A Bag of Doritos?

Posted in Art, Collaboration, Music with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2016 by swampmessiah

Apparently someone at Pitchfork said that David Byrne would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos? So he tells us in his book How Music Works.

This reawakened some old fantasies from when I first began recording my poems and “music” back in 1996. David Byrne. Robert Fripp. David Bowie. Brian Eno. David Torn. These are some of the big names that have inspired me to try my own thing and are some of the musicians I most fantasized about for collaborations.

I mean, a bag of Doritos? I can handle that.

There are so many reasons I won’t take this thought seriously. Lack of talent or feelings of inadequacy or inferiority are not considerations. I believe we’re all equal. That thinking has gotten me labeled arrogant over the years (back when I was a young painter considering myself the equal of the great masters, for instance). I’m not always good at articulating my thoughts—I both do and do not consider myself their artistic peers. On the one hand I believe that we all have the potential to create art. If any of us works at it long enough so that artistic expression is part of who we are we are in the same league (there is still that indefinable something that only comes through a few artists, just as there are only a few of us who ever seem to be truly alive and vital). On the other hand, I believe that all artists of eminence are ordinary human beings trying to get through life as best they can. In so many ways I have been reacting to the way scholars and the social elite treat a few artists as separate from the rest of humanity that my thoughts are a bit skewed toward a creative populism that I may seem irrational.

What I’ve already found as a block to collaboration is that I’m used to doing things alone. Whether or not this has to do with my isolated upbringing (an only child in the north woods) or that art is a way of thinking rather than a means of communicating, I can make no definitive statement. Regardless, I’ve been drawing and painting, writing, and more recently cobbling together audio somethings in isolation. I’ve done one recording with Charles Schlee in which I put together some basics, primarily beats from a commercial loop disc, and my voice; Charles added bass and guitar, creating a melodic line on bass; to which I added some more blips and drones and squeals. The other collaborations have been much more passive: either someone has added my reading to their music, perhaps created music to accompany my reading, or I’ve added my voice to their music. All of which is legit but not very interesting as a process. (More on these works can be found at my memoir Prattle and Din.)

I honestly don’t know if I could actively cooperate with another person on a collaboration where there’s a constant back and forth, give and take. It would have to be with someone who is more an artist or tinkerer than musician. By that I mean someone who doesn’t need to communicate in the moment as one musician feeds off the other as they perform but who can create bit by bit (not meant as a digital pun, but accept it as such). We would be making a collective audio collage. (In a later chapter Byrne has interesting things to say about his more recent record with Eno in which Eno supplied the music and he added melodies and lyrics. He felt the pressure was off because of the temporal distance of sending files back and forth, that he didn’t have to respond immediately, always having to come up with something great right then and there. I like that. I can imagine Eno is a bit intimidating even to a seasoned musician.)

A very important barrier for me is the scale of what those guys do. I can’t imagine fitting in. Really, it scares the shit out of me. In his book, Byrne talks about his most recent album with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, how it cost almost nothing to record yet later says the recording process cost about $50,000. The overall budget for release was several hundred thousand. Right. I spend about $500 a year on software, most of it updates of stuff I’ve already purchased, and maybe a few hundred more on general computer stuff. Last year I really laid out the cash to buy a new microphone that I’d been looking at for something like seven years (under $400). My releases on Bandcamp are free until something sells, then they take a cut.

Nor would I want the sudden influx of public attention. Of course I’d like a larger audience. I’d like for hundreds or even thousands of people to be exploring and enjoying my stuff. But to suddenly have thousands or tens of thousands of people to be looking at me because I’m associated with some big name? That sounds scary. For me. And probably for them. Most people have no business encountering my art. I’ve gone on a long journey of questioning most of what our society has to offer, though I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, that most folk take for granted as part of the natural order. I think a very small percentage of the populace would be at home or comfortably challenged by what I’ve been doing. I don’t think I’ve gone that far from the center or said anything original—I would say I’m pretty ordinary, middle of the road, bland—but from what I’ve seen of reactions to my art and the general drift of world politics, no, most folk don’t want to go there.

Perhaps the main issue, though, is if Byrne (or any of those guys) would be appropriate collaborators? The person who probably would be key to any project, and who connects all or almost all of the above mentioned artists, is Eno. He worked with Byrne and Talking Heads on two albums that are essential to my listening pleasure, my musical esthetic (taste), and to my desire to create my own recordings. On a recent drive up to Duluth I was listening to Remain In Light, not having heard it for a couple of years: what is side two of the LP sounded like a template for many of my own recordings. Repetitive rhythms. Drones. Blips. Squeals. Noise. Not much of a melody or harmonic in the usual sense of pop songs. An overall dark feel. Despair. Disorientation. Cultural alienation. “Seen and Not Seen,” “Whispering Wind,” and “The Overload” all seem like templates to a  majority of my recordings.

I think Byrne himself has moved on, found other ways to express himself. As has Eno (though I can’t imagine him being tempted by a bag of chips nor much of anything else so terrestrial). Intellectually and theoretically both would be ideal collaborators in that they work more as artists than as jamming musicians and can get excited by non-musical influences. The problem as I see it is that I represent their common past, from over thirty-five years ago, rather than something new. Anything I’m doing now they’ve already done.

