My 3 Things - July 2017

(The My 3 Things FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Pescade Robioso's song Credulidad
I just heard this song for the first time and now it's on repeat. How did I not know about the music of Luis Alberto Spinetta? If you're a fan of Jeff Buckley, turn it up.

2. PLAYING & TALKING: an interview and a few of my new songs on WERU.org
Here's something sweet: last week at the community radio station WERU.org in Blue Hill, Maine, I got to talking with and playing new songs for the great DJ Mike Joyce on his show Barefoot Blues.
 

                                    Dj Mike & I at WERU.org

(Sidenote: Mike's been in radio for 30 years, and, in addition to the Barefoot Blues hour, he hosts a show called Boat Talk for all you boat fanatics out there).   

Mike's a great interviewer and we cover a lot of ground. My Dad joined me on his chromatic harmonica for the opening tune and then Mike and I get into it -- new songs, the stories behind them, the meaning of life, etc.

Community radio like the kind WERU creates is hard to come by these days (their motto is “a voice of many voices"). They've been playing my music since the beginning and for that I am very grateful. 

This interview is only up on the WERU online archives for another week, so if you want to listen, now is the time!
 

3. MARVELING OVER: Resist! -- a free magazine of political comics / graphics about women and everything else that matters

Speaking of a voice of many voices ...

Of course McNally Jackson -- the great Manhattan bookstore -- had a stack of RESIST! at the checkout counter. Luckily, my friend picked one up and showed it to me.

Holy smokes! Awesomeness and bad-assery on every page. 

Resist! sprung up after the November 2016 election (shocker ... not!). Edited and by produced by Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, and her daughter, writer Nadja Spiegelman, Resist! is a "free print publication of political comics and graphics where our slogan, 'Women's voices will be heard,' can come true."

The pages overflow with images hilarious, sharp, tender, angry, and absurd on a huge variety of issues: the environment, power, immigration, sexism, racism, and the economy.

The editors weren't out for unity. What they wanted was a cacophony of voices and realities, something big and loud and messy. Something like democracy itself.

There are artists known and unknown here: Roz Chast, Lynda Barry, and Art Spiegelman to name only a few. Many of the images and thoughts come from abroad, the waves of anxiety and worry reaching other coasts than ours (Canada, Germany, Australia).

Resist! is entirely funded by individuals, comic shops, and bookstores; all the contributing artists forgo monetary compensation. You can click here to find a free copy near you, or better yet order a few and spread the wealth yourself.

++ OUTRO ++
I am always so happy to hear from you! Please send up a smoke signal and say Hi by leaving a comment below. Let me know what your 3 Things are! What lights you up right now? I want to know!

X to the O,
K

My 3 Things - June 2017

(The My 3 Things FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Toni Childs "Don't Walk Away" from the album Union

This was the hit song from Child's 1988, Grammy-nominated album Union, one of my desert island discs. 

Not going to lie, I haven't listened to this record in five years or so. Suddenly, it resurfaced in my life; I've been on a scavenger hunt for music that captures my hopes and dreams for the Death Album.

Is it too much to hear new music from Toni? A set of songs that would do her incredible, indelible voice justice? I hope not. 

PS: 80s video awesomeness alert!
 

2. SEEING: Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield at the Annenberg Space for Photog. in LA
In so many ways, this show is not for the faint of heart.

It unsettled and disturbed me. Upon leaving, my soul felt coated in an unsavory residue that lingered for days. And yet, I am so glad I saw those pictures, read those words, glimpsed those worlds.

Greenfield's show overwhelms and overstuffs the cold, corporate corner in Century City that is the Annenberg Space for Photography. Parking and finding your way there is your first challenge. As you emerge from the concrete rabbit warren of the enormous glass and steel office complex into the faux-park courtyard, you're likely to see caterers rolling tables on their edges setting up for a corporate event and a clutch of famous bloggers-slash-social media personalities sharing meatballs and fries (the offices of CAA loom over you after all) at the luxury bistro-slash-coffee shop that caters to this microcosm. It's all very surreal. And you've not even seen the show yet.

