Thursday, February 28, 2008

Personal Anniversaries

"last night i had that same old dream it rocked me in my sleep..."

Lyric pinched from Larry Norman's Nightmare #71.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Podcast: Mike Mentzer, R.I.P.

Alright, I'm back on my podcast schedule (such as it is). Mike Mentzer, R.I.P. is available for download here, or streaming here. It's 35 minutes long.

Tangentially related: in November I did a reading and fielded questions for a women's book club. The two stories that generated the most questions were Youthful Desires, and this one -- so I think it behooves me to link to Mentzer's wikipedia entry.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Larry Norman, R.I.P.

I just found out that Larry Norman -- the "Father of Christian rock" -- passed away this week, of heart failure. He was 60.

I saw him perform two or three times in the 80s, and I have a couple of his records on CD that I pull out from time to time to try to figure out just what hold his music still retains on me. And that hold is still very much there.

I think Chris Willman's "In Memoriam" for Entertainment Weekly (here) is trenchant and, thanks to his own acknowledged solipsism near the end, chiefly correct. Every time I saw him perform, I was left with the impression that Norman was one exceedingly strange cat. And it didn't matter which record of his I would play, my lasting and final impression was that he was a disturbed and deeply melancholy soul.

People who reach out to Jesus from the strange and terrible pit of their own personal hell sometimes produce a primal sort of work that is very difficult to dismiss. A person so twisted with the anguish of experience and perception has no choice but to speak the truth; the rest of us have no choice but to listen. I'm sorry Norman's voice is silenced.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Pissy Mystic

It seems to me someone out there has a song about a "pissy mystic," which pretty much sums up my attitude regarding the pop culture confections I've slowly stopped enjoying over the years. The various reincarnations of Star Trek are just one example. Lately the web has generously hosted the trailer for J.J. Abrams crack at franchise renewal. Gee willikers, Corky: loving slo-mo pan-shots of the U.S.S. Enterprise!! That oughtta inject a little life into the corpse .... no?

Judge for yourself here, but I say, no. Those loving, slo-mo pans have worn out their welcome with me, seeing as how they've become the substitute for the sort of genuine emotional interest that good writers, directors and actors invest in characters.

Friday, February 22, 2008

MAKE visits MAD

Somehow I had the impression that MAD Magazine had tanked in the 90s. Hey, it had been a good half-century, or close to it. My favorite issues were published in the 60s and early 70s, the two decades when the magazine was at its pop-cultural zenith. And certainly the brand has been around, usually attached to some sort of tribute or (bleeeech!) money-grubbing nostalgia trip.

But lo and behold, the usual gang of idiots remains gainfully (if Gaines-lessly) employed. Not only that, but if their covers are any indication, they're doing some of their most groan-worthy work to date. My father (a connoisseur of MAD since day 1) sent me this poster, shortly before it became a fait (non) accomplis. But how did I miss Starr Wars?


All this was brought to mind as I perused the MAKE visits MAD Flickr page. It all looks rather like Bart Simpson's visit of those same hallowed halls (link via Boing Boing).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

After "The Show"

"Nevertheless, out of awe, amusement or pity, you should come and see this unique show" -- thus runs William Shatner's imprimatur of The Shatner Show. Awe, amusement, pity ... that pretty much sums up my own emotional response to the pieces displayed in the virtual gallery (now available as a handsomely bound book).

Now, when does this guy receive the same treatment?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy Holiday?

It's amusing to see our province's premier getting flack for cooking up a new holiday. As for me and my house, we're actually enjoying Family Day -- at home, no less. My only kvetch is the name. What a lame-o name for a holiday!

Manitoba, on the other hand, is celebrating a real holiday today: Louis Riel Day. Riel's story strikes me as roiling, grandly ambitious, accidental, mistake-ridden and self-conflicted, surprisingly noble, deeply racial-ethnic and confused, momentarily transcendent and finally profoundly tragic ... he is the quintessential Canadian mytho-historic figure. Screw "Family Day" -- this should be Louis Riel Day for the entire nation.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Riel. There are many biographies and histories of Riel and the shenanigans that cluttered (and ended) his life, but nothing gets the job done faster, more compellingly with a greater entertainment value than Chester Brown's brilliant graphic novel (Andrew D. Arnold raves about it on behalf of TIME magazine here). That's what I'll be re-perusing at the close of today.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Vinyl Restoration Project

Those, then, are the three vinyl rarities that come to my mind: what say we open the floor? Any titles/performers you'd like to see rescued from vinyl obscurity?

