18 February 2014

Reviewing the situation: a beginning

I am reviewing the situation:

I have for the past several years listened almost exclusively to Internet Radio. Not Pandora (though I have an account and a long list of favorite stations that I sometimes play (like a radio station might do) on shuffle. Nor do I listen to Spotify, which really I don’t understand how to use. Nor have I attempted to learn very much about the new Radio from iTunes.
            No, I have been listening to actual streaming radio. For example, right now at
5:30 am I am tuned to Venice Classical Radio, a station that streams out of Venice. There is no actual hostthe music just playsbut the lovely voice that announces the station’s identity speaks a beautiful Italian.
            But mostly I listen to several stations dedicated to folk music, and I have begun to notice that once I put the station on and begin to listen, I find it very difficult to turn the music off. I am somehow captured by the music, pinned onto it, as it were, and of late I have been wondering what there is, and has been, about folk music that so matters to me.          Downstairs, there are albumsvinylthat I possess but that I cannot remember purchasing. In my adolescence, competing on the radio with rock n roll were the purveyors of the music that came to be known as the music of the folk revival. This music, Jack Kerouac and Mr. Matienzo, my senior English teacher, led me down to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, and my early record collection contained a not inconsiderable sampling of the folk music I heard there. How exactly I came into possession of these albums, as I have said, I cannot recall: Peter, Paul and Mary, the latter with whom I was in love and whose hand I so wanted to hold; Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, Carolyn Hester, Dave Van Ronk. On one of my first dates, I took my beloved Renee to the Hempstead Arena in 1964 to hear Joan Baez.  I owned all of Baez’s early albums as well as those of Judy Collins. I began to haunt Greenwich Village in the early 1960s: it had to be then because I left New York City for college in 1965. Now, seeking a congruence between the stored image and the hidden emotion, I see myself walking the streets of the Village at first during the daytime seeking out the ‘hippies’ and the folk artists—and then soon ascending during the nights and crossing onto Bleecker and Macdougal Streets. If there is a hidden emotion, it exists in the longing to descend once again into the dark basement space that was the Gaslight Café, or the Café Wha? or Café Wha Not? The Fugs played there, I recall, and even an early incarnation of the Mothers of Invention. The drums of Olatunji poured out of the closed doors of one of the haunts: but I was there after the folk music.
            I do not recall what captivated me: perhaps it was what I thought of as its purity; its social conscience, though how that evolved in me I cannot pinpoint. Folk music could be heard in those coffee houses. In the days and years before the appearance of Starbucks et al., that drink was weak and veritably tasteless, but a Coca-Cola could be purchased, I think, or a tall glass of iced tea. Perhaps the Bitter End had a liquor license, but at the time 21 was the legal drinking age, and I was far too young—and young-looking—to enjoy the opportunity of more potent drink. Though the folk musicians were scruffy, I had not yet begun to shave, but I wore black chinos and a black turtleneck for effect. I was a steady visitor to the Greenwich Village folk music scene. Kennedy’s assassination had introduced me I think, to evil, an element in much traditional folk song; and the civil rights movement had offered me something external to which I could belong that was not my culture. Folk song was current. Tom Paxton’s first album was called “All the News that’s fit to Print,” a line borrowed from the masthead of The New York Times. Phil Ochs’ first album was entitled “Ain’t That News.” I remember reading that Eric Anderson (whom I met while I roamed the streets of Greenwich Village) wrote “Thirsty Boots” as a tribute to friends who had participated in Freedom Summer. I own that album as vinyl.  In November of my first year at Roanoke College Judy Collins performed in the gymnasium and for her encore sang “We Shall Overcome.” To me it was already a familiar anthem.
            I adored rock n’ roll: it freed me from the staid, proper, repressed and focused life that white suburban living liberally supplied me. It was its rhythms, its anarchic possibilities, its means of escape that drew me to it. It articulated my personal frustrations, gave voice to my angst, offered me moments of release. Winterson says, “You can be a loner and want to be claimed.” Rock n’ roll claimed me and I felt less alone. But folk music awakened something in my consciousness (or did it perhaps merely ‘find’ that something) that changed me profoundly. Folk music was the object that when found I knew I had lost. Lostness is a function of separation from that which gives meaning. Dylan said, “A folk song may vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.” I was listening. Jeanette Winterson says “We don’t seek happiness: we seek meaning!” I think it was in folk song that I found meaning.  In her memoir Jeanette Winterson writes: “We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem . . .” I did not recover my language in rock n’ roll: there I found my self and my joy. But in my immersion in folk music I learned a new language. I turned to the poem. And I became an English major. And that has made all of the difference.

