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For this month, we have a true marriage of music and art — this tune takes its name from one of Salvador Dali’s more famous works, “The Persistence of Memory.”
I think traveling brings out the writer in me. At any rate, I haven’t written you anything in a long while, and I haven’t done much traveling, either. But twelve hours in a foreign land, and words begin to rise.
Every time I get to England, there’s a honeymoon period of a day or so when I walk around with a single thought: screw it, I’m moving here. Then by the time I leave I’ve grown weary of the food and the overcast skies and I allow myself to be deterred by the tsunami of logistics required for such an undertaking and gently persuaded to return to my home country — which I am much better at living in, anyway.
But today was the first day of the honeymoon, and everything from tea to an amble along the River Severn to the brightly-colored doorways with the doorknobs in the middle to the Cadbury Fruit & Nut Bar was so endearingly British that I am once again hopelessly infatuated with this old flame of mine, England. And not remotely abashed, either.
It’s the language that always gets me first. The turns of phrase are irresistible. Who would just go to the store when you could “visit the shops”? And why would you eat at the hotel when you could “take one’s meals” at the hotel? I discovered a crucial loophole today when I learned that desserts in England are called “puddings” regardless of whether they are actually pudding. In other words, a piece of chocolate cake or some ice cream (“ice creams”) is still a pudding. This suits me immensely, because I hate pudding, but like saying it.
Shrewsbury is marvelously photogenic. Some English towns are on the shabby side, but this one has all the quaintness one could ever want. The houses and yards (“gardens”) remind me of the forts we used to build out in the woods, everything a little bit crooked, a little “off.” Deliciously imperfect. I suspect all artists are in love with imperfection at some level, as it is this that gives the art its humanity. And the towns feel human too, rather than machine-assembled. Why not let the natural landscape, the rivers and trees and hills, dictate the contours of the village? They say there is no food that is white by nature, only the food we have processed and manufactured. To that I would submit that there are no right angles in nature. Only gentle curves, uneven lines … glorious irregularity, yet with beautiful symmetry, like the human body.
The British pound — known variously as a quid or a pound sterling — has no rival among coins. It is heavier and thicker than any American coin, and this weightiness is suitable to perhaps the last living currency so perfectly unique to its country. A handful of quid doesn’t jingle, it clinks — a heavy sound, like shekels if shekels still existed. The rest of Europe has meekly homogenized itself to the regulations of the European Union and has adopted the Euro as its sole currency, and as expected with a one-size-fits-all approach, the coins have a certain Fisher-Price quality to them. But England, do away with the noble British pound? Not bloody likely! While no nation can afford to refuse outright to change itself, there is something immensely gratifying about one that nonetheless resists it with all the obstinacy it can muster. (Of course, this has its dark side, too.)
England blends beer and charm better than any nation. Pubs are beautiful, convivial places of business, sporting quirky names, accented by flowerpots, polished brass, dark wood and gold leaf. Instead of designing the alcoholic experience around quantity (consume as many as possible without vomiting), the British pub embraces the idea of a pint of bitter as a social lubricant. The whole point is to celebrate the end of the workday, to have a chat with one’s mates, to grumble about the government to a sympathetic audience.
The older I get, the less I am drawn to impose my own values and preferences on my surroundings, and England offers perhaps more quirks and nonsensical traditions to enjoy than anywhere else, if one is only willing to get swept up in the ride. One senses that these are the very last things England will allow to be sanded away, because they are the essence of the national personality, the heart and soul of the culture. And good on them. Why assimilate? What’s the human value in allowing ourselves to be merged into one bland, efficient whole?
One thing is sure, the best way to come to England is on someone else’s dime, and I’m blessed to be a part of Barnstar!, whose interpretation of the bluegrass genre (“bluegrass for people who hate bluegrass”) is evidently compelling enough to bankroll such a trip. Cheers, Shrewsbury.
NEWSONG REGIONAL FINALS
Big news from my little corner of the music galaxy: I’ve been selected as a regional finalist in the 2013 Newsong Competition! It’s strange to suddenly be involved with the music industry on such a visible level, but hey, we’ll take it.
Anyway, if you’d like to help me beat all those other songwriters, vote for “Catchy Paul & Dreamy John” right here. Thanks!
Friday, September 13
The Art Studio, Vienna, VA
A portentous day for us all … unless you’re heading to one of my shows! Come and keep bad luck at bay at the studio of Joyce McCarten, fine artist, just outside of DC. It’s a bit of a “working gallery” vibe, and we love it.
