Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“What are you listening to?”

“Is Bill Evans still 'On The Platter'?”

“Yes,” was my immediate reply, followed by a pause. “The others are not.”

“What are you listening to?” is my go-to icebreaker (“What do you do for a living?” and “What are you up to these days?” are average questions that fetch average answers). But when I was asked the question on Sunday, I found myself at a loss for words.

I am listening to a lot of blues these days, albums from the '60s that inspired the bands that once inspired me — “The Three Kings”: Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King. It amounts to aspirational listening — I'm hoping to graduate from dog-paddling in the kiddie pool to doing the front crawl in the deep end. The listening isn't without pleasure, but the focus of attention on technique tends to keep me cool where once I was prone to fevers of passion.
"Michael rowed the boat ashore, ah-lay...[repositions fingers]...LOOO-yah!"
There are other albums making regular appearances on the “recently played” playlist: In Your Own Sweet Time by The Fratellis; Ámr by Ihsahn; some tracks from the recent Samantha Fish album (wup — we're back in the blues again). These days I'm recycling Led Zeppelin quite often, as well as the older Rush albums, with the occasional Clockwork Angels replay, just to keep it all in perspective.

But mostly I'm listening to podcasts — lots and lots of podcasts. About which, more later...

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son

I've been missing Ry Cooder.

He hasn't gone anywhere, of course. He lives, and until someone informs me otherwise I will assume he remains well. But...

My introduction to Ry Cooder was 1987's Get Rhythm. I had no idea what an anomaly it represented in his ouevre. Sister Rosetta Tharpe said there are only two types of music — blues and gospel. Get Rhythm was blues at its rowdiest. The album had its circumspect moments — or “moment,” since “The Borderline” was really all that passed for sober circumspection on that album. The rest of it was torqued up to 11, in attitude if not always in amplitude. The album rocked, and when I caught up with past offerings I understood just how hard it rocked. Get Rhythm offered a schooling to up-and-coming youngsters, but was also in hindsight an aging master's farewell to youth and young manhood.

After that, Ry seemed to become a predominantly serious man. Of course things have become serious for us all — I wouldn't argue against that. And Cooder seemed to be walking alongside (if not slightly behind, where he seems most comfortable) his listeners, taking things in stride to the best of his abilities. Chavez Ravine (2005) was an admixture of cultural/political/let's-have-fun sensibilities. My Name Is Buddy (2007) was a pet (sic) project that channeled Woody Guthrie and Kenneth Grahame in equal measure. Then I, Flathead showed up, getting the octane mixture exactly right — equal parts nostalgia to thrill. 2011 brought Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, and 2012 Election Special — both strong indicators that Ry believed there were clear political solutions to the difficult problems besetting us all, if only we had the courage to face them and act.

It is 2018, and political solutions do not appear possible to those determined to act in good faith.

With The Prodigal Son, Ry reaches for spiritual coherence and elevation, and achieves it. It doesn't have the testosterone-fueled snap of Get Rhythm and the more boisterous songs of I, Flathead, yet it still rocks. Blind Willie Johnson is well represented, as is Carter Stanley and Blind Roosevelt Graves. Ry's own contributions are humbly offered affairs not out of place with his estimable saintly company. And it is bittersweet to hear, probably for the final time, the voice of Ry's long-time collaborator, the late Terry Evans.

“Keep the faith,” is clearly Ry's message. There is still joy to be had in the day-to-day struggle — sometimes it just takes a rousing slide-guitar to dust it off and let it shine.
Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trump in Ontario?

There are some similarities.

A rough-hewn alpha male, possessed of some charisma and social aptitude. An inheritor of his father's successful business, whose own business savvy is a matter of debate. A man with an ear for the strains of impatience and frustration among the hard-scrabble beta lot.

Although he has been a political animal for his entire adult life, he was a newcomer to provincial politics — an outsider. The party he parachuted into was a mess. The Conservatives had just jettisoned their leader for being too old, too single, and too sexually active in a manner that appeared to border on the predatory. A woman of competence seemed to have a lock on the bid for leadership — this would have brought us an election where voters had to choose from three female candidates with similar qualifications. Then Douglas Robert Ford, Jr. announced himself, and was granted leadership under controversial circumstances.

There are differences.

The Conservatives were going to win this thing, regardless — it was a question of just how large the margin. Ford pitted himself against two women with a lifelong habit of talking down to everyone they meet. It may be his marble-mouthed chumminess increased the margins in the Conservatives' favour.

