Saturday, April 24, 2010

No Easy Answers

I watched the fine Margaret Brown documentary on Townes Van Zandt, "Be Here to Love Me," last night. There's a lot there to think about, and you might want to own this one and muse on it from time to time. It is a lucky thing there's so much off-stage footage of Townes even available. I guess it shows how compelling train wrecks and shooting stars can really be. People were drawn to him, including people with cameras, even when he was living in rotting trailers. He seems, at least in all the footage, to have always maintained a sweet charm. It attracted three good women to him. His kids all love him still, and cry for his loss.

Part of the attraction is surely the songs. What a writer he was. But the dark pool of sadness in his heart was as deep as the universe. A friend tells that when he was in grammar school a teacher lectured one day on the truth that all stars burn out, including the sun. Townes is said to have remarked, incredulously--"The sun's burning out? Well hell with this school work stuff, then." He lived along those lines, from start to finish. Another witness in "Be Here" says "the only thing keeping him here was his music, and sometimes it was so intense I would wish he'd cut that last connection." But lordy, those songs.

The most poignant bit in the movie is probably Townes youngest child, his daughter by his third wife, singing along with one of his beautiful, sad songs--one that's much much older than she is, even though she's lost him, and that's aged her beyond her years, which is probably at most twelve. He died when she was little more than a baby. People who are self-destructive probably don't entirely realize how big a hole they can leave. Or maybe that just shows you how big depression and self-destruction can really be.

I've been around that--probably we all have, if we've lived long enough. In some cases it leaves a lot of anger behind, as the survivors have to deal endlessly with the broken glass, the smoldering embers and twisted roofing tin and melted pipe, the rubble on the ground that cuts your boots to shreds. Townes understood that too I think, and stood apart from himself in some bemusement. He talks, in the movie, about writing a song so perfect that he can't understand it at all. And there's a video on Youtube of him explaining his wonderful song "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," how it came to him in a vision, so fast that he couldn't write fast enough to get it down. Guy Clark, on the other hand, stresses how much a song craftsman he was, and that's certainly true too. One of the most impressive things for me is that minor chord in "Flyin' Shoes." That's how he understood the melancholy, how he expressed it to us. And he wrote that one very early.

Good biographies like this remind us that real life is much harder than fiction. I was happy to see Townes' oldest son singing in the movie, and singing one of his songs at that. He tells the camera that this one is as true to Townes as any. He sees Townes in a brighter, desert light, as a son who loves him, who lived with the hard parts as well as the beautiful sad boy on stage. The chorus of the song has a line at its end that cuts to the bone: "I'm not on anything." But a lot of sons would have thrown that guitar against the nearest wall. This son is playing one. The thing Townes didn't do, as a dad as well as a writer, was to hide himself. His children know who they love.

If you look up Townes at Youtube, you'll find a good number of very earnest young songsters covering his songs. A lot of times these videos are made in their homes. There's a keyboard in the background, or it's a living room or something. They do a good job of his songs. But it feels like there's been this big change now, from when Townes was alive and particularly when he was young and burning up, writing, drinking and drugging, riding the roads from gig to gig to gig. I saw him once in Chapel Hill, at the Star Point joint that had music for a while back in the late '70s maybe, before it turned into a massage parlor and then a used computer store. I was in my own world that night, maybe looking for someone who wasn't there. I can't remember really. I know I was at the back of the room, watched for a relatively few minutes, and left. There's one little clip of Townes at the Down Home Pickin' Parlor in Johnson City. I've played that stage many times. In this clip, Townes is at his very worst--drunk and burned out. He does something Jimmy Martin did too, on occasion--buy the house a drink. These earnest boys, singing his songs--I'm not quite sure what they're seeing. It's too romantic. But then his third wife fell in love with him in the '80s, and had two sweet children with him, and tended to him, and found him in the bathroom, dead of heart failure at 52. How romantic is that? I'm not being ironic when I ask that question.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mexican Standoff

The title of this photo is "Mexican Standoff"

Just some brief thoughts on the political scene; skip if desired.

