‘General’ Posts

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.

Book Review: Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll by David Jennings

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Aside from his terrible title pun, the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings is a very smart man, and his book Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll should prove valuable to anyone interested in how people are discovering, and will discover, new music and other media as the digital age progresses. There’s a lot of talk these days about celestial jukeboxes, long tails, folksonomies, the tearable web, “some rights reserved,” and other modern concepts in arts, marketing, and commerce, but Jennings has pulled them neatly into a sensible, readable package dense with ideas and reflecting a very positive outlook.

The internet has enabled us to easily find virtually anything we want. Hence we have, as Jennings says, “what fans used to dream of… Our problem now is scarcity of attention.” The book details what entrepreneurs and thinkers are starting to do, and might yet do, to try to capture and focus the attention of consumers and fans of music, movies, videos, etc., and the new ways in which those fans, through technology and community, are “foraging” for their media sustenance.

I deliberately used both terms, “consumers” and “fans,” because as Jennings makes clear through the use of a pyramid concept that will probably look familiar to marketing managers, there are four types of music listeners: Savants, Enthusiasts, Casuals, and Indifferents. People in these different groups discover new music in various ways. “While Savants [people for whom music is an essential part of their identity, and who often play a creative or leadership role among fans] and Enthusiasts may choose their friends based on what music they like, Casual listeners are more likely to choose their music based on what their friends like.”

The pyramid can also be expressed (top down) as Originators, Synthesizers, and Lurkers. But either way, “communities do not require majority participation in order to be successful and to generate content and relationships that their members find valuable,” and a “cycle of influence” among these groups “can significantly affect the word-of-mouth reputation of a book, film, piece of music, or game.”

Jennings explains the difficulties and the potential for “gatekeepers” who try to generate meaningful popularity “charts” in a context where means and opportunities for distribution and consumption are very inconstant. He also talks about the changing roles of intermediaries like reviewers (in the age of blogs), editors (Last.fm doesn’t have them; the All Media Guides do), and human and automated “DJs.” Regarding the last, Jennings makes the important point, in a chapter called “Cracking the Code of Content,” that “The power to program becomes more important as the range of material available to us on demand keeps on growing.” We use music in a variety of ways – active listening is only one of them – and we have an expanding number of technologies and techniques we can employ to discover music and program personal playlists.

Networking and blogs, he says, “provide the means to reconnect fans and audiences who are rarely listening to or watching the same thing at the same time now that so much is available. The new breed of smart intermediaries will look for ways” to give us the sense of shared experience that the hegemony of Big Media has fostered, and to “enrich…those experiences by adding contextual information and opportunities to communicate or contribute.”

The key strength of this book is Jennings’s strong background in sociology, psychology, and marketing, combined with his understanding of the latest technologies in use, and in development, for the dissemination of media. He creates a neat synthesis of the intersection of human nature and technological trends. It might be too neat, in fact. The “rock ‘n’ roll” part of his title triumvirate refers to human creative energy: personal expression, anti-authoritarianism, sexuality, and the “do-it-yourself ethos” now being expressed in blogs and wikis. But another part of what one might call the “rock ‘n’ roll” spirit is a tendency towards chaos and destruction.

Jennings more than ably presents a wide-angle perspective on technology and media discovery. He acknowledges technological hurdles yet to be overcome, the need to police social networks, and the vulnerability of discovery and recommendation engines to being gamed by the unscrupulous or antisocial. But his analysis mostly ignores political matters like net neutrality, privacy concerns, and censorship, any of which could stomp on the beautiful, networked world of sharing like Godzilla on Bambi. Perhaps that’s a subject for a different book. But it hung over me like a small dark cloud throughout my reading of this one, despite its sunny disposition and smiling forecast for the future of media and popular culture.

Syndicated through Blogcritics to the Advance.net network and Boston.com.

Soul of the Blues Springs Into Fall

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

After an August break, Soul of the Blues at Cornelia Street Café returned last night with an opening set from up-and-coming Long Island based acoustic blues musician Phil Minnisale (who also appeared back in May), a kick-butt central feature by the great Canadian roots- and bluesman Michael Pickett, and a closing set from local r&b/jazz singer Leslie Casey and her highly skilled, tight band.

Soul of the Blues Logo with Text

Casey’s also on the bill next Friday at Biscuit BBQ, where she’s opening for the sensational Anthony Robustelli. Come on down and request her special, funky-fresh version of “Round Midnight” – you won’t be sorry.

It’s a mighty shame there aren’t more (and better-paying) opportunities in New York City for touring blues musicians like Michael Pickett. Besides Terra Blues in the Village, there’s practically no place that presents a steady diet of blues, and one venue isn’t nearly enough to cater to the touring talent, not to mention the appetite for live blues in the city. One problem is, that appetite is pretty scattered. It’s a feedback loop – it became so expensive to run a club that a lot of places closed down, so people stopped going out to see blues, so people got used to not seeing live blues in NYC, so even fewer places wanted to book it, so now here we are with only a handful of fans and a modest batch of tourists coming out to see even a show that features a serious blues eminence like Pickett (and for a mere $10 cover and $7 minimum at that!). The place should be jam packed every fourth Wednesday, not just on the weekend shows during our summertime Soul of the Blues Festivals.

