Thursday, May 31, 2007


I learned today that the Elliott Smith record is inspired by a book of essays of the same name by Soren Kierkegaard. Apparently, Kierkegaard set out the stages of existence and contrasts a life of aesthetic pursuit with one of ethical commitment. I came upon all of this information while doing internet searches related to Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, which is one of my favorite novels. Percy created his narrative after reading Either/Or and the passage from empty pursuit to commitment is a compelling framework for his story (and that of many others to which I am drawn, including High Fidelity and Sideways).

Why was I Googling The Moviegoer? Because I am having a particularly empty day, wasted morning, wandering my neighborhood, ending at a cafe where I sit and surf while another draft of my article is due to my bosses at work. This follows a phone conversation last night with one of my best friends (with whom I share a general career trajectory) during which we discussed (1) his recent triumphant speech to an audience of public interest lawyers and his stunned mother, (2) his upcoming sabbatical leave, the second in three years, (3) his litigation on behalf of a detainee at Guantanamo, and (4) my recent withdrawal from a conference in Berlin in July on the advice of the aforementioned bosses. He is a good man and a good friend, as close as a brother to me in many respects, but I can't help but be depressed after we speak on the phone. So I awoke in a hole and I stay bored and listless, unable to engage with the work that I must do. I think of alternate careers and (laughably) curse my own freedom to write at a cafe.

Plane tickets and hotel reservations for Berlin are cancelled. I withdraw from the panels on which I was to speak. After (1) being one of three people in a group of twenty at a conference not to be selected for publication in a book two years ago, (2) being passed over for consideration for a higher position in my workplace, (3) watching friends with my qualifications make more money and acquire greater purpose and focus as they age, and (4) having close friends be surprised when I am selected for some honor, such as a speaking role in a graduation ceremony, I wonder when the indignities will cease. My aspiration for a life of ethical commitment remains out of my grasp because of the life preferences of my partner and the simultaneously purpose-killing structurelessness and imprisonment of my work as currently constructed. Others tell me how good I have it and to remain in pursuit of their goals. I want to not wake up in the morning.

Body of War

Powerful trailer for a new documentary called Body of War, with songs by Eddie Vedder. A live performance of the song No More is here, but the images from the movie in the trailer are much more affecting than seeing Eddie on stage.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fantasy - Across the Universe

What is fantasy? Is it an illusion, an escape from the humdrum of everyday life? Or is it an experience more real than the material one lived amidst strife, struggle, and the adversity of the world. An experience so real that it impels us through the strife, struggle, and adversity.

Dylan wrote that the mythical images and visions in his head conjured up a world more real than the one he was living.

These are some of the questions that I think about upon reflecting upon Pan’s Labyrinth.

Ofelia lives in a time of civil war in Spain. Her pregnant mother is in the throes of desperation, and finds security in a tyrannical husband after her husband, Ofelia’s father, died. Her mother wants Ofelia to call her new husband "Father" and tells her it’s only a word. Ofelia calls him "Captain." Ofelia and her mother move in with the Captain at a hillside post, where the Captain commands a group of Franco loyalists intent to crushing rebels in the countryside and their notions of an egalitarian society.

Ofelia finds refuge in her stories about fairies and magic, which her mother does her best to discourage.

But Ofelia is not an ordinarily girl. She is followed by a fairy, who summons her to a labyrinth, where she meets a faun who tells her that she is a princess who has been summoned back to reopen a portal to a mythical world where she can take her rightful place beside her true father and mother.
In order for her to arrive there, she must accomplish three tasks. And that is where our story and Ofelia’s magical and frightening adventures begins, while the Captain is attempting to exact control over both his camp and the rebels.

We all live in at least in two worlds, or at least I do. The one we live outside, and the one we live in our head. Both needs to be tended to, cultivated. If the one in my head is not properly nourished, guided, and honored, it will lash out. That is why I write, although not as much as I should.

That is why I listen to music, read, and watch movies like Pan’s Labyrinth. That is why I love and hug my daughter.

Maybe I expect too much, that others around me must share the same world as the one in my head, and maybe that is not realistic or possible. And the fact that others don’t or can’t share it makes me undermine my relationship with them. Perhaps that is too judgmental. Maybe the world in my head is for my head and the other creative souls who are receptive to it.

