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.

Horror Films

Posted in Art, Perception with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by swampmessiah

Are you the person who loves horror films, no matter what? All genres? All budgets? Serious or tongue-in-cheek? Down to earth or metaphysical? Do you avoid them at all cost, even choosing loss of friendship over months of nightmares? Do you watch them just to laugh at them, or the audience, in a fine moment of condescension? None of the above? All of the above? Do you ask, what are horror movies, as you convey to me that they are outside your consciousness? Are you like me in thinking some horror films are great but that the majority are idiotic and not worth your time? When horror films get it right there’s nothing to beat them.

Public reaction is so extreme you have to wonder if there’s something wrong with yourself and the rest of the audience for enjoying them. Why would we sit through that crap? Why would we allow ourselves to be frightened or disgusted? And why seek out that experience again and again, like a fix for your addiction? Horror cinema is not noted as one of the more redeeming or healthy products of our culture. Even with some scholarly backing they remain lowbrow, juvenile, and morally suspect. To me, that in itself can be a recommendation. At the very least it should make you question those who condemn them for any reason other than personal distaste.

Historically horror films (or terror films, as many of the practitioners would prefer) have been low budget, which means the genre has been an entry point into the industry. It’s where the fast food mentality of just giving them something to fill their mouth meets the art school mind of probing consciousness. Of course it’s been a great way for an aspiring filmmaker to show that they can actually make a good film, because of their great talent, with no money in a genre of low repute. I’d say that it’s easy for a good writer and storyteller to look better than they are because the competition is so weak—I find that many of these directors are mediocre once they step beyond horror. Too often it’s how people with very little talent can make movies (Ed Wood being the most famous example). I respect their determination even if I distrust their lack of self-evaluation (I’m sure they think they’re great). Still, the human experience is so rich that often even the idiots manage to say something interesting and the genuinely talented have made great films in the horror genre. I still say that Sturgeon’s Law is optimistic: of the horror movies I’ve seen far fewer than 10% are even good, much less great.

Before I go any deeper into what will become a rather longwinded essay I need a disclaimer or two.

  • First of all, I’m not a scholar. Nor am I a super fan. I’m just an ordinary product of mass media culture. There will be no scholarly validation of the points made nor a flaunting of obscure movie titles and trivia.
  • Nor am I so sophisticated that I cynically laugh at horror films. I like the ones that are comically bad but, really, I prefer to accept the reality of the films and take them at face value.
  • Primarily I focus on the old horror films, such as the Universal classics. I am at home with them to such an extent that those films and the plastic model kits of the characters (think 1960s Aurora kits) are like a security blanket to me. On one side of my bed I have books of poetry and on the other side I have Dracula and Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. (I also have the stamps and Postal lapel pins of those characters—my idea of fine art.)
  • I tend to be drawn to the more otherworldly stories, such as the Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises though I’m tired of all the stories tied to Christian myth and folklore, such as vampires and demons. If the story revolves around the clichés of good and evil I decree it as a failure of imagination.
  • I do not like slasher films or gore. And very specifically I do not like stories that revolve around torture. Seeing people be hurt or mutilated does not give me pleasure or satisfy some background psychological itch. That’s not to say I’m all that moralistic or squeamish. I can sit through such films. They just don’t trigger much of anything in my imagination except discomfort if they’re done well enough or boredom if they’re hokey.
  • What is it with zombie films? It’s quite possible I will say nothing to explain the motivation or appeal of zombie films. I could name quite a few that I like, that I own, that I’d like to see again. But I don’t understand what the draw is.
  • Also, nature amuck…except for The Birds those movies have been pretty lame.
  • The terms movie and film do not pass judgment in my vocabulary. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a film. Citizen Kane is a movie. And vice versa.

Enough with the disclaimer crap. Here are some images that have given me years of comfort, companionship, and many a good night’s sleep. Idolatry in middle America.

Packaging for the Universal Monsters model kits. In my youth these were made by Aurora, then Polar Lights. The image is of Oliver Reed in Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf but the model is of Lon Chaney, Jr. in Universal's The Wolf Man. I never saw Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera until recently. It wasn't commonly shown on television.

Packaging for the Universal Monsters model kits. In my youth these were made by Aurora, then Polar Lights. The image is of Oliver Reed in Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf but the model is of Lon Chaney, Jr. in Universal’s The Wolf Man. I never saw Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera until recently. It wasn’t commonly shown on television.


Too often the books, essays, magazine articles, documentaries, et cetera, try to narrow down the themes and appeal of horror to a single cause or source. I find the field too rich for that. To me, it’s a modern replacement for mythology. I do not come from learned or educated people, nor are they part of a folk tradition, so my reading of mythology came late in life rather than something learned on Grandpa’s knee. When I finally encountered mythology I saw horror films. Though some of the writers and directors are very consciously adding psychological and mythical elements, no doubt creating rivers of id and archetypal representations, I suspect much of the content is more intuitive than intentional. At some remove the act of creation will recognize its intellectual repercussions but in the immediacy of creation I think it’s the undercurrents of thought that come out on paper as the stories and scripts are written. I think horror stories tap into some very deep places, both human and pre-human.

Sex sells. Probably the most popular and discussed theme in horror is repressed sexuality. This is certainly true of Dracula and his more trivial descendants. On the whole, in regard to horror, I consider this argument to be lazy and glib. The annotated versions of the book, Dracula, show in great detail how it is a projection of Victorian fears of being consumed by lust and disease. Since then every generation, as sex has become socially acceptable in the media, has focused more and more on the sex appeal until vampires are nothing but a rather tawdry and unimaginative prurient fantasy (I’m not just talking about Twilight, which is as low as it’s gotten to date, things really started to go downhill with Ann Rice but even Hammer, throughout the ’70s, upped the gonadal ante). Demons also seem to like groping human flesh, as do many of the serial killers. I suppose as long as we have children being raised in repressive homes sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—and vampires—will seem the epitome of rebellion and the good life. If you watch Murnau’s Nosferatu you’ll see the vampire as more of a metaphor for the plague than as some gentleman’s peccadillo.

