Category Archives: Jazz

Crimson ProjeKCt @ The Hi-Fi – Sydney 27/Jun/2014

21st Century Touring Band

King Crimson have had so many member changes there have even been off-shoot bands that play King Crimson material but in a different vernacular such as the Crimson Jazz Trio. It shouldn’t be surprising to see Adrian Belew fronting a band that features Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto playing King Crimson numbers. Rumour has it that founding patriarch Robert Fripp never wants to tour Australia so this is about as close to seeing King Crimson live in Australia we’re ever going to get. The other 3 members Julie Slick, Tobias Ralph and Markus Reuter round out the formidable sextet and the rest is prog rock, loud and raw. Beware the dinosaurs.

This is the first time I know of that some incarnation of King Crimson are playing their numbers in Australia. I have waited for this for over 30years. Kind of goes to show Australia is still a cultural backwater.

What’s Good About It

King Crimson have so many different phases to match the number of personnel who have come and gone. This band does not feature any of the members from the the pre-1974 bust up that prompted Robert Fripp to leave the business for 2 years and then move to New York, and yet their renditions of the 70s classic numbers such as ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic Part I’ and ‘Red’ are played immaculately. The post 90s double-trio numbers get a good working out as well, but the real meat and potatoes of the King Crimson material lies in the tricolour albums ‘Discipline’, ‘Beat’ and ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’. Having missed all of King Crimson’s live phases and career,  this is about as good as it gets, and it’s pretty damn good fare.

What’s amazing about this incarnation of Crimson and its repertoire is that they play it with such gusto and for something like 3 hours, you certainly get your money’s worth. You come to realise that the recorded version of the music is just a shadow of this roaring red-blooded rock act. The music played live is far less mannered and much more rudely energetic and in your face. The performance bristles with energy.

The jaw dropping chops, the astounding array of sound and technology, the astonishing artistic choices, the tight control that gives way to sonic abandon, the abstraction, the integration of arrangements, is all entirely mesmerising. You sure don’t notice the three hours fly by.

What’s Bad About It

Musically, nothing.

The venue lighting guys were terrible. They didn’t light the front of the stage properly so we watched Adrian Belew in silhouette, back lit from the stage lights above and back, all night long. It was ridiculous. It was like some high school revue effort and I’m pretty sure there are some high school revues that are lit better than that.

What’s Interesting About It

The twin drumming by Pat Mastelotto and Toby Ralph was a revelation. It made me wonder what it might have been like with the B’boom era double trio setup with Bill Bruford, but in most part Mr. Bruford wasn’t missed. The polyrhythms, the syncopation, the dialogic interaction, the experimentation with sounds and extended spaces all built to a tremendous sonic punch. You don’t see bands with two drummers often but when you do, it changes the perception of rock music. It’s a testament to their musical nous and intelligence that the drum interactions come over so well.

The night had a few surprising moments. Tony Levin and the Stick Men half of the double trio played ‘Breathless’ off Robert Fripp’s solo album ‘Exposure’ (a touch stone for gonzo guitar as well as punk metal, musique concrete and Frippertronics). Amazingly, it sounded very much like the recorded version. Tony Levin was doing the Robert Fripp bits on the Stick and Markus Reuter was doing the Tony Levin bits from the album. Pat Mastelotto was doing a great interpretation of Jerry Marotta.

The encore decidedly wasn’t ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. The band opted to go with ‘Elephant Talk’, and ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’.

Adrian Belew – Guitar Rhinoceros, Twang-bar King

I had the exquisite pleasure of standing right in front of Adrian Belew all night long, so I got a close quarter look at how he goes about doing his thing. The most extraordinary thing – amongst many extraordinary things – is how well his guitar keeps tune because he rides the whammy bar hard. He rides it with his palm, he taps it with his ring finger and pinky, he gently shimmies with it and dives right down so the knob hits the neck pickup. It’s like what you imagine Hendrix to have been like with the whammy, but it’s more. More of everything, all rolled into his musical expression and style. He elicits overtones and harmonics from very different places to where other more conventional players elicit them and he bangs and whallops and bends the body and to get the whole guitar to resonate. It’s avant-garde guitar. It’s what Pete Townshend probably wanted to do but couldn’t so he opted to smash his guitars instead.

It’s not just the whammy bar thing. It’s the loops, the effects, the abstracted shards of noise, the piano sounds off the guitar synth, the brutal distortion tone that comes and goes with a tap of his foot, the seemingly infinite array of tones coming from the Parker Fly, and then there’s the actual playing technique that has to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s the jester in the Court of the Crimson King as he foot taps and finger taps and twiddle knobs in between playing complicated phrases, all with gusto and panache. He’s one of those people who just invent things and it’s perfect. It’s like how only John McEnroe plays tennis like John McEnroe. Only Adrian Belew plays guitar like this. I’ve seen Andy Summers at equally close quarters and Adrian left Andy for dead.

