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Ears Embiggened: 50 Years of ECM

(The first in a series of preview posts as we count down to the
2019 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN.)

Back in the old days – way before the internet machine made hearing just about any recorded piece of music in the world as easy as finding a homemade porno of some celebrity and/or politician – finding out about music beyond the typical commercial channels took some real work. Much of this involved poring over publications of varying literacy levels to find out who was playing with who, where, and how often.<fn>God bless the Village Voice.</fn> You had to spend time dialing in college and alternative radio stations (no internet radio! You had to be within hailing range.) and hoping against reason that the stoned DJ <fn>I resemble that remark.</fn> might remember to announce the name of the track you were dying to identify. Often, you would listen to six or eight more songs in a row, only to have the hapless jock (mea culpa) announce only the last two because, well, he forgot, man.

You had to haunt the record stores. There used to be mammoth stores – stores like Peaches and Turtles and Virgin – aisle after aisle of record bins sorted by genre, carefully filed in alphabetical order. This was for the new, sealed releases. Very expensive, at least 5 or 6 bucks a record.

Then there were the used record stores, meccas for music geeks where you could stand for hours flipping through the stacks hoping to find a gem that you could make off with for two clams, three if it was a double disc set. You could drop 20 bucks on a pile of records just on whim. Maybe you saw a name you recognized, or the album cover was cool. Whatever. If you liked it, you win. If you didn’t, you could bring it back the next week and trade it in for a dollar credit. A buck for a listen or two seemed like a deal.

After a while, you spent lots of time with the album covers, checking out the liner notes and musician credits. Patterns emerge. You start to recognize more names, and not just the players. Engineers and producers start turning up again and again – Rudy van Gelder, Bob Thiele, Teo Macero. You start to keep an eye peeled.

You learned to recognize the record labels. You started to realize that any Blue Note album was worth the 2 bucks. Same for anything on Impulse. Specialty labels like ESP Disk were always worth a tumble, even though you might end up with a squabbling wall of artifactual noise that all but obliterated whatever the music was trying to be.<fn>Many Sun Ra albums, especially on his El Saturn label, were like this, but you learned to buy them anyway because you just never knew what you might find.</fn>

And then there was ECM. Pretty standard rule of thumb: If you saw an ECM in the cutout bin, you bought it. If not for you, then for one of your pals. Don’t recognize the Scandinavian cascade of consonants and diacriticals? Don’t worry, just buy it. If it had Manfred Eicher’s seal of approval, it was worth the candle.

Codona: A typically lovely ECM cover design.

By the time I got serious(ly addicted) about vinyl collection and music that could be safely characterized as out-of-the-mainstream, ECM was a ten year old label with a solid reputation for attention to detail in curation, design, packaging, and recording quality. The covers were thick paper and beautifully printed, the liner sleeves a refined, no friction material, never rough paper. No cheap, junked vinyl here; the discs were heavy and thick, an obvious cut above the major labels pressings on horse chips. They had to be, you see: the ECM sound would not survive the surface noise of standard-issue vinyl.

What about that sound quality? The first few years of releases had varying sonic personalities, but by the mid-70s the characteristic ECM Sound was firmly established, notable for its cultivation of audible space and silence. Even on recordings that were somewhat wall of sound-ish (e.g., Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians) Eicher’s close attention to microphone selection and placement provided clearly defined separation of instruments in the mix. Add to that a well-articulated stereo image and a layering of reverb that served to build a concert hall in your living room. And no matter who was playing, it was the same concert hall every time.

In a 1999 interview with Home Studio Magazine, Eicher explained that he

…listened to a lot of jazz records, mainly Impulse! Or ESP releases; I found the music very interesting, but I didn’t like the way it was produced, mainly because I felt something was lacking, a part of the message had disappeared. My main concern, when I founded ECM, was to respect every aspect of the music. That meant be able to hear every nuance of the instrument, every colour, and respect the dynamics of sound, as given by the musician. This was quite a different way of recording jazz, and public was sensible to it.”

Some of this attention to detail no doubt grew from his experience at the classical Deutsche Grammophon label, long admired for its close attention to audio excellence. <fn>DG is another label, like ECM, that has somehow managed to maintain fierce fidelity to its guiding principles and pursuit of quality, still going strong 120 years after its founding. Maximum Respect!</fn> But there is a marked difference between the ECM and DG sound signature. Eicher was drawn to the atmospherics of reverb – both natural and simulated – where DG cultivated a drier studio sound. One is not necessarily better than the other. Vive la difference! But one thing is certain: You could identify an ECM project within a few seconds of listening.

These days, that ECM aesthetic is more widespread, signal of the influence ECM has had on the way we record and listen to music in the wake of their example. (For better or worse, the whole “New Age” genre pretty much owes its existence to ECM and Eno’s Ambient Music releases.)

The sound – the company motto calls it “the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence” – took some critical shots from those who found it icy, cold, antiseptic. Because Eicher, and many of his favorite artists, were from Scandinavia, the label was dubbed “fjord music” and “the Great Northern Sound”. As with too many critical shorthands, the jibes are better as provocative copy than accurate description.

Still, the sound was an ECM signature, and on some releases (like Eberhard Weber’s 1979 Fluid Rustle, which happens to be the ECM debut of Bill Frisell), the sound itself is often more notable than the performance. Descriptions of ECM as the “beautiful music” label emerged, and not in a kind context. To be sure, there were more than a few releases that were just perfect for those 3 a.m. oh-god-I-just-can’t-come-down episodes, times when an ECM record provided just the right amount of sonic-envelopment and gentle massage. This aesthetic would find broader – and less satisfying – expression with the emergence of so-called New Age music from labels like Windham Hill in the 80s.