Burgess Shale Blues: My First And Final Choice

Last week I listened to an Ideas podcast as I drove around gathering groceries for the family. I was caught up in the tonal delivery, giving the immediate landscape only as much attention as public safety required while my brain fired back at this salvo of propositions with counter-propositions of its own. When I finally reached the parking lot, I shut off the car and sat in silence. The neurons in my brain were buzzing like a hive of bees, responding to an intruder from another colony. They were doing a fine job of dispatching with the foreigner ... except ....

What if I was wrong? What if my, for the most part traditional, approach to this problem was incapable of delivering me any further? It had worked to bring me to point X, but despite my best efforts it didn’t seem capable of delivering me to point Y. What if ...? And what now?

Flash back 20 years earlier, to my first summer of weddings. So many of my friends were getting married, I seriously considered purchasing a tux to save on the rentals. One wedding was held in a church near the small town I grew up in. To get from the city to the town, I rode shotgun in the decorated car with the groom’s brother at the wheel. We turned on the radio to see what was playing.

We weren’t up for the usual rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, so we settled on jazz. The station we landed on was spinning something from the 60s; the drummer was heavy with his cymbals and the saxophonist followed his hazy intuitions up and down arpeggios punctuated by shrieks and squonks. Then out of this came a powerful preacher’s voice, speaking with an urgency and authority that had an angry edge to it:

“Imagine humanity as dwelling in an underground cave with a long entrance open to a light across the whole width of the cave; in this they have been since childhood, with necks and legs fettered, so they have to stay ... where ... they ... are.”

Of course I had already read The Cave, from Plato’s Republic, and written the usual end-term essays on it. But this man’s clipped delivery made me realize I hadn’t heard it — not really. That was changing.

We floated above the prairie landscape as the preacher continued, urging and cajoling and insisting we turn and face and give due diligence to the prospect of our enlightenment, and not just for the sake of personal gratification, but for the enlightenment of our communities and our society.

The monologue and the music came to an end just as we coasted into the church parking lot. My friend and I sat there and stared at each other with open faces. What had just happened?

When Darko prompted me to consider what out-of-print stuff I’d like to see made available, Poitier Meets Plato was the first album that came to mind. Of course, it is a distinct possibility that the compelling performance I recall may not be especially moving to listen to today; what once sounded commanding might now ring as maudlin. Most of the blogosphere treats the album like a hip-cat novelty best reserved for a slow day on college radio. Still, I find it incredibly poignant to consider the time and the origins of this recording: a black American man, one of the precious few possessing enormous public stature, speaking out in 1963 about the responsibilities that come with enlightenment. I originally heard that performance some twenty years after it was recorded; twenty years later its message seems even more desperately pertinent.

Actually, I don’t much care if this performance remains nothing more than a pleasant memory for me. This is “Black History Month”: what I really want is to hear today’s black preacher read this work. Then when he’s done, I want to hear a white preacher take a crack at it. Then I want someone from Palestine, and Israel, and China read it to the rest of us, and do what Poitier did: make it their own, and sound like they bloody mean it.

This is not the hour for our species to speculate about the shadows on the wall. If we want our children and their children to survive and thrive, we have no option: we must do the discomfiting work of facing and remaining in light.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Signs of Life (Elsewhere)


Bookslut links to a whimsical bit of analysis by Peggy Orenstein on the Girls' Books phenom. Personally, I find Orenstein's angle incredibly peeving. "What do these books say about us, the (Boomer) parents who buy these books for our kids? Is there any way at all we can raise our daughters without gender expectations, in order to explore and fulfill some unspecified but assuredly innate potential?" Me, me, ME, ME!! Well, to continue the "me" thread, there are three things I think I need to point out: 1) my 10-year-old daughter, unbidden, approached me and requested The Girls' Book; 2) she became very cross when she discovered I'd spoiled her secret by promoting the book in this post; and 3) my wife's latest favorite catchphrase seems appropriate: IT IS ONLY ONE-SIX-BILLIONTH ABOUT YOU! And in this case it is about an 11-year-old girl who continues to open this book on a daily basis and find material that stimulates thought and activity, while simultaneously providing literary reassurance and delight.

In Other News ... I don't know why, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to find STOPSMILING on the magazine stands. I hope that is not the case for you, however: issue 33 is perfect for airplane or time-to-sleep reading. The pieces are short enough to be devoured, and substantial enough to sit and slow your brain's digestive system and possibly even put a little meat on the bones of your imagination. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Doing The Tekkie Work-Around

I'm noticing that my feed-links to OurMedia can occasionally be excruciatingly slow to load. They are a "free, as in free" service, so the delays are in no way unusual. Still, I don't post too many feed-links, so I've chosen to remove the feeds from this blog and post them on another: Prajer Podcasts.

More anon.

