… standing in the middle of nowhere
wondering how to begin
lost between tomorrow and yesterday
between now and then.
And now we’re back where we started
here we go ’round again
day after day I get up and I say
I better do it again.’
At the beginning of 2020 I set myself the challenge to read my way through my not-insignificant bookshelves (my Uncle Jim can verify that I have a few books) and donate those that no longer resonate or need to claim priority of place in my small-ish East York semi.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns (or #mockdowns – more on that later) meant that I have had the opportunity to spend way more time reading actual books than has been the usual norm for me in the last few years.
I love books – the tangible presence of the hardcopy of stories that engage and affect me, and the way in which I see the world have a personified aspect to them. It’s been hard, at times, making the decision to part with those who have travelled with me for so long.
A few months ago I started in on the re-read of the canon of my favourite Canadian author (actually, my favourite author full-stop) – Guy Gavriel Kay. His words have sustained and inspired me for decades and the awareness of his presence, somewhere in this city we both call home, has helped me cope in ways that are difficult to articulate.
He is a poet who writes novels and his knowledge of history (another of my true loves), incorporating his ‘quarter-turn to the fantastic’, has influenced a great deal of my own approach to the world.
I started in on his latest (A Brightness Long Ago), remembering him reading from its pages at the Reference Library on an evening that seems ridiculously long ago and, per usual, the re-read spoke to my state of mind as I cope with how things are, right now.
It is remarkable how a few words can hit you in the heart.
“We want to sink into the tale, leave our own lives behind, find lives to encounter, even to enter for a time. We can resist being reminded of the artificer, the craft. We want to be immersed, lost, not remember what it is we are doing, having done to us, as we turn pages, look at a painting, hear a song, watch a dance.
Still, that is what is being done to us. It is.
Even so… we do turn the page, and can be lost again. And in that deep engagement we may find ourselves, or be changed, because the stories we are told become so much more of what we are, how we understand our own days.” (p. 242-243)
I admit that I ended last year, like so many people I know and love, with exhaustion and some existential angst about what is to come. I am enraged – ENRAGED – at the inaction of the provincial government in addressing the realities of the infections and the reactionary and false accusations levelled against our federal government in dealing with the pandemic as they abrogate their responsibilities in favour of pandering to their base of supporters. Politics played with lives. I have no words that are adequate to describe the wrongness of it all. Our current status – a colour-coded mockdown rather than a lockdown – and the incompetent vaccine roll-out while the third wave threatens to overwhelm our ICUs pushes me to the edge multiple times a day. Don’t even get me started on that budget – and the cuts to education that represent the continuing willful deconstruction of our public system (https://colemining.wordpress.com/2020/07/11/now-do-education/). Or the latest indication of the complicity of the right-wing press with the construction of the narrative that they are feeding to the public (loved waking up to that news this morning).
And, when taking time from focusing on the incompetence of our local ‘leadership’, all I see is the continuing attempts south of us to undermine all the checks and balances put into place to ensure that power is wielded with responsibility – even as those markers of power are restructured by movements that give voice to those who have been voiceless, historically. And the guns. And the unchecked rise of Xian Nationalism as the murderous rampages of white males are passed off as ‘bad days’.
It’s hard to stop the constant drone of the realities that pandemic time are exposing – to those of us who haven’t been screaming into the void about them for years, that is.
So, when I’m not tied to my laptop (work from home is fine and all, but the days are way longer than they were when I was going there and back on the TTC, and weekends don’t seem to be a thing at the moment) I want that immersion Guy wrote about. I’m not into the streaming – tv shows and movies aren’t my go-to escapes, in general -and the additional work-related screen time has made me eager to just turn it all off when I can.
So. The books have been the thing. I’ve made far more progress with the shelf-sorting than I would have in a different year, this is for sure. But, as I’m sure you know if we’ve met – IRL or otherwise – music is the other way I find engagement and attempt to understand our days through the stories that are told by that type of artist. And, along with all the stalwart favourites, I’ve been making new engagements – some of them outside of my usual zone.
Apparently I like Taylor Swift now. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always appreciated the charm of her voice and full and legitimate ownership of her evident talent, but, until recently, the songs haven’t really been my thing. I’m all about the singer-songwriters lately.
So imagine my surprise when, just before the release of her second album in less than a year, a friend introduced me to exile, from her first album of last year, and I have to admit that I’m a little obsessed. The melancholy overlap of her voice with Justin Vernon’s, added to the gut-punch of those lyrics is a little more than I can take, what with the current world situation and the types of examination and reflection I tend toward when things are emotionally unstable, but I can’t stop listening.
This isn’t an unusual occurrence. If a song really catches me I have a tendency to keep it on constant rotation – and that was one of the ones I had on most as the terrible, horrible, no good year wound down. It’s back on the playlist, what with the pandemiversary and all the self-reflection that is coming along with certain discoveries – about myself and about our society – that have happened since March 2020.
I realized back in December – on the 12th anniversary of my return to Toronto from my own period of exile in the Nation’s Capital – that one of the many reasons that I found it hard to get festive (in addition to lockdowns and inability to see family and rising cases and incompetent government) is that it’ll be the first time since moving home that there was no Skydiggers Xmas show to help me ease into the season.
I’ve written about the show a few times (It’s beginning to look a lot like…, for example), and I although I admit to still feeling some ambivalence about the change in venue as of last year (DMH is closer to home = good. Missing the history and feel of the ‘Shoe (and remembering it as the place/time I got to say my personal thank you and farewell to Gord = not so good), the fact that we didn’t get to have that experience in 2020 seems somehow right, if by “right” I mean in complete and total keeping with the way that the COVID year has shifted things for everyone.
