Thursday, August 24, 2017

Leo Kottke Redux

I’m not sure how old I was when I started thinking about death regularly, but it picked up quite a bit after I had a heart attack at 57.  It was mild as heart attacks go, one stent the fix, probably caused by stress and lack of sleep, but it made me pretty angry.  After that I considered the possibility of checking out quite a bit.  I may have thought occasionally about death prior to that, but I assure you it was only occasionally.  I can’t remember to tell the truth.  Aside from a few dark dramatic moments while traveling in my twenties I’ve always only thought about dying involuntarily.  I would never kill myself I don’t believe, unless I knew I was losing my mind, because I would always look forward to my next meal.
When you’re young you consistently equate death with old people, who die regularly.  Perhaps young people now, what with terrorism, the opioid epidemic, and the dystopian pessimism going around think more about death than I did but I doubt it.  I took a lot of risks which, if I thought I was going to die, I probably would not have.  Death never crossed my mind when I was young. 

It’s hard to avoid thinking about death now at 66, and impossible if you’ve lost a person you loved (a spouse, a sibling, a child).  When friends or family experience the death of one they regard as impossible to exist without, we empathize in a chilling way.  All we have to do is imagine losing a child, a wife or husband.  As a young father I was once invaded by the thought of my infant daughter dying, for what reason I’ll never know. She was and is as healthy as a horse.  I was driving at the time.  I had to pull over I was shaken so badly.
It’s not long after we imagine the deaths of those we love that we finally picture our own.  It’s a slap in the face.  Not pretty. Optimistically, I picture my own death this way.  95, witty, still able to take nourishment and fairly mobile, I laugh out loud while looking up at a blue summer sky, step off a curb, and am hit by a speeding truck loaded with whiskey.
“Poor Dave.  He never knew what hit him.”

“Yep.  The whiskey did kill him in the end, just like his wife said it would.”
Pondering your death is as normal as getting up in the night to pee.  You can’t help but do it, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Try not to share your thoughts too often though with young people, especially your children.  They don’t like it.  But don’t think yourself morose or depressed.  It’s OK.  Death, as they say, they being funeral directors, is part of life.

If nothing else thinking of death is a mathematical function that simply happens in your head.  You’re sitting across the table from a friend much your senior, looking into his somewhat vacant eyes.  Are they different than they were a year ago or is that me?  Or is that blank look just because he isn’t wearing his hearing aids?
“How old are you now?”


I’m 66.  That could be me in 15 years.  Shit.  Fifteen years is not long.  I have to get busy.

And so ends the long introduction to my piece on Leo Kottke.  My wife and I saw Leo Monday night at the City Winery.  He was wonderful and so is that venue.  We ate there with the kids before the show.  A little pricey but SURPRISE, they picked up part of the tab.  I never thought I’d live that long.
We got married to Leo’s version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”  We listened to his Armadillo album till we wore out the grooves and lost it.  I recently downloaded it and put it on a CD, and am wearing that out as we speak, or as I write rather.  He’s unique.  I have blogged about him before,  two years ago on a drive down south in the Buick.  (You can scroll down if you choose, January, 2016-Road Trip #11).  Here's Leo Kottke when he was young.

Leo has had a hell of a good life, viewed from afar, and has been able I think to stay true to what he loves and is blessed with talent at doing, playing guitar.  He came out on stage at the City Winery with two guitars, a 6 and a 12 string, sat down on a chair and played.  In between he told droll stories.  Even a hitch hiking story, always my favorites, from when he was a busker and played on the streets.  Hitch hiking is all but gone.  I wonder now if the young people among us can imagine what it was like. 
He still plays beautifully.  The notes he gets out of his instrument are so clear and sweet they make me cry.  He sang more than I anticipated, and played mellower versions of his mellower tunes.  My wife asked nicely

Weren’t you just waiting for him to break out into his really loud, hard driving stuff?”
She was talking about Leo’s fast, frenetic playing, known technically as polyphonic finger picking, a complicated thumb and finger technique accomplished with thumb and finger picks.  Tendinitis has forced Leo to give up on most of that stuff.  My wife and I were longing for tunes like “The Driving of the Year Nail, ” the raw and raunchy counterpart to his beautiful slow stuff like Bach’s Jesu.  He didn’t play it.  I don’t think he can anymore.

