralized, nature of the creation of the one God (Allah). Furthermore, the Islamic Arabesque artist conveys a definite spirituality without the iconography of Christian art."

It's interesting to see how the Arabesque art form emerges out of a specific culture, that is, the Muslim world and its view that art must be non-representational. I remember seeing some arabesque motifs in Mexico a few times, brought to this hemisphere by the Spanish Conquistadors who had themselves been the vanquished for 700 years by Muslim invaders from North Africa. The art motifs remained long after the conquerors disappeared.

As regards art and culture, I have no time here to elaborate, but an exploration of what the post-modern art scene is telling us about the current culture. H.R Rookmaaker's excellent volume Modern Art & the Death of a Culture makes a good preparatory foundation for that discussion.

Arabesque in Ballet
We've all seen it, but probably (unless we're into ballet) that it's called an arabesque. It's one of the most difficult positions to master. It requires both strength and balance, and flexibility.
This is one of the positions that shows just how seasoned a dancer really is. A highly rotated hip placement, a great turnout, a high backward leg extension joined with perfect form and balance…

Ah, but it may be that you have seen a variation of the arabesque if you watch ice skating competitions. Or women performing on the balance beam in Olympic gymnastics events.

Arabesque in Film
Here's a review of the film, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren.

A Little Hitchcock Style, A Little James Bond Style, A Lot of Fun!, 31 March 2002
Author: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci (dtb) from Whitehall, PA

ARABESQUE is another fab Universal romantic thriller in the grand CHARADE tradition, including some of the same personnel! If director Stanley Donen's classic 1963 comedy-thriller CHARADE is Hitchcock Lite, then ARABESQUE is Hitchcock Lite after taking a few classes in James Bond 101 (including an opening title sequence by Maurice Binder, who also did the honors for CHARADE as well as for most of the Bond movies). As the hieroglyphics expert embroiled in Middle Eastern intrigue while decoding the cipher everyone's after, the usual slightly wooden note in Gregory Peck's delivery is oddly effective as he tries to loosen up and deliver Cary Grant-like witticisms (from co-scripter "Pierre Marton," a.k.a. CHARADE alumnus Peter Stone). Peck may not be Mr. Glib, but he's so inherently likable and seems so delighted to get an opportunity to deliver bon mots after all his serious roles that he's downright endearing, like a child trying out new words for the first time. And co-star Sophia Loren, at her most alluring as an Arab femme fatale, can make any guy look suave and sexy! Alan Badel, looking like a polished Peter Sellers in cool shades, virtually steals his scenes as the suave-bordering-on-unctuous villain with a foot fetish. Shoe lovers will swoon over the scene with Badel fitting the lovely Loren with a roomful of fancy footwear. Speaking of things of beauty, Christopher Challis's dazzling, inventive cinematography won the BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscars), and Christian Dior got a BAFTA nomination for Loren's elegant costumes. Suspenseful and sparkling as this twist-filled adventure is, ARABESQUE's biggest mystery is why it's still only available in VHS format. If this gem ever gets deluxe treatment as a DVD (including letterboxing, please!), I sure hope they get Donen and Loren together to do the kind of entertaining, informative commentary that Donen did with the late, great Stone for Criterion's CHARADE DVD. In the meantime, ARABESQUE turns up on American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies periodically, so check your TV listings -- this fun thriller is worth seeking out!

Arabesque as Music
Ozdal Tavsani begins his August 3 ruminations with this paragraph.

"Arabesque; as a kind of music which is as understood in Turkey, becomes a subject of polemics from time to time. Recently our famous piano virtuoso Fazıl Say caused a discussion complaining that Arabesque profits from uncertainties and it's a matter of laziness, agitation and trade. In his Internet messages, Fazıl Say complains about Arabesque not only because it's counted as a kind of music but also, hates the personality attached to it. He generalized his expression to Turkish nation, becoming a little rude, and said he was ashamed of Arabesque tendency of Turkish people!"

Some of the questions he raises later in the piece are thought provoking. You can read the rest of Tavsani's rant, titled Bad Music, here.