I've watched, like everyone else, the unfolding story of the health care law. Obviously over the course of last summer many folks--people reasonably described as "ordinary American citizens"--have become more and more upset with the impending passage, and then actual passage, of a big, complex law which aims at changing certain aspects of what we call the American Medical Care Delivery system. Now we have a number of state attorneys general actually suing the US government about the new law. (And cudos to NC's Attorney General, Roy Cooper, for not joining that band wagon). The right wing radio pundits continue to rail about the law, day after day after day. Some, such as Mr. Hannity, actually go out on tour with some of the right wing political personalities such as Palin and Bachmann. Rallies are ginned up, the latest being focused on the day that we all have to file income tax returns. Some politicians actually make statements such as "I will work to repeal the income tax, and get rid of the Internal Revenue Service."

No one likes to pay taxes. Basically, no one much likes to part with their money. People will go to a restaurant and enjoy a really great meal, and still be annoyed at the bill. Sometimes people will not tip just because they're annoyed at the amount of the bill for the meal that they actually really enjoyed until the bill came. This is a truth of human nature. It's not a truth about every person, but it's true about a whole lot of people. Same deal with just about anything that has to be paid for: car repairs, dental repairs, doctors visits, construction work. Most people want stuff, and also want to keep their money. All of it.

I bought my little piece of Chatham County from an old couple back in '78. They fumed for years, as the price of land went up, about what they sold it to me for. But at the time they sold it, it was pretty much the market price. And while they didn't have the land after they sold it, they did have the money. Human nature.

The people who want to end taxes are still going to use the stuff the taxes pay for.
And, in fact, if they really got in a government that didn't have an income tax, and if the real price of a government with no funds became evident to them via the potholes and lack of fire protection and no social security check and etc. etc., they would all be pretty darn mad--mad to the extent of getting out and marching around the Court House and yelling at their Congress persons.

I have to think, then, that the so called "tea party" cohort has an incoherent agenda--they want a world that is actually inconsistent, that cannot exist. They are what Garrison Keillor once called the curmudgeon party. (That's a pretty good definition of "curmudgeon" by example, actually.) When you toss in some particular factors in the current political situation: Mr. Obama is our first black President, and at least moderately liberal and also quite smart; we have in the public media a 24/7 political attack ad in the form of the right wing punditry--a spew of vitriol which truely never stops, and which shapes the point of view of anyone who makes the mistake of listening to much of it without their critical mind fully alert; and more over, we have one of the two primary political parties operating on a policy of unconditional defeat and surrender of the other party; and of course, we have a real situation of recession, worry, an aging population, a world that doesn't see the United States as it's savior. Well, add all that up and you get at the minimum, slow combusion. And I certainly think we have the potential of a pile of oily rags in the back of a closet.

Nontheless, I hope that as the actual health care bill remains law over the months and years, many people will begin to see that nothing much has really happened, and certainly nothing to burn the woods down about. This so-call reform left private interprise in charge, after all. I expect the health insurance companies are hard at work figuring out how to operate the new system for fun and profit. That's what insurance companies do, generally, and what actuarial research is all about: making illness and death profitable against all odds. Everyone ought to keep in mind that, when you're seriously sick, you are in the hands other other people. Somewhere in the background there's going to be a faceless beaurocrat or ten. Some of those people are going to be mostly practicing office politics in the service of their continued employment, rather than giving a flip about you, the patient. It won't matter much whether they're employed by the US government or Blue Cross or the hospital you're in, or your own private doctor even. Being sick is losing control. Even your mother or your wife can push you around when you're on your back and it hurts to move, or you can't breathe right, or you've got the runs. This is how life is. Childbirth ain't no fun either.

The fact is, even the guys in Reservoir Dogs left a tip. Think about it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Musical Doings of Late April

Libby and I just got back from a contra dance in Weldon, NC. I'll possibly write more about that later. It was a real nice dance, in a wonderful historic brick mill that has been lovingly restored by Bill Blackwell and Fletcher Carter. Here's a link to an article on the mill:

The dance included a very nice wine-tasting featuring the first known drinkable muscadine white courtesy of Ventosa Plantation, Alex McLennann III, proprietor, of Scotland Neck, NC (vpvineyard at for further info. We were hosted for the night at the Booker Daniel digs over in Murfreesboro. Booker and Tommy Britt provided the impetus for the dance, and so far it's working great. The mill is on the west bank of the Roanoke River, and rockfish season was in full swing.

