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I Am an Animal!

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012: Musings, Society.

In David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, when cornered by an angry mob, the title character cries out “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Socially, it’s a powerful and poignant moment, but in the larger context of ecology, it’s an unfortunate choice of words. Human beings, of course, are animals in every sense, and our urge to differentiate ourselves from other animals is one thing that leads us astray.

But in another sense it’s a powerful comment on identity and labeling, and how people who are insecure in their own identities use labeling to assert control over a social situation, empowering themselves and bullying or manipulating others.

In the mid-90s, I was fortunate to witness a moving performance by the brilliant transsexual media theorist Sandy Stone, in which she dramatized her life journey from male to female. The experience had all the more impact on me because I had never heard of Stone and didn’t know she had been a man until it was revealed in her performance. I followed up by reading her book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, which discussed the ways in which people were beginning to use online avatars to craft new personal identities. In her view, new media and communications technologies were empowering people who had previously been victims of labeling.

I was surprised by her treatment of personal identity as a discrete phenomenon, because for me, identity had always been boundless, timeless, and in continual flux. One self with manifold manifestations. Labels were often convenient in specific contexts and discourse, but I never took them seriously unless others were using them to manipulate. In childhood, I was bullied and called “peewee” and “Tiny Tim” because I was small. Growing up, I ignored the warnings of my elders about “Jack of all trades, master of none.” To continually varying degrees, I was a passionate “artist” while I was making art, a gardener while gardening, a carpenter while building, and so forth.

My favorite example is the label “engineer.” At the end of my second year in college, I had just finished an intensive studio art program and had been accepted at a handful of art schools, but the economy was in a deep recession, and coming from a family with very limited financial resources, I was under crushing pressure to find a reliable career. My math and science skills enabled me to finish an engineering degree, although my heart wasn’t in it and I rebelled after graduation, rejecting job offers and becoming a vagabond and manual laborer, camping for a while in the hothouse environment of CalArts, broadening my horizons as an artist and playing in a band.

Desperate for financial security, I did eventually take a day job at an engineering firm, but only worked as an engineer for two years before moving into a part-time administrative position that allowed me to put most of my time and energy into the arts. Even so, I kept quitting, going broke, and begging to be rehired. That, and my education, are now decades in the past, and I could never resurrect that tentative beginning of an engineering career without going back to school. My expertise consisted of book learning that was quickly and carelessly forgotten.

Yet my father, who spent most of his working life as an engineer, would never let me forget it, nor will some of my old friends in the arts, to my dismay. My father, like all fathers I suppose, clung selectively to his favorite parts of my past. According to him I had made a terrible mistake by not marrying Victoria, and an even worse mistake by throwing away my potential on the arts instead of engineering.

Ironically, my artist friends have tried to diminish me from the opposite direction. Perhaps envious of my manifold skills – which truthfully have been a mixed blessing – they tell me smugly, again and again, “But you’re an engineer!” or “But you could go back to your engineering job!” Implying that they’re the real artists and I’m just a poser.

Of course, those are people for whom commercial success in the arts has been as elusive as it has for me, and they depend on day jobs they would equally resist as labels. But in the stratosphere of the arts, Damien Hirst spent as many years as a construction worker as I did as an engineer, and Moby has probably spent more time waiting tables, but no one would now call him a waiter.

Labels should never be used as a cage or a putdown, and identity is always relative to context. I am not an engineer! I am an animal!

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Space Tourists vs. Future Farmers

Saturday, February 18th, 2012: Musings, Society.

Taking the sporadic glance at my junk mail folder, I discovered that I’m on the self-promotion mailing list of the ex-girlfriend of an old pal. The ex-GF is a former self-styled internet “product evangelist” who has now elevated herself to the role of “futurist” and philosopher. She proudly proclaims herself a member of an international network of young futurists, many of them university-educated in “future studies.” The email linked to a recently completed video commercial based on her work.

In the slick commercial, four fashionably dressed young urban professionals are finishing a meal in a generic-looking upscale restaurant. One woman enthusiastically describes her recent trip to space. The waiter arrives with a handheld electronic bill/scanner device, and our yuppies proceed to divide up the price items in futuristically convenient ways, paying with various forms of scannable credit, including credits toward space flight. The implication is that technology is giving young urban professionals more personal freedom, including of course the freedom to travel in space.

But not all of us are yuppies. Human life doesn’t reach its full potential in the sanitized context of spacecraft or upscale urban bistros, and electronic credit is ultimately only a symbol which disguises our dependence on physical resources that are extracted from earthly ecosystems by rural communities. The freedom of the ex-GF’s “integrated mobile payments, credit cards, private coins and corporate space currency” is also the freedom from having to grow your own food, build your own shelter, make your own clothes, chop your own firewood. And this personal freedom, sometimes more patriotically termed “liberty,” is also a dependence on the labors of the rural providers, and an exploitation of them by means of a market economy that remotely, and unaccountably, manipulates their labors and their natural resources.

