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September 2014

52 Guitars: Week 39

Ralph Towner

I don't think I had even heard Ralph Towner's name when I saw Blue Sun in a record store sometime back in the 1980s and bought it on the strength of the cover art. I don't know how well you can make out the photograph that occupies the center of it, but it's a very beautiful sea and sky picture that makes me think of a Scandinavian summer.  



Image swiped from the great ECM fan site between sound and space 

Not everything on the album lived up to the promise of that image, but enough of it did that I didn't regret the purchase, and have bought two other Towner albums over the years. Most of his work is on the wonderful ECM label, and I've learned since that I can pretty well rely on finding anything issued on it at least interesting.

Towner's music occupies a sort of indeterminate territory which comes out of what could broadly be considered a jazz culture or sensibility, but is not exactly jazz, and not exactly anything else, either. It could be called ECM territory, as a lot of the label's output fits there. 

From Solstice, which I don't have, but which says is his best album, and so worth investigating, here is "Nimbus":


From Ana, "The Reluctant Bride" and "Green and Golden":


I don't know of anyone else in the world who can play a 12-string like this. "Spirit Lake" can be found on Solo Concert, but this is a different and even more spectacular performance. 


Bergman: Sawdust and Tinsel (and Port of Call)

I think I put this early (1953) Bergman work in my queue almost as soon we joined Netflix, which is getting to be quite a while back now. I did it more out of a sense of duty than in expectation that I would actually like it, as I didn't expect it to be as good as the classics that would soon follow it in Bergman's career. So it sat there, like a number of other movies, never getting to the top of the queue because my wife and I were always putting other things ahead of it. But lately I've been noticing more obscure titles disappearing from Netflix, and others flagged as being available only after a "long wait," or in the case of this one, a "very long wait." 

So I put it on top of the list, and it turned out that the Very Long Wait was only a week or so, and I tried to watch it promptly in hopes of sparing some other Bergman fan a Very Long Wait.  It more than fulfilled my expectations. It's a story of futility, humiliation, and defeat among the losers (I don't care much for that word, but it is perfectly accurate here) who comprise a traveling circus company that's barely surviving. It contains much that makes many of Bergman's films so grim, but without the magic touch of genius that elevates the others. Not that it's bad, by any means. It's very well done, very well acted, and it does deliver the blow it intends to deliver. But it doesn't strike me as great. I would recommend it only to Bergman fans who want to see everything by the master. Here's a link to the Criterion Collection page. Put the words "circus" and "misery" together, and you have the general idea; even the bear is miserable. Here, for instance, is a characteristic moment in the life of the clown.


And while I'm at it: it's been several months now, but I also saw an even earlier Bergman work: Port of Call, released in 1948. It didn't make a really strong impression on me, but it's worth seeing, maybe even if you're not a huge Bergman fan. Although this is a bit of a spoiler, I have to reveal one thing about it, only because it's so surprising: it has a happy ending. Here's its Criterion Collection page.

Thinking about the two together, I realize that one reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that neither has any of the pointers toward the big theological and philosophical questions that filled the works that were to come over the next ten or fifteen years. Nor do they have much of the visual magic, at least to my eyes, though Sawdust  does have its moments in that respect.

Youthful Idealism

Youth, as everyone knows who has passed through it some time ago, is the age not of idealism but of self-importance, uncertainty masked by certitude and moral grandiosity untouched by experience of life — or, of course, the age of total insouciance. 

--Theodore Dalrymple

Dalrymple is musing on the dangerous mixture of youth and ideology in Muslim extremists, especially the British ones; the whole piece is at National Review Online. This is the opening sentence, and it really struck me. It certainly describes me as a young man, and fits many of the people I knew then. I've been saying for a long time that what was called idealism in the youth culture of the 1960s was generally not that at all, but I've never managed to say what it actually was as well as Dalrymple does here.

A few months ago I read an article about the heavy bias toward youth in the technology industry, where even being as old as forty is a marked disadvantage if you're looking for a job. Some entrepreneur still in his twenties admitted that he didn't even consider hiring anyone much older than himself, and said, "Let's face it: young people are smarter. That's just a fact."

