Mary Fahl at Caffe Lena

June 24th, 2019

I saw Mary Fahl this past Saturday at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York.  I had bought the tickets as a birthday treat for myself. Never having been to Caffe Lena before, I was pleasantly surprised when my sister and I arrived about five minutes before the scheduled start of the show and were ushered to seats not more than fifteen feet from the singer, despite the small, informal space being fairly fully packed.

It had been some years since I last saw Mary perform, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Age can be cruel to singers.  Singing, particularly at the level that Mary does it, is physically very demanding.  The voice can lose its flexibility, the range can tighten, pitch can become iffy.  As Billie Holiday demonstrated in her later years, consummate artistry can compensate for almost anything, but, well…

I needn’t have worried. It was the same as all the other times I have seen her, since October Project (the band with which she came to public attention, in the early 1990’s) broke up after mysteriously losing its recording contract.  There is this slender, pretty, blonde woman standing center stage, holding a guitar. She talks for a little while, animated, vivacious.  Because she is charming, intelligent, and funny, it is entertaining, but not extraordinarily so.  She’s attractive and engaging, but there doesn’t really seem to be anything very extraordinary about her.  Then she strums the guitar and opens her mouth and this oceanic sound comes out.

I am not the only person to whom this particular metaphor has occurred.  At Caffe Lena, Mary talked about a concert in China at which a Chinese graduate student told her, “You have an ocean inside.”  It is an apt figure.  Her alto has all the rich coloration and shifting hues of the ocean. It can be calm, with brightness dancing over it.  It can be dark, huge, and furious.  She can express utter tenderness, like a mother kissing her baby’s forehead, and terrifying, destructive rage, and everything in between.  Her voice can be velvety quiet, or thunderous and vibrant as a pipe organ.  What was particularly nice to observe at this concert is that this magnificent instrument is still in fine condition, and that Mary has not lost a bit of her command of it, control as nearly perfect as makes no difference to the listener.

I say, “control as nearly perfect as makes no difference to the listener,” because I suspect that it is different for Mary.  I am drawing a bit on my own experience here.  I play a musical instrument.  I do it quite well, and people tell me they enjoy it.  I have been highly praised sometimes after playing a solo during which I was disconcerted by every tiny rhythmic imprecision, every missed opportunity to inflect a note or extend a phrase in a different direction, every slight lapse of eloquence.  The audience couldn’t hear it, but I could.  I also make furniture, and what I see when I look at a finished piece for the first time is every imperfection, even though they’re invisible to the person for whom I made it.   I wonder if Mary, on her vastly higher plane of musical accomplishment, experiences something of that sort.  I wonder this because of something she said at the concert.  She said that she loves reverb.  This reminded me that I have criticized her recordings, in the past, for their use of reverb on Mary’s voice.  If any voice ever could stand alone, without tinkering of any kind, it is Mary’s!  (The only voice I’ve heard that reminds me of her, allowing for differences in training, gender, and technique, was Jussi Bjorling’s.)  (Google him.  Listen to him singing Nessun Dorma, then listen to Mary.  Am I crazy?)   But her records, from the first October Project album on, almost unfailingly employ some level of electronic “enhancement.”  This is the kind of thing for which the expression “gilding the lily” was invented and it’s one reason, I think, why people tend to be struck by how substantially better she sounds at live shows than on her records.  But Mary, I think, may feel some discomfort at hearing her voice played back naked.  I wonder if that is the result of having ears that are tuned to the (tiny) gaps between what she achieves and what she feels she might have achieved. It is the price, I think, that one pays for artistry.  Paying that price, over and over, may be part of what it takes to continue to function at the highest level, as Mary does.  So perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much about her dependence on reverb as an analgesic for this discomfort, if that is what it is, so long as I still can go hear her live, without it.

The concert consisted of two sets, with a brief intermission and two encores.  There was a lot of patter between songs.  I didn’t mind, since, as I said, Mary is articulate and intelligent and tells funny stories well, and what she had to say about each song added to the pleasure of hearing it.  For example, she told how two lines of Dawning of the Day, a song she wrote in honor of the first responders who died on 9/11, came to her as if channeled from Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, by golly! When she sang these two lines they came through especially vividly for me.  During intermission, a man in the bathroom grumbled, “Too much talking.”  I suggested that maybe, as a singer gets older, she needs a bit more time to recover between numbers.

