Friday, April 28, 2017

Tree as Icon

We had our oldest tree taken down this week.

For some reason the girls called her "Yoko" when they were little, and the name stuck.

I shed some tears the night before she came down -- spurred by happy memories of the girls playing in the leaves, as well the natural drama that envelopes grand old trees becoming older and slowly losing grandeur.

That fading grandeur was an increasing concern. She was not the first of our trees to come down. This is what we woke up to one morning in the early summer of '01.
As with Yoko, this largest of trees was a Norway Maple, a substantially softer variety of hardwood. They grow quickly, but have a tendency to rot from the inside out. I saw it happening to Yoko. Unlike this old tree, she was fated to split not safely within our yard, but across the two streets that corner it -- a very costly and potentially tragic scenario.

Back in '01, after the old tree was removed, I asked a neighbor about bolstering Yoko's chances. He drove a bolt through the base, then climbed up into the branches, thinned out her limbs considerably, then tied a series of guy wires linking the key supporting limbs. "Hopefully that'll give her another ten, twelve years," he said. We pushed it to sixteen.

His trimming was quite the revelation. I couldn't believe how much he took off. But once the branches were gone I saw immediately what he was after. The wind could now blow freely through the foliage -- there was less drag, as well as less opportunity for moisture to settle in and take hold. Not only that, she now looked lovelier. The prevailing mindset tends to think, "You can't improve on nature," but with my friend's handiwork I saw just how patently false that assertion is. Now, whenever I look at old trees skirting a road or even in the woods I see their potential.

After saying my goodbyes to the still-standing Yoko (and, yes, I hugged her) I slouched off to bed. En route I took note of all the wood sustaining us, making us comfortable. Plenty of it in this house, of course -- hardwood floors, furniture, instruments, etc. I doubt any tears were shed taking down the trees that built the house. Currently there is a piece of wood retaining a great deal more emotional value as my guitar than it ever accrued as a tree growing in an Indonesian forest.

"Icon" is a word that hasn't just lost its original meaning here in the West -- it's taken on an impoverished definition. It is a cute scrawl on your phone screen that opens an application when tapped, or the Thing Itself -- "Hollywood icon, Clint Eastwood..." Originally, however, an icon was an object that, when considered or meditated upon, could potentially open a window to the Divine. Yoko surprised and informed me in so many unexpected ways -- she is a personal icon.

Friday, April 21, 2017

About that left-turn at Albuquerqie...

Madame Marie's Temple of Knowledge, Asbury Park Boardwalk
Bruce Springsteen used to busk outside her booth in '66, when he was a skinny, knock-kneed punk of 17. Seven years later he tipped his hat to her in "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."

Part of what has me questioning the proffered generosity of our Digital Content Overlords (aside from the increasing pressure of their collective knuckle to my ribs) is the thought of Mm. Marie patiently putting up with this hippy kid who's strumming and yowling outside her booth.

He's a young pup, and he is not, goddammit, going to end up like his Old Man -- mean, embittered, cruel, utterly miserable about everything in his life. This guitar, the one thing that makes this kid feel unequivocally alive, is going to be his highway out.

Seven years later, he's got a band and they're completely on-board with what he's after. He gets signed, and they enter the studio. It's time to consider the brand. The tendency in album art is to place the performer at some remove from the listener, emphasizing the exotic and esoteric nature of the content -- you're not here, but you could be. Springsteen's move? A postcard from the armpit of America -- a place that smells like cigarettes, stale popcorn and beef tallow gone rancid.
He places a similar emphasis on the art for the next few albums, and although The Wild... and Born To Run flirt with glamour/respectability their interior art most emphatically eschews it. And just a glance at Darkness on the Edge of Town is enough to get the smell of the young man's armpits permanently entrenched in the viewer's nasal corridors.
The project continues apace, with the album art matching the content intent for the next nine years.
But by 1987 finding that sweet-spot match-up is proving elusive.
"I've traded up from patchouli oil, for one thing."
At this point he is not just a wealthy man -- he is beyond stinkin' rich. He could go the route of some of his contemporaries and quit the struggle for original material, heading out on the road every few years with the same group and trotting out the same hits everyone wants to hear all the freakin' time. He could staff his road-show with hundreds of codgers just like his Old Man and throw 'em a few extra peanuts just for kicks. But he keeps reaching for the pulse that drove him here.

Twenty years later, his latest thing is a protest song.

