Warming by the Devil’s Fire

Indiana University Cinema

God and the Devil, like gospel and blues, are never far apart in Charles Burnett’s film

 

 

By James Naremore

 

 

 

 

[editor’s note: James Naremore is Chancellors’ Professor of Communication and Culture, English, and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has published acclaimed books on the films of Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. What follows is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge (University of California Press), is the first to be written about Burnett. “I aimed for comprehensiveness,” he explains, “and because many of his films are difficult to see, I tried not only to give them the critical attention they deserve but also to describe them in detail for those viewers who may be unfamiliar with them.”]

Author’s introduction: Charles Burnett, one of America’s most important yet least widely known filmmakers, was born in Mississippi in 1947, but his family soon took part in the post-war Southern Black diaspora, settling in the Watts area of Los Angeles. After attending Los Angeles Community College, Burnett entered UCLA, where he became the leading figure in a relatively short-lived film movement known as “the L.A. Rebellion.” His MFA thesis, the 16mm Killer of Sheep, (filmed 1973-75, exhibited 1977), was shot on weekends with locals in Watts and is arguably the greatest student film ever made: it’s listed as one of the 100 essential pictures by the National Society of Film Critics, and was one of the first motion pictures to be officially designated a National Treasure by the Library of Congress.

Among the reasons why Burnett’s subsequent career hasn’t achieved larger public attention is that his films grow out of his experience as a working-class Black, and he doesn’t traffic in sex, violence, or glamor. In thematic terms, he has more in common with a playwright like August Wilson than with Spike Lee. There’s nothing obscure or arty about his work (some of his pictures are straightforward history lessons aimed at kids), but he isn’t the kind of director who appeals to your average Hollywood producer. An authentic independent, he has great integrity and has been faced with all the disadvantages and disappointments such a position entails. But no filmmaker has a better record of showing why Black Lives Matter. Among his important films for the big screen and TV are To Sleep with Anger (1990, a masterpiece about generational conflict within a Black family, unavailable on American DVD for decades), The Glass Shield (1994, about police violence and murder of Blacks in Los Angeles), Nightjohn (1996, about Southern slavery, told from the point of view of a child), Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003, about the Turner rebellion, and in my view the best treatment of the subject in any medium), and Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003, about blues music, discussed below).

 

 

Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire was the fourth in a series of seven PBS-TV films about blues music which were executive-produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Burnett, Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Richard Pearce, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood. Burnett and Wenders took unorthodox approaches to the project by incorporating fictional elements into their films, but Burnett went further than Wenders, creating a fully developed fictional narrative interwoven with impressively selected archival footage. An early, extraordinary example of such footage is an archival clip of the black “Washboard Street Band,” composed of musicians playing washboard, a toy trumpet, and tin cans, and a small boy dancer in a derby who performs a sort of proto-break dance. There are also documentary images of hard labor and lynching.

Of all the directors involved, Burnett had the most intimate experience of the blues, and he wanted to make a film with a blues-like form, less about the technical aspects of the music than about the culture and feelings out of which it emerged. Warming by the Devil’s Fire is miles better than any of the other films in the series. As Bruce Jackson has said in a fine essay, the narrative structure is loose and episodic, “at heart it is lyrical, like the blues” (“On Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire, www.counterpunch.org/2003/10/11). It’s also Burnett’s most autobiographical picture, mixing humor and history with the sad, sexual, sometimes raucous emotions of an old but still influential American art.

Burnett has often told the story of growing up in Watts to the sounds of his grandmother’s gospel records and his mother’s blues records. When he was a boy he sang spirituals in church and the first tune he played on his trumpet was W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he realized how important both kinds of music had been, and they clearly influenced many of his films. At a deep level, he understood that the two musical forms were symptomatic of a conflict between the strictures of fundamentalist religion represented by his grandmother and the sadness, sex, and rebellion represented by his mother. This conflict is apparent in the very title of Warming by the Devil’s Fire, which suggests a guilty pleasure. At one point in the film we’re given the source of the title: we see old documentary footage of a southern black church service and hear the voice of a preacher admonishing his congregation to avoid their sinful pleasures, all of which, he says, are described in the 14th chapter of Luke as “warming by the devil’s fire.” (I asked Burnett where he found the recording of this sermon, and he couldn’t recall; my guess is that it’s a 1928 record by the Reverend Johnnie “Son of Thunder” Blakey.) As Burnett explained to interviewers, his film is an exploration of a partly forbidden art that had a complex impact on his upbringing: “I wanted to take more of a personal approach. I wanted to express my experience with the moral issues you might face growing up in a family that was divided on what is sin.”

Burnett’s grandmother and mother were the chief representatives of that division, but he also had two uncles who were opposites–a preacher in Mississippi who “believed in every word in the Bible” and an adventurous merchant seaman who “got along great” with his mother. The oppositions or dialectic within the family ultimately enabled him to see that spirituals and blues have a paradoxical relationship. “[I]f you really listen to the lyrics of some songs,” he has said, “you can see why [blues music] is not appropriate for children. There are images of low life, hard drinking. You had the church trying to get you up from the gutter and here you are singing [the gutter’s] praise.” At the same time, there were blues songs “that make a profound observation about life. They are lessons in life . . . case studies of people who loved and failed, of people who were wronged and who died in fights. . . . Blues has a survival component that gives you a better perspective of life at an early age than any first year of school, I believe. It teaches lessons. So do folk tales. . . . a lot of blues singers came from the church and a lot of blues singers towards the end of their lives went back to the church.”

Burnett’s interest in the blues was inseparably linked to his fascination with the South, where both his family’s religion and the blues originated. He was an infant when he and his parents left Vicksburg, Mississippi for California, but during the 1950s, when he was ten or eleven years old, his grandmother put him and his brother on a train from LA to Vicksburg so they could visit their southern relatives and make contact with old-time religion. In an interview presented as an “extra” on the DVD of Warming by the Devil’s Fire, he recalls that the train made a stop in New Orleans, where he and his brother had a traumatic encounter with southern-style segregation. At the station was a play room for white kids, and while waiting for a change of trains the two boys innocently wandered inside to look at the various toys. Suddenly everyone in the room exited and the place was surrounded by cops. The boys weren’t arrested, but they were shaken and extremely cautious when they finally arrived in Vicksburg.

Burnett’s memories of that visit had largely to do with the climate and unfamiliar aspects of southern poverty: stifling heat, humidity-laden air, and country out-houses that attracted rats and dirt-daubers (wasp-like insects that build ping-pong ball or even baseball-sized nests of mud). In his DVD commentary for Warming by the Devil’s Fire, he remarks, “When you’re a city boy it’s hard to go back to those things.” He understood why many of the people he knew, including his mother, never wanted to return to the South; but the history and music of the South continued to exert a mysterious, romantic attraction. In the eighties he returned to the area around Vicksburg to research a documentary that he never made, and during that visit he began to learn more about blues musicians.

Warming by the Devil’s Fire is inspired by Burnett’s visits to Vicksburg, but it also draws on his considerable knowledge of blues history. Set in the mid-1950s, it tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Junior (Nathaniel Lee, Jr.) whose family sends him by train to New Orleans, where, because his relatives don’t want him to ride a Jim-Crow train to Mississippi, he’s met by his Uncle Buddy (Tommy Redmond Hicks) and driven to Vicksburg in Buddy’s shiny Chevrolet. Buddy is a blues aficionado, but also a dapper rapscallion and ladies’ man who is disapproved of by the rest of the family; they openly wonder why he hasn’t been sent to prison, killed in a fight, or lynched. In the course of the film he takes charge of Junior’s visit, keeping him from the rest of the family and acquainting him with southern history and the lessons of life that blues music has to offer. All this is narrated off screen from the retrospective point of view of Junior as an adult (voiced by Carl Lumbly). Both of the principle actors in the story are charming and impressive, almost like a comedy duo: Nathaniel Lee, Jr. maintains a stone-faced expression, occasionally frowning in bewilderment but quietly absorbing the strange new world in which he finds himself; and Tommy Redmond Hicks talks non-stop, behaving like an exuberant force of nature who is passionate about the history of blues and fond of his nephew.

The fictional parts of Warming by the Devil’s Fire were photographed in color by John Dempster, who became Burnett’s most frequent DP, on locations in New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Gulfport, Mississippi. Burnett was disappointed by the fact that he was unable to shoot in high summer, but the film’s autumnal landscapes have a quiet beauty and are free of the cheap, gaudy, corporate chain stores that infest poor towns in today’s America. Most of the documentary footage of blues musicians is in black and white, and Burnett occasionally segues from that footage into fiction by printing the opening moments of the color fiction sequences in black and white. Near the beginning of the film, after a grim montage of old newsreels and photos of southern black labor and lynching of blacks, a color fade takes us from archival footage of blacks exiting a New Orleans train to a shot of Junior alone with his suitcase in front of the station. He’s neatly dressed in a 50s-style coat and tie, looking like a polite boy on his way to church. Buddy soon arrives, wearing a sporty cap and two-toned shoes. He gives Junior a warm welcome, ushers him into a sparkling, almost new Chevy, and takes him on a quick guided tour of New Orleans before they depart for Vicksburg.

First they stop on Basin Street, which Buddy explains was once the location of the Storyville red-light district, later immortalized in Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “Basin Street Blues.” “In those days you didn’t need much money to have fun,” Buddy says. (Burnett cuts to old photographs and snippets of Armstrong’s music.) Then they stop at Congo Square, located inside what is now Louis Armstrong Park. As we can tell from Buddy’s enraptured speech, this is holy ground for anyone who regards blues and jazz as America’s truly indigenous art forms. Dating far back into colonial times, Congo Square was originally a place where enslaved blacks were allowed to congregate on their Sundays off—not for church, but for market, music, and dance from Africa and the Caribbean. It was closed before the Civil War but reopened afterward, when it became a gathering place for Creoles and a source of the brass-band rhythms still associated with New Orleans. (Burnett cuts to old footage of the Eureka Brass Band in a funeral parade through the nearby Treme district, playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”) Its original name wasn’t officially restored until 2011, long after Buddy supposedly makes his speech and even after Burnett made the film, but lovers of blues have always known its importance.

The film proceeds by this method, allowing Buddy to teach Junior blues history and initiate him into an adult world, and giving Burnett the opportunity to show footage of musicians and the life that shaped them. One of the great virtues of Warming by the Devil’s Fire is that it says comparatively little about formal or technical aspects of the blues (which, at least on the surface, are relatively simple) and doesn’t try to define the term; instead it does something better, showing how musicians described the blues and giving a clear sense of the trials, tribulations, and profane pleasures that were its emotional sources.

 

The film isn’t simply an archive of great blues performances (though it is that) but also a meditation on black experience. It concentrates mainly on the harsh Delta blues that extended from Tennessee down to Mississippi and Louisiana, and without explicitly saying so it gives us subgenres of this music, all of them dealing with forms of trouble or desire. One kind has to do with the pains of sexual love. After playing “Death Letter Blues,” a song about a man who gets a letter announcing “The gal you love is dead,” Sun House (1902-1988) tells an interviewer that “Blues is not a plaything like people today think . . . Ain’t but one kind of blues, and that’s between male and female that’s in love . . . Sometimes that kind of blues will make you even kill one another. It goes here [slaps his chest over his heart].” But there’s another kind about the cruelty of the southern treatment of blacks. W. C. Handy (1873-1958) says that “When they speak of the blues . . . we must talk of Joe Turner.” Handy’s song about Turner (“They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone, got my man and gone”) concerns a real-life character who lured Memphis black men into crap games and high-jacked them for deep-South chain gangs, where they provided free labor.

Some blues are quasi-work songs, such as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” which Burnett accompanies with powerful footage of black labor–men using steel bars as levers to rhythmically nudge an entire railroad track from one position to another; a row of five men in prison stripes standing close together and digging a trench by swinging pick axes in unison, the man in the middle flipping his axe in the air on the upswing and catching the handle for the downswing. Other blues are about weariness and soulful longing to be elsewhere. After playing “Nervous Blues,” bassist Willie Dixon (born in Vicksburg in 1915, died 1992) talks to his jazz quartet about the meaning of the blues: “Everybody have the blues . . . but everybody’s blues aren’t exactly the same. The blues is the truth. If it’s not the truth it’s not the blues. I remember down South, be on the plantation . . . and you would hear a guy get up early in the morning and unconsciously he’s [singing blues] about his condition and [wishing] he was some other place . . . down the road.” Still other blues, as with “Lonesome Road” by Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982), are about a deep loneliness and wish to make contact with loved ones. We’re given an example of these feelings when Buddy drives Junior down the Natchez Trace (a location Burnett wasn’t able to photograph) and they pass an old man trudging down the empty road who turns down the offer of a ride. Buddy explains that the old man is lost in thought, making one of his long, periodic journeys from northern Mississippi to Parchment Prison to see his son, who for some reason never talks to him.

Parchment Prison was a source of blues music, as was Dockery Plantation, where blacks labored hard to pick cotton. Burnett shows documentary footage of the harvest at Dockery, and viewers of this footage can understand an observation Buddy makes when he takes Junior to Gulfport to view the Gulf of Mexico. Looking out at the vast, gray water and cloudy sky, Buddy seems relieved at the sight, just as Burnett’s seafaring uncle probably was: “You can’t pick damn cotton on the ocean,” he says. The film makes very clear how much the blues can be related to backbreaking work on the land or to long hours of menial domestic labor. Standing on ground near the Mississippi river, Buddy tells Junior about the 1927 Mississippi flood, the most destructive in US history; he doesn’t give statistics, but it left 27,000 square miles under water, in some places up to thirty feet, and displaced almost a quarter million African-Americans from the lower Delta. (Burnett’s grandmother, who experienced that flood, often talked about it.) We see documentary evidence of the devastation it wrought, and Buddy explains that black workers did a great deal of the labor needed to stem the floodtide. Archival scenes show black men in prison stripes trucked to work and trucked back in a windowless iron trailer with air-holes on its sides. With help from the Federal government, blacks also worked to construct the world’s largest system of levees along the river, but they got little reward.

Given this environment, it’s both understandable and amazing that nearly all the great blues musicians were self-taught. On the level of domestic labor, one of the most striking moments in the film, and one of the longest, is a documentary interview with the aged blues singer-guitarist Elisabeth Cotton (1895-1958), who, after singing “Freight Train” in a weak but beautiful voice, tells the story of how she acquired a guitar. When she was a very young woman, she went to white homes asking for domestic work. One lady invited her in and asked what she could do. Cotton proudly listed all her skills: cooking; setting a table; cleaning house; doing laundry; bringing firewood inside; bathing and looking after the lady’s children; etc. The lady hired her at seventy-five cents a month. After a year, the lady was so satisfied that she raised the pay to a dollar. Cotton gave the money to her mother, who months later bought her a guitar out of a Sears-Roebuck catalog. She smiles when she remembers that she couldn’t keep her hands off the instrument and almost drove her mother crazy learning to play it.

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Charles Burnett’s interest in the blues was inseparably linked to his fascination with the South. In the 1950s, when he was ten years old, his grandmother put him and his brother on a train from LA to Vicksburg so they could visit their southern relatives and make contact with old-time religion.

Of course blues music wasn’t entirely about the woes of life. “With blues,” Buddy says to Junior, “you either laughed or cried.” A good deal of it, in fact, was about what the church called sin. We get a sense of this when Buddy takes Junior home with him to his tiny house, which looks like a blues museum. (In his commentary on the DVD, Burnett says that most of the old blues musicians, even the famous ones, lived in humble places like this, stacked with records and decorated with rare posters and photos; he also praises his production designer, Liba Daniels, for transforming an abandoned shack with very little money.) At night, Junior shares the narrow bed with Buddy, the two lying at opposite ends so that Junior’s head is at Buddy’s feet. Junior can’t sleep because when Buddy isn’t moving his toes to unheard music he suddenly jumps up and has a desire to put another record on the player. In the morning, Junior has his first experience of the horrors of the outhouse, made worse because the door won’t stay shut (there’s a blues poster on the inside of the door for convenient reading, and part of a broken 78rpm record on the wall). He finds a cat-gut string tacked to a post near the front door and strums it for a moment.

In the house, Buddy becomes Junior’s teacher. He shows the “cut and run” razor he keeps with him in case of trouble and begins playing records to exemplify the history of blues. This gives Burnett an opportunity to show archival footage of the people Buddy mentions. Buddy starts the day, as he does every day, by almost prayerfully listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Precious Memories.” (Tharpe [1915-1973] was a singer of both blues and gospels; her rendition of “Precious Memories” was used for the opening of To Sleep with Anger). He then segues into a discussion of women artists, who were in great demand during the 1920s, before the recording industry began to dictate what could be heard.  “So many women called themselves Smith,” Buddy says, among them Mamie Smith (1883-1946), the first woman to record blues, and of course Bessie Smith (1894-1937), featured in a clip Burnett shows us from the sixteen-minute film “St. Louis Blues” (1929). A montage of other female singers and songs features Ma Rainey’s “I Feel so Sad” (Rainey [1886-1939], the narrator tells us, was a successful stage performer who didn’t play juke joints and who worked with such musicians as Louis Armstrong; she was also a writer of songs with lesbian themes), “Four Day Creep” by Ida Cox (1896-1967), and a cover of “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” by Dinah Washington (1924-63). Buddy enthusiastically comments, “Those were some mean women, boy!” To reinforce his point, he plays a record by Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) and we hear a bit of the lyrics: “I got nipples on my titties big as my thumbs.” Suddenly realizing this might be inappropriate, he stops the record. The adult Junior’s narrating voice informs us that he decided to pretend he didn’t hear the words; Lucille Bogan, he says, had recordings that “would make the Marquis de Sade blush.” He adds that as a result of listening to blues, “I learned a lot about body parts.”

Buddy is obviously a man who loves women and makes no secret of the fact. Soon after playing the records, he visits a lady friend’s shot-gun house and introduces her to Junior. “This is Peaches,” he says, “one of the finest women God let walk on this earth.” He and Peaches cozy up and head off to the bedroom, backed by the music of Sonny Boy Williamson. (Williamson [1914-1948], the narrator explains, was the star of the “King Biscuit” radio show who was later killed in Chicago; we also see a clip of another, equally talented harmonica player [1912-1965] who somehow got away with appropriating Williamson’s full name.). Sullen, troubled, and beginning to disapprove of Buddy, Junior wanders outside. He gets in Buddy’s car and pretends to drive, then explores the neighborhood, coming upon a small church atop a hill. This discovery may seem implausibly symbolic, coming as it does on the heels of Junior’s increased uneasiness about Buddy’s sinfulness; but God and the Devil, like gospel and blues, are never far apart in this film, nor in back-country Mississippi. Junior goes into the empty church, which has a pulpit, pews, and a tapestry of the last supper (in his DVD commentary, Burnett says that the church was long abandoned and had to be fumigated for wasps before it could be decorated). Sitting on one of the pews, he experiences ghostly memories of churchgoing and seems to hear voices singing (“Things I used to do I don’t do any more”) and a preacher’s sermon, illustrated for us by old documentary footage.

When Junior and Buddy resume their drive, Junior pointedly asks about his other relatives in Vicksburg, whom he still hasn’t seen. Buddy ignores the question and resumes his lessons in blues history by commenting on the large number of singers who were blind, among them Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), Blind Blake (1896-1934), Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) and Ray Charles (1930-2004). But Junior looks unhappy. Sensing this, Buddy tries to cheer the boy up. “Let’s go see a movie!” he proposes. “Have you seen that movie Shane? I saw that one and High Noon about a dozen times!” Junior frowns and asks, “Why do you do bad things?” Buddy pauses, glances at him, and makes a prediction: “You’ll be surprised who you find in Heaven and who you find in Hell.”

Back at home, Buddy goes through a pile of old records and papers, including a yellowing, handwritten manuscript from a book he’s been writing about the history of blues. The book is unfinished because he still doesn’t have a beginning or end. The deep ancestry of the music, he explains, is in the early years of Reconstruction, in the era of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Welles, and W. E. B. Dubois, when southern blacks had greater freedom of expression. By the early twentieth century, mass production made guitars available through mail order, and distinctive forms of blues developed in the southeastern states, the Mississippi delta, and east Texas. The first blues musician to publish his songs was W. C. Handy, who could be considered the godfather of such later figures as Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966), T-Bone Walker (1910-1975), and Muddy Waters (1913-1983), all of whom we see in performance. The life of blues musicians, Buddy says to Junior, was often tough and self-destructive: Bessie Smith bled to death in an accident and Leadbelly and Sun House killed men.

