Archive for August, 2005

Buddhism Underground

Friday, August 26th, 2005

This is the first in an occasional series about my exploration of Buddhism while riding the New York subway.

Every morning on the subway I see people poring over religious texts. Seemingly oblivious to the groaning, shuffling tube-world of the subway car, these serious souls – Christian women; Orthodox Jews of both sexes; Muslims (usually women); and Holy Sisters of the Word Search – pass their daily commute in silent prayer or study. I am the only one marking up a book about Buddhism.

Buddhism’s teachings have much appeal in a complicated life, but they can be a little perplexing at first, and I had initially hoped the book would provide some explicit guidance for putting its principles into practice in some way. Reading it for the first time, I kept waiting for the author to get to the – well, not to the point, because he did make the central point again and again – but to the secret, the method, the trick even – or at least, a conclusion. We expect a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, practical or fantastic, to have a logical narrative flow. If it doesn’t, we think it’s a bad book.

But Buddhism teaches that there is no secret trick, and, in a sense, no narrative, since there is no reality to the perceived distinction between this and that, then and now. Indeed there is no “I,” no cork floating in the stream, but only stream, only thus. Shouldn’t a truly Buddhist book, then, also be only stream? Buddhism counsels us to be aware when our mind is “leaning,” whether it’s towards something we want to have or away from something we want to avoid. If we “want” Enlightenment, if we “want” to gain something from reading a book, we’ve already defeated our purpose. The book, then, should not be an instrument of our “leaning” this way or that.

From the standpoint of a student of literature and child of Western culture, one of the fascinating things about Buddhism as presented in this book is its use of small words to mean big things.

Whole. Mind. See. Awake. Thus. These words refer to aspects of the same phenomenon: simply being present.

The more we search for Truth among our thoughts and beliefs, the more subject to doubt we become… Anything that can be grasped must of necessity depend on other things for their validity. Hence, they are doubtful and perplexing… Ultimate Truth…can’t be countered or doubted or discounted because it is immediate, direct experience itself.

Words can never fully embody concepts. And Buddhism says concepts are artificial anyway. So words, any words, are twice removed from the Whole.

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One apparent problem – for me, anyway – with Buddhism is that it seems unscientific. Of course, deity-based religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are also unscientific, but they can co-exist peacefully with science because they rely on faith, which by definition does not require rational or scientific proof. (In fact, it’s when religion tries to pass itself off as scientific – as with “creation science” and its more insidious modern iteration, “intelligent design” – that bitter conflicts arise, with science put on the defensive by an enemy it cannot, by definition, engage, and religion – Christianity, in this case – devalued and shamed by its own professed champions.)

Buddhism, however, does not require “belief” or “faith” as such. In saying that all sensations, concepts and thoughts are artificial and unreal divisions of the Whole, it is profoundly unscientific, since science is the attempt to ascertain objective truth by studying observed phenomena.

Yet at the limits of science comes a recognition that we cannot ever completely arrive at objective truth; the best we can do is approach it asymptotically. The limits of our perception, the imperfections of our brains, will always be with us, preventing our understanding from becoming absolutely complete. So maybe Buddhism and science don’t conflict so badly after all.

We have to see where we can effectively apply our effort and where we can’t. When we’re not seeing we’ll put most, if not all, of our energy into the areas where we have no control. We’ll try to control situations, people, and things over which, in fact, we have little or no influence.

So says Buddhism Plain and Simple. And science, reason, and my therapist tell me exactly the same thing.

INDIE ROUND-UP for August 25 2005

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

This week’s all-female edition of the Indie Round-Up is brought to you by the Sisterhood of the Happy Pants.

INDIE ROUND-UP for August 25 2005

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Cruiserweight, Sweet Weaponry

Like a female-fronted Green Day or a slightly sped-up Letters to Cleo (Telegrams to Cleo?), Cruiserweight weighs in with a strong album of pop-punk. The band’s crisp songwriting isn’t brilliant, but the tunes squawk by with such raunchy energy it matters less than you might think. Sung by Stella Maxwell in vibrato-free punk style, they express in equal measure youth’s bravado and confusion, though there is a little too much sameness to them – it’s the sort of music that’s best sampled in 25-to-30-minute doses, and the CD goes on too long.

Maxwell’s brothers Urny and Yogi along with David Hawkins round out the quartet, driving the songs with modern punk precision. This is a very, very good band that has already made some waves on college radio. A hit song or two could be all that stands between them and national prominence.