But the perception is at odds with the reality. Close listening to something like Fluid Rustle offers satisfying elements of compositional innovation, and the performances are superbly delivered. I won’t likely spin this one often, but there is more there, there, than meets the ear. And on balance, the ECM catalog is studded with recordings that are definitional in their realm, with ambitious releases from the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dave Holland, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, &c. that more than make up for those releases that one might be tempted to dismiss as sonic wallpaper. More than a few people have told me in no uncertain terms that Reich and Part are really just fancy-pants Muzak. For myself, I had long considered Keith Jarrett’s Sun Bear Concerts, a ten-album set of solo improvisation recorded live in Japan in 1978, little better than background hum. Yet here I am, about 3 hours into the box’s roughly 7 hours of music, and I find myself in a serious re-evaluation of my opinion of Jarrett overall and this recording in particular. YMMV.

With the Big Ears Festival’s celebration of ECM’s 50th anniversary less than a month away, I find myself immersed in the ECM catalog, revisiting so much music that has fallen out of my regular listening rotation. Most of the label’s 1500 or so releases are available via your favorite streaming service. <fn>This is ECM authorized streaming, so you can listen guilt-free, though you should buy some of the recordings anyway. Streaming fees are not enough to keep them going for 50 years more.</fn> This is some deep nostalgia for me, a traipse through the soundscapes that helped establish my overall aesthetic philosophy about what music – and art in general – can accomplish in a world in need of healing action.

How I think about music, how I respond to certain creative gestures and techniques, owes much to the ECM ethos. (Especially to my favorite of their roster of artists, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.) My interest in music that comes from other realms and cultures, music that defies easy categorization, or music that can appear harshly repellent or deceptively beautiful at first listen but that reveals more and more depth with every listen. Music that asks us to open our ears to the unfamiliar, to the possibly difficult and challenging. This aesthetic informs my engagement with pretty much all creative work, both my own and from other artists.

If you get right down to it – and apologies for presuming to speak for the Big Ears director – I expect that this is similar to the formation of Ashley Capps’ aesthetic, too. We came of age around the same time and around a lot of the same music. (AC and I met at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville in 1980 at his presentation of the Art Ensemble, one of his first shows.) We both were college radio geeks, the kinds of people who would spend hours flipping through the cutout bins in search of some holy grail recording of someone only we knew about.

And that is likely why Big Ears resonates so strongly for me. When I look at the lineup, it is as though I had just sat down and made a list of the artists I really want to hear and see. It rings the bells that Manfred Eicher started pealing in my head 40 years ago, bells that have shaped much of my life since.

ECM was not the first label to establish such a distinct personality, nor the last. Labels like India Navigation, Soul Note, Black Saint, hatHut, and dozens more have since created powerful catalogs of work in the jazz realm, and Nonesuch is prominent in its delivery of important creative music after its humble origin as a discount bin classical label in 1964. But not many labels have the longevity of an ECM: Fifty years on, Eicher’s vision remains intact (albeit expanded to embrace more classical music since c. 1985) and the company’s business model presumably solid. Hell, 50 years in the recording industry is about three lifetimes. Certainly such a thing is impossible.

And yet, they persisted. Happy birthday, ECM, and thanks for everything.

(Credit to the Home Studio Magazine interview with Eicher and Tyran Grillo’s superb website, a heroic labor of love from a guy who just wanted to write a thoughtful review of every album ECM ever released. And immense thanks to the Big Ears Festival
for throwing ECM a big ass birthday hoolie this year.)




The Greatest Thing That Ever Lived

By the time I could pay attention, The Greatest had already rejected his slave name, embraced the Nation of Islam, and refused to serve the armed forces of the United States.<fn>He was not a draft dodger. He just said fuck no, put me in prison if you have to, but fuck. No. That ain’t no dodge.</fn>

By the time I could pay attention, I remember adults in my orbit still calling him Cassius Clay, declaring they would never call him by that n****r name, that he had gotten way above his station, that he was a traitor, that he refused to appreciate everything “his” country had done for him, just another shiftless ingrate who didn’t know his place.

I can’t say I was carefully taught. But I was taught. I was taught that James Brown was barely more evolved than an ape or a gorilla, that MLK was one “one of the good ones, mostly” and that those animals were burning down “their own” neighborhoods.

But by the time I could pay attention, none of this stuff squared with what I was seeing with my own lying eyes.

By the time I could pay attention, MLK went from alive to dead, a victim of the racism that my people all wanted to believe was not as bad as “the bad ones” would suggest. You know, the bad ones. Like these guys.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos -- American Patriots
Tommie Smith and John Carlos — American Patriots

By the time I could pay attention, James Brown was the guy who made some of my favorite music, a thrilling force of nature.

By the time I could pay attention, the futility and inherently racist cruelty of the Vietnam War was all too clear, even to this ten-year old. A 4th grade friend and I got in big trouble for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, reasoning that there was no way in hell that we would ever fight in Vietnam, so pledging allegiance would be nothing but a lie.

We stood with Muhammad Ali. Even if we didn’t know it.

(That week, in an odd turn, Jose Feliciano performed the National Anthem at the World Series. His performance was an outrage, a provocation, yet another example of one of Those PeopleTM showing ingratitude at how much “their” country had done for them. His crime? Singing a British drinking song with a Latin feel. So the next day, the entire 4th grade was summoned to the classroom of one Miss Loretta Karp, a stooped skeleton from hell in high heels, with impossibly bright red hair, a woman who would have been six foot three if she was not in a constant hunch. She was mean as a wet cat whose bright red lipsticked smile existed only to signal impending cruelty. She began by noting that there had been some “unpleasantness” in school lately with “certain people” showing “poor patriotism by refusing to honor Our Flag”. She then went on to note that the World Series had been forever blemished by the desecration of the national anthem by a “foreigner. But by God,” we were going to fix that by having the entire 4th grade “stand together and sing the Star Spangled Banner as God meant it to be sung”. My pal and I got the giggles and could not stop. We got in trouble again. Such wabble wousers!)

Sure, we were risking nothing more than a stern talking to from our parents and disapproving looks from teachers and staff. Our courage was nothing, a flea fart in a hurricane. But still. We stood with Ali, two dopy white boys in the Connecticut suburbs who basically knew shit from shinola. But we knew that everything we were being taught about the war, about the way our nation was structured, did not square with things we saw on the electric radio picture box every night at dinner, pass the biscuits please. By the way, why are they burning down that village?

