Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Music Page 1 of 45

Clearing the mind in these troubled times

Run! It’s Guilala!

Sure, I’m watching. The Trump presidency looks like one of those time-lapse videos of a dead pig, where you see it being consumed by decay and maggots. Fascinating and terrifying as it is, I sometimes have to walk away for my own peace of mind. I seek normalcy through culture.

Music. I often have Pink Floyd on the stereo when I’m writing, which is happening right now. But a few minutes before this typing started, I was listening to a new piece of vinyl I picked up today at Record Archive. “John Cage presents Variations IV” sounds like a man trying to find a station on a dashboard radio while driving the car with the windows down, adding ambient sounds from the street to the mix. This is Cage trying to shake us of the notion of what composition is generally understood to be. The liner notes on the back of the album suggest this is a “music-as-experience” experiment. The sounds supplied are of each musicians’ choosing; a chart prepared by Cage creates random opportunities for sound to be applied.

It is not conducive to writing.

Books. Which one I’m reading sorta depends on what room of the house I’m in. Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is in the living room, where I can usually find a block of an hour or two to focus on this amazing story. It’s going to take me a few more months to get through those 1,000 pages. Because upstairs, on the nightstand, waiting, are the final few pages of George Saunders’ experimental novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It gets a little easier once you understand that most of the main characters are dead.

Oops, sorry, I’m a little late on this spoiler alert…

And then there’s the book My Friend Michele gave me, Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees.” That’s the one I read on the bus on my way to work. Or when I’m taking a lunch break. And when I’m on the bus on my way home from work. It’s the kind of book you can pick it up, set it down, and pick it up the next day and you’re right back in the redwoods. I am learning so much. Like, what happens to the human body when it falls 50 feet out of a tree (a lot happens, none of it good.) And redwoods are the largest living organisms on the planet, unless you count the mostly underground fungal mass, three square miles big, in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. And some biologists prefer to see that fungus as many individual mushrooms.

That kind of stuff is what biologists talk about at cocktail parties.

Cuisine? I will not eat anything until I have confirmed that it is dead.

But this self-inflating narrative that builds my case for Renaissance Man completely falls apart when the discussion moves to film. Because, I really like bad movies.

Oh, not just any bad movie. You couldn’t get me to sit through one of those Hallmark Channel things if you propped my eyelids open like Malcolm McDowell being drugged with illness-inducing drugs and forced to watch violent films in “A Clockwork Orange.” No, I want 1950s movies where the careless spread of radiation from nuclear bomb tests creates gargantuan insects. I want slow-moving actors in lizard costumes crushing Japanese cities.

Like “The X From Outer Space,” from 1967. I watched it last week. That one has it all. A team of scientists on an expedition to Mars encounters a flying saucer, which attacks it by spraying it with spores. The Earth scientists gather one of the spores and take it inside their ship, which offers the familiar, non-science special effects: Flames erupting from the rear of the spacecraft, with fumes curling up lazily, like a cigarette sitting in an ash tray. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, the tiny spore soon grows into an armor-plated chicken with glowing red eyes, 200 feet tall, weighing 15,000 tons. Not again! Poor Tokyo! Excellent use of model tanks and aircraft. Lots of tense dialogue, delivered with gritted teeth and easy-to-read subtitles. Men who dress like generals point at a huge wall map, tracking the creature’s movements with a red cut-out of the monster that they happened to have in a drawer somewhere, perhaps from when the last monster flattened Tokyo. They’ve even named it, Guilala. It moves on from Tokyo, kicking over things – what the hell’s wrong with these creatures? Now it’s up to the same team of astronauts and scientists who carelessly brought this thing to Earth to stop it. Which they do, with jet fighters – at least the ones Guilala doesn’t swat out of the sky – dousing it with something called “Guilalanium.” Which shows you how ahead of its time “The From Outer Space” is, as we haven’t even invented the stuff yet. All with a superbly out-of-place jazz soundtrack, and one of the female love interests wrapping up the film with an inexplicable comment about Guilala teaching her about love.

One year later, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released. The technological gulf between the special effects of these two films is immense.

But I don’t clear my mind with 90 minutes of lousy science fiction because I’m interested in learning something new about space travel. Or to discover how easy it is for a 15,000-ton creature to sustain itself by feeding on nuclear fuel, which is plentiful and poorly stored throughout the Japanese countryside. No, I’m here for the stuff that you never see in movies that take themselves too seriously. I’m here to watch astronauts slamming down a few cocktails and dancing on the moon.

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The weekend, at our best, and at our worst

This weekend was us at our best.

At Abilene Bar & Lounge, Watkins & the Rapiers played a happy-hour gig on the deck behind the bar. In the sunshine, as we watched little bubbles floating past the band; it had helpfully supplied those bottles that your kids dip a loop into and blow through. Except, it was adults doing this.

Then, over to The Little Café, where The Jane Mutiny was playing. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” still resonates after all these years.

Then, back over to Abilene, where local heroes The Hi-Risers reunited for a set that had the entire bar bobbing and weaving and howling. As the band closed with a mostly a cappella version of “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” more people came in through the door. The exciting R&B rockers St. Paul & the Broken Bones had finished their show for a few thousand people at Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park at Manhattan Square.

