We Are Not That Far Apart

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Nearly everyone desires to live in a better world, whatever that means. Here, I will stipulate a “better world” has an abundance of resources, peace, and happiness, and less struggle to achieve them. It has been sold to us that politics is the means to these utopian aspirations. It has been sold to us that, through politics, we must regulate both government and markets to achieve these ends. It has also been sold to us there are two sides to the political spectrum, and that we must climb aboard one of the two warships to survive the political battles that will follow as a result of this pursuit.

To crudely summarize American politics: the Left sees the government as the arbiter of equality, and believes the markets must be restrained in its pursuit. On the Left, democracy is the core value. The Right, however, sees the markets as the arbiter of liberty, and believes the government must be restrained in its pursuit. On the Right, freedom is the core value.

Those four terms – equality, democracy,  liberty, and freedom – all mean different things. And they mean different things to different people. But few people would totally discredit any of those terms outright; although, individially, we will certainly be predisposed to some over others. One person may have different ideas than another on what mix of these ideals would work best in pursuing utopia. And that’s fine. It would be weird if we all held the same policy beliefs – or the same ideas of utopia, for that matter. But most would prefer a better future, in the aforemetioned “better world.”

The point is, collectively, we are not very far apart in our utopian pursuits. It is collectively that we devise programs – through politics – that tinker with government and the markets to achieve these ends. And it is collectively that we fail to analyze what human incentives work best to achieve them. This mismanagement results - in real terms - in wasted capital and human pain.

Whereas government can ignore these incentives, markets cannot. Markets must balance supply and demand at a price, monitor these pricing signals, and adjust. Likewise, whereas government can respect human irregularities and protect them as rights, markets cannot. Markets reward merit sans discretion through profits and losses. So neither government nor markets are perfect.

The fact is, neither perfect liberty nor perfect equality can ever be achieved due to basic incentives and human action toward them. We can only hope for equilibrium between the two. But both Left and Right are deluded about human action in both government and markets – and how they differ – because they are stuck on their proverbial warships.

The only way we get to a better – albeit imperfect – future is to annotate our policy goals, adapt to changes, measure the results, and alter them accordingly. We shouldn’t be afraid to overhaul or scrap systems that aren’t working. We also shouldn’t be afraid of expanding on things that work. To continually improve in government and markets – that is, society in general – we cannot live in fear that others might perceive we have jumped ship.

In other words, we don’t need politics to have a better world. Indeed, politics keeps us from a better world.

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Lonesome Death of Naushad Virani

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A stranger in this land but I loved this nation
Standing behind the counter at the local gas station
Was Christmas night at the Ridgewood Grocery
Working so others could be with their families
On a quiet Texas highway in a little country store
Ten o’clock Bubba Walder burst through the door

I had a family of my own, but he didn’t care
The night his bullets pierced through the air

Like Bubba, Nine Eleven filled me with dread
That didn’t stop Bubba from putting a bullet in my head
SS on his neck and a teardrop under his eye
Blamed his troubles on me but I don’t know why
Bubba called me names and raised a gun to my face
Then he blew my brains all over this place

Mind mad and trigger happy, Bubba didn’t care
Christmas night my store had smoke in the air

Hundreds of years my people fought the people he hates
That didn’t stop Bubba Walder from sealing my fate
At the Ridgewood Grocery behind a Texaco sign
Across from a farm and nestled under the pines
Would ask Bubba to forgive if I only knew how
So ask yourself; who is the terrorist now

And who deserved to die, but the jury didn’t care
Bubba’s doing life in prison somewhere

After a standoff in Tyler, Bubba let it slip
He saw the cops behind him and he loaded his clip
But when he saw all of them were white
He decided to give up and not to fight
About three miles from here where I died mistaken
Thirteen years prior a white girl was taken

Bubba took my life, it seems nobody cares
As much as they do when their skin is fair

In my family’s letter, looking for words to heal:
“No words can express the pain and loss we feel”
Thanked the community and then the letter said:
“Our grief is compounded with Naushad’s untimely death”
I left a three year old daughter in Two Thousand Nine
Executed in hatred behind a Texaco sign

I was fifty with a family, but nobody cares
How my girl will grow up without her father there

And I’ll tell you the truth, a truth far too clear
The man who wrote this song grew up a mile from here
Just happened to be in town on that very night
For Christmas to see his folks, barely made the last flight
At the stop sign turning left, couldn’t help but look right
Blinded by a sea of blue and red police lights

Thought it was a drunk, so he really didn’t care
Didn’t know the stench of death hung heavy in the air

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South for Winter

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Been a waitress in this restaurant / since nineteen ninety four
Can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted / to walk right out that door
I was a teacher but they moved the school / when the river ran dry
If birds fly South for Winter, why can’t I?

My ex husband lost his mind in war / he lives somewhere on the shore
Kids left me with this patch of dirt / it’s no use to me anymore
It used to hurt and tear me up / but I now no longer cry
If birds fly South for Winter, why can’t I?

