Mother Night

29_blkfuer_1

I’ve been thinking about my gig at the Redneck Country Club which I mentioned in a previous post called A Late Encounter With the Idiot.  Basically if you haven’t read that, or don’t have time to read it, I played a gig at a club owned by conservative talk show host Michael Berry.  It got me thinking the long ways around about Kurt Vonnegut’s extremely powerful Mother Night.  Both the novel and the movie version, unlike most movies of Vonnegut’s work, are worth checking out.  

Mother Night is the story of an American, Howard Campbell Jr., and his role as a Nazi propagandist.  Campbell meets a member of the U.S. War Department before the beginning of World War II and is asked to work as a double agent.  Campbell agrees and as his cover he becomes a radio host that tries to persuade Americans over to the Nazi’s cause.  Campbell’s decision to take on this role slowly cause his life to crumble around him.  

I first found out about Mother Night by catching the movie version, starring Nick Nolte, on TV one night.  I didn’t know what it was, but it was like watching a car crash in slow motion as things descend further and further into despair.  Unlike most Vonnegut works this one has very little humor, aside from some things like the character of The Black Fuhrer. (pictured above)  However, this is a compelling story because it asks many relevant moral questions for our times.  

As one thinks about Glen Beck, Michael Berry, Rush Limbaugh, one cannot help but ask if these people are true believers or if they are at least partially playing a role for whatever reason.  There are many things that make one think that at least Rush is partly playing a role.  However, it matters not.  The moral of Mother Night, which is actually given to the reader in the introduction to the book is:  “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

God is (Not?) Dead

While I was looking through movies to possibly go to tonight I happened to notice a movie with the title God’s Not Dead.  The movie is about a person of faith that has a college professor that asks his class to write God is Dead on the first day of class.  If they will not do this they face a failing grade.  As you can predict the student of faith challenges his professor and apparently this results in a movie that ends in a face off between the person of faith and the college professor.  I haven’t seen the movie so I am not going to criticize it.  Maybe it is even an interesting intellectual debate, but I doubt it.

However, it made me want to convey several ideas.  Let’s say for sake of argument that there is a God.  If he/she is all powerful and created the entire universe does he/she need mere mortals defending him/her?

Also, again if he is all powerful and created everything doesn’t that mean he created humor and insults too?  Can he not laugh at him/herself and take some insults?  Is he/she really going to get their panties in a bunch if I say he/she doesn’t exist?  Is his/her ego so big that they need to constantly be praised all of the time?  Wouldn’t a truly enlightened being much rather see us treat the poor and weak among us kindly, rather than use all of our energy building shrines and praising someone that already has unlimited power?

I think our purpose here on earth is, like Kurt Vonnegut says, “to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”  If there is nothing after this world than we have defiantly been kind in the face of nothing.  I would say that is pretty noble.  If there is a god then hopefully they are a kind enlightened being that will judge us for how kind we have been, and not based upon if we observed a bunch of superstitious rituals.  If he/she isn’t so kind then maybe we will need to help each other in the next world too.

The Rush Hour Rat Race

I often wonder our country is so obsessed with the automobile.  I mean on one hand I get it:  They are part of our myths, our songs, our stories, our movies, etc.  We also have had a very powerful auto-industry, more powerful at certain points than others, that has pumped out an untold amount of money selling us these things. 

I also understand that there is a small portion of the population that happens to be general automobile enthusiasts.  I’m not here to pick on those people today.  Maybe everyone needs their hobby to keep their mind off the oncoming storm of life.  Lord knows I spend a stupid amount of my income on things that are part of my passion.  If you genuinely love cars and love taking them apart, putting them together, or what have you, then have at it.  I’m not talking about someone that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on cars, which in a world of such poverty seems greedy.  I’m talking about people that might have an extra vehicle or two in the backyard that they get some kind of pleasure from.  I know people like this, sometimes of small means, that temporarily escape by day dreaming about cars in one form or another.  Who am I to question such pleasures?  I can easily imagine spending an hour or two looking at expensive guitars, when my $150 dollar bass that I use gets me by just fine. 

