Under Different Deities

Heading back to Austin from a brief tour of Louisiana.   I will catch up on posting when I am home.  I did see a sign in a gas station today that said:  “Jefferson Davis Law – No Alcohol Sold Between 2 and 6am.”  So that happened.  I am glad that the ghosts of the Confederacy are attempting to keep me sober in the wee hours of the morning.  

In Denis Johnson’s book Tree of Smoke, his epic Vietnam novel, one of the characters come to the conclusion that different parts of the world are governed by different deities.  Each area operates under its own unique set of supernatural laws.  When one travels the United States, one can’t help but feel the same way.  Louisiana is not Texas is not Colorado is not wherever.  It isn’t just different cultures and economic forces shaping human behavior, but almost nature itself.  The haunted swamps of Louisiana create a different emotional context than the comforting greenery of the Texas hill country.   “God is alive and magic is afoot.”  The only question is what god and whose magic?  Anyone that claims to know is deluding themselves…

Modern Hell

I am reading Dante’s The Inferno for the first time since highschool.  If memory serves me correctly, I am actually reading it front to back for the first time.  I have been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in Dante’s hometown of Florence.  The Inferno is clearly influenced by the people, places, and imagery of which Dante was familiar.  

Hell, even at its worst, resembles the artwork and literature of his time, which was often the work of true artists and craftsmen.  I find myself reading this out on the American highway, which often features architecture and art that’s only functions are functionality and efficiency.  Box stores and garish logos dot the landscape.  This is not to say that making things visually striking is everything, as the Nazis were quite good at that.  But often even our modern view of Hell resembles the artistry of Dante’s time, more than any true concept of what is the worst in life.  Would you choose Dante’s Hell or an abandoned K-Mart for eternity?   Dante had no concept of what modern pollution was capable of, of nature so full of chemicals that it looks like a nuclear winter in deep space. 

Overall I, like most who read this, am quite amazed at how much this old text has to offer.  However, how deeply strange would a modern hell look to Dante?  Who knows such things…

My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Native American History

The recent announcement that Buffy Sainte-Marie will be opening for Morrissey has got me pulling out her records again.  (That is a concert I would die to see!)  I just became aware of the above song, My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, a song that tells the history of the United States from a Native American perspective.  I find it inspiring that a small Native American girl in a cotton dress had the courage to stand up and sing this song in the 60’s.  You won’t find many large macho males with the courage to do something like that today when, although their are miles and miles to go, things are somewhat better.  I have read a lot of history dealing with Native Americans.  While it is true that no song, however brilliant, can communicate the full complexity of that history, the lyrics of this song ring true to my understanding of that history.

Now that your big eyes have finally opened
Now that you’re wondering how must they feel
Meaning them that you’ve chased across
America’s movie screens

Now that you’re wondering how can it be real
That the ones you’ve called colorful, noble and proud
In your school propaganda, they starve in their splendor
You’ve asked for my comment, I simply will render

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Now that the long houses breed superstition
You force us to send our toddlers away
To your schools where they’re taught
To despise their traditions

You forbid them their languages, then further say
That American history really began
When Columbus set sail out of Europe
Then stress that the nation of leeches that conquered this land
Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best

And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth
Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed

How a nation of patriots returned to their earth
And where will it tell of the Liberty Bell
As it rang with a thud o’er Kinzua mud
And of brave Uncle Sam in Alaska this year

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Hear how the bargain was made for the West
With her shivering children in zero degrees
Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest
Oh well, blankets for land is a bargain indeed

And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected
From smallpox-diseased dying soldiers that day
And the tribes were wiped out and the history books censored
A hundred years of your statesmen have felt
It’s better this way

And yet a few of the conquered have somehow survived
Their blood runs the redder though genes have paled
From the Gran Canyon’s caverns to craven sad hills
The wounded, the losers, the robbed sing their tale

From Los Angeles County to upstate New York
The white nation fattens while others grow lean
Oh the tricked and evicted they know what I mean

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens
Our life blood shut up in your chemical tanks
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hands
And surprise in your eyes that we’re lacking in thanks

For the blessings of civilization you’ve brought us
The lessons you’ve taught us, the ruin you’ve wrought us
Oh see what our trust in America’s brought us

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Now that the pride of the sires receives charity
Now that we’re harmless and safe behind laws
Now that my life’s to be known as your ‘Heritage’
Now that even the graves have been robbed

Now that our own chosen way is a novelty
Hands on our hearts we salute you your victory
Choke on your blue white and scarlet hypocrisy
Pitying the blindness that you’ve never seen

That the eagles of war whose wings lent you glory
They were never no more than carrion crows
Pushed the wrens from their nest
Stole their eggs, changed their story

The mockingbird sings it, it’s all that he knows
“Ah, what can I do?”, say a powerless few
With a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Here are three great books about Native American history and our country’s Indian Wars.  (Keep in mind that these are simply three out of many.  I chose these books not only for the history that they tell, but also because all of them are absolutely captivating reads of the first order.):

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – This is a comprehensive overview of the wars that the United States government fought with Native Americans.  This is probably the best place to start.

