Kevernacular will exhibit a “Moby-Dick”-themed pastel at a new art exhibit at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, opening reception Saturday 5 to 7 p.m.

“Thar she blows!” the cry comes from high up in the crow’s nest. “Thar she blows, a hump like a snow hill! It is Moby Dick!”

Feminizing all whales is part of the romance of the high seas. This she is really a he, the great White Whale who’s hunted monomaniacally by Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s profoundly precient and symbolically pregnant masterpiece, Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

Those who’ve read this blog over the years may be aware of the precipitous esteem I hold for this extraordinary book. It has inspired me to write a novel about its author, somewhat forestalled by a myriad of circumstances, but forthcoming in due time.
This is a book that an artist of some repute whom I know aptly characterized as “the first postmodern novel” — published in 1851! It might also be the most critically commented-upon work of fiction in modern history, and the most widely referenced in popular culture, certainly among books that are not often actually read.

It has also inspired the visual artist in me.

So I’ve undertaken a series of pastel drawings with Moby Dick as my motif. And one of the perhaps more successful of these will soon be on display in an art exhibit at the Jazz Gallery Center for the arts.
The exhibit is announced in this poster, though one correction the opening reception’s time has een changed to 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday:

The exhibit will include Linocut Print | Sculpture | Comic-Book Illustration | Photography | Assemblage Box-Making | Encaustic | Pastels | Screen Print | Painting | Digital Drawing 

This event has brought me to the realization I should have a digital copy of this pastel professionally made. My apologies for the poorly depicted image at top. But you get the idea from my hand-held photo. I hope it strikes your fancy or interest enough to visit the opening or ensuing gallery days of this promising show.

Here’s an image of another artwork in the show, a block print by Jay Arpin.

Thank you,

Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch)

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Letter (from a Milwaukee jail of my mind), to Louisa Loveridge-Gallas, on the state of our nation and her own psyche

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, Washington, DC. Courtesy The Travel Channel
E-mail from Louisa-Loveridge Gallas on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 17, 2021:
Dear friends.
I’m sending on a link to this famous Vietnam speech by MLK I go back to on MLK day, so pivotal in his career. Stunning that he was assassinated a year to the day after. And so brave as he found that he angered and disappointed a number of activists and allies for his stance against the war who felt he should stick to civil rights in the approach and focus he had been taking.
Also I’d like think out loud with you. In a very different way and historical context, I just want to add I am beginning to experience that Biden is being attacked at times, in ways I find irresponsible, for speaking out eloquently and clearly for the moral high road of history in his Georgia speech. I refer not only by Republicans but to comments by prominent Democrats like David Axelrod, Obama’s consultant, on CNN; NYT commentators like Maureen Dowd, and even top legislators like Nancy Pelosi. To name a few. Cheap shots, reaching for a way to insult on minor points, calling out strong opinions disagreed with as unbridled ‘rhetoric’ to name a few.
Of course reasonable, fact-based analysis has to go forward. May everyone be generous and informed as we precede with our critiques even in informal conversation. I know I’m not alone in witnessing that these are perilous times where a compassionate approach to each other and in the political realm is at risk in the zeitgeist of the need to one up, demean too easily and thoughtlessly These are such times of anxiety that inflame disagreements and difference; or enhance compassion fatigue.
I certainly don’t count myself out. I’ve been writing some pretty snarky op Ed comments. And make an occasional fevered phone call, as I did to Axelrod’s office. My fur can rise along with a hiss if a friend or relative isn’t on the same page with my take on all the complexities we are living within. I fail. I’m working on myself. I welcome any thoughts you may have to help me along and no pressure to respond, of course, as so many influences and responsibilities call upon us.
So them’s my thoughts and a link to his speech.
Take care. Be safe.
Sincerely,
Louisa *

