Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Politics....

I always loved Walter Benjamin's idea of writing a book comprised entirely of quotations.

"Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason." ~Author Unknown

"Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against." ~ W.C. Fields

"We live in a world in which politics has replaced philosophy." ~Martin L. Gross

"There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle." ~Alexis de Tocqueville

"We'd all like to vote for the best man, but he's never a candidate." ~Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard

"All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field." ~Albert Einstein

"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right." ~H.L. Mencken

"What is conservatism? Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?"~Abraham Lincoln

"I think it's about time we voted for senators with breasts. After all, we've been voting for boobs long enough." ~Clarie Sargent, Arizona senatorial candidate

"A liberal is a man or a woman or a child who looks forward to a better day, a more tranquil night, and a bright, infinite future." ~Leonard Bernstein

"Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." ~Plato

"Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where they is no river." ~Nikita Khrushchev

"Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear." ~William E. Gladstone

"George Washington is the only president who didn't blame the previous administration for his troubles." ~Author Unknown

"An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry." ~T.S. Eliot

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy." ~Ernest Benn

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." ~John Kenneth Galbraith

"A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward." ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

"Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel." ~John Quinton

"A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they're dead." ~Leo Rosten

"Their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don't know what they are conserving." ~Robertson Davies

"Liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are so painfully aware of the alternative." ~John Kenneth Galbraith

"The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning." ~Adlai E. Stevenson

"He didn't say that. He was reading what was given to him in a speech." ~Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, explaining why President Bush wasn't following up on his campaign pledge that there would be no loss of wetlands

"When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I'm beginning to believe it." ~Clarence Darrow

"The best thing about this group of candidates is that only one of them can win." ~Will Rogers

"In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." ~H.L. Mencken

"A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country." ~Texas Guinan

"If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal." ~Emma Goldman

"How come we choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?" ~Author Unknown

"Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives." ~John Stuart Mill

Monday, May 26, 2008

On Rare Records, Collecting, and Collectors

"Everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical." - Walter Benjamin

I wanted to look at what has been said about collecting and collectors and found that, for something that occupies the time of a significant number of people, not much has really been written. Even more, a look at the popular literature as a whole reveals that, while there are hundreds of books on collectables, there is a similar lack of attention paid to collectors and collecting. I believe this is so because only someone who collects finds the impulse to collect interesting (rather than annoying or pathetic) and collectors are, well, too busy collecting to bother with occasional moments of reflection. Among the things that will be found however, is the essay "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting" by German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin.

Unpacking Benjamin

Unlike most work associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, Benjamin's essay on book collecting is a very brief and very personal reflection on (although he does not use the phrase) the collector's consciousness. It represents so perfect a starting place that I want to begin by unpacking Benjamin; to root around for the things that are there (and the things that are not there) in order to fashion a foundation for a parallel conversation.

We start in a room in disarray, the air rich with the smell of old cardboard, and a mood "certainly not elegiac but, rather, one of anticipation - which these books arouse in a genuine collector" (p. 59). Benjamin invites us to join him amid "the disorder of crates", the "books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order" (p. 59). Could anyone familiar with the reference read the opening passage of Benjamin and not recall Rob Fleming, protagonist in Nick Hornsby's 1995 novel High Fidelity, unpacking his library?

Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend an evening, but I'm not one of them. This is my life, and it's nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it. (Hornsby, p.54)

Sitting in my music room listening to an old album from my own collection, I will sometimes stick my nose inside an old cardboard sleeve and inhale deeply. Olfactory memories are powerful and I've found the best used record stores are always in basements. On the way down the stairs, somewhere between the third and fourth step, the possibilities below rise up and announce themselves in the musty smell of a room filled with old cardboard.

But I digress.

What is important here is that Benjamin's interest is not to provide a list of the rare editions he owns. Rather than talk about individual jewels in his collection, or their histories, or their usefulness to a writer, Benjamin has something more palpable in mind; "what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection" (pp. 59-60).

"There is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder" (p. 60). Entropy is surely among nature's more powerful forces and my own music room is in a constant state of disintegration strung out between what have become annual attempts to reorganize and tidy things up. When guests in my room make reference to some particular album I have always taken a secret pleasure in my ability to, amid piles of CDs set out for review, piles of recent acquisitions set aside to be played, piles of vinyl awaiting inclusion in a catalog, and more piles of things pulled and not yet re-filed, reach into some stack on the desk or by the bookcase and retrieve the request as if by magic, garnering a more enjoyable response than if I'd produced three live doves from my pants. I know that my occasional attempts at organization are most often initiated by the loss of this fragile tension; a sudden inability to find specific things without hours of effort.

Early on Benjamin approaches the crux of the matter. The collector's existence is tied to "...a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage of their fate" (p.60).

Just as a 12th edition paperback offers the same prose as a coveted first edition, the utilitarian value of a musical recording is captured perfectly well in a compact disc reissue of a record that may be exceedingly rare in its original vinyl form. Debates over digital-versus-analog sound aside, it is clearly not the functional, utilitarian value that dominates the relationship between the collector (of books, records, furniture, etc.) and the object. Benjamin explains that,

The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership - for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. (p. 60)

"Magic" and "truth" and "fate" oh my! What can cultural studies do in the face of such language? What can be done if indeed "magic" "truth" and "fate," central to human experience, are also central to the experience off the collector? Benjamin writes, "One only has to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired" (p. 61).

