Thursday, December 31, 2015

Loose Ends 2015

This year I spent a lot of time thinking and reading slowly. Part of this slowness was due to the demands and interruptions of life.  Part of it is a sort of lessening of energy I am experiencing either due to aging or my increased workload or both.  I find my career more fatiguing than rewarding, regardless of the necessary money it makes me. The health insurance alone saves me several thousand dollars a year.  All that is factored in and I accept it for now. I try, instead, to see my “job” as a meditation in action, or at least an obstacle course to strengthen my resilience.

But working about 50 hours a week (and decompressing from work – I run and do yoga) slows my life in various ways. Since May I have been considering and reconsidering a post about various absurd perspectives on human consciousness. I find the linking of human consciousness with some sort of larger "force" or "agency" in the universe to be about as grounded and worthy of respect as The Force in Star Wars. But, I have to be careful about how I approach this subject. There are many potential roadblocks to clarity, much of them muddied by fringe scientists with a religious and/or spiritual agenda. Even more importantly, most human beings believe that they need this imaginary force or agency to live fulfilling lives - I don't really want to disrespect that specific metaphysical need.

I have also been rereading two books on philosophical aesthetics beginning primarily with Nietzsche and including Heidegger, Adorno, Camus, Foucault among others.  The Re-enchantment of the World and Life as Art each deal with the possibility of Art (and the incorporation of Art into one’s intimate life) as a replacement for religion in human living.  I am very sympathetic to this perspective as it rings so true in my personal experience.  These two books fascinate me and spark all sorts of (as yet) fragmented ideas. So, again, I am moving slowly through the experience of that. 

I spent a lot of time, particularly in the second half of the year, rereading my small collection of chess books and reacquainted myself with that ancient game.  There was a time in my life when Ted, Jeffery, and I played dozens if not hundreds of games of chess.  But that started in my college days and stopped well over a decade ago now. Again, I am doing this slowly, studying about a dozen games by world masters over the course of weeks while playing chess against my iPad a little. I enjoyed these moments of play along with a couple of wargames I concentrated on: Ukraine '43 and The Mighty Endeavor II - both of which I found fun and historically insightful.

So I have not written as much in 2015 and much of what I have written is in the form of notes and random paragraphs. I have toyed with a couple of ideas for fictional writing but have made little headway other than a few spontaneous bursts of creativity which have yielded a few pages of what I would consider acceptable text.  In addition to my thoughts on human consciousness mentioned above, I have several other blog posts in the works but also unfinished.  They need more thought and consideration.  My Nietzsche blog continues to progress slowly as well.

The truth is kind of enjoy it, this journey - or the reveling within the consideration rather than the resolution of questions; in between walks on my land, staring at the sky and stars, regular running, tending to chores, and Flipboarding (see below).

I blogged about various books I read throughout this year. There are some cool books already lined up for 2016, mostly of a historical nature.  But I also am interested in rereading Proust again.  It has been awhile.  But Proust is massive and all-consuming and the slowness of reading his thousands of pages would overwhelm other worthy interests of the moment.  So Proust will wait. 

Meantime, I began a biography of Soviet Marshall K.K. Rokossovsky after Christmas. I am particularly excited to read this history since we have so few biographies of Soviet commanders during the Second World War available in English. This is primarily a residual effect due to the inaccessibility of Soviet records during the Cold War period, when the Soviet history and culture was mostly off limits to the West. But since then a lot of terrific material of the Soviet war effort has become known, such as the work of Colonel David Glantz. Before the current period, only biographies on the great Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov were accessible to me. Nevertheless, in my general reading about the Eastern Front of WW2, I became aware of Rokossovsky’s particular operational prowess as an army commander.  So, I look forward to learning more about this interesting military leader.

Back to the Flipboarding mentioned above.  I am not into social media much.  I don't have a Facebook account or Snapchat or Instagram or anything.  I have never seen much value in the mindless technological intrusion into human intimacy that all that entails. I text with family members but that is about it, except for my blogs, of course.  At any rate, I blogged in last year's Loose Ends post about becoming an avid user and reader of the Flipboard app on my iPad.

In 2015 Flipboard became a larger part of my daily life.  I spend an hour or two every day, mostly in the mornings, reading and sifting through articles for possible inclusion in my Flipboard magazines.  I discovered the rather addictive nature of "likes" and "followers" as my various magazines caught the eye of other Flipboard users. I now have ten separate magazines and more than 1185 followers. Last year at this time I had only a handful of followers and my most popular flipzine, one on art, was not even created yet.

I admit there is an obsessive aspect to my Flipboarding.  It is likely as bad as what everyone is doing with smartphones these days.  I don’t have a smartphone, so Flipboard is my “plug-in” to technology.  But, I would be doing this anyway, more or less.  I am fascinated with the world and with keeping up with all things my magazines represent. They are all topics of fascination for me. I have always studied the news and read about current events more than most people I know.

Only now when I do it, in the back of my mind, there are these invisible “followers” watching me – or at least peeking in on me now and then. Sometimes I think about them when I am selecting a story.  But, I try to minimize that sort of mindset and stick to general journalistic guidelines I have formed in my head and gradually refined from using the app so much.  I churn through over 100 content sources every day.  I skim every story I flip into a magazine.  But I usually fully read only 8-12 stories per day. 

