That nasty bout of sciatica (see: previous posts) threw off my summer schedule and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Summertime (for whatever reason) is the season when I usually bear down; most of the major projects I’ve undertaken in the past decade were initiated from June-August. Who can figure these things? You’d think I’d be more creative and productive during our infamously long Canadian winters but that just isn’t the case. When the days heat up, so do I.
We’ve managed a fair amount of traveling, as you can tell from the accompanying pictures.
A trip to the sand hills (west side of the province, stretching from Leader, almost down to Swift Current) and we just got back from a few days at Waskesiu Lake (Prince Albert National Park) , hanging out with some people very dear to our hearts. Two very different ecosystems—we’re blessed with a variety of them in this big, tall province of ours and Sherron and I are determined to visit as many as we can. I’d really like to get a good look at the huge sand dunes on the south side of Lake Athabasca but that’s way up in the boonies, inaccessible to those whose wallets are on the thin side. I’m drawn to desert climes—there has to be a reason why three of the world’s major religions have their origins in the dry, pitiless environs of the Middle East. Something about a wasteland, something to do with privation, life/existence whittled down to the bare minimum.
While I was prostrate with back pain there wasn’t a whole lot I could manage. I either dozed (I was on quite a few pain killers), watched Adult Swim ‘toons (“Rick & Morty” was a favorite distraction) on a borrowed iPad or roughed out storyboards for a couple of film projects I’ve been pondering for at least ten years. If I had to pick one thing to slot in at the top of my “bucket list”, it would be writing and directing a full-length, independently produced movie. Both of my scenarios could be shot on a shoestring here in Saskatchewan and neither would be over 70 minutes long. If an hour and change was good enough for Val Lewton, it’s good enough for me.
I won’t go into detail, but one of them is intended as an homage to German “Expressionist” films of the 1920s and the other is an end-of-the-world saga that’s also a nod to weird, obscure 1970s flix like Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” and Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”.
But I felt it was important to at least get them down on paper so once I was able to sit at my desk again, I typed up my notes and concocted two film “treatments” (30 pages each) that summarized the plots and major characters. Done.
Now I find myself in a strange, unfamiliar place, at least as far as I’m concerned:
I have no pending projects, no looming deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise.
My desk is clear.
I can’t recall this happening before. Now what do I do? Aye, that’s the question…and over the coming weeks I’m going to be feeding a lot of ideas and odd notions into the ol’ hopper. Possible stories, short films, visual projects (collages, etc.). I have no inkling of what I’m going to tackle next, not the slightest clue. That’s exciting. And terrifying. Mostly terrifying. How does a workaholic keep from going absolutely bonkers when he has nothing to engage him? Well, if you’re Sherlock Holmes, you might resort to a seven per cent solution of cocaine. That’s not to my taste but the thought of just sitting around, doodling, allowing my mind to wander holds little appeal either (God knows where it might meander off to). So I think for the time being I’ll be doing what I can to recharge my mental batteries by reading challenging books, watching good movies, feeding my imagination as many words and images as I can. Keeping it occupied, satisfying its insatiable curiosity.
I’m hoping the anxiety I experience as I anticipate the days ahead will fade. It’s important to keep reassuring myself this is not a writing block, this is a fallow period following eighteen months of back-breaking labor on, count ’em, three major projects (including a tribute book I compiled for Sherron in honor of her 50th birthday in June). No matter what I undertake—a painting, a film, a poem—it will be a creative endeavour, an expression of my spirit. I must have faith that this brief pause is some sort of object lesson; perhaps it will inspire some humility (wouldn’t that be nice?) or lead to a period of honest, unfiltered reflection. All the masks and pretensions stripped away, a ruthless appraisal of who I am and what I have or haven’t achieved.
If I’m fortunate I’ll come away with a clearer understanding of my purpose, the reason I’m here . ‘Cause Mr. Dylan is right: “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord/but we all gotta serve somebody”.
Speaking of whom, it’s high time I had a few words with the Boss, got some new marching orders. A whole different job description might be in order.
Just pray I don’t get the sack…
(Click on images to enlarge)
I didn’t hear anyone protesting, no apologists willing to leap to the great man’s defense.
