Archive for the ‘Remembering’ category

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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At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….

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The Perennial Music of the Grateful Dead

June 21, 2015

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

— “Box of Rain”

The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.

The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.

Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record.  It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.

I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits.  But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.

grateful dead aoxomoxoaBut now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed.  I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions.  Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere.  Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.

I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.  I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.

I’m coming to revise that opinion now.  Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.

But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium.  There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped

You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.

But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel.  The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.

Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new.  Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered.  Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.

Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s.  He sees this as “creatively formative.”

Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it.  Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox.  “Sugar Magnolia….”

The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me.  The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.”  I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.

But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now.  Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.

I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.

Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.

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The Experience of Nothingness — A Book Review/Participation

September 5, 2014

The Experience of Nothingness, by Michael Novak, Harper Colophon Books, 1970

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In my teens and twenties I often experienced extended bouts of dark moods. One could call them depression, perhaps, although I prefer melancholia.

These bouts are difficult to write about because language, or at least English in my hands, fails to grasp their essence.  I could say they were marked by feelings of overwhelming hopelessness and pointlessness about existence, but that would be wrong, because there were mainly no feelings, and the absence of feelings was itself painful and paralyzing. And even this statement doesn’t quite approach the silent, immobilizing emptiness spiralling downward.

Fortunately, by my late twenties I left these periods of bleakness largely behind. I think meditation, and physical activity in the martial arts, helped enormously. But I also found when I was visited yet again by desolation that reading certain books would, if not relieve the condition, at least give it a … space within which to work itself out.

For me what worked was one particular book by Krishnamurti, that interesting and deep man of spirit, called The Wholeness of Life.  It is a series of dialogues primarily with the physicist David Bohm, who shared a radical austerity of inquiry in coming to understand ourselves and the human condition.  I had a number of books by Krishnamurti but for some reason that particular book, with its severity and abstruseness, was the right foil for my bleakness of spirit.

But even more important for me during those periods was the book The Experience of Nothingness by Michael Novak, found one day in the remaindered bins at Barnes & Noble in New York City perhaps 40 years ago.  I still have it, a thin paperback, with the remaindered punch hole through the cover in the upper right.

tumblr_mckkm5hLMS1royxsyo1_r1_1280At the time I was also reading and inquiring into Buddhism, especially Zen, where one can hear much about emptiness and fullness and so forth.  But none of it seemed to touch on the experience of emotional nothingness the way this book did.  I knew nothing about the author.  But it is helpful to keep in mind that this book came about in the midst of the counterculture of the late 1960s and the upheavals spawned by the Vietnam War.

The book is divided into four sections: 1) The Experience of Nothingness, 2) The Source of The Experience, 3) Inventing the Self, and 4) Myths and Institutions.

I will take a look briefly at each section.

The Experience of Nothingness

What got me to walk out of the bookstore with this newly purchased slim volume in hand were statements such as this from the very first page:

“The experience of nothingness is an incomparably fruitful place for ethical inquiry.  It is a vaccine against the lies upon which every civilization, American civilization in particular, is built.”

In this first section, the author chronicles what can be one course for the development of this experience.  First pervasive boredom as regular life loses meaning, then slow collapse of shared cultural values as they too begin to seem a sham.  Then helplessness.

“It is also the recognition that those who wield power are also empty, and that I, too, if I had power over my own life, am most confused about what I would do with it.”

Novak also points to the culture’s lack of inculcation in the young of discernment about what is beautiful and brilliant.  “For it is demanding to teach children ethics, beauty, excellence; demanding in itself, and even more demanding to do so with authenticity.”

In the end, he says, for those of us who come to see emptiness all around, “To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.”

But more encouragingly, “Whatever the massive solidity of institutions, cultural forms, or basic symbols, accurately placed questions can shatter their claims upon us.”

The author examines the various myths which shape the sense of reality in universities, but that’s not so interesting here.  But I did find insight in such statements as:

“The fact that a man abjures the word “myth” and thinks of himself as hardheaded and exclusively realistic does not count as evidence that he is not acting out a myth; on the contrary, it furnishes an index to the power of his myth over his mind.”

Novak uses the metaphor of “horizon” to link a person and his world in a mutual defining relationship.

“In a certain sense, the concept of horizon is anti-humanistic, for it does not suppose that ethical action is wholly conscious or wholly self-originated.  On the contrary, the concept of horizon emphasizes that the self and its world interpenetrate at every point.”

So, Novak goes on to say, “The experience of nothingness arises when we consciously become aware of — and appropriate — our own actual horizons…. We do not know who we are.  Yet we keep inventing ourselves.”