In a sense I have worked with David Torn, though he knows nothing about it. Years ago he released two discs of loops, SPLaTTeCeLL and Pandora’s Box, that I purchased from Sony (back when Sony owned ACIDPro), and made heavy use of. I’ve never felt comfortable working with loops, more because it made my recordings too pretty and professional sounding than because it seemed like cheating (some people view it as coloring in a coloring book rather than cutting out images for a collage…and, anyway, how else would I get David Torn on my recording?). And that would be part of my discomfort in working with any of the aforementioned artists, including Charles Schlee: their contribution would sound too good.

I’ve been thinking about this for so many years that it appears my bag of Doritos has gotten stale. And, there’s the question of whether or not I could share them even if they’re a little moldy.



Revisiting a Book

Posted in A Day in the Life, Art, Book commentary, Perception, Time with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by swampmessiah
The dining room. Home of books on art, film, photography, graphic novels, science, history, cookbooks, CDs, and a few other things.

The dining room. Home of books on art, film, photography, graphic novels, science, history, cookbooks, CDs, and a few other things.

I have friends and family who read works of fiction over and over, sometimes making it an annual visit, such as my neighbor’s returns to To Kill a Mockingbird. My older child has been known to reread a book as soon as she’s finished it. And there are others that she’s read a dozen times or more, she’s so at home or in love with the author’s world that she doesn’t want to leave (as I understand it, this is part of the impetus for fan fiction). Patricia C. Wrede is one author that has that effect on her.

I’m not like that. Even though I want to keep the books I’ve read, have them organized on a shelf, it’s very rare that I’ll again open the pages to live with it for another few hours or weeks. I keep them there as part of my memory, as a reference point of all the things that constitute who I am. Our house is like a library, shelves and bookcases everywhere, starting with the front stairwell as you enter our house. Too often it overflows and we have to purge. Immediately I regret it. Some awful book that I somehow managed to read but will absolutely never look at again, it suddenly becomes a cherished scar. Or a reminder of something to avoid.

Welcome to our messy but verbal house. These are almost all my books. That bottom shelf is a variety of Feminist critiques (those from the 1970s, more blatantly leftist, are my partners; those from the 1980s and slightly beyond are mine). The rest is genre fiction: science fiction, horror, fantasy, mysteries and espionage.

Welcome to our messy but verbal house. These are almost all my books. That bottom shelf is a variety of Feminist critiques (those from the 1970s, more blatantly leftist, are my partners; those from the 1980s and slightly beyond are mine). The rest is genre fiction: science fiction, horror, fantasy, mysteries and espionage.

Of all the fiction I’ve wanted to reread because of the pleasure given me, only two authors have definitely called me back: Tolkien and Moorcock. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings three times and The Hobbit four times (although maybe that fourth time didn’t count because I was reading to that older child). Initially, back around 1975 or 1976, Tolkien did not give much pleasure, all those endless pages of description. He inspired. Because of him I wanted to do my own silly story (thankfully never written). More importantly, because of him I wanted to know the world well enough to write such a rich, believable, well grounded story, it led to a lifelong passion for science (in the older and broader and more tangible sense, natural history). The dull pages of description are now my favorite parts of the book.

Michael Moorcock is such a different beast. In fact, to compare the images of the two authors, he is a beast. And by comparison most of his stories are beastly. There is no substance. The stories do not take place in any believable or habitable world. Most of his books, now, are impossible for me to read but at one time spoke to me in great lava flows of self-pity. All incarnations of the Eternal Champion are whiners. What I have read multiple times are the tales from the End of Time, Breakfast in the Ruins, and Behold the Man.

And I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age twice in what for me passes as very quick succession, less than five years. I’d like to revisit quite a few of his books. Tolkien has rich landscapes; Stephenson lovingly describes technology.

Our living room. That whole shelf above the triple window is children's books (almost all picture books). The bookcase in the corner was young adult fiction belonging to our younger child. We've taken advantage of the kid being in Australia by putting many of our parental treasures there (contemporary fiction and Literature? not mine).

Our living room. That whole shelf above the triple window is children’s books (almost all picture books). The bookcase in the corner was young adult fiction belonging to our younger child. We’ve taken advantage of the kid being in Australia by putting many of our parental treasures there (contemporary fiction and Literature? not mine).

I almost forgot about children’s books. My only recollection of anyone reading to me as a child was, when I was about five, my grandmother would read to me before a nap chapters of Alice in Wonderland. I don’t so much remember the stories as I do the unsettling quality of Tenniel’s illustrations. As an adult I’ve read the two Alice books several times, including an annotated version. One of the earliest gifts from my partner, not long after we met in the spring of 1985, were Pooh and A House Is a House for Me (Mary Ann Hoberman). Once we had children a whole rich world opened up to me and many of those books were read dozens of times. Or more.…Every Christmas Eve I read aloud Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Berkeley Breathed’s Red Ranger Came Calling is a common read. Mem Fox, Judith Viorst, Maurice Sendak…so many favorites.

