Living Mid-Century

The year is 2013. I prefer to live in 1965. “Mad Men” allowed you to do that once a week or you could gorge on a marathon. But that show is a simulation that allows the viewer to dream of a more glamourous era while holding judgement on some of the more quaint inequities and stupidities of the era.

If you really want to live mid-century, you need more than an Eames chair, a martini, and some Rothko posters. You need Lenny. For me, Leonard Bernstein is the apogee of mid-century America, a guy who wasn’t afraid to be mid-brow because he could make it marvelous. He loved all forms of music, regardless of their social status or origins. Lenny didn’t condescend. He engaged the public and full expected them to engage with him. He loved life and wanted to share that love. For decades, he lived in the closet and then when the time was right, he came out and lived free in the Big Apple. He never sold out. Here he is in 1990 revisiting West Side Story, all his oomph and charm in tact. He wants the best possible result for the project and brings everyone up a notch to achieve that goal. This is what an artist can be and should be. Lenny embodies the best of the American Century and reminds us that vulgarity and chaos are dead-ends for the soul of the individual and of society.

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Two New Tracks

Which is more powerful – music or literature? I’m inclined to think that music has the upper hand although that doesn’t stop me from trying to make my writing more like music. Direct communication is tough. You have to know what to put in and what to leave out. And you have to do that in the moment. I agree with Vangelis – the first take is usually the best one because you don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re just doing. Editing is about removing any bum notes without touching the magic of the take itself.

I have two new tracks up. One is a very trippy workout at a Beatport contest for Tosca’s song, Looking. The other one is a reworking of Matt Holliday’s excellent trance track, Departures. I slowed down the BPM and gave it a Mike Oldfield treatment circa Amarok. I love the mix of acoustic and electronic sounds and the change in dynamic range without losing the rhythm. For me, the breakdowns in a lot of electronic music are too long.

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Writing in Ink

For a long time I was agnostic about tattoos. I understood their tribal value in many cultures and subcultures, including bikers and hobos. But consumer society and the attendant rise of modern celebrity culture have turned me against tattoos. It is a kind of writing that I don’t fancy.

All tattoos are necessarily co-authored to varying degrees. You may come up with a design and hire an artist to ink it. Or you may have no concrete idea but invite the artist to help you conceive an image and then ink. The best tattoo artists are not just masters of their machines; they are paragons of patience, empathy and vision.

I have chosen to resist their charms. I believe that going unmarked is the best mode of existence in the 21st Century. Punks talked about “the blank generation” back in the 70’s but going unmarked is something else – articulating your thoughts and your stories through media that allow you to separate the work from the artist and to manage your life with maximum control. Literature seems to me to still be the best medium although JD Salinger hid out for good reason.

Your revolution should not be broadcast on your skin. Tattoos and the personal meaning of tattoos have been made trite by the ubiquity of tattoos. Thoughts on skin quickly become empty commodities severed from their context or authors. What is rebellion? What is resistance? What is “pain as strength”? For me, tattoos, no matter how well-rendered, signal a paucity of cunning and character. Interior complexity in a well-manicured, well-guarded consciousness is the most important weapon you have in the game of life. Tattoos give away your strategy. They mark you. Not as a badass or a survivor but as an amateur who wants it both ways – to tell your story openly on your body but not have that body and its stories judged as ugly. Literature is a mask, a shield, a portal that allows you to make your witness to the world while keeping the world at bay. And guessing who you really are.