Finally, you enter the Annenburg and that's when the cultural vertigo really sets in.

The photos are large, colorful, utterly absorbing. This is a master documentarian at work -- there is humor here. There is also restraint (on the part of the photographer, not -- let's be clear -- on the part of the subjects). The first-person interviews that accompany almost every image are gripping, pared-down but packing a huge punch; the short films and projections are mesmerizing.

Considered the "preeminent chronicler of consumerism and youth culture," Greenfield stares unflinchingly into the gaping, insatiable maw of our materialist, status-chasing, money-driven, "mine is bigger than yours" culture. She leaves no corner of the collective psyche unexamined: here's Tupac losing $10k in ten minutes in Las Vegas; there's a woman spread-eagled on a plastic surgeon's operating table getting everything that can be lifted and tucked lifted and tucked all at the same time; here's a stripper crawling on the floor of an Atlanta club, scooping up armloads of dollar bills thrown by a patron who admits he can't afford to make it rain the way he just did. From Russian oligarchs to Chinese billionaires to kids in LA who just can't stop spending on sneakers and jeans, Greenfield swan dives into "the influence of affluence over the last 25 years."  

This is important work. She's observing and examining the inescapably powerful forces bending all of our realities every single day -- consumerism, comparison, advertisement, social media, and the manufactured need for more, bigger, shinier, faster, newer, younger, now. She captures outrageous ambition with the same evenness of tone as she does moments of quiet and reflection and contrition. There's heart-wrenching humor here as well.

So what about that residue I felt on my soul?

Caused by the complexity of the subject matter no doubt, and by the ways in which Greenfield does her work so well that there's room for me to see myself in all of this, to see the ways in which I'm complicit. 

I'll leave the last words to one of my favorite people on the planet, the English musician, composer, record producer, singer, writer, visual artist, and shit-stirrer Brian Eno: "Lauren Greenfield's photographs range from hilarious to terrifying, sometimes in the same image. The images are unjudgemental -- dystopian shock and awe somewhere at the end of Empire -- and yet moving: she makes it personal. It could have been me."

The show is on until August 13, 2017.

 

3. WATCHING: Whitman, Alabama -- the documentary film
Having just come from the Black Belt of Alabama, the voices melodious and measured still ringing in my ears, watching a few episodes of this project helped cure me of a fraction of my homesickness.

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall was born in Ethiopia and raised in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Haiti. She's part Chinese and part White. No wonder she's interested in identity.

She created the project Whitman, Alabama as "an experiment using documentary (film) and poetry to reveal the threads that tie us together—as people, as states, and as a nation."

For the last two years, she's been driving all over Alabama meeting people and inviting them to face the camera and share themselves through the words of Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” -- a vital piece of American art and an artifact of our American project. 

This project is genius. Everything is here: the rural, the urban, the lost, the found, the high, the low, the old, the young, the free, the caged, the restrained, the superfluous. 

This particular episode will crack you open.

I see so much humanity and goodness in these faces, in these words, in this whole idea. I swoon and find myself falling in love with America again.

My 3 Things - May 2017

(The My 3 Things FAQ.)

0. Update: THANK YOU for helping me fund the theater workshop in Alabama
You did it!! 

In last month's My 3 Things, I told you about the work I am doing at BAMA Kids, an after-school program in Wilcox County, Alabama.  I'd already raised $2750 and needed an additional $1250 to send seven New York actors from the theater outreach non-profit Zara Aina to work their story-telling, confidence-building magic for a week. 

You generously gave $1775! 

Wow! Hell yes! 

You are making a direct impact on the lives of these kids. Because of you, they will create and perform an original piece of theater and through that creation develop crucial life skills like determination, self-confidence, and cooperation.

