Sunday, June 25, 2017

Frank King, Gasoline Alley

Just because. The source (for a better look).
Original hand-coloured Gasoline Alley Sunday strip by Frank King, published in the Chicago Tribune, January 20, 1946.

Also: whether you're DC or Marvel or independent be sure to check out The Bristol Board's recent love for Toronto comics great Michael Cho.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Georgia O'Keeffe at the AGO

I was truly surprised to learn that Georgia O'Keeffe's relationship with Alfred Stieglitz was -- at least in its initial phase -- indeed a robustly carnal affair.
"Eyeh -- wassup, Alf?"
On university campuses in the late '80s it was de rigueur for the fellas (the more tasteful among us, at any rate) to festoon our dorm rooms with Escher prints. The gals got Georgia O'Keeffe. Each in their way signified a (dare I say?) gender-specific potentiality that may or may not have in fact existed -- playful abstractions belying an intellectual seriousness for the guys; a pointedly feminine and nearly explicit sensual in-touchedness for the ladies (So tread CAREFULLY, mister!).
"All these possibilities, before we stampede towards the..."
Consequently I've tended to view O'Keeffe's work as a little too coolly calculated, and perhaps not quite the idealized marriage of passion and intellect that others are keen to espouse on her behalf. Throw in her widely reported impatience with the common "Why, them's LADY-PARTS!" reaction to her floral paintings, and I think a (*sigh*) hetero late-in-mid-life dude could be forgiven for suggesting that just maybe "The lady doth protest."

Stieglitz was himself a hetero late-in-mid-life dude when he first encountered O'Keeffe (my present age exactly, in fact). His initial excitement over O'Keeffe was intellectual -- a mutual friend passed along some of O'Keeffe's early charcoal drawings, which Stieglitz promptly exhibited in his NYC gallery. It was some months before O'Keeffe found out about any of this; her response was to take the train up from South Carolina, where she was (assistant) teaching art, and personally bitch him out for showing her work without her consent (they want us to ask permission -- who knew?).

An epistolary relationship ensued and, erm, flowered. After two years of increasingly impassioned penmanship, she moved to New York City where Stieglitz arranged for a pair of modest suites -- for each to abide, separately, in presumed chastity, while Stieglitz figured out how best to divest himself of "Emmy," his long-suffering wife of 25 years. The ruse was abandoned within weeks and the ensuing genitive hijinx were duly Olympian.

Stieglitz was 52, O'Keeffe 29.

O'Keeffe was not the first woman in her late-20s to turn Stieglitz's head, nor was she to be the last, either. Still, what they had going for them seems to have worked out well for both (give or take a few nervous breakdowns), not just personally but professionally, and they remained married until he died 28 years later. Aside from her considerable chops as painter, O'Keeffe had the gift of Blarney, the absolutely indispensable trait of every successful artist, while Stieglitz took his camera and energetically competed for attention among the international avant garde and their very public avant garde proclivities (e.g., Nude Torso, etc). Attention was paid, with financial success in its wake.

Even an ideal marriage of passion and intellect was not enough to curb Stieglitz's impulse to philander, alas. Faced with her husband's infidelities, O'Keeffe eventually permitted herself a single fling -- with Stieglitz's one-time mistress Beck Strand. It was what it was. At the end of it all, O'Keeffe opted for a hermetic life in New Mexico, entertaining the occasional arty-type guest, while largely devoting the rest of her life to just doing the work.

And this was the work that finally "reached" me, when I surveyed the O'Keeffe exhibit at the AGO this past weekend.
Black Door With Red, 1954
Alongside My Last Door, 1955
By all means, supply the Freudian sub-text to my text -- I'll be the first to affirm it (if you know what I mean by "affirm" -- psh-HAW!). It was a Sunday -- Father's Day -- and I was cognizant of the many willowy young gals in their late-20s drawn to the show. Hey, the late-20s are an exciting time for either/any gender -- all that psychic experimentation and trying-on of costumes and attitudes is finally settling into an honest-to-God identity! What's next? Good question. I know a few people in your line of business -- want me to introduce you?

Of course, family and friends have assured me (unsolicited, I might add) of that which I am already well aware -- they can conjure no lower form of stoopid than to envision me stepping out on my lovely wife in hopes of reinvigorating myself with the affections of a younger woman.

Which leads me to my final thought on the show: Yo, gallerists and curators! These works weren't produced by gods who walked the earth, no matter what their stentorious claims at the time -- they're the byproduct of fallible primates, just like the rest of us, prone to some gobsmacking errors in personal judgement.

