Scott Fivelson chronicles the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, or does he?

Interview by Richard Fish

 Oskar Knight is so real, he really ought to be real. His entire career is a shining example of why Hollywood has always been the foremost place on the planet where reality, myth and legend don’t just meet, they dance. But (spoiler alert!) Oskar isn’t really real, except that he is now, since the movie came out. This delightfully crafted, engagingly funny mockumentary does for Tinsel Town what This is Spinal Tap did for Heavy Metal: in the age of Alternative Facts, this is a perfect Alternative Biopic.

The pun-gently titled Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story was born in the brain of writer-director Scott Fivelson, whose wide-ranging creativity is all the more amazing because he doesn’t get to live here in Bloomington. I caught up with him at his home, somewhere in earthquake-prone, fire-ravaged, mudslide-covered, traffic-choked, rain-inundated, drought-stricken Southern California.

Ryder: This was obviously a labor of love, Scott, and when you come right down to it, it’s really a movie about Hollywood – about Oscar Night as well as Oskar Knight. You certainly understand how the movie industry works, even when it doesn’t! So, how did you manage to use that understanding to whack the Zeitgeist right between the eyes?

Scott:  Ha! It’s true reality has been getting kind of blurred lately in the media, and it’s nice to discover we’ve made something that resonates in a timely way, but that wasn’t in my mind when we started. I just loved the stories of these great filmmakers so much that I wanted to have another one, so we could enjoy his story….and miss him. Oskar is a larger-than-life character, a bit like Charles Foster Kane – in fact, this picture is something of a tribute to Orson Welles.

Ryder: Who does appear, briefly, and Oskar’s right there with him of course. Do you think people need to be serious movie buffs to really “get” this movie?

Scott: Oh, no, not at all. I’ve had people tell me they really liked the picture, thought it was very funny – and then said they’d tried to find out more about Oskar and his movies online, and asked why a Google search only turned up references to this movie!

Ryder: They actually thought–?

Scott: Yeah, they did. Of course the more you know about movies, the more you’ll get out of it.

Ryder: Oh, yes! The detail is amazing, all the way through. All those pictures of Oskar with the great stars and in famous places, so perfectly chosen to evoke the era –

Scott: It’s up to the viewer to decide if we inserted Oskar, or just found those pictures in Hollywood archives.

Ryder: It’s great fun to spot all the stars as they flash on the screen, but you move right on because you’re into the story. It’s a great story.

Scott: All the best stories are about people, and that’s why it’s the arc of a life, a career, the triumphs and the struggles – Oskar lived a long life, you know, and he never gave up trying. If someone is around long enough, they have a story like this.  And we do have some real stars to help tell it.

Ryder: What Lolly Poppins and Hedda Publicity used to call “Hollywood Insiders?”

Scott: Yes, we had great luck with the casting. We had some hot young up-and-coming actors and some well-established names – of course Lenny Von Dohlen has done a lot of things, from Miami Vice and Twin Peaks to The Orville, and David Suchet was brilliant as Hercule Poirot, and Margaret O’Brien goes back to the 1940s, starting as a child actress.

Ryder: She looked great, and I loved seeing Noel Neill and Jon Provost, from Superman and Lassie on TV –

Scott: Yes! We had so many wonderful experiences working on this project.

Ryder: And it’s very funny. Would you call this film a satire?

Scott: I’d call it a blend of satire, comedy, whimsy, nostalgia…

Ryder: …sort of a love letter to Hollywood.

Scott: Love…but in the real world. It can be poignant. There’s heartache and heartbreak, but there’s something really inspiring in Oskar’s story, too.

Ryder: And we’re getting to see the picture just as it’s coming out.

Scott: That’s true, and I’m delighted it’s going to be shown in Bloomington. It’s an independent project, you know, and the whole team that worked on the film – we’d like to believe we’ve made something kind of special. The Ryder Film Series is just the sort of program that can really add to the buzz, and Oskar always was a good time – that’s what his friends always said. I hope people will spread the word, especially online.

Ryder: Well, Bloomington people do tend to have a lot of connections. I sure enjoyed it. Thanks, Scott, for talking with us and giving us a movie that is an ideal prelude to the Academy Awards show on Sunday, March 4th. Got any predictions?

Scott: Just that nobody’s going to break Oskar Knight’s all-time record as the Director with the most nominations.










Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Electronic Bloomington Comes of Age


text by Kenneth Shafer       photo by Brody Nevins

On one warm night, July 19, 2017, in Bloomington all the following occurred within only a few hours of each other.

In the basement of a South Walnut house a small but fascinated crowd of mostly twenty-somethings  were taking advantage of the free Open Tweak V (fifth in a series), as a live electronic performer was knob-twisting and fine-tuning his dual “Eurorack” modules, his Elektron drum machine and sound sampler, and his Korg keyboard synthesizer, churning out a series of hypnotic beats and blips.

“Welcome to the south side of electronic music,” said the host, Iain Donkin though he didn’t bother to explain how the south side of Bloomington differed from the north side. Still, he continued, “Almost everything we do here is Live Personal Appearance (Live PA), and we cover the spectrum of genres – Electronic Dance Music, Trance, Drone, and spontaneous collaborations. This is a venue for discovery, nearly everyone who participates is self trained.”

A few blocks away and less than an hour later, Indiana University music professor Paul Siwko-Bajon played to a somewhat less than sellout crowd of much older people at the Buskirk-Chumley theater. Twenty bucks got one entry to an overview of Synthesizers in Film, branded as Synthfest. Multiple top of the line racked Kurzweil synths were visible on the stage, along with a tower personal computer.

Before the live synth playing, the audience was treated to a short video where classic synth player Jean Jarre was shown in his studio surrounded by scads of electronic music making hardware, only a few of which had attached keyboards. Indicating a preference for what are known as electronic sequencers (hardware boxes that play pre-programmed sequences of notes), Jarre explained how he created one of his classic pieces, Oxygene.

From here, Siwko-Bajon took the stage and played the classics from Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and Jean Jarre, underscoring the importance of synthesizer music as film soundtracks, especially for science fiction movies like Blade Runner and Escape from New York. The crowd was attentive, but did not dance other than with an occasional gratuitous nod of the head, as if they were disguising the fact that they were almost falling asleep as the performance passed their usual bedtime hour of 9:30 pm.