I met with the actors last week! A cheeky, cheery crew ... right?!

The actors will arrive at BAMA Kids in less than one week! I can't wait to share more pictures and lots of stories with you!!

 

1. LISTENING: The Stanley Turrentine Sextet on "Sugar"
My first guitar teacher -- the late, great John Dougherty of Wilmington, Delaware -- loved this song and it was one of the very first he taught me when I began lessons with him at age 11. These laid-back, bluesy, triplet-y burners were right in his wheelhouse and he had me playing them before I played anything else.

For the past week, I've been transcribing saxophonist Turrentine's solo on this track. So much tasty goodness in every bar! And not just from the saxophone. The other musicians on the track (Freddie Hubbard - Trumpet, George Benson - Guitar, Lonnie Smith - Electric Piano, Ron Carter - Bass, Billy Kaye - Drums) are killing it too. Enjoy! 

 

2. SEEING: Kinyatta A.C. Hinkle's show "The Evanesced" at the California African American Museum
Akimbo. A-swirl. Asleep. Aslant. A-sway. A hundred notebook-sized drawings of a hundred missing African American women doing everything from sitting, to stooping, to flying, to falling, to flapping, to being bent way beyond backwards, to cowering, to careening. These aren't portraits, they are gestures of emotions and expressions. There is pain here, but there is also joy. 

1 of 100 of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle's ink drawings of 100 missing African American women

Hinkle's deliberate choice of simple materials -- uniformly sized recycled paper, India ink, and a brush she created from bits of Spanish moss -- give these "un-portraits" incredible power. They represent every woman and no woman. “I wanted to make this kind of being that is flesh and not flesh,” Hinkle told the Huffington Post. “Becoming and unbecoming, defined and not defined. There is this push and pull between both worlds.”

In creating these drawings, Hinkle wanted to highlight a terrible erasure: "missing black women in America and the African diaspora, historically and to the present day." Her mark-making imagines the every day narratives of thousands of black women who have disappeared due to homicides, human trafficking, colonialism, poverty, and other forms of going unseen. 

Hinkle is one to watch. The show is on through June 25, 2017.  If you are in or near LA, it is a must-see. We often talk of an artist's body of work. Here, Hinkle's body of work is quite literally a collection of work made of women's bodies. It feels familiar and intimate, often devastatingly so.

 

3. GEEKING OUT: Tabata Songwriting aka using a Tabata Timer for focused periods of songwriting
If you know anything about me, you know that I am an athlete, through and through. Even now, when I don't have to, I work out at an elite level.

Wanting to shake up my songwriting practice, I decided to try an experiment: I took something from my workout routine and tried using it in my songwriting routine.

I used the Tabata Timer on my phone to increase my focus and output when writing a new song.

Huh? 

In the fitness world, a Tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that last 4 minutes. Work out as hard as you can for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, complete eight rounds and you have done one Tabata. (Read more about Tabata workouts here. There are lots of Tabata timers in the app store. I happen to like this one because it's fully customizable.)

So how did I adapt this to songwriting? Did I work as hard as I could for 20 seconds on lyrics, then rest for 10 seconds, then repeat eight more times, and in four minutes I had the perfect pop song?

Not quite.

I set my Tabata Timer to do four rounds of 12 minutes on, two minutes off.

For 12 minutes, I worked on accomplishing a very specific songwriting goal, for example: "write a rough draft of a first verse, lyrics only." During the two minutes off, I documented the result of that work, noting if I achieved the goal or not and if not, why not. I also -- in that two minutes -- set up the specific outcome for the next 12 minute burst of activity.

Screenshot of my Tabata Songwriting notes 

Why this works
In short, my Tabata Songwriting method works because it forces me to focus and to commit to accomplishing a clear goal in a very short period of time.

With the timer counting down, I immediately drop into state of deep focus; I don't have the luxury of letting my attention waiver. I had to iterate song ideas faster, even really bad ideas. This helped me to create and work with a "good enough" idea sooner than I would if I had unlimited time.

