This Yamaha Red Label FG-180 guitar was probably built in 1969. The woman in the guitar store next to the Loyola Theatre in Westchester said Jimmy Webb had been in the week before and picked up this very Yamaha and played a few chords. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Jimmy Webb. It was March, 1970, and I’d just returned from active duty in Forts Bliss and Huachuca. Having talked to some other guitarists, I already knew the FG-180 was the guitar I wanted for the money I had, factory made in Japan, so inexpensive, but playable, reliable, and sound worthy. The guitar, case included, cost $100, a Martin dreadnought knockoff, no extra charge for the Jimmy Webb back story.
A back story is a forward. The forward is not a trailer, nor is it an abstract. The back story never spoils. It’s an appetizer. The back story, moving forward, provides the predicament that explains the current situation. Without a back story, new episodes drift aimlessly and meaninglessly, random dead links. The back story deflates absurdity and fills the reader with hope. The back story is a proposal, a hypothesis, an argument.
My first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor friend, but its neck was broken by an early girlfriend jumping off the top bunk. I then purchased for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper, a nylon string, plywood top Orlando.
What is the relationship between physicists’ string theories and guitar? The on-line forums for both are full of confusing, contradictory claims, but full of back stories. A guitar often comes with a back story. Several guitar cases were recently spotted for sale in thrift shops, but the guitars were long gone. We might have some idea the age of the universe, but is it old or young, and what does it matter? The Ventura guitar case the guitar shop offered to throw in today shows the wear and tear of travel in a deuce and a half, to Fort Liggett and Camp Roberts and Camp Pendleton, and later trips to gold rush country and various ocean beaches, and not a few years sleeping in a dank basement while the guitar enjoyed an open stand in the living room.
This FG-180 has a spruce, two-piece solid top, mahogany sides, and a two-piece mahogany back. The neck is a thick bar of nato of one piece with the head. The fretboard is one quarter inch thick rosewood. The Yamaha link (above) says the backs were three-piece, but the top and back of this one are both two-piece, book matched. The bridge is rosewood. The FG stands for folk guitar. This one has a thin crack in the back of the head, at the top of the neck.
The top under the bridge has lifted some, and the head crack is a bit worrisome; light or extra-light strings will reduce tension. The FG-180 is now set up with D’Addario XL Chromes, flat wound, jazz light gauge, electric guitar strings. The electric strings when played acoustically don’t produce as loud or deep or full a sound as acoustic strings, but they pop, ping, and twang, “like a steel rail humming” (Pete Seeger, “Hobo’s Lullaby”), and if you do want to plug the guitar into an amplifier, use an old fashion, Dean Markley sound hole fitted pickup.
In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life,” Slavoj Zizek explains how we are seduced by ideology. If the universe has a back story, our present predicament can be explained, even if the explanation makes no sense. The Big Bang is a big back story. When an effect tickles or bites or bombards or floods us, we search for a cause. We reconsider our back stories.
We somehow must work and rework, correct or clarify, our back stories into our instantaneous presentations and performances amid the distractions, commercials, hypes, phobias, click bait, news tsunamis – the whole bafflegab of what’s up now.
Zizi Papacharissi, in “A Networked Self,” appears to understand the ability to “back-story” (to verbalize a noun, to go with the flow, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) as an adaptation skill, the ability to adapt to changes in social environments, from a supposed fixed state, where the self was assumed to be a character bound in a book with a lineal story, to a fluid self that is constantly seeking its own level, walking on the deck of a small boat, changing with every social interaction, mimicry as a survival technique (elasticity of demand in a social market):
“Narratives about the self have always been performative. That’s what renders aspects of our identity a discourse. What changes is that performativity is augmented through online means of self presentation. And it is this enhanced theatricality, afforded by certain online platforms (SNSs, and various forms of blogs and microblogs), that individuals find most appealing.
Sociability is practiced to the network, via the network. Performances of the self enable sociability, and these socially oriented performances must carry meaning for multiple publics and audiences without sacrificing one’s true sense of self. These polysemic performances not only contain many layers of meaning, but are remixed and remixable – sampling digital traces of identity to piece together performances that are further remixed and re-interpreted by multiple audiences and publics.”
