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September 2006

Music of the Week — September 24, 2006

Gentle Giant: In a Glass House

More ‘70s progressive rock. I remember hearing this group’s name back then, but not their music. I doubt I would ever have listened to them but for the respected poster on the eMusic message board who goes by the handle of Music Lover and who calmly and persistently insisted that Gentle Giant was the best prog group ever. Well, he’s got a point, although I’m not ready to agree with him that they were the best.

The music on this album is on at least as high a technical level as that of any other candidates for the prog-rock crown. Yet I can see why they never really caught on commercially. There’s no one element that grabs your attention—no particular charismatic singer or instrumentalist, no radio-friendly songs. You have to give them a little time and attention—I’ve listened to this album three times and don’t feel like I’ve really gotten it yet.

In their basic sound they resemble Yes more than any other famous prog group, and occasionally they make me think of Jethro Tull, especially in some of the folky interludes. I’d have to say at this point that I admire it more than I like it—it hasn’t really touched me emotionally. But I admire it a lot. There’s not a dull moment in its ever-shifting thirty-eight minutes. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who likes Yes and other technically sophisticated rock groups will like In a Glass House. I plan to check out some of their other work.

Here’s the eMusic link. And a Pretty Much Everything You Might Ever Want To Know About Gentle Giant site which is obviously a labor of love.


Sunday Night Journal — September 24, 2006

Though the Heavens Fall

How many status points do I get for attending the Alabama premiere of a movie? Not that many, I suppose. But that’s what I was doing Sunday evening, at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham. The name of the film is Heavens Fall, and the reason there was an Alabama premiere (which comes after showings at a couple of festivals) is that it’s about events that took place in Alabama in the 1930s: the Scottsboro case, in which a group of black men were accused and convicted, then retried and re-convicted, of raping two white women. The charges were almost certainly false, and the reason I attended was that Judge James E. Horton, who overturned the second verdict against the defendants, was my grandfather.

The greatest praise I can give the film is to say that it’s a work of integrity. It portrays the segregationist South and its people, black and white, without either sentimentalizing or demonizing them. And it doesn’t sensationalize the story it tells. That may be working against it in the attempt of the producers to find theatrical distribution for it, but they kept it true to the events and, more importantly, to the moral complexities of real life. So there is no superfluous but steamy love affair, little violence, not a single explosion, and no final fight to the death between defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz and prosecutor Thomas Knight, Jr.

The acting is excellent. And—a relatively small thing, maybe, but one to which Southerners are sensitive—the accents are almost all at least acceptable and mostly very good. I would have believed a few of the actors—in particular, Lee Lee Sobieski and Azura Skye, who play the two women—are actually Southerners. Timothy Hutton does a fine job as Liebowitz, a stranger in a strange land, and Bill Sage is equally good as Knight. The paraphernalia and general atmosphere of the film—location, period artifacts, and so forth—are accurate (as far as I can judge) and effective. Natives will be able to quibble with a few things here and there (for instance, filming took place mostly in south Alabama, where Spanish moss is plentiful, but it’s fairly rare in the Tennessee River valley where the trial occurred). None of those matter much, though.

Of greatest interest to me is the film’s thematic approach. Maybe this is just a reflection of my own interests and attitudes, but what emerges most powerfully is not the treatment of racial injustice—which, let’s face it, has been pretty well covered in popular art—but the necessity of the rule of law for the maintenance of our civilization.

My grandfather was essentially a man of the 19th century. Born in 1879, he had the gentleman’s education of an earlier day, with foundations in Latin and Greek. When he turned twenty-one in 1900, the automobile was still a rarity, but he lived to see men on the moon, and died in 1973. I wonder if there will ever again be a generation that sees such vast and swift change. I was twenty-four when he died, far too preoccupied with being a damn fool to have any idea of what I had missed by not having made more of an effort to draw him out (he was pretty taciturn) and get to know him better during the preceding ten years or so, when he had lived with us.

The phrase “living memory” wouldn’t have meant much to me at the time of his death, but now it seems both poignant and astonishing to say that something has passed out of it, that there is no one now living who has a personal memory of this or that thing. When that happens, it’s significant: it’s the end of eyewitness testimony; from then on we will have only artifacts, books and images (which I often think are actually less truthful than words, but that’s another story). Such is now the case with the world—pre-automobile, pre-cinema, pre-radio and television—into which my grandfather was born; such will soon be the case with the great world war which shaped my father’s generation; such will one day be the case with the tumult of the 1960s which shaped me.