Too many things we were taught were just transparently wrong. This is not to cast full blame on our parents and teachers. They were themselves taught untruth, a set of lies that became matters of gospel faith. This was “their” country, and everyone else who was here needed to know their place.

So it’s easy to understand how my people, taught from birth that this was “their” country, would look at Cassius Clay’s declaration of “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived!” as not just braggadocio, but as a direct threat to their security and world view. For a colored man, such a thing was just not done.

And for him to embrace Black Nationalism the very next day, to clearly state uncomfortable truths about “their” nation, could only mean one of two things: one of them was lying. And it had to be, just had to be, that loud-mouthed boy.

And then, he rejected “their” war, “their” draft, “their” nation in terms that offered no comfort, no conciliation:

“I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger. They never lynched me or raped my grandmother. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

He gave up everything for this stand. His titles, his income. He was not allowed to practice his craft. He was, in fact, one of White America’s most hated symbols, even as he became a hero to Black America and to people around the world. When he was finally allowed to fight again, the battle lines were pretty clear. Joe Frazier was “one of the good ones”, the guy who would shut Ali up for good. The rest is, as they say, history. You can look it up.<fn>Or you can turn on the electric picture radio machine for round the clock Ali hagiography.</fn>

As with MLK III, the posthumous softening of the Ali image is underway. Just as King was transformed from a warrior badass into a cuddly teddy bear of non-violent accommodation, Ali is being morphed into an anodyne citizen of the world, a guy who was great with kids, who met with everyone from princes to paupers. A twinkly-eyed elder statesman who, robbed of speech, became a blank slate upon which we could all shine our imagining of who and what this guy was in life.<fn>Even Trump blathered on about how they were such “good friends”, ffs.</fn>

But Ali, like King, was way more than a teddy bear.

Last night we began watching the remake of Roots. It’s a grueling affair. Central to the first episode is the importance of a person claiming and owning his real name. Kunta Kinte endured a savage beating before he whispered “Toby” in acceptance of his fate. Ali flipped that, renouncing the name his more recent ancestors had been forced to assume. And he took a beating for it. The nation wanted a nice Joe Louis Negro, a quiescent and accommodating character who would make white folks feel like they are not racists, because they just love them one of the good ones. Someone who transcended race.

Writer Stereo Williams dropped this tweet today:

“Transcended race” typically means “Helped me forget to be racist.”

Ali never let me forget to be racist. Such a thing is impossible for this product of White Southern upbringing. If anything, I want to remember that I am a racist, constantly. I don’t need to be let off the hook for my part in this legacy.

By the time I could pay attention, Ali helped me understand that the Vietnam War was an immoral, indefensible violation of human decency. That was early on in my lifetime of paying (variable) attention to our world, and it was no small thing to realize that one of Those PeopleTM  was correcting a lie handed me by “my people”.

What else did I have wrong? The list is seemingly endless.

 

 




All the Critics Love U in New York

If there’s any celebrity you can be sure you did not know in any significantly real way, it was Prince. Shape shifter, name shifter/eraser, master of every style you can name. Intensely private and essentially flamboyant. Exhibitionist. Hermit. You don’t know him except in the ways you think you do, and that has as much to do with what you wanted him to be as it does with which little pieces of mythologizing he wanted you to see at any given time. Like the classic Trickster of legend, he could present multiple faces at the same time, and the face you got to glimpse, briefly, depended on which side of the road you were standing on. If Prince had been around then, Kurosawa could have made this pint-sized product of Minni-freaking-sota the centerpiece of Rashomon. That would have been cool.

What do I know of Prince? We’re roughly the same age. He’s probably the most under-appreciated guitar player in like ever. Over the years that I have been heralding him as easily the best thing since Hendrix and sliced bread I’ve received more than a few puzzled looks and dismissive chuckles about me just being a contrarian. This week, many people were surprised when Billy Gibbons described his playing as “sensational”.

But even that is only a piece of it. From his textbook knowledge and respect for those who came before him – JB, Sly, Jimi, Miles, George Clinton, &c. – to his savage dance chops and ultra-sharp fashion sense, to his early adoption and mastery of technologies like the Linn Drum; the guy put a package together that was both historically intelligent and, somehow, way out in front of the coming surge of hip-hop and Michael Jackson/Madonna style pop that followed him by a few years. The man had his gifts. Add in an almost incomprehensible work ethic, and you have Prince.

How Prince helped me know myself comes down to this simple question:

How could anyone possibly fail to recognize such evident talent?

Probably the way that I did.

Because instead of listening, I reacted to the packaging cues that came with the Prince product. And because he hit the scene in the late 70s with a funky beat, puffy shirts, lots of synthesizers, and a (deceptively) silly reliance on lyrics about fucking, I saw him clearly for what he was: just another callow Disco Boy, a Travolta, a Bee Gee.

It’s hard to remember (or, if you are a little younger, comprehend) the degree to which DiscoSux fever encompassed the world of funky music. Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, P-Funk: all these and more took their share of unfriendly fire from people who were essentially painting the entirety of black popular music as beneath-contempt shit.

DiscoSux fever was a symptom of reaction against gay and minority encroachment into the historically masculine world of rock and pop. This music was aimed at gender-fluid communities and urban black folk. For a generation of mostly white, hetero-norm critics and fans for whom rock’n’roll equaled priapic guitar stroking and golden-maned Dionysi sporting socks stuffed into spandex trousers, this was music that threatened the natural order. <fn>The pulse belonged on the 1 and 3, dammit, none of this 2 and 4 backbeat shit. Whaddya, Disco Duck?</fn> It was outsider art storming the academy. And I was a privileged, by-birth member of the patriarchal academy, though I didn’t even know that such a thing existed; such is the blindness of by-birth membership.

Prince said fk all that noise, and it was pretty clear that he was throwing down on, well, people like me.

Look out all you hippies, you ain’t as sharp as me
It ain’t about the trippin’, but the sexuality
– All the Critics Love U in New York

Hey. I resemble(d) that remark.

