‘The Calliope Crashed to the Ground…’


One of my very best BFFs seemed to be reflecting upon a park in New Jersey last evening, and posted a line from a particular little ditty as her status on the facebook. It got the song running through my head, of course- the super-rhyme-scheme is catchy as all get-out, but the version that popped in there was Manfred Mann’s cover of the tune, rather than Bruce’s original.

Which, while not surprising perhaps, got me thinking some interesting things about creativity and muses and suchlike.

Before she became a brightly-coloured musical instrument (usually associated with circuses) Kalliope/Calliope was the Muse in charge of cool things like epic poetry and eloquence. Capital-M Muses were the Greek goddess-types who provided the inspiration for all those things I like best- art, literature, music, history- you know, those things that we create that connect us as humans.

Shrines to the Muses- museums– are pretty much the closest I tend to get to entering places of worship on anything like a regular basis, and as anything other than a tourist. I like museums. A lot. They are places of reverence, to me. And they feel like home. The Muses are definitely ladies after my own heart- even if I have seen neither hide nor hair of their influence lately.

The Romans picked up on the idea of the daughters of Zeus (the Big Boss) and Mnemosyne (Memory- in goddess form) and assigned them particular roles. Historian that I am, I’ve always been a wee bit partial to Clio (with her scrolls and all), but all props need go to Kalliope for inspiring the epic-ness of Mr. Springsteen’s well-rhymed song.

Kalliope is generally pictured with a writing tablet- reflective of her importance to those who wax poetic- and was called, by peeps as important as Ovid, the Chief of all the Muses. She was mother to Orpheus, and the inspiration and whispering Voice in the night that drove Homer to write a couple of well-known ditties, about a guy named Odysseus and about a conflict in a town called Troy, of his own.

My beloved Dante spoke well of her: But, since I am yours, O sacred Muses, here let dead Poetry rise again, and here let Calliope sound, a moment, accompanying my words with that mode, of which the Pierides felt the power, so that they despaired of pardon…’ (Dante references the first Battle of the Bands- won, natch, by the Muses, who then turned the upstart Thessalonian daughters of King Pieros into magpies for their extraordinary presumption in challenging them to a sing-off. Think Glee/Pitch Perfect, but for keeps).

Kalliope is usually described as the eldest of the sisters- something I know a little something about. She’s also considered the wisest… but I’ll leave that one alone, lest my sibs take offense (Happy Middle Child Day to the mid-sis, BTW. Who knew there was such a thing? I guess I missed the notice while I was busy celebrating International Cat Day on the weekend. We humans are ridiculous sometimes…).

I’ve been more than a little short on the inspiration and harmony lately. I mentioned all that a couple of weeks ago (has it been weeks, already? Time does fly when you’re out of creative juice…), but I have been trying to pay closer attention to the things going around me since then, so I suppose some progress is being made.

Complete aside, but somewhat indicative of my re-engagement with things that matter… we’re in the throes of the longest election campaign in our history (thanks current, but soon-to-be-former, Prime Minister for that ill-use of our taxpayer dollars) and I had the opportunity to challenge my MP- who never did answer my letter (written after receiving the inadequate response I talked about here), inquiring about just what the Hell he was thinking in backing the current, but soon-to-be-former, Prime Minister’s ill-begotten, fear-mongering, Bill C-51- when he knocked on my door a couple of nights ago. More fool him. After the first 10 minutes I’m quite sure he was reallyreally wishing he’d just left the little card without venturing a knock… He has less than 10 weeks to convince me that his party deserves my vote- our convo certainly left me doubtful he’ll be able to do so. We’ll see how that turns out…

I’ve given some thought to sources of inspiration and creativity- and, funnily enough (that interconnection thing again), I flippantly referred to a friend as my (small-m) muse, since he was more than a little responsible for my last post. I used a winky-faced emoticon when I said it, but some emoticons hide truth, sometimes, methinks.

