Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

Revisiting Grand Funk Railroad

July 5, 2018

Many of the thronging hordes that frequent this blog may not have even been alive when the power trio Grand Funk Railroad were in their heyday.

I was around in the late 60s, early 70s when at least one of their songs became unfortunately very popular.  I say “unfortunately” because an almost meaningless song like “We’re An American Band” was constantly on the radio, when they had so many other great rock ‘n’ roll songs we should have heard more of.

However, I can forgive “American Band” every time I hear “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.”  Take a moment now to listen to it…. Isn’t that epic?

I listen to it as if it is a mysterious fable wanting to tell me something. At the end I’m never sure what, but I’m still touched by the telling.

It did get considerable play in its day, despite being 10 minutes long, especially on FM radio at that time, which was almost as free spirited as the early internet.

The song became an unofficial anthem of Vietnam vets, who came to hold the song and its writer Mark Farner in high regard.  It resonated with their experiences wanting to come home from the war zone.

So, Mark Farner on guitar, Don Brewer on drums and Mel Schacher, bass, made up Grand Funk Railroad, which was formed in 1969.  (However, others participated in the future.)  Its original configuration was that of a power trio.

Power Trio!

(“Gramps! Gramps! Whatever is a ‘power trio?”

“Why, little one, for a short time it was a magical combination of musicians for playing rock music.  It was loud, energetic and expressive in a tempestuous time.”)

In those days, some people thought Grand Funk borrowed a lot of their sound from Led Zeppelin, a quartet.  But they were really in the mold of Cream, that famous power trio.

But listening to them as I have been recently, they seem more like a northern yankee version of the Allman Brothers Band, a much larger unit.

The Funk were good.  So together in their playing.  It’s amazing, as was the case with other good power trios, that they could raise such a mighty and melodic wall of sound.

Mark Farner’s lead guitar is often restrained but capable of wonderful passages.

The compilation I have is Classic Masters – Grand Funk Railroad. I will mention some of the songs in rough chronological order.

The history of the band can be divided into two rough periods, Terry Knight as producer, 1969-72, and the well-known Todd Rundgren for most of the time after that.

“American Band” and their other #1 hit “The Loco-Motion” (which I do like a lot better than “American Band”) came from the Rundgren period in the 70s.  He brought a more radio-savvy appreciation of the times and of what could be a possible hit.

“Time Machine,” their first single back in 1969 from the Terry Knight years, is blues-rock which chugs along so lovely.

“Heartbreaker” is from that early time too.  A blues wailer to start which turns into a power anthem, so controlled, then surprising in its rendition of majestically combined voices.

“Miss Mistreater” is the only GFR live recording released as a single.  A morose sarcastic ballad is sung with a sense of experience and understanding which transitions to a high-tempo freakout, then slows again.

Then “I’m Your Captain” arrived and impressed many, although there were some who considered it musical gobbledegook.

The band added a keyboardist, Craig Frost, and went off to Nashville to record songs like “Rock and Roll Soul.”  This is a pretty standard hollerer about rock ‘n’ roll, which you know will live forever, man!

I have to say that the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” outdoes the original.  They truly made it their own.

I won’t mention every song in the compilation at hand, but I did like the hard rocking “Shinin’ On” a lot from 1974 and the Rundgren period.  Great intro….

After Rundgren, a new producer Jimmy Ienner got involved in the mid-70s.  “Some Kind of Wonderful” — can I get a witness! — and “Bad Time” come from this time.  “Bad Time” is catchy and definitely gone beyond into pop music.

“Take Me” was released as a single in December, 1975.  Great guitar solo from Mark Farner.  He sounds a little like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits here.  And then there was no more of substance to hear from the band.

Listening now, I think Grand Funk Railroad are much better than what may be their general reputation in rock music.  It’s true at the time when they were producing music I didn’t think they were so great, yet every time I heard “I Am Your Captain/Closer to Home” I had to stop and listen.