Full speech text:  King speech

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Dear Louisa,

How I love your caring, your awareness, your intelligence, your passion, and activist voice. And your brave, insightful analogue between Rev. King and President Biden.
Holy moly (forgive my dated boomer utterance), we all need some empathy and psychological guidance and salve, these days. Perhaps, take some deep, slow breaths, dear friend. Take a long walk beside the empowering tide of our Great Lake, or deep into the woods. Listen to the “conference of the birds,” the way they sing to, and advise, each other. Of danger, yes. They live stressed lives, as vulnerable creatures. And yet, they sing.
If only we could truly fly. Yet we can, in our mind, and drag our lagging, embittered, mudbound spirit aloft, which brings to mind a magnificent Herman Melville quote, from the last paragraph of  Moby-Dick, Chapter 96 “The Try-Works”
Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
flickr.com 
Only slightly less poetic is Robert F. Kennedy‘s speech in Indianapolis, after annoucing the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the day after the tragic event. This video is a part of the speech but very worthy. Robert Kennedy is one of my heroes, more so than JFK.
I read the speech (2 pages) during a troubled, virtually sleepless last night, in Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, edited and introduced by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy. 1 This is a priceless paperback, to me.
Kennedy quotes his favorite poet Aeschylus, from memory: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Kennedy continues: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be whites or they be black.”
I ponder and treasure those thoughts, and rededicate myself to living up to them, to the degree I am able.
(BTW, Bobby Kennedy also had a wit comparable to brother Jack, with fine comic timing — hear his Ball State U speech, following this one on youtube.)
 

Then there’s those who would score “cheap political points” against President Biden, as you protest, Louisa — be they leftist, liberal, centrist, never-Trumpers or far-right Trumpsters.
Biden has only been any office one year, and has laid out perhaps the most ambitious vision and agenda since Lyndon Johnson‘s The Great Society. Yes, he needs to show — and effect — more fight and passion, but he’s getting there, I think. DINO Sens. Manchin and Sinema still sit on the fence like a couple of owls, saying “Who me?” as the 60-vote filibuster looms like the Sword of Damocles, over vastly important social initiatives that are very popular with Americans.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are slithering around from state to state, contriving new voter suppression laws. We need a federal oversight law on voting rights, especially to protect the rights and access of people of color and other disenfrachised citizens.
I am, for the moment, disheartened by all the clamoring special-interest factions of the Democratic Party, each of whom has profoundly legitimate concerns, perhaps most presently voting rights, and a woman’s right to determine her own body. But also the looming apocalypse of climate change… and more, of course.
But a lot of things can happen between now and November’s mid-term elections.

Dear Louisa, as Rev. King says, concluding the sacred but tough-minded speech you quote (echoing Frederick Douglass‘s famous thoughts about “struggle”):

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. The choice is ours. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I believe many tears, sweat and, yes, blood, will commingle with that mighty stream. We are psychically stained by John Kennedy’s blood, from 1963, and by Robert Kennedy’s and Martin’s blood, in 1968, and so many since.

No more, I pray and cry. May America’s profusion of inward-pointed guns desist!

But justice is a hardy soul, I believe. She can swim like a sleek yet powerful fish, or trudge, like a woman or man, long distances, in protest and dissent, which many politicans hear, if loud and pointed enough.

Robert Kennedy quotes Algerian-French author-philosopher Albert Camus as much as anyone in this Make Gentle the Life of This World collection. Camus, I believe, was then addressing the people of Germany, under the Third Reich.

Yet how his words ring on today — when Fascist demagogury and governments sprout weedlike over Mother Earth and here at home — like a great thunderous bell, clanged by mythical Quasimodo in Camus’s Paris, or his very real fellow ringer in Philadelphia, so that the big-shouldered Liberty Bill cracked. 2

Camus wrote:

“This is what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth.”

Ringing for truth, justice and love,

Kevin

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Louisa Loveridge-Gallas is an acclaimed poet, body-mind counseler, op-Ed writer, music lover, and activist. She’s working on a new chapbook of socially-motivated poems, and on a “jazz novel,” set in Madison, Wisonsin. She’s a former long-time resident of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, and now resides in Michigan. 
Louisa Loveridge-Gallas. Courtesy Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets
1 Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, edited and introduced by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, 1998, Broadway Books, 42-43
2 The crack ocurred on the Philadelphia bell’s very first test ring in 1752, shipped from a French foundry (those French!), and it was clearly a flawed casting — like the great nation it signifies.
To me, now, the crack now resembles King’s waters of justice rolling down, the mighy stream. 
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Never dove into “Moby-Dick?” Or contemplate a revisit? The annual New Year’s marathon reading will quench the thirst

Courtesy berkshirehistory.org

The 270th Anniversary Year of the publishing of Moby-Dick has just passed. But it’s never too late to take the deep dive. Here’s how to truly embrace the New Year. Let our august “Law and Order” thespian Sam Waterston offer us up Chapter 1, “Loomings,” of The Great American Novel (or epic prose poem, or whatever it is), with its epic opening line, “Call me Ishmael.” For the first time, I believe, the annual marathon reading of Melville’s masterwork, presented by The New Bedford Whaling Museum, is now a video. You can follow along at your own speed and pleasure.

