Thursday, November 08, 2012

Fall has Felled

How blessed I am. I step out of my writing studio and the sun shines above the clouds in late autumn and the leaves are golden upon the trees still. The sun shines upon the misty rain coming down and I look across the way at a tall hemlock and the rain comes down lightly in front of it bright as snow. It is all too beautiful, D--’s back yard; all the delights of nearly being in the forest yet we are five minutes from South Center. Yes the delights of summer have gone and memory is heavy. Fall is wet in your bones, you bask in color and smells you have seen and smelled all your life; it is wet and you understand it, let it happen. You understand why Indians of old could have lived here for centuries fighting over fishing and hunting grounds.

Guitar Thoughts

It has been my privilege to live during a great guitar renaissance. Great classical virtuosos competed with highly successful songwriters who know all of four chords. You see the whole range of guitar displayed. It is an awkward instrument. Lends to an odd type of personality. Musically geared it's very strange. Capable of orchestral harmony but so limited in range. Steve Vai doesn’t breathe when he plays. You can’t tell where he leaves off and the instrument takes over. Nor does Ynwe. With Al DiMeola and Steve Morse you don’t have that problem since they insist on picking every note. You’ve got to hear Johnny Guitar Watson. He breathes. Then we've passed through the age of virtuoso jazz guitar players: Howard Roberts, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Les Paul (the only guitarist to give Nate King Cole a run for his money), Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, et al; then came the shredders, and now comes the international flotilla of excellent classical players playing the most boring-ass music ever written, Giuliani, Fernando Sor. When David Russell came out with his Giuliani CD I gave up on the classical world. The extreme rush, in the classical world, to go backwards. Not good. Go forward in error, at least go forward. Anyway seeing Al DiMeola play up against Steve Vai you begin to understand Dimeola's virtuosity. His articulation was important, as opposed to the legato of Vai whose playing ceases to sound like a guitar after a while; it becomes a synthesizer. Problem is that virtuosity often ends up serving itself. Look at the difference between Paganini and Mozart.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Frank Zappa (slight return)