That could be used as a back story that may now explain the emergence of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. The revival, originally acted out in small coffee shops, living rooms, and campus settings, was at first minimally commercial. Few expected to earn a life-long living from singing folk song covers, but that wasn’t the goal, and the identity of the performer was inseparable from the identity of the audience. The audience participated in the performance. But that participation wasn’t a surge of fans aspiring to go on stage. There often wasn’t a stage, and each time a song was sung it was renewed in an altered form. Many of these performances were not recorded. They were passed on as living songs. Folk music is chameleon and transferable.
One of my older sisters sang in a high school folk group, “The Travelling Trio.” Their travels did not take them out of the Los Angeles Basin. They sang in living rooms and the local high school gym. Imagine a young Judy Garland singing Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But unlike my sister, whose voice flowed like melted chocolate over fresh strawberries, your voice sounds like a galvanized plumbing pipe rattling in the wall with trapped air bubbles. Such a voice might confuse Tom Waits with Hedy West. Still, your Kentucky grandfather played the spoons and the harmonica, to add more filler to your back story, and you were an easy target for the music bug early on.
But a singing gig was not to become part of your back story. You played finger style. You liked the guitarist John Fahey, saw him play at Long Beach State and again at the Ash Grove. Not only did he not sing, on stage he never said a word. You were playing what you pretended was folk blues and fell into jazz. You took up what you called jazz guitar, though not everyone necessarily heard it that way.
Classical guitar lessons are useful for a few years. Your fingers already know how to play, but your brain doesn’t always know what they are doing. Over time, you’ll use up several teachers who will walk you through a couple of Aaron Shearer books, and a few of the Frederick Noad books, and teach you the Segovia scale method (which you might later hear Joe Pass dis, along with the number system). Your first teacher will probably introduce you to Leo Brouwer and his “Etudes Simples.” The Cuban composer’s short pieces are of course not all that simple, but at least you don’t have to sing. You’ll learn to read, slowly, like a stuttering primary school student, and learn enough to work through a Dionisio Aguado book, “Studi Per Chitarra,” on your own. You’ll learn by heart the old cliché: “The guitar is the easiest of instruments to play poorly, the most difficult to play well.” You’ll return to jazz and folk and find your breath and take solace in another cliché: “Close enough for jazz.”
Close enough substitutes feeling for the pursuit of perfection which as Cornel West explains in “Examined Life” is the romantic road to disappointment. So it was in the spirit of close enough that I answered an invitation from Sunshine Dixon to read a poem at an artists’ reception in the campus library, but I suggested that instead of reading a poem I might bring my old FG-180 guitar and sing a folk song. I worked up a folk version of “Gospel Plow,” using Dylan’s version on his first album as inspiration. If a recording pops up on-line somewhere I’ll add a link to the back story or upload a piece of it to SoundCloud. Maybe sister Peggy Ann will tune in.
And if you’d like to read more about the artists’ reception, Sunshine and I collaborated on a short article now on-line here, already part of a back story.
But what’s the backstory to backstory ? And , is the backstory just a front ?
Yes, Knott’s Berry Farm, the fronts, facades, films. What’s behind the western town storefronts? So, what is it that’s examined in “Examined Life”? Just so, the facades of presuppositions and assumptions (West). But a front is not “just” a front. People actually live in those fronts, believe in them, live and work and die for them.
Hi Joe: I listened to your SoundCloud clips. Flotsam & Jetsam. More is needed, some crazier angle, words performed to accompany, or kerosene squirted in and a lit match thrown in to get some psychobilly brew going. That’s what I think. Your clips come off as samples, sketches, calling out for more development and definition. “Surf Surge” reminds me a little of the droning feedback fade-in at the beginning of Bobby Beausoleil’s marvelous psychedelic soundtrack for Kenneth Anger’s even more marvelous short film Lucifer Rising. “Hoot and Nani” sounds like an outtake from a session of Captain Beefheart, the surreal avant blues for his album Trout Heart Mask, hijacked by a kid who has gotten his hands on a toy keyboard. Maybe that’s what the “Nani” wordplay alludes to. “Pitch Sequence” is a teased out burp from the instrument. More is needed for it to become something. I think maybe a difference between you and I is I go for stiffer and stronger stuff, and you go more for at ease and homegrown. You’re folk and bluegrass and I’m punk and metal. You: Dick Dale. And I: The Cramps. You: Ry Cooder. And I: The Flesheaters. Definitely not all, but there’s a certain variety of acoustic guitar music, especially with that alt feel, the blend of hipster and kumbaya, which makes me want to punch a hole in the wall. Drives me nuts and makes me want to blast Slayer, or the Butthole Surfers. Regardless, both of us do share the appreciation and practice of robust plainness.
