The Desert, 1992

          The full moon hung eerily over the fire of dinner camp.  A Jazz trio consisting of acoustic bass, drums, and portable keyboard provided spooky austere harmonies, interspersed with haunting off-time melodies.  Three tall posts lashed into a tetrahedron at one corner of the food tent, had crude strips of cloth tied to the top of each as banners.  As I watched flags fluttering wildly in the intense gusts of cold wind, I felt like I was on a Pirate ship, huddled with fellow outlaw strangers dressed in all kinds of flambuoyant garb.  “Two cities,” I think, gazing at the town of Mercury, a mile or so down the road,  glimmering directly beneath the North Star.
          Two cities: Mercury, the small military town for the sole purpose of facilitating the nuclear tests, with a bowling alley, a post office, a chapel, a tiny park consisting of a few trees, and a swimming pool, next to a small but effective airstrip, used for helicopters and jet planes.  And, Hippie-ville, where we stood, unbathed, sunburnt, old, young, clean-cut, dreadlocked, Shoshone, Black, White, Rainbow, Green, Hemp-loving, Hemp-dreading, Guatemalan and African clad, with drums & accordions and guitars, lined up for the free meals supplied by “Food not bombs”.
          In between, visible in the starlight, the front line: the cattle guard which divides “Safe” from “Caught” in the “capture the flag” game which follows, on one side the Protestors, and on the other the Sheriffs and Wackenhuts.
          In an hour or so, the full moon will rise to light up the sky and the desert.  But now, the night is so dark that it seems every single point in the sky is is a brilliantly shimmering star.  The city and the airstrip are lit up, beneath the North Star, with the “W” of Cassiopea to the left and the Big Dipper above to the right.  Beyond the city lies the mountain, and (invisible behind the mountain) the testing site itself, rumored to be full of craters two miles wide.
          A woman approaches, as we both stand listening to the jazz band, outside the circle of people waiting for food.
          “Amazing,” says the woman.  “You can see Orion, The Big Dipper, Cassiopea, and the Pleiades, all at once.”  
          “Really?”  I respond.  “Which one is the Pleiades?  I know it’s the first constellation astronomers determined the speed of using Red-shift, but I can never find it in the sky.”  
      “Over there, that kind of blur.”  As she stands closer to point, I can see that she is an older woman in glasses and a bandana, who reminds me of someone who goes to my church.  She smiles warmly as we converse about the stars.
          “Do you know, do the Wackenhuts sleep there at night?” We are staring at the city of Mercury.
          “No, they ship them in every morning on the bus.”  

the sky

Life, all life, is about asking questions,
not about knowing answers.
It is wanting to see what is over the next hill
that keeps us going.
We have to keep asking questions,
wanting to understand.
Even when we know we’ll never find the answers,
we have to keep on asking the questions.

My mother always talked to me a lot about the sky.
She liked to watch the clouds by day,
and the stars at night,
especially the stars.
We would play a game sometimes,
a game called what’s beyond the sky.
We would imagine darkness, or a blinding light,
or something else that we didn’t know how to name.

But of course, that was just a game.
There’s nothing beyond the sky.
The sky just is, and it goes on and on
and we play all of our games beneath it.


From the TV serial “Taken”

overlooking gray butte

A wise street artist in Santa Cruz once told me that the best response to a work of art is another work of art.  As Orwell’s 1984 is a response to Zamyatin’s We. So, a blague for a blog.

Claire writes:

One day, I noticed I that I ran up hills faster on foggy days when I wasn’t able to see the hills than on clear days.

Is this a function of age?  When  I was younger, I focused more on details.  Now I still see them, but in the context of the overarching curve.  The journey is more holistic after it has been traversed multiple times.  At the beginning, we already know the end.  Then the challenge becomes remaining present in each moment.

The hallmark of a great artist is the crafting at all levels, so that at any distance, near or far, the artistry is evident and compelling.  Or perhaps just the latter.

I think every great work displays this quality: we are drawn in from a distance, and as we zoom in up close, greater wonders appear.

Laurie Anderson, Zellerbach Hall 2012

Getting There

This trek to Berkeley is becoming more familiar, and it’s a trip we’re making more often, especially since U.C. Santa Cruz dropped their Arts and Lectures programs, due to lack of funds.  I found the drive to be a rather harrowing, up 880 during rush hour, even though we lucked out on the traffic.  No serious collisions.  But lots of construction, and lots of drivers of all kinds, including crazy ones.  Whee!  I know some people commute this route every day.  Amazing.

