Posted in Californication, culture, family, history, music, Okies

Okie Country Song: “California Cotton Fields”

It’s nice to find Okie-themed songs that aren’t by Woody Guthrie.  Not that all of his were bad, but a lot of us have mixed feelings about him for all kinds of reasons both good and bad.  (Mine are mostly around the fact he made a living off making fun of us as much as anything else.  But tempered by the knowledge that is making a living in a situation where especially at first he had no guarantee of one.)

Anyway as far as I know this is just a straight-up story from Merle Haggard’s life.  I’ve always liked Merle Haggard’s music.  He was one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound, basically Californian country music, mostly Okie in origin, that sounded very different from Nashville either at the time or since.  Bakersfield being one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the Okies lived, and one of the big centers for country & western music in California. This is mostly about the way people from Oklahoma and surrounding states, largely but not entirely during the Dust Bowl and Depression eras, were lured into California with promises of a standard of living that didn’t pan out.  A method of getting a cheap farm labor force into the state that hasn’t changed much. 😦 My family got lucky, after some time in the labor camps they were able to buy a series of small farms (one at a time, not owning several at once!) they spent the rest of their lives in debt over before being pushed out of farming altogether.  Most Okies didn’t even get that.
California cotton fields.
Posted in culture, history, music

The Eagle Flies Alone, and what does Armageddon mean today?

Sorry I can’t write out the lyrics.  Kruschshev must’ve really made an impression on Tony Carey as a kid, he’s always referencing the shoe-pounding incident.  I don’t know if I’ve ever shared my collection of Cold War songs in its entirety or not, but this is one of them.  (The vast majority are by this artist, he did a lot of Cold War inspired work both under his name Tony Carey and his sci-fi/historical dystopian band name Planet P Project which was basically just him with a synth and a lot of time on his hands.)

I find it interesting to hear the perspectives of different people who were there, writing songs about the Cold War during or shortly after the Cold War.  I’m at the tail end of the Cold War generations (I’m about as young as you can get and still have understood what was going on enough to absorb the historical context despite some massive comprehension problems on my part) and this guy is from close to the other end so it kind of bookends things for me.

To me, the end of the world is nuclear war.

Like.  Those two things mean the same thing

It’s taken me time to realize there are other ends.

It’s taken me even longer to realize the end of the world is not the end of the world.

It’s taken me even longer to convince anyone that nuclear war never stopped being a threat.  I never understood why everyone was so fast to think we were safe when the Cold War ended.

Like.  No.  Really.  I knew those nukes didn’t just vanish.  I knew the technology didn’t just vanish.  I knew the nature of modern human cultures didn’t just just vanish.  I was a kid but I wasn’t that oblivious to the world.

I wonder what Armageddon today’s kids are inheriting.

Understand I didn’t first hear Armageddon in a religious context.  It was another word for nuclear war.  I had no idea it was a religious metaphor or what religion it came from.

So I wonder what Armageddon means to today’s kids.

Does it mean this?

They were beginning to tell us stories like the above when I was a kid, but it was harder to grasp or believe.  Especially since I associated environmentalism with upper-middle-class and rich snobs trying to one-up each other’s status symbols.  So I had an aversion to taking them seriously.

This last song, I take as a call to action, to say, “This will happen if we don’t do something now.

But a friend warned me that the tone of the song can also signal despair, and stop people from hoping, and stop people from believing they have any obligation to carry on even in the face of loss of hope.

And I can see that.

So I’d remind people that the fact that each of us individually will die does not absolve us of our responsibilities while we are still alive, it only underscores them.  Because there will always be those who come after us.

And I’d remind people that the same is true of us as a species.

It still matters what we do for each other right now, because each of us matters right now.

It still matters what we leave for the next generation, and how hard or easy we make something that will never be easy.

It still matters, even in the event of extinction, what we leave for other life that may come after us.

It still matters what we do now.  Because everything now matters.

It still matters what we do for the future.  Because the future is not just any one of us, and it is not just all of us, it is a whole world, a whole universe, it is things we can’t understand or anticipate, and what we do has an effect and matters to all of that.

It matters because we are all on Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut together — this one tiny fragile nut that we have to take care of because it’s all we’ve got.  And if you think she lived a long time ago in simpler times, a reminder she lived during the frigging Plague in Europe, which sure looked like the end of the world at the time.

And just as death was considered a marker of social equality back in those days, another song from my Cold War collection references nuclear war just before saying “Ashes and diamond, foe and friend, we were all equal in the end.”

Wow I’m cheery today.

A Slovenian Danse Macabre mural

I actually love the symbolism of the Danse Macabre, though.  For real.  It says that death is the one thing that happens to every one of us, that makes us all equal.  It’s an art form depicting dead people dancing together, from all walks of life.  The Plague got people thinking that way.  That’s bleak optimism for you.

Ashes and diamond Foe and friend We were all equal in the end Pink Floyd, “Two Suns in the Sunset”

As far as I knew, growing up, the world ended with a flash.  The only difference you got was whether you were at the center of the flash and died quickly, or a further distance away and died slowly.  On 9/11, I was sure from FBI chatter (and lack of communication device) that I was headed towards the center of the flash.  I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t afraid.  I’d been ready for it my whole life.  It only took minutes to adjust to the “okay it’s finally happened, no time to feel bad about it” mentality.