You wrote in a comment that the ordinary makes the best poetry, and I agree up to a point, but I just as well think the extraordinary, the knocking up against boundaries, a going to extremes, can figure in the making of great art and lead to revelation. Your relation to and opinion of the pursuit of perfection is interesting to me. You appear to believe art is best made staying in the mid range, on the green grass, on the lawn, playing croquet. Don’t take art more seriously than a game, don’t dare wager your soul, or take too great a risk and sacrifice too much for it. The suffering artist has indeed for a long time now been a blasé cliche, something to be avoided, ridiculed even, the butt of jokes. “Come on, man, lighten up.” This isn’t a criticism, definitely not an attack, but a personal concern with which I myself grapple. In my own personal taste I do tend to find more, to feel more, in the dangerous and wild and crazy, to feel more awe and sympathy and profound respect for those who maybe fly too high and singe their wings. Maybe this is a confession of my sickness of soul, to have such need for shocks and jolts.
What a scandal when Bob Dylan traded in his acoustic for an electric guitar. Great balls of fire.
Many go to art as to biscuits and tea, sampling and sipping, while others, perhaps fewer, go to it as if to a well of water after spending forty days and forty nights in the desert.
Franz Kafka: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
First, John, thanks for checking out the SoundCloud. Second, thanks for the articulate analysis. I am familiar with the Kafka discussion. Some of your references I’ll have to look up. But one could be compared to far worse than the beautiful Captain Beefheart! (even if the comparison is limited to an outtake). But to zero in on the “croquet”: isn’t croquet what they play in the Alice Wonderland book? The ordinary may not be as innocent, unappealing, or safe, or ignorable – it’s underplayed. But Wallace Stevens spoke to it in his “Anecdote in a Jar.” If the jar was the type used to can fruit or vegetables, well, that’s some art. The ordinary is what W. C. Williams was talking about when he said “No idea but in things”:
“Let the snake wait under/ his weed. and the writing/ be of words, slow and quick, sharp/ to strike, quiet to wait,/ sleepless./ – through metaphor to reconcile/ the people and the stones./ Compose. (No ideas/ but in things) Invent!/ Saxifrage is my flower that splits/ the rocks”
And the physicists continue to suggest how little we get of anything however simple we might take it to be. What was it Huxley said, about the doors of perception, idea which he got from Blake, the five senses keep reality at bay, reality being Rilke’s angel. Maybe that’s what your sense of art aspires to, to hug Rilke’s angel without getting burnt or crushed.
And while were on either/ors (Cohen: “You were the promise [angel] at dawn; I was the morning after”), there’s the idea of the “lamp and the mirror”: which goes something like this: art that illuminates the ordinary versus art that mirrors the ordinary. There’s nothing more ordinary than the bad dream, the bad thought (Hamlet), “the horror, the horror.”
That “romantic disappointment” idea is from Cornel West in “Examined Life”.
Great answer, Joe. Thanks for not flipping out on me. (I’ve had it happen to me before in other forums.) I do sometimes feel like tossing a spark into some of these blog forum comment sections, just to get some zest and vigor back in. But I don’t argue for the sake of arguing, or due to conceit, but to balance out compliment giving, to get down to some real nitty-gritty. The W.B. Yeats quote Cornell West mentions, sweating profusely in the back of the vehicle he’s being driven in, is excellent: “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.” Of course I agree with the ordinary you now mention, defining more what you mean, but what I meant is the ordinary-ordinary, as in the blah, the bland, drab, monotonously commonplace, the utterly predictable, the grayest of the gray to clammy and cold porridge ordinariness. Ironically, I think we’re getting at the same thing. Here comes the march of the Qualifiers, ha ha, hee hee, hoo hoo, down into Alice in Wonderland’s hole. I just as soon go there than hug Rilke’s angel. Real Thingness of the ordinary we both agree about. I might argue to get at the Real Thingness, often takes remarkably unordinary paths or extraordinary means. Most poetry doesn’t just flow out into completion. It requires work and revision. Wallace Stevens’ poetry is deceptively ordinary. Anyone who tried to write a poem as he did would discover it’s not as easy as it looks. This is all amusingly ironic to me, because not long ago I found myself in an exchange of words where I was defending calling a spade a spade.