My proposal for a primary theme in horror—and it might be something I thought up rather than stole, borrowed, or recycled (which is what all the rest of this is)—is power: lack of power, having power, losing control of power. Someone goes from being physically or socially helpless to dominating and intimidating everyone around them to the whole scenario crashing down on them (usually fatally). You will find the theme is certainly true of many of the films aimed at teens, the traditional market, who are often in the midst of that exact struggle in the real world. I think Carrie is one of the finest examples. Power is a rich theme that spans the classics right up to this week’s release. How often do we see a misfit accept some trait they’ve denied having, or they’ve acquired some mysterious ability, only to have it go all wrong? Part of the fear factor in most horror is a total lack of power: someone or something is out to get the teenagers, or the nice family, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sometimes it’s a direct power, like the strength and intelligence, and possible immortality, of Frankenstein’s monster (who, except for being ugly, is otherwise superior to us) that no one can control. Or it’s indirect power, such as the ability to create the monster, that gets out of hand. Power out of control is what underlies Jurassic Park . Primarily, as I’ve said, it is what rules many or most of the teen stories and pretty much all the mad scientists (I’ll get back to the lab coats in a few minutes).

Until very recently we were obviously a part of nature. That means to eat and avoid being eaten. For most of us we no longer have any sense of being preyed upon. Or, for that matter, hunting. We obliviously step out into the world as though nothing can hurt us—any other species behaving like us would be lunch. We have become disconnected from our evolutionary past. If anything is a universal theme in horror I would say this is it. We try to avoid becoming meat, whether the predator is a human psychopath (or just your friendly neighborhood cannibal), a supernatural being destined to feed on mere mortals, or an alien invader who will take protein in whatever shape it comes in. Of course what is consumed is not always material. Sometimes they want to poke a bendy straw in the top of our heads to suck out brains, the soul, the life force, or your answers to this week’s math quiz (it’ll help them rebuild their space ship). Consumption is an essential of life.…I suppose most of the audience identify with the one survivor (that’d be Ripley the eternal) rather than all those tasty morsels who only show up again when the credits run. It’s not considered natural to lay down and die or to throw yourself into the monster’s maw. The only moral outrage stronger than being taken for food is to give up on life to become that meal (the audience yelling, at least inside, “Do something!” “Don’t just stand there! Do something!”) Aren’t you both sickened and relieved when Veronica Cartwright’s sniveling character is put out of her misery in Alien?

We have fear of the body, living and dead. A fear of our bodily functions. A fear of being meat. A fear of dismemberment or any other irreparable damage. A fear of being disconnected from the body, not only loss of life but of being alienated from what is essential to our experience of living. An almost universal theme, ranging from slasher and gore films to a story of hosting a foreign life (Alien or The Exorcist), we stare on in fear, loathing, and fascination as people on the screen are being torn apart, both identifying with the characters and denying that it could ever happen to us. Depending on how the film is made we might look on in amused disgust. Or we might feel so much sympathy we never want to see the film again. It’s rare that a conventional horror film will trick us with believability into the sort of compassion that will keep us from coming back for more (rare exceptions would be Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, which are truly heartbreaking films, though maybe not repulsive…unlike the average horror film they don’t get to you via explicit carnage but, rather, with good storytelling).

Darkness haunts us, fills our nightmares, our trips to the basement, and our horror movies. A visually dependent creature losing that primary sense, we imagine we are unable to navigate or recognize a threat. Since my youth, in the 1970s, I’ve made it a habit of finding my way in the dark and have generally made myself comfortable with not being able to see, perhaps because I’ve seen enough horror movies. But have you ever run into an unfamiliar animal on a moonless night? Do you have bear or wolves wandering around the neighborhood? Being able to see tips you off much sooner to walk a different way or to even turn back. If you don’t trust your senses of smell and hearing you could get into a lot of trouble. Horror films play with this fear in non-urban settings even though usually our only reason to fear is another human, someone hiding in a dark alley or doorway. (By the way, I grew up in an area where bear were a regular sight. Wolves have since reclaimed some of their territory, too. Typically, though, skunks and porcupines were what you had to watch out for.)

The idea of disrupting the nature of things, going against nature or god, is a rich theme. Things always go wrong. I think more than anything this is the fear we have of technology, letting ignorance and hubris make our decisions for us, forgetting to be humble, letting it rule us. We have Dr. Viktor von Frankenstein to lead us wrong, followed by a century or more of crazed men in white lab coats walking a fine line between horror and science fiction. I think we’re a conservative species no matter how much we love our gadgets or vote Liberal, with a deep fear of destroying the balance that keeps us in oxygen and clean underwear. If the madmen dump their technology on our laps we either dig in or blame. Horror stories are the worst that could happen and give us the greatest gloating satisfaction as we sit back in I-told-you-so smugness. A truly frightening film of this sort is called a documentary and it’s something we tend to avoid.

Unfinished business is at the heart of ghost stories. Do the dead remain with us by their own will or do we call them back? Those left behind cling to the departed and hope that they really did love us. We like to imagine we’ll all have some say in what happens after death so we, likewise, can hang onto life, our possessions, and our passions. But what if death corrupts living passions, isolates them, and gives them the power to drag the living into death with us? As with the story of power, which side do we fear being on the most? What if the passion grows into a malignancy greater than the original personal loss? What if it becomes a force unto itself? What if it lingers for centuries and cannot be placated? Not knowing what comes after life, our imaginations are limitless…though rather predictable.

