, to use a cursed term, is one of the very, very, very few rock operas to work entirely. Gabriel was no small part of that success. The first album, the first of a string of discs to be called Peter Gabriel with no sequencing qualifying the release title, is a masterpiece, a joyous and contagious bringing together of theatrical art rock, guitar chord burnishing, art-song, odd tales from Dark Forests--something very British, very Lewis Carroll, very C.S. Lewis. The melodies and the hooks get you and keep in their hold--"Here Comes the Flood", "Salisbury Hill", "Moribund the Bergermeister" morph, ascend and descend in pitch, mood, and modulation that your mind is pretty reeling with hooky riffs, phrases and the quotable yet enigmatic bits of lyric that is crazy making on sleepless nights, so much so that you feel compelled to play the disc again and yet again. Such was my case, sometimes thinking that I was delving into some library of forbidden journals, esoteric poetry or the keys to all metaphors that would, with close reading, unlock the qualities of the universe even the bravest poets trembled before. Peter Gabriel's has one of those voices that puts its power and range int the service of his muse's highest standards. He is less a vocal personality that a set of personas that makes this album a joy to ponder, wonder about, scratch your head over while your ears behold some marvelous art rock that lifts the spirits to try harder and to feel deeper, more profoundly.
Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Saturday, March 5, 2022
I was laid off for a period from my UCSD job, one which I was eventually rehired. Meanwhile, I interviewed for a bookseller position with Amazon books for their University Towne Center location: I had to sign a Do Not Disclose agreement before they gave me preparation materials for the interview, a lengthy pamphlet on how the stores operated, job requirements, all that kind of stuff.
The actual interview was at a hotel near UTC, located in a series of sixth floor conference rooms. There was a table with a tray of pastries and water pitchers and plastic cups, on chair where I sat on one side of the table, and three chairs on the other. I was to be interviewed four groups of two-three interlocutors representing different management aspects for the Amazon stores implementation. One team would interview for ten minutes or less, they would thank me and instruct me to wait for the next pair to arrive, until all the teams had a chance to check my suitability. The way it worked was the those who'd just queried me about various Amazon-centric matters would smile, nice, tight grins on tight, white faces, shake my hand, and tell me to remain seated and another pair or trio from another company concern would be in just a few minutes to question me about their specific concerns. Remarking that this situation was Kafkaesque is cliché and is expected, but the comparison is unavoidable as it is irresistible. Anyone who's read Don DeLillo's Kennedy assassination novel LIBRA would see this description as similar to a chapter in the book where various CIA analysts come in and out of a room where the secret files about the assassination are inspected. At varying intervals, paired members of the team would arise and leave the room, leaving the documents behind, and then another pair would join the ensemble of analysts. As it worked out, only one pair of inspectors were at the table all the while.
It was my soul-saving good fortune that the Amazon folks didn't call me for another interview. Note that few of the questions had anything to do with books or customer service. Months later I went to the Amazon Bookstore I interviewed for to see what it was like, and it was despairing, antiseptic. I've seen many airport and bus station kiosks that had wider and more impressive selections of books. So goodbye and good riddance.
Wednesday, March 2, 2022
This is the magic that the best of the Innocent Bystanders creates. Comprised of vocalist Deborah Darroch, Jessica LaFave on tenor saxophone and backing vocals, Ben Nieberg overseeing acoustic guitar and vocals, Steve Semeraro on electric guitar, Donny Samporna on bass, and Steve Berenson behind the drum set. The band brings their distinct skills for the marvelously funky and frayed variety that occupies their second, The Book of Life. The tone is gritty and soulful in ways that transcends barriers and speaks plainly on matters of life on life’s terms, death, getting beaten down but getting up again, and putting one’s shoulder to the wheel again. You get this feeling of strength and resilience in the album’s opener, “No Place to Go,” tenderly offered in a Stevie Nicks-ish croon by Darroch, guitars; drums and bass lay a delicate yet sinewy weave of rhythmic momentum as the tale of hard years, travel, an uncertain fate haunting the troubled road unfolds. Darroch’s vocal delivery hasn’t a trace self-regret; this is a person making peace with their regrets and sorrows with the conviction to move onward, forward. A remarkable song about seeking in the midst of desolate circumstances.
