November 25, 2007

More Sunday afternoon ramblings

Very lazy day today. I'll backtrack a bit to explain why, then move on: Friday evening, I drove straight from work in DC up to King of Prussia, PA, to spend the night at a friend's house, then we left her place early Saturday morning to head to NY for a day of adventure-- A visit to Alex Grey's Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, then a reading by another friend of ours from her memoire-in-progress at the Bowery Poetry Club, then a bunch of us from the reading headed to Chinatown for a tasty dinner of vegetarian dim sum. And then, seven hours, three trains, and 154 miles driven at 80+mph later, I ended up back home in Maryland at 3:00am Sunday morning. Needless to say, I was a bit tired today. So, I headed out for a late lunch and a brief, easy meander through the woods at Monocacy National Battlefield Park.

I wish I could write about Saturday's experiences, but the day was a bit of a blur so I really don't have many concrete thoughts about it. The Chapel was incredible, but there were too many people there for me to fully absorb it the way I would have liked (which would have been to plop my butt down on the floor in the middle of the room and just sit there quietly for a while). And the memoire reading was funny and moving and stimulating. But, sorry, that's about all I can put together about it. So my thoughts were kind of vague and rambling today as I wandered through the woods along Monocacy River.

On the train(s) home last night, I began reading Brad Warner's latest book, Sit Down and Shut Up. His first book apparently describes his own discovery of Buddhism, specifically the Zen kind, and how he became an ordained monk. SD/SU is an explanation of the teachings of Dogen, an apparently influential 13th century Zen master. So far, Warner's focused on the idea of reality in Zen, and the process of sitting zazen. The guy's incredibly irreverent and even talks about how he pretty much hates being a zen monk and teaching the dharma. It's great stuff, because he explains everything so clearly and meaningfully, yet comes at it with an attitude that I can so easily relate to. I'd really love to know his take on the whole "loving-kindness" aspect of Buddhism, but I'm not sure whether that's a big concept in Zen. Guess I'll find out (or not) as the book progresses. Read this while at lunch and almost cracked up in the middle of the very crowded Golden Corral restaurant:

The truth is always with you at every moment, or as Dogen puts it, "The Buddhist truth exists under the foot of every human being." It's not something far away, abstract, or difficult. It is the uncomplicated and direct truth of what is right here, right now. Truth is not removed from your day-to-day existence. God, way up in heaven on his big gold throne, is just an idea. That itch on your left ass cheek right now is the truth. It's way bigger than God could ever hope to be.

Awesome stuff. Right up my alley.

Found myself at one point while sitting along the river, cursing as I have so many times before that I didn't have my camera with me. I had glanced downstream along the trail and noticed a very pretty interplay of clouds and tree branches, touched with a bit of gold from the late afternoon sun. Had the potential to be a great photo, but the camera was back at home. So I sat and had the debate with myself that I've had all those other times in similar moments: Should I make a point of always bringing the camera with me when I leave the house, or should I only bring it when I'm specifically in the mood to shoot photos? There are pros and cons either way.

With the camera, I can capture and keep a concrete memory of, not to mention share with others, all the gorgeous &/or interesting things that catch my attention. But having the camera with me changes how I move through whatever place I'm in. My vision is narrowed to the perspective of the view finder, and my perceptions become focused on lighting and composition. My other senses may as well just stay at home on those occasions.

Without the camera, though, I can allow the focus of my eyes to soften and my peripheral vision comes into play. I see more. Without the distraction of composing a picturesque shot, I'm able to have a more intimate connection to my surroundings and feel that I'm a part of the place. Which, in it's way, makes scenes such as the rosy-gold clouds behind those bare tree branches just that much more special, because I fully experience, yet can't capture, them. But, as special as those moments are to me, do they become even more meaningful when I'm able to share them with others via my photos?

Nice little circular argument, there.

And (apologies to anyone who's becoming tired of my Incubus obsession, feel free to read the poetry below but skip my babbling), I'm continuing to find inspiration in Brandon Boyd. I recently read a wonderful poem by Jane Hirshfield that made me instantly think of the Incubus song Pantomime (the lyrics of which I posted at the end of
this blog). First, here's Hirshfield's piece:

To Speech

This first, this last:
there's nothing you wouldn't say.

