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January 2008

January 30, 2008

Take a Sad Song & Make it Better: Another Week Purchasing Music


Pressed, I would define spirituality as the shadow of light humanity casts as it moves through the darkness of everything that can be explained. I think of Buddha's smile and Einstein's halo of hair. I think of birthday parties. I think of common politeness, and the breathtaking attempt to imagine what someone else is feeling. I think of spirit lamps.

--John Updike

I watched Bush's final State of the Union address yesterday. It was a mistake. I had just purchased Bruce Springsteen's Storytelling concert DVD, released just a little while back to coincide with his Devils and Dust album, and it lay on my desk unwatched. The lame duck President's 45 minute address took sorry precedence.

$2billion was pledged to combat global warming, and Pelosi rose to her feet far quicker than Cheney to applaud Bush's comment that the US would not accept genocide in Sudan. The other 40 minutes were spent examining Cheney's face for signs of life, and waiting for cut-shots to Obama, who was proudly standing next to his most recent endorsee Ted Kennedy.

How much sparkle and light will Camelot beam onto Obama? As much as the American people want it to, and these have been some dark times indeed. I'm betting that Americans will incline to recall Jack's youth, vitality, and his sole inaugural speech over that national nightmare in November and Chappaquiddick. Let's see. Super Tuesday is less than a week away.

What won't be so easily forgotten by Black Americans will be the gunning down of its leaders in the time after Camelot. Things really do fall apart. Between JFK's assassination in 1963, and Bobby's five years later, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were gunned down in cold blood. In 1969 Black Panther leader Fred Hampton would suffer the same fate. So how safe is Obama? I listened to an interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson on NPR a few days ago--a former presidential hopeful himself--and he said that America had ''turned a corner'' on the matter of race. Perhaps. But a lunatic fringe is a lunatic fringe, and the jangly historic overtures that hang heavy over the coupling of Obama and the younger brother of Jack and Bobby Kennedy must be keeping a few people up at night (in the good ol' US of A).

As far as I know, the Boss hasn't pledged his advocacy for any presidential candidate... so far. That said, until he provided as much for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, Springsteen had, despite performing many politicised benefit concerts, never endorsed any politician.

In 2004 Bruce worked his home state of New Jersey, which showed to be surprisingly marginal (Kerry took it in the end), and helped add substantially to Kerry's coffers, and it helps that he's still putting out great music, evidenced by his last three studio releases. Classics? No. But they're solid and often moving and tracks like ''Jesus was an Only Son'' from the acoustic album Devils and Dust recalls for me some of the finer moments of Nebraska.

Like Updike, and like you, I think of a whole bunch of things when I think of ''spirituality''. I think of Bobby Kennedy's uncanny strength and drive after the murder of his brother, and of the wise and intuitively calming--not to mention improvised-- speech he gave to hundreds (thousands?) in inner Indianapolis when news of Martin Luther King's assassination came through. Riots broke out in 60 cities when the news broke, and more than 40 people lost their lives, but there were no riots in Indianapolis that night. One wonders.

I also think of the shared feeling of loss and, because of that sharing, the bright and freshened connections with those close to me as we drive outta town listening to Springsteen. The Boss has accompanied me on many a road trip, and it always seems perfect. There's your spirituality--sharing/feeling the harmonious and electric cramping of nerves and melancholy and the need to keep on going in songs like ''Blinded by the Light'' and ''The River''. We're tired and jaded, but baby, we're gonna keep on driving through the night. Hey--it might even be fun.

Records/songs bought:

Feist The Reminder
Pete Rock & CL Smooth The Main Ingredient
Caribou (Manitoba) Up in Flames
Thurston Moore Trees Outside the Academy
Buddy Holly Best Of
Iggy Pop Best Of
Everything But the Girl The Platinum Collection
Don McLean ''Orphans of Wealth''
Warren Zevon ''Excitable Boy''

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 9:58 AM

January 22, 2008

Songs/Albums Bought This Week & the Lessons Learned


Smif-n-Wessun ''Wreckonize'' (remix) (1995): This song has proven tough to find. Originally appearing as the b-side to the New Yorker's ''Sound Bwoy Bureill'', I first heard this non-LP version as a Youtube video two years ago.

