Saturday, October 25, 2008

On Time...

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.” - John Archibald Wheeler

I have been fascinated by time for as long as I can remember. As with a variety of subjects, I collect quotations about time. These are three favorites:

"The flower that you hold in your hands was born today and already it is as old as you are." ~ Antonio Porchia

"Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side." ~ The Talmud

"Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations." ~ Faith Baldwin

I started to notice a problem with time when I noticed odd things happening to the children of our friends. Someone we knew would have a daughter, a month later she'd start school; we'd be told how well she did on her SATs, she was majoring in history with a minor in Chinese. By the time we spoke again we found that she made partner in a good law firm and just had her second child.

Meanwhile, in our reality, it was still October.

This hyper accelerated time we find ourselves in has fascinated me since I realized that it was summer when I woke up, drank some coffee, fooled around on the computer, then had to put on pants because suddenly the leaves had turned and it was fall. I went through various stages; anger, confusion, denial, more confusion, a bit more anger, confused denial, etc.

"Why won't they let a year die without bringing in a new one on the instant, can't they use birth control on time? I want an interregnum. The stupid years patter on with unrelenting feet, never stopping - rising to little monotonous peaks in our imaginations at festivals like New Year's and Easter and Christmas - But, goodness, why need they do it?" ~ John Dos Passos, 1917

"How long a minute is, depends on which side of the bathroom door you're on." ~ Zall's Second Law

"The time you think you're missing, misses you too." ~ Ymber Delecto

No one understands where the sudden flash of insight or inspiration comes from. A famous composer teaching a master class at a music school in Austria was asked by a student, "Maestro, in your third symphony, in the second movement, there is a theme that suddenly appears that may be the single most beautiful thing I've ever heard. How did you come to write that?"

The old man replied, "I remember, I was working in my office. It was a lovely spring day and, at noon I decided to take my lunch by the river. I found a spot along the bank, sat down, and unwrapped my sandwich. It was liverwurst on dark bread; I noticed that there was a stain on the wax paper in the shape of a dog. Some birds flew by overhead in the blue sky. I heard some children playing behind me. And then suddenly, the damn thing just popped into my head!"

"Let not the sands of time get in your lunch." ~ Author Unknown

This morning I was pouring my coffee. I was thinking I would make a cheese omelet. I heard my wife in the other room laughing at the dogs. I put the cup down on the counter and suddenly a theory popped into my head.

My wife came into the kitchen.

"I think I may have just figured out the reason time has been moving SOOOO fast," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

"I believe that the universe itself just can't wait for Bush to be gone."

She paused for a moment. "Makes sense to me," she said. "Good job."

"Thanks," I said, and drank my coffee.

I think it will be wonderful when things begin to move at normal speed again. A child's 6th birthday will come a year after her 5th, instead of a half hour after her 3rd. John Cage's "4'33" will last for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. But it will still feel longer.

There's nothing we can do about that one.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

R.I.P. Levi Stubbs

Front cover of their 1967 LP Reach Out

Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs, who possessed one of the most dynamic and emotive voices of all the Motown singers, died in his sleep today at the Detroit house he shared with his wife. He was 72.

With Stubbs in the lead, the Four Tops sold millions of records, including such hits as "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.)"

The group performed for more than four decades without a single change in personnel. Stubbs' death leaves one surviving member of the original group: Abdul "Duke" Fakir.

Stubbs "fits right up there with all the icons of Motown," said Audley Smith, chief operating officer of the Motown Historical Museum. "His voice was as unique as Marvin's or as Smokey's or as Stevie's."

In the summer of 1967 I was 13, about to turn 14. I was growing up in Philadelphia, 3,000 miles from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. That summer for me was the Summer of Motown. And above all other voices, the voice of Levi Stubbs stands out in my memory as the lead singer in the soundtrack of our lives.

It's funny, but the one song I can't find a video of on Youtube is perhaps their best, "Bernadette."

One song I did find however is Billy Bragg's brilliant "Levi Stubbs' Tears."

With the money from her accident
She bought herself a mobile home
So at least she could get some enjoyment
Out of being alone
No one could say that she was left up on the shelf
"It's you and me against the world kid" she mumbled to herself

When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face

She ran away from home on her mother's best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort a war takes away
And when there wasn't a war he left anyway

Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that's wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you

One dark night he came home from the sea
And put a hole in her body where no hole should be
It hurt her more to see him walking out the door
And though they stitched her back together they left her heart in pieces on the floor

When the world falls apart some things stay in place
She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears...

At the 60's soul music blog, The In Crowd, there is a download link for the compilation album The Four Tops: The Ultimate Collection, and this description:

"The Ultimate Collection series was a rare success from Motown, one of the first of the label's many compilation series to do justice to some of the finest performers, arrangers, and musicians of the soul era. Nearly every artist with an entry was given the luxury treatment, with a disc-filling running time, excellent compilation decisions, and a pleasing design scheme that reflected the artists in their prime. The Four Tops' entry is arguably the best in the series, since the 25 tracks prove the perfect length to summarize the group's decade at Motown. From 1963 to 1972, the group reached the R&B charts 28 times."

