Monday, February 27, 2006

Bring me the heads (or tails) of Frank & Gordon

Despite my country's record medal-grab, the significant presence of a Menno from The 'Peg, and undeniably fetching figure skaters, I had a difficult time whipping up interest in this year's Winter Olympics. Three things killed it for me: the time-zone shift (the day I wake up and want to watch television is the day I've been rightfully set out to pasture), the Canadian men's hockey team, and the commercials.

There's nothing you can do about the time-zone, so I'll move directly to Hockey. I think it was a big mistake to let the pros into Olympic hockey. I know the Eastern Block made a mess of things with their nettlesome "Socialist" definitions, but the Curtain is down, and I think we can all agree: when you're employed by the NHL, you're no longer an "amateur". The sort of "Dream Team" competition that erupted in the 90s is a bore no matter who wins gold, and I'd like to see Olympic hockey (and basketball, for that matter) return to its amateur status.

Alright: Commercials. Man, did PETA ever take a blow to the chin with those freakin' beavers from Bell. Leg-holds, piano-wire, boiling oil ... it's all too good those annoying rodents. And this lack of, shall I say, quality only made the brain-numbing quantity of commercials that much more difficult to endure.

I realize the Corp. relies on this deluge of free-market bucks to sustain what programming it can, so I'm almost willing to cut it some slack for the 3-to-2 ratio of commercial-to-event minutes (and no, I don't consider a McDonald's sponsored "Portrait of Courage" an "event"). Sports-loving viewers are subjected to this onslaught of ads, in aid of keeping "Canadian content" alive and well. Alas, "Canadian content" means another Ken Finkleman indulgence, while the truly entertaining stuff (specifically DaVinci's City Hall) gets deep-sixed.

Strangely enough, I'm truly saddened to see DaVinci get the axe. I say "strangely", because it's been years since I was a regular DaVinci watcher. My wife and I were DaVinci fans when it had its original Friday night slot. This suited us just fine: after a week of work we were too bagged to rent and watch a movie, but a one-hour episode was just right to keep us awake and entertained. Then CBC moved it, and lost us. I recently spotted it while channel-surfing, and found myself hooked in after several years absence. Why DaVinci isn't bigger than House, MD, I'll never know (and I say this with all due respect as a Black Adder/Frye & Laurie fan) -- DaVinci has better acting, directing and writing than Hugh Laurie's vechicle. I figure playing fast and loose with scheduling can't possibly help, but maybe I'm simple that way. Open letter to the CBC: why not take a page from the BBC strategy-guide, and give DaVinci more than one time slot. We've already got 24 hours of CSI -- what could it possibly hurt?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Friday Frazzlery

It's Friday, and I don't feel like applying myself, so here's some miscellany:

Gaming: seems when it comes to gaming, the critics have the most fun with the James Bond franchise. I've fiddled a bit with some of these offerings, and there are good games and bad games. Critics jumped all over From Russia With Love, but it's not as bad as all that. I enjoyed its sense of play -- its action is clunkier than some of the other 007 games, but I thought it worked within its retro-environment. I think it would have garnered higher praise had it been released before 007: Everything Or Nothing, surely one of the most layered games in the franchise. EON has so many wonderful little nooks and crannies and options to explore, it seems almost impossible to exhaust. Lots of fun, both of them, but I'll keep singing my one-sour-note refrain: gaming animators are a listless, uninspired bunch. Pierce Brosnan and Sean Connery (to say nothing of their sexy eye-candy) get the usual Disney Hall of Presidents treatment, an approach that makes the animated segues either boring or unintentionally comic. C'mon, people: instead of exploring the absolute limits of the form, why not acknowledge them at the outset, and play with expectations? Consumers realize the animation is going to be stiff, so why not surprise them and make it psychedelic and herky-jerky? That's just one option available to you gaming geeks, but consider it -- would you? Heck if you use it, you don't even have to acknowledge your source.

Critic At Large: BookNinja has frequently sung the praises of lit-crit Alex Good, but it's taken me some time to actually tune in and turn on (dropping out is overrated). Good Reports ("Canada's Premiere Independent Book Site"!) is loaded with goodies galore (*ahem*). I whiled away an hour eating up the reviews and articles, and left the site feeling invigorated and ready to write fiction -- an unusual response to criticism, but Good is the sort of critic that makes an ideal reader. Excelsior!

Dennis Danvers: most writers of Speculative Fiction fall into two categories: those who take technology seriously, and those who take human yearning seriously. Dennis Danvers belongs to the latter school, which makes his spec-fic eminently readable. I've been a fan since Circuit of Heaven first came on the scene, and I've just come to the realization that Danvers is one of those writers whose work I seek out because every new novel indicates he's still alive and productive.

It's been three years since The Watch, his latest novel, so I expected to see something new under his name. Quick trip to Amazon, and ... nothing. What did this mean? The Stand was, perhaps, his riskiest work: resurrecting Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, and placing him in the environs of late-20th Century Richmond, VA was cheerfully provocative, but unlikely to expand his readership in the post-9/11 gloom. Had Danvers despaired, and quit writing?

Not at all. Further googling revealed that the man has simply adopted a nom de plume and given us The Bright Spot, by Robert Sydney. Danvers remains alive and productive -- good news, indeed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sure glad that's finished!

I realized, halfway through entry #9, that this little Top Ten list was going to take more out of me than I'd originally calculated. Pulling together ten songs / albums / setlists was no trouble at all, of course. Exploring the effect they had on me, however, was a little dicier.

