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November 2017

52 Albums, Week 48: Lubbock (On Everything) (Terry Allen)

Week48-Lubbock (On Everything)_html_6853d339b276d321Several years ago, a friend gave me a burned copy of this CD and while listening to it I marveled at how something so wonderful had been out there that I was somehow unaware of until that moment. The first sentence of the album review on reads:

Although it’s all but unknown outside of a devoted cult following, Terry Allen’s second album, 1979’s Lubbock (On Everything), is one of the finest country albums of all time, a progenitor of what would eventually be called alt-country.

In my experience, this album will make you laugh, cry, sing along, and then start it over again from the beginning, all the time wondering how Terry Allen was able to do it. I have never listened to anything else by Allen, for fear that I will be disappointed. Nothing else he recorded could possibly be this good.

About a year ago there was a “deluxe reissue” CD, which I should really buy since all I have is the original burned copy given to me many years ago, and along with that reissue a YouTube documentary short (around 11 minutes) was filmed. Without going back to re-watch this to make sure my facts are accurate, in the documentary short the story told by the producer is that Terry Allen came into his office, sat down at the piano and proceeded to play the entire album for him (all 79 minutes). This convinced him the music should be recorded.

Allen opens with “Amarillo Highway (for Dave Hickey)”, with the chorus:

I’m panhandling
Man handlin
Post holin
High rollin
Dust Bowlin…Daddy
An I ain’t got no blood veins
I just got them four lanes
Of hard…Amarillo Highway

After I hear this refrain once, I am happily singing along until the end of the song. Terry Allen has a very distinct way of singing and putting accents on his syllables that suit the lyrics. Well, here is the song.

Terry Allen is also an artist and graphic designer, and I believe that is what he does these days, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is a good place for artists. Four years ago I was married just outside Santa Fe and a few days after the ceremony the new family and me journeyed down first to Carlsbad Caverns, and then to Marfa, Texas. Marfa is in the Big Bend area, and though the population is under 2000 it is known for artists and art installations out on the highway into town (such as a fake Prada store). There was a bookstore across from the hotel and the following day I walked over, surprised that such a small town had a store of this size. While purchasing my treasures I noticed there were small stacks of CDs at the counter, and all of them were by Terry Allen. I asked the proprietor about this and he said that Terry and his wife used to live in Marfa, but they had since moved to Santa Fe. The proprietor was a funny little guy with an odd lisp (I think there may have been a cleft palate or something going on) and he knew Terry and his wife.

Lubbock (On Everything) is a long and interesting journey, and through the first four songs, nothing appears to be amiss. Then you get to “Lubbock Woman” and that one is kind of different, a little outside what a country singer might be singing about. “The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma” takes a distinct right turn, as the singer meets a woman at a party sitting in a chair naked, who then begins to dance. Then you arrive at “Truckload of Art”. With the initial narration explaining the events of the song, a truckload of art being driven across the country, which ends up on fire. Then he sings about it. I feel like I’m giving away plot lines talking about these songs. The “Art Mob” song doesn’t seem to make much sense, but why does he keep singing about art?

“Oui (a French Song)” [I’m sure you have noticed by now that Allen enjoys parentheticals] has the wonderful line:

Now some say it’s pathetic
When you give up your aesthetic
For a blue collar job in the factory
But all that exhibiting
Was just too damn inhibiting
For a beer drinking
Regular guy… Like me

Shifting tones, several short songs in a row, occasional speaking and narration, along with subjects perhaps only sung about in country music by Terry Allen, are what make this album special. As I have listened to it in order to charge my brain enough with memory to write, I am surprised at the emotional response I have to songs not heard for a while now. I’m not always sure about the content of a song based on its title, but am then happy when I hear it and know the chorus and perhaps some other lyrics as well. But I suppose that is how it always is with art, and our response to what works for each of us individually.

I am most affected by the song “The Beautiful Waitress” on listening to it just a half hour ago or so. In our brand new age of strict sexual harassment protocol, the singer would be arrested for his maudlin attempts at love with the waitress, but nonetheless I find the lyrics very apropos and lovely. Here he is singing it live a few years ago:

Cause you’ll only love her once
Only this one time at lunch
And she might as well love you too
Ahhh…it’s the last time
You’re passin through

On the album version there is a little narrative at the end wherein the singer tells of meeting a waitress once and discussing art with her, especially the drawing of horses. This is of course also available on YouTube, for anyone interested.

Lubbock (On Everything) is one of those special pieces of music that always makes me very happy when I listen to it.

Here is a bonus song not found on this album for all the Catholics in the group: 

—Stu Moore often wishes he still lived in the desert Southwest. Apparently, he did not play enough cowboys and Indians as a small child.

Sunday Night Journal, November 26, 2017

Following Many Dimensions, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, I decided to read all the Charles Williams novels that I had not previously read, in order of publication. According to Wikipedia, that's:

War in Heaven (1930)
Many Dimensions
The Place of the Lion
The Greater Trumps
Shadows of Ecstasy
Descent into Hell
All Hallows' Eve

I've since read War In Heaven and The Place of the Lion. Or rather re-read: as with Many Dimensions, as soon as I'd read a few paragraphs of War In Heaven I realized that I'd read it before. And I thought I remembered reading The Place of the Lion, and I had. In all those instances the previous readings were some thirty-five years ago, and I had only vague memories of the books. I've read Descent Into Hell and All Hallows' Eve twice and thrice, respectively (I think), the last times relatively recently. In short, there were and are only two that I've never read, The Greater Trumps and Shadows of Ecstasy. So, onward to those next. 