In talking about philosophy, available to everyone, not just learned in high academic institutions, but as a way of life, C. West cites Montaigne, then goes onto say, “You can’t talk about truth without learning how to die.” This is the sort of wagering I meant, in my comment to you. There’s a way of investing oneself, where a death-fall in words is encountered, and a glimmer of truth is revealed. A total commitment to what one expresses. An investment of heart, of self, not just word-games. I don’t think I’m being romanticist here. I myself am against, on the guard against, Vampires of the Abstract. Great stuff when West talks about death and corpses, Vico’s understanding of it, or John Donne’s, not abstract death, but Real, “Being born of a woman, in stank, in stench… what I call Funk. Being introduced to the funk of life in the womb, and then the love-push that gets you out.” That’s great. He goes onto to talk about corpses… which decompose. Then says, “That’s the raw funky stanky stuff of life… That’s what Bluesmen do. That’s what Jazzmen do.”
I do like his riffing on Romanticism and the obsession with wholeness, which leads to being shattered, and then… “to disappointment, melancholia, blah blah blah,” he says, then goes on: “My kind of Blues begins with catastrophe, begins with the angel of history, and Benjamin’s thesis… Begins with the piles of wreckage, one pile on another… that’s the starting point. The Blues is personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. …How do you generate an elegance of earned self-togetherness so that you have a stick-to-itness in the face of the catastrophic and the calamitous and the horrendous and the scandalous and the monstrous.” (That’s a vintage Cornell West sentence.) Then he goes on to talking about Time, and the Romantic’s obsession with time as loss, as time as a taker, whereas he, “as a Jacobian Christian”, is interested “as well” in time as a gift, time as a giver. (There’s an excellent passage in an essay by Susan Sontag about E.M. Cioran, the introduction of his book, The Temptation to Exist, where she compares Cioran and his thinking to John Cage and his thinking. It’s really wonderful and very pertinent to what we’re discussing here. Cage didn’t have the Blues, or somehow, in his Zen Buddhism, existed outside the psychological framework in which the Blues take root. Maybe later I’ll type out the excerpt and post it here. I must leave shortly and won’t be back till later. )
Watching and listening to Cornell West talk brilliantly in the back of the vehicle being driven, I think of the laws passed against drivers’ driving and simultaneously texting or talking on cellphones. Cornell West is going to make the woman driving wreck the car! How can she not be totally engaged with what he’s saying, the jazz-blues of his expounding, and still keep her eyes on the road? (Pushing on the gas is jazz, and hitting the brakes is the blues?)
The purpose or function of poetry in particular (but also music and fiction) probably varies with the occasion and the audience. I’m not sure it all needs to “break the ice within us,” and anyway, Kafka wasn’t all that frozen – he laughed out loud when he read some of his stuff to his friends. “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.” Who is the speaker whose point of view so assuredly says “must” in that first claim? It’s winter and ironic. As for audience, who do we expect to run into on the path not taken? But Frost left us with an either/or proposition. Are there not other paths (roads)? That’s one reason I don’t want to be a specialist. I wonder if drawing works differently with regard to your idea of “extreme art.” We might have learned to look at and appreciate what it feels like to be a woman sitting in a chair when it comes to painting, thanks to Picasso, but I’m not sure we’ve accomplished the same thing with any kind of writing. In other words, an audience might be more prepared to accept certain drawings and paintings that they are still unprepared for in writing form. There are only four seasons, and then we begin again. There are poems of spring, summer, fall, and winter. But we shouldn’t criticize a poem of spring for not being a poem of winter. I’m sure you would agree that “Jaws” was a terrible romantic comedy, but that doesn’t mean it should never have been made. How can we criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be without falling into a moral evaluation? Still, we do well to think about how we might be spending our time (for as Basho said, no matter what we are doing at any given moment, it has a bearing on our everlasting life).
