December 19, 2016

What's shocking anymore?


I watched the movie Cabaret over the weekend, which I think may be the first time I've seen it since, oh, high school or so. Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies was as creepily fantastic as ever. I'm better able now to appreciate Liza's insane talent and quirky beauty.  And, well, I've never not appreciated a young Michael York. Fosse did a stupendous job and it's as effective a film as it ever was.

I found myself thinking about it this morning, though, as I pulled a towel out of the linen closet and glanced at my shelf full of bottles of nail polish-- Reds ranging from crimson to ruby to almost-black maroon, silver and gunmetal grey, baby blue, cobalt blue, midnight blue with sparkles, copper, and a deep green that echos Sally Bowles' signature shade. It was her signature because it was, in her mind and in that era, "shocking", a bit of "divine decadence".  The bisexuality of the film was also shocking, in that era and also still in the one when the film was released.  The scenes in the cabaret had a degree of shocking titillation to them. 

But none of those things are shocking anymore. Non-hetero sexualities are still controversial, but rarely hidden anymore. Burlesque and cabaret shows are hip entertainment these days. And, well, there's my shelf full of nail polish.

Is there anything from the film Cabaret that can still shock us?  That's a leading question, and I hope you get it.

August 13, 2016

Overheated crow

It was very hot today.

Saw something I've never seen before. Walking across the parking lot, I saw a crow sitting on a signpost a handful of feet in front of my car.  Shoulders  drooped and wings hanging down, with its beak wide open. Not cawing or calling, just open like a prolonged gasp for air. I stood next to the car and watched it sitting there. Another car pulled into the space in front of mine, right next to it. A group of young women got out, then stood there chattering at each other and gathering their belongings out of the car.  The crow was too overheated to even take fright and fly off, it just sat there next to them, droop-winged and slack-beaked, while the girls chattered and walked away.  I had the empty plastic tray from a Starbucks snack combo in the car, so I tore the lid off of it and filled the bottom half with what was left of the water in my bottle. When I took a few steps toward the signpost to set the tray on the ground, the crow heaved itself off the sign and swooped up onto the limb of a tree next to the car (I always park in the shade if I can).  It sat up there looking down at me with its beak still in that open gasp. As I got into my car and drove away with the air conditioner cranked full blast, I hoped it understood what I'd left for it.

August 12, 2016

Icarus and ecstatic inspiration

How do you place a value on inspiration? 

On July 30th, Jack White had a party at the two locations of Third Man Records, in Nashville and Detroit, to celebrate the realization of... what?  An inspired dream?  A crazy idea? A frivolous lark?  What you call it depends upon your perspective, but a little over five years ago, the man got the idea in his head to play a record in space, and then he made it happen. That's not as easy as it sounds, what with the delicacy of turntable tonearm weight, turbulence, temperature fluctuations, the fragility of vinyl, and reduced gravity.  I'm not going to go into detail here as to how they made it work since it was described in great depth by Third Man Records and many news sources. And not just the usual music blog suspects-- My personal favorite was seeing it at Smithsonian, but it was also at CNN (with a great little video re-cap), Popular Mechanics, and Discover, along with a handful of techy sites like Space, ZME Science, techly, and this highly detailed one from Outside

No, what inspired me to write about the whole endeavor was the lone comment on the coverage at Vulture:  "There are children starving in this world. But hey. 162 retweets."  I started to respond defensively to that, thinking "Since when is it up to rock stars to feed all the starving children? In an ideal world, wouldn't our local, state, and national governments help to ensure there's food for all?", but then I thought about how I've leveled the same criticism at NASA and its space exploration program.  What is the point of space exploration? How can we think of colonizing Mars when we can't even feed all of the people on this planet? Shouldn't that be our first priority, and space exploration come after that?  

I don't know the answer to that. But it's obvious that humanity is compelled to explore. That's how we ended up spread all over this world. That's how we've mapped almost every centimeter of even the areas we don't inhabit. That's how we've discovered, and continue to discover, all of the species we share it with. So it's to be expected that we'd turn our curious minds to what's out there beyond this planet. And there are (or have been) those among us, like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, who are able to blend their curiosity and compulsion to explore space with a deep concern for the welfare of people here on Earth.  


Presumably it was that video of excerpts from Carl Sagan's show Cosmos that sparked this idea of Jack's. In 2009, he not only released the audio of that video as a vinyl record on Third Man Records, he also joined the Planetary Society (note the pertinent quote at that link: "He said he's highly motivated to keep in touch, so we're very excited."). Jack's said many times that A Glorious Dawn is one of the releases he's most proud of, so of course it would be a continuous source of motivation to him, to spur the idea of having that exact record be the first actually played in space. He mentioned the project publicly once, in an interview with Buzz Aldrin in 2012, but then was quiet about it and seemingly busy with other things since then.  