So how's about injecting a pinch of sass and irreverence into the "Great Artist" narrative already? Don't you think it's just a little way overdue?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper's, and other Dad Rock-related thoughts

AV Club asks its members "Which is better: Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's?
There are songs on both that I like, and there's no denying they're both impressive aural achievements, but in the main I have to confess I don't regard either album with much fondness. I suspect there's an inescapable "You had to be there" element to both of them that simply doesn't kick in for those of us who weren't there.

An example from my own experience/library is probably RUSH's Moving Pictures. After devoting 13 months of gathering with my buds and giving Permanent Waves our closest attention, charting the stylistic evolution that occurred in the band's back catalogue and speculating what might come next, then bringing home the LP on a cold February night, slitting open the cellophane and catching that pungent whiff of fresh vinyl whilst cradling the record between thumb and forefinger and gently dropping it on the platter, then cautiously lowering the stylus so as to induce a minimum of surface wear on this precious object, and hearing that initial "THWOMP, Zoom" opening to "Tom Sawyer" -- how does a Participant Who Was There pass along any of that element to the current generation?

Though, to be fair, it's still plenty heartwarming to see kids these days finding lots to love in that album (mine do, at least).

Tangential: a 13-minute conversation on Q about "Dad Rock," that also explores the kids (Mac DeMarco, etc) taking a crack at nü-Dad Rock. My reaction? So sweet of you to be thinking of me! Now where's my Donald Fagen?

Book Culling

A reckoning long overdue (alas).
My wife was determined to paint the bedroom, which meant the bookshelf had to be moved. Which meant the books had to come off the shelves. Which meant I was now scrutinizing impulses that should have been properly scruted years ago.

It's all about perspective, isn't it?

One friend has gone almost entirely digital, and I must admit there is a great deal I find attractive about the option. Not sure I could commit myself to it for most works of fiction, but for reference items the digital option is increasingly my go-to mode. And these days digital is very much preferable -- in terms of image quality and ease of storage -- to "analog" when it comes to comic books.

Anyway, I'll take a small selection of items to the local library, which they can appraise for their own needs. The rest are headed for the curb. Seems a shame, but so it goes in this the age of content excess.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Religious Identity Politics, Narrative Appeal & Tarot Envy

It's not uncommon for me to throw a book across the room. If the content is religious, this reaction is pretty much a given.
Only one dent -- must've liked it!
I vigorously abused a recent biography of a "spiritual artist and Christian mystic" before finally depositing it in the blue box. This particular biographer was intent on discerning not just the character of the artist, but the character -- or "Character-with-a-capital-C" -- busy at work shaping the artist. Any number of religious impulses tend to chafe me, but the one that infuriates is the effort to establish Divine Narrative in a person's life.

"And yet you call yourself a Christian."

Yeah, well. I usually dodge that by saying "'Christian' isn't an identity you claim for yourself, it's an identity other people claim on your behalf -- or not."
T(o) wit.
Still, the human concern with naming and claiming a particular narrative is inescapable, fraught and freighted. We all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For most of us, particularly those of us confronted with tragedy, that is not enough -- even the most ardent materialist is keen to reach beyond beginnings and endings in the name of something "larger" ("History" or "Science" or "Family" etc). If I say I am religious (but not spiritual) I admit to some hope that the grammar I attend to attends to me also and does indeed place me within a larger narrative at work in humanity.

Nuffadat -- let's play cards.
For me the unhappiest development under the aegis of 45 thus far is just how thoroughly his belligerence has beguiled every single one of my favourite information aggregates -- some of which had once been remarkably catholic in their scope of concern. It is doubly remarkable, then, to note which subjects seemingly unrelated to the man and his effect on, well, seemingly everything remain a matter of curiosity and exploration.

Tarot, for example.

This week over at Aeon we have James McConnachie, your typically cheerful British skeptic, asking, "Assuming that tarot cards do not work as a method of reading the future, why does tarot persist? How has tarot survived as an object, a practice, a text, and a peculiarly velvety strand in European popular culture? Where did something so strange, dream-like and overburdened with symbolism come from?"

Previously we had Bookslut Jessa Crispin relate her transformation from reluctant querent to invested (and in-demand) reader -- which she has parlayed into a real live book.

And of course there are creative types like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jeff Vandermeer who have spun remarkable narrative gold from Tarot typology. Even Tim Powers, a devout Catholic, purchased a deck of Ryder-Waite Tarot cards to assist his writing -- which he unpacked but did not shuffle.
The typology has a certain flexibility to it.
All of this is, as McConnachie dubs it, "soft tarot" -- a flexible sequence of images used to prompt the psychotherapeutic or creative process. "Hard" tarot practitioners view the cards as gateways to otherwise hidden plains of consciousness -- explicating the buried motivations and indiscreet behaviors of people not in the room, say, or catching a glimpse of the oncoming tide of fate, the better to surf the wave to favourable results.