I snorted at that and thought No, young people are stupid. But that's not right, either. Young people in general do have quicker minds, can more readily learn new things, and do complicated tasks more rapidly, and those are qualities very desirable in a programmer or engineer. But what often strikes me about young people is that they tend to be foolish. I don't know that as a group they're any more foolish than the youth of any time, but very foolish many of them are, and ignorant as well. Moreover, they tend to be arrogant in their foolishness. Youth possesses many gifts, but that wisdom is not often one of them is part of the wisdom of the ages, and of age, that it doesn't yet grasp.

52 Guitars: Week 38

Jim Thomas

Who? Well, allow me to introduce you to The Mermen. Don't be too quick to turn up the sound.


They're an instrumental trio who began around 1990 as a sort of neo-surf band, but they've gone far afield from that, though you can still hear some of it in their sound, which at times might be described as Dick Dale meets Jimi Hendrix. Their web site calls it "psychedelic instrumental ocean music," and says that the band's name was derived from the Jimi Hendrix song/soundscape "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be").

Thomas is the guitarist, and along with bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Martyn Jones the Mermen make music that is both fierce and melodic. Their 1995 album A Glorious Lethal Euphoria is one of my all-time favorite albums, period. The opening track from it, "Pulpin' Line", is the one I really wanted to use instead of the preceding track, but the album version is not on YouTube. There are some decent live performances of it, but they don't have the same intensity, and the sound quality is not so great.

Here's something from that album. Again, don't be quick to turn up the sound.


They aren't always fast and loud and noisy; sometimes they're slow and loud and noisy, and sometimes they're even quiet. "And the Flowers They'll Bloom", all nearly-ten-minutes of it, is a showcase for the expressive power of an electric guitar and a rack full of effects.


There is a strangely mystical quality about the album, as is suggested by the cover (what you see in the two "videos" above), and by some of the song titles: "The Drowning Man Knows His God," "With No Definite Future and No Purpose Except to Prevail Somehow." Other titles are just whimsical, often somewhat bent, e.g. "Scalp Salad."

The Mermen seem to have become a sort of cult California jam band. Until a few minutes ago, when I looked at their web site, I didn't think they'd released an album since 2000's Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, but there is a more recent one, In God We Trust. I like Road Show but I'll be surprised if they ever surpass Euphoria. If you like what I've posted here, get it--you won't be sorry. (The first track is from Songs of the Cows, a less-than-full-length follow-up to Euphoria and sounds very much like it, and is almost as good.)

H. Beam Piper: "He Walked Around the Horses"

I wondered the other day whether some novelist had written an alternate-history exploration of what the world would have been like if the French Revolution had not happened. Paul obligingly posted a link to this 1948 story by H. Beam Piper, which you can read or download in various electronic formats at Project Gutenberg. It's an enjoyable story, though given its length it doesn't go into much detail about the world in which it takes place. And as an introductory note asserts, it is in fact based on a real event, the disappearance of an English diplomat in Prussia in 1809.

I recognized the author's name from my teenage days when I had a science-fiction mania, but I didn't know anything about him. His Wikipedia entry is interesting. One of the things there that struck me, having just finished the story, is that he was largely self-educated. The story includes a knowledge of history that I suspect would be beyond the average college student of today, and assumes a comparable level of knowledge on the reader's part, which is also interesting because it appeared in the April 1948 edition of Astounding, which was not aimed at a highly educated audience.


Piper committed suicide at the age of 61 in 1964, about the time I was becoming consumed with interest in sci-fi. He left a note which is both clever and heartbreaking:

I don't like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn't be going away.

What a waste.

And by the way, as I should have expected, there is no lack of speculation on my original question, and moreover there is, as I should also have expected, a whole thriving community of alternate-history enthusiasts. 

The Anglican Muddle

The Panther and the Hind, by Aidan Nichols, O.P.

This book has been on my "do a blog post about this" list for several months now, so many that its details have begun to fade. One aspect of it that will not fade, though, unless I am overtaken by senility, is the clarity with which Fr. Nichols makes the case that Anglicanism was a theological muddle from the very beginning, and that the possibility of something more definite forming itself from the muddle is remote. This is not to deny tendencies such as that of the American Episcopal Church to become pretty well unified along liberal (to use the polite term) theological lines. But that sort of evolution is not an expression of the unity of Anglicanism, but rather of its splintering, as those who hold other views depart, either individually to other communions, or corporately into a schism which holds itself to be the continuation of real Anglicanism.

