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November 2006

This Is A Big Load Off My Mind

Being thrown out the airlock of a spaceship without a spacesuit would not be nearly so terrible a death as is sometimes imagined.

Might not even be fatal although if you got thrown out you probably aren't going to get back in within the 90-second or so survival window. All in all, I think I'd rather be thrown out without a suit than with one, assuming I was not going to be rescued. That scene in 2001 where HAL launches Frank (can't believe I remember his name) into the void has always been pretty horrifying to me. Oh wait, I think he dies pretty quickly...anyway, point holds.


Music of the Week — November 12, 2006

Roy Buchanan: Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (Disc 1)

Like many other guitar heroes, Roy Buchanan never really put the whole musical package together. He was too much of a virtuoso to be a sideman, but he doesn’t seem to have had the broad musical vision, not to mention the singing and songwriting skills, needed to lead and mold a band into a distinctive identity. The lineup on these tracks, mostly recorded in the early and mid-‘70s, shifts constantly. The rhythm sections, while always capable, never seem to have the fire that Buchanan himself does. Without his spectacular guitar work, most of the music here would be lackluster.

But what guitar playing it is. As with Eric Johnson, reviewed here recently, anyone who loves electric guitar should hear Buchanan. His style is bluesy with a country accent, rich, soulful, and not infrequently mind-boggling in its technical skill. If he didn’t invent, he apparently brought to some kind of peak the use of harmonics to get a sudden high, wild leap of pitch and tone. He uses wide bends and some knob twiddling to get a strange crying sound that I’ve never heard from anyone else. My only reservation about his playing in general is that his tone gets kind of squawky and thin when it’s at its loudest, but that’s not most of the time.

This is the first disc of a two-disc set, and includes mostly studio performances. The second disc favors live recordings (review forthcoming in the next week or so). The set includes material from the solo albums he released on Polydor and Atlantic, plus some unreleased material. To my taste the four tracks from the early unreleased album, The Prophet, are not that interesting—Buchanan doesn’t play that much on them, although what he does play is impressive. Although it was to be billed as a Buchanan solo album, it also involves, very heavily, Charlie Daniels, singing, playing guitar, and writing songs. I didn’t know Daniels had a hippie period, but his “Black Autumn” features portentous lyrics along the lines of early Simon and Garfunkle and that fast-echoing fade—I’m sure there’s a name for the effect—on the vocal to make it psychedelic. Or something. You can also hear Daniels sing “Story of Isaac” here, which is interesting.

The fun really starts with track 5, Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams.” It’s a sweet distillation of pure American soul, as is the last track on this disk, “Wayfaring Pilgrim.” Both are Buchanan at his absolute best, rich, sweet, soulful, and sometimes fiery. Most everything in between is in the same class, although the hard rocker “My Baby Says She’s Gonna Leave Me” doesn’t do much for me. Most of the others are blues or blues variants, and all have great moments, at least. “The Messiah Will Come Again” in particular, something of a Buchanan signature piece, is a powerful voice of religious yearning.

Most listeners will probably share my opinion that Buchanan overdoes it sometimes, but I find it very forgivable. It often sounds like an understandable result of the skill and emotionality of his playing. Take “Five String Blues,” for instance. The crying thing toward the end is overdone, I admit. But when the entire lyric of a song is as follows:

Oh oh oh Jesus
This is my final plea
You know I’m still begging you
Don’t let the devil get the best of me

some weeping is probably appropriate.

Buchanan died in 1988, in a jail cell, an apparent suicide, after being picked up for DUI. I hope the devil didn’t get the best of him.

Here’s “The Messiah Will Come Again” on YouTube. No pyrotechnics, but what feeling. For fireworks—in fact for a pretty complete technical inventory—try “Roy’s Blues”, part 1 and part 2. Catch the harmonics about thirty seconds into part 2.


Sunday Night Journal — November 26, 2006

Christ the King?

I was surprised to discover that today is the feast of Christ the King, and a little dismayed that I was surprised. There was a time when I paid more attention to the Church’s feast days. My wife and I, coming from non-Catholic families in a non-Catholic culture, have never really gotten these things entirely into our habits of mind and practice, but we made more of an effort when the children were small, especially when we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group.

These days we aren’t doing much more than the bare minimum of external observance. For a number of reasons, some worthy and others less so, we’ve stepped back from our local parish, and float between two. We go to the diocesan cathedral twenty miles away on most Sundays because the liturgy is far more conducive to worship than that of our local parish. Tonight, though, we went to the local parish for the first time in some weeks—to the evening Mass, because we had spent most of the day traveling—and the switch from the magnificent cathedral choir to the pop style at our parish was jarring. It took a few minutes for me to begin to take seriously the fact that I was in fact at Mass. But I got pretty focused at the homily, delivered by a deacon who is a very fine and solid preacher.