But Jack is someone who makes things happen. In talking with Marc Maron, he described his younger self as "very go-getter..., always truckin' really fast" and that's obviously not changed. With Conan O'Brien, he talked about working hard, pushing yourself, cookin' and getting somewhere. Eddie Vedder put it very well when Pearl Jam recently played in the Blue Room of Third Man in Nashville, saying, “We all have ideas... But not only does he have ideas, he sees them through.” Having money obviously helps him to achieve things like playing a record in space but, really, it's more the people he surrounds himself with, people who are, to use his phrase, "cookin'". It seems he seeks out the right people and then creates an atmosphere of inspiration and curiosity in which everyone can work together to accomplish apparently pretty much any idea. It makes me intensely curious to know what sort of things he's dreamed up that he hasn't been able to achieve. In the case of this project, he drew in people from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Buzz Aldrin to Kevin Carrico, an old pal from Jack's early days on the music scene in Detroit who seems like a fascinating and inspiring person himself. There's a lesson in that.

As for myself, as a fan of not just Jack's music but his non-stop curiosity and compulsion to create, I've struggled with feelings that I'm not creative enough. How can I say I'm inspired by him if there's no result to show for that inspiration? I'm a tolerably decent writer and a somewhat good photographer, but that's where I feel my creativity ends. But one of the things I've learned about myself in the time I've been following Jack is that what turns me on isn't creating. It's exploring. Part of the excitement of all those shows of his I've been to has been going to new places. In some cities I haven't seen much more than a sidewalk in front of a theater, but I've still seen things (Did you know Omaha is full of animal sculptures?) and experienced things (sleeping with the homeless in San Francisco) that I wouldn't have if I'd not gone there. I've explored much of Nashville and its surrounding areas, and have now embarked with the same determination to thoroughly get to know Detroit. Beyond physical places, I've explored blues music and the history of this country that it's steeped in. A more recent and completely unexpected Third Man Records release exposed me to Greek folk music and taught me about the history of that culture. Hell, this musician even had me exploring science before this big event-- I'd read the works of Sagan and Hawking before, but I'd not heard of Nikola Tesla until Jack introduced me to him.

It's been impossible for me to be a fan of Jack's music and Third Man Records without being set on continuous multiple courses of physical and intellectual exploration. And if he has that effect on me, what effect might crazy/beautiful things like the Icarus launch have on other fans or, even more compellingly, on the children of his fans, kids who are young and impressionable and, hopefully, easily awed and motivated by seeing someone with Jack's cool factor geeking out over combining art and science? What ideas could they get from that? How might they be inspired to "cook"?  

Our main goal from inception to completion of this project was to inject imagination and inspiration into the daily discourse of music and vinyl lovers. Combining our creative impulses with those of discovery and science is our passion, and even on the scale that we are working with here, it was exhilarating to decide to do something that hasn't been done before and to work towards its completion. And, it brings us great fulfillment to pay tribute to the incredible scientist and dreamer that Carl Sagan was. We hope that in meeting our goal we inspire others to dream big and start their own missions, whatever they may be.

What value do you place on that? Is the price of building a craft to play a record in the stratosphere too much, or just enough? Again, I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that it excites the hell out of me and makes me hope that Jack keeps on cookin' for a long time to come. 

At the beginning of this, I mentioned parties at Third Man to celebrate the playing of A Glorious Dawn in space. I went to the Detroit branch for the event, specifically so I could see the Icarus craft up close and to share the excitement of Jack's and his team's accomplishment with friends and fellow fans. Here's a taste (full album here)--  

Video courtesy of Yvette Wilkins

And, if you want the full experience, here's the complete stream of the Icarus launch and landing. If you've the time for it, it's beautifully meditative-- 

July 2, 2016

Trains & Vultures (This is not Baltimore)

I wished several times today I'd had my camera with me, but oh well. Word pictures will have to suffice. 

Rode a stretch of the C and O Canal between two  historic train depots. Had a delayed start thanks to the fact that they're still active depots-- At the one where I chose to begin, the barriers were down at the crossing of the one road leading down from the parking lot to the towpath (and a boat ramp and campground), and there sat a train that seemed to stretch from one end of the town to the other.  Every now and then it'd shudder, the couplings between the cars would clank, it'd move forward a few feet, then go still and just sit there again.  Got tired of waiting after a while and rode to the end of the parking lot and then onto a gravel road that led up past a lumber yard and into the woods.  Doubled back after a bit to find the train gone and the tracks crossable.

