wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: November, 2015

The definition of ambivalence.

David Mamet repeats the old joke: ‘They say the definition of ambivalence is watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac.’

My unfunny version: Ambivalence is wanting to start a project over from scratch in a new key but not wanting to waste the work you’ve done already — and then realizing you’ve done so little that it doesn’t really matter, so go you.

Thanks given.

Our friends’ two kids have between them an extraordinary array of allergies — the usual nuts/gluten/soy/dairy, but also beef of all things — plus some digestive fun to deal with on dad’s side. They can’t really eat at any restaurants in town and need to bring their own food when our crew gets together. My wife and I headed over to their place for Thanksgiving. It was wonderful: pumpkin pie with a slightly odd texture and outlandish snickerdoodle crust, delicious mashed squash/yams, cornbread stuffing, some sort of butteresque chemical experiment…

We drank wine while our kids wrestled and hollered. We dropped by the nearby school playground to talk and swing. Outside, it was 57F or so, and spirits were sky high.

My dad called, wanting to video chat with his grandson. He’s appearing in a production of The Crucible. He’s 81 years old.

Today a bunch of us families gathered at some friends’ house in Somerville. Seven kids, none yet six years old, raising hell on a 60 degree day with the windows open. We ate leftovers. One couple brought a sister and a future in-law, and they made (excellent) sushi. I brought one of my copies of Diplomacy and was the first player to stab another in the back — I played England, Germany was the victim. I thought of my dad and didn’t bother to hide my satisfaction as my armies landed in Holland and drove on to Kiel.

Our kids are beautiful and kind. Our crew of friends is full of good hearted people, curious and engaged, devoted to one another and to our children. We love and trust one another — most of our crew met back in the 20th century. We’re the family we’ve made.

I wish to hell someone would write a thinkpiece that’d help me deal with this nightmare.

Quick hits of the 1970s: Brief music reviews!

Terje Rypdal, After the Rain (1976)

Is this what people think Phish sounds like? This album is essentially a 38-minute guitar solo with bits of synth, piano, sax, and actual tubular bells, all played by the maximally Norwegian neoclassical/fusion guy, Mr Rypdal himself. (There’s also a singer, Rypdal’s wife Inger.) Because there’s next to no movement of any kind — this is the Platonic ideal of the ‘ECM album,’ down to the title and cover photo — the guitar ruminations bear sole responsibility for sustaining interest. If you can find time in your busy day for David Gilmour, make time for this; if like me you’d rather have your arm hair pulled out slow than listen to David Gilmour for more than three minutes at a time, give it a listen just to know what the platonic ideal of the ECM album sounds like.

Bruce Palmer, The Cycle Is Complete (1971)

Rick James(!!) plays percussion and improvises some vocals. A cast of hippie-bluesy sorts improvise some grooves. Random sound effects are tipped in, including what sounds like a mandolin and violin being pleasurably misused. This goes on for some time, and is as interesting as it sounds.

Earth and Fire, Atlantis (1973)

If you heard Jesus Christ Superstar and thought to yourself, What this shit needs is fewer gorgeous melodies and more hippie-folksy mystical nonsense about Atlantis! then have I got the album for you!

Ramsey Lewis, Sun Goddess (1974)

Even middle-of-the-road jazz/funk/soul fusion has an intrinsic pleasantness — clav, Rhodes, and bass-bop will always get you to a place if you let them. This is better than that. Most of Earth Wind & Fire are in the band, burbling along funkybreezylike without ever coming to a full boil. ‘Jungle Strut’ gets porny, ‘Hot Dawgit’ stays cool, and the six-minute closer ‘Gemini Rising’ bites some of Herbie’s early-70s moves (including a bit of free percussive noisemaking up front) before jazzing out. Not exactly worldshaking, this, but how much shaking can your world really take? Bedroom music for moderns with a sense of humour.

Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes, Reflections of a Golden Dream (1976)

‘Get Down Everybody (It’s Time for World Peace)’ is the most 70s song title of all time. They really mean it. I like the insistent Parliament-ish polyrhythms of ‘Peace & Love’ better than the disco-era moves of the next track, ‘Beautiful Woman,’ though I prefer the latter title. ‘Inner Beauty’ could be an Alice Coltrane track; ‘Journey Into Space’ could be Hassell/Eno. I hope world peace and sexual liberation are inextricably linked like Smith and the Echoes seem to think; rather a waste of 39 minutes of fine psych/soul erotica otherwise.

Scientist, Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires (1981, but who’s counting)

So, ummm…is all dub boring?

Enya, WATERMARK.