Greetings, Joe: Thanks for the continued response. I don’t disagree with you. It’s true that in drawing and painting and related arts, different from writing, thinking and expression goes differently in significant ways. Writing is more of a consciously directed activity. Words themselves are consciousness-carriers, points of consciousness, focuses. Drawing and painting moves more subconsciously before emerging into consciousness; the whole process can remain submerged in subconsciousness, though of course it has its own problems. I’ve said before, elsewhere, that I feel more healing in making images, and quite the opposite, most of the time, while writing. Image-making is more in line with meditation, and in meditation one empties the mind, expands, moving more in a fluid state, associations of form and line and color a pure delight, on that level dissociated from the whole world of conscious meaning. I figure musicians experience something similar, this freedom in the sheer joy of arranging sound, sound for its own sake. I recall reading that Henry Miller painted pictures when the writing well went dry for him, to replenish his spirits. It was a healing activity for him too. I wrote in an email to Philippa and Brian George: “Getting things down in written form is exhausting, and I don’t know if it’s something I really want to get involved in too intensively. Writers undergo some of the most exquisite and unspeakable inner torments and agonies… For some time I’ve had this tug o’ war going on in myself between words and images, whether I should write, or exclusively devote myself to drawings and paintings. I’ve pondered more than once in my life taking an Oath of Silence, and just drawing and painting. I’m like you, Brian, in that I don’t and can’t do things half-way. Trying to do both writing and images brings me to his incredible unnatural tension inside, to a kind of breaking point where I feel I might snap in two. Something is being killed in me by trying to do both. Often I cancel myself out, standing in mute silence between the two, both sides in a standoff, each absolutely refusing to let the other do any work.”
The following is the excerpt from Susan Sontag’s excellent introduction essay about E. M. Cioran I mentioned. I myself am clearly stuck in Cioran’s way of thinking more than Cage’s, though I’m absolutely grateful for Cage and his influence, and sometimes break free and have my zen moments. (Pardon me for hogging up so much space here. I end up feeling kind of bad that more don’t jump in to speak their own hearts and air their own views.)
…”The only figure in the world of Anglo-American letters embarked on a theoretical enterprise comparable in intellectual power and scope to Cioran’s is John Cage.”
“Also a thinker in the post- and anti-philosophical tradition of broken, aphoristic discourse, Cage shares with Cioran a revulsion against ‘psychology’ and against ‘history’ and a commitment to a radical transvaluation of values. But while comparable in range, interest, and energy to Cioran’s, Cage’s thought mainly offers the most radical contrast to it. From what must be assumed to be the grossest difference of temperament, Cage envisages a world in which most of Cioran’s problems and tasks simply don’t exist. Cioran’s universe of discourse is preoccupied with the themes of sickness (individual and social), impasse, suffering, mortality. What his essays offer is a diagnosis and, if not outright therapy, at least a manual of spiritual good taste through which one might be helped to keep one’s life from being turned into an object, a thing. Cage’s universe of discourse – no less radical and spiritually ambitious than Cioran’s – refuses to admit most of these themes.”
“In contrast to Cioran’s unrelenting elitism, Cage envisages a totally democratic world of spirit, a world of ‘natural activity’ in which ‘it is understood that everything is clean: there is no dirt.’ In contrast to Cioran’s baroque standards of good and bad taste in intellectual and moral matters, Cage clearly believes that there’s no such thing as good or bad taste. In contrast to Cioran’s vision of error and decline and (possible) redemption of one’s acts, Cage proposes the perennial possibility of errorless behavior, if only we will allow it to be so. ‘Error is a fiction, has no reality in fact. Errorless music is written by not giving a thought to cause and effect. Any other kind of music always has mistakes in it. In other words, there is no split between spirit and matter.’ And elsewhere in the same book from which all these quotes are taken, Silence: ‘How can we speak of error when it is understood ‘psychology never again’.?’ In contrast to Cioran’s goal of infinite adaptability and intellectual agility (how to find the correct vantage point, the right place to stand in a treacherous world), Cage proposes for our experience a world in which it’s never preferable to do other than we are doing or be elsewhere than we are. ‘It is only irritating,’ he says, ‘to think one would like to be somewhere else. Here we are now.'”
