Drummer-composer Devin Drobka harbors dreams for a surviving world in “Bell Dance Songs”

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Devin Drobka — Bell Dance Songs. CD review 

Devin Drobka evokes fellow composer-percussionist Paul Motian, one of his influences and heroes, like a kind of guiding light throughout this album. The CD-opening “Blues Town,” exploits the fraught relationship between a elegantly unfolding, mournful melody and a rhythmic pulse that pushes the melody like waves lapping against a rocky shore.

Bell Dance Songs brims with such melodic and rhythmic tensions, often evoking dance-like rhythms, as a bell’s ring might, resonating in circular fashion more than articulating step patterns or back beats. This creative activity is very characteristic of Motian, who always defied conventions of the rhythm-maker’s role.

Another eccentric but fecund jazz innovator, guitarist Bill Frisell, emerges as a contrasting inspiration to expand the sonic and conceptual palette on “It’s Been Days Since I’ve Heard from You.” This melody arrives at an even slower, a funereal pace, and Jay Mollerskov’s space-twang guitar creates a brief portrait, suggesting a lonely prospector with little hopes of discovering much more than the wind, and dust in his teeth. Bassist John Christensen and saxophonist Chris Weller plumb inconsolably sad notes. The idea of hearing from a friend or lover feels remote, another broken dream.

The pace picks up on “For Paul (Dia de)” when the drums again boost the melody to higher pitches. Saxophonist Weller and guitarist Mollerskov alternate in two-part solos, the former with Coltrane-esque courage, like the cry of a plunging eagle. Then the sax climbs a  steep and precipitous sonic plane. The latter plays a welter of angularity, increasingly atonal. Amid this, drummer Drobka unfurls a fusillade of drum rolls at different dynamic angles, in this explicit Motian tribute.

devindrobka-300x145Drummer-composer Devin Drobka Courtesy wmse.org.

For its challenges, Bell Dance Songs allows breathing spaces, like “Restless Dogs” which cuts away the bricolage while maintaining the eccentric manner and articulation.

Although a pianoless quartet, Drobka’s group sometimes recalls pianist Keith Jarrett’s 1970s American quartet with Motian and saxophonist Dewey Redman, with its roiling rhythms and forlorn, piquant melodies. But on “Bring Out Your Dead,” free of pianistic harmonic underpinnings, the guitar and sax stoke a fire of sizzling expressionistic interplay, while forging their own entangled melodic ways. The composer confirms that this slightly madcap energy was inspired by absurdist British comedy troupe Monty Python, from a skit titled “Bring out Your Dead.”

This gives you a little idea of the the evocative power of these songs. In concert recently at The Jazz Estate, Drobka related fairly extensive and vivid anecdotes that inspired each composition. I asked him to elaborate on one at length, which involved a dream, a tune called “Ishan”:

“In the dream he was lying in his own bed but in a completely different room. A door opening awoke him and a shirtless man entered with long curly hair and a tattoo across his side, a highly stylized Audubon’s (rain) barrel body but with the head of a very geometric owl. I get up from my bed and asked who he was.

“Do not worry, my name is Ishan,” he replied. “I lied back in bed and he proceeded to sit at a desk in the corner. I looked away and when I turned back and look at him his hair is extremely short. He stands up and proceeds to walk out of the room. I follow and enter a gigantic rectangular room. Something like 150 by 45 feet, and all the walls were glass with dense foliage pressing against the windows. In the center’s great hall stood a long wooden table, about 90 feet, covered in books. The table is right underneath a skylight that was the same length as the table. Inside a tremendous storm arose. I could feel the wind and rain as if they engulfed the room.

Following Ishan closer to the table, one book stood out. “It was the largest book on the table and its pages were rapidly flapping because of the win. As I walked up I put my hand out to stop the pages and as soon as I did that, I awoke.”

It’s a not-untypical dream, a little peculiar but not too bizarre and with reasonably interpretable symbolism. Ishan seems to signify some kind of literary/environmentalist guru or shaman, and it suggests to me the desire for extraordinary guidance about our environmental crisis. The owl traditionally symbolizes wisdom, among societies close to the earth.

I’m happy Drobka still feels a real book is the source of such knowledge rather any of today’s more facile electronic media. So he finds a large book that might be a Bible, but more likely something environmentally substantial, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Thoreau’s Walden, or a book of Wendell Berry poems, even if those are shorter works. Or an authoritative anthology of environmental writing such as American Earth edited by writer-activist Bill McKibben. Or the latest scientific research on global warming.

Or something was more pagan or zen,  given the shaman implications. And its reasonable to ultimately see the mystery shaman as Motian, the defier of rhythmic convention, but the true conjurer of creative possibility.