Few other stretches of the C and O towpath illustrate as well as this one the building race that took place between the canal and railroad companies.  For a handful of miles, there are only a couple hundred feet between the tracks and the canal. Taking a break at one of the old lockhouses, I marveled at the creativity of railroad graffittos as another long freighter oozed by. Those graffiti guys really should be graphic artists. Despite much of it being illegible, the fonts they come up with are often pretty spectacular.  

If you wanted to learn about the variety of rails and rail-tie fasteners, the maintenance yard behind the station at the far end of my ride would be a good place to start, with weed-grown but neatly labeled sections piled with rusted iron pieces.  I was especially curious about the sections of rail lying under the sign that read "FROGS".   Stood for a long time in front of a partly boarded-up and condemned maintenance building with some terrific brickwork, watching a grey-headed black vulture preen and stretch its wings on the sill of a glass-less second-story window. Another was perched at the edge of a hole in the roof.  I expected them to become alarmed and fly off, but they didn't.  The one in the window just sat there and looked at me while I looked at it, then it preened and stretched, and stretched and preened, occasionally turning to look into the room behind it.  It looked back into the room often enough that I began to wonder if they were a mated pair with a nest in that room.  The one on the roof periodically shrugged its shoulders and half-lifted its wings behind it.  Like all vultures, they were butt-ugly and absolutely gorgeous at the same time and I wonder how many people would understand what a huge kick I got out of standing there watching these two that were so relaxed despite my presence.

Almost lost my bike at the end of the ride, thanks to another train across the crossing in the same place as the one at the beginning of the ride.  It'd apparently been there for a while, judging by the number of cars and fellow bike riders waiting on the road up from the canal and boat ramp.  I struck up conversation with an older gent who'd ridden down from his house in town, just a block or so up from the train station.  He said it was the first time in all his years living there that he'd gotten stuck by a train like that.  We watched a couple of kids climb up the ladder at the back of a freight car at the road crossing, scurry across and down the ladder on the other side.  

After chatting a few more minutes, the old guy said he was tempted to do what the kids had done, if only he didn't have his bike with him.  I suggested we team up, one climb the ladder onto the platform at the end of the freight car, the other lift up our two bikes, then one climb down and the other hand the bikes down.  Well, he didn't quite get the plan.  We walked over and he immediately lifted his bike up onto the platform, then climbed up after it and began lowering it down the other side, saying he just wanted to see if it'd work.  Teamwork would've been more efficient, but he obviously didn't see it that way so instead of waiting for him, I said "Hell with it" and lifted my own bike up as he was climbing down the other side.  Got it up onto the platform and was trying to get it balanced enough to let go and climb up when the train gave a bit of a sigh and began to move. So I grabbed the bike and began to pull it back down, only to have the front wheel turn sideways and become lodged against the handrails of the ladder. The train was only up to walking speed but gradually quickening and I only had so much pavement left before it moved beyond the road crossing.  Visions of my bike hobo'ing its way to who-knows-where flashed through my head as I stretched and struggled to reach up and straighten the handlebars, while the older gent stood in the road on the other side of the train and called over "Sorry 'bout that, darlin'!"  Then desperation won out and I got the wheel straightened and yanked the bike down and as the train picked up speed behind me I turned around and grinned a grin of crazy relief to the folks in the pickup truck who'd watched the whole pecadillo and said "Oh well, that's the chance you take when you try to cross a train!"  Then I stood and leaned on my bike in giddy patience as a seemingly interminable number of freight cars went by.

Sitting in the car scribbling all this down so it could be typed later, I watched yet another train go by in the opposite direction.  On one of the cars was a simple graffiti in clear black lines:  "I SEEN A MAN DIE 2 DAY".  

Had a laugh when I stopped for Chinese food on the way home--  The fortune in my cookie read "Fortune truly helps those who are of good judgement."

This is Baltimore, vol.582 (A pictorial)

In and around this part of town--

February 14, 2016

A tale of two pilgimages: From Elvis' house to Jack's

Recently got back from a weekend in Nashville full of cool stuff, starting out the night I arrived by wandering through the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood Art Crawl in order to see Th3 Anomaly, a hallway-spanning, floor-to-ceiling, wall-covering, sci-fi graphic novel featuring Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne, and Sarah Bernhardt (who knew Sarah was a science geek?). Very compelling, entertaining stuff, the scope of which was incredible both in size and the amount of imagination and effort required to create it.

The next day was spent visiting a pair of old cemeteries in Franklin, hiking through Stones River, one of the few preserved Civil War battlefields in the Nashville area, and hopping off of route 840 to find the road leading to a castle overlooking the highway.  But the first of the dual purposes of this trip began on Monday, with a smooth three-hour cruise along route 40 from Nashville to Memphis to visit Graceland.