“What is striking, in the context of this comparison, is how devoted Cioran is to the Will and its capacity to transform the world. Compare Cage’s: ‘Do you only take the position of doing nothing, and things will of themselves become transformed.’ What different views can be entailed by the radical rejection of history is easily seen by first thinking of Cioran and then of Cage, who writes: ‘To be & be the present. Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we owned it, but since we don’t, it is free & so are we.”
Reading Cage, one becomes aware how much Cioran is still confined within the premises of the historicizing consciousness; how inescapably he continues to repeat these gestures, much as he longs to transcend them. Of necessity, then, Cioran’s thought is halfway between anguished reprise of these gestures and a genuine transvaluation of them. Perhaps, for a unified transvaluation, one must look to those thinkers, like Cage, who – whether from spiritual strength or spiritual insensitivity is, to speak bluntly, a secondary issue – are able to jettison far more of the inherited anguish and complexity of this civilization. Cioran’s fierce, tensely argued speculations sum up brilliantly the decaying urgencies of ‘Western’ thought, but offer no relief from them beyond the considerable satisfactions of the understanding. Relief, of course, is scarcely Cioran’s intention. His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much – a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.”
“Novalis wrote that ‘philosophy is properly Home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.’ If the human mind can be everywhere at home, it must in the end give up its local ‘European’ pride, and something else – that will seem strangely unfeeling and intellectually simplistic – must be allowed in. ‘All that is necessary,’ says Cage with his own devastating irony, ‘is an empty space of time and letting it act in its magnetic way.'”
Thanks for the Sontag, John. Some polarity, dichotomy, infuses both the Sontag and yr own comment above. “In twosome twiminds,” Joyce said, by which he may have meant “doubt.” When an endeavor becomes more than a hobby, it’s hard to share time away from it. But the specialist knows only one thing, knows it well, but as Fuller said, specialization leads to extinction. Note how Cage composed both in writing and in music, and still had time to collect mushrooms. Hamlet said, “I could bound myself up in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” But art can be more than bad dreams (i.e. the diagnosis Sontag accuses Cioran of). Also thought reading “there is no dirt” of Zizek’s portion in Examined Life: the true ecologist loves this, he says, pointing to all the trash in the dump he’s been wandering around: check this one out: Zizek sounds like Cage here when he says “What is love?” True love loves imperfection; ergo, the true ecologist loves trash.
You appear to have an obsession with the so-called specialist, Joe. Specialist is your voodoo doll. You stick pins into its joints and talk down to it. I fear I may repeat my previous arguments. You must be stuck in your own circles. Is there a difference between an Absolutist and a Specialist? Was Antonin Artaud a specialist? One could just as well begin arguing about Absolutism vs Relativism. As you noted of Kafka, there was laughter among he and his friends when he read aloud excerpts of his work, which seems to go against the grain of the popular image we have of him; I’m sure, like Cage doing music and able to find time also to collect and study mushrooms, Cioran had side interests too, to divert his mind and give him more casual pleasure. Another subject for discussion is the caricatures and stereotypes we create, the assumptions we readers, admirers up to idolizers, have for certain literary and artistic figures. I’m absolutely positive a lot didn’t make it into print and the historical record. There’s a public persona and a private one. In hindsight, especially in our speedy and surface-surfing times, a certain fixed idea of great artistic personalities begins to dominate in the popular imagination, a falsification. One reason I didn’t approach Cage in the past when I saw him sitting there at one of the performances I attended at Old First Church here in San Francisco, was the incredibly intense and serious look he had on his face. I saw and felt in a glimpse the harder stuff he had in him. I felt he could wither me if he wanted to (though I think he wouldn’t have). I’m sure he had another side or sides which haven’t made their way into the popular imagination. It was the opposite of the image one generally gets of him, smiling like Buddha. Anyway, Fuller speaks of extinction, and is that such a bad thing? How important are we, really? What are we trying to preserve? Are those who don’t march and dance their way to extinction really preserving anything worthwhile and keeping something which will go on and on going? We’re gonna die, go extinct, anyway. One can have children to continue in one’s family line, for generation, but artistic heirs are harder to come by. Both Joyce and Kafka were singular geniuses. The more singular, it seems to me, the more imitators there may be, but in fact the less there are true heirs, which points in the direction of extinction. I personally don’t think much of this specialist/ generalist dichotomy and polarity. I’m trying to figure out exactly what you mean by it. Plainly stated, isn’t it simply relativism? Jack of all trades, master of none. One could find pros and cons on either side.