My grandfather’s conception of the law now seems something from another time. He believed in the ideal of justice which is blind to everything except the law and the evidence, knowing nothing of the status, wealth, or place of the persons involved. I’m certain that he did not see himself as any sort of crusader or even as making a statement about racial injustice. It was a question of justice, period, unqualified. He was performing what he saw as very literally his sacred duty, referred to in the title, a Latin motto he had learned as a child: fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.

Do people involved with the law think that way anymore? It would seem not. There seems to be on the one hand a tendency to treat the law as something like a set of bureaucratic regulations: fundamentally arbitrary rules for an elaborate game, the object of which is to navigate and circumvent the rules for one’s own gain. And on the other hand there is a concept of justice impatient of law, in which law is a sort of working hypothesis to be set aside with little ceremony when it appears to be in the way of someone’s larger idea of justice. Perhaps my grandfather took too much for granted; perhaps he assumed too much agreement about the meaning of justice; perhaps we have reason today to be a little more worried about unjust law as opposed to unjust application of law; but I think he would have had little patience for any notion or hope of obtaining or preserving justice without law.

I’m grateful to the producers of this film, and particularly to writer and director Terry Green, not only for the recognition given to my grandfather but for their giving a renewed voice to the concept of justice in which he believed.

Here is the excellent web site for Heavens Fall, which gives a real sense of what the film is like.

And here is a very fine account of the Scottsboro case .


New Pantagruel Calls it Quits

I'm double-posting this to the Caelum et Terra blog, not being sure whether everybody who reads one and might be interested in this also reads the other.

Good words from the signoff:

As we have written previously, we believe that to suffer one’s place and one’s people in the particularity of its and their needs is the only true basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life. This is nothing less than the key to the pursuit of Christian holiness, which is the whole of the Christian adventure: to live in love with the frailty and limits of one’s existence, suffering the places, customs, rites, joys, and sorrows of the people who are in close relation to you by family, friendship, and community--all in service of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is best experienced directly. The discipline of place teaches that it is more than enough to care skillfully and lovingly for one’s own little circle, and this is the model for the good life, not the limitless jurisdiction of the ego, granted by a doctrine of choice, that is ever seeking its own fulfillment, pleasure, and satiation.

Taking that charge seriously, The New Pantagruel has, essentially, argued itself out of existence....

There's also a very fine poem ending in a great couplet.


Music of the Week &mdash September 17, 2006

Blue Sky Frequency: And Then She Smiled

There must be a lot of bands comparable to Blue Sky Frequency: making music that ranges from good to very good but isn’t extremely distinctive, performing locally or regionally while working day jobs, recording on small independent labels with shaky distribution.

The “long tail” of Intenet commerce ought to make it easier for such artists to realize a more useful amount of compensation, and I’m at least one instance of that idea working out in practice. I don’t suppose they made more than a dollar or so when I bought their album from eMusic, but I would almost certainly never have heard of them at all if they hadn’t been there. Googling their name turns up only a few dozen distinct references. They don’t even have an All Music Guide entry.

Yet I’m really pretty fond of this album. No, it’s not great or ground-breaking, but it’s better than a lot of stuff released by artists who attained the status of “legendary” for achievements now thirty or more years in the past and are now coasting on reputation and fan loyalty. (I don’t think I’ll mention any names at the moment.)

If you like the kind of music that gets tagged with labels like “shoegazer” and “dream-pop,” And Then She Smiled is very much worth hearing. It’s slow, dreamy, melodic music that falls somewhere in the stylistic neighborhoods of Slowdive and Mazzy Star—with the exception of one song, it’s not as good as the best of those groups, but is still very enjoyable. The exception is “Until the End,” a beautiful, simple promise of fidelity which is not only similar to but as good as some of Mazzy Star’s best—I think anyone who liked songs like “Fade Into You” would find it worthwhile to get this one track, at least.