As Junior’s education proceeds, he begins to form an imaginative attachment to the music and stories he’s heard.  At one point we see him alone on a nearby dirt road, walking with his eyes closed, guiding himself with a long stick in order to experience what blindness must have been like for people like Blind Lemon Jefferson. Buddy takes him to visit a blind guitarist named Honey Boy (Tommy Tc Carter), who is sitting on his front porch with an aging, invalid gentleman named Mr. Goodwin. Buddy reverently explains that the invalid old man was once a player with The Red Tops (Vicksburg’s most popular blues, jazz, and dance band of the 1940s, which entertained both white and black audiences). Junior is amazed that Honey Boy knows he’s from California, and listens politely when the blind man tells him that blues musicians, if they live long enough, begin to mature and accept religion; he explains that he ruined his eyes and health from wild living and drinking too much home brew and “canned heat.”

Eventually, Junior becomes less concerned about Buddy’s womanizing. Buddy takes him for a fried catfish lunch at the home of two pretty young women who enjoy teasing him. Chucking Junior under the chin, one of them says he needs a better name and asks if he likes “Sweet Boy.” “No Mam,” he says, “I like Junior.” Broadly smiling and seductively looking him in the eyes, the other young woman tells him Junior isn’t “a name for a man.” She decides to call him “Sugar Stick.” Buddy plays a slow blues record and he and the awkward, shy, silent Junior begin to dance with the two women. Junior’s partner, who is much taller, buries his head between her generous breasts, whispering that when he gets older she’s going to teach him things. “I was backsliding into darkness,” the narrating voice of the adult Junior tells us. “I was between heaven and hell.”

Junior’s full absorption into the imaginative world of the blues happens when Buddy takes him for another drive, stopping the car at a country crossroads of the kind where Robert Johnson and other blues greats supposedly sold their souls to the devil in exchange for a devilish style. Buddy tells Junior that they’ll see the devil, but as night descends he falls asleep in the driver’s seat. Junior stares ahead into the mysterious, moonlit darkness, where the ghostly image of a well-dressed blues musician appears and speaks to him in the voice of W. C. Handy (who was still alive in the mid-1950s). Fearful, certain that he’s encountered an apparition of the devil, Junior shakes Buddy awake and tells him what he’s seen. Buddy explains he was only joking and explodes into waves of loud laughter. (In his DVD commentary, Burnett remarks that it was ironically difficult for the film crew to find a country crossroad near Vicksburg. He also says, “One would think this scene would be about Robert Johnson, but it’s not. It’s about this kid’s imagination.”)

Going deeper into the Devil’s territory, Buddy climaxes his course of study by taking Junior to a local juke joint crowded with drinkers and dancing couples. Junior gets a fish sandwich on white bread and sits at a table, where he eats and observes the action while Buddy perches in lordly fashion at the bar, turning toward the room and saying hello to the regulars.  The woman who owns the place rebukes Buddy for bringing a kid inside, but he begs for just one beer and she relents. A sensible friend of Buddy’s steps forward, declines the offer of a drink, and tells Buddy he’s crossed a line by bringing a boy into the joint. Buddy laughs him off and the friend says “I give up,” exiting the place in disgust. Not long afterward a fight breaks out, viewed from over Junior’s shoulder, and a man across the room is knocked to the floor. The owner and her bouncers put the unconscious man in a chair and relieve him of a switchblade. Buddy leans toward Junior and asks, “Having fun?”

Just then the disgusted fellow who walked out returns with Buddy’s brother—he’s Uncle Flem, Junior’s opposite, a preacher dressed respectably in a suit. Flem tells Buddy that Junior’s family in LA and relatives in Vicksburg have been worried to death, and that Buddy is “crazy.” Buddy knows that his time with Junior is up. He moves to the boy, gives him an intense look in the eyes, and hugs him. Flem announces that he’s taking Junior to the decent members of the family elsewhere in Vicksburg. As Junior is led away, he looks back at Buddy. Burnett freezes the frame for a moment, holding on the boy’s gaze, and then shows him leaving.

This is the end of Junior’s association with Buddy, but not the end of Buddy’s influence. As the film closes, Junior’s narrating voice tells us “I learned so much on that trip back home. I never forgot a second of it. I draw a lot from that time I spent with Buddy. . . .The years went by, and Buddy left the book for me to finish. I did, in my own way.” We see a still photo of Buddy in a suit, next to Flem, holding a Bible to his heart. Junior’s voice says, “Buddy ended up becoming a preacher, like so many of the blues players.” Viewers might conclude that in his “own way” Burnett himself finished Buddy’s book, paying full tribute to the things he learned by visiting his birthplace.

 

 

 

The Canine Muse

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William Wegman and His Weimaraners: collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and the underground.

By James Hook

 

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Celebrated artistic collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and underground modes of filmmaking. What does it look like, however, when the muse in such a relationship happens to be a canine?

Such is the case in the unparalleled partnerships between William Wegman and his Weimaraner pets-turned-stars. A prolific multimedia visual artist and filmmaker who holds an MFA in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, Wegman has shot a virtually uncountable number of film and video works since 1970. Some of these run mere seconds, while others irreverently reimagine such childhood staples as The Hardy Boys or The Twelve Days of Christmas. A selection of these films will screen at the IU Cinema in The World of William Wegman shorts program, part of the Underground Film Series, on Friday, September 8, at 6:30 p.m.

Mostly constant through this work is the presence of one or more canine collaborators. First came Man Ray, star of many Wegman shorts throughout the 70s. Man Ray’s death in 1982 marked the start of a four-year gap before the appearance of a new muse, Fay Ray. Appropriately, Man Ray’s and Fay Ray’s respective namesakes gesture toward the realms of fine art and commercial entertainment, an artificial binary Wegman’s career has never recognized—his work has been welcomed at the Centre Pompidou and on Saturday Night Live. Something of a repertory company of canines materialized following the 1989 birth of Fay’s puppies Battina (Batty), Crooky, and Chundo.

While there have been more Weimaraners since, Fay and her puppies are the dogs most seen by countless Millennials (and their parents) thanks to appearances on that bedrock of children’s television programming, Sesame Street, beginning in 1989. Here the dogs would run into an empty frame and pose together to corporeally create letters and numbers. They also enacted nursery rhymes and performed in sketches designed to highlight neighborhood service workers such as the waiter, the truck driver, and the ophthalmologist—with the aid of full costumes and the uncanny incorporation of human hands.

One downside to the, well, doggedness with which these iconic images have maintained their hold in our collective pop-cultural memory is how another side of Wegman’s artistic sensibility has been overshadowed. His earliest video works, for instance, decidedly do not fit adjacently to a song by Big Bird, but would feel very much at home in a retrospective that also featured the works of, say, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, or Bill Viola.

Many of Wegman’s short films are underscored by an existential absurdity that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett.

Art critic Kim Levin has situated Wegman within what she identifies as an “aesthetic of the amateur.” Indeed, Wegman’s short films can sometimes feel like home movies, but only to a point. Although shot in Wegman’s studio space with simple camera setups and little if any editing, rather than capture the quotidian in any uncomplicated way, the activities in many of these films are underscored by an existential absurdity (or, perhaps, an absurd take on existentialism) that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett. They veer from the borderline grotesque (e.g., Wegman expels milk from his mouth for a cooperative Man Ray to lap up off the floor) to the whimsically meta (e.g., Wegman and the dogs reenact in-studio their 1991 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman).

wegman-FAY RAY 12 DAYS

That vexed label of “postmodernist” has often been applied to Wegman and it is not incorrect. Even his earliest shorts display confidence that his audiences are conversant in the expectations and conventions surrounding specific genres, rules Wegman then revels in exaggerating or breaking. 1978’s Man Ray, Man Ray, for instance, is a dual biography of the canine Man Ray and the famed surrealist photographer who preceded him. Constructed from talking head style interviews, still photographs, and voiceover narration, this “documentary” blurs together biographical details from the lives of both of its subjects and manages to incorporate an intermission and epilogue into its five-minute and twenty-three second running time.

The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold sits somewhere in-between the categorically unmistakable video art and the spiritedly playful Sesame Street segments. Shot on location in Rangeley, Maine using 35mm and premiering at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, the film is a technically accomplished tribute to the pseudonymous Franklin W. Dixon mystery series Wegman read as an adolescent. Herein sisters Batty and Crooky follow in the sleuthing shoes of brothers Frank and Joe; the voiceover narrator (unmistakably Wegman himself) helpfully clarifies, “Hardly boys, they were girls and dogs.” Whitney Museum curator Joan Simon has explained that for Wegman this casting was perfectly logical, as Weimaraners can be understood as “detectives by nature, tracking and sniffing for clues.”

Wegman’s Weimaraner muses are certainly not the first to bridge the categories of canine and star—this honor can be traced at least as far back as Rin Tin Tin in the silent era. Their image has, however, left an indelible aesthetic mark that continues to delight and baffle as it frustrates categories: Is the work fine art or kitsch? Does it appeal to children or adults? Is it best associated with the museum gallery or the television set? Are its characters dog-humans or human-dogs? As (surrealist) Man Ray once declared, “I like contradictions.” So too, I believe, does Wegman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Equinox

Gratitude chain

The autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It seems like a blind spot in the American imagination.

 

By Bart Everson

 

 

[editor’s note: Bart Everson lives in New Orleans but many years ago he lived in Bloomington and was co-host of the groundbreaking television series, “J&B on the Rox,” which aired on BCAT from 1992-1995. This essay is adapted from his new book, Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, Frowning Cat Books]

 

There’s an old bridge over Bayou St. John in New Orleans, made from wooden planks supported by a steel frame and now used only for foot traffic. A Vodou ceremony is performed here on St. John’s Eve, just after the summer solstice, but recently I’ve come to associate the bridge with the autumnal equinox, because of a flower, of all things.

I first noticed them a few years ago, gorgeous crimson spidery blooms which seemed to have sprung out of nowhere in mid-September, in a little planter box at the end of the bridge. A friend’s grandmother calls them “naked ladies,” because they emerge tall and proud atop leafless stalks.

It wasn’t until several years later, as I was studying up on the equinoxes, that I realized these flowers are associated with the beginning of fall. They bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox. It’s a testimony to my own alienation from natural cycles that I noticed this not from direct observation or local lore but by reading about rituals of Japanese Buddhism on the internet.

The Higan Service has been observed at both equinoxes by Japanese Buddhists for over a thousand years. It’s traditionally a time to visit graveyards and honor ancestors. The naked ladies which I see in New Orleans are called higan-bana in Japan; they are often planted in graveyards and usually bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox.

Some say the flower has over 900 names in Japanese, including poisonous flower, fox flower, the flower of the dead, samadhi flower, abandoned child flower, and the flower that looks like a phantom. The Latin designation is Lycoris radiata, which I find almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves. In the American South they are also known by a variety of evocative epithets: red spider lilies, red magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies. They have become for me one of the signal harbingers of autumn.

 

The boy who didn’t believe in autumn

The flower is also called the hurricane lily, which will need no explanation for those of us who live along the Gulf Coast. The peak of hurricane season comes on the tenth of September, statistically speaking, but the season officially runs until the first of November. Hurricane formation is driven by warm water in the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, which lingers on through the phenomenon of seasonal lag. It’s summer’s hangover.

Many locals take a dim view of September, the ostensible beginning of the fall season. September often seems like nothing more than an extension of the month before. August, Part II: The Revenge of the Humid. September is a sticky, sultry, summery month.

Here in the subtropics, spring may be ephemeral, but autumn can be downright elusive. Most of the trees in New Orleans stay green year-round, so we don’t see much fall foliage. The Saints may be playing football, kids may be back in school, and rumors of fall may filter down from the north, but when you’re mopping sweat off your brow it can be hard to believe autumn will ever come. The equinox can seem like a false premise. However, there is one undeniable reality that can’t be missed, even at our latitude.

I start to notice it at the very beginning of September. I rise at the same time, but each day it’s a little darker. Dawn slips forward through our morning routines. We are losing light. The days are getting shorter, as night encroaches upon day. Thus, even in the subtropics, we experience a sense of loss.

 

The other equinox

It seems to me that the autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It’s my gut feeling that most Americans, if they are familiar with the concept of an equinox at all, think of the vernal equinox first. The vernal equinox is the subject of an enduring myth: that you can stand an egg on end on that one day and no other. For some reason, this story is told only about the vernal equinox. The poor old autumnal equinox gets virtually no traction in the American mind. I wonder why that is.

My suspicion is borne out by a moment with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which indicates that for 200 years the vernal equinox has been mentioned about twice as often as its autumnal counterpart.

The chart gets more cluttered if you throw the solstices into the mix, but it seems that the autumnal equinox has been the consistent underdog since the Civil War, at least.

I can’t help wondering if it’s a global phenomenon. One imagines that, for ancient people, the vernal equinox might have held greater importance in terms of the agricultural cycle. Knowing when to plant seeds is crucial information. By contrast, knowing when to harvest can be determined simply by observing the plants themselves.

I can’t help wondering what wisdom the autumnal equinox might have to offer us, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) its obscurity.

 

Abstract vs. embodied

Over the years I’ve amassed a collection of music related to equinoxes and solstices, and in so doing I’ve discovered a few things.

First of all, “Equinox” is a popular title. John Coltrane’s jazz standard is the most famous, but there are many others in genres ranging from death metal to ambient electronica.

Second, most equinoctial music is instrumental. Yes, there are some precious few songs about the equinox, but the overwhelming majority of tracks have no lyrics whatsoever.

Third, it’s often impossible to determine which equinox is being referenced. Some compositions seem to have a seasonal feel, either a bouncy vernal character or a more autumnal melancholy. Some titles make the matter explicit, such as “Vernal Equinox” by John Hassell or “Vernal Equinox” by Can (same title, but entirely different compositions). There are half as many titled with some variation of “Autumnal Equinox,” further evidence of the disparity noted above.

In some cases a seasonal association can be deduced from other clues. For example, John Coltrane was born one day before the autumnal equinox in 1926, so perhaps the title of his standard was chosen to invoke autumn. “Meet Me on the Equinox” by Death Cab for Cutie was released in early September 2014, just before the autumnal equinox, and the lyrical refrain of “everything ends” seems to fit with the fall season.
However, for most compositions, the reference is completely ambiguous, and this ambiguity intrigues me. Perhaps musicians are intending to reference both equinoxes at once, to reference the idea of the equinox in the abstract, rather than its embodiment at a specific time of year. Note that solstice compositions are almost never ambiguous; the reference to summer or winter is almost always quite clear. The solstices by their nature represent opposite extremes, whereas the equinoxes are identical, insofar as the celestial mechanics are concerned.

The autumnal equinox is a global moment which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution.

It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. For this moment only, the Earth’s axis will not be tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. It’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and any round object (a globe, an orange), and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to pay attention. In fact I have demonstrated the concept on numerous occasions at a local elementary school.

Yet the thought of a non-tilted axis has probably not inspired many musical compositions. Rather, I suspect, it’s the idea of day and night in equal balance. There’s something mysterious, magical, even mystical, inherent in that notion. It’s obviously a natural phenomenon, and taking note and marking it seems deeply human as well. Furthermore, it’s a global moment, which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution. And since this configuration of Earth and Sun happens twice a year, it lends itself toward abstraction.

 

A different kind of balance

The concept of balance, common to both equinoxes, is not static but flowing. We seek balance as the best footing for our actions. This flowing sense of balance is embedded in the seasonal continuum. In the spring, the equinox represents a transition from dark to light; in the autumn this valence is reversed. At the autumnal equinox we move from light to dark. Attendant metaphors ensue.

Perhaps that’s why this equinox seems like such a blind spot in the American imagination. Themes of loss and darkness don’t fit well with the national narrative.

Yet there is much to celebrate, if we aspire to a full and comprehensive vision of what it means to be human on this planet. The metaphors of the equinox can work for us, if are open to the possibility. These metaphors only gain power when embodied in their seasonal context.

As metaphors of new growth predominate at the vernal equinox, so harvest metaphors abound in autumn. This might be a time for drawing in, for gathering together. The equinox can be a time for reflection, for making changes and starting projects, for setting priorities and recognizing intentions. Glenys Livingstone writes of “stepping into the creative power of the abyss,”1 a wonderfully expressive and suitably mysterious phrase. Truly darkness and loss, though they present challenges, are not to be feared, if only we can gain adequate perspective.

Fear and denial are fundamental responses to loss and encroaching darkness. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. However, there is another response which may seem surprising and counterintuitive, though just as fundamental, and that is gratitude — the reciprocal of the spirit of desire which we celebrated at springtime.

 

Methods of gratitude

In fact this cuts both ways. Reflecting on one’s mortality can enhance one’s sense of gratitude, and gratitude helps us cope with loss. There is now abundant evidence of the many benefits of gratitude in the emerging field of positive psychology sciences.

Most ancient wisdom traditions have also emphasized the importance of gratitude. Gratitude is like any other capacity we have: it grows when we exercise it regularly. So it’s good to be intentional about it, to set aside time for gratitude.

A fun way to do this with family and friends is to make a gratitude chain. Cut up some strips of colored paper, and on each strip write down things for which you are grateful. Join the strips together to make a chain. Add to it daily throughout the season and soon you will have visible evidence of just how much gratitude is flowing through your lives.

A craftier alternative, perhaps appropriate for a gathering, is to make a gratitude garland. Each person can bring a token to hang on the garland, representing a blessing which they wish to celebrate. As the garland is constructed, each person can share the story of their gratitude.

Another worthwhile exercise, suitable also for the solitary practitioner, is drafting a gratitude letter. This is simply a “thank you” letter to someone you’ve never adequately thanked. It’s surprisingly powerful. Try it some time.

There are other methods. Whatever you do, do something. A recent study by Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra2 indicates that cultivating gratitude may help you manage stress, reduce toxic emotions and materialistic striving, improve self-esteem, enhance your ability to remember the good things in your life, build social resources, motivate moral behavior, make you more spiritual, help you reach your goals, and promote your physical health.

I heartily recommend it.

 

Objects of gratitude

I am riding my bike to my daughter’s school on a warm September afternoon. It’s sprinkling gently though the sun is shining. As I ride I puzzle over an issue related to this essay, a philosophical snag over which I’ve dithered for years.

We may feel immense gratitude for favors large and small done us by our fellow human beings, which is a truly wonderful thing in its own right, but what about that gratitude we feel for a beautiful day? For sunshine or rain? For the blooming of Lycoris radiata? What about the whole of existence?

Gratitude is usually constructed as having two objects. We feel grateful for something, and we also feel grateful to someone. Note that in the standard formulation, this second object is typically a person or agent of some sort. Does it have to be that way? Is it correct to speak of gratitude to impersonal forces, or is there some other word for that? Does gratitude require an object, or can it be sort of free-floating?

By the time I arrive at the school, the sprinkle has thickened into a more substantial rain. The September sun is still shining brightly, however. I’m supposed to take my daughter to aikido class. If we ride in the rain we’ll both get soaked. Fortunately a friend shows up. He’s taking his daughter to the dojo too, so he gives my daughter a ride.

I stand under the portico waiting for the weather to clear, appreciating the beauty of the raindrops sparkling in the sunshine. I wonder about the nature of this appreciation. It feels akin to gratitude, but for many years I scrupled to label it as such, because it wasn’t clear to me just who the object of this gratitude might be. I am grateful to Jameel for giving my daughter a ride. Am I grateful to the rain? To the sun? While the rest of the human race gets on with feeling grateful, some of us stop to wonder: To whom or to what am I feeling grateful? For years that question was my stopping point, my stumbling block.

Since my daughter was born, however, many things have changed. I started to experiment with some things, tentatively at first, but in time — slowly, cautiously — with greater enthusiasm. I thought to myself: Why not? Why not give it a try? Why not allow myself to feel gratitude to the rain, to the Sun, to the Earth, to the Universe? Was it possible to experience gratitude to everything for everything?

We began to say grace before dinner. “Thank you, Mother Earth, for the food that gives us life.” I started visiting a certain tree each morning for a brief meditative moment, and I found myself saying “thank you” to the tree. These practices felt good, but they had other consequences. The world around me began to seem more alive. An incipient animism was springing up in my breast. I noticed that many children seem to relate to the world this way. Was I that way once? I can’t remember.

