Russell Brand, Revolution and The Audacity of Apathy

FIRST OFF, LET’S dispense with decorum and declare the obvious: Russell Brand is brilliant, and quite possibly a genius. In addition to his comedic and acting abilities, he is a first-rate thinker and a (surprisingly) superlative writer. Wipe that smirk off your face and read his tribute to Amy Winehouse. (My own tribute is HERE.)

Or, check out this paragraph from a remarkable piece on Margaret Thatcher, deconstructing both the hypocrisy and opportunistic destruction of the Thatcher/Reagan ethos and what it wrought:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die this week from a stroke; perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven defeated from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively antiestablishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support; I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee,” said when the National Union of Miners eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided, “[We] broke not just a strike, but a spell.” The spell he’s referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

Brand’s most recent foray into sociopolitical observation is, justifiably and encouragingly, going viral and prompting all sorts of (justifiable, encouraging) commentary. Check it out:

 

So while Russell Brand’s eloquent and witty rant does some heavy lifting in the service of exposing the Royal Scam of manufactured democracy (etc. etc.), and I endorse much of what he says, I do take serious exception with the statement he thinks he’s making by declining to vote. Apathy, or better yet, the type of cultivated disgust that leads to “both sides do it” equivocation is almost certainly what the people pulling the proverbial strings want our default settings to be.

I always get nervous, and ultimately frustrated when I hear intelligent people asking the rhetorical question: Why bother?

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother since politicians are all the same?

Why bother voting at all?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who is even moderately informed. Not to mention aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration combined with the ideology informing those policies bankrupted our nation and—this is the toughest one to grasp— made us less safe is not a matter of opinion. There is no room for any possible nuance. There is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than five years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980.

There was probably not a more irascible yet articulate comedian who spoke the Truth to Power in the last quarter-century than George Carlin. He made you laugh, but the topics were often ugly and dead-serious. He dissected the greed, opportunism and collective culpability of a super-sized America as well as anyone has but, like Twain, his indignation eventually (inevitably) took a turn for the bitter toward the end. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If any famous public figure—an artist, no less!— went as ungently into that not-so-good night, I can’t think of one; eternal kudos to Carlin for keeping it real until he flat-lined.

The one beef I had with Carlin was similar: he famously refused to vote as well. And while it’s difficult to quibble with any of the points he makes in the video below (wherein he proves that he still had both his fastball and spitball up until the last pitch he threw), it is in the 21st Century—and after what we’ve just witnessed with one party fighting for the right to default—disingenuous to deny that the other party even bothers to pay lip service to working Americans.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what one studies in college, or the type of person one already is (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if one is a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right, 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: agency vs. incapacity, history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

Put another way, even if one is open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science, you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little!), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious non-identification.” This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes facts, even if couched in fictional narratives, which are largely outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and Mexican immigrants—especially the illegal ones—who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those who work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces, or engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Authority. Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the Weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion-dollar bonuses (thanks taxpayers!) while unionized public school teachers and middle-to-lower class workers’ pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

One must concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one sloganeers for the soldiers, country, and Christ like Republicans. Of course, we won’t count the ultimate cost of “Mission Accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars our adventure in Iraq has put on the ledger. And isn’t it amusing how seldom the war that would pay for itself comes up during discussions of the big deficits racked up during the last decade? Remember this, when those hoping to drown government in a bathtub crawl out of their taxpayer-fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers.

The Democrats are not immune from the corrupting influence of their donors and corporate masters, but they can continue to ensure the people owed the most won’t get the least. It’s up to enlightened citizens to ensure the Dems don’t dance with the devil and sell out Social Security. It’s the obligation of those who know better to remind their disgruntled or oblivious buddies that Obamacare is almost entirely a plan designed by Republicans! Listen to right-wing radio or the rhetoric of men like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, who will happily sign off on savage cuts to food stamps, and persuade their supporters to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?