My Loose Ends flipzine had no followers this time last year. Today it has 104.  That is not a large number by any means. There are plenty of flipzines by other flipboarders that have thousands of followers and millions of page flips.  Sex and Intimacy remains my most popular flipzine in terms of total page flips with more than 115,600, all basically over the past year.  Notice: Art has the most followers with 477. I created it back in March. My daily news Notice Magazine has 189 followers and features my own mix of short-term news and special interest stories. Nearly 109,000 pages have been flipped in that one.

So, I enjoy flipboarding, it is a "flow" experience for me. When I flipboard time just seems to fly.  I discipline myself to keep it under two hours a day. That might sound absurd, spending so much time on such an activity. I am entertained, informed, puzzled, made more aware of so many things happening in our world.  These things cannot be dismissed by either going outward into the infinity of space or inward into the infinity of consciousness.  These are, all of them, things in themselves.  They are out there in definable mental or physical (only) space.

I can choose to trivialize them from some spiritual or scientific perspective - they don't really matter because of whatever theory you might wish to apply.  But I think that theory is about as relevant to the origins and workings of things as my flipboarding all this content. Obviously, Flipboard in no way creates events nor does it make them happen.  Yet that utter nonsense is pervasive in the grand dialog about "truth" (biocentrism or the alleged spiritual implications of quantum physics are two examples) and I hope to blog more about this ridiculousness in 2016.

You do not need the Flipboard app to view my magazines. You can do it on your PC, if you like.  It just formats the pages better if you use the app. My Flipboard magazines, for those interested…

Loose Ends
Putin’s Syrian Gambit
Sex and Intimacy
Notice: South China Sea
Notice: Art
Notice: Climate Change
Notice: The Security State
Notice: Space
Notice Magazine
Hot Pix

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reading Anaïs Nin in 2015

When I was in college I read two short erotic novels by Anaïs Nin.  I did not know anything about Nin really other than she was a woman who wrote naughty books.  Delta of Venus and Little Birds struck me at the time as rather poetic but not animalistic enough, though the sensual passion in each work was striking at times, and I truly enjoyed Nin's style. She has a wonderful literary voice.

But Nin was not someone who particularly interested me the way other writers did.  I did not purchase any of her novels (or her infamous diaries) and so I gradually became blind to her in my life.  In 2015 I decided to reacquaint myself with her through the purchase of The Portable Anaïs Nin and Nin's five short, loosely related novels published together under the overarching title Cities of the Interior.

Reading Anaïs Nin gives me insight into articulation of the feminine experience of pleasure, desire, need, fear, chaos, sadness, love and artistic expression.  Nin churns these emotions to form basic drives in her characters, who are most often sensual in nature.  This sets up a multitude of erotic situations throughout Nin's work.  But, generally speaking, these situations are often of different characters all behaving the same as characters in her other stories.  There is a specific feel to Nin's leading woman and man, and often another woman included.

Nin writes intense, erotically charged prose and yet she is not harsh and graphic with her writing style, or her narratives. In this respect there may be readers of hardcore erotica who feel Nin is too quaint and poetic to be considered truly hot sex writing as exists commonly today.  D. H. Lawrence, of whom the young Nin was an early biographer, was more graphic with Lady Chatterley's Lover than Nin is in anything I have read by her in 2015.

Cities of the Interior is five stories which switch and swap the same characters in unconnected variations of sexual experience.  The most common one, as mentioned above, is a woman with a husband (or dominant lover) who is unfulfilled (same premise as Lady Chatterley) and finds greater passion with another woman, or less often another man.  Characters shift from sexual interaction to sexual interaction with the perspective that it is more special to love and desire many people rather than one special person because each person is special and none diminishes special incarnation of any other, you merely experience a more complex specialty. But, for Nin, there is ironically always one most special person in here narratives.  And that is where much of her erotic power comes from in her writing.

Her characters in the five novels inhabit an artistic world. Nin's characters are dancers and writers and painters, actors both employed and unemployed. Cafes and hotels and clubs and the night life of the city street is the standard environment the characters interact within.  There is only a little of the natural world here, and even then it emphasizes the sensual experience of nature. There are no attorneys or accountants or insurance salesmen or scientists (other than physicians) or people of the military, academia, or customer service assistants.  This world is a different world from the consumerist materialism most of us inhabit.  Our pop world was not how Nin related to anything.

Classical music is featured throughout Cities of the Interior. Nin has a particular affinity for Cesar Franck's Symphony in D minor as well as various works by Claude Debussy, among others.  The Debussy passages are particularly interesting to me because the selections of background music for her characters to act out their various passions are usually very (musically) sensual in and of themselves.  It is obvious that all forms of art, and especially impressionistic classical music were an influence on Nin's intimate life and experiences.

Jay and Lillian are only two of the several major interchangeable characters Nin creates.  In one short novel they are involved in different relationships with other major characters.  In the short novel Children of the Albatross, they are lovers and she, as usual, is missing something in their obvious passion.

“At dawn Jay turned towards Lillian beside him and his first kiss reached her through the net of her hair.

“Her eyes were closed, her nerves asleep, but under his hand her body slipped down a dune into warm waves lapping over each other, rippling her skin.

“Jay’s sensual thrusts wakened to dormant walls of flesh, and tongues of fire flicked towards his hard lashings piercing the kernel of mercury, disrupting a current of fire through the veins.  The burning fluid of ecstasy eddying madly and breaking, loosening a river of pulsations.

“The core of ecstasy bursting to the rhythmic pounding, until his hard thrusts spurted burning fluid against the walls of flesh, impulsion within the womb like a thunderbolt.