Over the past thirty or forty years it has become increasingly difficult to hold that there is any one thing that can be called Anglicanism apart from saying (tautologically) that it is whatever is formally encompassed within the Anglican Communion. And even that requires excluding from the picture those bodies which persist in calling themselves Anglican but are not part of the Communion. 

Fr. Nichols does not use the word "muddle" (as far as I recall). But that is what he describes. The crucial analysis is found early in the first chapter, under the subheading "The Theological Structure of the English Reformation." 

In dealing with the theological, as distinct from the narrative, structure of the English Reformation, we can single out four factors. These I would term the Wycliffite, Erastian, Lutheran, and Reformed elements. 

I'll summarize his summary, following his structure:

A. The Wycliffite element: the current of thought which is perhaps most recognizable to Americans in the form of Evangelical Protestantism. There is no visible Church, and the Bible is its one authority. 

B. The Erastian element: the Church is subordinate to the state; "the [element] likely to be overlooked by the modern student--whereas the historian Maurice Powicke wrote in his The Reformation in England, 'the one definite thing which can be said about the Reformation in England is that it was an act of State'".

C. The Lutheran element: scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone;  "the chief practical effect of Lutheran ideas lay in the dismantlement of those forms of mediaeval piety which were meaningless or indefensible in terms of justification by faith alone";  the visible Church remains, but mainly as the vehicle for transmitting those three central doctrines; sacramental practices remain, but are largely redefined.

D. The Reformed element: Nichols is referring here to Calvin and the others who systematized Lutheranism, and worked out some rather chilly doctrines about predestination and the like as logical deductions from Luther's ideas; I think this is in Nichols' view almost a matter of theological approach and culture, in its recourse to abstract ideas, an approach to which the English were not necessarily sympathetic.

Many of those elements may be reconcilable at the level of systematic theology, although probably at the cost of agreeing to disagree about some fairly important things. But some conflicts--for instance those between A and B, and D and everybody else--can only be accomodated within one institution by sacrificing truth (as conceived by one party) for unity. It is not surprising that the more radical elements of the Reformation soon became bitter enemies of the Church of England. 

At any rate, there is no place among those four elements, either within any one of them alone or the group as a whole, for a Catholic party. Those who continued to believe along Catholic lines regarding questions apart from the nature of the Church could find ways of existing within the Church of England, but could not plausibly regard themselves as having any sort of official place. I use "plausibly" from my perspective; of course many of them did believe that they had a real place, and a Catholic party did exist. Although Newman's journey was the story of his coming to the conclusion that Anglo-Catholicism as he wished to understand it was not in fact tenable, Anglo-Catholics who disagreed with him remained in the Church of England.

But as I understand (and remember!) Nichols, it is part of his thesis that the Catholic party could never be anything more than a party or a faction, and that this was so not by historical accident but intrinsically, because it was in the very foundation of the Church of England that it must accomodate factions animated by mutually exclusive ideas, and decide in favor of none. You can argue that this is not a muddle, but rather a healthy tolerance. But you can't reconcile it, institutionally or theologically, with Catholicism. It simply won't fit. Anglicans and Catholics can't hope to attain unity by following Augustine's counsel about agreeing on the essentials and letting the rest go because we don't agree about what the essentials are.

Nichols goes on to trace Anglican theology up to the time of his writing, 1993, and I will leave it to those interested to follow him by reading the book itself, which is not very long and an excellent place to being for a Catholic who wants to know something of the history of Anglicanism. Much that is either Catholic or entirely compatible with Catholicism found its way back into Anglicanism, taking on an English flavor (and including, of course, some very rich writing), but always as a minority view. Nichols ends, not surprisingly, with a pessimistic view of the possibility of institutional reunion, and a suggestion that will sound both plausible and familiar to many:

Supposing, as I believe to be the case, that Anglicanism is so very much three churches within one that no satisfactory ecumenical negotiations can ultimately be carried out with it (not, at any rate, to the point of organic reunion), what is to be done? An Anglican church united with Rome but not absorbed, an Anglican Uniate church, is perfectly feasible....