The mood kicks up a notch later in the record’s flow, especially with the saxophone oomph of LaFave’s tenor sax goosing the gospel/ soul-train testifying of the suitably chugging “This Train.” Steady as she goes, Nieberg proffers suitable rhythm and blues wailing on his vocal. This train might be the same conveyance that Curtis Mayfield foretold his listeners with the classic “People Get Ready,” an evocation of that same train as it pulls from the station and goes through the quizzical paces of leading a full and useful life.
The Book of Life covers a broad swath of musical approaches that are lovely to behold in the effortless expressiveness the Innocent Bystanders bring to their well-wrought expanse of American styles. The concluding song, “Lost Things,” evokes Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, with a trace of the Arc Angels making this rugged ballad even more alluring than it might have been. Nieberg’s vocal takes on a husky rasp, the band swells and recedes and swells again at points in the narrative for splendid dramatic effect, and you find yourself imagining that there is a man in the center spotlight taking stock of the trajectory of his life and realizes that each trauma, heartache, birth, death, celebration, and catastrophe has all been worth the years of struggle and hard-learned truths. The song seems, to me, to be the point where one’s experience evolves from a sullied timeline of conflicting emotions to becoming wisdom, a living philosophy. The Book of Life is wonderfully unpretentious in the blessedly small-cap wisdom the songs bring us. This is rich, evocative music in a very American grain.
Originating from Des Moines, IA, San Diego based singer-songwriter-and guitarist Michael J. Dwyer has a voice that has an appealing husky texture, dusty and measured in how it mulls over a lyric and shares it with an audience. He sounds like the better moments of Dylan or Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, throughout the length of his new release of eight original songs, Borderland 2. As the flinty edge of his voice suggests, the disc is a series of confessions, admissions, declarations, resignations, estimations of life lived long and fully enough that a timeline of hard living, fast loving, revelry, and ruination mark the beginnings of wisdom.
The material here, however, aren’t about ruing a past of blown chances or plans that didn’t pan out; Dwyer speaks additionally speaks from resilience, putting his shoulder to the cracked a wheel again and persevering. Borderland two is less the tales of a survivor, but a man who relishes the life he has yet to lived. This is somebody who isn’t hanging up his guitar or walking stick anytime soon.Borderland 2 is a fascinating evocation of divergent styles, be it folk, country, blues, or rock and roll. In other words, Americana, the alluring synthesis of North American roots music. Electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, banjo, harmonica, and drums are the essential seasonings here, organic textured, earthy, and homey, creating an evocative intimacy as the stories unfold. One would expect an entire ensemble to provide a musical outlay this rich, but the credit goes to two musicians, Dwyer himself on guitars, harmonica and vocals, and his associate Ronald E. Golner, who handles the other instruments, who also oversaw the recording, mastering, and production of the sessions. (Let’s note that trumpeter Brett Wagoner provides his skills to good measure on the track “Fuego Grande,” a sizzling Spanish-flavored torch song). The sound resonates, punchy, each note and chord landing precisely on target.
Again, the record is not sallow caterwauling of life gone wrong. Dwyer informs us that he’s got a lot of life left and a lot of fight to go with it, amply laid out in the opening track “I’m Not Afraid.” This is the telling of an old timer, declaring himself as a fool who might have dismissed in some instance, that he’s too old to dread what life might bring to him that do, that he’s been alive too long through too many circumstances to care what the world at thinks of how he lives his life. He sounds more than willing to put up his dukes to defend his right to not care what you think.
Resilience is a theme that runs through these songs. These are notes from an ongoing journal of a man who arises again and yet again after that, convinced to his core that the shame isn’t in falling down, but in staying down. “There Comes a Time” ends the album with the message to the young, the impatient, the impudent, the cocky, the alienated, the arrogant, the afraid, to anyone convinced that their life is at a hopeless dead end so early in their years to take chances, take risks, be unafraid to make mistakes, to fail, to get up and go again when your face is in the dirt, to do something, to do many things to ensure that on reflection that one didn't spend their life weeping. Michael J. Dwyer, a traveler, a songwriter, a man tempered by time and dared to feel his experiences deeply, tells us with Borderland 2 that it’s worth it all, and he’d do it again if he could.
(Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Concepts do not exist of themselves, self-contained. The idea of courage is meaningless until one grasps fears, embraces it and walks through that wall of uncertainty that would otherwise prevent the person, musician or not, from doing great and original things. It's walking through your fears and getting to the other side, stronger, tempered, with greater confidence in one's abilities. Fear I believe is a great motivator toward acts of personal courage. It should be turned around, I think. One cannot be “fearless”, but one can live with less fear by taking risks, advancing toward goals one might not otherwise have attempted. Less fear. That seems closer to the real human condition, something that is achievable. Doing away fear is a nice goal in an abstract world, but eliminating this element from the range of human emotion threatens to turn musicians into automatons, machines. If one does not know fear by experience, consequentially one cannot know courage, that is, one cannot be brave.
These are polarities that depend on one another to be useful in any discussion using either of the terms. Neither fear nor courage make sense without the presence of the other. Sans fear, an element I believe is always present in every human being (unless one is a sociopath), courage is not possible. That is why I'm thinking reversing the term to that of having “less fearing” is more useful and presents a more coherent picture of what you're attempting to get at, as it describes how fear, always present, can be mastered to an extent and turned to one's advantage as the hero, a musician in this case, advances toward that quality called courage. It saddens many to realize that fear cannot be gotten rid of or dissolved in any way because it's an intractable element of the intractable human desire for self perseveration. It can, though, be eliminated, and people can be taught/trained to perform wonderfully despite the fears they have.
Wednesday, January 26, 2022
If you have any desire to write poems that are distinctive, fresh and are notable for having a language style that is interesting and able to “express the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable “, you have to cleanse yourself of the vanity that everything you write as a poem is precious and must remain untouched. You have to read what you’ve written with a critical eye and find out what it is you’re trying to say, and then chip away everything that in the draft that does not add up to a convincing poetic sequence. Having favorite poets and being aware of the techniques that make up their style is a must; if you understand why particular poets appeal to you, have an effect on you, cause you think about your world in a more nuanced way, then you have the start in developing a good critical ear for your work.
There are things that great poets like Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Laux, Wanda Coleman, O’Hara make their poems memorable and a proper and alluring expression of their personalities. It wouldn’t hurt expression to get into the weeds a bit and study precisely HOW your favorite writers are achieving the resonance that comes from a well-considered poem. This will likely improve your habit of mind as you compose and will strengthen your creative flow while writing. Along that line, you have treated your first draft as a first draft and realize that half of what goes into a poem, more often than not, is rewriting, revision, correction, editing.I was told by a poet fifty years ago that to make something wonderful in the form of a poem, the “best writing has to be removed.” For me, this was getting rid of didactic language, lectures, pointless literary allusions, and concentrating on what is truly “poetic” in something I’d just written. This next point has an endless stream of variations, theories, styles, and the lot and each has a coherent aesthetic, but any poet worth reading over time realizes the difference between poetry and prose.
They do different things. As a wise writer named Clyde Hadlock once said of the two, “Prose is the photograph, poetry is the x-ray.”
Sunday, January 23, 2022
I worked at the Birch Aquarium Bookshop for 12 years until I finally retired in 2015. In that time I saw the shop evolve into a gift shop, full of toys, games, artwork, delicate glass items, and hundreds of impulse boy toys for the kiddies. And yes, they kept books around. But parents with mewling toddlers were the rule of the day, the Aquarium needed their purchases to support their grand efforts to educate the public about Ocean preservation. Among the kiddie toys featured in bins at the cashier stations were these items, rubber spheres composed of suction cups, which of course stuck to smooth flat surfaces. We called these things "sticky balls" (insert snicker here) and accepted that when school groups came through the store from the aquarium, toddlers, and teens would grab the balls and throw them at the counter glass. There was a large painting of fish hanging behind the counter which was protected by a large pane of glass. Of course, a flurry of sticky balls would be tossed at it and we would look behind us after a rush and to see the painting covered with the multicolored spheres to protective glass; it looked as if it had broken out in Technicolor gin blossoms. Both the sound of them hitting and adhering to the surface of the glass they connected with and the stubborn, resistance they gave when pried off, replete with each suction cup giving a popping rat-a-tat-tat with each cup that was suddenly reintroduced to air, a lip-smacking gasp for air, seemed to give the sales floor staff an low-grade variety of post traumatic stress. I know I tended to instinctually cringe and grit my teeth when I realized the sticky balls were about to fly as a whole yet another time before the workday was done.They were among the many banes of my long-term Aquarium employment, and had gratefully forgotten about them. That is, forgotten about them until the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nightmares haven't stopped since.
