Wisconsin’s great cranes announce spring’s prelude and summon an extraordinary memory

Wisconsin sandhill cranes and one white whooping crane arise recently. Photo by Mark Hoffman, courtesy The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel.

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Paul A. Smith’s excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story is on springtime when young (and aging) men’s fancy can turn to…cranes!

Yes, the natural romance is the mystique and magnificence of Wisconsin’s cranes – the sandhill and, now the reviving whooping crane. It’s well worth a read, here:

Cranes as Spring Harbinger

I was immediately struck by the photographer Mark Hoffman’s lead image (above) of ten sandhill cranes and one white whooping crane taking flight – and Smith’s story, because they swept me back to one of the most dramatically intimate experiences of my life.

They were hard times for me. I was recovering from a rather stunning divorce, initiated by my ex-spouse right when I felt I, and we, were finally emerging into the manageable light from the long, rather surreal darkness of my bilateral neuropathy, Continue reading

Steve Earle, and James McMurtry, mine the hearts of forsaken Trump voters

“Ghosts of West Virginia” album cover. Courtesy www.bear-family.com

Exacerbated by the January 6 Capitol mob attack, President Biden’s greatest domestic challenge is bridging the chasm between “red” and “blue” America, as deep and wide as any Appalachian valley. Thus, Steve Earle’s brilliantly insightful 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is so pertinent.

It took courage and empathy, but this Texas liberal imaginatively inhabits the lives of West Virginia coal miners – among Donald Trump’s most forsaken followers. 1 Earle’s outlaw country singer-songwriter sensibilities might’ve helped him to connect with the lives and spirits of other “outsiders” of sorts, plus he’s a native of the neighboring Confederate state of Virginia. 2

Ghosts became the soundtrack to a 2020 documentary theater work, inspired by the tragic 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

Steve Earle performs material from “Ghosts of West Virginia” in a live performance of the 2020 theater documentary “Coal Country.” Courtesy Pinterest 

Earle’s crusty singing, and the sinewy band playing, often sound as expressive as the heaving guts of a working miner, or his exhalation in pained repose and reflection. Earle unearths richly peopled story-songs,  “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” at once grave and scathingly boisterous, or the deep-veined singing and words of “Time is Never On Our Side,” as if Earle is tenderly scraping shards of blood-stained coal from the blast’s ravaged site. “Black Lung” is a worker defiantly testifying to The Grim Reaper, about the industry’s deadliest side-effect. On “Union, God and Country,” Earle deftly personalizes the history of mining unions, their decline, and the company’s ease in exploiting unrepresented workers.

Earle doing a solo version of “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”:

Despite Trump’s promises, West Virginia coal miners and their industry lost both jobs and production during his administration. Courtesy commondreams.org

Hear also the achingly lovely widow’s lament “If I Could See Your Face Again” sung by the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore, and the indignant “It’s About Blood,” where Earle lays blame, and ends with resounding recitation of all 29 Upper Big Branch blast-victim names, like an aural tour of a fresh grave site. It rings, too, like hammers on buttresses of a rising bridge to a better, more whole America: “It’s about muscle/ it’s about bone/ it’s about a river running thicker than water/ ’cause it’s about blood.”

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/ghosts-of-west-virginia-by-steve-earle-the-dukes-new-west/

***

Earle’s magnificently immersive evocation and its vividly-drawn characters – amid our careening political zeitgeist – helped me circle back to another important Texas songwriter. James McMurtry may have surpassed Earle as America’s greatest living male singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan,” as I put it in my review of McMurtry’s quietly stupendous 2015 album Complicated Game (Lucinda Williams-in-her-prime prompts the gender qualifier). I’ve been watching many of McMurtry’s almost-weekly  solo home virtual concerts during the pandemic, which have helped me burrow deeper into his artistic sensibilities.

He lacks the vocal expressive range of Earle or Williams but, as Texas music writer Mike Seely aptly puts it, McMurtry is “rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn’t exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes…” 3

“Complicated Game” album cover  

So I returned to my thoughts about Complicated Game, in striving to understand the psychological makeup of a small-town, rural or working-class Trump voter, especially one who has real-world grievances and hardships, rather than racist hatred, or off-the-deep-end conspiracy-theory intoxication.

For these genuinely struggling people, intoxication may not be the word, but there’s a power Trump has over many of them, the kind who attend his rallies, and who may have shown up on January 6 to protest. Some of them may have not realized the protest would lead to forcibly attempting to stop the election’s certification. But to be clear, Trump’s demagogic culpability clearly includes cultivating the disinformation propaganda campaign that led to the protest rally, stoked by radicalized right-wing groups, and then inciting the attack. Even GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell strongly concurred (despite his hypocritical conviction vote).