My rejoinder wasn’t entirely flippant.  Considered purely as a feat of athleticism, singing with Mary’s level of artistry and control is very demanding.  She sings with her whole body.  There can be a strong visual dimension to Mary’s performance.  Take, for example, Siren, her song about the mythological Greek bird-women whose voices were a danger for passing sailors.  The song has a vocalise chorus – “oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo”, like that – which, on the recorded version, I had never found very convincing. It seemed a bit hokey and decorative. Then I watched Mary sing it, her beautiful face uplifted, her lips pursed around the string of notes, her body assuming a perching bird-like posture, and the vocalise was revealed as not merely decorative foofaraw; it was lovely and expressive of the siren’s loneliness and longing and her helpless seductiveness.

The set list fell into two categories, for me.  First, there are songs that are notable statements in themselves, which Mary interprets with her combination of passion, sensitivity, and musicality. This includes songs she inherited from those “excellent songwriters” October Project.  Way back in the day, I saw Mary with that band.  Taking her bows at the end of the show, she said “Thank you to Emil Adler and Julie Flanders for writing these wonderful songs for me to sing.”  She should well be grateful.  Not only did Adler write compelling melodies for Flanders’ striking and meaningful lyrics, their compositions were crafted extremely well to suit Mary.  She included several of these in each set.  I hadn’t previously heard Mary do Ariel as a solo. This song imagines, at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magical creature Ariel taking her reluctant leave of the magician Prospero, whom she has served.  It is, among other things, a marvelous meditation on loves that must be escaped because, although genuine, they are too all-encompassing.  The October Project version deployed Emil Adler’s gift for devising sonic environments in which Mary shone like a well-set gem.  But at Caffe Lena she put the song across, strumming her guitar without losing any of the song’s complexity, beauty, drama, and power.

In addition to the OP numbers she included for us old fans, Mary displayed her proclivity for finding songs that are significant statements in a wide range of material, from the eleventh century mozarabic love song Ben Aindi Habibi to Nina Simone’s  Wild is the Wind to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. I was tickled to hear her describe Ben Aindi Habibi as her favorite song.  Of Mary’s repertoire, it is mine.  Every time I hear it, I am utterly destroyed.  I think it is the way so many lines and phrases end with a long note, powerfully but tenderly projected in Mary’s middle and lower registers.  Ahem. Give me a minute.  Okay, I’m back again.  Both Sides Now was performed as a sixty year old’s perspective – that’s Mary’s age, she told us – on a twenty-something genius’s vision.  To each song, Mary brings a psychologically acute specificity. This is one of the many things that make her singing hard to describe.  There never is anything generic about it.  Each note expresses a discrete emotional reality, grounded in experience and particularity.

The second category consists of songs that perform less as noteworthy statements in themselves and more as platforms for Mary to express something.  Mostly, these are the songs she has written.  I hasten to add that Mary is capable of writing songs that are in the first category, also.  Johnny and June, which we didn’t hear on Saturday, for example.  Now that I’ve seen her sing it, I’d have to say, Sirens. Raging Child, another one that didn’t make Saturday’s set list.  But just because you can’t hit a home run every time, doesn’t mean your other times at bat are worthless.  Mary’s genius is, I think, predominantly interpretive.  Often, she writes for herself competent lyrics set to serviceable melodies that, together, provide a vehicle for saying what she has to say.  For example, there are several love songs to her husband, Richard.  I don’t think that any of them is likely to inspire many cover versions; the melodies are beautiful but not compelling, the words say what they have to say without being very memorable.  Now listen to Mary sing them, and you will think, Richard must be a very strong and secure person to be able to receive and accept a loving admiration of that intensity without crumbling, and bearing witness to that is something you won’t forget.

Thank you, Mary, for opening so many windows onto our shared humanity.  Joshua’s trumpet destroyed the walls of Jericho. Your voice, too tears down barriers.

