‘General’ Posts

The Politics of “Why”

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Children are always asking "Why?" They want to understand what they observe. They want to know what lies behind things. They want to be able to read some order and sense into the world.

As adults, we get out of the habit of asking why. Why? Because "Why?" can be a very uncomfortable question. Growing up means learning to function in society, which requires keeping our relationships with the people around us running smoothly, avoiding offense. That's great for greasing the gears of surface society. But it's bad for real mutual understanding.

Those of us who are politically engaged find ourselves arguing repetitively during election cycles and times of controversy. Back and forth we pitch our opinions, our arguments, even allowing them to devolve into insults and spitefulness. Why?

Maybe because we've grown out of the habit of asking why.

Instead of taking offense at one another's convictions, let's ask each other why. Why do you believe what you believe? You seem so sure of it. But how is it possible that you are so sure of your position, while I am equally sure of the exact opposite position?

My view seems so obvious to me that it shouldn't even need explanation. Yours seems the same way to you. Clearly, we're both making false assumptions about what's self-evident and what isn't. So let's stop assuming. Let's put our cards on the table. Let's be honest with those we're talking with, and with ourselves, about why we hold our opinions.

Have we thought them through? Or did we just inherit them from our parents or fellow students or teachers? Do we like them because they're aesthetically appealing? Because they come from rhetorically gifted writers or politicians or fake newscasters? Because they appeal on an emotional level? Or because they make logical sense?

Are they based on current information, or on old information?

While we're at it, let's go further. Let's not be ashamed to admit the validity of an opposing argument. It's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of using our brains. An argument can be valid, yet weaker than an opposing argument. Just because I'm convinced I'm right doesn't mean everything you think is idiotic, and vice versa.

What makes us disagree about, say, tax policy? If we both possess basic common sense and a normal amount of compassion for the unfortunate – and let's assume we do – what makes you so sure a certain tax policy is beneficial to society, or fair, and me so sure that your policy is hurtful or unfair? Both of us can marshal some evidence to support our positions. But what is it that puts my argument over the top for me, and yours for you? What's our reasoning behind our opinions? And what are our feelings? Feelings are valid too – we're emotional creatures.

To take an even more divisive example, it's "common sense" to me that if a being can't survive outside its mother's body, it's not an individual, so a woman should have the right to end her pregnancy. And even if we do grant the fetus some rights, they obviously have to be subordinate to those of its mother, who is already a functional, independent human being.

I say "obviously" – but what that really means is, it's obvious to me. It's obviously not obvious to everyone. Some people believe that "life begins at conception" – that as soon as there is conception, there exists a new individual being with the full rights of any born person. But if that belief comes from a religious interpretation, which it usually does, wouldn't enshrining it in secular law be imposing your religious beliefs on me? Can't you understand that? I hope you can, because I've just explained the why behind my opinion.

On the other hand, if the law of the land allows abortion, and you believe abortion is murder, how can you help but oppose that law and want to change it? Can't I understand that? Sure I can, since you've explained why.

Let's try to understand. And without getting angry.

We may never agree on some issues, but if we lay out where our convictions come from, we ought to still be able to be civil to each other, get along, and maybe work towards, say, reducing the number of abortions by discouraging teen pregnancy. Or coming up with a tax policy most of us can live with.

It all starts with asking why.

9/11: In Me For Good

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

9/11. I don’t know how to get it out of me.

It’s been seven years since I watched, from across the river in Brooklyn, that acrid smoke billow into a sky-overwhelming blot. By the time the buildings fell, they were no longer visible from Flatbush Avenue, where I had gone out to watch. I did see the towers fall, but inside, on TV, behind the head of a shaken newscaster. Soot and stink and tiny pieces of paper and who knows what else swirled onto our windowsills, but our direct view to Manhattan was choked off entirely.

Where I live now, near Union Square, I have a north-facing view of the Empire State Building. I love the sight of it, especially in the very late afternoon when the light over the city turns gorgeous shades of aquamarine and bronze. That view comes with a slight pang, though. The apartment across the hall, where my fiancee lived when we started dating, used to have the corresponding southward view of the World Trade Center. No longer. New York has its beautiful, overbuilt Art Deco emblem still. But that less beautiful, yet just as iconic pair of towers is – still shockingly, after what feels to me more like seven months than seven years – gone.