Ultimately what counts is how well “Ishan” works as music, clearly with evocative inspiration, and this piece, like most of them, conveys a storytelling quality that gets the imagination asking questions of itself.

These are superb ambitions and accomplishments for composition and improvisation, and often well-realized on this record. It’s also a brilliantly indirect way of conveying a holistic environmental ethos. The album cover photo beautifully depicts a vulnerable rain forest. And bell dances suggest a ritual type of act, generating vibrations connecting with the mystical “music of the spheres.” Who can’t feel at least sympathy for such a world view? Drobka might suggest more than sympathy is needed for the planet’s survival.

My only caveat for this album is that, without Drobka’s diverting and guide-posting anecdotes (good material for missing liner notes), a fairly swinging or funky tune would have complemented and eased the insistently heady interplay. The band played an infectious funk tune at the Estate. Despite their tropes, swing and funk can still generate avenues of fresh ingenuity.

Bell Dance Songs conveys a tersely ardent energy that asks the listener to meet it half way. If you enjoy conceptual open air shifting under your feet, where structures turn into startling and lyrically probing shapes, if you like music to chew on, this is your record.

Bell Dance Songs is currently available online for only $5 at http://cargocollective.com/devindrobka

The Devin Drobka Quartet will perform at The Bay View Jazz Festival at 9 p.m. Friday June 6, at Studio Lounge, 2246 S. Kinnickinnick Ave.


Album cover photo courtesy bsidegraphics.com

The Bad Plus adds up a new Rite of Spring with smart subtraction

bad plusThe Bad Plus: The Rite of Spring (Masterworks)

The propulsive “Augurs of Spring” rhythms and the contorted “Ritual of Abduction” must’ve called out to Minneapolis’ muscular alt-jazz trio. They bravely delve into Stravinsky’s transformative epic The Rite of Spring. Yes they boil down the orchestra; yet Ethan Iverson brilliantly funnels Stravinsky’s glittering, dissonant orchestration through his keyboard.

Bass and drums stoke the suspense and ecstasy, the thunderous drama, the sense of wonder at life and the planet’s riches, strangeness, madness and beauty. Thius amounts to one of the most seamlessly successful jazz fusions of classical material, And that’s partly because the group has a strong rock sensibility, and if The Rite isn’t classical rock music in its essence, I don’t know what is. It may not be metal, but it sure is stone. 021513_BadPlus_0217.r The Bad Plus perform “The Rite of Spring” live in Boston. From left, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King. Courtesy bostonglobe.com.

And a good bad plus, you gotta like Iverson’s tongue-in-cheek unpretentiousness when recently identifying the piece after they had performed the 45-minute work live in Boston. “That was a tune by Igor Stravinsky called The Rite of Spring,” he deadpanned.

As a paean to paganism that spurred a riot at its May, 1913 premiere, The Rite still casts naked light on its world, and never grows any older than springtime.


This review originally was published in The Shepherd Express, in a shorter form. 

Trumpeter Russ Johnson opens new vistas in jazz conversation

Russ J Russ Johnson — Meeting Point (Relay Recordings) CD review The Russ Johnson Quartet will perform at a CD release party for “Meeting Point” on Saturday, May 24 at 9 p.m. at Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave, Milwaukee (414-481-2393) Cover $10

It’s no secret that the bass gives the gas to funk, as the pulse and the sinewy drive. Among wind instruments, the honking sax has mostly led the charge since the blues and R&B blasts of Illinois Jacquet, Maceo Parker, Stanley Turrentine and David Sanborn.

Then Bennie Maupin added a twist to the equation when his guttural bass clarinet slinked out of the ether to grab the music world by the throat in the intro-groove of Herbie Hancock’s genre-shattering jam “Chameleon” in 1973.

On this CD, Jason Stein reminds us of the sexy, sultry grit of that resonant instrument on “Lithosphere,” the back-beat bouncer that opens “Meeting Point.” As the album title implies, it might have been dubbed “Conversation,” also the title of three tracks of trumpeter Johnson in duet with his bandmates, not to mention the trumpeter-composer’s three-part “Confluence.”

But the talking Johnson does on “Lithosphere” sounds like sassy old Lee Morgan working the club. Which reminds me, I once wrote a short story about a working-stiff trumpeter who one day relieves his road-weary malaise by declaring, “Sometimes all I want to do listen to Lee Morgan play trumpet.” When a musician recalls that for me, he’s doing something.

Something else Johnson is doing is nibbling at new parameters for muted-trumpet playing. Specifically he’s pushing beyond the mood-enhancement aspects into the phrasing implicit in the mute’s sound, as the player transitions from note to note. So Sometimes Johnson sounds like he’s literally talking a new language. More to come from him on this for sure.