The song is much different to the version which appeared on the group's first album Dah Shinin', and, I think, superior. Remixed with Bill Withers'/Grover Washington's ''Just the Two of Us'' the two rappers also altered all of the lyrics to the song's verses; they now stand as an earnest ''rising up/staying strong'' plea for self-awareness. At least, I think so:

Early to rise, so wake/
wake before day break/
Meditating on the steps I take/
I realise there's a lot at stake.

Last week, I found the CD single on Amazon for a cool US$100. Then I discovered the track on the iTunes store for US$1.69. My lesson? The iTunes store is awesome.

Van Morrison Astral Weeks (1968): Proves that soul and vitality may be achieved through a process that could prove fatal if repeated: namely, artistically mapping the surfeit of human pain and suffering and pin-pointing its anchor--isolation.

It is both a harrowing and comforting album. Harrowing because Van sings so close to the bone; comforting because it's good to know we share this earth with such talented canaries who can work so close to, and so compassionately with, the coal face.

OST Juno (2008): Belle and Sebastian, Mott the Hoople, Velvet Underground, Buddy Holly, and a score by Kimya Dawson and her old band the Moldy Peaches--what could be better? For me this week, very little else.

The Buddy Holly song, ''Dearest'' sent me rocketing back to the ol' days when Dad would play him incessantly. I learnt the story pretty well--you know, ''the Day the Music Died''--when Richie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly perished when their small aircraft crashed into an Iowan field on February 3, 1959. Buddy was just 22, and yet had already carved a musical career so vivid and exciting that two teenagers called Lennon and McCartney were taking note on the other side of the Atlantic.

My father played a lot of Don McLean also, and so McLean's famous 1971 eulogy of the crash marked out a special place for me, too. Having now witnessed 1,001 pub-band covers of ''American Pie'', and seen Madonna chew it up into a pulpy mess, I may have had enough.

The soundtrack's final song is of the film's two leads--Ellen Page and Michael Cera--covering the Moldy Peaches' ''Anyone Else But You''. At the close of the film, the two teen lovers stoop it with their guitars, each taking turns at singing the verses. The tone of the scene is perfect. So is the song:

Here is the church and here is the steeple
We sure are cute for two ugly people
I don't see what anyone can see, in anyone else
...But you.

The soundtrack's clever and warm, just like the film it's nestled in (other artists featured include: Cat Power, Sonic Youth, The Kinks, and children's artist Barry Louis Polisar).

Van Morrison It's All Right (2004?): After multiple listens of Astral Weeks, I wondered if anyone could ever sound so bloody haunting as the original existentialist mystic, or whatever the hell Van the Man became when he started putting lyrics and tunes to our psychic stench. Maybe not--but on this record (a random collection of songs, not an album proper) I discovered ''T.B. Sheets'', a ''monstrously powerful'' blues track that stretches creepily for ten-minutes and induces claustrophobia. I'm serious. ''T.B.'' here means tuberculosis, and the raw, bluesy vehicle carries Van's tortured remembrance of being bedside to a lover dying of the disease.

I recalled the track from the opening of Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead (Marty loves Van) where the song provides the scene with the death-and-ghosts-are-everywhere otherness which would more or less remain as the film's defining phantasmata. The kicker--with the film and with the song--is that we once knew the ghosts before they were dead.

But skip away from this, and buried down the bottom of the disc is a live recording of ''Chick-a-boom''--a Latino stomper with a monster riff and Van's inspired wauling can, this time, have some fun:

A-hey, girl,
I'm goin' away,
but I'm comin' back
with a ginger cat.
What ya' think a' that?

I must have listened to this a dozen times on the first day I heard it. It's a classic to walk to, and an absolute relief to hear Van having some fun. At least, I hope he is.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 12:46 PM

January 16, 2008

Nobody's Smiling--Listening to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks


Fact: Van Morrison was 22--or 23--years-old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it. What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralysed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.... Maybe what it boils down to is one moment's knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict the hurt.

--Lester Bangs on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks

I had a nightmare a few nights back. I was standing in a crowded paddock, the central part of a community fair. It was dusk, and the dream atmosphere was creaking with the toxic portent found in the Coen Brothers' vision of Texas.

A squadron of planes flew high overhead, offloading hundreds of parachutists. Some carried banners listing the thanks of the fair's organisers. The darkening sky quickly filled with bodies and flags, and the crowd's pulse quickened a little. It all unravelled quickly.

Discernible was a pocket of 50 or so jumpers whose 'chutes had not opened, and they fell like black sheet rain, pushed at an obscene angle by the wind. I scanned the area of the paddock where I judged they would fall--about 300 metres away--and watched in horror. As the men crashed to earth they flattened tens of onlookers. The body count would be high.