Did I write the greatest song ever using this method? No. 

Did I write a finished song? Yes.

In a shorter amount of time than usual? Hell yes.

I finished a song in two hours and twenty minutes. That's pretty damn quick for me.

(Because I am dead serious about songwriting, I keep track of these things. Most songs take me between four to eight hours to write. Some songs have taken me as long as two months, some as long as two years.)

Will I always use a Tabata timer when writing songs? Hell no. There are currently a couple of songs on my "to write" pile that I know would not benefit from this approach. I want to take more time with them; I want to luxuriate in the infinite possibilities of lyrics and chords. 

The point is I don't want to be precious about writing songs. I used to be that way and it sucks. Over the last few years, I've spent considerable time, energy, and thought creating new ways of being around songwriting. Now, I am free and getting freer. 

Inventing this new and (let's face it) ridiculous way of songwriting is evidence of that freedom. And I am thrilled about it. It's just one more arrow in my songwriting quiver. Watch out!

 

//\\//\\

OUTRO: I'd love to hear from you

What do you think of these 3 things? 

Leave a comment below and let me know what you're listening to, what art shows you're seeing, and what tools you're using to get your art work done. I read every comment!

My 3 Things - April 2017

(What is this thing called My 3 Things? Find out in the FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Jimmy Scott singing “Nothing Compares 2 U”
One of my favorite singers singing a song by one of my favorite songwriters. Scott’s voice is a dangerous drug. “Careful,” I say to myself. “This could wreck you.” It almost always does.

2. CREATING: A theater workshop for kids in Alabama -- May 20-27, 2017
In early 2010, I volunteered at a small, bootstrapped, after-school program for kids in rural Wilcox County, Alabama called BAMA Kids. I’d show up at 3:15p just before the kids came tumbling out of the school bus and spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with them helping and fixing — helping with homework, fixing a broken basketball hoop, helping tie a shoe, fixing a snack. I became reacquainted with 4th and 5th grade math. I instigated drawing challenges and coloring contests. I did a lot of just being there and showing up, day after day. As Zadie Smith wrote, "Time is how you spend your love."

A little context about this corner of the world: At the time of the 2010 census, the median income for a household in Wilcox County was $16,646. About 48% of people under the age of 18 live below the poverty line. Both the Wilcox County middle and high schools were designated “failing schools” by the 2017 Alabama Department of Education.

BAMA Kids is the only program of its kind in this community. Started in 1993 by a group of volunteers and concerned parents, its goal is to give kids a safe and fun place to go at the end of the school day. Here, they learn, grow, and feel the love and support of positive role models and mentors. BAMA Kids get the encouragement they need to make good decisions and live healthy, successful lives.

In March 2012, I invited the theater group Zara Aina (ZA) to come down to Alabama and work with the BAMA Kids for a week. Zara Aina is a Malagasy (Madagascar) phrase that means "share life." Started by two Broadway actors and based in NYC, its mission is to use theater, storytelling, and performance to help at-risk children to recognize their potential. It was a no-brainer to unite these two awesome organizations. I saw the opportunity and made it happen. 

In one week, the ZA actors and I collaborated with the BAMA Kids to create an amazing piece of theater — a shadow puppet musical of sorts. The kids wrote the lyrics to our songs. I wrote the music. The ZA crew coached the kids to create everything else -- the story, the acting, the costumes, the set, the shadow puppets, etc. It was busy and fun with a lot of goofing around and improv-ing. 

Here are just a few scenes from that week ...

After a long week of creating and rehearsing, on a spring Sunday afternoon, the kids put on a spirited public performance of their show at the middle school. Parents came and cheered. The local radio station broadcast from under a big oak tree outside. Someone set up a barbecue and after the show there were ribs and chicken for all. It was an unqualified success/love fest.