But the night was still young. It was easy, almost too easy, to walk just around the corner, and slip down the steps into the underground of The Root Cellar, where Danger Latte and Kyle Spears were DJing their particular brand of so-called Techno, which is one of the types of electronic music most amenable to dancing. This was Saturday night, after all, and nobody had to be anywhere Sunday morning, and the crowd was not about to let up until the legally-mandated closing hours wee in the morning. The thump thump! thump! thump! thump! of the bass drum on every quarter beat kept everybody jumping.

That such a litany of electronic events could happen so close together in location and time was not always so in Bloomington, and should not be taken for granted. That it did is a clear and pronounced statement that electronic music has firmly arrived in Bloomington.

How did this scene get to this point? Where did it come from? And where might it be going?

This issue initiates a series of articles will address those questions, if not fully answer them. Other follow-up articles will focus on the history of synthesizer and electronic dance music, the explosion into numerous different types, called genres, and even into sub-genres, the evolution of experimental and electronic music in Bloomington, the role of local Disc Jockeys (DJ’s), Live Performers (Live PA), and a bit of a catch-all covering what is called experimental, ambient, and drone electronic music.

The musical culture changes. Electronic and Dance Music is claiming its rightful place in the local music scene as a full-fledged equal with classical, rock, jazz, R&B, blues, folk, and country.

A Short Guide to Dance Music and Electronic Venues in Bloomington

The Bluebird

The Bluebird has been at the top of the heap for music venues since the 1970’s, and continues today. Its large capacity, its reputation, and its history all serve to be a draw for big name acts with a healthy smattering of local artists thrown in. When the big names come in, the cover can be expensive, but that does not deter a crowded attendance. When most of the students leave town for the summer, the Bluebird will feature more local acts.

There’s a big dance floor right in front of the performance stage, which also accommodates what is usually the best light show for these events. By midnight it is often standing room only, and that is even shoulder to shoulder.

Music wise, The Bluebird seems to feature more of the Hip Hop derivative genres of dance music.

The Root Cellar

This club is one of the favorites of the DJs. It regularly features EDM and live electronic acts, and as its name implies, it is underground, being in back of The Farm restaurant. As well as a nominal size dance floor, there is some seating, and off to the side several cubby holes with comfortable lounge sofas that serve as “chill rooms” to provide a little sonic distance from the boom boom boom of the music.

It also seems to attract a more diverse crowd than some of the other venues, and a poster at the door cautions entrants to leave their bigotry at home.

The Root Cellar is very supportive of local acts, and seems to often provide entry without any cover charge.

Video Saloon

The Video Saloon has its EDM dance floor right at street level, across from the Bluebird, and customers often traffic between the two. EDM acts are presented on a somewhat infrequent and irregular basis and have been known to be without a cover charge.


Serendipity has a light, airy feel, located in the same space as the legendary Second Story. The stage is at one end, the bar at right angles to it, with a dance area the length of the club. You’re more likely to encounter an international type crowd here, as it also regularly hosts Latin dance nights.

As advertised, Serendipity is a martini bar – with a peculiar twist of also featuring PBR on tap.


The Blockhouse is a somewhat hidden gem nestled in the same cluster that includes Serendipity and The Back Door. You get to it by going downstairs – to an underground, a characteristic which it shares with the Root Cellar, and which has all the flavor of “underground” Techno clubs in the Detroit area. Being underground, it’s possible, but not easy, to take a break outside, but just like truly urban Techno underground clubs, there are two or three “chill rooms” where you can get just a little bit away from the volume of the kick drum, and have a chat with the friend you just made.

It does not have the capacity to generally handle big name acts, though regional one and smaller national acts do pass through. It is one of the venues that is especially hospitable to local EDM DJ’s and live performers.

Open Tweak

Strictly speaking, Open Tweak is a Bloomington House Show network kind of place rather than a “club.” This is an experimental electronic event as part of the Bloomingtron network. (Read carefully now, there is that “r” in Bloomingtron that makes all the difference.) Another underground venue, it is located in the basement of a house on South Walnut Street.
Players Pub

Players Pub is as little bit off the beaten path, being further south, but still within easy walking distance if you’re going “clubbing” to multiple destinations. Cover charges are modest, and this is the only place where you can get food, really good food, late into the evening. The red beans and rice are highly recommended.

The dance floor is open and inviting, and for those taking a break, there is also easy access to the sidewalk patio which is taken full advantage of in the summer.

Players Pub draws a steady, but not packed, crowd, and its schedule is consistent – dance music every Friday night starting at 11:30 PM, after the headliner music act has left the stage.

DJs usually bring a light show and maybe fog machines, and the dance crowd seems to be easier than average to accommodate making new friends. It also features a wide variety of DJs, and doesn’t seem to play favorites.

The Back Door

The Back Door is easily the most festive of the clubs. As Bloomington’s premier LGBTQ venue, you are likely to see costumes and fashions any day of the week, not just during Halloween or a Friday the 13th.  A disco ball provides the shimmering light. The Back Door is more likely to feature what is known as “House” music than most of the other clubs.

During a recent visit on a Friday the 13th, a patron dressed with a giant Earth globe for a head claimed that “global warming” was the scariest thing going on, as the dance music provided the release from the madness of the world.

The Back Door is also one of the more consistent hosts for dance music, featuring it every Friday and Saturday night. There is a cover, but it is modest.


What to say about Recess? Well, it seems to have more in common culturally with its sister watering hole Kilroy’s on Kirkwood than any of the other electronic venues. It’s an experiment of an “18 and over” venue, being launched only a few months ago. A spate of bad publicity over questionable marketing slogans was climaxed by a public rebuke by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.

Few of the local DJ’s we interviewed had much experience with it. Recess looks to be booking national acts, possibly augmented by a set of local DJs who do not circulate much beyond Recess’s confines.

Its proximity close to campus and the fraternities and sororities on Third Street naturally make it a big favorite of the college crowd.

Electronic / EDM Bloomington Venue Roundtable

The Ryder asked many of club owners and managers about town a number of questions about the growing scene for Electronic and Dance Music in Bloomington. Panelists in this discussion are Nicci B at The Back Door, Dave Kubiak of the Bluebird, David James of The Blockhouse, Joe Estivill of Players Pub, and Danny McKinley of The Root Cellar.

The Ryder: How often do you offer entertainment that can be considered electronic or Electronic Dance Music?