So if you like blues and soul music, spread the word and come down.

God Really Did Create Adam and Steve

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

God did, in fact, create Adam and Steve. I know because I saw them in person.

This Rosh Hashanah, for the second year in a row, I went to a High Holy Days service given by CBST, an independent, Reconstructionist-inspired Jewish congregation that was especially created by and for the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community.

“But Jon, you’re not gay.”

“Lucky for me, neither is my girlfriend. Your point?”

Since CBST must, by definition, have an open and welcoming philosophy, it has grown to attract many straight Jews who are disaffected with the sometimes intolerant, often subtly unwelcoming attitudes of the more longstanding branches of Judaism, but who still want to maintain a tie to their religious tradition – to be out Jews, as it were.

“But Jon, you don’t believe in God.”

“Never have, never will. Your point?”

CBST, at least at its huge High Holy Days services held at Town Hall and the Javits Center in New York City, welcomes agnostics and nonbelievers. The impish Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is a delightful cut-up, and the music is, so to speak, divine. The whole thing is radically different from the hideously bland, only glancingly Jewish Reform synagogue I grew up attending. (“Hardly distinguishable from church,” my mother used to complain.) At CBST you can sing prayers and psalms in major keys! Major keys! Mother of Samuel, do these people even know they’re Jewish?

However, just like Reform and Conservative services, CBST events include a segment in which a lay member begs the crowd for money to keep the congregation going. At my old synagogue this affair was always frightfully painful for both the beggar and the beggees, but not at CBST.

Last night the aforementioned Adam (Berger) and Steve (Frank), a committed and now married couple, did the solicitation. In the process they told the funny and touching story of the genesis of their relationship, how they came to join CBST, and what it meant to them. There they were in the flesh, the very Adam and Steve who so frighten the small-minded mushheads of the religious right – friendly, happy, to all appearances in love, and about as unthreatening as a down comforter in the wintertime.

“But Jon – you’re such a romantic, iconoclastic loner with your hair blowing in the wind that rolls over the heath like a sigh. What are you doing at Town Hall — and at the Javits Center next week for Yom Kippur — with a bunch of observant Jews?”

“Heck if I know. Your point?”

Actually, I do know: I go because my girlfriend goes, but I’m glad to. If there were no other reason, the music really is beautiful. Funnily enough, while waiting for the service to begin I was flipping through a “magazine” Michelle Shocked sent me. It’s merely an elaborate promotion for her new live CD and some reissues, but in it she writes about being inspired to get religion by attending gospel services. “If you follow the trail from rock ’n’ roll, it always leads you back to the blues, sweet soul music and finally to the churches and gospel music,” Shocked writes.

In some way that I don’t understand, tracing the roots of the music she loved brought her to the point of “living by the Good Book.” That’s just going backwards, as far as I’m concerned, but it does attest to the power and importance of music.

Sometimes, even a CBST service feels like going backwards in spite of all the social maturity, liberal attitudes, and major keys. (Spotted in the crowd: Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman.) A formative superstition still lurks in the heart of the temple. Without it, the title and first paragraph of this article would make no sense. They do not, in fact, make sense. Nobody but Adam and Steve’s parents actually “created” Adam and Steve. Nobody “created” Lucy, or the oceans, or the Earth or the Sun or the cosmos.

But people do create things, and as human creations go, CBST is a pretty nice place to hang your yarmulke.

Go Cyclones!

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Had more fun at the Brooklyn Cyclones game the other night than I’ve had at some major league sporting events.

The game itself was just OK. The Cyclones lost to the Vermont Lake Monsters, who dominated them with outstanding pitching. But it was just plain fun to be there. I was there to videorecord Elisa singing the national anthem and “God Bless America.” Here she is getting ready to go out on the field.

Elisa Before Singing the National Anthem at the Cyclones Game

Before the game we waited out a rain delay in the team’s administrative office, where a parade of wacky Brooklyn characters entertained us. Maybe because of the rain, some of the competitors in the knish-eating contest (it was Jewish Heritage Day) didn’t show up, and I was SO tempted to compete. In this picture, the guy in the cream suit was there to sing Hatikvah, the little girl was throwing out one of the many “first” pitches, and the heavyset dude was promoting a Visa card that supports Israel.

Waiting Out the Rain Delay Before the Cyclones Game

In the stands, meanwhile, there’s a great feeling of community. Brooklynites (especially those from the neighborhoods closest to Coney Island) are absolutely elated to have professional baseball in town, even if it’s just a short-season single-A farm team for the Mets.

Sandy Seagull at the Cyclones Game

Everyone’s friendly. People talk to each other. Not like in the major leagues (of any sport), where there’s just so much tension that you’re always worried you’re going to get beaned with a cup of soda, trampled, killed, or worse – insulted.

An Oak Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

Amidst the overgrown chaos of my backyard, an oak tree sapling has sprung up. I won’t be here to see it grow to maturity, and its prospects are doubtful anyway considering how little room it has and how close it is to the property line. But for now, I love this little tree.

Oak Tree

It’s certainly got more chance in this world than poor Planty ever did.

Walking on the Wild Side

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

When you write about music a lot, as I do, you find yourself wondering about the nature of the stuff. Why do so many people make music? Why does almost everybody love to listen to it? Where in our bodies and minds does it come from?