Likewise, I almost forgot Stoker’s Dracula, both a paperback bought in grade school and an annotated copy. Sherlock Holmes has had repeated visits. And Poe.

Comic books, of course, require rereading, though the only one I’ve taken on more than once is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. They’re like foreign films, where you’re straining to keep up with the subtitles and miss out on the pleasures and flow of the film, so you have to watch it a few more times. I’d never liked the format—specifically, I didn’t like the art—so it’s only in recent years, maybe starting at the age of 50, that I’ve taken a serious interest in them. I can think of quite a few that are calling me back: Sandman (again), Unwritten, Transmetropolitan, Lucifer, Fables (all from Vertigo). Because they rely so heavily on images it’s a quick read and doesn’t seem a chore.

Is poetry fiction? I’m somewhat more inclined to reread books of poetry than novels or collections of short stories. Baudelaire and Rilke’s Duino Elegies have been read many times, in part to compare translations (I keep coming back to MacIntyre’s translation of Rilke). I’ve read Sylvia Plath several times and a couple of Ted Hughes’ collection (Crow). T.S. Eliot. I have several friends who are poets but David McCooey is the only one I reread so it must be that I’m getting something more out of his poetry than just the feeling that I’m supporting someone I know (ordinarily I buy their work and read it but don’t come back to it multiple times).

My room. The bottom shelf (hidden by the folded futon) and much of the next shelf are things to be read. The three or more shelves in the middle are poetry. Above that is philosophy. The top shelf is a miscellany.

My room. The bottom shelf (hidden by the folded futon) and much of the next shelf are things to be read. The three or more shelves in the middle are poetry. Above that is philosophy. The top shelf is a miscellany.

I think when I reread a non-fiction work it’s because I’m trying to figure something out, like the meaning of life or my place in the world.

The most useful case is New Techniques in Egg Tempera by Robert Vickery. I’ve never worked in the medium but the techniques discussed crossed over into my drawings (crosshatching) and painting in both oils and acrylics (most importantly glazing). More pertinent, perhaps, is my habit of layering graphite and/or paints. Obviously a book about technique is something a young artist is going to come back to. Vickery’s paintings also brought me back to the book again and again, the sharp realism combined with the utter impossibility of that world created by his skewed vision. I once saw one of his clowns at the San Diego art institute (at Balboa Park) and made the guards very nervous because of how closely I was studying the painting.

Two more philosophically and socially inclined books on art that I’ve read three, four, five, or more times are Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property and Edmund Burke Feldman’s The Artist. I needed Hyde as I tried to figure out how to interact with a market economy. I never did find out how to fit into that world. I kept reading Feldman to figure out my role as an artist and how I fit into society. Again, I never did. It took me a long time to understand that art is how I think and that, despite my intents to craft a work of art, the physical object is just an artifact of thought and that neither author addresses this possibility. In other ways both are thought provoking works. Now I would read them for pleasure.

This brings us to the one religious or philosophical work that has ever spoken to me, perhaps in many ways because it seems to evade what all the others insist on: the Tao Te Ching. I have one version published in the 1970s, oversized and filled with photos of nature. Then, I have a translation by Stephen Mitchell (as I do of The Duino Elegies). There’s something about him that I don’t quite trust. His versions are always too nice, too pretty, too poetic. I’ve heard Ursula K. Le Guin has a translation. I hope to get it soon.

My desert island book (or, more in tune with my fantasies, a travelling across the galaxy book) would be a toss up between The Duino Elegies and Tao Te Ching. I don’t think it’ll ever come to that. I hope to just keep reading new book after new book and piling them on the shelves to remind me of who I am and where so many of my thoughts have come from and to what weird places they’ve strayed.

I think that’s why the internet makes me uncomfortable. Those shelves of poetry beside my bed are better than a security blanket. I want something to hold in my hand or simply loom over my head. Things online seem more frangible and elusive.


Posted in Friendship, Natural world, Social responsibility, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by swampmessiah
A tansy struggling for life between the rocks at Enger Tower. Duluth, Minnesota. October 2007.

A tansy struggling for life between the rocks at Enger Tower. Duluth, Minnesota. October 2007.

It would seem that the way to prevent drug addiction, and I would assume the depression and despair that lead to it, is connection. If we were to leave it at that—connection—I would embrace the concept entirely. The research was done on a rat in a cage versus rats in a cage, suggesting a social connection. And this idea of social connection is what the media is jumping on.

There are times when I’ve known isolation and others where I’ve known solitude. From the outside they might look the same. There are too many times I’ve had social contact without connection. The idea of always being with people is an image of hell. I have so many thoughts on what hell could be and, perhaps amusing to you if not me, most of them involve people.

I have no firsthand experience with drug addiction. In my youth I would drink socially, usually to excess, and I think in part the reason I drank so much was because I was around people. When I hear of the rats being confined together I think that’s what would drive me to drink or drugs. My threshold for society is very low. Even being with people I want to be close to I have very little need or desire for physical contact, preferring intellectual stimulation. Even then I tire quickly and want to be alone.

The result of being an only child in a rural area? Maybe. Though I see the same trait in many of my family. Certainly most of us are uncomfortable at social gatherings.