However, it seems to me that a large amount of people that buy into our long running fascination with cars for no reason other than it is just part of the status quo.  I wish these people could see the public transportation in Europe or Japan.  It is so efficient, so comfortable, and so much easier than driving.  We don’t even have to get into how much automobiles pollute our world, which is a lot!  Especially if you live in a city you should be all for any politician that wants to increase public transportation.  In Austin, when I was working a day gig, I used to work 12 miles from my home.  This ride in evening rush hour took anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.  No matter how good of a day you had you wanted to drink someone’s blood by the time you got home, or at least I did.  I can only imagine that many people feel similarly when in such a situation.  This is so ridiculously inefficient!  There are thousands of people, in one city no less, sitting in their own vehicles barely moving, getting angry at their fellow travelers, and pumping out pollutants into the air. If you were riding some kind of easily accessible form of public transportation home you could be resting, or reading, or playing games, or getting work done.  And you could be doing any of these things while contributing less to pollution! 

I feel like a lot of people associate the automobile with freedom.  How is it freedom when you are locked in a small barley moving cell for 90 minutes a day?  I just started reading a book by Rebecca Solnit called Landscapes for Politics.  This book talks about how our landscapes influence our society and how we influence our landscapes.  It’s an amazingly fascinating read.  I’m only about two chapters into it and I feel like I have put a book mark on every other page as it is filled with so many interesting ideas.  One idea that was mentioned so far was how cities that have better public spaces and transportation are actually better for democracy.  This is because people aren’t as isolated and can also organize more easily. 

The idea I wish we could really get away from is the idea that what kind of automobile you own defines your identity.  I was recently on tour in Oklahoma and the entire parking lot was filled with pickup trucks. Now I’m sure that some of these people used these trucks for legitimate reasons.  There are people that haul and transport stuff on a regular basis.  But there was clearly something else going on.  These people were clearly on some kind of tribal or clannish trip.  I also remember being in Miami and seeing so many flashy sports cars driving around.  In this country I wish we could get over the idea that you are what you own.  You are not what you own!  You want to be free or you want to be an individual?  You are neither free or an individual if you let some lifestyle marketing tell you what you should drive.  

Anyway, there is so much more that could be said on this topic.  I have been sick with a fever the last few days, which has limited my blogging and possibly made this blog somewhat rambling.  I happened to be at a doctors appointment during rush hour and it took me almost an hour to get home on almost that exact same 12 mile stretch of road I used to travel when I worked.  That is the rat race and there should be so many more people in this country that want to put an end to it. 

 

If any of you know where to find it, Kurt Vonnegut once had a superb bit in one of his books where he told a short science fiction story about automobiles.  He sets it up so that you don’t know that he is talking about automobiles until the very end.  However, he points out how absurd our fascination with this form of transportation is.  If any of you know where to find this story in full, please let me know as I would like to post it.  I have read most of his books and I can’t remember which one it is in.  

The Myth of Rock N Roll and Icarus

I’m diving back into Marah’s catalogue after getting their excellent Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album.  I found a gloriously fun song by Dave and Serge Bielanko, the two brothers that fronted Marah, at least until Serge went on hiatus to raise his daughter.  The song is called Livin’ On the Road.  It’s from a compilation called Camp Black Dog Presents: Rock & Roll Summer Camp ’98

The song is a ridiculous rock n roll tale driven by banjo.  It sounds like it came from somewhere between Ireland and the Louisiana bayou, but its spirit is completely rock n roll.  It features lines such as, “I was a cocaine addict, I did the cocaine a thousand times.”  Another choice line is, “I was a hooker’s lover, an undercover friend of whores.”  In lesser hands, my mind drifts to all the red dirt bands singing about whiskey, these lines might come across as fake rebellion.  But Dave and Serge have such great trashy rock n roll singing voices, and the song is played with such enthusiasm, that one can’t help but feel like defying the laws of decency and nature while listening to it. 

I think most rock n roll myths are pure bullshit.  However, when delivered in the right hands they do serve a purpose.  Most people, at least at one time or another, live lives dealing with some kind oppression.  The defiant rock n roller is like Icarus.  They are flying higher and closer to the sun than should be allowed, defying the gods.  You know that eventually their wings might melt, but they have made it further than most. 