Bruce wrote Blinded by the Light because his record company insisted that Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, his debut album, needed something a little more single-y, more hit-esque, than the songs he’d already come up with. He wrote the lyrics first- unusual for him- using a rhyming dictionary. The result is pretty damn clever, indeed- especially for someone like me who loves playing around with words and who can recognize mastery of the craft. The language-play is full of images and stories that leap at the listener as the song unfolds, reminiscent of some of Dylan’s coolest poetry-set-to-music.

For all Bruce’s undeniable prowess, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version is better-known -and contains one of the most frequently misheard lyrics of all time. Interesting how certain things translate well, while others can become indecipherable when the origins are messed with. The piano line(s)- and the interlude of Chopsticks– are instantly recognizable.

The steam piano that, with unpleasing sneezing and wheezing, crashed to the ground, is noted for its volume. Powered by steam or compressed air, calliopes were primarily used on riverboats and circus carousels and the music carried for miles, suggesting that listeners should come closer. Check it out. But, since pitch is affected by the steam, they are almost always out-of-tune on the higher register.

So. Loud and off-pitch. And associated with circuses and all the, uh let’s say down-homey, atmosphere that they can conjure. Sort of totally the opposite of that other Kalliope- what with all her wise, grand, poetic harmony… Yet the instrument entices, and encourages, and draws us in, as it rasps across great distances.

My fave lyric from the original doesn’t appear in the single version- or the cover- of the tune:

‘Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card who said, “Do what you like, but don’t do it here”
Well, I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said, “Take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then, boys, you’re on your own”‘

The play on light and darkness, and the implied aversion to creative expression in the person of the police officer, evoke so many cool things that resonate with the paths down which my thoughts have been traveling.

Inspiration can come from any number of sources. I tend to find mine, most often, in other people. With our contemporary state of communication being what it is, social media can be, for all its faults, a sometimes-useful tool to catch up with the important peeps and tap into those things that are driving them forward. Or just keeping them going.

Our muses can be myriad- if we take the time to pay attention. I’ve been bad at that lately. But I’m working on it, and listening to those Voices I love. Even if the things they say are off-hand, or ‘thrown-away’, or representative of nothing more than a current playlist- it’s a pretty fruitful place to start.

As is memory- that Mother of all Muses- perhaps especially when the memories seem to be placeholders of regret. The ‘way back home’ does, at times, require treading in the darkness of night, but we shouldn’t be hanging out there, eschewing the light, for too long.

‘Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is’

What sights does our sun see when it looks down upon its third planet, after all, but the wonder that is us, and all our human potential? Whether it involves cutting loose or revving up (though not, hopefully, ‘wrapping up like a douche.’ Never that…) it’s time to listen to those shooting stars, sitting in sidecars, humming their lunar tunes, and realize that I will, with help, make it all right. And, perhaps, make things all right. Even when those boulders on my shoulder get me feeling older.

Bruce knew what he was talking about. It starts with sticking together and being sources of inspiration and creativity to one another. All runners in the night- chasing our Kalliopes, and calliopes, wherever they may lead.

Regarding the inherent value of creativity and art

That first couple of days back to the grind after a long weekend can certainly be, well, grinding.  This is sort of where I’m at right now- feeling like there are gears rubbing together to their detriment rather than as an effective means of propulsion.  It’s likely not helping that we got MORE FREAKIN SNOW yesterday, but today the sun is shining and the temperature has crawled above the freezing mark, so I’m trying to let that inspire me to get some work finished up.

February is my least favourite month- for any number of reasons, but most of all because- despite the fact that it has the least number of days- it seems to be the lo-o-o-o-o-o-ngest by far.  And it’s generally cold.  And slushy.  And overcast.

I know.  Complaining about the weather is a particularly futile exercise, and I’m really trying hard to get off the complaining-to-no-purpose train.  If I have a complaint it should be about something tangible, and about which I should be able to do something.

2014 is the year of change and action, after all.

Anyhoo.