Saturday, September 28
Music at Sanctuary Hall, E. Weymouth, MA
The 5th annual performance at one of my favorite spaces, this one will feature brother-in-arms Kevin Gosa on sweet woodwinds and sister-in-arms Annie Bartlett on sonorous strings. The harmonic possibilities are off the charts, so don’t miss this one, South Shore.
Sunday, September 29
Club Passim, Cambridge, MA
A hometown show in early Fall — yes, I’ll take one. We will probably not be tipsy on fresh cider, but there’s no telling. Featuring new songs, old songs, and … oh, whatever, you’ve been to Passim before, you know it’ll be good, just come out. Featuring Kevin Gosa and Annie Bartlett.
And now, a little glimpse of something I’ve been working on for the past year:
We’re hoping to launch in a few weeks, so stay tuned for my debut on the pixellated screen.
Cheers, and happy late summer to you all.
I’m proud to announce the official release of my new album, Cosmos in the Chaos.
It was built with your help, using songs from Community Supported Art, and I am overwhelmingly grateful. Your support has been a tremendous blessing.
Cheers, and good listening.
Our apologies for those of you who may have missed last month’s letter.
It’s linked here.
I did not check my email from August 24 to September 1. It wasn’t for lack of reason, lack of interest or lack of access. I just wanted to see if I could do it.
I’m among so many of us who look screens most of the day (don’t let that “artist” label fool you), because that’s how most work is conducted today. And I’ve come to recognize screen fatigue, and I’ll occasionally limit myself. But recently I began feeling a more specialized tiredness: email, particularly via smartphone. I contemplated cutting myself off from it and was so startled by the thought, I knew I had to do it — if only out of a spirit of inquiry, like a science experiment.
I survived. Barely. I run my own business, as you know, and with an interest in maintaining that business, I had to ensure I could be reached in emergency. So I doctored the vacation auto-response feature to report that I was off email but still answering my phone. And put my faith in the fact that nothing much important happens during the last week and a half of August, anyway.
So here are a few observations from that season, and I want to preface by saying that this missive is not a rant against technology, however much it may sound like one. Though I’m dead opposed to what Madeleine L’Engle would call “technocracy,” I’m no Luddite, and have the devices to prove it. I just find technology a slippery slope.
I found myself wondering about the nature of the medium as it pertains to business. What is the preferred medium for pitching oneself these days? One used to “cold call.” Then everything moved to email, hence a “cold email.” For obvious reasons, this was even less successful than the cold call. Now we’ve moved on to Facebook, Twitter and texting, media which cannot support the “cold” approach because they intentionally limit depth and substance, and therefore what we might call the “human” element.
On a cold call, one has two dimensions at his disposal, content and sound. With the latter, he can take advantage of, say, a pleasant speaking voice, a good laugh, an irresistible enthusiasm for his subject matter. If his content is likewise compelling, he stands a good chance of closing the sale.
With email, one loses the dimension of sound, but gains a visual element. Content is still available, and if one crafts it just right and flavors it with tasteful graphics, he might coax his recipient into clicking on just one link — which could lead to a veritable smorgasbord of audio and visual bounty. This wasn’t really possible on the phone, and one could argue it is a real advantage of email over phone (again, assuming one’s emails are sufficiently persuasive). In an age of hundreds of emails per day, however, the cold emailer’s chances are watered down.
Now relegated to Twitter, even content has no chance to stretch its legs. Which of course is the point: imbibing many different bits of information, each one constructed like a movie preview — all the best morsels mashed together, anything outside of a four-second attention span mercilessly pruned away. Kind of like a chocolate chip cookie without the cookie. Not at all a bad thing for news or advertising (just imagine if each television ad only had 140 characters to work with!) but murder for anyone trying to sell herself as an artist. Artists can barely stomach identifying themselves with a genre. How in the world are we going to incapsulate ourselves in 140 characters?
Somewhere in this lonely desert of real life I had these thoughts:
Why is it that we don’t write about checking email in songs? Why does email feel so worthless and mundane when put in the context of art?
What if email only arrived once a day, like real mail does? Who checks her mailbox at midnight?
If I didn’t get an email today, does no one love me? Not even Viagra?
As I said, I’m no technophobe. Technology is making it possible for me to send you this, for you to read it. The thought of having to print this out and put stamps on it and mail it to you fills me with soporific despair. I am grateful that communication between us has become so effortless. The question is, can we keep more comparatively effortful communication — conversation, letters, phone calls — alive? Is it possible that we become more human when we expend that kind of effort? Is it less efficient in one way, but perhaps more efficient in another? These are the questions I wrestled with as I stared morosely at the friendly blue icon I could not touch, feeling like a rat in the Skinner box.