With a few others, I began to sprint over to the crash site. I got half way before I thought: "What will I do when I get there? I'm not skilled to help these people, and so is it worth absorbing this horror scene, which will live with me for the rest of my life?" As I slowed I noticed a young, blonde newsreader lying on the ground, wrestling with what appeared to be the demonically possessed leads of her microphone and recording equipment. They snaked around her neck, and as I ran over to her I noticed the blind panic on her pale face.

As I began to loosen the cords, I realised that in fact there was nothing demonic here; rather it was her own wrestling and writhing with the wires that encouraged their death grip. As I loosened the leads, and attempted to calm her, they came away easily. She was saved--she had just needed to control her fear. And I had done something, after all. I woke dripping wet, showered, and went to work.

That day at work I thought of the Canadian girl who had sat on the train tracks at Itaewon station in Seoul. With my prompting and pulling, she came back off. I'm sure she always intended to. What I thought about more, though, was the paralysed boyfriend standing on the platform, and the riding around with the two of them for an hour on the train afterwards. I won't forget her screaming, nor will I forget the eyes of the guy. They contained horrible things, but I won't bother to describe them here.

The crash came later, after I had said goodbye to the couple--the shock of recognition, the proximity of death, the physiological break-up that comes post-adrenalin rush. Help came in the way of an American football match, bagels and companionship, but I eventually had to make the long cross-town journey back home. It was a lonely and miserable time.

The next week a friend with a big mouth mentioned my story to a US Army Ranger. The Ranger said some nice things, I told him I didn't want to talk about it, and asked him instead about Middle-Eastern operations. "I can't even talk to my wife about these things," he said. We departed. Once you see anguish--I mean really see it--it stretches forever and inspires vertigo. It ain't up for conversation.

A few weeks back, between Christmas and New Year's, that time when, around these parts at least, the psychic pollution stinks to heaven, I saw two guys duking it out in the carpark of the local KFC. No biggie. I was carrying booze home to assist with the imminent heartbreaking departure--my best friend and lover and I would, if luck prevailed, reminisce warmly, and then, not so luckily, make our final, very wet goodbyes. And so I kept walking, keeping my eye on the two, when the big guy fell to the ground. And then the boots came down. I switched my iPod off--I would love to tell you what I was listening to, but I can't remember--and ran down to the scene where I gently touched the aggressor's chest and told him that I meant no disrespect, but that perhaps the fight was over.

Rage can have a narrowing effect, that is it effectively arrests your peripheral vision and induces a sort of myopia--you have eyes only for your prey. The guy barely registered my presence.

The police came, the guy with the injuries flipped, and was tasered. And that was that. The cops thanked me and I was back off to my porch to have the most difficult conversation of my life. Selah.

The truth is, I knew the guy in green, the guy that brought the boots down. I mean that he was a stranger, but that I recognised his rage. That was the shock of recognition. The guy in green had been assaulted with a chair in the restaurant (I didn't know this before my intervention) and had kicked back. When I was beaten unrecognisable by four thugs in Northbridge years ago, I stalked back into Northbridge after I had washed my face at home, and spoken to the police. Ostensibly--this is what I told housemates--I was purchasing cigarettes. I wasn't. I wanted vengeance. I was looking for them, and God knows what would have happened if I had found them.

The shock of recognition is sickening. It rattles the teeth. It is barbarism and civilisation circling each other like opposing vultures. It's the space between them that's the bastard.

If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then you look at a wino in a doorway, you've got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other assholes' problems, until you feel like an asshole yourself, so you draw all the appropriate lines. You stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die. So you tussle with yourself. How much of this horror can I actually allow myself to think about?

--Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks

I've never cried on a bus before. That's still the case, but only just after yesterday. I was thinking about Erich Fromm's qualities of mature love--care, responsibility, knowledge, and respect--and how wonderfully (preposterously?) close we had achieved those fine things. And yet it was not enough. Which might be to say that they weren't there in the right amounts. The artist in my ears rapped away and I choked back tears, just because I thought that perhaps anguish may bring us closer to rapture, if we're willing to avoid self-medication and sit down with it. Or--and here's the rub--perhaps I was just bogging down into infantile solipsism.