Because I write songs, I have a partial answer to that last question. One source of music is the natural rhythms of the body. I know that because I often get musical ideas while I’m hiking.

The steady rhythm of hiking – walking, walking, walking, all day long – will induce a familiar song to pop into my head. Pretty quickly I’ll get sick of that song running through my mind, and the best way I know to get rid of it is to force it to change. So I make a couple of modifications to the beat or the melody. At the same time I think of some nonsense words to go with the new music that’s forming in my brain. Voilà – an idea for a potential new song.

It occurred to me that maybe, at least in humans, music actually springs from the rhythms of walking. If we didn’t walk, maybe we wouldn’t have music at all (or maybe we’d have just the non-rhythmic kinds – Arvo Pärt, Ornette Coleman, ambient music). There’d be no baroque dances, classical music, gypsy music, bebop, rock and roll, or techno. (One theory of the origin of the term “rock and roll” suggests that it came from the hammer songs of track workers, who had to rock and roll their railroad spikes to set them for the hammer.)

Rhythmic bodily functions like breathing and heartbeat might have contributed to inspiring the invention of music too. My point is that that all animals move – that’s pretty much the definition of animal, in fact. We walk on the ground, or climb through trees, or propel our bodies through the medium of air or water. Pretty much every animal makes motile progress by means of some repetitive rhythmic action (walk, swim, fly, slither). And if we humans were inspired by our own motion to develop music – if music has its genesis in such a basic function, one that we share with even the simplest, one-celled animals – it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to interpret the songs of birds or whales as having the same origin, and being the same thing, as human music.

Many animals, of course, use “tone language” to communicate. Temple Grandin, in her extraordinary book Animals in Translation, argues that these musical sounds are music, just like human music, and suggests that music is, or can be, a language.

Dr. Grandin is known for her innovations in the field of animal welfare. She uses her perspective as an autistic person to “see in pictures,” as she believes animals do, which makes her able to see things from the animals’ point of view in a way that a person with a normal, verbal-centric brain can’t. In the book, she draws on her experience with animals and her knowledge of scientific research in the field to make many intriguing points about how animals (and humans) think. With respect to music, she writes,

Researchers also agree that animal song is highly complex, which makes it a good candidate for being a true animal language… To give just one example, it’s likely that birds invented the sonata. A sonata begins with an opening theme, then changes that theme over the body of the piece, and finally ends with a repetition of the opening theme. Ordinary song sparrows compose and sing sonatas.

Grandin even suggests that humans “probably learned music from animals, most likely from birds.” To support this idea she notes that most primates don’t sing songs. As noted above, I believe it’s at least as likely that we came up with music – or at least its rhythmic elements – on our own, inspired by the rhythms we make with our bodies in the physical world (walking, walking, walking). But Grandin’s important point here is the suggestion that some animals use music as a true language, and hence our music too has at least the potential to be one as well. “It’s possible that music, or something like it, once was the human language, and maybe it still is the language of birds and animals.” She cites a recent study showing that Broca’s area of the brain, which is the part that understands spoken language, also understands music.

It’s no accident that we use the two terms to describe each other, in phrases like “music is the universal language.” I wonder what Grandin would say to the philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who admitted many similarities between language and music but pointed out that unlike in language, a message conveyed by music “cannot be detached from the music. Music creates no semiotic system.” I wonder if Adorno was right, or if, not being an autistic animal welfare scientist, he wore some of the same mental blinkers as the rest of us normals.

Cruxy Cantina

Saturday, June 9th, 2007

Had a good time at the first Cruxy Cantina the other night. And I’m pictured on the Cruxy blog entry about it. It’s good to mingle with artistic and creative types who do very different things from what I do. People tend to clique up and spend all their time with like-minded others. As a musician and songwriter I hang out mostly with musicians and songwriters. But it’s good for the creative spirit to spend time with people who make films, program innovative websites, do political activism, and so forth. Not to mention musicians who work in completely different genres, like rap and electronica. I was surrounded by talented, creative people, yet I was the only guy singing and playing a guitar. Sweet.

cruxy cantina
See Jon rock. Some rights reserved.

There are some incredibly talented filmmakers who spread their stuff via Cruxy, BTW. Go thence and view.

Book Review: Avoid a Migraine, Stop a Migraine

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

This monograph approaches the relief and prevention of migraines both specifically and holistically. The author brings together numerous relief techniques of her own experience (one of which she herself discovered) and a sizable chunk of current thinking, sometimes rather edgy thinking, in the field of holistic and preventative health. Avoid a Migraine, Stop a Migraine can be useful for migraine sufferers but also as a starting point for a wider personal investigation into health and wellbeing.

Author Sandra Spewock Feder begins with a caveat: “This book does not in any way give medical or any other kind of advice. At the request of fellow migraine sufferers, I am sharing my own observations and experiences. Before you do anything and if you have any questions, consult your health care provider.” One might wonder where the line is between suggestions and advice, of course. Writers know, even if they can’t admit, that their caveats are going to be regularly ignored; people – especially suffering people – are going to try suggested techniques without consulting a doctor first.