It took a lot longer to adjust to the reality of what’d actually happened.  But I was baffled by all the people saying “We’re not safe anymore.”  Safe?  Since when were we safe?  Did everyone forget so fast?  And honestly what happened for real was a lot less bad than what I imagined when I heard the snippets like “Plane headed for the Pentagon” and “We think downtown San Jose will be a target, we need to shut down San Jose” and people standing on street corners waving newspapers with “ATTACK ON AMERICA” in giant letters.

I mean — there was no context for planes flying into buildings, and anyone old enough to be reared on Cold War propaganda and unable to get access to the real news was gonna come to one conclusion.  My dad was coming out of an isolated part of the Sierra Nevadas and came to the same exact conclusion when the planes stopped flying over (he memorized plane routes and used them to help orient to both time and locations) and he could only get patriotic music on the radio.

And now we’re facing so many different ends.

And yet none of the ends are ends, if we look beyond ourselves, just as our own end isn’t the end, if we look beyond our own personal death.  And even what looks like the end of the species may be survivable for small tiny numbers of scattered people.  But end of person, end of most of our species, end of our entire species, end of many species, whatever it ends up being — we still have a responsibility right now.  To everyone who still exists, to everyone who will exist, to everyone within our species, to everyone beyond our species.  We have a responsibility.  That never goes away.

As for despair, this is worth keeping in mind:

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. Gandalf the Grey, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I know I’ve said all this before.  But some things are worth repeating.  And the memory of the Cold War seems worth keeping alive.  Different eras in history shape not just big forces in the world, but also the lives and beliefs and perspectives of small people everywhere.  And those lives and beliefs and perspectives and memories are, each one of them, vitally important.  They are what history is really made of — each one of us, not a single one invisible — and why history matters.

Posted in Being human, joy, music

The cello music you’ll never hear.

 

I don’t usually trust people’s accounts of my talents.  There’s too much reason for people to get distorted opinions of them, and to pass those distortions on when describing them to me.  But when I was six years old, I fell in love with the violin.  For real, not because anyone made me.  You normally started violin at nine at that school, there were no other six-year-olds playing any instrument.  And I was the only six-year-old in the junior high orchestra.  I’m glad I was oblivious enough not to understand that it even was the junior high orchestra.  Later, I am sure this contributed to my label of idiot savant.  But at any rate, until circumstances changed, violin was my thing, despite the amount of physical effort it took to play at all.  And there’s enough fairly objective information to tell me that I was unusually good at this, at this age.

But actually.

What happens in my head is cello music.

A cello with notes and othershapes spiraling out of it.
You’ll never hear this, but it’s there.

A lot of the time, there is elaborate cello music interweaving itself with everything I experience.

Not just one cello, but many cellos, doing complicated reactions and interactions with each other.

I can’t play cello.  My hands are barely big enough to handle violin or viola and it’s just to heavy these days too.  You’ll never hear even one strand of these songs.

I also lack the background in music theory to be able to analyze or write down this music, especially since I am feeling and hearing it fully formed and in all its complexity (or simplicity as the case may be).

I am sure someone would call me idiot savant all over again if I were able to articulate this cello music in a way others could hear, but this is why I have said that not all savant abilities are visible from the outside.  And they don’t need to be.

So this is music only I will ever feel or hear.  It’s fully formed, it adapts itself to every situation, and it is often elaborate.  It’s beautiful.  When it’s happening, it springs from everything that happens and acts like a soundtrack to every part of life.  It interweaves itself into everything, and springs fully formed as if it was already interwoven

But I lack the skills necessary to even begin to share it with anyone.

So I will just say:  It’s there.  You will never hear it, you will never see it written, and it is there.  It is there.  It is there.  Some things are like that.  Some things may never form in the full way people want.  But they’re still there and they still matter.

This has been a continuation of my last post on music.

Posted in Being human, joy, music

The song and dance underneath everything.

Grace Vanderwaal and her kitten wisdom strike again.  (Note: Some lights may be flashy.  I don’t know how to gauge which are a potential problem, so assume in videos and music videos I post especially, watch at your own risk.)

Lyrics (“City Song”, Grace Vanderwaal):

Fresh laid concrete
Melodies blowing
Don’t care where we’re going
But the day is wasting
Just keep moving
And take it all in
The rumble of voices are the bass to our song
The horns are just on the beat
Honkin’ along
Let’s be the harmony
But no note is wrong
And let’s take the city
And make it our song
Our song
Our song
Let’s take the city
And make it our song
Pencil tapping
Feet speed walking
Cars just driving
Daydream gazing
Just keep moving
And take it all in
The rumble of voices are the bass to our song
The horns are just on the beat
Honkin’ along
Let’s be the harmony
But no note is wrong
And let’s take the city
And make it our song
Our song
Our song
Let’s take the city
And make it our song
Everything going on around you
Just close your eyes and disconnect for a moment or two
And hear
The rumble of voices are the bass to our song
The horns are just on the beat
Honkin’ along
We’ll be the harmony
But no note is wrong
And let’s take the city
And make it our song
Our song
Our song
Let’s take the city
And make it our song

There’s music underneath everything.  Everything.  It doesn’t matter where you are, there’s music.

There’s music in a city, there’s amazing music in a city, any city.

There’s music in countryside sounds, wilderness sounds.

There’s music in silence.

The music you want to listen for especially, is the music in between the sounds.

Not the music of the sounds themselves. But something that happens in between the sounds, in the silences, in between the silences themselves.