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Guitar Dreams

May 1, 2018

I wanted to play so much

as a green teenager

I needed to make music as stirring

As what we heard on

our battery radio

on cold winter nights

all over the Pacific Northwest

down to San Francisco

 

In a northern cabin

A guitar came into my hands

From my mother

Acoustic, hard to play

Poorly made

I puzzled to play something

vaguely rocking

While in the background

Donovan

sang

Hurdy Gurdy Man

 

Fight

To play the guitar

No instruction

Little talent

Just willfulness

It ended badly

With a whimper

 

Now in my latter

years I have returned

to the beautiful

instrument

Still not very good

But better

 

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Again With The Voynich?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been fascinated about the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript ever since I first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich Manuscript?

voynich_bathers

In short, for those who haven’t run across mention of this ancient document which may come to us from the 15th Century or before, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown. It is also decorated with unknown star constellations and plants, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

You can look at a digital version of the manuscript for yourself on The Internet Archive.

Over the years, the most fascinating aspect of its mystery has become the proliferation of both plausible and bizarre theories about it.

Basic human psychology

There is a basic aspect of human psychology at play here: our tendency – our need – to create patterns and meaning out of ambiguous or mysterious raw material.  And then to clamp like a vise to these preliminary gestalts as if they’ve been bestowed by the gods themselves.  Once a shallow channel of belief takes form, it only seems to deepen with the flow of time and self-convincing, and rarely finds another path.

When last I wrote about it – my knowledge consists of web sources – there had seemed to be a minor breakthrough by Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor in England. He thought he had deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich. He believed he was able to pick out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams. He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

More recently Bax speculated that “the script was devised for a particular community, possibly to write down an already existing language, and then that script was lost to us, with the exception of the Voynich manuscript.”  He cites an example of lost languages only recently revealed in manuscripts kept in an old monastery in Egypt.

Bax, let me hasten to say, is one of the more serious and reasonable people to look at the manuscript.

Here is a short list of other theories:

— an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci
— written in the Manchu language with an original alphabet
— a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs
— a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia in the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages
— a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text
— created by an alien visitor to Earth

Artificial Intelligence and a finding of Hebrew

Most recently, computer scientists from the University of Alberta here in Canada used artificial intelligence methods to try to decode the manuscript.

As you may know, artificial intelligence has in recent years improved by an order of magnitude or more with such accomplishments as “Watson” winning the TV game show Jeopardy, and AI beating the world’s best at the oriental strategy game of Go.  The latter is especially impressive given the reliance upon a highly trained intuition about the shape of the game by the best human players, which is a step above the admittedly complex accomplishments of the grandmasters of Western chess.

In the Voynich case, in preparation for tackling the manuscript, the scientists trained the AI to decipher 380 different language versions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AI determined after the first 10 pages of the manuscript that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.

So the researchers tried to have a native Hebrew speaker translate.  He couldn’t do it.  Then they tried Google Translate!!

With that, the first sentence read something like: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”  It could possibly make sense….

The scientists also translated the so-called “herbal chapter” and seemed to get words like “farmer” and “air” and “fire.”

Of course, we have to remember that this AI was trained on modern-day languages.  Even if it was Hebrew, Google Translate only works with the modern language, not medieval dialects.

And 20 percent of the examined text didn’t seem to be associated with Hebrew at all, but gave wildly different results, such as Malay and Arabic.

The Times of Israel provides a detailed review of the history of the manuscript and an analysis of these most recent results.

The article points out that the AI analysis is based on the premise that the person who wrote the manuscript encoded by both substituting letters for one another, and mixing up their order as in an anagram. This is an assumption that is unproven.

Another researcher tested Google Translate with another sample of the manuscript (with another manipulation process) and ended up with Hindi….

We are still left with the mystery of the Voynich.  The only proper response seems to be to celebrate its inscrutability.

And that is what composer Hannah Lash has done.  In the 2016 post, I mentioned that she was creating a symphony based on the enigma of the Voynich, a creative reaction amidst the noise of all the theories.  As of 2017, she completed it, and the symphony in its entirety has been performed.

You can hear an excerpt from the third movement at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra site.