Below: Tarot typology retrospectively applied to historical narrative in the opening title sequence for HBO's Carnivàle. -- a brilliant manipulation of viewer intelligence and narrative yearning. We know the characters are perched on the cusp of a grand historical drama, of which they are ignorant. Yet we are beguiled to learn how the characters' particular drama(s) will unfold within these larger currents. The sequence is recycled in the opening title for FX's The Americans.

Tarot fascination is strictly page three material, of course. But still -- why the fascination at all? Where are the page three stories on palmistry, phrenology or tasseography?

My guess: due to its visual content, Tarot has become a universal story with easy, immediate appeal. The images in a deck of Tarot cards are invested with narrative, in contrast to the narratively neutered images of the face cards in a standard player's deck -- or the tea-leaves at the bottom of your cup. Essentially, everybody who beholds Tarot images "reads" them at first glance. Hey, this is a story! I get it! I'm in it!

If my Facebook feed -- to say nothing of the feed my daughters participate in -- is any indication, the predominant narrative being fostered in our collective consciousness is that of identifying as the beleaguered or even actively persecuted victim of larger forces -- "an arms-race to feel the most victimized," to quote Clay Routledge. Nobody is immune to its appeal -- that a Tarot reader was able to elevate Ms. Crispin's internal gaze from a self-defeating investment in this narrative was, from the sounds of it, an unexpected blessing. We should all be so fortunate.

This is, I suspect, why the Tarot Story has become a fixture on the third page (alongside Ayahuasca ceremonies and the reassurances of LSD microdosing, etc). Even smartypants skeptics seek affirmation they are playing a valuable role in the human drama, and not just that of a sad-sack tragedian in denial.

Concluding miscellany: "I'm the victim here!" -- liberals, conservatives, free-thinkers: whatever ideology you've subscribed to, you've probably bought into the victim narrative. And with that self-effacing disclaimer out of the way, allow me to state the obvious: evangelical Christians have swallowed the victim narrative hook, line and sinker. War Room, God's Not Dead 1 and 2 -- "these are films for people who have a fetish for feeling persecuted, and that to me is where the exploitation comes in." Thank God for Jesus, Bro! -- a parody of Christ-sploitation films. Irreligious intellectuals of liberal or conservative stripe will just have to settle for South Park reruns.

And finally some personal disclosure (Mom, this is for you): I was raised to steer clear of activities such as card-reading. Steer clear I have, and steer clear I shall. Too many friends have come back with stories about turning over the Death card -- "Bear in mind, this is a symbol of sudden, dramatic change, and not necessarily..." -- and having a loved one keel over within the week. For me the "soft" use of Tarot will never completely shake free of the "hard" -- why invite that spectre to hang over my shoulder at all?

Which circles me back to my opening peeve: if the New Testament suggests anything at all about Large Narratives, it is that humanity is spectacularly inept at discerning them. The Son of God shows up, we kill him. He reappears three days later and even his closest friends have trouble recognizing him. It takes 150 years to get the broad strokes of the story down. Message? If you think you've got a lock on THE Narrative, odds are you're wrong. Best, then, to pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.

Shalom -- WP.

Friday, June 02, 2017

The nostalgic gaze, and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild

The summer I turned 21 I was working in the shipping bay of a furniture factory. My boss was a few years older. Big guy. A gorilla in charge of baboons.

We all had motorcycles.

One lunch hour the others in the bay all howled out to some greasy spoon. My boss and I watched them go, then he turned to me and said, "You know, when I bought my bike I thought I was going to get this amazing feeling every time I climbed in the saddle." He smirked. "What a dummy, huh?"

That seemed to sum up a lot of what I felt -- about the entire year, really. Twenty-one -- I was a publicly acknowledged adult in all of Canada and most of the United States.

What did I do with that privilege?

I took that motorcycle and rode with a friend down to Los Angeles. We spent our days riding roller coasters and our evenings watching David Letterman.

What a dummy, huh?

Twenty-one wasn't an awful year, not by a long stretch. A bunch of weddings, a couple of funerals -- including a beloved grandfather. The usual youthful dramas, all self-inflicted as various personae were tried out and tried on. Good health, better than I deserved. But, you know -- I thought I was going to get this amazing feeling every time I climbed in the saddle.

My former boss came to mind when Joel asked me to reconsider Aliens. My boss loved that film -- saw it twice the weekend it opened, and several times more that summer. So far as he was concerned, Aliens was the apex of cinematic expression.