Of the two most recent, I liked War In Heaven better. I hadn't paid any attention to publication order when I read the novels back in the 1980s, so it was interesting to see that all of William's themes and, more or less, his plots, were already in place in his first novel. (I assume it was the first written.) War involves an evil magician attempting to do evil things with the aid of dark powers, and this is, very broadly, also the basic situation of All Hallows' Eve. I think it's done more richly in the latter, but more excitingly in War. There is at least in the first two novels what Alfred Hitchcock called a "maguffin" or "MacGuffin," an object which is desired and pursued by various parties and thus provides the impetus for the plot. The Wikipedia entry for the term mentions the Holy Grail as an early example, which is interesting because the Holy Grail is in fact the MacGuffin of War In Heaven

It's called the "Graal" here, which seems a bit of an affectation, and bothers me a little because I hear it in my mind as a sort of long growl, "Ghrrraaallll". The Graal Grail has been tracked down by a character, Sir Giles Tumulty, whom I had previously gotten to know in what is actually the next novel. Turns out it is a rather ordinary-looking chalice which has for some time been sitting unrecognized in the little parish church (Anglican) of Fardles. The priest there is an archdeacon (a term I haven't heard in the Catholic Church, and refers to a sort of practical assistant to a bishop). He is something of a mystic and something of a spiritual warrior, in a passive, almost Zen-ish sort of way: he doesn't do much, and he doesn't do it until he knows what to do, but when he does, it's right. In this brief note I won't go into all the people who get involved in the pursuit of the Grail. Suffice to say that some of them are evil (of course) and wish to use the Grail for evil purposes, and that it is a very good story. It almost deserves to be called a thriller, and has some elements of detective fiction--there is a murder, and a police inspector who is investigating it.

This is the one that Janet mentioned in the discussion of Many Dimensions, saying that she had stopped reading it because it was too disturbing, especially as it involved a child in danger. Well, I wouldn't try to talk anyone into reading it, but I will say that it is safe to press on, provided you don't mind learning somewhat more than ordinarily comes our way about truly evil people in league with truly evil forces. It is undoubtedly true that this work, like other Williams novels, suggests a much-too-close acquaintance with sorcery. But he is in the end clearly and literally on the side of the angels--the good angels, that is, and perhaps his experiences with darkness help to make his visions of light more powerful; they certainly are powerful to me.

Also in the comments on that post, Marianne quoted C.S. Lewis as saying that Williams "did not always know how to hit the golden mean between Dante and Wodehouse." That's funny, but it didn't at first make a lot of sense to me. But the more Williams I read, the more I see what he meant. The truth is that a number of his characters are potentially Wodehousian--bright and often flippant young people, eccentric older ones, and the like--and could fairly easily be turned into comic-farcical rather than serious-heroic characters. 

I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I tell you that Prester John makes an appearance here. And I'll say that I didn't entirely understand him or his role...well, I understand what he does, but I don't understand exactly what or who he is. This is my ignorance, as I know almost nothing of the Prester John legends. If you share my ignorance and are thinking of reading this book, it might be worth your while to learn a little something about him first--though I would not be at all surprised to learn that Williams modified and embellished the legend to suit his purposes. 

The Place of the Lion is a considerably lighter book than either of the two that preceded it, though "lighter" is not the most apt word, the potential destruction of the world of matter and of the human beings who live in it is not being, all told, the material of sunny romance. But there is no dark magician involved, just a Platonist who wants to get closer to the Forms. This enterprise has dramatic effects, but I didn't see any indication that they were intended. This philosopher is unconscious throughout, so he doesn't really figure as a character, and we don't really know what he was thinking. But one of his disciples gives this account of what he is up to:

"He believes--and I believe it too," Mr. Foster said, "that this world is created, and all men and women are created, by the entrance of certain great principles into aboriginal matter. We call them by cold names; wisdom and courage and beauty and strength and so on, but actually they are very great and mighty Powers. It may be that they are the angels and archangels of which the Christian Church talks....those Powers are the archetypes of the beasts, and very much more.... Now this world in which they exist is truly a real world, and to see it is a very difficult and dangerous thing, but our master held that it could be done...."

This master is the unconscious philosopher, who has apparently succeeded in seeing these Principles, but by so doing has brought them into our world, to very destructive effect, as they tend to absorb into themselves all individuated manifestations of themselves--i.e., the world and everything in it. The Principles are visible, first of all in the figure of the enormous lion referred to in the novel's title. And the story is the story of the effort to put these mighty forces back where they belong. It gives the word "metaphysical" a force which it does not ordinarily have.

In every one of Williams's novels I've read--that is, five out of seven--there occur passages which are always puzzling and a little frustrating to me. These are attempts to put into language actions and experiences which occur in the spiritual world. These are semi-abstract, not pure ratiocination, but in a reality where discrete entities, motives, and actions exist and must be described as such although they have no material presence, or are connected only loosely to the material. I don't say that they are incomprehensible, but I often find them obscure, and on finishing them ask myself "What just happened?" Perhaps a little more effort and a re-reading or two would help. But I am sometimes impatient with them.

And then you have passages like this one from The Place of the Lion; Anthony's close friend Quentin is in great danger, and Anthony, wanting to help him, is in their "rooms," as the English say, and remembering him:

Light and amusing, poignant and awful, the different hours of friendship came to him, each full of that suggestion of significance which hours of the kind mysteriously hold--a suggestion which demands definitely either to be accepted as truth or rejected as illusion. Anthony had long since determined on which side his own choice lay; he had accepted those exchanges, so far as mortal frailty could, as being of the nature of final and eternal being. Though they did not last, their importance did; though any friendship might be shattered, no strife and no separation could deny the truth within it: all immortality could but more clearly reveal what in those moments had been.

This is applicable to all relations of love. It makes me think of Brideshead Revisited, of this exchange between Charles and Cordelia, Charles first:

“Have you told Julia this about Sebastian?”

“The substance of it; not quite as I told you. She never loved him, you know, as we do.”

Do.” The word reproached me; there was no past tense in Cordelia’s verb “to love.”

 Perhaps in the end there isn't in anyone's. No, not perhaps: probably. Probably certainly.