And there will sometimes be singing, in those silences.  Silent singing inside silence.

Every sound is a part of the music.  Every silence is a part of the music.  Every sound in between the sounds, every silence in between the silences, every singing in silence, every singing between sounds.  It’s all part of the music.

And if you listen just right, you can hear it sometimes.  Maybe even dance to it.

Sometimes my body moves to the rhythm and beat and melody and harmony of these sounds, and silences, and sounds between sounds, silences between silences, songs within silence, silence within songs.  And I can feel them more than I can hear them, feel the rhythms of everything around me moving through me and making me a part of them, and it’s important.  Even if nobody sees me dancing to this music, or understands that it is dancing,   Sometimes it doesn’t even look like dancing, sometimes it looks like wandering into the right place at the right time and doing the right thing and leaving.

But there’s music in everything.  And I think there’s a level where we can all either hear it, or physically feel the rhythm of it, or otherwise react to it, whether we’re aware of all this happening or not.

And that music goes deep down into the depths of things.

Momo listened to everyone and everything, to dogs and cats, crickets and tortoises — even to the rain and the wind in the pine trees — and all of them spoke to her after their own fashion.

Many were the evenings when, after her friends had gone home, she would sit by herself in the middle of the old stone amphitheater, with the sky’s starry vault overhead, and simply listen to the great silence around her.

Whenever she did this, she felt she was sitting at the center of a giant ear, listening to the world of the stars, and she seemed tohear soft but majestic music that touched her heart in the strangest way. On nights like these, she always had the most beautiful dreams.

Those who still think that listening isn’t an art should see if they can do half as well.

— Michael Ende, Momo, 1984 Brownjohn translation

Momo listened to everyone and everything: dogs, cats, crickets, toads, even the rain and the wind in the trees. And everything spoke to her in its own way.

On some nights, when all her friends had gone home, she wouuld sit alone for a long time in the old theater’s large, stone rotunda listening to the deepening silence while the starry sky arched high above her.

Whenever she did this, she imagined that she was sitting in the middle of a giant ear that was listening in on the entire cosmos, and she often thought she could hear soft but powerful music that went straight to her heart. On those nights she always had especially beautiful dreams.

Anyone who still thinks that listening is nothing special should simply try to do it half as well.

— Michael Ende, Momo, 2013 Zwirner translation

Even silence has a song, and it can be heard even with things that are not ears.  Any time you can hear or respond to it, you’re experiencing something important about the world.  And you may not even always know you’re doing it.  But… this is stuff that’s real, this is stuff that can remind you the important things in life.

So much of life disconnects us from the music and our innate awareness of it, makes it hard to feel, hard to hear, hard to respond to.  But it’s there.  And if we don’t hear it, we feel it, or move to it, or respond to it.  It’s there.  It tells us what the world is.  It tells us who we are and our place in the world, and our place in the dance.  And the dance is many and varied and beautiful and everything and everyone in the world is part of it.

Posted in Being human, joy, medical, music

Who am I when I can’t do…?

Mel wearing headphones with shadows falling over parts of hir face.
Mel wearing headphones with shadows falling over parts of hir face.

I hate being reduced to a pile of medical problems.

I don’t care what guise it comes under, either. I’m not your intriguing case. I’m not a two-dimensional prop in your medical detective story. Or your medical melodrama about brave people who buck the system and discover the truth. Or your very private psychodramas you want to act out with me as little more then a living doll.  And that includes “positive” versions of originally medical ideas — if you reduce me to any diagnosis, no matter how positive you think you’ve changed it into, you’re still reducing me down to something I’m not comfortable being reduced down to. It’s why I’m not comfortable with communities that’ve basically grown out of a single medical label, no matter how they believe they’ve transformed it.  At any rate, if you want to reduce me to medical crap, whether you think it’s good or bad — I’m not fucking interested. If you reduce me or my life to medical issues you’ll rapidly find yourself being ignored or tolerated at best.

But sometimes it seems like things close in, and all there is time and energy to think about is the next medical thing. And I start wondering, is this all there is to me? Is my life just one medical crisis to the next and holding myself together with strings and baling wire in the meantime? You don’t want to know the sanitary conditions I’m living in right now, the compromises I’ve been forced to make for survival. If you’re physically disabled you probably have some idea either from your own life or that of your friends. The shit we do to survive and live free at the same time. It’s criminal that we’re forced to live this way. I have an elderly family member I probably inherited my congenital myasthenia from, they describe crawling around the house when they can’t walk, and can’t get up off the floor, and you don’t want to know how they drive a car sometimes. They’ve coded before, I worry about it happening far from help next time.

Anyway, eventually the world closes in and all you can think about is medical shit. Explaining it to people over and over again. Doing medical shit you need to do to survive. And it feels like there’s nothing left, nothing left to you, everything’s gone.

It’s scary.

And it doesn’t help when that’s essentially how lots of people see you. As just a pile of flesh with a lot of medical problems. You start to go crazy. You start to wonder if there ever was anything more to who you are. Medical shit can fuck with your head in huge ways.

The medical way of seeing us is incomplete. It doesn’t include the things that make us people. Those core things that really matter. So if this shit gets into your head, you can’t see those things about yourself either.

The important parts of the world never go away. They are literally everywhere, embedded in everything. Including us. When we can’t feel them or perceive them, it’s always because something is blocking our view. Not because they’ve gone anywhere.