As they say on the website, "For fans of Elvis Presley, Graceland is the ultimate pilgrimage", and I'm a big fan of both Elvis and pilgrimages. And, seeing as how it's
 been just over two years since I plunged purposefully down the Elvis rabbit hole, the timing of this visit also made it a late anniversary celebration.

Coming down route 51, I had expected to turn off the highway onto a side street or two to get to the house, but there it was, right smack on the side of the four-lane road. Should've realized, considering 51's been christened Elvis Presley Boulevard but, no, it was a disorienting surprise.  It might have been a smaller neighborhood road back in the day, but not anymore, not with all the traffic and gas stations and fried chicken joints and the Graceland visitor's complex across the street. So I girded myself for a schlock attack and headed in to buy my ticket for the Platinum level "Elvis Experience", plus airplanes.  

You apparently can't walk up to Graceland anymore, unless you go early in the morning when the grounds are open for free walk-ins to the meditation garden where Elvis and his parent are buried. At any other time, you have to grab an iPad and headphones and hop a shuttle for a ride across 51 and up the long driveway to the front door.

My favorite photo from one of the visitor center exhibits, snagged from here

The thing most people seem taken aback by right away is how small Graceland is. It's probably half the size of today's average McMansion, and even cozier considering the number of people who inhabited it and just plain hung out there when E was still alive. 

Borrowed from here. Follow the link and click on the image there to be taken to the
360-view images used in the Graceland iPad tour.
Only the ground floor and a couple of basement rooms are open to the public. Visitors are told before entering that the upstairs area, and Elvis' bedroom specifically, are kept private and closed. His bedroom and the bathroom in which he died have apparently been completely untouched since his death (though, of course, someone scrounged up before-death and after-death photos for the morbidly curious amongst us). The closest you can get is the bottom of the stairs.

Borrowed from here, where there are a lot more great shots

But his parents' ground-floor bedroom is viewable, complete with a few of his mother Gladys' dresses hanging in her closet. What was it about those modest dresses hanging there that brought tears to my eyes?
From here
And I began sniffling again when the tour got to the kitchen and I imagined his grandmother, Minnie Mae (or, as Elvis called her, "Dodger"), holding court and cooking for the family.
Another shot from here
The basement, with its mirrored-ceiling tv room and tucked-fabric walls and ceiling pool room, is where things began to get noticeably ostentatious.
From here. That creepy-eyed little white monkey had brothers on display elsewhere in the house. 
From here
And then, of course, you come back upstairs next to the jungle room. Doesn't everyone have a jungle room with a built-in waterfall wall?

From here
Then you're suddenly stepping out the back door, following the walk-way to the carport and E's father Vernon's office, then to the trophy building, which is a series of rooms displaying gold and platinum records, movie posters and memorabilia, and awards for everything from music to philanthropy. Then into the racquetball house, which has been filled with displays of those famous/infamous jumpsuits.  And then you're back outside and the walkway wraps around to the side of the house to Elvis' meditation garden. One of the things that I was most surprised to learn about Elvis was the breadth of his spirituality. I'd assumed he was raised deeply Christian, being from the deep south and all. He was, of course, but he apparently explored a vast variety of faiths, reading everything from Kahlil Gibran to very New Age-y sounding stuff.  The meditation garden was built during his lifetime for exactly the purpose its name indicates, and it's perfectly fitting that it would become Elvis' final resting place, along with his parents and grandmother.

From here.
And, yeah, I felt no shame in pulling a Kleenex out of my pocket and wiping my eyes repeatedly while I stood there reading the inscriptions on their graves.

From here
Then it's back onto the shuttle bus and back across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the visitor's complex, where there are a variety of exhibits of his cars, his clothes, his two private planes, and where every single exhibit space dumps you out into another gift shop. Hell, at one point, one gift shop led into another.  The gift shops are totally schlocky, but some of the exhibits are great. And it's all part of the Elvis mythos, all of it, the schlock and the grandeur, the tv sets in every room and the gaudy jumpsuits and the love he felt for his parents and grandmother and whatever his conception of God was. How many people in the history of this world have inspired the kind of joy and rapture that Elvis has? Certainly not many in recent decades. So many people seem to know of his legend as something cheesy, but what he accomplished, not just for himself but for popular music as we know it, was extremely powerful.  The tour of Graceland is definitely a must for anyone even slightly curious about Elvis, but it does not tell the whole story. It tells a lot about the man and the myth, but you need to go elsewhere to really learn about the music.  If the folks running Graceland were smart, they'd add another exhibit space focusing on that aspect of the man's deep and more-complex-than-you'd-expect legacy.