Crusty Sam is a fine, resonant reader, as if recalling the greatest story of his restless youth. There’s also rhythmic pace afoot. After Waterson’s eloquently-paced pauses,  Chapter 2 reader, Gail Fortes, picks up the pace with alacrity. Among the other readers is Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey; Ashley Bendicksen, Miss Rhode Island for America Strong 20221; a handful of Massachusetts state senators; and, eccentrically, a member of the Flat Earth Society!

Orson Welles as Father Mapple reading the story of Jonah and the whale in John Huston’s 1957 film adaptation of “Moby-Dick,” Courtesy Alchetron 

I’ll say no more, except to urge you give Ishmael’s splendid opening meditation on the sea, your ears, and you may feel a bit of Atlantic brine wisp across your face. Among the cool stuff, and polar degrees of high and low-mindedness, there’s a lecture by noted Melville scholar Christopher Benfry and a Moby-Dick trivia quiz, plus a reader roster and a timetable for each chapter (averaging around a half hour, a piece, though some chapters are quite brief).

“It is time to get to the sea!”

Moby-Dick Marathon 2022

 

 

 

Happy new year to all CC readers in 2021, with a huge assist from Mike Neumeyer, one of my favorite musicians of the year

Culture Currents Holiday Greetings for 2022! First, a miscellany of memories of 2021, photo-essay style, of this blog’s year, and of friends, especially some dearly departed ones (Don’t worry, there’s a musical New Year’s pay-off below).

Your blogger refurbishes an old sculpture of his titled, “Tricycle Nightmare.” Photo by John Klett

CC’s Kevernacular out for some CC-style skiing, shot from Lincoln Park’s highest point, the windswept tee box of Hole No. 6.

Who can forget The Milwaukee Bucks making history by defeating the Miami Heat, the New Jersey Nets and the Phoenix Suns, to win their first NBA championship…in half a century? The crazed crowds at Fiserv’s Forum’s Deer District (above) played their part in the fever that stoked the team. 

Don’t forget, in 2020 the Bucks also began a brief strike that led all of professional sports in bringing attention to police violence against unarmed black people and systemic racism in America.

Successful businessman, publisher and business-success author Jack Covert, who passed in 2021, once had a slightly more unseemly identity, as owner of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, a small mecca for Milwaukee music fans in the 1960s and ’70s. 

An NPR “American Masters” poll this fall posed the question “What work of art changed your life?” I could not answer with a simple response. One such transforming event was the exhibit of the late Arshile Gorky’s brilliant blend of surrealism and abstract expressionism, at the Guggenheim Museum, in the early 1980s. Above is Gorky’s “The Plow and the Song” from 1946.

Another life-changing work for me was seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” though I never saw the whole painting, an odd circumstance described in my NRP poll post, regarding the epic anti-Fascist work(s).

The ultimate life-changing work for me — my first encounter with Melville’s “Moby-Dick” obtaining a copy of the 1930 edition, sumptuously illustrated with woodcuts by Rockwell Kent, including this magnificent rendition of the great white whale. 

I also honored a great friend, musician, and culture vulture, Jim Glynn (at right) on the anniversary of his death. Jim also served as the best man at my wedding in 1997 (above).

Some of my happiest reporting of the year was interviewing Kai Simone (above), the first-ever executive director of Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. She signifies a fresh new direction, while extending the tradition of the venue’s namesake, The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, whose heyday in the 1980s contributed greatly to the city’s community and culture.

Speaking of the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, my favorite single piece of art this year was in an exibit there. Jessica Schubkegel’s evocative and eloquent sculpture “Chrysallis” (above). made of medical textbook paper and wire, graced a group exhibit, ReBegin: New Works for New Beginnings, in response to the COVID epidemic.

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Perhaps my most personally meaningful trip was a visit to Two Rivers, Wisconsin (above), on the shore of Lake Michigan, which included a fine nature-preserve walk and visiting the field where my father, Norm Lynch (with the ball, below) quarterbacked a great high school football team (three straight seasons undefeated) in the 1940s .

That Washington High football field in Two Rivers remains (below), but is now the domain of geese, who keep it well-fertilized with au natural “yard-markers.”

 

As COVID threats eased, for a while, Kevin and Ann finally dined out, at Tenuta’s Restaurant, in Bay View, a glorious meal gifted by Ann’s colleagues.

