Constant + Variable = Art

Ezra Pound said that art consists of a constant and a variable.

He was probably thinking of an underlying poetic meter interrupted by the artist’s insertion of variables into the meter to effect semantic emphasis, lightness or heaviness, a faster or slower cadence, etc.

But the concept, to me, rings true on a multitude of levels and for any art.

I suppose it’s weird, but I don’t think I’ve ever even mentioned in this log that I am a musician and composer of sorts. Now that I have my stylin’ new web site with an Mp3 player (at right if you’re on the home page), I have what seems like a neat opportunity to discuss just what Not Johnny is all about. It’s especially neat because even though I’ve been working under that banner for about a year now, I’m just now figuring it out for myself.

That is, Not Johnny is the name of my musical project, but really it means a bit more to me, because it’s all mine.

My musical history is brief but colorful. Many years ago, I was in several non-entity bands (translation: no gigs) before hooking up with a couple of friends in the late 1980s (no laughing, please) to form a trio devoted to, basically, weirding people out. We wanted to make good music, to be sure, but it was a pretty dead time around the city, so our main purpose was to try to shake up the scene a bit–to inspire others to do weird things too. We were a fairly electronic outfit – synthesizers, drum machines, and myself on both of those plus guitar and – after a fashion – vocals.

We weren’t that great, but we weren’t bad either. The important thing is that we were unpredictable. We were able to get shows, I believe, because the venue owners were curious to see what we would do. That, and we played for free. In fact, at most shows we lost money. This was because we were intent on producing a new experience at each one. New songs, new set lists, and some new visual twist was necessary for each show.

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Curari – Kansas City

Our shtick was video. Not many bands were doing the video accompaniment at the time, but we were big fans of those who were – the Butthole Surfers in particular. So for almost every local show we either rented a 16mm projector or a video projector (those were new and expensive) and blasted the image from the back of the room up on the stage, or, after a while, deployed a series of thrift store televisions (plus, to my wife’s dismay, our actual living room television) on stage and hooked up to one or more VCRs through a ridiculous array of wires and video splitters.

We started out showing stock films from the university library. I kept checking the same films out with a cool professor’s permission, and they hated me for it, because they knew I was lying when I said it was for research. My favorite was one called “Making Metals Behave”, which had lots of cool footage of flames and molten metal bubbling in huge smelters. By the end we were producing our own twisted videos using old black and white TV cameras we somehow picked up from a local theater.

Anyway, that was then and this is now. I’ve always kept up with the guitar, and recently got into some computer recording equipment. The result, with a little help from my friends, is Not Johnny.

Not Johnny is evolving, and that’s what I like about it. There is absolutely no pressure, so I am just going with what feels right. My first several songs, which I got very excited about, showed all the symptoms of enthusiasm married with impatience. That is, a few were good but some were not – I was anxious to package up an “album” to show off to my friends and musical correspondents.

But more recently, I’ve been refining the sound into what, for lack of a better explanation, Not Johnny wants to be. And I find that Not Johnny wants to be part swamp rock, part instrumental experimentation. I think it’s a good mix (but then that’s me). And, getting back to where I started, I find I am most comfortable and most “real” when following Ezra’s bedrock axiom. the songs I’ve posted here today, I think, illustrate my embrace of that philosophy.
Crossroads was written in a hurry, then recorded one lazy, Guinness-inspired Sunday afternoon with my good friend and collaborator, King Dick (of local fame and a consummate musician of the old school variety).

The goal there was to make something simple – almost traditional – on its face, but with a complex arrangement that belied that same simplicity. I’m pleased with it, because I feel I pulled that conceit off. You can listen to it in the fashion of some CCR swamp dirge, with a steady and unchanging backbeat and bare-bones vocals, or you can listen to the interplay of guitars (3 of ’em) and the King’s harmonica to hear the complexity of the interwoven rhythms and melodies – simple alone, somewhat complex together. Constant and variable.

Loss2: Elegy is actually intended as a follow-up tune to a song called Loss Leader (which I’ve also included). Here the idea was to pair a very steady, 3/4 rhythm (unchanged throughout!) with two layers of guitars playing the same progression, but staggered, kind of like a round. This base simplicity is complexified with the two-part division of the song. It is basically split down the middle with the first “version” of the progression, which forms the crime (Jonestown) and the second version, the string section of which forms the elegy.

Enough talk. I hope you enjoy them.

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Funky Sucks

I read the comics pretty much every day. It’s a good, brief escape from reality.

Some comics I can’t stand, but I read them anyway – I’m not sure why.