The next four years are sure to be a grotesque spectacle. There is already one family lawsuit occupying headlines — if the business is doing anywhere near as badly as this suit claims, others are sure to follow. The province's financial books are sure to be a shock. Ford will make a number of political choices that will enrage his opponents and provide varying degrees of succor to his supporters.

Had Christine Elliott won the Premier's seat, I'd have been nervous. With Ford I am just resigned. The rest of Canada already views this province with the disdain reserved for the fair-haired child in the family. For the next four years we shall provide them ample justification for national schadenfreude.
The "Goya Slider"!

Monday, June 04, 2018

“There has never been, in the history of the world, a multicultural society that was not an empire.”

Discussed: CanLit’s Colonial Habit: Literature in the age of Reconciliation and ‘peak’ diversity by Stephen Marche (here).
Students at Ahousat Indian Residential School in B.C., 1939.
I read Stephen Marche’s essay yesterday morning. Then I read it again — aloud, to my wife — in the afternoon.

“That’s incredible,” she said. “So many devastating observations. But what do you take away from it?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

I’m still not sure. But it seems to me essential reading.

Marche adroitly surveys the CanLit scene and eviscerates the sanctimony that drives it, without coming off as holier-than-thou (because, after all, he is the beneficiary of said scene (such as it is)). He touches on CanLit figureheads I’ve puzzled over — Joseph Boyden and Miriam Toews, to name just two — and succinctly summarizes both their appeal and their limitations.

When I was a younger writer, doing the whole SASE submission thing, I was vaguely aware of the unspoken cultural expectations the guardians of the CanLit scene had. And I took a stab at meeting those expectations. I’ve still got the hangover — see my blog masthead for evidence. I figure “Mennonite” is a search parameter more likely to net readers than “movies, music, miscellaneous.” Marche pinpoints this reflexive impulse as well, and highlights the uniquely Canadian tint to it.

I could fill the page with quotes, but will settle with this one:
I have always wondered why Canadians care so little for their history, why an event like the War of 1812 — rich with fascinating characters and heroic incident — should be more or less completely forgotten. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report explains without explaining: When your country is based on taking away First Nations’ history from them, and replacing it with a history from a country thousands of miles away, why wouldn’t you throw out your own history too? The cliché of Canadian art is that it is obsessed with landscape. The TRC report reveals the terrifying why: Canadian landscapes are visions of country with no people.
Marche's essay is here. Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports are here. This is the executive summary.

Friday, June 01, 2018

And now for my other preoccupation...

“All these incredible on-line resources — it's a wonder anybody bothers with personal instruction at all anymore.”

So said the fellow I was receiving personal instruction from, for guitar. One month later we shook hands and parted ways.

I've been on-line ever since.

In my heart of hearts I still believe one-on-one, two people in the same room, interaction is THE BEST way to learn anything. But it does require significant capital and, often, travel-time. And then there's the whole business of settling on the personal instructor who's going to lead you into the Promised Land.

In my case we were both having communication issues. One concern I was not making sufficiently clear was just how far I was willing to walk back my training. His philosophy was, “If what you're doing brings out the right sound, keep doing it.” But after 30 years of campfire strumming, I knew I'd picked up a few seriously bad habits — the most significant of which was a death-grip on the guitar neck whenever I did barre chords, or slid up the fret-board. Within months after taking on a couple of fancy new moves, I found myself addressing something new to me — an overuse injury. Now I needed instruction in better ergonomics, as well as the technique I was keen to acquire.
Turns out there is a wrong way to hold a guitar.
There is no shortage of YouTube authorities, subscription-based instructional services, or Udemy (and the like) courses. I've dabbled a bit in nearly all these platforms, and courted injury to my mouse-hand in the process. The best resource I've found, to date, is Justin Sandercoe, aka Justin Guitar.

First selling point: his stuff is free — as in, FREE. I don't begrudge the nickels I spent in any of those other places, but the beauty of Justin's program is you can quickly suss out just how helpful it's likely to be to your given place in the guitar skills spectrum.