Here's the download link. Enjoy, and rest in peace Levi.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ode to Sean Hannity

In light of the death of Hannity's career, John Cleese has written a poem:

Ode to Sean Hannity

by John Cleese

Aping urbanity
Oozing with vanity
Plump as a manatee
Faking humanity
Journalistic calamity
Intellectual inanity
Fox Noise insanity
You’re a profanity

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Guitars redux... The Art of the Inlay

"In its simplest definition, inlay is the decorative process of gluing shell, metal, stone, tusk, and other materials into a cavity hollowed from a surface. It is an ancient practice; the earliest known inlaid object is from Mesopotamia, around 3000 B.C. In recent centuries, artists have applied inlay to musical instruments, adding visual aesthetics that match or augment their musical capacities. The result is the creation of extremely rare and original instruments that transcend their function and become art themselves."

Until recently everyone agreed that the pinnacle for acoustic instruments and decorative inlay, carving and engraving had been the period of 1920-1940. This was the time of the most elaborate guitar and banjo craftsmanship. But recently there has been a renaissance in acoustic instrument making and in the decorative arts that has surpassed that earlier period. We are living at a time when the work that is being done is better than ever. It makes me sad that I won't be around to play some of these instruments in fifty years and hear how they've matured with age.

I've always loved pearl inlay on guitars. The first time I toured the Martin Guitar factory in the mid 1970s and learned that the difference between a model D-28 and D-45 - both rosewood dreadnaught guitars - was in the number of "man hours" involved in adding the pearl around the edges of the body and on the fingerboard and head stock. I also learned that the inlay artists at Martin at that time responsible for those man hours were two women.

Today there is some basic agreement that the best decorative and inlay work is bring done by a small number of artists whose instruments are as prized as any but the rarest vintage guitars and banjos.

When she was inducted into the Four String Banjo Hall Of Fame in 2005, her official bio read:

"By virtually every benchmark, banjos manufactured during the 1920s by major manufacturers such as Vega, Bacon & Day, Paramount, Gibson and Epiphone are believed to have reached a level of design and craftsmanship which is seldom equaled and rarely exceeded in today's musical marketplace. However, on occasion, a contemporary banjo maker emerges who embodies both the vision and skills necessary to rival the priceless instruments of the past in both form and function. Renée Karnes is such an artist.

In 1997 she built a banjo named "the Maritime" that was the most inlayed banjo Renée had done to date, spending approximately 525 hours on the inlay work. A photo of it can be seen here.

A short video of Renée's work (and it is jaw-dropping) can be seen here. Below are a few images of her work:

Larry Robinson began using his father's hand tools at the age of six and was making furniture with power tools by the age of eleven. Even this doesn't explain the incredible artistry he's produced in his career as an inlay artist. The image at the top of this post is Robinson working on the back inlays of the Martin #1,000,000 guitar. Details are here.

Intricate guitar fingerboards have always appealed to me. Looking at the set below, representative of Robinson's work, almost makes me weep. Click on the photo to enlarge it:

The Nouveau theme in thin ivory, kingwood hair, gold dust and silver framing in detail:

Inlaid on maple, this Chinese warrior is incredibly complex. It was used on the headstock by a Chinese guitar company:

Of all his projects, the Nouveau guitar (not related to the fingerboard above) created for no particular person in mind, may represent the absolute peak of Robinson's abilities. Click here for a set of photos and information; make sure you're sitting down.

Why I describe my inlay work as art: A traditional approach to instrument inlay, even when it is complex, typically serves only a decorative can be beautiful and appealing, but it doesn’t fully “engage” a viewer. To me, when a creative act becomes art, when one is fully engaged by it, that is when it communicates successfully. In order to communicate it must have something to say. I endeavor to use the medium as a vehicle to communicate convey at minimum a mood or feeling, at best an actual story, which gives me the ultimate satisfaction. - William "Grit" Laskin

Laskin's abilities are unique. He is able to produce almost photorealistic inlays, and he is best known for what guitar makers call "breaking the nut" meaning that an inlay design that begins on the instrument's headstock continues past the headstock and down onto the fingerboard. If you click on this, you'll thank me.

"I think in the guitar world there is a new market that is developing where some of the work of the great modern day inlayers will be looked at as collectable art that just happens to have a guitar for canvas. I see where some of the crazy prices that paintings and sculptures command will be paid for guitars. I think people will see Inlaid musical instruments in the same light and use them as accent pieces in decorating. Musical instrument Inlay is still pure right now; there is good money in it but not crazy money. The people who are really setting the standard are doing it because they love it. If we ever get crazy money I'm not sure that will always be true." - Harvey Leach

This warrior inlay took 25 hours of work and is made up of a large number of individually cut pieces of mother of pearl and different colored hard woods. It is a good example of the detail Leach achieves in his inlays.

On Leach's "Jurassic Guitar" the theme was "age." The tuner buttons are 65,000,000 year old Baltic Amber, the inlays are 15,000,000 year old gold (deposits), The nut, saddle and scrimshaw background are 15,000 year old Mammoth Ivory, the truss rod cover is a 150 year old Chinese game piece and the back and sides are 50 year old Brazilian Rosewood.

Harvey Leach's most elaborate design work can be seen in detail at his web site.