When the rain abates, I get on my bike and head up Moss Street, along the edge of Bayou St. John. That’s when it hits me. One of the prime functions of mythical metaphors is that they allow and even encourage our expressions of cosmic gratitude. That’s kind of the whole point.
Gratitude surely is a social phenomenon which has evolved over millennia as part of humanity’s web of interdependence.3 Yet that web extends well beyond humanity without any clear limit. It’s only right and natural that we’d want to extend our social feelings to the natural world. This gives an emotional validity to the hard fact of our manifold interconnectedness and conveys many benefits besides. I suspect it’s “selected for,” as evolutionary biologists might say, but I’m speculating again.

This may be a minor revelation but it comes down on me with some force, just as I arrive at the footbridge where Lycoris radiata will soon be making its annual appearance, the very place where I started this overlong rumination on the autumnal equinox. It seems a fitting place to stop, and to express my gratitude to you, Reader, for coming with me so far.

 

 

 

 

The Write Stuff

writer at typewriter

What I learned at the IU Writers’ Conference

By Sarah Berry

 

“To have a firestorm surrounding your work, that’s what you want. You just have to weather the storm.” So says Samuel Autman, the speaker of the Craft and Business of Nonfiction panel at this summer’s IU Writers’ Conference. He was talking about personal nonfiction, specifically memoirs, and his advice ranged from don’t be afraid to get really personal to don’t go on Amazon and look at reviews, because they may make you never want to write your memoir or anything, ever.

Internet trolling and ridiculous reviews aside, the writer’s conference provided advice that ranged from how to make yourself sit down and actually write something to writing strategies to how to best market your work once you’ve actually managed to crank it out. Beginning with a series of personalized workshops (Chris Abani, novelist and poet, taught fiction; Mary Robinette Kowal, novelist specializing in science fiction and fantasy, appropriately taught sci-fi/fantasy; Morgan Parker, poet, taught the poetry workshop), then transitioning in the afternoon to the panel with Autman, and then to talks given on poetry, graphic memoir, and fiction, taught by Rickey Laurentiis, Amy Kurtzweil, and Alexander Weinstein, respectively. The day was full of useful information, quirky tips, fun personal stories, and writing exercises.

“Who reads literary magazines?” Samuel Autman

However, it was interviewing the authors about their personal experiences with writing that I found the most informative. After the day’s panels were done, there were readings in which the authors read their works. This was followed by a small reception with light food and plenty of wine. I spent these receptions awkwardly attempting to interview the writers (while most of them were trying to talk with the actual conference participants who had paid to be there), but all were accommodating and took the time to answer my questions as I limped along on my journalistic training wheels.

Here’s what I learned….

Writing is like the energizer bunny

“It’s energized, but it must be exhausted because it goes forever.” That’s Ricky Laurentiis’ description of the energizer bunny, which, for him, closely parallels writing: writing itself is draining, but finishing a piece and having it appreciated or published is energizing. Writing is full of ups and downs and learning how to reconcile the two and work through them. But it all seems to depend on the writer: Samuel Autman, who both teaches and writes, found the combination tiring. As a teacher, he says, it’s not just making the students enthusiastic and willing to write; it’s about making sure that in teaching, you don’t lose that drive either. Autman says, “I had to learn to try to find things that would energize my writing.”

There are different ways to express emotions

Writing is often cited as a great means of self-expression. From emotion to memory to shared experience, writing gives us a means to connect with others while examining ourselves. For Samuel Autman, the way to connect most deeply and personally with people was to write memoirs. While working as a journalist, Autman began to write personal columns. “I would write periodic columns, and I found that readers really connected to those columns.” People loved the narrative details, even something as small as what someone was wearing, because it helped them connect to the story. And through this, Autman was able to tell stories that could connect to more people because these narratives created a powerful empathy, and, ultimately, redemption for those whose story was being told.

On the flip side, Amy Kurzweil found drawing to be a stronger way for her to convey emotion. “I feel like with graphic memoir and with drawing I’m able to communicate emotional information that, in writing, doesn’t come as easily to me.” Just as I find drawing excruciating, many people feel the same about writing. It’s not for everyone, but most of us have the same desire to express ourselves in ways that others can readily understand. There are multiple mediums through which to do this, and they are all capable of telling powerful narratives. For Amy, drawing allowed her an emotional directness that she couldn’t find in writing, where in a piece of art the smallest change in a facial expression could speak paragraphs. As Kurzweil told me: “I have a lot of feelings and I want people to know that!”

Writing personal nonfiction is scary

Personal nonfiction means opening your life and experiences to everyone. Whoever happens to pick up your book or click on your article suddenly becomes privy to some of the most intimate details of your life. Autman says he started publishing his memoir stories in literary magazines, which have a very limited readership (“Who reads literary magazines? Because they’re so rare,” Autman remarked to me). Then his writing was out there, but he didn’t have to worry about it being everywhere and read by everyone. Eventually, he reached a turning point, realizing that nonfiction was what he wanted to write, and that passion was enough to overcome his fear. But, regardless of anyone’s passion for writing memoirs, everyone has to face the fire eventually (“get ready to be crucified” was Autman’s advise). You need a thick skin, and you have to decide how you want to deal with the fire. For Autman, it’s like this: “I’m not gonna fight with people if they wanna attack. If they don’t want to read it, don’t read it…This is my truth. This is what happened to me. And if it doesn’t work for you, find books that do work for you.” Just remember: whatever you do, don’t read those Amazon reviews.

Write in your own voice and for the right reasons

People often try take on a persona when writing, attempting to write in a voice that isn’t their own. Not only can this make it more difficult to actually produce writing, but “it often leads to not being vulnerable or not risking something because what you’re trying to do is create a style that’s not necessarily your own,” said Alexander Weinstein. Writing in someone else’s style because you think it’s what readers want will not only hamper your ability to express yourself, but often change what you’re writing for. Writing for money is an issue that plagues many writers. “You think you’re just going to write the bestseller and it’s just going to be accepted right away. That means that you’re looking at the product, the end product, rather than the process, too early” said Chris Abani. The best way to overcome this is by two things. Morgan Parker advises: “don’t be afraid of yourself.” And, Mary Robinette Kowal reminds us that we’re readers first, so “write something you want to read.”

Science-fiction isn’t a camp genre

So often we’re tempted to pass sci-fi off as fluff, camp, low-brow. It’s the stuff of B serials, cheap, cookie cutter novels, and bloated blockbuster films. But it can be much more. Alexander Weinstein thinks of his work that would typically be classified as sci-fi as speculative fiction and social critique. Examining how our world may be in the near future through the way we utilize and depend on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, can convey our relationship with technology and question if we’re losing ourselves to these inventions. Weinstein cited Tinder as an example: “if you look at, for example, dating apps, the way that we swipe people into the trash is very closed-hearted and horrible, but we don’t think of it that way, so if you take it just a step further it can reveal some of these both disturbing and humorous underbellies of our current technologies.” Ultimately, science fiction allows to examine our own world through a different, perhaps more objective lens. For Kowal, science fiction “tips the natural world to the side so that you can see the connective tissue, which I think allows us to talk about some social issues and just the human condition in ways that more naturalistic fiction doesn’t because it doesn’t come with the same kind of baggage.”

You are your own worst enemy when it comes to writing

If you’ve ever tried to write anything, you’ve experienced some form of writer’s block. You sit down at the computer and everything you were about to write evaporates in a second, so you go watch TV. Your thesis suddenly sounds stupid so you decide you might as well give up writing. Someone asks you a question and your hour-long writing streak is over. Weinstein would identify the cause of these issues as the inner critic and the slacker. The inner critic is the one that will tell you “you’re no good, why should you bother writing.” The slacker says “nah, we’ll do it tomorrow.” Sometimes it’s one of these that plagues you, sometimes both. They’re also impossible to get rid of. Therefore, Weinstein declared, you must give them the time they deserve. As much as they cause problems, they also have their own merits: “The inner critic becomes a good editor once trained, and the slacker becomes really good after you’ve done a lot of work.”

Writing can seem lonely, but it doesn’t have to be

We’ve all had that experience where we’re writing something, be it school essay, work application, personal memoir, magazine article, and we’re doing it alone, in our house, at the desk, in the corner, feeling very isolated from everyone, trying to figure out how to put into words feelings that aren’t easily expressed. And it’s often harder when we feel alone. That’s why these writing conferences are so special. “What’s really great here is less that actual tangible classes, although I think those are important. It’s the sense of community, because writing is always already so isolated and lonely. So it’s good to be reminded that you have a community of writers across the world, across the nation, who are just as weird as you,” said Rickey Laurentiis. That was my biggest takeaway from this conference: whether we were laughing at Autman’s anecdotes or struggling to fill Weinstein’s writing exercises, there was a sense of togetherness there. And there’s something about that energy that makes writing, at least in my experience, much easier, and a much more enjoyable experience.

 

In conclusion, writing is hard. That sounds trite, but it’s true. You have to sit down at a blank page and pluck words from the ether to create something wholly original that makes some sort of sense and is actually enjoyable to other people. Writing conferences like IU’s can help; words of wisdom from the experienced (and published) can aid not only with motivation, but skills and general practices. But, ultimately, it comes down to personal enjoyment. Write (or don’t write; art comes in many forms) what speaks to you, what you like. If it’s terrible, who cares. Just have a good time, and remember: you’re not the only one toiling away out there.

 

 

 

The Goat and the Portrait Photographer

Jake No. 1

Kevin Horan moved to Whidbey Island and found local farmers who allowed him to set up portrait studios in their barns.

by Michal Ann Carley

Yes, goats. Specifically, studio portraits of goats. These are the subjects of Kevin Horan’s suite of 16 photographs from his 2014 series Chattel that is on exhibit at Pictura Gallery through July 29th. Formerly a photojournalist, Horan has published his work in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, LIFE, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, and numerous other sites, but this series is decidedly not documentary. Nor, as one might anticipate when one has actual goats as subject matter, are the photographs coy or cute, stylized or commercial; rather, they are drop-dead deliciously beautiful portraits of subjects that strongly emote through their corporeal presence.

Kevin Horan moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state in 2006 where, after having been an editorial photographer for over 30 years, he began to explore local subjects of his own choosing. His neighbor’s sheep relentlessly serenaded him with a choir of unique voices as he passed by and, he imagined, told him their individual stories. But when he attempted to gather and corral that energy into individual photoshoots, he was met with skittish, squirrely subjects who tried to maneuver dangerously through his lighting setup.  Not defeated, Horan determined to find animals who were naturally calmer because they were accustomed to human interaction, such as herd dairy animals that were used to twice-daily milking: intelligent and somewhat docile sheep and endlessly entertaining and social goats.

Horan found local farmers who allowed him to set up quasi-formal portrait studios in their barns and who willingly assisted the artist with the handling of their flocks. A photo portrait studio is generally a careful configuration of specialized photofloods and diffusion umbrellas fixed onto tripods with booms and flash box controls tied into cameras, all of which engulf the subject who is positioned against a large neutral backdrop. Erecting this setup in an actual barn is no small task, but Horan found that working with the spirited animals was even more formidable. Unlike human subjects whose ego and vanity would be distinctly in play and would elicit active cooperation during a portrait photo session, the animals had no such pretentions; they were unruly and otherwise distracted, as curious goats are wont to be.

Many of the portraits were taken at the New Moon Farm Goat Rescue and Sanctuary also on the island. It is likely that viewers might project feelings of longing, want, and gratitude onto these goats as a natural response to having been provided haven; but, to this viewer, the unique personalities of the goats are not projections but are real and inescapable — we are  witness to their faces and eyes penetrating, seducing, and laughing.

The artist uses the conventions of traditional portraiture: isolating the head and shoulders in a neutral frame, orchestrating light and shadow-play over the figure while creating a focus on the most expressive features, and using a full range of tonality to create visual complexity and amplify volumes. Horan uses a Pentax medium-format digital camera to shoot the frames in black and white and then digitally superimposes subtle tones of sepia and umber to create richer, more naturalistic though staged images that reference formal portraiture of the 19th century. “Chattel” means the possessions, or in this case, the livestock that one owns.  The British traditionally heralded the status of their prize animal specimens with a commissioned, oil painted portrait and with the advent of photography, a daguerreotype, a practice that carried over to the colonies. These portraits were intended to display the “beauty” of the animal through the documentation of its use value: its height, width, girth, weight, and the amount that it could pull or push. Horan’s title Chattel borrows from this notion of documentation and pride, but in his accounting, presents the subjects’ most salient characteristics as their facial features, physiognomic structure, and the texture and drape of their hair instead. These are cues to us, as viewers, to infer or sense the personality of each goat, recognizing it in the turn of their head, the lilt of their ears, or the gaze of their eyes.

The individual goats in Chattel are not identified by breed but rather by name, further indicating that they are not anonymous members of a herd, but are a part of a family, of sorts. Sherlock, whose head is shown in profile barely turns at the shoulders revealing a series of articulated creases in his back. His masses of cream-colored curls form an irregular contour that is in dramatic contrast to the deep black space that envelops him. This presentation is unlike those for pedigree shows, beauty pageants and the like. Instead, by virtue of his uncoifed and irrepressible waves of coiling hair in richly layered, umbered tonalities and as his curled horn that encircles the crown of his head and returns us to his attentive expression, he is uniquely aesthetically and psychologically compelling.

Ben stands intimately close. He is positioned frontally to compositionally isolate him in a sea of black, while his upturned chin and short horn imply a youthful innocence.  Together with his widely-set imploring eyes and flaxen colored fur, these features solicit an atavistic empathic response. If there is a patriarch to this menagerie, it is Jake. Presented as the largest photographic print (36 x 44”, edition of 3), Jake commands the pictorial space, filling it almost entirely with his emphatic girth, gnarly muzzle with a Mohawk ridge, heavily veined, silken ears that droop lower than his chin, and horns that spiral diagonally to almost the corners of the frame. His is midtoned overall with only slivers of deep shadows in the furrows of his wrinkled flesh and clearly inhabits the depth of field with its almost shared tonality. But it is his pronounced under bite turned upward as if in a grin and resonant eyes that emote a languid but playful dignity. We are captured in his gaze.

Ella formally is the most sophisticated composition and the subtlest evocation of the suite. Ella occupies the lower one and one-half quadrants of the lower right, but almost merges into it as her burnished black fur swallows the light and her soft eyes and nose, that barely stand proud, are coal black. One hesitant, shimmered reflection on the very edge of her long neck that reads as a barely perceivable line of light, demarcates her muscled body from the environment. Atop her head are a pair of ringed horns poised in arabesque flight that through the precise focus on their ridged growth patterns provides the only dimensional perspective of the piece. Horan’s withholding of chromatic and tonal contrasts makes viewers all the more active in their pursuit of telling information: her feathery eyelashes that obscure eye contact, the dirt on her muzzle that suggests active work or at least exuberant curiosity, the multi-hued layered rings that make up her horns and bespeak her age, and her sustained composer that appears at once distant and present with equanimity. We are her captive audience.

 

Kevin Horan has at his command all the tropes of photographic portraiture and exploits them to make lushly beautiful images of common animals we might well have overlooked. Chattel is a testament to not only his formal and technical prowess, but his patience and affinity to speak with and allow the animals to speak through him. He presents the ordinary and lets it tell its story quietly with no affectation beyond light and shadow and compositional arrangement.

 

 

Michal Ann Carley is an artist, free-lance curator, and teaches Arts Management classes in IU SPEA’s Arts Administration Program.

 

 

Pull

“These pictures insist upon an active engagement of our own feelings about the souls within other beings, human or otherwise, and how visible they are from out here. If we are paying attention to our own responses, we must grapple with the cause of our response.”

–Kevin Horan

Pull

Horan found local farmers who allowed him to set up quasi-formal portrait studios in their barns. But unlike a human subject whose ego and vanity would be distinctly in play and would elicit active cooperation during a portrait photo session, the animals had no such pretentions; they were unruly and otherwise distracted, as curious goats are wont to be.

 

Michal’s Note on images: The images are really important so I hope that the four Sherlock, Ben, Jake, and Ella can be run, in that order.

 

Each image can be captioned with the name of the goat in question

 

Stranded at Sea

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By John Linnemeier

When former Bloomington mayoral candidate and Ryder editor-at-large John Linnemeier and his wife Gail set sail aboard a cargo ship, they thought they were embarking on what would be a relaxing, uneventful sea cruise. Instead, the found themselves stranded, adrift and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The article in the Wall Street Journal was good but these excerpts from John’s journal are even better. Happy sailing.

 

As I think back on it, everything was moving ahead so smoothly and with such a sense of efficient inevitability that I couldn’t have imagined anything disrupting it.   Who would have guessed that in two short weeks, the plight of our ship and all aboard her would land us on the front page of the Wall Street Journal….

 

From the bridge I could take it all in.  Out over the tops of thousands of containers stacked like Legos on the deck of our monstrous ship, stretched the sheltering sky with only a few puffy clouds on the horizon.  How many crab legs or door jams or dildos or dog toys could you fit into one forty-foot-long steel box, let alone five thousand nine hundred and seventy-two of them?  But in this almost forgotten space, the middle of the Pacific, halfway to Tokyo, our home, this mighty leviathan, is no more than a speck of pollen on the rippled skin of the largest ocean on Earth.

 

Out here for all intents and purposes we’re incommunicado.  That’s okay by me.  I’ve brought along about ten pounds of books to read and hope to do some writing as well.  We’re traveling in the owner’s cabin on deck F, a couple of floors beneath the bridge.  Tastefully carpeted and simply but elegantly furnished, the stateroom is battened down with heavy steel doors that close with authority and thick wooden cabinets that click tightly shut with strong little magnets.  Everything looks shipshape, spacious and far larger than a typical cabin on a cruise ship.  On the bookshelf, along with other reading material was a glossy in-house magazine with a story that might have alerted me to the possibility of what was to come.  The article mentioned “challenges” the company had been going through recently.  My only gripe at this point was that what looked like it was going to be an expansive view got blocked by a wall of containers stacked three feet directly in front of our portholes.

 

Booking passage on a freighter seems like a throwback to an earlier era.  I can scarcely believe it’s still allowed in a corporate world obsessed with liability.  I’m not sure what role we’re expected to play.  We can’t bring in much revenue.  Mere pocket lint in an operation this size.  Maybe we’re meant to be a break from the monotony of life at sea for the ship’s officers, or maybe it’s just a naval tradition and slow to change.  But for whatever reason, if you’re willing to sign the indemnity release form, buy the required insurance, and get inoculated for yellow fever, you can go almost anywhere on a working ship.  They rarely take on more than ten passengers, and often far fewer, since more than ten legally requires a doctor on board.  It’s considerably cheaper than traveling on a cruise ship, and your fellow travelers will likely be more interesting.

We joined our ship, the Hanjin Geneva, in Seattle.   Our taxi driver left us off just outside the gates of the terminal where we waited excitedly at security for the shuttle van.  After showing our passports, we donned hard hats and reflective vests.  Then after a brief wait, my wife, Gail, and I were driven out to our boat.  What a sight!  A hundred feet tall and over the length of three football fields.  A smiling young Filipino sailor quickly descended from the ship, grabbed our heavy bags and wrestled them up the gangway with me and Gail following close behind.

How peculiar it felt to find ourselves adrift halfway around the world while the suits in executive suites in Hamburg and Seoul decided our fate – along with the fate of mountains of frozen salmon, shoelaces and ping pong tables. 

Forty years ago I’d attempted to stow away on a luxurious Italian liner bound for Genoa.  I didn’t make it.  This time everything was legit, but my heart was still pounding with excitement from the thrill of coming aboard a great ship.

On the way up the elevator to our stateroom we bumped into a great friendly bear of a man, with rapidly moving, dark, keen, intelligent eyes, short inky black beard, and a head of hair like an uncontrolled squall…our captain, Robert Kuschmirz.  As we ascended, his massive girth seemed to occupy half the tiny elevator’s space.  He spoke quickly with a thick German accent that made it hard for me to understand him at first, though as the trip went on my ears gradually adjusted.  I never adjusted to his laugh though…the loudest I’ve ever heard.  We’d be eating in the officers’ mess and it would suddenly go off like a detonating hand grenade.  He was in a bustling hurry, but more than congenial.  I almost felt as if he might give us a hug.   He assured us we were welcome in the wheelhouse anytime cargo wasn’t being loaded or we were navigating in or out of port.

