Posted tagged ‘society’

McCartney’s Recovered His Beatles Heart

November 24, 2018

Review of Paul McCartney’s Egypt Station
CD Album
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As a child of the sixties, I’m going to say that McCartney’s new album Egypt Station continues a renaissance for the aging Beatle that began with the album New.

It may have begun before but I don’t have, like, the whole collection, man….

I do have one of the little known (to most) Fireman albums, so I’m that much of a nerd.

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What I hear in this set of 18 new songs is McCartney once more finding that sweet honesty combined with rocking musical intelligence that helped power the Beatles’ creative force, sweeping them to greatness so long ago.

(Of course back then if you add the “can’t give a shit what you think — aren’t you amazed anyway?” creativity of John Lennon, then things cascade upwards, if such a phenomenon exists.)

McCartney, Lennon, and really Harrison and Starr too had uncanny antennae tuned to the world.  They shared that in different ways, as did many who listened to them and who struggled, too, to find the right frequencies.  As their musical journey began to lift into the stratosphere, the four of them seemed to feel the mood behind the moods of the time. It sifted into their music.

Of course, like all of us, they bore, for one reason or another, screwed-up parts of their lives.  Yet they still pursued their dreams, and made art when they could of the old painful places.

Opening Station

The album begins serene and moody, prefaced by a few moments of muted Beatles-style street noise segueing into angels.  It starts the Section called “Opening Station.”

Then the voice comes in on the second track, I Don’t Know.  I’m struck by how much Paul’s life must be sheltered and private to evade spotlights. Yet the old Beatle returns to something of his original heart for songs formed now with maturity sampling the entire life of Paul McCartney.

The next song, Come On to Me, begins the rock out portion of our show.  McCartney is a master of rhythm, and I want to get up and start moving around.  Imagine the horror when Grandpa starts to dance!

The next one, I’m Happy With You, shows McCartney plumbing the ordinary, including our ordinary happiness now and again.  It is as good as that is….

With the introductions made, he starts the creative experimentalism in a rock wrapping with Who Cares.

Fuh You is about what you think, and yet or because, it is stirring.  “I just want to know how you feel.”

The following song Confidante could easily be called Long Lost Anthems, one of its lines.

People Want Peace is straightforward.  And rocks.

Hand in Hand is moving as we recognize those whom we are lucky enough to hold.

Dominos pulses with creative prompting:

“And all the telephones keep calling
Constantly imploring us to come out and play”

The song Back in Brazil combines latin rhythms, “ichiban, ichiban, ichiban,” and something faintly reminiscent of Ob La Dee Ob La Da.

Do It Now reminds me of The Long and Winding Road channeling Henry David Thoreau.

In Caesar Rock, you don’t recognize the voice for a moment before you do, it sounds like Roger Daltry, and the song heats up:

“She got loyalty
Like the royalty

She got symmetry
Anonymity.”

She shoot Coca-Cola….

Despite Repeated Warnings strikes a more ominous tone about human wilfulness and dire stupidity, with urgent political references to You Know Who, given such items as global warming.

In there he’s got a wonderful lilting thing right out of Band on the Run. The song is an extended piece much like on Ram or Abbey Road.

Station II

The section “Station II” starts off with the driving and then moody Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link:

“I’ve been broken in so many places
Put together by a sea of faces
What to make of them
I don’t hardly know
I’ve been naked for so long, so long”

Get Started is a love song that for me hearkens back to the early Beatles with a voice leavened by experience yet still happy and enthusiastic.  And then it rocks out at the very end.

Nothing For Free is a whole different rhythm. It’s coming to be the high point of the album for me, the stern infectious nature of it, the refrain that goes

“I know you need something
You’re talking to me
But you don’t get nothing for free.”

As you can probably tell, I like this album.

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Note: There seem to be two versions of this CD available, one with 16 tracks and one with 18.  I ended up with the 18 one….

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A Walk With Hank

October 12, 2018

I invited my friend Henry David Thoreau along for a walk the other day, a bit of a hike actually.  I wanted him to come home with me up north, to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia.  It’s a beautiful place, half-way between the two Princes of George and Rupert.