One thing I’m learning from Brian George is the importance of paradox. It’s an understanding and viewing of the wholeness (not in the Romanticist sense), the inseparable yin and yang, the overall link and relation of, for instance, specialist to generalist and generalist to specialist. Bring up one, and the other becomes its shadow, and vice versa. The devil is in the details and Deity is in the whole, and both sides need each other to maintain the living dynamism. But I confess I find this problematic too. Systematizing appears to be a tendency in this thinking, drawing everything up into paradoxes, a fascistic tendency and danger if pushed to the extreme. It contains an elitist mentality which, which when it’s not having its genuine moments of genius, traffics in delusions of grandeur and in intoxication becomes megalomania. Images rise up like Corporate entities in the summing up, signs of inviolable perfection, a tendency to domination by means of Totalizing, a racking up of paradoxes like balls on a celestial pool table, and one senses one is playing against a Dictator in the disguise of Minnesota Fats. I’m having my personal gripes with Brian George too, my back and forths. Ultimately I like it. It challenges me. I called Brian at one point after reading pieces of his remarkable writing a fabulous monster. I should note, he’s a great guy. (I have to add this because I’m scared of him. Don’t want my poor noggin to be split down the center by a lightning bolt!)
On the subject of why specialism is limiting.
My new favorite word of recent: bafflegab. This picks up the thread of the oral tradition of poetry and storytelling, performance-based. I tried acoustic and electric guitar when I was in high school. I could play basic cords, but never got beyond that. I used to get together with friends in my basement, and we created deliberately crazy songs, using as instruments too tools my Dad had down there. This was before I discovered Einsturzende Neubauten. And the Fluxus art movement, and John Cage, and that kind of avant-garde. Then an old drum kit was being given away, I forget the circumstances, and I ended up with it, and we incorporated percussion into our crazy songs. We used to record them on cassette tapes and play them back while we drove around suburbia. Really fun. Totally amateur. Not knowing how to play anything, and not really having any talent or skill, we had moments where we chanced upon some oddly charming rhythms, and dare I say melodies. We created some disturbing songs too, and I do believe my parents grew concerned about me. It was at a time (the 80’s) I was really into horror movies and also drew sicko cartoons. I miss those days. This spirit I think is in the rudiments of folk music and even punk rock, in the early days, when it was new and the feeling was that anything was possible, and anyone – do-it-yourself – could form a group and create a musical expression. Some great things came out of those times. Not being classically or “properly” trained can lead to some remarkably original creations, if one has the courage to just let what’s within come out.
I still have a really great love for the quirky and strange, and self-taught.
John, Don’t miss the SoundCloud link above (at the bottom of the post) for the kind of music you seem to be talking about. You’ve probably seen Cage’s “Water Walk” from the “I’ve Got A Secret” TV show? If not, check it out here.
I really love John Cage, his personality. A lovable man. Funny, hearing his voice after some time not hearing it, I thought of Vincent Price. Same sort of voice, a soothing elegance about it. I went to performances of Cage’s work in New York City, when I lived in Brooklyn going to college there – I went to a couple of “Bang on a Can” festivals in Manhattan at that time, and I saw performances of his work here in San Francisco, before he died. I really like his prepared piano pieces, which sound like gamelan. Cage was at performances, and I saw him there, but I dared not walk up to him and say Hi and talk with him. I’m really quite a shy guy (until one gets to know me). But this clip, definitely has the Fluxus performance art spirit in it, and is a bit ridiculous too, made into a novelty act for the mainstream TV viewing audience.
Cage was a character, able to mix the light with the dark matter. I have read and reread and continue to read his books: “Silence” and “A Year From Monday” are my favorites. Alas, I never saw him live, in person. Agree it seems he was “lovable” and happy. Would a laptop (i.e. Internet) have made him more or less happy? Vincent Price? I don’t know; how about Victor Borge though?
A spiralling story. Will explore links and share around. I may have posted the site of my ex partner in a former version here: http://www.palmguitars.com/ For happy browsing.
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Yes, I remember the Palm Guitars site, though it’s been awhile since I visited. I see he has an FG110 for sale: http://www.palmguitars.com/page.php?page=Flattops&id=1474 And there’s a hurdy gurdy – I guess you mentioned that.