 

UPDATE 6-24-19: By far the best representation on disc of how Mary sounds is her double CD, “Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House”.  It is overwhelming.  But go and see her, if you can – then, on the way out after the concert, stop at the table and buy the CD.

Fambly Valyas

May 17th, 2019

Q: Why Does Moloch Keep Eating Children?

May 12th, 2019

A:  Because that’s what he does.

It is perversely reassuring that even very intelligent and perceptive people are so baffled by Donald Trump’s mentality.  It means that he is an extreme outlier, so far outside the normal ken that he might as well be another species.  I was listening this morning to David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, and Bill McKibben, climate change activist, pronounce themselves stumped by the question whether Donald Trump believes in his climate change denialism.  By contrast, I do not find this puzzling at all. I think I possess a key to understanding Trump that these intellectual lions are searching for in vain.  What that says about me, is something I don’t want to think about too much, right now.

The key is to take really seriously the obvious fact that Trump does not believe anything, at least, not in the same sense that you and I believe things.  For him, facts and truth are entirely fungible.  The only point of reference in his universe is Donald Trump.  Sure, he has certain fixations, like the utter undesirability of any non-Nordic immigrant to the United States and the idea that the trade imbalance with China can be rectified to the United States’ advantage by making U.S. consumers pay more for Chinese goods; but a fixation, an orientation towards the world determined by involuntary psychological factors, is not a “belief” in the same sense that you and I mean by the word, that is, an interpretation of reality based on accepted authority and evidence.

I often say that Trump lies constantly about everything, but I am not being entirely accurate.  In order to lie, one must have some notion of truth, which he does not.  It would be a more precise description to say that no word comes out of his mouth that is neither false nor misleading, because no word of his bears any relation to a referent other than what he conceives to be the advantage to Donald Trump of pronouncing those sounds in that moment.  This is the one thing you never will hear him say.  Otherwise, he will say anything, including things that are directly contrary not only to easily verifiable facts but that directly contradict things he may have said only minutes before.

Another way of seeing it is that words, for Trump, are meaningless except as social currency. They buy attention.  They manipulate behavior.  These reasons alone are why he bothers with grammar and syntax. He displays no sense whatever of the aesthetics of speech, no indication that he uses it to achieve empathy or understanding.  His few attempts at expressing empathy, as when belatedly after a school shooting he will utter his “warmest condolences,” are the clumsy, studied actions of an alien imitating how has observed humans to behave in those circumstances. Language, for him, is purely a transactional medium.  If you want to study Trump, one place to go is the old television series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  One of the humanoid species populating that show was the Ferengi, a race of Trumps, preoccupied almost entirely with personal commercial advantage.  The main Ferengi character was named Quark.  When Trump speaks, I often hear Quark’s distinctive combination of ingratiating whine and bare-toothed snarl, except that Trump’s emotional range is somewhat different, lower and heavier.  There is the occasional ingratiating whine, to be sure, but more often in its place there is the triumphal roar, as when leading a crowd in chanting “Lock her up!  Lock her up!”  That descends through the cheerlessly smirking taunt to the dull, aggressive monotone.

What people like Mr. Remnick and Mr.McKibben canot seem to rid themselves of, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the notion – really, the hope – that Trump possesses some sort of ideology.  Nothing could be farther from the case.  The people Trump seeks to ingratiate himself with are not his fellow believers, of whom there are none, but those whom he can manipulate to his own ends.  (For a fascinating, terrifying closeup depiction of how he does this to the individuals he surrounds himself with, see James Comey’s op-ed in the May 1, 2019 New York Times.)  He goes after the most malleable and gullible, like a scam artist selling fake driveway asphalt services in a housing development full of elderly people.  Of course he espouses climate change denial.  The people who can be taken in by the climate change denial industry are Trump’s meat.  People who understand climate change, despite all the Koch brothers’ expensive efforts, are harder to dupe.  Like any predator, he expends his time and energy on the easier prey.  If Flat Earthers were sufficiently numerous, he’d be directing NASA funding to them.

