Monday, February 21, 2011

Music Review: Dar Williams, _Many Great Companions_

Anyone can throw a song together. Even songs that have some semblance of rhythm, theme, meaning. I even like some of those songs, as Gorillaz demonstrated. Look up the lyrics from the Demon Days album, and you'll not be able to make heads or tails of them. They're just words, put together with a dance beat, and they make a song. What makes Demon Days so effective is that the words they use, the images they conjure up in the mind are like paintings, of color and light, images that tell the complete story of a night's sleep, complete with storyline and symbolism. But the songs themselves aren't stories, but fragments of them.

Paul Simon said that on his trek through the countries of Africa, discovering the beats and tunes that would become his Graceland album, that he learned how to not make songs so linear, so symmetrical. This allows him to use imagery in more of an impressionist fashion, where nothing is solid and plot driven as, say, "The Boxer." Story-songs are not inferior, however, just different. Each strand of songlines become a different type of painting, just as a Monet piece is just as valuable as a portrait by Van Gogh, or a landscape by Turner.

So we've looked at some of the masters of songwriting, and in America there are many that have graces our culture with sound and song. I've always said, that if the Earth becomes overcome with everything and we need to depart it like the Robinson's did on Lost in Space, they would have to take a database of the world's finest works with them. But which would you choose? Arthur C. Clarke decided to eliminate anything that dealt with the biases of Earth, which unfortunately meant ridding the colonists and their descendants of all Religious texts and imagery. But what would you include from the genre of the Popular Song? Sinatra? Dylan? Cher? How about songwriters such as James Taylor or Elton John? There are too many to count, and too many "popular" popular songs that probably should be left out. I don't think you would include the Macarena in the mix, or "The Thong Song," even though they were extremely popular at the time. You have to delve into the art form and find those that truly represent the art form.

I would argue that Dar Williams' work, especially those of her greatest his album, Many Great Companions, would qualify to be included. The intimacy of her lyrics, the complexity of the symbolism, her mastery of using words and music together to paint an image is so precise. She is part of a lineage of songwriter that goes back to the folk days of the 1960's, from Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and James Taylor. As long as the songwriters keep writing, the art form of the Popular Song is in good hands. While we groan over the puerile lyrics of Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber, we can appreciate that there are artists like Dar Williams and David Gray, amongst others, that are writing for the intelligent admirers of song and art.

Especially poignant on this album is "February," which uses symbolism to parallel the weather and the settings of the seasons with a fallen relationship. Also, "When I Was A Boy," tells of a woman who, in her youth, lived as a boy, and then grew up to see how image driven the world is, stereotyping men and women into one form or another. Her songs tell of growing up, losing the innocence of childhood and experiencing the changes in spirituality, of the relationship between teenagers and God. Such fine music. If nothing else, pick up the greatest hits album, the second CD, as mp3 files. You won't be disappointed, and maybe the lines of color and light will come through for you, too.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

These Dreams...or Rowing Your Boat

Decided to evoke the song lyrics by Heart. For some reason, the song evokes memories of myself sitting in the waiting room of my brother's speech therapist, Dr. Lauren Bradway, with her blocks shaped like letters and the green walls and the radio oozing out contemporary hits. I'm sure it was played during that time, because every time I hear the song, I think of that waiting room. So peaceful..

Songs will do that...just like smells or other sensations. The chemicals in the brain that make memories stay active for some time, as the memory fades back into the subconscious. A few nights back I had a dream, don't remember exactly what it was, but the odd part was that it had Betty White in it. I thought it odd when I woke up, and upon thinking about it, I realized that she had been on the $25,000 Pyramid show on GSN the day before, so the image got transported into one of my dreams.

It's also weird when I have the television on at night, for instance, on Fox News, as my subconscious hears whatever is going on in the world and uses some of it in my dreams. I remember one time I was in a college town, probably supposed to be Milledgeville, but it looked nothing like it, when missle started raining down on the neighborhood. Woke up and sure enough, the Israelis and the Palestinians were exchanging missiles at each other. Or when I have ESPN on I will more often than not be at a baseball game sometime during the night. Perhaps I should sleep with the TV off...