My two brothers and I, and our mother, lived there once upon a time, in a log cabin not far off the highway, surrounded by a forest and local farmers’ fields.

It was a sizable rural place with a couple of neighbours, where we boys took access to the wild for granted.

There were rolling grassed hills next to wheat fields, poplar, cottonwood and willow along the winding creek, and heavier coniferous forest on the upslope side of our property and down to the Bulkley River.

Henry David Thoreau likes to ramble

Hank likes to ramble through the woods for hours at a time so I invited him along to follow a stream down to its river.  Maybe chat with a neighbour kid going fishing down the creek, if we run across one.  See what else we find.

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We start at the Deep Creek Bridge on a gravelled sideroad and walk up our short driveway to the log cabin on a long terraced meadow.  Then we cut across the yard in between the cabin and the big workshed thrown up by a logging contractor one winter.  Then down the slope to the creek’s old floodway and the big dark cottonwoods.  One will have fallen over, bridging the creek.

It was always easier to get down to the river on the other side of the creek, and it was prettier over there too, so that was usually the way we went.

We made our way along the rough bark of the cottonwood and over the creek.  Hank finally managed to throw out a few words.  Whenever we get together, I keep waiting for him to say something, the wiser and more profound the better.  This is hard on him I’ve finally realized.  He looks at me now and again inconclusively, and keeps his mouth shut for long periods of time.  This is something that I feel a little dismayed about.  He could probably cite a few annoying things about me, so I never bring it up.

An early morning walk

At long last he says non-committally,

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

This was good.  Early morning it certainly was, with a golden light and the palest blue sky.  Perhaps the beauty of the day could unleash statements beyond the obvious.  Eventually.

“Hank, come with me over here.  That’s the big pool where I used to fish along the creek below the cabin.  We can just see the roofline from here.

“I believed there was a massive fish, at least one and probably more, in this deep, deep pool.  I would dream about this fish, so huge and wise, surging from the depths, refusing to take my hook.  It always cheered me enormously.”

Hank took a look at the pool and at me.  He said:  “All good things are wild and free.”

This is why I like to tramp around with Hank.  Eventually, he just can’t help himself.  Get him to open up just a little and before too long he will say something profound in an offhand kind of way.

I hoped he was going to warm up a bit now.  (I’m sure he finds my expectations tiresome.)

I say, “We can follow the creek along here.  There are many great little places, you know, as the creek winds downstream.   Each one unique.  Not just the look of the place.  It’s more the light, the feel.  And changing every year with maybe a different log and a different ripple, and a subtly different bank to form the channel.”

Launch yourself on every wave

Hank said thoughtfully:  “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

I was about to say something snarky about relevance, Hank, really…. but then I thought it over.  Maybe he’s on point.  Everything changes.  The only constant is this moment.

“Does Waldo agree with you entirely on that — although I know you overlap a great deal?”  I ask this due to other infrequent conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hank nodded.  “Mostly.  He likes to fancy it up with high-falutin’ language.”

We pushed away ferns and dead broken hollow-stemmed plants to get to a really special place nestled in a wide curve of creek that amazingly looked exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

The log was just so, mossy and aslant, and the creek ran over it between the ferns.  The largest part glinted fluid white — a tiny waterfall — while downstream the noisy creek roiled and splashed past us over gravel, rocks and boulders.  Drops sprayed on our walking boots where we stood in the shadows.  We both breathed in, deeply.

We went on. But then Hank stopped and turned:

“By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man.  My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

Ah, a bit confessional today.  He is a loner, as I have been, but he is much more so.  I feel sad for him although he would reject that.

Hank smiled ruefully and continued to stroll onward over the grassed path in the narrow benched area around the creek below the hills.

On the gentle hills nearby we could see metre-high mounds of anthills, although some were reduced to their grass bases.  Those had the twigs and dark debris of their structure scattered.

“The bears like them,” I said.  “Must be a feast.”

We walked silently side by side for a time.  The grassed floodplain narrowed and we passed through several copses of poplars, their silver leaves shimmering.