 

Food in the officers’ mess is solid German seaman’s chow…pot roast, bratwurst, sauerkraut, goulash, pork knuckle soup… If that’s too heavy, veggies are an option.  Our Filipino steward, James, is the smilingest, most obliging guy imaginable.  He serves all our meals and cleans the stateroom once a week.

 

The ship is manned by 22 souls…five European officers (four Germans and one Pole) and 18 crewmen (16 Filipino and two very popular Filipina).  Everybody speaks serviceable English, the lingua franca of cargo ships.

 

Many years ago in Goa I became friends with a group of retired sea captains…salty dogs with lots of stories.  One thing they all agreed on was that they’d lived in the golden age of seafaring.  Loading and unloading a ship today is so efficient that it scarcely leaves time for anyone to go ashore.  “Sailors these days are like prisoners,” said one.  That’s not to say that the men and women on our boat aren’t proud of their skill, but it can be a lonely life.

 

It’s fascinating to watch a container ship being loaded.  The monstrous, smoothly efficient machines look like kinetic sculpture, and the ballet of perfectly coordinated work has its own beauty.  You occasionally see people, but only occasionally, and when you do, they seem tiny and inconsequential.  Trains pull up to the dock where mobile cranes pick the individual containers up one by one and stack them in well-ordered piles along numbered lanes where a series of other gigantic insect-like mechanisms pick them up again and load them onto trucks that sequentially husband them through a labyrinth of colorful container stacks to a spot immediately beneath the mother of all overhead loading cranes, ten or fifteen stories tall.  The crane clasps each succeeding container, then effortlessly plucks it up, lifts it over the gunnels of the vessel and deposits it with a satisfying crunch into its designated slot.   Everything is dictated by dense, continuously evolving algorithms.  Every year more stuff gets moved around, and every year it requires fewer and fewer human beings to keep this relentless juggernaut of intentionality in motion.  In ports like Rotterdam, virtually all work is done by robots who don’t require healthcare and never ask for a raise.

Container ships have re-made our world.  Like the Internet they’ve leveled the playing field between nations and knit us into a global interdependent community with an economic stake in peaceful cooperation as well as a world where wealthy countries with well-paid workers have to compete with poorer countries over the production all things tradable.  Globalization has made a lot of manufactured goods incredibly cheap.  The fact that you can buy a watch that keeps near-perfect time at the Dollar Store continues to amaze me.  Naturally there have been negative effects as well, but my point is not to get into a discussion of the pros and cons of globalization, but rather to emphasize the fact that even though the uniform treatment of containerized goods that can be moved virtually anywhere on earth by ship, train or truck has revolutionized commerce, the process, especially the crucial sea link, takes place out of sight from most of us.

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Initially Gail and I thought we’d be the only passengers, but in Vancouver we were joined by Rebecca, a six-foot-tall young woman from London, bursting with ruddy health and enthusiasm…an art student with long dark brown hair, lively, intelligent eyes that look you straight on, and what my untutored ear takes to be a faintly upper-class accent.  She has a bit of the manner of a giant puppy who’s always tripping over its feet.  She’s very dear.

Her job will be to shoot a video project about freighters.  It won’t be a run-of-the-mill documentary though, but rather something more creative that will be exhibited in an art museum in Vancouver along with the work of four other “emergent artists” traveling on similar container ships.  She has no clear idea what form her project might take, though she’s packed a few props and costumes.  She plans to shoot hours and hours of video, then try to make sense of it in the editing process.  I asked her about previous projects and she mentioned one in which she dressed up as a frog and hopped around on a pogo stick, periodically falling off, then climbing back on!

 

We awoke on our second day out to a gentle swaying motion.  Our cabin is located amid ship, which minimizes the roll.  On the outside stairs the sway was substantially more pronounced.  The stacked containers buttressed with a spider net of high-tension metal lashings creaked and groaned ominously as I made my way down to the main deck that encircles the ship.  When I reached the bottom of the staircase, things got wilder.  I found myself clumsily making my way along the slippery main deck, clutching onto the railing in a stiff wind as the bow of our ship splintered each succeeding twenty-foot swell with the crashing sound of WOW! WOW! WOW!  I’ve yet to acquire my sea legs.

 

The crew is fine, but all three of us passengers are feeling a bit queasy.  For me, what helps is climbing up to the bridge where I can see the horizon and have a sense of how the ship is attacking the waves.  Even several hours later back in our cabin I seem to carry with me a sense of being aboard a ship ponderously making its way through choppy seas rather than a person confined to a room that drunkenly, sickeningly lurches about in unexpected, seemingly random ways.  If things get worse, I have seasickness patches prescribed by my buddy, Rick Owens.

 

We’re well beyond the 200-mile limit so the ship is permitted to switch from relatively clean

burning diesel fuel with low sulfur content to less clean but cheaper bunker oil.  You’d only notice it if it was brought to your attention, but the exhaust coming from the stack is no longer transparent.  There’s some grayness to it, and you can see a bit more soot on the outside floors and railings.  Up on the bridge is a chart showing the year-by-year, progressively more restrictive environmental laws that ships must adhere to.  The days of lawlessness, when you could dump anything out on the open sea, are coming to an end.  Today only garbage can be thrown overboard, and then only beyond the twelve-mile limit.  At least on our boat, glass, plastic and metal are carefully segregated for disposal back ashore.  Theoretically that means no messages in bottles, though that is one rule I hope to break at least once.

 

Life aboard ship is by turns fascinating and monotonous.  Our next landfall after Vancouver is Tokyo, 4,200 nautical miles away.  We’ll cross eight time zones and lose a day when we pass over the international date line, a crooked imaginary ribbon that starts at the North Pole along the 180th parallel, zigs just west of the archipelago of the Aleutian Islands, then drops straight down into the South Pacific where it zags east between Fiji and Samoa, clears New Zealand, then zigs back to the 180th parallel on its way to a final rendezvous at the South Pole with all the other lines of longitude.

It always seems a little counterintuitive that a straight line drawn on a Mercator Projection is not the shortest distance between two points on a sphere.  Our voyage will take us on a great northern arc that breaches the Aleutians through Unimak Pass, briefly crossing into the Bering Sea before arching back south passing just east of the Attu Islands.  Then on to Japan.

 

One evening at dinner I mentioned to the captain that I’d heard that occasionally people have tried to make it to the US locked in a shipping container.  He said it would be plenty difficult while admitting that, other than knowing which containers require refrigeration (reefers) and which contain hazardous materials, no one aboard has any idea what the individual forty-foot boxes contain.  Only a small percentage of shipping containers are x-rayed, which frankly seems like a gaping hole in anti-terrorism security.

The conversation moved on to piracy…a very real problem in places like the Horn of Africa, the Straits of Malacca and the northern Indian Ocean.  He said he’d encountered pirates once several years back but was able to evade them simply by speeding up.  He reassured me that for our passage to China there was little to no danger of either pirates or icebergs.

 

For virtually the whole trip we’ll be operating on automatic pilot.  The captain resets our course and speed from time to time and the automatic pilot does the rest, continually altering our heading to compensate for wind and current.  There’s a “Deadman’s Button” that starts blinking every once in a while.  If whoever is on watch doesn’t quickly punch it back in response, an alarm goes off in the captain’s quarters and there’ll be hell to pay.

 

A lot of time on the bridge is spent filling out copious paperwork, and month after month of it can get tedious.  When I make my way up to the bridge, I’m always met with a smile.  It’s one of the many reasons I love traveling on a working ship.  There’s always something going on, and whoever is on watch seems happy to answer my incessant torrent of questions.

Typically, I take a look at the large chart on the table near the big window facing the stern to check our course and location, see if we’re around something cool like a buoy anchored out in the middle of nowhere for detecting tsunamis, or maybe crossing some great eight-mile-deep trench.  Another chart I like to examine is printed out daily and shows the direction and wind speed along our projected course with a series of tiny flag-shaped lines.  There’s an instrument that continually draws a line on a scrolling piece of paper indicating whether the barometric pressure is rising or falling.  Then there are electronic read-outs on the huge dashboard showing dozens of things like current speed and direction, distance from our last port, and what’s going on in the engine room.  One elaborate display shows all the ballast tanks, their locations, how much water each contains, and buttons that allow you to operate pumps that redistribute water between them to keep the ship stable.  A couple of dimly lit dials a full meter in diameter, set just beneath the great panoramic windows at the front of the wheelhouse, show weather and the location and identification of nearby ships.  There’s even a secret hidden button warning that pirates are aboard.  God, I love all that shit!

 

It’s the fourth day into the voyage and we’re entering Unimak Passage.  Rebecca, Gail and I were up on the bridge this afternoon with the third mate hoping to catch a glimpse of the islands we could see all around us on the radar screen.  This time of year up in the North Pacific clouds and fog predominate.  As we looked out into the enveloping whiteness there wasn’t a hinge between sea and sky.  Suddenly the fog lifted, and there directly across from us was a perfect conical volcano totally sheathed in snow, floating gracefully on a sea of clouds.  For the five minutes it lasted we whooped around the deck like idiots mugging and striking silly poses in the foreground of this magical apparition.

 

Much of the life aboard a container ship is repetitious to the point of tedium.  I can scarcely imagine what twenty years of nine-month contracts with virtually no time ashore must be like…long hours of uneventful labor, beneath the water line, amidst the continual roar of a monstrous engine with cylinders large enough for a man to crawl into.  That’s been the life of Gunnar, our chief engineer.  A sensitive man, he has a world-weary manner, tall and lanky with gentle blue eyes below bushy dark eyebrows, his disheveled gray hair tied back into a short ponytail.  If anything breaks down on the ship, it’s his job to fix it.  Up on the bridge the captain is the brain of our vessel, below decks the chief engineer is its heart.

Before we descend into the immense engine room, Gunnar explains succinctly that the engine is like a living organism and requires three things in order to operate efficiently…fuel, air, and water.  His job is to see that this monstrous creature and its many organs are healthy and properly fed.  After a short briefing, Rebecca and I (not Gail’s idea of a fun thing to do) put on headphones to protect our ears from the din and follow Gunnar through a heavy, tightly sealed door, down a set of steel steps and into the bowels of the vessel.

We emerge onto a platform overlooking the cavernous room that houses the great beating heart of our ship.  Below us is the immense ten-cylinder engine with a thick driveshaft emerging from its rear.  The burdensome shaft, roughly the girth of a telephone pole, and about forty meters long, spins at only about sixty rpm but with unimaginable power.  It connects to the propeller that ultimately drives us through the water.  I mouth the words, “How big?” and Gunnar shows 25 fingers, then points to his foot, at which point we all laugh.

There’s virtually nothing living, neither plant nor animal, aboard this vessel.  The flower arrangements in our cabin and the officers’ mess, where we take our meals based on a posted schedule, are all plastic.  A pair of small nondescript brown birds must have flown onto the ship in Vancouver.  We sometimes see them about the afterdeck.  They look forlorn but may survive till Tokyo by foraging a few chickpeas that have fallen onto the deck from some container.

 

One of the problems inherent in moving cargo from one place to another is the opportunity it affords for unwanted creatures to stow away on a ship.  Released into some new habitat where they have no natural predators they can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem.  In the early days of sailing, rats that escaped from sailing ships devastated the bird populations of small islands.  Small plants and animals can cause problems as well.  For that reason, ballast water picked up somewhere else, which might contain snails or clam spore or something equally problematic, is never discharged in port.

 

When we leave Korea a special crew of inspectors paid for by Hanjin will scour the boat searching for eggs or adults of the Asian Gypsy Moth.  When the ship reaches North America, authorities will fine Hanjin $1,000 for every egg cluster they find, even if it’s encapsulated in paint.

Speaking of painting, it’s a major and literally never-ending activity for the crew.  All day, every day, three or four sailors continuously scrape and paint the vessel with an epoxy paint that requires a noxious hardener to be mixed in each new batch.  Tough nasty work done by hardworking Filipinos.

The Filipinos onboard seem to prefer to hang out together.  Even Mark, the third mate and Alyssa, the adorable 22-year-old officer-in-training, who technically could eat with the ship’s officers, eat with the crew and hang out in the crews’ day room after hours.  The Filipinos on board are a jolly bunch for the most part and always glad to talk.  Everyone seems grateful to have a good-paying job, and they’re proud of what they do, but man do they miss being home with their families…and when it’s karaoke night, you’ll hear nothing but sappy, mournful love songs sung with real feeling.

 

Rebecca has been spending hours every day sitting on a small perch on the very tip of the bow, her favorite place on the ship.  A couple of days ago she spotted dolphins and three orcas, one of which crossed right in front of her.  Shortly afterward, the chief officer, Adam, reported seeing blood trailing in the water behind us, so perhaps the unfortunate creature ran afoul of our propeller.  A sad thought.

 

No hard liquor is allowed on board, but most of the crew enjoy having a beer or two when they get off work.  There’s not much going on out here, so any excuse for a party is welcome.  Last night was Alyssa’s birthday, and everyone was invited.  I’m not keen on karaoke, but in the spirit of the moment I thought I’d give Yellow Submarine a shot.  My initial verse was frankly embarrassing, but then came the refrain, “We all live in a yellow submarine,” … everyone joined in big time!  It was the hit of the evening.

 

We awoke this morning to shocking news.  Hanjin Shipping has gone bankrupt and cannot or will not pay for either the pilot’s fee to guide us into Tokyo harbor or the port fees that would allow us to dock. The scuttlebutt is that the captain’s orders are to anchor off the coast of Japan in international waters and await further orders.  We’re presently three days’ distance from Tokyo. We’ve been advised by the captain to conserve food and water. What a mess! We’ve got around a hundred million dollars’ worth of cargo aboard including a fair amount of perishables, so that ought to light a fire under people ashore. A message on the whiteboard outside the officers’ mess just announced a meeting for all crew members in the ship’s office at 9:00 tomorrow.

Next morning all available spaces in the tiny office were filled, but as we entered the room, two crew members jumped up and graciously offered their chairs.  There was electricity in the air.  Even though recent developments could mean that the captain and the entire crew would soon be out of a job, everyone seemed strangely and unreasonably larky, like it was a snow day.  The captain was excited to finally have a chance to do captain things like inventory our provisions and determine where we were going to drop anchor.  Everyone else seemed exhilarated just to have a break from the day to day monotony of life at sea.  And for three stranded passengers, how peculiar it felt to find ourselves adrift halfway around the world from home while the suits in executive suites in Hamburg and Seoul decided our fate – along with the fate of mountains of frozen salmon, shoelaces and ping pong tables.

 

Watched a glorious pink and golden sunset this evening. Tonight, we cross our eighth time zone since departing from Seattle. My body has been slow to make adjustments, but for a night owl like me that just means turning in early and waking around seven in the morning. No big deal. It’s been tougher on my early bird wife, who now rolls out of bed in the middle of the night. She also has had an irritation behind her right ear which has added to her discomfort. She’s had enough of freighter travel for the time being.

As I’d anticipated, the trip has been an excellent opportunity for reading.  I started off with Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. Well written, with lots of thought-provoking ideas and quirky insights from an anthropological point of view. When Red is Black is a mystery story set in Shanghai in the 90’s.  A great read…very atmospheric.  Ready Player One, a sci-fi novel about a young man who immerses himself in a world of virtual reality to escape the dreary world of 2045 where earth has run through most of its fossil fuel…Barely able to finish it. Chasing Venus, the Race to Measure the Heavens.  In 1761 and again in 1769 the transit of Venus measured from many viewing positions around the world gave an international community of scientists the opportunity to calculate the earth’s distance from the sun.  The story of the brilliant, intrepid men who prevailed over wars and innumerable hardships to accomplish that goal is the subject of the book. Great stuff!

The captain cranked up the engines a little and we started to make 19 knots instead of our normal 14 Top speed is 27 knots. [editor’s note: a nautical mile is based on the circumference of the earth.  If you cut the earth in half at the equator, you could pick up one of the halves and look at the equator as a circle.  If you divided that circle into 360 degrees, then divided each of those degrees into 60 minutes that minute of arc on the earth is one nautical mile.  It’s about the same as 1.15 miles or 6076 feet. If you’re traveling at a speed of one nautical mile per hour you’re traveling at one knot. ] The captain is trying to get us just beyond the reach of the typhoon and into an area of calm seas and balmy weather. Yesterday Rebecca and I spent several hours dangling our legs off the front of the bow, chatting while spotting the occasional dolphin or shark who nimbly shot off, avoiding us as our boat quietly plied its way in a southwesterly direction towards the Japanese coast.

 

This bankruptcy is actually a pretty big deal, the largest ever in the shipping industry. We’re the third largest shipping company on earth by tonnage. That’s a hell of a lot of cargo. We’re (I’m beginning to feel like I’m part of the enterprise I guess) especially important between China/Korea and America and Canada’s west coast, and our collapse could conceivably affect America’s Christmas. The whole imbroglio has made me realize just how complicated the corporate structure of international trade is. Maris, the company who originally booked our trip, arranged it through NSB, a German company (which is reflagging to some other country with looser rules) who provide the crew for Hanjin Shipping, which falls under its parent, Hanjin Group, that in turn owns dozens of other entities like Korean Airlines.

The company makes its money from fees for container transport, and pays for things like canal passage and docking fees. Those fees have recently dropped from $2,000, to a scarcely believable $600 from Shanghai to Seattle.  To add another layer of complexity, Hanjin doesn’t even own the boats; they only lease them.  A German company named Conti contracted for construction of the ship from a Korean shipyard.  Not sure what relationship they have with the “owner.”  But at any rate, it’s this “owner,” whatever human or byzantine corporate entity that might be, who tells the captain what to do and when to do it.

 

The sea has turned from dark green and the sky from steel grey in the Bering Sea a few days ago to a deep lapis lazuli with towering white clouds today. The air has been made fresh, sweet and balmy by the greatest immensity of water on the face of the Earth. I was able to strip down to a T shirt as I sat on the front of the bow with Rebecca this afternoon. We talked about a million things and scanned the horizon for ships, perched comfortably ten meters above the soft sound of water slushing beneath our bare feet.

We’re within a day of Tokyo harbor and still awaiting guidance from the mysterious “owner.” We might anchor off the coast of Japan in international waters, or we might proceed around the southern tip of Honshu and on to Busan in Korea.  To complicate things, a typhoon is approaching from the south. We’ll skirt it but it will still mean heavy seas before long.

 

By the standards of freighter travel, yesterday was pretty exciting. About noon we got our first glimpse of the coast of Japan. Despite the captain’s request that we proceed directly to Korea to offload cargo and passengers, the “owner” instructed us to drop anchor 12 miles off the coast, near the entrance to Tokyo harbor.

After carefully looking through the charts the captain selected a spot far from wrecks, cables and pipelines with a depth of around fifty meters (our draft is 14). Up on the bridge, the fore and aft depth indicators suddenly became crucial, though I’m told that veteran seamen can sense ocean depth by the feel of a boat passing over a shallow spot.

The monstrous anchor, attached by a chain with individual links three feet long made of steel as thick as your thigh, was made ready. The engine was idled.  We slowly came to a stop and the word was given.  The bosun up near the bow, turned the wheel that released the chain and it began to fly out of the hold with a violence that rattled the whole ship.

 

This evening, for the first time since we left Vancouver there are ships around us everywhere.  All of a sudden the watch on my phone has adjusted to local time and we can see that our airbnb hosts in Shanghai have been desperately trying to get ahold of us by email. After two weeks of peaceful solitude we’re connected with the world again.

Gail’s ear is better and she’s feeling more cheerful today… a great relief.  In many ways the quiet routine with plenty of time for reading suits her, so I feel good about that. This morning I inadvertently violated ship etiquette by sitting at breakfast in the normal seat of Adam, the ship’s chief officer. It bothered him far more than I would have expected and afterwards I found myself searching all over the ship to apologize.  He graciously accepted, and thank goodness everything is patched up again.  I’m grateful that we have such amiable shipmates for this trip.  Any friction between us in such a confined situation would be hard on everybody.

Rebecca continues to work on her video project which will apparently be more slapstick than esthetic. She’s asked me not to give anything away till her art exhibit opens next October, so mums the word on her shenanigans until then.  It’s somehow comforting to know that the world provides food, clothing, shelter and maybe a lot more for someone whose job it is to live this life. The other day she was sitting outside on the bow chatting on the phone with her boyfriend back in London who was using the app Marine Traffic, when he said something about the two boats coming up behind her.  She turned around and there they were.  I’d used the same app to track the progress of our ship as it crossed back and forth across the Pacific when I was back in Indiana. For five dollars anyone can buy something that allows you to locate and track on your phone, any ship in the world 24/7.  Not surprisingly it’s SOP to turn the function off in areas infested with pirates.