Speaking personally, he's addressed and corrected a host of ergonomic elements along with all sorts of other technique nit-picking questions I've had. His instructions introduce both newcomer and intermediate players to the various boxes that offer elemental expression. Then he gently breaks open the box to give the student greater range of expression.
Anyhoo, if giving your guitar skills a nudge is at all your concern go on and give him a look. His YouTube channel is here, and his website is here. And if you find him at all useful, take the next step and do the right thing — pay for his services.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

The movie did not open well, apparently.
I've been mulling this over, for a couple of reasons: 1) I enjoyed it immensely; 2) I didn't feel especially compelled to see it.

Solo reminded me of Vera CruzRobert Aldrich's comically cynical western from 1954 — with elements of the Hope/Crosby Road movies and (naturally) Casablanca. It is absolutely larded with the sorts of details that continuity freaks slaver over, but rolls from scene to scene so briskly that when it was over and we were in the parking lot I was surprised to discover the film was 30 minutes longer than I thought. I'm with Kate Taylor: Solo is the simplest and most satisfying Disney Star Wars yet.

So why was I in no hurry to see it?

It's a strange thing — Disney is producing franchise content with, I would argue, commendable panache. The roster now includes four movies with sturdier stories and more compelling characters than the Majordomo managed in his last four SW movies. Yet the Mouse's marketing department struggles to make the pitch.

The one Solo trailer I saw elicited a universal “meh” from my family. It wasn't until someone replaced the orchestral score with the Beastie Boys' “Sabotage” that my feelings toward the material's potential changed. The running joke was “'Sabotage' improves everything,” but it was indeed an indication of just how lost Disney's promo people seem to be when it comes to presenting this property.

Until I was actually sitting in the theatre chair, this movie did not feel like essential viewing. Unless “Star Wars” is at the beginning of the title, the rest is peripheral — an unintentional side effect from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Solo (I'm hoping still) has potential to launch a series, but the fact that Rogue One was an unambiguous one-off does not improve the odds.

Now consider the stills. If you enter “Solo” into Google Images, you'll get plenty of shots that look like this:
Inert, murky, predominantly sombre if not joyless, and lacking the visual punch of, for instance, The Last Jedi's garish red palette. Solo has at least one set-piece that was visually surprising, along with plenty of sequences with kinetic oomph, but you wouldn't know it from what we see online and elsewhere.

And finally I think the franchise is desperately missing Ralph McQuarrie's unscalable vision. I can't imagine McQuarrie ever giving the go-ahead to perching a lead character on top of a thumb-drive, or inside a peeled-back sardine-tin. And that's just vehicle design.

It's a shame — aside from the occasional ho-hum visual, Solo joins a growing list of deeply satisfying Star Wars narratives.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Groovy Gurus: re-essaying the wisdom that sends a young man down unanticipated paths.

I went through a bit of a rough patch in my mid-20s. Nothing remarkable — closing the door on a significant relationship, and reconfiguring all the others. Mid-20s stuff, and I was hurtin' in that mid-20s fashion.

I stopped listening to rock 'n' roll and started listening to jazz. That helped.

I also started reading self-help books.

Most were actually unhelpful — Alice Miller, especially (I have to wonder if her wounding theories didn't in fact add to DFW's woes). But a few cut through the fog to boost my internal wherewithal.

[Takes deep breath...]

I forgot to mention: this was 1991. Just bear that in mind, please.

M. Scott Peck had several books on the NYT bestseller list. I read The Road Less Traveled, and I grokked it. “Life is difficult” — yes! It is, it truly is...

Here's another quote, from another book that was big in '91:
What does it mean when a man falls in love with a radiant face across the room? It may mean that he has some soul work to do. His soul is the issue. Instead of pursuing the woman and trying to get her alone, away from her husband, he needs to go alone himself, perhaps to a mountain cabin, for three months, write poetry, canoe down a river, and dream. That would save some women a lot of trouble — Robert Bly, Iron John

Dude — yes!!

A friend had a shack in the pines near Peterborough. I couldn't afford three months, but I did have a week of paid vacation coming to me, so off I went. No mountain, no river (certainly no phone), but plenty of solitude, notebooks and pencils. I supercharged my mythopoeic ass and returned to the city a stronger man.

So: helpful words from fellas who wanted to be helpful to other fellas — readers who were younger and more adrift than they. Readers like me. Mission accomplished.
"Now me want cookie!"
But, you know, a fella keeps reading and if he's actually taken some of these mythopoeic lessons to heart he reads widely and he reads deeply. And he eventually goes back to the words of the early sages that sent him on this journey and he re-essays their worth. And what once struck him with immeasurable force in a time of youthful crisis may, upon deeper reflection, be worth little when the reader finds himself on the other side of said crisis. He may read more of these men's words, and listen to accounts of their behaviour as they aged and did not go gently into that good night. And the reader may think, with some justification, “Yeah, that is just a little whack.”

