23 October 2009

Sincerely, L. Cohen

We're so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is.
- Lou Reed inducting Leonard Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2008

Another night, another capacity crowd, another standing ovation as the old man takes the stage. He humbly thanks the audience and then it begins:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic til Im gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love...

The same song with which he began his shows the last time he toured - 15 years ago. His voice is rough and weathered and deep, and it fills the theater. After the ovation for the song, he removes his hat, holds it over his heart, and thanks the audience, telling them that "I don't know when we might pass this way again, but tonight we are going to give you everything we have." And for the next three and a half hours, that is what he and his compatriots did, giving the audience a 25 song overview of a career which has lasted more than 50 years (his first book of poetry was published in 1956). There were songs from every period; the setlist drew the most from 1988's "I'm Your Man" - featuring 6 songs from that album - but the material ranged from "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy" right up to the sublime "In My Secret Life." All of this performed with a virtuoso band and vocal support from his long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson along with Hattie and Charley, the Webb sisters.

The high point of the show for many (I'm sure) was "Hallelujah" - perhaps Cohen's best-known song these days. And it was a stirring performance - reminding the audience that, while Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright may have popularized it, Cohen owns this song and no one - no one - will ever sing it like he does. It was a great moment to be sure - but for me, the second encore (there were three) was the highlight with a sparse performance of "Famous Blue Raincoat," followed by "If It Be Your Will." The latter opened with a recitation by Cohen after which the Webb sisters sang the rest of the song.

So - the three hours plus was a gift from this great artist - poet, novelist, songwriter, Zen monk, performer, mystic - to the audience. It is likely that most of us will never again have the opportunity to see this music performed live: Cohen is 75 and one has to wonder if he will be able to mount an effort like this again. Sooner or later, the song will prove prophetic:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

We are indeed fortunate to have Leonard Cohen: I have never seen a performer with such dignity, class, and humility, and genuine love for his audience. This was the concert experience of a lifetime for me and I will treasure the memory.

Photo credit: Robb Cohen

16 September 2009

Pawns in the Game

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than blacks, don't complain
You're better than them, you been born with white skin" they explain
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

- Bob Dylan "Only a Pawn in Their Game"

Former President Carter's comments with respect to race and President Obama's oppostion are, regrettably, dead on - at least in the South. This is not to say that all opposition (Southern or otherwise) to the Administration's policies is motivated by racism. Carter didn't say that; what he said was that the most vehement, hateful opposition had a significant racial component. Maureen Dowd wrote essentially the same thing in Sunday's New York Times.

Conservative officials send and forward ethnically-demeaning emails - pictures of watermelon patches at the White House, portraits of the 43rd President as a pair of white eyes in an otherwise black frame, pictures of the President dressed as an African witch doctor or as Curious George - the list goes on. Underlying the so-called birther's contentions regarding the President's citizenship is the bigoted fear of the other - the exotic - the foreign - the un-American. There are to be sure a number of Americans - and the vast majority of them are in the South - who simply cannot accept the fact that a non-white person could be the Commander-in-Chief. Not all southerners - not even most southerners. But they are there. Some of them I know - some I have known all of my life.

Glen Beck is probably the prominent journalist to flirt with overt racism - his accusation that the President "hated white people" was a play to those in his audience who wanted their own bigotry and hatred rationalized and made legitimate. Pat Buchanan writes longingly of the days when when Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee were viewed as heroes (instead of the traitors that they most certainly were), and laments that Dr. King and Cesar Chavez have taken their place in the American pantheon. Rep. Joe Wilson - with a history of association with neo-confederate organizations - shouts out at the President, "you lie" and those of us who know the South could almost hear the "boy" which would have followed in less august surroundings. And the weekend "Tea Party" demonstration in Washington, DC - which glorified the aforementioned Beck and displayed numerous racist signs and placards - resembled nothing so much as an old-fashioned lynch mob. The only thing missing was the rope - at least, I didn't see a rope in any of the pictures (there might well have been one there).