Rarely have I seen an audience leaving a live performance so utterly listless. They’d come for spectacle, a chance to pay tribute to one of their heroes and here they were, shaking their heads, trying to figure out why a legendarily enigmatic artist would present them with such a haphazard, irritating evening of music.
Talent certainly wasn’t the problem. Dylan’s touring band—Donnie Herron, Tony Garnier, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, George Recile—are top flight musicians but they were cruelly hamstrung by Dylan’s presence, subdued, seldom breaking out of the tightly controlled box he stuck them in. The positioning and body language was instructive: the backing band remained huddled (cowed?) on one side of the stage while Dylan crouched behind an electric keyboard on the audience’s right.
Ah, yes. That fucking keyboard. A good place to hide, Bob, if you can actually, y’know, play the goddamned thing. Dylan, remember, started out on keyboards with his high school band back in Hibbing, Minnesota. Unfortunately, someone should tell him that his technique hasn’t improved since he loudly and tunelessly thumped out Little Richard hits fifty-five years ago. I know a number of fine harmonica players have taken him to task for his misuse of their precious harp, but what Dylan really needs is a classically trained pianist to come along and slam a keyboard cover on his fingers. Repeatedly. His inexpert noodling, amplified and isolated, evoked continual winces throughout the 90-minute show.
I can understand taking a fresh approach to old, stale material, but Dylan’s re-inventions reduced beloved favorites like “Visions of Johanna”, “Shelter from the Storm” and, yeah, even “Blowing in the Wind” to a discordant and indistinguishable mush. Was there a single song off his latest (B+) album, “Tempest”? If there was, I didn’t hear it. There was a perfunctory rendering of “Man in the Long Black Coat”, an epic tune casually tossed off, a forgettable five-minute abridgement. I cannot think of one song other than the opener “Watching the River Flow” that worked all the way through.
On those rare occasions when the band finally did cut loose—during extended jams on “Highway 61” and “Levee’s Gonna Break”—we got a hint of what might have been possible, had they, like the thoroughbreds they are, been given their head and allowed to run. I found it maddening to watch superb artists diminished and under-utilized to that extent.
Only one other recent experience in the arts left me as angry and disillusioned with a revered artist and that was a viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme”. Like Dylan, Godard has what I think is an unhealthy contempt for his audience and, as a result, “Film Socialisme” is a futile mess, a blot on a distinguished, ground-breaking career. This attitude that you can continually flip the bird at people who pay good money and come to your work expecting to be enlightened or entertained or just not bored, exposes artists at the end of their creative rope, an acknowledgement that if you can no longer provide the goods, you might as well sell the rubes lusterless trinkets and spent tailings from exhausted mines.
I think it’s a shameful stance, childish and self-indulgent. While Dylan was under no onus to play pre-packaged, excruciatingly faithful renditions of his classics, he was obliged to at least make them recognizable versions of the originals. And though he may think of himself the consummate iconoclast and contrarian for refusing to cater to the crowd, he also revealed himself as a man no longer able to rock and roll.
I would be remiss if I didn’t sing praises of Zimmie’s opening act, the great Mark Knopfler and his stellar accompanying band.
Now this lad knows the score.
He avoided playing all but one of his “Dire Staits”-era hits (“So Far Away”), yet left those present cheered and enlivened by his musicianship, poise and presence. He teasingly responded to those dolts who like to shout out requests from the floor (do you people know how fucking retarded you sound to everyone else), and played his heart out, generously collaborating with his musicians, recognizing their virtuoso skills.
Some of us wondered ahead of time why Dylan would choose such a celebrated artist, a headliner in his own right, to take to the stage ahead of him. Both share a love of history, epic ballads, cinematic storylines—they could well be brothers in arms.
But unlike Dylan, Mr. Knopfler has never forgotten the folks out there beyond the footlights, the steep price they paid for being there.
As he left the stage, he blew kisses to the crowd.