He had the nerve to talk about the Second Coming as a fact, to be taken as it was taken by the apostles. Spoken by a Baptist minister of the old school his evocation of the Judgment and of what’s at stake in it would have been pretty mild, but for a Catholic it was very strong stuff: the Second Coming will happen, and even if it doesn’t happen while we are in this world, we are all going to die, and we are all going to be judged. Christ is in fact the king; some will receive him willingly, some not, but all will be ruled and judged by him. He will be everyone’s king by force of cosmic law, but will he be owned as such, with grateful obeisance of the heart, or will he be resented and resisted?

I fancy that the King’s judgment will be of a piece with something that happens within us, and that we will know, immediately upon facing him, not only what he thinks of us, but what we think of him: either that this was what we have always wanted, or what we have always dreaded. In that sense the judgment may not be a surprise, but a recognition of something we’ve always known in the most secret places of our hearts.

Surprises there will, no doubt, nevertheless be. If we are not surprised by our own fates, we will probably be surprised by those of others, as Mrs. Turpin, in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” is surprised by her vision of “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs”—all entering heaven ahead of herself, whom she sees somewhat glumly bringing up the rear of the procession, resentful at her place in it. There’s some reason to suppose at the end of the story that this vision of herself may, in fact, be a cure for the pride that is the cause of her resentment. And so the vision may be a prophecy that, because it was given, will not come true.

Like Mrs. Turpin, I’ll be happy to be anywhere in that procession. But I’m a pretty stiff and undemonstrative person, and I must say I kind of like the idea that I might be clapping and shouting and leaping like a frog.


Music of the Week — November 5, 2006

Lanterna: Desert Ocean

I have fallen perhaps fatally far behind in this feature. I’m not sure I can keep it up as a weekly—perhaps it will become bi-weekly. I’ll make the reviews, or most of them, briefer, for a while and see if I can maintain that.

The fact that I know this album at all is an example of the benefit of giving away a little music. eMusic offers a free daily download to subscribers, and while many of them aren’t to my taste, some have been great discoveries. I think “Luminous,” the first track here was one, and although I’d never so much as heard the name of the band before, that one track sufficed to make me get the whole album.

This might best be described as ambient rock—all guitar-oriented instrumentals, except for occasional wordless background-style vocals, and much more concerned with mood and atmosphere than making a technical impression. “Luminous” and a couple of the other tracks are more than slightly reminiscent of the guitar sound on U2’s Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree—you might think you were listening to U2 minus Bono (which is good, if you ask me). Other tracks remind me faintly of ‘70s country-rock such as Pure Prairie League, maybe Poco, maybe some of Neil Young’s stuff (e.g. Harvest). It’s not a sound I was wild about when it was new, but now, and in this context, it carries a nostalgic tinge that makes it enjoyable. “Surf” is not, as I expected, an exercise in the reverb-heavy surf guitar sound, but rather a building and rolling sound that actually does have some kind of connection with its namesake. “48th and 8th” has a bit of ’50s Santo and Johnny (“Sleepwalk”) or Floyd Cramer (“Last Date”) vibe, a very wistful sad-love-story-soundtrack sort of thing.

Overall there’s an open, faintly mysterious atmosphere, befitting the title. It’s a perfect album to put on when you want something that touches you without making great demands on your attention or emotions. I keep playing it on the way home from work. Unlike the recently reviewed NEU!, for which the claim is sometimes made, it’s great music for driving.


Barb Nicolosi Rips the Baby-Boomers

Rather vigorously, apropos the latest movie from Clint Eastwood. I actually agree with her in the two or three paragraphs where she's talking about the stereotypical boomers. The only problem with the piece is that Eastwood was born in 1930, putting him not just a year or two but a decade and a half older than us--he could easily have had baby-boomer children, although according to the Wikipedia biography he started late. So I think her real target is a certain sort of liberal who may be of any age. Still, it's funny.