I say all this because my grandmother, Granny, has for years claimed that she helped my former boss's wife with car problems when Granny worked at the Landmark building in Conyers. There's no way this could have happened, as he lived in Maine at the time she worked there. But Granny can go into what type of car it was and everything. I realized that these false memories started about the time that her Macular Degeneration started getting bad. With her being blind, the only clear images she saw was those that developed in her mind.

Last Thanksgiving my grandmother broke her hip and is now in a nursing home, as her mental state has deteriorated to the point where bringing her home just isn't possible with us having to work. She keeps on telling us about different things that happen in the home that make no sense. For instance, she claims she was having soup one day, and it was good soup, but that chickens came in and ate the rest. I think that dementia, especially in her case, results from the memories of the mind's eye. In other words, dreams that are so much clearer than what she experiences every day, that the dreams become her reality. If she dreams that she got up, walked down the hallway and ordered food from the cook, then that's what she did. There's nothing, then, to keep her from thinking that she could get up the next day. Thus, she would never be able to be by herself for any length of time.

It's amazing how clear dreams and memories stay in the mind, even ones that aren't real. How people can believe in a story so vehemently that it becomes their reality. I daresay that the best criminals are ones that can actually delude themselves into thinking that whatever alibi they constructed was their reality. It would easily pass any lie detector. Just ask my grandmother about my boss's wife, and she will tell you without hesitation what happened, even though it was impossible.

It is a remarkable state of being, to live in your dreams, and have them clearer than real life. But also terrifying. That reality is only constructed by our trains of thought. It makes me think that maybe Berkley wasn't so far off in his analysis of metaphysics. Or, as the old nursery rhyme goes:

Row, Row, Row your boat
gently down the stream.
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily,
Life is but a dream.

And maybe, for some people, dreams are but life.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Music Review: Dierks Bentley _Up On the Ridge_

I don't like contemporary country music. I get tired of the stereotypes of pickup trucks and beer and the farmer's daughter that always seems to permeate the genre. Especially because those stereotypes  are mostly true.  That's the thing, you constantly decry the applications of stereotypes to ethnic groups or cultural niches, but they wouldn't be considered stereotypes if they weren't somewhat true. A lot of the contemporary country singers just string a bunch of those images together, put a dancing beat on it, and they crank out another hit.  Nothing has been done new in that genre for many years, nothing that you can't go back to the 1960's and hear quality country music by people who probably wrote music the same way as today's artists did. 

This having been said, when Borders played Dierks Bentley's album Up on the Ridge on the overhead, I originally thought, "Oh no, another country album..." And the first song didn't alleviate my fears. Yes, it has lines about his truck and his hound dog and drinking...etc... If you listen to Dierks' other albums, that's what you'll get.  But this album... this album is different.

What Dierks takes Country music back to its roots in Bluegrass and Folk. The songs don't sound like quick hits.  To compare it with other artists... The track "Senior," sounds like Dylan on his Desire album, and the last track, about the Miners in West Virginia comes straight from Woody Guthrie's style of folk. He sings a duet with an aging Kris Kristofferson, as well as putting vocals to various bluegrass and contemporary  country artists. Every song on the album is worth listening to. I didn't omit one when syncing it over to my MP3 player. And it's very rare for me to do that. I was also pleased when I saw he was nominated for three Grammy's this year.  He well deserves it for this album.  If only he was as popular as his contemporaries, so that everyone could hear quality music.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Recess from the Recesses (a response)

[From my Facebook page, J. pointed out that many children still enjoy going outside, and gave examples.  She says that adults still produce playground sets (albeit "safer" ones) and create the memories that children produce for themselves.  In the end, she says, "Each generation must move on to make room for the next, yes?"  This is my response.  I agree with much of what she says, with two exceptions. That, one, I don't hold the same optimism that children will, in the future, be running around in their neighborhoods using sticks as wands or weapons or whatever. And two, that the equipment that we played on is just as good for this generation as today's "safer" replacements.]