Nicci B:  MADDOG and Pixie are our resident Friday and Saturday night DJs and both invaluable to our business and the culture we’ve created at The Back Door.

Joe Estivill: Weekly, Fridays at 11:30 PM.

Danny McKinley: Three to six times a month, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on who is looking for gigs and how recently others have played.

David James: We do a wide variety of music – rock and roll, jazz, Hip Hop – and we do EDM at least once a month.

Dave Kubiak: For the current semester, about three times a month, counting both local and national acts. We often book TR0LL and Shy Guy Says and local acts after national acts for Thursday night shows. Our national and local acts support each other both ways – it’s give and take.

The Ryder: How do you feel this entertainment is received by your customers? Are they enthusiastic, do they dance a lot? How is your attendance? What can you say about your customers interaction with these types of acts?

Nicci B: I can tell you that, regardless of the genre, dance music is and has always been at the center of queer culture and specifically queer night life — we dance to celebrate, we dance to mourn, we dance to protest, we dance to rage, we dance to escape.

Joe Estivill: This is a new audience for us.  They do dance a lot.

Danny McKinley: There are a lot of positive reaction from the public and customers for this style of music. Most who come for EDM nights are very enthusiastic and spend as much time dancing as their bodies will let them. Generally our attendance is outstanding, even on nights that would normally be slower or even nights when there is a lot of competition from other clubs doing similar events.

David James: Attendance is performer dependent.

Dave Kubiak: Promotion is critical to attendance. The underlying principle as to what the Bluebird is morphs over time. Some things are the same but the music genres change. I want the Bluebird to be the place that everyone wants to experience. Interaction with the audience is great with our EDM acts. We would still like to take it up another level, but there can be a lot of production involved, since some national acts literally fly in with only a suitcase for their setup, and we have to arrange the rest, like the light show.

The Ryder:  Do you feel there are differences between electronic / EDM acts and your other live acts (rock bands, shows, skits, etc.) – how does EDM fit into your overall offerings?

Joe Estivill: It’s a bit different than most of our acts as they are solo artists, most of our acts are bands.  It’s a great complement to our other offerings as we like to mix it up.

Danny McKinley: There is a huge difference in the styles of EDM even within the genre. I couldn’t really say, other than some of the crowd types, most people who come to our club and stay are generally in a good mood and are enthusiastic about the entertainment they are seeing/hearing. I couldn’t really respond to the question if you are trying to get at whether or not one type of night is better than the other or if crowds are more positive or negative. As an overall offering, we try to offer a good safe time with quality entertainment/ music and our EDM artists fit right with this category quite well.

David James: Oh, yeah! We welcome good people and good music. And the EDM community is a welcome one.

Dave Kubiak: EDM can be polarizing, kind of like country music. Either you really like it or you don’t at all.

The Ryder: Do EDM DJ’s offer you a cost advantage in what you pay your acts?

Joe Estivill:  No, everyone works for the door.

Danny McKinley: We offer all performers more or less the same rates. I guess the only ‘bargain’ that maybe we get is that most of the current EDM DJs like to perform in small groups. When this happens we do see pull of different crowds where some of our performers are solo and not only have to push through with a longer endurance, but also have to try to pull from all crowds by their lonesome. (one hour or five hours, the performances these people do, have to be exhausting)

David James: No, EDM does not offer a cost advantage to us.

Dave Kubiak: The biggest difference is that EDM or live electronic acts are usually only one or two performers. But what has changed is this – it used to be that rock acts, of several performers, traveled a circuit of about three hundred miles radius. And they play four or five nights in a row. For EDM, the national acts travel nationally, and may fly in from two thousand miles or more, and only for one night. So the expenses can be greater.

The Ryder: What do you see as the near and/or long-term future for electronic / EDM for your club?

Joe Estivill: Continue to grow our weekly gig.

Danny McKinley: I see it being a regular in our rotation of entertainment. As the scene grows more and more great DJs keep popping up. I’m really quite impressed at the number of really excellent DJs that have come out of seemingly nowhere. (Eighteen months ago, I was having a trouble filling my calendar and now I have trouble making room for everybody)

David James: EDM and Electronic will be around for years to come! It is relatively new compared to other types of music.

Dave Kubiak: We’re on the music bus, let’s see where it takes us. Certainly through the spring semester.

The Ryder: Any specific Electronic / EDM artists that  you have hosted that you would like to specifically mention?

Joe Estivill:  I enjoy the different styles of the DJ’s.  No favorites quite yet.

Danny McKinley: DJ Angst and E-Trash, MADDOG, TR0LL, Derz, Lemondoza, Longuy, Danger Latte, Kyle Spears, Sweater Disco, Lowe, Plastic Sounds, Deep Sense, FIIT, and I am sure I’m forgetting many more, but these are some of the very excellent and very different styled EDM DJs and producers that we have hosted/ particularly enjoyed.

Dave Kubiak: We’re getting the networking of people in place. Attendance is a consequence of more than contact via social media. The best is when a friend tells another friend.

The Ryder: Any general comments you’d like to make that you would find quotable?

Nicci B: I think anytime you get a critical mass of queers together in one space a dance party becomes less of a possibility and more of an inevitability–it’s just what we do.

Joe Estivill: Come dance!

Danny McKinley: DJ Angst said it best, “When it comes to EDM/electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.”  Though you may quote me, please make sure DJ Angst gets credit for the “ALL. NIGHT. LONG.” tag. It’s his tag for his parties, it’s just a very true statement and positive statement for the genre.

Dave Kubiak: I’m happy The Ryder is writing this piece. And I’m happy that TR0LL (Troy Michael) and Shy Guy Says have been so instrumental to the success of this kind of music. Troy has been working very, very hard to uplift the DJ and EDM scene all over town.


A Too Brief History of Electronic and Dance Music

There’s no way a magazine article can do full justice to exploring the roots of electronic music and its dance music variation, but justice be damned, there can be no significant understanding without at least touching on the history.

The modern incarnation of the electronic synthesizer can be largely attributed to inventors and engineers Robert Moog and Donald Buchla, who designed and produced their units beginning in the mid-1960’s. As with any new technology, these early units were quite expensive, and so their use was restricted to only film producers and big name rock acts who could carry the cash to buy them.