52 Albums, Week 47: Symphony No. 2 ; Violin Concerto ‘Distant Light’ (Peteris Vasks)

I don’t really know enough about classical music to write about it technically, so I’m going to rely here on notes from CD releases combined with personal impressions. I don’t remember exactly how or when I first came across the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, but it would have had to have been sometime around 2004, and possibly from Robert Reilly in Crisis. The first CD I bought was a collection of shorter orchestral works, and I was enthralled. It was modern but melodic, emotionally demanding but ultimately peaceful. I bought several more discs in short order, and my favorite piece soon became the violin concerto “Distant Light.” I rank it up there with my other two favorite contemporary orchestral works, Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa” and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Here’s part of the description of the piece from the liner notes:

Tala gaisma (Distant Light) is a concerto for violin and a large string orchestra. The concerto, in one single movement, is one of the most meditative, ethereal concertos ever written; yet with an underlying tension and drama. [Composer Vasks says] ‘Distant Light is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of miles away.’

The concerto consists of three episodes interspersed with three cadenzas by the soloist.

The first cadenza leads towards a sudden increase in tempo and a jagged figure as in folk music which, in turn, is followed by a second cadenza and, beyond a dramatic change of scene, a return to relative lyricism. Some of the later passages create an almost romantic aura, but a moment of what Vasks calls ‘aleatoric chaos’ sets in shortly before the end.

From the notes on another recording Vasks describes the ending this way:

The aleatory chaos is interrupted by a waltz rhythm, robust and even aggressive. In the recapitulation, we hear musical ideas from the beginning of the piece. Although there is a momentary sense of anguish here, the concerto ends on a note of bright sadness.

Vasks, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in 1946, and lived the first four decades of his life under the Russian Communist yoke. Being a Christian, and the son of a Christian, in an atheistic country was a barrier to a “free” musical life. His music reflects this, but it also reflects the freedom achieved by Latvian independence in 1990. Thus his works have a profound mixture of turbulence, sadness, and joy, the latter often represented by musical evocations of birdsong. His music is “a unique representation of Latvian culture and spirit,” much in the same way that Arvo Part’s represents Estonia, Kancheli’s, Georgia, and Gorecki’s, Poland.

I have four recordings of this piece. The one here by John Storgards and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is fantastic in and of itself, but the other reason I chose this particular recording is the pairing. Symphony No. 2 offers another side of Vasks, his full-scale symphonic side. This is a 40 minute symphony, composed in the same basic sound world as ‘Distant Light,’ but with all the dynamics and “bells and whistles” of a full orchestra. It’s a very good piece and one I like a lot. The other recording I’d recommend is the one on Teldec by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica. This one features Vasks’ Symphony No. 1, the string symphony “Voices,” as the pairing. This is a very good piece as well, but being all strings, it doesn’t offer quite the contrast that the second symphony does, although it must be said that Kremer’s performance is outstanding, and that the concerto was written at his request.

For those who’d like to sample the piece, we are fortunate to have a very good recording of it available in its entirety on YouTube, played by one of its champions, the British violinist Anthony Marwood, who has himself recorded it in an excellent version on Hyperion with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Unfortunately it’s paired there with a recording of the jazzy, modernist Kurt Weill concerto, which I don’t like at all. (Your mileage may vary, as they say.) In this clip Marwood plays it with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The piece doesn’t really “kick in” until about the 3:20 mark, so give it a bit of time. I think the section which starts at about the 3:50 mark and runs through the beginning of the first cadenza at 6:00 is just gorgeous, and it’s not the only highlight by far.

--Rob Grano

Sunday Night Journal, November 19, 2017

One of the milder vexations of getting old is that I find my hands and feet, especially my feet, feeling cold at times when they would not have in the past. It seems disconcertingly old-man-like. It's especially noticeable when I spend several hours sitting at the computer, which I do almost every day. In summer I turn up the thermostat as soon as my wife, who is still going off to work every day, leaves the house, and let the temperature get into the upper 70s. In winter I sometimes bring a little electric space heater into my office, just like those women in offices whom I've teased for many years. All this annoys me, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it. The only good thing about it is that getting those feet and fingers warm when they're chilled feels pretty good.

This morning, for instance, it was a little cool--the outside temperature was 50-ish, not exactly cold, but there was a strong and chilly north wind. I went out to walk the dog wearing a light jacket over a t-shirt, and when we got out onto the beach where there's nothing to get in the way of the wind I was quickly cold enough to be uncomfortable, especially as I spent a few minutes dragging some newly-washed-up pieces of Hurricane Nate debris away from the water's edge, thus getting my hands wet and well-chilled.

Back at the house it was time to have a shower, and that warm water felt really good on my hands, and started me reflecting on what a luxury the hot shower is. I remember a conversation with my father some years ago when I was talking about people voluntarily giving up the conveniences of modern life in order to be more self-sufficient or environmentally conscious, or something--I don't remember exactly what the context was, but he remarked that "Not many people are not going to want to give up their hot shower." 

Well, that's certainly true. I certainly don't. And this morning was one of those moments when I realize just how soft life is for most of us in the industrialized world compared to what it has been for most people in most times and places throughout human history. We take it for granted most of the time, and we tend to assume that what has now been invented and produced and widely distributed will remain available. Not all of us by any means: the post-apocalyptic return to pre-industrial conditions is a staple of fiction and film, and often the subject of very serious and dire warnings from environmentalists. We may deplore this or that aspect of technological civilization--I deplore a number of them, for instance the dominance of the automobile. But almost nobody wants to give it all up. And most of us most of the time don't anticipate that we--humanity at large if not ourselves--will lose it, that what we now regard as basic necessities will disappear.

That's partly because we don't really appreciate the expenditure of time, effort, intelligence, and labor that produced our material way of life, and, more importantly, sustains it. All over the world millions of people are doing millions of things that keep this whole machine operating. Now and then I run across some small business that makes a living by supplying some little thing or service--some type of fastener, maybe--that's a component of some bigger thing and that in the normal course of events no one apart from the people who provide it and the people who make the bigger thing ever give a second's thought to. And yet the bigger thing, and the bigger thing or things which depend on it, may be something which the rest of us expect to be there whenever we need it, and would be sorely missed if it didn't exist, which it wouldn't do without that little thing and many other little things. 