So I was talking to some folks about how particularly bad the strip Funky Winkerbean is. The problem? Nothing really happens. It’s basically a bunch of people moping their way through very mundane lives.

I am actually an aficionado of bad comics. There’s something about them. Funky Winkerbean belongs in the “truly bad” category – it’s too maudlin and pathetic to rise to the heights of the “so bad it’s good” category, which is where I place Family Circus. So my complaint is real in the case of Funky.

funky

I mean, as many have noted, there’s nothing worse than mediocrity. So if something is only “bad” in the sense that it’s commonplace and boring, then it’s really bad. But if something is truly, insultingly, unbelievably, surrealistically bad – well, sir, then it catches my fancy.

This describes Family Circus and, yes, Nancy to a “T.” Family Circus occupies a special place in the stratosphere of bad art, however, in that it operates under a pretense that it is entirely unaware of how bad it really is. Not to mention how unreal it is – no family – I mean not one – could live up the ideal of Bill and “Thel” (what is that, Thelma? Who is really named Thelma?) Keane. They are ideal humans – the kind who don’t exist.

As an aside, however, I do find Thel pretty hot in a matronly way, so tall with her round hips and ample bosoms. She telegraphs both motherhood and the (evolutionary) reason men are attracted to full-bodied women (because they can bare lots of healthy Billys, Jeffys, Dollys, etc.). Was this unintentional on Keane’s part? I think not.

And what of the kids? They are, in fact, indistinguishable from each other because they, too, are unreal. Real kids have likes, dislikes, and unpredictable quirks. These kids are all exactly the same in that the only thing they are concerned with is saying and doing things which adults are supposed to find “adoringly cute”. They are more akin to trained monkeys than human children.

There are many more ultra-bad strips. I’ll just stick to newspaper strips.

Luann

This is a patently bad high school strip full of two-dimensional, half-realized characters, all of whom are curiously unlikeable. It gets extra points for being badly drawn also – not “edgy” badly drawn like the phalanx of new Internet comic artists who can’t be bothered with anything beyond stick figures, but just a failed attempt at well-drawn cartoon figures. Extra creep-out points: the strip is concerned with the life of an adolescent girl, including all her boy-crazed yearnings, but it’s drawn by a middle-aged guy.

LousyLuann

Mary Worth

A sublimely bad comic similar to Funky Winkerbean in that almost nothing happens. However, it exceeds Funky in interest thanks to the unbelievably patrician personality of the main character. Mary is the light of reason surrounded by the chaotic darkness of human folly, and for that it actually makes pretty decent theatre sometimes. It gets bonus points for its unflinching dedication to the tradition of strip art – right down to the “radiating lines” coming off a person’s face when they’re shocked, surprised, or otherwise nonplussed.

maryworth

Rex Morgan

This strip holds the dubious honor of being the slowest-moving strip of all time. Slower than Gasoline Alley and Mary Worth combined – we once clocked the action in this strip at approximately one week in Rex Morgan’s world taking up no less than four months worth of real time. I’m not kidding. June (Rex’s wife) was on a week-long cruise wearing the same bikini (and oh, did she look good in it) for weeks on end. It was once three weeks between breakfast and lunch. This strip has the bonus of being very professionally drawn – and all the women under 50 are built, as my mother would say, “like a brick shithouse”.

rexmorganrigormortisDennis the Menace

What can I say? The strip used to garner a kind of weird interest due to the somewhat bizarre aging process of its creator, Hank Ketcham – who, it turns out, never much liked Dennis (the character was modeled after Ketcham’s son, who later in life resented being his father’s muse). The strip devolved into daily panels featuring not Dennis in the starring role, but the right-wing rantings of his crotchety neighbor Mr. Wilson. Rather than snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, the strip’s themes centered on the ridiculous tax code, the declining spirit of an old man, and the meddling ways of the U.S. government. After Ketcham’s death, however, the strip descended into the depths of newspaper mediocrity at the hands of a soulless writing “team”, a la Garfield.

DennistheBore

Memory Speaks

Black Elk said: “Certain things among the shadows of a man’s life do not have to be remembered – they remember themselves.” He was right. If we’re lucky, we have both memories of good times and memories of important milestones at our command. But whether we’re lucky or not, certain memories come back of their own accord, whether beckoned or not. Many of mine in that category were first lived in a dream place, a middle place, and they come calling with some frequency.

I don’t really know why.

When I was in college, my now-wife and I lived in a nice apartment that happened to be located in the g-h-e-t-t-o with a capital “G”.