I do hope you are correct in your evaluation of today's children. That in the areas where we live there are still kids that yearn to go outside, to play on playgrounds, to wield a stick as a sword or a staff, to find a copse of trees and turn it into a quiet hut,  a mansion of greens.  But I just don't see it happening that way.  Imagination is taken up by video games, by television screens, or transformed into competition in the form of organized sports.  When I was in middle and high school, there were few kids that "came out to play" in the summer, as they were all being bussed off to soccer camps and constant practices for organized sports (soccer in my neighborhood was the most time consuming). If they weren't into sports, they were inside playing with video games or whathaveyou.  And my neighborhood was as barren as most ghost towns. 

When I go back even farther, I look at the playgrounds as one of the few places where I actually half-way interacted with other kids. Not that I did that well, but I did have a few friends and we played our make believe games from the popular TV shows at the time.  The playground equipment became the models for our spaceships, our fortresses...etc. I realize that any brand of equipment could do that, whether it be plastic, or wood, or be it abstract, a mere shape, or constructed to look like a castle.  The importance of the specific rocketships I talk about are because of the memories that we had of those particular playsets. It is a selfish notion, really, that those metal structures could stay rooted into the ground for all eternity, for every child to experience those exact memories.  We are living our lives through them.  But it's precisely that selfish notion that makes us hold on to old things as much as we do. 

Take a look at one of my older blogs, from July of last year, which analyzes a conversation between Lt. Commander Data and Dr. Soong, his maker, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's very applicable to this one, as we tend to hold on to old things, the crumbling buildings of southern towns, those like the ones in Milledgeville towering above the old Governor's mansion, with missing roof parts and piles of old psychology files stashed about.  Or to look at it another way, the loft apartments at the Mill in Porterdale. Living there would be an absolute treat, as the old factory walls would still retain the echoes of decades before, mixed in with the waterfalls of the South River.  We hold on to our ties with our pasts, yearning for them to stay eternally on, comforting us, reminding us of our semi-permanence in this world. For looking back to our past gives a sense of continuity, of a chain of humans living from one century to the next.  What if, traveling back to Oklahoma some time, and seeing my old playground at Mustang Valley, with the old rocketship monkey bars shining in the sunlight, and there on it was a child reaching up to the top of the set, and seeing his face as he reached the top.  That would be me in another life, but it would also be me now. It would be joy continuing down through the years.  So yes, it is selfish, but it is perfectly human to wish the old structures of our youth to continue existing, for us or for others, forever.  It gives us a sense of immortality. It's why I write these blogs, or why anyone creates anything, as it provides a link to the future.  After I am gone, there will still be these blogs for people to read, to know about my life.  I had hoped that there would still have been that rocketship for people to play on, to find the same excitement as I did. Let the children make the memories of their own worlds, at least I still have mine.

Something I think needs to be added.  When we talk about why Mustang Valley's playground was replaced with brand new sets, we have to look at the potential for lawsuits for "unsafe" playground equipment.  The large monkey bar sets at Mustang Valley were fastened into concrete, as were the teeter totters.  The swing sets were just outside on barren dirt, often which had holes underneath where kids' feet had swung, and when it rained, you got tadpoles swimming about in the holes under the swings.  The rocketship was also in the dirt.  They did not have the recycled tire clippings, or safe rubber ground to keep children from falling and skinning their knees and breaking an arm or whatever.  Truth is, the skinned knees is part of what made those sets fun.  There was danger involved.  Nowadays, if anyone is put in danger, the school system gets sued.  It's the litigious society that we have that keeps children from actually being children.  Would, in the middle ages, children have been allowed to work as apprentices for blacksmiths or become squires for knights if the people thought they might get hurt, and hence, the shop owners would get sued for negligence or something... of course not.  If, as a kid, I burnt my finger while trying to touch a hot iron, to see how hot it was, the pain afterwards was a lesson in life.  In taking away the pain, we take away the lesson involved.  I'd rather have the scars than be blemish free, and have learned nothing. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