I’ve decided it’s time to do it again.

This May (about seven weeks from now), come hell or high water, I am sending seven actors from Zara Aina back down to Alabama to work with the BAMA kids.

I’ve already raised $2750 of the $4000 I need to do this.

Please help me raise the other $1250. (Four thousand is the cost of getting the NYC actors there and back, groceries for a week, props, teaching tools, etc.)

You can make a fully tax-deductible donation by clicking here before May 17. 

If you’ve already donated — a big huge thank you hug to you! Your support and belief in this act of creation means so much to me, to the kids, and to the actors. 

I can't wait to share with you what the kids create this May!

 

3. PLANNING FOR: Tall Ship Parade in Québec City in July 2017 for Canada's B-day!
I like big boats and I cannot lie.

Sail boats, that is.

As you know, I spent last June sailing around the island of Svalbard on the Dutch Barquentine 'Antigua.' On her decks and down below in my little cabin, I worked and re-worked many of the songs you'll hear on my next album. This June, I'll help my Dad sail his boat from the Chesapeake Bay to Mt. Desert Island, Maine. My guitar will accompany me on this adventure as well.

A panoramic I took onboard Antigua. Sailing off the coast of Svalbard.

This July, I am seriously considering making a trip to Québec City to take in the Tall Ship Parade in honor of Canada's 150th Birthday. 

Called "a beauty pageant from the age of sail," this spectacle is something you don't see every day. Usually these kinds of tall ship get-togethers only happen in cases like this -- when a country throws itself a birthday party.

The ships and their crew will be converging on stone-walled, cobbled street-ed Old Québec, a city thick with European seafaring history. Though the parade will visit a handful of other ports in Canada, this is the only place the entire fleet of more than 40 tall ships will rendezvous.

This is all part of a great trans-Atlantic race of 7000 nautical miles, happening over the course of five months in six countries. Once they fête Canada, the ships will race to the finish line at Le Havre, France. (The race starts now -- April 13-16 -- in the London borough of Royal Greenwich, Britain.)

If I miss this gathering, can I really wait the nine more years until the US turns 250 and maybe there will be a gathering like this in New York or Boston harbor? I don't know. Nine years is a long time and I'm dying everyday. 

They aren't called the "cathedrals of the sea" for nothing.

My 3 Things - March 2017

1. LISTENING: “I Told Jesus” by Roberta Flack (aka “If He Change My Name”)

Looking across different versions of a single song is one of the best things about recorded music.

In last month's My 3 Things, we listened to Marian Anderson’s fine rendition of this gospel tune. Now, we turn to Flack’s take on it. Entitled “I Told Jesus," it appears on her magnificent debut album First Take, released in 1969. (I am forever indebted to my friend John Ellis for telling me about this album and insisting I check it out.) 

Her arrangement is slow and brooding, a string section quivering from the start. It patiently builds, almost coming to a stop once or twice in the beginning. Flack gazes inward, the lyrics performed sotto voce. Momentum gathers as the song moves on, and the hushed restraint gives way to defiance by the end (marked by her powerful vocal cadenza starting at 5:24). 

Now that we've heard Anderson and Flack, spend some time with these two takes by Nina Simone: Live, Village Gate 1962 version and Live, Paris 1968 version.  Simone is mercurial as ever. You won't be disappointed.

 

2. READING: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Reading the final few pages of this provocative, breathtaking, and immensely satisfying collection of essays was a sad experience. Turning the last page, I had to face the fact that I’d never be able to open one or more of our important newspapers or magazines and read Hitchens on, say, President Donald Trump, to pick a single spring-loaded topic.

Arguably was Hitchens’s fifth collection of essays. Published in September 2011, he died in December of that year. More than 780 pages long and containing 107 essays ranging from literary journalism to political commentary to cultural criticism, his writing here is vital, his thoughts and opinions as relevant today as when they were written. 

