Mayan Calendar Leather Purse, date and provenance unknown.
by Jerome du Bois
We picked up this beautiful stamped leather purse for an absurdly reasonable price from an unlikely venue. I can't tell you any more than that; in fact, I've told you too much already. But you can see it again soon when I take a picture of Catherine in the suit ensemble this purse belongs to.
by Jerome du Bois
During this Janet Echelman sculpture controversy I thought "jellyfish" was a severe enough epithet; but that was before I visited the comments section today on azcentral.com's latest story about this most recent example of the percent-for-art boondoggle that plagues cities nationwide. Some of these commenters need to get out of the bathroom. Lordy. And people call us harsh? People call us negative? Lordy.
I was going to do a vote count, but the comment pages kept piling up, up, up all day to about twenty-two as of this writing now; but I stopped at five pages with a count of 40 against the thing, 9 irrelevant posts, and 2 for the thing. Do you really need to do the math?
The best comment so far was by someone who logged in as Scott4752:
That reminds me of the scene in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" when John Candy sells shower curtain hangers to naive and gullible teenage girls as 'hoop ear-rings'. He closed the sale with the following line: "I think they make you look older." That line is equivalent to "I think this 'desert flower' makes Phoenix look like a sophisticated city."
(And I'd like to thank "Murphy45" for the link and the compliment. Thanks for reading.)
Then we read something from a poster calling theirself (well, what am I supposed to call him/her/both?) Dred, who writes that the most important aspect of the sculpture is as a very expensive conversation piece:
Art is in the eye of the beholder, but it should also provoke conversation. And if the conversation turns to how ugly something is, then that piece of art has made you think about it, formulate an opinion, and express that said opinion. Frankly I abhor the popular music most kids listen to and the video games that they are addicted to, but I respect your right to enjoy them. Please learn to respect the right of others who want some iconic art piece to be exhibited in this park. Have you bothered to look at the work in Portugal? It is amazing. People talk about it and they will talk about this work too. No [sic] says that you have to like it.
PEOPLE WILL TALK ABOUT IT. Oh, gold itself pales to this gift!
But people always talk, don't they? It's the same price as rain.
What dreadful Dred really wants is for you to take your art medicine. This art will be good for you, you dumb bunny, just hold your nose and listen to the experts and bow to their will and take your medicine.
Dred and "artivist" and "validation" and some others get all exercised about the how the money is earmarked. They treat the percent for art law as if it was carved by Hammurabi himself. Laws change all the time. Art funds are not magic money teleported from Platonia that simply won't fit into another, ordinary budget. It's a fact that there's only so much money to go around, so money that, by statute, must be earmarked for art, obviously goes into the subtraction when the whole pie is laid out. If a contractor must calculate that 1% in its bid, and it wins its contract on those terms from the city, then that 1% comes from taxpayers. It's the law. But it's not on the same level as a natural or physical law, that's for damn sure. It's just undeniable proof that some arts advocates got savvy about elbowing into their own place at the public banquet table. You think these artists just blow into town and lay their crazy ideas down? Remember, all these projects need to be solicited, researched, commissioned, shepherded to completion. Who better than people like Joe Baker and Dwight Walth and Andrea Norman and Susan Copeland to help us with our (forced) decision? I do believe (correct me if I'm wrong) that these are paid commissioners. If so, they've got a sweet scheme operating, all right.
Bunch of five-sided comedians.
Think about this: what would Janet Echleman do if she couldn't count on public money to make her giant works? How much would she believe in them, in their need to be, in their inevitability? How much? Would she --like Marcel Duchamp and Robert Irwin and Jeff Koons, for example, back in their respective days-- would she figure out a way to finance them herself, without the comforting concierges of public arts administration to encourage her, guide her, pay her? Or perhaps she must needs be known, and be satisfied, as the fiber artist who drops huge hippie hangings down between shopping-mall staircases, floor by floor by floor. . . .
Dred and others also believe that without forcing us to fork over some money for public art, none would ever be commissioned. Not only is this position historically ignorant, once again it's the paternalistic bullying of we-know-better elitism that every self-respecting individual, no matter what they feel about art, should resist, and resist strongly. I give Dred and all these others the double-middle-finger salute. You just don't get to tell me what's good for me, you arrogant bastards, because how could you possibly know? If you believe that people must be made to be good, then what does that make you ? So you back off, you back way off. Don't tread on me.