Now don’t worry, I’m not giving myself airs here. Who am I on the Ladder of Luddism? Among the great Thoreaux of Unconnectivity? I’m nobody. During my self-imposed “tech-xile,” I could still be accessed by phone at any time. But I chose not to avail myself of behavior that has become default — while still retaining perfect access to that behavior — for ten days. It’s easy to forget to check your email when you’re at the mercy of your surroundings: traipsing around Rome, say, or camping in the middle of Greenland. (Assuming it’s possible to camp in the middle of Greenland.) So maybe I’m nobody, but it was tough all the same. And you know, sometimes those extreme solitarians fall off the deep end themselves: they start mailing bombs to people, or starve to death in the wilds of Alaska. There’s a dark side to cultural isolation.
It’s in that spirit that I’ll end this — the idea that saying No to technology, while saying Yes to culture and relationship, necessarily involves tension. I must admit, logging onto my email account after a 10-day hiatus felt a bit like Christmas. For all its superficiality, this medium is how much of relationship happens now, and it hurts to cut relationship, however desultory, out of one’s life. I missed it — not the drug, but the people.
Cheers to you all, and please note this newsletter will henceforth arrive by Pony Express.
Author’s note: I apologize, I know I said I was going to take a break from these essays, mostly due to the challenges of launching Community Supported Art, but I guess I can’t stay away. Here’s another one — I figured you wouldn’t mind. (Maybe I really only needed a sabbatical.)
Dear organic music lover,
We had a pretty big week at our house. Actually it was just one day of the week, and a small part of that day, about one second long … but that one second made the whole week. It was a Movie Moment.
A Movie Moment is when you very briefly get to star in your own movie. It’s when something occurs that is so utterly perfect or fateful or cliché or tragic, it feels scripted. You almost expect to hear “Aaannnnd … Cut!”
These moments are best when they impart some deep meaning to your life. If life just picks up where it left off, you still feel pretty important and universal — after all, you did just star in a movie — but you’re not really a changed man. You’re just very pleased with yourself.
Well, our moment had deep, profound significance for me. Here it is.
Ours is the kind of household that cares — rather too much, perhaps — about recycling. To that end, we’ve discovered a marvelous online community called the Freecycle Network. It’s simple and brilliant: instead of tossing something away, one first posts it on a list service to see if someone else wants it; if she does, it’s hers. These objects can be anything, from frying pans to computers to food to dirt. It’s the world’s biggest junk pile, and like any junk pile, you find the occasional, slightly battered gold nugget. There’s also the obvious environmental benefit of passing this stuff on to new owners instead of sending it to a landfill; plus, the original owner avoids any potential effort or fees involved with disposal. Everybody wins.
My wife, an intrepid Freecyclist, recently tracked down an ancient air conditioner. We dutifully rescued it from eternal decomposition in some scrapyard, hauled it home and dragged it upstairs and put it in the window and plugged it in and it works — well, it groans to life and dims all the lights in the building and produces a small trickle of cool air. But in a wintry economic climate (and a stifling meteorological one), free A/C is not to be scoffed at.
It is a Fedders. (Yeah, I haven’t either.) Their motto is, “There’s Nothing Finer Than Fedders.” It is brown. It is ugly. It is absurdly heavy. I don’t know when it was manufactured, but when was the last time you saw a brown air conditioner, the late 1980s? If it were a car, it would be a Ford Crown Victoria station wagon, or just something big, heavy and unpredictable.
This summer, we’ve been using our air conditioner more often, just like you. For various reasons, we decided a few weeks ago to move it from the bedroom to the living room. Then, last night, we decided to move it back.
It was a dark and stormy night.
I’m not kidding; when we get that sucker back inside, it’s soaked. “Slippery when wet,” I quip, puffing and stumbling across the floor and back into the bedroom, where I deposit it, along with a few well-chosen oaths, on the windowsill. We begin edging it back out over nothingness. Soon, the Crucial Moment arrives: as the hindquarters of the unit gradually project out into space, one must lift its front bottom lip over the lip of the windowsill; having done so, one must then support the infernal weight of the unit while one’s boon companion carefully but quickly lowers (quickly, quickly, for crying out loud) the window with the object of trapping the upper lip of the A/C unit against the bottom of the window (Figure 1). Then, all being well, everyone exhales with relief and steps back to admire the dubious physics of an inch of plastic molding preventing a huge leaden beast machine from jumping to a watery oblivion.