A complex web of law and custom is an equally essential part of this apparatus. And so my train of thought about material progress soon switched toward the question of moral and spiritual progress, and to that "arc of history" which is "long, but bends toward justice" and is sometimes invoked as a guarantor that in the long run progress, as conceived by the person invoking the principle, will prevail. Maybe it will. Christians believe that it will, though the trajectory runs right out of the far end of history into another realm. But Christians have a pretty clear and definite explanation for this movement, and for its source. What's striking about many of those who seem to take it as an article of faith is that they don't seem to ask the obvious questions it raises. It's a faith, but a very vague one: toward what is it directed? What is it faith in? The Force? What? Those of us who have a more traditional faith and, after two thousand years, a very well-thought-out one, but which is frequently treated as irrational, are entitled to question this one; to interrogate it, as the post-modernists like to say.

To say that history has a moral arc implies that it is being directed by something or someone. Who or what is this? The direction must be conscious--surely no one can seriously maintain that matter and energy alone are imbued with moral convictions and the power to impose them. There is certainly no evidence anywhere outside of human affairs that life is cognizant of justice or aspires to it, much less that the concept of justice even has any meaning to the cosmos at large.

And what is that thing called "justice" anyway? Does it exist in some abstract but nevertheless objectively real sense? Is it an absolute and intrinsic good, and its opposite, injustice, an absolute and intrinsic wrong? If so, there is at least one moral absolute, and there may be others. But if not, if it is not an absolute, and can change, how can history be aiming for it? 

The whole idea seems to point necessarily to a moral intelligence that guides, if not the entire cosmos, then at least human history. But my impression is that most of those who cite this inevitable direction of history don't inquire about its source. If you press them on how they know what justice is and why it's a good thing, they scoff and say that it's obviously good, and they don't need anyone to tell them that. And they don't see that the very fact that they hold that belief is in itself a very interesting phenomenon and one that does not, in fact, explain itself, at least not very satisfactorily. What is conscience? Why do we have one and where does it come from, and where does it get its principles? The answers are not obvious. If you don't want to dig for them, that's fine; not everyone is obliged to. But if you shrug off the questions you shouldn't strike a pose of intellectual superiority, and act as if you have the answers.

At any rate, I don't see that the moral structure of our civilization is any more necessary and inevitable and permanent than its material structure, and any less dependent on a complex web of small but significant things, in this case principles, and prejudices in favor of those principles. Contemporary developments pretty well confirm that, in fact. Christian writers have been saying for more than a hundred years that modern civilization is far more indebted to Christian and Judeo-Christian morality than it knows. Those who like the "arc of history" figure also tend to think that the progress it describes will include the abandonment of primitive delusions such as Christianity. It may, at least for some time, but if it does the arc may bend in a direction rather different from the one expected by contemporary progressives. Concern for the weak and vulnerable is hardly an historical constant. 

The idea, by the way, seems to have originated with a New England Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker. That's fitting. Matthew Rose, writing at First Things, has an extensive and interesting piece on all this, "Our Secular Theodicy." Also by the way, on the question of moral progress, I lean toward C.S. Lewis's idea that good and evil progress simultaneously. 


Well, once again I've gone on about one thing rather longer than I had intended, and now I don't have time to say much about the other thing I had meant to write about: Stranger Things 2. I'll just say that I have watched it, and I liked it. Neither my wife nor I could remember very much about the first series, so we watched it again before the new one. I liked it better this time, and as of now I'd say I like the first one a little better, but they're both good. The second one is more spectacular, has more and more disturbing monsters, and more gore. It's closer to being a horror film than the first, I think. What makes them both so engaging is the principal characters, most of all "the kids," the middle-school group who are the main characters, and some of the adult characters, especially Winona Ryder's portrayal of the slightly nutty but passionately devoted mother, and David Harbour as the sheriff. And in spite of all the terror and violence, there is an underlying sweetness about both series, with love playing a major role. That makes them very different from some other popular series, such as Breaking Bad, or the dark detective shows like The Killing

I hereby open Janet's Undead Thread v3.0 for spoilers-allowed discussion of Stranger Things.



52 Albums, Week 46: The Velvet Underground and Nico


I've heard it said of this album that when it was first released in 1967 only a thousand people heard it, but that they all went out and started a band. Neither part of that is very accurate. I heard it when it was released, and so did all my friends, and many of us bought it. And this was in a small college town in Alabama. Granted, there were only a few of us. But still, the fact that it was available in record stores there means it must have received the same sort of distribution that most pop albums of the time did. It certainly was not successful, but neither was it something that only a handful of people knew about. After all, it had Andy Warhol's name on the cover, which guaranteed some attention. (The band had provided music for some Warhol performances and he was credited as producer.) It did manage to hang on to the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 200 for a while.

And none of us started a band, though I did make a stab at learning a few of the songs on my acoustic guitar. More to the point, I don't think it had much, if any, noticeable influence on other music at the time. The next few years were the flowering of hippie music, and if anyone else in that period, besides the Velvet Underground themselves in their next few albums, followed in their footsteps, I didn't hear it. (The Stooges, who are sometimes compared to them, seem to have been more parallel than following. And I don't hear that much resemblance myself.) 

But there is something to the "thousand copies" story. It's a somewhat exaggerated version of something Brian Eno said in 1982

I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

In 1982 that was justifiable hyperbole, because it was sometime in the 1970s that the album's influence really did begin to make itself felt. Over the following years it became a generally recognized classic, at least among critics and those musicians and fans of indie- or alt-rock. And yet even now, fifty years on, neither it nor the band that produced it can be considered a stodgy, once-edgy-but-now-dull mainstay of classic rock radio or the casino circuit. It's still powerful, still almost shocking, still about as far from formulaic pop as anything can be without tipping over into noise. 