I also realize that compared to my other Top Ten efforts, I was a little more cavalier with the guidelines I set for myself. A Boy Named Sue hardly qualifies as a true "heartbreaker", but I included it just because I'm unhinged enough to get choked up while listening to it.

And, oh, the artists I ignored! Not a bluesman -- or woman -- in the bunch. Slaid Cleaves Broke Down, the entirety of which should qualify, didn't even make mention.

No doubt my blinders steered me right past some of your sad-eyed favourites. If so, don't be shy! Ennumerate and elucidate below.

A Love Supreme/John Coltrane




As it evolved, so the quartet sound came to be dominated increasingly by what were essentially battles between Coltrane and (drummer Elvin) Jones, whose drums are like a wave that never quite breaks, that never stops breaking ... the soprano seems about to be drowned by the weight of drums but then emerges again, floating clear of the tidal wave of percussion crashing over it ... Jones is murderous: it seems impossible that the saxophone can survive the pounding of the drums. Coltrane is on the cross, Jones is hammering in the nails. Prayer turns to scream. If Jones sounds as though he wants to destroy him, then Coltrane certainly wanted -- needed -- him to try. But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, by Geoff Dyer.

A Love Supreme
, by John Coltrane.

That's it: my Number One Heartbreaker. I don't understand this album. I can't figure out how the music "works" (Dyer's metaphors are as good an "explanation" as any). I've seen magazine columnists recommend this album for background music to a romantic dinner. I can't imagine. Of all the CDs I've played while driving, this is the only one to force me to pull over to the side of the road and stop.

I can't really break it down, because it breaks me down first.

I don't understand Coltrane's spirituality. I have no idea what came over him and consumed him. As my New Testament scholar-friend is overly-fond of saying: "Something happened."

Something happened, and now we have this heartbreaking work.

Monday, February 20, 2006

"C'mon baby, spend the night with me"

Heartbreaker #2: Six O'Clock News by John Prine, best heard on John Prine Live.

I first heard John Prine when he played the mainstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the early 90s. I knew of him thanks to some former roommates, who enjoyed his slanted take on things, and frequently played a worn-out "Best Of" cassette. Once a month, our room of fellas would phone up this houseful of girls we knew, and we'd take turns hosting a supper for each other. The customary habit was to dust off this Prine tape and slap it in the little stereo. Then, when the girls would enter the room, they could smirk or roll their eyes and say, "John Prine, huh?"

So you could say he was regarded with something approaching frat-boy humour. And to be fair to John, this best-of tape contributed in no small way to this misperception: he was suspiciously verbose during the live tracks, and prone to guffawing at his own jokes, which gave a song like Illegal Smile a dangerous air of authenticity. So, yes: the tape was played in my presence. But the first time I heard John Prine was at the Folk Festival, six years later.

He was the last of a stellar line-up that night. I was lying back and staring at the night sky (as Folk Festival attendees are wont to do) when he finally came onstage. He strummed a bit, then travis-picked an intro to his first song. I can't remember what it was, but when he started singing, I sat bolt upright. His voice had undergone an incredible change since he'd recorded the tape from my college days. I did a little math -- those songs were probably 20 years old by now. The drunken jester I'd expected to see had been replaced by a straight-forward performer with undeniable presence.

I can't recall the songlist from that night, but in my memory it hews closely to the songlist on John Prine Live. Six O'Clock News was close to the beginning of the concert, and when he sang the final verse, I was crying. It's a song about incest, confusion, misplaced desire and trying in vain to play the rotten hand that's been dealt you. In the space of two minutes, the listener is thrown into the song's tragic heart, with a girl, a father, Jimmy, and a town trying to make sense of it all.



Heartbreaker #1

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bruises & Ice Cream

Heartbreaker #3: old hymns in a Mennonite church.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth: this Christly bromide isn't just something the Mennonites take to heart -- they actually believe Jesus is speaking about them. If you think I'm kidding, go ahead and ask the first Mennonite you meet if that's what they believe. He will likely chuckle (or she will roll her eyes) and say, "Well ... some Mennonites probably do!" They'll wink, or give you a little nudge in the ribs, and try to imply they're not one of those Mennonites, and you'll know: these assholes actually think they'll inherit the earth.

Mennonites should know better. They're anything but meek, and you don't have to look far for the evidence. Go to a Mennonite church some Sunday night, when they're all singing from the old green hymnal. If you can, get the music director to start the evening with This Is My Father's World. The pristine eruption of four-part choral harmonies -- from every member of the congregation -- will settle the question. You can't be meek and sing like that.

Mennonite congregations are the best choirs in the world, and their choirs are something else altogether. Like Muhammad Ali said, "It ain't bragging if it's true." Children hear their parents and grandparents sing like this, and think, Oh man, this is just a little scary! But eventually they learn how to sing like that, too, and then it's not such a big deal. They even start to take it for granted. There dawns a Sunday in their early adulthood when they tag along with a friend who attends an Episcopalian or Anglican church. At the appointed time they reach for the Psalter, open it up, and wonder, Where are the notes?! The congregation clears its throat and starts singing, and our earnest young Mennonites think, Oh dear Lord! These people sing like shit! The post-sermon trip to The Olive Garden is simultaneously grim and giddy, because the penny drops: if Mennonites were truly meek, they'd be singing like that sorry bunch.

