Murphy’s Laws: 46 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 46

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“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 46 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 46 judgments, opinions and observations.

46. Get it?

46. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

3. A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

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7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

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16. I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import — be it artistic, social, political, cultural — opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s often says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter. Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loudly and saying little? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

25. The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it’s the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

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34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

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43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day? And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

44. I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

M LAW cover

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

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Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

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Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

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In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

HarveyPekar

It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

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Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

Share

Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On (Revisited)

Composer-Richard-Wagner-c-001

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Bach titillates your brain, Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

Share

Bright Moments (Revisited)

sbm-292x300

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

While my weapons of choice remain pen and paper, I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery, and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); then it can work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind and your heart, it’s capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

This is what music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use this art as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure, it’s also a vehicle, something I use to get someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

***

Never forget this feeling.

That evening, halfway through high school, watching the snow fall outside your window. Lights out and that music playing: Beethoven. The sonatas, with titles that seemed mysterious and exhilarating: Pathétique, Appassionata, Mondschein.

The music, it seemed, was always there for these significant moments: remembering those times, always accompanied by music that was solemn yet ecstatic. Later on, being ushered into the other worlds of sexual activity, or studying for fast-forgotten exams, or those solitary seconds that sometimes turned into hours, the time alone, in the darkness, before sleep overtook awareness and you still knew who you were—tracing it all back to that first evening, staring at the snow: the sound of the piano, feeling connected to lives apart from your own, able to imagine what the world was like, then, feeling deeply aware of your own life, wholly there, utterly cognizant—which, of course, did not mean you were only aware of yourself; it was exactly the opposite sensation—and not realizing, not needing to know, yet, that this feeling would be increasingly difficult to capture, transitory moments of perception as a tonic for, or distraction from, the muddle of adult life and the urgency and oddness that this new reality entailed. It was not that this music facilitated these feelings, but that it accompanied them. This was what made it central to your world, so inextricable from your soul, from the way you wanted to see yourself.

***

When all else fails—and all else always fails—there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002, was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall—or half recall—the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: from my father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The sensations would become overwhelming at times, and I struggled through interminable hours when I wasn’t even certain what was real or who I was. During one of those episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I hadn’t been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst-case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat, or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Share

Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On (Revisited)

Composer-Richard-Wagner-c-001

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

Share

Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On (Revisited)

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

Share

Bright Moments (Again)*

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

While my weapons of choice remain pen and paper, I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery, and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); then it can work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind and your heart, it’s capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

This is what music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use this art as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure, it’s also a vehicle, something I use to get someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

***

Never forget this feeling.

That evening, halfway through high school, watching the snow fall outside your window. Lights out and that music playing: Beethoven. The sonatas, with titles that seemed mysterious and exhilarating: Pathétique, Appassionata, Mondschein.

The music, it seemed, was always there for these significant moments: remembering those times, always accompanied by music that was solemn yet ecstatic. Later on, being ushered into the other worlds of sexual activity, or studying for fast-forgotten exams, or those solitary seconds that sometimes turned into hours, the time alone, in the darkness, before sleep overtook awareness and you still knew who you were—tracing it all back to that first evening, staring at the snow: the sound of the piano, feeling connected to lives apart from your own, able to imagine what the world was like, then, feeling deeply aware of your own life, wholly there, utterly cognizant—which, of course, did not mean you were only aware of yourself; it was exactly the opposite sensation—and not realizing, not needing to know, yet, that this feeling would be increasingly difficult to capture, transitory moments of perception as a tonic for, or distraction from, the muddle of adult life and the urgency and oddness that this new reality entailed. It was not that this music facilitated these feelings, but that it accompanied them. This was what made it central to your world, so inextricable from your soul, from the way you wanted to see yourself.

***

When all else fails—and all else always fails—there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002, was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall—or half recall—the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: from my father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The sensations would become overwhelming at times, and I struggled through interminable hours when I wasn’t even certain what was real or who I was. During one of those episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I hadn’t been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst-case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat, or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

*I’ve been honored to write for PopMatters since 2006, and I’m humbled that they were kind enough to run this excerpt from my memoir this week. By the way, the memoir is AVAILABLE!

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Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

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Ten Songs That Never Fail

With the emotional baggage associated with things like Mother’s Day and my birthday, it’s nice –and necessary– to step back and fully appreciate my family and friends.

This was my birthday message, via Facebook to that extended network: I’m blessed, to the point of embarrassment, by the number of amazing, generous, inspiring people I’m fortunate to call friends. I love all of you!

And so I do.

But sometimes even that considerable bulwark against negative thoughts is not enough.

Fortunately, for me, I always have music. Let me say that again: I ALWAYS HAVE MUSIC.

(When all else fails (and all else always fails) there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-recall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those interminable hours when you are not even certain what is real or who you are. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.)

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

Here are ten of the best things that have ever happened to me. The sounds never cease to make me smile, and restore me. Naturally I could list many thousands of alternatives (and have done so, on this very blog, over the years). Here are ten special ones that help me help myself.

(Let me know which ones you would pick!)

1. Ornette Coleman, “Congeniality” (more on Coleman HERE):

2. Bob Marley, “Coming In From The Cold” (more on Marley HERE):

3. The Allman Brothers Band, “Jessica” (could have easily gone with “Revival” here, as well):

4. Black Sabbath, “A Hard Road”:

(Here is what I had to say about this song, in 2011: how can anyone be unmoved by the crowded pub singalong of “Hard Road”? This last song, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice, is a tour de force of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code to Sabbath’s last great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.” More on that album HERE and a lot more on Sabbath HERE and HERE.)

5. Beethoven (Yes, I just went from Black Sabbath to Beethoven; that’s how I roll!), “Les Adieux Sonata, 3rd Movement”:

6. Mozart, “Piano Concerto No. 27, 3rd Movement”:

7. John Coltrane, “Cousin Mary” (A lot more on Coltrane HERE):

8. The Mighty Diamonds, “Pass The Kouchie” (more on the Might Diamonds HERE):

9. The Pretenders, “Stop Your Sobbing” (a lot more on Chrissie Hynde and crew, HERE):

10. Yes, “Awaken”:

(Here is what I had to say in 2011 when I declared this the #11 prog song of all time –the entire list can be found HERE:

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going For The One. “Awaken” is, along with the aforementioned “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres”, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog-rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.)

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Beethoven & Barenboim: The Power of Music*

Awake, alive. Alone.

Never forget this feeling.

That evening, halfway through high school, watching the snow fall outside your window. Lights out and that music playing: Beethoven. The sonatas, with titles that seemed mysterious and exhilarating: Pathetique, Appasionata, Mondeschein.

The music, it seemed, was always there for these significant moments: remembering those times, always accompanied by this music that was solemn yet ecstatic. Later on, being ushered into the other worlds of sexual activity, or studying for fast-forgotten exams, or those solitary seconds that sometimes turned into hours, the time alone, in the darkness, before sleep overtakes awareness and you still know who you are—tracing it all back to that first evening, staring at the snow: the sound of the piano, feeling connected to lives apart from your own, able to imagine what the world was like, then, feeling deeply aware of your own life, wholly there, utterly cognizant—which, of course, did not mean you were only aware of yourself; it was exactly the opposite sensation—and not realizing, not needing to know, yet, that this feeling would be increasingly difficult to capture, transitory moments of perception as a tonic for, or distraction from, the push and pull of adult life and the urgency and oddness that this new reality entailed. It was not that this music facilitated these feelings, but that it accompanied them. This was what made it central to your world, so inextricable from your soul, from the way you wanted to see yourself.

*excerpted from a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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