Category Archives: The Culture

This will be a diverse group of pieces considering artistic efforts, mostly but not necessarily to point toward good work that deserves attention.

THOUGHTS ON THE WOODSTOCK FESTIVAL

THOUGHTS ON WOODSTOCK

I didn’t go, though one of my brothers did. There was no sense at the time of it having been an epochal event. I did go to the Highgate Grateful Dead concert, with my 15-year-old son; afterward, we did father and son reports on it for the Valley Voice in Middlebury, with Damon, aka The Cub Reporter, reviewing the music and me talking about the event generally. Wouldn’t trade that one.

The Monterey Pop Festival, which preceded Woodstock, had better music. Search out the video (it’s on YouTube), if only for Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar.

When you hear announcements of media retrospectives preceded by someone singing “I’m going up country, baby do you want to go,” remember that in the original, one of the more insensitive of the old blues songs, the next words are “May take me a high brown, may take one or two more.” “High brown,” like “high yaller,” was code for a woman who had higher status among the black men at the time because she was only fractionally black and showed it in her skin color. Arguably, the lyrics were more of a political statement than anything about women, because it was as close as a black man could come at the time to singing, “I’m just as good as a white man, and I have a white woman who knows it.”
There’s another blues song, “France Blues,” that edges even closer. It starts as a lament for the death of the singer’s beloved, then veers off, as blues lyrics often did, into other territory. Why the odd title? Because one verse says, “When I die, gonna go by Paris, France…Just want to give those girls a chance.” One of this country’s great milestones in civil rights, though you will never find this in high school history texts, came in World War One, when black soldiers on leave in Paris discovered that the white prostitutes not only didn’t reject them, but sometimes even sought them out. Was Woodstock as important historically as this?

A mystery: I’ve heard supposed recordings of Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock in which the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” is proceeded by the “Fish Cheer.” Country Joe steps up to the microphone and yells “Give me an F!” and a hundred thousand minds instantly realize all that comes next, having been to all those high school games where the cheerleaders megaphoned “Give me a T! E! A! M! What’s that spell?” “Team!” “What’s that spell?” “Team!” “What’s that spell?” “Team!” “Go, team, go!” The recent versions continue with I-S-H, and it’s the Fish Cheer.
But the first vinyl recordings told a different story. So does this video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk68D91hTXw
Country Joe’s next words are, “Give me a U!” and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind about the rest. “What’s that spell?” You don’t have to have been through the Sixties to imagine, but if you were part of those times, you know. And you realize that, with the media rules we have now, there is not the same freedom of speech. That’s what comes first, children, freedom of speech. Look it up: The Free Speech Movement, led by Mario Savio at the University of California at Berkeley, signaled the transition from civil rights to The Movement, which was only fractionally the anti-war movement.
While I was in college, the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes came to the literary society, and afterward their magazine carried an interview. He said, in effect, “You have no idea what it is like to be responsible for telling the real history of your people, in your fiction, because the official versions are lies.” Ironically, he said that during an era which has since been distorted and demonized so as to blot and blur and block its insights and experiments and prototypes and deny them to future generations.

When the first vinyl recording came out, I listened to get some idea of what I had missed. I reached the point where Sly and the Family Stone transition into a bass line worthy of Bach’s C Minor Passacaglia, and Sly starts singing “I want to take you higher!” and the crowd shouts back “Higher!” It wasn’t about drugs—well, yes, it was, but it was also about a lot more, of which the drugs were only symbols, and sometimes a gateway. I started crying, thinking to myself, “We gave up this in favor of spending the political capital from World War Two on someone else’s civil war.”

Gone but not entirely, like something waiting to go viral again. I think of the TV ad for the Olympic Games whose soundtrack was Jimi Hendrix starting the National Anthem on his guitar, establishing his mastery in six notes while saying, “Something great is about to happen.” And saying, in a way that only music could, “In spite of our differences, we are all Americans together.”