Similarly, nearly all the head-scratching analysis of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign strategy, based on demographics and economics and careful consideration of whose interests he may be weighing against what, is misguided.  There is no strategy.  Likewise, the people who perceive Trump as engendering “chaos” also miss the point.  There is a polestar to everythinghe does.  It is him, now.  This may look chaotic, observed from the outside, or it may seem to result from the operation of some inscrutable purpose.  Doubtless the cosmic debris plummeting towards the event horizon of a black hole looks chaotic, yet subject to some mysterious direction.

Electability

April 26th, 2019

President Mondale.

President Dukakis.

President Gore.

President Kerry.

President Clinton.

 

Anybody see a pattern?

On Point

April 16th, 2019

Recently, Rep. Ilhan Omar incurred the wrath of the Orange Shite by referring to the World Trade Center attacks with the words, “some people did something.”  There is no way that a reasonable person could construe Rep. Omar’s reference to September 11 as minimizing or belittling the scale or importance of that tragic event.  The only reasonable interpretation, in context, is that 9/11 served as a springboard for islamophobia.  As if to illustrate Rep. Omar’s meaning, the present occupant of the White House seized upon her phraseology as an excuse to wave the bloody flag, inflaming anti-Moslem resentment and libeling Rep. Omar as an extremist supporter of terrorism, thus exposing her to death threats. 

I was dismayed to hear David Folkenflik introduce his radio show, On Point, on April 16, by suggesting that Rep. Omar’s words could be interpreted as anything other than what they manifestly were, or that there was any substantive content to the White House response other than hatred, emotional manipulation, and cynicism.  Mr. Folkenflik clearly is an intelligent, reasonable man with a good grasp of language.  It is dismaying when he joins the all too prevalent practice in the media of acting willfully stupid in order to pursue controversy.  To be sure, careful attentiveness to the principle of “both sides now” is a keystone of journalism.  But so is telling it like it is.  Sometimes there are not really two sides to the story.  Sometimes evil needs to be called by its name.   Sometimes – far too often! -by pretending that there are two sides, and by indulging in euphemistic misdirection, journalists mislead and misinform.  Sadly, On Point is not immune to this.

Who Lives By The Sword

March 22nd, 2019

Since New Zealand responded to the recent white supremacist atrocity against Moslems at prayer in Christchurch by quickly moving to ban the types of weapons used in the attack, the American media has been scratching its head and making clucking noises regarding the unavoidable question, why can’t our political classes seem to muster a similar sense of urgency about protecting their constituents from mass murder?  One hears about the power of the NRA, “our”  (every time a pundit employs that pronoun, one can be sure bullshit is about to follow) “gun culture,” and the Second Amendment as construed by “Justice” Scalia (R, Asshole).  What never gets mentioned is this country’s history of toxic race relations.  This omission is particularly strange in light of the geographic distribution of resistance to gun control in the U.S.  The states most strongly opposed to gun regulation are those of the former Confederacy and of the Mountain West, the very places most recently and enduringly polluted with that toxicity.

It seems to have been forgotten that until 1863 slavery was legal here, and that the ultimate reason and purpose of the Civil War was to abolish this abominable practice.  Whites in the slave-owning territories lived in constant terror of slave revolts, and reserved to themselves a monopoly on violence and on the means of violence, which they used with unremitting brutality to suppress even the vaguest hints of rebellion.  After the brief Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War, during which there was some attempt to treat freed blacks with decency, white supremacists once again took control in the South, oppressing blacks in every way they could devise, including horrendous terrorism and casual, daily violence.  As formerly in slave-owning times, whites enforced their dominance with firepower.  The overall oppression was so severe that for the first half of the twentieth century blacks fled the South in droves, seeking a tolerable life.  It was called the Great Migration.  (One might suggest a parallel in what is producing the so-called “crisis at the border” today, but that is a subject for another time.) What they left behind was a society permeated with racially based fear, in which whites used firearms as a means of social control against the black underclass.  The undercurrents of racial separation, fear, and reliance on a gun as a sort of social-psychological comfort blanket, continue today.

