Friday, May 29, 2009

Big Star

I've been on a bit of a Big Star kick lately, especially Radio City. Today, listening to it, I was struck by the perfection of these lines:

Sometimes I think
She'll make me forget
What I need the most to remember.

Now, those are perfect lines of poetry, necessarily, but they are perfect popsong lines. They capture so well the simultaneous longing, fear, desire, and uncertainty that is adolescence and that is rock and roll.

Radio City. The song is "Way Out West." The band is Big Star. If you buy the CD as it's currently available, you also get the band's debut (#1 Record). 24 great songs, folks, including "Thirteen," "Ballad of El Goodo," and "September Gurls." About as good as ultra-polished (but ragged) 1970s poprock magic could get.

Paul Westerberg: "I never travel far without a little Big Star."

Typos in Poetry

I read through last year’s “this is what I believe” paper before I started work on my response to a new version of that assignment that I’m giving this year’s AP English students and I found this poem, a poem I had completely forgotten:

“Off in the darkness hourses moved restlessly”
- a typo in Clifford Simak’s A Heritage of Stars

We believed they were horses; and so
We saddled up, we rode expectantly
Through the long day and into the night.
Then we dismounted; and slept; and still
They continued to carry us
- The hours. They wouldn’t stop.
They carried us clean away.

- Albert Goldbarth (2005)

In my paper from last year, I used the poem as a little bit of a joke, but also as an illustration of the power of perspective and how every individual controls his own perspective. If you want, the poem is depressing. If you want, the poem is funny. If you want, the poem is instructive. If you want, the poem is a reminder of the wonderful elasticity of language. When I read it, I think about perspective.

Several years ago, a student (with an absolutely phenomenal eye for film, for images, incidentally) gave me a copy of The Lorax. And in it, he wrote, “For someone with the mind of a cynic and the heart of a romantic.” And since perspective is everything, I’m free to disagree with him. I’ve never been sure, after all, that he got it quite right. But in the seeming paradox of that dedication, there is truth.

I teach. I’m a teacher. But I’m also a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend. I’m a student, a reader, a writer, a musician, and I used to be a climber. I’m a cook and a brewer. I’m a runner, a listener, and, at some point, I’d like to be a gardener. I think I’m probably, in some ways, a hermit.

At any given moment, I can perceive myself as more or less of any one of those beings – to say nothing of countless others I could list. And it’s in my power to do so. It’s my choice.

But the poem: the poem is fantastic. Fantastic. The beautiful human capacity to make and remake the world at will. Exactly what Wallace Stevens returns to again and again in his poetry.

Which means that I need to read some Wallace Stevens today.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Neil Young's Archives (Take Two)

I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I ordered the Blu-Ray version of the Archives box. I can't justify it, necessarily, and I'm sure that, like Dave Eggers writes, "None of this was necessary," but I thought about it, considered it, decided against it, considered it some more, laughed it off, thought about it, and finally ordered it.

The way I figure it: if nothing else, getting older, getting a job, achieving some form of financial independence and (relative) comfort, must carry with it some perks, right? And one of those perks -- at least as I have found -- is that, within reason, if there is, let's say, a book I want to read, or a piece of music I want to hear, or some crazy spontaneously-fermented barrel-aged funkness from Belgian that I want to try, I can buy the damn thing.

So I bought the damn thing.

And maybe the Blu-Ray set is not within reason, but, you know, it's not like throwing the money into a retirement fund is any more within reason.

The Road

Some thoughts on the trailer for The Road:

I’ve waited a long time for this. The movie, as many of you might know already, was supposed to be released last autumn. Obviously, it didn’t make that deadline. It looks, though, like it will be released this coming autumn. Thus, the trailer.

I’m not pleased with what appears to be some manner of sorta kinda little bit of an explanation for what the hell happened to the world. I love the fact that McCarthy never specifies, that he leaves it at “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions,” that the book never becomes, explicitly, a political screed or environmental warning.

Maybe, though, the kinda sorta explanation won’t make the film itself. Maybe?

And I’m not pleased with the truck that belches smoke from both sides. Sure, the image communicates, as an image should, and sure, it looks threatening, and, sure, it conjures up a lot of associations (all scary), but it goes too far. It’s too much.

And I’m worried about the camera that swoops up into the sky during what appears to be a chase scene.

And I recognize that the trailer may very well be sending a dramatically different message about the film than would otherwise be warranted. In some ways, it makes sense, financial sense, to market the thing as a post-apocalyptic thriller. And, hell, in some ways it is a post-apocalyptic thriller. It is the tone, though, the tone that needs to be right.

But, I’m excited about a lot of what I see, too. The look of the bridge with the abandoned semi is fantastic. And I love the bulk of the clothing the father is wearing and the desolation and fatigue visible on the characters. The dunes and the beach look amazing.

I’m intrigued by the way in which some of the father’s thoughts have been given to Charlize Theron as dialogue. I look forward to seeing how they handle other aspects of the strong “interiority” of the novel.

And, especially, I’m glad the thing is going to get released.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Neil Young's Archives

For those interested in such things, there is a quasi-demo for disc eight of Neil Young's archives. Not a demo for the CD version, clearly, but the DVD or Blu-Ray rendition. It's not a complete look (video doesn't play, for example), but it is an intriguing taste (if I may mix my sensory appeals).