Unshockable inclusion your most pure nature,
and so you are like an iron pot---
whatever's put in, it holds.

We think it's the fire that cooks the stew,
but, speech, it's also you:
of fire-making and stew-making,
orator of all our plans and intentions.

We think we think with a self.
That also, it seems, is mostly you---
sometimes a single spider's thread of you,
sometimes a mountain.

The late sun paints orange
the white belly of a hawk overhead---
that wasn't you
though now and here, it is.

If a hungry child says "orange", her taste buds grow larger.

If a person undamaged says "hungry child",
his despondence grows larger.

You are not, of course, omnipotent.
In fact, you do little unaided by muscle, by matter.
And still, present and absent, speech, you change us.

As Issa changed, writing after the death of his daughter,

This world of dew
is a world of dew.
And yet.

How much of you
was left uninvited in those lines.
That silence your shadow, bringing his grieving to me.

For days
I made phone calls to strangers,
the few words repeated over and over,
between the "please, if you have a moment" and "thank you."

I didn't expect to make a difference, and didn't. And yet.

Your vehicles are air and memory,
teeth, tongue, papyrus, woodblocks, iron,
signing fingers, circuits, transistors, and ink.
A wheel is not your vehicle, nor an engine.

Terence was your vehicle,
saying in Latin:
"Whatever is human cannot be foreign to me."

Your own truth as well---
For all of our parts, you are our closest mirror,
growing thin or fat, muscular, clumsy,
speeding or slowing as we do.

The wolf-child without you called wolf-child, not-fully-human.

You are held, in the forms we can know you,
only by creatures
able to pass you to others
living often in sadness and tiredness, sometimes in hope.

A friend, who is sometimes sad, said this:
"To be able to hope means that we can also regret."

You rest, fierce speech, in both.
As well as in bargaining, persuasion, argument, gossip,
flirtation, jokes.

Fear, hunger, rage stammer beyond you:
what lives in words is what words were needed to learn.

And so it is good we sometimes set you down
and walk---
unthinking and peaceful, planning nothing---
by the cold, salt, unobedient, unlistening sea.

Only then, without you, are we able to see you completely,
like those wandering monks
who, calling nowhere home, are everywhere home.

I was struck by the contrast between Boyd's idea of gaining freedom by giving up speech and Hirshfield's concept of it as something that is so much a part of us. "there's nothing you wouldn't say... Unshockable inclusion your most pure nature" vs. "I've found beyond all doubt, we say more by saying nothing at all". There's a romantic irony to Pantomime, that vision of someone whose creative career depends on word and voice choosing to give up speech and communicate by less "messy" methods. Especially considering Hirshfield's contention that "what lives in words is what words were needed to learn".

I'll throw another final contrast into this rambling mess of a blog. I keep finding myself hitting the "repeat" button of the car's cd player for two specific, yet very divergent, Incubus tunes: One is the wacky Azwethinkweiz that I posted the lyrics to a few days ago, and the other is 11am, which is one of the most beautiful of the many gorgeous tunes on Morning View:

7 a.m.
The garbage truck beeps as it backs up
And I start my day thinking about what I've thrown away
Could I push rewind?
The credits traverse, signifying the end
But I missed the best part
Could we please go back to start?
Forgive my indecision

Then again, you're always first when no one's on your side
But then again, a day will come when I want off that ride

11 a.m.
By now you would think that I would be up
But my bedsheets shade the heat of choices I've made
And what did I find?
I never thought I could want someone so much
Cause now you're not here and I'm knee-deep in that old fear
Forgive my indecision
I am only a man

Then again, you're always first when no one's on your side
But then again, a day will come when I want off that ride

12 p.m. and my dusty telephone rings
Heavy head up from my pillow, who could it be?
I hope it's you...

Then again, you're always first when no one's on your side
But then again, the day has come and I want off that ride

To anyone who's read thus far... I'm not sure whether to thank you for your attention, or to think that you're more obsessively weird than I am.

