Don Van Vliet, Captian Beefheart, is dead at 69 from complications of MS. He made the kind of music you couldn’t listen to all the time, but had to listen to sometimes. He was also a painter of ambiguous images. Another in the great tradition of self-mythologizing Americans, he found his own way through the postwar wasteland of suburbs and burger joints. He stayed awake while the rest of us were sleeping.
Another saint in my pantheon drawn from the NY Times obituary pages, Elizabeth L. Sturz. Interestingly, I ran across a reference to her just last week when reading Ted Anthony’s Chasing the Rising Sun, an account of the origins and development of the old song “The House of the Rising Sun.” Elizabeth Sturz, born Elizabeth Harold, was married to the folklorist Alan Lomax and accompanied him on his earliest trips into Appalachia to collect songs. It was on one of these trips that they recorded a teenaged girl named Georgia Turner singing “Rising Sun” without accompaniment. The obit in the Times transformed Elizabeth Sturz for me from a footnote to someone of note; it also demonstrates that we are not our beginnings. Or our endings, either. Whatever else we are, we are the transformations we work in our lifetimes and the energy we send forward beyond them. That Georgia Turner version of “The House of the Rising Sun” is worth seeking out on Amazon — you can get it for under a dollar as an MP3, though I believe it is listed under Alan Lomax’s name. Such are the indignities of fate, not that they matter in the long run.
Two CDs I ordered came in the mail today, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart and The Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir. I got the monks for meditation–it’s extremely low frequency chanting in very slow rhythm that I find very soothing. This particular recording was made by Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead’s drummer, and is exquisitely recorded with a tremendous feeling of presence. The chants are in fact prayers and the monks believe that if a listener attends to them the prayers will find their way to the deities to which they are addressed. The Dylan Christmas record struck me as such a weird concept when it showed up in my Amazon recommendations that I preordered it. I’ve only listened to it once, but it’s not what you might think. Dylan mostly plays it straight, though the first track, “Here comes Santa Claus,” sounds like your eccentric uncle on Christmas Eve after he’s had a few. But then you realize your uncle can sing. There is also a strangely compelling and heartfelt version of the hymn “Hark The Harald Angels Sing.” The record also contains my least favorite song in the world (Christmas or otherwise), the smarmy “Little Drummer Boy,” which I could tell even as a kid was a sentimental, emotionally manipulative piece of crap. I confess I went out of the room and did something else when it came on this afternoon, so I only heard it from a distance. I’ll update this post after another listen or two.
A portrait of the young poet as an old man, or perhaps the old man as a young poet. In any case, here is an admiring profile of Leonard Cohen in the New Yorker.
Human beings seem to be inveterate makers of pattern, whether musical, visual, or verbal. The people who hollowed out the bird bones and cut holes at regular intervals were also making stunning pictures on the walls of caves and, I have no doubt, singing songs to their children and telling each other stories. All of these activities have pattern making at the heart. Other animals can recognize patterns in the world around them; human animals seem to be the only ones compelled to consciously create patterns — in the air, on the walls, with their voices.
I’ve just been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s delightful little book, The Art of Syntax — another in Graywolf’s really excellent The Art of series* — in which she makes explicit the patterns and variations in several poems serving as exempla.After all these years of writing poetry, Voigt’s little book excites me about what originally excited me — making shapes with words. With James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, Voigt’s book would serve the intermediate student of poetry as a fine introduction to the art.
*Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, another entry in this series, is a rich source of insight about the textures of literary fiction.
I’m in Hue now. This morning Lan’s friend (now my friend) Tran Thu Mai took me to a beautiful pagoda in the mountains northeast of Hue, then on a tourn of the Nguyen court’s citadel, where many of the palaces and temples have been beautifully restored. After a brief rest and cool down at my hotel, I took a walk around the city on the south side of the river. Only mad dogs and Americans go out in the early afternoon sun of Hue, but I went slowly and drank lots of water as I walked. I came back with my clothes soaked through with sweat and gratefully absorbed the hotel’s air conditioning for a couple of hours before heading out for dinner. Went to a little neighborhoos place Mai recommended for pho, then wandered to a sort of western style cafe where they have American movies on a big TV with Vietnamese subtitles. They turn the sound off on the movies and play western pop music, most of which is a generation or two recent for me to have heard it, but the have very good taste and it’s a weirdly enjoyable place to have a drink and bend one’s mind around the cultural complexities of globalization.