I don’t know what I want but I know I must honor my inner world. I just don’t know how.

Maybe there will be a faun or fairy to guide me. Maybe there will be magic. Maybe the signs are there and I have yet to read them.

What makes me laugh? Am I able to let go? Am I able to see the fantasy in me and around me?

On another note, I am very excited about the upcoming movie, "Across the Universe", with a backdrop of Beatles lyrics, songs, and lives.
My growing preoccupation with notions of fantasy have brought me closer to the Beatles. I listen and I hear their songs differently now. There is more depth to their meanings.

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting thorough my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
exciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Jai guru deva Jai guru deva

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Heroes" (1977)

David Bowie/Brian Eno

All Music Guide:

Not even ending up as a Microsoft commercial theme could quench the sheer power and beauty of "Heroes," arguably David Bowie's finest individual song throughout his varied, fascinating career. The story of its inspiration got a bit muddled over time -- it might have been two employees at the recording studio near the Berlin Wall who Bowie saw in an embrace, or simply two random strangers in the shadow of that Cold War symbol. But inspired by that and with the collaborative help of Brian Eno and, with a jaw-dropping set of solos, guitarist Robert Fripp, Bowie, his backing band and producer Tony Visconti created a true classic. Clearly drawing from the various German influences he had absorbed while still relying on the dramatic power of rock and roll, the song becomes an anthem, Fripp's exquisite work at once celebratory and an electric requiem. That feeling of valediction is reflected in Bowie's lyric about individual connection and response in the face of a crushing, anonymous outside world -- but it wouldn't be half so grand without Bowie's simply breathtaking vocal. Starting with an almost conversational tone, by the end of the song he's turning in a performance that could almost be called operatic, yet still achingly, passionately human.
A Sonata for a Good Man and Woman. When I go to Berlin this summer, I aim to visit the Stasi detention center shown in The Lives of Others as well as the Hansa Ton Studio where Bowie recorded his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti and where U2 recorded parts of Achtung Baby with Eno and Daniel Lanois. Bowie was rooming with Iggy Pop and trying to overcome a cocaine addiction in Berlin; U2 nearly broke up because of artistic differences before writing One together. Fascinating (though, of course, not intended to trivialize the savage political history of the place and time).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Banality of Song Lyrics

Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum minces the new Wilco record, Sky Blue Sky, and calls it “dad-rock.” A sentence from the review:

Case in point, the drowsy opener "Either Way" sleepwalks through a list of indecisive sentiments ("maybe you love me, maybe you don't") before breaking for a Cline solo that's straight-up Weather Channel Local on the 8s.
These are the lyrics of Either Way in their entirety:
Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will blow away
Maybe I won’t feel so afraid
I will try to understand
Either way

Maybe you still love me
Maybe you don’t
Either you will or you won’t
Maybe you just need some time alone
I will try to understand
Everything has its plan
Either way
I’m gonna stay
Right for you

Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will roll away
Maybe I won’t be so afraid
I will understand everything has its plan
Either way
It’s not Dylanesque poetry but even on the page, those lyrics are something more than a list of indecisive sentiments. Anyone who follows the band, even loosely, knows that a large percentage of the songs on the last four Wilco albums concern Jeff Tweedy’s sometimes quite frayed relationship with his wife (and more generally, with anyone outside of his alienated self). It’s possible that that knowledge is required in imbuing the lyrics to Either Way with a greater meaning than Mitchum recognizes. But if you listen to the song, it sounds like a prayer: for the sun to shine, for fear to abate, for greater understanding of your self and your place in the world (best analogue in the Pearl Jam song catalogue: Sometimes on No Code, also an album opener). It’s in the way Tweedy sings it, with a question and a catch in his voice in every line and with hope for self-knowledge. “Maybe you just need some time alone” suggests trepidation and a situation just about spun out of control. The tentative resolve is more meaningful in light of this sense of genuine risk.

