Regarding mislaid hats and passing realisations

“ummm — I just checked and — wow — just — wow. The Monkees Good Times is Number One on Amazon — solid 5 stars — and I’d just like to say — wow — and ummm just — you know — thanks. no kiddin’. Played a song and someone’s listenin’. I gotta find my hat.”

Michael Nesmith, Facebook post (May 28, 2016)

For those of us who love music, 2016 has been, thus far, a rough year. After sharing some thoughts about the loss of David Bowie and Glenn Frey, I couldn’t bring myself to do the same for His Majesty, Prince. I just couldn’t.

I started to do so – there’s an abandoned draft in the folder – but the words I could come up with didn’t seem adequate descriptors of the talent and impact of the man. He was of ‘my’ generation in a way that the other two weren’t. Whilst David and the Eagle(s) were always and forever a part of my awareness of things that are good and wondrous about this life I lead, I met Prince at about the same time as the rest of the world did so.

I can remember the first time I saw him so distinctly…  and every little bit of the video for ‘Little Red Corvette’ remains highly detailed in my memory (oddly-functioning encyclopedia that it is).

There is, and can be, no one like him. I know that I wrote that about Bowie, too. Two icons – lost to us (save through the catalogues they left us , and the impact of those songs and their other, myriad, contributions) months apart.

He visited my hometown (a place he loved and where he lived, for a time) shortly before we lost him. I was in the midst of the move and setting up house so took a pass on the show. Chatting about it with a friend, we both agreed that we’d catch him next time he comes through town.

Sigh.

And then, just a short time later, Gord Downie announced to the world that we are losing him too. The Tragically Hip will tour one last time – in support of their latest studio album and to give all us Canadians a chance to say farewell to our most Canadian band. Ever.

(Don’t agree with my assessment? I’m happy to discuss. But I’ll win. Certain things are inarguable. This is one of them.)

I’m not going to talk about the whole debacle surrounding ticket sales to said concerts – although I loathe the giant ticket conglomerates only slightly less than I despise those vultures who cry ‘free market’ and are benefiting from Gord’s illness – and the loyalty and love of his fans – and reselling the tickets at exorbitant prices.

Instead I’ll say a little something (in passing, since I’m not going to eulogize someone who remains amongst us) about my deep affection for this band and all that they have meant and represented to me over the manymany years I’ve had the good fortune to be part of their sphere of influence.

I hung out at Queen’s University in Kingston a fair bit when I was a younger me, so I got to see the Hip, on more than one occasion, in bars and small clubs as they began their climb to dominance over cottage-and-campus playlists across this country of ours.

I saw them in large venues, too. A couple of nights in that place in Ottawa where their hockey team plays, (they keep changing its name), for example, the second of which featured nothing but B-sides and a 20-minute version of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ that was classic Gordie.

Since I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a fair bit of time with them, I’ve decided not stress too much at my inability to see them on this last tour. I’ll happily pay for the album when it is available, and hang out with them on my own, and in carefully-chosen company (non-believers in their status as our national band need not apply), whenever I have the chance. On my back deck, or in front of a fire or down by the lake at the cottage.

I’ve mentioned before that, for me, in many ways, ‘Last American Exit’ remains the definitive Hip tune. It very much speaks to their unconcern about the development (or lack thereof) of a huge fan-base in the States, and their eternal presence in their home and native land. It’s also the first song of theirs I heard – and the first Hip vinyl I purchased. Still love it (and have it back in my hot little hands after the years in storage).

Lately, though, the sentimental/nostalgic tune that keeps hitting me in the heart is this one:

(WordPress won’t let me insert videos any longer. Unless I want to pay for the privilege. Not going to happen.)

First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life…

You are ahead by a century (this is our life)
You are ahead by a century (this is our life)
You are ahead by a century

And disappointing you is getting me down

Like all their songs (there’s an entire history of Canada in their lyrics to be learned, if you listen closely), ‘Ahead by a Century’ speaks to a particular time-and-place, while being – simultaneously – universal in theme and scope.

(I can see that hornets’ nest. Been there, been stung by that.)

It’s hard not to feel that his voice – a voice I’ve known and loved for almost 30 years – is speaking to me directly. Through this song (through all their songs, all their talent) and through the reality of the health situation that may rob us of Gord.

There isn’t enough time, folks.

2016 is bringing home that message in a bigbig way.