The piano-less two-horn quartet extends the freedom of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, with a collective sound that derives its ingenuity, power and most of its harmonic implications from the interactive voices of two liberated brass instruments, often in seeming free-fall, like hungry raptors.

Still, its commonplace today to observe that such sonic cries derive roundaboutly from the blues, the basis of much of Coleman’s pioneering work. This proved that Coleman’s plastic alto sax and Don Cherry’s battered pocket trumpet could get the blues as well as Robert Johnson and his bedeviled guitar, hamolodically speaking, as Coleman would spend decades trying to explain.

Suffice to say, for this listener Johnson’s quartet finds the wind that’s always at the back of any good jazz group on “Clothesline.” I’m talking about tough-nosed swing. Anton Hatwich’s propulsive walking bass carries the day but, again, Stein gives his bass clarinet a gutsy whirl to remember, until Johnson flies in for some counterpoint — like two shirt sleeves dancing on the clothesline.

Remember that it was Eric Dolphy, not Maupin, who actually liberated the bass clarinet, as an interval-hopscotching free-bopper, and Stein would’ve likely never ventured into “Chaos Theory” without Dolphy’s beacon. russ   Johnson has done as much as any recent musician to keep Dolphy’s legacy alive, having performed the music from Dolphy’s classic Out to Lunch album at a special event honoring Dolphy, which included the unveiling of a bronze statue of the great jazz wind player at LeMoyne College in 2010 (Most of Johnson’s Dolphy interpretations are readily available on YouTube).

On “Chaos” Johnson’s own scrambles are tethered to sharp-yet-pungent accents. His mute playing emerges even stronger in his “Conversation” with drummer Tim Daisy, whose mallets simmer in a free tempo for the trumpeter to dive into. Johnson’s mute blowing wrenches a burning breath from his lungs, a virtual evocation of artfully desperate drowning.

Bassist Hatwich solemnly introduces “Half Full,” the album’s most impressive exposition of a theme, built on a mere pair of rise-and-fall intervals, but the melodic and rhythmic tension creates a plangent poignancy that suggests “Half Full” might as well be half empty.

Nevertheless, this piece and this album are no half-measures, rather a trumpeter-composer and his telepathic group in full-blown synchronicity.

Johnson’s quartet will also perform at 9 p.m. Friday, May 23 at Constellation in Chicago.


Album cover photo by Jamie Breiwick.

Color this your favorite Jackie Allen album

downloadjackie a

Jackie Allen — My Favorite Color (Avant Bass) CD review


Saturday May 24, 7pm

“My Favorite Color” cd release party, $10 cover

Jazz Gallery Center For The Arts
926 E. Center St.
Milwaukee, WI



-all ages welcome
John Moulder guitar, Hans Sturm bass, Dane Richeson, drums


Milwaukee-born singer Jackie Allen brings to mind a bramble bush in autumn. You hear a delicate balance of songs imbued with painful confession, as if her voice carries the slight tinge of spiritual bloodletting. It’s probably her best album to date.

She has ripened into a mature artistic interpreter, without losing the youthful elan that always gave her a special power. Circumstances compelled her to give this record a full six years in the making. Time was on her side.

The core of the album is a sequence of three extraordinary songs, beginning with the George Gershwin masterpiece “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy & Bess.

Allen dips into mournful minor-key mode like a woman bereft. Her notes seem to melt in abject sorrow, at once strange and gorgeous. This emotional gravity allows her to ride the difficult tonality, a classic case of form following function, ably framed by bassist Hans Sturm’s arco solo, which recalls the magnificence of Richard Davis. “Gone” feels like  spiritual desolation and yet it holds out for “the journey to the promised land.”

Then Allen begins to reflect, in the ensuing “Blame it on My Youth,” an ode to the reckless heart and to growth that life might afford.

Here, and elsewhere, Allen’s elastic phrasing and warm texture compares to Tony Bennett at his best. She plumbs whole notes like someone slowly discovering the inside of her soul. Therein lies plenty: the sense of lost innocence, bruised hope, confusion, redemption: “I was like a broken toy, you preferred to throw away… So don’t blame it on my heart, blame it on my youth.”

The third of this stunning threesome is the most improbable and startling and perhaps the crux of the matter, for the risks taken, the human courage found in facing life’s worst. This is Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic cauldron “Manic-Depression.”

Allen turns the vintage electronica into a plugged-in Miles Davis aura, but retains her own sense of psychological colors and fragmentation. Guitarist John Moulder puts his own twist on the Hendrix legacy which is a brand of jazz on his own terms, finding its own truths. Throughout the record, the accompanists play as one, and as originals. Pianist Ben Lewis uses sonic space like a wizard on “Youth” and does a slow-motion sashay on “Sleepin’ Bee” like a droll comic.