Joel admits nostalgia is a factor in his fondness for the film. It's been 30 years, but I imagine my boss probably has nostalgic feelings for it also. But as I surveyed the films of 1986, I was hard pressed to stir up nostalgic feelings for any of them.

The sole exception: Jonathan Demme's Something Wild.
"Where we goin'? Who knows?"
Something Wild really is just that terrific, for one thing -- one of those rare movies I almost regret seeing because I wish I could see it for the first time all over again.

It drops one depth-charge after another, and it never lets up. Just five minutes into it, I realized I had never seen these characters before. I had no idea who they were, where they were going, or what was going to happen next. And I wanted to find out.

A relationship forms between two strangers. It begins with high risk stakes, and concludes with everything on the line. Somewhere in the middle, as these two drive further into the heartland of America -- a disarmingly benign biosphere that plays host to beat-box gas-station rappers and clubs that cater to motorcyclists and their dogs -- a sense of trust develops between them, a sense of . . . love?

At 21 it was the one movie that seemed to affirm what needed affirming -- namely, you will need to take risks, and they will necessarily be high. And it won't end up the way you might expect. That's just life.
Though, as a rule, a fella should be cautious around girls reading Kahlo bios.
Endnote: it occurs to me that last summer's A Bigger Splash presents Dakota Johnson, Ms. Griffith's daughter, as essentially the same "wild" unknown figure, this time to tragic effect -- well worth watching as a companion to Something Wild.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

"He puts the 'Pluto' in 'Plutocrat...'"

Donald Fagen, under the nudging of the great Todd Rundgren, follows his inner Aristophanes and writes a protest song.
"'What am I protesting'?" Whatta ya got?"
I'll link to the YouTube video, but please do me a favour: listen to it, don't watch the video. Tab to something else, or just shut your eyes, 'cos this is a case of visuals getting in the way of a really good tune. Promise?

Alright, here it is.

I like it. It's snappy, and so far as trenchant political criticism goes, nearly content-free. Which is fine -- it's meant to get under the target's skin. Whether or not it "succeeds" is beside the point, in a way -- it'll succeed if you hum it while walking to work tomorrow.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Reconsidering the franchise through the lens of Alien: Covenant

Q: Are we not men?
First, the spoiler-free stuff. I rewatched 'em all this past week. If asked to rank the Alien movies I'd say 1, 3, AC, AP, 4, 2. Prior to seeing Alien: Covenant I would have placed Aliens ahead of Alien 4, but Ridley Scott threw in a development that surprised me and forced me to reassess the entire narrative on his own particular terms.

I'm not going to spell it out explicitly, but if you're one of those people who refuses to watch trailers, from here to the post's conclusion there is a potential for spoilers.

I'm with Matt Zoller Seitz, who says of the Alien franchise, "The series’ repetitive structure is a feature, not a bug, as in the James Bond, 'Star Wars' and Marvel franchises. If you don’t like them, you can complain that they recycle the same images and situations. But if you like them, you can compare them to sonatas or sonnets or three-chord pop songs, where part of the fun lies in seeing what variations the artists can bring while satisfying a rigid structure." With that in mind, MZS and I both think Scott's late-in-life return to the franchise has yielded some of the most thought-provoking results in its history.

In Covenant, Scott adheres religiously to the template, right up until the conclusion. Enough foreshadowing occurs that I was not surprised by the finish, but I was surprised Scott chose the conclusion he did. Leaving the theatre, I said to my friend, "Scott broke the ending." And when I considered it further, I realized he also "broke" the ending to Prometheus -- and in so doing he added emotional and spiritual weight to the earlier narrative of Ripley as Christ figure.

That is the deeper surprise, for me -- Scott has not always struck me as being well-attuned to his own themes, never mind those of others. But AC demonstrates he has in fact paid close attention to the thematic through-line that Aliens 1, 3 and 4 developed and exploited before Scott returned to "his" franchise. His latest chapter adds nuance and emotional value to those earlier movies, two of which were made by other people.

Getting back to my ranking, generally this is a series that defies the attempt, as each movie contributes to the others. By placing 2 at the bottom tier, I'm not calling it out as inferior -- it is arguably a more streamlined entertainment than, say, 4. But Cameron's movie is an action flick, while the others are horror movies. In order to work, horror requires moral ambiguity, while action movies do not. And even if Cameron wanted to explore moral ambiguity I'm not sure he has the capacity for it (unlike, say, his ex-girlfriend Katheryn Bigelow).