Most of the collectors I've spoken with share the experience of rescuing old records from the trash heaps of junk shops. The pleasures of this simple encounter are so thick and rich as to defy categorization, but let me try: I once sorted through 5,000 or more records stacked flat in six-foot piles at the back of a Good Will thrift store for the better part of three hours one afternoon, determined to look through every record. Nothing but the most banal array of Christmas, religious, easy listening and related records (and I search for the better titles in each of those categories) most out of the jackets and unplayable. At the bottom of the very last pile, second from the bottom so that it was not touching the rough cement floor, was a near perfect copy of the 1967 original UK pink Island label mono pressing of the band Traffic's first album, Mr. Fantasy.

The swirl of thoughts/feelings that I experienced belonged to me, to Benjamin, and to anyone who has ever felt the child-like fascination and pull of an object. In short: I felt the reward of the day laborer flush with the knowledge that, in this condition, the album had a value of about $125. I always have to wonder; how did this come to be here? What convoluted journey did it take from its manufacture somewhere outside of London in 1968; its shipment to some long defunct record shop via some long gone distributor; its purchase by some kid whose hair was just starting to "get good in the back", etc. Perhaps it was bought by some American visiting London; or made it to these shores in a container load full of the possessions of some emigrating British family. Perhaps it was taken in a box of old records to a donation center after the arrival of CD technology.

Regardless, my point is simply that the collector is never alone in the back of the thrift store, rather, he is in a dark room crowded with friendly ghosts. The ghosts are the imagined past owners of this individual copy, but also the ghosts of the younger selves of the band members; the ghost of a 15 year-old Stevie Winwood shouting the vocal on "Gimme Some Lovin'", the ghost image of Dave Mason's post-Traffic solo LP pressed on marbled vinyl (and the ghosts of all the novice collectors who believe it to be a bigger deal than it really is), the ghosts of all Jim Capaldi's solo records (thrift store and cut-out bin staples that all miss the mark), the ghosts of Carnaby Street and the Summer of Love, the ghosts of the thin guys with long hair in fringed leather jackets who sold the best blotter l.s.d. a few blocks from the corner of Cottman and Castor avenues in Philadelphia in 1969...

But I digress.

There is a CD reissue of this album that offers both stereo and mono US and UK versions with crystalline re-mastered sound and good bonus tracks. I own it and it's usually what I play when I want to hear the record, but it is nowhere near as interesting or pleasurable a thing; the CD comes with a nice booklet but does not come with the magical baggage of history tethered to the original object. How do these pleasures contrast with Benjamin's?

I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age . . . . To renew the old world - that is the collector's deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things, and that is why a collector of older books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting than the acquirer of luxury editions. (p. 61)

It is, to borrow Barthes' well-turned phrase, the pleasures of the text the collector seeks to embrace and, for the record collector, as odd as it may at first appear, the music is not primary in that inventory. No, that's not entirely correct; the music physically contained inside the grooves of the original object may not be of any particular importance. Record collectors will often own reissue LPs or CDs of the favorite rare records in their collections. They will say something about "wearing out the grooves" on the original but, as anyone who has played clean original records that are more than half a century old can attest - vinyl isn't "wearing out" anytime soon. I know myself that years have passed between plays on many to most of my rare originals but I regularly pull many of these same LPs out of their crates and hold them, turn them over in my hands.

Even more to the point, inside the record collector market it is the never opened still-sealed original copy that commands the greatest value and provokes the greatest interest. In late 2000, one Los Angeles rare record auction house sold a still-sealed stereo Beatles "Butcher" cover LP for $38,500. I owned a copy of the mono version in less than perfect shape that I happily parted with for $200. In neither case will the actual record inside the jacket ever be played again.

For the collector, the pleasures are in the object, not the music.

While there may not be a direct counterpart in book collecting to the unplayed record, Benjamin's comments regarding the unread book are strikingly apropos.

And the nonreading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, "And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?" "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sevres china every day?" Incidentally, I have put the right to such an attitude to the test. For years, for at least the first third of its existence, my library consisted of no more than two or three shelves which increased only by inches each year. This was the militant age, when no book was allowed to enter it without the certification that I had not read it. (p. 62)

The collector's passion for collecting is the expression of a love affair with the innumerable pleasures both on the surface and impossibly deep within the object. To employ Barthes again, it is the joissance, the bliss of co-authorship/concomitant creation, that rests at the very center of the intersection of collector and object.

Among the rarest and most valued of 1960s British private-press psychedelic records is the 1969 LP The Love Cycle by Forever Amber. I owned one of the few known original copies for a few years and my relationship with it may help illuminate some of the complexities involved. The copy was battered and worn; one of the corners of the sleeve had been cut off at some point, the cover's seams were split from wear, the disc had many scratches and scuffs but still played through without too much distraction. The album is comprised of almost twenty short tracks that sound like a blend of Pet Sounds era Beach Boys and Odessey and Oracle era Zombies. There are more memorable musical hooks per inch on the album than any other record I've heard. I also had copies of an Austrian bootleg reissue LP version and US reissue LP version, as well as a copy of the UK CD reissue. My copy came to me from a wealthy stock broker/record collector in Madrid who had upgraded to a mint copy. Actually, the copy he'd won at auction for $6,000 was the copy that belonged to noted UK collector, Greg Van Dyke, and the copy that had been used as the source for the compact disc reissue.

