Wednesday, February 23, 2011

YouTube can offer up some real gems sometimes. I’ve been watching various Van Morrison videos, my favorites of which feature him performing on some German (?) TV show called Musikladen. They’re some fantastic performances, especially his awe-inspiring version of “Into The Mystic.” There are also, if you look around, some beautiful, epic versions of “Cyprus Avenue” and “Ballerina” from the early 70s. They’re incredible and moving in all the ways we’ve come to expect from Morrison.

This Van Morrison oversaturation led me to consider the video above, which is a clip from the 1995 film Georgia, which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a strung-out, no-talent wannabe singer who has a tumultuous relationship with her famous folksinger sister. I haven’t seen the movie in many years, but seeing it when I was fourteen or so was a major event: the soundtrack features songs by Elvis Costello and The Velvet Underground, artists I was only beginning to listen to, as well as a supporting performance by John Doe of X, a band I discovered because of this movie, and loved, and of course there is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s long, painful, terrible version of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back.”

The thing that’s most frustrating about Van Morrison is that, because he’s an artist of such transcendent power and talent, he quite often—more often than not, I’d say—fails to live up to that transcendence; for every breathtaking, almost supernaturally beautiful song in his catalog, there are ten than fall flat, or are merely pretty, or just sort of boring, or outright bad. “Take Me Back” is a perfect example. When I saw Georgia and heard Leigh’s version, I heard something that, crippled as it was, was straining to take flight, a yearning so great that it could lift even a singer as poor as her and set her beyond herself. Leigh’s version of the song is agonizing, but so human, so empathetic, so unafraid, it becomes something much bigger.

And then, years and years later, when I heard Morrison’s version, from his Hymns To The Silence album, I heard what I so often hear from him: a nice little song, one that, with its talk of walkin’ by the water and thinkin’ ‘bout all the trouble and confusion in the world, its labored repetitions of the title phrase, its pleas to “let me understand religion,” its green fields in the summertime, didn’t speak of transcendence, but was rather content to indulge in any number of forced “mystical” clichés. Rather than a singer being so entranced by the song he has created he disappears into it, I heard a pretty decent approximation of that release, one that is completely obliterated by Leigh’s ragged, highwire version.

And it’s not like I really blame Morrison for this; unlike almost any other artist I can think of, his best work truly seems to come from a place that is beyond him. I generally find that whole notion of an artist as a kind of divine antennae, picking up Mysterious Signals From Beyond, to be bullshit…but the disparity between his best work and his more common efforts almost causes me to bend enough to put at least some creedence into the thought. Or perhaps, more likely, the kind of intensity required for such moving work is just too much for any kind of sustained effort. In Lester Bangs’ peerless review—and “review” is really too small a word for what Bangs does; his essay is almost as beautiful as the album itself—of Astral Weeks, he writes

no wonder…that Van Morrison never came this close to looking life square in the face again, no wonder he turned to Tupelo Honey and even Hard Nose the Highway with its entire side of songs about falling leaves. In Astral Weeks…he confronted enough for any man’s lifetime. Of course, having been offered this immeasurably stirring and equally frightening gift from Morrison, one can hardly be blamed for not caring terribly much about Old, Old Woodstock and [other] little homilies…”

And one can hardly blame Morrison for, having reached the peak in his art any number of times, finally backing away.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Someone to do your dirty work

For years, I always assumed that the reason I didn't believe in God was that I lacked the capacity for belief, but I'm not sure if that's really the case. What I've come to suspect is that I lack the capacity for zealotry—because, if you believed, truly believed in an immortal and omnipotent being who existed before the dawn of time and who will exist forever, a being who exists outside the laws of space and time, who in fact is the creator of the laws of space and time, then how could you not be completely out of your mind? How could you not be one of those people standing on a street corner yelling at the passersby. How could you not be the sort of person who shoots abortion doctors or hijacks airplanes? How could the weight of something so immense, so beyond even the most extreme scope of the human imagination, not drive you completely insane?

Of course, the short answer is that it couldn't.

Friday, December 31, 2010

A-riding On A Pony

So I bought a box of Easy Mac, which, if you don’t know, is macaroni and cheese that you don’t have to boil, either because you’re too lazy or because…well, that’s the only reason, actually.

Anyhow, there are six packets of noodles/cheese mix in the box, and when you look at one of the individual cheese packets, which has the instructions printed for preparing a single pack on one side, on the other side, it asks “WANNA MAKE TWO PACKETS AT ONCE?”

Look, motherfucker: don’t patronize me. I just bought a box of microwavable mac and cheese. Of course I want to make two packets at once. I can hate myself that much faster that way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If you see me coming, look across the rich man's field

The other night I had a genuine Ghost World moment. I was on my way home from wherever, probably just driving around. I was listening to "Last Kind Word Blues" by Geeshie Wiley, a woman who is so mysterious no one even really knows the proper spelling of her name. She recorded this song and two others in 1930 and then more or less disappeared. It's a motherfucker of a song--it's dark and beautiful and almost impossibly otherworldly. When you listen to it you might as well be listening to a transmission from another planet. It's a haunting fragment from a place that no longer exists. It's a favorite of mine, and I doubt I will ever get to the bottom of it.