In the meantime... life goes on.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Boxer

While the Fifties Beat poets howled against the machinery of Moloch, the current corroded state of the industrial complex that was America, a great mass of popular culture was emerging, led by network television, but also supported by the pervasiveness of radio driven primarily by the music industry. The broken, disenfranchised characters that populated Howl and other writings of the Beats were at polar opposites with the bubble gum chewing bobbysoxers at sock hops, the Cleavers, baseball loving, apple pie chortling Americans who spread like moist butter into the crannies surrounding all our big cities to become Suburbia. These were those who bought into the American Dream and had begun spreading their wings.

Most of the kids of these families, the Boomer generation, listened to Top 40 radio for at least a portion of their young lives. People like Murray the K and Cousin Brucie on WABC, the top rock station on the AM dial, owned the airwaves, slinging out the super hits one after another from sea to shining sea. Consider the contrast between I Want To Hold Your Hand (#1 song of 1964) and the opening line of Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...

But during the Sixties the dark themes were seeping into popular music through various channels. The Animals took House of the Rising Sun to #38 that same year. And the songs of Simon & Garfunkel dealt with territory the Beat poets dredged like alienation (I Am A Rock, Fakin' It), suicide (Most Peculiar Man, Richard Cory), adultery (Mrs. Robinison) and brokenness (America, Over).

Which is why The Boxer was such a powerful songs of that time, one of those songs which takes you places you don't expect....

The Boxer

I am just a poor boy
though my story's seldom told,
I have squandered my existence for a pocketful of mumbles,

such are promises;
All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear
and disregards the rest,
mh -- hmm.

When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
in the company of strangers
in the quiet of a railway station
runnin' scared,
laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters

where the ragged people go,
looking for the places only they would know.

Lie-la-lie ...

Asking only workman's wages I come looking for a job
but I get no offers,

just a come on from the whores on Seventh Avenue.
I do declare
there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.

Lie la lie...

And I'm laying out my winter clothes
and wishing I was gone,
going home,
where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me,
leading me, going home...

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down
or cut him till he cried out in his anger an his shame:
I am leaving, I am leaving,
but the fighter still remains

Lie la lie...

Do you think this song would have had the same impact had been called The Golfer? Make the most of your weekend. Food for thought.

Friday, August 13, 2010

How To Teach Writing To Young People

A few years ago I had the privilege of participating in a workshop for coaches of youth soccer led by Buzz Lagos, head coach of the Minnesota Thunder, a professional soccer team. Coach Lagos showed us all kinds of neat games that would engage our kids while helping them learn basic skills. It was a fun experience and I learned a lot.

At the end of the evening he conducted a highly informative question and answer period, fielding questions with the same skills he showed us when demonstrating ball control. One attendee asked a key question that has across the board applications for all teachers or instructors. He asked “What skill level should we be expecting eight and ten year old soccer players to be at?” The answer surprised me, but then made perfect sense. Coach Lagos replied, “You should not even be thinking about skill levels at that age. What you want is for every child to learn the rules and enjoy the game.”

The coach’s reply demonstrated his love for the game. Buzz Lagos also showed a deep understanding that if the children do not enjoy playing, they will not apply themselves to mastering its fundamental skills. Instead of laying heavy expectations on eight and ten year old kids, let them simply have fun. Sure enough, this was how I developed my skills in baseball as a boy, and later as a young artist.

I also believe this is exactly what our children need when it comes to learning basic skills like reading and writing. If we can somehow foster a love of reading, and an enjoyment creative self-expression with words, we have done a remarkable thing. To give our children a love of learning, a love of reading, and the pleasure of self-expression through writing and art... what a wonderful gift!

I may be wrong, but I have always believed that children are filled with an innate desire to learn, to create, to explore, and to express themselves. In other words, as they begin life these are natural, innate motivations. Our role, then, is not to attempt to motivate, but rather to avoid quenching this natural desire. Here’s an example of how to kill the love of reading. Recently, my wife was at someone’s home when an argument erupted between the two children regarding what to watch on television. The father, infuriated, resolved the matter by punishing the one in the following manner: “Go upstairs and read a book.” Yikes! Reading as punishment is hardly the way to foster a love of reading!

Perhaps one day I will finish my book of exercises for training young people to become better and more interesting writers. In the meantime, take these words to heart. If your children have a passion for self-expression, whether through art, music or the written word, rejoice. Encourage. And worry about technique later. You never know where it will lead.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cooties

Childhood is a magical world where you have yet to learn the limits of imagination. Everything, every object, place or idea is a playground for the mind, and every game puts the stakes as high as possible simply for the thrill. "Don't let this touch the ground or the world will be blown up!"