Rebecca was just down in the ship’s office checking her Facebook account when a woman with four containers of frozen french fries on our boat noticed her posts and contacted her and inquired if Rebecca had any idea why we weren’t proceeding to Busan to offload our cargo. The woman, apparently a titan in the world of Asian french fries, says that Hanjin owns the dock so she doesn’t understand what gives.

Seas are choppy today with strong winds and scudding clouds overhead.  No real news.  Rebecca, with her keen social media skills, has lined up interviews with such notables as the BBC World Service, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.  Who would have guessed that out here in the middle of nowhere we’d be of interest to anyone, let alone such media heavyweights?

 

Gail’s ear is much the same. She’s feeling well enough to work out on the step machine down on C deck.  There’s a 15-foot by 15-foot swimming pool filled with sea water, and a sauna in the gym that I might get around to using one of these days.

 

Still no news from the big shots back on land who’ll eventually decide our fate.  This afternoon, up in the wheelhouse I watched a powerful storm front coming in, both on radar and out on the exposed wing of the bridge.  When it hit, it hit hard.  Raindrops began to sting my face.  The wind would have carried my hat off if I hadn’t quickly grabbed it.  Back inside, ensconced in the captain’s chair I watched the dial on the anemometer show the wind outside gusting up to 50 knots. Pretty cool!

By evening the weather had quieted down.  After dinner in the officer’s mess, Taras the second engineer, enthusiastically invited me to go fishing off the back of the boat and I accepted.  He quickly grabbed a fish back in the galley to cut up for bait.  Then we swiftly made our way down the elevator and out the door to A deck, and from there down some more stairs to the poop deck and a railing overlooking the sea five meters below us.  Somebody had already lowered a light a couple of meters above the water to attract the fish.  All we had to do was throw our lead-weighted lines over the side, feed out 20 meters of thick, 50-pound-test monofilament into the ocean, then slowly pull it in.

There was a knot in the line at around 10 meters where Taras estimated there might be a school of fish.  Sure enough, when my bait reached that level I felt a strong tug followed by the unmistakable feel of a fish on the line.  I hauled it up, and a minute later there was a 12-inch, half-pound mackerel flapping madly on the deck…eat’n size.  Over the next hour I hauled in a dozen near identical fish, and every time Taras would exclaim enthusiastically in a thick German accent, “Good one! Big one!”

Finished, How Not to be Wrong, The Power of Mathematical Thinking.  Clever, well written and convincing. I can see why it was on Bill Gates’s reading list.

This morning the captain briefed us on the situation. Hanjin ships are being offloaded in Busan, and we’re in the queue, though we don’t know how many ships there are or where we are in the queue.  We’ve got 28 days of provisions, so we’re in no immediate danger there, though our all-seeing captain has noticed my profligate use of Nutella and has put me on short rations of chocolate till we reach port.  It’s been my sole hardship on the voyage so far.

 

Gail’s condition is slightly improved, though the swollen protuberance behind her ear makes it stick out a bit, giving her face a slightly asymmetrical elfin look.  Skimmed through The Vital Question, Energy, Evolution and the Origin of Complex Life…Pretty tough sledding.  I’m now out of reading material.

A full-scale typhoon is heading straight for us and will arrive sometime around the 18th, nine days from now, but for today at least it was balmy out on the bow with very calm seas. The captain stripped off his shirt and joined me and Rebecca up there while Gail industriously walked around the forward deck increasing the step count on her phone for the day.  Sad to say the fuel band on my wrist which monitors my daily activity hasn’t shown me achieving my goal since we stepped on board.

Had the bright idea of borrowing DVDs from the crew’s day room.  There were literally hundreds of them, but practically all were either action or porn.  Finally came up with a Nicholas Cage flick called Two Minutes Ahead, which wasn’t too bad.  Unlikely as it might seem, the gunfight in the denouement was shot aboard a container ship!

 

Awoke to gloomy weather and bad news. Rebecca brought her camera over to our room to record our reactions for possible use in her film project.  Then she announced that the British Foreign Office has told her that if/when our ship finally reaches Busan the Korean government won’t let us disembark.  As an artist interested in the absurdities of modern life she seems to have hit the jackpot.

Forgot to mention that Kim Jong-un, the possibly insane leader of North Korea, has exploded a nuclear device with twice the strength of his previous weapons.  In Seoul, they could feel the tremor of the underground test that registered 4.5 on the Richter scale, the force of a small earthquake.

There’s a lottery going on down in the ship’s office predicting the date we lift anchor. The range goes from our optimistic chief officer’s one day to our pessimistic 2nd engineer’s bet on the end of the month.  I’m guessing four days.

Rebecca informs us that there’s now a movement on Twitter with the hash tag “Save Rebecca” dedicated to getting her off the ship.  She’s now receiving hundreds of tweets from people she’s never heard of.  I can’t help but think of a refugee camp in Kurdistan (one of hundreds in the Middle East) I visited last year where large families were living in tents smaller than our stateroom with slim hope of ever returning to their homeland.

As I was beavering along compiling this journal, I got an excited call from the captain up on the bridge.  He says that NSB had just notified him that sometime within the next few days he’ll be ordered to proceed to Tokyo to discharge all passengers, who will then be allowed to pass through Immigration unmolested.  Hot Shit!!  Not getting our hopes up too much, but get me on dry land with an entry stamp in my passport and I promise I’ll never complain about anything again, ever.

 

Spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the forecastle up by the bow, listening to my iPod and singing my heart out without fear of another soul hearing.  I was wailing on “Gentle on My Mind.” “It’s knowing that the world will not be cursed or forgiven when I walk along some railroad tracks and find, that you’re moving on the backroads by the rivers of my memory and for hours you’re just gentle on my mind,” and “Treetop Flyer,” “People been asking me where’d you learn to fly that way? Was over in Vietnam chasing NVA.  The government taught me, and they taught me right, stay down under the tree line, you might be alright. ..I’m a treetop flyer…Born survivor… Usually work alone.”

There’s talk on the Internet of crowdfunding a boat to come and “rescue” us.  Rebecca has been contacted by an attorney who suggests that she might want to sue someone.  Friggin’ Nuts!  I think we’re getting our 15 minutes of celebrity.

The captain just advised me that the word from NSB is that our ETA for Tokyo is the 17th at 19:00.  That’s just two days from now.  He says he’s 99% sure it’s happening.  Sounds great but it’s not over till it’s over.

They were running an anti-terrorist drill onboard today. It was not unlike an Easter egg hunt.  The captain hid a box labeled “bomb” somewhere on the boat and it was up to the crew to find, and properly dispose of it.

It’s 100% now! We just got confirmed hotel reservations in Tokyo for two nights and an e-ticket to Shanghai for Monday.  I can’t help but wonder if Rebecca’s social media blitz may have played some role in getting us off the ship earlier than expected. I think the powers that be will be glad to get her off the ship and out of their hair.

The big day finally arrived.  We hoisted anchor and steamed into Tokyo harbor.  The captain, who’s normal attire often verged on slovenly was all decked out in full regalia, replete with epaulets and starched shirt.  If the boat was going to be arrested (a curious term invariably used by the owner), he wanted to be looking good, I guess.  As the pilot boat came along side we had no idea what to expect, but for whatever reason everything proceeded normally.

An hour later he’d cautiously steered us alongside our designated slip.  Ropes, fore and aft were tossed onto the quay, then carefully slipped over the bollards and ever so slowly our monstrous ship winched itself into its birth, eerily illuminated by banks of high pressure sodium lights that turned night into orange-tinted day.

The order was given to disembark…We’d been packed for hours.  Several of our Filipino shipmate pals helped us make it down the gangway with all our stuff, I leaned down and kissed dry land, then we all mugged for everyone’s camera phone.

A polite middle-aged Japanese gentleman hired by NSB met us at the dock and shepherded the three of us to a nice new van and offered us bottles of lychee flavored water.  Somebody way up the bureaucratic ladder must have taken an interest in our case, since customs and immigration were kept open after hours especially for us.  We got the full VIP treatment.  A half hour taxi trip to a ritzy hotel out by the airport and it was over.

Would I take another freighter somewhere?  Heck yes, travel on a working ship beats airplanes any day, and our problems were a black swan event.

 

Epilogue

Sitting here at my computer on a perfect Fall afternoon looking out the window at my pond, I just checked on the whereabouts of our ship on the Marine Traffic app.  Our ship is 7952 nautical miles from my present position.  She left Busan Korea 30 Sept at 05:39 and is now at anchor in the Laccadive Sea off the coast of Sri Lanka. It’s evening.  The wind is 12 knots coming out of the WSW at 250 degrees and the temperature is 28 degrees centigrade.  She must be unloaded since she’s only got a 9-meter draught.  A mile off her starboard bow whoever’s up on the bridge should be able to make out the Santa Fiorenza steaming into harbor.  Back on the poop deck the crew are most likely yucking it up and dreaming of home.  I wish them all well and hope the fish are biting.

 

Postscript

A month after submitting this story to The Ryder, I checked on our ship again.  Ominously, this time it showed she was anchored just off the coast of Pakistan near Gadani, one of those post-apocalyptic looking cities where they dismember boats. When I checked again the following week, no trace of a ship named Hanjin Geneva could be found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Broken Hallelujah: In Memory of Leonard Cohen

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By Joan Hawkins

There was something apocryphal about the death of Leonard Cohen.  He passed away on November 7, 2016.  But we didn’t actually get the news until November 10, two days after the election. He was 82.  He had been ill for some time.  Still, for fans still reeling from Donald Trump’s victory, the two events—the U.S Presidential election and the passing of one of the great poet-songwriters of the 20th century– seemed inextricably linked. That week Saturday Night Live opened with Kate McKinnon, the SNL actress who had played Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign, singing a serious cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  The following night, John Oliver announced Cohen’s death after a lengthy discussion of what Trump’s presidency might mean. And writing for the Paris Review, Adam Shatz noted that he couldn’t help connecting Cohen’s death to the election.  “Was it a sign of some sort…Did Trump kill him?”  On Facebook, fans posted seemingly prophetic lines from Cohen’s songs: “I have seen the future, Brother.  It is murder.”  And the title of his recent album took on a certain grim irony, You Want it Darker.

 

Poet-Songwriter

 

Cohen was born in Montreal, on September 21, 1934, to a well-to-do Jewish family.  And like all Jews who grew up during World War II, his coming of age was marked and marred by the near genocide of his people.  We often think of him bursting on the scene with romantic songs like “Suzanne” and “So Long Marianne.”  But many of his earliest poems were very dark.  “My lady was found mutilated/ in a Mountain Street boarding house,” he wrote in his first book (“Ballad” Let us compare mythologies 1956). His third Book, Flowers for Hitler, (1964) made the source of some of his darkest obsessions very plain, with poems like “Goebbels Abandons His Novel and Joins the Party,” “Hitler the Brain Mole,” and my personal favorite, “All There is to Know about Adolph Eichmann,” Cohen’s riff on what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil.

 

Cohen published four books of poetry and two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), before starting to record music.  He has said that he started writing songs to make some money, since poetry, even award-winning poetry, doesn’t pay very well.  But he also regarded songwriting as a sort of logical next step. Many of his early poems have a song-like rhythm to them.  “Suzanne,” for example, was a published poem, “Suzanne Takes You Down” before it was a song.  And he once said that he always heard music when he wrote.  “All of my writing has guitars behind it, even the novels.”

The problem was, he didn’t think he could sing. There’s a line in a mid-career Cohen song “Tower of Song,” that always got an appreciative laugh in concerts, “I was born like this/ I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Cohen’s voice was more like Dylan’s than like the cantors he grew up with; not pretty, but a powerful delivery relay for the message.  Some people say it was Dylan who gave Cohen the courage to record. Others say it was listening to Nico night after night at the Dome on

New York City’s 8th Street.  But it was John Hammond who got him into the studio.  And for those of us who heard those first two albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) and Songs from a Room (1969) back in the day, the fact that Leonard Cohen didn’t sound like Paul McCartney was beside the point.  Or perhaps, it was the point.

Cohen is frequently compared to Dylan, but they mined different cultural seams.  If despite his wishes, Dylan became ‘the voice of a generation,’ Cohen was more like a secret handshake. Initially, he did not write explicitly political songs, except in the sense that he wrote brutally honest love songs.  And as sexual theory teaches us, every sexual encounter is political, every relationship a delicate negotiation of power.  “I believe that you heard your Master sing,” he wrote  in “The Master Song.”

 

Sex, death and despair

 

In 1967, nobody except Leonard Cohen and Frank Zappa (another “secret handshake” musician) was singing explicitly sexual lyrics, the kinds of songs AM radio wouldn’t play.  That was the year The Doors were banned from future appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, because Jim Morrison refused to change the lyrics of “Light my Fire.”  “Come on, Baby, light my fire,” was titillating, but nowhere near as explicit as Cohen’s “you kneel for him to come” (“Master Song”).  As his career went on, sex was a through line.  “I love to see you naked over there, especially from the back,” (“Take this Longing from My Tongue,” New Skin for an Old Ceremony 1974), “my mouth on the dew of your thighs,” (“Take this Waltz” I’m your man, 1988), and most explicitly, in a song about Janis Joplin, “giving me head on the unmade bed/ while limousines waited in the street” (Chelsea Hotel #2, New Skin for an Old Ceremony, 1974).

But he also continued to write in the troubadour tradition of unrequited love.  “Take this longing from my tongue,” he implores on the same album. And given all that has been written about him since he died, I am surprised that nobody has mentioned this.  Cohen was the last Western writer I know writing in the narrative voice of a modern-day knight petitioning a lady for her favor, and with him an entire rich Western poetic tradition of troubadour poetry also dies.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Cohen didn’t get much air time. As David Remnick noted in his wonderful recent New Yorker essay, Cohen’s songs have been “death-haunted…since his earliest verses.” Side One of Songs from a Room ends with “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” an explicit song about suicide. “Nancy was alone/A forty-five beside her head/An open telephone.”  The song was inspired, he said, by a woman he’d known in Montreal.   “I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically. Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was – there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed.”

If the sex and death weren’t enough to keep him off the air, there was a dark despair that often showed up in his work. Throughout most of his life, he suffered from depression, a term he did not use lightly. “When I speak of depression,” he told a Guardian reporter in 2012, “I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse.” Like many people who suffer from this illness, he saw the world perhaps too clearly.

 

Even after playing the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, in front of 600 thousand people, he was rarely heard on the radio—even FM.  In San Francisco, where I grew up, the only DJ who regularly played him was Dusty Street, the first and, for many years, only woman DJ on the West Coast.  And she mostly played him in an off-peak time slot.  6 a.m. on Saturday morning.   On a show unofficially designated as a woman’s show.  Here Cohen played off against Joni Mitchell, some Dylan, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959). It was an interesting mix, but only nursing moms, students pulling all-nighters, and people who had odd work schedules like mine ever heard it.  Most people were introduced to Cohen by friends.  If you wanted to hear his music, you pretty much had to buy his albums.  Or hang with people who did. Judy Collins recorded “Susanne” (In My Life, 1966), so at least one of his songs was well-known. But many people never heard Leonard Cohen’s voice until Robert Altman used Songs of Leonard Cohen as the soundtrack for his 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

 

The Music

 

As I said earlier, Cohen is often compared to Bob Dylan.  Both are Jewish and literary, both use Biblical imagery, and both write lyrics that demand your attention.  But both are also consummate musicians, and when Dylan talked to David Remnick recently about Cohen’s work, it felt like a breath of fresh air to me, as though someone were finally setting the record straight.  “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said.  “Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs.  As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. “(New Yorker, October 17, 2016).

The “celestial character and melodic lift” that Dylan mentions here help explain why even the darkest Cohen songs don’t necessarily feel depressing, and why so many of the songs have a spiritual feel about them, even though the lyrics are resolutely secular. And the melody he highlights illustrates the musical complexity that was there from the earliest recordings.  Discussing “Sisters of Mercy” Dylan notes, “the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals, but the tune is anything but predictable…The first line begins in a minor key. The second line goes from minor to major and steps up, and changes melody and variation. The third line steps up even higher than that to a different degree and then the fourth line comes back to the beginning. This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics.  But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a journey and dropped off somewhere.”

Cohen’s music is so lovely in its own right that Daniel Felsenfeld took the melody of “Suzanne” and used it as the basis of The Cohen Variations, a piece for solo piano that left Cohen’s evocative poetry behind.  Recorded by classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein in 2012, the piece was broadcast and re-posted on the NPR site on November 11, 2016, one day after we heard that Cohen had died.  A powerful reminder that we had lost a poet and a musician.

Cohen’s own musical arrangements became more lush and complex with each successive album until his last. Like Dylan, he continued to re-arrange the old standards, in part because his voice changed so much with age, deepening to a resonant low growl.  The depth of the older Cohen’s voice, Remnick writes, “makes Tom Waits sound like Eddie Kendricks.” And it made it very difficult for him to sing the original arrangements. Cohen always loved women’s voices and used back-up singers and harmonies from his earliest albums.  But the older he got, the more he relied on women to carry those melodies that Dylan praised so highly. The cover art for Ten New Songs (2001) features photos of  both Cohen and his longtime backup singer, collaborator, songwriter and producer-friend Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s way of acknowledging his debt to the women who had his back.

Musically, too, the compositions expanded.  In 1988 with I’m Your Man—both the studio album and the tour—Cohen settled into a complex international mix, that became his characteristic pattern for the next 26 years.  In his book Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life, biographer Anthony Reynolds observes, “…in almost every respect I’m Your Man marked not so much a progression but an evolutionary leap forward…Cohen’s new musical canvas was rich and wide, with its bold and bald use of sequencers, drum machines, synclavier, and synths all mixed exotically with the lingering eastern European textures of the bouzouki, the oud and the heart rending (old Russian school) violin.”  At the same time, Cohen began collaborating with other musicians on old favorites.  “Who by fire,” Cohen’s riff on the Yom Kippur prayer, was first recorded for New Skin for an Old Ceremony. In 1989 he performed it live with jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, letting Rollins do a full minute lead-in before he took the mic. In 2012 and 2013 he performed the same song with Flamenco guitarist Javier Mas, giving it a much different arrangement and, for those who know the history of Andalusia’s Jews, a much different feeling.  In Vienna (2013), Mas played 4 full minutes before Cohen began to sing.  And if Mas had not nodded to the poet multiple times, I wonder if Cohen would have sung at all.

 

Cohen the seeker

 

As mentioned earlier, Cohen was born into an observant Jewish family.  His grandfather was a Rabbi and he always maintained ties to the Jewish faith and traditions, often weaving Biblical references into his songs. His most recent album, You Want It Daker, was released in October, just weeks before his death. The title track lapses into Hebrew at exactly the moment that Cohen the narrator says he’s ready to die. “Hineni Hineni/ I’m ready my Lord.” As Remnick reports, “Cohen asked Gideon Zelermeyer, the cantor at Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue of his youth in Montreal, to sing the backing vocals.”  So both musically and spiritually, the album seems to have brought Cohen full circle.

Throughout his life, Cohen was spiritually restless, studying the Kabbalah, the chief mystical text of Judaism, and the I Ching, candle magic, alchemy and Buddhism.   There is a story that he once looked at the candle arrangements in Edie Sedgewick’s rooms at the Chelsea Hotel and correctly predicted a fire.  Not because of the danger posed by the candles themselves but because their arrangement seemed to be casting a bad spell.  “She shouldn’t fool around with these things,” he reportedly told one of Edie’s friends, “because they are meaningful.  Her friends should tell her.”  He danced with the Hare Krishnas for awhile (“no robes”) and flirted with Scientology.

But his deepest commitment was to a Japanese Zen master named Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. (“Roshi” is an honorific for a venerated teacher and Cohen always referred to him that way).  Until the early 90s, Cohen used to study with Roshi at the Zen Center on Mt. Baldy in the San Bernardino Mountains, usually for a few months at a time.  But after a tour that found him drinking too much (“I was drinking at least three bottles of Château Latour before performances,” he told David Remnick), Cohen moved to Mount Baldy for six years. He became a monk in 1996 and was dispirited to find that he still suffered profoundly from depression. He tried anti-depressants. He tried writing through the depression. Finally he went to Mumbai, in the hope that another teacher, this one following the path of Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu discipline, could help him.