…and he sounds just like on the records. People use the word ‘awesome’ way too lightly to the point it has lost deeper meaning, and that’s a shame. Adrian Belew live on stage is the proper true definition of ‘awesome’.

Tony Levin – Stick Monster

I have a personal pantheon of bass heroes. A lot of them are prog rock guys from England that I natter on and on about – Squire, Entwistle, Wetton, Karn… The big exception is Tony Levin who is just about dead centre in my pantheon but I don’t talk about him much because I can’t begin to emulate what he does. I can come at the other guys because they play bass guitar as a lower register extension of guitars. Tony Levin plays the Chapman Stick – tapping away furiously – and when he plays a normal(-ish) bass, he plays the strings with percussive extensions on his index and middle fingers. I’m not sure what those extensions are made of, and how he goes about getting that tone he gets, but it’s a monster tone.

Seeing him live is a revelation. Especially because I’ve been reading his name on my fave album covers for most of my listening-collecting life starting at ‘Double Fantasy’ by John Lennon. Yes, he’s the bass player there. He’s on Peter Gabriel’s solo albums; Pink Floyd’s ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’;  and he’s even on ‘Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe’ – if you can’t wrangle Chris Squire, you get Tony Levin! – not to mention the 1980 onwards King Crimson albums; and he sounds different every time out on all those records. There is no particular Tony Levin sound you can nail him to (unlike say Chris Squire who can be honed in on with a Rickenbacker 4001 bass) or a Tony Levin style except the aesthetic surprise you get when you hear his sound. And all the while, you can sort of play his bass lines on a normal bass guitar to a point but it’s just not like anything anybody else does. It’s completely original and unique.

So yeah, I finally got to see Tony Levin live, got totally blown away, and walked away with very few hints on how to do that stuff.

The Adrian Belew Power Trio

Which brings me to Julie Slick on bass over on stage right; She seems to know exactly what to do to emulate Tony Levin. At one point Tony got his Stick caught in his belt and so he sort of stopped playing and adjusted his belt mid-song while Julie Slick kept the bottom end engine room going. It was seamless.

Adrian Belew’s half of the double trio played a few non-Crimson numbers and were wild.  They are ecstatic players. But if you can play like that you’d be ecstatic too.

Random Thoughts

Adrian Belew is a gentleman. They say “never meet your heroes”, but every gonzo guitar player should have the joy and pleasure of meeting Adrian Belew.

Tony Levin looks like Walter White. Just much nicer and more approachable.

Julie Slick wore these really funky shoes with one foot blue and the other yellow, adorned by dogs.  They were cool.

No Robert Fripp? No Problem. Markus Reuter had those chops down. He even looked a little like Robert Fripp with the glasses.

Pat Mastelotto looked a lot more imposing in person than in photos. He has a lot of power.

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Movie Doubles – ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1974) & ‘The Great Gatsby’ (2013)

“Gatsby? What Gatsby?”

Just so you know, that line has to be the cheesiest line in both versions. Neither Mia Farrow nor Carey Mulligan pull off the mixed sentiment of excitement and feigned indifference. I can’t think of a single actress who could do that, so it’s no knock on Farrow or Mulligan; just saying. Though one can say, “what Gatsby indeed?” because never has there been a remake that was so redundant as the Baz Luhrman film. It’s true, the old one has dated considerably in its shooting technique; but it’s not like the new version really substantially added any insight into the book. If anything, it looks more like a forgery than a remake.

Watching both versions, you come to realise that F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t a great dramaturg when it came to the characters in his novel. He’s so preoccupied with the particulars of the characters that he seems to forget that there is some kind of reason for those character  other than for the display of his characterisation. In may ways the book doesn’t have a lot of dramatic turning points so both versions of the film lurch from one loose moment to the next with only the most vague of causation. The end arrives as abruptly as the action starts to get a little interesting.

The Plaza Hotel Scene

The most conflict-ridden scene is the Plaza Hotel scene where things come to a head when Gatsby forces Daisy to tell Tom she doesn’t love him. But of course she breaks and says that she loves both men. In both versions this results in a closeup of shock on Gatsby played by Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. The shock on DiCaprio’s version is actually priceless.

It’s interesting that the identical scene is written 40years apart and remains mostly the same and true to the book. Yet, when seen back to back it is clear that there is some attempt by the characters of the 1974 version to settle things as adults, while the 2013 version seems to be more of a petulant outburst by an emotionally juvenile Gatsby. Yet this is the interesting crux of comparing the two versions. The earlier film seems populated by adults, with only Nick Carraway being the innocent. The latter film seems to be populated by overgrown adolescents who have tremendous difficulty behaving with proper civil decorum. Redford was 38 when he played the role. DiCaprio is 39. They’re both a bit too old to be playing Gatsby, but interestingly enough DiCaprio’s Gatsby comes across as being much younger in spirit as well as behaviour than Redford’s Gatsby.