Nevertheless, for possible bridge-building that such cultural beacons as Earle and McMurtry might imagine, let’s step back and contemplate the dynamic between Trump and his loyal people. He does boast an easy-sell spiritual elixir, especially in his speaking voice’s persuasiveness, as author and cultural critic Lorrie Moore has observed. What she sees as “reassuring” is the smoke in Trump’s mirrors, the quivering illusion that he, and only he, can fix their problems. Hear out this liberal writer, who’s spent most of her teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin:

“So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). Trump’s primitive syntax, imperfectly designed for the young foreign woman he married, always dismays. But during a coronavirus-task-force press conference, when one hears him on the radio, his voice has music. Sorry. It does. A singer’s timbre; it is easy on the ear. Trump’s is a voice you use to calm down people you yourself have made furious. (His foremost mimics—Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert—have not captured its pitch, its air, its softness, which they substitute with dopiness, which is also there.) For the first ten minutes, before his composure slackens and he becomes boastful and irritable, he actually just wants to be Santa Claus in his own Christmas movie, and the quality of his voice is that of a pet owner calming a pet. I hear it!” 4

To be honest, I do, too. So it seems such people fall prey to this voice, and achieve an almost zombie-like state of acceptance, wallowing in wish-fulfilment, harkening to a lost, pure, white America that never really existed. It’s the essence of Trump’s populist demagogic appeal. But who are these people, and what makes them tick?

The typical aggrieved Trump voter is a middle-aged white male – like Earle and McMurtry – so they inhabit their empathetic characterizations like walkers-in-their-shoes, having long-observed humanity closely in Texas, the virtual Southern nation-unto-itself, and in the petri dishes of their art’s genius.

Here I refer back to my review of Complicated Game. To me, the album achieves a greatness perhaps unparalleled in recent times, partly because it sounds as confessional as it is observational. Several superb songs about the vicissitudes of love (discussed in my full-length review) are first-person and feel autobiographical, whether they are or not. 5

James McMurtry. Courtesy photosbynanciblogspot.com

This puts McMurtry at the same psychological level of his scruff-necked American archetypes – living and losing, and somehow bubbling back to the surface, right before drowning. And on Game, McMurtry casts a perspective that seemingly reaches across the nation’s myriad highways and byways.

From Culture Currents, May 2015: 

“(McMurtry) typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s tough, odds-defying spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job, done after the fishing season’s closed: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to those of his father (Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works).

 

“But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric-but-familiar characters serve a broader critique of society, industrialization, and globalization. His renowned 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still encapsulates America’s economic times as well as anything.

Consider: The world’s billionaires increased their wealth by about a fifth over the course of last year – to more than $11 trillion, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. adults said someone in their household was laid off or lost a job because of the pandemic.” 6 That’s how well Trump has fulfilled his promises to his blue-collar followers.

“Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through his veins by now. But McMurtry’s holding steady. 7

“ ‘Deaver’s Cross’ is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/Won’t you share your morning’s catch/with those whose ground you walk across/May their memory be not lost. 

“A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakably a worn-denim Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And hell if he can’t celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to ‘Long Island Sound.’ Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.

“It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes; he turns and spies New Mexico and Carolina — by way of Austin — from that metaphoric peak. He might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.

scan0586Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley

“And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song ‘Cutter,’ about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.

This character feels like just the sort of person who Trump pushed over the edge, into anarchic violence at the Capitol on that fateful January day. 

“Nevertheless, as (McMurtry) told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as ‘enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.’ ” 8

We can only hope, and strive, for the time when such folks endure as a reasonably healed part of America’s social fabric, while the raw edge of the nation’s anti-democratic and anti-diversity malignance begins to fade away. Musical storytellers like Earle and McMurtry have laid footsteps to follow.

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1 The number of people employed by the coal mining industry has fallen 15% since Trump took office in January 2017. Job losses temporarily stabilized during his years in office, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, but the trend is continuing. Jobs did not increase, partly due to Trump’s trade wars and unsuccessful efforts to use the Defense Production Act to prop up coal plants, before the pandemic curtailed coal demand and employment.

Production has followed suit. Despite coal prices remaining stable around $35 per ton over the last decade, production fell during Trump’s years in office to just 706 million short tons, the lowest amount since 1978, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

2. Earle’s empathy for surviving West Virginia family members now extends to his own profound personal loss. He just released another album, J.T., dedicated to his gifted son, the noted singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August, at the age of 38 of an apparent drug overdose.

3. Mike Seely, https://www.houstonpress.com/music/james-mcmurtrys-10-best-songs-6518030

4. Lorrie Moore, April 13, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/the-nurses-office

5.

James McMurtry’s “Game” reveals more of himself, and of a vividly evoked America

6. Vauhini Vara, “The United States of Amazon,” The Atlantic, March 2021, 93

7. I was even more prompted to revisit, and extoll, McMurtry’s album because it, and McMurtry himself, still seem underappreciated. I surveyed two appropriate “Best of” lists: UDiscoverMusic‘s “The 10 Best Americana Albums of All Time,” (published in May of 2020)

The 10 Best Americana Albums Of All Time

, and Paste Magazine’s “50 Greatest Alt-Country Albums,” (published in August 2016). https://www.pastemagazine.com/music/alt-country/the-50-best-alt-country-albums-of-all-time/

Neither list includes Complicated Game, much less any McMurtry album. Interestingly, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is Number 2 on both lists, and Earle tops the “Ten Best” list with his Copperhead Road album. Several other Earle albums make Paste‘s “50 Greatest”, as does Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.

Are these big-picture best-of lists too high a bar for McMurtry? I don’t think so.