There will be haters, and it’s easy enough to feel their pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle. Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. More than ever, as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish, we don’t want any government interference. We don’t want to pay taxes and then wonder why the Free Market isn’t sorting out these pesky problems that won’t take care of themselves. Put still another way, if you don’t share the view that giving the wealthiest one percent even larger tax cuts is not an antidote for what ails us, you should vote and there is one party you should never vote for.

This is why we have to choose sides. This is why we can’t to let the super-affluent and well-insured with the least to lose lull us into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless class warfare they will instigate, their ultimate ambition is to render the literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Your vote matters, and is vital, so whether it’s the disarming charm of Russell Brand or the transparent mendacity of the puppet-masters, resist the temptation to walk away: the only hope to win what feels like a rigged game is to remain on the playing field.

http://www.theweeklings.com/smurphy/2013/11/17/russell-brand-revolution-and-the-audacity-of-apathy/

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For My Mother on Her 70th Birthday

I’m scared, I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.”

How many times did she tell me that? How many places did she need to remind me that even if I couldn’t see her, she was still there? In the grocery store, the shopping mall, a swim meet, even a restaurant. Parents typically didn’t use words like agoraphobia back in the late ’70s. Maybe they don’t use them today, at least around eight-year-olds.

“It’s okay,” she would say. “You know I would never leave you.”

And I did know it. I believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight-year-old knows it’s irrational, even if he can’t explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, I didn’t say, because how can an eight-year-old articulate a concept he can’t understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it’s become established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you still don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you haven’t yet learned and a sensation you can’t yet articulate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said.

And I believed her. It was never quite enough—in that moment—but it was all she could do, other than never leaving my sight. Even I could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, I finally figured out that I had to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet being aware it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. I had to experience it, get past it, and then this ineradicable fear would subside.

Like her mother, she eventually became acquainted

With the white-walled world of procedures

And all that happens—before, during, after, and beyond:

Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need

To believe in men and the magic of machines.

Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

 

There were three pictures above the fireplace: her wedding, her daughter’s wedding, and her son’s high-school graduation. So many of her friends’ marriages had ended in divorce, even the marriages she had admired and envied. So many of her friends’ children required separate sets of photographs for special occasions. They had done it, she reminded herself. They lived up to every reasonable expectation, for their children, for themselves. This was a comfort, even if it also caused an indescribable sorrow at times. Nothing lasts forever.

 

She sits alone by the window.

She hears the old clock, spinning above the fireplace as it always has, serving its simple purpose. Above her, a picture, a moment secure in time. In her mind, in her memory. The man, a lifetime of work and fatherhood ahead of him. And who is that woman smiling back at her? What thoughts were in that hopeful bride’s head? The same thoughts that are most likely behind every face that knows the assurance of love. What would she tell her younger self now, if she could? Everything? And to what avail? She would not have believed it; this is the redemption of youth. Who should think about anything else when all a young woman knows is the security of a healthy heart, the shuttle that spins life and expedites the enduring labors of love? She would say nothing. She has no regrets; she has done the best she could.

She closes her eyes and hears her mother: He’s beautiful. Yes, a girl and then a boy. Perfection, completion. Her prayers answered both times. She sees her daughter, married and once more a mother (a girl and then a boy; all of their prayers answered, again). She sees herself, a grandmother, but still a mother. A woman, a wife.

She considers her son and focuses her energies on his evolving design, the visions he shares with her, the way he sees himself, the way he hopes he can be. She prays it will happen, she wishes it might happen for him as well. He hasn’t found a soul mate yet but she no longer worries about him; he has found himself. His writing keeps him company and it helps keep her alive; their discussions, the things they love and share, the things he still wants to learn. Hopefully he will live that life and find ways to record what he sees.

She envisions the future and sees her husband, alone or at least without her. He would have to learn new routines, she knows. He would also have the time to recall some of the things work and married life have prevented him from pursuing. She hopes he will feel contentment if he reconnects with things that matter only to him. Mostly she prays for him to find peace, without her and for himself. She prays and worries for him, and then for the people she knows and the people she has never met. And, eventually, for herself.

 

Who will remember us?