My first job was at a Christmas shop in our little village in rural Western New York. I was 14, a curious bookish kid who had an easier time talking to adults than to other kids but never quite mastered the art of retail. I was the sole employee other than the owner. At the time, federal minimum wage was $4.25/hour. Every Saturday I’d come in and collect my pay for the previous weekend: $68 for two days. My parents made me keep my first ‘paycheck,’ $34 cash, in an envelope in my little desk. I did, though I’ve since lost it. They also made me promise not to spend any of my earnings until I’d earned $1,000, at which point I was encouraged to drop $100 on something wonderful: my first CD player, a Sony CDP-100 if memory serves, which still worked perfectly, fifteen years later.

The store was smaller than the coffee shop where I’m writing this now. In the back was a little closet where the stereo was kept. I worked there all year long, and in summer there was little or no business. At such times I was permitted to close an hour early. Or I could hang in there and read — one weekend I read an entire Dragonlance trilogy, in one collected volume, which we’d bought at Waldenbooks that week.

The music choices included: a wobbling tower of indistinguishable Christmas CDs, a CD full of swingin’ renditions of holiday classics, several New Age collections from Narada Records (Michael Arkenstone was a favourite), and two Enya albums: Watermark and Shepherd Moons.

I can even now sing all of both these albums, sounding out the Gaelic lyrics as I go. You can’t be objective about music that has become part of your body.

‘Orinoco Flow’ has just begun playing.

I am fourteen years old; it’s 4:30pm, nearly closing time, and after a reasonably busy day the sun is setting on Monroe Street. Watermark has been playing on repeat for seven and a half hours.

What I want to tell you is that this music is good or bad, that it has ‘aesthetic’ qualities, that it can be compared somehow to other music — not only ‘New Age’ synthesizers-and-Buddhism stuff but pop of other sorts. I want to be able to say something about ‘Orinoco Flow,’ which is named after the studio where it was made, includes shoutouts to its recording engineers, and ends with a minor-chord non sequitur, all of which suggest that something other than po-faced Druidic cashing-in is going on. I would love to be able to talk about Enya’s remarkable voice, her dynamic command, the weird syncopated almost Zeppelin-esque hop in her midtempo (midtempo is Enya’s ‘uptempo’) vocal melodies.

But I’m fourteen years old, it’s nearly closing time, this is my first job, she just rhymed ‘Bali’ and ‘Kali’ accenting the second syllable of each, and it will be nearly four years before a Canadian girl kisses me for the very first time in the front seat of my Chevy Blazer.

The world of this music is as completely self-contained, as madly devoted to a private vision, as that of Trout Mask Replica or Sextant or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Like those albums, each in its different way, it is beautiful and difficult music. It takes me far away from myself and into another. I don’t much care whether you like it. I don’t know if I like it, or if I would, were such a chance available to me.

The Canadian girl’s name was Jamie. She wore baggy pants and was, I was reliably informed, a useless stoner. She smiled at a joke she wouldn’t share and she smelled of oils and nighttime and tasted like lip balm. We devoured each other for a moment, which passed.

I taped both of the Enya CDs at the Christmas store and played the tape until it broke in the ancient radio of that same Chevy Blazer. The truck’s name was ‘Big Blue.’ It got seven miles to the gallon; we paid $1 for it. I crashed Big Blue after falling asleep while driving home one night on Route 219.

The Christmas store’s name was ‘Evergreen.’ It closed years and years ago, as the owner must have known it would. It’s not there anymore, but I’m there now.

A note about the prose around here.

Almost everything you read here is a first draft, most of it written in a single sitting and posted right away. If I impose on myself a requirement to carefully edit Mere Blog Posts, I’m not sure I’ll ever actually write them. Caveat lector, then.

Panpsychedelicism: more music reviews.

P.M. Dawn, Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience

The first CD I ever bought was the Boomerang soundtrack, go figure, and P.M. Dawn’s ‘I’d Die Without You’ was one of my favourite songs in high school. But I never followed up to see what their other music was like. Now I have, and to my surprise, the duo (brothers, in fact) are a rare thing: hip hop mystics. DJ Minutemix’s production opens several of the songs out from slightly astringent austerity to dreamlike New Wave lushness, perfectly underscoring the bizarre private psychedelicism of the Prince Be’s far-reaching, imperfectly formed rhymes. The trip is both cosmic and paracosmic, hint hint, not least because brother Be’s multiply-overdubbed (lovely) voice is the album’s primary sonic element — which gives the whole album the quality of a meditation out of season, a mix of wonder and worry. Near as I can tell, the title of ‘Comatose’ is meant here as a neutral, or possibly positive, state of consciousness. That is, I hope you agree, a bit weird; even weirder is the fact that, even so, the album’s cockeyed spirituality is totally compelling — maybe because the music itself is so welcoming. Well: so was Wonderland. Visionary stuff.