Two days of weekend marinating in Frank Zappa on Youtube and Wikipedia. And Zappa Jabawiki. When he talks in interviews he sounds intelligent but then you recall that he came on the pop scene a mere 25 or 27 years after the world was soaked in blood and a bloodletting of nearly a hundred million people not to mention the hundreds of thousands of American boys who gave their lives to keep the world from going to bloody snot. The wretched blood-soaked, meat market world that was WWII in the Pacific, and Europe 1940-45. Had there ever been anything like it? No. Yet we arrive a couple decades later and we get Frank Zappa going on about how oppressive is modern society: you can't say swear words on radio and TV and American is a repressive consumer society, to boot. Ah, and that cursed pop music. But smart people should be careful about their targets of satire. You need a real target and I’m afraid pop music as a target is lame, tame, etc. People aren’t born appreciators of art in music, or reading or movies or whatever. Sometimes a song, a sentimental or even a sappy tune or a sentimental movie can be the only entrance door to the imagination that many kids have available to them. Even as an adult I’ve swooned to all kinds of music: Ravel, Debussy, Villa Lobos Mozart and Beethoven. As an adult Baden Powell sent me to Brazil and the tropics as did Jobim and Villa Lobos. Am I now a sap and a sentimental dolt for being carried away by these composers? Well Zappa takes on a pretty big barn by satirizing the pop song and music industry. . pop music at its worst is almost self-parody and doesn’t deserve the ridicule that FZ heaps upon it. Eric hoffer often noted that the avant garde didn't always emerge from the most skilled members of a particular field of art; that much of it was clumsy or misguided in presentation; yet it opened the way for further and better experimentation. The late 1960s saw a big push to say swear words over the radio and TV: Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin and the rest. A world with public swear words, how wonderful. A low point in Zappa's work arrives with “Cops and Buns” wherein a civil servant, a tired cop, is harassed when he arrives at Zappa's New York walk up to advise them to turn their musci down. There follows smarm and irony, the late-night studio goings on and the teasing of the tired cop. Yeah, authority is there to be harassed. I suppose you can make a case for an overarching oppressive society but Zappa got all the attention he wanted and his career was allowed to do what it did under the auspices of a fairly benevolent if not maddened political landscape of the late 1960s. Again when Zappa talks about music he makes clear and wonderful sense. When he talks politics and society he sounds like a dunderhead. But then the kicker is why didn’t anyone have the common sense to tell him that? If he had just stuck to promoting his music in clever and funny ways, well, OK. But the American entertainment industry had a lot to answer for: why were the great black acts of American culture never celebrated as they should have been? Black and Latino musicians never had much of a chance on Ed Sullivan or any of the big variety shows. Guitar Slim, Johnny Guitar Watson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf…Zappa knew what he was doing, appealing to the inner 13 year-old boy and calling it revolutionary. Again you see the lack of literature in all this. He hadn’t read Henry Miller. Or even Flaubert. Flaubert sends up cliché and popular culture, see the Opera section of Madame Bovary. This lousing up the bourgeoisie is old hat. But I give Zappa points for getting out there and laying his ass on the line with his compositions. For pushing musicians to the brink. For not hiding away in academia. For blowing the lid off the classical music culture, exposing unions and the scam of playing continually work in the public domain. So here comes Frank shouting about everything with bonehead political ideas thrown in for good measure, Howard Zinn and Chomsky, et al. but he really did have something to say when it came to music and creativity. America is so free and her citizens so dense. Why don’t we do more with our individuality? Now that is a good question. The pop music industry is built upon cuteness, that is a Zappa insight, true if obvious. A bunch of old talented guys are not going to get noticed unless they freak out, as it were, wearing dresses and growing wild hair. And that is what Zappa did. Watching American Idol and other knockoff TV shows you see the pop industry is worse than ever. It’s all money and Justin Beeber and other Cute-Bots that help little girls scream. FZ expressed the natural frustration about an industry, popular music, attached to little adolescent girls sex drives; it would be hard to run a steel company or a brick factory that way. How do you incorporate mature professionalism, dedication and application to get good at an instrument? Like a lot of intelligent people who don’t read books or who haven’t read many books, who don’t have a mind shaped by reading, FZ reinvents the wheel; many of his big concerns had been dealt with long ago, and their expression is old hat; worse he doesn’t realize how old hat he is. Then, on the other hand, you get a lot of well read people who don’t know hell-all. Zappa thought changing time in songs was more than it was. He also presented a mixmash of living theater, musical theater, harmony vocal groups, soul, funk, R & B, outright rock, cartoon music, Spike Jones, modern symphonic music, a total mashup. Sometimes a bit too much Zappa and not enough just plain old music. Despise the part of him that sat up there with media access while he trashed the president and the country just for his pet peeves. Things change. It was a different world after 1970. Big Mr. Non-Conformist. It would be easy to satirize the satirist. You can tell the intelligent but without a literary background; you are subject to thinking you are smarter than you really are. This is not about being overawed by the classics. It is about at least getting a handle on what has come before, getting the measure of your stature. Frank Zappa diddled with rock n roll and lost a lot of respect he should have had from the serious music community. But then again, how serious is the serious music community?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Not really