Then again, there are also doctors who succumb to the lure of a quick buck, endorsing products of unproven and questionable value. We see these charlatans on TV all the time. One feels more comfortable with an honest approach like that of Feder, who simply presents her findings based on personal experience and research, reporting on what has worked for her and what she believes caused the efficacy.

Feder gives a lively description of migraines, those headaches from hell: “Three days of pain, and another day or two recovering from being wiped out…It was like trying to stay afloat when something was relentlessly pushing me under. Each time I would give up and let the pain close over me.” But the key, the topic sentence, is this: “Migraine is a symptom. Pain comes for a reason.”

Before laying out her relief techniques, Feder presents several sections on the conditions that can lead to migraine (and pain in general) and what causes those conditions. Excitotoxins, for example, are ingredients in food that lead to an excess of certain neurotransmitters, notably glutamate. Everyone knows about MSG – monosodium glutamate – but I didn’t know (for example) that the textured vegetable protein I like to use as a substitute for ground beef in chili and other dishes contains free glutamate that could be causing havoc in my brain. (I am a migraine sufferer, although mine, thankfully, do not last as long as those Feder describes.)

Feder has some tips about what to look for in lists of ingredients on packaged food. For example, what are “spices”? Why don’t they just say what the spices are? Red flag. She also explains what nutrients can counteract the effects of excitotoxins and what foods are good sources of those nutrients. She stresses eating raw foods and drinking plenty of water, and explains the importance of maintaining a proper pH balance in the body, a difficult task given the typical, acid-forming American diet.

Feder ends by describing 25 relief techniques, some old (put ice on it), some new (specially formulated supplements), some novel (use conductive tape to bridge a break in the flow of chi). Detailed material on the related subjects of sinus health and skin detoxification is also included. For an experienced migraine sufferer, this short book will likely be a useful supplement to the research he or she has already done on this terrible, much studied, but not fully understood problem. For someone just beginning to deal with migraines, the book, combined with basic Internet research and a visit to a doctor, will be a good starting point.

Religion and Morality: A Match Made in Hell?

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Sam Harris‘s award-winning 2005 book The End of Faith carefully laid out his arguments about the negative influence of religious belief on society and on prospects for a more peaceable world. Extensively reviewed and discussed, it made Harris a darling of the New Atheist movement. It also established him as that modern rarity, a public intellectual.

Last year Harris followed up his book with a monograph called Letter to a Christian Nation, which received a thoughtful summing-up and review at Blogcritics by Tim Gebhart. This more pointed work narrows the focus to one of the first book’s themes: that, while it is Islamic radicals who are responsible for the mayhem that has thrown the world into what threatens to become a neverending state of war, Christian fundamentalist beliefs are just as morally flawed and just as harmful, though at present less spectacularly so.

Letter takes the form of an epistle to the majority of Americans who (according to polls) believe the Christian Bible to be the actual word of God. The End of Faith, while fiercely argued, was, in form, a standard work of popular scholarship, but Letters is a polemical monograph in the manner of Thomas Paine, with the associated virtues and limitations. It’s short – less than 100 small pages – and even more plainspoken than the longer book. Were we a society of readers, its accessibility would likely have made it the more important of the two.

Unfortunately we are not a society of readers. But the more American Christians who receive the gospel of Sam Harris, the better for our world, and having his perspective available in compact, digestible form is a boon. He shows the enormity of the stakes and argues effectively that we must strive for a world less dominated by irrational beliefs. Faith, he writes,

inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamist terrorism is a recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict…because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation. Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics…[Even] conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns…are often deeply rooted in religion.

A key problem is that believers and nonbelievers hold different conceptions of morality. “Questions of morality,” Harris writes, “are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks.” That makes sense on the face of it, but a lot of people aren’t thinking about “questions about happiness and suffering” when they talk about morality.

To fundamentalists, morality usually means following (or loudly paying lip service to) scriptural commands. Often the commands are cherry-picked. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is much more palatable to twenty-first century Christians than “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5). But, whether followed or not, they are taken as dictates from God. Too often it is that, and not any inherent sense or goodness, that leads to the veneration of these laws.

Harris writes that violence is often caused by people defining their “moral community” in terms of their religion, and observes that religion “tends to divorce morality from the reality of human suffering.” I would put it a little differently: for too many people, morality and beliefs become two words for the same thing. Many religious people think that their beliefs, however irrational, are morality.

Scriptural commands such as the Ten Commandments have roots in the evolved biology of the social animals we are. Murder, stealing, and adultery cause suffering and strife in apes as among humans. Increased societal peace (leading to more happiness) and decreased suffering are certainly goals that come into play as morals evolve and harden into scripture. But in complex societies, morals are also honed and shaped by reason. In rejecting reason, fundamentalists subvert morality, with horrifying results.

Before the believers out there start attacking, let me add that irrational beliefs can and do coexist with rational moral thought. Regardless of our religiosity or lack thereof, most of us repeatedly make day-to-day ethical decisions based on common sense and basic human decency. But the small, personal ways in which people create peace and obviate suffering for themselves, their loved ones, their friends and co-workers, stand apart from the larger moral failures that have led to 9/11, unnecessary suffering from AIDS, and the civil war in Iraq. People who believe in 79 virgins or a Rapture – people fixated on an end to history, rather than concerned with actual humanity – have washed their hands of personal responsibility. For them, essential morality has broken down.

Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral – that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide…[and] why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.

“Clearly,” Harris concludes, “it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous… Only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”

He may be wrong in believing that, in the philosophical conflict between rational thinkers and superstitious believers, “in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.” Unchecked religious fundamentalism may yet result in the end of civilization, but we live in unprecedented times and can make no such assumption.

What is certain, and what the gospel of Sam Harris is helping to make clear, is that our world is awash in religious wars, and we had better learn to think of them that way. As the writer, documentarian, and humanist Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, pointed out at last Fall’s Beyond Belief conference, there is room to hope “that we are on the eve of a swing in the pendulum, that tomorrow we’ll wake up and we’ll realize that our fellow citizens have been aroused from their stupor, from their fear-based religion and their fear-based politics, to see what we have to do to make this tiny pale blue dot a place of peace and true goodness.”

Blogcritic of the Month

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Yours truly has been named Blogcritic of the Month for March. My bloggy monthiness notwithstanding, over two weeks went by before I posted the news here. Which is what I am doing now. As I mentioned in the interview, I was raised not to toot my own horn. Man, that is so twentieth century.

Promoting oneself is a hard skill to learn.

Hey, did I mention my band Whisperado is going to be featured on NPR’s “open mic” website? It’s true.

And stay tuned for some exciting blogging news having to do with my theater criticism.

I’ll Outlast You, Mystery Caller

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

Getting a lot of sales calls is a side effect of my job running a small IT department. In fact, most times when my phone rings it’s a vendor, wanting to sell me anything from toner cartridges to consulting services to satellite Internet. Some are follow-ups from people I’ve talked to, but a lot are cold calls. I can see the number, and based on that I decide whether to pick up. Saves me a lot of time talking to salespeople I don’t want to talk to.

And then there’s 603. Someone with that area code calls me several times a day. I never pick up. He never leaves a message.

(Super-persistent sales callers are always male.)

His number ends in a bunch of zeros so I know he’s calling from an office, and he calls so often, he has to be a salesman, more than likely with training from somewhere similar to this company. He has my direct line, so I must have given it to him at some point. Maybe at one time I was interested in what he was selling. Maybe I even told him to get back to me “next quarter,” say. Just to get him off my back. Or maybe I sincerely wanted him to follow up. It happens.

But if 603 really wants to follow up on whatever he’s following up on, he’d best leave me a message. You hear me, 603? Leave. A. Message.

Otherwise this game will go on indefinitely. Oh, I thought you’d give up, but it’s been months, maybe a year now, and you still call at least twice a day. This is truly no good for a relationship. How can I decide once and for all how I feel about you if you won’t give me my space?

I can see you, you know, in my mind’s eye. Thinking and scheming. Trying different times of day. Calling early in the morning, after hours, at lunchtime, trying to trip me up. I know you come in extra early some days, stay late other days, vary your own lunch breaks, just to try and nail me. Catch me unawares. Or break my will, make me get so tired of your incessant ringing that I’ll pick up just to get you off my back at least for a little while.

But I ain’t picking up, 603.

No sir. You ain’t gonna break me, 603. You want an easy mark, 603? Forget about it. You’re messing with the wrong IT guy.

I’m not in right now. Leave a message.

DVD Review: Macumba Sexual by Jess Franco

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Oh, how people love their B movies, and their C’s and D’s too. Spaghetti Westerns, MST3K-grade sci-fi, classic John Waters – all have their passionate fans and defenders. Reissuing genre movies is quite a thriving little industry.

The Spanish director Jess (or Jesus) Franco‘s 1981 sexploitation film Macumba Sexual, like some of his earlier and better known works (Necronomicon and Vampyros Lesbos among others), combines eroticism with horror in a way that’s predictable given its genre, and it features the luscious Lina Romay and the majestic transsexual Ajita Wilson in lead roles, who has contemporaries seen in similar roles on https://www.shemalehd.sex/. In a new interview with Franco and Romay, the director – who plays an amusingly creepy idiot in the film – describes the exotic Wilson with some justification as a female Christopher Lee.

But the real star of this picture is its Canary Islands setting. Franco and cinematographer Juan Soler make love objects out of grand old ships, camel caravans, stark and seemingly endless rolling dunes, surrealistic architecture, and fantastical Senegalese statuary. The camera alternately pans, zooms, lingers over and leers at the sheer physicality of the place, sometimes for longer than one expects.

The plot, such as it is, moves as slowly as the direction. On holiday with her husband, buxom, wide-eyed Alice (Romay) follows the clues in her erotic dreams (using some unexplained supernatural radar, I guess) to the island of the tall, statuesque Princess Obongo (Wilson) and her slaves, who await the not totally unsuspecting businesswoman with a variety of sexual delights, as well as more sinister intentions. The sex scenes are graphic as far as they go, although tame by twenty-first century standards. So perhaps don’t expect scenes like you’d see over at websites such as sex-hd.xxx and others. The low-key horror elements are perhaps the stronger for being realized not through special effects but by artful cutting, deliberate pacing, and enthusiastic use of real tribal objects. Spooky music by “Pablo Villa” (who is actually Franco) adds to the supernatural weirdness.

Slaves, fetishes, and striking, symbolically sexual set-pieces earn the film the “exploitation” in “sexploitation.” On the whole, though, its eeriness is more visually arresting than shocking.