When I availed myself of the critical reviews of Arguably (after I had finished reading it), I found I wasn't the only person saddened by this book. When the book came out, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote: "This fifth and, one fears, possibly last collection of [Hitchens's] essays is a reminder of all that will be missed when the cancer is finished with him."

All that will be missed is a shatteringly tremendous amount.

Was there ever a US President — much less a US politician or, let’s be real, a single person on the face of planet Earth — more in need of one of Hitchens’s blistering tear-downs than this orange-tinted man-baby? #seriously

Where to begin? Let's start with language itself.

Hitch would be having a f-cking field day with Trump. Studies put Trump’s vocabulary at, variously, third- or fourth-, maybe (if the linguists are being generous and he -- for once -- decides to stick to a script) a sixth-grade level. 

Hitchens’s vocabulary? 

Nothing short of jaw-dropping. Reading Arguably, I looked up more than 60 words I didn't know or didn't know well enough. And Hitchens’s turn-of-phrase is masterful, delightful; I found myself highlighting passages just so I could return to and revel in his language not to mention his argument.

The essay "Words Matter" (from Slate, March 3, 2008) gives us a clue as to how outraged Hitchens would've been by Trump's abuse of language. Hitchens is heartbreakingly prescient:

“Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators.”  

He nailed it, I’m devastated to say. 

(It is beyond the scope of my endeavor to imagine how satisfying it would be to hear Hitchens parse the incongruous word pairings “alternative facts” and “fake news” with which we are forevermore saddled. And Trump’s banning of major respected news outlets from the White House daily briefing on Friday, February 24?? I imagine Hitchens would’ve been apoplectic.)

There's so much in this collection of essays that I could go on and on about, but I'll finish by saying that Hitchens’s respect for the reader is a tonic. 

I felt revivified and renewed reading each of these essays, as well as challenged and occasionally maddened (his piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny” isn’t funny, in more ways than one).

Agree with him or don’t, either way this book is a riveting, important read. 

 

3. UPDATING: Death, a reading list - Part 2 … revisited for the making of the Death Album
Way back in December of 2013, I wrote a blog post called “Death, a reading list” in which I shared a “list of the books about death and dying that I find worthwhile, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching.”

The post was a snapshot of where I was then, what I was thinking and learning about.

At the time, I didn’t know how long my Mom had to live or what work she and I would be doing to bring her to a “good” death, by which I mean a death she had chosen, was at peace with, a letting go that felt true and right to her being.

Turns out, there would be more of ... everything: chemo, cyber-knife radiation, hormone therapy, and hospice. And that was just the medical / physical part of it. 

There would still be more of the entire range of her spiritual / psychological reckoning with cancer and death that we both felt was as important (if not more) than any of the miracles her doctors could perform.

I am talking about the deep conversations we were to have, the many Joseph Campbell videos we were to watch and re-watch, the half-a-dozen sessions with a wonderful and caring oncology psychologist, the dedicated trips to visit (in the words of Campbell) her “bliss stations” or favorite places, and the specifically-planned but wonderfully-unstructured time with dear friends and closest family. There would be many more walks in nature, much more time with her dogs, and hours of feeling good and not-so-good, and hours feeling she was ready and yet not ready to die. In short, there was so much more life to be lived between that blog post and her last day, October 13, 2015.

I've been living and wrestling with her death ever since. But then you know this: you've been following along.

The two great commitments of my life since she was diagnosed in October of 2011 have been: 1) caring for her from diagnosis to death (and beyond); 2) writing songs about that journey.

I’ve written well over 20 songs and this year I'll be making something of them — an album, more than a few concerts, collaborations with other artists, etc.  I lovingly and tongue-in-cheekily refer to this project as “The Death Album.” 

Recently, I’ve played some of the songs on Facebook Live; maybe you’ve watched. (If not, this is one you should watch because I lay it all on the line.)