Even Mulligan’s Daisy seems so much younger than Farrow’s Daisy. Carey Mulligan is listed as 28 according to Wikipedia, while Farrow was 29 at the time. You would still pick Farrow’s Daisy to be a much older woman than Mulligan’s Daisy.

It is as if cinema and its stars have gone through neoteny.

Robert Redford comes across as a adult with a strange fixation on this one woman. Leonardo DiCaprio comes across as a man-child trapped in a world he refuses to understand and is somehow latched onto the idea of Daisy much more than the real Daisy can sustain. You sort of wonder what has happened to our civilisation in the intervening years. Where have all the adults gone?

What The Distance of Time Tells Us

When you watch both versions back to back and have a little think about the character of Jay Gatsby, you’re forced to confront the fact that he’s a stalker. The whole getup with the mansion across the bay and the parties in spite of his retiring nature just so she would turn up, is one big stalky move. Nick Carraway on the other hand is a voyeur. He disguises his observations as a narrator in a sort of feigned indifference, but ultimately Nick makes the observations he does because he likes to watch. So the two main male characters in a story about a dynamic, masculine romanticism, are actually passive and recessive. This probably explains why the romance between Gatsby and Daisy feels incredibly turgid and dull in both versions. Gatsby might be great at getting to the girl, but he doesn’t know how to get the girl. Carraway’s sense of impotence in the narrative then is a reflection of Gatsby’s inability to close the deal he thinks he’s closing in upon. The rest of it seems to be a frivolous infatuation with the trappings of wealth.

Well, wealth is nice, so it’s not like there’s a great revelation there in either film. If anything the Luhrman version seems to be fixated on the lavishness of the parties and the manse, while the Clayton version seems to be fixated on class. These takes on the book are not bad in of themselves, but both movies seem to expose the hollowness at the core of the book itself. The Toby Maguire version of Nick Carraway makes a strong denunciation of Tom and Daisy and the inherited wealth set, while Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway makes more of a commentary on the shallowness of people inhabit the class, neither film really lends itself to a deeper analysis of the central ‘tragedy’.

Rich Girls Don’t Marry Poor Boys

For a line that’s not in the book, the line casts a long shadow over both films. The line is credited to the father of F. Scott Fiztgerald’s first love Ginevra.King, Charles G. King. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote down the quote when he first met the man, and the man allegedly said, “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

The line got rearranged into the line we know today by Francis Ford Coppola, and has made it into both versions of the film. It’s a strange way to find posterity, but there you have it Charles G. King, you’re an important footnote in cinema! The re-arranging of the line tells you a lot – that Charles G. King might have been trying to fend off a poor boy from his rich daughter, but in the eyes of Francis Ford Coppola the writer, “Rich Girls” know better and actively seek not to marry Poor Boys (presumably, if they had any goddamn sense).

Both films stage the line differently. In the Clayton version, it is as an outburst by Daisy in order to explain why she did not wait for Jay Gatsby to return from the war. In some ways the Clayton version is more classically sexist in that it ascribes the condition to the woman who would not marry below her class. The Luhrman version seems to attempt to subvert this line as being said by a man to another man as commentary on the condition of women and men in the 1920s – but in that sense it is more honest to the spirit of Charles G. King’s utterance.

I don’t know how uncomfortable people are when they watch either of the Gatsby movies and when the line gets flung. When Daisy says it in the earlier film, it is like an admission of her shallowness and awfulness of character that she would embrace wealth over any personal attribute Gatsby might have had to offer before he became wealthy. Naturally, it is more memorable than the passing comment version of the Luhrman version because it is the crux of the argument for Daisy’s actions in the story in the earlier film, when she refuses to say she never loved Tom Buchanan.

What is interesting in the Luhrman version is that upon hearing it, Nick dismisses the notion, and this seems to mean that Luhrman does not hold to it as an important part of Daisy’s calculations (or Jordan’s for that matter); rather, the line is a commentary that is aimed at the audience as somehow malicious without significance. Nonetheless the Nick Carraway in the latter version ends up in psychiatric care with Jack Thompson(!) over his abreaction to the shallowness of Daisy. It’s possible that Luhrman’s relationship with the line is a lot more complicated than first appearance.

Shooting Technique

The advent of the zoom lens must have been extraordinary in its day. Suddenly there was the freedom to re-frame without having to change lenses. The 1970s is the age of the zoom lens in cinema as resizing the shot with the zoom while the shot is running, became part of the package. There are a lot of zoom lens flourishes and re-sized frames in the earlier film, which makes it a typical film of its time. We just don’t see that style any more. Watching it requires one to readjust to the aesthetic of the era. After the aesthetically severe 1980s there was a concerted, almost puritanical shift away from the zoom lens, while other devices such as the Steadicam an the Louma crane came in to vogue.