 

Before he left on his spiritual quest, Cohen made the fatal mistake of ceding nearly absolute control of his financial affairs to Kelly Lynch.  Lynch had been his business manager for nearly 17 years, and, at one time, briefly his lover. Cohen trusted her completely. And she abused that trust.  In 2004, one of Lynch’s disgruntled former lovers walked into an L.A. antique shop owned by Lorca Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s daughter.  After looking around for awhile and poking things, he went to the counter and suggested, sotto voce, that Ms. Cohen look into her father’s finances.  She did and then contacted her father.  Lynch had embezzled millions of dollars from his accounts. Leonard fired her immediately and sued her (although there’s at least one story that Lorca had to persuade her father to take action; he was very reluctant to get involved with litigation).  The court ruled in Cohen’s favor, awarding him more than five million dollars.  But that was just the beginning.  Outraged that Cohen had sued her, Lynch began calling Cohen twenty times a day and sending intimidating e-mails, some directly threatening him.  He took out a restraining order, which she ignored.  “It makes me feel very conscious about my surroundings,” Cohen said at a subsequent trial. “Every time I see a car slow down, I get worried.” The next few years were just hell. Lynch took to cyberspace, posting on every message board she could find.  Some posts were conspiracy theory jeremiads about Phil Spector’s trial (Spector had produced Cohen’s 1977  album Death of a Ladies Man); some accused Cohen of tax fraud, plunging Cohen into yet another round of hearings.  Luckily his partner Anjani Thomas knew a good music industry lawyer, Robert Kory.  Kory already had more business than he could handle. “But when Leonard Cohen shows up at your office,” he said, “what are you going to do? Close the door?” Lynch was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and five years probation.

But even though Kory deferred his fees, Cohen was broke. He never managed to collect the damages the Court had awarded him.  And it was clear that he would need to return to the stage if he was going to have any money for his retirement or for his children. In 2005, the music community gathered to make the documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (Lian Lunson, 2005), featuring interviews with Cohen in his L.A home and a motley crew of musicians covering Cohen’s songs. Rufus Wainwright was one of the organizers; performers include the McGarrigles, Nick Cave, Bono, The Edge, Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen and Cohen, himself, blowing them all out of the water, at the film’s end.

In 2007, he began conceiving his tour, with a full band: three backup singers, two guitarists, drummer, keyboard player, bassist, and saxophonist. He rehearsed the band for three months before going on a tour that lasted 5 years.  Night after night, Cohen took to the stage dressed in his suit and fedora.  And every night at least once, he would drop to his knees in front of the audience.  Every single review I read gave him kudos.  The tour, Sylvie Simmons writes, “not only restored Leonard’s lost funds, it improved on them considerably.” And it vindicated his status as an artist.  After Cohen died, a friend of mine who saw him during that tour wrote “We went to see him at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. He was nearly 80, but performed for almost four hours straight. I thought he might live forever. And I wish he could have.”

 

I’m your man

 

A lot has already been written about Cohen’s reputation as a ladies’ man, his personal relationships with women and the strong role women fans have played in his success.  As a young man, he had what David Remnick called “a kind of Michael Corleone Before the Fall look, sloe-eyed, dark, a little hunched.” (New Yorker, October 17, 2016).  And his most well-known muse and lover, Marianne Ihlen said that when they lived together on the Greek Island of Hydra “all the girls were panting for him.”

 

Cohen was definitely a gentleman of the old school.  Meeting him for the first time, Sylvie Simmons wrote, “he is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners.  He bows when he meets you, stands when you leave, makes sure that you’re comfortable and makes no mention of the fact that he’s not…”  Like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he believed that women were mysterious and magic.  And in many a song, the narrator speaks of being struck dumb by a woman’s beauty.

He loved women.  And he spent his long career writing about and to us. He had a long list of lovers and several serious long term relationships with women including Suzanne Verdal (“Suzanne”), Marianne Ihlen (“So Long, Marianne”), Suzanne Elrod (the mother of his children Adam and Lorca; ) Julie Christensen, Dominique Isserman Furey ( a French photographer), Rebecca De Mornay, and most recently, singer Anjani Thomas.

And women loved him back.  Iggy Pop tells a story about Leonard Cohen that goes something like this. Iggy was in L.A. recording an album.  One night Cohen called and invited him over.  Cohen said he had a personal ad from a girl “who says she wants a lover who will combine the raw energy of Iggy Pop with the elegant wit of Leonard Cohen.  I think we should reply to her as a team.”  Pop reminded Cohen that he was married and said something like “you’re going to have to do this on your own.”  And just this year, Lail Arad recorded “1934 (A Song for Leonard Cohen)” for his birthday.  “Yes, I would have been your lover,” she sings.  “No, I wouldn’t ask for more/ It’s just a shame that you were born/ in 1934.”

More importantly, women loved his work.  When I think of his appeal to women, I’m reminded of an old story about Frank Sinatra, another famous ladies’ man.  Someone supposedly asked Old Blue Eyes once to explain his popularity with women. “It’s easy,” Sinatra answered.  “All you have to do is listen.” Cohen listened.  And that fact was reflected back in his songs.

But, as he told Simmons, “Everything changes as you get older. I never met a woman until I was sixty-five.  Instead, I saw all kinds of miracles in front of me.”  In the past he said, he had always viewed women through his own “urgent needs and desires, what they could do for me.”  But in his mid-sixties—about the time he left the Monastery and his depression at long last began to lift—he “began to see the woman standing there.”

As I wrote above, Cohen’s earliest forays into political songwriting had to do with family politics and patriarchal structures. So it’s fitting, that at the end of his life he would spend so much time trying to educate people about his daughter’s family. In February 2011, Lorca Cohen gave birth to Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen.  The baby’s father was Rufus Wainwright, an openly gay musician.  Wainwright had wanted to honor one of his mother’s last wishes, that he would have a child.  Lorca and Wainwright had always been close, and so—Viva.  When Wainwright’s fans referred to Lorca as a “surrogate mother” online, the whole family, including Leonard, stepped up to correct them. Lorca is Viva’s mother and will be raised by Lorca, Wainwright, and Wainwright’s husband Jörn Weisbrodt, Daddy #2, Leonard Cohen said. And yes, he was doting grandfather to all his grandchildren.

 

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

In 1988, I went to the Berkeley, California  I’m Your Man Tour concert. Like a lot of Cohen fans I was excited.  Cohen hadn’t had a strong album in years.  Songs of Love and Hate (1971) hit the U.S. charts at 145, and even hardcore fans like me didn’t find the record until it had been out for awhile. There hadn’t been any displays in Odyssey records. No reviews in the press I regularly read. So it was only thanks to a record store clerk who knew me, that I found the album at all. New Skin for an Old Ceremony (1974), which I loved, had sold well in Europe but had not placed in the U.S. charts. Death of a Ladies Man (1977), the record Cohen made with Phil Spector, had been a disaster.  I actually like the album, especially the song “Memories,” but there is little on it to appeal to fans dedicated to Cohen’s intimate and confessional style.  Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984) did not place in the U.S charts.  Cohen was still popular in Europe, but his North American career seemed to be on the skids.  He was seriously depressed and the fact that he got it together to record I’m Your Man (1988) speaks to his sheer force of will and his spiritual practice.

That album was an evolutionary leap.  Lush, evocative, speaking very much to the geopolitical moment.  The record had already gotten good reviews and some FM airtime.  At that time in my life, I was in graduate school and hung with a Downtown No-Wave crowd.  And I still remember the energy that swept through the auditorium, as Cohen started “First We Take Manhattan,” Manhattan having been the birthplace of the Downtown scene.

 

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

For trying to change the system from within

I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

 

 

As he hit that last line, some men in the back of the auditorium unfurled an ACT UP banner, and the audience roar was deafening.

About halfway through the concert, the band left the stage. Only the backup singers stayed.  Cohen had an amplified acoustic guitar, and he strummed a few chords that we all recognized.  The opening of “The Partisan,” a World War II song.  A song of the French Resistance, that he had recorded for Songs from a Room.

 

The eighties had been a hard time.  A terrible recession, AIDS, the increase in homelessness, Iran Contragate, and the continuing worry about a possible U.S war in Central America. The U.S. role in El Salvador, in Nicaragua and in the atrocities being committed in Guatemala had horrified many of us, and in the East Bay (where Berkeley is located) a number of churches had established themselves as sanctuaries for Central American refugees. There had been violence on Berkeley campus, when the city police were called in to dismantle a cardboard shanty town that the Committee for Divestment from South Africa (still an Apartheid state) had erected in the middle of Sproul Plaza.  For the first time since 1969, police helicopters flew over the University of California, and AIs (TAs, as we called ourselves) met to discuss a classroom walkout in support of the students who had been arrested. And to develop a grading policy that would not punish people for activism.  In late April, I was barred from entering Dwinelle Hall, where the class I taught met.  And I remember yelling that I had been planning to teach Sylvia Plath, but any students who wanted to meet me at the Café Mediterraneum should come prepared to discuss political theory.

So that is what had been happening in Berkeley, just days prior to Leonard Cohen strumming the first chords of “The Partisan.” The auditorium was very quiet.  And then in that way he had of leaning into the microphone, he introduced the song.  “I still like to sing this song,” he said in that phenomenal, basso voice.  “Because I think there are still things worth resisting.”

 

Two days after we got the news that Cohen had died, a friend who was with me that 1988 night sent a YouTube link to the song.  Her message said simply, “I think there are still things worth resisting.”  In the wake of this election and the difficult times we’re facing, I believe that is what Leonard Cohen would still tell us.

 

The wind, the wind is blowing

Through the grave, the wind is blowing

Freedom soon will come.

We will rise from these shadows.

 

Author attribution

Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Media School at IU.  She has written extensively on horror and the avant-garde.  Her books are Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, and Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001. She is currently co-editing an anthology on William S. Burroughs.  She has been a fan of Leonard Cohen since she first heard his albums, at the age of 16.

DJ Spooky’s Re-birth of a Nation

*temp*

 

By Joan Hawkins

 

In my field of Film Studies, Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) is the quintessential bad object and perennial pedagogical headache. Based on a novel, The Clansmen: A Historical Romance (Thomas F. Dixon Jr, 1905), the film is explicitly racist. It lionizes the Ku Klux Klan and seemingly endorses, or possibly incites, violence against Black people, particularly Black men.  But it also represents an evolutionary leap forward in the history of cinema.  Not just a film where there are some interesting aesthetics, but a total game changer.

It was here that D. W. Griffith developed cross-cutting, developed and extended the use of the tracking shot, developed and extended the use of the close-up to heighten emotion and facilitate viewer identification with a character. While previous films like A Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter 1903) or Voyage to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902) had used action to create strong narrative lines, no previous film had attempted a complex, action-driven narrative on such an epic scale. Or had attempted such a sustained, emotionally-driven story.  Birth of a Nation juggles multiple plot strands over the course of almost three hours.  It crystallized the narrative and formal vocabulary that has dominated American cinema for the past 100 years. For film scholars, it is a film that remains impossible to teach and impossible not to. “The worst thing about Birth of a Nation,” the New Yorker wrote in 2013, “is how good it is.”

 

So why would a Black electronic and hip-hop musician like Paul Miller– aka DJ Spooky, aka That Subliminal Kid—make it a project to recut, remix, reimagine, and “scratch” the film? To  resurrect it yet again?  He’s always been interested in appropriation art, citing both Duchamps and Warhol as influences. And he started his career working in science fiction, a speculative genre that encourages social critique through the depiction of alternative worlds, alternative histories. So when Rebirth was commissioned in 2004, Spooky saw it as a way to tell the story of American racism from the subaltern’s perspective, and in so doing to literally force (through reorganization of the image) a different point of view. “Rebirth of a Nation is a mirror held up to society’s racial politics,” he said. “You see a lot of paradoxes.”

Why would a Black electronic and hip-hop musician recut, remix, reimagine and “scratch” D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation?     

Spooky’s commission came at a sensitive moment.  Following the 9/11 attacks, we were at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Islamophobia had become a thing, and what might be considered America’s primal racism—the net effect of a country founded on slavery and on the subjugation of indigenous peoples—seemed to be spreading outward in concentric circles. Writing about the Rebirth project in 2015, Spooky said: “In an era where NSA’S PRISM program and whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have shown us that perspective can truly alter global events, we need more than ever, to see the context that early cinema offers us from the viewpoint of showing us that, as my old friend Saul Williams liked to say: Another World Is Possible. A remix of a film as deeply important and problematic as The Birth of a Nation reminds us, in the era of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, that many of these issues still linger with us at every level.”

 

American Story: Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation (1915) was released into a country that was racially complicated, to say the least.  Segregation was the law in the South and the practice in the North.  But the Northern migration had begun and in cities like Chicago, there was some opportunity for work and for home ownership.  Photos from the era show the emergence of a sophisticated, urbane Black professional middle class. A middle class that was increasingly impatient with the racist imagery prevalent in the white culture industry.  Starting around 1910, Chicago film companies like Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Ebony Pictures began producing race movies for an increasingly discriminating audience.  These were movies with all-Black casts and serious story lines, that were shown as “Midnight Rambles” (midnight until 2 a.m.) in segregated theaters. The films featured stories about Black professionals who were trying to get ahead.  Some were genre films like romances, comedies or cowboy movies. And to see these films outside their historic context, one would think all was right with the world.  But the films were aspirational. Outside the theaters and Black community organizations, it was dangerous to be African American.  Lynchings were common.  In 1900, 100 Black folk were lynched in the United States—and that only counts the number reported and chronicled. “Georgia trees bear a strange fruit,” Lady Day sang in 1939. But at the turn of the century, African Americans knew that Northern trees, too, had their own “blood on the leaves, blood at the root.”  And so when D. W. Griffith made an epic romance about the Klan in 1915, the Black community and their white friends were outraged.

“The response of the Black community to Birth of a Nation predates the film,” Toni Cade Bambara tells us.  “The work on which it had been based, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen, had first been a book, then it had been a play, then it had been a pageant.  And there had been a mobilization of Black clubswomen against Dixon and The Clansmen.”  And now, having fought against the book, the play, the pageant, these same women realized there was going to be a film. Not just any film, but one with 15 reels, 3 hours long, that had already been screened at the White House and declared a masterpiece by President Wilson.  It had a massive publicity campaign. “Within the neighborhoods,” Professor Bambara continues, “not only are we being bombarded with billboards and flyers with the usual inflammatory, humiliating images, but now we’re being barraged by this massive film.”

Across the country Black leaders and their white supporters organized, went to court and staged protests in an attempt to ban the movie.  The Boston Globe reported that Birth of a Nation caused “a near-riot” in Boston, as an alleged plot to destroy the film resulted in “wild scenes and 11 arrests.” As it turns out, the Black community had every reason to be alarmed.
The film’s release is credited as being one of the events that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year.  And the Klan used the film as a recruiting tool.

The film follows two juxtaposed families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. There is something of a Romeo and Juliet motif as one of the Stoneman sons falls in love with Margaret Cameron, and the youngest Cameron son falls in love with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish). And for awhile, it seems that the film will focus on whether lovers from opposing political sides can ever be together.

 

While that theme does remain a constant throughout the film, it is overshadowed by a postwar Reconstruction horror story.  After Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, Austin Stoneman and his fellow radical Republicans are determined to punish the South, employing harsh tactics that Griffith depicts as typical of the Reconstruction era.  It is in the Reconstruction half of the film that racist representations—present throughout the film– become positively dizzying. Stoneman has a psychopathic mulatto protégé, Silas Lynch.  When the two travel to South Carolina to observe Reconstruction in action, they see Black occupation soldiers parading in the streets and pushing white residents aside on the sidewalk.  During an election in which Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, whites are prevented from voting while Blacks are observed stuffing the ballot boxes.   Newly elected Black members of the South Carolina legislature take their shoes off in the House, put their feet up on the tables, drink hard liquor and feast on fried chicken during debates. The Legislature is shown passing laws requiring white civilians to salute Black soldiers and allowing mixed-race marriages.  When Flora Cameron goes off alone into the woods to fetch water, she is followed by Gus, a freedman.   He tells her he wants to marry her, and she is so frightened by his insistence that she jumps into a precipice and dies.  In the meantime the despicable Lynch has designs on Elsie Stoneman.  It is the Klan of course who ride to the rescue, saving Elsie, revenging Flora, and under the leadership of Ben Cameron, riding in a massive formation to liberate an entire town. The following Election Day, Blacks find mounted and armed Klansmen outside their homes and are intimidated into not voting. A move the film clearly endorses. Birth of a Nation concludes with white supremacy restored and with a double wedding as Margaret Cameron marries Phil Stoneman and Elsie Stoneman marries Ben Cameron, the leader of the Klan.

The film spawned the first sequel in film history, The Fall of a Nation (Thomas Dixon, 1916). Despite its success in the foreign market, that film was not successful among American audiences.  It is believed that it is now lost.

In 1918, John W. Noble, co-founder of Lincoln Motion Picture Company (one of the race movie companies mentioned earlier), attempted to challenge Griffith and Dixon by making the The Birth of a Race.  And in 1919, famed African-American director Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, another powerful response from the African American community.  Most notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith’s film by depicting a white man assaulting a Black woman.  And in 2004, DJ Spooky remixed the original film and reimagined it using the tools of electronic music and hip hop culture.

 

Another story: Détournement

Détournement (French for “turning away” or

“hijacking”) is the act of appropriating a cultural artifact (movie, ad, painting, poster, book) and changing it just enough so that the new meaning subverts its original intent.  First developed in the 1950s by the avant-garde Lettrist International, and later adapted by the Situationists, it is the basis for what we have come to call culture jamming.  But in its early phase, it was quite subtle.  So subtle that Guy Debord, the chief theorist of the French Situationists, wrote long essays describing exactly how to do it.  And in one of those essays, he outlined a possible détournement for Birth of a Nation (“Methods of Détournement,” Les  Lèvres Nues #8, 1956).

 

To cut through this absurd confusion of values, we can observe that

Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history

of cinema because of its wealth of new contributions.  On the other

hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being

shown in its present form.  But its total prohibition could be seen

as regrettable…It would be better to detourn it as a whole, without

necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack…

 

This is more or less what DJ Spooky does in his Rebirth of a Nation.

Conceived as a reimagining of The Birth of a Nation, DJ Spooky’s Rebirth  is a controversial and culturally significant project that examines how “…exploitation and political corruption still haunt the world to this day, but in radically different forms.” Originally commissioned in 2004 by the Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Wiener Festwochen, and the Festival d’Automne à Paris, the project was Miller’s first large-scale multimedia performance piece, and has been performed around the world, from the Sydney Festival to the Herod Atticus Amphitheater, more than fifty times. The DVD version of Rebirth of a Nation was released by Anchor Bay Films/Starz Media in 2008. The project’s live musical score by DJ Spooky, originally recorded by Kronos Quartet, was made available for the first time on CD from Cantaloupe Records, in summer 2015.

For his remix, Spooky cut the film’s overall length by about half, to 100 minutes. Most of the cuts occur in The Civil War Section of the film, so that the Rebirth of a Nation edit spends nearly twice as much screen time on the Reconstruction (the second act of Griffith’s diptych) as it does on the Civil War.  This has the effect of stripping away much of the romance and the character development of Ben Cameron. What is left is the most offensive imagery and a Klan leader who has no sympathetic build-up.  What is left is what Spooky calls “the core myth from the binary opposition at the center of the human mind.”

Within that pared-down edit, Spooky does some very subtle montage, bringing Black characters who live in Griffith’s background to the foreground of the frame for example, and using a parallax shift, so that objects and people are viewed from a different direction than they were in Griffith’s original film.  This part of the edit is so subtle that viewers who have never seen the original, or who have not seen it for a long time, probably will not notice it at all.  More obvious, is the repetition of images, particularly the now-chilling image of Ben Carson in Klan regalia, seated on a rearing horse. Or the offensive images of Black people dancing and menacing white women. Like Les LeVeque, another found footage artist, Spooky uses reversal and mirroring within the frame, so that key characters are looking at reversed images of themselves, which is perhaps the most basic visual iteration for what racism is, projecting onto the Other some weirdly altered version of one’s own fear and obsessions. He also draws on the frame, sometimes using squiggles and doodles, sometimes strangely precise vector overlays. “The effect,” Eric Henderson notes in Slant, “is like drinking a can of orange juice concentrate gone sour. It’s so undiluted yet hews so close to the original template that one suspects it was created not as an addendum to the original film, but instead as a replacement.”