Sadly, all was not well.
In the midst of the Crucial Moment I make a grievous error: having opted to counterbalance the weight of the appliance by positioning the ends of my fingers along the upper lip of the front and pulling towards myself, I now have nowhere to put them once the window descends — they are in the no-man’s-land between the lip of the A/C unit and the bottom of the window (see Figure 2). Also, everything is wet.
Somewhere between requesting a slight raise of the window and attempting to reposition my fingers along the edge, it slips. It’s like a fish — like a scaly fish, which would like nothing better than to jump through your hands and swim away from you. This air conditioner doesn’t jump so much as leap — it positively scampers out, I swear I hear a “Wheeeeee!” as it exits — and I know we’ve done it, we’ve really done it. We’ve dropped the air conditioner out the window.
This was an important moment in my life. Something big was happening. Something big was falling.
And it was at that moment, my friends, that I knew, in my secret heart of hearts, that I have always wanted to drop an air conditioner out the window.
Why? Because it’s asking for it. There was a day in history when the founding fathers of air conditioning sat around a table to decide how best to install their enormous, staggeringly heavy metal appliances in the home. And guess what they came up with? After much discussion, I’m sure, the winning solution was to mount the unit by its very edge in an open window with nearly the entire mass suspended over thin air, supported by nothing — unless one is handy with tools and takes the initiative to build a brace beneath the window and nail it to the house. (Presuming of course that one owns the house — our landlord generally gives us the thumbs-down on punching big, round holes in the siding. By the way, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, my landlord’s not on this email list. I checked.) But of all the air conditioners I’ve seen hanging out of windows, I’ve seen maybe four braces. It just isn’t done.
I remember being mystified as a kid as to why these things weren’t falling out all the time; seems like all it would take is a decent bump and whoops — here’s seventy pounds of rushing metal, sponsored by gravity.
It’s just that a window air conditioner is so heavy, and is balanced so precariously, and when it falls on you, you are not bruised or maimed, but dead.
With this in mind, one would think my immediate reaction upon dropping it was abject terror. One would be right. But that was not my only reaction; I must say, there is also a certain thrill to the experience. And, if I am honest, an element of humor, too.
It could be a guy thing, but there is a deep, mysterious gratification in causing a heavy object to fall from the top of something to the bottom, where, with luck, it smashes. It’s a primitive impulse, but we must acknowledge it. Now, I enjoy it much more when I know no one will be hurt (at least permanently) by my enjoyment. But I confess the inner demon child in me will always love throwing dirt clods into the road, rocks into the river and, apparently, air conditioners into urban space — and have a hard time feeling guilty about it afterwards.
I’m happy to say that this albatross, this anvil of technology, came to rest in nothing more than wet sod. No one was hurt; no one, that is, but Fedders. I’m sorry to say that, whatever our Freecycling intentions, we have bowed to the inevitable, and shall be visiting our local superstore to purchase a new air conditioner.
Maybe there’s a brown one lurking in the back room.
Cheers, and look out below—
Note: This essay originally appeared in the Curator Magazine. If you’d like to read the published article, click here.
Only in the modern day can one hike an Alp in the morning and be home for a late dinner in Boston. (Of course, the time change helps too.)
Greetings from Switzerland, which I had the good fortune to visit over the last week thanks to a kinship with the DC-based folk-pop ensemble Eddie From Ohio. The band members, who often invite me along as utility instrumentalist, were honored guests at the U.S. Embassy Independence Day ceremony in Bern. This was my first international performance of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
So much cheese, so little time. I did my best, and have the spike in cholesterol to prove it. Raclette, Gruyère, Emmental … let me count the ways.
On the plane ride home, I had a hard time adhering to my mandate not to watch bad movies. (I had already watched all the good ones.) I got through on a technicality — I watched a TV show instead. And I don’t know who does the programming for Swiss Air in-flight entertainment, but she’s a creative obscurist: the show I watched, in all its Looney-Tuned glory, was a Road Runner cartoon.
How has no one ever deconstructed this show? It is a psychological wonderland. I’m going to proceed on the assumption we’re all familiar with it. (If not, you know what to do.)
It’s easier to suspend disbelief when you’re a kid, of course, and I remember being utterly fascinated by this cartoon.