We live in an absurd universe.  I don’t have to tell you that.  Just watch the news, or TV commercials, or politicians, or so many other things.  It’s often easy to feel like there is no sense to things and that the Creator went on vacation somewhere along the line.  Many people are forced to work jobs that they have no passion for, while others have to deal with sicknesses that aren’t their fault.  Fate can be cruel.  However, the rock n roller is like some weird mutant that can fly onward and upward, at least for a little while, in spite of such things.  I think that’s why so many want to believe in the myth of rock n roll, even if much of it is a myth.  To paraphrase the last line of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:  They are lying on their backs, thumbing their nose at You Know Who.  

Media Diet and Rambling Thoughts

Huffington Post is still promoting the missing plane mystery as their headline.  How many days will this go on?!!!  I bet the cable news is having a field day with that too, though I don’t know for certain, as I don’t watch that shit!

I’ve been going on a media diet in recent years.  I cut out cable TV and I cut out radio.  These are two outdated forms that offer little if any value to one’s life.  When I listen or watch one of these formats I almost start believing my conspiracy theory friends that the media is manipulating us to make us dumber.  Songs riddled with clichés and Ken and Barbie dolls reading Teleprompters are running ramped over a demoralized public.

Did you see the singer form Hootie and the Blowfish has a country career now?  Who buys that stuff?  Who bought his Blowfish albums?  Kevin Russell calls this stuff golf rock.  Did anyone notice how metrosexual a lot of the male country stars are now?  I find that funny as their base is partially composed of redneck males who think they are tougher than the rest and are often homophobic.

I wish Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin were still alive.  They were of the rarified few that knew how to expose the great contradictions in our society.  This is an absurd country in many ways.  Our comedians have become our truth tellers and our newscasters have become our mindless entertainers.  Remember in a capitalist democracy we vote with our dollar a good deal of the time.  Support those things that bring value to your life and cut out on the fat!

State of the Union and Hunter Thompson’s Disease

I watched the State of the Union speech and some of the coverage surrounding it tonight.  My mind kept ping ponging back and forth between taking it seriously and feeling that it was all some large piece of absurd theater.   I watched it on the ABC live stream.  That was probably my first mistake as that put me in a dark mood as the talking heads there pumped out gibberish of the highest order.  A couple of semi intelligent Americans picked at random could have provided better insight into the speech.  They spoke in large swaths of meaningless language, clearly trying to hide the fact that they didn’t know any more than the viewers did.  That was just before the speech.  After the speech they provided all important facts like how many times people applauded and laughed.  During the speech they had some kind of side scroll that highlighted what the president was talking about and what he would be talking about as if we couldn’t hear him.  It was like some kind of bizarre game show.  There is a reason that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert never run out of material when it comes to the news media. 

Ok, I could easily drift off into a small book of things that drive me nuts about such events.  In any State of the Union Speech by any president there is always going to be a certain amount of clichéd passages that are meant to reassure the hoopleheads in the crowd: God bless America, children are our future, etc.  Obama also glided over several things that would have been sticky had they been dealt with in any truthful way: Our current drone policy being number one.  He said that he was going to reform it, but that in no way acknowledges what evil has been done in our names because of the current policy, and exactly how it he was going to reform it. 

Maybe it was reading about Pete Seeger earlier, but tonight I don’t want to just spread negativity throughout the land.  I was extremely happy that he made such a strong stand that climate change is a settled fact.  I mean that should be obvious to most people at this point, but there has been such a large disinformation campaign that I was glad he said what he did.  I was also happy to hear the President say that this country needed to stop being involved in continuous warfare.  That is easier said than done, and it remains to be seen what he is going to do about that, but again it is important that he acknowledged the fact that we have been.  I am glad that he is willing to use executive order to raise the minimum wage.  I have lived on ten dollars an hour and it is hard to survive, I can’t imagine trying to live in this country making less than that.  The current economic inequality is one of this countries biggest shames.  It’s easy to see it as a smart political move, but I was happy to hear him come out strongly in favor of women getting equal pay for equal work.  How a society treats their women is a sign of how good of a society it is.  Those were just a couple of the highpoints in the speech for me. 