I saw two movies at the theatre this weekend and finished a couple of books- so I admit to having had more than my fair share of leisure time mixed in with the usual running around and seeing to responsibilities and proactive measures to affect the change I’d like to see, both in my own life and in the world as a whole.

As it turned out, both films very much jibed with the way my thoughts have been cycling lately.  Creativity and art and expression and music and magic and wonder… we NEED more of these things.  And yet, those who undertake these most important human constructions and creations (and those who pursue studies about these most important human constructions and creations) are told- over and over and over again- that there is NO PRACTICAL VALUE in doing so.

Really?  Really!?!?

The first movie was just for fun- but turned out to be more than that.  The Lego Movie featured a pretty cool message- about the need for creativity and the desire to work outside of pre-ordained and restrictive societal norms.  That cookie-cutter buildings, ‘reality’ television shows about the banality of life and prescribed over-priced coffee may resonate with the lowest common denominator, there remain those among us who strive to create things of beauty and value- and that those things can be at least as practical as those that are mundane and conformist.

I loved it.  It was fun and it was clever and it hit all the right notes.  I can’t get that freakin Everything is Awesome song out of my head, but this is incidental.

On Monday we opted for something a little more serious but, interestingly, along the same lines.  The Monuments Men tells a mere slice of the story of the quest to recover art and artifacts stolen by the Nazis over the course of World War II.

I’ve seen a lot of not-so-great reviews of the film and, honestly, not one of them remotely deterred me from checking it out.  For one thing, how do you not love that cast?  And the idea behind it (the movie and the real life events that the movie is based on)?   That crushing the Nazi onslaught and ridding the world of the repulsive ideology that drove the power and land grab- evidence of some of the worst of humanity- would have been an incomplete victory if they had been able to destroy the art that is an expression of the best of humanity?

That.  Exactly that.  How AWESOME and inspiring and affirming is that?!?!

Some have called it ‘preachy’ (ineffectually preachy, actually).  Others suggest that no work of art is worth a human life.  Those who lost their lives (or risked imprisonment as collaborators) in the pursuit of the preservation of some of the greatest art known to humanity begged to differ.  They understood that destroying that which defines us as human- those creations of beauty and insight and appreciation of our world and history and stories- leaves us bereft of a vital element of our shared experiences.

The movie also served to pique my curiosity about the subject and the events and the history of this group of scholars and artists, who, like me, see incredible value in the great works we leave behind us.  The Monuments Men website offers all kinds of resources for education about the men and women of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) who succeeded in saving so many of Europe’s great cultural and artistic achievements.

I am, primarily, an historian.  I learned about World War II- mainly about Canada’s involvement and through my studies about the Holocaust (from a Religious Studies perspective, for the most part), but the story of the preservation of our art and culture- and the ideology and spirit behind those who successfully emphasized the NEED for the preservation of the art and culture?  This is a new and wonderful lens into an important battle that was fought and won through sacrifice and determination.

In a society that is increasingly determined to insist that everything is disposable commodity, the actions of these men and women- scholars of art and architecture and literature and history- as presented for the popular media in the form of a Hollywood movie (a sincere thank you, Mr. Clooney) is incredibly timely and important.

With every ongoing conflict and new outbreak of violence in the world we are in danger of incrementally losing our shared humanity.  Not just through the egregious and shameful disruption and taking of innocent lives, but through the destruction of our shared history and its important remnants- be they literary, artistic, historical or architectural.

I cried when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Syria’s ancient treasures- along with its people- are being systematically destroyed, just as happened in Iraq over the course of that ‘conflict’, in the name of political and religious ideologies that are all about power, influence and economics.  Please note that the ideologies driving these wars and atrocities are being enacted IN ALL CASES for the benefit of the few without consideration given to the lives and heritage of the many.

I loved the movie.  I’ve bought the book.

Some reminders for those who persist in refusing to see the necessity of the Humanities.

I have some reading to do.