I had considered writing about it in this series, and more or less decided not to, until last week when I wrote about the Incredible String Band. The ISB's elaborate, melodic, poetic, mystical work represents very well one aspect of the late '60s. I suppose the popular image now is that flower power, peace-and-love, etc., were the whole picture. But that wasn't true. There was always something dark in that picture. The times were a sort of explosion of energies, and by no means was it all positive. The Velvet Underground and The Doors were the most striking instances of that dark side. And I might add that Dylan in this period was not exactly a flower child.

I can't remember where I heard the phrase "the glamour of ruin," but this album has it. The music is mostly ragged, noisy, abrasive. The lyrics are mostly about ugly things: heroin, perverse sex, the hard edges of life in the concrete jungle. What did I, an 18-year-old college student in Alabama, hear in it? There was that glamour, of course, the fascination of looking into the dark side (from a comfortable place outside it). But fundamentally it was the music, by which I mean the whole package of sound and words. I listened to the album for the first time in many years before writing this, and it is just as powerful as it was in 1967.

It's not all noisy. The opening song is sweet and wistful, the empty pause of a Godless Sunday morning in the city.

Then the very next song comes crashing in with an almost mindless but driving I-V riff and a story about meeting a pusher. Another sweet song, but with an edge: "Femme Fatale," sung by the icy Teutonic goddess Nico, a German model with very limited but in the context effective vocal ability. Then perversity, with "Venus in Furs" ("Taste the whip..."). Another gripping hard rocker, "Run Run Run." A droning dirge for a troubled beauty, "All Tomorrow's Parties," sung hauntingly by Nico. 

Then the song that pretty much blew everybody away both sonically and lyrically, "Heroin." I knew someone who said he knew someone who was so fascinated by this song that he wanted to become a heroin addict. It certainly didn't affect me that way. I took it as a straightforward description of the user's psychology and experience of the simultaneous longing for transcendence and oblivion, which ultimately must mean death.  

"There She Goes Again" comes closest to something one could imagine hearing on Top 40 radio, thought it was too raw for that. And in the context of the album the lyrics suggested that she was going somewhere very sordid. "I'll Be Your Mirror" is another Nico vocal, a gentle declaration of some kind of love and support, whether romantic or not isn't entirely clear. It's these sweet moments that help to give the album its poignancy.

And the album ends with the somewhat scary "Black Angel's Death Song"--take that, American Bandstand--and "European Son,' which still seems to me a disappointing ending. Perhaps if it had more lyrics it might have been better, but after a few lines at the opening it's seven minutes of somewhat monotonous instrumental racket.

The Velvet Underground as a band didn't outlast the '60s, but Lou Reed and John Cale went on to successful solo careers. Cale appeared here early in this series. He collaborated with Nico on a couple of albums that were credited to her alone but are obviously at least as much his work. They are extremely weird and I like them a lot.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, November 12, 2017

One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago some friends invited my wife and me to go to a flea-market-sort-of-thing with them. I didn't really want to go until they told me there would be books. There were--and records, too.

Part of the market seemed to be someone's estate sale, and it was interesting and more than a bit sad to see what must have been someone's prized possessions laid out on tables, priced at a nickel or a dime on the dollar of what the owner had paid for them, stripped of any personal association except perhaps the owner's name on the flyleaf of a book or the back of a record jacket, or notes and underlinings in the text.

I was seriously tempted by a box of two dozen or so opera recordings (on LP). They seemed to be in pretty good shape and I've been wanting to get more widely acquainted with opera, but I don't want to invest in CDs, and streaming is unsatisfactory without a libretto, to me anyway. But I don't have room for another two feet of LPs. And would I even get around to listening to them...?.... In the end I decided to let them go, although I hate to think that they might end up being discarded. Yes, a huge revival of interest in vinyl has been in progress for some years, but I don't know if it extends to opera. 

And I only bought one book. I've been making a serious effort to limit my acquisition of books to ones which I have a definite intention of reading in the not-too-distant-future. I'm resisting those in the might be interestingheard it's good, and maybe someday categories. I deduced from the selection here that the person who had owned these books was around my age or not more than ten years older, as there was a certain amount of junk that recalled to me my mid-1970s tenure in bookstores. Some Watergate stuff, some pop psychology and self-help stuff--that genre really flowered in the '70s--and, the only specific title I remember now, The Joy of Sex. I resisted the temptation to open it. 

The one book was The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. I've been enjoying the English counterpart of this book since I bought it in roughly 1978. I read a fair amount of it in the first couple of years I had it. Then life became very busy and since then it has sat undisturbed on the shelf for years at a time, until some whim takes me, I pick it up and read a story or two at random, then put it back on the shelf, and let years go by before I open it again. I'm pretty sure there are still anecdotes in it that I haven't read. 

For some reason, though, I read this American version more or less straight through, off and on in a matter of weeks. Part of the reason is that it's shorter, because there just isn't as much interesting American literature as there is British. And the anecdotes themselves tend to be shorter. It's a potato-chip sort of book: it's hard to read just one. Or maybe it's a cheese-curl sort of book: it's hard to stop until the whole bag is gone. 

This is probably my favorite item from the book: Henry James explains how he came to catch a cold on a visit to New York.