 

Another fine 2021 memory was of my old friend, composer/jazz pianist Frank Stemper (above), here receiving applause in Austria, where his new work, Symphony No. 4 “Protest,” was premiered. While in Europe, Frank and his spouse Nancy visited Omaha Beach, site of the D-Day landing of allied troops who turned the tide of WWII (below).

 

“Enter” by Marvin Hill 

Two linoleum-cut prints (above) by the late artist Marvin Hill, whom I memorialized in 2021 on the anniversary of his passing in 2003.

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OK, so much for that little montage of 2021 moments for Kevernacular.

Your reasonably dedicated and unreasonably beleaguered blogger wants to pause at this late point in the day (into evening) to wish all of my Culture Currents readers from 2021, and times fore and aft, a very happy new year (!). If some of the year’s blogs “spoke to you” in any way, it goes to bolster my notion that, indeed, Vernaculars Speak!

I am deeply grateful for your interest in this sometimes waywardly-searching blog. Today I’ve been struggling to meet a deadline for The 14th annual International Critics Poll for El Intruso, a Spanish publication for people interested in creative and experimental music. That’s involved plenty of H-Hour auditioning of review CDs that I purchase or receive.

Believe me, it’s been very pleasurable labor, discovering, savoring — and having my mind slightly bent at times by — the new music that comes my way, as a veterans music and arts journalist.

Throat-clearing aside (no, I don’t have COVID!) I can think of no better way of musically wishing you all a happy new year by sharing two brief but delicious videos by one of my favorite Milwaukee musicians of 2021. I’m talking about vibraphonist and marimba player Mike Neumeyer.

He is one of the most irrepressibly vibrant (please pardon the pun, which simply popped out in my comparative state of mental fatigue) musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting (at a free-jazz workshop he led at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, in 2020, shortly before the pandemic struck), and of sharing time with, although ever since it’s been all virtual.

At least we humbly enjoyed ourselves on New Year’s Eve with a bottle of sparkling Proscutto rose, and some scrumptious curry and Nam Khao (deep-fried rice ball, cured pork sausages, peanuts, scallions, cilantro, shredded coconut) from Riverwest’s Sticky Rice Thai Carry Out, on Locust and Weil Streets. Yep, the foodie details are making me hungry too, so I better get to the felicitous point here. 1

I have extolled the talents and spirit of Mike Neumeyer several times this year in this blog (which are obtainable in a simple search with his name at  the top of the Culture Currents page, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed).

So I don’t have much energy for further glowing, or even moderately striking, praise for vibist Neumeyer, although I will point out that his positive energy is a great antidote to the stresses and strains of another year of enduring COVID, and much of the madness and travesty that passes for politics in America today. Mike is not above clowning it up a bit but, Lord knows, we need every scrap of comic relief we can get these days.

So, skipping further ado, I will simply direct you to his two versions of “Auld Lang Syne,” One version is short and sweet. The other, also brief, allows for a few grace notes of reflection and perhaps even resolution, for the listener.

Thanks again Mike, for a great year of music and memories  And keep up the (ahem)

good vibes. Two (maybe three) increasingly horrid “vibes” puns, and I’m out!

“Auld Lang Syne” played by Mike Neumeyer:

 

And now, to extend the holiday celebrate a tad more, sample a slightly slower draft of the grand old song, with a little aftertaste of the old year, now bygone forever, save memories:

 

Surprise! As an extra treat, especially for all you boys and girls who’ve been not too naughty this year, let’s rewind to the spirit of December 25th, and Mike’s rendering of one of the most timeless holiday songs ever born.

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1 We also watched a wonderful film on video on New Year’s Eve. It’s the multi-Academy award-nominated The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, and written and directed by Florian Zeller. If you haven’t seen it, The Father is uncannily disarming and disorienting in evoking, for the viewer, the point of view of a family patriarch – played with dazzling power and poignance by Hopkins – whose mental powers and pride are rapidly dissembling amid Alzheimer’s.

In watching it, you might begin to doubt either the movie or yourself, but by the end, in reflection, it all makes brilliant sense, in the saddest and most moving of ways. The full-movie video follows immediately with insightful comments from the principals.

Here’s the trailer:

 

 

 

Artist Rockwell Kent followed Moby Dick to the ends of the earth

For me, this is Rockwell Kent’s most magnificent evocation of Moby Dick. We see him breaching in the night, an act of exultation which demonstrates his godlike presence in the sea, and his cosmic relationship to the heavens. This is hardly an evil whale.