Since that "Death, a reading list" blog post, I’ve done a lot of living, reading, and songwriting.

I thought, on the eve of making the Death Album, it would be appropriate to update the original post. For your consideration: Death, a reading list - Part 2.  

What follows is only an excerpt ... 
"This list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would necessarily recommend it. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have taken the form of a single sentence or two, one chapter, or a particular stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list ... and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still."

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

Death, a reading list - Part 2

Back in December of 2013, I wrote a post called "Death, a reading list."

So much has happened since then, not the least of which was the death of my Mom, I thought it was time to update the list.

As I embark on recording my next album -- lovingly nicknamed "The Death Album" for now -- I wanted to lay a trail of breadcrumbs between the worlds (and words) I've been immersed in and the songs I've been writing about my Mom, our time together, her living and dying, and my own living and dying ("you are dying everyday").

As with my original post, this list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would recommend it without reserve. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have come in the form of a single sentence or two, a single chapter, or merely a stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list (go back to that post if you want to see the others) and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still.

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

 

My 3 Things - February 2017

(What is this thing called My 3 Things? Find out in the FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Marian Anderson’s “If He Change My Name”

How I love a wire rack filled with postcards.  There’s a certain childlike fascination induced by the spinning of these contraptions. Placed near the shop door or the cash register, they’re almost always a little rickety and invariably make a kind of hushed squeak when turned. The fun is in the treasure hunt of finding the perfect postcard for the perfect person.

Firmly in the grip of such a reverie at the great Manhattan bookstore Book Culture recently, I stopped on a mesmerizing Richard Avedon portrait of Marian Anderson (the one shown in the Youtube link above.) She’s mid-word, mid-song with a wind blowing her hair up and around perfectly pursed lips. It’s an imperceptible moment caught: the forming of a syllable. I bought the postcard immediately. 

It sat on my desk for a week, the magic of the arresting, sensuous image working on me. Then one day, when I should have been doing a great many other things, I sat down to listen to Anderson’s music and read about her life.

I didn’t know that Marian Anderson grew up in Philadelphia, a city I think of as my own. I didn’t know that it was only through the influence of the adults in her life, most notably her aunt Mary, that she was encouraged to sing and stay close to music. Virtually every avenue of music study was closed to her because she was black and poor (her mother, though trained as a school teacher could not teach in Philadelphia at the time because of a law that applied only to black teachers, not white ones). I did not know that her early life was marked by death. Her father was accidentally struck on the head while working at the Reading Terminal (he sold coal and ice) and, in order to survive, her family moved in with his parents. Less than a year later, Marian's much-loved grandfather Benjamin (who was born a slave and was the first of his family to move north) died.

She could afford neither high school nor music lessons, but thanks to the efforts of her pastor and others in her community, she was provided the opportunity for both. She applied to the all-white music college (now the University of the Arts) and was told they “don’t take colored.” 

Her big break came when she was 28. She won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and was invited to perform with the orchestra. Audience and critics were moved. Riding a wave of support and interest, she stayed in New York to study and sing. Because of her skin color, she couldn't progress any further with her career, so she moved to Europe where she was received enthusiastically. Her fame spread and by the late 1930s, Anderson was once again singing in the U.S., though she still faced much discrimination.

Here’s where the story gets familiar and where I'll leave off: In 1939, The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson permission to sing to an inter-racial audience in their Constitutional Hall in Washington, D.C.

The outrage caused by this refusal led to the resignation of thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her letter to the DAR included this zinger: “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed." The furor eventually led to the open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, for which we all know and love Marian Anderson.

A postcard is usually a trivial thing: to be dashed off, a small remembrance, correspondence "lite." Sometimes, though, it's much more than that.

 

2. SEEING: Shakespeare’s The Tempest at St. Ann’s Warehouse
This production of the The Tempest, anchored by the great Harriet Walter as Prospero, and with songs by one of my musical heroes Joan Armatrading, completes a trilogy of all-female plays staged by Phyllida Lloyd. I was lucky enough to see the other two (Julius Caesar, Henry IV) as they were performed over the course of the last four years. 