More encouragingly, Complicated Game scores 87 with MetaCritic, indicating “universal acclaim” based on 9 reviews (including Paste‘s). Isbell’s Southeastern also scores an 87 with Metacritic, which began in 2001, so the iconic Williams and Earle albums predate the site, which measures an album’s contemporary critical reception. Game also was voted No. 3 in NoDepression.com‘s Top 50 albums of 2015, and scored in All-Music‘s list of 22 Favorite Singer-Songwriter albums of 2015. History will have the last say.

8. http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/

KASE synthesizes jazz and hip-hop with flowing flair

Milwaukee’s KASE is one of the best hip-hop-jazz collaborations I’ve ever heard. That’s admittedly regarding jazz rhythm aesthetics. But the forms share close rhythmic values, especially per the yin-yang of groove, even as hip-hop typically rides on a funkier backbeat flow.

On KASE Alive, recorded at Milwaukee’s Company Brewing, Chicago-based rapper CRASHprez falls into the pocket with eager elan. The collective’s founder and trumpeter Jamie Breiwick leads a variety of tempos pursued with whipper-snapper style, usually with the supple relaxation to engender swing. So CRASH takes his sweet time, feeling that rolling pulse, until he’s ready to jump and splash. Nearly as impressive, these highly appealing tunes are improvised from start to finish, revealing jazzers with deep vocabularies responsive to whatever the moment demands.

Foe example the styles of the tunes are wide-ranging, with the opener “The Beholder,” unfurling as spacious electronic soundscape, until a herky-jerky rhythm digs in, like a man shoveling earth with heave-ho zeal. A bowed bass solo adds another dimension. Throughout the album, drum rhythms are sampled by electronics and turntable player knowsthetime.

Recall electric Miles Davis in the dark ensemble attitude and simmering textures. 

It’s available in a limited edition, online only at KASE Alive link

Robert Stone’s Rugged Power and Glory Cast Light on Today

Review: The Eye You See With by Robert Stone (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt)

As he traversed the earth, the sun also rose for the writer Robert Stone, even amid deep spiritual shadows. And the hardness of his courage shone in the glinting light, as many sweated, suffered, and died. As did he, eventually, in 2015.

He was like a carved-granite eagle in flight. He ventured to high vistas of perception, as an intellectual warrior, and dove, as a miner of humbled but ambitious soul, as it arose in the 1960s. He became very close to some iconic figures, including Ken Kesey, the acid- “enlightened” novelist (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and charismatic leader of the hippie rogues, The Merry Pranksters.

But he’s worth revisiting or discovering for many reasons.

Though primarily a novelist, Stone re-emerged recently with a far-ranging posthumous collection of his non-fiction, The Eye You See With. 1 The title gains centrality this way: “The eye you see with is the one that sees you back.” That is Stone’s distillation of a sermon by Meister Eckhardt, and Stone  was “obsessed with the absence of God…everywhere we look there seems evidence of (the divine presence), and it never yields itself to our discovery.” 2

So, some of the most compelling truths remained the most elusive. Ah, but the world and universe the creator wrought were out there waiting, beckoning. Though a tough-minded man and Navy veteran, Stone’s poetic power and his Catholic upbringing braided his consciousness, and his nearly relentless questing for truth.

Stone’s big subject was America, which he said he was striving to define through his work, a measure of his ambition, though he never said he was close to accomplishing that. Yet he kept chiseling away at the stone by taking a global attack, traveling literally, and through his story-telling, to points as far as around-the-world, in the sea-faring novel Outerbridge Reach, and, in others, with intense focus, in Central America, The Caribbean, and the Middle East.

Robert Stone visually evoked, for a novel cover, his admiration of Melville’s genius  by borrowing one of Rockwell Kent’s iconic woodcuts for “Moby-Dick,” 1930 Random House edition. Amazon

And yet, for that ostensibly broad contextualizing perspective, his focus was always very specific in story and characters, whom he often prodded to evaluate America and pose questions about it and, by extension, humanity. 3

He first really caught my attention with his novel A Flag for Sunrise, nominally echoing Hemingway, which set an American anthropologist Frank Holliwell in Central America during the same era the U.S. was politically ensnared in the revolutionary chaos of that region. Local corruption interfaces with the religious, as Holliwell helps protect a Catholic mission from bad federales, he falls in impossible love with a missionary nun. His dilemmas, which include previously having been morally compromised in Vietnam, resound metaphorically with America’s.

Stone’s most ambitious novel, Damascus Gate, mirrors in prose, Melville’s epic storytelling poem Clarel – both describing pilgrimage-like trips to The Holy Land by Americans, among others. That setting allows for powerful moral situations and conundrums, as well as plenty of human drama and suspense, set in the bloody dust of Jerusalem.

“Varieties of religious experience for the millennium,” wrote author Frank Conroy of the novel. “By turns scary, funny, and deeply moving. Prose at such a high pitch it sometimes seems hallucinatory. Stone is a genius.”

Accordingly, in the nonfiction essays of The Eye You See With, Stone addresses, sometimes at a very personal level, the dichotomies and contradictions of patriotism, and of religion, while scoring its relevance. His eyes and mind are flung wide open hearing jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s spiritual fire.

He wrote prophetically in the mid-’80s that we should resist the facile “Great America” rhetoric, which has echoed from Reagan to Trump, because the nation has betrayed its own ideals so often.