Living a sort of border life

We came into a clearing, the rushing creek noisy at our side.  Up ahead we can see Harold, one of the neighbour kids from long ago, with a fishing rod.  Before we got to Harold to say hello, Hank paused our stroll again and said:

“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.”

I musingly repeated, “Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow….”  Hank nodded and made a wry expression.  Not only is he introspective today but serious and unfixed in his mind.

By this time young Harold looked behind and marched over to us proudly, holding up a very respectably sized Dolly Varden trout.  I mocked astonishment at its size, and Harold and I both laughed.

There were grave congratulations for Harold from Hank too, and the boy beamed at us.  “I want to have this for lunch,” he said shaking the fish by the stick through its gills.  We waved at him and he ran off back towards civilization, upstream.

I wonder whatever happened to him….

“It’s not far now,” I said.

“What’s that?” Hank asked cheerily.  He really doesn’t care where we walk as long as we go.

“Half a mile or so,” I said.  “Where Deep Creek finds the Bulkley River.”

In the old days, with relatives visiting or new friends we wanted to show off to, in the summers we would take them down to the mouth of Deep Creek just as we went now.  Our mother usually acted as the master of ceremonies.  Might take some snacks, but typically we just meandered our way down and back. We would return to the cabin with an appetite.

The path downstream Hank and I followed now became a little tricky as it worked through brush and over deadfalls.

Finally Hank and I could see the wide turbulent river, the dark forest on the other side and the easy loop of sandbars through embedded fallen trees where Deep Creek met its joining.

Drown all our muskrats

Hank said, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”

I wasn’t completely clear what he meant, being unfamiliar with metaphorical muskrats, but it sounded hopeful.

“My mother is here,” I told Hank.  He raised an eyebrow.

“After she died, we brought her ashes to this place, my brothers, our wives.  We said a few words choked with emotion at this spot.  Then one of my brothers took the slick white cardboard container of her remains and released the ashes to the river in a swirl of white and gray powder.”

“You said your good-byes,” Hank said.

“Yes.”

“At death our friends and relations either draw nearer to us and are found out, or depart further from us and are forgotten,” Hank observed.

We watched for awhile where the creek’s clear waters merged into the murkier, swifter river.

“Time to go back.”  Hank nodded.

“Thank you for this,” he said.  “It reminds me of the woods around Concord.”

He said one thing when we walked back to the cabin I remember well.  He commented we shared a common experience when we shook hands just before he departed:

“My imagination, my love and reverence and admiration, my sense of miraculous, is not so excited by any event as by the remembrance of my youth.”

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Notes:  This imagined walk with Henry David Thoreau follows upon something similar I did in a post a few years ago now about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chant the Beauty of the Good.  I finally got around to doing the same thing with Thoreau….

It took a different path than I anticipated.  Thoreau was a serious man and quite distinct in temperament from Emerson, although they shared many of the same views.  They were the Transcendentalists.

A good way to learn about Thoreau and Emerson is by quotations.  The best source I’ve found for Thoreau online was at Henry David Thoreau Quotations Search.  This is part of  the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods site.

Rock CDs (and a DVD) I Just Had to Buy

July 26, 2018

Now that I’m retired, music I love is taking up more of my time.  I’m trying to play more, and learn more, in my lower intermediate rock guitar student way.  I’m listening more, especially to bands I neglected in the past (or think the wider culture has neglected).

And I just finished reading This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  One of the saving graces of human beings as a species is music, in all its forms.  The book describes how humans are hard-wired for music.  We should be grateful for that.

I’ve got shelves of CDs already, and I really don’t need to add to them, but I couldn’t resist buying a few recently.

From Amazon, which has become a major resource, I picked up the first new CD in 20 years from the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  It has songs with lyrics by Robert Hunter, famous for his contributions to the Grateful Dead.  I’ve never had a CD of theirs or even listened (to my knowledge) to the New Riders, although I know they’ve been around for a long time, but the Robert Hunter connection made me want to check them out.

Another from Amazon is Janis Joplin Live at Winterland ’68 with Big Brother and the Holding Co.  This was fairly early in Joplin’s short career, and the band, Big Brother, also shows what it is capable of as one of the original psychedelic outfits.  I love Janis in live performance, the rawness and sheer over-the-top passion – I’m thinking now of the Festival Express DVD where she bowls everyone over with her astonishing performances.