Back in Nashville the next day, I had my second pilgrimage, and a second anniversary celebration. Anyone who's followed my babbling knows I've been to Third Man Records in Nashville many, many times. But on this occasion, just a few days beyond the sixth anniversary of my original White weekend, I was allowed the opportunity to step "behind the curtain", as it were. Third Man has begun offering behind-the-scenes tours as an incentive for things like their annual holiday blood drives. Well, a pal of mine gave of his blood for the second year in a row and was rewarded with pulling a certificate for a tour for 6 people from TMR's pile of mystery gifts. And then he surprised the hell out of a few people, myself included, by inviting us to join him. And then... he got horribly sick and wasn't able to come for the tour himself.  But Third Man honcho Ben Blackwell graciously gave the rest of us well over two hours of his time and has promised a make-up tour for our incredibly generous friend once he recuperates.

Surprise! I have no grand revelations to reveal. Most serious fans know what's contained behind those black, yellow, red, and blue walls, beyond the store-front: Foremost is the Blue Room, a 150-or-so-person live venue for music performances, film showings, and art events; facilities for recording shows in the Blue Room to both tape and acetate; a warehouse/distribution center for the in-house and on-line stores; a photography dark room; the offices from which the entire company is run; and, last but not least, a temperature-controlled, fire-, smoke-, and bomb-proof vault for the master tapes of all of Jack White's music and Third Man recordings.

So for me, the revelation was not so much in seeing what was contained back there, but in how it's all contained, how it all fits within that really not very large complex, how the two buildings are connected (one tall hallway leading from front to back between the two, a second hallway crossing through the first from one building to the other with windows on each side looking out into the larger hallway), how the various design elements flow from one space into the next (matching desks on the loading dock-turned-office space, very graphic wall decor in the graphics dept, gorgeous over-stuffed sofas in the shipping dept...).  I had always imagined trick walls and subterranean chambers, but there were none (at least none that we were shown). There was just a shrewd use of every nook and cranny of space, an eye-boggling mix of seemingly jumbled clutter and and neat, sleek design. And incredible furniture. My eyes kept being drawn to the vintage furniture and light fixtures in every. single. room. Except the graphics department, but they had nifty wall installations instead. But it was everywhere else. The place is a vintage decor lover's wet dream. From Deco to Retro to Diner, it had me salivating. 

However, the fact that there was nothing really unexpected does not mean that there were no thrills.  The first was walking into the lathe room tucked behind the stage of the Blue Room.  That room is definitely no secret, TMR highlighted it in their video of the recording of the World's Fastest Record-- 

(Had to kick myself afterward that I forgot to ask for a peek inside the furnace elevator to see that incredible wallpaper. In an elevator, for crying out loud!) 

And you can see the lathe machine itself through a large glass window at the side of the stage.  But to walk into that room, to stand in it and have Blackwell describe exactly what they do there-- capturing live music as it happens, no second takes, no overdubs... I'll admit to bouncing a bit in excitement as we entered.  Because listening to live records cut there really is the next best thing to being at the show. You can watch YouTube video footage of all sorts of concerts, professionally or amateurly filmed, but as close as that seems, it's still two-dimensional.  The acoustics of the Third Man Blue Room are so crisply pristine and the recordings so immediate, that you can close your eyes while listening and really, truly get a feel for what it was like to be there.  It's a room in which technology and magic come together. 

The next big thrill came when Ben led us into the master tape vault (after leaving us waiting momentarily in the Blue Room while he unlocked the door  with its state-of-the-art keypad lock).  You can see this room in Dan Rather's interview with Jack, at 24 minutes in--


Let me say it again: The master tape vault. To actually be in that tiny room, to scan the jampacked shelves and read the names of much-loved records and performances on the spines of the boxes, to know that these were the original tapes from which all of every fan's records were created and could be re-created if necessary, all housed in Jack's "house" under his control... it was the mother lode, pure and simple, and my eyes were probably as big as dinner plates the whole time I was in there. And that's what meant so much to me about this tour-- It wasn't that any secrets might be revealed, it was the thrill of proximity, of being close to the literal sources of the music. Where Graceland focused on the man behind the music, this tour of Third Man focused on the music and how it's created and made available to us all.

Throughout the tour, it was nifty peeking into people's offices and meeting members of the staff. But, really, the biggest treat of all was hearing the stories told by Ben. Those are what made the tour 
unique and special.  In hindsight, there are so many things I would've liked to ask about if I'd remembered while I was there, but we could have ended up there all day, and having him answer questions might've meant he wouldn't have talked about other things (like the story behind the exceedingly rare White Stripes/Virgin Airlines poster on his office wall, which I found especially funny seeing as how my antiquated cell phone is a Virgin phone). And like every other Third Man experience I've had, the people I was fortunate to share it with added a camaraderie that warmed up that very cold day, especially after the tour was through and we huddled around the TMR Record Booth to record an appropriate tune for our missing benefactor.