It would not be until the 1980’s that we began to see the popularization and democratization of electronic music. This trend was made by the confluence of four tendencies, two technological, one sociocultural, and one that can only be thought of as a completely fortuitous accident.

The first technological breakthrough was the advent of the microprocessor. It is no coincidence that the affordability of electronic synthesizers occurred at the same time as the introduction of the personal computer. IBM’s first floppy-based PC and PC/XT with a hard disk, released in 1981-1982 were powered by an Intel 8088 processor. The 8088, running at 4.77 mHz, soon found competition from a Z80 manufactured by Zilog, which ran at a “blazingly” fast 7.16 mHz.

Those of you with a fine-tuned sense of irony will chuckle at the fact that Zilog  during 1980 – 1989 was a short-lived subsidiary of Exxon, which implies that Big Oil had a substantive role in the creation and promulgation of this type of music.

Just as the microprocessor was to make computing available to the masses, so would it do so for making electronic synthesizer music available to musicians, driving down the prices tremendously. In short order, synthesizers and drum machines using the Z80 as their engine hit the market, classic and very influential hardware like Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 5 and Prophet 10 polyphonic synths and Drumtrax drum machine, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Oberheim OB-8 polyphonic, the Memory Moog, Roland MC4 Microcomposer / Sequencer,  the Moog Source, the Akai 2700, and others.

The second groundbreaking technological advance was the creation of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard in 1983. Prior to it, synthesizers and keyboards could inter-operate only by an analog electrical standard called CV / Gate (for Control Voltage), and there were two competing incompatible implementations, one followed by Sequential Circuits, Moog, and Roland, and another by and Korg and Yamaha. Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi collaborated and released the standard into the public domain, the invention of which would have possibly made them billionaires today if they had tried to patent it themselves. The MIDI interface allows practitioners to interconnect all kinds of electronic equipment, synths, drum machines, samplers, effects units, drum machines, even light shows – the list goes on and on.

The third significant influence is sociocultural. As a backlash to the indulgent excesses of the progressive rock era, with its overly produced sounds, punk rock made its debut in the late 1970’s, followed by its cousin New Wave. This created some breathing room for electronic experimentation that had not existed before. Building upon the disco sound, today’s dance music can also be heard in its synth-pop forerunners of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Dan Sicko documents this in his treatise “Techno Rebels – The Renegades of Electronic Funk”:

“One could hear New Wave’s offbeat and eclectic ingredients working themselves out in Detroit’s early electronic records, where groups like Human League, the B52’s, and Visage were reconciled with Eurodisco, the midwestern funk of George Clinton, Zapp, the Ohio Players, and subconsciously, the Soul of Motown.”

The last influence to mention is nothing more and nothing less than a historical and serendipitous accident of immense proportions.

In the early 1980’s, the Roland Corporation released two compact electronic music boxes: the TB-303 Bassline synthesizer, and its companion TR-606 Drumatix drum machine, which could be synchronized together by a 5-pin cable which was the forerunner of the MIDI cable. These were explicitly but ineffectively marketed to rock guitarists, to provide a rhythm section for them to practice with alone.

It was not long before this was recognized as a complete commercial failure. The drums of the TR-606, well, being analog electronics, just didn’t sound like real drums. And neither did the mechanical sounding electronic bass of the TB-303 sound like a real electric bass guitar. Scores of TR-606’s and TB-303’s hit the pawn shops. This was to have wholly unintended and unforeseen consequences.

From a 2002 article in Wired magazine:

“Earl “Spanky” Smith picked up a 303 in a Chicago secondhand music store and took it back to his place, where his musical partner, Nathaniel Jones, tinkered with the box. Jones, who was beginning to DJ under the name Pierre, played with a row of knobs – Resonance, Decay, and Cut Off Freq – for adjusting the bassline; the controls were meant to be set, then left alone during recording or rehearsal. But Pierre programmed a bassline, hit the Run button, then cranked each of the knobs to its upper limit as the bassline was playing back. The 303 reacted with a piercing, almost obscene screech.

“Spanky was saying, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it!'” Pierre remembers. “It wasn’t meant to squeak and squeal and all that kinda stuff. We just knew it sounded weird and energetic and funky. We thought, ‘Wow, this thing is really a jolt of lightning!’ So we taped it and took the tape to [legendary DJ] Ron Hardy’s place, the Music Box. We played it, and by the third time people were going crazy.”

Though they didn’t know it at the time, by adding the warped, druggy 303 sound to then-standard club beats, Pierre and Spanky had invented a new genre of dance music: acid house.

In no time at all, electronic and dance music trailblazers in Chicago and Detroit were picking up these boxes at the pawn shops for pennies on the dollar, as they began the popularization of this wholly new type of music. They found a music fanbase who reveled in the sheer artificiality of those sounds! Today, those same boxes sell on ebay for as much as ten times their original 1982 dollars.

Roland ceased production of the TB-303 many years ago. But its recognizable squeaky squawky sound lives on in many, many hardware emulations and sampled sounds. In fact, Roland recently introduced machines which use digital emulation of the TB-303’s analog sounds, the TB-3 Bassline and a lookalike clone, the TB-03 Bassline. Other firms such as Cyclone Analogic, Abstrakt Instruments, Analogue Solutions, and x0xb0x manufacture clones, and how well they replicate the sound of the original Roland TB-303 is a subject of endless debate in facebook synthesizer group forums.

As far as drum machines go, Roland at about the same time extended upon the TR-606 by releasing the TR-808 which was a big improvement with its multiple audio outputs for the different drums, and the TR-909, which was the first drum machine to implement MIDI.

These four machines were pivotal to the evolution of disco into the multiple electronic genres of dance music. And their sounds carry on through today. In fact, there are those music critics who contend that the manufacturer and model of music hardware used is essentially indicative of the genre of electronic music being produced.

The Early Bloomington Experimental and Electronic Scene

Bloomington has a heritage of experimental music going back nearly forever.  In the mid-1970’s an avant-garde band called MX-80 used no synthesizers, but did use their dual live drummers and electric guitars in such an unusual and eclectic way that they (nearly) defied description during that heavy-duty rock era. Self-proclaimed fans of musical anarchist Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, they were alternately characterized as art dada, proto punk, or perhaps most accurately of all, acid punk. Their music was so out of the mainstream rock at the time that no music club in town would book them, and they faced the ignominy of performing multiple times only at the auditorium of the Monroe County Public Library.