Constance Demby, Skies Above Skies

She’s more committed to this than you are to anything, which sanctifies what pseudosophisticates might be tempted to call New Age pap. Or even actual sophisticates — not that we listen to those assholes anyway. Given half a chance, these dharma-dulcimer devotionals (track titles include ‘Peace of God,’ ‘Endless,’ and yes, even ‘St Francis Prayer’) will take you halfway from where you are to whatever state of total immersion evidently gripped the musicians involved, which means that whether or not this album is ‘any good’ comes down to what you’re willing to permit, to try on. I’m pretty sure there’s a religion named for the act of submission, and I’m pretty sure St Francis had nothing whatsoever to do with it, but All Is All anyway. I recommend not paying too close attention, or thinking about how Demby’s vocal limitations resemble Madonna’s, or playing it during sex. I do recommend sex though.

Grateful Dead, ‘Dark Star,’ 24 Sep 1972

I think it was Tom Constanten who said that ‘Dark Star’ was a state of mind rather than a song — a kind of contract between the musicians, to remain totally open to whatever epiphenomena might result from its cosmic lope. Musically it’s modal harmony 101, which is why it long held such improvisatory potential even for a bunch of disorganized acid heads…and which is why, by Garcia’s own account, the song ran its course in the 1970s. This version, taken from the 30 Trips box set, is good the way all the 1972 versions I’ve heard are good: the band was tight-loose and fully engaged, and the Mickey/Keith switchout gave them a richer, less cluttered sound, so as with everything else from this year of radically coherent exploration the baseline is quality. But there’s also a lot of slightly astringent faffing about, plenty of chicken-scratch rhythm guitar and wandering bass, and the inevitable bit where Garcia fans some middle-register melodies while everyone around him makes atonal noise…as well as a typically pointless drum solo and probably about the average amount of trippiness by the numbers. It’s silly to call a 34-minute freewheeling rock improvisation ‘safe,’ but that’s how this feels. And I’m realizing that the Dead’s cosmicism is only palatable when leavened with their deep connection to more earthly musics. In other words, taking this or any other ‘Dark Star’ in pure isolation, as I tend to, is a self-limiting activity which misses the whole point of the Dead’s catholic fusion approach. In other other words: listen to Set One.

The Legendary Pink Dots, The Maria Dimension

My initial impression was that this was just bullshit. OK, that’s on me. Subsequent listens revealed an engrossing consistency of tone and theme — of vision, you might say. Pretension, or is it haplessness, still wafts off the vocals at times, but the sonics never collapse to any single genre or style, and after a handful of listens it all makes a kind of preconscious sense, like a Beefheart record or (ahem) some addlepated early-90s prog/jam studio albums I could name — Maria came out in 1991, FWIW, same year as Lawn Boy. I hear the Hawkwind SF/F analogy, and I’ll suggest a certain Over the Edge kinship too: like Don Joyce’s three-hour synthesizer-as-truthsayer radio marathons which I’ve come to adore, Maria aims for an ideal of beauty that’s both disorienting and sweetly sincere, but comes off as antagonistic for its principled refusal to elevate satisfaction above fulfillment. I’m not sure anything of lasting value is being said here; the most memorable lyrics is ‘We ALL have names,’ repeated interminably and eventually going out of phase with the backing track. But as I’m pretty sure I’ve said at exhausting length elsewhere, there’s dignity and the possibility of sublimity in the devotional act of creating and sharing a private world, an idea of the universe/self sufficiently expansive and alive to encompass the actual universe/self. My current sense is that The Maria Dimension is, among many trillions of other things, bullshit; I mean that as a compliment.

Two games for children.

Munchkin Treasure Hunt is a dead simple board game based on SJGames’s beer’n’pretzels Munchkin card game (which I’ve only played once). It involves some simple arithmetic and very little long-range planning. Its art is charming, though kids won’t pay too much attention to it after they start thinking abstractly about points. (It’s ‘fluff.’) My son, age five, quite likes the game — but for my wife and me it’s barely a game at all. Initial card distribution plays a big role in the eventual outcome, and there’s really no way for players to claw their way back once they fall behind. It takes a longish while to play — 30 minutes, maybe? It seems long.