Shakespeare's Tempest is set on a magical island. Lloyd stages her version in a women’s prison. Any island is a kind of prison, and the layers of meaning here continue to pile up. Just when the inmates (and we) are totally engaged, believing every hip drop of the sprite Ariel’s magic, the realities of prison life — guards, loud sirens, cells, uniforms — break in and the inmates have to shut up, line up, and clean up until the guards leave again and the magic continues. We swerve from world to world to world. By the end, the players that long for their freedom (Ariel, Caliban) are literally set free: we see them escorted out of jail. 

Where are we? The dualities explored in this play — perception / reality, freedom / bondage, master / slave, reality / fancy, loyalty / treachery — must be re-thought when every player is un-free, a slave of sorts, living in the un-reality of the modern industrial prison complex. In this play within a play within a prison, questions keep multiplying: What is played? Who is played? Who is really master? Prospero? The guard barking the orders? To say nothing of untangling the gender knot Lloyd tied by casting all women in a romance that was written with only one female character.

If you are in New York, the show runs until February 19. Don’t miss it. 

 

3. SWIRLING IN THE EDDY OF TIME: A photograph by Augustus Frederick Sherman at the Met

 Augustus Frederick Sherman; Chinese woman, German stowaway, Sami woman from Finland, Algerian man, Hungarian woman, Swedish woman, Russian Cossack, Dutch girl, all Ellis Island, New York, 1905-1917

Augustus Frederick Sherman; Chinese woman, German stowaway, Sami woman from Finland, Algerian man, Hungarian woman, Swedish woman, Russian Cossack, Dutch girl, all Ellis Island, New York, 1905-1917

A week ago, in the churn of President Trump’s chaotic, ill-conceived executive order banning all refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, I went on one of my usual walkabouts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With no particular destination in mind, I just wanted to be surrounded by 5000 years of art.

On the second floor, on the right side of a narrow corridor leading from European Paintings 1250-1800 to 19th- and 20th-Century European Paintings, there is a wall dedicated to photographs. Only about eight or ten photos fit in this non-gallery. I always love to see what’s on view. This day, I paused at the first photograph and got stuck. After looking for many minutes, I nearly left the Met, feeling a kind of vertigo brought on by the confluence of current events and the events in a photograph from a hundred years ago. 

Here is what I saw: nine portraits arranged in a grid. They were made by Augustus Frederick Sherman sometime between 1905 and 1917. 

Sherman was an American photographer who worked as an employee of the Executive Division of Immigration. He used his job to capture with utter clarity and respect the immigrants arriving at the great reception hall at Ellis Island in New York. 

For 30 years, starting in 1880, the U.S. saw a staggering growth in annual immigration, nearly doubling from 450,000 to 880,000 arrivals. To contemplate the influx of this many immigrants in such a short time is almost nearly impossible for us. Sherman’s career coincided with this unprecedented time in the nation’s history; he had the position and the inclination to capture this tremendous spectacle. 

During our un-presidented time in America, looking into the faces Sherman captured so openly, I felt sick to my stomach. I was looking back to the future: these are the people that made the country in which I now live, the country whose current President seems hell-bent on keeping people exactly like them out.

Look into their eyes. Look at their clothes, their hands, their postures. Imagine what they were thinking, what their worries were, their joys. Imagine what they left behind, what they were looking forward to, what they hoped they would find here. What is so different now? What would a modern Sherman capture? And where would he capture it? JFK? Many of us did imagine such things when President Trump signed his order. That’s why we’re outraged and saddened, writing letters, calling our officials, and donating to the ACLU. That’s why stumbling on this photograph at this moment was so chilling. Amidst 5000 years of art, I saw nine faces from a century ago reflecting the urgent questions of this very moment.