Contrast that to Dylan’s coldly dismissive raspberries…
the troubadour arrived unheralded
the mood sullen in the crowd
he had the reputation of trickster
hat and cape & concealing cowl
he played the part of wise man
tried to bend them to his will
but his magic was much diminished
it only made them ill
he rallied his most stalwart
minions to the King
the others were left abandoned
denied a song to sing
confused and upbraided
filing from the flickering hall
no one there to guide them
catch them should they fall
the troubadour was untroubled
he’d been paid in brightest gold
fools were they who lamented
he’d grown so tired and old
for our idols owe us nothing
evince scorn for our trusting ways
in their eyes we are dupes and fools
refusing to turn the page
put your faith in butterflies
follow their aimless flight
but beware of traveling minstrels
who vanish into the night
* Completed following the Bob Dylan/Mark Knopfler concert, Credit Union Center (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)
the troubadour arrived unheralded
the mood sullen in the crowd
he had the reputation of trickster
hat and cape & concealing cowl…
* Poem to be completed following the concert
Well, I couldn’t let an opportunity go by without referencing the upcoming Star Trek movie. The franchise is hanging on this one, boys and girls; the Next Generation sputtered out after the woeful “Nemesis” and nothing that followed appealed to anyone other than hardcore fans. A drastic re-tooling was in order. That’s why the guys in suits chose J.J. Abrams to carry the torch. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Hell, that Lost show made buckets of money–as a gun for hire he comes with a pretty high rep.
Abrams has been around awhile, longer than I realized. And he hasn’t always been a golden goose either. He receives a brief mention in Richard E. Grant’s film diary With Nails. Grant runs into him at some Hollywood gathering and with his acute perceptiveness, describes J.J. and his cronies thus: “Meet a twenty-four-year old screenwriter called J.J. who wrote ‘Regarding Henry’, has a three-picture deal, and talks real fast, as do his friends, all of whom seem young, ruthless and rich.”
Hmmm… “ruthless and rich”. Not “gifted” or “witty” or “intelligent”. Ruthless and rich. And “Regarding Henry”? Remember that turkey?
But all will be forgiven if J.J. can revitalize the old gal, make it contemporary without abandoning the campiness and charm of the original show; I’m a retro nut and I’m worried the writers (one of them the “genius” behind “Transformers: The Movie”), will bury the story under CGI, comic book level dialogue and stock characterizations, while bending as far as possible to meet the abysmally low expectations of the fan boys/girls.
End of rant.
Now, as you’ve likely guessed, since my last post a couple of weeks back I’ve been working, plugging away on new material and prepping old stuff for revision. Beginning to gear up…there’s something about the summer that gets my creative energies revved up to full throttle. I can’t explain it. While the rest of my family is off traveling or out at the beach, I’m up in my office, sweating buckets, scribbling like mad.
With the coming of warmer weather this month, something clicked into place and I’ve been at it for long stretches, working on–well, I can’t say yet. You know me. Like to play it close to the vest. Might show it to Sherron later on this week but until then–shtum.
So I’ve been working hard and every so often scrambling down the stairs to watch a period of hockey–it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs, doncha know–before rushing back upstairs to work some more and then back downstairs to check the score, watch highlights, never missing Don Cherry…
I’ve been a Boston Bruins fan for nigh on forty years–oh, yes, my children, the big, bad Bruins and I go wayyy back. Watching old footage of Bobby Orr still brings tears to my eyes. And this year…well, the boys had a terrific regular season and then they destroyed the Habs in four straight games. I hardly dare wish for anything else. Must not tempt the hockey Gods to turn on the B’s like some blind Greek guy with a taste for older women…
It’s a pleasure to watch players like Marc Savard and I love that Lucic kid. Wideman is an under-appreciated talent and Tim Thomas has been good when called upon. But if that idjit Phil Kessel doesn’t stop with the lookit-me-dangle-all-by-myself-I’m-Jason-bleedin’-Spezza lone man dashes up the ice (which, inevitably lead to odd man rushes the other way), I’m going to end up kicking the front of my television set in.
Sorry, had to get that off my chest. It’s just that one commentator described Kessel as the Bruins’ best player during the Montreal series and I just about swallowed my beer mug.
Okay, besides work and the odd period of hockey, I’ve also somehow managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading, lotsa music and even a movie or two. Part of that whole getting-some-balance-in-my-life thing I’ve been working toward. With mixed results (hey, but at least I’m trying!).