Podcast: Tar And Feathers

First, a related bit of news: I've made the PDF of Youthful Desires free for the taking; follow this link and hit "download."

And there is a new podcast for your listening pleasure. Download it here, or stream it here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Burgess Shale Blues: Parchment Shamblejam

When it became apparent that my move to another province was “taking root” my parents held an enormous yard sale. My record collection, of course, was among the items up for grabs. The bulk of it was shoehorned into an enormous box and marked for five dollars.

A neighbourhood kid saw the garish rock ‘n’ roll album covers, then the price, and asked, “Do I get the whole box for five bucks?” My father assured him this was indeed the deal. “Cool!” The fin exchanged hands, and the kid hefted the box and made for home. Two lurching steps off the driveway, the kid stopped in his tracks and turned around. “Uh, hold on a sec: are these all Christian?

My father tried not to smirk. “Oh, I don’t think they’re all Christian,” he said.

He was right. Queen’s The Game was in there, as was some early RUSH, Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits and an album by the Bronski Beat. The rest, however, were Christian in the extreme. The kid had just dropped five hard-won bucks on a box full of music where Kenny Rogers was one of the better acts.

My father did this with my blessing and best wishes. A quarter-century later, there are only a half-dozen albums I sometimes wish I’d kept. Of those six, only one qualifies as an unmitigated regret: Parchment Shamblejam.

My mother came home with the album, along with four others she’d bought for a buck apiece at a Christian bookstore clearance sale. Given the rudimentary cover design — three British hippie-types (Sue McClellan, John Pac, Keith Rycroft), gazing with droopy-lidded serenity back at the viewer — it was difficult to discern which of the two words was the band’s name, which was the album title, or if any such distinction should be made at all. “Shamblejam” captured perfectly the trio’s sense of musical play, and it became the only word we used for the group and the album.

In fact, the group’s name was Parchment, and Shamblejam (1975) was the only album to cross the Atlantic and surface on North American shores. It didn’t seem to fit any of the slots constructed by the burgeoning CCM industry; even today, after a quick Google, the people who talk about it refer to it as psychedelic-folk Jesus music, which is as close to pigeon-holing as this delightful album is going to receive. It opens with a mandolin-plucking, foot-stomping rendition of Washington Phillip’s "Denomination Blues," and moves on to fuzzy guitar blues licks and esoteric spiritual musings. One chorus ran, “Don’t let the morning come bringing the sun / I just want to live on in the night,” and it had a cheery delivery suggesting that somewhere between the queasy pleasure of indulgence and the knee-jerk impulse to repent was a larger truth that could set the (rather vaguely defined) situation aright.

Mark Allan Powell contends that Parchment’s occasional use of the sitar probably threw off the Christian bookstore set, who equated the “eastern” sound with the occult. If this was indeed the case, it also served to slip “The Speaker’s Corner” — opening track to Side 2 — completely under evangelical radar.

“Well, I walked along the river bend, deciding where to go / The city was too busy to be kind”

Singer Sue McClellan swings into the song with a light, airy vocal delivery that is at once innocent and unsettlingly sultry. A trombone slides into play, as does a tuba and a drummer fond of punctuating every alternate beat with a heavy bass drum or cymbal smash. Powell calls this “bluesy,” but he misses the mark by a wide country mile: this is old-fashioned bump-n-grind burlesque, complete with wolf-whistles and cat-calls.

I don’t have enough recall of the lyrics to comment on the content (what I seem to remember has a “’scuse me while I kiss this guy” quality, and for once the internet is unable to come to my rescue), but I love the aural juxtaposition of London's Speaker’s Corner, where hectoring and argument are wielded in an effort to sway public opinion, with the luscious enticement of a strip-tease. On that thematic level alone, this song works as the album’s centerpiece, seasoning its humor with a light ironic touch and an unabashed sensuality to win over the resistant listener (traits one doesn't often encounter in CCM).

The album closes with “Long As I Can See You,” a gentle Beatles-folky ballad, where the songwriter’s object of affection remains unnamed (for those unsure of the recipient, here’s a hint: it’s Jesus). The song fades with sounds of children at play, Big Ben tolling in the background and, finally, the sound of a crowd cheering at a football game. And for those who doubt sunshine can be heard, it's there, too. It’s a delightful pastiche, suggesting that the phenomena we love most in our all-too-brief lives are actually sacramental elements. It’s the perfect conclusion to an album that is wholly invitational and life-affirming, no matter what the listener’s persuasion might be.

Now where’s the CD?

