Monday, November 29, 2021

Listen to the Breeze



Listen to the Breeze


When we never get an answer

and we’re always lost at sea,

the only thing we know for sure

is what will be will be.


We’ll wander, then we’ll settle down,

we’ll change our minds again

without knowing where we're headed

nor a trace of what has been.


We’ll feel it on our faces,

thinking back to that first kiss,

how little it really matters now,

how little it ever meant.


Listen to the breeze, listen to the trees.

Let loose your hair, your weightless limbs

and put your mind at ease.



Listen to the Breeze was a collaboration 

between myself and Sudowrite, an A.I. personal assistant.

Photo by Gary Firstenberg


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Oh Brave New World: Happiness vs. Purpose

Aldous Huxley (Public domain)
"Once you begin admitting explanations in terms of purpose, well, you wouldn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher casts. They can lose their faith in happiness and take to believing instead that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere, that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge, which was, the controller reflected, quite possibly true but not in the present circumstances admissible." 

* * * 

The passage above is taken from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The novel takes place in a future World State, 600 A.F. (After Ford) In this story, the preeminent value is happiness. From the start, the people in this future world are genetically designed to do the work that they will be engaged in for their lifetimes. To ensure their permanent blissful existence is indeed blissful, everyone has a sufficient supply of Soma, a mood-altering drug that makes you happy. 

Another feature of this brave new world is the denunciation of alone-time. "Everyone belongs to everyone else." Pleasure is the priority. Who wouldn't want to be perpetually happy?

The passage in blue at the opening leapt from the page for me as the controller realizes that an alternate set of values could undo the whole structure of their brave new world. 

The book was published in 1931, and it certainly seems that people are clamoring more for Pleasure (Happiness) than for Purpose. 

In 2019 I wrote a blog post about how the meaning of the word "Happiness" has changed. It begins: 

I am proposing that what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is totally at odds with what it has come to mean today. 

Read more here: Eudaemonia vs. Hakuna Matata 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Jochen Markhorst's Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) -- A Review

"I couldn't tell her what my private thoughts were
But she had some way of finding them out."--Bob Dylan

I just finished reading Jochen Markhorst's rewarding little breakdown of Bob Dylan's wonderful "Where Are You Tonight?" the closing track on Street Legal one of my favorite Dylan albums. How it came to be  so disparaged by the critics is beyond me. Markhorst states that it began with a cutting review by Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone, calling it "empty."

Why do we allow critics to have so much power over our decisions? Why do we let critics decide what we should like and not like? It happens with movies, with books, in the art scene... Markhorst states that U.S. reviewers (for the most part) agreed with Marcus, whereas in Europe the album was very well received. In fact, some were even "over-enthusiastic."

Brush and ink. Street Legal inspired.
Fortunately, I was unaware of the negative press when I first acquired this album. From the energetic and enigmatic "Changing of the Guard" through to "Where Are You Tonight?" this album is packed with gems. The only song on the album that I didn't care for was "New Pony," so I had a cassette made with the rest of the album and leaving that song off. I listened to that cassette for years until I bought the remastered 1999 CD version of the album. A few years later (shortly after Love and Theft) I made a CD of fave Dylan songs that began with "Changing of the Guard" and included "Where Are You Tonight?" plus several Love and Theft tracks. I played this CD till it was raw. 

All this to say I was ready for this deeper dissection of this great song, which Markhorst calls a "disregarded and forgotten masterpiece. 

David Kinney, in his book The Dylanologists, identifies the various kinds of Dylan fans like this: the Dylan Scholars, the Stalkers/Garbage Collectors/crazy ones, the Collectors, the Tapers, the Religious and the "Saved", the "Front Row"-ers, and the Lyric Dissectors. Markhorst falls into this last category. There are purists who say lyric dissectors are on a fool's errand and that Dylan himself disses those who attempt to de-mystify and explain his songs, nevertheless, this is a tribe I identify with.

Those who knock the dissectors have to ignore the essence of Dylan's Nobel Prize for literature which acknowledged his literary contributions "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." In other words, his significance is directly related to the roots woven into his songs.

And so it is with a robust enthusiasm that writers like Markhorst go a-diggin' for gold in the veins of Dylan's catalog. There are gold flakes everywhere and nuggets galore.

This is in no way an attempt to diminish the rewards of simply being present in his concerts, or just one who relishes the simple joy of being surrounded by the music as we walk together through life.  

Before diving into meanings Markhorst first addresses the form of the stanza, noting how the aabccb structure of the sextets.

* * *

The book's chapters correspond to the order of the sextets, each one offering the author to weigh in with his various opinions and insights. 