And oh the games we played....

They say that some of the themes Beethoven incorporated into his symphonies came from the little tunes he heard being played in the villages while walking through the countryside. In the same manner, I would speculate that game manufacturers like Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers and Hasbro got many of the ideas for their games by sifting through the pop culture for ideas that were already pervasive. For example, Battleship.

My dad showed us how to make a grid and play that game on sheets of paper. We did not need a game board, fancy plastic molded ships and the like. We did it all for free, and had hours diversion. Best of all, besides price: you never had to worry about losing a game piece. But today, it is yours for only $38.78 from Milton Bradley and Hasbro. "You're the commander of your fleet, so prepare your strategy and lead your troops to victory!"

Other games have roots that initially seem a bit more obscure. Barrel of Monkeys, Ants in the Pants.... and today's theme, Cootie. I remember being in elementary school, running around being chased by girls on the playground and avoiding them because we didn't want to get "cooties." None of us had a clue what cooties were, only that it was bad. When we went to Grandma's house in the 1950's we used to play this cool game called Cootie. I never connected this game by the Schaper Mfg. Co. to what was going on in the playground till now.

If I remember correctly, each person started with a torso and by rolling a dice you got to add various components such as a head, antennae, eyes, legs and that little spiral shaped tongue. The first one to assemble a complete cootie was the winner.

So, a couple days ago I came across an article from the February 2, 1942 edition of Time magazine titled, Death Rides a Cootie. What!? The headline yanked me right in. And the first paragraph had me lashed on for the ride.

During World War I the cootie was a joke to many people who had never been bitten by one. Even itching soldiers stoically made a joke out of it. On the Western Front, thanks to frequent delousing and other precautions, the cootie seldom brought anything worse than a comparatively mild infliction called trench fever. But to millions of Germans today as to other millions in many of history's wars, the cootie means horror and death in the form of typhus.

The reason why the Cootie game was about assembling a bug is because the real cootie was a bug. Cooties were lice. And the reason boys ran from girls on the playground to avoid cooties must have certainly metamorphosed from certain adult games between men and women that could result in venereal diseases, cooties and crabs.

The lice in the trenches during the war were even more devastating, and one more reason why war was hell. The article Death Rides a Cootie is an informative read. But I'm still not sure why someone would make a children's game out of a louse.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

John Updike On Ted Williams

My junior year in high school at BRHS-West I wrote a paper for English class on the theme, "Who was the greatest baseball player of all time." I was passionate about my theme because I was, at the time, passionate myself about the Great American Game. I researched my butt off, wrestling with the problem of establishing criteria for comparing stats of old timers and current players. I likewise had to determine how much weight to give fielding skills, leadership, base running, and pitching.

When all was said and done, I wrote what I thought was a stellar paper. Ty Cobb was the greatest. And when all was said and done, Ms. Saltzbart graced that paper with a U and U-. U for research, and U- for the writing itself.

Now for the record, I was an A student. I was in the honors programs, and even in Ms. Saltzbart's class I had almost all Aces throughout the year so that my final grade averaged to be a C in the fourth quarter even with these bad marks, my first C in high school. And like the dutiful "good kid" I was, I accepted my fate... except, I had to ask why this happened. Where had I gone wrong.

When I went to speak with her after class the following day she replied that I failed because, "Joe Dimaggio is the greatest baseball player of all time." That was the sum total of why I failed. She had nothing more to say.

All these years I dismissed her conclusion as wacko. Until today, actually. It may be that all my rambling comparisons of baseball stats missed something important. In Hemingway's Nobel Prize-winning Old Man and the Sea, Santiago took inspiration from DiMaggio, the man who never gave up. The theme song from Oscar-winning The Graduate features this Paul Simon line, "Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio." The great pop culture status icon Marilyn Monroe even married the guy. In other words, I never factored in the effect Joe DiMaggio had on the broader culture.

Seven player strikes and all the wrangling over contracts, salaries and taxes for stadiums has taken a lot of luster off the Great American Game. There was a time when It Happens Every Spring played on Saturday Night at the Movies the weekend before the season opener. There was a time when everyone knew at least a few of the stars. And literary giants wrote about the men who played it.