My boyfriend works the timber here / friends say he’s just for show
I’d probably love the Midwest / but I know, I’ll never know
Tonight a lone goose overhead / taunts honking like a semi
If birds fly South for Winter, why can’t I?

Eight hour shift, out for a smoke / Maybe it’s time for a fresh start
Rattled by a chilly wind / and a gust from the depths of my heart
Leaves are changing on the trees / trading colors with the sky
If birds fly South for Winter, why can’t I?

Snuffed out my hopes and dreams / in the ashtray of defeat
Gazed out at the feeder road / at the end of St. John’s Street
Buried my courage, locked up, went home / because this is where I’ll die
If birds fly South for Winter, why can’t I?

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The Ballad of Bob Newsom

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Bob Newsom was an honest man / We grew up down South together
Just kids down at the barber shop / Where old men discuss the weather

At the diner circling classifieds / Beneath the Open sign
By chance Bob Newsom was seated / At the table next to mine

Talked late into the night / Comparing careers and romances
My hopes had all fizzled out / He was the king of second chances

Encouraged me to take a chance / I thought I had none at all
I was walking through tattered shoes / With no place left to fall

Bob Newsom was an honest man / That was plain to see
He was my friend / To the bitter end / He took the fall for me

Drinks and things got out of hand / Nauseous with blood on my face
Ducking through alleys and Bob / Helped me upstairs to my place

He gave me his number and said / Someday it might come in handy
Yes it’s best that you get going / Because those aren’t bags of candy

Bob got nervous looking at / A bloody hammer on the floor
I was in the kitchen washing up / Bob says someone’s at the door

When they busted in I was gone / Bob took the fall that night
Silent when I gave my alibi / Both knew I didn’t do him right

Bob Newsom was an honest man / That was plain to see
He was my friend / To the bitter end / He took the fall for me

Time faded away and I got straight / Where Bob went I don’t know
An honest man will make it out alright / I keep telling myself it’s so

I got a job at the hardware store / In charge of cutting lumber
One day in my shirt pocket I found / Scrap paper with Bob’s number

Should I call him to say thanks / For bearing my sins while I hid
And to thank him for believing in me / When nobody else did

Bob Newsom was an honest man / Can’t believe he accepted my call
And I learned something else from him / He was my place to fall

Bob Newsom was an honest man / That was plain to see
He was my friend / To the bitter end / and he gave me victory

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Self Portraits: How to Paint a Masterpiece

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Today, Bob Dylan released Volume 10 of his official bootleg set entitled Another Self Portrait.  The 2-disc collection captures outtakes and alternative versions from 1969 to 1971, during which he released Nashville Skyline (1969), Self Portrait (1970), and New Morning (also 1970). The 4-disc version includes his 1969 live set from Isle of Wight, two books, and a remastered version of Self Portrait.

To properly understand this era, Dylan’s previous stages and personas must first be understood. Bob Dylan was essentially created by 20-year old Robert Zimmerman in 1962, emerging from obscurity to play American folk music - and soon thereafter - protest songs, performed solo with guitar, harmonica, and voice. These songs promoted him to be the leader of the early 1960s folk revival, the pinnacle of which he played at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech - 50 years ago this week. Albums such as Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and the incredible The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) – full of seriousness, angst, and totally devoid of the humor of its predecessor – vaulted him the top of a movement. He was seen as a sort of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left, a position he did not want. He was called by some “the spokesman of a generation;” by others, a “prophet.” Today, Wikipedia says Dylan was the “reluctant figurehead of social unrest.”

Rather than be, in his words, the “archbishop of anarchy,” he abandoned folk songs for Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), before he shocked the world by plugging in, famously “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival 1965. He released three albums during this incredibly productive 14-month period – Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (also 1965), and Blonde On Blonde (1966). All the while, he was shaking the music industry with raucous live performances with The Hawks, soon to become The Band.

These electric albums comprise my former favorite Dylan era, and their epic intensity is difficult to overexaggerate. While he was creating new sounds, he was doing for rock-and-roll what he had once done for folk: reviving its past. And as with his folkier albums, the sounds and the lyrics are simultaneously loose and on a knife’s edge.

At this point, it should be stated that, yes, Dylan is most known by these two distinct phases which have earned him many accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. During its presentation, President Obama said of Dylan, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.” Time Magazine referred to him as a “master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation.” And yet, while Dylan was broadening his fan base from folk to rock and beyond, he was alienating his old protest movement fans, and in turn, was heckled with taunts of “Judas” and was subjected to an onlaught of bizzare interviews that showed signs of a different kind of departure.

By mid-1966, Dylan was tired. Many justifiably speculate that the combination of his brutal touring schedule and his drug regimen had worn him down. He found himself wanting, in his words, to do nothing. He soon got that chance; on July 29, 1966, he was involved in a motorcycle accident of questionable severity – supposedly breaking his neck - outside his manager Albert Grossman’s house in Woodstock, NY. Much has been hypothesized about what happened and why, but one thing was certain: Dylan’s upcoming world tour was cancelled as he entered years of convalescent leave, thus beginning the greatest transformation of his career.