We are surrounded by weak, needy, groupthink artists who feel entitled. Entitled to what, you ask? Why, to everything, of course: a guaranteed career, money, tenure, validation, simply for being. You don't have to be a good artist, or even a mediocre artist; just an artist will do. It's a little open box on the form that you check off --ARTIST-- and hand over and the people that run the world nod and say, "Go on then, it's all set up." And all these artists without backbone, without an ounce of self-respect, believe it.
For over four years we have examined the actual words of hundreds of artists, local and worldwide; one of my first pieces on this blog satirized some of them; following the dictum that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," we took them at their words. And their words were empty. The open speaking mouth of the contemporary artist is a black hole filled with emptiness, sucking significance out of everything and replacing it with a dry-ice nihilism that dessicates meaning and suffering and life itself into thin and twisted ghosts.
I pray their arc has already reached its apogee, and that the strong arms of gravitas already encompass their downfall.
I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go . . .
And it really doesn't matter
If I'm wrong I'm right;
Where I belong I'm right;
Where I belong.
by Jerome du Bois
If it's supposed to be a saguaro blossom, why does everybody call it "The Jellyfish?"
And doesn't that represent a basic failure in visual communication?
What's it called, anyway? The Sky Was Empty Before I Got Here ?
Why don't these Phoenix city arts commissioners and city bureaucrats admit that they're bowing to the kind of semi-rich loft-dweller who wants to point out his or her dining-room window at The Echelman? "Yeah, there it is; we're the only city in the country with anything even remotely like that. You should see it when the blah blah is blah blah. . . . More chipotle reduction?" Ain't that true, Ms. Andrea Norman, Mr. Joe Baker, Mr. Dwight Walth, Ms. Susan Copeland, et al the other guy-wire-pullers behind the scenes?
Janet Echelman, like all these one-trick-pony blowhards, raps on about "responding to the site," but that's bullshit. She's the webbing artist, the netting artist, the Tennyson of Tenara, the Godzilla of GoreTex, but all her stuff is just plop art that floats. She's stuck in her schtick, like most of them. Back in the day Robert Irwin talked about being "available in response." We need more of that sensitivity, and lot less of this empty inflated ego-stuff. I mean, listen to her:
"My work has always interwoven multiple layers of meaning. This allows each person to create their own meaning. I like that participatory nature in art, which is democratic and empowers the individual to know their own truth."
We're all just little solipsistic, nihilistic, hedonistic bubbles, creating our own truths as we float along, la la la . . . Hey, that's my meaning, get your own . . . la la la . . . now we're pink, now we're blue, happy flappy googlygoo . . .
"My work for Phoenix functions on many levels. It begins with an inquiry into your geography, not only to the way a cactus constructs a juicy blossom in the middle of a parched desert, but also to the formations of clouds across a field of blue, to the monumental dust storms and rain that pass through your big open sky casting shadows on the ground; to the interplay in life forms between skeleton and skin; and to the very real concrete phenomena each of us sees before our very eyes, the exquisite patterns of the wind which change in each moment."
That last could more easily be achieved by lining up two dozen mature cottonwoods in the same space, where anyone could watch them sway. Which reminds me of this short piece I wrote a couple of years ago: Two Tall Trees. We don't need you, Ms. Echelman, to show us the wind.
It begins with an inquiry into your geography . . .
Three elements missing from the inquiry, though: HEAT and SHADE and WATER. Eight months of triple digits, basic. Dammit, Janet, when you were here, were you ever here? Which reminds me of another piece I wrote a couple of years ago: A Speculative Anatomy of A Local Public Art Project, which highlighted the crucial climatological elements of heat and shade and water, as well as empathy --the response to the site.