One of those sentinels of bygone days, a stalwart stone inner-city middle-class apartment House with solid brick balconies and spacious rooms, French doors, built-in bookshelves, etc. In fact, my own mother had lived in the same building with her parents as a teenager. (I didn’t know this when we looked at the place, but I maintain some strange feeling made me want to live there–call it a feeling of home. I had had no interest in moving, but when we saw this place, I immediately wanted it.)

We had the top floor, and the entry door locked, and it was cheap and our old Greek landlord was a saint, so we were good with it.

One day a couple of girls with…interesting wardrobes…moved in to the apartment below us. I learned later they were sisters, and both worked as strippers at a local club. They were both very nice looking in a surgically enhanced, tacky, over-reaching sort of way.

They moved in with a lot of expensive, brand-new furniture, then completely re-carpeted the place at their own expense. They both drove brand-new cars.

After a few weeks, I noticed they were having “parties” very regularly, lasting to about 3 a.m. It seemed only men attended these parties.

Yep, they were ho’s. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t actually live there. It was just their “business” address.

Anyway, while wondering what to do about it, I noticed one winter evening, coming home around 1:00 a.m. or so, that one of the girl’s new Mitsubishi convertible was parked outside with the engine running. I could tell because it was winter, and the exhaust was visible in the cold.

I went to bed and forgot about it.

When I got up the next day, I looked out my dining room window and noticed the car was still running. What’s more, just then some cops pulled up and started rummaging through it, opening the trunk and such.

I decided to be neighborly and go down there and tell them about it.

I had never spoken to them–we kept different schedules, to say the least. I went down the flight to their place and knocked on the door. I heard considerable shuffling and nervous voices, then a strained “Just a minute” from one of them.

She opened the door a bit, a sheet wrapped around her naked body, her blond shaggy hair all over the place, visibly wired or whacked out on something.

“Hey. I just wanted to tell you your car is out there in the alley, and…”

She interrupted–“My CAR!? Is it RUNNING?”

A bit surprised, I said, “Well, yeah, it is running, and–”

–“Are the COPS IN IT?” Sort of screaming, like we’re arguing even though we’re not.

“Well, yeah, the cops are going through it.”

“Ahhhaaaaayyyy!!!” She screamed in a sort of primal angst-ridding, rolled her eyes back and slammed the door.

Well, I thought, I guess she already knows.

They were gone a few weeks later. I heard the dark haired one had died, or was she murdered?

This was just one of the tamer episodes we had at that place. I would never want to go back, but I do miss the color and unpredictability of the old neighborhood sometimes.

War Between Worlds

Last night we left my daughter at Girl Scout camp, then stopped off at a thrift store and picked up a few UFO conspiracy books that we will give to a friend of mine, then we went to the cinema to view the destruction of the East Coast by tripods from space.

It was a renewing experience.

First, I’ll say that War of the Worlds was one of the most riveting, compelling movies I’ve seen in a while, and certainly the best of its (questionable) genre. For comparison purposes, I found Independence Day to be a steaming load of crap, ditto Deep Impact and all the rest of the “End of the World” epics that have been produced of late.

In fact, I find the genre somewhat ridiculously gratuitous, in that it feeds an unhealthy fascination with our own mutual assured destruction–whatever the metaphor being employed.

I believe War of the Worlds fundamentally different and groundbreaking in its treatment of the idea of worldwide terror. Here’s why.

1. Immediacy and the individual as witness to events: Rather than be dismayed, as some have been,  at the linearity of the storyline, I felt the choice to tell the complete tale from the point of view of the Everyman was a brilliant one for the subject matter. The as-yet unattainable goal of these movies has been to make us feel “we are there,” to identify with the characters that are going through this nearly unimaginable horror. Yet past directors gave us, to a man, the incredibly tired pastiche of “stock” characters, each “dealing” with the situation in their own way. (The young woman with a child, the brave soldier, the down-and-out guy with a heart of gold, the scientist who “knows,” etc.) But in the space of two hours, with the destruction of the earth to also address, it’s difficult–impossible, actually–to fully develop 12 characters anyone can believe in or, more importantly, care about. It’s hard enough to do in a regular movie, which can devote most of its time to this task.

What Spielberg did was focus the timeline and the action like a laser on Cruise’s character. He is in virtually every scene, and every event is seen from his point of view. This immediacy creates as much “reality” as can be had in a completely implausible situation. True, Cruise’s “nature” or personality is not deeply explored–but that too has its purpose, in helping allow us to imbue him with whatever qualities we require of our own personal “everyman.” His is in part the blank slate on which we write our emotions. He is compelling in how he reacts, how he survives, how he evolves into a survivor and a preserver, not in “who he is”, which the director wisely leaves aside in favor of telling the story. This is a morality play, not a character study.