If you really want to get into her musical process about the manuscript, there is a large selection of videos on YouTube.

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Note:  For an interesting breakdown and comparison of Voynich images with other sources, see this analysis of the illustrations at René Zandbergen’s site about the Voynich Manuscript.

Also, it is sad to note that linguist Stephen Bax cited above recently passed away.  His site, and fascination in the last part of his life about the Voynich, will apparently continue to have some connection with fellow “Voynichero” René Zandbergen.

A Different Angle on the Chief

September 1, 2017

In an effort to get back to more posting here, let me begin with some photos from the rock climbers’ access to the Stawamus Chief at Squamish, BC, Canada.  This follows on the previous post about my favorite hike to one of the granite monolith’s main three peaks.

On this recent occasion, my friend Bob, who is a devoted hiker of just about anything in the Squamish-Whistler corridor, told me it was quite interesting to walk along the bottom of the cliffs where the rock climbers go.  Neither of us are rock-climbers, although I like to bring up that I did do some rappelling and rock-scrambling in my youth.

This is also an area with truly massive boulders where we passed several parties of younger climbers practicing, crash pads at the ready on the ground.  But we went inside that belt to approach the bottom of the Grand Wall, and moseyed our way along for a while right at the bottom.

(At the second photo down, where Bob is standing against the cliff, if you look up, up, up you can just make out a couple of climbers – one with some red on.)

Climbing the Wall

Scaling the bottom of the Grand Wall

Bob Pan Stitch

At the bottom of the Grand Wall

Chief ClimberRV1

Rock climber prepared for the Chief

Notes on images:  These were all shot with my Fuji X-100s.  The second is a vertical panorama of course, stitching three photos together with Microsoft’s wonderful (and free) Image Composite Editor.

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A Few Quotes For These Times

January 24, 2017

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.
— Robinson Jeffers

Such is the irresistable nature of the truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
— Thomas Paine

With words we still name our losses and our endurance.  We do this because we have no other recourse, but also because man is incurably open to words and slowly they form his judgement.  This judgement, which those in power habitually fear, is formed slowly like a riverbed, by currents of words.  But words make such currents only when they are credible.
— John Bergen

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned imposter couldn’t be happy with.
Joseph Brodsky

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Voltaire

It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.
Blaise Pascal

People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Kurt Vonnegut

We have no ideas, and they are pretty firm.
Joseph Heller

What if you could make humans do the wise thing, like the way you could make them laugh?
Joan Slonczewski

The White Album

November 20, 2016

For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.

It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968.  I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before.  That album exploded into public consciousness.  I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967).  That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music.  My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.

We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.

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And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.

It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation.  It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected.  It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.

The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it:  the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man….  I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.

But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.

The summer and fall of ’68

That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread.  Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together.  Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.

With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November.  My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.

The oldest son of the family was a renegade.  I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals.  He drove a flash pick-up.  He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.

But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up.   He had The White Album!  In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go.  He was eager to play the first LP for us.  The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little.  And that was the first time I heard The White Album.  We were all amazed by it.  It was an event. “Listen to this!”

I’ve recently found a  remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.

So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.

the-beatles-pr-608x408From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation.  The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.

But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.

There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.

But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.

The Ukraine girls really knock me out

Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”

Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.

There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality.  They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think.  For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.

And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.

One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is.  The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.

I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).

Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio.  I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).

And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.

I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly.  He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to.  It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two.  Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up.   I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes.  And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it.  There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”

It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track.  Not any more.  I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.

It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now.  Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.

It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.

The Beatles.  They were a force.

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A Short Trip to Ireland

October 8, 2016

This summer my wife and I took a trip for the first time to the Republic of Ireland.

My wife is Chinese in origin; I am probably of old English stock  with a last name corresponding to a large British city.  Neither of us have any forebears as far as we know from Ireland.

We ended up on an extended week-long tour of the Emerald Isle after giving up on going to St. Petersburg in Russia, my wife’s first choice.  The Russian visa process was alarmingly expensive, and required you to feel like you were being vetted for possible spy duties, given the extensive background information the forms required, back to who your friends were in high school and whether you’d ever viewed any satirical cartoons of Putin.  I exaggerate, but that was the feeling that the bureaucratic invasion of privacy engendered.