Echelman's piece could be put up anywhere. It has absolutely nothing to do with Phoenix. Hey, Dallas, check this out, you want a balloon? What we need downtown in what Susan Copeland, with her highfalutin nose way up in the air, calls "a little nothing park," is shade and flowing water and greenery and life --a sheltered hanging gardens--not some monument to an artist's or bureaucrat's ego, or a desperate attempt by neurotic city leaders to be hip. Sure, the jellyfish will transform not just the park, but the city itself, into a Destination. Susan Copeland: "This piece of art would have drawn people, even if they liked it or didn't. Without it, it's going to be a little nothing park." Dream on. And please explain why anyone would be "drawn" to something they didn't like? People usually avoid things and places they know in advance they won't like. That's why lots of movies and plays and songs and art don't make money: because people don't patronize them. What she said doesn't make any sense, but it sure shows her ignorant arrogance. And she's a big mover down there, apparently, but it doesn't really matter, if she's wrong she's right, where she belongs she's right, where she belongs. . . . The city deserves better.
And has anyone brought up the danger to all the birds who could get confused or caught up in the netting or the wires? Did they have focus groups with the birds, too? or is it just their tough luck that they have this tricky deadly cloud to deal with now?
And what's to prevent urban youth, participating in the Global Youth Culture, from creating all kinds of vandalistic urban sports around the thing? Paintballing, with higher scores for farthest hits. Lobbing whatever's handy up into the netting with portable homemade catapults which will evolve in sophistication as time goes by. Remember the pumpkin chunkers, who have passed the mile mark, last I checked. Climbing the poles, slinging tied shoes (or each other) over the guy wires. What's to prevent these things from happening? Talk amongst yourselves.
In the meantime we already have a winner in the caption contest for this photo of the well-dressed Ms. Echelman: "I'm gonna squeeeeze . . ."
Have a floaty day, everyone.
Oracle Board II: I'm Telling You. Digital Net Art by Jerome du Bois © 2007.
by Jerome du Bois
Almost the first gallerist I showed my work to told me she didn't like to be lectured by art. I found out she was like a lot of folks out there. So here I go again.
by Jerome du Bois
Last week the world's largest art fair took over Miami Beach. Art Basel attracted record numbers and everybody who was anybody and so forth. Publications including The NYTimes, NYPost, The Wall Street Journal, Style, Vogue, artnet.com, and artforum had blogs and multiple posts going on about it. The local blog Critical Miami, of course, covered it four or five times, with plenty of pictures.
Phoenix gallerist Amy Young --azcentral.com's latest blogger-- went to Art Basel, too.
At least she implied it in a comment on her new blog, dated November 20th.
That's the last time she has posted anything there. Art Basel Miami Beach ended Sunday. She hasn't posted a single word or image about her visit on her blog. Maybe she didn't go. Maybe she changed her mind. But if not . . .
Apparently neither she nor the following people considered Art Basel --the crassest, flashiest, most overblown, overrated, bombastic, carnivalesque and dumbed-down American art/world convergence-- worth covering:
Online Plaftform Coordinator Sky Schaudt, and Online Producers Laurie Merrill, Randy Brickley, Rose A. Tring, and Ralph Zubiate. (I've sent them all emails. And no, we'd never go there, we think it's the Titanic of the art world, but that's not the point.) Didn't they have a spare laptop she could use? Or would she, even?
It makes you wonder why the smart folks at the online Republic offered her a blog, and why she accepted. It's as if some executive in that ossifying organization had "get art blogger" stuck on his or her screen, and just wanted to get that nagging reminder off there. The person didn't really have to be serious, he or she just had to be there . . . occasionally.
If so, Amy Young fits the bill.
Besides Art Basel, she also missed covering the closing of Scott Sanders's Paper Heart sleazoid venue, the tattered flagship of Grand Avenue. Now all the microphone hogs will have to disperse back to all those coffee joints with the punny names. Personally, I would like to have had her ask Scott Sanders why, after the city saved his sorry ass with a low-interest loan last year, he didn't take the rescue and the year to change the business strategy that drove his thang into the dirt. Well, hell, leopard, spots. Still, it was a story, and she knows the players, too.