Stone the reporter underscores this hypocrisy when he does door-to-door census polling in the slums of New Orleans, in the extravagant shadows of the Superdome, which supplanted an African-American neighborhood. One black family is grappling, it slowly dawns on him, with a dying family member. Yet with a calm grace they allow him in their front door for census questions. This family is about to become less, by one. Stone reflects: “Had this been a white, middle-class household, I would never have been allowed past the door… I would never have dreamed of entering a sick room, approaching a deathbed, asking cold, irrelevant questions of people who had come  to mourn and pray. What has happened here is entirely determined by the politics of race and class – how blinding it can be, how dehumanizing, how denying of basic human dignity.” 4

In “A Higher Horror of Whiteness,” an essay originally published in Harper’s, Stone also hitches up to Melville’s uncannily “prophetic” insights from the mid-19th century, on the mysterious qualities of “whiteness.”

Stone’s chapter, from 1986, draws deeply from Melville’s famous “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in Moby-Dick, in contemplating the insidious powers and qualities of cocaine, not just it’s inherent whiteness but a “metaphysical whiteness” akin to that which Melville patiently draws out the horrors of. Early in his meditation, the elder author even acknowledges, amid an extraordinarily-suspended sequence of dependent clauses, the role the “colorless color” plays in “the white man’s ideal mastership over every dusky tribe.” Yet that notion slowly dissolves in irony under the ensuing complexity of associative, cultural and instinctive forces, the haunting horrors within whiteness, which Melville expands on. Stone follows Melville quite a ways in this chapter.

So Stone and Melville resonate to the moment, in which the instinct of possessing  whiteness in oneself seems a perceptual pitfall, “so that all Deified nature absolutely paints like the harlot,” as Melville asserts, near his conclusion. This delusory effect manifest itself as an anarchist, racist, and deadly mob attack January 6 on the U.S. Capitol, led by white supremacists and Neo-Nazi Trump-followers.

Stone quotes Melville: “but not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul… And yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind…a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all color of atheism from which we shrink.” 5

Updating the profoundly agnostic Melville’s context of the word “atheism,” the term takes various forms today. But the message here is the lack of faith – in pluralistic American values and democracy – which obscures those blinded by their whiteness and radicalized away from their own interests, in thrall of the demagoguery of a cult-like leader vying for totalitarian power. Or blinded, as Stone might say, by the white-bound limits of “the eye you see with.”

Many, including President Biden, have commented on the easily breached resistance to the mob by the undermanned (by Trump) Capitol police – compared to previous violent police crack-downs on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters – as a prime example of “white privilege.” Melville, of course, created the archetypal American demagogue with Captain Ahab, who nevertheless plays out as a tortured, bedeviled hero, pursuing the truth behind “the pasteboard mask.” By comparison, Trump, and his lying and poisonous rhetoric, play out as something quite below, perhaps clinging barnacle-like under the nation’s hull, hidden in the whiteness of the prow’s surf.

In many ways, Stone addresses American experience in these essays, which often read as travelogues, making them extremely palatable when they venture into political and philosophical discussion.

He bravely called out the military kingpins for their corrupt power warfare:

“On one (Vietnamese) hill they lost 56 men, and a general explained that Hill ‘had no military value whatsoever.’ There seemed to be a contradiction.” 6.

Nor does he slink from revisiting questionable in-country strategic calls:

“General Westmoreland was not a sophisticated man, and he appears not to have realized how gravely the cards were stacked against him. His declared tactics of search and destroy – finding and eliminating the enemy’s main force – turned to rubble in his hands.” 7

The more you read, the more you begin to understand the stony toughness of this writer, akin to, at least, the mythical Hemingway.

And Stone’s embracing of the relevance of religion reveals him unafraid to acknowledge a dark vision of God.

Cover of a book series edition Robert Stone contributed to. Amazon

The author comments:

“Because God welcomes all who give up their lives in his name. Because he will not be mocked. He wants his friends to kill his enemies. His beloved go forth to battle and leave heaps of slain.” 8

For all that, he’s also bracingly insightful about the faults of writers he admired, even with grave reservations:

Graham Greene “was tortured almost to a suicide by a grammar school mate.” This might explain Greene’s seemingly misanthropic spiritual malaise, his grieving, as a devout Catholic, of declining moral standards.

I allude to other iconic writers because Stone strikes me as a rare contemporary of our times who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them, in ambition and talent, as if they’re aligned on a schooner ship that lists and tilts our perspective on them. Stone’s meaty topics and settings are engagingly rendered, and resonant — they grab the high winds, even if they be treacherous. He pulls you in with a pop-culture subject like Hollywood, then turns it inside-out to expose a rotting underbelly, the business that eats actors alive, but also the dazzle and beauty of the art remaining, damaged and infected, spotlighting the poignance of faded artistic power and grace. The drug and psychosis-effected narcissists in his novel Children of Light seem like names on a theater marque barely visible in a misty haze of dark impressionism, weak stand-ins for themselves — and agonizingly for one actor, Lu Anne Bourgeois, who feels deeply kindred to Rosalind in As You Like It, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest female character, whom she’s played triumphantly in the past.

Shakespearean overtones, no less.  As Melville once proclaimed, praising Hawthorne, “Shakespeares are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.”  Why not? Where does artistic rarity reside? Yes, Stone not infrequently achieves a resonance in time, a spiritual aroma that lingers like a haunting. That’s partly why he is always worth pursuing again, down the road. It’s why we’re thankful for novelist Madison Smart Bell for assembling and curating this collection. 9

Stone fearlessly casts a view ahead, and reports from the portal of the mortal or moral “heart of the matter,” to evoke Greene’s metaphorical courage and ambition.