Anyways, I got this in the email today, and I thought I'd share. Mac's a fine old-time musician who teams with his wife Jenny:

From: "Thomas(Mac) Traynham"
Date: April 19, 2010 8:47:06 AM EDT

Subject: Apr 24th concert

Hi everyone,
Just a reminder about our 2010 concert that is going to take place this coming Saturday. We hope you can find yourselves free to come. We guarantee a great time for a Spring evening. The following is something our co-host Tina Liza Jones has written about our special guest all the way from Berkeley California. Below this are directions and phone #'s for more information. There is no official admission price, however, we are asking a suggested donation of $10 per person for the musicians and $2 per person for the use of the church. No obligation really.


Eric and Suzy Thompson are on their way to a performance at MerleFest in North Carolina, and will stop for several days in Floyd to visit the town and the Jamboree, and to perform their powerful old-time music at a house concert presented by Mac and Jenny Traynham and long-time friend Tina Liza Jones. Mac and Jenny have had a successful series of small concerts held first at their house in the country, and now hosted by Zion Lutheran Church, 635 Needmore Drive, Floyd.

The concert is planned for early in the evening of April 24th, 7 until 10PM. After that, the musicians and audience alike will be cruising over to the Country Store to get on the dance floor for the last set of Mac’s band, the Mountain Boomers. Jenny and Tina and the Zion volunteers will be hosts at the concert, where refreshments will be available along with souvenir CDs at the intermission.

Laurie Lewis described Suzy’s fiddle as “a sweet and wailing voice that over the years has gotten more sassy, sultry, and flexible.” And her fiddle is not her only voice. Her singing is compelling. It is not all full bore power, but also sweet, and in control, in the service of manipulating the emotions of her listeners.

Eric is a flatpick lead guitar monster who is much admired amongst bluegrass players for his seminal Kicking Mule album. He also mixes rhythm and thrilling leads on the old-time tunes, jumping in and out of three octaves on his very old and famous Martin D28.

The couple has recently started touring again since their two daughters have grown up. Their performances Friday and Saturday, April 30th and May 1st, at MerleFest, will be their first in that exciting venue.

For samples of their music visit their website

From Christiansburg
South on rt 8 toward Town of Floyd
Look for and go past "Citizens Co-op" complex on right
Less than 1/4th mile turn left on Needmore Ln (Zion Lutheran sign) which is
Just before Harvest Moon (on the left)
1.2 miles to big white church on the left

From stoplight in Floyd
Rt 8 North
Look for Harvest Moon Natural Foodstore on right
Right on Needmore just past Harvest Moon
1.2 miles to big white church on the left

I hope y'all can go. Holler out about how "California Old Time" would seem like an oxymoron. You'll sound educated, and the Thompsons will be happy to explain the great California tradition to you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Across the Wide Missouri

Thespian Hall, where the big concerts were held

We played the Big Muddy Festival in Boonville, MO, this past weekend. It was a gonzo kinda deal, with us leaving Friday morning from Greensboro Airport, down to Atlanta, then over to St. Louis, where we grabbed a Red Roof Inn and a sandwich at Jack in the Box, then over to Maplewood where there's a club called the Focal Point. We did a concert there, then crashed at the Red Roof, back on the road by 8 am to drive out to Boonville, and old river town about in the center of Missouri. I had a fiddle workshop at 11 am, then we had other "miniconcerts" in the afternoon, then we closed the main concert, hitting the sack about 1 am. Then up at 7ish, on the road back to St. Louis to catch our flight, one stop at Cincinnati, and because the flight crew on the last leg back to Greensboro was two hours late leaving Minneapolis, a long wait, and finally homeish, Greensboro at 11:20 pm, home fer real, and to bed. Thus does the Craver,Hicks,Watson, Newberry Group appear and disappear till the next time round. This coming weekend Libby and I are driving over to Weldon, NC, to play a contra. A far more stately sort of deal.