He played beautifully and I was honored to hear him, the first time I’ve ever heard him live.  When he walked out I felt weirdly like I knew him from somewhere.  I completely agreed with him and his take on encores.  The strange custom that we have developed at concerts where artists leave the stage, wait for the audience to clap and whistle, then come back on and perform more as if they were really going to leave.  Leo simply announced his last tune as his encore, played it wonderfully, picked up his guitars and left the stage.
When he held his guitars up and gestured to the crowd, I thought I saw him rock forward slightly then regain his balance.  That happens when you’re old.
Leo is 71, five years older than me.  I don’t know how long he’ll play, because playing is almost all he’s ever done, but nothing lasts forever.  When it comes to individual performers that’s because no person lasts forever.  I’m pretty sure no one’s going to play like Leo Kottke ever again.  No Leo Kottke one man tribute band I’m thinking.  He’s one of a kind.  And then the thought crept in.

The thought  began with a conversation about Gato Barbieri.  I was talking to my friend Bill about Gato, one of his favorite jazz musicians, who plays the saxophone.  Make that played.
“I always wanted to see Gato, and I had a chance while I was in Rome a few years ago.  Saw he was in town, bought tickets on a whim, went down to the hall, and the show was canceled.  He got sick.  Bad break.

Later he was scheduled in Chicago, and I was all set to order tickets, and damned if he didn’t die. I waited too long see Gato.  Makes me mad.  I’ve decided not to wait till the next time to see people I really admire.  Hell if it’s not them it could be me.”
I feel the same way about Bob Dylan.  I’ve seen him a few times, been disappointed lately, but when I get the chance I’ll see him again.  We grew up together in a way, but neither he nor I are going to last forever.  Another friend said he saw Gordon Lightfoot perform not long ago, and he had to take a medical break between sets.  Breathing treatment or some such thing.  Go see your musical heroes perform while you (or they) still can.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Billy Joel

Note to Readers:  I didn’t give you the links for all the songs I’m writing about tonight.  They’re easily searchable and playable.  But here’s an idea.  If you have one of those devices, an Amazon Echo, an Echo dot, or some other such AI device that responds to your voice commands, tell it to play those songs for you while I write about them.  It will enhance your Dave in the Shack experience.

I heard Billy Joel in concert Saturday night at Wrigley Field.  It was my first Wrigley concert. Paul McCartney was there not long ago.  It’s clearly more than a baseball field these days.  They put a huge stage up in center field covering the old scoreboard. We sat near home plate.  Billy looked small up there.  You knew it was him, though he looked about three inches high, but then his presence was confirmed by huge screens above him showing him in detail, then band members, occasionally the crowd, or images from album covers, or photographs of various scenes, all at least 20 feet tall.  It was impressive.  Technology made up for the cavernous size of the venue.  They closed the bleachers, but put seats on the outfield grass.  I’d guess as many or more attended than a ball game.  And at the prices they charged for seats, I think both Billy and the Ricketts family made a fair amount of money.

What shocked me were Billy Joel’s opening words to the crowd.  He kibitzed about Chicago, the bugs that are attracted to the stage lights (he had both a fly swatter and bug spray), did some trash talking about Elton John, and then confessed this about the songs we were about to hear

“I’ve got nothing new.”

The audience roared.  New stuff?  The crowd could have cared less.  They wanted the old stuff.  They wanted what Billy Joel was, what he represents, not the 68 year old white guy with a shaved head on stage.  They yearned for Billy Joel the singer songwriter, he of solid lyrics, great arrangements, strong voice.  That voice from our past that produces the feeling we got when we first heard him, when both he and we were young.

Not that it was a uniformly old crowd.  I expected to be in the norm at nearly 66, and I was wrong.  People of all ages paid that ticket price for the experience.  A couple in their forties were there with their perhaps 12 year old son.  Both he and his parents recognized the songs and knew the lyrics.  Billy Joel apparently has staying power.  Intergenerational appeal.

With a prolific artist like Billy Joel, who had so many hits over so many years, no one gets all the songs they want.  There’s just too many.  Obviously he didn’t take requests, though he did do an interesting thing.   Sitting at the piano talking into the mike he would suggest two songs and then play the one that drew the most audience response.

“Do you want to hear The Ballad of Billy the Kid from the Piano Man album?  Or Vienna from The Stranger?”

Although I screamed for the Ballad of Billy the Kid we, the ballpark we, picked Vienna.  That’s the way it goes.  Majority rules, the crowd spoke, a choice was made, the losing song was never mentioned again.