Thus locally unappreciated if not downright scorned for their ahead-of-their-time sound (their dual drummers presaged the multiple drum machines now prevalent in dance music), they headed out to greener pastures in San Francisco, where they hooked up with kindred spirits Tuxedomoon and The Residents, both of whom are still actively making music today. Continuing to use traditional rock instruments, but adding a healthy mix of electronic effects and synths, they pushed the envelope of experimental synth-punk.

The Residents, in particular, explicitly stage in-your-face anonymity into their act, as their live appearances and album covers always feature them wearing giant eyeball heads, a performance meme that is also used to great effect by the French dance band Daft Punk, who hide behind Schwarzenegger de-fleshed Terminator style robotic costumes, and even Bloomington’s own Shy Guy Says, who uses a giant round-eyed emoji as his visual persona.

But the most significant roots of the Bloomington electronic scene are traceable back to local electronic enthusiast Mark Kunoff, who started a Bloomington Electronic website in 2010 which was active through early 2015, when it was overtaken by its companion Bloomington Electronic facebook page.  Bloomington Electronic was a virtual meeting space for the community’s electronic musicians to congregate, collaborate, and publicize their (rather limited) number of shows. During these early years, unlike today, live acts predominated over DJ acts, although DJs were also welcome. Interviews with local performers were prominently and regularly featured.

Under the brand Speed of Sound, Bloomington Electronic sponsored quite a number of shows at the Bluebird, Back Door, the Root Cellar, and the now defunct Rachel’s Café, featuring acts at the time like Shy Guy Says, DJ Flourish, Beauklu, Dioxin One, DJ Gigante, Ersatz Modem, the Audiodics, and many others.

The music was Drum ‘n’ Bass (DnB), Dubstep, Experimental, Ambient / Drone, House, and various amalgamations that defied any single genre.

This early trailblazing, mostly by live acts, slowly but steadily gave way to the “Electronic DJ”, most of whom emphasized more “danceable” beats as opposed to “experimental eclecticism.”

They were able to build upon the continuity of dance music in the LGBTQ scene.  A bar called Bullwinkle’s (so-called because it was ensconced in the former Moose Lodge building) held a consistent program of DJ’s playing dance music throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and beyond. Bullwinkle’s was located beneath the alt-rock, New Wave, punk club Second Story, but both closed in 2006.

More than one local DJ and live performer challenged this writer’s initial contention that beyond this historical niche the DJ scene had no significant presence in Bloomington 18 months ago, but in fact had been percolating for quite a while.

DJ Angst, who has a strong preference of House music, explained “There has been a lively dance music scene for the past five years. When we started back in 2011 it was definitely a little quieter with less events, so our Riot Bootique event was pretty unique, but we always drew a great crowd and had some really big parties. What has definitely changed is the number of DJs and the number of events.”

DJ Troll confirmed that the scene has really taken off the last couple of years: “I started DJing about 18 months ago. I think that inspired new up and coming DJs to go for it and start planning shows. It honestly could have been one of those, “If he can do it so can I,” situations. I have noticed the amount of local DJs at least tripled since I started.”

MADDOG agreed: “The electronic scene in Bloomington has always been here. That’s the beauty of this town. There is music here for everyone of every genre. You just need to look for it. A lot of my inspiration for doing what I do came from watching friends perform at house parties and what used to be The Jungle Room in the early-mid 2000’s. Guys like Action Jackson, Sleepy T, Phnm, Flufftronix, Figure, and Wally Wonder who have all gone on to make names for themselves outside of Bloomington. I spent my late teens-early 20s watching these dudes and just being in awe of them. It wasn’t until I got a little older and more confident in myself as a woman that I realized this is something I can do too.”

Bad Psychic recalled: “I remember going to my first “rave” at the Hotspot (where Btown Diner now resides) in ‘97 or 98’. The scene here in the US was really taking off then. That place was always busy and would draw kids from all over the Midwest sometimes to see a specific DJ. Of course the scene is not the same as it were back then, but I’m happy to see it’s slowly come back in the past decade or so.
“Well when I started Bad Psychic 4 years ago, I was playing shows with Ray Creature all the time because they were the only other band in town doing something similar to what I was doing. I’ll never forget when Natascha Buehnerkemper Jacob (drummer, vocals for Ray Creature) pulled me aside as I was working at The Runcible Spoon and introduced herself to me. “Hey! Are you Bad Psychic? I’m in the band Ray Creature and I live in a house called Butt Temple. Do you wanna play a show with us there some time?” It was the kind of classic Bloomington interaction I live for. There was also Dust From A Thousand Years, they’ve been playing in Bloomington a long time. Also Hunter Child and Drekka. And then there were the noise dudes of the Artifex Guild/Auris Apothecary realm (Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Lather, Noon, John Flannely, etc) who messed around with electronics. That was over 4 years ago. But I would agree that lately electronic music has been taking off more in Bloomington, which is exciting to see.

“Also around that time, Amy Luxenburger was doing this incredible project called Amy & The Dancebox. She recorded her songs with Jon Booth of Ray Creature in 2014. Her album, Good Report Card, is perfect and so touching. She wrote the whole album on a Casio keyboard with her friend Catherine Jewett singing harmonies. She passed away not long after the songs were recorded and we’re all so lucky to have her songs preserved, to have this memory of her.”

Another DJ, Sweater Disco, also challenged the contention that the recent spate of electronic dance events is a new phenomenon: “That’s absolutely false, dance music has had a place in the underground Bloomington scene for quite some time. A friend of mine, who’s also an audio engineer/live-sound engineer in town, has been around for several years (more than 4) and has told us stories about large warehouse parties, and dance music events that have evolved and been thrown for years.

“A promoter/friend in Indianapolis has also commented on Bloomington’s history of dance music, referencing loft parties and warehouse parties, similar to what I’ve heard from other older dance music fans. I remember hearing about shows at Dunnkirk and the Bluebird (2012-2014ish?) with huge national acts like Zeds Dead, Kill the Noise, DJ Craze, RL Grime, Baauer, and Boyz Noise. The Bluebird even had Bassnectar headline there in 2010, and Deadmau5, Feed Me, and Le Castle Vania did an impromptu show there in 2011 after a rained-out show in Bloomington.”

“I would say that dance music “took off” (became more visible in this generation of students’ college culture) about one to two years ago, mostly due to frats picking up on EDM, and more college kids coming to school with some DJ experience already.”