I like writers who have opinions and aren't afraid to express them. Markhorst holds nothing back as he praises this album and this song, despite its lettered naysayers. 

Which brings us to the song's opening line. "There's a long distance train rolling through the rain, tears on the letter I write." The reference to a train has been perceived by some as a foreshadowing of the transition to come in Dylan's life. We're referring to Slow Train Coming, the advent of Dylan's gospel trilogy. Markhorst, however, snips this thought in the bud by citing, accurately, that trains are prominent in a whole host of songs. 

I agree here with Markhorst, as opposed to the other writers he cites who see this as a pre-announcement of what's to come. In my view, I've always felt that "Señor" was the better pre-announcement. The song opens with:

Señor, señor, can you tell me where we're headin'?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I've been down this way before.
Is there any truth in that, señor.

It's particular interesting, because the word for "Lord" in Spanish is Señor.

* * *  The book is a relatively slender volume (just over 80 pages) but it's packed with insights, links to a full range of sources, both familiar and unfamiliar--movies, literature, fairy tales, the Crossroads, French poets, Faust and facets of his own catalog. 

For those unfamiliar with this album, I strongly recommend it. For those who already appreciate the song and enjoy reading illuminating passages about the music they love I also recommend this offering.

Related Links

Street Legal: Overlooked, Under-Appreciated and Strongly Recommended

Friday, November 26, 2021

Flashback Friday: Dylan's She Belongs To Me, Regenerated

Haight-Ashbury Mural, 2008
This week I've been having a blast playing with an A.I. writing assistant called Sudowrite. What follows is a blog post from seven years ago this week about Dylan's "She Belongs To Me." As an addendum I've added Sudowrite's reconfiguration of the lyrics. Or rather, I have used four lines from the first stanza as a seed prompt to see what Sudowrite would generate. At the end of this post you'll find three versions using the same prompts. 

EdNote: It will be awhile before A.I. can outdo Dylan, but the results are still curiously fun.

24 November 2014
As everyone following the current edition of the Never Ending Tour is aware, the playlist is pretty much set in stone, beginning with "Things Have Changed." Most of the songs in the two-part show are of more recent vintage, many from his last studio album Tempest. The second song of the set, "She Belongs To Me," is not. With the exception of his eternal classic "Blowing in the Wind" which has become the kickoff to his encore, it's the only one from the Sixties, with Bob at center stage and Donnie on pedal steel.

"She Belongs To Me" is a song Dylan has now performed 362 times as of Saturday night, and in some ways it seemed a curious selection considering all the scintillating songs of that period. But then, there may be good reasons for its inclusion.

First off, maybe it gives him a chance to play his harp early in the show, though a hundred songs could have given him that chance. So maybe the answer lies elsewhere.

It's a truly intriguing song. When you inhale the lyrics you find it contains a variety of flavors difficult to identify. Perhaps when released on Bringing It All Back Home it got lost between the kicker "Subterranean Homesick Blues" which opens the album and "Maggie's Farm" which produced a deep resonance with a portion of that generation, my generation, when it appeared. In fact, that whole album is so loaded with treasures it's easy to see how a subtler, nuanced song might get lost.

The song's structure is traditional blues where the first line is repeated twice followed by a payoff. The Delta blues classic "Rolling and Tumbling" is an example of such a structure, recorded by a host of performers from Muddy Waters and Cream to Jeff Beck and Fleetwood Mac. (Dylan himself created a whole new set of lyrics for his Modern Times CD, only retaining the first lines, tune and structure.)

"She Belongs To Me" carries this same format, but what a marvelous piece of lyrical craftsmanship. John Hinchey, whose book Like A Complete Unknown analyzes the poetry of Dylan's Sixties music, writes this about the song:

"She Belongs to Me" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" are the other two songs that magnificently manage to escape the limitations of the simplistic myth that informs side one. [of Bringing It All Back Home] In both songs Dylan invokes his muse -- perhaps for no better reason than to flaunt her before the bourgeoisie -- but having invoked her, he finds himself in the presence of someone beyond his reach. Her very inaccessibility seems to activate Dylan's deepest artistic impulses, forcing him to acknowledge -- and provoking him to attempt to overleap -- the limits of his imagination.

"She Belongs To Me" demolishes bohemian sentimentalities from the inside, with a surprising portrait of the muse as unapproachable yet imperious dominatrix.

The song's complexity is part of what makes it compelling. And if you've ever been there, you understand.