This is the question implicit in all these words, addressed to God, or Nobody or Anybody who might be willing to listen. This is the question that can’t be answered except by words and deeds and memories that will occur after we’re gone. This is the origin of our primordial impulse to connect and believe we stay associated, somehow, some way, after we’re no longer able to interact on human terms. This, perhaps, is what ran through her mind once her eyes closed and she stayed asleep, already in another place, still hoping to apprehend some of the miracles she had or hadn’t happened to miss during her life. This is the final question that, scrubbed of its universal and spiritual covering, asks explicitly and directly: Who will remember me?

 

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

Any time I need to be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken of me and my mother the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I’m mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around, the time I did get to spend with her.

How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Excerpts from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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David Brooks: Nothing To See Here

I find Brooks to be a shallow, self-aggrandizing bootlicker of the first order. Clueless as an Ayn Rand reader, culpable as a clergyman, and haughty as a wealthy heir.

HERE he is, the other week, weighing in on the Snowden leak.

It is difficult to deny that Snowden’s act was less about principle and more about getting famous, and he seems to be a narcissist of the first order. Brooks, on the other hand, has a long, despicable record of admonishing the lesser citizens to obey their masters. That is where he’s coming from here. Not about privacy, autonomy or loyalty to self, family or country. He gives the game away when he states Snowden’s act will limit debate. It will –and already has done– the opposite. The very debate that should have been occurring 12 years ago when the majority of the country was pissing its pants after 9/11, willing to let anything and everything be done, in our names, to protect ourselves. If Obama, for instance, had come out a week or a year ago and tried to get us to talk about this, the very Republican ass-clowns who are opportunistically condemning him would have predictably –and cravenly– accused him of being “soft on terror”. Snowden being a d-bag is not the story; the story is that someone lifted the rock up and let us see the ugliness underneath. And now we can talk about what we can/won’t tolerate and who can/should be held accountable.

Now let’s see if we can have that discussion, and edge ourselves back toward the side of sanity.

I’m not holding my breath.

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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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A Day To Remember; A Life To Celebrate

August 30, 2002*

Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

Fortunately, I was able to convey this simple truth many times in my adult life, but one of the unexpected blessings of the past few weeks was that I had the opportunity to repeat it, often, and in so doing, I understood that the greatest gift I could give my mother was showing her that she was the greatest gift in my life.

Everyone that cares about Linda, or cares about one of us who love her, has had a certain heaviness in their hearts these past five years, as she has bravely battled this illness which ultimately claimed her body—only to ensure that her spirit could survive, like a million small fires inside of all our hearts. And so the hearts that once were burdened should be relieved, aided by the knowledge and acceptance that she found peace, that she was reminded, repeatedly and without reservation, how dearly she was loved every moment these past two weeks, that her act of dying defies death, because I can assure you, she is with me right now, and she has already found ways to comfort and console me that I could never have conceived.

It is an arduous, probably impossible undertaking, to attempt to find sense in the insanity of illness, to seek comfort from what seems an incomprehensible injustice, to calmly accept what the heart and mind have every reason—and every right—to reject.

However, as the great poet Longfellow wrote:

Lives of great souls remind us

We may make our lives sublime

And departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

The time was World War II, and like so many others of her remarkable generation, the little baby girl her parents named Linda came into the world on August 23, 1943, while her father, Martin, was half a world away honorably doing his duty for the country his own father had only recently learned to call home.

The first of seven siblings, she became in many regards a mother long before giving birth. It was a role she had already, in large part, perfected and prepared herself for—a preparation that would serve her well when she became a young mother, suddenly several thousand miles from the family she lived with and then left, along with her husband, having the courage and conviction to make their way and create a life of their own.

And so: a daughter, an older sister (always the older sister), a wife (always the same wife, married to the same man she fell in love with four decades ago), a mother (always a mother, making the fulfillment of others her primary purpose) and finally, a grandmother, a role she cherished and illustrated—against all probability—that her capacity for love and generosity was even more abundant: it was inextinguishable, unending…infinite.