Read John Fante’s 1939 novel Ask the Dust and absolutely loved it. Set in 1930’s Los Angeles, the story of Arturo Bandini, aspiring novelist, come West to seek his fame and fortune. I described the book elsewhere as a cross between Nathanial West (Day of the Locust) and Knut Hamsun (Hunger). I photocopied two pages and glued them into a “Book of Commonplace” I keep of favorite quotes and excerpts. I also hand-copied these sentences:
Over the city spread a white murkiness like fog. But it was not the fog: it was the desert heat, the great blasts from the Mojave and Santa Ana, the pale white fingers of the wasteland, ever reaching out to claim its captured child.
Here’s a piece from Salon.com that talks about about Mr. Fante’s life and work. Definitely a book–and an author–worthy of rediscovery.
In terms of movies, Sherron and I puzzled our way through David Lynch’s ultra-weird “Mulholland Drive” and I’m nearly done watching the second and final season on the 1967 TV series, “The Invaders”. Fun to slam down one or two episodes with a stiff glass of scotch after a hard day of writing. That’s my method for stress relief (patent pending)…
Lots of time in my office means lots of tunes playing too…and, as of yesterday, that includes Bob Dylan’s latest, Together Through Life. Not sure what I think of the new one yet. Maybe give it a few more listens before I decide. It lacks a cut with the mythic, spiritual power of something like “Man in the Long Black Coat” or, from Time out of Mind, the searing and entrancing “Highlands” (all sixteen-and-half minutes of it). Some good songs, especially “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “It’s All Good” and I like the Tex-Mex flavor but I wouldn’t count Together Through Life in the front rank of Dylan’s body of work. Not by a long shot.
Plenty of instrumental, ambient stuff pouring out of my speakers: Explosions in the Sky, God is an Astronaut, the soundtrack of “Mysterious Skin” (Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie collaborating). Old Tangerine Dream (“Atem”), Mogwai and NIN’s “Ghosts I-IV”.
The perfect accompaniment; the music transports me to a place beyond physical laws and temporal constraints. In this undetermined location I can work without distraction, removed from obligations and duties. That door over there opens on nothing, the backdrop outside my window cunningly executed but, upon close inspection, reveals imperfections, chips in the paint and swirls left by careless brush strokes–
The artifice holding, for now, but I keep the door closed and the blinds mostly drawn. To maintain the necessary illusion, preserve it through a combination of higher physics, prayer, alchemy and the judicious use of duct tape, when all else fails…
Equilibrium and tranquility have been restored to my life, the pleasant, assuring illusion of balance and order.
All hail the return of my Yamaha GX-500 mini component stereo! This office has been as quiet as an Amish disco for the past month, owing to a malfunction involving my usually reliable Yamaha unit. We took it in to Saskatoon and Chris, a service guy at Audio Warehouse, had a look at it but his initial prognosis was grim.
Sure enough, when he called me at home later in the week, the news wasn’t good. The required part wasn’t available, the system no longer in production (it was nine years old, after all), Chris gave me the part number and I spent one entire morning on-line, trying to track something down. Finally came across a place in New York that was selling exactly what I needed, a traverse deck for a Yamaha GX-500. But in the midst of finalizing the sale, we ran into a slight snag: the company didn’t ship to Canada.
Now, there was no freakin’ way I was giving up on that part, not when I had it in my claw-like grasp. Then I remembered my pal Mark in southern California and gave the operator his address, charging every thing to my VISA. They ship the part to Mark, he ships it to me. Might take a little while longer but at least I’ll have the part and my troubles will be over. Music, that universal language, will once again play on…
Ah. Or so I thought. The part shows up, I get it into Chris at Audio Warehouse…the deck still won’t work. At that point I utter one or two unpleasant words, growls of frustration more than anything else. Chris promises to do what he can but I can tell he isn’t holding out much hope.
What the hell, I decide, go for broke. When I get home, I compose a two page letter to Yamaha Canada and fax it to their head office in Toronto. I suppose at that point I could’ve gritted my teeth and bought a new system but part of me resisted that kind of thinking. It’s this weird culture we live in, where everything is disposable and replaceable and upgradeable. Where getting something fixed costs so much you might as well buy it new. Call it my curmudgeonly streak. My wife says it’s just that I’m cheap.
I didn’t expect a response to my letter but at that point I had gone more than two weeks without music in my office and wasn’t thinking too clearly. I was astonished when I received a call from a very personable fellow from Yamaha h.q. (yo, Matt!), who said he’d do what he could to help effect repairs on my unit. No promises, just an (apparently) sincere promise to try.