Ostracism. Revenge of the misfit. Tormenting and killing the misfit. Back and forth, being part of the crowd or not, the hatred is like a metronome. A young audience probably feels this daily in their own life, whichever side of the tragedy they are on. An almost universal theme in the classic (Universal—sorry, I couldn’t resist) horror films: The Wolf Man; The Creature of the Black Lagoon; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and, of course, Frankenstein. To say nothing of the teen horrors of the drive-in era and all the spoofs of later generations. How about the remake of Fright Night? Sometimes it’s a side story and the misfit either dies first or is the sole survivor. Often it’s the main story (again, Carrie is a great example). Often the theme of ostracism ties in with repressed sexuality and the misuse of power.

A related theme: rejection. Shame. Retribution. Why are so many pretty young women abducted, hurt, killed in horror? Shame seems to be a very deep motivator. You would think having your sexual advances rejected is not a big deal, she just said no to a date. Depending on your emotional development, how your family treated you, if you’ve already been broken down by shame, if you’re a pariah, it can seem much bigger than that. At least at some period of our life, most of us run the risk of feeling rejection as a dismissal of our fundamental being: it’s very easy to look at that character who is or becomes a monster with a sympathetic eye. Many of us feel an affinity with Quasimodo as he’s spurned by Esmeralda. How would you feel if that scaleless babe in the skimpy swimsuit screamed in your face (damaging your sensitive but hidden ears), then fainted, as you moved to put your Black Lagoon arm around her? If women were expected to make the first move perhaps we could have more female monsters. As it was, Elsa Lancaster, despite stitches and bad hair, had a conventional female role—she hissed rather than screamed as she thoughtlessly destroyed the monster’s hope.

We all desire and fear secret knowledge and its price. At least, we hope there is secret knowledge. A supernatural world, aliens from other planets, secret societies, the habits of psychotic neighbors—it all tempts us. How many cinematic characters have died prying into hidden matters. Or have been hunted down by vengeful cults or irate demons. For how many decades will this drag out the Hellraiser franchise?

Usually we know we make a contract with the Devil but did we realize we made one with Dracula when we invited him into our home? Lethal deals and their consequences are a common theme in horror stories. Sometimes the characters know what they’re getting into but are in denial or try to renege. Sometimes it’s a complete surprise, as in the aforementioned invitation to a vampire. The Hellraiser stories play with both the intentional and the unwitting as each character opens the puzzle box and calls in the Cenobites.

A related idea is calling an evil force into your life, as in Candyman. In general, bringing ancient and more recent urban legends to life is a recurrent theme, people foolishly bringing on demons, ghosts, curses, or a very specifically described bad luck.

The façade of normality was deeply shaken in the horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Familiar people and places that had always somehow seemed creepy were ripped open to expose the danger within. The ordinary neighbor whose oddness slips out little by little until he’s chasing someone with a knife or you find other neighbors dismembered and stored in the freezer. I think we’ve always known this about small towns and suburbia but it took a long time to break the gothic cliché of old abandoned houses and mansions. Low budgets will do that to you.

Related to our fear of the dark is the anxiety we feel for potential hiding places and lairs. Do not put your hand in there. And really, really do not stick your head in there, dumb shit. Most horror and suspense films, regardless of other motifs, play with this idea. In the real world you should have sense enough not to put your hand in there, or you could be bitten by a snake or a rabid raccoon or find a nest of spiders. Who knows, it might only be disgusting, like grabbing something slimy and malodorous. Or it could be diseased and lethal. You never know.

Loss of humanity, mutation or transformation into something inhuman whether through supernatural means or, to a more modern audience, contraction of a virus or an experimental mishap. A fear of becoming a monster or an other. The Fly is a classic example.

The right to exist. No matter what. No matter how deformed you are. Or, the right to destroy what does not meet society’s standards, even if it or they are sentient. Mary Shelley was so young and inexperienced when she wrote Frankenstein yet after 200 years it still resonates in many ways. Depending on how the story is told we might identify with the monster—at a certain age we probably feel we are monstrous. Or we might feel the need to defend self and family, community and way of life from some force or being or contamination that threatens everything we love.

Fear of the unknown. I almost forgot that. The common backdrop to all horror? The essence of Conservative legislation.

You’ll have noticed by now that I haven’t dug into fear itself and our adrenal thrill, as addressed in Stephen King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies”. Fear is implied in everything I’ve said but is not my primary interest, nor the relief of having survived the chase and the imaginary brush with death. I look for a less visceral connection. If I want to ve afraid I don’t have to read or watch fiction. Humanity scares me. History scares me. The daily headlines make me afraid. Horror doesn’t do that. Once in awhile something is odd enough or creepy enough yet familiar that it gives me a chill of unease (think of the sparrows in The Dark Half) but horror films usually put things too far out of the ordinary to resonate days after viewing a film. Maybe that’s intentional. Maybe the creators don’t want to send too deep a chill down our spines. This is why Sophie’s Choice has frightened me in a way no horror film has.

I think I’ve given you a start in appreciating that horror films are more than a sick thrill, more than just an entertainment for morons and the morally deficient. If you weren’t a fan of horror I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Maybe you’ll take the genre a little bit more seriously than you did when I started.

If you already were a fan, I expect or at least hope you have something to add, whether you comment here or write your own essay. Seriously, my accounting is so superficial I could see hundreds of more thoughtful works springing forth.

Top Ten Records

Posted in Art, Friendship, Memoire, Music, Perception with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by swampmessiah

If you have this dog-like sniffing ritual of checking out the record collection of anyone the first time you’re in their home you might find yourself reading this even though you don’t give a shit about my tastes in music. It’s something you can’t stop yourself from doing. It’s how you try to understand other people and seek out friends. Even if you think I’m an idiot and you hate my taste in music, you’re going to want to know exactly what kind of idiot I am. It’s a way of gauging enemies as well as friends. It’s how you guard your gate. It tells you how far to let someone in.