Saturday, January 22, 2022
Here is a brilliant essay / poem / talk piece by poet and critic Michael Davidson, one of my professors at UCSD when I was becoming involved with poetry and poetics. He writes here of the effects / influence of aging and /or having a disability has on a an artist's work . I read this with great interest because I've sufficiently aged to the extent that I've noted a change in the tone and subject of my poems and found insight in how my lifetime hearing loss formed in large measure my sense of poetic process. I've called it the Norm Crosby Aspect. Crosby was an old school comedian I had seen on the Ed Sullivan Show a dozen times at least, an affable presence whose shtick was the mispronunciation and punning misuse of language. It turns out that the Crosby was very hard of hearing, wore two hearing aids, and like me often tried to bluff his way through social situations when younger and pretended to understand what others were saying. When responding to what he thought he heard, he related, his answers seemed strange and surreal and non-sequential. He turned into a comedy act and I, who also tried to fake my way through encounters I could only make out half of, started to write poetry. Wonderful essay from one of the best contemporary critics writing.
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Most of the time I write to find out what comes after the sentence after the one I just wrote. I have a particular set of strategies, notions of musical phrase , cadence, rhythm and structure I’ve developed over a good many years—and this isn’t imply that I’ve mastered this form of poetry, free, at all — and I’ve internalized these linguistic habits much as a jazz musician internalizes his training and notions of theory; I come up with a first line and consider what object, word, image, attitude it contains and try to imagine what sounds musical and rhythmic and a logical expansion on the details the first sentence contains. It’s theme and variation, improvisation of a sort in the moment of creation, seeing where the initial idea takes me, stanza to stanza, until I come to a place to a poem where it can end with a resolution (or irresolution) that satisfies me, and perhaps satisfies a reader. What I discover about myself is that there is another way to explore emotion, experience, spiritual and philosophical concepts without resorting to the mechanical language of the academy.
If you want to write good poems, poems that even readers you don’t know personally would want to read again, you must read poetry, lots of it. It’s tempting to dismiss that advice and insist that you want your vision of life to be unique, wholly your own, untainted by the form or reason of other writers, but we go back again whether you want your verse to be read and read again by the widest possible number of people who have an interest in poetry. Reading other poets, published poets, and discussing their work is the best way to get a workable (and surprisingly adaptable) idea of the general form and flow that good poems have. The impulse to merely gush emotion and to attempt to enhance every emotion with qualifiers and ineffective cliches looms large in the young poet, and the key lesson is the learning of craft. Writing good poems—in this case , let us say those works that strike you as fresh, free of cliche and cant—is no less a craft than writing good , effective prose. Most effective for many poets is a starting point of an image, which may be a something that strikes them as odd, out of place, or extraordinary in some peculiar way that the observer, the writer in this case, needs to write around the mute object (the unspeakable uniqueness of natural and material phenomenon which defy description and which taunt the limits of language to contain) and create a conversation with this rediscovered sliver of the world with new ideas and phrases that might ,perhaps inspire the population to engage with their reality more creatively, assertively.
T.S. Eliot commented in an essay that poetry is a means for the poet and eventually get beyond their emotions and gather something like an elevated grace by means of their purely human perceptions (of not from the intervention of a god of their diffuse understanding). The quote, frequently extracted from his book The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), is precisely this passage:
"Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves."
I would agree, yes, generally, but I would also say that good poems, good art can help the mind join a person’s random collection of half processed and ill-remembered experiences and produce a feeling —sensual, spiritual, political, romantic, philosophical—can did exist within the person before
reading and considering a poet’s (or artist’s) work. Much of the time I believe poems, when they are good and evocative , from the pen of a master, can cleave together, the dissociated bits of memories and create a new sensation. It is often said that a poet , novelist, songwriter writes and finishes their individual projects because they want to find out what happens, to discover how it ends.
Monday, January 17, 2022
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD
A well-made piece of action-adventure, and a unique premise, to my mind, but nothing to brag about if you're the screenwriter or the director. There is nothing technically amiss with the motion picture; every scene set up achieves what it's supposed to do, the actors are fine , the pacing and editing keeps matters moving along. The problem is that the matters that are kept moving are hackneyed tropes. You can only repaint an old wreck of a vehicle so many times before the dents , scratches and pockets of rust show themselves through the thickest coat you can put on it.