The Source of the Experience

There is considerable discussion in the context of the times, during the Vietnam War, when the emptiness of the American myths about itself became more apparent.  At the time, I was not too caught up in that dimension of his discussions.  That emptiness always seemed obvious and unremarkable to me.  My concerns were much more self-centred….

The author discusses the uncertain foundations of “objectivity,” and how it relies on the cultivation of specific subjective states.

“But largeness of mind and soul is quite different from a pretended objectivity.  For a pretended objectivity serves the establishment, the well off, and particularly the government.”

When the claims of objectivity from various institutions come to be shattered, the experience of nothingness begins to appear.

“The source of the experience of nothingness lies in man’s unstructured, relentless drive to ask questions.  … The capacity of the ‘drive to question’ to question itself — is what makes it the source of the experience of nothingness.”

So then what of nihilism — defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles?  Novak invokes Camus’ arguments in such works as The Rebel to distinguish between the honesty inherent in the drive to question compared to the dishonest and inhumane conclusions of the worst of nihilists such as say Hitler or others of that stripe.  The main distinction is the recognition of the community of human suffering.

Inventing the Self

Necessarily, Novak brings up the nature of ethics often.  For him, “it is not generality or universality that gives an action its ethical weight, but precise and complete appropriateness. (His emphasis.)

“…The primal formlessness of the drive to understand leads to experience of the void.  But the capacity of my drive to question every one of its operations creates for me an ideal of authenticity and honesty.”

So what is acting well?  “Acuity in perceiving the point of complex ethical situations, acuity in hitting the mark, is the pivotal capacity. … but the heart of the matter is singularly difficult to hit, while the number of ways by which one can miss it are nearly infinite.”

Following Aristotle, Novak says that to become a good man is to grow in the courage to discern honestly, and in the courage to act as one discerns.

In the end, we will choose the myths we will live by.  Kurt Vonnegut said in Cat’s Cradle that we should “live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”  Novak puts it this way:

“But excellence in health and morality are measured by a choice of myths that maximize personal and communal development in these four values: honesty, courage, freedom and the ability to value other persons for themselves.”

Myths and Institutions

In this last section of the book, Novak explores what the experience of nothingness can mean for our political institutions.

To him, institutions do not exist to be effective, but chiefly to provide reassurance.  So politics becomes the realm of illusion and education the realm purely of technocratic effectiveness for the benefit of institutions.  What currently passes for democratic institutions are inadequate.

“The experience of nothingness teaches a man the poverty and limitations of all symbols.”

In politics, the author notes:  “Certain key words repeated again and again are mentally restful to political audiences.  To attack the prevailing symbol structure of a group is to awaken the threat of chaos. It is also to arouse intense opposition….”

He declares: “The promotion of conditions in which men can with increasing frequency become honest, courageous, free and brotherly is the criterion by which institutions are judged.  Institutions have no other purpose.”

Towards the end of the book, Novak concludes, “The myth appropriate to the new time requires a constant return to inner solitude, an unbroken awareness of the emptiness at the heart of consciousness.  It is a harsh refusal to allow idols to be placed in the sanctuary.”

A note about the author, Michael Novak

As I mentioned briefly above, when I first encountered his book, the author Michael Novak was unknown to me.  And really that background was of no interest.  But it’s intriguing to find out that at the time of book’s writing, he was a Catholic theologian who obviously had been working through his own dark night of the soul.

In later years, he went on to become perched on the far right branch of American politics.  Back during Obama’s second election campaign, I was thinking then of writing something about how influential this book was in my life, so I looked up the author.  Not that Obama has turned out so great, but the opinions on display on Novak’s blog at the time were on the irrational far edge of the Tea Party spectrum.  It’s interesting that it is difficult to find much record of those positions now — his blog and current writings are positioning him as an elder statesman.

Other sources have described him as “a founding member of the ‘theocon’ political faction, a loose grouping of Christian writers closely associated with neoconservatives who blend religiously informed social conservatism with foreign policy militarism.”

His thought, and approach to life, must have changed.  Another lesson about idols in the sanctuary.

I remain thankful, though, for this book that he made as a different, younger man.  It greatly eased my more youthful version.

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Photo source note:  A cover similar to my copy, from the Strand bookstore blog, another great Manhattan bookseller.

Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)

February 16, 2014

“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
Judy Collins

I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.

The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s.  The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.

220px-The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallIt’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”  It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too.  But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….

I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online.  But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.

After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle.  She had gone there to see her mother  and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad.  There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.

In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records.  Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them.  It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years.  The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.

Sierra Exif JPEGIt strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends.  None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure.  But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.

As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!

Pete Seeger After the Weavers

So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.

I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.

Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew.  Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs.  Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.

If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations.  A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”

But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:

“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”

Bob+Dylan++Pete+Seeger+2943980698_ec9703aeec_oThere are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie.  He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.

