Voices Carry: The Project

My all-time most-read post, years later, still gets the hits due to the super-distinctive lyric I used as its title. Everyone knows the song, it seems. And it’s one of those that winds and weaves and takes the listener through a complicated journey that winds through time-and-space with a cast of characters that rivals those in that all-time favourite of mine, The Weight.

I originally wrote that post because one of my BFFs had been spending a summer night reflecting upon a park in New Jersey and she 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 and the fact that sharing and interpretation and reinterpretation are one of the best things about music.

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 their influence has been spotty at best 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 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 own wee sisters take offence.

I’ve been more than a little short on the inspiration and harmony lately. I’ve mentioned all that in more posts then I can count, and the current circumstances are making it hard to focus on productivity of any kind. I can usually prod through a work day with something to show for it by the end, but none of it seems to hold much value, if you get what I’m saying.

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 has been more than a little responsible for a number of posts – and for exposure to a whole lot of the music I’ve been listening to as I shelter in place. 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 arguably 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 in both versions, 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 when we can’t meet face-to-face.

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 they can point us in the right direction. And, perhaps, make things all right. Even when those boulders on my shoulder have us all 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.

It’s a hard time. An unprecedented time. There is a lot of noise out there, serving as distraction – not that we don’t need some of that right now. I feel like we spend each and every day looking for an end – all that apocalyptic thinking I’ve been talking about. But I’ve been feeling this week that what we should be talking about is starting things. Not prematurely REstarting stuff – but shaping new beginnings and new approaches and new thinking into tangible expressions of lessons we have learned.

I’m trying to ignore those infuriating noise-makers who have nothing to contribute beyond vitriol, out-dated/ill-informed rhetoric or toeing of party lines that are working to the detriment of all of us. Focusing on the trolls (internet or otherwise) is doing nothing more than raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels. So I’m instead going to focus, on rallying the cries of those who are speaking the about the good and the progressive and the positive and take the time to invest thought and time in their actions and reactions to the world around them and start some discussions – dialectics, if you will – that can lead us to positive change.

Dialectic is not synonymous with debate. The latter involves a measure of persuasion – and, often, an emotional investment in the perspective – that is required in order to ‘win’. Dialectical methods search for truth through reasoned argumentation. They involve discourse between two or more people with differing points of view but who wish to use logic and rationality to work toward the common goal of gleaning the best possible truth of a matter.

It’s not about who yells loudest or most persuasively. Unlike debates, dialectics do not require an external judge to determine a ‘winner’. Consensus is reached through discussion rather than hammering the other side with talking points and statistics.

Politicians use debate and rhetoric to inflame the emotions of those who bother to listen to them. They appeal to the often-base desires of voters in order to motivate that electorate to continue to support them – since they suggest that in so doing ‘the people’ support themselves (and not necessarily the despised ‘others’). There’s a lot of that happening as people politicize the pandemic and most of us seek slow and reasonable re-starts. The lies and self-interested bullshit abound – as the privileged call for sacrifice (of others, of course) so that petty discomforts can be resolved.

As all of this plays out on screens around the world, many of our politicians seem completely disinclined to participate in any sort of reasoned discussion with those who hold opposing views. Those of us who wish to approach this world of ours with reason and fairness have to wonder what it is they are trying to hide as they avoid discussions and favour more insidious forms of rhetoric. Some of them, evidently, aren’t capable of listening to anything more than the sycophantic soundbites that support their own mandate and position.

We need to talk. But we also need to listen. Some of that means returning to stories we’ve already heard – and interpreting them for today’s environment.

I started this post referencing a song and its best-known cover version. The Weight is one of the most interpreted songs that I know of. Playing for Change‘s version – with contributors from around the world – hit deeply before I’d even heard the word ‘Covid’. It’s a tangible example of the ways in which we can come together from different backgrounds and disciplines and cultures and share in the experience of being human.

As I’ve mentioned in a many recent posts, as a way of coping with lockdown and distancing and uncertainty some of my favourite musicians are inviting us into their homes and their processes and demonstrating that music, at its best, can be a powerful force for change and awareness-raising – and can tell stories about particular times and particular ways of viewing the world, while leaving us with themes and tunes that resonate regardless of time or place. They continue to create. Musicians gotta music.