For a more balanced and realistic take on space travel, check out the poignant but even-handed 2009 documentary film Space Tourists, which shows an American billionaire enjoying her trip to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket, while peasants, out herding their flocks on the steppe below, collect discarded rocket parts to use as temporary shelter from the earthly elements.

I had my own fling with futurism as a teenage science fiction fan. What it all boils down to is adolescent insecurity – a craving for power and speed; adolescent rebellion – a need to distinguish yourself from your elders; and a fear of death resulting from urban society’s avoidance and denial of the role of death in the community and ecosystem. The primary themes of futurism are space travel, immortality, and a continual increase in personal power and convenience through technological progress. Any social or ecological consequences of these personal advantages can presumably be solved through engineering, in the same way that Nazism gave us the master race and nuclear power gave us unlimited cheap energy.

In the language of the Occupy movement, futurism is for the 1%. But statistics can be made to tell any story. The 99% is supposed to stand for the rest of us who are not rich, but one thing most of us have in common with the rich is that we’re primarily consumers of resources originally produced by rural farmers and miners under perennially exploitative conditions. And I’m not talking about Apple’s factory workers in China, who are also primarily consumers striving to increase their “quality of life,” meaning increased consumption of manufactured goods. You can reverse the Occupy statistics to observe that in today’s unsustainable human ecology, rural providers are the 1% exploited by the rest of us.

For the ex-GF, the future means perpetually young, fashionable, affluent urban consumers taking vacations in space. For this recovered futurist, the future is today, where, in my rural community far from the exaggerated consumer dreams and temptations of the city, young farmers and parents grow food for their neighbors and help raise each other’s children to become healthy providers for the next generation.

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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 1

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

Do you dance? Does your family dance? Does your community dance?

Last year, when I was interviewed by a music industry marketing consultant, I mentioned that most of my music is dance music, and he laughed sarcastically. I knew exactly what he meant. In the contemporary youth-dominated music industry, dance music means club music, otherwise known as electronic dance music (EDM), and nothing else.

But I’ve grown up with dance music and I know better.

The stress of my adolescence was mitigated by social dancing at a teen canteen called The Peppermint Cave, where we danced to The Beach Boys and The Kingsmen, just like the kids in the Beach Party movies. Unbeknownst to us, all of our dances, like The Twist and The Watusi, had roots in West Africa. We also partner-danced to slow tunes with girls, but the important dances were detached movements that could be done individually, in partnership, or with a group. Those were the dances that physically manifested our social relationships and allowed us to actively negotiate our own roles.

After that, I was deprived of social dancing for more than a decade, and suffered without knowing I was suffering. This was the era of Joni Mitchell, The Eagles and Steely Dan. Dancing meant disco and was the culture of poor ethnic urbanites. It wasn’t until the advent of punk music that I had an opportunity to dance again with my friends, and it was like salvation on the brink of cultural death.

Dancing to punk music was largely a boy’s club, and looked like a riot. We bounced up and down and shoved and slammed into each other, and sometimes the lead singer or audience member took a dive from the stage into the crowd. But the girls could dance to the new wave and post-punk music that emerged shortly after punk. From then on, almost all the music we liked was dance music – Psychedelic Furs in the mix at CalArts parties, X live at LA’s Whisky-A-Go-Go (where a tiny butch dyke worked her way through the surging mass of guys, punching each of them in the groin), Jello Biafra shirtless and drenched in sweat shouting out a punk version of the Rawhide TV theme song to a throbbing packed crowd in San Francisco’s Valencia Tool & Die art space, the same Jello Biafra pogoing to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen with me and friends afterward in the notorious after-hours club the A-Hole. Within a couple of years, post-punk and disco had merged in the club scene, where my girlfriend and I made up our own stylish moves to both Michael Jackson and Gang of Four, literally dancing ’til dawn in New York’s multi-level Danceteria.

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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 2

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

The 80s was when, in the industry, dance music came to mean club music, and electronic instruments and samples began to dominate it. But because the post-punk scene also embraced world music, my friends and I began dancing to African music at the same time. And at home, in my San Francisco loft, my artist roommates and I danced to everything, at any time – The Smiths, The Replacements, U2, REM, UB40, Black Uhuru. Again, not partner dancing, but African-style dancing, creative, free-form movements that were rhythmic but integrated with domestic chores like cooking and cleaning house. We had massive parties where musicians from North and West Africa jammed with players from South America. And we repeatedly went together as a group to touring shows by Nigerian juju superstar King Sunny Ade, who provided the best dance music any of us had experienced, music you could literally dance to all night and still feel energized.

In Oakland one year, I took a new girlfriend to a Nigerian Afro-Beat New Year’s party headlined by my friend Orlando Julius Ekemode. I always loved to watch the Nigerians dance, especially the backup singers in the band, who alternated comic pranks with restrained, elegant traditional movements. My girlfriend interrupted me with an “Oh my god, look at her!” pointing to a Nigerian woman in the crowd dancing with her black leather purse on her head, in perfect balance. It was the first thing that night that really impressed my girl.

The same girlfriend later took me to a hip-hop show where I had fun dancing until she told me I was embarrassing her because I was dancing like an African, and I was facing her instead of facing the stage in the accepted way like everyone else.