I CARE A LOT
A fine , dark comedy that presents audiences with characters viewers want desperately to relate to in some way, an urge the filmmakers deny. There are times when you feel inclined to cheer for Rosamund Pike's character as the heartless and irrationally ruthless tries to surmount grim challenges the tautly constructed plot foists on her, only to have your heart strings strummed, more than just a little, but the sad eyed frustrations of Peter Dinklage's portrayal of a deep- souled yet equally heartless Russian mob boss. But filmmakers are quite adept at intervening at those plot points where viewers might invest there sympathies in a single character's plight: at crucial points we get reminded that although there is a veneer of "relatability" to all protagonists and antagonists (Pike's and Dinklage's personas switch positions a time or two here) we get reminders that these folks are monsters, sociopaths, dedicating themselves to doing awful things that ruin the lives of innocent people. The ambivalence adds to the tension and makes the comedic critique of corporate capitalism effectively cutting.
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Richard Goldstein, among the first rock critics ever and a long time writer/critic and editor at the Village Voice, as written his take on the passing of author Joan Didion. In keeping with a well-developed skepticism that's been his trade-mark, the writer goes after the recently -sainted Didion . She was lacking in her support of the feminist movement is one point he points out, and homophobia is another. These failings make reading Didion's books and essays a problematic experience for feminist and LGBT readers , as well it should be. Goldstein is a brilliant critic, always has been; he has the conviction to go against the conventional wisdom and bring a well-considered argument to the discussion. Remember that he was among the very few pop critics to give a largely negative review of Sgt Pepper in a 1967 issue of the NY Times. Other pundits, both lit majors starting careers in commentary and older scribes eager to be on the cutting edge of something and thus up their hip cred, had rushed to say that Pepper was the advent of a whole new art form, the new poetry, something fresh and collectively brilliant. Goldstein was less eager to go with herd think and was, in retrospect, refreshingly skeptical of claims made for the disc.
His argument was a reasonable one, and had some points that still stick. In further retrospect, Sgt Peppers emerges as still though flawed effort of its period that has a good many tunes that are actually listenable. Was Goldstein wrong? That's arguable, but I am grateful for the perspective he provided, For Didion, he does largely the same thing, and is right to point out her skepticism of feminism and the elements in her work that weren't precisely acceptable to all facets of her readership.
She had failings, if we want to call them that, but Goldstein takes a tone here that informs his argument against the late writer's sudden deification, that he expects writers to be perfect in sync with some fluctuating concept of how the world ought to be. Didion was a literary writer of all else, and the only requirement asked by the readers who kept her in the writerly trade is to convey the world as she intuited it, in her essays, her novels, her journalism, in a style and manner of characters, real or imagined, trying to make their way in a reality (real or imagined) will not behave. She had a voice, she had a style, she had an elegant and powerful skill with words that could bring significance to the most inane detail, gesture, environment. Her genius as a writer was taking the perennial discomfort with people, places and things and creating a body of work that made the discontents of the city, the disaffection of the citizens within, and the narrator's weariness, dread, paranoid of venturing again into the convulsions of post-war America a tangible experience. I would admit to what Didion didn't do for the Good Fight many of us thought we were mounting, and forgive for writing for William Buckley's National Review. But actually, there is nothing to forgive; rather, I would thank her for being imperfect in print.
Thursday, December 9, 2021
Tom Waits is one of the finest lyricists, colloquial without being bucolic, reflective without self-pity, poetic without forcing a rhyme or an image. He succeeds where other “storytellers”--Harry Chapin, Billy Joel--flounder. Where others abuse tired qualifiers and moldy tropes that make their tales little more than cold soapy water, Waits had the instincts of a good short story writer, a John Cheever, a Flannery O'Conner, a Nelson Algren.
A character, a journey, a timeline, telling and terse details, just the right number of qualifiers, wisdom to not fill in all the spaces nor to betray his mood and artistry with a convenient “moral.” At his best, he conveys emotions of all sorts--rage, joy, sorrow, regret, celebration, lust--and allows the listener to experience them fully, with minimal manipulation. What has occurred during his many mini-sagas, for both the protagonist and listener, remains a mystery; the meaning and the lesson to be learned is deferred except, perhaps, to resonate in the interstices of one's own memories that the story isn't over yet.
Joyous or at randomized saturation of despair, melancholy, or anger, one goes to work, to the next town, to the cemetery to respect, going on with what we're doing because that's what we do. Still, the sense, somehow, with all the pain, disappointments, and mundane travails that one is richer, wiser, or wizened, for all the acute sensations a memorable time awards us, That makes him an artist. A fine fellow.