But of course, tucked into a corner of the sitting area in the midst of the main building, between the store-front and the Blue Room, was one door that we were not allowed behind-- the door to Jack's office. Ben didn't even point it out to us as he ushered us past it on the way to his own office, or when we came back out and stood chatting for a bit longer before the tour came to an end
.  But it was there, with "JOHN A. WHITE III, D.D.S., FAMILY DENTISTRY" emblazoned on dark glass. I can't help but think of it now as being like Elvis' bedroom, kept private and inviolate from the prying public.  

Though, thanks to J.D. Wilkes of the Dirt Daubers, I'll always envision Jack's mysterious room as looking something like this---

Full image borrowed from here.

January 25, 2016

A White weekend: Six year anniversary

I have an anniversary coming up in two weeks, but circumstance caused me to celebrate early. Six years ago, I found myself stuck at home during a historic blizzard and spent the hours indoors developing a musical infatuation.  This weekend, the mid-Atlantic was hit by another blizzard of record-breaking proportion and I've been stuck at home for four days so far. I've spent these hours re-exploring that old infatuation and what it's come to mean to me.  

Anyone who's familiar with this blog surely knows that I'm talking about the music of Jack White.  I wrote about that weekend six years ago and he's been a predominant subject here ever since. On the surface it looks like an obsession but, really, it's grown into something else. Sure, I'm still infatuated with Jack. He's an endlessly fascinating personality and his music moves me in a way no other musician's ever has. But in following his work, I've begun to look at a bigger picture surrounding him and his music. He and the company he created, Third Man Records, have become symbols for me of a way to look at the world, primarily art and music, but also culture and society. 

For a while now, I've been wearing a silver ring on my lefthand ring finger, a set of three bands that look like bones. I've never told anyone why, but this anniversary seems like an apropos time to talk about it. The ring is a symbol for me, just like a wedding band is a symbol for anyone who's married. As in the film Elizabeth, when Cate Blanchett's Queen Elizabeth proclaims to Lord Burley, "I am married. To England.", I also feel married to something rather than someone, to an ideal rather than to a person. (Though I am actually kind of married to Jack, seeing as how I was at the San Francisco show in 2014 during which he decided to marry every woman in the audience in the middle of the song Blunderbuss. But it was the night after he'd sprained his ankle on stage and he was probably high on Vicodin and for all I know he had it annulled two days later without bothering to tell the couple thousand of us.)  That ideal I feel wed to may walk around wearing the form of Jack White, but I see so much more now when I look at him.  I've read and been told enough about him, and observed a bit myself, to know the man is way too human to ever qualify for sainthood or keep his balance on any pedestal. But I also see him continually striving to grow, and to make the world a better place in his own way, on his own and with the help of the people he's brought into his organization. Whether it's his New Year's Day advice in the Vault chat room, his inquisitiveness about history and art and science that he shares with his fans through all of the projects he's involved in and things he mentions in interviews, his constant urging to remember the romance and ingenuity of the past while admiring the innovation of the future, the efforts by Third Man Books partners Ben Swank and Chet Weise to spread culture and beauty through poetry, or the many charity drives organized (there are four links in that string of words, click on 'em all) by Third Man Records, that striving is what inspires me.  It's the one thing we can all do, regardless of our talent or ability or circumstance, we can always try to grow and be better-- Better at art, better at whatever it is we do, better human beings with a wider field of vision and curiosity and awareness.

Thank you to the unknown person on Tumblr who captured and posted this.

Bob Dylan said in Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie--

...You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

He wasn't talking about Woody in those last lines, or in any of the lines of that poem. He was talking about what Woody represented to him.  I'm no poet like Dylan, but I understand exactly what he meant about Woody because it's very much the way I've come to feel about Jack.  When someone creates something that moves us, or begins an organization or movement that inspires us, what that person represents can become something that's both incorporated within them and totally separate from them.  Look at Martin Luther King Jr or Abraham Lincoln. On a much smaller scale, look at Woody Guthrie and, more and more, look at Jack White.   

Of course, running underneath and through it all is the music.  And there's so very much of that to celebrate, not just this weekend but every single day...