So what kind of connection do I mean if I don’t want to be around people? I would say a connection with the elements, with the land and other life forms, with nature. A walk in the country. Lying in a snowbank looking up at the stars. Being on water. Climbing a tree or riverbank or hillside. Taking a close look at plants or insects. Getting to know the phases of the moon. Digging in your garden. Just stopping to breathe.

This could be considered spiritual. We’re wired to feel that it is. I think this sensation is why I sometimes call myself a mystical atheist. I recognize the sense of connection, the oneness, and the awe that is found in much mystical literature. We’re wired to experience this. I think this is why, of all religions and philosophies, I feel most at home with the Tao.

By all means, connect.

Stairway at Lester River. Duluth, Minnesota. October 2007.

Stairway at Lester River. Duluth, Minnesota. October 2007.

Three Words of Warning

Posted in Perception with tags , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2016 by swampmessiah

Heritage. Christian. Academy.

A bumper sticker I often see in the parking ramp on a Nissan SUV. I know nothing of the actual institution or the owner of the vehicle. But, for me, those are three urgent words of warning. Especially in the context of an educational institution.

Any kind of flag waving or chauvinism puts me on guard. Pretty much any declaration of identity or loyalty shows a distancing from the broader concept of humanity. Any declaration of inclusion requires an exclusion. It must have an us and a them.

First of all, there’s nothing essential to any ethnic or national heritage. I can make all kinds of jokes about the coldness of Norwegians and their need for personal space. There is a tendency for this to be true but it isn’t an actual aspect of their (my) heritage. It certainly isn’t the definition of a true Norwegian. The same could be said of any other cultural quirk. It isn’t really heritage.

So what is heritage? Usually I see it as a wrapping for personal and collective prejudices and bigotries. Sure, you can go to a folk festival and see people dancing around in costumes; but is that really someone’s heritage? It’s a largely arbitrary case of we’re-this-not-that. In the 19th Century there was a rise in nationalism as various subject states tried to push off the yoke of some larger power. In the process a few obsolete ethnic rituals were used as the wrapping. Most of the time this is not a problem. In my experience it’s quite a bit like observing a drunk making grand statements that are probably obnoxious but inconsequential. Something I’d prefer to avoid but can live with on occasion.

In recent years I’ve been seeing “heritage” pulled out and dusted off as a disguise for various forms of privilege, most obviously white supremacism and religious bigotry. The heritage in question is that of white rule. Specifically it’s WASP rule but, in a unification against non-Christian and non-white attempts at social and political equity, other groups have been embraced and a temporary peace has been made between Protestants and Catholics. It’s an attempt to reclaim an imaginary golden age. Everyone seems to think they would be the exception who would come out on top. And if we can’t have that at least I’m not one of those, whoever “those” are.

In a pluralistic nation like the United States it’s delusional. It’s immoral, unjust, and delusional. Our heritage is fluid, volatile, secular and pays lip service to freedom.

I’m an atheist, though I have to acknowledge agnosticism as the only rational stand on the subject and that anything else represents one’s emotional need rather than fact. I don’t necessarily have anything against Christians, or any other religious group. What I hate in American Christianity is that the lunatic fringe feel they have the right to speak for all. They are the ones waving the flag with the cross on it. Funny how they ignore the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus and only pick out the Hebraic scripture that serves their bigotry.

When an educational institution has to proclaim its Christian base I see it as a group running from logic and critical thinking. I see it a place where free will and free thinking are not welcome. I see it as a defensive fortress built by people afraid of the world. Primarily, afraid of independence. They appear to have no trust in humanity, which I understand, but, ultimately, also no trust in their teaching. They claim to believe in God but seem, in fact, to only believe their children will turn their backs on God.

There’s no joy, beauty, or hope in their belief. Just a matter of grim determination. There’s no faith.

Likewise any school called an academy would appear to be a defensive unit. Pretty much every school I’ve seen with academy in its name is backward looking in its curriculum and rigid in its methods. Learning means consuming and regurgitating facts. There’s a system and its selection of worthy information but little encouragement toward independent thinking and analysis. It yearns for a world that is easily comprehended and can be passed on in its entirety. They seem desperate for simplicity.

I actually don’t have much of value to say and no way of backing my statements. What I sense when I see a bumper sticker for the Heritage Christian Academy is fear. They want a world they can control and understand.

These people seem to have a very small view of what is an acceptable society. To some extent I would like to support them, if they could remove themselves from the mainstream of society or at least refrain from forcing the rest of us to live according to their needs. But I would again almost be willing to lay money on them not supporting anyone else’s social vision.

Though they demand their own freedom they will not share the right.

With Blinders On

Posted in A Day in the Life, Perception, Time with tags , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2015 by swampmessiah

I am not by nature a focused person. I cannot read in public places or on public transport for more than a few seconds before I have to look around, my peripheral vision is so excitable. I often have several books open at once, though I’m doing so less as I get older and have so little free time for even a single volume. And making things, in whatever medium…so often I start something and take it as far as inspiration will support it, then set whatever it is aside while some other idea takes over. Again, this is less common as I have less time for much of anything.