And my third CD from the ubiquitous retailer is the Zombies’ Still Got That Hunger. The Zombies, an English band, are famous for their songs from the 60s like Time of the Season and She’s Not There.  Pretty long in the tooth, these guys, but I want to hear what they sound like now with new material in this CD from 2015.

The Disappearing CD

It’s harder and harder of course to find CDs at any local storefronts in the Greater Vancouver area.  And CDs themselves are apparently slowly on the way out, given the tendency to buy single tunes online or obtain through file-sharing.

But in the little fishing village becoming gentrified that is Steveston (a hamlet within Richmond, BC, home to the Vancouver Airport), there is a small bricks-and-mortar shop called Beatmerchant, where CDs are still sold.

The owner, Frankie Neilson, actually knows a lot about most of the music I love.   He worked in the music industry in the UK with Polydor in the 1970s.  He relocated to Vancouver in the 1990s after spending some time in Toronto.  He started his physical store in 2005.

Wishbone Ash Argus

So from Frankie this week I bought Argus by Wishbone Ash.  I have it on an LP but since I almost never get around to hand-cranking my old Kenwood turntable and listening to any of the old long-plays, I decided to get the CD.  (You probably don’t know about Kenwood’s series of hand-cranked turntables which required considerable strength just to get going, like a Model T….  OK, just kidding.)

Argus was Wishbone Ash’s biggest album and rose to #3 in Britain in 1972.  They were a band playing progressive rock I guess you could say, with folk and classical influences.

Also from Beatmerchant is the 2 CD compilation The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders. You never hear them now even on so-called classic rock stations, but Paul Revere & The Raiders were big when I was growing up during high school and into the early 1970s.  My brothers and I listened to them a lot on our battery-powered Phillips phonograph (since we didn’t have electricity for many years – not kidding).

Some of their early hits include Kicks and Good Thing.   They were Columbia Records top-selling rock band of 1967.  Later, they shortened their name to The Raiders and had hits with Indian Reservation and Birds of a Feather.

They often liked to wear Revolutionary War costumes….

And finally, Beatmerchant had a DVD I didn’t know existed: Stephen Stills & Manassas – The Lost Broadcasts. Manassas was a band that Stephen Stills formed with some other heavy weights of the time such as Chris Hillman and Al Perkins.  Their primary release was a self-titled 2-disc LP in 1972 (mentioned in this post).  The group only lasted a couple of years, but I’ve been a fan ever since.

This DVD apparently shows the band performing a number of songs on German television.  The YouTube video of It Doesn’t Matter gives you an idea of the band.

So the next step is for me to listen to all this good stuff!

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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 Five Stages of Collapse – A Book Review

November 1, 2014

The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit by Dmitry Orlov, New Society Publishers, 2013
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This book is one long challenge to most of the notions we received as part of our schooling and socialization. …It questions what being properly socialized means: is it being able to ignore the obvious signs of incipient collapse that makes you a well socialized individual?
Dmitry Orlov

As the world, or at least many places in it, seems to lurch from one crisis to another, one may be forgiven about thinking about stability and the direction of things as a whole.

I came across this book recently and found it surprisingly objective and cool-headed as it describes the end of the world as we know it.  Orlov anticipates that unsustainable crises will really start to bite by the middle of this century.  The financial, commercial and political systems will crumble, to be followed potentially by social and cultural collapse.

orlovThis is not a “survivalist” book about retreating to the renovated bomb-shelter with your shotgun so much as it is an attempt to describe the mechanisms of social decay in our way of life.  It is survivalist in the sense of that being forewarned may help to ease the transition to the changes that are coming.

I look around where I live on the west coast of North America which in many ways is one of the best places to live on Earth.  But more and more, from transportation systems, to sewers, to water supply, to education (including the universities), to medicine, to communication, to food supply, I find I often whisper to myself: we can’t afford our infrastructure.

In addition, there’s all the damage we continue to do to the land, water and air that sustains us.