It’s easy to get caught up in the bullshit we are fed, too. Like that we aren’t real people, not the kind that matter, unless we can make a contribution that fits in with capitalism. Like something that pays money. And people with lots of medical shit that takes over our lives to this extent are seldom fully employed. So that can eat at us too, that knowledge that whatever we contribute to the world will never be good enough to count.

But we do contribute valuable things to the world. Just existing is its own contribution, but people contribute more than our existence. Each one of us is uniquely positioned to make very specific contributions to society, whether we are trying to or not, whether we are aware of it or not. Real contributions often go unnoticed even by the people making them.

And we get so caught up on what we do, that things get unpleasant when all we can do is whatever it takes medically to ensure our continued survival. Who am I when this is all I can do?

At first I fall back on connections to place, people, family, culture. I am a child of Redwood Terrace. I am an Okie and a Minnesota Swede. I am a Californian. The landscape of California, from the cliffs and ocean of the Monterey Bay to the bare yellow grass hills with oak trees, to the redwoods of San Mateo County and Santa Cruz County to the converted swamp / desert / farmland of the San Joaquin Valley to the paved-over orchards of Silicon Valley, these things are burned into my DNA almost, they go in so deep. The graves of my recent ancestors, in Shafter and Wasco cemeteries, places likely to become uninhabitable soon. My father’s grave in the Siskiyous. All the objects my father gave me that point like a giant beacon to who he was, who he is now that he’s merged with love and become something different.

These things are important. Connections are important. And no matter how difficult and dysfunctional our families get, family is always a part of you, a connection you can’t sever, part of who you are. I try to remember my grandfather’s violin, to remind me family is family and the worst things about it can still yield surprising moments of love and beauty.

I’m still the bleakest optimist I know. I can look into a pile of shit and find something worthwhile, but I still don’t shy away from it being a pile of shit. This confuses people. I continue to believe this skill will become vital to the survival of lots of people in the world today, though. Discounting the good or pretending the bad isn’t there will lead to disaster.

Anyway, family, culture, place, they all provide a firmer foundation than what you can do at any given moment. No matter how messed up that family, culture, or place is. But there’s something far more basic and far more important:

You are a small piece of the world. A very particular small piece of the world. You have a place, that’s specific to you and who you are. Everything from your best qualities to your worst faults are part of this. You are connected to everything and everyone else. Who you are and what you do, matters. You are always, always connected to the deepest parts of reality. They are a part of you, you are a part of them. You may not be able to feel that at any given time, but all that means is something’s obscuring your view. This is always there.

You are always so fucking much more than a set of categories, shitty circumstances, or ideas. And more than a set of medical problems or any other kind of problems. You are exactly no more and no less than a tiny expression of the deepest and most beautiful parts of the world.

And if we have anything we are meant to do, it’s to express that the most clearly with the least bullshit obscuring it as we can, which may be the most difficult thing in the world to do, but also the most important. But that’s not something we can or should be constantly freaking out about. Just something to keep in mind.

And sometimes the hardest times bring out the most depth of beauty in the world in weird and unexpected ways. Other times they’re just hard. But the world is a strange place. And you do have an exact and important place within it that nobody else can fill, no matter what anyone tells you, even yourself.This little piece of the world is who you are no matter what you can or can’t do. And this little piece of the world may be little but it’s also important.

I was writing this post, it’s taken me days. And I came across the perfect song to express part of what I’m talking about. I’m a huge Grace Vanderwaal fan for reasons. And she wrote this song that’s about those amazing parts of the world we can just forget are there entirely. And — those amazing parts of the world — we are a part of them, they are a part of us, and that’s who we really are, who we remain, regardless of what we can or can’t do at any given time.

So here’s the music video then the lyrics:

Sit right here, chillin’, level low
Close your eyes and just let it flow
Right next to me I hear your heart beat, beat
When the dial turns up and the music starts playing
We don’t realize in this society
Doesn’t matter how your hair looks or what they are thinking
Just, just what we are finding

Tap your foot and listen in
Ignore the world, let the music cave in
Close your phone and breathe in the air
You’ll soon realize that there’s something that is
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh (hey)
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

The whole crowd seems to like me now
‘Cause they think I’m cool but back when I was in school
They found it very easy to hate me
Funny how always these times are changing
Back then it was so easy to shatter
But now in the end it doesn’t really matter

Tap your foot and listen in
Ignore the world, let the music cave in
Close your phone and breathe in the air
You’ll soon realize that there’s something that is
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh (hey)
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

All of the talk, and the talk from ya
Won’t even matter when the lights come up
All of the talk, and the talk from ya, hey
Open your eyes and just wake up
Do all the things that will matter to ya
Open your eyes and just wake up, woah

Tap your foot and listen in
Ignore the world, let the music cave in
Close your phone and breathe in the air
You’ll soon realize that there’s something that is
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this

You’ll soon realize that there’s something that is
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
So much more than this
It is what it is
So much more than this
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

Wow, that kid has more kitten wisdom packed into her than you normally see in a child.  She reminds me so much of Igor, right down to the ability to unfailingly be exactly who she is, even when she doesn’t appear to know.  (Kitten wisdom is what I call the kind of wisdom that often comes with youth rather than the kind that sometimes grows with age.  And Igor and Grace Vanderwaal have a ton of it.  And remind me of each other in ways I can’t articulate.  Also some of her dancing in that video is perfect.)  And I love that she writes songs about being a child her age rather than just singing artificially weird children’s songs written by adults, or just adult songs.  It’s weird, though, that this should be unusual enough to comment on.