This Used to be My Playground

If you drive up to Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City, and turn into one of the lakeside parks, you will see, at least I think, a playground of immense size and stature, towering over the lake. I am sure that the rocketship that was built at the park was not as big as the one in my imagination, looking back at those days, when my grandmother would take my brother and I the many blocks to this amazing structure. It was the fusion of man's understanding of the child's imagination. I have seen very little, before or since, that blended together steel and matter with the underlying dreams in a child's mind. To me, it was an arduous rampway to the top of the rocket. In my mind, the ramp was closed in, usually filled with children, and actually a bit scary. In the photos I've seen, it was an open walkway, much like the breezeways above interstates. It's amazing how memories change, mold themselves into something larger and more ominous than what they truly were. And how sad it made me, to look down from the satellites of Google's all seeing eye and zoom into the playground I once played in, and see the rocketship gone.

Same state, but drive, then, to the school I went to as a child, Mustang Valley Elementary, and there you will find monkey bars of various shapes, including a rocket-shaped one. So many battles were fought on that rocket ship, of Thundercats and Transformers, with my friends, Timothy and Drew and all the others, amazing times. And come to think of it, I probably got more exercise in those days than anything else. I wasn't all that overweight then, although you would never have known that by the Presidential Physical fitness tests scores I had. What fun is there in running around a gym field, with asthma threatening to creep in and the dandelions and the wasps and whatnot always lurking about? It's no fun. But being that is something different. It was our own little world then, and I loved it.

[Addendum... looking for pictures of that place, I find that Mustang Valley renovated (read, took all the fun out of) the playground, taking the slides, the swings, the huge teeter totters, the beloved rocket ship, everything away, and replaced it with safer, more boring play toys. Curse them for taking away such treasures. Now children will not be able to use their imaginations and play on the dangerous wonders that truly made us children. And looking at Google, all the trees around the school have been cut down to make room for neighborhoods and houses. At least we still have our memories.][If we have to be safe all the time, we will never face danger. Climbing to the top of the Monkey Bars and standing upon the zenith of the rocket ship... it is like conquering a mountain. And if we fall... our skinned knees will have been well worth it.]

One more playground story, before I get to where I really want to take this entry. There still is a quaint little playground located just to the west of the dorms of Georgia College in Milledgeville. Nothing special about them, except for the memories I had of the swing sets there, where in my Freshman year the Ramsey twins (whom I have not heard from since then) and some of our other friends, would go and swing under the shade of the giant pine trees. It really was refreshing, the cool winds going down into the river valley, even in summer. So it was a great shock to me that one year, after returning back to campus, I wandered over to the park to see that every pine tree had been cut down, leaving a brown, ugly surface around all the playground equipment. During the hot days, the sun would beat down upon the metal fixtures and make them too hot to touch, especially for the little children that played on them. I could easily see them getting 1st degree burns from the heated metal. What good is a playground without the trees around it? The shade is metaphor as well as real. The real world cannot get to you for that little while you are on the swing sets. To see those trees cut down and the park destroyed, in spirit, was depressing.


Now, I venture, these playgrounds lay barren and empty for most of the time. They become hangouts for gangs and drug dealers (that was a problem, apparently, for the Stars and Stripes Park). The innocence leaves and is left only by the leftovers, by the people longing to get back to that time, but never making it through chemicals and violence. No, the playgrounds are empty. Schools have had to cut back the recess time to provide more education for failing test scores (and not for the children that take them), and city budget cuts have made replacing old equipment impossible, so the grass grows up between the iron monkey bars and cracks form on the pavement. It reminds me of Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian," which, if you haven't read it, go find a copy on the Internet, it should be there. I'll wait, it's only a 1.5 pages long.

For in that story, the citizens of that fictional country lived within their houses, fixated on the moving lights of the television screens, and the lone walker outside is picked up by a robot police officer and taken to the asylum as if he was a crazy person.

