Rock Of Ages by Rick Hornby

I stole this article for my old website Sun Pop Blue and now I’m stealing it again for this site. It bears, like Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” re-reading every six months or so. It is a gentle reminder that music, and all art, must have a higher purpose, which artists in all media should heed. As Hornby writes: “I believe there is still a part of me that persists in thinking that rock music, and indeed all art, has an occasional role to play in the increasingly tricky art of making us glad we’re alive.”

And this article is not about the Beatles, but they sure make people glad to be alive. Still. Almost sixty years later. So I’ll put a picture of them here as a reminder.

Everybody knows who Rick Hornby is, but in case you forgot, he’s the author of High Fidelity, the novel that became wonderful year 2000 chick-flick for record geeks around the world, starring John Cusack and Jack Black, along with a slew of other wonderful actors. This article was published on the New York Times OpEd page on May 21, 2004.

And herewith:

This gig happens to be taking place in a pub called the Fiddler’s Elbow, in Kentish Town, north London, but doubtless scenes like it are being played out throughout the world: a bar band, a pickup drummer from an earlier gig, probably even the table-shifting. It’s just that three or four months earlier, Bruce Springsteen, a fan of the band, invited the Bielanko brothers to share the stage with him at Giants Stadium for an encore, and Marah will shortly release what would, in a world with ears, be one of 2004’s most-loved straight-ahead rock albums, “20,000 Streets Under the Sky.” These guys shouldn’t be playing in the Fiddler’s Elbow with a pickup drummer. And they shouldn’t be passing a hat around at the end of the gig, surely? How many people have passed around the hat in the same year that they appeared at Giants Stadium?

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Jon Landau published his influential, exciting, career-changing, and subsequently much derided and parodied article about Bruce Springsteen in The Real Paper, an alternative weekly – the article that included the line “I saw rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” I had never read the rest of it until recently, and it remains a lovely piece of writing. It begins, heartbreakingly: “It’s four in the morning and raining. I’m 27 today, feeling old, listening to my records and remembering that things were different a decade ago.” I’m only guessing here, but I can imagine are a number of you reading this who can remember what it was like to feel old at 27, and how it bears no resemblance to feeling old at 37, or 47. And you probably miss records almost as much as you miss being 27.

It’s hard not to think about one’s age and how it relates to rock music. I just turned 47, and with each passing year it becomes harder not to wonder whether I should be listening to something that is still thought of as more age appropriate – jazz, folk, classical, opera, funeral marches, the usual suspects. You’ve heard the arguments a million times: most rock music is made by the young, for the young, about being young, and if you’re not young and you still listen to it, then you should be ashamed of yourself. And finally I’ve worked out my response to all that: I mostly agree with the description, even though it’s crude, and makes no effort to address the recent, mainly excellent work of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Mr. Springsteen et al. The conclusion, however, makes no sense to me any more.

Youth is a quality not unlike health: it’s found in greater abundance among the young, but we all need access to it. (And not all young people are lucky enough to be young. Think of those people at your college who wanted to be politicians or corporate lawyers, for example.) I’m not talking about the accouterments of youth: the unlined faces, the washboard stomachs, the hair. The young are welcome to all that – what would we do with it anyway? I’m talking about the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine. When I was younger, rock music articulated these feelings, and now that I’m older it stimulates them, but either way, rock ‘n’ roll was and remains necessary because: who doesn’t need exhilaration and a sense of invincibility, even if it’s only now and again?

When I say that I have found these feelings harder and harder and harder to detect these last few years, I understand that I run the risk of being seen as yet another nostalgic old codger complaining about the state of contemporary music.And though it’s true that I’m an old codger, and that I’m complaining about the state of contemporary music, I hope that I can wriggle out of the hole I’m digging for myself by moaning that, to me, contemporary rock music no longer sounds young – or at least, not young in that kind of joyous, uninhibited way. In some ways, it became way too grown-up and full of itself. You can find plenty that’s angry, or weird, or perverse, or melancholy and world-weary; but that loud, sometimes dumb celebration of being alive has got lost somewhere along the way. Of course we want to hear songs about Iraq, and child prostitution, and heroin addiction. And if bands see the need to use electric drills instead of guitars in order to give vent to their rage, well, bring it on. But is there any chance we could have the Righteous Brothers’ “Little Latin Lupe Lu” – or, better still, a modern-day equivalent – for an encore?