We were lucky in the Bay Area to have a wonderful all-ages dance club called Ashkenaz, a wood-frame building with high arched ceiling, a beautiful wood dance floor, and a clear, balanced sound system. My band played there once, but I also got to dance there to the father of modern juju music, accordionist I. K. Dairo, during his final tour. The crowd was a great mix of hippies, yuppies, Berkeley High students, black professionals, European, Middle Eastern and African expatriates, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, professional artists and musicians, university professors – typical Bay Area!

In its most successful incarnation, my 80s band Terra Incognita incorporated rhythms inspired by Nigerian music. But we were an electric string trio, what would later be called chamber folk – the absolute last thing my marketing expert would ever accept as dance music. But our most devoted fans first showed up dancing happily in front of the stage.

I later attended the wedding of one of those fans, and attempted a polka with his mother. She laughed harshly in contempt, shoving me off the floor, when I could neither lead nor follow. I admit that I’ve never mastered European-style partner dancing. I took a couple of salsa lessons after I moved to Silver City, and encountered the same snobbery. My partner barked at me and tried impatiently to jerk me into shape. Partner dancing is like horseback riding for me – something I like to watch but have never enjoyed doing. It’s a European tradition – I’m more comfortable with African and Native American dance traditions.

In North American and European urban society, insecure young men who want to be considered “hipsters” are notoriously reluctant to be seen dancing in public. Hence they typically wait to be drawn into the dance by young women. While living in Seattle a few years ago, I went to see a North-African-influenced San Francisco band at the world-music club Nectar. The crowd consisted mostly of young single men, and after the first few tunes, no one was dancing – so I went out there and got things started myself!

In the late 80s, my old friend and collaborator Cheb i Sabbah started doing DJ nights in popular SF clubs. He became one of the world’s premier “world music” DJs, and in between his national and European tours, he turned me on to Mali’s Salif Keita and Kasse Mady, Cuba’s Los Van Van, and the Gnawa music of Morocco. But whenever he played North African music, the local Moroccans converged in their robes, arms waving ecstatically above their heads, fingers snapping in unison to the beat.


Are You Dancing Yet? Part 3

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

Over a 30-year period, I spent hundreds and hundreds of nights dancing in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but only a minority of those nights were spent dancing to what the industry calls dance music. I did discover house music at the beginning of the 90s, but the dominant sub-audible bass literally wore me out after a couple of hours, whereas I could easily dance to Cheb’s world music all night.

In the early 90s, my younger girlfriend was an avid Deadhead. I never actually attended a Grateful Dead show because during the 80s my crowd had looked on the Dead and their following with disdain and disgust. It was my own form of music snobbery, and my friends and I always looked down on “Dead dancers” or “hippie dancers” at clubs and events. But now, at a distance, I realize that the Dead provided a safe space for social dancing in a time of rapid technological change and uncertainty.

By the 2000s, the Dead were gone and club culture had spread to “raves,” which were often unofficial, underground parties using techno music. I was asked to DJ a party at my new girlfriend’s house, and I brought a huge library of CDs that I considered the world’s best contemporary dance music, everything from surf dance to Cuban and African big band music. The crowd consisted mostly of her young European friends, and they stood dejectedly around the edges of the room as I kept changing the program in hopes of getting them moving. Finally, one of her ex-boyfriends showed up with his own library of techno music and took over. The crowd instantly came to life, in within minutes they were moving in a trance to the only music they had ever been able to dance to.

Ironically, it was only after moving to New Mexico that I fell in love with techno. Artists like Underworld incorporated West African beats into their club tracks, along with hints of post-punk.

Cities are fragmented into ethnic subcultures and peer groups based on age and background. I was part of a small subculture of artists and musicians that enjoyed dancing at parties, clubs and festivals, but I became aware that my professional peers did not dance, and seemed to associate social dancing with teenagers, the working class, and obsolete indigenous cultures. Social dancing was frivolous and embarrassing.

For many of them, this was an unconscious holdover from their Protestant upbringing. Protestantism or Calvinism has been death on dancing for centuries. I think in the beginning it was part of the rebellion against the Southern European dominance and oppression of the Catholic Church.

Since the days of the pioneers, rural families in the American West have joined together weekly for a Saturday night dance. Initially that was a self-conscious way of binding together a precarious community in an unfamiliar land, far from their eastern roots.

Like all rural traditions, that one has been eroded by mass media and the consumer economy, but when I moved to Grant County, New Mexico, I immediately became a dance activist and began learning from the locals. At my first harvest festival dance, Anglo and Hispanic ranch families mingled on the floor with hippies, and mothers danced with babies in their arms. In the downtown bar and grill on Saturday night, a happy crowd of Latino miners and Anglo hospital workers danced together to a live local band playing cumbias, country rock, and the occasional 80s radio hit from Paul Simon or Talking Heads.