Recently I realized (and expressed the realisation in an email exchange with one of my oldest buds) that I am doing the absolute wrong thing with my life (and that is saying a whole lot, given that I have spent most of my life avoiding subscription to most of those things that many people would deem ‘absolute’).

Part of that realisation stems from frustration and feeling under-appreciated and under-utilized and, simultaneously, over-burdened, to be sure. But more of it – most of it – comes from the awareness that we are sinking, as a species, and I’m not doing much of anything to help us swim.

I need to do better. I need to use the talents I can call upon to impact and influence as best I can.

I’m not doing that right now.

I’m trying to figure out how to change that.

I need to stop disappointing. That’s something that’s most certainly bringing me down.

‘When it starts to fall apart, man it really falls apart.’ True dat, Gordie.

But. In the midst of all that dissolution, we don’t always have to look that hard to find the inspiration to (re)build.

When Davy Jones passed away in 2012 he took a big piece of my heart with him. I love The Monkees. I always have done. (I’ve written about them before, too, but I’m not even going to try to link the posts. Not enjoying the ‘updates’ to the composition page here in WP).

So when rumours started that the remaining three guys were thinking about a 50th anniversary album… Be still my holey heart.

With contributions from all kinds of interesting peeps (including XTC’s Andy Partridge, and my beloved Paul Weller), and recordings from back-in-the-day that let Davy’s voice yet be heard, this album makes all of me smile in a reallyreally big way.

Suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about The Monkees. I couldn’t be happier about that. They’re getting some much-belated and well-earned props (not that they’ve ever felt the need to bemoan their heretofore lack thereof), which is awesome. More than that, they’re demonstrating the power of well-crafted songs that can transcend genre and era, both.

In a world of increasingly-auto-tuned ‘musical’ acts, I can’t help but smile at the irony that the original ‘manufactured’ band of the 60’s is topping the charts in 2016. I. Love. It. I’m gloating and glowing, all at the same time. And getting shivers listening to songs like this one:

While I do love them all, Papa Nez has always been a personal hero of mine. He has invented and reinvented himself so many times (invention must run in his family) – always pushing against whatever envelopes he might encounter – creating new and different means of expressing those things he feels some examination.

His innovation and refusal to be categorized or compartmentalized are inspirational to the Nth degree.

In a recent interview about all this, Michael was asked about his thoughts on what, exactly, might be driving this particular resurgence and receptiveness to what a bunch of old(er) guys have to offer a somewhat jaded and superficial music-buying public (forgive my admittedly-biased editorializing).

His response? Well, the real answer is, “I don’t know.” It’s obviously plugged into something that’s very deep. People who come to it at an early age get impressed by it in a way you wouldn’t if you discovered it when you’re older. But it certainly speaks to a kind of innocence, something that does endure. Those are spiritual qualities that don’t go away. You may lose your innocence, but you don’t lose your sense of innocence, is what that means. It’s a nice thing to revisit.’

(The whole chat can be read at: http://www.soundandvision.com/content/new-sounds-and-good-times-michael-nesmith-monkees#OHyg02rLMKQQdds8.97)

That depth of which he speaks? For me it’s about a connectivity, linked to an appreciation for and understanding of the absolutely (there’s that word again) required role of art and craft – and the important, if not always tangible or quantifiable, vitality and progressiveness that inform and permit the appearance in our world of the ensuing results, given to us by those who have the courage, and the innovation, and the talent, to show the rest of us how they see things.

I won’t, likely, have an opportunity to see, live, this most recent demonstration of a lifetime of that art and craft as presented by my remaining Monkee-dudes. I won’t see the Hip that last one more time, either.

Instead, I will get back into the world of music and its magic when I go to see Lord Huron next month. Tickets for their show don’t require taking a second mortgage on the house (or putting cash into the hands of scalpers), and, after more than a year of loving their flavour of creative input, I’m looking forward to participating in its appreciation, as they bring their tour to Toronto.

(check out this one – my current fave from their most recent album – if you’re curious about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGld4a5Mb4)

When I showed him Michael’s Facebook post about the success of their new album, my friend, the incomparable Len, said: “FIND YOUR HAT, MIKE. STAT.”

Len’s plea, that Papa Nez might be able to navigate his competing responsibilities and commitments (his explanation about his inability to join Micky and Peter for the tour’s duration involves a deadline to be met for his most recent novel, among other things) and provide us with the opportunity to be a part of something new and old and complete just one more time, resonated more than I can explain.