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides – This book focuses on Kit Carson, the Western tribes and predominately the Navajos, and the Indian Wars fought in New Mexico.  This is history truly brought to life through exceptional writing.  It has the descriptive beauty and pace of a great novel.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne – This book focuses on Quanah Parker, Texas, and the U.S. and Commanche War.  Another book where the writing is simply exceptional.  This book is also essential to understanding the culture of Texas.

Apologies about the title error earlier. Sometimes autocorrect gets the best of you!

Obama Secretly Supported Gay Marriage In First Presidential Run

Obama Secretly Supported Gay Marriage All Along

Was just reading the above article over at Huffington Post that features an excerpt from David Axlerod’s new book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.  In the excerpt Axlerod claims that Obama supported gay marriage all along, even while he claimed that he favored the more politically popular civil unions during his first run for the presidency.

I’m sure this will make some heads on the right explode.  I am also sure that even some of his supporters will claim this shows a lack of character.  However, this is really not out of step with politics in general.  Having been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals about Lincoln, even our greatest president engaged in this kind of thing.  (Well, I was reading it until my Kindle exploded!  I will finish it as soon as possible.)  Lincoln was often told by the left wing of his party that he was not moving fast enough on slavery, even though he eventually was the president that put an end to slavery.

The idea is that leaders have to take the temperature of the populace on issues.  A good leader will be out front of the public on issues, “leading” them to do the right thing, but they can’t be too out front of the general population.  If they are too out front they risk a backlash and giving the opposition a chance to make political inroads.  So they have to have enough courage to move the ball down the field, but enough smarts to do it in a way where they don’t risk creating a situation where they don’t have enough political capital to get things done.

On top of this political leaders, especially at a national level, have a many other issues that they also need to treat in this same manner.  It’s a complex puzzle that is not an enviable task.  This is not to say that the general public should not express outrage if they believe a politician is acting against their interests.  It is expressly this growing political “heat” that will eventually give a leader enough cover to make it politically expedient to act.  Those that try to change the national dialogue through protests and other forms of peaceful serve a very important role in democracy, one that has often been ridiculously belittled in the mainstream media, but it is not the same role that a leader elected by popular vote has.

This is not to say that one can not criticize Obama on his decisions.  It is fair to say that Obama was not far enough in front of the general population.  If someone wants to make the argument that he lacked the courage to act in a timely manner, I don’t know if I would agree given all of the other issues at stake when he took the presidency, but it is again a fair criticism.  However, I think history shows that a political leader who has a different opinion in private and in public is not out of the ordinary, and might even be smart politics when trying to accomplish a larger goal.  Although it is too early to tell, and I am more willing to hear arguments against this belief, I think the gains that gay couples have made during Obama’s presidency will leave Obama looking favorably on this issue in the history books.  Change, important change, and I do believe that gay marriage is an important issue as everyone deserves the chance to find love and happiness, is not always pretty.  To change the way people think takes real people doing real work.  It requires those that are willing to stand up for justice on the front lines and, yes sometimes, it also requires political leaders that are willing to bend political will in using the often unseemly machinations of politics.

Why Did Germany Produce So Many Great Composers and Why Does Art Flourish?

I’ve been reading about classical music again lately.  It is one of the forms of music, along with jazz, that I don’t have a real deep understanding of the history of, or that I don’t understand the forms and technical terminology.  It is this insanely large and diverse body of work that I didn’t grow up on, which can be intimidating if you try to dive into as an adult.  My parents taught me to see it on rare occasion.  Sometimes they played it around the house.  I also had the typical public school music education, but honestly a lot of that has been lost to the cloudy fog of memory.  So I am left to my own devices to navigate something the size of an ocean.  The book I’m reading is a really good introduction.  It is called Classical Music:  The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works.  It is by Phil G. Goulding.

The author begins the book by telling the reader how he came up with the list and is very conscious that this list, or any other, is not perfect.  It is simply a means to start a conversation and to initiate the new.  What amazed me at the very beginning, and what I never put together on my own, was how many of the titans of Western music were German.  The author puts 18 Germans in the top 50 on his list.  (The author is American.)

So in learning about classical music a new set of questions arise.  What was going on in Germany that allowed for such an wealth of talent?  What was going on culturally, economically, and politically that set the stage for a certain art form to thrive?  Why in 1960’s America and England did rock and pop music suddenly explode into being, at a level of quality that has not since been equaled?

Art of any kind is not created in a vacuum.  Artists have to be able to earn a living so that they can focus and hone their talents.  If someone has to work 12 hours a day in a mine they are probably not going to be able to develop the high level of skills that especially something like classical music takes.  Whether it is paying for recording time now, or assembling an orchestra in the past, there has to be the means to do so.  There also need to be a culture that is at least somewhat receptive to new ideas and talent.  Their needs to be some kind of audience, even if it is just the wealthy, that has the skill set to appreciate and demand more of art.  That’s not saying that there won’t always be some kind of brilliant art in any society, but for it to be widespread there must be an audience that is receptive and appreciative of what is going on for it to thrive.