Such an Anglican Uniate community might be relatively small in numbers, yet, provided with its own canonical structure, liturgical books, parishes, and means of priestly formation, it would enrich Roman Catholicism with its own theological patrimony....

Well, that pretty well describes what Pope Benedict created in 2009 with Anglicanorum Coetibus: the Anglican Ordinariate. It was an answer to the prayers of many an ex-Anglican, including myself. And I'm lucky enough to have a local Ordinariate group and an Anglican Use Mass. But I fear the Pope's gracious move may have come too late--about thirty years too late. In 1980 John Paul II established a much more limited accomodation for Anglicans, the Pastoral Provision, which allowed married Anglican clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood and provided for an Anglicanized liturgy in parishes which came over as a group, along with their priest. But there was no institutional structure, and only a few Episcopal parishes availed themselves of the offer.

Moreover, that period--the early 1980s--was probably the peak of dissatisfaction of Catholic-leaning Episcopalians with the Episcopal Church. In the interim, many of the dissatisfied have struck out into various continuing Anglican bodies--some of them no more sympathetic to Rome than the Episcopal Church of, say, 1900 way--or come over to Rome as individuals. Most of those who remain, even if they are unhappy with the leadership and general direction of their church, have resigned themselves to living with it. What we've seen in the Ordinariate is a few clergy converting, but no substantial movement of lay people. 

I'm a bit disheartened by this. And I've been less surprised by the lack of converts from Anglicanism than that the movement has not met with more interest from Catholics who might be drawn to the Anglican liturgy; my impression is that the usual reaction is "That's weird." (Naturally, Catholics who love the liturgical trends of the 1970s are appalled; I read somewhere a comment from one of them describing it, bizarrely, as "narcisisstic.") But the story is certainly not over, and there may be happy surprises yet to come. At any rate we will continue to try "to enrich Roman Catholicism" in whatever ways we can.

"The Panther and the Hind," by the way, is the title of a long poem by Dryden written on the occasion of his conversion to Catholicism in 1687, and arguing the Anglican-Catholic controversy. I've never read it, but I intend to, based on the excerpts from it included in this book, for instance this, on sola scriptura:

Suppose we on things traditive divide,
And both appeal to Scripture to decide;
By various texts we both uphold our claim
Nay, often ground our titles on the same:
After long labour lost, and times expence,
Both grant the words and quarrel for the sense.
Thus all disputes for ever must depend;
For no dumb rule can controversies end.


By the way, the only edition of the Nichols book that I was able to find available at reasonable cost is published by T&T Clark of Edinburgh, and is somewhat poorly printed. The binding and the paper are fine, but the type looks as if it was printed at inadequate resolution and then scanned.


52 Guitars: Week 37

Albert King

Here's the third of the Three Kings. Albert is maybe the least striking of the three: not as sophisticated as B.B., not as fiery as Freddy. But just as satisfying, and pretty much perfect as a representative of pure straight-up blues.

"Born Under a Bad Sign" contains one of the immortal complaints of the blues: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." I think that was probably a folk saying before Booker T. Jones and William Bell wrote the song, but that doesn't matter. (I see it had occurred at least once before in a commercial recording.) People of my generation, and younger ones who like the music of the '60s, have probably heard the song as performed by Cream on the Wheels of Fire album. Personally I never found Jack Bruce very enjoyable as a blues singer, and although that version has a lot of rock-and-roll intensity, it misses the mark in comparison to King's original. Here is his studio version, which does not particularly feature the guitar, but makes that famous riff pretty clear: 


And here's a very good live version:


 I only recently heard "Breaking Up Somebody's Home" for the first time, and was really struck by the lyric. Not a sentiment one can approve, obviously, but it tells a truth about the difficulty of the struggle against jealousy and misdirected romantic love: "After all, I didn't make myself."


And here's a great live version of the Elmore James classic, "The Sky Is Crying":


Here's King's Wikipedia entry. He was a big influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan (which is obvious if you've heard Vaughan's "Sky Is Crying") and there is an hour-long video of the two of them playing together, which can be found on YouTube, of course, no doubt in massive violation of copyright. I hadn't planned to feature Vaughan in one of these posts, which may seem surprising. He's a very very fine guitarist, obviously, but somehow his take on the blues has never appealed very strongly to me--it seems tense and overdriven. I reserve the right to change my mind, though.