The election of President Obama has picked a scab from a national wound - and, while they will not outwardly condone overt racism, the conservative leadership recognizes the fact that bigots represent a small, but significant portion of their following. Their titular leader - Rush Limbaugh - has known this for years and racially-offensive humor has been a part of his routine from the beginning. Even the election of the embarrassingly incompetent Michael Steele to the RNC chair was little more than a callous and cynical attempt to cloak that aspect of the right wing. But - in the final analysis - the Republicans have only the White South remaining as a base - and they cannot afford to antagonize any of their remaining constituencies. So they don't.

Fueling the fire further is the demographic holocaust which is beginning to engulf the conservative movement. American whites are well on their way to minority status; this is the real reason behind the vitriol directed at citizens of African or Hispanic descent. Before all is said and done, Asians will likely join other non-white people as objects of suspicion. There are still some dark days ahead - but we recognize that these issues have to be exposed to the light of day. And the offenders will run from that light like the cockroaches they are.

11 September 2009

"I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it."

- John Stuart Mill

28 August 2009

The Morse Code of the Gods

That's what one reviewer called Hal Blaine's drum riff in "Be My Baby." Brian Wilson called this the "greatest pop record ever made." Certainly a lot of that had to do with the earth-shaking wall of sound that Phil Spector imparted onto this production (and many others in the early 60's). And then - there's Veronica Bennett (later to become Ronnie Spector) whose eyes and voice were, and still are, mesmerizing. Watch her as she sings the line "we'll make 'em turn their heads" - she was unearthly.

And the song. The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich who passed away this week at the age of 68. Greenwich was one of the Brill Building songwriters and she wrote many of the true classics from this period: "I Can Hear Music," "Baby, I Love You," "River Deep, Mountain High," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Chapel of Love," "Leader of the Pack" - an amazing body of work which literally defined the early girl group sound and formed the basis for the great mini-symphonies that Phil Spector created for Philles Records.

But it didn't get any better than this - "Be My Baby" is timeless and capable of inducing goosebumps nearly a half-century later. It is, in a word, perfect. RIP Ellie.

26 August 2009

Band of Brothers

Less than a year ago, I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas - the scene of the JFK assassination. It was just a week before the 2008 election and I was (and continue to be) one of those who believed that Barack Obama would be the one to continue the work that Jack - and later Bobby - had taken up decades ago. Now that the last of the Kennedy brothers has left, one can't help but reflect on how profoundly has this family has shaped American history and American politics. We remember hearing the news about JFK which changed our world forever - and then, less than five years later having our hopes dashed with the death of RFK. It was left to Ted to carry on the legacy - and carry it on he did. Of course he was human - and as such, an imperfect vessel - but he never gave up, never stopped trying to make his country a better, more civilized place to live. And for that, he deserves our respect and our gratitude.

"He mastered the tides of Nature with a look:
He met with his bare spirit naked Hell."
- Savitri, Book II, Canto VII

19 August 2009

Putting Away Childish Things

So - Grassley slipped up and told the truth - that he and the Republicans won't vote for Health Care Reform regardless of the concessions received. So be it. It's time to stop wasting our time with these weasels: the Democrats should go it alone and pass health care reform through the Reconciliation process (which circumvents the filibuster and the 60 vote requirement). Enough of being called nazis, communists, anti-american - whatever. Enough of these whackos with loaded weapons in the vicinity of the President: every one of them needs to be locked up. Enough.

In his Inaugural Address, the President said that it was time to put away childish things. And so it is. We have let this go way too far - remember the words of the Republicans in 2004: "elections have consequences." Let them scream and wail and gnash their teeth: not a single one of them is ever going to support the President anyway. They have removed themselves from the equation by refusing to take a constructive part in the debate.