99 copies of Forever Amber were pressed in 1969. In 1993 in an article published in the UK magazine Record Collector, British dealer and owner of the 10th Planet record label, David Wells, wrote that "If Forever Amber had been issued on a major label by one of the better known bands of the late-1960s it would be remembered as one of the best albums of that era. That it was recorded by a few high school students from the north of England who were never heard from again makes it an accomplishment of stunning proportion."

It is now 2008 and when I sit and listen to the CD reissue of Forever Amber I have a very clear memory of the battered original copy that had spent a few years in the same room I sit in as I write these words. I relive the considerable excitement I felt during the telephone conversation in which it unexpectedly became possible that I might have a chance to own this record that fell into the small category of records so rare that I have assumed that a copy will never come my way. I remember the friend in Ohio who found a very rare US LP, Creation of Sunlight, for next to nothing at a thrift store and traded it to me for a $200 record that I'd acquired in a trade that cost me about $2 and that that copy of Creation of Sunlight became the centerpiece in the trade of $1,200 worth of records I sent to Miguel in Spain for his old copy of Forever Amber. I remember when the LP arrived, sent by registered post and packed in a box inside a box. I remember the odd texture to the cardboard sleeve, the wide flaps on the back (common to 1960s UK album sleeves), and the almost silk-screened look to the board-printed art work. I remember being particularly taken by the labels - the one part of the album that I had never seen before having already seen the cover reproduced and heard the music - which had a certain character to the graphics, the fonts, colors, etc., that seemed quintessentially 1960's (or perhaps seemed like some artifact of a distant past civilization).

In my small music room I may be swimming in more pleasures than I can count.

The pleasure of possessing this object that less than a dozen collectors have ever seen before. The pleasures of avarice - knowing that this was a $2,000 object that I managed to acquire for an actual cash investment of $20 (but more than simple avarice, also the pleasure of having played the "collecting game" - the object of which is to acquire the object for a small fraction of its actual value - extremely well this time). The pleasure of now adding to my own personal knowledge base (and for collectors knowledge = power = pleasure) small details about the object's construction that only could be attained by a close personal inspection; the pleasure of some future conversation "Yes, that's a great record. Have you ever seen a real one? No? Well, the labels in particular are...." The pleasure of association, i.e., this copy being the copy that was the copy owned by Miguel de Miguel who now owns the mint one that was owned by Greg Van Dyke and was used to do the reissue CD (whew). The pleasure of being able to compare the sound of the original against that of the LP and CD reissues (and the pleasures of those future conversations, "No, the CD sounds exactly the same; I did a back-to-back comparison with a real one"). And the pleasure of adding that to my capital as expert, a reputation directly connected to my success in making part of my living selling rare records - and the expectant pleasures of the next trip to Paris made possible by all of this (in fact, when I listen to the record today I recall the first day of a short stay in Deurne, a suburb of Antwerp, at the home of a rare record dealer, out of whose LP collection I pulled the very same copy of Forever Amber that I'd owned a couple of years before.

Lastly, the myriad pleasures of the object-as-time-machine; the pleasures of being transported back to 1969 and the corresponding pleasures of not just this one record but of all records from that period. And recall that "for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object" (p. 60). What record collector has not used his obsession as a map overlaid upon every new city and town he visits? I first studied the London tube as a means to visit the shop of the "Two Bills" on Blenhiem Crescent right off Portabello Road on the city's west end. I have approached the arrondisments of Paris, the canals of Amsterdam, the Boulevards of Chicago, the avenues of Dayton and the streets of San Francisco as exercises in tactics; each in a hunt for flea markets, junk shops and used record stores and find a resonance in Benjamin, writing some sixty years before:

The purchasing done by a book collector has very little in common with that done in a bookshop by a student getting a textbook, a man of the world buying a present for his lady, or a businessman intending to while away his next train journey. I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books! (pp. 62-63)


Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there were houses that only had one television set, all the pictures were in shades of gray and people had to go to the set in order to select from three or four channels. The families in these houses would gather to watch the pale gray images together; all in one room at the very same time. When I was 10 years old I sat with my family in front of the TV set on a Sunday evening and watched a odd parade of hand puppets, jugglers, dinner plate spinners all leading up to four boys from England who played music that changed the world forever.

Within a year of that evening I was at a friend's house who showed me some small records with colorful sleeves and all of a sudden I felt bad that he had these things and I did not. I liked him, he was my best friend at the time, but I left his house with a strange feeling that I needed to go and find things that he didn't have so that when I showed them to him he would feel like I felt when he'd showed these to me. My earliest forays into record collecting began with the British invasion and my first career as a pre-teen shoplifter of albums I could not afford from the music department of a long-defunct S. Klein Department Store in Northeast Philadelphia. My first job as a disc jockey was taken so that I might have access to the record library and, when no one was looking, give a good home to hundreds of never-played, abandoned and unwanted records. My #1 avoidance behavior while finishing my doctoral dissertation was the relentless rearranging of my record collection.