Allen’s favorite color seems to be blue yet this is a multi-hued recording and hardly devoid of verve or fun. Her sensibility is obvious in “Born to be Blue” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” but never pushy. Doing a sparkling Burt Bacharach song like “A House is not a Home” is another stroke of brilliance. For all its tenderness her interpretation brims with the power of art and, in this recording, the power of the blues. That humble genre is often underestimated, but Allen proves that the power of the blues comes in many of her favorite hues.

Here’s Allen’s upcoming tour schedule and a video of Allen teaching NPR’s Garrison Keillor how to sing a torch song: http://www.jackieallen.com/


CD cover courtesy Matt Ellwood photography

Fave Art Gallery: Sloan, just because


John Sloan, Cornelia Street, oil on canvas 1920, private collection

A friend of mine was recently pondering the peculiar aesthetics of the flat -iron style Trocadero building, visible as you begin the picturesque ascent the Holton Street bridge Milwaukee. I told her I’d share with her a painting the famous flatiron building New York with John Sloan captured in his famous “A view of the city from Greenwich Village” (recently featured here an viewable in the Fave Art archives, and an in this more contemplative sunset scene of the building.

You can see the odd triangular shape is dictated by the urban infrastructure of city streets and intersecting L train. Lands the cityscape a stately air of solitude and isolation. However, birds like most of nature, seem to enjoy the setting with unaffected playfulness, a kind of consolation for the lonely urban dweller.

Sloan’s vivid observation of urban life included his magical evocation of that great working-class entertainment, in “Five-Cent Movie” an oil from 1907.


Culture Currents writer-creator Kevin Lynch receives top prize for arts criticism from Milwaukee Press Club


Edward S. Curtis “Winter Apsaroke from the MWA exhibit reviewed in the award-winning “Edward Curtis preserved America’s vanishing race for posterity.”

Photograph by Edward S Curtis.

Good news. The nation’s oldest state journalist organization, The Milwaukee Press Club, has awarded its 2013 gold prize to Kevernacular and the Culture Currents blog for “Best Critical Review of the Arts.” We received the honor for the blog “Edward Curtis preserved America’s vanishing race for posterity.” It is a review of the remarkable exhibit of Wisconsin-born photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis, who documented with a heroic obsession the gradual death of our Native American culture and lifestyle in the early 20th-century. The exhibit ran at the Wisconsin Museum of Art in West Bend last fall and winter.

The awards are judged by a panel of out-of-state journalism professionals.The silver award in the criticism category went to Erik Gunn for “The New Old Guard,” in Milwaukee Magazine, and the bronze went to my friend Michael Muckian for “Beethoven goes Bollywood” in Wisconsin Gazette. The awards dinner, at the Intercontinental Hotel, was a lively occasion to celebrate and see plenty of my fellow journalists.

I also met some I haven’t until now, including personable Milwaukee historian and table mate John Gurda, who regaled my date and I with arcane historical tidbits, and who won a Gold Award for “best column” for his Crossroads history column in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. 

The Curtis review appeared originally in The Shepherd Express on August 19, and then in expanded form in Culture Currents. Here’s the link to it: https://kevernacular.com/?p=2133 Muckian also writes for Shepherd Express. I want to thank all Culture Currents readers for your support and interest. Without you, the this blog wouldn’t mean much at all. photo (4) Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) received a “gold award” plaque for the Culture Currents blog Friday at the Milwaukee Press Club awards dinner. To quote Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “I never dreamed I would be a blond.” Photo by Ann K. Peterson

Noted author, pundit and journalist Jonathan Alter was the Sacred Cat Award winner and spoke to the crowd about the schizophrenic quality of Wisconsin politics. He also reiterated the fundamental values of journalism in an era in which blogging can lead to facile posturing and information.

That means actual research and reporting, “which means getting on the phone and talking to people, not just e-mailing,” said Alter, who is also currently an executive producer of “Alpha House,” a political comedy created by Gary Trudeau and starring John Goodman. In an era of chaotic upheaval in the profession, journalism must continue to strive for balanced representation, but not simply to balance out perceive polarities, rather to strive for the truth, Alter said.

He also predicted that Scott Walker would not get Republican nomination for president, because he doesn’t seem to have the right stuff, even though Republicans are longing for a governor as a presidential nominee.

Alter, who has covered the last nine presidential elections, also predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency in 2016. However he said, as many have predicted, Republicans should make big gains in 2014 midterm elections, largely because base and widespead Democratic constituencies still fail to get out to vote enough in non-presidential elections.

Kevin Lynch has received Milwaukee Press Club awards in the “best critical arts review” category twice before, while writing for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.