If you don't kill the Buddha, he'll do the job for you.

Look, Jordan Peterson is not my bag of meat. But I get why he's a very big deal right now — he's Robert Bly on steroids, a digital media Lenny Bruce, clean and sober but jonesing on Jungian archetypes.
The "Groovy Guru" of KAOS -- I'd almost swear that's a MacBook to the left.
And I totally get the controversy. For the uninitiated (really?) let me sum it up — “You're not listening to what he's actually saying.” 

And both sides are right.

I won't address the nay-sayers, except to say, wow, do you ever have a shitty grasp on mythopoeic essence — your novels read like the hackneyed screeds that sent me screaming from the church pew. (I'm digging your comic books, though — keep it up.)

If you're an avid Petersonite — keep working through his syllabus, bucko (hey, he's big on Frye!). It might be in a year or two or it might be next week, but you will reach a point where you'll be glad you did the further/deeper reading.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The road map to the life of the mind

“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind...there's no road map for that territory. And exploring it can be painful. The kind of pain most people don't know anything about.” Barton Fink [In which we discover Our Hero to be an insufferable prat.]
"But be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."
The life of the mind — there is a road map for that territory, actually, but it is wildly unreliable.

Still, I've been thinking a great deal about why I think the way I do — why I yam what I yam. I cogitate thus because I am on the other side of the age divide.

Kids These Days think about things differently than I do, but not so differently than I once did. How the heck did that happen?

I've had the “young liberal/old conservative” canard thrown at me, but I protest. Given the resources and consciousness-warping wealth of this country, I believe supplying a roof for every head and basic nutrition for every household table ought to be a given — everything after that is just detail work. That makes me a Lefty, no?

On Paul's urging, I asked the family: “Who is it that you say I am?”

“Oh, he's way-out-there Left,” said my wife.

“Nah, he's conservative,” said my daughter.


I hope to meander through some recollections of people and words that brought me to where I am, currently. But first, some longer reads that have prompted this particular direction of meditation.

“Liberalism and empiricism have parted company, and nothing has been learnt” — so says John Gray, in The Problem of Hyper-Liberalism.

Terry Eagleton — that godless, Commie Christ-nik — surveys Gray's Seven Types of Atheism with a mixture of admiration and disappointment.

“Liberalism has failed, because Liberalism has succeeded”John Médaille suggests the obvious — Liberalism is mercantilism's vanguard stooge, knee-capping traditional ideologies to gain hegemonic control over the masses and their means — then wonders, “Why does anti-Liberalism fail, and fail always and everywhere?”

The Barton Fink illustration comes from A Tourist With A Typewriter, by Stephen Sparks.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"What Nietzsche had to strain to see, we would now have to strain to overlook."

“Everywhere language has fallen ill, and the oppression of this dreadful sickness weighs on all of human development. Language has continually had to climb up to the highest level it could reach, in order to grasp the domain of thought, and has therefore had to move as far as can be from its profound impulse simply to correspond with things as they are. Thus, in the short space of contemporary civilization its strength has been exhausted by this excessive effort. It can no longer accomplish precisely that purpose for which alone it exists: to enable suffering people to understand one another’s most basic troubles. Man is no longer recognizable in language. He can no longer give a true representation of himself. In this dimly intuited condition, language has everywhere become a power unto itself, which now grabs the people with ghostly arms and forces them to places they don’t even want to go. As soon as they try to understand one another and come to some agreement they are seized by the madness of general concepts. Man is no longer recognizable in language because language no longer corresponds to his actual troubles but only to the hollowness of those tyrannical words and general concepts. The very sounds of the words enchant them. As a consequence of this inability to make themselves known, whatever people create together carries the sign of their lack of mutual understanding. It corresponds only to the hollowness of these tyrannical words and concepts and not to man’s actual troubles. So to all its other sufferings humanity must add this new suffering: that words lead to actions which no longer correspond with feelings.” Untimely Meditations, IV, 5 — Friedrich Nietzsche
 “What Nietzsche had to strain to see, we would now have to strain to overlook” — David Cayley, 1993.