The past couple years I’ve gotten bogged down in very long books or series of books. Two days ago I finished Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Or, not too long ago I’ve read a 3000 page pile of puke by Peter F. Hamilton (you’re wondering why I stuck to it? me too, though I suspect at least a hint of OCD), a very long winded Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson and a comparably lengthy set by Neal Stephenson (The Baroque Cycle). Thirty years ago I would have gobbled down a dozen smaller books at the same time. Now I have so little time that each of these last anywhere from two to four months. It’s a matter of how much I can read in ten minutes after work, before I sacrifice what little consciousness I have to Morpheus or whoever’s ruling my life.

Still, compared to my youth, I’m better able to stick with something and focus almost exclusively on that one thing. As long as I’m not in a public place.

I think that’s a sign of brain death. It’s another aspect of the multitude of voices vying for attention in there now dwindling down to one very stuffy, unimaginative twit who claims to be me. He (it’s a he) makes the most obvious observations about the most trivial things. I miss the maddening crowd of my youth, obnoxious and irritating but at least occasionally entertaining.

The one thing I’m glad to be focusing on, though it often seems that dolt is in charge, is a memoir about my experiences recording. Don’t worry about missing something cool—I work alone and am merely giving background information about the oddities I create and the technical tribulations of becoming a self-taught engineer. Since November I’ve worked on little else. No new creations in any medium. Maybe a post or two on this blog. That’s it.

Today I crossed the 100 post mark on Prattle and Din. I think I’ve covered the creation of about 65 audio compositions, most of them with poems or rants. (I tend to think of this as a cheesy soundtrack with voiceover.) That means I’ve written about 35 posts about other things. Really? I’ve covered the technology and some of the issues I’ve run into. Some background material such as how I came to recording and what influenced me. It’s just kind of overwhelming to think I’ve produced so much and have yet to get to the end of it. So far the narrative runs from 1996 up to mid-2011. There will need to be another 20 posts to bring the tale up to the present.

This has been so focused and, for me, so disciplined I can momentarily imagine that I could now write a novel. Totally different kind of writing. I’ll leave that one to you, whether you have the talent or not.

What’s getting to me is the desire to quit going to work just so I can finish the damned thing. If you’re reading this you probably know exactly what I mean because you’re likely to be a writer or some other artist. It won’t pay the bills or feed anyone but it will be a tremendous weight removed. There’s an expectation of some sort of imaginary relief and sense of completion. Or, perhaps more realistically, a sense of loss. What to do next? What new creative burden can I take on?

I think I’m looking forward to watching a couple movies and eating a pint or two of Chunky Monkey. Usually I can’t even get through those two movies before I’m too restless and find something else to do, however insignificant (somehow I’ll force myself to eat the ice cream). But for the next couple months while the blog draws to a close I will imagine all the movies I could have time to watch.

Gear Lust

Posted in A Day in the Life, Memoire, Perception with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2015 by swampmessiah

Sooner or later I’d have to delve into smut. I can’t live without it.

In these high tech times gear lust is the disease of almost all artists in almost all media, though it’s not always a gadget lust. Just like in the world of a more organic, physiologically rooted smut (I love that word, a favorite condemnation by my grandfather and a charming song by Tom Lehrer), we have hardware and software. I find the hard variety is more addicting.

(If you want a serious exploration of gear lust there are articles at Pink Noise that are more enlightening than anything I have to say on the subject. It seems to be a guy thing, just like the gonadal variety. I would also direct you to The Redundant Male by John Gribbin for more insight as to why this might be. Here, I’m merely confessing my sins, maybe even flaunting them, and maybe gloating about them. I am, perhaps cowed and shamed but not repentant.)

Decades ago, when I was merely drawing and painting, my desires were rather weak and inexpensive. Leads for my lead holder, new paint brushes, copal medium, a few yards of canvas or sheets of paper.  Switching from oil to acrylic skewed the details a little but, basically, it was the same limitation of temptations. I still like to go down the street to linger in the aisles of Wet Paint the way other men like to wander around Victoria’s Secret. (Pardon, I just stumbled onto the strangest online museum for lead holders. It was my tool of choice, something I picked up when I was a student of architectural drafting in the mid-1970s. In recent decades it’s been hard to find a good lead holder. Except for the grip they are made of plastic now. My primary lead holder, purchased in June 1975, is all metal. It feels good just to have it rolling between my fingers…and that’s an essential technique with a lead holder, rolling it, to keep the tip fairly symmetrical. Let me put up a sample of crosshatching with graphite in a lead holder, a portrait of Aldous Huxley from a time when I couldn’t find any postcards of him (that’s my idea of a domestic art gallery, postcards pinned to the wall).)

A portrait of Aldous Huxley copied out of a biography of him. Crosshatched graphite with touches of white acrylic paint, maybe some chalk and india ink. Approximately 4"x6" on either Rieves BFK or Stonehenge. Early 1990s?

A portrait of Aldous Huxley copied out of a biography of him. Crosshatched graphite with touches of white acrylic paint, maybe some chalk and india ink. Approximately 4″x6″ on either Rieves BFK or Stonehenge. Early 1990s?