In any case, good and evil are clearly demarcated in Aliens. And, given how xenomorph designer H.R. Giger was either shown the door or willingly absented himself from the scene, the overall aesthetic to Aliens dates the movie directly to its particular era in ways the other movies managed to avoid.
1986: only 119 more years to go!
Further spoiler-laden reading: Alien: Covenant sneakily explores the horrors of directing blockbusters in 2017 by Todd VanDerWerff.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I had low expectations of the previous GOTG flick, but left that movie with a grin on my face. I had low expectations of the current one also -- is the Marvel Universe growing slack, or am I just weary of its media omnipresence? -- but this time my emotional torpor was no buffer from disappointment. Volume 2 falls flat, in other words. But I've been having trouble putting my finger on why this is so.

It could be I was in the wrong audience. Early into the movie I found myself laughing while the rest of the crowd was silent, and vice versa. I quickly shut up, and stayed shut up -- even when I was young and freshly college-smart, I disliked audience members who used laughter to signal they were in on a joke the rest of us squares were missing. That a dad in his 50s needed to check himself this way during a comic book movie did not bode well, I thought.
"Trust me, kids -- this is funny, funny stuff!"
In the initial movie, the Chris Pratt character ("Peter" or "Star-Lord," take your pick) was a smart-ass -- a mouthy guy who occasionally stumbled across a good idea. In this movie, all signs of smarts have vanished -- he's just an ass. I was ready to accept him as a ditz (the more buff Pratt gets, the easier it is to let his shiny eyes and open face distract from the keen intelligence that got him where he is), but the director, cast and crew kept pulling punches at every turn, hoping (I imagine) to keep their chief meal ticket the locus of audience sympathy.

Yeah, but . . . when your long-lost dad shows up looking like Kurt Russell fresh from the hair-salon and introduces himself as "Ego," surely even a ditz is going to roll his eyes.

Russell surprised me by being all smarm and no charm. His CGI younger self drives a '78 Mustang 2 King Cobra -- a notorious lemon we used to deride, back in the day, as a shined-up Pinto (a friend's older brother owned one for a couple of weeks, before unloading it on the next gas-addled doofus hoping to score with a cheerleader). To make matters worse, he's got "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" cranked, while the chick beside him whoops and hollers with noninfectious glee.

I took from this that Pratt's Peter was due to discover two unpleasant truths about his parents -- daddy-o is an inveterate sleaze (no surprises here), while dearly-departed ma was evidently not one of the brighter bulbs in the chandelier of humanity. Hey, there's plenty of good material to be mined from such a promising vein -- in fact, the writers who've stepped into the Guardians comic book stable are generally squalid enough in their instincts to make something amusing from their characters' darkest disappointments and insecurities.

Not so the movie writers, alas. Earnestness and easy sentiment -- "Every meanie in the galaxy is just a misunderstood child, except for Bad Old Dad!" -- overrules everything. Nobody so much as sniggered when Ego recited the lyrics of "Brandy" as if they were akin to Homer's laments. Perhaps this is what the omnipresence of the comic book universe has wrought -- po-faced recitals of pop culture ephemera taken at face value, while the narrative source code deteriorates from bit-rot and recedes from memory.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Editors and Authors

When I was young and full of literary piss and vinegar, I gave several of my short stories to a friend who was taking courses to become an editor. I got them back with the expected red ink, and followed through on her suggestions. To my surprise and delight, her reading of what made my work "work" was spot-on. She improved my writing.

I've meditated on this experience a great deal over the years. It opened my eyes to what goes on behind the wizard's curtain in pro publishing -- where she quickly found a job and soared to the top, editing some of this country's most recognizable names.* Happy as I am to throw my words into the digital realm without any outside interference whatsoever, this relationship -- between writer and editor -- is the one element of pro publishing that I still view with wistful longing.

It is not the easiest relationship, of course -- there is a long and colourful history of quiet and not-so-quiet disputes between author and editor, the latest chapter of which is a collection of epistolary emails between editor Fred Ramey and novelist Marc Estrin, called The Insect Dialogues.

Ramey, who edited Estrin's initial 900-page draft to a snappy book that clocked in beneath 300, is in the unusual position of seeing his charge's first draft come to public light -- through the wondrous advent of easy, inexpensive self-publishing. Both versions are, apparently, readable -- Estrin, though hardly a household name, is no slouch as a writer. But which is "better"?

Over at Slate, Colin Dickey does a terrific job of surveying the ideological and aesthetic no-man's-land these three books expose -- highly recommended.
*She's gone freelance now. If you're trying to "break out" give her a note and tell her I sent you.

Misunderstood Alien

Over at VICE, Corey Atad sez cinematic universes are killing film as we know it, citing the latest Alien chapter as proof.
I haven't yet seen Alien: Covenant, but I'm fairly confident I'll enjoy it more than I would any of the sequels to the original Fast & Furious,* which Atad gives a pass.