Over the years I have grown into my obsession in a unique way, as a wearer of many hats. I have been a record collector, a music critic, a "recovering academic", a mail-order record dealer, a wholesale music distributor, a recording artist, a record producer and a record company president. In the past twenty years I have spent a lot of time (and a lot of money) exploring the world of rare psychedelic record collecting. It was record collecting that sent me on my first of many trips to Europe and, on a month-long journey through England, France, Belgium and The Netherlands, I would come to know London, Bath, Paris, Normandy, Antwerp, Utrecht and Amsterdam in the company of my similarly-afflicted European counterparts.

Through these journeys and countless late-night-into-the-morning show and tell reveries in apartments overlooking the San Francisco Bay, upper-west side New York brownstones, the back rooms of London record shops, all-night Parisian cafes, back-alley Belgian bars and the coffee-shops of Amsterdam I have listened to thousands of stories, asked millions of questions, all concerned with the pleasures of collecting and the secrets hidden deep within the objects of our shared obsession. I have observed, both in myself and others, various stages that record collectors pass through as they and their collections grow. We all begin with an overwhelming desire to know and to possess everything.

Years ago, my best friend saw that I had seven copies of Freak Out, the first album by The Mothers of Invention. "Wow, I really like this record, can I have one?" He asked. I tried to change the subject. "I don't mean give it to me," he said. "I'll buy one from you." "Uh... no." I said. "But you have seven of them." He pointed out. "I know," I said. "But if I give one to you, I'll only have six." For reasons I don't fully understand, we're still best friends.

Over time, most collectors come to understand that having 100,000 LPs is not necessarily a good thing. Eventually, we marry or enter into relationships with very nice people who ask in very polite ways if it might be possible that the dining room be used for dining or the spare bedroom have enough space for a spare bed or perhaps one of the closets could be set aside for clothing. In the lives of most collectors (and the exceptions are truly exceptional) we reach a point where we understand that we cannot have everything. At this point the rooms spins around a bit and after we sit down and take a few deep breaths, we recognize that every time we find a new record we have to ask a new question: is this for me? As it is with books:

The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself. Anyone who buys from catalogues must have a flair in addition to the qualities I have mentioned. Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him something - not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole; from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not. (pp. 63-64)

For the collector who has unlimited resources this is the most subtle and important of skills and one acquired through practice over time. Inevitably however, each record collector must develop a collection that is uniquely his own, only then can he recognize the record that is for him.

Imagine an enormous table on which millions of puzzle pieces are spread out in random order. Each different in size and color, and all representing the countless millions of records that have been released since the time of the earliest Edison cylinders. Over the course of a lifetime a collector selects pieces, arranges and rearranges, discards, using many of the same pieces others employ but in subtly, yet utterly, unique combinations. The collector only gradually and over time gains the ability to recognize those pieces that are for him and those that are not. This is nothing less than the product of a gradual process of self awareness or self recognition. Or self construction. Or self creation. Or all of the above. This is the process that Hornby's Rob Fleming finds so compelling:

When Laura was here I had the records arranged alphabetically. . . . Tonight, though, I fancy something different, so I try to remember the order I bought them in: that way I hope to write my own autobiography, without having to do anything like pick up a pen. I pull the records off the shelves, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor, look for "Revolver" and go from there; and when I've finished, I'm flushed with a sense of self, because this, after all, is who I am. . . . But what I really like is the feeling of security I get from my new filing system; I have made myself more complicated than I really am. I have a couple of thousand records, and you have to be me - or, at the very least, a doctor of Flemingology - to know how to find any of them. If I want to play, say, "Blue" by Joni Mitchell, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the autumn of 1983, and thought better of giving it to her, for reasons I really don't want to go into. Well, you don't know any of that, so you're knackered, really, aren't you? You'd have to ask me to dig it out for you, and for some reason I find this enormously comforting. (Hornsby, pp. 54-55)

It may be that, for the collector, the self image that grows and changes across the years is mirrored in this individual organization of a portion of the body of 20th (and 21st) Century popular music (i.e., all portraits are self portraits). In the end, what we gain from Benjamin's brief reflection is a better understanding of one manner in which an individual may use culture (more accurately, cultures) in the construction of a self through the arrangement of mass produced cultural products and artifacts in a uniquely personal decoupage.

Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day - or, rather, of night - what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity. (p. 66)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Somebody call Martin Scorsese....

I can understand the pleasure Martin Scorsese must be taking in working on his recent films, No Direction Home (2005) and this year's Shine a Light. I've read that his next project along these lines is a still untitled George Harrison documentary scheduled for a 2010 release. This will sort of extend his work on Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones to include The Beatles, but I think he may be missing the best opportunity of all.

As much as I look forward to the film on Harrison, if I had Marty's cell number I would make another recommendation.

Make a new film from the hundreds of hours of footage that were originally turned into Let It Be.

Here's why....

In 1969-1970 the end of The Beatles seemed to those of us at the time like a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. That the source of so much joy and beauty was reaching an end seemed impossibly sad. But remember that most of us, and all four of them, had not yet made it out of our twenties. We were simply witnessing one example of the BIG lesson we would learn again and again. Nothing lasts.

But the film - which started as a project to simplify, "get back" to basics, with an initial (and then quickly abandoned) intent to perform live again - that was assembled from hundreds of hours of footage shot during 1969, was cut together to represent that shared sense of tragedy.