Here’s the album’s eMusic link where you can hear samples. You can also buy the cd for all of $5 from the online store of the label, North of January. The web site makes it hard to find, but you can also download an mp3 of one song—not by any means the best, in my opinion, but de gustibus—I can’t link properly to it because it’s in a frame, but you can get to the stripped-out core of it here. To see it in context, with a couple of reviewer comments, look at the cover on the eMusic page, go to the North of January home page, click on the “Releases” link, then locate and click on the cover art, which will take you to the album. Why not at least put the names of the releases on the “Releases” page? Like I said, shaky distribution. (But this is not the only North of January release I’ve greatly enjoyed.)


Sunday Night Journal &mdash September 17, 2006

Snapping the Thread

Living in a not particularly cosmopolitan area of the U.S., I haven’t come into contact with many Muslims. As far as I can remember the first one was a young man I met at some sort of social gathering quite a few years ago—sometime around 1980, I think. I can’t place the situation, but I remember listening to him debate the question of God with a skeptic. The Muslim impressed me. I don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember thinking that he did a good job of presenting the case for belief in God as both a rational proposition, a way of making sense of the world, and as the solution to the problem of what the human person most deeply wants—in that respect, he was almost Augustinian (“our hearts are restless…”). I was a newly reverted Christian at the time, and I found it interesting that on the fundamental questions I was in more agreement with him than with the American skeptic.

The question that presents itself rather pressingly to me tonight, as I read the latest about what have now been several days of Islamic tantrums, threats, and violence in response to a massive misreading of a gentle theological discourse by the Pope is whether that young man was something of a fluke. As of this moment the most recent instance of Islamic rage to come to my attention is an account of protestors outside Westminster Cathedral engaged in, among other multicultural pleasantries, calling down Allah’s curse upon the Pope. And, aspiring, it would seem, to the pinnacles of stereotype-confirmation, the Iranian press has discerned a Zionist plot behind the controversy. The contrast between the courtesy and intelligence of the Pope’s words and the deranged fury of the response couldn’t be more striking—and, I fear, more significant.

Is this the real face of Islam? Or, more relevantly, is it the face we are most likely to see, and with which we are most likely to have to deal, in our time? I’m afraid the answer to that may be yes. I don’t really know very much about Islam, but my impression is that it is, to use Mark Shea’s term, a brittle faith. I suspect that it’s one of the great over-simplifications that are often so tempting to mankind. It reminds me a good deal of a certain strain of fundamentalist Protestantism, the strain that came up with the formula “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” A religion which believes its sacred text to be entirely unmediated by man doesn’t have a great deal of flexibility with which to respond to intellectual challenges. My guess about the future of Islam is that it will exhibit the Protestant tendency either to ossify or to dissolve, only more so. Perhaps that’s going on now, and it is the ossifying party that is now raging in the streets all over the world because a mild-mannered Christian leader recounted an unflattering remark about Islam, made by a Byzantine emperor who was very much under the threat of that violence.

How many are really raging? Too many, I’m sure. But considering the role the media played in starting this fire, we really ought to wonder about their role in sustaining it, and how much of the story even in, say, Karachi, is being told inaccurately. The first smoke appeared one day last week, in headlines like this one: “Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam.” Now, that headline is the work of a nitwit, possibly a malicious nitwit (read the accompanying story if you think I’m being too harsh). We can be sure that very, very few of the outraged Muslims have read the address over which they’re outraged. That’s not too surprising. But it also appears that few journalists have—or, as Harry Truman said of Nixon and the Constitution, if they have read it, they didn’t understand it. That, unfortunately, is not very surprising, either, but it ought to be.

From what I’ve read, the most egregious of the non-understanders is, sadly but predictably, the New York Times. Anyone in a mood to savor the sheer porcine intellectual inertia of the Times may enjoy this piece; those indisposed will find it painful.

With reputable journalists peddling the falsehood that the Pope “slammed Islam,” and so encouraging the excitable, there’s at least room to hope that there are more Muslims like the one I met long ago than there are rabid fanatics setting fires and shooting nuns. Now is not the time for Catholics, who are, I think, obligated to look for what is good in every faith (without, of course, ignoring the bad and false), to lose their heads and surrender to an answering delerium of fury.

As I read the news reports I can’t help thinking of the famous passage from Newman’s Idea of a University:

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

It’s easy to see the relevance of those words to the fanatics who haven’t read, and probably couldn’t or wouldn’t understand if they did read, the Pope’s talk on faith and reason. But they are just as relevant to the New York Times. Willful obtuseness can walk around Manhattan in a three-piece suit as well as Tehran in a robe, and probably deserves more blame for snapping the silken thread.


