What is she looking at?

“Cape Cod Morning”, Edward Hopper (1950)

From time to time I fear that I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by art.

Perhaps it’s a facet of ageing – I feel that I’ve seen or heard a lot of it before – or maybe its a curse of the online age, where all art is in a piece of modifed aluminum in my pocket. Either way, the “wow” factor strikes me less and less these days.

All the more so when it comes to visual art. It’s a long time since I’ve stood before an artwork and felt a deep connection or resonance. Until recently, the last time I felt this way was standing before Picasso’s “Still Life With A Mandolin“, in Dublin a few years ago. 

And then something happened. A few weeks back my wife and I, with friends, attended the Portland Book Festival, which was partly held at the Portland Art Museum. The Festival entrance fee allowed for access to the Art Museum and its “Modern American Realism” exhibition.

All of which brought me to my revelation. Turning a corner on the second floor of the Museum, to step into the exhibition’s room, I was confronted by an imposing image of a woman, standing in a window, staring at something out of frame.

The picture, at over a meter high, transfixed me. I’d never seen this painting before. Who was this person? What had happened to her (why was she in the dark shade, in contrast to the bright of the wall and the grass outside)? Was she looking at something specific (which I assumed until I spent longer looking at her face) or staring into space?

Moreover, was I wrong in reading a sense of dread into the image? Did it simply capture a mundane moment on a mundane morning, and nothing more?

The picture was Edward Hopper’s “Cape Cod Morning“, painted with oil on canvas in 1950. I know little of biographical background to the image, which was unlikely to have been painted in New England, but instead in Hopper’s small downtown Manhattan studio. But it was a notable work created in a period of inactivity for the artist, I’ve read.

The genesis of the image doesn’t matter, of course. Brian Eno has written that “what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.” So it was with “Cape Cod Morning” – the image stuck in my mind for the rest of the day, and in the days and weeks since I’ve viewed it online again and again.

I’m still trying to figure out what – if anything – she’s looking at.

_____

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November

Best summed up by Tom Waits really.

No shadow
No stars
No moon
No care
November
It only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of bone

No prayers for November
To linger longer
Stick your spoon in the wall
We’ll slaughter them all

November has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November’s cold chain

Made of wet boots and rain
And shiny black ravens
On chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
You’re my firing squad
November

With my hair slicked back
With carrion shellac
With the blood from a pheasant
And the bone from a hare

Tied to the branches
Of a roebuck stag
Left to wave in the timber
Like a buck shot flag

Go away you rainsnout
Go away, blow your brains out
November

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On reading Chekov’s “Gusev”

A soft lilac sky spreads above a calmed, welcoming ocean,
That accepts a dead soldier – nature looking after one of her own.

It reminds me of a funeral I attended as a child,
The yellow sunlight bathing the altar and casket, blessing the final going.

And tells me an impossible truth, that the world can sometimes stop,
And breathe, and briefly mark, a spirit flown.

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Joni, “Amelia” and me

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

What one song celebrates Joni Mitchell’s genius?

At her 75th birthday party this week, it was – inevitably perhaps – “Big Yellow Taxi“, which closed out the night.

For me, it could be “A Case Of You”, “Woodstock”, “River”, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” or “The Circle Game” (though I’d have to favor Tom Rush’s cover of the last song). In fact, it could any song from her albums “Blue”, “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” or “Hejira”.

But there’s one Mitchell composition I continually return to, perhaps because its lyrics of travel and uncertainty and learned life experience resonate deeply with me, as does its wistful melody.

The song is “Amelia” (which I’ve written about previously). Lyrically, it’s an odd combination of travelogue, tribute and existential questioning, which contains one of my favorite lines in popular song:

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know

Musically, it’s in the “Joni tuning” of CGCEGC, with chord slides which create a yearning, searching feeling. But trying to dissect the song weakens the experience of listening to its full six minutes, and immersing oneself in its feelings of desire and disconnection, commitment and hope.

Diane Krall sang it at the birthday party at L.A.’s Music Center this week, and I’ve no doubt she made a fine job of it. But there’s nothing like the original. Thanks Joni.

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George casts a long, long, long shadow

George Harrison.

George Harrison.

The Beatles’ White Album contains a great many things for me. The proto-punk of “Helter Skelter”, the arpeggio wonder that is “Blackbird”, John Lennon’s heartfelt song to his absent mother, “Julia”.

And then there’s “Revolution 9”, the musique concrète sound collage that I only listened to for the first time in full this past week.

But, after almost three decades of listening and distilling the double album – the 50th anniversary of which falls later this month – what stands out to me, first and foremost, is George Harrison’s songwriting. Specifically, his two songs “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”.

While the rest of the White Album sways from musical beauty to discordant freak-out to music hall fluff – often in the course of a couple of songs – these two Harrison tracks appear as something different, music on and from a different level (given “Long, Long, Long’s” genesis in Indian meditation practices, perhaps “transcendent” is the word).

Dissecting them for meaning is somewhat pointless – they exist in the ear and the soul. One’s a song about love’s importance (“Long, Long, Long”), the other’s a song about love’s potential, with one of the most perfect guitar solos in popular music (courtesy of an uncredited Eric Clapton).

Both have been written over at length (my favored account of each is contained in Ian McDonald’s classic “Revolution In The Head“), as has the White Album itself, not least because a newly-remastered, bells ‘n’ whistles release is in the offing.