Moby-Dick prints by Rockwell Kent

And then there were humans and leviathans, both pursuing light and the night. Where to? Why? Because Ahab is evil? Or is the white whale? Melville found horror in whiteness, but his profound and prescient chapter on the subject deflects nearly as much as it reflects.

For artist Rockwell Kent, deep in that same pursuit, the devil was in the details, the textures of truth. Enter here. You may begin to feel the night engulfing, and lacerating. Kent actually produced 280 noir-Deco woodcuts for the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, and so charged the era’s imagination that Melville’s behemoth tale, long homeless for a meaningful audience, became palatable, bite by bite. The 135 short chapters, such an orgy of wonder and mystery, found their brethren in images.

And the forsaken story finally found its audience, with the printmaker’s incalculable assist. I recently responded to an NPR survey about the single work of art that changed one’s life, and chose this book, and shared how Kent’s work primed me for the great American odyssey. But another recent blog, from which most of these images are borrowed, prompted me to flesh out Kent’s work more than before. That blog, A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick, is also recommended especially …for Moby-Dick doubters and procrastinators.

A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick: Episode 1

Begin with zealous artistry, probing atmosphere and characterization, and tale-spinning flourish, if I may offer something of the meaningfulness of these images. I invite you to soak them up and read the short comment texts included. You may be on your way to the sea’s beckoning horizon.

Some include full-page reproductions of Melville’s book, with text and illustration, for a counterpoint of mind and eye, from the ground-breaking 1930 edition (still available in a Modern Library a paperback edition). Kent was a knife-wielding poet of shadow and light, as you begin to see in the first image, from the chapter entitled “The Counterpane.” The counterpane (quilt) and arms dance amid their rest. In the text, notice how narrator Ishmael focuses on the visual effect of his experience. But in that moment? Where do dreams go to live, or die? Comedy lies waiting, as much as fate, but so much more!

Below, we see Ahab (who doesn’t appear in the book until Chapter 28) in two telling moments. First, he gazes defiantly into the sea light, infernal for him. We then should let Melville’s words introduce him, with the first page of “Sunset” (Chapter 37), our post’s first indication of the narrator’s sense of the power of atmosphere for his story, and for his subject. The second image below shows Ahab full-figure, master of his domain, if not of his wretchedly magnificent mind. Note the small hole in the deck carved out to steady his whalebone leg — Moby-Dick’s hellish handiwork, and the virtual spleen driving the tale.

Arguably the second most colorful character in Moby-Dick besides Ahab (if not Moby Dick himself) is the Polynesian first harpoonist Queequeg. Covered with tattoos, he’s a king in his native land; sells, and prays to, shrunken heads; and memorably befriends the narrator, a relationship that, in its way, begets the whole story, as the final chapter reveals. Here Melville introduces Queequeg in the chapter “Biographical.” The scene depicted may reference a later chapter, “The Monkey Rope” where he attempts a stunt-like action during whale-cutting with Ishmael, situated at the other end of the chain. He saves Ishmael’s life.

This print below exemplifies Kent’s mastery of what would become known as noir atmosphere, which would almost simultaneously begin being exploited by film-makers (see previous blog):

NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

. The two crew members and the backdrop create a stunning mood and composition, with Kent brilliantly sculpting light and darkest shadow. Perhaps such a scene was inspired by Melville’s contemplation of “the darkness of blackness,” an inherent American condition, he believed, derived from the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great writer to whom Melville dedicated his masterpiece.

The following three prints share a beautiful affinity and, thanks to a blog’s latitudes, I decided not to choose among them. Rather, I want to allow them together, along with the preceding print, to cast a long shadow of spiritual striving and unease, from Kent to you. Such stunning atmospherics might take him anywhere in his artistic quest. But he was working very much in Melville’s expansive and doomed milieu. Such strangeness, such black beauty. It was genius meeting genius.

Below, we get a taste of the deep learning pervading this epic. Here the mythological character Vishnoo alights upon a whale with seeming preternatural ease. Ishmael compares him heroically to Hercules, St. George, and Jonah, aptly it seems. Yet he’s not an immortal God, rather but one dueling with destiny.

For me, this below is one of Kent’s most breathtaking images. Is he taking artistic license with the scale between the whale and whaling boat? To a hardy crew at sea for many months, stretched to their human limits, having to live with the existential risk of the whale hunt, it may hardly seem an illusion.