But Stone was his own man, resembling, in words at least, the beautiful and sui generis human form the genius sculptor untombs with his chisel.

______________

1. Also worth reading is previous non-fiction by Stone, the memoir, Prime Green, Remembering the ’60s, P.S. Paperbacks

2. Madison Smart Bell, Introduction to The Eye You See With by Robert Stone. HMH, xxi

3. Stone’s National Book Award-winning novel Dog Soldiers takes aim at America’s greatest foreign policy folly to date, The Vietnam War, and was adapted into a 1978 film, Who’ll Stop the Rain, starring Nick Nolte. 

4. Stone, “Keeping the Future at Bay,” The Eye You See With,  179

5.. Stone, “A Higher Horror of Whiteness,” The Eye, 209

6. Stone “A Mistake Ten Thousand Miles Long,” The Eye, 41-42

7. Stone, “Out of a Clear Blue Sky,” The Eye, 104

8. Stone, Images of War (The Vietnam Experience), 104

9. Bell is also the author of Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone, Doubleday 2020.

 

It happened in Hitler’s Germany and – despite our election – it could still happen here

How Hitler Transformed a Democracy Into a Tyranny - The New York Times

Adolf Hitler congratulated by a mob of supporters in Nuremburg, 1933. Courtesy New York Times/getty images

The horrifying regime of Trump still festers in the mind and heart, so I was compelled to plow through a long article in The Nation about a new scholarly angle on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. There remains fertile and fearsome grounds for a shudder of  apprehension in America, the powerful evidence of “Trumpism,” which isn’t going away because of an election loss. Indeed, 70 million Americans willing to chose a  kind of blatantly obvious American authoritarianism over democracy should keep us all awake at night. So I include below a quote from, and a link to, the article “Who Voted for Hitler?” which should stir us to reflection and action, in the ominousness of the hour.

This is no time to relax. At a personal level, I was disturbed by the slight response to my previous blog post, which suggested the blandishments of an inauguration reflect how people may be too satisfied with the presidential win as a “solution” to the nation’s gravest danger since the Civil War.

Donald Trump gesturing to his supporters. The Economic Times

The work has just begun. The violent right-wing siege on The Capitol was no joke, nor a freakish anomaly. Such allied fanatic forces are likely gathering to strike again, at some point when National Guard protections are relaxed. Here’s a quote from the article that should stir us to action. But I recommend you sit down and give this scary story time to breath in the poisoned air it probes, and understand how history just might be poised to repeat itself. I’m hardly a doomsayer, but reality is too overt and ugly now for anything but our most ardent attention.

Here’s the link to, “Who Voted for Hitler?” by Dan Simon, and below the quote from the article, which I urge you to read, at the very least: https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/trump-hitler-nazi-fascism/

From “Who Voted for Hitler?”:

All year long in 2020, we saw people of color murdered by state security forces, without redress. We protested, but the powers that be have waited out those protests. Little has changed. As Americans, our protests were muted and gentle by comparison with the wrongs we were protesting against.

We learned fear at a whole new level; we learned inequality at a whole new level. How is it that we tolerate a population of the homeless and the hungry in this, the richest nation in the world?

We withstood these daily assaults and defeats and then dealt authoritarianism a blow at the ballot box.

But there were 70,000,000 Americans who found they preferred being citizens subject to authoritarianism to being citizens in a democracy. Our job now is to make the fruits, the honor, the protections of living as citizens in a democracy so consistent and true that the arc continues to bend in the direction of justice. There’s no middle ground.

Another right-wing leader could to sweep up those millions – and what beyond them? – who’s stronger and strategically smarter than Trump.

In other words, we need to pay full attention and act, today and tomorrow, for the sake of our damaged and endangered democracy, however and whenever we can.

Yes, that means you, dear reader.

Whiteness or democracy? Which will they (or we) choose?

A supporter of President Donald Trump chants outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

” ‘People were angry when the projections came out. People said they wouldn’t stand for being a minority in their own country.”

“Now there are troops at the border,” I said. “and shootings of black and brown and Jewish people.”

Taylor nodded. He contemplated the meaning of that. “So the real question would be,” he said finally, “if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”

We let that settle in the air, neither of us willing to hazard a guess to that one.’ ”

— from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson

My ensuing thoughts formulated on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So let’s pause, peer out at the horizon of our souls, and see if we can see, above and beyond, any glimpse of “the mountaintop,” “the promised land” or that ever-mystical “arc of justice”?

The question, to me, posed above, came from Wilkerson’s profound and necessary book. The query has settled in the air just long enough for me to hazard a response.

There on the ground before us, the question prompts another one: What does “whiteness” mean in the context of losing our democracy? It ostensibly would mean benefiting a new white minority aggrieved, for fears of not being the most populous ethnicity. More to the point, they seem unaware of, or to not acknowledge, that the desired change means losing the freedoms — those that are typically lost in the authoritarian nations that have challenged democracies around the world in recent years. If you are white, what good is it if you lose the privileges your white privilege had afforded you? And a statistical minority hardly means, by itself, that the deeply uncased conventions of systemic racism will suddenly disappear, or be appreciably weakened.