Record collectors who are in it for the money might go through a similar ritual but their motives are different and the end results are different. People like you and I know that a large percentage of our psyche is on the shelf. Our thoughts and feelings and beliefs have been expressed in music and we can remember who we are just by strolling through the collection.

I have approximately 2000 LPs (I stopped buying vinyl in 1990 when I got my first CD player—I hate vinyl) and maybe 1500 CDs that are not duplicates of the vinyl collection. It’s only in the past year that I’ve been downloading music (I’m still not sure if I like that but I’ve run out of space). One of the peculiarities of this list and discussion is that it is limited to rock. For the past 35 years I’ve been losing interest in rock and pop, heading toward classical, jazz, ambient, both pop and folk world music, (I hate to say this) new age or ambient, electronic, experimental. Another peculiarity is that bands or musicians who are favorites might not have produced favorite albums. They might always be interesting and often good, or consistently good, but never quite there (that’s how I feel about David Cronenberg’s films, which are spotty, often outright failures, but almost always interesting, or Ridley Scott’s, which are pretty consistently good but seldom outstanding).

I’m working off a list I compiled through the process of elimination sometime in 2010. It does not reflect my current idea of my top ten but it probably didn’t the day after putting the list together either, since this is a very fluid and subjective process. By 2010 I had almost stopped buying new music and would rarely listen to the records I already had. Then in the summer of 2014 I decided, first, to get a bunch of Beatles’ albums, making my partner wonder if someone else had taken my place or if I was demon possessed or had an alien in my brain—I have often claimed to hate them. Not true: I just think they’re ridiculously overrated. For the hell of it I put these albums on my computer. Except for my own recordings I’ve never had music on my computer unless it was a temporary thing, for instance as I’d digitize vinyl. Then I obsessively uploaded about 2000 CDs onto my computer. And since then I’ve probably downloaded at least 75 more. Now I am again listening to music. Compared to what I did when I was young I still hardly ever listen to music. But compared to what I’ve done since getting into a relationship 30 years and ago and then becoming a parent (1991) (and working a fulltime day job, et cetera) I am again listening to a lot of music. It’s the first time since the turn of the century that I’ve been exploring new music.

There are only two albums that have been consistently and indisputably on my top  ten records list, which vacillates between five and twenty-five, for the past 35 years or more: Funhouse by The Stooges and Caravanserai by Santana. So let’s just consider them my top two.

I first heard Funhouse when my cousin bought it, sometime after the release of Raw Power, maybe in 1973 or early 1974. When he started college in the fall of 1973 my cousin for the first time in his life had money to buy new music. And a place to find it, on campus. At that time we were both into all hard rock and the beginnings of heavy metal. The Stooges were something else. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had that intensity. Nothing else felt that real or serious or had that sense of commitment. At the time I only liked the first side of the album. Now I almost prefer side 2. “Dirt” is one of my life’s theme songs and probably needs to be played at my funeral.…Iggy’s The Idiot has hovered near my top ten over the decades. Raw Power and Lust for Life are great but I’ve never liked them quite as much. Too many of his records just sound like imitations of The Rolling Stones, such as The Stooges’ first album or his collaboration with James Williamson, Kill City. On the whole I don’t find him all that interesting.

When I was in high school, in the early 1970s, Santana were very big, especially with the stoners. I think it was as close to a spiritual moment as many of us would have. Anybody with any kind of hipster musical credibility, though, probably stopped listening to them after their third album. There were already signs that they were straying from their Caribbean roots and the rock and soul of the first couple of records. Caravanserai took us to Brazil, into jazz, and was probably not that popular. I don’t know, I never hung out with music freaks, except for my cousin. And he never hung out with any music freaks except for me.…I am still very fond of Abraxas and the third album, feel some nostalgia for the first, but can hardly listen to anything after Caravanserai. When I first heard it, after stealing it (when I was 15 I stole about 85 LPs then quit before I got busted), my response was luke warm. It was certainly too mature for me (this was the height of Alice Cooper, T. Rex, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep). By the end of the decade it was my favorite Santana album and one of my favorites by just about anyone. Carlos’ solo and collaborative albums never made much of an impression and the earlier albums have been drifting from consciousness but Caravanserai remains, beautiful and dreamy and always finding a way into my blood.

For Christmas in 1967 (I was 10) my cousin and I were asked what record we’d like for a present. I chose Look Around by Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. He chose The Doors’ first album. I was oblivious and The Doors meant nothing to me. Maybe in 1968 I saw The Doors on American Bandstand, or some such show, and I hated them. I thought Morrison looked like he was praying as he clung to the mic. Yet in 1969, after my parents’ divorce, my father gave me The Soft Parade for my twelfth birthday. And with birthday money I went out and bought Waiting for the Sun (the first record I’d gotten with my own money). Since then I’ve been a Doors fan. Some years or decades an ardent one. Some years, as I’ve been for the past decade, rather fair weather. Yet most of the past 35 years that first album has been hovering in or close to my top ten. The posthumous release An American Prayer has been the single most influential album I’ve ever owned, one that eventually propelled me to recording my own poetry and audio compositions, even though it’s a rather cheesy affair by a not-so-great band both honoring and seemingly cashing in on the words of their dead singer. Over time I’ve come to see Morrison as a mediocre poet, at best, but for years he was the only person I could attach the word poet to. He’s the one who inspired me to write my own poetry. For that, I give thanks.