Amy Young has also ignored a pretty interesting $2.4-million-dollar public art story which she could probably get some inside dish on: Janet Echelman's giant airborne jellyfish (I mean saguaro blossom) that ate the taxpayers' money. First it was flying, then it was gone, and now it may be flying again, because Andrea Norman and Susan Copeland and their twee-ass "experts" got "furious," and their "passion" just might carry the day. (Where's the airsick bag, by the way? Oh, okay, I see it there, up in the air.)
Again, it's not something we would cover, except to point out the obvious waste of everything in the overblown emptiness of the actual sculpture itself. It's just that if these dingalings --Young and the Producers-- think they're blogging, or even covering the arts, I'm here with a sharp stick to remind 'em different.
Just like with those questions Catherine and I have for all of those downtown Phoenix art people, still awaiting answers a couple of posts ago.
Comments are open.
Music Collage, King & du Bois, ca. 2000, each panel 24" x 24". All rights reserved.
The Song has ended.
But as the Songwriter wrote,
"The melody lingers on. . . "
--Ira Gerswhin, Songwriter:
"They Can't That Away From Me"
You don't need a DJ to know which way the spin goes.
by Jerome du Bois with Catherine King
Round about the turn of the Millennium I was in my third stint working at Borders Books & Music; and this time, for the first time, I was working in Music. I had just emerged from a self-imposed hibernation, and I was eager to engage the world again. I opened my heart and let it all in. The slow spin of my life sped up. Though I wasn't a musical naif, I wasn't a fanatic either. I discovered many beautiful and strange sounds behind the front rows of top-one-hundred pop, and a few in the front row, too, such as Moby's "Play" and Radiohead's "OK Computer." I'm pretty sure I introduced a lot of people in the middle of town to Pink Martini: almost every time I slipped "Sympathique" into the store's player, we sold out. It was a great job for awhile, until management once again screwed it up for me, but the best thing about it was that I met Catherine there, my beautiful future wife. (They messed it up for her, too, worse than me. Never trust Borders managers; they're cowards; they won't back you up, even when you're physically assaulted. And neither will the home office help you. We know. We found out. Nobody, from the floor people to the manager to the corporate office, lifted a voice or a hand in her defense. Cowards and sycophants.)
Not long after we got together we started imagining store and window displays, and art installations, just for fun, because we knew the store policy had changed from the old days, when management encouraged staff creativity. I know, because I had created several elaborate in-store displays for the Business section in an earlier gig for Borders --neckties in rows in midair, two dozen double-sided plexiglas hanging graphics-- all on my own dime. (But in those latter days, from the mid-90s on, they'd just fly in a couple people from corporate to tell the managers to paint the walls a certain shade of blue, such as a soothing cerulean . . .)
So Catherine and I, happy and in love, would talk for hours about things we could do in the store to make it more interesting, less corporate. These talks reawakened in both of us the itch and desire to make art again, which had gone somewhat dormant, because of life's other necessities. We surprised and delighted ourselves when we realized we could collaborate. We got so excited that we decided maybe we could change the store policy, just a little, a little at a time. What could it hurt? So we designed and created the two pieces above, as a preliminary probe, a small, double-sided plexiglas hanging for right above the boxed sets endcase. (Up in the air, out of everybody's way. I'd done it before.) Our big project, though, was called Words Across Music, and would consist of hundreds of sentences printed on six-foot-long strips of paper hanging horizontally from the ceiling all the way across the Music section, in serried ranks from end to end --up in the air, out of the way-- like a school of long thin white undulating ghosts, layered, overlapping, double-sided, but every one easily readable; and each printed with a bit of wisdom or wit, most of them from songs, some old, some as right-now as right-then, like this line from The Guano Apes:
Beat the machine that works in your head.
None of it happened, of course. The assistant manager was a bully and a coward and a real prick, and he not only made sure none of it happened, he was the next-to-last straw, insulting, gloating, twisting the knife. We showed him, and the store's manager, the two pieces above, and they jeered. Literally. We bridled, and bided our time, but after the customer physically assaulted Catherine we booked, and took our imaginations with us. Before that last lacerating sour note, though, there was so much richness to recall, and I remember . . .