This was a manifestation that power at its worst, of domestic terrorists.

And there’s no mistaking it, Donald Trump lusts to be an authoritarian “strong man” like his professed idol, Vladimir Putin. The neurotic depths of his narcissism will allow him no other sense of truth, Thus, he’s incapable of admitting defeat. So, this is classic case of followers fighting against their own interests, and for only the presumptions of social systems hundreds of years old, which systemically enslaved and lynched, and still discriminate against and prolifically incarcerate, people of color. A system that allows men to be punished, or killed, simply for breathing.

The larger point is that authoritarian governments by definition benefit those in authority, and those with the power to directly curry favor and influence with such authorities — typically unprincipled rich people. Ordinary palookas clinging to guns might coerce or steal freedoms from those threatened, but in the contemporary world if you’re merely “free.” you’re gonna struggle mightily as a lone wolf even if you have a big hunting pack. That’s because in a society is geared to an array of financial demands that only a system with a democratic government provides. If you don’t like the government, democracy allows you to peaceably replace it, through elections.

So how many would choose whiteness over democracy? One would sadly assume a certain percentage of the most radicalized, fanatic, racist and aggrieved Trump devotees. Even if Trump himself truly fades away (increasingly likely), “Trumpism” won’t soon and it may attract a new more intelligent and strategic avatar. That is the fear of lovers of democracy and its freedoms and political beauties.

Even after the Capitol travesties, most Republican legislators remain largely craven in fear of losing the Trumpism vote.

As CNN senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield commented on Republicans called for temperance rather than impeaching the president who incited the deadly attack: “Forgive me, but the cynic in me thinks that’s like the teenager who kills his parents and pleads for leniency because now he’s an orphan.”

But the issue remains saving democracy, or saving whiteness. By activism of a genuinely patriotic kind, that is still exemplified,  by Martin Luther King Jr. , as much as any leader.

In his biography of King, the brilliant writer and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson explains, King’s was a “patriotism of flesh and blood, born of the holy obligation to provide a bridge over which the words of democracy might march from parchment to pavement. His most enduring trophies were the calluses he gathered for marching for justice and merciless heat in the sore knees he gained bending to pray for enemies he defiantly loved…

King’s version of love of country was certainly challenging. It drew a contrast between belief in the strange providence of God, which is often disguised unpredictable events, and the idolatry of a nation that it is a damaging counterfeit of true patriotism. King understood that authentic patriotism depends on telling the truth about the nation in an effort to help it achieve its highest destiny.” 1

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (at right in front row, arm raised) leads a march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, March 1965. Courtesy The Clarion Ledger 

In our times, such idolatry has been offered up to a con-man president who promised the moon and delivered the dregs of his rich cronies’ empty bottles, at best.

And “telling the truth about the nation to help achieve its highest destiny” has been lost in the cacophony of social media and politically supine news media, so that those susceptible live in an alternate’s universe, a pretend reality. But the siege on the Capitol was no pretend exercise, it was a “well-coordinated attack” on the heart of our democratic government, according to acting deputy secretary of Homeland Defense, Ken Cuccinelli. Time will tell of who did the strategizing, and how.

Meanwhile, here’s a report based on extensive viewing of videos of the mob attack, posted by participants:

Our house. It is the most dominant phrase of any of the chants shouted by the mob as it presses into the Capitol. It is an expression of entitlement — white nativist entitlement, as many have noted: This is our house, our country. It’s the entitlement that leads one invader to pick up a phone in a Capitol corridor in one video and say: “Can I speak with Pelosi? Yeah, we’re coming for you, bitch. Mike Pence? We’re coming for you too, fucking traitor.”

What is striking about the videos, though, is how often this entitlement is laced with insecurity. The attackers profess ownership of this house, but so much of their commentary betrays discomfort and alienation within it, bordering on a sort of provincial awe. “This is the state Capitol,” a man says to his young female companion inside the visitor center, his struggle to grasp the grandeur of the place encapsulated in his incorrect terminology. “It’s amazing,” she says, as a man dressed as a Roman centurion, complete with sandals, wanders by.” 2

Where will these people wander off to, those who aren’t convicted of crimes and jailed? What do they hope to gain? The world to lose their souls? And yet they’ll likely gain, in a totalitarian regime, the “world” in a paper bag. Such are the rewards of delusional idolatry.

Am I being unfair to these people who believe baseless propaganda, rather than facts? They convey a kind of pathos, a sense of a patriotism they believe in. So pity is stirred.

But too many are the kind of hate-filled extremists — racists, Neo-Nazis, the wildest conspiracy-mongers — who any reasonable person would despise. And enough of them brandishing paramilitary weapons remain a threat to our way of life and governance, to the historically vast majority who voted for Joe Biden, and a threat to potentially anyone else, including themselves.

Actually overcoming our government by military force is quixotic, so they will inevitably fail, but not without further damage to our nation’s most precious values and functions.

After Trump’s sagging gasbag wheezes away in the wind, no one can say for sure what darkness lies on the horizon. We can brace ourselves, live our lives, and build them on the power of love, as King, Jesus, Gandhi, John Lennon, John Coltrane, and other enlightened people counseled, and work to bolster our democracy. Our wounds, still open, need serious healing. Black smoke hovers over the looming sky yet the morning breaks anew, as ever. So may hope and action.