Billy Joel played 28 songs.  You can get set lists  on the internet instantly now.  I liked them all and knew the lyrics of most.  It’s amazing what we have in our heads and how the music and the lyrics come back to us.  I found myself hoping for songs I treasured but feared wouldn’t be played.  They weren’t.  Travellin’ Prayer was one, from the Piano Man album, which came out in 1973.

I bought Piano Man when I was teaching at Ottawa High School.  I was 22.  I had nice speakers and a good turntable.  Travellin' Prayer was the first song on Side One.  I was hooked immediately. 

It’s  musically a simple song  starting with a snare drum, adding bass guitar, Billy’s spare piano, a banjo, then a honky tonk piano bridge joined by an electric guitar, fading out with a Jew’s harp of all things.  In 1973 the Eagles were around the corner, and country was seeping into rock.  The banjo fit right in.  Other songs on the album had steel guitar in the background. 

But it was the lyrics.  It’s always the lyrics for me I think in songs that have them.  The music enhances the words, but the words carry the day.  I immediately liked the way Billy Joel wrote about women.  Travellin’ Prayer is his wish, his request to God, for one woman in particular.  Everybody had that woman (or man), at least one, when they were 22.  Someone else, out there somewhere, alone maybe but at least gone from you.  Here’s the highlights, paraphrased:
Hey Lord, take a look all around tonight and find where my baby is gonna be

Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight cause she is far across the sea

Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight, make sure that she’s gonna be all right

and things are gonna be all right with me.

Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight

             and make sure that all her dreams are sweet.

Hey Lord, would you guide her along the road and make them softer for her feet

Until she’s home and here with me.

Oh, don’t you give her too much rain and try to keep her away from pain

Because my baby hates to cry.

Said now, this song seem strange is just because I don’t know how to pray.

Oh, won’t you give her peace of mind, and if you ever find the time

Won’t you tell her I miss her every day. 

That was Billy Joel’s first album on Columbia.  It broke big in sales and made Billy Joel nationally known, on his way to being an international star.  He had made an album earlier, Cold Spring Harbor, on the Family Productions label in 1971 that sold better in Australia and Japan than it ever did in the states. There was a single though that snuck out of that album which was beautifully written.  He didn’t play that either Saturday night.  It’s “She’s Got a Way.”  When songwriters captures emotion, their work stands out.  Billy had a knack for that, not only in the words he wrote but in the way he delivered them, and it became apparent in that early song.

                She’s got a way about her

                I don’t know what it is.

                But I know that I can’t live without her.

                She’s got a smile that heals me,

                I don’t know why it is.

                But I have to laugh when she reveals me.

                She’s got a light around her.

                And everywhere she goes,

                A million dreams of love surround her

I only have three Billy Joel albums on vinyl, and none in any other format.  I missed a couple while I was travelling, and soon after I got back to the states and assembled cash once more I bought “The Stranger.”  That’s where you find Vienna, a plea to his lover (I assume) to slow down and enjoy life.  The more famous songs on that album are the title track, and the songs from the New York neighborhood, all of which he played at Wrigley: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Movin’ Out, Just the Way You Are, Only the Good Die Young.”  It was riddled with hits, and probably cemented Billy Joel’s fame.  Musically the songs were funkier, more hip, compared to Piano Man.  It was 1977 after all.

His lyrics from arguably the best track on the album, “She’s Always a Woman” came as a surprise to me.  They represented some kind of change.  Either Billy was hanging out with different women, or he was looking at women in a different way.  The music is spare: piano, flute, guitar, but the woman he refers to is not perfectly portrayed as the woman he seeks protection for in “Travellin’ Prayer” or angelic as his subject in “She’s Got a Way.” Read this carefully.

                She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes

                She can ruin your faith with her casual lies

                And she only reveals what she wants you to see

                She hides like a child but she’s always a woman to me.

                She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you

                She can ask for the truth but she’ll never believe you

                And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free

                Yeah she steals like a thief but she’s always a woman to me.

                Oh she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants

                She’s ahead of her time

                Oh, and she never gives out and she never gives in

                She just changes her mind

                But she brings out the best and the worst you can be

                Blame it all on yourself cause she’s always a woman to me

                She is frequently kind and she’s suddenly cruel

                She can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool

                But she can’t be convicted, she’s earned her degree

                And the most she will do is throw shadows at you

                But she’s always a woman to me.

