Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Remembering Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry, straddling the line between . . .
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in the spring of '93, I sat myself down in the household wicker chair, opened my copy of Spy magazine, and read a piece detailing the sexual proclivities of one Chuck Berry. When I was done, I put the magazine down, got up from my chair, went outside and took a very long walk.

With every step I took I wished there was some way to un-read what I'd just read.

It seems like every memorial to the late Chuck Berry begins with a caveat of regret -- he was, evidently, a real piece of work -- and reading that profile (and suspecting the truth of it) is mine.

But of course there is also this: some ten years before I read that piece, I saw black-and-white footage of Chuck doing his thing for a television audience, back in the day.


Let's go ahead and say I saw this in1983. By then I had attended a few rock shows, and had been in the presence of some powerful guitar performances. But here on this little glass screen, I now saw what those younger, whiter yahoos were trying to measure up to.

I still get the shivers, watching this. And how crazy is that? Video was killing the radio star in '83 by importing powerful moving images (including -- especially -- girls, girls, girls) to impart some sense of what the music was like when you saw it live. But here all you've got is a guy and his guitar. Four older fellas trying to keep up, a French audience doing the seated dance. And there is absolutely no mistaking the power and athleticism and raw sexuality of the man's . . . guitar? The innocent observer is tempted to add "Seriously?" But the truth is after you see this you don't see the guitar in any other way. He owned it.

Watching Chuck, millions of scrawny boys who couldn't throw a ball never mind a punch suddenly realised they could forget all about that macho shit and learn how to play guitar. And we did -- some of us quite late in life.

Related: Chuck Berry invented the idea of rock 'n' roll, says Bill (not the Rolling Stone) Wyman. "Berry went gangsta on the world," says Mark Reynolds. Reynolds' piece is especially good for its inclusion and break-down of some footage from a 1972 performance on a German TV soundstage -- highly recommended.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Vigils 'n' Sigils: "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders..."

"You may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'" - Talking Heads

Naked runners, uppity old dames, indigent meditative-types -- so much low-hanging fruit to ponder on the family tree. Distraction? Or a possible entry point to forgotten corridors of the Magisterium?

"Whatevs," as the kids were once prone to saying. A few more stray observations, then, on the current state of Anabaptist Protestantism and where I might fall in with it. Perhaps a bold conclusion to this series will suggest itself. Or maybe I'll just declare a natural "time out" in hopes of moving on to other interests.

****

My mother informs me that a friend of hers -- a recent widow -- heads down to the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay every winter to deliver public seminars on sexual health.

I know this woman -- she's the mother of a high school friend. It's probably been 30 years since I saw her (or my friend, for that matter), but what I recall of her fits this profile quite well. She is friendly and solicitous, and disarmingly candid in an unassuming way that gently invites disclosure in turn. Also, she is perfectly fluent in German and at least one of its plaut- varieties.

Mom passed along a few amusing/delightful anecdotes from a recent trip, then took an unexpected detour to darker territory. "She [my mother's friend] says there's a group that hived off from the colony some years back, and occasionally one or two women will show up at a seminar. But they don't ask questions and they don't speak. People from this group only come to town for the meanest of necessities. They don't make eye contact with anyone, but glance around constantly. She says they behave as if they are all haunted, the men and the women."

"I don't know what that is," said my mother. She was silent for a while, then said, "That's pagan idolatry."

****

I tend to think my temperament is of the "Go along to get along" variety, but it's probably more accurate to say that's what I aspire to. Regardless, I've often wondered what prompted my ancestors to literally break faith with the state. So far as I'm concerned, give me three squares daily and a relatively stable social order and I'm generally happy to quietly live a life of the mind while plugging at the menial tasks that need doing.

Of course, revolution appeals to any untested young fella straddling the cusp of manhood, and in my day I spent some time hanging out with and trailing the footsteps of a few bold would-be radicals. Inevitably I became impatient with their impatience and bailed the scene before significant investment was asked of me.

And yet, here I stand -- comfortably Canadian -- after my ancestors fled one sweet gig after the next because they had a POV that brought the Catholics and the Lutherans into agreement.
"Let's wipe those Mennonites off the face of the earth!"
I'm made up of the genes of people who put everything at risk after they read the Bible for themselves.

Go figure.

****

"Reading the Bible for themselves" -- man, am I ever not an advocate of that! My tribe's spent the last 500 years building from that foundation and we're only now at the point where we admit to beneficial dialogue with Roman Catholic and Orthodox types.