14 August 2009

Sri Aurobindo b. 15 August 1872

"I had no urge toward spirituality in me, I developed spirituality. I was incapable of understanding metaphysics, I developed into a philosopher. I had no eye for painting -- I developed it by Yoga. I transformed my nature from what it was to what it was not. I did it by a special manner, not by a miracle and I did it to show what could be done and how it could be done. I did not do it out of any personal necessity of my own or by a miracle without any process. I say that if it is not so, then my Yoga is useless and my life was a mistake -- a mere absurd freak of Nature without meaning or consequence. You all seem to think it a great compliment to me to say that what I have done has no meaning for anybody except myself -- it is the most damaging criticism on my work that could be made. I also did not do it by myself, if you mean by myself the Aurobindo that was. He did it by the help of Krishna and the Divine Shakti. I had help from human sources also."

"I see that you have persisted in giving a biography -- is it really necessary or useful? The attempt is bound to be a failure, because neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for men to see."

"The one aim of [my] yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can in time discover the One Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental, a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinize human nature."

- quotes from Sri Aurobindo On Himself, Volume 26 Sri Aurobindo Centennary Library. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

12 August 2009

Peter Pan and the Breakfast Club

Molly Ringwald's touching tribute to the late John Hughes hit a chord with me. There is no question that his films went a long way towards shaping the popular culture of the early 80's - something for which some might find condemnation rather than praise appropriate. But films like "The Breakfast Club" and "Sixteen Candles" were bittersweet gems which impacted millions of Gen-Xers - and some of us boomers as well. Some of my more astute film connoisseur friends might look down on this sort of thing, but the fact is John Hughes' work touched millions of lives - they gave adolescents a model and a vent in the dreary Reagan era. How many kids (now adults) look back on those films and say "that movie got me through high school?"

We boomers don't really understand what those 80's kids went through - and we sure as hell can't grasp what the millennials are dealing with now. But these are the ones who are going to have to fix the mess that people my age have created. They are going to have to deal with the environmental devastation, the increasing unavailability of basic services, and the outlook for a less prosperous life than the generations which preceded them. No wonder they're cynical and suspicious of their elders and the institutions which have been handed down to them.

And what do we - those elders do? We selfishly fight for our short term interests - mindless of the mess we have created and continue to create. The words of Alison from the Breakfast Club were sadly prophetic for too many of us - "when you grow up - your heart dies."

05 August 2009

Nothing Is Done Until Everything is Done

In the old Chaldean tradition, very often the young novices were given an image when they were invested with the white robe; they were told: "Do not try to remove the stains one by one, the whole robe must be purified." Do not try to correct your faults one by one, to overcome your weakness one by one, it does not take you very far. The entire consciousness must be changed, a reversal of consciousness must be achieved, a springing up out of the state in which one is towards a higher state from which one dominates all the weaknesses one wants to heal, and from which one has a full vision of the work to be accomplished.

I believe Sri Aurobindo has said this: things are such that it may
be said that nothing is done until everything is done. One step
ahead is not enough, a total conversion is necessary.

How many times have I heard people who were making an
effort say, "I try, but what's the use of my trying? Every time I
think I have gained something, I find that I must begin all over
again." This happens because they are trying to go forward while
standing still, they are trying to progress without changing their
consciousness. It is the entire point of view which must be shifted, the whole consciousness must get out of the rut in which it lies so as to rise up and see things from above. It is only thus that victories will not be changed into defeats.

The Mother : The Sunlit Path p.171

28 July 2009

another nail

Only one Republican voted to confirm Judge Sotomayor this morning. Can you spell "suicidal?" The electorate will never again be as white as it was in 2008 and the Repubs are thumbing their nose at Hispanics every chance they get. At this rate, it won't be long before Arizona and even Texas turn blue.

Have at it boys! The cliff is directly on your right - don't forget to wave goodbye as you jump.