November 21, 2007

Almost as much fun as Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"

Actually, the two really have nothing to do with each other aside from both being fun little bits of nonsense. This tune brings a grin to my face every time I listen to it:


Floatin' round my brain,
tryin' to think about the other thing
than that thought you know I'm considering.
What if what I thought
about who I think I thought I was,
was nothing more than my cerebellum slobbering?
Azwethinkweizm is hard to think about,
but simple to trust.
You'll know you're on it when your brain won't stop to take a break, no!
So when donut boy comes askin' around, tryin' to figure out somethin' new,
you just smile and say, "Pardon you!
I'm sifting through some particles and farcing through some folds
I've stumbled upon a brain fart which melts away your molds!"
So I think upon that ponder while I'm pondering the thought...
Just thinkin' about the 'thinkweiz is leaving me distraught!

Well I think I thought I saw an Azwethinkweiz
Lookin' like we think we do
Like we think we do

Some think I'm insane,
'cause I think about the other thing
than that one thought you call reality.
What if what you thought
about who you think you thought you were,
was nothing more than delusion rapidly crumbling?!
Azwethinkweizm should be a topic we all can trust-
It's just too bad that it makes your head go zippitykrack @$% dang!
So when donut boy comes sniffing around trying to figure out something new,
you just laugh and say, "Pardon you!
I'm sifting through some particles and farcing through some folds
I've stumbled upon a brain fart which melts away your molds."
So I think upon that ponder while I'm pondering the thought...
Just thinking about the thinkweiz is leaving me distraught!

Well I think I thought I saw an Azwethinkweiz
Lookin' like we think we do
Like we think we do

So what if you thought about the 'thinkweiz
was nothing like you think you are?
You'd probably more than likely be a looky-loo
Lookin' like you think you do
Like you think you do

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Incubus were a wacky bunch of boys way back when.

November 12, 2007 Incubus (It's done, Part II)

I've been considering lately what it is about Incubus that I've responded to so strongly since this past June. As mentioned before, I've known of the band for several years and never gave them a serious listen. I've written already (July 7, 2007 blog) about what made a couple of particular tunes jump out and grab my attention a few months ago, but as I started buying and listening to the rest of their catalog, I began to think about which elements of their music turned my initial reaction into a full-blown addiction. As with every other band with which I've been obsessed over the years, it comes down to the same two things: Words and a voice.

I don't know much about music theory and composition, but I do know enough to realize that all of the guys in this band are incredibly talented and creative. And the overall sound of the band is definitely the first thing that would get anyone's attention. As with T00l, there are musical interludes by Incubus that are very interesting &/or beautiful to listen to, and the live jams they go into in the middle of certain songs on stage are fascinating to both watch and hear. For me, though, Brandon Boyd is the undeniable focal point of Incubus.

So what is it about this guy? Might as well mention one thing right up front and get it out of the way: He's very pretty. Incubus often seems to be looked down upon due to this fact, as well as for the hordes of teenage girls who are apparently into the band for this reason alone. And I certainly can't deny that Brandon's got just about every physical quality that I find attractive and that I've created a folder on my computer of particularly appealing photos of him… But that's definitely not all there is to him.

First, there's the voice. If all you listen to are the singles that have taken over the airwaves and launched Incubus into top-of-the-charts status, it could be possible to label Brandon as some light-weight tenor who can wail but nothing more. But if you pick just one song and really listen, the quality of Boyd's voice quickly becomes obvious. First apparent is the clearness of his tone and enunciation. And there's an appealing youthfulness to the timbre of his voice, even on more recent songs released since he hit his 30's. Listening to a wider range of Incubus tunes, though, also reveals an impressive versatility. Early songs like Redefine and Vitamin, from 1997's S.C.I.E.N.C.E., are full of fast-paced rap and rougher, heavy metal-ish screaming. The same album, though, includes a complete 180 degree turnaround on Summer Romance, in which Boyd croons the verses in a smooth, warm, sensuous tone. And probably the best example of his control and power is in the song Nebula. The changes in tempo and style in this song demand incredibly precise diction and breath control. I've watched videos of live performances of this song on YouTube and Boyd doesn't stutter, skip a beat, or lose his breath at any point. That alone makes him a fairly amazing vocalist.