I had brought availably with me two overcoats, one somewhat heavier and one somewhat lighter, and in Boston I had worn with comfort the somewhat lighter overcoat and was carrying, for possible immediate need in New York, the slightly warmer overcoat on my arm. All had gone well, until I found myself here, seated in a cab beside my friend, David Munroe, known to you doubtless as a fellow-editor, albeit much older, editing, yes, The North American Review, and so faithfully replete with welcome and so instantly exacting of responses that I was only vaguely, though somewhat venially, aware of my impulse and need to doff the somewhat lighter overcoat and to don the slightly heavier overcoat, which I by all means should have done, to be sure, on account of a rapid change in temperature, or else a difference in temperatures at the place where my journey began and the place where it ended, or perhaps merely a change in hour, but a change all in all,--and, as I have noted, my good friend, David, so engrossed me in greetings and reminiscences and interrogations that I continued, despite a disquieting chill in my marrow, to wear the somewhat lighter overcoat, protecting only one arm with the slightly thicker overcoat, which I should assuredly have been wearing in order to avoid this probably thus avoidable touch of influenza with which I must begin my--under otherwise auspicious aspects--visit to New York, and all, let me charge, on account of your beastly, and by me long foresworn, climate.

Delightful as this is, I am not at all sure I believe it. Witter Bynner claimed to have written it down at the time James said it--to him, I assume. But could anyone really have retained this long enough to write it down? And anyway, Witter Bynner was one of the conspirators in a famous literary hoax, the Spectric school of poetry. I remember reading about that hoax in my teens, and being a little puzzled, because I couldn't really see any difference in the hoax poems and some of the seriously-intended work of the early 20th century, or for that matter of the then-present, and even the now-present.

I also learned from the American anecdotes volume that Edgar Allan Poe's mother called him Eddie.


Tom Waits has a very poignant song about an estate sale or a flea market and the sadness of keepsakes that eventually are no longer kept, "A Soldier's Things". 

A tinker, a tailor, a soldier's things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks
Oh, and this one is for bravery
Oh, and this one is for me
And everything's a dollar in this box 


I didn't start this post intending to dwell on mortality, but: it just happens that Saturday afternoon I had the new and decidedly odd experience of seeing my future grave site. My wife and I have been saying for some years that we should go ahead and make some of those arrangements so that when the time comes the one still living and/or our children won't have to deal with it. 

There is a Catholic cemetery on this side of the bay, six or seven miles from our house, in an area called Belforest. A little before the turn of the 20th century there was a significant migration of Italians into this area. They were prominent in the founding of the little town of Daphne, and many of them farmed the flat and open land out in the county east of town. Their names are still prominent locally, which gives the place a slightly different flavor from the very Anglo northern end of the state where I grew up. They established the first Catholic parish of modern times in this immediate area, and, a few miles out in the country, a cemetery. It's relatively small, four or five acres I'd guess, and only about half-populated. It's much less out in the country than it was when we first moved here in 1992; at the time it seemed isolated, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but also a little raw and unappealing, just a bit of flat land fenced off from the surrounding flat fields. But it doesn't seem isolated now, so many people having moved into this area (a phenomenon I strongly dislike) that there's a big subdivision across the road, and I suppose in another twenty or thirty years, fifty at most, it won't even seem rural anymore. And I suppose I'd rather have the isolation, modern development being the ugly business that it is. But more importantly, it's planted with live oaks that have grown significantly since I first saw them twenty or so years ago. And it's a Catholic cemetery, consecrated ground, though I'm not at all sure what the import of that is. 

It's a little absurd that one should wish to be buried in a location that is pleasant. But I like the fact that this one is. So is the name Belforest, presumably "beautiful forest." Though it surely can't matter to me, the climate here is such that I don't like the idea of being buried in a place that has no shade. Our plot is over in that open space to the left of this tree, which my wife has already referred to as "our tree." 


52 Albums, Week 45: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band)


I don't know, maybe you had to be there. I suspect this album and this band don't have a great many fans who didn't experience their music when it was new in the late '60s. The album is as good a candidate as any that's appeared in this series to meet with enthusiasm from absolutely no one apart from the person who's writing about it. Perhaps Rupert Hine's Waving Not Drowning ranks with it in general listener non-appeal, though for utterly different reasons.

I'm writing about it anyway, partly because there's always a chance that someone who's never heard it will read this and listen to the sample tracks and be converted, and partly in simple homage. The Incredible String Band were a decidedly eccentric outfit and were never widely popular, but they had and still have a very zealous following. They were very important to me at one time, and still are on the rare occasions when I take those old albums off the shelf. Their music was eclectic to say the least, and their richly imagistic lyrics spoke of an equally eclectic spirituality with a significant Christian element. It was a light to me in some fairly dark times, almost the only thread connecting me to the transcendent and to a sense of (or just hope for) cosmic meaning.

"Those albums" are principally three: this one and the two that came a year or so after it, Wee Tam and Big Huge. The latter two were originally intended to be a double LP but for whatever reason, probably the record company's wish, were released separately in the U.S. There's little reason to choose any of the three over the others: all have many great and a few not-so-great tracks. There are a number of other albums, and most of them, too, have some very-good-to-great stuff. I own them all (I think) and am happy to have them, but the good in those is to my taste mostly not quite so brilliant as the best of these three, and is lesser in proportion to the not-as-good.

The band consisted principally of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, with some assistance on this and a few other albums from their then-girlfriends, Licorice and Rose (respectively?). They started out as a folk duo, and more or less remained in the not-rock-and-roll area. I will send you to Wikipedia or AllMusic for more information on their history. 

I first heard of them when they were compared very negatively to Pentangle in a review, treated simply as failed folkies. It was an early lesson in not trusting critics unless and until you have reason to think they are more or less on your wavelength. I had a similar experience with Astral Weeks, a reviewer in one of the mainstream stereo magazines dismissed it as a lot of meaningless yelling; I was stunned when I finally heard the album.

"Koeeoaddi There" is the first song on the album, and therefore the first of the ISB's music that I ever heard, and I was immediately fascinated. There's a bit of a story about that first hearing, which I relate in my forthcoming-one-way-or-another book--nothing dramatic, just a very vivid memory. I've made occasional efforts since the internet, Google, Facebook, etc., became available to find the person who made that introduction, but haven't been able to. I'd like to thank him. (He also gave me my real introduction to Leonard Cohen, whom I'd mistakenly dismissed because I'd only heard "Suzanne" and thought it was sentimental.)