That’s just a sampler of what people were hearing Friday night in Rochester.

Maybe you heard about what happened Saturday night in New York City. Blackout. How did people respond? Audiences at Carnegie Hall and shows all across the city – “Hadestown,” “Waitress: A New Musical” and others – spilled out into the sidewalks. As did the actors and musicians, who created impromptu shows right there.

And on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, Paul McCartney wrapped up his latest tour by bringing out an old pal, Ringo Starr, to help out on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter.” Just another magical moment.

No social media needed. No DVD, no Blu-Ray, no download needed. No cable television news, and the professional shouters. Just people, and live music.

Other amazing stuff happened over the weekend. We’re now into a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the moon.

Music, uniting us. Exploring the universe, together. Yes, this is us at our best.

What else were we seeing over the weekend?

Hundreds of people gathering downtown in Washington Square Park on Friday night for the nationwide “Lights for Liberty” vigil, protesting how we’re locking kids in cages. Separating families. Immigrants packed so tightly in cages that they can’t lie down, and after 40 days of this are locked up in a stench so powerful that government workers at the detention center – we can argue that these are concentration camps – wear face masks. Rounding up people who are here – illegally if you want to call it that – because they are fleeing terror in their home countries, and sending them back to poverty and crime.

On top of this we have a president tweeting that members of Congress who were born in a foreign country – and are now American citizens – should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump was tweeting this appalling filth on Saturday when he wasn’t busy tweeting commercials for his golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland.

Our government as a divider.

This is us at our worst. What happened? Where did we go wrong?

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A world of trouble, saved by Springsteen

I am typing again this morning. I don’t know where this is going. My thoughts run in two directions, trains of thought sharing a single track. As I enjoy my coffee, a collision is inevitable.

The wink and a nod that we give to pure evil is astonishing. It is us at our worst.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album, “Western Stars,” is a work of stunning beauty. It is us at our best.

This morning, while gazing out the living-room windows at the lush trees on our street, trees enjoying the summer rains that are flooding the homes and businesses just a short drive up Lake Avenue toward Lake Ontario, I’m reading about the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein. A celebrity businessman who’s been arrested, charged with sex trafficking of minors.

Bill Clinton is a friend of Epstein’s. He reportedly ditched the Secret Service agents assigned to watch him and flew off on Epstein’s private jet, known as “The Lolita Express” for its passenger list that frequently included young girls. An unsupervised president with well-documented character issues soaring off to adventure with a pedophile.

Donald Trump also a friend of Epstein’s. He’s called Epstein a “terrific guy” and “a lot of fun.”

Clinton and Trump must have heard a thing or two about Epstein, many people have for years. But they dismissed it all with a nod and a wink.

Trump. Here we go again.

Our grifter president, using his position to scam the world for personal profit. Praising thuggish dictators who order the deaths of journalists, the trail of sexual assaults, filling important government positions with incompetent sycophants, putting children in cages, denying the evidence of science and the advice of experts who stand in the way of his personal agendas, gutting the environment, stripping women of the right to control their own bodies, the public policies enacted for political purposes rather than advancing our society, excusing the Russian cyber attacks on our democracy, ignoring the racism and misogyny and xenophobia that draw strength from his words, the tweets laden with hate and disdain for fact, the clear evidence of psychological issues, the lying, lying, lying.

All dismissed by his followers and a Republican Congress with a wink and a nod.

Let’s go back further, into not-so-distant history. George W. Bush’s administration lied us into two illegal wars, and all we have to show for them are 7,000 dead American soldiers, an estimated 210,000 dead civilians, some 10 million people who got in the way of this aggression and were displaced from their homes, and a United States that is now recognized as condoning torture and for imprisoning people for years without evidence or trial.

An average citizen who accumulated such a record of irresponsibility would be in jail now. In Bush’s home state of Texas, they might even execute him. Instead, with a nod and a wink, we allow him to exhibit in museums his retirement hobby of painting dogs and world leaders.

In my despair, I draw strength from music. This weekend, Springsteen’s “Western Stars.”

As with all great artists, Springsteen is not content with staying with what works. He is always searching for what fits the moment. The desperate young characters searching for love and a sense of place in his early albums are long gone. In “Western Stars,” the characters are searching for love and a sense of place. But not with desperation. With maturity and resignation to the fact that we’re not here to bend the world to our desires, but to live within it, among each other, among all of our faults.

I’ve heard the sound of “Western Stars” compared to the Laurel Canyon of the 1960 and early ’70s, where Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills and Nash roamed. Maybe so. But I also hear a psychedelic wistfulness, like The Walker Brothers’ elegant “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.”

There’s a lot of sun in “Western Stars.” Springsteen sings and plays guitar against a backdrop of lush strings and soaring orchestrations. It is a sound that reflects the bigness of the American West, a scale that reminds a man or a woman – or a billionaire pedophile or a lying politician – of our place here: We’re mighty small, compared to those western stars in the sky.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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