And finally comes the long-awaited chase of the White Whale, now successfully transformed into a hated entity by the demagogic Ahab, hypnotizing his crew, all but first mate Starbuck. And then, “He raised a gull-like cry in the air, ‘Thar she blows! — Thar she blows! A hump like a snow-hill. It is Moby Dick!’ ” Here we see natural excitement foaming with the monomaniacal captain’s greed and vengeance.

 

Artist Rockwell Kent demonstrates above the spectacular power of Moby-Dick in this image. Kent’s work predates a number of brilliantly-realized illustrated editions of the book. But, for me, that edition has never been surpassed. For example, the image above I believe inspired the cover of a 2007 edition of the novel, a “Longman Critical Edition” (below). But that striking yet odd Longman image fails to show the source of the explosive disruption, the whale himself.

Courtesy amazon.com

However, as successful artistically and commercially as the Kent-illustrated volume was, it had one glaring flaw, readily evident on the cover (below). There’s no indication that Herman Melville is the author! Rockwell also designed the book cover, which might help explain how Melville’s name was overlooked. Marketing doubtlessly had the other hand in that decision. Random House likely figured they had a great coup with Kent’s illustrations. In the Art Deco 1920s, he may have been better-known than Melville himself. It was yet another of a long series of insults and betrayals — now posthumous — to a great American writer who struggled mightily for his art, and to support a large extended family. 1.

Moby Dick or the Whale" (1930) book by Herman Melville illustrated by Rockwell Kent. sold at auction on 1st February | Bidsquare

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  1. Picky pedantics might also object that the Random-House cover failed to hyphenate Moby-Dick which was Melville’s chosen title (subtitled “Or, The Whale”) for the book, even though the whale’s name in the book’s text has no hyphen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