Sunday Night Journal — November 19, 2006

Hefner and Marilyn

I read not long ago that Hugh Hefner has arranged to be buried near Marilyn Monroe. “’When I found the vault next door to Marilyn was available,’” he explained to the Daily Telegraph, “’it seemed natural.’” “Natural” may not be the precisely correct word; let’s say “appropriate” instead, symbolically appropriate. Marilyn appeared on the cover of the first issue of Playboy in December of 1953. Less than ten years later she was dead of a drug overdose, which may have been accident, suicide, or even, according to some rumors, murder. By most accounts she had an unhappy life whose disappointments were of such an elemental nature that it’s hard to imagine that they seemed to her a fair trade for fame and money. Like most movie stars, she couldn’t stay married, and she apparently couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term, a result of chronic endometriosis which may have made her position as the most visible sex symbol in the world cruelly ironic. What, in the end, is the use to a woman of being celebrated for her beauty if it only works to insure her loneliness?

Hefner, on the other hand, recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a lavish and well-publicized party. There was a picture of him in the paper with a couple of the sort of girls who have always been associated with his magazine: blonde and curvy, but stiff and controlled and synthetic-looking, almost cold. It’s a cliché to compare them to Barbie dolls, but the resemblance can’t be missed.

Apart from differences in makeup and hair styles on the part of the girls, the picture could have appeared anytime in the past forty years or so. Hefner has aged but, thanks no doubt to medical skill, still looks pretty good. The girls, of course, are exactly as young as they were forty years ago, having been replaced again and again as necessary from an apparently endless supply.

One wonders how long the working life of a Playboy Bunny, or whatever the girls who are paid to hang around the Playboy enterprise are called these days, might be. Are they stupid, wasting their youth living it up and getting their pictures taken in ridiculous costumes (or out of them)? Some are, no doubt, but from the look of the girls in the paper, I’d guess that they tend to be a fairly hard-headed bunch who pretty well know what they’re doing, coolly using their sex appeal to get what they want. This bargaining, as old as the species, was discouraged and deplored by feminists of a generation ago but has now become acceptable again under the name of “empowerment.”

Mais où sont les bimbeaux d'antan? There’s a very limited period of life when young women can play this game. They have, roughly, the decade between twenty and thirty to make their play, and whether they’ve found a tenable path for the rest of their lives is a matter of little or no concern to Hefner and like-minded men. The girls can go on to become women, using Playboy as a path to something else that they really want: to marry a rich and/or famous man, perhaps; to have children; to have a career that allows them to remain fully dressed; to grow old in security. Or perhaps to fail, to become prostitutes or drug addicts—it doesn’t matter to the Playboy, for whom that ten or twelve years of high sexual bloom is the only thing of interest about a woman. No one, I imagine, pretends that the girls are after the life of unending and inconsequential sexual promiscuity with which the magazine tantalize the men who read it.

I’m using the word “girl,” by the way, very deliberately, mindful that it is not approved for females past puberty. I don’t know exactly when a girl becomes a woman in my perception. But, as with a boy becoming a man, it entails the assumption of some level of responsibility, or some combination of age and responsibility: reaching an age somewhere past thirty, becoming a mother—a responsible mother, that is—or some other solid accomplishment. In any case, Playboy Bunnies don’t qualify.

Marilyn Monroe exists for Hefner, one imagines, only as a sex symbol. Her sad childhood of illegitimacy and orphanages and abuse, her solitary pain, her pathetic death, and most of all the life that she did not live, the full life that might have taken her past her youthful sex appeal into something deeper and wiser—none of this is real to his sort of man. Her early death helped to insure her permanent place as a sexual icon. It’s not her achievement, but the waste of her that makes her an appropriate female counterpart to Hefner’s version of what a man should be: not husband, not father, not wise or good or brave, but a mere sybarite notable mainly for his shrewd skill in managing to remain one for fifty years. It’s darkly fitting that they should lie beside each other in death, not husband and wife, not even lovers, but consumer and consumed.

Note: the quotation in the first paragraph comes from this excellent commentary on Hefner’s career.


(Not) Talking About Politics

I read and think about politics a fair amount--I would guess probably a bit more than the average person--but every now and then something makes me realize that it's really a relatively minor concern for me. For instance, this post by Rod Dreher. Discussing the desirability, or not, of Christians being involved in politics, and the chastening effect of the recent election, he says, "I believe the idea that we conservative Christians are doing our part to push back hard against the spirit of the age by enthusiastically voting Republican, even as we turn ourselves and our children over to the corrupting broader culture, is foolish and dangerous."

To which I can only reply, using the vernacular: duh. What's surprising, even shocking, to me here is that anyone would ever have thought that "enthusiastically voting Republican" was a significant component of "pushing back against the spirit of the age."