Baz Luhrman seems hell bent on moving the camera no matter what, so his films are populated with gratuitous crane shots, stomach-turning tracking shots, and liberal doses of the Steadicam. For all the time that has elapsed between the two films, it seems the Great Gatsby can only be captured on film with the most gauche camera moves available.

Maybe in 40years time, somebody will come up with an even more radical way to move the camera, and then we will be in for an even more radical Gatsby. Maybe it will only be in 20years. It probably won’t be worth it.

What The Distance of Time Tells Us Part II

Meyer Wolfsheim in the book is clearly based on Arnold Rothstein who famously fixed the 1919 World Series. We’ve seen the characterisation of Rothstein in ‘Eight Men out’ as well as more recently in ‘Boardwalk Empire’. So that would make Jay Gatsby somebody a bit like Jimmy Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Or Meyer Lansky or Lucky Luciano or even Al Capone. In any case, to have been a bootlegger with such success would imply Gatsby must have been high up in these kinds of outfits. You wonder how Arnold Rothstein in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ would react if he found out one of his associates was holding randomly lavish parties in a big mansion on Long Island.

One wonders how well Fitzgerald might have known such figures. Or maybe he didn’t and that is why he only obliquely refers to Wolfsheim as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and leaves it at that. While we see the phone calls about Philadelphia in both films, neither film really brings an outline to the bootlegging that was going on under the Prohibition, even though this is the source of Gatsby’s great wealth. It appears that even though Fitzgerald was living the reality of the Prohibition era, he had very little idea as to how things were and how they worked. This is reflected in the scarcity of detail in the book as well as both films. The limits of the book circumscribe the limits for both films and in many ways this is disappointing because frankly, inquiring minds would want to know.

It is clear that over time, the ‘Gatsby’ fiction has been far superseded by the detailed fiction of such things as ‘Boardwalk Empire’.

Spotting Names

The 1974 version actually is a bit of a revelation because it features some interesting names. Lois Chiles – who plays my favourite Bond Girl in ‘Moonraker’ – appears as Jordan Baker. That was a bit of a  surprise-reminder. Also surprising is the girl playing Daisy’s daughter Pammy, was Patsy Kensit. yes, that Patsy Kensit. Scott Wilson plays George Wilson, and that’s pretty interesting  I’d totally forgotten about that performance.


Filed under Cinema, Film, Jazz, Movies

Firebird VII

Firebird Sweet

My Big Guitar Project for 2012 turned out to be this red Gibson Firebird VII with gold trim like the picture above. It’s a bit of confluence of things that led to this project but when I list to factors, you might grok in fullness the weird road to the Gibson Firebird VII.

The most familiar Firebird player in my collection of CDs is Clarence Gatemouth Brown. He had a swanky Firebird V, and there is no duplicating his clean tone without some Firebird under your fingers. It’s just the way it is, because not only is the cut of the body an oddball shape, Firebirds sport minihumbuckers and walnut bodies, with through-body necks.

Other oddities in the Firebird design would be the through-neck design and the Cadillac-fin styling of the body (it was designed by a car designer Gibson Co. hired). It has had many variants over the years, but perhaps the most appealing to me is the Firebird VII with the 3 pickup with Maestro Vibrola arm. Yes, it’s Gibson’s copy of the Fender Stratocaster – even though they’d never admit the bleeding obvious – and being a dyed-in-the-wool Strat player, the one that resonates the most is the FB VII.

Of course, Gibson wares in Australia are always priced for lawyers, advertising execs and drug-dealers, so it was going to be hard to say, “Oh I’ll check out the Gibson”. Sure. On my way home from buying my Aston Martin Bond car.

Anyway, I thought if I could pick up an Epiphone version of the FB VII, I wouldn’t mind loading it up with Seymour Duncans and giving it a red hot go. Of course, Epiphone stopped making their version some years back, so the opportunity seemed to be less than initially imagined. Then along came a full custom shop “body and neck only” in good nick, so that made me empty my piggy bank.

The thing about electric guitars is that you can go through life not knowing the subtleties of what goes into the sound and still be a great player. But if you want to be a unique player, you have to be willing to go much further afield than Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls and Flying Vs. Similarly, with the choice of wood, you have to leave behind Swamp Ash or Alder or Mahogany. Walnut is the thing! (technically, there is mahogany sandwiched in the FB VII, but the ‘wings’ are Walnut).

Walnut warrants a bit of explication. Alembic use Walnut to build thru-body neck designs for their high end product. The grain is open but tight and so there is a fair chunk of density. It has a higher tone than Mahogany, Swamp Ash or Alder, but is not as bright as Maple. Walnut shows great resonance when you rap it with your knuckles. One of my pet dream projects is to build a guitar around a big Walnut body – like a L5S body – and a Walnut neck, to get the maximum wood tone of Walnut and call it ‘Wally’.