. . . oh, not exactly when it came to me, but that day I was in the Music section of the store as usual, checking on my department --Rock & Pop-- and listening to a CD I had just put into the department's CD player. Afro-Celt Sound System, my new favorite discovery, weaving their long looping wonders in the air. As I said before, I was no musical naif; even before I got to Borders I was familiar with, and listened to, groups and people like Spiritualized, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Super Furry Animals, Sigur Ros and Beck ("Odelay" and "Midnite Vultures"). But that job really opened up my ears. By this time in my job I had listened to a wider range of music than ever before in my life, and I was just brimming with it, and I was in love, and I was glad I had ears to hear. Who knew that pipes, which you breathe through, could be as throbbing and relentless as drums? The song --"Lovers of Light"-- created a dancer. I paused while riffling through my stock. I could see him in a flash from Coleridge --something about "flashing eyes, floating hair"-- that I looked up later. From "Kubla Khan":
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
But I didn't recall all those other lines at the time. All I remember is suddenly thinking, Music Is Manna. Yes, that's it! That would be one of the captions for the double-sided piece Catherine and I were working on. I didn't even have to write it down. It's unforgettable. And true.
So how to embody it? I had a small book at home, no more than three inches on a side, full of close-ups of the mostly-floral designs of William Morris. We thought: manna as wafer, the perfect calm circle surrounding the writhing variations of life. So we cut out the circles; I glued a lot of them on, but it was only when Catherine took over, with the smaller circles, that the thing started to float, and take off, and fly, like inspiration and serendipity and accident.
I already had the design of the other side laid out: the lawful, structured side of music, variations and permutations within a regulated grid. The Nietzsche quotation --you know, I really don't remember where I came across it, but its overstatement is like music itself, lifted above life but helpless without it. (Put it another way: Without Stevie Wonder, for example, music would be a mistake.)
The first collaboration of King & du Bois.
Music is manna, spiritual food, emotional nourishment, honey-dew and the milk of Paradise. At its best it shows us at our best: exuberant and generous, mysterious and mourning, edgy and precarious (with flashing eyes, with floating hair); sounding the chords, ringing the changes, tapping the sources, eager for The Uplifting, The Unfolding, The Ongoing . . .
Or it can be that way. Naturally I had my limits. But my ears had always been open, I hope. In my childhood past --more later-- I was blessed with a brother who could play a tune on the ukelele or guitar after hearing it once. We and our friends, sitting around beachside nighttime campfires, sang our way into midteenagehood. In my adult past I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends who were into very strange music. (Catherine as well, though on her own. Read on.) So long ago, after I'd absorbed Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys for ten or more years, I met John Cage ("Indeterminacy") and Morton Subotnik and Harry Partch (who invented his own instruments) and Frank Zappa ("Hot Rats") and Captain Beefheart (from "Trout Mask Replica" to "Clear Spot.") Also Ilhan Mimaroglu, the memory of whose 1969 spliced-clarinet piece, "Wings of the Delirious Demon," stills chills my spine. And I learned how pop at its best could rise above itself when I heard Emerson, Lake, and Palmer play Blake's "Jerusalem" (which was banned in England in 1973) and a piece by a living Italian composer called "Toccata and Fugue In D Minor." (They certainly blew Queen out the door, among others.)
I had plenty to learn, though, twenty years later, with a lot of holes in my musical appreciation, years that I didn't or couldn't pay attention to popular culture. But welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, we're so glad you could attend; come inside! come inside!
As I settled into work and learned some co-workers' own tastes, I sorted out a lot. For example, I despised pretentious groups like Sonic Youth and Mocket and Belle & Sebastian; and I couldn't abide rap. But moms sometimes have no choice what they listen to at home, and so Catherine was able to introduce me to Bone, Thugs, and Harmony, who created some amazingly vivid atmospheric stories with unusual instruments. (Kazoos and calliopes?) True crime and allegories, but no shine in the bling, no glory for the perps. Fatalistic, thus soulful and true to life. ("I'll meet you at The Crossroads.") She also introduced me to Mike Patton's earlier incarnation in Faith No More. (I knew him as Mr. Bungle.) Also Bob Marley. Robert Johnson. Marvin Gaye. She brought George Jones ("Cold Hard Truth"), Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams into our home. And an all-blues album by Jimi Hendrix. Blessings all.