Either Way is not even one of my favorites on SBS and I still see in it much more than indecisive sentiments. This may be a result of the compact struck between artist and fan, the agreement that they will do their expressive best and we will give full faith and credit to each of their paintings or chapters or songs. (No one pays me to pick apart music, so I can speak as a member of the flock rather than as a theologian.) It strikes me however that the banality to which Mitchum alludes is a fundamental attribute of popular music when words and lines are read in isolation and apart from the context of the songwriter’s and listener's life and passion. It is roughly analogous to judges like Antonin Scalia who (sometimes, when it fits their ends) seek to read legal language in “plain text” rather than finding meaning in the words through a broader reading of the historical moment in which a statute was first passed and adapted to fit the current context. It feels to me like a lazy or ends-oriented approach to both law and music criticism, rather than a genuine attempt to engage with the text. Mitchum wanted to find that Sky Blue Sky is dad-rock so he lifted a few lines from the first song and made light of their banality.

In the commentary track to Moulin Rouge, I believe during the Elephant Medley (one of my favorite movie scenes of all-time), Baz Luhrman talks about how music transforms words into poetry. He’s right, of course, and that’s why the film makes such splendid use of modern pop music. Another film more centrally about music that I just saw earlier tonight, Once, has a humorous scene in which the male protagonist strums and sings his romantic history to the female lead on the back of a bus. It is genius because the history is at once banal (his girlfriend cheated on him) but incredibly meaningful for these two people falling for each other. And singing the words allows the cynical, lonely singer-songwriter to add underlying emotional depth, to express how he feels and to connect with this lovely new woman who has come into his life. All of the songs in Once have this quality and provide a rationale for an otherwise questionably fast melding of interests and understandings between the two leads.

The transformation of plain words into something much more profound and connective is magical, alchemical, two separate acts of faith by the songwriter and the listener. It’s an essential part of what makes modern music so important to me. After all, life itself is mind-numbingly banal. It is only through magic, alchemy, and faith that we gain the fortitude to persevere.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mistaken for Strangers

The National, record out May 22

For Ganesh

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


High Times by Elliott Smith, on a double record out today called New Moon.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Language of Survival

In Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart in Winter), a violin maker played by Daniel Auteuil reaches out of his shell to draw the intense interest of a gifted young violinist played by Emmanuelle Beart. His more charismatic business partner is having an affair with her and he sees her professionally at first, at their workshop and her practices. Eventually, he finds himself hovering outside of the studio where she is recording Ravel and goes with her, through an outpouring of rain, to a cafe where he tells her that he loves to see her speak. His quiet but intense presence, ascetic and dedicated nature (he lives in a bedroom at the workshop), and interest in her is magnetic. His subsequent actions are mutedly shocking and an audience shivers at the sight of a cold heart laid bare.

There are more than a few times when I have sat in a car or at a table in a restaurant and done what this "protagonist" does to the young woman in the film. I have abandoned relationships at all points in their life cycle, from infancy to adulthood. After I have destroyed a fledgling relationship, I have been joyous and experienced the relief of freedom from a small suffocating box. In all of these relationships, there are moments of great happiness, but the imperative to break free of another and to resist the unbundling of a tight ball of emotion somewhere inside of me is too great. With loneliness comes freedom, of a particular variety, free to stay within myself and not communicate the feelings I so desperately want to submerge. I am able to act out. No one is there to push back, except my own most destructive and undermining of selves, burdening my mind with guilt and faithlessness, even as I experience my "freedom."

I think of these things in the context of my current relationship. There are days on end when I am unwilling to communicate with anyone. My commitment to solitude is my strongest quality and dates back to my earliest consciousness. The fact that I spend my time in isolation sleeping and seeking solace from television and the internet (much as Ganesh does) makes me question whether it is solitude that I defend. It seems more accurate to call it alienation, from all living people.

There is a wonderful exchange between two friends on love and solitude at Modal Minority, stemming from a Rilke quote partially excerpted here:

A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
The writer and his friend have an illuminating debate about the meaning of love between two people, one arguing for Rilke's joint solitude and the other for deconstruction of the self, a merging into the other and his God. The writer concludes:
And yet, and yet. I cannot help but feel that my friend and I might have but a single conception of love. I cannot shake the suspicion that, in love's strange geometry, infinite distance and intersection are one and the same.