The surprsing thing about the Firebird design is just how much wood there is in it. When I sit it next to a Stratocaster, it’s clear it has so much more wood in the headstock and body. This is important because what gives an electric guitar distinctive tone is the wood; and the more wood there is, the more complex and rich the decay of the envelope. Add in the fact that there is no neck joint and you have the recipe for a very rich sounding guitar.

I installed Seymour Duncan SM-1n in the neck and S-M3n and SM-3b for the middle and bridge positions. They’re all wound around Alnico V magnets instead of ceramic magnets, which gives them a warmer, ’rounded’ tone. I guess one could dream about getting Alnico II versions from somewhere, but Alnico Vs should be good enough for now.

Wiring up was a little strange. The Firebird chamber is very small, and it sports 3 Volume knobs and 1 Tone, but only a 3 way switch. I tried using a 6 way switch but that didn’t work out too well. The 3 Volume pots makes things  interesting, especially because there’s effectively no Master Volume control, but there is a master Tone control. You do have more control over tonal combinations between the pickups but the wiring is convoluted as a result of the choice.

The tuning pegs were also an interesting problem. Because of the oddball design in the headstock and tuners, I had to get Steinberger Gearless Tuners. These are interesting things because they work like a clamp and a shifter rather than the traditional winding on to posts. They too were a learning exercise but now that they’re on, they seem to be very stable tuners.

The weird thing about the Gibson Firebird is that there is nothing apart from the body and neck that can’t be improved by third party parts. The Seymour Duncans are better than the Gibson minihumbuckers; the third party Vibrola copy is more stable than the original; there is a roller saddle bridge with locking posts out there that is an improvement on the Tune-o-matic bridge favoured by Gibson. All the same, when you string it up and set up the action, you’re confronted by the great craftsmanship on the body and neck. It sure makes you wonder about the Gibson company.

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Memento Mori Theory Of Art

Depictions of Death Make For Important Art

Over the break I wanted to briefly write down some observations about the power of memento mori, but then I lost my post; then I tried to reconstruct it and lost my train of thought. Here is what remains of the wreck.

Memento Mori is of course the reminder of our mortality that is woven into themes and paintings. There’s a theory going around that the purpose of artistic endeavor itself is a kind of memento mori, and what makes art truly important is how powerful this reminder can be. This would explain the persistent popularity of such genres as Gothic Horror in literature or Goth as a style, and even heavy metal music. What struck me about this is that it is actually difficult to make something lasting without memento mori. In turn, the most popular works of any artist picked at random probably deals with death.

Shakespeare’s most famous play is ‘Hamlet’, and it has the famous “alas poor Yorrick” scene with skull in hand as well as the soliloquy about living and dying. If that is too literal, then at least it is worth considering that memento mori in literature marks most of the great books in any list. In the Iliad, there’s Achilles’ lament for Patroclus mirrored with Priam’s lament for Hector. In the Odyssey, there is the episode where Odysseus talks to the dead in Hades; The epic of Gilgamesh is about Gilgamesh’s search for immortality because deep down he fears death. It’s everywhere in classical literature. This is a tradition in narratives that flows through to modern texts.

So it seems to work for the importance stakes by just inserting death. For instance, if Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin didn’t die in those books, would they have been revered less or more? What makes every photo taken during the US Civil War so artistic but the intrinsic knowledge that all he people in it are dead, and that if they were soldiers, some of them likely died not long after the photo was taken. Doesn’t Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series milk this for all its worth? This suggests you can have a pretty good work of art and add death and it probably adds profundity – and what else is this profundity but the sentiment that is provoked by the memento mori?

Try this for an example: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ has a sad ending. When Disney gets its hands on it, it has a happy ending, and a spin off TV series to boot. Which is more profound? We know it’s the original version with the death. I’m not really going anywhere special with all this except to say that it is a lot more ingrained in the arts than we might think at first glance. Is important Art then good art? The sizable audience to the Disney ‘Little Mermaid’ franchise might suggest otherwise. Critics always pick the less popular, but death-wedded original.

Modern Substitutions

I know I’ve mentioned this before that if you stick the Holocaust reference in to your film somewhere, it doubles your chances for an Oscar. This is suggested by some to be because the Academy is filled with Jewish people, but the more direct reason is that the Holocaust has placed itself as the ultimate memento mori that substitutes for all the massive death and destruction wrought in World War II. A film increases in importance simply because you have the Holocaust as part of the story; like a talisman it activates our awareness of death. Considering that Stalin’s regime killed more of its own people than the Nazis did to their own and others, and the demonisation of Communism through the twentieth century, it’s interesting to note that communism, gulags and the GRU don’t have quite the memento mori effect of Nazis, death camps and the SS. By comparison, the dull utility of comunism and communist design has far less weight in fiction and the arts in general.