In Nigerian social dance, the singers praise members of the audience by name and use evocative metaphors and proverbs to reinforce traditional moral values. But, as in the days of the pioneers, social dance has implicit social, physical, mental and emotional benefits. Dancing actually makes you smarter! A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that dancing was far more effective in preventing age-related dementia than any other activity, including the commonly-prescribed crossword puzzles.

Social dancing is arguably the most important role of music. Dancing is not an option, it’s essential to a healthy life. Are you dancing yet?

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JR and Public Art

Saturday, April 21st, 2012: Arts, Musings.

Just finished reading the Juxtapoz interview with JR, the new international art star who empowers the anonymous by pasting their images across the urban landscape. And it again challenged my antipathy toward public art.

I live in a small rural town that’s mural-crazy. Murals tend to bug the shit out of me now, but in my younger days I was a public art repeat offender, and I still identify strongly with street art and graffiti. I absolutely love JR’s work – it’s clearly some of the most potent, socially conscious urban art ever made – but where does it really fit in the overall ecological, or ethical, landscape?

The first public art I can recall doing was the collaborative sculpture I made with my performance-art band the summer after I graduated high school. We made it out of salvaged junk in the barn lot of my grandma’s farm, along a country road. It was almost twenty feet tall, and I have no memory of what happened to it – I went away to college shortly after it was completed. All I know is that it was a lot of fun and we definitely intended it to surprise and puzzle people – that was the extent of our adolescent vision.

In college, in Chicago, I was surrounded by monumental public art both historical and modern – everything from heroic to humanistic to the abstractions of Picasso and Calder. The city was new to me and I took it for granted that cities had this stuff, for better or worse.

In the 1980s, after art school and in the wake of the punk rock revolution, I joined my peers in two divergent tracks of public art. The urban track consisted of guerilla performances and wheat-paste poster attacks, one of which ended up on the cover of the book Street Art. Still aiming to surprise and puzzle. In one of our performances, we did a maypole dance around a particularly ominous public sculpture.

The other track was even more rural than my high-school farm sculpture: ephemeral paintings and rock alignments in the remote wilderness of the Mojave Desert. Long before hearing of Andy Goldsworthy, I gradually discovered that other nature-loving artists like me were sporadically and spontaneously creating little zen-like, anonymous, short-lived interventions in nature, driven by our irrepressible creative urge and the liberation from the studio that was the art school legacy of the 60s and 70s.

As I became committed to a specific desert site that was becoming an ecological preserve, I did the usual urban artist thing – I put together a proposal for a large-scale project that would presumably add historicity to the site, foster ecological and cultural awareness, and otherwise jibe with the mission of the preserve. It would consist of enigmatic signage along trails and roadways, keyed to an educational subtext. That proposal was a turning point of sorts – as I went over it with the preserve director, I suddenly realized that the last thing I wanted to do was add more man-made shit to this place which was already littered with the detritus of ranching and mining. Instead, I stopped leaving my own marks on the landscape and started paying more attention to the ancient markings of others.

A long field study of Native American rock art transformed my stance toward visual art. I came to feel that the entire culture that my society had inherited from Europe was illegitimate. Nothing in our arts seemed as well-integrated with our environment as the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Indians. I continued to make visual art, but it stopped being pictures of things and became purely a series of enigmatic symbolic expressions, like the rock art panels I was finding in remote desert locations.

Then I fell into dire financial straits, and my only way out was by embracing the digital revolution. In the early days, my generation saw “new media” primarily as a way to increase the democratic and participatory nature of the screens that were already a pervasive part of our environment. Forgetting my ill-fated desert project, I proposed new site-specific works, this time a network of kiosks throughout the urban landscape that would serve as access points to the deep history and culture of each site.

But as the idealism of new media rapidly devolved into the big business of the internet, and as information overload became a cliche, I realized again that our landscape was already carrying a crushing burden of signs, text and images demanding our attention and becoming a level of background noise equivalent to the glare of public lighting, the blare of horns and sirens, the roar of traffic, the hiss and hum of plumbing, heating and air conditioning that form the urban sensory environment.

That’s one reason why I grew to hate murals and public sculptures and was ambivalent toward graffiti. I felt that there was already far too much man-made junk, far too many signs, an overload of images. The ethical thing for an artist to do would be to refrain from adding to it. I wanted to see those walls come down, not turned into more screens for our redundant likenesses.

Which brings me back to JR. They say some of his work can be seen from space, like the Great Wall of China. The message of these anonymous faces seems to be “Look at me! I’m here! I’m human too!” That’s an important message when people are downtrodden, but in a larger ecological context, do we really need more attention to the human? The European tradition was to literally put people up on a pedestal. Oppressed or not, hubris is not one of our healthier traits.

Looking at photos of his work makes me so glad I don’t live in one of those landscapes of concrete, glass and steel. It also gives me more respect for the Islamic proscription against representational images – images of people. Traditional societies used representational images carefully and with restraint, recognizing their power. In Orthodox Christianity, representation was restricted to religious icons, often sequestered in cavern-like sanctuaries. And of course, there are the famous painted caves of southern Europe, where the magic of representational images was buried deep underground.