If Michael Nesmith, with everything that he does already to improve and inform and entertain us all, can find some time in his schedule… I need to step up and sort myself out.

So I’m going to have a look for my missing headgear – such as it is, and set aside for too long though it may have been – with an eager ear tuned to the sources of dedication, inspiration and example upon which I can call.

Not enough time for disappointment and disengagement.

Where did I put that hat?

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‘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.

Papa Kaz- Part 2

I have always been surrounded by storytellers.  Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.

Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen  Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.

I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.

I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.

————————————————————————————————-

… When he retired he chose to do so completely.  No Emeritus for Kaz.  He bequeathed to me his library- of books, maps and slides- which still hold pride of place among my own collected works here in my living room.  A friend-  another of his precious protégés- and I took him for lunch and Scotch (his poison of choice) on his last official day at the university.  The meal went on for some time, as he regaled us with tales of his time in Germany and in the classroom in the Roman Catholic high school in Queens.

We remained in touch as I completed my course work and worked on the dissertation that ate my life.  He was always there to listen to my frustration with the writing process- or the university bureaucracy- and he managed to talk me back from the edge more than once.

Then, the weekend after I (finally) defended my Doctoral thesis, he and his lovely wife joined friends and family for a champagne and hors d’oeuvres gathering.  He offered the first toast- expressing his pride in my accomplishment, especially in light of the fact that I chose a subject and approach that was challenging and outside of the norm, and congratulating me for taking the more challenging path, as seems to be my wont in all things.  Then he called me a ‘real teacher’ and told those assembled that, in addition to my drive for excellence in research, I ‘belong in the classroom’.

No higher praise.

I think I felt more accomplished in that moment than when I was told that I had successfully defended the thesis and when I took that walk across the stage to collect the piece of paper that marked the achievement put together.

Or any time since, really.

Fast forward a number of months and much had changed.  I’d moved back to my hometown after a period of personal crisis and was looking for new directions.  I received word from a close friend we held in common that Papa Kaz had cancer.  And that the prognosis wasn’t great.

That night I wrote him a long letter, recalling my most treasured moments in his classroom and in his presence, trying to describe what his guidance and continual support means to me and how I still feel his influence whenever I get up to teach.  I attempted to put into words the impact he made on me- as a student, a researcher, a teacher and as a person.

Despite the care I took with the letter, I knew it fell short and that I would have to do better.

Doing so would require returning to a town I had no interest in visiting and facing down some memories I’d have preferred to keep buried.

But this was KAZ.

He looked weakened, but in no way diminished, as we sat on his front porch and talked for hours.  He knew he didn’t have much time left, yet his voice was as strong as I remembered.  He told me stories of what he had been up to in the past while, of his family, and flashbacks to his years in Germany and the characters he met there- some of which I had heard before, but still greeted like old friends as we revisited the tales together.

But most of all, he continued to advise me.  I was thinking about going back- yet again- to school.  To get a Master’s degree in Teaching and the membership in the Ontario College that would come along with it- all with a view to an eventual government job writing policy and setting educational standards.

He reminded me that I belong in a classroom- but that the classroom doesn’t have to be a traditional one, or even a physical one.  He also reminded me that a true teacher continues to teach, regardless of circumstance or specificity of career direction.

He continued to lead me by his example.

Although we ended the conversation with his assurance that we would hang out again when he came on a visit to Toronto, that was the last time I would see him.  The cancer he had fought for far longer than anyone expected claimed him half a year later.

My current Sitz im Leben isn’t really one where I thought I’d find myself.  I am still searching for the next direction and a job that will provide some meaning while permitting me to contribute something of value to those around me.  Not a fun process, but each day I have to get up and keep trying to get it figured out.

People who have been gifted with a life filled with wonderful characters like Papa Kaz are not allowed to squander those gifts.

I will find my classroom, whatever form it might take, and follow his example- as best I possibly can- and continue telling the stories that describe our humanity.

Just like he taught me.

I’ve mentioned before that Cat Stevens has one of those voices that is as familiar to me as members of my own family and closest friends, and that he remains a beloved tutor in the ways of the world.  He helped, in a very real way, to set me on my particular road to find out.  His wisdom, expressed through songs of timeless beauty, reminds me of Kaz, and the lessons he sometimes had to force into my stubborn head.  I may still struggle with the teachings, but I never fail to hear his voice when I do so.

And more often than not, I still end up following his advice.

Just sit down, and take it slowly.

Will do, Papa Kaz.  Will do.