January 17, 2016

Random babblings: Sunsets, snow, and bluebirds

Over a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan, I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' description of a Florida sunset:

The sun itself was trivial. It sank humble into a modest bed of subdued gold. But in the north, the east, the south, cloud piled on cloud, arrogant with color, luminous with lemon yellow, with saffron and with rose. Three bands of opal blue lifted suddenly from the sun. The west took over its own. The unseemly magnificence of north and east and south faded. The sun at the horizon came into its full glory and the west was copper, then blood-red blazing into an orgy of salmon and red and brass and a soft blush-yellow the color of ripe guavas. Northeast and south faded instantly to gray, timid at having usurped the flame of the sunset. Then suddenly the west dimmed, as though a bonfire charred and died. The was only a bar of  copper. All the sky, to every point of the compass, became a soft blue and the clouds were white powder, so that in the end it was tenderness that triumphed.

Then, later, in the middle of a deer trail through the trees alongside an old field, I found the spot where something devoured the bluebird of happiness, leaving behind nothing but a litter of electric cobalt feathers.

I came out of the woods and into the first snowfall of the winter, a late January attempt at appropriate weather in a peculiarly warm season.  First one flake, then two, so sparse that you'd wonder if you actually saw them until, yep, there's enough of a multitude to properly be called snow.  Wandered through it up past two of the farms on the Three Farms trail, and as I was coming back the sun bullied its way briefly through the grey. In about the same amount of time it'd take to devour a bluebird, the snow had dissipated to crystalized rain. So much for winter.

January 2, 2016

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Coming back

Started the drive home with the Danger episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio, then set the flashdrive back to shuffle. Ended up with a great assortment of tunes along the way, so this road-trip tale is gonna be as much music as babbling...

And of course I found the historic Ocala cemetery when passing through to get from route 75 to 301. Of course I did. That’s what I do, I find cemeteries. Driving along, I glance down a side street and, boom, I see headstones a couple blocks away. This was an interesting one, too, decrepit and falling apart, but relatively well groomed. Wandered around it accompanied by songs blasting from an oldies radio station playing all the way across a field on the other side the road at what looked like a lumberyard. Since I’d not brought my camera on this trip, I had to take photos with my tablet, first time I’ve attempted that. The shots came out tolerably well, despite being barely able to see what I was shooting because of glare on the screen. Made them somewhat serendipitous.  Though I always feel that cemetery photos should be black and white, so after some internal debate I ended up editing them before uploading.

A little ways beyond the sprawling horse farms north of Ocala, I passed both The Orange Shop and a turnoff to the site of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Decided a few miles further on that those were stops I had to make, so I whipped a quick'n'vicious U-turn and headed back to check out both. 

What better souvenir of Florida than fresh-squeezed-on-site orange juice? And The Orange Shop itself looked to have been around way back when Hank Williams recorded what may've been his only political song-- 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead was definitely worth the prolonged stop. You have to squint a bit to block out the highway you’ve just turned off of, and the two-lane blacktop leading back to the park, and the park and boat ramp next to the homestead, in order to get a feel for the wilderness Rawlings moved to in 1928. Just inside the old gate at the entrance is a sign that helps. It reads “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood. Here is home.” And down the path is exactly what she describes, as you come around a slight curve into an opening that was once her orange grove. There are only a few more than a dozen trees now, but enough to give a feeling of what it was like, what with the old barn and big glossy chickens strutting around and roosting in the low branches of the orange trees. And Rawlings’ house beyond, maintained by staffers in period clothing. It wasn’t open this day, but I was able to walk around and peek in the windows, and wander the short trail through what’s left of the wilderness. I wondered as I walked what she meant by “here is home”. Literally, her home? Or a spiritual home that she felt all who entered the place would arrive at? The house appeared cozy enough, but the woods… not so much. They’re compelling, though, and certainly mysterious. The alien-ness of hanging mosses, strangling figs, palms that grow like ferns, and cypress knees creates a definite enchantment. But there’s also something forbidding in their mystery, in the way sandy soil gives way to springy marshiness, and then to swamp. What threats are hidden behind the fans of palm and in those clumps of Spanish moss? In my childhood, I saw the film of Rawlings’ book The Yearling, which makes the place seem innocent enough, despite the difficulty of life there. But I also saw Frogs and had nightmares about Spanish moss, so there you go. 

As I was coming back through the grove from the trail through the woods, the gentleman working there invited me to pick a few oranges to take with me. Take my word for it, the taste of historically significant oranges has a noticeable edge over anything you'll get in the grocery store. 

Was a bit jarring to have this come up immediately when I turned the key in the ignition, but the two that followed brought me back to a more appropriate mood.