Each must, out of his private suffering, find the language that allows him to survive that suffering.
As I work through my feelings in my current relationship with my patient partner, I search for my own language of survival. I don't mean to elevate my "private suffering." I am privileged and empowered beyond my own belief. But I have yet to successfully negotiate a path between my solitude and my deconstruction. It is a crowded path on which I walk with many friends. In our collective search, there might exist a constitutive grammar for our language of survival.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rage Against the Machine

The return of RATM:

Rage Against the Machine was just angry, and nearly all business. Back together for its first show in seven years — others are to follow, at least through this summer — it went precisely back to where it left off. Where Manu Chao was noisily border-crossing, setting off sampled sirens to suggest close-range urban bustle, Rage wants its audience to feel the fear and dread of places where the working classes die in their uniforms, and a violent urge to disobey.

Part of the band’s sound, and part of its riffs, come from the hard midtempo funk of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, but their songs are far more rigid in every way — feeling, design, sentiment. Given such a long layoff, the band played hard and well. Still, seven years isn’t such a long time, and all was much the same: Zack De La Rocha’s enraged whine lives intact; Tom Morello still makes his guitar rant and spit, his control over the wah-wah pedal and his guitar’s kill-switch undiminished.

The crowd bounced like springs, and yet, on another level, the music came off almost purely as a political project. Only in a version of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk” — with lines like “every time I pop into the beat we get fresh” — was it clear that this was only a rock band.

Sky Blue Sky

Listen to the new Wilco record here
-- ff to On and On and On

Brooklyn show June 26

All My Friends

Franz Ferdinand covering LCD Soundsystem's All My Friends New Order-style

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I feel like Odysseus, many miles from home. Not necessarily literally, but spiritually, a sense that I have not realized my place of belonging in this world, my true identity, my core self.

I am reading this book, Care of the Soul, A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life by Thomas Moore. It was given to me by my friend Marathon who undoubtedly read it in his own pursuits of understanding.

The section on Father in the Myth and Childhood section revolves around the Odyssey by Homer.

I remember reading the Odyssey in high school and recall being entranced, perplexed, and fascinated by the story, its mazes, its parallels, and lessons.

The sense of life as a great adventure in one’s journey home. This is true in anyone’s life, whether we realize it or not, I suppose. The question is how many twists and turns do we face along the way, how many detours do we find until we realize the path we are walking on.

In my present situation, I have often thought that I was in some distant outpost of such a journey, that I have been detoured so significantly, that I am no longer even on the map.

But this book provides me with a different perspective. "A genuine odyssey is not about piling up experiences. It is a deeply felt, risky, unpredictable tour of the soul."

When I read that, I thought to myself that in my struggles, I have strove to uncover the terrain of my soul, and many times, I did not like what I found. That my experiences, my struggles, my despair have not been in vain, that I am pushing and being pushed to find myself, and in the cocoon of my recent existence, which at times feels suffocating, that I will uncover, realize, and push out to a new found understanding and identity, a transformation of my character.

My decision to marry was one more exploration of the universe, and the answers I am looking for may not be there. But the answers, its questions must still be pursued.

My challenge is to be a man, a Man. When I married, I did not marry as a Man. I was still a child, or an adolescent, or pre-Man. That circumstance is one of the underlying causes of the angst and fault lines in my soul’s terrain now.

So, I take heart, knowing that my journey continues, and with each day, a new experience, and a new realization emerges.

The one thing I can hold onto is my truth, the truth of my experience, my assessment and evaluation of what is transpiring. For honoring the truth of my experience is the foundation of cultivating my soul, the raft that I create traversing this great Ocean of Life, and my constant friend and companion.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought....

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me---
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads---you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are---
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Excerpts from Ulysseus by Tennyson

I am glad that I decided to shut my practice and find something new, something challenging in a different way. It is a sign that I am trying to be my own person, create my own identity. Yes, I wanted to create my own practice, but also it was very much tied to M’s support, hopes, and long-term plans. Also, I did not feel myself being able to grow being in a isolated office, not stimulated by the company of other colleagues and the daily intersections of people and experiences that are prevalent in a larger office.

So I push off professionally, and I seek to push off personally as well. So I do, and so I must.

Tis not too late to seek a newer world.