We have all had to come up with coping mechanisms specific to our lives and personalities and the wherewithal we can command to distract and deal as best we can. I’m luckier than most – I would never argue otherwise. The Groundhog Day-ness of it all has been hardest on me – and, the overall scheme of COVID, that isn’t remotely comparable to the experiences of far too many people.
Jesse Malin continued his live-streams, and Lord Huron has been presenting monthly shows in their own beautifully eccentric style, so those have been a highlight and led me back to having their records on repeat much of the time. Both have new records coming out in the next while. Hopefully tours will follow.
It hasn’t escaped my notice how often I’ve talked about things being on repeat in these few hundred words. Once upon a time, Ray Davies’ 1984 (!) tune about the same-same of workaday life (their experiences while touring, in particular – not something musicians are able to do at the moment) was in keeping with the Kinks’ tendency to write songs that reflected the societal constructs that kept the working classes on a hamster wheel of monotony.
Amazing how clearly it reflects what so many of us are feeling right now. The topicality of the theme helps immerse us in the song, and put into perspective, if not understand fully, our own days, challenging and disruptive as they are right now.
I know I’ve written a few times about the importance of paying the artists who create the sparks that can lead to the development of our own fires (here, for example https://colemining.wordpress.com/2020/03/21/on-a-train-bound-for-nowhere/), but I’m not sure that message is getting the coverage it deserves.
Mikel Jollett wrote an interesting article about this, and about the need for change in the music industry, in particular. You can find it here https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/what-are-nfts-what-could-they-do-music-industry-artists-ncna1261205.
This bit resonated: “there is a massive gulf in our culture between the value music brings to people’s lives and the price they currently pay for it — which has for years been kept artificially low by large corporations to prevent the so-called piracy that cut into their enormous profits far more than artists’ incomes.” That, and this: “these days, artists in the music industry receive an average of only 12 percent of all profits from the sales or streams of their music. The rest of the money goes to middlemen corporations (mostly streamers and labels).”
I’m not sure that NFT is the answer – I am lost in the concept of bitcoin and NFT is even more elusive as a potentiality, but something has to change. As Mikel points out, “a song which changes your life is worth more than a third of a cent per stream.”
Artists, regardless of art form, are not merely content creators (journalists shouldn’t be either, but that’s a rant for another day). They are not making superficial filler to help pass the hours and the repetition of daily tasks with click bait that distracts for a minute or two but is, ultimately, unsatisfying. They are not influencers, shilling unnecessary consumables to make a buck from the followers they have on whatever social media platform is most popular in a given year.
It’s shameful that we treat them as such. Especially now, when we need them so much. Pay the artists so we emerge from all of this with the assistance we need to come to an understanding of these days that will help us improve as we recover.
“A young man appears to be telling his story. Others are having their stories told.
There is a maker, a shaper, behind all of them. It is the same with art on a dome, or a portrait done on a wooden surface, with gesso and not oil, for a reason. It is the same with a sculpture of hands. Someone made this, made choices doing so.
A song remembers a home, another conjures fear that a home will fall to those who would destroy it. A poet places a wine glass on a fountain’s rim under stars. An artist sets his lost wife on a dome… amid stars. A dancer lets the music be what she is, until it stops. Someone made the music, someone plays it while she dances.” (p. 240)*
*This passage references my other best friends from among Guy’s works. It is like running into someone you haven’t seen in years in a place that is entirely out of context. One of countless times he’s brought me to tears.
Links to buy stuff:
Taylor Swift is one of the rare artists these days who doesn’t need a whole lot of help paying the bills right now, but if you love her stuff please buy it somewhere that ensures she gets more for her talent than the streaming services and/or industry people who didn’t have anything to do with that song you love. As for the some of the other stuff I’ve been enjoying – and paying for – lately, here are some links:
You can see – and link to buy – the Skydiggers merch and music – including the 30th(!) anniversary special edition of their first album here:https://www.merchmrkt.com/merchmrkt/QuickSearch?keyword=skydiggers
You can buy Jesse Malin’s latest single here: https://jessemalinwcr.bandcamp.com/album/the-way-we-used-to-roll
Mikel Jollett’s book, and The Airborne Toxic Event’s musical catalogue can all be purchased here: https://theairbornetoxicevent.com
Guy’s website is here: https://brightweavings.com/books/books/ His books are available where you buy books (please not from that Bezos guy). He is a huge supporter of local shops here in Toronto, promoting places like http://www.bookcity.ca/locations/ and https://www.bakkaphoenixbooks.com every chance he gets.
Before all the pandemic stuff started, I picked up Ray Davies’ book and record, Americana, at my favourite record store http://www.soundscapesmusic.com. Can’t wait to pay them a visit.
I realize I didn’t talk specifically about other forms of art – and the artists who are being challenged by pandemic shut downs and travel restrictions. Music and books are my particular addictions. But I am fortunate to call a remarkable visual artist my friend, and I am proud to be a collector of his outstanding work (I wrote about the very personal piece he created for me here: https://colemining.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/the-tools-we-have-to-hand/). His next show – which, hopefully, we will be able to attend in person happens this fall. Information about Brandon Steen’s upcoming show at the Elaine Fleck Gallery can be found here: https://elainefleckgallery.com/collections/brandon-steen