The rest of the way up 301 to route 10 to the Jacksonville beltway and then onto 95 was swift despite construction squashing three lanes worth of traffic into two. The shuffling stereo got caught in a blue mood… 

But somewhere in the midst of Georgia, it brought up an appropriate tune (despite the fact that 95 runs by Savannah rather than Atlanta)- 

And then, as twilight ended, up came Blind Willie Johnson and some gospel… 

As I passed the exit for Effingham (which made me chuckle because I once passed another Effingham in another state and the same lame joke crossed my mind then), it was back to some roadtrip-appropriate hard stuff… 

Got off at an exit with three motels only to find that none of them had any available rooms. Decided to cross over the highway to see if there were more options on the other side, but what I thought was a road to somewhere suddenly turned into an exit that dumped me back onto 95 heading southbound, which was not what I wanted. When you’re hauling ass along a dark highway trying to get to the next exit to get back in the right direction, you could do a lot worse than My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult… 

That next exit back was for a town called Coosawhatchie. Instead of looping across the overpass to get back on the highway going north, I decided I had to see what Coosawhatchie looked like, even in the dark, so I headed in the direction the sign pointed. Either it wasn’t much of a town or I missed a turnoff to it, but I suddenly realized the dark road I was heading along was running parallel to the highway going north. Sure enough, it came back up to the previous exit where I’d had no luck getting a room. So I got back on 95 going in the right direction and high-tailed it some more to an exit with more hotel options, where it took three stops to finally get one of apparently the last five rooms around.

A room that, even after turning on the air conditioner, had a decidedly muggy, clammy feel to it. Floor, sheets, pillows, even my clothes the next morning felt ever so slightly damp. Plus, no wi-fi. Tossed all night, and did not sleep late the next morning. Got out of damp Dodge as quick as I could, with the Captain and Seu Jorge setting the tone for the morning. 

Stopped two exits down for breakfast at the Olde House CafĂ©, because “Country cookin’ makes you good lookin’”. We’ll see. 

Made serious time through the rest of S.C. and into N.C. thanks to another woman driving a red car. Can’t recall who initially caught up with whom, but we leap-frogged a few times, I ended up following her for a while, then got in front of her and maintained the lead for a long time. Then we got caught behind a slow pickup truck. When I was finally able to whip around and get ahead of him, I looked back and saw her roll down her window and throw a gesture of some sort at him as she passed. After that, it wasn’t so much fun having her follow me, so I put a little more pressure on the gas pedal and took it up to a speed she wasn’t as comfortable at. Though every now and again, when I’d get caught behind slower cars, I’d look back and see a red car coming around the side of the cars way back behind, as if she were trying to catch up. But once I was in the clear again, I’d step down and lose sight of her again. And then suddenly I didn’t see her no mo’.  Which was a bit of a relief, but also left me feeling a little bit lonely. Just a very little bit, though.

Along the way, just shy of Florence, I noticed that all the trees that weren’t pine were no longer covered with either Spanish moss or leaves. Though still down south, that made me suddenly feel like I was already back up north. 

Made a stop in Smithfield, NC to visit the Ava Gardner Museum. Don't  have much profound to say about her other than that what I learned at the museum put her right up there with Elizabeth Taylor in the list of women I admire.  Stunningly gorgeous, yet apparently a strong, down-to-earth broad through and through. Definitely need to see more of her films.

The skies began pouring down a monsoon rain as I pulled onto the highway from Smithfield. Obligingly, the stereo shuffled up an appropriate tune for what was ahead, again from Hank.

Because the rain just would not let up.  Other cars on the road became just pairs of barely visible red lights, until I came right up on them and got a glimpse of a vaguely car-shaped mass ahead or next to me.  I passed so many lakes alongside the highway that would have been fields on any other day, to the point that I was less concerned about having an accident with another car and more about coming upon a flood across the road. Especially when the stereo began shuffling up a string of damned fine driving tunes and I just could not speed up...

And this one, highly apropos to Ava Gardner's love of bullfighting and bullfighters...

Finally stopped for dinner somewhere in Virginia and came across this great quote in the most recent music issue of Oxford American, about why so much great music is made in Georgia: "Because of the humidity that surrounds us.  You lose your stinking mind and have to go crazy to remain sane!  Things are so backwards here. Frontwords is backwards. You know? One and one is two, but what's one?  Southern people are fucking crazy. And if you're not crazy, you're driven crazy. And if you don't have that crazy in you, you're not any good.

It ain't the humidity, it's all that scratchy pine and swampy water, I know it is.

And the second truism of the road is... a rainy highway is a rainy highway is a rainy highway.  Fortunately, the car stereo was yet again in tune with the drive and shuffled up a couple different versions of this one over the last hundred or so miles home...

Because if you're not in tune with your car, you just can't have a good road trip.