Music of the Week — September 3, 2006

Gang Gang Dance: God’s Money

It’s appropriate that this review follows that of Hounds of Love, because parts of God’s Money sound like they might have been taken from Kate Bush’s audio sketchpad—quirky (there’s that word again) little ideas and snippets, vocal lines that sound like they could be the seeds of elaborate songs, sung by a voice similar in tone and manner to Bush’s. I downloaded this album from eMusic because of a rave review by eMusic’s Yancey Strickler which appeared on the site’s front page for what seemed like months. The first sentence of the review is “Warning: this record is not for everyone,” which naturally piqued my interest, because my taste definitely leans toward the eccentric, and I finally gave in to Strickler’s sales pitch. Since the review gives a good detailed description of the music, I’ll just give my opinion without making much effort to describe it. You can hear samples along with the review on the eMusic page.

I certainly got as much eccentric as I wanted here. The album is, in fact, downright weird. That’s not a bad thing, but unfortunately a certain amount of it is merely weird. There are some great moments: in particular, the two most fully developed tracks (“songs” is not entirely applicable), “Egowar” and “Before My Voice Fails,” are nothing short of enchanting (although it took several hearings for me to arrive at that opinion). But some of the shorter tracks just don’t make that much of an impression ("Untitled (Piano)," a very beautiful little instrumental, is an exception). Overall, the effect, despite the fact that the album is essentially one long piece, is of a series of sometimes wonderful fragments. It’s not something I’ll listen to very often, but I’m glad to have it. And I won’t be surprised if it continues to grow on me. I haven’t heard it for a week or so now and I have a yen to hear it again.

(I’m abandoning the practice of assigning ratings. It makes me feel like too much of a jerk.)

Here’s that eMusic link again.


Sunday Night Journal — September 10, 2006

Eventually, Like Napoleon: My 9/11 Column

When I heard the news of John Kennedy’s assassination I was sitting in tenth-grade biology class. When I heard the news of the 9/11 attacks I was on my way to work, crossing Mobile Bay on I-10. These are the only two major news stories of my life for which I can supply an answer to the question “Where were you when you heard…?”

On 9/11 I was listening to NPR, something I did more often then than now, because I didn’t then have a cd player in my car. It was probably the eight o’clock news that I heard, the first plane having hit the World Trade Center about fifteen minutes earlier (I’m in the Central time zone). At that point hardly anyone understood what was happening. If my memory is not playing tricks on me, the word then was that “a small plane” had hit one of the towers, and the working assumption seemed to be that it was some strange accident. But I immediately thought terrorists. Looking back, it surprises me a little that I went straight to that conclusion, as I don’t recall ever having given a great deal of thought to it, much less lived in expectation of it. But the idea that this was an accident seemed far-fetched.

Soon enough, of course, the truth was known. Later in the morning I heard the co-worker with whom I shared office space weeping quietly at her desk—the towers had fallen, and the brother of a friend had been last heard from in a phone call from a floor above the initial impact point in one of them. Guesses based on the number of people who worked in the World Trade Center projected 10,000 or more deaths. It must have been a bit of a damper on an otherwise joyful day for Osama bin Laden that so many managed to escape.

Three hundred miles away on that Tuesday morning, my father lay dying of cancer. For several months, since sometime in the spring, I had been making the trip to see him every week or two. I’m not sure whether he was conscious enough to know about the WTC attacks. On Thursday the 13th he died, and I made the drive again.

Newscasts were still, of course, focused almost exclusively on the disaster. At my parents’ house, the TV stayed on with the sound turned off, and so the mourning and the reminiscing had as a macabre backdrop the sight of the towers burning and falling over and over again (the media had not yet decided to stop showing them).

In short, it was death at home, and death in New York City, and bloodthirsty fanatics rejoicing on the other side of the world: a dark time altogether, and a slightly disorienting one. I’m not young, but they say that the death of a parent is an inherently dislocating experience, and of course I felt that far more keenly than any emotion produced by the massacre in New York.

I did find, in the weeks that followed, that I had an intense anger for the hijackers and for those who had directed and assisted them. I remember feeling frustrated that they were dead, because it meant that we could not punish them. I think if it had been possible I would have been willing to see their bodies dug up and desecrated. But I never felt any anger for Muslims at large, or for the people of the Middle East at large. This may have been an atypical or at least a minority reaction.