I got home and put on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks--I'm listening to it now--which may be one of those damned brave/stupid/masochistic searches. It is a difficult album to discuss--Lester had trouble, or, at least, he thought so--because it positively radiates the raw, beautiful energy of a genius attempting to transmit the shocks and tremors that come with a sensitivity to pain--his pain, but mostly others'. It is a deeply compassionate record, and deeply harrowing, as when Van sings about witnessing Madame George, a lonely transvestite who is exploited by the young boys he entertains to keep away the wolves. The important verb there is "witnessing"--it is not just the anguish that exists, but the small death that comes in spectating it and walking away.

Such knowledge is possibly the worst thing that can happen to a person (a lucky person), so it's no wonder that Morrison's protagonist turned away from Madame George, fled to the train station, trying to run as far away from what he'd seen as a lifetime could get him. And no wonder, too, that Van Morrison never came this close to looking life square in the face again, no wonder he turned to Tupelo Honey and even Hard Nose the Highway with its entire side of songs about falling leaves.

There was a funeral today for a TV personality. I clicked on the story online, hoping for a photo of it--a snap of the congregation of mourners, each stricken and holding onto each other. Fucked, eh? And so I listened to Astral Weeks, which said much, much more:

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the backroads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss my eyes
And lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again

--Van Morrison "Astral Weeks" (title song)

And what else is there to say? I love you? Come back? Be strong? Be proud of your strength? Know that it'll lead to more? All of the above? I do not care to ponder on the fact that my mother would listen to this record during extended periods of clinical despair. A line must be drawn somewhere.

On the other hand, it might also be pointed out that desolation, hurt, and anguish are hardly the only things in life, or in Astral Weeks. They're just the things, perhaps, that we can most easily grasp and explicate, which I suppose shows about what level our souls have evolved to.

Old Lester ends his review of Astral Weeks with a poem to juxtapose with the above lyrics. It's quite something:

My heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than those seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.

--Federico Garcia Lorca ("Stranded", 1979)

Make that a water pistol and a cricket bat, and, Lord, we might have a deal.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:40 AM

January 9, 2008

Into the Wild--A film by Sean Penn

into the wild.jpg

When Chris McCandless set out--with ''characteristic immoderation''--for America, his head buzzing with Thoreau's and Tolstoy's writings, he did so not as those men did--looking back and looking forward, but as a young man who had only a grim gut-feeling about his future. In other words, unlike his two heroes, Chris had yet to live a life from which to dislocate himself.

Looking around at his WASPish hive--NASA father, squabbling parents, the prospect of Harvard law and evergreens--Chris summoned an inexhaustible disgust at the spiritual barrenness of it all, and relinquished it. Many of us may have felt similarly, but never had the depth of his righteousness, nor the strength of his will, to do anything about it.

Chris ditched his car, donated his life savings (a cool $16,000) to charity, and dropped his family. He even traded his name in favour of the vaguely heroic, certainly self-aggrandising, Alexander Supertramp. Armed with his books, a tireless self-righteousness, and Herculean will, Alex made the road his spiritual mistress, and conquered the Colorado rapids, wild mountains, and wilder hearts along the way. ''Are you Jesus?'' one travelling hippy asked him, only half-joking. It's a comparison not discouraged by Penn.

The result was mixed. Chris discovered much, learned little, and died, alone, in the Alaskan wilderness at the age of 24. But his adventure was spectacular: in geographic scope, in danger and in determination. Without money or transport, Chris cut across the Wild West trading off his smarts, charm and will. And, for the most part, it worked.

But in Penn's film the stench of obsession is everywhere. As the film cuts around in time, and takes in gorges and deserts, oceans and forests, the wandering Chris mentions to all who will listen that his ultimate destination are the winter backwoods of Alaska. This treacherous, beautiful part of the world will provide Chris with his personal climax, and his single-mindedness perplexes more than a few who meet him. They can sense the extremism in it all; the pulsing extremism in Chris. Perhaps Chris senses it as well, but locates its source in his books. The audience may gradually suspect that his extremism is located in a more banal, but more compelling, arena: his relationship with his parents.

A popular reading of Chris' journey may be to install him as a modern martyr, a shaggy Jesus Christ/Woody Guthrie figure who abandons modern hypocrisy and superficiality for the road. But all the evidence points to Jesus being darn happy with his folks, and Guthrie went on to write a pretty good autobiography and to inspire one of the largest artists of the last century. Chris' legacy is not so assured.