One learned pretty quickly to distinguish the Robin songs from the Mike songs, even more perhaps than the Paul songs from the John songs in the Beatles. "Koeeoaddi There" is obviously a Robin song. "A Very Cellular Song" is a Mike song. It's thirteen minutes long. The "Goodnight" part is a Bahamian gospel song. The Grateful Dead used to close out their shows with it.


I said the ISB had a cult following. Some members of that cult, having spent years amassing information on the band and posting it on a web site, published a book called beGLAD: An Incredible String Band Compendium. Another long-time fan provided an introduction: Rowan Williams, who was at the time he wrote it Archbishop of Canterbury. 

There was no one quite like them.... If I go back to the start, I'd have to say again that it was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such--risking the embarrassment that so regularly goes with my particular vocation--I'd also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and makes you laugh and which above all makes the landscape different once and for all.

I wouldn't say it was a discovery of poetry for me--Williams is a couple of years younger than me, and I had already made that discovery when I heard the group--but otherwise, yes. None of that would have made much difference if it hadn't been set in very appealing, rich, and imaginative music which, though obviously and even amusingly of the '60s, nevertheless sounds as fresh today as it did fifty years ago--at least to those of us who, as I said earlier, were there. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, November 5, 2017

The November-December issue of Touchstone contains an article on Charles Williams's novel Many Dimensions. I dislike reading about books I haven't read but which I intend or at least hope to read. With a lot of classics that's almost impossible, because so much has been written about them. But Williams is relatively obscure, and I've read and liked at least three of his seven novels, and intend to read the others. So I decided that before reading the Touchstone piece I would read the novel itself. Having had all seven on my shelf for many years, I picked this one up.

But as soon as I'd read the first few paragraphs I realized that I had already read it.

The Persian, sitting back in his chair, and Sir Giles, sitting forward on the edge of his, were both gazing at the thing which lay on the table. It was a circlet of old, tarnished, and twisted gold, in the center of which was set a cubical stone measuring about half an inch every way, and having apparently engraved on it certain Hebrew letters. 

The description of the stone told me that this was a book I'd read roughly thirty years ago, and liked.  But I didn't remember it very clearly, so I proceeded.

Someone asks if the letters are important:

"They are the letters of the Tetragrammaton," the Persian said drily, "If you call that important. But they are not engraved on the Stone; they are in the centre--they are, in fact, the Stone."

The circlet in which the Stone is set is the crown of Suleiman ben Daood. It wasn't until I was twenty or thirty pages along that it dawned on me that "Suleiman ben Daood" is "Solomon, son of David." To say that the Stone has magical powers would be to trivialize it. Even to say that it has powers is not fitting: it is power in some sense. In fact it seems to be everything in some sense. It's not God, but it is somehow very intimately connected with God. At one point it is called the First Matter, the first thing created by God, and said to have been in the possession of Adam in Eden. For many centuries it has been in the possession of Muslims, who have kept it secret and dormant. But it has been stolen and sold to Sir Giles Tumulty.

Tumulty is a kindred spirit to Josef Mengele (though the book was written in 1931, before Mengele's name and deeds were known), an amoral inquirer who seeks knowledge as a means of power and is psychopathically devoid of human sympathy. Also present at the meeting described above is his nephew Reginald Montague, who wants to use the Stone to make money. The Persian is Prince Ali, attached to the Persian Embassy in London, and outraged by the blasphemy of Tumulty's possession of the Crown and the Stone. Tumulty and Montague discover that a person holding the Stone and willing himself to be somewhere else will be instantly transported there. So Montague immediately conceives a business plan: to sell chips of the Stone at enormous prices to wealthy people who would like to be able to travel anywhere instantly.

Unsure about several legal aspects of the venture, Montague decides to consult another uncle, Lord Christopher Arglay, Chief Justice of England. He and Tumulty take the Stone to Arglay, show it to him and to his young secretary, Chloe Burnett, and demonstrate the one power that they've so far discovered. They also learn that an attempt to chip off a piece of the Stone creates a duplicate of it--a copy in their word, a Type in the word of those who have more understanding of it. 

And thus is set in motion a story which is both exciting and profound. It is fundamentally a three-way struggle over the Stone. There is the Tumulty-Montague party, which wants to use it for various instrumental purposes, including especially the making of large sums of money, though Tumulty himself is not interested in that possibility--he is less human than that. Soon there are multiple Types of the Stone abroad, and more powers are discovered, powers that bring people into conflict with each other. One such power is that of healing, so now there is a party that wants to distribute it everywhere and heal every physical ill. But that is not in the interests of those who want to sell it as a means of transportation and need to keep it rare and expensive. And so on. 

Then there are the Persians, led by Prince Ali, who want to retrieve the Stone and put it back where it belongs (wherever that is) and are quite willing to kill any infidel who possesses it, or one of its Types.

And there is the party which wants to do what is right, what is most in keeping with the nature of  the Stone. This party consists chiefly of Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett, with a few allies, including a wise Muslim called the Hajii who objects to Ali's violent single-mindedness. 

Arglay, Chloe, and Tumulty are the chief characters. Tumulty is simple enough, perhaps a little overdone in his brutality and spiteful pride. But Arglay, Chloe, and their relationship could be studied at length. Arglay's concern with Law and Justice assumes cosmic significance. And Chloe--well, she is really in many ways the center of things, eventually...well, that would be giving away too much. The relationship between them is a beautiful picture of the masculine and feminine dynamic. It's not romantic--he is many years older than she and more of a father, even addressing her as "child." But if it's father and child, it's not father and son, which would be a very different thing. He is master and she is both daughter and servant. And yet it is she who leads the way in their understanding of the Stone. She alone of all the characters has a direct intuitive grasp of what it represents, and of how one ought to comport oneself toward it, beginning with reverence. She doesn't learn this by reasoning or study; she simply sees it, and teaches him. Arglay asks her what she "would have the Stone to be," which seems to mean at least as much "What do you believe it to be?" as "What do you want it to be?" 