I first heard Hawkwind when I found Hall of the Mountain Grill in the post holiday cutout bin, January 1976. They were an immediate favorite. The hint of metal with a residue of psychedelia combined with the sci-fi lyrics (it’s possible I’d already discovered Michael Moorcock’s novels), the relentless rhythm and whooshing synthesizers—really, an immediate favorite. It took me at least till the end of the decade to round up all their earlier releases plus what was current (finding several as imports in San Diego, spring of 1980). I remember loaning Space Ritual to a coworker in 1979. He was a Jehovah’s Witness and though he liked metal he had to take this off his turntable because of the paganism. At that time it wasn’t yet my preferred Hawkwind album but it seemed to define them better than the others, which is why I’d chosen to lend it. Almost all that they did between Lost in Space and Hawklords’ 25 Years On is magnificent, in a lowbrow way. They are wonderfully, sincerely idiotic (I doubt they consider themselves idiots but they are). Space Ritual has usually been my favorite and hovering in or near my top ten for the past 30 years or more. Hall of the Mountain Grill, Quark, Strangeness and Charm, and 25 Years On also hover close to that top ten. You will probably notice a paucity of fun in my selection but Hawkwind qualify as fun, I think (since fun is something I’ve never understood—at least by anyone else’s definition of it—I could be wrong). The Doors turned me onto a dark and serious path at a young age. Hawkwind are something of an antidote.

Christmas 1969 was the jackpot for my record collection, as small as it was. It was a long time ago and my memory is vague, so I might have gotten something the preceding year. Whatever. Let’s pretend I know what I’m talking about. The story I’d heard from my mother (in rather catty tones) was that my aunt had married such an old-fashioned Catholic that he wouldn’t allow rock music in the house. She had to part with some records and I received ABC/Dunhill’s A Treasury of Contemporary Hits (Steppenwolf, The Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and others), The Mamas and the Papas’ Deliver, and Three Dog Night’s Suitable for Framing. The real winner, a used copy given to me by a younger aunt, was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bayou Country. That record got a lot of play then and has remained on my turntable, in my CD player, and on my computer ever since. At times I’ve preferred Cosmo’s Factory and gave Pendulum quite a go but Bayou Country is the one I’ve always come back to. Until I crossed paths with Black Sabbath in early 1972 (Paranoid) CCR had been my top band. (I saw them that spring on their last American tour, after Tom Fogerty had left the band. It was so disappointing. Not that they didn’t try. They did everything they could to put on a good show. But they were touring Mardi Gras, the one album of theirs I’ve never liked. Doug and Stu were doing some of the vocals. John Fogerty, at least, had moved on from the ripped jeans and flannel shirts of 1968 and was dressing like a polyester cowboy. I had already begun to move on musically but that concert was a blow from which I’ve never fully recovered.)

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Yes, bloated prog rock. While I was in high school I was probably like everyone else in preferring the heavier Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery to the milder Trilogy. The first album had some sort of honor of precedence but was too classical for teens. Over the years Emerson, Lake, and Palmer has been my favorite though I’m sure I wouldn’t have said much of anything about liking them in the ’80s. Prog was pukingly passé. Actually, even then I liked the first album.…I saw them perform sometime toward the implosion, either touring the second Works album or Love Beach. They were very disappointing. Not that they played badly or put on a bad show but you could tell they were not happy playing together. The new music didn’t resonate with the audience and they were just going through the motions.…Since compiling this list it’s possible I’ve come to prefer Trilogy to all their other albums. I listen to it fairly often. I’ll stand by the first one and Trilogy no matter what any of us think of prog.

When did Jethro Tull’s Stand Up become a favorite? I remember bringing it to my cousin’s house circa 1978 and making an ass of myself. I thought the song “Fat Man” was in praise of girth—my cousin’s always been a pretty stocky guy, like Gary Farmer in Powwow Highway—while playing it for him I realized it was just the opposite. When I crawled under a rock I took the record with me and kept listening to it.…I was introduced to them by the same kid, a family friend at the time, who had introduced me to Black Sabbath, spring of 1972. He loved Benefit, which I heard several years later and never quite liked. The first Tull album I heard was Aqualung and for many, many years it was my favorite by them. It was the album I always pulled out when we’d have our first snowfall (my partner still throws out that opening riff on this occasion and, oddly, now likes the record more than I do) so it’s sort of an October album. Or, rather than Christmas records, I’d listen to Aqualung all December. Shortly after being introduced to the band I got a copy of Thick as a Brick, which my schoolmate hated. It remains a favorite with me. But over the years Stand Up has been the Tull album that I need to hear with some regularity. Aqualung, Living in the Past, Thick as a Brick and, most of all, Stand Up are my Tull albums. I’ve found many of their other albums repellent, and not just in retrospect.

Talking Heads’ Remain in Light has been in my top ten about as long as anything. I couldn’t tell you which of their albums I heard first. Maybe Fear of Music. It probably wasn’t until 1980 that I really started to listen to them. If I’d heard either of the first two albums I hadn’t liked them; I acquired a taste for them after going crazy for the third and fourth. Speaking in Tongues is the Heads’ album that I listened to the most, when it was current, because it was good to dance to though I didn’t like it as much as Remain in Light. Now I can’t stand it. Even when I’m having one of those years where I have no patience for David Byrne’s voice (or his personality) I know that I still love Remain in Light and want to have it near me the way I have monster models and books of poetry. I am comforted knowing the record exists.