I think maybe we need to tone down those walls and public spaces, attract less attention to them and to the human presence which is already overwhelming. Then, maybe we can focus more on the changing seasons and get back to learning from our non-human partners in this risky dance of life.


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Learning From Cruelty

Monday, July 2nd, 2012: Musings, Society.

My weekend movie was the 2009 film Last Ride, in which Hugo Weaving plays an ex-con who makes his 10-year-old son an accomplice in an increasingly desperate flight from the law across the spectacular natural landscape of South Australia. The brutality of Weaving’s character finds one (of many) outlets at a remote water hole where he tries to teach the frightened boy to swim by throwing him in the water and holding him down: “C’mon you wuss!”

That scene instantly evoked a memory of my Grandpa Carmichael, my surrogate father, who told me he learned to swim because his father (great-grandfather Howard, who I also grew up with) threw him in the river and told him he had to sink or swim. Apparently, Grandpa had solved this childhood crisis on the spot via the sidestroke, which became his only swimming style.

By contrast, I had friendly one-on-one swimming lessons with the star of the high-school swim team, so until seeing the movie it hadn’t really occurred to me how terrifying that first experience could be. I tried to picture my great-grandfather – who was generally good with children – throwing my Grandpa in the river – a tree-shaded, muddy waterhole with low, muddy banks just like in the film – wondering what the father was feeling, what the son was feeling, how those feelings might be churning like the muddy water – or simply programmed by tradition. What sort of reconciliation would emerge later in safety, whether gratitude, respect, or lingering resentment.

People who haven’t experienced much cruelty may hold simplistic notions of what is cruel, and how “cruelty” functions in society and ecology. Richard Nelson, in his beautiful deer-hunting memoir The Island Within, reports watching a sea otter slowly devour a living salmon tail-first while the salmon watched itself being eaten. And most of us have seen TV clips of hyenas bringing down and feasting on a living wildebeest. How do humans benefit by condemning some behavior as “cruel,” and how much of this depends on the context?

The “cruelty of childhood” is an old cliche, and I certainly experienced childhood as the cruelest phase of life. I was one of the smallest boys in town and was bullied all the way up to my senior year of high school, first because I was small and later because I got good grades. The jocks and the tough boys were always verbally abusing me, threatening to beat me up, chasing me, punching and kicking when they could catch me. The neighborhood bully once found me out in the country in the woods by the riverside and shot me in the leg with his BB rifle. That’s when I found out I could run faster than other kids – I ran all the way home, leaving him in my dust.

My Dad tried to compensate for his absence by packing intense parenting into short visits. One of his favorite father-son activities was the old Scottish tradition of roughhousing, fighting for the sheer love of it, which in the old days often led to casual maiming and blinding. Dad was in his view trying to teach me to be a man, but he was huge and obese, so the contest was patently unfair and traumatic for me.

One of my ex-girlfriends grew up in a family where a lot of physical violence occurred and was mostly tolerated. They were all big, strong people with violent tempers. She told me of her younger brother throwing a cat off a bridge into a river, waiting for it to swim to shore and throwing it back in again, over and over. In some sectors of our society – sports and the military – bullying and brutality are considered essential to learning toughness and endurance. If you grow up isolated from cruelty, you may end up unprepared and powerless when you do meet it.

So where and when is it appropriate to learn about intimidation and physical force?

Or maybe the right question is how. In Last Ride, the father’s brutality really came out in how he treated his son – the same vicious way he treated the victims of his crimes. I don’t see my great-grandfather treating my Grandpa like that – I envision a firm but encouraging act. And in The Island Within, Nelson evokes the traditional hunter’s creed of respect for the prey – which raises the question of how and why we are different from the sea otter. I don’t buy the conventional answers to how humans are different from other animals; I’ve heard about the Asians who relish eating animals alive, and I can’t condemn them, not having the full picture.

After his first (failed) swimming lesson, the boy in the movie appears traumatized. And in the end, for other reasons, Last Ride won’t end up on my list of favorite films. But the glorious final scene shows how, in a cruel world, a hard lesson may be transformed into a moment of liberation.

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Memories, Dreams, Art & Friendship

Saturday, March 16th, 2013: Arts, Musings.

I feel both blessed and challenged that, as an artist, I move through life as if poised on a wave, with strange and beautiful dreams in front of me, drawing me forward, and rich memories, delightful or painful, at my back, informing everything I do.

The title of this post is a variation on Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” which my mother gave me to read as an adolescent. It was a touchstone of my youth, and I recently re-read it and reflected on the similarities and contrasts between his quest for a synthesis of art, life and history and my own.

Like Jung, I’ve been both inspired by and obsessed with dreams and memories, which since the late 19th century in our culture have been largely the subject matter of psychology and psychoanalysis. And, whereas I’ve always treasured my memories and dreams, both good and bad, as raw material for my art, I’ve also become aware that they’re much more problematic for some of my friends.