There are Sunday mornings when I wonder if I'm living in the wrong acre of Ontario. The closest Mennonite congregation is over an hour's drive away, and to my thinking there isn't a church in the world worth an hour's drive. If you're in a psychoanalytic frame of mind, you are free to speculate that this distance is in some way personally desirable. But man, I miss that singing! The church we attend is on the other side of our back yard hedge. It's a terrific bunch of folks -- Scottish descendants, most of them. Musically (and in many other regards) some of them are freakishly talented. But when it comes to singing, the congregation mostly just ... sings.

So if you want to see me dab at my eyes and honk my nose, insert me into a Mennonite congregation singing old standards like the one above. When Peace Like A River is good, too. So is And Can It Be. But the saddest hymn I can think of is probably Joseph Scriven's What A Friend We Have In Jesus. That man's entire life was one sad and sorry spectacle. So much of his misery was openly invited out of a cussed sense of piety: the second(!) fiance to die on him just days before they could make it to the altar was consumed by pneumonia -- after he'd given her a full-immersion, river-baptism in the middle of winter. This, and other glum facts from his life hit me anew, every time our family makes an ice-cream drive to Port Perry. It's a lovely little town (appearing frequently in Hollywood movies as a lovely little American town), and it's where Scriven was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of drunkards, after he'd done a little street-corner preaching.

But there you have it: the life of a True Believer. Bruises and ice-cream.

Heartbreaker #2

Friday, February 17, 2006

"I know life is more than just survival, but that's all that I can see"

Heartbreaker #4: I'm Still Alive Tonight by Bob Bennett on Songs From Bright Avenue.

In my family, it's traditionally the menfolk who get assigned to the wakeful sprats. That's turning around somewhat in our house, given our chosen "role-reversals", but I grew up expecting my father to answer during the midnights of my soul. I'm not sure who established this precedent, but my father often talked about how his father would sit next to the bed and talk to him as he suffered through leg-aches and growing pains. And I'm told my grandfather also took the night-shift for the family's one colicky babe.

My father took this example to heart. My brother suffered from leg-aches, and it wasn't uncommon for me to wake up in the night and hear him and the old man murmuring to each other like a couple of conspirators. I don't recall my childhood nights being especially troubled, but that could be a case of selective memory. However, I do recall the night when that seemed to change for once and for all.

I was 12 years old. One of my mates put me up to it. We were talking about Star Trek, and comic books, and freaky-deaky adventure stories, when he suddenly said, "Have you read The Book of Revelation?"

No. What was it?

"It's the last book in the Bible, man! Aw, you should -- it is, like, totally wild!"

I didn't take my friend up on this challenge right there on the spot; I let the suggestion fester for a bit. I was intimately familiar with the rest of the Bible -- the narrative books, at least. The last book of the Bible was an epistle -- a letter -- and while I'd read a few epistles (Philemon was popular Sunday school material, what with it being about a runaway slave and all), they seemed dusty and arcane in their concerns. How far removed from this template was the final letter likely to be?

But the inevitable finally occurred: a Saturday with nothing to do. I picked up my Bible and flipped to the back. I read The Revelation from beginning to end. I returned to the beginning, and read it again. I read it a few more times after that -- for a total of 12, actually, because I was beginning to get the idea that numbers were important. This was all the same day, of course: the scales were torn from my eyes, and I now realized there was nothing more important than figuring this book out so that my family could cobble together some plan of escape.

Sleep was a distraction. Not for me of course -- no, sleep was something I didn't have to worry about anymore. It was a distraction for my father. He needed to explain to me all those concepts he'd dealt with in seminary -- eschatology, parousia, ekklesia and all those other five-dollar words you aren't allowed to use in Scrabble. This being the summertime, I stuck to his side and pestered him with questions during the daylight hours. He did what he could to provide answers, but the more pressing questions seemed to occur about two or three hours after I crawled into bed. The poor man, his eyes red and deeply rimmed (had he been crying?), struggling desperately to shift my pre-adolescent perspective from This letter, like the rest of the Bible, has been written to me: what does it mean? to This letter was written 2000 years ago by someone within a particular tradition to a specific recipient within the same tradition: what did it mean to them?

So, yeah: that interrupted our mutual sleep-pattern for quite a stretch. And I think once a child's sheltered perspective of things gets blown wide open by apocalyptic winds, that pretty much affects a person's sleep pattern for life. It has mine.

And so we come to this song, the final number on a "Divorce Album". We don't need to take a sophisticated po-mo approach to these songs -- there isn't a "singer" or "unreliably unreliable narrator" or some other "meta-narrative" to concern ourselves with. There's just Bennett, alone in a shitty apartment:

No one is sleeping down the hallway
No one is here beside me now
And the loneliness, like a fever
Is hot upon my brow


In the middle of this desolation is a striking metaphor: I see an image of my Father / And he bids me: "Come and sleep" The reference is to our "heavenly" Father, of course, and that's fine enough. But to this listener the image speaks directly to an intensely personal memory. It all fits together, and you don't have to experience divorce to recognize the power of the song's final sentiment:

I'm still alive tonight
And that's good enough for me


Heartbreaker #3

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"What could I do? What could I do?!"

"Hang on, hang on -- you've got to hear this!"

So said my friend in his Dodge Caravan, commandeering the stereo while I and his two boys stared out at the highway. He tabbed back to the song's beginning. I took a deep breath, and listened up.

And so I heard for the first time (at an improbably late date) the freakiest song, sung by the freakiest man, in the freakiest setting possible. These three elements of performance merged with such alchemic power that by song's end I had my face turned closer to the window in a comical attempt to choke back my tears.