In the 1970s I was not a fan of David Bowie. Back in high school I’d acquired a used copy of The Man Who Sold the World and was genuinely fond of it but could not stand anything else I’d heard. There’s something about his presence, what seems a mixture of self-consciousness and vanity, that I find repulsive. But it was his music I didn’t like. None of the Ziggy period. Diamond Dogs seemed awful at the time. Young Americans and Station to Station did not appeal to the lingering metalhead I was. I’m not really sure why my cousin and I were listening to Low not long after he’d first gotten it, whether I’d asked to hear it or if he thought I might be interested. I did not like Low, at all. Ten years later I finally got my own copy with the expectation that I would finally like it, which another ten years later I did. Very slowly my opinion of Bowie began to change. It wasn’t until Scary Monsters that I came to appreciate a Bowie album while it was current. And I soon came to enjoy Lodger in part because of Adrian Belew. Since then I’ve really come to admire the Berlin trilogy with Low being my favorite. The Man Who Sold the World has also hovered around my top ten in recent decades. Aladin Sane has become a regular on my playlist, especially the title song (which seems a definitive Bowie moment). I’ve generally come to like all the old records. His work from the 1980s, whether it’s his solo stuff or Tin Machine, has generally left me cold, except for an occasional song. Starting with The Buddha of Suburbia I’ve liked pretty much everything he’s done. Of those albums Outside has hovered around my top ten. There are very few artists I admire and respect as much as David Bowie though I still go through long spells where I can’t stand to listen to him. There is still something about him I find disconcerting and chilling.

I don’t remember when I first heard Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene. I do believe in love at first listen. Usually it wears off fast: an album or song will be played many times a day, dozens of times a week, hundreds of times in that first six months or year or whatever. Then you can no longer stand to listen to it. I’ve had many of those obsessive musical flings since the late 1960s. I think part of what made the affair with Jarre last the rest of my life (at least, I don’t think I’ll dump him) is that at first Oxygene was unobtainable. I could not afford a new copy and no one was parting with theirs (or the used copy was snapped up before I could find it). I think many of his early fans wanted a monogamous relationship and they meant it to last forever and clung to him. I don’t know when I finally got my own copy. It’s never been quite the heady affair of a genuine fling. The album isn’t like the princess in a fairy tale or that woman you met while on vacation. This is something you can live with. Like my copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, I can feel peace just knowing it’s there on my shelf. It’s only in the past decade or so that I’ve taken to exploring the rest of his music. Most of it is good, though a little schlocky, but none of it has won me over the way the Oxygene has (I tend to think of the sequel as the same record—Jarre has an odd way of coming back to things decades later as though he still thinks and feels as he did, able to make an extension/sequel to the original, able to re-perform and rerecord the original).

When I lived in Duluth, until 1984, our little slice of counter culture (often of the seedier parts) was Downtown Book where they sold records and books, new and used, and posters, pot pipes, incense, and I forget what else. For about a year it seemed like every time I came into the store someone was playing this really odd and somewhat obnoxious record: Dub Housing by Pere Ubu. Eventually I came to like it enough to buy a copy. It was over ten years before I met anyone else who liked them. Their other albums were good (I really like New Picnic Time, too, which I didn’t get until about ten years after release). When they reformed in the late ’80s I was disappointed. The new Ubu was dull, rather conventional sounding except for David Thomas’ voice. (It was at that time that I saw them at First Avenue, with Peter Blegvad opening. Cloudland was their new album. Very disappointing. What I got out of that evening was Blegvad. The Naked Shakespeare is pretty good.)

Another album that almost immediately won me over and has, usually, continued to lay claim to my…I’m not really sure what it claims of me. My belief in it? Echo and the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here. In the spring of 1980, a few months before my 23rd birthday, I moved back into my mother’s house (stayed until October, 1984). At the time I viewed it as something of a curse but in retrospect I remember the luxury of having time to explore so many fields of thought and to develop my art. I also occasionally had an opportunity to earn money (usually working for my neighbor, hauling concrete blocks and mixing mortar when he needed an extra grunt), which meant that for the first time in my life I could sometimes afford a new release instead of always having to wait for a second hand copy.…I think Heaven Up Here was the first thing I heard by the Bunnymen. Crocodiles never quite did it for me. It always seemed too stiff, like they couldn’t be themselves in the studio on that record. I wanted to like Porcupine but it seemed bogus (and to my ears, now, the mix is awful). Ocean Rain seemed like pretentious shit and I simply gave up on them. So many bands of that era had charm when they were bad, maybe because they seemed earnest like good little amateurs. It seemed like something anyone could do (that whole punk and post-punk DIY credo, though it antedates punk). When they went in for cleaner production and a slicker sound they rarely fared well. Most of them lacked the talent to write good songs or to play them well enough to make me come back for more (Psychedelic Furs were possibly the most embarrassing example of this…and you’re wondering why I would have bothered with any of them, as though I should have known better).


AA drawing three times life size on Rieves BFK, graphite with touches of India ink, chalk, and white acrylic paint. The article is from Rolling Stone. This drawing is one of the few of my works to be seen in a public exhibition, spring of 1985, at the Duluth Art Institute. I can't recall for certain but it might have been featured in the local newspaper. Gendron Jensen was the star of the show, though not an active participant, but this drawing made a small stir because of the craftsmanship.

A drawing three times life size on Rieves BFK, graphite with touches of India ink, chalk, and white acrylic paint. The article is from Rolling Stone. This drawing is one of the few of my works to be seen in a public exhibition, spring of 1985, at the Duluth Art Institute. I can’t recall for certain but it might have been featured in the local newspaper. Gendron Jensen was the star of the show, though not an active participant, but this drawing made a small stir because of the craftsmanship.


Magazine were close to the end when I finally stumbled upon them (after the first half of the 1970s, when my cousin was often leading my musical taste with his new discoveries, I was usually on my own…I came to love the adventure of exploring the record stores, seeking out new and interesting things…either way, it was rare I’d find or could afford a record when it was current). The Correct Use of Soap was not as cool and exciting as any of the other bands I was finding at the time but the music was so solid and the lyrics clever and humorous enough to keep pulling me back (now that I’m becoming an old man the wit seems lacking). Twenty years later Magic, Murder and the Weather had also won me over, sometimes becoming my preference over The Correct Use of Soap. “Song from Under the Floorboards” needs to be played at my funeral. It seems like a condensation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the only one of his works that has meant anything to me.