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. seems to be one of Incubus' most experimental albums in many ways, including vocally. Incubus and Boyd seemed to find a more defining sound beginning with Make Yourself, released in 1999. They continued to explore the boundaries of musical genres they associate with, though, while Boyd seemed to shift his focus to exploring the emotive range of his voice (which is a similar progression to that made by Chris Cornell in Soundgarden). On both Make Yourself and Morning View (2001), songs like Pardon Me, The Warmth, Just a Phase, 11:00am, and Aqueous Transmission showed that he has the ability to stir a variety of emotions through his singing. On A Crow Left of the Murder (2004), the song Zee Deveel indicated a return to some playful experimentation with different vocal sounds, while the rest of that album and the more recent Light Grenades (2006) confirm that Brandon's voice has become an instrument fully in complement to those played so well by the rest of the band members. The guy can hold his own against the best vocalists out there, including Chris Cornell in his prime, and deserves much more recognition than he gets for his talent.

But, like a pretty face, a fantastic voice alone isn't enough. Boyd apparently writes all of the lyrics for Incubus' songs and his words are what solidified my love of this band. As a bibliophile and writer-wanna-be, words are very important to me. As I mentioned in the July 7th blog linked above, it was the imagery and emotions evoked in Wish You Were Here that first struck me. The opening verse alone shows what an evocative poet Boyd is:

I dig my toes into the sand
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket
I lean against the wind
Pretend that I am weightless
And in this moment I am happy...happy

Very simple, yet the emotional state conveyed is intensely beautiful. But Brandon's word choice can also at times be quite, umm… idiosyncratic. The latest album, Light Grenades, is especially full of phrases such as "…if it's right to pick a fight, we're fingers in a sugar bowl" (Diamonds & Coal) and "You're 'bout as reliable as paper shoes in bad weather" (Paper Shoes) that on first listen come across as cliche'd sounding. Repeated listening, though, found me debating whether these lines really are trite or just very strangely clever. The song Here in My Room (from ACLOTM) is another example of the quirky contrasts in some of Boyd's lyrics. The guy writes ravishingly wistful love songs, yet this one jarred me the first few times I listened to it:

If the world would fall apart
In a fiction worthy wind
I wouldn't change a thing now that you're here
Love is a verb here in my room

Pink tractor beam into your incision
Head spinning as free as dervishes whirl
I came here expecting nothing
So thank you for being that kind of girl

Okay, so that one's not so much a love song as it is a lust song, but it gets the point across. "Pink tractor beam"?? Every time I hear this song, I just shake my head at how cornball that line is, especially in contrast to the gorgeous imagery of whirling dervishes in the line immediately after it.

I can't speak for critics or fellow fans, but I personally have come to the conclusion that Boyd's quirky lyrics are the result of what seem to be some interesting personal eccentricities. Considering those eccentricities along with how he expresses himself musically and in interviews, though, leaves a strong impression of someone totally at ease with himself. In speaking about one of my other favorite song-writers, Chris Cornell (same July 7th blog from above), I mentioned that what I always identified most with in Cornell's lyrics was the tortured quality he seemed to convey. While I accept certain aspects of my own character, I still battle with them on a continual basis, and I sense the same sort of struggle in the words of my favorite old Soundgarden songs. Maynard James Keenan is another lyricist I've discussed, who has also brought his internal struggles for growth to light in his songs. T00l's music has progressed over the years from bitter and angry to more contemplative and spiritual, and I've related strongly to that progression as I've followed my own difficult path. Still, though, some of my favorite T00l tunes are their darkest and most ugly. In contrast, there's nothing at all tortured about Brandon Boyd's lyrics. There's often intense frustration, even anger, and he sings more than once about the scars he bears, but underneath any negative expressions in his lyrics seem to lie a strong sense of self and a belief that things can be changed for the better. What resonates most strongly for me are Brandon's seemingly optimistic spirituality and his ability to find joy in the world in spite of the things that leave him confused or dismayed. I've come to a point in my life where I've realized that's how I want to live, and listening to Boyd's words has become an inspiration for me.