The premise may be the most basic imaginable: a predator stalks his prey, but never quite succeeds, with humorous results. There’s a Skinner-box mechanism in there somewhere. But here are a few ideas to chew over. Do we want the Coyote to succeed? Why? Is he a true antagonist, or just a tragic figure at the mercy of his own hubris? The lines are pretty blurred here. The fact that we spend so much time with the Coyote, along with his chronic, inevitable failures — each of which is at least painful, if not fatal — would suggest him as a tragic figure deserving our empathy. But the simple truth is, he’s trying to do in a cute, happy bird, villainous behavior if ever there was.
What’s the catharsis level here? We’re not dealing with Oedipus or Lear, obviously, but is there not a greater sense of relief that the Coyote’s humiliations and deaths are only temporary than that the Road Runner is never caught? Should the writers have finally “killed Superman,” that is to say, allowed the Road Runner to meet his end, so as to turn pathos on its head? Suddenly, for the first time, our sympathies would be with the indestructible, happy-go-lucky protagonist — except, by definition, they should have been with him already. (I’m going to assume the Road Runner is male, for how many girls would spend their time getting chased around a desert? Incidentally, though, one could mount a convincing sexual deconstruction of the show along the lines of pursuer/pursued.)
Speaking of desert, we really owe it to ourselves to take a look at the setting, which is rivaled in its pure ingenuity by only one other cartoon — that of course would be Calvin and Hobbes — and was the thing that kept me enraptured as a kid. Where in the world do these characters live?!? It’s a Southwest United States on steroids, with all the boring (read: flat) parts removed and only the exciting (read: sharp) rock formations allowed to remain. The number of chasms into which the Coyote can plummet is increased by a factor of twenty. And there is a road, naturally, off of which the Road Runner never, ever steps, featuring hundreds of hairpin turns and absolutely no guard rails, which allows the writers to indulge in the Coyote’s complete inability to corner.
The ultimate, archetypal image — the one I never tired of seeing and the writers never tired of exploiting — was the bird’s-eye camera shot of the Coyote vanishing into a mile of sandy oblivion, his final moment always celebrated with a short “bang” upon impact and located by the ubiquitous, small puff of dust. This is the five seconds of pure genius that kept me, and I wager every kid, coming back for more. It’s cheap vertigo. Vanishing points like this don’t exist in the United States. You just can’t get that high up and look down over a sheer drop — we’ve got mountains, yeah, but these are heights in extremis. It has that perfect amount of the fantastical and otherworldliness that allows the kid to buy it — is it Mars, or is it Utah?
Where does the Coyote’s endless supply of interesting, absurd products come from? Well, the ACME Company, yes, but where is this company, how do they transport their products and, most importantly, are they still around and how can I get in touch with them? I suppose it wouldn’t stun me to learn they’d gone out of business, as most of these items — enormous dynamite rockets, dehydrated boulders — can’t have been cheap to make, yet not a single one of them works. High overhead and poor performance is the quickest way to find yourself out on the street in this economy.
One could certainly read into the Coyote’s favoring technology to accomplish his aims versus the Road Runner’s simple use of “natural gifts.” (One could also read into the Coyote’s perpetual failure when using this approach and his dogged refusal to adjust his strategy, too.)
What does the Coyote eat? We know what the Road Runner eats: birdseed from traps the Coyote sets for him. But the Coyote never catches his prey, and we have to assume this single road runner is the only edible option for a carnivore in the entire desert, as we never see another one. No wonder he is Eternalii famishiis. The whole thing has a real Purgatorial bent.
So, looking at our notes, we infer that America’s dependence on technology will ultimately result in eternal exile to a hot, barren landscape featuring everlasting frustration, pain and hunger.
Our sincere thanks to all those who took part in last week’s CSA Survey! We’re especially indebted to those of you who took the time to write specific comments or suggestions.
We’ve got some intriguing results; we thought we would share them with you, as well as post Jake’s responses to a selection of the comments.
But first … our three winners of Organic Music t-shirts!
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I think I know a little how a farmer must feel after the seeds are in the ground.
I just finished a two-week road trip to Minnesota whose main purpose was to lay the foundation tracks for the next six months’ worth of CSA songs. I was able to schedule performances in PA, MI and Chicago on the way out, a few dates in MN while there, and one more in MI on the way back. You could say I’m pretty exhausted. I think I’ve got three different kinds of colds.
But we got the tracks, and that’s what matters.
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When I started identifying myself with “homegrown” music, I never thought it would get this good.
Last Sunday afternoon found me on the road to New Jersey for perhaps the most dubious recording session of my career – two friends, one house (usually populated with two kids), a random assortment of microphone stands and cables, and one big, fat, analog tape machine. This was guerrilla recording, and it was gonna be what it was gonna be.
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