This new release, restored from the original negative, looks gorgeous in its original 2.35:1 format. It should establish Macumba Sexual in its rightful place as the Barry Lyndon of European sexploitation movies. The only extra feature is the aforementioned interview, which Franco gives in his own eccentric version of English (subtitles are helpfully provided) – it’s charming, but only because he’s an old man now.

Macumba Sexual is not great filmmaking, of course, and I wouldn’t call it even a great B movie, but neither is it quite the standard B fare. Fans of Franco (or the genre in general) will certainly appreciate having this beautiful-looking reissue.

In Spanish, with subtitles.

Book Review: The Means – A Literary Journal, Issue Two

Monday, January 8th, 2007

I have in my hands Issue Two of The Means, a new literary magazine. Purple Post-It® notes flap out from certain pages, but I’ll get to the journal’s choice bits in a minute. First let us reflect on the meaning of The Means.

The Internet has drastically changed our relationship to knowledge and information, but for literature we still turn to books. I suspect that having a solid object to hold and read from is integral to the way we want to ingest long works. Though millions of us happily read newspapers on the Web, looking at a computer screen is not a comfortable way to read for a long period, nor is it conducive to the state of absorption that we usually want from a book.

The continuing popularity of printed magazines, for their part, can be largely attributed to convenience. In a waiting room, or taking the train to work, people want to flip through short, easily digested articles in something that’s disposable.

Whither, then, the literary journal? Can a printed book-magazine hybrid maintain readership in the digital age? Old brands and habits die hard, and I wouldn’t expect venerable titles like The Paris Review and Poetry to vanish anytime soon. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses lists hundreds of members. Still, it might well be seen as folly to be starting a litmag in the age of Google and Wikipedia. So when a new journal publishes its Issue Two, one can’t help being a wee bit impressed.

Co-editor Tanner Higgin declares that while The Means is “labeled a literary journal, our editorial direction has no allegiance to mere fiction and poetry. Rather, we read everything sent to us and choose what’s good. It truly is as simple as that… interviews, lists, essays, humor, art, comics, and anything else that can be slapped onto a piece of paper are fair game.” Alas, he goes on to abuse the language he has implied that he loves: “The truth is that most [literary] publications are running on a shoestring budget with no readership and thus function as poorly compensated, careless behemoths with little to no interest in costly innovation or the acceptance of risky writing by unproven writers.”

The Means Issue Two

That’s what not having an editor for the editor gets you. But out of a sense of obligation I soldier on, and there turns out to be a lot of good work between the pink covers. A sharp little short-short story by Joelle Renstrom captures the sense of fascination a young person can have with a larger than life, tall-tale-telling relation. Poignant stories by Mike Magnusson and Jennifer D. Munro illustrate how connecting with other humans can pose awful difficulties whatever the state of one’s love life. Christopher Monks’s story “Lloyd: New and Improved” brings to mind both the gloom of Raymond Carver’s depressing slices of life and the sticky-sweet grittiness of Updike’s sexual tales.

Arthur Salzman contributes an engrossing essay on juggling as a metaphor for life, with imagery that goes to some unexpected places: “And sooner or later the juggler stumbles and grows sullen, the bowling ball having crashed through the breakfront, the hamster having tumbled and scuttled under the refrigerator, the hacksaw having become embedded in her husband’s neck.” Michael Nowacki reports on the Iraq War with an unusual slant, while Andrew Michael Roberts’s metafictional dialogue with his computer illuminates the human-machine interface circa 2006:

I delete nothing. I send each received message – each documenting a lived moment – to the “saved messages” file. To where, any time I choose, I can return and re-live. In this way, I, myself, am “saved.” I am multiplied in the re-living. So that out amid the cosmic swirl of time and being swirl innumerable, “saved” me’s.

Imprecise language, to be sure, but evocative.

Filling out the volume are some poetry and curiosities of varying merit. I haven’t mentioned everything, but you may fairly infer that while Higgin and co-editor Christopher Vieau are themselves but fledgling writers, their energy and taste are having good results. The contents justify The Means.

Weblog Award Nominations

Thursday, December 7th, 2006

Blogcritics, the online magazine where I cross-publish nearly all of the articles you see here, has been nominated for several Weblog Awards, including in the Best Music Blog category. As one of the regular music contributors, I’d just like to say that I couldn’t have done it without all the little people.

Voting starts tonight, and you can vote once a day for ten days.

Congratulations will be accepted at any of the upcoming Whisperado gigs, including tonight at Banjo Jim’s.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from John Hiatt Lyrics

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Listen up, all you womenfolk! Do you want to understand what drives the human male? Do you wish to comprehend the vastness of his emptiness and grok his strange ways? Do you just maybe want to know what’s eating him? Then look no further than the works of The Man himself: Mr. John Hiatt, whose song lyrics explain it all.

Now, women, it’s nice when you love us, but after a certain point we become perplexed (and even begin to resent you) at your seeming failure to understand what a bastard we actually are. (Actually, what we don’t usually realize is that you knew it all along, but can’t act upon the knowledge because of some female-specific constitutional defect that remains a mystery to us.) Anyway, The Man explains it in “Angel Eyes”:

So tonight I’ll ask the stars above
How did I ever win your love?
What did I do, what did I say
To turn your angel eyes my way?