“Lillian’s panting decrease, and her body reverberated in the silence, filled with echoes…antennae which had drunk like the stems of plants.

“He awakened free, and she did not.

“His desire had reached a finality, like a clean saber cut which dealt pleasure, not death.

“She felt impregnated.

“She had greater difficulty in shifting, in separating, in turning away.

“Her body was filled with retentions, residues, sediments.

“He awakened and passed into other realms.  The longer his stay in the enfolding whirls, the greater his energy to enter activity again.  He awakened and he talked of painting, he awakened laughing, eyes closed with laughter, laughing on the edges of his cheeks, laughter in the corner of his mouth, the laughter of great separateness. 

“She awakened unfree, as is laden with the seeds of his being, wondering as what moment he would pull his whole self away as one tears a plant out by the roots, leaving a crevice in the earth. Dreading the break because she felt him a master of this act, free to enter and free to emerge, whereas she felt dispossessed of her identity and freedom because Jay upon waking did not turn about and contemplate her even for a moment as Lillian, a particular woman, but that when he took her, or looked at her he did so gaily, anonymously, as if any woman lying there would have been equally pleasant, natural, and not Lillian among all women.” (pp. 204-205)

The Portable Anaïs Nin combines selections of fiction with the now famous diaries of Nin.  The diary selections are rather forceful.  They represent the fact that Nin's poetic prose began with the way she tinkered with words and descriptions in her diaries.  Her affairs with her father and with Henry Miller are among the plethora of juicy, naughty details given.

Sensuality is the highest form of love to Nin.  Her characters love each other.  They love in random couplings, they love in threesomes, they have various lovers simultaneously.  This is as Nin lived her own life and they give us a window into polygamous relationships.  She was bi-sexual, attracted almost equally to men and women. But Nin's sensuality comes from a rich sense of fulfillment to be found with multiple personalities and bodies.  Nin's characters are rarely driven by sexual need alone.  Rather, they are highly sexual people attracted to each other for tangible but non-sexual (yet often aesthetic or nurturing) reasons.

“'Let me kiss your mouth.’  He put his arms around me.  I hesitated.  I was tortured by a complexity of feelings, wanting his mouth, yet afraid, feeling I was to kiss a brother, yet tempted – terrified and desirous.  I was taut.  He smiled and opened his mouth.  We kissed, and that kiss unleashed a wave of desire.  I was lying across his body and with my breast I felt his desire, hard, palpitating.  Another kiss.  More terror than joy.  The joy of something unnamable, obscure. He so beautiful – godlike and womanly, seductive and chiseled, hard and soft.  A hard passion.

“'We must avoid possession,’ he said, ‘but, oh, let me kiss you.’  He caressed my breasts and tips hardened.  I was resisting, saying no, but my nipples hardened.  And when his hand caressed me – oh, the knowingness of those caresses – I melted.  But all the while some part of me was hard and terrified.  My body yielded to the penetration of his hand, but I resisted, I resisted enjoyment.  I resisted showing my body. I only uncovered my breasts.  I was timid and unwilling, yet passionately moved.  ‘I want you to enjoy, to enjoy,’ he said. 'Enjoy.'  And his caresses were so acute, so subtle; but I couldn’t, and to escape from him I pretended to. Again I lay over him and felt the hardness of his penis.  He uncovered himself.  I caressed him with my hand.  I saw him quiver with desire.

“With a strange violence, I lifted my negligee and I aly over him. ‘Toi, Anaïs!  Je n’ai plus de Dieu!

“Ecstatic, his face, and I now frenzied with the desire to unite with him…undulating, caressing him, clinging to him. His spasm was tremendous, immense, with my whole being, with only that core of fear which arrested the supreme spasm in me.”  (From The Portable Anaïs Nin, page 49)

This is Nin's diary entry for the beginning of her incestuous relationship in her twenties with her father.  Some readers might find this revolting.  But it was Nin's actual experience. She had sex with Henry Miller in Paris.  She had sex with Henry Miller's wife in Paris, she had sex men before Miller and with women before his wife.  She had sex with men and women afterward.  She was totally promiscuous and she did not care.  In fact, promiscuity was part of her expansion of desire throughout human intimacy.

That might not seem like a special intimacy to many.  It might seem vile and cheating and dishonest.  But Nin means it honestly enough.  It is cheating, of course, if you count monogamy, but that type of relationship only existed for Nin through short periods of her life.  Generally, she had more than one lover.  She felt the passion within her clearly and projected it outward into what attracted her in other people. It was coupling, always a coupling in the present moment, that Nin wrote about.  Physical, sexual, artistic, and intellectual couplings are the riches her writing yielded.  She has a distinctive, emotional voice that rings like a trumpet through the world of erotica.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Welcome Back Star Wars

Warning: there are a few spoilers below but none are related to the really good stuff from The Force Awakens.

I remember seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope as a late teen when it was released in late-May of 1977.  I had just graduated high school and was an avid science fiction fan.  It was my primary reading material at the time.  The movie featured exciting action set in a fantastic intergalactic universe and I recall seeing it multiple times over a few weeks with numerous friends.  It was an exciting movie to talk about over hamburgers afterwards.  I even took my younger brother to see it at our hometown theater.  We sat through it twice in one day, with only a popcorn break in between. He was only six and was as enraptured with it as I had been the summer of 1976 watching Jaws.