Endnote: apparently Shamblejam in vinyl fetches upward of a hundred pounds, UK. £100!!! For an album my mother originally bought for a buck! Not, I gather, an unusual fate for early CCM rarities. I can only hope the poor sod who staggered away with my records is now a rich, rich man.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Burgess Shale Blues: The Moog Strikes Bach by Hans Wurman


My father came home from the city with this album in hand. He'd heard one or two samples from it on CBC radio, and thought we might get a kick out of it. It was called The Moog Strikes Bach ... To Say Nothing Of Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Paganini and Prokofieff. It was music transcribed for and rendered by this contraption called a "Moog Synthesizer" and was performed and engineered by this hipster egghead named Hans Wurman.

Wurman at work.
I can't speak for the women in our family, but I don't believe the men ever tired of this record. To this day, I predominantly think of Chopin's "Black Key" Etude, Op. 10, No. 5, as a piece made for the synthesizer. It's curious to scroll through a few links turned up by Google: most people recall this record as a novelty spin-off of Wendy (née Walter) Carlos' Switched-On Bach (which I think we may have owned as well). Rather than getting into the tit-for-tat issue of which album is "superior," I'll comment on particularly notable aspects to both of these records.

Foremost of these is Their Era: These albums were released at the close of the 60s, when the chattering classes considered the synthesizer a "toy" used frivolously by pop acts hoping to inject a little spacey frisson to otherwise unremarkable ditties. It seems Bob Moog was especially anxious to elevate his invention into the fusty halls of respectability, and both these albums were greeted with a critical amusement that could almost be mistaken for approval.

I was one tyke who considered it "Mission: Accomplished!" First of all, both Wurman and Carlos treated their chosen composers with a bedrock of reverence. These weren't esquivel renderings, with profane little garnishes of "zoom-zoom, boink!" The performances were resolutely faithful: if it wasn't on the score, it wasn't on the record. Secondly, if the synthesizer was less an instrument than it was a toy ... aye carumba, but what a toy! In 1969, the Moog was not something a person could purchase at the local Steve's Music, never mind stow in the backseat of an Austin Mini. The black and white photos on these albums showed a roomful of cathodes and diodes and doodads, all hooked up to an enormous organ-style keyboard. The only way to achieve pianissimo and fortissimo and all the other inflections of character that the composer demanded was the volume knob.

Four tracks, unwieldy and physically demanding technology, technician performers with genuine musicality and enough mischief to foist their art before critics who were skeptical if not openly hostile ... revolutionary stuff, man. I just wish I could give it another spin.

Lost To The Vinyl Tar-Pits

Darko wonders if there aren't some musical performances I once enjoyed on vinyl, then for some reason or circumstance lost. Do I now hesitate to buy these performances in digital (CD, mp3) format? If so, why?

I don't hesitate enough, actually. There is ample evidence on my hard drive and in my back closet that the nostalgic impulse should be vigorously questioned before it is indulged. My recent purchase of the DVD boxed set of Star Trek: The Animated Series could definitely have stood a little more scrutiny. I figured $20 was an invitation for me to explore what could have been a pleasant childhood memory, if only our town had cable. What wound up happening, unfortunately, was a case of the bloom dropping off the rose. Sketchy story-lines, tediously bad animation ... oy vey. I don't want to think about how schnackered a person would have to be to enjoy such pallid entertainment. I had more fun with this series when I was vaguely considering its potential. The box should have remained closed.

Similarly, music. There are a few artists I've followed with fanatic, completist zeal who have rewarded me quite generously for my efforts. And there are a legion more whose most resonant insight is, "Deep down I'm really very shallow."

Summing up, the moral of the story is I could stand to develop a little more self-control and discretion when it comes to purchasing music. Fortunately for this thread, there are a few nostalgic grails that remain just beyond my reach: vinyl recordings that are sinking in the tar-pits as the Cambrian tide of technological evolution surges forward.* I call this exercise "The Burgess Shale Blues." Here, then, are three albums that, for one reason or another, have yet to be digitally rescued from total obscurity.

Number one

Number two
Number three

*Yes, I know my natural history. Please be kind and refrain from examining that metaphor too closely.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fallowing

My apologies for the dearth in new posts. I'm not altogether sure what's at work, or play, but something is. Mid-life musing is almost certainly an ingredient, as is last summer's illness. Throw in a series of violent and very personal catastrophes that our town has suffered, and ... well, there seems to be a great deal to mull over.

And so very little to say.

I don't consider myself depressed, nor do the people closest to me. The subjects that usually excite me (see masthead) still do, but when I approach them as subject matter I can't seem to find traction. My best guess as to what's going on is, I'm fallowing.

If you have any thoughts, questions, insights ... the comments and/or my e-mail addy are yours to use.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Podcast: Kissing Einstein

Another podcast for your consumption: Kissing Einstein can be downloaded here. Or you can stream it here. The file is ten minutes and a few seconds long.