This weekend I'll be queuing up the previous Alien films** and giving them another look. I can't say how many times I've watched all except the most recent -- it's likely in the single digits, though the first might well be more than that. I find them all visually interesting and unique. The story architecture is identical throughout, but as Peter Sobczynski points out, "Each film has changed things up each time by taking the basic formula of what one can rightly expect in an 'Alien' film and filtering it through different stylistic, narrative and philosophical approaches, in order to give viewers new ideas to contemplate and new terrors to leave them shivering in their seats."

They're ambitious genre films, in other words. More, please.***

*I saw the first in theatres. Can't say I remember much of what went on -- Michelle Rodriguez excepted, of course.

**Minus the AvP series, which is best viewed through an ironic lens.

***"These creatures are to biological life what antimatter is to matter." Someone please greenlight the William Gibson script for Alien 3.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Digital horizons, and guitar amplifiers

I was astonished to see a digital modelling guitar amp given high-profile prestige coverage by Quartz, of all venues.
Quartz isn't your usual destination for guitar gear appraisal, for one thing. More than that, digital modelling amps are generally considered "entry-level" items. They are light-weight in every sense of the word, and typically sell for less than $1000 (usually around half that amount). In other words, if you've got a 13-year-old who's been dilligent about attending lessons and practicing guitar, this is the sort of thing you reward the kid with.

Or if you are (as I'm assuming writer Mike Murphy is) a Neil Young fan with a few bucks to spare on your burgeoning future as an amateur musician, this is the sort of thing you reward yourself with.

I can't claim to be a fan, myself -- I don't dislike him, but I don't often willingly queue him up. That said, even I know Neil would never give this device the time of day. He loves old Fender Mustang amps for the same reason he loves old cars with finnicky carburetors -- he knows he can actually get his hands under the hood and tweak as the spirit leads him.

For those of us who don't have that same urge to feel tubes and wires with our fingertips and inhale the ephemera of hot soldering wire, digital modelling amps present an Aladdin's cave of wonders. Digital modelling is its own artform -- to get it to the point where even Shakey couldn't tell the difference between hot tubes and cold zeros-and-ones requires two or three times the cost of the Mustang GT. That is changing with the speed we've come to expect from digital innovation, and there are a number of models on this device that fool my ears. Throw in any combination of dozens of effects, and the possibilities become dizzying.

The most remarkable toolkit in this particular amp, however, ekes out sounds that are utterly distinct -- tones and utterations that cannot be produced by anything but digital means. If you skip to the 9:00 mark on the Quartz/Fender video you'll get some idea of the potential. It's too early to declare this THE FUTURE!! of digital tone-shaping for guitar, but I have to wonder what an enterprising kid might make of this potential.

Amp modelling is a noble calling -- anyone who makes elite and fiscally-out-of-reach tone-shaping immediately accessible to enterprising musicians on a tight budget is doing commendable work. But it strikes me that digital potential could reach well beyond "mere" modelling. Where is the digital horizon for guitar tone-shaping?

Friday, May 05, 2017

Dreams and Podcasts

I recently dreamed I was being given a bus-seat-eye's-view of an old town built in a hilly, verdant geography. It was a sunny day with deep blue skies. The houses were similar in vintage and construction to the one I live in. The colours vibrant, textures palpable. As I toured, I marveled that my brain -- which, when awake, could not possibly be relied upon to catalogue the items in a room I've dwelt in for the past 20 years -- was somehow conjuring a setting intimately baroque in its every detail.

Dreamscapes (for me, at least) usually have blurred edges. This one did not. It had identifiable horizons that promised further details and wonders, if I could only stay and explore.

The next day I listened to this interview with Robert Lanza. It is the briefest of précis of what appears to be (again, for me) an intellectually challenging theory, so I am not at all confident I've caught the gist of what Lanza is saying. But the nearly immediate juxtaposition of the dream and interview was an enjoyable coincidence.

CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy: Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness and the Illusion of Death, interview with Dr. Robert Lanza, here.

The image above is a still from Dreamscape, a short film by Richard Wakefield. Check it out here.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Of concerts, setlists and Infernal Devices

I can't recall the circumstances that prompted me -- likely a favourite jam improbably kicked out by the Infernal Device's dodgy randomizer -- but when I consulted the webz to see how Eddie Spaghetti was faring I was informed the Supersuckers were due to perform in Toronto in two nights' time. If the cancer didn't kill him, this tour just might.
Hoisting the 'horns', even as he plays.
The evening's soporific put me in a nostalgic mood, and for a moment I considered booking the ticket. I consulted the calendar. My commitments made attending the concert formidably difficult, but certainly not impossible.