While Spooky plays with montage more than Guy Debord would have liked, he does reserve his main intervention—as Debord suggested—for the soundtrack.  Back in the day, silent film always had a musical accompaniment.  In large urban theaters, this could take the form of a lush orchestral score.  Certainly in places like Chicago or New York, one would imagine that a blockbuster like Birth of a Nation would have warranted the full orchestral treatment.  But even in small rural church halls or tent-screenings there would be something—an institutional piano, some dude with a saw—to help give the moving picture rhythm.  And in the cases of melodrama, music was used as an important emotional clue as well.  How do we know that freedman Gus’s marriage proposal is meant to be horrifying?  Well that off-key piano in the hall, with its Simon Legree over and undertones, tells us so.  Spooky’s score, “by contrast,” Margo Jefferson writes in the New York Times,   “deflects our responses, then alters them. A hip-hop drum beat pulses. (It sounds African and ur-ban American.) A wash of industrial sound is joined by bells and cymbals; a dissonant violin; blues fragments. These are the sounds of history and racial complexity that Griffith tried to suppress. ”

The 90 second introduction to the film score throws all the electronic music cards on the table, the mood futuristic yet ambiguous.  Less than a minute into the second track and you know this isn’t going to be a cheerful or particularly romantic work.  The nature of the music itself is evenly split between the string quartet and the laptop with the occasional harmonica marking a change in the wind.  Spooky wrote the music. The Kronos Quartet, a string group known for its forays into new music (Terry Riley, John Cage, Phillip Glass) and its diverse genres (Mexican folk, acid rock, movie scores) are the musicians here, and they are fully up to the task of working with and around the “deep sense of fragmentation” that Spooky says, “occurs in the mind of a DJ” who “crafts physical form around an idea.”

Spooky relies on the usual techniques of soundtrack work such as repetition and the revisitation of themes, but he doesn’t use them as crutches. The themes are sticky and haunting and the repetition amplifies the tension. “North Isn’t South” is a good case-in-point. While a synthesizer cycles through a minor key repetition of themes (an ostinato), in a variety of keys, the Kronos ensemble sustains their overhead notes indefinitely. With or without visuals, it’s a stunning piece of music.

Nailing the score to any particular genre is impossible.  Spooky is a sample-artist after all and here he samples everything. While “Gettysburg Requiem” borrows from modern classical, “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” sounds like it could be handed over to Massive Attack without anyone batting an eye. The strings and harmonica give off very faint signals of old-timey forms with enough production overcast to mask any recognizable origins. “Music is always a metaphor,” Spooky writes in Rhythm Science.  “It’s an open signifier, an invisible, utterly malleable material.  It’s not fixed…Rhythm science uses an endless recontextualizing as a core compositional strategy, and some of this generation’s most important artists continually remind us that there are innumerable ways to arrange the mix.”

Which sounds like musician-ese for what Hayden White has notoriously said about history, that there is no master narrative, no verifiable version of reality (Metahistory, 1973)  For White, history too is about the way you arrange the mix (your “facts” are my “rumors” so they don’t make it into my version of the story).  Like DJs, novelists and historians are, Spooky tells us, “griots, and whether their stories are conscious or unconscious, narratives are implicit in the sampling idea.  Every story leads to another story to another story to another story.”  And another story is precisely what Spooky tries to give us here.  When official history and artistic “masterworks” are contaminated with racist ideology, what you can do is cut-them-up, sample them, give them a different score. Remind us that history is just another form of storytelling, and if you want to know how inclusive it is, you need to look at who exactly is doing the mix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REQUIEM FOR A LIGHTWEIGHT

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John Linnemeier (left) and Darryl Neher (dreadlocks)

MY RUN FOR MAYOR OF BLOOMINGTON

By John Linnemeier

 

According to Howard Dean, to get a D in democracy, you have to vote.  That’s barely passing.  To get an A, you have to run for office.

 

Outside the American Legion hall, a couple of inches of two-day-old snow still lingered on the asphalt. Inside, the party faithful were polishing off the last of their desserts. Things were off to a great start!  I’d just delivered a ten-minute stem-winder to the monthly Democratic Party meeting and it had gone well. Initially glazed and polite, the eyes of listeners grew more attentive as I got into my rhythm.  I started to detect several heads in the audience nodding in agreement. After a nice round of applause I took my seat feeling pretty good.

I’ve just described my campaign’s high-water mark.

Shortly afterward they called me and several candidates for city commissioner up front to answer questions from the audience.  A sweet little old lady I’m very fond of asked me how I felt about all the new construction going on downtown.  I told her I thought it was a good thing. Students had to live somewhere and this got them out of the nabes where their houses looked unsightly and their monkeyshines irritated townies.  Besides, they were reviving our downtown, which, like most small Midwestern cities was in danger of becoming moribund. My only complaint was the ugliness of the architecture.  That pissed her off.

Someone wanted to know my thoughts concerning the hospital’s plan to move to the periphery of town.  I said I didn’t like it, but figured it was a done deal.  My glib candor wasn’t playing well.  The thought that maybe I didn’t have the makings of a politician flashed fleetingly across my neural synapses.

Much worse was coming.

I started to feel woozy but figured it wouldn’t look good if I asked for a chair… decided to suck it up.  I should mention here that I was born with the blood pressure of a reptile. I was once unfairly accused of not having a pulse. In some ways my torpid metabolism is a good thing (I’m less likely to die of a stroke or heart attack), but it also makes me vulnerable to occasional fainting spells.

I fell into the arms of Dave Rollo, the District 4 City Council Rep saving me from a full face plant and woke up flat on my back on a cold linoleum floor looking up into the faces of my concerned fellow Democrats.

Off to a poor start but not dead yet… I had a plan.

I’d entered the mayoral race more as a protest than as a serious candidate.  I didn’t think it should cost big bucks to run for local office and wanted to show that you could run a viable campaign on a shoestring.  What bothered me even more was that despite several incidents involving the theft of public funds no one was talking about corruption.

As I’d warmed to the challenge it gradually dawned on me that despite the fact that I was completely inexperienced, too old, totally unqualified and not sure that I wanted the job, I still had a shot.

I might have been the best mayor ever. Power naps and musician’s hours would be my M.O.

Bloomington is a small, mostly liberal city, demographically dominated by a large student population who rarely vote.  The only real contest is the primary.  Any Democrat who wins the primary is virtually assured of winning in the general election.  John Turnbull, the unopposed Republican candidate, though blessed with common sense and well-spoken in a folksy sort of way, never had a prayer of winning.

Both of my fellow Democratic primary candidates, John Hamilton and Darryl Neher were formidable opponents:

John was confidant, eloquent, well versed in the issues, and had a great head of hair…a Harvard grad and smart enough not to mention it.   He came with a terrific resume… a former top aide to Governor O’Bannon, he’d headed the Family and Social Services Administration and the Department of Environmental Management for the state. He’d founded a highly successful NGO.  There was lots of money behind him.  In my opinion, too much of it came from well-heeled pals back in DC.   One of his $1000 donors was a guy named Cantwell F. Muckenfuss III.  I couldn’t have made it up.

Darryl was quick witted and wizard smart too… a business professor beloved by his colleagues and a local TV celebrity.  With one of God’s greatest grins and what theater people refer to as “stage presence,” he could fill a room with good vibes just by walking in the door.  He’d done a solid job as a city councilman and been elected chairman by his fellow council members.  The sitting mayor, who had the strong support of our large, politically savvy LGBTQ community, had endorsed him.  Like Hamilton he’d heaped up a sizable war chest. The afternoon’s rental fee for the Buskirk-Chumley Theater where he announced his candidacy cost more than my entire campaign.

My only clear advantage was that I was undeniably better looking than either of my worthy opponents.  I figured that plus my superior strategy might just be enough to propel me into office.

Low voter turnout was crucial to the scheme.  Luckily it was an off-year election, which made a big turnout less likely.  The incumbent, Mark Kruzan, had chosen not to run for a third term.  That was good too.  But what really got my hopes up, was that my two fellow candidates seemed likely to split the “establishment” vote.  I could make a virtue of my meager funding by running on the slogan, “Powered by Volunteers Not Money.”  Then I planned to discharge my secret weapon…Marijuana Decriminalization!!!

I’d rally students and dissolute citizens to my cause. With the majority of the vote equally split between John and Darryl, I figured a few thousand votes would win it.  There had to be that many dopers in town.  Finally they’d have an issue important enough to wake up in time to cast their ballot before the polls closed.  As decent citizens looked on powerlessly, the votes of scofflaws would propel me into the corner office down at city hall.

Anyway, who knows, I might have been the best mayor ever.  I saw myself operating as a chairman of the board kind of administrator aloof from partisan bickering.  Power naps and musician’s hours would be my M.O.  Look at Ronald Reagan.  The guy couldn’t have made it as a clerk at 7-Eleven yet he steered the free world into a radically different channel. Unlike the Gipper though, instead of former lobbyists, right-wing hacks and yes men, I’d surround myself with capable energetic appointees… young people who shared my vision.  They’d be tactics, I’d be strategy.   Before work every morning I’d organize laughing yoga classes for anyone who wanted to participate.  We’d build on the city’s strengths, a hip, high-tech Eden of tolerance, art, and music.   We’d spay and neuter those pesky urban deer, convince the cops, firefighters, and EMTs to turn the sirens down a few notches, and set up tighter accounting procedures to eliminate fraud.

Ah, but it was not to be.

 

Editor’s note: this is the first in a three-part series. Next month:  Kissing Babies on the Campaign Trail

Beer, Bourbon & Beyond

Upland Brewers_05

Upland Brewery Crew: Top Left to Right Caleb Staton, Director of Sour Operations, Eli Trinkle, Cellarman, Pete Batule, VP of Operations; Bottom Left to Right, Adam Covey, Quality Assurance Manager, Nicholas Nehring, Assistant Brewer/Cellar, Cody Chestnut, Assistant Brewer/Cellar

 

By Pennfield Jensen

It was a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her for it.

–W.C. Fields

Alcohol is a big deal in this country, and throughout the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars in play, innumerable lives enlivened, enriched, and, alas, also destroyed by “demon rum.”

The making and selling of alcohol can be a thrilling enterprise, but it is also a war zone. Not only do the major brands battle tirelessly over market share among themselves, especially as they seek to attract and capture the Millennial Market (all you LDA’s—Legal Drinking Age—out there between the ages of 21 and 32), there is a cultural war. Some call it the Craft Revolution. Others see it as the War On Craft. I have spent the last 13 years of my life deep in the trenches of this revolutionary war, having just a few months ago retired as Emeritus Executive Director of the American Craft Spirits Association. I began in San Francisco, but there have been many stops along the way including a stint at Upland Brewing Company assisting in its transition to new ownership, and as Executive Director of the Brewers Guild of Indiana.

I want to share some of what I have learned over the years and what I foresee coming down the pipe. I’m starting here under the beneficence of The Ryder with a three-part series: Beer, Bourbon and Beyond. For those who care, I’ve created a website of the same name (.com) to share in much greater detail what will be here just a scratch on the surface of what many believe to be the cradle of modern civilization: the creation and enjoyment in its many forms and guises of the ultimate frenemy, alcohol.

BEER, Part I

Beer is proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.

                                                            —Benjamin Franklin

It is commonly said that “beer is food.”  The justification for this is yeast. Yeast, that elegant, sensitive, tiny single-celled creature that converts sugar water into carbon dioxide and … ta da … alcohol! These blessed little critters that have been recorded “singing” (when the fluid temperature is perfect), just as they have been recorded “screaming” (when the temp is too hot).[2]

Although fermentation has been around for untold millennia, that yeast was the cause of fermentation is a relatively recent discovery by Louis Pasteur in 1857 who was investigating why beet juice sometimes made alcohol and sometimes soured. [3]

Although most, if not all, of yeast’s secrets have now been revealed, the fermentation process is worth a closer look. Beer fermentation proposes a charming and rather prophetic metaphor: typically, the brewer dumps (pitches) yeast into a cozy vat of warm malted-barley sugar water (the wort). Yeast heaven! Nothing to do but eat, excrete, and make more yeast. Those excretions, as most everyone knows, are primarily carbon dioxide and alcohol. And therein lies the rub.  After a few days, the yeast produce so much alcohol that they pollute their heavenly habitat and either die or go into toxic shock. The process is called attenuation. At the point where the attenuation is complete, and the yeast are totally wrecked, victims of shock and awe, the merciful brewer lowers the temp to Oº C, (which puts all the living ones to sleep) and pours himself a sample pint of the consequence of that pollution: beer. Perhaps the Master Brewer similarly will show up and thank us for our work here with the planet…but on that score I have serious personal doubts.

But, hey, it’s all beer; it’s all good. Which brings up a monumental conundrum among aficionados: lagers vs. ales. Until very recently, lagers have reigned more or less uncontested upon the throne of beers. With the advent of craft brews, predominantly ales, that has begun to change…dramatically. There are now over 4,100 craft brewers in the United States. They make hundreds of different styles, and now generate almost 28% of all beer sales, and growing. The big guys are feeling the heat. Case in point: Constellation Brands’ billion-dollar acquisition of San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewery,  (Yep, one billion. Hard to fathom.)

Until very recently, lagers have reigned more or less uncontested upon the throne of beers. With the advent of craft brews, predominantly ales, that has begun to change.

Fundamentally, the difference between lagers and ales is the kind of yeast that’s used. Lager yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus) got started in the 1500’s somewhere in that part of greater Europe more or less around Pilsen, from whence hails pilsner. Ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) also called Baker’s Yeast has been around since the beginning of civilization, and a powerful argument holds that the desire for beer is what kick-started staying in one place to grow the grain necessary to make the beer that sped non-stop from Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago to Budweiser sponsoring the Super Bowl, i.e., civilization as we know it.

The other part of the distinction between lagers and ales is cold brewing vs. warm brewing—often referred to as “top fermenting” (ales) and “bottom fermenting” (lagers). But the top-bottom distinction is not as precise as the cold vs. warm one. Cold-brewed lagers (under 10° C) give us those EZ Drink’n crisp, clean and sometimes slightly skunky flavored beers, and the “light” beers that have virtually no discernable flavor whatsoever. Lagers also age longer and at far lower temperatures in the eponymous process called “lagering.” Ales (brewing between 15° – 25° C) ferment faster, and tend to be fruitier, with big hugs all around for maltiness, hoppyness, and depth of flavor and color. But here’s the mystery within the conundrum: S.pastorianus does not exist wild anywhere in Europe! It has only existed in the vaults of the European brewers and their minions, and has been thus secreted since the early 1500s. So, where did it come from?

Saccharomyces (sugar-eating yeasts) thrive on oak trees. In 2011 a team of scientists found a strain of S.pastorianus growing wild on oak trees in Patagonia. Who would have guessed? So, to paraphrase an expert, “How the hell did it get to Europe 600 years ago?” [How about the Spanish and Portugese conquistadores desperate for oak to repair their ships, or the barrels they used to carry home the booty from a plundered continent? All good vectors for the good Sr. Pastorianius being a stowaway. Any takers for that theoretical scenario?] No matter how it got there, get there it did, and the rest, as they say is history. And today those good Dutch, German, and Belgian lagers can be found all around the globe.

Ales have taken a different trajectory. Popularized in England as pale ale, or Bitter, then enhanced famously during the Raj by adding more preservative hops to create India Pale Ale, and now the flagship IPAs of so many modern craft brewers. Hops, ah yes.

The wort  (the barley malt sugar water) is the heart of every beer known to man. It is here where most of the bittering and flavoring elements that define a beer’s style and quality get introduced. The key bittering agents are hops, of which there are at least 32 varieties—many under duress thanks to climate change, especially in the Northwest where several of the more popular hop varieties are grown. And there is a metric for judging bitterness, IBUs (International Bittering Units), which most brewpubs proudly post, along with the ABV levels (alcohol by volume) for each style on tap. But the wort is where other flavorings are introduced as well: coriander, orange curaçao, chamomile—for wheat beer—and all sorts of crazy-ass things that irrepressible brewers like to toss in such as pumpkin, mulberries, raspberries, persimmons, and so on. Not to mention the classic Belgian “sour” beers with their ancient lineages that use wild yeast to make a beer then pack in fruit for a (secondary) barrel fermentation that can age for a year or more. When done right, sour blends with sweet to a fructuous delirium.

Barley, specifically malted barley, is the brewer’s grain of choice although other grains are also used, such as rye, or in the case of the popular wheat-based styles such as wit (white) or heffeweisen. In aggregate, the mixture of ground-up grains is called the mash. And the vat in which the mash is transformed into wort is called the mash tun.

A grain of barley looks a lot like a football that is rounded at one end. Basically, it’s a shell made of cellulose surrounding a cache of starch. The starch is a kind of battery, storing energy waiting for folks to come along and start using it. Those “folks” are enzymes, wormy-shaped proteins of enormous power. There’s a little packet of these at the tip of the kernel, along with a genetic package containing a barley embryo (the light bulb). When triggered by a pleasant shower of warm water, the enzymes wake up and start their work: slowly and carefully converting the starch in the kernel to sugar to feed the little green shoot that will grow and grow until it anchors itself in the earth and builds through the warm days into those amber waves of grain we sometimes sing about.

However, if, say, after three days, one halts this barley germination process by exposing our little sprout to high heat something new and exciting has happened: the barley kernel is now malted.  The Scots famed use of burning peat for this imbues the malt with a flavor that once tasted can never be forgotten, and bless, bless, bless them for that! (But all that is in Part 2.) When malted barley is ground and mixed with hot water, the enzymes—now freed from their measured constraints—convert the mash of crunched up starch to sugar water in a process that’s virtually instantaneous. The wort is drawn off and the spent grain (mash to mush) discarded. (Many brewers provide the spent grain to cattle and buffalo ranchers.) The wort is boiled—to sanitize it—and hops et al added to make a giant pot of malted barley tea that once cooled, will serve as the short-lived heaven for our yeast.

But I should not gloss over the significance of wort creation, for here is where the art of brewing meets the science of it. So far, my description of wort is similar to saying automobiles use internal combustion. But there are differences between my Kia Soul and a Mustang GTO, namely “muscle” and “performance.”

Yeasts vary widely in their ability to tolerate alcohol. “Muscle” yeasts produce higher than average ABVs, and as taste trends have red-shifted toward hoppyer, higher alcohol beers, such as Trappist-style tripels and Imperial IPAs, these yeast strains have become popular. However, to get the higher ABV, the brewer needs heavier worts, that is he needs more available sugar. Comparing the weight or specific gravity of a particular wort to the weight of plain water provides a metric differential between the two. At the conclusion of fermentation a second measurement is taken and the difference between the incoming wort and the outgoing beer determines how much of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, call it performance. What the yeast does not consume is called residual sugar.

The true artistry comes when the brewer can combine just the right amount of “heavy” wort with just the right amount of hops so that the yeast attenuate leaving the least amount of residual sugar behind. Call it “balance.” Achieving that fulcrum point of perfect balance among all the variables is the Holy Grail for most brewers, and is the main reason you should pay attention to the specialty and seasonal releases from our great local breweries. Some say perfection has been achieved: Dark Lord Imperial Stout from Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana, but it is only released once a year, on Dark Lord Day. Some people wait in line all night to secure a few precious bottles (very limited release) at the brewery. If you’re up for it, this year Dark Lord Day is April 25th.

About now is when most of my audiences start glancing at their watches or longingly at the bar with its glinting bottles and beckoning taps, hoping for a pint. I don’t blame them, and that’s what I would like to do as well, join up and to take in the truly best part of the great process of brewing: drinking and savoring the combined artistry of brewer and brewed.

Adventures In Bourbon, Part II

It is notoriously difficult as it is to pinpoint how, where, and when “bourbon” began—its origins shrouded in myth, legend and outright malarkey.

It never ceases to amaze me that during all the years spent helping to build and then support the craft spirits industry, almost no one ever asked me which craft spirit was my favorite. Ninety times out of hundred, it was “What’s your favorite bourbon?” Still the same deal today. I have to ask myself ‘Why so, Joe?’ I can’t chalk all of it up to the fact that I live in Bloomington on the northern cusp of Appalachia. Albeit a majority of the corn used to make bourbon is grown in Indiana, and one of the largest distilleries, the largest when Sam Bronfman and Seagram’s ruled the spirits world, works its magic down the road as the less-than-lyrically named Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Lawrenceburg. Nope, none of the above, although all certainly play a role.