We learned together, too. I remember bringing home a CD by Tabla Beat Science. They were like stripped-down Afro-Celt. Ethno-techno. Almost pure rhythm, but with some electronic elasticity. I thought it was a bit astringent, but Catherine convinced me of their richness.
So as I worked on this thing we of course talked about it, as we always do, and she filled me in on some of her past exposure to music--times we had never talked about before-- and I realized we hear from many more sources than we usually acknowledge. Often we seek out a certain group or sound, but sometimes we have no choice about the music that surrounds us, as with Catherine and the rap mentioned above. Sometimes it's all osmosis.
She told me about the church music: the oldest was the most compelling-- "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," words and music by Martin Luther, 1529 (tune adapted from a drinking song); "All Creatures of Our God and King," words by St. Francis, 1225, music in 1623; "We Gather Together," 1626; "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," 1739. Don't forget Handel's "Messiah," 1741, for Christmas and also Easter, as originally intended. She sang these and many more, enthusiastically if badly, from the time she was little enough to be in the Cherub Choir. [Catherine points out that "a lot of Hank Williams could be sung a capella, and would sound a lot like church music."]
It was Twentieth Century heartland hymns on the record player, though, as the family was getting ready for church. Burl Ives was like a favorite old uncle. ("Watch the doughnut, not the hole.") On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the incomparable music teacher, Mrs. Grace Ryan, enriched Catherine's life and scores of her schoolmates by making sure they knew their Rogers & Hammerstein, and "Music Man," "South Pacific," "The King and I," and "How the West Was Won." ("West Side Story" was a bad influence.) Graduation from grade school just wasn't going to happen until one could perform "Climb Every Mountain" and "No Man is an Island."
Mitch Miller and His Gang, along with their TV show, sort of early karaoke with the bouncing white ball, and their albums with lyric sheets, introduced Gilbert & Sullivan, John Philip Sousa and songs of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley and the Great White Way. This was family entertainment back then. However, only three or four subversive years later, The Village Fugs somehow insinuated themselves into Catherine's life. The Underground had been found. Music one couldn't listen to in the parents' home --The Velvet Underground with Nico, and the ever sleazy Lou Reed. A couple of years later Frank Zappa and those Bad Moms of Invention twisted the flower child's impressionable psyche. Kids could, and did, take psychedlic trips just listening to the music in those days, you know.
As for me, I was born and raised in Hawai'i. I grew up hearing the keening of the pedal steel guitar, which I would follow much later into some surprising places. My brother could pick up a song in a lick, and we would sit on the beach at night with our friends and sing the latest tunes from Alfred Apaka, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Donovan, and God --Bob Dylan.
And I had a next-door neighbor who was a professional waterskier and speedboat driver --his own with a Corvette engine-- a guy who would ski barefoot starting from the waterline, and his favorite singer? Johnny Mathis. "The Twelfth of Never." "Chances Are." A real tough guy. After that? Elvis --the ballads, of course. "Wise men say . . ." Go figure.
Catherine and I were present at the creation of Doo-wop, The Wall of Sound, Motown, R & B, Folk, Folk-Rock, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop and the rest, which is about when we peeled away and stayed away from most new music.
But back in the Sixties, because of geography perhaps, we separately shared an enthusiasm for the Bay Area Sound. Steve Miller, Jesse Colin Young, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Jefferson Airplane, and of course the newer gods, The Grateful Dead. (Also New Riders of the Purple Sage.) And there was also a floating group of session musicians --brass and woodwinds and strings-- who morphed over various times into formal groups: starting with Shades of Joy, who composed the soundtrack to Jodorowsky's "El Topo," and growing into Tower of Power and Cold Blood and probably others, but I don't expect to remember everything about the Sixties. But who can forget the soaring soulfulness in the last verse of Jesse Colin Young's "Ridgetop"--
But the very best parts of each trip
Are the Golden Gate Bridge
And the road like a snake that will lead me
Back home to my Ridge--
followed by a glorious golden serpent of a saxophone solo, bringing that Road of Fulfilled Promise to life. Those of a certain age will know what I'm talking about.