Culture Currents Fave Art Gallery

We want Culture Currents to flow though your eyes like a river through a waterfall, easy yet strong, full of energy and momentum, vivid with color and striking form. That’s why we’ve started the Culture Currents fave art gallery.

The CCFA is a feature recently debuted on our new Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/culturecurrents.

Please visit and bookmark that page, because that’s where you’ll find regular updates on the most recent art work hung on our FB page and in the galley here, at the blog site. As some of you may know, I am a practicing artist with a BFA in art, and I’ve written about art through my long career as an arts journalist. It’s an ongoing passion of mine and I strive as often as possible to use it to illustrate cultural points and contexts, and to let it speak on its own terms, which are sometimes abstract, sometimes story-telling.

So without further ado, let’s let the art do most of the walking and talking (with a bit of my own commentary thrown in from time to time).plow Gorky the-liver-is-the-cock-s-comb Arshile Gorky “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” oil on canvas 1944.  These two paintings are superb examples of Gorky’s great skill at hanging a composition along the formal  undergrid of The Golden Mean. The proportional ideal allowed Gorky guidance as he explored the boundaries of surrealism and abstraction. Much of this best work derives from his intensely close observations of nature. In one famous instance, Gorky laid face-down in a garden, opened his eyes and took in the visual sensation of this extreme perspective. In this manner, one can begin to understand the relationship between acquired impressions and an artist’s abstractions.

So, look at the intense, lyrical sensuality of “Water of the Flowery Mill” (below) from 1944. And yet, we see Gorky, a self-styled art-historian as well, still abides by the compositional grid of The Golden Mean, a formal standard which dates to antiquity. Horizontal compositions but can work with vertical pieces as well.



Honore Daumier, “Third-Class Carriage,” watercolor and ink, 1864  

You can also detect the mean in Daumier’s painting above, “Third-class Carriage.” Within a composition, the Golden Mean employs proportions that involve segmenting the internal form by two thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Here, the top third horizontally runs clearly along the back shoulders valve the carriage seat (dividing the classes of riders). The vertical proportion is more subtle — the left third runs up and down the face and hands of the elderly woman, who is the work’s focal point.

Next, I offer images by three different artists, which I have blogged about previously.
18 Edward S. Curtis. “Mosa – Mojave” 1903. This is the extraordinary portrait by Curtis that so enchanted millionaire J.P. Morgan that he became a crucial patron of The photographer’s Curtis’ pioneering anthropological effort to document the death of Native American culture and life in its original forms.   self-portrait-1665-1Rembrandt van Rijn “Self Portrait,” oil on canvas 1661, This late-life masterpiece was on display last year at the Milwaukee Art Museum.Rita_36 Rita Cox with one of her “underground railroad” quilts, from the book “Hidden in Plain View.” Photo by Richard Allen.

Finally, a sequence of works by the great American “Ash Can School” artist John Sloan.sloan-view-from-greenwich-village   John Sloan “View of the City from Greenwich Village,” oil on canvas 1922
roofs summer night 1906John Sloan. “Roofs, Summer Night” etching 1906  



John Sloan, “A Woman’s Work,” oil on canvas 1912.


This painting makes for a lovely storytelling diptych with “A Woman’s Work.” In this second scene, our working woman seems overcome by the sudden beauty of a New York dusk. Sloan  titled this oil from 1906  “Sunset, West Twenty-third Street (23rd Street, Roofs, Sunset).” 

462px-Masses_1914_John_SloanSloan was a political artist as well as an acute social observer. Here’s a provocative cover illustration for the left-leaning periodical “The Masses.” It depicts a scene from the notorious Ludlow massacre. The tragedy involved an attack by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914. Some two dozen people, including women and children, were killed.

The chief owner of the mine, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was widely criticized for the incident. The massacre echoes to today’s challenges between the powerful (The “one percent”) and “the rest of us,” as well as to environmental issues regarding the ongoing exploitation of coal resources.


Finally, day is done for all first-shift workers and rush-hour arises in Sloan’s bustling and quintessentially urban oil painting, “Six O’ Clock.” The mad rush to get home was evidently ingrained in the American psyche by 1912.


Look for more postings of Culture Currents Fave Art Gallery both here and on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/culturecurrents .

Culture Currents is now on Facebook

plow Gorky

Hi CC visitors,

If you like Culture Currents you might check out our new Facebook Page, with some postings you won’t find on my personal FB page, including some of Kevernacular’s favorite art work : https://www.facebook.com/culturecurrents

On both pages, you’ll find a cool new post (5/10/14) — a video of a soulful duet between my friend, pianist Frank Stemper and “Brother” Mehldau the singing dog.


My Moby Dick sculpture from Cottage House Primitives

Moby w case All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as noted.