The other night I got home late from a gig and my fiancee was watching Paul Greengrass’s powerful film United 93 on TV. I’d seen it when it came out in 2006 – I’d hesitated, but then decided it might provide some sort of catharsis – and I then assumed I’d never want to watch it again. But last night I couldn’t pull my eyes away. For once I was thankful for commercials. The raw energy crackling out from the TV and into my spinal column was spurring me to get up and stride about the apartment as often as possible, thinking up unnecessary little errands: check email, wash a mug, make a note to call so-and-so tomorrow.

As the movie ended, with the passengers rushing the cockpit and the plane spiraling down, she and I were both in tears. United 93 was the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, the only one of the four hijacked airliners that didn’t reach its terrorist target. Greengrass’s reconstruction of events on the flight was speculative, of course, but that didn’t matter to us. The tragic shock of the events, combined with the pride in our fellow citizens who fought back, had gotten us both in the gut. Again.

9/11 is still as alive today in me as it was a week, a month, or a year after the event. Days go by when I don’t think about it. But all it takes is a few images on a screen, or, sometimes, a glance out the window to bring it all back.

Really Bad Promo Copy

Friday, August 15th, 2008

From the archives of the "To Read Makes Our Speaking English Good" Department here at the Indie Round-Up, we present these promotional blurbs from some of the musical artists and music services that have come to our attention.

Musical talent doesn't necessarily require facility with the written word – we understand that. Still, we can make fun of these folks, because their fabulous phrasings were submitted in official press releases or biographies, and written by people whose native language is, presumably, English.

Nevertheless, the band and company names have been changed to protect the stupid.

"Exploding onto the music scene, this amazing new guitarist is storming the industry and catching the music world on fire."

"Barrie, Ontario, Canada hasn't been and still remains an unknown entity when it comes to hip hop venues."
(Hm… nor will it have expected to becoming one upon the future, I guess…)

"Horse Pickle Entertainment, as created and launch a new website to better help unsigned artist and bands of all genres types to promote and sell there music."
(Translated by a computer from the Chinese? I wish. Amazingly, you can actually figure out what they mean. And what a fascinating, original idea it is, too.)

"Once again Big Stomp Gargoyles, the band of illegal rock combatants is embarking on a mission to spread their word by trudging westward to create awareness of who they are and what they represent."

"As the landscape of music is carved throughout time, the work born solely to contribute to that progression is something to be appreciated."

"This record hearkens the classic rock sounds while giving it a kiss of modern sounds that fans of music young and old can get into."

"The band's unique sound unraveled in the studio as their fresh songs were warmed to a timeless glow by vintage sensibility."

"While her years on this earth are few, the directions in which her life has traveled are many aiding in her ability to possess her varying musical personalities."

"I believe our strident career choices have helped us to succeed outside within the industry's new paradigm."

From an indie label: "We are driven to succeed on our own terms and bring new texture to the bland pourage that is the pop music soundscape."

And finally, this modest jewel:

"Carmine Garbanzo is making a name for himself with a songwriting and performance style that's definitely listener-focused."

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Bonet, Jeanrenaud, Citizens, True Heart, Sakata

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Deni Bonet, Last Girl on Earth

Deni Bonet has always been more than the in-demand session violinist many know her as. Her new CD shows her, with her clutch of co-writers, in excellent songwriting form.

The arrangements meld 1980s plastic with new-century thump. Local luminaries like Sara Lee and Richard Barone keep everything solidly grounded, but it's the songs that make the disc a keeper: catchy and often humorous, but with a low-churning serious undercurrent tugging on many of the lyrics and musical passages. When Bonet sings "I can't, I can't, I can't get anything done / 'cause I'm having too much fun" in hollowed-out tones, there's a clear feeling of dismay tickling the shiny surface sentiment.

Bonet's strings and accordion take turns with ska-ish horn arrangements, micro-hoedowns, Martha and the Muffins vocal harmonies, and – as her stage directions specify – "moody obligatory violin areas." The result is a tingly jacuzzi of festive adult pop. "I don't need drugs, I don't need help / I'll fuck it up all by myself / Deepak Chopra kiss my ass / I've got advice for you / I say… Fuck it."

Ain't that just darling?

Joan Jeanrenaud, Strange Toys

Sticking with string players, but leaving behind the world of pop music for a moment, I have to mention the new disc from former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. Its fourteen original Jeanrenaud compositions, all centered around her cello, feature plenty of looping and effects, and in some pieces, artfully situated guest musicians. They are compellingly listenable.