Art and artists come in many forms. Many people hold fast to the idea of pretty pictures for the wall, like you see in cafes and bistros. My mother, channeling my grandma, sometimes wonders why I don’t paint horses running on flowering hillsides. Some artists are overtly political; others think of themselves as “shamans” and make visionary work. In the ethnographic literature on traditional societies, the shaman or medicine man or woman was a misfit outsider living on the fringes of the community, a troubled soul the community turned to when beset by traumatic mysteries, someone who had little to do with routine sustenance – definitely not someone who made pretty pictures.

My own large, evolving community of artist friends has proved to be seriously dysfunctional. Many of them have been lost to me, some from suicide, some from a breakdown in health or fitness that they never learned to value and maintain, many from alcoholism or drug addiction as they struggled to self-medicate the conditions of their emotional or social dysfunctions, the inner flame that was also an inner demon. How I loved them and how I miss them!

Others have been lost to me when, rather than facing their demons in their work, they tried to tame them by joining cults or “recovery” programs which taught them to “photoshop” their memories and abandon everything which might remind them of their past, including old friends. Years ago, when “recovered memory” was a trendy topic in the new-age self-help community, I had a couple of artist friends who claimed to uncover lost memories of childhood abuse, which then became a defining element of their new personas.

Some friends became exquisitely brittle, so hyper-sensitive that a single conversation, or a single taboo word, could cut them off from me forever as they struggled to defend their precarious emotional balance. And I’ll admit that my own sensitivity, which, as an expressive artist, I treasure, can be a liability as I over-react to perceived threats and criticism.

Another troubled artist friend tried on and cast off new solutions and relationships like suits of clothes, rejecting and abandoning whole episodes of his past, including most of his identity as an artist.

When I speak of my dreams with peers in my own age group, I often encounter sarcasm, cynicism, or resignation. So many of us have been beaten down by stress, life’s constraints and setbacks, declining health and fitness – I know because it happened to me! I was beaten down by living in California, a place where I could never escape the affluence of others, my own relative poverty, the peer pressure to consume, the feeling that I was continually falling behind in the race of life, and the real, absolute limitations on what I could do in a place where health and sustenance – not to mention the arts – had become luxuries of the rich.

On several occasions, and at the prompting of artist friends, I had tried professional therapy or counseling, but I could never find – or perhaps afford – a professional who even remotely understood my issues and feelings. The last couple of counselors I tried concluded that my issues – situational depression, anxiety, loneliness – were minor and didn’t really justify treatment. Lucky me!

It was only when I moved to a sparsely populated place with a depressed economy that I was able to recover my memories, my dreams, and my art – and to gradually recover my health and fitness, after all those years of abuse in the rat race.

The loneliness is a different story. I still miss those artist friends who are lost to me, and I struggle to find kindred spirits, artists in good health despite their outsider status, who embrace the darkness as well as the light, who honor and learn from their memories while chasing their dreams.

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Musical Inspirations: Punk & Post-Punk

Friday, December 13th, 2013: Music, Musings.

Calendar collage by Max and Mark, 1980

Calendar collage by Max and Mark, 1980

A Golden Age

My generation was too young to play an active role in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, but we had our own moment of glory in the aftermath of punk music, as part of an urban youth culture more creative and energetic than anything I’ve seen since.

Punk embodied a cultural, political, and economic rebellion: against mainstream commercialized music and lifestyles, against government and authority figures, and in protest of working-class poverty and hopelessness. Post-punk took its rebellious, do-it-yourself ethic from punk, but post-punk music was less a genre than the musical component of a continuous, open-ended underground arts scene committed to exploration and experimentation.

It was a time of economic hopelessness in the cities and disillusionment in society, a few years before personal computers and the digital revolution, bookended between the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and the regressive Reagan presidency, when young people felt betrayed rather than empowered by technology, and the media were relentlessly promoting a shallow, meaningless consumer lifestyle. So urban young people, instead of focusing on their careers, focused on their “free time” when they could collectively create or participate in their own alternative culture.

It was a unique, magical time resulting from a rare combination of factors: disaffected youth, cheap urban rents, and the late-70s vanguard of punk music as a unifying inspiration. It may seem paradoxical to some, but poverty and mind-numbing jobs, rather than affluence and economic opportunity, inspired creativity, because we were forced to create our own culture with much more limited resources than the youth of today, and without access to the infinite interwebs, we had to work hard to discover and share new ideas.

My experience was limited to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but our local scenes were connected to the distant cities like New York, London and Berlin via friendships, record shops (like our SF outpost of London’s Rough Trade), zines, artist tours and festivals. All of this occurred “under the radar” of mainstream media, so that it was a true underground phenomenon, and unlike today’s urban art scene, it was the only game in town for young people, the only challenging and meaningful way to spend your time, and unlike the rave scene of the late 90s it was participatory, with more creators and fewer spectators.

For a few short years in San Francisco, my fellow artists and I opened and maintained dozens of underground venues which hosted a continuous lineup of shows, salons, parties and large-scale events eagerly supported and attended by our crowd of thousands of roving cultural explorers, so that any night of the week it was hard to choose, and groups of us ranged deliriously back and forth from the Mission to scary South of Market tenements, finally stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning.