And it's not really his, he's helping out a buddy -- a hard-working guy who's roughly the same age, doing what The Boss does, except he's putting his shoulder to the wheel every damn day of his adult life even though the grind is only getting tougher.

And people are kvetching that you can't stream it from the usual Digital Content Overlords (not yet, at least) -- which I kinda get, also. Here in the Panopticon we get what we get when we want it, or we forget about it.

But man, oh man: Bruce isn't the only one who's travelled a long way from Asbury Park and the benevolent indulgence offered from the likes of a hard-scrabble fortune teller -- we all have.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Apple and I are not on speaking terms, at the moment.

The only Apple product I own is an Infernal Device -- 12G of storage, in a conveniently sized brick -- which, I'm not gonna lie, I have been very happy with for a surprising stretch of years. But when it finally goes to that Great Landfill In the Sky (*cough*) I will shed no tears as I replace it with something similarly large, but more user-friendly. My biggest kvetch with Apple, following their callous dismissal of their most reliable product to date, is that stinking, soggy sack of bloatware iTunes.

This discontent ramped up to Mexico/US levels of incredulous fury with the latest "update" -- which now locks my computer screen for seven painful minutes with this "I"-less GUI . . .
. . . before surrendering the meanest of user-interfaces that syncs up with my Infernal Device but will not permit me access to the hallowed halls of Apple's glorious digital content. Personally, this is a concern of convenience over content -- most of what I download from iTunes is podcast-based, which can be obtained from other locations. Still, a single location is better than multiple, so I consulted the forums to see if I'd possibly committed to a bad install.

Nope, not really. Apparently, because I have persistently said "No, thank you" to the invitation to "install" (their word) iCloud for Win-doze, Apple is now left with no other option than to bar its storefront doors to me. To which I say, I never liked your freaky fart-stain of a store to begin with.
No place to park, for one thing.
Apple is keen to corral my digital content toward their own storage vault. Everybody is -- I get that. I have even cautiously accepted some invitations to that end -- I've uploaded my most-played music to Google's cloud, along with the extremely-hard-to-get stuff that is still not readily available. But you know I have hard-copies of all of that.

"Hard-copies" -- the day is surely coming when such will be moot. At that point will I go full-Luddite, and content myself with wax platters atop the Victrola and such entertainments as I can pluck from my own base instruments?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Palm Sunday, Explained(?)

I've never been a fan of Palm Sunday, even as a kid.
Break this down for me, WP.
Palm Sunday -- celebrating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem -- is usually treated as one of those significant biblical episodes a Sunday School teacher should have no trouble imprinting on a kid's consciousness. And on one level it certainly qualifies -- it has undeniable visual high drama. Because it is easy enough to mimic, the beleaguered teacher marshals the tots to the front of the church to give it a go.
Attention to detail, historical accuracy are integral to proper reenactment.
The trouble is the story doesn't make a lick of sense -- not to me as a kid, nor did it to me for many years as an adult. Those palm-waving crowds -- what was their motivation?
Explicable: crowd response to Jesus' trial. Triumphal entry? Not so much.
The plainest reading of any of the gospels does not paint a promising picture of Jesus as Messiah. The miracles are sweet, but hardly the sort of activity that overthrows an Empire. The rest of it is basically Jesus bickering with his own kind -- other Jews, specifically the keepers of the Torah.

Discontent with the priesthood is as old as the priesthood itself -- so why give this working-class upstart from the backwaters of Nazareth a hero's welcome?

A possible answer to this niggling question didn't occur to me until this last Palm Sunday, as I watched the kids give each other shrugs and proceed with the usual tepid adult-sanctioned pandemonium in the sanctuary. It hinges on that singular gift the Jews have bestowed upon the world at large . . .
"Oy vey, Prajer..."
. . . irony!

If I were a Jew -- caught between an oppressive and contemptuous Empire, an appeasing and self-indulgent political figurehead from my own Tribe, and a religious elite focused on their continued well-being with little concern for my own -- and I was trying to pull my family together for a Passover visit to Jerusalem, and I saw this smelly, malnourished Nazarene mashuganah whose rumoured exploits I regarded with some skepticism if not outright cynicism seated on an ass and being led down the Mount of Olives toward the temple by his sheepish-looking followers, would I join in the growing furor and lay down my cloak on the road and urge the kids to go rip off a few fronds, the better to "hail" him as our people's great salvation?
You betcha!
It's not a scriptural insight that would have occurred to me were it not for the times we live in. I should be grateful, I suppose . . .