There are elements of minimalism, with the repetition that looping encourages. The inventive producer, pc muñoz, contributes beats too. But lyricism dominates many of the pieces, though never of an overly sweet sort, and the pieces are never less than fascinating or at least ear-tickling.

A centerpiece is the 13-minute "Transition," a quartet with a second cellist and two viola da gamba players. It begins with a deep, mournful solo cello line. Counterpoint arrives, then multiple harmonies, building a theme-and-variations movement reminiscent of early French court music a la Marin Marais. A second movement, percussive and moody, is punctuated by growling bow action and propelled by bouncy, disjointed mini-melodies that swell into modernistic, semi-minimalist moans. One half-expects a third movement, but it doesn't arrive; instead, the piece devolves to the original statement and simply dies out. Very effective.

Having grown out of improvisations, the compositions retain a sense of surprise and whimsy despite the composer's precise performances and perfect intonation. "Tug of War," with William Winant providing a kind of continuo on the marimba, is one of the best examples of this – it's like a little psychedelic jam. Winant's vibraphone intervals on "Livre" take me back to the Twilight Zone, and the brief "Blue Kite" is a gem of tight-fisted anxiety, while other pieces, like the lovely, densely woven "Waiting," are more soothing.

Actually, listening to this darn CD is keeping me from getting my work done. Damn you, Joan Jeanrenaud.

Citizens of Contrary Knowledge, You Are What You Wish You Are…

Here's why it's worth going through the hundreds of CDs that come through your intrepid reviewer's metaphorical transom. Sometimes you come across a band, like Citizens of Contrary Knowledge, that can do it all: play, sing, write, and on a more mysterious level, simply connect.

There are a lot of more or less retro influences here: Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, the Eagles, Stone Temple Pilots. But the grainy rock of tracks like "Complicated" and "Lonely Hearts Society" leap out of the speakers with a finely wrought web of sound and words that pays tribute to those influences while making their own musical statement.

The rocker "Spread Your Wings" is both elemental and lyrical, while "Brand New Dance" brings the Prince-like funk. The versatile Chris Barczynski can sing, emote, and scream like the greats. He can deliver ballads like "House of Cards" and "Beautiful Dreamer" as convincingly as he sings the rockers. The rest of the band shines equally brightly, from the ballads to the dynamic, Zeppelin-inspired "Swallow" and the blues-rocker "Wrong Side of the World."

True Heart, The Road

Speaking of the Eagles: True Heart's Ross Vick is able to sing decisively and plaintively at the same time. This magical combination breathes life into his well-crafted pop-rock songs. Though Vick is from Texas, the biggest influence here seems to be Eagles-era California smooth rock. There's definitely some Jackson Browne in his vocal tone.

Jazz-pop changes evoke Steely Dan and even Chicago, though you won't hear anyone blowing through anything here – it's all resolutely guitar and keyboard based (with dead-on bass and drums by James Driscoll and Matt Kellum respectively). Cliches overrun the lyrics, but the lilting pop melodies, sugary vocals, and expert musicality harmlessly absorb them.

Julian Sakata, See?

Another artist heavily influenced by music of the 1970s is Julian Sakata, but his heroes are the darker-tinged, artsier rockers like David Bowie and Elvis Costello (and, going back further, perhaps the Moody Blues). His best songs, like the three that open the disc, and the anthemic "Everything's Beautiful Once," are thick and muscular. Where he falls down, as in "Little Sun," is when his writing is too derivative of current pop hits, and Sakata's baritone vocals start to sound monotonous. Still, the best stuff here is well worth hearing.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Anya Singleton, Emory Joseph, Parlour Steps, Kalliopi

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

Anya Singleton, The Other Side

Anya Singleton's first full-length album goes a long way towards fulfilling the promise of her earlier EP, Not Easy To Forget. The jazzy sound of that disc has evolved here into a more up-front soul sound with a bigger beat, epitomized by the insistent opening track, "Don't Tell Me." When I first played on the song it brought to mind the shock to the system I felt when I first heard Dana Glover's "Rain."

The slinky but unsentimental R&B thrum of "Small Disasters" and the airy "Simple" further show the subtle songwriting skills of Singleton and her two co-writers. In "Stop This Train," perhaps the best ballad on the disc, Singleton's phrasing resembles Bonnie Raitt's. By contrast, "Replaceable" is energetically pissed-off and punked-up, while "Nevermore" further establishes Singleton's strong persona: "No more lovin', rich boy, no, nevermore."