Of course, it is easier to understand Nazism in  light of memento mori because in most part it was an attempt to aestheticise ethics. Thus, Hitler and Himmler adorned the SS uniforms with mystical symbols and a deaths head. It’s an instant fetishisation of death that is familiar to us. It is a familiar move because we’ve seen it before and since. But the allure of aesthetising death itself as a political act couldn’t possibly have so much meaning without the power of death in art itself.

The modern world of media and pop culture is filled with more references to death than you can poke a stick at.

Here are some examples worth pondering. My favorite Pink Floyd album is ‘Animals’; The best-selling work by Pink Floyd is ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ which in survey of ideas such as time and money, deals with death with the song ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ (which I covered, by the way, here).

For all its celebration of sex, a lot of rock is a kind of memento mori, what with all the heroes who have died young. The list of dead rock musicians who didn’t make it to a ripe old age is a significant list of names starting with say, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens.You only have to write the names of dead rock stars and it suddenly evokes the body of work in rock. Try these names: John Lennon, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Marc Bolan, Keith Moon, Syd Vicious, Kurt Cobain. When you watch the Foo Fighters live, David Grohl himself becomes a kind of living memento mori in the memory of Kurt Cobain, which explains the morbid fascination surrounding the Foo Fighters.

Yet, of all the sub-genres of rock, the most enduring branches are in fact Metal and Goth because their visual motifs remain largely unchanged. Death features prominently in the oeuvre of metal and goth. Album after album by Iron Maiden is filled with ironic images of death. Death is central thematic unity of Metal. One could argue the excesses are a kind of kitsch but if you judge the sales of Iron Maiden albums to their die-hard fans, you’d have to conclude it is doing its job.

Recently I put together an electric guitar from Warmoth parts for a friend. It had one knob – a volume knob  and it was important that it had a death skull on it. The meaning of it was simply to imbue the guitar with a memento mori. “all shred axes should have a memento mori,” he proclaimed. It makes some sort of intrinsic and extrinsic sense, not only because it is to play heavy metal, but because deeper down playing music makes you count down time; and thoughts of time inevitably lead to thoughts of death, vis a vis ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

The main character in the Star Wars cycle turns out to be Anakin, who is Darth Vader, and Vader’s helmet is like a skull with a helmet. In the original three movies, Darth Vader is like the big memento mori character – who of course dies at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’; and in the more recent prequel trilogy, the audience grapples with Anakin’s descent into being Darth Vader.  It’s part of existentialism that the prior acknowledgment of one’s one mortality enables one to take on the challenge that the remaining time in our lives present, and yet it actually has artistic roots in things that go back to pre-history.

The point of all this is to say, it is everywhere, if you simply choose to look.

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History Is Now

The Sum Total of Human Experience For 2000 Years

A little while ago the Economist put up this chart in their Daily Chart section. I’ve been meaning to blog it but life has a way of getting in the way of blogging. It’s a chart of summing up the years lived and the economic output of humanity for the last 2000 years.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

For a moment, I want people to consider what this means. That 28% of human history and experience was lived in the 20th Century tells us that whatever was important leading up to the 20th Century, things that were just as important happened in the 20th century. Add in the 23% from the last 11 years of the 21st Century and basically, the last 111 years account for 51% of the sum total of human experience for the last 2000 years.

If you look at that gentle slope to the left of the 20th century, that includes the Empire phase of the of the Roman Empire minus the first 49 years which fell before 1AD, the various empires in the Middle East and Persia, the multitude of Chinese Dynasties since the latter Han Dynasty, and so on. The cultural output probably correlates with economic output as a proxy, so what this all suggests is that everybody from (just randomly, no relative importance implied) Tacitus and Suetonius and Zhuge Liang and St Thomas Aquinas and Renee Descartes and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Constantine and Napoleon, all fall into 49% to the left of the 20th Century.

In turn, if you had a detailed understanding of the 20th Century and the 11years of this century, you’d actually be on top of 51% (and growing in proportion) of human history since 1AD. This doesn’t immediately relegate the classics of any field to the dust bin, but it puts it all into a different perspective.

There was a study done in Germany that pointed to 1970 as the year classical education ended. That is to say, it was the year in which the teaching of classics was no longer the mainstay of education, that increasingly vocational education pushed aside the classical education. If you look at this chart, you can see why. The push of modernity was directly the push of the massive demographic that arose in the 20th century. It is possible more people were lost to war and violence than any other time in history in the 20th Century, and even then it managed to produce so many life-hours and economic output and by extension, cultural output.