2. Plausibility: Let’s keep in mind the whole thing is a fantasy. None of it would happen. We found ourselves discussing a lot of this–why the aliens would go to all the trouble of planting the tripods a million years ago rather than taking over Earth right away; how they would know where future major population areas would be; why, if they are so advanced, they did not do an environmental study on possible contagions before “dropping in” with their full invasion force, etc. But this movie is by no means about plausibility–who thought it “likely” that terrorists would fly jet liners into the World Trade Center before it happened? Not me. So we are offered events that “come out of nowhere,” just as the real attacks have come, and events whose purpose we cannot immediately discern, just as we did not immediately comprehend why anyone would want to destroy the WTC and Washington. And here–here–is where the director triumphs. Note the first scenes of this film. Rather than the hour or so of terminally boring exposition that these films tend toward (to “build suspense” which never gets built), Spielberg instead presents a quick introduction to the main characters (for basic dramatis personnae purposes), then immediately throws the situation into chaos. If we think of the terror allegory, this is exactly how it happens. We did not have a “buildup” to 9-11, or Bali, or Madrid, or the Chechen massacres–or London. They happened out of the blue, caught us off guard, with our pants down. As Cruise stands there gaping, impotent, in the face of the world literally cracking up under his feet, I stood there with him, in my memories, agape at the cracking up of my own world.

And though some might deem it hammy, I thought the emergence of the tripods from “below,” rather than raining fire from above as usual, was a nice touch. Enhancing the metaphor on terror, society was literally being attacked by the “seeds” of terror come to fruit, seeds that had been planted long before.

3. On terror. Spielberg hammers the idea of terror, of the shock and unreality of it, right home, quite amazingly I thought. When Cruise finally shakes off his initial shock and realizes he must leave–leave now–he goes to his friend’s car repair shop and proceeds to take possession of the only working vehicle in the city. As his friend stammers about how he’s got a business to run, it’s not my car, the guy’s gonna come back, etc., Cruise repeatedly screams at him to “Get in, get in, get in the car!” His friend is fixed in the static world of normalcy, of past-present-future, of dependency. Only Cruise has realized that that world is instantly gone, that only the immediate peril matters. The parallels to reactions to terrorism are quite nicely evoked–I saw so many who simply shrugged on 9-11–on that very day–and said, “Oh well, I don’t live in New York.” I heard  people laughing about it. They did not see that the world as they knew it had just ended, that their world would now be shadowed by the pall of terror–forever.

People too young to remember, or too cocky to admit the truth to themselves, may claim that terror cannot change their world, a la John Lennon. They are wrong, wrong, wrong. It has changed their world whether they recognize it or not. This is not to say, “Everybody panic.” Far from it. It just states the fact of it, that local insulation will not change global reality.

This brings up the other major theme of this movie, one I think others of its type have squeamishly avoided or sidestepped. The car becomes the metaphor for escape, and of course it becomes an object of envy. With respect to the way humans conduct themselves during “real” world-shattering events, the way the car is handled in the movie speaks to the darker side of our natures. Rather than everyone “pitching in” to fight the bad guys, when people finally realize that there is a good chance they will be exterminated, their community spirit goes right out the window. It becomes, literally, every man for himself. It should not have seemed over the top when Cruise pulls a gun on the crowd, gets a gun to his head, he and his son get beaten to a pulp by the panicked crowd, over possession of the vehicle. And when the gun-wielding carjacker is himself blown away by another, in cold blood, this should not be a surprise. As Art Spiegelman’s father says in his Holocaust allegory Maus–“Friends–huh, put you all in a room with no food for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see how many friends you have.” In these scenes, Spielberg evokes the real horror of such terror that strips people of their humanity and turns them against one another–against their own better natures–in a desperate bid for survival. In this way Spielberg invokes visions of another movie he made about world-shattering wars of aggression and terror.

Yet–the notion of kill or be killed to survive one more day is also undercut by the action. Spielberg cannot resist his trademark bid for humanity for humanity’s sake. As noted, the man who takes the car at gunpoint is himself gunned down–he sacrificed his humanity in vain. And note that Cruise finally kills Tim Robbins’ character in his own bid for survival–but is immediately afterwards found by the tripods and captured anyway. It was a waste. To kill another who threatens you is one thing, but to kill only because you fear that person’s existence might threaten your safety–that is one step too far, and not coincidentally is the step that the U.S. (and Britain) have wrongly taken in their paranoid reaction to terror.