In recent years I fantasize about getting a Wacom tablet or an iPad with an Adobe pen. The truth is, I wouldn’t use either gizmo. I really have no interest in drawing or painting. It’s that illusion gear gives that if you just had that one thing, that one vital instrument, you would be able to move on, you would overcome your creative paralysis to become inspired. The advertisers really don’t want to point out that their product might actually be more of a distraction than an inspiration. What will happen: as you’re learning to use the new gadget you’ll scribble and doodle and produce something. On the very rare occasion it might even be a keeper (or seller). Typically it’s nothing. Worst of all, playing with the thing has kept you from life experiences that might have triggered a meaningful creativity. But, you know, these things look so cool that I think I have to have them. I am providing links so you’ll share my feelings. The internet makes it easy for us to go down together.

I would say writing has had very little to tempt me beyond the cost of a computer. I think real writers can fetishize their craft and playthings as well as anyone else. But me? When I first began writing in the mid-1970s it was a Bic ballpoint pen (blue) and narrow ruled paper (I’ll post a self-portrait done with those same tools in a minute—they elicit so little gear lust I have no choice but to call them tools). I did have a refurbished manual office typewriter that, in my mind, was so high tech I remember it being an electric. It was a gadget with so little appeal—the near impossibility of editing either with pen or typewriter—that I gave up on writing in the late-1980s until I bought a word processor in 1992 or 1993. I can’t say that did much to wet my more lurid appetites, either, for bigger and better, for more display or memory, but it made editing easy enough that I returned to the word with a vengeance.

Self-portrait in blue ballpoint pen on ruled note paper. I used the same tools for writing. Circa 1983.

Self-portrait in blue ballpoint pen on ruled note paper. I used the same tools for writing. Circa 1983.


Computers… Writing on a computer, per se, is not the steamy process that one could really hope for. My daughter might disagree since she’s gotten Scrivener. I had Microsoft Works and then Office. In recent years I’ve used Open Office to open any Word documents and WordPad for basic rich text files. I can imagine going to an office supply store and finding more titillating objects of the hardware variety. Maybe some expensive fountain pens (or even gel pens) and some creamy smooth bond or the rippling sensual delight laid finish paper. How about real vellum and a quill? I see writers need not be immune to gear lust but they might not find satisfaction on a computer.

The two temptations I have found in computerland are WordPress and two Adobe products, InDesign and Muse, all of which are publishing options. There is something very lurid about making my words available to others. I suppose it’s a form of indecent exposure or some similar public ritual. I would describe my actual relationship with Adobe products, which are very expensive for someone who doesn’t really do much with them, as the equivalent of someone with little money, almost no spare time, and a severe inability of staying awake after work…holding onto an apartment in the hope of using it for an illicit rendezvous or housing a mistress. The software fantasy of living the life of a gentleman, eh?

Photography, a seriously gear obsessed field, is largely outside my experience. Second only to cinematography and audio recording (unless you’re planning to build your own space ship…now those guys have a jones). I can get by with a cheap digital with a good zoom and macro. And Photo Shop and Lightroom (a $50 per month subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud supplies you with just about every media related software thrill you could want).

But recording…

All you really need is a good microphone, a good preamp, and, if you’re recording digitally, a good converter. And something to record to. This could total less than $2000, including the cost of the computer, and be as exciting as a fork and spoon at dinner. For me the things I need most, already mentioned, are the least appealing. Professionals will not agree. My Røde NT-1 is totally inadequate, like a bikini ad in a biker magazine. They want a Neumann U-47. They want serious gear porn. They want something that could cost more than a home renovation. But they want it real, like naturally bosom stars rather than those with prosthetic implants (yes, in that business it should be considered a prosthetic). They want the car James Bond drives because they want the babe Bond screws, and they want everyone to see what they’re getting. I lean more toward pity than envy.

I think I went through a period of cruising the internet and magazines looking for the most luscious software. The false promises of the industry cured me of that. The compatibility issues and constant need to upgrade both operating system and program, combined with the lack of continued support of beloved instruments—something inside me was killed. I’m now hollow. Though I still use software instruments, having neither the space or money to go hardware, and though I still admire the beauty of some of them, I’m only going through the motions. Stroking my MIDI keyboard while the monitor is open to Reaktor no longer produces a thrill. But it’s not just the sensual thrill that’s gone. I think there was more than basic lust. I think I had fallen head over heels, the way a rube does when he sees his first stripper on the stage, with things that were not meant to live up to their promises. (Two of my favorite software instruments illustrated below. Native Instruments’ Pro-53, long ago discontinued, has luscious sounds almost as good as the real thing but a clunky interface. iZotope’s Iris also requires a great deal of commitment to get the most out of it—and it does very beautiful, exciting things—but will soon be obsolete and unsupported (regardless of iZotope’s best intentions.) To someone like me, those screen shots are true porn, with no socially redeeming value they merely stimulate my prurient interests. They induce antisocial behavior. They promote an id-based withdrawal from human contact.

A beautiful image. But does it really invoke a lifelong commitment?

A beautiful image. But does it really invoke a lifelong commitment?

I would say this image suggests a little more depth but, ultimately, nothing you can build a relationship on.

I would say this image suggests a little more depth but, ultimately, nothing you can build a relationship on.