In turn, what has happened since 1970 sheds a lot of light on this shift. The move from modernism to post-modernist philosophy was probably an attempt to accommodate this giant shift where overnight the classical teachings that formed the cultural framework became obsolete. Indeed, more humans have read the classics, listened to classical music alone in the last 111years, while things like cinema as a form of expression grew into maturity and needed to be discussed. Pop music of various shades supplanted the ‘importance’ of classical music and contemporary art keeps on rewriting the frontiers of expression at an ever more frantic pace.

The best book that in fact offers an insight into this might be ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler, because what is described in that book is precisely what this chart has shown, and the implications keep reaching out. I don’t mean to praise the book, but rereading it today would offer confirmation that indeed the future is not only now, so is history.

One of the important take away messages from the chart is that what we are doing right now, is just as important as what happened before. Your poem, your short story, your film, your song is no less important than anything that preceded it. It’s just that nobody has had the time to find your work unless you have become a celebrity. Not being famous and best-selling does not preclude you from being a valued contributor to the human experience. Be encouraged in knowing that what you are doing is meaningful. Go forth and create, secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is just as important as what came before. It’s counter-intuitive, but history is in the making, right now as we speak, and you are doing it.

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Shadow Of Death

Why We Do Creative Stuff

This isn’t an entry about the artist over at iComp who used to go by the handle Shadow of Death.

This is something else entirely.Just thought I’d get that out of the way first.

I’ve recently been thinking about the mission of the artist a lot, in as much as I have been teaching a class full of novices how to produce videos. It’s a 12 week course that I’m teaching so it’s hard enough getting through all the technical aspects, but I keep on having to digress to talk about the whys and wherefores of approaches. That is to say, I’m busily trying to impart a method, only to be forced back to the raison d’etre of creating anything in any medium.

An artist or writer or musician will come fact to face with their work only a limited number of times in their life. This is why death makes the price of artworks by a particular artist go up. There is no such long tail with cinema and film making, but the opportunities to do anything are even more limited than if one’s means of production were more readily accessible. The flip-side of that it is arguable that every time you pick up something to do anything creative is an important moment.

I’ve also been telling my students that whatever it is that they choose to do or make, they have to work it with the utmost of their artistic convictions – otherwise they are cheating not only the audience but themselves of the opportunity to do something truly transcendent. The good news is that as Frank Zappa says, if you can put a framework around it you can call it a work of art. at one end is the austere challenge of doing something worthwhile and at the other is the liberation for all approaches; I sort of wonder if my students can keep both things in my head.

The truth is, I tell them so many things I don’t know what is sinking in and what is washing off like water off a duck’s back. All the while the elephant in the room seems to be the challenge to do something worthwhile. They asked me if I was a tough marker. I said no, but in looking at how I’ve marked their essays, I have to admit that I am tough. In turn, Ive been sitting on a desk job for 3 years now just to pay the rent and as the summer rolls around, I’m beginning to feel a real yearning to go back to a creative life. Perhaps my own creative frustration is seeping through unfairly.

I don’t offer any new insight into any of this except perhaps all of this is in sharper focus for me this month because I have had to think about this stuff more with students at hand. We do what we do because it pleases us, and we do what we do because we want it to delight somebody. If somebody did a sculpture of a dog turd and called it art, it probably has somebody who takes delight in the object sitting in an art gallery as art. The point is do more, do as many, mean it when you do it because you don’t know how many shots you get at it.

In any case, all our work – be they films, songs, novels and poems – mark out time unto our ultimate ends. All our creative works are done in defiance of the impending doom, affirmations of a life lived under the shadow of death.

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Porn In Public Spaces

Pictures of Lilly

I’m an extreme hard case on behalf of the freedom of expression since way back when. It’s my contention that if the censorious wowsers come for one of us, they’ll come for all of us.  My right to pen and express songs like ‘Pony The Orangutan‘ go hand in hand with somebody’s right to make and present ‘Human Centipede’ or Bill Henson to shoot nudes or for that matter any artist. The point is, any attempt to curtail expression is the thin end of the wedge.

So it strikes me as interesting when a wowser tries to couch the issue in terms of reasonableness when really, there is no compromise position. You either accept that not all things expressed on the planet are to your liking, or you go down the censorious road trying to define where the moral lines are across myriad forms of expression. Anyway, here’s today’s wowser getting a bit of attention in the SMH. The issue at hand is the apparent availability of soft core porn in petrol stations

When your child spies a trashy porn mag in a servo and asks out loud: “Mummy why is that lady not wearing a shirt?”, should you give her the honest answer? Say, “Well sweetie, men take those magazines home and masturbate over them”?

Hmmmm. No, maybe honesty is not the best policy in this scenario.

Should you lie to her? “Well, darling it must have been a very hot day that day.”  No, not really cutting it.