In the ruminative "Sandcastles" Singleton modulates her strong, rich voice down a notch, making me wish she'd actually take a few more chances with the fine vocal instrument she's been blessed with; there's a certain sameness to the quality of her vocals through much of the disc. When she opens up her belt in the anthemic closer, "The Other Side," one cheers her on and wants more.

But it's already clear that the indie route has given Singleton's talent some needed time to flower. I hate seeing undeveloped artists like Alicia Keys sprint to superstardom, never getting a chance to develop the way they might have, while taking up space in the public consciousness that more deserving artists ought to have.

Singleton could be one of those more deserving ones. I caught her live recently, singing a few songs with only Ann Klein on guitar backing her up. When she broke out "Don't Tell Me," the audience, which had come to see other performers, snapped right to attention.

Emory Joseph, Fennario: Songs by Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter

Emory Joseph wants to spread the word of the greatness of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songwriting ouevre. It's a worthwhile effort. A gifted singer, Joseph assembled a collection of top musicians and recorded a dozen Garcia-Hunter tunes in five days in a New York City studio. The result should warm the hearts of Grateful Dead fans. Whether Dead-haters will give it a chance is, of course, another question.

"I think these two were as good a songwriting team as America has ever known," writes Joseph in the liner notes, "and have always wanted to share them with the non-Grateful Dead fans, who don't know what they're missing. The songs they wrote have beautiful melodies and words that fit in your life when you're 15, and yet still and again when you are 60." I've always felt the same way.

Take note of the subtext behind Joseph's notes: in certain ways that matter aesthetically to many music fans, the Grateful Dead, to put it bluntly, sucked. The music rambled, the songs went on forever, Garcia wasn't much of a singer and neither was Bob Weir. "Sugaree" may be one of the Dead's greatest hits, but Emory doesn't help his cause by opening the CD with a nearly eight-minute (albeit soulful) version of it.

Listen to the whole disc, though, and you'll appreciate the youthful bounce Joseph applies to many of these hoary Americana numbers. The Dead's aggravating tendency to go on and on is somewhat tempered, although even the rocker "Loose Lucy" is scattered over five and a half minutes. The result: Joseph succeeds in putting across the material with obvious love for it, while using his wide-ranging musical sensibilities to get at the essence of the songs.

Two of my favorites are two of the least stretched out: the dark, slinky-funk version of "New Speedway Boogie," and the lovely "Loser." Other highlights include "It Must Have Been the Roses," on which the versatile-voiced Joseph warbles like John Denver, and "Brown-Eyed Women," which features a guest turn from David Grisman on mandolin paired with beautiful organ work by Jon Carroll that's reminiscent of the E Street Band's Danny Federici (RIP). Others work less well; despite excellent Buckley-esque vocals, "Black Peter" comes across as a shuffle to nowhere, and intentionally corpse-like singing don't do much for "Mission in the Rain." But despite my nitpicks, I do believe this disc is going to become part of my permanent collection.

Parlour Steps, Ambiguoso

This is smart, playful rock out of Vancouver, fractionally reminiscent of XTC. Songwriter Caleb Stull sings in a kind of moan, sometimes doubled by bassist Julie Bavalis singing in a sigh. This isn't super-musical, but with subtly layered guitars and thumping beats the overall sound is of a mostly friendly, but also skewed and thoughtful pop.

Some of the best moments come in the vocal-instrumental break sections, as in the energetic "World As Large" and the emotion-soaked "Gargoyles Passion." Desperation fuels the intense "Thieves of Memory," while stark banjo-like sounds, keyboards, saxes, and accordion (courtesy of NYC's own Mark Berube) show up often enough to add undercurrents of rootsiness and old-world charm.

There's little rootsy or charming about the angular, often angsty lyrics, though. "Doubt is a higher function / It's hard work believing in nothing." Testify, brother Stull.

Kalliopi, Around the World

This disc was a nice surprise in a humble package. Kalliopi is a Greek singer-songwriter based in London. Her three-song CD single pleasantly combines lo-fi guitars and drums with lush, crystalline vocals. Unpretentiously catchy songwriting and passionate delivery make up for the somewhat muted production. The title track rocks hard, reminding me of Elastica with a touch of Alanis Morrisette. "Naked" is a mid-tempo pop-rocker with ululating background vocals that hint at Eastern Europe or the Middle East, a suggestion that gets fuller blown in the final track, the moody and lovely "Fire and Sea."