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dylan Stops Time

I let Bob Dylan back into my life this winter. I do this every couple of years. He’s never fully banished, but in an off-time, I might listen to the occasional record (say, one a week), maybe put on a live recording every month or so, and focus my energy elsewhere – Neil Young, perhaps, or Sam Cooke, or Bill Evans, or the Hold Steady, or A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

But then something happens: a new outtake is found mouldering in an obscure Columbia vault somewhere, or Dylan puts a new song on a soundtrack, or the particular spiral of a falling leaf strikes me, or I get fascinated by the shape of a snowflake, or I read an out-of-context quote somewhere about the sound of the second acoustic guitar on “Desolation Row” and I’m off. Three out of four records I play are Dylan’s. Eight out of ten songs. I read or re-read books, articles and essays. I construct playlists with nothing but alternate takes of released songs. I revise my Infidels running order. I evangelize on the holy beauty of “Shelter from the Storm” and its relationship to “Up to Me.” I compare the three different studio takes of “Idiot Wind” (the test pressing, the one on The Bootleg Series Volume Two, and the one released on Blood on the Tracks). I pretend that there is some value in the time I spend considering how the post-2000 live arrangement of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” fundamentally alters not just the mood of the song but its very meaning.

In any case, here’s what I’m obsessed with today (and if I knew how to embed an audioclip, I would, so feel free to step up and help out): the way that Dylan played and sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1966. Now, I love the slow, scarred 1995 examples (the pathos of a line like “My weariness amazes me” sung in the ravaged but unbeaten mid-90s voice is undeniable), and the more stately arrangements of late 2000, but these versions from 1966 are on an entirely different planet. Part of it is the warmth of the voice: it’s that thick Blonde on Blonde voice as it works its way through the cascading images, that voice already so different than the one that sang it upon the song’s completion two years earlier. And part of it is the suspend-time, suspend-disbelief harmonica solo, particularly the final one, as Dylan whirls around two or three motifs, circles them again and again before finally settling on a piercing, insistent, and ex-ten-ded high note, holding it, holding it, holding it before finally releasing. Part of it is the knowledge that that final, breathless crash into the song’s conclusion would be followed by a short break and then the Sonic Death Monkey wallop of Dylan and the Hawks crashing at terminal velocity into “Tell Me Mama” and the rest of the electric set. But mostly, and in particular, it’s this: in the final verse, Dylan sings, “Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

(And it’s not just that line that’s killing me, although it is a quintessential bit of Dylan writing: an impossibility pushed across as a wish, its seeming positive nature undercut by the knowledge that even if we could arrive at tomorrow today, every today we’ve ever lived is now yesterday, is now behind us, and living for the sake of the past, like living for the sake of the future, takes us, if nothing else, firmly outside of today. It’s annihilation. It’s the desire to escape today and the promise that tomorrow, he will focus on today, but some part of him knowing (as it must know) that, of course, by tomorrow, today is the past. And, perfectly, the preceding lines are, “With all memory and fate / driven deep beneath the waves”).

In this version, on this night, on this tour, Dylan sings it as, “Let me forget about two-mah… row.” He inserts this pause, this space, this emptiness, this possibility in between the second and third syllables of “tomorrow.” It stops time. And that hesitation, that pause, that breath, sends me back to the song over and over (and reminds me of Paul Williams’ insistence that the performance of a song is, in fact, the song).

It’s that pause. It’s all of the tension created as Dylan makes you wait. And makes you wait. It’s what he does with the harmonica a minute later, but here it’s his voice. Worlds are created in that pause. And then, fully, thickly, wonderfully, he finishes it. Resolves the tension. Puts time into motion again. Takes us out of suspended animation (a state of bliss, perhaps, but also a living death) and sets us free.

It’s a good thing.

You can hear it, by the way, on The Bootleg Series Volume Four: Live 1966. Which you should own already: the concert contained within, truly, is Some Important Shit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Torture News

While I finish War and Peace at home, I am reading William Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means.

Which is good.

Which is not the 4000 page version, but the "condensed" single volume.

Which is not fun. The violence thing. The study after study of assault, of conquest, of liquidation, of infanticide, of patricide. The study of Cortes. Of Stalin. Of Pol Pot. Of murder by starvation, by hanging, by sword, by gun, by arrow, by work. Of war for land, for honor, for glory, for revenge, for faith.

And of torture.

Which ties all too well to every damn torture memo that I've read over the last two months, to every revelation of destroyed records, to every empty rationale for approving "new" methods.

Which ties all too well to this story that a former student sent me this morning: "The Torture Business."

And, see, I want to be shocked by this. I want to be stunned that no only can we torture, will we torture, will we attempt to figure out and justify torture methods that we previously shunned, but that we will also bid this work out to independent contractors so that said contractors, said business, can profit from our government's belief that torture is acceptable. That torture, in essence, can be profitable. The business of government is business, I guess, even when that business is torture, degradation, and dehumanization.

But I'm not. Not shocked. Not at this point. Angry, yes. Sad, yes. But not shocked. Which also makes me angry. And sad.

Read it, if you wish.

And read the Vollmann, too. It doesn't fit the beautiful spring that finally arrived here after 117 days of rain, but it is worth reading.


Because it's spring and that girl is beautiful.