Standing Outside the Mainstream

Over the years, I can see that I’ve been influenced by the thoughts of men, and women, who manage to find a place to stand outside the mainstream.  There’s William Irwin Thompson, cultural critic and historian, who out of yogic meditation brought forth his critiques of academia and society.  There’s author Doris Lessing, whose seeking led her to the objectivity of the Sufism of Idries Shah, and wisdom about humanity.  Also there’s Wendell Berry, whose livelihood upon the land gives him an essential grounding that expresses itself in his poetry, prose and politics.  I think of Thomas Homer-Dixon who found useful points of reference in the decline of the Roman Empire and the ecology of forests as a civilizational model to look at our society’s resilience, or lack of it.

In the case of Dmitry Orlov, his perspective and independence of thought seems to come mainly from being ex-Russian.

Orlov and his family left the Soviet Union in 1976, as part of a wave of emigration used by Moscow at the time to rid itself of undesirables and dissidents.

Orlov has observed, and sometimes experienced, currency tribulations, widespread surveillance, the abuses of a police state, and the rise of a criminal/oligarchic class that has now largely integrated with the former KGB agents who currently run Russia.

I’d like to run through a little of what Orlov has to say about each of his five stages of collapse.  He includes fascinating case studies that highlight points he’s making, some of which I find disagreeable.

Orlov appears to have no ideological agenda to further, other than his sympathy for anarchism and family as a means to community.  He says:

“There is no agenda here – just the assumption that collapse will happen, the conjecture that it can be analyzed as unfolding in five distinct phases and, based on quite a bit of research, the conclusion that each phase will require a different set of adaptations from those who wish to survive it.”

Stage 1: Financial Collapse

The result of this first stage is that financial institutions become insolvent, savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Orlov’s point is that the global financial system is a mental construct which confidence maintains, and if confidence is lost, as we could see in 2008, it starts to unravel and fall apart.

The financial system is a house of cards built on ever-increasing debt in order to grow.

He sees usury (lending at interest) as the inevitably rotting root of the system.

“…We have become dependent on global finance, which is based on fiat currencies (ones unsupported by any traditional, fixed store of value such as gold, silver or land) that are loaned into existence by banks, at interest.”

Money in our system does not conform to the laws of physics – everything else diminishes with time.  Usury, in Orlov’s view, makes financial collapse inevitable.  Usury is only viable in an expanding economy.  “Once economic growth stops, the burden of usurious debt causes it to implode.”

And so we see the collapse of the economies of sovereign states, such as Greece, on the large scale, and at a smaller scale, the bankruptcy of cities such as Detroit.

The only remedy that central banks of any nation have is to print more money, which inevitably devalues it.  We have seen this up-to-now slow process over my lifetime – a dollar now is worth much less than what it did in 1980, say.   In the US,  the dollar has lost 8000 percent of its value in the last 41 years, Orlov says.

Orlov observes that although our economic system depends on infinite growth, once that endless growth fails to materialize, what then?

He proposes storing value in real commodities although that has its limits.  Are there alternatives to money that  communities can create for themselves?  He looks at barter and other systems of trading.

Although he concedes he may be hopelessly idealistic, Orlov sees the ultimate solution in strong, extended families that pool all their resources and are presided over by elders, who band together and form a larger community and create self-governance by a council of such elders.

The inevitable end of the fossil-fuel era, and the dream of never-ending expansion it engendered, will necessitate a return to older, smaller scale means of exchange between individuals, families and communities.

Iceland as a case study

Orlov uses the instance of Iceland which suffered a financial meltdown due to the events of 2008 and after, and then began to recover.   Iceland is one of the few places in the world still small enough to have direct democracy rather than the degenerate forms of representative “democracy” many of us are subject to.

Iceland’s approach was to let financial institutions go bankrupt rather than prop them up by printing more money.  Orlov argues that Iceland made a heroic and wise decision:  the failure of banks freed up resources for productive activities that benefitted the entire society.

Stage 2: Commercial Collapse

This review will go on much too long if I delve in depth on each of the stages, so I will just touch on highlights for the remainder.  For the intelligence and general contrariness of Orlov’s thought, leavened by his good humour, I urge you to take a look at the book itself.