I begged out, however. Making the calls to reschedule, then committing myself to two-plus hours of driving for a Tuesday night concert in a venue almost as difficult for an out-of-towner to get to as this one -- if you throw in the fact that I no longer imbibe at these affairs, the likelihood of me feeling pissed with myself as I negotiated physical discomfort on the venue floor was very high indeed. I did the next best thing -- bought a T-shirt on-line and loaded the setlist onto my Infernal Device. is quite the gift to music nerds. I've used it to fill in the blanks on shows I've seen and songs I'm not familiar with. And now, more often than not, I use it to put together these sorts of playlists of favourite performers I won't be seeing. Sometimes an act will throw in a song I've always found inexplicable -- the appeal of which becomes clearer during the performance. The concert environment can't be squeezed through a headset while mopping floors, of course, but often the order of play is enough to transmit glimmers of the magic afoot in those elsewhere moments.

Listening to the setlist of the current Supersuckers tour, I realized the night was almost certainly a thrill for those in attendance -- to my ears it was the ideal set. Have I any regrets? Mm . . .

Friday, April 28, 2017

Tree as Icon

We had our oldest tree taken down this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

About that left-turn at Albuquerqie...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Palm Sunday, Explained(?)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Joey Landreth, Whiskey

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

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

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

Friday, April 07, 2017

Podcasting About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

Searching for words in all the wrong podcasts

It's almost two weeks since my last post, and I've got nothing to say. I must be reading the wrong books. Or listening to the wrong podcasts.

All's I know is I'm doing something wrong.
A shout-out, then, to Joel -- for providing me with better listening than I have been able to locate on my own.

I recently gave a second listen to Dan Carlin's summary of the Münster Rebellion. This time around his delivery did not chafe quite so badly (though I'm still not crazy about it). Carlin was originally drawn to this episode when he heard that rebellion ringleader Jan Van Leiden and his cronies were sentenced to the most torturous method of execution of the day (hot tongs -- you probably don't want to know more, but if you do seek out details, don't say I didn't warn you). That these ideological-turned-bawdy reprobates would be singled out for such treatment is saying something. I was struck anew by the utter contempt with which human life was held by people just coming out of The Dark Ages. Weirdly enough, hearing this prolonged account of human cruelty and suffering and senseless carnage -- garnished with acts of lunacy and stupidity, some of which yielded astonishingly lucky breaks -- put me in a decidedly Lenten frame of mind. This is a rarity for me, so I am doubly grateful.

Joel also pointed me to this exchange between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson.

Harris probably needs no introduction -- encounters with him quickly slot most listeners as either fans or discontents. Count me in the latter camp -- I believe a nudge toward nuance would greatly benefit Mr. Harris' way of thinking, if only to spare the rest of us the unpleasant imagery conjured by the chosen name of his podcast: Waking up with Sam Harris. Was Peterson the nudge?

I'm not spoiling anything by saying, "No." But the exchange manages to be candid and revelatory, at least where Peterson is concerned (Harris, as ever, is an open book -- to a point), and was well worth the two hours I devoted to it while taking care of janitorial duties.

Oh -- introductions. For those not in-the-know, Peterson is something of a gadfly in Canadian academia -- tarred by the press and his opponents as declaring a one-man war against political correctness. When I initially read this piece I thought Peterson guilty of overstatement for effect. Alas, recent events convince me of nearly every claim he makes. If this is the direction the academic Left is committed to, its house is already a shambles -- and deservedly so.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Remembering Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry, straddling the line between . . .
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in the spring of '93, I sat myself down in the household wicker chair, opened my copy of Spy magazine, and read a piece detailing the sexual proclivities of one Chuck Berry. When I was done, I put the magazine down, got up from my chair, went outside and took a very long walk.

With every step I took I wished there was some way to un-read what I'd just read.

It seems like every memorial to the late Chuck Berry begins with a caveat of regret -- he was, evidently, a real piece of work -- and reading that profile (and suspecting the truth of it) is mine.

But of course there is also this: some ten years before I read that piece, I saw black-and-white footage of Chuck doing his thing for a television audience, back in the day.

Let's go ahead and say I saw this in1983. By then I had attended a few rock shows, and had been in the presence of some powerful guitar performances. But here on this little glass screen, I now saw what those younger, whiter yahoos were trying to measure up to.