Even though I can often be completely cynical about our politics at times I still often have what Kurt Vonnegut called Hunter Thompson’s disease.  That is that, “All those who feel Americans can be as easily led to beauty as to ugliness, to truth as to public relations, to joy as to bitterness, be said to be suffering from Hunter Thompson’s disease.”  I still have hope for the future of this country as much as certain signs point towards our decline.  If I criticize it often it is only because I still have hope that it can get better. When hope is gone I will simply cease to write anything at all.  

The Money River

I was talking to Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell today about 3D printing before our gig.  He was telling me about a guy that started a Kickstarter campaign to build the first $100 3D printer.  Sure enough it’s true.  Ryan Grayston from Saskatchewan has already raised, just in the last article I read, $365,000 to make this dream a reality.  He’s not quite there yet, but he’s close.

We’ve already seen in the news that people have made guns on 3D printers.  I also just saw an article that says sex toys are going to be a booming industry on the 3D printer.  So you could print a firearm and a dildo.  Or, as my brother just commented, you could build a dildo that is also a firearm.  It’s good to know the human race is making progress.

Not to sound like a luddite, but how many jobs is this invention going to kill?  How many manufacturers are going to go out of business when people can just print an item they need in their own home?  Luckily most things are made in China now anyhow, so we’re sure showing them!  Apple and Amazon are killing the record stores and book stores, Redbox killed the video store, and on and on.  Now we have this thing.

I advise you to read Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.  In that book he talks about technology killing jobs.  He also talks about how some people get to drink from the money river and some don’t.  Looks like a lot less people are going to get to drink from the money river.  I try to be hopeful, I really do.

THE MONEYRIVER:

“Life is hard enough, without people having to worry themselves sick about money, too. There’s plenty for everybody in this country, if we’ll only share more.”
“And just what do you think that would do to incentive?
“You mean fright about not getting enough to eat, about not being able to pay the doctor, about not being able to give your family nice clothes, a safe, cheerful, comfortable place to live, a decent education, and a few good times? You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?”
“The 
what?
“The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it—and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from the mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons so we can slurp more efficiently.”
“Slurping lessons?”
“From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers’ men! We’re born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply by using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping.”
“I wasn’t aware that I slurped.”

 - From Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

Strange Success and Epic Failure

The last blog that I wrote, Where Does the Time Go?, wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t Joel Stein or Rob Sheffield bad, but it was headed in that direction.  It was a little too cute.  I meant well, but I failed.

In the past two weeks I’ve put up 90 something posts.  There are bound to be some duds along the way.  It’s just sheer numbers working against me.  As a working musician I know all about mistakes, embarrassment, and epic failures.  The only thing that separates the professional from the amateur is that we keep going.  A mistake is a mere speed bump.  To the amateur a mistake is a train wreck.  I remember one Christmas show where Shinyribs played The 12 Days of Christmas.  Kev, Winfield, and myself were all playing different chords at the same time!   Enthusiasm thankfully won out the day.

Luckily there weren’t many people in the venue last night when I got there for sound check.  I tried to jump on stage, and my foot caught the edge, and I just about did a face plant.  These things happen folks.  I remember one time on my birthday I put my foot on a monitor, there may or may not have been many drinks involved, and I fell straight out into the crowd.  I kept playing though.  I wasn’t a working musician yet, but it showed that I had the ability to one day become one.

I gave my first big speech in years this year.  I am going to school for Environmental Science and Policy.  I gave a speech in Costa Rica at an Environmental conference.  I was easily the least qualified person there concerning credentials.  Other than one five minute speech in college last year I haven’t had to give a speech in 10 years.  The speech was a success.  However, it’s something I wouldn’t have even done if I had not had people to encourage me.   If I had anything going for me personally it was just that I have read a good amount, I practiced a lot, and I have spent a lot of time on stage learning how other people watch you.  But had my girlfriend not been there to help me with the stuff that I didn’t know, and if my dad hadn’t encouraged me, I might not have done it.

Most people don’t notice the mistakes that you make in any kind of performance.  If they do, a mistake is a passing thing.  It’s transient.  It’s there one minute and then gone the next.  If you are performing in front of other people that are also performing or giving speeches, they are so worried about their own speech or performance that they are probably only half paying attention to you anyway.