As I considered the content of this list, I thought back to that moment in my friend's van, and wondered if the song retained any of that original appeal, or if my emotional response had been a matter of circumstance. I couldn't say with any certainty, so I went out and bought a copy of The Legend of Johnny Cash, and tabbed forward to A Boy Named Sue, from At San Quentin.

Yep: same response.

It shouldn't work that way. It's a novelty song, for one thing (somewhere between The Giving Tree and the Playboy Mansion, Shel Silverstein must have scratched his pate and wondered just what happened). And had it been sung by any other man in front of any other audience, it would have played as such. But Cash's nicotine-strained baritone lopes along with a swagger this particular audience recognizes immediately: a would-be bad-ass and a bullshitter, who deep down just wants some recognition and a hug from his pa. The audience and the performer are in a perfect one-to-one act of collusion: you're a bad-ass; tell me I'm a bad-ass, too. Of course, the real trick is somehow acknowledging to each other that we're not as nasty as we want to seem -- and they both pull that off, too.

Performers live for those moments, with an audience like that. They usually find them in the strangest places, too (speaking from some personal experience: if there exists a more grateful audience than the one you find in prison, it's probably stationed either in Kandahar or Iraq). Capturing that elusive magic on tape is a very rare feat. But it's been done, and thus we have:

Heartbreaker #5: A Boy Named Sue sung by Johnny Cash, At San Quentin.

Heartbreaker #4

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Three From Bruuuuuuuuuuce!

Heartbreaker #6: Nebraska, Johnny 99, and Reason To Believe by Bruce Springsteen, as heard on Disc 2 of Live 1975-85.

For some, just looking at this image will be enough to provoke tears -- of embarrassment. Who remembers the winter of '86? Record retailers put in such enormous advance orders for this boxed set, that the market was flooded. The set sold for as low as $9.99 in some stores, provoking line-ups that stretched around the block. Add to this a televised concert broadcast around the world, and legions of college girls whose spring break anthem that year was Born In The USA. Those of us who had been waiting for The Boss to make it big were surprised -- nay, appalled -- at just how big he was getting.

To make matters more complicated, Bruce was the uncomfortable third-party in an All-American pop-culture Trinity, whose two other points were Ronald Reagan and Rambo. Or was he uncomfortable? The scrawny kid who'd flunked his draft exam now looked like he'd gambled a stamp on Charles Atlas -- did he share a personal trainer with Stallone? Those of us listening to his between-song patter thought he was pretty clear in his denunciation of Reagan's "interest" in El Salvador, but this political message seemed to be lost on the Reagan-adoring masses who flocked to the concerts. The natural question -- Was The Boss too oblique? -- gradually took an insidious form: Was The Boss being purposefully oblique?

Finally, there was the issue of the music. Listening to Live 75-85 from beginning to end hammered home the point that you either loved the music, with all its maudlin slap-bang energy, or you ... wait, did I just type "maudlin"?

Ah, the creeping chill of self-awareness! Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band sure enough had their own unmistakable imprint, but after four hours of Live, even diehard Bruuuuce fans had to wonder if he wasn't a little too reliant on the air-horn honkings of sax-man Clarence Clemons. And what was with those freaky little Glockenspiel bits during the slow numbers? Honeymoon ... just about ......... over.

Nerd! Rock snob! Consumer!!! Colour me embarrassed and guilty as charged. There is, however, a moment in this monumental gathering of noise, that still exerts a powerful grip on me and gets me dabbing at my eyes. It's located smack in the centre of disc 2, and it begins unpromisingly with a history lesson and a rendering of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land*. (Joe Klein's book, BTW, is indeed worth reading.) From there, Bruce slips into his troubling first-person account of an unrepentant killer, in Nebraska. He follows this up with the laid-off GM worker, and unlikely folk hero, Johnny 99. And closes the set with Reason To Believe. "Believe what?" is the natural question. The answer seems to be, "That it's worth your while."

Somehow these three songs act as emotional proof positive. I loved them in 86, and I love them 20 years later. You can even call me a fan of The Boss -- a crummier fan than he deserves, perhaps, but a fan nonetheless.

*Some endnotes: I think this guy's take on The Boss is more perceptive than most. And although Springsteen sings more verses of Guthrie's anthem than we are accustomed to hearing, he sees fit to steer clear of the discomfitingly anarchistic lyric:

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Woody's got more where that came from, at his son Arlo's site, here.

Heartbreaker #5

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

"All is forgotten, and nothing's forgiven."

Heartbreaker #8: A River For Him by Emmylou Harris, on Bluebird.

Ms. Harris is acutely capable of locating the heartbreak in other people's songs, and has constructed a handsome career from this art. But she penned this one herself, and it's as lonely a song as you could hope to find this side of Hank Williams (lyrics here).

A friend asked me if I mightn't choose her cover of Steve Earle's Goodbye, from Wrecking Ball. I'm among the legion of fans who think Wrecking Ball is just about as good as she and Daniel Lanois get, individually or as a duo. And Goodbye definitely gives me the shivers and puts me in a minor key. It just doesn't get the tears flowing. This is because it is so obviously a sentiment voiced by a recovering addict: Was I just off somewhere or maybe just too high / But I can't remember if we said goodbye. That's chilling and deeply depressing, and quite sad for the person it's addressed to, but it does not come across to me as a "sad" song per se, if you see what I mean. It's too calculated. A River For Him, on the other hand, is messy with recognition of what's been lost forever.