INGMAR BERGMAN–HOUR OF THE WOLF

INGMAR BERGMAN–HOUR OF THE WOLF

The game lasted 89 moves. That’s long for chess, especially considering the opponent was that consummate international grandmaster Death.
Ingmar Bergman is dead. For those of us who grew up with him—went with eagerness to his new films when he was at the height of his powers—there is a bit of the feeling that comes when both one’s parents are dead. Now there is no one between. Now we are at the front. Now it is up to us, while we can.
Reading the obituaries, I kept thinking “BUT WHEN DID HE DIE?” Not just which date, but also, what time of day? That’s because one of the films I didn’t see mentioned, but which I did see when it came out in 1968, was “The Hour of the Wolf.”
“Vargtimmen,” it was titled in the original Swedish–“the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful,” the film itself explained as it began. (“It’s also the time when the most children are born,” said a woman whose judgment I trust on such matters, since she has had four of them.) A contemporary poet has called it “the hour when blues songs/ and beginner short stories again and again/ seem to begin.”
Thank you, International Movie Database (www.imdb.com, a site that all serious movielovers should know). It goes on to summarize the plot, as much as there can be said to be one: “An artist in crisis is haunted by nightmares from the past in Ingmar Bergman’s only horror film, which takes place on a windy island.” The Associated Press obituary observed that he died on July 30, 2007 “on an island off the coast of Sweden.”
“The director said he had coped with the authoritarian environment of his childhood by living in a world of fantasy. When he first saw a movie, he was greatly moved,” the obituary said.
It concluded, “But he said the escape into another world went so far that it took him years to tell reality from fantasy, and Bergman repeatedly described his life as a constant fight against demons, also reflected in his work.”
There is no more iconic image from Bergman’s work than the Dance of Death at the end of the Seventh Seal—though the Knight’s chess game with Death includes memorable images as well. The Plague has taken almost all the film’s personae, their strivings to escape now seen clearly as momentary throes. Hand linked to hand, they are pulled along in the path of the Reaper, their silhouettes glimpsed as they cross the top of a hill.
But they are witnessed by the survivors: the Actor and his wife, who live among the lowest of the society’s lowest, mere itinerant performing fools–the wide-eyed and visionary ones. Bergman is not the only one to see those who have given themselves to a life’s work in the arts as moving through the turmoil around them in some sort of state of grace. Fellini, in “8½,” portrays another whose handlers and sycophants constantly mistake or misuse his essential childlike simplicity. Thomas Wolfe’s story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” describes what must have been his own wanderings through streets that anyone in their right mind would have shunned as perilous, the experience-hungry young writer protected only by the scarcely credible improbability of his being there at all.
The original Whole Earth Catalog’s closing words, as the Sixties turned to the Seventies, were “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Few did. Bergman tried.
For me, his best epitaph would be the line in the International Movie Database notes on “Hour of the Wolf.” Under “Plot Synopsis,” it says “This plot synopsis is empty.”
“Add a synopsis,” it prompts. But who could, and why should they try? We are now part of any synopsis, the story includes our own stories, and demons of our own making abound. Death has moved, and on a planet where there are in the truest sense no more islands, we have no margin left for error.

LES PAUL RIP

LES PAUL

Paul gone up to Peter, dead at 94, living on as the man who put the electric guitar into regular use. He starred in one of the cleverest ads I’ve seen on TV. A teen guitar wannabe is in an instrument store, trying out an electric guitar. An old guy who happens to be there says, “Could I look at that?” “Sure,” says the kid, and hands it over. The oldster’s fingers go flying up and down the neck as he delivers an astonishing improvised riff, then he hands the guitar back.
“Wow!” says the kid. “Who are you?”
Paul says quietly, “The name is on your guitar.”
Farewell, sweet prince, flights of air guitarists sing thee to thy rest. Up there jamming with Jimi, Janis and Jesus.