So I could “listen” to When Doves Cry or 1999 and quickly sort this alleged genius off into the “just another over-hyped fraud” bin.

In that same song, this upstart had the nerve to sing:

It’s time for a new direction
It’s time for jazz to die

As a burgeoning jazz-bo, I tooks what I tooks and it was more than I could takes. I didn’t need to hear the music behind this pixie poppinjay. These crude insults told me all I needed to know! Pistols at dawn!

Later, when Miles compared him to Duke Ellington and Chopin, it was easy to dismiss the comments as Miles trying to glom onto the popularity of the younger phenom. Because come on: he’s really just another Disco Boy, and everybody knows that DiscoSux, so pass the bong and cue up some Coltrane or some real rock’n’roll. Dude.

One night in 1993 I watched a terrific Neil Young Unplugged on MTV<fn>In those days, children, the M stood for “Music”. You can look it up!</fn>. The next show was Prince live in some mega-arena, and I watched it and thought, “Meh, pretty good” and then he walked offstage and into a limo that took him somewhere and he walked into a small club and took the stage and proceeded to melt my face with a yellow guitar and the most scorching Hendrix-style blues I’d heard since before Stevie Ray died. For the next hour I was slain. I’ve been listening to Prince ever since.

So what does the phenomenon of Prince teach me about myself? Every time I hear his music, even as I am digging it down to my toes, I am reminded that I am a fallible human being, prone to unpleasant bigotries and prejudices that cause me to stop paying attention to what is real and true. The impulses that put me on auto-piloting sort mode – this person is this, that music is that, I don’t like “those” kinds of people/music/movies/food/&c. – are the things that make me miss the My Favorite Worldness of life. It’s good to have a ready reminder – one that the iPod throws up randomly and often – that for all my pretense to erudition and discernment and such like, I am just as likely to react like a dope as I am to apply any kind of intentional awareness to, well, anything.

Which means, naturally, that any opinion I hold is inherently suspect and worthy of re-examination. Consider yourself duly warned.

The most delicious part of the irony is that the song I quote above, had I bothered to listen to it in 1983, would have delivered exactly the kind of face-melting guitar heroics that won me over ten years later. Check it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJxt_Ey6tbo

Who knows? I was full of myself in those days<fn>Unlike now, when I am extremely humble and enlightened.</fn>, so I might have dismissed it anyway.

Thanks, Artist Who Formerly Bestrode The World as Prince. Somehow, having you be the constant reminder of my proclivity to dopiness ain’t all that bad. You sexy motherfker.

 

 




The Wheel Turns

At the end of the Civil War, the United States assumed ownership of Robert E. Lee’s family plantation, high on a hill in Arlington, just across the river from the Nation’s – the unified nation’s – capitol. The family home remains, but the grounds of that plantation, a place where hundreds of slaves worked and died, became the final resting place for more than 15,000 dead Union soldiers.<fn>This ranks among the finest and most appropriate nose-rubbings in American history, and dog knows we have a history nose-rubbings both noble and ig.</fn> One hundred fifty years later, the body count approaches half a million.<fn>It is a bitter pill that, as the cemetery expanded to fit all the fallen, a large community or freedmen was evicted to make room for more corpses.</fn>

The first memory I have of Arlington is a Spring Break trip there with my Dad to visit the memorial marker for his younger brother, a Top Gun pilot who died in a training run in 1964. This visit was c. 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War. There was something about the way the geometry of all the grave sites shifted as you moved down the road that made it look infinite. And it occurred to my callow self, all of 14 years old, that every white dot was a dead soldier. A guy just like my dead uncle. And somehow the horror that I had never registered through years of watching Vietnam carnage on teevee landed with a careening thud. And I remember this horrific, engulfing sadness, mingled with a concern that I was going to start crying, sobbing – in front of my dad! – and how could I possibly save myself from such embarrassment, so my horror and fear mixed into this massive spaghetti ball of empathy for the victims and fear of shame for myself, which I managed to escape by stuffing my feelings down the way well raised males of a certain age know all too well.

What I didn’t know is that my dad took my picture while this internal riot was raging. It has hung in his (every) home ever since. Did he know?

Every time I’ve visited since then, the massive horror of the place envelops me. I am angry. I see the grand monuments of the generals and admirals, the ostentatious stones and crosses planted for the men who sent the rest of that half-million mostly forgotten horde to mostly senseless slaughter. I am no fan of war, no admirer of military “might”. Much of what the National Cemetery represents is senseless waste, cock-strutting ego. It is evidence of a madness that is evidently irresistible to many who gain power.

But somehow, there is always an overwhelming sense of awe and serenity, a presence of commitment and memoriam that I’ve experienced only a handful of times.

Nothing rings that bell more than the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Today found me – 43 years after my father brought me to Arlington for the first time – bringing my own son to Arlington. It’s our first day of a Spring Break romp through American History, a subject that we both enjoy. As we walked into the grounds, I felt the tingle. This place just gets to me. We wandered past the Kennedy flame and on up the hill to the historic Lee home. Every few minutes, a thundering boom of commemorative cannon fire or the crack of rifle shots broke the silence. Apparently, there are upwards of two dozen interments every week day. The gravedigger’s job is never finished.

We had time to stroll. The markers were often unintentionally funny. Many higher-ranking officers had their wives buried next to them, their stone reading simply “wife”. This “wife” had a name, that one didn’t. Best monument of all: a Navy Admiral whose stone specified “And His Second Wife”, a last gasp middle-finger extended from the beyond toward wife #1, who must have really been a piece of work to deserve such an enduring “ah fanabla”.

Clouds of gunpowder smoke hung over the hills. And despite the fact that there was a considerable crowd of all-American event-attenders, there was none of the antic quality tourist crowds bring to almost every other “point of interest”. Even the kids we’d watched using the Metro hang straps like monkeys somehow knew to dial it down.

As we approached the Tomb, the silence grew deeper. It was crowded. One small child was crying, but his Dad – a Marine by the looks of his t-shirt and hat – lifted him gently and carried him out. A few minutes later, both were back. Quiet.