Life is long. There was a stretch during which I was born-again, and I learned some of the same church tunes Catherine had sung as a kid, to which I would add "How Great Thou Art" and the great Christmas anthem "O Holy Night." Plus, the churches I joined had pastors who played trumpets, and people dancing in the aisles singing in tongues, so that was a whole new slant on Christianity for me --the best one, still, even now, so many years later . . . the joy of the Lord.
During that time I listened to some edgy Christian rock, such as Daniel Amos ("Vox Humana") and Steve Taylor ("I Want To Be A Clone," "We Don't Need No Color Code"). And I allowed myself to listen to quasi-Christian groups like Big Country, U2, and especially Mike Scott and The Waterboys, among my all-time favorite groups. (from "A Pagan Place" to "Fisherman's Blues.") And I enjoyed The Alarm's altar call with attitude:
Come on down and meet your maker.
Come on down and take the stand.
Awright, so this is a little more than a little chin music about music. But it's not an exhaustive autobiography. Let's skip ahead.
This was the week of the Grammy Nominations, which I was completely ignorant of, but it seems a fitting serendipity, and a shorthand I can use to see if we've missed much in the last few years. Here I go to take a look at the nominations . . .
We haven't missed much in the last seven years, that's for sure. These people are stunted, twisted, derivative, or fossilized. (Bruce Springsteen? The guy was faux blue-collar from the beginning and he's just become more faded and chemically-treated stonewashed as the the years go by. Yeah, let's see your calluses, Bruce.)
By way of contrast, an extended coda of what music aficionados get around to eventually: a list of tunes, including just some really damned strange stuff.
Latest: right now, yes right now, Thursday night, Catherine and I are listening to radical Czech violinist Pavel Sporcl play Nicolo Paganini. (Recorded in 2004.) How did that come about? Since you ask . . . Catherine had just got hold of a wonderful volume of ghost stories (published by Borders! one closed circle there), and she read an excellent one called "The Ensouled Violin" by Madame Helena Blavatsky (yes, that one). In it, Blavatsky mentions Paganini's "Witches' Dance." It's one of those pieces of music which legend infuses with brimstone, this time apparently encouraged by Paganini himself. So we got hold of it. Fantastic. "Le Streghe" is not what one expects; it is not grinning frantic craziness or impossible bowing, as if Goya's Caprichos had been set to music. No; this dance approaches sinuously, then dances away, fades, then approaches again in a different guise, then fades away again, reappearing in a new permutation, like the ages of woman, or a mirror revolving in flickering darkness. . . .
Not long ago we picked up Sigur Ros's new double CD, Hvarf-Heim, or "Haven-Home." Heim is acoustic new stuff, and beautiful, but Hvarf is better: a compilation of never-released stuff going back ten years. It's more like the surging, keening, pulsing, soaring and roaring soul metal that I remember from their first couple of albums.
And that reminds me of another album we need to get: The soundtrack to the best and most overlooked movie of 2006: The Fountain.
What next? We can separate the shuffled categories of the list by instrument. I mentioned steel guitar, but how about, as Catherine mentioned in conversation, cowbells? "Time Has Come Today" by the Chambers Brothers, and "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult, to mention two. But we could add Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Band. For starters.
Or harmonica. Just four short examples, omitting the underrated Bob Dylan. Start with "Fingertips," by (Little) Stevie Wonder. Immortal. Skip to anything by Magic Dick of the J.Geils Band, especially his work on the live "Full House" album. "First I Look At The Purse." Yikes! Then an album which didn't deserve obscurity: 1987, "Goodbye Blue Sky" by Godley & Creme (of 10cc fame, also the innovative video "Cry.") They explained at the time that all the rhythm tracks were laid down by harmonica; the results are amazing, especially "10,000 Angels" and "Crime & Punishment." And just today, Sunday, December 9, 2007, I heard something newly jaw-dropping, from "The Art of Field Recording, Vol.1," of which more below: a one-armed black bluesman and harpist named Neil Patman tearing out a number called "Mama Whoopin' The Blues," recorded in 1977. Look out and jump!