But speaking of Steve Earle... Heartbreaker #7

"Amsterdam was always good for grieving"

Heartbreaker #7: Ft. Worth Blues, Steve Earle's ode to Townes Van Zandt at the close of El Corazón.

Heartbreaker #6

Monday, February 13, 2006

"Gone from mystery into mystery. Gone from daylight into night."

Heartbreaker #9: Closer To The Light by Bruce Cockburn, from Dart To The Heart. Also One Tree Hill by U2, from The Joshua Tree.

Most of my selections will pertain to our mortal condition, which makes grim sense, I think: we shed our hottest tears over death -- if we're especially fortunate, we get to shed a few over our own.

Before I get too gloomy, though, I'll get noisy. There's baggage for me to lose, and it can be stowed under the rubric of "lamentable rock snob": I'm one of those self-inflated prigs that thinks U2's best days as an artistic unit are long behind them. I'd have been personally gratified if they'd closed their Zooropa tour by shaking hands, clapping each other on the back, and bidding their mammoth audience farewell, allowing each other to trundle off to their respective careers as solo artists and debt-relief activists. Of course, millions of still-gratified U2 fans (and the entire continent of Africa) can flip me the bird on this point: it's a case of what the market will bear, and as a consumer I'm left with the happy option of keeping my change in my pocket and ignoring (to the extent that I can) their post-Zooropa output.

U2's breakthrough album, The Joshua Tree, was released while I was still in the habit of attending my childhood church. We had an old saint there -- a widower -- who could be relied upon to bless the elements and serve Communion. In the whispery remains of his former baritone, he'd proclaim, "The stars gonna fall from the sky -- and I'll see My Honey again!"

The stars gonna fall from the sky. This prophetic metaphor is from The Revelation of St. John the Divine, the final book in the biblical canon and a very personal thorn in my psyche. It takes an unusual consciousness to garner comfort from apocalyptic imagery, like the moon turning blood red and stars falling from the sky. I can't do it, but the old man could. And so could U2: I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky / And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill.

I don't know anything about the conditions that spawned One Tree Hill, except for what's provided in the liner notes, which is precious little: a funeral in New Zealand for "Greg Carroll, 1960-1986." Bono seems to rail not just against the untimely death of his friend, but against every wretched horror and injustice that humanity inflicts on itself. I think it is indicative of U2's collective genius that they were able to summon from their grief a depth of outrage that could only be addressed within an apocalyptic form. In any case, it got the waterworks flowing for me in 1986 -- a year of funerals for me. Twenty years later, the song still has the power to speak to me (and I still have the sensitivity to hear it).

I know a little more about the inspiration to Bruce Cockburn's song, Closer To The Light. Mark Heard was a medium-built guy with a comically puffy head (made all the moreso by his unruly curls). When I was a youth, he showed up at different "coffee houses" held in our church basements: he played his guitar and sang his songs while we drank generic pop and snaked our hands toward our would-be girlfriends. At some point I registerd that this guy was singing about some pretty heavy stuff -- heavy enough for me to lose track of the blonde that just vacated the seat beside me. "My heart's taking a beating / Existence is bleeding me dry you know ...." Whoa, dude -- this is not what we typically get in a coffee house!

Fittingly enough, I last saw him perform in 1986. It was the same setting -- a church basement -- but I was older, standing at the back. Mark slouched in, glowered at the floor while the emcee introduced him, then shuffled onstage and fiddled with his guitar and the mics for a few minutes. He seemed to get a little more comfortable, and launched into a song. A few songs later, his eyes were closed and he was singing as if he was the only one in the room. And what he sang was weirdly and incredibly encouraging. This was a man who couldn't stand how awful such a sweet world could be, who almost seemed to want a different God than the one he had, but who sang to this God anyway because he didn't seem to have any choice...

"Maybe those inclined towards the arts are so spiritually retarded to a degree that we must go through the whole process of cathartic expression just to discover how we really feel... Maybe I'm just a selfish maniac who is wasting his time trying to transfer feelings which perhaps no one cares about onto a fretboard and a piece of magnetic tape. Maybe it's the modern petroglyph, or the modern way to write on the wall of your cave: 'I was here.' Maybe it is a cry to God about how much I hate the bad things and how much I love the good things." (Mark Heard's journal, circa 1990)

Ah, but the kids hardly knew what to do with him -- heck, he didn't really know what to do with himself. He kind of dropped from sight for a couple of years after that. Then I got word from a friend of mine that Heard had re-emerged from the wilderness to form his own record label. The man was his own distributor, had developed a bit of a freak-on for the electric mandolin, and was putting out his best music yet.

He'd become a father, which seemed to raise his appreciation of love and happiness as being more pervasive and encompassing than he had previously thought. It also spoke directly to his darkest fears, particularly being orphaned -- physically and emotionally. He was at the top of his game, doing his thing, playing for Sam Philips, opening for Bruce Cockburn.

And then he was gone. Heart attack. Coma. Death. Followed by a monstrous hospital bill for his wife and daughter to shoulder in his absence.

From my perspective (and I think Cockburn's too), his death created an irreplaceable gap in the choir -- the only voice to sing what some of us desperately needed to hear.

Lyrics for Closer to the Light are here. Mark Heard's music can be bought here, or legally downloaded at eMusic. High Noon is a good value and an excellent overview of his very best music, culled exclusively from his last three albums. The journal excerpt is from Matthew Dickerson's 2003 biography of Mark Heard. This is a touching tribute page to MH. And in a lovely fit of synchronicity, I was told today that Steve Bell, one of my favourite Winnipeg-based performers, will be releasing a CD of Bruce Cockburn covers later this month, including Closer to the Light.



