Friday, June 30, 2017

Aging guitar heroes

Continued from...

One observation made, somewhat obliquely, in Edgers' piece continues to have me brooding: ask kids who their guitar heroes are and you get names from the '70s or even the '60s -- Jimi, Jimmy, Eric, Jeff, etc. Kids are trotting out the same names their parents -- well, their fathers, for the most part -- did when they were kids.

On the one hand, I find it curious that neither Jack White nor his nemesis Dan Auerbach get name-dropped by kids these days -- both these guys tear it up and put on a terrific show. On the other hand, this surprises me not at all -- had I been magically exposed to their music when I was 13, I'd have given it a wide pass.

The fact that I listen to White and Auerbach in my dotage is less an indication of my fondness for their contributions to rock 'n' roll than it is a grudging testament to the raw virtuosity of their skills. The strange admixture of garage DIY with technical formalism with "These are the lyrics, so suck it" attitude tends to put me in mind of the Christian Rock I listened to as a kid -- not quite the genuine article, but close enough to get me on my feet.

I -- along with countless other dads, I imagine -- really only queue these acts up when I can't be arsed to listen to Moving Pictures for the bazillionth time. That has to register with the kids. I suppose it's one reason why kids are keen to play "The Spirit of Radio" and less so, say, that little ditty about a doorbell.

I suspect White and Auerbach receive what passes for prestige studio treatment because A&R spotted potential to market to dudes like myself -- 'cos who else is buying music? So it goes. Seems a bit of a shame, though, that our kids don't really have rock acts and a rock sound to call their own -- or am I missing something?
Darwyn Cooke, just because.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Whither the "guitar god"?

My friend's two boys both play guitar -- the older one, a university student, plays when the mood strikes, but the younger one, still in high school, is a devotee and remarkably proficient.

For my friend and his still-at-home son there are sports, and sports-related road trips. During one of these trips Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" came on the (satellite) radio. My friend told his boy of the first time he'd heard the song. It was the late-'70s, my friend was roughly the boy's age, accompanying his mother to the grocery store and staying in the car to listen to the radio while the woman shopped. There were three, maybe four stations, all playing the same stuff. Then this song came on.

It wasn't anything like any of the other songs. A little like Eric Clapton, a little like Bob Dylan, neither of whom was getting much airplay in '78. It was such a pleasing, deeply-infectious song that for the rest of the summer my friend took every opportunity to turn on the radio in hopes of tracking it down.

Back home, some days after the sport-trip was over, my friend heard the boy playing "Sultans" in the bedroom.

Warms the old heart just a touch, doncha think?
"Where have all the guitar gods gone?"
My favourite Sunday morning DJ DarkoV directed me to Why my guitar gently weeps: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care. by Geoff Edgers, over at WaPo. I read it, thought about my friend and dismissed the piece out of hand. Then it kept popping up in all my info-aggregates. I had to go back.

The stats indicate sales for electric guitars are precipitously low and continue to decline, particularly for the two US giants, Fender and Gibson. Industry types seem to share the same POV on this matter: it's the kids these days -- the racket they call "music" doesn't have enough guitar in it. Perhaps if there was a new generation of "guitar god" the stats might change. Currently the best they've got is Taylor Swift.

The argument strikes me as just a bit precious (not the Taylor Swift part, mind you -- I'm totally on board with that). In both of my daughters' classes there were three or four "shredders" apiece who could be depended upon to provide colour at various school functions. My high school class of '83 had exactly one. And while he was permitted use of a practice booth in the school band room, it would be a very cold day in Hell before he was ever invited onto the public stage to demonstrate his chops to the assembled parents.

Edgers has a follow-up piece to this -- How much did this guitar story cost me? $2,376.99 -- which I think sheds a clearer light on a problem Gibson and Fender have pretty much created for themselves: they've flooded the market with garbage.

Consider this page from Edgers' cherished Supro catalogue:
These were the "entry-level" guitars of (I'm guessing) 1969. Adjusted for inflation, the Supro on the far right would cost today's kid $663.51 USD. Currently, a brand new, entry-level Fender Bullet Strat sells for $150. In '67 a brand new Strat cost $231 -- or $1,693 in today's currency.

If you head to the store and pick up a $1,700 Strat, you will have a very fine instrument. Similarly, if you spend $500 on a clone for your kid -- provided it doesn't have Fender or Gibson's name on it -- the instrument you take home (this one, say) will be solid, dependably wired and eminently playable (no high/ragged frets, fussy pots or toggles, dodgy Indonesian pickups, etc). Fewer trips to the back of the shop for adjustments, repairs and replacements translates to more time practicing and performing. Which translates to less time brooding over disappointing product. Which translates to a fighting chance of acquiring some truly impressive chops before trading in the cringe-worthy clone for an instrument that peers respect.

(An aside: I'm cogitating on those Supros (my uncle had one as well, actually). They definitely look Fender-ish, yet they are also aesthetically distinct from the company they ape. I suspect this very much adds to their current nostalgia value. Now consider today's entry-level Strats & LPs -- indistinct, at first glance, from the higher value pro models they're based on. What is there to feel nostalgia for, once you've traded in the cheap rubbish model for one that actually works, and sounds good?)

Anyway, I am all for on-line lessons and encouragement. But if you don't give the kids unique, dependable instruments they'll actually enjoy playing, good luck keeping them hooked.

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.