"I am afraid of it but I--don't laugh--I love it."

Lord Arglay looked at her thoughtfully. Then, "Do you believe in God?" he asked.

"I suppose so," Chloe said. "I think I do when I look at the Stone. But otherwise--I don't know."

"Well," said Lord Arglay, "I will make you a fair proposal--I will if you will. It's all perfectly ridiculous, but since I saw those people [Tumulty and others of the first party] this morning I feel I must be with them or against them. So I suppose I'm against them. Not, mind you, on the evidence. But I refuse to let you believe in God all by yourself."

Chloe looked up at him, her eyes shining. "But dare I believe that the Stone is of God?" she said. "And what do I mean by God--except..." she half added and stopped.

"Except--?" Arglay asked, but she silently refused to go on and he said: "If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and not sit in the seat of Giles Tumulty...."

If that dialog intrigues you, read the book. Philosophy and theology aside, it is really quite a good story.

I'll also note in passing the very respectful treatment of Islam in the novel. Christianity in fact is hardly mentioned at all; the English characters (and one American), are pretty much the sort of post-Christian moderns we know well, even, more or less, Arglay and Chloe in the beginning. Interestingly, Prince Ali is representative of the fanatical and violent aspect of Islam with which we are too familiar--he threatens to rouse "all the places of Islam" against the English until the blasphemy is avenged and the Stone returned. But the Hajji (see Wikipedia for a bit of information about the title) is a deeply devout and very wise man. And one whom the prince, for his own well-being, would have done well to heed.

I know I've written about Williams more than once here. I think this post is the first; it's mainly about All Hallows' Eve. And there is this book review of Descent Into Hell which was published some thirty-five years ago, but which seems still fairly well on target to me. As with these others, there is a good deal in Many Dimensions that I don't understand very clearly. 

I'm fairly sure that I've read at least one other Williams novel but I'm not sure now (obviously) which one it was. Now that I think of it, I believe it involved the Holy Grail. War In Heaven, perhaps. 

The Touchstone piece, by the way, focuses on the Stone, and the uses to which those who see it as an instrument wish to put it--as a metaphor for technology and its perils. It's an interesting piece, but I'd like to know more about the Stone itself. I don't entirely understand what it is supposed to be, and I don't know to what extent it and its powers are Williams's invention, and to what extent, if any, he is drawing upon existing legends. 

This review of a Williams biography at The University Bookman is a nice brief overview of his life and work. I quibble with that opening sentence, though: at least since the early '80s, when Eerdmans reissued his novels, Williams is considered one of the Inklings, and has been known for many years among those who are interested in Tolkien and Lewis. Relatively obscure, yes, but certainly not forgotten until 2008, as the writer seems to imply. 

This is the cover of the edition of Many Dimensions that I have. On the lurid side but well-founded in the book. 


52 Albums, Week 44: (think of these as a triptych) (Neil Young)

I’ve been trying for months to decide which of three consecutive Neil Young albums to review: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After the Gold Rush (1970), and Harvest (1972). I give up so I’m going to talk about all three. I’ve never owned any of these three records. For a time, they weren’t on Spotify so I had to settle for Youtube. Now they are on Spotify, so I get to listen to a different set of ads. I don’t know much about his other music except Rust Never Sleeps.

Week43-everybody knows this is nowhere cover

Week43-after the gold rush cover

Week43-harvest cover

Each album is distinctive, but they all seem to go together like a triptych. Everybody is county/folk/bluesish/hard rock. After the Goldrush emphasized harmony and piano and is (relatively) less jammish. Harvest has the mouth harp and the steel guitar—and some orchestration. It also is the most cleanly produced. On all the albums his guitar playing is dirty, but it seems appropriate (I mean “awesome”). The albums are well-produced in a way to accent the positive quality of his distinctive guitar style. Crazy Horse was the main backup on Everybody and After the Gold Rush. Harvest didn’t have Crazy Horse, but had James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash plus some other session musicians.

Young’s distinctive voice should be irritating, but it isn’t. Why he sings in falsetto, I don’t know. He is one of those singers who can get away with a weird voice—like Dylan or, to a lesser extent, Jon Anderson. I could listen to all three of these albums in a row and not tire of the voice. His producers use more or less reverb in a way that enhances the sense of the song. On “A Man Needs a Maid,” for instance, there is none whatsoever, which gives it more of a sense of loneliness and isolation. This is enhanced by the pronounced reverb on the previous song, “Harvest.”

He is a confessional singer like James Taylor and Carole King, who were also recording at that time, but his interior life is much more interesting than either of theirs—and more poetic. I must admit many of Young’s lyrics are opaque to me. Somehow, though, the evocative images coupled with the arrangement make them emotionally charged. When they do make sense, such as in “Old Man,” or almost so, as in “Cowgirl in the Sand,” they are great.

I will include my favorite cut from all three. These are arbitrary, especially for Harvest where it is a three-way tie.

“Cowgirl in the Sand.” I chose this one for the music. The lyrics I’m not so sure of. In the acoustic intro you can barely hear a note or two from the rhythm guitar in the “right” speaker before it breaks loose when the song starts in earnest. 

“After the Gold Rush.” Man, what a song! Just Neil, the piano and the French Horn. And the dream is so rich and in some ways terrifying, including the space ship taking the remnant to a new home.

A Man Needs a Maid.” You can just feel his pain and the tension between just giving up by getting a maid and actually seeing her again. It has a cool use of the orchestra’s bells.

Probably if it was a different day I would have chosen “Old Man” or “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which is a great song to play on the guitar.

Young supported Reagan in the 1980s, but I don’t think he could be accused of being a Republican. He is more a libertarian. He sometimes gets political in his lyrics, such as “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” He doesn’t seem to like the South much.

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.