Heartbreaker #8

Sunday, February 12, 2006

"Even with you near me, I still feel so all alone"

Heartbreaker #10: Tony y Maria by Los Lobos (my wife's favourite song, from her favourite band) found on Good Morning Aztlán

One hundred and fifty miles from Mexico to L.A.
doesn't seem that far but it's still a world away


So begins the story of Tony and Maria -- an immigrant story, etched with clean, precise lines. Tony arrives at el Norte in advance, figuring to secure a job and living quarters -- and opportunity -- for his family. He toils alone for a few years, cobbling together less than he imagined. Desperately lonely, he begs his wife Maria to come join him.

Tony longs for Maria. Maria arrives, and longs for her babies. For me, this song's chorus with its subtle variations is a stake that slowly drives closer to the heart of the vows we make in intimacy:

We promised that we'd care for one another
said his wife
now and for the rest of our lives


Lyrics here.

Heartbreaker #9

Friday, February 10, 2006

Musical Heartbreakers

I recently read someone's list of top 20 albums from 1985. This was on a discussion list I subscribe to (scroll down if you need a clue as to its subject matter). The list-maker claimed 1985 was an especially verdant year for rock music, and said this list of 20 had been a tough exercise for him because he had to cull it from a list of 80.

Full stop.

A list of 80.

I was 20 at the time, and a late bloomer when it came to musical taste, so I still had some distance to go before I reached my zenith as a full-blown musically-obsessive freak. But even when I finally reached that nerdy pinnacle, I never had a list of the year's favourite albums that exceeded 20, nevermind 50. There were years when I bought all manner of professionally recommended strangeness, but even then I don't think I purchased as many as 50 CDs in 365 days. I'm not proud of that fact -- had I been flush, the tally would likely have been higher. As it was, half my paycheque went to rent, and half of what was left went to pay off my student loans. The rest went to beer and peanuts. But still: 80 albums that rocked my world in one single year?! It never happened.

I guess you could say I've been humbled. I've also come to the realization that my musical passions tend to be a bit feral. I'll sink my teeth into a particular performer for a few years, then discard the body when it's finally been drained of all signs of life. When critics were still in the business of wiping my nose for me, I used to think this was an indication of a band's frailties: "I can't listen to the Rolling Stones, anymore. They used to be so dangerous, and now they're just a joke" -- the larger implication being that I, as a listener, was receiving the brunt of the punchline. No mere witless consumer, I! I was a connoisseur, the personal arbiter of my own taste.

But, you know, somewhere in the last few years I came to the miserable realization that when it comes to music, I'm just a huge, needy sponge. I reach for CDs the way a self-pitying lush reaches for his fish-monger wife. "Gives us a bit of love, ducks?" At this point, whether or not a song connects with me has more to do with my state of mind than it does with the performer's abilities.

I wonder, sometimes, if I'm not on the verge of discovering a "new" favourite musical genre. There was a time when I shut off rock music altogether, and discovered jazz. I was courting my future wife at the time, but the path to love did not run smoothly, and we finally reached a point where we decided enough was enough, and parted ways. For two years, there wasn't a single CD in my collection that I could listen to without feeling absolutely miserable, so I limped down to the local library and took out some jazz records. Viola -- problem solved. (The two-year break-up addressed the other issues, to my everlasting gratitude.)

Alright, I'll leave it at that -- you would-be shrinks out there, if you've got any pertinent questions to ask me, now's the time to do it. In the meantime, since this is the time of year when I cobble together some sort of top-ten list, this year's list will be my Top Ten Musical Heartbreakers. That's right: ten songs (or groups of songs) that force me to retrieve my hanky and dab at my eyes. Stay tuned!

Heartbreaker #10

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." Regaining Perspective in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road

A man sits at the prow of the boat, talking. Twilight sets, and his listener must at first exercise patience: from the outset it appears the man's story is going to be long and tortuous, but as with any horror story, it is darkly compelling.

He talks about leaving home, and boarding a ship that takes him to a land of unimaginable savagery, where the natives know no restraint. He witnesses and partakes in acts of brutality and unmoored sexuality that shake his very identity, and threaten to completely undo him. Through this narrative comes a portrait of another man -- a companion and a cipher who has shed his civilization's integral values of restraint and wisdom, to completely embrace the horrid excesses that surround him in this alien landscape. The narrator watches this man, identifying with him, yet also drawing back with revulsion and horror. This man cannot be allowed to live; how this man dies, and how the narrator attempts to put events into perspective, is the story the listener (and the listener's reader) must come to grips with.

This is, of course, the unmistakable architecture of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This time, however, there is a breathtaking difference: the year is 1919, and the narrator is an Oji-Cree soldier who has returned, wounded, from the trench warfare in France. Never has the Heart of Darkness been more appropriately relocated.