With her annual bonus, near the close of winter 1994, a few months after we’d purchased a duplex with a friend, my partner bought us plane tickets and a room on the beach of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It has been my only vacation out of the country and certainly my only vacation as a rich American (I was shit broke but compared to the poverty I saw down there I was disgustingly well off). We were browsing in this very upscale gift shop, all local artisans, run by a German (handmade papers and books as art objects, ceramics and sculpture, et cetera). On the stereo was this music like I’d never heard before. We split the cost of the CD, since neither of us, by then, had much money left (well, I was nearly out of credit): Jorge Reyes, Bajo el Sol Jaguar. After tracking down more of his music (still not easy to come by) I found that the album was more like his collaborations with Steve Roach and Suso Sáiz (as Suspended Memories), who both feature on Bajo el Sol Jaguar, than it does any of his other works. Usually his work is less New Age and more quasi-anthropologically pre-Columbian.

Mike Oldfield has been one of my favorite artists since I first heard Tubular Bells. I was aware of it being used in The Exorcist but I’m almost certain that I didn’t see the film until several years after its release. Are you sick of Tubular Bells? It seems Oldfield’s fans can’t let go of it. Nor can Oldfield, he’s reworked it so many times. Back in the 1970s the album I liked was Ommadawn, which I did not own until I bought the very expensive import Boxed, maybe in 1980 or 1981, and that album has hovered near my top 10 ever since (some of the recordings on the fourth LP, stuff he did with David Bedford, are what I really got out of that collection). Most of his albums were pretty good though becoming progressively cheesier until he started doing pop songs (as on Five Miles Out and Crises) and more or less gave up on instrumental music for awhile. That was as far as I could go with him until the mid-1990s, after getting the Elements box set. I gave Songs from Distant Earth a try. I think he has always had an attraction to schlock and that album characteristically has some pretty nauseating moments. But it’s freakishly beautiful as well. Nothing he has done since compares and, really, none of his earliest recordings do either. It is the one Oldfield album that I unequivocally like. Otherwise, I often find listening to him to be a guilty pleasure, as though I had on Enya or Enigma.

Back in the 1990s I was excited by the apparent freshness of electronic dance music: Future Sound of London, Orbital, Underworld, and The Orb to name some of them who didn’t very quickly get bogged down in a stylistic rut and among the few I still listen to from time to time. Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman has remained something of a magical release—that is, I still hear it as such. In the past twenty years it has become one of my most played records, at a time when I’ve come to listen to less and less music.

Also from that era, though something I didn’t track down until a couple years ago, is Node. I first heard them on a sampler of some sort, probably from a record label or magazine. Their eponymous album (1995?) was an analog synth throwback, totally fetishistic, and totally magnificent. It came across as the one great Tangerine Dream album that we all knew they could do but was never released (Tangerine Dream circa 1975, maybe). (If you listen to Node’s second album, 2014, you’ll hear parts reminiscent of many ’70s synth pioneers such as Jarre, Kraftwerk, and Synergy. An excellent album but not quite like the first.) Node seems totally derivative yet somehow original. I can live with that, especially since it’s better than what it was aping.

It was probably in 2004 that a coworker gave me a couple CD samplers of various metal bands, most of them death metal since that was his thing. I can’t say I disliked much of it but neither did any of it excite me, except for Opeth. The material from Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Damnation is incredible—all of it produced by Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree. As metal became formulaic toward the end of the ’70s (think of Judas Priest) I began to lose interest and hadn’t really listened to much since then (though a different coworker tried to reignite my interest 1989-1990…he did get me to reevaluate King Crimson and to pay attention to David Torn). Damnation is such a beautiful album, embodying much of what I like about progressive rock without taking on the mannerisms (unlike Opeth’s last album, Pale Communion, which I can’t listen to, sounding like someone who doesn’t understand the exploratory spirit of prog but merely imitates the mannerisms). I can put Damnation on and listen to it over and over the way I did, say, Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin’s fourth when I was a kid. That has rarely happened in recent decades.

Something missing from this list are non-rock albums such as Perotin by The Hilliard Ensemble, Current Circulation by David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, Fauré’s Requiem conducted by Michel Corboz (I prefer it with a boy soprano, though Fauré probably meant it to have an adult female), or Bach’s cello suites performed by Yo Yo Ma. In part this is because my record database was not very accommodating to classical records. Also this represents a mind rut that often precludes me from looking beyond certain parameters. I would probably add all four recordings to my top ten (bringing it to twenty-two, I think).

Also missing are some recent additions. I’m not sure they entirely belong here. I haven’t had enough time to live with them and they could soon overstay their welcome. Two records that immediately come to mind are Farewell Poetry’s Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock (which is only slightly better than Spirit of Eden and Hollis’ solo, all three of which are superb).

I’m not really sure how I came across Farewell Poetry, if it was serendipity or if someone suggested I give them a try. The general reaction when I’ve tried to pass them on to others has been ambivalent. It is only in the past few months that I’ve come to realize that Farewell Poetry’s music could be described as stylistically banal: they play a very familiar style of post-rock reminiscent of MONO. With an overlay of poetry (and maybe no one liked the poetry). The general business of mixing music and poetry has been my passion for decades so just about any attempt at expanding the field is something I welcome. Also, I like the record. A lot. I generally like post-rock (though it quickly becomes tedious), especially liking the cloying beauty of their sound (as I like MONO’s records), and I am enamored with Jayne Amara Ross’ words and voice. The album brings to mind what I wish I could have heard forty-five years ago, what The Doors and Velvet Underground offered but couldn’t deliver.