In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of “David Copperfield,” the novelist David Gates talks about literature hitting “that high-low fork in the road, leading on the one hand toward Ulysses and on the other toward Gone With The Wind,’ “and maybe rock music has experienced its own version. You can either chase the Britney dollar, or choose the high-minded cult-rock route that leads to great reviews and commercial oblivion. I buy that arty stuff all the time, and a lot of it is great. But part of the point of it is that its creators don’t want to engage with the mainstream, or no longer think that it’s possible to do so, and as a consequence cult status is preordained rather than accidental. In this sense, the squeaks and bleeps scattered all over the lovely songs on the last Wilco album sound less like experimentation, and more like a despairing audio suicide note.

Maybe this split is inevitable in any medium where there is real money to be made: it has certainly happened in film, for example, and even literature was a form of pop culture, once upon a time. It takes big business a couple of decades to work out how best to exploit a cultural form; once that has happened, “that high-low fork in the road” is unavoidable, and the middle way begins to look impossibly daunting. It now requires more bravery than one would ever have thought necessary to try and march straight on, to choose neither the high road nor the low. Who has the nerve to pick up where Dickens or John Ford left off? In other words, who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude? To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool – a stranger to all notions of postmodernism – but arrogant and vaultingly ambitious as well.

Marah may well be headed for commercial oblivion anyway, of course. “20,000 Streets Under the Sky” is their fourth album, and they’re by no means famous yet, as the passing of the hat in the Fiddler’s Elbow indicates. But what I love about them is that I can hear everything I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows. Indeed, in the shows you can often hear their love for the rock canon uninflected – they play covers of theReplacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” or the Jam’s “In the City,” and they usually end with a riffed-up version of the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” They play an original called “The Catfisherman” with a great big Bo Diddley beat, and they quote the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the Who’s “Magic Bus.” And they do this not because they’re a bar band and people expect cover versions, but because they are unafraid of showing where their music comes from, and unafraid of the comparisons that will ensue – just as Bruce Springsteen (who really did play “Little Latin Lupe Lu” for an encore, sometimes) was unafraid.

It was this kind of celebration that Jon Landau had in mind when he said in his review that “I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes.” For Mr. Landau, the overbearing self-importance of rock music of the late 60’s and early 70’s had left him feeling jaded; for me, it’s the overbearing self-consciousness of the 90’s. The Darkness know that we might laugh at them, so they laugh at themselves first; the White Stripes may be a blues band, but their need to exude cool is every bit as strong as their desire to emit heat, and the calculations have been made accordingly: there’s as much artfulness as there is art.
In truth, I don’t care whether the music sounds new or old: I just want it to have ambition and exuberance, a lack of self-consciousness, a recognition of the redemptive power of noise, an acknowledgment that emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow. Outkast’s brilliant “Hey Ya!,”a song that for a few brief months last year united races and critics and teenagers and nostalgic geezers, had all that and more; you could hear Prince in there, and the Beatles, and yet the song belonged absolutely in and to the here and now, or at least the there and then of 2003.

Both “Hey Ya!” and Marah’s new album are roots records, not in the sense that they were made by men with beards who play the fiddle and sing with a finger in an ear, but in the sense that they have recognizable influences – influences that are not only embedded in pop history, but that have been properly digested. In the suffocatingly airless contemporary pop-culture climate, you can usually trace influences back only as far as Radiohead, or Boyz II Men, or the Farrelly Brothers, and regurgitation rather than digestion would be the more accurate gastric metaphor.

The pop music critic of The Guardian recently reviewed a British band that reminded him – pleasantly, I should add -of “the hammering drum machine and guitar of controversial 80’s trio Big Black and the murky noise of early ThrobbingGristle.” I have no doubt whatsoever that the band he was writing about (a band with a name too confrontational and cutting-edge to be repeated here) will prove to be one of the most significant cultural forces of the decade, nor that it will produce music that forces us to confront the evil and horror that resides within us all.

However, there is still a part of me that persists in thinking that rock music, and indeed all art, has an occasional role to play in the increasingly tricky art of making us glad we’re alive. I’m not sure that Throbbing Gristle and its descendants will ever pull that off, but the members of Marah do, often. I hope they won’t be passing around the hat by the end of this year, but if they are, please give generously.