The intial shot in Star Wars left most of us either hooping with delight or staring with our jaw open from sheer awe. The empire battle cruiser chasing Princess Leia in one of the opening shots seemed to go on and on and on.  It was an epic establishing shot and audiences loved it.  We loved the "western" shoot 'em up sequences, the chases, the parallel plot lines featuring action that intermingled at just the right moment keeping viewers on their toes and enthralled with what is actually a very straightforward plot.

The original aspect of Star Wars is how it feels to watch it.  Do you sense mystery?  Doesn't that space ship look cool?  How about all that future tech?  Wow! Did you see that!  The characters are all straight out of Louis L'Amour or some classic swashbuckling tale of adventure.  This is the feeling that the original three movies possess, but the following 'prequels' found in short supply, though enough to connect them to the canon of Star Wars.

The most metaphorical aspect to the film is, of course, The Force and the infamous (and now culturally ingrained) Dark Side.  The Force runs through the universe and binds everything together.  Certain students of The Force can use it with telepathic effect, among other skills.  That is about as heavy-weight as Star Wars gets.  It is not a deep movie, it is a fun movie.  So, when watching any of the Star Wars films, I smile at its naive and sentimental philosophical aspects.  I relax and have fun.

By the time The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 (the best movie in this series in my opinion) was released, the "Star Wars" idea was a huge commercial success, both in terms of the movie franchise and all the assorted merchandising that goes along with consumerist culture.   Once again I took my brother to see it, only this time we didn't stay for consecutive showings.  The theaters were full and security had gotten a bit tighter than just a few years before.

We both had a great time.  It was cool seeing things through his still very young mind.  He was full of questions.  What do they call this?  How did they do that?  Nevertheless, he could relate to Han Solo and especially to Luke Skywalker in a higher childlike manner, seen most often at Christmas time, as children that age are prone to shout their ideas and wear their emotions on their sleeve.

At any rate, after all this time, The Force Awakens is released. As anticipated, it is achieving enormous commercial success and most critics like the movie. I remained pretty much spoiler-free as I went to see the film last night with my daughter, her boyfriend, and my brother who is now a father himself, and his 13 year old son.  My brother and I were the only two that had ever actually seen a Star Wars film in a movie theater.  It seemed to bring things full circle for me regarding A New Hope, watching my brother take his son, as I took him decades ago, to see a Star Wars film in a venue other than a large flat TV screen.

The movie definitely felt like Star Wars.  It was thrilling in both the visual and the narrative, it was spectacular with constant action-packed pacing, it touched on some past story-lines by bringing back previous characters, most notably Han Solo and, now, General Leia, commanding the resistance. Yes, the resistance is still around, this time resisting the First Order.  If it sounds like familiar turf, it should.  Though several interesting new major characters are introduced in The Force Awakens, it is the original ones that thread all this together.  This film is the beginning of a new storyline within the trappings of the older story.

There is even a new kind of "Death Star" with the predictable finish to it - as in the 1977 and 1983 films.  Not very original at all, so I frankly can't give the film much credit here.  I suppose it offers dumb-downed familiarity to fuse this film with the original three.  After all, the prequels are just as original as the original trilogy.  It is just that they were original in a way that did not resonate as well with Star Wars fans.

What one can authentically say is that The Force Awakens is the essence of the original trilogy, introducing new elements but not really doing anything new with any of them.  It is nostalgic for me and exciting for my nephew.  Maybe that is how it should be.  I enjoyed the film but it is nothing exceptional, it is more tribute and continuation than transcending in any way. But it is competently made and fun. So I give it a 7.  

Some think Star Wars is the myth of our current age, even a postmodern classic.  I believe we are certainly better off for having it around than not.  I think J.J. Abrams did a terrific job with not a reboot but a resuscitation of the narrative.  The narrative is smoothly transitional and for that reason somewhat masterfully handled.  A new generation will now delve deeply into the Star Wars expanded universe just as I did back in my youth and my brother did sort of at the same time in his younger youth.  

On the drive home, he and I laughed about certain scenes in the new movie (which has that wonderful Star Wars humor) and compared them back to a few comical scenes in the earlier films.  I asked his son how he liked The Force Awakens before he got out the car.  "It was great!" he said, his early adolescence beaming. Well, maybe it is not "great" from my perspective, but it connects me back to an innocent time and the wonder of the films and all those happy hours spent with them in between.  Welcome back.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Coldplay: Head Full of Mush

Long-time readers know that Coldplay is my favorite contemporary band.  It does not bother me that the more success they attain in terms of popularity, the more the critics put them down.  Coldplay may be the essence of kitsch for all I know.  But, I don't care.  Their music makes me feel good.  That is why I listen to them.

But their most recent effort, A Head Full of Dreams, is a full-throttle disappointment to me.  I suppose it continues with a transition in style the band first began with 2014's Ghost Stories.  Unfortunately, with their latest record, the transition has gone so far that, for me, the band has become a stranger, invisible.  This is Coldplay being something that is not, for me, Coldplay at all.

Normally with a Coldplay album, I listen to it a couple of times and end up with a tune or two resonating in my mind off and on over the next few weeks.  I will catch myself humming a new Coldplay song while driving or just sitting at my desk.  New Coldplay music becomes a part of my life and puts a smile on my face.