Makes me think the Holy Roman Church dropped the ball pretty badly, way back when.

****

Fun fact: the Mennonites took in Baruch Spinoza and published his work. What did he have in common with us?

Exile. Successful trade. Lofty musings that ran counter to prevailing thought.
Perhaps the capacity for a lusty limerick.
Apparently that was enough -- for us both.

****

"Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point" -- Blaise Pascal: "The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of."

Ain't that the truth? I'm looking at Korea right now and the blowhards circling it, and hoping there is some heart-based raison bringing conviction to collective consciousness where dispassionate logic -- "Let's stop now, or this'll be the end of us all" -- has failed.

Say a prayer for the ways of men, won't you?

****

We are all haunted by something -- it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
"Abraham F. Reimer did not share the financial acumen of his brother Klaas, and was more interested in astronomy and other intellectual pursuits. His diaries and journals are filled with all manner of observations, calculations, facts and figures. Fortunately for the family, his wife Helena was a resolute pioneer woman of great determination, who earned much of the family income as a seamstress. The family also received considerable financial assistance from the Gemeinde."
And with that I declare myself the uncontested winner of the Fuela Reimer Literary Award. Thank you for reading! And may God have mercy on my family.
It's Fuela's cosmos -- we're just squatters in it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Talking Heads vs. Television: And The Winner Is...?

Aquarium Drunkard merits a shout-out for doing what it has done exceedingly well for the past dozen years, and counting -- culling infectious, trippy music from the fringes and the ages, and giving it centre stage. There aren't too many surviving examples of musical blogs exploiting the deep potential of dusty digital archives -- AD set the standard and maintains it to this day, for which I am grateful.

Their FB page recently re-posted this BBC video chestnut from 1984: Talking Heads vs. Television. I hadn't seen it yet, so I clicked over.
I wondered if "Television" didn't refer to the NYC art-rock crew that called it quits and left the CBGB stage a year or two before Talking Heads took it over. But, no, this was a declared war against the medium itself. Cue the eye-roll-inducing pretensions, then, and on with the show.
This is what we're up against.
I would have lapped it up in '84. The Heads' insistent "braininess" was a huge part of the appeal, back then -- I was a giddy fan, largely because this fer sher warn't no AC/DC show! This bunch had college smarts! Which I, too, was in the process of acquiring! Hey, I was even reading the Existentialists -- voluntarily! Surely this was the soundtrack to all the angst I was steeping myself in!
Irony alert!
I was a supercilious prat, in other words -- memories of which were painfully brought back to the fore as I watched the super-cuts of pro-TV mixed with Byrne's footage of the über-pedestrian. Funny how what's revealed in the exercise isn't necessarily what was intended.
Got the message yet?
There is a flip-side to the staging, however, which remains the coin of the realm. The concert experience, which Byrne cannot help but address in rapturous tones, is almost impossible to "capture" via television technology. Static cameras, tiny screens, bands and fans whose fashion sense pins them like butterflies to the cork of a doomed, bygone era -- attending the concert may have been a thrill, but a television broadcast will kill it as competently as any bell-jar.

Or?

Throw in the po-mo mix-and-match and the exercise does, indeed, become an experience more elevated than what one expects from the television of the time -- if not quite as thrill-inducing as seeing Stop Making Sense on the big screen a few months later. For those with the inclination and the hour, it's worth checking out.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Buffy Bafflement

Buffy The Vampire Slayer -- Joss Whedon's seminal television series, not to be confused with the Alicia Silverstone movie even he laments -- turned 20 this week. Or so I'm guessing -- my various feeds are larded with celebratory Buffy pieces with the number "20" in their tagline, and I've only followed up on one or two. I never caught the Buffy bug.

I'm not sure what I was watching 20 years ago -- Teletubbies, probably. Our first kid was born shortly after Buffy aired, and after that television became a catch-as-catch-can business.

The only episode I did catch (while surfing) and watch in its entirety was the all-musical "Once More, With Feeling."
Demonstrating proper choral technique (except for the two sad-sacks in the back)
I had no clue what the back-story was to any of the song-and-dance shenanigans, but I dug the audacity of what I was seeing. What's more, the premise sold itself as explicable -- which, considering I was a first-time viewer, was a startling accomplishment.