____________

  1. Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.,The Free Press, 2000, 226
  2. Alec MacGillis https://www.propublica.org/article/inside-the-capitol-riot-what-the-parler-videos-reveal

Add Jack Wepfer to the short list of sports writers who offer a historical cultural perspective

 

Running back Aaron Jones does his version of the Lambeau Leap for socially-distanced Packer Nation fans after a touchdown Saturday. Courtesy Steve DeSisti and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 

Jack Wepfer, who writes for PackersWire, rainbowed a superb historical-cultural Hail Mary to the Packers success this year, and he nailed it beautifully. It’s the Romantics finding their redemption, at least at one level, in a time of tragically damaged rationalist-fed Capitalism.

And if you don’t believe the “intuitional” qualities are key for the Packers, just listen to Zen master Aaron Rodgers this season — his tone, attitude and grateful content. Coach LeFleur, too, exemplifies the stunningly wise humility, amid overwhelming excellence. It temper’s the swagger they also need to win.

In blighted times, The Packers have sustained my spirit and that of Packer nation worldwide. America’s team, for my money.

After refraining lately, I’ll comment further on politics/society shortly.

6 takeaways from Packers’ divisional round dominance against Rams

A desecration of The Crucifixion? What would Marilynne Robinson say?

O.K. (or not?) The painting shown in the linked article (below) is grossly sacrilegious, for anyone who acknowledges or practices in the tradition of Christianity. Or at least it should be, even for Evangelical Christians, who still support Donald Trump. Here, he’s a stand-in, as the ultimate self-glorifying victim, the worst sort of reality TV-show gag. Somehow, one can imagine him smiling smugly behind a curtain, as the unseen host, as well.
But the image is also a horrible reflection of how American right-wing media and lax social media have facilitated an alternate reality, and distortion of Christian morality.
No question, this situation has compounded the bizarre Trump Cult. The post of the painting arose the day after Christmas. Note the Trumpie comment in the accompanying article about even questioning the crucified redeemer if he critiqued Trump regarding his ties to Russia and moral compromises thereof. And there’s the declaration of lockstep-with-Trump Congressman Matt Goetz.
Or, given the cast of dubious characters floating in the dark clouds behind the cross, there’s the possibility this is a bold provocation of satire.
It all prompted me to wonder, what the great theological-oriented writer and thinker Marilynne Robinson, would think of this painting and situation.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of  “Gilead” and other novels and books of essays, may, or may not, be strongly oriented to visual art. However, her current Facebook page cover-photo image of a nature-infused watercolor painting suggests her responsiveness to painted images. And her rich metaphorical writing should allow a poised perspective on the crude symbolism under consideration.
In June of 2020, Robinson read an online lecture she says she first wrote when the “Trump phenomenon” first began to “settle in.” It is titled “Prophecy and the Present Time,” with an apparent subtitle of “Entropy and Decay.” She says she revised it on with the onset of COVID-19, and revised it a third time in considering what might lead us to sins we have repeated in the past.
This reflects Robinson’s unapologetic Calvinism, which acknowledges the inherent “original sins” and depravity of the human spirit, and flesh. Yet, the retired English professor is also a fairly unrepentant liberal, of the most humane sort. 1
Here is a germane passage from “Prophecy” regarding the political legacy of Trump’s administration, including the tragic response of the government and to coin-counting hospital CEOs, to the pandemic:
“Who doesn’t know the consequences of poverty for those who are trapped in it? Should the practice of exploiting them be met with anything but contempt, disgust?
“Here we have the great mystery of polarization laid bare. Shame would have imposed some limits on (such polarization), but in the absence of shame, we must look to legislation in the hope that meaningful laws will actually be enforced…”
But the travesty of the Crucifixion, so disgraced? Probing further, we find Robinson has deeply contemplated Christ’s passion and the human darkness he strove to redeem. And how prophetic was she, before Trump’s election?
In his superly-attuned 2015 essay titled, “Watching the World From Gethsemane: Darkness and the Devastated Self in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction,” Scott Schomberg comments on the meditations and letter-writing of the central character of Gilead, Congregationalist Minister John Ames, who is dying of cancer in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead:
“Darkness in Robinson’s novels describes something that eludes the language we attempt to give it. Drawn into Gilead and Fingerbone, we move not within static visions of darkness in its most devastating forms—darkness as evil, sinister, corrupt, threatening, darkness as absence, emptiness, ignorance—but into a darkness that astonishes, that blinds with intense brightness. It’s an echo of the psalmist: ‘Darkness is as light to you’ ( Psalm 139:12 NRSV). When Ames describes the decades he spent alone, his long night, he looks back and sees a miracle preparing. Darkness here is like that of a womb.” 2
Lord knows, there is a bitter blend of poignance and pain in such reflection. In Robinson’s latest novel, Jack, dwells on her most problematic character in Gilead, the bedeviled titular man, who struggles with faith and morals, and is atheist more than anything.
But Robinson’s luminous prose is best understood as she understands language.  In her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, she wrote, “I tell my students language is music…the music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense, what it means.”
Even in the most anguished music, say in “the cry” of the wordless black jazz musician emitting the experience of racism, there is vibrational power, to overcome, there in the musical breath, the voice, the word made musical. Her quote about darkness rises from a Psalm. 3.
Amazon.com
Who might Jack best signify? A prodigal son, for sure. Beyond that is another discussion, as I have yet to read the novel. But there is the “miracle preparing,” as Robinson, in her “Prophecy” lecture, characterizes 2020’s  impassioned, globe-wide social protests, against racism and injustice.
A long, dark night of the soul does eventually end, if one survives it. And so has America’s long night, for now.
Such is the glimmer, the piercing ray of hope, Robinson perseveres for.
_______
  1. In 2012, President Obama presented Robinson with the National Humanities Medal. Here is a message Obama presented to Robinson upon her retirement:
  2. Scott Schomberg, “Watching the World From Gethsemane: Darkness and the Devastated Self in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction”