Cern Burn

Friday, June 20th, 2008

I feel vaguely disappointed that the Large Hadron Collidor, scheduled to go on line in the fall, has been deemed “no threat to Earth or the universe.” I liked the idea of scientists accidentally creating a world-consuming black hole or a cosmos-collapsing quogulum.*

Now we have to go back to worrying about environmental destruction, terrorism, and economic decline – slow, painful ways for civilizations to die. How icky.

*Quogulum (n): a big unexplained science thingie that destroys the universe. I just made it up. Go ahead, use it.

Stad Amsterdam

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

Took a walk over to the Hudson River today, and lo and behold, what do we discover right behind Chelsea Piers but a huge modern steel-hulled three-masted clipper ship, the Stad Amsterdam, moored there for a corporate event and open to the public. All we had to do to board the ship was to sign a waiver that we wouldn’t sue in the event of falling overboard or being murdered by pirates. Photo of Stad Amsterdam They even offered us drinks on board.

The ship is a beautiful mixture of old and new, with gigantic masts and sails, all the modern technological trimmings, in pristine condition (it’s only eight years old) and wood, wood, wood everywhere. And wood trim. The inside is like a restaurant. It’s available for parties and events – although you’d have to be in the right part of the world at the right time to book it.

It’s from Amsterdam, and it plies the seas of the world, spending April and May on the East Coast of the US. Right now you can see it – just hike over to Chelsea Piers and walk around back of the ol’ driving range.

On the way back you can check out Frank Gehry’s IAC Building. This is one of the few pieces of newfangled New York architecture that doesn’t look out of place – because the place it’s in is an old seafaring district that didn’t have any architectural identity to begin with. The IAC Building is perfect right where it is – in its own space, making its statement without ruining anything else.

Creatures of New York, Pt. 3

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

This edition of Creatures of New York is devoted to one very large creature. Distantly related to the Great Blue Heron and the Whooping Crane, the Huge Honking Crane can be found in many cities throughout the world. In light of the recent crane failures in New York and in Miami, it’s nice to see one of these creatures in good health, doing its thing. Despite a few highly publicized incidents, the Great Honking Crane is not endangered.

Here’s the base of a crane recently spotted in the wilds of West 15th St.
crane1

Here is the payload: a brand new water tank, which the crane is preparing to feed to its young. (The cranelings, perched on a nearby roof, are not visible.)
crane2

The crane begins lifting the water tank high, high up towards the sky.
crane3

The water tank rises higher.
crane4

Having lifted the water tank all the way into the sky, the crane gracefully swings it towards its final position.
crane5

Coming about, the crane lowers the tank towards the rooftop, where the hungry cranelings wait to guide it into position.
crane6

Artful Wand’rings

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

It hasn’t been all sitting in dark rooms reviewing CDs and plays. There’s also wandering around looking at art. Today we checked out the Pool Art Fair at the famous Chelsea Hotel. I’d never been in the Chelsea before except to see the lobby, so this was a good opportunity to wander its hallowed halls and see where the art is made. (Thanks to Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York for the tip.) It was just like a neighborhood studio tour, except all in one building. Here’s Elisa dashing along a corridor, anxious to see yet more art.
Chelsea Hotel Railing

We were particularly taken with Grant Haffner’s paintings of country roads and power lines. Here’s his “Leaving Mecox.”
Grant Haffner, Leaving Mecox

This one isn’t meant to be art, but I thought it made a good photo. I call it “Stairway to Nowhere.”
Chelsea Hotel Stairs to Nowhere

Back in the lobby we fought through a crowd of French tourists to get this shot of the shiny old phonebooths. Then, faster than a speeding bullet, we zoomed out.
Chelsea Hotel Phonebooths

His Highness Hollywood

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Celebrity blogger Dawn Olsen (of Glosslip) and I attended a preview of investigative journalist Ian Halperin’s new documentary, His Highness Hollywood, at the National Arts Club last night. Unfortunately a technical problem interrupted the film and we ended up settling for an earlier cut, which was still rough around the edges, but it was still quite amusing – and not just amusing, for in addition to skewering the easy target of Hollywood wannabe-stars, Halperin penetrates the scary world of Scientology.