“He rises!” — Gregory Peck as Ahab, in John Huston’s film Moby-Dick (1957)

The above line is not in Melville’s great novel, but part of the inevitable liberties with the text taken by the screenplay of Huston and science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. But I defer to popular culture this time.

Finally, Moby Dick rises on my dining room wall. I’d been saving my nickels to purchase the wood wall sculpture of the great literary creature at a remarkable shop called Cottage House Primitives, 120 S. Main St., in Lodi, Wisconsin. http://www.cottagehouseprimitives.com/. Created on the East Coast by Peter DiScalia, my new Moby Dick is four-feet-three inches long, and readers of this blog will know that Herman Melville’s legendary white whale carries great significance for me — as it does for countless other fans of The Great American Novel.

Part of the book’s legacy is how much it has impacted modern and popular culture and now, aside from several pastel paintings with Moby Dick/Melville themes that I have done myself, I own one such cultural artifact. 1 Moby 4 So this is one of my more personal postings, but as a professional journalist I hope you indulge me because many bloggers are far more personal than me on a very regular basis. I offer this little photo essay of the whale in his new setting, mounted in breaching posture, on my dining room wall — in increasing closeup. Moby closeupIn the detail above, the Sperm whale teeth are nails inserted in a way I have yet to ascertain (not pounded through the bottom of the whale jaw). The eye is a door knob collar, the fin is a cut piece of soft metal, perhaps tin or aluminum. DiScalia apparently cut the sculpture from a slab of barn wood, and then whitewashed it. The way the whitewash has worn away seems like natural aging and exposure, because the two eye loops on which I attached the wall hooks are heavily rusted.

One can imagine the whale swaying and creaking in the fierce Atlantic wind over an establishment like The Spouter-Inn of New Bedford, which Ishmael encounters in the beginning of his great white whale adventure. This weathered effect also persuasively conveys the craggy age of the legendary whale that refuses to die. Only sailors attempting to kill him die, like crazy Ahab and the courageous-if-foolhardy crew of the Pequod…”all save one” — Ishmael, who lives to tell the story. Remember, the crew was coerced into the insane and fatal chase by a brilliant demagogue.

This piece of art is an excellent example of the type of merchandise offered by Cottage House Primitives, the store in Lodi situated a few steps away from fast-flowing Spring Creek, which runs right under Main Street. Owner Carol Naab specializes in early American and 19th-century originals or reproductions in various arts, crafts and household goods, and sells a number of evocative items created by Moby-maker DiScalia, she says. It is a historically transporting experience to walk into the shop and browse around. (Full disclosure: Naab is a sister-in-law, by way of my first wife, the late Kathleen Naab Lynch. Carol also happens to have been born on the exact same day I was.) Moby w Francis Upon mounting Moby in my dining room, I thought I would also share a few photos of his new environment, which includes several other art pieces. On the wall adjacent to Moby Dick is a pure kindred to him (see photo above). It is a reproduction of Sam Francis’s wondrous 1957 abstract painting “The Whiteness of the Whale” which resides in the collection of the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. It is the first work of art (reproduction of) that I ever had framed, many years ago.

The painting’s title borrows directly from the great, same-titled philosophical chapter in Moby-Dick, which reverses semantic convention by contemplating the perceived evil in the symbolic presence of white, as opposed to black.

In the nearby living room hangs “Ishmael Intuits the End from the Crows Nest” (below), my own 2009 pastel painting of a scene in Moby-Dick. The connections to the wall sculpture should be self-evident. But aside from Ishmael’s vertigo perspective atop the ship, the painting also illustrates Melville’s remarkable description in Chapter 133 “The Chase – First Day” of  “one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering”  which is “silently perched and rocking on this pole (the harpoon in the whale’s back), the long tail feathers streaming like pennons.”

moby pastelFinally, I return to the closest companion to the wooden Moby wall sculpture, right below him — one of my personal favorites among the sculptures I have done. It is an abstract bronze casting titled “Free Space Relief.” Note also to the left, a black-and-white reproduction on glass of a toreador with bull, by Picasso. Moby 3 In this close-up of the bronze sculpture, I hope you see the expressive energy, form and texture I was exploring in the work. I thought the piece was evocative enough without giving it a more poetical or imagistic title.

To satisfy anyone curious (or to perhaps overshare), to the right of the CDs is a mug adorned with a reproduction of a photograph of my father returning a kickoff in 1947 for Washington High School in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. This is a memorable newspaper photo because it was a team that went undefeated that year, including a 41-0 rout of Pius XI High School, a much bigger school in Milwaukee.*

One more item: The framed photograph directly underneath the bronze sculpture is of a reception for the great jazz pianist Cecil Taylor in the mid ’80s (See detail below). Taylor is in the middle in the purple jacket, shaking hands with a well wisher, Karen Keene, a flutist who married Victor De Lorenzo, drummer for The Violent Femmes. To the left of Taylor is my dear friend Jim Glynn, a well-known Milwaukee musician, disc jockey (for WMSE), and culture vulture. And on Taylor’s other shoulder is his old friend, as well is mine, Ken Miller, a dancer and arts programmer.