Dear Brother, I'm amazed at how differently we view political things. Victor Hanson was just writing a column with a couple ideas in it, not a doctor's thesis. Were his statistics wrong? Were his impressions wrong? He himself is a California resident and an employee of the public sector of the California university system. Are his thoughts and opinions -- mainly that California has got some real problems and why is it comparing unfavorably with Texas -- so off base? I just don't see it -- what you write about his personal attacks, writing for his conservative audience, etc. He is very far from a right wing writer just writing for his audience; he is much like me: a liberal democrat quietly disgusted with the drift of party democrats today. I will go and look at the American Enterprise Video that you sent. But let me say right off that the premise -- Republican party extremism -- is just laughable. I don't want to go over too much old ground of our former conversations but let me throw out a few thoughts: Looking at the big picture: Since Vietnam and Watergate, when have the Republicans carried the day on anything related to their agenda? (Aside from the Iraq War of 2003 which had bi-partisan support from the beginning.) The teachers' union - national and local - is Democrat leftist in orientation, the university system is Democrat leftist in orientation, state and local government is Democrat leftist in orientation, the nation's trial lawyers are Democrat leftist in orientation, the media is Democrat leftist in orientation, business, more or less, is Democrat leftist in orientation, Hollywood is Democrat leftist in orientation, the arts community is Democrat leftist in orientation, the grand philanthropic organizations are Democrat leftist in orientation, the CIA is Democrat leftist in orientation, for God's sake the military is Democrat leftist in orientation. They had a psycho major down in Texas sending emails to Al-Qaeda and they did nothing to him until he shot up a bunch of them. To have spoken up prior to the mass murder would have been to reveal oneself a conservative right-wing anti-Muslim bigot. What normal soldier would voluntarily truncate a career over a small thing like a seargent major swapping jocular emails with the enemy? Republicans have managed to hold to one thing since WWII - the right to some variation of personal gun rights. Other than that it is the left/Democrat agenda all the way. The only time Republicans gain any kind of ground in national poliics is when the Democrats mangle the situation so badly that people force themselves to vote Republican. And that includes the so-called Reagan revolution. The Republicans spend as wildly as the Dems when they are in power. I think that is what is happening now. Obama just doesn't have the combination of skills needed to surround human problems and come up with solutions. Nothing is easy and I'm not trying to call great complexity easy just to put Obama down. But I do know that there is a way forward for a certain type of problem-solving individual; Obama just hasn't got it. I suspected as much during his campaign but I didn't make a big deal of it. I remember Obama putting down Joe the Plumber after his encounter with the man a couple days after. Obama smirked at a public campaign podium, "How many plumbers do you know who make a quarter million dollars a year?" I remember thinking, 'How dare you? How dare you put down a working man like this Joe guy. All he did was ask you about your tax plan totax people in the 200K range of income. And, yes, a hardworking team of 2 plumbers hustling could pull down 200K in a year if they worked it right.' I got a lot of insight about Obama after that. I'm getting off topic. We've just watched the president, the media and Crosby Stills and Nash endorse the completely fatuous Occupy Wall Street movement -- which party did you say is getting a bit extreme? But I am not about party politics. I believe we have no leadership. Real leaders, Republican or Democrat would have had us steering away from Middle East energy from the 1970s or at least developing alternatives. Instead we've had a revolving door of politicians spinning off to the ME after their time in office -- the whole DC -- Politician to Consultant to Lobbyist to ME cash Cow -- it's old hat.

Monday, December 13, 2010

YouTube: Frank Zappa & Aayan Hirsi Ali

It's fun to go to YouTube and pop in the name of someone you are curious about and discover there are dozens of interesting videos and interviews with said person - viva YouTube! But then you get to the content and you wonder if you tube is a blessing or a curse. Take Frank Zappa for example. He was a great guitar player, composer, all-round musician, he was smart, funny, articulate and he was a family man. From the mid-1980s till his death in 1993 he was a sought-after guest on TV talk shows. Producers realized he could talk about anything in an interesting way and so he was duly trafficked in the media.

Take a look at this video. Zappa is on the Sunday morning TV show called Crossfire sometime in 1986. He is advocating a hands-off policy to the government concerning rock and pop lyrics. At the time Al Gore's wife was advocating a parental rating system of some sort to warn parents about the record content their kids were buying and listening to. Zappa said no, let's let the 1st Amendment take care of this. The panelists on Crossfire, including Robert Novak, clearly had no concept of Zappa or his accomplishments. None of them had taken the trouble to prepare for Frank much less listen to one of his records. You really get to see just how dopey and lazy and junky are the minds of these journalists. Just garbage bags of pulpy assertion.

On the other hand when Frank gets heated up he says, "The biggest threat towards America is moving America towards a fascist theocracy." Then you realize that Frank's---when you get off the subject of music---is a pretty standard-issue AAA (Artist/Anti-Authority) mind. A man's strength of mind is revealed in the analogies he strikes and when talented people start comparing America to fascism or our presidents to Hitler you know you are dealing with a second-rate mind. A mind that doesn't read, for starters.