The Honor Guard upheld the ritual that has been played out thousands of times. Twenty-one steps to the south. Heel click. Twenty-one second pause. Turn to the east. Click. Twenty-one second pause. Turn north. Click. Twenty-one second pause. Shift rifle from the east shoulder to the west shoulder. Twenty-one steps north. Click. Turn to the east. Repeat.

There is an honor guard on duty 365/24/7. Whatever the weather. Last time I was there, it was New Year’s day c. 1992 or 3. It was very cold, like skin cracking cold. Because my Dad has a family pass, we were able to drive directly to the Tomb. We were the only people there aside from the guard. It was grey, damp, windy. We lasted about 20 minutes, just long enough to watch the Changing of the Guard. It was a solemn, precise ritual. There was no audience for this aside from three of us. It didn’t matter. They do this in the rain, the snow, in the dead of night. Twenty-one steps, twenty-one seconds. Over and over.

Ritual. Commitment. Memoriam.

So as the Changing ritual began today, we – like everyone who witnesses it – we rose to our feet. We held our hands over our hearts whenever active military would offer a full salute. The Changing was immutable, constant, reliable. A few cannon shot echoed from another ceremony.

And then, through no good planning on our part, we found ourselves witnessing an expanded ceremony, this one a wreath-laying ritual with an extra guard and musician. Four high school students “helped” the guard place a new wreath in front of the tomb. Another guard laid the previous wreath at the base of the Tomb.

All this was happening under the stern command of Master Sergeant Calderon, a truly formidable presence with a voice that demanded attention. But where we stood, we heard the other side: a gentle man, a gentleman, who softly explained to the teens exactly what to do and when to do it. The modulation from fierce to tender was precise and – really, the only word I can call up – genuine.

I was feeling misty-eyed, taken by all the sadness and beauty of 150 years worth of dead children – because truly, most of the bodies here never saw two dozen winters. A bugler presented. A robin – the first of the spring? – flew from left to right across the Tomb site. And the first notes of Taps, a crystalline tone borne on angel’s breath, took me. Flow my tears.

In the distance, a formation of fighter jets were coming up the river. I thought it a nice coincidence, here they come, nice coincidence, hey they’re flying right over us and there goes the third jet, peeling away from the formation up into the sky until the clouds swallowed it and it was gone, the traditional tribute to the missing man. I don’t think any of us were even breathing at this point. And then, the extra players marched away, leaving the lone guard with his incessant count of twenty-one, twenty-one.

It turned out the flyover was for another ceremony on the grounds. Life and death go on. Some of the dead are sent away with cannon shot. Some get rifles hoisted and fired. And some, no doubt grandees of military renown, still have the juice to garner a quick flyover of four billion dollar airplanes.

(Ed Note: Pal of i2b DD points out that the flyover was more likely for a deceased pilot, perhaps even a Top Gun like mon oncle, and not (his words) “some brass monkey”. Duly noted.)

As we walked away from the Tomb, we saw a horse-drawn hearse roll by. We followed it for a bit, then realized it had already discharged its coffin load, so we wandered back towards the exit, across the Memorial Bridge that leads to the Lincoln Memorial, a bridge that aspirationally exemplifies the rapprochement of Union and Confederacy that, somehow, remains as salient a divide today as it was that day at Appomattox. Son stopped at one point and wondered if the President might sometimes visit this place after closing, just to get a reminder of the awesome power he holds. All these lives. The weight of responsibility must be – one can only hope – truly terrifying.

We crossed the river and wandered to the front of the Lincoln, one of my favorite places, with the idea that we would read the Gettysburg Address and add some resonance to the day’s experience. But the steps were mobbed with event-attenders in full flight, and Son refused to climb the steps, refused to even look up at the statue of Abe, preferring to wait for a chance to see it when the proper reverence was at play. Smart boy. We’ll go back after dark one night.

The Boy, Considering
The Boy, Considering: I sent this pic to my Dad. My guess is that it made him misty-eyed. Whaddya gonna do?




Field Tested Fool Proof Granola

Posted this almost exactly a year ago. I’ve been making at least a batch of granola a week since then, and today finds me making a couple of batches for holiday gifting. Seemed a good time to share this one again. BTW, the Bitter Southerner has a new Best Of list up for 2015. Check it out.

Field Tested Fool Proof Granola

Looking for an activity that’ll cure what ails you? Cook something.

Alas, my kitchen chops are just enough to keep me from starving, and to get myself in trouble once in a while, but there are a few go-to recipes that keep me from being a cliched, Leave It To Beaver era patriarchal putz.<fn>There are plenty of other areas where I qualify, but I’m nearly redeemable on this score.</fn> If you are generally kitchen savvy, this post is likely beneath your notice, save as an opportunity to point and laugh as I wobble on toddler legs through the world of food.

This one is an amalgam of lots of different granola recipes I’ve made/bungled/burned over the years. I’ve finally learned the guiding principles, though, and now I can whip this out at a moment’s notice, as long as I have all the ingredients:

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Oatmeal – 4 cups

Sunflower seeds – 1 cup

Flax seeds – ½ cup

Coconut flakes – 1 cup

Tupelo Honey – ¾ cup (any other sweetener will do, but this is my fave)

Vegetable Oil – ½ cup

Salt – A couple two three pinches

Vanilla extract – A scoche

Then, if you’re like me, you’ll realize you forgot something, so off to the market to get:

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Pecans – 1 cup chopped

Dried fruit – A fistful (cranberries today). DO NOT put the dried fruit in the oven or they will turn to stone.

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Mix all the dry ingredients (except the dried fruit!!) in a big pan. You can substitute or add any kinds of seeds or nuts, but if you add much more than I use, you might want to add another cup of oats to keep the granola from becoming too seedy. Add the salt, oil, honey, and vanilla. Then stir like crazy. I use a pan with high side walls because I’m clumsy and spill a lot otherwise.