27 July 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Birthers

I've been on some version of the Net (starting with BITNet)since the mid-eighties when there was nothing to do but FTP and email. As such, I've seen most of the great Internet Hoaxes. Most had to do with virus warnings and other net-related stuff; typically you would get an email which looked seriously official and warned you of some impending calamity. Others were so obviously false that one wonders, in retrospect, how anyone in their right mind could have believed them.

One of the most renowned of the latter group was the Neiman-Marcus Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe. For those who don't remember this one, the scam went like this: someone is having lunch in a Neiman-Marcus restaurant. At some point in time, they are served a chocolate cookie which is the best cookie they have ever tasted. Enthralled, they ask the server for the recipe - which he/she promptly delivers to the table. The diner then presents a credit card, mindlessly signs the receipt, and is off for an afternoon's shopping.

The big surprise comes when the credit card bill arrives some time later. The hapless diner finds an outlandish charge - usually $250 - for (you guessed it) the recipe. Indignant about being taken in, the diner then proceeds to email the recipe to everyone he/she knows - taking revenge by destroying any market the recipe might have.

The story was bogus (Neiman-Marcus does not sell its recipes), but thousands - and likely millions - of early Net users fell for the prank. For one thing, the recipe supposedly was pretty good - the cookies were quite tasty according to some. But it was goofy - and Neiman-Marcus spent years dealing with inquiries about this hoax.

Fast forward to 2009 and we have a similarly goofy situation with the so-called "birthers" - nitwits who have been taken in by talk radio blowhards and internet whackos so that they believe that the President was NOT born in Hawai'i, but in Kenya. These cretins are out in force for tea parties and, now, Republican official appearances - as evidenced by the footage from last week showing Rep. Mike Castle being harangued by a group in a hometown audience. When Castle attempted to answer reasonably, he was shouted down.

I almost felt sorry for Castle - almost. The thing is - if the Republicans had not spend the last 4 decades recruiting racists and right wing extremists (starting with Nixon's Southern Strategy) by demonizing the "Other," they wouldn't be having this problem. So now they are hoisted on their own petard. What is scary about this is that a lot - probably most - of these jokers are armed. This has nothing to do with where the President was born - rather, it has to do with a percentage of our society who cannot bring themselves to accept that an African-American with a funny sounding name is the legitimate President of the United States. They have been convinced that "their" country is being stolen from them by unlawful usurpers. The Republicans fed this frenzy during the last election: remember Sarah Palin beaming at the crowd as yells of "kill him!" were clearly audible. Remember John McCain and the woman who believed the Barack Obama was an "Arab."

I can laugh at these fools with everyone else, but a nagging fear is also present. I sincerely hope that the President's Secret Service detail is successful in protecting him from these people - because sooner or later, one of them is going to snap and start shooting. These are the same people who glorify the murdrers of abortion doctors as "heroes" - don't believe for a minute that they wouldn't extol a presidential assassin in the same, deranged way.

24 July 2009

Cale, Thompson, & Colvin

Velvet Underground meets Fairport Convention.

23 July 2009

From Thoughts and Glimpses

"All religions have saved a number of souls, but none yet has been able to spiritualise mankind. For that there is needed not cult and creed, but a sustained and all-comprehending effort at spiritual self-evolution."

- Sri Aurobindo

How the others live...

Writing to Wired Mads Tobias says:

"I live in Norway, which meets Kelly's definition of old socialism. The currency is strong, and health care and education are free. When you retire, the state pays you a pension. The unemployment rate is 3 percent. None of Norway's newspapers are controlled by the government. The state-owned radio station satirizes political leaders. So much for 'harsh penalties for criticizing leaders' and 'forced labor in government factories.'"

Doesn't sound so terrible does it? Call your congressman/senator. Tell them you want health care reform. Now.

22 July 2009

Sandy Denny 1974: Solo

The late Sandy Denny in a rare filmed performance from 1974. The song is "Solo" - one of her most-beloved later songs. Sandy was the foremost female English singer-songwriter of her day. She died tragically in 1978 after a fall, but her influence presists even today. Natalie Merchant, Kate Rusby, and Linda Thompson are just a few of her many protegees.