There’s no answer. Or if there is, the guy in the song sure doesn’t find it. He’s asking rhetorical-like questions, see. (Hiatt even has a song called “She Loves the Jerk.”)

The flip side of the “What the hell are you doing with me?” theme is “I swear I’ll always love you and be faithful, and by ‘swear’ I mean I’m gonna try.” Women and men are from the same planet, but words can mean different things to them. The Man sums it up in “Cross My Fingers”:

Baby when I put my mind to it
I slip into another gear
And I travel in another syncopation
When all I wanna be is here with you, and
I’ll be true to you – cross my fingers
I’ll be good to you – cross my fingers

See? He’s trying his best, which is all he can do.

Often it’s a futile effort, as in “Little Head”:

I’m loyal as a dog but I’m a hog for that sexual attraction
It starts up in my mind and makes a bee line below the belt
No consequences just satisfaction
Baby in my heart I’m faithful
This two headed monster is so distasteful
Forgive me when my instincts start stinkin’
I’m just so easily led when the little head does the thinkin’

Even you probably realize that when it gets right down to it, what makes you dig a guy isn’t his little head so much as his brain – expressed, usually, through his words. So who better than a master songwriter-dude to lay all this out so that even your confused female minds can understand it? In “Loving a Hurricane” The Man casts a cold clear eye on the process of courtship, and you’d do well to take note:

You [the man] answer questions like a natural disaster
Voices in the wind – you let ’em call her out
The whole foundation just went flying right past her
She puts her heart into it – and you just yank it out
You pulled her love out through the window pane
That’s what she gets for loving a hurricane

Let’s look closely at that. The song’s very first line establishes the importance of language in the process of love. “Answer[ing] questions like a natural disaster,” he’s using the power of his words to overwhelm her, to take away her sense of control over life – just as happens when nature rises up against us, except this is a form of surrender which she may like and encourage. The “voices in the wind” are the poetic tradition, which he draws upon to whip away her whole foundation, to “call her out” and “pull her love out.”

Traditions are everpresent in Hiatt’s lyrics. In “Your Dad Did,” Hiatt’s workingman hero, though no poet, also recognizes his debt to those who came before: “You’re a chip off the old block/Why does it come as such a shock/That every road up which you rock/Your dad already did?” Even this everyday married-with-children guy finds grace in what came before:

Well the day was long now, supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two-year-old says grace…
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did.

By contrast, a man not armed with at least the homiest wisdom of the ages is a lost soul, as in “Native Son”: “Running through the woods/And the burned out neighborhoods/Looking for someone/A member of your tribe/A place you can hide/’Til the war has begun.” Such a man’s loves can end only in something explosive (like a war) or in a quieter failure, as “Cry Love,” told from the woman’s point of view, shows:

The trust of a woman in his hand
But he was a little boy, not a man
You loved him stronger than he could feel
Yeah he was wrapped up in himself like an orange peel.

What looks to her like an stubbornly uncommunicative man is really a man paralyzed by his own thoughts, like the poor guy in “You Must Go”:

Love is in the air
You can smell it everywhere
It’s in your clothes, it’s in her hair
Ah, you better get out of there
It’s gonna take a midnight train
To straighten out your winding brain.

A lot of perfectly decent guys are caught up in this kind of situation and don’t know how to get out. Some are too smart for their own good, but for many it’s because they didn’t pay attention in school, don’t read books, and don’t know how to use their male brain as intended. The nerd gets the girl in the end, but not, as the Al Bundys of the world might think, because he’s rich; no, the nerd gets the girl because he does know how to use his male brain.

Sometimes the trapped man breaks out, as in “Feelin’ Again”:

I thought I had to curl up from my head down to my toes
But heaven knows that I was wrong, I’m feeling again
Holding my breath and holed up in this cheap motel, I feel like hell
I’m holding my own heart, I’m feeling again

Maybe he had to go through “alcohol fire,” like the guy in “Paper Thin,” but he escaped from inside himself. Still he feels “like hell,” because it’s overwhelming to be feeling so much: “When I get that feeling like a bass drum/Pounding til my head is numb/Electric onion peeling within…” He may have gotten the girl, but that awesome brain of his still can’t satisfy his craving for understanding. (Why did I get the girl?)

As you can see, Hiatt’s lyrics illustrate all the important iterations of the male condition:

1. I don’t know exactly who the hell I am, but I seem to be an asshole. Why do you love me?
2. I’m only my father’s son, so it ain’t my fault. Wait a minute, how did I get here? What is the meaning of – hey, you’re sexy!

“Only the Song Survives” distills this male confusion into a story in which a man dreams of a terrible car accident with a woman who may or may not be his wife. She explains:

Now don’t you remember they put a patch on your eye
Like Dread Pirate Roberts, you looked so unplanned
They cut off my wedding ring and you started to cry
A one-eyed Niagara Falls man

“But I never married,” objects the man. So is this injured woman with the wedding ring his wife? “Faces were changed… faces get strange,” goes the refrain – as they are wont to do in dreams. The dream-man looks “unplanned” because he is. What could be more unplanned, more emblematic of losing control, than a car accident?