I thought, in the weeks following, that there were, broadly speaking, two responses open to our government. The first, and the one I would have chosen, would have been withdrawal and fortification: scour the country for Muslims in violation of immigration law and deport them; start keeping an eye on those whose status was legal; begin to do whatever might be necessary to get control of our borders and seaports, political correctness and the desire for cheap labor be damned; get very, very serious about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, which would mean requiring serious sacrifices from the American people; begin the process of extricating ourselves from the Middle East as much as possible, leaving perhaps only a warning that an attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on us, and otherwise leaving the various ugly regimes of the region to pursue their violence against each other and their own people, and too bad about the latter.

The other option was to try to fix the Middle East. To say it that way is to make it appear ridiculous, and maybe it was. Such an effort would have to involve knocking down one or more of those oppressive regimes and hoping that liberty and prosperity would follow, eventually drying up the springs of violent jihadism.

It became clear fairly soon that the Bush administration was choosing the second option. At least some in or near the administration had long wanted to try to reform the region by force, but without 9/11 I doubt any president would ever have risked it. It was a bold idea, and morally questionable, but I don’t think it was necessarily an immoral one, depending on whether or not it could be accomplished without killing more people than it saved. But it hasn’t worked, and I don’t think it’s going to work. It appeared to be working in Afghanistan, but whether that success can last is looking questionable. And the invasion of Iraq was, to borrow a famous phrase, a bridge too far.

I’ve heard it said that 9/11 represents the loss of American innocence. That would make it at least the fourth or fifth such loss in my lifetime: the JFK assassination, the RFK and MLK assassinations (which perhaps should be counted as one with the JFK), Vietnam, and Watergate. And I think I remember hearing it said of the Challenger disaster and the Clinton scandals. I suppose if there had been an American among the moneychangers whom Jesus drove from the temple, he would have stood around outside bemoaning the loss of his innocence. You can find a “loss of innocence” every decade or two throughout American history; please, let’s hear no more about it.

And yet I’ve used the term myself, though qualified: I referred to “sinister innocence,” and in retrospect I think it’s not as accurate a term as I wanted. What I was thinking of is perhaps better, if less pithily, described as a shallowness which, combined with an overly flattering view of ourselves and our intentions, fails to see things as they really are. It underestimates the power and subtlety of evil, and overestimates its own ability to put things right. Persisted in, it can become a very dangerous pride.

We don’t have to attribute sinister motives (Haliburton, big oil, Zionist aggression, neo-con conspiracy, the latter coexisting incoherently with fundamentalist conspiracy) to the Bush administration to be alarmed by much that it has said and done. More or less good intentions untempered by humility and prudence can do almost as much damage, maybe more. The first and perhaps most alarming moment for me was small and now almost forgotten. That was the naming of the military response to 9/11 “Operation Infinite Justice.” The fundamentally blasphemous name was soon withdrawn, but the mere fact that anyone would seriously propose it indicated arrogance bordering on derangement. And then there was “they hate us because we are free.” And the rejection of any inconvenience to Americans as a way of reducing oil consumption or controlling our borders.

I’ve never spoken out against the Iraq war, even though I’ve had many reservations about it, because I wanted it to work. I hoped that the administration was right, that a quick military victory would be followed by the emergence of stable self-government. It hasn’t worked. We have unleashed forces that neither can nor wish to conceive of any approach to political power other than the violent imposition of their own will, or of any approach to religion other than the violent imposition of God’s will. Fanaticism, the exercise of ancient hatreds, and the fear of such exercise are proving more powerful for many than the desire for peace, freedom, and stability. The Iraqi people are now suffering, mostly at the hands of each other and of agents of various interested neighbors, as many casualties every month as we suffered on 9/11.

The difficult-to-avoid conclusion is that the country is incapable of supporting peaceful representative government. “Sinister innocence” comes to mind again as a good description of the administration’s failure to understand these forces or, if they were understood, to prepare adequately for them. But maybe that’s too grandiose. Maybe the simpler and more elemental term “pride” is sufficient.

Eventually, like Napoleon, he attacked Russia.

—T-Bone Burnett, “House of Mirrors”