Also, although political turmoil can often inspire great works of art, too much political turmoil can also crush art in its cradle.  Mikhail Bulgakov is an interesting study.  He was a novelist and playwright in Russia who wrote the classic The Master and Margarita among others.  That book is considered a masterpiece and it was inspired partially by what was going on in Stalinist Russia.  On one hand he might never have created his masterpiece if he did not find inspiration in the political events of the day, which were extremely oppressive.  However, many of his works were banned.  Would he have possibly written more in an open society?  That is something we will never know.  However, he was spared when many others were not because he was liked by Stalin.  How many other writers work was destroyed, or how many writers were themselves destroyed, before their work ever came to be?  Even in Stalinist Russia there was still the basics of a functioning society, however repressive.  What if there was a war so brutal in a country that it descended backwards to where everyone was living in a primitive tribal society, and if so how much art would be created then?

Again, these are all questions I don’t have answers for, but I think they are worth thinking about, especially in relation to modern life.  Why is it that television is producing so many great shows that have some degree of mass appeal, while the most popular recording stars are often completely vapid?  Questions, questions, questions…

The Problem With Experts

My friend Trey recently gave me a book to read in the back of the van.  The following passage seemed correct to me in its diagnosis of a modern problem:

There is in orthodox thinking a great dependence on experts.  Because modern technological society has produced a breed of experts who understand technical matters that bewilder the rest of us, we think that in matters of social conflict, which require moral judgments, we must also turn to experts.  

There are two false assumptions about experts.  One is that they see more clearly and think more intelligently than ordinary citizens.  Sometimes they do, sometimes not.  The other assumption is that these experts have the same interests as ordinary citizens, want the same things, hold the same values, and, therefore, can be trusted to make decisions for all of us.  

To depend on great thinkers, authorities, and experts is, it seems to me, a violation of the spirit of democracy.  Democracy rests on the idea that, except for technical details for which experts may be useful, the important decisions of society are within the capability of ordinary citizens.  Not only can ordinary people make decisions about these issues, but they ought to, because citizens understand their own interests more clearly than experts.  

Now the only thing I want to add to this is that for democracy to function properly, it also depends on citizens being well informed.  Citizens are capable of educating themselves, but they must want to.  It is important that a certain percentage of citizens read, pay attention to national and world events, and I also think, in such an interconnected world, travel if not in other countries, than at least in their own.  It should be important in a society that citizens understand that they have an important role in events and take that burden seriously.  One of the problems in the U.S. is that there are not enough people that understand that a democracy, for it to work properly, needs people to be involved at more than just a superficial level.

The writer of the above passage is Howard Zinn.  It is from his book Passionate Declarations.  While I usually would not wait to the end of a blog to name a source, I know that there are many that view Zinn as an unreasonable lefty, and I wanted the idea to live on its own terms for a moment.  (I personally think Zinn has a lot to offer people of all political stripes.  Because he is someone that speaks truth to power, there are those that want to label and discredit him.)

I have posted this video and song before, but I think that the Laurie Anderson song Only an Expert deals brilliantly with this same topic.

P.S.  I apologize to those of you that subscribe to this blog for sending an incomplete version of this post to your emails.  It simply was the cause of human error on my part.  I fucked up!  

More Scenes From Touring

If you want a good many laughs, and a view into temporary insanity, I can’t recommend Henry Rollins Get in the Van enough.  Although the early 80’s hardcore scene is far crazier than anything I have ever witnessed, there is something in the dark fatalistic humor of the book that captures touring better than anything I have ever seen or read.  I know I have mentioned it before, but I am thinking about it on my way to Oklahoma city. 

When you tour it is like living in dog years.  Time slows to a crawl.  I am not trying to romanticize touring, quite the opposite.   There may be some that love every moment of it, but to me my passion for music makes it something that I tolerate.  I am not saying that there aren’t great moments, nor am I complaining.  It simply is a mountain that needs to be climbed to reach the golden city of music.  It is mostly my ability to disconnect,  to float away into books and records, that allows me to keep climbing. 

I am an introvert by nature.  Being in a crowd, even if I am having a great time, diminishes my energy instead of restoring it.  I purposely need to retreat into an autistic cave of solitude at times to make it through the day.  (Hat pulled down over eyes and headphones on.)

But lord I love being creative, playing with great musicians, and diving into the world of music.  I can never hear enough of the stuff.  I live with headphones on.  I could play a two hour set and the first thing I want to do after is listen to a record.  I love the world of recorded sound.  I have ever since I was a kid.  While some friends obsessed over sports stats, I was up in my room reading music magazines and listening to albums. 

When some people tell me that I am bold to follow my dreams, I thank them, but I know the truth:  My passion for music borders on obsession, and I have no other choice.  It isn’t much different than an alcoholic slithering over to a bar as soon as it is open.  Reason and courage play no part.  I give into my addiction and follow it down the rabbit hole.