Like Conrad before him, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road plays with perspective so brilliantly, with such a seemingly apparent straight-forwardness, that the reader is left with a wealth of literary pleasures to consider by the novel's conclusion. Where Conrad's story stirs profound doubt as to where its "truth" is located (we are, after all, hearing a story that is filtered through not one but two unreliable narrators who don't seem to have fully grasped the significance of the larger narrative), Boyden exercises a nearly-unheard of faith in the (aboriginal?) concept of The Many Stories bringing us closer to The One Story. Xavier Bird, the soldier, tells his story with care; so, too, does his listener -- his aunt Niska, the last Oji-Cree medicine woman to live off the land. Through Niska and Xavier (two well-wrought and distinct voices -- an increasingly rare feat for contemporary authors) we gradually get a third voice and a third story: that of Elijah Whiskeyjack, the tragic Kurtz-figure. But where Conrad's Kurtz teeters precipitously on the verge of charicature, Boyden's Elijah is nuanced, compelling and persuasively tragic. When Elijah's fate is sealed, as it must be, it raises profound questions for the reader, and (I daresay) Western Civilization.

This is the sort of book that makes a noisy reader. I brought it with us to San Diego, and when my wife finally asked me why I was gasping, clucking my tongue and shaking my head, I said, "This is incredible: the book reads like a thriller." After giving my knee-jerk response a little more thought, I've concluded differently: Boyden's book reads the way thrillers ought to read. It pulls the reader in without any of the linguistic pyrotechnics we've come to expect from our literary writers, and it speaks directly to the concerns of the human heart.

One final note: I'm disappointed, if not especially surprised, to see this novel completely shut out of CanLit's big prizes. In their wisdom, Boyden's peers probably decided CanLit had exhausted Vimy Ridge as a setting with literary and emotional cache. This is not just Boyden's loss, but our own. Take my word for it when I say this novel has an appeal that transcends this country's literary regionalism. Three Day Road is an incredible book, transcendant on every level.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

"Whoppers", Take 2: An Optimistic Wrap-Up And A Proposed New Genre

I decided it was time to go at him. "Did you expect them to believe that cock-and-bull story? Don't you underestimate them?"

He was not disconcerted. "I expect them to believe the spirit of the story," he said, "and I know from experience what kind of story they like. You educated people, you have a craze for what you call truth, by which you mean police-court facts. These people get their noses rubbed in such facts all day and every day, and they don't want to hear them from me."

"So you provide romance," I said.

"I provide something that strengthens faith, Mr. Ramsay, as well as I can. I am not a gifted speaker or a man of education, and often my stories come out thin and old, and I suppose unbelievable to a man like you. These people don't hold me on oath, and they aren't stupid either. They know my poor try at a parable from hard fact. And I won't deceive you: there is something about this kind of work
[soup kitchen] and the kind of lives these people live that knocks the hard edge off fact. If you think I'm a liar -- and you do -- you should hear some of the confessions that come out in this place on a big night. Awful whoppers, that just pop into the heads of people who have found joy in faith but haven't got past wanting to be important in the world. So they blow up their sins like balloons. Better people than them want to seem worse than they are. We come to God in little steps, not in a leap, and that love of police-court truth you think so much of comes very late on the way, if it comes at all. What is truth? as Pilate asked; I've never pretended that I could have told him. I'm just glad when a boozer sobers up, or a man stops beating his woman, or a crooked lad tries to go straight. If it makes him boast a bit, that's not the worst harm it can do. You unbelieving people apply cruel, hard standards to us who believe."

Fifth Business
, by Robertson Davies (note how the man uses a semi-colon to better effect than I do).

This passage has been rattling in my brain for the last few weeks (Davies' "awful whoppers" was the inspiration for my previous entry). Reading it for the first time, one might almost hear Davies encouraging leniancy toward poor James Frey. But smarty-pants readers know this is not Davies speaking; it is one of his secondary characters, addressing Davies' protagonist, Dunstan Ramsay, an affirmed Modern quixotically seeking to establish the sainthood of a woman he once knew. i.e., it is a fictional character, speaking with authority within the constraints of a novel.

It's probably a mercy Frey never encountered this passage: he might have been tempted to recite it verbatim to Ms. Winfrey, and add plagiarism to his list of petty crimes. And no matter how you parse apart the quote, Davies had enough presence of mind to classify Fifth Business as a novel.

Davies' Deptford Trilogy remains one of the most subversive and life-affirming literary encounters I've had. I think he surprised everybody with these books -- he may even have surprised himself (his follow-up material never approached quite the same lofty heights). An interviewer once asked why it took him so long to come up with fiction of this quality (Davies was over 50 years old). Davies shifted uncomfortably and said, "Well, certain people were still alive, you see."

I don't think novelists need to be cagey about what is fact and what is phant'sy in their work, and if readers want to separate the police-court facts from the whoppers, they're welcome to that approach. Sometimes that's the only approach a reader can muster. This summer I overheard a friend from my former small town -- and I might as well "out" myself, here: we're talking about Steinbach, Manitoba -- being asked if he'd read Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness. He said, "You know, most of us saw what was going on between Miriam and her boyfriend at the time. We don't much feel like we need to read a novel about it." Miriam obviously needed to write about it (so did the former boyfriend), and readers who weren't around to see "what was going on" are apparently deeply gratified that she did so.