Our culture, documented in forgotten zines like San Francisco’s Search & DestroyDamage and Re/Search, was open-endedly eclectic, embracing minimal rock, African music, industrial noise, electronic experimentation and sampling, video and performance art, free jazz and chamber folk. We were passionate about anything that wasn’t mainstream.

Cover of Damage, December 1980

Cover of Damage, December 1980


Cover of Re/Search, first issue, featuring The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and Sun Ra

Cover of Re/Search, first issue, featuring The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and Sun Ra

Rotten to the Core

My own coming-of-age began in 1978. I was living in a group house south of the city, where I had been playing and listening to nothing but bluegrass, convinced that popular music was a wasteland. But my roommate James, an older anti-war rebel and environmental activist from the hippie generation, suddenly started playing the records of the Modern Lovers, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols nonstop, all day long, and my mind was blown.

The following year, I moved to CalArts in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, where I squatted in an art studio, living on welfare and food stamps, wrote punk songs, played in my friend Mark’s punk-inspired new wave group, and saw the LA band X performing in a small classroom. Newscasts were bludgeoning us with the Three Mile Island apocalypse, the Iranian revolution, the mass suicide of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple cult, the assassination of gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and the unfolding, gruesome stories of serial killers in the U.S., when the first recordings of the definitive British post-punk bands, Public Image Ltd and Joy Division, appeared and became the soundtracks of our nihilistic parties and road trips and the main inspirations for our own music.

Max's drawing of Los Angeles band X performing in a CalArts classroom, 1979

Max’s drawing of Los Angeles band X performing in a CalArts classroom, 1979

One of Max’s early punk lyrics, set to music in 2010:

Tracks like PIL’s Swan Lake and Poptones, and Joy Division’s Transmission and Love Will Tear Us Apart, were our anthems, simultaneously angry, cynical, and energizing. Our society was rotten to the core, and as PIL’s John Lydon sang, “anger is an energy.”

Burning Brightly

The following year, I got a boring day job in the tech industry that took me to San Francisco, where I immediately found myself in the midst of a cultural explosion. I was going to shows several nights a week at venues like Jetwave and Target Video that hadn’t existed the year before, and writing songs and putting together a band on the other nights, making new art and meeting dozens of kindred spirits and bursting with new ideas.

Ad in Damage for Max's first group art show, at Target Video in San Francisco, October 1980

Ad in Damage for Max’s first group art show, at Target Video in San Francisco, October 1980

New York experimental dance band Liquid Idiot playing an after-hours show in the basement of Valencia Tool & Die

New York experimental dance band Liquid Idiot playing an after-hours set in the basement of Valencia Tool & Die, August 1980

The tracks Nightcrawling and Too Close, sharing the dark visions of post-punk bands like Joy Division and PIL, were composed in 1980 by overdubbing repeatedly between stereo cassette decks, using primitive sound makers and ambient audio samples.

Our local scene peaked in October 1980 with the Western Front festival, which demonstrated the unity of punk, post-punk, street art, performance art, film and video art, supporting local artists and introducing us to exciting touring acts like New York’s DNA and England’s Delta 5. My new roommate and future bandmate Gary introduced me to the brilliant, totally unique Welsh chamber group Young Marble Giants, who became one of my biggest inspirations.

18" x 24" poster for the Western Front festival, San Francisco, October 1980

18″ x 24″ poster for the Western Front festival, San Francisco, October 1980

Max's drawing of the New York no-wave band DNA, 1980

Max’s drawing of the New York no-wave band DNA, 1980

Max's drawing of the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, 1980

Max’s drawing of the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, 1980

The Terra Incognita tracks Love Chant and Wireless took the minimalist aesthetic of Young Marble Giants in a more experimental direction.

Our local luminaries included electronic pioneers Rhythm & Noise, the chamber trio Minimal Man, the atmospheric trio Tuxedomoon, the politically offensive Dead Kennedys, and the perpetually fucked up Flipper. They were all inspiring in different ways, and we all hung out together at after-hours parties and neighborhood clubs like the Mission’s Valencia Tool & Die and South of Market’s notorious A-Hole Gallery, where you often stumbled over underage junkies nodding out as you climbed the four flights of dingy stairs to the illegal speakeasy.

Max's drawing of the San Francisco post-punk band Tuxedomoon, 1980

Max’s drawing of the San Francisco post-punk band Tuxedomoon, 1980

Within the next year, I got to see both New Order (the successor of Joy Division) and Public Image Ltd, but I had already organized my own band and performance art group, Terra Incognita, which was to last the rest of the decade, repeatedly morphing into completely different styles and lineups, all inspired in some way by that short-lived cultural revolution, which had all but faded away by 1983.