I really feel like the most important thing is just not being afraid to walk through a door.  If you just try, you might find yourself in some strange new place doing something you have never done before.  You will fail on occasion, but that will just be a passing thing.

Every time I talk to someone that is successful at something or other, they have some elaborate story about all of the right moves they made.  I think most of the time this is historical revisionism of their life story.  Kurt Vonnegut always uses the line from a Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always depended on the kindness of others.”  I think most people are being disingenuous if they claim that they did it all on their own.   The only thing they did was walk through the door.

Here is the thing.  There is no such thing as magic and there are very few geniuses.  You will sooner find a lottery winner than you will a true genius.  Most people that are successful are like the Wizard of Oz.  They are putting on an elaborate show to trick you into thinking that they are something other than what they are; another human just like you.

What’s Shaking On the Hill

There is probably nothing harder than writing about music, except writing about your own music.  Music is primarily an abstract emotional art.  Other than lyrics music is something that is supposed to make you feel, not think.  Words often fail.  Music is often something that takes the place of words.  Even when you have something more concrete, like a story song, the music, and that abstract emotion, is on equal footing with the words.

I have tried and failed more times than not to tell people what the band No Show Ponies sounds like.  Part of this is the trouble of change.  Our first album, The End of Feel Good Music, was mostly an Americana affair.  This is due largely to the part that we had grown bored with electric guitars at the time and when we first moved to Austin we brought in all of the players that we knew, that tended to lean towards this genre.  This was not a natural fit for us as my brother Ben, who is my copartner in NSP, and I listen to Americana about as often as there is a full moon; maybe less.  Sometimes art just turns out the way the gods intended, and you don’t’ have as much control as you would often like.  Everyone that worked on the album did great stuff.  I still believe in that album as a collection of songs.  I’m not trying to queer my own hustle.  All I’m trying to lay down is that the music on that record doesn’t fit our natural inclinations.

The record that is done in all but title, that we are releasing this fall, is more representative of us and our influences.  It’s a combination of our artier pretensions and at the same time our love for big classic rock n roll.  It may sound strange to say that it is one part Joy Division and one part Van Halen.  It is one part Public Image Lmtd. and one part Thin Lizzy.  It is the Replacements and My Bloody Valentine, it is the Police and Thomas Mapfumo, it is Fleetwood Mac and it is the Smiths.  I know what went into the pot.  Those are just a few of the things we were stirring together.  Lyrically it was influenced by the darker humor of Lou Reed and Morrissey and Leonard Cohen.  But it was also influenced lyrically by Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and a whole host of other artists and thinkers that have nothing to do with the music business.  To me the album is a rock n roll album in the classic sense.  Most rock bands of the 60’s mixed together a highly eclectic set of influences to come up with their sound.  Someone like Pete Townshend was an intellectual and a primitive.

You may get some of that or none of that when you hear it.  That’s fine.  We just hope that you get something out of it.  That it sounds good cranked up in your car.  We hope that it also sounds good on your headphones when you are alone and want to dive in deeper.

We recorded live to tape with minimal fixing and overdubs.  It’s raw and unpolished, but it’s true.  We redid the vocals, but we even sang into the same microphone at the same time to get it as live as possible.  It’s the sound of a band that can play their asses off all in the same room together.  It’s unhinged energy.

They say when you are slinging your own shit to come up with a catchy term to sell it to people.  I’ve never been able to do that.  I’d say it’s rock n roll, and it is, but that term has lost value as it’s been tied to everything under the sun that features guitars and isn’t country, blues, or jazz.

So again I’ve failed to explain exactly what it is that we do.  That is often death in a marketing sense.  But I believe in this record a hundred percent.  I hope that some of you will too.  Maybe as it gets closer to being released I’ll get some kind of divine intervention and come up with the perfect term or phrase to give this thing wings.

If you are curious about what it is we do, and happen to live in the great city of Austin, Texas, we’ll be playing live at the Continental Club this Friday.  We start at 10pm sharp.  Come out and see what’s shaking on the hill.  Make up your own mind.  As a listener that’s what you should be doing anyway.