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Denise Barbarita, Chaos & Congeniality

Producer, guitarist and singer-songwriter Denise Barbarita’s second CD explodes out of the starting gate with three chilly-sweet songs that restore your faith in the spirit of art-pop originality. Barbarita’s talents as producer and sonic guitar artist are matched by her vocal power and, most important, a fine melodic sense that lifts her best songs to majestic heights.

Starting the CD with the spooky “In Pieces” might have been a little risky but it turns out to be an excellent introduction to all her strengths. Imagine a Tori Amos (circa Little Earthquakes) style melody over a Led Zeppelin acoustic-guitar hum with a gushing U2 production, and you’ll have some idea of what this song is made of. “Happy Happy” is a a short and sweet knockout punch of an anger song (it’s the most requested at her shows), and “Appleseed” has a gorgeous melody, swelling choral backing vocals and sweeping waves of sound from keyboards, guitars and percussion that form a bed of lush aural blossoms for the song’s somewhat abstract narrative.

The acoustic guitar-driven “For What It’s Worth” (not the old Buffalo Springfield classic) highlights Barbarita’s powerful six-string work and rhythmic sophistication, and “Hush Hush” is a chunky riff-rocker that echoes the White Stripes.

The second half of the CD has a couple too many ballads for me, though everything is recorded with consummate taste and skill and everpresent creativity. Barbarita plays interesting and inventive games with her vocal delivery, which can make the lyrics difficult to make out, so including them in the liner notes would have been a plus. “Fractured” and “Only Blue” are jazz-tinged slow numbers, the latter an especially haunting song about the heartache of losing communication, lovely but requiring a couple of listens to appreciate its subtleties. (Listen for David Weintraub’s otherworldly electric guitar fills.)

Barbarita’s rock roots push back aboveground in the two-part hallucinatory jam “The Last Breakdown,” with her sharp vocal stabs pushing in and out of the mix like bursts of distant thunder and lightning. Make sure to stick around for yet more spookiness in the unlisted tenth track, a increasingly dissonant sort of raga-chant that might take you some place you’ve never been.

Extended samples are available at CD Baby here.

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Tina Schlieske, Slow Burn

Mixing blue-eyed soul with southern rock and a dash of country, Tina Schlieske (formerly of Sire Records’ Tina and the B-Sides) presents a nicely produced new CD graced by heavy-hitter contributors like producer Sheldon Gomberg (Beck) and keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty, etc. etc.) But bland songwriting and tired-sounding singing make this CD a wallflower at the soul revival meeting.

I’d never heard of her, but Schlieske has a substantial track record and strong vocal chops – she was recruited to front Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band Double Trouble in 2001, and in live appearances is often said to evoke the spirit of Janis Joplin (you can hear that influence in many of her songs, most notably “Everyday”). But it sounds as if either her heart wasn’t really in this recording session, or someone was influencing her to hold back. Equally important, while Schlieske has an obvious love and affinity for seventies-style soul and for soul-influenced rock such as the Stones, Bonnie Raitt and The Band were doing three and four decades ago, she doesn’t breathe new life into the classic sounds, instead using her talents only to retread them. The result is a “been there, heard that” feeling, full of evocations and lovingly replicated trappings but little freshness.

Good songs can render such matters unimportant – a good song is a good song no matter its setting – but these are mostly pretty pedestrian. Even so, a singer of Schlieske’s ability ought to have been able to make more of them. But throughout this CD her voice sounds tired. (I can imagine this material sounding more exciting in a live setting.) A few songs stand out: “Son of a Gun,” echoing the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” is catchy and rocks hard. “Baby Blue” has an easy Motown-ish charm, and “Never Knew Love” is a tasteful take on the type of three-four ballad exemplified by Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman Do Right Man” and Janis Joplin’s “Maybe.” But despite the sharp production and a few flashes of inspiration, one can’t get away from the fact that the CD just plain sounds tired.

Pot City

Thursday, August 11th, 2005

The cover story of this week’s Time Out New York is about good places to go when you’re stoned. That’s right: high on marijuana, an illegal drug. And despite a loose tie-in to the new TV show Weeds, the article really is what it purports to be. Hooray for freedom of the press, I say. They can’t take that away from us – not yet, anyway.

A sidebar notes that misdemeanor possession arrests are way down since 9-11, when the police discovered some (no pun intended) higher priorities. It also suggests that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t have a bug up his ass about pot the way his predecessor, the sainted Rudy Guiliani, did, and I’m inclined to agree. For a billionaire, Bloomberg’s pretty laid back. For that, and other more serious reasons, his re-election bid may be the first time in my life I vote for a Republican (or, in Bloomberg’s case, a “Republican”).