You know how planes are. I didn't even have a piece of paper to write on, so I missed a poem that came as I watched the landscape from 25,000 feet as we crossed the territory from Atlanta to St. Louis. I got nothing, but it was there at the time. The terrain from that height is pretty much the same all the way. The trees hadn't budded out, but there was lots of green grass. Missouri was exactly like NC, maybe a day or two behind at most. Redbud must be the state tree. They were everywhere, and in full bloom. The pollen was about the same too. Because the winter turned instantly to summer, everything exploded at once. Singing at the Focal Point was tough for me--the pollen gets me pretty good in the throat and nose. At least I wasn't sneezing on stage. That's for the fescue, which doesn't get going till mid-May.

We're all beavers you know. I always think of the continent as it was, before the prairie met the plow so to speak. The human activity is constant and endless. The roads are full of cars, 24/7, the lights run along the rivers as far as you can see from the height of the planes--on the way back to Greensboro I could see the Ohio for at least half the trip it seemed like, city after city. In Boonville, built before the Civil War and named for ole Daniel, who left NC and made it to Colorado, the houses and buildings are mostly brick, but obviously rather hand-made, which means all sorts of interesting details they don't do any more because it's too expensive. Ogee bricks in a course to make a shadow line and define a column. Curved bricks to make round columns on the opera hall we did the night concert in, which also had thick masonry walls and was used for a while as a stockade. Cut stone blocks, where you could see the drill marks, for foundations. Arches galore.

Now Boonville sports a couple of floating casinos on the Missouri. We were too busy up the hill to actually get down to the river. Maybe next trip--I'd have liked to spent a day wandering the little town with my camera--which I didn't bring this time. Literature on Boonville says that Native Americans lived around there for ten thousand years before Dan'l arrived and run 'em off.

If you like swing music, check out the band Swing deVille, which opened the show. They feature two great young Missouri fiddlers. Here's a link:
Missouri is one of the "capitals" of fiddling anyways, so it wasn't surprising that these two guys were great. This band plays both Texas Swing, and more "modern" swing-ish music, including even neat original tunes like "Arabesque," by their guitar player. I suggested to Matt, one of the fiddlers, that he might like listening to some Satie and seeing how those haunting melodies could be placed into the swing idiom. I hope he does.

I like the fact that we're running smaller planes these days. The captain of the last late leg came on board and said, "I thought I was going home, but it's Greensboro. I'll get us there a little faster than usual." And he did too.

Yesterday I was back on the chimney, and the trees have all leafed out here--the summer woods has returned. The pollen is still around I'm sorry to report.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Limits of Control

Isaach De Bankole "The Lone Man"

I watched Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" last night. There are plenty of on-line reviews, but what I liked was seeing a return to a poetic, Antonioni-style film-making. A nice comparison might the "The Passenger." Not that the stories are the same--quite the opposite. Jack Nicholson's character in "Passenger," after stealing the identity of a man he doesn't know, is drawn into the mystery of the man's life, with a bit of female "candy" to keep him company in the person of Maria Schriver.

In "Limits," the central character (called simply "Lone Man" in the credits) keeps himself utterly in control at all times through a day to day of ritual, meets various surreal-ish asignations who give him coded directions to his next "stop," and finally successfully accomplishes his mission, after which he sheds his exterior persona. The "limits" turn out to be the Lone Man himself, a man who is utterly in control, and manages to destroy the control imposed on events by American power, in the persona of Bill Murray.