Mel wearing headphones.
Mel wearing headphones again.

Anyway, that place that’s so much more than this is always right here.  And we are always so much more than this, so much more than we’re told we are, so much more than a role or a category or a collection of frigging problems and labels and crap.  Because we’re not separated from that place, ever, we just sometimes feel like we are.  But it’s always there, and we’re always part of it.  The stuff that makes us think we’re not, is all confusion and illusion of various sorts.

redwood terrace fungus 01
A tree with moss and fungus in Redwood Terrace photographed by my best friend.

Posted in music

My lifelong nightmare in music.

At some point, my grandfather was involved in a Mason Williams benefit concert to save the Willamette River from damming.  This portion of the Willamette ran right through where my grandpa lived, and my grandpa was very musical, so it makes sense he would’ve been involved.  The upshot being that we had a bazillion records of Of Time And Rivers Flowing (a product from the benefit) kicking around our house, and listened to them a lot.

Anyway, the following song was probably the worst nightmare I could think of.  I was fascinated by it and horrified by it and felt every part of it as if it was happening to me every time I heard it.  Living without water is a terrible thing.  Think about that when you hear of water shortages, water crises, people with no access to water, people sabotaging the water supplies of would-be immigrants, take this song to heart.  I did, I always have, I always will, even when I was a little fuzzy on who Dan was (a pack mule, although I’ve heard some people say he could be a horse as well, but definitely originally a mule).

Lyrics:

All day I’ve faced a barren waste
Without the taste of water
Cool water
Dan and I with throats burnt dry
And souls that cry for water
Cool clear water

Keep a-movin’ Dan
Don’t you listen to him Dan
He’s the devil not a man
And he spreads the burnin’ sands with water
Dan can’t you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me?

The nights are cool and I’m a fool
Each star’s a pool of water
Cool water
With the dawn I’ll wake and yawn
And carry on to water
Cool clear water

Keep a-movin’ Dan
Don’t you listen to him Dan
He’s the devil not a man
And he spreads the burnin’ sands with water
Dan can’t you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me?

Dan’s feet are sore
He’s yearnin’ for
Just one thing more than water
Cool water
Like me I guess he’d like to rest
Where there’s no quest for water
Cool clear water

Keep a-movin’ Dan
Don’t you listen to him Dan
He’s the devil not a man
And he spreads the burnin’ sands with water
Dan can’t you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me?

Cool clear water

A mirage on the Mojave Desert, looking like water in the distance.
If you’ve never seen one, this is what a mirage can look like. That line about the devil spreading the sands with water is not really a metaphor. It actualy looks like water. Mirages are another thing that scared the crap out of me as a kid.  Water that isn’t water…

Also, always respect your environment if you’re headed somewhere like a desert because you just want to see its beauty or whatever other reason.  If you’re going somewhere without easy access to fresh drinking water, understand what that means.  Respect that you could die even if you know what you’re doing.  That should go without saying, but so many people enter harsh physical environments unprepared and don’t understand what that means.  If you don’t go in thinking you could die even if you’re prepared, you’re a fool many times over.  “Nature” won’t automatically provide and save you, “nature” may chew you up and spit you out dead.  Always respect the power of where you are, always respect your smallness in the world, always respect your fragility against the elements, always respect that if you get into trouble in such an environment other people may die trying to save you or locate your body (and still may not succeed).  Understand your responsibilities, understand danger, have some frigging respect, don’t undertake such things lightly.

More about the concert and the album:

“Of Time and Rivers Flowing” was a concert I put together during the summer of 1982. The concept was to present, in chronological order, songs about rivers and water that have been popular throughout history. The intention was to show our long-standing relationship with rivers –that they run not only through the land, but through our hearts and minds as well.

The idea of an entire program based upon rivers and water came about in this manner. In May of 1982, the Springfield Utility Board announced plans to put five hydroelectric dams on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, one of the most beautiful, wild, free-flowing streams left in the country, and also my favorite trout stream.

I went with several other citizens from Oakridge to a public forum held in the high school auditorium to discuss the matter. Everyone was adamantly against the idea of the dams. Feelings ran high.

However, one group at the meeting, the McKenzie Flyfishers, a small club of flyfishing enthusiasts from Eugene, Oregon, was organized with facts and figures about the negative effects this project would have on the river should it come to pass.

After the meeting, in spite of the fact that all felt they had done their best to speak on the river’s behalf, for me the idea persisted that if only somehow the river itself could have been at the meeting to speak for and defend itself at its own “trial,” so to speak, it would have made the most eloquent statement of all.

Music and water have much in common; rivers are like music and music is like a river. They speak well of one another. Both flow through time, purifying themselves as they go, nourishing life along the way.

Then it dawned on me that the river could have a voice, in the form of the songs and music it has inspired over the years. Music could bring the river to the meeting! I began searching for songs about rivers and water and managed to collect more than 400.

One of the people I met through the McKenzie Flyfishers was Jim Williams. An avid flyfisherman,he not only lives right on the McKenzie with a drift boat ramp in his backyard, he is a past president of the McKenzie Flyfishers and of Oregon Trout as well. He and his wife, Bonnie, became and continue to be my greatest allies and supporters.