SHE BELONGS TO ME

She’s got everything she needs
She’s an artist, she don’t look back
She’s got everything she needs
She’s an artist, she don’t look back
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees

She never stumbles
She’s got no place to fall
She never stumbles
She’s got no place to fall
She’s nobody’s child
The Law can’t touch her at all

She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks
She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks
She’s a hypnotist collector
You are a walking antique

Bow down to her on Sunday
Salute her when her birthday comes
Bow down to her on Sunday
Salute her when her birthday comes
For Halloween give her a trumpet
And for Christmas, buy her a drum

Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music
 
* * * 

She Belongs To Me, Regeneration One


She’s got everything she needs

She’s an artist, she don’t look back

She can take the dark out of the nighttime

And paint the daytime black


She’s got everything she needs

She’s got a strong foundation

She can build a bridge to the other side,

Or just use the walkway over the river


She can take a stand or sit on a bench

She’s a woman, she don’t need no man

She’ll do it all by herself,

she don’t need nothing at all from nobody.


Sitting here, I can hear her singing

I can hear her voice in the wind, wild and clear

She’s got everything she needs.


She Belongs To Me, Regeneration Two


She’s got everything she needs

She’s an artist, she don’t look back

She can take the dark out of the nighttime

And paint the daytime black


She can cause commotion

She can put your house out of order

She’s got everything she needs

She knows if she don’t look good


She ain’t going nowhere

She’ll wear high heels just to go shopping

She can shake, shake, shake

It don’t matter to her if it rains or freezes


She’s got a lot of love to give away

And there ain’t no way she can lose

She can give you everything, everything, everything, ooh

And you know that she loves you

And you know that she cares.


She Belongs To Me, Regeneration Three


She’s got everything she needs

She’s an artist, she don’t look back

She can take the dark out of the nighttime

And paint the daytime black


She takes the sorrow out of the morning

And throws it all away

She’s got everything she needs

And if you ask her how she’s doing

She don’t look back that way


She’s got everything she needs

And if you want to leave her

Well, that’s just a mistake

She can take the guilty out of the guilty 

And throw it all away. 


I’m not what I appear to be 

I’m just a poor boy in a rich man’s world. 

Oh, when you ask me what I want in life 

I tell you that I’m not a woman, I’m a man 

Man with a capital “M” 

I want a woman with a capital “W” 


That’s what I want in life 

That’s what I am. 

I think I know who I am 

But you can never tell. 


* * *


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Today Is Thanksgiving. What Are You Thankful For?

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."--Cicero

The feast included this turkey by Chef Micah.
Today is Thanksgiving Day, a day that commemorates the harvest of 1621 and the people who were spared from starvation. It's a day to be thankful for what we have and who we are. This is a day to give thanks for those around us, those who have been there for us, those who have helped us grow.

A few months after the Covid pandemic struck the world last year I wrote a blog post about the power of gratitude. Here's an excerpt from that piece.

I was reading a book in which at the end of one chapter the authors gave readers an assignment to make a list of 25 things they were grateful for. I decided to do this and found out something. Nearly the entire list was people, people who have enriched my life in a multitude of ways, family, friends, relatives, and eventually a few things like our home, Susie's garden, a career in which I could use my gifts, etc.

While writing this, other people keep coming to mind, people who helped me or cared about me or encouraged me, including teachers, coaches, and even a few strangers.  I'm also grateful that  I'm not dead yet. And overarching the whole is a sense of gratitude to God for this gift of life. 

"When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around."
--Willie Nelson

We have much to be grateful for. Today is a day to remember that.

Related Links

A Thankful Heart Is a Sign of Maturity by Trip Kimball

Grouchy? Cranky? Get a Gratitude Book by John Prin

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Democracy's Twilight (Another A.I. Collaboration)

Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal each have an eNewsletter that arrives in your inbox at the start of your day.  Monday's Times had a link to a story titled A Robot Wrote This Book Review. The article was actually written by Kevin Roose about a book titled The Age of A.I. and Our Human Future. One of the book's three authors was the late Henry Kissinger.

For some years now I've been following the evolution of Artificial Intelligence, periodically testing some new A.I.-powered program that gets highlighted on a website. Though Mr. Roose pans the book, he does include an A.I.-written review of the book which is actually quite interesting. 


The app that powers Sudowrite, the interface that enables us to utilize the machine, is GPT-3. If you want to experiment with this tool yourself, be aware that your trial period is only three days, so if you get hooked you'll have to discipline yourself to go to sleep at night because you only have a finite amount of time to play with it.


The results are sometimes hit and miss. This one, in my opinion, was surprisingly forceful and provocative. 



Democracy's Twilight


Dimming light, but not yet dead;

You were worshipped…

The nations surrounded you, 

Made bright by your heat

As you flamed and flared

In your last days.