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DSK + Houellebecq + Ferrara

I am not a big fan of Michel Houellebecq as a writer. I dig him as a performance artist, though. He is the evil dwarf of the French 60’s, the unholy fool who knows where all the skeletons are buried and where all the champagne socialists go to shop and be bourgeois in spite of their youthful hopes and dreams. It is with good reason that Henri Bernard-Levy has engaged Houellebecq in public forums, not so much as a foe but as a darkly amusing albeit dangerous foil. Houellebecq, perhaps more than any living writer, is able to stick the shiv between the ribs of both the decadent West and the retrograde elements of the Islamic Middle East. In his book, Platform, Houellebecq scored a bullseye on sex tourism as a form of decadent colonialism and Islam as a vehicle for zealots to win the consent of millions to live in psychic chains of fear and misery. Abel Ferrara, a schlockmeister par excellence, has made a new film, Welcome to New York, that seems right out of the Houellebecq playbook, a film that is about DSK and his misadventures in the Big Apple. The subtext is the text – a smart hedonistic pig who worked his way up into the top tier of both French politics and the plutocracy of world governance – is laid low by a sex scandal that in the end wasn’t much of a scandal and more of a scam. Who plays “DSK”? Gerard Depardieu, a guy perfect for the role. But unlike David Bowie playing Andy Warhol (one swindling phony playing another), DSK and Depardieu strike me as both very authentic in different ways. Depardieu is conspicuously outside of Houellebecq’s universe and perhaps more importantly, immune to his quiver. Depardieu is organic, a native flower, a working class bull who never sold out, never went bourgeois, never bought into globalization. He’s stone-to-the-bone French. DSK, well… he blew it because he seemed genuine in his concerns and his objectives. He just didn’t have the moxy, the charisma to pull off the outsized living that obviously Depardieu effortlessly portrays for Ferrara. Still, if I were DSK, I would seriously consider hiring Houellebecq to script a campaign in the French elections of 2017.

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The Air In Between

Daniel Lanois is a legend in Canadian music. If Gram Parsons tried to create a Cosmic Americana, Lanois has certainly created a Cosmic Canadiana. His mid-tempo productions are full of ghosts and echoes and strange vibrations that haunt the ears and the soul of the listener. Here is my latest attempt to hit his mark.

As a writer, I am now trying to get that same black magic into my words. I find myself writing fewer words, almost completely “show” words with plenty of dialogue. You can call it Hemingway-esque but I prefer to think of it in terms of Lanois. The air in between the words is where the reader can be engaged on a voodoo level.


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My Favourite Atheist

The other night I was out for dinner with a friend. At the bar, I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in years. He’s a shrink. We started chatting about various schools of therapy and the name Sherwin Wine came up. He told me Wine had married his parents when Wine was the rabbi of a very special synagogue in Windsor, Ontario. How special? Wine was an openly gay man leading a congregation in his signature brand of cultural Judaism combined with secular humanism.

Sherwin Wine used to host a lecture series on the Detroit PBS series. On screen, he was mesmerizing, as evidenced below. For an agnostic goy like myself, he was great fun, not quite mincing but always free associating with incredible knowledge, insight and composure. Here was an atheist with real charm and warmth. Wine wasn’t out to put the bite on religion. He wasn’t trying to show anybody up. He simply wanted people to enjoy life free from the unnecessary burdens of galatic anxiety, to borrow a term from the great existential psychotherapist Irv Yalom.

Wine is important if unsung figure. Both Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have mentioned him in their work. And I suspect their admiration must have been tinged with envy. Secular humanism often gets a bad rap because the messengers stink. They try too hard. Hitchens did and Dawkins certainly does. Wine was a great advocate for a secular humanism that was rooted in a living, loving community on the ground.

Wine is a great influence on my fiction. When I move into a minor key, I try to imagine how I can have my characters confront their primal doubts and find meaning in their lives without resorting to magic thinking and false hopes. Wine put the human in secular humanism and were he still alive, I don’t doubt that he would be enjoying a star turn as the crucial bridge between faith and the faithless.

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The Novella

Some kid has come up with an app that allows you to speed read through news articles. Literature can only be next. War and Peace as a series of extended tweets?

Perhaps the novella is the real future of literature, the perfect form for paper and device and the distracted, busy reader. It is a form that forces a writer to say their piece fast and hot. Nothing wrong with that. Here’s a great interview from the editor of Nouvella. Tomorrow night PBS is going to show a documentary about Philip Roth. What is Roth’s best work? For me, it’s easy: his shortest, Everyman. Read that and you’ll see the full value of the novella as a beneficial constraint on an author’s worst tendencies and focusing device on his best.

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