Our playgrounds today are no longer the steel beams of playground rocketships or, in another since, of the rocketships that are made of the words in books. Rather, they are the images of those forms in computer games, on television. The playgrounds we visit to escape reality, to stretch our imaginations across vast spaces, those places exist only within our minds. They exist as bytes and pixels on a computer screen. Whereas we might have fought against real imaginary dragons on the school playground, now people slaughter virtual dragons in the caves of Warcraft or other games. We chase girls (or gossip about guys) not on the pavement of a schoolground playplace, but rather on the public grounds of Facebook. It's all the same in reality. Why shouldn't we all just spend our recesses texting each other and saying nothing? Not long are the days when the playful screams of children will fall silent on school playgrounds as they talk more through the keyboards on their cell phones than with their mouths. In future times, when I am old and gray, and children who may be quite used to space travel, will ask me if I've ever been in space, I will say, "Yes, although my feet have never left the ground."

[Okay... now I'm just ticked... all the playgrounds I played in as a child are gone, replaced with safer, more boring pieces of plastic. Damn the lawyers and their litigation. I want danger! I want to climb to the top of the monkey bars and look out over the cement playground and watch people skin their knees! I'm gonna scan pictures from my yearbook of the playground, and also provide links of sites I find that deal with preserving playgrounds and monkey bars and all the things we loved as kids. ]

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Teletubbies and the Apocalypse.

Everyone wakes up at 3 in the morning. At least, from the Tweets and Facebook statuses I've seen, it's all "Awake again, sigh..." And no doubt Fox News put Red Eye on at exactly that time, as it's ratings are often more than shows on during prime time. Take the scene in Psychonauts where everyone's brain is stolen. They awake from their total lobotomy with the only urge being to watch TV. But I digress. And I usually have ESPN on, for Sportscenter is about as mind numbing as you can get, but at 3 they switch over to a replay of whatever game they had going the night before. So I turn it over to Fox News, for if I'm going to be brainwashed, I might as well use something I agree with. Or I'll have it on the Disney Channel, where I watch their brilliant sitcoms.

So it's on this particular night that I wake up at 4 hearing this loud squeaking noise coming from the tube. It's on Disney Channel, and they have switched to their little kids programming, where blobs of computer generated bubbliness bounce around with nothing to say but squeaks and squawks, utter foolishness. Even those shows that claim to be educational are enough to make a sane person want to go on a rampage. I usually wake up to Little Einsteins, and I only hope I can find the remote and switch it before any of my brain cells die.

Whatever happened to the shows like Sesame Street, or Electric Company, where the shows actually did educate as well as entertain. I know that Postman decried the usage of 30 second educational commercials that were spliced together to make Sesame Street. But looking at the cognitive processes of children growing up during the age of Television, it's obvious that most children now learn visually, from quick flashes of information through colorful lights and stimulating sounds. It's a wonder that everyone doesn't have ADHD in one form or another. But it's better to have some educational value than none at all. It's the advent of education in the MTV generation. Entertaining, disconnected, flashy, and relatively shallow.

I think the change harbors back to the hit show Teletubbies. Let Falwell and Robertson complain all they want about the purple one with the purse, the real problem about this, and other, shows, is what Harold Bloom called the Closing of the American Mind. Let's not even attempt at learning, but let's put together a show whose only purpose is to keep the children stimulated and, most importantly, quiet. At this point (and followed up by Barney), Television became a babysitter, something for parents to use to escape their own children. And that's necessary, perhaps, but not because the children have no discipline at all. And when we do use TV in this manner, shouldn't there be something on that at least marginally educates or molds a child's mind in other ways than bright lights and visual stimuli? Give me the early Nickelodeon shows Mr. Wizard's World or even Blue's Clues. Now there was a good, educational show on the level with Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

I had a couple of complaints about the lineup on Disney. I never got up at all before 6am, although I guess at that time the TV stations that we had didn't come on before 6. Now, with hundreds of channels and 24 hour broadcasting, there is always something on for almost any demographic. But nothing that I want to watch, or at least, nothing I want on in the background while I sleep. And I certainly don't want something on at 4am with loud squeaky noises. I guess I could use music, and have in the past, but it just doesn't work as well. I did try some of the Internet radio stations, with New Age music, but they used some music with Native American chants on them, and they can get loud. But I digress. My point is that Disney should put something on that isn't toddler related in the middle of the night. I'm sure there are reasonable, even useful reasons for that, but for me, personally, it's annoying.