Not so with this new material.  What began in Ghost Stories as a changeover from Coldplay's distinctive guitar-accented, alt rock sound into more of a synthesized, dance club sound has devolved completely into this dance beat, guitar-minimized offering that, frankly, sounds like about 100 other ordinary bands.  When I listen to this new album I find that after about 15 minutes I am so ready for the beat and crooning and the wailing to stop.  Just stop it! 

After one listen I have not been able to get through the entire effort again.  It sounds sooo mediocre.  Normally, even mediocre Coldplay is better than a lot of other music.  In this case, this is mediocre Coldplay pretending to either be something they are not or something they never should have become.  (Not everyone agrees with my assessment, of course.  And if you look at how this album is selling, the bottom line is a lot of money for these guys.)

Taken as a whole, the album fails to offer much diversity of sound.  The title track, "Birds", "Adventure of a Lifetime", and "Army of One" all seem to have the same blasé instrumentation, lyrics, and dance-able beat.  The problem with the beat is that fails to inspire anything in me.  It all sounds like the same mediocrity repeated beyond my capacity to tolerate.

"Everglow" (featuring Chris Martin's previously "uncoupled" lady 
Gwyneth Paltrow) and "Fun" slow things down a bit but they are nothing special and they are certainly not "glowing" or "fun".  Instead they are a collection of cliche lyrics and playing that is so middle-of-the-road they are more like road kill than easy-going.  Blah.

The album's strongest tracks are "Hymn for the Weekend" (featuring Beyoncé), "Amazing Day", and "Up&Up".  All of these attempt to capture the joy of life and friendship and opportunity.  They are optimistic and heartfelt, which, of course, is why I enjoy Coldplay so much.  But, compared with their overall body of work, the synthesized (commercialized) heart and soul of these tracks sound more like cardboard cutouts than the real band.  Though listenable, I would not rate any of these three songs among Coldplay's best work - and, unfortunately, these are the best this album has to offer.

Being a worldwide music phenomenon, Coldplay will play the halftime show at the upcoming Super Bowl in 2016.  This has brought out the best in those who hate the band.  It is already being called the most "boring" halftime booking in history. As I mentioned above, the band's detractors have grown more prominent with each year of increasing success.  I suppose doing the Super Bowl halftime show is the highest (or lowest) manifestation commercial success.  So, perhaps it is fitting, that this opportunity now comes to the band at precisely the moment when they have dissolved into musical blandness.   

Rumor has it that this might be the final Coldplay studio album.  If that is so they are definitely going out with a whimper, or better yet, make that a whine.  I will likely still go see them live, if given the chance.  They put on a terrific, energized, fun show.  But this material will not be a draw for me, maybe it will offer an opportune moment to go get a beer until the real Coldplay decides to present itself in the concert venue again.

But, assuming there is a future for the band, if A Head Full of Dreams represents Coldplay's new trajectory then as a fan I can only hope they start communicating a little more from their heart than their head.  They have become mechanical, naively sentimental, their joy and energy feel counterfeit without any of the edginess and bite that made their always upbeat songs and ballads not only tolerable but often brilliant.  Head Full of Mush, Ear Full of Yawns might be a better title for this one. 

5 out of 10 stars. Or two and one-half stars in the Amazon rating system.  As of today's post the album is #8 in all of music and #3 in rock on Amazon. The record was released this past Friday.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Moonset

A buzzard takes flight about 8AM this morning as the Moon sets in the west.  This view is taken from my front yard. This is known as the Frost Moon.
Just the slightest hint of frost on my front yard in this wider view of a Thanksgiving Day Moonset.  It was wonderful to see it as I enjoyed morning coffee. There was no sound, it was totally quiet.  Jennifer was busy making dressing for the big family dinner later on today.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Neil Young: Bluenote Cafe

Counting studio material, live recordings, compilations, work with other bands, Neil  Young has delivered over 60 albums to date.  That is an amazing number compared with most musicians. But really it is to be expected in this case.  Neil is still churning out vibrant new material as he turns 70.  There have been numerous times when he has released more than one album in a single year. His latest effort is from his Archives project.  It features one of the many different flavors of Neil that came out in the 1980's.

Bluenote Cafe is a two CD live concert set featuring the best performances while on tour with the Bluenotes in 1987-1988. The set contains seven previously unreleased songs which is true music to the ear of any long-time Rustie like myself.  I have heard a few of these new songs before on the numerous bootleg live performances of Neil in my collection.  But to hear them and the rest of these tunes performed for the first time with such passion, accomplishment, and good fidelity is a real treat.

I pre-ordered the album from amazon and paid an extra $5 to have it delivered to my home on the day of its release. That way, even though Jennifer and I live in the middle of nowhere, we were able to listen to some previously unheard Neil at the same time most every other Rustie in the world did. I received it last Friday, the official day of release, just in time for Jennifer and I to spend the weekend enjoying it. 

And enjoy it we did.  I had only modest expectations but was pleasantly surprised. The bulk of the material comes from Neil's This Note's for You album, a bluesy/jazzy version of Neil featuring Old Black and a solid horn section of three saxophones, a trombone, and two trumpets.  This Note's for You has an interesting urban vibe to it but I would not rank it as one of my favorite Neil efforts.  Like much of his repertoire, it is an acquired taste but worthy of listening to because it is so unique - like other Neil albums from the 1980's.  

Earlier in that decade he ventured into techno, rockabilly, and mainstream country music. Shifting into jazz-infused blues completed an experimental decade which saw him being sued by his then-record label for "not producing Neil Young music"; something that still makes me smile today. Neil doesn't follow anyone's expectations - record companies, critics, or even his own fans.  Which is really what the song "This Note's for You" is all about, as a rant against consumerist commercialization. 