It never ends. Pedal steel guitar? Asleep At The Wheel, Commander Cody, Hot Tuna, New Riders, Grateful Dead. But also, years later in my last job at Borders, I took advantage of the inventory and went back in time to pick up some Bob Wills, Tex Williams, and especially Speedy West. In 1998 Razor & Tie put out a CD which said it all: Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. This was impossible pickin' from 1951 to 1956, spastic drastic plastic. Could it be repeated? Wayull, fast forward spin around and lookie here at Robert Randolph and the Family Band, ca. 2003. Here's a group with a pedal-steel player front and center. "I Need More Love" is like a little tornado of fast-spinning steel where you could even see Jesus kicking up his heels.
It never ends. Category: idiosyncratic, or downright strange. People like Cornelius (the Japanese techno guy) or Goldfrapp (the song "Deer Stop" from the CD "Felt Mountain), or the exceptionally talented but unfortunately perverse Tiger Lillies (if only they'd stick to genius tracks like "Gypsy Lament"), or especially Jim White. Let me linger on this guy for a minute, since here we'll explicity recognize that we lean toward and seek out authenticity above all --much more important than slickness. I think and hope that that thin true electric wire runs through every example we endorse above. Even Steve Miller, on "The Joker," implicity acknowledged that his hooks were a hell of a lot stronger than his irony, and that his talent was real, not just abracadabra.
Same thing with Jim White ("Wrong-Eyed Jesus, "No Such Place," "Substrate"), a post-born-again road-singer and overcomer:
I'm handcuffed to a fence in Mississippi;
Things are looking better all the time.
Me, I've got ten miles to go on a nine-mile road
And it's a rocky rough road
But I don't care:
Life is nothing if not a blind rambling prayer.
You keep your head held high, walking and talking
'Til the Power of Love deliver you there.
And he's not afraid to make a song like "Wordmule," which is almost postverbal. His rendition of Roger Miller's "King of the Road," full of static and ghosts, puts the haunt back in hobo.
Authenticity. I happened to run across Ben Ratliff's short review of Art Rosenbaum's Art of Field Recording, Vol.1, from Dust-to-Digital Records. Here's part of it:
Obviously it isn't definitive; it's just one man's work. But it's a gold mine, an ark. There are string bands, acoustic blues, ring shouts, "hambone" chants, Sacred Harp and Georgia Sea Island singing, the "lined-out" hymnody of Southern churches, unaccompanied fiddlers and banjoists and jew's-harpists. A great deal of it is spooky and blindingly beautiful, and the set owes its power to Mr. Rosenbaum's judicious ear. Almost all of these performers, often recorded in their homes or churches — including members of the W. B. Thomas Gospel Chorus, above — transcend the clichés of their style.
We picked up the set, mostly because of this craving for authenticity I've mentioned --certainly a response to the superfaux days we live in-- but also partly as new material to put into the mix of our long-term multimedia project, American Gothic. We've only listened to eleven songs so far from the Survey disc --from "Satan, Your Kingdom Will Come Down," through "The Drowsy Sleeper" to "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad." We're already ready to second Mr. Ratliff's opinion.
And it never ends. Catherine brought up a kind of music I'd never heard of, from a memory of hers that was so long ago and yet so strong that she recalled it immediately:
Downtown Phoenix, years ago, near Heritage Square, she's on her way to a family festival, when she hears this swinging, lively, jump-and-shout music, with pedal steel guitar (!), accordion, and saxophone along with guitars and drums; it's like polka, but more than polka; and when she drifts closer, she see that the musicians are all Native Americans. It's absolutely toe-tapping and irresistible. She's hearing what she later learns is called "chicken-scratch music," or waila.
When I looked up where it comes from, I almost wanted to weep in gratitude at the unstoppable musical curiosity of those lucky ones of us (not me) who are musical, who will not let boundaries get in the way of better ways to express the nearly inexpressible: what we can be when we stay true to what we are. So I can hardly wait to get hold of some chicken-scratch music, which I'm sure will turn out to be, as we used to say in Hawai'i, chicken-skin music, the kind that gives you goosebumps.
Well. I guess it was a lot of chin music about music. Hope you enjoyed it, those of you who stayed for the last song, knowing, of course, that there is no such thing.