Put the mix in a 300* oven for 30 minutes. Make another pot of coffee after SOMEONE drank the rest of the first pot.<fn>I’m not naming names.</fn>

At the 30 minute mark, pull the pan out and stir well. Put it back in for another 15 minutes or so. Keep your eyes and nose peeled for any hint of burning.

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After 15 minutes, or around the time your kitchen begins to smell like heaven’s garden, take it out and stir again. Let cool for a while, stirring occasionally. Once it cools, add a fistful of dried fruit <fn>Exactly, no more or less. Be precise.</fn> and stir it in.

That’s it. If I can do it, any prat can make it work. Half a cup of this mixed with a half cup of yogurt makes this My Favorite World.

Today’s Music

This morning, Bitter Southerner posted their 25+1 favorite CDs to come out of the South in 2014.<fn>I wrote this last week, so the date’s off.</fn> With just a couple of exceptions, I had not heard of the musicians on the list. So I pulled one up to provide the soundtrack for granola wrangling: Curtis Harding’s Soul Power.

An ATL-based guitarist/singer, Harding serves an updated take on one of my favorite styles – late 60s/early 70s soul and R&B. Isley, Curtis Mayfield, Issac Hayes, Al Green…not that he sounds just like any of these folks, but that you can feel the through-line from the pioneers up to more recent R&B authenticos like Prince and Cee Lo. (Harding was in Cee Lo’s band for a while.) He also reflects the great blues vibe of Muddy Waters and the like. And then comes “Cruel World” to wrap things up and I’m reminded of Los Lobos and the great guitar of David Hidalgo. All in all, I really love it. Just one more surprise puzzle piece that fits right into MFW. I’m sure it made the granola more better.

And now we’re into Amy Ray’s Goodnight Tender. I’ve met Amy in passing a few times<fn>Not that she’d have any reason to remember.</fn> and she’s truly one of the world’s good people. Loving this album, a heaping helping of pure country. And all respect for the incred harmonies that pal Kelly Hogan is dropping here. M. F. W.

I’m looking forward to checking out the whole list, especially the latest Lucinda Williams, whom I adore, yes I do. And if you don’t know the Bitter Southerner, get to know them. They provided more than a little bit of inspiration for establishing this here little bloggy vineyard.

 




The Atticus of My Life

In the book of love’s own dreams
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
Attics of My Life, by Robert Hunter

THIS POST IS FULL OF SPOILERS:
If you hate spoilers and plan to read Go Set a Watchman, skip this post for now.
But please, come back when you’re done.

A piece of free advice:
If you have not read To Kill a Mockingbird recently, read it before you read
Go Set a Watchman. You’ll be glad you did.

I’m one of those peculiar people who take literature too seriously. I’ve never doubted the power of a good writer to create worlds that are as real as our own and, at the same time, to conjure reflections and echoes of a reality we haven’t quite earned yet.

Characters in books become as real to me as my friends and family, my banes and enemies. I grant that this is a sign of deficient mental health, but I hope I’m not the only one who, for example, bursts into tears when Gavroche Thénardier dies on the barricade or when Edgar Derby is executed for pocketing that damned teapot he found in the rubble. I guess most times for most people, characters remain on the page where they belong and don’t much interfere in our day to day. Lucky them?

But some characters escape the page and grow larger than life, become icons. Some, like Atticus Finch, become moral exemplars and redeemers of collective wrongdoing. And if there’s anything we can’t stand, it’s for someone to reveal the flawed man behind the myth.<fn>See also, Huxtable, Cliff.</fn>

So let’s cut to the chase. Atticus Finch is a standard issue Southern gentleman – a man I recognize well in several of my Deep South forbears – a genteel fellow of manners and decency who also happens to hold racist views that are extreme enough to make the daughter who once idolized her Perfect Father literally throw up when she discovers his true nature.

It’s easy to see why so many long-time Harper Lee fans are outraged.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee created the Great White Father, the man of infinite patience, rectitude, and sense of fairness who could redeem our (White folks, that is) sense of guilt and discomfort over racial injustice. In Go Set a Watchman, she pulls the curtain back to reveal that Atticus, the Great and Powerful, is just another worn out, cranky uncle forwarding conspiracy emails and ranting about Those People.  Once again, hero worship turns out to be a sucker play.

At the end of Mockingbird, we were given permission to tut-tut the horror of Tom Robinson’s predicament and to feel joy at the progress we’ve made, pass the chicken please. The white trash Ewells excelled in the Judas role in this passion play, lowly creatures who took welfare and kept their kids out of school and couldn’t be bothered to shift for themselves. Our own hands were never dirtied like the coarse and common Ewells. They were the evil in our midst, and if only we better whites could follow the shining example of Atticus Finch, the world would be our Nirvana, and hallelujah, pass the gravy, if it’s not too much trouble.

Watchman‘s Chapter 17 is one of the most painful reading experiences I’ve ever suffered. Even knowing ahead of time that Lee was going to reveal a “dark side” of Atticus, I was unprepared for the casual, genteel, typically Southern bigotry coming out of his mouth. And Lee wrote this exchange with no wiggle room: Atticus is basically a disgusting racist. He laughs at Jean Louise’s arguments, he taunts her for her naivete.

There’s no turning away: the Great White Father is a son of a bitch. The revelation of Atticus’s repellent attitudes hits as hard as if a sequel to the gospels revealed that Jesus and Judas were the same character. Everything you know is wrong.

A few days before GSAW hit the stores, I re-read Mockingbird for the first time in years. I was surprised at the extent to which the movie depiction replaced the book itself in my memory.<fn>Like I said: re-read TKAM before you read GSAW.</fn> Mockingbird the movie revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson; everything else that happens travels in orbit around that event. In the book, the trial is critical, but the book as a whole explores the curve of small-town childhood in the South with fondness and wit. (White children, naturally.) As with so many movies/books/tv shows about race, actual black folks are pretty much in the margins.<fn>With the notable and long overdue exception of the movie Selma, though it too has its own issues of Great Father drama and hagiography.</fn> And this gets to one of the key problems with Mockingbird – on the one handit asks us to empathize with the ‘poor, poor Negro’, even while bestowing upon us a glimmering savior to make us all feel okay again. That nice (hell, impossibly perfect) Atticus washes our sins away.