Hardware, as you would suspect, is where real gear lust manifests itself. This is where the true addiction is created, where the victim turns his back on humanity and eventually slides toward homelessness and bankruptcy. I was rescued from this fate by boredom, frustration, and lack of talent.

Even though it’s been 15-20 years since using most of my gadgets I still want to take them out of storage and stroke them, my recorders and samplers (to me, my Roland MkII sequencer is the equivalent of S/M or bondage paraphernalia, for the true aficionado, and does little to stimulate my simple soul). The most cherished of all, like your first exposure to a Playboy pinup (none of the others will ever be as gorgeous), is my Roland MS-1 sampler. It draws me the way the one ring draws Frodo or Gollum (another era’s gear porn, I’d say). (I had a coworker who treated his first cell phone that way, actually stroking it affectionately rather than working…initially it was quite endearing.) I would keep my MS-1 close at all times if I could. It would have shiny spots from continuous stroking. Yes, I take this personally, as a sensuous activity, rather than just a way to impress the other boys.

A Roland MS-1 phrase sampler.

A Roland MS-1 phrase sampler.

A Roland VS-880 digital 8-track recorder. I still dream of sliding those faders though it's been 15 years since I last used it.

A Roland VS-880 digital 8-track recorder. I still dream of sliding those faders though it’s been 15 years since I last used it.

Some bits of gear seem to me so unattractive, as though they’re middle aged and sporting plain white cotton, that I ignore them despite the lasting reality under the banal façade. Preamps have always had this blandness to them, to such an extent that I did without for almost ten years. Yet a preamp is something deeply satisfying, kind of a matter of true love that outlasts any false promise of gear porn. It’s something so basic, like that lead holder I mentioned a long time ago. It gives your recordings the foundation on which the wilder elements can reside. It’s like marrying your best friend and having the best sex you ever could have imagined, because you have a rapport. As I stated earlier, not everyone can be happy with that. They keep looking in the catalogs and browsing the stores, not able to take their eyes of that deluxe, unobtainable model, ignoring what they have in hand, imagining their recordings are inferior because they don’t have the best and most desirable.

I've had a different preamp (a Bellari MP-105) that was adequate but too strongly flavored. The Bluetube can keep your signal clean or, when you use the tube to add distortion, produce a discreetly fuzzy tone. Not everyone likes the subtlety of the transformation. I suppose if I had unlimited funds I'd want something premium but the Bluetube does a good enough job that I no longer think about replacing it.

I’ve had a different preamp (a Bellari MP-105) that was adequate but too strongly flavored. The Bluetube can keep your signal clean or, when you use the tube to add distortion, produce a discreetly fuzzy tone. Not everyone likes the subtlety of the transformation. I suppose if I had unlimited funds I’d want something premium but the Bluetube does a good enough job that I no longer think about replacing it.


Sorry if you wanted me to linger on the pro gear. I really can’t do that. So much of my life has been at or only slightly above the poverty line that I’ve learned to settle for a cheaper, earthier smut. In fact, in recent years I feel so little pull in this direction that I’ve almost convinced myself that I’ve overcome gear lust. (Take a look at the ads in Tape Op , they’re beautiful. Subscribe, it’s free and a great resource for anyone who needs to plug in a microphone.)

I’ll leave you with the one piece that haunts my dreams and makes me sneak glimpses on the internet when no one is looking. It’s a Heil Sound PR-40 microphone. It’s only $327. I could afford it. If nothing else, a few weekends’ overtime would buy it. I’m too cheap. Really, I’m not convinced my Røde NT-1 is inadequate and I’m enough the child of wartime scarcity and the Great Depression (my grandparents, though my father is the same) and the self-sufficiency of homesteaders that I can’t bring myself to replace something that’s not broken. So, I keep looking online when I think no one else can see me.…The sight of it has almost convinced me that my voice would be better and, therefore, my poetry would improve. Indisputable fact.

And if I bought it, then what? Would there be anything left—accept reality!—to excite me?

Heil Sound PR-40 with shock mount and pop filter, known as a great vocal/voice over mic. The one piece of gear that I still lust after.

Heil Sound PR-40 with shock mount and pop filter, known as a great vocal/voice over mic. The one piece of gear that I still lust after.






Romanticizing Hardship

Posted in A Day in the Life, Memoire, Perception with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by swampmessiah

I’m going to start out by offending a lot of people: I hate vinyl. That is, I think LPs are a crap way to distribute music. I want to hear the music, not the medium. And in the reality of records on vinyl, you’re not really hearing the medium so much as the wear and tear, the breakdown and disintegration, of the medium.

Recently a discussion with a coworker, Scott, brought me around to extensions of this subject. We were talking about another coworker who has jumped on the vinyl bandwagon. To me it’s nothing but a thoughtless fashion (are you really using your ears?). Scott had a different take on it. He thought the person under discussion was romanticizing vinyl.