This is the colorized cover of the Kindle edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as illustrated by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 edition, but with the author’s name added. (see below) 
Well, I gotta right to sing the blues, Or to sing praises, like a fool, to the earthly heavens where art might come from. And if it is the blues, it’s the kind that inspires you rather than keeps your head just above water.
You see, my song sort of went on and on (by Facebook comment standards), spilling over the 12-bar blues form like water in a sinking ship. But the editors at PBS American Masters Facebook page didn’t jettison any of my load of responses to the provocative question: What single work of art changed your life?
They’ve received 247 responses and counting. Here’s my response. I couldn’t quite help myself. I have even expanded on it here, with a bit more text and imagery.
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As a long-time generalist arts journalist, I’ve encountered so much extraordinary art in all its forms. How to pick one? I might say seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” but it was an oddly truncated experience, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed before I could see all of it. I’d literally been stopped in my tracks on the staircase for long minutes because the center of Guernica filled the doorway view at the top. Then the doors closed, as the museum was closing for the day. I didn’t have time to return before flying back home. The great work moved to Spain a short time later, in 1981. So, I live with a reproduction of it, and that oddly but profoundly unfulfilled experience. 1
Imagine seeing, through a doorway, the middle of this astonishing political mural by Picasso, being stopped in your tracks by it on a museum staircase — and then the gallery doors closing on you at 5 p.m. That’s my sadly truncated but unforgettable experience of seeing the mighty “Guernica.” Courtesy Magazine Artsper
“Guernica,” of course was named for the Spanish town bombed in 1937 by Nazi planes, complicit with Fascist dictator Franco  — the first act of modern war terrorism on a civilian population of nascent World War II.
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And then, seeing Arshile Gorky’s often-gorgeous metamorphosis from surrealism to abstract-expressionism — closely reflecting my own artistic sensibilities — at the Guggenheim Museum of Art is another life-changing moment.
The plow and the song - Digital Remastered Edition Painting by Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky’s 1946 painting “The Plow and the Song,” (above) lyrically transmutes his memories of homeland Armenia to the modernist present. The memories were rooted in his long, desperate childhood escape, by foot, with his sister Vartoosh and mother, from the Armenian holocaust conducted by the Ottoman Empire. Their mother, Sushan der Marderosian pictured below — in this wrenchingly poignant Gorky painting from about 1926, with the artist at the age of their exodus — died of starvation in 1918. (Courtesy pixels.)
Pleased with my Milwaukee Journal review of the Guggenheim show, Gorky’s nephew Karlen Mooradian contacted me. I was fortunate enough to obtain an in-person interview with him and Gorky’s sister Vartoosh Adoian Mooradian (Gorky’s original name was Vosdanig Adoian) in Chicago, but I was never able to publish anything from the interview. I did glean great insight from Mooradian’s 1980 book The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky, about his artist uncle, who committed suicide in 1948. He profoundly influenced many abstract expressionists, none more than Willem de Kooning. 2
The Artist and His Mother, 1926 - 1936 - Arshile Gorky - WikiArt.org
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Then, music vibrates on and on in my life, where the single transforming moment could be the Butterfield Blues Band’s ground-breaking East-West album, or first hearing John Coltrane’s achingly eloquent and exalting A Love Supreme suite, or his searing Live at Birdland, and imaging being there, in that fire.
John Coltrane “Live at Birdland.” Courtesy deep groove mono
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Or, by contrast to such earnest passion, the lacerating sneer of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which helped pinpoint the existential waywardness of the freedom my generation declared from bourgeois convention and responsibility. Or, by another contrast, Dylan’s affirmatively flashing “Chimes of Freedom,” poetry aflame in music
Or, hearing Beethoven or Mahler in fearless, heaving performances, in Milwaukee and Madison. Grammy-winning conductor John DeMain especially unlocked much of Mahler’s glorious might with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in a full Mahler symphonic cycle in the 1990s and 2000s.
In theater, a darkly, full-chested staging of Macbeth at American Platers Theater, and a thunderbolt-raging King Lear at UW-Milwaukee. So, yes, the commonality here seems an appetite for grand gestures, of many sorts.
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That’s why I finally must land on the experience of reading Moby-Dick for the first time (as some readers of this blog might’ve guessed). I was already in my ‘40s and, knowing its reputation and having seen Huston’s movie version, I remained unprepared for how inexorably the book swept me away, even though many readers understandably turn back to the shore. And yet, there’s so much you’d miss. Even the cetology I gobbled up like so much krill going down a cavernous throat.
Yet the haunting had begun several decades earlier when I found a copy of the 1930 Random House edition which brought the book to widespread readership.
My plastic-covered copy of the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, what I still believe is the definitive version of an illustrated edition of the book, with art by Rockwell Kent. Photo by Kevin Lynch
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The visual artist in me responded to this powerfully. I knew then, my day of reckoning with the book loomed somewhere in the future. There have been many illustrated editions of this book since, and some are steeped in their own fiery inspiration. But none so eloquently captures the spirit of the book as it manifest itself in the Depression era, as does that 1930 edition.
Rockwell Kent, in his way, approaches Melville’s genius in his 228 woodblock prints. The black and white Deco-influenced imagery is proto-noir, capturing the sense of lost-at-sea and impending doom and, in deft knife strokes, the essence of characters lurking inside their ravaged, or mortally infected, souls. 3
Infected by what? The blood-lust fervor of Ahab, akin to a demagogue manufacturing an enemy, in the whale that took his leg. The expansively stentorian Ahab, recalling Lear, captivates the whole crew in his questing rage — except for first mate Starbuck and, to a degree, Ishmael, who remains somewhat remote, and “aloft.”
Alas, Random House jumped on their perceived marketing coup with the new edition so strongly that they failed to put Melville’s name anywhere on the cover, only including “Illustrated by Rockwell Kent” on the spine. It was yet another of countless insults to the great and long-forsaken writer, right at the emergence of his genius to broader acceptance. The current Kindle version (at top), at least, corrects that “oversight” with the original cover (colorized though it is).
Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent – Biblioklept
Here’s a brooding but burning portrait of Captain Ahab, by Rockwell Kent. 
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So, back to Melville’s text:
The extraordinarily antiphonal voices of Ishmael and Ahab echoed through my head and psyche, across the oceanic expanses of poetic writing, gritty details, and surprising humor, which might make some virtually sea-sick, but hang onto the horizon as the crow’s nest sways!
It was indeed postmodern in 1851, in how Melville strangely constructed it, and summed up his own creation as well as anyone: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
“Thar she blows!” from “Moby Dick,” 1930, illustrated by Kent. Courtesy “History of Art: Masterpieces of World Literature: Herman Melville.”
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Yet it persists, remaining afloat as a metaphor and allegory for America, in the tall, creaking bones of The Pequod, manned by people from many races. And what else did it all mean? Defying fate? Or God? Or nature? Or Nature? Hubris as delusion, or the destiny of grace embraced, one storyteller’s backward glance into timelessness?
Rockwell Kent Ishmael Going Abroad Giclee Art Print | Etsy
Here, Pequod first harpoonist Queequeg, who deeply befriends Ishmael early in the novel, remains vigilant for the White Whale, even while down in the forecastle where the crew bunks. Illustration by Kent. Courtesy Etsy.
From childhood, oceanic depths had always scared me. In time, Melville’s mounting whorl of words, and his own extraordinary life story, compelled me to begin writing a novel about its author.
These days, people critique the book’s scarcity of women characters. Yet, as Sascha Morrell comments. “On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces of nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp,’ to Ahab’s boasting of his ‘queenly personality’ to the ambiguous mingling of ‘milk and sperm’ in the infamously erotic chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand.’”
Another she doesn’t mention is one of my favorite chapters, the stunning awe of gigantic maternal nursing in “The Grand Armada.” For that matter, tell (the late) Elizabeth Hardwick, author of a brilliantly concise and empathetic Melville biography, how much it lacks for a human female presence. Or Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of a comprehensive Melville biography. Or Elizabeth Schultz, the doyenne of visual art about “The Great American Novel.”
Moby Dick breaches like a god reaching for the stars, (or to “kiss the sky,” as Jimi Hendrix would exult in the 1960s). in this image by Kent from 1930.
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On the other hand, one could quote any number of astute observers on the book’s magnificence: Hardwick, F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, and Lewis Mumford all come to mind, worth looking up. Most recently, I revisited D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick and he says: “A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.” Read his essay in Studies in Classic American Literature for more. 4
So, living on the Heartland edge of a Great Lake, I remain haunted by this and more, by Saint Elmo’s Fire and the diabolical blood ritual, by Pip seeing God’s foot on the treadle of the loom, by the Catskill Eagle emerging from the woe that is madness, by Ahab’s burning obsession, by the massive will and long, mysterious memory – is it consciousness? — of the white whale and, of course, by Queequeg’s coffin, a miraculous, sacred offering from a brotherly friend, somehow rising, just free of the hellish vortex.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf…”
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1 Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established a democratic republic. It would not be until 1981, after both the artist’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural home.
2 Mooradian’s The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky includes 70 illustrations, a Q& A interview with Willem DeKooning about Gorky, as well as interviews with Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner Pollock, Malcolm Cowley, Reuben Nakian, Barnett Newman, Peter Blume, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Steinberg and other important figures in modern art and criticism.
3 The edition of Moby-Dick with Kent’s illustrations remains in print. I recommend the version with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by The Modern Library, in paperback 2000.
4. Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence, Penguin, 1923, 1977, 159