Like Antonioni, the story is told in images. It's not "L'eclisse" or "L'Avventura," primarly because there is no love to infuse the scenes, beyond the love of the images themselves--which are gorgeous throughout. But as the Lone Man tells us--I never make love when I'm working. I liked the poetry of presenting the Lone Man with an impossible fortification, then simply placing him inside it. Whole movies are made in the service of solving the problem. Jarmusch just does all that off-stage, because it's irrelevant in a poem anyway.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wisteria Ruin

I've driven by this house for, sheesh, 30+ years. (How is that possible???) I don't remember the first few times I noticed it. Probably just saw it was a big, older house, set back in the trees. Might have been it was occupied in the early days. At some point in the late '80s I think I noticed that there was a small hole in the roof near the chimney. Or maybe that was the mid-'90s. I've been in other houses that developed that problem. Left alone, such a leak over time begins to look like a shell went through. Sometime in the process the owner of the property put up some fence posts to keep people from driving straight up to the house, and a year ago he seems to have put a couple of those big round hay bales in the driveway to further block access. Of course anyone could still walk right up and even into the ruin. I thought of doing that, but kinda felt funny getting too close. The picture I wanted wasn't even close at all, but out by the road, with a little zoom added. The wisteria tells you the season I guess, and it's exploded this year because we've gone from winter to summer in ten days with almost no transition. Today it's supposed to hit 93. (I'm wondering if the people who are always citing the cold winters as proof that the theory of human assisted climate change is nonsense will now become concerned with the surprising heat of early April in central NC. My guess is, of course not. Or as they used to say on the teevee: "Nonsense, flying ants.")

there's a late poem by Robert Frost about the end of all this, by the way. He's standing at an old foundation, and muses that these remains are like a "dent in dough." The old boy really got our human place on the planet, didn't he.

This ruin would have made a great set for Baby Doll, back a few years. Or maybe The Fugitive Kind. I'd like to have seen Brando running around in there, or peeking out from one of those windows.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Goodbye To Buckeye and White Sycamore

"Harlan County, USA" stays in my mind, and floats up to the top when I read about a new mining accident in West Virginia such as happened yesterday. According to news sources, "...the country’s highest-paid coal executive, Blankenship is a villain ripped straight from the comic books: a jowly, mustache-sporting, union-busting coal baron who uses his fortune to bend politics to his will. He recently financed a $3.5 million campaign to oust a state Supreme Court justice who frequently ruled against his company, and he hung out on the French Riviera with another judge who was weighing an appeal by Massey. 'Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office,' Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia once observed. 'He would be twice as accountable and half as feared.'"

I realize it's not a matter of physics that mine owners tend to be cut from this same cloth, no matter the decade. There was also a mine disaster last week in China, and I'm sure the mine there was run by the gubment (which also according to reports has managed to rescue over one hundred trapped miners). Mining is a tough, dangerous business, and people are going to die in mines as long as there are mines.

That fact becomes very easy to translate, as Doris Lessing did with her gold mine owner in South Africa, into "You have to break some eggs to make an omlet." A lot of the problem comes with Olympian distance, no matter the individual character of the person involved. And the kabuki dance of death seems essential, tragically, in the service of "getting something done." The boy with his brains splattered on the roadside, in "Harlan County," becomes the final necessary ingredient in a resolution of the strike, gasping his last breaths on the gurney, another Jesus to save the rest of us. Or is it the murdered Jock Yablonski who turns the trick? "Harlan County" pulls no punches. Mr. Miller is eventually snookered by Duke Power, the lawyers, and the persistent fear that a real coal strike would be a threat to national security. And if you think that's all quaint history from our hippie past, I offer you the Iraq War, where Olympian perspective came into general view yesterday with a finally released video of our soldiers mowing down some civilians on a street-corner in Baghdad. Because of course the only thing that really ever made sense about the Iraq War was the fact that Iraq sits astride the world's oil supply.

There are no easy answers. There remains a truth, however. Without laws (and love), there is only power, and power's largesse. Laws (and love) are the exact place where will stands against power. The founders of the United States reached back farther--to "Natural Law." While one might wish for a Platonic universe, the step to Natural Law is in truth a bridge too far. This is why Robert Creeley's little poem also stays in my mind. "Drive," he said. Fr Christ's sake, watch where yr going."

Update (and thanks to Digby for this link): the head of the coal company in WV is actually politically active in right wing circles. Here's some stuff about him, including speeches he's given.

As Digby remarks, the next move for the right wing defense is to berate the government for not making Blankenship follow the rules.