Our commercial system has become one of increasing numbers of middle men, each scratching to take as much out of the money chain as possible.  It too will not be sustainable.

“… [This] can be characterized as cascaded failure, in which the first failure (which happens when the assumptions underlying contemporary financial arrangements suddenly become regarded as untenable) has a knock-on effect on commerce (due to a lack of commercial credit), which in turn, has a knock-on effect on government finances (through a rapidly shrinking tax base).”

The so-called free market is based on a system of property law, a legal system able to enforce contracts and a law enforcement system that can deter economic crime.

Orlov notes that without the legal, enforceable basis, the Russian experience shows that the free market becomes a criminal market, “where debts are settled for pennies on the dollar by having creditors murdered.”

He ends this section with a case study on the Russian Mafia.

Stage 3: Political Collapse

Political collapse can only be disruptive.  “The ruling classes and the classes which serve them (the police, the military, the bureaucrats) generally refuse to go softly into the night and allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance.”

One obvious result of this is that “for the sake of preserving national unity, a failing nation-state often looks for an external enemy to attack, preferably a weak, defenseless one, so that it poses no risk of reprisal.”

In his discussion, Orlov makes a strong case for anarchism, despite our conditioning to see the typical anarchist as an antisocial and bomb-throwing terrorist seeking violent overthrow of the existing order.

Orlov points out that as a student of nature, anarchism makes sense as a system of cooperation and can be seen everywhere among animals.  He notes the Russian scholar Peter Propotkin’s writings on anarchic cooperation as essential to the success of many species.

Orlov’s personal definition of anarchy is “absence of heirarchy.”  He also draws from recent research into “complexity theory” by physicist Geoffrey West.  It leads him to think that collapse is not an accident but an engineered product by those who “think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale.”

Governments are good at certain things, Orlov is very willing to admit: maintaining a national transportation infrastructure, a reliable post office, and a fast internet….

Orlov’s case study to conclude this section  is that of the Pashtuns, who occupy a tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.   They continue to succeed in defying all the empires and nations that have arrayed against them over the past century – the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and most recently the U.S.

Their governance is semi-leaderless and self-regulating.  Some of their governing methods date back to Athenian democracy or before.  Orlov admires their hardiness and tenacity.   He doesn’t mention too much about their ties to the Taliban and the related negation of the essential worth of the female population, which really can’t be seen as a survival trait.

Stages 4 & 5: Social & Cultural Collapse

“Few places are likely to remain sufficiently insular to escape the onslaught of internationally displaced groups driven from their land by a variety of forces, from political unrest to economic dislocation caused by globalization to habitat destruction caused by rapid climate change.”

In Orlov’s view, it will be better to concentrate on a safe way to be, with others, rather than some imaginary, for most of us, safe place to go.

Communities who already live with hardships of one kind or another will be more resilient than, say, gated communities of the affluent.

In his discussion of social collapse, Orlov sees organized religion as a binder among people and communities that will endure and may assist in regenerating society.  (I think of the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz in this connection.)

Personally, organized religion appears pernicious, undesirable and unnecessary, but I can also see its utility in building and sustaining a sense of community.

Orlov is not as strong in his thinking in this part of his book, and he admits to that.  If we get to this stage, whatever happens after social and cultural collapse will be up to each of those who survive – there may not be a lot of useful prescriptions.

His case study for social collapse is the culture of the Roma, the Gypsies of Europe and North America who have learned to survive in difficult circumstances.  They are a nomadic and insular, even secretive people, but they are well-suited to thrive in a disordered, disorganized society.

The Case of the Ik

For a case study on cultural collapse, he cites the famous anthropological research of Colin Turnbull on an African tribe called the Ik, which Turnbull published in the book The Mountain People, in 1972.  I remember reading that book many years ago, and being dismayed about the Ik’s profound abasement as a society and what it may show about ourselves.

As Orlov says, the Ik are rugged individualists – to a fault.  Their language is unrelated to any others in their vicinity, but has characteristics of Middle-Kingdom Egyptian.  Under a permanent suntan, their skin is red not black like the surrounding African tribes.