In March of 1983, the McKenzie Flyfishers and I joined forces to present three benefit performances at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. We sold out all three shows and the Flyfishers used the money earned to successfully lobby a bill through the Oregon State Legislature. On July 6, 1983, the governor signed a bill formally adding the North Fork and its headwaters, Waldo Lake (the purest lake in the world!), to Oregon’s system of protected State Scenic Waterways.

Only two percent of the rivers in America are still wild, free-flowing streams. Federal laws set up to encourage energy development have not adequately addressed the numerous other benefits rivers can and do provide. In the ever-increasingly industrialized world in which we live, the natural river becomes a rare gem impossible to value, possessing an intrinsic reality unrelated to economic profit.

Today the “Of Time & Rivers Flowing” concert has continued to evolve in content. A reflection of “the river” metaphorically through time, it is a chronological river of musical history spanning almost 400 years.

The songs tell the story of our long relationship with rivers. Rivers have been the routes of exploration, the boundaries of territories, the highways of commerce, and they have sustained us with water, food, recreation, beauty and inspiration. We sing of it, and in doing so, reflect ourselves. Some of the more recent songs, unfortunately, speak of the degradation the rivers have experienced in modern times.

The concert serves to draw attention to the universal experience that is the river. Of Time & Rivers Flowing makes the audience aware of the potential of our collective personality. By giving the river a voice – a chance to speak to us through the music it has inspired – it can remind us of what we mean to each other.

– Mason Williams
May, 1996

I grew up going to Oakridge (loads of family lived there) all the time, I (sort of) learned to skip rocks in its streams, and went swimming in Waldo Lake and all these places they talk about, so I know this river and the water and terrain around it intimately.  Water mismanagement is rampant in the American West and even the parts that have not been hit hard yet will feel the effects before long.  My father, like many Okies of his generation, is from the two counties at the epicenter of the California water crisis — this is personal as well as everything else it is.  But Tulare and Kern counties are only the beginning for California and elsewhere.  If you don’t pay attention, you won’t know what hit you.  Listen to the song and think about what it means to be without water.  Whenever you hear of water shortages, of people being made to live without water or safe water, of water and waterways and water sources being taken away or polluted or misused, anything, understand what no water means.  Really understand it.

Posted in music

Why I admire Kate Bush.

Kate Bush, arms outstretched in a white dress on a black background, shown from two views at once, performing in the music video to Wuthering Heights.
Kate Bush performing in the music video to “Wuthering Heights”.

It’s definitely not because her style of music is the sort of thing I would normally listen to. It’s actually not, and it’s taken a while for some of her songs to grow on me. Then there are others I still don’t really want to listen to. So that’s not what I’m talking about.

I wrote a post before praising the best aspects of dorkiness. And one of those things is doing what you do without giving a crap what it looks like to other people. And that is what I really admire about what Kate Bush has done with her music and her dance and everything else.

It’s her dancing style that really caught my eye. She’s trained in both dance and pantomime pretty extensively. And in her music videos, she does this extremely theatrical dance that goes with the characters she is portraying.

That’s another thing that’s unusual about her music. She is a singer-songwriter. But she rarely writes about herself. She writes songs that portray specific characters. Sometimes the character is one she makes up. Sometimes it’s a character from movies or literature. She has said that the reason she does this is the characters are far more interesting to her than anything she could say about her own life.

One of her most famous characters is Cathy from Wuthering Heights. She has a song called Wuthering Heights. She wrote it because she saw the ending of one of the movies to Wuthering Heights on TV once. And she was fascinated by the ghost character. So she read the books and wrote a song based on that character and the perspective of that character. And then she created this entire dance to enhance what she already had there. And the music video shows this dance she did as the character.

 

Another character she did was a fetus, in a song called “Breathing”. Specifically, a fetus who has noticed somehow that nuclear war has broken out, and is afraid to leave the womb because of radiation and fallout. This is a very unusual character, and one she created herself.

It’s not the only song she did about the Cold War either. Songs written about the Cold War during the Cold War are actually one of my interests. I collect them. But that’s a whole nother topic.

Anyway, in the music video, she does the same thing. She puts everything she has into acting out this character. Even when this character is a fetus inside the womb freaking out about the Cold War. Which a lot of people would find over-the-top, ridiculous, or something along those lines. She doesn’t care. She will put everything into her version of this character, and acting out this character on her entire body.

This is something that got her mocked from the moment she made it onto the music scene. People did not want to admit they were listening to her. People made fun of her at every possible turn. And she kept right on doing what she was gonna do. She kept right on with her particular artistic bent. And people, whether they would admit it or not, kept on listening to her and watching her. The sheer numbers speak volumes.

So throughout the 1980s and beyond, people were making fun of her in public and listening to her in private. It is only in recent years that people have admitted how much influence she had over an entire generation of musicians. And how innovative her music was, and how important she was.

This is because although her music has always been popular, it has never been cool. And it was never cool to admit you were listening to her. She was influenced by psychedelic musicians and prog rock musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, and at the time she came onto the scene, that kind of music was decidedly uncool. Her music was something different, but still decidedly uncool.

But it didn’t matter that it was uncool. People still listened. People still watched. People still imitated and emulated and were influenced.

And I love that no matter how much anyone made fun of her, she kept on going wherever her particular vision took her. She just kept doing what she was gonna do. And she kept on doing it very well. And that takes a certain kind of strength that I think is very important.