21 July 2009

Mahisha the Demon Slain

The title image is a photograph of a carving at Mamallapuram in South India. It dates back to the 7th century C.E. and depicts the goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahisha (in the form of a buffalo), conquering the world of darkness at its source.

19 July 2009

"We choose to go to the moon"

I've always been a space nut. I love science fiction, cosmology, and everything in between. The very idea that it is 2009 and we have yet to send a manned mission to Mars is unfathomable to me. But that is where we stand with human space exploration today - still in our own orbit.

Ah, but there was a time. Forty years ago, the United States was being torn apart by an unpopular war, horrible race relations, political rebellion, and a string of assassinations which tore the life out the country. And yet - we went to the Moon amidst all that - honoring a dead president's pledge to do what seemed at the time to be all but impossible. The world stopped and watched in wonder as human beings walked on another world for the first time

We will return to manned space exploration. The period we are in - the period since 1972 when Apollo XVII left the Moon - will be seen as a pause in which our emphasis moved to more cost-effective, data-gathering rather than exploration. And we have accomplished wonders in that time - the most impressive being the Hubble Space Telescope which has taken us back - close to the beginning of time itself. But the time is nearing when it will no longer be enough to send cameras and robots - we will have to go ourselves once again.

Today, people in my age cohort will remember: the teacher wheeling the portable black and white television into the classroom during the Mercury and Gemini missions, the horrible explosion which destroyed Apollo I and killed three astronauts, and finally the ultimate triumph of the geeks with the short-sleeved white shirts, the skinny ties, and the Marlboros dangling from their lips as they hunched over their primitive computer terminals.

One cannot remember today without reflecting on the irony of Walter Cronkite's death at this time. That greatest of all television journalists was one of the space program's most steadfast advocates - and the eternal voice we hear in our minds as we recall the most significant technological achievement in the history of mankind.

So here's to all those who made that great event possible forty years ago. And here's to the day when we venture out again - as we surely must.

17 July 2009

2nd Warmest June on Record


Paul de Vive, better known as Velocio was the father of bicycle touring and randonneuring, and an early advocate of the derailleur gear system. He lived from 1853 until 1930 and was the publisher of Le Cycliste - an early cycling journal - in which he wrote eloquently of his tours:

"After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle. Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind. What a wonderful tonic to be exposed to bright sunshine, drenching rain, choking dust, dripping fog, rigid air, punishing winds! I will never forget the day I climbed the Puy Mary. There were two of us on a fine day in May. We started in the sunshine and stripped to the waist. Halfway, clouds enveloped us and the temperature tumbled. Gradually it got colder and wetter, but we did not notice it. In fact, it heightened our pleasure. We did not bother to put on our jackets or our capes, and we arrived at the little hotel at the top with rivulets of rain and sweat running down our sides. I tingled from top to bottom."

A vegetarian and classical scholar (he began most days reading ancient Greek literature), he is best remembered today for his bicycling code - a set of guidelines which continues to influence contemporary cycling culture:

1. Keep your stops short and few.
2. Eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty.
3. Never get too tired to eat or sleep.
4. Add a layer before you're cold, take one off before you're hot.
5. Lay off wine, meat and tobacco on tour.
6. Ride within yourself, especially in the first hour.
7. Never show off.

Velocio was the antithesis of the brightly-colored spandex clad posers we see riding high end carbon fiber racing bikes today - he was in many ways the original cycle hipster. He disliked competition, preferring to use bicycling as a discipline which, if pursued regularly, enriched body, mind, and spirit.

15 July 2009

Republican Buffoonery

The Southern Republicans in charge of attacking Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings are a couple of buffoons. It is almost painful to watch Sessions and Graham make complete jackasses of themselves - both grinning like Cheshire cats, seemingly oblivious to how pitiful and incompetent they appear. The idea of these yokels lecturing this distinguished jurist is truly laughable. Sessions in particular gave ample justification for his own failure to win confirmation to the federal bench years ago. The guy is not the sharpest tool in the shed - that's for sure.