Also, I’m getting used to the poorly marked freeway exits.  The really nasty one is going from highway 24 to Telegraph Avenue, which is marked, NOT Telegraph Avenue, but “51st Street.”  Miss that one, and you wind up in the Caldecott Tunnel, and getting back can be significantly slower than going astray.

I love that there are about a half a dozen Ethopian restaurants on Telegraph.  On the other hand, Herbivore is one of my favorite Berkeley experiences (and San Francisco experiences).  Usually, if you’re vegetarian tending to vegan like I am, a typical restaurant may offer you maybe two meager choices.  By contrast, at Herbivore I can eat anything on the menu.  Same thing at Cafe Gratitude or Malabar in Santa Cruz.

But I digress.

The Show

The curtains were open the entire time, before, after, and during the show.  All around the stage were votive candles, and there was an fog generator constantly spinning out thin sheets of artificial mist.  Down stage, house right, was a little console apparently equipped with a MIDI keyboard that could trigger loops and so on.  She spent most of her time there, reading from various “texts” (a cross between prose and poetry) and shifting the ever-present musical accompaniment.  We were subject to the lingering body-shaking low notes, kind of like with Tangerine Dream, though  I didn’t feel a need for ear plugs for this one.  For the rest, the background consisted of a series of spacious, hypnotic electronic loops.  You know the kind.

Now and then she would take out her electric violin and play heavily modified chords.  It sounded like she had at least a harmonizer and an echo-plex going, along with other modulations.  Pleasant, yet avant garde, I suppose.  And she did her usual voice-transposer thing, where she spoke into a microphone and her voice was transposed down several octaves so she could imitate an old man, or God, or what have you.  The most creative gimmick of the evening was when she took this little white disk called a “pillow speaker” and put it in to her mouth, where she could modify the formant of the violin part playing through it by changing the shape of her lips.

The substance of the performance seemed to be her reading of the texts, in her own particular slow, deliberate style characterized by an emphasis on the ends of sentences and drawing out of the ends of words.  Or a pause before the final word, e.g. “For Darwin, the peacock feather was a complete … nightmare!”

Actually, that was one of the funniest pieces.  She explained how Darwin was troubled by the beauty of the peacock feather, because it was completely inessential to survival, plus it meant that women were making all the decisions that governed evolution.  “And Darwin being something of a mousy dresser himself…”

Other themes were rather solemn.  Is this what artists do when they get old?  She reflected on the fact that at 63, she has spent an average of 21 years asleep.  So her sleeping self is now old enough to vote and buy alcohol.

She spent a long segment an a visit to a tent city in New Jersey, where people lived when they became homeless.  I suppose she felt those who paid $90/seat to see her ought to be subject to this sort of scolding.  Given that the show was 90 minutes, that would be a dollar a minute.  If you’ll let me play her own game back at her: I think it would have been much more democratic had we been admitted for free, taking along a stack of dollars.  We could feed them into a slot, one per minute.  Then, if the minute were only worth, say fifty cents, we could withhold our fees and negotiate for better entertainment.  Some of those minutes, I think she should have paid me a dollar for.

I suppose I ought not complain.  Had I been clever enough to realize she would rocket to stardom back in 1981, I could have seen her for free at the college night at UCSC.  In addition to being cheaper, she would have been younger and less morbid back then.  Apparently, speculation has never been my strong suit.

Like Garrison Keillor, who we saw this year, who was ruminating about turning 70, Ms. Anderson’s thoughts and monologue were evidently turned towards that big finale of life, that final tunnel of light and so on.  Or two lights, according to the Tibetans, we found out.  One near, and one far.  Go to the far one.  This, the Lamas shout  in your ears after you have died.  I’m not quite sure why.  Couldn’t they just give you a map to look at beforehand?  Someday they will patent a GPS that you can use crossing the river Styx.  It might be rather expensive, but at that point, who cares?

We got to hear about her dog, (who died) and see a video of it playing the piano.  For this episode, she sat in a comfy chair upstage house left, with a screen showing these imprints her dog had left on a giant sketch pad similar to one of those you had when you were a kid, where you lift up the plastic sheet to erase it.  As she so astutely pointed out, they resembled phosphenes.  And told us about a friend who had died, who used to saw houses in two.