It was a nice warm night, late summer, and I had my windows down. I was sitting there in my car at a red light, across the street from the Circle K, and a blue Mustang convertible pulled up next to me. There were a couple of girls (women?) sitting in the car. I have no idea how old they were, but they were dressed like Leslie Mann in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, like women who were pretending they were still girls. When I sensed the car pulling up, I turned the radio down a bit as an act of, you know, simple human courtesy, which was something apparently lost on these two, as they continued to blast whatever the hell that Eminem/Rihanna song is called. The girl (woman?) sitting on the passenger side apparently noticed what I was listening to, because she asked the driver to turn down their music for a second. “listen to this,” I heard her say, indicating me. Eminem went momentarily quiet as they listened for my radio, paused for a moment, then started laughing.

The light turned green, Eminem roared back to prominence, and the three of us drove on into the night and the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stop And Look Around; It's All Astounding

How should he love thee? Or how deem thee wise?

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I thought I would mention that in that Insane Clown Posse video for “Miracles”, the duo make essentially the same argument for blissful ignorance as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet: To Science”, wherein the poet decries science as a “vulture, whose wings are dull realities,” who “prayest…upon the poet’s heart.” Walt Whitman, too, echoes Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope in his “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, where the poem’s narrator becomes “tired and sick” of “the proofs, the figures…the charts and the diagrams” presented him by the titled astronomer, and instead seeks the simple childlike wonder of the universe splayed dark and infinite above him in the night sky. finding “perfect silence” at the mere sight of the stars.

Like Whitman, The Insane Clown Posse also realize the intangible nature of beauty: “It’s just there in the air,” they tell us, “you can’t even hold it”; Like Poe, they realize that science is, at best, a poor substitute for the poetry of the heart: “I don’t wanna talk to a scientist,” says an impassioned Shaggy 2 Dope, “y’all motherfuckers lying/and getting me pissed,” his anger at man’s destructive urge to know all no matter the cost palpable and stirring.

One must dissect a thing to discover its works, these poets tell us, but the cost of knowledge is the death of wonder, and who but the most base and dull among us would make such a trade?

Monday, August 30, 2010

This guy Heath that I went to school with--he was a year behind me--got blown up the other day. He's some kind of oil field worker, and there was an explosion, and hey you know the rest. He's not dead, though, and is currently in intensive care some place close by, waiting for the day when the doctors tell him he's free to again walk the earth, and how lucky he is.

My most vivid memory of him is when I went to take the ACT. I went along with my friend Robby, and this guy, the one who got blown up, went along with us to take it as well. The three of us, packed into the brand-new Mustang that Robby's parents had just bought (a horrendous idea, as Robby was a fucking insane driver--he was going 110 mph the entire way to and from the testing site, on a two-lane highway, in the rain), drove from the little town we lived in (population 925) to the slightly larger town of Magnolia, Arkansas (population 11,800) to take the test. I guess Heath had never been in such a large and exotic city before, because every time he saw a black person, he was happy to point out to us "there's a nigger," or "look at that nigger over there," or, while waiting for our food at a fast food place, "I hope these niggers don't fuck up our order."

When I found out about his getting blown up, I took a look at his Facebook page. There were an enormous amount of get-well messages, and I scrolled through probably thirty-five and counted only three that didn't include some variant of "we're praying for you" or "you're in our prayers" or something along those lines, which means, I guess, that if he dies, then they were just not very good at praying, and God hates them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I spent the first twelve years of my life in Texas, and then another four years shortly after I graduated high school, going to what was technically a college, and living with my grandparents. Practically all of my extended family still lives there, and though I only moved about eighty miles away, it feels much farther in my mind, and I rarely go back. I doubt that anywhere I live will ever feel like home the same way it does when I take that left turn off Highway 155 onto the one-lane blacktop where I spent the majority of my earliest years. I left a lot of bones buried back there.

Guy Clark--seen above with his incredibly beautiful wife, Susanna--is from Texas. He’s one of those great Texas singer-songwriters you hear so much about, along with Steve Earle and Willis Alan Ramsey and of course Townes Van Zandt; he and Van Zandt were great friends, and while Clark is nowhere near as consistent as Townes, every now and then he would strike gold—“LA Freeway”, “The Randall Knife”, “Dublin Blues”, and, probably my favorite, “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” a song about the relationship between a young man and an older mentor figure—in this case the young man was Clark and the older was his grandmother’s boyfriend. It’s a beautiful song, and sad, and it tells the truth about how cruel time can be, its thousand little thefts that leave even the strongest of us with nothing. It tells the truth about what it’s like to love someone.

Funnily enough, the lyric I respond to most is the line about “them old men…playing/Moon and 42,” which are both domino games, and one of which, 42, was played by all the adults at every family event I can remember. Everyone would come to my grandparents’ and after whatever big holiday meal we would have, the shitty old card table would get broken out and the clack of dominoes would be inescapable for the next five or six hours. It’s honestly one of my favorite memories, and probably all the more precious to me because I never learned to play the game despite it being the background to literally a couple of hundred hours of my life: it’s just one of the countless regrets that pile themselves up on top of you when you think back to the people you knew and loved and all the things you could have done or said.

I could still learn to play, of course, but what would the point be? Anyone I would want to play with is long gone.