The idea - at least according to most conservatives - is that racial discrimination is a thing of the past - that continuing legal remedies for past (and present) discrimination are only resulting in something called "reverse Discrimination." Of course this argument is somewhat compromised when Sessions engages in thinly-veiled racism during his questioning ("that other guy is a Puerto Rican - why don't you all vote the same?").

At the same time we are hearing conservatives blather about reverse discrimination, we are reading the story of the African-American and Hispanic children from the Philadelphia child care center who were subjected to name-calling and jeers when they went to swim at a club pool. The club canceled the contract with the center - citing "overbooking," an action they tried to take back when the story hit the media. Now they are complaining they can't afford to defend against a lawsuit. Tough.

10 July 2009

Drake Levin 1946-2009

If you are of a certain age - say, 55 like me - chances are fairly good that one of the first real rock bands you saw was Paul Revere and the Raiders. For me they actually were second - the Righteous Brothers were my first. But PR&R were certainly big in the mid-60's - a string of Top 40 hits, regular TV gig on Dick Clark's "Where the Action Is," Sixteen Magazine, the works. Drake Levin was quiet, but his musicianship was important to the Raiders' sound. While they may be remembered more today for their later, more trivial hits, in their early days they could rock in true mid-60's garage band fashion - right down to the Vox organ. Songs like "Steppin' Out," "Just Like Me," as well as some mostly well-chosen R&B covers stand the test of time today.

PR&R recorded "Louie, Louie" in the same Portland studio in 1963 at around the same time the Kingsmen did. At first, the Raiders' version was the bigger hit - heavily outselling the Kingsmen locally. But, it was the Kingsman's version that was picked up nationally later that year and rest is rock and roll history. The song itself was written 8 years before by Richard Berry.

That's Drake on the right. He passed away - interestingly enough - on the Fourth of July.

09 July 2009

Conservative Ignorance

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that 65% of those Americans polled recognized that carbon dioxide gas was linked to temperature change. I'm not sure whether this should be viewed as encouraging or depressing. One might see it as encouraging in light of other recent polls which indicate that only a minority of Americans believe in evolution, however it is certainly depressing that there are still 35% of us who are so profoundly ignorant as to either not know of the relationship or to not believe it.

American conservatism thrives on ignorance; it could not exist otherwise. The systemic anti-intellectualism of the right has never seemed so rampant as it does today. Mention climate change in a newspaper article and one can be assured that flood of responses will follow - all citing the "irrefutable fact" that global warming is a myth - or a dastardly creation of socialist politicians out to destroy the American economic miracle (which hasn't seemed so miraculous lately by the way). It is amusing that conservatives love to harp on the failures of the "government education monopoly" - all the while not understanding that it is exactly the failure of the American education system which makes conservatism possible. John Stuart Mill once noted that while "not all conservative people are stupid, most stupid people are conservative." The latter point has never been truer than it is today.

Whence Real Figments?

The idea for the title came as I was beating my brain, trying to come up with a title which was not already taken. Kinda tough when you're the last person in the civilized world to start one of these things. At any rate, the idea for the name comes from the title of a collection of photographs by Gary Winogrand - Figments From the Real World. Winogrand was one of the great Street Photographers of the latter 20th century and FFTRW is probably the most comprehensive single-volume treatment of his work. The detail above is from the image that is reproduced on the cover of that volume: "New Mexico: 1957."

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines "figment" as "a thing that someone believes to be real but that exists only in their imagination." The usage in the Winogrand retrospective refers to his abstraction from everyday life; so then here are my abstractions. Whatever pops into my head is fair game - no one is likely to read this anyway - so it doesn't matter. In the final analysis, it's an exercise which may or may not prove interesting. We'll see.