In attendance was celebrity biographer Andrew Morton, here discussing his new Tom Cruise bio with Dawn. (Hence the Scientology connection.)

morton_olsen

Here’s Ian Halperin introducing the film:

ian_halperin

And just for fun, here’s Dawn and me in one of those trying-to-take-a-picture-of-yourself photos. Goofy charm, or just plain silly? You decide.

dawnolsen_jonsobel

Audubon’s Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species at the New-York Historical Society

Monday, February 25th, 2008

The New-York Historical Society owns all of the 435 original watercolors from which the aquatint engravings in John James Audubon’s Birds of America were made. Being fragile and sensitive to light, the watercolors cannot be shown for extended periods. However, the museum is currently displaying about 40 of these magnificent artworks through March 16, and they are well worth the museum’s $10 admission. (Incidentally, that’s half the price of what many of NYC’s great cultural institutions charge, and you’ll notice it’s even less than a movie ticket.)


Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ca. 1825

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ca. 1825
Havell plate no. 26.
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board.

The exhibit also includes the museum’s copy of the full-size Birds of America on a specially designed display cabinet. Though these iconic pictures are to some extent familiar to most of us, only by seeing the hugeness of the book can you appreciate the impact they originally made. (No flipping pages, though – it’s under glass.) Samples of the popular, much smaller quarto edition are also shown.

The exhibit also pairs some of the drawings with recorded songs of the depicted birds. And finally, there’s a nice gilt-framed video display of a selection of the images juxtaposed with video of the same birds in nature – a marvelous way to appreciate Audubon’s achievement.

A poignant aspect of the show is that some of the birds in the paintings, like the passenger pigeon, are extinct. Many others are threatened. The descriptions also note some “success stories,” birds whose populations have rebounded after being drastically reduced.

The only downside of the show is that because of the low light in the display room, it’s difficult for aged, floater-occluded mammalian eyes to read the placards. I have this problem in all museums, but it was especially difficult at this exhibit.

Really getting my $10 worth, I also saw the museum’s small but densely packed exhibit about the Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphant 1824-1825 visit to the United States – a country he had helped birth the previous century, when he was only in his 20s. Objects on display included Lafayette’s copy of the Declaration of Independence, letters from him to George Washington, and this carriage, which was used to ferry him from town to town in New England in 1825.


Carriage that Transported Lafayette in 1825

The N-YHS’s more permanent displays include many iconic paintings, including Thomas Cole’s spectacular “The Course of Empire” series, as well as sculpture, silver, porcelain, and a lot more. Finally, the museum is also running a 9-11 exhibit, which includes some pieces of wreckage, interesting to look at. But I didn’t spend any time at the 9-11 photography and video displays – this is still too raw for me even after six and a half years. It’s a livid memory, not a matter of history. I would, however, recommend the exhibit for out of town visitors.

On the way home I snapped this shot of some gulls flying around Central Park. This past Friday, we had the only significant snowfall of the year so far. It looked especially nice in the park.


Central Park Gulls

Straight Talk about the Death Penalty

Friday, February 8th, 2008

If only all Americans, including our elected representatives and our justices, thought like Justice William Connolly of the Nebraska Supreme Court. Writing for a 6-1 majority in a death penalty appeal that claimed execution by electric chair to be “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional, Justice Connolly wrote:

We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it. Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes.

“Punish cruelty without practicing it.” Seems like that ought to be a pretty self-evident truth. But a lot of people – including a lot of people in power – aren’t interested in a civilized society. Or else their definition of a civilized society isn’t the same as mine, or Justice Connolly’s. In my civilized society, we don’t torture, whether we’re interrogating or executing. Whether the death penalty in any form is “cruel and unusual” is another question. But you only have to watch an electrocution to know that while it may be relatively quick (assuming all goes well), it’s a form of torture and shouldn’t be used. I hope the strong majority in this 6-1 decision resonates beyond Nebraska.

Rivington House

Friday, February 8th, 2008

The other day I played with The Kings County Blues Band for a roomful of AIDS patients at Rivington House, a long-term care facility in downtown Manhattan. The residents were very appreciative of the live music, and the cheerful staff and volunteers seemed to have an impressive ability to turn what is essentially a hospital into a not so gloomy place for people who are suffering badly from AIDS to get the care they need. The website also lists volunteering opportunities.

Best. TV Show. Ever.

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

I have seen the past, present, and future of television. I have seen the ultimate and fundamental raison d’être for the invention of cathode ray tube technology and its modern successors. In short, I have seen the greatest TV show ever created: Shimmy, which airs Tuesday nights at 8 PM (ET and PT) on FitTV.