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Joey Landreth, Whiskey

I'd be grossly remiss if I didn't give Joey Landreth's first solo album, Whiskey, a massive shout-out.
If you've partaken of The Bros. Landreth garden of delights, then you already know what you're in for with this venture (you'll see a few familiar names in the album credits).

Are Landreth and his bros new to you? Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt -- if any of these names bring a glimmer of warmth to your heart you owe it to yourself to give this a listen. And if you have any sort of guitar love, there is a great deal to swoon over in Joey's slide technique -- surely the slickest tone-emoter since Sonny Landreth (a spiritual, if not necessarily(?) genetic brother) garnished The Goners.

But enough of my yacking -- here's Joey.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Podcasting About

Somewhere lies a forgotten shoe-box holding a 1980 photo of Yours Truly, at 15 years of age. He is decked out in his edgiest New Wave finery, standing before his father's well-ordered workshop, and wielding a cheap bass guitar. All set to be a rock star.
Just like my hero, Jerry Casale -- only Mennonite! And right-handed.
I couldn't see my way through to buying an amp for it, however, and the thrill of quietly buzzing along to "Turn Me Loose" in my tiny bedroom only carried me so far in this new enthusiasm. Four months after its purchase, I sold the bass to some other young up-and-comer. His hair was longer — his odds of making something of the instrument just that much better.

"There but for the grace of God..." I was too pious a teen to contemplate playing in an actual rock band. Had I truly caught the fire I would have taken a stab at being in a Christian rock band, a fate that would surely have concluded in catastrophe — there is no disillusionment so bitter as befalls those toiling within the Christian Rock scene.

As with the book beneath the bed, I enjoy dipping into stories from that scene at that particular time for vicarious thrills. This week The Christian Humanists introduced me to LSU's The Grape Prophet, released in 1992. Band leader Mike Knott evidently launched his career in an already profound state of disillusionment, after watching a bunch of Holy Roller carnies known as "The Kansas City Prophets" woo members of his Bible study into their ebullient fold. Knott dropped in on the Prophets to see what the fuss was about, and was so viscerally repulsed by what he witnessed he quickly left and laid down the material that became The Grape Prophet.

By now it goes without saying the Prophets and their bunch got derailed by the usual sexual shenanigans, a pratfall Knott seems to have intuited early on.
Holy Roller S&M: making the explicit implicit.
The Grape Prophet is a trippy little concept album that is catchy, and (not surprisingly) squirm-inducing — but also (surprisingly) funny and fun. Stylistically it owes a little too much to Jane's Addiction for me to be an outright fan, but I enjoyed the discussion of its merits among Los humanistas cristianos and will likely give The Grape Prophet another few spins before moving it to deeper digital archives.
Right next to the Ark of the Covenant.
Not that the archives on my Infernal Device aren't deep and dusty enough — 41 days worth of music, and probably a half-year worth of podcasts. So far as the music is concerned, I've listened to all of it at least once. The podcasts, on the other hand . . .
If only podcasts kept me as warm as paper.
I finally got around to this 2014 interview with Karl Ove Knausgård, by Eleanor Wachtel.

2014 seemed to be the year when all the people who talk about such things were talking about Knausgård. That basically meant a singular shift away from Houllebecq — whom Knausgård was tasked to review.

"What prevents me from reading Houellebecq," confesses Knausgård, "is a kind of envy — not that I begrudge [him] success, but by reading the books I would be reminded of how excellent a work of art can be, and of how far beneath that level my own work is. Such a reminder, which can be crushing . . . (etc, etc)"

Perhaps you're getting some idea of what "prevented" me from reading Knausgård? Throw in a wordy swoon from the Toronto Globe & Mail's Ian Brown (whose own impulse toward self-conscious bloviation scarcely needs a nudge) and I had, I thought, good reason for keeping my distance. A one-hour interview, on the other hand, might be a different matter. So I kept the file handy.

Nearly four years later, Knausgård has won me over. What can I say? A pinch of bleak and frank self-loathing (so European!) flexes considerable charm on the dyspeptic mid-life reader. I might even pick up volume 1 in my next visit to BMV.

And who knows? Mebbe these six volumes will be fodder for Phil Christman and some other engaging and informed so-and-so to bat around — we can only hope. If you want to hear what today's young hep-cats think of William Gass and Claire-Louise Bennett you will do no better than to tune in to Mr. Christman's new podcast.