Over time, the post-motorcycle accident era has become my favorite. By no means do I mean this era was his most dynamic, nor am I saying his songs or that the resulting handful of albums are his best. But he gained a sense of space and comfort in the songs he wrote (or covered) with a range of voices and styles. He was able to escape whatever demons he was battling to spend much-needed time with his family. He was a father now, raising three kids with his wife - all of which was previously unknown to the public – in a house in the artists’ village of Woodstock, NY.

His songs during this period sound happier. That doesn’t mean, to paraphrase Townes Van Zandt, that they are “Zippity-Do-Dah.” But he certainly sounds more relaxed, humbled, and more comfortable with himself, returning to traditional folk songs to reinterpret some of those older sounds and define new ones. He was unbound.

He spent his days writing songs both for himself and for others to record, thereby fulfilling his contractual agreements. He recorded what is now known as The Basement Tapes – rock music’s first bootleg – at a pink house, being rented by The Band, in West Saugerties, NY, in which they eventually recorded the epic albums Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). In the middle of these sessions, Dylan returned to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding (1967), a simpler, more straightforward album with numerous Biblical references.

As the late 1960′s raged on, along came the Woodstock Festival, literally in Dylan’s backyard. He rejected the hippie counterculture, and returned again to Nashville to record Nashville Skyline (1969), a full-on country album using a crooner voice. The kitschy sound of the short album - full of steel guitar and spare in lyricism – contains some of his greatest songs and is considered the forerunner to ”alt-country” (whatever that is).

Pushing his bounds further, Dylan released what was basically a bootleg of his own, Self Portrait (1970). This album just might be the greatest trolling in music history. The Rolling Stone magazine review of the double album of strange live interpretations and overdubbed cover songs performed while musicians ”tried out” studios, famously read “What is this s–t?

About two-thirds of which is actually pretty enjoyable, if you understand what Dylan’s doing here. The album starts with “All the Tired Horses,”  which Time deemed one of Dylan’s worst songs. It’s is beautiful, lush with strings, and Dylan’s voice notably absent. Female singers repeat the line “All the tired horses in the sun – how’m I supposed to get any riding done?” I think that, with this album, Dylan’s telling the public to back off; he’s taking a break here. And again, Dylan was doing what he had always done: sticking it to critics and fairweather fans. In this case, he’s also sticking it to his record label and soon-to-be-former manager Al Grossman.

A short 3 months later, New Morning (1970) was released, bringing a mellow sound with a muted voice. The album is an understated return to seriousness, finding Dylan on piano for many songs, loaded with backup singers and subtle guitars (both acoustic and electric) as Dylan sings gushy, introspective, and autobiographical songs. It is one of my favorites.

Dylan went on to have more hits (and more eras): he toured with The Band again in 1974; he released two more pillars, Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976) shortly thereafter, touring with the Rolling Thunder Revue in between; he appeared onstage for The Band’s Last Waltz in 1976; he underwent a Christian conversion and released subsequent gospel albums in the early 1980s; and he found a new voice with original bluesy material, beginning in the late-1990s with Time Out of Mind (1997), commencing the era we are in now, with Tempest released just last year.

Painting Masterpieces

Greil Marcis, the critic who wrote the aforementioned critique of Self Portrait, has also written the liner notes for this new release, Another Self Portrait. He now says: “Another Self Portrait opens up as new territory: roads shooting out in all directions. …Every listener to this set will find his or her center around which everything else revolves; so many of the performances have the depth, and the oddness, to work that way.”

Listen to “Pretty Saro” here

The acoustic demos, outtakes, alternate versions of familiar songs, covers, and a few collaborations with George Harrison create even more space than the original albums; it’s downright sparse. And for those familiar with his canon, there will be few surprises here.

See short documentary on Another Self Portrait here

The 2-disc set ends with a demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” one of Dylan’s most well-known songs, where he dreams of a time to come, when all is done. It is an intimate reflection, and I think a poignant milestone near the end of his career. Dylan’s masterpiece is, after all, being able to do what he has done throughout his career: He creates music that opens up possibilities within the minds of others. That’s his gift.

That’s what he was doing throughout those previous eras, and that’s why there is so much discussion every time there’s a “new Dylan album.” His albums are always, in some way, art: sometimes holding up a mirror, sometimes allowing others to project their own images onto his music, but always open to interpretation. To use an example from Greil Marcus’ original review of Self Portrait:

“Four sons gaze at the painting on the museum wall. “It’s a painting,” said the first son. “It’s art,” said the second son. “It’s a frame,” said the third son, and he said it rather coyly. The fourth son was usually considered somewhat stupid, but he at least figured out why they’d come all the way from home to look at the thing in the first place. “It’s a signature,” he said.”

This set is another Dylan signature. Interpret it however you want. His songs allow the mind to wander in between the spaces - to hear what it wants, and to appreciate songcraft - and hopefully inspire others to paint their own masterpieces.

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