Here’s Marah from 2006. I don’t think they ever made it past bar band and you can see the reasons why immediately:

  • The lead singer mostly sings with his eyes closed. That is the mark of an amateur. Admittedly, the aforementioned Springsteen god, and the lead singer Thom Yorke, mostly sing with their eyes closed, but they are the very rare exceptions to this rule.
  • It looks like at least three of them are wearing hats. Bad form, instant game ejection. You can only have one hat per band, unless you are a jazz band, a country and western band, a hippie jam band, or ZZ Top, but never a rock band.

A Bee Story

I’ve been building a photo studio where I now live ~ this amazing raw warehouse space in East Oakland. We finally got this big old display case out of the spot where all the natural light comes in from the two rows of clerestory window that rise up from the roof above. I put up a backdrop and shot a couple pictures with my phone. Can’t wait to get a real photographer in here to do test shots. I may need to get more gear, i.e., diffusions screens, because the light can get pretty intense.

I also put up backdrop rack on the opposite side of the main room and took a couple pictures there as well.

Brad Eigen’s “Knox Timeline” 2018 edition

My last post was an audioboo about this graphic, done by my friend Brad Eigen for an assignment when he was going to nursing school some years ago.

I must say it is an odd document at which to look, inasmuch I am its subject. The piece has evolved over the years. I think this is the third revision.

I met Brad in my last year of drinking. I was managing an AlphaGraphics print/copy shop in Emeryville and he was a customer, working as a graphic designer for Farallon Computing.

My Diary

Welcome to the “blog” section of my website. It’s a diary, just like the original “Web Logs” were. Some geek shortened the term to “Blog” and here we are. I hate the sound of the word. So … welcome to my diary. It goes back some time.

You can see the categories on the right. Some of these posts and images and videos you will find elsewhere by navigating from the main menu at the top of the page, newly formatted into galleries or stand-alone pages.

You will also find my most recent posts here.

I hope it’s not too confusing!

—Knox 7/22/2017

Cordwainer Smith ~ The Romantic Who Wrote The Weirdest And Most Beautiful Science Fiction Of All Time

Discovering the writings of Corwainer Smith in the early 1970’s was a life-changing revelation. At that time, neither his one novel, Norstrilia,nor any comprehensive compilation of his incredible short stories were in print.

For years, I would scour used bookstores in search of his stories, finding one of his stories in this or that compilation, in print, not in print, whatever. Needless to say, his writing had a profound effect on me and I have striven to create worlds, in music and art and words, as strange, as haunting, and, I hope, as full of love as his works, amidst the weirdness. Not that I come close in that regard: but one must aim high. Smith’s stories do not grow old. Interestingly, although he was almost unknown 40 years ago, he is regularly deemed the most influential science fiction writer of all time now. I recommend his books, Norstrilia and The Rediscovery of Man without hesitation.

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From 1950 to 1966, stories appeared in mainstream science fiction magazines by an author named “Cordwainer Smith“. From the first to the last, these stories were acclaimed as among the most inventive and striking ever written, and that in a field specializing in the inventive and the striking. Their author was a very private man who did not want his real name to be known because he did not want to be pursued by SF fans. It was only after his death in 1966 that more than a handful of people knew that “Cordwainer Smith” was in real life Paul M. L. Linebarger.

Here is an article I found many many years ago and saved. I cannot find it anywhere else anymore, so I am taking the liberty of publishing it here. I make absolutely no claim to ownership or copyright. I am just publishing as a public service.

Christianity And The Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith by James B. Jordan Copyright © 1991 Originally published in Contra Mundum No. 2 Winter 1992

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger

Paul Linebarger was born in 1913, the grandson of a clergyman. His father, an eccentric man, had served as a Federal District Judge in the Philippines, but had left this post to work full time for the cause of the Chinese republican reformer Sun Yat Sen, who became Paul’s godfather. Paul Linebarger grew up in the retinue of Sun Yat Sen, for his father stayed with Sen during his exile in Japan and throughout his career in China.

Linebarger spent his formative years in Japan, China, France, and Germany. By the time he grew up, he knew six languages and had become intimate with several cultures, both Oriental and Occidental.