I guess somebody at Yamaha called Chris and they were able to dig up a crucial part that finally cleared up the bug…and now my beloved Yamaha unit is back where it belongs, blaring out a cut from the latest in Dylan’s “bootleg” series.
Special citations of merit and resounding huzzahs to Chris (Audio Warehouse), Mark Miller, Matt and the folks at Yamaha Canada for providing exemplary service and/or lending a helping hand. Thanks, folks!
Having music again has inspired a fresh outburst of creativity, granting me the state of mind necessary to leave Earth Prime, contemplate and create vast, new universes of my own. It’s remarkable the effect music has on me, my work; it accompanies every word, every comma I commit to paper.
So what’s on the turntable these days? Turntable? Jesus, when was the last time I had one of those? Really dating myself, aren’t I? Turntable…
Okay, okay, what on the playlist then, what’s on heavy rotation here at Radio Free Albemuth circa the end of November, 2008:
M83: Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. Shoegazer music? Ambient? Dunno what you call it but it sure is fuckin’ great to work to.
The Clash: Just about everything in their discography. London Calling still resonates across the years.
Jesus & Mary Chain: before BRMC there were the naughty-not-nice Reid Brothers. Psychocandy and The Sound of Speed have been making my walls rattle. Sometimes I wonder how this old house stands the strain.
Two Cow Garage: ordered one of their disks after reading about them on PopMatters.com. One of those whims that turns out to be serendipitous. Three is a delight and let me draw your attention to one track in particular, “Should’ve California”. What do you call it? Southern rock? Alt country? How about: great fuckin’ music…
Metallica: Ride the Lightning and their latest, Rick Rubin-produced effort, Death Magnetic, which at least sports some decent licks. But the lads have a long way to go before they recapture the power and greatness of those first four or five albums. Not sure they have it in them any more.
Explosions in the Sky: currently my favorite music to write to. All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone and The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place are melodic, epic, suggestive, multi-layered and thoroughly evocative.
Muse: fans of Radiohead will find much to like here. I found the self-titled 2003 disk in a discount bin; a stroke of pure good fortune. Looking forward to nabbing Black Holes & Revelations in the near future.
Interpol: Yeah, I know I’ve raved about these guys before but I think I have pretty much everything they’ve released and, no shit, this is one of the best bands kicking around these days. Grab anything you can by Interpol, they’re as good as it gets.
Grandaddy: eccentric, unique, too good to last. They released a few albums, could never seem to break through and finally called it quits. Too bad; their disks are, each one of them, original, funny, wise and personal.
Other music that has been serenading my ears of late: The Eels (Shootenanny), The Brian Jonestown Massacre (BraveryRepetitionAndNoise), Jimmy Eat World (Chase This Light), Air (Pocket Symphony), Mogwai, Modest Mouse…
Crazy, eclectic shit, as always.
And…coming up December 1st, music of the live and in person kind. Driving in to Saskatoon with Laird to see Nine Inch Nails at the Credit Union Centre. Whoo hoo! We’re talking about an evening of fine entertainment. Every time I think about it, I get a surge of anticipation—hopefully Trent will be in fine fettle.
Playing a lot of NIN stuff lately too, natch. Really grooving to With Teeth. And there are two fantastic instrumental cuts on The Slip (“Corona Radiata” & “The Four of Us Are Dying”) that I’ve played any number of times. Beautiful stuff, hardly the sort of tunes one would associate with “Mr. Self Destruct”. The Slip was released through Reznor’s on-line label; it is the kind of fine, unclassifiable music eschewed by corporate types. Cutting his ties with record companies, becoming an independent musician, has made T.R. a more well-rounded and far-reaching artist. The Slip is an exceptional piece of work.
Sounds fucking great coming out of those cherrywood Yamaha speakers too. I’m grinning again. I can’t help it. I can barely hear myself think with Dylan’s raunchy live version of “Cocaine Blues” thundering away overhead.
And so now back to work: researching, jotting down lots of notes, photocopying, gradually immersing myself in the warped world of my new novel. But it all starts with music, a soundtrack that precedes what is to come. The overture. To set the mood and “open wide the mind’s cage-door” (Keats)…