But as different as this music sounds, it is nevertheless rooted in basic Neil Young, which is one reason that law suit was ridiculous.  For example, Crazy Horse, his long-time garage band supports the horns on two songs.  Billy Talbot handles the bass with Ralph Molina on drums while Frank "Poncho" Sampedro trades in his electric guitar for keyboards through the album. The majority of the songs feature Rick Rosas on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums, two musicians that worked with Neil on several of his projects. 

The rest of the Bluenotes are these six wonderful horns.  On the studio album the music has a somewhat mechanical feel to it, like the band is imitating the music. There are 3-4 nice tunes but mostly it is interesting mediocrity - which is why my expectations were sort of low for this Performance Series release.  But the truth is, like a lot of Neil's stuff, the same material often sounds amazing live.  This release mostly exceeds the quality of the studio album with the added treat of getting to listen to seven tunes that were not previously available through "official" (ie. quality recording) channels.

The opportunity to listen to this music for the first time along with the rest of the world on the day of its release, delivered to my doorstep in the middle of nowhere, was just a rich experience.  Jennifer and I enjoyed the album several times last weekend and again this weekend.  It is a wonderful addition to my collection and it makes me so appreciative of how fortunate Jennifer and I are in our lives.  A blast from the past enriches my present in the best kind of way.

This Performance Series release contains 21 songs from several different venues recorded in 1987-1988.  The feel is a superb fusion of blues, jazz, and rock.  The This Note's for You material (mixed with the previously unreleased songs) comes out far more solid and energized in this live concert presentation.

This is not to say the two CD set doesn't have its weaker moments.  Generally speaking, however, much of the new material is better than I expected. "Bad News Comes to Town" (a different, bootleg performance from the same tour) is the best of breed here and a real surprise for me. The band absolutely blows this tune away in a blistering performance with plenty of space for Old Black, an amazingly inspiring trombone, and the alto saxophone to be featured in solo. How many great trombone solos do you hear these days? To think no Neil fan has heard this song in a fine recording quality until last Friday makes it all the more special.

Neil mostly plays Old Black on the album. On several songs, however, he is featured with just his harmonica amidst the rest of the band and its big horn sound. The album offers fantastic versions of several songs. "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me", "This Note's for You", "Ten Men Working", and "One Thing" are all the best versions of these songs I have ever heard. Very strong playing with a lot of guitar and horn solos, the backbone coming from the horn section. Solid, noteworthy performances.

"Ordinary People" features Pancho on piano and it is better than the studio version which was not released until 2007's Chrome Dreams II, about 20 years after it was written.  Once again the horns are amazing.  This  song satisfies with another particularly great trombone solo. The Blue collar lyrics are a bit of classic Neil.

Most of the other songs, some previously unreleased, some studio stuff, are not that special but they are good enough to sustain the unique vibe of this tour, alive and listenable.  This is a very distinctive kind of Neil outside his comfort zone and being totally comfortable with that.

Neil most clearly grounds all of this lightning uniqueness into his fundamental body of work with an upbeat big band rendition of "On the Way Home."  While this is by no means the best version of this song from early in Neil's career, it is the most distinctive and jazzy playing you can find. Giving this song this unique treatment is a wonder. This is accompanied by another basic Neil tune that strikes at the very heart of his prolific creativity. The set ends with a massive, highly energized, driving without ceasing 19-minute version of "Tonight's the Night", the title song from a highly-regarded essential aspect of Neil.

That crazy finish to a classic cornerstone of Neil as an artist demonstrates that even though this jazz-blues infused music sounds so distant from the classic Neil, it is nevertheless rooted in the source of all Neil's other multiple personality styles.  I remember being disappointed in the studio album when it came out but hearing this music live and sustained and fresh again and passionately performed is the best kind of unexpected delight. This set makes great party music and reveals a multifaceted genius at work.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Pictures at an Exhibition

Jennifer and I met our 'Dillo friends for dinner last night at the Cafe Sunflower before we all attended an open art exhibit. It was very crowded and there were tons of art, several studio displays, little servers walked around with small trays with treats. There was an open bar.  It was fun and the art I saw was better than you can see in almost any contemporary art museum in America. Here are some quick shots I took in sometimes bad lighting and cramped conditions.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The 2015 World Series: In the Grand Scheme of Things

The Kansas City Royals defeated the New York Mets to become Major League Baseball's (MLB) World Champions in 2015.  In doing so, they won their first Series since 1985, their second Series win in four appearances in baseball's Fall Classic.  So, as a franchise, the Royals have  2-2 World Series record.  The Mets dropped to 2-3 in their Series history.

In most cases, I root for the National League team in the Series but this year I was pulling for the Royals because (1) I tend to dislike teams from New York City, and (2) I have a warm spot in my baseball heart for Ned Yost, the Royals manager, who served as the bullpen coach and third base coach during the 1990's with the Atlanta Braves under Bobby Cox, and (3) the Royals are just a fun team to watch.  I like their talent and their style of play.

A special shout-out goes to Royals shortstop, Alcides Escobar, who made baseball history by hitting safely in 15 consecutive postseason games.  Admittedly, this is easier to do now that we have a three-tier playoff in the MLB than it was prior to, say, 1969 when there were no playoffs at all - just the World Series.  But it is a amazing achievement nonetheless.