People have said extremely cruel things about how I look just naturally. People always have. The way I move. The way I sound. My mannerisms. Everything. I still remember another disabled person saying he was embarrassed that I would in any way be considered to represent him. Not because of my viewpoints, but because he was embarrassed by how I move on camera. He was embarrassed by literally the way my body looks.

Having people be embarrassed by your existence is part of the sucky part of being a dork. In the least voluntary sense of the word dork. It’s not a good feeling when people are embarrassed to be seen with you because of things you will never be able to help. Or embarrassed to be associated with you. It’s just unpleasant.

And I see a lot of that embarrassment when people talk about Kate Bush. Now I don’t know how much of what she did was a personal choice, and how much was just a product of how she naturally functions in the world. But I see people who are embarrassed to watch her, or embarrassed to admit they like her music or her dancing. And that seems pretty terrible to react to someone that way. Publicly. And a lot of the mockery seems to stem from that.

But I seriously love that no matter what anyone said, no matter what anyone did, no matter how many parodies anyone made in a cruel way, she just kept on doing what she did. She just kept pursuing what she thought was the right way to be doing music and dance and art. And she made some amazing stuff.

And all of it, even though it is characters, she shows through. Who she is shows through in everything she does, not because she breaks character, but because of the styles she chooses to portray these characters with. And because her body moves in a way where you can see something of herself showing through in every movement she makes no matter what she’s doing — something true of me as well.  And she allows herself to show in these respects, extremely publicly, no matter how anyone else publicly responds to it.

I sometimes think people are embarrassed by things like earnestness, genuine enthusiasm, and authenticity.  She’s got plenty of all of that.

And that is why I admire Kate Bush.

Posted in music

A musician I wish more people knew about.

So I wish there was more material online, but there is this amazing blues musician that I only really ran into by accident. I had a staff person who was involved in the local lesbian community, and involved in putting on events. So I ended up being sort of part of that entire setup crew for a woman I had never heard of or seen before.

Her name was Gwen Avery. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. I had a wonderful time. I got to contribute to the preparations, and that was a big deal. Because people tend to assume I can’t do those kind of things. But I actually tend to do really well in environments where I am clear on what I need to do, and it’s something I can do pretty easily physically. And that’s the kind of thing that had me doing. So I was actually able to make genuine contributions to the prep work for the concert.

There had been some arguments over whether to take me. Because some people thought I would behave in embarrassing ways, and that I would not be able to do anything to contribute to anything was happening. And that I would just be like a burden on everyone or whatever. And that’s of course not what happened and the person actually said she was glad I came along. And that she was glad she got to know me better.

Anyway Gwen Avery’s singing and playing is amazing. You can’t help but move to it, at least I can’t. And it’s one of two concerts I’ve been to where I had no knowledge going in of even what kind of music I was gonna be listening to, but turned out to be two of the best concerts have ever been to. So I really wish there was more of her available online. All I can really do is show you a video of some interviews with her and some of her music.

And a Gwen Avery gallery with an article about her life.

She had the kind of voice I can listen to pretty much forever.  Textured and interesting and with a lot of depth.  I’m glad I got to listen to her and even meet her before she died.

Posted in culture, music

The common thread between country music and prog rock (no really!)

This is extremely heavy on the embedded videos.  Most don’t have lyrics embedded but the lyrics can be looked up.

So I know this makes me kind of weird and a little stereotypical for an Okie. But my absolute favorite music is country music. Not whatever the hell they’re calling country these days. But actual country music from back in the day, or country music that at least sounds like country music. Not this crap it sounds like easy listening with a southern accent.  Or pop with a southern accent.  Or this weird overproduced bullshit that sometimes passes for country these days. But country country. And sometimes there is good country that’s made these days, but it’s hard to find.

But I do like a lot of other kinds of music. There aren’t many kinds of music where I don’t like some of the things that are in them. And one of the things I like sometimes is prog rock. Prog rock is kinda hard to describe, but like you know those long 70s concept albums and that kind of thing. That’s prog rock.

Anyway, I finally figured out what it is that draws me to both country music and prog rock. It’s the thing they both have in common: the storytelling. They don’t tell stories in the same way. But they do very often tell stories. I would of course love to hear some kind of fusion of country and prog rock.  But the closest thing I could find was a weird bluegrass-esque version of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.  Yes this exists, this is “Comfortably Numb” by Luther Wright and the Wrongs:

I can’t find country prog or prog country or whatever you would call that combination. It’s possible, but there’s reasons the two are unlikely to mix much. Unfortunately.  Because I would love to hear it.

In country music, the song usually tells a story. It’s often the story of one person.  It will be often told from the point of view of that person, even if the singer isn’t that person. The singer may take on the persona of whoever they’re singing about. And that is normal common practice in how country does these things.

The singer will immerse themselves in this character and bring it to life.  On a very personal first-person level a lot of the time. They might be singing about other people too, it’s not always in first-person. But there’s usually a story. Sometimes it’s a fairly involved story.  Sometimes more of a character sketch.  Sometimes just one character at one moment in time, and what they’re going through. And it’s usually limited to the one song, they don’t do entire albums that are all one story. Even if they do an album on a theme, they’re gonna have just one story per song.