And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way.  The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar.  Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”

At first the audience is hesitant and quiet.  We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him.  The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice.  Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does.  They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise.  Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race!  …But you got to have hope….”  The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.

You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out.  For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.

He’s gone now.  That embodiment has given way.  The songs go on.

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Note:  The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.

Thoughts on Aikido Promotion

January 17, 2014

I wanted to mark the occasion of promotion to 2nd Dan or Nidan in aikido by writing a few words here.

First, it’s an opportunity for a mild pat on my own back, and if you can’t do that on your blog, well, where can you?

Second, it’s led me to think more about why do I practice aikido, anyway?  What is the nub of it that has kept me at it over the years?  (Although I do practice less now than I used to.)

I came to aikido through t’ai chi chu’an (as a martial art, and some of which I’ve chronicled in the post Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan).   I boxed – very amateurishly – and wrestled in high school.   I also did a little judo in university, and a lot of recreational Western fencing afterwards.

While I was in San Francisco for less than a year in the late 1970s and making like a t’ai chi bum in parks and various studios, I got a copy of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and Ratti.  Published in 1973 in hardcover, it was one of the very few books available on aikido.  It has the most wonderful, flowing diagrams of the art.  I still have that book.

aikidoI had to give aikido a try, so for about seven or eight months I joined the old Aikido of San Francisco on Turk Street as the rankest of beginners in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of students.  The dojo was run by three of the most famous non-Japanese teachers of their generation, although perhaps not so well known in those days:  Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, William Witt, all sensei’s of the highest calibre and with different stylistic approaches to aikido.

Robert Nadeau was the most “California” of the trio, with some unorthodox training exercises and discussions of energy in the body.  Nadeau is featured in books related to aikido by human potential pioneer George Leonard such as The Ultimate Athlete and Mastery.

Frank Doran was a practitioner of almost magical technique, who could be quite severe in his teaching.  This reflected his background as a former hand-to-hand combat instructor in the US Marines.  He always moved and pivoted with such an erect, precise, and effective manner — watching him (as I’ve just done on You Tube), I’m inspired again by how he moves.

William Witt always seemed the most accessible to me, with his often humorous and down-to-earth straightforward way of teaching.

After I left San Francisco to return to British Columbia and resumption of life as a reporter and photographer for small newspapers, I wouldn’t practice aikido again for a number of years until later in the 1980s.  Even after that there could be interludes of a year or more between dojos and teachers as I moved around from job to school and back to work again.

I used to say, after returning to practice after being away for one of my lengthy periods, that aikido “gets in your blood.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, other than to indicate the attraction is not purely rational or intellectual.

In some ways, I am almost a reluctant aikidoist.  Japanese culture does not intrigue or attract me very much, although I fully appreciate the instructive helpfulness of aikido’s Japanese nomenclature.  Attending seminars now that I’m in my sixties is not something I push myself to do.

But I do enjoy teaching beginners which I’ve started to do on a more regular basis under guidance of my sensei.  I have no inclination at all to be a “teacher” but I do find satisfaction in helping people who are newer to the art than I am.

I am blessed to still be relatively light on my feet and with a range of motion only minimally curtailed as yet by sore toes and tight hamstrings at almost 63 years old.

I think the attraction of aikido comes down to interaction, which is a cerebral word for the very physical experience of throwing and being thrown, of understanding where the other person is in space by touch.  (This is a wonderful and subtle process of learning, one shared with t’ai chi — and even greater there.)  There is a great deal of satisfaction in executing a throw properly at speed, or even slowly, and in receiving one well too.

It’s something to do with that touch and relationship with the person you work with on the mat.  It can make you smile.

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Notes:

The illustration is by Oscar Ratti from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.

I’ve written before once or twice about aikido.  One such post is called “The Irony of Aikido”.  There are a number of aspects to that title, the main one being that my father fiercely fought the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII.  He died when I was quite young.  I often still wonder how he would receive my participation in aikido.  I like to think he would be okay with it.

New Mexico Pilgrimage

September 27, 2013

We’ve just returned from a trip to New Mexico.

As recounted elsewhere (Of Money, Marriage, Dogs and the Nahanni Valley), my parents first met while attending classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  This was not long after the Second World War, in 1947-48 or so.

My father probably arrived direct from Michigan, where our family on his side were mainly farmers, except in the case of my grandfather, who for a time was the owner of a furniture factory.  There’s still a hamlet in Michigan, Bristol Corners, named after those who lived and died there for a few generations.

Dad had returned home after savage fighting as a Marine in the Pacific against the Japanese.   Before the war, he had painted sensitive oils and hunted with a passion.  After the war, damaged in some ways, I think he returned seeking the most peaceful thing he knew, and tried to study art at the University of New Mexico.