Turn on this show and you will be (if female) drawn to get up and start gyrating along with the dancers’ belly-dancing moves, or (if male) unable to lower your eyes from the humming sensuality on the screen or shut out the soothing yet energizing music.

If Shimmy doesn’t change your life in 30 minutes, I will gladly refund the money you paid to read this blog entry. With interest.

Staggering

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I turn 45 this month and I am glad to be the age that I am. In those four and a half decades I’ve been amazed to observe staggering changes in the world. Although technology will continue to advance rapidly, and today’s children will see many changes in their lifetimes, the world may not again change in such a fundamental way. I say that because we have crossed a very significant line: the digital line, which has enabled an unprecedented level of interconnectedness.

The next leap will be to a “firmament of all knowledge” that will provide something approaching telepathy. That may be some decades off, and catastrophe could intervene to prevent it. So it’s possible that the digital line will be the last really major techno-social line we will cross for a very long time.

Since 1963 we’ve gone from…

  • 8-tracks, LPs, and cassettes to CDs, MP3s, iTunes, and Bittorrent (i.e. analog to digital)
  • Cold War, the American Century, and American untouchability to a borderless Europe, 9-11, and American decline
  • Nixon, Humphrey, and McGovern to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney
  • Moon landings and oil rigs to nanotechnology and spooky action at a distance

And in the month that I turn 45, I am setting a personal record for playing gigs with the most different bands ever in one month: five. How we get recorded music may have changed, but people still want to play it live and hear it live. I suspect live music will remain a fairly recession-proof business. No matter how high the seas rise.

Holiday Games

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

The holidays are all about being someone you’re not. They say that about Halloween, but since I’m usually hiding at home during Halloween, the winter holiday season does just as well. Here I am at the Central Park Blockhouse on Christmas Day. The year is 1812, and I am defending New York City from the British.
blockhouse

These ducks (also in Central Park) are pretending to be all nonchalant, but they know I am taking their picture.
ducks_centralpark

Unaware of the danger, these revelers enjoy a game of Drink Pong at Fat Cat, farther downtown in the populated part of the Isle of Manhattan.
pingpong

On New Year’s Eve, the British stage a surprise attack, targeting Prospect Park in Brooklyn rather than the more heavily fortified Central Park. Forced to retreat, the Yanks blow up their munitions depot rather than allow it to fall to the British.
fireworks

Safe and snug in an undisclosed location, civilians enjoy a relaxing game of Pimps and Hos. It’s like Monopoly, only you’re pimps and you buy hos instead of real estate. When someone lands on your ho… you get the picture. Foreground right, with her back to the daguerreotype machine, is the notorious Madame Plumerais, no doubt thinking about her war profits and enjoying a good laugh. (The unidentified woman to the far left may be a British spy.)
pimps_and_hos

When the danger was finally past, we were free to resume our normal activities. Here’s the vastly talented Jud Caswell jud_caswell_bowery performing at the Bowery Poetry Club, where we go for coffee, hard liquor, bawdy music… everything but poetry, really. I purchased Jud’s latest compact disc for one silver ducat – a bargain at any price! Jud came down from the Maine Territories, which, as you probably know, we have just purchased from Canada for forty mules and a ho. So he didn’t even need a passport. Observe how his strumming hand moves so fast you can’t even see it. That’s some north woods mojo right there. meg_braun_bowery I also put down my musket long enough to pick up my bass lute and play this gig backing up Meg Braun. I have it on good authority that Meg has “buzz.” She is, you might say, the Barack Obama of the folk music scene.

That’s all for now. I must put down my quill and try to get some sleep, to ready myself for tomorrow’s battle. Word is that the British invasion may really be all about targeting our singer-songwriters. In the morning I’ll try to hit up Madame Plumerais for information. If I succeed I’ll pass it along via pigeon. If not, well… it’s been pleasant being an atheist in this foxhole with you.

Criticism in the Internet Age

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Recently Time Out New York published a special feature on the future of criticism. An assortment of critics, most of them fairly well known (at least locally), opined about the future of criticism in a universe overrun with bloggers. Music critic Alex Ross put it well:

Each [print and online] has its advantages and limitations; together they form a comprehensive picture. I adopt somewhat different styles on my blog and in The New Yorker; I enjoy the distinctions, and I believe it’s a mistake for print publications to try to sound “bloggy” or for blogs to ramble on at magazine length.