Another DJ, Danger Latte, confirmed the increase in popularity lately: “Yea! It’s pretty crazy, it’s like we all came from nowhere all around the same time. My journey started while living in Chicago, when I discovered house music by going to street festivals and warehouse parties. After moving back to Bloomington the obsession with the music grew to the point where I felt like I had no other choice than to start DJing in the fall of 2015. Later that year I discovered Techno, which grew into an even bigger obsession, especially when I realized that it was a seldom played genre at most venues in Bloomington.”
A live act going by the stage name of FIIT still sees the local electronic scene in its early stage: “Locally to Bloomington,  EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is still very fresh. When I first started performing live (summer 2015), I was not aware of any other pure electronic dance oriented acts. A lot of my first FIIT shows were in basements of houses often booked with rock acts that may have included electronic elements into their music with a synthesizer or a drum machine, or booked with experimental live PA (aka Personal Appearance) acts. The setting of these venues was fine, but they did not stimulate a dance atmosphere. Since Acid/Techno is a dance music, I was on the search for a better space and acts with similar intentions. This is about the time I met up with a group of local DJ’s (Body Mechanics) that were playing Acid/Techno music in their sets and at a particular club (Root Cellar). They put me on a few of their shows as a live act and it worked out perfectly.”

The Electronic Scene in Bloomington Now

There was a time when FM radio was the primary conduit to introduce new music to a community, but local radio stations no longer satisfy that function, though there are a couple notable exceptions.

Community radio WFHB has a Dance Music program called Beat Party, every Saturday night from 10 pm to midnite. Featuring four or five DJ’s that rotate on a regular basis, like Goodhands, Deejayspikes, Slique Monique, Dancin’ Don, Zeitgeist, MADDOG, and Mark. WFHB’s Program Schedule, available on their website, has a place to click on the DJ’s name and see their playlists for all of their recent broadcasts, a very good resource if you’re trying to associating musician names with music.

MADDOG explains: “Beat Party is pretty unique – there’s no rules really. You’re not restricted to EDM, House, or Hip Hop. I know I personally like playing late 80s – early 90s House and Club with some late 90s – early 2000s Trance. But if I can squeeze in some World music or Afro/Latin/Brazilian beats then I do.

“I know some DJs on the show are more Urban or Hip Hop based while others are more dance or club oriented. I don’t think it really matters as long as it makes you move. That’s kind of the great thing about WFHB and Local Radio in general – you can tune in whenever and always get something different. It’s not like tuning into a Top 40 station where you kind of always know what you’re going to get.

“EDM and dance music have become much more mainstream in the past few years. So I would think there is some cross-over in ‘sound’ you know what I mean? With mainstream radio and my sets on and off WFHB.

“Also as a DJ you get a lot of ‘requests.’ It’s not something that I condone but people kind of think that’s a thing you do – go up to the DJ and ask them to play your song. You hear that line in music all the time ‘Hey so and so DJ play my favorite song!’ so I think people kind of think that’s a thing. But what I’m getting at – is because of that – at the club I’ll sometimes play something that is a little more well known that you may hear on popular radio or MTV (if people still watch that ha!) People kind of freak out if they don’t hear Beyonce. So for instance if I’m at The Back Door or another “dance club” I may throw in a top 40 remix here and there to keep people engaged.

Indiana University radio WIUX (99.1 FM) likewise is another place on the radio dial. Though there is a fair amount of IU sports “talk radio” and a concentration of college radio “indie rock,” you’re far more likely to encounter electronic or dance music here than elsewhere. The signal is not powerful, so its range is limited, but it reaches through most of Bloomington proper.

WIUX Event DJ Director Ethan Brown has a program called Inbound, Tuesdays 8 pm – 10 pm, which features predominantly house and dance music. Also, WIUX sends representatives to some national electronic music festivals, with website coverage via reporter’s narratives and some musical excerpts. Recently Moogfest 2017, Durham NC, and Movement 2017 – Detroit Electronic Music Festival have both been covered in considerable depth, with lots of reviews.

Aside from these local exceptions, those looking for dance music airplay turn to alternatives like Spotify, or music Soundcloud or Youtube url’s passed around on facebook. Those who have Sirius XM satellite radio receivers, increasingly popular options on autos, can find four channels of interest. They are BPM (Channel 51), Electric Area (Channel 52), Chill (Channel 53), and Studio 54 (Channel 54.) An Internet streaming option is also available with Sirius XM.

Which brings us to how in Bloomington the dance music scene is primarily a club scene, rather than a radio scene. One can find these events even in home basement venues, via the Bloomington House Show Network facebook page. These are mostly too numerous and erratic to discuss in depth.

That leaves us with the club scene to cover. The first installment in this series, published last month, did this from the point of view of the club owners, managers, and booking agents.

But now let’s put the audience first, front and center.

Not to take the obvious for granted, they were asked by The Ryder at a number of recent events: “Uh, just why are you here?” Here are a sample of their responses, nearly all of the attendees in their early to mid-twenties.

John: “I like the energy. It’s a diverse crowd. Anybody can dance with anybody. I go out at least every couple weeks.”

Matt, wearing a Chicago Cubs sweatshirt: “I like the looseness – the absence of rules. Everything feels free. I don’t like music out of a jukebox – I want to see a performance!”

Kendra: “There’s complete freedom of expression. You can be anybody you want to. Nobody asks questions, because nobody cares what you do with the rest of your time. Music drowns out a complicated world – and we can all connect. The main point is – it’s all good! There’s a beat we can all get on with – all of us together! To have a good time! I try to go every week.”

Mariah: “I like going to the festivals too, and not only electronic ones, but also like the Rothbury Music Festival.”

Emily: “It’s not just couples dancing. It’s everybody going with the flow. It’s PLUR – Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. And acceptance. Everybody is so nice – nobody is mean. Why, even uptight people can be comfortable with this dance music! Why, just look at them go – you just can’t make a fool of yourself!”

They mentioned attending with friends, but also meeting lots of new people too. They also contrasted the scene with what they saw as negative aspects of some of the “collegiate” hang-outs: “Some places, all the guys want to know is what sorority you’re in – that’s just too much like a clique! Nobody asks you that here! And people are nicer besides.”

Now to move on to interviewing one couple – as a couple. See if their answers were any different. Not really. Their names were Max and Ally. Max was wearing a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt.