While theories abound as to Watchman’s origin, I readily accept that this was an early shot at Lee’s Maycomb chronicle; after reading Watchman, Lee’s editor told her go back and tell the tale from Young Scout’s perspective. It took her two years to re-write, and the result was the structurally and stylistically superior Mockingbird. The Watchman version is clearly unfinished; it lacks the cohesion that extended editing and re-writing would have instilled.<fn>It is also unmistakably the work of Harper Lee. This is no hoax, and it sure as hell is not Capote.</fn> But I can also see how this might have become, later on, an effective sequel. In fact, it takes great effort to read this as anything other than a sequel or amplification of the original: the same characters, 15 years later on the fictional timeline, in a book published 50+ years later. It’s of a piece, and it provides an essential corrective element that turns the saga into something other than a happy fairy tale, albeit one where that poor Tom Robinson &c., pass the black eyed peas.

Mockingbird gave us a feel-good fantasy. Watchman fills in the blanks and gives us a truth that does not encourage happy mealtime discussion.

Mockingbird is still a great novel. Lee’s depictions of the rhythms and rhymes and smells of Southern life are as good as anybody else, Faulkner, O’Connor, Percy, you name your favorite. But Harper Lee is not a great novelist.<fn> For the same reason the John Kennedy Toole and Joseph Heller are not; the body of work is just not there to justify such a judgement.</fn> She spread a dusting of fiction over the people she knew growing up, the place she knew. She had a story worth telling, and perhaps even recognized that the time had come for white southerners to address race in a different way. But she had one good story, told it, and went silent. Wondering whether she could have become a great novelist is no better than a parlor game along the lines of could Wilt Chamberlain outplay Michael Jordan and such.

While Watchman is not a great novel by any stretch, it’s probably not fair to judge it too harshly given that it never even made it to galleys until its rediscovery. But it is an important piece of work for two key reasons. First off, it sheds light on the author’s struggle, the process of taking a work from idea to paper to woodshed to completion. This alone would make GSAW a worthy curiosity for literary scholars and a fun what-if exercise for Mockingbird devotees. But more important than this: Watchman uses the Freudian/Oedipal device of kill the father to allow Jean Louise to become an adult in her own right. And in so doing, Lee strips the mask from a false idol that has captivated her fans for several generations. And that shit comes with some heavy dues.

So first: The similarities between TKAM and GSAW are evident and plenty, with several paragraphs that describe Maycomb life appearing in both without so much as a comma’s difference. But the divergences are where we get a glimpse at the evolution of a book that has been read by millions of people over the past half century.

Famously, Tom Robinson is convicted and then killed trying to escape prison; everybody knows that. But in Watchman, the “trial” is dealt with in a paragraph or two, with the throwaway reference that Tom was acquitted.<fn>And a more disturbing suggestion that Atticus fought hard for Tom only to sustain the fiction of equality under the law. More later.</fn> In the retelling, the “trial” transformed from a mere trifle to the centerpiece of one of the nation’s great moral fables.

Then there’s the fiance in GSAW, Henry, who Jean Louise describes as her oldest and dearest friend, a boy who lived across the street at the same time the trial and the adventures with Jem and Dill and Boo played out. This character does not exist in Mockingbird. Perhaps even more revealing, Boo Radley does not exist in the Watchman universe, and there is no mention of Bob Ewell’s attack on Jem and Scout, the event that provides the bookend beginning/ending of the entire Mockingbird narrative.

And of course, there is Jean Louise’s discovery and outrage that the Father and her fiance are, if not card carriers, at the very least fellow travellers of the White Citizens Councils who made damned well and sure that Jim Crow remained the law of the land and kept Those People from getting above their station. Not to be outdone, Jean Louise reveals herself to be a states rights fanatic of the first degree, and declared herself angry and outraged that the Supreme Court would force people to do the right thing when they would certainly get around to it in their own good time and why are they rushing things so. Between the two of them, you have the complete package of racial oppression. And they’re both so damned reasonable about it.

The heart of Watchman‘s ultimate importance lies in that last disparity between what might be viewed as the canon of TKAM and the heresy of GSA, lies in Harper Lee’s forcing us to squarely face the myth of the Great Father, to see the truth of the complexity and the ugliness and duplicity, and to, well basically, grow the fuck up. Look, she says – you worshipped this False Idol, you used him to absolve your sins, and you’ve been a dupe the whole time. And by the way, your stand-in Scout ain’t all that either, what with her love of states rights and eventual acceptance of the way things are.<fn>To be sure, the ending of the book feels hurried and undeveloped, something I feel would have been addressed in re-write/editing. But Lee said publish it warts and all, so this is the text we have to unpack, to use a term that I hate but why not at this point, my god, the world is in tatters and the Great Father is dead. Cut me some slack.</fn>

Lee created the Perfect Father, the man who could resolve any argument, cure any scratch or scrape. And Gregory Peck made that character flesh. Go ahead, try to imagine any other actor of the past 100 years in that role. None of them will stick. One stupid internet poll after another has put Atticus near the top of the “perfect father” sweepstakes. People name their children after Atticus. He’s a goddamned monument.

And this is exactly where Watchman delivers the blow that makes it an important contribution to this corner of the literary world: Lee shows us that our Savior is a fraud, tells us to wake up and be adults in our own right. Lee shows us the essential error of putting our faith in mythical heroes and asks us to stand on our own. Sure, it’s tough when we discover that the pleasing fairy tales of our childhoods are fictions that cover up a more complex and disappointing set of truths. Step up and deal.