While there is undeniable tension present in the proceedings, that's not the whole story. The album that resulted from those sessions has more John & Paul duet vocals than any of the 4 or 5 albums that precede it. While McCartney claims he wrote "The Two Of Us" for his new girlfriend Linda, it's silly to think the lines "You and I have memories / farther than the road that stretches out ahead" were written about anyone but Lennon.

Imagine the film that might be created from the room full of footage shot during that year.

With the technologies that enabled The Beatles 1965 film Help! to be beautifully restored for its recent DVD release, a new film (I think I'd call it The Beatles - 1969) with restored color and sound that culminated with a complete "The Rooftop Concert" - all assembled from scratch from the original camera masters - could be the real jewel in the Dylan/Stones/Beatles crown.

Everything suggests that the surviving Beatles and families have almost no interest in re-releasing the original 1970 film. In a February 2007 interview, the late Apple head, Neil Aspinall, said, "The film was so controversial when it first came out. When we got halfway through restoring it, we looked at the outtakes and realized: this stuff is still controversial. It raised a lot of old issues."

A new film could be assembled, not as a definitive document of the time, but as an alternative Let It Be. A "counter-tragedy."

A celebration of the band and the music and the times.

Now somebody go call Marty.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Translations of the Hanging....

Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. Hanging on the market square.

"Desolation Row" is the 11:21 song that closes Bob Dylan's 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited and is often found in the top three or four of most of the countless lists of "Bob Dylan's best songs."

1965 was a hell of a year for Dylan. Famously "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan released the first two albums that would comprise, along with Blonde On Blonde released in 1966, what some fans refer to as the 1965-1966 trilogy; three electric albums that changed the face of pop music and songwriting.

"Desolation Row" falls at exactly halfway through that trilogy. On the preceding album, Bringing It All Back Home, a parallel can be drawn between "Desolation Row" and "The Gates of Eden." In the the lines that end “the gates of Eden” the choice is between the things “inside” and “outside.” In "Desolation Row,” things are either sent "from" or "to."

By the time Highway 61 Revisited has run its course, what I have always imagined as the foreboding wrought iron gates of Eden are transformed into the run-down funky neighborhood of “Desolation Row.” Creatively, it’s a move that suggests an Old Testament story rewritten as a John Steinbeck novel.

Dylan's influences in "Desolation Row" are multiple and include a nod to Steinbeck's Cannery Row, a place where the outcasts of society found a home. The title also references Jack Kerouac's novel Desolation Angels (Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, and wrote The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels from his experiences on the peak). Al Kooper, who played organ and piano on the album, claimed in his autobiography that "Desolation Row" was Eighth Avenue in New York City. At the time, this was a very dangerous part of town. It is likely that Dylan's experiences in Greenwich Village had a powerful influence on him and his writing.

There is also a strong suggestion that the image and content of "Desolation Row" was influenced by the nearby town of Duluth, Minnesota, located at the northern end of Highway 61. The opening lines of the song, "They're selling postcards of the hanging... The circus is in town", seem drawn from the Duluth lynchings, which occurred in Duluth in June of 1920 and from which actual (and very gruesome) postcards were made and sold at the time.

Lastly, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land also appears to have influenced "Desolation Row." T. S. Eliot had died earlier in 1965.
But I digress....

On the Dylan forum, Expecting Rain, a couple posters played with translations of "Desolation Row." A Russian-born Dylan fan, living in Germany, translated the song into Russian, paying attention to the poetic structure and character of the lyric. Later, another poster named Pinhedz, a musician from Minnesota, translated the Russian back into English, but intentionally doing a very literal translation.

I love the results. It says something about language and the nature of translation as well as something about Dylan and what those "somethings" are, I haven't a clue. But it is fun.

Они торгуют всем на свете
И красят стены в чёрный цвет.
Сегодня в цирке представленье,
Но на него билетов нет.

Everything in the world is for sale,
And they’re painting the walls black,
The circus has a show today,
But there are no tickets to it.

Ведут слепого коммиссара,
Похоже он учуял след.
Одна рука торчит в кармане,
Другая держит пистолет.

They’re leading the blind commissar,
It looks like he’s sniffing the trail,
One hand is in his pocket,
The other is holding his pistol.

А толпа опять бушует,
Её сегодня тянет вдаль,
Пока Леди и я глядим в окно
На улицу Печаль.

And the crowd is restless again,
Today the far beyond beckons to them,
While Lady and I look through the window
Onto the Street of Sadness.

Золушка спокойно,
С улыбкой скажет: "Не беда.
Пройти всем в жизни надо
Через отчаянья года".

Cinderella calmly
With a smile says “No problem.
You must experience everything in life
Through the reckless years.”

Тут вдруг врывается Ромео.
"Ты же моя!", он в плач и в крик.
Ему ответит кто-то тихо:
"Ты не туда попал, старик".

Then suddenly Romeo bursts in,
“You are mine!” with a cry and a scream.
Someone quietly answers him:
“You’re in the wrong place, old man.”

А потом сирены стихнут
И только Золушка одна
Метёт обрывки старых писем
На улице Вина.

And then the sirens fall silent,
And just Cinderella all alone,
Sweeps up scraps of old letters
On the street of guilt.

Сейчас луны почти не видно
И звёзды спрятались давно.
Даже старая гадалка
Закрыла наглухо окно.