He’s right, but the matter goes deeper than style. This may sound counterintuitive, but serious criticism is not fundamentally about opinions. Criticism uses some earthly phenomenon – a work of art or scholarship, a trend, a political or social argument – as a starting point for an exploration of a matter (or matters) whose importance goes beyond the qualities of the material at hand. Endeavoring to shed some trace of new and persuasive light on something, the critic provides a lens, a focal point, for the collective public intellect. And because its ostensible subjects – the music and movies, the politics, the pop-psychology – interest large segments of the general public, criticism is the most important such focal point we have.

Always a fragile creature, the public intellect is presently under fresh assault from various fundamentalisms, pseudosciences, and abuses of power. While nothing new, these anti-thinking forces are potently aligned today, with Western culture under threat from a “foreign” and more violent fundamentalism than its own and from the consequent overreactions on the home front.

The internet is a double-edged sword – while it stimulates thought, it also makes it easy to magnetize large groups of samesayers (hence the Ron Paul phenomenon, among many others). But the internet’s inherently (if imperfectly) democratic nature might end up saving the world. Bloggers, citizen journalists, and enlightened, directed netroots movements are all contributing to a frothing primeval soup of ideas, from which some better-ordered civilizing force has the potential to emerge.

But internet discussion groups and the blogosphere can take us only so far. We need to be able to read, ponder, and discuss in tranquility, bringing our best faculties to bear. Tranquility is one thing the internet cannot provide. (Its very names sound schoolyardish and jumpy… Twitter. Myspace. Flickr. Blog. Feed.) Deeper criticism is a healthy and necessary counterbalance to all the online hustle and bustle. It’s like coming home to a quiet place after dashing through the city streets all day.

That’s not to say serious criticism can’t be found on the internet. Far from it. But it’s the shorter, sharper forms that thrive online. Blogcritics is a perfect example of a web publication that lends itself to this middle ground. Reading a long article, though, is much better done in print. It’s both relaxing and clarifying, something like what scientists theorize is the purpose of sleep – to impose some kind of calm sense upon the day’s maelstrom of chaotic stimuli. If we stop reading (and, of course, writing) any nonfiction that’s too long to comfortably fit in a blog entry, we will lose a crucial part of what makes us productive thinking beings. How can we absorb any nutrients if we don’t digest our food?

Blogging and online socializing, whether casual or intense, probably won’t, and probably can’t, supplant or marginalize serious criticism. Books aren’t going away – they’re more numerous than ever – and print magazines that publish long articles are still churning out the issues. The web is a fount of information, but it can also be a big distraction, and sometimes we need to get away from it.

Creatures of New York

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

lions_24thstreet

The Lions of 24th Street

red_lozenge_artwork

Art, MOMA

bud_500

Bud, the Office Cat

standpipes

Standpipes Mate for Life

Magenta is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The spookiest thing about Halloween in this part of Manhattan isn’t the parade, which you can’t even see for the crowds, but the crowds lined up to see the parade before it starts. Spooky. Quiet. Weird. Dusk; people lined up behind barricades along the Avenue; horns honking as traffic starts to jam up – but nothing actually happening. A strange hush muffles even the honking and the murmuring.

Later on things are just amusing. Here’s a Harlequin and his Skeleton Dad enjoying a Big Salty.

Harlequin and Dad with Pretzel

Here’s Dad’s dog, with a matching Skeleton costume.

dog_skeleton_closeup

Meanwhile over on Fifth Ave., Prince Elvis Travolta struck a pose.

Elvis?

Then I came home and we watched The Others. Now that’s Halloween-scary.

It Always Rains in Connecticut

Friday, October 19th, 2007

No, not really. It just always seems to rain when I’m driving to a gig in Connecticut. Supposed to rain tonight, naturally.

But my adorable Honda Fit will surely be up to the job. It has proven to be an awesome city car, fitting into parking spaces most mortals can’t attempt, but still with plenty of room in the back for mortal dross.

Honda Fit

Last night’s Whisperado gig at The Underscore went pretty well. The booker tries to put compatible bands together but it rarely works out – not his fault, there are just too many bands and too much flakiness in the world. So we had a fun time watching Dead Eyes of Fall who went on after us. Talk about hair – these guys really went to rock star school. They’ve got a smokin’ double-pedal drummer and shredding lead guitarist too. I wore earplugs.

And remember, Whisperado loves you all.