The non-coastal Western states suffer from a lingering frontier mentality, which includes recent history of genocidal, exploitative interaction with Native American tribes. Whenever someone speaks of gun ownership in terms of self defense, I hear, in addition to the slave-owner terrified his chattel will rise up against him, the voice of an early white settler in Montana or Iowa, alone with his kin, nearest neighbor perhaps miles away, feeling a real or imagined threat from outraged indigenous people.  The Indian Wars started in the East in 1622 and continued right up until the 1890s, moving westwards all the time.  In historical terms, a hundred twenty years is not that long ago.  Reflexive attitudes, such as finding comfort in firearms, die slowly, particularly when the origins and reasons for them are largely unacknowledged and unexamined.

White people, long the majority, whose dominance over other groups was obtained and buttressed with bullets, today are a declining demographic in the United States. In a few more decades, if present trends continue, they will be only a plurality.  Meanwhile, unless they can adjust healthily to their lessening dominance and find a way to feel secure among demographic groups many of them traditionally have hated and suppressed, who they have some reason to fear may feel reciprocally, many whites will feel increasingly embattled and despairing.  We see signs of this already in slightly declining white life expectancy and elevated rates of addiction and suicide.  A healthy adjustment is perhaps in doubt. Assuming the worst, they will not be inclined to accept restrictions on the weapons they traditionally have leaned on for social control and individual security. Resistance to gun control in America will relax only as the collective political power of white people ebbs, and as white people learn to get over themselves and live in peace among the people surrounding them.  I hope the latter occurs long before the former reaches its nadir.

Using a Sledgehammer to Swat a Fly

March 6th, 2019

Congress is on the brink of voting on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, intended as a rebuke to Representative Ilhan Omar, who questioned why it is “okay” for powerful lobbying groups “to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” meaning Israel, compounding her previous sin of criticizing the influence on Capitol Hill of the American Israel Public Action Committee.  As a sop to even-handedness, language has been added to the resolution also decrying anti-Muslim bias, but the clear motivation is to slap down Rep. Omar.

As a Jew who frequently doubts whether Israel deserves the level of support it receives from the United States, I have written to my Representative, the excellent and honorable Peter Welch, urging that he abstain from voting on the resolution.  The fact is that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs is brutal, discriminatory, oppressive, and often and in many ways violative of international law.  By referring to an age-old canard that American Jews have divided loyalties, Rep. Omar chose a tactless way of challenging our government’s reflexive support for Israel; but dissenting on policy, which is what she intended, is a far different thing from embracing bigotry against Jews.  A newcomer to the national stage, Rep. Omar needs to learn to express herself in a more acceptable manner.  On the other hand, the House needs to consider the substantive merits of what she has to say, and not to react in such a hysterical, extreme manner as to drive home the very point that Rep. Omar is making.

Sound bite

February 7th, 2019

My publisher, Fomite Press, asked me to provide for their website a recording of an excerpt from my work that relates to a particular calendar date or event.  I thought I might as well also post it here.  My trilogy, In Dante’s Wake, is a retelling of the Divine Comedy as if it were happening to me.  It takes place in August 2005, the time of Hurricane Katrina.  The first two volumes, To Join the Lost (corresponding to Dante’s Inferno) and Among the Lost (corresponding to Dante’s Purgatorio) have been published by Fomite.  You can purchase them here.  In this excerpt from Volume 3, presently a work in progress, I am standing with Dante and some others on a beach in paradise at dawn, looking out across the ocean.  Dante is talking.

Banging all our heads against the wall

January 4th, 2019

As the nation, or at least the media, obsesses over the president’s insistence that spending $5.6 billion on a physical barrier along the southern border is more important than nearly everything else the executive branch does, along comes Francisco Cantu in the January 17, 2019 issue of the New York Review of Books to remind us of the context to which the phrase “government shutdown” currently refers.  Mr. Cantu points out that since the 1990s our government’s policy regarding immigration along the southern border has been known officially as “Prevention Through Deterrence,” that is, reliance upon the forbidding geography and climate of those regions to make migration prohibitively difficult and dangerous and to channel migrants who persevere into areas that can be blocked by patrols and barriers.  The predictable result is that people die trying to cross the border.  You may be interested to know how many.  No accurate count exists, because, according to Mr. Cantu, the death tolls do not include thousands of people “who have been reported as missing and never found, not to mention those whose disappearances are never reported in the first place.”  The official tally, says Cantu, is more than 6,000 between 2000 and 2016.  “When the Border Patrol demands recognition for saving lives,” says Cantu, “it’s as if firefighters were asking to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief.”