Now the moon is almost not visible
And the stars were hidden long ago.
Even the old fortune teller
Has closed her window tight

Все, кроме Каина и Брата
И попрошайки с Пляс де Вож,
Все занимаются любовью
Иль просто ожидают дождь.

Everyone but Cain and his brother
And the beggar of the Place des Vosges,
Are all making love
Or just expecting rain.

А Филантроп принарядился,
Набил бумагою карман.
Он - главный гость на карнавале
На улице Обман.

But the philanthropist is all dressed up,
And stuffed his pocket with paper.
He’s the main guest at the carnival
On the Street of Deceit.

Вот Офелья, за неё мне страшно.
В её сердце - пустота.
Как скоро её cломала
Повседневная суета.

There’s Ophelia, I’m so afraid for her,
In her heart is emptiness.
So soon she was beaten down
By the cares of everyday life.

Смерть ей кажется прекрасной,
Hа груди - бронежилет.
Она стала старой девой
В свои юные двадцать лет.

Death seems wonderful to her,
She wears an armor breastplate
She’s turned into an old maid
At the tender age of 20 years.

И хотя во снах рисует
Цвета радуги вновь и вновь,
Из засады швыряет камни
На улицу Любовь.

Although in dreams she paints
The colors of the rainbow over and over,
From her ambush she throws stones
Into the Street of Love.

Эйнштейн в костюме Робин Гуда
Проходил недавно тут.
Вслед чемодан воспоминаний
Тянул его товарищ Шут.

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood
Passed here not long ago.
After him his suitcase of memories
Was pulled by his comrade Clown.

Швырнул так зло он сигарету,
Как будто это - динамит,
Потом пошёл, шатаясь, дальше,
Читая громко алфавит.

He flung his cigarette so wickedly,
As if it was dynamite,
Then he passed on, staggering,
Loudly reciting the alphabet.

Быть может, ты его не помнишь,
Он был когда-то виртуоз
Игры на электронной скрипке
На переулке Грёз.

Maybe you don’t remember him,
He was once a virtuoso
Playing the electric violin
In the Alley of Visions.

Доктор Фильц содержит судьбы
На дне огромных сундуков,
Каждый его подопечный
Ищет ключи от замков.

Doctor Filtz holds our destinies
In the bottom of huge trunks.
Every one he watches over
Is seeking the keys to the locks.

Mедсестра, та что в ответе
За цианкалий и за грог,
Ведёт ночами картотеку
С названием "Храни их, Бог".

The nurse that is in charge
Of the potassium cyanide and grog,
Carries the file of cards
Inscribed “God protect them.”

Они оба играют на дудках,
Ты услышишь их чудный дуэт,
Если высунешь ухо подальше
Из окна на улице Бред.

They both play on fifes,
You hear their wondrous duet,
If you stick your ear out the window
To the Street of Delerium.

Напротив шторы закрыты,
Там ужин готовят наспех,
Казанову кормят надеждой
На скорый у женщин успех.

On the other side the shades are drawn
They’re hurredly preparing dinner there.
They are feeding Casanova the hope
Of easy success with women.

Они в нём воспитают
Непомерную гордость собой,
А назавтра удачей отравят,
Смешав сладкий яд с похвалой.

In him they are nurturing
Boundless pride in himself,
But tomorrow they’ll poison him with success,
Having mixed sweet poison with praise.

А Фантом кричит в катакомбах:
"Казанове урок будет пусть,
Как ходить вечерами украдкой
На улицу Вечная Грусть".

And the phantom shouts in the catacombs:
“Let Casanova learn his lesson
For secretly going in the evenings
To the Street of Eternal Sorrow.”

Ровно в полночь все агенты
Из спецотряда сверхлюдей
Стучатся в двери тех, кто полон
Различных мыслей и идей.

At the stroke of midnight all the agents
From the supermen’s special brigade
Knock on the doors of those who are full
Of various thoughts and ideas.

Потом они везут их в замок,
Где подключают аппарат
Сердечных приступов к груди им:
Никто не будет виноват.

Then they take them to the castle
Where they hook up to their chests
The heart-attack machine:
No one will guilty.

Команда страховых агентов
Стоит с канистрами в руках.
Их цель: Предотвращать побеги
На улицу Забытый страх.

A crew of insurance agents
Stand with canisters in their hands.
Their job is to prevent escapes
To the Street of Forgotten Fear.

Слава Нептуну Нерона!
"Титаник" плывёт по волне,
Hа палубе все ещё спорят,
Кто был на чьей стороне.

Praise to Nero’s Neptune!
The Titanic sails over the waves,
On the deck everyone still argues,
Who was on who’s side.

Taм Эзра Паунд и Ти Эс Эльотт
Ведут на мостиke дуэль,
Над ними смеётся Калипсо
Под нежную песнь Ариэль.

There Ezra Pound and TS Elliott
Are fighting a duel on the bridge,
Calypso is laughing over them
Under the tender song of Ariel.

Ведь только там, в глубинах моря,
Где благодать и красота,
Нет смысла думать слишком много
Об улице Dreams.

It’s only there, in the depths of the sea
Where there is abundance and beauty,
There is no reason to think to much
About the Street of Dreams.