Max and Ally: “We go out once or twice a week, usually on weekends. Sure, our circle of friends like this music too and we often find out about events from them, but going to these events is how you make friends too. We usually learn of happenings via facebook. We sometimes go because we like the club but also sometimes because we like the DJ who is playing.”

Now at first glance there’s not much different here than what was present at the Summer of Love 1967 in San Francisco, or Woodstock, or Monterey Pop – but peel one layer away from the onion and there is one very, very important difference: The drum machine does not get tired. It does not stop. It keeps perfect time. And it does not miss a single beat.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this and its consequences.

Danny McKinley of the Root Cellar touched on this when he said, echo’ing one of his mainstay DJ’s: “DJ Angst said it best, ‘When it comes to EDM / electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.’”

That’s right. The performances feature non-stop, seamless transitions from music segment to segment, the whole night long. There’s no lead vocalist announcing, “OK, we’re gonna take a fifteen minute break and then be back to play another set.”  There’s no interruption when one band leaves the stage and the next one comes on. There’s no occasional slow, sappy ballad to give the musicians a bit of rest before they return to their frenetic rockin’ pace. There’s no narrative interlude with the obligatory and now overused, “Hey, Bloomington, we love ya and let me introduce the band!”

Once the DJ, or the live act, presses the Play button on the first of dual DJ decks, or the sequencer, there’s no stopping until the night is over and last call for drinks has been announced. Dual decks, whereby the DJ cues up the next tune, matches the beat together with the one already playing, sees to that. One after another after another. And the dual decks allow one DJ to leave and another to come on smoothly.

Paradoxically, the freedom of expression, the feeling of equality, the connectedness of it all, which those interviewed all articulated, is actually a recognition of their submission to The Beat.

When you’ve got the groove on, nothing else much matters. And The Dance is as much a ritualistic subservience as it is an expression of self identity or group solidarity. Sure, you can wear a lizard costume as a couple of dancers did at the Video Saloon, or dress up like a peapod as did one dancing fool enthusiast at Player’s Pub, but you’re still a slave to the master clock resident in the electronic hardware.

Give yourself over to the music, and the music will set you free.



Beauty from Smoke: Nell Devitt

by Paul Sturm

I was jolted into exuberance the first time I saw Nell Devitt’s artwork…that ‘shock-of-the-new’ rush from realizing I’ll forever see the world with new eyes.  There was no going back; no “unseeing” or forgetting her bold wall sculptures made of smoke fired clay tiles.  (clay! of all things…)

Thirty-five years later, Devitt remains an all-time personal favorite visual artist, with a refreshingly distinct voice – her extraordinary ability to blend the clean-line beauty of minimal geometric forms with a murky, smoke-infused palate and rich surface textures born from aleatory…it’s like luscious dark chocolate for your mind and soul.

I count myself lucky that I’m an occasional visitor to her studio in Greene County.  Through the years, I’ve been able to track her progress and revel in her new work.  For most art-loving Hoosiers, though, Nell Devitt’s work is less accessible for viewing because she has rarely shown in Bloomington or Indianapolis.

Devitt’s creative prowess and assured technique have allowed her to create ceramic art tile works that have attracted buyers and commissions in major urban markets on both East and West coasts, and in Chicago.  She sells the inventory she might otherwise exhibit and then turns her attention to generating new series of art tiles.  Devitt has led, and continues to lead, the life of a successful working artist.  And that – at least for some readers – may be considered an even greater feat than her bold innovations in using ceramics as a collectible art medium.

So with full-on excitement, I herald the coming of “Nell Devitt Ceramic Retrospect 1980-2017” – a not-to-miss exhibition featuring a 37-year retrospective look at the work of this local gem.  The show runs at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center’s Miller Gallery from Oct. 28 thru Nov. 18.

Devitt began her career in the 1970s with a functional clay background (making pots, cups, plates, bowls), but most of her work for the last 30+ years has been decorative art tiles – both smoke fired and occasionally wood fired.

I recently made the pilgrimage out to Bloomfield to chat with Devitt in her studio.  I asked her how and when she made the leap from table to wall; from functional to nonfunctional clay art.  For her, the shift was organic.

“I can’t recall having an ‘a-ha’ moment.  I make connections through growth, learning and change, but the process was gradual.  It’s important to remember that craft itself is a very organic art form.  The craft tradition is that you learn by doing things through repetition.  You learn how clay responds by making series of multiples, like a series cups.  That gradual transformation is an important aspect of craft, and an important part of my process.  So it wasn’t one moment; it was a gradual, organic process.

“I started with pots and vessels, bowls and cups, canisters, bird feeders…  Like other clay artists, I started by throwing functional work, the type of work you do in larger production scales.  But I never did as much pure production work as most clay artists.  I was more interested in doing limited series that I could use to explore a theme or design, but then allow my work to transform and change as I had new insights and ideas.  When I switched to smoke fired clay, I began creating decorative wall tiles as a complement to the vessels – and they were useful in designing a visually compelling booth at craft fairs – and gradually my focus shifted to the wall tiles.

“In 1979 I started doing regional craft shows with my smoke fired work, and I was fortunate to begin showing at American Craft Council (ACC) exhibitions in 1985.  At that first ACC show, my pieces caught the attention of Carol Sedestrom Ross (founder/CEO of American Craft Enterprises and senior vice president of American Craft Council).  Carol was the first person to encourage me to develop the design side of my work.  She believed that I could be a designer as well as a producer; that most clay artists are makers, which is good; but she thought I was strong in both design and execution, which made my pieces distinct and original.  For clay, my pieces were less utilitarian and focused more on creating a strong image.  I got encouragement like that from several people, which gave me the confidence to keep trying new things.”

Whether her source inspiration is a zipper or a leaf or a letter or a geometric shape, Devitt’s tiles explore abstraction with a minimalist aesthetic that incorporates the indeterminacy of smoke firing.  Her practice is rooted in Japanese raku, and Devitt apprenticed for a year in Kasama, Japan with potter Ono Yoshi, before coming to Bloomfield in 1978 to set up her studio.

“During my year in Japan [1977], I saw firsthand how artists would create with a specific intent to celebrate the error or the irregularity or the one little flaw that makes a whole image come alive.  That aesthetic infuses my work and my creative language.  I’m interested in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete found in nature and the world.  I try to create tiles and installations that embody asymmetry and simplicity; that use the rough, uneven surface of smoke firing.


