Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jim Osterberg

Better known to the Cool Hot Center as Iggy Pop, one of the most astonishing musicians and performers of the rock era.  I'll save my written appreciation until his 65th birthday next year, if both of us make it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Immortal Passes

The world of music has lost one of its most polished artists, an innovator whose work has stunned you over and over again without you knowing his name. If you own the Steely Dan album "Countdown to Ecstasy," you have seen the most memorable image of him:

Back of the "Countdown to Ecstasy" cover: left to right:
Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter,
Donald Fagen, and . . .
 Click on that image to enlarge it, or look more closely and you will see a disembodied hand reaching up to manipulate the faders on the mixer.

That's Roger Nichols.

Roger (the Immortal) Nichols.

Roger Nichols engineered every Steely Dan track you have ever heard, as well as much of Donald Fagen's solo work ("The Nightfly; "Kamakiriad"). Engineered them to absolute sonic perfection. He won Grammies for four of them, and one for his work with John Denver.

He died on April 9 at 66 of pancreatic cancer, destitute from medical expenses.

If you are a Steely Dan lover -- oh, there are some out there who aren't, but they're probably vegans or wiccans or fish whisperers or something -- you will know that on those albums, you can hear every instrument, perfectly balanced, clear as a bell.  You can hear what the singer is singing.  The albums are quiet when they're supposed to be quiet. Ironic: One of the most distinctive sonic features of those Steely/Fagen albums is what you don't hear.

Having produced a CD, I am here to tell you that the contributions of the technicians are not merely technical -- they are unavoidably musical. Nichols's contribution was particularly vivid; he invented devices and techniques designed to produce a perfect beat on the drum tracks. But his greatest gift was to be as exacting and patient as the two most notoriously demanding artists in modern popular music, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  He supposedly got his nickname -- which appeared in the credits on the Steely Dan albums -- from his ability to survive their epic grueling recording sessions, in one case brushing off an jolting encounter with some improperly grounded equipment.

Put on "Aja."  If you have it on vinyl, even better.  Cue up "Black Cow."  Be startled by those pellucid opening figures.  And breathe in deep for Roger Nichols.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

It Is Ever Thus

Every year I organize a trip to the Dallas Auto Show.  Attending when they can are Nancy's two sons, a son-in-law, and three of our grandsons.  (There are now four, but the fourth is four days old, and his dad wisely elected not to join us this year.)  The grandsons are all wonderful young chaps, much beloved of The Memsahib and me.

Our Auto Show Expedition has a steadfast rule -- NO GURLS ALLOUD.  

We were making our way among the exhibits, when I noticed that the three grandsons, ranging in age from 4 to 11, were standing at the Cadillac turntable.   It was near closing time -- they were the only ones there.  I caught the attention of their dad, who is very adroit with the camera on his smartphone, and pointed out this touching tableau:

Click on the photo for a dramatic enlargement.

Here was my Facebook description (I'm "Pops," by the way):

"At the Cadillac turntable at the Dallas Auto Show: Samuel, Jacob, and Caleb Smith admire the fine lines and sophisticated chassis, the expensive upgrades and premium materials. But boys, take it from your Pops, who's been around the block a few times -- that model's going to run you some major dinero."

Samuel seemed quite taken by the Detroit iron, as he considered (but admirably rejected) an act of naughtiness in climbing up for a closer look.  Jacob and Caleb seemed more interested in the oral presentation.

The speaker continued her spiel as though one of these lads might be inspired to visit a Cadillac showroom to pursue a purchase.

As we were walking away, I said to Caleb that the lady talking about the Cadillac was pretty cute.  He made a dreadful frowny-face and insisted that he was only interested in the car.

Their mother left a comment on the Facebook entry:  "This picture cracks me up (sort of)."

The eternal conflict of the mother of growing, changing boys.