Just like Garrison Keillor, except the sawing houses in two.

In all, I’m glad I got to see Laurie Anderson in person, but I don’t think I would again, at least not for that price.  I’m glad she’s successful, as she seems to have good intentions and it’s amazing that she could have the focus to entertain us for 90 minutes non-stop.  But not exactly the best value for entertainment.

And by the way, the title of the show was “Dirtday,” because she was thinking we could rename planet Earth “Dirt,” which would be more accurate or visceral I guess.  I’m afraid I may not be clever enough to grasp all of this.

Too deep for a simple-minded fellow like myself.

Besides, I was hoping she would do Smoke on the Water for the encore.


Crosby Stills and Nash

We saw them last night at the San Jose Civic.  They put on a great show.  A long one, too.  It was definitely fun for me since I listened to a lot of their music back in the 1970’s and 80’s, but have never seen them perform live.

These concerts of well-established stars seem to be largely worship-fests rather than genuine musical events, for the most part.  They play all the familiar songs, with few ventures into new material.  Which I guess is what most people want.

One exception was a beautiful song I have never heard before written by David Crosby’s son, called Lay me down.

From a purely musical standpoint, I would have to warn the prospective listener that the vocal intonation was a bit rough at the edges, in enough places to be noticeable.  The trade-off was being able to hear their wonderfully hypnotic improvisational vocal harmonies unfold live.  Helplessly Hoping and Guinevere were memorable examples.

I think there was more pot smoke there than at Ziggy Marley.  At least, from where I was sitting.

I found out that Graham Nash is from Manchester, which explains how he pronounces ‘vase’ in Our House.  Everyone was invited to sing along, and the audience did amazingly well.

One of the first songs they played was Chicago, about the infamous Chicago 7 and the so-called trial which was really more of a circus.  When they got to the line: ‘rules and regulations who needs them?’ my first thought was ‘banks and financial institutions.’  So the lyrics are a bit dated.  (if you’ve never heard of the Chicago 7, skip to Wikipedia, immediately!)

They made up for it with a song about Bradley Manning, and another new song by the guy who helped Martin Luther King write the ‘I have a Dream’ speech.  (If someone can fill this name in for me, I’ll go back and edit).

I was amazed at how long the concert was, and how many of the songs I recognized, especially considering that I didn’t personally collect any of their albums.  Mostly I listened to them on the radio and at my friend Josh’s house.  More than a musical group, for me they were the backdrop for the intense political and interpersonal revolutions that were taking place.

tangerine dream

The next concert of the season was Tangerine Dream, also at the Mountain Winery, July 14.

In a word, it was LOUD!  With a stringed instrument like an electric bass for example, the sound of a note will decay and fade out as time goes on.  Not so with a synthesizer!  The sound just starts going, and keeps on going as long as the guy holds the key down, until everything around is vibrating.  I had earplugs in for a lot of this.

The visual stage tableau was well thought out.  There were the hot chicks around the edges (not to be sexist, but even Joanie commented on the outfit worn by the blue-eyed blonde in a mad-hatter style black hat to the left to the left of the stage) and at the center was the grumpy old German guy who started the band, however many years ago.  The only remaining original member.

Behind the two main keyboard players were two large flat-screen displays of the current synthesizer patch panels in use (at least from what I could tell).  Behind, projected on the winery wall, was a quite effective psychedelic light show.  Between the sheer volume and the dizzying effects, no drugs required to achieve a mind-blowing state of consciousness.  Like, wow, man!

I’ve never been a great fan of the mechanical rhythms, but at least when Tangerine Dream started using them, it was innovative and experimental.  Not like nowadays when it’s the tedious norm.  And their manner of using them is a bit different from your average pop slush.

Also, the drums were live, which helped.  By which I mean that the drummer played the rhythms live, though the sounds were largely sampled.  Other instruments were an electronic cello, saxophone (genuine), and electric guitar.  I felt that the music did best when the electronic texture provided the backdrop for the solo work on the live instruments.  And that it did quite often, reaching soaring heights of blended electronics with human talent.

It was nice at intermission to find other listeners familiar with some of my favorite bands recently: Ozric Tentacles and Porcupine tree, &c.