In my earlier post I proposed a preliminary "wink" before launching a whopper. On that score, I think Ms. Toews makes artful use of both "memoir" and "novel". ACK is presented as a novel, but is baldly structured around people and events her former classmates can't help but recognize. By book's end her protagonist, Nomi (as in, "No-Me" or "No(t)Mi(riam)") asserts a sentiment similar to Davies' character: stories are what matter most, and this one has been contrived for very personal reasons (you'll have to read the book to figure out what those are). Toews' previous book, Swing Low, is presented as "A Memoir". The wink, however, is immediately apparent on the first page: the narrative we read is her father's, in her father's words -- and the man has died at his own hand. In both cases the reader must immediately acknowledge and suspend disbelief, or stop reading altogether. Don't expect police-court facts, and you'll be okay.*

Getting back to Frey, there are many aspects of the spectacle that peeve me, but chief among them is the platform Frey built to launch himself into the stratosphere. Delivering the whopper while staring down the reader is an invitation to disaster, as is building up your own profile by slagging a would-be peer (speaking of which, I owe someone an apology. Remind me if I forget). Go ahead and call David Eggers a hack, but at least he had the decency to title his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius -- as clear and broad a wink as any reader could hope for before tucking into a memoir.

Not having read Eggers, I'll just let that particular sleeping dog lie. I have read his buddy Rick Moody, however, and I've got to say his recovery memoir is starting to look better all the time (I still think if he'd eschewed italics and cut the whole thing down to a Harper's-sized essay, it would have been a terrific stick of dynamite). But I'm starting to feel more and more uneasy about their mutual friend, Michael Chabon.

Chabon found himself in lukewarm-verging-on-hot water last spring, when he opened his dog-and-pony show with the words, "Since this is a memoir, I will be truthful." What followed was mostly police-court facts, spiced into oblivion by some ill-advised whoppers -- to wit: "a childhood friendship with C.B. Colby, the author of Strangely Enough! and similar works of paranormal hokum, and also (Chabon says) the author of a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, published under his real name, Joseph Adler. Only that, too, was a pseudonym. In fact, 'Adler' was Viktor Fischer – a Nazi journalist who, after the war, concealed his identity, even to the extent of having a concentration-camp serial number tattooed on his arm."

The above quote comes from Scott McLemee, because the original Bookforum article (by Paul Maliszewski) which blew the whistle on Chabon is no longer on-line. Again, McLemee's summary: "Maliszewski, who heard Chabon give the lecture a few times, reports that the audience listened with fascination and horror. 'The only problem was,' he writes, 'the personal story Chabon was telling, while he may have presented it as an authentic portrait of the artist, just wasn’t true. There was no Adler; and no Fischer either, for that matter. Nor does there exist a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, nor an investigation by The Washington Post. There is a young-adult book titled Strangely Enough!, which is pretty much as Chabon describes it; and it is written by a man named Colby -- though he wasn’t, it must be said, a Nazi journalist who disguised himself as a Jewish survivor and holed up in the Maryland suburbs, but rather a real author, based in New York City and residing in Westchester County, who served in the US Air Force Auxiliary after World War II.'"

McLemee notes that Chabon supporters adamantly insist the man had broadcast unmistakable winks to his audience, but Maliszewski (who knows a thing or two about literary hoaxes) says otherwise. So far as I know, Chabon's only response to Maliszewski's pertinent questioning has been an insouciant shrug of the shoulders. Mike Warnke, move over -- we've got a new Frey-Guy!

Chabon and Frey and Warnke: is it possible these guys "inflate" because they haven't got past wanting to be important in the world? I find Chabon's resort to bullshit particularly lamentable because a man who wins a Pulitzer ought to be confident enough of his craft to know better. While I'm not an unabashed fan of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I was duly impressed by how deftly he made the fantastic seem ordinary, and the ordinary seem exquisite. The novel's plotlines rely on sleight-of-hand, and Chabon pulls off enough of them to enchant and inform. Following this act with a roadshow of awful whoppers is, I would say, shamefully beneath the man.

Bloggers have been wondering what we should call this "new" genre of fictional memoirs: someone (a Blowhard? Bookslut?) proposed "fictoir" or "auto-lie-ography". I'd humbly submit "memwhopper". When it comes to Michael Chabon's memwhopper, I think Maliszewski has it right: "It seemed to me that buried in the lecture is a story about Chabon's life, and that it got lost. It's a story about his growing up in Columbia, Maryland, about his parents' divorce and his father's embellishments and lies, and about Chabon's attempts to escape that world into alternative universes imagined by mystery, science–fiction, and fantasy writers. To me, that sounds like a great story. It's a quieter story, for sure, and harder to tell in some ways, more difficult to imagine as a writer, because, in some of its details, it might appear just plain or even average American, but still, I'd love to read it. But that story -- that true story -- is obscured when Chabon inserts his fictional brush with a fake Holocaust survivor. In fact, letting the Holocaust into the story of his life has the effect of dwarfing everything else."

Similarly Frey: wouldn't the story of an upper-middle-class boy who comes to terms with the fact that he's nobody special just because he got derailed by drugs be more intrinsically interesting than a shabby Frank Miller rehash? Considering how, after Oprah's "confrontation", Frey's Amazon status climbed from number five to number four, you might say I have my answer. Our culture is doomed!

Alright: apology time. Earlier this summer, in a fit of pique, I none-too-subtley accused Robert Wiersema of conspiring to prop up John Irving as Canadian literary icon. Mr. Wiersema contacted me and with good humour gently set me straight -- I was wrong. Here is an end-of-the-year recap of the 150-plus(!!!) books Wiersema read and reviewed. You will see that despite my flaming, RW stands by his Irving rave. Wiersema is the real deal, and the summary of his forthcoming novel looks very much like something I'll enjoy reading. Godspeed, RW!

*Another Steinbach friend tells me she was approached by a concerned mother whose daughter was about to marry a Steinbach boy and move there. My friend assured the woman that the town was not quite as bleak an environment as Ms. Toews had, for her particular purposes, painted.