All this attention has brought me back to the original album, and listening to it has brought me back to Harrison’s songs. As the man, and the band, and the album itself – despite reissues – slip into history, his music sounds completely fresh, completely now.

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Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

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Borne back endlessly into the past

Mercury Rev, Portland 2018

Mercury Rev, Portland 2018

I’m now at the age where the albums of my youth are turning older than I was when I first heard them.

Hardly a day passes, it seems, without a social media notification that a record I love, or bought and liked and perhaps forgot about, or thought was overrated at the time and always planned to return to, is 20 or 25 or 30.

“Daydream Nation” – 30. “Siamese Dream” – 25. “Surfer Rosa” – 30. “Rid Of Me” – 25. “Deserter’s Songs” – 20. It goes on.

The last in that list really struck home recently. Not only did “Deserter’s Songs“, Mercury Rev’s beautiful, elegiac album about loss, recovery, nostalgia, life, the universe and everything, turn 20, but I was lucky enough to see the band perform it live.

The show, at Mississippi Studios in Portland, reminded me how listening to certain albums  – live or in their original recording – offers a direct portal to a particular times when the music played a central role in my life.

So it was with Mercury Rev. When Jonathan Donahoe sang the opening lines of Endlessly, the third song on “Deserter’s Songs” (“Standing in a dream, weaving through’ the crowded streets, leaving you again endlessly”) I was transported back – to multiple places.

The song put me in a room above “Botany Bay” in Trinity College, as I took breaks to listen to the music while studying for my finals; it brought me to my old family home in Athlone, Ireland, where I sat in front of the fireplace and listening to “Deserter’s Songs” during the Christmas of 1998; it landed me to a highway, somewhere in Utah or Colorado, as friends and I drove late at night (where to, I can’t remember, though we eventually ended up in New York).

I felt happy and older and nostalgic. Carried along by the music, for the first time in a long time I felt connected to myself in those memories: I wasn’t just recalling event, I was among them, back there, for a little while. It was a fleeting feeling, a song long, then I was back. And being back was fine, because the now is where I live and listen.

Also, 20 years onm “Endlessly” hasn’t aged a day.

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Hiking under and on the autumn leaves

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Autumn is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, which means the return of plaid, empty patios, chilly mornings and beautiful, dry fall evenings.

Well, that’s what it’s felt like this year. And the season feels even more wistful when I think of what’s around the corner: rain, rain and more rain.

To fend off thoughts of winter we’ve hiked, strolled, sat and done just about anything else we can outdoors in recent weeks, before the short nights and soggy mornings arrive.

The highlight this year has been hiking in Forest Park, the 5,000-acre public area minutes from downtown Portland (and one of the largest urban parks in the U.S.) More specifically, hiking the busy Wildwood Trail from Macleay Park up to Pittock Mansion, a five-mile round trip with 300m of elevation.

While the lower part of the hike is populated with runners, dog walkers and families, once you’re up in the hills large sections of the trail are empty, save for the shafts of fall light, the sounds of the undergrowth and your year-old miniature dachshund’s panting breath.

And leaves, countless leaves, of all depths of burnished yellow and orange and rust and brown, either fallen or falling or else making up part of an astounding seasonal canopy. It’s an incredible sight and an incredible landscape to hike in – a transient natural gift which we’ll have for another few weeks.

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Five years on

Co. Kerry, 2009

Co. Kerry, 2009

Five years have passed

And you are missed as much today
As you were on that first day.
And even more.
We cannot turn to you
And chat, and have you there,
So instead we will reach out today
With a thought, or a prayer.
_____
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Bob’s boots were better from a basement

The weird mystery.

As a crate digger back in the 1990s, with a pretty deep interest in Bob Dylan recordings, there were bootlegs and there were bootlegs and then there was “Blood On The Tapes“.

I clearly recall first reading about this pirate release, which was recorded in New York in 1974, in an article in the Irish Times – in which it was cast as buried treasure from a golden period in Dylan’s songwriting. The 11 recordings were solo first drafts of songs that Dylan would later re-record in Minneapolis with a band and which would make up his famous “Blood On The Tracks”.

The New York songs were rawer and closer than the re-made versions, most of which went onto the official release of Dylan’s famed marriage break-up album.

I also recall travelling from Athlone, where I was working as a reporter on a local paper, to Dublin on a 1990s midsummer Saturday afternoon, solely to visit a basement record shop on Wicklow Street and pick up my £5 cassette of the bootleg.

This led to a probably-not-wholly-healthy period of listening to and learning to play all the songs, an activity which occupied most of the rest of that summer and probably didn’t leave me in the sunniest state of mind. I’ve kept the bootleg close to hand ever since – buying it on CD, pushing copies into the hands of friends, and generally regarding it as 40 minutes of peak Dylan.

Last week’s news then, that the songwriter is now set to release an exhaustive haul of “Blood On The Tracks” outtakes, alternative versions and forgotten takes (essentially “Blood On The Tapes” on steroids), should be a cause of celebration.

But it’s not. After my initial excitement at reading the news, my heart sank. A piece of esoteric musical history, a little-known-of Pandora’s box known only to the faithful, will now be cataloged, opened and exposed. The air of weird mystery that saw me spend weeks teasing out every nook of the recordings, learning every cadence and breath and bum note and cough, will evaporate.

The New York recordings will still be great, but they will be buried amidst many others, and the wonder of the 11-song artifact that was “Blood On The Tapes” will be lost. Except to those of us who have the old cassette or CD, though, and who know just when those coughs and bum notes pop up.

 

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