Я получил твоё письмо,
Получил ещё вчера.
Ты удачно пошутил,
Спросив, как мои дела.

I received your letter,
I got it already yesterday.
You made a good joke,
Asking how I was doing.

Всех, о ком ты пишешь мне,
Я знаю их, их жизнь скучна,
Я изменил их лица,
Дал им другие имена.

Everyone that you wrote me about,
I know them, I’m tired of their lives,
I changed all their faces
And gave them different names.

Теперь я не могу читать,
Не пиши же мне, пока
Не переедешь, как и я,
На улицу Тоска.

Right now I can’t read,
Don’t write to me until
You cross over, like me,
To the Street of Grief.

The original english lyrics, if you don't know them already by heart, can be found here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Zbigniew Herbert

A Description of the King

The king's beard on which sauces and ovations
fell until it became heavy as an axe
appears suddenly in a dream to a man condemned to die
and on a candlestick of flesh shines alone in the dark.

One hand for tearing meat is huge as a whole province
through which a ploughman inches forward a corvette lingers
The hand wielding the sceptre has withered from distinction
has grown grey from old age like an ancient coin

In the hour-glass of the heart sand trickles lazily
Feet taken off with boots stand in a corner
on guard when at night stiffening on the throne
the king heirlessly forfeits his third dimension

"His poems, even in English, seem to me finer than anything currently being written by any English or American poet." - A. Alvarez, The New York Review of Books, 18/7/1985

"If the key to contemporary Polish poetry is the selective experience of the last decades, Herbert is perhaps the most skillful in expressing it and can be called a poet of historical irony. He achieves a sort of precarious equilibrium by endowing the patterns of civilization with meanings, in spite of all its horrors." - Czeslaw Milosz, Postwar Polish Poetry (3rd ed., 1983)

Polish poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1988) easily stands beside Nobel Prize laureates Milosz and Szymborska, part of a remarkable literary tradition. Very much an Eastern European writer, his work is also of interest beyond that particular region (and those particular times).

A Ballad About Us Not Ceasing To Exist

Those who sailed out at dawn

but will never come back
they left their trace on the surface --

at such times into the deep of sea falls a shell
beautiful as a mouth turned to stone

those who walked the sandy trail
but did not make it to the shutters
although the roofs were already in sight
within a bell of air they have shelter

and those who orphaned only
a cold room a few books
an empty inkwell blank sheets --

indeed those did not die completely

their whisper wafts through thickets of wallpaper
in the ceiling a flat head lives on
of air water lime earth
a paradise was fixed for them their angel of wind
crumbles the body in hand
they will carry upon the meadows of this here earth

Herbert's anti-hero Mr.Cogito, subject of many of his poems, is one of the more inspired characters in modern literature, an ideal vehicle for Herbert's talents.

Mr. Cogito's Legs

the left leg is quite normal
one might even say optimistic
a little short perhaps
fleshy smiles
with a finely fashioned calf
the right one

with two scars
one along the achilles tendon
the other ovate
pale pink
ignominious souvenir of an escape

the left one
inclined to leaps
loving life too much
to risk it

the right one
nobly stiff
mocking danger

here he comes
on both legs
the left one like Sancho Panza
and the right
resembling the adventurous knight
Mr. Cogito
through the world
limping a little

Herbert's fascination with other subjects -- painting, for example, or other things Dutch -- served his poetry well, and also made for interesting subjects.

Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus says:

Go on sonny but remember that you are walking and not flying
the wings are just an ornament and you are stepping on a meadow
that warm gust is just the humid earth of summer
and that cold one is a brook
the sky is full of leaves and small animals

Icarus says:

The eyes like two stones return straight to earth
and see a farmer who knocks as
under oily till
a grub which wiggles in a furrow
bad grub which cuts the bond of a plant with the earth

Daedalus says:

Sonny this is not true The Cosmos is merely light
and earth is a bowl of shadows Look as here colors play
dust rises from above the sea smoke rises to the sky
of noblest atoms a rainbow sets itself now

Icarus says:

Arms hurt father from this beating at vacuum
legs are getting numb and miss thorns and sharp stones
I cannot keep looking at the sun as you do father
I sunken whole in the dark rays of the earth

Description of the catastrophe:

Now Icarus falls down head first
the last frame of him is a glimpse of a heal childlike small
being swallowed by the devouring sea
Up above the father cries out the name
which no longer belongs to a neck or a head
but only to a remembrance


He was so young did not understand that wings are just a metaphor
a bit of wax and feathers and a contempt for the laws of gravitation
I cannot hold a body at an elevation of a great many feet
The essence of the matter is in having our hearts
which are coursed by heavy blood
fill with air
and this very thing Icarus did not want to accept

let us pray

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In a Silent Way

This is the last in a quartet of obituaries - a psychedelic record collector, an accordion player, the father of LSD, and the greatest record producer who ever walked the Earth.

Let me tell you about Teo Macero.

I have a friend who, like me, collects records from the 1960s. But she doesn't glamorize the decade and is always quick to point out that, for most of the things that the 1960s are touted for, it was really the 1950s when things started getting serious.

Attilio Joseph Macero was born and raised in Glens Falls, New York. After serving in the United States Navy, he moved to New York City in 1948 to attend the Juilliard School of Music. He studied composition, and graduated from Juilliard in 1953 with Bachelor's and Master's degrees.