In a related development, this morning the Libertarian candidate for Brooklyn Borough President, Gary Popkin, approached me on the subway platform to get my signature on his candidacy petition. I signed, of course, though I disagree with parts of the Libertarian platform. Popkin’s website doesn’t mention anything about his views on the drug laws, but I’m guessing he’d be in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

Yesterday, Time Out New York’s special pothead issue; today, Libertarian ballot petitions. Coincidence? You decide.

CD Review: Helion Magister, Vaquero

Saturday, August 6th, 2005

Some music is just music. Whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between; interesting or boring; derivative or original, it’s just music. You listen; you like it, or not; if you do, maybe you listen again.

Then there’s that other kind of music, the kind that’s like the tip of an iceberg, or the nose of a starship emerging slowly from another dimension, or a feature film censored and watched on a black and white TV. Music with baggage. Music with a long tail like a comet.

Helion Magister is a new appellation for Michael Miner, who was an original member of the seminal San Francisco band The Great Society. Remembered today mainly for being the band Grace Slick left to join Jefferson Airplane (though the story was more complicated than that), The Great Society lasted but a year. It did, however, make some influential recordings, now rarities, which included – alongside the original version of Darby Slick’s classic “Someone to Love” – songs credited to one “D Minor,” the artist now known as Helion Magister (and Bullman Atavar Crowe and several other things).

Helion Magister has emerged after many decades with a new home-recorded CD on which he re-makes a couple of Great Society songs, adds some others in the same psychedelic rock vein (whether they’re new or have been knocking around for some time, no one knows) and branches out into the nuttier side of spoken-word noise-rock.

With the opening bars of the title track you know right where you are: back in 1966 San Francisco, tripping your brains out. A bluesy bass line, guitars twirling like spaghetti, tinkling hi-hat, and what sounds like a whip drive the incantatory vocals. “Daydream Nightmare Love” and “That’s How It Is” are re-imagined but recognizable versions of Great Society songs that in those days inclined towards Sonny-and-Cher pop – but don’t any more. In the former, vocal tradeoffs and tight harmonies evoke a sound familiar to fans of Jefferson Airplane, and a slightly loopy guitar solo boasts a playfulness evocative of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Sam Andrew and James Gurley.

“Chick-A-Boom Baby” is driven by gutty bass, clanging guitar, banjo, and smokehouse harmonica (all played by Miner). It’s eight minutes long, with the structure of a song – lyrics, verses, and so on – but it fits no genre, nor does it need to. In this song it’s possible to forget the long tail, the baggage, the history. It’s just pure crazy original fun.

The Tejano-bluesy “Rock And Roll Is” closes out the psychedelic-rock section of the CD with Miner cawing “Rock and roll can still relieve your sorrow,” proving his own point. (Hey, it’s relieving my sorrow even now!) It sounds like Los Lobos if their instruments got wet and started shorting out but they kept playing.

Then come three songs that comprise a noise-rock sonata full of goofy raps, screeching sounds and funny voices: Spongebob Squarepants meets Captain Beefheart in a bowl of Green Jelly. There’s seems to be some kind of story about a highly disturbed married couple running through the three songs, but who cares when the third movement is called “Jello Butt.” The CD closes with a slow, entirely unclassifiable nine-minute opus mixing Jacques Brel, flamenco, Steve Hackett and some rather impressive multi-part madrigal singing.

Short but representative clips of all the songs are available at the Helion Magister website. If you are a fan of psychedelic music, or stuff that’s just “out there,” or what Miner curiously refers to as “good old rock and roll” – it’s worth a click.

And leave your baggage at home.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Friday, August 5th, 2005

Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Sen. Rick Santorum. Among politicians, he’s unusually good at articulating the views of the Christian right, and he’s also willing to debate on the record.

Flogging his new book, It Takes a Family, on WNYC yesterday, Santorum accused the Left of promoting “radical individualism” at the expense of the family. The Right’s view of freedom, he said, was “a freedom with responsibility to something beyond yourself, a freedom to do not what you want to do – not simply “choice” – but the freedom to do what you ought to do.” Santorum admits that not all on the Right share this view. I assume he’s referring to the do-unto-others-and-then-the-hell-with-’em Corporate Right, which actually runs the US, but that’s a subject for another essay.