Last week, Matthew Ryan released a cover version of his own.

Although I am, of course, familiar with Belinda Carlisle’s version, I was well into the first spin of Matthew’s iteration before I connected the two in any way. His revisiting of the song, in light of the sadness that is the frightening and frustrating nowness of 2020, offers the same optimism and light – and the video shows us examples of perseverance and history and continuity.

Music gives – comfort and insight and entertainment – allowing us to take what we need and leave the rest for the next person to enjoy and use as they might require.

In a speech accepting the MusiCares Person of the Year Award (2015), Bob Dylan had this to day:

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.

Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down and you’ve just got to bear it. In a sense everything evened itself out.

Music shouldn’t divide. Not when it’s reflective of the best that it can be. I’m feeling like we need some evening out hereabouts these days. Some equatable sharing of the load – whatever that load might be. A lot of us carrying pretty heavy, right now.

All of this is to say that I’m hoping to start something – something small, but in keeping with these themes – of connectivity, dialectic, interpretation and re-interpretation, history and story. But most of all a discussion about those things that unite us and how we can work really hard to make manifest our collective knowledge and innate, emotional connectedness, based in those things we all, as humans, share.

I don’t, yet, know exactly what this will look like, but I’m leaning into my own strengths – perhaps rediscovering some of them after a period of disuse – and counting on some help from friends who can bring their own talents and approaches and wisdom to the table. I’m confident that we can share what Matthew calls our ‘intelligent generosity – both intellectual and emotional.’ And maybe contribute to the necessary reshaping of the world as we come through this latest re-volution.

I write this on a day on which one of the most distinctive and innovative voices of the 20th century has been silenced. Little Richard changed everything. It’s not hyperbolic to say that that the music we listen to and love now wouldn’t sound the way it does were it not for Richard Penniman.

There’s no one like Little Richard. But if we follow his example – which included openness, innovation, humour and mentorship, among so many other things – we can shape our own changes.

Please watch this space – and send me a message if you want to join in the conversation.

 

‘You know it’s dark…’

Photo: Toronto Star

That’s what the big, pointy thing in my backyard looked like last night.

I’ve turned off the television and I’m avoiding social media as best I can. Once again, hatred is coming to the fore and demonstrating the depravity and delusional depths to which we, as humans, can sink. I can’t handle the speculation and the voyeurism that is the norm when things like this happen. I’m not sure that I have anything at all that I can add to any sort of dialogue about why we, as humans, continue to do these things to each other. This blog is full of posts (here’s one), and my life is full of ghosts of discussions-past, that strive to address underlying causes and the nonsensical clinging to anachronistic and out-of-context ideologies that suborn these types of horrors. I’m exhausted from re-hashing my dialectic around why we must address- and enact- the complete separation of world statecraft and politics from any and all mindless adherence to mythologies and social controls that are out of place and time.

If you really want to, you can search back through the catalogue and find far too many reactionary posts that arose out of tragedies of this sort. Before the first indicators of the events of yesterday started in my feed, I was toying with an idea for a post- a break from the fiction I’ve been trying to write lately- in the form of a belated experiential slice-of-life sort of a thing that spoke about the goodness of the life I enjoy. Given that it was going to be a post about a music show, in a local music hall, the subject’s poignancy has taken on a new dimension. Going out of an evening to share the connection that music brings to those of us who value such things above the irrelevancies of constructed divisions and preconceptions is something that I hold to be a sacred (for lack of a more appropriate term. Yes, I get the irony) part of being a human that shares this planet with other humans.

So I’m writing it anyway. I’ll take comfort in memories of some of the real, tangible, good to which I have been a privileged party. I welcome anyone who might like to join me, but I understand that many of you are glued to the incoming messages and the pain associated with the images and realities of the situation. I will return to despairing over the crimes we commit against each other when we have more than speculation and in-the-moment reactions with which to deal. Especially since, once again, the soundbites and commentaries are fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia and demonstrating, yet again, wrong-headed thinking that stems from positions of privilege. If you want to read some excellent insights into that reality, have a look at this op-ed. Totally jibes with my thoughts on the subject of the day-presented more clearly than I can manage at this point.