THE ECONOMIST

ECONOMIST AFFLUENCE

From time to time, my wife and I fantasize about what we would do if we had enough money. What would we consider affluence?
Foreign adventures, pricey vehicles, stylish clothing, and such have no appeal for us. Number one on our list is being able to buy whatever we wanted at the food co-op. Being able to eat what is nutritious and support what is sustainable—now THAT would be supremely pleasurable.
For my own part, because I’ve been there and done that as a Rutland Herald reviewer, I’d put being able to go to the Weston Playhouse’s productions on the affluence list. It’s a place and a troupe that aims for the heights of the dramatic arts and more often that not reaches them. Probably I’d want to take the train down to New York City for a few theatrical productions, particularly at the off-Broadway theater where my brother does a lot of work, but I wouldn’t expect them to be in a different league than Weston.
But to get to the point of this blog: recently my wife and I have agreed on another way that we’d be sure to spend our money if it were abundant enough: subscribing to The Economist.
This is a British publication most Americans don’t get to see. We wouldn’t get to see it except that in the summer, the Middlebury College mailroom accumulates a lot of issues from subscriptions paid for by people who are not on campus to collect them. These are left for anyone to reuse, rather than just chucking them into the recycling, and this summer the faculty member my wife happened to be assisting kindly picked up copies of The Economist and brought them to their office, from which she brought them home.
We subscribe to Time and before it went online we subscribed to Newsweek, so comparisons came easily.
First and most obviously, The Economist was bigger—about 80 pages versus about 60. In those pages were sections on all parts of the world—first the United States then The Americas, Asia, Middle East and Africa, Europe, Britain, and “International,” which in a recent issue discussed “NATO after Libya” and “UN Climate Talks.” Sections on Business and on Finance and Economics followed, and at the end of the magazine, for easy reference, was a set of Economic and Financial Indicators that included statistics on 42 economies, plus “closer looks” at office rents and venture capital. There is indeed a hard economics core to The Economist that makes it a worthwhile read for people with investments.
But also, there are serious sections on Science and Technology and on Books and the Arts. The science pieces are intense, unsparing, and deeply informative. For example, there was a report on research in mice that suggests mental attitude can be influenced by bacterial colonies in the intestines. Mice fed a bacterium found in yogurt and other dairy products excelled in tests of positive attitude, as measured by such things as venturesomeness in navigating mazes and endurance in swimming in containers from which there was no escape (exhausted mice were rescued, not allowed to drown).
This blog has commented before on how high fructose corn syrup may be giving us the wrong gut reactions, a matter of some concern because there are ten times as many bacterial cells in a typical human body than human cells. I remarked that farmers pay very close attention to nurturing the unpaid immigrant bacteria in cows’ stomachs that do the work on turning otherwise indigestible materials into food products, to the point where it seems we care more for our cows’ stomachs than our own.
Here’s the way the Economist piece ends: “An editorial in this week’s Nature raises the possibility that the widespread prescription of antibiotics—which kill useful bacteria as effectively as hostile ones—might be one factor behind rising rates of asthma, diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome. If Dr. Bravo’s results apply to people, too, then mood disorders may end up being added to the list.”
Thought-provoking information of this sort comes up again and again in The Economist, for those willing to do the reading. Pictures don’t take over the pages as they so often do in Time and Newsweek. The Brit editors still harbour, as they would spell it, literacy of the old-fashioned kind, refusing to dumb things down but rather insisting that rewards await those willing to make the effort to strengthen their language skills.
The magazine offers a chance to develop one’s links with a country that at one point was parental to our own. For example, a book review takes on “Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, written by the Cambridge-trained son of a Ghanian émigré who had become a noted scholar. But the focus shifts regularly across The Pond to the country that no other country can long afford to ignore, and examines its issues informatively as well. The next book review in that issue was of “A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America.” We may take for granted, but the Brits do not, that by 2009 the prison population in this country was five times greater than in 1980. The reviewer remarks, “None of Mr. (Ernest) Drucker’s statistics or stories is new, but they bear repeating because they are unjust, unintended and easily remedied.”
The gift to see ourselves as others see us—that is certainly part of the appeal of The Economist.
Unfortunately, a year’s 51-issue subscription costs $138 (p.s. it may have gone up since writing this), which is better than Canada’s $189 (in Canadian dollars) or Latin America’s $270 (in U.S. dollars), but still prohibitive for us old folks. You get what you pay for, an old saying insists. The corollary, for a country that relies only on its popular new magazines and TV news channels, should be painfully obvious.