Can you make the jump from Zappa's politics to his music? Hard to say. He was a composer of genius. He definitely marred his music by a purposeful embrace of asininity: farty trombone solos, obvious mockery of silly pop, cartoonish sound effects. Nobody pulled Frank aside to remind him that music of inconsequence doesn't need a genius to highlight its inherent smallness; it already contains the vapors of its eventual disappearance.

Aayan Hirsi Ali
Look her up on YouTube. She is the complete mental gumdrop, wow, especially if you like articulate beautiful black women which I surely do. But, after you've seen about 100 of her videos, you start listening to what she has to say.

Give Ms. Ali her due, by all means. She did grow up in an extreme form of East African tribal Islam. At age 12, she was thrown upon a table by her grandmother (and held down by male family members?) and had her clitoris cut (removed?) with a sharp knife. Feel free to use the word barbaric without irony. In her late teens she was headed towards patriarchal arranged marriage and the continuation of tribal life before she broke away and sought (and found) asylum in Europe. She became a Dutch parliamentarian and the subject of Theo Van Gogh’s short film about Women in Islam. He was murdered and then she was threatened with murder by the murderer. She lived with Body Guards (and still does). She moved to America in 2006 and became a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She no longer believes in God and she loves to talk about the enlightenment and John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Her idea is that there is a political dimension to modern Islam that is being fed by ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and funded by Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia. She does not discount the personal grace that Islam brings into the lives of millions of common believers. So far so good.

But then this: Ms. Ali spends a lot of energy, speaking before groups and panels and debates, about the violent nature of the religion of Islam. She is bent on driving this point home: Islam = Violence. Yes, according to Ms. Ali, the miscreants raising hell all over the world in the name of Allah are only the manifestation of Islam's inherent violence. Islam as a whole is out to create mayhem and shake the foundations of the free, rational Western World. But surely this is an academic point if not an outright wrong one. As long as there is one simple, kind housewife who believes in Allah and Islamic tenets, Islam is NOT a religion of violence and my simple, kind housewife proves it. Ms. Ali gets around this by saying, well, the majority of simple, kind Muslims are ignorant of what their religion really teaches. Surely this is wrong. If millions of moms and dads and young people find inner peace and meaning in devotion to Islam and they are peaceful decent human beings, doesn't that life-fact undercut any interpretive-facts of Islam's inherent violence? People are what they are but they are not that dim-witted. Dedicated believers know of Islam's aggressive beginnings but that was then and now is now.

When Ms. Ali moves away from her obsessive point-making about Evil = Islam she is on sturdier ground. She uses her high-profile platform to scold Muslim communities for encouraging the political aspect of Islam to gain the upper hand in American communities and mosques. She accuses the West of timidity in dealing with its new Muslim populations. Why not confront new Muslim immigrants about civic virtues and the history of freedom in America. Most of these points are well-taken. Why not encourage Christian churches to reach out to Muslim communities. The only outside message on tap, sez she, is the message of the Muslim Brotherhood.

An additional treat of Hirsi Ali videos: she annihilates the Western left. In debate she can more than hold her own. She is a great scourge of muddled lazy thinking. She does take on a bit much in her quest for a force-fed Muslim enlightenment, though. I grew up in Everett, Washington, a pretty bare-knuckled town and I'm not all that sure the Enlightenment got as far as my home town. The sons and daughters of mill workers I grew up with didn't go around talking about John Locke. Ms. Ali mildly misses the point, as do most scholastic immigrants, that the American founders set up a system that would guarantee freedoms even for those who don't appreciate them. She needs--and will attain--a larger understanding of the tensions within the West. She needs to read more George Orwell.

Do well-to-do Christians fellowship with poor Christians? Are poor Pentecostal Christians as wise and worldly as rich Christians? Do black and white Christians fellowship with each other? Not really. When young high school Christians talk about college they know it will be a challenge and a confrontation. Biology, philosophy, physics, every class will uphold the primacy of inquiry and induction outside the sphere of Bible and faith. You just have to deal with it. Can these analogies be extended to young college-age Muslims? What if lower-class Pentecostal churches had a violent streak? What if they took certain sayings of Jesus (I am come not to grant peace but the sword – the kingdom of heaven is taken by violence) and built up a violent terroristic cult around them? If my young nephew got involved in such a murderous Christian cult would I, as some kind of practicing Christian, fight against him? It is hard to take a whole group and say one thing about it. Blacks battle this all the time. Yes, lots of black people live in the south end here in Sunbreak City. Yes many young black men from the south end commit crimes. After black kids murder a half dozen policemen whites look on and ponder and wish blacks would get their house in order. Are they wrong? Racist? Ill-informed? Judgemental?