My mother was there from her home in Illinois, the daughter of an executive who spent the war in Washington, D.C. as a “dollar a year” man, and of a housewife and church organist.  Political science was her major as befitted an opinionated and socially conscious young woman.

My parents met, and decided they wanted to raise a family rather than wait to complete any degrees.  They married and departed New Mexico, poor as winter, drifting first to San Francisco and then eventually to the Pacific Northwest.

But their photos from that time, and the few items of the southwest we had about us as I grew up — a colorful patterned cloth, a rough Navajo rug, the Hopi prints they gave my grandmother — always seemed to me to be of exotic and adventurous origin.

The few black and white photos especially, the stark shadows and brilliant light on adobe walls graced by noir characters in wide-brimmed hats, have always lurked in my memory.

So when casting about for a new place to have a vacation, the thought of New Mexico, and making it a kind of casual pilgrimage to where my parents once found themselves together, made sense to me.  Both my parents are long gone, my father in his forties and my mother in her early sixties.  The trip in part became a way to reconnect with who they were.

Flowers By the RoadI’ve briefly travelled in neighboring Arizona and did not much like it — too hot and desert desolate for me, at least where we crossed.  But New Mexico, as my wife and I started our journey in Albuquerque and eventually travelled to Santa Fe and Taos, seemed  to be an environment of more interest — nubby pines, occasional rock hills in subtle earthen hues with mountains in the distance, even some greenery and flowers from recent heavy rains and careful irrigation.  And the skies!  The big sparkling blue skies, often filled with the most amazing clouds.

We stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of Old Town in Albuquerque, and took a day to visit the University of New Mexico.   I wanted to see if the university could possibly have any record of my parents.

It’s a big, modern campus: young people scurrying to classes in bright sunshine with iPods and smartphones in hand.  We tried to find an administration building, and finally found an office where I was given a phone number and an email address for an assistant registrar.  In a campus Starbucks, I used my wife’s iPad to introduce myself, and hoped he could check the school’s records.  We didn’t hear anything back immediately, and we went on to explore Old Town for the rest of that day.

(If you ever get to Albuquerque’s Old Town and want a meal, be sure to go to the Church Street Cafe — the best southwestern food we found all trip.  Nothing too fancy or trendy, just tasty and reasonably priced.   Huevos rancheros!)

Eventually we ventured by rental car to Santa Fe for a couple of days, then on up to Taos and the pueblo there, and back to Santa Fe, and then Albuquerque for the flight home.   We enjoyed Santa Fe a lot — there’s a surfeit of art galleries everywhere and we even ventured to narrow Canyon Road and its end-to-end galleries. Santa Fe also has an opera house out of town in the desert.  One of our neighbours, an opera buff, recently attended there for a week of performances in August.   It’s not a huge structure but large enough, with open sides that let the audience take in the sunsets as they watch Madame Butterfly or whatever is being performed.  (I’m not an opera buff.)

And Santa Fe also has the Georgia O’Keefe museum.  Its paintings reflect her passion for the New Mexico landscape, which was a coming home for her to a place she had never seen before.

Taos too had its charms, primarily the pueblo which has had people living in it for roughly 1000 years.

Taos PuebloIn Santa Fe we heard by email from the university registrar.  Their electronic records only went back to 1950.  They would have to search hard copies by hand.  What were my parents’ birthdates?  1918 and 1927, I sent back, a little shocked since not really thinking about those dates for many years, how far back they are now surprised me.  I realized that had my father lived until today, he would be 95.

We’ve returned home now and not heard more from the university, although I hope some young assistant continues to burrow diligently through their dusty records.  But whatever they find, or if they don’t, is not so important.

When my father was in art school there, he seems to have been fascinated by Roman Catholic iconography.  He was not a religious man at all, he had no use for organized spirituality — although I remember he always emphasized that he was agnostic rather than an atheist.  But I recall, and my brothers may still have some samples, the stylized and detailed colored woodblock prints of St. Francis of Assisi and the small squared-off sculptures of St. Francis that he had done and kept for years where we lived.  This is interesting to me, given my father’s necessarily cruel and violent life during the war and his pre-war affinity for hunting juxtaposed against St. Francis’s storied love of man and animals.

I too consider organized religion pernicious, although I have Buddhist and Taoist sympathies, but I made it a point to stand next to the ornate doors of the small St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and have my photo taken by my wife.  I’m sure my father and mother must have been there at some time.

I like to think my father stood where I stood, and looked out into the New Mexico sunshine.

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Notes:

Photos from top down —

1) Along the road, driving to Santa Fe.

2) The pueblo at Taos.

I will be posting photos from the trip from time to time on my photography blog, The Suspended Moment.