I tried tuning in again the next week, but what I saw didn't grab me so it was back to either Barney The Dinosaur or Hockey Night In Canada.
Those years are a blur for us all, I know.
Since then I've taken a couple of runs at the series, even purchasing the DVDs at a screaming bar-goon. The last attempt was with my daughters in their early teens. We got through the first season and a half, then bailed.

If pressed to explain my antipathy I'd probably resort to the superficial. The episodic reliance on the choreographed karate-with-wooden-stakes climax quickly became tedious. As for the High School drama, well . . . there was enough of that at the dinner table, and it made what we saw on the screen look a tad self-indulgent, if not privileged. Also, there's a certain Kabuki-like stiltedness that Whedon seems to nudge his actors toward -- it's inherent to television serials, generally, but seems particularly pronounced when paired with the self-aware-geek dialogue Whedon writes. I imagine the effect fades with prolonged cast experience/viewer exposure, but it remains an initial barrier regardless.

The people who are fond of Buffy are passionately fond of it -- and were probably in their late-teens-to-twenties when they first saw it. As ever, it leaves me pondering the nostalgia-divide, which begins and concludes at different ages for different people. We are living in the Golden Age of Television, apparently. If given another 20-plus years of TV exposure, will I be nostalgic about any of it to the point of willingly indulging in repeat viewing?

Mm -- Arthur, maybe.
"'Buffy binge'? We are THERE!"

Friday, March 10, 2017

Vigils 'n' Sigils: Meet The New Boss

Why mince words? In 1517 Europe, Martin Luther was Christendom's Donald Trump.
 "...an unforgiving and vulgar temperament..."
"...an ambiguity and inconsistency of doctrine
that alarmed his friends and delighted his enemies..."
"...vulgar compulsions ... persistent fear of death..."
"...surely the canniest manipulator of the new medium..."
"...lament his violent language and its tragic consequences..."
"... his personal theology must be one of the most monumental
religious failures of all time."
Yeah, that's right. And Erasmus was its Bernie "reformation from within" Sanders, you betcha.

You think it's just a clumsy irony, the result of a tone-deaf ear, that the Alt-Right has dubbed the Mainstream Media "The Cathedral?" Heh-heeeegh! The esteem you accord the various "successes" of the Reformation is likely an indicator of your estimation of 45's peculiar talents and the chain-lightning that accompanies their expression.

A thoroughly repugnant and lamentable figure -- Luther, that is.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Vigils 'n' Sigils: Whither Protest?

The internet is frustratingly short on answers and predictably high on speculation when it comes to my naaktlooper ancestors -- so, hey: why not contribute a little speculation of my own?*

I've read a couple of accounts that describe the run as "an act of protest." If you'll pardon the pun, I tend to chafe at this interpretation.
Exactly.
I initially viewed the run as a fit of religious ecstasy (or hysteria). The group's leader, Heynrick Heynricx, was a self-proclaimed prophet prone to fits and visions. On this particular Wednesday night he tore off all his clothes and threw them into the fire, then urged his followers to do likewise -- the better to "proclaim the naked truth" to all of Amsterdam.

Eleven people followed suit, including four women, and out they went into the February night air, padding over Amsterdam's cobblestones and shouting "Woe! Woe over the world and the godless!"
"Also: free tuition!"
I figured a person had to be deeply in the throes to take on Amsterdam's winter air in the buff. And there's little doubt this bunch had whipped up quite the passion. But this was no regrettable act of sudden impulse -- apparently the participants eschewed clothing for their trials as well, which seem to have occurred within a week or two after arrest.

Barend Dierksz's The Naked Runners Of Amsterdam (above) portrays the participants in the lush manner of the Renaissance masters he was emulating, but given their modest social standing it's unlikely these 12 were anywhere near this well-nourished. In most etchings of executions the Anabaptist martyrs look like rag dolls. By the time this dozen was led into court, one nude winter sprint followed by a few nights in jail had rendered them all susceptible to respiratory infections. They "behaved bizarrely."

The judge was as merciful as the times allowed. He ruled out demon possession, thus sparing them the further indignities and discomforts that "witches" and the like were subject to prior to execution. And although execution was inevitable, they were all beheaded -- another relative mercy. There's no mention of the convicted professing any expression of gratitude on these matters.

So a protest it was indeed.

How angry and fed up with the status quo did these folk have to be to behave this way, in a sustained manner right to the end? For that matter, how about the thousands of others that followed -- some of whom behaved with pronounced civility and even compassion in the face of barbaric cruelty?