But I woke up sweating to breakfast in bed
And there were my children, and there was my wife
Post-traumatic stress, or just a bump on the head?
Or maybe the ride of my life

It’s the ride of his life, all right, a ride of confusion, statelessness, and knocks on the head. Yet somehow his domestic life is still there for him. And he’ll never figure out why. Woman, to him, is magic, like the

woman sawed in half, her legs in Tijuana
She was a bodyless head and trapeze artist in a circus in Bombay
Now a woman’s gonna do exactly what a woman’s gonna
Yeah, some bad magicians wouldn’t have it any other way
She holds on to that trapeze by the skin of her teeth, or so they say

With images of a woman in two places at once and possessed of magical survival skills, Hiatt has now universalized his depiction of the split human condition. The passive (female) subject of the magic trick somehow finds her power and makes do even after she’s been cut in half. Meanwhile the “bad magician,” the songwriter, the caster of spells with words, feels his power, yet ultimately doesn’t understand it any better than the average joe of “Buffalo River Home” does:

I’ve been circling the wagons down at Times Square
Trying to fill up this hole in my soul but nothing fits there
Just when you think you can let it rip
You’re pounding the pavement in your daddy’s wingtips
As if you had some place better to go…

Although domesticated, and walking in his father’s footsteps, he’s still listening for that “Something Wild,” believing in the promise of “It’ll Come To You”:

Now you’re happily married with a wife and kids of your own
But sometimes in the closet at night you can hear them rattlin’ bones
Takin’ bets on your future and your current postal zone
It’s a spooky equation, but check out yourself, Jack, you’re the great unknown…
[but] in the middle of the night, with your covers pulled up tight
It’ll come to you

The understanding that will come to him, and the something wild that he both desires and fears, are two halves of the same nature. All of us have these dual natures. Now you know where to find out all you need to know about the particularly frustrating male version of this internal, eternal conflict: the lyrics of The Man himself, John Hiatt.

DVD Review: Missing in America

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Few first-time directors get to work with such a stellar cast as Gabrielle Savage Dockterman did with her 2005 independent film Missing in America, now available on DVD. Danny Glover anchors the movie as Jake Neely, a crusty Vietnam vet who has fled his demons to a solitary life in the Pacific Northwest woods. David Strathairn is the ailing army buddy who tracks Neely down and leaves his half-Vietnamese daughter (Zoë Weizenbaum of Memoirs of a Geisha) in the care the only friend he feels he can trust. Linda Hamilton brings earthy humor to the role of a widowed shopkeeper whose life is also transformed by the arrival of the little girl. And Ron Perlman is heartbreaking as Red, a permanently traumatized, mute vet who lives like a wild man in the backwoods.

Yes, it’s a cliché: the unexpected arrival of a child giving meaning to the lives of sad, withdrawn adults. But the film largely overcomes that handicap, thanks mostly to three factors.

First, and least important artistically, is the film’s antiwar message. There’s no explicit reference to current events, but the bitterness expressed by these vets at the senseless destruction of life makes the filmmakers’ point of view quite clear.

Second, Dockterman’s richly atmospheric depiction of the way these people live resonates powerfully not just with veterans but with anyone who has known loss. There really is a community of Vietnam vets, permanently injured emotionally, mentally and physically, who have decamped from society to nurse their wounds in the woods. Vets who’ve never met really can recognize each other without speaking, as those in the film do. Adapted from a story by Vietnam vet Ken Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dockterman and Nancy L. Babine, the film captures the loneliness of life in those rainy woods for war-damaged figures like Neely and Red.

Third, and most important, are the performances, especially by Glover and Weizenbaum. The former breaks somewhat from his more typical action and humor roles to portray the embittered, self-hating, but ultimately salvageable soul at the center of this sentimental drama. He conveys the character’s woes, and the awakening of fatherly love, through expressions and body language more than words. It’s quintessential movie acting, a performance that would probably be mentioned in Oscar speculations if there were a theatrical release.

The catalyst for Glover’s best work here is the talented and adorable newcomer Weizenbaum, a marvelous discovery in whom Dockterman can take great pride, especially since the actress had only been in a few stage productions prior to this film (it was made before Geisha.) Her portrayal of the abandoned girl, Lenny, is funny, touching, and as broad or subtle as the scene requires. (In the commentary Dockterman points out several inspired moments the actress improvised.) The onscreen chemistry between her and Glover is irresistibly heartwarming.

Yes, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but in Dockterman’s hands – abetted by Sheldon Mirowitz’s mercifully tasteful score – we get our catharsis without feeling overly manipulated, even after a shocking plot twist. And we also learn something about a subculture I, for one, had no idea existed. What I didn’t like was the set-up. Strathairn is a fine actor and has some very touching moments as the little girl’s doting father, but the way his character arrives, reconnects with Neely, and sets the story in motion feels contrived. It’s not until he takes off, leaving the two main characters to get acquainted, odd-couple style, that the movie comes to life.

Another, smaller flaw is an out-of-character display by Lenny, during a scene with Hamilton’s character, of a seemingly supernatural level of empathy. It relates to an alternate ending that was wisely left for the Special Features section.

The Special Features also include a few deleted scenes and the very detailed and enlightening director’s commentary. The short piece about the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is also worth watching.