How is this group identity playing out now on the totalizing stage of world Islam?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Notes after reading Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs

Lots of complimenting each other; it is all quite civilized. Old fashioned courtesy and gentlemanly love for each other. Both fear for our civilization, not always rationally, but you see what they are getting at. Porn and popular culture gone wild, etc. (Am I a crank to demand more evidence of this?) Kennan offers up a bit too much equanimity for the Soviet Union. It was a murderous thug state, Sir. No mention, while both men descry the decay of culture, Nabokov, Updike, Vidal, Bellow, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Gaddis not to mention the stolid modernists Joyce or Proust. For men who claim to treasure good writing and who demonstrate their love of good writing, would it have killed them to have read and followed American post-war lit? On the other hand these letters encourage me in my distancing myself from rabid conservatism and the mirror-mash of liberal ideas. I am confirmed in thinking our politicians shallow. But I am also confirmed in thinking our government blind and stupid and encumbered with needless bureaucracy; that something happened to American foreign policy after WWII; taken over by cowboys and ideologues (whew, especially in Latin America when Eisenhower or Kennedy decided to channel American largesse through the local militaries of each country. The military was seen as the only officiating institution, the only thing that worked in civil society besides the family. It was a mistake). The book gave me perspective. The constants of my life have been the growth of the American century, the stupidity of politicians, the rift between politicians and artists, the disintegration of the American family, the deterioration of the university, the strengthening of the military and the general loathing of all authority across the board. There are subdivisions of human conflict within these spheres, of course, but the general outlines are there. A thesis emerges from the letters, to wit: without any Kennan school or sphere of influence American foreign policy became a kind of candy store for politicians to eat and throw out the back end of a limo. No?

Lukacs occasionally irks as he tries to redefine every catagory of historical and philosophical thought. The odd tendetiousness, viz, the difference between nationalism and the state, populism vs nationalism. It gets tedious.

Lukacs and Kennan often criticize the right but narry a word for the malice of the left, the outright lies and will-to-power and desruction of the settled world that the left so delights in. They reserve their wrath for an odd effusion of Bill Buckley or National Review. I want to scream at them you've got to pick better enemies than Bill Buckley for God's sake. As diplomat and historian they are impatient with popular culture's presentation of Hitler and Stalin as outright monsters. Both men would have us reexamine Stalin and Hitler as statesmen of some kind of achievement however vile. Well, speaking as a populist, they were evil. That is not a wrong or just 'popular' view. I get impatient with the equanimity that Kennan extends to the Soviets and all the harshness he reserves for his own culture. And Lukacs harping on the degredaton of democracy and the United States. And their mild swipes at Jews really bother me. And the dismissal of Latin Americans and blacks. Cavalier is putting it mildly.

I want to say to them: you also might want to consider those film reels of the death camps and hundreds or thousands of naked floppy very dead cadavers being pushed into mass graves by bulldozers. That is, before you ask us to be more understanding or objective about Hitler's objective qualities as a leader or a populist or a nationalist or whatever. It is human to react and call him evil, when plainly he was. The popular reaction agaist him (and Stalin) as a monster is not off base.

Saturday, April 06, 2002

Still fathoming Terra Nostra by Fuentes.

I am at 695 pages still at sea with this thing. It’s harder than hell to tell just what he is up to here. It seems to be some kind of historical monograph on the conquest and Spain’s failure to take the better of many roads when it came into European ascendancy in the 16th century. AND that Spain’s great writers – Cervantes, Fernando de Rojas – and artists had some idea of the correct road to take.

Thus the blending of fictional and historical characters. Even so, the thing is striking me as monstrous and self-indulgent to a degree not to be believed.