It could be easy to dismiss many of Brandon's lyrics as being so simple as to approach naiveté, but in a way that's the very beauty of them. Coming from years of listening to Soundgarden and T00l, I find the ingenuousness of his imagery and metaphors to be refreshing and very engaging. It's like the simplicity of Zen compared to the deep mysteries and ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. To have such words conveyed by that voice of his is a potent combination. I have a feeling it's going to be a blast to follow Boyd's continuing maturation as an artist.


In my fantasy
I'm a pantomime
I'll just move my hands and everyone sees what I mean
Words are too messy
And it's way past time
To hand in my mouth
Paint my face white, and try to reinvent the sea
One wave at a time
Speak without my voice
And see the world by candle light

I ain't afraid to let it out
I'm not afraid to take that fall
But I've found beyond all doubt
You say more by saying nothing at all

In my fantasy
No such thing as time
Minutes bleed into days of avant garde art, show
Me your heresy and I'll show you mine
We only speak in pantomimes on this carpet ride

I ain't afraid to let it out
I'm not afraid to take that fall
But I've found beyond all doubt
We say more by saying nothing at all

In my fantasy
You look good entwined
In my hair and skin and spit and sweat and spilled red wine
You're my deep secret
I'm your pantomime
I'll just move my hands
I promise you'll see what I mean

November 11, 2007

It's done: From Cornell... (Part I)

This is the first of what will be two long, rambling babblings about music, so if you're not into Incubus or Chris Cornell you may want to skip both of them. Unless, of course, you find my writing incredibly compelling, in which case, read on…

On 11/9, I drove 4 hours from DC up to Allentown, PA, with the two-fold purpose of seeing Chris Cornell perform at the Crocodile Rock Café and to meet a bunch of people from the Cornell forum. Leading up to the show, I realized that I was more excited about meeting the forum folks than I was about seeing Chris. Since getting into Incubus over the summer, I haven't even listened to Cornell for the last two months. No Soundgarden, no Temple of the Dog, no Euphoria Morning. But I was still expecting to be entranced and transported once he walked onstage.

So, all of us forum folk found each other in line at the Croc, and we all managed to get right up at the front of the stage, directly below one of the speaker stacks hanging from the low ceiling. Some of us had seen Chris at least few times this year, and some hadn't seen him perform for a handful of years. Every one of us was fairly giddy with anticipation as we waited through the opening act and the set change.

And then it began. The lights dropped, the band members filed out and began playing on stage, and I craned my neck to watch for Chris to emerge from the backstage door. I could see a tall shadow reflected on the wall and knew it was him, and the disagreeable thought flashed through my mind that Chris Cornell was making us wait so that he could have a grand entrance. That thought was disregarded, though, once he finally strolled out and hit the stage to tear into "Let Me Drown" and "Outshined". The one-two punch of those ripping SG tunes had me banging my head and dancing as much as was possible in the confines of the crowd, even after I realized that I couldn't hear a single note of what Chris was singing. Now, everyone says that the sound is always terrible right up front, but I swear I could hear every screaming note from the two guitar players. They were mixed so loudly, though, that I heard nothing of The Voice. The music was ridiculously loud. Through the first several songs, the guitars shredded my ears and the bass literally had my guts quivering to the point of nausea. For a while, though, it didn't matter, since I recognized the music, I could hear the people around me singing the same words I was singing, I could see Chris mouthing those words, and it got me excited. When the band left the stage for Chris' acoustic set, I finally was able to somewhat hear the golden tones I came for. And that was the turning point. One of the tunes he played acoustically was "I Am the Highway", which for the past few years has been my theme song, if you will. I had my hands up, swaying along with the song, and I gradually became aware that I really wasn't feeling the rapturous emotional response to Chris' singing that I felt in Baltimore and Philly earlier this year. I realized that I was just going through the motions. That and the twisted sensations in my gut suddenly left me subdued. There were a few points further on when I felt a nostalgic exhilaration in response to an old SG tune or two, but for the most part I just did not enjoy the show.