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.

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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.

 

Jeffrey Foucault replenishes his music in the streams of “Blood Brothers”

Album review: Jeffery Foucault — Blood Brothers (Blueblade Records)

After the brooding introspection of his previous album, Salt as Wolves, singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault comes up for big gulps of air, and perhaps his most genial album. It’s down-home music & poetry in a firm, warm handclasp.

Yet, even while striving to connect, Foucault takes chances. The title song “Blood Brothers,” hung on a descending bass line alluring as low-hanging fruit, is a love ode between men, yet sexually ambiguous. It recalls the fast friendship between surprise bedmates Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, which Foucault celebrated in his very first album.1

This artist’s work is hard-earned. He throws all of himself into his song, yet the balance between reflection and passion sounds effortless. Foucault’s singing is dusky, beguiling and grainy as uncut wheat, yet as nuanced as a sideways-drifting wind.

The internationally acclaimed, East Coast-based, Whitewater, Wis. native is currently (and arguably) the Upper Midwest’s strongest roots music export (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesota-native Bob Dylan is sort of in his own category).

Foucault’s a guy who’s hardly figured everything out, but he sure knows how to say what swims in his brain and in the blood from his heart. That organic metaphor, as far as it goes, belies the great labor of craft underlying this music. His writing seems unpolished, but as right as rain. Still, he exudes utterly disarming humility. Blood brother or not, he feels like the first guy you invite for a backyard barbecue.

Photo montage courtesy YouTube

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1 Though he doesn’t identify the source, in his liner notes to his debut album Miles from the Lightning (2001), Foucault quotes from the end of the highly comical Ch. 12 — “Biographical,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The aptness to Blood Brothers prompts me to revisit the quote, with context. First-time whaling sailor Ishmael quickly bonds with the lead harpoonist, the Polynesian Queequeg, for the ship they’ll sail on, when the two men are forced to share a bed in a crowded Spooner Inn, before they embark on The Pequod.:

“His story ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine and, blowing out the light, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.”

This view was published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express:Foucault review