Australian poet David McCooey (who, by the way, has an excellent album of poetry and music on iTunes called Outside Broadcast) introduced me to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk. Over the past decades I’ve been pulling away from the song as an interesting structure. I still like songs but I don’t find them all that exciting or inspiring. So, to hear Mark Hollis doing songs that are not in that structural pop rut, are only very loosely related to pop music as we usually hear it, made me an instant fan. Farewell Poetry might not last among my top ten, or even among my top fifty albums but I’m almost certain these three Talk Talk/Hollis albums, especially Laughing Stock, will remain. Like Opeth’s Damnation, these albums reference so much that I was at home with from the 1970s without really copying it—and Hollis extends those ideas without resorting to convention the way Mikael Åkerfeldt invariably does. When it was released, like David Bowie’s Low, I probably wasn’t ready. I think these albums would have seemed to drag. Hearing Laughing Stock now is like instant heaven. I’m at home with how quiet they are. I appreciate the deviance of them. I’m thrilled by the subtlety of the arrangements. I’ve read that the songs couldn’t be performed on stage yet though they’re patched together from hundreds of takes they have an ethereal flow and completeness that seems rare in anyone’s music these days.

Missing from the list and probably my favorite band in the past few years (first heard them in the mid-1990s but didn’t pay much attention until about five years ago) is Einstürzende Neubauten. Many of my recordings resemble their style of industrial music, but with spoken poetry rather than singing, though I have not been directly influenced. Do I have a favorite album by them, something that could be added to my top ten? As a band or artist they might be one of my top five but I can’t think of a specific album that stands out. This is true of many of my favorite artists. They might be consistently good or interesting but maybe never quite great, never pulling together an outstanding album, which has always been a special skill and now a seemingly dying one. I think I mention them just to put the following list and this whole essay into perspective: music I enjoy and admire that never quite reaches the pinnacle of these few others. A continuation of my top ten into a top 50 or 100 or 500 would include albums that have much good material but never quite jell into a wholeness. Well, maybe with this in mind I could probably come up with that top 50 (which would include a few recognized classics, Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road and maybe a Kate Bush or two but still primarily albums snubbed by the professional critics and connoisseurs…Argent, Nektar, Pavlov’s Dog, even a Lucifer’s Friend).


  1. David Bowie Low
  2. Creedence Clearwater Revival Bayou Country
  3. The Doors The Doors
  4. Echo and the Bunnymen Heaven Up Here
  5. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
  6. Hawkwind Space Ritual
  7. Jean Michel Jarre Oxygene
  8. Jethro Tull Stand Up
  9. Magazine The Correct Use of Soap
  10. Node Node
  11. Mike Oldfield Songs of Distant Earth
  12. Opeth Damnation
  13. Pere Ubu Dub Housing
  14. Jorge Reyes Bajo el Sol Jaguar
  15. Santana Caravanserai
  16. The Stooges Fun House
  17. Talking Heads Remain in Light
  18. Underworld Dubnobasswithmyheadman

Now, are you ready to argue? That’s what fans do best, I’ve heard.

A Small Thought about Conservative Thought

Posted in Morality, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , on March 14, 2015 by swampmessiah

If you were to look at me you’d notice a guy. You might elaborate and add on working guy or scruffy guy or old guy. That’s interesting because I’ve never been concerned with the details of my gender or sexuality. On the surface it’s true, I am a scruffy old guy. Yet it’s something I’d rather not specify, my gender. It’s a checkbox on surveys I’d rather leave blank.

This is not to say I’ve ever wanted to be a woman or to fill that role. I find all of this unnecessarily constricting. You can blame my attitude on the ’60s counter culture if you want. I turned ten during the Summer of Love, obliviously playing with my G.I. Joes. I wanted to learn to sew in order to make civilian clothes for them. It was not allowed. Maybe my convictions run a little deeper than a fluke of culture. Maybe my rebellion is a little more intrinsic.

Today I stumbled on a Granta article called Self-Made Man, ostensibly about an 18-year old trans male but really about the author’s thoughts on gender. Gender identity is a hot subject in our household because our 18-year old has been transitioning for the past few years but is not going for an overtly masculine self. I find this ambiguity very interesting and the article did a great job of exploring the non-binary possibilities that I’ve been witnessing in my child and many of their friends. In several different ways I felt at home.

Our 18-year old is currently visiting a friend in Australia while taking online college courses. Discussing the article wasn’t possible. Also, the kid is not always a talker.

At dinner I was discussing the article with our 23-year old, who is a talker. The conversation had come around to it being sad that some people, and not just conservatives (do I need to change the title?), are so rigid about identity, especially sexuality and gender. That was when I said that they need people to play out a social function rather than be an individual.

The ripples are still spreading.

I don’t want to fill in the details and detract from the basic thought: they need people to fulfill a social function.

In my mind this is racing on toward all kinds of things, including economic roles. But very specifically this observation so succinctly—at least for the moment, as I let my mind play with the idea—describes the problem of gender restriction in a non-accusatory way. Some people need social order more than they need individuality. They need order more than they need freedom. They need people to behave in a specified way so that the world keeps turning. For them there’s nothing more basic than gendering the universe. Night and day. Good and evil. Male and female.

I don’t get it. In so many practical ways I’m very conservative, doing the same things year after year, but I don’t need life to be simple and understandable. I don’t need that kind of order. None of it. I don’t need man and woman. I don’t need people to be functional cogs. I don’t need to tell you what your place in the world is. And I damn well won’t let you tell me what mine is.

Okay, so I did listen to the original Broadway cast recording of Hair long before I understood it. “Kids, be free. Be whatever you are and do whatever you wanna do just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.”