About the end – this was indeed a bit hard to swallow. But I took it, like most of this film, metaphorically. I was mostly surprised at the survival of the son, who if I recall was last seen walking into a wall of flames. But note that there is no dialogue–it is a surreal scene. No one speaks, no one interacts, except for Rachel to yell, “Mommy!” They are all “there” as human beings, but–grant me this–not necessarily alive. The “family” has been preserved–the family of man–though some have died. To me, this is the message of this scene. Sacrifice, in the name of preserving who we are–we are families, by the way, not nations or races or religions–does preserve us, even if we die. It preserves our essence, our souls, if not our flesh.

4. Film-making. In the end, what most impressed me about this film was the flawlessness of the cinematography, effects, sets, pacing, editing and all-around film-making. This is one beautiful apocalypse. The tripods are gracefully, terrifyingly menacing, like omnipotent archangels of death from on high. Their prowess in killing, their pitiless wielding of that prowess, quite evocative of the bafflingly inhuman, murderous efficiency of terror cults–or imperialist armies, if you like. Their foghorn of death is rattlingly disturbing each time it sounds, a sickly send-up of Gabriel’s horn. The foggy, ashen landscapes cut by the searching lights of the tripods are beautiful, awe-inspiring in their grandeur. The destruction is so real, it was not hard to imagine I was watching a documentary. Understand, I like to work at suspending disbelief – if the director is trying, I’ll help out all I can with my imagination. But I felt I had no work to do at all. I felt as if I were watching real events unfold, in real time. No ”movie” cuts to this little house or that Oval Office scene, no attempt to provide a “world afire” vision encompassing the globe and every possible reaction–just the immediate surroundings of one man, whose immediate surroundings keep getting more and more surreal, more dreamlike, more hopeless with every scene, and his reactions. But because I follow him into this world, progress with him into horror, I find it believable no matter how bizarre it gets.

The film is not perfect, not a film for the ages, perhaps not even great. But it’s good. It’s a film for now, for us, to help us examine how we perceive our world now, in its new wrapper. As someone on the radio said the other day, “We all live in Jerusalem now.” We all will live with exploding buses, exploding people, every day now. Safety, always an illusion, will become even harder to conjure up. We will have a permanent spot, in the back of our minds, reserved for the horror when it comes again.

And it will come again.

Spring and Hope, Together Again

The sap rises in my newly shorn trees. Buds poke out of the stems I have been warily watching, dreading  they may have died over the winter. But they didn’t. Nor did I. Another spring, another promise.

My daughter has progressed with her bicycle riding.  We will buy her a bigger one this summer, so her knees don’t hit the handlebars. We’ll finish reading her Lemony Snickets book to her, then we’ll start another. Fairly soon the three of us will head off to Niobrara for a therapeutic weekend away from the city, a needed diversion from all of these same days of work, school, and the rest.

I’m trying to punch up my own activity level. Last weekend I took a huge pile of branches from an overgrown shrubbery to task, bending and twisting and finally splitting the green wood, which needed tearing away from its supple bark to make the complete break. It was a Herculean task, one that didn’t really need doing, but I did it anyway. Then I broke them further and spent the afternoon burning the twigs and branches in my outdoor fireplace while drinking a beer.

Very satisfying, but my winter-soft muscles were sore for days afterward. Next week I will plant grass.

I need to get my own bike down off its inverted perch in the garage and put it to use again. I need to get on the trail, feel my legs again. Lately, all I feel of them is the pain from sitting too long, working too long, twisting my impatient legs in knots under my desk. I told my daughter we’d ride the trail together now that she’s a good rider, which scared her a little. But she’ll be fine.

She says she wants to cut her hair short for the summer. That’s a good idea.

We’ll take her to Colorado in June, to the Rocky Mountains. She can climb, breathe the thin air with us, pan for gold in the little stream beside the cabin. We’ll build fires at night, watch the stars from the deck. We’ll eat well.

My house is in order. My trees are trimmed. My clothes fit. It’s a good spring so far, and my home is happy. We are of this Earth, and we belong here. I was made to enjoy these things, and not to wonder at joy’s quotient.

Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us.” And it is. The idiocy of the world won’t stop just because I’m in a good mood. But he also knew that being at one with the real world–nature–was something to aspire to, even as the world of men continues to vie for our attention and tries its best to demonstrate to us our soul’s corruptibility, our body’s corporeality, and our great grand experiment’s utter futility.

Frost knew:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Here’s to the futility of grand things.  I too am a happy swinger of birches these days.