(I need to clarify a few things about my impatience with this current fashion for vinyl. Of all the ways music has been marketed vinyl LPs have the best packaging. Nothing else has come close to the esthetic experience of opening a new record: the glorious artwork; the perfume of petroleum products as you break the shrink wrap seal and spread open the sleeve; the slight release of static electricity as you pull out the disk; the moment of reading the grooves, hints of the volume and tempo of the songs before you’ve even heard a note. Also, I began acquiring records about fifty years ago, kept it up until 1990 when I bought my first CD player: I have no particular attachment to the CDs as objects. With CDs, I just like the clarity of the music; I feel I’m closer to experiencing what the artist intended. But I’m extremely nostalgic about my LP collection (somewhere around 2000 records) and I could never bring myself to get rid of them. I just don’t want to listen to them if I can hear another version of the music.)

Part of my record collection.

Part of my record collection.


Likewise, I have no love of analog over digital. The best argument against digital, whether it’s in, say, photography or audio, is that those using digital cannot commit to a capture. They keep shooting photos or recording multiple takes of a musical performance without committing to a final version. That, to me, seems more a bad habit than a necessity. A total botch should be discarded while a quirk of performance might be the hidden gem. If you know your tools, work quickly and decisively. Anything else is laziness.

The discussion with Scott got me thinking about a few other things I’ve had to live with that others have romanticized.

Wood burning stoves. I’ve lived in places only heated by a wood burner and it’s dreadful. If you are rich enough or industrious enough to have an efficient wood burning system it’s not totally ridiculous. In my experience it’s a fall back for people who might have some time or friends but no cash. Cutting firewood is back breaking work. If you’re doing it at the proper time of year, when the sap is not flowing, it’s damned cold work (think of Minnesota in January). As I said, chances are you won’t have an efficient stove or furnace (a whole other way of using wood). In my experience you get the fire blazing before going to bed—it could be well over 100º F—and below freezing by the time you wake up. That is, ice on the wash basin (possibly frozen pipes if you have running water, which I didn’t). Most of your plants will dry out and die by the former and your cacti will freeze from the latter (yes, I’ve killed a cactus).…I hadn’t even mentioned the smoke in your eyes and lungs, how it buries itself in all your clothes as a constant olfactory reminder, if you have any trouble getting your kindling to ignite or a weak draft up the chimney. Worst of all, I find a wood stove or fireplace to be little more than waste, vital BTUs going up the chimney.

Another romantic fantasy is the oil lamp. I won’t linger on this. Very simply, your eyesight will go to hell. If the wicks aren’t properly maintained you’ll also have burning eyes and respiratory distress from the fumes. It will no longer be a cozy pleasure to curl up with a good book because you’ll have a headache from the eye strain (and maybe the fumes). Put down your 19th Century illusions and read on.

To me a crazier and more destructive fantasy is the fetish for typewriters. At one point in my life I had a manual. (I was thinking I also had an electric typewriter but the manual was an old office machine with a slickness of appearance that always made it seem more modern than it was.) In the late 1980s I gave up writing because pen and paper or typing made the revision of texts too laborious to seriously pursue. I am not by nature someone who thinks my every word is precious and therefore must not be changed—in fact I’m just the opposite, a compulsive tweaker—yet, while I was writing, left my work as is because the editing process was too difficult (I’m a sloppy typist and would have needed buckets of white out). I didn’t resume writing until I bought a word processor, probably in 1992—crude, with only a few lines visible on the tiny screen, but vastly superior.

Where I may seem to totter or even slip over into the fashion of idolizing difficulty is with traditional media such as sculpture or oil painting or playing unamplified musical instruments. I admire craft. Also, I enjoy the sensuality of these media and tools. There is nothing comparable in digital art to an impasto brush stroke or the bite of a chisel—the best you can create is the illusion. Likewise, there is nothing to compare to the layers of glaze, the other textures of stroke of pen, pencil or brush, the indentations of marks on paper and the tangibility of canvas (again, only the illusion). I know of nothing quite like the experience of holding a mandolin in your hand, of pressing your finger tips into a string, the resistance of a plucked string. The digital world cannot accommodate the sensual experience of playing a traditional instrument. Regarding music, the finished product, I don’t really care how it’s made…as long as we’re talking about recordings. Sitting in a room with a bluegrass band or string quartet, now that’s a different experience. There’s nothing electronic that can give your ears the subtlety of that moment, the intricate details of space and time.

So, yes, I like a wood fire almost as much as anyone else. But I can’t forget what it took to acquire that wood. Nor can I forget the frustration of editing on a typewriter (and, seriously, is there anything more “real” about the written word if you’ve used archaic technology?). Nor am I a musician so I prefer the compositional flexibility of working in the box, as the process of working in a computer is called.

When I was twenty I fantasized about building my own house, whether a log cabin or from purchased lumber, on five acres of land I could have had if I’d put it to use. And I actually started researching and planning the construction of a gypsy wagon. By no means do I wish to imply I’m immune to crazy romantic notions. But I have no patience for fools who try to rationalize their fantasies and insistently argue that it’s somehow better than a more high tech solution.

If you have work to do you use the tools at hand to the best of your ability. If you are more comfortable using hand tools than power tools, use them. But don’t try to justify their superiority. It may be an esthetically, sensually more satisfying experience. But they aren’t superior tools. The resultant object is no more real than something made with more modern tools.

And, I’ll say it again, as a means of distributing and replaying music, vinyl is crap.