And, of course, while the job of Grandma was one she was ideally suited for, she certainly had more than sufficient opportunity to see this function performed flawlessly by her own mother, who showed her the way to move on in the world, as a woman, a wife, mother and grandmother. Like everyone, the premature passing of her mother, Susan, indelibly shook her and while this was a loss she (and we) never fully recovered from (so profound was her love and admiration), she had the power to persevere, and intensify her already considerable efforts to bestow joy and hope to everyone in her life. And in this way, she defeated the darkness and in her admirable, inimitable fashion, turned the impetus for grief into the opportunity for great giving.

Therefore, the redemption and glory of this untimely loss is the timeless certainty of the life she lived, an enduring record of words, deeds, gestures and memories, all transcending the tempest of our brief time on earth. And her lasting legacy, the most gracious gift she could have given any of us, reinforces our faith, reawakens our resolve and strengthens our capacity for kindness and the struggle to live truly Christian lives.

It is not, in my estimation, inappropriate to assert this simple fact: each time we imitate the example Linda Murphy ceaselessly set, we are celebrating her life, and assuring each other that there is only one way to live.

How wonderful, and humbling, to acknowledge that all the tools, which enable you to pursue what you love in life are directly traceable to the example and encouragement of that person who put you first, above herself, and dedicated her life—made it her job—to make your life as positive and productive as possible.

The reason I can confidently and enthusiastically proclaim that my mother is still around is because of the obsessions that infuse my identity: the passion for art and expression, the advocation of justice and tolerance, the unending pursuit of honesty, integrity and compassion—these are inexorable imprints, they are, in fact, the essence of my mother, and her soul is in my soul, as it always has been, as it always will be.

I have long been aware that it is the very least I can do, in an effort to appreciate and honor the work my mother did, to endeavor each day to be more intelligent and aware, to act more kindly, give more generously, love more unreservedly, and exceed the expectations that even she held. It is the least any of us who were touched in some way by her life—her words, her deeds, her happiness, her heart—to spread that spark and do our parts to leave the world more abundant and meaningful than it otherwise might be.

Another poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, asked:

O Wind, If Winter comes

Can Spring be far behind?

What will I remember? I’ll remember everything. The things I’ve expressed and the things I saw, the things I still see in the eyes and actions of those around me. I will remember her as my first teacher and first friend, the angel who brought me into the world and allowed me to help her leave it. I will remember that soft, sweet silence, just like she had gone to sleep. Only more.

Everything that is good about me is because of my mother. I said that to her, then, and I say this to you, now, in the hope that when you see me, you see my mother, and when you see yourselves—especially when you reflect upon the ways in which her influence and example inspired and encouraged you—you will see Linda, and we can all do our part to honor her memory, and make sure that she never leaves us.

*Eulogy delivered at my mother’s funeral on August 30, 2002

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Bob Marley: 68 Years and Going Strong

Bob Marley was born February 6, 1945, which means he would be turning 68 today.

A few years back I chose what I consider five reggae albums that are lesser known, but crucial for any self-respecting music fan’s collection. (The first entry of a five part series begins HERE.)

No Marley albums were chosen, partly because if anyone has a single reggae album, odds are it is a Bob Marley album (and big odds are that it’s Legend which, while crucial, only skims the very deep and dread waters).

Nevertheless, in one of the pieces here, I offer some thoughts on Marley and his import, on reggae in particular and music in general:

Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.

There are certain artists who are so beloved, so ubiquitous, that they are effectively–and ironically–taken for granted. Marley’s better known songs are so known and so satisfying they might make people fail to realize he created vital music for two full decades. Bob Marley is without dispute one of the seminal artistic figures of the 20th Century. More, he remains every bit as significant and essential today as he did yesterday. He will survive tomorrow and live long after we are all gone. Marely idureth for iver. Peace.

Today they say that we are free,
Only to be chained in poverty.
Good God, I think it’s illiteracy;
It’s only a machine that makes money.

Here is the great man at the height of his glorious powers, live in ’75.

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The Problem With the Homeless Problem (Revisited)

Who was he?

I think the same question each time I see him (every day: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—begging the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now: the cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.

And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learned—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never even saw, even when they sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who were down, the ones who were out, the ones who had nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivered them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who feared it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue death.

Could that be me?