Also, Disney has a huge library of specials, series, movies, etc... that it can use to entertain people of all ages at all times of the night. I remember back in the 90's when Disney would show episodes of Zorro and other black and white shows for the older generation. And that is something they should consider doing again. They have a Disney for toddlers, Disney Jr., one for boys, XD, and the regular programming for Tweens. So let's have a Disney channel for adults.

Good, wholesome family shows based on the huge library of media that Disney already owns. It would be a good channel to fall asleep to, and would rival Nick at Nite in variety and in ratings. Let's not forget about the older generations, even as we gear toward the young folk with their credit cards and their flashy, short attention spans.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Running Over People, Colon Health, and Switching Channels.

Yes, it's time once again for a Things that Bug Me! session. Miniblogs that highlight things about life that irritate the snot out of me.

* I am convinced that I will be sent to jail one of these days for vehicle manslaughter, as will we all. The prisons will be full of normal citizens that just couldn't see the people they ran over. It seems the best time for people to walk in my neighborhood is after dark, and only when wearing the darkest clothes possible. Usually dark sweatjackets with hoods, so you can't even see skin reflecting off of headlights. For instance, there's this girl, probably in her 20's, that walks her dog every time I have to go to the grocery store. The only reason I see her at all is that the lights reflect off of the dog's eyes. When I get close, she has this blank look on her face (and headphones on, so she wouldn't be able to hear me), as if the dog had more cognizance than the owner. It's why I say that the dog is walker his owner. Please, if you must go walking, after midnight, as Patsy Cline says, please wear something reflective. Running over people is too expensive, after all.

* Comcast really needs to look at their advertising layout for the digital channels. Most companies will use sponsors that work toward the demographic that is watching the show. Ergo the commercials for false teeth applicants during Price is Right, or Lawyers advertising on episodes of Judge Judy. But Comcast doesn't seem to see it that way. They have the right to advertise on their channels using whoever they want, and since commercial space, especially on newer digital channels is cheaper, they can get anyone to run their advertisements on any channel. So I'm watching Disney XD, because you can't get enough of Phineas and Ferb and all of a sudden I get these commercials for medication to help improve colon health, complete with charts about volume of fecal matter. I did some checking online, and others have seen commercials for vodka while watching similar channels. What Comcast is doing is simply not profitable for the sponsors, as a 6 year old will not be persuaded into buying colon care meds. And with all the talk of advertising to the demographics that are most profitable for any one business, it's actually fraud what Comcast is doing with their advertising. They need to get into line with what they are claiming to provide.

* And since we're on the subject of television, I had to switch over to Comcast's digital cable in the past little bit. Rewired the cable catastrophe downstairs myself, which I'm proud of. :) But the box that has all the channels (which I'll get to in a minute) costs $15.00 a month for an extra one, so the living room only gets a few extra channels. Now, on the subject of cable channels. The normal analog lineup had, say, 70 channels (I remember when cable only went up to 36). So say 25 channels are worth anything at all, and the rest are marginally useful or utter crap. Now, triple the amount of channels. 210. That puts the useful channels at 75, with crappy channels at 135...what a waste of bandwidth!! And the ironic thing about all this is, at times, there is still nothing on! 210 channels, and there's nothing I want to watch on! Maybe it's time I found me a book to read..... And then, to make it more frustrating, the time that it takes to flip through channels has gone up, because the smaller adapters take a few seconds to load the next channel, putting a frozen image of whatever it was you didn't want to see up on the screen for you to stare at while the next channel is coming up. And what if it's something totally violent, or gross, or Wolf Blitzer or something? It makes flipping past the crap a lot harder to do. Which, since On Demand is always an option (and sometimes not free), I'm sure that was Comcast's intention all along.

I know I complain about Comcast a lot in this blog, but truthfully, you'll not find a better connection to the Internet, and I've seen the other television set ups on dishes and the like, and I've got it ten times better than that junk. Give me Comcast any day.