One such literary giant of our century past was John Updike, and the player he wrote an incredible baseball essay about was Ted Williams. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu is a must read if you were ever a fan of baseball. The essay, which begins as follows, appeared in The New Yorker in 1960, back when I was reading Casper the Friendly Ghost comics. The opening is wonderful.

Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters. On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28th, as I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundkeeper was treading the top of this wall, picking batting-practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff. The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational. The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons. A jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence, the Red Sox were finishing in seventh place only because the Kansas City Athletics had locked them out of the cellar. They were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles, a much nimbler blend of May and December, who had been dumped from pennant contention a week before by the insatiable Yankees. I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder, known to the headlines as TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL, would play in Boston. "WHAT WILL WE DO WITHOUT TED? HUB FANS ASK" ran the headline on a newspaper being read by a bulb-nosed cigar smoker a few rows away. Williams' retirement had been announced, doubted (he had been threatening retirement for years), confirmed by Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and at last widely accepted as the sad but probable truth. He was forty-two and had redeemed his abysmal season of 1959 with a—considering his advanced age—fine one. He had been giving away his gloves and bats and had grudgingly consented to a sentimental ceremony today. This was not necessarily his last game; the Red Sox were scheduled to travel to New York and wind up the season with three games there.

Ted Williams was another of the great ones. It may be that had I read Updike before writing about Ty Cobb I would have produced a better paper. Or if I had taken a typing class freshman year instead of senior year since my handwriting may have been a tad too illegible for a teacher staring at a pile of term papers through eyes befogged by cocktails. ("Objection! Calls for speculation.")

I would strongly encourage you to follow this link and bookmark the Updike piece. It's a masterful work and one of the greater bits of baseball literature ever written.

Trivia: Joe DiMaggio's contract, when making appearances, stipulated that he be introduced as "the greatest baseball player of all time." May we ourselves never be so vain.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

De Elliot Bros. Sighted at Swamp Sisters

Saturday morning customers of the ever crowded Swamp Sisters restaurant near Twig MN were treated to ninety minutes of live music by de Elliot Bros. Jugband. The sun was shining brightly and your faithful blogger was there to add harmonies, a little rhythm on the washboard and be part of the music. One patron said it was "the highlight of his summer." Probably says more about his summer than the band though the spontaneous appearance of the band really was a treat for many.

I remember when I was young going into Greenwich Village a couple times, hanging out and hoping to see Bob Dylan show up at one of his haunts. This was, obviously, the days before the Internet so a Bob sighting was truly a chance manifestation. Nowadays, one can simply go to a Dylan sight online and notice that he is in Amsterdam or Tokyo, and very unlikely to make a spontaneous appearance in the Village.

Actually, Dylan will be in Sturgis tonight at the Buffalo Chip Campground. The famed motorcycle rally of motorcycle rallies has been attracting more than a half million bikers to this sleepy Black Hills town of 8,000 or so. This year will no doubt be even more raucous as the rally turns 70.

Here's Dylan's set list from Sunday's performance at Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska. What a great catalogue of songs to choose from. Based on the selection, it looks like the band was ready to rock Sunday night.

1. Watching The River Flow
2. Lay, Lady, Lay
3. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
4. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
5. Rollin' And Tumblin'
6. Just Like A Woman
7. Cold Irons Bound
8. Workingman's Blues #2
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Tryin' To Get To Heaven
11. Thunder On The Mountain
12. Ballad Of A Thin Man

De Elliot Bros. playlist includes a number of Dylan tunes as well and last Saturday we gave a pretty serious rendition of Slow Train Coming.

Rumor has it, de Elliot Bros might show up yet again next Saturday morning as well. If you decide to go, the Swamp Sisters food selection is wonderful. Here's a snapshot (right) of Bonnie's Swamp Skillet, with real buffalo meat. They also have very large pancakes for very small prices, and wonderful French toast. Better bring an appetite.