Watchman comes along at a particularly fraught moment in our 400 year struggle with the wages of America’s original sin. Any pretense to having arrived at a post-racial moment withers with the first serious investigation. No matter how “good” we whites think ourselves, no matter how much we congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come<fn> Guilty as charged. Mea culpa.</fn> – the fact remains that we live in a segregated society, and it is primarily White America’s obligation to ensure that the structural changes necessary to allow this issue to reach resolution are squarely in our own laps. (Like it or not, Blacks have no obligation to make things better; we shit this bed and it’s ours to clean.) Unlike TKAM, Watchman does not offer any bromides to make that pill any less bitter. In fact, by making Atticus’ noble defense of Tom Robinson an act of expedience rather than principle, Lee drives home a disturbing and cynical point: good deeds may not quite be what they appear. Even your own, so stay awake and question, question, question.

Another heartbreaker in Watchman: Jean Louise pays a visit to Calpurnia, the Negro woman who essentially raised her and Jem. In TKAM, Calpurnia was for all intents the only Mother Jem and Scout knew. Now long since retired and removed from the White world, Calpurnia barely acknowledges Jean Louise, and certainly display no affection. Jean Louise is deeply hurt, but also outraged: how dare she not remember me, how dare she turn her back on how good we were to her, how we treated her as though she were just like family, etc. Jean Louise has not found the maturity to accept her own complicity in racial oppression. It’s too much for her to take. In this, she is the perfect representation of too many “enlightened” whites on the question of race, with our plaintive whines of “can’t they see how much we/I have done for them already?”, largely blind to the overwhelming privilege we claim as our birthright without even recognizing it even exists.

In the end, I find myself at this: despite the fact that Mockingbird is likely to remain the preferred version of Lee’s Maycomb tales, it is dishonest to ignore the details of Watchman in our overall view of what Maycomb means in its literary context. Memories are imperfect, and stories told over time shift and morph to reflect new experiences, changed attitudes, or something as simple as wish fulfillment. When Lee wrote Watchman, she told a story of a young woman’s disillusionment about her once revered father; when she rewrote the story from the young Scout perspective, she transformed Atticus into the perfect father, the perfect man.

This is not necessarily a contradiction. But the fuller portrait that emerges from the combined tellings – even though it is a real heartbreaker – brings us closer to an understanding that is probably more useful and true in the long run: we are none of us perfect – even/especially the people you’ve placed on a pedestal – and you can bet there’s a dark side to your own character that needs serious work, some whining cling to privilege that we mostly don’t even see. And there is no Great Father who can fix everything for us; it all depends on our own imperfect efforts. It is surely impossible to bear, to go on without our Great Father; but the alternative – giving up and throwing in the towel – is even worse.

I’m not sure Harper Lee intended anything of the sort. It may be that she truly felt the story delivered in Mockingbird is the “way it is”, and I’ve no doubt many will hold to that reading. But I’ll hold to this one: Harper Lee knew what was in the earlier manuscript, and she allowed its publication as a favor to us all. Watchman delivers a harsh but necessary message: Give up the fantasy and face the world as it is. Shit’s too damned serious for anything else.

 




My Favorite World #29

Life is busy with lots of good stuff. Big piece of this comes in multiple opportunities to make music noise.

Last week, RoboCromp (The Band That Refuses to Die, Even If You Beat it With a Stick) enjoyed a two night tour of the RR Square/Gaines district of Tallahassee. Jeff and I first played together 27 years ago in a band I put together called The Hundredth Monkey.

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Hundredth Monkey, w Tom King and Mike Roe – Frijolero’s, Atlanta, 1988

A few months in, Jeff and the drummer (not pictured) scarpered off to form a different band. That’s how it goes…

But here we are today, the duo project in it’s 11th year. It’s a ton of fun, and gets better all the time.

But wait, there’s more!

Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel

Those dapper gents from Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel have invited me to sit in at their show this weekend in Pine Lake. We’ve played together once before in their studio, and the result is a recording with me on it that I actually enjoy listening to. Here’s a tickle:

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Lots of good work going on in My Favorite World.

The only drawback: scant time to put into the longer i2b posts. But hark! I detect a gap in the crazy schedule, maybe just enough to scrawl something coherent. Maybe.

My. Favorite. World.




Stay Cool. Everything is Jake.

With little time to spare, what with high school graduation and gobs of family visiting and the graduate having her tonsils removed this morning; and now a welcome flurry of people paying me to write werdz (unlike the Management around this little bloggy vineyard!); plus a couple of gigs later this week with new music to learn. Add in a dose of recalcitrance and innate indolence, and well, this is what you get this week.

Some time back, the Narrator created a little web site as a historical survey of his musical alter ego. There are some tall tales, some reasonably verifiable facts, and a smattering of music files round the place, along with embarrassing photographs, like this.

robocromp early years
RoboCromp: We Were Actually Young Once

Hope this provides satisfactory diversion fodder until the Narrator can rub two words together again.




My Favorite World #27

It’s graduation week for Röbsdöttïr, which means Memory Lane has been a road far more traveled by.

Who is this kid? I’ll let a slightly altered quote from My Dinner with Andre suffice:

I mean, you know, people hold on to these images: father, mother, husband, wife, again for the same reason: ’cause they seem to provide some firm ground. But there’s no wife there. What does that mean, a wife? A husband? A daughter? A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly, there’s this beautiful young woman waving goodbye, and then she’s gone. Where’s that daughter?

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Cap'n Anna 2

 

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All leading up to this.

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My Favorite World. Watch out. She’s on her way.




My Favorite World #25

The A/C is busted and it’s fking hot; the dryer repairman is making his third visit in 2 weeks; I’m working under deadline on a story that just won’t gel. This post is a day late, and the grass still needs cutting. I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years. It’s even worse than it appears.

But it’s alright.

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That woman in the middle? That’s my girl.

That’s my wee baby girl in the middle. She received a Best and Brightest Scholarship award last night, somehow, despite still being 3 years old and fitting on my shoulder like a kitten, despite still being in pigtails and braces and having a broken arm, this wee baby girl has become quite the amazing young woman. I reel, I gape in amazement, I cry. I bust all my buttons.

Here’s a note from a good pal this morning upon hearing the news:

I remember when she was five: “what are you thinking about, Anna?” “Oh, I’m trying to figure out what the square root of 20 is, it has to be between 4 and 5 right?”

This kid is one of my heroes.

My Favorite World.