I still get the shivers, watching this. And how crazy is that? Video was killing the radio star in '83 by importing powerful moving images (including -- especially -- girls, girls, girls) to impart some sense of what the music was like when you saw it live. But here all you've got is a guy and his guitar. Four older fellas trying to keep up, a French audience doing the seated dance. And there is absolutely no mistaking the power and athleticism and raw sexuality of the man's . . . guitar? The innocent observer is tempted to add "Seriously?" But the truth is after you see this you don't see the guitar in any other way. He owned it.

Watching Chuck, millions of scrawny boys who couldn't throw a ball never mind a punch suddenly realised they could forget all about that macho shit and learn how to play guitar. And we did -- some of us quite late in life.

Related: Chuck Berry invented the idea of rock 'n' roll, says Bill (not the Rolling Stone) Wyman. "Berry went gangsta on the world," says Mark Reynolds. Reynolds' piece is especially good for its inclusion and break-down of some footage from a 1972 performance on a German TV soundstage -- highly recommended.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Vigils 'n' Sigils: "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders..."

New to this thread? It begins here.
"And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?"
Naked runners, uppity old dames, indigent meditative-types -- so much low-hanging fruit to ponder on the family tree. Distraction? Or a possible entry point to forgotten corridors of the Magisterium?

"Whatevs," as the kids were once prone to saying. A few more stray observations, then, on the current state of Anabaptist Protestantism and where I might fall in with it. Perhaps a bold conclusion to this series will suggest itself. Or maybe I'll just declare a natural "time out" in hopes of moving on to other interests.


My mother informs me that a friend of hers -- a recent widow -- heads down to the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay every winter to deliver public seminars on sexual health.

I know this woman -- she's the mother of a high school friend. It's probably been 30 years since I saw her (or my friend, for that matter), but what I recall of her fits this profile quite well. She is friendly and solicitous, and disarmingly candid in an unassuming way that gently invites disclosure in turn. Also, she is perfectly fluent in German and at least one of its plaut- varieties.

Mom passed along a few amusing/delightful anecdotes from a recent trip, then took an unexpected detour to darker territory. "She [my mother's friend] says there's a group that hived off from the colony some years back, and occasionally one or two women will show up at a seminar. But they don't ask questions and they don't speak. People from this group only come to town for the meanest of necessities. They don't make eye contact with anyone, but glance around constantly. She says they behave as if they are all haunted, the men and the women."

"I don't know what that is," said my mother. She was silent for a while, then said, "That's pagan idolatry."


I tend to think my temperament is of the "Go along to get along" variety, but it's probably more accurate to say that's what I aspire to. Regardless, I've often wondered what prompted my ancestors to literally break faith with the state. So far as I'm concerned, give me three squares daily and a relatively stable social order and I'm generally happy to quietly live a life of the mind while plugging at the menial tasks that need doing.

Of course, revolution appeals to any untested young fella straddling the cusp of manhood, and in my day I spent some time hanging out with and trailing the footsteps of a few bold would-be radicals. Inevitably I became impatient with their impatience and bailed the scene before significant investment was asked of me.

And yet, here I stand -- comfortably Canadian -- after my ancestors fled one sweet gig after the next because they had a POV that brought the Catholics and the Lutherans into agreement.
"Let's wipe those Mennonites off the face of the earth!"
I'm made up of the genes of people who put everything at risk after they read the Bible for themselves.

Go figure.


"Reading the Bible for themselves" -- man, am I ever not an advocate of that! My tribe's spent the last 500 years building from that foundation and we're only now at the point where we admit to beneficial dialogue with Roman Catholic and Orthodox types.

Makes me think the Holy Roman Church dropped the ball pretty badly, way back when.


Fun fact: the Mennonites took in Baruch Spinoza and published his work. What did he have in common with us?

Exile. Successful trade. Lofty musings that ran counter to prevailing thought.
Perhaps the capacity for a lusty limerick.
Apparently that was enough -- for us both.


"Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point" -- Blaise Pascal: "The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of."

Ain't that the truth? I'm looking at Korea right now and the blowhards circling it, and hoping there is some heart-based raison bringing conviction to collective consciousness where dispassionate logic -- "Let's stop now, or this'll be the end of us all" -- has failed.

Say a prayer for the ways of men, won't you?


We are all haunted by something -- it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
"Abraham F. Reimer did not share the financial acumen of his brother Klaas, and was more interested in astronomy and other intellectual pursuits. His diaries and journals are filled with all manner of observations, calculations, facts and figures. Fortunately for the family, his wife Helena was a resolute pioneer woman of great determination, who earned much of the family income as a seamstress. The family also received considerable financial assistance from the Gemeinde."
And with that I declare myself the uncontested winner of the Fuela Reimer Literary Award. Thank you for reading! And may God have mercy on my family.
It's Fuela's cosmos -- we're just squatters in it.