In 1953, Macero co-founded Charles Mingus' Jazz Composers Workshop, and became a major contributor to the New York City avant-garde jazz scene. As a composer, Macero wrote in an atonal style, as well as in Third Stream, a synthesis of jazz and classical music. He performed live, and recorded several albums with Mingus and the other Workshop members over the next three years, including Jazzical Moods (in 1954) and Jazz Composers Workshop (in 1955).

During this time, Macero also recorded Explorations. While he had contributed compositions to other albums, this was the first full album of his own compositions, and Macero's first album as a leader. The 1958 short experimental film Bridges-Go-Round by filmmaker Shirley Clarke featured two alternative soundtracks, one by Louis and Bebe Barron and one by Macero.

Macero found greater fame as a producer for Columbia Records. He joined Columbia in 1957, and produced hundreds of records while at the label. Macero worked with dozens of artists at Columbia including Mingus, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Mathis, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Charlie Byrd, and Stan Getz. He was also responsible for signing Mingus, Monk, and Byrd to Columbia.

Macero produced the seminal Dave Brubeck Quartet album Time Out, and Thelonious Monk's first Columbia recording, Monk's Dream, as well as Underground. He also produced Mingus' first Columbia album, Mingus Ah Um. Beyond jazz, he produced a number of Broadway original cast recordings including A Chorus Line and Bye Bye Birdie. And he produced the soundtrack to The Graduate, by Simon and Garfunkel.

But all these accomplishments pale to the work Macero would do with Miles Davis.

Davis’s routine in the late 1960s was to record a lot of music in the studio with a band, much of it improvised and based on themes and even mere chords that he would introduce on the spot. Later Mr. Macero, with Davis’s help, would splice together vamps and bits and pieces of improvisation.

For example, Mr. Macero isolated a little melodic improvisation Davis played on the trumpet for “Shhh/Peaceful” on In a Silent Way and used it as the theme, placing it at the beginning and the end of the piece. Even live recordings he sometimes treated as drafts; the first track of Davis’s Live at Fillmore East, from 1970, contains a snippet pasted in from a different song.

Helping to build Miles Davis albums like Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way and Get Up With It, Macero used techniques partly inspired by composers like Edgard Varèse, who had been using tape-editing and electronic effects to help shape the music. Such techniques were then new to jazz and have largely remained separate from it since. But the electric-jazz albums he helped Davis create — especially Bitches Brew, which remains one of the best-selling albums by a jazz artist — have deeper echoes in almost 40 years of experimental pop, like work by Can, Brian Eno and Radiohead.

Macero strongly believed that the finished versions of Davis’s LPs, with all their intricate splices and sequencing — done on tape with a razor blade, in the days before digital editing — were the work of art, the entire point of the exercise. He opposed the current practice of releasing boxed sets that include all the material recorded in the studio, including alternate and unreleased takes. He was not involved in Columbia’s extensive reissuing of Davis’s work for the label, in lavish boxed sets from the mid-’90s until last year.

Teo Macero died in February in New York at the age of 82.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Bicycle Ride

Albert Hofmann was born in Baden, Switzerland, on the elventh of January, 1906, and studied chemistry at the University of Zürich. His main interest was the chemistry of plants and animals, and he later conducted important research regarding the chemical structure of the common animal substance chitin, for which he received his doctorate.

Hofmann joined the pharmaceutical-chemical department of Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis), located in Basel. He began studying the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot as part of a program to purify and synthesize active constituents for use as pharmaceuticals. Over the next few years, he worked his way through the lysergic acid derivatives, eventually synthesizing LSD-25 for the first time in 1938. After minimal testing, LSD-25 was set aside as he continued with other derivatives. Four years later, on April 16, 1943, he re-synthesized LSD-25 because he felt he might have missed something the first time around. That day, he became the first human to experience the effects of LSD after accidentally ingesting a minute amount.

Three days later, on April 19, 1943, he decided to verify his results by intentionally ingesting 250 ug of LSD. This day has become known as "Bicycle Day" as Hofmann experienced an incredible bicycle ride on his way home from the lab.

"Everything I saw was distorted as in a warped mirror," he said, describing his bicycle ride home. "I had the impression I was rooted to the spot. But my assistant told me we were actually going very fast."

Upon reaching home, Hofmann sat down on a divan and began experiencing what he called "wonderful visions."

"What I was thinking appeared in colors and in pictures," he told Swiss television network SF DRS for a program marking his 100th birthday two years ago.

For a time, Sandoz sold LSD 25 under the name Delysid, encouraging doctors to try it themselves. It was one of the strongest drugs in medicine — with just one gram enough to drug an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people for 12 hours.

Hofmann discovered the drug had a similar chemical structure to psychedelic mushrooms and herbs used in religious ceremonies by Mexican Indians.

In addition to his discovery of LSD, he was also the first to synthesize psilocybin (the active constituent of 'magic mushrooms') in 1958. Albert Hofmann, known as the 'father of LSD', continued to work at Sandoz until 1971 when he retired as Director of Research for the Department of Natural Products. In his retirement, Hofmann served as a member of the Nobel Prize Committee. He continued to write, lecture, and play a leading role as an elder in the psychedelic community until his quick and relatively painless death from a heart attack at the age of 102.

"I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be. ” — Albert Hofmann