It is, nonetheless, an ideal gateway to more complex but still kid-friendly games, like…

…Richard Garfield’s King of Tokyo, which is perfect for sub-Catan casual play and can be completed in 15-25 minutes no problem. Strategywise, my 5yo son is still figuring it out, but in a few months I think he’ll be able to come back to it and get something close to the full experience. My wife and I quite enjoy the game. It benefits from a larger group — with only three players, the titular ‘King of Tokyo’ mechanic doesn’t quite apply enough pressure. Interesting tactical choices, room for long-term strategy…man, I can’t say enough about this game.

I’ve heard that the more complex sequel, King of New York, is even better. I think we’re gonna grab that one for Christmas (we’re just borrowing Tokyo).

Halfway through PULPHEAD.

I bought a copy of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead for $4.95 at Rodney’s on Mass Ave — about what I’d’ve paid on Amazon, a feelgood price — all the while shaking my head about This guy’s not gonna be as good as everyone says. The back-cover blurbs are embarrassing: ‘Let it be known that…JJS has dropped a bomb on the American sentence,’ that sort of stupid later-on-you-scratch-mine circle jerking. All the while I’m thinking This doughy moodily-shot magazine guy with the extremely southern-sounding name is going to disappoint me. Almost hopefully.

I open to the first essay and maybe ninety minutes later I’m halfway through the book laughing aloud about once a page and saying things to my wife like ‘Holy fucking shit,’ feeling almost bad about noticing how he’s doughy, or the lighting makes him look that way. I think to myself What a talented young man, and he seems nice too. I’m laughing and gasping, and so the book turns out to be in a literal sense breathtaking, like it has actually taken away certain of my breaths.

Smaller game than DFW (who is mentioned in one of the three blurbs whose attribution includes the words ‘author of’) but a great big heart full to bursting with what my five-year-old has for half his life referred to as ‘big feelings.’

Extraordinary.

Nerd rage.

When you let poorly socialized nerds design the protocols by which society does its business, you build flamewars and fan myopia and nerd rage directly into society’s firmware.

Putting it another way:

Donald Trump is a product of a horrible time decades ago. But Donald Trump’s current presidential candidacy is dependent for its existence on a media environment in which the prerogatives and myopias of nerds are embedded deep in our societal machinery.

Any edge will do for over.

Been listening to a new discovery, the Over the Edge radio show — a Negativland ‘side project’ of sorts, though it predates host Don Joyce’s involvement with the band — which ran for decades(!) on Bay Area radio. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, the closest I got to weird late-night radio was Loveline, so Over the Edge has hit me with the force of revelation: a freeform improvisatory collage of musical fragments, movie dialogue, borrowed radio clips, the sonic bric-a-brac favoured by weirdo DJs and audiophiles everywhere, and the show’s most distinctive feature, a wide-open phone line policy which allowed unscreened callers unprecedented freedom and influence over the show’s direction. The effect is a powerful aural psychotropic — listening late at night can produce lingering auditory hallucinations. Trust me.

Wish I’d known about this show a year ago! It’d have been an ideal topic for chapter 2 of the Phish book, which touches on the antirationalist cultural strain(s) known as ‘High Weirdness,’ but which, being an analogical digression in an overlong introductory chapter of a 32,000-word book, can’t exactly go into much detail.

Over the last two or three days I’ve listened to seven and a half hours of this extraordinarily dense show: the 1988 ‘Psychedelia’ episode, which trades in both ‘psychedelic’ 60s music and a more loose-limbed cable-era take on its subject (‘I have a feeling your drivers have not been installed; check your configuration and get back to us,’ apropos of nothing); the 90-minute ‘UFO Show’ from April 1982, which weaves Art Bell snippets and a fantastic LP (from Disney?) based on von Daniken’s ancient-astronauts books into a wittily creepy short (‘short’!) subject; and best of all, the November 1994 Blade Runner Remix,’, which runs Vangelis’s then newly released and long-awaited complete score under most or all of the dialogue from the film to haunting effect. Characters speak to one another — and to themselves — across scenes, the sonic texture of the of the film grows more and more dense, and somehow this most visually rich science fiction text comes fully alive through pure sound, acquiring (through repetition and recontextualization) the verse/chorus/bridge rhythms of an old song and drifting finally into dream and dissolution.

Fellow Blade Runner fans absolutely must seek out the Remix episode — but I’ve yet to hear a bad or boring hour of the show, and I look forward to sampling widely from the 900+ episodes(!!!!) available at archive.org. Indeed, 1994’s likely illegal ‘The Sample Show’ is weirding me out right this instant.

If you’re looking for the perfect audio accompaniment to your next trip — inner or outer — look no further. Highly, passionately recommended.