Outrage and grief are understandable, and certainly warranted. I’d be the last to suggest otherwise. But what is, per usual, missing (for the most part- the essay linked above is a welcome exception) is perspective, and rational response. Enough. On to some regularly-scheduled programming…

——————————- 

For Canadians, Thanksgiving comes early (relative to our neighbours down south, that is). I had booked some vacation time around the October holiday- hoping to get some things done and have a bit of a break from the workaday normalcy. Those Blue Jays were still in the running and providing us all with some awesome post-season excitement. It was a warm weekend in this City by the Lake, and, after a lovely dinner with the fam, I’d arranged to meet an old friend up at Lee’s Palace (not the ‘Shoe, but probably my second-fave live venue in town) to see a guy who feels like an old friend.

The Wheat Sheaf Tavern had set up tvs outside- for smokers, people passing on the street and those, like me, waiting for streetcars. I witnessed another of those amazing Kevin Superman Pillar catches before the Red Rocket whisked me north. As I walked over from Bathurst, every bar on Bloor was playing the baseball game, and I was reassured that we were solidly in control of the game. Since all was good with the Boys in Blue, I was ready for some high octane rocking and rolling (admittedly, there were text updates throughout the evening- no disrespect to the star of the show at all, but it had been 22 years since the Jays were in the post-season. 22. Long. Years).

Jesse Malin has come up in my WordPressWorld discussions a time or two- he’s one of the most engaging live artists I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) and he never fails to entertain. The holiday and the Jays’ game pretty much validated my concerns about the timing of the show- there weren’t a whole lot of people on hand. But my friend had rearranged his family dinner plans to make the show, and we tend to celebrate big dinners early in the day, anyway, so we were there, wearing our proverbial bells and hoping to make enough noise to make up for the poor turn-out.

We got there in time to see most of the opening act- Matthew Ryan, a dude out of Philly who writes and plays solid story-songs that offered important messages that were lovely, lyrically and musically, both. Between songs, he spoke of the importance of engagement- political or otherwise- words that rang especially vividly leading up, as we were, to that federal election. We got to have a quick chat with him- and snap a few pictures- between sets. Always a bonus to meet the person behind newly-discovered music.

By the time Jesse hit the stage the crowd hadn’t grown significantly, but it didn’t take long for him to entice us all down to the dance floor for a sing-and-dance-a-long that turned into one of my favourite nights of live music, ever.

In the last year he has released two albums of new music (yes, I said TWO). The most recent, Outsiders, had dropped the previous week. I admit that I hadn’t had much of a chance to listen to the newest stuff (the lack of real computer means that I remain hesitant to download the albums- and I like, whenever possible, buying CDs from merch tables at shows- so I’d relied on streams from various sources and some YouTube viewing to catch myself up), but, having seen the guy three times previously, I knew that the live versions of the new stuff would be the stuff of which memories are made.

I was right.

Jesse’s been at his craft for a few years decades now (he started performing at CBGBs when he was 12. Yes, that says 12), and his live shows are things of beauty. He’s a consummate professional- the voice, the backing band, the energy… and the lack of crowd deterred him not-at-all. Within a couple of songs he had joined us on the dance floor- belting out his new material (with a few older standbys in the mix) and showing just how classy working musicians can be. A few people came close to being clothes-lined by his mic cord as he moved among us, but great music- and its appreciation- is about taking chances, and should be riddled with the potential for a little danger.

Man.

I’ve tried to isolate some of the highlights in my mind. It’s difficult, though. His shows (even the one that packed the ‘Shoe because the TIFF glitterati thought the Boss might show up- I wrote about that one here) always seem more like a kitchen ceilidh- hanging with friends, sharing some stories and dancing ’til your feet hurt and your cheeks ache from the smiling and singing along.

I visited the merch table- of course- and bought both New York Before the War and Outsiders. Since the show I’ve had them both on repeat pretty constantly.