He was only twenty-three when he earned his Ph.D. in political science at Johns Hopkins University, where he was later Professor of Asiatic politics for many years. Shortly thereafter, he graduated from editing his father’s books to publishing his own highly regarded works on Far Eastern affairs. [1]

After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Linebarger taught at Duke University from 1937 to 1946, but he also served actively in the Army during World War II as a second lieutenant. Pierce writes that “As a Far East specialist he was involved in the formation of the Office of War Information and of the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board. He also helped organize the Army’s first psychological warfare section.” [2]

He was sent to China and put in charge of psychological warfare and of coordinating Anglo- American and Chinese military activities. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of major. (more…)

Song-by-Song ~ World’s Night from Flight of the Atom Bee

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USS Arizona burning at Pearl Harbor (from http://www.aviation-history.com/airmen/pearl.htm)

 

World’s Night is the third to the last song on the album, Flight of the Atom Bee, following The Blue Man Wept and preceding When We Were Machines.

World’s Night began, that is to say, the initial inspiration came from the drums, specifically the kick drum pattern that opens the song. I was using the Emu SP-1200 drum machine and programming it from my Mac using that great old program StudioVision from Opcode (and may the dweebs of my generation at the Gibson Guitar Company be forced to listen to an eternity of Vanilla Ice songs for buying Opcode for the hardware and letting its excellent software die).

I started building on that, adding the second kick and then the bass organ part, the flute and Moog synth lines. (I later discovered a similar flute/bass arrangement on a Massive Attack song, Karmacoma from Protection, but maybe I should just put it in the “great minds swimming same currents” category. I love what they did there.)

The bass organ came from the workhorse Roland JX-8P. The flute and the faux Moog lead line came from a Roland D-110. Somehow the Moog patch got deleted and when I went to re-record the song due to the line noise in this version, I was unable to recreate the patch, so I was stuck with this noisy version. Hence the addition of vinyl surface crackle and pops to mask the noise in the intro and outro. It also gave the song a vintage sound to evoke the recording technology of that era.

I had read, a couple years earlier, a wonderful book entitled Witness To The Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction, by Linda Schierse Leonard, where she had quoted the theologian/philosopher Martin Heidegger quite extensively. Heidegger talked much of the World’s Night in his work. The quote I remember from the book, which I do not have at hand, having given away many copies over the years, was about how God could not return until we made a place for Him. It had stuck with me.

The gods who “were once there,” “return” only at the “right time”—that is, when there has been a turn among men in the right place, in the right way. For this reason Holderlin, in the unfinished hymn “Mnemosyne,” written soon after the elegy “Bread and Wine,” writes (IV, 225):

“. . . The heavenly powers
Cannot do all things. It is the mortals
Who reach sooner into the abyss. So the turn is
With these. Long is
The time, but the true comes into
Its own.”

As I was working on this song, early on, I knew the title would be World’s Night and the title shaped the song. His perception of the dimming of the Light of the World, I’m sure, came from the two world wars of the twentieth century, Stalin’s holocaust, and other atrocities.

The image I had the whole time as the song emerged was that of a battleship knifing through the darkened grey-green and white-capped currents of the North Atlantic ocean.

Obviously, the song was rather stark in its conception, and very simple, really, built on simple parts, driven by the rhythm section.

In the middle part where almost everything drops out, save the bass and Moog line, it was my hope to evoke a burst of light, however small, into the darkness, followed by the cascading flute figures in the final bars of the song. The beginning of the end of the World’s Night, the turning.

Heidegger’s writings predated the assassination of John Kennedy, of which the fiftieth anniversary is today as I finish writing this piece.

The rest of this article is all from Martin Heidegger himself:

The world’s night is spreading its darkness. The era is defined by the god’s failure to arrive, by the ‘default of God,’ … [which means that] no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it. …

Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning … To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy. This is why, in Holderlin’s language, the world’s night is the holy night. [Emphasis mine]

The closer the world’s night draws toward midnight, the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence. Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-nigh obliterated. The more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs. It is then all the more strictly true that each man gets farthest if he goes only as far as he can go along the way allotted to him. The third stanza of the same elegy that raises the question—”What are poets for in a destitute time?”

We have a way out of this wasteland. While “song still lingers over their desolate land,” there is still the possibility of hearing and heeding this call.

The singer’s word still keeps to the trace of the holy. The song in Holderlin’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Part I, 19) says it:

Though swiftly the world converts,
like cloud-shapes’ upheaval,
everything perfect reverts
to the primeval.
Over the change abounding
farther and freer
your preluding song keeps sounding
God with the lyre.
Suffering is not discerned,
neither has love been learned,
and what removes us in death,
nothing unveils.
Only the song’s high breath
hallows and hails.

From Heidegger and Poetry: What are poets for?