In prog rock, you often get elaborate stories. They often have a long plot.  They may jump around between characters, not making it easy to understand what’s going on. And they take place over the course of an entire album. It’s called a concept album. I used to, not knowing the term concept album, just call them story albums. Not all concept albums tell a story that way. But a lot of them do. And a lot of them it’s a long elaborate story, told over the course of an entire set of songs. Sometimes it goes in order like a regular story. Sometimes it’s nonlinear, with callbacks to different parts of it in the shape of the music itself. It’s definitely different than the way country would handle a story.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One of my favorite country songs is Lacy J. Dalton’s “The Girls From Santa Cruz”. As far as I’m concerned it’s about lesbian horse thieves. That’s what I want to believe anyway.

So it’s about two women who steal a stallion. They get chased down by a Texas Ranger.  The character who is singing is lamenting the fact that she has lost her companion Kim. Because Kim and the Ranger fall in love in the end and forget about her. She sounds a lot more broken up about what happened than someone just losing a friend or partner in crime. So to me it’s about lesbian horse thieves, and you can’t convince me otherwise. But you can see either way it’s a pretty simple story.

I grew up on a prog rock album called “Pink World”, by Planet P Project. It is a long double record that tells an elaborate story. Sometimes from the point of view of many characters.  Here’s the full album, all 1 hour 20 minutes of it:

The plot is a little more elaborate:

A boy drinks bad water behind a factory and get psychic superpowers. He starts predicting the end of the world (they wrote this during the Cold War). He gets taken into a government lab where they try to study him, but they’re also afraid of him. And he escapes. He can’t talk. But he can move things with his mind and he can read people’s minds. And someone pushes the button. Nuclear war breaks out.  This boy, Artemis, starts a cult and ends up saving a bunch of people by creating some kind of barrier that they can live behind. Except everything in this place he created resembles 1984. Or some kind of totalitarian dystopian cult type thing. They stay like that unchanging who knows how long. Artemis decides he made a mistake and just abandons everyone. And that’s the end of the album.

A lot of twists and turns and weirdness in there that I didn’t even get into. But you can see it’s an elaborate plot that takes place over two whole records.

Here’s a couple specific songs from it if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing.

“What I See” (from the point of view of Artemis predicting nuclear war and what he’ll do about it):

“In the Zone” (from the point of view of a resident of the cult/dystopia Artemis creates to survive the war):

Prog rock and country obviously handle stories in entirely different ways. But they do both tell stories.

Here are some more examples.  It’ll be a little country-heavy because the prog rock examples are often longer songs or entire albums at once:

COUNTRY: “Grandma’s Song” (Gail Davies)

PROG ROCK: “Thick as a Brick” (Jethro Tull)

COUNTRY: “Jesse Younger” (Kris Kristofferson)

COUNTRY:  The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band):

PROG ROCK:  Doomsday Afternoon (full album — about authoritarianism and environmental destruction) (Phideaux)

PROG ROCK:  “Candybrain” (one song from Doomsday Afternoon) (Phideaux)

PROG ROCK: “Micro Softdeathstar” (another song from Doomsday Afternoon) (Phideaux)

COUNTRY:  “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” (Kathy Mattea)

COUNTRY: “This Van’s For Sale” (Wayne Parker)

COUNTRY: “Calico Plains” (Pam Tillis)

COUNTRY: “Up With the Wind” (Lacy J. Dalton)

PROG ROCK: Number Seven (full album — about a dormouse who survives nuclear war)

PROG ROCK: “Darkness at Noon” (Phideaux, one song from Number Seven)

COUNTRY:  “I’m Hungry, I’m Tired” (Gail Davies)

PROG ROCK: “Part of the Machine” (Jethro Tull)

 

PROG ROCK: “Moribund the Burgermeister’ (Peter Gabriel) – yeah I know people don’t count his solo career after Genesis as prog rock, but this song was.

COUNTRY: “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” (Kathy Mattea)

COUNTRY: “Beer Drinkin’ Song” (Lacy J. Dalton)

COUNTRY: “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” (Charlie Daniels Band)

COUNTRY: “That’s Just About Right” (Blackhawk)

COUNTRY: “Mama Tried” (Merle Haggard)

COUNTRY: “Dakota (The Dancing Bear)” (Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge)

PROG ROCK: “The Hazards of Love 3” (The Decemberists)

COUNTRY: “Changing All The Time”

PROG ROCK:  “Static” (Planet P Project)

PROG ROCK: “Epitaph” (King Crimson)

COUNTRY: “Somebody Killed Dewey Jones Daughter” (Lacy J. Dalton)

COUNTRY: “Little Brother” (Wayner Parker)

Music as a means of storytelling is really important to me.  Music is one of the first ways I could understand and use language. It’s still easier for me to understand something if it’s a song.  Or to communicate by singing or playing music. There’s something about music that brings language together.  It brings comprehension together. It brings lots of things about communication and understanding together.

By the way, the guy who made “Pink World”, his name’s Tony Carey. He does his prog rock science-fiction music under the name of Planet P Project. What initially drew me to Tony Carey was not that “Pink World” was this giant story album. It was Tony Carey’s accent. Because Tony Carey is an Okie. Like my family. So he sounded familiar, he had that weird combination of a California accent and a bit of southern thrown in. And it reminded me of my father’s accent so I just felt comfortable with this guy’s music.

I later found out he did a song about the Dust Bowl (“Dust”):

And the funny thing is, as prog rock as Planet P Project is, someone once asked Tony Carey if he would ever do a country song. His reply was, “They’re all country songs.”