Hard as it is to choose favourites, this one stands out from New York Before the War:

I love the references to Dee Dee Ramone (clarification: turns out I got my musical allusions wrong. I checked out a YouTube clip, ‘Live at Vintage Vinyl’, today, and Jesse provided some background on the tune. In Addicted he’s actually referencing the life and death of Arturo Vega- the close friend and artistic director of the Ramones, who, among other things, designed that iconic logo of theirs. LOVE the stories this guy tells about his experiences and travels. Check out the performance if you have an hour- his story about Shane MacGowan- as a lead-in to his version of If I Should Fall from Grace with God… so awesome)- who has to be a personal hero of Jesse’s (he pops up in earlier tunes, as well), and the NYC atmosphere that resonates throughout. The themes of tearing things down (bookstores for condos, for example) and moving on- or being forced to move on- are visited throughout the album, which is a working-out of all kinds of things that have been floating around his head since 2010’s Love it to Life. It’s about how quickly things are changing, without requisite time or sensitization to get used to all the dramatic shifts in paradigm that we experience nowadays. The album reflects on the disposable culture we’ve created, the prevalent apathy and mindless following of trends, and addresses the realities of having to deal with horrible, terrible things- but still manages to find a spark of positivity that keeps us keeping on. And dancing while we do so.

Outsiders is darker, but also playful and full of tongue-in-cheek humour than demonstrates his masterful use of language and lyric.

At Lee’s, he talked a little about filming the video for this one. About how it was sweltering that day in New Orleans as they made their way around town to gather the images to accompany the lyrics- capturing NOLAs ‘away-ness’ in his song about the eventual return to his home- where his heart remains.

I can’t stop listening to it. Seriously. Non-stop. It’s my new  get-up-and-deal-with-the-day tune. Naturally, the title resonated quite personally. Sort of foregone, conclusion-wise, that I’d be intrigued. The song is so full of allusions and references and well-connected turns-of-phrase… I’m gushing, I realize. And if it doesn’t make you feel like dancing… you might want to get that looked at.

After the show wound up, still feeling kind of breathless, I thanked Jesse, as he passed on the way to merch, for coming to see us again, and for giving us such a fantastic night. He signed my new CDs, and posed for some photos with us, while chatting away about past shows at the ‘Shoe and other visits to TO.

Loved it. All of it. (Many thanks again to Mr. G- for the company, and the ticket, and the long-ago intro to Jesse’s music).

Nights like that demonstrate the best of us human-types. People making art, sharing art, connecting with strangers and reinforcing the reality that those things we create to share with love are much more important than the things we create to feed divisiveness and hatred.

We need that message on days like yesterday- and today. Thank you, Jesse, for your long-term and ever-developing role as messenger.

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“Hey man, whatcha doing,

All along the road to ruin

You know it’s dark when atheists start to pray.”

The crimes committed in France yesterday are bringing out the hashtags and the superficial demonstrations of engagement and encouragement. One of them, #prayforparis, is generating backlash, as others post things about there being too much prayer- and asserting that prayer is the origin of the problem. While I understand the sentiment behind the hashtag, I have to concur with the naysayers who are pointing out that fighting against hateful ideology- supported by religions and political systems, both- is what we should be doing.

Charlie Hebdo’s message to the world (cartoon by Joann Sfar)

As a concept, I’ve always thought that prayer, the way it’s generally defined by western religions- as an intransitive verb that addresses god(s) with adoration, supplication, thanksgiving or confession- is the ultimate cop-out. Asking a deity- any deity- to intervene in problems of our own making, horrific acts performed by humans against other humans, removes us, in a way that is criminal, from taking responsibility and proactively working to make things better.

It is dark. In the City of Light, in Lebanon, in Kenya, in too many other places on this globe.

But there’s another definition of the term- one that is distanced from overtones of religion and belief- and the abrogation of human culpability. As a transitive verb, ‘to pray’ means ‘to entreat or implore’, often used as an introduction to a question, request or plea.

I can get behind that last bit. Pleading. With all of us, as human beings, to mourn, to punish the guilty who seek to end or disrupt the lives of others for reasons that can never suffice. But vilifying and scapegoating entire groups while blaming and further victimizing those who are fleeing the terror… I implore us all to think before we act/react/speak.

That’s how this atheist prays.