“And I’ve always liked repeating tile patterns that have small, irregular interruptions; like old tile floors with small, scattered imperfections.  I like creating that look in the context of minimalism and abstraction.  What I like about minimalism is the repetition and the space, and one of the values in abstraction is that it can be open to any interpretation.”

And Devitt is committed to smoke firing, a technique she has been mastering and refining since 1979.

“I like to use straw in my smoke firing, although some artists use sawdust, newspaper, or other flammable materials.  What I love is the warm, dark, dim look of clay that is smoke fired: the straw marks, the irregularities, the random results.  I also have a primary color palate – red, yellow, blue, and green stains – that, when you smoke fire them, their color is more subtle but still visible.”

Devitt’s dark tonal palate contributes to the dramatic impact of her work.  Within Devitt’s fields of multiple tiles, there’s tremendous subtlety in the surface and color and shine of each tile, lending textural depth to her large minimal designs.  This combination of simple form, elegant design, and engaging texture has made Devitt’s work a favorite of interior designers, architects and galleries.

I like to use straw in my smoke firing, although some artists use sawdust, newspaper, or other flammable materials.  What I love is the warm, dark, dim look of clay that is smoke fired: the straw marks, the irregularities, the random results.  –Nell Devitt

In fact, the marketplace is ever-present in Devitt’s creative plans and art-life gestalt, but commerce plays a very symbiotic role with her growth and development as a visual art innovator.  Rather than dampening or ‘chilling’ Devitt’s artistic vision, the customers she has attracted and the revenue she generates from her work actually serve to coax, validate and ‘underwrite’ new periods of exploration.

“When I first started participating in ACC shows, there were a few adventurous buyers who really liked my early tiles.  I remember an exhibition in West Springfield, MA when an architectural group from downtown Boston got so excited.  They laid their blueprints down on the floor to figure out how many tiles they would need for an installation in a Boston bank, and they bought my entire display of 40 tiles.

“When I get enough orders to work on a line of tiles, I can work on a visual series that allows me to explore the theme, the design.  And it’s through repetition that I develop insights and a personal style; the progression from one series of tiles to the next series grows out of what I’m able to learn from exploring the design through the repeat production of a design series.  So the steady commissions and income from wholesale buyers, architectural designers, and collectors has allowed me to explore and deepen my craft.”

To keep her ideas fresh, Devitt has played with text as a stylistically disruptive departure from abstract shapes and forms.  And across many years and tile series, her foray into text-art clay has – not surprisingly – led her back to abstraction.

“My first text piece was ‘My List’ and it was just that: a list of all the things that I thought defined me.  For my initial text tiles, I would cut clay letters from stencils or templates, and add them to tiles.  It was very time consuming.  Every day I would be able to get only one or two full words created.  I did a number of text tiles like this, but the process was always very time- and labor-intensive.  I eventually stopped making them, although my text tile pieces were very popular at a show I did at the Smithsonian.

“On my next series of text pieces, I used a cover-tile that would hang over a back-tile that had text on it.  You had to lift up the cover tile to see the text etched onto the back tile; otherwise, the message simply exists under the surface of the image you see on the wall; kind of a conceptual aspect.

“All of those early text pieces were more like typesetting in clay.  Now I’m interested in the letters themselves, but letters in abstract form – using one complete but cropped letter for each tile.  I take a single corner or section of a letter and zoom in on it, keeping what’s most interesting or most important in that image.  Pieces in this style include ‘direct experience’ (2006), ‘unafraid’ (2009), ‘objective’ (2010), and ‘fearless’ (2017), which was fired in September.”

And very recently, Devitt has begun again to etch messages into the exterior walls of freeform pinch pots.  This new series of pinch pots, which returns to a very simple functional form, and a very simple method of creation, is a further extension of Devitt’s lifelong affinity with minimalism and the reductionist aesthetic at the heart of her creative method.

“It’s a subtractive process.  I throw out everything that isn’t part of the pure design in its simplest form.  I’m not making a representational piece.  I’m trying to create tiles that use the simplest elements to achieve something beautiful or memorable or provocative.  For me, it’s the emotion and joy that comes from seeing something elegant created from simple abstract shapes.  My goal is to make art in a way that I can eliminate non-essentials, not only in the design of the piece but also in the way that it gets fired and in the subtle smoky palate I use.

“And I try to live my life through a subtractive process as well, clearing away everything that isn’t necessary to being an artist working and living in Greene County, Indiana.  It’s what I’ve done all my life, because it’s a core value.  Whether I was making functional pieces to sell in local craft fairs, or making big, dramatic sculptural tile installations for art buyers, I’ve always wanted to keep my production right-sized to that level where I can pay for my process of discovery and then keep innovating.  I can make enough pieces of a series that the repetition teaches me something, but then move on to the new ideas I get from that repetitive process.”

Most professionals also hone their craft through lifelong study of their medium and exposure to peer artists.  Devitt is likewise devoted to seeking out and studying the work of others, and this learning process is only getting better – more information-rich – as technology allows faster, broader sharing of images and ideas.

“Coming from a functional clay tradition, it’s been important for me to study other contemporary ceramicists and the history of clay, but also painting, sculpture, jewelry and other media.  My influences are wide-ranging: from minimalist Sol LeWitt (I love MASS MoCA’s building that houses 4 floors of his wall drawings) to post-minimalist Eva Heese; from conceptualist Barbara Kruger (with her mind-blowing floor-to-ceiling text pieces) to painter Agnes Martin to sculptor Donald Judd.

“All of my early study was done slowly: hours devoted to trips to the library and days hanging out in the art section of a bookstore that allowed me time to digest information and assimilate visual ideas and aesthetics.  Today I’m able to travel virtually to any place in the world at any time of the day using my iPad and cell phone.  With Instagram, Google, and other Internet tools, I can look at artists’ work both old and new, in galleries and in studios, from any location.  It’s a rich time for artists to intermingle their ideas.

“Through it all, my goals have been simple: create art that satisfies me, sell what I make, and make what I need to survive.  I try to eliminate the non-essential in my artwork as well as my life.”


Warming by the Devil’s Fire

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, 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

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).

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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

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

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

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.




“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


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

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.



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.



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.



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

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.




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.

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