Cecil Taylor reception at The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, mid-80s. Sorry about the damaged photo. 

Sadly, both Glynn and Miller are now dead.   I don’t know what it means that this blog posting has summoned the memory of three contemporaries of mine (including my former spouse) who have died. They were three remarkable people, each in their own way. But for me, the photograph, and now my new Moby Dick, serve somewhat as precious evocations to their memories. I suppose, this cultural act works not too unlike how Ishmael’s grand story preserves his memory of his best friend Queequeg and other memorable characters among the Pequod crew, such as Pip, Starbuck, Stubb, Tashtego, Daggoo, Fedallah, and of course, Ahab. In the end, only the white whale glides on, in “the great shroud of the sea” that “rolled as it rolled five thousand years ago.”Moby closeup photo (3) Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) with his new Moby Dick wall sculpture. The small wooden jig-saw sculpture beneath the lamp is by Kevin. Photo by Ann K. Peterson.


* the mug with my father’s football photo was the gift of a thoughtful friend, Mary Ann Nicoud, on the occasion of Norm Lynch’s death on November 22, 2009.

A barely suppressed sneer: The persistence of Dick Cheney’s dark “honor.”


Dick Cheney with George W. Bush in The Oval Office, June 2007. Photo courtesy Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

“If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.” — Dick Cheney, 2013

I’ve been contemplating the word “honor” since hearing a live performance in early April of composer Frank Stemper’s work for cello and chamber orchestra, “The Persistence of Honor.”

The skeptical reader might think I am reading too much politics into a largely abstract work of music; that is not my point. I’ve written about the music’s particulars and significance in a previous blog on CC, and you can hear it at this link: https://kevernacular.com/?p=3477

I will acknowledge, however, the role of “Persistence” in inspiring this posting. That curious power comes in the 2009 work’s ability to nag at one’s consciousness, especially with its oddly rising and repeating — and ever-slightly changing — main theme. It’s like a voice in your head changing its tone slightly each time it repeats a rhetorical question, to imprint it deeper on your mind. And Stemper emphasized that his titular concept had to do with America’s geopolitical presence before Barack Obama was elected. Thus, as I understand it, the title stands as an ironic rebuke of the George W. Bush administration.

My real point about the music is that it made me think about the idea of honor and why it’s persistence is worth something — or anything — in today’s cynical world.
I was rudely reawakened into such wonder when I re-read Mark Danner’s deeply troubling essay, “The Darkness of Dick Cheney,”  in the March 6, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books.1

Some might think it’s past time being troubled by Dick Cheney. After all, he is out of power. After I spoke of this article, a well-meaning liberal friend of mine tried to quell my sense of Cheney’s ongoing “evil.” She pointed out that there must be “some good in the man,” considering how he still evidently loves and perhaps honors his lesbian daughter Mary, and even supports same-sex marriage.

Fair enough, but we are talking about Dick Cheney, the vice president who clearly asserted more power than anyone in the George W. Bush administration, including perhaps the president.

One of Danner’s sharpest points is that we live today with the consequences of Cheney’s power, or his profligate and peculiarly amoral abuse of it: “In Fallujah, Iraq, where Al Qaeda-allied jihadists were nowhere to be found in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have just again seized control; Syria, where Iraqi jihadists play a prominent part in the rebellion against the Assad regime; in Afghanistan, the Taliban, largely ignored after 2002 in the rush to turn American attention to Saddam Hussein, are resurgent.”

And then there’s the other side of the war on terror, the secret documents that, as CIA counsel John Rizzo remarks, “remain in effect to this day which authorizes the capture and detention of Al Qaeda created terrorists,” and another which “authorized taking lethal action against them. The language was simple and stark… We had filled the entire covert-action toolkit, including tools we never before used.” 2

Rizzo is talking about torture, such as the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Those techniques include prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings, forced nudity, “walling,” cold water immersions and waterboarding, which procedure he endured no less than 183 times.” 3

Obama Inauguration

Dick Cheney. Courtesy telegraph.com

Danner explains: “The ‘black sites’—the network of secret prisons the CIA set up around the world, from Thailand and Afghanistan to Romania and Poland and Morocco—were ordered shut down by President Obama, but despite his executive order on his second day in office, Guantánamo Bay, the ‘public black site,’ remains open, its 155 detainees, but for a handful, uncharged and untried. Among that number live “high-value detainees” who were once secretly imprisoned at the black sites, where many were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Asked whether he considers “a prolonged period of creating the sensation of drowning”—waterboarding—to be torture, Cheney’s response comes fast and certain:

I don’t. Tell me what terrorist attacks that you would have let go forward because you didn’t want to be a mean and nasty fellow. Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your, your honor, (my boldface) or are you going to do your job, do what’s required first and foremost, your responsibility to safeguard the United States of America and the lives of its citizens. Now given a choice between doing what we did or backing off and saying, “We know you know their next attack against the United States but we’re not gonna force you to tell us what it is because it might create a bad image for us.” That’s not a close call for me.