That woman has power.  She’s not dependent on men.  She seems to know what she wants and is ready to take it.  You get the idea that the song writer, and Billy Joel wrote all these songs, learned to respect her and not take her for granted.  I think something changed in Billy Joel’s outlook that allowed him to find the words to describe this woman.  And I think what changed was that he grew as a man and was able to see women differently.  He may have loved her, but you get the idea it wasn’t totally up to him.  After all, “she can lead you to love” but she can also “take you or leave you.”  I don’t care to dig into Billy Joel’s life to try to determine who that woman might have been, but I know it was a departure.  I took notice.

The Stranger in 1977, 52nd Street in 1978, and Glass Houses in 1980 (which I also have) were Billy Joel’s best selling albums.  He recorded thirteen studio albums of fresh new material, his last being Fantasies and Delusions in 2001.  After that it was live albums, greatest hits, compilations, videos.  Primarily the same songs packaged in different ways.  Thirteen albums spanning 30 years.  None of the songs he played at Wrigley from that body of work could have been less than sixteen years old.  And we didn’t care.  We wanted more.  Concerts, like careers, only last so long.  Fortunately, you don’t have to be contemporary to be credible.  His songs sounded as fresh and true as any new song you will hear tomorrow.  Talent lives on.

I’ve already written too much but I can’t stop without sharing this little anthem off Billy Joel’s first album.  Not his most famous, probably not his best, but as a guy who occasionally blows off steam, I treasure its message.  I think Billy and I are kindred souls in fact, if he has indeed lived out this song. Read and remember.  You may need to use this logic some morning.  It’s from the song “Ain’t No Crime.”   And yes, a woman is involved.

You got to open your eyes in the morning

Nine o’clock coming without any warning

And you gotta get ready to go

You say you went out late last evenin’

You did a lot of drinkin’

Come home stinkin’

And you went and fell asleep on the floor

Ain’t no crime

Say everybody gets that way sometime

Ain’t no crime

You know it’s good to get it on to get a load off your mind

Oh no, it ain’t no crime

And then your lady comes and find you asleepin’

Starts in to weepin’ bout the hours you been keepin’

And you better get your ass out the door

 Well now you tell me you love somebody

And you’ll love ‘em forever

You may love ‘em forever

But you won’t like ‘em all of the time

Well now you tell me you need someone for the rest of your life

You might have somebody

But you won’t want ‘em everyday

Ain’t no crime

Say ev’rybody gets that way sometimes

Ain’t no crime

Well it’s just human nature happens all the time

Oh no it ain’t no crime

And just as surely as the wind keep blowin’

The grass keep growin’

You got to keep goin’

And the Lord have mercy on your soul

Thanks for reading all the way to the end.  Billy would be pleased.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Takashi Murakami

At the beginning of June we were in Chicago celebrating- family birthdays, a new job, a new business opportunity, and summer.  There is a lot of discord in America these days.  Conversation across the country among friends and family is rife with controversy and misgivings.  You couldn’t prove it by us during that trip.
We stayed in a good old (new to us) hotel with a rooftop bar, the Rafaelo, saw the kids, met up with friends, and laughed a lot.  It was good to get away after a long time going nowhere.

Close to the hotel was the Museum of Contemporary Art.  They had an exhibition by a crazy and famous Japanese artist named Takashi Murakami, a person about whom my wife and I knew little.  Both my son and daughter told us about him.  We had visited our daughter in Japan when she taught English there and developed a special feeling for the country and its art.  If we saw his stuff on that trip we don’t remember.  His big and outlandish art overwhelmed the small museum behind the Water Tower.  My son and I saw Jeff Koons’ amazing stuff at the MCA  years ago.  He’s the guy who makes metal look like pillows and balloons, does take offs on pop idols like Michael Jackson, and creates complex 3-D erotic dioramas.

Even though I was then on crutches, Murakami was too good to miss.  Our friends dropped us off there after lunch in Fulton Market.  I traded my crutches for a complimentary wheelchair and we took our time through the exhibit. 
Takashi Murakami has devoted his life to art.  He trained at the Tokyo University of the Arts with an eye on working in animation and manga, Japanese comics.  In the end however he earned a Ph.D. in Nihonga, the traditional art of Japanese painting.  It didn’t take long for him to become dissatisfied with tradition.  The world was changing fast and Japan, in his mind, changed much too slowly.  