I've voted mostly Republican for some time and am one of those socially conservative "values voters" of whom we heard a lot in 2004. But never--never, never, never--did I see voting Republican as a direct expression of Christian belief. From the Christian point of view, the Republicans have been preferable because they have been, as I put it in the interview in Rod's book, an ally, albeit an unreliable one, whereas the Democrats had become an enemy. But I never had the idea, apparently held by some, that voting Republican could be a major factor in turning a non-bordering-on-anti-Christian culture into a Christian one. The world doesn't work that way.


Sunday Night Journal — November 12, 2006

Funky Town

It’s hard to define the word “funky.” I think it originally meant “bad-smelling,” and sometimes it still does (“These leftover greens are getting kind of funky—I’m throwing them out”). But now it’s also a term of approbation, connoting among other things a sort of sloppy authenticity, along with color, flair, and insouciance toward the staid and dignified. It brings to mind certain associated adjectives: greasy, dirty, smoky, spicy; flavorful; the opposite of bland. A good exemplar in food is red beans and rice; in music, “I Got You” (if you don’t recognize the name, you’d recognize the sound—it’s the famous James Brown song that starts off “I feeeel good,” and if you’ve listened to the radio at all over the last forty years you should be able to hear that horn line now).

And if you want to pin the word on a city, New Orleans has first and undisputed claim. The term may be black—African-American, to use the clumsier and politer term—in origin, but now, like so many black contributions to our culture, it belongs to everybody, although it’s still particularly associated with and most used by and about black people. Likewise, the existence of an old and continuing black culture in New Orleans is a major component of its funkiness.

So is the juxtaposition of so many different and vivid things, good and bad. Songwriter Grayson Capps nails the place perfectly as “that rotten old town that everyone loves.” Don’t kid yourself: New Orleans is a mess. It was a mess before Hurricane Katrina and it’s a mess now. It has a long history of corruption and shiftlessness, from the city government to the bars of the French Quarter. But it can still get under your skin. The appeal has something to do with the color and flavor of the place, and also with starkness of its contrasts: rich and poor, sleazy and holy, clean and dirty.

We’ve just come back from an overnight trip there. We went to Mass Sunday morning in one of the more beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, the Jesuit Church of the Assumption, its architecture described as “Hispano-Moresque,” a style of which I had never heard, but which I presume is something out of post-Moslem Spain. Not too far away there were probably still a few of Saturday night’s drunks bumbling around, and others just starting out, Sunday morning or not. Sin abounded, I have no doubt. And yet grace was there in plenitude.

A friend of mine who doesn’t much like New Orleans has remarked on there being something dark about it, and of course he’s right, but that’s not the whole story. The darkness is serious and pretty much out in the open, but it coexists with a lot of Christian light and a whole lot of basic human warmth.

Sometimes in this mega-techno-capitalist world, “funky” just seems like another word for “human.” That’s part of the reason why America needs this city. It’s also, come to think of it, why white America needs black America. But that’s a topic for another day.


Music of the Week — October 29, 2006

Funkadelic: Maggot Brain

Yeah, I know. I can’t believe I’m writing about an album with such a sickening name, either. Worse, the title song is precisely the one that interested me. The problem was that I had run across several references to its being a killer guitar piece, and, loving that instrument as I do, I had to check it out. Here, for instance, is what the All Music Guide reviewer has to say about it: “George Clinton famously told [guitarist Eddie] Hazel to play ‘like your momma had just died,’ and the resulting evocation of melancholy and sorrow doesn't merely rival Jimi Hendrix’s work, but arguably bests a lot of it.” ( Full review here.)

I don’t know about it being better than Hendrix—I don’t know that the comparison is even particularly relevant—but it really is a great piece of moody, melodic, noisy electric guitar work. Unfortunately, besides the hideous title, it includes a thirty-second spoken intro which is equally disgusting, and I’m going to have to find an mp3 editor that will let me remove that piece without converting to wav and back to mp3, with consequent fidelity loss.

What about the rest of the album? Well, as I guess everybody who’s ever heard the name “Funkadelic” knows, it’s a mixture of early ‘70s funk, “psychedelic” rock (which really just means some heavily distorted and wah-wah-ed guitar), and a certain amount of goofiness. “Can You Get to That” makes me think of Sly and the Family Stone, “Super Stupid” makes me think of Hendrix. Most of it is not really the kind of music I’m generally drawn to, but still, it’s very enjoyable, in fact irresistible, if it hits you when you’re in the right mood—lots of fun if you’re happy, and maybe of some assistance if you’re sad. Recent releases have a couple of extra tracks, including a great short piece called “Whole Lot of BS” which some smart newscaster would do well to license and adopt as an intro to political campaign stories.