One of Escobar's hits was the now-famous first-pitch inside-the-park home run that he hit in Game One of the 2015 Series.  This was the first World Series inside-the-parker since 1929 and the first first-pitch insider since the very first World Series in 1903 when Jimmy Sebring hit one off Cy Young (!).  Escobar is a complete player and is fun to watch both offensively and defensively.

By hitting in 15 consecutive postseason games, Escobar joins an elite group of players.  He ties the great Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics and Marquis Grissom of the Atlanta Braves.  Most of Grissom's hits came in the Braves 1995 World Championship.  Henderson batted a commanding .410 and Grissom .377 during their respective streaks, while Escobar hit a more modest .231 for the 2015 Series. 

Ahead of Escobar on this prestigious list are: Pat Borders with 16 consecutive games, Hank Bauer, Derek Jeter, and Manny Ramirez each with hits in 17 consecutive games.  All of these players achieved this feat over more than one postseason.  Escobar is distinctive in that no other player in baseball history has hit in 15 consecutive games in a single postseason.  Impressive. As icing on the cake, Escobar joins another elite list players with the number of total hits he got in this postseason.

As a fun mental exercise, let's step away from the micro-achievements of an individual player and look at this year's Series in the context of all of baseball's World Series.  The best way to do that is by franchise.  I want to call this the World Series Club.  To be a member of the Club, a franchise has to have won a World Series - appearing in the Series and losing is not good enough.  So, by this reckoning several franchises are not members of the World Series Club.

The Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals are the only two franchises to have never appeared in the World Series.  Though they have appeared twice each, both the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers are 0-2.  Not good enough for the Club.  Four franchises are 0-1: the Milwaukee Brewers, the Houston Astros, the Colorado Rockies, and the Tampa Bay Rays.  So, eight franchises have yet to make my snobby, elitist definition for membership in the World Series Club.

Once in the Club, I break the members into three tiers.  The lower-tier includes the Los Angeles Angels and the  Arizona Diamondbacks, both with a single Series appearance but with a win (1-0).  One appearance is not really what I would call a "respectable" number, but a win is a win so they get a back table at the fictitious Club's award banquet.  Slightly better but still lower-tier are the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays each with a 2-0 record. 

Rounding out the lower-tier with 2 wins and no more than five total Series appearances are: the 2015 losing New York Mets who now have a 2-3 record, the same record as the Cleveland Indians who have not won a Series since 1948. By winning in 2015 the Royals improve to 2-2 so they remain lower-tier members.  The Chicago White Sox are actually the winningest franchise in the lower-tier with a 3-2 record.

The middle-tier consists of franchises who have between six and 11 World Series appearances.  Here we have the Minnesota Twins at 3-3, the Philadelphia Phillies at 2-5, the Baltimore Orioles at 3-4, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have the highest winning percentage among all Club members with a 5-2 record. My favorite franchise, the Braves, are middle-tier members with a mediocre 3-6 record.  The Cincinnati Reds look stronger with their 5-4 record.  The Chicago Cubs enjoy the double-distinction of having the worst winning percentage in the Club (2-8) and also having gone the longest amount of time since their last World Championship (1908). The long-suffering Cubs fans have not enjoyed their team appearing in the Series since 1945.  The Detroit Tigers round out the middle-tier with a 4 wins and 7 loses.

Then we come to what I would consider to be the elite of baseball's elite Club.  The upper-tier requires at least a dozen World Series appearances.  The best Series franchises in baseball history start with the Boston Red Sox at a very respectable 8-4. The Oakland Athletics are a solid member with a 9-5 record.  The Los Angeles Dodgers (dating back to New York) have the same winning percentage in the Club as the Braves but they have appeared twice as often and possess a 6-12 record.  The St. Louis Cardinals represent the "class act" of the National League with 11 championships against 8 loses.  The San Francisco Giants (also dating back to New York) have 20 appearances but a losing record of 8-12.

Whenever you talk about championships and baseball one team far and away stands out among all others.  The New York Yankees (who I refer to as the DamnYankees) have astonishingly appeared in more World Series than the Giants and Cardinals combined.  The Yankees' 27-13 record perhaps puts them in a tier all of their own, but this is my blog and my Club idea so they simply sit comfortably atop the upper-tier.  They have won more Championships than the Giants, Cardinals, and Dodgers combined. Enough about them.

So, that places some context to the 2015 Fall Classic.  Two comparatively recent teams (the Royals franchise began in 1969, the Mets in 1962) faced off.  Even though the Series only lasted 5 games it was a lot of fun to watch with extra-inning games and plenty of heroic moments by both teams.  The Royals dominated but they caught most of the breaks, had some great late-inning hits, and capitalized on Mets mistakes, yet the 2015 Series was much closer than the 4 games to 1 record will indicate.  