Photos at top portion of page are de Elliot Bros this past Saturday at Swamp Sisters. Click images to enlarge.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Paths of Glory

I have placed this early Kubrick anti-war statement on my top ten list both for its originality, great acting, compelling story line, plot twists, and surprisingly beautiful and inspired ending. This one is a heart-breaker account of a moment in history that must have repeated itself endlessly in that horrific bloodfest called the trenches of World War I. To some extent Kubrick returned to the theme in various ways with Full Metal Jacket. Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax is perfect here, demonstrating the challenge of maintaining honor within a system that has turned values on its head. The story illumines a crisis point in the life and career of Colonel Dax, who has lived by the watchword of Duty with a capital D throughout his career while holding fast to his ideals as regards faithfulness to his men. The army's absurd effort to capture "the Anthill" results in a tear in the fabric of his idealism. The ugliness he sees is an eye opener for both Dax and the audience, who sees the political machinations behind the scenes with tragic clarity.

Colonel Dax, identifying with his men, is an inspiration in contrast to an empty culture of power and prestige cut loose from its ethical moorings.

The following is a review from imdb.com which gives a fairly good summation of the film.

"Let the men have a few minutes more", 15 October 2006
Author: nora_nettlerash from Ruritania

Although Kubrick's films are marked by their massive variation of genre and tone, one theme that crops up again and again is a strong anti-war sentiment, and this was never stated more strongly than in Paths of Glory. A relatively early Kubrick picture and, despite coming before what is considered his classic period, it is one of his best.

In contrast to his previous picture,
The Killing, a definite Kubrick style is beginning to emerge now. One notable example is the scene in which General Mireau tours the trenches, walking towards the audience with the camera retreating away from him. This technique would be repeated years later in Kubrick's other war film, Full Metal Jacket. There is also something about the arrangement of objects in the frame, as well the tracking and dollying which hints towards his more familiar later style. His recurring chess motif appears as well, albeit subtly. At the court martial the floor is chequered, and the soldiers on trial are seated with guards standing behind them as if they are pawns about to be sacrificed.

The light and contrast in this picture is put to good effect. The palatial officers' headquarters is light and airy with few shadows. The trenches are gloomy and cramped. Kubrick was becoming a real master at contrasting locations and getting the look of a place just right.

The use of music in Paths of Glory is bold and brilliant. The pre-recorded score is almost entirely percussive – all rhythmic sounds with no melody. A weird kettle drum track is used to help build tension in the night patrol scene, while in the climactic scene the funeral march drumming instills a sense of dread, further heightened by having the shots edited in time to the beat. In the emotional final scene we get the complete opposite – a beautiful vocal melody. This has all the more impact after hearing nothing but militaristic drums for the rest of the film.

The casting is absolutely flawless. While there are no big names apart from leading man Kirk Douglas and the now elderly Adolphe Menjou, there isn't a single weak performance. The despair and resentment of the condemned soldiers feels so absolutely real. In contrast the smugness and fake sympathy of the upper class officers is brilliantly portrayed.

Throughout his career Kubrick never seemed to be particularly keen on blatantly emotional moments.
Paths of Glory is the exception. The later scenes are incredibly poignant and moving, and the final moments in the soldier's bar are what makes it a masterpiece more than anything else – the icing on the cake
.

No question this film foreshadows techniques which Kubrick would use again in future films. The kettle drums in the night patrol scene, especially the slowed pace, is re-created to eerie tension-building effect in the second duel scene in Barry Lyndon.

I am especially awed at how deftly Kubrick is able to paint so many characters with such vividness and depth in such a short amount of time. From the generals to the men in the trenches, we get clear snapshots of their motivations and basic drives. From acting to story line to cinematography... a great film.

With regard to the central action, the effort to take the Ant Hill (itself a hilariously symbolic objective), I am reminded of a story from General Schwartzkopf's autobiography when he writes about the surprise assault on Granada. According to Schwartzkopf, they achieved their objective swiftly and without loss of life, an incredible achievement in any case scenario involving guns and soldiers. But then, a phone call came from Washington, and he was given further instructions. The mini-war was being run from afar, without appreciation for the real situation. Two helicopters and more than two dozen men were lost, marring an otherwise remarkable accomplishment. When asked to lead Desert Storm years later, he agreed to do it only if he were in charge, and not people in Washington. The PR aims of higher ups are often out of touch with the realities on the front. Perhaps this is a problem in any situation where there are excessive layers of bureaucracy.

Trivia: The German woman singing in the final scene went on to become Kubrick's wife.