After deciding we weren’t going to St. Petersburg, in order not to lose our tour deposit, we looked at our remaining choices and plunked a finger down on the world map and said, “There!”  Ireland.  Just the southern part of the Republic.  We didn’t get to Northern Ireland.

protestant-cathedral-dublin

We landed in Dublin in July and toured our way by bus in a rough circle route, as far east as the Cliffs of Moher, north to Galway, then south to the Ring of Kerry, back through the south towards the east and Waterford and finally back up north to Dublin.

Looking back on it now after several months, my most general impressions are of a startlingly green place, even more so than the “Wet Coast” of Vancouver, a place of extremely variable and often inhospitable weather, and overall basically a very tidy and friendly land.

And everyone spoke English!  This was disconcerting to my wife, who felt afterwards that Ireland just wasn’t very exotic; it didn’t seem foreign enough, and the weather was as bad as rainy Vancouver in the winter.

dublin-pub

Myself, I appreciated the subtle Tolkienesque effect of Gaelic on every sign, the medieval castles we came across, and the impression of a history much more turbulent and freighted with violence than anything anyone, thankfully, has suffered on the west side of Canada.

But we were unlucky with the weather.  Sun and blue skies did appear on our first day in Dublin, but as we made our way across Ireland towards the Cliffs of Moher, one of the scenic highlights of the trip if only we could have seen it, the clouds descended thickly and the rains hurtled down.

Our guide on the bus tour charmingly referred to the torrents as, “Oh, but we’ve got a bit of a mist this morning,” but we got soaked all the same when we did venture out.

Despite that disappointment and the continued gloomy weather as we continued along the Ring Of Kerry, a purportedly scenic and panoramic 100 km drive, afterwards the weather did finally break and become relatively pleasant for the rest of our travels.

We did enjoy the castles and other medieval sites, from Bunratty Castle between Limerick and Ennis, to Blarney Castle near Cork, to Glendalough, the early Christian monastic site in County Wicklow founded in the 6th Century.

The medieval feast at Bunratty Castle was a highlight with costumed entertainment, food consumed completely with our hands, and humorous sing-a-longs.

Of course, Castle Blarney has the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to induce eloquence in all who kiss it.  I am of the view that I could go out into a random field and kiss any old boulder with likely the same effect.

The long line-up to go to the top of the castle, lean out and have yourself anchored by others so you didn’t fall and then smooch above you the rough stone where thousands of predecessors have also so spitted did not appeal to either of us.  (We were assured that as often as four times a day, alcohol is applied to the stone for sanitary reasons.)

But the castle itself is impressive, and as both my wife and I are enthusiastic amateur photographers, we had lots of subject matter.

home-for-the-little-people

Overall, I enjoyed the trip, with my wife somewhat less enthusiastic.  Similarly to the experience we had of Greece and its people in the previous year, I was left with the impression of a hardy people, capable of retaining their culture even after enduring periods of oppression and internal wars.

As an example of specific Irish culture, I found fascinating the widespread enthusiasm for the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football.

Hurling, a game with stick and ball which resembles lacrosse to me, is said to date back to prehistoric times, and may be as much as 3000 years old.

Every county has its own team and the regional competitions are fierce and more interesting for the Irish, it seems, than that of more well-known sports such as soccer (football) or cricket.

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Notes on my photos (from top down):

1. This photo of a Protestant cathedral in Dublin indicates the Irish past of considerable religious strife.  The majority of cathedrals are Protestant rather than Catholic, despite the latter being the predominant flavour of Christianity in Ireland, as a result of the historical suppression of Catholicism by the British.

2. A fairly typical Irish pub in Dublin, with the ubiquitous Guinness signs.

3. A home for the Little People…. At the Irish National Stud Farm, there were a grove of trees with these abodes for the Little People.  The Irish National Stud Farm was on the tour apparently because the Irish are just mad about horses.