The ultimate fear, the oldest worry. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.

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 is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

A memory:

Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.

When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.

An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.

“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”

“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.

The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy sense that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.

As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.

It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.

I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.

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Finding Grace in Beautiful Places (Revisited)

In a piece I recommend you reading @ the reliably awesome Rumpus, writer Amber Sparks, a non-believer, discusses matters of faith, spirituality and art (check it here).

The piece is entitled “Seeking Grace in Strange Places”, and I think that title is fine. I do find it curious, being a recalcitrant agnostic myself, that Sparks would consider writing (especially poetry) a “strange” place to seek grace. For at least two reasons. One, I think writing (in particular, Art in general) is not only not a strange place, it’s the ideal place. Second, this sentiment presupposes (and I’m not deliberately picking on Sparks or even trying to quibble over semantics) that, say, a church is not a strange place. Indeed, one could counter, with minimal snark and maximum truth, that there are many things strange about looking for –much less hoping or claiming to find– grace, or God, in a building designated for that purpose. For starters, it’s a sanctioned endeavor, turning the transmission of spiritual release into an act approved by a professional, like taking medication that a doctor prescribed. (I’ve written about the adminstration of the so-called Holy Spirit from the hands of our earthly middle-men, here.) And then, of course, it’s a cliché, although Faith-with-a-capital-F obliges a certain tolerance for clichés.

My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here and where we’re going –amongst other concerns– and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all. So, getting that out of the way right up front, I think the following paragraph is a succinct enough distillation of where my head is at in matters of “The Faith Question”:

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.)

But let me be clear, I can –and do– appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged –and inspired– by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned –or prompted– by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this Spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles and cathedrals. Both of the pictures above were taken during this journey. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.

And certainly some of our best composers (and poets, as Sparks ably illustrates in her piece) have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain.

Bach, 1727:

Coltrane, 1964:

(Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.)

And, quite possibly, my favorite instance of (literal) biblical text utilized to articulate some very profound and secular concerns, courtesy of The Great One:

As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you 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.

Booker Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both of which capture the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing.

The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

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.

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Finding Grace in Beautiful Places

In a piece I recommend you reading @ the reliably awesome Rumpus, writer Amber Sparks, a non-believer, discusses matters of faith, spirituality and art (check it here).

The piece is entitled “Seeking Grace in Strange Places”, and I think that title is fine. I do find it curious, being a recalcitrant agnostic myself, that Sparks would consider writing (especially poetry) a “strange” place to seek grace. For at least two reasons. One, I think writing (in particular, Art in general) is not only not a strange place, it’s the ideal place. Second, this sentiment presupposes (and I’m not deliberately picking on Sparks or even trying to quibble over semantics) that, say, a church is not a strange place. Indeed, one could counter, with minimal snark and maximum truth, that there are many things strange about looking for –much less hoping or claiming to find– grace, or God, in a building designated for that purpose. For starters, it’s a sanctioned endeavor, turning the transmission of spiritual release into an act approved by a professional, like taking medication that a doctor prescribed. (I’ve written about the adminstration of the so-called Holy Spirit from the hands of our earthly middle-men, here.) And then, of course, it’s a cliché, although Faith-with-a-capital-F obliges a certain tolerance for clichés.

My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here and where we’re going –amongst other concerns– and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all. So, getting that out of the way right up front, I think the following paragraph is a succinct enough distillation of where my head is at in matters of “The Faith Question”:

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.)

But let me be clear, I can –and do– appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged –and inspired– by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned –or prompted– by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this Spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles and cathedrals. Both of the pictures above were taken during this journey. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.

And certainly some of our best composers (and poets, as Sparks ably illustrates in her piece) have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain.

Bach, 1727:

Coltrane, 1964:

(Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.)

And, quite possibly, my favorite instance of (literal) biblical text utilized to articulate some very profound and secular concerns, courtesy of The Great One:

As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you 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.

Booker Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both of which capture the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing.

The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

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.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Three

This is the reggae album for people who do not know, or claim not to like, reggae music.

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time

Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the Alpha and the Omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.

Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.

The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

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