Remember that motto?  We may have to consider some modifications come a half-dozen years or so.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Novel of Ideas that Might Give You Some if You're Not Careful

36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (subtitled “A Work of Fiction”)

This is one of those novels – I seem to read a lot of them – I liked very much but I’m not sure who its ideal audience is. Perhaps one of y’all. Does this sound like something you might enjoy?:

[NO SPOILERS] First, every major character in this novel is Jewish. There is a lot of material here about Judaism of many varieties, and some of the finest scenes are set in “America’s only shtetl,” named here New Walden, where the residents maintain a strictly orthodox way of life. Second, every major character in this novel is a brilliant academic intellectual, and I do mean brilliant, and I do mean academic. Most of the novel is set on campuses, fictional and not, within spitting distance of the Eastern Seaboard. They are not only brilliant, they are the most brilliant in the world in their (sometimes competing) fields. The brilliant characters who are not academic are brilliant religious intellectuals. The plot centers on Cass Seltzer, a lapsed Jew who has written a celebrated book examining The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” and has earned a reputation as “the atheist with a soul.” The plot is difficult to summarize, but I will say only that the drama of the book arises out of the tension between his relationships with several strong (similarly lapsed) women and several strongly religious and charismatic men with whom he studies or otherwise encounters on his path to popular acclaim.

The foregoing description makes the book sound strident, biased against religion, and perhaps even sexist. And perhaps dull. And while Ms. Goldstein’s own thoughts on the existence of God are not hard to discern, I must report that I did not find the book offensive in this respect and hardly polemical at all. In fact, while I used the word “drama” in the last paragraph, the novel is comic in intention and effect. I found myself smiling throughout (and even issuing that rarity, the occasional laugh-out-loud), perhaps because in my own education and life I have encountered similar characters.

And it is not dull.  Even if those characters don't sound familiar to you, you can still get a kick out of this book. The writing is lively, if erudite, and there are some very fine passages the equal of any pure writing I’ve read in quite some time.

The book has two flaws, one bordering on serious, one less so. The more serious flaw is that Cass, the central character, although – yes, a brilliant academic intellectual – is weak, both intentionally (he’s kind of a schnook) and in portrayal (he’s not fully realized, although he appears in almost every scene). Goldstein can write strong, vivid male characters, both attractive and not, so it is curious that Cass is so bland. It put me in mind of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” You needed Mary to tell those stories, but the comic freight was borne by Lou and Murray and Sue Ann and Ted and Rhoda. Not that Mary was not a fine comedienne and sometimes funny in the show – just that her role was frequently to react to the spicier characters around her. That seems to be Cass’s function throughout much of this novel, although he will get off a zinger now and then. Nothing we hear from him in the book prepares us for his final tour-de-force performance.

The lesser flaw is that sometimes Ms. Goldstein forces ideas into the novel through excessive speechifying. I was reminded of another famous female atheist writer, Ayn Rand. The sometimes lengthy speeches are so lucid – on both sides of the existence-of-God question – that they are unlikely ever to have been uttered in the contexts in which they appear.

The novel concludes with an Appendix (as appeared in Cass’s own famous book) setting forth 36 arguments for the existence of God, with commentary, “flaws,” and asides. In reading some of the Amazon reviews of the book, some readers take her to task for misrepresenting these arguments, but they looked pretty neutrally-couched to me. Ah, but Ms. Goldstein is sly – I wrote “the novel concludes,” but it is unclear whether the Appendix is in fact novelistic – something that Cass himself penned in “The Varieties of Religious Illusion” – or only Ms. Goldstein’s helpful summary of the current (and ancient) debate.

Ms. Goldstein is a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and has written on a variety of philosophical topics, including a popular account of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (which, I was surprised to discover, I own, but which, I was not surprised to discover, I have not read). She is married to famed cognitive scientist and brainworks popularizer Steven Pinker. She’s also kinda waifish-hot, which does lead one to wonder whether perhaps she identifies with one of the hot female genius Jewish academic intellectuals in the book (who, I concede, is not a very appealing character).

Here’s where I come out:  You don’t see novels like this much anymore. I drastically reduced my reading of “serious” American fiction about twenty years ago when I wearied of dull, minimalistic writing about unappealing upper-middle-class men and women and their agonizingly uninteresting lives and loves. There are signs that things are changing. Goldstein’s characters are vivid (Cass notably excepted), her prose robust and sometimes challenging (and sometimes arch). The thing crackles with intelligence and curiosity and respect for the reader. That’s plenty good enough for me.

*     *     *

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

That Poem Again

It doesn’t have to be a poem. Maybe it’s a passage in a book, or a painting. Maybe a scene in a teevee show or a movie. Maybe famous, maybe not. But it touches you somehow, you remember it. And it unaccountably pops up from time to time in your life.