Penn may hate the fact that his great subject should fall beneath the unsteady knife of amateurish psycho-analysis. So be it. Chris' life is such a strange study in desire and denial that I'm unsure of any other option.

The evidence we have is of a young man repulsed by what he considered to be his parents' hollowness and cruelty. Scarred by visions of domestic violence--played out against plush sofas and certificates of professional achievement--Chris was internalising it all and developing a philosophical identity intent on rejection. That he managed to do so secretly for so long is testament to his strength of will.

But the time came to enact his philosophy, and when he did he made the mistake of nominating Thoreau and Tolstoy as its authors, rather than his parents. It's now weeks after having seen the film, and I'm convinced that Chris' journey may be one of the longest and most heroic ''fuck you'' to parents in history--all I did was get my ear pierced. Still, it's not much to hang a life on. Chris may not have wished to contemplate that his grand narratives were inspired by his parents, but until he did, he was on the run.

And his running nearly killed his parents. When you choose to leave a life, in whichever way, you sever deep emotional arteries, and you ain't around to mop up the blood. As an extreme idealist, Chris had worked the ugly trick of transcending himself above the despair he wrought back home. It is as if in turning his back on the WASP milieu he turned his back also on the universally human properties of pain and anguish contained within it. In other words, he was a selfish bastard.

And he fled from others. Continually. Driven by Alaska, Chris turned his back on whirlwind intimacies, leaving in his wake a trail of gooey hearts and wet eyes all over America's West. In perhaps the film's most poignant sequence, Chris meets Ron Franz (played wonderfully by Hal Holbrook), a sad, stoic widower living on the edge of the desert. Ron's life is quiet, defined by discipline and regiment--set meals and times, and a workshop where he works diligently on leather engraving. The quiet dignity of the man is humbling, as is the halo of grief and loneliness that he wears unknowingly.

Chris penetrates the man's heart, opens him up a little, and they share some genuinely warm moments. But the pull of Alaska is always there, and Chris attempts to steal away in the middle of the night. He's stopped by Ron, who offers to drive him some distance north, and which will allow him the opportunity to say goodbye properly.

And so the car stops, as it must, and the old man contemplates resuming his life of loneliness. Choking back tears, he tells Chris that when he dies, so does his name. In that you've rejected your parents, he asks, would you consider allowing me to adopt you?
''Can we talk about this when I get back?'' Chris asks. The old man swallows and nods his approval. It is at that moment that I was convinced that the totality of the world's pain was contained within that small cabin. And, of course, Chris never comes back.

All of this threatens the martyrdom of Chris McCandless, but that isn't to say we aren't left with a courageous man. In all of this philosophising (his and mine) we may forget just how young he was.

And there was much to like about him. It's hard not to like a man who kayaks the rapids, sings ballads at a country hoe-down, operates wheat harvesters, shoots moose, reads the Russians, and talks openly and warmly to all he meets. Chris had a heart the size of King Kong's.

Chris McCandless was beaten, burnt, and blackened by the land and its more hostile inhabitants, and yet... he continued. To point out that there's a fine line between bravery and obsession is to perhaps point out a cliche that's beneath him.

But often-times bravery is simply dealing with what you've got. In not acting spitefully when you're in pain; in not being vengeful when you're betrayed. Admittedly these things lack the glow and heat of Chris' personal philosophy, but they are tough and defining things, and we should stand or fall by them. Chris may have taken all-comers on the road, but he did so because he couldn't take his home.


After the film I picked up Hemingway's complete short stories and thumbed my way to ''The Snows of Kilimanjaro''. In it, a writer lays on the mountain, dying of a gangrenous limb. Physically incapacitated, he drifts into painful autopsies of his failed life:

''But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all. The people he knew now were all much more comfortable when he did not work... They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought that he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body''.

The wife who attempts to comfort him does no such thing--she is one of those who were ''much more comfortable when he did not work''. He stacks on the soul pounds, and gradually ceases writing.

By Chris' own account, he died contentedly amongst the mountains, safe in the knowledge that he had kept his soul lean and hungry. His farewell note, written on the back of the last page of Louis L'Amour's memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, read: ''I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!''

Perhaps the cheeriness was delirium--it's believed that Chris starved to death--or the last defiant act of a stubborn man. It is difficult to think of your soul as lean when your exercise regime has nearly destroyed your family. Perhaps, though, he was content, and if so, it is further evidence of Chris' particularly alluring blend of bravery and obsession, and the discomfiting proximity of those two edges.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 9:22 AM