The Ik are a post-collapse society which has been under stress for many, many years.  They were once nomadic hunters and gatherers, but various colonial and national authorities took their hunting grounds away from them and made them settle and try to subsist on barren land of no agricultural value.  The result has been intermittent famine and starvation.

Their language has lost all of its pleasantries and niceties.

Their village compounds consist of concentric circles of stockades penetrated by small and cryptic openings as a defense against their closest neighbours.

They seem to have almost no emotion except for occasional gruesome hilarity at the misfortune of others.  They do their best to eat alone and in secret.  Children are abandoned early and  learn to feed themselves by watching baboons.

As Orlov observes, it is rare to have an anthropologist spend two years with a tribe and come away urging that the object of his study be broken up into small groups and settled far away from their homeland.  Turnbull was traumatized by his stay with the Ik.  Turnbull realized that we all have a bit of the Ik in us, and that people of the developed world are becoming more “Ik-like.”

The Ik show a way of surviving cultural collapse.  It’s better not to have to go that far.

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The Escape Game

February 22, 2014

This is something I hadn’t heard of before:  The Real Escape Room Game.  Apparently the first Real Escape Room Game has opened in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, Canada, where I live, and must be one of the first in Canada.

Teams pay money to be locked in variously themed rooms and must find a way out within a time limit.  It’s a craze popular in Asian countries at the moment and now is beginning to appear more prominently in North America.  The game apparently began in Japan several years ago, and the wave of its popularity has worked its way to China, Malaysia, Singapore and much more recently to a few places on this side of the Pacific.

It used to be that cultural innovation and trendiness might come from the eastern United States, especially New York, or from Europe, say Paris or London.  These days, and what will increasingly be the case, the Asian countries are exerting their own brand of cultural sway over the young and hip.

TimeTravelLab_640It makes sense that the game would appear in Richmond, which has Asians from many different countries but especially China making up about half its population.

The version of the game that just started here has four themed rooms: the Lost Ship, Ancient Egypt, Prison Escape and Laboratory Escape.  Four to six people pay $23 each to enter one of these rooms to work together to find their way out within 45 minutes.

The proprietor claims that it’s perfect for speed dating.  Put three pairs of guys and girls in a locked room with a few clues and they will learn about each other’s personalities in short order.

Apparently only about one percent of the teams are successful.  They are photographed and put up on the Wall of Fame, while the other 99 percent are also photographed and clipped to a Tree of Shame, which is apparently the way it’s played in Asia.

Of course, there can be frustration.  The owner charges $50 for broken props.  He showed off to a local newspaper a table top strewn with broken locks. “Use intelligence, not violence,” he says.

It can be a combination of role-playing, depending on the theme, and those Solve A Murder Mystery parlor games, with considerably more intensity involved.

There’s a few YouTube examples: Escape from the Werewolf Village and Trapped in a Cathedral are just two.

I discovered online at least one other Canadian outfit running the game in Ontario called “Adventure Rooms Canada.”  They describe their way of doing it:

Your group has 60 minutes to find its way out of a mysterious room.  This is accomplished by using logic, searching for clues and using unique items in the room to help you get through obstacles like locks and doors, etc. Once your team makes it through all the of the puzzles contained within the room you will find the final key; and unlock yourself to freedom. Only 30% of teams have escaped so far. Will you?

The adventure is very thrilling, but not dangerous at all.  It contains no horror elements, requires no physical exertion and is suitable for ages 11-77.   Our game is unique in the genre because it focuses on the puzzles and experiments with real objects, rather than being based on a specific theme or story.

We may feel we lack adventure and community in our daily lives, often especially the young, as we put widgets, systems of widgets, or instructions to systems of widgets together, and perhaps commute long distances together in isolation to do so.

This remedy seems a little artificial and perhaps too theatrical for me though.  I think I prefer to go on a good hike in beautiful scenery with my wife or with a friend.  But it might be fun to try it out, as another form of escape.

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Note:

The image comes from an American company called SCRAP in San Francisco, California which runs their version of the Escape Room game.