“Quite apart from the large factual questions blithely begged, there is a kind of stark amoral grandeur to this answer that takes one’s breath away,” Danner continues. “Just as he was likely the most important and influential American official in making the decision to withhold the protection of the Geneva Conventions from detainees, Cheney was likely the most important and influential American when it came to imposing an official government policy of torture. It is quite clear he simply cannot, or will not, acknowledge that such a policy raises any serious moral or legal questions at all.

“Those who do acknowledge such questions, he appears to believe, are poseurs, acting out some highfalutin and affected pretense based on—there is a barely suppressed sneer here— ‘preserving your honor.’ (Danner’s italics) What does he think of those—and their number includes the current attorney general of the United States and the president himself—who believe and have declared publicly that waterboarding is torture and thus plainly illegal? For Cheney, the question is not only ‘not a close call.’ It is not even a question.” 4

And yet, as a nation, we have addressed torture as a serious internal moral issue at least since the 1850s when White-Jacket, Herman Melville’s novelistic expose of the U.S. Navy, helped spur Congress to ban flogging in that branch of the military. Look at the photograph of Cheney at top, in conference with Bush and you almost palpably feel Cheney’s sneer, hardly suppressed. When he addresses the term “honor,” he actually stumbles over it in the quote above, as if recoiling at the notion of integrity or honesty. Like Danner, I felt a chill when I read the cold, imperious tone of that extended quote.

Now, note the epigraph quote at top; Cheney’s notion of “honor” transmutes into the steely-hard notion of “principle,” which also serves him as anodyne to the “bit of the dirty word” — compromise.

Webster’s defines honor as “adherence to principles considered right; integrity,” and also as “honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions: a code of honor.” Also the related synonym “integrity” (listed in the same definition of honor) seems germane here, defined as “indicates a soundness of moral principle that no power or influence can impair.” 5

Power and influence are the operative words here, and then we might consider how the notions of honor, honesty, fairness or integrity apply in shaping an unimpaired moral principle. There’s Cheney’s word “principle.” So, to be fair, go back and look at his quote at the top and judge for yourself how he applies the qualities of honor or morality to the notion of principle. For me, Cheney’s long, dark, bloody arm still extends into the unfolding present and future.

I’m struck in that top quote by Cheney’s use of the word “man” — rather than “person” — as embodying the quality of “principle.”
He is categorically excluding women and implicitly suggesting that “principle” is a quality inherent in his type of man, rather than woman.

What does this evidently macho posture say about his judgment of what, say, a woman vice president might do under the same circumstantial exercise of power? Would a hypothetical woman vice president indulge in “dirty” compromise regarding torture as policy?  Where might she have led us, during the Bush administration?

More pressingly, where might the high-stakes, high-power exercise of compromise now take such a leader, in the face of all the Cheney-wrought consequences before us?

The Democrats’ lead presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a woman, of course, as is oft-mentioned Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a primary challenger to Clinton. Given that women politicians may be more receptive to compromise than the neo-conservative boys club of Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld, et al., one might envision Warren accepting Clinton’s offer to become her vice-presidential running mate. If they won in 2016, Dick Cheney might still sneer, but our torture policies and national fate in the volatile Middle East may begin to change, with powerful women rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.


1 Danner’s essay is an extended review of RJ Cutler and Greg Finton’s film The World According to Dick Cheney, and two books: In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir by Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney, and Heart: An American Medical Odyssey by Dick Cheney and Jonathan Reiner M.D. with Liz Cheney. And what of his co-author, his “straight” daughter, Liz? A New York Times reporter summed her up recently. In an abort bid for a Senate seat in Wyoming, “she carried the banner of a hawkish foreign policy at a moment when a more restrained approach to national security is ascendant in the Republican Party. Further, she prompted an ugly and public split with her lesbian sister, Mary, by declaring her opposition to same-sex marriage — and was nevertheless attacked with television ads by a third-party conservative group over gay rights.”

2 “The Darkness of Dick Cheney” by Mark Danner, 52.

3 Ibid, 53

4 Ibid, 53

5 Webster’s New Compact Dictionary, Wiley Publishing, 2003, 310; Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 1995, 644