A recent biographer of Martin Luther went to some pains to suggest that, in fact, by the time he posted his 95 Theses the Holy Roman Church was keen if not desperate to initiate substantial reform -- but Luther was having none of it. "Reform" wasn't really Luther's intention -- revolution was. Good ol' Martin Luther (stubborn, arrogant prick that he was) just had to keep pushing the argument right to the limit, effectually condemning thousands of sincere innocents to horrific martyrdom.**

Eyeeeah -- maybe, maybe not. I have to think if thousands of people are willing to commit themselves (to say nothing of their loved ones) to the near-likelihood of a terrible death all for the sake of a fledgling alternative to the Magisterium as it currently exists, then that Magisterium has evidently morphed into an oppressive tyranny of the imagination.

And yet, and yet -- there's no denying it: Martin Luther truly was a stubborn, arrogant prick.
"You say that like it's a bad thing!"
A fact that definitely colours my perception of the revolution that followed. To be continued . . .

*Relying on what appears to me the most authoritative account on the web: Gary K. Waite's summary of Albert Mellink's historical documents.

**Okay, I'm actually riffing off a review, and not the work proper. To wit: "Without Luther, many of us wouldn’t be standing here unable to do other than lament his violent language and its tragic consequences, and learn from it the utter necessity of civility and of embracing the humanistic alternatives represented by Erasmus and Thomas More" -- T.F. Rigelhof; also: "In effect, [Luther biographer Richard Marius] sees the Protestant Reformation as a counter-Renaissance, aborting the gentler tempering of Christiandom that the revival of classical learning and classical moral philosophy had begun in Italy" -- Jack Miles.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Vigils 'n' Sigils: The Magisterium Vs. The Protestant Pantry

Five-hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation began as an argument and has conducted and regenerated itself on those terms ever since.
"You're not here because you're right; you're here because you're wrong!"
The reflexive impulse toward narrative won't be denied, of course, but among Protestants the structures it adopts are reliably utilitarian (allegory! morality tale! a story that settles the argument!) and readily identifiable as such.

Returning to Mennonites, specifically, my friend's taunts obviously strike a nerve -- he gets to the truth of the matter, I think, but accidentally.

"Community" is not the Mennonite's primary concern (though brute survival nearly pushed it there, initially and for quite some time thereafter). Getting Scripture right is our first concern -- winning the argument! -- and it is a responsibility that falls to the shoulders of every individual reader, no matter their age or inexperience, in each of our manifold congregations. Which is what leads to manifold congregations.

In this intellectual environment, the first argument a potential writer of fiction needs to decisively "win" is the questioned need for any fiction whatsoever. "The Bible says to be people of Truth," etc. Throw in issues of pride (one of the Seven Deadlies, although we don't go for that errant Katolikje business of numerical assignation), and the arguments very quickly become labyrinthine and emotionally fraught.

From the moment a child learns to talk all intellectual life is reduced to argument, all the time. So, yes, there is a Protestant Literature and it is the literature of apostasy -- the entirely natural endpoint of the Protestant either/or impulse. "I have had enough -- you are all full of shit."
"And here are 95 reasons why this is so."
The list of authors contributing to this genre is enormous, and includes Melville, early Joyce, DeVries, our own Toewstje, etc. Apostasy Made Explicable is quite possibly North America's most reliable Lit-Fic default setting -- and very much the go-to template for our burgeoning Mennonite Literati.

As a genre it provides more compelling and accomplished story-telling than does bald religious allegory -- how best to win an "either/or" argument, except by nuanced story that hints at "all/none of the above"? Countering these currents, however, requires a more primally direct, yet subtle capacity for layered narrative.

I certainly don't blame our current authors for their limits of imagination -- after all, they were handed a Magisterium cussedly built from scratch less than 500 years ago, one that eschewed all prior myth and folklore as Devilish heresy. When all you've got left is rancorous dualistic either/or debate, your Magisterium is quickly reduced to a nearly-empty pantry. We're good at sermons, though, as our fiction makes quite plain. Give us another century or two and maybe we can aspire to SF, Magical Realism, or even Fantasy.

For the sublime imaginative feats of consciousness-altering Comic Books, however, we may have to wait another 500 years.

Vigils 'n' Sigils: Wither, The Protestant Imagination

Jane Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister. "Closet Catholic," in the estimation of my wise-cracking RCC buddy. In which case, if we are to use his rubric, we Protestants don't even get to count C.S. Lewis as one of "our own."
"JB can bite me."
Bunyan is it, then. We've got what we deserve.