08 February 2014


Nebraska is where you go to find out that the dreams you think you can realize turn out to be just an advertising ploy to deceive you into buying something else. Nebraska is the place you go where you hope towards the end of your life to achieve some gloryfalse as that glory may bebut on the road to that hope you have to first pass through the past that appears so barren, bored and boring.  Nebraska is where you have to go to discover the family from which you came and along the way experience the family that you made yourself; on the way to Nebraska, they learn to experience great affection for you. Nebraska is the illusory pot at the end of the very bleak road, and after you’ve arrived there all that you get is a shiny used truck purchased for you by your child, and the opportunity to drive it down the bleak main street of the town in which you grew up—a town that wishes you well but contains some different memories of your past in it and images of different lives that you might have lived. Nebraska is where when you go there the secrets of your past get uncovered. Mostly you aren’t surprised by the secrets, embarrassing though some of them might be, but by the revelation of them in the present. Nebraska is where you go to see a life that might have been yours had things occurred differently. Nebraska is where you go to revisit the dead and remember that you are alive.
            I have screened Alexander Payne’s Nebraska twice now, and it has affected me in the manner same each time: I have laughed and I have cried. Until his son accedes to drive him, Woody Grant (Grant Wood painted American Gothic) is walking to Nebraska to retrieve the million dollars the promotion company has promised him if his number matches the winning number. It is the ubiquitous Publisher’s Weekly scam, but Woody, maybe in his weakened mental condition or in his hopeful illusions, takes the promotional flyer as fact. Woody hasn’t lived an exemplary life, he is suffering from an onset of dementia, but he believes that he holds the winning ticket and that the million dollars will allow him to buy a new truck, a vehicle he cannot drive, and a new compressor, a device he will not use. The rest, we learn at one poignant point, he means to leave to his sons, one of whom is struggling to become an anchor on a local TV news show in Billings. Montana, and the other is a struggling salesperson in electronic, big box equipment and who cannot make a commitment to marry his significant other and thus, loses her. Woody is marching to Nebraska to collect his winnings. The Mid-West is metaphor for the emptiness of lives as it presents itself elsewhere, in places we head to other than Nebraska, for many of us. It is Woody’s wife, May, grounded in reality as is no one else in the film who in one hilarious scene at the graveyard she notes all the boys who tried to have sex with her, offers us a Woody against whom she had done nothing but rail throughout the film. She pulls up her dress before the grave of one of a thwarted lover and teases him that this is what he might have had access to had Woody not swept her off her feet. May provides insight into a reality that the town’s stories about Woody obscure. She offers a different Woody than either the one we see or the one that is spoken of by others, sometimes by even herself! As she says twice in the film, “Woody couldn’t say no to anyone,” and that the illusory prize money that everyone wants a piece of was more than returned by Woody’s generosity. As Woody lies in the hospital resting from apparent exhaustion, May’s gentle kiss to his cheek expresses the voiceless sound of her deep affection for the husband about whom she has railed throughout the film.

            There is nothing for Woody in Nebraska, but there are a great many things to see and to learn on the way to and from it. I suppose we all have our Nebraska. They are sad places filled with some joy.