Take a moment to let that sink in.  Our government’s official policy since the Clinton administration has been to create a state of affairs leading to the deaths of at least 6,000 people, nearly all of whom wanted nothing more than to become productive members of our society; and our current political imbroglio centers upon the president’s insistence on taking measures which could be relied upon to up the death rate.   Building a wall along the border will not stop desperate people from trying to go over, under, or through it, or die in the attempt.  When you hear or read a reporter or commentator tossing off the phrase “government shutdown,” that’s what they’re talking about.

Thousands of people are dead by design already, pursuant to official policy of the government of the United States.  The so-called “debate” over the wall is little more than a disagreement over how best to run the death machine.  I say, good for Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues for standing firm against the president’s horribly wasteful and monstrous demands.  But that’s a far cry from moving towards a humane, sensible, reality-based immigration policy.

Lebensraum

December 27th, 2018

My attitude about real estate development is summed up by the old joke about the Vermonter showing his flatlander cousin, up from New York for a weekend visit, around the family hill farm.  After climbing through woods, they reach a small meadow with an expansive view across the valley.  “Beautiful!  Great place for a house,” says the flatlander.  “Great place for a meadow,” says the farmer.

In my book To Join the Lost, a takeoff on Dante’s Inferno, while walking through the grove of suicides we encounter a real estate developer.  He’s hiding in a pile of used clothing, like a homeless street person trying to keep warm.  As we bid him good-bye, a pack of wild animals finds him and begins ripping at him with their teeth:  “something scorned exacted revenge.”  So much of the way we treat the land is ultimately self-destructive.  Sooner or later the meadow, and the wildness and beauty of which it is the placid seeming face, will have their way with us.

Other, more anthropocentric values are implicated, too.  Once in a while I receive a card or a latter in the mail from someone who’s canvassing my neighborhood looking for homes to buy and flip.  They buy it, they upgrade it, they sell it at a profit.  I write back and tell them that they are opportunistic scum, destroying neighborhoods with absentee ownership and artificially inflating property values so that housing is ever less affordable.  I tell them that what they are doing should not be legal.

Ken Schatz, Commissioner of Vermont’s Department for Children and Families, recently announced that homelessness is worsening in Vermont, despite all our creative policies and the millions of dollars we’ve poured into programs to address it.  (Ken, I hasten to add, is one of the best, most competent, conscientious, good-hearted, and hard-working public servants I’ve known.)  Homelessness is a multifaceted problem.  There’s not one single magic wand solution.  However, experience has shown that one of the major, most effective things that can be done about it is to – wait for it – put people into houses.  Yes, if people have housing that they can afford, they tend not be homeless.  One thing we could do to enhance the availability of affordable housing would be to discourage speculation in housing stock.  Mommy and daddy should not be allowed to buy a house for Biff or Buffy to stay in during their four years at UVM, with a view to either retaining it as a rental income property or selling it at a profit after the little darling graduates.  Colleges should be required to provide adequate on-campus housing for their students, so that the transient student population doesn’t eat up the affordable housing stock, driving up rents and depreciating the physical condition of the dwellings and the neighborhoods.  All forms of speculative investment in real estate involving housing should be subject to severe discouragement through confiscatory fees and taxes, calibrated so as to allow residents to upgrade the properties they live in while denying rewards to flippers and absentee owners.  Conversion of owner occupied properties to absentee owner rentals should be particularly strongly discouraged.  The point is not so much to privilege owning a house over renting it, as to combat the practice of treating a house as a profit center.

If we were in the midst of a famine, we would not permit speculative investment in staple foods to heighten scarcity and drive up prices.  Why do we allow this with housing?  People fill the homeless shelters and routinely exhaust the funding for emergency motel beds.  Families sleep through the winter in their cars.  A house isn’t just a financial asset.  We shouldn’t allow housing to be treated that way.  Homelessness is one result of something scorned, exacting revenge.