The Left, on the other hand, according to Santorum, defines freedom as personal autonomy, as encapsulated by the Supreme Court’s formulation in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Santorum then presents his objection to the Court’s formulation:

People going around doing whatever they think is right is imposing a moral view on me… People doing whatever they want to do, and people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint, it’s a radically secular one, it is one that does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold… It is a decisively moral point of view. It’s one that I don’t agree with.

Let’s take a closer look at that argument. Santorum begins by taking a very questionable leap of logic. He infers that if you grant a right to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” one is also granting a right for people to be “going around doing whatever they think is right.” That’s a pretty distorted interpretation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Indeed, it’s not a big step from there to the kind of anti-science thinking that led to the persecution of Galileo among others. What the Court actually did is reassert the freedom of religion, using secular terms so as to also describe the broader freedom to think for oneself. Inherent in the Court’s statement, of course, is the idea that people may legitimately have opposing beliefs about “when life begins.”

Santorum’s clever tactic is to interpret the Court’s decision as an endorsement of moral relativism. And by claiming that “people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint” he makes it seem as if thinking for oneself is in itself a rigid belief system and, further, he implies that because humans who think for themselves may sometimes have immoral thoughts or reach morally questionable conclusions, the very act of thinking for oneself is morally suspect. Thus he redefines freedom of thought as something it is not (a point of view) and strikes out at that supposed point of view using his own “pro-family” beliefs.

His use of the phrase “radically secular” is telling. This phrase is meant to taint the neutral term “secular” with an extremist aura. That tactic didn’t work – in the long run, anyway – when the Moral Majority defined, and then set about beating up on, something they referred to as “secular humanism,” and ultimately talking about things being “radically secular” won’t work either, since – and Rick Santorum may not realize this – by and large religious people don’t feel threatened by the word “secular.”

Having misinterpreted an assertion of freedom as an endorsement of chaos, Santorum goes on to complain that it “does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold.” But the very “common values” of which he speaks arise from a specific interpretation of Christian morality (combined with a male-centric longing for a mom-and-pop America that never was) against which he sees an opposing “moral point of view” (thinking for oneself). Santorum wants to have it both ways. He wants to appear open-minded, willing to describe his morality as one among alternatives and open to discussion, but he also wants to dispense with those alternatives by redefining them as chaotic and amoral.

Not bad, Senator! I salute your obfuscatory abilities.

Blogcritics Reaches Milestone: 10,000,000 Unique Visitors

Thursday, August 4th, 2005

It’s insufferably hot here in NYC – because of global warming I suppose – but no major hurricanes have hit us – yet. And while the atmosphere cooks, so does the blogosphere: I’m happy to be a writer for a blog that just received its ten millionth unique visitor. Congratulations to Eric Olsen, the editors, and the Blogcritics writers.

In music news, the Soul of the Blues Festival is over, and it was an overall big success. Not that anyone wore overalls, but you get the picture.

Meanwhile, in Fort Greene, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn, the recent opening of a “sex shop” on a busy commercial street prompted this objection from an area resident: “To have what most people would associate with pornography right out there along with the basic services, it alarms them.” [Source: The Brooklyn Papers, July 23, 2005] That may be the worst objection to pornography I’ve ever heard. Porn may be all sorts of bad things, but for much of America, it’s nothing if not a “basic service.”

And in the New York City suburb of Rye, at the famous Rye Playland amusement park, a little boy was murdered by gnomes and trolls. So don’t let anyone tell you monsters aren’t real.

Born in the USA, and Still Here…

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

People my age and older are always talking about how time is flying, how they can’t believe how fast the years go by. Now, I don’t know if my life is unusually chock-full of interesting content, or if there’s some other explanation, but it ain’t that way for me at all.

Oh, sure, I have occasional moments of time-telescoping. For example, I recently inherited a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, an album I had heard plenty back in the 80′s but never owned. Not remembering exactly when it had come out, I looked at the CD and saw 1984. Hey, that’s not so long ago, I thought: just a little more than ten years. Seems longer, somehow.

Oops.

But sensations of the slow passage of time far exceed compressive experiences, for me, in both frequency and amplitude. Most of the time I find myself looking back at a recent event and thinking, I can’t believe that was only a week ago. And when I reflect on the fact that I’m 42, I don’t think, Holy crap, how did I get to be 42? No, what I’m thinking is, Whew. Half done!

Of course, if I keep eating healthy like I am, and step up my physical fitness a bit, I could end up living forever, like Ray Kurzweil promises. Hmm. Well, at least Mars has plenty of water. And low gravity, and lots of big mountains to climb. See you up there!