Personally, I think bourbon fascinates because of its mystery—Why is it called bourbon? Where did it get started? Is it because of its seductive culture—Master Distillers, Thoroughbred Horses—and its unique way of flirting with every sensory pore in your body while never exhausting its ability to surprise and confound your expectations? All that, and bourbon is irrefutably America’s indigenous spirit. Indian corn, American white oak, and, if from Kentucky or Indiana, spring-fed water filtered through limestone laid down by the Tethys Sea 100 million years ago. It is a legacy that encourages an almost infinite variety of iterations while steadfastly defying even the worst travesties visited upon it. Fireball? Are you crazy?

Whiskey, including bourbon, is so inextricably intertwined with the birth and growth of the United States as to be virtually indistinguishable from it. You can pick almost any year or place to start, from the early use of whiskey—rye in the north, corn in the south—as a universal currency, to the storied introduction of alcohol taxation. My favorite point of embarkation is “The Whiskey Rebellion” of 1791. It was brought on by a new-fangled “excise” tax levied on spirits in order to pay down the debt created by the American Revolution. President George Washington leading federal troops ultimately quelled it. [WhiskeyRebellion.jpg  c. 1795, attributed to Frederick KemmelmeyerMetropolitan Museum of Art, P.D.] No matter that George, at the time, happened to be the largest manufacturer of whiskey in the United States, kind of a one-man Diageo. We can assume he paid his taxes.  George’s Mount Vernon estate and restored distillery on the majestic bluff overlooking the Potomac at Mount Vernon deserves a personal visit by every red-blooded American.

 

RAGS&SUSAN_FINAL_01

Nick’s owners Gregg “Rags” Rago and Susan Bright with a signature  bottle of their hand-selected 131-proof single-barrel bourbon from Four Roses

 

Although it took six years for the 175 hold-out bourbon distillers in Kentucky to be brought to ground, Thomas Jefferson came to their rescue by honoring a platform promise of his fledgling Republican Party to repeal that odious “whiskey” tax. This was in direct opposition to Alexander Hamilton and his pro-tax Federalists. And, just like that, our two-party system, mostly, of American politics was off to the races.

Enter bourbon. Actually, enter bourbon barrels. By 1800, Louisville, in-not-yet-a-state-Kentucky, is host to one of the fledgling nation’s biggest transportation pains-in-the-ass: the Falls of The Ohio. Every shipment heading downstream to New Orleans has to stop, unload, and portage around the beautiful jumble of fossil Devonian reef then reload below it. There’s a lot of traffic, a lot of money to be made, and the Clark family is there to make it.

Revolutionary War heroes, neighbors to Jefferson in Virginia, the Clarks re-settled in pre-state Kentucky. It was to his friend John Clark’s son William (and Meriwether Lewis) that Jefferson handed the task of exploring his 1804 Louisiana Purchase. Lewis and Clark set out from the Clark mansion in New Albany, Indiana, across the Ohio from Louisville, organized their team in St. Louis, and you don’t need Quentin Tarantino to tell you how the West was won.

Yes, there is a dark side to William Clark’s story. With his extensive knowledge of the First Nations tribes he encountered, William Clark rose to the exalted post of Superintendent of the Indian Nations in 1822. Although he did much to preserve their legacies, following Jefferson’s ideal of inclusion rather than extinction, he nevertheless adhered to and executed The Indian Removal Act. In what for me is the saddest chapter in American history, the Act was a major tool of Andrew Jackson’s—Old Hickory’s—policy of genocide. In addition to outright removal from their ancestral lands, think the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” and handing out smallpox infected blankets, Clark oversaw the deliberate use of high-proof, un-aged whiskey to destabilize native American communities and eliminate all resistance to the wholesale acquisition of Indian lands.

Meanwhile, whiskey was common currency throughout the rest of the nation, and demand for it was high. Courtesy of the Falls, the barrels of corn whiskey trekked to the Ohio from the interior of Kentucky, vaguely defined as Bourbon County, could languish dockside for weeks. Traffic was heavy and delays could be lengthy. There was also the steamy voyage downriver to New Orleans, which afforded further delays before the whiskey reached its destination decanter. But when it did, the amber-hued, sweet yet potent spirit with its unmistakable notes of vanilla and oak stood wildly apart from its clear-liquid “white lightning” cousins. People liked it, and asked for it. But what was it? “Oh,” we can imagine some purveyor answering, “that thar’s Bourbon County Kentuck’ whiskey!” The geography blurred, but the name, with its echoes of French support for the revolutionaries, some of whom were its very distillers, stuck.

As notoriously difficult as it is to pinpoint how, where, and when “bourbon” began—its origins shrouded in myth, legend and outright malarkey—there is one mystery that remains core and to this day unresolved: Who was it that thought of charring the barrels?

All whiskey comes off the still, clear and sparkling. They call it “white dog.” You can buy un-aged “white” whiskey almost anywhere. The misnomered “moonshine” popularized by hillbilly reality shows and troglodyte duck hunters is similar, except for the fact that many ‘shiners use up to 50% sugar as well as corn to create “sugar shine” served up in iconic Mason jars. All moonshine is legally produced white whiskey, except for the stuff that isn’t. And if you come across illegally produced whiskey, do be careful; it’s against the law to buy it or sell it, and it can blow your liver out of the sky like a mallard hit by a double load of 12-gauge shot.

Age is a big deal with bourbon. Legally called “straight” after two years in the barrel, bourbon, or any whiskey for that matter, rarely becomes drinkable before four years. For most bourbons, five to eight years is an optimal range with six and seven year-old bourbons defining the sweet spot. Above seven years, the distiller runs the risk of diminishing returns. Not only does evaporation, euphemistically called the “angel’s share,” take its toll, harsher “oakey” qualities start to appear that can render a barrel undrinkable. True, distillers can “blend” barrels, but only from their own stocks in a process called marrying. For example, the re-born Willett family’s bourbon stores, now Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, have brought us some magic marriages such as Noah’s Mill and Rowan’s Creek, not to mention Willett itself.

Bourbon, is so inextricably intertwined with the birth and growth of the United States as to be virtually indistinguishable from it.

As straightforward as barrel aging might seem, the reality is that distillers go to great pains to maximize the happy effects of the many burnt sugars and other flavors derived from charred oak. There are colossal slow-motion elevators to slowly rotate barrels through the various levels of the rick house to capture the “breathing” that a barrel experiences from the heat of summer through the cold of winter. Ten High, one of the early premium bourbons now in bottom-shelf ignominy, was so named for coming from barrels “ten high,” indicating a more dynamic aging, hence a better flavor. Any single barrel can have a marked difference from its siblings. Most distillers employ tasters, generally women who have naturally more sensitive taste buds, to match the selected barrels consistently to the flavor profile of a specific brand.

Brands drive the business, and brand protection has made many distillers loathe to reveal their recipes. Four Roses, for example, has five different yeasts that they have patented and which they use in combinations to create their specific bourbon expressions. A major exception is Maker’s Mark whose personnel proudly descant on their unique mash bill of 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat and 14% malted barley. The story goes that the recipe was derived by founder Rob Samuels, Sr. baking bread. The Samuel families 1950’s kitchen—all red-and-white gingham—is delightfully restored at Maker’s Mark. There is also a to-die-for Dale Chihuly blown glass ceiling installation at the distillery.

Bourbon’s popularity today belies its not-too-distant past as a moribund category. Skyrocketing demand world-wide has taken distillers by surprise. Knob Creek famously ran out of 7 year-old bourbon because seven years earlier no one at Beam had a clue regarding consumer demand seven years later. Changes and expansions are coming on hard and fast. Main Street in Louisville, home to over 83 pre-Prohibition distilleries, is rebounding with a plethora of re-fashioned distilleries and bourbon outposts. Buffalo Trace is available to retailers only on allocation, and don’t even think about getting your hands on a bottle of Pappy 23. It’s safe to say the situation is not going to change any time soon, and that’s the theme we’ll pick up in our next installment “And Beyond.”

As for the question, what’s my favorite bourbon? Easy Peezy: the one in my hand.

… AND BEYOND

“The paradigm, shifting is.”

–from Conversations with the Yoda, 1989

“Craft” is dead. Long live craft. Oh sure, there are brewers and distillers throughout America who get up every morning, slip on their Carharts and rubber boots and set out on the soul-satisfying task of fabricating what we hope are unique and delicious hand-made creations.  But craft, as we once knew and loved it, is dead. It’s now gone mainstream. Perhaps this is inevitable, and maybe it’s not that bad.

Put another way, the Big Boys have all but conceded the field to the Small Guys. That means two things: One, what is local and regional will stay local and regional, and, Two, as brands achieve scale, the “Boys be wait’n.” Yep, the long-dreaded scourge of Very Large Players has arrived. And they bring with them a totally new approach. Rather than “crafty,” as witnessed by the erstwhile efforts of SAB-Miller’s “Blue Moon” or AB-INBEV’s equally noxious “Shock Top,” to trick consumers into buying factory beers they believe are “craft,” they have taken the path of outright acquisition. Forget Budweiser’s scandalously hypocritical slam against craft beer during the 2015 Super Bowl as they simultaneously gobbled up Washington State’s Elysian Brewery and Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewery. Consider instead Bud’s big Breckenridge buy or Constellation Brands’ (ever had Corona?) billion-dollar purchase of Ballast Point Brewing.

Where Bernie or I might see corporate hypocrisy at work, others perceive the ascendance of craft as an essential transition from a folk-traditional to a high-stakes business model. As with most established, entrenched businesses finding themselves disrupted, not everyone saw it coming, and many of those who did were ticked off about it. Case in point: Eight years ago I was asked to make a presentation on craft spirits to the board of NABCA, the national association representing the Control States—those states with exclusive rights to buy and sell hooch. Governor-appointed, and dependent on the major distributors for their buying instructions, the craft spirits phenomenon had these directors bamboozled. I was bombarded with questions: Were the products any good? How much should we buy? What are consumers buying? How can we warehouse all these different skus?

What did I know? At the time only a few craft spirits brands were making noise in the marketplace, and almost all of them, if you exclude Tito’s, were highly regional, mostly small distilleries with loyal local followers. At the happy-hour reception afterwards, I was, in company of the steering committee, whose president, Mark Brown of Buffalo Trace, had generously provided several BT brands for our delectation., I was doing my part, within the responsible parameters of such an event, not to show any disrespect to Mssrs Stagg and Van Winkle. Mark, ever the gentleman, by and large had good things to say about craft, but several senior management types from the other major industry giants cornered me with pointed comment: You [craft distillers] are a threat to our brands. All our brands started small, Mom and Pops like your guys. We don’t need the competition. Whew!

Fast forward three years to a chance encounter with one of those same senior management-global-VP-types, and I was greeted with a big smile a slap on the back, and a major change of tune. We love you guys; you’re doing all our R&D for us! As soon as a distiller achieves scale, we’ll buy ‘em.

OK, when did this major tipping point occur? It was August 19, 2013, in Austin at the very first “Spirits Summit” hosted by the respected trade publication Wine and Spirits Daily. Danny Brager of Nielsen Associates had walked the crowd—a veritable who’s who of the spirits business in America—through his power point deck, to his conclusion. The data were incontrovertible: Craft spirits had a growth curve equal to or even stronger than that of craft beer at an analogous period in its development, and the future presented “a long runway.” Translated, Nielsen’s analysis foresaw no major obstacles facing the growth of craft spirits. Here, at last, was proof-positive of what many knew intuitively was the case. You could hear checkbooks snapping open.

An endearing quality of “craft,” if you admire pluck and rebellion, is its inherent resistance to the mantra of “go big or go home.”

Three years later, at the March Conference of my own organization, the American Craft Spirits Association, Danny revisited the data. Nielsen’s view was not only unchanged, but strengthened. Driven by “Millennials” who value authenticity, integrity and identity, craft beer, craft distilling, craft mixology, virtually all things “craft” was proving to be unstoppable. Not a train to stand in front of.

An endearing quality of “craft,” if you admire pluck and rebellion, is its inherent resistance to the mantra of “go big or go home.” True, there are some mega acquisitions in process, but not everyone wants to sell out. Rather, they are buying in. My term for these hold-ins is “legacy owners.” Starlight Distillery, part of the Huber Orchard and Winery complex on the fertile mesa above New Albany, exemplifies this concept. Seven generations of Hubers have grown fruit, made award-winning wine and brandy from their own orchards and vineyards, and now distill bourbon using their own corn. Huber’s economic impact can be gauged by its position as the third-ranking tourist destination in Indiana, after the Colts and the Indy 500. The distillery is, as one might expect, a gleaming showcase of copper and glass.

Similarly, Bently Heritage, a $40-plus million reconfiguration of an historic grainery in Minden, Nevada, will feature an over-the-top distillery-and-tourist complex with state-of-the-art mechanics utilizing grain grown on the Bently family’s Carson Valley farm holdings. And these are just two out of the hundreds of show-time distilleries expanding around the country that will awe and inspire all who visit them.

So, one asks, do these mega-trends spell doom for locals? I dropped in on Bloomington’s own Cardinal Spirits to hear what they had to say. What co-owner Adam Quirk revealed about Cardinal strongly reflected the underlying ethos of “craft” itself: authenticity is the lodestar. “The biggest part of building our brand is honesty,” he noted. “That’s what craft means. A craftsman makes something with his or her own hands, and does honest work. We make everything from scratch. We ferment and distill on site, and do our best to make a great product. It’s a matter of great personal pride,” Quirk observes. “But if your spirits are not good, people aren’t gonna buy ‘em. Simple as that.” And the ultimate goal? “Five years from now we want to be a well-known Midwestern distillery. But there’s more,” he adds. “It is critical to our mission to provide meaningful employment for ourselves and our staff. That’s really why we’re here.”

# # #

HOOCH AND HEALTH

I want to get drunk ‘till I’m off of my mind.

 –George Thorogood, “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer”

Alcohol can be fatal. Bingeing is a chronic phenomenon that is hugely popular among Millennials at major “party schools,” like IU. I’m no moralist, but I do side with Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing and Distilling who delivered the keynote at my first craft spirits conference in 2008. “Alcohol is not the problem,” he declared forcefully. “The problem is these kids never learned how to drink.”

I grew up in a somewhat Bohemian enclave of San Francisco. Alcohol, mostly wine, was enjoyed nightly at dinner by my parents, and throughout the year at nearly every occasion by everyone we knew. Think of the wedding scene in The Godfather and you can get a pretty good picture. I think it’s a shame that so many young adults enter the university sphere with little or no understanding of alcohol. Because, if you understand it, you will respect it.

This is a simplified version of what happens when you get drunk, but there will be a quiz later, so pay attention.

A pint of beer, a 5 oz glass of wine, or a 1 ¼ shot of vodka all contain roughly a half-ounce of pure alcohol each. Drinking six of these at one sitting, in any combination or order, is considered bingeing. Anyone with half-a-clue about what happens during the Dionysian debacle called Little Five, or has experienced any of B-town’s infamous Sports Bars late of a Friday or Saturday night knows six drinks to be a mere warm up. It takes roughly an hour for the liver to metabolize that half-an-ounce of pure ethanol. Do the math.

Your dear, dear liver first metabolizes the ethanol into acetaldehyde, a very toxic poison that the ancient enzymes that govern so much of our lives almost instantaneously convert to sugars that are converted to fat cells and stored by the liver. What doesn’t get metabolized collects in the bloodstream causing havoc.[1] Chug a pint beaker of 86° vodka and you’re either going to expel it as an offering to the ceramic gods, or you’re going to enter some form of inebriation bordering on toxic shock. Keep at it and you may find yourself waltzing with the Grim Reaper.

Drinking can and should be an enjoyable part of life. Drinking to get drunk is not. Getting drunk is stupid. Getting drunk with strangers is really, really stupid.

That’s it. Now, here’s the multiple-choice quiz:

I will Never Ever Drink Anything Alcoholic Ever!

I will endeavor to learn about the myriad styles and qualities of alcoholic       beverages, and respectfully enjoy them

I will dismiss this “quiz” as a pile of moralistic crap from a dumb-ass scold       and do whatever I want whenever I want to

Hey, it’s your life to live and to enjoy. Please do.

BOURBON DAVE SCHEURICH ON FERMENTING BOURBON

We know what is legally required to define bourbon, but how is it actually made? I asked an expert, “Bourbon” Dave Scheurich, the Distillery Manager for Woodford Reserve (ret.). Here’s Dave.

As you know, Bourbon whiskey requires at least 51% corn. Most distillers use #1 yellow corn that is first ground to a fine meal, mixed with water, and cooked at 212⁰ F for 30 minutes to totally liquefy the starches in the corn.  The mash temperature is gradually lowered and rye or wheat meal is added to the slurry. The barley malt is added when this big vat of starch reaches 154⁰ F.  The enzymes in the malt instantly convert the starch to sugar.

Although not required by law, most of us use a little backset stillage or “sour mash.” In the early years of making whiskey, distillers would make good batches and bad batches without knowing why.  In the mid-1850’s James Crow (and others) learned that if they put some spent mash back into the cooking process they got consistently good whiskey.  Since sour mash is very acidic, i.e., around 4.0 pH. Adding some into the cook deters the natural yeasts and molds in the air that surrounds us.

Wheat versus rye as the second grain in the mash bill is a matter of the distillers’ preference.  Some people enjoy a spicy, complex bourbon (high rye) while others like soft and sweet bourbon (wheated).  Maker’s Mark is a good example of a wheated bourbon.

 

LEGAL DEFINITION OF BOURBON

What Makes Bourbon “Bourbon”

  1. Must be manufactured in the United States
  2. Must be at least 51% Corn. Other allowed grains are Rye, Malted Barley, and Wheat
  3. Cannot be distilled above 160 proof (80% alcohol).
  4. Must be aged in charred new American white oak barrels for at least two years
  5. Must be casked no higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol)
  6. Must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol)

 

“IF BY WHISKEY”

“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

–1952 speech by Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., a young lawmaker from the U.S. state of Mississippi, on the subject of whether Mississippi should continue to prohibition (which it did until 1966) or finally legalize alcoholic beverages

 

BOURBON DAVE SCHEURICH ON FERMENTING BOURBON

We know what is legally required to define bourbon, but how is it actually made? I asked an expert, “Bourbon” Dave Scheurich, the Distillery Manager for Woodford Reserve (ret.). Here’s Dave.

As you know, Bourbon whiskey requires at least 51% corn. Most distillers use #1 yellow corn that is first ground to a fine meal, mixed with water, and cooked at 212⁰ F for 30 minutes to totally liquefy the starches in the corn.  The mash temperature is gradually lowered and rye or wheat meal is added to the slurry. The barley malt is added when this big vat of starch reaches 154⁰ F.  The enzymes in the malt instantly convert the starch to sugar.

Although not required by law, most of us use a little backset stillage or “sour mash.” In the early years of making whiskey, distillers would make good batches and bad batches without knowing why.  In the mid-1850’s James Crow (and others) learned that if they put some spent mash back into the cooking process they got consistently good whiskey.  Since sour mash is very acidic, i.e., around 4.0 pH. Adding some into the cook deters the natural yeasts and molds in the air that surrounds us.

Wheat versus rye as the second grain in the mash bill is a matter of the distillers’ preference.  Some people enjoy a spicy, complex bourbon (high rye) while others like soft and sweet bourbon (wheated).  Maker’s Mark is a good example of a wheated bourbon.

 

LEGAL DEFINITION OF BOURBON

What Makes Bourbon “Bourbon”

  1. Must be manufactured in the United States
  2. Must be at least 51% Corn. Other allowed grains are Rye, Malted Barley, and Wheat
  3. Cannot be distilled above 160 proof (80% alcohol).
  4. Must be aged in charred new American white oak barrels for at least two years
  5. Must be casked no higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol)
  6. Must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol)

 

“IF BY WHISKEY”

“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

–1952 speech by Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., a young lawmaker from the U.S. state of Mississippi, on the subject of whether Mississippi should continue to prohibition (which it did until 1966) or finally legalize alcoholic beverages

 

THE BUFFALO THEORY

In an episode of the Sitcom “Cheers,” Cliff explains “the buffalo theory” to Norm.

Well, you see, Norm, it’s like this: A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.

In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Now, as we know, excessive intake of alcohol kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine.

And that, Norm, is why you always feel smarter after a few beers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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