Max's poster for Terra Incognita's first show, 1981

Max’s poster for Terra Incognita’s first show, 1981

Max onstage with his gear at a Terra Incognita show, 1981

Max onstage with his gear at a Terra Incognita show, 1981

Jon and Max performing in the Terra Incognita loft, 1982

Jon and Max performing in the Terra Incognita loft, 1982

It simply burned too brightly while it lasted, and it couldn’t be sustained. But from 1979 to 1982, it produced a major segment of my mature repertoire, from early songs like Nightcrawling and Hand Over Hand to the later Terra Incognita instrumentals Black Water and Plains of Abraham. And it continued to have repercussions in my creative work, as in 1985 I met Katie, a Los Angeles artist who introduced me to the music of the Arizona cowpunk band Meat Puppets, and 1986 we met Sebastian, a Portuguese artist who introduced us to the music of England’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which had started at the same time as the Sex Pistols, because he thought we sounded like them. Who would have thought that something as brutal as punk music could open the way to a genre as delicate as chamber folk?

Our friend Sebastian brought us a cassette of Penguin Cafe Orchestra after hearing us perform songs like The Sheep.

Lasting Legacy

The post-punk scene introduced African music to Western audiences. In early 1981, my new bandmate Jon gave me a cassette of West African highlife music, so that when a few months later Talking Heads came out with their African-inspired Remain in Light album, I was already on the path to learning and absorbing African styles, which I learned directly from West African luminaries OJ Ekemode, Joni Haastrup and Malonga Casquelourd in jams and performances at my loft in early 1982.

Some post-punk bands, like New Order and Gang of Four, joined mainstream artists like Michael Jackson and new wave acts like Eurythmics in the club scene, which for us survivors of the dying cultural revolution was one way to keep some of that energy going – we still loved to dance!

Punk and post-punk music established the DIY paradigm for all the “alternative” and “indie” artists to follow, from the 80s until now. The early electronic experimentation of artists like Rhythm & Noise and Cabaret Voltaire, nurtured by the post-punk scene, evolved into the vast, diverse electronic music and dance culture of today.

Although the tight-knit post-punk youth culture collapsed in the early 80s, its ripples continued to inspire new music throughout the decade, so that in Terra Incognita’s most visible phase, from 1986-1990, we always had plenty of good company in a vibrant local music scene, from hard-core experimentalists like Bardo and the Invertebrates, to our friends American Music Club, who gained a worldwide audience.

The Meat Puppets are still around, after polishing their sound and surviving various traumas, and in the 90s they became my favorite rock band, inspiring my songs Yellow Mud and Drivin’ Round Loaded. And New Order evolved into pillars of the urban club scene during the late 80s and early 90s, releasing classic-sounding tracks like Waiting for the Siren’s Call and Krafty well into the aughts.

Although Yellow Mud may not sound anything like the Meat Puppets, the lyrics were inspired by Curt Kirkwood’s mystical, childlike style of writing.

The main riff in Go to Them was inspired by the simple, catchy rhythmic phrases in New Order’s classic songs.

Three decades after the post-punk era, we live in an era of widespread complacency. Unlike my generation, young people in the affluent cities of the First World seem happy to immerse themselves in their careers, media, and technology, trusting that they can solve the world’s problems just by making those wonderful, “democratic” gadgets and apps available to everyone, with Google wifi balloons hanging over every African village. Gone are the hopelessness, anger and cynicism that drove the creativity of the early 80s, to be replaced by the boundless optimism of the tech industry and the thrill of making lots of money. Those of us who still perceive cycles in nature and society, including my ecologist friends, wonder when it will all come full circle, with technology again exposing its dark side, and the easy money fading away. I see a society that’s still rotten to the core, and more destructive than ever. Anger is an energy.

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Listening Outside Your Comfort Zone

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014: Music, Musings.

I was brought up on eclectic music, but I have had my obsessions, like the early 70s when I only listened to classical, or the 80s when I only chose to listen to African music. Yet even during those times, my girlfriends and roommates played other kinds of music constantly all around me; music listening had not yet been privatized via iPods and earbuds.

Obsessions were part of my youth, when I was more worried about rebelling or establishing my identity. Later I gave that up. I’d much rather learn and evolve than get stuck with an “identity.”

Now that private listening has become the norm, my younger friends are migrating to streaming services. As others have noted, even when it’s “curated,” streaming music delivers primarily that which is already familiar to you. Pandora creates “radio” based on your favorite artists. I’m sorry, but that’s no way to discover new music.

As an artist committed to, or rather, dependent on, lifelong learning and unlimited exploration, I have only limited interest in listening to the kind of music I already know and like. That’s one reason why I still listen to terrestrial radio with live DJs. While I’m working at home, I stream a handful of stations that play eclectic music that often surprises me and turns me onto something I didn’t know and like before, including one internet-only station that happens to play my music. I’ve discovered these terrestrial stations during my travels, by actually being in the places where they’re located, places I developed a connection with, and having them available online is the icing on the cake.

In this context, I regularly listen to shows featuring styles of music I don’t like, because sometimes a single track will stand out and teach me something.

Still, I know a lot of older musicians who should know better, who only listen to the one or two kinds of music they’ve identified with: folk, country, rock, jazz, world, etc. Musicians who revere jazz or traditional music and make sweeping judgements against rock, electronic or punk. And of course the nostalgic baby boomers with their classic rock addiction. That’s a great way to stagnate, dudes.

Or you could try listening outside your comfort zone – you might learn something and have some unexpected fun!

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