Takashi Murakami is a star of the modern art world.  He’s an international big deal.  I vaguely knew he devised cartoon like pop figures, worked with Kanye West, Pharrel Williams, and Louis Vuitton,  doing crossover work into commercial media.  But he is anything but one dimensional.  Murakami’s art, like all good work, changes over time. 
Writing about visual artists is a fairly pointless exercise.  It’s like newspaper music reviews, trying to find words to describe sound.  If you want to understand music you have listen to it.  If you want to understand visual art, specifically Takashi Murakami’s art, you have to see it. 

That being said, let me give this a try.
Takashi Murakami believed contemporary Japanese art had for too long done little more than adapt to Western trends.  His early work reflected sharp criticism and satire of his modern island nation’s society.  He was one of the first to develop his own pop icon, Mr. DoB, a sort of alter ego which appears in his work over and over.


He sought to break down the barrier between high and low culture and its respective art, the divide between art galleries and commercial design, and created art that defied categorization. Like this  plastic sculpture, Cosmos Ball.

Murakami’s art is noted for its use of color.  It incorporates motifs that could be described as cute, psychedelic, or satirical.  Among his best known and often used elements are smiling flowers, mushrooms, skull, Buddhist iconic characters, and devotees of obsessive interests, known in Japan as ‘otaku.”.
In 2000, Murakami published his “Superflat” theory for an exhibition he curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art.Los Angeles.   He contends there is a legacy of flat, two dimensional imagery from Japanese manga and anime which differs from the west in its emphasis on surface and use of flat panes of color.  It is also a comment on how post war Japanese society which has flattened, creating little difference between high and low social classes and their art.  For Murakami this meant packaging elements of his expensive high art works as merchandise, plush toys and t shirts, making them available at more affordable prices.

It all paid off for Murakami.  He created a production workshop, the Hiropon Factory, to work on a larger scale and create a diverse array of media.  There he works with art students and apprentices, creating pencil designs which are enlarged digitally, approving colors, putting to work an army of artists creating huge canvases and massive sculptures. 
His first retrospective traveled from LA to Brooklyn, then from Frankfurt to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain.  In 2008, Murakami was named one of Time magazine’s “100 most Influential people”,  the only visual artist included.  He was the third artist ever to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles. 

In 2012, Murakami opened an exhibit in Doha, Qatar titled Murakami Ego, showing old works alongside new art.  Among the new art was a 100 meter long wall painting dedicated to the suffering of the Japanese people after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, its second devastating nuclear incident after the twin US inflicted bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It features varied individual depictions of arhats, or Buddhist saints.  Arhats are perfected persons who traditionally began as monks.  Their spiritual journey is complete.   They will not be reborn through reincarnation, for they have overcome sensuous desire and ill will, achieving nirvana.
Murakami was profoundly affected by the Fukushima incident, and created the exhibit and his arhats to bring comfort to Japan.  In doing so he came full circle, back to his traditional training, his Buddhist roots, his spiritual home of sorts. 

No pictures of the arhats folks.  You have to go the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to see them properly.  They have soulful eyes, each different from the other, each reaching out to the viewer.  You will find one that touches you.
And there you go.  The exhibit is open till September 24th.   It’s titled “THE OCTOPUS EATS IT’S OWN LEG.”  That’s an old Japanese folk tale now disproven.  It was believed the octopus in times of severe hardship or distress eats its own leg, gains nourishment, and recovers to grow another.  Marine biologists now know that an octopus will eat its own leg, but only when afflicted by a disease that eventually kills them.

Murakami, like Japanese culture and our own modern western world, is outrageous and complex.  I rolled through the exhibit in awe, blown away by the power that can be generated by a visual artist through color, design, and collaboration aimed at insight into the kinds of lives we live today.
Note: This was difficult to write.  I’m unfamiliar with the subject, had to do research, and found it difficult to find words that represented what I was thinking.  But then it was also done alone.

Whereas Takashi Murakami, like Dale Chihuly, the famous one eyed glassblower, creates art with others in a hub of activity, their productions something of a party, a celebration of art and expression, writers write alone and in silence.  You read their words and stories alone and in silence.  How can collaboration come to prose and poetry?  I’d love to find a way.  If it could work, I would build a bigger shack.  But I have my doubts.