Such a poem, for me, is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”

You don’t have to be a poetry lover to have encountered “Dover Beach.” It is widely anthologized and betcha a lot of you read it in high school or college. Not limited in its appeal to pointy-heads, it is one of the most famous poems in the English language, and not one at which literary critics often turn up their noses, or at least not very high. (Arnold was a critic and essayist in addition to being a poet.) It was written in the early 1850’s, but not published until 1867. Although Arnold is not highly regarded as a poet today, and his other writings are mostly ignored, nobody, it seems, doesn’t like “Dover Beach.”

The question, to which I will return momentarily, is: why?

First, a note on that popping-up I mentioned in the first paragraph. Myself, I don’t remember studying this poem in high school. I think I first encountered it when I was a teenager in a marvelous Pocket Books paperback, A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, edited by the famous critic (and poet) Louis Untermeyer. Yes, here it is.  17th printing in 1968; ninety-five cents, and full of riches.

I didn’t know what it meant. But it stayed with me. I would turn to it from time to time, and the more I read it, the more I thought I got it, but I was never quite sure, and I never cared. This was decades before the Internet could reveal in a few seconds what literary analysts think it means. No matter; I always loved the poem.

Around 20 years ago, I went to live for a few years in the San Diego area. My favorite place to hang out just to sit and think was the bluff overlooking the Del Mar beach. And up and down the coast, where the beach was rockier, I remember hearing for the first time the popping and crackling of the breakers lifting and dropping small rocks near the end of the waterline. And I thought of that line from “Dover Beach” – you’ll see it in a minute – that I never quite understood, and then I did.

In those same days there was a young woman in whom I was interested. The first time I spoke with her on the phone, we were talking about favorite places, and she mentioned the sea, because it was “egoless.” I mentioned “Dover Beach,” and she stopped short – she’d been talking to some other swain just the day or so previously, who had also commended the poem to her.

And today, I was reading a marvelous novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and in a central scene, the eminent professor recites from memory, and then calls for analyses of, “Dover Beach,” which the protagonist botches.  And it got me thinking about the poem again.

Dover Beach, and the White Cliffs
 Dover Beach, of course, is the beach at the famous White Cliffs of Dover that overlook the English Channel and, as the poet suggests, allows a view France across the straits. The most popular interpretation of the poem is that it was written at the historical juncture where scientific discovery and Victorian materialism were calling traditional religious faith into question. The poet seems to regret this, but calls out to his beloved for comfort and reaffirmation as they witness the destructive philosophical battles of the age. (It is believed that early drafts of the poem were composed by Arnold on his honeymoon at Dover.)   That is certainly a credible interpretation of the poem.
The mid-to late nineteenth was an incredible time, to be sure. The theory of evolution, Maxwell’s electromagnetic theories, the explosion in discoveries in astronomy and physics – it was a tough time for traditional religion. But why would a poem with that as its subject -- if that is its subject, as it is still regarded as a “difficult” poem in some circles – be of any interest to us today?

Matthew Arnold
For one reason: It is beautiful.

I find new beauty, exquisite new artistic strategies in it, every time I read it.  The phrasing, the rhymes, the punctuation, the shift in point of view, and most of all the radical shifts in focus from -- and implicit connections between -- the greatest questions of the age to the most intimate personal relationships.

This hastily-composed article is not going to be able to explain why some things are beautiful to the senses, or to the perceiving brain. Or, perhaps I could say with every bit as much credibility, the perceiving heart. It may be evolutionary; it may be godly; it may be a condition instilled by culture.

I don’t know, but I know this – meaning is important, but it is not everything. Logic and science and analysis – gotta have ‘em, but if that’s all you have then you will be undernourished indeed.

Enough. Find a quiet place and read “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold.  In fact, read it twice.


     The sea is calm tonight.
     The tide is full, the moon lies fair
     Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
     Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
     Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
     Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
     Only, from the long line of spray
     Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
     Listen! you hear the grating roar
     Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
     At their return, up the high strand,
     Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
     With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
     The eternal note of sadness in.

     Sophocles long ago
     Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
     Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
     Of human misery; we
     Find also in the sound a thought,
     Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

     The Sea of Faith
     Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
     Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
     But now I only hear
     Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
     Retreating, to the breath
     Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
     And naked shingles of the world.

     Ah, love, let us be true
     To one another! for the world, which seems
     To lie before us like a land of dreams,
     So various, so beautiful, so new,
     Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
     Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
     And we are here as on a darkling plain
     Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
     Where ignorant armies clash by night.