When it was all over, the crowd began filing slowly towards the exit. The forum folk all stopped to re-group near the swag table, and a few expressed interest in the t-shirts. Now, I generally don't wear clothing that advertises anything, not even the music that I'm into. And the fact that every single one of the Cornell shirts incorporated his illegible signature into the design was slightly distasteful to me. I don't know whether it was an impulse brought on by sheep mentality or what, though, but I ended up shelling out $20 for a shirt with one of the cooler, more obscure designs.

Afterwards, we all headed to a local diner to grab some food and hang out. I felt like crap and couldn't bring myself to consume more than a cup of soup and some tea. After a while, the conversation became targeted on how skinny, haggard and unhealthy Chris had looked during the show. Was it the clothes he was wearing, was he tired out by non-stop touring since March..? None of us had a real clue, of course, but we were all disturbed by it. The talk continued as people brought up things that had struck them about his facial expressions and antics on the stage and then, as will happen when you get a group of fanatical music fans together, we began to analyze various examples of Chris' bizarre behavior as represented in the media over the last several months. Photos of his home in a recent issue of In Style, an interview in a Turkish mag that included photos of him and his wife Vicky lounging around and having a pillow fight on their hotel bed, the cancellation of a couple of shows so that he could perform at a media event for Paris Hilton… Based on postings at the CC forum, things of this nature have many of his fans confused, and have blatantly turned off many others. At one point during the conversation, I posed the question that I've considered many times over this past year: What would the 20-something punk rock Chris Cornell of Soundgarden think of what he's recently become? The general consensus around the table was that the early Cornell would be scornful of the actions of the current one. But what do we know, really? We're just a bunch of fans basing our opinions on what we see and read, much of which is either taken out of context, misquoted, or totally created by the media. What I do know, though, is that the t-shirt I bought after the show is now a symbol of my nostalgic love of what Chris Cornell was and the music he once made. I am no longer a fan of the new Chris Cornell. **

That said, I've also been considering lately what it is about Incubus that I responded to so strongly this past summer. As I've mentioned before, I've known of the band for several years and never gave them a serious listen. I've written already about what made a couple of particular tunes jump out and grab my attention a few months ago, but as I began buying and listening to the rest of their catalog, I began to think about which elements of their music turned my initial reaction into a full-blown addiction. As with every other band with which I've been obsessed over the years, it comes down to the same two things: Words and a voice. (See part II, if you're so inclined)

** I feel that I should add some kind of caveat to the statement that I'm no longer a fan of Chris Cornell, since it was very hard to write that. As my Incubus obsession levels off, I know that I will definitely continue listening to Soundgarden and other Cornell music previous to the second Audioslave album. And if I hear that the guy transforms again and quits acting like such a fucking Rock Star, I'll certainly give his next album a fair listen. Until then, I am a confirmed Incubus addict.

November 4, 2007

Impermanence in WV

Had a surprise on today's drive. After breakfast in Shep'town, I set out to cruise some back roads I first explored a couple of weeks ago. At one point along this curvy little set of roller-coasters during that October drive, I had to slow down for a young boy of 9 or 10 who was playing basketball in the road. As he moseyed off the blacktop, I glanced at what I assumed was his home. There in the midst of farmland sprinkled with nice, somewhat aged, little single-family homes, was a stereotypical West Virginia trailer-cum-shack, complete with junk-strewn front yard. At the edge of the yard, apparently for the kid's entertainment, they'd erected a basketball hoop facing out into the road. Having been the only obstacle to an otherwise smoothly flowing cruise, the boy stayed on my mind for a while that afternoon.

So today I'm flying along the same road and remember that, not sure exactly where, but somewhere, I'm going to need to watch out in case that kid's out in the middle of the road again. Cresting a small rise, I recognize the spot and am taken aback. Not only is there no boy with a basketball, but the trailer/shack is nothing but charred black bits pointing up at a roofless sky, in the middle of all those piles of junk.

And the basketball hoop is still there, on top of its pole along the edge of the road.

November 2, 2007

November 2nd haiku

Another great hike today that inspired a bit of haiku. Too bad the poem's not as good as the hike was

Hot November sun
A deer snorts in the distance
Sycamores applaud

Ya had to be there.