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3. Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books, Picador, 2012, 130

Saxophonist Adam Kolker travels in the long shadows of Wayne Shorter

Review: Adam Kolker Lost (Sunnyside)

It’s been a longtime coming, a tenor saxophonist doing justice to Wayne Shorter in an album statement. 1

Kolker embraces Shorter’s almost-mystical genius, beautiful yet elliptical, invariably evident even in his verbal pronouncements.

He traffics in his subject’s tone, manner and visionary values. And he lives up to Shorter’s ideal of originality superseding conventional or inherited aesthetics.

Yes, Coltrane’s astringent tone and passion dwell within Shorter and, by extension, Kolker. Yet Shorter made his own art as compelling and sublime as any preceding jazz. He did this partly by employing shadow and indirection, shapely asymmetry, and by allowing the fissures of ambiguity to open fresh roads to possibility and new definitions of beauty and truth. At times, Shorter can sound as confessional as he does otherworldly.

Adam Kolker, Courtesy Jazz Times

Kolker has learned well. There’s a certain bite to his well-honed tone. So the Lost album opens with ingenious obliquity, with not a Shorter piece, but Gil Evans’ “The Time of the Barracudas,” originally an orchestral vehicle for Shorter’s tenor.

Both Shorter tunes interpreted, “Lost” and “Dance Cadaverous,” are as disquieting as they are strangely engaging. The album’s chosen title, “Lost,”  feels wholly apt, as a tribute not to the man himself but to his long, winding road of quest, or The Way, a Buddhist concept of rather selfless enlightenment, long-embraced by Shorter. 2

(On the other hand, incorporating Shorter’s name into the title would’ve likely helped market the album to its intended audience.)

Though first conceived as an album of Shorter tunes, Kolker offers two of his own beguiling originals, which also betray formal qualities of Monk and Steve Lacy. Kolker also gives two standards, by Jimmy Van Husen and Bronislaw Kaper, Shorter-like re-imaginings.

Kolker has mastered for himself Shorter’s limpid aura of expressive intimacy, seeming to be whispering to you, the lone listener, in superbly burnished tones when he plays his saxophonists. On soprano, Kolker may have more restrained mastery than his elder’s model.

So, this album is far from musical hagiography, or the convention of a complete dedication album of an honoree’s repertoire.

A superb accompanying trio — pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Billy Hart — buoy the music like seamen expertly managing sails in tricky crosswinds. Shorter’s compositions and style are often as oddly tilted in the time/space continuum as they are nuanced.

If not quite a transformative work, Lost sets sail for a distant shore and gives us fresh lenses on Shorter’s still-too-little understood legacy. That Kolker accomplished an historical kind of perspective before Shorter’s passing testifies to this achievement.

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1. To date, the strongest acknowledgement of Shorter’s legacy as album statements have come arguably from pianists, as in the 1983 piano-duo album Shorter by Two, by Kirk Lightsey and Harold Danko. This may partly be due to Shorter’s own comparatively long career, always exemplifying the reach beyond, rather than glorifying the past.

Rickey Ford’s Shorter Ideas is also a worthy covering of Shorter’s compositions.

2 Shorter originally recorded “Lost” on his 1965 Blue Note album The Soothsayer. “Dance Cadaverous” is from Shorter’s 1964 Blue Note masterpiece Speak No Evil.

All praise to Anne Valent and Sharon Lynch, both mothers and Renaissance women extraordinaire

Here’s a Facebook posting from my friend Ed Valent celebrating our two mothers, Sharon Lynch and Anne Valent, as “Renaissance Women extraordinaire.
Thanks also to sister Anne Lynch.
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Sheila A. Lynch, Kere Valent and 13 others
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  • Met Ann

    Anne Lynch

    yesterday and got to talking about our moms and their painting. Then found a picture of my mom with my niece,

    Sheila Koch

    , at an art sale back on May 21, 1977. Both of these renaissance mom’s were amazing women. Raised zillions of children in the bad old days when women’s rights were trampled upon in ways we now think of as ridiculous. Sharon Lynch worked for Inner City Arts Council for a while and produced the chair painting in the style of Jack Beal during the same period my mom, Ann Valent, was riffing on the work of Georges Rouault and Henri Mattisse. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Hey,

    Kevin Lynch

    , can I get a shout out on Cultural Currents?

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  • Loved seeing your eyes Ed!! Though I missed your smile!. Thanks for all the memories. Will share photos of the rafting adventures in the summer! More to come.