By my reckoning, the Mets have one more appearance to make before they qualify for the middle-tier.  The Royals have to come back two more times.  Considering the talent both teams possess that is certainly possible, though the Mets have gone as long as 15 seasons between appearances and the Royals as long as 29 seasons. It can be a long wait between trips and even longer between wins. But that wait is more than worth it. Just ask any of the eight franchises not yet in the Club.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Jupiter, Venus, and Mars in this morning's sky

All photos taken with our Nikon D300 between 6:45 and 7:15 from my driveway this morning.  This exposure was about 20-seconds.  It brings stars that were not visible to the naked eye into view.  The Nikon was set to automatic aperture, manual focus. 
Same basic angle but with a 4-second exposure.
Just for fun.  This is Orion on the right side of the photo, the bright star Sirius on the left quadrant.  The very bright Moon is just out of the frame the the top right. Sirius is very close to us in terms of space, a mere 8.6 light years away.  The reddish bright dot in the upper right quadrant is Betelgeuse.  It is 427.47 light years away.  
The three-planet alignment at 20-seconds.  So many unseen stars pop out. Obviously, I am using a tripod in all these shots.
A three-planet alignment at 4-seconds. There is another, fainter star here between Venus and Jupiter.  That is Sigma Leonis, 214.02 light-years away.
Again, the beautiful alignment at 7:15 this morning.  Taken off my carport in the middle of my driveway.  It has been rainy here these past few days and the clouds had blocked our view of the alignment until this morning.  It was really nice listening to the day begin, with hot coffee standing in the 47 degree damp air watching our stellar neighborhood.
This is the alignment as seen with my iPad Star Walk app at the moment I was taking photos outside.  As you can see, even though Venus is very bright in my photos, we are still only viewing it partially shaded due to its own angle toward the Sun. Mars has an average distance of 141 million miles away.  Venus an average of 67 million miles away.  Jupiter is about 483 million miles away.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Putin's Syrian Gambit

Politics has always fascinated me.  When I was younger I was idealistic about politics.  I considered political mechanics and practicality to be something akin to hypocrisy.  Now I am much more level-headed, practical - and cynical. I know perfectly well that my personal political perspective, without sufficient political power to back it up, has little effect on what is what is achievable or likely to occur. I also know that, while idealists can be inspiring, their actual practice in the art of policy usually leaves something to be desired.  Hence our gridlock in Washington, for example.  Too many idealists not enough pragmatists. 

This understanding allows me the sinful pleasure of admiring politics as it unfolds even if I personally find much of what is unfolding to be abhorrent.  I admire a well-played political hand.  In my opinion, all idealism aside, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has played his cards superbly with regard to the civil war in Syria.  In doing so he has literally kicked the political ass of the Western powers.  He makes President Obama look inept - admittedly not a towering achievement.

But I get ahead of myself.  As recently as September 27, things seemed "normal" in Syria.  Bashar al-Assad's regime was slowly losing ground in a war of attrition against numerous rebel factions, including ISIS (the Islamic State). Unfortunately, ISIS was slowly mastering the rebel factions, including al-Qaeda, prompting no less a military mind than retired General David Petraeus to actually recommend the United States allied itself with al-Qaeda to combat the growing ISIS threat.  Petraeus might be correct but could any situation be more absurd?

On September 27 France joined the loose coalition of forces conducting air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State.  The first French strikes marked a logical expansion of the status quo attempting to deal with the threat of the rogue "nation" to control large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Into this absurd and truly convoluted international response to a murderous crisis that has cause the displacement of millions of human beings strolled Vladimir Putin.

Notice how the cards have been played so far.  The first public act toward Russia's involvement in Syria was for Putin to sit down with Syria's longtime rival, Israel.  If you are going to conduct a military campaign in this region you can do it without telling a lot of people but you certainly can not do anything like this without telling the greatest military power in the region - Israel.

Shortly after Putin brought Benjamin Netanyahu up to speed, Russia secured cooperation with the Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians on all information regarding the Islamic State. Putin's stated objective, as he made repeatedly clear in an historic interview with Charlie Rose, was to stabilize the Assad regime because only Assad has the trained "boots on the ground" to attack ISIS.  As awkward as that may seem, it is a political-military fact.

The Russian parliament put the a rubber stamp on the Russian military presence as the first air strikes hit targets in Syria.  Most of the initial attacks were not directed against Islamic State targets.  Most were directed toward defeated American-backed rebel forces. The Syrian army coordinated with the Russian air campaign fairly closely and was able to regain control of some contested positions.

Right now, amidst daily air strikes and massive missile strikes from the Russian navy 1000 miles away in the Caspian Sea, Putin's forces are supporting Assad's Syrian Army in attacking all rebel forces - al-Qaeda, ISIS, whoever.

Putin has kicked Obama on the field of global influence. Putin has made America irrelevant (or simply accentuated the ineffectiveness of its strategy) by consulting with all necessary parties (including Israel), bringing together a coalition and coordinating air power with the only trained regular infantry involved, the Syrian Army.  

For better or worse, Putin's endgame is to assist the Assad regime. Compared with the alternatives and the complete failure of the Western powers to stop ISIS and overthrow Assad, Putin's actions are clear, precise, and politically relevant.  Your idealism might say Assad is a criminal for his horrific treatment of his people. But, without Assad, all you have is a vacuum.  The historic list of countries descending into chaos when their dictatorship falls is long. Look at the internal turmoil of Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan today to see that. Look how much of Yugoslavia vanished in the 1990's.

There are signs that Putin's firm commitment to eliminating all rebels and stabilizing Assad has some popular support in the region.  But, despite this support and the logic of working in tandem with the only organized army in the field, Putin's Gambit is very risky.  Still, as of this post, the Syrian Army is preparing and much larger offensive against all comers, ISIS included, with Russian air and naval support.  So, a new chapter begins in this long under-addressed civil war. Putin offers Assad a bigger hammer. Aleppo seems to be the first major objective. Will it work? Will anyone remain in the country if it does?