The shade of your children left you alone,

Their cities empty and their voices unheard.

The young ones had been taken from you,

And the old ones died one by one.

In your twilight, your rivers ran dry.

Your seas became blackened and silent.

You fought a long battle against disease,

But the enemy was too strong.


You were weakened, then you were brought down.

Your mountains were mined for their precious stones,

For their ore and for their coal.

They stripped off your clothes, so they could see your bones.

They cut you down to size.

Your forests were cut down, as were your trees.

They pulled up your flowers and your grasses--

Your crops were taken from you.

Your animals were slaughtered and left to decay.


In your twilight, the people grew sick and sad;

They grieved for their loss and for what had been done.

They cried and moaned and wept and cursed their fate;

They wept because there was nothing they could do;

Nothing they could do – but mourn – in their twilight.

* * * 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Tech Tuesday: Close Encounter of the Wrong Kind (An AI Adventure Story)

Close Encounter of the Wrong Kind

Photo by Donovan Reeves on Unsplash
Burt is an intimidating giant of a man, a great hulk of a man, a man of a sort not seen in a long time, hence his fearless demeanor. He's as tall as a tree, as wide as a bull, as strong as a bear. In the depths of winter he has a beard as black as a raven's wing. His skin is as hard as iron, as smooth as the scales of a fish, as sweatless as a pine tree. The man's achilles' heel is a strand of blue rope that he never sees.

He’s young, maybe thirty, maybe younger, with fair hair. His eyes are brown, lost in a fog of alcohol. He shuffles along, shuffles his feet, smiles at every corner, and manages to find every newly littered alley to take a tumble in.


Yesterday Burt became separated from his friends after an altercation at The Hot Spot, a club in the seamier part of London. After staggering about in a part of the city that was strange to him he stumbled into yet another unfamiliar alley. The air was cold, crisp, and wet, the heart of winter beating against him, the air damp with the smell of rotting fish and watery oysters, the smell of decay.  


The alley was lined with abandoned buildings, broken windows, broken lamps, broken chairs, broken bottles, and all the brokenness of a broken world. It was dark, as if night had swallowed the sun. The light of the day was gone, and the taste of the day was gone. All the colors were gone; there was only fog, mist, and darkness.


Out from this darkness a creature emerged and slammed into him. It was not human, but something else, some sort of beast with a head that was too big for its body. Its eyes shone red, and its teeth glowed white.


"Hey, watch it," Burt mumbled.


The beast growled, it's breath a meaty stench, the odor of blood and rot.


The hairs on the back of Burt's neck stood on end. He became instantly alert, heart racing, fear coursing his veins, a fear that smelled of seaweed and of wet rock, of diesel and of the sea, of storm clouds and of rain, of dark water and of dark shadows. He cursed under his breath. He'd been caught alone and had nowhere to turn. Suddenly, an involuntary prayer rolled off his tongue.


It was a prayer, but not one Burt recognized. It was not the kind of prayer you said every day, the kind of prayer that was used to white-wash a sin or to get your mom off your case for not taking out the trash. It was a prayer of terror and of fear and of need and of desperation and of love and of grief and of loss and of hatred and of anger and of horror and of despair and of hope and of praise and of forgiveness and of all of it and more--ten of it and a hundred of it and a thousand of it and an infinity of it and all of it. Words flowed out like the unrolling of a leather scroll, like a song from the sea, full of longing and filled with light.


He felt a shiver rush up his spine as the beast fell backwards, clattering against a dumpster. As the shadow of the beast moved away Burt felt a comforting touch. His lungs filled with wet dust, his eyes stung, the familiar scent of rain and tree branches flooding into his nose.


As he blinked back the moisture, he wondered, "Have I been dreaming?"


He'd always believed there was evil in the world, but it had never before been so tangible. The beast's dark shape was only part of the horror. Its every movement, smooth as silk, lithe, serpentine. He imagined it slithering through dumpsters like the world's largest python.


From somewhere in his past Burt seemed to recall rumors about such a resident evil in the world's darkest cities, but he'd always dismissed them. Till now.


# # # #

Afterword
I have been experimenting with an AI website that writes poetry and stories. This story was a hybrid team effort involving the creator (myself) working in conjunction with a digital ghost in the machine.  My "partner" created the character and together we spun a tale. My role was simply to give a nudge (prompt) here or there. 

Some of the language was clunky in places, so my second role was as editor, something akin to Maxwell Perkins working with Hemingway, except in this case my bot is unable to take a swing at me when we're not in agreement. And I always get the final say.  

* * * * *

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