I think that if you don’t have the courage to discuss masturbation, then I think it’s your problem with human sexuality itself. The bottom line is that as a parent you’re going to have to talk about sex at some point. The place of pornography and masturbation is probably going to need some addressing. If the child is too young to know, then it’s still the parent’s responsibility to answer that it is not for them and that they will get it explained to them when they’re ready. However let’s leave that aside for a moment because the cases she’s building is not that it is difficult to responsibly discharge parenting duties, but rather porn itself makes the world bad.

So you pay your bill quickly, trying to block her view, and head back to the car hoping an upbeat version of Cold Spaghetti might erase her short-term memory.

On the way back to your vehicle you pass a P-plater’s car with a “Porn Star” bumper sticker and a ute full of boys who yell “show us your tits” to the young female driver.

Where is a mother to turn in these days of sex, sex and longer lasting sex, not to mention sex tapes, sex dolls and sex shops?

Well, those youths are not representatives of the porn industry, they’re youths. They’re bad youths, I’ll grant you that, and maybe it was porn that made them that way (I doubt it, but let’s say it is so for a moment), it still isn’t the porn industry’s fault these youths are behaving like sexist idiots. So here she is conflating porn with juvenile masculinity as if they are one and the same.

But it gets worse.

If viewing pornography leads to an increased likelihood of sexual assault, pedophilia and marital breakdown then the answer is simple: yes.

But that’s just what the research tells us – maybe we should hear from some people in the sex industry themselves.

There’s this from some ex-prostitutes, or this from ex-lap dancers, or this from ex-porn stars, and let’s not forget the female staff who work in our servos, some of whom are under 18, who are forced to handle porn that is legally only suitable for people over 18.

Despite this contradictory legislation, or thousands of first-hand accounts from beaten, abused, fragile women, it seems nothing is going to stop the juggernaut that is the porn industry – there’s far too much money to be made.

So in this free world that I and my children also live in, if I don’t want to access porn, how can I avoid it?

There are some non-sequiteurs in this argument. A correlation of increased likelihood of sexual assault, pedophilia and marital breakdown might be attributed to porn, but I doubt any court would accept the argument that “porn made me do it; try them pornographers instead of me”. People and their  volition have to count for something. As dislikeable as porn is, as with the argument to do with guns – that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” – it is equally the case that it’s not porn that commits crimes, it’s people who commit crimes.

And whatever independent testimony can be obtained from ex-prostitutes, ex-lap dancers, ex-porn-stars and so on, by the same token nobody is ever going to successfully argue that porn is somehow morally positive. Its only ethical benefit is that it aids masturbation (more on this later). One can’t really be making a case to get rid of porn other than on morality, which comes back to the notion of obscenity and hence obscenity laws and censorship.

As for the underage person at the petrol station, if an underage person is working in the petrol station and has to handle the porn magazine in order to accept payment, this is not the same thing as having to read/view/consume the porn. It’s this kind of conflating that really gets my goat. but it gets even worse.

I want to raise my two daughters to believe they are worth more than what is between their legs, but as children they will be confronted with this and this, as teenagers this, and as women the bombardment continues.

This month the UN created the “UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women”, in a bid to “promote gender equality” according to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Let’s help the Secretary-General out and get this trash out of our servos and off the shelves of our convenience stores and into adult shops where it belongs away from the eyes of our children.

Having not made a coherent case, it’s back to the bashing the porn in the petrol station, using the UN’s document. Now, “Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women” are fine social goals for the world over, and porn does seem to stand in the way of that fine goal but there are laws that permit certain kinds of porn to exist, for it to be published and for it to be distributed. The fact that one doesn’t like it, is in no way a persuasive argument against having porn available in petrol stations; it was a fractionally better argument when it was “how do I protect my children when it’s all around?”

The closing salvo reveals the actual contempt this columnist has for men in general.

Now bring on the femi-Nazi labels and the pot shots at my sex life and call me a prude as much as you like. Given 100 per cent of men view pornography by the time they’re 15, I’m not expecting the male population to applaud such a move.

As you can see, I have not branded her a Femi-Nazi not taken potshots at her sex life (why we should be interested in doing so in this context totally boggles the mind, be that as it may) or called her a prude. Nonetheless I do think this is the kind of wowserism dressing itself up as reasonableness. The problem still is that it’s not reasonable in any way shape or form to be attacking soft-core porn in vinyl covers sold in petrol stations on the grounds that you cannot explain to your own kids what porn is or what its social meaning actually is.

Lady, the bottom line is that you’re a bad parent. Don’t make it out that it’s the porn industry’s fault that you’re a bad parent.

If indeed it is the case that 100% men view porn by the time they are 15 as stated, it seems porn has a much more important function in our society than she is giving credit and should not be left to errant, idiotic, illogical wowser columnists to judge on the basis of their own bias or personal inadequacies as a parent.

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